I knew the 18th issue of The Dark Mountain Project, FABULA, was special when so many pages moved me to tears. I have always been a soft thing, soft as the creatures described in Julia Blackburn’s touching, fairy tale-esque “Three Buzzing Boys” (illustrated by Johanna Lohrengel), but FABULA, being a collection of stories, is also a collection of emotions. Or as the Dark Mountain editors put it: “fiction…[moves] us in unexpected ways and [changes] our hearts, perhaps, as much as our thinking brains.”
And our hearts are often directly affected by the words in FABULA. Some of these stories burn heavily in your chest because you know these stories contain truths about the present and the future, despite just being imaginings. Like how the desperate and haunted words of drought-stricken Australian farmers in Luna Mrozik-Gawler’s “Stricken” are not our reality yet, not quite, but the magnitude of the loss, often described in unflinching detail, is so heavy on the heart.
The selections in FABULA show a verdant abundance of tone. Siana Fitzjohn offers a particularly shocking story about Jeff Bezos “working his ass off” that wouldn’t be out of place in a Palahniuk collection, with its morbidly modern telling. Other parts of this collection speak in a language of dreams, hallucinations, chants, or fungal-induced connections. Beings like The Leshy of Romy Tara Wenzel’s eponymous story, who can be seen only in vision beyond most of us “animals-without-fur.” Or how the stream-of-consciousness of Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s “The Ecstatic Climate Change Porn Machine” led me to see and feel a particular color of green along with the narrator. I have only seen that color once before: when my heart opened so big on psilocybin I thought it would swallow the world. The secret is that I always have that heart, so huge and alive, but it takes something like a story to remind me that it is there. Such is the power of these stories in their diversity of literary tactics.
Genre is also incredibly diverse in this collection. Understandably, science-fiction and fantasy make strong contributions to the ranks of the stories, as the authors continually imagine and re-imagine our world to help us see the truth. Mike Cipro’s “Enviro” re-imagines pandemic as a disease that literally causes people to undertake a frenzied social overthrow for the sake of environmental restoration. As the disease’s mastermind says: “my friends, we’re not spreading the common cold here. We’re transforming the human animal.”
Even as the stories get more “out-there”, sci-fi can still be eerily prescient, and it is probable that many of these stories contain some aspect of our future. For example, Ekow Manuar’s “Tell Me What You See,” manages to make the neocolonialist farming practices in “21st century Ghana” into a suspenseful sci-fi action thriller with “i-specs” giving the NGO workers orders to pass down to locals and mechanized drones that can go from life-giving to lethal with a command. My only complaint is that the story left me anxiously wanting to know what would happen, as it stopped in the middle of the action, part of an eventual “long short story” of the same title.
Representing fantasy more than science, Dark Mountain co-founder Paul Kingsnorth takes a different approach to disease by setting his story, “The Light in the Trees”, during our current COVID pandemic. Instead of a fake disease, he aims our reality toward the fantastic in other, miraculous ways. He takes what we know and twists it, in his intimate and wild way, until we, like the protagonist, are forced “to swim far away from the shore” of what we think we understand.
Magic realism also keeps popping its wonderful head into the chapters, as we see our world intersect with the one we never knew when bears get legal representation in Shaun Tan’s “Bears with Lawyers.” Funny but as sharp as an ursine tooth, the story takes what we know and teaches us something new by introducing just a slight wrinkle. By the end, the story has blown wildly past reality, while the elements are still very much of this world.
Even as the collection dips into magic realism again with stories like adrienne maree brown’s extraordinary “the river”, FABULA never stops being real. While brown describes a fictional version of The Detroit River that “didn’t feel dead…[that] felt other. felt alive and other”, you, as the reader, still feel the reality in that growingly fantastic moment. This reality, brown reminds us, is intersected by race, climate collapse, and capitalism, no matter what “other” the story may introduce. The tension she creates between reality and fantasy shows both the power of brown’s story-telling and one of the great strengths of FABULA: by being rooted in our earth, all of these stories, no matter how literary or fictional they become, tell us the truth.
The collection is punctuated into several intermissions into the world of Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, a “collaborative artist team” known as Kahn & Selesnick, who present a visual piece with each story they contribute. Each of their stories is centered around a fictional artist named Orlofsky, which, based on the title of the third story in their collection, a reference for Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” that I don’t quite follow, but the literary nerd in me wants to figure out.
Their trilogy of paired works features some of the most opaque writing in the collection. Kahn & Selesnick are obviously using allusion to elucidate their themes, such as their use of the ancient myth of Diana and Actaeon in the first story in the collection, “The Death of Actaeon.” While incredibly interesting, I am not completely certain these stories work, especially as framing devices in the anthology. That role may not have been intended, but this repetition still puts pressure on Kahn & Selesnick’s trilogy to serve a strong purpose in the text. Unfortunately, the trio of texts doesn’t quite rise to the task, despite each piece being fascinating in its own right.
When it is not there to serve as a companion to a piece, like the aforementioned works of Kahn & Selesnick, the visual art in FABULA is commenting on many of the same themes of the stories. Using techniques from collage to painting to photography and beyond, each visual artist provides what almost feels like a stained glass window in a library: a place for a reader to look up and meditate upon what they just read, finding new meaning and depth by the interplay with the visuals. Each visual individually has so much depth of meaning that one could spend many hours just contemplating one page. This is not a book meant to be experienced in one sitting, but instead to be slowly chewed, fully-digested, and only returned-to when one is ready to fully experience all of the flavors therein.
This idea of a recursive reading is really the key to FABULA. Even if you read the first story and don’t like it, keep reading. Even if you flip through the pictures and they don’t resonate, keep reading. This book speaks truths we need to hear, using a language that bypasses our conscious mind and gets deep into the marrow of our subconscious. If you keep reading you will understand more about yourself and this struggling, suffering, beautiful world. And we need people to understand. So keep reading FABULA until you do.