OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
SMALL RAIN and Other Nightmares – by Paula Johanson
Publisher: Doublejoy Books, Victoria, British Columbia, June 2020.
Cover Art Design: by Lila Klassen.
Note: All stories by Paula Johanson.
End of the world, basically. How do you survive?
A young woman walking in the rain, soaked to the skin. Nature calls, so she squats by the side of the road, then uses grass to clean herself. Okay, a hiking story with reference to details normally left out. But, as she resumes her walk, she listens to the sound of the waves lapping against the shore of False Creek. Sudden realization on my part. She’s not out in the woods, she’s in downtown Vancouver, the largest city in British Columbia! Seems there’s no one else around, no one to see her doing her business in the open, no one to complain or call the police. No police. The apocalypse, or an apocalypse, has come and gone. She’s a survivor.
No zombies or mutants running around. Bit of a mundane apocalypse, actually. Dull. Ordinary. But just as deadly as any melodramatic fictional apocalypse. Trouble is, this one is real. Her new reality and routine is scavenging, which is about as boring as any daily routine usually becomes, although finding something edible is always a bit of a thrill. Running into other scavengers, not so much. Far too exciting. Far too dangerous. She avoids people. Normally.
Today she meets another woman, this one a decent sort. They talk. They have different goals, a different approach to survival, but share a common survival trait, denial. The heart of the story is their brief contact with one another. We are used to the idea that people are dependent on one another in myriad ways but when the complex interdependency we call civilization is laid waste, priorities shift and complexity becomes irrelevant. Useless to think about things that no longer matter. Paula raises the question, when virtually everyone is dead, how relevant is personal communication? Is talking to another survivor useful in any way? Is there any value to it? Or is it a hindrance and a waste of valuable time? Pointless and useless? Maybe even psychologically damaging? What is the new order of mental health necessary to survive in a barren wasteland?
A quiet but thought-provoking tale.
A woman is sitting in the audience during a lecture at a writers convention. Bit of bad luck that the older woman sitting beside her is the wife of the old guy at the lectern. The biddy can’t stop talking about how proud she is of her husband.
A standard piece of advice for writers is to engage all the senses. Usually the sense most often left out in description is the sense of smell. Not this story. For some reason she can’t figure out, the woman can smell blood in the breath of the old woman whenever she leans forward and whispers. Clotted, dried blood, perhaps. This leads to a whole series of memories involving blood in various situations, blood donation, menstruation, and childbirth, always with associated odours. For me these flashbacks are glimpses of a woman’s life from a sensory angle I’d never thought of before.
For example, “The sweat is starting out on me, and I don’t know what all is going on. The milk pricks in my breasts and sweat gathers to trickle down my side, salt and sharp, but without that copper tang that is madness and release.”
Sweat I understand, though this is an unusually visceral description of it that amounts to a totally different way of thinking about it. Never paid that much attention, I expect. The concept of a woman feeling pricked by the milk within her breasts is totally new to me. I’ve always vaguely imagined breasts swollen with milk would feel something like an overstuffed stomach, but it never occurred to me the mere presence of milk could prick or tickle from within. But then, like many men, I am extraordinarily clueless about many physical aspects of a woman’s life. That is why this story is so startling to me. It approaches ordinary real life experiences with a vivid depth of detail which amounts to a revelation.
To be fair, I maintain there are aspects and consequences of male anatomy many women are unaware of. We all know what it feels like when a foot or an arm falls “asleep” due to a temporary lack of circulation. How many people reading this are aware those aren’t the only male members capable of falling “asleep?” Quite a weird feeling, I must say. Something along the lines of “Oh, my God. Did it fall off?” But I digress.
The stereotypical male is held to be clueless in many areas, powers of observation, emotional sensitivity, common sense, rationality, and so on. Truth to tell all these things vary from individual to individual to the point where there is no definitive definition, just myths and commonplaces. That said, I am a concept-driven individual with limited powers of description. I am blown away by the sheer richness of focus and detail in this story. Not something I could ever equal as a writer.
More to the point of this story, I figure the extraordinary emphasis on life experiences unique to women stresses the value of women to each other as the generations pass. This is perhaps the first story I have read that makes that bond and continuity crystal clear to me.
Quite a powerful story , especially resonate for women I should think, but also a useful learning exercise for men (or at least for men as clueless as I).
Working in a Vacuum
A writer with writer’s block living in an isolated farmhouse in the middle of a typical Canadian winter. Endless cups of hot tea keep her warm but attract no creative thoughts. Her hidden watchers are concerned.
Another common piece of advice for writers is write about what you know. Every writer knows what writer’s block is. So why not write a story about it, and include a description of every conceivable technique to combat it and defeat it? Writers will read this story with many a knowing chuckle. Writer’s block is a horror story in itself. Maybe not to most readers, but it certainly is to all writers.
Thing is, in keeping with the paranoid spirit of modern times, this particular writer is being watched and studied by unseen observers. This is not uncommon in books and movies. However, this time the motif and purpose is very different, quite original, and possibly unique. It amounts, from a writer’s point of view, to wish-fulfillment fantasy. If only it were so! For one thing, writers would write with confidence. Writer’s block could well disappear. What a boon this would be for mankind!
Alas, the real world is not like this. Still, I can imagine a writer in the grip of winter cabin fever slowly descending into this pleasant level of insanity. Sad to think a spring thaw would constitute an unpleasant awakening to reality.
Let us not be sad. Instead, I advocate writers read this story and adopt its fantasy as a useful rationalization tool. If you pretend there are hidden “cheerleaders” out there urging you on it can only lead to positive results. That be a good thing.
If You Go Out in the Woods
Difficult raising a family after a nuclear war. Janice runs a somewhat self-sufficient farm off the beaten track. Her three children are doing well, considering. Tough to be in hiding all the time. But it is Christmas eve, so she grabs her snowshoes and treks to the nearby town to do a little shopping. Some strangers in town. Probably raiders. How to walk home without being followed?
Much of the interplay between family members is perfectly familiar and yet slightly askew in tone, the social context exhibiting unusual taken-for-granted matters like avoiding radiation and the constant need to avoid attracting attention. Nevertheless, this story suggests a “normal” family life is possible after a nuclear holocaust, providing situational awareness is the highest priority at any given moment. The story is also very clear that one dare not cling to the past. Nostalgia can be fatal. Best to be forward looking.
This is not so much a conflict between good and evil as a story about the kind of family values which exist in a world where death can snatch a loved one away at any time. Love and tragedy two sides of the same coin. But, as we all know, in nature a mother’s love is something fierce. That increases the odds. A sad, yet curiously optimistic story.
A young, farming family is dreaming of opening a bed and breakfast operation. Naturally they are delighted to provide a hearty breakfast for six strangers who drive up early one morning. The strangers are very pleasant, and oddly useful. Seems like the law of averages is being manipulated somehow.
Many odd events in this story, some of them tragic. Jo, the farmwife, is also a writer, and her current pet project is putting together a plot generating device. Disturbed by what’s happening, she feeds information on the day’s events into the program. The results are a surprise. How do you maintain a normal family life and plan for the future when there exists the very real possibility the present is not what you think it is? In many ways an unsettling story. Sometimes situational awareness doesn’t help at all.
With a Screwdriver
Laney shares her house with quite a few other university students. It’s never too crowded, but sometimes it’s nice to be alone, or nearly alone. Trouble is Adam, the control freak, the one tenant unable to pay his rent, is in the house and he’s getting antsy.
Sometimes Laney is too polite for her own good. As in deferring to male authority so as not to cause a fuss. Being a nice guy when in the presence of a bully is difficult enough. Being a nice girl confronted by an aggressive narcissist slipping over the edge is a real nightmare. The story goes from an amusing description of a house full of oddballs … I mean unique individuals … into an account of an increasingly perilous descent toward helpless fear and impending doom. Each step down is described in an utterly convincing and credible manner. The reader shares Laney’s frantic mental search for a viable option. There appear to be none. Even worse, Adam’s growing threat is nothing personal, it is entirely the product of his obsession with himself. Trying to reason with him has no effect. It’s like trying to argue with a machine. It does what it is self-programmed to do. Adam is a huge man, physically too strong to overcome, and as uncaring as an asteroid strike. Laney is in trouble.
There is a science fiction element to this horror story, and a surprising amount of humour, but overall it is a metaphor for the worst kind of man/woman relationship. Although the characters know each other, or thought they knew each other, essentially this is a blind date in hell. I imagine this is every young woman’s ultimate fear, somewhere in the back of their mind, even if they don’t consciously articulate it. Makes the horror in this story all the more real.
I ask myself, are there lessons to be learned from reading this story? People who are phobic about birds springs to mind. Would showing them Hitchcock’s The Birds teach them how to cope with the threat? Probably not. But human behaviour is more relatable. Knowing the warning signs to watch for is useful. Keeping an arsenal of coping strategies on hand useful.
This story is horrific on many levels, but also an instructive scenario well worth studying. Perhaps the most important story in the entire collection. Exceptional.
Smoke and Bubbles Rising
It’s barbeque time! The whole neighbourhood is milling about in backyards, all determined to have a good time, smoke from numerous grills rising. There’s plenty of beer, salad, potatoes in foil, all the usual goodies associated with the summer ritual of barbecuing. Life goes on, unchanging … well, except for one small detail.
There has been a paradigm shift of sorts, social culture altered, though how it was accomplished is left unsaid. The main thing is life goes on, mostly unchanged, except for a new element seamlessly incorporated into popular tradition. Life goes on.
A quiet, yet disturbing story. Is our ability to adapt a good thing? How acceptable is it to accept the unacceptable? A question entirely appropriate to our current reality.
A woman dreams of her partner’s mother in a way that suggests contact with the dead. The setting is surreal, but none of the people in the dream seem to mind.
The story is short, very short. Basically, the reader is called upon to interpret a dream. Overall it seems to imply life is flawed but that the flaws are what allows us insight, are what enable us to understand. I’m not sure I understand. Involves a quest for continuity, perhaps, or a search for a sense of completion. Like all dreams, it makes sense to the dreamer, at least subconsciously, but everyone else has to figure it out on their own. A very personal thing, dreams. Unless, of course, it wasn’t a dream. In which case, the contact with the dead may be very real, but not necessarily a bad thing. An ambiguous story. Up to the reader to decide. Lots of possibilities
What Scares You?
This is Paula’s account of a panel, The Future Of Monsters, she participated in at ConVersion in Calgary in August, 2001. Many types of monsters were discussed, and their true meaning and significance revealed.
Paula places much emphasis on the reality of todays world as the source of the true monsters. No need to speculate about dictators cloning ultimate warriors, for instance. Not cost effective. Tyrants prefer to spend their money on weapons. Cannon fodder is cheap and plentiful, and thoroughly expendable. Hence the hordes of child soldiers. Always more where they came from. And no need to spend money on developing weird bacterial concoctions. I happen to know Canada led the way in weaponizing anthrax and botulism. Likewise poison gases. Canada created Z gas, a colourless, odourless, undetectable nerve gas that kills on contact with skin. That produced in the late 1930s. Never been surpassed. Point is creating fictional monsters is done for entertainment purposes. The human race is already well equipped to destroy itself.
Or, to put it another way, the biggest monster of them all is the dark side of human nature. I’m talking “monsters from the id.” Those we’ll never get rid of. But aside from that, life is just fine. Thought I’d remind you. Life is good until it isn’t. Simple as that. Enjoy.
Paula’s horror fiction is rich in details of ordinary life, such that the horror elements kind of sneak up on you. Perhaps the common theme is that people instinctively persist in carrying on life as normally as possible no matter how harrowing the circumstances. This suggests, despite horror and tragedy and evil unleashed, that there is always hope. Should people manage to survive, they will recover. Ultimately humans are incredibly resilient. The best within ourselves can outlast the worst within ourselves, if the luck of the draw permits. Fundamentally optimistic subtext in my opinion.
To sum up, vividly evocative stories that will make you think. Highly recommended.
Check it out at: < Small Rain >
Note: Will be available as of June 30th, 2020.