When I put out the call for stories for my anthology City of Weird
— a collection of supernatural and sci-fi tales with an emphasis on the strange, all set in Portland — I expected to be surprised by what I got. It's an expansive theme, full of possibilities for all manner of monsters, ghosts, robots, devils, aliens, witches, Bigfoots (feet?). As expected, I was surprised. But what surprised me was not what I expected.
I figured on being surprised by individual stories. (And I was! When I thought I might get an alien invasion, I got ravening slime molds from outer space. When I hoped I might get a voracious man-eating, many-tentacled beast, I got a love story. The man-eating thing was just icing on the cake.) But what really surprised me were not the individual stories but the combinations, the shared themes that just happened to come together.
What does it say about Portland that so many of the monsters that surfaced in my pool of submissions happen to be aquatic? What does it say about Portland (and the world, for that matter) that evil's foil so often turns up in the form of a dog? What does it say about Portland that marijuana makes such an appearance in these — oh yeah. Never mind. But the most surprising entity that routinely shows up in these pages is not phantom, nor beast, nor mad scientist, nor cyborg, nor game show host (though they're all in there). It's a book.
The word "book" is mentioned 166 times in the collection. By contrast, the word "ghost" (and there's a fair amount of ghostly content in the stories) is mentioned a mere 20 times. (For further contrast, the word "mayonnaise" appears 3 times. Once you start looking, it's hard to stop.) Powell's Books makes an appearance in 5 out of the 30 stories and is the main setting for the action in 2. The abundance of Powell's was surprising and not surprising. It is, after all, one of the best-known landmarks in Portland. But reading these submissions, I felt a little conflict of interest, because Powell's also happens to be my day job. And I was also concerned about falling in love with too many of these stories about books lest my book be overrun with books.
But what could be more perfect for a collection set in the city that National Geographic
included as one of only two American entries in its list of the top ten literary cities in the world? I realized what I needed to do. First, I would accept the stories I loved, because I was the editor and I could do that. Second, I would break the anthology up into sections, with one section totally devoted to books.
Some of these books make mere cameo appearances in the stories; others play larger parts, providing detail about characters or context regarding theme. Some are cautionary tales: for instance, if you're down from Washington on a Portland vacation and you're going to eventually end up trapped in an underground biosphere, stalked by giant, bloodthirsty newt creatures, make sure you get in that visit to a bookstore first.
But the most surprising thing to me: three of the stories I ended up accepting are completely centered around the power of a magical book. I don't mean a book that contains spells or formulae for alchemy. I mean a book that is a force, a character all its own.
As if watching someone else do it, he reached out and took a book from the shelf. It slipped easily into his hand. He hardly glanced at the book itself. Instead he stared at the space it left behind. That space, the narrow rectangle left between the books on either side, wasn’t dark. It was something else, some weird unaccountable non-color that hurt his eyes. As he watched, it started to leak. It seemed to curl out of the space, a tentacle reaching for the floor. Then reaching for him. Malcolm turned and ran.
In Karen Munro
's "The Color Off the Shelf," Malcolm, a young black college student working on a dissertation about the African American tradition of toasts and boasts, finds himself in the mysterious "Cold Storage" basement at Powell's City of Books, being both stalked and oddly enticed by the power of an otherworldly — and blatantly racist — book:
"We may boldly assert that the whole race has, neither in the past nor in the present, performed anything tending to the progress of humanity or worthy of preservation."
He ran his finger over the page, then pushed the book to the floor. It hit with a bang like a gunshot.
It's a book of what is known as "scientific racism." Popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries where it was used to justify white European imperialism, scientific racism was the adoption of pseudoscientific techniques and hypotheses to support and justify racist beliefs. This is the type of book that Malcolm encounters in "Cold Storage," which finds its way into his hand and, once there, he discovers is very difficult to get rid of.
The narrator in Jason Squamata's kaleidoscopic dreamscape of a romp, "Aromageddon," finds himself at Powell's City of Books, too, not only to browse and buy books but to smell them. Hey, the love of books manifests itself in many ways. And the book our book-huffing hero most wants to sniff — an ancient and inscrutable tome — has just landed in Powell's Rare Book Room.
A bare bulb hangs above it, creating an ambiance of dreadful interrogation. The book itself is on a little podium. I approach it with a trepidatious, self-conscious reverence. I want to inspect it visually before the sniffing begins in earnest. I may be a pervert, but that’s not all I am.
As far as monsters go, "man-eating" is generally accepted as the scariest variety, but this monster of a book has a different agenda: something in its chemistry eats all the ink in its radius.
This book essentially eats other books. Absorbs them into itself. In a way, a book-eating book is very similar to a man-eating beast, and when you think of it, the results of that kind of rampage could be just as horrifying.
I know that this book wrote itself for the sole purpose of un-writing all other books, transmogrifying all written knowledge into mist. Whatever sentience and malevolence resides and survives at the core of this chaotic camouflage smellscape, it cannot coexist with the written word. It appeals to a competing faculty, an animal element in us that communicates purely in a monsoon of pheromones. That quadrant of brainmeat feels swollen in me now, like all alphabets and spoken words are suddenly and utterly obsolete.
In Susan DeFreitas
's "The Mind-Body Problem," Shanna, a freshman strung out on no sleep and too much study, haunts the Reed College library in the middle of the night. All alone, she suddenly senses another presence close by.
I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. The proximity in so large a building was startling; whoever had been standing there a moment before could not have been more than twenty feet away. But I heard nothing — not the softest stirring of breath, not the barest whisper of pages.
Making her way through the empty library, on guard for someone she's not sure is really there, Shanna comes upon another such otherworldly book.
It seemed oddly light for a book so large. There was no author or editor — no title page, publisher, or table of contents, no endnotes or acknowledgments. This book, it seemed, had been written by no one.
DeFreitas's book is an omen, a warning that, depending on the person who spies it, might have death on its heels, or something else.
In all of these stories, I was fascinated with the idea of book-as-omen, book-as-monster. Most of all, I was fascinated with the idea of the inherent power of the book.
And, man, do books have powers. Ghosts have invisibility and the talent to move through walls; vampires have the whole undead thing. But books. Books are shapeshifters. Books are time travelers. A book, when banned, only becomes stronger.
And though some of the stories in City of Weird
show the power of books being used for evil, in the real world, it's most often used for good.
In "The Heft of Ashes," the one story in the collection with no weird at all, no sci-fi or horror tropes, just a hint of magic that may be coincidence (but which I fell in love with and which to this day makes me cry every time), Kirsten Larson still gives us the power of the book. The story is a meditation on loss and living in the afterward of death. The weight of her quiet and ongoing grief seems to manifest itself in the soul-killing routine of her everyday life, the job making phone calls in a cubicle all day, the return home to an empty apartment every night. Through all this, the narrator finds solace in books.
I made another call. By the third ring I knew the customer I’d just dialed would not answer. It went to voicemail and I exhaled. I left a message reminding Mr. Donald Parsons that his mortgage with U.S. Bank was thirty days past due and asked him to return my call. No one ever called back. Most people want to pay their mortgage. They either could pay or they couldn’t. They either paid or they didn’t. What I did made no difference.
I gave myself time for another poem.
It's not just that she's giving herself time
to read a poem before making the next call, or the next call, or the next call after that. She's giving herself a gift — the only gift she routinely gives herself in this time of grief.
The narrator in "The Heft of Ashes" takes the book with her through her days like a talisman. In her case, it is a book of Sharon Olds
's poetry. I've used books the same way. I've gotten through plenty of hardships by giving myself the gift of a periodic dip into a book. Of all the powers books have — even with the occasional rogue ink-eating, knowledge-devouring tome — I think the power to heal and nourish is the strongest. I'd like to think that a power this sweet lives in City of Weird
÷ ÷ ÷
is the editor of City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Stories
. She has written and illustrated two children’s picture books, and her fiction and essays have appeared in anthologies and literary journals. She is the creative force behind Forest Avenue Press’s visual identity. By day she works as lead visual merchandiser for Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her husband, fine artist Stephen O’Donnell.