by David Ohle
Calamari Press, 100 p.
David Ohle knows how to evoke the unsettling. Whether describing a subtly altered twentieth century or reviewing his childhood in New Orleans, his talent for quietly jarring imagery never flags.This volume collects two novellas, one that suggests the gender and geopolitics of the last century interwoven with Cronenbergian body horror, the other evoking economic exploitation with abundant, and bleak, comedy.
Start with Boons, about a disgraced South American professor with an obsession with the bird-people of the title. It is, literally, a visceral read: infections are described in grotesque detail, and worms and intestines make prominent appearances. (There’s also the professor’s own medical condition, in which his body occasionally produces bone “relics.”) It’s set in a world that strongly resembles our own in certain respects, though the fact that Pol Pot is among the historical figures to make an appearance indicates that we’re in a place, morally speaking, where atrocities are all too common. The boons of the title occupy a strange place somewhere between mythology and allegory. The Professor’s fixation on boons is both scientific and sexual, and is every bit as unsettling as one might expect. His tendencies in other matters, including the forging of false religious artifacts and the aforementioned encounter with Pol Pot, are no less comforting. And yet both the Professor and Ruthie, the boon with whom he becomes obsessed, are compelling and distinctive, their interactions tragic and horrific.
The Camp is set in a world that, at least on the surface, appears more recognizable, closer to our own. Its characters are, relative to Boons, much more stylized — almost figures from an archetypal melodrama. At one end are the Chungs, a comfortably married couple working in the kind of factory that leads to anti-capitalist protests. The fundamental decency of the Chungs is sharply contrasted with the rapaciousness of Mr. Ganzfeld, the owner of their workplace. Ganzfeld is a villain from an earlier era: Snidely Whiplash with a fake nose. (More precisely: a series of fake noses, each more horrific than its predecessor.) And while Ohle sets this story in a nebulous time and space, his characters seem taken from a masochist’s morality play: the virtuous remain exploited and abused, while the rich go to their graves with bloated wallets and heady satisfaction.
One quality shared by these novellas is Ohle’s ability to evoke unknown landscapes: the harsh industrial topography of The Camp feels every bit as vivid as the deconstructed exoticism of Boons, and each world feels fully inhabited. These are places where atrocities happen on nearly every level, but it’s hard to look away. Ohle’s craft is precise, and his funhouse reflections of our own anxieties, oppressions, and obsessions make for a grimly compelling read — it dwells in the place after the sense of wonder has been debased, spiked liberally with horror.