Part three of the Aurora Awards Fiction Friday series looks at Randy McCharles’ One Horrible Day. It’s an interesting story, perhaps even a tale that borders on becoming high concept. But at nearly ten thousand words in length, I found myself wondering why there was such an abundance of world building yet a noticeable deficit of plot.
What it’s about
One Horrible Day is a hard-ish science fiction story set in the aftermath of an accident involving “Strange Matter” and morphic field shifts. Therein, a scientist named Howard Russell wakes up in his lab to find the building ruined, his computer spouting out warnings, and his legs severed. Then he wakes up again to find the wrong pair of legs attached to his body. When he wakes up for a third time, Howard is a Frankenstein’s monster of cybernetic augmentations and his dead colleagues’ body parts. The author doesn’t attempt a serious explanation of morphic fields, except to illustrate that they have somehow slipped Howard out of his universe and into another.
Once that revelation occurs, the action shifts to a side story about two men who work for the mayor of a city called “Glory.” These men go to a club called Oz where they have to “disappear” Dorothy, one of the Mayor’s mistresses. That doesn’t quite go as the mayor’s men expect.
In the final act, One Horrible Day focuses on Howard meeting his alternate universe self in the club. But instead of a being a research scientist, he’s the master of ceremonies for a deviant variety show.
Why it works
About that, I don’t know that it does.
The details of Glory as a city, Glory’s corrupt mayor, and the starlet who murders police because she can, are all very interesting. Yet, there’s nothing in the text to tell me why I should care about them. I don’t even know why I should care about the protagonist, Howard Russell, despite the amount of words that are dedicated to framing him as a victim, monster, and stranger in a strange land.
Perhaps there’s some subtextual message that Mr. McCharles is trying to get at through his invocation of Mary Shelley and L. Frank Baum. I can see the appeal in taking the theatrical image of the Wizard of Oz, and subverting it into a sex club as that speaks to a loss of innocence. As well, turning Howard into a monster allows for some “who is the greater monster” wool gathering. But beyond that, I don’t see the point. There’s nothing in those details that seem to drive the story.
In fairness, the entirety of this near-novella would be supremely interesting if it was the first chapter of a novel. Perhaps within the context of the “Tenth Circle Project”, the anthology series from which this work is drawn, One Horrible Day works quite well. On its own, all I see is world building. Great world building, mind you, but world building nonetheless.
Then again, this wouldn’t be the first piece of Aurora nominated short fiction that I’ve turned my nose up to. I’m willing to admit that perhaps I’m just being too dense to see the trees for the forest. In which case, feel free to educate me.
The Most Memorable Part
Club Oz, itself. McCharles has created a fascinating place with its wicked/good witch hostesses/courtesans and android bartenders in the form of the scarecrow, lion, and tinman. The only particularly interesting event within the story, Dr. Russell’s confrontation with the alternate version of himself, happens within Oz. The wizard kills the wizard; the monster kills the monster. Beyond that, Oz seems like the kind of place that oozes conflicts between the sort of folk that any sane person would want to avoid meeting. Given Oz’s potential, the entirety of the story could have been set there.
The Bottom Line
The words of this story reflect an obvious dedication to the world in which it is set. However, the focus is far too much on that world, and not enough on the events within it. Given the length, I expected substantially more in the way of narrative development from One Horrible Day. Within the pages of the Tenth Circle Project anthology, I suspect this is a magnificent contribution. On its own, it’s akin to watching one episode of Twin Peaks and trying to understand everything that came before it.
Next week, Suzanne Forest’s Turning It Off.
One Horrible Day originally appeared in the second volume of the Tenth Circle Project anthology.
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