(Black Lawrence Press , 2022)
Adam McOmber’s Fantasy Kit is a slender compilation of thirty-five flash-length stories that are predominantly gothic in subject matter, surrealist in method, and genuinely unsettling in effect. The story “The Cornfield”stands apart for its realism, and yet clearly has much to say about the collection as a whole. Tom (its protagonist) descends from a long line of emphatically heterosexual corn-farmers. Obsessed with gay sex and yet certain that his homosexuality is unpracticable, Tom blocks out his surroundings by reading horror stories not dissimilar to the stories that populate Fantasy Kit, attempting as he does so to “lose himself” in their eerie alternate worlds. The story lingers upon this notion of self-loss: “losing himself wouldn’t feel like death… It would feel like escape.”
This assertion is made to feel complicated before the story’s tragic conclusion, but what remains is a clear sense of Fantasy Kit’s interest in self-sublimation, and in using fiction to explore the ways in which desire can alternately manifest and decimate the psyche. What pervades Fantasy Kit above all (and what makes it so affecting) is its tragic and softly-reiterated assertion that the pursuit of one’s visceral desires is both inevitable and futile, an inescapable process that can often excite but will always betray us.
The desire at hand in these stories is most often for physical intimacy, a concept which Fantasy Kit renders with both tenderness and meticulous volatility. The story “A Horror,” for example, is initially framed as the recounting of a movie previously watched by its narrator, one in which a group of adolescents are searching for a lake. The leader of this group (intriguingly also named Tom) constitutes the story’s libidinal focal point: the narrator finds Tom handsome, the movie-character Bill is completely in love with him (having “always imagined what it would feel like to kiss Tom on the mouth”), and the general group seems to adore Tom so much as to trust him implicitly. The story begins to rupture once the lake has been sighted, when we learn that it’s actually not a lake at all but a giant. Most of the group continues towards it, but Jane (the group-member least enamored of Tom) hangs back instead, watching as the group wades deeper into what she (and she alone) still perceives as a lake. She soon becomes scared that her group-mates might drown and calls out, at which point the story turns eerie: “But Tom didn’t turn to look at her. Bill didn’t turn.” This reaction of zombie-like entrancement is immediately striking—why are these characters ignoring Jane? And even more unsettling is the sentence that follows: “I remember I didn’t look back at her either.” Our narrator has gotten sucked into his own plotline, joining the other movie-characters as they succumb to this alarmingly stupefying force. The giant/lake then intones a mystifying message of futility (“How vain are these thousand years…”), which for our narrator somehow triggers a tragic and jolting realization about intimacy: “I knew then that Tom would never kiss Bill.”
As Tom and his admirers sink deeper, and yet as Jane stands by unaffected, we gradually (if subconsciously) apprehend the idea that this stupefying force is the group’s very devotion to Tom, that Tom’s magnetism has deprived them of subjecthood (caused them to “lose themselves”). In sensing this connection, we can’t help but marvel: how fantastically complex this is, how chillingly scrambled, and yet how poetically immaculate, how jarring, how sad. What feels like genius in this story is its ability to craft a culminating situation that feels so nearly impossible to parse and yet so piercingly coherent.
Similar themes propel the collection’s other stories, many of which depict the lustful pursuit of something that, once obtained, seems instantly and unnervingly to transform. The narrator of “The Knight” follows his story’s titular character into a temple, where he finds him jarringly naked and discovers mere moments before performing fellatio that the body is fake, and that his actual knight stands watching him at the building’s entrance. In the story “Pan and Hook,” an eerily eloquent Pan is bereft of companionship until the appearance of Captain Hook, with whom he nearly shares a kiss until Captain Hook balks, having “[seen] me for what I was. Not Peter, but the Goat.” Rife with mythological allusion, these tales seem nevertheless to be interested most of all in the utterly material moment at which intimacy is sparked, mercilessly rendering both the needy anticipation that precedes and the various forms of psychic disorder that can ensue.
Many of the collection’s stories chart a similar narrative trajectory, and if a critique is to be made then it would probably be that as the stories whizz by, our fascination seems likely (if slightly) to wane. Certain elements become predictable: when we meet a male character, we learn to presume his narrative role as an object of lust (and that he’s also probably blonde). Yet the stories never lose their captivating inexplicability, nor their palpable eeriness. Comparisons to other gothic writers (and particularly to Angela Carter) are undoubtedly apt, and yet the Fantasy Kit reading experience feels frequently more similar to that of the fiction of Alice Munro, owing to its compression, its attention to detail, and its penchant for turmoil. For these and more reasons, anyone looking for a hauntingly memorable literary summer “escape” is heartily encouraged to set their sights squarely on Fantasy Kit.