California is a big state, and occupies an even bigger place in our imaginations, so it’s only to be expected that a collection of stories exploring what makes it so special — so strange — makes for a big book. Which is to say, a promise of value, of bang for one’s buck, is made right up front.
As is outlined in what amounts to a manifesto in the book’s introduction, the stories in Strange California explore not only the state’s varied physical and cultural geography, but also what makes it so very different from the rest of the United States — what makes it strange. As editors Jaym Gates and Daniel Batt emphasize in the introduction, however, this collection is not merely an anthology of weird fiction. California is certainly weird, but it’s also strange — set apart, unknown, perhaps unknowable to those of us who don’t live there, who are strangers to the place.
Though, as we are frequently reminded in this collection, everybody was a stranger here, once. And most still are, where it counts.
That’s not to say there is not plenty of weird fiction to be found here. A mysterious, invisible something feeds off the suicides jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. An orchard grows more than just delicious oranges and demands more than just manual labor from its migrant workers. A banal desert town exerts more than the usual pull on the kids who grow up there, forcing them to remain. Another has struck a creepy bargain with the local tarantula population. People from all over the world bring their native mythologies, monsters and shibboleths with them and transplant them to California’s ready soil.
A lot of these stories are focused on San Francisco. Maybe too many. But even within this large subset of Strange California’s offerings, there is considerable variety, with a nice emphasis on the experience of Otherness in all its forms.
Standouts for me include Tim Pratt’s “A Sea Monster in the Bathtub”, in which a trans woman joins a symbolic protest at Oakland’s Lake Merritt, meets some kind of funky sea priestess (Lake Merritt is a tidal lagoon, so the priestess isn’t too lost), and attracts the attention of a unique guardian spirit that sees her for who she truly is. It’s a nice meditation on identity and honesty and taking action to make things better that also has a sweetly wistful bit of wish fulfillment at its heart. The story isn’t as amusing as I’m used to seeing from Pratt, but it has a heart that’s better than funniness.
I could say the collection is worth getting for that story alone, but that would be doing many another gem a great disservice. “Uncanny Valley” by Chaz Brenchley shows us how the techbros aren’t the only thing that make Silicon Valley a strange, strange place, though it’s kind of a techbro-ish love story as its protagonists strive to develop an app that lets people experience the Valley as it was before the tech boom. Along the way … well, of course they find something uncanny. This story is also that rare accomplishment, a second-person narrative that isn’t distracting or annoying. Indeed, I’ve read entire novels that were less immersive and engrossing than this story.
And I have to give a shout out to one more favorite, K. A. Rochnik’s pulptacular “Panther Lady’s Incredible True Tale”, which blends gumshoe noir with that special brand of heavy breather dime novel jungle girl fantasy (and a touch of H.G. Wells) in a fun way that I usually associate with another Californian, Justin Robinson. That’s high praise, by the way.
There’s not a bad story in the bunch, though some will be more to the reader’s taste than others. I’ll confess I was expecting a lot of Tim Powers pastiche, since that author has so firmly chosen Strange California is his preferred domain, but this group of authors proved to me that this tent is as big as the state itself.
Go get it!