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***This is a Great Fiction Countdown 2015 post. I’ll be reading and responding to a new short story published or reprinted in 2015 every day throughout the month of December. If you have a recommendation, tweet at me or use the contact form.***
Story Four: “Orange Dogs” by Marian Womack
Originally published in The Weird Fiction Review
Read it for free here.
“Orange Dogs” is a very well placed story. Womack’s strange piece about a butterfly specialist and his pregnant wife living in an antediluvian climate dystopia executes on all the elements of a classic weird tale. The setting is established through subtle movements of the plot. The town has a very pre-industrial feel, but references to government helicopters later on suggest a more modern setting. Due to a previous flood or some cataclysm of which the flood was only a symptom, the residents of the town have been reduced to a barter economy. Our protagonist begins the story setting out to trade his orange marmalade at market for the medical supplies his wife will need to ensure a safe delivery. Considering these factors I read the setting as a post-climate apocalypse, but the precise nature of the world is almost beside the point.
It’s become cliche to compare contemporary weird fiction to Lovecraft, but there’s no better reference for the sense of dread that saturates this piece. Even the impending birth feels ominous. “The swollen pregnant belly seemed about to explode. The mountain of flesh, hidden under a knitted bed spread, lifted and sank, lifted and sank, to the faltering rhythm of her breathing.” The abiding sense of doom is present from the very first paragraph, not just in the coming birth but in the river water rising in parallel.
Without dropping any spoilers, it turns out that the protagonist has a very good reason for anxiety as his wife approaches labor, and an even better reason for associating that anxiety with the floodwaters. The convergence of those two plot threads is a masterful piece of storytelling.
One of the craft elements that I really admire in this piece is the careful use of language to create an atmosphere of the uncanny. The descriptions of the titular orange dog butterflies and the homicidal river are fresh and jarring, fraught with supernatural menace.
The group he was working for was trying to throw a little light on the reasons why, after their appearance on the island formerly known as England, the papilio cresphontes had developed certain unusual habits, some of them violent, for example the males eating the females, and occasionally even the larvae. This had been a key to the early disappearance of the insects. Some of them had developed a strange venom, and it was believed that the unusual colours in the eyespots was a warning of its presence.
It’s a real skill to depict the natural world as something simultaneously bizarre and familiar. Describing the floodwaters, Womack waxes poetic again:
The flood had surpassed all expectations, but in the end the water had been sucked up in some form by the earth, risen in order to fall back down again, drop by drop, only to be spat out and multiplied in the form of a swampish miasma under the survivors’ feet, after which the ground had exploded into an impossible jungle where all kinds of unknown flora had sprung into life, bringing the strange fauna along with it.
Marian’s precise language and tense atmospheric details set the stage for the climactic scene. When the protagonist comes face to face with the weird creatures that have been circling the narrative, their arrival seems almost inevitable. That confrontation with the unknown is the hallmark of the best weird fiction.
**Spoilery speculation below
Did the protagonist’s first child actually survive the premature birth? Was his burial at sea (or river, rather) similarly premature? Did the orange dogs, infamous for consuming their larvae, carry the infant off to their hive? Did consuming the child grant them supernatural sentience and size?
It all seems plausible, and the fact that the story doesn’t offer us any heavy-handed explanation is a beautiful act of authorial tact.