J.R. McConvey’s debut collection of short stories, Different Beasts, got a rave review in the Winnipeg Free Press. We thought we’d share it with you:
The sometimes-blurry line between the odd and the monstrous can make for uncomfortable discoveries. And as J.R. McConvey explores in his new collection of short stories, the monstrosity doesn’t necessarily come from the oddness.
McConvey, a Toronto-based writer whose fiction has been published in the Joyland, EVENT, and the Dalhousie Review, has also been shortlisted for many awards and won the 2016 Jack Hodgins Founders’ Award for Fiction from the Malahat Review.
His screenwriting credits include movies such as The National Parks Project, Mission Asteroid, and Beyond the Horizon.
In Different Beasts, McConvey draws from his many published works, telling stories where bizarre circumstances often force uncomfortable moral choices on his characters.
In How the Grizzly Came to Hang in the Old Oak Hotel, a hotel worker who served in Afghanistan is tapped to deal with a bear running amok in the ballroom after a movie shoot goes awry. He’s only meant to be support for a visiting U.S. Congressman, who takes it on himself to kill the animal. The veteran, serving as narrator, comments: "So I guess you could call what happened poetic justice, if you ever believe justice reads like a poem, or that any true poet would take carnage for a muse."
The narrator’s discomfort over taking the animal’s life is weighed against losing his precarious job, and both run headlong into the moment when the Congressman’s easy kill doesn’t work out the way he’d assumed.
Moral dilemmas abound in the stories. In Home Range a single father working in a shipyard finds a foreign girl his daughter’s age in a ship’s container. He rescues her but doesn’t know who to trust — it’s clear his union rep not only knows about human trafficking in their area, but is likely involved. When he makes his decision on how to set the girl "free," he is neither sure he’s made the right call, nor whether the girl is, in fact, human.
The surreal qualities take centre stage in tales like Sheepasnörus Rex, as much about a possibly possessed child’s sleep aid as it is about the feverish effects of sleep deprivation on parents.
Or there’s the meta-narrative of the multi-part Pavilion, which weaves in story strands about a cursed house formerly belonging to Sir John A. MacDonald, a secret cult bent on controlling it, municipal politicians deciding how best to exploit the house’s history and celebrity, and the imagined Hollywood movie starring Robert Downey Jr. that would be based on it, in the mind of the (likely insane) narrator.
One of the collection’s highlights is The Last Ham. A small-town populace is whipped into a frenzy over the fate of a cured ham to be auctioned, made from the last pig slaughtered by the local farmer before his own untimely, gruesome death. A rich newcomer to the town absconds with the carcass, promising great things.
So far, so homey. But as the tension mounts between the CEO, who takes on preparing the eponymous last ham, and the nun seeking to regain possession of it for the auction, the rest of the town goes a bit, well, mad. When the CEO uses the unveiling of the ham to launch his mayoral campaign, writes McConvey, "The tumult that followed this statement is now officially considered to be the first of the Bedford Ham Riots." The bizarre, disturbing events unfold like a story by Stuart McLean channeling H.P. Lovecraft.
Overall, McConvey has assembled a collection of stories that are, in fact, very different beasts, and well worth the time to explore.
Reviewer David Jón Fuller is a Winnipeg writer and editor.