The stories in Colin Fleming’s Dark March are most clearly connected by two major themes, water and loss. Smaller groups of stories, dispersed throughout the collection, are connected by recurring human and non-human characters: a naval captain of the British Empire, a combat veteran returned home, the voice (and only the voice) of a drunkard, rival forests, seagulls, and rock crabs. Everything is granted at least the potential of consciousness.
The book’s subtitle suggests the dreamlike nature and structure of its stories. The reader must attend to a story’s particular and peculiar logic. Although that story may share a theme or idea with other stories, it operates by individual rules, procedures, and uncertainties. “Secondary Drowning,” for instance, opens upon a hunting scene in which the protagonist may have been bitten by a rabid fox. This is recounted in a doctor’s office, in a discussion about rabies. The protagonist, fascinated by a stuffed bass, soon seems to enter a marine painting, where he must swim to freedom.
But what, exactly, is secondary drowning? That idea is developed in “In the Chum.” Its protagonist–like most of Fleming’s human protagonists–is missing his wife. When he loses track of a hagfish, “He wondered if the departure would split into levels of departure, like when she left. There’s leaving, but that’s just the start. Next was secondary leaving. First you have drowning, then you have secondary drowning, where some of the water that was hidden in some pocket of your lungs, or some nook inside of you—in following from the initial bout of drowning, which didn’t quite kill you off—leaks out into a portion of your being where it can do some real harm.” The reader may note two things about this passage. First, he gets a sense of the dreamlike nature of Fleming’s best sentences. In these exploratory passages, clauses and parentheticals are packed against one another, almost as though, if the sentence were to end, we’d lose the big idea. Secondly, while each of Fleming’s stories operates by its individualized, complicated rules, it is also connected to others by more than theme. While they can be read individually for pleasure, they are meant to be read in relation to one another.
The anthropomorphic stories, unfortunately, are a mixed bag. While a story like “The Hagfish” plays interestingly on the Icarus myths, others disappoint. “Incident at 7000 Hertz” is about a drunk who becomes more of a drunk and eventually shoots his lover. Despite the piece’s lurid sex and violence, its plot is bland. Told straightforwardly, the climax would come off as cheap melodrama. Instead it is told by the drunk’s voice. The story insists that we accept that each of this man’s bodily functions and juices, up to and including his stomach acids, as well as everybody else’s functions and juices (the voice receives news of other voices from some kind of industry magazine), all have perfectly realized human consciousness. They have ambitions, frustration, and personalities. The voice feels it could achieve great things if only the Moving Box (the whole human) would give him a break from wine. A reader may accept this premise. He may even accept the voice’s inability to influence people and events. However, this sort of distortion ought to create a new understanding of the melodramatic moment. It ought to lead to the sort of insight or idea or description as intellectually and emotionally engaging seen in “In the Chum.” Because it fails to do so, the reader is left empty.
The anthropomorphic stories, and “Incident . . . ” in particular, lack strong connections to one another. In this collection, it seems that where Fleming makes those connections, his fiction is strongest. Consider the stories about Doze, the only recurring named human. Among other roles, he plays both the veteran and the naval captain. Like the protagonist of “In the Chum,” he is almost always in search of his lost wife. That search leads him to funny moments of social inappropriateness. In “Blue Crystals,” he inspects the pelvis of a high school’s model skeleton. In “The Glazier’s Art,” he masturbates in open windows.
In the collection’s title story, Doze is most removed from the world. He spends his time watching the dead and gone float past his window. He decides to put together and paint a collectible model of Dracula: “Doze considered the color to be fittingly dust-like, as he was a big admirer of dust, and wondered, often, whether it came from bodies, or something more crumbly, like the piles of leaves he’d made in the past, in the backyard, so that he had places to hide away, and think.” In this piece, Doze is childlike, so it’s no surprise when he blows up the model with a cherry bomb. But no matter what he does to the model, he cannot get rid of it. The problem grows more complicated when his wife floats past, and the model is sucking on her throat. All this leads to a stunningly powerful end. Doze knows that he is in his room, watching. But he is also the Dracula floating past, set upon her throat, then her heart. We leave him in this moment of double fear, first of what he may have done to his wife and second of the consciousness that no one will rescue him if he falls. It’s the sort of moment which makes this collection, in spite of its flaws, worth reading.