It’s one thing to retell a story, it’s another to remix it. While any tale changes in the telling, growing new details and ideas as it endures, it takes a significantly different set of skills to rip out the entire assembly, preserve the heart of the story, and then rebuild around it based on your own understanding. Metamorphica is Zachary Mason’s attempt to remix the ancient Greek myths, the same way Ovid once did with Metamorphoses (and not unlike the way Mason himself did with the story of Odysseus in The Lost Books of the Odyssey), bringing a modern interpretation of the history and sexuality within these ancient stories.
Metamorphica is presented as a series of interlinked stories from Greek myth, spanning the time from the birth of the gods through the end of the Trojan war, which Mason sees as the end of the age of myth. Using Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a loose framework, Mason adds his own flourishes, creating myths much like the originals, but also wildly different, as gods, heroes, and monsters collide in strange and dreamlike vignettes: two immortal lovers found a city; Zeus is forced to confront his memories and incongruous humanity; a man takes one last walk with his father’s ghost; a vengeful, grief-stricken king leads his trusted men in a terrifying assault of the underworld; a poet named Ovid annoys gods and mortals alike with his presence. These stories are by turns tragic, humorous, and terrifying, but all provide a look at a land full of magic and mystery that is similar—but not exactly like—the one that has appeared in stories for centuries.
Mason, whose last work was the jagged literary cyberpunk novel Void Star, finds beauty in even the most grotesque circumstances; these stories share a certain deep-rooted lyricism that puts them slightly out of step with the world, like they’re occupying a liminal space overlaying our own reality. In Mason’s world, the supernatural touching the mundane produces a kind of waking dream or nightmare, a thin border where the stranger elements of ancient Greece reach through and touch the mortal world. There is a growing sense of melancholy as the book moves along, tying together stories to coming full-circle with Ovid’s exile and the final closure of the age.
Even the horrifying moments do little to disrupt the dreamlike mood; throughout, you’re never quite sure of your footing as you explore these ancient worlds. “Theseus” is a terrifying descent into grief for the eponymous king of Athens, and “Daedalus” contains some upsetting ideas about the dark reality behind the mathematical concept of pi; incongruently, the “Death” section contains one of the funniest stories in the book (“Limits”), alongside two of the most disturbing.
Altogether, Mason’s wildly experimental takes on ancient myth seem like part of the same world and make up a cohesive whole that is more than the sum of its parts. The story of Athena’s birth is a chaotic abstract poem. Jason’s last walk with his father feels like an offbeat sort of memoir. Orpheus’ tale edges into the territory of the New Weird, with the city leading to the Underworld having a decidedly more modern bent than the ancient world around it.
Metamorphica is myth rebuilt, a beautiful work of the human condition as seen through the eyes of gods and monsters, a joining of styles and forms at once drawing from the past and displaying an unmistakably modern flourish. With reverence for—but not devotion] to—the source material, Zachary Mason has created a strange sort of hybrid, and revealed why myths endure, even as they change.