Short Stories 365/85

“Only Lost Boys are Found” by Steve Berman from Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers (Lethe Press, 2014).

This is the perfect finale for this collection because it encompasses all that precedes it. It’s sweet, a little scary, very trippy, and hopeful. It’s surprisingly funny, too, strewn with land mines of teenage sarcasm.

The world of the story unfolds as a series of closets as the out protagonist searches for his not-so-out neighbor/boyfriend. Sometimes the closet analogy works better than others, but overall it’s an interesting device. And like I said, this story gets trippy. Just as with the one that opened the collection, all the reader can do is hang on and see where it goes, safe in the knowledge that it will be somewhere interesting.

The kinship between this story and the It Gets Better Project is obvious. Not surprisingly, this piece was originally included in Speaking Out: LGBTQ Youth Stand Up (Bold Strokes Books, 2011), edited by the author. It’s written in second-person, which breaks the “fourth wall” (to steal a theatre reference) and blatantly pulls the reader into the narrative. It’s a fantastic choice. I love the idea of the author all but stepping off the page, pointing right at the queer kid reading the story (the intended audience for both books) and saying, “In case you somehow didn’t get it before now, I wrote this for you.”

I especially liked the exposition and dialogue right at the end. Very nice.

 

Short Stories 365/84

“Worse Than Alligators” by Steve Berman from Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers (Lethe Press, 2014).

Jameson’s little sister Madeline has invited six friends for a sleepover. His boyfriend Eddie is there, too, keeping him company and helping deal with the chaos. They’re good, responsible boys. In fact, Jameson’s biggest fear is that he’s too responsible and Eddie will eventually get bored with him.

The girls do the classic sleepover stuff: watch movies, read from a volume on the occult, and try to conjure the ghost of a murdered local girl to make her appear to them in the bathroom mirror. Jameson doesn’t fully realize what they’re up to until he and Eddie discover that they’ve snuck out of the house…

This is urban legend gold. I picture a girl reading this and being inspired to invite her friends over to re-create these timeless childhood moments. But this is more than just another creepy story; unlike previous stories, movies, and television shows of this ilk it reflects a world that includes gay kids. The fact that Jameson has a boyfriend isn’t central to the story unless it’s central to your story, and never seeing yourself in pop culture makes you feel less than. For that reason this entire collection is priceless. 

Short Stories 365/83

“Steeped in Debt to the Chimney-pots,” by Steve Berman from Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers (Lethe Press, 2014). Originally published in Willful Impropriety (Running Press Kids).

This is another installment of a series I first encountered in the author’s second collection, Second Thoughts: More Queer and Weird Stories. I actually tried to pass up “The Price of Glamour” (First published in The Faery Reel by Viking Press) because at that time I still believed I did not like the fantasy genre. Thankfully, skipping a story in the collection bugged me. A little voice inside my head urged me to go back and give it a try. It promised I wouldn’t regret it, and it was right. I do like fantasy. What I don’t like is badly written fantasy.

In my opinion, you should read that story before you read this one. Would you have to in order to enjoy this? No. Absolutely not. But do yourself a favor and read them that way.

Warning: in the interim I read an interview with the author in which he said what I suspected was so, namely that these are pieces of a novel that never gelled. That being the case, it’s hard to know when or even if there will be more installments. It’s similar to the situation with his Fallen Area stories. While it’s true I have a lifelong habit of starting books and wandering off when they don’t sufficiently catch my imagination (there isn’t enough time in the world to read everything I love, let alone what I don’t), these stories do. I can’t think of a more frustrating situation than being introduced to a great story and then having it simply stop. Still, I would be the poorer for having not read these.

There’s a lot to absorb here, especially if it’s been decades since you’ve read anything containing the words “troll”, “the Folk”, “fey” and the like. (Unless, that is, you count having read two and a half installments of the Harry Potter series in advance of seeing the movies with your family.) What it boils down to is this: in “The Price of Glamour” a thieving sprite named Tupp Smatterpit, for all intents and purposes indentured to the spriggan Bluebottle, finds himself the victim of theft. It’s disastrous because he’s been saving up—at great personal peril—to buy his freedom from servitude. He sets out to get his valuables back and discovers that he was robbed by a clever human boy named Lind. Tupp is very taken with Lind, but isn’t entirely sure what to make of that and feels he could never risk letting the other know his true feelings. The unfolding adventure solves his initial dilemma while believably setting up that Lind needs his assistance going forward. The boy hasn’t just stolen from Tupp; he’s robbed many of the Folk, and he’ll need protection and help in making amends.

Fast forward to this story. Again, you don’t have to read the other story first. They’ve been together for an indeterminate length of time and almost all of Lind’s debts have been paid. I suspect this is the final scene of the unfinished novel, and that the middle comprised the re-payment of the other debts. I want to read them all. The tension in this installment derives from how fond of the young man Tupp has grown and how much he dreads losing his company, even though that company can be maddening. Lind seems addicted to risk. His need to chase his next adrenaline rush makes their already difficult existence much harder. And yet…

This is great conflict. Living with Lind is difficult, but life without him would be hollow. His life is in danger until his debts are paid, but until they are he’s guaranteed to stay. And through it all there’s Tupp’s inability to articulate his true feelings for fear of being rejected. It’s good, addicting stuff. As noted above, both of these stories were published before. I don’t know how many more Tupp and Lind stories are out there, but I aim to find out and read every one.

Short Stories 365/82

“Three on a Match” by Steve Berman from Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers (Lethe Press, 2014).

Contemporary yet timeless, this brief story lingered in my imagination in much the same way “Vespers” did in Trysts.

There are some outward similarities. The setting for both is college. Last time it was a frat house, this time it’s a dormitory. Also in both an older boy waits in his lair-like room for a younger one to pay a visit. And in each story there’s a longing for the supernatural to be real.

That’s where the similarities end. Ewan is no hapless victim. He wasn’t lured to Antony’s room; he paused in the open doorway and leaned on the frame. He spoke first. He’s actively playing the game. The case could be made that he holds the majority of the power.

Each of them tells a creepy tale—Antony’s is more show and tell—that heightens the story tension, but neither boy is exactly smooth. Each has moments where he succeeds in impressing the other and some where he shows his hand. Ultimately, they are drawn together by youth and hormones.

Short Stories 365/81

“A Calenture of the Jungle” by Steve Berman from Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers (Lethe Press, 2014).

There’s a lot going on in this story about a girl named Amelia who believes she has no imagination. Does she really, or is it simply the case that there’s no need for her to develop an imagination of her own because the world she lives in constantly clamors to do the work for her? “A box of Legos” used to mean a container filled with a variety of building blocks a child could use to build anything, to play at being anything, over and over and over for years. Over time it came to mean a stand alone kit for a specialized adventure. Most recently it’s meant the cartridge of a video game, children being guided through a saga with only a few possible variations. Next it will mean the Blue-ray disc of the movie, which (I’m assuming) has no variable component at all.

So does Amelia truly have no imagination, or has it atrophied from disuse? As the song says, “Here we are now, entertain us.”

Amelia is already primed to be someone else’s audience by the time she gets to high school and meets Stephanie, a girl with imagination to spare. There’s also chemistry at work here, drawing the two together.

My only criticism of the piece is that I didn’t get the correct read on the time in which the story is set until I was well into it. Partly that’s my fault; my eye drifted over a reference to a movie being watched on DVD without my brain processing that information. Partly it’s that there wasn’t another good indicator for a long while. Many of the movie and song references are ones from my own teenage years. Other references—and all of the illustrations, which are gorgeous—hearken back to an even earlier time period. Encountering a reference to Wikipedia very late in the game was jarring, and I had to go back and start over and re-think everything.

In spite of that, I enjoyed this story immensely, probably because I could identify with so much of it. A good bit of the interaction between Amelia and Stephanie (transformed by Stephanie’s imagination into Amelia Earhart and Suka, Guardian of the Jungle, respectively) reminds me of times I spent with my best friend. We hailed from middle class, two-parent homes with stay-at-home moms. Between us we owned every Barbie-sized doll imaginable (Cher, Ace Frehley, Jeff from Lassie) and I also had a town’s worth of Fisher-Price Adventure People. On top of that one-quarter of our basement was devoted to a train set, the tracks of which were almost crowded out by buildings and figures my mother hand-painted so that every one was an individual. This story has an outdoor adventuring theme, though, and we had fenced yards, a city park at the end of the sidewalk, a vacant lot we called “The Junkyard”, and of course binoculars, canteens, compasses, and a tent. But more than anything else, we had stacks and stacks of books and library cards to boot. The only difference I can see between our friendship and Amelia and Stephanie’s is the sexual tension between those two. But fast forward a few years. I married a role-playing game DM. (Who, not coincidentally, had almost the same childhood.)

This story is much more than a simple trip down memory lane. Amelia gets bitten by a tick and suddenly it’s a cautionary tale about the need to distinguish fantasy from reality. Is it just because she’s young that Stephanie doesn’t recognize the danger facing them? She never breaks character, and that has real consequences. For awhile it’s fun to watch Amelia’s point of view transform, to see her imagination blossom, and to experience the rush she gets from world-building. It’s affirming to see her pursue it at the expense of all else. It’s not so fun, though, to watch it get away from her. There’s a commentary here on the line between creativity and madness. As you might expect, the ending unsettles.

Short Stories 365/80

“Gomorrahs of the Deep, a Musical Coming Someday to Off-Broadway” by Steve Berman from Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers (Lethe Press, 2014).

Let me get this out of the way right now: I don’t like musicals.

There’s just one small problem with the above statement, and that’s that it’s incomplete. It’s the way my brain always insists on stating it, but if I’m being truthful the sentence should read “I don’t like musicals…except for the ones I’ve seen.”

I don’t know why it is that, encountering a new musical, I assume I will dislike it. I grew up with parents who loved the form, and we went to see many of the Broadway tours that came through Chicago – Sweeney Todd, Hello Dolly!,The King and I, The Pirates of Penzance, Jesus Christ Superstar, Oliver!, Camelot, the list goes on and on.

I was a technical theatre major in college (or as one of the characters in “Gomorrahs of the Deep” terms it, an ‘ersatz thespian’). Among other things I worked on a production of Carousel alongside Dennis Milam Bensie, author of One Gay American and Shorn: Toys to Men. Actually, that show is an excellent example of why I default to hating musicals. (Nothing personal, Dennis.) After graduation I worked in the business professionally for two decades. In 1996 I was part of the team from Stage One: The Louisville Children’s Theatre that premiered Newberry Medal and National Book Award winner Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins a (a play with music) and then brought it to the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street.

Still, when I heard there was going to be a musical included with the stories in this collection, I was less than thrilled. This story, however, turned out to be a delight.

Greg’s boyfriend Hugh is prone to hatching over-the-top ideas when it comes to school projects. Greg has the unenviable task of reining him in without hurting his feelings. This time, Hugh’s bright idea for his oral presentation in English class is to explore the homoerotic undercurrents in Moby Dick. It’s actually Greg who—jokingly—suggests it should be a musical.

What ensues is hilarious. Think the musical episode of a television series. “The Drew Carey Show” and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” immediately come to mind. Or the series “Fame”. This story feels like that. The emotions of the main characters are realistically drawn as they move through their day, but when they break into song and are joined by various chorus members, the melodrama quotient skyrockets. A parade of jocks slap locker doors as they make an entrance for one scene; a hall monitor tears up after Greg, realizing that he must put aside his reservations and support Hugh in this crazy enterprise, breaks into song; and things are constantly tossed into the air only to, of course, land perfectly.

Through it all, Hugh makes his point about what it’s like to grow up looking for role models within the culture, but be forced to settle for deciphering coded messages like Melville’s subtext in Moby Dick instead.

It would seem that, from this point forward, I will have to say “I don’t like musicals except for the ones I’ve seen…and read.”

Short Stories 365/79

“Persimmon, Teeth and Boys” by Steve Berman from Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers (Lethe Press, 2014).

Right off, I was in love with the title of this piece. It’s one of those combinations of words that become earworms, reverberating endlessly through your skull. And then to read it and find such a funky, crazy, sweet love story….

In the past, Cecil has dated girls and thought of himself as straight, but ever since slim, quick-witted and brave Bergen Gold arrived at their school, he can think of no one else. He isn’t sure why he feels compelled to volunteer to help out on a project Bergen is working on, or to go to great lengths to make a contribution that will impress the other boy, but he is at least aware that he is.

His actions have unintended consequences, creating a situation where Bergen has a run-in with the school bully and ends up in the hospital. Cecil blames himself for not acting but I don’t see what he could have done to prevent that outcome. At any rate, he pockets a grisly souvenir from the fight – one of Bergen’s teeth, knocked free by a well-aimed kick. That night he puts it under his pillow. What follows is one of the best depictions I’ve ever read of the dream state. (The line “You know we’ll have to break this” and the action following it? Perfect.)

First, the magical Mr. Ouris appears. Right after he is described there’s an illustration that is my favorite in the book to that point. Dear god almighty I wish that when I was a child someone had re-written the tooth fairy like this, as sarcastic and devious and devoid of wings and a dress. But then again, alas, this story is aimed at young adults and the young at heart, not toddlers.

The banter between Cecil and Mr. Ouris unfolds a nice argument about not wanting to be pinned down by labels, and also about the way in which labels are used to ostracize, even amongst groups of “outsiders”. This thread is continued later in a discussion between Cecil and Bergen. It made me think of a cartoon I’ve cherished for years, which depicts two flower children walking down the street. One, obviously upset, says to the other, “I just don’t understand why you won’t conform to the prevailing standards of non-conformity.”

The fact that the bully gets a slap on the wrist for his actions of course implicitly condones them, and it’s nice when we see justice served. (The fact that I would’ve cheered a re-enactment of the ending of Carrie must mean I’m not very spiritually-evolved.) I like that before the playing field is leveled we’re shown that the attack on Bergen has had a negative impact on Cecil’s sense of self. I like that there’s an actual spelled out moral to the story. It is, after all, a fairy tale.

One final thought. I feel sure that Cecil is a math and science nerd and that the class he’s heading to at the story’s opening is one on Bell’s Inequality because this tale somehow illustrates that theorem. I tried, but could not make that leap. However, I love stories that cause you to stop and consult various dictionaries or watch YouTube videos on Quantam Physics. My husband says I am alone in this. I know I’m not.