Short Stories 365/264

“Night of the Sea Beast” by Brandon Cracraft from The Touch of the Sea (Lethe Press, 2012). Edited by Steve Berman.

Pretty soon we’ll have compiled a great enough number of LGBT stories concerned with the hijinks on the sets of B-movies to fill a dedicated anthology.

It makes me think, of course, about the fact that John Waters will be one of the guests at this year’s Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, and also that this March, for the first time, that festival will be held in conjunction with the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival. Moreover, the festivals will coincide with a production of Suddenly, Last Summer. (And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.)  I ask you, does it get any better than this? How could it possibly?

This story is great fun, yet contains enough of a nod to serious issues to be truly satisfying. Hughie Wildsmith is a McCarthy-era working Hollywood actor. Or rather, he was. His career has just been destroyed by the revelation that he is a homosexual. That would be bad enough, but people want to run him out of town. Mothers pull their children away from him and grown men cross the street, afraid to be near him. He’s about to be evicted, despite having always paid his rent on time. He might be able to slink away and re-start his life in obscurity, if the flames of hatred weren’t being fanned by a radio personality named Harry Ipswich. Ipswich is targeting Hughie, and seems unlikely to stop anytime soon.

Enter an angel named Trevor Trecaman. A B-movie maker, he casts Harry in his latest picture and treats him like a human being, not a pariah. It’s more than that, though. Everyone on set accepts Hughie. None of them buy into any of the B.S. being peddled by people like Harry Ipswich. They’re zany, raucous, refreshing and kind individuals. No, it’s more than that. They’re allies. More than one of them has a relative or friend who has already or will be harmed by the Harry Ipswich’s witch hunt, and they’re going to do whatever they can to help Hughie. They welcome him into their fold. The whole endeavor is a great relief, even if, in order to throw off the zealots, he must do all of his acting from inside a rubber sea monster suit.

Naturally, a real sea monster then appears and starts picking people off. The piece uses outrageous humor to keep from ever becoming too grisly or maudlin.

One final thought. Last week I attended an incredible production of the new play Perfect Arrangement by Topher Payne, put on by Pandora Productions here in Louisville. That script deals with the same era as this story, but the plot revolves around a couple of characters, male and female, who are employed by the State Department. It’s been their job for several years to root out and expose Communists. The pogram hits home when the target becomes homosexuals. Each of the characters exists within two relationships: a faux, opposite-gender one that they affect to appease public sensibilities, and a true, same-sex one that’s private. Because of the anti-nepotism rule in their workplace they have not wed one another, but have each married the emotional, non-legal, actual spouse of the other. The two couples occupy a duplex with a hidden doorway so that they can live as they want away from prying eyes. The play contains the same mix of high comedy and biting social commentary as this story. If you enjoy one, I feel sure you will like the other.

Short Stories 365/263

“Ban’s Dream of the Sea” by Alex Jeffers from The Touch of the Sea (Lethe Press, 2012). Edited by Steve Berman. Also included in the author’s collection You Will Meet a Stranger Far From Home (Lethe Press, 2012).

Ban, short for Banto, is a son of the upper classes in the strange, isolated city of New Akkat. It’s strange because it’s a towering stone city located in the middle of the ocean, and also because when it was discovered by explorers from the Old World, it was deserted.

This story is a commentary on the arrogance of imposing your will on other things, whether that’s a place or other people. It’s also a statement on privilege and classism. As I said, Ban is of the upper class, as is his brother-in-law Keron. They have an inherent advantage over people like the nameless servant who has worked for Ban’s family “for longer than he can remember”. He and Keron are no spring chickens—their beards are graying—but she, the servant, has repeatedly extended her term of service in order to buy freedom for one after another of her children. Contrast this to Keron, who manages a handful of accounts for his father’s business and dresses in robes shot through with silver thread; and Ban, who lives off a stipend provided by his own father, and spends his days reading books.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Ban very much. He spends his days thinking, trying to understand the world and his place in it, and he’s nothing if not rational. He’s not a theist or a romantic, and he’s no coward. He doesn’t pull punches, instead choosing to tell people what he honestly thinks of their behavior. And he turns that same critical eye on himself.

Keron has come to Ban’s residence, high atop one of the city’s original towers, with the news that his wife, Etkass—who is also Ban’s sister—has gone missing. As they speak we learn that Ban and Keron have a past, though not a terribly distant one, and never a romance. They ceased having relations with one another only three years ago (remember, graying beards), following Keron’s marriage to Etkass. Keron caved to pressure from his family and has been trying to produce an heir. It hasn’t exactly been working out.

He tells Ban that he and Etkass quarreled following failed relations brought on by a racy dream they both had about a creature of the sea. We learn that Ban, too, has had the dream, about the same odd being. Not only that, but he’s been studying the strange history of their settlement, and has learned that people have been dreaming that same dream practically since they first sighted the city. The present action is then interspersed with passages from the book he’s been studying, an accounting of the formation of New Akkat. Notably, it details the tension that existed between the Admiral in charge of the band of explorers and a prelate sent along with them. The prelate was terrified of their discovery. He attributed the fully-formed city in the sea to the work of demons, and wanted it destroyed. The Admiral had him locked up.

Ban tells Keron there’s also a history of people answering the siren’s song by throwing themselves into the sea, and the frequency of such occurrences has recently spiked. He suspects Ektass is drowned. They go to the water’s edge, where Ban begins to have visions. It’s impossible to distinguish whether they are glimpses of the past he’s been immersed in, premonitions of the future, or a fiction designed to lure him into the water.

The various elements of the story continue to swirl together until finally we are given a passage from Ban’s dream of the sea that is, frankly, not long enough. I was not prepared for the story to end when it did, or be so undefined. Was it just that, a dream, or is what we’re shown real, possibly even the future? I’m not sure, but there comes a point when you need to stop analyzing things and simply dive in. So it is with this story, only right after I fully immersed myself in it, it stopped.

More, please.

Short Stories 365/262

“The Grief of Seagulls” by Joel Lane from The Touch of the Sea (Lethe Press, 2012). Edited by Steve Berman.

This is becoming all too common. I believe this is the third review of the project to deal with work by an author who is deceased, and none of it is more than five years old*.

I loved the mix of intimacy and activism in this piece. At its core it’s a story about one man’s loss. Callum’s partner, Andrew, was killed in an explosion on an oil rig. That makes it, inherently, also a broader commentary on corporate greed. We’re told that warning signs were ignored by those in power. Scores of working class men were killed or maimed in the disaster. Twelve years on their loved ones—men, women and children—are still coping with the aftermath. Lastly, this story deals with the injustice of being deemed a criminal for falling in love in a manner society feels is inappropriate.

It’s the anniversary of the awful day that took Andrew’s life and Callum has returned to the quay, to grieve. Yes, it’s been a dozen years, and yes, he’s had other relationships since, but this is the one that mattered most. Andrew was The One. Death robbed them of the life they wanted to spend together, and Callum still feels the loss acutely.

There aren’t many other people around but there is an older, frail-looking gentleman. By and by he comes up to Callum and asks to hear his story. Callum is hesitant to tell it, still fearful of being judged, but he finally relents. He’s surprised to be heard and believed.

He intends to return the favor by listening to the other man’s story but the fellow says he is too tired to talk. He asks Callum to meet him in the same spot on the next night. Callum agrees, and that’s where things take on a different—and very welcome—aspect. It seems that in the world of the story things aren’t entirely as they appear. There’s a bit of magic, and moments of joy are possible for deserving souls.

*The only exception (so far, I have one other story in mind, possibly for the last review of the series) is 365/ 152 “The Specialty of the House” by Stanley Ellin (Simon and Schuster 1956).

Short Stories 365/261

“Air Tears” by Damon Shaw from The Touch of the Sea (Lethe Press, 2012). Edited by Steve Berman.

This next story is very short. I’m guessing it’s only about 1,500 words, not exactly a vignette, but very brief. Short as it was, it did an excellent job of describing what it would be like to be suddenly transformed into a creature of the sea. The unnamed narrator finds he is unable to leave the water and return to the life he’s always known. I especially love that a kiss was the catalyst for his change, turning him from a “prince” into a frog, or a seal, or whatever it is that he has become. And of course it’s also a terrific analogy both for realizing one is gay and for what it’s like to fall head over heels in love. Very nicely done.

Short Stories 365/260

“The Stone of Sacrifice” by Jeff Mann from The Touch of the Sea (Lethe Press, 2012). Edited by Steve Berman.

American Ewan McDonald has come to Scotland’s Outer Hebrides to do research, work on some writing, and get in touch with his ancestors. He has no idea what that last will entail. Oh, and he’s also looking to get beyond his “long, intense affair with Thom”, a recurring motif in the author’s work.

Behind the place Ewan has rented for the summer, out on the beach, is the center stone of what once was a sacred circle. He has a few beers, pours a libation for the approaching solstice, and settles at the base of the stone, exhausted from his journey. When he stirs awake a little while later he thinks he sees a man bobbing about in the ocean, but once he blinks the image is gone. He convinces himself he was only imagining it.

Until, that is, the young man turns up at the base of the standing stone, weak as a kitten, apparently half-drowned. Ewan never seems to make the connection the reader does, that his encounters with the younger man, Johnny, always follow slumber (or at least efforts to sleep that he thinks were unsuccessful). Were they, though? Is anything that happens between the two real, or are all of Ewan’s interactions with the handsome stranger merely lucid dreams? It’s true Johnny completes him in a way only a being crafted by the psyche can. Then again, this is a tale about myth and magic, so who can say for sure?

Short Stories 365/259

“The Bloated Woman” by Jonathan Harper from The Touch of the Sea (Lethe Press, 2012). Edited by Steve Berman.

It took me a little while to warm up to this story and the end felt disjointed, but man, oh man, the middle is filled with revelations that are like punches to the gut.

That’s most definitely a compliment. I love writing that makes me look over my shoulder or ask aloud, “Who are you, and how did you get in here?” By that I mean into my head, and my heart, and my soul. Writing that not only introduces me to other people, but exposes, as universal, thoughts I believed (or feared) to be uniquely mine. I love that.

Jeremiah is twenty-five, an aspiring writer in need of income. His former professor, Walter, who he knew as the co-director of the psychology department, is in failing health, suffering from dementia. The math doesn’t seem to add up until nearly the end of the tale, when Walter suffers a second stroke. Aha, got it. But that’s okay. It’s good.

Jeremiah’s there to be a relief caretaker, to lift some of the burden from Walter’s beleaguered sister Nora’s shoulders. When he’s not on duty he daydreams about writing a novel (but doesn’t do it) and goes looking for trouble down by the piers. He specifically searches for one of the locals, a married man nearly twice his age, named Amos. When the story opens the two have just happened upon the bloated body of a woman. She appears to have been murdered, rather than drowned. The author employs a bit of misdirection to string the story along and give the impression that this is a genre piece, which turns out not to be so. No problem there either. This feels like a fragment of a larger story, one I think will/would be astounding. I hope I’m right, but even if I’m not, I’m all in. I want to read whatever he’s written.

Addendum: There’s one thing I do not like at all, and that’s waiting. I have no patience whatsoever. Right after I wrote this I dropped to the internet and was thrilled to find that the author has a story collection, Daydreamers. I was beyond ready to purchase it when I discovered that it will not be out for another four months. Four months, are you kidding me?

Arrrgggh!

Second Addendum: Shortly after posting this I received a .pdf ARC of Daydreamers from the publisher. Watch for reviews after the first of the year!