Short Stories 365/151

“Mr. Gum the Creative Writing Teacher” by Rhy Hughes from Best Gay Stories 2009 by Lethe Press. Edited by Steve Berman.

The actual next story in this collection is “Henry and Jim” by J.M. Snyder, which I already reviewed as part of Best Gay Romance 2013 (Cleis Press). For that review, see Short Stories 365/28.

The last entry in this collection isn’t a traditional piece of fiction, it’s more of a humorous extended commentary, mainly on the art of creative writing. It’s important to know beforehand that it’s based on a Scottish series of books for children written by Andy Stanton. I was not familiar with these books, but found this helpful explanation on a WordPress blog called “Making Them Readers: if you want to teach children to think”. From that:

“They tell of a strange town called Lamonic Bibber in which the evil Mr. Gum tries to destroy the happiness of the towns folk with the friend of his friend the terrible butcher Billy William the Third. They are thwarted in their plans by a young girl called Polly and a man called Friday who has a habit of shouting, ‘The truth is a lemon meringue!’”

Armed with that understanding, it’s not difficult to find the humor being lobbed at various targets in this mock Mr. Gum story. I’m sure I don’t appreciate it as much as someone familiar with the original works, but I was able to see what the author intended and grasp some of the humor in it.

Short Stories 365/150

“Kinder” by Steve Berman from Best Gay Stories 2009 (Lethe Press).

There are two ways you can read the title of this story. I started to go with the more commonplace one, but quickly re-thought that decision after I stopped to consider who wrote it. Unconventional? Out of left field? Of course. And thank god, too. This was just the comic relief that was needed following three more serious stories and an essay (skipped in these reviews).

In this story we are introduced to Alexander, the caretaker for the Grueller House historic home, a tourist stop located somewhere in Pennsylvania. He’s just found evidence of vermin in the house—he assumes it is an infestation of rats—and is conducting a thorough survey of the place. As he goes about it we get a clear picture of him as a nervous, extremely uptight sort of man, the type who enforces rules, not breaks them. Many of those rules are archaic, or esoteric, or even of his making, which means, of course, that there’s a high probability that anyone he comes in contact with will ruffle his feathers.

The first person we see this happen with is an elderly lady who storms in late in the afternoon, declares that she is a mystery writer, and proceeds to barge into places in the house that tourists are not allowed to go, and touch things visitors are not allowed to touch. Her brash demeanor is the first real clue that the story is meant to be humorous. I found myself giggling every few pages at poor Alexander’s torment, and the delightful absurdity of the story’s premise.

There’s an author’s note after the story which purports to explain what inspired the piece. It was taken from the author’s second collection of short stories, Second Thoughts: More Queer and Weird Stories (Lethe Press, 2008). This reminds me that this past spring I skipped reviewing that collection in order to leap straight to his third one, Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers. While I’m thinking about it, let me say that I found the author’s notes following every entry in Second Thoughts to be absolutely riveting, especially when they were every bit as fantastical as the story they supposedly explained, as is the case with this particular one.

Short Stories 365/149

“Tattooed Love Boys” by Alex Jeffers from You Will Meet a Stranger Far From Home (Lethe Press, 2012). First appeared in GigaNotoSaurus, March 2012.

This time, I really am skipping over the autobiographical essay that is the actual next entry in Best Gay Stories 2009. First of all, it’s exactly as advertised, which means not in any way, shape, or form a piece of fiction. Secondly, events in the real world seem to dictate that the time has come to review this story.

I loved, loved, loved this story. Here’s how much: Each morning I tumble out of bed and walk directly to the Keurig brewer in the kitchen. I flip the power switch on the back and while I’m waiting for it to heat up (it takes about two minutes) I grab my phone and make sure the world is still there. When I hear the little “click” that indicates that the water is at temperature, I stop surfing long enough to brew and then doctor a cup of coffee. I stand for a few more minutes sipping my coffee and perusing the online goings-on, and then I’m forced by the clock to set down the phone, get ready for work, and leave.

It’s the same thing, every morning. Except, that is, for one morning a few months back. That day I hit the button on the coffeemaker, fired up Facebook, and saw that Steve Berman had posted a link to a copy of this story, available free online. Readers of this blog will know I’m a big fan of Steve’s work, both the stories he writes and the ones by other people that he publishes via Lethe Press. Intrigued, I clicked the link.

When I finally looked up again I nearly had a heart attack. Half an hour had gone by. Maybe it was even closer to forty minutes. (It’s a very long story, and this is coming from someone who twice has been able to count on one hand the number of words left to the maximum allowed for entries in the Saints and Sinners New Fiction Contest.) It was time to be out the door and I hadn’t had coffee, I hadn’t packed a lunch, I wasn’t dressed. I had that shifted perception that happens so often when exiting a movie theater or a stage performance. I’d been somewhere else, and suddenly I was back.

Trust me, you want to go there, too.

Emma and Theo are American teenagers living abroad for the summer. They aren’t entirely on their own; their parents are with them, but they are working, so brother and sister must entertain themselves by day. Though younger, Emma is the more adventurous of the pair. She wanders out into the neighborhood and into a tattoo parlor, where she meets the attractive, heavily inked stranger working the counter. Raf appears to be only slightly older than her brother Theo, and Emma’s imagination quickly runs wild. She imagines he’s gay and would be interested in Theo, who she feels would be more interesting if he liked boys.

I have never before seen Emma’s like on the page. Stories with passages similar to these: Emma thought she’d make a better boy than Theo, or this one, when she encounters a gaggle of prissy girls: She had exactly as much use for girls like that as they would for her, always end up going one of three directions. Either the character is lesbian, or she’s gender dysphoric, or (not so much these days, thankfully) she’s a tomboy who simply hasn’t yet discovered/embraced/accepted/resigned herself to her femininity. Emma’s none of those things. She’s the product of a male-dominated society, and she’s attracted to boys. She doesn’t feel she is one, trapped in the wrong body, but she does feel that her life would be infinitely better if only she’d been born male and gay.

Here’s something you won’t often hear me say: the best part about this story is that it’s got magic. Raf tells Emma a story about a trio of witches who, hundreds of years earlier, lived next door. Then strange things begin to happen. Without giving anything away I’ll just say that in this story the Kinsey scale is a Mobius strip. Gender, sexuality, even birth order are malleable, dependent upon the whims of the magic-wielder. It’s a trip, and a really fun one at that. And the best part? It has a happy ending.

Or perhaps the best part is that you can read it for yourself, here:
http://http://bit.ly/1yZybt9

After you do, please consider visiting another site, and giving whatever you can to help out the author, who very recently has suffered some personal setbacks. The link to the Crowdrise campaign is here:

http://https://t.co/fvboXo1myx

Or if that’s not your thing, why not go buy some of his books? The Padisah’s Son and the Fox:an erotic novella won a Lambda Literary award last month, and his Deprivation; or Benedetto furioso, an oneiromancy was also nominated. Steve Berman, whose Lethe Press published both (along with six other Lambda-nominated titles this year alone), has stated that he’s giving Alex a 100% royalty rate.

http://www.lethepressbooks.com

Short Stories 365/148

“If Angels Fight” by Richard Bowes from Best Gay Stories 2009 by Lethe Press. Edited by Steve Berman.

As mentioned in previous entries for this collection, I briefly considered skipping the autobiographical ones. This one is billed as an autobiographical essay but is actually—oh happy surprise— science fiction. It first appeared in Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Feb. 2008. 

It doesn’t start out that way. In fact, it really feels like straightforward memoir for quite some time, lots and lots of scandalous details about mid-century Irish political dynasties that ring so true you wonder if it’s a real family you just somehow missed. But there’s so much detail that eventually you realize it can’t really be true (or at least not any truer than a ripped-from-the-headlines episode of Law N’ Order.)

A little poking around on the internet revealed that while many of the characters and events are inspired by events in the author’s past, it is a work of fiction. And then it gets supernatural. My hesitation to just roll with it stemmed from not expecting science fiction in the collection, and the fact that those story elements are added so subtly that for quite awhile you think you must be misreading something. You wonder, Could he really be implying … ?

In an interview with the author, which I read to get a bead on the piece because I did think I was misreading it, he mentioned that it was also inspired by The Great Gatsby. I can see that, because the story concerns repeated attempts by the narrator, Richard, to uncover the truth about his mysterious childhood friend Mark Bannon. Then there’s the fact that Richard is described in a way that leads you to believe he’s gay. Also, much is made about the uneasiness Mark’s political powerhouse of a father, Mike Bannon, feels around his son. And still later there are hints about a secretive intimate “relationship” between Mark and a washed-up South Boston criminal named Frank Pirelli, but that turns out to be not what you think. Nothing in this is what you think it is, because science fiction, as the cool kids say. Make all the comparisons to Gatsby that you like, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Robert Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil, and that is a very, very good thing.

Short Stories 365/147

“King of Shadows” by Aaron Shurin from Best Gay Stories 2009 by Lethe Press. Edited by Steve Berman.

I thought about skipping this entry because it’s an autobiographical essay, not fiction, but isn’t the life we look back on something of a fiction, heavily edited, focusing on only the most dramatic moments?

The boy of the story knows he’s different from other boys, and it so frightens and perplexes him that he’s developed a way of compartmentalizing his thoughts. When he experiences desire it is almost as if it is someone else doing so, and in the mornings he “remembers nothing.”

Still, he’s different even then. He has an ear for language, and memorizes and recites poems for his family. He has no aptitude for sports, excels at his studies, and lands a role in the school play, all the while taking note of certain other men around him and the things that are whispered about them, especially the man who heads the drama program.

The most interesting thing about this piece is that it is introduced with poetry and then that poetry is sprinkled throughout the rest of the narrative in such a way that a phrase embedded here or half a line ending a paragraph there feels completely natural. It’s a clever device, and no doubt maddening to construct. Then again, the author is a poet, and they often work within such frameworks.

Even though it isn’t traditional fiction, this story does take its protagonist through an emotional arc, and it’s worth reading just for the payoff of the last paragraph.

Short Stories 365/146

“I Can Hear You Now” by John Morgan Wilson from Best Gay Stories 2009 by Lethe Press. Edited by Steve Berman. Originally published in Nine Hundred & Sixty-Nine: West Hollywood Stories.

I loved this story. If not for the fact that “Henry and Jim” is re-printed in this collection, I would say it’s my favorite story here. And since I already read and reviewed that story as part of Best Gay Romance 2013 (though it originally appeared in Best Gay Romance 2008), I do think of this as my favorite of this volume.

There’s a twist near the end of this tale that makes it difficult to discuss what actually happens during the course of it. Let me just say that the main character is in West Hollywood’s Boys Town, cell phone in hand, trying to work up the nerve to make a potentially life-altering telephone call to his much younger boyfriend. As he ruminates on his situation and debates whether or not to push the call button, he takes note of the people surrounding him, and the conclusions he reaches about them tell us volumes about him. We learn that the difference in age between he and his lover strikes terror in his heart, and that underneath his fear is a deep current of loneliness. It’s the thing keeping him from making the difficult call.

John Morgan Wilson is also the author of the Benjamin Justice crime series, which I haven’t read, but sounds amazing. Justice is described as the penultimate anti-hero, tortured, self-medicating, thrashing around in Hollywood’s dark underbelly.

If I can find it for download without resorting to patronizing Amazon, I’ll make the first one this week’s #FridayReads.

Short Stories 365/145

“At Home with James Herriot” by Raphael Kadushin from Best Gay Stories 2009 by Lethe Press. Edited by Steve Berman.

Like the last entry, this story originally appeared in in the anthology Big Trips: More Good Gay Travel Writing. In fact, the author of this piece was the editor of that collection.

I wouldn’t have thought there would be any fiction at all in an anthology related to travel writing, let alone two pieces (and possibly more). This one is a quietly humorous story about an expatriated American living in London, who is employed as an editorial assistant for a publisher specializing in memoirs. The memoirs that pour in daily are as bleak and beleaguered as the grey streets surrounding the office, and I love that they provide contrast to the main character’s situation. He classifies his own problems as “slapdash and prosaic” in comparison, unable to compete with “a city full of practiced bloodletters…smart enough to fill their pockets with stones before (going) for a swim.”  He terms his own problem as “just loneliness”.

We are told that it was in SoHo, in a club with mirrored walls where men glanced up “at their own reflected faces, waiting for an introduction”, that he met Marcus, an Englishman who says he is a travel writer. They begin a relationship, but Marcus is gone a lot, travelling. Meanwhile, London is slowly killing our hero, spraining his ankle, singeing off his hair, covering him in scabs from falls. He’s becoming one of the bleak and beleaguered. And then we learn that just before he set out for London his aged mother died, and we begin to understand why he’s there. Being in such bleak surroundings is cathartic. It makes his problems seem not so bad after all.

The relationship with Marcus and the way it turns out is unexpected and entertaining, but it’s his relationship with two other characters that I really enjoyed. He buys a pair of mice at a pet store. They were advertised as snake food, so his decision saved their lives. Mrs. Fishman and Tovuh have distinct personalities and a life of their own. They are my favorite thing about this story and also my least favorite, because of the odd decision the main character makes right at the end of the tale. Both times I read it I had to remind myself that this was just a story.