Short Stories 365/255

“Crazy in the Night” by Greg Herren from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

Danny and Matthew have been dating for a year and on the surface things are great between them, but deeper down they have issues that aren’t being discussed. The main one is that Danny wants them to move in together but Matthew has given no indication he feels the same. When Danny’s tiny, cramped apartment is rendered uninhabitable by a tree smashing through the roof during a thunderstorm, Matthew’s feelings on the situation are made painfully clear. Sure, he lets Danny stay with him full time after that. He has nowhere else to go, short of a hotel. But when the check arrives from the insurance company, Matthew is quick to start giving Danny helpful tips about finding a new place. (At which point he should start looking for a new boyfriend, too, but you know how characters are. If they acted rationally there would be no stories.)

Danny finds a big, beautiful apartment at a ridiculously cheap price and spends time moving in and getting everything arranged. Matthew is understandably skeptical of the deal but Danny chalks up everything he says to sour grapes, and they continue to grow further apart.

Then strange things begin to happen in the new place. It’s mostly related to light, though not completely. I wanted the odd occurrences to be explained, but they never were. I was left wishing that we’d come into the story nearer to what turned out to be the end, and that it had continued past the point where it stopped. I want to know what was actually going on in the apartment. I have a theory, but the text doesn’t let me know if I’m correct. Overall, it’s a pleasant read, but it feels more like the start of a novel than a short story.

Short Stories 365/176

“The Thin Blue Line(s)” by Max Reynolds from Men of the Mean Streets (Bold Strokes Books, 2011). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

Does this story really fit into the category of noir? That’s a question I asked time and again while reading this collection. It’s not a genre I’ve read widely, therefore I consulted several online definitions and read a couple of articles on the topic, but I remain unclear on the answer. Noir, those sources say, involves a cynical, fatalistic, or morally ambiguous tough guy, or else someone lured into committing a crime, or a victim of circumstance. Often, the motivation is sexual in nature.

That said, I’m not sure this story is noir, but it’s certainly enjoyable. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the main character, Anthony “Tony” Perrone, is an editor at a major publishing house and the victim, Belinda Sondheim Walsh, is one of his authors. The story’s author is a brave man, for he skewers both professions. The main character is self-described as having “an excessive amount of useless literary degrees”, while his opinion of Belinda is that she’s “one of those writers who thinks all her words are golden…her characters were wholly unlikable—Jonathan Franzen and Phillip Roth would have been proud”.

Despite the title, there is only one thin blue line in this piece, and that’s the one drawn by the editor’s pencil. No investigation is shown. Confessional in nature, the story reminded me a bit of works by Poe. It was unusual, too, because the event that pushed Tony over the edge, though sexual in nature, isn’t the sort of thing one normally thinks of with this genre. He wasn’t lured by sex; on the contrary he was repulsed by it. To his mind, the repeated unwelcome advances Belinda made toward him were a threat his livelihood and his relationship with his boyfriend Cameron.

It’s tempting to start arguing that Tony could have tried other means to stop Belinda, or pick apart his justification that, had their roles been reversed, she would have been given a pass for striking back with excessive force. However, there isn’t a misogynistic message contained in this text, as one online critic has claimed. If someone wants to try to make the case that there is by taking this fictional character’s actions seriously, they need to examine the actions of all the perpetrators in the anthology, and ask if those works contain misandrist and misanthropic messages. But, of course, that would be absurd.

Short Stories 365/175

“Murder on the Midway” by Jeffrey Ricker from Men of the Mean Streets (Bold Strokes Books, 2011). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

This story has all the elements you would expect when picking up this volume: a hard-boiled private eye (named Sam, no less), a dead body, and a sardonic voice. Even better it has elements you wouldn’t necessarily expect, such as the fact that the victim and the suspects aren’t the only gay characters. So is the victim’s across-the-way neighbor, Rick, who wants to help Sam solve the mystery. And Sam himself is gay.

The victim, Jacob, was a rent boy who fancied himself a modern day Robin Hood, He blackmailed his wealthy closeted clientele into giving large donations to charities benefitting gay youth, which, of course, creates an instant suspect list. The story takes the requisite twists and turns as the motivations of the players turn out to be not as they originally appeared, and they take actions they think are clever but which, ultimately, don’t fool Sam.

Sam solves the mystery and collects his paycheck, but I was left with a lot of questions. Why did the neighbor, Rick, initially choose to facilitate Sam’s investigation rather than the one conducted by the police? Was the culprit trying to hide his own earlier actions or just trying to protect someone else’s? I couldn’t tell. And what was it that drove the victim to earn a living the way he did and then make such a risky move to support a noble cause? Those are the mysteries I wanted solved, rather than strictly whodunit.

Short Stories 365/174

“Spin Cycle” by Greg Herren from Men of the Mean Streets (Bold Strokes Books, 2011). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

Well, this was a lot of fun. I’m not sure there’s much I can say about it without giving it away, but I’ll take a shot.

The narrator lives in post-Katrina New Orleans. The house he rents didn’t flood but its roof was blown off, and most of his things were destroyed. Now he’s living in the carriage house while the main property is being repaired. It’s been months and months of living in a sea of boxes, trying to tune out the sounds of construction, when he gets a surprise visitor. It’s the police, investigating a crime involving the contractor hired to restore the place and his wife.

The narrator tells what he knows about the pair to the detective—there’s a clever play on words in the story’s title—and by comparing the scenes shown in flashback with the detective’s responses to what she’s just been told, the reader slowly pieces together the true story events.

Short Stories 365/173

“Faithful” by Michael Thomas Ford from Men of the Mean Streets (Bold Strokes Books, 2011). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

I’ve heard it said that prior to the start of a chess tournament, while waiting in the green room, Bobby Fischer became irate with his fellow competitors because they were passing the time chatting about mundane things. The way I heard the story he seethed for awhile before leaping to his feet, shouting, “What does any of that have to do with CHESS?”

I like that story because I tend to be a little bit like that, which is to say obsessive. While reading this story I kept hearing my inner voice growing more and more impatient, threatening to jump up screaming. That’s because the tale is told from the perspective of the romantic interest of a mafia hit man. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, she’s his wife.

I actually, honestly, stopped and checked the cover of the book. Surely, this wasn’t another instance like I experienced with “Handsome Devil: Stories of Sin and Seduction” (Prime Books, 2013) where the stories turned out to be mainly straight ones. I mean, I’d read the introduction by editor Greg Herren, which mentioned that originally the project was planned as a single anthology, but because so much great work was received they decided to do two volumes, and divided it up into “Men of the Mean Streets” and “Women of the Mean Streets”.

Sure enough, when I looked the subtitle was there: Gay Noir. So I wasn’t crazy, at least not in that regard. Which brought me to: What does this have to do with chess?!

I kept reading. Wise guy Jake Anthony has come home from his latest hit, but instead of making love to his wife like a raging bull, as he normally does after a job, he sits on the edge of their bed shaking like a leaf. He tells her it went wrong, they killed someone they shouldn’t have, and there is going to be hell to pay. Probably, he’s going to die. But first he has to make an appearance at the compound his victim called home. Oddly, his wife’s presence has also been requested. The two agree that in these sorts of cases, there’s no point in running.

I waited to see what the twist was going to be. Obviously, Jake was hiding a secret from his wife, some alliance he’d made that she didn’t see coming because of his ardor in their bedroom. Right?

There is a twist, and the story is certainly well written, but it doesn’t have as much to do with “chess” as I would have liked. (Partly that’s because this piece is gay noir erotica, and showing this moment got the author the most, ahem, bang for his buck.) Personally, I think I would’ve enjoyed it more if the story had started either at a point much earlier, or else after the twist, if it showed the reason why things happened the way they did, and the consequences, if there are any. But that’s just me. As I’ve said before in these reviews, your mileage may vary.

Short Stories 365/172

“Mouse” by Jeffrey Round from Men of the Mean Streets (Bold Strokes Books). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

My first impression of this story was that it wasn’t particularly noir. Upon reading it a second time, however, I was able to see that I was being thrown off by the contemporary setting and straightforward storytelling. Being introduced to all the characters and taking the big picture into consideration kept me from seeing it clearly that first time. In retrospect I believe it fits into the noir genre nicely.

Although the title of the piece is taken from the nickname of the character Jon, it’s actually written from the point of view of his older brother Colin, a cynical, brooding man who pretends to be otherwise. Colin’s wife has just said she wants a divorce, and more than anything he feels a sense of relief at the prospect of no longer needing to keep up pretenses. Colin has a demon he’s kept at bay for years. As he interacts with Jon, now a hopeless I. V. drug addict, we come to find out how Colin’s long ago actions turned a once happy child into a man bent on numbing his emotional pain, at any cost.

Short Stories 365/100

“Everyone Says I’ll Forget in Time” by Greg Herren from Fool for Love (Cleis Press, 2009). 

It’s been two years since Terry’s partner died, and though he’s finally through the grieving period he now seems stuck, at a loss for just how to move on. Thankfully he has great, well-meaning friends who continually invite him over to their house for brunch, where they introduce him to eligible men. On the menu today it’s mimosas with David, who turns out to be quite the surprise guest indeed.

The really interesting thing about this story, aside from the fact that, overall, it’s so upbeat, is that Terry’s partner is never named. That’s a great choice, seeing as it’s a piece about letting go and moving on.