Short Stories 365/254

“Blackout” by Jeffrey Ricker from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that the recurring evil in this anthology is the villain from the Scooby Doo cartoons. You know who I mean. “Why, it’s old man Caruthers! He was trying to run you off so he wouldn’t have to split the inheritance with you!”

To which old man Caruthers invariably would reply, “That’s right! I was here first! It’s my money, not yours! And I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for those pesky kids!”

Well, kids, he’s at it again in this story. Jason is holed up in the creaky farmhouse he and his partner David purchased a little over a year earlier. Almost immediately we’re told that David died a year after they moved in, which tells us his death was very recent, and this is the story of a man in the depths of despair.

There’s a second recurring theme to this anthology, and that’s that some people live too long. Old man Caruthers—in this story Dan Richards, who owned Jason and David’s house before they did—cannot adapt, and so grows brittle and bitter as his world inevitably changes with time. He lived happily in the house for forty years until his wife Abby got cancer and died. Her death destroyed him. Which begs the question: Will David’s death destroy Jason?

He has a support group, notably David’s sister Katie, who is not nearby, and Jane and Mark, who are. They live down the lane and are very nice neighbors. The trouble is, they were nice neighbors to Dan Richards, too, and it didn’t make any difference. He pulled away from them. Eventually they called the authorities, who found Dan in the house, dead for approximately a week. The real beast of this story lies within.

The story artfully re-visits key moments from the past to show the reader that trouble (whether real or all in Jason’s mind) started right after they began renovating the kitchen. Jason kept running into unexplainable icy drafts David never felt. He became uncomfortable being alone in the house. He perceived that another presence did not want them in the house, but he hung in there, for David. Then David was killed in a freak accident, only Jason doesn’t believe it was an accident at all.

Once you have that piece of information, you’re all set. Jason’s just returned from the funeral, he’s alone in the house, and there’s a blizzard closing in. Will he listen to Katie, Jane and Mark and leave the house to re-start his life? Or will he be inflexible, hunker down in his grief, and, depending on your worldview, either succumb to depression or be killed by a ghost?

A final thought. One line from this jumped out at me: “Jason wanted to believe he could feel David’s presence, but in truth all he felt was chilled, and it dawned on him that the house had grown colder since he started his task.” Another of the author’s short stories, “Tea”, was about surviving the loss of a lover, his novel Detours dealt with the benevolent ghost of the main character’s mother, and similar themes run through his second novel, The Wanted. The emphasis in the above sentence caused me to recall a recent moment from the PBS series “Finding Your Roots”, in the episode about filmmaker Ken Burns. His mother was gravely ill during his childhood and died while he was still young, and he mentions to the show’s host that a friend of his once remarked, because he’s made it his life’s work to dig up the past and tell the stories of people long dead, “Who are you really trying to wake up?”

I wonder.

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 365/110

“The Trouble with Billy” by Jeffrey Ricker from Speaking Out: LGBTQ Youth Stand Up (Bold Strokes Books, 2011).

I try not to make the same mistakes twice; there’s just too much to do and too little time as it is. Why not make new ones? The last anthology I reviewed contained a story by Jeffrey Ricker that I forgot/didn’t realize was his until I re-read it. That matters because I’ve been reading his second novel, The Unwanted, which released a little over a month ago. I should have been able to comment on it when I reviewed that story, but I couldn’t.

I had not read this anthology previously, as I had with all the others thus far, so this time I looked ahead. Sure enough, there’s not only a Jeffrey Ricker story in this one, there’s a story that can only be an early draft of the novel’s opening, yet was published in 2011. That’s interesting. Also interesting – this is written in third person, whereas the novel is written in first person. No, the really interesting thing is that mid-way through the story here the viewpoint character switches. The novel is all from Jamie’s point of view. This starts out the same, but a little ways in we’re suddenly in Billy’s head, getting his take on things. I really, really liked that, having now finished the book. (See? I told you. I try not to make the same mistake twice if I can possibly help it.)

Billy is the bully who makes Jamie’s life hell, until he doesn’t, and he turns out to be—in my opinion—one of the most interesting characters and the most sympathetic one in the book. In a lot of ways he has it much harder than Jamie. He has more at stake. He bullies people for a reason – he needs to distance himself from everything that threatens him, yet he also has a need to be seen by the person who is the most dangerous to him. Billy will take any interaction with Jamie that he can get, even the negative variety. Maybe even preferably negative. It’s the funhouse mirror version of having your cake and eating it, too. Which is very sad, and I’m a sucker for the underdog.

I’m also a sucker for the mechanics of storytelling, so reading the novel and then reading this was like getting a glimpse behind the curtain, getting to see the motor works, as it were. More than anything this piece feels like the author working out the character relationships for himself, though judging it strictly it on its own merits I still think it has value. I’m all for giving a person who has been bullied or made to feel like an outcast for being gay, lesbian or transgendered a glimpse into what could be motivating their detractors (don’t just think teenagers and school bullies, here, think the folks those bullies often grow up to be – the head of a rabidly anti-gay religious group or “ex-gay” organization, for instance, or–god help us all—-a head of state). I’m all for showing the bully what motivates him (or her), too, and hopefully de-escalating the conflict.    

Finally, a part of the story here is told from the point of view of Jamie’s kick-ass best friend Sarah, and her presence reminds me that this piece of the puzzle contains none of the elements that have earned the novel much of the attention it’s gotten. There are no Amazons in these pages, no flying horses, no prophecies to be fulfilled. That’s okay. While I enjoyed those elements, I actually didn’t need them. It’s Billy and Jamie’s complicated relationship that’s the lynchpin of this tale. At novel’s end I’d had nothing but Jamie’s perspective. What I really wanted was to know more about Billy. So this? Perfect.

Short Stories 365/95

“At the End of the Leash” by Jeffrey Ricker from Fool for Love: New Gay Fiction (Cleis Press, 2009).

If I were half as clever as I like to think I am I would have finished reading the author’s second novel in time to comment on it in this review. Instead I am only to the halfway mark. That’s not because it isn’t enjoyable; in fact, it’s just the opposite. At a quarter of the way in I became very conscious of speeding through it, and also of the fact that writing a novel is an enormous time commitment. I made the decision to slow down and savor what I was reading.

Unfortunately, my life is a bit chaotic right now, what with this short story project and finishing the revised draft of my own novel in time for the 11th annual Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, and making other preparations for S&S, and having to spend eight hours a day earning a living. As soon as I cleared a little space on my calendar by choosing to stop continually swiping Kindle pages on The Unwanted, a host of other obligations leapt into the breach. I will say that what I have read so far I have enjoyed immensely.

The second reason I didn’t think to finish the novel in time for this review is that I’d actually forgotten that this was a Jeffrey Ricker story. If you scroll back to review number 62, which is on his story “Tea” in Foolish Hearts: New Gay Fiction, you’ll notice I mention his first novel, Detours, and his entry in Wilde Stories 2011, and three independent stories published by UnTreed Reads, but not this one, the first one written by him that I read.

This has happened before. I had no reference for his name, so it didn’t stick. And then a curious thing happened – I read editor Timothy J. Lambert’s introduction to Foolish Hearts: New Gay Fiction, which expounds on the joys of foolishness and lobbies hard for being allowed to make an unconventional career choice. “At the End of the Leash” concerns a man named Brian who earns his living as a dog walker. Now, you may know that Mr. Lambert is a co-founder of the Rescued Pets Movement, a group that transports dogs from the Houston area to shelters in need in Colorado. Do you see where I’m going with this? One of main character Brian’s clients has a sweetly-bossy seven year old daughter named Hildie; Timothy Lambert, if I understand correctly, is a “manny” to a little girl named Hanley. Fact and fiction sort of melded for me, and so no, I did not remember that Jeffrey Ricker wrote this story.

It’s a great story. Brian inadvertently gets himself into a sticky situation when he meets a man walking a dog in the park and recognizes the dog. He recognizes the man, too, in a way. He’s seen him in photographs because he was paid to walk the dog for a brief time, and he saw the photos while he was in the man’s apartment. He was very drawn to his image, and wondered if he might be gay, and if so, whether or not he was in a relationship. Naturally, he assumes that the man, Carl, only needed his dog-walking services temporarily because lots of folks do. But Carl mentions that he still has someone come in to walk his dog during the day, and then that he had to have the person before the current one fired, and we’re off.

There were obvious sparks between the two right away, and now there’s also a compelling knowledge gap. You and I know Brian should have mentioned recognizing the dog right away, or at least at this point, the “I had to have him fired” point, he should throw up a hand and say “Whoa, wait a minute. That was me. Care to explain what you think I did wrong?” But that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as watching him dig himself deeper and deeper, now would it? No. And he manages to do a fine, fine job of it.

Or actually, it’s Jeffrey Ricker who does.  

Short Stories 365/62

“Tea” by Jeffrey Ricker from Foolish Hearts: New Gay Fiction (Cleis Press, 2014)

I had a pretty good indication that I would like this story because I’ve enjoyed several other stories the author has written. I liked his first novel, Detours, very much. I also enjoyed the three stories he has up on UnTreed Reads, as well as the one that’s a part of Wilde Stories 2011 (Lethe Press).

So I figured I was going to like it. What I didn’t count on was getting halfway through and running into a scene I’d read before. Because there are some similarities between this story and Detours—an adult gay son relating to a strong mother; the recent death of a character; a contemporary setting—I figured they were related. And because that sort of behind-the-scenes stuff fascinates me, I stopped reading to investigate.

Thank god for the Kindle search feature, that’s all I’m saying. I ruled out all those previous works as a source for this story. It turns out that where I’d read it before was on Foolish Hearts co-editor Becky Cochrane’s blog. She’s been posting story excerpts, and I’ve been reading them…and then forgetting that I did, obviously. For a little while there I was convinced I was losing my mind. Thanks for that, Becky.

There’s not a whole lot I can say about the plot of this story without giving away what’s going on, and I don’t want to do that, so let me just say how much I admire the author’s eye for detail. He gives his characters small pieces of business that are so true-to-life you become convinced that what’s unfolding before you is real, three dimensional. It’s lovely, understated storytelling.   

 His second novel The Unwanted (Bold Strokes Books) is due out this month. I can’t wait to read it.