Taking a cue from author ‘Nathan Burgoine (who was inspired by author/editor Becky Cochrane), I am going to attempt an extremely ambitious project. Namely, I am going to try to review a short story a day for one year. Or maybe mostly short stories, as I’ve also read an awful lot of novels recently that I haven’t gotten around to reviewing.
Regardless, my selections are almost all guaranteed to come from ebooks, as that is what I have purchased, damn near exclusively, since I received a Kindle Fire from my dad as a Christmas gift in 2011. I absolutely love having a wide selection of reading materials – as well as my own works-in-progress – with me at all times. And yes, I do mean at all times. I read at my breaks and at lunch, and most nights before bed, and on many weekend days, all day.
The thing that I especially love about ebooks, though, is that they don’t take up physical space (at least not detectable amounts). This is important because our house is full. No, really, it looks like this (over the bedroom door):
and this (at the top of the stairwell):
and so on and so on because the floor-to-ceiling shelves in the living room, and kneewall shelves lining the eaves in our half-story upper floor just weren’t enough. There are, of course, also crates of books stacked as tall as me in the “storage room”, plus cardboard boxes of books in the eaves, and random stacks scattered around the house, for instance on the kitchen table. Ebooks? Oh yeah, baby. Bring ‘em on. Non-dimensional pocket? Huzzah!
My story selections are also going to come mainly from ebooks because my taste for short stories is a recent phenomenon. Until a scandalously short time ago I would have told you I did not like short stories, and so I didn’t read short stories, except the ones I’d been forced to wade through for the Honors English and Creative Writing courses I took throughout my academic career. My feeling on the subject was that if the characters and situation of a story caught my imagination, I wanted an entire book about them, and if they didn’t…well, in that case even a short story was too long an amount of time to spend with them.
Thankfully, I had the wisdom to realize that the problem was with me, that I was failing to understand the medium. So I began reading two things at once: the short stories listed as the world’s best examples of the form, and books about how to write them.
Soon, I began to see the light. I then started reading contemporary short stories by people whose long form work I admire (Keith Snyder’s “Dead Gray”, published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, blew my mind at that point because I saw how perfect was its construction). I began reading the short stories within the genre in which I have always written: LGBT. The variety, level of craft, and sheer volume of what I found amazed me. I have been devouring anthologies ever since, as if they are going to be outlawed. Which, given the subject matter, could happen. After all, we live in a nation in which secret midnight sessions of Congress push through Draconian laws, and a world in which Vladimir Putin has either begun channeling the ghost of Adolf Hitler or he really does have de Fuhrer’s head in a jar and is acting on his dark commands.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that after reading many fantastic stories I tried my hand at writing some. My story “Thou Shalt Not Lie” came out May 23rd in Saints & Sinners 2013: New Fiction from the Festival (Bold Strokes Books) and “There’s No Question It’s Love” will be released February 11th in Best Gay Romance 2014 (Cleis Press). I can hardly believe that my work now appears alongside some of the very same people whose words and worlds have blown me away. I view this as a victory on two levels. First of all, it’s an indication that I told my stories well. Just as importantly, though, it is also my way of nailing my theses to the church door. I’ve said it for decades and I have always meant it: if the jack-booted thugs start rounding up “queers” they’d damned well better take me, too.
All that said, the question then becomes – where to start with these reviews? I think I know exactly where. At the Tenth Anniversary of the Saints & Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans I was a bit star-struck by Jeff Mann, and thrilled when my friend Dennis Milam Bensie (author of One Gay American and Shorn: Toys to Men) offered to introduce us. I stammered something about loving his work, and he was very gracious. No doubt he was also more than a little confused, because I blathered about identifying with some of the recurring elements in his work, and how I’d been struck with the notion “Why didn’t I think to write about that?” while reading his story “Demon Seed”, included in the very first Saints & Sinners anthology in 2010 (Queer Mojo). Just this morning, in researching the contributors to Best Gay Romance 2014 whose names and work were not already familiar to me, I ran across someone else’s account of approaching Mr. Mann (that’s fun to write) at an event and saying something eerily-similar to him. It made me feel better to know he must get that kind of thing all the time. Of course he does.
“Demon Seed” is the first story of his that knocked my socks off because it is the first by him that I read. Like all of his stories that I have encountered so far, it involves Appalachia, bear culture, and BDSM, elements which must encompass his version of Write What You Know because they emerge time and again in his writing. As you might imagine, these elements do not also directly inform my worldview. So why did I feel such a strong association with this story? Why the stammering about it as I shook his hand? Because he also draws heavily on Eastern and Western mystic traditions, most notably the life and work of Aleister Crowley. I have read no less than six biographies of the man (…the mage, the mystic. Sorry, Thelemic in-joke, couldn’t resist). At points in my life I have tried my best to abide by Crowley’s commandment to “invoke often”. (Yes, I am an atheist, but I also was raised Roman Catholic, am a Romantic, and have an extremely vivid imagination.)
I tell you, while reading “Demon Seed” I was kicking myself for not having drawn on that aspect of my history. Though this story did not ultimately go that direction, I thought it was going to dive full-on into the science fiction realm, and that brings up another revelation I had recently, thanks to Steve Berman and his venture, Lethe Press. Where before I would have said “I’ll pass” to speculative fiction not about vampires, I now find myself asking “Why did I ever think I didn’t like spec fiction?”
“Demon Seed” starts off normally enough: two guys meet in a gym in Virginia and there is a mutual attraction. One wears a pentagram and the other comments favorably upon it. Soon they are enjoying strong cups of coffee and deep conversation about Magick. Does it get any better than that? Why yes, actually. Yes, it does. The author then throws in seduction, treachery, and deceit. I feel the mixed emotions the main character wrestles with – his desire, his fear, his torment, his anguish. I relish his momentary victories. Before you know it, though – Bang! – we’re cresting the top of the story roller coaster, and there’s nothing to do but hang on tight.
At the conclusion I was left reeling, so jealous of the author’s talent and of his boldness on the page that I could spit, but that emotion cooled quickly, and became a keen admiration for his work. Since that day I’ve known that if I pick up a book (tap on a title?) and see Jeff Mann’s name in the Table of Contents, no matter what else the volume contains it will be worth the price of admission. I haven’t been wrong yet.
The other reason ebook devices rock? You have a bookstore at your fingertips. I know, I know. I, too, feel we must find a way to keep physical bookstores, and independent booksellers, and libraries in existence. They are sacred space. They are church. But admit it – how cool is it that you, dear reader, don’t have to wait to read the short story I just talked about, if you own an e-reader? Did you get a device as a gift, or buy one for yourself? If so, you can read this story right now, in less a minute. You don’t even have to leave your chair.
What are you waiting for?