Review of Saints and Sinners: New Fiction from the Festival 2015

SAS Anthology Scaled 2

Now an INDIEFAB Book of the Year finalist!

The latest book in which I have a story is Saints and Sinners: New Fiction from the Festival 2015, edited by Amie M. Evans and Paul J. Willis (Bold Strokes Books). It debuted during the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans in March.

Is it gauche to review a book in which one’s own work appears? Perhaps. If so, I am unrepentantly so, having also reviewed the 2013 and 2014 editions of the anthology, as well as Best Gay Romance 2014 (Cleis Press) and Diverse Voices Quarterly vol. 6 Issue 21, despite having stories in each. Oh well. As of this writing only one other person has seen fit to review this volume (huge shout out to ‘Nathan Burgoine). Really, people? C’mon.

I love this anthology series, and this year’s edition did not disappoint. It started off on a very serious, pull-no-punches kind of note with “Gingerbread” by Eric Andrew-Katz. Set in Germany during WWII, it’s the story of a Jewish man who finds himself at the mercy of his ex-lover, now part of the Nazi machine. Brutal, bleak, and disturbing, it’s a hell of a way to open the collection.

The next story, “Wrens Knell” by Kristyn Dunnion, isn’t much cheerier. Stephen is a dead teenager in limbo, a victim of the systemic homophobia that turns schoolchildren, parents and priests into predators; murderers by proxy if not by point of fact.

Frank Perez turns things around with “Hustlers Court.” It’s full of humor and larger-than-life, loveably flawed characters, although I wish the waitress and lone female of the piece, who is described as “the large woman in a mu-mu,” “the mu-mu woman,” and “the large mu-mu lady” (that one four times), had been given a name, in the same way that Wills, Phillip, Benson, JD, Frizzy, Earl, John, Urban, Hoyle, The Oracle, Nox, Lamar, Spinato, Dorignac, and even the bar itself, the Double Play, and its competitors, the Grand Pre and Tiki’s, were all given names. Aside from that seeming blind spot, it’s a gritty, highly irreverent read which I liked very much.

The next story up, “Maple Beach People” by Lee Lynch, feels like part of a novel and really, really, really needs to be turned into one, if it isn’t. I’d buy that book in a heartbeat. The story concerns a network of women, all lesbians, struggling to carve out lives worth living while enduring the oppressive homophobia, misogyny and racism of the 1950s. Who couldn’t empathize with the young protagonist, Luce, as she tries to envision her future?

“What it was Turned Ollie Queer” by Mike Tuohy wins my vote for best story title, but I had trouble identifying with the good ol’ boys of the piece. As with the last story there’s entrenched homophobia and racism; there’s also, though, an outlandishness that’s meant to temper it with humor, only I didn’t trust the majority of the characters and so held my breath through most of the tale, anticipating violence. It did not manifest, thankfully, and a second reading allowed the humor to come fully to the fore.

Next we have the speculative fiction piece “Femorph” by James Russell. The world of the story is one where bodies have obvious dual natures from birth, with one gender asserting dominance and becoming cemented at adulthood, a process termed “calcification”. Aaron is a teenager torn by his desire for conflicting things: the friendship he shares with his best friend Michael, who is gay, vs. the sexual attraction he shares with Michael’s alter-ego Michelle. The thing is, there can be no ambivalence, no shifting back and forth between the personalities inhabiting a body once calcification hits, or the consequences can be fatal. I loved this examination of sexual attraction, gender identity, selfish vs. selfless-ness, and societal expectations, and I hope it finds a wide audience.

I know exactly why I like the story “Fat Hands” by John Kane. It’s because it’s filled with things that remind me of Michael Kearns: Silver Lake, Hollywood, HIV and AIDS, bathhouses, created families, friendships that span decades, and the wisdom of one who has lived life with his eyes wide open. The crispness of the prose elevates the story, rendering what might be maudlin, uplifting and poignant instead. That’s quite a trick.

The next story, “Days of Awe,” is mine. I’d love feedback, if you’ve read it. Moving on, I thought I wouldn’t like “Pageant Girl” by Sam Hawk, because I am not a fan of beauty pageants in general, and ones involving small children tend to make me apoplectic, but I found myself rooting for Elsie and her coach, Bennie. You know what did it? A shared hatred of her biggest competition, Miss Dallas Northeast. In the early nineteen nineties I spent a week in Mesquite, TX. Let’s just say I can relate.

I expected to like “‘Til it Bleeds” by Jerry Rabushka, because I so enjoyed his “Sample Day” in last year’s anthology, and I was not disappointed, though I was thrown for a bit of a loop when the story turned out to have an omniscient POV. It was also rough walking around (mostly) in Kurt’s skin, though I had a hard time identifying why that was. Here is a man who tries hard to figure out his feelings, yet always ends up blaming others for his unhappiness, his loneliness. I’m not sure what his problem is, or how to fix it, but I like him.

Felice Picano’s story “A Perfect Fit” is a time-travelling head trip of an adventure. The hero is sent back several thousand years, in order to investigate the early days of a legend, but as the story events unfold he finds his life and that of the historical figure being conflated. The question arises for the reader: Will he be able to go home? (I’d also like to know if this a fraction of a novel.)

The last story is “Basketball Fever” by Maureen Brady. I admired, first of all, that it has as its protagonists two women of “advanced” age. Charlene and Shoney also aren’t rich or beautiful, and never have been. They’re everywomen who have become friends because their seats as season ticket holders for the WNBA team The Liberty happen to be side-by-side. The thing is, they’ve got a lot more in common than basketball, but fear of rejection keeps them from exploring any potential relationship beyond the sports stadium, right up to and past the last game of the season. Thankfully, they get an opportunity to correct that mistake during a post-season celebration at Madison Square Garden. I loved the affection they exhibit for one another, and the gentle humor that runs all through the story. It’s another one I’d like to see be developed into a longer work.

There you have it. Well, sort of. You can actually have it by clicking here:

Short Stories 365/265

“Wave Boys” by Vince Kovar from The Touch of the Sea (Lethe Press, 2012). Edited by Steve Berman.

What an incredible piece of world building we have here. This is the story of a band of nearly feral boys, unmoored from the rest of civilization ala The Lord of the Flies or S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, or heck, the movie by that name. It’s even possible to hear an echo of Huck Finn in this, and yet it is entirely its own creation. It makes its own language from a base of real slang and archaic words, spinning them into new words, new meanings.

Doobie, Tat-Tat, Wattabee, Gem and Ki, Sparks, Blind Zef and the unnamed storyteller comprise a high seas gang/pirate crew known as the Tunder-Boys. There are many, many crews (collectively known as Wave Boys), and as the plot unfolds the author deftly illustrates, in a way that feels organic, what it is that makes each crew unique.

The Tunder-Boys are drumpers (a drump is a drum) who adorn themselves with blue body art and pride themselves on their ferocity. I suspect, though, that every crew considers itself to be the fiercest one of all. They’re taking part in “city” a sort of gathering of the boats used for trading goods, showing off by fighting one another, and generally having a good time in an otherwise brutal existence. The current city is interrupted by the arrival of a kraken, which is terrifying, of course, but then again, everything about the Wave Boys’ existence is terrifying. This is a hard life, as evidenced by the fate of the storyteller, the “bull” (muscle?) of the Tunder-Boys. Deemed to have failed to adequately protect his brethren during the chaos of the kraken attack, he will need to fight to the death to defend his place, as he has done several times in the past.

To truly appreciate this fascinating piece, you ought to read it aloud. Until you do, I suspect you won’t realize it has a cadence. This is poetry, even song. Try it out. I dare you.

Short Stories 365/257

“Time and Tide” by ‘Nathan Burgoine from The Touch of the Sea (Lethe Press, 2012). Edited by Steve Berman.

This is what I’m talking about. You will remember, I hope, that just a few days ago I was lamenting the fact that the teenaged main character in this author’s story, “Filth”, was the recent victim of attacks by a homophobic father (Short Stories 265/251), and at the story’s end I was left worrying about his future.

The protagonist in this story is on much, much steadier ground. In fact, it isn’t his sexuality that’s the issue (yay, progress!), though it is a trait he was born with that’s causing his unhappiness.

Dylan left his hometown of Fuca twelve years ago because his father insisted on it. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that he’s, partway at least, some sort of supernatural, water-based creature. Fuca is a port town, and the sea not only beckons to him, it reacts to his moods. His father’s decision to take him inland does seem like a smart one for all involved.

Except, that is, for Cary, the great love Dylan left behind.

Dylan’s done well for himself in the years he’s been away. He’s become a famous sculptor. He’s the closest thing the small town of Fuca has to a celebrity, and they’re happy to have him back, but sad because of the reason he’s returned: his father is dead. Dylan has come home for the funeral.

He sees Cary, and it’s as if nothing has changed. They’re still crazy about one another. But other things also haven’t changed, and they’re troubling. The sea still calls to him, and still responds to his emotions. The thing is, though, he’s not a child anymore. It might just be possible for him to learn to keep control of things, the way his mother, who was also part sea creature, was able to do. If so, he’ll be able to stay in Fuca and have not just a successful career, but a full, happy life with true love and the support of people who are like family to him. This is an uplifting, most welcome start* to the collection.

*Actually, it’s sort of its second start. You see, the introduction to this anthology is also written as a short story. It feels, actually, like the prologue of a play, setting the stage for the adventure to come and establishing the themes. It’s a device that works remarkably well, and should be employed more often.

Short Stories 365/251

“Filth” by ‘Nathan Burgoine from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

This review has vexed me for days, because this story caught me off guard. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. I did. And it’s not because it’s a dark story, because most of ‘Nathan’s stories start from a pretty dark reality. I like that, actually. There’s still a lot of darkness in the world. The battle is far from won, and that should be acknowledged. It’s just that this story, probably because it’s a true horror tale, never seems to get much lighter.

Maybe it’s that in his novel and the other stories of his that I’ve read so far (Short Stories 97, 124, and 170, plus his contribution to “Touch of the Sea”, which is next on our hit parade) all deal with people who are adults. Those stories are about people who got away from their monsters and ultimately won by becoming happy. Noah still lives with his monster – his father, called “The Judge”. The Judge beats Noah for being gay and terrorizes him using the Bible. Noah tiptoes around him and manages to make contact with a local LGBT support group. In particular he’s drawn to Rory, but it isn’t as if anything can happen between them, because The Judge has a strangehold on Noah’s life.

Obviously, the reader wants the father to be stopped and Noah to be free. Thankfully, there’s a trademark ‘Nathan Burgoine bit of magic to accomplish that. I was glad for it, but not as relieved as I normally am at the end of one of his tales. Maybe I need that distance from the terrible events to prove that the protagonist is going to be, well, not truly okay, but better? With this the terror is still so fresh and raw at the finish that I’m just out and out worried for him. He’s so young and now he’s all alone. Will the support group really be enough to allow him to survive?

Maybe what really unsettles me is that the awful way The Judge characterized Noah seems to be borne out in the text. He contends that there is filth—evil—in Noah’s blood, and that turns out to be true. This isn’t beams of white light descending from heaven, being refracted by the main character’s aura into a beautiful rainbow, to save the planet from Satan’s minions masquerading as men of God. This is things rising up out of Noah’s blood for the purpose of revenge. Justified, yes, but still very dark.

All of that means, of course, that the story was successful. I was terrified for Noah, and am still upset about his prospects for a happy life.

Short Stories 365/250

“The Roommate” by Lisa Girolami from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

I saw through the convention used in this story pretty quickly, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it. Even having one of the characters share my name (a phenomena I despise), didn’t detract from it. Perhaps that’s because she was called by a shortened version of it? I don’t know. I still really liked this story.

The unnamed protagonist has just started dating a woman named Nance, who is new to town. Things would be fine except for the fact that really bizarre things begin to happen whenever Nance is around. Doors slam and open on their own, and things fly off the shelves and hit her. The protagonist tries to think of rational explanations, but her co-workers have other ideas. They think her apartment is haunted. At their insistence she begins making tape recordings inside her apartment. Sure enough, she hears a voice in the static of the playback. What it says gives her clues to a larger mystery.

Short Stories 365/170

“Keeping the Faith” by ‘Nathan Burgoine from Men of the Mean Streets (Bold Strokes Books, 2011). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

When I first heard that ‘Nathan had a story in this anthology I was excited, because I love his work, but also slightly worried. His stories (as far as I have found, anyway) have a common theme that I didn’t think could be incorporated successfully into noir. I was fearful he would abandon that aspect of his storytelling, and I wasn’t sure what the result would be. It turns out I was wrong. He managed to craft a very ‘Nathan-like story that’s also perfectly noir.

The main character is a private eye hired to retrieve property stolen from a priest. He turns up late one night and gets the cold shoulder from the priest’s secretary. While he’s standing in the street, waiting to be granted admittance, he spies someone no one else sees. They can’t see them, because the person in question is a ghost. Right there, you know where you are and that it’s going to be good, and also unlike anything you’ve read before.

What I really, really like about the author’s world building is that being aware of the existence of the supernatural never benefits his main characters very much. It actually tends to hinder them, by rendering them outsiders. Being able to see the ghost gives this main character one small clue to solve the larger puzzle, but he gets small clues from any number of sources. It’s still up to him to put them all together and figure out what’s really going on. There’s no deus ex machina here.

Short Stories 365/124

“Sky Blue” by ‘Nathan Burgoine from Saints and Sinners 2013: New Fiction from the Festival (Bold Strokes Books). Contest runner up.

Full disclosure: I have a story in this anthology.

I had the good fortune to spend parts of the past week with ‘Nathan during the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, and also to have read several other stories he’s written as well as his debut novel Light, which is a Lambda Literary Award finalist in the LGBT Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror division.

Those are very important key words: Science Fiction. Fantasy. Horror. This was the first story of his that I encountered, and so I didn’t know to expect his unique vision. In fact, I wasn’t expecting there to be any speculative fiction at all in this collection. None of the other stories in it were written in that vein. Some were over the top, certainly, but not truly beyond the realm of possibility. Therefore this took me by surprise, and confused me for awhile. First, though, I was impressed and oh-so-envious of the author for coming up with this kick-ass opening line:

The woman they dredged from the bottom of the falls is my brother.

Probably the best way to describe this story is as a mystery with supernatural elements. At the opening the main character, James, and his ex-boyfriend Ryan, a police officer, are at the scene of what may be an accident but might just as easily be a murder-suicide. One of the deceased is the main character’s brother. The other is his father.

Like many of the characters ‘Nathan creates James has a paranormal ability. He can see auras, which he calls “colours”, emanating from people. They change moment-to-moment, giving James the ability to know what sorts of things a person is thinking at any given time.

The author deftly alternates scenes from the present with ones from the past, and we discover that James’ brother Sky, whose birth name was Warren, also had the ability to see the colours radiating from people. Also, that they were unable to talk about it with their parents. We’re told that their father was a tyrant, their mother under constant fear of physical and emotional attack. Their aunt was the only one who understood or intervened on their behalf. While we’re getting up to speed on their whole situation, we’re also getting further details about the murder-suicide, first from the forensics unit and then via James’ ability to see the echoes of strong emotions, which can play out like wispy movies.

It sounds rather bleak, I know, but I promise you, it ends on a hopeful note. I highly recommend this and the rest of the author’s body of work. Check out Short Stories 365/64 and 97 for reviews of more stories by him as well as a few words about Light.

Next up: stories from this year’s Saints and Sinners anthology.