Steve Berman, editor of Lethe Press, and Icarus magazine, and seemingly gold dust if you want to win a Lambda prize for Speculative Fiction, releases Wilde Stories every year. The theme is straightforward: a collection of short speculative fiction featuring gay (male?) protagonists. 2013 is the first collection I’ve read but on the strength of this I’ll be making my back through the years. Break Water In The Summer Dark by L Lark: In a summer camp by Oxwater Lake, the opening sexuality of two of the young camp attendants is overshadowed by the sinister monsters in the lake. In fact: sinister is the wrong word. There’s a nicely tuned sense of foreboding but the story underlines one of the reasons that I think gay fiction and spec fiction sit nicely hand in hand: a sense of yearning and connection for the monsters themselves, rather than fear. It’s a good story, strong opening, playing something along the lines of Cthulhu taking a summer holiday. The Keats Variation by K M Ferebee: I dislike writing negative reviews, but to be completely honest, I just didn’t get this story. It has a distinctive style that might appeal to other readers (this is probably personal taste) but to me it felt like word soup from which I could distinguish neither character, plot or atmosphere. Sorry–for me, the one weak link in the book. Tattooed Love Boys by Alex Jeffers: If the test of a short story is making me want to run out and find other fiction by this writer, Tattooed Love Boys succeeds wildly. The story of a tattoo parlour run by a mysterious man upon whose body tattoos change daily, and whose work can cause a change in gender and rewriting of personal identity. In other words: tattoos as a catalyst for transgender. From a purely technical point of view and absolute triumph of pronouns, but a great story that, most importantly, doesn’t hammer home its backstory/explanation. Grierson at the Pain Clinic by Richard Bowes: one of my favourites, which is tricky to explain. The protagonist has a Shadow: a double, connected to him, who goes out and does his dirty work. Bipolarism made manifest, if you wanted to be academic, but its not heavyhanded. And then there’s Stacey, the femme fatale who uses and abuses the Shadow for her own ends. Great story. Wave Boys by Vincent Kovar: off the bat, I hated this story. But this proof in point of trusting a writer, and as a reader allowing yourself to enjoy a different experience. In a speculative world in which the sea is ruled by various seatribes, wars of personal pride and hierarchy are constantly being fought. The language is a melange of invented and adapted words to reflect the context, like the final concertina of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Reading it was exactly the same experience. Once I’d adapted to reading the language style, the story immediately stopped sounding self-conscious and became an actual story. And then it soared. Strong story, and any criticism here should be levelled at myself as a judgemental reader! Renfrew’s Course by John Langan: a couple are making their way through a forest, in which the main character experiences flashes back and forward to different points in their relationship, whilst one explains the story of Renfrew, the magician who can grant the wisdom of his teaching if the forest is traversed just right. The backstory is a bit heavy-handedly crowbarred in (I’m a fan of the kind of fiction where you have to pull together all the clues to understand the world) but big point for the surprising, and quite savage, ending. Wetside Story by Steve Vernon: what can I say? Absolute f**king genius. Like… my god, what is it like? Film noir shot through with dayglo Hollywood monster pictures; a world in which Hollywood monsters slid off to have their own little world and a giant octopus can hunt down S&M Death Nazis in their giant boat whilst toting a giant gun. It’s that kind of awesome. Loved. Loved. Loved. Next Door by Rahul Kanakia: If I mentioned that I liked stories where you piece together a world bit by bit, this does it admirably, with a whole dose of creepy and original ideas thrown in. The rich are bug-free, but the street people are homeless and riddled, living in the back rooms of the rich’s houses, who are so jacked into a huge network of online reality they barely notice the homeless living inches away from them. A Strange Form Of Life by Laird Barron: A prison guard, erm, ‘liaising’ with a male prisoner discovers there might be more behind the eyes than he expected. *shudder* Barron really has a way with a turn of phrase that can go right through you. I’m not much of a reader of horror, but from a slow start this one nicely gets you right in the stomach at the end. Night Fishing by Ray Cluley: a young man searches the river below the Golden Gate Bridge for the ghosts of those who have jumped. Neatly creepy, with a relationship backstory that doesn’t feel forced. Enjoyable. Sic Him, Hellhound, Kill! Kill! by Hal Duncan: I bought the anthology for this, because I love Hal Duncan, and this story did not disappoint. A ‘handler’ and his werewolf hunt vampires. It neatly turns all sorts of fiction tropes on their head: the werewolf is both savage and adorable puppy, and the vampire itself worms its way into its victims heads via the soppy Twilight images of the lovelorn eternal. His version of vampires and sickening and, I think, never quite been done like that before. I’d love the world to get a full novel (if anyone bar Glen Duncan was going to reinvent werewolves, it should be Hal Duncan… that’s a lot of Duncan’s isn’t it?) Keep The Aspidochelone Afloat by Chaz Brenchley: a sailor aboard a pirate ship accidentally docks aboard something that may not be an island. It’s hard to do pirate fiction seriously, but this manages it with aplomb and kept me highly entertained for the whole story (its one of the longest in the collection.) The relationship between the sailor and his boy is carefully drawn, without falling over the line of softcore porn (older man and cabin boy is an easy porn sell isn’t it?) and crucially, I’d love to hear more stories about the sailor, his boy, and the pirate captain who takes over their ship. In fact, more pirate stories, please. We like pirates.
And that is all! Sometimes my reviews, in highlighting critical elements, translate as quite negative, but in fact the whole collection is particularly strong (which is actually quite unusual for a short story collection). And there’s something about speculative fiction that fuses very well with gay fiction; a sense of the otherness of the world, the underlying tug of the dark and weird, of being not quite the right shape to fit into the cloth of the normal world.
So overall, a great read, which has sent me looking for both more volumes of Wilde Stories and other stories by the contributors.