Short Stories 365/256

“Ordinary Mayhem” by Victoria A. Brownworth from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

This isn’t a short story, it’s a novella. It takes up one third of the entire volume.

This story blew me away. It’s incredibly complex but the details are added in careful layers, using repetition in a way that never feels repetitive. We’re introduced to Faye, a student at a Catholic elementary school for orphans. Her parents died in a car crash, hit by a drunk driver. She lived with her grandparents for a short while before becoming a resident at the school as well as a pupil. She’s a thoughtful, inquisitive, sensitive, reclusive, and traumatized child. Everything she encounters gets filed away in the compartments of her mind, to be brought out and studied later on, as part of a quest to figure out the puzzle that is life and death.

The chapters about her childhood are interspersed with ones from her life now, as an adult. Her artistic skill and unflinching ability to look at life’s most grisly aspects have made her a revered photojournalist. The story takes the reader across continents and through time, watching as she collects atrocities. Faye photographs and interviews the “living ghosts” left behind by human monsters.

It’s that fact: that the monsters are not supernatural, that makes this an absolutely bone-chilling tale. It’s hands down the most frightening piece of the entire collection because it’s so grounded in reality. These are the stories we see on the news, about serial killers and genocide and mass hysteria. And though a deep undercurrent of religion runs through the piece, nothing seems capable of stopping the violence.

I first read this story the day the news story surfaced about the grisly murder at the Sirhowy Arms Hotel in Argoed, South Wales. That fact might seem coincidental, but after you’ve read this, it doesn’t seem that way at all.

Every story in this collection is worth reading, but if this were the only one, it would be worth the price of admission. It’s one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve ever read, and one hell of a way to wrap up this anthology.

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 365/254

“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 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 365/253

“Saint Louis, 1990” by Jewelle Gomez from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

“Gilda was more than alive.”

What a great opening line. Who in their right mind could look away after that? What a way to characterize vampirism. Not “undead” but “more than alive”. That’s fantastic.

In the last review I didn’t go into the mechanics of the immortality in this series. Gilda and the members of her vampire family do not kill when they feed, and they always give something back in the form of a psychological boon. They are somewhat telepathic in that they can read a person’s thoughts, or maybe sense their emotions. They can get a bead on what it is that a person—I hesitate to use the term “victim”—fears or desires most, and they implant an idea related to that in their minds, in exchange for the blood they’ve taken. They boost the person’s confidence or allay their fears. That might not be the sort of vampire story you’re seeking, but it works for me.

When we catch up to Gilda this time she’s hurrying home to her partner, Effie. She’s waylaid by Samuel, a rogue member of their vampire family. He holds a grudge against Gilda because he feels she replaced him as the favorite of the vampire who created them. He’s right, but it’s not Gilda’s fault, not owing to any action she took. Samuel can’t understand that, though, and he’s seeking revenge.

Gilda arrives home to find Effie gone, but no signs of foul play. Instead there’s a note telling her that she’s gone to meet up with two other members of their vampire family, who are back in town. Sorel and Anthony were mentioned in yesterday’s story, and it was nice to learn more about them here. I wasn’t expecting to change viewpoints to Sorel, and that was a bit jarring, but overall the shift was welcome. I liked being able to see Gilda and the entire situation from another perspective. Sorel is even older than Gilda, and doesn’t share her romantic notions about existence. His take on the disgruntled vampire Samuel and what must be done about him is not nearly as sympathetic as hers.

There’s a lot of back story interspersed with the current action in this installment. Now, I’m one for lots and lots of detail, but even I began to feel somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the information I was being asked to digest. That said, I absolutely loved the unfolding theme of the piece, about the dangers of ignorance and self-pity combining to create a fear-filled, destructive, and ultimately irredeemable being.

I can’t wait to read the rest of Gilda’s stories.

Short Stories 365/252

“Storyville 1910” by Jewelle Gomez from Saints & Sinners 2010: New Fiction from the Festival (Queer Mojo).

We’re taking a small detour because the next story up in Night Shadows and this one are both part of The Gilda Stories. I skipped reviewing this story in January because the author was the guest judge for the Saints and Sinners New Fiction contest  which I’d entered, and it seemed like a conflict of interest.

I was not expecting the anthology to include a vampire story, and it was a welcome surprise. I like some vampire stories quite a lot. That is to say I like vampire fiction that reads more like historical fiction and makes a lot of social commentary as it goes.

Go figure, I really like this.

The story is set in the New Orleans district called Storyville, the city’s red light district, created by politicians to keep undesirable businesses out of the tonier neighborhoods. Gilda is a vampire who started life in 1850 as a slave. She’s come back to Storyville looking for one of the two vampires who gave her refuge and immortality after she escaped the plantation. Instead, she finds another character from her past (and an actual figure in New Orleans history). They’ve barely had a chance to speak when there’s a knock at the door. They discover two half-frozen young girls on the doorstep, and soon learn that they fled an abusive boss in a nearby brothel. Of course they give them refuge, and of course the girls’ abuser comes after them. The drama provides a perfect framework for the author to tell us all about Gilda’s life after the plantation, and comment on the mistreatment of people of color and women in this country. It was fascinating and prescient, as only history can be. Consider this passage:

“But the world had gone crazy since Jack Johnson won the heavyweight championship. White men wrapped up their worst hatred and insecurities in the black boxer’s win over his white opponent earlier in the year. Gilda didn’t want to engage with another one who blamed the world’s ills on a black man’s success.”

Naturally, I added the collection to my list of things to read.

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 it 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.