Short Stories 365/354

“Well Wishing” by Steve Berman from Second Thoughts: More Queer and Weird Stories (Lethe Press, 2008). Originally published in Country Boys (Cleis Press).

At the outset this next story felt very familiar. It called to mind work by Inge and Williams before veering into grislier territory. A flat tire forces the main character—referred to simply as “the salesman”—to pay a visit to a farmhouse in the middle of the Heartland. The farmer is anything but friendly, even after he knows the stranger isn’t making a sales call, while his daughter is far too friendly. The last character is the girl’s taciturn brother. Story events conspire to force the salesman to spend the night. You may think you know what will happen next, but you’re wrong.

Short Stories 365/353

“Tearjerker” by Steve Berman from Second Thoughts: More Queer and Weird Stories (Lethe Press, 2008). Originally appeared in Paper Cities, Senses Five Press 2008.

The next story in the collection is “The Price of Glamour” but I already reviewed it as part of So Fey: Queer Fairy Fiction. For that review go to Short Stories 365/229.

Well, here we are at last. We’ve reached the story I made reference to way back at the end of Short Stories 365/41. This entry revisits The Fallen Area of the final four stories in Trysts: A Triskaidecollection of Queer and Weird Stories (Lethe Press 2001). As I said when dealing with those stories, this is a world in which a section of civilization has collapsed. It’s not clear what happened, and it’s really not important. These are stories about people struggling to survive within the new reality.

Many of the characters in these stories survive by becoming adept at finding things of value and trading them. Sometimes they steal items, other times they pick clean deserted buildings or scrounge through vacant lots. The main character of this story, Gail, tends toward the first option. She’s a master of the “five finger discount”. She’s employed as something of a maid in something of a hotel. Really, it’s more of a flophouse for junkies hooked on tears. Yes, tears. A pair of weird sisters run the hotel and set the rules, which include a prohibition on visits to the fourth and fifth floors. Naturally, where does Gail go? To the fourth floor, of course, where she meets a storyteller with a most unconventional means for telling his tales. As with most of these stories this one is shot through with an undercurrent of sexual tension that’s at once attractive and deeply unsettling.

There’s definitely a steampunk sort of flair to these tales, and the characters are endearing even when somewhat deranged. Unfortunately, it appears the five comprise the entirety of the stories that deal with The Fallen Area.

Short Stories 365/352

“The High Cost for Tamarind” by Steve Berman from Second Thoughts: More Queer and Weird Stories (Lethe Press, 2008).

I liked this story quite a bit. I was less enamored of the sections that dealt with an alternate history of U.S. and Mexican relations in the days of the Great War than I was with those that focused on main characters Ivan and Sandro, but all of it was interesting.

Ivan’s father is employed by a petrochemical company based in Berlin. The family relocated to the port city of Tampico because the company plays a large role in Mexico’s petrochemical industry. Pollution from the chemical plants has poisoned the Gulf of Mexico and caused disease in the citizenry, possibly including the bone cancer that afflicts one of Sandro’s legs. He needs medical care, and despite a re-writing of history that favors Mexico, leaving Ivan and going to an American hospital affords him the best chance for survival.

It’s not surprising that this tale of Man vs. Industry reminded me of “The Grief of Seagulls” by Joel Lane (The Touch of the Sea, Lethe Press, 2012) and “Ordinary Mayhem” by Victoria A. Brownsworth (Night Shadows: Queer Horror, Bold Strokes Books 2012). What I most appreciated about it was that, unlike in either of those stories, the reader is allowed to witness the deep affection the characters feel for one another, rather than simply being told it exists.

Short Stories 365/351

“Always Listen To a Good Pair of Underwear” by Steve Berman from Second Thoughts: More Queer and Weird Stories (Lethe Press, 2008).

The stories in this collection were originally published in a variety of publications over a period of six years. This means, of course, that associations created here were never meant to be. For instance, it feels very much as if the character Mike from the previous story (written in 2003 and published in X-Factor), steps into this tale (Harrington Park Press, 2007), and because he’s still tripping on that peyote button, believes he is someone named Steve who has a roommate named Mike, who wears magic boxers that talk.

See what I mean?

Okay, so the Steve of this story is borderline obsessed with his roommate, Mike. In the best of times, Mike takes advantage of that fact. In the worst, he becomes physically threatening.

I had difficulty figuring out how to process this story. That the gaudily printed boxers talk would seem to indicate a humorous piece, but the first two times I read it I felt unsettled afterward. That shouldn’t be all that surprising; the Mike of the story treats his roommate Steve badly, and the author’s notes reveal that this tale—like many of those in this collection—closely mimics events from the author’s life. There was a Mike; the volume is dedicated to him, and a deep current of regret runs all through it. I imagine someone with no knowledge of the author’s history, who read this as a standalone piece, would have an entirely different reaction to it. But you can’t unring a bell. Reading it here, I was unable to see the character as just that, a character. (It also did not help that it is written in the first person.) Because I couldn’t adequately separate character and author, the humor of the piece couldn’t lift it out of its overall sadness.

What helped immensely was listening to the audio version. Having a narrator voice the character’s thoughts created the distance I needed to, finally, stop being unsettled and momentarily be entertained instead.

Side note: In the digital version of this collection the title of this story appears in regular type, not as a clickable link. In figuring the stories for the end of this project, my eye passed right over this title. It means there are two extra stories in the queue.

Short Stories 365/350

“Kiss” by Steve Berman from Second Thoughts: More Queer and Weird Stories (Lethe Press, 2008).

As with the last story, this one opens with two guys out in the desert, only Mike and Ryan aren’t cowboys riding horses, they’re college kids in a pickup truck, listening to a CD by a band called the Redcaps (a recurring element in the author’s work). They’re off to buy some weed from a guy named Carlos, to take back to a party. Ryan tries to scare Mike with whispered references to the mythic creature the chupacabra after they spy a tire-flattened rabbit baking in the desert heat.

At Carlos’ trailer they chew some peyote buttons offered to them by their host, and of course things begin to get interesting. Ryan, who is the more attractive and adventurous of the two, accepts an offer from Carlos, to fool around. Mike wanders outside, and quickly becomes entranced by the landscape, which his hallucination transforms.

I like the way the sexual tension and foreboding of the story were echoed in the author’s note, which depicts a bittersweet scene from his high school days. He’s spending the night at the house of a friend to whom he’s desperately attracted. They get high together, and the desire he feels for the other boy is palpable and suffocating.

Short Stories 365/349

“Secrets of the Gwangi” by Steve Berman from Second Thoughts: More Queer and Weird Stories (Lethe Press, 2008).

If you are surprised by this selection you are either a.) Not paying attention or b.) Not very observant. If it is the former, shame on you. How do you expect to ever be the latter? If the latter, I am sorry to be the one to point it out.

Old business:

  • I should have reviewed this collection much earlier, preferably between reviews of the author’s first and third short story collections, but I skipped over it in order to review the third collection near its release date.
  • I already reviewed the story that opens this volume. See Short Stories 365/77.

New business:

  • I’m happy to report that artwork for the fourth collection recently appeared on social media.

And now, on to the story at hand…

This is a somewhat unconventionally-told short story. It makes great leaps from one time and place and set of characters to the next and back again. I’m tempted to say that like many of the stories in this volume it has a strong meta-fictive component as well, but here’s the thing: The more I get to know other writers and the more I compare back stories to bodies of work, the more I am reminded of a situation I found myself in a number of years ago. As you probably know by now, I worked in technical theatre for a couple of decades. You may also know there is a lot of down time to working backstage. It’s sort of like being on call, I guess. You spend long periods waiting for the show to start, or for paint to dry, or driving to the next venue.

It’s perfect for a writer, in other words. I used to carry a notebook with me, and there was a period of time in which one of the actors I worked with would, jokingly, come up and  pester me, asking “What’cha writing? Is it about me? It is, isn’t it? C’mon, it’s about me, isn’t it? Huh? Huh? Huh?”

It always made me laugh. And, of course, I would protest that no, it was not about him. It also caused me to deeply ponder his question. The answer I came up with (but never said), was this: “No, it’s not about you. It’s about me. Every character I write is some aspect of me.” It’s interesting that I ran into this quote by Goethe on Twitter today: “Every author in some way portrays himself in his works, even if it be against his will.”

At the outset, this is the story of two cowboys, Tuck and T.J., who are hiding in a rock outcropping while some pterodactyl-type creatures feast on their horses.

Lovely image, isn’t it?

The next scene is set in the modern day. A man named Willis is in a bookstall, about to purchase the leather bound journal Tuck kept all during his and T.J.’s adventures. Willis thinks he’s just found the makings of the next Hollywood blockbuster, but the next scene, where he pitches his idea to a movie studio mogul, dashes his hopes. After that we see two boys, Chucky and Steve, sitting in a middle class living room, watching what purports to be the movie. They are maybe age twelve or thirteen, and Steve has recently realized he has feelings for Chucky. The final scene is between Esteban and Carlos, locals hired on during the filming of a movie. It might be a leap back in time to the making of the movie about Tuck and T.J., or it may be a different movie entirely.

The first, fourth and fifth situations are about couples, or would be couples. Tuck and T.J. and Esteban and Carlos are couples. Steve wishes he and Chucky were one, too. One of the middle sections re-writes the first scene and ignores the last two. Because Hollywood, as the kids say. Because greatest common denominator. Because dinosaurs, and I’m not talking about the pterodactyls.

This collection includes author’s notes, and the main thrust of those that accompany this story is that it’s based on something that happened to the author when he was twelve. Or thirteen. The back story has to do with roleplay gaming, so the note is prefaced by a chart entitled “Table 1-1 d8, Tale’s Veracity”.

Now, I was quite spoiled as a child. I was given pretty much anything I wanted, and so I had what I now know is “The Moldvay Basic Set”. D&D. 1981. Purplish box with a depiction of a dragon, a man with a lance, and a woman wielding an orb of green light.

What I didn’t have was anyone to explain what in the heck to do with the damned thing. My best friend and I looked over all of it, scratched our heads, and put it on a shelf.

Thankfully, I married well.

Dice shot

I rolled a five. Consulting the handy chart, we find this:

“Be suspicious of anything the author says.”

Really? Now tell me something I don’t already know.

Short Stories 365/348

“The Bloomsbury Nudes” by Jameson Currier from The Haunted Heart and Other Tales, Chelsea Station Editions 2014. Originally published by Lethe Press, 2009.

The next story in the collection is “The Man in the Mirror” but I reviewed it already as part of the inaugural issue of Icarus Magazine (see Short Stories 365/280).

Here I’m tempted to say the author saved the best for last, but you should be informed up front that I am biased. This story is about an artist named Dennis, who falls in love with a dancer, Jared, who is in a tempestuous relationship with a painter, Clive, who was involved with a man, Teddy, who was, in the fictional world of the story, involved with the turn-of-the-last-century freethinkers known as the Bloomsbury Group. That would be more than interesting enough but he takes it even further by conflating that real life group with another of their day, namely the folks who orbited Aleister Crowley.

I’ve said it here before: I’ve read six biographies of Crowley. It was awhile ago, mind you, but I’ve retained enough that this story set my mind afire. (“Wait, was there that much cross-over? I don’t remember reading that.”)

An excerpt:

The parlor was filled with gorgeously illustrated books on religion, mysticism, magic, and the occult, leather-bound volumes of The Book of the Law, The Equinox, The Secrets of Conjuring, Deceptive Conceptions, Malleus Maleficarium, Clavis Salomonis, Psuedomonarchia Daemonum, and early issues of The Magic Circular, The Criterion, and The Tatler.

Um, about that….

Thelemic Bookshelf 2

So yeah, definitely the best for last. In my book, anyway.