“The Harvestbuck” by Steve Berman from Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers (Lethe Press, 2014).

I already reviewed the author’s first collection of short stories, Trysts: A Triskaidecollection of Queer and Weird Stories, as part of this project. I fully intended to review his second collection, Second Thoughts: More Queer and Weird Stories, next.  But his third collection just released, so this seems like the time, and who’s gonna stop me?

I was impressed before with what he calls his “flawed, early work.” I thought that was overzealous modesty on his part. While I’m still impressed with those stories – man, now I get it. What he’s too polite to say is that he’s moved light years beyond those first tales.

The main character, Sean, dropped a Xanax right before the opening of this story. He knows he is about to start hallucinating. Hard. When his phone rings and he learns his best friend Brent is drunk and stranded on the roadside, he wrestles with what to do. How can he go out, given his impending state of mind? How can he drive? But by the same token, how can he leave Brent out there all alone? It’s a compelling dilemma, made even more so by the fact that he doesn’t even know what we do – namely that he’s inside a Steve Berman story.

It gets every bit as trippy as you would expect, yet I never felt lost or confused. I felt, instead, that the author had me by the wrist and was pulling me over the edge into the pit of madness. And damn him, I was happy to go. Terrified, yet excited.

Let me stress that this is a really creepy story. There are some real Deliverance-esque touches here. The idea of the best friend being groomed for his “pledging” makes my skin crawl, as does the phrase “he marked my headboard”. Then there’s a sachet that brought to mind the tannis root-filled charm in Rosemary’s Baby. Last but not least, to blur the line between fantasy and reality a tad bit more, this story deals with the myth of the Leeds devil, something  I was not familiar with, despite having spent many hours of my life devouring episodes of In Search of.