Monthly Archives: August 2009

Unspeakable Horror – Vince A. Liaguno & Chad Helder (Dark Scribe Press)

Buy it Now at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

I grew up – cut my teeth, you might say – on horror fiction and sci-fi. The first book I ever recall reading was a book of abridged stories by Edgar Allan Poe. I can still see the cover, an illustration of “The Cask of Amontillado” featuring Fortunato, his skull rotting away under a fool’s cap and his eyes gleaming malevolently yellow in the dark beyond the crumbling bricks. I broadened my tastes as the years passed, but I never outgrew my love of a good scare.

There are plenty of those to be found in Liaguno and Helder’s collection of 23 tales of queer faeries, psychopaths, ghosts of tormented lovers and hapless victims. What impresses me is the sheer literacy of these stories. There are no cheap shocks or Stephen King-like pop culture regurgitations here; only nasty things that bump and shudder the bed as you read.

Out of 23 stories, you’re bound to find one or two that suit you less than others, but Liaguno and Helder’s batting average is pretty high. It’s hard to beat Jameson Currier’s Lovecraftian “The Bloomsbury Nudes,” the pro-gay teenboy revenge scenario of Joy Marchand’s “Black Annis,” the beyond-the-grave poetry of Elissa Malcohn’s “Memento Mori” or the teen jack-off session gone horribly wrong in C. Michael Cook’s “The Boys of Bald Cave.”

Among my other favorites here are Jude Wright’s “Cask,” a continuation of the Poe short story that graced the cover of my initiation into horror fiction, Rick R. Reed’s “Sublet,” a nasty piece of New York City real estate terror (which could be a genre all its own) and – the star of the whole show for me – the horrific metaphor of Scott Nicholson’s “The Shaping,” a story any artist or writer will grok on several levels. Bloody marvelous in all senses of those words.

Beach read? No, this book isn’t for perusing on a sunny day. This is a wintry, dark-of-the-night book best suited for shivery reads in front of a fire as the freezing wind howls outside. But then a knock disturbs you. You pause, hesitant to stop reading but compelled to answer it in case some lost stranger might need shelter and warmth. Do you continue to read, or do you open your door?

Go on. Open it.

After all, that’s how stories like these get written.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Bears on Bears: Interviews and Discussions, Revised Edition – Ron J. Suresha, ed. (Bear Bones Books)

Buy it Now at Giovanni’s Room or at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

Here’s a bearish statement for you: oral history is the best kind. And there’s enough of it in the Revised Edition of Bears on Bears: Interviews and Discussions, edited by Ron Jackson Suresha, to satisfy even the most orally-fixated Bear, Cub, Otter, or what-have-you. An expanded version of the book that was first published in 2002, the new BoB adds an updated section on Bear Arts and Culture, as well as an engaging interview with Metropolitan Community Church founder Rev. Troy Perry.

For anyone who has been living in a cave (ha ha), I should explain that in the context of gay life, a Bear is a big, hairy male. From that starting point the definition can go almost anywhere. How big is “big”? How hairy is “hairy”? Are we talking butch, or nelly, or both? It turns out that there are as many variations on Bear as there are people—thus we have the older, or “polar” bear; the slimmer bear, or “otter”; bears of color; even female bears. This inclusive book even contains a lively discussion by a group of men who identify as ex-bears or postbears.

It’s tremendously entertaining to read about, say, the history of the Lone Star bear bar in San Francisco—destroyed by the 1989 earthquake just three months after opening, only to re-open ten months later and become a Bear Mecca. And it’s inspiring to read the stories of men from all over the world who have learned—often after periods of loneliness and rejection—that it’s okay to be big and hairy, and/or to be turned on by big, hairy guys.

Not only engaging and inspiring but often laugh-out-loud funny, this new and improved Bears on Bears is brought to us by Bear Bones Books, an imprint of Lethe Press, with Ron J. Suresha serving as acquisitions and development editor. Some might say that the imprint is another sign of the dreaded ‘commodification’ of Bear culture. I would argue that the culture is rich enough and lively enough to support this effort.

In addition to this book, Bear Bones has provided a valuable service by reprinting Jeff Mann’s first book of personal essays, Edge: Travels of an Appalachian Leather Bear. And forthcoming is a new collection of erotica entitled Bears in Heat: Hot Macho Fiction. This polar bear can hardly wait!

Reviewed by Wayne Courtois

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Bashed: A Love Story – Rick R. Reed (MLR Press)

Buy it Now at Giovanni’s Room or at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

My favorite books are ones in which the authors force contradictions to live with each other in peaceful co-existence. So when I came upon the above title attempting to reconcile homophobic violence and love, I was intrigued. When I saw that it was by one of my favorite writers, I figured if anyone could do it, Rick R. Reed could. I wasn’t disappointed.

Bashed is the story of a hate crime and its aftermath. Donald and Mark are assaulted one evening coming out of a Chicago leather bar, and Mark is killed with the swing of an aluminum baseball bat. Donald is left to pick up the pieces of his life, but that’s not an easy task when Mark’s ghost won’t leave the apartment. Enter upstairs neighbor, Walter, who has his eye on Donald. But Walter’s nephew, Justin, was one of the three kids who committed the murder and even though he didn’t swing the bat, he knows who did.

Reed tells a fine story, full of well thought out twists and turns. His characters are interesting and complex – especially Justin, who is caught between his murderously homophobic best friend and his gay uncle. The writing is top notch as well, full of terrific imagery and delicious suspense. The bashing scene that kicks off the book will have you looking over your shoulder the next time you leave a bar.

My only minor complaint is that Reed spends time setting up an essential confrontation (between who I won’t say – that would be spoiling things) that the reader isn’t allowed to see. We are in on the build-up and the follow-through, but we don’t get to be involved in the action. It’s a missed opportunity to relieve some suspense and really get inside the characters involved, but that’s just my take. You might not even notice.

That little caveat aside, Bashed: A Love Story, is a great read packed with suspense, revenge, violence, ghosts, horror and – yes – love, mixed together as only Rick R. Reed can stir the pot. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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The Meaning of Matthew – Judy Shepard (Hudson Street Press)

Buy it Now at Giovanni’s Room or at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

Here we are almost eleven years after Matthew Shepard’s horrific murder in Laramie, Wyoming and the rate of hate crimes is once again rising. You don’t have to quote statistics – if you somehow miss it in the daily news, you can still smell the acrid stench of violence in the air from Tel Aviv to Fort Worth. The grisly image of a young man lying bloody in a field, his head caved in from repeated blows and his hands tied to a barbed wire fence has gone unheeded.

Judy Shepard, however, remembers. And in her work with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, she continues to bring a message of hope and help in the name of her son. Her book, The Meaning of Matthew, is proof of those memories – a plain-spoken, unvarnished recollection of his murder as well as the aftermath, both personal and political. Although the prose is plain, the ordinary language – almost dispassionate in places – makes the sentiment that much more powerful.

The Meaning of Matthew covers the Shepard family immediately following the crime and continues through the trial of Shepard’s murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, taking us to Matt’s funeral as well as the establishment of the Foundation that bears his name. It does so with honesty and purpose, looking at all sides of Matt’s personality. It neither whitewashes nor glorifies him, presenting him instead as a normal guy with the faults we all possess.

Far from being a depressing read, the book ends on a constructive note as Judy Shepard channels her grief into a force for positive change. It chronicles the making of a gay rights activist, one with a very personal stake in her cause. So, this is a book which deserves to be read. Read it for Lawrence King. Read it for Angie Zapata. Read it for Brandon Teena. Read it for August Provost. Read it to re-discover your anger, and then do something about it – something that enriches our community and moves it forward.

Because getting the rights we deserve is the best revenge of all.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Ugly Man – Dennis Cooper (HarperCollins)

Buy it Now at Giovanni’s Room or at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

What can one say about Dennis Cooper that hasn’t already been said? Plenty, when it comes to his newest book, “Ugly Man”. Cooper’s style while sometimes short, and rough has a beautiful and skillfully scattered prose style that one can compare to Samuel Beckett’s. In this newest collection, Dennis returns to his earlier writing style, one he seems completely comfortable with. These dark, violent and at times gruesome stories may shock or even repulse some readers. Yet for those who are familiar with his style, he will give the reader something new, something they won’t find in his earlier works – a sliver of humor among the twisted and disturbed lives of his characters.

The collection begins with a story that was previously published in 1993. “Jerk” is the story of a man performing a puppet show in which he reenacts his childhood crimes helping his friend and an older man rape, torture and kill consenting young men who are looking for a way out. Yet in the Cooper style, the young men change their minds after several rounds of torture. However, the three men won’t stop and record their actions on videotape. In the title story “Ugly Man”, the protagonist has a fatal disease that causes him to physically wither away. In order to satisfy his sexual needs he hires hustlers, despite the fact that he knows that they too will soon fall victim to the disease. In “Graduate Seminar” the protagonist details his art project in which he follows a young hitchhiker across country. But when they meet up with a trucker his art project takes on a gruesome and violent twist. Murder for the sake of art.

For all of us writers out there, Cooper has written the ultimate story, “The Anal-Retentive Line Editor”. This is Cooper at his best. The story progresses through a series of edits of a gay erotic thriller. It is through these edits that the writer and editor form an explicit, and somewhat twisted game of seduction.

“Ugly Man” is one of Cooper’s finest works. While it is not for the faint of heart or for those with a weak stomach, these stories will pull the reader into a dark universe of perverse and psychotic individuals that won’t let them go. By the end, the reader may just find some blood on their hands as well.

Reviewed by Bill Holden

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Wasted – Aiden Shaw (Running Press Books)

Buy it Now at Giovanni’s Room or at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

With very few exceptions (Daniel Allen Cox among them), porn stars should not venture into the land of Microsoft Word to create anything other than grocery lists or party invitations. Far be it for me to confine anyone’s career to one small box, but Aiden Shaw has far more to offer the shiny surface of a DVD than he has the bookshelf.

To be fair, I haven’t read his autobiography, My Undoing: Love in the Thick of Sex, Drugs, Pornography and Prostitution. Maybe he’s better cataloguing his own life than creating lives for characters. Who knows? I had high hopes for this when I read the back blurb by Boy George, a personal hero of mine, but he’s obviously been warped by casual heroin use and one rent boy too many.

I’d give you a plot summary but after finishing all 306 pages, I really couldn’t tell you what it’s all about. There’s a gay couple, David and Joe, along with David’s nephew, Ryan, and his girlfriend Leila, who has an odd predilection for raising her skirt over her head at inopportune times. Okay, I’ve been known to do that too, but the similarity ends there. There’s also a lot of sex, drugs, pornography and prostitution. Sensing a theme in this particular body of work?

The prose is clumsy and vague, the characters are insubstantial and the proofing abonimable. Nothing, however, could convey the essence of this book better than this short passage about a dinner party – typed exactly as you will encounter it on page 48 of the softcover edition:

David lifted out a baking dish, and turned as though to a bigger crowd.
“Yum! Yum!” Lasagne said Leila.

What does ‘turning as though to a bigger crowd’ look like? Is there a flourish, a certain showman-like grin, an insouciant tilt of the hips? Although the comma splice in that sentence bothers the grammarian in me, nothing pisses me off more than a vague simile. And we won’t even talk about the proofreading nightmare that is “’Yum! Yum!’ Lasagne said Leila.” There’s at least one of those gaffes on each page.

The other blurb on the back of the book is from Justin Bond (Kiki of that wonderfully psychodramatic cabaret act, Kiki & Herb), who says, “I tried to put it down but it stuck to my hand.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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A Report from Winter – Wayne Courtois (Lethe Press)

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Earlier this year, I had the privilege of hearing Wayne Courtois read from this manuscript at Saints and Sinners, the grand queer literary conference held every year in New Orleans. The piece he read was about his first date with his partner, Ralph Seligman. By the time he was finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. That’s what made me anticipate this book so much, and I’m thrilled to report that A Report from Winter does not disappoint.

The book concerns Wayne returning to his childhood home in Maine after a ten-year absence to attend a bedside vigil for his mother Jenny, who is dying of cancer. His emotionally bereft gay brother, Bruce and his quietly complaining Aunt Louise are of little solace, and he is forced to call Ralph, who has never met Wayne’s family – or had to endure a Maine winter – to his side to preserve his sanity. He weaves this story with memories of another childhood winter, showing that time rarely changes how family members relate to each other

Courtois has an incredible eye for detail and an impeccable intuition about which detail is the most telling. He can break your heart and do so in a way that also brings a smile to your face. His humor is simple and true, unlike the over-rehearsed stand-up comedy you get with Augusten Burroughs or David Sedaris, and the contrast between his loving relationship with Ralph and the distance of his family is both personal and universal at the same time.

And the writing is just so damn good. Courtois’ descriptions of the icy Maine winter will have you shivering in the middle of summer, and you can smell the sharp tang of sea air in the scenes set by the beach. If you’ve ever had the experience of watching a loved one – or even a family member – die, this book will once again plug you into that helpless monotony with its inevitable end.

Powerful and gripping, A Report from Winter is as true and as true to life as life gets.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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