Wilde Stories 2010 – Steve Berman, ed. (Lethe Press)

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Steve Berman’s introduction to this collection of twelve speculative shorts emphasizes what he believes to be the misplaced priorities of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s emphasis on recognizing the worth of storytelling only from GLBT writers. Berman notes that the content of Wilde Stories 2010 – The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction, encompasses work from whom “…a quarter…are women. I neither know nor care what their orientations might be.” Berman, then, is eminently more concerned with content rather than labels.

And content he gives us.

Laird Barron, in the first of the shorts, “Strappado,” (a particularly gruesome rite of torture), tells of a chance meeting between two professionals in a bathhouse in an “Indian tourist town,” not far from Mumbai. The two join a gaggle of Europeans who find themselves slumming in a dingy discothèque, then on to what they believe to be an outlaw exhibit of macabre art. The plot twist engages, and Barron’s writing is superb: “Kenshi wore a black suit; sleek and polished as a seal or an banker. He swept his single lock of gelled hair to the left, like a gothic teardrop.”

Ben Francisco’s voice is so strong in “Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts,” that I was not so much charmed as intrigued. Fleeing New York for his uncle’s haunted house in San Francisco, Daniel, a part-time stand-up comic, suffers well—and, at times, not so well—the presence of spirits who infest his uncle’s home: “The ghosts have a party at least twice a week. They gather around the piano and sing Broadway show tunes. …I don’t like Broadway show tunes, and I don’t like old movies, and I don’t like audiences I can’t see or hear.” This is a delightful story.

Richard Bowes short, “I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said,” shows us a sixty-something-year-old whose hospital stay is experienced as through a search engine embedded in the narrator’s mind. He sees himself as the subject of a blog, encompassing his present state as well as that of an earlier hospital encounter as a young man. The hospital writhes with spirits: “A lot of being sick is like one long nightmare. In my Capricorn everything was terror and magic. At night, patients in a children’s cancer ward could be seen floating amid the trees of a scared grove.” Good stuff, here.

A train ride through snow and the palpable presence of wolves is what Tanith Lee, writing as Judas Garbah, gives us in “Ne Que Von Desir.” in a dining car lorded over by the Spirit of Eating, the narrator meets a mysterious stranger who ravages him; “He’d wounded me in a dozen places, grazed, blackened and drawn blood. I had done as much for him.” But he’s not the only one the stranger has ravaged – he’s gone through the whole train, male and female, in a scant few days of travel. This short is so full of literary gems that it is impossible to celebrate them all.

Simon Sheppard gives us, “Barbaric Splendor,” in which a Nordic crew, in the year 1640, finds itself shipwrecked upon the shores of Xanadu, where the Great Khan keeps his palace. This story is told in the form of a ship’s log, the narrator being a corncob-up-the-ass kind of Christian fellow: “…the Sodomitical vices of Xanadu are unimaginably foul, and to that I shall never be reconciled.” Well, reconciled he soon becomes. Sheppard is a masterful writer, and this short is no exception.

“Like They Always Been Free,” by Georgina Li, is a short-short that takes us “underground” where the business of  “…minin’ some shit-torn planet…” (the syntax throughout reminiscent of Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”). Our protagonist, Kinger, is in a dismal, literally dog-eat-dog environment, his only comfort Boy: “Boy kisses Kinger’s fingers, his wrists, his throat, sucks hard where Kinger’s blood beats strongest, blue like Boy’s own skin, makes Kinger ache…”

Joel Lane’s, “Some of Them Fell,” tell of four young friends finishing up their English schooling with a trek to the forest—a celebration of their release from the school and city—with hash, wine, cigarettes and their disparate psyches. One of the boys, Adrian, and the narrator find themselves together, fumbling through their first sexual encounter. A gruesome finding of three bodies in the woods, ends their revelry. Their lives go on, with the narrator discovering the extent of the darkness that haunts Adrian’s soul.

“Where the Sun Doesn’t Shine,” is a naughty, hilarious, pun-intended story from Rhys Hughes. Lisping vampires have harnessed sunbeams for their benefit, and the best and the brightest of “Scrofula Yard,” are on the case. A favorite exchange: “…The vampires have turned into farmers and the keepers of orchards.” “Where do they get their sperm food from?” “Two sources. They plant spunktrees and harvest the nuts. Creamy goodness! They also entice human settlers with the promise of fertile fields and virgin forests. Then they suck off those poor saps until they’re drained.”

Jameson Currier’s “Death In Amsterdam,” is the least speculative—if at all—of these stories. And perhaps it was Berman’s intent to include this work in the anthology simply to communicate the extent of Muslim violence against gay men in Amsterdam. This is a disturbing account of the underbelly of what one naturally assumes to be a wonderful vacation spot for gay/lesbian tourists.

A wonderful short, “The Sphinx Next Door,” by Tom Cardamone tells of misdirected mail, a seeping box, meant for, yes, the sphinx next door. The narrator’s conundrum is how/when to deliver the box to the sphinx. A bit of trepidation here: “I think most of the sphinxes in New York are Egyptian, aloof, noble guardians. They tend to work in banks or human resources, if they work at all.” A charming read.

“The Far Shore,” by Elizabeth Hand, sees the ruin of a ballet dancer who agrees to inhabit the secluded Maine habitat of an old friend who is off to Florida. There, alone against a treacherous Maine storm, the Finnish myth of Tuonela, the land of the dead, is played out with the protagonist taking on the role of  the curious mortal lured to discover the secrets of the dead by the ferryman, in this case, a fallen swan. The tempter, the swan, embraces the protagonist “…neither falling nor flying, but somehow held aloft. As when he had been airborne above the stage, muscles straining as he traces a grand jete en avant, a leap into the darkness he had never completed in waking life…”

I enjoyed this collection, and look forward to Steve Berman’s next.

Reviewed by George Seaton

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