Everyone remembers Grimm’s Fairy Tales–or at least sanitized versions of the stories in that book. And sanitized they were, because the real thing was bloody and cruel enough to prevent rather than induce kids to sleep. Steve Berman must have read them as well. Though his collection of YA stories (many previously anthologized), Red Caps, isn’t quite as disturbing, it certainly doesn’t stint on realism even when disguised as fantasy. But that makes these tales all the more worth telling.
Most of these stories are set against the backdrop of YA life–school, friends, parents–with the exception of the two straight-ahead fantasy pieces, “Thimbleriggery and Fledglings” and “Steeped in Debt to the Chimney-pots” and though a few are no more than character sketches, all have a positive yet unpreachy message. And I must put in a good word about the wonderfully evocative illustrations, which are sweet when necessary and evil as hell when called for.
Berman’s range is impressive here, flying with assurance from the straight-ahead urban legend horror of the lead story “The Harvestbuck” to the oddly-paced, pidgin Broadway-stylised “Gomorrahs of the Deep, a Musical Coming Someday to Off-Broadway.” The latter, which sees a young man and his boyfriend undertaking a presentation of the gay aspects of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as a musical, is perhaps the least successful for me, but goddammit, you have to admire the chutzpah of the idea. And Berman is never afraid to take chances.
Most of his chances pay off. Among the standouts for me are “Cruel Movember,” in which Beau’s boyfriend, Easton, participates in the Movember moustache-fest to raise money for charity contributing to the cancer his father is afflicted with–affecting everything from a black yarn moustache to a Hitler lip-warmer that earns him a suspension, “Bittersweet,” a teary love story that sees Dault and Jerrod through Jerrod’s foot surgery with the real possibility that Jerrod might lose that appendage, “All Smiles,” an escape story turned ugly, and “Persimmon, Teeth, and Boys,” which throws a racial element into the mix along with a somewhat different concept of the Tooth Fairy.
But it’s the last story, “Only Lost Boys are Found,” that best summarizes this collection. Elements of spec-fic are wrapped around a tentative story of love, exposure, and “firsts” to create a truly engaging story. It blends those elements of fantasy and reality into a heady brew whose side effect is that you immediately want to run to the computer to see if you can create something as wonderful. And perhaps you can.
Until then, there’s Red Caps.
© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler