How do you write a cohesive review about a collection of short fiction which includes steampunk space-tombs and the concubines sealed inside waiting to die, a gothic novella, a story with a self-aware film character fighting his way out of a Hays Code era required death, and a noir thriller retelling of The Wind and the Willows?
I’m not sure it’s possible, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I read a collection that cast so wide a net, but here’s the most important thing said first: not only does Stories to Sing in the Dark succeed, it’s my favourite collection of the year, and I can’t imagine there’s a chance of it being deposed before 2019 comes to an end.
Matthew Bright has a genuine talent for fresh angles. He crafts on the frameworks of ideas that could have gone a dozen different usual ways, and then veers away. Take “The Library of Lost Things” (a reprint from Tor). A library of books that no one has ever seen made up of stories that fell through the cracks? Yes, okay, but wait, why is the librarian of the place hiring someone without any inclination to read at all?
And did the rats just talk?
It’s these little zigs when the reader expects a zag that Bright does so well.
In “The Concubine’s Heart,” we meet Qiaolian, who has been sealed in a space-borne steampunk tomb of the Empress with the other concubines, and the set-up is more than a little bleak. With no food or water, they are expected to pay at the side of their lost mistress until the ship flies into a star, or, more likely, they die of starvation or thirst. What could have been a completely grim and dark tale is instead given just a sliver of hope (without shying away from the realities the woman faces), and Qiaolian, who has lived her life feeling like a failure due a defect of her heart, instead finds strength and opportunity.
The other steampunk tale hands a completely different tone to the reader. “Antonia and Cleopatra” are a mother and daughter team unlike any I’ve ever read (and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible), where a series of caper-like complications creates a tongue-firmly-in-cheek adventure with borderline slapstick moments mixed with seriously great wordplay, language that’s pitch-perfect for humour, and even a bit of mayhem and ancient evil curses and perhaps a lost soul or two.
Stories to Sing in the Dark also includes a trio of retellings, a queerly reframed “A Christmas Carol,” where the ghosts are sassy gay icons and the truth of Scrooge’s pain has a different source (and a different target). The truly chilling “Golden Hair, Red Lips” brings Dorian Grey to the Castro at the height of AIDS and through his eyes the story manages to deliver something both horrifying and defiantly triumphant. And I don’t even know how to begin with “Croak Toad,” the noir crime thriller retelling of The Wind in the Willows, other than to say by the time I was done this story, I wished I could hate Bright for coming up with the idea, but the story is just too enjoyably twisted and he’s just too nice. Maybe next time.
The queerness in Stories to Sing in the Dark remains a strong presence throughout, and beyond the stories mentioned above, we get to see a drag performance in a nebulous, future Manchester in “The Last Drag Show on Earth,” and the “ghosts” in the audience (somewhat left up to interpretation of the reader here) add a trace of melancholy and shiver to what isn’t perhaps as quite a sad story as one might think. There’s ambiguity here, and in such a perfectly queer way.
Similarly, “In Search of Stars” brings us a man not-quite-brave-enough to try a door that might lead to somewhere he could find… something, and instead settling for one-night stands that end with a vaguely sinister (but also dreamy) fate for those he brings home, though the aid of some alchemical paint. The stay-or-go of the story doesn’t lend itself to happiness, but it still manages something akin to an aching sort of triumph.
And “Director’s Cut”—a story that had me wound tight and hoping-against-hope—tells the tale of a character in a movie with the dawning realization as things repeat over and over that his role is written to be a tragic one, and his battle against all too real foes for a chance at something other than the demanded fate. I loved this story, both in and of itself and as a queer reader and writer. A narrative “fuck you!” to the Hays Code, I frankly wanted to stand and applaud when I finished “Director’s Cut.”
At the end of the collection is the novella-length “No Sleep in Bethlehem,” a story that could cheerfully (well, perhaps grimly) hold hands with a Shirley Jackson tale, and leaves one wondering if there’s any hope for the two men, or if this will be a sole-survivor (or worse) right to the last decaying moments. The revelations of the darkness in the tale, grounded so firmly in a contemporary evil transplanted to the time and place of the story, are profoundly disturbing (and so specifically queer) and the result is sublime, even as it horrifies.
Stories to Sing in the Dark covers so much ground, so much time, and so many different worlds, and yet as a whole it does exactly what it says on the tin: it sings. There’s a chorus here of very different tales, yes, but the theme and the whole has a cadence to it that’s thoroughly satisfying, and a tempo inclusive of just enough hope and humour amongst the grim for those of us who most often shy away from the dark, the disturbing, or the horrifying.
Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine