Genre: Mixed Genre Anthology
Publisher: Lethe Press
Book Review by James Michael White
Have you read this book?
Steve Berman’s Lethe Press collection of thirteen stories is sold under the label Gay Fiction/Dark Fantasy, and the fiction is certainly gay-themed–by which I mean the tales often concern themselves with two characters in love who happen to be the same sex and who are most often, though not always, male–but before you start thinking this is such a sub-market of a sub-market that there couldn’t possibly be anything here to interest the mainstream, consider that element of Dark Fantasy. No, these aren’t Clive Barker tales of horror and gore, nor are they precisely Poppy Z. Brite like. Instead, they are Steve Berman like, and the uneven collection shows both a writer still developing his craft and one capable of reminding readers of other, more famous authors, all the while maintaining his own voice amid their phantasmagoric and Sadeian trappings.
What’s more, there are actually two books between Trysts’ covers, though they are not designated as such. The first one consists of a set of stories occurring in the more or less everyday world, taking their flights of fantasy in otherworldly asides, and the other set of stories takes place in the warped reality of a milieu known as the Fallen, these latter stories proving strong enough to warrant their own series if Berman has more of them somewhere.
But back to that Dark Fantasy label: it promises more than some of the tales deliver, a matter emblematic of the primary shortcoming of the collection. Many of the stories simply feel unfinished. They often lack details that can render scenes more clearly and more effectively, resulting in a style that is at times not merely sparse, but dull. More important, a number of the stories seem to exist without all their parts. Good ideas come off feeling under-worked, abandoned, or like first drafts. There are also a surprising number of line-editing or outright printing errors in the edition.
The good news is that the stories are quick and easy to read and they get better as they proceed.
Two guys and two girls share a beach house together and one of the guys seems to be secretly gay but he’s the only one who thinks it’s a secret. Inner turmoil. Angst. Oh, and a Ouija board that the other guy may or may not have used to spell out the dude’s secret. We don’t know that because Berman doesn’t tell us and the implication doesn’t seem strong enough, but in a collection billing itself as Dark Fantasy, you’d sure expect that, now wouldn’t you? Hmm? Some cliches here, too, in an oddly adolescent style, which is a style characterized by those cliches, the appearance of needless qualifiers–the only effect of which is to damage dramatic tension (a problem that occurs to various degrees in most of the other stories, too)–and an inner conflict that the story is supposed to stand upon, yet one that doesn’t really seem to work because everyone else except the protagonist seems to already know it. This is called irony, and it’s usually comedy. Here, it isn’t.
STORMED AND TAKEN IN PRAGUE
Groovy title for a so-so story primarily built around a silly gay rape fantasy (rape fantasies pervade popular fiction in one form or another, so we’ll explain this one in more detail momentarily…). Our world-weary-voiced protagonist (a mostly well-done voice, by the way) visits the titular club in which living dudes and dames cavort as wannabe statues of the Ideal, one of the males manhandling said protagonist in ways that leave him addicted and wanting more (to paraphrase that fantasy: he was hard and quick and cruel and I loved him for it). Attention here to sin, scars, fear, nightmare, contributes to the atmosphere, but the story fails to succeed completely because, frankly, it wobbles like a 3-wheeled shopping cart descending a flight of stairs.
One of the most annoying wobbles is a stylistic one: there is some genuinely bad grammar in here, mixing singular and plural pronouns and antecedents. Sure, the confusion of the plural their/them with a singular referent is tre moderne these days, but it’s still so wrong it will bother you much more when you read it than when you hear it.
Then there’s the matter of language, which wobbles from realist to artsy-fartsy romantic, the clash between which is often used to evoke humor in other types of literature, but here comes off like wanting to have your cake and eat it, too. Perhaps the hero is high-minded and so might tend to romantic vision, but bear in mind he seeks decayed decadence. What I’m saying is: picking one style staying with it looks like a really good idea that went ignored. If the contrast is supposed to show change in the character, I’m not buying it and probably nobody else will, either.
Yet the most disappointing wobble is that the most interesting Dark Fantasy element of the story, an accidentally-discovered statue concealed in the wall of the protag’s lodging, a statue that may respond only vicariously to his attention (read the story, you’ll see), or that may possess mysterious connection to the manhandler in the club, remains unexplored, remains, in fact, underused. It presents an opportunity to draw a contrast between the living who pretend to be stone and the stone with pretensions of life. (Remember that rape fantasy? Need I explain the extension here that is one of perpetual stone? Probably not.)
Thus the underused and apparently sexless caryatid trapped in the wall — yes, that’s what Berman calls it even though a caryatid is a female figure, atlantes are the male ones, and “statues” are appropriately ambiguous, though the word doesn’t appear in this connection — comes off as little more than a Dark Fantasy prop, a, “There’s something weird with this wall here,” kind of thing that has almost no connection to the rest of the story. As such it cannot support an ending that wants desperately to make use of the prop but can’t because most of the story revolves around the club and the experiences related thereto.
Just as that trapped statue remains a vision not fully revealed, “Stormed and Taken in Prague” remains one not fully written.
HIS PAPER DOLL
All right, this one is sold as a voodoo doll story in which gay boy Richie pieces together his fantasy boi (“He was a boi with an i that stood for ‘I can’t believe he’s so yummy'”) from photographic snippets, which ultimately functions not as a voodoo doll at all, but as an imago of the ideal (say, here we go again; think I see a motif blinking through the prose), the embodiment of which, as happenstance would put it, he meets in the local copy shop. The story seems to be less about the influence of the magical and more simply about what it’s like to be a repressed gay teenager, which means, to apply the “is it science fiction?” test here in the guise of “is it Dark Fantasy?” we should consider the place of the fantasy element in the story. Does the story need that voodoo doll? Would the story work just as well without it? Frankly, no, the story doesn’t really seem to need the voodoo doll to make the plot work, but it does function as a useful conversational device. What’s more, to apply the test of The Crying Game fallacy (if you replace the gay element with a heterosexual one, does the story still hold up), you find that there’s still not much here beyond the tweakings of adolescent desire. Light and fluffy stuff.
My dead uncle is freshly buried in a grave that might be robbed but I don’t really care because there was bad blood ‘tween us, uncle and me, but I’m out here guardin’ it anyways.
That sums up the Poe-like tale, and it leaves out the important part (no spoilers, here, hey!), except that important part, the nature of the bad blood and what ultimately transpires when someone shows up to rob the grave, isn’t all that surprising, nor is it really horrifying.
There lies the trouble.
The easy way out of this story is taken (you figure it out: guard with a gun + graverobbers = ?) and in between that end and the setup there are ample opportunities to shake more from the characters and situation than are taken. Most annoying, the central conflict existing between the grave-guarding Wallace and his dead uncle is ignored at precisely the instant there’s a chance to have some fun with it. That conflict, which is the telltale heart beating all through the story, is tossed aside for a quickie showdown with robbers.
Clearly this is a case of focusing too much on the less dramatic material, imposing one kind of lesser drama for the far more important one, creating a sense of “something’s missing, here.”
What’s missing is the important stuff.
Wallace + dead uncle = greater dramatic opportunity than is at present realized.
5. PATH OF CORRUPTION
Mix some H.P. Lovecraft with some De Sade and you come up with one of the longer stories in the batch, consequently one that is properly developed, and one that works from the get go: “Let’s start with the truth: I followed him.” And it’s an enticing enough lead to induce readers to follow.
So doing, we’re once again presented a closeted gay character, this time wandering the streets of New Orleans and looking for love. He finds it with a male prostitute named Brandon who “would show me parts of the city few had ever seen,” which is hard to imagine, but acceptable here because Brandon also introduces him to a strange right, the height of which results in exposure to a loathsome horror rising from the depths of the sea (well, probably the sea).
A few cliches, a few bobbles of style, but a few good lines as well, the story is only limited by the mundane interaction between the protagonist and the loathsome horror, something that you wish would cinch more certainly the exclusivity of the rite which summons it as well as more palpably express the, “there’s no going back,” feel.
For some reason this one reminds me of De Sade’s short play, Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man (excellent, by the way). Be that as it may, the story here bears very little resemblance to that one except in its accomplished style, which was in De Sade’s case an achievement of brevity, and is for Berman an achievement in structure and sophistication (in this collection, anyway) in which he successfully interweaves the turmoil of tattoo-acquiring Brother Saul, who lusts for his young charges, with a variety of quotations from disparate sources concerning the historically common homosexuality of cloistered life that has, nowadays, all the weight of relevance that the Catholic Church’s child-molestation scandals can coincidentally bring to bear.
7. LEFT ALONE
Amphiboly is “ambiguous grammatical construction,” deriving from the Greek roots amphibolos and logos meaning “ambiguous” and “speech.”
More about that in a moment.
This is a story in which doll-clutching Dave pines for his dearly-departed Jerrod, wanting in fact to see his dead lover’s ghost. It is also a story in which we don’t once, don’t twice, in fact don’t at all learn the reason for Jerrod’s death, which is a shame because that’s the fun bit in ghost stories, finding out how the ghost became a ghost, after all. Mind you, this secret is held even during a scene in which Dave meets a Goth girl and, “One night not long ago, he told everything to this girl…” Ah, everything to her, but not to us, the readers.
So what’s the point of that scene, really? It invites us in with the possibility of knowing the tragedy or banality of what snuffed Jerrod, perhaps thereby allowing us to empathize with Dave, then quickly fizzles like some kind of too-canny-to-be-caught tease. If we’re supposed to infer the manner of Jerrod’s death from the story, it’s not working. If the nature of the death is considered unimportant to the engine of the story, what’s supposed to make us hep to this Annabel Lee (in the guise of Jerrod) kind of cat? We’re not just missing a spark plug or two here, but the engine.
So this figurative car without an engine rolls toward the sea where Dave expects to meet his dead lover’s ghost, a meeting about which we might care if we only knew more. And once there what happens? Dave may or may not meet the ghost, but seems to.
We’re told alternately that Dave sees the ghost, loses sight of him, finds himself alone, embraces the ghost, is alone again, then gets a last teardrop taste. Although the last bit makes for a nice parting line and would work like a ticking clock if all the parts were here, what immediately precedes it is linguistically confusing. “Alone” sans qualification means only one thing, so if this ghost is supposed to be blinking on an off, almost any other way of saying so would be much clearer.
Thus the amphiboly.
But like I said, that’s only one problem.
The bigger one is this car has no engine.
CRIES BENEATH THE PLASTER
Swell idea: Joseph is an artist of the Art Macabre whose grotesqueries he smears with pig’s blood and human blood to give them that extra-special made-by-me patina.
He sells what he makes and does well for himself, engaging the services of male prostitutes whom he gouges on a sharp piece of bed brass to acquire a little bit of their blood. Nothing fatal, just a scratch, and that’s the source of the human blood that goes into his sculptures, which are malformed human figures.
But one day one of those statues, an interesting female one, comes to life. (Remember that this is Art Macabre, so it’s not precisely what you might think — it’s more like something John Shirley might imagine, see “Pearldoll,” Black Butterflies.)
Joseph is horrified by the living sculpture.
He thinks he should destroy it and all the rest of them he has ever made and sold.
Except the malformed thing gives no appearance of offering him harm, only wanting to understand its existence and, by the way, shag its creator — which any feminist or psychoanalytic critic will gleefully point out as being, 1) the embodiment of the male fear of female sexuality as something powerful and grotesque and filled with penis envy, or, 2) the unveiled repulsion of a gay writer for the power and nature of female sexuality which is at once both possessive and destructive and which, by the way, is filled with penis envy. But enough of the critical popdoodle.
What we have here is a misdirected story, as indicated by its final line: “And then he finally realized how much blood he had on his hands.”
Really? Pig’s blood, sure, but from scratching prostitutes?
Perhaps the line is supposed to indicate that Joseph murdered his assignations and used their blood in greater quantity than it seems, which would be cool indeed — to give the sculptures that little extra human touch and raise the stakes in this tale — except the story doesn’t give us any reason to really believe that. What appears to be happening is that the intentio operis (the intention of the text) tracks differently than the intentio auctoris (the intention of the author), almost as if Berman consciously aimed to keep the story short even though it wanted, even deserved and would have benefited from, being longer.
Thus the material is shortchanged and the story not fully told. This is akin to the Unanswered Questions Dilemma, the one in which a story leaves us asking more questions than it answers; though the UQD is not always bothersome in stories that make good use of the trick (they leave the right questions unanswered, and there’s usually only one or two), here we want to know the connection to pig’s blood, prostitute’s blood, and a line that appears elsewhere in the story, “He never understood why so many kids were almost eager to die fast.” And most importantly, why the statue came to life.
There is a connection, but one so subtly made I’m not convinced Berman realized it at the time he wrote the draft.
Result: interesting idea, but once again not a finished telling.
Huck Finn makes an appearance in this tale in which riverboat gambler and cheat, Mr. Dupre (sporting deft characterization at the hands of Mr. Berman), finds Finn stowing away and, during a moment of poker-playing accusation and potential gunfighting, finds himself rescued by the young Finn posing as his daughter, complete with effete disguise.
Not much done here with the Twain mythology in any manner making any sort of statement about the nature of same-sex childhood chums (Sawyer makes no appearance), but there’s an expected gay-themed take on a fictionalized episode of a fictional character’s youth, the result of which is simple entertainment that is strongest when offering commentary upon “cheating” and the true nature of poker–though it will no doubt leave you wondering why Finn’s appearance as Mr. Dupre’s daughter is more convincing than simply showing up at the crucial moment as Mr. Dupre’s son.
Dave lives in a strange place called the Fallen and dreams of a fellow named Haddon, chap and inamorato he made up in a sketch that won him a blue ribbon in the Haddon Township Art Show.
The trick is that the Fallen is a place from which “reality had fled,” functioning here as a Steve Berman version of Samuel R. Delany’s city of Bellona (itself described by the blurb on the back of the Wesleyan University Press edition of Dhalgren as, “a city … shaken by a catastrophe that has unhinged the very structure of reality”).
So Berman borrows a bit.
If you’ve read this far you already know that.
But his writing is considerably more accessible in “Resemblances” than Delany managed in Dhalgren, and in the existentialist weave Dave soon discovers that his dream figure is actually the boyfriend of mysterious Caleb who comes to stop the dreamed affair. The upshot of that encounter drives artistic Dave back to the drawing board, as it were, and so ends a story that seems finished but unitary, as if it should be part of a longer work.
TEA TIME WITH CORN DOLLY
She’s doll. She’s in love with the new boy, Jamie. She’s fragile. She’s pals with Caleb and T and in the Fallen she’s one of the Afflicted and she doesn’t like the Glyph girl come to take Jamie away.
It’s strange. It’s interesting, and it’s one of the strongest pieces in the collection with its Tim Burton-esque A Nightmare Before Christmas poignancy and a moment of brewing violence that makes effective use of Corn Dolly’s melancholy: “Why does it seem you always look ready to sigh?”/”Because I cannot cry.”
Marie and Jess are newly arrived in the Fallen and Jess is an Anthvoke, which means she’s Talented, which means, “Anthvokes somehow tap and awaken the spirit of antiques and old junk.”
They are in love.
But Jess falls quickly deeper and deeper into the past while Marie misses her more and more in the present, relating this sad state via a series to letters to Clay, a buddy who lives outside the Fallen. The once-happy union is coming apart and is in danger of dissolving completely.
Enter mysterious Caleb, known to the locals as a guy who can do anything and who offers to help Marie and Jess by opening Jess’s eyes, so to speak. The surprise is that Marie wants the same treatment.
“The Anthvoke” generates genuine emotion and is undeniably complete; primary weakness is that it leaves you wanting to understand the Anthvoke experience and what is so captivating to its victims. A structural weakness is that the triptych of eye-opening hocus pocus Caleb unleashes doesn’t work in the first two instances of flashback/dream, but does in the third, as if those first two were failed attempts by Berman to say something meaningful before striking just the right key.
HAIR LIKE FIRE, BLOOD LIKE SILK
Another Fallen tale, and this time Zane is the new and freshly beaten-up and robbed guy who’s taken in and shown the ropes by I-scavenge-for-a-living Saj whose blood drops turn into creepy-weird red insects trailing the silk mentioned in the title.
Zane and Saj have sex.
They scavenge and see some weird shit, man.
They visit Nifty, who buys the scavenged stuff and doesn’t like it if you stare because, despite her hypnotic voice, she’s one freaked up mess, dude.
They have some more sex.
Zane tires of the wee apartment and wants some club action, much against the warnings of Saj, but they eventually visit one that won’t be there tomorrow. Zane meets a whore-bitch-goddess (see earlier review of “Cries Beneath The Plaster,” feminist and psychoanalytic criticism) tending bar and can’t resist tossing over Saj for a kiss that threatens to suck all the life straight out of him.
The consequence of Zane’s gustatory fling involves a steak knife, some veins, and requires the intervention of Mr. Fixit himself, mysterious Caleb.
Strangeness and discovery in the city of Fallen are the strongest features of a well-titled story.