REVIEW: Second Thoughts (Steve Berman)

1381690_10153347888515385_586575706_nEarlier this week my Halloween reading pile (which will clearly last me until Christmas) arrived. Ta-da! My exciting haul of Lethe Press books, which I will no doubt be blogging about in the forthcoming months.

The first of the pile out of the gate was Second Thoughts by Steve Berman (the editor of the superb Wilde Stories annual anthology, the most recent of which I reviewed here.) Full disclosure, he’s not a complete stranger to me, but leafing through the list of the books I’ve read in the last year, I’ve spoken to most of the authors to one degree or another, so I’ve gotten handy with writing honest reviews, and even if that weren’t the case, three years of e undergraduate Creative Writing gives you a thorough background in cheerfully decimating your friends work. Thankfully, I don’t have to tiptoe around anyway, because I really enjoyed the collection.

Clipboard01It’s subtitled ‘More Queer and Weird Stories’, and sits firmly in the wheelhouse of Wilde Stories. It’s a shame I’ve never discovered this brand of genre before, because it falls almost exactly into my ideal parameters for fiction. If books were guys on Canal Street, queer spec fic would probably be the one I was brazenly eyeing up and being too afraid to speak to.

There’s something intrinsically works about mixing gay characters into a good old cauldron of horror and fantasy: it’s the outsider element. If you’ve grown and lived in the same kind of minds as some of these protagonists, it’s not hard to find the kernel of recognition in the monsters in the dark, or to wish to see the mundane world transformed into something a bit more fantastical. In many ways, I don’t think any genre is as capable of capturing the spirit of adolescence as well as that particular infusion of elements, but aside from the opening story, most of the stories in here don’t fall neatly into what might (usually slightly sneeringly) be termed ‘YA’.

What you’ve got instead is good old spec fiction–almost all of the stories exist a step away from reality in alternative worlds that turn the thumbscrews on some familiar element. Victorian England with faeries and glamour. A world in which the height of fashion is surgery on this month’s hot face. An infestation of German children who seek out loneliness and devour your furniture.

The entire flock of stories are uniformly pretty strong–the few that didn’t pique my interest as much as their cousins were still, from a writer’s perspective, very efficiently put together. My personal highlights were The Price of Glamour, which sees a Victorian fey teaming up with a human pickpocket: I’d love to see a full novel of this one. Always Listen To A Good Pair Of Underwear is surreal and funny (imagine if Pixar made pornography). Tearjerker sees ‘fallen’ world in which people exhibit strange mutations (the girl with addictive narcotic tears, and the Book, locked away, who manifests stories on his skin and has, vividly, darkly, and strangely erotically, a fountain pen for a cock). A Rotten Obligation has a young gay youth driving across America accompanied by a ghost, whose dead body is moulding in the trunk, which is acerbic and, best of all, plays the supernatural element as so completely everyday that it’s like shining a torch onto a pile of old photographs and seeing them rendered mythological. Kinder is a creepy little horror gem in which the titular vermin Kinder, German and Swiss children who, attracted by the scent of loneliness, turn up to devour your furniture, and your home, and then… (This story also features an oven which, without explanation, acts pretty much like a guard dog. Wonderful.)

Inbetween each of these stories is an Author’s Note. They start out fairly practical (the origins of the story, anecdote on it’s writing), and I’ve always been a fan of that sort of thing (all of Neil Gaiman’s short story collections feature notes on the stories at the back, which I love, and I did the same in my own short story collection). In the case of Second Thoughts though, they rapidly become deeply autobiographical, telling the story of Mike, an unrequited love, who later died. They become an ongoing narrative, an extra layer of story and meaning over the collection, and offer an unflinching glimpse into the murkier territories of the writer’s mind.

(Which, were this completely anonymous, might be quite fascinating. I may feel slightly less comfortable, the next time I have a conversation…)

Facetiousness aside, it’s a strong collection of stories. I’m enjoying venturing into this queer world of shadow and magic. Thank God I have a whole pile of collections that all shelter under the same umbrella to plough through. Onwards!

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