REVIEW: Red Caps (Steve Berman)

Clipboard02When I was seventeen, I was head over heels in love with a boy, an experience that cemented my coming out. I wrote a television script, for something approaching Buffy vs American Horror Story called Exorcist. The characters were barely disguised cyphers of myself, the boy in question, and our mutual friends. I transformed my life into a gothic adventure, complete with seances, magic and demons stalking cobbled streets. It isn’t a leap, as a young gay teen, to move from your own daily life, strait-jacketed in secrets, everything imbued with a sense of thrumming, heightened reality, and even the simplest of actions being part of a double life, to a world of monsters. Essays could pile up on the multiple identifications: the camp, the secrecy, the drama, the sadness, the iconography and, of course, the eternal outsider. But it boils down to: of course that’s what I would write. This sense of a world of strangeness being only a thin veil away from the queer world is something that seems to thread through a good deal of Lethe Press’ releases (most notably Wilde Stories and Icarus Magazine) and its never been plainer than in Red Caps, a collection of stories from editor/writer Steve Berman.

The skew of the book is towards young adult, but avoids that easy pigeonhole of the genre that simply holds YA up as a watered-down, patronising story filleted of sex and swearing. There’s a self-conscious choice to not tell coming-out stories, a crowded genre, and to make the sexuality a non-issue of the collection. To a critical reader, that choice looms large, but it’s by no means not an admirable choice to make. In effect, this is ‘standard’ horror and fantasy that happens to feature gay protagonists, but if I was sixteen and looking for someone like myself in a book, I’d be overjoyed. The collection is at its best when it’s running in that wheelhouse: a teen drama that sidesteps through the veil into a more fantastical world. It’s best evidenced in the superlative Only Lost Boys Are Found in which the young protagonist, in search of another boy who was vanished after revealing their relationship, crawls through a door in his basement into an underground sea complete with pirates and ninjas. The story smartly works as a series of closets, but that thematic quirk aside, it’s the feeling of the otherworld just a step away from the rich teenage world that works so well: it simultaneously enhanced the vibrancy of some of the teenage tropes being used, and casually subverts them. Like the yearbook photos of a crush that begins revealing truths, or the camp runaway picked up by dangerous demons, the harvestbuck’s mythic reveal, the alluring boy who may or may not be the gingerbread man, a cosplay that descends into the channeling of spirits… the list goes on.

When the collection steps away from this construction, I found it harder to connect: the weakest entries, Steeped in Debt to the Chimney Pots and Thimbleriggery and Fledgelings, whilst smart examples of quick world-building and perfectly serviceable stories, fell short of the more vivid connection of some of the other stories. Those aside, there are some real highlights to the collection. Persimmon, Teeth and Boys (which was, ahem, publisher here) with it’s puckish, ambiguous Tooth Fairy and a smart dissection of the preconceptions of ‘gay culture’ surrounding coming out. Three On A Match has a nervous, haunted quality and ends on a fine note of disjointed fracture. The aforementioned Only Lost Boys are Found is spirited and inventive, It put me in mind of a more cheerful Neil Gaiman with the string of characters he encounters. Its only flaw is what feels like an abrupt ending, but that arises more out of a desire for the adventure to be only the tip of the ice-berg; I didn’t want him to return to the real world so soon. The untouchable crowning glory of the whole collection is undoubtedly Gomorrahs of the Deep, in which a student’s presentation on the gay undertones of Moby Dick becomes a witty, sarcastic musical. Quite how he manages to pull this off in a prose piece so effectively is beyond me, but the story is an absolute joy.

Interspersed in the stories are illustrations from a variety of artists. I’ve never been much of a fan of illustrations, and there were a few of them in Red Caps that disturbed my mental image with their rather twink-ish depictions, but overall it struck a good balance. That aside, the quality of the artwork is high throughout–my personal favourite being, again, Gomorrahs of the Deep–and it’s a refreshingly unfamiliar reading experience. What Red Caps undoubtedly captures is the complicated essence of growing up as a gay teenager. Cross-legged in the shadows of our closets, the world outside was a whole multitude of things: a monstrous adventure, a strange and unknowable universe and a place in which the grandest of villains could pale against the touch of a hand from the person secretly in our hearts. It’s a grand achievement to have bottled that elusive feeling: those of us who are in those years now will find a great deal to cling on to in these pages, and those of us who have ‘grown up’ are likely to feel a heart-breaking chime of recognition. That, and a desire to runaway to a summer camp that teaches you to hunt werewolves. * Reviewed from an Advance Readers Copy.

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