REVIEW: Wilde Stories 2008 (Steve Berman, ed.)

WildeStories2008Disclaimer: I am not actually a Lethe Press propaganda machine! Most of my recent reviews have been Lethe Press titles because I have a big pile of them to read that arrived all in one go. And, well, it’d be rude not to, wouldn’t it…

Wilde Stories is an annual collection of short stories, all speculative fiction with a queer bent (pun unintended, but nice.) I loved Wilde Stories 2013, and so I’ve requisitioned the entire collection to read through, and I’ve just finished the inaugural issue, Wilde Stories 2008.

Interestingly, 2008 follows the same pattern of 2013 in terms of my response. First out of the box: a solid but uninspiring story with a straightforward linear plot. It starts with The Woman in the Window by Jameson Currier which is a fairly pedestrian little horror story that’s a bit of a hodge-podge of various familiar tropes–in this case a haunted snowglobe. It combines to a nice little thrill, and is worth a read, but it doesn’t exactly break out of the box. It’s followed, as with 2013, by an incomprehensible story that left me completely cold, in this case, Awkward by Francisco Ibanex-Carrasco, a home-invasion story where the two aging gay men tied up by a pair of thugs are more concerned with dissecting their unhappy lives than the clear and present. I get the metaphorical concept that was being shot for, and the snarky beginning isn’t bad, but when it attempted to descend into a Palahniuk-esque finale, it fell flat. To further complicate things, the next story is Acid and Stoned Reindeer by Rebecca Ore in which, well, I don’t really know. A man takes drugs at a party and hallucinates some very odd things, wrapped up in a vague suggestion that the man is an immortal force of some form. It’s wilfully surreal and chaotic, and as a technical exercise it’s effective enough but as a story… well, I flipped right on past pretty quick.

After the opening three I was starting to fidget and think,”Hmm, well, it was the first anthology, perhaps I should be a little more lenient…”

Thankfully, it’s all up from here. City of Night by Joel Lane and John Pelan does a quick job of establishing a broken, creepy world which put me in mind of a sort of cosmic Cthulhu, with drugs. It’s swift and effective. Lycaon by Peter Dube is the first real highlight of the anthology, a consuming romance between our bar-hopping main character and a man who is really quite probably a werewolf. It’s simultaneously erotic and plays well on the themes of change that underlie the werewolf mythos.

Hot on its heels, another highlight: The Emerald Mountain by Victor J. Banis in which a gay man is given the power of healing, and hailed as the gay messiah. It’s loftily mysterious and synthesises its Biblical iconography without once coming across as heavy-handed. It’s got a fittingly melodramatic ending undercut by all the juicy unanswered questions.

The next story is An Apiary of White Bees by Lee Thomas, in which an uncovered haul of prohibition era whiskey unleashes a supernatural force that churns up hidden memories. The blurring of sexual memory against the buzzing of the bees is merged viscerally and it has an aggressive violence of imagery that put me in mind of Clive Barker’s Imajica.

Burial by Polly Buckingham is an excerpt from a novel which puts the review in an unsteady position. As a short story, it was unremarkable, but did geniunely tempt me towards the full novel, which I suppose is the natural awkwardness of balancing the short form against the longer.

The genius of Hal Duncan’s Book of All Hours in the novels Vellum and Ink is that effectively, any story, anywhere, can be ‘canon’. The Island of the Pirate Gods shakes up the pirate genre in a characteristically Duncan-punk way, this time merging the story of Jack, Joey and (I assume) Puck into a story of pirate gods and the Tempest. It may even feature a mythic re-invention of the orgone gun, but I could be wrong. It’s freewheeling, gay as all hell and, as I’ve come to expect, fucking awesome.

The collection finishes on Ever So Much More Than Twenty, in which an aging gay man returns to the woods in which his sixteen year old self fell in love with an ageless faerie called Piaras. It’s an old story given new life by three things: a) the queer angle, b) the resonance it has with the gay cultures fear of aging and b) the smart decision to undercut the piousness by delivering the first half of the story to a sarcastic, grown-up-daughter only too willing to dig at the tropes. A poignant ending, and an all-round great conclusion to the collection.

So overall? Well, anthologies are tricky. You’re never going to love everything, and looking over my review its clear I edge more towards those with a sentimental edge–or at least heart. I’m not a fan of narrative tricks for the sake of narrative tricks. It’s not quite as strong a collection as 2013, but there are some undoubted sparkling highlights and even my least favourite entries weren’t bad–they might well find a home in the bosom of another reader with different tastes.

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