REVIEW: Wilde Stories 2014 (Steve Berman, ed.)

w487149I’ve reviewed some of the previous Wilde Stories collections in the past (20082009, 2013  – I’ve got a three year gap to fill in.) I generally consider them a reading highlight of the year, collecting together gay-male-protagonist speculative fiction. It’s taken me awhile to get around to this year’s edition because my to-be-read pile has grown ever-teeteringly higher, but I’ve plowed through it in a couple of days. It’s a bit of a different beast to previous collections. For a start, as several other reviews have noted, this anthology is playing far more in the ballpark of horror than previous editions, which prefer the queer and weird. Several of the stories are arguably not speculative fiction in the strictest sense, but horror with the faintest hint of the strange; case in point is the opening story Grindr (which I’m surprised it hasn’t taken longer for someone to write) in which a man is stalked by a preternaturally omnipresent person on Grindr. Secondly, previous anthologies have tended to leave me with a feeling of well-rounded adoration for the anthology, with the picks generally leaving me somewhere on the spectrum between appreciative but apathetic through to deep love. For me, this anthology feels a bit polarising, with the picks feeling — to me — either being bloody superb, or disappointing, without as much middle ground as usual. That being said, the other reviews of the anthologies pick out stories that I didn’t personally like (one story, that shall remain nameless, I actually found incomprehensible), which proves that, as always, this is the game with short fiction anthologies. It’s readers taste, and you can’t please everyone. And, as usual with Wilde Stories, at least the stories never feel pedestrian or familiar. (I also think it’s worth noting that most of the stories I especially enjoyed were ones that were culled from Lethe titles of 2014.) And so, not wishing to sound uncharitable or grumpy, I shall pick out the stories that I consider the highlights: Caress by Eli Easton is a male-male romance romance steampunk tale that manages to finesse both components of the genre to make a story that is moving, subtle, and steampunk as hell without overdoing it — although its strongest imagery is its opening ‘Angel of Seven Dials’ sequence. The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere by John Chu won a Hugo award, deservedly, and tells the story of a young man coming out to his traditional Japanese family in a tweaked world where water falls on you from nowhere whenever you lie. I’ve always loved real-world stories with a spec-fic twist, and this story kicks itself into a whole other kind of gear when it diverts a third of the way through into a family comedy. Lacuna by Matthew Cheney is a double-layered story in which a writer, recently broken up with, writes a Edgar Allan Poe-esque story. The halves slot together smartly to give the bloody horror of the Poe segment a layer of irony and self-awareness that benefits both, and it manages a tricky balance of pastiche style and actual visceral horror. Midnight at the Feet of the Caryatides by Cory Skerry is quite likely my favourite of the anthology, although amongst these selections its a tough call. It does a tremendous amount of world-building in a small space of time, our protagonist being a malformed gargoyle struggling against a trust-fund gang who rule the school to protect his love, an aide in the library. Boiled down like that it sounds a bit undercooked, but its atmospheric, quirky and just the right kind of sweet. The Revenge of Oscar Wilde by Sean Eads is a marvellously verbose piece that casts a post-Reading Gaol Wilde as a zombie slayer in Paris, defending his zombie-bitten love Bosie. The first three quarters are great for the smart synthesis of Wilde-esque wordplay and literary references with a hard-bitten action-hero zombie-killer aesthetic. And then there’s a helluva bold ending that elevates it even further.

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