It’s back! The blog advent calendar. I enjoyed last year’s blog theme last year—re-reading twenty-four books of my youth—so much, so this year I’m applying the same approach to short stories, trawling through a myriad bunch of collections and anthologies I’ve read in the last few years.
The Behold of the Eye – Hal Duncan
Tell me about your first time: My month of short stories begins with ‘The Behold of the Eye’ because it is quite possibly my favourite short story ever written. I may have subtly mentioned on this blog my enduring fandom for Hal Duncan’s writing. I read his Vellum and Ink novels—magnum queer spec-fic metafictional literary headfuck opuses—when I was eighteen, and they blew my tiny little mind. I was a convert from then on. Years later, working for Lethe Press, I was overjoyed to be assigned to work on design for his short story collection, Scruffians! Some of the stories in the collection I’d already encountered in other collections, including Lethe’s excellent Wilde Stories yearly Best-Of release, and it was there that I came across ‘The Behold of the Eye’…
Sum it up: In this particular iteration of the Hal Duncan universe, the Scruffians are fairies that reside in a sort of metaphor-fantasy-kingdom behind a person’s eye—the ‘Behold’. One fairy gives you a glint of inspiration; two gives you a sheen of madness. ‘The Behold of the Eye’ tells the story of Flashjack and the boy he resides inside as the boy ages from childhood into adolescence. The story explores the host’s developing queer sexuality and incipient rage at the world through the lens of the ‘Behold’, in which all of these things translate as fantastical (and occasionally apocalyptic) manifestations.
Give me a good quote: “The books arrived slowly at first. For a long time it was jungles with pygmies and dinosaurs, deserts with camels and wild stallions, forests with wolves, mountains with dragons, oceans with sea serpents. There was one burst of appetence where Flashjack woke up one day to find the blue sky ceiling of the Behold just gone, inflated out to infinity, the planets and stars of the mobile suddenly multiplied and expanded, scattered out into the deep as whole new worlds of adventure, and spaceships travelling between them, waging inter-galactic battles that ended with stars exploding. He would fly off to explore them and get drawn into epic conflicts which always seemed to have Fuzzy behind them, or Darkshadow as he now preferred to be called (which Flashjack thought was a bit pretentious). He would find magical weapons, swords of light, helmets of invisibility, rayguns, jet-packs, some of the snazziest uniforms a faery could dream of, and with Good on his side he’d defeat Fuzzy and send him back to the darkness from whence he came. After a while he began to find himself waking up already elsewhere and elsewhen, a life written around him, as an orphan generally, brought up in oblivion (but secretly a prince). This was a lot of fun, and for a long time Flashjack simply revelled in the fertility of his Beholder’s appetence, the sheer range of his imagos. For a long time, whenever he woke up in his own bed he would leap out of it and run down the jetty to look out the window in the hope of catching a glimpse of whatever book Toby was reading now, some clue to his next grand adventure. For a long time it was simply the contents of the books that were Beholden by the boy. Then, slowly at first, the books themselves began to arrive.”
Second reading: Well, I mean, it’s still f*cking brilliant, isn’t it?
In fact, it was even better than I remembered it. At some point when I was writing about the release of the Scruffians! collection, I attempted to coin the phrase ‘Hal-punked’ because I needed something describe the way that Hal Duncan approaches storytelling. You could, if you boiled it down, find ways to describe this story that made it sound fairly formulaic (gay kid comes of age, fantasy interior as metaphor for outward factors a-la-Stephen-King’s-Dreamcatcher), but Hal writes ever story with such a riotously queer, anarchic sense of invention that it transforms the story into something unique, and invests the narrative with the same sense of energy—impossible to pin down or catch in your hands—as the fairies in ‘The Behold of the Eye’.
The Scruffians of later stories have a style that’s a sort of mash of Victorian orphan, via a lairy Scottish drunk, via gay twink porn. Some of the stories function purely around this elevated, exaggerated style, but ‘The Behold of the Eye’ is so brilliant because it combines the tricksy style with real heart; whilst I can freely imagine a supervillain teddy appearing in many of Hal Duncan’s stories, it’s in ‘The Behold of the Eye’ that a supervillain teddy also packs huge emotional heft.
So yes: ‘The Behold of the Eye’ remains one of my favourite stories of all time. It is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. (And if you want to read it, you can read it right here, though I would also recommend buying either the Wilde Stories 2009 collection in which it appears, or the Scruffians! collection.)