Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. In the last installment we discussed a few short stories published throughout 2013 that I hadn’t yet had a chance to talk about. This time, I’d like to discuss a novella, published as a chapbook in September by Small Beer Press: Cry Murder! In a Small Voice by Greer Gilman. In simple terms, Cry Murder! follows Ben Jonson—yes, that Ben Jonson—as he attempts to solve and stop the murders of player-boys in London.
In more complex ones, it’s about transformation, trauma, and the supernatural; gender, the stage, and the ghosts of history. It’s probably no surprise that I adored it. Between the richly realized setting, the clever haunting of the text with the poets and playwrights who loom large in the English tradition, and the stunning prose, I was enamored from the first—and my appreciation didn’t dwindle as I kept reading.
To be honest, it’s almost difficult to discuss. I’d rather just sit down and read it again, try to pick out more of the references and unravel a little further the complicated webs of imagery and allusion that the story ultimately rests on. I can’t claim that, on first perusal, I grasped all of the threads that Gilman has woven throughout this—as Small Beer’s flap copy calls it—“dense poetic novella.” But, really, the thickness and richness of this piece is one of its genuine pleasures.
First (and second and third too), there’s the prose. I tend to waffle about using the word “authentic,” but it actually seems appropriate here. I’m not a scholar of the period or anything, no, but I’ve read my fair share of Elizabethan/Jacobean drama and poetry—and to me, Gilman’s prose appears flawless. It doesn’t read like an imitation; it’s alive on the page with Jonson’s voice, his syntax and vocabulary, and a wealth of scene-setting details and observations. It’s a delight. In less professional terms, I’d like to just—wallow in it. Gorgeous work, this.
The prose alone, honestly, would make it worth reading for me. (I’m serious. It’s that good.) However, this novella also has a fascinating two-sided structure. The straightforward mystery/revenge story is balanced with a narrative that is poetic in nature, where the images form a story of their own—a story that comes to fruition in the close of the piece. That second narrative—a supernatural one, implying the hauntings of small gods and their presence in mortal lives—lingers in the shadows of the first, and acts as a catalyst to the defeat of de Vere.
I’m talking around it because I don’t want to spoil it, in some sense, but also because the whole scene with de Vere (and later the closing scene on the stage) is filled with implication and even possibly misdirection. It seems that there was a hand beyond Jonson’s, beyond any human’s, in the revenge Calder takes on de Vere—and that perhaps Calder is not, or was not, what he seemed. This underlying narrative of transformation seems to pair well with that of trauma. The young man is willing to go through with his plans for vengeance, plans that involve a gendered transformation, on the behalf of his dead lover. Supernatural or not, that’s a change he goes through, spurred on by the pain of loss and regret. Plus: it’s Jonson’s world we see, Jonson’s world that’s haunted underneath by these shadows of the unreal, and I find that particularly apt—just take a look, again, at the epigram.
“The Devil is an ass,
I do acknowledge it.”
There are so very many layers, here, to unpick. The intertextuality that informs the whole novella is one (or several?) of those, and one that I’m not well versed in. I’m familiar enough to say that it’s significant, I think, that the epigram is about the devil and that there is a figure who lingers throughout the novella in various images of nature, the green, and spirits or faeries, a figure who speaks at the end as if Oberon himself. It’s eerie, fits well with the darkness of the murders and revenge of the narrative-proper.
There are also things that appealed to me in particular, like Jonson’s occasional references to the cut-short life of his friend and associate Marlowe—Kit—and to his contemporary, Will, who we’re all pretty damn familiar with. These feel entirely natural to the story; they don’t, as sometimes happens in historical pieces, feel like glaring hints dropped in to make us feel “at home.” In particular, I was struck by the moment during which Jonson is considering a man he’s been searching for:
Not the ruined angel Ben imagined, or the rogue, defiant in his filthy gauds and tatters; not the boy at all—for he was older than Will was, than Kit would be: no, a neat small fellow, like a parish clerk.
Older than Kit would be. It’s a brief detail, but the sort of thing a friend might think years later—just a blip of a reference, but a very functional one. These asides are peppered throughout, and each one was a little treat.
The exploration—mostly indirect—of gender on the stage, and sexuality off of it, was also something I appreciated. The historical complexity of men, boys, boys who played girls, and the relationships between them is well-illustrated in the novella. Gilman pays particular attention to the fact that roles and survival are part and parcel with sexuality for several of the characters in her novella, and that matters of sex and gender could be immensely complicated depending on age, power, and wealth.
As a whole, Cry Murder! In a Small Voice is a brilliant, small, dense piece of work from a writer playing to great effect with a fascinating set of historical figures. The dualistic structure—a sort of two-faced narrative, a coin-flip of a story—lingers with me, the frightful mystery and the underlying presence in it alike. I wholeheartedly recommend investing some time and effort giving it a read, or two.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.