Lethe Press has been running the Wilde Stories collections since 2008 — last year’s reviewed here — and the newest edition has just been released, also in tandem with Lethe’s 10th anniversary as a publisher. Wilde Stories 2011 follows in the same vein as its predecessors, collecting “the year’s best gay speculative fiction,” including stories from various corners of the genre that feature gay leads or focus on gay issues.
As per usual, I enjoyed this year’s edition of the collection, which features authors like Christopher Barzak, Hal Duncan, Alaya Dawn Johnson, and Sandra McDonald. The lean for Wilde Stories 2011 is toward horror fiction — more than half of the stories would fit under that designation. There are also a handful of YA stories, several slipstream/surreal stories, and a bit of fantasy. The original publications for these various gay tales range from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction to various themed anthologies, such as Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling’s Beastly Bride.
Story by story:
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Alaya Dawn Johnson — Johnson’s story opens the collection with a dark romance between a “zombie” (a teen with a brain infection, half-treated, that turned him into what would contemporarily be termed a zombie, complete with flesh-eating) and the son of the man who wants to hunt him down and kill him. It’s violent — the romance is solidified by the murder of the love interest’s father by the love interest — but Johnson makes it work; while I’ve reached a point where the mere mention of zombies is enough to make me put down a book, I found this story engaging and satisfying. It’s also a good example of what YA fiction can do, nowadays.
“Map of Seventeen” by Christopher Barzak — I’ve reviewed “Map of Seventeen” elsewhere, and I’ll repeat my opinion here: I love this story. Barzak is an extremely talented writer and his prose is what makes the story so excellent. The narrator is alienated and intense with a voice that’s impossible to ignore; her relationship to her brother, and the brother’s relationship to his lover, whom he’s brought home, make her real. It’s a story about growing up, but it’s also a story about social issues and identity, sexual and otherwise. This is the only story in the collection without a gay protagonist, but it absolutely deserves to be included.
“How to Make Friends in Seventh Grade” by Nick Poniatowski — This is the last of the YA stories and another favorite of mine from this volume; it’s science fiction featuring two young men, an alien spaceship hovering in the sky, and a nascent sexual identity. Poniatowski’s characters are believable and heart-breaking. The failure to connect at the very end, the failure of the narrator to explain to his absent friend what happened and how he felt… it’s perfectly bittersweet. “How to Make Friends in Seventh Grade” is the sort of story that makes the reader ache for the characters, young as they are and unable to communicate until it’s too late — really lovely.
“Mortis Persona” by Barbara A. Barnett — Another bittersweet tale, Barnett’s contribution is set in a fantastical ancient Rome, with spirits contained in death-masks and actors who take on those spirits when the family needs them — for funerals. This particular narrator is given the mask of his dead upper-class lover, who he never had a chance to bid farewell, and it drives him half-mad. The end of the story, which takes place over what seems to be about thirty years, is an intense final reunion and a fine payoff for the subtly sad buildup. It is, in its way, a happy ending. The worldbuilding is especially nifty, playing as it does with actual history and imagined history.
“Mysterium Tremendum” by Laird Barron — Barron’s contribution is the only novella in the anthology, a lengthy piece of Lovecraftian horror that starts off “normal” and is anchored in the simply reality of the protagonist and his lover’s lives while things in the world around them go off the rails. It follows the general horror formula — you know, from the moment he finds the creepy book, that something is going to go awfully awry — but manages to make it deeply engaging. The reality of the characters makes this story stand out; they’re supremely well-narrated and three dimensional, full of quirks and contradictions and carefully hidden violence. It’s genuinely scary by the finale, building to an at once expected and still fresh ending: waiting in the dark for the horrible thing to come up the stairs. Barron has a fine talent for depicting the uncanny and the terrible.
“Oneirica” by Hal Duncan — A cyclical-time story that ends where it begins and begins where it ends; Duncan’s usual surreal techniques are on display here, painting a strange universe in the worlds of the afterlife with a crescent sun in the sky and time changing mutably between the quadrants of the world. It’s lovely; dense but engaging, full of sweeping imagery and play with narrative.
“Lifeblood” by Jeremy A. Ricker — This story did much less for me; it’s my least favorite of the volume. Ricker’s writing is clumsy and the topic has been done to death. It’s hard to tell a vampire story about the vampire’s lover dying without it sounding like a hundred other similar stories, and Ricker adds nothing striking or new to the formula. It’s serviceable, but not impressive.
“Waiting for the Phone to Ring” by Richard Bowes — Bowes’ story is gently fantastic and focuses more on the interactions of a set of characters in the present as well as in their wild days in the late sixties and early seventies in New York. It’s beautiful; the prose is smooth and captures the atmosphere of the city and the characters’ relationships effortlessly. The look back from the narrator — always on the edge of the important thing — at the central characters of the story is moving, as is the depiction of madness and danger about the young Ray Light. The use of story-within-story works well, too. It’s a subtle story, and it works on every level.
“Blazon” by Peter Dube — Dube’s contribution is a story of erotic longing and discovery mixed with the fantastic, a short, literary tale that plays with ideas of metaphor and language while telling a story of a young man finding his sexuality, the danger of it, and his first consummation of desire. Dube is a writer who often touches on the surreal and the fantastic but has his roots outside the genre; all the same, this story fits the speculative theme of this collection and explores the magical as a literal and nonliteral object.
“All the Shadows” by Joel Lane — “All the Shadows” is a horror story with an unexpected turn; I, at least, expected from the opening that the lover of the narrator would be the one to die in the sea. I appreciate the deft twist the narrative performs to flip the expectations built by the opening paragraphs.
“The Noise” by Richard Larson — Larson’s story was another that I didn’t care for: again, zombies (literal or metaphorical). This time, the tale didn’t overcome my natural aversion to the shambling dead, be they literal or not. The prose is good; it contributes to the terror and claustrophobia of the piece and builds the image of the narrator losing his mind by degrees. Despite that, it wasn’t my cup of tea.
“How to Make a Clown” by Jeremy C. Shipp — A surreal piece, also playing with cyclical time, that follows a young man on his trip through a mirror to an alternate universe where he falls in love and marries into a clan. It’s light on the detail and heavy on the inexplicable weird; as such, it doesn’t offer much connection to a reader beyond a smooth façade.
“Beach Blanket Spaceship” by Sandra McDonald — The slow build-up of McDonald’s piece makes it poignant and touching; at first it seems like a slickly produced movie — on purpose — and then breaks down bit by bit as the astronaut finds out what has happened to himself and his crew. It slips from fantastical to science fiction and back again, gently treading water between genres. Her prose is fabulous, capturing the smallest telling details of her characters and her world while using that same light touch to explore social issues about sexuality. “Beach Blanket Spaceship” is the most personal, touching piece of the book, and also one of the best.
“Hothouse Flowers” by Chaz Brenchley — The final story in the anthology is Brenchley’s Victorian vampire tale, which is a touch adventure fiction and a touch horror (mostly, the ending). The understated romance between the leading characters is sweet and built out of small details that are worked in alongside the vampire-hunt and eventual final revelation. It’s a well-crafted story that manages the particular kind of narration necessary to a Victorian setting without feeling forced.
While some of these tales were not to my personal taste — not much of a horror reader, me — they are good; the writing in the volume is consistently high-quality and the stories are engaging. Editor Steve Berman selected pieces from both new and seasoned writers and included work from a variety of publications — in fact, there were no publication repetitions; each story is from a different original market, and those markets vary from gay-themed publications like Icarus Magazine to some of the big markets in spec-fic like F&SF. Not only does this make for an interesting “year’s best,” it’s a good sign for queer speculative fiction as a whole: more markets seem to be publishing gay SF, and there are more authors writing it. I hope the trend continues for next year’s Wilde Stories, which I’ll be waiting for.