Queering SFF

Queering SFF: Red Caps by Steve Berman

Being a queer teenager can be tough—particularly when you have to deal with strange magic, or vampires, or trying to make a relationship work in the complicated ecosystem of high school. The stories in Red Caps, all queer YA and some speculative, deal with these issues and more. Red Caps reprints much of Berman’s work from 2007 onward, including stories originally appearing in Ellen Datlow anthologies such as Teeth and The Beastly Bride. There is one piece original to the anthology—“A Calenture of the Jungle”—as well as illustrations by various artists scattered among the thirteen tales within.

Berman is often recognized for his role as head of Lethe Press (there’s an interview with him from the early days of QSFF, here), or as editor of anthologies such as Heiresses of Russ: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction and Wilde Stories: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction. However, as regular readers of young adult fiction in the genre will know, he also writes quite a bit; his novel Vintage: A Ghost Story was a nominee for the Andre Norton Award in 2008, and he has also published two shorter collections of stories prior to Red Caps.

I appreciate the work Berman does through his press—having published with them myself—and also his fiction, so I looked forward to seeing this collection come to fruition. In fact, I’m going to recuse myself from discussing one of the stories in this book (“Three on a Match”), since it was published in October of last year in Strange Horizons, edited by myself, Julia Rios, and An Owomoyela.

Aside from those “full disclosure” notes, though: Red Caps is a pleasant read. It’s obviously geared toward a young adult audience; the illustration style tends toward an indie-comics look (which I appreciate), and the stories primarily star young men in high school or fresh out of high school. There are a few stories about queer girls, too, including the piece original to the collection. These stories generally address issues of identity and self-acceptance, exploring not only sexuality but also class, race, and culture—in some cases, more successfully than others.

A few stories I’ve reviewed in their previous incarnations, such as “All Smiles” from Datlow’s Teeth and “Thimbleriggery and Fledglings” from Heiresses of Russ 2011. However, for several of the pieces, reading this collection was the first time I’d encountered them (excepting “The Harvestbuck,” which I would swear I’ve read before, but can’t figure out where).

Some of the stories I most liked were those that dealt with developing a sense of self or identity and finding ways to communicate it—these are stories about growing as a person. “Cruel Movember” is the non-speculative story of the bunch: it’s about communication, and also what it takes to be brave and supportive for someone during a tough time—especially if they’re not dealing with it in what anyone would consider a model way. “Gomorrahs of the Deep, a Musical Coming Someday to Off-Broadway” is a heinously silly story about a kid who loves musicals having an important day—when he decides to stand up with his boyfriend to do a report on homoeroticism in Moby Dick—that is a musical. It’s cute and pleasantly ridiculous, a flight of fancy.

“Persimmon, Teeth, and Boys” is a denser story, working through packed issues of race and class alongside sexuality; it has a lot of ideas in it, not all of which are fully developed, but the meat of the story is solid. Cecil’s interactions with a tooth sprite—much more an amoral fae type than we’re used to—are a central part, but I cared far more about his struggles to come to terms with being a black teenage boy who wants to date another boy. There’s also one different kind of story: “Worse Than Alligators,” which is a straight-up scary tale. This happens to have gay boys in it, but it’s not a story about relationships or identity formation—it’s out to creep the reader, and I do think it succeeds.

Finally, there’s the closing story: “Only Lost Boys are Found.” This is a fine note to end on, as it seems to encompass the book’s general project: it’s about family, coming out, fear, and feeling lost—but it’s also about finding your way back to the light. The sibling relationships in the story, particularly between the protagonist and his sister, are a fascinating second-layer to the main conflict. It’s a quest story, into an underworld of sorts, but also into (and out of) closets, the central metaphor of the story. (And, a good metaphor for the collection.)

There were also, of course, weaker offerings. Most of these stories shared a central issue: a lack of full development. They read more like sketches than stories with a complete arc. “Bittersweet” is one of this type. Though the imagery and the hint of wicked magic are there, the ending is abrupt and doesn’t pull those threads together in a satisfactory way; it feels unfinished. “Most Likely,” on the other hand—though I found the brother and sister’s relationship amusing, and the ending sweet—lacks a sense of emotional arc. It’s a bit too easy to get to the happy ending; I never doubted that was exactly where we were heading.

Finally, “A Calenture of the Jungle” was a piece that had plenty of promising bits: the Jewish girls bonding, the contrast of no imagination with too much imagination, the anachronistic obsession with pulp “jungle adventure” stories. In the end, though, it didn’t seem to come together as a story. I wanted to like it more. (I do appreciate, though, that despite its obviously problematic “source” material, the story does gesture towards the fact that it’s An Issue that these two white girls are playing out intrinsically-racist pulp material.)

But then, I haven’t discussed the pictures. Though I will note that the advanced copy I read for review did not have the entirety of the illustrations included—some, but not all—I also very much enjoyed what I saw. In particular, the illustrations for “Three on a Match” are handsome. The use of smoke throughout is clever and visually engaging, and surprisingly effective considering the color palate for these illustrations is grayscale. The illustrators share a style familiar to readers of indie comics (especially queer indie comics): a certain lanky, sharp-edged hybrid between western and manga style. It seems, to me, apropos for a young adult collection.

As a whole, Red Caps has its ups and downs on the story front—some, as noted, could have used more development or depth. However, as a collection it does have a unified message that will, I hope, speak to its intended audience: self-acceptance. The positivity that runs throughout the book, even in stories that end on gruesome or eerie notes, is the best part: the sense of “coming out” in many of these pieces is also a sort of coming to life, or a coming into the self. The undercurrent of acceptance despite the odds is pleasant and heart-warming. These are stories about kids finding out what it means to be themselves, and how to be with other people. That’s good stuff, and for the most part I enjoyed perusing it. For readers who are fans of young adult fiction, especially of the queer sort, this collection will likely be satisfying—it’s not perfect, but it’s a good read.

 

Red Caps is available February 14th from Lethe Press.


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.

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