One of Prime Books’ most recent collections, Handsome Devil: Stories of Sin and Seduction takes on the task of gathering together tales about incubi and other “handsome devils.” I often find these themed collections hit-or-miss, depending on the subject matter—I, for example, do not care much about zombie stories—but this particular theme seemed intriguing enough. As the collection’s editor, Steve Berman, notes in his introduction, this is a fraught but itself seductive topic for people from far in the past up to today.
These stories of seduction and “sin” range from the playful to the extremely dark; given the topic, it’s no surprise that a few of these stories cover uncomfortable territory in terms of consent and violence. For the most part, however, these are stories about desire and magic, stories where there is a cost for getting what you want—but sometimes it’s worth paying. And that idea, of the cost of magic, is a familiar one in plenty of fantastical stories.
As with all large short fiction collections, in this case partially original and partially reprint, Handsome Devil has strong stories and weaker ones. The first story in the collection is one of the stronger: “Lilac Season” by Claire Humphrey. This is a story about the cost of grief and the cost of desire; it’s about giving up one thing to gain another, and about moving on. I appreciate also how this piece sets the tone for the book: desire in “Lilac Season” is complicated, often rife with pressures social and personal, and rarely waits for opportune or appropriate moments. But it is also healing, and full of potentiality.
“The Queen and the Cambion” by Richard Bowes was likely my favorite piece from the collection—following the timeline-crossed relationship of Merlin and Queen Victoria, Bowes’ piece is a slow building romance that is relatively free of actual sexual scenes. I appreciated the depth and significance of the relationship Bowes develops over the complicated years of Victoria’s life, and how it is full of strength and passion whether or not it was ever sexual in nature. That’s something I don’t see very often.
“Cain” by Tanith Lee hits all the right notes for an eerie, incestuous haunting story; it’s atmospheric, it’s disturbing, and it ends on an expected but still effective note. The protagonist’s complicated relationship to his dead twin—who he has sometimes consensual and sometimes not sex with when he sleeps in his bed—is just this side of gruesome, but it’s his broken and empty-hearted family life that’s the fascinating part of the piece. Lee’s prose is, as always, poetic and gripping.
Another few stories were less intense, perhaps, but still pleasant: “The Wedding Guest” by Steve Chapman gives us a different kind of devil, one whose purpose is just to help people realize truths about themselves. The conflicted protagonist, trying to save (or ruin) her failing marriage, ends up thinking she’s gone to bed with an angel but really it was just a fantasy to help her work through her issues. “Her Sweet Solace” by J. T. Glover is a short, strangely sweet piece about a teenage girl who reads urban fantasy novels realizing her widowed mom is sleeping with a demon. She’s going to banish him, but he talks to her instead, and explains to her that he’s not hurting her mother but helping her grieve. They smoke cigars together in a very surreal but somehow evocative closing scene.
Lastly, by two relatively well-known names, there are a couple more stories I enjoyed. “Winter” by Michelle Sagara deals with the nature of love, what it is, and what it means—there’s a demon and a soul contract involved, but it’s really about what it means to love someone who doesn’t love you. The ending is a touch saccharine for me, which is weird considering that it’s about somebody going to Hell, but—there you have it. “Prince of Flowers” by Elizabeth Hand has that traditional “find an eerie object in a museum, turns out that it’s totally fucking haunted” plot—but nonetheless, the imagery is strong and the ending had my skin crawling. It does what it wants to do, effectively.
Alternately, I was surprised to note that a few of the stories I didn’t care for were by folks whose fiction I usually enjoy—but not these particular pieces. “Catherine and the Satyr” by Theodora Goss is handsomely written, no shock, but seems to be barely a story; while there are hints at the family difficulties and the strictures of surviving as a woman in the period, it is primarily a story about a woman being raped by a satyr and becoming pregnant. And that’s really it. Conversely, “The Oily Man” by Alex Jeffers has quite a lot of detail—it’s a story set in a colonial, historical milieu—but is bogged down by it. There’s far too much rumination to support the fairly simple narrative, and though I wanted to appreciate it as one of the few gay stories in the collection, it was difficult to remain engaged in. Then there was “Unveiled” by J. Daniel Stone, which was full of so many tropes and prose tics that drove me up a wall that I did not manage to finish it. I simply couldn’t suffer through the faux-raging manic musician girl and her interminable over the top dialogue.
One other thing I will note—which I suspect is a function of the nature of these “handsome devil” stories—is that in several pieces there is an undercurrent of the exotic, seductive racial or cultural other and his effect on a (usually white) woman. I am conflicted on this: from Dracula back and forwards, it’s common to see the racial other as a seductive monster, as an irresistible sexual force. But that doesn’t mean it’s not problematic when not sufficiently examined as a trope. In particular, stories like Pat Cadigan’s “It Was the Heat”—where a businesswoman goes to New Orleans, sleeps with a young man of color and becomes infected with his “heat,” receiving advice and help from dialect-speaking black people—do fit the collection’s theme but also leave me a touch uncomfortable.
On the one hand, they are representative of an entire swath of incubus-type stories that speak to the fetishization of, specifically, men of color. On the other, I’m not sure that these stories know or care that they’re participating in this conversation, and they don’t seem to be doing so in a critical or functionally aware way. There are, of course, only a few of these in the entire collection; it’s not what I would call a pervasive theme. It was something that I thought about for some while after finishing, though, perhaps because Cadigan’s story is the closing tale.
As a whole, Handsome Devil was a decent collection. Despite following a very particular theme, it manages to never feel too repetitive or stale. The stories are arranged cleverly to shift tone and focal point just enough between each piece that there are no disjunctions, but also no echoes. For example: the two pieces about bands are separated by quite a lot of the book, but the disturbing or horror-esque stories seem to be near each other so as not to throw off the tone of the more playful pieces. Though it has its issues and moments of squick (as I find collections with horror pieces tend to), for readers who appreciate exploring the complications of magic and desire several of these stories are winners.
Handsome Devil is available March 5th from Prime Books.
Lee 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.