Scruffians! by Hal Duncan, releasing in early April from Lethe Press, is a wickedly entertaining collection of short fiction fantastical and queer in nature—full of “scruffians and scamps and sodomites,” with some pirates and fairies besides. These stories range from comedic romps to lyrical and meditative explorations on the nature of meaning-making, while Duncan’s engaging and clever voice resonates throughout as a strong thread connecting the various different sorts of pieces.
Duncan has published two chapbooks of short fiction—An A to Z of the Fantastic City (Small Beer Press) and Errata (New Sodom Press)—but Scruffians! is his first full-length collection of short stories, containing work published from 2005 onward. Two of the fifteen stories collected are original to the book: “How a Scruffian Gets Their Name” and “The Shoulder of Pelops.” The first several stories also form a neat group of their own, continually expanding and recursively building the mythology and potential of the titular Scruffians.
Five of the first six stories—“How a Scruffian Starts Their Story,” “How a Scruffian Gets Their Name,” “Scruffian’s Stamp,” “An Alfabetcha of Scruffian Names,” and “Jack Scallywag”—deal directly with the street-living group of immortal youths (though there are, as mentioned, some adults) who call themselves the Scruffians. Two of the pieces are about young gay boys who end up joining the ranks after leaving their bad home lives; the others are about the history and mythology of the group.
Of particular interest to me about these stories is the way that larger mythologies, like those of Orpheus and the Holy Grail, are wound up seamlessly in the tale-telling histories of the Scruffians. There is also a political dimension: the fact that the Stamp that renders people immortal had been used for centuries by folks without the kids’ best interests at heart (during the Children’s Crusade, during the industrial revolution, etc.), until it was stolen. That creates a depth of realism in the other direction. In much the same way, Duncan handles the potential independence and solidarity of the streets and fringes—the power his characters have, on the outskirts—without erasing the harsh realities that still exist for even these (semi-)immortal “live-by-wits” youths.
These read, in a lot of ways, like young-adult stories with a sharp edge. Though mischievous and witty in tone, these stories also deal with the realities of powerlessness and abuse for kids (particularly, in this case, queer kids), as well as the way that adults have traded on the lives of those unable to defend themselves throughout history. The balance between the mythic and the real allows these pieces to be both entertaining and discomfiting, offering hope with an undercurrent of despair.
There is, of course, a continuing similarity between the Scruffians pieces and the other stories in the collection: that twisting play with the idea of the mythic, the weight of stories and their potentialities. Given the aforementioned strength and resonance of Duncan’s style, this focus on the mythic or narrative is particularly provocative. “The Behold of the Eye,” dealing with internal myth-making and the psychological landscape of a struggling queer teen through the eyes of his own fairy tenant, has a sweeping visual arena, surreal yet believable in terms of its amalgamation of images and imaginations from everyday life.
Similarly, “The Angel of Gamblers” seems to be the most traditional story of the whole bunch: a group of friends playing poker listen as one tells them of how he encountered the nephilim angel of gamblers, twice, and eventually won back his soul—maybe. But, the story certainly resonates with the tradition of oral mythology, storytelling, and folk wisdom. Even one of the most off-the-cuff, playful pieces in the collection—“The Island of the Pirate Gods”—is framed against Shakespeare’s The Tempest and also contains within it a mythology built on the love of men for other men on the high seas, one passed down through song.
Then there are stories like “Sons of the Law,” a Wild West riff on a familiar Biblical narrative, and “The Origin of the Fiend,” framing and reframing comic-book universes and their relation to the “real.” While each of these left me in some sense grasping at the end after the various allusions and how the reader was meant to interpret them, I appreciated the experience and the way that the stories lingered with me. The concern with art and/or the use of language also often results in some rather theoretically dense stories, such as “The Shoulder of Pelops” (underwritten by a debate about semiotics) or “Bizarre Cubiques” (an alternate-history-or-universe piece dealing with art/visual representation).
I’ve also discussed the last two stories in the collection elsewhere in this column, both as reprints in different volumes of Wilde Stories: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction—“Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!” and “Oneirica.” Out of the whole bunch, the only piece I didn’t much care for was “The Disappearance of James H—,” which felt rather slight in comparison to the rest.
As a whole, Scruffians! is a very strong collection. Duncan’s voice is uniquely grand, and the stories gathered here reflect his ongoing exploration of both queer experience and mythic/narrative modes of storytelling and meaning-making. Frequently sharp-tongued and a bit dark—I’d even say a little roguish, sometimes—these stories are delightful and provocative, and I’d certainly recommend picking them up for a read.
Scruffians! is available April 1st 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.