Second Thoughts: More Queer and Weird Stories by Steve Berman
In Berman’s second collection of stories and essays, a scent of loneliness entices children to start eating away at a caretaker’s historic house; a nursery rhyme tempts a young love; and a meek accountant finds himself abandoning the mundane life he knew to chase after monsters.
This highly unique and masterfully written collection of short stories delivers a mixture of fantasy, horror, and fairytale. Often these elements are incorporated into a story inspired from common actions and giving rise to an imaginative world based on a different reality. After each short story is an author’s note that sometimes offers his explanation for the inspiration and sometimes is a narrative with no bearing on the previous story. Both the stories and notes are fascinating and compelling in their own right but not necessarily related, thus creating a larger collection within the book than originally intended. Either way, this is a fabulous group of stories and thoughts which will change upon each reading.
The subjects vary amongst the stories and notes, which also cast doubt on the veracity of the notes themselves. No doubt the narratives offered also contain some elements of fantasy and whimsy. Some of the inspiration that comes through repeatedly is an unrequited love interest of the author’s and the stark, lingering impact of such strong feelings. The undeniable romantic edge to the stories shines through brightest in the powerful story of young temptation based on a fairytale “Bittersweet” and the brilliant, futuristic tale “Tear Jerker.”
A few stories certainly stood out from the rest but there were no bad offerings in this diverse collection. The stunningly creative and witty alternate universe of “Caught by Skin” pops out from the collection, as does the note afterwards. This story is set in a reality where plastic surgery is the norm and gay men constantly remake themselves into the latest in fashionable faces. The twist at the end was slightly sad with a hint of hope, as with most of the stories. Also notable is “Always Listen to a Good Pair of Underwear” for its humor and delightful imagination. The peek-a-boo boxers who alternatively tease and taunt with forbidden flesh give a fun, tongue in cheek story with a cartoonish edge.
“A Rotten Obligation” is possibly my favorite of the group, though it’s hard to choose as some of the author’s notes could vie for that title as well. Here a young gay hustler is distracted from an obligation by a pretty young busboy. The mix of paranormal, romance, and reality all blend to create a witty and entertaining story with a great twist at the end. The snappy dialogue and quirky premise has me sorry the tale had to end and wondering about what came before and after the scene. This is the best kind of story that can spark the imagination of the reader as well.
The writing itself lacks any lyrical elegance but instead is able to evoke emotion and chills with simple turns of phrase and the highly original worlds of alternate reality. The style of writing changes often within the collection; sometimes narrative, sometimes fantasy and always giving entertaining dialogue with a punchy impact. The prose is sparse without unnecessary words and has an ease to the reading quality, compelling and engrossing the reader from the start. Although the material is not always light with numerous touches of horror and dark fantasy, humor and creative imagery are woven into the darkest of stories.
Fans of short stories will definitely want to read this collection, more than once. In no way is this collection limited to gay fiction but instead offer characters with gay sensibilities in a highly innovative reality.
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