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03 May 2014 @ 03:35 pm
Review of Red Caps  
Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers by Steve Berman (Lethe Press, 2014)

 by Jean Roberta

Here is a teenage boy’s description of his friend’s Stepfather from Hell in “The Harvestbuck,” first story in Steve Berman’s recent single-author collection:

“As I make a sharp turn, the wheels kicking up bone-white sand, the headlights wash over a figure standing among the trees.

Rick’s ranger uniform is filthy and unbuttoned. He’s tied sticks to his head. They can’t be real antlers. He’s grinning at me. “Heard you like black boys, Sean. Come back soon for Brent—he’ll be a right Jack of Spades when we’re done with him.” He laughs.

I tremble and floor the Jeep at Rick. The wheels sputter in the loose sand. He’s gone. Gone but I hear his laughter behind me as I’m driving too fast down this little path.”

Is the narrator hallucinating? Is Rick actually a demon, or the Horned God? The reader can never be absolutely sure, but anyone who remembers adolescence will recognize the menacing adult, the spooky atmosphere in the woods at night, and the reckless driving.

This collection of thirteen uncanny stories is hard to classify as “young adult” because it seems suitable for adults in general, but the central characters are all young and queer. Most are serving time in high school, hoping to survive long enough to reach the age of majority while coping with real and metaphorical monsters.

The Red Caps in the title are an elusive band that are always off-stage, but the narrators of the stories collect souvenirs of them, such as red caps. The name also suggests a euphemistic term for pills which could cause hallucinations.

In “Most Likely,” Roque and his sister Leo are trapped indoors by rain while spending summer vacation at the beach. Looking at a magical school yearbook, Roque discovers that the captions say what his classmates actually think. This might be considered the sign of a curse, but the unexpected honesty leads Roque into the car (and the arms) of the boy he has a crush on, who has come to the beach to find him.

Teenage fickleness has its place in these stories, as in “Bittersweet,” in which Dault runs around with the “gingerbread boy” while his boyfriend Jerrod is grounded by foot surgery. The title of “Three on a Match” says it all.

By far the funniest story in the batch is “Gomorrahs of the Deep, a Musical Coming Someday to Off-Broadway.” Greg, the narrator, has a boyfriend in school, and their relationship is tolerated by their classmates and teachers. However, Greg doesn’t want to push his luck. He is alarmed when his boyfriend announces his plan for a presentation in English class:

“I’m going to do a whole presentation—not some sixth-grader’s book report—on the homoeroticism in Moby Dick.”

Greg tells him: “You might as well sing it.” This is the cue to turn the rest of the story into a kind of musical comedy.

Two stories that are fantasy from beginning to end, and not necessarily about teenagers in a modern sense, are “Thimbleriggery and Fledglings” (a lesbian retelling of the Swan Lake story) and “Steeped in Debt to the Chimney Pots” (an ambitious, atmospheric tale about a hard-luck young man who falls in with bad company—the fairy folk—in Victorian London). These two stories are well worth reading, but they seem only marginally related to the stories about magic that arises from the ordeals of contemporary teenage life.

These stories are accompanied by illustrations by various artists which could have been drawn in notebooks by several of the young narrators. Altogether, this collection is greater than the sum of its parts. It will suck you in like a phantom lover or a dream that seems more real than your waking life. The storyteller’s magic still works.

Current Location: home
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: something spooky
lizardlezjean_roberta on May 3rd, 2014 09:36 pm (UTC)
WTF? I don't know why the font changes size. :(