In folklore, Red Caps are brutal, malevolent denizens of Faerie, the equivalent of mob henchmen in crime fiction, who lure humans (often travelers) into vulnerable situations. The color of their eponymous headgear comes from human blood. In Steve Berman's new YA short story collection, the Red Caps are a well-known punk-rock band whose music occasionally leads otherwise well-meaning gay teens to make decisions that place them in danger. The band is heard on radios and MP3 players in several of the collection's tales but is never an actual physical presence. Less literally, a number of the bad guys, human or otherwise, in Berman's cautionary modern fairy tales could be considered kin to the Red Caps of folklore.
In the opening story "The Harvestbuck," the drug-addled narrator is lured off the road and lost in New Jersey's Pine Barrens by an emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend and a friend's father with a secret. They're a real danger despite possibly being hallucinations. In "Persimmon, Teeth and Boys," the tooth fairy is not as innocuous as we've been led to believe, and a mischievous streak causes problems for the male lead of the story.
In "A Calenture of the Jungle," the problem facing the lesbian protagonists is not a person but the imagination, or lack thereof. Early in the story, Amelia recognizes something that is inherent to a number of the main characters in this collection:
Amelia suspected Stephanie had been born with too much imagination, and whatever nooks and crannies in grey matter held the means for telling stories—and were missing from her own brain—riddled Stephanie's. (p. 122)
Stephanie's abundant imagination (and obsession with "she-devil of the jungle" type characters) and Amelia's lack of same conspire to put Amelia in danger. Most of the stories in this collection remind us that the biggest threats (to ourselves, our loved ones, our happiness) come when we least believe in the danger before us. Eventually, we are forced to recognize the danger or are subsumed by it, as Amelia is. Not every story has a happy ending, in real life or in fiction.
Berman loves to modernize fairy tales and build off urban legends, and he does this to great effect in both "Bittersweet" (which previously appeared in his collection Second Thoughts ), in which the guilt-ridden main character considers running off with a real ginger(bread) boy, and "Worse Than Alligators," in which something living in the sewers threatens the safety of a teenage boy, his boyfriend, and the boy's younger sister and her friends, whom the boys are babysitting.
Actual Red Caps are mentioned in "Steeped in Debt to the Chimney-Pots," which revisits Berman's characters Tupp and Lind, a sprite and human pair living in a Victorian London where the fair folk hide in plain sight. This is the second story featuring the pair; one need not have read the previous story to follow this one, which details their attempts to pay off some of the titular debts and stop being hounded by every manner of fey in London. Hunted, rather than "hounded," is the word that best describes Saul, the tattooed, troubled teen who finds himself fighting a vampiric brother-sister act in "All Smiles," which could be the beginning of another series of linked short stories. I like Tupp, Lind, and Saul enough that I hope Berman will tell more of their stories. Had this collection contained a new story set in Berman's "Fallen Area," I'd have been even happier.
There are some less fantastical stories in the collection as well, stories that concentrate more on the ups and downs of high school relationships. There's still some sense of the supernatural in "Most Likely" (a magic yearbook), "Gomorrahs of the Deep" (shades of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's musical episode), and "Cruel Movember" (a vision in a mirror), but for these three tales, the fantastic is not the point of the story. The least supernatural story in the lot is also the most moving: "Cruel Movember" is a story about dealing with a partner who keeps his emotions close and doesn't explain his decisions, and it's also about the extended repercussions of terminal illness told from the point of view of someone who doesn't know what's going on.
The one "Red Cap" Berman's teen protagonists don’t have to face (with notable exceptions in "Persimmon, Teeth, and Boys" and in the collection’s final story) is rampant homophobia. In most of these stories, the same-sex relationships are either wholly accepted or at the very least tolerated. This grants most of the characters the freedom to see the fantastic as it materializes around them. Whether facing literal Red Caps or figurative, Berman's boys and girls mostly have the benefit of being able to express their love, jealousy, lust, and temptations publicly, with far less fear than they exhibit facing ghosts, vampires, and magic books.
Anthony R. Cardno's reviews have also appeared in Icarus and Chelsea Station. His short fiction can be found upcoming in Beyond the Sun (Fairwood Press) and Oomph (Crossed Genres). He interviews creative types at www.anthonycardno.com and can be found on Twitter as @talekyn.
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