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Editor's note. Some time after the reviews department decided to solicit a review of Trysts, Steve Berman joined the staff of Strange Horizons. The reviewer, Greg Wharton, is not a staff writer.

Trysts cover

Steve Berman's short fiction collection Trysts: A Triskaidecollection of Queer and Weird Stories is a rare gem. These thirteen tales of desire and passion -- with a nod to the supernatural and the fantastic -- are skillfully wrought with surprising, wonderful results. The prose is strong, the characters interesting, the stories highly original and generically diverse. With stories ranging from gothic horror to fantasy to erotica, Trysts will satisfy readers of varied interests.

Most of the collected stories (five reprints and eight new) are short, some very short. Many read like excerpts: slices from longer stories, glimpses of much bigger worlds. Berman often leaves some details to the imagination or leaves endings short of clean resolution. This style, which might work poorly for many authors, succeeds here because Berman's imagination is wildly creative, his voices strong and distinct, his evocation of atmosphere vivid. Where some "unfinished" stories frustrate, these stories haunt. I loved not having everything spelled out or neatly finished.

Some of these tales contain just a hint of the supernatural. The opening story, "Beach 2," concerns a Ouija board and a man dealing with his sexuality. It is a nice calm way to start the wild ride:

Nearly back to the beach house, Daniel stopped one last time. He trembled, but not because of the cool breeze. All he had to do to keep life sane was go back, slip into bed, put his arm around her, and forget. . . . He should force himself to follow his tracks back. He found them, off to his right, his footprints deep in the sand. At least they looked like his. They would lead him back to Hilary and perhaps that day when they'd dance at their own wedding.

But he ached when he thought about the future. He had so many urges, none of them easy to define, not even his turbulent thoughts of Seth. It seemed crazy to let any of them take hold, but these days he constantly imagined things. None of them led to a self he could clearly picture.

From there, the stories take us to many a dark locale with memorable characters. One features a Prague sex club and a clever new slant on the gargoyle; another, paper voodoo dolls and the search for Mr. Right at the Copy Center; a third, "The Resurrectionist," a young man guarding the grave of his not-yet-quite-dead uncle from grave robbers:

Wallace took a few steps closer and aimed the revolver at the tart. She had tripped on her long dress again and crawled over the dirt trying to get away. "P-please," she begged, her face wet with tears.

"Did you hear him?" Wallace's eyes glanced in the direction of the mound, looking right through the wounded man.

She shook her head as if she didn't understand him. He did not even feel the second pull of the trigger, did not hear the shot. Only realized the woman was dead when the blood on her face dripped down her cheeks in the same path as her tears had run. He then finished off the man.

Wallace went back to the blanket. The end of the revolver burned his knee when he rested it there, but it mattered little. When his father came in the morning to relieve his watch, he would head home and have salve applied. There was no sense leaving, not when he had several more hours left before the cries of his uncle died off to a satisfying silence.

Although some stories are frankly macabre, at the core of this book are trysts. Each story involves the meeting or coming together of two lovers. While generally homoerotic in nature, these scenes succeed in being extremely erotic without graphic sexual detail. And while that may disappoint some readers who wish for a bit more, I found this refreshing. In these stories, Berman is able to exhibit love, lust, and desire -- both found and lost -- with more flair than most. In "Left Alone," a man mourns the death of his lover while being visited nightly by its ghost:

Dave ran out to him like he did every time, worried that he might not reach him before Jerrod disappeared -- as had happened the first time. Too much cheap red wine at dinner. Dave nearly collapsed on the beach, while his boyfriend teased him with a midnight swim. By the time Dave realized he could not see Jerrod in the water, it was too late. He was left alone.

They embraced immediately. Alone on the beach, he pressed close, eager to share his warmth. A small rivulet of water slipped from Jerrod's mouth and down his chin. Dave licked it before the drop could fall. His mouth filled with the savory nature of his boyfriend. Salty. He tasted like the sea.

Berman's thirteen stories all involve trysts, but they are not romantic in format. His characters experience both passion and loss. They are often confronted with dismal situations and surroundings that mirror the turmoil they feel inside.

This mirroring is most fully explored in the collection's final four stories. Their plots are loosely interconnected, and they share a common setting: a wonderful world known as the Fallen Area. This alternate-reality is a walled-off city within a city where dreams and nightmares come true, and magic is the norm. Berman has created a complex urban landscape in a not-too-distant future where currency is no longer valued, and bartering -- sometimes with highly unusual items and talents -- has become the basis of a subsistence economy. Once you enter the Fallen Area, your citizenship is revoked and you cannot easily return to the world and life you knew before, though many who have entered realize they wish to. [For a taste of the Fallen Area stories, you can read "The Anthvoke" here at Strange Horizons. --ed.]

The Fallen Area is at once familiar and fantastic. It is an amazing and exciting world where anything can and does happen. But the characters still feel the same emotions we do: the excitement (and lust) of new love found, and the pain and heartache of love lost. The final four tales are a wonderful close to an accomplished collection of short fiction. Author Berman is a distinctive storyteller, effortlessly blending complex human emotion with the supernatural. And while all the stories in Trysts are satisfying, I must admit to hoping the Fallen Area might come to life in a full-length novel.

There are thirteen stories here, all told -- which makes this, to adapt another archaic word, a triskaidecollection. Not every culture thinks thirteen is an unlucky number. I share that view; thirteen seems more thrilling than awful. Each tale revolves around a tryst. It may be a chance meeting which incites a new passion, or a pair re-igniting lost love. But remember that these tales are weird as well as queer; as you read them, you may find that sometimes two people can come together in strange (and even unnatural) ways. --Steve Berman, from the Foreword

 

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Greg Wharton is the founder and publisher of Suspect Thoughts Press, editor of the webzine suspect thoughts: a journal of subversive writing, and the erotica editor for Velvet Mafia. He is the editor of the anthologies Of the Flesh: Dangerous New Fiction, and Meat: Tales of Lust, Appetite, and 100% Grade A Beef -- The Best of the Best Meat Erotica. He is hard at work on a forthcoming collection of his own short fiction for Alyson Books.



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