Boys, Beasts and Men by Sam J Miller
Tachyon, pb, £13.30
Reviewed by Melody Bowles
Boys, Beasts & Men is a short story collection by multi-award-winning author Sam J Miller. The fantasy and sci-fi elements carefully complement the central characters’ relationships and emotions. This leads to some compelling story-telling, and each tale has a distinct flavour. The stories start with Boys and progress to Men, with Beasts scattered throughout. The stories are divided by short vignettes, which form a framing narrative. I found it choppy to go back to this at the end of each story. However, I did really like the twist at the end and think it’s worth reading through the vignettes for this reason alone.
While race and class have decent representation as themes, it is sexuality that links many of these tales together. Most have gay men at their core, and most of them face tragedy and/or horror. We Are The Cloud, and Conspicuous Plumage, in particular, deliver unsettling fates for the characters, which aren’t for the faint-hearted. There is also Angel, Monster, Man, an affecting story where three protagonists create a fake persona to release the creative works of friends lost to AIDs. These stories offer a glimpse into the unique suffering a gay man might face – bullied, conned, misunderstood and ostracised from the world at large. It’s easy to forget the possibility of these consequences in today’s world, where LGBT rights have come forward in leaps and bounds. When Your Child Strays from God offers the perspective of a religious mother discovering her son’s sexuality. It is unique to see such a human take on a stock villain in many coming out stories. This makes it a stand out story for me.
The fantasy and sci-fi elements are often downplayed and under-explained. In Allosaurus Burgers, a dinosaur has been discovered in the character’s hometown. There is no reason given for this, but it’s the perfect monster for the protagonist to face with his mother. Things With Beards offers a post-apocalyptic setting where New York has been destroyed by climate change, thus boosting the value of the story’s key item. Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart simply asks the question, ‘What if King Kong was real?’
Ghosts of Home is one of my favourites, about a woman paid to soothe household spirits left alone in empty houses. It offers commentary about the housing crisis of 2008 and the satisfaction of a character who finally steps up to defy her bosses. It’s a positive note in an often downbeat collection.
I’m puzzled why the collection ends with Sun In An Empty Room, a story written from the perspective of a Salvation Army sofa. It’s a fun story, but it feels bizarrely out of place, touching on barely any of the themes present in the rest of the collection. Although other stories left me baffled, they at least seem to fit with the title.
Overall, I enjoyed the wide variety of stories in Boys, Beasts & Men. Not every story was a hit for me, but they were certainly all memorable. If you like your fantasy and sci-fi with realistic grit to ground it, pick this one up.