I read a heap of anthologies last year, and while I typically enjoy short stories, going through a whole collection might at times prove to be an exhausting and challenging affair. One demanding quick mindset alternations and, in effect, causing frequent mood swings. Being of a naturally lazy disposition, I secretly vowed to steer clear from anthologies temporarily and indulge in more homogeneous reads.
Ironically, one of the first books I was offered to review in 2016 turned out to be Follow Me into Darkness, a queer anthology containing five tales of carnival romance and oscillating around a common theme of a mask. The resistance was futile, the main convincing factor being the authors, participating in this collaboration. It’s been the second time for this very crew to come together in order to work on a project. The previous fruit of their labour, Lead Me into Darkness, was a successful Halloween inspired collection, which I had the pleasure to review last October.
Let the masquerade begin!
Hurricane by Santino Hassell
“Thank you for trusting me.”
“Thank you for seeing me. Usually nobody does.”
Amongst Mardi Gras festivities and joyous crowds of New Orleans, two diametrically opposed personalities collide and unexpectedly connect.
Zavier, a socially awkward reserved introvert, who usually hides beneath his hoodie in attempt to remain invisible and inessential – is an observer rather than a participant of life. His fear of being excluded and abandoned cripples him. Yet, paradoxically, he longs to be noticed. Keegan, on the other hand, is a vagabond and a force of nature. His personality is vibrant, mischievous and flirtatious. He is the eponymous hurricane – the only person who makes an effort to really see Zay and force him to come out of his shell.
Short and sweet, this New Adult piece is surprisingly romantic and chaste, compared with Hassell’s other prose. I enjoyed its lyrical and sanguine qualities. The author’s ability to sketch a compelling character within a few rough lines shines through.
Hurricane wasn’t designed as an elaborate story. It’s more of a quick whirl, an adventure, presented visually in the form of a wide panoramic snapshot in time. Big content in a little canvas.
If We Be Friends by J. C. Lillis
“You dwell on the ends so much, “ he says, “that sometimes you miss the beginnings.”
A Shakespearean soliloquy–off challenge, thrown by one member of a teen Hamlet TV cast to another during a Mardi Gras party, turns into a revelation and results in a valuable lesson in growing up and moving on.
This is a full-blown story that feels complete and features a thrill of the first love, the hurt of the first disappointment, and shows the value of friendship. I admired how it skilfully weaves in and out of Shakespeare’s works. At a symbolic level, the jester’s mask presented to the winner of the contest can be seen as a bittersweet allegory of life itself- party comical, party tragic.
It appears a short form suits this particular author very well indeed. The concept is imaginative, the story telling engaging, the humour witty and the dialogue sparkling. Unanticipatedly, as I’m not a fan of Young Adult fiction, this endearing and innocent coming of age story, heavily infused with emotion, made a big impression on me.
Masked by J.R. Gray
“It’s been fifteen years, and everything has changed, but nothing has changed.”
In the heat of Brazil, fate intervenes offering a second chance at love for Javier and Heath, years after they parted. Masks are off when the men meet again – wiser, more experienced and courageous enough to reveal who they really are to each other. Against the odds, they seize another opportunity, refusing to settle for a lifetime riddled with regrets.
I enjoyed this fast-paced story featuring more mature characters, carrying an emotional baggage from the past. There is a little blood, a lot of tension, resentment and anger, some hot sex and a hopeful finale – all wrapped nicely in the lovers reunited theme, for which I am a sucker for.
The Queen’s Reflection by Kris Ripper
“Sometimes the stories told by us skin restrict us inhumanely.”
Well written and original, this touching story about a trans character set in a fantasy world, focuses on being excluded and not belonging.
The Queen’s special ability to disappear leads to an annual tradition of her slipping out the palace. Under the cover of darkness and disguised as a boy, Isah escapes the place, which traps them in a stifling role and an ill-fitting gender.
The brief encounter with two strangers becomes more than a casual physical union, it serves as a spiritual connection that embraces and celebrates Isah true nature. Their lovers’ ability to really see them, gives them the courage to strive and mould the Queen to be a little bit more like themselves.
This story portrays living in the constraints of biology, seasoned with the fear of rejection. It is about feeling lonely and inadequate, while craving companionship and acceptance – from oneself as much as from others.
Touched by Roan Parrish
“Joy can be plucked from the mouth of despair.”
When a jazz club owner, possessing a gift of sight, falls for a young black trumpet player, possessing the gift of music, in the era of Prohibition in New Orleans, magic happens and the hope of love obliterates the fear of death.
This poignant, sensual and heady paranormal historical takes place in the space of one night. I completely loved this atmospheric and beautifully written story. The scene setting is well executed, the connection between the characters is tangible and potent and the whole piece is saturated with intense emotion. The ending, evoking a keen sense of sadness, left me with goosebumps and tugged at my heartstrings.
This story is, undoubtedly, the cherry on the cake of the whole collection for me. As usually, Parrish seduced me with her pretty words, turning the reading experience into a sensory ride, stimulating my olfactory and taste receptors. The language is just how I like it – stylish and effortlessly tantalising.
Follow Me into Darkness is an enjoyable compilation and one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend for a leisurely February read.
I find the topic of masks – worn to hide, to entertain, to disguise, to scare or to protect, utterly fascinating. It seems, donning a mask at some point in our lives is a part of our existence and social convention. It allows us to repress emotions, camouflage real intentions, tendencies and thoughts, as well as assume new identities. It enables us to conceal our insecurities, fears and resentment. It numbs the pain and fools others, as much as ourselves. Putting on a brave face for the world while hurting is one of the greatest defence mechanisms known to man.
Reading this anthology made me think of a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, which I am leaving you with. Enjoy the carnival and let the masquerade continue.
We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
A bilingual Londoner, Kasia Bacon is a literary/medical translator and a proofreader. An avid reader, reviewer and book blogger, she’s currently working on her debut M/M fantasy novel, filled with the shenanigans of assassins and sexy elves. She has a mild coffee and lemon tart addiction, coupled with a slight obsession of all things paranormal. She is a lover of MMA, nature and the great outdoors. She can be found on her website, Twitter, or on Goodreads.