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Nonfiction

Book Reviews: April 2022

Read This! Volume 20
New Horror Fiction You Should Know

Issues around identity are the most personal we have to deal with in life. They define us. Who am I or what am I, how do I fit into my world? Do I belong, or even want to belong, to the society I live in? Where did I come from and where am I going? I wrestled with all that as a nomadic Black Air Force brat, moving every two years to a new base to make new friends in a new school and new neighborhood as best I could. I pieced my sense of self together as well as I could from whatever each place taught me about myself, with my ability to adapt at times stretched to the limit.

I had a visual imagination and enough skills in art and writing to let me share what I saw in my head, so I was called an artistic kid. I enjoyed horror and science fiction, so I was considered a geek or nerd. When I realized I liked boys in ways my church said were sinful I accepted my label as sinner, because I wasn’t about to give up liking other boys . . . it was too much a part of who I was.

I knew I was Black, though until the age of fifteen I’d always lived in an integrated environment as “the only one” in my neighborhood or class. At least I’d seen a few other Black people on TV or in movies, but there were no examples of anyone of my sexual inclination. Words like gay, queer, or even fag were unknown to me. I rolled from puberty into adolescence sure that it must be just me, encouraged to laugh at campy comedy stars on TV like Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly for reasons I didn’t understand.

I wasn’t like any of them, so I didn’t identify with them. If anything, I was more articulate than effeminate, with a cooly curious persona that made me seem more mature than my years, which I was in some ways. Adults found me amusing, my peers thought I was weird, despite or because my low-end spectrum social skills often leave me unable to fully grasp other people’s feelings and respond appropriately, even now. Despite never having watched Star Trek in its original run back then, I did a fairly good impression of a mixed blood Vulcan in my youth, keeping my roiling emotions securely locked up out well out of sight.

It took ten years of individual therapy and eight of group, both started in my twenties, for me to find the key to unlock and share my emotions. The journey of discovering myself, what and who lay within, and how I felt about what I found, was a long and often painful one.

Despite that, it was invaluable and made me who I am as I write this column. I edited Buddhist video lectures for a few years that told me I’m only who I am at any given moment, subject to change as the world changes, and not an immutable fixed identity from birth. At any given moment I know I could be someone else based on what happens next. As I’ve said here before, change is the only constant. That idea’s left me flexible enough to deal with the maddening shifts in the world over the last decade.

This issue’s offerings deal with two very different characters on very different paths to discovering their individual identities, but both spoke to me about the importance of taking that critical first step, an often terrifying one that I’m glad I risked.

All the White Spaces
Ally Wilkes
Hardcover / Ebook
ISBN: 9781982182700
Atria/Emily Bestler Books (March 29, 2022), 368 pages

There is something ironically claustrophobic to me about the idea of being stranded in wide open spaces. Whether in the middle of a desert, adrift on an ocean far from land, stuck at the icy wastes of our planet’s poles, deep underground in a vast cavern or the heights of a mountain peak, if I can’t get back home with relative ease, I feel trapped.

There is equal irony to me in the hero’s situation in All the White Spaces, who flees a societal trap to find himself deep in another of his own devising. Known to family and friends as Jo, short for a name he no longer desires, Jonathan leaves home to join an expedition to the South Pole that his older brothers, Rufus and Francis, both recent casualties of the Great War, aspired to before they left. Besides Harry, they were the only ones in his world who accepted him as who he was, so their loss also ends any familial support of Jonathan’s freedom to be himself. He’s faced with accepting his parents’ plans for him to live a lie at boarding school as Jo is molded into an acceptable young woman, or to don a secret male wardrobe (bought for him piece by piece by Harry) to sneak away and join him on the daring polar expedition the three had dreamed that after the war would complete them as men.

With Harry’s help Jonathan manages to safely stowaway aboard the ship before it sets out. A legitimate member of the crew, Harry carries more secrets than Jonathan. As the voyage commences, it’s quickly clear he’s not alone in that regard. The captain and his crew have packed more emotional baggage than they have supplies. As they near their destination mysterious calamities haunt the expedition. Conflicts emerge as everything they need to survive is gradually stripped away, until they’re finally face to face with the supernatural force behind it all.

Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, the novel is told by Jonathan in a style reminiscent of that used by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. It’s the literary voice of another age when men used it to reveal their innermost hearts, as Shelley’s husband and other poet/authors did in their correspondences. The choice is deliberate and tells us this isn’t your typical tale of transgender identity, but an in-depth examination of the nature of masculinity and how it defines and sometimes fails the novel’s wide range of male characters, including Jonathan.

As one only recently allowed to fully adopt their male persona in public, Jonathan acts as a classic fish out of water who’s suddenly accepted by a small subculture of men living in isolation at sea. His gradual understanding of his fellows, why they do what they do and how he himself should behave and react as a man among them becomes an engaging analysis in action of gender roles both in and out of society.

The first third of the novel follows the crew of the ship through the everyday tasks of life at sea, as Jonathan settles into hiding until his presence on the ship is discovered and accepted. As the dangers to the expedition’s crew increase, they are deprived of the polite trappings and constraints of civilized society. We see beneath their carefully cultivated surfaces to what really drives each of them. By the time they’re in a frozen fight for their lives against a supernatural foe (that changes form to lure each to their doom in the icy wastes), all pretensions have been abandoned. We see how much of the construct we call manhood really assures survival.

An aspect of Wilkes’ novel I enjoyed was that Jonathan’s identity as a male character born in a female body is revealed almost immediately, frankly, and without fanfare. He’s simply who he is where he is, in the time he is. His concerns are greater than gender, faced with a calamitous personal loss and a life changing decision to make. While the attendant issues for “Jo” are made clear, they are not what the story is about.

In the films and television shows I grew up on, the few times a character who was gay or non-white was featured, it was only because that was what the story was about. I recall seeing a black couple on The Dick Van Dyke Show, truly one of my favorite sitcoms of all time, when Rob was convinced they’d gotten the wrong baby at the hospital, and it took a Black couple at the door with their own to convince him he was wrong. The other time was when Rob and Laura accidentally dyed their hands black before attending a Black organization’s award ceremony. The show was on for five seasons with 158 half-hour episodes.

I remember seeing Black people in two.

No Gay characters ever. By the time they appeared in Norman Lear sitcoms and TV movies like That Certain Summer with Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen as gay lovers who barely touched, never kissed, the pattern held true. It’s been the same for transgender characters, originally only seen only as “the issue” in an “important” episode of a series that goes back to business as usual in the next episode.

I waited for years to see characters who are considered “other” to be included in stories that let them be themselves, as the other characters were, in larger stories than their own. I see more and more of that today, especially in genre works like this novel.

When gender fluidity became a major topic in the media, I was initially surprised by how wide the spectrum is and at how many occupied its assorted slots. Accounts I first saw as signs of an increasing sense of freedom that offered increased options was soon understood as coming out stories of individuals who finally felt free to express their inner selves to all. It was a revelation fired by my own experience as a Gay youth with nothing to reflect me until my late teens and early twenties when I discovered the work of James Baldwin, William Burroughs, and a host of new films like Word is Out and Paris is Burning.

My own sense of self existed before I received any outside validation, as I’m now sure is also the case for any newly out transgender friends and acquaintances. Books, films, and television shows finally gave me people I could identify with and proved to me I wasn’t the only one who felt the way I did.

It’s gratifying and would have made a big difference to me when I was growing up, which is why I suppose there are objections from those who reverse causality and think telling kids about things that exist makes them happen. I just know I was a gay kid long before I ever heard or saw anything about it around me and my personal history made it easy for me to appreciate the firm resolve Jonathan expresses in the telling of his tale.

As better and broader stories like this one emerge, more audiences and readers can find themselves in them. Even those who don’t identify with all of the new characters can at least understand what it’s like for others. To me, shared understanding has always been the best use for the written word. In All the White Spaces, Ally Wilkes gives us a novel new character whose voyage of self-discovery also tells us much about ourselves.

Season of the Bruja, Issue 1
Aaron Durán & Sara Soler
Comic book
Oni Press (March 16, 2022), 23 pages
Graphic novel containing Issue 1-5 due out October 2022.

Season of the Bruja is a different journey of self discovery, tightly written by Aaron Durán with lively art and colors by Sara Soler in a flowing cartoony style that favorably reminds me of some of my loopier Marvel favorites, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Squirrel Girl, and Strange Academy, among others. In the first issue of five we meet Althalia while she’s hard at work with the mystical goat-eater and shapeshifting Ms. Medina. They’re trying to exorcise a demon from a suburban kid whose parents bought him the wrong doll at auction, a vessel imprisoning a lesser demon that they accidentally released.

Althalia’s abuela Isadora is training her granddaughter how to refine and use her growing powers as a born bruja. After Althalia returns home and fills her in on what happened, Isadora warns her against over-reaching her abilities and taking unnecessary risks. Too late! During an ill-advised confab with the demon in a limbo space called the under realm, Althalia has discovered that something big is coming, and she may not have the time to be fully prepared before she has to face it down . . .

Unlike many magician/chosen one tales, Althalia isn’t a brooding tween with no clue to their true nature. She’s still young, but older than adolescent, experienced, brashly confident, and loudly opinionated on issues like how much she hates seeing her people’s looted past on display at a local museum. There are clues as to where her story may go next—her grandmother’s age and Althalia’s dependence on her for guidance, ancient artifacts with a bloody history, a sinister tattooed priest with a very particular opinion of Althalia and her gifts, and a rising threat we will undoubtedly see more of soon. This is an early heads up on a comic book series to watch over the course of this year, and I look forward to finding out where it takes Althalia next and to seeing more of her world.

In the meantime, I continue my own unending search for self, as I await the end of the Covid crisis and so many more over the last few years, to discover what changes they have made in me.

Terence Taylor

Terence Taylor (terencetaylor.com) is an award-winning children’s television writer whose work has appeared on PBS, Nickelodeon, and Disney, among many others. After years of comforting tiny tots with TV, he turned to scaring their parents. His first published short story, “Plaything”, appeared in Dark Dreams, the first horror/suspense anthology of African-American authors. He was included in the next two volumes, and his short stories and non-fiction have appeared in Lightspeed and Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. Terence is also author of the first two novels of his Vampire Testaments trilogy, Bite Marks and Blood Pressure. He is currently writing the conclusion, Past Life. Follow him on Twitter @vamptestaments.