‘Before and Afterlives’ by Christopher Barzak
Lethe Press continues to produce quality LGBT literature, especially as a leader in speculative fiction. This latest collection of short stories adds nicely to Lethe’s offerings. Christopher Barzak offers up a mysterious and captivating collection of 17 essays that grab your attention and haunt you even after you finish them.
First, a note for those reading on Lambda Literary, who want an exclusive gay or lesbian or bisexual or alternative or whatever experience: Barzak’s stories run the gamut, from straight, to gay, to confused, to masked, to unknown, and beyond. Mind you, that is no criticism on my part. I see it as a strength of his storytelling mastery. But I feel obligated to this audience to spell out clearly what a reader will see in this book.
Whether LGBT, straight, or, again, whatever, if you long for intense speculative fiction with an original voice that is well written, you will delight in this book. Barzak has a talent for pulling you into a story within the first two or three paragraphs. All writers strive to accomplish that, but few do with such regularity and finesse as Barzak. He weaves complex plotlines into a short space and brings to life an assortment of characters and personalities that each stand on their own as unique and believable, even amidst the supernatural hauntings.
I particularly loved the originality of his vision. He avoids trite ghost stories or hauntings, instead carving out original space for his tales. “Dead Boy Found” will sound familiar to those who have read One for Sorrow, yet it was interesting to see the novel captured in short form, before, I assume, it developed into something longer and more intense. Young Adam’s visit by the ghost of a dead boy and the burgeoning friendship with a girl, and the subsequent ghostly love triangle therein, keeps you guessing about the outcome. In another story, Tommy and his merman mate come home, and his sister grapples with her brother’s sexuality and the great unknowns. The point of view from the sister here is strong in creating a captivating tale. I particularly found myself entranced by “The Language of Moths,” where a young man finds love in the form of a local boy around his family’s cabin, loses it, and struggles with his sister before finding the most intense connection with her that he never knew existed.
Barzak is at his best in the Midwestern settings and flavors that he infuses into these stories. He gets the culture and feel of the people and brings the region to life in a profound way. Having lived in Nebraska and later Ohio, I was struck by the authenticity of his images. For a lot of people who escaped the rural confines of the Midwest, Barzak will pull you back home. And those living there now will feel comfortable and safe in his hands.
Except that he also will make the hair on your arms raise up, with spirits and mysteries that make you wonder if some entity hovers over your shoulder at that moment, reading along with you. I always find that reviewing a collection of short stories challenges me more than anything else in writing, because of the difficulty in capturing the true essence of the book and doing justice to it. With the variety of characters, plots, twists, and turns in Barzak’s work, he made this task all the more thorny. Yet therein lies the brilliance of his haunted writing. You simply cannot encapsulate it in a few words. Instead, you need to read it. Experience it. And enjoy.
Before and Afterlives
By Christopher Barzak
Paperback, 9781590213698, 242 pp.