Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: Scruffians! by Hal Duncan

---I was born under a bad signpost, says Foxtrot Wainscot Hottentot III.
---I was stolen from bypasses, says Puckerscruff of the urchins.
---I was raised by werewolves, says Flashjack of the hellions.
---I ran away from the circus, says Joey Picaroni.
---I bought me soul from the Devil, says Nuffinmuch O'Anyfink, king of the tinkers.
---I was a teenage virgin mum, says Bananastasia Roamin-hopper, rightful Princess of Russia (allegedly).
---I took the King's shilling and died in all his wars, says Ratatat Dan. But not for the likes of you.
---You see, says Gob, a Scruffian's story needs a hook.
I fell in love with Hal Duncan's collection, Scruffians! as soon as I read the first story. How can that be? Well, as Gob would say, that one story is the hook. It got me to read the whole book in one sitting.

Hal Duncan's work can be dense, non-linear, and highly imaginative along with extraordinary writing skills that always impress. With the addition of his homoerotic fantasy-based Scruffian stories, mythology-based fairies and pirates, and other fun adventures found in this short story speculative fiction collection, readers get a well-defined sense of what makes Duncan such a fine story teller and weaver of dreams.

The Scruffian pieces are connected primarily through world-building and recurring characters. In "How a Scruffian Starts Their Story," "How a Scruffian Gets Their Name," "Scruffian's Stamp," "An Amfabetcha of Scruffian's Names," and "Jack Scalliwag," Duncan weaves fantasy stories of lost boys and girls, some very young and others older, that after having been used or abused through the ages, gained semi-immortality and banded together in order to survive. Duncan's Scruffians are outsiders, rough and tough fighters and survivors who stand up for one another, and others, when nobody else will. In "Behold of the Eye," a recurring character, this time appearing as a fairy, inhabits the eye of a boy and experiences from the inside the changes, anguish, and terrors that take place as the boy grows into a teenager and realizes he is gay. This is a coming of age fairy tale like you've never read before.
Orphans, foundlings, latchkey kids.
Urchins, changelings, live-by-wits.
Rascals, scallywags, ruffians, scamps.
Scoundrels, hellions, Scruffians STAMP!
The characters alone make these stories stand out, but what really captures the attention is how Duncan mixes fantasy with raw reality and urban contemporary language. It is a rough reality that he depicts in the guise of fantasy. However, Duncan's boys, sodomites or not, are sexy, sly, and playful, and his stories are also filled with a high dose of fun, as well as homoeroticism, adventure, quests, and strong underlying emotions.

The collection slowly shifts to other speculative fiction pieces such as "The Disappearance of James H---," a twist on Peter Pan and Captain Hook, "The Island of the Pirate Gods," a fun, mythology-based piece with two pirates and Oberon's fairies that is filled with adventure and a fantastic narrative, and "The Shoulder of Pelops," another twist, based on the Tantalus and Pelops myth. There are also three unique pieces, the art-focused "The Bizarre Cubiques," the western-style "Sons of the Law," and my favorites in this group "The Angel of Gamblers," a story that I loved for its excellent pacing and suspenseful narrative about a gambler who sells his soul to an angel and then attempts to gain it back.

I previously read three stories included in this collection, all chosen as favorites in years past. "Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!" I absolutely loved for its unique, fun, first person narrative from the hellhound's perspective, but for me, "Oneirica" and "The Nature of the Fiend" stand out for the distinct ways in which Duncan takes characters and readers from one plane to another. In "Oneirica," Duncan lulls the reader by using smooth dreamlike sequences that begin when a man looks into a grain of sand and travels through the ages experiencing the evolution of man and civilizations, while in "The Nature of the Fiend," the changes are surprising, abrupt, and a shock to the reader, as time evolves and a boy's recurring losses and cumulative grief bring out the darkness in him. This is a simplistic way of summarizing these stories because with their complexity and beauty they both garner strong reactions from the reader and are worth a reread or two.

To date, Scruffians! is one of my favorite single-author collections of the year -- I've already read it twice. It is the first compilation of Hal Duncan's short works and includes 15 previously published speculative fiction pieces. They are all of the upmost quality, bearing the distinct Duncan signature: a mixture of mythology and urban contemporary, fantasy and raw reality, as well as beautiful, often complex and thought-provoking plotting and characters. I find that Duncan's short works leave me gasping with excitement or reaching for better understanding, and always wanting more. Highly recommended.

Category: LGBT/Speculative Fiction
Series: None - Single Author Collection
Publisher/Release Date: Lethe Press/April 19, 2014
Grade: A

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ADDITIONAL INFO: Lethe Press is offering a Deluxe edition of Duncan's first short story collection. Hardcover, with dust jacket, full color art and text on heavy stock paper. Scandalous cover, too. This edition has an original story not to be found in the regular edition as well as over 40 photographs that complement the homoerotic tales. Click here for more details.

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