#RUNTRACCOONREVOLUTION by Jeremiah Walton

This mess develops when the economy is more important than starvation.  When childhood is dangling from a noose, and you are marching under the shadow, a machine.  What would you do with your life if you took money out of the equation?

In all likelihood, many readers will shrug their shoulders and smile cynically reading those lines (which come from the early part of this book) especially the last part.  More and more, I notice people (including many who really should know better) proudly declaring their lack of faith in any attempt at societal change.  Even worse, quite a few are outright contemptuous of the idea.  So be it, I suppose.  I just don’t want to hear any of them whining when their children don’t have enough to eat.  (That kind of vengeful bitterness is understood but rightly condemned in this poem, but I can’t help it coming out sometimes.)

Every day I tell myself I’m being foolish.  I remind myself of history, of all the disillusioned people who were proven wrong in the end.  But I can’t help myself.  I see moments that should be the start of a new era come and go, rushed out of view as fast as possible by the establishment and their servants in the media.  It feels to me like a door is slowly but surely closing, and we don’t have much time to get through it.  It might well take a revolution to get us through that door.  I don’t mean the ugly, violent events that characterized many of the revolutions of the past, but a new kind.  Perhaps the kind hinted at in this book.

Over the past few years, I’ve read and loved three other books of poetry by Jeremiah Walton.  The curious can find reviews on this blog.  #RuntRaccoonRevolution is very different, however.  It is not a collection but a single, powerful song of fear, love, and hope.  Building on personal experiences, Walton climbs to chilling insights:

The first sentient robot begs to be turned off

watching small graves dug for small coffins

his pleas are buried under the weight of development.

The ideas in this poem, like those in the above lines, are so compelling I sat down and read the whole thing in one sitting.  Anyone who knows me knows that is exceedingly rare.  A large number of passages captured things that have been floating around in my head for years:

peaceful protests waltzing within the permitted box for

change, love and heartache

Probably there are some readers who will find some of this overly harsh on modern life.  I would strongly disagree, but even if the thoughts are cutting at times, there is compassion all throughout:

we hamsters in balls are terrified.

mouths shaped like body bags

As all my quotes should show, the verse itself is beautiful, and as full of power as the ideas it carries.  Returning to my dark thoughts at the start of this review, I don’t know if we’re going to go through that door.  Walton seems to think so, but I feel more and more pessimistic with every missed opportunity.  If we do go through, it will be because millions of people start to feel the feelings, and think the thoughts expressed in #RuntRaccoonRevolution.  That would be really great.

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The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 7: THE OLD ENGLISH BARON by Clara Reeve

From a look at some criticism of this novel, amateur and professional, current and historical, many readers might dispute my including it as part of my series of horror reviews.  There seems to be a general sense of disappointment that this early Gothic novel skimps on the atmosphere that is generally expected in a work of that description.  I say, give it a break!  The form was still in its infancy and Reeve was trying something new.  Maybe what she tried isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it deserves to be judged on its own terms.

Personally, I found it a very compelling read.  Sure, there was a pang of disappointment when I noticed the lack of dark trappings to be found in Shelley’s Frankenstein or Lewis’s The Monk, but The Old English Baron goes its own way quite successfully.  Reeve’s plot is a page-turner (although the love story is a bit pallid), and her characters are interesting and fully fleshed out people, not just types.  Perhaps most intriguingly, the book functions as a genuine historical novel.  When I was reading The Monk (which I loved, don’t get me wrong), I frequently forgot it was set earlier than when it was written.  The historical setting was just window dressing.  Reeve manages to make her narrative truly live in the medieval era.

On a related note, The Old English Baron illuminated for me some links between genres that had previously been rather confusing.  Over the years, I’ve come across references to the Gothic form that seemed to connect it to the mystery genre.  As recently as the 1930s, you can find references to the Tod Browning directed version of Dracula that refer to it as a “mystery.”  I had always found all this somewhat puzzling.  Reading Reeve’s novel started to clear things up.  With just a few changes, The Old English Baron could function as a tightly constructed detective story.  It’s a shame Reeve did not live into the era of early mysteries.  She could easily have been one of the first giants of the form.

I suppose my connecting this book to mysteries and historical fiction will cause some groans from fellow horror fans.  There are ghost scenes in The Old English Baron, however.  No, there are not enough of them by our standards, and they’re a little low-key.  That being said, I still found them pretty darned spooky in their own way!

The Old English Baron has major historical interest for anyone who cares about the development of the Gothic.  On its own, it’s a fine novel.  At times, I found it slender, but only in the sense that I wanted more.  That’s pretty good for a novel over 200 years old.  As always, my advice is to read books for themselves, not for what they’re “supposed” to do.  The Old English Baron is more than worth reading for itself.

EROTICA by Brian Centrone

I’m going to be honest up front here. Books about sex are not really my thing. By that, I don’t mean that I don’t like it when sex and sexuality figure significantly in a story. They’re pretty major aspects of the human experience, after all. However, my interest tends to wane when there is little else going on. If you look at some previous reviews of mine, you’ll see that I’m not really into sex personally.  I even went on a rant of a review, defending Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  My thesis was that the book’s current critical neglect is due to the fact that Wilder was not an author concerned primarily with sexuality, and that this fact confused and irritated the sex-addled literary establishment.  I confess to being rather grouchy in that piece (it was a bad few weeks), but I still stand by much of it.  Therefore, you can imagine that a book titled Erotica would not be my cup of tea, and I avoided reading it for a while, despite my friendship with the author.  That was a mistake.  This is a stellar collection.

Readers should know that this is a book of gay, male erotica.  As a gay man, I suppose I am part of the target audience.  Despite this, I would argue Erotica is worth anyone’s time.  Centrone’s introduction, “Oops, I Didn’t Know I Couldn’t Write About Sex,” is worth it even if you have zero interest in erotica, gay or straight.  It is a magnificent essay, one of the best defenses of writing within a certain “genre” that I have ever read.  When I started writing this review, I wanted to include one quote from the introduction, but it’s awfully tough to pick just one part.  I’ll go with this, but be aware it was a painful choice: “There is more than one way to tell a story, and there is more than one type of story to tell.  If that story happens to get you off while reading it, well, then, good.”  I’ve been arguing, in conversation and writing, for years that the type of story should matter less than whether or not it’s a good story, worth telling.  In my humble opinion, Centrone has the last word on that subject.

By now, many readers are probably wondering if I’m going to talk at all about the stories (by which they mean the sex) or just babble about the intro.  Fair enough.  You don’t open a book of erotic stories primarily for the preface.  Since I don’t know much erotica, it would be wrong of me to claim it is better than your average erotic writing.  However, I’d bet good money that it is.  Remember, I’m not drawn to this type of writing and I could rarely put the book down.  Favorite pieces would have to include “Mates,” a bittersweet student reminiscence with masterful, sometimes heartbreaking dialogue.  I also loved the almost dreamlike mystery of “Boracay,” which contains some of the most sensuous writing in the book.  Perhaps even better is the quirky comic uplift of “Chubstr,” which will bring a smile to the face of anyone who has ever tried to navigate online dating and hookups.  Erotica is also a finely designed book, with a beautiful cover, frontispiece, and great artwork throughout by four artists.  I particularly admired the cartoons of Terry Blas, but all the art is top-notch.

The book does have its flaws.  “Getting What He Wants” is a bit of a by the numbers jock wet dream, albeit a very pleasant one indeed.  However, my chief complaint is more of a nitpick than a criticism.  By far my favorite story is “Lost.”  This piece will challenge what most readers expect of erotica by being a genuine period drama, set inside a tantalizing frame device.  One of the few erotic works I had read previously was Anais Nin’s novel Collages.  “Lost” more than matches Nin’s glittery off-kilter prose and puzzle box atmosphere, while adding humor and a touch of sadness which are all Centrone’s own.  So what’s my problem?  I felt the historical moments were just slightly short of period details.  One or two additions might have ramped up the deliriously wonderful fantasy.  That being said, these are minor issues with a story I found brimming with great characterizations, truly alluring sex, and a really arresting style that make it a full-blown masterpiece.

Unfortunately, the prejudices Centrone tries to dispel in his introduction are still strong.  Most readers who don’t take erotica seriously probably won’t read this.  Straight readers will think they have nothing to gain from a bunch of stories concerning gay sex.  Both assumptions are dead wrong, stupidly wrong, but likely to be prevalent.  Maybe, just maybe, my little review has intrigued a couple of reluctant readers.  If so, take it from me: read Erotica.  It might not make you love gay erotica in general, but this book and these stories are worth the attention of anyone who appreciates a well-told story with something real to say.