“Golden Hair, Red Lips” by Matthew Bright
Reviewed by Nicky Magas
The portrait of Dorian Gray sits covered in an attic in San Francisco, carefully shielded from the eyes of its owner in Matthew Bright’s “Golden Hair, Red Lips.” Dorian himself, as beautiful and ageless in this century as he has been in the last, stalks the streets of the Castro, indulging in a new lover every night. But something clouds Dorian’s hedonistic enjoyment of uncommonly beautiful men. A disease rips through the community like the Plague, covering its victims’ bodies in lesions and draining them of all substance and vitality. Even though Dorian’s lovers have the very wearisome habit of dying from the strange malady, Dorian himself remains untouched. Immune from the disease though it seems he may be, there’s something else dogging Dorian, and it’s viler and more frightening than any illness ever was.
There are many layers to “Golden Hair, Red Lips” that make this a wonderfully fun story to pick apart as one reads. It starts with the premise that the title character of the famous Oscar Wilde novel did not kill himself, but instead lived on into the late twentieth century. Keeping the unabashed hedonism consistent with the original character, Bright revitalizes Dorian Gray, giving him an equal and fluid mix of nineteenth century British charm and modern selfish individualism. The setting, which gives Dorian a whole new avenue of sensual indulgence to explore, also lends solid foundation for the disease, dubbed ‘gay cancer’ in the story. It’s hard not to draw a connection between this illness and the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. But narrative dissections aside, “Golden Hair, Red Lips” is fascinating in its debauched beauty and frightening picture of obsession and decay.
The world is full of people with hideous, dark thoughts in “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong. But that’s just the way Jenny likes it. The blacker, more depraved the thought, the better the meal is. But when Jenny eats up the blackest thoughts of a killer, so bittersweet and filling, nothing after it tastes quite as good. Suddenly Jenny is ravenous all the time for darker, harder thoughts. Neither the cautions of her mother nor the concerned love of her friend can keep Jenny from falling into bad company with a similar taste for the impure. As the feasts grow more wicked and spectacular there seems to be no depth that Jenny won’t plunge into to sate her ever-growing hunger.
“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” has a plethora of nasty, bitey horror flavors that become a bit watered down in the length of the story. I was satisfied and ready for the story to end near the middle, but the inclusion of Seo-yun and her parties pulled the story out longer than I felt it needed to be. Part of the drawn-out feeling comes from Jenny’s relationships with the other characters in the story: Aiko, her mother, Seo-yun, and to a lesser extent her father. Each of these people are important to Jenny, but because they have to share what few of Jenny’s thoughts aren’t selfish, they lack a truly satisfying depth of emotion. Despite this, the premise and the narrative voice are strong, and the prose well-crafted to make the story engaging.
All Josh wants is to finally put the pieces of his life back together after the death of his husband in Lee Thomas’s “The Lord of Corrosion.” It’s been two years, but between managing his grief and their young adopted daughter, until now Josh hasn’t had much inclination to return to the dating scene. But when five year-old Sophia starts scrawling racist and homophobic messages over her artwork and claiming she’s being spoken to by her dead daddy, all thoughts of finding new love flee to Josh’s periphery. As Sophie becomes increasingly disturbed, Josh begins to suspect her ailment is supernatural in nature, though that won’t stop him from attempting to save what remains of his family.
“The Lord of Corrosion” borrows a lot of elements from modern cinematic horror: a child acting strangely after speaking to an imaginary friend, the helpfully unhelpful professional, and the counter-intuitive all or nothing confrontation at the climax. Consumed as a visual media, “The Lord of Corrosion” would have everything it needs to be a truly creepy movie, however as a work of short fiction the pacing is slow and the prose lacks the impact it needs to really drive home the horror in the story. As a casual read, “The Lord of Corrosion” fulfills all the requirements of a horror, complete with sharp tension, a good mystery, and a to-the-death climax. Readers who are looking for a horror story that preys on the mind and lingers in the subconscious, however, may be disappointed.
In Sunny Moraine’s “Dispatches from a Hole in the World,” at least three hundred thousand and seventy-six young people died in the suicide epidemic. There were probably more that weren’t recorded. If that wasn’t enough, society has collectively decided that the issue isn’t worth bringing up anymore, now that the suicide rate has declined again. After all, what’s the point of continuing to ask questions there aren’t any answers for? But it’s not enough for one PhD candidate who lived through the year of unexplained death. She lost friends to the event, people she’d never met outside of the Internet, but whose relationships formed sisterhoods and brotherhoods, which in turn formed support communities for the survivors. With everybody else doing his or her best to forget and move on, she finds she can only sink further into the dark and painful past.
Several issues facing the last two generations haunt the lines of “Dispatches from a Hole in the World:” the paradox of isolation and community on the Internet, a disenfranchising gap between previous generations that is larger than ever before, or the sinking realization that the world and all it’s promises aren’t going to be met and the consequences that brings. The great suicide plague creates a second, virtual Lost Generation, cut off from the rest of the world in a bubble of their contemporaries and with no succor to be found except within their own ranks. The first person prose is deeply moving in a way that will be experienced differently for everyone. What readers take out of this story will ultimately depend on what experiences they bring into it.