Reviewed by Victor J. Bannis
Blurb: Hidden Conflict presents four novellas that tell the experiences of gay military men, their families and friends, during times of conflict and war. Each story presents a unique voice at a distinct time in history.
A terrific quartet of beautifully realized stories exploring hidden loves and secret desires, set against backdrops of war and violence. And, as the blurb says, each told in unique voices.
Mark R. Probst's Not to Reason Why is set in 1876, on the eve of the massacre at Little Big Horn. Corporal Brett Price and his best friend, Sergeant Dermot Kerrigan are both a part of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry as it rides to a fateful rendezvous with rebellious Sioux forces. Brett is in love with the happily married Dermot, but the hardships of their journey bring them even closer together, until finally Brett confesses his love and is rewarded with a single kiss before they engage in one of the most grisly battles in American history. There's not much suspense, since we all know where this is headed, but Probst compensates with vivid descriptions and apt dialogue: "Haven't you ever noticed," Brett muses, "how these things are reported in the newspapers? When we win they say it‘s a victory, but when they win they say it‘s a massacre?" The battle scenes are horrific indeed, but even more painful is the picture the author paints of Brett's not altogether requited love. Yes, he and Dermot are best friends. Yes, Brett gets a kiss, just one. And, yes, Dermot loves Brett too, but not in the same way. A loving friendship may be harder to endure than the absence of love altogether. A little love is like an arrow to the heart of one who pines.
The two men in Jordan Taylor's No Darkness don't even progress to the kiss, though their awareness of the possibility, and ours, is palpable. The setting here is 1915, during World War I, on the Western Front. In a tale worthy of Poe, an enemy shelling leaves Lieutenant Darnell and Private Fisher trapped and injured in the root cellar of a farmhouse. Injured and struggling to survive their stygian tomb, they two men pass the time exchanging stories of their upbringing and trying, with almost certain futility, to find some means of escape. Here the theme of love is poignant and muted. A growing closeness suggests the possibility of physical sharing, but their backgrounds and their injuries – and ultimately the military conflict - conspire against it. The possibility of their love is smothered in darkness. Excellent characterizations.
E. N. Holland's Our One and Only begins in 1944, with World War II, but spans forty years and is told in decade long segments. Here it is not only the love between Eddie Fiske and Philip Cormier that is hidden, but more tellingly, the pain that Philip must endure alone when Eddie is killed in battle. Philip carries his memories of Eddie in his heart until at length he finds the one person with whom he can share it. Despite the tone of gravity throughout, the story ends on a surprisingly upbeat and very satisfying note. Here, plot triumphs over character, but the result is a beautifully encapsulated story of one man's lonely life and a loss that informs it decade after decade. How difficult it is to shut everyone, even those closest to us, out of our hearts. And how little those in our lives really know us, though they may believe that they know us well. The author clearly understands the burden of pain long borne.
I finished Alex Beecroft's Blessed Isle (set in 1790, the British Age of Sail) convinced that she is some kind of sea witch, who had kept me in thrall from the first word onward. Although hers is the first story chronologically in the book, I've saved it till last because, notwithstanding the uniformly excellent work from the other contributors, I personally feel this one is the jewel in a very splendid crown.
I don't want to spoil a convoluted story by giving away too many of the details, but as just one example, a storm at sea is evoked with such splendid terror I felt as lashed by the wind and the rain and as sour with fear as the hapless sailors. Scarcely less stormy is the love that gradually develops between. Harry Thompson, Captain of The Banshee, and his Lieutenant, Garnet Littleton, both of them brilliantly evoked. The author uses the conceit of alternating entries in a journal, thus allowing herself the intimacy of a first person point of view, and the elbow room of a second POV as well.
Let it be said her story is not without its faults. A penchant for historical accuracy veers dangerously close a time or two to pedantry. And I feel downright churlish in mentioning the sometimes less than seaworthy plot. Like an old tub set adrift, it bobbles and weaves and leaks, and threatens a time or two to sink under the weight of its own contrivance. I should also add, however, that this is not unlike those 18th and 19th century novels of which the author is obviously a fan. Happily, her splendid prose is an ocean wind that blows everything before it, in the end bringing our vessel to the safety of the harbor. There are simply very few writers in any genre who can write this well.
I recommend this anthology heartily, and Blessed Isle with special enthusiasm, if only so that readers can see with what power words can be wielded.
Ebook from Bristlecone Pine Press at www.bcpinepress.com
Print book from Cheyenne Publishing at cheyennepublishing.com