Signal Horizon

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{Book Review} Boys, Beasts & Men by Sam J. Miller

Courtesy of Tachyon Publications

Sam J. Miller’s Boys, Beasts & Men (Tachyon Publications, 2022) is a collection of Miller’s short stories that span decades and genres, but are tied together organically by themes of loss, loneliness, relationships between parents and children, and ultimately, connection. Most of the characters in these tales are striving for connection, and Miller deftly explores our greatest collective fear; being alone. 

I discovered Sam J. Miller thanks to the Clarkesworld Podcast, and “Things With Beards” has long been a favorite of mine. I have sought out his work in multiple publications as well as devoured his novels, and I was thrilled to have a collection of some of his short stories curated together. The collection includes horror, sci fi and speculative fiction, but the stories interconnect effortlessly despite the wide ground of genres they cover. Miller has a talent for achieving a great deal of world building in just a few pages, which gives each story a strong sense of place and individuality. Whether there are dinosaurs, ghosts, or dystopian cities involved, these are human stories. They’re tales of people trying to relate to one another, to grow, and to love. 

Boys, Beasts, & Men A Needed Queer Voice

They are also beautifully queer stories, and explore the loneliness, isolation, rage and hunger that come with living in a world where LGBTQA people are marginalized, pathologized, and ostracized. Several of the stories are set during the heights of the AIDS crisis, but are just as salient now, when bad actors are trying to brand Monkey Pox as the new “gay disease” (they’re wrong), and when it’s questionable if the US Senate will codify the right to marry someone of the same gender.

I’m sure we all hoped that since these stories were written we’d have moved past some of these themes, but here we are. The story “Angel, Monster, Man” could have been written today and be just as relevant. The story deals with four friends who set out to honor a generation of writers lost to AIDS, but their anger and grief summons something set on vengeance. Other stories in this collection, such as The Heat of Us, an alternate history of the Stonewalls Riot, also deal with the power, and consequences, of collective rage. One has to look no further than the daily news to nod in sympathy at the concept that sometimes systems can’t be repaired, they have to be torn asunder. The moral of these stories can be summed up in a quote from Ghosts of Home.

“But now that she knew something could be taken away, she also knew she could fight for it.”

Sam J. Miller

 Miller’s prose is straightforward and accessible. Sam understands and trusts his characters, and leaves space for their emotions to unfold between the words. He has the confidence to let what’s not said matter as much as the words on the pages. Authors have to trust not only their characters, but the readers themselves, to understand what is happening between the lines. Miller leaves room for the inhaled breath, the things one ought to say that tumble around our minds but never come out of our mouths, for the small gestures of grace and forgiveness that are sometimes all we’re capable of. 

Standouts for me are “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides”, a tale about the terrible power and pain of being a queer youth, which tells the story of a young man who has developed supernatural gifts, but not the power to protect himself from being bullied by high school jocks.

“Conspicuous Plumage” is a quietly heartbreaking story about loss and grief, set in that liminal space between adolescence and adulthood. Taylor is a young woman who lives in a world where all young adults develop a supernatural ability. Taylor’s brother’s ability was to dance with a transcendent beauty that made him the talk of their small town, and may have been the reason he died. “Things With Beards”, which explores identity, self acceptance, and masculinity. It is a postscript to John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing, told by MacReady after the events of the movie. “Angel, Monster, Man” explores loss, fury, collective action and the many ways social justice can manifest. It wouldn’t be a stretch to picture Tom Minniq at a local protest, a tulpa of our collective trauma and outrage. “Sun in an Empty Room” closes out the collection with a gentle, evocative story of developing empathy and accepting the impermanence of our lives, from the point of view of a jaded piece of furniture witnessing yet another human drama. 

Each of the stories in the collection looks at different aspects of loss, grief, fury, and the human longing for companionship. In many of the stories, the relationships between parents and children highlight the disconnection and isolation that many queer youth feel. At a time when LGBTQA people find themselves battling to retain their civil rights, the consequences of this disconnect feel immense.

This collection is full of heart, and I can’t recommend it enough. Miller ends the collection with story notes that give additional insight into the original publication and origin of each story, as well as some easter eggs to hunt for in the shared universes of some of the stories. Boys, Beasts & Men is a great introduction to Sam J. Miller’s catalog of short stories as well as a timely body of work that looks at the sense of isolation and yearning for connection many of us are feeling in these turbulent times.