“When I was ten, an ice cream truck drove through our neighborhood playing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in the middle of June and my brother pulled down his shorts and pissed on my bicycle wheel.” —from “Marcelle” (p. 117)
The tinkling of a hymn and the smell of urine. What makes the stories in Dog Men standout is the layering of dark and light; hope, tenderly shaded with desperation. Alana Noel Voth blends the sacred and the profane to create seven “glorious smudges” that, thankfully, blur mainstream notions of love, gender, genre, and sexuality.
With frequent references to 1990’s American cultural phenomena including Reservoir Dogs, The Sixth Sense, and Backstreet Boys, the reader feels relatively secure in knowing when and where these tales unfold. That is about all the security the reader, or her characters will find. Disaster hovers at the edge of every page, but the most terrifying struggles take place in the heart and the mind. In each story, Ms. Voth sets her characters adrift to navigate desolate and surreal landscapes humming with anguish.
The tales in Dog Men are dark and harrowing. Voth exposes her characters to fear in many forms–werewolves, zombies, predatory violence, sexual confusion—but without losing the sense that she cares for them deeply. Ronan, the queer protagonist of “Marcelle” is a lovingly rendered outcast living in the shadow of his older brother. We follow him, step by agonizing step, towards the discovery of his true, inevitable, and beautiful self. Yet he, like many of the characters throughout the collection, has been condemned to the bottom of society’s pecking order. They inhabit the gutters amidst the needles and used condoms; along with the rest of society’s refuse. Ms. Voth, however, is not content to toss them out so unceremoniously.
There is redemption here, but it is in short supply. The author interprets Stephen King’s legendary advice, “Kill your darlings” in multiple ways. “Boxy Temples,” Ms. Voth’s homage to the Greek tragedy, reads like a cautionary tale of vanity. Belying his humble birth to a single mom, Hancy grows up touched by divine beauty, and we see him accumulate wealth and admirers through increasingly erotic and violent episodes. Envy, regret and vanity are conspiring all along to nearly guarantee his tragic end.
Possibly the most appealing feature of this collection is Voth’s measured use of the elements of horror, erotica, and fantasy. A note to readers who may be deterred by these sometimes subtle, occasionally blatant, touches of genre: Dog Men has so much more to offer. “My Name is Brighton” may be a violent zombie tale, but unlike the story’s antagonists, the piece itself has heart, and a definite pulse.
The title story that opens the collection offers fewer hints of Voth’s capacity to create powerfully original characters and spin compelling dialogue. It does, however, prepare the reader to seek out the gray areas where reality and fantasy bleed into one another. There is definitely bleeding, but there is also biting, burning and beating: all in the name of love or desire.
Dog Men abounds with gay and lesbian characters, genderqueer characters, and characters with sexual desires outside what might be called mainstream. In “Benediction,” we are introduced to Brent, a gay youth standing by his best friend after the latter is burned beyond recognition in a freak accident. As they fumble their way through adolescence and their relationship changes, Brent makes himself increasingly vulnerable. The results are devastating.
In Dog Men, Voth renders seven distinct tales with the same vivid emotional palette. She is relentless, but never reckless in her treatments of character. Her stories can come on like a shot to the head or an IV drip of poison. The characters are decidedly damaged and lovable because of—or in spite of—their ordeals. In the way a painter like Dali or Chagall uses surreal elements to stab at truth, Ms. Voth’s bizarre tales take us closer to home than we might have thought.
This collection is uncomfortable at times, but discomfort in this case is the sign of a widening perspective. Ms. Voth gracefully sidesteps stereotypes, and proudly offers the world a broad look at a spectrum of human identity that delights almost as much as it hurts.
About the reviewer:
Christopher Santantasio is a native of New York’s Hudson Valley whose writing has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Music Educator’s Journal, and elsewhere. He lives with his partner in Philadelphia, where he teaches music lessons to kids who learn differently. He blogs about fiction and LGBTQ issues