Outsiders. I chose these tales based on their provocative titles, and all are by women whose work I have never read before. Let's see how edgy they really are!
"Pit Boy" by Elizabeth Massie
The term "pit boy" appears in the first paragraph of the introduction to Outsiders by Nancy Holder and Nancy Kilpatrick, as part of a list that includes "goth" and "bag lady." I know what a goth is, and what a bag lady is, but what is a pit boy? I had no idea. I resisted googling the term in hopes of being shocked and amazed by the story by Elizabeth Massie that bears that title.
This story is brief and effective, a first person narrative by a young man who apparently lives in a dark cellar with other young men. The boys talk about how there is going to be party tonight, and our narrator describes briefly the arc of his life--born to a prostitute, work as a lookout for drug dealers, and now, apparently, some kind of slave to the guy who is holding the party. I thought that our narrator and the other boys were catamites, but when the cellar door is opened by the narrator's owner and the lights are turned the truth is revealed--the boys are not sex slaves but 20th (21st?) century gladiators! The boys are each locked in a separate cage, and Massie describes their battle scars-- missing ears and nipples, for example. Yuck!
The pit boys are not Roman-style gladiators, but humans treated just like fighting cocks. Their owner lashes Freddy Krueger gloves to their hands and spurs to their shoes, and they fight pit boys brought over by other owners for the pleasure of paying spectators. The narrator wins multiple fights, and is rewarded with beer and the services of a prostitute.
Well-structured and paced, and certainly about outsiders and people on the fringes of our society, "Pit Boy" is more or less what I expected from this anthology, something creepy and disgusting about degraded criminals. I am not sure if we should consider it a piece of speculative or merely crime fiction. It seems to take place in modern America--spectators pay in dollars, people have names like Chuck, Erik and Ricky (yes, "Ricky" again), and consumer items like boom boxes, Coke, and Pepsi are mentioned. But I have to hope there are not real to-the-death gladiatorial combats between slaves taking place in basements in the United States, that this is some kind of parallel universe, created by Massie in hopes of inspiring in the reader a loathing for such pastimes as cock-fighting, bull-fighting, dog-fighting, and the way, in my youth, I would throw live moths and flies to my pet anoles.
"Grim Peeper" by Katherine Ramsland
I read this one because I thought it would be about voyeuristic sex.
Ramsland apparently makes her living catering to all those people who watch those criminal forensics shows; the intro notes that she wrote The Forensic Science of C.S.I. and The Science of Cold Case Files. The first sentence of this story contains the word "perp," and the brief story takes place in a courtroom, where the narrator is observing a trial.
Our narrator is some kind of therapist, apparently studying people who are erotically stimulated by looking at dead bodies and watching such activities as autopsies. The trial is of such a person. The narrator, whose sex is not disclosed, over years of research has learned all their tricks and behaviors (like how to sneak into a morgue so you can hide in a closet and masturbate while covertly observing an autopsy through a peephole.) The point of the story is that the narrator is similar to the perverts he or she studies, devoting his or her life and deriving sexual satisfaction from pursuing a difficult quarry the requires elaborate planning and risky maneuvers to catch up with.
This story is OK, no big deal. It certainly qualifies as edgy and outsiderish, however.
"The Country of the Blind" by Melanie Tem
I read this one because the title refers to one of my favorite adages, and I thought it might be about a guy who gets one of his eyes gouged out. Nothing says "horror" like an eye-gouging! In addition, Tem, I saw from the intro, was a critically successful writer (she won Bram Stoker and World Fantasy awards), so presumably worth a try.
As it turns out, Tem hits the edgy outsider jackpot with this unsettling and realistic story of blind down-and-outers. The story has conventional literary values: it is well-structured and full of human relationships and has a good surprise ending. Tem also fills "The Country of the Blind" with disturbing and squirm-inducing details--examples include numerous references to empty eye sockets, and the description of how a character enjoys kisses from rough, chapped lips. There is the pathetic image of a blind homeless man wearing a woman's sweater and using an aggressive chihuahua as a guide dog. "Pit Boy" and "Grim Peeper" both included inappropriate and yucky erections, but Tem wins the gross-me-out arousal competition when the protagonist feels a "stirring in his balls" when another blind person grapples him and sticks her tongue in his empty eye socket. Yuck!
The plot [WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUND]: We follow Clement, the blind beggar and shoplifter, through a day in his life in the city. Clement lives in a house with other blind people including Seph, their leader and Clement's lover. Seph has been blind since birth and takes in people who are down on their luck, helping them learn to survive via beggary and thievery. Clement loves Seph, and there are several flashbacks in which we learn how much she means to him, how she guided him and taught him to survive, even enjoy, his life after losing his sight. Clement is also jealous, and worries that a young white girl, Victoria, who may be joining Seph's household, may displace him as Seph's lover.
There are plenty of good scenes, some tense and some repulsive, about Clement begging and getting lost in the city with his beloved chihuahua Loozy Anna, who is a poor guide. Seph and Loozy Anna, we see, are the two things that make Clement's life worth living.
At the end of the tale come the shocking revelations. Victoria has decided not to join the group, putting Seph in an ugly mood. She seizes Loozy Anna and, because the dog is not "one of us," tries to cut the dog's eyes out! To the reader's shock and amazement, we learn that the wretches Seph takes in are not blind when they arrive at her doorstep--Clement and the others were sighted when they met Seph, but Seph demanded they allow her to gouge out their eyes (!) as a sign of commitment to her! And they did it! Perhaps even worse, Seph, on this day the young girl whose eyes she wanted to possess got away, demands that Clement himself cut out Loozy Anna's eyes! Our whole view of Clement's relationships with his lover and benefactor and with his guide dog is upended as Clement takes up the blade and lays the dog "on his thigh as if it were a cutting board." Even though Tem had cleverly foreshadowed these dreadful revelations, I was taken by surprise.
There are three kinds of surprise endings. There's the surprise ending that is not a surprise, which is not very satisfying. Then there's the surprise ending which is a surprise because it makes no sense, which is annoying. Tem delivers in this story the best kind of surprise ending, the surprise ending which makes total sense but still comes as a shock. Tem's story is like the work of a mastercrafstman, and it is a joy to behold in this world in which so many things are mediocre or shoddy.
"The Country of the Blind" takes you on a disgusting and depressing nightmare rollercoaster ride. Very effective--five out of five empty eye sockets! I'll read more Tem in the future, after I have had time to recover from this draining experience.
I've only read six of the 22 stories in Outsiders, but I feel comfortable recommending it to people interested in reading stories "from the edge"--the Nancies Holder and Kilpatrick seem to have done a good job putting the book together, collecting stories that are either edgy, or well-written, or, as in the case of Tem's "Country of the Blind," both.