Steve Berman, Vintage: A Ghost Story (Haworth Press, 2007)

Steve Berman's Vintage: A Ghost Story combines the vibrancy of the contemporary YA fantasy novel with the atmosphere of the traditional ghost story to produce a work reminiscent of that of Robert Aickman or Algernon Blackwood, where the ghosts exist both as manifestations of tragedies from the past and as echoes of modern loneliness and social isolation.

The protagonist of Vintage is himself initially a somewhat ghostly character: for instance, the other characters in the story rarely, if ever, speak his name. After being outed as a gay teen in his old neighborhood and viciously accused by his parents of being a "sick child," he has run away to live with his aunt. He has stopped going to school and has instead fallen into a pattern of drifting aimlessly between his job at a local vintage clothing store and the rundown diners where he eats in order to avoid his aunt's horrible cooking. When the protagonist meets Josh, who turns out to be the ghost of a gay teenager from the past. The protagonist is thrilled, believing that he has finally met someone he can talk to and have a relationship with. He soon discovers, however, that the secrets of the past can also endanger those who live in the present, and that it is not just Josh but his own personal ghosts which must be laid to rest if he is to have a future.

Berman's previous work in historical fantasy (see, for instance, his short story "The Price of Glamour" in The Faery Reel) comes through in his ability to portray history as an active influence -- both positive and negative -- upon those who live in the present. The vintage clothes and the goth fashions favored by the protagonist and his best friend, Trace, are a way for the young people to create a romantic history for themselves, an elegant past which bears little resemblance to the neglect or rejections they have experienced from the adults in their lives. At the same time, history in the form of family history is an entity which actively haunts most of the characters in this novel. The ghost story also provides a sharp focus for the gay themes addressed in this YA fantasy, as when the protagonist finds himself looking enviously at a young couple and thinks, "You can't bring a spectral boyfriend for a night out on the town or to a coffeehouse to share a mocha. Even if something happened between Josh and me, it would always be a secret."

Yet the fact that the main character is a gay teen specifically does not make this story any less of a commentary on other teen issues. As the protagonist's attempt to save Josh becomes inextricably entangled with saving himself and the people he cares about, the story emerges as a commentary about the necessity of freeing people from the patterns of secrets and shame which leave them incapable of moving on in life, habits which leave them living as if they are already dead. The ghosts in the story can only haunt those living beings who already feel a sense of being invisible, who already live as social outcasts because they are different. Like the goth fashions and flea market arts and crafts of its characters, the fantasy genre of this story only underscores the sense that many young people, like the characters in this story, live in a world which is in desperate need of replenishing the story well by refashioning the most potent of the old myths rather than recycling the same tired modern ones which promise that wealth or popularity or traditional relationships can be made synonymous with happiness.

Though this is Steve Berman's first novel, his name may be familiar to fans of the Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling fairy tale anthologies such as the previously mentioned The Faery Reel and the upcoming The Coyote Road. Berman is also editor of the anthology So Fey: Queer Faery Fiction (Haworth Press, Winter 2007), which includes stories by authors such as Sarah Monette, Holly Black, and Delia Sherman. Holly Black fans may even remember having first read a mention of Vintage in a scene in Tithe where Kay glimpsed Vintage amongst the pile of other books and clutter in Corny's room.

Vintage is an outstanding example of how genres such as YA fantasy and supernatural fiction can be used to create new stories which exploit the potential of speculative fiction to address social issues. I am already anticipating the next book by Steve Berman.

Note: One-fifth of the author's royalties will be donated to: the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, which is a youth-led organization that connects school- based Gay-Straight Alliances to one another and community resources; and, the Trevor Project, a nonprofit endeavor established to promote acceptance of gay and questioning teenagers, and to aid in suicide prevention in that group.

[Kestrell Rath]

Strange Horizons interview with Steve Berman is here.
Steve Berman's book site for So Fey: Queer Faery Fiction is over here.