Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Tarts & Hearts (A Poem)

In a faraway land lived a wicked queen,
With cruel and exotic pleasures.
And high in a tower, behind a locked door,
Was the room where she kept her treasures.

Under her bed, slick, full and red,
A box of human hearts.
And high on a shelf, the family jewels,
A bowl of other, male, parts.

But on the table, in rows of six,
Laid out like the proverbial lamb,
Was the queen's truest weakness, her secret, her vice;
Tarts with strawberry jam.

With lipstick smeared and a dripping chin,
The Queen would devour her feast,
Grunting and groaning and making the call
Of a horned, amorous beast.

The years would pass, and the royal rose drooped,
But the queen never left her tower.
High in her room, swathed in scarlet,
She never once doubted her power.

Her subjects revolted, and marched on the tower,
They trampled the door and they took her head.
And for all the tarts, and hearts, and private parts,
It didn't matter; the queen was dead.

Monday, 15 August 2011

5 Novels To Celebrate Indian Independence Day

To celebrate Indian Independence Day, I asked people on Twitter to suggest novels that are either set in India or written by Indian authors which they would recommend as an enjoyable read.  I've included a few of their suggestions in the list below, along with my own recommendations (plus a few snaps from my India trip last year, just because).

Hanuman's Tomb

Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta
Dasgupta's modern, globalised take on the Decameron only takes place partly in India, but The Billionaire's Sleep is this anthology's strongest story by far.  A modern fairy tale that encompasses cloning, incest and a metal tower reminiscent of Rapunzel's, Sleep is, at its core, a love story, albeit one embroiled in questions of status and caste.

Agra Fort

Kim by Rudyard Kipling (suggested by @TheJoDeer)
I could easily include a whole sub-list of works that follow the "Imperial India" model.  I retain fond memories of Old Mali and the Boy by D.R. Sherman and the short stories of Saki, partly because of their inherent quality but mainly, I suspect, because of the grammar school English teacher they remind me of.  Kipling's Kim is probably the best in this particular corner of literature - a rollicking adventure and an example of the awe and mystery that the sub-continent still held to many at the time.

Akbar's Tomb, Sikandra

Life of Pi by Yann Martel (suggested by @eleanorgj)
You may know it as the one about the kid on the boat with a tiger.  Which, I suppose, is a fair enough, if simplistic, synopsis.  The real pleasure in this book, however, comes from the insight into the life that came before the boating accident.  My favourite part is where a young Pi is discovered by his elders to have been practising numerous religions, in an attempt to find out for himself what "it" is all about.

Amber Fort, Jaipur

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (suggested by @thomasraymond)
I will admit, I've not actually read much of Salman Rushdie's oeuvre, beyond the opening chapters of Shalimar The Clown (which were enough to put me off him altogether).  But I've been assured by a friend who is currently reading Children that it is kind of a big deal, and definitely worth the time and effort, so I'm placing it back on my to-read list.

Taj Mahal, Agra

River of Gods by Ian McDonald
Appropriately enough, McDonald's epic River of Gods follows the lives of several characters as India approaches Independence Day.  This, however, is an Independence Day a hundred or so years from now, where Hindu mysticism, the caste system, artificial intelligence and blood sport overlap in wildly imaginative ways.


Friday, 12 August 2011

Vampire Love Songs #4: Brandy Alexander

Tired of being on the heights I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensations. - "De Profundis", Oscar Wilde

They call him Billy, and lately that's what he's been calling himself. At first it was a novelty; like going on holiday. Bleaching his hair and getting himself inked had been the first step in creating distance from his old self, running into Seth and Mallory that night had been the second. So when Seth jokingly first christened him, he didn't bother to correct him. Now, Billy seems just as good a name as the one he had before.
The TV is broken, making the flat feel even emptier without the two guests who have fast become a fixture. He doesn't know where they are, wonders if he's allowed to ask. Decides he's not sure he wants to know. Everything is so new, he's careful of pushing. So instead, he lies on the sofa, not calling them, but thinking of how their voices would sound if he did.
This curious relationship he has with the two of them, it's one of the more interesting turns his new life has taken.  Sharing his time (and his body) between men and women isn't exactly a change for Billy, but the ease and speed with which their ménage à trois has become the norm surprises him.  When he first met Seth and Mallory, he had not expected to see them beyond that night.  The decision to let them bite him had just been another experiment of his, like the tattoos.  The search for an answer to a question he doesn't think he has ever voiced out loud:
What can't I do?  If nobody stops me, how far will I go?
The tattoos are six months old.  His white blonde hair is darkening at the roots.  Up until last year, Billy had never smoked more than a couple of adolescent, clandestine cigarettes out of his bedroom window. Now the bottom drawer of his night stand holds a small baggie of undisclosed pills, a pouch of amphetamine crystals and a considerable amount of Mary Jane. As much fun as all of that is, though, Billy still prefers a drink on days like this. Shit days when Mallory isn't around for him to fuck and Seth isn't around to fuck him.
He wonders if he has the ingredients for a Brandy Alexander. For somebody who doesn't eat much, he thinks it's basically the same as comfort food. The smooth cream and the warmth of the Courvoisier almost always make him feel better. It's like New Year in a glass, and Billy wants to feel new.
He is in luck: there's some brandy under his bed and a small amount of pouring cream in the fridge. Billy doesn't remember buying it, but a quick sniff convinces him it's consumable. He is delicately mixing the two together over ice when the phone rings, so he leaves it for the machine.
It's Randall, a friend of his parents. Billy once nursed strong suspicions that his mother was cheating on his father with Randall. Hardly seems to matter now.
"Alex," the machine says, "I'm worried about you. You said you'd check in, let me know you're alright. Haven't heard from you in a while. Call me. Please."
"Fuck you, Randy," Billy raises his glass to toast the thin air and then downs its contents. The rich cocktail doesn't have the desired effect: the sweetness soon sours in his mouth, and instead of a warm glow, Billy begins to feel slightly sick. Too much Courvoisier and not enough cream. Or maybe the cream was bad to begin with.
He goes into the bathroom and sits on the floor against the wall in case he needs to throw up any time soon. Probably for the best that Seth and Mallory aren't around, he thinks. Nobody wants to see the calf vomiting before it gets served up as veal.
The bathroom tiles are cold on his bare feet, and Billy can feel a chill through the seat of his jeans. After a while, half an hour maybe, it becomes apparent that the dodgy drink isn't going to make him ill, so Billy stands up and leaves the bathroom. He only briefly considers making another one, before heading to bed with a copy of Howl by Allen Ginsberg. He gave up halfway through Tropic of Cancer but holds out hope for this one. The page keeps shifting in and out of focus, and the words seem to continually change order – in the end, Billy gives up and closes his eyes.
And that's when he sees them.
His mother looks beautiful, as always. He can't bear to imagine her with a broken neck. The damage done to her, thankfully, hadn't been instantly visible. His father, however, has seen better days. His nose is black and flattened between pale, flat cheeks. Three tiny cuts, from glass one would presume, decorate his right temple. Miranda and Gregory Brown have not changed one bit since the day he identified their bodies in the mortuary.
Billy opens his eyes before they can speak. It's always worse when they try to talk to him.
Something beneath him vibrates: he rolled over onto his mobile phone when he nodded off. It's a message from Seth and Mallory: On our way over. Can't wait to see you.
Billy swings his legs off the bed and goes back into the kitchen, checking the vodka is in the freezer. All three of them enjoy a little drink before going to bed. He busies himself cleaning a few glasses, then takes himself off into the living room to wait. While mere moments before he'd been filled with a queasy sense of exhaustion, now he can feel his cock stirring in his jeans.
In his mind, the scenario plays out ahead of time. He will take what he needs this time. He will push Mallory down onto the bed and clamp his hand over her mouth as he enters her. He'll feel the weight of Seth at his back before he forces himself in, and he won't know which hurts more, that, or the teeth on the side of his neck, but either way he'll cry out. Everything will go into that wordless noise: everything that made him who he was before he was Billy. Afterwards, Seth will lick the blood from his lips while Mallory lies panting on the bed, and he'll say: “You're quite the howler, aren't you Billy?”

Here they come now.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Top 5 LGBT Characters in Literature

1. Kay, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
In the years after the Second World War, Kay walks the streets of London in man's clothing, left hollow by her experiences during the Blitz.  With all the men away, Kay had found it easy to fill their shoes, becoming a hero to those such as Viv who needed her help as an ambulance driver, and playing husband to the young, unsure Helen.  Kay's sheer disregard for the period's limited view of gender is joyously refreshing, but Waters tempers this exuberance with pain.  Kay witnesses some horrific things in the war, and the woman she loves betrays her.  At the beginning of the novel, which coincides with the chronological end of the story, she sees herself as little more than a ghost.

2. Cal, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Born Calliope to second generation immigrants, Cal enters adolescence as an intelligent girl, curious about her growing feelings for a female friend.  As we flash forward to adulthood, Cal is now narrating the story as a fully grown man.  The transformation undergone by the character is revealed at a leisurely pace, as Cal first tells us of the struggles and secrets that led his/her family to America, which in turn allowed Cal to come into existence.  A fantastic story, told by an unforgettable character.

3. Mr F, Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett
What is most frustrating (and at the same time, moving) about the protagonist of this novel is that he does not come to consciously realise his own desires until midway through the narrative, and it is only in the closing pages that he comes close to fulfilling them.  While every stage of his infatuation with the young man named Beauty is written in painstaking detail, it is Mr F's isolation that makes him relatable to the reader.  At no point does he identify with other gay men, it is his simple assumption that he is alone.  The 1960s setting of the novel cements a concept that would be laughable in a book set in the present.

4. Lestat, The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice
The "brat prince" Lestat is perhaps one of the most sexually fluid characters I have ever encountered in fiction.  From his early Svengali-like relationship with Louis, to his eventual fascination with Rowan Mayfair, it is not gender that attracts or influences Lestat, but beauty itself.  His arrogance, vanity and irrepressibly playful nature make him all the more compelling.

5. Villanelle, The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
Much like The Night Watch's Kay, Villanelle cross-dresses in a time period where such a thing is unheard of.  Unlike any other character on this list, however, Villanelle has webbed feet and can walk on water.  She is a child of Venice, the city of mazes, and she is as much a contradiction as her birthplace.  The portion of the novel dedicated to Villanelle's story, The Queen Of Spades, sees our heroine fall in love with an aristocratic seductress, only to have her heart stolen - quite literally.  So ensues a quest to get it back.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Vampire Love Songs #3: Dr. Feelgood

She's cheating on him, and the only reason Seth knows this is because she's giving him a blowjob. In the years they've spent together, he has come to recognise this as one of the myriad, more exotic ways in which Mallory's guilt manifests. He wonders if it's to spite him after the thing with the dancer. He wonders if she even knows about the thing with the dancer.
There are cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling. Seth can't seem to look away, and it breaks his... well, concentration isn't quite the word. Mallory looks up at him questioningly. He pulls her up level to him, kisses her on the cheek, and hops off the bed. Before Mallory can figure out what happened, the bathroom door is closed and he's in the shower.
He considers masturbating while in there, but can't muster up the will. Instead he stands under the stream until the water runs cold. By the time he steps out, he has decided to start following Mallory.
She's sleeping when he comes out of the bathroom. As quietly as he can, Seth locates the bottle of vodka, and pours what little remains into a dirty glass, necking it. It barely touches the sides. He knows what would hit the spot – what always does the trick when vodka won't quite take the edge off. Seth could really do with someone to drink. But a glance at his sleeping wife stops him putting his shoes on and going out.
He's stopped going to meetings, because a weekly circle wank was never going be enough to curb these cravings.  Many try to sublimate the urge with something else, but he's already an old acquaintance of just about every vice going. Seth is beginning to think a cure is impossible.  And he's surprised by how little he minds.  Mallory, he knows it bothers Mallory.  The killing.  And when you get down to it, it bothers Seth too - conceptually.  But when it's happening, when it actually matters, he's usually too lost in his own bliss to care.
Two nights later, Seth follows Mallory to a building he recognises. It takes him a moment to place it; it is the home of the young man they met, what, two weeks ago? Seth had called him Billy, as a joke, because he had white blonde hair and a pretty punk mouth. Mallory disappears into the apartment building, but Seth follows her no further. Instead he walks to a bar he knows just a few streets away, and does his best to get wasted.
Odd, how much Seth can see while trying so hard not to. The once familiar look of arousal on Mallory's face, and the twin swallows that adorn Billy's young, muscular chest.  The smooth, unspoiled flesh of his buttocks as he flips her over, making her squeal with giddy pleasure beneath him.
Seth knows his wife is sleeping with somebody else.  And now he knows who that somebody is. All that he doesn't know is what he plans to do with this information.
Kill him? The ease with which this thought comes into his mind should worry him. As if it were the most natural thing in the world. Which Seth realises it has become, for him. He doesn't know whether it's the alcohol or the rage, but his stomach feels like it is on fire.
Mallory is still gone when he gets back to the hotel. He paces the room, palms itchy, chest tight. He thinks he's going to be sick. Withdrawal. And for what? Seth has long known he's a bad man. He has tried to be better for Mallory, to be the kind of husband she deserved. And where is Saint Mallory now?
He goes through all of his pockets, through the handbag Mallory left on the floor, through every drawer in the night stand until he finds something sharp enough. A small pair of scissors. He presses his thumb against the blade, wincing when the pressure gives way to hot, searing pain. So that's what it feels like, Seth thinks, as he brings the thumb to his lips, hungrily sucking on the small cut. The tightness in his chest loosens slightly. He feels his panicked breathing slow.
He kicks off his shoes and climbs into bed, still sucking his thumb like an insecure child. Only now does everything he had to drink earlier come rushing to his head. The room begins to sway like a cabin on a boat, and Seth finds it helps rock him to sleep.
When he wakes up, Mallory is in the bed next to him. He rises without waking her and changes into some clean clothes – or, at the very least, cleaner than the ones he slept in. He deliberately avoids looking at Mallory as he walks around the bed and leaves the room.
It's sunny out – oppressively so. Seth wishes he had a pair of sunglasses to protect his sensitive, hungover eyes. After just a few minutes of walking he can feel the white shirt clinging damply to his back, and his legs sweltering in the black trousers.
He doesn't realise until he is standing outside the door that he hadn't even been sure which flat number he was seeking. Seth doesn't knock, just lets himself in.  The blinds in the living room are almost completely closed; smoke floats in the thin shafts of light that remain.  Billy is lying on sofa, a joint in one hand and an open paperback in the other.  He jumps a little when Seth enters, although he regains his composure far too quickly for Seth's liking.
"Tropic of Cancer?" Seth asks, gesturing to the book.
"It's my aim to get through every book that's ever been banned for lewd content," Billy replies.
"How's that going so far?"
"Not well," Billy sighs and drops the book onto the floorboards.  "I'm shocked by how little it takes to shock some people."
Seth ponders asking him his opinion on Lady Chatterley's Lover, but dismisses the idea as too crasse.  Instead, he says casually:
"You're fucking my wife."
Billy doesn't speak for a moment.  When he does, he surprises Seth.
"I think it would be more accurate to say that she's fucking me."
"Excuse me?"
"The first night we met," Billy says, "You remember?  I brought you back here.  I let you do this," he tilts his head to one side, exposing the healing marks on his neck, "and then later, she came back and we had sex."
He gets up off the sofa, walks over to Seth and offers him the joint.  He takes it.
"I let you take what you wanted," Billy says.  "Both of you."
"But you have feelings for her."  Seth does not like the way Billy keeps looking at him - straight in the eye.
"I don't know.” Billy shrugs. “I think so.  She's..."
"She has feelings for you," Seth tells him.  "Did you know that?"
Billy doesn't say anything.
"She's my wife."
Billy ignores that comment too, simply saying:
"You're no open book either, are you Seth?"
Seth exhales heavily. He doesn't know why he came here. He passes the joint back to Billy, fully intending to turn and go.  But when their fingers brush together, and Billy's touch lingers for just a second on his lacerated thumb, he knows he won't be leaving this room for quite some time.
Would you like something to drink?” Billy asks.