I am guilty of the unpardonable sin of judging this book by its cover. I'm ashamed to confess I was anticipating little more than a series of erotic and pleasantly entertaining short stories. I had no idea whether I would make an emotional connection to the characters, their conflicts, and their conquests. I had no idea, being unfamiliar with this author, whether his writing style and command of language would transport me to that familiar and intoxicating place where time and reality cease to exist. My suppositions and misconceptions lasted...roughly through the first paragraph, at which point I realized that my gaping maw would serve as a precursor to my overall reaction to the book.
Shadowlands is a collection of twelve stories, presenting dark, and at times disturbing, but ultimately stunning observations on everything from life, love, and sexuality, to death, grief, endurance, fear, obsession, and madness; as well as the heartbreaking truth that the burdens of existence sometimes overwhelm the desire to persevere. These themes thread their way throughout the book, leading the reader on an often intense journey, but one which plumbs the depths of the connection we all share--our humanity; the stories run the gamut, from unbearably melancholy to deliciously macabre, and succeed on varying levels, from proficient to utterly exquisite.
Outstanding among them are Pygmalion Revisited, the moving tale of a man whose grief over the death of his lover perpetuates his lonely descent into despair and surrender. Based on Ovid's tale of a man who sculpts and falls in love with a statue, Charlie David brings a new twist to the tale of a sculptor who is in love with the man who inspired the statue of St. Pelagius he has been commissioned to create. The story is positively stunning in its depiction of loss and undying love.
October 13th is the story of two men, best friends, one gay and one straight. The narrator of the story refers to them as merely "the one on the left" and "the one on the right". They are nameless, yet they are familiar--the eternal boys, a theme that is also explored later in the book. They exist in their own Pleasure Island, a subtle reference to Pinocchio, where they smoke, drink, and play, but they never come back...as boys. Each holds a secret, each is deeply in love with the other; neither is willing to jeopardize their bond by overstepping the boundaries of their friendship. The use of repetition as a literary device in this particular story was brilliant, influencing the tone of the piece perfectly.
GRINDR is another standout tale, a ghost story for the 21st century; it is the story of a man who loses his lover in a car crash. It is a tale that illuminates the difference between what it means to exist and what it means to live. GRINDR is an iPhone application that uses geolocation to alert users of other gay or bisexual men in their vicinity. James receives a GRINDR alert, one that should not be possible, one that comes from beyond the grave from his deceased lover Robbie. The subsequent messages send James on a journey of remembrance to places that held an emotional connection for the couple. The final destination, one that is unfamiliar to James, becomes a last wish, a reminder for James to go on living.
Lucretia Undone is the concise (just four short pages) but haunting tale of a sixteen year old girl attempting to come to terms with her sexuality. An experiment that goes horribly wrong awakens long buried memories, memories that cause her to question her attraction to other girls, to reason that she was created to desire girls through horrific circumstances rather than by nature. The story is pervaded by an overwhelming sense of anguish, both heartrending and tragic in its simplicity.
The Hiker is a story that weaves romance with the macabre; Harvest is a dark fantasy; Numbers is a story written in non-linear fashion, arranged in a series of short but effective sentences to heighten its dramatic impact.
I could go on and on, pointing out something brilliant within each of the stories included in this book which makes that particular tale unique and compelling, as each is impacting in its own way. As this review is entirely too long, however, I'll close with the final three stories: Xander & Hephaestion, which borrows from the history of the close friendship, some speculate a deeper bond, between Hephaestion and Alexander the Great. It is the story of a man who has discovered the secret to eternal youth, and of his deceased lover who chooses to follow life's course to its natural end. It is tale that contrasts the eternal boy with his shadow, the aged man, and is done so with finesse.
Narcissus is an invective discourse on the contemporary obsession with youth and beauty, written in the form of a screenplay of sorts, giving direction to Dr. Alex Mandara's descent into madness; and Puer Aeternus--the eternal boy, fitting that if follows both Xander's and Alex's stories, as the narcissist and the eternal adolescent are often one and the same.
While I would never go so far as to presume every reader would share my reaction to Shadowlands and the impressive way in which Charlie David delivers each of his expositions of the human condition, I would not hesitate to say that the book will be on my list of this year's outstanding reads.