Bruce Golden, Dancing with the Velvet Lizard
reviewed by Eric Whitson
Dancing with the Velvet Lizard
Publisher: Zumaya Otherworlds, 2011
Length: 389 pp.
Dancing with the Velvet Lizard, his first-ever collection of short fiction, includes a mind-bending 33 tales, with a fine balance of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and humor — more than one something for everyone. It’s certainly the largest collection of such yarns I’ve ever come across.
There’s no single theme to this collection. From the positively terrifying "The Withering,” to the tongue-radiating-in-cheek "I Was a Teenage Hideous Sun Demon,” to the chilling apocalyptic tale of "Holiday," Golden’s work runs the gamut from dark to laugh-out-loud funny. No two stories are alike, and it’s this variety that makes it well worth the reader’s time. No one’s going like every story in a collection of short fiction (a handful of these tales were just so-so to me), but I challenge you not find enough here to make it worthwhile — no matter what you paid for it.
Along the way, Golden explores the personal consequences of popping pills for better orgasms, and provides a “what if” to what might have really happened to America’s beloved bandleader Glenn Miller during World War II. He visits a Native American shaman who sends the government a bill for making it rain, and a 119-year-man who drives his classic automobile into the middle of an insurrection, chased by flying cars. He asks if Little Red Riding Hood really lived happily ever after, and whether beauty is still in the eye of the beholder when that eye sees through an alien lens.
Dancing with the Velvet Lizard starts with one of the most powerful stories in the book. A tale that looks (not so far) into the future, when we begin to warehouse our elderly, and care for them with machines. This one made me cry.
Forget about steroids, in his story "One of Nine,” Golden looks into a future where baseball players are grown in tanks, but don’t have all the rights of “regular” humans. This tale has the same civil rights overtones as his novel Mortals All.
In the not-too-distant future of "Profile of a Patriot,” a good American is someone who’s careful about what he says, doesn’t question authority, and is always ready to bear witness against his neighbor. He switches gears again for "The Apocryphist,” to divulge how the art of story-telling began on one particularly feline alien world.
In his Firebrand Fiction award-winning story "I Found Love on Channel 3,” Golden delivers a portrait of man who lusts after a sexy cartoon character, who then comes alive and makes his fantasy come true — or does she? Sex is also a dangerous element in another tale, where a young couple’s orgasms are wreaking havoc with the fabric of time.
Admittedly, there are few happy endings herein, but if you like stories that make you think, that draw you in so you’re rooting for the protagonist, so that you care, you won’t be dissatisfied. However, just when you think you’ll be enveloped by the darkness, the collection shifts gears, going from heartbreaking to hilarity. Golden revisits Dave and his computer friend Hal, but adds a Cheech & Chong twist; lets a late ’50s B-movie monster relate his life story; sends an angelic censor to the game show from Hell; and shows us a seldom seen side of God, when the deity grabs a scribe from his heavenly ranks to write his biography.
Golden’s greatest strengths have always been his ability to create vivid characters and craft uncannily true-to-life dialogue. As a result, his narratives are extremely character-driven and fast-moving. If you like to dwell in the land of purple prose and endless descriptive paragraphs, this book isn’t for you. Golden doesn’t spend much time on that. Instead he drops you into the middle of scene where things are already happening.
After each tale Golden includes a little epilogue that I found very interesting. He reveals something about the story’s background, what inspired it, how it was written, places it was published (though some of the tales in this collection are being published for the first time). I found these tidbits fascinating because they also reveal a great deal about the author himself — his passions, his politics, his foibles.
If you dare to dance with the Velvet Lizard, you won’t be disappointed.
Copyright © 2011 by Eric Whitson