Jeff Baker, Boogieman In Lavender; Reading Tom Reamy

Jeff BakerSomewhere in my files is the beginning of a bad story called “Summer Job.” It’s wordy and takes an overly long time getting started. It has a small-town Kansas setting, an adolescent protagonist and an element of dark fantasy—all things that appear regularly in stories I’ve written.

But I wasn’t trying to be Jeff Baker; I was trying to be Tom Reamy.

I first stumbled across Tom Reamy’s short fiction in an anthology of horror stories from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The story, “Insects in Amber” grabbed me right off with its setting in an old (and possibly haunted) house in my home state of Kansas. The narrator, a teenager feeling the first flushes of sexual attraction  (for a girl!) encounters not a ghost, but something more science-fictional in the course of the story. “Insects in Amber” was creepy, well-plotted and a fun read—I loved it!

I immediately began scoping out other Reamy stories in our well-apportioned Public Library. This was in the pre-internet days of the late ‘80’s, early 90’s, and Reamy appeared in several anthologies, as well as “Best of the Year” collections. I also found the biographical information that Reamy had worked behind the scenes in movies in L.A. and that he had won the Nebula Award for the novelette “San Diego Lightfoot Sue” in 1976.

A year later he was dead of a heart attack at the age of 42.

A short career, a short life, a handful of excellent stories and “Blind Voices,” his posthumous novel.

In a time where openly gay characters were rare in mainstream stories, many of Reamy’s stories feature gay characters; the friends of the title character in “San Diego Lightfoot Sue” are matter-of-factly gay and hustlers move through the story as well, as does magic. My finding the magazine back-issue where “Sue” was originally published and reading it that evening was simply magical. I was in the grip of a sorcerer, a master spinner of tales who was not afraid to grab the reader’s heart and then present a downbeat ending.

Reamy’s own sexual orientation has not been officially confirmed, but there is a frank sexuality in his stories, even more so in his only novel “Blind Voices,” which also evokes Kansas, as well as Ray Bradbury with its traveling carnival.

In the early ‘90’s, I had started reading genre short fiction, not realizing I was studying to become a writer. I tried to copy Reamy and quickly learned I was no Tom Reamy. Reamy’s matter-of-fact prose describes both the mundane and the fantastic. The classroom in “Twilla” with a child who is not what she seems. John Lee Peacock’s journey from Kansas to California, brought about by witchery, in “San Diego Lightfoot Sue.”  The blend of homoeroticism and hardboiled detective story in “The Detweiler Boy.” An excellent writer. A serious loss.

There remains one final unpublished Tom Reamy story, in the third of Harlan Ellison’s “Dangerous Visions” anthologies. If it is ever published, it will doubtless see Reamy’s work as it has been for forty-some years; timeless and gripping.

NOTE: The bulk of Reamy’s fiction is available (as I said) in his collection “San Diego Lightfoot Sue,” as well as his novel “Blind Voices.” One other story; “M Is For the Million Things” was published in “New Voices; The John W. Campbell Award Nominees” in 1981. For more information on Reamy, I recommend the introduction by Harlan Ellison and the afterward by Howard Waldrop in “San Diego Lightfoot Sue” (my paperback only has the intro, the hardback may have both.) I also recommend the fine article by the late Bud Webster “Who? San Diego Lightfoot Tom,” which first appeared in Black Gate Magazine issue # 15, reprinted in “Past Masters and Other Bookish Natterings” by Bud Webster, published 2013 by The Merry Blacksmith Press.

Jeff Baker blogs about reading and writing sci-fi, fantasy and horror and other sundry matters around the thirteenth of each month. He has been published in Queer Sci Fi’s “Renewal” among other places, and also appears on Facebook as Jeff Baker, Author. He also blogs and posts fiction at http://authorjeffbaker.com  He lives in Wichita, Kansas, with his husband Darryl and a massive T.B.R. pile.

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