New Twist on an Old Genre – Mike McClelland’s “Gay Zoo Day”

Gay Zoo Day: Tales of Seeking and Discovery. By Mike McClelland, Beautiful Dreamer Press, 2017.

It must be said that Mike McClelland’s debut novel “Gay Zoo Day” features some more “typical” literary fiction.

In the opening story, a protagonist settles down in South Africa for a summer, and takes in the baggage of that country’s history. In the titular story “Gay Zoo Day” a gay student abroad suffers the aftermath of a disturbing semi-consensual sexual encounter. And the collection finishes with an expertly written tale of a young boy’s coming of age in a privileged Hong Kong neighborhood, complete with a reflection on the trap of the “high life.”

All these stories fit with the book’s subtext of seeking and discovery – McClelland’s stories feature characters searching for purpose beyond the humdrum day to day.

But the book becomes another beast entirely where the author turns his attention to genre fiction and answers a question that isn’t asked nearly enough: What if one were to take genre fiction, and transform it with LGBT themes?

Thus we have the thoroughly entertaining grab bag of fiction that moves seamlessly from spy thriller to ghost story to hard-boiled noir and soft sci-fi. The protagonists in all stories are gay, but the end result is more than a simple orientation change. How does the story of a two-fisted 1930s adventurer pilot change when ain’t the dames he’s interested in, so to speak? How does the budding romance between two astronauts in the near-future adjust along with their orientation? Genre fiction relies on its clichés to provide readers with a familiar experience, and McClelland is all too happy to exploit them.

High marks go to “The Self-Banished,” which switches between spy thriller and tender remembrance of a childhood past. But for what it’s worth, the utmost praise goes to “Mombasa Vengeance,” a Victorian period piece that goes the extra mile.

On the surface, a closeted English gentleman searches for his wife’s killer so that his young son may learn something of honor. Again, McClelland gives the LGBT twist on an old genre, but the author elevates his bloodthirsty tale of revenge with subplots that address the very nature of Victorian “honor,” the power dynamics in biracial couples, and a little-remembered moment in third-world exploitation. All this while maintaining the elevated prose style of an old penny dreadful. Impressive stuff, to put it mildly.

Are there any other genres this author can twist? Space opera? Post-apocalyptic zombie fiction? Steampunk? Here’s hoping we see more.

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