The stories in Sam J. Miller’s debut collection, Boys, Beasts & Men, are unified by two core sensibilities: a keen awareness of the power of narrative and a morality that is radical in its compassion.
From the tragicomic “Allosaurus Burgers,” to the visceral horrors of “Shucked” and “Things With Beards” and the contemplative “Sun in an Empty Room,” each of the stories deals with the boundaries of the expected. They tackle the impossibility of seeing inside another’s head or the sudden and thoroughly unexplained appearance of a large, extinct, carnivorous lizard. Sometimes they draw on the past, offering visions of 1930s New York City or the Cold War-era Soviet Union. Others paint dystopian portraits of humankind clinging to life on a drowned planet. And yet, for all the variety of its stories, Boys, Beasts & Men is still a cohesive whole.
In large part, this is due to Miller’s distinctive voice and how his narratives all revolve, in some way, around love. Whether that love is a parent’s effort to protect their children, the splintering love of a closeted gay man for his homophobic brother or the incautious romance between two beings (this is as specific a description as is possible to give) with nowhere else to go, it shines through every story with a relentless optimism. Even when affection manifests in anger, or even violence, Miller retains the hope that the anger will be ephemeral and the love will endure. Sometimes, as in life, that hope is insufficient—many of these stories end in shattering tragedy or chilling fear—but the hope is there, all the same.
In these memorable pieces, Miller wields his efficient, unpretentious prose to create indelible impressions of moments, characters and twists. None of these characters or settings ever feel stale; none of the plot points hang around longer than they’re welcome. Miller deliberately leaves narrative gaps, inviting readers to imagine for themselves what fills those spaces while also encouraging them to find beauty even in the most harrowing times. Through every timeline, every cinematic reference (of which there are many) and speculative monstrosity, Boys, Beasts & Men is a reminder that stories matter, especially the ones we tell ourselves.