Grief Map

A Kiss for a Dead Film Star and Other Stories

Karen M. Vaughn


Release Date: August 15, 2016

Print ISBN: 978-1-942083-38-2 • EPUB ISBN: 978-1-942083-41-2 • Kindle ISBN: 978-1-942083-40-5 • PDF ISBN: 978-1-942083-39-9

Brain Mill Press offers A Kiss for a Dead Film Star in ebook and in a limited fine first edition printing of signed, numbered paperbacks. Ebook buyers receive access to MOBI (Kindle), EPUB, and PDF files, offered without DRM restrictions. Print book buyers receive a physical copy of the book and access to the ebook files in all formats.

"Fans of writers like Karen Russell and George Saunders will especially enjoy A Kiss for a Dead Film Star, but there’s something here for everyone in this artfully written collection of uncanny and human tales."

—Lawrence Journal-World

Isaac Rubinstein has no choice but to kill himself.

He’s in love with Rudolf Valentino, and now Valentino is dead. His acolytes are committing suicide all over the city. The window to definitively display his devotion is closing, and for once the New York tenement apartment he shares with his mother, his grandmother, and his siblings is quiet. It has to be now.

Unless he doesn’t, because his grandmother calls out for him right before the blade touches his skin. Unless he does, and the cuts bleed away his heart’s blood.

In Karen M. Vaughn’s romantic and darkly funny melodrama, Isaac Rubinstein does both. Dies, and is united with his beautiful Valentino. Lives, and finds a reason to live.

A Kiss for a Dead Film Star is an astonishing debut collection of stories that inspire weird love and uncover surprising caches of eroticism. A museum T-Rex fossil awakens and contemplates his existential crisis. A devoted and loving wife copes with the inevitable loss of her handsome husband with an unusual provenance when he grows scales and a tail before her desperate eyes. A woman at the nadir of a breakup hears a song in a dingy bar and becomes rapturously, gloriously pregnant with a child made from song. A lemon grove that has sheltered a family of migrant workers reveals their secrets when their small daughter removes her own arm. Polyamory, the cosmos, and the end of the world serve as the angel of death for a wry scientist at the end of her life.

Psycho-medical-magical realism intertwines with old and new New York City, epic love stories, and tales best told in the smoky alleys behind bars or beneath the covers. Karen Vaughn’s capacious imagination and remarkable voice glitter—this collection is a comet that comes around rarely.


Karen M. Vaughn loves reading and writing uncanny fiction. Her first collection of short stories, A Kiss for a Dead Film Star, was published by Brain Mill Press in 2016 and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has also appeared in A cappella Zoo, Whiskey Island Magazine, Illya’s Honey, and REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters. For many years she edited for a medical journal, which might explain her fascination with evolutionary biology and the workings of the body. She loves horror and will drunkenly defend it at any dinner party you care to invite her to. In her off hours, she can often be found running long distances toward or away from things. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with her husband, daughter, and a highly energetic Schnoodle, who is probably a pooka.

AN EXCERPT from A Kiss for a Dead Film Star and Other Stories by Karen M. Vaughn

© Karen M. Vaughn, 2016

The most beautiful man in the world has died.

Sixteen-year-old Isaac Rubinstein sits on his cast-iron bed, in the tiny room he shares with his brother, and prepares to slit his wrists. Around him there is only melancholy, which has taken the form of various objects. It is masquerading as a sheet that has been fastened to a drawstring in the doorway. It has permeated the ink of a lithograph depicting the Old Opera House in Frankfurt. It has poured its essence into the wick of the oil lamp, into the small pine bureau, into the Bavarian lace curtains, into the plumes and flourishes of the green damask wallpaper. It has settled, also, over the tattered quilt, which has itself been buried beneath a doleful sea of photographs. These images are of particular relevance to Isaac’s present state of despair. The settings and costumes they portray are multifold, but they all feature the same impossibly attractive man, gesticulating, or dancing, or just standing still. In this one, the man has been photographed wearing a sheik’s flowing headdress. In that one, he holds a cigarette and exhales a sinuous column of smoke. In this one, he wears a powdered wig and a silk brocade coat, and in that one, he strums a Spanish guitar. And of course, here is the treasure at the root of Isaac’s collection, a portrait of the man as he is emerging from the water, magnificently shirtless, with a small racing boat hoisted above his head.

The man in the photographs is Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla. He is Rudolph Valentino. The Great Lover. The most beautiful man in the world.

Isaac’s own features are rather less impressive. He is tall but gangly, with a narrow chest that is little more than a monolithic slab. He has got the standard allotment of muscles, but you’d never know it to look at him. No matter how many games of stickball he plays, they remain just below the skin’s surface, dreaming and undisturbed. (This is in stark contrast to his buddy Asher, who seems to have been born with calves like coconuts and biceps the size of summer peaches.)

Isaac’s face is equally unexceptional. His eyes are set a bit close together, his lips are too thin, and his ears are pointed where they should be curved. These characteristics, combined with his unruly black hair and the overall gauntness of his physique, succeed in giving him the appearance of a half-starved animal. His habit of reading in public only serves to heighten this impression. Sometimes, when he is sitting alone on the tenement stoop, women will rise up from the pavement and bring him sandwiches.

But today there will be no sandwiches, and no stickball. The possibility for those things ended several hours earlier in a crowded hospital across town, when a glorious heart stopped beating, when a pair of lungs fluttered like moth’s wings and then lay still, when a brain emptied out its last unknowable thoughts, when a doctor made a grave pronouncement to the assembled masses and watched the effect of his words slide outward like waves, provoking bouts of fainting and hysteria.

Isaac has been left with a single clear path. He must forge a connection with this man in the only way possible, and he must do so without delay. Already, he knows, the actor’s body is beginning to divest itself of tiny particles of matter, which are lifting like delicate insects into the air around him. Already, the viscera are growing cold.

And so the razor blade makes its approach, sweeping downward onto a strip of blemish-free skin (one of the few qualities of which Isaac is unashamed).

He does it.

He doesn’t do it.

His heart splits in two beneath a blue-enameled sky.



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