Review: Song of the Loon by Richard Amory

Loon coverPublished way ahead of its time in 1966 by Greenleaf Classics, republished in 2006 by Arsenal Pulp Press. A lusty gay frontier romance that tells the story of Ephraim McIver, a 19th century frontiersman, as he travels through the American wilderness. Ephraim meets a number of characters who share stories, wisdom and homosexual encounters. Unique among pulp novels of the time, the gay characters are strong and romantically drawn – traits that have earned the book a place in the canon of gay American literature.

“A groovy little curiosity piece”

Review by Lee Benoit

I was a toddler when the Stonewall Riots occurred, and it was really difficult to approach this book without being subconsciously aware of the enormous impact Song of the Loon had on the intervening generations of gay literature, erotica, and porn. If you’re anything like me (40 and queer) you’ll recognize no end of snippets that made their way into gay canon, or were drawn from pulp fiction. In other words, I had to turn off my camp meter, no mean feat when confronted with such passages as the one in which the protagonist composes a poem for his lover containing the following lines: “Seeking your chest, your loins, your hips / My hardened penis downward dips / Into your asshole darkly tight / Warmly endlessly lost from sight” (p. 132-3 in the Arsenal Pulp edition).

Deep purple moments aside, I found I enjoyed the book immensely on its own merits. These include a tone of earnest sweetness that overcomes the camp factor. I ended up feeling quite affectionately towards the characters, especially the protagonist, Ephraim MacIver, who falls in love with practically everyone he meets, including the putative villain. I became involved in his travails, and vicariously delighted in his triumphs over convention and ill will. That a post-Stonewall queer reader could experience Song of the Loon as so emphatically fresh, forty years after its publication, attests to the power of Amory’s work.

Amory’s message is, in essence, that being homosexual is inherently good, and only through honesty with oneself and unapologetic openness with the larger world can one escape the constraints and negativity of mainstream society. It’s about freedom and pride. Speaking of freedom, the book is also about free love, that old chestnut! In Amory’s hands, the sex is simultaneously earthy and reverent, and exuberant in a way we sadly have lost. The ideas that love is infinite, and that love shared is love multiplied (and, conversely, that jealousy is a sort of violence), seem almost quaint.

In the long, erudite introduction by Michael Bronski and in the series of contemporary interviews with and articles by Amory (from which the quote at the beginning of this review was taken and which include a delicious reproduction of the poster for the 1970 film based on the book but unendorsed by Amory), it becomes clear that Song of the Loon was unusual. It’s a pastoral in the classic sense, a bucolic piece that sharply contrasts the idylls of country (in this case wilderness) life with the miseries and harshness of “civilization.” It is easy to understand Ephraim’s behaviors and motivations if we remember that, “The characters in such works are often vehicles for the expression of the author’s moral [or] social views.” Something else I learned about pastorals while researching for this review was that, “the pastoral convention sometimes uses the device of ‘singing matches’ between two or more” characters. That explains all the poetry! (Merriam Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature [1995].) (To be fair, much of it is structurally quite complex and follows demanding forms.)

Is Song of the Loon realistic? No way. Historically accurate? Not by a long shot! But it’s not supposed to be. It can’t even be described as revisionist history for as Amory himself said, “…the most important element of the book … was its poetic distance from reality, which per se has little or nothing to do with the homosexual experience….” The book presents an idealized vision of a gay utopia, and the historical setting was necessary to drive home the contrast between the Society of the Loon and the intolerant townsfolk. As an example, consider Amory’s presentation of Indians as speaking “the Indian language,” a sort of universal symbolic code. A trained anthropologist, Amory declares in an epigraph that he has “taken certain very European characters from [Spanish pastoral novels], painted them a gay aesthetic red, and transplanted them to the American wilderness.”

As a homoerotic fantasy of freedom (to paraphrase Bronski’s introduction), as a pastoral novel, as an artifact of its time, and as an benchmark in gay literature it’s well worth strapping on your loin cloth, hopping into your canoe, and crossing a river of history, braving eddies of social movement and sandbars of camp, to experience it.

Amazon USA Amazon UK

A Rake Ain’t Nothin’ But A Garden Implement

by Tracey Pennington

You see them everywhere in the romance genre. Some are young; more are in their mid-thirties to early forties. The vast majority of them are handsome and desirable. Most are in professions strongly associated with masculinity—soldiers, sailors and ships’ captains, cowboys, pioneers, police and private detectives, knights, rebels. Frequently, they are of royal or noble blood; at the very least, they are well-bred gentry. If they are commoners, they have learned the speech and the manners necessary to speak to those of high society. They are intelligent, charming and witty, the men of the virginal heroine’s dreams.

I refer, of course, to those romance heroes who belong to the most under-acknowledged group in the romance genre:

The repressed homosexuals.

Now, of course, men with these qualities do not have to be repressed gays. It’s just that, based on their behavior, they so often seem to be. Despite their authors’ best efforts to make them attractive, their actions tend to be a little bit…off, thanks to the unrealistic, even ludicrous, expectations of the genre. It is, for example, highly unlikely that a man who had been at sea since he was thirteen would be as virginal as a child oblate cloistered in a medieval monastery. It is also highly unlikely that a thirtysomething or fortysomething lord described as a “rake” and as having scandals swirling about him would be coming to his marriage bed as pure as well water.

Yet romance readers want the heroes to have shunned sex and prostitutes, to have the heroine be the only woman he has ever touched. Which is patently ridiculous. It also carries with it the implication that sex is inherently bad and dirty, and you must only ever do such a disgusting thing with your soulmate, because only Twu Wuv can make sex endurable.

And heaven forfend that the man ever notice another attractive woman for a single second after he and his dewy, limpid-eyed, brain-dead little bride have fallen in love, become affianced, or, perish the thought, married. It is clearly impossible, say the conventions of the genre, to appreciate the beauty of one woman while being married to another…even though, down through millennia, males of all races, nations and cultures have done this with considerable ease.

Thanks to that whole “Sex is Bad” attitude, not only are romance heroes not allowed to look upon other women with desire, their authors frequently compel them not to look at their girlfriends, fiancées, or wives with desire, either…which leads to some silly situations. If your historical romantic hero exhibits most or all of the following traits, your reader may be excused for thinking that he is flamingly gay:

a) He’s a veteran of a bloody war recovering from a wound, and never exhibits any sign of trauma or pain, despite the somewhat limited medical treatment of his day…yet he almost faints when he sees his bride walking up the aisle toward him.

b) He tells his bride after the wedding that he shouldn’t have married her.

c) He tells his bride after the wedding that marrying her was very, very wrong.

d) He tells other people—when he is stone cold sober—that he should not have married his wife, and that the marriage was a complete mistake.

e) Shortly after the marriage, he finds an excuse to go off on a dangerous mission which will separate him from his beloved bride for an indefinite period of time.

f) He feels insanely guilty when he looks at her, for reasons that are never discussed, or even acknowledged.

g) He regards kissing his own girlfriend/betrothed/wife as “taking advantage of her,” and again feels severe guilt.

h) He pushes his girlfriend/betrothed/wife away in horror when she kisses him.

i) Despite the author’s insistence that he is deeply in love with his girlfriend/betrothed/wife and respects her mind, he avoids speaking to her unless other people are present, and shuns all private conversations with her.

j) He tucks her into bed as if she were a three-year-old, then scurries off to his own bedroom on the opposite side of the house.

k) Although physically capable and mentally sound, he has never had sex with his wife, whom he claims to love and respect, and shows absolutely no interest in ever doing so.

l) He has a male best friend from whom he is absolutely inseparable.

m) The best friend lives nearby and makes frequent overnight visits where the hero lives—if he doesn’t live in the same house/barracks/ship/etc.

n) The hero spends every evening, as well as every spare moment, with this best friend, and tells him things that he would never dream of telling his wife.

o) The hero tells the reader in vast detail just how handsome and attractively dressed the best friend is. He does this repeatedly, chapter after chapter.

p) His best friend shares his interests, has known him forever, hugs him “roughly” and “in a manly way” during moments of great emotion, often takes the hero’s hand while talking to him, and takes long contemplative walks in the moonlight with the hero as they discuss the hero’s troubles.

q) The best friend is either not married or not happily married. If he is not married, he shows no inclination to wed. Ever.

Honestly, people. DO THE MATH.

Some will clearly say that these are the conventions of the romance genre. But conventions can change and expand; they have in mystery, science fiction and fantasy. Romance, however, seems to be stuck between two extremes—the more modern romances which start with passionate, improbable sex in the first chapter and the more traditional romances in which love = virginity = sexual repression. I tend to think that the former is, in part, a reaction to the latter.

I think that it’s possible for a hero to have visited prostitutes for sex before his marriage AND to still be more than capable of loving his wife. I think that he could have personal, societal, cultural, legal, even medical reasons for wanting to remain chaste before marriage…AND feel and experience plenty of Unresolved Sexual Tension. I think that the hero can have a best friend that he loves—yes, let us use the right word for once!–and yet not come across as if he is secretly longing to elope to Massachusetts with the man.

I would like the hero and heroine to be intelligent adults—not nymphomaniacs or convent-raised schoolgirls who swoon in horror at the thought of S-E-X.

Romance. With grown-ups. Grown-ups who act like grown-ups, and not like boy and girl idiots of thirteen.

Wow. What a concept.

Any takers?

Review: Living Upstairs by Joseph Hansen


by Renee Manley

From the Publisher

When Hoyt Stubblefield ambles into the cavernous bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard where nineteen-year-old Nathan Reed works, his good looks and wry Texas charm hold the boy spellbound. Within a week, Nathan has packed up his few belongings and moved in with Hoyt – into his upstairs rooms in a rickety old house, and into his bed. And so Nathan embarks on the happiest adventure of his young life, and the most ominous. For Hoyt inhabits not just the world of ideas, books, music, and paintings, which Nathan eagerly shares with him, but a secret world as well, a world of danger Hoyt forbids the young man to enter. Against the vividly evoked background of shabby side-street Hollywood in the 1940s, Joseph Hansen draws on his own real-life memories to people Living Upstairs with a large cast of colorful, outrageous, tragic, and hilarious characters from those far-off times. On a deeper level, this is a love story about lies, dangerous acquaintances, and the betrayal of innocence. Its often sunny hours are shadowed by masks, mirror images, and merged identities, by murky politics and paintings so dark their naked sexuality is almost hidden. Last, and first, it is haunted by an unsolved murder.

Review

Joseph Hansen’s Living Upstairs is a disappointing book despite its intriguing premise (I actually love the setting and the basic storyline). The presentation was, to me, too dry and bland, and of all the characters involved, only Nathan stuck with me. The story’s written in present tense from start to finish, which can put some readers off, but that’s not the problem.

The writing’s devoid of emotion. Hansen’s style is sparse, and I mean sparse. Short and choppy, his sentences tested my patience after a while because they forced a certain distance between me and the characters that I simply couldn’t bridge. It’s the same effect that Hemingway’s writing has on me (which is why I dislike Hemingway so much). The characters are almost interchangeable, and since I couldn’t get myself to care for any of them (save for Nathan), I couldn’t remember who they were whenever they appeared in a scene. Though we have Nathan for the main character, the large cast lends the novel the feel of an ensemble movie, which isn’t bad if it weren’t for the risk the writer runs while attempting what would’ve been fascinating character studies. And they are fascinating if one were to consider the quirks of each man or woman who appears in any given scene. Unfortunately, they come away feeling anemic in varying degrees, again because of the emotional distance created by Hansen’s style and because there are so many subplots being juggled at the same time. Nathan and Hoyt move within Hollywood circles, so everyone’s work is practically the same (writer, talent scout, actor, and a variety of sleazebags), and that makes it even more difficult to distinguish one character from the other.

The erotic elements of the novel are beautifully rendered, however. Hansen touches on them in fleeting, subtle ways, so much so that one’s imagination is stoked enough and then allowed to explore on its own (certainly a far, far cry from the step-by-step sex-scene-writing techniques that seem to pervade many erotic titles nowadays). In this case, Hansen’s staccato literary style works to perfection. And while the characters aren’t as interesting as they can be, the pathos of their respective situations can be sensed and appreciated if only on a very small, very limited scale.

As far as Nathan goes, I liked him because he’s such a sweet, naïve kid, but he does pose a few problems. What can be his greatest flaw is that he’s a bit of a cliché. He’s young, he’s innocent, he’s bumbling his way through the story, and everyone wants to shag him. Whether or not you want to, you’ll always be reminded of how devastatingly beautiful Nathan is because he’s always getting groped, propositioned, kissed, and called Adonis by men and women alike.

A real shame. I read the book description and loved what I saw, but it was a frustrating process for me in the end.

Buy it

Discussion: Happy Ever After/For Now…

Posted by Erastes

One thing that I have a great deal of trouble with, as a writer in this genre, is the Happy Ever After.

It’s wonderful now of course, that any writer of contemporary gay fiction can literally include the “Will you marry me?” into their plot and even go on to describe the wedding. This is something that would once have only been believable in a fantasy universe.

I read blogs from gay authors and gay friends and it’s so wonderful to see them getting married, doing the whole “I do” thing (or “I will” over here, for the historical accurists!!)

There has always been a lot of gay marriage in fanfiction and there will, I’m guessing, now be more, now the laws are loosening round the world. In fanfiction the writer can assume enlightenment in future worlds or Alternative Universes. In Harry Potter, a thousand Remus Lupins have already married a thousand Sirius Blacks because J K Rowling hasn’t said “there is no gay marriage in the Wizard World,” and as the WW’s laws are different in many respects, it’s not a great leap of faith to write speculatively on the subject.

For the fantasy/spec-fic writers, all they need to do is have a world far far away, create their own rules and they can have men only planets, male marriages even male pregnancies.

And so now for the first time writers of contemporary fiction can encompass the Romance Genre more than ever they did before. Their gay heroes can not only fall into each others’ arms at the end of their novels but they can get married too. Good for them!

Not so though the men loving men of yesteryear…

My first novel was based in the Regency – 1820 onwards, and while the two heroes have myriad obstacles to their relationship throughout the book, (as befits a romance), the biggest obstacle of all is the time they live in.

Homosexuality was not only illegal in England and Wales (right up until 1967 in fact) but in the 19th Century it was still punishable by hanging. It was harder to convict than it had been; the law required a higher burden of proof than it had done in previous centuries, – penetration and ejaculation had to be proved and two witnessess were required, so you can see how difficult that should have been to prove, but even so, in England, the first quarter of the 19th century had more hangings for sodomy than at any similar time span before.

Even if the death sentence wasn’t pronounced due to that higher burden of proof, the court could reduce the sentence to one of “Assault with Sodomitical intent” (with the horrible twist that the person being “assaulted” could also be found just as guilty for acquiesing to such assault)

As you will see from the wonderful resources at The Old Bailey, this was a “misdemeanor” and NO TESTIMONY was required. Sentences of 6 months to 2 years were common, often with “hard labour.”

In this day and age this would not be a particularly scary sentence, but even a few months in Newgate Prison might kill you then: from disease which was rife; or if you weren’t strong, or didn’t have any money to pay for “extras” (such as food and bedding and your (strictly unofficial) release fee)

This may not have stopped the casual encounters around St Paul’s Churchyard or prevented men from visiting the Molly Houses that had been springing up for some time previously, but it must have made co-habiting difficult and dangerous. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, hell – we know it did! – but it would have had to have been done with some discretion. Even noblemen had been dragged from their homes under this suspicion, and you’d be a brave man to trust your servants when the rewards of betrayal might be more money than they had ever seen in their lives. Then add the constant threat of blackmail to the mix… The kind of fic I like to read emcompasses this reality.

As for earlier times? Hanging was too good for ‘em. Burning, castration, banishment (as outlaws!), castration FOLLOWED by stoning to death, and other such wonders.

So how to end it?

In “The Highwayman” (review to come) Emily Veinglory manages her Happy With Each Other Perhaps Forever very deftly, without making it unrealistic. Lee Rowan’s officers, both aboard the same ship in “Ransom” and “Winds of Change” may not find it easy, but close proximity and dark enclosed places aboard help a little – in spite of the risk of the dreaded Number 29 Article of War. You don’t doubt that they will do anything they can to stay together, but you do know that it won’t be easy and it may not last long. I LIKE that uncertainty.

Personally I like to leave a lot to my readers’ imaginations. I want the reader to think at the end -”What will happen? Will they find somewhere they can live out their lives? Or will the weight of society destroy them in the end? What must it be like, not even to feel safe when you lock the door at night?”

I like them to weigh up not only the danger of the period and make a decision of their own.

What about you? Are you a fan of Happy Ever After – the slow fade at the end and undying love? Or do you like a bit of bite to your historical? Will you only read a story that you know how it ends (e.g. a category romance) or do you revel in the fear that “SHIT – they might not make it!”

Do tell!

Review: Street Lavender by Chris Hunt

Review by Lee Benoit 

Street Lavender cover 

In the current issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide literary critic David Bergman describes four dynamics that define gay literature: creating art; providing positive images; changing attitudes; and market viability (see comment below).  In Chris Hunt’s Street Lavender we get all four, neatly and delightfully packaged.  And it wrung tears from me, which isn’t something Bergman seemed concerned about, but which secures Hunt’s twenty-year-old novel a place on my “do not lend” shelf.

 

The book is set in 1880s London, around the time of the passage of 1885’s Criminal Law Amendment Act with its Section 11 that effectively (re)criminalized all male homosexual behavior; the law is mentioned once in passing, it figures not at all in the story.  Why not?  Because Willie Smith, our protagonist, couldn’t care less about what Parliament was up to, and neither does the reader, for the reader’s completely swept away by Willie’s distinctive voice and story.  The novel apes the style and structure of Victorian bildungsromans to great effect.

 

Willie is the best kind of unreliable narrator.  He’s got a terrific sense of moment (Hunt lets him Capitalize Important Things, which might grate on some but I found charming), he’s cheeky, and even as a lad (like any good Victorian epic we begin at the beginning) he’s blithely cognizant of his own shortcomings and his personal responsibility for the trajectory of his journey through life (until we leave him some 340 pages later at the ripe old age of 17).

 

I didn’t expect to laugh out loud at the adventures of a Victorian child prostitute, but I did.  The novel itself is gently tongue-in-cheek in parts, but Willie is genuinely funny.  And the humor matures right along with Willie.  For instance, at twelve, Willie arrives from his slum to live with his middle class aunt Louisa, her husband, and their young son Georgey, with whom  Willie is already half in love upon arrival.  The first order of business is to give the little guttersnipe a bath.  His delicate, histrionic aunt quails at the prospect of doing it herself (the idea of Helping a Poor Relation appeals, but the flesh-and-blood reality is another matter):

“When she contemplated the actual me … she pressed the back of her hand against her forehead in a theatrical gesture of stress and despair.“‘Mrs. Braddon!’ she cried [to the housekeeper].  ‘See to him.’“Georgey giggled.  I grimaced.“‘Mamma, may I stay?’ Georgey pleaded.“‘How does Willie feel about such an impudent request?’ asked my aunt who adored him.“‘Yeah, stay,’ I appealed to my sweet little friend.“I needed some support at the idea of being seen to by Mrs. Braddon.  She had the inevitability of a machine.” (pp. 67-68) 

At the risk of irritating you with another passage, I offer this as an example of Willie’s sense of humor at 17.  He has been living and modeling for a houseful of artists in Bloomsbury, and chafes at the callous way they bring street people in to model for them, giving them a glimpse of an alien, alluring life, only to dump them back onto the streets before the paint is dry.  Unbeknownst to his benefactors, Willie undertakes to keep a pot of soup at the ready, using the proceeds of his own modeling to feed his fellows:

“Oh! The eruption when I was found out!“Franklin was furious, Clara upset, and Charles rampant with sarcasm.” (p. 285) 

This passage reveals another of Hunt’s triumphs.  Willie’s knowledge of his world grows with his knowledge of himself, and Hunt never lets this boundary slip.  The power of the writing shows in the attention to period detail, both physical and psychological.

 

Willie is the sort of fellow who notices details, so it’s perfectly natural for him to describe a room, a nighttime street, or a whore’s dress.  What’s remarkable, however, is that as Willie travels from one strange land to another he grafts his observations onto those he had before; he sees and describes objects and settings and characters through the newly ground lens of what he’s experienced in the mean time.  This device brings Victorian London alive in a way I didn’t expect (for example, the younger Willie describes bedbugs as an unpleasant fact of life in his Aldgate digs, but when he encounters them again after one of his many reversals of fortune they’re a horror salient of the physical and psychological distance he’s traveled).

 

Which brings me to another point of interest for historical fiction aficionados.  There’s no taint of psychological gentrification in Willie’s story.  Self-reflective though he is, no 20th century sensibility seeps in, not even when Willie decides he’s proud of being an “Urning.”  The classically-influenced German idea that men who love men comprise female psyches in male bodies (better known, I think, as “Uranian”) gives Willie a sense of connectedness to men like himself throughout history, but that history extends no further than its 1880s parameters.  Willie knows there’s a wrongness to his interest in his young cousin Georgy, but at the end of the day he’s more worried that the spoiled, simpering Georgy doesn’t approach his Ideal than that it signals any moral turpitude on his part.  No Freudian imagery in sight – very refreshing.

 

Each of the six parts of the novel gives us one discrete leg of Willie’s journey, each with its own narrative arc.  That the six parts hang so elegantly together is due to three factors: Willie’s inimitable voice; a cast of characters that winds in and out like a cat through chair legs; and two overarching themes.  The first theme, Ideal Love, is established at the very beginning of the story with Willie’s elder brother Charley as the ideal (squick alert: incest and underage tampering, even by the standards of the day).  The theme is developed and refined throughout the narrative to the deeply satisfying conclusion.  The second theme is political.  Don’t groan!  Willie’s a remarkably political animal and gets himself in trouble with folks high and low for his critical and idiosyncratic approach to social justice.  Willie’s own self-awareness is molded in large part by his political opinion of himself (at one point, poignantly, he hangs a picture of Saint George in the room from which he prostitutes himself, as a model for his own behavior, tilting at the dragon of poverty and injustice).

 

Believe it or not, these two themes twine together perfectly.  In some sense, Willie is Love, caroming through his life in search of a Beloved worthy of him, and of whom he must be worthy.  If I have one criticism of the book, it’s that Willie has to hit rock bottom before he can merit the love he seeks.  While, Hunt remains true to his character in that Willie himself sees the purgatory of his adolescence as a sort of extended purification rite, I thought I smelled Moral Judgement in the air around my reading nook once or twice.

 

This minor criticism shouldn’t deter readers.  By the thoroughly delightful, carefully hinted-at surprise ending Willie is ready for love, self-assured enough to stake his claim, and mindful enough of the consequences of living without love to defend that claim fiercely.  And we readers are so firmly allied to his cause by then that any ending other than the bittersweetly happy one we get is unthinkable.

Review: Dangerous Moonlight by Mel Keegan

Reveiw by Lee Benoit

Years ago, when I used to search desperately for anything and everything in gay fantasy (that is, when I would read anything), I came across Mel Keegan. The early works, regardless of genre, had a “boy’s own” feel that bored me after a while. The emphatic exceptions were Keegan’s historical novels (Fortunes of War, The Deceivers, White Rose of Night, and Nocturne [if historical fiction can be allowed a vampyre or three]). Dangerous Moonlight is the newest, set around the accession of George II in 1727, and I recommend it highly.

Like Keegan’s better works, Dangerous Moonlight is densely plotted, with fully realized characters and enviably palpable settings. It’s the story of Nick Gray, bastard son of a wealthy jewelry merchant and horse breeder, and Harry Trevellion, erstwhile law student paupered by his father’s rash investment in one of Britain’s corporate colonization enterprises. They meet when Harry, turned highwayman to raise capital for a stud farm of his own, holds up the carriage in which Nick is transporting goods to a well-heeled client of his father’s. Sparks fly, but no one falls into bed with anyone – yet. We’re not given a drawing-room romp; indeed, anyone with a title appears fleetingly or off-page. This is an historical adventure: romance lies at its core, but as lifeblood rather than life itself. Eroticism, likewise, provides grace notes to plot and character, but never overtakes the story. Given the historical setting, the personalities of the characters, and the plot itself, the restrained (though nevertheless hot-blooded) treatment of romance and eroticism are exactly as they should be.

In another gratifying auctorial decision, Keegan gives us two fully adult and self-aware men as protagonists, then deftly deploys then in such a way that neither overshadows the other. Nick is the “good son,” scant months older than his father’s wastrel of a legitimate heir. He has learned his father’s businesses, undertakes the perilous duties of courier for the jeweler, and has studied sword and firearms to great effect. He’s humble and principled, and loves his father. Therefore, the father’s decision to disinherit the nasty Paul in favor of Nick seems logical. This is, naturally, the source of a great deal of trouble.

Harry is a bit of a Robin Hood figure: he chooses his quarry carefully, preying upon slavers and coal barons and abusers of animals. He is self-interested, arrogant, and unscrupulous, but Keegan saves him from caricature by giving him a romantic heart and fierce sense of loyalty. His moral compass turns upon honor among thieves, but pragmatically rather than romantically. Nick has a hard time seeing Harry as one of the good guys when Harry robs him a second time, nearly seducing him in the process. The confrontation that ensues is the germ of love, and the bedrock of respect, between the two men.

Here I must mention another of the most welcome aspects of the novel. Both Nick and Harry are experienced, self-accepting lovers of men. There is no moral hand-wringing, no tremulous surrender of virginity, no whiff of alpha-beta action at all. Nick and Harry meet as equals in bed and out; each admires and respects the other’s skills and personality (among other things!). They are canny about the risks of sodomy in their time, and carry on carefully (one wonderful detail has Nick refusing to kiss Harry before he’s shaved, in order to avoid tell-tale whisker-burns). Keegan gives us a story with homosexuality placed firmly in its historical context, but in which being outed is not the fulcrum of the plot. Furthermore, their sexuality doesn’t exist in a vacuum – former lovers of both protagonists figure in the plot in important capacities and the mature responses of each lover to his beloved’s past is gratifyingly real.

The conflict is carefully developed, perhaps a bit slowly, but with 349 closely printed pages to work with, many readers will welcome the fermenting process. There’s plenty of description here, but it’s all organic to the plot (if a sunset or horse race or Roman road is described, there’s a reason for it), and delicious (even at its ugliest). Likewise class relationships are carefully explored without being overdone: Harry and Nick are decent to servants and rent boys, disdainful of the idle (or predatory) rich, and judge everyone else on their merits and usefulness to their purposes. That pragmatism, while not the stuff of romantic heroes, perfectly suits two young men trying against steep odds to make their way in a world that has scant place for them, and represents a literary risk by Keegan that pays off in spades.

Nick’s father’s new will is at the center of the conflict, and without spoiling anything I can tell you there is no heroic, anachronistic triumph of the good bastard over the dissipated former heir. There are court scenes that unfold, not as a starry-eyed 21st century reader might wish, but exactly as one would expect in an age that valued birth status over character. Nick’s half-brother Paul is the bad guy, but the system is the real villain here. There are nice indictments of the aristocracy, but none that ring untrue given the state of the world in the first quarter of the 18th century. (Disclaimer: I’m not a particular student of this era in Europe, but rather of colonialism, so I can’t vouch for my interpretations except to say what rang true to me and what didn’t. Not much didn’t.) The characters we cheer for are the ones who work, neither the hapless victims nor the genteel parasites. That seems a pretty modern concept, but after all, the modern era was young and fresh in Harry and Nick’s time, old enough to know itself, young enough to rebel a little, rash enough to revel, wise enough to hedge its bets – just like Keegan’s protagonists.

The book is available only through Keegan’s web site, which is a shame as it makes the price high (the shipping from Australia accounts for a lot of that). It’s worth a read, regardless.

Buy it

Review: Gaywyck by Vincent Virga

Gaywyck is the first gay Gothic novel. Long out of print, this classic proved that genre knows no gender. Young, innocent Robert Whyte enters a Jane-Eyre world of secrets and deceptions when he is hired to catalog the vast library at Gaywyck, a mysterious ancestral mansion on Long Island, where he falls in love with its handsome and melancholy owner, Donough Gaylord. Robert’s unconditional love is challenged by hidden evil lurking in the shadowy past crammed with dark sexual secrets sowing murder, blackmail, and mayhem in the great romantic tradition

Review by Erastes

Considered the “grandaddy of gay historical fiction” “Gaywyck” is certainly one of the first of its kind, and although not the most literary or beautifully written of the genre, it is essential reading and deserves more than a little respect that, despite being out of print, it is still being read and sought out after more than 20 years.

On the surface, it’s a familiar story: Robert Whyte does not want to conform to his father’s plans for him and through the good graces of a friend he obtains a post at Gaywyck, a mansion on Long Island in early 20th Century America owned by the mysterious Donough Gaylord.  There’s everything you expect in a Gothic Romance: faithful retainers, an animal who is almost human, mysteries of long-dead fathers and twin brothers, locked rooms, instant attraction between the protagonists and plenty of misunderstandings and conflict to keep them apart.

But it does have flaws; the language is over-blown at times and there’s a tendency to info-dump with information on architecture, flowers, paintings, decorations, furniture that I often found myself skipping forward to get to the next section that moved the story along.  Robert Whyte did not endear himself to me until the end, and even then I wouldn’t have been too unhappy if Gaylord (oh Lord…) had stuck the boy’s head in a bucket and put his foot on it.  I know I’ve written a physically frail protagonist but sheesh – he does improve. Robert – when he’s not weeping, fainting, angsting or trembling in fear is getting himself into dangerous situations that Catherine Moreland would have paid good guineas to be in and then has to be rescued by all and sundry.

It has to be said that he doesn’t exactly do much work, either, for all that he’s being paid quite a decent sum to do so.

There are some excellent secondary characters, although everyone appears to be gay (friends and servants) which is always an irritant, but I particularly enjoyed Gaylord’s New York friends who were some light relief from all the brooding and fainting.  Despite all that, I did like the way the love affair progressed and the internal conflicts the characters had to overcome to get close to each other.

The solving of the mystery was actually a surprise to me, and a really good one, so stick with it because there’s a good twist at the end.  Oh – and the epilogue broke me into tiny tiny pieces and I cried my eyes out, but then I’m a big soppy.

There’s a sequel of sorts in Vadrial Vail, where Whyte and Gaylord make a cameo appearance but I haven’t read that yet – review when I have.

All in all, a decent Gothic romance.  It is showing its age a little, in my opinion. “Master of Seacliff” is similar to this but superior in many ways, but as one of the forerunners of the genre, it is worth a spin.

I would have given it 3 stars as it didn’t light any fires under me or do anything I hadn’t seen before, but due to its age and durability, and the fact that it made me cry, I’m adding an extra star.

It is out of print at the moment, but you can get hold of copies here and there for a reasonable price with a little searching.

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