Review: Here and Always Have Been by Kenneth Craigside

Here, and Always Have Been. An Anthology of Gay Historical Fiction

If homosexuality is the result of biology then gay inventiveness had to have led to wild sexual adventures during every era of human existence. Here, And Always Have Been is a collection of thirteen erotic tales. Each takes place at a different era ranging from the prehistoric through the middle of the Twentieth Century. These stories have been researched to the point of plausibility in terms of language and events, yet are inventive in ways both exciting and sensual. In other words, we’ve had fun throughout time!

Review by Vashtan

Review by Vashtan

There should be a saying that goes like: “You cannot escape a book at the airport.” I set out on a business trip with three ebooks on my smartphone (pretentious little thing, but I agree with Nathan Bransford that this particular smartphone makes a pretty good  e-reader). The longer I waited at Heathrow Terminal 5, worried sick about my suitcase, the more grateful I was for distraction. When the first two (short) ebooks turned out to be non-historical, I started on  “Here, And Always Have Been” by Kenneth Craigside, published by The  Nazca Plains Corporation in 2009. This was very different from the
first two m/m romance offerings, and I found myself very well distracted. Apart from the take-off (when you have to switch off even shiny smartphones), and the landing (same), I hardly remember anything about the flight. Thank you, Mr. Craigside.

But first things first. “Here, and Always Have Been” is an anthology of gay historical fiction, all written by Craigside. The thirteen stories vary in length between about ten and twenty pages–so nice, quick, even-paced reads. Historically, they cover the Stone Age, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the Crusades, the age of Shakepeare, Louis XIV, early 19th century, late 19th century, the Wild West, the Raj, the early 20th century, and the 1950ies. Thematically, these stories do not negotiate relationships like in your usual gay romance—the emphasis here is on kink, sexual fantasy that plays out in a historical setting, and vary strongly from explicit to implied.

Variation is the keyword. The anthology is a very mixed bag, ranging from some stories that worked very well to others that had me scratch my head, baffled.

Let’s look at a few stories more closely.

After “Stalagmite”, which has two Cro-Magnons “consecrate” the cultic  “man-stone” with their discharged fluids (I’m trying to be genteel here), comes my favourite story in the anthology: “Alcibiades’s Mirror”, which is the story of a Greek who ‘clothes athletes’. This is the place of a very sensuous passage:

But my real income is derived from that which covers an athlete’s nakedness—namely oil, and of all kinds. Maxagoras’s ships bring them to me from every corner of the great sea. And camel caravans extend my reach to mystic capitals of unknowable eastern empires. A poor athlete must make do with ordinary olive oil: sticky, rancid and melling of some farmer’s nearby grove. But wealthy athletes…ah, they line my pockets for a finer sheen. Oils of thirteen kinds of palm, seven different nuts, two types of whale, and three of dolphin, as well as the most refined varieties of olive. I stock them all.

And I can delight them with scent. Attar of rose or lavender may be added to the oil for those men who wish to smell sweet at the end of a race. Cinnamon or clove can give one a bracing aroma. Ambergris, frankincense, and myrrh are more pungent still. There are also those who crave something, shall we say, in the super masculine vein? The addition of various musks of bear, ox, or a rare gazelle from Africa are said to drive an athlete’s admirers to distraction.

Passages like this show that Craigside aims for more than writing about a sexual encounter. There are many instances where he attempts to portray the time by the language he uses, finding a slightly different style and tone for each and every one. The anthology is full of nods towards literary and historical figures, ranging from Plato,
Hadrian and Antinous, Shakespeare and Billy Budd. There were many well-researched details that I enjoyed, so Craigside ranks high on the historical accuracy. Personally, I’d disagree with him about the depiction of historical characters such as Antinous or Richard the Lionheart, but I’m aware that we all interpret people,  even historical people, differently. Since Craigside is not aiming for historical biographies, but sexual encounters, that’s fine.

There were several stories that didn’t work for me, though. “King Ludwig’s Dream Machine” is set in Neuschwanstein, ”Mad” King Ludwig of Bavaria’s fairy tale castle, and features a character discovering and trying out the king’s clockwork sex toy/machine. Like in many of the stories, I liked the idea, but the execution was shoddy. What grated
in this story were the national stereotypes, and then the terrible, terrible German, which sounds like Babelfish had an especially bad day. In times when the Internet is full of German speakers that fall over themselves to help writers get German sentences right, this soured the story, and, to a lesser extent, the anthology for me.

“Will’s Best Bed”, a short story that deals with Shakespeare’s possibly homoerotic sonnets features the characters (one of them old Bill himself) rhyming, but the rhymes here (and in “A Manual of Arms”) don’t work for me. Craigside’s rhyming and poetry really jarred me when side-by-side with the timeless beauty of Shakespeare’s actual
sonnets.

Readers looking for character exploration or romance, however, might want to look elsewhere; beyond the sex and a few sketched traits, there is little to no character development. And while his humor doesn’t really work for me, Craigside has a very interesting imagination and a knack for setting and historical detail, but I feel  his story-building skills fall a bit short of his literary ambitions and his ability to translate his ideas onto the page. The one serious research fault was that he uses German liberally and wrongly—while I  don’t mind the use of foreign language to put more life into a setting, I do expect those passages to hold up to a native speaker, regardless of the language used.

To sum up: lots of good research; Craigside is a stickler for historical detail, and while not all stories are erotic, there are several scenes that speed up the pulse and get the readers exactly where the author wants them. Those stories that are explicit are usually fairly hot or have hot moments (apart from the ones that are farcical, or even, in the instance of “Shiva’s Smile” very gruesome).

Craigside is definitely aiming towards the “literary” side of the spectrum, but he would have benefited from a strong editor to fully realize the literary potential and ambition of the prose.

Finally, would I read more of his writing? Yes, I would like to see him develop as a writer. There were a lot of interesting ideas and angles he developed, and if the anthology had shown a much more consistent quality, it could have scored much higher.

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Vashtan is an expat German living near London, UK. After studying medieval and ancient history and modern literature, he is now making a living as a financial journalist and writing coach. He has published in English as Aleksandr Voinov and is working on about five novels and stories at any given time. He is interested in all epochs of history and sometimes believes he knows something about a few of them, too.

4 Responses

  1. I’m glad that I could make Heathrow and a plane flight more enjoyable for Vashan. And sorry that I didn’t consult more than one German friend when I wrote the story about Ludwig. But I would love to hear more of what I got wrong about Neuschwanstein itself. I too have visited the castle, have numerous books about it, a detrailed model sits high in my library, and even the floor plans are now spread out upon my desk. I can’t see any errors in describing it. But surely one can be fanciful in portraying a fairytale Castle. I now wonder what would happen if the reviewer was French, or even more fraught, a dedicated Islamist.

    Since the country most represented in this book is England I should have loved to have read Erastes’s opinion. Ah well. Now I want to read something by Vashan.

  2. The name’s “Vashtan”, Ken.

    Regarding Neuschwanstein, my experience of the ascent and the actual tour was very different (but this is splitting hairs – I am making allowances for the fact that that level of detail isn’t actually required in fiction).

    If you want to send me the short story text to my email (this username at gmail com), I’d be happy to correct it for your second printing, which I hope the anthology achieves, because I liked it.

    It was somewhat bad luck for you that I’m German and spotted the German mistakes – however, it mystifies me how a “German friend” can be wrong in his/her own language to that extend (both grammar and spelling are wrong).

    I’m not sure how to read your comment about “Islamist”, however (and an “Islamist” hanging out at a gay books blog has his own, likely more pressing problems, I’m sure).

    • Thank you, Vashtan. I will send the story and value your corrections. My friend is a former secretary who has been in the US since the nineteen sixties. Maybe she’s a bit rusty in her German. And sorry about leaving the T out of your name. I did google you and am set to read your war story of the late last century.

      Regarding the Islamist, I was referring to the touchy situations of Salman Rushdi or Danish cartoons in relation to the fourth of my stories.

  3. I’d leave the free online war story out, to be honest… there was a co-writer involved, and I’m currently editing this. Let’s take this to emails (I’ll be in touch).

    And, yeah, the fatwa business is very unfortunate (even though Salman Rushdie doesn’t appear to be a very pleasant person and his books bore me stiff, nobody deserves to live in fear for writing fiction).

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