Continuing their ongoing series, Cleis Press releases another stellar group of stories in this year’s Best Gay Romance. It’s another anthology filled with vivid characters, romantic scenarios, and an underlying theme of beauty beyond the physical. Themed anthologies often suffer from repetition and dull sameness, but this group of stories has a nice variety of locales, time periods, and lovers, some meeting for the first time, some together for decades.
The seventeen stories come from authors new and experienced. Dale Chase, Victor Banis, Jay Starre, Simon Sheppard, Rob Rosen and T. Hitman have been working in gay male erotica for years. Relative newcomers like Matthew Lower, Max Pierce, JM Snyder, and Shanna Germain contribute stories as well.
The anthology overall is a solid book, and several stories stand out as especially strong.
The opener, “Henry and Jim” is by author J.M. Snyder. It’s a gentle and wistful story, unabashedly romantic that evokes a long-time pair’s love. The first line establishes the bittersweet tone of the piece referencing love letter written long ago. The symbol shows again later in the story in the line, “When we make love now it’s a gentle affair, languid and slow, the movements, careful like turning the crumbling pages of an ancient book.” The implication of Alzheimer’s and its devastating effects are between every line for the reader to discover on their own.
In Shanna Germain’s “Coming Home”, the main character questions his return to the family farm after an unpleasant coming out experience. Germain captures the gritty itchiness of working on a hot afternoon in a hayloft and shows the macho, taciturn personalities of the two country boys. Their clipped dialogue keeps a sense of suspense and tension right up until the charming ending.
In “Falling”, Simon Sheppard uses letters, references to blogs and modern communication to let readers “read between the lines” to make their own interpretation about the narrator’s state of mind. Some might see it as a suicide note; others might see it as a man straining to keep his hope alive in a cold world. It’s a story that needs more than one reading to appreciate.
The theme of beauty beyond the physical is repeated in “What the Eye Reveals” by Jason Shults. Set in the ultra-superficial world of Los Angeles, the narrator and his long-time partner Bob, are stumbling through a difficult time in their relationship. Bob floats through the world, looking for answers in Tarot readings and the pseudo-philosophies of past life readings. With a near-terse pace, the story doesn’t provide answers for the readersor its main characters. Still, the pulsebeat of love is on every page.
Jameson Currier shows his experience as a writer with deft bookending in “The Country House”. Opening with a line about quarrels between lovers and ending with the same theme, he gives the two stories: a tale of Civil War era lovers wrongly murdered and a modern-day couple who make the lifelong commitment to one another after seeing their ghosts. It’s a sweet story.
Editor Labonte closes the book with one of the most powerful tales, “The Canals of Mars” by Victor J. Banis. Scarred, ugly people aren’t men often found in gay erotica and this tale is affecting. It has a touch of fantasy element: as the lovers grow closer, they grow younger and the scars fade away, the theme of physical beauty that has less power than soulful beauty is once again reinforced.
A couple of the stories feel a bit out of place, more hard-core in tone and subject matter, “Fucked on Kilimanjaro” and “The Belt” would have been home in an erotica anthology that focused on the physical. Jack Fritscher’s “Rush of Love” was an epic poem of an homage to muscle men, with prose that was rich, lush and erotic. Love? Yes, in a transitory way, but still an emotional experience for the narratorand the reader.
Whether you like the notion of happily ever after, or happily for now, Best Gay Romance offers a good variety of stories that gives readers a sweet taste of love between men.
© 2008 Vincent Diamond. All rights reserved.