Author: Jay B. Laws
Publisher: ReQueered Tales (2nd Edition)
Length: 577 Pages
At a Glance: Clocking in at a robust 577 pages, Steam takes a fair amount of word count to pick up steam (if you’ll pardon the pun), but once all the significant parts and pieces fell into place, and the thrust of the story was revealed and took hold, I couldn’t help but become invested in the tension and suspense and, ultimately, the unexpected love story that found purchase in the shared terror of fighting a common enemy.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: San Francisco was once a city of music and laughter, of parties and bathhouses, when days held promise and nights, romance. But now something sinister haunts the streets and alleyways of San Francisco, something that crept in with the fog to seek a cruel revenge…
Flint, owner of a once thriving bathhouse, now ravaged by a disease that has no cure, gives himself over to the evil lurking in the steam. Dying men get tickets that say Admit One, hoping for release, only to be dragged into the maelstrom.
David, a writer of gay porn, finds himself writing another kind of story. His friend Eddie disappears from his hospital bed, leaving slime and mold, then returns for David. Meanwhile, Bobby is searching for his lover, lost in the same horror.
This classic gay horror suspense tale by Jay B Laws finally returns to circulation. First published in 1991, at the height of the AIDS crisis, this allegory chronicles the early days of the epidemic. It features the glittery discos of the seventies and an ominous abandoned gay bathhouse, in what is now something of a time capsule. It was nominated for Best First Novel by the Lambda Literary Awards.
Review: The magnitude of impact the horror genre often provokes does not depend on what is imagined, but on what is real. The success of author Jay B. Laws’ debut novel Steam, however, happens to hinge upon both. In this case, his storytelling drew on the very real fears of the AIDS crisis, his profoundly intimate experience with it, and it is presented in allegory as a virulent demon with an insatiable appetite that swept into the city of San Francisco along with a cloying fog which hung dense over the Castro and the surrounding Mission district. No man or woman was fully immune to its appetites, no child safe from its temptation, nor from the death and despair which followed its arrival.
Laws wove a sense of nostalgia into this novel, recalling the headier days of disco, drugs, dancing, and sex—the days before AIDS altered the landscape of carefree decadence. The horror of its impact upon friends, lovers, and family is presented within the framework of a series of disappearances and deaths, beginning with the proprietor of a bathhouse which has been shut down by the city. When Larry Frank “Flint” Stone is diagnosed with the disease, he chooses to end things on his own terms, in his own time, which is the catalyst for everything which follows as this ravenous plague takes up residence within the steam inside the hellscape of the bathhouse once known as the Caverns.
As the story unfolds, in a sometimes achingly slow and deliberate way, readers are eventually made aware that we’ve been introduced to the two men who will become its protagonists—David, who pens gay porn, which becomes a significant determiner of events as well as a coinciding ‘art imitating art’ influence on the storyline; and Bobby, whose lover, Mick, succumbs to the seduction of the demon Victor. David and Bobby will eventually meet, their inevitability preordained by the mysticism Laws weaves into the narrative, and they will join each other to fight this most indiscriminate of killers. Steam presents a specific fear, often in grotesque detail, and at times at its most bizarre and terrifying, within a house of horrors and as a cloying parasite that hitches a ride on the soul of its victims. At times vaguely reminiscent of such cult classics as John Carpenter’s The Fog or David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (the Peaks are a frequent part of the landscape), Laws allows the setting to become a character unto itself, and it works beautifully as a mainstay of a story that could not have resonated similarly had it been set elsewhere.
In Laws’ own words, he declared, “I write gay horror because I’m scared … I turned more and more to suspense writing to purge myself of my own fears. Fear, I decided, can also be useful.” But it is also noted in the forward, written by his brother, Gary, that he ”may have characterized my brother as a morose, terminally depressed personality, and that is decidedly misleading—be assured that Jay B. was handsome, funny, charming, and a champion schmoozer.” What might be said about the author, based upon his two published novels, is that he wrote for a generation, he captured a very specific segment of history in his storytelling, which serves as both a reminder of a not-so-distant past as well as an expression of a specific horror and loss that touched so many lives.
Clocking in at a robust 577 pages, Steam takes a fair amount of word count to pick up steam (if you’ll pardon the pun), but once all the significant parts and pieces fell into place, and the thrust of the story was revealed and took hold, I couldn’t help but become invested in the tension and suspense and, ultimately, the unexpected love story that found purchase in the shared terror of fighting a common enemy.
You can buy Steam here:
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