Tented: Gay Erotic Tales From Under the Big Top – Jerry L. Wheeler, ed. (Lethe Press)

Reviewed by Jeff Mann

Buy it now from TLAgay.com or from our Amazon.com store – Tented: Gay Erotic Tales from under the Big Top

I contemplated writing a story to submit
to this anthology, but I’ve never been to a circus, and from what I’ve seen of
them in movies and on television, I wouldn’t like them. I’m a confirmed
introvert who cherishes solitude and silence. All those damned children, the
bustling crowds, the freakishly painted clowns (which always remind me of the
sinister saw-toothed monster Tim Curry played in It)…Ugh. I couldn’t
imagine a circus being erotic in any way. When I was asked to review the book,
I was juberous (Appalachian for “dubious”).

Well, we read to widen our imaginations,
and so Tented has very effectively changed my attitudes towards
circuses. Though I can still live without the noisy brats and I still find
clowns sleazy and sinister, I can now add circus contortionists, trapeze
artists, and strongmen to my list of fantasized lovers.

This anthology is remarkable in its range
of plots and styles, and it gathers together a goodly number of fine fiction
writers whose work I’ve encountered before and whose company I’ve enjoyed at
the annual Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. It’s one of the
most original and inventive collections I’ve encountered in a while, so, at the
risk of being over-long, I have a little something to say about every story in
the book.

But first the foreword by editor Jerry L.
Wheeler. I got my first glimpse of how erotic the circus setting could be when
Wheeler described one of his “earliest erectile experiences” as a child, when
he glimpsed the tightly clad body of a trapeze artist, complete with muscular
ass and impressive crotch-package (which even bore a wet spot). Ah, already the
book was looking up.

Dale Chase has a very distinctive style,
especially in her tasty Westerns. Reading “Roustabout,” set in
nineteenth-century California, I could hear her voice clearly, having attended
several of her readings at Saints and Sinners, so clearly that she could almost
be reading it out loud to me. She captures relaxed frontier vernacular very
well, as well as desire that moves quickly from casual lust to painful longing.
There’s a down-to-earth yet lyrical romanticism here that I relish.

Tom Cardamone is known for his eerie
magical realism and surrealism, and “Winter Quarters,” with its fantastic use
of cotton candy, vividly displays his talents for the dreamlike. It almost
made me want to incorporate cotton candy in my next bondage scene, though I
think I’ll stick to honey and cream of coconut.

Hank Edwards’ “Charlie Does the Big Top”
is as funny as it is hot. Funny—Charlie is adorably maladroit, the dialogue
sometimes side-splitting, the evil-queen director spot-on. Hot—Charlie is an
enthusiastic fluffer and the men he fluffs yummy. Yummy, in particular, is
Ivan, the contortionist Charlie ravishes at story’s end in an amazing manner.

“Horse’s Ass,” by Ralph Seligman, makes
fine use of setting—a sweltering trailer near San Juan, a humming fan, the
addition of a blindfold. That nasty white grease paint that clowns use serves a
memorable and very handy function.

William Holden’s “The Midnight Barker”
builds beautifully, moving from mysterious to increasingly sinister. His
supernatural shadow-protagonist is slithery and creepy (and also funny: “You’re
not so cute yourself, you little bitch,” he growls at a rude child), and his
hairy-chested prey had me licking my chops with the same predatory fascination
evinced by the hungry narrator.

“Aiming to Please” is author ‘Nathan
Burgoine’s first published erotic story, according to the author notes at the
end of the book. Hard to believe, considering how adept this piece is. The
erotic connection between the protagonist, Paul, and the Russian knife-thrower,
the Amazing Yuri, is gracefully delineated, and by the time yearning moves into
consummation (as it does, praise the gods, in most erotica but much less
frequently in perpetually disappointing Real Life), well, I was savoring every

I’ve admired Sean Meriwether’s fiction for
years, in particular his collection The Silent Hustler, so I was very
curious to see what he’d do with the circus. “Circus Maximus” is, in terms of
sheer originality of plot, the most notable in the book. It’s set in a future
world where clowns rule—truly a shuddery thought for us clown-phobes—and where
two brothers, who share a love both emotional and carnal, must literally take
to the hills to escape the clowns’ malice.

Jay Neal and R. Jackson are both writers
whose work I’ve found especially tasty in the past (probably because they are
both as much fans of the bearish and hirsute as I am). Their story, “Oggie
Joins the Circus,” has two of the most memorable visuals in the book: Big Top,
a sexually dominant, hugely hung little person, and Melvin the Magnificent, a
muscle-man clairvoyant whose body is half “hairy as a goat” and half smooth and
covered with tattoos. The latter reminds me of some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s
allegorical figures.

“Magic,” by Matt Kailey, displays a quiet
literary surface, a moving depiction of longing and loneliness (the protagonist
aches for the beautiful men he sees but is entirely ignored by them—can’t most
of us relate?), and a transformative, mysterious ending.

Equally as literary is Steve Berman’s
“Tell Me What You Love, and I’ll Tell You What You Are.” This story’s style is
as notable as Meriwether’s plot. It’s divided in half: a vertical line down the
middle of the page, two stories, different but related, on either side.
Ingenious, really. The editor calls it “meta-fiction,” and so it is, but it
seems almost like a lyric essay to me. Longing and loneliness characterize this
piece as well, and that combination mixed with the erotic is heady, a more than
natural mingling, an inevitable trio. Loneliness, after all, causes a longing
for the erotic, and the absence of erotic outlet exacerbates longing and hones
the edge of loneliness.

Garland’s “Circus Wagon Love,” set in
France, takes a bit of research to fully appreciate. Google Freaks,
directed by Tod Browning. Google “Johnny Eck.” Not being a circus enthusiast, I
had heard of neither, till this story encouraged me to search online. The
contrast between the enthusiastic sexual connections of the characters and the
looming presence of war adds poignancy to this one.

I had briefly met Gavin Atlas at Saints
and Sinners, and I had eyed his collection, The Boy Can’t Help It, which
is described in this anthology’s author notes as focusing “on the joys of young
bottoms,” which sounds entirely up this Daddy Bear’s alley, since, really, what
is more delicious than a beautiful submissive? Involved in my own writing and
research, however, I had not made time for the book. Now, however, I will. Not
only is “Il Circo Dei Fiori” stylistically immaculate and the plot and setting
gripping, but the scene between the trapeze artist Emil and the two strongmen,
Bulgarian brothers Andon and Grigor, is the most arousing in the book. Would
that hungry Tops always had boys like Emil at hand.

Years ago, I enjoyed Daniel M. Jaffe’s
novel The Limits of Pleasure and was glad to hear that Bear Bones Books,
a Lethe Press imprint, had reissued it, so I was pleased to encounter Jaffe’s
work again. “The Great Masturbator” is another piece entirely original, with a
sexually frustrated narrator, a strong element of the weird and sinister, and a
building sense of mystery. This story too has an allegorical quality that
smacks of Hawthorne.

Cage Thunder’s “The Worker” will be
devoured by wrestling enthusiasts. Its narrator, a college boy who sharply
hankers after Big Steve Starr, a professional wrestler at a county fair, after
the match is brave enough to introduce himself to his hero, and a few sweaty
dreams come true. One of the reasons we read erotica, right? To savor dreams
come true in a world that does not so often allow the same.

The last offering is Dusty Taylor’s “The
Twenty-Four Hour Man.” This story too possesses literary flair. It follows the
age-old pattern of a small, static town, an innocent but eager young narrator,
and a mysterious stranger who comes and goes, changing everything. It’s an
intense and haunting way to end this creative collection. Jerry L. Wheeler has
proven himself to be a fine editor, and I’m eager to see what he comes up with

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