History’s Passion: Stories of Sex Before Stonewall – Richard Labonte, ed. (Bold Strokes Books)

Buy it direct from Bold Strokes Books

I am always fascinated in and engaged by stories of queer history. Such tales are important to maintaining a sense of community and ancestry, qualities I find comforting as I turn into an eldergay (well, I’m already there, truth be told). So, when I heard about this anthology of four novellas, I was very excited—even more so when I read who would be editing and who would be participating. And I was not disappointed.

This wonderful collection begins with Jeff Mann’s “Camp Allegheny,” a lusty tale of love between older daddy Shep Sumter and young’un Brendan Botkin, two soldiers during the Civil … um, excuse me, Jeff … the War of Northern Aggression. The two share a cabin during their unit’s entrenchment in the mountains of Virginia. Mann is in his element here—war, sweat, piss, bondage, meals—but his work is particularly muscular here. He seems energized by his research and finds the heart of both these characters easily. The ending is emblematic of war stories and not unexpected, but Mann pulls it off with the assurance and mastery we’ve come to expect. A fine beginning.

Simon Sheppard’s “Heaven on Earth” was surprising to me. Not because I don’t like Sheppard’s work—I’ve very much enjoyed what I’ve read. But stories of queer life on the run during Depression-era America don’t exactly grow on trees, and this one is steeped in the transitory rootlessness of that period. Like Mann, Sheppard has found the very heart of both small-time crook Eli and gas pump jockey Jake and wound them together as they fuck and suck their courage up to commit a robbery of Reverend Cobey’s Traveling Crusade along with henchman Duane. But of course, things don’t go as planned—and that includes the ending.

“Tender Mercies” puts Dale Chase squarely in her comfort zone, spinning the marvelously atmospheric tale of Luke Farrow, the “boy” of the gold mining camp Beeler Gulch, set during California’s Gold Rush days. Luke’s lucrative profession has won him many luxuries but taken a toll on his heart as well as his body. Enter one Cullen Markey, who has promised to make Luke his own, despite some serious claim jumping accusations. Chase turns in bravura work here, taking full advantage of the long form to really deepen her characters, creating interesting cameos of even the minor players.

The only wild card is David Holly’s “The Valley of Salt,” a tale of Biblical buggery that traces young Zedek from sacrifical butt-boy kidnapped in Gomorrah to a trek through the desert to Sodom and back. His notes indicate this is a “work of fiction untainted by historical accuracy,” and its language certainly shows that. A bit off-putting at first, I finally got used to the anachronistic speech and let the tale work its magic—which was considerable. It still jarred me, occasionally. You’ll have to be the judge here.

But these stories are admirably done. Kudos to all, including editor Richard Labonte and Bold Strokes Books for having the foresight to let these four masters of erotica have their head (so to speak) and deliver the goods.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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