Hot Copy: Classic Gay Erotica from the Magazine Era – Dale Chase (Lethe Press)

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There was a piece of advice I was given about writing erotica years ago. I unfortunately can’t remember who it was who passed it along, but the short version is this: if you take out the sex scenes, it still has to be a good story. Erotica is undoubtedly about sex, but sex presented as a mechanism devoid of the energy and drive and character of the people involved will fall a little flat and become a scene, not a story. Make the reader care about a character, or even deplore a character, and the reader becomes invested. And when the clothes start dropping and the sex scorches on the page, the reader will willingly go all-in.

Hot Copy, Dale Chase’s recent collection of classic magazine era gay erotica, is exactly this notion put to practice. These tales, which originally saw print between 1997 and 2006 in some of the hottest gay magazines, burst with character – and sex – from beginning to end. To those coming to reading gay erotica more recently, don’t be tempted to dismiss Freshmen, Indulge, Men, and In Touch as being from a bygone era in this digital age. The best stories – and make no mistake, Chase has some of the best stories – survive the scrutiny of a modern eye.

That isn’t to say that the time and place of these stories is not a welcome flavour to the telling. “Politically Incorrect” – a story of a closeted politician caught with his pants down – is by no means an alien event today, but there’s something extra-gleeful in this nineties/aughts version of an outed politician and the gay lover who had no idea he was seeing a man who’s politics undermined everything he secretly enjoyed. The pivot of this unaware partner telling the tale is just so viscerally enjoyable – and pulled me right back to the anger at the hypocrisy that ran so rampantly in those decades.

And it was still damned hot. Make no mistake, Dale Chase is one of the best erotica writers out there. Sensuality that blisters with a kind of frank realism is in every story. Taste, scent, touch – Chase grabs the reader though the senses and doesn’t let go, and this willingness to explore the physical alongside the emotional is a huge strength.

For many readers, myself included, Dale Chase has long become the name associated with the best of erotic gay westerns. The grit of trail dust, the reality of a time before gay love could speak its name, and the scent of leather and sweat are rarely evoked with skill comparable to that of Dale Chase. It should be no surprise to find that Chase’s skill translates so easily to other times, other places, and other characters but I will admit to a few moments of genuine awe when seeing what Chase accomplishes in the space of such a short piece.

And I do mean short. Remember, these are gems mined from the magazine era. In the magazine world, word counts were harsh taskmasters, and many of the stories in Hot Copy achieve their goal in six to eight pages. An equal sized anthology of erotica collected today might contain sixteen to twenty tales; Hot Copy has thirty-three, and every story still delivers rich characterization and a satisfying narrative arc. It’s no wonder Chase had to come up with a second pen name, Karl Taggart, to disguise multiple sales within single issues during those magazine years. “More with less” is rarely accomplished this well.

The stories themselves aren’t arranged chronologically as they were originally published (which must have been a temptation) but instead an enticing mix of tones. The collection launches with the less-than-hopeful (but still hot) “On the Run,” where Chase takes the Pizza Delivery trope and tops the heat and sweat with a kind of painful desperation, but follows with “Man’s Best Friend,” which has a sweeter side, more emotional connection between the two men, and a light – and funny – conclusion. I found myself enjoying the unexpectedness of the stories, and failing to accomplish my original goal of one story a night (my usual habit when reading anthologies). I often had to force myself to put the book down after three or four stories, and even then with great reluctance.

The recurring theme of San Francisco and the surrounding area is never overpowering, but lends itself to adding to a sense of cohesion as well. Glimpses of areas (and eras) of change are tiny brush strokes in the whole. Silicon Valley is visited, and I laughed out loud at “Supply and Demand,” where a stock boy is saddled with an ancient 386 on his desk. There’s charm in the California weather – fogs, mists, El Niño – as well as the reality of nearby natural escapes. Cabins and forests and parks feature often, even the ranches that flourished to the east, out of the grasp of urban sprawl, and even the author admits to being amused at finding a cowboy tale in this modern era of stories.

Those author notes, by the way, are a wonderful touch. Sometimes a single sentence of context, but often a paragraph or so adding a lens through which to think about the story you’ve just read, the commentary added a wonderful insight to both the author and the writing. I’ve always loved hearing about the birth of ideas, and many of these spoke to the truth of the writerly experience: have a pen handy, because that lightning can strike anywhere and any time. Even traffic school.

I’ve mentioned a few, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t step forward and put a few stories into the spotlight. First, I’ll say it clearly, I loved this collection and it is rare that I enjoy every single story in an anthology, but that was my experience with Hot Copy.

Of course, I have favourites.

The aforementioned “Man’s Best Friend,” tickled my funny bone with a cat-loving man falling for a dog-walker and not just the least bit owing to my own status as a cat-person who ended up with an eighty pound dog who now rules a good portion of my day thanks to my husband. “Bear,” in which a husky hairy fellow makes an appearance – a rarity in the magazines of the time – was a hot and very welcome addition, and the author notes thereafter brought another laugh-out-loud moment from the collection. The potential May-December romance in “Higher Education” was a lovely mix of romance, sweat, and the pervasive nervousness of the decade, and had just the right note of hopefulness to leave me smiling. And finally, “The Act.” Chase cleverly chose to close the collection with this piece, which is set in a theatre and was the perfect mix of everything that had come before – the sex, the hope, the worry, the vulnerability, and characters who are unforgettable and handled so deftly the reader closes the book wishing to start over again at once. Chase calls it her favourite, and I can’t help but agree.

The forward motion of queer culture and technology (and the intersection of the two) inevitably leads to some things falling by the wayside that trigger nostalgia in those of us who look back and remember. The physical magazine era feels like one of those things, and though I wouldn’t trade the progress for anything, I’m so pleased that presses like Lethe exist and that these stories – such a perfect example of the best of the era – have a second life, and can find their way into the hands of eager readers.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

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