Gents: Steamy Stories from the Age of Steam – Matthew Bright, ed. (Lethe Press)

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You may suffer from the modern notion that “Victorian” is synonymous with “repressed” or “puritanical” and therefore view a volume of M/M erotica set during the Victorian age as purely fantastical. Matthew Bright in the introduction to his Gents: Steamy Stories from the Age of Steam alludes to this perception by citing the frequently retold (but apparently incorrect) idea that the hyper-prudish Victorians went so far as to cover up their naked piano legs. The truth, as he rightly notes, is both less and more than is generally supposed (I mean Queen Victoria herself had nine children). While perhaps not publicly sex-positive, privately the Queen’s loyal subjects were much more adventurous; and this holds true for same-sex relations—the same era that witnessed Oscar Wilde’s trial and imprisonment also saw back-alley mollyhouses.

Thus the stories in Gents are heavy on the (sexual) fantasy, but less so on the fantastical: only a few have any overt fantastical elements, the most obvious being Jeff Mann’s “London, 1888,” which stars his vampiric alter ego Derrick Maclaine, and Bright’s own contribution, “All My Oceans of Blood and Ink,” narrated by Bram Stoker. In others the fantastical is only implied: for example, “Mr. Okada and his Calotype Camera” by Claudia Quint may or may not feature a Japanese yokai. Also, any reader expecting an anthology purely of steampunk erotica, based on the subtitle, will be disappointed. (A natural assumption, given that Bright has edited a volume of steampunk stories already: Clockwork Cairo: Steampunk Stories of Egypt.) In addition to the aforementioned “Mr. Okada,” with its interest in the emerging film technology, three stories may be classified as steampunk: the aptly named “The Blacksmith’s Son” by Katie Lewis, Charles Payseur’s “Luc Orphelin and the Hodag of Rhinelander,” and “Steam in Antarctica” by Matthias Klein.

Overall, the stories remain true to the historical era: “The Whipping Master” by Dale Cameron Lowry, set in a British boarding school, is a typical example. As might be expected, stories of (depraved) noblemen and their servants/low-born trade may be found: “Hiraeth” by Rhidian Brenig Jones and “The Romp” by Dale Chase, both fine examples, open the anthology. But subsequent writers in Bright’s anthology explore other aspects of the Victorian world: British colonialism provides the setting for two stories (“Mombasa Vengeance” by Mike McClelland and Kolo’s “On a Passage to the Queen’s Jubilee”), and even the nineteenth-century fascination with spiritualism provides the impetus for “Progress be Damned” by Rob Rosen.

Interspersed among these seventeen modern tales, Bright incorporates extracts from three Victorian pornographic works: Sins of the Cities of the Plain by Jack Saul, as well as the better known Teleny and My Secret Life, both by Anonymous. The first purports to be a true account of a “mary-ann”—a Victorian hustler—the second has been ascribed variously to Oscar Wilde and his circle, and the third only to a `Walter.’ As an added bonus, Bright includes 22 period photographs as illustrations, a further enhancement; certainly these extras should put to rest the modern notion of Victorian repression. Bright’s aim “to curate a collection that was both arousing but also grounded in the real history of a time that holds a deep fascination” for him succeeds: the stories are well written, at turns entertaining, even thought-provoking; and the sex is varied, steamy, and thoroughly enjoyable. This volume satisfies on numerous levels.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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