Lethe Press, $4.00, ISBN 978-1-59021-418-3
I have no idea how The Touch of the Sea ended up in my pile of unread stuff, but I can only assume I bought it once upon a time. Hence, I have no idea what it is about, other than it’s an anthology, and I assume from the cover art that it will feature emaciated, probably evil and homicidal mermen. Let’s see how right I am, shall we?
’Nathan Burgoine rolls in with the tide to present Time and Tide. Dylan Hurley left his seaside hometown ages ago to become a famous artist, and now he’s back to attend his father’s funeral. After some minimal amount of time wringing his hands, he shacks up with his old boyfriend, Cary Kelby, and the sea tells him to stay. That’s it. Had this story been longer, it could have been another typical story of a young hot fellow traveling the world and doing fancy artistic jobs, only to come home whining about how oppressed he is because he’s not having enough sex. Even then, I’m not sure, as I find the woo-woo sea stuff distracting rather than enticing. This one would likely be better off being a longer, straightforward contemporary tale. Does it matter though? In its current form, it’s way too short to make any impact on me.
Next to be beached is Matthew A Merendo’s The Calm Tonight. Alif Mithratin Walasha – fortunately, we can call him Alex – is sad.
If you saw me—and you may already have—you would catch no difference between you and me. My hair is black. My eyes are seaweed, my skin the color of clamshell. I am neither tall nor short, neither thin nor fat, neither this nor that.
Wait, no one told me my eyes are seaweed. Oh my god, does this mean my daddy is Dagon?
But my people, they are beautiful, breathtaking and seductive. Among them, I am unique in my plainness. Even here with your people, I blend into crowds. If you took one look at me as I walked by, you would not turn to take another. If you saw a different seafolk, you would break your neck trying to get just one more glance.
Poor baby. He’s plain. Can you think of a worse fate?
Anyway, Alex Walasha Wakanda Wonk Wonk is one of those sea folks who come on land to mate. Only, Wonka Walasha falls for a man, so no tentacle baby for him, how sad.
On land, he is Hunter. He has no name in the sea, because he is human. His hair is short sand, and his eyes are blue coral. He is small in stature, fragile, a self-identified “couch potato.” He wears glasses. He loves armadillos. He hates Oreos. He studies the stars. His favorite movie is The Little Mermaid, which gives me hope.
I don’t know. Any man who relates to a silly mermaid dry humping the unconscious half-drowned body of a prince while squealing that she will be a part of his world always gets the side eye from me. There is a high chance he keeps a pair of Ariel’s seashell brassiere to be worn on special days.
At any rate, they meet in a bar, they quickly fall into bed, and they argue as to whether Hunter can go down and say hi to Daddy Dagon with Wonky Spongebob, and then they do that anyway. Sadly, there is no Dagon, just some wishy-washy ooh-the-starfish-in-our sea poetry phrases to make this silly story come off as some romantic fantasy. Oh come on, at least a Dagon story will have Hunter sprout gills to live underwater in a more believable manner. This gay version of Disney’s cartoon of you-know-what doesn’t have Ursula, horny lobsters, and other fun stuff, and the result is akin to some baby happily shoving his rear end under water to giggle at the sounds and the bubbles that result when he passes gas. It’s cute… but come on, Dagon has it right, believe in Dagon, worship Dagon.
Jonathan Harper comes in next with the tide, with The Bloated Woman. Oh, please tell me this will be a horror story.
They found her washed up on the beach, her body naked and spongy, bloated with salt water. She was lying face up, the left leg delicately laid across the right, barely covering her pubis. The head was bent at an impossible angle, suggesting a broken neck; her skin—the color of clay. If she had been beautiful, then it was because of her plump breasts and stomach, and the luxurious black hair that was now tangled and seeded with dirt. Her body was meticulously posed, as if she had spent her last few moments deciding how she wanted to be found.
Ursula? Is that you? Oh my god, they told me you were dead; you got punctured by a ship steered by Eric!
Our protagonist is sneaking out for a rendezvous with the very married Amos Moyer when they found the body. And… don’t expect much excitement, though, as the rest of the story is a haunting, hazy, disquieting stream of consciousness narrated in a hypnotic and fascinating cadence. Trying to give a plot synopsis of this one is tough, as it’s… I mean, this is one of those stories where the pleasure arises from the act of following how the author uses words to create a mosaic of a scenario. The story itself is mundane, but the emotions, the undercurrents… these are the sublime elements of the story that makes one a most unexpected kind of delight to be found in this anthology.
Jeff Mann drifts along with The Stone of Sacrifice. Ewan McDonald is in Scotland, having rented a cottage for some R&R. He is visiting the stone that gives this story its name when he finds a naked bloke in the vicinity during a storm. No, it’s not the Terminator coming to kill us all, the bloke is Seonaidh, and it’s love at first oral sex. Alas, So-Horny is of the sea, so Ewan eventually swims out to live with his new boyfriend in the sea because, as So-Horny puts it, “The sea feels like flowers!”
Moving on now.
Damon Shaw offers Air Tears. Some guy staggers out half-dead from the sea, near dead, apparently because of a tryst with “you”. Yes, this is a second-person point of view story, with “you” being either a selkie-like being or maybe even the sea itself, depending on how you’d interpret the words in this story. The wordsmith is lovely, but I have no idea what this short story is supposed to do, other than to get me to pat the author’s head and say, “There, there, it’s lovely, but next time, put in some tentacles, ya?”
Next we have Joel Lane with The Grief of Seagulls. I have to say, the stories so far all have lovely titles. Twelve years ago, our protagonist’s boyfriend Andrew died when the oil rig where he worked did a Deepwater Horizon. On the anniversary of that day, Callum comes back to this very beach to be alone with his memories of a love long gone. This year, something magical will happen.
Okay, I cried after reading this one. Don’t laugh, but despite it being a short story, it punctures some cold, cynical part of my heart and triggers my tear ducts mercilessly. Maybe it’s because I’ve lost enough people at my age that the idea of being with them one more time, even if it’s just for a while, resonates in me with such an intensity that it hurts.
Alex Jeffers’s Ban’s Dream of the Sea is next, when I’m ready for this anthology to end after the previous few stories that manage to wring out the emotions from me. I don’t know if I can take any more of the emotional wrangling that may be waiting for me as I turn the pages, so it’s almost a relief that this one is the closest I will get to a horror story in this anthology. The dream in question is an erotic one, featuring a magnificent lover whose pee-pee superpowers make up for his inhuman appearance.
“He had no hair, none at all, on his head, on his body, no beard, no eyebrows. His skin was oddly cool, oddly…thick. Resilient, rather like rubber. So somehow not human, perhaps you’re right. But a man, equipped as a man, that he was.”
Ban’s sister is the latest of the foolish humans who go searching for this lover in real life. This one could have been a nice read if it weren’t ruined by the boring, tedious love triangle between Ban, his brother-in-law, and his sister (he and his brother-in-law were lovers before the latter married Ban’s sister). It’s okay, but… whatever. What’s next?
Oh, it’s Night of the Sea Beast by Brandon Cracraft. Set during the McCarthy era, this is the story of Hughie Wildsmith, who was poised to be the next superstar and model… until he was outed as gay. You have no idea what his next movie role is, I’m sure. Anyway, this one is a silly thing more focused on decrying homophobia and bigotry while being as camp as it can be, which would be fine if the author hadn’t forgotten to include a decent, coherent story to go with these things. I get that it is trying to capture the vibe of the monster movies of the 1950s and 1960s, but there are things that a visual medium could get away with, things that a written story couldn’t.
Vincent Kovar presents Wave Boys and…
In the waves I can see Sheller Boys face down. They’s no friends of the Tunder-Boys, except during Oyo, but some of them is handsome and it’s all us against the kraken right?
Now we’re not Tunder-Boys anymore, not Sea Feathers or Afro-Chans or Vice-Kings or nothing. We’s all just Wave Boys fighting the kraken that’s come to city.
We’s all Wave Boys. Most of us anyway except the oldsters but they keep mostly to the barges and slow-movers anyway. The eight of us: me, Doobie, Tat-Tat, Wattabee, Gem and Ki (they’s the green-eyed twins; the only real brothers), plus Sparks and blind-Zef—we’s the Tunder-Boys. We’s called that on account of the drumps Tat-Tat’s pa taught us to make. He was a thin-eye like Tat-Tat and painted the blue on his skin. He painted some of us too but only pictures of real stuff. Only pictures that we can read. I got a kraken-eye on each ass cheek. Zef’s got stars all over his low belly. Most of the other guys have stuff too.
I’m going to be very, very quiet and leave the room now.
John Howard’s Out to Sea is about… I think it’s about this guy become a rower in a new island only to end up rolling around in the water
Suddenly he began to row faster, and the boat started to pitch and roll, as the swell also increased. Spray started to fly into my face. For the first time I heard waves lapping against the side of the boat. My rower grunted with exertion and sweat dripped off his forehead. I found a handkerchief and wiped the salt water off my face.
“Don’t do that,” he shouted. “You may swallow the sea but not wipe it away!”
I’m not sure what is happening. I’m reading a story written in English, but I have no idea what it is trying to say. Has this anthology driven me insane? Am I an unwitting protagonist in a real life cosmic horror tale? Is The Touch of the Sea some kind of Necronomicon?
Finally, Chaz Brenchley closes the sea circus with Keep the Aspidochelone Floating. What? Is that even English? Let me see what Dr Wikipedia has to say.
According to the tradition of the Physiologus and medieval bestiaries, the aspidochelone is a fabled sea creature, variously described as a large whale or vast sea turtle, and a giant sea monster with huge spines on the ridge of its back. No matter what form it is, it is always described as being huge where it is often mistaken for an island and appears to be rocky with crevices and valleys with trees and greenery and having sand dunes all over it.
Oh! I saw that once in a Sinbad movie. And hey, we have pirates! Yay, pirates.
Martin manages to avoid being killed by pirates only by telling the lady pirate leader that he can cook and, thus, he can cook for her crew. He soon has his share of seafaring adventures, which includes steering the waters of the turbulent grotto of the galley boy Sebastian. This one is alright, and I’m always in the mood for a seafaring fantastical tale. However, its considerable length is still tad too short for the story to develop in a more organic, natural pace. Things feel somewhat rushed towards the end of the story, and I finish this one thinking that it could have been a more memorable read had it been a little longer.
So, there we have it. The Touch of the Sea is an anthology featuring gay men with the sea, or the woo-woo stuff that live under the waves, featuring heavily in each story. All in all, it’s not bad, with the stronger stories really leaving a searing impact of my senses and almost making up for the weaker ones. It’s still a mixed bag, but I’d say it belongs rightfully at home in four-oogie territory.