Two gay trilogies worth a read
By Bernie Najarian
March 27, 2016
Many same-sex-attracted MAPs these days profess to feel completely separate from the gay community (sorry, LGBT-ETC-but-no-P community), but in reality, writings that are potentially relevant to us get published fairly often by members of that community. The opposite may happen, too – useful stuff published within our community may be out there for those LGBTs who are brave enough to take advantage. Alas, not many are, these days. If we can tolerate this asymmetry in acceptance and social power, we can venture across the line to explore some of the gay offerings, perhaps to our advantage.
I’m going to review two books that are unconnected but have several things in common. They clearly come from an LGBT context from authors who think of themselves as gay. They are both written as trilogies-in-one – three books compiled as one document . They both deal with youth sexuality and deviance, and do so in ways we might find interesting. And they are both terribly hard to write about without giving out ‘spoilers.’
I didn’t have the ‘spoilers’ to worry about when I read them, so I got the full effect of all the shocks, surprises and suspense. These mental twists made both books dangerously addictive to read – talk about ‘cracking’ open a book. I recommend that if you’re willing to take a chance on two longish but fascinating reads, you do the same thing as I did. The books are ‘The Clouds Still Hang’ by Patrick C. Notchtree and ‘This Moonless Sky’ by Mark Rogerson. I’ve put their Amazon URLs at the end as reference notes  and . If you’re going to go this route, read no more. Really, read no more. Everything I say from here on in is going to be a spoiler. The first book is especially susceptible to having its lovely suspense flattened by what I’m about to say. I’m going to write this spoiler content, however, because it’s the only way to discuss the significance and impact of these books. I think both books need a discussion like this in order to survive in the overcrowded cultural landscape. My top recommendation: save the URL for this post, read the books first, and come back to this review later.
___________________________ HERE BE SPOILERS (below) __________________________
The Clouds Still Hang
This book is autobiographical, but it is written as a novel. Presumably a few identities are very lightly disguised, including the names of the cities involved. The author has posted historical photos of most of the early characters online . This trilogy contains the truly novelistic life story of author Patrick C. Notchtree (I haven’t checked to see whether this is a pseudonym, and I don’t care to know), a bisexual man born in 1946, who grew up in the London area and the Midlands of England. He had an intense love affair from the age of 8 to 14 with an older boy, but was later psychosexually marred by being gang-raped by three teenaged thugs. He took the yearning from the first experience, and the post-traumatic stress from the second, into a supportive marriage, but then, unknown to his wife, committed a few acts of non-contact ‘gross indecency’ with boys he was supervising as a teacher. Thirty years later, in the roundup of historical abuse cases in the UK, his crimes were revealed and he was prosecuted. In the midst of his probation, he was forced to come to terms with his gay side, past and present.
The first book of the trilogy was originally published separately in 2012 as ‘The Secret Catamite.’ ‘Simon,’ the fictional name of the author’s own character, was short, shy and awkward, and soon became a handy scapegoat at primary school. He found great support and consolation, however, in his close neighbor Daniel, who was two years older. Before long, when Simon was 8 and Daniel 10, they began to retreat together to a secret clump of bushes where Daniel brushed and stroked Simon’s naked body lovingly, all over – an action that Simon enthusiastically reciprocated. Daniel was a boys’ boy – intelligent, successful, and a natural leader – while Simon found that he was thrilled by Daniel’s dominance. It was a very solicitous dominance: Daniel meticulously checked to make sure he was never doing the unwanted or taking advantage, but he had clearly found the right partner in Simon. Simon even loved being called ‘pretty’ – one of the many secrets the boys steadfastly kept as they progressed together through school, the Boy Scouts, and the confirmation process in the Church of England. The ‘catamite’ word in the original title derives from the King James Bible – modern gay English would be a ‘bottom’ – and it came into the picture as the boys became teenaged and embarked on real sex with each other, including penetration. Simon found that only the ‘bottom’ role suited him, and he loved it. Despite contact with the church, neither of the boys felt conflicted about his abundant secret sex life, seemingly because it was so mutually shared. Suddenly, as so often happens in this bitter world, everything came crashing down. Simon’s parents separated, and he was abruptly moved away to northern England by his mother as she pursued a new career. In the midst of his tragic goodbyes with Daniel, the boys were ‘outed’ as Daniel’s mother interrupted a final, desperate sex act. Only during Simon’s hasty departure from Daniel’s house did the boys say out loud, for the first time, that they loved one another. Despite Simon’s efforts after his move and later in life, they never saw or heard from each other again.
In the north, in book 2, while recovering from his devastation, Simon discovered girls and began to have some enthusiastically heterosexual relationships with them. He again found himself picked on by bullies, and one day, to defend a younger boy, had a confrontation with three particularly nasty teens. These junior hooligans were then expelled from an important school bus route and left to plot revenge. When Simon was 17, long after the confrontation, they caught him just after a date with a cherished girlfriend, and brutally raped him at knifepoint in a deserted lot. Simon shocked himself to the core during the rape by experiencing an orgasm when the younger brother of one bully thrust himself in as the third rapist. After the rape, he could no longer look at the girlfriend, and could barely stand himself. He made two suicide attempts, one of which he deliberately interrupted, causing him to hate his own weakness.
After years of despair and slow, partial healing, he was finally able to take a serious interest in a girl again, and was presently married with two kids. His career as a school teacher led to his taking groups of prepubescent boys out for week-long excursions to the Lakes District, and the boys discovered that they could get away with including their teacher in the prankish ‘debagging’ acts that were common in boyish initiation rites – pulling down the trousers and undies and exposing the victim. When Simon was exposed this way by all his playful schoolboys, he was mentally sent back to his rape experience – the memory of which had tormented him ever after with a mixture of horror and erotic arousal. The boys remarked admiringly on his arousal and this admiration in turn brought back the memory of Daniel’s admiration. Traumatized and stressed about many other things going on in his life, Simon ‘lost it’ and masturbated in front of the boys, something they mostly found amusing at the time. One boy, however, was disturbed, and he grew up to become a police officer.
Simon repeated his symbolic friendly rape scene with the depantsing boys a few years in a row – repeat campers happily carried on the custom of de-trousering him, with no prompting needed. In time, though, he pulled himself together and for the next thirty years, despite many ups and downs in life, remained an ideal faithful married man. Then, after he’d already taken early retirement, the fateful phone call came.
Much of the third book is devoted to Simon’s non-custodial gross indecency sentence and its fallout, including his probation experiences. He goes through an SORP, a Sex Offenders Rehabilitation Program, and he describes his experiences in detail. In the program, he meets a young gay man he’d already become acquainted with in the community, and develops a love for him that is deep but not physically expressed. Jamie, the young man, had been repeatedly sexually assaulted by a neighbor as a child and doesn’t like to be touched by older men. As two offenders meeting one another outside the program, they encounter resistance from the system and for a time are banned from contact by a legal order. Luckily, they get around that, just in time for Simon to discover that Jamie’s malicious probation officer has been trying to stitch him up, using his email login details, which she demanded to have. In an attempt to extend Jamie’s prison time, this manipulator has inserted emails into his account carrying more of the same ambiguous ‘level 1’ twink/teen pornography (with subjects probably 18 but judicially conceivable as younger) that he was first convicted for. This proves to be just one of several times Simon saves the bewildered Jamie’s neck. Throughout all this, Simon and his wife remain in an actively loving relationship, and get on well with family and neighbors. Hemmed in by travel restrictions and the obvious problems with doing community volunteer work, Simon sits down to write the whole thing up.
This deftly written epic is revolutionary in many ways. Although there are innumerable gay coming-of-age stories that describe some of the sex and sexual feelings involved, this is the first time I’ve seen a novel that truly integrates sexuality into a life story with about the same importance as it actually has in life as we live it. It may be the first honest autobiography ever written, in the sense of conveying the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (excusing name changes). As a result, it doesn’t stint on description of what Simon and Daniel get up to when they’re alone, but it never crosses the line into ‘nifty’-style written juvenile porn-fiction. It truly is life-as-lived, orgasm included. To go on from that starting point and to get the honest gut-wrenches of a rape experience and its resonating later sex offences is truly remarkable. Simon goes for years unable to tell anyone about the rape – but the sex offender program and some private psychiatric consultation are finally able to draw it out so that he can deal with it. The reader gets the benefit. The response has been adulatory amongst the small numbers who’ve encountered this privately published book. Here’s one of the Amazon reviews.
This Moonless Sky
This book is, as far as I can tell, one of the zillions of obscure self-published works that bump around on the low end of the Amazon sales figures. It appears that the author promoted it for a while after its publication in 2013, but no longer does. It is getting around among a few people, though, in the form of an informally circulated proof pdf, which a friend sent me a copy of. I have to apologize that I haven’t purchased the e-book, which is only around $3.00, but I’d never have encountered the book in any way other than the way I did.
This is a completely different type of book from The Clouds Still Hang, though there are eerie points of similarity. The main one is the atmosphere of same-sex sexual honesty, set into a tale purporting to be autobiographical. This is by no means a real autobiography, though – it takes place on another planet. Mark, the author/narrator was, like Simon, bullied in school as he grew up somewhere in western North America, and he was also distressed and panicked by his developing sexuality. He attempted suicide by jumping off a railway bridge. The impact below knocked him out, but he was saved from splattering by some mechanical interstellar aliens who were on a science expedition to Earth, cleverly disguised as parts of the train’s mechanical apparatus. His medical problems were so severe that the aliens, who already had some experience with human medicine, felt obliged to take him with them so they could heal him. They had to move along, though, since they were on a scheduled mission to their next stop in the galaxy. This stop was 40 light years away, meaning that Mark, after some weeks of recovery in the spaceship being attended to by beings looking like animated dental drill towers, was then frozen for the next 400,000 years until he could be thawed out on a new planet. The planet was welcoming, since it was already populated by societies made up of previous human transplants rescued from the Earth.
In his new home, the main thing complicating Mark’s life – or Marrik’s life, since his name has been altered to suit the local language – is that the aliens have had to do a complete map of his neurons in the process of preserving his body for their cryonic procedure, and they know nearly everything about him. A major spoiler for the first part of the book is that one of them has become especially fond of him, and has decided that given the insignificant number of years involved – less than 100 – he will take a short break in space travel, cultivate some human tissue, do some transfer of information, and reinstantiate himself as, literally, the boyfriend of Marrik’s dreams. A nice favor, that, and not hard to do, since the 70-million-year-old alien has already ‘read’ all of Marrik’s remembered dreams and erotic attractions in full detail. The result is an ultra-stereotypically gorgeous blond boy who appears 14, a little young for Marrik’s own 17 (unfrozen) years. He is let down on the planet a couple of years after Marrik arrives there and tries to start Marrik dating with him – only to be shocked by Marrik’s refusal to consider it. Even though the local laws allow this (similar to the laws of Canada where this book originated), the always-highstrung Marrik decides his perfect boy is scandalously too young, and declines. This book, I need to explain, is written with a great deal of humor throughout, and thus the sometimes hilarious and farfetched things Yith, the alien boy, has to do to finally win over his planned boyfriend make a highly entertaining read. When the two boys finally do come together sexually, the actions aren’t described in detail – and here I suspect the influence of Canadian law – but the author has a talent for the most poignant euphemisms I’ve ever seen. Nothing is lost if you have imagination.
You soon learn that one reason Marrik was so freaked out by his sexuality on Earth was that he has a fetish he finds highly embarrassing. Since Yith has assimilated his mind, however, he has designed himself to gratify this fetish – he’s tweaked the genetics of his human body to make himself an occasional bed-wetter. Again, there is a lot of humor as Yith gently induces Marrik to succumb to this harmless quirk in his own nature. It isn’t all laughs and sexuality, though – I can see that the author really must have an agenda to demystify paraphilias that are common enough, but that no one would normally consider writing about autobiographically.
The seduction of Marrik by his own revealed psyche is just the beginning of a series of adventures he embarks on with his intimate new boyfriend. Circumstances force him to travel, against his wishes, and he ends up going to various strange countries that the resettled humans have put together on their new planet. There is a sort of quest involved, which I needn’t go into detail about, but in parallel, some sub-themes are developed as the book goes along. There is an intermittent theme about young people and their sexualities and what you might call sexual politics, for lack of a better expression. For example, in one journey, Marrik’s 17-year-old hetero best buddy gets caught up in an African culture that offers him a traditional ritual circumcision as an honor, and circumstances lead him to want to accept. Marrik opposes the idea, and interesting story lines develop out of that. On another journey, Marrik and friends completely run out of money in a society that is based (as some googling of names shows) on the Bronze-Age Hurrian society of ancient northern Iraq. They have to choose between selling themselves as slaves, which would maroon them permanently, or as sacred temple prostitutes, which would only be a temporary trauma. Marrik bites the bullet to serve as the group’s money-maker, but ends up – again, bad spoiler – being saved by a particularly benevolent pederast who had intended to be a customer but decides, instead, to be a rescuer. This an unlikely twist in sci-fi, where pederasty, as in the Frank Herbert novel Dune, is usually a metaphor for evil. Later, karma rewards the dumpy pederastic tradesman, and he is subscribed to enthusiastically by a young gerontophilic prince with the approval of the young man’s imperial father.
Another running theme of this book is what you could call philosophy, and this aspect isn’t so easy to describe. Purportedly, Marrik is merely telling us about how his newfound extraplanetary culture ticks, but that culture has some very different viewpoints. Some of these viewpoints were derived from the culture of the aliens who transported the ancestors of all these people to their new home. Right at the beginning of the book, there’s a description of the culture’s version of age of consent laws, which are based on distinguishing an ‘age of approachability,’ when a younger person can be asked to amorously date by an older person, and a younger ‘age of vergency’ when a spontaneously interested younger person, 13+ (actually somewhat older because of a longer solar year), can propose dating with an older one, if and only if his or her parents give assent. There’s an additional layer of protection in a kind of inverted way of indicating interest that you’d have to read in detail to get the hang of. This author is chock-full of novel philosophical ideas like that, and more of them come out as the book goes along. He is clearly also interested in religions, and as the book progresses we go from a Christian society to a polytheistic one to an Islamic one – where our gay alien-human couple, as you might guess, get into a lot of trouble. I was starting to wonder if the book might actually be a subtle sort of religious literature – something neither offensive nor inoffensive to me, as a mostly lapsed Armenian Orthodox boy – but eventually the author has Marrik clarify, after discussing a religiously inflected point:
It was only when I had read to the end of the book and had seen the philosophy pulling together with the plot, showing us how the minds of the superintelligent (and non-religious) aliens worked, that I realized what the whole philosophical strand was all about. It’s all about a way of looking at the politics of power, confidence, love and trust that the author clearly believes people need to consider – and I am inclined to agree with him. In fact, looking back at the beginning of the book, I began to understand what, to me, is this novel’s most unusual feature. By starting the book off with youth sexuality, a reconceived age of consent idea, and a fully laid out, Christian same-sex marriage – Marrik and Yith get hitched using the actual Christian rite for same-sex couples (vyllamyriya) from the early medieval Albanian church – the author has, in effect, kicked most people who are violently narrow-minded out of the book. And he makes this explicitly clear in Marrik’s early description of Yith, written while he is still resisting the boy’s amorous advances:
As we all know here, not many people CAN stand non-fiction. Doesn’t matter whether it relates to sexuality or to the diverse catalog of religious and philosophical ideas (some true, some false) that our many cultures have sprung up. There is a gift of understanding in this book about power, politics, and sexuality. It’s available to the religious person and the atheist alike, but only those who can run the gantlet of controversial ideas – from pee fetish to same-sex religious blessing to West African teen circumcision – can pass through to get it. I gather that the author intends to empower those of us who can. If so, more power to him – and to us.
At the end of the book, Marrik finds out that even with all the powers the aliens have, they are not sure exactly how his sexuality will develop as he crosses over from teenager to adult. They have a hunch, though. One of the aliens confronts him with reality:
The Clouds Still Hang and This Moonless Sky are both books that made me feel wiser and smarter for reading them, and that gave me hope for human beings. In this time when everyone seems to be at war with everyone about everything, such moments are much appreciated. We are now in a cycle that reminds me of the 1930s and 40s, “when evils were most free,” as author George Gabori put it . Perhaps, with the help of books like these, we can pull our lives back together again.