05 November 2020

Cool Book: Slippery Creatures by KJ Charles

 

KJ Charles Slippery Creatures Book Cover


It's been some time since I have found a book so entertaining as KJ Charles Slippery Creatures (KJC Books, 2020). [1] Though new to me, she's been writing for a while now. This title is the first I've read of hers and I am looking forward to reading more.

Creatures is certainly lively. The 1963 movie Tom Jones (with Albert Finney in the titular role) came to mind immediately. [2]

  

(YouTube link)

Specifically, the famous eating scene. Here is Wook Kim's 2012 summary of it:

"Bawdy, boisterous, and full of heart, Tom Jones won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director (for Terry Richardson). In the film’s perhaps most famous scene, the raffish but utterly charming Tom (Albert Finney) shares a tavern meal with a Mrs. Waters (who, unbeknownst to Tom, just may be his mother). The dinner begins innocently enough, but their furtive glances soon turn into almost incandescent gazing: even a village fool can see where this is going. It’s a simple two-shot scene, oft parodied, that fleshes out, both literally and figuratively, the sometimes eye-winkingly genteel descriptions in Henry Fielding’s picaresque novel." (Populist, Jan 5, 2012)

Albert Finney in eating scene of Tom Jones movie

Joyce Redman in eating scene of Tom Jones movie
Top: Albert Finney as Tom Jones (Source)
Lower: Joyce Redman as Mrs. Redman/Jenny Jones (Source)

The young Finney, I imagine, would be a lovely Will Darling, the rough and tumble, murderous WWI soldier turned bookseller in Creatures. Opposite him, as the charming and devious Lord Arthur "Kim" Secretan, I'd cast Matthew Goode.

Actor Matthew Goode
Actor Matthew Goode (Source)

In fact, for all that Creatures is set in England in the 1920s after the so-called Great War, I kept harkening back to my grad school days when I seriously considered shifting from my focus on medieval lit to 18th-century stuff. Tom Jones, yes, and the roaring, bawdy William Hogarth, "English painter, printmaker, pictorial satirist, social critic, and editorial cartoonist." (Wikipedia) Not surprisingly, Tom Jones author Henry Fielding was a friend.

William Hogarth's Industry and Idleness, Plate 7, The Idle 'Prentice return'd from Sea, & in a Garret with common Prostitute
William Hogarth: The Idle 'Prentice return'd from Sea,
& in a Garret with common Prostitute (Source)

Creatures has that kind of joie de vivre, raucous, broadly adventurous, and terrifically sexy. Here's the quick intro to Slippery Creatures from Charles' website:

Will Darling came back from the Great War with a few scars, a lot of medals, and no idea what to do next. Inheriting his uncle’s chaotic second-hand bookshop is a blessing…until strange visitors start making threats. First a criminal gang, then the War Office, both telling Will to give them the information they want, or else.

Will has no idea what that information is, and nobody to turn to, until Kim Secretan—charming, cultured, oddly attractive—steps in to offer help. As Kim and Will try to find answers and outrun trouble, mutual desire grows along with the danger.

And then Will discovers the truth about Kim. His identity, his past, his real intentions. Enraged and betrayed, Will never wants to see him again.

But Will possesses knowledge that could cost thousands of lives. Enemies are closing in on him from all sides—and Kim is the only man who can help.

A 1920s m/m romance trilogy in the spirit of Golden Age pulp fiction.

It took me a bit to get into Creatures as I am, admittedly, a reader with serious attitude. I almost put it down as a no-go, in part because the character of the bookseller is such a worn trope. I follow Charles on Twitter, though. She is sharp, witty, opinionated, and writes a damn good tweet. So I skipped ahead a chapter or two and, oh wonderful! Creatures indeed resurrects the Golden Age of pulp fiction in that it is action-packed, clever and funny, and moves the reader along right proper. What's unique and particularly intriguing and frankly, appreciated, is its eroticism, queer specifically.

Charles notes on her Content Warnings web page that all of her "full-length novels contain on-page sex and swearing." On-page, oh my, yes. (Though the swearing in Creatures escaped me, I have to admit. Then again, the F-word is so frequent in my own natterings that I hardly see it.) The sex is explicit, occasionally quite raw, and matter of fact. It is also historically accurate in that Charles keeps the mindset of her characters in their time period. On that Warnings page she states that her "books are historicals and thus set against a background of Georgian/Victorian/20s British attitudes to sex and gender. I’ve mentioned homophobia where it’s explicit.

Will Darling and Kim Secretan cannot be out though Secretan's proclivities are known to certain colleagues. Secretan has a fiancée--the delightfully solid Phoebe Stephens-Prince--and Darling a good friend, the pragmatic and smart Maisie Jones. So their couplings are intense but always guarded. It adds to the sexual tension that they are so but also brings painfully to mind how even now the LGBTQIA community lives, or is forced to live, in society's substrates.

Silhouette portrait of Phoebe Stephens-Prince characterSilhouette portrait of Maisie Jones character
(Image source, Left & Right)

For all that Creatures is a kind of romp, with the underlying humor of the noir and pulp fiction genres, the storytelling rests profoundly on Charles' solid historical accuracy. There is a sobering tone: the social and emotional impact of World War I on a generation.

John Singer Sargent's sketch Studies for Wounded Soldier for "Death and Victory"
Studies for Wounded Soldier for "Death and Victory,"
Widener Library, Harvard University, John Singer Sargent, 1921-1922 
 
John Singer Sargent's painting Gassed of World War One soliders
"Gassed" 
Imperial War Museum, London, John Singer Sargent, c. March 1919
(Image source)


At one point Darling has been captured and, it seems, likely left to die. As he struggles in darkness and cold, his time in the filthy trenches fills his mind. At another point, describing to Secretan what it was like to kill, the deep flavor of his actions vibrates from the page.
 
Like the current pandemic, Death doesn't simply hover. It is quite real. Former soldier Darling isn't simply a victim of war. Killing remains a visceral component of his psychology and behavior. Secretan, whose younger brother served as his war surrogate and died in his place, and who is himself something of what was referred to in 1920s London as a Bright Young Thing, is made melancholy and driven by the loss. Yes, there is sex for these two, but the sex is as much driven by a mortality-wrought aphrodisia as it is their own desires.

Charles describes The Will Darling Adventures series as a romance trilogy. She promises a happy ending, as she does for all her works. Will and Kim are of that mode, but they are also of an older tradition, that of romantic friends. I rather like the Wikipedia description of this:

"A romantic friendship, passionate friendship, or affectionate friendship is a very close but typically non-sexual relationship between friends, often involving a degree of physical closeness beyond that which is common in the contemporary Western societies. It may include for example holding hands, cuddling, hugging, kissing, giving massages, and sharing a bed, without sexual intercourse or other physical sexual expression."

In Slippery Creatures the emotional tenor of a romantic friendship is just aborning as is the sexual romance. The success of Charles' storytelling is that she draws the reader into the narrative romp and the luxuriating passions while also promising the connection of souls that we also desire. Quite a feat for a novel with such a breezing style and relative brevity.

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[1] ISBN: Print ISBN: 978-1912688166; also in eBook via this link from Charles' site: https://books2read.com/u/4j2OvX

[2] Tom Jones movie info via Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Jones_(1963_film); info on the original book, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, by Henry Fielding here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_History_of_Tom_Jones,_a_Foundling

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