Steam (ParisDude’s Review)

Title: Steam
Author: Jay B. Laws
Publisher: ReQueered Tales
Release Date: May 15, 2019
Genre(s): Horror suspence
Page Count: 577
Reviewed by: ParisDude
Heat Level: 2 flames out of 5
Rating: 4.7 stars out of 5


San Francisco was once a city of music and laughter, of parties and bathhouses, when days held promise and nights, romance. But now something sinister haunts the streets and alleyways of San Francisco, something that crept in with the fog to seek a cruel revenge…

Flint, owner of a once thriving bathhouse, now ravaged by a disease that has no cure, gives himself over to the evil lurking in the steam. Dying men get tickets that say Admit One, hoping for release, only to be dragged into the maelstrom.

David, a writer of gay porn, finds himself writing another kind of story. His friend Eddie disappears from his hospital bed, leaving slime and mold, then returns for David. Meanwhile, Bobby is searching for his lover, lost in the same horror.

This classic gay horror suspense tale by Jay B Laws finally returns to circulation. First published in 1991, at the height of the AIDS crisis, this allegory chronicles the early days of the epidemic. It features the glittery discos of the seventies and an ominous abandoned gay bathhouse, in what is now something of a time capsule. It was nominated for Best First Novel by the Lambda Literary Awards.

* * * * *

In this new edition, Jay’s brother Gary D Laws provides context and reminiscence—as well as extensive quote from Jay Laws on what the author had in mind as he created this mini-masterpiece. Notable author Hal Bodner also pays tribute and provides context for the era reflected: a 1980s that suddenly turned dark and dangerous but one in which contemporary readers may know only through movies and urban legends, something Bodner seeks to set aright.

Gosh, what a ride! This was a real rollercoaster: whoever can read the two forewords without getting moist eyes has had their hearts (or their lachrymal glands) removed; then, the novel proper begins and is a bit confusing in the beginning, but oh so captivating; and finally, it runs full steam ahead (no pun intended), and you won’t be able to put it down ere you reach the last line.

First, we get a prequel story about David Walker, a young New Yorker coming home from a night of drinking, boogying, and doing party drugs. He surprises a burglar in his flat, who threatens him with a knife. He is able to flee to the roof-top, but when the burglar runs after him, his only way out is to jump off the building. Cut. The camera zooms on Flint, owner of a San Francisco bathhouse called the Caverns which the city authorities have closed down with the outbreak of the AIDS-epidemy. He’s headed for the building that houses his former business; being diagnosed with HIV, he plans to top himself off while floating in one of the Caverns’s bathtubs. But when he’s sliced his wrists open and waits for death to get him, someone (something?) else claims him instead…

And we come back to David, who has apparently survived his fall from the NY-rooftop. He’s now living in San Franciso, working as a waiter and writing porn stories to add a little extra to the pot. His roomie and good friend Eddie is meanwhile slowly wasting away in a hospital bed, victim of that devilishly uncurable little virus that has been decimating men and women all over the country for the past few years. David feels strangely peaceless, no matter here he is, be it in the gym with his friend Jack, be it in Eddie’s hospital room during one of his frequent visits, be it behind his typewriter at home. We also meet Bobby and his lover Mick, where the latter is attracted by an empty telephone booth floating strangely in the bay mists, beckoning for him to take a phone call from nobody knows whom.

We encounter several other people, druggies, kids, gay men, most of whom are suddenly snatched away from where they’ve been leading their ordinary lives. The strange fog that has invaded the city after a surprisingly violent thunderstorm starts to diffuse throughout the metropolis just as odd, over-sensual dreams start to permeate people’s minds during the nights. But only Bobby and David, unbeknownst to each other, feel more and more uneasy as people disappear without almost anybody noticing. This preliminary stage of the novel where the setting is prepared is rather longish, but as nothing adds up for the moment and the writing is tense and well handled, this reader wouldn’t complain: I was completely hooked. As things got odder and odder, and the tension of undeniable suspense set in, I felt it almost impossible to put the book down. What is it that draws Mick to that phone booth, what is it that makes him answer the call that’s ringing into the empty night, and what is it that makes him fall to the monster of the dark in the end? And when he disappears (don’t worry, the author let’s you guess by now why and where he goes), will his lover Bobby be able to find and save him? Will he and David and an unknown, red-haired woman they both have been seeing in their dreams be able to save the city, to save the souls of the vanished people, to save the world?

This novel has been first published in 1991 by young writer Jay B. Laws, who has written it as a sort of reaction to his own being diagnosed with HIV (he passed away only a year later, aged 34). It’s a powerful, strangely alluring book with several layers. I was foremost captivated by an underlying undertone of simmering anger and complete confusion as to what is going on, which is all the more thrilling as the novel (plot and writing style) are clearly very masterfully thought-through and organized. The horror of the book is mostly made up in the reader’s imagination, as is often the case in good horror story-telling. The late Jay B. Laws has a knack of creating a strong relation with the characters he shows us: he makes us understand them, then like them. But beware! Choose carefully whom you love in this book! Don’t get attached to the secondary characters, because when at last you feel comfortably familiar with their personae, he snitches them and leaves you wanting and empty! The book’s program seems to be despair and leave all hope behind… And yet, there is one thing that can redeem all of us, and it’s… love, of course.

This is not your run-of-the-mill HEA romance (and I won’t be a spoilsport and tell you if there’s any HEA at all to be had in this read), no straight and easy plot. No, you have to follow the twists and turns, rendered approachable by an easy, sometimes poetic language; you have to be patient. We do get chemistry, that much I can reveal, and we do get tender moments. I really enjoyed the read—I feel compelled to repeat, “What a ride!” I think it has been a tremendously excellent idea of ReQueered Tales to (re-)publish this out-of-print novel in ebook format. Their whole business idea, by the way, strikes me as excellent—we absolutely need to keep our gay history, the history of its writers, and their books alive by making them accessible.

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Galley copy of Steam provided by the editor in exchange of an honest review.


Dieter, born and raised in Austria, studied Political Sciences in Vienna in the early 90s. He's living in Paris, France, with his boyfriend and working as a graphic designer. In his spare time, he loves to write, read, cook, take photos, and travel as often as possible. He’s already published two short-story collections as well as four poetry collections. His first murder mystery novel “The Stuffed Coffin” featuring Damien Drechsler and the dashing Greek student Nikos has been released on Jan. 6, 2019, and is available in English, French, and soon German. Dieter is also writing reviews for Gay Book Reviews under the pseudonym of ParisDude.
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