‘Bitter Waters’ by Chaz Brenchley

Chaz Brenchley is one of those authors crying out for a good solid collection. As a massive fan of his stylish, original and often emotionally devastating stories like ‘Hortus Conclusus’ and ‘Going The Jerusalem Mile’, I find it almost impossible to believe that Bitter Waters is his only book of full-on supernatural fiction, or that it has taken me six years to find out it exists at all. But better late than never!

Bitter Waters is in fact a themed collection about gay male sex, love and relationship politics. However, not all the stories are erotica, and many also have a second theme: water and those who sail on it. My favourite story here, ‘Another Chart of the Silences’, deals with a fascinating maritime topic, the mysterious cartographic history of the British Isles. Although it also deals sensitively with a relationship between an adult man and the teenage boy he befriends and teaches to sail, the thing I liked best was the confounding sense of weirdness. By the end of the story one almost feels as if one has fallen off the map of terra cognita oneself, and the style is beautiful. The writing in most of these stories is economical and dynamic but adorned by the author’s characteristic flourishes of language, winning use of metaphor and clever deployment of seafaring terminology to create layers of meaning.

The recent ‘Tis Pity He’s Ashore’ also involves navigation in the form of a magic compass and a very unusual map. The atmosphere here is more tempestuous, with a very vividly-evoked storm, and is also quite unusual for mainstream weird fiction in its matter-of-fact handling of male prostitution. The same is true of the equally pun-tastically titled ‘Junk Male’, which features a rather tamer body of water, being set on and around a British canal barge. The plot and tone, however, is anything but jokey or tame, and in fact it’s one of the blackest offerings in the collection, with a very cynical waterbound pimp as the main character.

And Brenchley can certainly do darkness. A number of the tales concern men who are in the process of losing, or have lost, loved ones to AIDS. ‘The Insolence of Candles Against the Night’s Dying’ is a very affecting piece in this respect, which also touches on memory, ageing and regret. The diabolically powerful undertow of the past and the corrosive nature of secrets between friends also helps to form a compelling thematic backbone for ‘Up The Airy Mountain’, although several of these grief-related stories also have upbeat notes to them, and the aesthetic quality of Brenchley’s writing prevents the reader from getting too bogged down in despair. His writing on this grimmest of topics easily holds its own among other short fiction about AIDS by the likes of Brian Hodge and Steve Duffy.

All the tales I’ve mentioned so far have a contemporary feel, but the collection also showcases the author’s ability to extend into various types of more immersive fantasy. ‘In The Night Street Baths’ is a sombre but heady Thousand-and-one-nights reverie, ‘Keep The Aspidochelone Floating’ is a classic pirate caper with a gay twist, ‘Vilanelle’ has something of a timeless sword-and-sorcery flavour and ‘Hothouse Flowers: or The Discreet Boys of Dr Barnabus’ is a strange but memorable hybrid of late 19th-century adventure yarn and erotic horror. Though I personally tend to prefer the more modern, real-world material I was impressed by the way Brenchley can adapt to such a wide range of styles without putting a foot wrong, and he certainly does a good late Victorian/Edwardian posh guy narrator.

The jacket blurb states that Bitter Waters is “devoted to gay readers”, but I hope to have made it clear that it has a lot to offer the general reader too. The Lethe Press have also gone the extra mile on the jacket art, which in addition to having a Proper Drawing on it also features a startling optical illusion that makes it look like the bottom of the book is actually submerged in moving water. More bizarrely still, this part of my book became unaccountably wet even though I’m jolly careful about keeping my books dry! I am led to suspect that this eruption of fluid is ghostly in origin.

Now if only someone would organize a collection of Brenchley’s other supernatural short fiction! I know that the short story format is meant to be on the ropes at the moment, commercially speaking, but maybe one day some enterprising press will rise to the occasion...[EDITED TO ADD: Glad tidings! There will be a proper ‘Best Of’ of his fiction coming out from Subterranean Press in 2021!]

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