A note from Jon Michaelsen: STEAM, a classic gay horror novel by the late Jay B. Laws is now available for the first time in e-book and brought to you by ReQueered Tales. First published in 1991 by Alyson Publications, Laws’ incredible horror novel has been compared to works by Stephen King and Peter Straub over the years. I strongly urge you to read STEAM, if you dare. You will not be disappointed!
In the stillness of his room, David lay awake.
He couldn’t sleep. The pressure above his eyes was agony. It pulsed in synchronistic rhythm to his heartbeat. It was like enduring a terrible sinus headache and being forced to stand head bowed, with all the blood rushing between his eyes. A migraine’s vehemence without the sharp stabs of pain. This was like giving birth to death.
“What is happening to me?” David moaned.
He was afraid. That was the bottom line. He knew what would happen. One look at his misshapen forehead and off he’d be whisked into a hospital room. And like Eddie, he would never again breathe crisp October air. He’d be examined, poked. Doctors with heads bowed, tsk-tsking.
I’m sorry, Mr. Walker, but you have a tumor the size of a baseball in your head. Guess you aren’t the Miracle Kid after all. Guess your ticket’s been punched, and nothing we can do but sit back and watch it eat you up, one bite at a time. But don’t worry: We’ll keep you here as long as it takes, I say as looong as it takes.
These thoughts were boulders in his head, gathering momentum as they knocked and bounced and tumbled on top of each other, hurrying toward a pit that housed his total despair.
Not only that, crazy images flickered across the screen of his mind. Bright flares of disjointed images, like an acid trip out of his youth. Staring into a campfire. A net raining out of the sky. Standing on a vast, high cliff, an ocean wind upon his face, with something hidden in his hand.
How much time passed in this state he did not know. He could not bring himself to call 911 and request an ambulance, even though he knew he was very sick. He lay perfectly still in his agony, sheets thrown back to cool the sweat dripping off of him. He flushed hot and cold, hot and cold. Night sweats.
Dear god. In desperation David tried to rein in his thoughts, but the boulders crashed and tumbled over the calm landscape he attempted to conjure for himself. He thought of Eddie’s vibrant health and for some reason the boulders crashed through that, too: Something about it rang false.
Something about everything rang false, lately. It was all around him.
Images swooped and capered in the dark of his bedroom. He knew he was delirious, and that whatever had gotten hold of him might very well kill him, if he didn’t get some immediate help. But he could not have climbed out of bed to dial 911 even if his life depended upon it—as he suspected it did. No. He gave in to the seasick nausea and prayed for a respite from its stormy waters.
Soon enough, it came, announcing itself with a smell.
The odor cut through David’s haze of pain. He sniffed the air and winced as the chlorine burned the tender cavities of his nostrils. Instinctively, his whole body tensed.
He gasped. That’s all he had time for.
A blast of wet air cascaded over him.
And the creature pounced.
Quite suddenly he was pinned to the bed. Hot breath snorted across his neck and face—the breath of a mad bull. He was smashed against the mattress by a weight that was more a pressure than a physical form, like the repelling ends of two magnets. But the voice that barked over him, the menacing growls and gnashing of teeth: That much of it was real.
No time to think. No time to even conceive what was happening. He was suddenly fighting for his life.
Rabid dog snarls issued out of the opaque darkness just above his face. His head whipped side to side, but he couldn’t get away from the terrible gnashing. It flooded over him with startling, suffocating ferociousness. His fingers raked the air, his legs bucked and kicked. There was no moving the force on top of him.
One thought lit a blazing trail:
Oh, god, it’s killing me—!
In the winking starlight before his eyes, as consciousness ebbed, a voice insinuated itself into his ear: Release me.
The snarling presence growled at this exchange. It gobbled the air above David’s lips, suffocating him. In desperation he summoned himself, all of his strength and fight. The tendons in his neck stood out like bridge posts. His brow furrowed. Above his eyes, that stabbing pain pushed and pushed, like something demanding to be born.
He shrieked with pain. Something warm sprang free with a zippering wet explosion above his eyes. Sparks blew across his vision.
He heard a frustrated howl of rage—and the presence, the creature, the whatever it was—leapt off him. No longer crushed against his mattress, David greedily gulped air into his lungs, happy to be breathing again.
A lamp overturned in the darkness. Books crashed onto the carpet amid the flapping of loose papers. The room shook as if it housed a whirlwind.
Stunned to find himself free of the suffocating weight, David sprang into a sitting position, hiccupping for air. Hands flew to his forehead before remembering he ought not touch—and snapped back in reflex, but not before they were painted with his blood.
Where is it? he thought wildly. Where has it gone?
He sensed the presence in the room. Sensed it hating him, yet keeping its distance. What caused it to retreat? His cry—or his blood?
“Go away!” David shouted into the darkness.
A snarling wind spun papers about the room—and then it was gone. The sharp odor of chlorine hung in the air like an afterthought.
Trembling with shock, he hoisted himself to his feet and veered toward the bathroom. He was halfway down the hall when he realized the intense pain above his eyes had vanished. A cautious hope took hold of him. He switched on the bathroom light. Hissed through clenched teeth at the sight of his blood-soaked hands. And careened toward the mirror, anxious for a glimpse of himself.
Twin rivers of blood trickled down each side of his nose. In the center of what had been his strange puffy bruise was a clean slit. His forehead was settling flat again. The wound was already fading to a rosy pink, healing even as he stood ogling it.
He ran hot water, grabbed a washcloth, and cleaned his face and hands.
Gingerly (and not without holding his breath) he dabbed the skin of his forehead clean. He was vastly relieved when no hallucinations swallowed him.
It was healing. By god, it was healing! But how? Why?
His joy was so all-consuming it held these questions at bay, at least for the moment.
He felt tingly, as though a small electric current hummed through him. Different in a way he had no name for. Better. Stronger. The excruciating pain of the past few days had given birth to this blessed relief, and he was thankful for it.
A sudden weariness seized him, and it was all he could do to drag himself back to bed and flop upon the mattress.
Later, he told himself as he closed his eyes. I’ll figure this all out tomorrow, when I have time.
But time, David was about to learn, had joined sides with the enemy.
About Author Jay B. Laws
Author Jay B. Laws died tragically early, having only two or three published works to his credit. Steam ranks among the most brilliant horror novels of all time and, certainly wins the blue ribbon as the finest gay horror novel ever written. Eerie and disturbing, Laws’ haunted bath house serves as a personification of the early AIDS epidemic and, even today, is practically guaranteed to send chills up and down your spine. —Hal Bodner
About ReQueered Tales
Perhaps forty years of gay fiction—and notably gay and lesbian mystery, detective and suspense fiction—has been teetering on the brink of obscurity. Orphaned works, orphaned authors, many living and some having passed away—with no one to make the case for their creations to be returned to print (and e-print!).
This is the mission of ReQueered Tales: to bring back to circulation this treasure trove of fantastic fiction which, for one reason or another, has fallen by the wayside. For a new generation of readers, these tales are full of insights into the gay world of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. And for those of us who lived through the period, they are a delightful reminder of our youth and reflect some of our own struggles in growing up gay in those heady times.
We are honoured, here at ReQueered Tales, to be custodians shepherding back into circulation some of the best gay and lesbian fiction writing and hope to bring many volumes to the public, in modestly priced, accessible editions, worldwide, over the coming months and years.