Title: The Lurid Sea
Author: Tom Cardamone
LGBTQ+ Category: Gay
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
Blurb: A steamy bacchanal bending through time and space, replete with the occasional God, mythic creatures, and oh-so-many men. For centuries the godling Nerites luxuriated in a shifting sexual paradise, hopping from one bathhouse to another—from disco-era Manhattan to Feudal Japan and back to where it all started: ancient Rome. When the dark shadow of his half-brother, the sinister Obsidio, descends, his deadly kiss leaves bodies cooling in steam room corners. Nerites must adopt a new role: as defender of these hidden havens, his eternal orgy becomes a race across history itself.
Review by Andrew
The story of Nerites is a lesser Greek myth, though one that for centuries has likely captured the fascination of queer readers who stumbled upon it, including me. Like his better-known counterparts Ganymede and Hyacinth, Nerites was an icon of youthful male beauty who ignited the obsession of the gods. He was said to be the only son of a sea god Nereus and brother to the more notable sea nymphs of legend: the Nereids.
There are versions of his tale that are tragic, ending in Nerites being turned into a snail by jealous Aphrodite or jealous Helios alternatively. But one version is triumphant and irresistible. Courted by both Aphrodite and Poseidon, Nerites chooses love with the moody King of the Sea and becomes his lifetime companion (and one could imagine, he has a tempering effect on the notorious bully).
I was therefore excited to read Tom Cardamone’s take on Nerites, who is the narrator of The Lurid Sea. Besides my affection for that little myth, I had previously read Cardamone’s Green Thumb and immediately became a fan of his raw, psychedelic style.
Cardamone takes a decidedly non-romantic approach to the subject in favor of exploring broader questions about gay desire and community, and he does so within a throbbing, taboo-laden erotic context. The tone is unscreened, visceral, and indeed lurid, established from the first line which hurls the reader into Nerites’ world:
The hot tub was a frothy mix of foam flecked with minuscule bits of fecal matter, white ribbons of semen and filmy sweat.
This leads into a scene where Nerites services a group of men at a bathhouse. At once, the reader understands she’s in for a tale that’s less gods and magic and more boundary-pushing, erotic memoir. Though there are historical and fantasy elements which give the story’s primary theme unique dimensions.
We learn that Nerites is the son of a Roman noblewoman, who had affairs with two gods: first Pluto, which produced Nerites’ sadistic half-brother, Obsidio; then Neptune, which produced Nerites. I won’t fault the author for straying from the Nerites canon. It’s a spare canon at that, and his Roman setting is well-realized, with details of daily life that make for convincing storytelling. Besides, who could argue with situating a story of sexual excess in the Golden Age of Rome?
Nerites’ narration weaves back and forth between past and present and takes on further complexity when we learn that his ‘present’ slips through history due to his father’s curse. When Nerites’ mouth happens upon his father at a Roman “Fellatiolympics,” Neptune takes a censorious account of his son and declares he shall be fated to suck cock for eternity. Nerites finds himself a time traveler through bathhouses of the ages, spirited helplessly down the drain from one place to the other. This is not a tragic circumstance as Nerites was already preoccupied by his youthful, sexual awakening and partial to oral sex. He becomes an unaging sexual adventurer, which represents a cementing of his character rather than transformation.
I think it’s safe to say this is a book that will not enchant the most traditional SFF readers, nor fans of MM romance/erotica. But for readers who like experimental styles and mythic themes fused with stories of the sexual underground, The Lurid Sea has much to offer.
Regarding the latter, I found the book at its most enjoyable in its portrayal of the history of the gay bathhouse tradition. Nerites becomes both denizen, time-traveler, chronicler, and protector of that institution, and through his observations, his determination to preserve such spaces, Cardamone achieves a compelling narrative on the meanings of the bathhouse for gay men: sexual fulfillment, domination, belonging, and even love. Nerites observes two married men who meet up regularly at a London bathhouse, over decades, to enjoy conversation and affection over tea, which is a surprising and lovely storyline therein. The scale of Nerites’ bathhouse world – from Rome to Japan, across Europe and America, and over thousands of years – creates a sense of universality and invites the reader to share in the celebration of the cherished institution.
Later in the story, death enters as a motif when Nerites’ brother Obsidio follows his bathhouse travels and leaves dead bodies in his wake. Obsidio’s black semen is fatal. Only Nerites can withstand it, and his attempts to satiate his brother and distract him from killing bathhouse patrons will only stop Obsidio for so long. Thus Nerites finds a purpose beyond his father’s curse, becoming a champion of the bathhouse, even if that requires destroying his brother. It’s a hopeful alternative history to bathhouse culture, which was so decimated by AIDS in the 1980s.
With its many reference points, The Lurid Sea will appeal to fans of sexually-driven SFF like George Nader’s Chrome and Jay Laws’ Steam, readers interested in gay history, and fans of old school, gritty, counterculture fiction by authors like John Rechy, Edmund White, and Dennis Cooper.
Andrew Peters is an award-winning author, an educator, and an activist. His novel The City of Seven Gods won the 2017 Silver Falchion Award (Best Horror/Fantasy) and was a finalist in the 2016 Foreword INDIES (Best Sci Fi/Fantasy). He is also the author of the Werecat series, Poseidon and Cleito, and two books for young adults: The Seventh Pleiade and Banished Sons of Poseidon.