AUTHOR: Michael Jensen
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster/Buddha Kitty Books
FORMATS: Mobi, EPUB, PDF
Man and Beast by Michael Jensen
It’s the late eighteenth century and John Chapman is on the run after his relationship with a British Major is discovered and their cover dramatically blown.
Lured by the promise of land and supplies, John chases his dream of a cabin in the wilderness, all the way to the West.
On arriving in Warren (not that he knows he’s there given it comprises of one stone cabin), half dead of exposure, he meets Daniel, a wild frontiersman with the body of a god – a short god, but a damn sexy one – and the temperament of a thoroughly whiskey-soaked Irishman.
Somehow, John has to manoeuvre around Daniel’s terrible temper and his hot/cold attentions, to not only stay alive through the winter, but to keep alive in the uncompromising territory of the American West.
Learning to survive isn’t as easy as he thinks, as he’s no survivalist, as Daniel keeps reminding him, but he’s eager to learn. Nothing’s easy, but when he’s literally up to his neck (from the top down) in moose guts he thinks it couldn’t get harder. He’s wrong.
Come spring, he discovers a terrible secret that has him running for his life from an evil monster in the form of mass murderer and arch deceiver, Zach.
Escaping Zach’s evil clutches, John finally finds his Idyll only to discover it’s not as idyllic as it seems. However, after having found good friends in the enigmatic Indian, Gwennie and the equally enigmatic Palmer, he begins to think he can actually do this. That is until trouble catches up and an explosive climax very nearly sees them all dead.
I don’t usually read historicals, although there have been more and more slipping in of late, but this one really hooked me. Capturing the grandeur and brutality of the early settlers in the American West, it provided me with a host of characters and situations I could really get my teeth into. Not for the feint-hearted, Man and Beast is not a romance, and not really a love story as relationships are just as brutal and fraught with danger as the land itself.
The first half of the book sees John and Daniel holed up in a cabin for the winter. Gradually John learns that Daniel is the front man for the company he’s been seeking and he must keep on his good side in order to get the supplies he needs come spring. He hovers between attraction and revulsion as Daniel blows hot and cold, sometimes drawing him in, inviting him into his bed and treating him to some beautiful erotic scenes and some hard loving. At other times he’s whiskey sodden and brutal. In between he reluctantly teaches John how to survive.
Daniel is a complex character I struggled hard to like. He’s rude, crude and brutal, with a softer side that’s rarely glimpsed but redeems him from being entirely unpalatable. Multi-faceted, he storms onto the page, grabs you by the throat, sticks a musket in your ear and dares you to make one wrong step so he can blow out your brains.
John Chapman is quite different. Struggling to escape a brutal past, cope with a brutal present and prepare for a brutal future, he’s buoyed by his dreams of living in a remote cabin and working the land in peace. For a long time, it seems he’s never going to achieve them. He’s a complex man who is entirely unprepared and ill equipped for life in the wilds. He learns a lot from Daniel, but it’s only the beginning.
After escaping the cabin in spring, he stumbles forward, seeking the town of Franklin where he believes he might at last achieve his goal of a simple, undisturbed life.
After falling in a river he’s saved by an enigmatic Indian woman who leads him to an abandoned cabin that seems to tick all his boxes.
After meeting the formidable George Chase, he discovers he’s found Franklin and is welcomed into town with open arms – as long as he makes an effort to fit in. George lets him know in no uncertain terms that it’s fit in or get out, which isn’t exactly what John had in mind, especially when he meets the people he’s expected to fit in with. Without the Indian woman, Gwennie, and the alluring brother of the preacher, Palmer, he would likely have failed.
From this point, we meet a host of strong supporting characters - the inimitable Gwennie who saves John’s ass on numerous occasions, Palmer whose ass is important for much different reasons, Thomas the runaway slave, and George the blustering bossman with delusions of grandeur and an uncompromising determination to make Franklin succeed no matter how many balls he has to break to get there. Then there are William and Sylvie, a rough couple with too many children and a twenty-year-old daughter they desperately want to marry off to John. What a mixing pot.
The book gives us a window into a different time, when in the great melting pot of the Wild West, people are thrown together in a tough, uncompromising environment and left to get on with it. The good, the bad and the ugly, struggling to tame a wild land and its wilder inhabitants. It throws a harsh light on the early settlers and their relationships with each other and the natives they view as no better than animals. This is no “Little House on the Prairie” and dips its toes into horror on more than one occasions.
At the end of the book, when things are finally settling down and everyone has a fairly workable plan for moving ahead, the horror bursts out in no uncertain terms and there was a point when I thought no one was going to survive and the entire cast would be taken out by a monstrous and seemingly indestructible mad man.
Fortunately, not everyone dies and there is a pretty strong cast ready to take us forward into book two.
Given that I’ve broken out of my usual mold to dig into the story and rehash far more than I usually do, it should be obvious how much there is to get your teeth into and how much I love this book. Don’t read it if you’re looking for sweet romance, or if you have an image of the heroic settler with nice manners and noble intentions. You’ll be disappointed. This book is not a sanitized version of what went on but a realistic depiction of how hard it was back then and the kind of person you had to be, or become, to survive.
There’s plenty of horror, gore, evil, shocking tales and actions, but there’s also a certain kind of beauty and an understanding of how love can grow in the most inhospitable landscape and, like an apple seed, if tended with care can blossom into something that can overcome all obstacles and make even the harshest life worth living.
Michael Jensen is an author and editor. His books of gay historical fiction include two series, The Drowning World, which is set in 5500 B.C., and The Savage Land, which takes place on the American frontier. Man & Monster, the second book in The Savage Land series, was a Lambda Award Finalist (under the title Firelands).
Michael is also the co-founder of AfterElton.com, which covered pop culture for gay and bisexual men, and eventually become one of the largest and most influential LGBT websites on the internet. In 2006, AfterElton.com was sold to MTV/Viacom in a multimillion dollar deal. As editor, Michael interviewed hundreds of writers, directors, and actors, breaking numerous stories and advancing the issue of LGBT visibility in
Michael lives in
AUTHOR WEBSITE: www.michaeljensen.com
BLURB: What is the line that separates man from beast?
The year is 1797, and 24-year-old John Chapman is lost on the American frontier with winter falling fast. Near death, he stumbles upon a lone cabin, and the owner, a rugged but sexy frontiersman named Daniel McQuay, agrees to let John winter over.
John and Daniel quickly find themselves drawn to each other, the sex between them unlike anything John has ever known. But as the weeks turn into snowbound months, Daniel begins to change into someone brutish, and the line between man and beast disappears.
With the arrival of spring, John flees, eventually finding refuge in the company of a group of frontier outcasts, including a brash young settler named Palmer. But in the wilds of this savage land, love is not so easily tamed, and John soon finds himself calling upon the raging animal within him to save the man he loves.
Man & Beast, which The Advocate calls “equal parts romance novel and history lesson, heaped with sex and violence,” is the first book in the Savage Lands, a series that celebrates the untold gay history of the American frontier. Man & Beast is for fans of Harper Fox, Jerry Cole, K.J. Charles, and Mary Renault, as well as anyone who enjoys pulse-pounding suspense and romance.
(Man & Beast was previously published under the title Frontiers.)
I couldn’t stop trembling, though whether from fear or the blood-numbing cold I didn’t know. For the thousandth time, I touched the worn flyer carefully folded and tucked into my shirt pocket. Soon I would know if I’d been right in coming here or if I had made the worst mistake of my life.
I had waited anxiously in the Major’s chamber for so long now that I swore my rigid body was dissolving into the freezing darkness. Such a sensation was familiar to me — I often lost my sense of self in the Major’s formidable presence.
Except for the soft sound of my breathing, the room was as still as a tomb. The cold from the fort's earthen floor seeped through my thin leather shoes. I wiggled my toes, but my feet were already so numb I could barely feel them. The unrelenting chill only intensified the dark, the room’s sense of menace. No wonder the soldiers called this place Fort Friggin’ Frigid.
How much time had passed since I’d first entered? A quarter hour? A full hour? I couldn’t be sure, but at last the harsh sound of iron heels striking stone echoed from the corridor.
My mouth went dry. Even if it was the Major, I feared how he’d react upon finding me in his quarters, much less under these dire circumstances. But no matter what manner of misfortune might be about to befall me, I would never regret having shared my body with him these past few weeks. One of his shirts hung to my left, and I buried my face in it, inhaling the piquant but soothing smell of his body mingled with the scent of his comfrey soap.
The footsteps halted just outside. Two voices began conversing — one being the Major’s distinctive baritone, the other a gruff, angry growl that deepened my unease. If the Major came in with someone else, I was done for. He’d deny ever knowing me, turn me over to the townsfolk, and I’d spend twelve months fettered in bilbos and at hard labor with the wretched English convicts local wags called the King’s passengers. That was if I was fortuitous — and I wasn’t feeling lucky.
The voices ceased, followed by the sound of footsteps moving away, then a moment of silence. Even though I knew hiding to be futile, I pressed myself against the back wall just in case he wasn't alone. Swinging open, the door squealed, spilling in light, and I couldn’t help myself — startled, I banged into a table.
A silhouette stood motionless in the doorway. The Major had heard me, and I barely dared breathe. A bar of tremulous torchlight from the corridor lay wavering on the floor.
Without warning, the door shut, plunging the room back into darkness. The sudden rasping of flint against iron cut through the silence. Light from the oil lamp leapt up, and even as weak as it was, I had to cover my eyes from the sudden brightness.
“What the bloody hell?” cursed the Major.
“It’s freezing in here, Colin. No wonder we always met at my place.”
“What the devil’s deuce are you doing here, Chapman? Are you insane?”
“Answer me. Now.”
I took a deep breath to steady myself. “Some of the townspeople know about us. They’re looking for me as we speak.”
“Fires and faggots!” He pressed his hand to his forehead. “What exactly do they know?”
“That we spent last night together. That we have spent others together.”
“So you came here? Are you trying to get me killed?”
“I came to warn you. I risked getting caught doing this.”
“How did they find out?”
“I don’t know. Someone saw something — or someone told.”
“Told? Unless you said something, nobody else could . . .” His voice trailed off as he glanced toward the door.
“Did you tell someone?” I dared to ask.
Instead of answering, he said, “Who exactly is looking for you?”
“The constable. Coming into the barn, I overheard him asking Mr. MacMurria if he’d ever seen me alone with a British soldier. If I’d gotten there five minutes earlier, he would have found me for sure.”
“Damnation. Did the constable know I was the soldier?”
“He mentioned you along with a couple of others, but I gather he wasn't entirely certain.”
“But they recognized you? Knew you worked for MacMurria?”
“And that dolt of a Scotsman must have told the constable your name, that you're not even British.”
“How did you get in here? Who did you talk to?”
“Two guards out front.”
“You used my name?”
I hesitated before answering. “Yes.”
“By all the devils! Do you realize how badly you’ve botched things?”
“I already told you I came here to warn you! Besides, I had nowhere to go.”
He pressed his hand to his temple, his fingers kneading his skull. “I know. I’m sorry. We’ve got to get you away from here.” He reached over and touched my face. “They know who you are — you’re done for if they catch you. I think I can talk my way out of this by telling them you used my name as a ruse to get inside. Once you’re gone, maybe I can even send them looking for you in the wrong direction.”
I took the flyer from my pocket. “Come with me,” I said softly, handing him the precious paper that promised free land and supplies. That promised a future.
“Do what?” he said incredulously. “Why?”
“So we could be together. Read the flyer.”
He quickly did so. “John, I’ve no more desire to settle western
than I do to bed King George’s
wife. And I’ve never heard of this Pennsylvania .” Warren
“Right now it’s nothing but a frontier outpost, but next spring they’re giving away land and supplies to those willing to stake a claim. We could be together. I know it’s where things will finally be right for me.”
He studied me. “You’re actually serious, aren’t you?”
I said nothing.
“I wish it were possible," he said. “Truly I do. But I’m a major in His Majesty’s army. I go back to
in less than a year, where
I’m to be married. I’ve got my station to think about.” He put the flyer back
in my pocket. England
“But, Colin, they know your name. What if—”
“I’m sorry, but I’m can't go with you. The price is too high.” He went to a trunk, hurriedly pulling out pieces of old uniforms. “Get shucked and put these on. If anyone sees me with you dressed like that, they’ll remember and ask questions later. Hurry!”
I studied the uniform, then said, “I once considered joining the army.” That I had pondered taking such drastic action was yet more proof of how badly I had wanted away from home.
“I’m glad you didn’t. We might have faced each other in battle if you had. At least this way, we had a few weeks together.”
Shivering in the cold air, I yanked off my shirt and pants, and shoved them into my pack with my few other belongings. I wriggled into the tight-fitting clothes he gave me.
Wearing the uniform felt uncommonly strange. Father had fought the British twenty years earlier and raised us on stories of how cruel and cowardly they were. On the other hand, Father had been a drunkard accused of being a traitor, so I had no idea how true any of the tales that spilled from his inebriated mouth actually were. Still, it felt more queer to wear a British uniform than it had to lie in the arms of one of their officers.
“There’s an embrasure in the back wall that’s hardly used,” said the Major. “It’s only a few hundred yards from there to the woods. Now, if we run into anyone, by Saint Christopher’s whiskers, don't say a word.”
He slipped outside, then motioned for me to follow. We came to a corner and he signaled me to stop.
A soldier rambled down the corridor but exited to the right before he reached us.
Trailing behind the Major, I whispered, “What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go?”
“What about that flyer you showed me? Go there.”
“I can’t, Colin. I don’t have supplies or money or even a good sense of direction. I get lost between the cabin and the outhouse.”
“Stop making jokes, for God sakes!” He faced me as he dug into his pocket, then thrust a handful of silver coins at me. “It isn't much, but it will help you. And we’ll get you supplies on the way out.
You’ll go to this
, stake a claim, start fresh. Nobody
there will know you. And that’s better for the both of us, isn’t it?” Warren
I reluctantly took the coins. “If you say so.”
“I say so. Listen to me. You can't come back. Not ever. It’s too dangerous for you.”
“But it’s dangerous for you, too. I still think you—”
“Never mind that. Just follow me.”
For five minutes, we wordlessly made our way along various corridors until a ladder hove into view. We climbed ten feet up to an opening that led to the fort’s back entrance. One at a time we stepped out into the warmth of the late-August afternoon. The Major anxiously cast his eyes along the embankment.
Birches and elms dotted the hillside beyond the fort, the long shadows of their trunks stretching across the field like bars. Farther up the hillside, the forest grew thick and wild and dangerous. I doubted it would take me long to pass into Indian country or stumble across a she-bear and her cubs foraging in the blackberry bushes.
“What about a gun and supplies?” I said.
“Damnation! Why didn’t you say something before?”
“I did!” I snapped. “And you said you’d get them. How the blazes was I supposed to know where to stop?”
“You're right. This is my bollocks. Stay here, and don’t move. I’ll be right back.” He ducked down again, vanishing from sight.
I waited, fidgeting and tugging at the ill-fitting uniform. Once someone passed overhead, walking along the fort’s upper perimeter. I practiced a British accent in case I was spotted. The accent was terrible, and I was hugely relieved when the sentinel passed out of sight.
The Major, clutching a burlap sack, appeared at the bottom of the ladder. At first I didn’t realize anything was wrong, but when he leapt up the ladder in three bounds, I knew we were in trouble.
Excited voices echoed up from the corridor.
“They’re coming!” he said, wild-eyed. “They know about me! They know everything! I’m coming with you!”
“Just run! Go! Go!” He shoved me hard, sending me stumbling forward as I jumped down to the ground. If captured now, I knew the punishment administered would be far worse than hard labor. Sodomy was bad enough; sodomy with a British officer would get me a flogging till I passed out, then clapped in leg irons in the shit-hole that passed for their gaol. I would never survive the twelve months I would spend there.
I didn’t want to guess what fate would befall the Major.
Regaining my balance, I sprinted as fast I as I could for the forest. We’d covered perhaps a hundred yards — a third of the way — when I glanced over my shoulder as two soldiers vaulted onto the top of the fort. Another fifty yards had vanished under our fleeing feet when the first shot rang out.
The musket ball whizzed passed and I stumbled.
“Are you hit?” the Major cried out.
Before I could answer, the second soldier fired. Not five feet away, the slight trunk of a pepperidge sapling, its leaves already a bloody scarlet, splintered into dozens of pieces. Without a word, I took off running again, but by now more soldiers had joined in the shooting. Twenty feet from reaching the first line of trees, another shot rang out. At the same moment, the Major, just behind me, leapt upward, as if suddenly taken by a fit.
Hot blood speckled my face as he crashed down, face-first, into the soft purple heather.
“Colin?” I called out, dropping to the ground. I scrambled on my belly to where he lay. Rolling him over, I moaned at the sight of the gory wound in his chest. I could’ve reached into the ragged hole with my hand. Blood issued forth in pulsating spurts, soaking his shirt before being drawn into the dark earth.
His green eyes — the very first thing I’d noticed about him — were wide open as he stared up at the azure sky. He labored to breathe, giving rise to terrible sucking sounds that arose from the bloody wound. A pink bubble formed between his lips, shimmered in the light, then softly popped. He inhaled once more, then his mouth went slack. His eyes glassed over, as dead and lifeless as a pond in January.
Voices clamored in the distance. Glaring back, I saw soldiers charging across the meadow. I scrambled to my feet and grabbed the bag, racing forward, reaching the sanctuary of the woods in a matter of moments. The sound of my ragged breathing coursed through my ears as I ran wildly, tripping and stumbling my way through wealds of dense timber that alternated with sun-drenched meadows.
Breathless and as panicked as a hunted deer, I at last paused in one of the meadows. Wiping stinging sweat from my eyes, I looked backward, forward, then left and right, trying desperately to decide where to go.
Overhead, the flat, hot disk of the sun tracked steadily west.
I followed it.
Man and Monster: Book II of The Savage Lands
I glanced up as a white-haired fellow dressed all in black strode toward us, a half-dozen men and women scurrying after him. The white-haired man clutched a large bucket in his left hand, and the palm of a small, chubby-faced girl in his right. She stumbled alongside him, trying to keep up. His hurried pace and indifference toward the girl angered me. I stifled my urge to scoop her up so she could ride on my shoulders.
“Who’s that?” I said.
“That’s Dilly,” Palmer said. “And that’s his five-year old daughter, Anna. She’s second-sighted.”
“Is she really? Or is it a sham to get a few coins out of folks?” Growing up with Gerard had imparted a strong sense of skepticism to my dealings with others.
John shrugged. “Who’s to say? Folks around here seem to believe in her.”
“I’ve heard she was born on Christmas Eve,” said Palmer. “Girls born then are renowned for their unusual gifts.”
“What does she do precisely?” I said.
“Lots of things, if you believe Dilly,” Palmer said. “Of course, you have to be able to understand him first. He’s from the Northeast and talks ah-fully funny. Supposedly, Anna can read the entrails of animals. Some whisper that she and Dilly dabble in necromancy, but I couldn’t speak to that. As for me, I don’t place much stock in divination.”
Everywhere outside the safety of the large towns and cities, divination, good-luck charms, and spells to ward off bad luck were part of the fabric of daily life. Priests, ministers, and other virtuous souls disapproved publicly of such goings-on, but even they always seemed to be around whenever someone reputed to have the gift was present.
Dilly came to a stop next to one of the tree stumps. He plunged his hands into the bucket, wrestled with something for a moment, then raised up the writhing form of a very fat, foot-long pike. He plopped the silvern fish onto the tree stump, its bony teeth gleaming menacingly as it thrashed about. One meaty hand pressed the fish downward to keep it from squirming off the stump. Next to it, he laid a stubby but lethally sharp-looking knife. Other settlers came out of their cabins, and soon there were more than thirty folk gathered about.
“I caught this heah pike ’neath a midnaht moon,” Dilly said in his thick northeastern accent. “Annah’s gonna read its guts so’s to tell us what kind of wintah to expect the rest of the yeah.” He turned to the girl, pulling her forward. “Come along, Annah,” he ordered.
The tiny slip of a child looked scared to death. Her bloodless lips pressed tightly together as she shook her head no.
Dilly didn’t argue. Instead, he leaned over the girl and snatched a doll from her right hand.
“No!” Anna squealed. “Please, Papa! No!”
“Are ya gonna do as I tell ya then?” Dilly said.
“Papa, I’m scairt,” Anna whimpered.
Dilly let go of the fish, picked up the knife, and sliced off a chunk of the doll’s leg.
Anna shrieked as if it were her own flesh that had been cut.
I cringed, then glanced around at the crowd as they watched. A few people looked dismayed, but the rest seemed not perturbed in the least. The welfare of this child was of no more concern to them than that of their neighbor’s dairy cow. Perhaps it was even less, for the cow provided milk for which they might trade, whereas the girl ate food they might otherwise have had for themselves. I was as interested in divination as any normal man. In fact, I considered myself a fine reader of bugs. But this wasn’t right.
John must have seen the look on my face. “Don’t do anything,” he whispered. “I tried once, and the town nearly strung me up. It only angered Dilly that much more, and he treated Anna even worse.”
By now the sobbing Anna had relented. Guided by her father’s hand, she used the knife to slice open the belly of the still thrashing pike. Bright red blood spurted forth from the fish, spraying both girl and tree stump.
“Go ahead, Annah,” Dilly instructed. “Ya know what to do next.”
With tears running down her cheeks, Anna put her hand inside the pike. Each time the fish jerked, the poor child jumped, but her father pressed her to continue. Soon the pike’s organs — heart, liver, a bulging stomach, and all the rest — lay spread out over the stump. The pike lay still at last. A change had come over Anna as well. She no longer cried, and in some way I couldn’t identify, she no longer even seemed present. It was as if she had taken refuge deep inside herself, leaving only this eldritch expression upon her face.
“Tell us, Annah,” Dilly commanded. “What do ya say about the wintah?”
Anna gripped the pike’s liver in her small, chapped hand. Suddenly, she started to shiver violently. “It’s so cold,” she said.
“And how long is the cold heah for, Annah?”
Anna dropped the liver and whispered, “Always.”
Dilly grunted as if dismayed and I caught several of the townsfolk exchanging nervous glances.
“Now squeeze out the stomach the way I showed ya.”
Anna had to use both hands to hold the pike’s bulging stomach. Even then she couldn’t grip it hard enough to squeeze out the contents without her father’s help. Despite my disgust with Dilly’s bullying, I was curious and leaned forward to see what the fish had most recently eaten. A smaller pike the size of my thumb but otherwise nearly identical to the first, slid forth.
“What does that mean?” a stolid-looking woman dressed all in gray said.
“It can’t be good,” someone else said.
“Annah?” Dilly said. “Do ya see anything?”
The girl stared straight ahead, then abruptly looked up. We all turned to follow her gaze as a raven alighted on the bare, bobbing limb of a dogwood tree. Given the grim atmosphere of the day, I suspected this time the bird bore ill tidings; the very smell of them was in the air. The raven turned its head back and forth several times, then called out quork, quork, quork in its harsh, guttural tones.
“It called out three times,” said a burly fellow with a beard. “It scents death on somebody.”
“Maybe it’s Addy,” whispered a woman next to me. “She’s still missing.”
“Or Firenzi,” said another man. “He can’t eat, drink, or piss.”
“Then why doesn’t the damnable bird fly around his chimney and be gone?” said a woman who shared the belief that when a raven circled a cabin, someone inside would die.
The raven cocked its head. Quork, quork, quork, it repeated, predicting another death. The sound was clear and carried far in the frigid air.
Several people gasped.
“Does someone else suffer from a churchyard cough?” said the bearded man. “I’ve not heard talk of anyone else soon to be buried.”
Quork, quork, quork, said the raven. Then again, Quork, quork, quork
“Make it stop!” someone shouted.
“We should go,” a man urged his wife, but she stood transfixed as the bird foresaw more deaths.
The raven’s gaze fell on John, Palmer, and myself. A long moment of silence hung in the air. Then again it called out, Quork, quork, quork.
Never had I ever heard a raven warn of so many deaths. It seemed the bird foretold of disease or disaster striking the town. Perhaps it saw the threat of widespread starvation that loomed deeper into the winter.
People started to panic. Even I felt unsettled — for the bird had looked right at us. Or maybe it had looked at someone beyond us, I thought hopefully. Behind us stood three men I’d yet to meet.
Someone threw something at the raven, but it only hopped to another branch before issuing yet another menacing call. Others began yelling, and I thought people were about to lose control when the urgent clattering of hoofbeats over frozen earth finally drew everyone’s attention from the raven.