Author ~ Keelan Ellis
Publisher ~ Dreamspinner Press
Published ~ 1st June 2015
Genre ~ Paranormal M/M Romance
The summer after high school, Eli Dunn and Jess Early explore an abandoned brothel in the rural Florida Panhandle. They’ve always kept their mutual attraction unspoken, but in an upstairs room at the end of the hall, everything changes. Suddenly, all the longing Eli and Jess have tried so hard to conceal bursts free, and passion like they’ve never experienced comes to light, along with the ghosts of Clay Bailey and Silas Denton, murdered owners of the brothel. And Clay and Silas have no problem possessing Eli and Jess in order to express their love for each other, without thought for the living.
Deeply disturbed by the experience, Eli and Jess part and try to get on with life as best they can. But after several years, Eli returns to Florida, only to find that Jess has made some questionable choices. These eventually lead him back to the abandoned house and a confrontation with Eli. Old scores are settled and Eli and Jess reunite. But Clay and Silas’s ghosts aren’t finished yet, for they’ve always believed in the power of open and honest love.
This is the first book by Keelan Ellis I’ve read. Even after I’d gotten through the first chapter, I was not quite sure I’d like it – I’m not a big fan of ghost stories. But I just couldn’t put it down. The more I read, the better it got, the more the characters reached out and grabbed me, the more the parallels between the two stories converged, the more sense the ghosts made to me.
What Ms. Ellis has done, in a most remarkable way, was traced the astonishing progress toward humanity, civil rights and self-respect (no, pride) that LGBT people have finally won, especially over the years since Stonewall, in 1969.
It has been an unparalleled journey from shame to self-acceptance, from disdain and dismissal to a civil rights movement which has accomplished more, faster, than any other ever has. And this journey is encapsulated in the touching tales of two gay couples whose stories stretch nearly a century, one of the couples dead, the other trying to find their place in life and with each other.
Clay and Silas are two young men who died in 1968, in a brothel - a brothel they owned and managed, successfully, for years. They both came from nothing, alienated from their families at a very young age, forced to find their paths in a world that didn’t want them. They sold themselves to survive; they brought in others but treated them with dignity, compassion and respect. They built a family of similarly situated men and women whom society wanted no part of and to whom it offered neither safety net nor even the most basic of civil rights, the right to love the person you love. Ultimately, they were murdered by a closet case, one of their married customers who couldn’t stand that these two men openly shared the love he did not dare.
Jess and Eli are another couple, but not at the beginning of the book. The two boys (because that’s exactly what they are when the book opens) could not be less alike, but have been best friends since they first met, back in 2002, when both were 12. They’ve been inseparable ever since. Eli has known for a long time that he’s different, and that he wants more than friendship from Jess, but he could never bring himself to say a word. Once he was old enough to know what those feeling meant, he knew that it could not be. He could not be “that way” because it would ruin every important relationship in his life, his family, his future, and even his friendship with Jess.
They make it through high school as the closest of friends. But then one night, a strange incident ruins everything for them. Jess takes Eli, and a bottle of booze, to an abandoned house nearby, that’s rumored to be haunted. Of course, it’s the house in which Clay and Silas died. When they discover the master bedroom, left as it was the day of the murders, everything goes awry. They’re suddenly both intolerably horny. Out of control, they drag each other to the bloodstained bed and begin to ravish each other, but not as Eli and Jess. Some part of them recognizes each other, but when they look in each other’s faces, they don’t recognize the men they’re seeing, and as they climax, they call out names of people they don’t even know, Clay and Silas.
Yep, believe it or not, rape by ghostly possession. This is almost offensive when it first occurs in the book. Two boys who, obviously, had a growing relationship neither wants to acknowledge, find themselves sharing full-on sex, but not as themselves. Disturbing? Certainly, but not as disturbing for the reader as it was for the boys. Their lifelong friendship shattered, Eli is so terrified of being gay that he enlists in the Army (following in his father’s footsteps), and Jess locks himself away to lick his wounds.
Skip ahead four years. Eli comes out in the newly tolerant U. S. Army in Afghanistan, and then back stateside in Maryland. Returning home to decide what to do with the next phase of his life, his number one order of business has long been his greatest fear – coming out to his parents. It goes surprisingly well. It’s certainly not immediate and total acceptance, and his father is more distant than ever, but his mother is making a serious effort to come to terms with this new reality.
His next task is to hook up with Jess and confess how he has felt all these years. Even in the Armed Forces, Jess was never far from his thoughts, and it’s time for them to, finally, get together. But there’s the rub: Jess is engaged to marry their former best friend, Cassie. Obviously, things are pretty messed up.
The bulk of the book is the unraveling of Jess and Cassie’s plans, the growing love between Jess and Eli, and creating a future in an uptight small town with the assistance of a pair of helpful, and now-welcome, ghosts.
I don’t want to give too much away, but imagine a gorgeous old haunted home, once a brothel, now one of the most successful gay wedding venues in the state. Marriage Equality is good to these boys, and they are good for each other. But no more sex with ghosts – though they might let them watch, a little, from time to time.
What struck me most about I’ll Still be There is how Ms. Ellis weaves tragic history, teen angst, coming out, the military, same-sex marriage and a pair of ghostly rapists together in a beautifully wrought story that tracks the history of gay rights from the second half of the 20th Century to today – without being obvious about it. The story is, at turns, funny, wry, passionate, moving and charming. Despite the over-the-top conceit of the dead lovers, each and every one of the characters is drawn true, with depth and empathy, the struggles they go through are so very real (and common) and yet their courage a beautiful sight to behold.
I’ll Still Be There is extremely well-written. There‘s not a boring moment in the book, not one. The prose is written fluidly, but with an admirable economy of words. It’s much more “show me” than “tell me” and much more “move me” than “recite history”. All, in all, it’s a major accomplishment, but even better, a great read. I didn’t put it down once, from first page to last. And that is, perhaps, the highest recommendation I can give any book.
I’ll be looking for more great writing from Keelan Ellis.