Bath Haus, P J Vernon
Rating: 5 Stars
Tags: Suspense, Psychological, (LGBTQ) Fiction – Gay MCs and Secondary Characters. **TW: Sexual violence.
Length: 344 Pages
Oliver Park, a recovering addict from Indiana, finally has everything he ever wanted: sobriety and a loving, wealthy partner in Nathan, a prominent DC trauma surgeon. Despite their difference in age and disparate backgrounds, they’ve made a perfect life together. With everything to lose, Oliver shouldn’t be visiting Haus, a gay bathhouse. But through the entrance he goes, and it’s a line crossed. Inside, he follows a man into a private room, and it’s the final line. Whatever happens next, Nathan can never know. But then, everything goes wrong, terribly wrong, and Oliver barely escapes with his life.
He races home in full-blown terror as the hand-shaped bruise grows dark on his neck. The truth will destroy Nathan and everything they have together, so Oliver does the thing he used to do so well: he lies.
What follows is a classic runaway-train narrative, full of the exquisite escalations, edge-of-your-seat thrills, and oh-my-god twists. P. J. Vernon’s Bath Haus is a scintillating thriller with an emotional punch, perfect for readers curious for their next must-read novel.
I had this book earmarked to read and then promptly forgot about it. I’m incredibly busy, so some things get missed. Thank you to Carolyn for reminding me on Twitter a week ago about Bath Haus. You’re a champion, Carolyn. Like everyone else, I’m incredibly glad this book was embraced by mainstream publishing and a pretty diverse readership as well, but the MCs being gay shouldn’t (have to) be a talking point in 2021. I know why this is the case, I’ve identified it as LGBTQ fiction above in my tags, but maybe I’ll be around to see things completely change. Anyway, P.J. Vernon should be proud because this is fine writing, riveting, and he’s a talented author.
As this is a suspenseful thriller, I don’t want to go into too much detail, and there are already a lot of reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, etc, etc. However, by the time I had finished this book I knew I needed to quiet those inner voices telling me to exorcise my feelings via a review. So here I am. Exorcising away. The blurb really is all you need to know about Bath Haus. Reading the book without knowing too much is probably for the best.
I’ve tried to be very careful with my review… but reader beware. Consider my review as spoilerish.
Bath Haus starts when Oliver does cross a line by visiting Haus while his partner is away at a conference in New York. But Oliver’s visit results in him being strangled by a blond stranger with striking blue eyes and a “Scandi” accent in a room at Haus. He manages to wound the attacker, deeply gouging his face with a door key. It’s the only reason Oliver escapes, but he’s left rattled at what’s just occurred. Now, post escape, with obvious bruising a stark reminder of where he’s been, he’ll have to tell Nathan something. What will that be? Telling Nathan he was going to hook-up with another man will have relationship ramifications, and he can’t let his relationship fall apart. He can’t. He has to come up with a plausible story that doesn’t give away what actually happened. So, a mugging it is. The moment Nathan lands back in Washington he organises for Oliver to go straight to the police to file a report… but Oliver already has, on his own. Given the truth. But this time, with Nathan by his side, Oliver will tell the police he was mugged. Even in upmarket Georgetown, people get mugged. It probably won’t be the same detective he gives this statement to anyway, right? Wrong. Detective Rachel Henning takes both the reports, the original (truth) and the secondary (fabrication) – not that she knows which is which, but when someone comes in twice, one has to be a lie. That’s an offence in and of itself. She doesn’t give Oliver away, though, why is that?
Lies are tricky things to maintain. They have a way of tripping you up, especially when you’re in a relationship with someone who has a razor sharp mind for detail. And the attacker? Well, he refuses to be quiet, menacing Oliver in the background, leaving Oliver on edge. The attack and the attacker – Kristian – starts touching the very core of Oliver’s life with Nathan. It’s becoming intense. Oliver feels like he’s being watched everywhere. But Oliver doesn’t tell Nathan what’s going on. And why won’t anyone at Haus back up what Oliver originally told Detective Henning? People saw him fleeing, they questioned him. Why is Kristian so persistent in his stalking of Oliver? How does he keep Nathan from knowing? Oh yeah. It’s game on, fellow readers.
Points and Feelings About Bath Haus:
The chapters are headed up by the POV, Oliver’s or Nathan’s. The Parts of the book have superb headings such as Surprise Respiration. Dyspnea. Hypoxic Convulsion, and so on. It is absolute perfection.
The writing by Vernon is both intelligent and accessible, two things that don’t always go together. Bath Haus is a deliciously transgressive psychological thriller. It grabs you by your throat and doesn’t let you go until the end, only giving a pause or two so you can catch your breath to be able to resume the cat and mouse theatre. Underneath it all is this incredibly edgy, aptly breathless cadence to the narrative, but there is also a resignation. It remains on point throughout. I would more than occasionally, unconsciously, move my top away from my neck as I read.
Everything about Bath Haus has an authentic rawness. The hook-up apps language – the acronyms, the abbreviations. Gay romance, which we often review on this blog, can be quite sanitised. There is a tendency toward the more polite. This is not romance. This is raw fiction.
The MCs have distinct voices. Nathan’s POV could superficially appear somewhat bland in comparison to the escalating anxiety and hypervigilance of Oliver that is just below the surface. The on-page experiences Oliver is living or remembering take centre stage. However, Nathan is far from bland. There is so much going on within both men, the disquieting maladaptation. Fears. Getting older. Staying clean. Guardrails. Lack of. Isolation. Suffocation. Wants. Desires. Demands. Needs. While reading I had an explosion of thoughts and feelings that I can’t fully explore here without spoiling things. I feel incredibly nobbled writing this review, to be honest. I’d love to
write a thesis say more about the psychology in relation to events. All I can say is it’s good in a subtle way for most of the book. Near the end the subtlety drops. I love a good build to a crescendo that makes you speed read for dear life. Of both of the MCs, it was Oliver I felt the most connection to. But I was invested in both of them for different reasons. From the very beginning until the very end I completely understood the whys of Oliver’s lying. Things readers might think are stupid decisions by Oliver throughout Bath Haus, at a psychological and behavioural level, I got.
The secondary characters are used fleetingly but substantially. For instance, there isn’t much about Oliver’s mother, Deborah Park, whom he’s loved as much as he can allow himself to love anyone. Just a dash is impactful and telling. Kathy Klein is… well, she’s extra. A drop of Nathan’s mother goes a long way. Secondary’s, including Nathan’s friend Tom, all add a dynamism that show you where Oliver and Nathan come from, where they are now. The socio-economic and psychological world building is so good. The benevolent control. The needs, full Maslow. Co-dependency, snobbery, stereotypes, they all live large within upmarket Georgetown, Washington. *Waves at Barbara. The spectre of shame of Tyre, Indiana always lurks ominously in the background of the ‘nice’ side of the tracks. *Waves at… people.
I’m still thinking about Bath Haus days after finishing it. I highly doubt I will ever forget this book and these characters, and I can’t give a book much higher praise than that. If you enjoy a thriller, a psychological thriller, this is one hell of a viscerally immersive piece of writing. The book is gripping from the outset, it’s multifaceted – the characters, the primary and secondary arcs, the world. It’s hard to put this book down and take a break. That’s how I felt throughout, just one more page, Kaz, and it was never just one more page, or even one more chapter. I was invested. Moral ambiguity and troubles are frequently the bedrock of my reading world. Oh, how I’m here for that when the package and its contents are as exciting as Bath Haus. P.J. Vernon delivers on the promise of his premise. 5 Stars!