There was a demon in my dreams last night.
I know where he comes from, this demon. He walks straight out of the past. He’s the distilled embodiment of it, a figure in black glass.
There’s a curse, you see: ‘May you live in interesting times’. But there’s also another: ‘May you live with a long and vivid memory’.
First, the dream started as I was drifting off to sleep. I was alone in the apartment and it was raining outside. A cold, shiny night by the sea for the perfectly envisioned spider to come creeping across the wall above my head, along the line of the dado rail. Rendered with cinematic, lifelike detail, the spider, a hairy brown thing, half shadow, half scratch, was roughly the size of a boxing glove. Long, bristly, zigzag legs, silently padding along the wall. Real as the night.
On sight of it, I jolted awake. Or rather, I jolted to the awareness that I wasn’t awake. These dreams, when they come, tend to follow a pattern, as I’ve come to learn. One, that I’ve experienced an episode, usually in the wee hours, not always alone, and worse if drunk. I don’t drink often, but when I do, I can err on the side of drinking too much, a throwback of youth, as all of this is. A well of grief and anger can rise up in me so black, so foul, and beat around my brain like bats and indeed spill frothing into my life. Tears, shaking, a bitter twist of the mouth and a coldness that allows no compassion, not for a while. A ferocious sense of injustice. A storm. A need to lash out – never physically, thankfully, I’m not a violent man – but with words. Words, after all, are how I’ve made sense of my life and, on the rare, unfortunate occasion, how I find myself bound, helpless, to move to unmake it.
These are memories of childhood. And of youth.
I can’t describe these events, but I can describe their effects. The echoes. The scars. Sometimes, I’ve been fortunate enough to jolt awake next to someone who would hold me, who would even jolt awake at my jolt, my occasional cry. Sometimes shout at me in shock, and then comfort me until the shaking and the tears subsided.
‘You’re safe. You’re with me. I won’t let anything bad happen to you.’
But mostly, when the demon comes – when he really comes – I’m alone.
There are some, I know, who may suppose that my haunting stems from waywardness in my early twenties, but the truth is stranger than that, as it often is. When I was a child, my late father took me to see a famous doctor in London because of these night terrors. I was a bedwetter, you see, up to the age of 8 and, with diminishing frequency, for a handful of years after that. They were different times, but eventually, a solution was sought.
I sat in the doctor’s study aged 8 or so and he performed tests. Breathing on a mirror. Listening to a series of bells, if I recall correctly. And I described my repetitive dream, I think, horrifically vivid, of being chased through the woods (sometimes a jungle) by an old grinning man with false teeth and mechanical legs.
You could never outrun this terror. You could try. I’d often find my dream self at the edge of some windswept cliff or other, facing an inevitable fall. And I would wake up crying, shaking, on slick and acrid smelling sheets.
It feels so strange to write that, but its feels like time and fears are rarely pretty.
There remain mysteries in these dreams too. Turbaned men and adorned women who sat, apparently in meditation, inside the sheltering leaves of huge, cactus like plants. I think of them as guardians. The clarity of the memory, decades later, should speak of the realness of the dream at the time. When they come – when the demon comes – the dreams are often as real as life itself. It was only much later, in my late twenties, that I developed the art of recognising that I was dreaming and thus mounting some kind of defence.
Last night, I was alone. I hadn’t wanted to go out. The spider had vanished and the demon was coming. I suspected it. I read till 5am, but sleep can be a cruel mistress and damn it, her chains dragged me down.
I was in a house. A large, somewhat rickety loft apartment with 70s décor and peeling wallpaper. It was night and I was instantly aware that I was a prisoner, the same old running theme. Along with the fact that I’d have to think my way out of the dream in order to survive it, stir my slumbering self and wade through the mud of sleep paralysis to emerge – sometimes with a cry, sometimes not – shaking and quietly crying on the other side, back in the waking world.
There were three men in the unkempt lounge under the eaves. Two, masculine, muscled and vague of face. Perhaps a bearded one, his image fades even now as I write this down half an hour since I awoke, forcing myself to pour it all out. The third man was much clearer. A punk in appearance, slender, bare-chested, dark haired with studs through his nose and lips. There were tattoos (ravens, I think. Or bats.) on his chest behind his braces, and his face was angular, pale and not unattractive. Think of a cross between Brian Molko of Placebo fame and someone more sinewy and vulturine.
Something, perhaps. I don’t know.
Oh no. My heart sank. For all his shiftiness, I’d recognise the demon anywhere.
Over the years, he’s taken different forms, the demon, bizarrely growing younger as I’ve grown older, and taking on a pleasing form. The grinning man with the false teeth and mechanical legs became a tall middle aged one for a while. A shadow that would stand in the corner of my bedroom in my twenties and radiate anger. He was less the carnival freak, now earthier and more brutal, full of some unspoken vengeance. And he’d simply fly at me, howling and flailing at my head in a barrage of shadows. Plucking at my arms, my legs, my flesh. I’d lie, teeth gritted, eyes squeezed shut, mentally begging him to go away, to leave me be. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move, during these rare assaults. And on two occasions that I remember, I’d find myself on the bedroom floor when I awoke and came to my senses. Breathing hard, shaking, before the inevitable tears came.
Was he a ghost? What did he want? I even asked him this once, fumbling for the light switch and managing to break a lamp. I hadn’t hurt anyone. I’d lived the best I could, given the circumstances. And, yes, I would help if I could. But then I’m not entirely sure that I believe in ghosts.
Not external ones, anyway.
Only as memories. Or the dross that comes from memories. The shadow plasm, if you will.
But I digress. Last night, the demon appeared handsome and young. He even bore shades of a younger me, vain as that sounds, but it was the first time I’d noticed such a correlation in the dreams, and that was perhaps telling in itself.
Initially, in the dream, in the dream house, I was an unwelcome guest. Or a sort of acquaintance that the other men liked to ridicule and tease. But, as I said, I was aware that I couldn’t leave the place, as I vaguely recall enduring a torrent of sarcastic and sniggering abuse. Being called fat. Weird. A fag. Useless. A loser etc.
I tried to appeal, as I often would. Why didn’t they like me? What had I done? I couldn’t help being who I am. As usual, it was pretty pathetic, the weakness of a child, and somewhere, I was aware that the sleeping adult me was seething.
Fuck these ghosts. Fuck the demon. I was so over their bullshit now.
This was the seed that had grown into my defence, you see. The sword I’d forged and with which I learnt to fight back, though I was far from in the clear yet.
This part is difficult to write, but I promised myself, when embarking on this piece, that I’d be honest about it. Maybe it’s the whole point. How to describe the mixture of dread and attraction without sounding utterly debauched? But this was certainly a bullying dream, an ordeal of degradation, and I immediately recognised the experience from my early teens, showering after phys ed with my high school aggressors and finding myself desiring them.
I haven’t written about this before, that bizarre curdling of fear and desire. The paranoia that there’s a light flashing above your naked self in the changing rooms, alerting all the other boys to the fact that you’re different, that you’re not one of the pack. Trying not to look. And then trying not to look too long. Trying to control yourself, your body. Thinking of dead things, animals and maggots and bones. Of unhappy moments. Flat, grey days. Of nothingness. Succeeding – always in this case, thank God – with an effort of will that distorted the mind and pummelled the heart.
Mind over matter. Over raging hormones. Adolescent torture.
And the chilling suspicion that some of the other boys could smell it too, on some fundamental level, and react to your thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year old self with a mixture of loathing or worse, curiosity. The collected images that one would later furiously masturbate over, arching to pleasure and then hating oneself. Feeling that you’d betrayed yourself. The sirens of guilt and disgust, because everyone knew that it was wrong. Everyone said so, all of the time.
Yes, there was pain, back then. But worst of all was the fear that you enjoyed some of it. Or you told yourself you did in order to survive.
It’s a sickening truth, even to this day.
That kind of stuff can tear a boy apart. The man who endures will be strong.
The demon, last night, was speaking to this truth. As before, there was a mocking, sneering tone to things. Even the posters on the wall – Slayer, The Sub-humans, Crass – curled their tattered lips at me. And I knew what was coming.
I’ll keep it brief, for taste’s sake. I was both trapped and degraded.
The demon stripped and bound me. He put a bottle in me, a plastic bottle, until I bled. All three men did things in the dream, barking commands at me, making me move this way, that way, put this or that in my mouth. All three entered me, roughly, and all three flogged me with words while doing so, hissing, spitting, deriding my body. Laughing at my submission.
I told you it wasn’t pretty. You were warned.
None of the above reflects real life, you understand. None of it was forced, in the truest sense, even as a dream. And to be frank, I don’t care what people think. This was the dream and it was a dream of debasement, an inversion of my romantic self. A parody of innocent wants and a need for security and love. It was a reminder of those days of loving the monster. And hating the self. Days I’ve long since got free of, lucky rainbow that I am, although I guess the stain of them remains, deep down.
Later, I was in a small toilet and the demon, all sparkling eyes and cruel, sensuous lips, was demanding that he watch me in this exposed and vulnerable state. And here, I managed to gather some sense of myself, drawing on a thread I’d summoned somewhere in my late twenties. Forging dream steel and determining to fight back.
There are places I will not go.
You can probably breathe now.
The dream changed. Grew foggier. Less real. I was shaping events. Pushing at the walls. I remember engaging the demon in a discussion about bands, which delighted him as he crawled across me – a kind of spider again – while smarmily testing my knowledge.
Demons do love games. But I was on the road home, I knew, and my mind caught fire, slowly spearing through the horror.
It’s fading, fading, elusive to write… We were outside, all of a sudden, in the garden under the stars. Just an ordinary English garden behind an ordinary house. We were still naked. I was clothed in rope. Bear with me here, because I feel moved to excuse the form of my imagination, vivid, wild as it is, but there was a space rocket in the garden. A tall, silver thing, probably one of the beloved phallic machines culled from the old black and white Flash Gordon episodes I’d run home from school to watch as a boy (because yes, there were joys in childhood too, as there must be to throw shadows).
The demon found this highly amusing, I think, and, apparently challenged by this oddity from my dreaming mind (and eager to subvert it), he pulled me to the flank of the rocket and somehow, launched it.
In a plume of fire and smoke, we roared up into the night, both the demon and I clinging to the side of the rocket. Me, frozen by fear, if not ice. In no time at all, space was drawing near (another iteration of the windswept cliff edge, no doubt), the firmament dark and cold, the earth dwindling below. An inevitable, terrible, asphyxiated end.
How the demon laughed! Gleeful, triumphant, he’d turned my escape pod against me.
Or so he thought. You see, I found myself letting go of the rocket and simply falling backwards through the air. And in the strange logic of dreams, I’d pictured myself as having dreamt up the only available parachute. The only one. And impossibly, through the screaming air, I was able to convey this message to the demon’s drawn and panicked face.
I fell. And I fell, a relieved Icarus. And then, I woke up.
Moments before I hit the ground, of course.
Dreams love a good cliché.
I sat up in the dawn, shaking a little. Another battle won, I thought. It had been some time, but I didn’t believe myself entirely free of him. The demon.
The shaking is gentler these days. The jolts not as sharp, as I recognise the dreams for what they are and I relax and let myself cry for a minute. To breathe slowly until I can dismiss the fucker. To let reality filter in and remind me that I got clear of these shadows and built myself a sword. To recognise I made choices to ensure that I was in a safe place with good company, with those few who understand me and will fight to protect me, as I do them.
These ghosts aren’t uncommon among artists, I find. I know I’m not alone.
As I face these shadows and try to unravel them, they become easier to talk about. The episodes, the bats, strike less regularly, with less force, although they can still do damage. To my regret.
I will master the demon one day.
There is a curse, but there’s also a blessing: ‘May you learn to forget.’ I’m doing my best. For the shadows are shrinking, I believe, outweighed by a great deal of light. Hard won. Precious.
More light. More light, please.
It’s been put to me, recently, that perhaps the demon has always been the one standing in the mirror. In the black glass of memory. And that glass, in itself, can easily break.
Only one of us can win this battle. After all, only one of us is real.
And it was put to me that writing it down might help.
And someone else had asked me to write a piece for Childhood Fears.
So I woke up this morning and did.
© James Bennett
ABOUT JAMES BENNETT
James Bennett is a British writer raised in Sussex and South Africa. His travels have furnished him with an abiding love of different cultures, history and mythology. His short fiction has appeared internationally and the acclaimed 'Chasing Embers' is his debut fantasy novel. James lives and works in Barcelona, Spain, and is quite aware that these bios can't keep up with him.
'Chasing Embers' and 'Raising Fire' are available now. The concluding volume 'Burning Ashes' is out now from Orbit Books. www.orbitbooks.net
Further information available at: http://curia-draconis.blogspot.co.uk/
Or feel free to follow him on Twitter: @Benjurigan
Or join on Facebook: fb.me/Benjurigan
ABOUT CHASING EMBERS
'A thrilling fusion of myth and modernity' Kevin Hearne, author of the Iron Druid Chronicles
'Blending together the best of action, adventure and urban fantasy . . . Chasing Embers is one of my highlights!' The Eloquent Page
Fans of Ben Aaronovitch and Jim Butcher will revel in this fiery tale of magic, mayhem and modern-day mythology.
BEHIND EVERY MYTH THERE IS A SPARK OF TRUTH . . .
There's nothing special about Ben Garston.
Or so he'd have you believe. He won't tell you, for instance, that he's also known as Red Ben. Or that the world of myth and legend is more real than you think.
Because it's his job to keep all that a secret.
But now a centuries-old rivalry has resurfaced, and the delicate balance between his world and ours is about to be shattered.
Something is hiding in the heart of the city - and it's about to be unleashed.
'Absolutely loving it. Gorgeous use of language, great humour, characterisation and storyline. New fan!' Elizabeth Chadwick
A name you're likely to find cropping up again and again and again this month is Clive Barker. Clive Barker, a name that is as synonymous with horror fiction and cinema as Stephen King, that, at the zenith of its output, utterly blasted apart the parameters of not only horror but popular fiction in general.
Even now, being so familiar with the man's work (I am one of those salivating fan-boys who re-reads Barker's entire back catalogue at least once a year, every year), I find myself utterly dumb-founded as to how said work rose to become the phenomena it has, not because of any failing on its behalf -far, far from it-, but because it is so deviant, so transgressive, so powerfully beyond what any other writer in the many genres Barker is traditionally categorised as belonging to were attempting or imagining in his heyday, it's nothing short of a miracle that it did not result in torches and pitchforks at Barker's door (metaphorically and literally speaking).
Barker, of course, is most commonly associated with the art-house-horror-made-good that is Hellraiser, a film whose peculiar deviance became the source of its appeal back in the saturated horror cinema of the early-to-mid 1980s, that did away with the already weary formula of unkillable, masked murderer stalks teenagers and opted for something entirely other; a dynamic of Freudian family neuroses married to Jungian metaphysics and deviant sexuality, the introduction of images and ambiguities that horror audiences simply were not used to, but which they devoured with atavistic appetite.
However, it was The Books of Blood, several volumes of short stories, with which Barker made his literary debut, stories whose variety, deviance and insane quality of writing still leave me trembling with simultaneous admiration and a despair that I will never, never produce anything of even remotely the same gravitas.
The Books of Blood are stories the like of which no other writer of horror or fantasy or even science fiction were writing at the time; bizarre, abstruse and impressionist tales of sex and disease, of violence and mutilation, of -peculiarly for Barker- politics and philosophy, stories that dredge through every sublimated inch of the collective sub-conscious, that explore elements of humanity that even other horror writers regarded as too transgressive and near-the-knuckle.
Here, the dirt and filth and desire of humanity is simultaneously lamented and celebrated. Characters that are morally ambiguous at best find themselves exposed to situations and experiences that transform them utterly, on every level of their beings (ideological, psychological, anatomical). Characters mutilate themselves, find their bodies rebelling against them. Characters physically split and peel away from themselves, transforming into monstrous abstractions. Characters discover the secret mechanisms of the world and despair at their insanity, their arbitrariness. Here, reality is a protean playground of hallucinogenic dirt, of emotional filth and animal urges married to the inspirations of demons and angels, of monsters and lunatic gods.
The horrific and fantastical elements of some stories alone would be enough to make them worthy of comment: a fundamentalist Christian and neo-liberal capitalist taking it upon himself to draw God from hiding by first stirring Satan himself by crafting a literal Hell-on-Earth that Lucifer could not possibly resist. A tribe of other-worldly women that have the capacity to transform the physical sex of the men they seduce into another of their kind. Tribes of adoring monsters that inhabit the deserts and hinterlands of humanity's dominions, siring hybrid children with willing, human mothers. An ancient statue that slowly, slowly seeps at the life and identity of those who come across it, becoming more lamentably human, whilst the human beings it parasitically emulates grow less and less so, and not without a degree of relief. The subjects of these stories alone act as a kind of metaphorical commentary: here, Barker sets out a manifesto for his visions, a kind of ideological itinerary of his fascinations, obsessions and the stances he takes upon them:
Politics and the ways of society are moribund, arbitrary and cruel: there is no hope in them. Tradition and religion are, likewise, corrupt and power-hungry and abusive. No salvation there. Human beings themselves are animal and cowardly and lunatic at their cores, revealing truer faces behind the masks of skin they wear than they ever could whilst still able to smile. We can find no salvation through one another.
Instead, there is only transcendence through ultimate transgression, Barker seems to insist: that those who cleave to old identities, to proscribed patterns and tribes and states of being, will always fall foul of them.
In perhaps one of the most infamous stories from the collection, The Midnight Meat Train, Barker frames what might have otherwise been a divertingly grotesque and distressing serial-killer story as something far more abstruse: a commentary upon the nature of politics and society at large, in which the central serial killer is not some random lunatic or obsessive psychopath, but a product and executor of systems and traditions proscribed by the mechanisms of society itself, a secret that all who exercise any degree of power know about, but are sworn from discussing or even referencing, for fear of bringing all of society collapsing down around them. Those taken and slaughtered are the grist to the mill, the raw matter sluiced through the systems of civilisation, and fed to the monsters that lie at its heart.
Here, Barker firmly establishes himself as a distant outsider, an external voyeur of society's various hypocrises, sicknesses and unspoken malevolences; an apolitical, almost anarchistic soul, who yearns not for revolution -which will inevitably result in the establishment of new forms of the same systems-, but for collapse, an apocalypse that will shake all of civilisation to its foundations and beyond, that will force humanity to reinvent itself, abandon old cruelties and casual atrocities or surrender to its own suicide.
Very, very few horror writers of the era take such an elegantly expansive, nihilistic approach to their stories, in which traditional meta-narratives are not reinforced but eroded by their exposure, quietly commented upon without any overt political didactism or finger wagging, but with a weary distance and distaste, Barker acknowledging their inevitablity as strongly as he stresses his defiance of them.
That ambiguity, that complexity of theme and subject, would have been more suited to certain more niche realms of fiction, certainly in the early to mid 1980s, and yet, Barker managed to accrue hordes of fascinated and obsessed fans for his work (myself not least amongst them, though my obsession wouldn't begin until somewhat later, owing to my not being born at the time), tapping into a vein of transgressive desire, disenfranchisement and utter despair at established systems and assumptions, daring to express and explore it in ways that would have been career suicide for many, many others.
Take, for example, the abject body horror of The Body Politic, a story in which the hands of humanity are incited to bloody revolution against their enslavers, resulting in a grizzly horror-slap-stick in which hands claw out eyes, crush throats, rip out tongues, hack and gouge themselves free of the body entire.
Beyond the obvious black comedy of its subject and the situations that result, The Body Politic also stands as a commentary on how far we collectively are from losing everything, from whatever fragile delusion of control we exercise -even over something so familiar and assumed as our own bodies- collapsing. The story stands not only as Barker's bleak commentary on our biological conditions but also on our structures, our assumptions, our traditions: such things, it seems, cannot last in the world Barker perceives: they will inevitably turn on us, become sources of horror in and of themselves.
The story also has the rather naughty effect of making the reader paranoid about their own anatomies: what other rebellions might parts of them they don't even consciously acknowledge experience? What manner of mutilation might be visited on them as a result? In that, Barker also taps into certain Croenbergian concerns of 1980s culture regarding the human body; its proscribed standards of beauty or perfection, its health, its inevitable decay.
This is a very different man and a very different writer from the one who would come to write the likes of Imajica and Weaveworld: whereas that man has foregone and abandoned politics entirely, the writer of The Books of Blood is still engaged with those phenomena, obsessed by the same systems and mechanisms that revolt him, conjuring the more fantastical elements of his work in direct response to them, as a means of escape, as a means of shame and corrosion by contrast.
This may very well be a product of Barker's circumstances: as a barely employed, barely homed sometimes-actor, writer and artist, he was still very much prey to those systems he comments upon, still very much a parasite within the guts of the beast, provided unenviable and intimate view of its inner workings.
But Barker's commentaries are not excluded to the merely political:
Returning to The Books of Blood specifially for the purposes of this article, I found myself shocked and delightfully flabberghasted all over again by the sexual and gender politics of the works:
As a gay man, Barker's place and influence within the horror of the era was already notable (the genre then being predominated by straight men). This identity, along with the experiences that are part and parcel, seem to have informed a great deal of his writings: the obvious BDSM element of Hellraiser and its Cenobites, Barker's preoccupation with romanticising the monstrous and demonising tradition-drugged humanity (at the time of writing, Barker would have certainly faced more as a gay man in the way of privation and public contempt than those born later in the UK, such as myself, which makes it hardly surprising that he exercises a healthy contempt for societal systems and historical institutions that would have been the enshrined means of his persecution).
In The Books of Blood, this aspect is thematically both pervasive and specific: the air of ambiguity that surrounds most of the tales, their lack of moral absolutism, is certainly more redolent of a writer operating on the outer bounds of culture -for whatever reason- than one comfortably nestled in its bread basket. Likewise, the stories take a despairingly honest approach to examining elements of humanity that many of Barker's straight contemporaries simply did not or shyed away from. Barker's position as a “deviant,” an entity transgressive by its very nature, allowed him license to perceive, to conclude and to express in ways that, arguably, his straight counterparts were denied, resulting in tales whose conclusions are distressingly open-ended, lacking in moral judgement or certitude, in which monsters, more often than not, become the identifable and sympathetic parties, whereas the forces and faces of humanity are painted as antagonists.
Specifically, several of the stories not only include gay men as their protagonists (In The Hills, The Cities, Human Remains), but also explore the phenomena of sex and gender (The Madonna, Scapegoats, Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament).
The former generally don't obsess or preoccupy themselves with the experience of identifying as gay (Barker would not specifically explore that until later, in the seminal Sacrament) but rather inorporate gay characters with a casuistry that was certainly notable at the time of publication. Whilst LGBTQ characters weren't exactly unknown in the popular horror of the 1980s, there was a tendency for them to be stereotypes and cyphers rather than characters in and of themselves: tertiary or redundant at best, made-to-slaughter victims and monsters at worst.
Barker, identifying as gay himself, incorporates gay characters in his early fiction without particular fanfare, the characters occurring naturally as part of their respective stories rather than drawing any particular attention to their status. That said, nor does Barker shy away from some of the more ribald or overt elements of being gay: In The Hills, The Cities and Human Remains both contain casual but graphic details of gay sex and relationships, which were likely many contemporary reader's first exposures to such things. In and of itself, this is noteworthy, especially given that there was no one of Barker's status or arena of operation that incorporated LGBTQ characters into their fiction in this manner, and certainly none that explored themes and issues relevant to LGBTQ individuals in the way that he does.
Perhaps more notable than the mere inclusion of gay men as protagonists of his fiction is the manner in which he subversively explores themes and issues that are powerfully relevant to them but without allowing his stories to descend into shrill screeds or protests: barring the fact of the inclusion of gay characters, casual readers would be forgiven for not perceiving those factors of the fiction at all.
In the Hills, The Cities is perhaps less notable in this regard, in that its wider commentary is more an exploration of culture and tradition and the manifest, self-destroying insanity it can (and often does) perpetuate:
In this, the gay characters are cast as culture casts Barker himself: as voyeurs and commentators on the phenomena of society, pushed by their natures to the outskirts and beyond, seeing with both the wonder and repugnance of exiles or aliens. It is no accident that the two who bear witness to the mythic tragedy of the eponymous twin cities are themselves gay and divorced from the phenomena of unity that they manifest by myriad barriers and boundaries: their sexuality, their status as tourists and their individualism as anglophones renders them apart from events in a manner that lends them particular eyes. Later, when one of the men seeks to share that unity, the oneness that the giants born of the twin cities represent, he is murdered by that desire, left to swing helplessy from a rope in a manner distressingly redolent of the lynchings that gay men have historically been subjected to (alongside numerous other tribes and demographics considered to be “outside” the fish bowl).
Human Remains, meanwhile, is much more overtly a “gay” story, or at least, a story that LGBTQ men and women will more readily identify with:
A much more intimate tale of identity and its simultaneous accrual and loss, it follows a young gay man who, it has become apparent in recent years, is very much an avatar of Barker himself (Barker recently revealed that, in his years of impecunity following university, he was forced to “turn tricks” as a rent-boy on the streets of London, just to keep a shelter over his head and to prevent himself from starving). The protagonist here operates in the same circles, making his living providing “company” and companionship to lonely men who themselves may or may not identify as gay, but crave him to temporarily salve their wounded, empty lives.
In this, the story is not so much an exploration of identifying as gay (at least, not exclusively so) as it is one of identifying as male, the need for intimacy and understanding that many of us crave but are denied and kept from admitting by cultures that demand false and corrosive stoicism from us here made overt, the lonely, confused and uncertain men the protagonist beds only an inch removed from their one-night lover himself, who operates with a strange and nihilistic vacuum in place of his soul.
Supernatural elements help to write large the theme of identity, in the form of a kind of vampire: a living statue that slowly leeches away the form and identity of those it comes into contact with, eventually becoming them in ways that almost supercede the original. In this, Barker's work carries echoes of science fiction not a million miles away from that of Phillip K. Dick, whose work also often revolves around the central themes of identity, its protean and flimsy nature, the degree to which it can be simulated, contrived and rearranged.
The fact that the protagonist is gay is of particular note, and resonates with themes that Barker explores later in his novel Sacrament: being a gay man, the story seems to imply, forces us outside of traditional, proscribed narratives and roles that often provide or impose identity on our straight counterparts. Whilst in the later Sacrament that is explored in terms of its potential, here it is far more ambiguous, in that it is neither celebrated nor entirely bemoaned; merely commented upon. There is certainly, at the story's conclusion, a subtle suggestion that losing what one considers to be essentially oneself is no terrible thing, that there is a freedom to be found in it. But the story never makes any overt statement in that regard one way or the other, leaving it up to the reader to engage and determine their own significance.
Stories such as The Madonna utilise fantastical and hallucinatory imagery so strange as to be near surreal in order to explore notions of sex and gender, how miraculously fluid those notions can be. Here, a tribe of strange women -who are presented as almost alien in their characters, if not their anatomies- enjoy the patronage of an entity that is almost Lovecraftian in its strangeness and elemental qualities, but not at all in terms of its nature and implications: an amorphous, indescribable creature, it is portrayed as some elemental manifestation of womanhood, a mother that can “...make children from rain,” if it so chooses. Meanwhile, the male characters contrasted to them (all assiduously straight) are portrayed as ignorant, neurotic, violent, entitled children, from a man who reacts with self-mutilating violence when his anatomy is transformed to resemble that of the tribe themselves to another who stumbles into their midst in total confusion, finally taken into their sisterhood and some condition beyond at the story's climax.
The Madonna sets out certain themes and subjects that will recur again and again in the fiction that Barker will produce in later years: the reverence of women, the folly of men, the metaphysical reconciliations that occur between them.
As in most of these stories, men are not necessarily portrayed in a positive light: Barker expresses as much sympathy for women as he does for his own tribe of gay men, whilst not falling into the Tolkienesque trap of elevating them into a different form of archetypal bondage:
Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament tells the tale of a woman who is perpetually the victim of the men in her life, until she discovers capacities that allow her to bend reality (including the meat and matter of her oppressors) to her will. Interestingly, the elevation that this condition provides is not enough to save her; she finds herself dissatisfied with every condition that follows, including a status not a million miles away from divine, until she turns her powers on herself, finally ending her own existence.
In this, Barker paints a fairly despairing portrait of how our damage follows us and haunts us perpetually, no matter what steps we take to elevate ourselves from it. The core theme of identity, its loss or vandalism, its theft or abandonent, recurs again and again and again, which, once more, would be highly significant to Barker as a gay man, living in the status he was at the time of writing.
Likewise, Scapegoats paints an unflattering portrait of male sexuality and its links to violence, aggression and myriad negative elements that have become correlated with the sex, how bestial and animalistic lunacy simmers barely an inch beneath the mask of every bronzed and toned pretty boy.
Hardly any writer -certainly in horror- explored themes and subjects like this at the time of writing, and certainly not with the degree of philosophic ambiguity that resonates from every tale: here, it is extremely rare that a monster is banished or expelled, rarer still that the monster is exclusively monstrous: more often, the protean degrees of amibguity that pervade his narratives infect every element, character and creature, making entities that would be unambgiously evil and sources of horror in, say, the work of Stephen King or Ramsey Campbell, instead sources of strange and distressing empathy.
That Barker managed to accrue a popular audience with this kind of profoundly transgressive material is nothing short of a minor miracle, even moreso that the works are in no way exclusive to any particular demographic or audience: whilst much of the themes and subjects he explores are particular to the experience of being LGBTQ, they are by no means exclusive to it. In that, Barker does not exclude or hem in: he does not exercise a cultish quality, but rather, leaves the door open, allowing the parameters between tribes to dissolve in common confusions.
His principle obsession is the commonality of our distresses, our ambiguities, our neuroses as human beings, as an animal that aspires from apehood to imagine angels and demons, that has the capacity to be both and neither and more than their sum.
In that exploration, Barker has rarely, if ever, been equalled.
ESSENTIAL ATROCITIES BY GEORGE DANIEL LEA
Let’s understand one another from the start, shall we? I am not a ‘role model’: no-one would even have understood the term when I was alive. I was an acid-tongued bitch, low-born (as those cuntish peers never ceased to remind me) and yes, power and status went to my head. Mea maxima culpa. Chop my head off for it. Oh, no, wait – Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, already did that, at Blacklow Hill on 19th June 1312. Prick.
Yes, I’m still pissed off about it. Can you tell?
Confused? Don’t worry, darlings, all will come clear. Or should. I’ll do my best to fill you in (no, not in that sense, sorry) while I’m waiting. Though you will excuse me if I have to cut things short, won’t you? I’m a little pushed for time – which is not something I ever expected to say again, I can tell you. But needs must.
So, no, I am not a ‘role model’ or ‘queer martyr’: I’m nothing more nor less than Piers Gaveston, a brash young queen who did a lot better than he had any right to expect and paid the price. Not least because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut around my so-called betters; I wasn’t just buggering the King, I couldn’t even be discreet about it. But it’s not as though they hid their contempt of me. I was a sodomite and a pleb; I don’t know which they hated more. (I was hardly a peasant – my father was a Gascon knight – but I might as well have lived in a wattle and daub hovel, eaten raw water-voles and lost my virginity to a sheep as far as Warwick or his friend Thomas of fucking Lancaster were concerned.)
So, I gave as good as I got: I could be royally (no pun intended) vicious when I wanted to. I used to call Warwick ‘the Black Dog of Arden’ (I’m sure I could have come up with worse, but for some reason that nickname enraged him), Lancaster was ‘the fiddler’ (trust me, you don’t want to know), and the Earl of Lincoln ‘burst-belly.’ Such a charmer I was. Mais, je ne regrette rien. With the possible exception of calling the Earl of Pembroke ‘Joseph the Jew’. What can I say? ‘Twas a less enlightened time. And Pembroke, as it turned out, wasn’t such a bad sort. But I digress.
My royal lover – King Edward II of England, or as he was to me, Lovely Ned – wasn’t fit for any pedestal you might intend to prop him on either. He was, if the ugly truth be told, a terrible king. His father had bullied him all his life – he wasn’t enough of a man’s man for old Edward Longshanks – and had exiled me before he died. Now, as the boy saw it, he could do his own damned thing, and did. He summoned me home and created me Earl of Cornwall practically on the spot, and that was when the trouble really started with the peers. The angrier they got, the more he gave me. He acted like a spoiled adolescent half the time. And yes – it went to my head and I took advantage, got gifts and advancements not only for myself for my cronies too. In hindsight, it’s no wonder things didn’t end well.
Nonetheless… he was my love. No two ways about it. And you can say many things about me, but I loved deeply and I loved truly.
But I must, for the moment, break things off. After seven hundred years in the ground, company’s coming…
The crow arched down over the grounds of the school. While crows are intelligent birds, it could not have explained why it had been drawn there, nor why a particular patch of grass on the playing-field called to it, yet down it swooped and alighted. Puzzled as to its own choice, the crow, on the assumption some instinct for food had guided it, began to peck at the earth.
At which point something moved in – or, more accurately, through – the earth itself.
Dust: fine grains of powdered bone. The indigestible, the irreducible, the last corporeal traces of Piers Gaveston, Knight of the Realm and, inter alia, 1st Earl of Cornwall, Lord Governor of the Isle of Man and one-time quite successful Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, gathered up and motivated by his will, shot from the grassy earth in an animate stream into our crow’s open beak and compacted itself in its gizzard. The immortal part of Gaveston leapfrogged from its dust into the crow’s spinal column and scrambled, as up a ladder, into the corvid’s small but very capable brain, where it proceeded to (metaphorically, you understand) elbow the pilot out of the cockpit, shut the doors and grapple with the controls.
Oh good grief. Zounds, alack and really, fuck this for a lark. Look, will you please just quiet down there, Mr Crow? I’m very sorry to use you thus, but it’s a matter of sad necessity. All I require is transport, nothing more.
How far? A short distance only. Our current location is Kings Langley in Hertfordshire, and our destination Gloucester Cathedral. In a straight line – yes, as the crow flies, ha-ha – that’s just under a hundred miles. You can do that in one day. After that, whither thou wilt, go thou mayest. You’ll have brought me where I’ve needed to go for so long.
Please, that’s not an unreasonable request, surely? Yes, I apologise for the manner in which I’ve come aboard, so to speak, but I’m rather new to this.
Thank you, Mr Crow. Mrs Crow is a lucky woman indeed. Or perhaps there’s another Mr Crow – I’m given to understand that such things occur in the animal kingdom, as in the human one. No? Well, no offence meant, nor taken I hope. No? Good. To Gloucester, then!
A schoolboy, gazing from his classroom window, spotted a crow on the playing field that was behaving somewhat erratically, leaping to and fro and flapping its wings, then falling on its side and beating one wing forlornly at the air. It occurred to him that he was witnessing the avian equivalent of a grand mal seizure (one of his classmates was a sufferer of epilepsy, which would have earned him an exorcism in Gaveston’s time) and, being that type of boy who derives enjoyment from separating flies from their wings, watched with some avidity in the hope of seeing the bird die.
He was much disappointed.
Instead the crow folded its wings to its body, then stood up once more, smoothing its ruffled breast feathers with its beak. Following one or two experimental flaps of its wings, by which it established that all relevant moving parts were in working order, it launched itself into the air, rose and circled above the school and then set off to the west-northwest, in the general direction of Gloucester.
Before leaving, however, the crow took the opportunity to lighten itself for the journey by unloaded a substantial quantity of ballast, which would have got the young sadist smack in the eye had the weather been warmer and the window open. Sadly, it is in chill November that we lay our scene, so the flying turd instead splattered quite loudly and spectacularly against the classroom window. On the plus side, it did cause the boy to start, attracting his teacher’s attention and leading to an almighty bollocking for failing to pay attention in class.
Which frankly served the little fucker right.
We weren’t exclusive, of course, Lovely Ned and I. Well, we couldn’t be, could we? He was married and so was I, since appearances had to be maintained, alliances formed and heirs produced. You could say I had to close my eyes and think of England.
And yes, there were other men for both of us. We were often separated by distance: I was exiled three times, once by Ned’s father, the old King, and twice by those fucking peers. When we were apart, we took what comfort we might where we would. Our exclusivity was one of of soul. Neither of us, truly, had any other love.
In retrospect I feel rather sorry for Isabella, his queen; no surprise she ended up playing hide-the-sausage with Baron Mortimer. We’d all have been happier had we lived in the present day, I suspect, and if Edward had been born a few notches down the social scale, without all the requirements of kingship being foisted on him. I can see us running an antique shop in the Cotswolds, while Isabella went off and found herself a nice straight boy. (They do exist, I’m told. At least when sober.) But ‘twas a different time.
When I came back to England that last time I was excommunicated outright, and had to hold Scarborough against a siege by the barons. I was no mean soldier, so I toughed it out at first, but in the end we couldn’t hold. The Earl of Pembroke guaranteed my safety if I surrendered, but that prick Warwick snatched me from Pembroke’s custody. The Black Dog of Arden hauled me up in front of a kangaroo court headed up by him and Lancaster, then had two Welshmen take me out to Blacklow Hill. One drove a sword through my heart and the other took my head off. There’s probably a joke about getting shafted and/or getting head in there somewhere.
Pembroke (who’d sworn to protect me, remember,) was so angry he switched allegiance to the King – like I said, he wasn’t such a bad sort in the end. As for Warwick, the Black Dog of Arden was dead within three years – poisoned, rumour hath it. Whoever could have done such a thing?
After I was gone, Edward went looking for a new favourite. Easy enough for him to close his eyes and imagine it was me, I suppose: his preference was always for the passive role. (Which I didn’t begrudge him, but the Lord knows there were times when I could have used a good reaming myself. Luckily, there was never a shortage of rough trade, especially in the port towns… but I digress once more.) You might say he needed someone to fill a hole in his life, ha-ha.
But – what the fuck were you thinking of, Ned? – he ended up with a prize cunt called Hugh Le Despenser, and that was when it all really went tits-up. Despenser was a nasty, crooked, greedy little prick, and I say that as someone who hadn’t been averse to exploiting my connections to the hilt. The peers hated Despenser even more than they had me, and it broke out into civil war. The barons lost that one, and it was Thomas ‘the fiddler’ of Lancaster’s turn to face a kangaroo court and a trip to the block. What goes around, etc.
But that was the beginning of the end: Ned became an absolute monarch, wrapped around Despenser’s little fucking finger. While he’d never been a marvellous King, now he was an actual tyrant. Sad, but… he was still the love of my life. And now the love of my death.
There was another civil war. Despenser got his just deserts at last – hung drawn and quartered, and serve the fucker right. Isabella and her boyfriend Mortimer deposed Edward and – if you believe the stories – had him buggered to death with a red-hot poker. Passed for a perfect murder back then, as there was no blood or outward mark of violence (other than some singeing to the royal ringpiece, presumably.)
You didn’t need Sigmund fucking Freud to spot the symbolism there.
So this is Gloucester, is it? Things have changed a little, but then it’s been a while…
All right, Mr Crow, just hold thy horses a while longer. We’re nearly there. Need only to find the Cathedral. You wouldn’t think that would be hard to spot from the air.…
It took three years to bury me – God alone knows what state my mortal remains were in by the time they put them in the ground. I can’t clarify the picture, unfortunately: I was pretty disorientated the first four or five years of it. My death had been a bit of a traumatic event, after all.
I’d died excommunicate, so Edward had to get Papal absolution for me in order to arrange a proper burial. He’d founded a Dominican priory at Kings Langley in 1308, and interred me there with all ceremony. Good luck finding the tomb now, of course. The Priory’s long gone, with the only surviving building converted into a school; I ended up under the playing field, being woken up on Thursday afternoons by screaming teenagers trampling over my resting place playing hockey. Sic transit gloria mundi. And such was my ending.
Until now, obviously, where I find myself airborne over Gloucester.
I have no idea if my experience of the afterlife is typical. Basically I regained an increasingly less scrambled sense of awareness in my coffin, and pieced together events in the outside world from eavesdropping on the friars. Since then, there’s been a lot of traffic through the area. Now and again, with a lot of effort, I can get out of here, over short distances, and briefly connect with the neural systems of animals or occasionally humans. Which is why I’m not addressing you in Norman French; I’ve done my best to remain au courant.
If there’s a Heaven or a Hell, I’ve encountered no evidence of either. I’m aware and conscious in the ground, but that’s it. It does get rather boring. Which, given how much I loathe tedium, might mean it’s Hell after all.
I did my best to divert myself, retreating into fond memories and pleasurable fantasies. Maybe that’s how most people spend their eternities. I whiled away a century or three in such a fashion. But I grew restless and discontent; I wasn’t with him.
I couldn’t wander far, but I was able to poke out above ground and listen in, and pick up enough about the state of the world from those passing by. Hearing about Edward’s death was not a pleasant moment. Or his interment. I suppose I’d hoped that in death at least we might be together without interference or interruption, but no. Gloucester Cathedral: a hundred miles. Might as well have been in China.
But… where there’s a will, there’s a way. I was determined to find my way there: I reached that resolution a century ago, and ever since then I’ve been storing up my energies for the task – for the job of hijacking some transport (apologies again, Mr Crow) and breaking free of the pull of my grave (it’s rather like gravity for a space-rocket). Till now, at last, here I am.
Descend, Mr Crow, and let the reunion commence...
Patient yourself awhile, Monsieur Le Corbeau. Yes, I know I said our ways would part at Gloucester, and that we’re there, but I must be closer to the tomb. Then I can jump ship, as ‘twere, and my dust seep into his casket avec his bones. And so we shall be reunited, and make love again in whatever fashion spirits may.
The main problem – and I really should have considered this before – is getting inside the bloody Cathedral. Finding a way in will be the difficult part. Very well: flap thy wings, Monsieur Crow, and alight above the main door. When it opens –
Et voila! Quick, quick, before it swings closed behind yon fatted American tourist…
With a metallic clatter of its wings, the crow came swooping and soaring down the Cathedral’s centre aisle, startling hell out of the congregation gathered for a special service held by the Bishop of Gloucester.
The Reverend Ludwig Zimyana, a young priest of the Anglican Communion from Zimbabwe, turned at the sound of its entry and found the bird hurtling towards his face, ducking only just in time. The crow hurtled on, banked and turned, cawing so ferociously, as assorted representatives of the Church of England and the Gloucester Tourist Board converged on it, that Ludwig (his late beloved father had had a great fondness for European classical music, Beethoven in particular) was briefly led to wonder whether this was an attempt on Satan’s part to invade the house of God.
However, he was fairly certain that Satan would have taken a slightly more terrifying form (although the crow, in truth, was intimidating enough) and that he would have shat upon the Bishop’s head rather than that of the local councillor whom the Reverend was fairly sure he’d heard mutter a disparaging remark about his race when his back was turned. (The good father reproached himself inwardly for his lack of Christian charity as he struggled in vain to repress his laughter at the sight.)
Despite all efforts to catch or shoo it, it conducted a peripatetic tour of the Cathedral, flitting from tomb to tomb before finally alighting on the only one belonging to a former King of England, where it perched, eyeing all who dared come near with a defiant glower, then opened its beak and loudly cawed.
Then it coughed, or at least made some sound that prefaced an expulsion from its open bill: a dull-coloured dust cascaded forth, or so it seemed, whereon the crow, after teetering for a moment and looking as though it might fall, took flight and hurtled towards the main doors, which Ludwig had had the presence of mind to run to and opened. With a last caw, the crow departed, soaring out of the door into the approaching desk, home (presumably) to Mrs Crow with a tale to tell, and at any rate out of this story.
Ludwig Zimyana closed the Cathedral door and, by way of penance for his uncharitable thoughts, made of a gift of his handkerchief to the shat-upon councillor. Before he went home, he inspected the tomb of King Edward II, where the crow had perched, curious about the powdery detritus the bird had seemed to cough up, but found no trace of it. By the time he’d returned home to his boyfriend, he’d dismissed it as a figment of his imagination.
The dust, of course, had been the corporeal remnants of Piers Gaveston, ejected from the crow’s gizzard after having been repossessed by Gaveston’s consciousness. Said consciousness arrested the dust’s descent and dispersal, whirling in a tiny but intense dust storm that went unnoticed due to a rather irate crow regaining full possession of its physical faculties in the middle of the Cathedral.
The storm battered without avail against the tomb, and Gaveston might well have been about to rail at cruel sardonic fate for baulking him here at the last. But then the swirling dust detected the tiniest of cracks in the wall of the tomb, imperfectly mended, and so gained access. And the dust of Piers Gaveston, at last, poured into the tomb of his beloved Edward, and they were reunited, after being parted so long.
Except, unfortunately, they weren’t.
Ned? Oh lovely Ned? ‘Tis I, my love.
What? Jesus Christ! Who the bloody hell are you?
What? Edward, it’s me. Piers.
Piers who? Oh, wait. You’re that Gaveston, aren’t you?
Who the hell are you? You most certainly aren’t my Edward.
No, I’m not your bloody Edward. Well spotted.
Then where is he? And what are you doing in his tomb?
I’ve no idea where he is, or where he ended up. What I’m doing in his tomb is taking his place, obviously.
Why isn’t he here?
Because he wasn’t bloody dead, you pillock. You’re not very quick on the uptake, are you?
You’re decidedly lacking in respect to your betters, my lad. I like that in a man.
Can’t say I’m particularly bothered what you like, fella.
Obviously not. Oh. I see.
Are you crying?
Of course I’m not.
I can’t. I don’t have any tear ducts.
Oh yes. Course not.
But if I did, I probably would be.
Not your fault.
So, er… how did you come to end up here?
Rough trade, wasn’t I? Got me up to Berkeley Castle where they were keeping him to satisfy his – you know, his carnal needs.
I thought he was supposed to have been horribly ill-treated there.
He was, but then there was a change of plan. Mortimer wanted him dead, but that Queen of his turned soft at the last. Decided to fake his death and pack him off to the Continent as a monk.
That was nice of her.
Not if you were me. They needed a body, so… two birds, one stone. Your Edward got a shag, and then after he was gone…
Did they…? I mean, you know – the story about the red-hot poker….?
Yes. The fucking bastards bloody well did. It was not fun.
Well no, I imagine it wouldn’t be. Are you Welsh, by the way?
Yes, I’m Welsh. Are we going to have problems about that now?
Of course not. This is the twenty-first century. I’ve learned a few things over the years.
Glad to hear it.
But you’re a bit of a way from Berkeley.
Well, they couldn’t just have anybody, could they? They needed somebody who wouldn’t be missed but who they could pass off as Edward. They told me I was to be his companion – you know, he’d be living a fairly pampered life like a bird in a gilded cage, and I’d be one of the creature comforts. Well provided for, a pension. Instead I got royally shafted, in every sense.
Oh dear. I am sorry.
Such is life.
So it would seem. Sorry, I didn’t even ask your name.
There were always stories that Ned’s death was faked. That he ended up in Holland or Italy or the Holy Roman Empire as a monk or something – and I’d always wanted to believe them, but never could. I know this wicked world; a poker up the arse is, as a general rule, always far more likely than a last-minute change of heart. I’d always assumed the stories were somebody’s wishful thinking.
And it’s nice, yes, to know my Edward didn’t die the horrible, squalid death history ascribes to him; that I can hope he lived a long and happy life, and died a quiet peaceful death. But it also means that in death, as in life, we’re apart.
It took me a hundred years to find the strength to get to Gloucester. Never mind Holland or Central Europe. And where would I even begin to look? Where’s the tomb, the grave?
Perhaps this, at last, is Hell.
Or… perhaps not.
It looks as though I may be here for some time.
This is my tomb, you know.
Technically it’s Edward’s.
I did. Repeatedly.
So did I.
Oh. Yes. So you did.
He kept calling me bloody ‘Piers’ throughout.
Course he did. He loved you.
I loved him.
All right, you can stay. I mean, it’s a pretty nice tomb, really. Lot nicer than I’d have otherwise. And I suppose that is partly thanks to you.
Much appreciated. Although of course I’d be happy to… pay my way in kind.
Is that even possible? I mean, now that we’re spirits or whatever the hell we are now?
Well, there’s one way to find out.
True. One way to pass the time, I suppose. But what about your beloved Edward?
I told you, we were never exclusive in that sense. Any port in a storm.
You know, Ianto…
This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Don’t push it.
ABOUT SIMON BESTWICK
Described as ‘among the most important writers of contemporary British horror’ by Ramsey Campbell, Simon Bestwick is the author of the novels Tide Of Souls, The Faceless, the serial novel Black Mountain, and the story collections A Hazy Shade Of Winter, Pictures of the Dark, Let’s Drink To The Dead and The Condemned. His short fiction has appeared in Black Static and a host of anthologies including End of the Line and Game Over, and has been reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year. Having spent most of his life in Manchester, he now lives on the Wirral with a long-suffering girlfriend. This is taking some getting used to, but he’s starting to enjoy it. When not writing, he goes for walks, watches movies, listens to music and does all he can to avoid having to get a proper job again. All contributions towards this worthy cause will be gratefully received.
SINGING BACK THE DARK BY SIMON BESTWICK
Simon Bestwick’s SINGING BACK THE DARK showcases a quintet of macabre musicality in: The Psalm, Hard Time Killing Floor Blues, And All The Souls In Hell Shall Sing, Moon Going Down and Effigies of Glass.
“I’d like a room for tonight, if you have one available.”
“A single, sir?”
“Ah no, a double, please.”
The man at reception looked at Darren for long seconds but then capitulated.
“Certainly, sir. If you’d just fill out this card.”
Once Darren had plucked a pen from the inside pocket of his linen suit, he added his name, address, contact telephone number, and car registration. Then he handed the card back to the man.
“Thank you. Perhaps you’d care to collect luggage from your vehicle while I get your key.”
There was more than luggage out there: there was James. Once they both returned from the car park carrying overnight cases, Darren observed the hotelier’s expression. It was sad that in 2019, Darren still felt he had to resort to spontaneous bookings in this covert manner, but he refused to risk complications, as had arisen in the past in such parochial places.
The hotelier’s hand had been hovering near the foot of a board boasting multiple keys but the moment he realised what was going on here, he seemed to raise his arm and then pluck one from the top row.
“You’re on the fourth floor,” he said, as if anywhere closer might lead to contamination in the kitchen.
“We can take the elevator,” James replied in his usual catty manner. “I’ll even tip its operator.”
“Only stairs here,” the hotelier snapped back, pointing at the ageing terrace’s dated décor. Then, like a barely veiled threat, he added, “We don’t move with the times around these parts.”
Darren decided it was appropriate to head off any further confrontation, however subdued it might be, by leading James through a doorway beside the reception and then up several flights of stairs.
They hadn’t planned to stay anywhere overnight; their drive in the Yorkshire Dales had simply taken longer than they’d expected, involving several wrong turnings. By early evening the sky had dimmed and travelling home in the dark had struck Darren as unappealing. And as they both had the week off work, he’d suggested an impromptu stayover.
“We might have been more comfortable in the car,” James said once they’d accessed their accommodation, a small shabby room with an en suite shower.
“The bed at least looks strong enough,” Darren replied, winking and smiling.
“Hey, look at this. What do you call them?”
“A connecting door, isn’t it?”
James tried the handle of a second doorway, set in the wall opposite the end of the bed. It gave a resistant rattle.
“Locked. Now we’ll never get to spy on our neighbours.”
“As long as they don’t spy on us,” Darren said, trying to eliminate a paranoiac suspicion that there were covert cameras in the light fittings. After observing his latest guests, the hotelier had probably selected a remote room, different from his original choice, because of petty spite. It was a pitiable and yet woefully familiar reaction.
“Come on, let’s walk into the village for some scran. I want to show the locals how I can gobble a horse.”
“There’s no need for confrontation, is there? Can’t we just have a quiet night out?”
“I’d say that depends on them. They’re probably all hayseeds anyway. Breaking more taboos than they think we are. Copulating cousins. Incestuous siblings.”
“Aren’t we against stereotypes? Don’t we suffer enough of that kind of thing ourselves?”
“I’m for fighting fire with fire,” said James, and, as they retraced their steps back outside the small hotel, Darren rolled his eyes. There’d always been more of a streetfighter in his lover; it was why he adored him and why they got along so well. Darren’s diplomacy could often patch up the situations James’ bravery necessarily pushed them into.
The village was little more than a crossroads of outlets flanked by reticent residential streets. A narrow stream gurgled through its heart, its ducks undisturbed by many other milling pedestrians this chill autumn evening. A few older fellows stood smoking outside a pub, but neither paid Darren and James much attention. Why would they? Darren and James could be brothers, bullish mates, business colleagues.
“Shall we dine there?” Darren asked, spotting a restaurant whose low-lit ambience promised at least edible food.
“It’s that or pub grub.” James pulled one of his funny faces as he took his lover’s hand. “Let’s leave the taproom testosterone for Dib and Dob across the way.”
Darren returned his gaze to the pub entrance, from where the two older men now stared at them. Perhaps they only shook their heads in that way to expel cigarette smoke. All the same, Darren would feel more comfortable once they were inside.
A waiter, a young man who went about his role with hard-to-read fluency, showed them to a table in one corner near the window. The place was otherwise empty this quiet midweek evening. Once they’d ordered drinks and perused menus, Darren felt himself settle down. It was stupid, he knew – this was 2019, for God’s sake – but he’d always been oversensitive.
They ordered food – lamb and vegetables, all local produce – and then sipped the decent red James had chosen. Another couple arrived a few minutes later and sat in a corner on the far side. Neither husband nor wife spared Darren and James more than a casual glance.
“Why do I have the impression that you’re awaiting a lynch mob?”
“Huh?” Darren had been surprised by the question, the mellowness already achieved by the wine undone at a stroke.
“I mean, look at you. All bunched up.”
“You can rub me better later.”
But the promise fell flat. James reached across the table and took his hand.
“There are more ways to apologise than merely saying it, you know.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
James gripped Darren’s fingers tighter. “You carry it in your body, man. Like a permanent concession. As if we really have less right to occupy the public world than others.”
“That’s nonsense, and you know it.” Darren took another quick gulp from his glass. “I’m the one campaigning for more tolerance.”
“Yeah, from your cosy ivory tower desk.”
“Out of order, man.”
“Oh, come on. What’s the worst that can happen to you in the circles you move? A withering gaze from another academic?”
“You’re hardly toeing the frontline yourself. Unless that charity you work for has started operating like the Catholic Church.”
James let go of his hand but only because, Darren observed a moment later, the waiter had returned with their food. Surely the man hadn’t banged either plate down on the table; perhaps their undersides had merely been hot and he’d been eager to relinquish them. In any case, Darren and James soon ate in relative silence, watching leaves blow out in the quiet high street. Occasional cars hissed by, dewdrops scattered on their carapaces glistening in moonlight. Once the meal was done, they were talking again but only about who would pay the bill.
“You get the grub, I’ll fork out for the bed on the morrow,” Darren decided, and hoped this division of costs wouldn’t offend James. The university paid more than the charity.
During the walk back, there were a few more faces to observe, most middle-aged like their respective parents’ and some poked between parted curtains. Surely the hotelier hadn’t called around the village, warning locals of pariahs in the area. That was just Darren still smarting over his mum and dad’s awkward response to his coming out a decade earlier: uncertain of themselves, they’d both been more worried about what others might think than about his well-being. James’ folks, less socially aspirational, had been entirely unforgiving in their dismissal, which Darren supposed had given the young man his rebellious edge.
There was nobody at reception when they let themselves back inside the hotel, and so they immediately climbed the stairs. Every floor was silent, making Darren assume that they had the run of the place. Once they reached the top level, James hurried on ahead, beyond the entrance to their own room and halting outside the only other hereabouts: the one presumably serviced by that connecting door.
“Are we still friends or should I book you a night in there?”
James shrugged, putting his ear to the doorway. “I’m pretty sure it’s available, but you know what?”
James stepped directly across to him. “I quite fancy a hug.”
Darren felt all the tension in his body fall away. “A hug I can handle. Sulks less so.”
“Just be proud of us, man,” James declared after Darren had let them inside and then emphatically locked the door. “Together we form a V sign to all those who’d deny our right to be.”
Darren knew his lover was correct, but he couldn’t help wondering whether his own reticent nature was as unchangeable as his sexual orientation. There were fewer reservations later, however, as they both helped each other relax ahead of sleep. The double bed felt good, as reassuring as the one back in the flat they’d begun to share only a few months earlier.
“Sweet dreams,” James said, and put his arms around Darren in quite a different sense now.
“Be there when I wake up,” Darren replied, and couldn’t have imagined what would happen next, otherwise he wouldn’t have used those words.
All he knew for sure was that after drifting into a snooze, he heard a loud click and then a protracted creak. He half-awoke, registering darkness all around. As arms were no longer about him, he could only think that James had needed a pee and that Darren had simply heard the bathroom door opening. A figure certainly moved nearby, sleep-unsteadied feet shuffling on the threadbare carpet. Did the bed now tilt and bulge because someone was getting back into it? There was no immediate resumption of their cuddle, but that was okay. Neither of them was so needy that they had to cling together.
The next thing Darren grew aware of was daylight. He opened his eyes and glanced around, spotting the curtains, a wardrobe, the bathroom half-visible beyond its open door. So James had got up to decant in the night, but … well, where was he now?
Darren rolled over on the mattress, causing its springs to squeak. This was quite unlike what he’d heard soon after sleep. Hadn’t that involved a noisy click, followed by a rusty creak, more the kind of sounds associated with a door opening? But had the one to the bathroom yielded such audible protests the previous evening? Darren couldn’t remember. The one thing he knew for certain was that his lover wasn’t presently in the bedroom.
“James?” he called, expecting the man to suddenly appear naked at the bathroom entrance, sporting his goofy grin. But there was no reply.
Darren sat up in the sheets. James surely hadn’t descended for breakfast without him; they’d patched up their minor disagreement at the local restaurant long before sleep. So where was he?
Darren pushed back the sheets and got up. He always slept in pyjamas, which now afforded him dignity as he hurried for the bathroom. Perhaps James had water in his ears after a quick shower and simply hadn’t heard Darren’s call. But no. As soon as Darren put his head around the door, he noticed how unused the room appeared: no dripping showerhead in the cubicle; no leaking toiletries on the sink pedestal; towels untroubled beside a radiator.
How puzzling, thought Darren but then overturned that conclusion. No, how troubling. He twisted back for the main room and looked around again. His lover’s clothes were heaped characteristically on a chair in one corner. James wouldn’t have left the room without dressing, would he? He was far from shy about his body, but surely even he wouldn’t push the envelope that far in such a stuffy location.
All the same, Darren immediately cut across the room and tried the main entrance. The door was still locked, the way he’d certainly left it last night. From where he stood Darren could see the old-fashioned chamber key, perched on a bedside table. How could James have got out without leaving the room unsecured?
All of which reasoning – and reasoning was what Darren did best – left only a single explanation. He steered his gaze towards it. But that wasn’t possible, either. James had tried the connecting door yesterday and found it locked. Darren moved towards this entrance, placing it squarely in his view. However absurd the possibility seemed, had James, perhaps reviving his earlier sulk, found a key hereabouts overnight and then let himself inside the neighbouring room?
That seemed unlikely, and yet in one sense, nebulously inaccessible to reason, Darren felt it was right. Indeed, he soon strode forwards, taking hold of the door’s brass handle to twist. That was when, the motion inducing shock in him, the door arced open with that oh-so-familiar click and creak.
Despite his sudden fear, he pushed open the door and paced anxiously inside. Now he was in a room not unlike the one he’d just left, though the decor was several decades more dated. It looked like the kind of place he’d seen in old family photos, the gaudy colour schemes of his parents’ youths, back in the 1960s or ’70s. Wavy brown wallpaper was broken up by solemn furniture, each item bearing at least several layers of dust. A flower-power lampshade was festooned by cobwebs and lacked a bulb, while a bed bearing red and green zigzagged sheets was similar bereft of an occupant, perhaps last having been slept in during some previous generation. There were no curtains, let alone a window for them to mask.
Darren stepped back a pace, feeling hugely disturbed. Was this room permanently shut off from the public? In which case, how had he just managed to enter it? More critically, if James wasn’t here, where was he? Darren looked around once more, noticing no doorway other than the one that must lead back into the corridor. The room lacked en suite facilities, though in what crazy world would his lover had entered here to wash anyway? Darren’s mind buzzed with confusion, but that was when his gaze settled on the only evidence of any former occupancy on display: a newspaper, folded on top of a bedside table.
He reached down to pluck it from a scattering of dust and mildew. Feathery fragments kicked up in the air as he rapidly addressed the frontpage. Here was a headline story relating to the politics of a bygone era, some parliamentary debate involving Harold Wilson. Hell, Darren’s mum and dad would have been just children when this was published, a fact confirmed when he registered the periodical’s date: 26th July, 1967.
Something about this detail was troubling, but it was surely unimportant in relation to what ought to concern him right now. After checking that the door leading to the top floor corridor was locked (as he’d expected, it was), he retreated into his own room – to their shared room – and quickly got dressed.
In whatever way he’d managed it, James must have gone downstairs, maybe even back into the village for a stroll. This was untypical behaviour – despite his yoyo character, James was considerate and loyal – but what other explanation was there? While descending several flights, Darren thrust recollections of that dated room to the back of his mind. No matter how hard he tried to dismiss the sensation, he’d found something deeply disturbing about that experience.
The man, the same one who’d requested his registration details yesterday, was at the reception desk.
“Hi there,” Darren said, remaining habitually polite despite the chaos now inside his skull. “Could you tell me if this morning you’ve seen my … well, my companion?”
What was wrong with him? Why couldn’t he just say “partner” or even “lover”, loud and proud? At any rate, the hotelier looked blank in response to his question, as if the day before he’d observed only Darren arrive.
“I just wondered if he’d come down early for breakfast.”
“Nobody’s in for breakfast. You’re the only two staying at present.”
Suddenly Darren had a chance to put up some fight; James might even be proud of him, once he reappeared.
“Then why did you place us on the top floor?” he asked, hearing his firm tone as that of quite a different man. But was such bravery all too little, too late?
Suppressing the implications of this insight, he focused on how the hotelier might respond.
“I thought it might be more suitable for you. It’s quiet up there.”
Quiet for whose benefit? Darren seriously thought about asking this question, but then realised that prolonging the debate wouldn’t help him to locate James. Instead, he threw up his hands, turned to exit the building, and then glanced around at the vast world.
His car was parked where he’d left it, in an otherwise unoccupied lot in front of the terrace. James couldn’t drive anyway, even if he’d a mind to. Darren bypassed the vehicle to reach the road and then started walking back into the village centre, where he and his lover had dined the previous evening, observed by nobody of any significance.
But was that true of his situation right now? Surely it was only mounting unease that made him think that the numerous pedestrians in the high street were sneaking surreptitious gazes his way, each wearing a disapproving scowl. The more he looked, however, the less these older people, traditionally minded to judge by one of the hotelier’s comments yesterday, betrayed evidence of their thoughts, merely kept their heads down, perhaps concealing disgust.
He shouldn’t think this way, or at any rate not let it hamper his investigations. Although James might expect similar negativity from the world at large, he certainly wouldn’t let it impede his activities. Feeling as if he were learning from his absent lover, Darren upheld his headlong motion. As he went, he glanced through the windows of multiple shops, whose vendors glared back with suspicion if not worse. There were customers in almost every store, but none was the one he sought.
He headed next for a bridge over the narrow stream, crossing to a park populated by children out with their mothers. James liked kids as much as Darren did, and they’d both planned one day to adopt. But this thought only escalated Darren’s disquiet. His lover was nowhere to be seen even on the fringes of the village.
“James!” he cried out, panic overturning the natural reticence that had always kept him unimpeachably respectable. Even when the young mothers suddenly took hold of their offspring and began shepherding them away, Darren found that he didn't care who heard him or what they thought. He just wanted his man back. “James, where are you?”
But the only response were birds wheeling in a crisp blue sky, sheep bleating in nearby fields, the steady drone of infrequent transport passing through the district.
Back at the hotel, he raced upstairs, hoping that James had magically reappeared, that Darren had ridiculously overlooked him that morning, that he was still huddled on the mattress in sheets, snoozing in that cute way Darren had grown so used to lately. But there was simply nothing: just the room with its vacant bed, moribund wardrobe, empty bathroom – and that second door, of course, the one Darren now felt as if he’d dreamed stepping through earlier.
Just then, the same troubling impression returned to him, a feeling that James’ disappearance had to have something to do with the neighbouring room. Coupled with a sudden recollection of the newspaper he’d found inside, this intuition grew stronger, to such a degree that he soon paced forwards, took hold again of that brass handle and gave it a savage twist.
On this occasion, however, the door refused to budge. It was locked, the way it had been when James had first tried opening it, before they’d left the building for the restaurant last night, before he’d later gone missing. Did logic suggest that someone had released the door during their absence? And could this really have been the hotelier?
Darren gave the solid latch a firm rattle, sensing its iron tongue refusing to relinquish its fixed housing. Had the man who clearly ran the hotel ventured up here while Darren had been out in the village just now, re-securing the doorway to that creepy aged room?
None of this made sense or perhaps too much of it did. Whatever the truth was, Darren soon found himself pounding on the door, crying out, “James! James! James!”
And then, with a suddenness that seemed to suck all the air from the room, his lover replied from inside.
“Darren? Darren, is that you? Let me out. Please. I’m … I’m frightened here.”
The man’s voice was quite unlike its usual bullish self. He sounded greatly diminished and not only by the several inches of wood and brick now separating him and Darren. This problem could soon be resolved, however; all Darren had to do was stand up for himself – no, for more than that: for the right to be who he truly was. To be who they truly were.
“I’ll be back soon, James,” he called beyond the offending barrier standing stubbornly between them. “Just hold it together in there.”
He exited their room, thumping downstairs to locate the hotelier. He found him heading from the reception area into what must be the dining room. The middle-aged man looked as unapologetically indifferent as ever.
“I want that key right now,” Darren instructed, moving unprecedentedly close to someone he considered an opponent.
“Key? What key?” the hotelier replied, appearing genuinely nonplussed.
“You know which one. Please don’t mess me around.”
The man backed up a step, raising his podgy hands. “Look, I can see you’re upset, kid. But I have to tell you that I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“Do you want me to break the fucking door down?” He’d yielded to impulse entirely now; Darren wondered briefly whether he’d ever recover from this transformation.
“We’ll have nothing of that sort here.” The hotelier wagged one fat finger. “If you cause any damage, I’ll call the police. Let me warn you that the station is only at the end of this street.”
“Oh, suit yourself.”
Ten years of pent up frustration had just spilled out of him. Ever since he’d first become aware of his sexual preferences, he’d experience guilt and shame, as if his desires were an infringement of others’ rights to enjoy the public arena in ways they didn’t find distasteful. Well, of course the reverse held true, too – which was what James had been trying to teach him. And had Darren learned this lesson in time enough to save his wiser lover?
Having got nowhere with the hotelier, Darren turned and pounded back upstairs, only ceasing when he’d reached the top floor again. He thought he heard fighting words from behind – “Don’t say I didn’t warn you!” – but that wasn’t important right now. What he must do next was simply kick open that connecting door, breaking its lock if necessary. If he could prove that the man who ran the hotel was complicit in whatever was going on here, Darren wouldn’t even pay for any damage. This was at last how he’d come to think, a triumph over the mental straight-jacket in which his parents in earlier life and the social world since had bound him.
“James?” he said, pressing up against the treacherous door. “Are you still there?”
“Yes, I’m still here, Darren. What’s … what’s going on?”
“I’m not sure.” Just then, Darren pictured in his mind the date on that ageing newspaper he’d located earlier beyond the door: 26th July, 1967. He wondered why this continued to bother him – something to do with a significant event, something he’d once learned about in his studies – but not for long. He had to get on. “Step back from the door, James. You might get hurt.”
“Please hurry. It’s … it’s scary back here.”
…in the past, Darren’s brain mentally supplemented, but that was when he converted his confusion into physical strength. He started kicking at the door with the sole of his right shoe, just beneath that confounded lock.
The impact resounded throughout the house; if the hotelier hadn’t wanted to overhear anything from Darren and James’ room last night, he’d surely detect this now, even on the ground floor.
“Fuck you all,” said Darren, and then delivered another swift kick to the door.
Wood cracked audibly but failed to yield. A moment later, once he’d motivated himself to further frenzy by summoning a mental image of his lover’s abysmal parents, Darren tried again, this time almost causing the lock to break, the frame above it parting in a lengthy splinter.
“Keep talking to me, Darren. I … I don’t know where I am,” said James from the other room, maybe even from another time ... But that thought proved too disturbing to pursue. Instead Darren readdressed the task at hand.
“Another few goes should do it,” he announced, and was about to spring forwards with a third furious kick when hands seized him violently from behind.
He was yanked backwards, nigh on toppled off his feet. When he turned to look, he saw more than a single face there, rather two alongside the one he’d expected. So the hotelier had made good on his promise, presumably summoning officers from the nearby station. Even so, they’d arrived here remarkably quickly, as if perhaps they’d been primed to do so …
“Get off me, you bastards!” Darren cried, secretly hoping his lover would hear all this from beyond that stubbornly secured door. James might be proud of him, might commit himself to their relationship forevermore. And that would be just perfect. “I’ll get you out somehow, James. Just don’t give up hope.”
“Madness,” said the hotelier, as the policemen continued to restrain Darren, tugging him into one corner of the bedroom, not far from where he’d slept the previous night.
“Hey, you’ve got the wrong guy!” Darren had directed his comments to the policemen while nodding at the obviously corrupt hotelier. “He’s the one you want. He’s locked up my partner … no, not my partner. My lover.”
There was a pause, during which everything appeared to lapse into the quiet this top floor was reputed to enjoy. But then one of the cops asked, “Locked him up where?”
“The room next door. Beyond that entrance up ahead.” Just then, Darren raised his voice. “Call out to us, James. Show them that I’m telling the truth.”
Perhaps his lover hadn’t heard the request, as there was no immediate reply from inside that room. Maybe if Darren could move closer and shout again … He tried to do so but was prevented by the policemen, both of whom were middle-aged yet strong. Now all he had was his previously reserved voice.
“JAMES! TELL THEM THIS IS REAL!”
Despite the unprecedented volume of his cry, however, there was still no reaction from the neighbouring room.
At that moment, the hotelier stepped into Darren’s line of vision, holding up an item that glinted in what little daylight fell through the bedroom’s small window. It was a key, which the man had presumably fetched from downstairs. Was he finally about to confess to what he’d done? Despite a sudden surge of hope, Darren wasn’t convinced that was true. Why would the old creep look so smug if this were the case?
Indeed, the man simply walked across and began unlocking that connecting door.
“We haven’t had this room available to the public in years,” the hotelier explained, his voice boasting the calm of someone about to be clearly vindicated. “It got too many bad reviews, probably because it has no window.”
Just then, as the latch gave way and the door was opened with another rattle and creak, Darren was released by the policemen. He hurried forwards, almost barging aside the hotelier in his haste to rescue James from his impromptu cell. But then, as he glanced frantically around, all breath was robbed from his throat.
The room was completely empty; there weren’t even any furnishings inside, just bare floorboards and plainly plastered walls.
“But I … I was here … only recently …”
Did Darren still suspect subterfuge? He strayed back and forth, expecting the room in its former incarnation to miraculously bloom into life. To whatever degree he willed this, however, there remained nothing. No dated décor. No outlandish chattels. Just emptiness.
“Have you been under any strain lately, sir?” asked the second policeman, approaching from behind, his near-sympathetic tone undermining Darren’s earlier impression that he and his colleague were both in on this furtive act.
“No … I … I …” was all he could manage, bewilderment robbing his newfound voice of any further protest. Indeed, the more he looked around for that errant newspaper, the one bearing a significant detail whose import he was finally mindful of – not the actual date of an event, but the eve of it: the day on which homosexual acts had been decriminalised in the UK – the less he could make sense of a world that was the way it was and perhaps might always be.
He was soon escorted from the room, back into the double he, if he chose to stay here longer, must now inhabit as a single occupancy. That was when he noticed that even James’ clothes, previously piled up in a corner chair, were gone; his overnight case was missing, too. It was as if the man had never existed, as if Darren had checked into the hotel alone, after all.
That might suit some people; it would never suit him. Moments later, as the three other men continued to watch him and watch him, Darren lay on the tousled bed and wondered if he’d ever hear his lover’s voice speak again from a past that hadn’t much changed, no matter what had been achieved on the surface.
As a writer of many years, I’ve tended, somewhat lazily perhaps, to follow the plodding old advice by “sticking to what I know”, focusing predominantly on white, male, heterosexual characters. I therefore welcomed a recent challenge from a gay fellow author to write a story with a LGBTQ+ theme. Drawing on observations and certain experiences, this is my imaginary attempt to elucidate the lived world of members of a minority group. It must stand or fall without further explanation.
Gary Fry has a PhD in psychology, but his first love is literature. He lives in Dracula’s Whitby, literally around the corner from where Bram Stoker was staying when he was thinking about that character. He is the author of many short story collections, novellas and novels. He was the first author in PS Publishing’s Showcase series, and Ramsey Campbell has described him as “a master.” Gary warmly welcomes all to his web presence: www.gary-fry.com
When Dr. Matthew Cole supervises Chloe Linton’s university research on a 16th Century warlock named Donald Deere, he is sceptical. Surely it’s just a local legend intended to scare people. But as Chloe develops her research, Matthew becomes embroiled in sinister events. They are both are drawn into woodland where Donald Deere was supposed to reside. And what they find might tear apart their minds.
At the Hay Festival last year, prominent gay novelist Alan Hollinghurst declared that the gay novel has had its day. He said that in earlier decades it possessed urgency and novelty, but now it is ‘…dissolving back into everything else and we are living increasingly in a culture where sexuality is not so strongly defined.’₁ Broadly speaking, Hollinghurst feels that as homosexuality is now so familiar and generally accepted, the ‘gay novel’ no longer has an edge.
Yet the recent story of Matt Cain and The Madonna of Bolton (published in 2018), shows there is some vibrancy left in the phenomenon of the ‘gay novel’. A tale of a northern gay lad growing up in the 1980s and worshipping the singer Madonna, Cain’s novel was widely rejected by publishers for being ‘too gay’, ‘a little niche’ and also for not having the highbrow literary credentials of Hollinghurst’s work.₂ But through a crowdfunding campaign and the support of backers such as David Walliams, Mark Gatiss and Lisa Jewell, it was published and proved popular with a large audience.
Nonetheless Hollinghurst does have a point. In an age where gay love stories and their tribulations are featured universally in screen dramas and soaps such as Coronation Street, what can the ‘gay novel’ do to be transgressive again? It has become a well-trodden path with familiar tropes, and so has the status of a genre one can dabble in, such as horror or science fiction. Which is the precise point where I personally interfaced with its world. For reasons of plot expediency, I set out, as a straight man, to manufacture – to the best of my ability – a ‘gay novel’.
Many years ago I was attending a bookshop talk and signing given by a ‘famous writer’ – Iain Banks actually – and I had this perverse idea, as you do, concerning a crazed psycho leaping up onto the stage and gunning down the writer, saying something like: ‘Put that in one your books!’ I thought that if someone were to feel so inclined, there was nothing to stop him – no guards, security or anything, because it’s not expected, not considered a risk. So this became the germ of the idea for Literary Stalker, and in the note-taking stage, one of the key tasks that emerged was to give the ‘stalker’ a believable motivation for attempting to murder the ‘famous writer’.
The project languished on the back burner, but more recently when I had other ideas to inject new life, I returned to this issue, and I thought: Why not make the stalker gay? If I did so, then he could not only be unhinged, with a Misery-style hero-worship fixation, he could also be ‘in love’ with the famous writer! Then when the stalker is amorously rejected and also plagiarised and exploited by the writer as ‘literary canon fodder’, his obsessive bitterness would be supercharged to extreme levels and make revenge murder plausible.₃
That said, I had doubts I could make it work on a technical level. As the novel is written in the first person, I would have to convincingly create a gay narrator when I’m not gay myself, which at first seemed daunting. But I found I got into it and also I enjoyed the ‘not me’ part – like an actor playing a role far removed from his own personhood – which gave me freedom to really push the boundaries because I wasn’t revealing anything personal about myself. And regarding information on gay life – returning to Alan Hollinghurst’s point – there is so much of it around now, from TV soaps and dramas to personal, intimate stories, biographies, confessions and, of course, ‘gay novels’.
Here I had a particular card up my sleeve in the fact that one of my most favourite writers, William Burroughs, was gay. Burroughs has certainly always featured unrestrained, sometimes allegedly pornographic gay content in his work, though despite this one wouldn’t really call his most celebrated novels – Naked Lunch, Soft Machine, Junkie, Cities of the Red Night – ‘gay novels’, as the gayness is incidental, matter-of-fact. Though indeed several of those titles are fine examples of gay themes occurring within experimental and genre mash-up fiction.
Really for a novel to qualify as a ‘gay novel’, those gay aspects need to be focussed upon as an existential condition, a central subject. And in this respect, Burroughs did write one proper ‘gay novel’, his second – Queer – which is a kind of semi-autobiographical follow up to Junkie. It tells the story of recovering addict Bill Lee, now living in Mexico City, and his hopeless obsessive pursuit of a handsome younger man called Allerton, who is basically straight. Coming from the 1950s, the narrative is classically self-lacerating as regards gayness, and the storyline also has similarities to Literary Stalker, as they both deal with unwanted pursuit and unreciprocated gay attention. So this novel gave me something of a framework and a transgressive character mindset to work within.
And more generally, having read everything by Burroughs and most of the stuff written about him, I’ve tuned into his way of looking at things by osmosis. That has helped with the most important aspect of any first-person narrated work of fiction: getting the voice right. Also, taken from biographies of Burroughs, there is a pivotal line in Literary Stalker – concerning oral sex – that is adapted from a line actually spoken by Allen Ginsberg to Burroughs when their affair wasn’t going well…But I won’t go into detail, save to say that my research into these matters, vicarious though it is, extends widely.
And another ‘gay novel’ which greatly helped me was From Blue To Black, by Joel Lane, which I bought in 2000 when it first came out and greatly enjoyed. Now Joel is one of those writers who is not generally well known, but within the British horror community he is highly revered as an excellent practitioner of the art. I knew him slightly, but I wasn’t a close friend. Unfortunately he died in 2013 at the age of fifty, so his career was cut short. But he’s still celebrated for his uniquely edgy, sometimes surreal take on horror.
So when I came to write Literary Stalker, I reread From Blue To Black and was reminded of its excellence. It is a departure from Joel’s usual short stories in that it’s a naturalistic narrative set within the indie music scene of the 1990s. And it is an explicitly ‘gay novel’, with detailed scenes of the emotional and physical side of gay life and a first-person narrator. What was particularly useful was not only the content – the window onto intimate gay life – but also the treatment and tone, and indeed the language. How do you talk about the feelings and the sexuality and make it real rather than ersatz? Joel certainly showed me the way.
So, aided by these sources, I built my gay literary stalker – Nick Chatterton – a thirty-eight-year-old obsessed writer with borderline and narcissistic personality disorders who dresses in black and looks like Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones. The narrative of Literary Stalker is primarily horror-crime driven, with metafictional and black comedy elements, and it’s very much immersed in movie pop culture, heavily using movie pastiche in a nudge-wink way. But in putting it together, the ‘gay novel’ dimension – the strand about hopeless unrequited love turning bitter and homicidal – became at least as important if not more important than all those other aspects. Certainly from the feedback and reviews I’ve received so far, the experiment appears to have worked!
LGBTQ+ HORROR MONTH: WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH US? GEORGE DANIEL LEA AND KIT POWER DISCUSS CLIVE BARKER'S WEAVEWORLD
As well as being a first class author, and a member of the Ginger Nuts of Horror family, George Daniel Lea also has a fabulous YouTube channel Exaggerated Elegy, where George post some of the best online reviews/discussions of all aspects of genre works, from insightful reviews of horror fiction to amazing discussions of video games, it really is a must subscribe channel.
As part of our LGBTQ+ Horror month George invited fellow Ginger Nutter Kit Power, who also has a fantastic YouTube channel where he has a brilliant series called Watching Robocop, where he invites guests on to discuss what he believes to be the greatest film of all time. who like George is a damn fine writer, and one of longest and closet friends and confidants, to discuss what is probably one of the most important books in LGBTQ+ horror history, Clive Barker's Weaveworld.
So grab yourself a drink and a snack and sit down and listen to this fantastic discussion a classic novel.