Dark Fiction Roundtable
One Hot Topic...Multiple Takes by Today's Hottest Talents
By, Paul G. Bens, Jr.
In the continuation of our exclusive roundtable discussion on the New Queer Horror in dark fiction, contributing scribe Paul G. Bens Jr. probes the minds of award-winning horror authors (and editors) Michael Rowe, Lee Thomas, Vince Liaguno, Robert Dunbar, and Chad Helder.
Dark Scribe: Is there such a sub-genre as gay horror?
Chad Helder: Yes. There are some different branches. There is the branch that includes erotica and vampire porn. There are also branches that follow in the short story tradition and the novel tradition of the horror genre. And filmmaking too — the recent Cthulhu was an interesting example. I like gay horror that uses the genre to embody societal anxieties about gay life (of which there are many). On a basic level, gay horror includes gay characters. On a deeper level, gay horror deals with relevant themes in modern gay life.
Robert Dunbar: Yes…and no. To the same extent that gay mystery and queer SF exist, certainly…but it’s taken gay horror much longer to become established or to gain any literary respectability. Possibly the same applies to horror generally.
Vince Liaguno: There’s a sub-genre and label for everything these days. I think it springs from our society’s insatiable need to compulsively categorize and organize everything and anything — and from savvy marketers who don’t want you to have to look too hard for what you want. Upside is that in this oversaturated world of ours, with myriad competing images and products, this categorization streamlines and helps us focus; downside is that, in our quest to efficiently find exactly what we’re looking for, we eschew the whole concept of browsing, perhaps ultimately missing out on something that would otherwise capture our interest had we stumbled upon it. We shortchange ourselves in this sense. I think.
Lee Thomas: I’ve been tagged as a gay horror writer and while I am proud as can be of both descriptors, they have the power to limit my audience. I believe all fiction should be inclusive and work on a universal level so that readers – regardless of orientation – won’t be excluded from the experience. Once a label gets slapped on something, you have a percentage of people saying “Ooooo, I’d like that,” and a whole ‘nother percentage thinking, “Nope. Not for me.” This brings us back to getting our stories told and our voices heard. I’ve published very little in queer-focused markets. Most of my work has appeared in mainstream horror publications, and I’m glad it’s worked out that way. I never set out to preach to the choir. (Well, honestly, I try not to preach at all). But while I want my work to represent and resonate with the gay community, I also want it to work for any reader who digs the dark stuff. I don’t want them dismissing the stories before they’ve given them a chance, and a label can do that. Kierkegaard represents!
Michael Rowe: Gay horror fiction is a sub-genre inasmuch as “gay fiction” is a sub-genre of literature, which is to say, yes, it’s a sub-genre, not because it IS a sub-genre but because it’s perceived to be a sub-genre. If gay literature is filed in a “Gay Lit” section at a bookstore, it’s seen as something other than how it would be seen if it were filed in “Fiction” or “Literature.” It’s all perception. And a perception that, by the way, that I wholeheartedly reject. When we did the Queer Fear books, my criteria were that the stories had to be good enough to appear in any mainstream horror anthology. I mean, I defy anyone to read Douglas Clegg’s short story “Piercing Men” from Queer Fear, or the stories in Vince’s and Chad’s anthology, Unspeakable Horror, or the work of Gemma Files, and call it “gay horror.” It’s just horror — unless the reader has an interest in, or problem with, gay people or themes. Then it becomes “gay horror.” Michael Marano’s Dawn Song had a gay hero who was the main character. But the book was so brilliant that no one could bring himself or herself to consider it as anything other than a brilliant horror novel.
Dark Scribe: For me, there are certain works that are watershed moments in gay horror. Do you view any particular works that way?
Robert Dunbar: There’s a moment in E. M. Forster’s “The Story of a Panic” where the boy has his erotic nature awakened by an encounter with the supernatural…which terrifies the adults around him to the point where they nearly destroy him. But he escapes out a window and runs into the night. I don’t believe anything like it had been written before. Some of us are still running.
Vince Liaguno: Certainly Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House was one of the earliest watershed moments, as was Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” Hard also to argue the lasting impact of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire on gay horror.
As an anthology editor, Michael Rowe’s Queer Fear collections were defining moments in the modern queer horror movement for me. Truly an inspiration for my own work on Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet, which in and of itself was a personal watershed moment when it won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in an Anthology — the first time an LGBT-themed anthology had ever won the award in the sponsoring organization’s 22-year history. Surreal as it was to win an award during the same ceremony in which [Stephen] King walked away with two of his own that night, the implications of what we’d achieved for queer horror was overwhelming and unexpectedly moving.
Lee Thomas: [Clive] Barker’s Books of Blood and (some years later) Sacrament. What I admire about Barker’s work is that he isn’t coy, precious or defensive with his queer-themed stories. They are incredible, sometimes brilliant, works that include emotionally real queer characters, but the only agenda seems to be to tell an amazing story. I think that’s why his work broke through the straight-white-guy horror veil and resonated with a substantial number of readers.
Chad Helder: Michael Rowe’s Queer Fear and Lee Thomas’ Dust of Wonderland.
Lee Thomas: Thanks Chad! And I agree with you about Michael’s anthologies. A friend introduced me to Michael’s Queer Fear anthologies, and I was blown away by what the editor had done. Gay and straight authors contributed to the volumes, and they showed how intense, wide-ranging, and relevant horror stories about the queer experience could be. Those were the big ones for me. On a different level were Straub’s Koko and The Throat. Neither book explored gay lives – the character’s sexuality was incidental – but Straub utilized a prominent gay character in a positive way, which was all but unheard of in the genre when those books released.
Michael Rowe: The works of Poppy Z. Brite come to mind, as do Clive Barker’s — including the movies. There’s a moment in the first Hellraiser movie where you think, “Oh my GOD, Uncle Frank is the leather top from hell, and no one knows it but me!” and then, later, you realize that millions of gay men (and more than a few perspicacious straight people) have come to the same conclusion. It attained critical mass at some point with the books and anthologies, including the works of these gentlemen. Also, to be fair, the audience is not only younger and hipper today; it’s also more sophisticated. So there’s a certain symbiotic quality to it
Dark Scribe: How accepting is mainstream horror genre of gay horror?
Robert Dunbar: Surprisingly so. I did have one enlightened reviewer criticize my publisher for not catering to “normal” readers, whatever that meant, but generally speaking my books are more likely to get bashed for being “too literary.” Maybe it’s code.
Michael Rowe: I think it’s more accepting today than it has been, but I’m not going to start singing “Kumbaya.”
Lee Thomas: It’s got a ways to go, but that’s true of any genre work that isn’t about straight white folks in peril.
Michael Rowe: The notion of two men fucking is still going to freak out a huge number of male readers, whether they do it under the full moon as they’re transforming into werewolves or not. That prejudice is going to affect publication, sales, and marketing…
Lee Thomas: The fact is every step away from that incredibly limited perception of “the norm” knocks off a percentage of the readership — at least, I think that’s how publishers perceive it. When you write a queer horror story, the opinion isn’t that your work will resonate with the horror audience and the queer audience, but rather will appeal to a rather small subset of both. Queer books are still considered niche.
Michael Rowe: It’s a hump that can only be overcome by persistently invading the market with top-notch writing. Hopefully, after a point – a point I think is coming soon, by the way – the horror readership will be so used to it that they’ll truly start judging the work on its own literary merits.
Vince Liaguno: I’ve never encountered an ounce of homophobia from the mainstream horror community. I’ve found most readers more interested in the horror element than concerned about the gay aspects of one of my works.
Chad Helder: They gave me and Vince a Bram Stoker Award for Unspeakable Horror — I consider that to be very accepting.
Vince Liaguno: In fact, if anything, I’ve probably felt more marginalized by the larger LGBT literary community. There tends to be some pretty blatant snobbery within those circles, with disdain for speculative fiction being pretty evident. Let’s face it, much of our gay culture centers around images and ideas of youth and circuit parties and the lighter side of life. For the minority left who read, it’s all about these great, sweeping explorations of love and life and the pursuit of gay happiness. Gay people have historically spent so much time feeling bad, that they look for some kind of positive affirmation in their arts. Dark fiction’s got that same positive affirmation — but you’ve got to make that journey through the darkness to find it. For those who do, the experience can be transformative. But there is pain and discomfort, and the really good queer horror forces our eyes open to experience it. Unfortunately, many prefer to go through life with their lavender blinders on, safe in the airbrushed artificiality of this carnival atmosphere we’ve created for ourselves in today’s gay culture.
Dark Scribe: Have you ever had anything rejected by a market in the “mainstream” horror genre because it was “too gay”?
Chad Helder: No, I’ve never encountered that.
Vince Liaguno: To date, no.
Lee Thomas: Not that I’m aware of, but that’s not likely something an editor would tell me in a rejection letter. I mean there’s no way to know why a story gets rejected unless the editor feels like cluing you in, and it’s a big mistake to demand an explanation.
Robert Dunbar: Oh, you mean where the editor was forthright about it? Not often, but I’ve had plenty of things rejected because they weren’t gay in the correct way.
Lee Thomas: I’ve certainly had my suspicions, but that could just as easily have been my ego jumping in to help me cope with the rejection. (laughs)
Michael Rowe: Once, sort of. It’s funny. I was asked to consider writing something for an erotic horror anthology. “Gay” was OK, they said, but not “too gay.” Considering that it was an erotic horror collection with a strong sexual theme, I found that caveat boundlessly stupid...and declined.
Lee Thomas: In the YA market I did have a proposal nixed because of a gay protagonist. Not exactly a rejection, but it did indicate that the teen market – or my editor – wasn’t ready for a queer horror novel.
Dark Scribe: As a reader (or editor), when you find that new writer who writes horror (and specifically, gay horror) that excites you, what is it that excites you about them?
Chad Helder: Works that achieve symbolic depth — when the horror represents or embodies something culturally significant.
Lee Thomas: A good story, well told. It’s that simple. I don’t cut slack for a queer writer any more than I would a straight writer. If the work is smart, engaging, and takes me to someplace new and introduces me to complex characters, I’m in.
Vince Liaguno: Someone who uses language and the symmetry of words to push the envelope...someone who understands the true value of shock in literature. A writer who can unflinchingly explore the dark side of human nature…a wordsmith who understands the fine line between sex and violence, for example, and isn’t afraid to straddle those uncomfortable lines until the reader is ready to jump out of their own skin. It’s been said that Dennis Cooper is one of our last true literary outlaws — and dark fiction needs more voices like his. That excites me.
Robert Dunbar: Emotional engagement – rather than the merely sexual or visceral – does it for me every time. But I’m hard to impress. High standards are a curse.
Michael Rowe: Great writing, period. If I feel the writer is stupid, or a hack, it will irritate the fuck out of me, and I’ll believe he’s taken on gay themes because he can’t publish anywhere else. At that point, I’ll be insulted, too.
Dark Scribe: Is there anyone right now who really excites you, gay horror wise?
Lee Thomas: Lots of folks. When it comes to gay horror, it’s all kind of exciting because it’s still fresh, and there are a good number of very talented people writing it. I’d say the people involved with this interview make a good start.
Robert Dunbar: Dennis Cooper still dazzles me — brilliant, brilliant writer.
Chad Helder: Lee Thomas and Jameson Currier both have recent collections of short stories that are totally awesome.
Lee Thomas: I’ve really been enjoying Jim Currier’s work lately. His collection The Haunted Heart and his novel The Wolf at the Door tell excellent, contemporary ghost stories.
Vince Liaguno: Yeah, Jim’s the kind of writer who has such a keen eye for narrative-enriching detail that you can literally submerse yourself in his stories.
Lee Thomas: There are also a number of young writers who haven’t quite hit their strides, so I can’t exactly say their work excites me, yet. But it’s great to see them in the trenches and pretty much assures us that a new generation will be making significant contributions to the field.
Michael Rowe: Lee Thomas and Gemma Files, hands down. Lee is a gay male gold standard, in my opinion, and Gemma is quite frankly the best writer of queer horror on the scene today.
Vince Liaguno: Lee flirts with greatness every time he types a sentence. He’s got the potential to push envelopes, and I don’t even think we’ve yet to see what he’s fully capable of. He’s still exploring and experimenting, in my opinion, with his dark side. But it’s in there – and I suspect he’s going to unleash it at some point. And it’s going to be brave and ugly and painful and beautiful all at the same time.
Lee Thomas: I’ll second Michael’s praise for Gemma. Her work is amazing.
Dark Scribe: One of the things that I think made Hitchcock and others such masterful storytellers were the very restrictions they were fighting against imposed by Hays Code and the Catholic League that forced them to be more inventive and subversive in how they explored their stories. In a day and age where there are no restrictions and writers can and do show everything, is work that is more subtle and complex at a disadvantage in horror?
Chad Helder: I love subtle storytelling, but repression is always bad — it always smothers.
Lee Thomas: I have to disagree with your basic premise here. We are currently experiencing a level of profound conservatism in publishing. Much of this has to do with profit. Editors don’t want to alienate anyone. They want the largest audiences possible, which means appealing to the lowest common denominator of readers.
Michael Rowe: I think this economy is this generation’s Hays Code and Catholic League. The economy has devastated the publishing industry, and publishers aren’t willing, or can’t, take chances on work that is too “subtle and complex.” Hence the explosion of the micro-presses and small publishers. We’re in a period of stunning conservativism, except this time it’s not moral conservativism that is shackling the industry, but rather economic conservativism. The damage is the same, though. It doesn’t matter who starts the fire, it consumes and destroys just as voraciously.
Lee Thomas: I see far less challenging work these days than what was available in the 70s and 80s. Oh, the gore and torture gets more word count, but none of that is new. All of these “extreme” writers think they’re breaking new ground, but it’s been broken and tilled and lies beneath the dead horse. Challenging ideas that examine the status quo and reveal something new – and unpleasant – about the human condition are all but vanquished from bookstores these days — at least in genre.
Vince Liaguno: I think the more subtle, complex works have a leg-up on the competition at the moment. I think the marketplace is a bit oversaturated right now with the more visceral, in-your-face horror — particularly in film. We’re so numb to over-the-top violence thanks to the torture porn craze – best exemplified by films like Hostel and the Saw franchise – that audiences are open to some thinking man’s horror.
Lee Thomas: A significant portion of the horror audience has bought into the rather disturbing philosophy of anti-intellectualism, which means they’ll throw a book across the room if it smacks of literary aspiration. More than ever, ideas have to be buried and finessed, not because social morays dictate it, but because books – like the nightly news – have to tap dance, juggle, sing and strip to keep their audiences. Candy coat the medicine I guess. So yes, I think subtle and complex works are at a disadvantage, but that’s because they require effort to read, and we’re not a culture that’s currently big on effort.
Robert Dunbar: Well put.
Vince Liaguno: Don’t get me wrong, there will always be a place and market within the horror genre for the more extreme blood-and-guts variety, but I think there is an entire generation that’s burning out on that element right now.
Dark Scribe: Is there anything that’s taboo to you as a writer or editor in the gay horror world or the horror world in general?
Robert Dunbar: No, I don’t believe in taboos. Who could be trusted to decide what you can or can’t write? Palin? Beck?
Chad Helder: Biting off dicks. (laughs)
Vince Liaguno: As an editor, no. I believe that horror is meant to unnerve, disquiet, and strike deeply at the darkest places in a reader’s heart. I do not believe that writers should ever be restricted within the established genre and I feel strongly that they should feel comfortable offering up their darkest tales. As an editor, if I don’t like it or it’s not a right fit for a particular project, I’ll simply politely pass on the submission. I’ll welcome taboo and edgy subject matters if handled in a literary manner and the story itself is well-executed and compelling. That said, animal cruelty is a hard sell for me – simply from the perspective of personal bias as a strong animal-rights advocate.
Michael Rowe: That would be a hard sell to me as well, and nearly impossible to write. When I was writing my novella In October, the hero kills a cat as part of a demonic ritual sacrifice. Writing that scene put me in a weeklong depression. Chad’s comment is funny, though, in this context — there’s a bitten-off dick in the story, and I loved writing it. To each his own, including taboos!
Chad Helder: I read a bunch of submissions for the Unspeakable Horror anthology that included penises being bitten, torn, or cut off — I just don’t want to read about that!
Vince Liaguno: As a writer, nothing is off limits if it’s essential to the truth of the story. Life is ugly; art imitates and reflects life. It’s therefore reasonable to leave ourselves open to the exploration of that ugliness in literature.
Lee Thomas: Putting something in a story simply for shock value is weak, and I think that’s where many of these “taboos” come from. Somewhere along the line, shock became more prominent than fear, basically because shock is easier to achieve. If you have shocking scenes in an otherwise empty narrative, then it’s easy to see why such stories would offend readers. A child is raped and brutally murdered. Okay. If the story is saying nothing else, then certain editors and readers consider the subject matter taboo. If the story goes on to examine the way this crime affects a family and a community, it’s The Lovely Bones.
Dark Scribe: As we all know there’s a lot of drek published in just about every genre and horror has its fair share. I’ve personally found in gay horror, the quality level seems consistently high and, generally, more literary than a lot of mainstream horror. Is this the case?
Robert Dunbar: We get our share of drivel. Trust me on this.
Chad Helder: As an editor of a queer horror anthology, I’ve read lots of really bad gay horror stories — I think the ratio is the same for everything.
Michael Rowe: I’ve also had some pretty appalling submissions to anthologies by queer writers. On the other hand, maybe because queer horror is a harder sell in the marketplace, there’s less room for bad writers given the available sales numbers, and the cream rises to the top more quickly.
Vince Liaguno: There’ll always be slush pile drek, but I see a definite swing toward higher quality, more literary-leaning horror being published right now. In addition to Jim and Lee and Gemma Files who were mentioned earlier, you’ve got others like Laird Barron, Stephen Graham Jones, John Langan, Scott Heim, Gillian Flynn, Lisa Morton, John R. Little, Rio Youers, Kealan Patrick Burke, Paul Tremblay, and…ahem…yourself, who are all producing high-end literary dark fiction. I think we’ve left the plethora of published drek back in the 80’s and early 90’s when the horror boom went bust.
Lee Thomas: And one man’s drek is another man’s classic. There are prominent horror writers whose work just makes my hair hurt because it strikes me as so completely awful. I’ve heard from more than one reader that my work falls into that category for them. But that’s the thing: I expect certain things from a story — the ones I read and the ones I write. I like smart pulps as much as I like more complex “literary” works, and I draw from the spectrum trying to use whatever works to get a story right. I really don’t know if a writer of queer horror has to be any better or work any harder to achieve some level of success than his/her straight counterparts. If the queer horror you’re reading is of higher quality and/or more literary, it could be your aesthetic is calibrated differently, or it might simply mean you’re looking in the right places.
Dark Scribe: Do you differentiate between “dark fiction” and “horror”? If so, what do you see as the differences?
Michael Rowe: No, I don’t. “Dark fiction” is for people who, for whatever reason, honorable or not, don’t want to say “horror.”
Lee Thomas: I find them synonymous. Dark fiction implies a broader reach, but I’m just as comfortable calling any works I’d define as dark fiction, horror fiction. It’s just a matter of semantics and marketability.
Chad Helder: Someone could make a case that horror includes the supernatural, and dark fiction doesn’t, but I think they overlap.
Vince Liaguno: A few years ago, I interviewed [author] Bentley Little. We were chatting about this move away from the ‘horror’ moniker — essentially taking works that at one time or another would have been classified as horror and re-labeling their spines with ‘paranormal thriller’ or ‘dark suspense’, etc. I laughed out loud at his reaction, basically calling those writers out as traitors to the genre — albeit in far more colorful language than that!
Robert Dunbar: One tries to avoid the “H” word, if only because it’s become so synonymous with all those “Five Little Peppers and How They Slew Zombies” travesties, as well as with vampire erotica and paranormal romance. It’s not encouraging. Henry James could never have gotten published in the current marketplace. Neither would Shirley Jackson…at least not by the mainstream, maybe by some crusading little “dark fiction” house.
Vince Liaguno: One of the upsides to this marketing fragmentation, though, is that genre lines have blurred as a result. So, while none of it is horror, all of it is horror. I think for people who need to view works within a constrained label, dark fiction could be seen as the broader umbrella, under which fall horror, suspense, dark fantasy, and myriad related sub-genres.
Dark Scribe: When I was at a gay bookstore with a friend of mine, he joked that “gay men don’t read”. When I looked around the store and realized that the majority of the stock was porn and erotica picture books, it made me wonder how true this statement was.
Vince Liaguno: Sadly, I’d agree – but I’d also broaden that statement to encompass people in general.
Chad Helder: It seems readers are more and more the minority, whether gay or straight. As a writing instructor at the community college, I find that most of my students either don’t read at all, or they read Clive Cussler (very depressing). I write poetry — even fewer people read poetry. If people want to read erotica — I think that’s great. I just want people to read.
Vince Liaguno: Reading as a pastime competes now with multi-media formats that have a “wow” factor — high-tech, interactive, dizzying visuals. Reading is not glamorous. It’s subtle and solitary.
Chad Helder: That’s why I love book clubs — they give people a reason to read and a social context to discuss what they read. Members of book clubs are never sorry they read a book, even if they don’t like it.
Vince Liaguno: But we have a whole new generation for which the latest video game or iPhone app is what generates buzz around the water cooler — not the latest Stephen King book. That’s why, as much of a push-back as eReaders and such have gotten from book-loving publishers and writers, I think adding an element of technology to the reading experience is going to be part of the natural evolution if the pastime is going to survive.
Lee Thomas: Queer men and women don’t necessarily gravitate to queer fiction, at least not exclusively. They have all the other books in the world to read as well as the queer-lit selections, so if you’re looking at a group of individuals, each of which reads – maybe – 12 books a year (and that’s being generous, because most people don’t read anywhere near that many), then your friend’s observation, while perhaps not completely accurate, isn’t far off if you’re basing your assumptions solely on the interest in queer lit.
Michael Rowe: Gay men do read, whether they read gay-themed books or not. And if they do read gay-themed books, they can get them somewhere other than a gay bookstore now, so judging whether or not gay men read based on the available porn in gay bookstores is problematic. Porn may be what they are now going to gay bookstores to buy, which is part of the tragedy of all the gay bookstores closing.
Dark Scribe: This year, the Lambda Literary Foundation changed the rules for the Lammys and there was a huge outcry from some straight writers that it wasn’t fair. One writer even went so far as to say that the Lammys wouldn’t mean anything this year if straight people weren’t invited. So, each of you has been nominated or won a number of awards. How important are awards either from the queer community or the “mainstream” community?
Robert Dunbar: It’s about reaching people, sometimes even just that one reader, the one who really gets your work, who maybe even needs it on some level…but who might never have found it if not for some award or review or interview. That more than justifies all the fuss.
Chad Helder: I think it’s appropriate for awards (or award categories) to be specifically defined for a niche audience, as long as they are open and honest about it. If an award encompasses a very general category, it seems only fair that gay writers are included, but defined and limited is OK too.
Lee Thomas: Wow, a lot of questions there. (laughs) I think it was a mistake for the LLA to exclude straight people. I think a book that illuminates, entertains, and does the queer community justice should be recognized and awarded. The sexuality of the writer should be the last concern of a literary award. I hope they’ll rethink this approach in the year to come. (And yeah, I was nominated again this year, and yeah I spoke out about the issue!) That noted, I don’t think the award now means “nothing,” but I do think it means less only because the field has been narrowed. They’re now awarding a subset of queer lit, rather than the entirety of it. The Bram Stoker Awards have similar limitations, in that they’re often awarded to works that are made easily accessible to the Horror Writers Association membership, and not the top works in the field. The thing is awards are flattering and lovely, but they aren’t something to fight for, cry over, or invest your ego in. An award won’t change what I’m writing or how I write it...I’ve seen writers embarrass themselves in the pursuit of awards and seen others crushed when they didn’t win, and it’s such a bullshit thing to drive yourself crazy over. All awards are incredibly subjective. But if you’re handing one out…I’d like to thank the academy…
Vince Liaguno: First of all, the whole notion of a writer’s sexual orientation being relevant to the work itself is pure rubbish, and I fall squarely into the camp that thinks the LLF went too far with this rule change while simultaneously taking a big social step backwards with the move. We’ve gotten as far as we have in the gay rights struggle by building bridges and embracing our allies — straight and gay alike. This change in the rules sends the wrong message, and I’m disappointed in the LLF. I mean, are we honoring works representative of the gay experience — or are we honoring gay writers? I’m always about the work. The writer will die; the work has the potential to last forever.
At least half of the contributors in the first volume of Unspeakable Horror identified as heterosexual. And some of those writers crafted the most authentic pieces in the collection. To have excluded them on the basis of their sexual orientation because this was an LGBT-themed project would have been a huge disservice to the LGBT reading public. Are awards important? Sure. They can serve as external validation of a project hitting its mark, they can boost sales, and they can add prestige to a bibliography. That said, if the inclusion of heterosexual writers in an LGBT-themed horror project meant disqualification from the Lammys or any other LGBT awards body, then I wouldn’t give another thought to that particular award and opt to include the best works, the works most representative of the authentic gay experience, without regard to the contributors’ sexual orientation.
Michael Rowe: I think that the Lambda Literary Awards – an award I have won, and deeply respect – made a mistake when they excluded straight writers. I understand the impulse, but I don’t think it serves our community of readers and writers well. I have heard enough gay writers, over the years, bragging about how they can’t be bothered to write gay-themed books and hinting that they find them tedious, implying that queer lit is somehow “beneath them,” to take a very jaundiced view of sexual orientation being a criteria for a book award. On the contrary, when a straight author writes a beautiful, complex novel with gay characters, he or she is the one making the contribution to the queer lit canon, not the queer one who’s too “serious” to tackle LGBT themes, but who might, under these rules, theoretically be eligible to win a Lammy for a non-gay book based on his or her sexual orientation. One of the best writers in the queer horror field at the moment is Gemma Files — a married straight woman with an understanding of the nuances of gay men’s lives that surpasses that of most gay male writers I know. Her novel, A Book of Tongues, is quite simply the best queer horror novel on the market at the moment, bar none. And because she’s not a lesbian, she’s not qualified to win a Lammy? Huh? What on earth does that say about the Queer Lit community? I’ll tell you, some closeted gay or lesbian kid who picks up her book is going to get more reinforcement of his or her own desire than they’d ever get from some mediocre, mimeographed anthology of vampire stories from some kitchen-table LGBT vanity press.
Dark Scribe: And one final question. What are you currently working on?
Chad Helder: I recently completed a book of queer horror poetry called The Vampire Bridegroom for Dark Scribe Press. Now I’m working on some horror fairy tales and more horror poetry.
Vince Liaguno: I’m finishing up edits on a huge non-fiction collection of essays on the slasher film genre called Butcher Knives & Body Counts that will be out this fall. Chad Helder, my co-editor on Unspeakable Horror, and I have just released the submissions guidelines for a second volume of what looks like will become a series for Dark Scribe Press and will begin an open call for submissions later this fall. This time out we’re exploring the dark underbelly of desire with the aptly chosen subtitle: Abominations of Desire. Somewhere in between, I’m trying to finish up my long overdue second novel, Final Girl, in which a criminal psychologist, a gay film historian, and a cub reporter try to stop a serial killer who’s murdering former scream queens in grisly recreations of murder set-pieces from 80’s slasher films. Straight-up horror-thriller time with this one.
Robert Dunbar: A nervous breakdown mostly. Along with running Uninvited Books, I’m putting the finishing touches on two projects. Wood – a novella – should be out sometime this year. It’s about an HIV+ hero who helps a runaway teen battle monsters (metaphorical and otherwise) in the slums. Then there’s Willy, a novel that takes place in a boarding school for boys with emotional problems. Creating and inhabiting that world, full of erotic and supernatural overtones, has been emotionally exhausting…to put it mildly. When I write the final word, I fully intend checking myself into an asylum. Not just any old asylum, mind you. I want to go to the one Bette Davis went to in Now, Voyager…you know, with cocktails and tennis courts.
Lee Thomas: Rob, book me a room next door. I have a busy year ahead. My novella, The Black Sun Set, was just published by Burning Effigy Press out of Canada, and an excellent small press will be releasing a second novella, Focus (co-written with Nate Southard) in time for World Horror 2011. I’m also gearing up to start promoting my next queer-themed horror novel called The German, which Lethe Press will release in March of 2011. Anthology editors have been ganging up on me (no complaints, mind you) so I’ll be working on a lot of short fiction in the months to come. After that? Who can say?
Michael Rowe: I’ve got a vampire novel coming out next fall from ChiZine Publications called Enter, Night. I can say with enormous certainty that it’s very much an old-school vampire novel, which runs against the current grain of Tiger Beat-style horror. Also, there’s only one gay character in it, which I’m finding oddly restful. In keeping with the entirely schizophrenic nature of my life and career, I’m continuing to write my pieces for the Huffington Post, some of which will end up in my third essay collection, which I hope to get to Cormorant Books next spring. It feels like a very good time, all told.
Read Part 1 of DSM's exclusive roundtable interview on the New Queer Horror.
By, Paul G. Bens, Jr.
Long before Clive Barker had written his first word, before a sexy computer hacker named Zachary Bosch seduced the introspective Trevor McGee in a haunted house out on Violin Road, and even before the now-legendary Lestat de Lioncourt sank his fangs into Louis de Point du Lac, there has been gay horror. There are hints of it everywhere if you look closely enough. It’s masked, secreted away in some of the earliest works of the macabre. It might be nothing more than a homoerotic undercurrent, a glance between two characters, word choices and phrasings that seem benign today, but had specific connotations in era in which they were written. But it’s there.
There’s no denying the homosexuality in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gay….er, I mean Gray. It’s rife with it. But just take a look at the metaphoric altar the sanguine Renfield built at the feet of a charismatic Slavic count. It’s a bit queer, isn’t it? Read closely the words Robert Louis Stevenson chose in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Is there a quiet commentary on another dual nature of man? But when, exactly, did gay horror begin? Well, that’s probably as arguable as when horror literature itself began, but I submit for your consideration…
It was a dark and stormy night. Wait. That’s a bit of romanticism. It actually was a cold and dreary night in The Year without a Summer: 1816. The shores of Lake Geneva. Lord Byron, the notorious lothario who’d brought along a young lady he no longer fancied, gathered with his doctor and lover John Polidori, friend and rumored lover Percy Shelley and Shelley’s soon-to-be wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. On that night, as we all know, Byron challenged the Shelley’s to come up with a horrific story. Byron himself produced only a fragment of a vampire story which he discarded, giving it to his young doctor friend. Mary Godwin, a woman surrounded by men who seemed to have more interest in their male companions than in the women accompanying them, creates the quintessential horror story that will become Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818), a novel whose central character is one man obsessed with creating another man. A bit gay, no? So is this the birth of gay horror? One could argue that Mary Godwin is the mother of gay horror. But who, then, is the father? Lord Byron? Well, in a roundabout way, he was.
By 1819, Byron had long since discarded his doctor friend. John Polidori, however, had held on to that scrap of story Byron had cast aside and in the intervening years written a story from it, publishing what is recognized as the very first vampire novel, the one from which all others would descend: The Vampyre (New Monthly, 1819). Polidori’s Lord Ruthven is without question a thinly veiled version of his former lover, Byron. Ruthven is handsome, refined and utterly appealing to both men and women. He is also a horrid monster, manipulative, brutal and destructive. Had Polidori simply been an angry, jilted lover striking out against the man he adored? It hardly seems a stretch and, while it is clear Polidori is the father of modern vampire fiction, he’s arguably also the progenitor of gay horror.
It would be another 65 years before German author (and early LGBT activist) Karl Ulrich would pen the very first gay vampire story, “Manor,” in his Matrosengeschichten collection (1884), and another 13 years after that before Bram Stoker – himself rumored to be gay – would publish Dracula (Archibald Constable and Company (UK), 1897), a work riddled with homoerotic undertones. Since that time, vampires have come and gone, but what became clear in not only those early works, but most works within the genre throughout the decades is that gay men did not always fare so well in a genre that has largely been hetero-centric. Monsters or madmen, predators or prey, gay men as portrayed in horror were detestable creatures, little more than offensive stereotypes meant to be chased with pitchforks and torches and then destroyed. The fear of gay men was palpable in mainstream horror.
Then, in the 1970s, Anne Rice made sexually ambiguous vampires cool in Interview with the Vampire (Knopf, 1976), and later Poppy Z. Brite threw open the closet door and made them balls-to-the-wall gay with her debut novel Lost Souls (Dell Abyss, 1992). Rice explored her vampires in numerous volumes, and Brite prominently featured gay men in her sophomore novel Drawing Blood (Dell Abyss, 1993) and numerous other works. We’ve seen every permutation of the queer in horror since then, but what is interesting to note is that somewhere along the lines, gay men who had grown up watching the old Universal horror movies or reading the classic gothic literature began to openly and unapologetically explore queer (and not so queer) themes in horror works.
This New Queer Horror, which had been percolating and developing for years before and after Rice and Brite, burst fully onto the scene in Queer Fear (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2000) and Queer Fear II (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2002), edited by Michael Rowe, in which gay and non-gay authors worked specifically with gay themes, resulting in the impressive and heralded anthologies. And just two years ago another groundbreaking anthology hit the scene: Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet (Dark Scribe Press, 2008), edited by Vince A. Liaguno and Chad Helder, who would be awarded the Horror Writers Association’s prestigious Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in an Anthology.
More than ever, openly gay men are writing in the genre, and slowly the presence of gay themes or characters is not so shocking. In fact, many of the emerging and leading voices in the genre as a whole are gay men who write on themes both queer and not so queer. Recently, I had the chance to sit down at the Dark Fiction Roundtable with a group of these writers to talk about the state of the horror genre, the evolution of New Queer Horror and their works.
Robert Dunbar: The author of the supernatural thrillers The Pines (Leisure, 2008) and The Shore (Leisure, 2009), Robert Dunbar has been called "one of the saviors of contemporary dark fiction" and "a catalyst for the new literary movement in horror." His short story collection Martyrs & Monsters (DarkHart Press, 2008) earned a Bram Stoker Award nomination.
Chad Helder: Author of the comic book Bartholomew of the Scissors (Blue Water, 2008), dark poetry, fairy tales, and other literary oddities, Chad Helder is the Bram Stoker Award Winning editor of Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet (Dark Scribe Press, 2008), an anthology of queer horror fiction, which he co-edited with Vince A. Liaguno.
Vince A. Liaguno: Vince Liaguno is the Bram Stoker Award-winning editor of Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet, which he co-edited with Chad Helder. His debut novel, The Literary Six (Outskirts Press, 2006), was a tribute to the slasher films of the 80’s and won an Independent Publisher Award (IPPY) for Horror and was named a finalist in ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Awards in the Gay/Lesbian Fiction category.
Michael Rowe: Michael Rowe was credited by Clive Barker as "changing the shape of horror fiction" with the original horror anthologies Queer Fear and Queer Fear 2. A winner of the Lambda Literary Award, the Spectrum Award, and the Randy Shilts Award for Nonfiction, he was also a finalist for the International Horror Guild Award and the National Magazine Award. He is the author of several books and was, for 17 years, the chief Canadian correspondent for Fangoria. He is currently regular contributor to the Huffington Post and the author of the forthcoming novel Enter, Night.
Lee Thomas: Lee Thomas is the award-winning author of Stained (Wildside Press, 2004), Parish Damned (Telos, 2005), Damage (Sarob Press, 2006), and The Dust of Wonderland (Alyson, 2007). His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and he has won both the Bram Stoker Award and the Lambda Literary Award. Writing as Thomas Pendleton and Dallas Reed, he is the author of the novels, Mason (2008), Shimmer (2008), and The Calling (2009), from HarperTeen. Lee currently lives in Austin, TX, where he's working on a number of projects.
Dark Scribe Magazine: First and foremost, each of you is known for writing and/or editing horror with a distinctly gay viewpoint or flavor. What is it about horror as a genre that appeals to you?
Lee Thomas: From a reading standpoint horror appealed to me at a very young age, because it provided me with a sense of wonder. It suggested that the world we accepted as real was only a narrow view of a greater universe (this also appealed to me as a gay man). Having something less than a happy childhood, it provided a necessary escape.
Chad Helder: I love the horror genre because it provides limitless opportunities for symbolic representation--the best monsters mean something, and meaningful monsters are very powerful. I believe excellent horror embodies societal anxieties; the horror genre provides a powerful vehicle for expressing the anxieties of gay life.
Vince Liaguno: Horror has always been very cathartic to me. There’s that self-contained rush-release cycle within, say, a ninety-minute horror film or in a paperback novel through which you travel and, ultimately, survive.
Lee Thomas: As far as writing there are a number of things that draw me to dark fiction. For one, it’s a relatively untapped market when it comes to gay themes. Very little “gay horror” exists. There are a number of examples of erotica cloaked in horror tropes and high-camp/horror hybrids, but very little in the way of modern horror with a queer viewpoint. That’s changing, and new writers are exploring the vast possibilities of this particular type of storytelling, but right now it feels like an open field.
Robert Dunbar: What he said. (laughs)
Vince Liaguno: As a writer, by exploring the dark side of nature – human and otherwise – we shed light. As a gay man of a certain age now, there is a great appeal to understand and shed light on many things…on everything — human interactions, the dynamics of relationships, the interrelationship between man and the world around him. Horror is a sorely underrated vehicle through which we can uncover truth, I think, most effectively through the extremes our characters are placed in.
Robert Dunbar: Think about the artistry of writers like Henry James or Edith Wharton – all that passion and intensity. Their characters tend to have one thing in common. They’re “outsiders” in the most profound sense. How could a gay writer not be drawn to this genre?
Michael Rowe: Like Lee, I was a horror fan as a child. I’m not sure what it was, but I suspect it had something to do with the notion of permeable borders and transformation — magic, if you will. I loved the Halloween colors. We were living in Cuba around the time that I discovered Halloween. I can’t tell you how shocking the colors orange and black were in the midst of that tropical palette. As a kid I read Tomb of Dracula with fanatic regularity. I’ve read horror fiction my whole life. It was natural that I start to write it as well. Given how straight everyone was in horror, creating and editing the Queer Fear books, the first of which was the first of its kind, was a wonderful exercise in boundary-breaking, one that’s paid off, I think.
Dark Scribe: As adults, everyone has their favorite writers who’ve influenced their work. What I want to know about is the one influence on your writing that comes from your childhood.
Robert Dunbar: Oh, nice. Easy questions. Uh huh. Childhood no less. Okay, so there are things I carry with me always. And I’ve always maintained that sex and drugs saved my life. My earliest boyfriends all tended to be from the same mold: tender, crazy, doomed. Those ghosts are at the heart of my writing.
Lee Thomas: Universal Horror films! I was in mad love with those (and still am). When I was 8-years old I “re-envisioned” all of the biggies – Dracula, Mummy, Wolfman, Frankenstein – in a series of short “books,” and illustrated the stories myself. Due to strict copyright laws my early brilliance was never available to the public. (laughs)
Chad Helder: Definitely the gothic horror stories by John Bellairs, for example “The House with a Clock in its Walls,” which was illustrated by Edward Gorey.
Vince Liaguno: Hands down – Agatha Christie. I remember spending entire summers propped up under a tree in the backyard devouring all of her mysteries, from Death on the Nile and Cat Among the Pigeons to Murder on the Orient Express and my all-time favorite book – to this day – And Then There Were None.
Michael Rowe: Tomb of Dracula and Dracula Lives! These two comics from Marvel, the first a full-color monthly, the second in black and white, were beautifully written and employed a luxuriously lush, descriptive vocabulary that was a privilege for a young boy to be exposed to. I can still read them today without embarrassment, and I have no trouble with saying that I learned to write, at least initially, from [award-winning comic book writer] Marv Wolfman.
Dark Scribe: What prompted you to actually start writing? Did you immediately start out doing horror/dark fiction or is it something you progressed toward?
Michael Rowe: I’ve thought a lot about this one, because I’ve done a lot of other things in my life before settling on writing, even though writing was what I always returned to, and horror writing is what I’ve always loved best. I was writing horror fiction even as a child, pastiches drawn from things I’d read or watched. It was fun, and I felt like “me” doing it. I had my first publication in ‘Teen magazine when I was 15, a poem about unrequited love — a topic with which I was very familiar by then. In later life, I became a magazine journalist and a nonfiction essay writer, but my first horror publication (in Northern Frights 3, edited by Don Hutchison) rocked my world. I’d written it in the writing program at Harvard Summer School a couple of years before, and when I first saw it in the anthology, I felt like I was “home.”
Chad Helder: I actually wanted to write like J.D. Salinger until I started writing poetry at the age of twenty-one. As soon as I started writing poetry, the horror genre mysteriously intruded itself upon my writing – from my unconscious mind, I suppose (in a way that was not unwelcome) – and I’ve been obsessed with the genre ever since.
Vince Liaguno: I’d always written — from as far back as I can remember. I think it started with these little mini-tales (today we’d call them fan fiction) using some of my favorite DC Comics characters. Then, in the sixth grade, I co-wrote a pretty graphic horror story with a female classmate. Still have the original, handwritten sheets of paper with that story, too — frayed edges and all! Then life takes over and you listen to all that bad advice that parents and guidance counselors give about developing a “practical” career. So, for the last twenty-something years or so I veered off into a very successful career in healthcare administration before rediscovering my love of writing again around 2002. Now it’s the adult me that warns of abandoning the practicality of a career that pays the mortgage, but I’ve got a five-year plan now at least!
Lee Thomas: I just did it. No prompt that I’m aware of. Dark stories captured me pretty young. Then I wrote my first novel when I was 16. It was an awful werewolf novel and the characters’ names changed all the way through, but it struck me as pretty cool to have typed out (Yes, I’m that old!) 400 some-odd pages. It was twenty years and many novels later that I seriously started to submit my work for publication.
Robert Dunbar: First I wrote awful poetry for all those strange journals; then came readings at sinister little coffeehouses and galleries. Turns out I like to perform. And I’m good at it. Next thing I knew, I was being cast in experimental plays...from which I progressed to writing my own plays. Later, I hit major detours, doing articles for newspapers and magazines, then writing for television. But I think – on some level – I always knew where I was headed.
Dark Scribe: Do you write about what scares you personally?
Chad Helder: That’s all I write about.
Vince Liaguno: I think most writers do – although some may not even realize it or set out to consciously explore their own fears. Writing, for me, is an extension of who I am. So it’s inevitable that my fears, worries and anxieties, and exploration of that inherent dark side all come out in some form or another in my writing.
Lee Thomas: I write about what fascinates me, angers me, or confuses me. A lot of why I write is to figure things out. Every now and then I’ll hit a nerve close to home, and I’ll freak a little.
Michael Rowe: I write about what interests me. I’m often interested in being scared, so yeah, sometimes. But like Lee, I write about what angers or confuses me more than what scares me.
Robert Dunbar: I lived through eight years of George W. Bush. What could possibly scare me?
Dark Scribe: What was the very first work of horror that you read with either a gay character or homoerotic content and what was your reaction to it?
Vince Liaguno: Do the Hardy Boys count?
Robert Dunbar: Does the Bible count?
Vince Liaguno: Or perhaps Nancy Drew’s close relationship with her decidedly butch gal pal, George? (laughs)
Chad Helder: For me, the first work that connected the horror genre with gay themes was Gods and Monsters, the film produced by Clive Barker and directed by Bill Condon. After I saw that film, I discovered the connection always existed inside my own psyche.
Vince Liaguno: Actually, I remember reading Shadowland by Peter Straub when I was pre-teen and being aware of a homoerotic undercurrent – either real or perceived – running through the book. There was something of great sensitivity in the relationship between Tom and Del – and, of course, the whole notion of pubescent boys running around an all-male boarding school. (laughs)
Michael Rowe: I’m afraid my first encounters with gay characters in horror were much less convivial. I particularly remember some vicious portrayals of both gay and lesbian characters in the novel The Sentinel, a book I’ve come to realize was not only homophobic but also very badly written. I wonder if there’s a connection…? It was about a fashion model in New York who moves into a brownstone over the gates of hell. There’s a gay fashion coordinator who lisps and hisses and two stereotypical lesbians who masturbate over tea and cakes and threaten the heroine. In the novel they’re actually referred to as “a bull dyke and her lover.” Fortunately I had a great gift for transposition and had no trouble whatsoever identifying with the heroine character in any situation I chose to.
Lee Thomas: The first I was aware of was King’s Salem’s Lot (which had a minor character mincing in front of a mirror while wearing women’s clothes). The second was [James] Herbert’s The Fog. In both cases I read right over the queer content because I had no opinions about my own sexuality, let alone anyone else’s. Looking back, I see that they weren’t flattering representations, but they were acceptable to the general public because anything queer back then was still perceived as “provocative” and/or “deviant.”
Dark Scribe: For as long as any of us care to remember there have been really horrible depictions of gay people in mainstream media, including literature. With respect to writing or editing horror, are you ever concerned about “Wow, this isn’t the best presentation of gay people”?
Chad Helder: I do worry about that — sometimes I include gay monsters in my writing, but I think it’s my way of dealing with the negative representations of the past and internalized homophobia that still haunts me.
Robert Dunbar: My characters tend to be hustlers and junkies, but that doesn’t mean they don’t possess a streak of nobility.
Vince Liaguno: Writers have one responsibility and one responsibility only: To the truth of the story they’re attempting to tell. Political correctness is like a cancerous tumor to the integrity of a story. It has no place. We spent decades, maybe centuries, fighting to dispel misrepresentations of our lives in society…in the media. Well, with that power to dispel also comes a responsibility not to whitewash the truth for political or sympathetic gain.
Michael Rowe: I hate that “positive depictions of” anything bullshit. It’s deeply anti-art. I would never set out to write a gay character that was particularly horrible just for the sake of having a horrible gay character, but I wouldn’t flinch from embracing that aspect of a character’s personality if the story warranted it.
Vince Liaguno: Human beings are multi-faceted, and every one of us has a dark side. As much as we would wince if the media portrayed all transsexuals as maladjusted deviants, we should wince more when a writer or a filmmaker changes a storyline that has a transsexual serial killer for fear of offending the LGBT community. If that transsexual character is a serial killer, and the truth of the story supports that, then the truth of that story needs to be told in all its unflinching honesty.
Michael Rowe: If you’re deliberately indulging in stereotypes for their own sake, then that’s just as bad as sanitizing portrayals, but a character has to be what he or she is, and we ought to be well-past being so weak as LGBT people that we have to see “nice” portrayals of ourselves for their own sake in film and literature.
Lee Thomas: As long as the characterization is honest and complex, I could not care less if the gay character is a hero or a black-hearted man bitch.
Vince Liaguno: In my first novel The Literary Six one of the characters is an unsympathetic, sexually promiscuous gay man – one who has carried on a decades-long affair with a married bisexual former college chum and one who played a key role in a nasty game of revenge that resulted in a young man being horribly gay-bashed by his religious-zealot father. He uses his sexuality in a predatory way – and it’s ugly. But it's also the truth of who this character is at the novel’s outset. To have whitewashed that truth for fear that some reader in the Bible belt might read the description and walk away with some inaccurate generalization would be a tremendous disservice to both the readers and the work itself.
Lee Thomas: The fact is gay people are as fucked up and fascinating as straight people, and trying to homogenize us into simple, positive portrayals is as insulting as forcing us into the roles of soul-tortured suicidals or deviant predators.
Michael Rowe: There’s a whole sanctimonious school of gay men who carped about, say, Brokeback Mountain, piously opining that the very last thing we needed was yet another movie “where the gay character dies.” Well, tough shit. Guess what? We have, and do, commit suicide, or are murdered, for being what we are. When that ends, we can all hold hands and skip into the sunset. Until then, it’s part of our authentic experience, and if it’s authentic, then it’s meat for the literary beast — as, for that matter, are LGBT characters who are serial killer, bitches, whores, cannibals, vampires, backstabbing friends, or evil lovers we can’t seem to get rid of, even after they’re dead.
Lee Thomas: This is what’s missing in the horror canon, or at least what is severely under represented — from both straight and queer writers. We are no better and no worse than our straight counterparts, but we live in a culture polarized by queer issues. As a result we are too often boiled down to good (by our supporters) or bad (by our detractors or just incompetent writers leaning too heavily on stereotypes) with no nuance, no depth of humanity. Regardless of a character’s orientation, to present him/her as anything but a complete, flawed individual is big with the writer-suck.
Dark Scribe: As an editor, would you turn something down a piece of gay horror because there isn’t a single positive gay portrayal in the work?
Michael Rowe: It would depend on how they were written.
Robert Dunbar: It’s difficult to say. Few things outrage me more than censorship, but that’s the artist talking.
Chad Helder: If the characters are stereotypes without any depth, I definitely would.
Robert Dunbar: As a member of an oppressed minority, nothing outrages me more than hateful stereotypes, whether they’re racial, gender-based, age-related. This culture can’t bash people fast enough.
Vince Liaguno: Again, if it’s germane and true to the story, then no I wouldn’t reject the story.
Michael Rowe: If I smelled lazy stereotyping, I’d reject it. If they were authentically “bad to the bone” for a reason, and the story was great, then no.
Dark Scribe: I grew up adoring things like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, because they always had some type of commentary on the human condition. Except that “gay human condition” was conspicuously absent. And that brings up erasure of gay people from mainstream media. Has that influenced you as a writer or horror?
Lee Thomas: Sure. More than anything it pisses me off and makes me want to correct the situation. One of the first things we learn as horror writers is that people fear the unknown. Silencing our voices and our stories guarantees that many readers have no chance to get to know “us,” keeping queers in the category of “unknown.” As a result, the fear and ignorance aren’t addressed; they don’t fade. It’s incredibly damaging.
Michael Rowe: I think it’s too easy to say “erasure from the mainstream media,” which I don’t think is accurate. Gay themes were being seriously addressed in, say, YA fiction, during the 70’s and 80’s.
Robert Dunbar: LGBT people have always been present in mainstream media … as the butt of jokes…as grotesques…as cannon fodder.
Michael Rowe: Let’s hold horror fiction’s feet to the fire for a second and state, unequivocally, that the genre has not been LGBT-friendly for most of its existence. Gays and lesbians could either be monsters or victims, but horror has been a fairly macho, reactionary genre until very recently. That was the impetus for me behind doing the Queer Fear books — to tousle up that particular crew cut and say, “Hey, guess what? It’s not all just about you.”
Chad Helder: Definitely — I am very motivated to fuse the gay experience and the horror genre in my writing, in large part because it has been absent in the past or because the gay representation in horror has been very much on the victim side and not the hero side.
Vince Liaguno: There is, I think, an innate desire to bring forth stories from one’s own tribe. There was a long period during which LGBT persons were marginalized and stereotyped in TV, movies, and literature, and – although we’ve made leaps and bounds with both our presence and the quality and diversity of that presence in the arts – I still think we, as a community, fear being relegated again to the cultural backburner…to the butt of crude humor and cliché. So I think many of us focusing on – or at least including – homosexual, bisexual, or transgender themes and characters in our works do so in a subconscious bid to make sure that never happens again…to make sure that the proverbial closet door stays open.
Dark Scribe: Each of you is known for writing horror with a gay slant to it. Is this something that is a conscious choice on your part when you sit down to write?
Lee Thomas: Sort of. No. Yes. What was the question? (laughs)
Chad Helder: A few years ago I made it a conscious choice because I started to realize how my gay history was fused with the horror genre (fueled by anxieties about coming out and fitting in). Early on, internalized homophobia created monsters in the shadow side of my psyche.
Lee Thomas: I don’t sit down intending to write a “queer” story anymore than I sit down intending to write a “horror” story. I write what interests me, and yes, it’s usually dark as hell and fueled by a good amount of anger. As the story progresses, certain themes become apparent, so I tweak those and the characters, making them work within the context of the story I’m telling. Sometimes queer characters just work better. I’ve reached the halfway point in a story and realized the tone of the piece and its underlying themes are more relevant to the queer experience than the hetero. The reverse is also true.
Vince Liaguno: Writers write what they know. As a gay man, obviously my universe is colored by the rainbow in this sense. That said, I never sit down when an idea comes to me and consciously try to find a gay slant if the original idea had nothing to do with that particular aspect of sexuality or sexual orientation. As it stands, the ideas that come to me usually are framed within the context of what I know and have experienced as a gay man.
Michael Rowe: Vince is right: write what you know. The problem has been that “what you know” had been unwelcome for most of the history of horror fiction in this case. Writing from a gay perspective is tremendously liberating for a gay writer if that’s the slant you choose to take. Basically it’s assuming the same liberties that straight writers take for granted — the “right” to write from your own point of view. When they do it, no one asks them if they’re writing “with a straight slant,” but when we do it, we’re so often asked if we’re making a point. Well, no, not necessarily, unless the story requires us to make a point. Otherwise we’re just setting it in a world we’re looking at with our own eyes, artistic or otherwise.
Robert Dunbar: When I reviewed books for Lambda or Out or any of a dozen other queer publications, I was forever having genre novels assigned to me. Mysteries could be fun, but the horror novels had a depressing sameness: all these hot vampires, prowling the night. The only remotely scary aspect tended to be that these guys were hundreds of years old and still single! Despite all this, I’ve never equated horror with literary bottom feeding — that’s a relatively new attitude. Willa Cather and D. H. Lawrence wrote about the supernatural, and they weren’t exactly grinding out junk. Queer perspective is a perfect fit for the genre. Haven’t we all been made to feel like lonely monsters at one time or another? This world doesn’t tolerate difference well.
Dark Scribe: Each of you writes great yarns, but I noticed that very often there’s a subtle underlying theme or examination of some aspect of life, gay or otherwise, as a bonus. Do you find it necessary for your work to “be about something”?
Robert Dunbar: This from the author of Kelland? Talk about your multilayered thematic structures.
Dark Scribe: Thank ya, sir.
Robert Dunbar: You’re welcome. It’s an amazing book. (And I fell so in love with Toan!) In this genre, creating work with depth is more than a mandate — it’s a moral responsibility. So much of what passes for adult horror, gay or otherwise, is actually written on a YA level, regardless of how much sex and gore gets thrown in. All that “The Ghost and Mr. Muir” or “My Boyfriend is a Werewolf” bilge — it’s fine if you’re reading at a juvenile level, somewhat problematical if your literary tastes are a bit more evolved.
Lee Thomas: I hear young writers saying they don’t want to bother with themes or style or junk; they just want to write a good story. Well, a good story has elements that make it good. It’s not just a bunch of words recounting a series of events. If a story succeeds – even by accident – it’s saying something. All good stories are about something.
Chad Helder: I believe all literature should be about something. Sometimes this happens unconsciously — sometimes it’s planned.
Lee Thomas: Yeah, I don’t sit down to write something and consciously think, “I’m going to comment on the progression from moral intolerance to repression to perversion,” but it’s certainly a theme that has come out in my work more than once. That noted, my first goal is to engage and entertain the reader — because it’s all kind of pointless if you lose the reader in the second paragraph. Usually the themes get worked over in the redrafts. If they’re too heavy handed, I bury them a bit deeper. If they aren’t coming through at all, I punch them up.
Michael Rowe: Oh, my writing is always “about something.” I sometimes wish I could relax and not care as much, but I believe life itself is always “about something,” so my fiction can only be “about something” as well. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be by me.
Vince Liaguno: There’s also quite a bit of ego that goes into any piece of work so it’s almost inevitable that these themes we hold near and dear end up in the soup. Consciously or subconsciously, the writer wants his or her work to be about something…something that reveals or hints at a greater truth.
In Part 2 of DSM's exclusive roundtable discussion on the New Queer Horror, our panelists ponder literary taboos, discuss watershed moments in queer horror history, and sound off on the Lambda Literary Foundation's controversial move to exclude heterosexual writers from their awards program.