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.