Michael Rowe is the co-editor (with Thomas S. Roche) of two previous gay-themed horror anthologies: Sons of Darkness and Brothers of the Night, both of which skillfully balanced horror, humor, and eroticism. These anthologies were firmly focused on the vampire, a monster both sensual and horrific, and one that easily lends itself to different interpretations of sexual desire, social climates and mores, and human tragedies such as homophobia and AIDS. With Queer Fear, Rowe has opened up the focus from just vampirism to a wide range of creatures of the night and urban terrors.
My heart pumped madly in my chest -- much like a cartoon in love -- when I first read Rowe's introduction as he describes his adolescence. The same age as he, I felt a deep bond when he described the emotions of his youth in the 1970s and his similar experiences with adolescence: innocent desire, confusion, and I have to admit, yes, the same love of one David Cassidy, a love that was kept hidden (I think), except perhaps in the gleam of the eye when watching The Partridge Family. And we have a shared love of horror, from the comic books and cheap paperbacks of our youth, through Dark Shadows, and Hammer Films' pictures, on to the more mainstream flood of horror novels and movies in the late seventies and eighties. I've been on the same ride as Rowe, unable to quench my thirst for horror, but finding very little that represented my own emotions or identity. I've taken my monsters where I could find them.
The horror genre has long been almost exclusively the province of heterosexual writers and themes, stereotypically involving a male antagonist and female victim. Though there has been more writing in recent years that blurs the sexual orientation boundaries, there has never been an anthology of horror with all gay protagonists until Queer Fear.
The stories frighten, disturb, and make you question reality. No one wants to feel real terror, to fear for their lives, or the lives of those they love -- and there are real reasons to feel terror in today's world -- but that has nothing to do with the emotional enjoyment and release from a good scary read. Queer Fear is a striking, strong, dark, and sometimes disturbing collection of tales that expands the boundaries of the horror genre. The tales contain monsters both familiar and new.
The anthology starts off with a big bang. "The Nightguard," by C. Mark Umland, is a truly different vision of Hell: nasty, dark, and violent. Incarcerated in prison and brutally abused sexually, Umland's hero is faced with a horror we would wish on no human. Pain, sensory deprivation, and false hope all play into a deliciously brutal story that ends right where it should, with a fantastic, mean-spirited twist of fate that whomps you right upside the head.
Gemma Files' "Bear Shirt" is an amazing story of transfiguration and metamorphosis. A story of love, longing, and regret, Files' tale is also about the animal instinct within, about finding the inner beast, and one's destiny. Not wanting to give any details away, I will just say this story succeeds by reinventing a much-used theme in horror.
Dark, macabre humor is present in many of the stories, such as Ron Oliver's "Nestle's Revenge." Cujo, watch out: Nestle is a toy-sized terrier of demonic strength and willpower that not only causes major annoyance for Oliver's hero, but also leaves a wide path of destruction and murder.
Oh, those wacky Zombies! "The Sound of Weeping" is Thomas S. Roche's gift to the anthology. Short and sweet, Roche weaves sexual repression, forbidden desire, and necrophilia into one twisted, fast, fun ride.
There are ghosts here as well, such as those responsible for the fate of the hero in Becky N. Southwell's "Genius Loci." But these aren't your average bump-in-the-night, rattling chains, kind of ghosts. And this isn't your average ghost story. Southwell's story involves a boy's awakening sexuality, a summer job working at a camp, murder, and one pesky dead guy who changes our hero's life forever.
"Bird Feeders," by David Nickle, is one of the most interesting and original stories I've ever read. Nickle made me visualize Harryhausen-esque special effects as I read his story. I quite often envision B-rate special effects while reading, but they fit especially well in this adventure. Not your normal tale of murder and betrayal, nor your run-of-the-mill tale of a monster, this one will make you think of Colonel Sanders a bit differently. And I don't even eat bird!
The book also features work by Douglas Clegg, Michael Marano, Brian Hodge, Edo Van Belkin, William J. Mann, Caitlin R. Kiernan, David Quinn, Michael Thomas Ford, Robert Boyczuk, T.L. Bryers, Nancy Kilpatrick, and Joseph O'Brien. There are monsters lurking here, some just outside the door and others burrowed deep inside the heart. These 18 stories all show amazing depth, making this a striking and ambitious collection of fiction by some of today's best writers, with writing worthy of award nominations from both the horror and gay writing communities.
Though subtitled Gay Horror Fiction, this book will entertain anyone who loves a good scare, be they queer or straight. Not to take away from the importance of this being a gay-themed anthology, but Michael Rowe has collected a body of work that should be read for more reasons than just its novel focus. Maybe I did enjoy it more because I'm gay . . . but I don't think so. Though it is great to read a horror collection where the cast -- some good, some bad, and some very bad -- is gay or lesbian, ultimately it's about the stories. And the fear.
There's a storm coming.
The sky outside is now black, and the wind is blowing hard against the windowpanes, making them rattle like old bones. The lamps are flickering, and I think we may lose power. I'd better wrap this up and find some candles to light the coming darkness.
Hold tight. I think all hell is about to break loose.
--Michael Rowe, from the Introduction: In Praise
Greg Wharton is the founder/editor of suspect thoughts, a journal of subversive writing. Development Manager for a nonprofit arts education organization, husband of 18 years to an extraordinary man, father to two cats, avid antique toy collector, tennis junkie, and writer, Greg lives in Chicago and travels -- usually in his mind -- throughout North America and the world.
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