Amber Dawn's 2018 speculative fiction novel Sodom Road Exit is a book which draws its narrative power from its location. The title is a nod to the common name which townspeople (especially those who long to leave) give the road which turns into Fort Erie. I want to quote from a long passage where Dawn, through her narrator Starla, first describes the road and its history; I also wish to quote from this in order to give the audience a sample of Dawn's twisting but eerily elegant prose style, which infuses the rest of the work:
Sodom Road is the joke of the Niagara Peninsula. Travel south on Queen Elizabeth Way and you can’t miss the radiating letters under a bald sun, or at night, the reflective aluminum letters that rush to meet your headlights. They read “Sodom Rd. Crystal Beach,” with an arrow pointing to the expansive stretch of overgrown brush. The road’s name nods to the late 1880s when Crystal Beach was a religious colony and Chautauqua assembly. True story. The village was settled by Jesuits or maybe Methodists who soon found more secular entertainment and more profitable ventures than Bible Camp. The Holy Trinity was replaced by a dance hall, a vaudeville theatre, and a carousel. Hailed as the “Coney Island of the North.” Pity Sodom Road was never renamed. I might enjoy returning home via Vaudeville Road. Painted Pony Parkway. Something nostalgia-worthy. (p. 21)
The allusion to the Bible is obvious, of course, but, as Starla notes, it's also incomplete. In the next paragraph, she laments:
Will the driver also think it clever when Sodom Road becomes Gorham Road? Gorham (like Gomorrah) Road has never earned the same heckling. It’s unfair—both Sodom and Gomorrah were cities of grievous sinners, both destroyed by fire and brimstone, and so shouldn’t both share equal rights to innuendo? Lewd animal butt-lust sodomy is what stuck around our pitiful noosphere. Sodom. So be it. Welcome home. (p. 21).
As she rightly points out, Sodom and Gomorrah are the cities ruled by sin and destroyed for it, and, as Starla's story develops, she returns to this apocryphal tale in order to validate and revisit Lot's wife, the silenced woman at the heart of this story. Because Lot's wife looks back at the burning cities, she is turned into a pillar of salt. Precisely because she looks back, longing for the sin—but also, longing for the place that once used to be her home—she becomes a queer analogy for Starla. Indeed, Starla has returned home to her mother's house due to financial need, but she also comes back as a queer woman. As she takes on a night manager job and quickly becomes haunted by a ghost named Etta, Starla grapples not only with her lesbian desire, but also the lingering feeling that she both is like Lot's wife (forgotten, a pillar of salt), and also that she desires Lot's wife (a woman forgotten, like the ghost that follows her). Sodom Road Exit, then, becomes an extended meditation on these two distinct passages that I've quoted from here: returning home becomes cloaked in comforting nostalgia, while simultaneously there is an eerie feeling of forgetting and erasure, that something—or someone—has been left behind. The townspeople are only talking about Sodom, while forgetting Gomorrah, and do not even consider that there is Lot's wife at the centre of this tale.
Dawn's text is not the first one to turn the story of Lot's wife into a queer parable. The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (1952) drew its name from the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah; its ending (spoiler alerts, just so you all know), depicts Therese looking back at her lover Carol—and Carol's eyes meeting her from across the room. The book ends there, but neither one of them turns into a pillar of salt. Rather, they get a happy ending. The City and The Pillar by Gore Vidal (1948) also references the Bible story with its title, but Vidal's take is much more disappointing (at least, for me) than Highsmith's.
I bring up these references because it's important to understand exactly what Amber Dawn does with her title, but also with the myriad other references she sprinkles throughout her text. These references run from the highbrow literary throwbacks to what Starla is reading (such as Nightwood by Djuna Barnes , yet another Sodom and Gomorrah lesbian text), to the biblical parables that come into townspeople's heads when they seek to understand their experiences (especially when they begin to feel haunted), or numerous references to obscure Canadiana, intended to ground us in the very specific time and place of 1990s Fort Erie, Ontario. Sodom Road Exit draws its narrative power from these collective mythmaking structures, but it also updates them, haunts them, and definitely queers them.
The story begins with Starla's initial return to her old hometown in Fort Erie, from Toronto. She soon finds that everything is changed—much like Odysseus in The Odyssey when he finds his home overrun by suitors. The novel also echoes Homer’s text when Starla takes her night job and starts to interact with ghosts, mirroring what happens in the Odyssey’s lotus-eater episode. Amber Dawn's references, though, are not just to your stereotypical dead white men of literature or fantasy: they're also deeply rooted in Canadian fiction, particularly Canadian women's fiction. Not even the big Canadian names either; it wouldn't have surprised me to hear a few references to Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood, since Atwood's Handmaid's Tale (1985) revolutionized feminist SF (and Canadian SF), while Munro is known for a unique brand of Southern Ontario Gothic in which Sodom Road Exit also firmly fits. While Dawn does reference these heavy hitters, she then waxes poetic about Bronwen Wallace. Do you know who Bronwen Wallace is? I only heard about her a couple weeks before finally reading Sodom Road Exit, and, like Starla, I read a lot of Canadian literature. I'm also located in the so-called "Golden Horseshoe" where the story takes place—and it still took me until I was nearly thirty to hear of this Canadian writer.
All of these references matter—even if not all of them resonate with a reader—because these endless citations mirror how Starla feels when she moves back home. Fort Erie is full of references, memories, and shadows of her former life (objects like the macramé Jesus that her mother stores in her bedroom), but she is a very different person. It's not just her student debt or her queerness that makes her different, either, but the memories of past abuse and a literal haunting that warps Starla's version of herself and her identity. Her night shifts at a local campground slowly take over her life, eradicating her need for sleep and food. Eleven days in, and she's already lost enough weight for her mother to comment and for others to start noticing something strange is going on.
Dawn explores the tension between the strange and the familiar through Starla's numerous interpersonal relationships in the novel, but it is Starla's exploration of space and location where the idea of the uncanny—or unhomelike—really comes out. Fort Erie is home to Starla—but after living in Toronto for years and studying at university, it has changed. In an early chapter, she goes to the old Halls Candy factory and her childhood memories overwhelm her. She talks about the suckers they used to produce—such as the cinnamon, her favourite—with the same kind of vigour with which Marcel Proust writes about the madeleine cookie. One of the most poignant scenes (for me) happens early on after Starla gets her job. She has not technically started her shift yet, or made direct contact with the ghost, but an aura of the occult follows her in the first few chapters. She goes to a strip club and is suddenly ushered onto the stage; the performance is intense and quite explicit. When the stripper calls her by her real name, not a stage name, Starla realizes that her desire for the woman has been recognition all along. Not only was the stripper familiar—meaning that she was not a fantasy but part of a memory, evidence of a former life lived in for Erie—but Starla was also familiar. They know one another. After years apart, they are suddenly and fiercely reunited, and all by uttering a single name.
It is a powerful moment that reminds me a lot of Amber Dawn's similar urban fantasy and speculative fiction text, Sub Rosa (2010). The lead character of Sub Rosa is Little, a sex worker who is initiated into an underground realm of enchanted sex workers, and given superpowers which help her get out of trouble. Little's main quest in Sub Rosa is to leave the underworld of sex workers, even though the community is actually wonderfully enthralling and interesting, and find her birth name once again. This is Dawn's strength: she takes characters who are often maligned and treated poorly—the sex worker, the queer person, the abuse victim—and she gives them strength and humanity again. While doing this in her prose, she paints their worlds as horrific, but also magical. As I've written before, Dawn uses trauma to mythologize her characters' lives, and for me at least, this is intensely moving because it mirrors my own real-life experiences. Trauma is an experience that often exists beyond language in so many ways, something that is so hard to articulate that, once you get there, you seem to only speak in metaphors. You literally conjure ghosts instead of memories—and that is exactly what Dawn has done in Sodom Road Exit. She sets out to paint a haunted location—one so deeply rooted in our cultural, religious, and Canadian national mythology—but one that is also personal and deeply resonates in the real world.
For those who don't know, Fort Erie is a Canadian city just outside of Niagara Falls, close to the Canadian and US border. It's the home of Crystal Beach and an amusement park that is now defunct; Dawn goes into this history, in depth and beyond the passages I've quoted from here, but she adds an element of nostalgia to what is already uncanny. Many of her descriptions had me wondering if this was part of her world's mythology, or if there was something about Canadian lore that I was missing. It's already easy enough to make Fort Erie seem … well, eerie. Since it is so close to the Canadian border, it is a uniquely liminal space, one where a lot of people move in and out, but not many people stay for very long. Dawn takes this liminal and transient feeling and builds a moody, Gothic feel around the characters and the carnival/campground. Starla's night shift, along with her queer identity, also lead her to inhabit this haunted and liminal space. Then, of course, there's Starla's abuse history, and the memories of a mother's former boyfriend, which hang out at the edges of the narrative, spectres waiting and wanting to be let inside.
Dawn does not try to hide Starla's trauma from the reader; it is bare and laid out from the moment the book begins. But rather than revel in the horrific scenes of violence, Dawn's integration of these facts focuses more on the quotidian details of the aftermath. For instance, Starla kept track of each night that her stepfather came into her room by marking an X on the wall near her bed. We see these Xs in the story several times, especially when Starla becomes close with her girlfriend Tamara, but we do not see the abuse itself. The Xs stand in as another form of mythology, another symbol in the greater scheme of the book. The Xs are nothing big—yet their sheer magnitude overwhelms the reader when we glimpse them through the prose style. That is the effect of abuse, especially when it is repeated: it simply stacks up until it is too big to comprehend.
The ghost of a woman named Etta is the other way Starla's abuse seems to take on physical form. Etta's ghostly presence disrupts families at the park; she moves thing around; she lives in Starla's family house; and she appears in photos. Starla and a group of friends investigate Etta's presence in a very typical ghost story plotline, discovering that she died at the Crystal Beach fairgrounds while trying to get away from a man who was intimidating her; her body was never identified, so she was buried without ever being known. She is the forgotten, the unremarkable, the inarticulable—she is just like the abuse that Starla suffered under the hands of her stepfather. As Starla remarks at one point when she shows Tamara the Xs on her wall, it was such a relief for her to see these marks—even if they were the signification of something awful—because they meant it happened. They meant that the memories weren't fake; that there was evidence of the ephemeral.
This is the hard part about sexual trauma that Dawn manages to present with so much sympathy: trauma often leaves no marks. So her act as a writer of the struggle of a queer woman and abuse survivor is to render those marks—on the wall and on Starla's healed body—as real, but to also demonstrate how this type of trauma radiates outwards. Etta's ghost is a persistent reminder, a visible force, for the outside world—those who may not have been involved with the initial wound—to see the result of trauma. Etta is forgotten history, crying out to be witnessed, and named, in order to be put to rest. She is Lot's wife at the centre of the story, waiting for someone to realize that without her homeland she is now lost.
This type of ghostly apparition is not new in queer storytelling, either. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Terry Castle's fascinating work on The Apparitional Lesbian (1995), in which she analyzes the spectral appearance of female homosexuality in the modern novel. In so many ways, Castle's work feels like the academic counterpart to Dawn's novel. What I think makes Dawn's work distinct from the examples which Castle outlines, however, is that, while drawing on this Gothic lesbian tradition, Dawn makes it distinctly erotic (rather than subtextually erotic). Sodom Road Exit has a lot of sex in it, including ghost sex. Spectrophilia is often treated as a joke, as a quirk, or a strange kink to find on Amazon Kindle next to Bigfoot erotica. But Dawn's portrayal is distinct; it is not so much romantic as it is obvious, intimate, and necessary. Of course, there is a "supernatural lesbian threesome" (p. 264) because that is what you do, sure; but it's also what the characters themselves need to do. They need to acknowledge the ghost of pain, but then also integrate it back into themselves. To desire the ghost in this way is, in Starla’s case, to describe the scarred form of history. So rather than casting out the ghost—in the form of a typical possession story—there is a need to love, accept, and then move on with that ghostly knowledge of eroticization. In a way, I see the ghost sex in the novel as a way in which the abused body can be seen as desirable again, even if it has also been wounded. That is hugely important, and one of the ways in which, I think, Dawn attempts to redeem the location of Fort Erie, too.
This is what I mean when I write that this story is about location: it is a very physical story, both in terms of the stories we tell about landscape, and in the physical realities of that land itself. This applies to bodies, too, and how visceral they feel while also how spectral their experiences can seem. Sodom Road Exit takes the strange and eerie people who exist in this liminal reality and fleshes them out into full form, including even the ghost by the end of the story. Amber Dawn knows what she's doing in terms of storytelling and trauma, but she also knows what she's doing historically and spatially as well. Sodom Road Exit is the best example of Southern Ontario Gothic I've seen in a while—and if you don't know what that term means, then I highly suggest picking up a couple books by Timothy Findley, Alice Munro, and Barbara Gowdy while you're also tracking down the numerous other references that Dawn piles on in order to construct a realistic view into a fantasy life. And while you're there, get Sub Rosa, too.