The Vampire & Homoeroticism In 19th Century Gothic Literature (Part 1)

“But to die as lovers may – to die together, so that they may live together.”
― Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla

Note: I’ve added images of reference texts that delve into the topics of vampires, sexuality, queerness, and 19th-century literature within their pages. These are but a few, though ones I’ve very much enjoyed.

THE VAMPIRE, especially in its literary form, mixes elements of horror and sexuality. They’re a creature that symbolizes both otherness from heteronormative society and liberation from sociocultural restrictions on sexual behaviour. In the nineteenth century, sexuality was a taboo topic in Christian Europe, let alone homosexuality which was soon to be known by the euphemism, “the love that dared not speak its name.” This is a phrase taken from Lord Alfred Douglas’ poem, “Two Loves,” written in September 1892, and later used in the Oscar Wilde trials. 

In response to this sexual suppression, Gothic Literature utilized the heightened sensuality associated and accepted with supernatural “deviance,” especially vampirism, to circumnavigate this sexually puritanical ideology with coded language, innuendo, and suggestive imagery. [Image On Left: The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature by James B. Twitchell, 1981]

Spanning the nineteenth century, from “Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Dracula by Bram Stoker, there’s a noticeable, yet often subtle, homosexual presence among the first pieces of what Anne Rice liked to call “vampire literature.” The incidents of lesbian vampiric relationships, which appeared first in the literary vampire tradition during the early part of the nineteenth century, further illustrate the essential sexual nature of the vampire’s relationship with its victim. In such early works as Carmilla by Sheridan le Fanu and “Christabel,” there are solid lesbian relationships based initially on mutual friendship but then go beyond platonic affection.

The process of “queering the text” allows for a close introspective reading of vampire fiction to look both at and beyond the obvious to the more subtle hints of homosexuality between characters—between vampire and prey. Queer Theory offers the reader the tools to see texts in a different light, to both view and validate the sexual nature of a vampire as one that surpasses the boundaries of heterosexism in literature. [Image On Right: Reading the Vampire by Ken Gelder, 1994]

However, while there was a recurring theme of queer women in 19th-century vampire literature, the same can’t be said of male homo/bisexuality. The first significant occurrences of male homosexuality among vampires and their victims didn’t occur until well into the twentieth century during the sexual revolution of the nineteen-sixties, a far cry from the repression of the nineteenth century. Works like the Hammer film The Brides of Dracula (1967), with the film’s gay as hell antagonist, the vampire Baron Meinster, and Anne Rice’s 1976 novel Interview With the Vampire, which depicts overt homo/bisexual male vampires, are such examples.

Male vampires of the nineteenth century, from John Polidori’s Lord Ruthven in “The Vampyre” to Varney the Vampyre, invariably sank their teeth into female victims. Dracula is the exception and one I’ve spoken about in an earlier BLOG entry: READING BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA THROUGH A QUEER LENS, though I’ll explore it further in Part 2.

Still, a close reading of some of these 19th century texts involving male vampirism does hint at the possibility of male homosexual desire that, despite being denied, again, except for Harker and Count Dracula, is still awakened in the characters through their homosocial situations and exposure to homoeroticism—at least subtextually.

“”Varney the Vampire,” by James Malcolm Rymer and Dracula, by Bram Stoker, as well as the rest of the male vampires of the nineteenth century, are heretical by definition. Still, their emotional life is as compartmentalized as any Victorian patriarch’s. In the nineteenth century, women had few choices: they could marry or be depleted emotionally and financially. When females were turned by a male vampire, they became little more than an extension of their male creator, much like the wives of the Patriarchs whose family names they took. [Image On Left: Cover from one of the original publications.]

 When the female victim in “Varney the Vampyre,” Clara, rises from her coffin after being made into a vampire, she has nothing to say. As Rymer writes: “And now the light… shone on a mass of white clothing within the coffin, and in another moment, that white clothing was observed to be in motion. Slowly, the dead form that was there rose up, and they all saw the pale and ghastly face. A streak of blood was issuing from the mouth, and the eyes were open.” Clara’s individuality has been stripped away, and her features are no longer hers; she’s indistinguishable from the white clothing she’s draped in. Her entire countenance becomes Varney’s fabrication: his creations come alive but are not unique, as they’re now an extension of his ghastly vampiric self. 

 In Dracula, Lucy Westenra, the vivacious ingenue inspired by Rymer’s Clara, also loses her individuality and playful flirtatiousness and takes on the animalistic nature of her male vampire creator. Stoker writes Arthur, her fiancé, exclaiming upon seeing her Undead state, “Is this really Lucy’s body, or only a demon in her shape?” and recalls, “She seemed like a nightmare of Lucy as she lay there.” It’s noticed that after Arthur drives a stake through her heart, Lucy’s harsh, fiendish expression, which had characterized her transformation from Lucy to “bride of Dracula,” disappears, and a face of pure sweetness and innocence reappears. Thus, her individuality and nature return once her bond with Dracula is broken.

Carmilla’s story is very different. As far as the reader perceives, she acts autonomously and falls in love via her authority. Remembering back through the centuries, Carmilla, as Le Fanu writes, reveals to Laura the story of the “cruel love—strange love” that turned her into a vampire. Though she leaves the gender of her creator unspecified, the word strange, the 19th-century euphemism for homosexual love, as implied by English writer Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909), who dealt with controversial topics of the times, suggests that Carmilla’s maker was most likely female. Unlike Varney and the egomaniacal Dracula, many vampiric women left no signature to claim ownership of their creations. Carmilla’s sexuality and desires are her own and not the projection of some megalomaniacal creator.

Carmilla has all the agency of her male counterparts but with none of their erotic ambivalence. Carmilla targets the nineteen-year-old Laura, the daughter of her host, and proceeds to seduce her. As Le Fanu writes, Laura recalls, “She used to place her pretty arms around my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear… And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses glow upon my cheek.” Le Fanu mixes those elements of horror and sexuality within his work as Laura reacts to Carmilla’s advances with both “adoration and abhorrence.” The homoerotic is explored but still only within the confines of Christian morality. Carmilla is a lesbian but still deviant, still vampiric. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel,” the first vampire poem in English, began the theme that would reappear in vampire literature: lesbian vampire relationships. The poem centres around the vampiric relationship of Christabel and Geraldine, the vampire. The poem is riddled with scenes of obvious lesbian overtones.  [Image On Right: Christabel and Geraldine from The Blue Fairy Book (1891), ed. Andrew Lang; illus. H. J. Ford and Lancelot Speed.]

After sharing a bottle of wine, Geraldine suggests that Christabel undress, after which Geraldine partially disrobes, revealing her breast. Coleridge writes: “Behold! Her bosom and half her side… A sight to dream of, not to tell.” This intimate revelation of female flesh is a symbol of friendship, yes, but Christabel is aroused by this vision, though she acknowledges that it is homoerotic; as such, it must remain secret. As Geraldine’s intentions are homoerotic—her desire to have Christabel naked in bed with her—they’re forbidden, yet undeniably present. [Image On Left: Our Vampires, Ourselves. Nina Auerbach, 1997.]

Also, the scene when the two women lay together for an hour has a very strong lesbian overtone as well. Christabel exclaims, “Oh Geraldine! One hour was thine—Thou’st had thy will!” The following day, Geraldine awakes refreshed, while Christabel awakes with guilt and immediately goes to prayer. If one queers this text, it appears that Geraldine’s vampiric nature is entirely at ease with her sexuality; she can enjoy the pleasures of homosexuality without feeling the trappings of Christian guilt. If Geraldine was a lesbian in life, her vampiric nature would have heightened her existence as a sexual being. The same may be said of Carmilla. 

On the other hand, Christabel is confused by the homosexual desire she has felt and performed physically, feels guilty like a stereotypical nineteenth-century Christian would, and “once under Geraldine’s spell, [Christabel] prays.” It’s fascinating to see how the overtly sexual nature of the vampire allows both Geraldine and Carmilla to empower lesbian eroticism within the restrictive morality of the time frame that Coleridge and Le Fanu wrote in. Like Laura in Carmilla, Christabel, as a victim, doesn’t have to take responsibility for her homoerotic desires as she was seduced by dark forces. [Image On The Right: Blood & Roses: The Vampire In 19th Century Literature. Adele O. Gladwell, Editor.]

Carmilla and Geraldine, as vampires, are deviant, but this negative connotation doesn’t diminish their sexuality or sensuality in the reader’s perception. Perhaps it was Coleridge and Le Fanu’s intent to explore the homoerotic and arouse their readers with forbidden fruit while cleverly saving their own work from condemnation through Christabel’s personal guilt towards her “sin” and Laura’s rescue from Carmilla through the vampire’s destruction. It seems the guilt of Christabel was enough for critics and censors of the period to allow the story’s sexual nature to go without reproach. As for Carmilla, the vampire was destroyed by the patriarchal and, most assuredly, heterosexual men whose women she threatened, so she served to reveal a moral for the time: vampiric sexuality, “unnatural sexuality” or homo/bisexuality, won’t be tolerated by the Christian norms of the Patriarch. [Image On Left: Horror by Mark Jancovich, 1992]

If a reader views these stories as ones about the influence of temptation, then as long as a person of traditional values who is seduced by them realizes they must repent, all may be forgiven. Ironically, the appeal of homoeroticism still gets through in the text. Carmilla and Geraldine are two of the few self-accepting homosexuals in Victorian literature.

BOOK REVIEW: UPON THE PALE ISLE OF GLOAM: A GOTHIC HORROR NOVELLA BY MARK GULINO

“This place is damned.” – Mark Gulino, Upon the Pale Isle of Gloam: A Gothic Horror Novella 

 

A DARK, atmospheric, often pensive narrative, Upon The Pale Isle Of Gloam: A Gothic Horror Novella by Mark Gulino, presents a moral tale about choices, accountability, and the possibility for redemption, but at what cost? The author delves into the theme of trauma, including loss and the ominous prognostication of more losses to come, as well as trust betrayed. It’s often ugly and violent; this is horror. 

These are complex, often tricky tropes to engage with as a writer. Will the reader connect to a character’s pain and suffering? Will they empathize with the terrible circumstances that coloured their lives and formed the person they present openly, be they sympathetic or antagonistic? What about a character’s reaction to bad choices, theirs and others? Will the reader agree with all redemption arcs, whether the outcome is achieved or denied? Fate is often cruel and seldom fair. And does everyone deserve a chance at redemption? Can all things be forgiven—or perhaps, altered?

This is a writer’s puzzle to solve. And this author does so brilliantly. 

From the beginning, the characters are washed ashore with murky backstories as memory is stolen by the eerie Isle, a forsaken place where daylight goes to die. Perhaps so does hope. The motives of the Isle’s prisoners are blurred, and loyalties are shaky. How does one escape this nightmare, let alone stay alive in it?! Who can you trust in this place of torment and horrors? Is a happy ending attainable or even merited?

 In his novella, Gulino endeavours to answer these questions through the riveting deconstruction of his flawed characters and their life choices, particularly the pivotal moment in their lives, the fulcrum, that led them to such a mysterious, desolate isle. The author has the isle test not just his character’s survival skills and will to live, but their ability to trust in, and rely on, others. This is a sinister place that seems unmoored to time and space, perhaps even sanity. And that’s what makes this work such a captivating read.

  Overall, the author has achieved the moral narrative he intended to showcase with this work. Sure, there may have been an intriguing character whose story was cut short. There may also be a question or two left unanswered, like why some visitors to the isle fare better than others in acquiring aid and companionship. Still, the story packs a wallop! And for the length of a novella, where a reader shouldn’t expect to have everything laid out for them in exhaustive detail, Gulino has more than provided a stylistically rich, haunting narrative that’s pure horror entertainment. 

Gulino’s narration style is very in keeping with 19th-century literary work, especially gothic texts; it’s often quite formal and descriptive. Still, something that might give a reader pause is the author’s preference for florid language, mainly in the first half of the novella. Now, anyone who has read my work KNOWS I love descriptively rich text that evokes poignant imagery as one reads through the story. I wrote an earlier BLOG entry on it [See THE PROSAIC FORM CANNOT COMMUNICATE MY MEANING]. I don’t shy away from the occasional use of magniloquent vocabulary, though I realize it’s not for everyone. 

There is a danger in placing these types of literary moments too close together, however: it can interrupt the reading flow if one has to look up words too often. And yes, there were two times I had to stop to look a word up, and it briefly took me out of the story. This type of writing is totally valid; it’s an author’s preference for story-telling. The only issue is that it can challenge your readership, and perhaps that’s the intention, but it can potentially limit your audience. But always be true to the type of writer you are, I say. 

For lovers of the Gothic genre, Gulino writes very much in the vein of 19th-century Gothic masters such as Edgar Alan Poe and Sheridan le Fanu. There’s even a solid nod to Dante’s medieval opus, the Divine ComedyPale Isle of Gloam embraces and masterfully adapts many gothic tropes: oppressive darkness, a foreboding landscape, isolation, monsters and things unseen that haunt and hunt. The narrative excavates the hidden parts of a person’s tormented soul, exposing their darkest secrets and regrets.

In contemporary terms, think like this: Gulino’s Upon the Pale Isle of Gloam: A Gothic Horror Novella takes the best gothic aspects of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, adds to the mixture the complexity of female protagonists found in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and filters them through the lens of a TV show like Lost. It’s spooky, engaging, and very often surreal as it explores human inner turmoil amid a haunting, supernatural backdrop.

Upon the Pale Isle of Gloam: A Gothic Horror Novella is available for purchase at amazon.caamazon.com, and Barnes & Noble. For more information about this author, follow Mark Gulino on Instagram and visit his Website.

Memorable Reads of 2023

 

“And books, they offer one hope that a whole universe might open up from between the covers, and falling into that universe, one is saved.” – Anne Rice

AT THE beginning of 2023, I made a New Year’s Resolution to read more. Specifically, I wanted to choose reading over watching TV in my downtime. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with watching TV—in moderation, and that’s something I’ve always battled with. And it didn’t have to be exclusively novels. I read those narratives, of course, both long and short, but I also enjoyed novellas, short stories, graphic novels, and, not surprising to anyone who knows or follows me, comic books. 

I’m not completely satisfied with my year-end result; I could have done better. Still, I’m happy knowing I can do it; I can select reading over Bravo shows (I wouldn’t be surprised if we never saw Denise Richards again!), Cartoon Network, Shudder, and Judge Judy reruns. 

Here’s the thing: I plan to make the same New Year’s Resolution for 2024! Sure, sure, I also want to work out more; I can’t wait to be screamed at by far too peppy instructors who look like Greek Gods wanting me to bike harder on the Peloton! And I must endeavour to write on a tighter, more structured schedule. And no, writer’s block is not an excuse to go to Starbucks for a Green Tea Frappuccino. Well, I mean—OK, but not so much this year! I have some resolve.

To finish out 2023, I’m using this last BLOG post to highlight 15 books I read this year that particularly stood out to me. Some were as scary or thrilling as hell, while others pulled at my romantic heartstrings. Some took me to wondrous and magical places, and some brought me back to an era of history and adventure I always dreamed about living in.

Similar to what I read in 2022, many of these works had significant LGBTQ+ content, which I’m unapologetic about. This past year, I made a conscious choice to focus on reading horror, thriller, fantasy, and romance that featured LGBTQ+ characters and queer experiences within these Genres, and they had to feel respectful and authentic. 

The following list is alphabetically organized by last name and does not exclusively contain works published in 2023. Also, it does not include graphic novels or comics (though Rainbow Rowell’s SHE-HULK graphic novels are exceptional, and anything by Tom Taylor, especially NIGHTWING, is outstanding!).

Hell and Gone by Tal Bauer 

In the Crazy Mountains of Montana, a man is hanged, two cowboys go missing, and hundreds of cattle have up and disappeared. Amid a sprawling rural community, corruption is around every corner. Greed leads men to do terrible things. And if two gay men, a rancher and stock inspector, find romance amid danger and mystery, all the better.

Cold Day Dawning by Thom Collins

Set in Nyemouth, a small town on the northeast coast of England, the novel takes the reader on a journey of suspense, murder and romance involving a missing sister, a love interest with PTSD, and dark familial revelations.

The Devil Wears Pink by Matthew Dante

Originally published in the MM Anthology Cruising, this updated and lengthened story is a wonderfully witty romance involving a delightful game of vindictive pranks and one-upmanship between two different gay men. A terrific May-December gay romance on a cruise ship amid the Seven Seas.

Love To Hate You (Revised Edition) by Matthew Dante

Along with a new cover, 5000 words have been added to the original text, increasing the story’s already captivating humour, sexiness, and emotional depth. This is a heartfelt romance about a gay man living a fast-paced lifestyle in Los Angeles who returns to his hometown after being betrayed by both his fiancé and so-called best friend to pick up the pieces of his life and start over. Oh, and the very hunky but loud and often annoying next-door neighbour may be interested in helping with that.

 

Oracle: A Story From The Reels by Brian B. Ewing

A well-crafted Urban Thriller, this is the first book in a series that focuses on Tom Sisto, an introvert with a tragic past gifted with a psychic power to experience first-person memories of victims and evil-doers alike. Oracle reads like a well-paced, cleverly constructed story arc from an engaging TV crime procedural. Viscerally gut-punching mystery.

Nomad: A Story From The Reels by Brian B. Ewing

Like OracleNomad focuses on a particular serial killer, but this time, the maniac has no ties to Sisto; the killer is a completely unknown variable. A compelling, character-driven Urban Thriller that’s a must-read. This book has so much to offer: biker culture, undercover police work, allies and adversaries, including a cunning, calculating serial killer, and an independently wealthy, newbie police officer with a psychic gift. A story with grit, suspense, blood, and tension!

 

The Housekeeper by Talbot Finch

 This historical “novelette” focuses on the relationship between two Victorian men over a short period, but its length doesn’t diminish its impact. The depth of emotion and connectivity between the two men, the only featured characters in the story, as they each discover their mutual attraction is powerful and touching. This is a magnetic queer love story about a broken man using emotional and physical isolationism to deal with past trauma and its life-altering consequences, rediscovering joy through the intervention of a compassionate stranger.

Violet Reverie by Talbot Finch

This work takes inspiration from the gothic romance novels of the nineteenth century. Finch utilizes same-sex desire, emotional connectivity, the battle for authenticity, and even jealousy to enrich his narrative with passion and intrigue. And he never loses sight of the romanticism. A haunting, foreboding atmosphere. Complex, often tortured relationships. Is this a book that features the supernatural or psychological trauma brought on by fear and anxiety? Very compelling fiction! If I were to pick one book above all others as my favourite for 2023, this would be it.

Raven’s Creek by David-Jack Fletcher

Masterful misdirection, complex flashbacks, intricate plotlines, and a f*ck ton of awesome monsters. Smartly written horror with queer content, including two gay husbands in over their heads, and science gone AMOK, AMOK, AMOK! Not for the faint of heart. For a moment, even I was like, “Am I sure about this?!” LOL

Second Go-Round by Andrew Grey

A thoughtfully written novel about an older gay couple, a former world champion bronco rider and his rancher husband, who have been together for decades (finally!), but things have admittedly gone a little stale. This is a story that features how vital communication and effort are to sustain healthy, lifelong relationships, gay or not, and to not take the one you love with all your heart for granted. It’s a complex gay romance with some steam mixed with a dash of realism featuring a demographic too often ignored today in favour of YA relationships. 

A Queen of Blood and Glitter by Benjamin Kissell

A beautifully written Dark Fantasy with a uniquely poetic text that harkens back to the work of Edmund Spenser and John Milton but with a distinctly queer and contemporary flavour. The half-Faerie drag queen, Blodeuwedd, aka Miss Nomer, has a score to settle. They’ve suffered a terrible loss resulting in a deep pain that demands vengeance. A clever plan is conceived to get that revenge. Remember, it’s not personal. It’s Drag. But of course, it secretly is personal–and Blodeuwedd’s drag persona Miss Nomer is a vehicle of vengeance, a powerful personality, a dark, striking image created and weaponized. Fabulous never looked so deadly.

Of A Certain Age: Romance In Reno 3 by Lee Maxwell

Well-paced gay romance with angst and dramatic tension only inserted into the narrative with thoughtful intent to move the story along. There are multiple meaningful conversations between the protagonists and supporting characters around several topics, including, obviously, age differences in relationships. Of A Certain Age has a level of maturity in the narrative that must be noted. 

Apparitions by Adam Pottle

An ambitious piece of writing featuring queer and deaf characters in a predominantly rural Canadian setting. It has a documentary-style feel and a significant leaning toward psychological thriller—even an aspect of crime fiction serialization. The novel has a strong component of Gothic Horror: claustrophobic elements, vivid, disturbing nightmares, and multiple seemingly inescapable, bleak landscapes. It’s not always a comfortable read, but Pottle’s passion for inventive storytelling and a robust desire to create a space within contemporary fiction for the Deaf community—for Deaf queer characters—makes his work compelling, entertaining, and invaluable.

Suddenly, Last Summer by Michael Robert 

A sweet, beautifully written gay romance that shines a light on unrequited love, discounting the agency of younger gay men to know their hearts and maybe some later regret in the face of second chances. It’s a savvy narrative about maturity, pining versus perseverance, and romantic reminiscing. The dialogue and inner monologues are often quirky and might not resonate with some, but take it with a grain of pickles–I mean salt. If you get it, you get it.

Take Me With You by Michael Robert

I’m a sucker for a good, soapy amnesia storyline, especially when it’s as well-written as it is here. A great thing about the novel is that while it encompasses a lot of traditional melodramatic tropes, like a rich man/poor man, small-town atmosphere, forced proximity, and amnesia, Roberts writes it all with such an easy hand; nothing feels forced or expected. The deep emotional connection I had with the characters and the setting is a testament to Robert’s writing skills.

Well, that concludes the reading and reviewing portion for 2023. I can’t wait to start diving into some new works, including many on my TBR List, starting Jan 1st! My first pick? Upon The Pale Isle Of Gloam: A Gothic Horror Novella by Mark Gulino.

Vindictive Too – 1 Year Anniversary!

Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing. – Sylvia Plath

TODAY, DECEMBER 14, marks the 1-Year publishing anniversary of my sophomore novel, Vindictive Too, a companion to my debut novel, Vindictive, which celebrated its 2-Year anniversary last month. Both launches were days filled with joy, excitement, and pride in knowing that something I had created was now a part of the world outside my head and computer. My goals and desires were made manifest through publishing: a complex, often frustrating, yet exciting process. 

And it was a long time coming. I was in my 40s before I saw my first book in physical, printed form. And a hardcover! My dream!

There was no small amount of anxiety occurring around these times, knowing I had exposed myself to both the delight of others who read my work and their criticism. But like the drag duo The Boulet Brothers’ postulate, art is subjective, and I’m incredibly grateful to all those who have enjoyed my novels. It’s all good. I wrote these books for me, first and foremost. 

 As Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” This is precisely how I feel about my books and how I felt when writing them. I wanted something that was the child of Twin Peaks and Revenge but set in Canada and with queer characters. I could always find pieces in books of what I wanted to read, but never my entire vision, my desired fiction. Especially the queer Canadian-set melodrama. Thrillers that were missing the quirkiness and the camp. Gay Romances that were too cozy with not enough vengeance! I read some great stuff, but I was looking for something else, something more specific to—well, me! Not too bold a statement! LOL 

I initially endeavoured to add a supernatural element to the narrative but found it distracting from the thriller aspect. So, I went for a straightforward revenge-thriller route but amped up the soapier, dramatic segments to compensate for the absence of a supernatural twist. And I think it worked, as Kirkus Reviews said Vindictive is “…an entertainingly soapy affair!”

In Vindictive Too, however, there are moments with Chloe’s character where you wonder if her perceptions are entirely psychological or if something else is happening. Did I dabble into the supernatural, or is it all in her head? It’s open to interpretation. I took a much more defined route in the first draft concerning her character, but ambiguity breeds curiosity and exploration, which can make for a more compelling read. 

I do have a surprise in the third book. You may get a clue if you read my novella (I can’t say the title yet, sorry!), which will be published in 2024. And that’s all I’m giving away!

And, speaking about my love for soapy melodrama—

I’ll say it: I’m a gay man who has done his fair share of throwing shade, admittedly, only sometimes for humour. Yes, occasionally, I’ve been petty and intentionally mean-spirited. I’m human. I learned to use words as weapons early as a defence mechanism. So, ya, I wanted to add a component of sass and bitchiness to a few of my characters. Reading someone to filth to destroy their confidence or to punish arrogance with a devastating set of well-timed remarks can be, well, fun. Just ask Jules.

Or ask Kirkus Reviews, who also called my work an “action-packed tale of spite.” Sounds fitting.

How fellow LGBTQ Thriller author Matthew Dante described my novel. And he’s not wrong.

Sometimes the reads are funny. Other times, they’ve been absolutely meant as daggers. In any case, I’ll let my readers decide how these shady moments come across—how they perceive them.

Currently, I’m working on the third book in the series, which has a working title of Final Vindication. I’m taking my time with no set-in-stone deadline; it will be done when the muse says so. That said, definitely look for more of my work next year—but with a twist! I know you won’t be expecting this tale! 

Again, thanks for joining me on this vengeful journey! And congratulations to whoever wins my Instagram/Facebook Giveaway! A personally signed hardcover copy of Vindictive and Vindictive Too will soon be yours!

 

Book Review: Apparitions By Adam Pottle

 

“Violence was his first language.” – Adam Pottle, Apparitions

APPARITIONS, BY Canadian author Adam Pottle, is a novel about a nameless Deaf teen—a survivor of extreme child abuse—who befriends an emotionally troubled Deaf youth named Felix while in a psychiatric institution in Saskatchewan. Felix teaches “John Smith” Sign Language while they’re confined there, finally giving him a voice and providing agency. But Felix may not be the benevolent saviour “John” thinks he is.

This is an ambitious piece of writing. It has a definite documentary-style feel and a significant leaning toward psychological thriller—even an aspect of crime fiction serialization. There’s no supernatural or slasher fare, but there is a strong component of Gothic Horror, such as claustrophobic elements, vivid, disturbing nightmares, and multiple seemingly inescapable, bleak landscapes. The work holds tremendous impact in the vein of Stephen King’s Misery. Like King’s novel, it’s never necessary to work around the rationale that “the Horror Genre, by definition, doesn’t have to justify the horrific within the narrative.” There’s intent with every move, every scene [with one possible exception I mention later]. There’s a more profound message Pottle conveys with his story than thrills and kills for entertainment purposes only. In any event, the story had a tremendous impact on me regardless of genre classification. [Above Image Property of Adam Pottle]

First and foremost, Pottle is a gifted writer. He unquestionably understands vocabulary and how to use words to convey both action and emotion. His ability to construct poignant phrases, like “My first language wasn’t Sign. It was violence,” reveals a storyteller who is contemplative yet intentional. He wants to affect as well as educate. Entertain along with illuminate. It’s inviting; I want to invest my time.

The work is fiction, but the novel’s overall structure is quite lyrical, almost poetic in its cadence; this is endearing, but it also creates an issue on a technical level for story comprehension. I occasionally lost my focus on who was speaking and, more importantly, how they communicated, as the subject of Deafness is integral to the story. I would have preferred a more clearly differentiated narrative voice: “spoken language” from “Sign” and both from “thought.”

This labyrinthine structure carries through the novel, and I want to understand why the author chose this route. Perhaps a level of difficulty or temporary displacement is intentional on Pottle’s part as a way to textually enact a form of emotional and cognitive empathy. Maybe readers are meant to place themselves in the shoes of his deaf and tragically misunderstood characters. To feel in some small way how challenging it can be to navigate a world that doesn’t always actively embrace, understand, or provide easy accessibility for those labelled “different,” such as Deaf people or emotionally fragile children dealing with trauma.

I love the Thriller Genre, but as a general rule, I don’t read books where children are victims of malicious violence. It’s not something I can digest without negative emotional feedback—the kind that lingers. But the blurb hooked me; it’s very successful at capturing attention. I was definitely intrigued enough to disregard the listed “trigger warnings.” 

Not surprisingly, the most challenging aspects of the narrative for me—and I’m sure for many others—were the scenes of child abuse: unadulterated degradation and torture. This is horror, but not to the degree of a Saw movie. It’s less sensationalist entertainment and more illustrative commentary on brutality and dehumanization, especially in relation to the most vulnerable in our society.

Textually experiencing an adult’s cruelty toward another adult is hard enough. When it’s a child and one with a disability that is exploited by their tormentors to produce an extra level of humiliation and pain, the difficulty of being an engaged reader is magnified. The dog and cage moments were upsetting. I understood the horrific nature of that young character’s plight long before those specific scenes appeared. Were they gratuitous? Maybe, but this is the only time I felt this way. As I stated earlier, during my reading, I felt Pottle’s conscious effort to ensure every aspect of his story felt prudent, so nothing came across as needless. That said, these scenes might have been visceral, cinematic experiences to readers with a more robust constitution regarding this type of textual violence as story propulsion. To each their own.

The novel is set in the past, predominantly in the 70s and early 80s, and deals with some heavy issues, especially in keeping with the time frame(s). Subject matters such as ableism, sexual orientation and exploration, religious abuse, unethical medical practices, and mental illness exist on top of the overarching themes of gross child abuse, criminality, and violence. Pottle’s writing is exceptional here; it never comes across as dated or clumsy, always maintaining the flavour of the specific eras in which the narrative voice exists. You can see where the author’s diligent research mixes with thoughtful exposition to enrich his story.

There are unique components of the True Crime biography Helter Skelter peppering the narrative, especially Felix and “John’s” story. Similarly, I’m reminded of the human lessons found within Deaf-centred works like the films Children of a Lesser God and Beyond Silence, two favourites of mine Education and manipulation. Verbal communication and Sign. Christ-complex and misguided loyalty. Wanted independence and fear of exclusion. Complicated child and adult/parent relationships. It’s a cornucopia of topical issues—then and now, all masterfully handled. 

With his novel Apparitions, Adam Pottle gives us much to experience and unpack, and it’s not always an easy, palatable endeavour. It is, however, undeniably emotionally engaging. The ending is dramatic yet melancholy, and it does feel somewhat clipped. I wanted more because of my hunger for closure and a more significant sense of fairness for the main characters. It’s very complex and not always a cut-and-dry case of good and evil. But what Thrillers ever wrap it up in a nice bow at the end? These were not tidy lives, so why expect tidy endings.

A passion for inventive storytelling and a strong desire to create a space within contemporary fiction for the Deaf community—for Deaf characters—makes his work compelling, entertaining, and invaluable. 

Apparitions is available for purchase at amazon.ca, amazon.com, Chapters/Indigo, and Barnes & Noble. For more information about this author, follow Adam Pottle on Instagram and visit his Website.

INTERVIEW WITH URBAN THRILLER AUTHOR BRIAN B. EWING

 

Brian B. Ewing: “ When writing, whether it be a short story, a standalone novel, or a series, I tend to envision it in a movie or television format.

I’d like to welcome Brian B. Ewing to the BLOG. A self-professed, “dark-humour, word-vomit enthusiast,” Brian is the author of The Reels series of Urban Thriller novels: OracleNomad, and Brimstone. He is also an accomplished short story writer, such as the dark science-fiction tale Obsidian and the urban legends mystery Mutiny. Brian was born in upstate New York but raised in Saratoga Springs until 7, when he moved with his family to Arizona. He still lives in “the Grand Canyon State,” but now with his wife, four kids, and more than a few family dogs at any given time. In this interview, Brian discusses his affection for gritty realism in thriller stories, how the narrative’s tone dictates the level of sex and violence present, and the importance of diversity and inclusivity in contemporary fiction.

My reviews of Brian’s work can be found in earlier blog posts.

Who or what inspired you to start writing, and when did you know it was time to move beyond writing for personal pleasure toward the intimidating world of publishing? How did you handle any nerves or anxiety about showcasing your work to a global audience? 

I have always been into movies and TV shows. I remember once, when I was in third or fourth grade, we had an assignment to create a story. Most kids had turned in a page or two, and I turned in something ridiculous, like 12-15 pages. I don’t remember the exact movie, but I do remember the story I wrote essentially was a novelization, and then the second half was what I felt should have happened after those credits rolled. After high school, I took a few college English courses and a creative writing course. Even then, I never went into those courses with the intention of writing professionally. I just enjoyed it. 

Most people don’t get writing jobs that pay mortgages right off the bat, so any of those ideas went to the back burner while I tried to build a family life and pay bills. It was in 2019 that I was really itching to create a story that I kept having ideas for. I had many variations for the story and spent months writing away. While I never really knew it was going to be something I would finish and publish, I just wanted to have something for myself that I created and enjoyed at the end of the day. In 2020, when everyone was sent at my work to remote positions at the beginning of the pandemic, it saved me about three hours of commuting a day, so I knew if I were to ever have the opportunity to buckle down and focus on my writing, it was during this period. Over the next five months, I wrote and re-wrote numerous sections of Oracle, which I was really proud of and surprised by the end result once I finished it. 

To answer your question about being nervous or anxious about showcasing my work, I probably should have been more nervous about the situation. I didn’t know what direction to go with it regarding what I would do once completed. I worked in an office with an older co-worker who loved books and stories and was retiring. He knew what I had been up to and offered to get his eyes on my work. Then, there was my wife, who, while probably unsure I could even string together an entire story before this, was very supportive then and now. Between my co-worker, my wife, and some high praise from the professor at the time for that creative writing class I had taken, I felt confident and that my support system was intact. It could have sat on my laptop forever once completed and just been mine, and I probably would have been just as happy. But, after discovering people really did enjoy following my characters’ journey, I’m glad I drove a bit harder and pushed myself to publish it. 

So far, your published work is distinctly in the Thriller genre. One could even classify your “A Story From The Reels” series as Dark Urban Fantasy if we regard Tom Sisto, your main protagonist, and his preternatural “gift” as a defining factor in expanding its genre classification. Before composing your first novel, did you know you wanted to write a story with classic thriller motifs rather than explicit horror? Was it a conscious endeavour to write “crime fiction” over more “slasher” fare? Using a serial killer as an antagonist, which you often do, has to be a tightrope walk for an author to decide how far to push the envelope. I know you’re a horror fan; we’ve talked often enough about it. Is it hard to find that perfect balance between, say, Bosch and Silence of the Lambs

To me, explicit horror can be a powerful tool, but if that is the main substance of the story, I can get bored. I love a good thriller, and whether it is more of a whodunit or a character study of opposing sides of the situation, you need to give the characters enough realism and individuality to where anyone reading can sit and go, “Oh yeah, I know someone like them.” 

Pushing the envelope is a fine line. You can definitely lose those readers who are just chomping for a nice little thriller if you go too graphic or too vulgar. You can also find the people on the other side of that spectrum who wanted more and felt disappointed. The level of how dark you want to go has to match the story’s tone overall, as well as where you’re willing to take your protagonist. At the end of the day, you’re taking a journey with your main characters. In the A Story From the Reels series, I have safeguards in place for Tom Sisto. He has already been through hell and back before we even met him. He has a very dark humour to his outlook on situations, allowing me to take him further at times and let him come out of it on the other side in one piece. 

I love that you used the two examples, Bosch and The Silence of the Lambs! I am a huge Michael Connelly fan. His writing is something that definitely influenced me over the years. However, being a realist, that world of realistic police detective storytelling is something that he owns in the industry right now. You can make an effective thriller, but if your goal is to tell a grounded story and give the audience a taste of something that could be 100% genuine, Connelly will probably do it better than you with over thirty years of research, interviewing, background, etc. I wanted to take elements of writing styles I admire and put them in a blender to create a story that resonates with me. In the end, all writing is supposed to really be for yourself, isn’t it?

How do you navigate the placement, context, and degree of sex and violence in your work? Both exist within your novels to varying degrees, but you showcase the violence more viscerally and frequently than the sexual encounters. Is this intentional? Do you feel excessive sex depictions distract from the core story, even altering the feel of the work into the sub-genre of “Erotic Thriller?” Do you worry that sexually charged narratives are taken less seriously than straightforward nail-biters?  

It’s not an intentional act on my part, at least consciously. I think, to me, sex can enhance a story or distract a story. I’m not opposed to including more sex if the overall storyline can get driven forward by it. I think there are many great sexually charged narratives out there that are extremely effective, but I don’t know if Sisto has gotten a case that would bring that world into his stories. When writing, whether it be a short story, a standalone novel, or a series, I tend to envision it in a movie or television format. With the Sisto and the Reels series, each book is like a television season. You can have a thread continue throughout the series, but each book should have a beginning, middle, and end and hold a similar tone. That isn’t to say that one day, Tom Sisto won’t get wrapped up in an underground sex crime story.

Working in the Thriller genre, you know that pacing and creating tension are pivotal to the story’s success. We all love the inevitable big “AHA!” moment at the end, but getting there–the thrills and chills–makes or breaks a novel in this genre. How do you go about accomplishing this feat? Do you plot your significant moments of “terror” and “revelation” beforehand and work the tools of suspense around them? Or do you write with a general idea of where you want to go and organically feel the anxiety and anticipation, placing yourself in the positions of writer and reader, working it out as you go along?

I constantly ask myself if I should lock in a particular process when going about these stories, but I honestly haven’t solidified one specific route. I always start a new story on a notepad and pen with just scribbles of ideas and certain scenes I clearly envision. I attempt to use those starting points to figure out what theme I want to have prevalent for the story, then try to get a few bullet points of key events written down before I start. If I can get the ending down as well, fantastic. I have learned that having the ending at the story’s conception can help drive the narrative, but the ending you start with can change by the end once you get into the nitty-gritty of it.

It’s a very common statement to hear the phrase Your hero is only as strong as the villain you pit them against. I agree to an extent. The first story in the Reels series was solely from Sisto’s perspective. You were on a journey with someone learning how to play the game created by a killer. I don’t think that the direction I took was restrictive by any means, but as we all do, we grow and want to further explore. You probably noticed in book two that we’re not just graced with Sisto’s perspective but also the killer’s. I think it’s essential to create three-dimensional characters. Luckily, in a series, you can slowly build out your side characters, which allows you more time to focus on the immediate story and give more page time to the protagonist and antagonist. As the series continues, if you stay diligent in providing your side characters with little bits of personality, by the end, you will have a rich universe of characters. 

Another observation I keep in the forefront is that a villain never sees themselves as a villain. Either that or something drove them to those depths, and they relish in the path of destruction, finding their actions justified. If you can write them in a way that you don’t always agree with their choices but can understand them—the investment in the story amplifies. 

While a book may hide the villain throughout, some books give you the villain upfront. You still need to have those “AHA!” moments, like you said. This is where you can build around your character’s universe. There are no rules to how you present your story. You can have the unexpected occur, and it doesn’t have to fit any format you have read before. On the other hand, you can go in hard with a trope, but if you make it your own and tweak it slightly, you can still achieve that feeling of excitement and thrill that readers of the genre anticipate. I enjoy testing these limits and styles with each new book.

In Nomad: A Story From The Reels, you seamlessly and cleverly incorporate LGBTQ characters into the novel without the need for their sexuality or self-identity to be justified. They exist and have a purpose within the narrative sans overwrought emotional baggage they must work through before entering the story’s crux. Regarding the topic of queer content in your work, what prompted you to consider using LGBTQ characters and to do so in a way that is, in my opinion, creatively unexpected and defies stereotypes?

People in the LGBTQ community exist. Not putting someone from that community into our work would eventually be more off-putting to the story than including them, right? Without giving anything away, the inclusion was simply expanding and building the universe that Sisto surrounds himself in. I’m glad you enjoyed the added character and appreciated the approach to their introduction and execution of the story. You may have read in the series a moment where Sisto is giving Detective Bell a hard time for being an old man, or maybe one where he’s making a dumb comment to one of the gay characters stereotyping what society typecast them as, or another moment associating a redhead to the killer doll Chucky, things like that. You would also notice, I hope, that none of those situations are malicious. I never go into a character and desire to offend people; I don’t think too hard about including or excluding things from these books. Eventually, EVERYONE will be included, and no one will be off limits to Sisto’s observations or comments, nor should they be. If you don’t want to exclude anybody, you must include them at some point, right?

The character of tech whiz and urban “cool girl” Ama Navarro [last name a nod to Dave Navarro? :)] is Indigenous, the child of a Spanish-European father and a mother of Sioux-Indian descent. As the “The Reels” series progresses, you further delve into Ama and her maternal grandmother’s culture, especially the spiritual side. These women become a pivotal support network for Sisto, even using aspects of their cultural beliefs and practices to provide insight into his “gift” and its purpose. What advice would you give a writer attempting to navigate the potentially tricky path of respectfully broadening cultural diversity in their work? 

First and foremost, we are fiction writers. Unless you’re trying to get knowledge of a particular group of people out there to the world, take some key facts from your research and sprinkle them in with your own thoughts to drive the story. The story is the end-all, be-all. If you find a fact interesting, add it to the story if it makes sense. If you add it to the story just to have flare, that is when you have done the character and the culture a disservice. Like you said, and you nailed it, by the way, this element was brought into the storyline to help Sisto learn a little more about himself and allow him to lick his wounds when he falls throughout the course of the story.

Bottom line, if you include diversity, use it. Don’t state it and then let it fall by the wayside. However you end up using it is up to you, but there’s a very real term that my daughters like to use, and it is FOMO: (the) fear of missing out. Everyone wants to be included, and we live in a world where we are so integrated at this point that it does not make sense to not put those situations or characters into your story and use them to colour the world you’re presenting. As far as Ama’s last name goes, Navarro was one of the names I found when researching common Spanish surnames and could have subconsciously stood out to me because of Dave Navarro, but it wasn’t an intentional homage to the man. 

I can’t talk enough about how much I love the covers for all three novels in your “The Reels” series. They’re simply dynamic, especially the use of colour. My attraction to the artistic quality of the covers caught my eye, leading me to purchase Oracle. How important is the cover selection process to you, and did you have a hand in creating yours? Do you think a cover defines a book, inhibiting or enhancing its appeal to potential readers?

I was VERY lucky to find the artist that did my covers. When the idea of writing this story got closer to actually being published, I saw many free cover creators. I knew I wanted to have a theme in my series and a uniqueness that would stand out on the bookshelves. I spent days searching sites and found a designer with some work in his portfolio that I was drawn to. There were some thriller book covers I thought had a similar look to what I was going for, and I reached out. They were very responsive, took my ideas (I had many), and created a few variations. I definitely put them through the wringer on the first book, having them completely change the look and feel a few times until I felt like that’s the cover—and that is Sisto and his story. Then, the designer knew I wanted to carry a similar look to the first for the second and third books so they could identifiably be associated with the same series.

I think covers have become less defining for books in general, but as I’ve stated, I grew up with a love for movies and television. When I write or even read my stories, I envision them in my head, and I very much wanted to have a movie poster feel for the covers as we went through that process.

What is the best and worst advice you’ve ever received regarding writing or publishing? Furthermore, drawing from your own experiences and your “learned lessons,” what advice would you give other writers looking to tackle the Thriller genre or just writing in general?

You will get a ton of “Nos” when shopping for literary agents or publishers for your book. You may get feedback, you may get nothing. The biggest piece of advice I can give is to just keep pushing and don’t give up. If you have a story that you feel is worth spending the time to write, and you want it out for yourself, then do it. If you’re only interested in publishing to get rich, I highly recommend you re-assess why you’re writing. There are many faster ways to get a quick buck.

One really good piece of feedback I got when submitting was from one literary agent who took the time to reply. She stated professionally what she liked and what she wanted more of, which was helpful criticism. She recommended a book—which I bought; I LOVE to look at it throughout my writing process. The book is called The Emotion Thesaurus. I’m not nearly as verbose in my vocabulary as some writers. That book definitely has been a good resource during the second and third drafts of my stories.

What book on the nightstand or in your eReader are you currently devouring?

I currently have two books I’m reading. I do a lot of driving, so while on the road, I’ve been listening to the newest Lincoln Lawyer series audiobook by Michael Connelly called Resurrection Walk. It’s the seventh book in the series, and over time Connelly has blended his universe of characters together, so while it is a Mickey Haller book, we do get some time with Harry Bosch from the Bosch series as well. The writing is more grounded than I could ever duplicate, but it’s done with such finesse that the story is enthralling from start to finish, as are most of his books.

The second book I’m reading at home is a physical copy of Stephen King: On Writing. It was a birthday gift from my mom a few months back, and it’s been a fun read. King is another icon in the industry, but this inclusion of his more personal side is fascinating to me. Before this, I had just finished King’s latest novel, Holly. Observing the love he has for this particular protagonist, starting way back as a side character in Mr. Mercedes and growing into the woman she’s become, has been fantastic. I look forward to the next story involving her.

What does the future hold for author Brian B. Ewing? Do you see an eventual end to “The Reels” series, retiring Tom Sisto, or are you still brimming with exciting storylines for him? Do you have plans to crossover into writing other genres, like Horror or Sci-Fi? Is there a Dark Urban Romance somewhere inside you?

I love many of the cousin genres that our friend, the thriller, dips its toes in. Currently, we do have a fourth Reels book moving forward. This one will be Sisto’s most in-depth and personal story yet and will use elements built into his universe throughout the series. What I love about these characters is that we get to follow them on their journeys with each new book. Most of them tend to grow and learn from events they experience in the previous books. It’s art imitating life in that way. The person you are at thirty is not the same person you were at eighteen. While I could and may continue to write stories for Tom Sisto throughout my life, I will try to let him rest a little after this one. 

I had the time last year to create a fun short story, which I put out free on Wattpad.com. It was called Obsidian and follows a new lead character named Davis Russell. This story has more of a dark science-fiction underline to it. I grew up watching horror and sci-fi movies with my cousins, courtesy of my Aunt, a spectacular woman who broke down the sometimes visually disturbing aspects of movies. She explained them to us so we could continue to, say, enjoy the rest of the film after an alien disembowels somebody, ha! Being my first real dive into more sci-fi ground, I learned a lot, but it still has the feel and pace of a thriller.

There’s a third project I have a very, very rough outline of that I’m excited to focus on after the new fourth Reels book. I don’t want to dive too deep into the story as I’m still writing down concepts and bullet points for it, but I do have an ending envisioned already, so it’s just about building around that idea. I can say it will have a few different points of view, one of a detective and another of a man in prison. There’s more than meets the eye in both of their situations. 

Thank you, Brian, for discussing your work and writing process with me and exhibiting such passion for the Thriller Genre. As someone who writes in the Queer Thriller Genre, it’s exciting to see another author’s approach to writing dark suspense stories. I eagerly await the fourth installment of The Reels series, and I, and I hope those reading this, will be sure to watch out for future additions to your Wattpad.

For more information about Brian B. Ewing, visit his website and follow him on Instagram

Brian’s work can be purchased online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Powell’s City of Books. Read his short stories on wattpad.

 

Book Review: Violet Reverie By Talbot Finch

“Nathan felt a chill in the air and an irrepressible feeling of dread. He clambered to his feet and found his way to the bedside table. He grabbed the matchbox from the drawer, and with trembling fingers, struggled to light the candle he kept close by. The footsteps were nearly there.” – Talbot Finch, Violet Reverie

Violet Reverie, by Talbot Finch, takes inspiration from the gothic romance novels of the nineteenth century, much in the vein of Charlotte Brontë and, in a more modern interpretation, Vincent Virga’s Gaywyck. As I’ve stated before, 19th-century fiction, particularly the gothic romance & horror genres, is my cup of green tea. (My nod to Sheridan le Fanu, there.) Characterized by a haunting, foreboding atmosphere and complex, often tortured relationships, these novels generally end in a Happy Ever After. Set in the nineteenth century, before the events of Finch’s companion novella, The HousekeeperViolet Reverie is a captivating example of how a contemporary author can use tropes associated with period gothic romance novels but do so in a subtle, less “on the nose” fashion. And do it successfully. I don’t indulge in hyperbole when I say I REALLY enjoyed this. [Image On Left: Author Talbot Finch. Property Of Talbot Finch]

I thoroughly engaged with the novel’s protagonist, Nathan, a gifted violinist with a psychic power that often overwhelms him. Banished to his aristocratic family’s summer manor on orders from his tyrannical father, Lord Hambleton, Nathan is diagnosed with a “weak constitution” and prone to “hysteria” by his family doctor, an arrogant man with a sinister agenda. Some see Nathan as written too immature, irrational and overdramatic—and I’ve read those reviews—but they don’t grasp that these emotional responses make complete sense in the context of 19th-century medical and social control of women. Only here, the victim of this patriarchal abuse is a young (gay) man. 

Nathan is genuinely plagued by fear, which bleeds into anxiety and depression; he lives a life where he has little autonomy. And his future? He doesn’t see one where he’s in control of his actions and his decision-making. He’s even presented with the potential of forced confinement in an asylum, which would make anyone, even a young adult man, act out in a way that appears to emotionally regress them. Nathan is sensitive, not immature, and an easy target of patriarchal manipulation. As readers, we must step outside our modernity and place ourselves in the shoes of period figures, or the disconnect felt with this type of literature is our own creation.

Historically, the theoretical postulation of Fainting Woman Syndrome was a tool employed to control women and suppress their autonomy; it could also be found in period drama and literature as a mechanism to disempower and connote female fragility. Here, the author contemporizes his story by making the victim of “hysteria diagnosis” a gay man, creating a queer reinterpretation of a conventional period melodramatic trope. Even adding the threat of confinement to an asylum rings true to the patriarchal constructs of the time and the literary scenarios it influenced. If Lord Hambleton and Dr. Mathis had their way, Nathan would become our modern version of Charlotte Brontë’s “Bertha Mason.” Only more “mad gay in the attic.”

Nathan does maintain some awe and wonderment toward his preternatural abilities, but more so, he’s afraid and confused by them. While this extra-sensory ability allows him to know things about people and connect with them on a heightened, nearly spiritual level, they’re unpredictable and seem impossible to control. It feels more like a curse, an attack, than an advantage. There’s a component of PTSD from an incident relating to his abusive father in the mix, and these combined devastate Nathan’s self-control and ability to cope. The author is deft at capturing the feelings of suffocation, despair, panic and emotional distress in these more dramatic scenes. The trauma is real. Or is it imagined? Or both? Textually, Finch has positioned his reader to be fascinated and anguished while we experience Nathan’s struggles.

The novel is filled with intriguing supporting characters, especially the handsome love interest, Peter, Mrs. Fairchild, the summer home’s housekeeper with a heart of gold, and Nathan’s brother’s fiancé—with a shocking secret of her own. They all add to the believability of the period narrative; we have been taken on a true journey to experience an aristocratic Victorian manor and the era’s rules, decorum and classism. Finch doesn’t disappoint in propelling the story forward with juicy secrets, hidden agendas, and potential threats, weaving a compelling Victorian melodrama, yet one that feels “elevated,” not schmaltzy. And there is a shocking tie-in to The Housekeeper. The novel is nicely paced and well-written; the structure reminded me of a Henry James novel, though not yet at that precision, but the potential is definitely there. 

Now, about that romance—! Rurally raised, Peter isn’t a one-dimensional love interest for our aristocratic Nathan; he’s a fleshed-out character whose emotional composition is expressive and realistic. We get to know him intimately as the novel progresses: his background, dreams, and past sorrow. He’s carefree and nurturing, but unlike Mrs. Fairchild, his attention toward Nathan is a progression of romantic interest, not just friendship. What’s going on here is so much more than a simple “Friends to Lovers” trope. This is Fated Love, soul-mate territory. And I ate it up!

Interestingly, Peter’s sexuality isn’t cut and dry from the start. I had to take a step back from my assumptions that this was a straightforward gay romance written thoughtfully in the context of sexually repressive, even dangerous times. The reluctance to express sexual and romantic authenticity is explored in the novel, but not at the expense of tenderness. By staying true to the gentleness of the love story, Finch doesn’t blight the romance or the novel’s ambiance with too much harsh, homophobic reality.

You could say the way many embrace this non-traditional romance, even aid in its flourishment, is hard to swallow, considering the homophobia of the times, but I say, who cares! Finch writes the characters that support this relationship with a quality of personality and a profound adoration of these two men that would brook no other option but to embrace love is love. 

In Violet Reverie, Finch utilizes same-sex desire, emotional connectivity, the battle for authenticity, and even jealousy to enrich his narrative with passion and intrigue. And he never loses sight of the romanticism. Yes, I’m a fan.

Violet Reverie is available for purchase at amazon.ca and amazon.com. For more information about this author, follow Talbot Finch on Instagram & Facebook. Also, visit his Website.

 

A Look At Romance Vs Practicality in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

 

“Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own: in pain and sickness it would still be dear.” – Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

IN CHARLOTTE Brontë’s 19th-century novel Jane Eyre, our heroine is confronted with a choice: a love fueled by emotion or one driven by reason.

The brooding hunk Rochester’s proclamation of love comes from his heart; his feelings are genuine, stemming from fiery passion. St. John is a cold, pragmatic man whose feelings for Jane come from his intellect; his desire is based on functionalism, notions of compatibility and practical character traits. As Jane and Rochester’s relationship blooms, she responds in kind to his advances by loving him from her heart; it’s a meaningful connection.

St. John’s attempt to woo Jane is a desire to “create a relationship” instead of falling in love. He’s determined in his belief that she’ll make an ideal partner and doesn’t put forth much effort to open his heart. St. John uses common sense to appeal to Jane’s rational mind; he’s looking at the advantages to home and hearth over romantic compatibility and physical attraction. In response to this ploy, Jane inevitably turns cold toward St. John, pitying him. By expressing St. John’s refusal—or, perhaps, his inability to employ feelings over reason in his pursuit of Jane, Brontë reveals his true role in Jane’s life as the antithesis of Rochester’s romanticism. [Image On Left: Ethel Gabain’s Rochester Proposing to Jane (1922)] 

Rochester embodies heart-felt, human emotion. He doesn’t allow analytical thought to overshadow or interfere with his feelings, going so far as to show his affection for Jane physically without hesitation. One of my favourite lines from the novel is when Brontë writes, “He held out his hand; I gave him mine: he took it first in one, then in both his own.” It’s a simple gesture of affection, given freely, but in an era of oppressive decorum, it has profound meaning. I think of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence when Newland Archer removes Countess Olenska’s glove to hold her hand or when he caresses her cheek. This is quintessential 19th-century passion in fiction: quiet eroticism opposed to overt hypersexualism. This subtle yet effective demonstration of love reflects the yearning for Jane inside Rochester’s heart, and he’s unafraid to let his guard down to openly reveal those feelings. As the novel progresses, so does Rochester’s comfort level in actively engaging in both the emotional and physical aspects of romance.

Here’s another great moment between Jane and Rochester: “‘Come and bid me good-morning,’ said he. “I gladly advanced; and it was not merely a cold word now, or even a shake of the hand that I received, but an embrace and a kiss. It seemed natural: it seemed genial to be so well loved.” It seemed natural. By using what he feels in his heart and showing his affection openly, Rochester affects Jane in a manner that compels her to open her heart to him. It’s beautifully symmetrical, this mutually positive exchange, with Jane relishing the pure, non-mechanical delivery of affection. Unlike his rival, Rochester is open to romance—to romancing Jane. The giving and accepting of authentic love is a fundamental part of who Rochester is. [Image On Right: Art (1903) By Edmund Henry Garrett]

St. John, however, only offers Jane detachment and rationale: the regulation of emotions. He even voices this: “Reason and not feeling, is my guide.” By exemplifying these traits, St. John can mask any feelings that might be stirring within him for Jane behind a veil of intellect. Emotions are often unpredictable, and the uncontrollable frightens St. John; he finds comfort in the dependability of sense over passion, logic over lust. His stoic behaviour remains steadfast throughout the novel. He isn’t overly empathetic toward Jane’s struggles, and his interest in her is founded not in compassion or connection but in qualities he admires, like endurance, perseverance, and industrious talent. Unlike his rival for Jane’s attention, St. John dislikes tangible showings of affection, even advising Jane not to engage in them with any tenacity. His refusal to practice physical communication shows severe emotional rigidity and discomfort with true intimacy and expressive connectivity. St. John becomes a robot: mechanical and guarded concerning his feelings. His coldness doesn’t go unnoticed by Jane; it unnerves her, creating distance between the two.

Each suitor’s marriage proposal is vastly different. Rochester’s bid is sincere, reflecting his devotion to Jane: he wishes to treasure her forever, a love bonded in marriage. He’s honest about his feelings, openly displaying them when he showers Jane with compliments one would expect to hear from a love-struck fiancé. Rochester finds Jane’s sunny disposition compelling over, say, her appropriateness as a wife and homemaker. Jane believes in the veracity of this paramour’s love, absolutely.

St. John proposes marriage to Jane, not because he’s in love with her, but because she embodies the desired traits he seeks in a life partner. When he describes to Jane the characteristics in her he most admires, he uses words which suggest that rationality is the motive behind his proposal. And it’s not that these qualities are inherently wrong; they just don’t carry any romantic association. St. John never uses spirited terms like “desirable” or “beautiful” to describe Jane. There’s never any real passion behind his words or moves. The attributes he mentions are more suitable to a pet than a paramour.

The one refreshing thing about this trainwreck of a possible relationship is that neither party is fooling themselves into thinking that a marriage between them would be anything more than one of convenience and practicality. But Jane will not abide by this option, going so far as to say to St. John: “I scorn your idea of love. I scorn the counterfeit sentiment you offer.” Jane Eyre is not a woman who will simply exist within a loveless marriage. [Image On Left: Art (1903) By Edmund Henry Garrett]

Jane’s attraction to Rochester results from his ability to connect with her heart and entice her into doing what she secretly desires: embrace emotion as easily as he does. Her inner need for excitement is personified in the romantically dynamic figure that is Rochester; his mystery and sensuousness make Jane come alive like no other man. Rochester’s utilization of emotion over reason enables him to ultimately penetrate the cognitive barriers Jane has initially set up to protect herself and guard her feelings—psychological and emotional blocks similar to St. John’s. By revealing his true self and ability to connect with his emotions, Rochester’s romancing encourages Jane to abandon her defences and embrace passion.

 St. John’s willful disregard for romantic feelings opens Jane’s eyes to the truth about surrendering to reason and suitability. St. John is a hopeless pragmatist who’s more concerned with the practical aspects of life than the aesthetic ones, the sensual. He disregards both the wants of the heart and the pleasures of the flesh, focusing instead on controlling his emotions by shutting out those who aspire to love him romantically. Jane eventually sees that St. John would make an unsuitable husband, especially for her, because he cannot reach women on any fundamental emotional level.

At times, Jane does show aspirations toward self-denial and self-control like many strong-willed nineteenth-century fictional heroines endeavouring to navigate their era’s patriarchy. So her attraction to the discipline St. John has mastered over his life is understandable. Thankfully, Jane does see that giving in to this ideology would be a mistake. She can’t hide her feelings for Rochester, nor can she live in denial: she’s not in love with St. John. [Above Image On Right: Art (1903) By Edmund Henry Garrett]

The ability to see that St. John’s unfeeling rationale is a dark cloud over her head enables Jane to realize that her feelings for Rochester are real and can’t be masked by asceticism. Hence, Jane leaves St. John in his pursuit of stoicism and what is sensible and serviceable and follows her chosen path toward romance and genuine affection with Rochester. By turning to romantic love, Jane’s physical, as well as emotional, self begins a rejuvenation, something rationality has never achieved for her. Knowing that Rochester loves her deeply strengthens Jane’s resolve to adhere to romance and stay the course. By taking Rochester’s lead and expressing her emotions openly, Jane’s life is enriched, and her future, married to Rochester, is bright.

 

 

Review: The Housekeeper: A Gay Victorian Novelette By Talbot Finch

“And for what it’s worth, I don’t find anything about you repulsive. On the contrary, I can’t remember meeting a more wonderful person.” – Talbot Finch, The Housekeeper

THE NINETEENTH century, particularly the later half, has always captivated me; I’m a sucker for a good Victorian novel—or in this case, a novelette. While the Gothic literature of the times is my principal interest, I have a sweet spot for stories that contain complicated romances fraught with themes of classism and sexual/emotional repression. Give me a strong protagonist living with and rebelling against their time’s social constructs and constraints, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. Characters that are both outwardly and inwardly strong, open to love and romance but desiring equality with their paramour on multiple fronts. [Image On Left: Author Talbot Finch. Property Of Talbot Finch]

 While Talbot Finch’s The Housekeeper: A Gay Victorian Novelette delivers much of what I love about a great Victorian love story, the author goes beyond the traditional trappings of period romance with a contemporary queer narrative. It’s a quick read, a tale focusing on the relationship of only two male characters over a short period, but the novelette’s length doesn’t diminish its impact. The depth of emotion and connectivity between the two men, as they each discover their mutual attraction, is powerful and touching. Yes, the story takes place during a time in England when homosexuality was illegal; that fact, however, isn’t used as a defining element of the love story, though the taboo nature of it is alluded to. Finch is smart not to work this into his narrative as a novelette doesn’t have the room to properly engage with all that comes with the social and political minefield of Victorian homophobia. 

 Andrew, an amputee since the age of twelve, lives alone in his cluttered London flat, still haunted by the loss of his arm but refusing help from anyone. His older, married sister Sarah lives afar but frets about her brother’s health and emotional well-being, knowing his negative attitude prevents him from living a proper life. A budding novelist, Andrew is interrupted one day from his work when he answers an unexpected knock on his door and discovers Christopher, a handsome young man hired by Sarah to help him around the house as a personal man-servantHow very period! Andrew is initially frustrated by his sister’s interference, preferring his hermit-like lifestyle to sharing his flat with a veritable stranger. But having Christopher around might just be what the irascible man needs to reinvigorate his lonely life and transform his cynical heart. And he cooks amazingly well, too! Bonus!

The Housekeeper: A Gay Victorian Novelette is a magnetic queer love story about a broken man who uses emotional and physical isolationism to deal with past trauma and its life-altering consequences, rediscovering joy through the intervention of a stranger: a compassionate, kind gentleman. And again, despite its limited word count, the body of the narrative goes much deeper than simply the old employer/employee “adversarial yet flirty” romance we’ve seen countless times. There’s a definite nod to Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast here. Andrew sees himself as othered. Fearful of being judged harshly for his physical disability, he hides away from the world. Perhaps even for his closeted homosexuality, though it’s never overtly stated. Christopher is our saviour figure: empathetic, genuine, and, above all, kind. 

Andrew makes many erroneous assumptions regarding Christopher, his intentions and his behaviour, creating roadblocks for himself that slow the progress of friendship and possible romance. Finch’s use of internal dialogue to show Andrew’s destructive behaviour pattern—his struggle to trust and share—is brilliantly done. The author is just as deft in showcasing Christopher’s capacity for gentleness and compassion, like in the scene where he initiates physical contact with Andrew by placing his hand over his in a moment of empathy and connection. It’s all quite moving. [Victorian London Flats. Reminiscent of Andrew’s.]

The Housekeeper: A Gay Victorian Novelette is a wonderfully cozy gay-love story, one I’d very much like to see developed into a future novel to include more backstory on both men, sister Sarah, and an epilogue depicting a full-bodied Happy-Ever-After. Don’t get me wrong; I’m thrilled with this story’s ending. I only want to continue the adventure with these two characters further into their future! Talbot Finch is a remarkable storyteller, and an author I will definitely be keeping my eye on. Up next is his companion novel to The Housekeeper: Violet Reverie. Looking forward to reading it!

The Housekeeper: A Gay Victorian Novelette is available for purchase at amazon.ca and amazon.com. For more information about this author, follow Talbot Finch on Instagram & Facebook. Also, visit his Website.

 

Review: Our Sweet Revenge: Unbreakable Ties Book 1 by A.V. Shener

AFTER READING Our Sweet Revenge: Unbreakable Ties Book 1, I had to take a moment before writing my thoughts down; I needed to process what I’d experienced. The author, A.V. Shener, has stated that if he manages to make his readers “both captivated and uncomfortable,” he’s done his job. Well, I was definitely both, so congratulations, sir.

The story is a revenge thriller focused around four college friends whose current older lives have gone in different, often challenging and disappointing directions; this has strained some relationships within the quartet. Ethan, a FedEx driver, is our main narrator, and he’s floundering, having lost both his company and his mojo during the COVID-19 pandemic. Out gay man Jay, a home renovator and Anthony, an ex-con, newly released, remain in contact with Ethan and have stayed friendly. The novel’s main antagonist is Chris, the yuppie, married with a kid; consumed by money, success and appearances, he’s distanced himself from the group of friends. Ethan still considers him his best friend and continues to make excuses for him.

When the three friends eventually share their stories of how Chris has personally done them wrong over the years, Anthony spearheads a revenge scheme that involves a remote cabin where they used to spend time together during their college years. There, they will take their vengeance upon their “frenemy!’ What follows is a dark and disturbing miasma of secrets upon secrets, additional shocking revelations and sex and violence that rips open old wounds, irrevocably changing the landscape of the men’s friendships, if not the trajectory of their lives.

Shener skillfully exhibits each character’s distinct personality and role within the narrative. However, I did have an issue with the narration slipping a few times from one character’s voice to another without enough textual separation to distinguish the new perspective. It took me out of the flow of the narrative momentarily. Aside from that, Shener is a great storyteller.

Let’s be clear—this is a novel written for an adult audience, tackling intense scenes of sex, violence and psychological warfare. There is a lot to digest, especially for sensitive readers. I came into this novel thinking I knew what I was in for, but I must admit the occasional scenario and character statement shook me. The narrative has several “powder keg” themes beyond what I stated above, including views on monogamy, open relationships, child abuse, prison trauma, rape, and bi-awakening—or divergence from queer repression, depending on how you view it. Like I said at the beginning, there was a lot for me to unpack upon finishing the novel. Was I entertained? Absolutely. But not everything sat well with me—which I suppose is another triumph for the author and his goal to both delight and unnerve his readers. 

Now, let’s talk about the steam. There are numerous graphic sex scenes in the book, consensual and non-consensual, involving the four main characters, and the author does not obfuscate the details of male anatomy or how men may pleasure or sexually torture one another. This is a thriller, not an MM romance. Gay/queer men’s sex is too often grossly sanitized or omitted entirely in conventional fiction. Whenever a genre writer includes depictions of sex between men, especially scenes of anal play, I applaud them for depicting it and, in the process, normalizing it. Not every writer can pull it off without seeming clunky or forced, raising questions like, “Do they even know what they’re talking about?!” That’s not the case here; Shener is masterful in characterizing gay pleasure and its varied techniques.

And yes, the men are all hot, but I appreciate that the author took great care to detail the physical differences of each man and how their unique masculine aesthetic was just as sexy as the next. Jay’s butch, rough exterior is written as titillating as Anthony’s gym-going muscle dude, etc… 

The novel’s ending is shocking. Eroticism, taboo exploration, and the psychology of extortionist sex carry us over into the forthcoming sequel, The Gentlemen’s Club: Unbreakable Ties Book 2, which promises to be a further dive into the past and present of our characters’ complicated relationships with each other. Our Sweet Revenge: Unbreakable Ties Book 1 by A.V. Shener is a complex, provocative exploration of resentment and how sex, lies, and betrayal can infect a supposed tight-knit friendship, leading to violence. To Revenge. Bold story-telling from author A.V. Shener. 

OUR SWEET REVENGE: UNBREAKABLE TIES BOOK 1 is available for purchase at amazon.ca and amazon.com. For more information on A.V. Shener, follow his Amazon Author Page.