A recent profile of filmmaker Bernard Rose in The New York Times references the nervousness of many inside and outside Hollywood upon discovering that the director intended to make the title character in his 1992 movie Candyman Black. Adding a racial element to the story (in the source material, the villain is a blonde white man) was seen as incendiary rather than subversive and became the subject of backlash from activists before the film was even released. Once people actually saw the movie and were able to understand its submerged critique of racism and the class structures that underpin and preserve it, the film became a modern genre classic that influenced other artists, among them Jordan Peele, who produced and co-wrote the just-released reboot. According to NYT writer Cara Buckley, “Rose said he told detractors that horror movies often feature a reversal, where the villain becomes something of the hero – the character that everyone remembers, and even tacitly roots for.”
This is a lesson that author David Demchuk has internalized seamlessly in his sophomore novel. The beast in Red X – a barghest, a mythical creature that traces its origins back to northern England – is the spirit of a 19th-century homosexual now haunting Toronto’s gay village, where a succession of people have disappeared without a trace.
Readers with a knowledge of recent Toronto history will recognize the metaphoric undercurrents here instantly. Between 2010 and 2017, convicted serial killer Bruce McArthur killed eight men, most of whom he picked up as a habitué of the village. The story of this real-life monster and the ongoing trauma his crimes inflicted on Toronto’s LGBTQ+ community is never far from the surface of Demchuk’s narrative, though by transmogrifying the source of terror he is able to simultaneously deepen and critique his readers’ relationships to it. Himself a queer man with deep ties to the neighbourhood that serves as his setting, Demchuk makes this explicit in a frankly metafictional digression toward the end of his novel: “Queer writers found we could work within the confines of this most conservative genre [horror], using metaphor and allusion to describe meeting places, encounters, relationships, occupations, and networks through which queer people could find each other, gather, and form community. At least for a while, it was better to be seen as a monster than remain unseen.”
The status of being unseen is profound in a novel so vividly rooted in disappearance. The story, which takes place in eight-year increments between 1984 and 2016, traces the history of a succession of queer folk who vanish without a trace and the ripple effects their disappearances have on their friends and loved ones who are left behind. Central among these are flight attendant Trevor and DJ Robin, whose intertwining relationships with the vanished lead them to embark on a hunt for the truth about what happened to them. What they discover is a literal monster in their midst; in the case of Red X, it is a monster who resembles his victims and also suffers from a history of trauma and violence.
Trevor and Robin’s status as civilians seeking answers while confronting a wall of institutional resistance, denial, and disbelief is a disturbing reminder of the extent to which village denizens went to convince authorities that something was amiss during the years McArthur was active, as well as the culture of fear that a lack of official response engendered. The irony in Demchuk’s presentation is highlighted in signs and posters that spring up around the neighbourhood asking “Have you seen him?” – a question that could apply equally to the missing and the monster responsible for devouring them.
The novel’s time frame also encompasses the period in the 1980s when AIDS was mercilessly striking gay men, who were viewed with suspicion and hatred by the culture at large. The so-called gay plague rendered an already marginalized community even more vulnerable; the same effect takes hold as the barghest continues preying on victims to the concern of those close to them and the apparent indifference of everyone else.
Red X owes a particular debt to the work of Clive Barker, another queer horror writer, and the author of “The Forbidden,” the short story that Rose adapted into Candyman. “The Forbidden” is the opening story in the fifth volume of Barker’s Books of Blood; in Red X, there is a literal book that contains runic inscriptions and seems to be linked in some strange way to the various disappearances. More than this, though, Demchuk’s affinity for Nicholas Boyd, his fictional barghest, is reminiscent of Barker’s sympathy with the dispossessed and grotesque monsters in his story sequence, themselves emblematic of society’s rejects and outsiders. “For queer readers,” Demchuk writes, “hatred, and self-hatred, were the stinging medicines we were forced to consume if we were to satisfy our need to see ourselves.” In the same way that feminist critic Barbara Creed argues that women frequently found identification with the monsters in classic Universal horror films, queer writers like Barker and Demchuk refract society’s animus through the grotesques in their fiction.
Much of this is conveyed explicitly through interspersed sections in the novel cast in the voice of a writer who closely resembles Demchuk himself; these postmodern flourishes cant the narrative at odd angles, allowing readers to approach the real world as if through the prism of a distorted mirror. Among these is a potted history of Alexander Wood, the “gay pioneer” whose statue at the south end of the village has met with recent calls for removal due to Wood’s participation in setting up Canada’s residential school system. Wood’s appearance in the novel provides a historical touchstone for Nicholas’s character (there are hints that the barghest was hunting as far back as the early 1800s) and offers a connective thread between early violence and disruption in the neighbourhood and its modern-day iteration.
What this historical digression would seem to imply is that the ravages of Bruce McArthur, while abhorrent and horrific themselves, are not unique in the history of Toronto’s LGBTQ+ community, which has been subject to opprobrium and violation since its inception. Nicholas the barghest is a revenant who symbolizes a painful truth about our societal response to queer suffering: for most of its history, the community has been haunted by violence and loss. Demchuk’s novel represents a metaphorical response to a very real legacy of trauma and discord.