CanLitNovelsThe Horror Show

David Demchuk on queerness, supernatural horror, and the intersection of fictional and real-life monsters

The first review David Demchuk received for his debut novel, The Bone Mother, never used the word horror to describe the book. The review, an advance notice in the industry magazine Publishers Weekly, made clear the book’s provenance – it was being billed as a horror novel – without actually specifying the genre. “You could tell it was a horror novel from the review, they just didn’t use the word,” Demchuk says.

The Bone Mother, which was the first genre horror novel ever to be longlisted for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize, is a series of interconnected vignettes, set in Eastern Europe and North America, about a dwindling group of mythical monsters being hunted by the mysterious Night Police, who share more than a passing resemblance to the totalitarian secret police forces that proliferated in postwar Eastern Europe.

The substance of the novel is, Demchuk says, easily digestible – to a certain kind of reader. “Horror people look at a horror novel and they go, ‘I don’t really care how it’s structured, what it does, as long as it delivers the goods.’ If you can do that, you can be forgiven a lot,” he says. “Whereas the literary readers were driven nuts.”

It wasn’t so much the book’s structure – its disparate chapters, each focused on a different monster or central character; its fractured chronology that jumps back and forth in time. These stylistic innovations feature in enough so-called literary novels that readers unfamiliar with the horror genre could nevertheless recognize them as legitimate tactics for a writer to employ. What caught many mainstream readers off guard, says Demchuk, were precisely those aspects of the book that were most directly related to horror fiction. “Non-horror readers aren’t used to reading horror, so they don’t really know what to do with it.”

Demchuk refers to one Goodreads reviewer who initially supposed a book titled The Bone Mother was a children’s story. Notwithstanding an opening that refers to a character marrying his brother – not exactly fodder for most juvenile fiction – the reviewer persisted and finished the entire book. “She hated it,” Demchuk says. “She gave it one star. But she finished it.” The reviewer’s determination to get to the end of the book could be a sign of obstreperousness; it could equally be a testament to Demchuk’s storytelling, which is vibrant and original, with a strong sense of pace and suspense.

It’s the same formula that the author applies to his follow-up, the recently released Red X. Like the earlier book, the new work is told in fragments: five sections separated in eight-year increments and running from 1984 through 2016. Taken together, the sections of the novel comprise a darkly fantastical history of the evolution of Toronto’s gay village, centred on Church Street between Wellesley and Carlton Streets. More specifically, the novel features a monster that is feeding on denizens of the village, who seem to vanish without a trace or any kind of institutional interest. Anyone familiar with recent Toronto history will see in this plot a metaphoric relationship to the case of Bruce McArthur, a serial killer who preyed on gay men in a murder spree that ran from 2010 to 2017.

The connection is not idle and, for the author, is extremely personal. Demchuk was friends with Andrew Kinsman, McArthur’s final victim, the one who finally got the attention of Toronto police, who belatedly acknowledged that a serial killer was stalking gay men. McArthur was arrested in 2018 and the following year pleaded guilty to eight counts of murder.

Demchuk was already well into the writing of Red X, which began as a play, when Kinsman went missing. In its original form, the play was meant to be staged at Buddies in Bad Times, North America’s largest LGBTQ+ theatre, which sits on the southern edge of the gay village. The author recalls thinking at the time that he would like to mount a queer horror play situated in Buddies and have the audience experience the haunting at the same time as the characters. Brendan Healy, then artistic director at Buddies, gave Demchuk some money to write the play, which was ultimately never produced. He decided to return to the abandoned drama after the success of The Bone Mother (which also began life on the stage) and rework the story as a novel.

“Partway through the process, my friend Andrew disappeared. And then his remains were found. When he disappeared, it derailed everything. And when he was found, it derailed everything even more,” Demchuk says. He confided in his friend, the late journalist Ing Wong-Ward, that he felt he couldn’t continue writing the book. “And she said, ‘No, no, no. You have to write this book now. You absolutely have to do this book.’”

Demchuk realized that if he were to see the project through, he would have to rejig it to make the association with the McArthur murders clear, since it seemed obvious to him that everyone else would make the association themselves. “Which was tough,” he says. “But I think, in the end, was worth it.”

“Is Silence of the Lambs horror? Who cares?” (Photo: Tanja Tiziana)

Metaphorical undertones aside, Demchuk is wary of online reviewers who try to position Red X as a fictionalized true-crime story about McArthur’s criminal activities. The problem with seeing the book this way, Demchuk asserts, is twofold. First, it’s wrong. Second, it sets up a false expectation in the minds of potential readers. Demchuk refers to one online reviewer who was expecting a fictionalized account of a serial killer in the gay village, only to have supernatural elements continually get in the way of the story the reviewer assumed was going to be told. “There are tag lines, there are descriptions, there’s even a line [on the front flap] that reads, ‘A horror that spans centuries.’ Clearly it’s a supernatural horror novel,” Demchuk says. “But you can’t help people read the book that’s there if they already have an image of the book they want.”

The horror elements in Red X are obvious and thoroughgoing, and the novel includes a good deal of violence. But the book also makes use of metafictional techniques that include a series of sections written in the author’s own voice expounding upon horror and queer theory and contextualizing historical elements of the story within LGBTQ+ history in Toronto. Whether this tilts the balance in favour of a literary approach over a straight horror story is not a debate that particularly interests the author. “When we use these terms, they’re marketing terms. They’re not real descriptions of things that are really in books,” Demchuk says. “What is horror, anyway? Is a book that is not scary but disgusting and gruesome horror? Is a particularly wicked thriller horror? It’s like the debate around Silence of the Lambs. Is Silence of the Lambs horror? Who cares? If it scares you, sure. If it doesn’t scare you, then you’re a very interesting person.”

What the application of a genre horror presentation offers, says Demchuk, is distance. While he has never found the writing of horror fiction cathartic, the metaphorical aspects of the genre allow him to address material that would otherwise be too emotionally fraught in a context that is at one remove stylistically. “I find true crime to be really grim and really demoralizing,” Demchuk says. “By introducing a supernatural or horror element, there is a distance that gets placed and a bit of a cushion. I can step back from the real-life aspects of it and turn an eye to the underlying themes, how they represent themselves in the real world, and how they connect to me as a queer person.”

Queerness is at the heart of Red X, in both the main plot and the metafictional commentary, much of which traces the intersection of queerness and horror throughout history. By beginning in 1984, as the groundswell of the AIDS crisis was just getting underway, Demchuk is also able to metaphorically address gay men’s experience being cut down by another type of rapacious, unforgiving killer, and the straight world’s concomitant indifference (at best) to what the community was undergoing. “I don’t particularly think of myself as a pen pal to the straight world. But for any of my work to have any success at all, it’s going to have a straight readership,” he says. “For a lot of straight people, and particularly straight people in urban centres, they think, ‘Queer people got gay marriage and that was the end of that. Happily ever after.’ And the fact is – no. Not even remotely.”

In addition to pointing out the ongoing nature of queer oppression, Demchuk is gratified to discover his book is popular with young people on Instagram, because he hopes to reach a younger queer audience that may not have direct experience of the AIDS years or earlier struggles the LGBTQ+ community had to face. “I don’t want to be like the talking fossil,” he says. “But we as a culture, and particularly in queer culture, have a very short memory. So, for me, it’s an opportunity to say, ‘Here’s what this was like.’ And also it’s to remind me. A lot of it reminds me of just how much I have come through. And how much the people I know have come through. And what it was like to lose people. Even if I’m losing people to a fictional monster in the book, I am revisiting real losses and reprocessing those. And that matters a great deal to me as a queer storyteller and contributing to shaping the narrative of what we have survived.”

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