Strange Light | 2021
Filed Under: Desperately trying to put that fourth wall back together
I really and truly wanted to love this as much as everyone else, but as should come as a surprise to literally no one, I did not. I liked it enough, but a few things were throwing me off – it reads like two different books, the pacing is all over the place and the anthology-style chapters became repetitive because there really didn’t seem to be a point.
I mean, I guess the point could be that bad things happen to the LGTBQ+ community and there really never is a “good” reason; it’s predictable and constant exists because of cruelty – the cruelty is the point.
But maybe that’s too subversive for my weed-addled brain, so I struggled to be totally engaged.
That said, this is an LGBTQ+ horror novel that would be perfect for your Pride reading list and there are a million other readers gushing over it, so take my review with a pinch of, like, whatever you want to pinch, I don’t know, it’s up to you but I’m not forcing salt on anyone.
The novel seems to take inspiration from the crimes of Bruce McArthur, a serial killer who terrorized the gay community in Toronto. McArthur managed to get away with his crimes for years for a few reasons, one being, “no body, no crime.” That, combined with an attitude from the cops that was kind of like, “Hey, sometimes gay men just go missing, there’s nothing we can do *shrug shrug shrug*,” there wasn’t really a sense of urgency for the police to investigate the cases of multiple missing men from the Village that were – in the eyes of the community – clearly linked. And time would prove those advocates correct.
When the bodies started turning up in rich people’s garden beds, then the cops were like “Not the straight rich people! Let’s form a task force, boys! Cops to the rescue!”
Demchuk uses the similar disappearances of several gay men over three decades and police inaction, combined with a demonic presence and a spooky red journal, to explore myriad issues in the gay community like homophobia, the HIV/AIDS crisis, riots, raids, gentrification, police brutality and societal indifference. That makes this novel more than just a horror story featuring LGBTQ+ characters. I mean, it definitely goes in the Queer Horror category, but it’s so much more than that. It is emotional and layered as it uses fictional supernatural horror to dissect and expose real-life horror.
This is an important novel and you should definitely read it.
From my critical perspective though – because wtf, it’s a book review right? – I had a hard time with the narrative style and my interest in the plot ebbed and flowed as jarring fourth wall moments threw me off.
The first chapter is a fucking doozy, but after that, it kind of loses steam as we split into the subsequent decades with a new gay man in each time period finding the red book that will set off a chain of events that leads to the demon… presence… thing.
It is set up like an anthology in a way, where each decade gets its own part of the book. But the plotting became a bit formulaic and repetitive, allowing a lack of suspense and a sense of meandering to develop in the sameness. I would wonder if anything was ever really going to happen or if it was all going to be these isolated vignettes, connected only by the red book, which didn’t seem to be leading to anything purposeful.
In between the fiction, there are non-fiction journal entries. At first – because I went into this without having read any reviews at all – I thought these were pages out of the red book, dictated by the demon. But then sometimes that didn’t make sense to what the journal entries were saying. Like, Demon, you have a family? For real?
No. Apparently, it’s personal writing from the author, breaking the 4th wall.
Like, seriously, I am sometimes too stupid for books. But whatever.
Relevancy and emotional rawness of those sections aside, I wish they hadn’t been included in the book but maybe as an afterword or author’s note. I’m just not into breaking the fourth wall. It annoys the fuck out of me and it usually only exists (typically) for the sake of being cheeky. It wasn’t cheeky here, but it also didn’t do anything to further the fiction narrative, it just pulled me out of the story. And that’s, like, the exact opposite of what I’m hoping for when I read? The fourth-wall-breaking journal sections were not my thing.
What I did love about this novel was the horror. It was disturbing and dark and didn’t shy away from anything. It was descriptive and gory, unnerving and uncomfortable. But the characters are mostly all forgettable and didn’t have much personality or emotional depth. It was like the novel was relying almost exclusively on horror to provide emotion for the reader, but that left me disconnected from the characters.
There are some truly intense chapters and scenes that are going to stay with me for the rest of my life though.
This is an essential work of fiction with emotional wounds left open for the reader, both in the context of the LGBTQ+ community and by way of the author’s personal writings. The horror elements are on point – both the supernatural ones but also the human ones, like the rapist cop preying on the most vulnerable – and I loved reading a novel set in Toronto, so close to home. But the journal entries were distracting for me, the ending was lacklustre after so much buildup and the mythology of the demon thing wasn’t explored clearly so the ambiguity was too intangible for the brain power I’m currently operating on.
One thing is for sure though – Demchuk is fearless in his writing.
CW for, like, literally everything you might want a CW for.
A hunted community. A haunted author. A horror that spans centuries.
Men are disappearing from Toronto’s gay village. They’re the marginalized, the vulnerable. One by one, stalked and vanished, they leave behind small circles of baffled, frightened friends. Against the shifting backdrop of homophobia throughout the decades, from the HIV/AIDS crisis and riots against raids to gentrification and police brutality, the survivors face inaction from the law and disinterest from society at large. But as the missing grow in number, those left behind begin to realize that whoever or whatever is taking these men has been doing so for longer than is humanly possible.
Woven into their stories is David Demchuk’s own personal history, a life lived in fear and in thrall to horror, a passion that boils over into obsession. As he tries to make sense of the relationship between queerness and horror, what it means for gay men to disappear, and how the isolation of the LGBTQ+ community has left them profoundly exposed to monsters that move easily among them, fact and fiction collide and reality begins to unravel.