Book Lovers: Winter Gothic
Author: Dick Smart
January 24, 2012
For those of us who longed for a romantic pairing between Harry and Ron at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series, Justin Evans gives us a ghostly whisper in his best-selling Gothic The White Devil from Harper/Collins. The stock characters from every English schoolboy story, made iconic by the Harry Potter series, serve Evans well by evoking the supernaturalism of the Potter books as he creates a modern ghost story that must seem realistic to the reader, even while being as phantastic as needed to be a true ghost story.
When the 17-year-old American Andrew Taylor is expelled from school after an experiment with heroin that almost results in the death of a friend, he is exiled by his father to the Harrow School, the tony English public school for boys, whose hallowed history holds haunting secrets. Harrow is the type of school where the boys wear black ties “in mourning for Queen Victoria” and boaters to class. Harrow was one of the sets used for the Harry Potter films. From the moment of his arrival Andrew is exposed to the consumptive chill of English weather:
A sky, whipped by winds, changing preternaturally, galloped overhead: clouds, sun, low-slung fog, in rapid succession. So this was English weather. The place felt wet. A smoky smell (bracken, burnt by gardeners) stung his nose.
Andrew is greeted by a sort of feminized Argus Filch, who serves as something of a dorm mother:
Apparently, he was early. “You’re not due till five,’” snapped the woman who opened the door…
“Unfortunately there weren’t any flights to Heathrow scheduled to land when the maid was ready.”
“Maid?’ she drew herself up, angrily. “I am Matron.”
Matron gives Andrew a tour of the Lot, Harrow’s ancient student dorm, and in the basement shower room, “he felt a chill crawl up his arms. ‘It’s cold. Feels like someone left the fridge door open.’ Matron shot him a look of annoyance. “You must have caught something on the plane.’” A strange sensation overtakes Andrew and he reflects, “Maybe he had caught something on the plane. The place seemed to throb.” Andrew thinks, “Here is where they hide the history.” Matron informs Andrew, “There’s a ghost in the Lot, you know. Boys tease that it’s up in the rooms. I think it’s down here.” As she speaks, Andrew envisions, “bare white figures twisting to bathe and scrub themselves through a scrim of steam.” It was as if the image “had materialized, then vanished, on its own accord.” That evening he has the first in a series of increasingly harrowing wet dreams of a “Harrow boy with white hair.” Andrew “knew, in his dream, that the face belonged to someone intensely exciting. Andrew grew aroused. He felt his heart beating, felt himself simultaneously panic and thrill.”
Andrew is an outsider at Harrow, unfamiliar with the school’s venerable traditions and with English schoolboy slang and fart jokes. He is taken underarm by a golden South African boy named Theo Ryder amidst the homophobic hazing of the other Sixth Formers. When asked why he transferred to Harrow in what American’s would call his senior year, Andrew answers cautiously, “ ‘My father thought it would be a good idea to take a year abroad.’ ‘Mrrrowwww, dad-dy,’ came the catcalls.” The boys begin to wonder, “What was Andrew the American hiding?”
Like many boys who don’t fit in with their high school peers, Andrew finds refuge in the school’s drama group. Andrew’s housemaster is failed poet Piers Fawkes, an alcoholic version of Potter’s Remus Lupin, who is staging a school play about one of Harrow’s most famous alumni, Lord Byron. Fawkes hopes to discover through the play the promiscuous Byron’s one true love. But faced with a multitude of possibilities, he is suffering writer’s block. When the one female student admitted to Harrow, Persephone Vine (a much less virginal sort of Hermione Granger), recognizes that Andrew is the very vision of the darkly sensuous poet she encourages Fawkes to cast him as the lead. Persephone was admitted to the school by virtue of being the daughter of Sir Alan Vine, one of the school’s professors and cricket coach (the novel’s Severus Snape figure), who is none too pleased about Persephone’s attraction to Andrew, “No meat on the shoulders or back. Long hair. Arts type. An extreme specimen, even. No, not one of his.” Andrew and Persephone serve as a masculine-feminine bipolarity of the Byronic hero. Both have troubled pasts and are in a sort of exile at Harrow. They share the outsider’s cynicism toward Harrow’s traditions. They are both sexually magnetic and drawn towards each other, just as they draw others to them.
Almost immediately there is a murder that Andrew witnesses, “The attacker’s face horrified Andrew. The eye sockets were sunken; the eyes protruded, a vivid blue; his flesh a morbid gray. Long blond hair—almost white, albino-looking—hung over his eyes. Once he was forced to break from his labor to cough—and Andrew recognized the noise that had drawn him. The cough combined the bark of a sick animal with a wet, slapping sound.” But the murder is ruled a natural death, the victim is initially diagnosed as having succumbed to sarcoidosis. When later the cause of death is amended to tuberculosis there is a minor school panic, as a second and a third student are stricken, all who are somehow close to Andrew, a sort of Patient Zero.
Meanwhile, Andrew knows the truth and while researching in the school’s famous Vaughan Library on Lord Byron’s lovers for the school play, he begins to dig into the secrets of the school’s past guarded over by the school librarian, Dr. Judy Kahn, a “McGonagall” like character . One of the most delightful aspects of the book is how Evans reintroduces the modern reader to the life and work of Byron. The parallels between the history of Byron’s schoolboy love affair at Harrow and Andrew’s encounters with the ghostly “white-haired boy” begin to merge. While Piers Fawkes and Dr. Kahn believe that only an exorcism can save Andrew and the other students, he begins to wonder, “What if I give myself to him?” leading to the book’s surprising climax.
Evans effectively uses images of English dampness to evoke the suffocation by drowning in one’s own fluids that is death by tuberculosis. But the wetness also evokes the violent upwelling of the school’s submerged passions. Evans masterfully creates and merges the parallel stories of Andrew’s modern present and his nemesis’ distant past to both explore the historical bisexuality of Lord Byron and to suggest Andrew’s own growing sexual self-awareness. There is a hint of “reparative therapy” in Fawkes and Dr. Kahn’s attempt to exorcise the demon that haunts Andrew. Like Lupin and McGonagall, their counterparts in the Harry Potter series, they attempt to protect Andrew from his “dementor,” but he must accept it to overcome its destructiveness. In the final image of Persephone, Andrew’s feminine doppelganger, portraying Lord Byron in a “pants role” in the school play, Evans suggests the sexual wholeness that comes from the integration of personalities.
The Talented Mr. Blues
The first novella, “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues,” opens in East Texas with Blues Carmichael throwing his lover, Jabari West, to his death from their rooftop tryst. Jabari had been enjoying teenaged sex with Blues on the down low, but now has discovered that “I’m not a fag…I want a normal life.” In Blue’s pain and rage, he tosses Jabari to his bloody death, “Crack. Crack. Crack. Crack.”
The story picks up some nine years later with Blues now legally married to the rich and much older Washington D.C. businessman and gay philanthropist, Robert Douglas. Unfortunately, Robert’s philanthropy is the gift of his ego rather than his heart, and he treats Blues like an ornament on his arm and like a sex toy in bed rather than as his spouse. An ironclad pre-nuptial agreement that would leave Blues with nothing in a divorce inspires homicidal thoughts in the handsome young man’s heart. With the help of Robert’s attorney, Nigel, and a young homo thug, Marquis, both of whom Blues is also bedding, he begins to plot Robert’s murder.
Unfortunately, there’s a hitch in the plot when in steps Robert’s long-lost “crack whore” daughter, Ashleigh, now in recovery and hoping to reconnect with her daddy and his millions. The bitch-off between Blues and Ashleigh is darkly humorous with each stopping short of nothing to eliminate their rival to daddy’s fortune. Blues knows he’s in trouble when Ashleigh proves she’s as good at being a detective as she is at faking being a doting daughter.
In the end, it is Robert’s own hard heart that proves his undoing rather than any malicious intent from Blues. Picture perfect as the grieving spouse at Robert’s graveside, Blues is surprised, “when my crocodile tears actually became real.” However, “I cried, but I didn’t change. I was still a monster. Some monsters are born; others like me, are made.” Throughout the story, Jabari’s ghostly presence whispers like a voice of conscience and in the end Blues sees him “standing near a lonely tombstone” and he concludes that “he’d be with me all of my days on this earth.”
Blues Carmichael reminded me in many ways of the amoral Tom Ripley from the brilliantly dark Patricia Highsmith crime series. Blues initial heartbreak in love turns him into a murderer, and Hayes makes us feel the sort of transgressive sympathy for him that Highsmith makes us feel for Ripley—we want to see him get away with murder. Unfortunately, Hayes’ other characters are too venal to elicit the same sympathy, unlike Tom Ripley’s likable victims, and this weakens the sense of unnerving disease that we should feel in being charmed by Blues’ sexual beauty and elegance while repulsed by his cold-bloodedness. Blues is a monster without pathos.
Hayes finds his pathos in “Crazy in Love,” the second novella in The Bad Seed. Brandon Heart is a boy who feels his “throbbing in his pants” rather than his chest. What for most teens would be a harmless schoolboy crush becomes a stalker nightmare when Brandon turns his “obsessive focus” on his English teacher, Cross Jones. Brandon uses a tearful confession about parental rejection for his gayness to pry the home phone number from his teacher. Brandon begins to track Cross’ every movement, culminating in a break-in to Cross’ townhouse where he steals a pair of Cross’ underwear that he jacks off into. The break-in makes him feel “powerful, like he could do anything the wanted to do and get away with it. Now all he had to do was have Cross. Being in his home, amongst his personal effects and inhaling his most intimate scent solidified Brandon’s desire.”
Meanwhile, we learn more about Brandon from his perspective, how his frequently absent parents preferred his straight older brother, Patrick, who was killed in a car accident while retrieving Brandon from a gay sexual tryst. Brandon also sells himself at high-class, high-risk Atlanta sexual parties. Dressed as an angel in white wings and a white jock strap, he is anything but when he tells his mysterious “benefactor,” a thickly-muscled “monster,” “Fuck me like you own me.” Like Andrew in “The White Devil,” Brandon’s self-surrender results in his becoming whole, but in “Crazy in Love” his wholeness is wholly evil.
Brandon returns to Cross’s home and surprises him coming out of the shower. Using the story of his older brother’s death to lower Cross’s defenses he attempts to seduce him but is firmly rebuffed. Undaunted, Brandon continues to stalk his teacher, following him and a date home from a bar with murderous results. Finally, Cross begins to see the truth beneath Brandon’s innocent façade:
No longer did Cross see a scared child hiding from monsters; gone was the innocent teen that lashed out dangerously at the world. Finally, Cross’s instincts kicked into high gear. Something didn’t feel right…He no longer saw fear in Brandon’s face. What he saw was something insidious—deception.
Through the deft use of an unreliable narrator, Hayes keeps both Cross and the reader deceived until it is too late. When Brandon reflects, “about the sacrifices he had made for love, he felt no remorse. Love always required sacrifice.” Hayes ties up both novellas with one satisfying ribbon and makes us expect that we haven’t seen the last of Blues: “Once a monster, always a monster.”