How Peter Straub presupposed the post-gay character in his novel, Koko
I write horror novels. I’m a gay man. Many of my characters are also gay men. As such, I have the privilege of being known as an author of “Gay Horror,” though I don’t have a clue what that means. I’ve been asked. My answer is never particularly good, because the suggestion is that the horror I’m writing is just for LGBTQ readers, or that the horrors I’m describing are derived from the gay experience. Neither of which is true.
The easiest way to cut through this nonsense is to invoke the name of Clive Barker. He writes horror novels. He’s a gay man. Sometimes he writes about bad things happening to gay men. But for as much as I adore and admire Barker’s work, the major influence on the kinds of stories I tell came from a straight man, who has throughout his career challenged the strictures of genre literature while creating a canon of groundbreaking fiction.
In 1988, Peter Straub, best-selling author of Ghost Story (1978) and Floating Dragon (1984), introduced the character of Tim Underhill, a gay man with a complicated past who was portrayed not only as complex and sympathetic, but also as a hero, and in so doing Straub eschewed the limited and stereotypical depictions of LGBTQ characters prevailing in other speculative fiction of the time. First appearing in the novel Koko, Underhill would return as the first person narrator of the novel The Throat (1993), and as the protagonist in the connected novels, lost boy lost girl (2003) and In the Night Room (2004).
Unlike the LGBTQ characters that were prevalent in mainstream literature, such as those appearing in the works of Edmund White, Paul Monette, and Armistead Maupin, Underhill’s primary conflicts did not revolve around social/familial acceptance, equal rights, or the AIDS epidemic. By writing Underhill as he did, Straub not only created a memorable, fascinating character, but he also presupposed a trend that would, nearly twenty years later, be recognized as a new class of characterization: the post-gay.
In his 2005 essay, “Out of the Closet and Off the Shelf,” for The New York Times, David Leavitt asserts:
More and more, gay fiction is giving way to post-gay fiction: novels and stories whose authors, rather than making a character’s homosexuality the fulcrum on which the plot turns, either take it for granted, look at it as part of something larger or ignore it altogether . . . In most of these works being gay is not central; these are just people living their lives.
Indeed, the character of Tim Underhill is gay, but his homosexuality is not the focus of his character. Underhill is tortured, perhaps even self-loathing, but these qualities are more clearly attributed to his experiences in the Vietnam War and his ensuing downward spiral, than any crisis about his sexual identity. In Koko and the subsequent novels in which he is featured, he is presented as a strong, competent, and in comparison to the characters around him, well-adjusted gentleman.
In Koko, four Vietnam veterans—Michael Poole, Harry Beevers, Conor Linklater, and Tina Pumo—are drawn into a murder mystery, which has its roots in a war atrocity committed in the Vietnam village of Ia Thuc. In the Far East, men and women are being brutally murdered, and playing cards with the word “Koko” written on them are left in the victims’ mouths. Koko has a special meaning to these men, and it leads them to believe that their old friend, Tim Underhill, also a Vietnam veteran, is the murderer. Three of the men journey first to Singapore and then to Bangkok in search of a man they had once all admired, but whom they now suspect is a serial killer.
Underhill, then, is introduced to readers through the recollections of his platoon buddies. He is a man who, in the aftermath of his service in Vietnam, becomes a moderately successful mystery writer before returning to the Far East. There, his interest in writing wanes as he succumbs to his vices, which include alcoholism and chemical addiction. Though his penchants for drugs and young men are recalled, and evidence suggests he is responsible for several murders, his friends are reluctant to invest wholly in his guilt, as exemplified by Tina Pumo’s reaction: “Underhill can’t be Koko . . . The son of a bitch was crazy, but he was crazy in the sanest possible way.”
As a young man, if I had based my perception of gays and lesbians exclusively on the actions and thoughts of homosexual characters in horror literature, I would have been left with the damaging impression that gays existed solely as lonely, embittered, suicidal, often deviant, individuals who resided in the shadowy fringes for good reason. Naturally, these characterizations were exploitative, playing to the overarching culture. So, rather than expressing traits inherent in homosexuals (whatever those might be), these works expounded on the worst traits formed and reinforced by a homophobic society.
When not portrayed as melancholically lovelorn or on the brink of self-destruction, gays were depicted as unwholesome and a moral threat. This is clear in the stereotype of the gay man as sexual predator. There can be no doubt that through the late 1960s and 1970s a level of sexual freedom emerged for gays that allowed for increased promiscuity, even sexual avidity, but to demonize the behavior with no consideration for the socio-political climate of the time—one that offered little if any effective relationship models for gays, and simultaneously discouraged committed long-term pairings of same-sex couples, through both social convention and legal precedent—would be insufficient. Still, the representations of gays as untethered sexual predators were many.
Because of a social equation that connected LGBTQ behaviors to immorality, characters that exhibited overtly homosexual tendencies were often cast in the role of villain. From Chandler’s characterization of the pornographer, Geiger, in The Big Sleep (1939) to the mutinous, ultimately cannibalistic Caulker’s Mate, Cornelius Hickey, in Dan Simmons’ The Terror (2007) homosexuality has often been presented in conjunction with debauched and grotesque acts. Essentially, the character’s sexuality is used as a reader’s cue that the character is not to be trusted, if not feared outright.
However, an important change in the way gays were presented emerged in the 1970s. Patricia Nell Warren’s groundbreaking novel, The Front Runner (1974) was the first book of contemporary gay fiction to reach The New York Times Best Seller List. The success of this title indicated to the publishing industry that gay and lesbian themed works could be commercially viable, opening the door for other books in the oeuvre. The impact on publishing trends wasn’t immediate, though. It wasn’t until 1978 that three defining works of gay fiction—Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, collecting his serialized story from the San Francisco Chronicle; Larry Kramer’s Faggots; and Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance—were published. All three titles became commercially successful and solidified a demand for stories about the gay experience.
By the mid-1980s, gay and lesbian characters and issues had leapt from the springboard fashioned by those titles in 1978 and were making a noticeable splash in the publishing mainstream. David Leavitt’s family drama, The Lost Language of Cranes was released in 1986 to critical acclaim. 1987 saw the release of Significant Others, the fifth book in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City saga. In 1988, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich published Paul Monette’s acclaimed book, Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, which detailed the final years in the life of Monette’s lover. These titles were received well by critics and became commercially successful. But in 1988, the year of Koko’s release, the gothic gates cloistering the horror genre remained for the most part closed to queer characters—and most other minority characters for that matter.
Historically, horrific stories—whether fairy tales, myths, or works of literature—have been, at their core, morality plays, and it is easy to see the puritanical palette from which horror is inked. Uphold the status quo and all will be well. If you follow temptation, retribution waits in the shadows. Contemporary horror fiction has clung tightly to this heritage. That which is morally acceptable falls on the side of good, whereas deviations from the norm are perceived as justification for reprisal—often death—or indicate a character to be suspected or reviled. Time and again horror authors pit upstanding, wholesome, “normal” characters against persons, forces, or creatures intent on upsetting the status quo.
While such tales are entertaining and can indeed serve as cautionary analogies, they can also perpetuate and promote suspicion toward groups perceived as “other.” The LGBTQ community had been largely unknown or misunderstood as a result of decades of anonymity in the popular culture, with the only exceptions being damaging representations, reinforcing negative stereotypes. Though the literary mainstream had moved beyond many of these flat and harmful stereotypes, genre fiction, including horror fiction, still relied on them heavily. In supporting a narrow perception of what is normal and acceptable, the horror fiction of the day often read as propaganda for the heteronormative, white, middle-class.
As such, it is no surprise that during the horror fiction boom of the 1970s and 1980s genre authors rarely included gay characters in their stories, and when they did incorporate them, the characters fared poorly. The works of William Peter Blatty, Dean Koontz, and John Saul (an openly gay author) all sang the anthem of the conservative status quo. Though not all works in the genre included overt homophobic references, too many did. Examples can be found in the bestselling novels of James Herbert (The Fog, The Dark), Jeffrey Konvitz (The Sentinel), and even Stephen King (Salem’s Lot).
The trend of denigrating what few gay characters appeared in horror fiction continued through the 1980s as pulp writers churned out one horrific tale after another and found the need to populate their books with easily identifiable characters whose only roles were to serve as disposable victims or villains. Stereotyping made this an easy task. Horror authors didn’t need complex characters to move their plots, but were happy to populate their works with such general “types” as the whore, the junkie, the black man, the Asian, and the gay. No further exploration of character was necessary, as readers were invited to bring their own understanding of these types—promoted and reinforced by popular culture—to the text.
But the 1980s also saw the arrival of a new wave of horror authors, most notably Clive Barker, an openly gay writer, who in his pioneering Books of Blood, Volumes I-VI, not only gave readers full and engaging gay characters, but did so unapologetically in a number of stories. But as Barker states in a 2007 interview for Out Magazine, his progressive approach to horror fiction was not embraced by publishing insiders: “Even as late as 1984 my agent and editor, who were both gay themselves, demanded that I remove a short story from a collection because it had gay heroes.” It seemed the issue was not that Barker chose to use gay characters in his fiction, as they had certainly been used before, but rather it was his presentation of them as “heroes” lacking the self-loathing, deviance, and predatory traits considered acceptable by popular standards that caused concern. Fortunately, Barker fought for his artistic vision and nudged the door open for positive LGBTQ content in horror fiction, but it was only a nudge.
One of the ways Straub makes the character of Tim Underhill work so well within the parameters of the horror genre of the time is to misdirect readers by suggesting that Underhill is playing the expected role of villain. The reader knows little about Underhill until he comes into the action nearly halfway through the narrative. What is known is that he is a Vietnam veteran residing in Bangkok, has a history of drug abuse, and is a homosexual with a penchant for young lovers: his “flowers.” Many of these character notes work to manipulate an established stereotype—the sinister gay—playing to the expectation of the reader.
That noted, Straub does not exploit Underhill’s vices, nor does he suggest that the character’s sexuality is a vice unto itself (though readers may well suppose it). In regard to Underhill’s sexual identity, a character notes early in the book:
It took a long time to adjust to the “flowers,” because it took a long time to understand that Underhill never corrupted anybody, that he could not corrupt anybody because he himself was not corrupt . . .
Statements such as this one reinforce the idea that readers are to accept Underhill’s fundamental morality. He is a troubled man, but not a sick man, not an evil man. These messages arrive incrementally to conflict with reader expectation—that “gay” equals “villain”—so that by the time Underhill is revealed to be blameless, the reader is already questioning presumptions, and the character’s positive traits can be further developed.
This compassionate portrayal was uncommon in horror literature. Indeed, it was all but unheard of, and it was not terribly common in mainstream literature outside of self-identified gay authors, whose work at the time focused extensively on the conflicts of being gay in a society ravaged by social oppression and plague.
Granted, this post-gay approach satisfied a commercial purpose. Straub effectively made Underhill more accessible to the average genre reader, who might blanch at a story that threw them too deeply into the gay experience. Even so, his approach showed tremendous respect for the character of Underhill and, by proxy, the gay community.
The popular gay authors of the time wrote about certain kinds of experiences, creating work that was intelligent and significant, both culturally and also to the literary canon. Their stories spoke to an emergent culture, one that had been estranged and persecuted—by the media, by the government, and by nature itself in the form of AIDS. The struggles, tragedies, and victories chronicled in these narratives revealed the diverse lives of gay men who had found places in the world, though usually within specific “ghetto” settings: Fire Island; San Francisco; or Greenwich Village. Underhill was not part of a ghetto; he represented a different kind of gay experience, one in which his sexuality did not mean voluntary segregation, but rather one in which a gay character might interact with the larger society and find emotional support, respect, and a meaningful life. Without question, both forms of representation are valuable as they support the self-esteem and cultural identity of a group that even now struggles to be heard, recognized, and respected. Yet by not focusing on the specifics of Underhill’s sexual identity, making them incidental rather than defining, Straub wrote the kind of assimilated gay character of which Leavitt noted.
And Leavitt isn’t alone in his assertion. Alan Hollinghurst in a New York Times interview from 2011 goes one step further:
“I think that gay writing, gay fiction, had its point, its urgency, through all those years, and then the AIDS crisis added another huge story. But lately, with all the social and legal changes, and the way the perception of gay people has changed, I feel that gay writing is already dissolving into the main body of writing. I sort of feel we’ve moved on.”
Horror fiction has also moved on, though it has done so cautiously and primarily through the work of LGBTQ authors. Clive Barker continued to introduce gay characters in later works, including Sacrament (1996), Cold Heart Canyon (2001) and The Scarlet Gospels (2015). Billy Martin (Poppy Z. Brite) produced a number of successful, important novels with gay protagonists, including Drawing Blood (1993) and Exquisite Corpse (1996). Other LGBTQ authors who have integrated the gay experience with dark fiction include Jay B. Laws, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Douglas Clegg, Joel Lane, Michael Rowe, Hal Bodner, and Jameson Currier.
This is not to say that straight authors, besides Straub, haven’t contributed fully realized LGBTQ characters to the page. Stephen King’s character Tom McCourt, from the novel Cell, is a solid example of a post-gay characterization in horror fiction. Other contemporary examples of works that offer LGBTQ characters operating as more than simple victims or sinister villains include Graham Joyce’s Smoking Poppy (2002), Brian Keene’s Dead Sea (2007), Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter (2010), and Gemma Files’ Hexslinger series, which began with A Book of Tongues (2010).
Social tolerance of gays by the straight community is not universal, but it has progressed significantly in the past thirty years. Should this trend continue, and optimistically it will, then eventually the conflicts of gay characters will vary to a lesser degree from the struggles of straight characters. This is not to say that we will see the end of gay literature. As long as a group is perceived as “different,” that group will face emotional, familial, and social challenges, and these challenges present conflicts that are inherently relevant to literary storytelling. Even so, as our culture and the stories it tells evolve, sexual identity should become even less a provocative appellation, and simply one facet in a layered, complex characterization.
Many of the better writers currently treat the subject matter in this way, but what Straub did from the very beginning was make Underhill’s homosexuality an element of his personality rather than the totality of his character. Underhill was not like the characters in the LGBTQ literature of the 1980s. He certainly didn’t reflect the stereotypical and damaging representations common in the horror literature of the time. Instead, he was a unique and important creation, showing not how gays were presented in either publishing category, but how they might, one day, be written in both. As such, Straub presupposed a post-gay literary climate and did so with intelligence, affection, and compassion.
And I’m grateful as hell that he did.
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