In David Demchuk's horror novel Red X, fiction and reality blur together in Toronto's Gay Village
David Demchuk's debut work of fiction, The Bone Mother, was the first book of the horror genre to be longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It was set in three neighbouring villages on the border of Romania and Ukraine, as local mythical inhabitants shared their stories in the shadow of coming war and extinction of their kind.
At the heart of Demchuk's new horror novel Red X, there's another village and another vulnerable community under threat. The book is set in Toronto's historic Gay Village, a neighbourhood that has been home to LGBTQ+ communities over the decades. Red X mirrors the real life horror felt by gay men falling prey to a serial killer, interspersed with David's personal story of growing up, as his fictional characters are stalked by predators, real and supernatural. The story is a moving testament to the community's resilience in the face of fear and disappearance.
David Demchuk is a Toronto writer and a CBC communications officer. His first book, The Bone Mother, was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. He spoke with Shelagh Rogers about his latest work.
We both worked around the corner from the Gay Village in the old CBC Radio building in Toronto. How would you describe your relationship to the village over the years?
When I first moved to Toronto, which was in fact in 1984 from Winnipeg, it was a huge change for me. Winnipeg had a small gay village, but it was such a proportionately smaller city. You knew everybody. Everybody knew you.
When I first moved here, I was quite far away from the Village and then, over the course of the decades, I moved progressively closer. It wasn't intentional, but at the same time, the Village became more focal to my social life, to my writing life, to my work life. As you point out, we were right around the corner from it, and it occupied more and more of my mental space as well, particularly because I was watching the changes that were happening as the Village became more gentrified, as AIDS was taking its toll on the community, as there was a certain amount of violence that happened from outside the community toward queer people. And that process, I mean, parts of it enraged me, parts of it frightened me and the whole thing fascinated me.
What inspires the horror element that works its way through Red X?
Well, that's a very good question. Part of it is real life horror, real life fears. The fear of being alone amongst the crowd. The fear of being not known. The fear of violence that queer people and trans people in the Village and outside the Village experience.
We all have to come together and rely on each other in order to be able to survive.
When I created a monster, as I did in this particular story, I wanted to encapsulate a number of those different fears. There's a certain fear of sexuality. There's a certain fear of vulnerability that is also tied into all of this. The thing about the Gay Village is that it is a small, integrated in its own odd way, community in amongst this much larger, much more disparate and, in some ways during that period, uncaring larger city. We all have to come together and rely on each other in order to be able to survive. That, I think, is something else that also fascinates me.
Red X opens in 1984 with the disappearance of a young man named Ryan, who's newly arrived in Toronto. He works in a bar. Later on, a homeless man goes missing, then a new immigrant, and then many more men throughout the story. What did these men share that makes them vulnerable?
Early on we hear that the monster is targeting people who will not be missed. People who sort of fly under the radar, who don't necessarily have a lot of connections to their community. Over the course of the story, we find that it becomes embellished to the point where we see that they're isolated, they're lonely, they're craving connection that is being withheld from them because of their marginalization.
The creature sees that vulnerability, that need to feel loved, that need to feel intimacy, can be preyed upon because he feels it himself. He understands that what makes him vulnerable is something that can be weaponized against his prey. He's a creature who can never be satiated. Anything that he does in order to try to create that connection, it's only for a very short-lived period and then his prey disappears like a vapour.
He understands that what makes him vulnerable is something that can be weaponized against his prey.
There's this constant need to try to alleviate his loneliness. He's the only one of his kind in this area that we call Canada. That mutual vulnerability is what creates the cord that connects him to his victims.
What got you thinking about people in the Village who would not be missed?
The Gay Village, and other gay communities throughout North America, have always had a problem with gay men being murdered, gay men vanishing and not being able to find out what happened to them. When I was growing up gay in Toronto, it was pre-internet, so if someone disappeared, they really disappeared. You really had no idea what had gone on with them.
Early on with Ryan, we talk about, did he go home to his family? Did he move to another city? Was he escaping debts or escaping bad dates? Did he kill himself? These were questions that we had uppermost in our minds. Of course, later on, did he die? Did he fall ill? Did his family disappear him? Those fears continue because, of course, that predation continues.
I started the book as a play around 2014, and at that point about three people had already disappeared in the Village. They were, we now know, the early victims of a murderer. At the time that I was starting the play, I was thinking about those men and I was thinking about the fact that men had been vanishing from Toronto since the 1970s as far as I knew, and probably earlier. Obviously not all one killer, and not even one explanation, but that made me think about the nature of that disappearance, the nature of that vulnerability and and the fact that any of us could just up and vanish.
Your book is intercut with your own memoir of growing up gay, of what it was like to first come to Toronto and other thoughts about gay horror literature. Why did you want to intersplice Red X with your story?
I could have found other ways through the authorial voice to introduce the questions that I introduce, and perhaps to implicate myself in different ways. But I thought that the thing that I would do is just come right out and do it. I would just write as myself and about my own fears, about my own queerness, about my own perceptions, of how I saw queerness and horror related to each other over the history of the genre.
I ended up playing very heavily with my inclusion into the fiction. At a certain point, I cross over into the book and the book crosses over into me. I see that also as an interesting place where horror can reside, is where fiction and reality can blur and inform each other. That was an interesting thing to explore, and I think it paid off quite well.
To quote from the book, you write, "As I write in the genre, I continually have to question whether I'm demonizing sides of myself that I should be embracing — my values, my relationships, my sexuality, my Otherness." Where does all of this put you as a writer?
Particularly as a horror writer, but it's true as a writer in general, it is this constant interrogation. There is a desire, I think, in many marginalized communities, that you should be putting the best face of your community forward. You should be writing heroic characters. You should be writing positive situations with happy endings. As a horror writer, you don't get a lot of happy endings. You can have a qualified ending at best.
And so, if I'm going to write about this material, if I'm going to write about things that actually connect to me as a queer individual as part of a community in my own life, and the stories that I'm choosing to write about are things that are dark and frightening and disturbing and violent, what does it say about me? What does it say about how I relate to my community? What does it say about how I relate to the darker side of my existence in this city, my existence in this country, my existence within myself?
If I'm attracted to this kind of material, what does it say about me?
If I'm attracted to this kind of material, what does it say about me? If I'm writing for people who are attracted to it, am I, in some way, validating their fears about me, validating their fears about queer people? There is no easy answer. I think it's an ongoing dialogue, and that is something that I also wanted to portray in the book.
In the acknowledgements, you thank Ing Wong Ward, who was a colleague at the CBC. She was one of my producers and she was your beloved friend. She read your book before she died from cancer. What did she tell you?
We talked about the murders that happened in Toronto, and at a particular point, a friend of mine was one of the victims. He disappeared. We did not connect him mentally with any of the other people who disappeared prior to him. He was very different. And we searched for him. He was the kind of person who I thought, "Oh, he's fallen into a ravine or something trying to rescue a stray dog." It never occurred to me that he would be the victim of a horrendously violent crime until his remains were found, and then we found out that he had been killed.
Ing had been a tremendous support all the way through the writing process. She was a very strong believer in this book. When my friend's remains were found, I turned to her and I said, "I have to stop. I can't write this book." And she could be quite forceful. She turned to me and she said, "No, you must write this book. This book has to happen now. It's more important than ever."
She was very much a journalist, as you know. In her mind, this was a story that needed to be told. I turned to her and I said, "OK, well, number one, I'm going to need your support in order to do it because it's dangerous material for me. And secondly, I'm going to need a really great eye because I don't want to veer into exploitation. I don't want to veer into traumatizing material. I'm going to need some assistance with this." She was right there next to me through that whole process. Even as she was dying, she was providing feedback, helping me through. It was a tremendously rewarding experience, and I obviously will cherish her always.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.