John Michael Curlovich's novella "A Holy Time for All the Dead" leads off the intriguing new queer horror anthology, "Triptych of Terror". The reverend Steven Merchant is the newly appointed rector at the Old Stone Loaves and Fishes Full Gospel Fellowship Church in a run-down industrial town in the backwoods of Pennsylvania. Merchant is fresh out of Baptist seminary, assigned in part to the unglamorous locale because of a pesky homosexual indiscretion at the school. He is charged by the villainous Pastor Jack Cantworthy (an over-the-top antagonist who is equal parts gluttonous and nefarious) with creating a religious uproar over the secularization of Halloween in order to jumpstart the elder pastor's master plan to restore the holiday to its religious roots in honoring the dead. He arrives in run-down Glowney Junction to encounter an oddly-out-of-place cast of oddball characters - from the pedophile Catholic priest across the street, to the blind town business mogul and seminary benefactor affectionately known as the Zipper King, to a pair of decidedly queer-leaning, spiky-haired, eyebrow-pierced teenage boys who talk and act more like street hustlers in West Hollywood than small-town teens in an economically depressed industrial town.
Curlovich crafts a trippy little story about the freedom of sexual expression versus the repression of religious fundamentalism. He incorporates many classic elements of a haunting into the storyline, creating an effective metaphor for the repression of the closet. There are moments of genuinely scary imagery like the little dancing, flesh-ripping gargoyles whose use is quite effective. The author (who has also written some excellent haunted dwelling novels under the name Michael Paine) creates a fascinating protagonist in the Reverend Merchant, believably presenting him as a fully flawed mortal at a crossroads between his sexual orientation and the religion he loves. In the end, "A Holy Time for All the Dead" would have benefited from a novel-length treatment with several of the clichés trimmed down. Curlovich tries admirably to pack too much into too few pages, injecting some incongruous elements that detract somewhat from the storytelling. A Holy Time for the Dead is a haunting, dreamlike overstuffed piece of horror with some decidedly eerie imagery and a memorable spin on a classic story.
In Michael Rowe's superb novella "In October", readers are introduced to Mikey Childress, an outcast teenager living in a small-town Canadian suburb. Mikey's dreams of being loved are juxtaposed against his daily battles with an indifferent father who's dismissive and ashamed of his son's lack of machismo, a faith-obsessed mother who spends more time at church praying than she does loving her only child, and a particularly hateful group of high school bullies who subject him to a torrent of everyday horrors meant to humiliate and break his spirit. Mikey's one friend is Goth gal pal Wroxy, a self-professed white witch who offers an almost maternal love and serves as confidant to his coming out. After a particularly horrific bashing at the hands of notorious bully ring leader Dewey Verbinski and his jock cronies, Mikey turns to the occult and unknowingly calls out to the darkside for protection and revenge against his enemies. That protection arrives in the form of hunky Adrian, an enigmatic bad boy transfer student who materializes one day and takes an instant liking to the young protagonist. In Adrian, Mikey finds stalwart defense and an emotional security he has never known and a sexual awakening he has only dreamed about. But as all keen readers of the supernatural know, one cannot summon the darkside without casting a dark shadow. Soon Mikey's enemies start disappearing, meeting their demise at the hands (and claws, and teeth, and wings, and killer appendages, too!) of a demon who springs forth with equal fury to the homophobia leveled at the teen. As Mikey slowly comes to realize that Adrian may be the embodiment of his own hatred and resentment against those who've persecuted him, the teenager must make a heartbreaking choice between (literally) good and evil.
Rowe creates a masterful work with "In October", embracing the novella format like no writer in recent memory - so well as to fashion a thoroughly satisfying story. His depiction of Mikey's teen angst is dead-on, uncannily capturing the emotional loneliness and physical torments that mark the high school experience certain to resonant with every reader - gay and straight alike - on some level. From the beautifully tender and believable scene in which Mikey admits his homosexuality to a receptive Wroxy to the harrowing roadside gay bashing that leads him to seek out otherworldly intervention, Rowe brings the reader into the experience with a remarkable ability that few writers today possess. It is no small feat that Rowe can make us care so deeply for the characters and a testament to his ability as a writer that he does so within the concise format of an 80+ page novella. "In October" is a deeply-felt metaphorical homage to the horrors of coming out and an unsettling depiction of the straight world in which we do it. Rowe's tale of teenage anguish and loneliness is an exquisitely told cautionary tale, rich in visceral images of horror and the erotic.
"Triptych's" final installment is the devilishly magical "The Secrets of the Fey" by David Thomas Lord, another cautionary tale that reinforces the idea of being careful for what you wish for. Protagonist Tom Hogan is a sixty-three-year-old gay man grieving the loss of his longtime partner, Daniel. Paralyzed by grief, Tom is tired, lonely, and lamenting both the physical and emotional aches and pains of growing older in a gay culture in which youth and beauty are (at least theoretically) synonymous with happiness. His life is on autopilot, filled with meaningless everyday tasks and a select group of friends with whom he does brunch once a week. The narrative begins on Pride Day, with New York City bursting at the seams with the young and pretty. After a post-brunch altercation that sends him off alone to traverse the rainbow-laden cityscape, Tom happens upon a quaint gay bar called Land's End, where he meets the most beautiful man he has ever laid eyes on. Tapping into his Celtic heritage, Tom somehow quickly surmises that the porcelain-skinned redhead is a leprechaun-of-sorts and steals his clothes in some bid to force the granting of a wish. Despite stern warnings from the entrancing Will O'Gull, Tom wishes him to be his lover - one who will never leave him like Daniel did. But wishes always come at a cost, and what follows is an allegorical tale of the price we pay in pursuit of the fountain of youth.
Lord infuses "The Secrets of the Fey" with marvelous doses of mysticism, evoking images of malevolent fairies intermingled with erotic passion. He does a spot-on job chronicling Tom's post-wish transformation and the action moves along at a decent clip, never shortchanging the reader on character development (particularly in the case of Tom's plastic surgeon friend, Drew) or the hot sexual trysts that bookmark Tom's transformation. Lord's got quite a bit of symbolism and themes at work here - from the straightforward observations about the dangers inherent to pursuing youth and beauty at all costs to the less obvious commentary about sexual promiscuity and its ultimate loneliness in gay culture. Although this otherwise delightfully terrifying fable gets bogged down occasionally by Lord's distracting name dropping of New York City landmarks, the novella is quite an effective and chilling read overall. In the end, Lord reminds us that despite living in a culture that tells us otherwise, we can't really have it all, and that there are prices to be paid for discounting those blessings that are right under our noses.