Red X, the new horror novel by David Demchuk, is unflinching. While it traces the story of Toronto’s Gay Village and its denizens as they deal with threats both supernatural and systemic alike, it eschews the shock tactics and gore sometimes associated with urban horror. Instead, Demchuk builds a lingering atmosphere of dread based on the horrifying reality of being part of a vulnerable and insular community and approaches heroes, villains, and victims alike with a tremendous degree of empathy. He then deepens the narrative by intertwining his own personal history, the history of Toronto, mythology, and discussions of horror itself to create something truly unique: a work of heart, humanity, righteous fury, and heavily guarded optimism about queerness, horror, urban history, and threat.
Men are disappearing from Toronto’s Gay Village, leaving only a pile of folded clothes and a strange red book behind. In the lead-up to their disappearance, their dreams are filled with an unusually beautiful boy with black hair, a sense of burning, and visions of a peaceful wood before they finally drop out of sight forever. Their friends and neighbors try to piece together what happened to them, well aware that the police and city will do nothing–or worse, present an active threat. As an ages-old presence makes itself known, a writer named David Demchuk finds himself drawn into the disappearances, which span decades, and reflecting on his own experiences, horror, and the meaning of contemporary queerness. As the two stories intertwine and move into the present day, the book becomes a history of the intersection between horror, queerness, and a rapidly shifting urban landscape.
Red X is one of the most relentlessly brutal books you will ever read. It’s not excessively bloody or reliant on a lot of shocking content, but the raw, unbridled emotion of the story combined with the lingering atmospheric dread of near-constant existential threat suffered by its protagonists hits even harder than the most extreme gore. What violence is there on the page builds on that inevitable dread and underscores the horror of watching the characters you get to know–some over multiple decades–fall victim to either the existential threat of life as a vulnerable and marginalized person in an oppressive system or get picked off by equally uncaring and nigh-unstoppable predatory forces is utterly wrenching. Similarly, some of the deaths occur in an almost casual way. Someone can be an integral part of several sections of the book only to vanish and later be mentioned in passing as dead. It further underlines the way the horror of marginalization becomes almost routine, that the remaining characters are forced to accept that death and disappearance are a constant in their world and that, no matter how exhausted they are, they must be on their guard, lest they be the next to drop out of the world.
There are no faceless victims in Red X, either. While the monster’s victims are announced at the beginning of each section, heralding a new time period, Demchuk outlines their lives, their daily activities, and even their interactions with the book’s recurring cast of clubgoers, artists, DJs, and activists. Even the book’s predators are given a relatively deep backstory, with one of the police officers complicit in shaking down the Village even getting a moment of quiet domestic life before his world is horribly and violently torn asunder. The book’s monster might be a horrifying supernatural predator, but he was used and manipulated by those around him, molded into an instrument for causing death and pain before being brutally tortured for his sexual orientation more than for any of the monstrous things he did. It makes the emotional gutpunch of the book hit that much harder, that the reader wants to care about these people, wants to see them survive another day, but knows that’s nowhere near a certainty. It also adds a sense of desperation to the narrative stakes: the knowledge that any encounter with the cops, with the monster, or with absolutely anything possibly dangerous could be the last time you see the people you’ve grown to care about so much.
It’s also that sense of empathy, the way Demchuk makes sure you care about who these people are and what happens to them, which keeps Red X from being grim and misanthropic. The book is emotionally charged, and there is anger to be sure, but there’s a vibrancy to it. The cast is locked in a constant life-or-death struggle, but it’s very clear they’re fighting, and far from resigned to a horrible fate. There’s a chance–a slim one, but a chance–that things will get better. While the horrors of the world are relentless and being in an insular, vulnerable community means there’s an omnipresent threat of predation, these people are still alive and some of them manage to make it through the crisis. As cruel as the world of Red X is (and, indeed, the real world it mirrors), there’s some optimism to the fact that the characters you grow to love aren’t completely broken by it. There’s not a strong sense of relief or catharsis–even the final stand against the book’s monster is more subdued, tragic, and temporary than most horror novels would depict–but it’s also a far cry from the complete existential despair so many of these types of books fall into.
This might make Red X sound like something of a heavy read, and it is, but it’s definitely worth your time. It’s a book full of heart and righteous fury, an urban nightmare with some retro-horror stylings that sidesteps that genre’s usual pitfalls of splatter and pessimism to deliver a story of emotional heft and guarded optimism. While it’s relentless and can be incredibly disturbing, there are also moments of beauty, hope, and a certain melancholy. It’s a complex, disturbing, challenging, and compulsively readable work that commands your attention, and indeed deserves it.