Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Son of Queen of the Darned

Another book review for Gay Community News, probably published in 1990 or 1991.

Holy Terror

by Steve Abbott
Freedom CA: The Crossing Press, 1989
$8.95 paperbound
141 pp.

Our story begins in 196-, with the narrator, a confused young Iowan named Armand Dupre, checking in at Inviolate Conception Abbey. Instead of the quiet asceticism he'd hoped to find, he is plunged into institutional politics and rivalries and romantic intrigues. After rejecting several advances by fellow novices and older monks, he falls blissfully in love with the beautiful Robbie. But their short-lived joy comes to a tragic end: Robbie is killed by the gnarly old Brother Theodosius. Armand goes over the wall; he saves money to go to Europe by teaching in a small-town high school for a year. In Paris he falls in love with the beautiful but dissipated film star Tomaso Bianchi, who eventually returns his love. But their life, lived in the fast lane, only narrowly avoids further tragedy in the Satanistic rituals of A., a rock star's consort. Our heroes flee, but return to their excesses until Tomaso nearly dies of an overdose of heroin; as soon as he is out of danger, Armand flees once again. He kicks drugs, takes up Zen, and after a final meeting with Tomaso (who has also gotten off drugs), returns to New York.

Holy Terror
is unevenly written, ranging from passages of real beauty to subliteracies like "his anger reached truly tendentious proportions", and the plot seems to wander, ultimately leaving off in mid-air. Its beginning in the monastery has no relation I can see to Armand's wanderings with Tomaso, except for a contrived and unconvincing moment during the Satanic ritual scene with "A.":
...While Tomaso stood frozen in shock I screamed "Stop it you witch! This is going too far!"

"Too far?"

A. looked around the wine cellar like she didn't know where she was and I felt a palpable wind fill the room and push against my chest. Then I heard an unnaturally deep voice spill from A.'s lips.


A gleam lit up her eyes that I'd seen only once before, a look so terrible I shall never forget it -- Theodosius! My blood turned to ice. I cried out the one word that linked these two experiences.

The entire room seemed to heave a sigh of relief as I heard a great flapping of wings like a flock of seagulls taking off. A.'s arms fell listlessly to her side. . . . Robbie had answered my cry.
[pp. 113-114]
But after that -- and the book continues for nearly forty pages more -- Robbie is apparently forgotten. Robbie's dead, that's all, and Armand moves on (though haunted by his memories, of course) to Tomaso, and then to New York and whatever happens there. ("But that's another story", pp. 140.)

On its back cover Holy Terror is mislabeled a Gothic romance. If that suggests to you, as it does to me, genre fiction (stormy seacoast, mansion whose mysterious brooding master cherishes unnamable secrets, etc.), forget it. What I can't quite decide is what is going on here. The author, poet Steve Abbott, says that Holy Terror was written from dream journals and that "No reference to persons...should be taken as factual" (but the appearance of a dissolute German filmmaker named "Fastbender" and a rock-star couple known as "K." and "A." belie this claim). I found his novel neither poetic nor dreamlike: it seems too realistic for gothic or poetic fiction, yet not realistic enough to be "mainstream." If I were going to assign it to a genre, I'd guess something along the lines of the glam-and-scandal roman à clef written by people like Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins. (If you want a gay Gothic, I think that Vincent Virga's 1980 classic Gaywyck is still in print.)

And yet I've read worse small-press gay male fiction than Holy Terror. Maybe Steve Abbott's second novel will be better. There's too much good gay fiction being published these days by the mainstream houses for me to be able to recommend Holy Terror in good conscience; but if you've read Robert Ferro and Edmund White and Alan Hollinghurst and the rest and are hungry for more, you could do worse than spend $8.95 on Holy Terror.