In David Demchuk’s horror novel Red X, fiction and reality collide in Toronto’s gay village

David Demchuk’s first work of fiction, The Mother of Bones, was the first book in the horror genre to be nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It was set in three nearby villages on the border of Romania and Ukraine, as local mythical inhabitants shared their stories in the shadow of the coming war and the extinction of their kind.

Inside Demchuk’s New Horror Novel red X, there is another village and another vulnerable community at risk. The book is set in Toronto’s historic gay village, a neighborhood that has been home to LGBTQ+ communities over the decades. red x reflects the real-life horror felt by gay men falling prey to a serial killer, intercut with David’s personal story of growing up, as his fictional characters are hunted down by predators, both real and supernatural. The story is a moving testimony to the community’s resilience in the face of fear and loss.

David Demchuk is a Toronto-based writer and communications officer at the CBC. His first book, mother of bones, was shortlisted 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 with the village over the years?

When I first moved to Toronto, actually in 1984 from Winnipeg, it was a huge change for me. Winnipeg had a small gay village, but it was a proportionately smaller city. You knew everyone. Everyone knew you.

When I moved here, I was quite far from the Village then, over the decades, I gradually got closer. It wasn’t intentional, but at the same time, the Village became more central in my social life, in my life as a writer, in my professional life. As you pointed out, we were right around the corner, and that was taking up more and more of my mental space as well, especially as I was watching the changes that were happening as the village became more gentrified, so that AIDS was wreaking havoc. on the community, because there was a certain amount of violence that was happening from outside the community towards queer people. And this process, I mean, parts enraged me, parts scared me, and the whole thing fascinated me.

What inspires the element of horror that weaves its way through red x?

That’s a very good question. Part of that is real-life horror, real-life fears. The fear of being alone among the crowd. The fear of not being known. The fear of violence experienced by queer people and trans people in the Village and outside the Village.

We all have to come together and rely on each other in order to survive.

When I created a monster, like I did in this particular story, I wanted to encapsulate a number of those different fears. There is a certain fear of sexuality. There is a certain fear of vulnerability that is also linked to all of this. The thing about the gay village is that it is a small community integrated in its own strange way within this much larger, much more disparate and, in some ways, during this time, indifferent city. We all have to come together and rely on each other in order to survive. I think that’s something else that fascinates me too.

red x opened in 1984 with the disappearance of a young man named Ryan, newly arrived in Toronto. He works in a bar. Later, a homeless man disappears, then a new immigrant, then many other men throughout the story. What do these men have in common that makes them vulnerable?

Early on, we hear that the monster is targeting people we won’t miss. People who go unnoticed, who don’t necessarily have many ties to their community. Over the course of the story, we see that embellishing to the point where we see that they are isolated, that they are alone, that they crave connection that is denied to them due to their marginalization.

The creature sees that vulnerability, this need to feel loved, this need to feel intimacy, can be exploited because it feels it itself. He understands that what makes him vulnerable is something that can be weaponized against his prey. It is a creature that can never be sated. Anything he does to try and make that connection is only for a very short time and then his prey vanishes like a vapor.

He understands that what makes him vulnerable is something that can be weaponized against his prey.

There is this constant need to try to alleviate his loneliness. He is the only one of his kind in this region called Canada. This mutual vulnerability is what creates the cord that connects him to his victims.

What made you think of the people in the Village that wouldn’t miss?

The Gay Village and other gay communities across North America have always had a problem with murdered gay men, gay men going missing who cannot find out what happened to them. When I was growing up gay in Toronto, it was before the internet, so if someone disappeared, they really disappeared. You really had no idea what happened with them.

In the beginning with Ryan, we talk about it, did he go home to his family? Has he moved to another city? Was he running from debts or was he escaping bad dates? Did he commit suicide? These are questions we had in mind. Of course, later, is he dead? Did he get sick? Has his family disappeared? These fears persist because, of course, this predation continues.

I started the book as a play around 2014, and by then about three people had already gone missing in the Village. They were, we now know, the first victims of a murderer. When I started the play, I was thinking about these men and thinking about the fact that men had been missing from Toronto since the 1970s, to my knowledge, and probably earlier. Obviously not all a killer, and not even an explanation, but it got me thinking about the nature of that disappearance, the nature of that vulnerability, and the fact that any of us could just stand up and disappear.

Your book is interspersed with your own memoirs of your gay childhood, what it was like to come to Toronto, and other thoughts on gay horror literature. Why did you want to insert red x with your story?

I could have found other ways through the author’s voice to introduce the issues I’m introducing, and maybe get involved in different ways. But I thought the thing I would do is just go out and do it. I was just writing as myself and about my own fears, about my own homosexuality, about my own perceptions, about how I saw homosexuality and the horror tied together over the course of the history of the genre.

I ended up playing really hard with my inclusion in the fiction. At a certain moment, I pass into the book and the book passes into me. I also see it as an interesting place where horror can reside, where fiction and reality can merge and inform each other. It was an interesting thing to explore, and I think it paid off pretty well.

To quote the book, you write: “As I write in the genre, I have to continually ask myself if I’m demonizing sides of myself that I should be embracing — my values, my relationships, my sexuality, my otherness.” Where does all this place you as a writer?

Particularly as a horror writer, but it’s true as a writer in general, it’s this constant questioning. There’s a desire, I think, in many marginalized communities for you to put the best face of your community forward. You should write heroic characters. You should write positive situations with happy endings. As a horror writer, you don’t get a lot of happy endings. You can at best have a skilled ending.

And so, if I’m going to write about this material, if I’m going to write about things that really connect me as a queer individual as part of a community in my own life, and the stories that I choose to write are things dark and scary and disturbing and violent, what does that say about me? What does this say about my relationship with my community? What does that 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 drawn to it, am I somehow validating their fears about me, validating their fears about gay people? There is no easy answer. I think it’s an ongoing dialogue, and that’s something I wanted to portray in the book as well.

In the acknowledgments, you thank Ing Wong Ward, who was a CBC colleague. She was one of my producers and she was your beloved friend. She read your book before she died of cancer. What did she tell you?

We talked about the murders that happened in Toronto, and at one point a friend of mine was one of the victims. He disappeared. We have not mentally linked him to any of the other people who disappeared before him. He was very different. And we looked for it. He was the kind of person I thought of, “Oh, he fell down a ravine or something trying to save a stray dog.” It never occurred to me that he would be the victim of a horribly violent crime until his remains were found and then we found out he had been killed.

Ing was tremendously supportive throughout the writing process. She firmly believed in this book. When my friend’s remains were found, I turned to her and said, “I have to stop. I can’t write this book. And she could be quite energetic. She turned to me and said, “No, you have to write this book. This book must arrive now. It is more important than ever.

She was very journalistic, as you know. In his mind, it was a story that needed to be told. I turned to her and said, “OK, well, first, I’m going to need your support to do this because it’s a dangerous material for me. And second, I’m going to need a very good eye because I don’t want to fall into exploitation. I don’t want to fall into traumatic material. I’m going to need help with this. She was right next to me throughout this process. Even as she was dying, she was giving me her feedback, helping me through it. It was a hugely uplifting experience and I will obviously always cherish it.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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