‘Red X’ is queer horror at its most relatable and accessible

David Demchuk’s sophomore novel centers diverse queer bodies and isolation and flips it over in a literary spectacle of horror

We, as queer individuals, have either been required to be the object of mockery for our “perverseness,” or as extreme radical revolutionaries that our family members refuse to even comprehend our struggles. Us queers have to be the source of instilling fear and shock and disgust or be the first ones to experience the “attack of the colonizing conservatives”. That’s because, as David Demchuk rightfully points out in his sophomore book RED X, “for centuries, queerness and horror have been intertwined, horror relying on queerness for shock and pungency, and queerness relying on horror for visibility and validation.”

Demchuk moved to Toronto in the summer of 1984, when the novel starts, a city brimming with gay energy. In Red X, which can easily be read as a love letter to Toronto, he highlights capitalist vultures driving safe queer spaces out of existence. 

“…bars and clubs bought out and torn down for condos; decades-old bistros and brunch spots replaced with pho, pizza, ramen, burgers, and bubble tea; quirky little shops and cafés springing up, thriving briefly, and then faltering, moving to cheaper digs across town or closing up entirely.”

And with every page, an increasingly lingering feeling of dread emanating from the words on it. The atmosphere intensifies when you learn that Demchuk’s personal stories are interspersed between horrifying tales of gay men disappearing from the heart of The Village in Toronto. Someone is watching them. Something is hunting them. The uneasiness continues and reaches its peak where you begin to question the very object in your hand. There is a part in the last quarter of the book where the words are bleeding from the page and there are black pages with words hidden encouraging you to decipher them. This play on what’s real and what’s not, what’s normal and what is the new normal is an excellent allegory for queer existence. 

This is what it means to be queer. To exist in a world that is built around oppressing you. A world where to be “queer” is synonymous to being a “villain”. If you have chosen to exist outside of the colonial, heteronormative binary, you are not considered as an equal. The society that has raised you, turns on you and regards you as an example of “horror”. Because of this, you end up relating with the campy villains in Disney films. You end up finding your identity validated in spaces and among folks who the rest of the world considers terrifying and ungodly.

In her essay, “Dream House as Queer Villainy”, acclaimed queer writer Carmen Maria Machado argues for queer individuals to be seen as real people, as human beings, as flawed as their binary counterparts. 

“…Queer villains become far more interesting among other gay characters, both within a specific project or universe and the zeitgeist at large. And that’s pretty exciting, even liberating; by expanding representation, we give space to queers to be — as characters, as real people — human beings. They don’t have to be metaphors for wickedness and depravity or icons of conformity and docility. They can be what they are. We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity.”

In the Dream House (Graywolf Press, 2019) – Carmen Maria Machado

I came to Canada to start school in September 2017. Around twenty miles east of my Airbnb, a landscaper in his sixties was brutally murdering someone who, like me, just happened to be gay and brown. I didn’t know. I didn’t know that I could be used as a “thing” to be objectified, fetishized, oppressed and hunted in equal measure, just for being. And for a while, I was terrified of going in to the gay village of Toronto out of fear of being preyed upon. RED X might be the author’s most personal work to date, but it is also the most personally affecting book I have read in a long time. It was just four years ago, but I should have been scared, yet I was hopeful and willfully ignorant. Now, I have a family, one that I have found; a community, one that values companionship and reciprocation. But, I am scared. I am scared to lose it all. I am scared to lose myself.

When I left India, my sister made me a scrapbook with a page that said, “If people are offended by you, they are not your people. Be patient, be present, be hopeful. You will find your people.” The only solace for queer folk — in the book and otherwise — is community. When you’re othered by those around you, you find company with others. And the community that fights together, thrives together. After almost half a decade in the True North, I have found my people. I am still scared. But, I know I am not alone in my fear. This is beautifully reflected in the book by including a diverse cast of queer characters who are haunted by a little red book, each encouraged to journal in it.

One of these characters is a Tamil immigrant from Sri Lanka who moves to Toronto with his wife. Unbeknownst to his wife, Suda finds himself in the company of queer men. However, he finds himself soon being hunted, his secret close to being discovered and the sanctity of his marriage soon being questioned. When he is hunted, Suda is spoken to in Tamil. 

என்னிடம் வாருங்கள்.

The first time I read it I thought my eyes were mistaken. And then they started watering. Because never in my life have I seen a language that I know of all my life be in a book written by a white author. This is how you show inclusion. This is why representation matters.

Rad Riot Reads is column written by members of the Rad Riot Books community that reviews literary works from the Global South, translated, queer, migrant and anti-oppressive literature.

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