Sodom Road Exit
By Amber Dawn
Arsenal Pulp Press, 408 pages, $21.95
“I’ve submitted to the idea that I will live the rest of my days knowing – no – feeling – no – re-experiencing her hands.”
Amber Dawn’s second novel, Sodom Road Exit, is on the surface a supernatural erotic thriller. In the summer of 1990 , under the pressure of overwhelming debt , 23-year-old Star Martin is forced to leave Toronto for her hometown of Crystal Beach, Ont. Her return comes one year after the amusement park that made the town famous has closed for good. Already in decline, Crystal Beach feels haunted – and that’s before Star unwittingly unleashes Etta, the ghost of a professional “screamer” who died in a roller-coaster accident in the early 1940s.
Beneath this story is another one, however: As Sodom Road Exit queers the horror genre, it also asks what queer horror includes – a critical question right now – and how we heal from that trauma.
The films Sodom Road Exit indirectly references – those of the 1980s’ slasher variety – have already been made queer to an extent through camp. Today’s audiences see a tongue emerging from a phone or a teenage boy swallowed by his own bed – as in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street – and they laugh. Nightmare’s sequel, Freddy’s Revenge, has been called “the gayest horror film ever made” for its overt homo-eroticism, starting with a script that wrote a boy into the role of the “final girl” (the chaste one who survives to the end). Freddy’s Revenge answered the question “What if there was a male scream queen?” What it doesn’t say is why sex is equated with death, or why there has to be a “final girl” at all.
What if the worst thing that ever happened to you wasn’t your encounter with the supernatural, but instead something much more harmful you lived through years before? This question is what Sodom Road Exit is about, told as a supernatural thriller that constantly looks to subvert the slasher-genre tropes, particularly around sex. This is a ghost story in which the ghost is one-third of a lesbian love triangle. Another person in that triangle is the town stripper. On screen, she would be among the first to meet a sexually violent end; here, she’s the rock in the storm, a person with an emotional maturity beyond her years.
And then there’s the book’s title. You could think of Sodom Road Exit as being about going home after the idea of home has been severely compromised. Instead, home is in a town on Lake Erie you reach via the Sodom Road exit off the Queen Elizabeth Way.
This take on the genre ultimately matters because of what “horror” might mean to queer people these days. The charges against Toronto landscaper Bruce McArthur, accused of murdering a series of gay men, are but a few recent examples, revealing multiple frightening layers of real life. In addition to the murders, there are the actions of police forces, their dismissive attitude toward community concerns, and disturbing evidence that further substantiates fears about police indifference to LGBQT lives.
Ghosts don’t rank compared to such horrors – not in real life, and not in this novel. Having been molested as a child, Star has other, more profound fears. And her childhood pain has left her with a want that can’t be fulfilled, a hunger that drives her back to her mother’s house in Crystal Beach. It’s also what makes her susceptible to someone such as Etta, since the ghost’s embrace consumes her in a way no living person’s can.
This is not Amber Dawn’s first book to use horror or the fantastic to explore ideas of trauma and survival. Readers may also be interested in the anthology Fist of the Spider Woman, which she edited, or her debut novel, Sub Rosa, which imagined a kind of Neverland for “lost girls” who feel a similar want to Star’s.
“Everything from this moment onward is impossible. And real,” says Star. So much queer experience could be described by this feeling of the impossible-real; it’s probably why the otherworldly is so well suited to describing it. That experience includes the after-effects of trauma. Sodom Road Exit addresses the uncomfortable truth that pain can cause a person to hurt others, without malicious intent. Etta turns out to be an antagonist, but she’s no villain. “How did I die? Ask me how I lived, why don’t you?” she implores.
Midway through the novel there’s a premonition: “Tough times are coming, and we need to stick together.” Sodom Road Exit is horror that gives the lie to the idea of the “final girl.” It’s only by sticking together that we can survive our various horrors – supernatural or otherwise.