In the Closet, Under the Bed – Lee Thomas (Dark Scribe Press)

Buy It Now at Dark Scribe Press or at Amazon through Dreamwalker Group.

Like every master craftsman of horror, Lee Thomas is weirdly inventive, with an arsenal of tricks and techniques up his sleeves and a universe of creatures, ghouls, ghosts, spirits, and body shifters to unleash on his characters, and readers of his new collection of short stories, In the Closet, Under the Bed will reap the rewards of this explosively talented writer. These stories are monstrous and thrilling and sexy and disturbing. But what makes them truly remarkable and fantastic is their distinctive milieu — gay men battling supernatural forces with dizzying results. Lee Thomas is not only defining the genre of “queer horror” with his new collection, he is setting its gold standard.

Thomas, the author of the award-winning novels The Dust of Wonderland, Stained, and Damage, is adept at laying a realistic groundwork for his stories. His prose is direct and strong and there is little question about his characters identity and issues; each are grappling with present-day concerns, whether it be maintaining their health or having a roof over his head, and each are haunted by memories and struggling to find their future. Thomas’s gay male protagonists can be divided into two camps — men, often married, whose repressed gay lives remain in their pasts or “in the closet,” and men, unabashedly out and open about their homosexuality, whose fears might surface with their sexual partners from the unexpected events “under the bed.”

The protagonists of “Dislocation,” “Healer,” “An Apiary of White Bees,” “All the Faces Change,” “I Know You’re There,” and “The Tattered Boy” are married men, and while many of these characters have a back story of a gay liaison in their younger years, their present day denial and repression magnifies their anxieties as well as shaping their fantasies. The collection opens with “All the Faces Change,” about a married man who returns to his hometown as his father is dying. A chance encounter and a kiss at a local gay bar with a former high school friend sends Tim Elliot into a path of vengeful hallucinations about his wife and children. In Healer,” Gus Howe, a father who has lost his job and home and whose son is dying of pneumonia, enlists the service of a Healer, a witch-doctor who can cure any illness, to save his son, but the good luck arrives with a fatal price tag coming due in the future when Gus has settled into a new life with his lover. Oliver Bennett, the protagonist of “An Apiary of White Bees,” one of the collection’s finest stories, discovers a hidden vault of prohibition alcohol on the property of the hotel he owns and runs with his wife. The mysterious honey liquor tucked away on its shelves induces Oliver’s masturbatory fantasies about the prior owners of the property, his boyhood encounter with the gardener’s son, and an encounter with the present-day construction foreman working at the hotel.

To his credit, Thomas does not shy away from writing sex scenes or of fetishes and there is plenty of explicitness and graphic details in these pages to awe and shock readers. In “Shelter,” a touch of semen to a freakish sculpture on exhibit at an art gallery unleashes a monstrous mythic creature. Eric, in “Dislocation,” is into breath play or sexual asphyxia, and ingests an alternate personality during a sexual encounter. A potential three-way in “Down to Sleep,” when a man meets the lover of one of his prior tricks only to realize the boyfriend is also at home, spirals into a mind-numbing bloody feast. “I Know You’re There” incorporates the use of astral projection in a near-future scenario, as a young man attempts to get inside the mind of a married man with a bit more than just erotic results.

Thomas uses the technique of astral projection in several stories, including the ingenious “The Good and Gone,” about a man in the hospital with a broken hip who during a projection attempts to prevent a tortuous scene. Thomas also cleverly uses body shifting in “I’m Your Violence,” when a detective investigating the gruesome murder of a pedophile, inherits a violent, revengeful spirit while searching for the murderer. “Tears to Rust” is another imaginative near-science future work with clever twists and surprises in the relationship of a gay couple, but the twists are more disturbing in “They Would Say She Danced,” the lone story out of the collection’s fifteen to feature a female protagonist, which revolves around a clairvoyant’s predictions about a woman’s pregnancy.

There are no paranormal gimmicks to “Crack Smokin’ Grandpa,” however, about the evolving relationship between a gay man and an older one. The odd story title is explained by its narrator as his way of objectifying a date so that his heart won’t be broken if a relationship falters, and it is also the finest work of controlled horror in the collection. Thomas employs a building sense of dread as he reveals the clues and truths behind one of the characters. It’s a powerful and unsettling story, and a distinctive jewel in a book of gems.

Reviewed by Jameson Currier

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