I am not a gushy person. But be warned that, over the past three weeks, Sodom Road Exit has become my favourite and most necessary mood. It has allowed me to be a ghoul and a hero in the face of certain horrors, and on top of that it’s one of the most tremendous and strangest books I have read. You know that one bookshelf you have where you keep your truest and most significant books? Sodom Road Exit sits on my one. I have read some incredible LGBTQ fiction over the past year but nothing has stuck with me in quite the same way.
If you were to ask me what it’s about, the simplest answer is that it’s a supernatural erotic thriller set in the shadows of a demolished theme park. But it’s a lot more than that. It’s an exploration of horror and what happens when horror meets queerness. It’s a love story between a smartass university drop-out and a small-town stripper. It’s about mothers and daughters, poverty, feminism, abuse, addiction. And it’s about sex, sometimes with humans and sometimes with ghosts.
It starts with Starla, who wakes up in her crap apartment in Toronto with a hangover and a naked woman she does not know. It is 1990. She is keen to get the woman out of her bed and so takes her for a breakfast she can’t afford. Just like she can’t afford the apartment, or the cab she takes across town, or anything, because she is broke. She is 23 years old, has dropped out of university, and has so much debt that the only thing she can do is call her mother, Barbara, and retreat back to her hometown of Crystal Beach.
Crystal Beach is the hometown you can’t wait to leave. But because it’s not my hometown, or probably your hometown, it sounds completely dreamy. I’ve found myself wanting to be there, much in the same way I’ve longed to be in Stars Hollow from the Gilmore Girls at times. Crystal Beach is better though because it is weirder, and because for 100 years it was home to an amusement park on the shores of Lake Erie. At its peak from the 1920’s to the 1950’s the park attracted thousands of visitors each summer, turning Crystal Beach into a kind of Boardwalk Empire-type party town with booze and music and sex and noise. It was also home to the Cyclone, one of the most extreme and brutal roller coasters of its time. By the time Starla moves back home, the park has been completely demolished. Crystal Beach has become a ghost of its former self; there is not much tourism left and Lake Erie, once known for its clean waters, is murky.
We meet Starla’s mother, Barbara, who has a fondness for men. Barbara is the town librarian. She is loud and unapologetic. She has bought Starla an ugly souvenir from the ghost train ride at the amusement park. She is happy to have her home. But there is certain trauma in Starla’s past that fills their relationship full of strains and trepidation. Rather than spend more time at home with Barbara, Starla decides to apply for a job as a night warden at The Point, the local campsite. She is offered the position immediately, the only competition being a teenage boy with grungy hair who tries to ask her out. As compensation for beating him to the job, she lets him take her to the local strip club for a drink, where she accidentally gets pulled into a sex show with Tamara Matveev, a supremely good-looking stripper who went to Starla’s high school.
Things start going well. Starla makes friends at The Point, with Rose, the campsite owner, and with a family who live there in a trailer, Bobby, her alcoholic husband Hal, and their cute kid Lucky. She goes on a date with Tamara Matveev. At the same time, she starts being haunted by a horny ghost named Etta. This is where the supernatural horror comes in, and reader, it is EXCELLENT.
Etta is the ghost of a 1920’s sex worker and professional screamer – she rode the Cyclone roller coaster with men and screamed to give them an even bigger thrill. She then had sex with their wives. She is the queerest ghost of them all, and she has the hots for Starla big time. Using Starla as a medium (as well as a lover), she convinces the people of Crystal Beach to build her a gazebo with pieces of the demolished park.
From this point, things go sour. Starla is in a lesbian love triangle with the local stripper and a queer ghost. She is losing weight and having blackouts. She is being controlled by Etta; if she drifts too far away from her she gets sick. Parts of the book feel very much like an 80’s horror movie. They are camp in the same way 80’s horror has become camp with age. This queering of the horror genre works SO WELL. By showing how quickly Starla accepts – and then embraces – the fact she is being haunted by a dangerous ghost, the book asks us to think about what she is really afraid of. If a thing that is scariest to most people isn’t even that scary, then what is the real horror? In this respect the book is about the effects of trauma and how it manifests. The horror genre is such an effective way to explore this. Queer narratives have been hidden in genre fiction for decades, and in Sodom Road Exit Amber Dawn really plays with that, making it literary and subversive and cutting.
Can you tell how much I love this book yet? Let me tell you another thing I love about it: the love story between Starla and Tamara. It is so, so lovely. Amidst the humour and the horror and the trauma, their relationship is incredibly cute and super romantic. Tamara is great. She is a voice of reason for Starla. She knows who she is and what she wants, and she doesn’t apologize for any of it. She is a stripper who enjoys experimental arthouse films and she has a Butthole Surfers poster pinned to the ceiling of her room. I may love her. Starla really does love her. Even though she is sort of hopeless at being a girlfriend, she says things like: “My ears pop – she’s so fucking sexy, she makes the air pressure change.” Swoon. Another good thing is that Amber Dawn is a really good writer of queer sex.
If you take all I have said about this book and add plenty of queer and pop culture references like Siouxsie Sioux, Love & Rockets, PAC-MAN, Therese and Isabelle, The Cramps, Wes Craven, and Sharon Olds, Sodom Road Exit creates a mood that I find incredibly comforting. Most of this is no doubt down to Amber Dawn’s really excellent writing – her prose is full of guts and fire and her sentences are so good I want to hang them on a wall. The tone of the book has a lot of fight in it, and it’s also self-deprecating, ironic, intelligent, and absolutely hilarious. Maybe I loved this so much as a queer person, maybe as a lover of witchcraft and ghouls, or maybe just as a person who enjoys good fiction. Ultimately I found that the experience of reading it felt like having back-up, and you can’t really ask more from a book than that.
Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn was published in the UK on 21 June 2018 by Arsenal Pulp Press (9781551527161, £15.99)