Friday, April 6, 2012

Chamber of Homos

Guy Fawkes
PEC French Line, 1970

A gay gothic in the tradition of Peter Tuesday Hughes' far superior Master of Monfortin, Chamber of Homos deposits sexually naïve male nurse Sander Beach, desperate to raise $25,000. to keep his wastrel brother, Martin (a hospital administrator caught with his hand in the till), out of jail, into the lap of the wealthy, perverted Kratzner family.

It probably goes without saying that the Kratzners – from recently crippled, tranquilizer-dependent patriarch Matthew to his brood of squabbling legitimate and not-so-legitimate sons, are demanding, selfish and driven by the ever-corrupting love of money. And sex, of course, which provides the slender story with plenty of…. shall we say oomph.

Poor Sander – inevitably known to all as Sandy – of course has no idea what a testosterone poisoned quagmire awaits at the Kratzner estate on Bald Mountain (which seems to locate the story in northern Oregon… not that it especially matters). And don't think "Bald Mountain" as in Fantasia; think "bald mountain" as in smutty dick joke. Sander reports for duty shortly before Christmas, only to have Kratzner inform him that for the next week or so he won't have his own room – he'll have to bunk in the old gaming room because Kratzner's sons will be visiting for the holidays, along with the various boyfriends Kratzner neglects to mention but who considerably increase the head count. Once the brood flaps off back to the misbegotten caves in which they roost for the rest of the year, Sandy can have his pick of bedrooms. That doesn't sound so bad, right?

Well, enter the heirs apparent. Julius is a compulsive drinker and ass-grabber built like a college athlete fast running to fat, and his friend Gene; Julius is despised by all his brothers because he has a knack for wheedling extra money from their dad. Julius is convinced that Gene has hot pants for his lean, white-haired brother Manny, who arrives with his lover, plump bottle-blond Monty, but is always up for some side action, in part because Monty is given to drinking himself into a stupor on a nightly basis. Hans, the chubby brother, shows up with hunky boyfriend Carl, whose hair is a deeply unnatural shade of black, while surgeon Bernie, a broad shouldered drunk with "a shock of salt and pepper hair," turns up alone – his boyfriend, interior decorator Dion, is due to blow in later.

Fritz, who has a startling white buzz cut, is with his red-headed boyfriend Gerald (another one who's no stranger to hair dye); black-sheep Max parachutes in with a bleeding shoulder wound, apparently having busted out of jail, and is followed by Don, the last of the brood; he's a slender redhead (presumably real) in a leopard-skin coat and has an ugly sense of fun. Whew! Given that one of the boys eventually confides to Sander that they all learned the ropes of being homos by spying on their dad's liaisons with sundry servants, Matt appears to have risen to his conjugal duties with admirable vigor. The contingent is completed by family attorney Morris Blount, a tall, handsome, lanky fellow with curly grey hair who immediately finds himself on the horns of a dilemma: His first loyalty is to the Kratzner family, but if Max really is a fugitive, Morris stands to be disbarred if he fails to turn him in. So yeah, it's a full house: Seven brothers, five brides and an attorney, in addition to Matt, his "colored retainer and bodyguard" Nicholas, butlers Peter and Rube (occasionally Ruby; whether that's a typo or an inconsistent alternate term of address I couldn't say), chauffeur Herman, factotum Silas, cook Marvin and his assistant, Andy, and God knows who else – the Bald Mountain house is vast.

Not that the details matter: The gist is that everyone is after man-sex newbie Sander, and most of them aren't very nice about it. None of the Kratzner boys likes being thwarted and some – like Don, who half-seduces/half rapes him within hours of his arrival (the lesson apparently being that you underestimate mincing queens in leopard coats at your virtue's peril) – are downright nasty. Don is also of the kiss-and-tell persuasion (of course he is), so by the time Sander comes downstairs for breakfast the next morning, is reputation is in roughly the same condition as his sheets. Manny sagely remarks, "Christmas just gets merrier every year," while Bernie quietly suggests that Sander should keep his door locked and bolted from now on, and should never, ever let his guard down.

Good advice that Sander quickly has occasion to put to use: Don, who's been drinking since before Sander crawled out of bed, attempts to assault third-floor butler Rube, and when Julius intervenes, Don turns on Sander. This time Sander manages to flip Don over his shoulder, then returns to his room, locks the door, has a slug of bourbon – it isn't noon yet, and to all appearances he's the late starter -- and prepares to take a shower. Once again, probably needless to say, he isn't even undressed when he overhears something going on in the room next door. Turns out that jealous Julius called the Manny-Gene situation right, and since Gene is quite the talker, Sander learns all kinds of interesting, if not necessarily useful things, notably that what God gave Man o' War had nothing on what He saw fit to bestow on Manny. No wonder the cleansing power of hot water proves insufficient to wash away Sander's dirty thoughts about the handsome Rube. And then the storm to end all storms blows up, stranding the whole hissing, spitting, clawing kit and caboodle of them on Bal Mountain until further notice.

Fortunately, Sander has now gotten the lay of the land (in all senses of the phrase), and wastes no time getting to know poor Rube, who turns out to be the good time who's been had by all the Kratzner brothers and not because he wanted to – old man Matt told him in no uncertain terms that refusing any of them would mean his job. And if he loses his job the next stop will be prison – Nicholas was railroaded by a previous employer, and Matt got him out to serve as a diversion for his boys. The only person who's ever stood up for him is Nicholas, probably, Rube says, "because we're both colored." Sander is appropriately horrified, and so is Bernie, who's shaping up to be the black sheep of the Kratzner clan, which is to say that he's the only one with some kind of conscience and rudimentary empathy.

Soon after, Sander has the misfortune to hear Matt abusing Nicholas and threatening to get rid of him and find a new nurse who isn't such a stuck up prude. That doesn't sound good, and it takes on a distinctly ominous cast the next morning, when the storm knocks out the electricity. Next thing you know, Sander is fending off Gerald – who, taking a cue from Don, is hammered before breakfast – and Hans. A little party strikes Manny and Gene as a good idea, as it does lat(ish) arrivals Monty, Morris, Fritz and Julius. Eight to one being bad odds in any game, Sander's soiled virtue is once again at risk. "You dirty, filthy beasts," he wails as they have their way with him. This time Sander is rescued -- a little late, to be sure, but long before the Kratzner pervs are done – by Marvin, who gently walks him to the kitchen and rustles up good slug of apricot brandy. Bernie meanders in and advises Sander to get the hell out while the going is good – or at least not so bad – but then Peter suddenly falls ill and dies, Rube disappears and it's too late for goodbyes. Oh, and Marvin drops another bombshell: There's a monster in the basement, and if that's where Rube is, then it's time to start cutting losses. Marvin isn't the only one who knows about the monster, either. Or at least, not the only one who knew. A couple of years ago, Monk, yet another butler, heard him shuffling around in the boiler room; but Monk burned to death while smoking in bed, so there's no asking him now. And there was a college kid named Bill who worked at the mansion for a while and took off like a shot after he saw something in the basement.

That night, Sander drifts into a troubled sleep, and is awakened by Matt's voice ordering Nicholas to tie him up. Nicholas rapes him, and then reties him back to back with the battered Rube – the Kratzner boys are going to have fun tonight! But before they do, Rube spills the whole story of what's going on. Rube, it turns out, is the only child of the late Erna Kratzner – Matt's fair-skinned boys, all seven, are his, but not one was Erna's ad the family's millions were hers. Matt thought he was the only one fooling around with servants – like Peter's mother, a maid named Emerald – but Erna was a nymphomaniac who got busy every time he was out of town. She left everything to Matt, but stipulated that he could only leave it to his children. And that means Rube is the only legitimate – albeit illegitimate – heir and all the other bastards want to kill him, though not until after they're done screwing him and that nosy nurse, Sander. And just when just when it looks as though things can't get worse, in comes the monster, his face hidden within the kind of hood that 40 years later would have gotten him shot on sight in Florida. Except that he's not a monster – what monster wears sneakers? He's the missing Monk, who unties Rube and Sander – he's going to have to retie them, he says; he can't protect them physically because the untreated burns he suffered two years earlier have left him "like a steer with its hide ripped off," but he can give them some time together. And so Rube and Sander wash up, enjoy a couple of hours of warm, sweet passion, and wait for Matt and his buggering brood return to torture them. Which they due, only to be stopped in their filthy tracks by the arrival of the naked, burn-scarred monster of Bald Mountain, who wraps up the sturm und drang with a snub-nose revolver.

Well, that was a little somethin' somethin.' Not sure what, but something both kinda sorta gothic and sorta kinda creepy --- all that raping -- and seriously, major league silly. Oh, and the "monster" is a horribly burned black man – suck on that… all you gimlet eyed eviserators of hackneyed cultural tropes: We're doubling down on the monstrosity hand because Monk is both African-American and handicapped. Let's just say that Chamber of Homos is no Master of Montfortin, by pasticheur extraordinaire Peter Tuesday Hughes, a writer who really knew how to grab genre tropes by the balls and squeeze 'em till they sang.

Which isn't to say it's uninteresting: Killer-queen Don is a nice subversion of the sissy stereotype: He may be slim and partial to femmy fashions (come on – you want that leopard coat, even if you'd never buy it for all the right reasons), but in bed he's all butch – Sander crawls away from their encounter like someone who's just been rolled over by an asphalt spreader. Neither Rube nor Nicholas has an ounce of either Stepin Fetchit or noble negro in him; they're no better or worse than anyone else caught up in the Kratzner-family maelstrom of monstrosity. They're just who they are; their faults and virtues are their own. Ditto Sander and Rube's relationship: It's not fetishistic – Sander is too new to having sex with other men to have started fixating on things like screwing black men – and it isn't rooted in master-slave clichés: It's pure attraction sparked by mutual adversity, and the book's brief epilogue makes it clear that their bond has staying power. It's not the stuff of conventional happily ever aftering, but it's resilient and satisfying, a nice little surprise at the end of a novel that isn't exactly trying to excel.

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