Gay romance fiction

Review: Into the Light by Scarlet Blackwell

Into the Light by Scarlet Blackwell

I wrestled with whether I should post this review, but in many senses I'm going to review the editing of this book because I believe the single biggest factor to the outcome of this book was the editorial guidance, or lack thereof.

This short novel left me in a quandary. On the one hand, I love Scarlet Blackwell's writing... all of her skill is brought into play here. The two main characters make sense on paper, the tension builds, and the stakes are high. The seed of the story is high concept and loaded with dramatic possibilities for angst and passion.

BUT... This book is not just about rape, in many senses it IS a rape.

I don't say that to be shocking. Eden the victim/love-interest (and I mean that literally) is brutalized and objectified almost without a pause for the entire book. The power dynamics do not shift, and yet Eden's psychology seems cartoony, unrealistic, and a little unsavory... because his sexualized post-traumatic  acting-out is often framed as "desirable" to the hero and the reader. Newsflash: the pain of rape victims is not sexy or romantic. That is not to say that rape victims cannot BE sexy or romantic, but rather that their emotions and motivations are too complicated to relegate to an offstage footnote or late-in-the-game exposition.

Here, I think the fundamental problem comes down to POV. If Eden, the victimized object at the story's center, had been given control of the novel then the reader could sympathize and empathize with him and his bizarre behavior. Instead, the object remains objectified and we are plunked repeatedly in the perpetrators' subjective boots. We stand behind them watching them berate, bully, and harass Eden-the-victim, becoming as complicit in that behavior as Sean (the main character) was at the gang rape witnessed years prior. The Oprah-era posturing about catharsis and confrontation is all shadowboxing: these characters barely have authentic feelings to purge. In one "flirtation" with the hero, Eden references his own gang rape as something naughty and appealing (!?!).  Even the name "Eden" exists to remind us of "what was lost" except nothing particularly edenic ever existed to BE lost. There are flaming swords, but no angels here.

I'm reminded of a trashy exploitation film of the 1980s called SAVAGE STREETS, starring Linda Blair. The movie (which is atrocious) was/is  excoriated by film critics for the way it used the POV of the rapists to make the audience complicit in the attack on a blind girl (no comment), and worse, the way the rest of the film shamelessly exploits underaged female sexuality as if that exploitation was "empowering" for the ogled females. It's a disturbing film, not because it's brilliant, but because it's so venal and literal and hamhanded. These trashy Rape/Revenge films were a cottage industry there for a while. In them, women are objects to be abused, assaulted, and penetrated; And in the end they in turn takes horrific revenges as abusive, assaultive penetrators. These movies pretend to be about justice, but they are softcore violence porn. Their intent is about as feminist or empowering as BAYWATCH.

That is NOT the case with this book. Blackwell has put thought into the effects of serious trauma, but some odd POV choices, some terrible minor character arcs, and the incessant sexualization of the victim's suffering doom this book from the start. More damningly, the germ of the plot (victim returns to wreak revenge on his rapists) creates some ugly, unfillable holes and a nasty, unappealing object of desire. Why does Eden focus on the one boy who didn't physically rape him? Why has he waited 18 years except to allow an older cast of characters? Why does he stalk and threaten rather than taking action? Why does he continue to misbehave with flagrant, explosive behavior as if sexuality has no risks in this community? None of this is answered or coherently expressed. The real downfall of this book is the rape victim, and in a book ABOUT a rape victim, that feels like a sloppy betrayal, especially because rape and "victimhood" are explosive subjects. If you pick exploitative topics they must be handled with care. This is where the novel wanders into SAVAGE STREETS territory.

I blame editors on this one... I believe that INTO THE LIGHT wants to be something it isn't; Blackwell has included all of the right elements for a sophisticated slam-bang, tortured-protagonist gay romance, but the pieces are jumbled and used oddly in ways that betray the characters more than building them. Someone other than Blackwell must/should have seen these structural and thematic problems. An intelligent edit would have helped this book tremendously. I have a feeling that a rigorous POV rewrite might have made an enormous difference in the way readers perceive it. Had we learned this story from first person or limited third which aligned us with Eden, we could have made sense of his bizarre actions... the attraction to one of his attackers would have felt less ghoulish... the endless degrading epithets (slut, whore, fag, etc) would seem less like neutral observations and more like insults... and the shitty behavior of the townies would have seemed less sympathetic and justified.

As it is, Eden seems less tragic than monstrous and repellant. As it is, he is a seductive, sullen orifice who bullies and insinuates and fondles men indiscriminately. As it is, he courts violence and his suffering is sexualized over and over. As it is, I don't believe for one second that I'm supposed to imagine Eden as an ACTUAL man who was ACTUALLY assaulted by an ACTUAL gang. He is a cartoon, and he was raped so that the novel could be a tale of vengeance. This creates the weird problem of making the rape both essential and trivial. Gack. Like Linda Blair in a rape/revenge potboiler, Eden starts to seem irrational and vicious and a little stupid because he dances around this horrifying trauma that supposedly defined his life and fetishizes the history without making his reasons or goals or conflicts clear. Even having finished it, I cannot figure out how a tale of revenge mutated into a tale of semi-vengeful snits punishing the one gang-member who actually didn't rape anyone at all(?!). Huh? Eden is so irrational and unmotivated that we never actually understand what he feels, why he feels it, or why we should care. He REMAINS an object.

Weirdly, Blackwell knows this is a problem and tells us she knows. The book criticizes ITSELF for objectifying the victim. And I quote: "[Eden] seemed to have only one facet to his personality. Where was the man who was damaged and broken by rape as he should have been?" Ummm, good f%$king question!

I feel like this was almost entirely an editorial failure. As I say above, all of the pieces for a moving gay romance are here, but because we follow Sean (the guilty, angry, closeted sheriff) for so long, Eden remains a slutty, vindictive cypher. We have no choice but to see and treat Eden (the incessant victim) as a brutalized object. Eden even brutalizes himself for long stretches, abusing bystanders and acting out sexually. If our POV had been situated WITH him, that behavior would have seemed tragic and painful. As it is now, that behavior is framed in a way that indicates we should read it as provocative and erotic. (?!) We are told over and over that this painful, inappropriate sexualized misbehavior is irresistibly alluring, that Eden acting like a deranged slut all over town is somehow suspenseful and/or justified and/or attractive. And THAT is objectification, and in many senses, yet another rape of the character. And so, as other readers have pointed out, we don't particularly want Eden to have a happy ending, because frankly he doesn't want one. An object cannot want anything.

So what I'm left with is a book that is occasionally well-written that I would encourage no one to read. I think the writing deserves a 3 or even a 4 as writing for some sections, but I think the editing should rank below a 1 star. Silver Publishing's editing of this book is flat-out atrocious, not just for grammar and typos (n.b. which remain problems, as in most Silver output I've seen) but for sense. Blackwell could have fixed these things easily; She is a supple, imaginative writer. Dark stories can be heartbreaking. These characters have all the makings of a powerhouse gay romance couple. The problems are so simple, but so central. And by following the rape/revenge germ Blackwell went off the rails here. Editor Jennifer Colgan and the other proofers at Silver let her down.

I say all this because I love Blackwell's writing, and I think that someone at Silver should have asked for a POV shift to keep the audience out of the abusive subjective boots. But they didn't... I think that her editor should have red-penned some of the outrageous, illogical behavior that seems unmotivated and pointless and insulting. But they didn't... I wish that someone had asked her WHY a victim, scarred by a 20 year-old felony would behave this way at this time with these circumstances logically in the real world, because rape is not something to write about for the "cool" plot opportunities. But they didn't...

AND because Silver Publishing's editorial staff let Blackwell down, this book ultimately feels like a doodle of a book. RAPE is a very serious topic so it should have been handled more carefully, on the editorial end. Sloppy. Really sloppy. Egregiously sloppy. The pieces are there, the situation is charged, Blackwell knew what she was trying to do, but no one helped her do it. As it is, it feels like the margins of exploitation, and Blackwell is a far smarter, funnier, sexier writer than that.

I realize that I've gone into crushing detail here, but I'm articulating my opinion out of respect and the hope that something in all my opining might prove useful: to readers, to Silver Publishing staffers who might stumble over this, or to Blackwell herself. This could have been a vastly better book.

A disappointment.