By T.L. Parkinson (Plume; 1991)
Predictably enough, this off-kilter psychological horror novel was packaged as anything but. The paperback edition goes out of its way to avoid the dreaded H-word, instead proclaiming it a “Psychosexual Thriller” and “Modern Gothic.” Don’t be fooled: this is very much a work of horror fiction, and an unusually potent and unflinching one.
The setting is early nineties San Francisco, where sad sack divorcee Michael West elects to start his life anew in a small apartment building. He quickly gets to know his fellow tenants, including the hot-to-trot Janette, the compassionate Patricia, the needy Frank and the latter’s bratty son Brian. There’s also Paul Marks, a shadowy plastic surgeon who moves into the space above Michael.
A weird bond forms between Michael and Dr. Marks, even though the two initially have little contact. Michael becomes obsessed with the doctor’s exploits and takes to spying on him through his balcony window at night–with Marks more often than not engaged in perverted sex acts. The man seems to have an unnatural hold on people, and before long he manages to seduce practically everyone, male and female, in the building. The only thing is Marks’ conquests have a tendency to end up dead afterward.
Michael for his part isn’t quite the innocent voyeur he might seem. As the story goes on we’re privy to more and more unsavory facets of his personality, including a penchant for sharp knives and an unhealthy relationship with mirrors. This latter fact grows increasingly prominent as Michael frequently finds himself trapped behind mirrors while his “other” self goes about in the real world, often performing ugly and disturbing acts.
The above might suggest a supernatural tilt to the proceedings. Viewed from one angle, the tale seems a more-or-less straightforward account of psychic possession. I, however, prefer to view the novel as a dramatization of schizophrenia–note the constant motif of doubles and the fact that it’s a first-person account, meaning the events related may not be entirely reliable.
However you interpret the proceedings, there are some confusing and/or unexplained elements. The third act in particular, which contains some most unexpected developments (including a brief sojourn away from the apartment building where the rest of the story takes place), is a mite puzzling. Still, the ever-mutating nature of the narrative ensures that the proceedings never become predictable or repetitive, as they doubtlessly would in a more a conventional treatment.
This was the only novel T.L. Parkinson completed before his death (of AIDS). It shows a real understanding of the inner workings of apprehension, with a pungent air of unease that constantly keeps one on edge. The frankness of the sexual content will offend many, but it’s in service of a tale that thrives on psychosexual derangement. Eerie, disquieting and darkly compelling this book is, but warm and cuddly it definitely isn’t.