“When fiction is made according to its nature, it should reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete, observable reality.” -Flannery O’Connor
The Caregiver, the latest by the prolific Rick R. Reed, due out this month from Dreamspinner Press (cover art by Paul Richmond), is a straightforward traditional romance that may surprise his large horror romance fan base. But as Reed points out, “I am not one to stay within the lines when it comes to genre.” Readers who are fans of his horror romances know that they can trust Reed to deliver solid stories and strong characters and that trust is rewarded in this powerfully, satisfying romance set in the midst of the AIDS crises in the mid-90s.
Reed frames his story as a novel within a novel to create an interesting realism that evokes the fact that “The book is more autobiographical than anything I’ve ever written,” he says.
Lovers Dan and Mark have recently relocated to Tampa, Florida from Chicago in a geographical attempt to run away from Mark’s cocaine addiction, but Mark’s baggage has already caught up with him as the novel opens. Meanwhile, the perennial caregiver, Dan, has reached out through the Tampa AIDS Alliance to become a “buddy” to the flamboyant Adam, a Person Living With AIDS. In the novel’s amusing opening scene, Adam greets the somewhat nervous and straight-laced Dan, wearing, “The classic little black dress, a string of pearls, black leather kitten heels and sheer black nylons. His nails were painted a shocking red, a shade the gayest side of Dan was absolutely positive would have been called ‘Jungle Red.’” Adam immediately puts himself in charge of the situation, “Since you appear to be speechless, I’m going to assume you’re Dan something-or-other, something Italian. You’re going to be my new best friend, my buddy, right? But not my fuck buddy—God forbid!”
As Dan’s relationship with Mark blows away in a line of powder, Dan finds himself leaning upon his buddy Adam for help in a very poignant role reversal:
Adam, as if he had read Dan’s mind, said, “You know, if we’re gonna be friends, it goes both ways. You can talk to me…You don’t have to worry about sparing me. In spite of how I look, I’m actually a tough guy…And honey, I know from man troubles. I wrote the fuckin’ book on that topic!” For Dan, “It was like a dam bursting…”Something’s wrong,” Dan started.
But as apparently strong as Adam seems, he does have full-blown AIDS, and a few dark secrets of his own in his relationship with the book’s hunk-a-babe, Sullivan. In an out-of-left-field plot turn that in less capable hands than Reed’s might have left readers’ heads twisted, Adam ends up in a situation that requires Dan to go above and beyond as a caregiver, even as Dan and Sullivan begin to feel a powerful attraction towards each other:
Their gazes met in the gloom of the flickering candles and something passed between them, communicated only by their eyes. What was it? Dan wasn’t sure, but he thought maybe the emotions they exchanged had a lot to do with understanding and a shared bond—a man they both loved in their own ways, was in deep trouble and turmoil, in a place far beyond the reach of either of them.
And in that moment the romantically inevitable happens:
The kiss was electric—a release and a commingling of pain, all at once. Each man’s mouth ground against the other’s, hungry, desperate. Dan’s tongue found Sullivan’s and dueled with it, savoring the sweet taste of his mouth. He pushed up against him, at last letting his hardened cock connect with Sullivan’s body, glad in a savage way that Sullivan was just as aroused as he was. As quickly as the kiss began, it was over. Both men pulled away suddenly. Dan slid back down to the end of the couch, panting. Sullivan laughed, “That was wrong.” “So wrong,” Dan agreed.
However, a ghostly presence familiar from Reed’s more overtly supernatural fiction intervenes to bring Dan and Sullivan together, giving a final ironic twist to the book’s deceptively straightforward title. But not before a classic romance plot confusion that any romance fan could see coming from a mile away, but which makes Reed’s happy ending just that much more satisfying to the reader. Reed said, “I wanted to show how love and something good can come out of tragedy.”
Reed says his classic gay romance “is based on my personal experience back in the early 90s, working as a buddy volunteer for the Tampa AIDS Network. Adam, the young man dying from AIDS, is based very strongly on my own recollections of my buddy, Jim, to whom the book is dedicated.” Reed says that the events befalling the character Adam in the novel were all based on true events in Jim’s life. He says, “Jim remains one of the most memorable people I have ever met.”
Readers who are familiar with Reed’s horror romance fiction, but not his straightforward romance writing, may perhaps be forgiven for expecting Dan and Sullivan to be plotting Adam’s murder, or for Mark to show up in Dan and Sullivan’s bedroom with a butcher knife. Reed says, “The story of two people finding love after experiencing great loss was compelling enough without horrific or suspense undertones. I am finding more and more that writing about relationships—why they succeed, why they fail, what kind of vulnerabilities lay within all of our hearts—to be a very satisfying subject to write about.”
Reed often uses the device of horror to explore the everyday fears that each of us faces. For example, he says, “Bashed, my novel about a couple torn apart by a brutal hate crime, is ostensibly a love/ghost story, but the book explores how gay people can feel vulnerable and even how we fear our own darkest impulses.” Likewise, in Orientation, he explores the terror of AIDS.
“Fear and love have a lot in common,” Reed says, “Fear is a powerful emotion and I’m fascinated by how people react to terrifying situations, and what makes evil characters tick.” He says, “Readers of horror want to be scared; it’s terrifying and fun all at once. I know many people may disagree with my idea of fun, my partner included,” but, he says, “Readers of horror want a satisfying ending, that’s the safe part. Fiction is a created world where things can be put to right, unlike the real world, where atrocity doesn’t necessarily have rhyme or reason” and may go unchecked. “There’s a certain security in allowing yourself to be scared in a book, when you know you’re in safe hands and everything will come out all right.”
Similarly, Reed says, “Love is unpredictable and often terrifying. Good can turn bad very quickly. There’s a remarkable emotional vulnerability. Readers like romance because it’s a controlled world. They can count on a happily-ever-after ending. Romance in fiction allows the reader to experience the thrill and conflict of love, in a safe way, because the reader knows it’s not real.”
“One of the things I have been trying to do in much of my work,” Reed says, “is combine my two favorite genres—horror and romance—into one compelling read. I think the sense of emotional vulnerability applies to both romance and horror. Vulnerability is universal and that’s why people enjoy reading about it.”
How does Reed write scary? “I don’t know that I consciously set out to be ‘scary.’ I do put my characters in peril and readers can identify with the fear. I also like to get inside the head of my villain, whether he’s a serial killer, a vampire, a werewolf, or a malevolent spirit.” Reed confesses, “There’s something I find fascinating about the obsession of the evil character who walks very close to the flame. When writing about him, I walk very close too, and I take my readers along on my journey.” He says he doesn’t necessarily want to convey sympathy for his bad guys, but “I like to think I create some understanding.” He portrays his villains “in shades of gray, not black.”
Reed does his writing in the morning followed by a refreshing dip in his pool, which in chilly Seattle, where he now lives with his long-time partner, Bruce, must make his nipples pop into high beams. Does his writing equally give him the shivers? “I am the man behind the curtain,” he says, “so when it comes to inspiring fear or ratcheting up suspense, I am doing that very deliberately. So I can’t say that it really scares me.”
Reed says that his home life is his “safe haven.” One of the few things that frighten Reed is the thought of losing someone he loves, his long-time partner, Bruce, or his son, Nick, and his son’s partner, Tarik. “Bruce and I have been married in our hearts for going on a decade now. We are registered domestic partners in Washington, which gives us many of the same benefits as married couples, but it still ain’t the same thing and I resent that. It feels very much second-class citizen to me.” Reed often uses our most intimate fears in his writing. He says, “In books like IM and A Demon Inside, for example, I explore the fear of being alone and the lengths one might go to, to quell that fear.”
Reed’s books are sexually thrilling. “I love exploring the dark side of sex because the other side of that coin is obsession, which is a pretty consistent theme throughout my work. Sex in the context of horror can be very powerful because of the vulnerability and the passion—being driven to do something that may not be wise, or even safe.” While “killer” sex can be a turn-on, is it appropriate to get turned on by it? Susie Bright has defended “snuff” porn (the fictional kind, not the real stuff) because she says that we express the full range of human emotions in sex, not just sunshine and lovey-dovey. Reed says that when he writes sex within the context of horror, “I think presenting reactions from both victim and malevolent force make for compelling reading, so yes, both are appropriate, if handled right.”
For readers who want to catch up with Reed’s work, he provides a sort of Reed 101 of his books that he says, “I feel succeeded in combining horror and romance. The Blue Moon Café is about a homophobic vampire preying on the gay men of Seattle, but underneath the tension and the terror, there’s a love story between a young gay Everyman and a Colt model ideal of the masculine, who may not be all he seems. Bashed is a ghost story about a man haunted by his lover who was killed in a hate crime.” Reed says, “I like to take elements of the paranormal to explore love and loss.”
Reed touches on larger social issues in IM, a thriller about a gay psychopath preying on gay men via Internet hook-up sites . Sarah Schulman has written that the “personals” are “documents of our oppression” as gay men. Similarly, Patricia Nell Warren has written about how our isolation, as gay men, from mainstream social life exposes us to high risk sex with strangers. Reed says, “I wrote IM because I wanted to portray the vulnerability we all experience when hooking up with a stranger online.”
Reed says he is perhaps most proud of his accomplishment in Orientation, because it deals with the very “nature of love.” Powerful, but odd feelings of love arise when a gay man meets a young lesbian who happens to be the reincarnation of his lover who died from AIDS in the early 80s. One of Reed’s favorite authors is the great writer of Southern “grotesque” stories, Flannery O’Connor. In discussing her technique, O’Connor says that “The kind of vision the fiction writer needs to have, or to develop, in order to increase the meaning of his story is called anagogical vision, and that is the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or situation.” Reed’s amazing Orientation works on many levels at once. Reed explores the dynamic relationship between gay men and lesbians, while turning on its head the now stereotypical “coming out” story, where an ostensibly straight dude begins to discover uncomfortable feelings towards another dude. O’Connor writes, “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock.” In Orientation, the “strange” emotional stirrings between a gay man and a lesbian, turn inside out heterosexual expectations of “normal” love.
Reed (the middle “R” in his professional name stands for “Raunchy. Ridiculous. Rambunctious. Reprobate. Take your pick.”) says, “I have always been compelled to write. It’s something constitutional with me, like having green eyes, being right-handed, or being gay.” He says it isn’t so much that he is “prolific,” “It’s just something I can’t stop doing (I will refrain from making unsavory and way too personal analogies here).” Reed says, “Once I finish a piece, I am usually on to the next within a week or so.” Reed doesn’t believe in writer’s block, instead “I worry that I won’t ever have enough time” to realize “the huge file of ideas” he has that continues to grow. Reed says, “I don’t write to a formula. I follow my characters.” He says, “They become very real to me, almost in a funny farm way, but we won’t go there, okay?” Because he sees his stories through the eyes of his characters, “each new story is a new journey.” Far from writing-by-the-numbers, Reed says, “I am totally a by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of writer.”
Still, that could equate to competence, rather than creativity. Where does he get all his crazy ideas for stories? “The numerous head injuries I experienced as a child spawned my somewhat warped imagination and worldview,” Reed says. Why did he keep falling on his head? “Just bad luck! I have had stitches several times and always in my head, starting at age three when I fell head first over a stairwell banister; then, when I was six, I was hit by a car and my head hit the front bumper; at about nine, I was going down a hill backwards on a round disc sled and I hit a stop sign at full speed, splitting the back of my head open—stitches again.” Fortunately, his many head injuries didn’t hurt his face too much and the reader could easily imagine him as the romantic hero in one of his own books.
Reed has won EPIC ebook awards for Orientation (Best GLBT Novel, 2008) and for The Blue Moon Café (Best Horror Erotic Romance, 2011). The Blue Moon Café also won the Rainbow Award in 2010 for Best Overall Novel. Reed says, “I have yet to win or be a finalist for a Lammie. The Caregiver is submitted for this year. Fingers crossed!”
What’s next on deck for one of the gay romance world’s most popular writers? Reed is mulling over several ideas, “One is about a man with split personalities, another is about a haunted rehab clinic.” He says, “Still another is a story about a call boy service with murderous undertones.” Dial R for Romance or Redrum to get the latest on Reed’s next book at www.rickrreed.com.