“Going to Hell” has always been a part of my existence. I’ve been told it constantly. From the pulpit, from family, from strangers on the street. I suspect every religious gay person decides at some point to either embrace their inevitable damnation, or believe that organized religion is a lie. Friends and allies are forced into a similar conundrum, fearing their soul will turn to salt should they dare sympathize with such “deviants.”
But I was born in 1989 and have it lucky. In 1970, when Demon’s Stalk was published, you didn’t just have the church to worry about. You could be sent to jail. You were thought to suffer from a “mental disorder.” You were an assumed pedophile. You were beaten—maybe killed—in the street. Rarely would anyone care. They saw your death as a public service. It wasn’t just God against you, it was everyone.
It’s within this historical context that I read Demon’s Stalk in awe. It remains edgy and unnerving these fifty years later, arguably deserving of classic status within the horror genre, but also revolutionary for its handling of queer characters within a religious storyline. Which is to say that none of these things matter.
Gay and bisexual characters are portrayed as happy with their lives. They live in a world where no one really cares who you sleep with. In fact, odds are everyone else is gay too. When queer characters become mixed up in a demonic civil war, it never crosses their mind that their sexuality had anything to do with it. Neither Heaven nor Hell have an opinion on the issue. As such, gay readers, today and fifty years ago, become free to simply enjoy the thrills of a sexy horror story and can leave the oppressive weight of homophobia behind.
The novel was published by Greenleaf Classics, one of a few publishers willing to print unapologetically gay fiction. They had the reputation for being a “porn” press and were subject to frequent obscenity lawsuits. It’s true that their authors were expected—if not outright required—to include vivid bedroom scenes. Sometimes these scenes were slapdash, one continuous romp after the next, but the more clever authors found ways to make sex an integral theme of the adventure rather than the entire show.
Demon’s Stalk is certainly a top-tier Greenleaf title. It’s also unique for featuring an unexpectedly elaborate plot. After witnessing a horrific goat sacrifice, we learn there’s civil war brewing in Hell. One of Lucifer’s demons is building a rebellion to overthrow the dark throne. Select humans become chess pieces in the rebellion and, resist as they might, the new anti-Christ can be very persuasive.
Lambert uses this set-up to create an atmosphere that’s sticky with fear and fantasy, seeking contrast in almost every detail. A mole to one character is a beauty mark to the other. Pain is relished when combined with ethereal pleasure. Terror, or what should be repellent, becomes the object of desire. In the 18th century, this literary technique would be called evoking the sublime. Today we just call it sexy.
But the alluring contrasts don’t stop there. Lust, beautiful and bizarre, rises off the page with elemental extravagance. A cold, ghostly demon seduces by night, entangling his freezing flesh with the magmatic Serge, only to vanish before morning. Meanwhile, Etienne, so gorgeous that women drop their skirts for him “en masse” and men “suddenly desire to experience the forbidden for the first time,” becomes a key target of the New Hell.
Etienne’s friends are spiritualists and vaguely reminiscent of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life paranormal investigators of the era. Amid rattling light fixtures, they discourse with demons via séance. These otherworldly moments are among the most heart-pounding sequences of horror I’ve read and could stand proudly next to William Peter Blatty.
As the new anti-Christ’s progress nears climax, we’re desperate to discover: will Etienne experience the final “ceremonial flagellation” and officially sell his soul to the new dark lord? Or will the gang of gorgeous youths manage to avoid certain destruction?
You’ll have to read to find out!
Alas, as is my constant lament when reviewing pulp classics, finding a copy of Demon’s Stalk is difficult. These pulp books are not just out-of-print, but long exhausted in the used market. Collectors are unwilling to part with their precious treasures and with so few remaining in existence, it can take years to find even one copy for sale. And it won’t be cheap if you do.
Someone else who’s probably disappointed by the lack of availability is William Maltese himself. Maltese is the brilliant mind behind this novel, its sequel Demon’s Coronation and some 200 other books written under dozens of pseudonyms. Though his pulp classics from the ’60s and ’70s must, for now, survive on the dusty shelves of rare book collectors, he hasn’t let that stop his constant output. In recent weeks he celebrated his latest publication, William Maltese’s Flicker: #2 Book of Ascendancy.
It was my delight to interview Mr. Maltese recently after gaining access to his ultra-rare werewolf novel Valley of the Damned, and I was thrilled when he agreed to chat over this devilish title. Here’s a copy of our interview:
INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM MALTESE
JUSTIN: Even in 2021, it’s refreshing and rare to read a gay horror novel without homophobia being the central issue. How important was it to the vision of pulp novels to essentially ignore homophobia?
WILLIAM: It was my impression, at the time, that Greenleaf’s marketing strategy for its gay pulps was to provide pure entertainment for gay readers that didn’t paint homosexuality as something negative, certainly not needing the inevitable endings of so many mainstream books of the time that that always had to have gays suffer some horrible repercussion (even death) at book’s end by way of justifiable homophobic Christian retribution for being some kind of deviant. The all-important depictions of gay sex were meant to be portrayed as extremely enjoyable, to the point of always bringing the reader back for more. The plot-lines were merely there to convince legal censorship that the books weren’t purely for prurient intents and had redeeming social value. It was decided that the best way to do gay books for gay readers was to dare portray gays as normal as any other male and involve them in all sorts of situations that would as easily have confronted any straight. Doing that pretty much removed homophobia from the picture if just because of its much over-used negative connotations.
JUSTIN: Part of the premise in Demon’s Stalk is that one of Satan’s demons has rebelled and is battling for the throne of hell. Meanwhile, “God stands by awaiting the winner, merely wondering who will be his chief adversary for the reaping of men’s souls.” What religious or political beliefs led you to conjuring up this idea?
WILLIAM: I’d long wondered why, if heaven was supposedly so desirable, perfect, and wonderful, there had been the contingent of angels, including Lucifer, who had rebelled against God. And I conjectured that if a rebellion could occur once, in heaven, what would keep it from happening again, as well as become equally possible in hell. Ultimately, however, the inspiration for Demon’s Stalk was pretty much the same as it was for every one of my gay pulp novels: the desire to come up with a plot-line that hadn’t been overly exploited by anyone else. So, it evolved not so much from outside religious, political, or literature trends than it did from the mining of my own psyche to provide a fresh plot-line that I found of enough particular interest to keep me writing a book from start to finish.
JUSTIN: What about the detailed depictions of dark arts, spirit conjuring and satanic ritual? How much of this was pure fantasy and how much did you actually research?
WILLIAM: It’s pretty much all arisen from my pure imagination. I’m not one who enjoys sitting for long periods of time researching any subject. My preferred way of learning is to head on out and physically visit a particular site, or mingle with a particular group of people, absorbing all I need to know, rather than get lost among some library’s dusty aisles and tomes. Since few people are familiar with the reality of old magic grimoires, with their tried and true magical recipes, I found it really unnecessary to give readers anything other than what seemed to be the real thing. And, of course, the last thing I would ever want to do, knowing what I do know about demonology, would be to provide real formulae for summoning demons that could really cause danger for any amateur silly enough to give them an actual try.
JUSTIN: Greenleaf Classics included Demon’s Stalk in a curious line of books that were printed backward, where the first page starts with the back cover and continues upside down from there. How familiar were you with this publishing strategy while writing?
WILLIAM: Quite frankly, that formatting came as a complete surprise to me when it quite suddenly and unexpectedly appeared, and I found it decidedly disconcerting and more of a literary affectation than anything else. It was all done at the publishing end, my never having received any kind of special instructions for any of my books that made their appearance in that series. Why my books ended up in that series, or in any of the other Greenleaf series, was always a mystery to me. I just wrote the books, submitted them, and was surprised as anyone as to the when, and how of Greenleaf’s handing, formatting, placement, and marketing of them.
JUSTIN: I frequently express frustration that these historically-significant (and entertaining!) pulp novels are nearly impossible to find. Of your many ‘golden age’ classics, which would you most like to see re-emerge for readers in 2021?
WILLIAM: You know, I really don’t have a clue, mainly because, what with over two-hundred books under my belt, I find it difficult even remembering my plot-lines until someone, like you, comes along and reminds me. As an author, I tend to put my books behind me as soon as they’re finished, prepared to move on.
JUSTIN: Dusting off forgotten books is a pleasurable experience indeed, and I hope it’s been as fun for you as it has for me. I’m nearly finished with Demon’s Coronation, the sequel to Demon’s Stalk, would you mind if we chat again to discuss that one next?
WILLIAM: I’d love to!
JUSTIN: Then it’s a date! In the meantime, readers, please explore William’s numerous novels which are available digitally and in print from his author profile on Amazon.