This rare 1977 horror novel occasionally pops up in academic discussions around gay representation in literature. Drewey Wayne Gunn, a leading academic on such topics, describes The Slasher as a “credible attempt to explain a killer’s mentality” and praises its “touching portrait of a relationship between two police officers and their friendship with the medical examiner.” He goes on to lament that the author’s actual identity remains a mystery, since Sebastian Lamb, like most headliners of pulp fiction, is a pseudonym.
Gunn’s praise is generous, but he’s not wrong. If you glaze over the overindulgent sex and generally poor writing, it’s possible to enjoy a story of semi-closeted detectives attempting to bring a killer to justice. Both victims and murderer are also gay, making this a story 100% by, for, and about gay men. A few lines of social commentary imply these grisly murders might go unchecked if the detectives were straight. The media, at least, aren’t interested in reporting on “faggot deaths” until one of the victims turns out to be a young, emerging actor.
Structurally, the point of view follows both the killer and the detectives, so there’s no mystery of whodunit, or even whydunit, but there is continual unease as we watch a growing list of victims succumb to the hunky killer. Each time the murderer gets a little closer to home, until at last the medical examiner himself is caught in the web.
Very much a product of its time, The Slasher fits squarely into the horror genre and reflects gay anxieties of the day. Cruising for sexual partners could be exhilarating, but this feeling was often mixed with fear. What if you ended up with a psychopath—or, more likely, an undercover cop or homophobe?
The forward observes that “Beauty attracts us, compels us, hypnotizes us…” and considers the possibility that sometimes “a radiantly angelic face” can be a “Satanic lure.” It’s an intriguing premise and source of nightmares for men, I would argue, gay and straight alike. I call it the male black widow dilemma, where biological need is so frenzied that it usurps all sense of caution, no matter how deathly the warning signs.
A related anxiety also connected with cruising culture is the fear of impotency. After so many notches on the bedpost, what once was a thrill could quickly become a bore. This is what happens to Rod anyway, the “boyish blonde beauty” slasher with “perfect balloon buns.” After so much mundane sex, he discovers that the only way to achieve fulfillment is to kill his lovers. As he progresses, he discovers that killing isn’t enough, so he collects bodily souvenirs, which then leads to cannibalism and drinking blood.
Though the narrative is gruesome throughout, the tone is lightened somewhat by little moments of camp. For example, the detectives find a napkin with a perfect lip outline. It’s assumed that the slasher blotted his blood-stained mouth before dashing off to hunt down his next victim.
Much of the killer’s psychology reads cliché by today’s standards, but it’s important to remember that in 1977 the slasher sub-genre was still emerging. Lamb would have had excellent examples to pull from, going as far back as Psycho (1960) and more recent, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), but otherwise he was probably watching shoddy Grindhouse flicks not known for their character development. As for literary texts, there were plenty of crime thrillers in the ’70s, but they probably weren’t this horrific until possibly Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon came out in 1981.
The Slasher almost reads like Jeffrey Dahmer fan fiction, but Lamb was ahead of even that. Dahmer wouldn’t make his first kill until the following year, in the summer of 1978.
Overall, while I don’t think anyone would read this as an example of literary brilliance, it does endure as a pop culture manifestation of gay fear in the ’70s, and for its rare queer representation in a genre not known for alternative perspectives.
What I love about this book, and all gay pulps, is that it was written exclusively for a gay audience. In consequence, there’s no religious winks or nudges about the characters. Rod is a murderous freak because he’s psycho, not because that’s just how gays are. His victims die because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, not because God hates them.
Despite some genuine chills, a few laughs and a lot of cringes, The Slasher is a liberating experience and worth picking up if you like gruesome and can actually find one of the very few copies still in circulation.