In Pumpkin Eater, a mystery novel replete with horror film references, Toronto author Jeffrey Round sends his hero into dark territory.
“I use horror references as much as I use fairy-tale themes — to set the atmosphere of this story, which deals strongly with child abuse,” Round says of his second novel featuring Dan Sharp, missing persons investigator and gay single father. “I wanted to convey the unease many of us experience in childhood as the world is thrust upon us and we must make sense of what we are being told in various stories, encoded as fairy tales or moral lessons.”
In Pumpkin Eater, Sharp, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), tries to make sense of a young man’s murder. In doing so, Sharp uncovers adult authority figures who allegedly have abused young boys, including Gaetan. The encoded lesson is that boys abused as children often cannot move forward as adults without help.
“Gaetan was a composite of several boys I grew up with [in Sudbury] who were equally aggressive and damaged without fully understanding why,” Round says. “Like Dan, I side with outcasts and the downtrodden.”
Despite this heavy theme, Pumpkin Eater possesses lighthearted moments. Dan and his family view director William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. In the vein of the Scream films, they create rules to survive a horror movie.
Darker works resonate with Round. A few years ago, he was walking near his Leslieville home and happened upon a cardboard box containing a paperback copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
“Frankenstein gave me a sense of how brilliant the horror genre can be, of which Pumpkin Eater contains elements, although it is a mystery,” he says. “A good book is a good book. I hate the sort of thinking that says one category is by nature superior to another.”
He also found other real-life inspirations. His purportedly psychic character, Domingo, is based on a close friend who was passionate about psychic phenomena. She passed away from breast cancer in her 50s. Round also based the opening scene on the real-life burning of a slaughterhouse where he once posed for a photo shoot as a model. However, there was no arson involved in the real-life location at Keele Street and St Clair Avenue in Toronto’s west end.
The protagonist, though, is a Sudbury-born-and-bred character, with the complexity of the sort of kid the author attended school with. He often fails in his personal and professional life. Trevor, his boyfriend of a year, may return to the Southern Gulf Islands. Sharp also must accept that his son Kedrick is now a young teenager. In his first adventure, Lake on the Mountain, Sharp contended with drinking. Perhaps Sharp is an alcoholic-cum-workaholic, often neglecting Trevor and Kedrick.
“Dan’s compulsion, his driving force, is to help others no matter the cost to himself and his personal life, especially now that he has put his alcoholism on hold — a higher calling, if you like,” Round says.
Pumpkin Eater is certainly grimmer than Round’s Brad Fairfax series, a humorous mystery/gay-secret-agent romp, and his impressive literary feats, The Honey Locust from 2009 and A Cage of Bones from 2007. Pumpkin Eater is at times gritty like a Detective Inspector Rebus story. Colourful characters include Jags Rohmer, a has-been Canadian rock star, and Marilyn Pfeiffer, a briefly famous has-been movie star. Through Jags and Marilyn, readers piece together cautionary tales about stardom and closeted tales of rock-and-roll fame.
Round got to know his characters in the first book, Lake on the Mountain.
“I quickly grew fond of Dan and his family while writing the first book, but at the time I did not envision a series,” he says. “I kept going back to Dan in my mind the way you might repeat words a good friend has said that ring true with you.”
Then another mystery scenario presented itself.
“I first tried to cast it in the Bradford Fairfax mode, but it wouldn’t stick,” Round says. “Brad is my lighter side, whereas Dan tackles the darker aspects of my imagination. A novel about pedophilia did not present itself well in a camp vein, which is how I see the Fairfax books.”
Round considers youthful sexuality a precious stage.
“Youthful sexuality should not be ignored or denied or abused,” he says. “Rather, it should be carefully educated, informed and promoted as a positive element of our being that can come into play at some point in each person’s development.”