In each issue of Capital Xtra, a prominent literary Canadian recommends a queer-authored book. In this installment, writer and musician Mark Ambrose Harris recommends Derek McCormack’s The Haunted Hillbilly (Soft Skull, 2004).
Sequins made of bone gleam under the spotlight. A sinister mustachioed couturier lurks in the shadows. Saloon floors reek of sawdust and vomit. Bats block out the moon. This world entombs Derek McCormack’s macabre novel, The Haunted Hillbilly.
Though McCormack’s book begins with the standard proclamation that all characters within are fictitious, the story’s leading man is a guitar-strumming country balladeer named Hank who happens to hang around a place called the Opry. However, the book is told from the perspective of Nudie, designer fashionista extraordinaire, who can whip up a seamless satin shirt in the blink of an eye. Add to that a talent for charming bats, and an unorthodox feeding practice that stems from an oral-anal fixation. Imagine Nick Cave playing a gay vampire. Think Diamanda Galás singing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
The plot is relatively straightforward: Nudie works his way into Hank’s life and promises to turn him into a star. While Hank’s tunes fill the Opry, Nudie’s custom outfits draw in the audience. Electric colours and glass beads turn Hank into a shining, bedazzled icon flanked by fans. Of course, there is a price to pay for every little stitch. Nudie slowly pulls apart the musician’s personal life, playing a southern gothic Iago to Hank’s alcoholic Othello.
Aside from some good ol’ fashioned fib-spinning, Nudie’s arsenal of deceit includes a criminal use of arsenic, floor wax and bat shit, and he builds an extremely anatomically correct replica of his country protégé. Hank grants Nudie such intimate access to his life that the svengali’s power of creation is matched only by his ability to destroy. Think Screamin’ Jay Hawkins howling his signature “I Put a Spell on You.”
Ultimately, The Haunted Hillbilly is a tale of obsession. But this is no commonplace fixation. McCormack takes the idea of infatuation and pushes it to the point of ravenous. The novel reads in an obsessive manner, with every detail of each outfit documented, so that the story becomes tactile. Here, both Hank and his threads are fetish objects. Sometimes clothes do make the man. After all, Nudie points out, his tears are just like his shoes. “Crocodile.”
I must admit my bias: I love a good villain. And a gay villain? More fun than a murder of crows! While some scoundrels’ sexualities remain ambiguous, from Ursula the Sea Witch (a derivative of Divine) to The Joker, Nudie is undeniably queer. What makes him so interesting is the way he teeters between camp and pure horror. The couturier would rather die than work with sateen, or anything beige. His sense of humour is skeletal and biting, and he laughs “in block letters.” Fashionable, scathing and intoxicated, Nudie could be a tertiary character on Ab Fab. Then there’s the poisoning, the accessories made of biological human matter, the ornate deception and a diet that verges on cannibalism. I might go so far as to say that McCormack has written the perfect villain.
The Haunted Hillbilly is a sensorial sting. Country heartache echoes, saltpeter itches, sequins erupt in bursts of light and the musk of blood is in the air. It is a tale of media blitz and feeding frenzies. The rise of celebrity and the collapse of careers, told from the perspective of someone who is emblematic of lust’s gloomy side. Nudie doesn’t stay on the surface level of desire. Instead, he gets into the flesh and bone of human obsession. Think Nina Simone crooning “If I can’t have you, no one will.”