Cemetery Dance Online Exclusive
Had to Let it “Linger” – Why I wrote Odd Man Out
by James Newman
WELCOME TO THE BLACK MOUNTAIN CAMP FOR BOYS!
Summer, 1989. It is a time for splashing in the lake and exploring the wilderness, for nine teenagers to bond together and create friendships that could last the rest of their lives.
But among this group there is a young man with a secret—a secret that, in this time and place, is unthinkable to his peers.
When the others discover the truth, it will change each of them forever. They will all have blood on their hands.
Odd Man Out is a heart-wrenching tale of bullies and bigotry, a story that explores what happens when good people don’t stand up for what’s right. It is a tale of how far we have come . . . and how far we still have left to go.
For those of you who aren’t in the writing business, the above is called “selling copy.” It’s the synopsis on the back of a book that—if it does its job—entices readers into plunking down their hard-earned money to buy this particular book instead of the thousands of titles vying for his or her attention at the same time. The selling copy you just read is for my novella Odd Man Out, which was published last November by Bloodshot Books. Odd Man Out is a horror story, a quite brutal one at times (it’s been compared to Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door by several reviewers, and you’ll hear no complaints from me as that’s one of my favorite books), but at the same time I think it’s so much more . . . .
With the current sociopolitical climate in the United States and the uncomfortable truth about how the results of our recent presidential election could ultimately affect LGBT citizens, I’ve been thinking a lot about that last sentence in my synopsis.
It is a tale of how far we’ve come . . . and how far we still have left to go . . . .
I’ve been thinking about how it relates to my loved ones, specifically.
Sometimes they can make you feel like the “odd man out” more than anyone else in the world.
* * *
I was raised in a Southern Baptist household. To put it bluntly, I was taught to believe that gay people are perverts bound for Hell if they don’t change their ways. Sexual orientation is a “choice,” something that can be altered with prayer and a whole lot of willpower, it was explained to me once I was old enough to understand the difference between hetero and homo.
These days, my views are a lot more progressive, and I’m proud to say that my wife and I are doing the best we can to raise our sons in a different way. We teach them to love everyone without exception. We don’t prescribe to that old saying “love the sinner, hate the sin,” however. We think that’s a cop-out, and more than a tad condescending to those who have been told their whole lives that they are an “abomination” in the eyes of God. Tolerance isn’t enough in our household. I’ve always felt that the word tolerance suggests putting up with something one finds distasteful, a task to be endured but not enjoyed. To make the world a better place we should strive for more than tolerance. Empathy is what I’m aiming for.
Sometimes it’s easier said than done. We live in a nation where disdain for “the other” is encouraged by those we elect to lead us. Discrimination is celebrated in the name of “religious freedom.” Hate doesn’t always wear a white hood or announce itself with a stiff-armed salute. It is alive and well all the same.
And more often than not, it’s closer than we think.
* * *
Several years ago, I set up a fundraising site for a relative of mine who was suffering from some serious medical issues.
This was around the time that Amendment 1 was a hot topic here in North Carolina. Amendment 1 proposed to make it illegal for the state to perform same-sex marriages or even recognize civil unions. There was a lot more to it than the same-sex marriage stuff, I should mention. Adoption rights were in danger, and like the recent fervor over North Carolina’s HB2, there were potential economic repercussions. Still, it was the same-sex marriage part that got the most attention, and when all was said and done the majority voted in favor of Amendment 1 (although two years later the federal court ruled it unconstitutional).
I remember a conversation with my aforementioned relative when this was in the news. He asked me if I had voted, insisting in the same breath that good Christians needed to make sure Amendment 1 was passed. I asked him why. “Because family’s all we got left in this sinful world,” he replied. Followed by that old standby, “We gotta protect the sanctity of marriage!”
I assured him that my family was doing fine and my marriage had never been stronger. I was sure that wouldn’t suddenly change if two people of the same gender were allowed to share a last name, own property together, offer a loving home to foster children who might otherwise have nowhere to go . . . but then I realized my relative’s attention was elsewhere. The talking heads on Fox News were speculating again about whether or not President Obama was a Kenya-born Muslim, so my relative had tuned me out.
That wasn’t the most depressing part of the whole conversation, however.
I couldn’t help but think about how a good friend of mine had donated to help with my loved one’s medical bills. Said friend is a gay man, an atheist with a heart bigger than that of most believers I’ve known. My pal wanted to help even though he had never met my relative. He couldn’t wait to give his hard-earned money to a man who considered him a second-class citizen, to someone who voted to deny him the same rights as everyone else.
I’ve never told my buddy about this. I didn’t want to hurt him. But I guess he knows now, because he reads everything I write.
* * *
One thing only a handful of my readers know about me is that I enjoy some stage acting now and then. It’s not something I do often, but it’s a creative avenue that I’ll explore once every two or three years just to try something different, to look at dialogue and characterization in a fresh way.
In late 2013, I played several different characters in a local production of The Laramie Project. The Laramie Project is about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a young man who was murdered because he was gay. Every word of dialogue is excerpted from interviews with real people who were there when it happened: citizens of the Wyoming town where the tragedy occurred, members of law enforcement involved in the case, religious leaders who did not hesitate to offer their two cents during the ensuing media circus, etc. It’s a riveting, heartbreaking piece of theater, and if you ever have a chance to see The Laramie Project, I highly recommend it.
Due to that Baptist upbringing I mentioned earlier, I only told a few members of my immediate family about my participation in The Laramie Project at first. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. While I wanted all of my loved ones to see me perform (they had been impressed with my debut in August: Osage County a year or two prior to Laramie), there was little doubt in my mind that at least half of them would have a problem with the subject matter. At worst, they would view the production as nothing more than a liberal soapbox. At best, they would enjoy the show but leave with a sour taste in their mouths because they would think it portrayed Christians in a bad light (despite the fact that real people said these words, for better or worse). I simply didn’t want to deal with it.
But ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away.
My wife slipped up a few days before opening night, accidentally mentioned the play to two of the folks I had left off the guest list. “I can’t believe you think we would be so judgmental,” one of them said to me, now that I had no choice but to invite them. “You know we’re not like that. We’re not like that at all.”
Fast forward to our final show. My extended family did attend—for free, I should add, as I had scored a handful of comp tickets. Everyone enjoyed the show immensely, I was later told, and the tears flowed from start to finish . . .
. . . except where two of them were concerned. The same two I had intentionally neglected to invite, it should come as no surprise. After the show, my wife assured them that I would be out momentarily—there’s always a brief period of chaos backstage after curtain call—but she said they practically fled from the auditorium as soon as the lights came up. I know that was an exaggeration, of course. But I also know these two family members.
Several weeks passed. The couple in question did not mention the play to me. It was the proverbial elephant in the room with us every time I saw them. If this had been any other play, I might have assumed that their silence was its own critique: You stank up the stage so bad we can still smell it in the clothes we wore that night. Don’t quit your day job! But no, considering the themes at the heart of Laramie, the fact that they did not bring it up at all told me everything.
Nearly a month later, I received a text message from one of my relatives who had loved the show. She had taken it upon herself to broach the subject with one of the silent parties. And my suspicions were confirmed. “James was good,” she was told. “It was the gay stuff we didn’t care for. They lingered on it too much.”
We lingered on it too much.
A true story about someone’s son, someone’s friend, a human being who was brutally murdered because of hate . . . and we had “lingered on it too much.” As if there were some insidious agenda to The Laramie Project. A message beyond the obvious: It’s not okay to kill people, even those who are different from you.
How the hell does one respond to that?
I’m honestly not sure.
So I never have. I’ve never responded. And it has eaten me up inside ever since.
* * *
In the first few pages of Odd Man Out, the narrator tells a story about a conversation that occurred in the Baptist church he attends. It’s a fictionalized account of something that really happened several years ago.
One Sunday morning, after his sermon was finished, our preacher asked for all members to stay behind for a brief business meeting. He informed us of a “troubling issue” that we needed to discuss. For the last few years, we had allowed a local chapter of the Boy Scouts to use our Fellowship Building for their monthly meetings. However, for the first time since its inception in 1910, the organization had recently lifted its ban on granting membership to homosexual youth. According to our pastor, this created a “serious dilemma” for our church: if we allowed the Scouts to continue using our facilities we were inviting the Devil to “destroy the Lord’s house from within.”
The preacher put it to a vote then, about the time my wife stood and whispered in my ear, “Let’s go, I’m not gonna listen to this shit anymore.”
My family left the Baptist denomination for good shortly thereafter (keep in mind that I had been a member of this particular church since I was old enough to read). We now worship with the United Church of Christ, a denomination that has earned its reputation as a “church of firsts:” the first to ordain an African-American, the first to ordain a woman, the first to ordain an openly gay man, and the first to affirm the right of same-sex couples to marry. The UCC was actively involved in the civil rights movement as well. My wife and I couldn’t be happier to be a part of a spiritual family that welcomes everyone—regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or social status. Sure, we had to ignore snarky comments from one family member at first (the same one who had been so annoyed by our “lingering,” I should add), comments like: “I guess our church wasn’t liberal enough for you.” As if there was never a more profane word in the English language. But that’s okay. We know we are where we need to be.
Better late than never.
By the way, our new pastor wrote the Afterword to the trade paperback and e-book editions of Odd Man Out.
You read that right. My pastor wrote the afterword to my horror novella.
Linger on that for a while and tell me it ain’t cool.
* * *
I wrote this piece to talk a little bit about why I wrote Odd Man Out. Initially, I expected to cover a lot of the bullying I experienced when I was a teenager. It didn’t turn out that way, though. Not that I mind talking about it. But if you care to hear more personal anecdotes about that, I would invite you to read my recent interview with Unnerving magazine or an essay I wrote on Richard Chizmar’s Stephen King Revisited blog. It’s all there.
I didn’t write about that stuff this time because Odd Man Out isn’t about me. I was bullied, sure, but the sentence I served throughout middle school for the crime of wearing glasses and reading comic books instead of obsessing over football and cars . . . well, it seems unfair to compare spitballs, “KICK ME” signs, and the constant fear of wedgies to what life must be like for a teen whose sexual orientation or gender identity doesn’t jive with what most consider “normal.” Some kids don’t make it through puberty alive. When I look at it that way, being called “Four Eyes” doesn’t seem so bad.
* * *
We live in a world where hate is still prevalent. Bullies are no longer confined to the musty locker rooms of middle schools.
Look around you. The ones who get a kick out of hurting those who aren’t like them . . . they’re the grown-ups. They’re the ones who should know better.
I wrote Odd Man Out because we’re all in this together. Good people must stand up for those who are marginalized and discriminated against. Otherwise we’ve lost the right to call ourselves good people.
I think we have to, dare I say it, linger on injustice.
When hatred is given a voice, we must reply with our own and our voice must be ten times as loud. My wife said it best, when she grabbed my arm with one hand and her pocketbook with the other: “I’m not gonna listen to this shit anymore.”
Complacency is not an option. If we do nothing—like the narrator in my novella, who ignores his conscience again and again because he fears the bullies might turn on him—we share the blame when someone gets hurt. If we think our hands are clean we are mistaken.
We’ve come a long way, no doubt about it. But, my God, we still have so far to go.
James Newman is the author of the novels MIdnight Rain, The Wicked, Ugly As Sin, and Animosity, and the collection People Are Strange. Still Waters, a short Christian-themed horror film based on his original screenplay, is currently making its rounds on the festival circuit (www.tackytiefilms.com).
Up next are two collaborative novels, Dog Days O’ Summer and Scapegoat (co-written w/Mark Allan Gunnells and Adam Howe, respectively).