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Pacific Northwest Gothic

Bellingham Author Marcus James Explores Queer Identity, Grief, and Local History in His Literary Horror Novels

Author Marcus James
Author Marcus James

“Horror and gothic literature live in the space of grief. Grief is a powerful thing. The constant sense of loss and a refusal to give up the ghost—whether that ghost is metaphorical or literal. It is a bleakness and a pain that gives the darkness life and keeps the dead from moving on,” says author Marcus James.

To James, in horror, even in the slasher sub-genre, we have the concept of “original sin,” some kind of loss or grief that sets everything else in motion. This original loss often stems from some type of past human brutality that continues to haunt us.

“Ghosts are everywhere in the horror genre. Whether they be actual vengeful spirits and beings or people haunted by the ghost of experience and memory. They exist in the places we refuse to see because those places are in the corner of every eye and within every shadow, and facing them means facing ourselves, and that historically has made people uncomfortable because they don’t want to be reminded of how dark the night really can be,” says James.

He feels that artistic films with serious themes, such as Get Out, Us, Midsommer, and the VVitch, are finally causing critics to see the cultural value and relevance of the horror genre. “Sadly, horror is considered as degrading and smutty as the worst porno by a lot of people, but now the same critics are looking at the genre with new eyes and finally starting to see what we’ve known all along,” he says.

As a queer author, James finds the themes of the horror genre personally relevant.

“For many queer people, growing up is a constant horror, and you spend your life terrified and hiding from everyone, and sometimes really awful horrific things happen to us—it did to me, and in horror, that’s what I get to tackle, that’s what I get to approach and shed light on and explore.”

Writing and Claiming a Queer Place in Literature

Marcus James has made it his mission to write in-depth about the queer experience, to tell stories steeped in that without stepping out of the narrative to explain everything to an outside audience of straight people.

“I aim to tell stories that anyone can enjoy but to do so through the lens of queerness. Toni Morrison famously said that she writes outside the white man’s gaze, and when she’s writing, she’s writing to black people, free of having to explain anything to white readers about blackness.

“I write without the cis-hetero gaze hovering over me. I have a lot of straight-identified readers and characters, and yet I don’t worry if they understand the things I am referencing when it comes to the queer experience,” he says.

James also intends to show through his work that queer people can be heroes too. He hopes that every young gay boy who reads his writing, no matter how butch or effeminate, can see that they can be the one who saves the world.

“We aren’t weak, and we don’t need to be rescued. Being outsiders is where our strength and resilience lies,” he says.

Instructions In Flesh by Marcus James
Instructions In Flesh by Marcus James

His lead protagonists are always feminine gay boys, as he is one of those himself, and he wants to claim a place for them in horror literature and in life.

“Fem gays are the ones who deeply lack role models or positive, strong representation. Usually, we are just the victim, the comedic relief, or the villain, and as of late, we are assumed/lumped into being non-binary. Our identity as men is constantly stripped from us. Our entire lives. Straight people take it from us, and some in the LGBT community take it from us. I have a mission and obligation to help do whatever I can to say we are here and we are men, no matter how fem we are, and you are not allowed to erase us,” says James.

However, the characters he most enjoys writing are strong, complicated, beautiful, powerful women. “Like most gay men, I worship powerful women, and all the women in my life are fiercely strong and fabulous. Women who bring the wrath of the dark goddesses, the warrior goddesses.” 

To James, literature is a path toward learning to understand each other and, ultimately, ourselves.

“Every person I write about teaches me something about survival, gay or straight or bi, etc., and in their worlds—worlds filled with breathing shadows—I get closer to understanding my own journey as a queer person and as a person in general and the experiences that bind us all together. No matter how individual our own personal journeys are. That’s the beauty of writing. That’s the power of literature; all the lives we get to inhabit.”

All Because of Anne Rice

Gamwell Home by Benjamin Cody
Gamwell Home by Benjamin Cody

When asked how he decided to become a writer, Marcus had a simple answer.

“It was all because of Anne Rice,” he says.

He originally wanted to become a chef, as he has a deep passion for cooking. Before Food Network existed, he aspired to have a cooking show on PBS and a restaurant or two in Seattle, where he would live in a chic pre-war apartment above Pike Place Market and cook to smooth jazz while enjoying a glass of wine and the sunset.

Then, one day, while in the fourth grade, he bought a copy of Dracula at the Scholastic Book Fair.

His teacher noticed his smile from ear to ear, and as she was a fan of Rice, she recommended that Marcus check out Interview with the Vampire.

“The title was all I needed. I was at the public library that same day after school, checking it out and taking it home,” he said.

He kept re-reading the novel throughout elementary school, and that got him to start writing. “Because what Anne could do, how she could make me hear the clicking of Claudia’s shoes on the cobblestone and the creaking of a floorboard on its hinge in a decaying New Orleans uptown home, or how she could make me smell the jasmine—I wanted to be able to affect others the same way.”

He developed a single-minded ambition to become a published author at that point. This has kept him on track and alive throughout various struggles. He was forced into conversion therapy as a teen, intended to turn him straight. He has also survived crippling heartbreak and an abusive marriage and has been homeless a few times throughout his teens and twenties.

“Always, it has been the writing and my career that have kept me resilient. A refusal to be defeated. A refusal to be invisible. Sometimes in life, your dreams/goals/aspirations are all you have to feed you, nourish you, keep you warm, and get you from one day to the next.”

James’ Writing Process

Marcus James begins writing by understanding what his book is about and where and when it will be set. Once he’s figured that out, he dives straight into research, with used books he buys cheaply and highlights the crap out of, and also Google Earth, Google Maps, and documentaries.

“I research down to the littlest detail. The last thing you want to do is say your character is wearing a pair of Hanes underwear in 1900, but Hanes didn’t appear until 1901 and underwear wasn’t their first product. Imbuing history and facts into your work helps to ground it in realism, helps to break down the barrier for the reader between imagination and reality,”

He also travels for literary research. For his upcoming novel The Beckoning One, he’s already journeyed to Boston, Salem, Manhattan, San Francisco, Savannah (GA), and then the cities near his home, Seattle and Bellingham.

Marcus James book Ratings and reviews
James’ Book Ratings and reviews

He books historical tours, ghost tours, and house tours. Sometimes he’s even been known to tour an open house if it looks like a place he could use in a book. He meets with historians and pulls records, deeds, maps, prominent and historical families’ trees, and backstories.

“Sometimes, research can involve going to a specific place just to feel it. To smell it. Touch it. Take note of the journey there. Landscape. I take thousands of pictures. All of the homes, apartments, hotels, buildings, etc. They are all real. Either places I know personally or from real estate sites.”

He says intensive research ensures the reader sees, smells, feels, tastes, and hears everything.

“Drown your reader in the sensory and sensual experience of reading. That’s what the late, great Anne Rice taught me.”

Pacific Northwest Gothic

Pickett Home by Benjamin Cody
Pickett Home by Benjamin Cody

Marcus James considers himself fortunate to live near where most of his books are set: the Pacific Northwest. He views the region as just as “Gothic” as the American South or the British moors but in different ways.

“There is what we call Pacific Northwest Gothic. Much like the Southern Gothic tradition, but wetter, darker, damper, colder, and wilder. It’s fog and dark forests and cold, rocky coasts and impossibly rocky shores. It is primal and almost devouring, like some strange cryptid in the forest.”

This sensibility has inspired Marcus’ writing throughout his career.

“How could I not write about this? If you live in a place like New Orleans Garden District, or Savannah around Forsythe Park, or Salem, or if you know of them and their strangeness, you’ll understand what I mean. Bellingham was crying out to be written about in this way.”

Most of his stories take place in Bellingham. All of the houses in his books are real, Victorian mansions built by the city’s founding fathers. And almost every house, building, and street corner has a ghost story or twenty in the local lore. Other ghosts in the book stem from Marcus’ family heritage.

“In my Blackmoore novels, the main character Trevor Blackmoore, his great-aunt Mabel, aka Queen Mab, as the family calls her, lives in my great-aunt Alice’s house. There is a lot of Alice in Queen Mab, and that house is full of ghosts. The things that go bump in the night have always been a part of my life–my identity. Horror is where I find my home.”

Marcus’ aunt’s home was filled with antiques from the 1800s-1940s, old tins, paintings, teddy bears, a portrait of Queen Victoria in black hanging above the fireplace mantel in the dining room. These made their way into his novels.

For Marcus, history in Bellingham is simply alive. “The ghosts walk with you, and you feel the past everywhere you go. There are ghosts standing behind maples and oaks, and you feel them staring at you.”

What’s Next for Marcus James

Marcus is currently working on the third novel in his Blackmoore series, The Beckoning One. This has already taken him years of research, nearly a dozen trips, and mountains of notes.

“The research process is very thorough for me, and I probably do more research than I need to, but it’s important that I get everything right. Even if two books worth of research on something culminates in a couple of paragraphs in the actual novel, the reader will know that everything available to learn about it has ended up there.”

Meanwhile, his latest novel, Instructions in Flesh, is out now in hardcover and digital formats, and next year, special hardcover editions of his Blackmoore Legacy series thus far (Blackmoore, Symphony for the Devil, and the two prequel novellas: Rise of the Nephilim and Fall of the Nephilim) come out, leading up to the release of the third novel in the series: The Beckoning One.

Marcus is excited to hear all the responses readers will have to his upcoming books.

“And, of course, cooking. There is always the cooking, and eventually, that is going to work its way into my writing career, and that will be a whole other journey that I can’t wait to go down.”


TROORA MAGAZINE | JUNE 2023
WRITTEN BY CRISTINA DEPTULA
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MARCUS JAMES | BENJAMIN CODY | UNSPLASH

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