Updated: Nov 6, 2021
by Matteo Polk
2021 (Cleis Press)
Sometimes, whether it´s a person or with a drug, abuse can be addictive. Quitting the booze or kicking the heroin can be just as challenging as leaving an abusive relationship.
Intellectually, the addict may understand the need to get clean & sober; but the seductive allure of the high itself can be compelling, keeping them entangled in the misery for much longer than they wish, causing serious consequences. Similarly with abuse: why anyone stays in violent relationships and continues to accept (emotional and physical) harm is complex and often contradictory. True, the abusers are violent; but often they can also be sexy, charismatic, even tender. They may degrade us, yet simultaneously provide us with security, validation, familiarity. Leaving the abuse also means saying goodbye to each one of these other attributes and benefits. Leaving is a dive into the unknown, a realization that while we may be free from the abuse and the pain, we may also never again achieve the pleasure or the security. The shift towards self-reliance and acceptance is not as straightforward as flipping a switch. The process of becoming free from abuse--whether caused by others or created by ourselves--is a night journey by water without stars or a compass.
On the surface, Matteo Polk´s debut novel Hematoma is an erotic vampire story, and one which explores the world of sadomasochism, body modification, and the sexual gratification one can experience from varying degrees of pain. However, contained within these pages are depths of insight about the psychology of abuse which are both mature and unsettling.
Set in contemporary Philadelphia, Shay Kinsey feels weird and like an outsider, because he gets off on cutting. He saves up considerable portions of his income from his job working at the warehouse to get extensive tattoos and piercings, his solution of subtly finding arousal and release. His life changes irrevocably when he meets a new tattoo artist, Ricky, who also turns out to be a 1400-year-old vampire. The two quickly become enmeshed in a highly charged affair which is both sexy and increasingly dangerous. At first, Shay definitely enjoys the heightened levels of sexualized pleasure his vampire lover choreographs on his frail body, pain-scenarios which become increasingly detailed, elaborate...and non-consensual. Despite whatever words fall from his blood-red lips, Ricky is an immortal parasitic creature, one that literally feeds off of the life-blood of others. Will Shay be able to quench his insatiable appetite? Will he learn to set limits, to say no, to be more than just a canvas for Ricky´s sadistic imagination?
Readers seeking a gay love story blending eroticism with gothic fantasy will be rewarded (and then some) by Polk´s exceptional debut. The novel contains a number of intimate scenes of tenderness and raw lust, of poignant friendship and ultra-detailed acts of body-modification. But under its skin, the beating heart of Hematoma insightfully examines the experience of abuse, using vampirism as the primary metaphor. While possessing supernatural strength and razor-sharp fangs, Ricky´s true power lies in his psychological manipulation of Shay. As the book progresses, we witness Shay grow increasingly influenced by Ricky´s subtle directives. Shay´s work becomes isolated from his co-workers, his friends, even moving in to Ricky´s home. His journey closer and closer to his abuser is written with authentic inevitability, and remains heartbreakingly painful to witness.
Polk brilliantly portrays Shay´s contradictions as both victim and individual, describing the complex nature of his attraction and fear with the dangerous Ricky. On the one hand, he seems almost addicted to his nocturnal lover´s attention, a feeilng he has not experienced elsewhere before. On the other hand, Shay knows he has to be secretive to meet with Leah, Gil, and the others he is forming genuine bonds with at the Society, a clandestine community of humans and vampires who possess vital information about Ricky´s dark past, as well as warnings about the dangers ahead for Shay.
Grounded in various locations in and around Philadelphia, Polk describes its geography and atmosphere with the precision of someone who has spent years living there. Simultaneously, he has infused this familiar locale with an incredibly imaginative back-story, one linking vampire legend with American and European history. Hematoma also intelligently differentiates between abuse and consensual BDSM, and readers who practice any kind of kink will be relieved that there is no judgment within the book towards anyone who enjoys these forms of consensual sexual activity. Instead, Polk bravely enters that shadowy liminal landscape within the realm of sexual pleasure, the places existing along the edge of danger and consent. Polk´s writing is located within a territory where pain can sometimes cross over into violence, and where sometimes it can be bewildering to navigate or find direction within the places where intimacy and abuse overlap.
Hematoma is a thrilling novel, written by a dynamic writer in what feels like the blood of experience. I highly recommend it, and look forward to exploring Polk´s current work, Idolatria, currently being published one chapter at a time on Literetoca.com.