Gabe Espinosa is in his mid-twenties and works as a host at the historic Rosebriar Room restaurant on the 13th floor of the Sentinel Club Chicago. The renovated building had once been a private men’s club dating from the 1893 World’s Fair era. In that span of time, it was intimated that there had been many a power broker who’d sought his pleasure in the Club at the expense of staff. Some of the more superstitious current staff discuss creeped-out feelings they experience while on the job, and Gabe shares that communal dread.
Gabe has been off work for two weeks recovering from a suicide attempt. He’d recently broken up with Kevin, his cheating boyfriend of nearly two years, and a vodka-fueled crisis ended with his roommate calling 911 and Gabe barely surviving. Coming back to work in this vulnerable state, Gabe’s more in tune with the dread and sense of latent evil than he has ever been before. Alone, doing table prep in the Rosebriar Room, Gabe seems to see sinister people in the shadows and is later inexplicably attacked by the lone guest who ventures in for breakfast. The attractive man was pleasant upon arrival, but his demeanor changed dramatically when he met Gabe’s eyes—as if he was possessed.
Shattered by this ordeal, Gabe leaves work for the day, yet he can’t shake the malevolence that clings to him. His return home is plagued by shadows and his nap interrupted by dreams of Kevin, waking him to paranormal activity in his apartment. Escaping to a nearby church brings only more confusion—and perhaps another attack. Confiding in his best friend and his roommate about the weird occurrences he’s experienced all day helps Gabe see it might not all be in his head. Gabe digs deeper into the hidden past of the Sentinel Club, and the possibility of decades of white oppression and avarice manifesting as a marauding evil phenomenon. Gabe’s life depends on his facing both personal demons, as well as those which might lurk in the darkest corners of the Sentinel Club.
For me, this horror story dragged. Aside from the Epilogue, the whole story takes place over a twelve-hour period. Gabe is in his head for about 85% of that time, often rehashing his grief over the breakup with Kevin and his suicide attempt. While I could sympathize with his pain, I struggled to connect with this unreliable narrator; Gabe hides his true resentments even from himself. Gabe is frustrated with his life, has internalized self-hate for himself as a Hispanic gay man, and struggles with racism and toxic masculinity within the gay community. At times, these last two points took over the story. Gabe often laments not being fully in touch with his Hispanic culture, and how white guys often don’t see him as a whole person. Indeed, all of the specters that attack Gabe are blonde-haired, white men, indicating that Gabe’s biggest fears could be a loss of self through actions of dominance by white men in his society. Gabe is so focused on his rage and despair that it caused me to disconnect from his plight. The gothic descriptions slowed the pace without enough payoff. How many times did Gabe “think” he saw something sketchy, that he didn’t truly investigate, but which immediately turned out to be nothing? Too many for me, and the lack of emotional resonance with these occurrences made it easy for me to discount their importance. As such, my senses weren’t preternaturally heightened, and I lacked the fear Gabe’s experiences should have instilled. In the final third of the story, Gabe decides to stop running in random directions and start thinking, which was when I got engaged again.
The end held a better twist than I expected, with Gabe finding happiness and safety in ways that I didn’t necessarily anticipate. I liked that he attempted to take control of his situation, but felt his impetuous actions showed a lack of faith in the friends with whom he’d just reconnected. This ultimately left Gabe unable to control his fate at the climax, like at the beginning; it was a mirror of his suicide attempt where only timely assistance from an unexpected source kept him alive. This signaled a lack of character growth that was disappointing, but not egregious. The latent evil situation at the Sentinel Club had a resolution that felt unfinished and anti-climactic. That said, Gabe’s experiences do lead him to a better life, albeit through dumb luck.
As a native Chicagoan, I loved the moments I felt connected to my city, and the social justice aspects that Gabe discusses—systemic racism, corruption, gentrification, and poverty—are certainly issues our local governments are doing, and historically have done, a poor job to address. They are also endemic to the heart of this story, explaining why the evil was able to grow and thrive within the fictional Sentinel Club. I could clearly comprehend that the author is a compassionate citizen of the Chicago area and knows his local lore, which made me eager to read this book in the first place. However, the characterizations of the original members of the Sentinel Club—and their depraved and criminal activities—gave me pause, and concern, regarding the context. The evil Gabe survives is born of abuse of power, but readers with a more homophobic viewpoint could easily spin this into an indictment against the gay community, which I felt twitchy about. There are scenes of assault and rape, always of poor immigrant men perpetrated by wealthy white men, and if Gabe wasn’t gay—didn’t have the sensibility of a gay man—homophobia could have become central to the resolution. I’m not sure if that was the author’s intent, but it troubled me as an ally.
This is a horror story, not a romance. There is a complete resolution for Gabe, who grows past his grief and depression to live what seems to be a happier life.