Shay Kinsey’s life is shaped by his need for pain and the shame he feels about it. Having been burned by attempts at relationships with “normal” people, Shay has given up on friendship and intimacy. His tiny, cramped apartment is empty of anything but the bare necessities (outside of his implements of pain), as the majority of the income from his low-paying job goes towards piercings and tattoos to feed his “addiction.” When Shay’s regular artist leaves Inkjet without telling him, Shay is filled with worry that her disgust of him led to her abandonment and the shame almost makes him forego his next appointment…but the compulsion is too intense to ignore and he reluctantly agrees to allow Ricky to do his piercings.
From the moment they meet, Shay finds Ricky full of himself…and their next meeting is really no better. To Shay, Ricky seems arrogant and condescending, and not much about his manner or words puts Shay at ease. However, when Ricky is intrigued rather than repulsed by Shay’s masochism, these impressions cease to matter; the only important thing is that Ricky wants to indulge Shay’s needs and that he does it so well. Soon, Ricky becomes Shay’s “beautiful, loving sadist” and Shay’s everything. The only blight on his cocoon of pleasure is “The Society,” an organization of vampires that polices the lives of vampires and their donors. Shay’s association with Ricky, who considers Society members personae non gratae, brings him to their attention. As one of the Society’s main goals is the protection of humans, Shay’s involvement with Ricky, who they believe to be dangerous, is cause for concern and intervention.
Soon, Shay finds himself pulled between conflicting ideas and allegiances: his view of Ricky as a loving and understanding free thinker versus the uncontrollable danger the Society sees and his love for Ricky and his desire to please Ricky in all ways versus his growing need to maintain a new friendship with a Society member that Ricky disapproves of. In the midst of lust, love, cryptic answers, hidden agendas and motivations, and the fear of losing the things he thought he’d never have, discerning concern from manipulation and half-truths from deceit becomes almost impossible…but hesitation could cost Shay everything.
I had a hard time finding a book for the New-to-Me Author Week of Reading Challenge month; many of the choices felt a bit too familiar. When I read the blurb for Hematoma, I was intrigued, but cautious; however, I’m glad I took a chance on Matteo Polk’s debut novel. Hematoma is a dark, erotic, speculative fiction thriller that explores trauma, cycles of abuse, self-loathing, and the innate human craving for the freedom to live one’s life unashamedly and without external limitations, despite humankind’s complete existence within communities governed by such limitations. I appreciate that Hematoma is like a snapshot into Shay’s journey, a period in his life that, while important, transitions him to something new and out of the stasis he was living in; the end of the story is just the beginning. In many books, especially romances, the protagonist(s)’s arc/journey is presented as more or less complete at HEA, logical given that the “ever after” implies as much. This is not the case for this book. Thus, if you are looking for hearts ‘n flowers-landia or a couple-centric romance that has a bit of darkness to up the angst factor and make the HEA/HFN more satisfactory, this will probably not be your cuppa.
To me, at its core, Hemtoma is about humanity and all its lovely and ugly contradictions—from the desire to be loved for who you are while hating who you are, to the desire to be free to live your own life and make your own choices while subjugating others and stripping them of theirs. As one follows Shay through his shameful despair, naked desperation, and abject relief to his complete immersion into the joy he finds in the pain Ricky inflicts and, more importantly, Ricky’s unquestioning acceptance, it’s hard not to contemplate things like: what are the trade-offs and/or consequences of complete freedom, or when does one person’s freedom inhibit someone else’s? How do people choose to navigate these restrictions? etc. Whether by design or simply a consequence of the ideas it covers, Hematoma’s presentation of the characters and their motivations is at times as contradictory, annoying, and ambiguously gray as the humanity it explores. For example, Shay’s masochistic needs are so great, his desperation for pain leaps from the page. He has to constantly check himself from doing real harm and knows he needs better outlets. Yet, he knows nothing about BDSM (not even that the M stands for his tribe). In Shay’s view:
Other people don’t do this. It’s not like, you know, BDSM or something like that, it’s not ropes and handcuffs. That shit, even married couples try it out.
His desperation cannot overpower his shame or societal conditioning enough to truly consider that his needs are normal and there are safe ways to find satisfaction; he is almost as judgmental as those who shun him, having internalized the societal negativity towards sadomasochism to the point where he
…never wanted to be the sort of person that [he] imagined went to [S & M] clubs; the sort who goes to these dark little basements amidst sweaty, older men looking to escape their wives’ nagging under a Dominatrix’s paddle.
Ricky’s nature, too, is as oppositional as Shay’s, though as the story is told from Shay’s POV, he is more opaque at times; coldly complimentary, sympathetically dismissive, understandingly blunt and ordinary, yet extraordinary, Ricky is the enigma that pulls the story along and leaves the reader uneasy and unsettled as he blurs the line between what one considers consensual sadism and dominance and nonconsensual abuse and control. His causal disclosure to Shay about being a vampire and making it so mundane is an example of how the story is told and the underpinning of one of Hematoma’s musings—anything can become normal and acceptable, for the good and the ill. Similarly, the Society adheres to (or suffers from) the ever-present discrepancies in actions and ideals. On the one hand, their constant refrain to Shay is they are concerned for him and want to keep him safe; on the other, they are prone to vagaries and side tangents when asked for proof, leaving Shay in the same conflicted and vulnerable state.
While the Society’s name is a bit on the nose, as the arbiter of acceptable vampiric behavior and practices, it functions in the same way as our own, creating the norms, standards, and strictures to which everyone is supposed to adhere and has the same limited flexibility and tolerance for those who live their life differently. Their presence in the story illustrates how creation of acceptable norms can isolate people and make them feel as if their very existence is taboo and exemplifies how laws ostensibly for protection can be used to control behaviors that aren’t harmful, just not “acceptable” (anti sodomy and miscegenation laws, anyone?). They also typify how, when a group comes to power and decides their way is the only way and ignores (with extreme prejudice) the beliefs of those who lived in and understood the world differently for hundreds of years before their arrival, it can create resentment rather than the sought after harmony. To the Society’s credit, their allegorical representation is an extreme example in that vampires living outside accepted norms can be decidedly fatal to humans as old cultural practices of some vampires constitute straight up murder to us, but simple cattle slaughtering to them.
However, the way in which the Society judges and acts, how they unintentionally cause harm and how their existence and structure has its roots in a desire for power and control, self-hatred, and self-loathing, makes it hard to ignore how systems like these exist that have almost completely erased other cultures’ more flexible and embracing view of the world and/or corrupted them in such a way as to bring out the worst in them—from the systematic erasure of earlier, historical acceptance of those outside the binary, to railing against the mistreatment of women in other cultures, while ignoring that many of these misogynist/patriarchal ideals were introduced into that culture’s laws by foreign/colonial powers that offered men power over women in exchange for compliance.
The one overarching issue I had with Hematoma is that while the ambiguous and uncertain tone evoked throughout generally serves the plot and themes well, there are times when it just doesn’t and makes character traits, descriptions, and ideals seem muddled rather than mysterious. However, while I may have just be in an overly contemplative mood when I read Hematoma, I believe it did what good speculative fiction is supposed to do: it manages to examine thought-provoking commentary on weighty topics while still allowing escapism from the reality of said topics. If you are looking for an interesting take on vampire lore, the blurred lines between obsession and love, pleasure and pain, and what makes someone a monster, you may like Hematoma.
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