Reviewed By Cecilia Barnard
I could not put Sodom Road Exit down: I took it to my kitchen, read it in the bath, and stayed up way past my usual bedtime in order to learn what would happen next. I was drawn in by both the horror narrative, as well as the personal, real struggles of the characters in the novel. Amber Dawn crafts a riveting tale of the supernatural that handles complex issues in a poignant and truthful manner. Discussing themes like sexual assault, culture, race, alcoholism, and queerness, Dawn finds a way to make a horror novel thoughtful. Growing up an Italian Catholic queer, Sodom Road Exit is the book my high school self needed and that my current self will cherish forever.
What do you do when you run out of money and have to move back to the tiny town you grew up in? What do you do when your mother buys you part of a defunct carnival ride? Well, if you’re Starla Martin, you suck it up, hang that carnival ride stunt on your wall and end up waking a ghost named Etta. Etta, self described as needing “bebop keys and a warm body,” immediately takes a liking to Starla. Haunted (but not entirely upset about it), Starla goes on a journey of self-discovery, encountering destruction with her less than helpful undead copilot. Working night shifts at a decaying campsite called The Point!, falling in love with a former high school classmate turned stripper whose high school shenanigans, “Tamara Matveev bare naked,, have followed her around, and quasi adopting a pantsless three year old boy, Starla’s ghost problem seems to be but a small change in her life, until it suddenly isn’t. While Etta helps Starla confront the darker moments of her past, like helping to embrace her queerness and relationship with Tamara, her newfound confidence comes at a price—her freedom.
“If my body alone could have bore her, could have spared the others and kept her all for me me me me and the famous suffering I so deserve, then I undoubtedly would have tried to hold her inside.”
Amber Dawn uses the supernatural as both a metaphor and motivation for her characters. Etta reflects and draws out the parts of the people around her that they shove down. The damaged self-image and insecurity that keeps Etta tethered to the carnival reflects Starla’s own personal demons, allowing for Etta to continue to torment and delight her. Her presence stops Hal’s binge drinking and convinces him to attend AA through sheer fright. Etta’s apparition comforts Rose, an old Italian woman who puts amaretto in her coffee and adopts Starla as her daughter in heart, about the suicide of her son Ricky. Real life issues force the ghostly narrative forward. Starla’s vulnerable desperation for comforting confidence make allowing Etta to possess her a tempting decision. She invites Etta into herself in moments of fear and stress, “Etta, I call. Etta. Etta. She answers with ghost hands that surges through me, overrunning fear, overrunning everything.” Everyone who sees Etta receives some sort of blessing, and she becomes a spectral miracle worker to the people around Starla. She even receives the nickname “the angel of Crystal Beach” as more and more people flock to see her miracles for themselves.
Issues like coming out, sexual abuse, and what it means to be queer are woven throughout the novel to create a tapestry of words meant to enthrall and frighten both the characters and audience. The first time Etta appears to someone other than Starla, “something deep inside me almost accepts that what haunts us is a hovering jumbo Care Bear,” she terrifies them so much that they immediately stop arguing and begin to promise to “surrender to a higher power.” Identity politics, particularly what it means to be a member of the First Nations, are brought forward at the hands of our ghostly friend and perpetuated by the humans affected by her. After seeing Etta, Bobby, a First Nations woman, begins to seek her real family after years of cultural isolation in the Canadian foster system. Etta destroys, yet Etta also creates a sense of security in those she touches by bringing about a closure to their past and into a brighter, more self assured future.
A story of self-discovery and acceptance with a spooky twist, Sodom Road Exit is a must read for anyone struggling with their sense of self. If you are struggling with your race, your sexuality, your power, read this book. Seek comfort in the arms of Etta yourself, and get trapped in her story, just like Starla. Sodom Road Exit will remind you how “Mortal and stupid and very very lucky” we all are. Find yourself, and maybe a little extra, in the pages of Amber Dawn’s wonderful novel.