I’m trying to figure out how to begin this. Originally, I was going to talk about this book on Amazon but–back in the day–it had no entry to make a review about. This book is out-of-print. Its publisher Spitfire Books doesn’t seem to exist anymore and the author didn’t seem to have written any other books after this one.
For a book I didn’t even know existed up until four summers ago, it impacted me a lot and carries more resonance than I think most people in Toronto realize. First, before I go on let me give you some background. Sanctuary The Vampire Sex Bar is, as the name of an old Goth nightclub, a misnomer. From what I could tell, no sex happened in the club at all: though it was one of the first Goth nightclubs in Toronto. It was opened by Lance Goth in 1992 and it closed in 2000. The Club itself divided into the Bar above and the Catacombs, fittingly and sensibly enough, in the basement where it was apparently an all-ages space.
This was a time when Goth Nights and indeed the whole subculture was at its peak in Toronto: specifically in the Queen Street West area. There was a very interesting Goth fashion store in that area called Siren and a whole other series of clubs, but Sanctuary lasted for a very long time until its last location became a Starbucks. Sanctuary’s time was also a time of Buffy, the Toronto-based Forever Night series and the old World of Darkness’ Vampire the Masquerade: which I mention to create a little more ambiance before I go on.
Now, as for Tales From Sanctuary: The Vampire Sex Bar the book, it was created in 1997 by Lance Goth: also known as Stephen Andrew Lee. Like I said, I had no idea who he even was or what this book was up until four years ago. I only periodically went downtown in my teen years–to places like the Vatikan or Velvet Underground, even the Bovine Sex Club (another aptly named place, I wonder if anyone will or has written a book on that)–and when I moved out to live on York residence I went to the Neutral Lounge about once a week every Friday for their Goth Night.
So I came into all of this at the remnants of the tail-end of this whole time. Then one day a friend let me read her copy of this book. Apparently, during the late 90s when it came out it was easy to get copies of the thing but now it has become very difficult to do so. So here is my challenge: I want to talk about this book and not give away spoilers on the off-chance that someone can access a copy, yet I also want to give people enough information as to what I’m actually talking about and I feel kind of foolish reviewing a book that people most likely haven’t–or will never–read. But I will do my best.
Tales from Sanctuary is a collection of stories. Each story starts off with a quote of some kind that fits its tone. There is no Table of Contents so you just have to read through them really. I read most of the first story, “The Wind-Walkers” at my friend’s place before I actually ordered my own copy of the book from Alibris.
“Wind-Walkers” is the story of two last remaining members of a long-lived winged humanoid race that fed off of human blood and flesh. They once ruled a kingdom of human worshipers which was betrayed to the Roman Empire by someone they trusted. After being violated, and one of them also mutilated, the two hide for millennia until one day they find Sanctuary and learn to trust again. This story dominates a good seventy-eight pages of the book and it is not without its flaws. The grammar is atrocious. I recall there even being a few spelling mistakes as well. In addition–in the long scene where you see a flashback into the Wind Walkers’ past–they speak far too anachronistically. At the very least, some attempt to make the speech sound more formal or archaic could have gone a long way to suspend that portion of the necessary disbelief I needed to think I was looking at ancient vampiric rulers of Nabatea.
Yet we begin to see here an interesting concept: that beings with monstrous appetites can be sympathetic, even pitied, or emphasized with. Lee actually makes thinking and feeling characters of these Wind-Walkers and I know I wanted to be happy for them. It made me think that they weren’t human and it was not completely fair to hold them to human standards, but at the same time it showed that there was some pain and some compassion and understanding that transcended all of that. It was a bit awkward even there, but through them you begin to experience the club of Sanctuary: that strange dark place of mysteries and humanity where you feel with them as they actually feel like they fit in somewhere in human society after millennia on the run.
At the very back of the book, Lee explains all of his inspirations and some of his methods in crafting these stories. What is fascinating for me is how he crafts a mythological Sanctuary. It is obviously based off of his Club–under his persona of Lance Goth–and perhaps even people he knew or knew of. He plays with the idea of someone from the Goth subculture not feeling like they belong and that Sanctuary is not only a place for them, but also a place for supernatural beings–sometimes understated ones–that feel the exact same way. Lee mentions that when crafting the scenes that lead up to each character going to Sanctuary in each story, he actually amalgamates places from other cities into the background: adding to Toronto’s geography in that way. I don’t know how I feel about that because I hadn’t lived in Toronto city that long and I was–and am–still discovering a lot about it. But he does begin to capture a certain kind of spirit, if you will in that first story and in how he writes this.
So then I got my own copy of the book and proceeded to read through the rest at a relentless pace. In “The Cold Ones,” we see a story about another vampiric group: specifically three sisters that seem to frequent a dark corner of the club and come from a mysterious place with a cab fare of $14.95. Now, this story is from the point of a view of an ordinary person and apparent-staff member of the Bar who gets drawn into the world of these sisters’ and actually is called upon to help them. Again, there was something awkward about this story and while I know that revealing all of “the monster’s” background might be considered “info-dumping,” there were references made such as “the Weir” that in retrospect I kind of get (a thing that traps something) but I wasn’t sure at the time. Also, I’m not a geographical expert but I would assume that Mount Pleasant Cemetery is much farther from Queen Street West than the book portrayed. Still, there was something very compelling in this story in how something can be horrifying, and beautiful, and relatable while still very much a mystery.
I really liked the story “Lillith” which actually has references and a list to various kinds of plants … some of them potentially poisonous. It is about a young woman living downtown who feels awkward in her skin and is terrified of physical and emotional danger. Then something really bad happens to her and she eventually finds she has a problem: a very real and human problem. It’s only at Sanctuary: at a place of seemingly strange people and monsters that she finds a place where she actually feels like she actually belongs and feels safe. There is a bit of a crossover here with characters from an earlier story too and I was glad she got to meet them under those circumstances: and that it let me know what happened to those characters in the meantime.
I related to “The Elixir of Love” in a somewhat different way. It actually comes after “Pins and Needles,” but I wanted to mention it because it was a nice contrast to “Lillith.” It was a story about a young man who thinks he finds love and gets introduced to an eerie and then rather heart-breaking reality: where even if you support the idea that there are different rules for different beings, it isn’t just humans that can be shallow “douchey” people. The last is rather banal, but makes it no less painful for it. In this story, Sanctuary is less of a place where he belongs, and more the site of a humiliation and that sense of cognitive dissonance where you think you have found happiness but it is really the loneliness of a gritty past 4 am downtown night. It was somewhat unsettling, but captured what a friend of mine calls “moments of painful clarity” rather well. Both Lillith and Jayson are very self-conscious characters full of real fear and desire–that do not feel like they fit in–and when they find Sanctuary they meet two entirely different ends.
“Pins and Needles” was a disturbing story, but the build-up of the main character’s development into a self-proclaimed “doctor of bad blood,” is well done and is a nice study into morbidity and “a certain point of view.” Finally, there is “Ricky Las Vegas”: a story about a talented musician that only vaguely wonders why his bands keep disbanding, his friends disappearing, and why Lance won’t let him sing at his Club. It is only towards the end of this really short story that Ricky realizes what he is and what he will do from there. I really liked this story in particular because it deals with psychic vampirism and creativity and how they can be related.
Throughout all of these stories is the presence of a fictional Lance Goth who seems to have some mysteries abilities to sense people in his Club and even come on them without being detected. He is usually the catalyst for the characters wanting to tell their stories or find some information that is integral to us for the plot in some of the stories. He usually takes some small mementos from each person he tells things to, or has told to him. It took me a while to realize that Lance actually existed, and that he was actually Stephen Andrew Lee because I can be dim like that.
All and all, Tales from Sanctuary was not the best-written book or series of stories I’ve ever read. I had immense trouble suspending disbelief for “Wind-Walkers,” no matter how fascinating an idea it was. However, this book did something to me. It is hard to explain, but if I had to put it in writing I would say that it showed me the spirit of the Toronto Goth Nights that once existed or wanted to exist: a night that once flourished until morning came yet still existing somewhere in the city’s cracks. It showed me magic in an urban place that I lived in and in that way it did change me.
For one thing, it made me begin to write about Toronto. I confess I actually wrote three stories based on Tales from Sanctuary–The Wrong Club, To the New Millennium, and Another Time–and I wish I could locate Lee to thank him for making these. I bought a copy of the book for a friend that lost her own years before and it was worth it too to share even some of that understanding. If you are keen on reading a copy and you don’t have a friend with access to it, there are some that were being sold as Used on Alibris and Abebooks. Amazon itself is even advertising a seller that will sell a copy for $998.00, but personally I would check those other Used Book Places first or wait.
For all of its idiosyncrasies, I think that Tales from Sanctuary is an important part of Toronto’s subcultural history that now lost place where as the back cover tells you, “You can hunt, but you cannot feed.”
I give this strange book a three out of five.