Book Feature: Pass the Poison Separately by Oswell Blakeston
Today’s feature is the short book Pass the Poison Separately by Oswell Blakeston. Oswell Blakeston was a pen name used by Henry Joseph Hasslacher, a prolific writer, poet, and experimental filmmaker. Hasslacher wrote in a number of genres, including detective fiction, travel writing, cooking, and essay. He wrote extensively for the magazines Close Up (he was on staff) and Seed (he was an editor).
His fiction under the name Oswell Blakeston covers a variety of topics, often including gay themes. Pass the Poison Separately, written just nine years before the author’s death in 1985, was the last work he published under the Blakeston name.
Pass the Poison Separately is more of a short story (with just 60 sparse pages), but was published independently in chapbook form by the small Canadian publisher Catalyst, with assistance from the Ontario Arts Council. It’s a strange little story, with many surreal elements. The story line is primarily linear, featuring a young poet (named Sammy Sweet) who is tricked into taking an expensive vacation to an exclusive island resort called X–supposedly a mystery location, manufactured for wealthy travelers who want an adventure. Once he arrives, he realizes that he is the only guest at the resort and is treated like a king.
Sweet eventually discovers the reason for his royal treatment, and it doesn’t end well; he has been there under false pretenses, and the resort employees are not happy. Despite the bizarre story line and sometimes difficult-to-follow internal monologue (Sweet seems to have some serious mental and emotional issues), it’s an engaging story. The characters are presented one-dimensionally–often seeming like caricatures of real people–but it becomes obvious that this is simply how Sweet sees people, as friend or foe, with nothing between. The desperation of a confused, neurotic man is perfectly presented; the reader feels his panic and sympathizes with him, even as he makes bizarre choices and digs himself deeper in a bad situation.
There aren’t many gay themes in the book. It’s implied that Sammy Sweet is bisexual, with references to a tall Australian man with whom he had an affair–but his sexuality is not important to the storyline.
This is one of those rare instances when I picked up a book that I had never heard of, by an author I’ve never heard of, and was totally engrossed in the story, unable to put it down.
The University of Texas has a collection of Oswell Blakeston writings and papers, along with a nice biography of the author. Check it out here!
To get your own copy of the book, visit the Somewhere Books online store.