Joseph Caldwell: In the Shadow of the Bridge

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By Kit-Bacon Gressitt / Excuse Me, I’m Writing / Oct. 29, 2019

When offered an interview with author and playwright Joseph Caldwell, it was not In Such Dark Places, his first novel with its gay protagonist, that launched me from my desk to dance a delighted jig. Neither was it Caldwell’s more recent and charmingly absurd Irish mystery series, The Pig Trilogy— nor anything in between.

No, it was Caldwell’s notoriety as a writer for the cult classic soap opera Dark Shadows that transported me to the late 1960s when we—every kid in the neighborhood—happily raced home from school to grab a slice of baloney and settle in for a new episode.

All the more satisfying then, was reading in Caldwell’s new memoir, In the Shadow of the Bridge (Delphinium Books, November 15), that he was the co-creator, with fellow writer Ron Sproat, of the soap’s popular character: “reluctant vampire” Barnabas Collins, whose human family had rejected him and his bloodthirst.

“It is with a particular glee,” Caldwell writes in the memoir, “that I savor the realization that [producer] Dan Curtis, a committed homophobe, had his greatest success with his most famous character, Barnabas Collins, a vampire, a man knowingly created by two gay men, who in their own way were dramatizing their own plight.”

Mr. Caldwell and I spoke by phone, just two weeks before his 91st birthday. He was in his New York fifth floor walk-up, and he recalled Collins’ creation in crystal detail. It took place in a gay bar, on West 23rd Street.

“He came from our gayness,” Caldwell said. “This was in the late 60s. It was pre-Stonewall even, and we were still not very welcome. Barnabas Collins was a vampire we could identify with.”

Such revelations are not the only appeal of Caldwell’s often funny, often sorrowful memoir.

Although Caldwell said with a little bitterness that “the New York I wrote about no longer exists; it’s all been ruined by the real estate people,” he reflects the 1950s and 60s city in affectionate prose — with a shadow of one sort or another always hovering nearby.

The $24-a-month apartments; the footpath along the Brooklyn Bridge; the adjacent tenement in which he escaped the sexual repression of his Midwestern upbringing; the city’s well-known and obscure places—with their well-known and obscure personalities—that hosted Caldwell’s failures and successes and his most intimate obsession. His settings are as clear and stark as the black-and-white photography of that obsession, William Gale Gedney, Caldwell’s first lover, whom he met on the bridge.

It is this relationship on which Caldwell builds his memoir, a relationship that inspired his coming of age; that abandoned him, as he tumbled without its scaffolding; a relationship that was reconstructed during the 1980s HIV/AIDs crisis. Then, Caldwell became Gedney’s caregiver, moving into his home, sleeping on the floor beside the sick man’s bed.

Midwifing someone to their inevitable end is, perhaps, as intimate a thing as one can possibly do. That Caldwell shares it with us in his memoir is a generous act, plainly, exquisitely offered.

He also shared a bit of his self-deprecating wit during our conversation: “In Such Dark Places was really a coming out novel. I obviously didn’t find the material under a cabbage. When I would apply for teaching jobs, I think that may have been the operative reason why I didn’t get them. … I wrote The Pig Trilogy because I was getting too dark. I had nowhere else to go. … Being of Irish ancestry, I have a great allegiance to Ireland. In the third pig book I offer irrefutable evidence that Shakespeare is Irish. The books weren’t published in England.”

He found something positive to say about aging: “I don’t repress my anger anymore. I don’t mind people knowing that I’m rather menacing. In some circles, I’m a curmudgeon.”

He hesitated at today’s use of the word “queer”: “The thing is that, being the age I am, that word was so alienating. You know, ‘You’re queer, you’re not part of the rest of us.’ It’s nice to think that it doesn’t have the sting anymore. It doesn’t mean what it used to mean, to most people. But I experienced it in a way that was very wounding, so I can’t help getting a bit of a twitch or a twinge.”

He celebrated his latest novel, based on his play Seen From a Cockeyed Kite: “I just gave my agent the manuscript, a young adult book. She likes it.“

He encouraged young writers: “Don’t write what you know. Write what you care about.”

And, he offered me a bit of sage advice, in case I were to have follow-up questions: “Don’t call me before 10.”

In the Shadow of the Bridge will be in bookstores November 15.

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