Love Sonnet #2

thejewishbride

ONE HEART
By R. Saint Claire

Loving center and corporeal home,
A fused join at two chambers meeting,
Sacred symbol of the love I own,
And emblem of my life’s completing.

The battlefield of daily strife
Can’t compromise the greater will,
That you’re my husband, I’m your wife.
What wars are lost! What blood we spill!

Silly to think it my decision,
But I’ve been tempered by the years.
In true love there is no division;
A cauterizing brand--my heart is seared.

Revered, loving heart--one blood, one breath!
To honor and cherish till my death.

Unmasked

unmasked

I just self-published my first novel, UNMASKED, based on my award-winning screenplay about an aging pop star who will stop at nothing to stay beautiful.

If you are a fan of old-school, 70’s/80’s era horror, twisted sexuality, and stomach-turning gore you might enjoy my campy literary debut. Check it out for the LOW ebook price (available in print soon).

 

Love Sonnet

 

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LOVE SONNET
by R. Saint Claire

Bright twinkle of stars and warmth of the sun,
Flotillas of clouds in Heaven’s fresh air,
Dark battles through which the brave hero becomes,
To all things amazed my lover compares.

The moon’s pale mystery, the change in the tides,
And sands in the hourglass’ turns in a day,
That cause shallow men from Love’s duty to hide,
Shall never convince my bold lover to stray.

Sweetest dwelling never leased, but owned,
His key in the lock of my chamber remains.
A palace or hovel--his love is my home.
My heart’s true passion’s my lover’s domain.

These things I swear ‘bout my love and I do:
As Heaven above him, my lover is true.

 

Rosemary’s Baby

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Satan’s coming!

Beware the chalky undertaste…

Continuing  with my Gothic Literature Reading Challenge (no particular order) I reread Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, chowing it down in a few days. I enjoyed my Franklin Press leather bound edition (trying to collect all of the Gothic volumes). Good lit deserves quality bindings.

This is one of those books I wish I could go back in time and read cold, although it’s a testament to Levin’s great skill that a story I know every nuance of can still keep me turning pages till dawn.

In his 1981 book on horror, Danse Macabre, Stephen King praises Levin as a one of the great plotters. He is the Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel.  And it’s true. Every revelation is supported by the hidden, and often overt, character motivations. Guy, an inspiring actor played to sleazy brilliance by John Cassavetes in the film, admits he’s a great bullshit artist and liar (brags about it in fact) on the first few pages of the book as the newlyweds try to get out of their lease so they can move into the Bramford, a fictitious Gothic apartment house along Central Park. Can’t say he didn’t warn you. Minnie Castevet, the nosy neighbor, says as much about herself when she declares I’m selfish as the day is long. She ain’t lying. You can’t trust anyone of these damn witches. Poor, naive Rosemary, carrying a time bomb in her belly during the hottest summer in New York history (a metaphor for Hell I assume) realizes this all too late.

Roman Polanski’s film version (his stunning American debut) is considered one of the greatest book to film adaptations of all time. If you seen or read one you’ve seen or read the other. With a few exceptions, the dialogue is almost verbatim, as are the scenes with the omission of Rosemary’s trip to her friend Hutch’s cabin to get her head together after Guy (really Satan) took advantage of her when she was passed out. I’ve seen the film many times, and it only adds to the book’s brilliance by giving us perfect characters (who can imagine a different Roman and Minnie or, my favorite, Hutch?) And Mia Farrow perfectly embodies the vulnerable (but also strong-minded) young mother.

There were many Christian faith themed horror books and films throughout my childhood (this Catholic girl loved their forbidden pleasures). I remember watching the heavily edited version of the film on TV with my mother who warned me not to let my faith waver because that’s when the Devil can come in. Metaphorically it’s good advice, and the book explores this theme throughout. As a  former Catholic, Rosemary urbanely claims she’s Agnostic when the Castevets grill her over dinner about her feelings regarding the Pope. If she hadn’t been so wishy-washy maybe they would have passed her up for another drug addict like Terry.

There are so many chilling moment in both book and film, but my favorites are the subtle moments (sadly missing in much of horror). Hutch’s stories about the Black Bram while serving up roast lamb, the phone call with the actor the coven struck blind (Tony Curtis’ bitter voice in the film), and the Scrabble game reveal to the discordant sixties soundtrack unnerve me every time.

thedakotaThere are many horror novels (and I love reading all of them, even the shitty ones) but what puts Rosemary’s Baby in the Gothic category is not only the subject matter (witchcraft) but the location: an apartment house with a dark past that includes witches, suicides, and infant murder. The Black Bram with its gargoyles and rotting grandeur (I’ve been in the Dakota including the basement and it’s perfectly described) is its own character as the particularly eerie opening of the film with Mia’s creepy lullaby demonstrates.

The Stepford Wives and A Kiss Before Dying, may not exactly fit the Gothic genre, but Levin is so good they’re going on the list.

Next from the library shelf–the classic Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

Flash Fiction #1

A desperate friend shows up one night in search of an ancient Mexican mask. Today’s short horror fiction is based on a true story.

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The Mask of Mercado

Last weekend my old college roommate stopped by for a visit. He had aged considerably (grayer, balder, fatter, noticeably thicker glasses), but after thirty years, who hadn’t? My wife, Betty, and I had just finished dinner and were settling in to watch the one weekly TV show she is passionate about, when he arrived completely out of the blue. The set was turned off and I sent Betty into the kitchen to reheat the leftovers. From the look she gave me I knew there’d be Hell to pay later, but I never have any friends over, and George (that’s his name) was one of my oldest.

While Betty reheated the meatloaf, George and I sat in the living room by the fire. I opened a bottle of wine and watched him drink nearly all of it. He wasn’t too keen on conversation, nor did the touch the plate of food Betty set before him, but instead spent most of his time pacing around the living room. He seemed particularly interested in our floor to ceiling bookshelves displaying the books and bric-a-brac we had collected during our travels; mine especially, when I was young.

“Where’s that old Mexican mask you used to have, Jim?”

“Oh right. I don’t know what ever happened to that.”

“What?” George turned to me, face white. “Well, it’s gotta be here, right? Old Jim doesn’t throw anything away, right Betty?”

Betty stood on the threshold between the kitchen and living room with folded arms. “That’s right,” she said. “Is something wrong, George? You seem upset.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” the pale and sweating man insisted. “I’d just really like to take a look at that mask; that’s all. I remember when Jim brought that thing back from Mexico. Remember, old man, you told me all about it.”

I did remember suddenly, although God knows I hadn’t thought about it in over twenty years. “I got it at the occult market in Mexico City: the Mercado de Sonora.”

“That’s it!” George exploded from across the room. “I never forgot that thing. Where is it, Jim?…Maybe?” He moved into the narrow hallway where we keep more shelves stacked with odds and ends. Betty followed him and stopped him just before he was about to open the bedroom door.

“I remember now,” she said. “We moved it to the storage unit years ago.”

It wasn’t a lie. That’s where it was, along with many of my beloved items that didn’t make it past Betty’s decorator eye.

George brushed past her and returned to the living room. “Hey, old man, up for a drive?”

“What?” Came Betty’s voice from the hall. “It’s supposed to snow tonight?”

“Where’s your storage unit, old man?” George, said, ignoring her incredulity. “Whataya say we go get that mask, huh?”

“It’s a thirty-minute drive, George. Look, have some more wine.”

George drank down the full glass I handed him in one gulp. “What’s the name of the place, Jim?”

I didn’t remember.

“Out-of -Sight Storage,” Betty’s flat voice called from the bedroom.

“You up for it, old man?”

“I’m not driving out there now.”

George’s eyes darted around the room. He was sweating so hard there was steam on his glasses. Then he ran out the door to his car. I followed him. The promise of snow was being realized in a light dusting of flurries in the frigid air.

“George, come back inside. You don’t look so good. Why don’t you stay the night and we’ll go over there tomorrow and look for that mask.”

“I can’t wait, Jim!”

I had no idea what was going on in his head, but I knew him well enough to know there was no stopping him. I removed the storage locker key from my pocket and handed it to him. Attached to it was a plastic tag with the address.

George’s face lit up. “I knew I could count on you.” He jumped in his car, and I watched his red taillights disappear into the snowy night.

When I returned to the house, Betty was drinking the last of the wine in the chair by the fire, her feet curled up under her.

“What the Hell was that all about?” I asked her.

“I don’t know, but I hope he hauls all that junk out of there.”

A few days later we received word from his wife that George had died in a car accident. Betty and I were both distraught, overcome with sudden guilt. When I apologized to his wife for allowing him to drive away from our house on Sunday night when he had been drinking, and the weather was so bad, she told me I was mistaken. George’s car careened off a country road and hit a tree near their town, nearly one hundred miles from our home, on Sunday morning. We assumed she was confused in her grief and didn’t push the issue, but instead expressed how deeply sorry we were.

The following day, we received a message from the landlord of the storage unit saying something about a suspected robbery. Betty and I went out there and found the door to our unit ajar, and all the things we had neatly stored there in piles on the floor and spilling out into the concrete hall. Some items were broken, some appeared to be torn apart.

In the midst of this confusion, Betty slapped the side of her head, and said, “That mask isn’t here. Remember I threw it out because it terrified the kids? I put it out on the curb, and someone just took it. Remember you got so mad about that?”

I did remember. Just as I remember telling George over thirty years ago what the lady at the Mercado I bought it from told me: El que lleva la máscara nunca morirá. He who wears the mask will never die.

 

 

The Red Tower

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In the Red Tower
The planes mature
To a dance that beats
Red sausage links and iron ore.

In the Red Tower
Flames shoot from the stack, 
Fire white hot at the top, 
Black in the cracks.

In the Red Tower
A dragon wails
A song so sad, such simple pain that none
(Maybe just the sea urchins) Understand.

The madder-heart,
With each bump it bleeds,
Runs into the ancient stones, and
Dies in agony, slowly and alone. 
Forked tongued forgiveness 
Wanting only for a friend,
A pat, a snuggle,
An “I understand.”

The black smoke bleeds
From the Red Tower—
Recession’s sandwich, but
Only for the gods, and easement,
Momentary easement leaning to the left, 
As crows swarm on the edge then dive 
Into the black.

What time to make the stones and legends dance!

Ode to Melancholy

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ODE TO MELANCHOLY

Saturnal turnings to woeful wooings,
Unrequited in a heart that aches,
Infernal dreams of despair imbuing,
Hopelessly tethered to past mistakes.

Romantic passions the depth of Venus,
Bacchantic thrashings; they both espouse
Byronic madness—a proof of genius!
Flawlessly shuttered in one dark house.

Melancholy, to thee I sing,
For all the gifts your heartaches bring.

The Castle of Otranto

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Faint of heart…

Continuing with my Gothic Literature Reading Challenge 2017, I head for the granddaddy of Gothic literature The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (try to say it fast).  After reading some of the Goodreads reviews, I expected this to be a real chore, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this (gratefully) brief, at times silly tale. It helped that I found this beautiful Easton Press leather bound copy in my personal library. The moiré endpaper, satin book mark, color plates, and gold embossed leather cover enhanced my reading experience of this classic.

Written in 1764, the novel is set up like  a found manuscript dating back to the Crusades (kind of a Blair Witch Project marketing scheme, I suppose), and the (somewhat) Shakespearean language tries to support the ruse. The plot revolves around the nefarious castle lord Manfred who, after his frail son dies on his wedding day from being mysteriously brained by an enormous helmet, decides to fill in for the bridegroom (despite being already espoused) and marry the maiden Isabella in his son’s stead, causing the young bride to flee through a secret passageway to the neighboring church where she can take the veil and escape the horny Prince. En route, she meets a dashing commoner, Theodore, who turns out to be the right heir to the throne of Otranto. The enormous armored knight ghost who appears to challenge Manfred’s machinations against the true ruler is reminiscent of Hamlet’s ghost.

The author, Horace Walpole, was so intrigued with all things medieval he built his own castle, Strawberry Hill, which is now a museum of sorts. His obsession with secret passageways, tower dungeons, and fainting ladies is evident throughout the book–and I ate it up. Described as a romance, there is a love triangle in the story and I was drawn into the lover’s story. There is also a violent scene or two and some general haunted atmosphere (including the castle releasing pent-up vapors–lol), but I can’t imagine  The Castle of Otranto keeping any modern reader up and night. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable read, and as a good student of Gothic literature, it’s satisfying to check this required text off my list. Next up (and I can’t wait) Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin.

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The Castle of Otranto – worth reading in embossed leather

Dracula Sonnet

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Peasants fear the mention of his name,
Grown men tremble at the setting sun,
O’er the Carpathian mountain range
Along the forest where wild wolves run.
An elegant Count who charms everyone,
Whose soul’s as foul as dirt where he lays,
Garlic and mirrored reflections he shuns,
Symbols of Christ, the sun’s golden rays.
For centuries past he’s spent his dark days
Inside a casket, a hideous tomb.  
Pitiful lady, in blood she will pay.
There at the window! Now inside her room!
The Beast is within. He comes to her bed.
Behold the Dragon! ‘Tis he, the Undead!

 

 

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Victorian Brain Fever

As part of my personal Gothic literature reading challenge, I start with Dracula by Bram Stoker. Here’s a book that I pretended to read in the past (I’d started it several times) but in truth I’d only seen the movies from Murnau’s silent Nosferatu to Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula , which I re-watched last night and highly recommend as a companion piece to the reading challenge (if you care to join me). The film, which I’ve seen a few times, is visually stunning, and is faithful to the book with one major difference. The central theme of the film is the relationship between the Count and Mina Hawker, a woman for whom he crossed centuries of time. Alas, there is no such romance in the book unless you read between the lines (Mina does swallow his blood). The novel’s Mina character is the model for unstained Victorian womanhood (yawn) and cheating on poor Jonathan Hawker with the Count just won’t cut it. One reason I think I struggled with the book , versus reading Frankenstein which is my favorite novel, is that it’s episodic without being very insightful. There are certainly moments that chilled me to the bone–one that comes to mind is Lucy coming back as undead and smuggling a child back to her crypt; another is the dead captain tied to the wheel of the ship that brings the count to London along with his boxes filled with the profane, foul-smelling earth in which he must sleep each day.

There are also comical touches (like Lucy dropping that kid) that both the book and Coppola’s film explore, particularly in Van Hesling’s character (Anthony Hopkins is a hoot) as he casually mentions cutting off dear Lucy’s head and stuffing her mouth with garlic. The novel is told in an epistolary format using letters, diary entries, ship’s logs, clippings, and recordings from early cylinder phonographs. Written in 1897, the book explores these modern inventions of bustling London juxtaposing it with the old world superstitions and dangerous landscape of Transylvania. There is a lot of information about the source material for the novel. Whether Vlad the Impaler was Stoker’s inspiration is up for debate (but I’d like to think so).

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A cool thing to know is that Dracula and Frankenstein were (in a sense) born on the same night during the infamous Lake Geneva holiday of 1816 when Lord Byron, Mary and Percy Shelley and Bryon’s personal physician (and lover?) John Polidori who stuck indoors during a raging storm invented ghost stories to entertain themselves. Mary Shelley’s story of course became Frankenstein and Polidori’s The Vampyre, which I haven’t read, but it’s definitely on the list. As a companion piece to the Gothic reading challenge I highly recommend Ken Russell’s film Gothic that dramatizes the holiday in all his glorious decadence.

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Gary Oldman as the Byronic Count Dracula.

It’s difficult to separate the Dracula myths (and many movies) from its original source novel, making me wish I could go back in time to read it when I had never heard of Twilight. But that being said , I’m glad I finally read it from cover to cover. Speaking of covers, during the challenge I’m trying to read draculaedwardgoreythe books in handsome hardcovers. Here is my copy with lovely  illustrations by Edward Gorey who of course created the set and costume designs for the Broadway show starring Frank Langella in the late 1970’s. There’s a film version of that too that’s worth watching for Drac’s hairstyle alone.

I’m not approaching the list in any particular order. Up next, I dig into the (supposed) first  Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto. Happy reading.

Drac put Lilly to sleep.

New Poem

From Remembering the Dead, a new book of poems by R. Saint Claire

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The Old Thundercloud
Comes like black dread
Chasing angels into other worlds.
Where? They never said.
Its lightning companion does his dance,
The crackled dance.
A sad display really.
The old clown a show-off-
Oh! Bring the angels back—
Scattering all, even the brave,
A black anvil and light show dance.
Till the young ones, plagued and bent
Say “No, No!"
Throw their sticky bodies on the ground
And weep stern, boisterous
Showers of amethysts.

 

Horror Haiku

I found this on Twitter #horrohaikuesday and I’ve been having fun participating (not sure if haiku allows for punctuation, but oh well.) Here’s this week’s. I know, I’m sick.

Beautiful child
Asleep in my bed, sweet and
Pure. Alas, quite dead.

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The Dead

New poetry from Remembering the Dead

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The Dead

From the mist, black wagons
Crest the hill. Advance
Their cargos full of love,
But not all;
Some walk alone.

At the cemetery
A soft rain falls
And we are glad
For the warmth in the hand, later
Food, the drink, the band,
And sleeping in back of cabs.

We look good in black.
We’re happy, then we’re sad.
And finger grandma’s pearls
They’re real, I’m told,
And shiver in the cold.

At night warm
In my bed, but
You in the mound.
The wind rages,
It’s cold there,
The ice coats the ground.

The Dead close their eyes.
I am dead.
No, just asleep,
A warm embrace,
And love.
For now, at peace.

The Kingdom of Shadows

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Eyes Wide Shut and the Ninth Gate

Much has been written about the esoteric messages in Stanley Kubrick’s swan song Eyes Wide Shut, some silly, some quite illuminating. That some of us are still watching and analyzing it seventeen years later (and probably many more to come) illustrates that the great director knew what he was doing despite the horrendous reviews it received on its release. I remember seeing it in a mall cineplex with my sister in law as a break from a weekend centered around our father-in-law’s funeral. Let’s just say I wasn’t at that moment ready to receive the arcane messages in the film, but then who is on the first go-around. The film in itself is a puzzle requiring multiple viewings (if you are committed to wasting that much time) and perhaps a bit of online reading. There is much dross on that front, but whether you believe in the Illuminati or not, many of us, especially those drawn to the occult, enjoy a good puzzle. I am no expert on the former, but definitely an explorer.

Although it is fun to pick apart the film for symbols–Oh look, there’s another star!–I think the film itself  is in a way a work of arcane magick, using visuals and music to entrance the viewer. The title itself is a riddle and a challenge, and the film causes those who have become mesmerized by it to continue circling back into the riddle, while more clues are revealed.  In other words, you can really geek out on this thing. Is there any solution to the riddle? Not sure if there is a definitive answer. If there is anything I’ve learned about life (and the occult) is that anyone who tells you they know the answer is lying. I do suspect that the plot of Eyes Wide Shut is very surface, and not that important. The head scratcher for many of us is why Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, a pretty Hollywood power couple at the time, but no great shakes in the acting department, although they’ve both gotten better with age. When you realize that both of these characters are puppets in a show, and the reason you are not drawn into their drama emotionally is because (maybe) you’re not supposed to. The true story is behind the actors, and some of that can’t be explained, only experienced. For example the secret ritual party is fascinating and terrifying. The music with its weird, backwards lyrics combined by the stunning visuals of the naked women (yes, they are beautiful but also strange alien bird creatures, a rare body type Kubrick has used before) entrances the viewer. It is not just Bill undergoing the initiation into a hidden world, but the viewer as well.

If anything, the film is allowing the viewer to experience a lesson in duality, as symbolized throughout the film by the use of mirrors, and other objects. The most obvious examples of duality are the two party scenes that form the pillars of the story (pillars btw are also used as symbols throughout). The ritual party in masks is the reflection of the Christmas party (where hosts and guests are wearing social masks, evidenced by the fact that Ziegler has a naked od-ing girl in his bathroom while his wife entertains downstairs). The same girl, presumably, dies at the ritual party after she offers herself as a sacrifice to save Bill. Each party is a ritual revealing what the other hides, and vice versa–the Christmas lights holding occult star symbols that appear in almost every scene magically disappear at the ritual. Much of the symbolism in the film, and there is a lot, can be seen either as illuminating deep meaning or Kubrick just fucking with us–or both. But I think it’s fair to say he was trying to show us that there is a hidden world, the Christmas party and, its inverse reflection, the ritual party–Nick Nightingale plays at both, the same guests are at both, there is sexual innuendo/overt sex at both–are one in the same. As above, so below. 

Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate was released the same of summer as Eyes Wide Shut, and both were equally derided. I remember one scathing review expressing how sad it was to see these two old men (Kubrick and Polanski) still trying to be edgy with their embarrassing depictions of dated, 1960’s era occult sex parties. Uh, I think there’s a bit more to it than that. Both films depict hidden worlds, but The Ninth Gate deals directly with the Devil. One may read a lot of incoherent ramblings online about Luciferianism–this particular dark side seems to appeal to meth heads, unfortunately. But The Ninth Gate is an intelligent exploration of the subject, not without Polanski’s wicked sense of humor. Polanski’s other occult films (Rosemary’s Baby and Macbeth come to mind) reveal that although he openly denies it, he has if not a studied than at least an innate understanding and artistic curiousity about the subject. Some conspiracy theories goes so far as to suggest that he was directly involved with The Church of Satan and that the Manson murders were a kind of retaliation (one of the murderers Susan Atkins hung out with Anton LaVey apparently). If Polanski was (or is) that heavily involved with that dark side, he is wise enough to not spill his guts about it. After all, the first Gate says Silence is Golden. The word arcane means secret, so anyone blabbing about how they are a Satanist with some kind of god-like power is revealing himself to be a complete ass. And Polanski certainly understands this in the way he makes buffoons of many of the Satanic characters in The Ninth Gate. Boris Balkan, played brilliantly by Frank Langella, provides an extreme example of the perils of this type of hubris.

As in Eyes Wide Shut, there is much symbolism in The Ninth Gate, but instead of hiding in the Christmas lights, its revealed in the nine engravings that spur the mystery. The protagonist, Dean Corso, played by Johnny Depp in his usual deadpan fashion, is just the type of hedonist ripe for the do what thou wilt Satanic philosophy. We learn from the start of the film that he is an unscrupulous mercenary in the rare book trade–he pilfers a priceless set of Don Quixote from a collector who’s had a stroke. Polanski’s insert shot of the paralyzed man’s hand gripping with rage during the sale is an example of the director’s great attention to detail and (again) sense of humor. Don Quixote (the first gate is an image of a knight riding to a castle) is an apt symbol for Corso–a man on a quest. He is reluctant at first, but as he passes through the nine gates, he becomes more and more drawn in and committed to the journey, with a seductive, witchy girl as his guide. Like Eyes Wide Shut, the story parallels two worlds–one man journey’s (Boris Balkan) towards destruction, the other’s (Dean Corso) towards enlightenment. Two paths–right and left handed? One depicting Satan as the Devil, the other Lucifer as the Promethean bearer of light? I’m not knowledgable enough to say, but if you search online you’ll find many opinions about it, although unfortunately few intelligent ones. From Marlow’s Doctor Faustus and beyond, this material is ripe for fools, and Polanski certainly gets that.

For those of us interested in the Tarot, there are many similarities in the engravings and the cards, the most obvious being the hangman of the Sixth Gate. And like the Tarot, there are many hidden symbols in each card that are only revealed under close examination. The engravings depicted in the film include discrepancies with each image, including one penned by Lucifer, one by the book’s author. This, in itself, may represent the two paths. I tried reading the book The Club Dumas on which it’s based once, and gave up pretty quickly. Maybe I’ll try again.

I love a good mystery, and I’m fascinated by the occult. Both films delight my curiosity, and my respect (healthy fear) for the dark side.

 

 

The Dreaded Line Edit

I have been over my first (yet unpublished) novel Unmasked many, many, many times. This is after completing the screenplay, first and second drafting of the novelized version, proofreading on screen and on paper, then shoving it in a drawer for a few weeks while I Nanowrimo’d. After all that, I was ready to revisit it and be magically, happily surprised at how wonderfully seasoned my 72,000 words had become during their sojourn inside their oak cask, improved like fine wine.

Nope. The same old mistakes are waiting for me with raspberries–na-na-na-na-na-na–the clunky transitions, the inconsistencies, the silly comparisons. At least my previous revisions obliterated (hopefully) those embarrassing spelling errors, the character name that kept changing, the general wtf was I thinkings. Now it’s time to look at each sentence, and believe me, it’s painful. My eyes are flying through a few passages with some satisfaction, but the self-doubt, although not paralyzing, is at times demoralizing.

But it’s all part of the journey folks, Stephen King’s great book On Writing makes it clear that by the time you’re finished revising, you’ll have portions of text committed to memory. He’s not wrong. Oh, how I long to move on….

But. I’m halfway through and taking a little break. And here’s what I’ve learned so far.

  • Chunk it. This is a tedious process. And if your mind wanders during it (something you don’t want to happen to your reader) you’ll miss something really big, like the ice liquified on her erect nipple, used twice in the same paragraph, or used at all.
  • Read it aloud. You’ve heard this before. It works. The dross will fly off the page, announcing itself with loud alarums.
  • Watch the adverbs. King is right, again. I try to use them only sporadically. See? When any modifier enhances meaning, go ahead and use it. If not, cut it. Your prose will flow better, and your reader will be happy (that’s what matters in the end).
  • Analyze. Read through each paragraph and when you hit a bump, ask yourself why. Try to fix it. Rinse and repeat.
  • Vary your sentences. Your English teacher was right. Bury that subject behind an introductory clause every so often.
  • When it doubt, look it up. The Dictionary and his thorny cousin Thesaurus are the writer’s best friends–along with Messrs. Strunk and White and don’t forget grumpy old Mr. Warriner. During this final editing process, I’ve been circling every iffy word, or one that I’ve repeated too often (search is a lovely tool), and I either look them up on the spot or I will during that final rewrite.
  • Watch the passive voice. This a well-known crime and I’m guilty as charged. To mitigate my offense, I sometimes use the handy dandy tool Grammarly.com. Although it’s far from foolproof, it’s an extra set of computer eyes that’s good at spotting punctuation errors, and that dreaded passive voice.
  • Do your best. As much as I might bemoan the fact that my prose isn’t on par with Shirley Jackson’s, I am still in love with my story, and I know I have a page turner on my hands. Will a publisher agree? Who knows. But I know I will finish it and get it out there in some capacity, and that’s a good feeling. One that will keep me going until the end.

This was a nice break. Time to get back to it.

A Christmas Poem

bluechristmas

The holidays evoke ambivalent emotions for many people. I tried to capture some of that in this poem I wrote for a Christmas poetry challenge. There’s more baring of my soul on my poetry page .

Blue Christmas

Mall’s Mélange of Yule yodeling tunes,
Thick with fossilized marzipan.
Deflated Santa, dead balloons,
Fruitcake in the mousetrap, and
Howls, horrid howls of homeless Ghosts
Clanking their chains up the alley ways, and
To my front door, banked with snow.

That withered, wretched Elf
(Shivering in the cold)
Gives me a wink-
A look I dread.
Cork sealed with red wax pops!
Libations pour.
This bitter drink
Might take me back.

I’m on my sled
Whooshing down a hill of blue ice,
Black trees fly past
My fresh, red face—Fast! Fast! Fast!
Blue moonlight shows my way.
A farmhouse in the woods (cliché but true)
Its Yellow windows--topaz carved in blue
Fogged with warmth, forever in my 
Memory stays.

New Poetry

Here is an excerpt from a new book of poems I am currently writing titled Remembering the Dead.

I’ll be adding more to my Poetry page soon.

Remembering the Dead,
Clouds reflecting stones.
Mirrored memory wonderland
Spinning withered moments when
Up and up fly off and out,
Rainbow tents bend into sky,
And smile with a weakened, weathered jaw.
A red balloon says goodbye.

Ice cubes cracking
On the brain's
Neglected kindling
Spark, and dread
Sweetheart full of memory's ink.
Stars, squeaking stars,
Forever overhead.
I'm forever lost in stars,
And clouds. Happy colored stripes that
Move and whip, and change the light.

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My First Nanowrimo

I won Nanowrimo and all I  got was this free book cover…

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But seriously, I love my free book cover from bzebra. It definitely captures the essence of my story, and having it on my desktop is giving me some motivation to take it beyond the first draft.

As a first-timer, I enjoyed the experience and would absolutely consider doing it again next year.  Here’s my takeaway.

  • DON’T read this article before you begin–Fuck you bitch! I’m a winner!
  • The term NaNoWriMo (I have to constantly look it up) is hard to remember, spell, and I feel embarrassed when I try to pronounce it (maybe the trick is saying it fast).
  • The deadline was a motivating factor, and my determination to complete my targeted word count, at the keyboard with coffee at 5 am, became a daily obsession.
  • I could not have done it without a steady conduit of coffee and an outline. Black Magick is my second novel (I’m currently polishing my first) and both were written from feature length screenplays I’d already suffered over, received feedback for via professionals and public readings, and drafted many times over, so when I hit the keyboard, I knew my story (and my characters) inside and out. The process became about writing the scenes while allowing for new discoveries and improvisations–I added an extra subplot during the Nano challenge, which definitely enriched my story. Without a clear map to follow, I would have had a very difficult time completing the challenge. Everyone’s process is different, although it boggles my mind when I see writers on social media throwing out SOS’s because they can’t figure out an ending for their half completed manuscript. Seriously? Maybe they’re just looking for attention (no judgement) and should join Camp Nano (see below).
  • Although I enjoyed entering my daily work count on the Nano website, and read most of the encouraging emails, I didn’t take advantage of any of the local events or write-in’s at coffee shops, hotel conference rooms, etc. I didn’t tag-team with a partner. Unless you’re part of a writing team (something I talk about wanting to do but have never tried ) writing is a solitary occupation. I can’t imagine getting anything done at one of these events, other than networking which is a good thing I suppose, unless you’re like me and would rather be slow-roasted on a spit.
  • None of the merch appealed to me, so I tried to make a small donation. My screen froze and it didn’t go through, but I’ll try again…promise.
  • I didn’t participate in Camp Nano, which I assume is a social media site. I don’t know..It’s hard for me to get all Kumbaya around the fire over writing, plus the last thing I need is another distraction. Now that the challenge is over I might check it out, but since I’m not much of a joiner…probably not.
  • Of all internet distractions, Twitter is the best because it requires the least attention span and commitment. I’d typically break my writing time into one hour intervals with five minutes of farting around time in between. During these brief moments of mental rest, stretching, and snacking, I did follow some of the Nano tweets and responded, which is why I had the chance to win this lovely free book cover.
  • The election was a horrible distraction, but the writing process helped keep me sane, reminding me that although no one really cares (back to first point)  if I create or not, it sure is fun getting lost in my own fantasies.

For Love of Bookstores

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I was thrilled to see one of my favorite bookstores, Farley’s located in my home town of New Hope, PA  featured in The Guardian. It’s one of the jewels of the town, and thankfully a steady stream of tourist foot traffic keeps them in business. There is nothing quite like the pleasure of lost time browsing in a bookstore, and Farley’s embodies that experience completely.

Although New Hope was technically my hometown (we lived on the rural outskirts), we spent a lot of time in nearby Doylestown while I was growing up, and I really have to credit my father’s love of bar life for fostering my passion for reading, bookstores, and libraries. Once a week, he would drop us off at the library while he watched the game and had a beer (or two) at Kelly’s bar. A second stop was always Kenny’s News Agency, a tiny store selling cigarettes, candy, newspapers, magazines, and books (the kids’ section was in the back, the porn on the other side). If we were lucky we would add some candy and a new comic would be added to the stack of library books. I will never forget the amazing feeling I had riding home each week with my new book selections bouncing on my knees, a week of reading ahead of me (even if I didn’t get through all of them). The library is where I discovered Lloyd Alexander and Edward Gorey (oh, what forbidden treasures were found there), the News Agency where I’d purchase my comic books (Archie’s and Romance) and as I got older, Heavy Metal magazines. Unfortunately, Kenny’s closed a few years ago, and it’s been decades since Kelly’s lost its neon sign pointing to the basement under Rudolph’s Army/Navy store (now a Chico’s–gag) and rebranded itself as a yuppy pub (I miss the pickled tongues in jars and sawdust on the floor–but then I’m romantic that way).

It’s been expressed many times before, but there is something about a dusty, old bookstore that just can not be replaced by Amazon and B&N, which is why we readers need to support our bookstores by at least making some of our purchases there. Also, get to know the proprietors. They are fonts of knowledge who (usually) love to share a recommendation that can send a reader into an undiscovered universe of bibliophilic pleasure. Farley’s, for example, has a poetry section of mostly self-published works (I recall some mimeographed copies back in the day) that I always check out, and purchase for the heck of it. Some of those poems have moved and amazed me, reminding me why I need to read, and buy, poetry more often.

Although some of the following are sadly no more. Here are a few of my personal favorite bookstores.

  • Gotham Book Mart, New York City (deceased) With its famous sign “Wise Men Fish Here” this basement of treasures on Jeweler’s Row was the quintessence of the bookstore as salon–a place where literary talents–Gorey, Miller, Ginsberg, Burroughs to name only a few–were discovered and nurtured, and its death due to gentrification is a true tragedy, plus they used to wrap your purchase in brown paper and string–sigh. The store moved to a different location before it died completely, selling off some of its stock to U of Penn with plans to digitize it, but the essence of a shrine can’t be digitized. The fact that the city didn’t care enough to preserve it, makes me okay with no longer living there.rosemarysbabygothambookmart                 (Rosemary Woodhouse buying witch books at the Gotham Book Mart.)
  • Newtown Book and Record Exchange, Newtown, PA (still in business). I visit at least once a month to pick up a few used paperbacks. There are literally stacks of books, CDs, and records, and you can get lost for hours, or crammed into a position between two stacks that is difficult to get out of which happened to me just recently. I hope the Starbucks next door guarantees them a steady business. The proprietor is friendly and cool.
  • Phoenix Bookstore and Panoply Books, Lambertville, NJ. You could make a day out of bookstore hopping starting in New Hope and crossing the bridge to Lambertville (or visa versa). Unfortunately Phoenix Bookstore is no longer with us, which is a damn shame because it used to be THE place to find strange out-of-print science fiction, horror, and occult books, and the staff was eccentric but friendly, cracking jokes with the customers. Nearly Panoply Books is more for the book collector, and it’s rarified vibe (tastefully decorated, neat and orderly) is not as inviting for browsing. If you’re looking for a gift book or a collector’s item, it’s worth a visit.
  • Powell’s City of Books, Portland, Oregon. No trip to Portland would be complete without a visit (it can take up the entire day) to Powell’s, especially if you’re looking for those hard to find 80’s horror paperbacks that I love. The place is enormous and browsing is encouraged. They appear to have a substantial online biz, so consider buying here instead of Amazon (I am–they have an awesome horror section). Here’s one of my favorite bloggers describing a recent Powell’s haul.
  • Cornerstones Bookstore, Bristol, PA I was thrilled to see a new bookstore open in my town, and I pray they make it. I’ve been making a point to purchase new books there. The owner Tina is awesome, and they allow pets so it’s the perfect stop when I’m walking Lilly.lillyraincoat

There’s nothing more pleasurable than browsing through your favorite bookstore on a rainy day (or any day). Keep them in business by supporting them with your patronage.

 

Indie Horror Fiction Review #1

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Sickness in Hell by Tarl Warwick

While spinning down the post-election rabbit hole (yes, I voted for Hillary), I decided to take a trip to the dark side of underground news. A search for the term alt-right led me to a young, youtube philosopher, one Styxhexenhammer666, and despite disagreeing with some of what he spouts (which he seems to do all day long, sometimes never changing out of his bathrobe), I am finding his channel a strange, and addictive, delight. Perhaps der junge occultist has cast a spell over me and his other 70,000 plus subscribers. It could be the glasses, but every time I watch one of his videos, I flash on the exorcist in Ken Russell’s The Devils–I hope the reformed Satanist is not offended. What I find interesting and refreshing about this prolific vlogger is his demonstrable talent for speaking off the cuff and very articulately. He covers a variety of topics from libertarian-leaning political views to horticultural, to trip reports (the philosopher stoned) to the occult, about which he appears legitimately knowledgeable.

He is also a writer; and because I am looking for indie horror novels to review I was curious to see if he writes as well as he speaks. So I helped fill his coffers a bit by purchasing his self-published novel Sickness in Hell: The Death of Mankind by Tarl Warwick (Styx’s real name I assume). The novel is a graphically depicted tale of what happens when the small town of Hillcrest becomes infected by toxic mushrooms via a tainted food processing plant and turns the population into mutating flesh-eating abominations at war with one another–Hell on earth. In one of his YouTube videos, he describes this story as something he began as a class assignment in his AP English class. I am instantly flashing on a few of my former students–black trench coats, high SAT scores, scowling behind their Stephen King novels like they wanted to murder me. Years later, I run into them at the neighborhood bar and everything’s cool. But back to Sickness in Hell. Considering the work’s origin, I was expecting juvenilia, and in a way, it does have a certain adolescent let’s see how far I can gross you out quality that I find distancing, but that is also the essence of the genre. I like a little more meat on my neighbor’s forearm when I’m chewing on it, although that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to like (enjoy is not the right word) about this story.

The protagonist, Germaine Wordsworth, and his sister, Dawn (for whom he has some incestuous yearning, gratefully not depicted) both become infected with the toxic chemicals. Germaine immediately turns into a mutated human who has an insatiable hunger that he satisfies on the spot by eating an equally infected hobo. Dawn responds to the infection by sprouting huge breasts and growing mushrooms out of her ass (spoiler: there is a lot of ass in this book). An explosion at the processing plant spreads the toxic fungi through the small town of Hillcrest, causing the citizens to become infected with the bizarre body mutation infection. Germaine and Dawn and a few other citizens including a funny old lady named Gran, stake out a citadel around a church to fight off other infected zombies. The story picks up when Satan himself appears along with my favorite character, an old witch who creates all kinds of necromantic hi-jinks. There is even a brief Candide-esque cultivate your own garden utopian reprieve before the dramatic Armageddon showdown at the end (a nice piece of writing depicts the harridan processing plant owner attacking the citadel as the Whore of Babylon on an 18-wheel chariot). Sprinkled in between the distended anuses and dangling labia (I’m not joking) is a bit of philosophy and some alchemy lessons.

As in any self-produced work, there is an expectation of rough spots that could benefit from a keen editor’s eye, and Sickness in Hell has its clunky moments, but overall what impressed me the most is the author’s wickedly sick sense a humor and attention to detail. The Satan character is particularly well-rendered in the comical tradition of Marlowe’s Mephistopheles. In the foreword of the book, the author describes emitting maniacal laughter while writing this. Well, I was right there with him. Maybe I have a diseased mind, but some of the passages made me laugh out loud, one-time blowing soy milk out my nostrils and all over the page, which is not a degradation considering the subject matter.

I am not easily offended, but I prefer the less is more variety of horror, so Sickness in Hell, although entertaining, is more comical than scary (at least for this reader). There are certainly fans of this genre, but the built-in flaw of splatterpunk is that by not holding anything back, there is little suspense built, and more problematic, a lack of humanity that makes the reader care and connect to the characters. I’d be interested in reading more mature works from Warwick that show the level of insight and intellect he expresses in his videos.

So if you can find sport in the intent of how far to the dark side a bright imagination can go, you will probably enjoy the sick laughs of Sickness in Hell. I hope Styx/Warwick continues to develop as a writer and an intellectual (maybe get out of the house once and awhile). I will continue to watch, fascinated.

Shadowland by Peter Straub

The King of Cats

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In the first chapter of Shadowland is the retelling of a scary little English folk tale (one that M.G. Lewis, author of the classic Gothic novel, The Monk, once terrified Percy Shelley with). It creeped me out too.

A traveler, in other words my friend, was journeying on foot to the house of a companion — not me — where he was going to spend the night.  He had been walking all day, and even though it was already late and night was coming on, he was tired enough to rest his feet when he came to a ruined abbey.  He sat down, took off his boots, leaned against an iron fence, and began to rub his feet.  An odd series of noises made him turn around and peer through the bars of the fence. Down below him, on the grassy floor of the old abbey, he saw a procession of cats.  They were formed into two long equal lines, and were marching forward very slowly.  Now, of course he had never seen anything like that before, and he bent forward to look more closely.  It was then that he saw that the cats at the head of the procession were carrying a little coffin on their backs, and were making for, were slowly approaching, a small open grave.  When my friend had seen the grave, he looked horrified back at the coffin borne by the lead cats, and noticed that on it sat a crown.  As he watched, the lead cats began to lower the coffin into the grave. After that he was so frightened that he could not stay in that place a moment longer, and he thrust his feet into his boots and rushed on to the house of his friend.  During dinner, he found that he could not keep from telling his friend what he had witnessed. He had scarcely finished when his friend’s cat, which had been dozing in front of the fire, leaped up and cried, ‘Then I am the King of the Cats!’ and disappeared in a flash up the chimney.  It happened, my friends — yes, it happened, my charming little birds.

Like the weird King of Cats story, Shadowland is creepy and disturbing, and quite a bit as nonsensical at times. Like a magician’s stagecraft presto-chango of rotating mirrored boxes and exploding flash paper, the novel itself is a series of illusions, relayed by a will-o’-the-wisp narrator, who’s getting a second, sometimes third hand account of the multi-layered story. This alone helps confirm the mystery that the story may not actually be true (meaning the truth inside the lie of fiction), but a sleight of hand trick played on the narrator, thus the reader. At the end, we are left with some doubts, and some confirmation, but nothing definitive, but perhaps that is the point (one of them anyway): magic is illusion.

The book is essentially divided into two parts: Carson School, which appears like a Harry Potter-esque English boys’ school plucked off the globe and dropped into Arizona where the protagonist Tom Flanigan and his best friend Del Nightingale experiment with magic (mostly card tricks, but also levitation) leading to a dramatic tragedy at the school, and Shadowland, a massive Vermont estate on a lake where they are to study and apprentice during their summer vacation under the tutelage of Del’s uncle, master magician Coleman Collins. But the old mage, a drunk who wears dapper suits, has many tricks up his sleeves, and ends up holding them hostage (along with a pretty waif named Rose) while doing terrible things to all three of them. A third, much smaller section of the novel bookends the story by bringing the narrator in the present time (he meets Tom Flanigan twenty years after the main event working as a magician in a sleazy L.A. club where Tom tells him the story), as well as a brief piece in the middle where he has an odd visit with some former classmates to find out their accounts of the bizarre happenings at the school, including an entire student body that seems to be possessed by a demonic force, and a satanic upper classman named Steve “Skeleton” Ridpath, a cadaverous bully plagued by magic and madness. Skeleton (my favorite character by far) appears throughout the story either as a real, tortured soul (his ending is an interesting one), or an apparition that represents the boys’ greatest fears.

The one main female character and love interest, Rose, is a specter, perhaps an invention of Collins who implies through one of his many anecdotes that she is a mermaid (she is in pain every time she takes a step, as if nails or pieces of glass are boring into her feet). The Mage says, she lies. She says, he lies. Whom do we trust? Her presence is seductive and illusory: she appears and disappears like a ghost, lies and betrays then begs for and is given forgiveness, is alternatively a virgin, whore, victim, and a goddess—the perfect fantasy woman! In Shadowland, and particularly in the Rose/Tom love story, one sees the influence of John Fowles’ The Magus which Straub confesses to in the foreword (this book made me want to read it again). Both novels describe or allude to secret worlds. In Shadowland this takes the literal form of trapdoors, tunnels, forbidden passages that open to other realms, but also fantasies, hallucinations, and dreams.

Like Ghost Story, the novel flies off in different directions like the many birds that comes swooping down from ceilings and treetops and even swim underwater. The owl especially is a powerful symbol throughout the story. In classical mythology the owl is associated with Athena, and represents wisdom and the recognition of deeper truth that is clothed in darkness and mystery. One theme throughout the book is recognition. The master magician recognizes his successor and initiates him in the same way he was initiated by his predecessor. Tom struggles against this initiation because it means betraying his friend and losing the girl he loves, selling his soul as it were. In certain part of the story the Devil appears to Tom, dressed as a preppy schoolmaster, and tries to keep him on the Mage’s path. Tom’s refusal leads to a horrifying climax that pushes the novel away from fantasy (I didn’t even touch on the appearance of the Brothers Grimm and the merry men of scary murderous trolls that haunt the forest) and into full shock horror.

Some of the most compelling writing in Shadowland comes from the small anecdotal tales passed down from one character to the next, and like all good stories, given much opportunity for embellishments. One that I found particularly haunting was Collins (Charles Nightingale at that time) telling of when he worked as a medic during the first world war, and learned of his power to heal with touch after observing a dying young medic (the purple guts spilling onto the road is horrifically memorable) and putting him out of his misery by shooting him and temporarily stealing his identity–not through his wallet, but by eating his soul and transforming into a terrifying demon/machine/being called The Collector. Another favorite is the cross-country train ride through a dream world where one car is transported back in time and then derails and crashes in a horror of human carnage…or does it? Shadowland may very well be dreamland, and I believe trying to make logical sense of the novel is a mistake. If the reader gets on the dream train and goes along for the weird ride, I think he or she will find it a satisfying trip.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

A House Without Love is Not a Home

My introduction to Shirley Jackson is memorable in that it marks my first exposure to a particular kind of horror. Not the kind I experienced from watching my first monster picture at age five (Tarantula—and it was love at first sight), but the difficult to articulate kind of horror, the silent dread that feeds your paranoia, and makes you feel that the world is a lonelier place than you ever realized, and much, much colder. My fifth-grade class (seems a bit young for this, but whatever) read The Lottery then watched the film, shown to us on a reel-to-reel projector inside the classroom with the shades down, which is how it was done back in the day. Here’s the exact film that traumatized my young mind so. Watching it again now on YouTube it appears quite tame, but I remember how that streak of blood on poor Tessie’s face horrified me. I suppose the reason I was sensitive about townspeople piling up rocks to beat to death one of their community members is I had witnessed and fought with children who routinely bullied (and threw at stones for real) my mentally ill brother. Kids can be real shits, and so can their parents, as the real-life horror of the current election process proves. Perhaps another reason the story hit me so hard is that I was raised in a rural community that somewhat resembled the one depicted in the story. Among the comforting scents of apples rotting on the ground and distant manure-laden fields (country folks understand) there was an air of ignorance passing off as tradition that could chill you to the bone. Every community must have its scapegoat (sacrifice), and one just hopes it’s not her turn…this year.

Jackson is a master (mistress) of quiet dread, and I picked up The Haunting of Hill House (I’d seen the original movie, but somehow never read the book) anticipating nothing less than subtle chills and great writing. I wasn’t disappointed.

As a side note, I am astounded to see many online readers giving this gothic classic one-star reviews and describing it as slow, or (my favorite) complaining that nothing happens. Seriously? If you don’t possess the attention span to sustain interest in an astoundingly well-written novel (novella really) of less than two hundred pages, then how in the world do you handle Trollope? (I was going to write something ruder, but I don’t wish to be a bully myself). And, if you are a fan of horror, know that King Stephen thinks it’s one of the best books of the 20th century. But what does he know?

I am a horror fan (and I love Stephen King), but I like my scares best served subtle and poignant, as in meaningful, not zombie apocalypse cheap (and laughable) thrills. Before I picked up The Haunting of Hill House I had just finished The Scarlet Gospels, and although I love Clive Barker, much, much more happens inside Eleanor’s neurotic brain than Pinhead’s entire murder spree through Hell, believe me. I find the quiet dread of doubt much more frightening than a demon getting eviscerated to such a degree that his head pokes out his anus (I’m paraphrasing here, but no joke). What I used to love about Barker’s writing is that he was somehow able to match the eloquence of a Shirley Jackson with the imagery of Hieronymus Bosch, creating his unique brand of poetic gore. Although there were beautiful Barkeresque passages in The Scarlet Gospel, the book was neither scary nor, sadly, very interesting. I suspect Barker had “help” writing this, and that he is much happier in his basement painting his dark visions. He’s an astounding talent, and I will forever remain a loyal fan, breathlessly awaiting his next masterpiece.

But back to Hill House.

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Maybe it’s a female thing, but I found a particularly disquieting horror in Eleanor’s story. She is what is referred to in literature classes as an unreliable narrator. Even though it’s written in the third person, it’s from one point of view–a very sad and crazy one, but she is the one we are with throughout the journey, and in that way, we can’t help but identify with her. Nell is spinsterish and childlike in equal measure, and not exactly a good girl in either personae. She lies, steals a car (although her sister and husband deserve it), and neurotically believes that everything is all about her. Of course, in this story it is. We never get to know what the other characters are really thinking (does Theo also experience the landscape turning into negative during that strange evening stroll around the grounds, or only Nell?). Whatever their opinions of her, at some point they all reject her, and probably discuss (laugh at?) her behind her back, making it worse. Even the house rejects her, and in her desperate, final bid to hang on, her dependent personality pleading of virtual strangers “Why won’t they stop me?” she is destroyed.

The menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense.

While reading the story, I kept picturing Julie Harris and Claire Bloom as Eleanor and Theo respectively. When I was done, I watched the film again, and the women’s performances stand the test of time. Julie Harris perfectly portrays Nell’s dual personality: a spinster with her hair in a bun and scratchy tweed suits, a child with her long hair, and frilly nightgown. Her insecurities rapidly turn to histrionics, a kind of gothic self-immolation stemming from romantic/sexual frustration where she has fainting spells on the stone turrets, and climbs the treacherous library stairs to be rescued damsel-like by a reluctant Luke. This leads to further rejection that she is too much of a risk, unfit for the experiment, and a final pronouncement that she is less than ordinary, nothing special.

Claire Bloom is also perfectly cast as the hip, chic (dig the Mary Quant threads), sexually ambiguous, Theo. The Nell/Theo relationship is the strongest (and most painful) in the book, pouring rubbing alcohol into the paper-cut of female friendships that are commonly marked by quick intimacy and secret sharing turning on a dime into cold-hearted bitchiness and rejection. Throwing those sisterly secrets–you killed your mother–right back in each other’s faces. I suspect that it was Theo who wrote the message on the wall, and it could be her red nail polish on her clothes and not blood. To keep her alpha girl status, she steals the boy (even though she’s probably gay) and wears Nell’s new red sweater just for spite.

Women with mother complexes are particularly vulnerable to the viciousness of female friendships, and in that respect Eleanor hauls into Hill House a motherlode of issues. The death of her mother finally releases her from eleven years of bedpan slavery, but her guilt over not answering her mother’s real or imagined nocturnal knocking on the wall (can you blame her?) remains. The invitation to Hill House offers that thing Eleanor longs for: an identity, and maybe even reassurance that she is not only misunderstood, but special. Her introvert’s wet dream, however, soon turns to ash when her new BFF and the two men in the house begin treating her with the same disdain as her sister and brother-in-law (their first inquiry at the end is about the car). Eleanor’s horror is the dread that comes from changing spouses, jobs or seeking geographic cures only to discover that the problem is not your boss, it’s you. The true horror that you can never escape is yourself.

Violets Are Blue by James Patterson

My first time with James…

About six months ago I signed up for the James Patterson Master Class on how to write a bestseller (I confess to not doing all of the homework assignments). I had just decided to write a novel based on one of my screenplays (65,000 words into the third draft, I’m still plugging away at it), and Patterson’s class seemed like a fun way to keep me inspired and to give me videos to watch when I felt blocked or just wanted to procrastinate.

I enjoyed the class. Mostly though, I enjoyed James Patterson, and after watching and re-watching many of the lessons, I came to regard him as a coach, and even–dare I say–a friend. I like his befuddled sense of humor, his positivity and message that you, yes, even YOU can write a bestseller and become rich like me. He’s cute! And nice! And he has a great laugh. I’d love to have drinks with him at the Algonquin sometime and really cut-up.

The polar opposite of the brooding and bitter artiste, Patterson appears to not give a damn what people think and is moreover tickled pink by his success; it’s infectious. Near the end of the series (and my burgeoning crush on him), I realized with a pang of guilt that I never actually read any of his 100 (could be more) bestsellers, so I set out to rectify that with a visit to my local library.

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Isn’t he just adorable?

In the Mystery section (I love the little skull stickers on the spines) I found Violets are Blue, one in his series featuring the Alex Cross character he refers to a lot in the lessons. I learned somewhere in the book that he is a black man from D.C.; his wife was killed by an assassin, leaving him the difficult job of balancing detective work and family duties (his tough-old-bird grandmother helps with the kids).

The Master Class taught me a lot about formula, not to mention titles based on easily remembered childhood nursery rhymes. Main character’s inner conflict, check. Ditto for the bigger-than-life antagonist. Early in the book, Cross’s current wife(?) is murdered by his nefarious nemesis, The Mastermind, who then stalks him and his new quasi-love interest, a sassy police inspector, throughout the book. Cross struggles with his growing feelings for the new woman and his fear that she will be in put in harm’s way due to their involvement. Of course, she is, and while Cross is traveling the U.S. chasing vampire killers (vampires who kill), his nemesis is always in the shadows, closer than he thinks.The Mastermind’s identity is revealed at the end of the book (I won’t give it away) and he goes to prison, but somehow I think he’ll be back. Patterson taught me that series with cliffhangers equal good business sense.

At some point during the read I kept imagining Alex Cross looking like Morgan Freeman. Duh! He was in a movie version of Kiss the Girls, one of the first novels in the Cross series. I know I saw it, but it kind of slipped from my mind. A lot like this book.

Patterson devotes a lesson on how to negotiate the Hollywood deals that may fall into your lap once you write your bestseller, including an amusing anecdote of how a producer once paid him $250,000 to add detail to the script they already owned the rights to. With a twinkle in his eyes, Patterson implies this too could happen to you. Bring it!

But back to the book…

Violets Are Blue covers a lot of geographical ground as Cross inspects a slew of vampire occult murders all over the United States. The murders include bizarre scenes of biting with dental fangs, hanging victims upside down and draining their blood, and even trained tiger attacks! Cross’s search leads him to underground Gothy vampire clubs and secret cults and two sexy killer boys who wear leather jumpsuits. It’s a story I could probably sink my teeth into (no pun intended) except that for all its plot, there is no real substance. I am told that Cross feel guilty about the death of his wife, but none of the scenes in the book help me to feel it. The detective resisting romance because everyone I touch gets hurt is by now a tired, Chinatown cliché.

Sorry James. I really wanted to like it.

I recently read Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King’s foray into the detective novel, and it is clashingly different from Patterson’s in every way. King is all about characters and scenes, not so much about the plot. He admits in his excellent book On Writing that he doesn’t plot. This can lead to frustration sometimes for the reader—Where the hell is this going?—but he gets there eventually, and along the way you get to know his characters intimately. His killers especially will haunt your dreams. King is something of Patterson’s Mastermind. The two seem to be having a (goodnatured?) public feud. Patterson begins his Master Class with, “Hello, I am Stephen King.” King called him a terrible writer, but a successful one. Patterson recently pulled his title The Murder of Stephen King fearing someone might actually attempt pull a real-life Annie Wilkes.

Or is it just a good, old-fashioned publicity stunt? Patterson, who began his career in advertising, taught me that promotion is key.

I’m not a stranger to what Patterson refers to throughout his Master Class as commercial fiction. I enjoy the formulaic, but well-written McNally books by Lawrence Sanders; I’ve read all of them. But there was something so thin about the writing of Violets Are Blue that I could only skirt along the surface, reading it as if I were watching a detective show on TV that was in the background, only demanding half my attention. In his Master Class, Patterson puts a lot of emphasis on outlining and for a good reason. Most novice writers probably ignore this crucial step, preferring to dive right in, and then finding themselves stuck in a corner 20,000 words in. It’s good advice, and I’ve learned the value of a solid outline and plotting. But in Violets Are Blue I felt as if I were reading the outline. Even if he is aiming his work at a general audience, does the writing have to be so general? I don’t require Trollope-esque prose, but the simple subject/predicate construction grated on my nerves after the first of the 116 chapters.

And WTF is that about! Each chapter is about two pages long, some less. I appreciate the value of a quick bathroom read, but is this normal?

I didn’t learn enough about Cross or about what spawned the cat and mouse game The Mastermind is playing with him. Maybe if I read another book…Oh, so that’s how it works! I see Patterson and his twinkling eyes laughing all the way to the bank.

The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

Lord of Illusions

My unabashed crush on Clive Barker has run the gamut from fantasizing about wanting to talk dirty with him over tea to spawning his demon child. Yes, it goes that deep. How can I resist a handsome, Renaissance man who is an accomplished visual artist, a wordsmith extraordinaire, and a visionary film director who has a sexy English accent to boot!

Does he also play guitar? Sigh…

Yes, yes, I know he’s gay and whatever, but I can still dream. After all, the heart wants what it wants. And no artist understands the heart of darkness quite like Mr. Barker.

His breakthrough novella The Hellbound Heart, on which the Hellraiser film franchise is based, is an astounding piece of literature, and one I return to every few years for a fresh read, particularly during times of the full moon near All Hallows Eve. Written when he was only in his early thirties, the work is a tight piece of prose that shows a visionary in full control of his talent. He tends to go off the creative rails a bit in his later works—and I’ve certainly not read them all, but even at his most frustrating (I’m thinking of Mister B. Gone in particular) Barker always shows me a door to a fantastical and illusionary world. For imagination and writing style, Barker more than any other contemporary horror writer, has taken up the mantle of Poe, Baudelaire, and Lovecraft. His unique combination of the literary and the pulp forms the caldron of his genius–an alchemical concoction of classic literature, theatricality, magic, sadomasochism, pulp horror, gore, demonology, gay aesthetics, omnisexuality, and Hollywood film noir.

The book is chock-full of the following poetic turns of phrase that some may find stilted and overwrought, but which tickles the tender spots of my Gothic soul:

The hallway lights burned dazzlingly bright, and then-their filaments overloading-went out. There was a short period of total darkness, during which time she heard a whimpering that may or may not have come from her own lips. Then it was as if fireworks were spluttering into life in the walls and floor. The hallway danced. One moment an abattoir (the walls running scarlet); the next, a boudoir (powder blue, canary yellow); the moment following that, a ghost-train tunnel-all speed and sudden fire.

The opening of walls into phantasmagorical worlds is a theme Barker explores in other works, most memorably (for me anyway) in his novel Coldheart Canyon, a gritty Hollywood noir: Sunset Boulevard meets Dante’s Inferno. The shifting of realities into dark otherworlds that adhere to their own rules (or lack thereof) is where Barker’s imagination excels, like Hieronymus Bosch paintings depicting eternal mortification of the flesh and sensual chaos. There is a sense, always, that we may enter this world at any time, and that is what creates the horror. Whether we are as profligate as Frank or as love blind as Julia, none of us are immune to evil either as its perpetrators or victims. We only have to cross over.

We walk a narrow path between Heaven and Hell. (Lord of Illusions)

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The Hellbound Heart covers a lot of ground in the imaginative realm for a story whose main setting consists of a few drab rooms. It begins with the puzzle box, the Lemarchand Configuration: a metaphor for the human heart, and its dark desires. If you can solve the puzzle, you can get inside, but are you sure you want to?

The way to Hell may be paved with good intentions, but also desire—especially of the sexual variety. Frank, a profligate and restless spirit, seeking greater depths of sexual depravity, sells his soul to the Cenobites, demons from the underworld. But Frank gets more than he bargains for; he expects women (greased women specifically) to appear at the ready to satisfy his lust, but he gets chains and hooks instead—a pleasure palace of pain. Not surprisingly, Frank grows a bit weary of having his skin flayed and wants a do-over. Luckily his brother Rory and femme fatale wife, Julia (Frank’s former lover), move into his creepy old house. When Rory cuts his finger and bleeds onto the same spot on the floorboards where Frank spilled his demon seed before descending into Hell, biology mixes with fantasy, and Frank–skinless pieces of him that is–form into a being desperate to return to the corporeal world.

Even skinless and with the personality of a real a-hole, Frank has a sexual hold over Julia. This speaks to the power (and blindness) of dark desires, the central theme of the story. Julia is that female archetype you read about sometimes in the tabloids, the kind who will do anything to please her lover’s sick desires. So without much persuasion from Frank, Julia becomes a serial seducer/killer of men, so that Frank may feed off them and mend his tattered flesh.

Barker doesn’t shy away from strong female characters. They are full human beings with strong emotions. Frank is much more profligate as his desires come from being sated and bored by earthly experiences, whereas Julia—her actions equally evil—spring from a desire to be loved, wanted, and (let’s face it) banged properly, a task her milquetoast hubby, Rory, is isn’t quite up to. She desires Frank’s darkness, but like many a decent woman before her, she becomes corrupted by her quest to tame the beast, to make him love her. In the end, not surprisingly, Frank cares little for her, and only uses her for his own dark aims.

Of course the most famous characters in the story are the Cenobites, extradimensional beings, who form a nebulous organization called The Order of the Gash (one can only imagine what the meetings are like). They were visually brought to life in the first Hellraiser film, most famously depicted by Pinhead (although he is never called that in the novel), who is right up there with Freddie and Jason in the pantheon of horror villains. In the novel though, Pinhead is just one of the gang. The Cenobites are a fascinating amalgamation of Biblical angel/demons and glamorous club kids of the kinkiest S&M variety. Remember, Barker thought up these creatures decades before piercing and tattoo shops were popular (my small town now boasts at least five). Their realm is a labyrinthine Hell that is explored more extensively, and ridiculously, throughout the rest of the Hellraiser franchise.

Clive Barker’s creative universe is vast, and I certainly haven’t explored all of it. It comprises an enormous production that includes graphic novels, video games, children’s literature, and toys. I suspect not all of it has Barker’s direct touch. For that reason, I prefer his early stories and films. I wish he had directed more of them. My sense is that producers meddled in what could have been, by now, a stunning filmography. Barker, now in his 60’s, eventually retreated to his Hollywood compound to make his paintings and write his books, but what I wouldn’t give to see Barker given free rein to create a film on the level of David Lynch’s Inland Empire. The man is a true artist, and he deserves equal respect.

In the court of trash horror literature, Clive Barker is the dark Lord of Illusions, mercurial and always somewhat in the shadows, but there isn’t a cooler (or sexier) popular writer alive today.

Horror will never quite shake its trashy reputation, but peel off the layers of camp in Barker’s oeuvre, and you’ll find a vital, if bloody, creative force that attempts to solve, or at least illuminate, the ultimate puzzle that is the human heart.

Faggots by Larry Kramer

Hell-bent for Leather

I’ve been anticipating reading Faggots for a long time, and I really, really wanted to like it, but alas…

I shouldn’t even put that ellipse there, only because Mr. Kramer uses them, along with a lot of other creative punctuation, throughout the novel, causing much distraction and frustration (for this reader anyway.) Set in the milieu of the late 1970’s New York gay party scene and written in a stream of consciousness style that is frequently funny, but at times maddening, the story follows many characters (too many) in the mostly nocturnal world of gyms, discos, parties, bath houses, and Fire Island getaways. Knowing that the AIDS epidemic is looming on the horizon adds definite shadings to a contemporary reading. The sex scenes are beyond graphic, and it appears that Kramer is passing some judgment on the excess. As documented in his play The Normal Heart, Kramer became the voice of sexual responsibility during the early AIDS epidemic, much to the consternation of some gay community members. Reading Faggots in this context helped me to center a story that is frankly all over the damn place.

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Even though his syntax drove me nuts, I did appreciate Kramer’s vast vocabulary that sent me to dictionary.com on several occasions. He’s in possession of a brilliant, passionate intellect that gives urgency to his essays and speeches, but it feels like he spit out this book in a great spasm of creative energy without much editing. I saw The Normal Heart on stage in the 80’s and it was one of the most moving artistic experiences I’d ever experienced. I watched the recent television version at least four times, so one could say I’m a fan of Larry Kramer’s work. There is an engaging story inside Faggots, it’s just difficult to find beneath the unbridled writing style and the complexities of too many characters and storylines. The book caused an uproar at the time, shocking straights and pissing off a lot of gays who felt the portrayal was over-the-top and negative. I can see their point, but Kramer insists he told the truth and perhaps that reflected on a certain shame about the lifestyle they were living.

The novel works best when focused on Fred Lemish, described as the hero and an obvious stand-in for Kramer, who has at thirty-nine has grown tired of the bathhouse, party, and disco scenes and just wants to settle down with his mercurial lover, Dinky. I found myself wanting to skim over all the other vignettes and get back to the Fred story. I can get into a good unrequited love story, no matter what the premise, but it’s hard to care about characters with names like Randy Dildough. I get that it’s satire, but I found it distancing. I want to know these people, to like or hate them, but reading Faggots I felt like a fly on the bathhouse wall. It does not help to humanize a group of people who were once considered less than human. I detect a bit of self-hatred coming from Kramer projected onto these characters. One of the big clubs is called The Toilet Bowl, which doesn’t exactly conjure up the most romantic images. The sex isn’t sanitized either, and Kramer gets down and dirty describing the look, sounds, and smells of anonymous encounters. Drugs also play a large part in the scene, acting as a lubricant as it were towards an ever-deepening quest for not only personal freedom, but for personal connection. The search for the elusive other is the strongest theme of the book. There is an emphasis on looks, and the quest for youth and beauty is keenly felt. One of the characters whom I found sympathetic is Timmy, a teenager beauty plucked from the Port Authority destined to become the next great (porn) star. One wonders how long it will take for him to be yesterday’s news. Not too long, I’m guessing. The further I read (and at nearly 400 pages it’s long) the sadder I became. There is definitely a sense that the party is rapidly coming to an end, and by the time I got to the infamous double-handed fisting scene I was ready to move onto Miss Marple.

There is no denying the potency of, and creativity, of male sexual energy and the culture was enriched by the freedom these men fought for. For understanding the gay movement in New York during the 70’s, Faggots is required, if difficult, reading.

A good companion piece to this book is the excellent documentary “Gay Sex in the 70’s” (Kramer appears in it and Faggots is quoted). It’s a highly educational (and entertaining) portrait of a unique time in the history of human sexuality. The film features honest narratives by men who lived to tell the tale. It describes the same gay universe that Kramer does in the novel, from the bathhouses and clubs of Manhattan to the paradise of Fire Island in the summer season.

I’m grateful that most of my gay friends survived the first AIDS crisis, but I did lose one close friend in the early 1990’s. To see someone go from blooming health at thirty-six to dead by forty is a trauma I will never forget. I can’t even imagine what is what like for these men who lost so many friends and lovers, entire communities wiped out. In the film Larry Kramer says that he angry that gays continue to identify themselves by their dicks, to which another man replies:

It may have seemed trivial, but it’s where we learned to love ourselves, to love each other, and it’s what made possible our heroic reaction when the war came.

So in the context of this larger story, I’m glad I read Faggots. Larry Kramer went onto being a founding member of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and one of the movement’s most relentless, and loudest, activists. I’m happy that he’s still battling it out in his 80’s. I just wish it were a better book. There is just too much muchness to it, but since it’s about a period in time that was all about freedom leading to excess and an endless party that abruptly came to a tragic end, maybe that’s right.

For more about Larry Kramer, check out this documentary.

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

The Neon Demon

I remember reading a story (in Rolling Stone I believe) about a high school party where a kid got so wasted he passed out, hit his head, and died (brain fluid pouring from his nose) while his friends continued to party. No one bothered to get him help or even think it was their responsibility to do so.

That is not a party I ever wish to attend or want to believe even exists, so it is with some trepidation that I revisit Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero. I remember my younger sister, who is the same age as Ellis, brought it home with her during Christmas vacation from college (ironically), although our family’s social/economic circumstances were far removed from the author’s/protagonist’s. I read it in one day, and I recall it made me severely depressed. I was only a few years older, stuck in the nowhere land between Boomers and Gen-X, but I just couldn’t relate to these overprivileged zombies and Ellis’s “first voice of a generation” point of view. If this was the new generation I was scared.

But perhaps time will have softened the blow.

I caught a bit of the film on TV last week, and intrigued by the cinematography and nostalgic for pink blazers with rolled up sleeves, I dug out my battered, first edition (maybe I never returned my sister’s copy) and settled in for some, pastel-skied, Christmas in L.A. nihilistic horror. Or is it supposed to be satire? Not sure. I read it in tandem with watching the film, alternately in spurts, the two blending into a bizarre neon-drenched dream of sorts.

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The film, directed by Marek Kanievska, is much different from the book, for which I am grateful; nihilism doesn’t translate well to the big screen. If the characters don’t care, why should we? So wisely the story has been re-imagined with Andrew McCarthy providing a world-weary (at eighteen!) moral compass of sorts  as “just say no” Clay, while charismatic Robert Downey Jr. as drug-addled Julian, goes into a dramatic death-spiral while turning gay tricks for Rip, a duster wearing dealer/pimp played to sleazy perfection by James Spader.

The story works best when Rip and his sidekick Finn are pursuing poor, fucked-up Julian and less when exploring the love angle between Clay and Blair because–like–how can there be love or passion if no one really cares? Blair’s character, played by Jamie Gertz, is a cypher in the book, described only in the articles of clothing she wears and her occasional flat utterances—“People are afraid to merge”–that inane comment on the freeway becomes the novel’s central metaphor. The film tries to push the passion between these two lookers, in glossy, scarlet bathed close-ups, but like the book, it’s an exercise in aesthetic detachment.

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In hindsight, the book is better than I remembered. My “lit snob” friends and I always considered Ellis a bit of a hack, and I recall our collective horror when Donna Tartt dedicated The Secret History to him. The brouhaha over the release of American Psycho in the early 90’s—word processors fainting from the horror–seems quaint today. Of course it made us all go out and read it. I brought my copy to the beach and at one point found it so vile, I threw it in the tide, then fished it out and continued reading.

The film version of American Psycho treats it as satire–it’s all a big joke, right? All in his mind. Plus a woman (the ultra talented Mary Harron) directed it so it can’t really be that sexist, right? Again softening the blow, but maybe, just maybe Ellis is totally serious about this shit.

While his subject matter is challenging and not exactly to my taste—preferring the sweeping sentiments of gothic romanticism–Ellis’s simple sentences got under my skin and stayed there like an infected splinter. I was struck by the work’s campy pulpiness this time around, preferring to view it through that lens rather than the approach/avoidance cop-out of “satire.” That he wrote this novel as a college student is impressive. I may even give American Psycho another try.

After spending over a week cuddling up to Peter Straub’s verbose, descriptive passages in Ghost Story, Ellis’s sparse prose cleansed my reader’s palette in a surprising way. His staccato first person voice describing with the same deadpan detachment items on a dinner menu and a scene of child rape, is a chilling technique that he revisits in extremis in American Psycho. I can’t quite decide if the writing is intentionally vapid—I counted three “totallys” in one sentence—or just a bit lazy, but it’s effective.

I can’t help but think that in the age of cellphone zombies (Pokemon craze currently  happening outside my window) our lives really are this empty. The book caused me to reflect on my own mundane (and meaningless?) routine.

I check my email. There are several new spam messages. I delete them. I scroll past a friend’s political rant on Facebook. I find her profile and hit “unfriend.” I’m asked if I’m sure. I press “yes.” I go down to the basement to check on my laundry, notice my comforter is still damp and start up the drier again. I go to the kitchen and reheat my coffee in the microwave. While the cup is spinning I pull out my phone and check my email, then I scroll through Facebook again and check my Twitter feed.

I open the freezer and notice the decapitated head is still there.

Nah!

 

 

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

The morning after I finished reading Ghost Story, I found myself strolling along the misty riverbank of my own small town, whispering this Edward Gorey limerick:

Each night father fills me with dread/When he sits on the foot of my bed;/I’d not mind that he speaks/In gibbers and squeaks,/But for seventeen years he’s been dead.

This novel sent a ghostly chill up my spine that lingered for days. It starts with a challenge:

“What is the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

The reader asks him or herself that question, perhaps unconsciously for the answer is buried deep. It varies from person to person, from casual lies and gossip that have brought others harm to horrendous acts, such as murder. Its abeyance is the cause for a lot of denial (and drinking) for many of us, and the novel addresses that. But when we’re asleep and open to the dark truths we hope to keep buried, our sins/our ghosts seep in like foul-smelling green mist, shape-shifting but always there, pursuing us, cornering us, and ultimately scaring us to death.

We all have something to feel guilty about. The book seizes on that and digs in.

The Chowder Society of Milburn, New York, a town as quaint as any Courier and Ives print, is comprised of four crusty old men who share a secret about the worst thing they’ve ever done—the murder of a beautiful, seductive woman, Eva Galli. That she is an ancient, evil spirit in human form to begin with adds another layer to an already complicated story. Their wealth and positions in the town form a bulwark against their mutual sin, as does their regular meetings (in evening clothes sipping brandy before a fire) to share ghost stories as a way to assuage their guilt, or to turn the screw.

My Jamesian reference is intentional as this is a literary novel, and it will turn off some readers for that reason. But for those of us who love Poe, Hawthorne, and Lovecraft, it will be a treat to catch these allusions and revel in Straub’s elegant descriptive passages.

The story resides mostly under a blanket of snow, adding to the dreamy sense of isolation. The sleepy town offers corners of comfort in the paneled living rooms, lively cocktail parties, and warm marriage beds where good New England woman (even the town adulteress is treated compassionately) love their men. Food and brandy offer repasts from the endless blizzard outside the door, the windows shaking in their casements, and the reader gratefully indulges in them along with the characters—if there was ever a book that made me want to drink brandy by a fire on a cold night it’s this one. But the threat of evil, told through stories of farm animals drained of blood and arms ripped off in threshing machines, and eyes that shine forth from empty rooms, is never far way.

There are moments that sent cold chills up my spine:

… suppose you went out for a walk and saw yourself running toward you, your hair flying, your face distorted with fear…

And few modern horror novelists have such a flair for figurative language.

The day was a long bolt of gray cloth; endless.

 Great stuff!

The novel is as creepy as it is ambitious, weaving ghost stories within ghost stories that sneak up with subtle scares, causing me to fling the book into the air and gasp when my dog suddenly started barking at something outside the window. Gregory Bates? If the novel has any flaw, it’s that there are too many stories packed into one book.

Ghost Story is a modern horror classic–required reading for all horror fans. It will seep into your dreams as it did mine. Take it on your winter vacation, and if you get snowed in and a storm knocks out the lights, oh well. Read it under the blankets by flashlight. I guarantee you’ll be reading until dawn, looking over your shoulder and shivering with frightened delight—isn’t that what we crazy horror fans want after all?

When I was nearly done the novel, I just had to watch the film again. Yes, it’s flawed and it no where near captures the scope and intricacies of the book. That would take a mini-series–wouldn’t that be cool! I remember the film came out when I was a freshmen in college and it scared me then. Now, not so much, but I still enjoyed it. One reason for watching the film is Alice Krige’s performance as Eva Galli/Alma Mobley. She is enchanting as she is weirdly frightening.

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Three-quarters of the way through the novel—somewhere between Alma Mobley and Eva Galli—I was reminded of a dream I had about my father.

For a few years after he died, he would appear in my dreams, often in airports, bus stations, or tourist-laden towns and cities—always transient places, as if his spirit was held there before crossing over. In this particular dream, I was in Key West, a place I’ve only visited in dreams and through friends’ Facebook posts. I saw my father–middle-aged with silver hair and a vital physique as I remember him in his prime—working a souvenir shack near the beach. He wore a purple t-shirt with some tie-dyed, psychedelic print on it, reminiscent of his early 1970’s “hippie period.” The counter of the square hut, bamboo poles supporting a thatched roof, separated us, as did the purple wrap-around mirrored sunglasses he wore. There are always barriers in these dreams, physical separations–emotional ones too.

“Dad, what are you doing here?” I asked.

“Sorry, but I had to get away,” he said, embarrassed I had found him.

“But I really need to talk to you, “ I implored.

“Sure, okay,” shifting inside his hut, uncomfortable that I had discovered him.

I tried to express to him that I didn’t care where he had been all this time. I just needed to talk to him. He agreed to meet me at a party that night.

The scene shifted, as dreams do, to a party in a tree-house type of structure. It was a grunge vibe as I recall (he died in 1991 so that would make sense). I remember waiting impatiently in a crowded party where I knew no one—young adults in grungy clothes, holding cups of beer, and swaying to meaningful rock ballads. All I cared about was seeing my Dad again. When he finally showed, he had ditched the hippie duds and was wearing the outfit he wore nearly every day of his life: Lee jeans, work boots, and a plaid flannel (in keeping with the grunge milieu) shirt.

“I’ve been looking for you for such a long time, Dad,“ I said. “Please, I really need to talk to you.”

Again he appeared shifty, as if not wanting me to pin him down. Then he looked at me with a pity perhaps only the dead can feel for the living and said, “Ah, honey. I’m not really here.”

Then he moved away from me and disappeared behind a door.

A panic seized me. I went to the door—rustic open planks—and pulled on it. It was locked. I banged on it, and shouted his name. The grunge kids continued to mill about–oblivious to our family drama. They were just part of the scenery, projections on the walls. Or maybe we were the projections.

I stopped banging when I saw a green light and smoke appearing under the door jam and between the rough planks. Then it opened by itself and I peered in. The room was empty. My father was gone except for his clothes: the jeans and the plaid flannel shirt hanging, lifeless but still warm to my touch, on a hook on the back of the door.

Pleasant dreams.

 

 

Primal Screams: Carrie by Stephen King

After the blood comes the boys.

Primal themes abound in the annals of horror and trash lit, but nowhere as dramatically as in Carrie by Stephen King. Part One of the novel, Blood Sport, begins with the infamous shower scene where chubby, pimply, colorless-haired, white trash Carrie White gets her period for the first time, releasing her latent telekinetic powers. It’s quite a set-up. In King’s excellent On Writing, he describes the eureka moment:

…I started seeing the opening scene of a story: girls showering in a locker room…And this one girl starts to have her period. Only she doesn’t know what it is, and the other girls—grossed out, horrified, amused—start pelting her with sanitary napkins…The girls begin to scream. All that blood! She thinks she’s dying, that the other girls are making fun of her even while she’s bleeding to death…she reacts…fights back…but how? 

I’d read an article in Life magazine some years before, suggesting that a at least some reported poltergeist activity might actually be telekinetic phenomena…There was some evidence to suggest that young people might have such powers…especially girls in early adolescence, right around the time of their first—

Pow! Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea.

I’m sure King, a high school English teacher at the time, realized that he was tapping into a teenage primal fear more terrifying than buckets of pigs’ blood: being the bullied victim. We all knew a Carrie: the scapegoat, the loser, the fat dummy with the wrong clothes and bad skin, who lived in a poor, smelly house (or trailer). Whether we lead the slaughter, merely snickered along with everyone else, or just walked away glad it wasn’t us, we all participated on some level.

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high school bitches

Symbolizing our collective guilt over our treatment of the Carrie archetype is smug, good girl Sue Snell, serving up dreamboat Tommy as a sacrifice on the high school prom altar. If he had lived, it is implied, he might have just dumped boring Sue’s ass and started dating quirky and mysterious Carrie. The tragic romance of what could have been is one of the novel’s quieter, yet poignant themes–Cinderella at the grand guignol ball!

An interesting sub plot not covered in either film adaptation is Sue’s late period/symbolic pregnancy. She fools around with Tommy and her maybe pregnancy holds her hostage as being a not-so-nice girl, a big a slut as Chris, and a hypocrite who enjoyed throwing Tampax at Carrie in the shower. At the end of Book Two, after Carrie dies in her arms, Sue’s period starts. The blood is released and Sue is assuaged of the guilt and she is now free to pursue her future as a suburban matron.

Another primal theme that King masterfully articulates throughout the novel is revenge–every kid wants special powers with which to wreak vengeance on the gym class bully or homeroom bitch. It’s a powerful archetype, and the prom scene offers a satisfying catharsis for every schoolyard slight that linger deep within our psyches.

As a framing device, King uses a spattering of imaginary texts throughout the novel that lend credibility to the outlandish story in the form of reports, interviews, articles, books, and legal documents. Reading the book for the first time, one learns from one of these reports that something really bad happens, a tragedy resulting in the loss of many lives, the destruction of an entire town no less, and it all has something to do with Carrie and her telekinetic powers. The suspense builds as we read on to find out what happens. Of course, most of us reading the book today know exactly what happens, but it’s still a compelling read, a testament to King’s talent for characterization. The epistolary structure in the tradition of classic Gothic horror tales like Frankenstein gives literary merit to the trashy subject matter, putting King in a class by himself (along with Peter Straub). Few writers have his chops, and yet his success as a genre writer (plus a few cheeseball movie adaptations), have kept him from being taken seriously as a literary author.

But the tide seems to be turning on that front. If you stick around long enough you could end up like Brian De Palma (director of the first—and best–Carrie film), King’s equally prolific and undervalued bedfellow. In the 70’s and 80’s De Palma was a director of schlocky horror, drive-in movie fare, albeit with a lot of flare like cool split screens, slow motion tracking shots, Hitchcock homages, and those “gotcha” twist endings, but he was never quite respected among the New Hollywood elite. Today, his trashiest (and best) work is being touted as art films in many circles, and they deserve to be. As does King’s.

I have read quite a few of Stephen King’s early books; he’s written so many it’s hard to keep up. I did read his recent noir thriller Mr. Mercedes. He is without a doubt a master of his craft, peerless in his rich imagination and unique descriptions.

I enjoyed Mr. Mercedes, but it sure wasn’t as fun (trashy) as Carrie, which has a freedom from restraint that is perhaps the mark of a first novel. Some of the content is outrageous to say the least. I read on the Carrie Wikipedia page that it is the most book most banned in schools. That’s crazy! Those kids are precisely who should be reading it (just as my friends and I did in high school). I believe I was introduced to it in the late 1970’s after watching the heavily edited film version on television. After that I sought out the book and read it voraciously. I didn’t see the full De Palma film until I rented the VHS version from a video store and fell in love with it. I re-watch it every few years, just for fun.

I did check out the new film adaptation and it was as bad as the trailer promised it would be. Lacking pathos and melodrama, the film comes off as bland as a Lifetime Movie. Trashy subject matter thrives in the realm of high camp, not realism peppered with silly special effect death scenes. Compare the saturated colors and dramatic angles of De Palma’s to the new one. In the original film (and book) queen bitch, Chris is portrayed as a dangerous psychopath, as she would be for a high school victim. Sissy Spacek’s Carrie, although not the physical description in the book, looks alternately strange and pretty, and her super skinny frame in the blood soaked prom dress is classic monster movie!

Sissy Specek as Carrie

De Palma clearly loved the genre. Former lover Margot Kidder claimed that whenever De Palma was depressed he went to see a horror film and instantly cheered up. I think fans of horror (and I’m certainly one) can relate to that. And I just love his gotcha endings – Dressed to Kill being the one of the best, and scariest.

The over-the-top-ness of Carrie is perfect material for De Palma—subtly is not his strong suit. He really goes for broke in his directing style, using red color washes straight out of Italian horror cinema, split screens, extreme close-ups, kalaedoscopes, 360 degree turns, and of course a lot of slow motion. He takes his time to give each character a unique death—using the fire hose to make quick work of the annoying red baseball cap girl, electrocuting the school principal, and practically cutting the nice gym teacher in half with a chunk of the ceiling. Then there’s the exploding car where Chris and Billy get their due. And of course, there is the great Piper Laurie playing Carrie’s mom, religious zealot Margaret White, playing it right along the razor’s edge of comedy–and it’s genius. Yes, she looks exactly like Christ on the cross when she dies, which was a shocker in itself at the time. Again, hitting us right where it hurts in the spot where all our hang-ups lie. This is exactly what horror should do. I wish the two men had collaborated more.

Carrie, the book and first movie, were both enormous successes that changed King’s life forever. He wife sunk to the floor with joy at the news that the book she had retrieved from the trashcan would be published, meaning she could quit her job at Dunkin Donuts. Every writer dreams about that kind of success, but few work as hard as King does, and he generously shared his writing tips in On Writing.  One, that he knocks out 1500 words before breakfast, seven days a week, and another, that he clearly writes more from character development than plot and advises aspiring writers to do the same.

The prom theme may change, but the primal themes endures elevating the over-the-top blood fest that is Carrie to classic status, and the prolific wordsmith the crown King in the high court of horror trash lit.

 

 

 

My Return to Peyton Place

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
I discovered Peyton Place where I imagine most kids growing up in the 1960’s did: under my parents’ bed, where along with those soft focus Oui magazines, I discovered many a tasty morsel that would whet my appetite for my lifelong love of good trash lit!

Thanks, Mom and Dad!

On the back dust jacket cover was author Grace Metalious, “this Pandora in blue jeans” looking very young in her oversized dungarees and flannel shirt, feet up, staring intently at her typewriter, hard at work. This image was a stark contrast to the standard lady author’s portrait, and a realistic portrayal of a writer’s daily grind. Both the image and the tagline “the extraordinary new novel that lifts the lid off a small New England town” promised a peek into forbidden truths.

“That’s a dirty book,” my mother said, guaranteeing I’d give it a swift read. So, in the attic space of our country home that was my adolescent bedroom, I dug into this salacious tale of the tongue-clucking New England town whose nasty underbelly revealed scenes of rape (for the frigid gal’s own good—by the high school principal no less!), more rape, incest, murder, abortion, adultery, masturbation, and sexually tinged animal abuse. And how can I ever forget the bizarre scenarios of the deranged Mrs. Page who gives her teenage son, Norman, enemas and he likes it (“Yes, Please,” Norman says after strangling a cat), and a girl who loses her arm in a carnival fun house?

No wonder it was a bestseller!

The infamous first line packs a punch:

“Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay.”

Double entendre intentional? It’s difficult to know with this author, but I suspect not. It does take one of the featured female characters–Constance McKenzie–a very long time to come (as in decades), she needs to be slapped and raped first by a man who knows how, but I’ll get to that. I sense that Grace spat out this delicious purple prose on the page without much intellectual insight or irony, and if she just had to get it out like so many of the characters’ orgasms, and that’s the charm of it. The best trash spills directly from the subconscious—filters be damned!

peyton-place
The horror.

The setting of the novel, as her many descriptive passages demonstrate, was no doubt gleaned from the author’s own experiences of growing up in small town New England, where snobby townies on the good street look down their noses at the folks from the shacks. Grace seems to rest squarely between the shacks and Main Street, and her treatment of both sides of the tracks is even in its salaciousness. Flipping the lid to reveal the worms within the small town may have been shocking in 1956, but that was decades before David Lynch took a shot at it. We all know that by now. I live in a small town and can report that nothing’s changed.

What makes Peyton Place such a high mark of trash lit is the–probably unconscious—scads of deviant sexuality that pour over the page like Norman’s wet dream. Here are a few juicy bits that kept the housewives’ hands under the covers:

Your nipples are as hard as diamonds.

He bent over her and ripped the still wet bathing suit from her body, and in the dark, she heard the sound of his zipper opening as he took off his trunks. 

His hand found the V of her crotch and pressed against it.

“Is it up, Rod?” she panted, undulating her body under his. “Is it up good and hard?”

“Oh, yes,” he whispered, almost unable to speak. “Oh, yes.”

Without another word, Betty jackknifed her knees, pushed Rodney away from her, clicked the lock on the door and was outside of the car.

“Now go shove it into Allison MacKenzie,” she screamed at him.

Young Grace may have been a bit repressed at the time (this was before the wild ride leading to her premature death), but her dirty, dirty mind (a Virgo no less and we have the dirtiest) cannot be disputed, which earns her a high rank in the queen’s court of trash. The sexuality described in Peyton Place is more Sade than bodice ripper, which perhaps reveals less about the quaint little town than the author herself. By all accounts, Grace Metalious, born into poverty and a hardscrabble life, was an outsider with a bone to pick. She dressed, smoked, and swore like a man and died at the tender age of thirty-nine from a failed liver due to hard living, that included a fifth-a-day whiskey habit. Money turned Grace into a party girl and a naïf with opportunistic men–her weakness I suspect. She divorced her husband, married and divorced a flashy “DJ”, and signed over her estate on her deathbed to a British lothario after a speedy marriage (that proved to be illegal since he was already married).

The creator of the franchise that raked in over 65 million died virtually broke.

There are many descriptions of her being a shitty housekeeper as if it’s easy to raise kids, cook and clean, and write a bestseller. I can imagine her in her dungarees shoving the kids out the door to go play and locking it behind them, as apparently she did to the shock of her neighbors. Mama’s gotta work. Get the fuck outta here.

There are many, many characters in the nearly 500-page novel, and most of them have enough sexual problems to pack Freud’s waiting room for centuries. Grace doesn’t always do the best job keeping track of them, but the story essentially follows the lives of three female characters over about a ten-year period.

Allison McKenzie is oddly named after the married man who spawned her, with whom her beautiful mother, Constance, fooled around with while she was a secretary in the big city. The let’s-hide-the-illegitimate-child theme is a yawn for modern readers, but it gives Constance’s character some depth. And from the shacks is earthy Selena Cross, a nice girl with brown nipples whose (step) father rapes and impregnates her till she has finally had enough and kills the bastard. Interestingly, Selena emerges as the most sensible person in the story.

Allison, the story’s main protagonist, comes off as a real C-word throughout most of the story. I suspect the sexually repressed, voyeuristic (she orgasms at the site of Selena’s stepfather molesting her), bookish Allison is Graces’ alter ego. She starts off as a chubby twelve-year-old and blossoms into a skinny, flat-chested teenager (the scene about her rubber falsies is titillating). She leaves town for the big city where she loses her virginity to a dickish middle-aged married man just like her mother and returns to Peyton Place heart-broken just in time for Selena’s murder trial. She is judgmental of her mother Constance, and seems to enjoy cock-teasing poor little fucked-up Norman of the mommy enemas (Is he gay? A psychopath? Surely Norman deserves his own trashy sequel). She also harangues poor Nellie, Selena’s cancer-ridden mother (there are several gagged-inducing references to pus-filled veins) who cleans up her shit all day long as the family maid, so much that she kills herself. The scene of swollen, blue-faced Nellie hanging in little Allison’s closet among her starched dresses is one of the novel’s highlights. After this experience (and also finding out her true progeny) Allison has a breakdown. Is this why she laughs hysterically when her best friend’s arm gets chopped off in the fun-house machinery, or further proof that she’s a real bitch? Readers can decide for themselves. Mia Farrow played her in the squeaky clean TV series. Scratch the surface of the petite blonde beauty and you may find Mia’s valentine.

Selena, the gypsy beauty from the shacks, comes off as the most sensible (thus boring) character of the bunch. She aborts her baby and kills her stepfather without guilt or remorse. In an odd casting choice (all blondes, really?) Hope Lange plays her much more neurotically in the film. For a dirty shack girl, Selena emerges smelling like a rose, sanctioned by the town she is acquitted of her crime (no one liked that asshole, Lucas, anyway), and ends up a career girl, working the counter at Constance’s chic dress shop.

Constance is a sexually repressed beauty with taste and elegance (beautifully represented by Lana Turner in the tidied-up film version for which she won an Oscar, and a comeback—her own salacious murder trial was a year later). She is the orgasm that will never come until her tall, dark, and handsome Greek lover with a Columbia degree arrives from the big city to beat it out of her, literally.

Once she has finally achieves orgasm, Constance chills into the idyll of 1950’s married life and homemaking. She loses interest in her career and passively gives into her husband’s know-it-all guidance.

A small town hoarding nasty secrets is not new, but the simmering archetypes that are the true underbelly firmly secure this novel’s (and its Pandora) a high place in the pantheon of trash lit.

 

 

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