When Monsters Are Born: ‘Carrie’, ‘Firestarter’ & ‘Silent Hill’

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The birth of evil is always a tragedy, and the most heartbreaking tragedy of all is when the most innocent become the most monstrous.  It’s tragic because we know, even when we don’t witness it firsthand, that the path that led there was one of horrendous pain.  That is the case in three fantastic horror stories, two of which began as novels and one as a video game but have all since been made into films.  I speak, of course, of the Stephen King works Carrie and Firestarter, and the original Silent Hill film, all of which feature young girls who have become corrupted by the physical and mental tortures and unthinkable betrayals that they are subjected to.

I have discussed before that I think Stephen King’s early work is his strongest both horror-wise and writing-wise.  One reason I think this is so is that there’s a kind of desperation that undergirds those early novels, and this probably arose from being a still struggling author raising a young family.  Once he became the most popular writer in the known universe, the desperation pretty much fizzled out.  Nothing wrong with that–it’s probably the best trajectory the King of Horror could’ve taken, but it also means the nature of his work was bound to change.  It certainly did, sometimes for the better (his imagination was able to fully blossom, and thus it ultimately gave fruit to what I consider to be his magnum opus, The Dark Tower series) and sometimes for the worse.  In addition to losing touch with that desperation that made his early work so compelling, he exchanged the raw, elemental power that drove it for a more complex and convoluted spiritual world, the dark side of which is ruled by a being with nearly as much invented mythology as the devil himself, and the light side of which has an Eternal Champion to give both Moorcock’s creation and Jesus Christ a run for their money, and that ain’t a bad legacy for any writer.  Not.  At.  All.

But with Carrie, King captured lightning in a bottle, and it’s easy to understand why it was this novel that broke him into the published author camp.  Talk about desperation!  It’s practically stitched into the very being of Carrie White, a weird, awkward, repressed adolescent girl who is an innocent in nearly every respect.  Having only recently entered puberty (quite late), she is horrified to learn that her body naturally bleeds, and this ignorance leads to the infamous scene in the girl’s locker room where she is taunted and tormented by the other girls in her class.  The interesting thing about Carrie is that it contains no otherworldly beings, no ghosts or haunted houses, no murderous psychopaths.  None of the usual antagonists or tropes of your standard horror fiction are to be found here.  Yes, there is a supernatural element in the form of Carrie’s powers, but they aren’t external to Carrie.  And there are the kids and Carrie’s mother whose cruelty pushes her over the edge, but they are nothing out of the ordinary.

So, the horror of Carrie isn’t something alien which invades the girl’s tranquil and otherwise normal world.  No, the real horror of the story is that we have been given a front row seat to the birth of evil in its most terrible incarnation.  We are, in effect, watching the character we have come to empathize with the most transform before our very eyes into the monster.  Carrie White has nothing but good intentions and the purest heart in the beginning, but by the end of the story, under the weight of the final degradation she is forced to endure, she has become a cyclone of violence and hatred who murders her classmates and finally her own mother, acts for which she can never be redeemed.  And she isn’t.  Instead, she dies from the stab wounds inflicted on her by her mother, or alternately, in the Brian Di Palma film, from a combination of the stab wound and suicide (by psychically destroying her house with her still inside of it).  However, King does offer a note of hope in the novel in the form of another little girl whose mother sees her daughter’s abilities as a gift rather than a curse from God.  Incidentally, there is no such hope offered in the Di Palma film, which fits the bleakness trend of late seventies cinema to a T.

But Stephen King wasn’t finished with this theme, for he would go on to pen Firestarter a few years later, a novel which in some ways takes the concept even farther than Carrie did.  (Douglas Clegg, whose Goat Dance I reviewed recently, also owes a little something to Firestarter with his novel Dark of the Eye–more on that when I give it a proper review of its own.)  The focal character, Charlie McGee, a little girl with pyrokinetic abilities, is even more of an innocent than Carrie White.  Here, however, there are external malignant forces at work in the form of the Shop and especially the hit man John Rainbird.  But these evils are not where Firestarter‘s ultimate horror lies.  Once again, what is most horrific about the story isn’t the evil which already exists but the evil that emerges from Charlie herself, and again the path that led there is one of suffering.  The ultimate irony of the story is one similar to that inherent in the relationship between Carrie and her mother: Margaret White sees in her daughter an abomination, and through her maltreatment of Carrie, contributes to making the girl into exactly that.  Likewise, the secret government agency that fears Charlie is the very agency which eventually turns her into something to be feared.

It is a difficult scene to get through when Charlie, dealing with the death of her father and learning of her betrayal at the hands of Rainbird and the Shop, turns her power up to ten and destroys everyone and everything in her path.  But King again supplies a tincture of hope here, because Charlie is perhaps still young enough to recover from her murderous turn and live a normal life, and there may be redemption in exposing the Shop’s atrocities to the world, as Charlie ultimately does.  But because Charlie has become cynical of the media, she only trusts one publication to get the story straight.  She will never again be fully innocent; she has become corrupted by her experience, wizened to the ways of the world.

There are several contenders for the inheritor of King’s birth of evil motif, but perhaps none is as powerful–or as dark–as Silent Hill.  I can’t speak much for the game because I have never played it, and I’m also aware that it differs significantly from the film.  It is the film which most interests me anyway, because it more than any other fully embraces the concept of the good girl gone monstrous.  Alessa Gillespie was once a normal little girl who was ostracized by other children for being born out of wedlock, became a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of the school janitor who targeted her because she was isolated and disliked, and then, as with Carrie and Charlie, suffered a final degradation which corrupted her, blackened her soul, and hers is by far the worst: she is burned alive and survives.  In the process her soul divides into two parts, Dark Alessa and Sharon.  Sharon is of course adopted by the movie’s heroine, Rose, but winds up back in the town, drawn in by Dark Alessa, who needs a worthy vessel in order to be able to enter the only place in Silent Hill that is forbidden to her in her dark form: a church sanctuary.  It is Rose who winds up becoming the vessel, however, and when Alessa finally is able to show up in the sanctuary both in body and spirit, she too, as with King’s young girls, succumbs to a mass slaughter of those who tormented her in a scene that would give Clive Barker’s Cenobites pause, or maybe send them running in terror.  And again, as with Carrie and Firestarter, it’s also a terribly sad scene because it makes explicit how much the girl was twisted and corrupted by her experiences. You shed tears watching the darkly beautiful scene unfold, for you know that, while you are horrified by the slaughter, you are also disturbingly satisfied by it on some level.  These people got what they deserved, no?

You see, we as the reader/viewer, have followed the trajectories of these characters from young innocents to raging, hateful monsters (albeit somewhat obliquely in Alessa’s case), and we have grown with them.  Charlie’s monstrosity may be temporary, and that’s some consolation.  Carrie dies, so she no longer poses a threat to anyone.  Ah, but Alessa . . . she becomes queen of her own little dark corner of hell.  The good part of her, Sharon, exists but is still trapped in Silent Hill (along with Rose) by film’s end.  And we are right there with them, left to contemplate how we have arrived at this point, how we have come to identity with the monster.  Mourning the fact that we too, somewhere along the way, have lost our innocence.  We too have loosed evil at some point in our lives, and once it’s out there in the world, wreaking havoc, there is no way to take it back.  In fact, one of the functions of horror fiction is to remind us of that.  So be good to your fellow man, folks, lest you give birth to monsters.

Elephantasies

It’s been awhile, so I figured I’d better check in.  Sorry about that, but I have been preoccupied mostly with working on my novel.  Anyway . . .

One of my favorite animals is the elephant.  I missed World Elephant Day by nearly a month, but I had planned to feature some cool elephant art.  It’s long past, sure, but why not post it anyway?  So, here you go, some beautiful and psychedelic elephant art.  [Note: those images which I couldn't identify I have left unlabeled.]

Amelia Herbertson - Elephant
Amelia Herbertson – Elephant

Amelia Herbertson

Carrie Baum - Elephant
Carrie Baum – Elephant

Society 6: Carrie Baum

David R. Anderson - Inked Elephant
David R. Anderson – Inked Elephant

DeviantArt: DavesArtwork

Ellie Perla - Pink Elephant
Ellie Perla – Pink Elephant

Ellie Perla

H. Farrar - Baby Elephant
H. Farrar – Baby Elephant
J. Hill - Elephant
J. Hill – Elephant
Julia Watkins - Elephant Herd
Julia Watkins – Elephant Herd

Energy Artist Julia

Karin Taylor - Vintage Elephant
Karin Taylor – Vintage Elephant

Art by Karin Taylor

Leroy Neiman - Elephant Family
Leroy Neiman – Elephant Family

Leroy Neiman

Pa Monk - Aqua Elephant
Pa Monk – Aqua Elephant

DeviantArt: PaMonk

Patrick Raymond - Elephant
Patrick Raymond – Elephant

Patrick Raymond

Pippa Moore - There's an Elephant in My Garden
Pippa Moore – There’s an Elephant in My Garden

Pippa Moore

Samadhi Rajakarunanayake - Elephant
Samadhi Rajakarunanayake – Elephant

Fine Art America: Samadhi Rajakarunanayake

Shepard Fairey - Obey Elephant (1)
Shepard Fairey – Obey Elephant (1)
Shepard Fairey - Obey Elephant (2)
Shepard Fairey – Obey Elephant (2)

Obey Giant

Waelad Akadan - Elephant's Dream
Waelad Akadan – Elephant’s Dream

Society 6: Waelad Akadan

Artist Unknown - Elephant Fantasy
Artist Unknown – Elephant Fantasy
Artist Unknown - War Age Elephant
Artist Unknown – War Age Elephant


Okay, This Is Just Ridiculous

One of my pet issues is the many stupid ways society and the state handles minors who color outside the lines, so to speak, especially when it comes to criminal behavior.  Tangential to that is the sex abuse scare, and perhaps nowhere have these two issues intersected more absurdly than in the prosecution of minors who engage in sexting.

Before I get to my point though, let me clarify something: when it comes to the actual sexual abuse of children, I have no problem at all with the state throwing the book at such people.  It’s sad that I need to point this out at all, but the problem is that in today’s hyper-paranoid environment there seems to be little room for nuance in the eyes of many people: it’s all black and white, and the black applies to absolutely every intersection of the concepts of ‘child’ and ‘sex.’  Therefore, anyone who disagrees with any part of that is automatically suspect in their eyes.  Frankly, I say fuck that noise.  There are important nuances with these issues, and this is one of them.  I say that both as a rational human being and as a victim of molestation myself.

Thus, when I’d read that parents in Virginia called the police after discovering nude photos that their 13-year-old daughter had taken of herself on her phone (and sent to friends), I was far more horrified by the parents’ actions than by the girl’s.  First off, Virginia again?  What the hell is it with that state?  Secondly, it’s not that I dismiss the girl’s actions–I think they were ill-considered, to say the least.  It’s that I am well aware that, in society’s well-meaning attempts to protect kids from abuse, it has clearly lost sight of the reason for its actions and has far too often hurt the very people it intends to protect.  One way this has occurred is through the prosecution of kids for sexting.  In the eyes of the law child pornography is child pornography, whether produced by abusive adults or by the kids themselves just having a little fun, and it’s just as illegal for minors to own it and produce it as it is for adults.  Which means it is possible–and indeed likely–for kids caught doing it to be prosecuted and treated like sex offenders.  The argument goes that these kids have to be stopped because the images might ruin their lives . . . as if subjecting them to criminal prosecution and labeling them sex offenders won’t.  Go figure.

Clearly society has lost it’s mind when it comes to kids and sex.  We need to treat these cases differently than we treat Chester Molester photographing himself raping a 9-year-old.  Heads up, people: teenagers have always been sexual beings.  It’s just that the technology available now makes it much easier for them to record and distribute their sexual activities, which means there’s hard evidence that sexual behaviors by kids doesn’t always equate to victimhood, and that, I think, is the real crime in society’s eyes: people just do not want to be reminded that their precious, angelic offspring sometimes behave sexually all on their own.  I can sort of understand–even if I don’t condone such thinking–why parents might want to see other people’s teens prosecuted for such things: serves as a nice lesson for their own kids, right?  This can happen to YOU, Junior/Missy, if you don’t keep your private parts to yourself until you become an adult.  But it’s hard to fathom parents turning in their own youngsters over to the cops . . . until you put it into the context of the zeitgeist in terms of kiddie sex.

This reminds me of the 80s and 90s when the big cultural bugaboo was drugs.  The War on Drugs got so insane that kids were being asked to inform on their own parents, never mind that having Mom and Dad arrested for smoking a doobie was likely to break up their family and destroy their parents’ marriage (not to mention getting the kids put into foster care where they were much more likely to be abused).  Kids were frightened because they were taught that drugs were such a horrible, all-consuming evil that NO cost–whether monetary, physical, mental, emotional, or whatever–was too high to get drugs off the streets.  And, of course, juvenile drug offenders were just as legally culpable as adults.  Several years and many billions of wasted dollars and lives later, it’s clear that the War on Drugs was a massive failure.  Drugs are no less widespread than they were back then, and the underworld that capitalized on their illegality has only gotten fatter and richer over the years.  Have we learned our lesson from that?  We’re only just starting to, it seems.  The atmosphere of fear surrounding drugs was so powerful that it warped the fabric of society in some dark and disturbing ways.  The sex abuse scare is now doing the same.

To be sure, there are some distinct differences between the drug issue and teen sexuality issue, but there are also a lot of similarities in the way we as a society deal with them.  For one thing, it seems we’d rather treat all cases with the blunt hammer of the law rather than try to find alternatives.  For another, as stated earlier, kids themselves are far too often hurt by the very laws and taboos that are meant to keep them safe.  Something has gone horribly wrong, and that something is called a moral panic.  There have been many of these throughout the history of human civilizations, and no doubt there will be more.  At their most extreme, moral panics can culminate in large-scale violent events like riots and even genocide, but mostly they just result in things like this, where the fear of a terrible outcome causes people to behave irrationally and do things that ironically tend only to make the situation worse.

No doubt these parents meant well, but they likely just ruined their daughter’s life.  Before, a handful of teens at the girl’s school knew about her actions.  Now, the whole world knows.  Before, she was a normal teenage girl with a (not particularly shocking) secret.  Now, she is a legally designated sex offender, and all that that entails.  And to what end?  Who exactly is being protected in this case?

Come on, people, we can do better than this.                   

I Came for the Sci-Fi; I Stayed for Robin Williams

Recently I got into a conversation on a friend’s Facebook thread about Robin Williams.  I grew up in the 70s and early 80s, so my fondest memories of Williams are as the iconic Mork from the sitcom Mork & Mindy.  I absolutely adored this show as a youngster.  The thing is, I was drawn to the show because it was about an alien from outer space living with a human, and as you know from the approximately google amount of times I’ve mentioned it here, I was obsessed with science fiction as a boy.  You can bet that if it had an alien, robot or weird creature in it, I was so there, especially since we only had two television channels where I lived, an ABC station (obviously) and the local PBS affiliate.  When there aren’t a lot of choices for a raging sci-fi geekboy, you tend to take whatever you can get.

Although in terms of science fiction content it wasn’t exactly on par with a Star Trek or a Battlestar Galactica, it had enough of a sci-fi hook to bring me in.  Even back then Mork & Mindy seemed to me less an out-an-out sci-fi show than a vehicle for allowing Robin Williams to vent his particular brand of hyperactive, oblique craziness.  But Williams was a world unto himself on the show, and the entire Mork & Mindy universe revolved around him and his ability to sell the character.  It was wildly successful, to say the least, and it’s hard to imagine a M&M series being half as entertaining without him.

After M&M Williams went on to fairly successful film acting career, including many roles for which he was nominated for some award or other, and a few that he won awards for.  What the films proved was that Robin was a versatile and dynamic performer, a man of many faces and identities.  But with all those masks, not a lot of people ever got to see his true face.  The sad clown is a bit of a cliche perhaps, but there is more than a grain of truth in it for Mr. Williams.  He battled chronic depression, alcohol and drug addiction to varying degrees throughout his life; I too have struggled with depression, and to a lesser extent drug problems.  It almost comes with the territory of being a creative person anyway, but when you have all the health issues I have and you’re too poor to afford treatment, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion.

But one thing I have never had to contend with was being in the never-ending spotlight and having to keep up appearances for the sake of your fans.  One of the reasons I chose to obscure my identity and write under a pseudonym, in fact, was because I am not interested in being personally famous.  A renowned writer?  Sure, give me every bit of that (but only if I’m worthy of it).  But I also dig my privacy.  I’m not a life-of-the-party kind of person–never have been and never want to be.  I have seen what that can do to perfectly good writers, artists and performers who aren’t cut out for it, and often it’s not pretty.  Williams is the quintessential example du jour, but there are so so soooo many examples.

Anyway, I just wanted to share a few thoughts about one of the greatest entertainers the planet was ever blessed with, an amazing one-of-a-kind soul who will never be replaced.

Na-Nu Na-Nu, sir, wherever you are.

Dispatches from Kowtown (8-12-14)

Man, what a day.  Some huge emotional ups and downs, but mostly ups.  First off, the downer: the tragedy of Robin William’s suicide.  I grew up with Mork & Mindy on my TV set and enjoyed his many films and standup routines throughout the years.  Williams was an amazing human being, and this just goes to show that no one is immune to mental illness, something we don’t deal with very well in our culture.  But Robin Williams was a comedy icon and he will certainly be missed.

Now to the good stuff.  Yesterday I wrote a review of Douglas Clegg’s novel Goat Dance, which you can read here.  Well, when I woke up and checked my blog this morning, guess who happened to leave an amazing comment to the review?  If you guessed Douglas Clegg, then you are correct!  Clegg was gracious enough to provide some wonderful details about his first novel that I didn’t know, like the fact that his parents bought him the painting used as the cover on the original printing, which makes his parents pretty bad ass in my book.  You can read his reply (and my reply to his reply) at the end of the post.  He also linked to the review on his Facebook page.

So, I dropped this info on a friend of mine, and she started researching Facebook and Twitter (the latter of which I do not have an account on) for similar mentions, only to unearth this awesome little tidbit from Peter Straub on his Twitter page, which somehow escaped my notice when it was originally published.  So basically, I got a two-for-one today with Clegg’s response and Straub’s nod to my review.  That’s Douglas Clegg and Peter Straub, y’all!  See, I’m so excited my Southern is coming out.  The only thing with Straub is that he didn’t like my criticisms of Stephen King.  Let me say that despite my criticisms, I still love Mr. King.  I just happen to think Straub is a better writer.  Just me, your mileage may vary.  But, as I said in the Straub review, King is still a brilliant storyteller, and I am not in any way discouraging people from reading his work.  Not like I could stop them anyway.  Something tells me King will be just fine.  I’m like an ant throwing dirt at a god: he has a bazillion bestselling books published and I have nothing published, so do take my reviews for what they’re worth.

But here’s the weirdest part of the day (as if that isn’t enough):  a couple of days ago my dad mentioned giving me his older laptop to replace my aging critter, as he had just purchased a new one for himself.  My poor old computer had been on the decline for awhile, with a busted back corner that wouldn’t allow the thing to shut properly; a plastic vent grill on the side missing every one of its little bars, exposing the user–namely me–to hot metal; and a handful of other issues.  Basically, it was on its last legs but was still usable.  But this morning, in addition to finding Clegg’s reply, I found that the bottom two rows on my keyboard were completely nonfunctional, making it impossible for me to type a reply to Clegg right then, as I was buzzing to do.  And, lo and behold, my dad had this new puppy ready to go for me today, assuring that the transition from old to new was smooth.  Thanks, Dad!

Hey, guys, since I’m on the subject, let me just tell you a few things about my dad.  He is the kind of guy who has always been driven to pursue to the very end any activity that interests him.  Because of that, his skill set reads more like that of an MI:5 or CIA operative than a middle class guy who works at a trucking company.  He’s a military vet and an amazing mechanic.  He was a world-class mason for years, with houses he built featured on magazine covers.  He’s a third degree black belt in a major Japanese martial arts style.  He became a small aircraft pilot, and then he went ahead and earned a license to teach others to fly planes.  He took up scuba diving.  He went to college to learn AutoCAD back in the mid-nineties and was one of the first people in his circle to own a home PC, which he taught himself to upgrade and repair.  Seriously, he knows more about computers than I will ever learn in my life.  He has a license in heating and cooling.  And he can operate/pilot everything from a motorcycle to a Cessna single prop to a semi-truck to a forty foot boat, and pretty much everything in between.  So, yeah.  That’s my pop.  I think I can safely say, coolest dad ever.

Be good, my friends.

Douglas Clegg’s ‘Goat Dance': A Review

IX-clegg-goat-danceA few years ago I did something that remains one of the low points of my life: I went to Virginia.  If you’re interested I’ll share the whole wretched event with you sometime, but suffice it to say, what should’ve been a relatively simple fourteen hour car trip turned into a thirty hour dead-of-winter hellride.  The thing is, I was a nervous wreck for three days leading up my trip and literally got almost no sleep during that time.  And there was a storm when we got there, and not one but two semi-trucks flipped across the middle of the interstate.  And we got lost in the mountains.  And, and . . .

Now, I have nothing against the state of Virginia itself; I’m sure it’s lovely (when not in the grip of a snow storm, that is) but I plan never to return if I can help it.  Ever.  But long before that trip I read a little novel called Goat Dance set in Virginia at wintertime by a then-new author on the horror fiction scene.  It probably planted the seeds of my dread of Virginia, for which the road trip only cemented it.

Oddly enough, I first read this book during another road trip, albeit a far less eventful one.  I was a teenager at the time.  I had already cut my horror teeth on a handful of novels by McCammon, Koontz and King, and I had just discovered Clive Barker.  Our vacation was ending and I wanted something to occupy my time during the twelve-hour ride back home.  I found Goat Dance in the book section of Wal-Mart, or maybe it was at a drugstore.  I don’t really remember where I picked it up.  It’s not important.  But the cover had caught my attention.  It had one of those cutout covers that were so in vogue in the ’90s, and the cutout revealed a goat-headed man with a pentagram carved into his forehead (which, by the way, is not in the book, and a good thing too), and I loved, loved, LOVED monsters, so I figured I’d give it a try.

[Note: As you can see, I didn't use the original cover for my review--there are a variety of reprint covers and I chose the one I liked best.]

Anyway, expecting a so-so novel that would nevertheless keep me entertained for the duration of the trip, I bought it.  And then I read it, and . . . holy shit.  I finished the book right before we got home.  It had completely sucked me into its dark world.  When I say dark world, I’m fully aware this is a cliche often used to describe horror novels, but in this case the term is completely accurate.  This was Clegg’s debut novel, and he had knocked it right out of the park.  I haven’t read his entire oeuvre yet, but in terms of what I’ve read this book comes in second for me only to Neverland, or even ties with it, depending on my frame of mind.  Now this is what horror was capable of, and possibly more than any other book I’d read up to that point save McCammon’s Swan Song, it made me want to write in this genre.  And yet Clegg himself considers this one of his mediocre contributions.  Go figure.

The central protagonist of the story is Malcolm “Cup” Coffey, the survivor of one terrible winter at a prep school in Pontefract, Virginia which ultimately ended in two equally traumatic events for him: the death of another boy, and unrequited love for a girl named Lily, both of which Cup is still obsessed with years later.  So when Cup, now living in Washington, DC, receives a strange phone message from Lily on his answering machine one winter’s day, he decides to return to Pontefract to look Lily up and discovers a town caught in the grip of a nightmare that has only just begun and is slowly building up to something, of which Cup is unwittingly a big part.

I hadn’t read the novel for about fifteen years (ironically, about the same amount of time that passes between the prep school events and Cup’s return to Pontefract), but I recently realized what a debt I owe to Clegg, and this novel in particular, for the structure and certain elements of the content for my novel-in-progress, AL+ER.  Like Goat Dance, my novel uses fictional supplemental items tangential to the story to reinforce its verisimilitude, has a small town where the horror builds slowly and is rooted in a past tragic event in the town’s history, and features a little girl who has certain abilities and who is something like a compliment to the protagonist.  Of course, my book is significantly different in a variety of ways too.  For one thing, the young girl plays a much bigger role in my story.  For another, neither the protagonist nor the girl are from the town (Milton’s Eye, Mississippi) where the bulk of the horror occurs and are not directly connected to it in any way.  Also, my book is meant to be the first in a series that will feature the protagonist and the girl as a team, and there is more of a science fiction feel to it than Clegg’s novel has.  But for me to suggest that Goat Dance wasn’t extremely influential on AL+ER would be a bald-faced lie.  And there you have it.  So I decided to reread it, to see if it had held up to time and my own maturity (such as it is) and to determine exactly to what degree I am borrowing from it.

Without going too much into the plot, I will divulge that Goat Dance is my favorite kind of horror novel: the kind where the horror builds slowly, and where, by the time the main characters realize it’s there, they’re already thoroughly caught up in its web and cannot escape it, only deal with it.  Peter Straub did it beautifully with Floating Dragon.  Bentley Little did it spectacularly with The Resort.  And Douglas Clegg does it equally amazingly in Goat Dance.

Another thing I love about the novel is that Clegg leaves a lot about the book’s antagonist–a force or being that goes by a variety of names, including Goatman (hence the garish and inaccurate figure on the book’s original cover)–to the imagination.  Where did this Eater of Souls come from?  We know how it got where it is, but we never really learn what it is or how long it’s been there.  The monster’s true self is never really shown.  We see the various masks it wears and the people it manipulates, but we never look upon its own visage, and maybe we couldn’t even if we wanted to, which gives the book a nicely handled Lovecraftian quality.

But has it held up over time?  Damn straight, it has.  In fact, I think I appreciated it even more this time around (my third reading of the book, incidentally) because one character in particular, a teacher at Pontefract Prep, reminded me so much of one of my own college professors.  And I realized certain aspects went over my head the first and second time I had read it.  When I was a younger reader, I often found my first reading of an amazing book to be more impressionistic than detail-oriented, which was perfectly fine by me.  In those days I might not have been able to completely express what it was about a book that appealed to me, but that was only a sign of its quality, because I wasn’t distracted by the little stuff that didn’t matter.  I didn’t just read those books; I lived them.  And if a book could so thoroughly pull me into its world that I forgot myself, then it was a resounding success.  Moreover, if a book like Goat Dance could make me want to take up residence in that world, no matter how dark and disturbing it was, then that was just sheer genius.  Perhaps the only other writer I have ever encountered that could do this to me with such dark material was Elizabeth Hand, especially with the novels Winterlong and Black Light.  How did that happen?

Turns out the key ingredient was a heady spice made up of the beauty of the writing itself, the detail in the world-building and that slow-burn sort of build-up.  By contrast, Clive Barker’s writing is every bit as smart and gorgeous, but I have only occasionally felt truly horrified by his work, merely awed by it.  I think the key difference there is that Barker, as brilliant as he is, has a tendency to dazzle you with the sheer weirdness of his worlds and characters, which makes his work more dark fantasy than straight-up horror to me.  Moreover, he tends to throw you right into the bizarreness rather than let it simmer and build, and that choice often has a peculiar flattening effect on the horror elements of his work.  This is not a criticism of the overall quality of Barker’s work, mind you.  I still love every minute of it.  It’s just that for me, with the exception of some of his early stuff, the horror aspects of his fiction tend to take a backseat to the dazzling spectacle of the fantasy, which is obviously where his heart is anyway.  Not a problem for me–I love that too, just for somewhat different reasons.

By the way, I just recently learned that Clegg is gay.  Not that I’m shocked; many of the best horror and dark fantasy authors tend to have non-heteronormative sexualities.  I think a lot of that stems from the fact that Westerners are so weirdly puritanical and guilt-ridden about sex to begin with, and when you add on top of that the fact that when you’re a preadolescent and your sexuality is just developing, if your sexual feelings happen to be taboo too, you begin to see the innate horror of existence in your formative years.  The fact that you are in a sense a slave to whatever weird or unusual quirks/hitches nature has decided to throw into the pot of your genetic materials and/or the profoundly influential early years of your existence, I think we non-heteronormatives really get a sense early in life that the layer between normalcy and strangeness can be paper-thin in spots.  It’s just one step up from there to understanding that the layer between civilization and chaos can be, and often is, equally threadbare.

And that dread realization is generally the driving force behind horror fiction.  It’s a way for some of us to make sense of the burbling randomness and insanity of life.  Further, the need some of us have to create horror, to synthesize it, at least in part taps into another primal fear: the unfairness of being born into a time and place when you are thought a freak for whatever you find beautiful.  In Goat Dance, Cup is dealing with his own sexual neuroses, and it manifests in a deeply symbolic way in the resolution, as he finds himself at one point trapped in a foul pit–the sickly throbbing heart of the Eater of Souls’ domain and influence–with a naked child, the very epitome of innocence and vulnerability, and the desire (to his horror) to . . . eat her.

Ziiiinnnnng!  Bull’s-eye, Mr. Clegg.  Bull’s-eye.

Grade: A+

 

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology: Film Review

Recently I’ve found myself searching through Netflix for the unusual, the oddball, the just plain bizarre.  When I happened upon a documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the title hooked me immediately and I knew I had to watch it.  I have since watched it twice, finding some of the ideas presented in it useful to varying degrees.

Apparently a sequel to another doc, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which I haven’t seen, the film is basically a Marxist and Freudian examination of the concept of ideology as presented in and through an assortment of films both well-known and obscure.  Truthfully, I don’t really get the “pervert’s” part of the title–it seems to be little more than a red herring to draw attention to the film, and I can imagine it works like a charm.  Directed by Brit Sophie Fiennes and narrated by the thoroughly engaging (if sometimes difficult to follow) Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, the film is a fascinating documentary that, if nothing else, offers us a unique perspective on a motley collection of films we know and love such as They LiveJaws and Titanic.

But I have to admire Žižek–a knotty foreigner with a thick beard, a pronounced Slovene accent and a stilted manner of speaking, he boldly challenges us thoroughly capitalist Americans to step outside our comfort zones and look at movies through utterly oblique eyes, and he somehow pulls it off spectacularly.

He begins by claiming that when we feel we have escaped the influence of ideology, it is then that we are most susceptible to it.  Indeed, we actively resist being removed from it because it is extremely uncomfortable to disengage from our ingrained social identities.  Or, as he succinctly puts it, “freedom hurts.”  It’s hard to argue with that, especially in a nation where the political divide continues to widen every year and where outlandish conspiracies once relegated to the political fringe have moved nearly into the mainstream.  Žižek aims his criticisms squarely at consumerist culture, of which we Americans are by far the biggest offenders.  Not that he has nothing positive to say about us.  For example, he makes no bones about the fact that he admires Starbucks’ model of compassionate capitalism, identifying it as the perfect form of capitalism in the age of cynicism.

With nary a misstep, Žižek tackles the symbolism of the shark in Jaws, the true message of the Catholic church in The Sound of Music, Travis Bickle’s sexual repression in Taxi Driver, and the concept of the Big Other as represented in propaganda films like post-WWII Russian narrative film The Fall of Berlin and the Nazi documentary The Eternal Jew, among other things, all from the Marxist point-of-view.  Whether you identify in any sense with Marxism or not, Žižek presents Marxist philosophy in terms that are easy to grasp, or at least much easier to grasp than the works of Karl Marx himself.  I can vouch for that–I have tried to delve into Marx’s writing several times, with various degrees of success.  I can understand the basic premise of Marxism, but it’s all pretty confusing beyond that.  In fact, the Marxist idea I find most engaging (but no less complex) has nothing much to do with economics per se: dialectical materialism.  But more about that later.

Anyway, if you’re at all interested in Freudianism, Marxism, semiotics, film history, film criticism, and so on, this shouldn’t be missed.  And now, to find a copy of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema in my little Southern town.  Yeah, good luck to me, huh?

Grade: A

Updates: 7-20-14

Okay, so I finally got around to creating an Indigo Xix account for Facebook.  You can friend me or follow me by going here or by searching for Indigo Xix in the search window at the top of FB.

I also deleted a couple of articles dealing with gun control.  Not because I have changed my opinion about the issue, but because I no longer want the hassle of dealing with irate gun people, and because I do feel they were harsher than I originally intended them to be.

That’s all for now.  Have a good one, people.

AL+ER Teaser (Chapter One)

Here’s a teaser from the first chapter of my dark fantasy novel AL+ER.  Please bear in mind that this is an early draft and may be subject to editing.  This constitutes roughly three pages of my nineteen page double-spaced manuscript for Chapter One, so less than one-sixth of the chapter as a whole.

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Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger album started up on the CD player, thundering with the speed grunge opening track Rusty Cage. Doing his best to ignore the gelatinous movement of the floor and walls of his apartment bedroom, Eric shambled over to the dresser and carefully—as carefully as his present condition would allow anyway—lifted the single object resting on top of it, a maplewood box with beveled corners and a brass latch. Medusian tresses of cigarette smoke wound through the space around him, a poison-toothed nimbus. With his back against the dresser he slid to the floor, pulling the box down onto his lap as he went. He popped the latch with his thumb, opened the lid and began removing its contents one by one: a Zippo with a musical half-note etched on its side; a folded and frayed letter he had penned as a teenager to a musician he idolized at the time but had never sent; a handful of old family photos with bent corners; another photo of himself as a preteen standing in a long hallway in a building he couldn’t remember; several guitar picks, paperclips and bits of loose change; tiny plastic weapons to long-lost toy figurines…

He dumped the remaining assortment of trinkets and effluvia onto the floor. And there were the cards, now exhumed from their burial at the bottom of the little wooden tomb. The Ledlow Tarot, as he called them. Or sometimes the Deck of Sins. They were wrapped in a square of black silk. Peeling away the silk covering, he splayed the partial Tarot deck—the twenty-one cards of the Major Arcana, which is all Allie had completed—in his left hand. He shuffled the cards and set the deck face-down on the carpet before him.

It must have been a thousand times Eric had done this in the last fourteen years, ever since Allie had given him the cards that summer when they’d both been ten. That was in 2001, the Summer of the Black Sun by Solomon Ryan’s reckoning, and by Eric’s too. Ordinarily he would be shaking by now, but a rare calm filled him this time, and he placed his right palm atop the deck for a few seconds as he pondered the same question, or some variant of it, that he always pondered at this point in the ritual: What will tomorrow bring for me?

Drawing the first card from the top of the deck, he placed it to the far left of what would become a line of five cards.

The Magician. The figure in the card waved his wand a bit before pointing it accusingly at Eric, a golden infinity halo pulsing over his head. Time to get his ass in gear and do what needed to be done. That’s what it meant. An auspicious start.

He drew the next card. The Chariot. The two muscular beasts, one a black unicorn, the other a pale griffin, strained against their shared yoke, briefly rearing past the two dimensions of their flat rectangular prison before being yanked back into the picture plane. Again the theme was motivation, but the Chariot indicated decisiveness as well. So he would go through with it this time after all.

The Lovers. Two entwined adolescents, a male and female, the boy a brunette like Eric and the girl wearing Allie’s unmistakable blond bob with the too-long bangs that half hid her eyes, broke from their hug to look at Eric with expressions of irritation at the interruption of their eternal embrace. At the center of it all, literally and figuratively, there they were. He and Aldora Ledlow, aged ten, sitting Indian-style and facing each other on the floor of Eric’s tree house.

Justice. A young queen who resembled Allie’s mom as she had been in those days, bearing a sword in one hand and a pair of scales in the other. She wore a sorrowful countenance. Everything would be set aright come tomorrow. The cards would decide. Before he drew the final card he felt a shudder of anxiety.

Here it is, folks, the moment of truth. And the winner is…

Death. The Reaper, who slashed his scythe outward, and Eric quickly withdrew his hand from the card to avoid losing a finger. Of course. How could it be anything else? It was the one he’d been waiting on for the last thirteen years, wasn’t it? Well, to be sure, Death didn’t always mean the big sleep. Sometimes it meant a transition, a major life change, or just the end of something important.

Like the world.

No, there was satisfaction in the realization that he would face judgment at last. There was no question of his guilt. The verdict was inevitable. The only matters to be settled now were where the trial would take place and how the punishment would be inflicted. It couldn’t be here in his apartment. Much too plebeian. BOOOOORRRRRing, as Allie would have said. Maybe he would fall from a high place; that seemed the most fitting. Hmm, too biblical? Too showy, certainly. Besides, going that way deprived him of the long trial, an essential part of his fate. The most appropriate means of seeing himself tried was by the same way he had lived his life for the last decade—with the aid of foreign chemicals. Yes. Isn’t that why he’d purchased the Spectral anyway? Hadn’t he known somewhere in the back of his mind that he was going to use the Spectral as a doorway out of this miserable existence?

Good, that was decided. All that was left now was to select the venue. Several minutes of wracking his brain got him nowhere on that count, and he nearly decided to do it at home after all. Then it came to him, and he nearly cackled aloud at the perfection of it. Galaxy House. That mysterious domicile made famous by its former owner and still more infamous by what had happened to him. Truth be told, Eric had always wanted to see the inside of it anyway. Now he would.