Monthly Archive: August 2008

Book Review: Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

nightbird coverI immersed myself in Robert McCammon’s Speaks the Nightbird for days. I first read it in 2002 when it was released in hardback by River City Publishing (Pocket Books put out the paperback version in 2003). It had been over a decade since McCammon last produced a novel; Nightbird reads astonishingly quickly for its near 700-page length, and McCammon’s prose is as smooth, poetic, and unselfconscious as it has ever been.

Writing a period piece like this is never an easy task, but McCammon manages to make the dialogue spoken by the characters ring true in modern-day readers’ ears, and his narrative passages easily rank alongside anything written by the Bronte Sisters or Jane Austen; yes, there’s a certain–and necessary–austere quality to the language, but McCammon never once gets bogged down by the challenges of this particular brand of prose.

His characterization is crystalline; from the major players to even the smallest supporting roles, not one person who populates this book rings a false note–and considering the size of Nightbird ‘s cast (were David Lean still alive, he might well be planning this novel for his next gargantuan production), that is no small feat.

The overriding triumph of this genuinely magnificent novel is the utter believability of its core love story (and it should be noted here that, despite the death, hopelessness, and violence that surrounds the cast, there are several different types of love stories that run through this novel, one that easily takes it place in the classical Romantic tradition of Jane Eyre or Silas Marner).

It would have been easy–and arguably justified–to present the love story between Matthew and Rachel in an overly-passionate, smoldering, Sturm-und-Drang manner, playing its inherently tragic aspects to the hilt in the tradition of Victorian drama or grand opera, but McCammon has a much more subtle and affecting way of playing out the romance between his two central characters. They come together because of a mutual alienation with their fellow human beings, and because each is, at their core, a painfully lonely person who each have come to believe they will exit this life without ever having truly loved or been loved, without touching another person, without moving another human being, and in each the other finds a a hard, gem-like flame of hope amidst the madness and squalor of the times in which they are trapped.

You also cannot help but shake your head in wonder at the staggering amount of research that McCammon put into this novel, and in the way he makes this research necessary to the story’s unfolding–not just as some expositional dump that screams, "Hey, lookit me! I done did all this here research and I’m gonna cram every last bit of it down your throat!" McCammon doesn’t do that here–doesn’t even come close. The historical accuracy present in these pages is not only impressive but vital to the deeper levels of the narrative. Plus it’s all damned interesting, if at times blackly depressing.

Finishing this novel left me saddened–not because of the final outcome of the story, which is both inevitable and moving and therefore as satisfying as you could hope for, given the subject matter; no, it saddened me because, as McCammon has said, this does not signal his return to writing. In an interview I recently read, McCammon stated that one of the reasons he left the horror field was because it had become a literature that (his exact words following) "…celebrates death," and he no longer wishes to be a part of that.

Speaks the Nightbird is filled with death, but ultimately celebrates life and the possibilities offered to even the most despondent soul by love and faith. Finishing this novel made me wish McCammon would consider the contradiction at the center of his reasoning: yes, maybe horror/dark fantasy/whatever in the hell they’re calling it this month…maybe it had been reduced to a literature that celebrated death, but the tide is turning, and now, more than ever, the field needs McCammon’s skill and humanity to become what he himself once referred to as "…the supreme mythic literature of our time."

But let’s face it; as much as we as readers (and myself as a writer for whom McCammon’s craft and skill served as a strong influence) might bemoan the absence of further McCammon books, we are lucky to have this one. And the happiness of no readership–regardless how large or feverishly dedicated that readership may be–is worth any writer’s peace of mind and happiness. Maybe McCammon will return to the field one day, and maybe not: I, for one, thank him regardless, for he has given me so many wonderful tales to remember and to which I can return anytime I choose. Like this one.

Speaks the Nightbird, aside from being probably the best novel you’ll read this year, proves that, in hands like McCammon’s, horror (in all its facets and forms, not just the traditional, boring, pale tropes), could very well fulfill that promise that he himself so eloquently foresaw. It’s just a pity that the field let him down and we lost a man who was easily the most passionate and humane dark fantasist of his time. Speaks the Nightbird will leave you hoping, as it did me, that the much-missed Mr. McCammon will someday come back to us–or, rather, allow us to join back with him.

Images

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

images posterIf you enjoy truly disturbing and mind-warping films, check out Robert Altman’s 1972 film Images. It’s an often horrific study of a children’s author (played by Susannah York) and her rapid descent into genuine schizophrenia and paranoia.

The movie is just amazing, beautifully shot and directed to keep you off-balance. It also features a very interesting, pre-Star Wars score by John Williams.

Images is available on MGM DVD for about 10 bucks and should be seen by any and all fans of serious psychological horror.

Movie Information

Running Time: 101 minutes
Rating: R
Director: Robert Altman
Cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond (who was later director of photography for Close Encounters of the Third Kind)
Writers: Robert Altman, Susannah York

Cast:

Susannah York: Cathryn
Rene Auberjonois: Hugh
Marcel Bozzuffi: Rene
Hugh Millais: Marcel
Cathryn Harrison: Susannah
John Morley: Old Man

There will never be another you

An excerpt from the story “The Sisterhood of Plain-Faced Women” by Gary A. Braunbeck

This is our last dance together,
Tonight soon will be long ago.
And in our moment of parting,
This is all I want you to know…

I remember my mother used to love this one old 1943 Nat King Cole record. It was the only one she owned, as far as I know. She played a song called “There Will Never Be Another You” all the time; it was written by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon. It was one of the sappiest songs I ever heard. I never understood why she liked it so much. But she loved it.

Our house was always immaculately clean when I was growing up. But give my mom even the simplest task–washing a few dishes or something like that–and she’d take about three times longer to get it done than almost anybody else. I used to think it was just her way of avoiding having to listen to my Dad complain about things, but the older I got, the more I began to notice that she didn’t really do anything else with her days. She got up, made breakfast, then set about her tasks.

There will be many other nights like this,
And I’ll be standing here with someone new.
There will be other songs to sing,
Another fall…another spring…
But there will never be another you.

I remember she used to have a few shots of whiskey after my dad went to bed, then she’d play that record over and over, until she got this dreamy look on her face, sitting there in her chair and listening to that song and pretending she wasn’t who she was. Sometimes I could see it in her face, that wish. She was someone else and the song wasn’t on a record, it was being sung to her by some handsome lover come to court her, to ask for her hand and take her away to a better life than the one she had.

There will be other lips that I may kiss,
But they won’t thrill me,
Like yours used to do.
Yes, I may dream a million dreams,
But how can they come true,
If there will never, ever be another you?

I used to sneak downstairs and watch her do this, and I’d laugh to myself, you know? I’d laugh at her because I knew that my life was going to turn out differently. I’d never be so stupid as to wind up marrying a man who didn’t really love me like a husband should but I stayed with him anyway because that’s what the Church told me I was supposed to do. I’d never do that.

I’d never spend my days working around the house, doing the dishes and the laundry and the dusting, having no life of my own, no hobbies, no interests. I’d never spend half the afternoon fixing dinner, then half the evening cleaning up afterward, only finding time for myself after everyone went to bed so I could sip my whiskey and play a goddamn record by Nat King Cole about there never being another me.

I mean, I was eight, I was just a kid in grade school, and even though Mom was only thirty-seven she seemed old and used-up and kind of funny at those times.

But now it’s twenty-five years later and here I am. I don’t know if my husband still loves me; all I’ve got now is my work. Instead of whiskey and Nat King Cole I have two weak cocktails on Friday night after work and Jane Eyre or well-thumbed collections of poetry or a ton of videotapes, most of them romantic comedies.

She had no real life, except the one she found in her shot of whiskey and listening to that song, and I realized all of this way too late. All she had was this one little dream of some imaginary lover singing a sappy love song to her, and she spent the entire day anticipating it. That’s why she took so long to get her work done; looking forward to her fantasy, to this dream she knew in her heart could never be, it was all she really had for herself.

She’s gone now, but here I am, just like her.

Yes, I may dream a million dreams,
But how can they come true,
If there will never, ever be…
Another you?


Italicized lyrics © 1943 by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon

Pride of the Marines

a review by Gary A. Braunbeck

Pride of the Marines is a 1945 war drama starring John Garfield as the tormented marine Al Schmid. It’s based on a novel by Roger Butterfield. This was one of the first movies to step away from the unconditional rah-rah nationalism of earlier WWII films and to portray the brutal nature of the conflict and terrible cost paid by the men who fought. In many ways, the movie was ahead of its time.

This movie contains one of the most terrifying and nerve-wracking sequences I’ve ever seen. Garfield and three of his buddies are trapped in a foxhole in a swamp, and the jungle surrounding them is swarming with Japanese soldiers. You never see the enemy soldiers, though early on you hear them yelling, “Marines, tonight you die!”.

The marines can only see five feet in front of them because of the mist and fog, and one by one the guys are picked off by snipers (who take on the feeling of phantoms). Every once in a while you catch the glimpse of a shadow or hear the snapping of a twig…but that’s it. As each of them falls to a sniper, the others become even more frightened and paranoid, until, near the end of the sequence (it’s a good 10 – 12 minutes long, with no music, just sound effects and silence to build the unbearable tension), Garfield finally snaps and grabs the machine gun and begins firing blindily into the fog…

More would be a spoiler. It remains one of the most nerve-shatteringly suspenseful sequences I’ve seen.

Overall, the film is beautifully acted and it is one of Garfield’s best performances. It’s a pity it’s not available on DVD, though you can very rarely find it shown on cable TV.

Movie Information

Rating: PG (were it re-released on DVD)
Running Time: 119 minutes
Director: Delmer Daves
Writer: Marvin Borowsky, Roger Butterfield, Delmer Daves
Score: Franz Waxman
Cinematographer: J. Peverell Marley
Cast:

John Garfield: Al Schmid
Eleanor Parker: Ruth Hartley
Dane Clark: Lee Diamond
John Ridgely: Jim Merchant
Rosemary DeCamp: Virginia Pfeiffer
Ann Doran: Ella Mae Merchant
Ann E. Todd: Loretta Merchant
Warren Douglas: Kebabian

The Messiah on Mott Street

by Gary A. Braunbeck

The first time I was aware of art "happening" to me was when I was a little boy and was watching a first-run Night Gallery episode with my mom on December 15, 1971. The episode was "The Messiah on Mott Street," starring Edward G. Robinson, Tony Roberts, and Yaphet Kotto. The story centers on an old Jewish man named Abe Goldman (played by Robinson) who is sick and dying on Christmas Eve. Abe prays that a Messiah will save him from the Angel of Death, because if he dies, no one will be around to take care of his young grandson.

I realized about two-thirds of the way through that there was this little lump in my throat, and by the time the episode reached its unapologetically sentimental conclusion, I was bawling like a baby. So was my mom. Until the day she died, "The Messiah On Mott Street" remained her favorite Christmas episode of any television show. We had both been moved by Rod Serling’s simple tale of redemption and miracles among the tenements, and as Mom was pouring herself and me some hot chocolate afterward, she wiped her eyes and said, "Oh, I swear, that Rod Serling can sure write good stories."

It wasn’t until Mom said those words that I came back to reality long enough to realize that Rod Serling (who I knew from The Twilight Zone) had written the words that those people had said, and that his story had made both me and Mom cry (in that good but embarrassing way you never want to tell anyone about later), and that meant that words and stories could affect people.

Not a major unveiling as far as art exhibits go, but it did the trick for me. Watching that episode, knowing my reaction to it, Mom’s reaction to it, and then her reaction about her reaction, brought it full-circle and I started crying again (silly, sentimental boy), and when Mom put her arm around my shoulder and told me it was all right, it was okay, it was just a television show, just a story, all I could manage to say was, "No, it wasn’t," before I started in with the spluttering again.

I hadn’t the experience or the brains to fully realize what was happening to me, so how in hell was I supposed to articulate it? It seemed to me then that, if this were a fair world and just universe, everyone would be able to articulate their thoughts and feelings as well as the people on Night Gallery had, and then maybe people wouldn’t find themselves standing around with snot running down their face and tears in their eyes, frustrated because they couldn’t find the words to express all they needed to convey.

So I began seeking out Rod Serling everywhere I could. I found collections of his short stories at the local library (Serling was a much-underrated prose writer) and read them all cover to cover, then started in again. Anytime a movie written by Serling came on television, Mom or dad would call me down to watch it. I became a Twilight Zone re-run junkie (still am), and you can bet your ass that mine was there in front of that television set every Wednesday night at 9 p.m. tuned to NBC for the next new episode of Night Gallery.

The death of a child

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I once had a daughter. She died when she was very young. She had been sick from the moment she was born and never got better. She never learned to walk, never made a sound, never blew out the candles on a birthday cake. The only home she ever knew were the sterile walls of an ICU.

She was very tiny and she fought very hard. The last seventy-two hours of her life were agonizing, and when she died it was without the benefit of a warm, loving human touch lingering on her skin. Her mother, exhausted and sedated, was asleep on a couch in the hospital’s lounge; I’d not eaten for almost a day-and-a-half and so had gone to the vending machines one floor below to get some coffee and a sandwich. The entire trip took four minutes. The coffee was lukewarm and weak, the sandwich stale and tasteless, and by the time I came back to the ICU, my daughter was dead and gone.

Her death was not a surprise, her mother and I had known for a while that it was (as the tired cliché goes) “only a matter of time.”

Not a surprise, but still the ice-pick in my throat.

I remember seeing the curtain pulled around her incubator.

I remember the beeps, whirrs, and susurrations made by the various machines hooked up to the other patients in the unit.

I remember wanting to cry but being unable to.

Then it was shuffling, being taken aside, muffled words from weary nurses, uncomfortable-looking orderlies, a gurney with a squeaking front left wheel, and the last sight of my daughter: bumps and curves and patches of pale flesh inside a translucent plastic bag, rolling away, away.

Her mother and I were both young and foolish and not nearly strong enough to handle this. Our relationship crawled along for a few more months, a joyless thing, back-broken and spirit-dead, before ending in infidelity, accusations and poison.

It’s been over twenty years since she died. I have since seen my writing career at last get on its feet, and finally gotten — albeit sporadically — the upper hand in the battle with my recurring bouts of severe depression.

Still, there are times — periodic though they may be, usually very late at night or first thing in the morning — when it all comes back, diminished not one whit by the passage of years, and I crumple. Simply crumple.

Don’t believe what the pop-psychologists or self-help books or daytime talk-show hosts tell you about it: You never fully recover from the death of a child. The grief eventually works its way into the shadows, back there someplace, a whisper, an echo, a tendril of smoke perpetually curling in the air over a just-emptied ashtray … but it never completely goes away.

The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation

by Gary A. Braunbeck

At the beginning of Peter Straub’s wonderful novel In the Night Room there is a quote from philosopher, publisher, and journalist Roger Scruton that reads: “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.”

Not to downplay Straub’s redoubtable achievement with this novel, but Scruton’s epigrammatic bit of wisdom knocked my socks off nearly as much as did the novel itself — and I am not one whose sensibilities are easily affected; it takes a lot to genuinely move me, and Scruton (Bad Attitudes; A Dove Descending and Other Stories) did just that.

To understand why this hit me as hard as it did, we’re going to go back to 2002 — October of 2002, to be precise — and join Gary during his stay in the nuthouse. (Okay, technically it was not the nuthouse, more of the pre-nuthouse holding facility, but why nitpick at this late date?)

Understand something before we move on: none of what follows is intended to be a ploy for sympathy; it’s not a pity party; and it sure as hell isn’t romanticized. I did not have then — nor do I now have — much sympathy for myself. I was weak, self-centered, and more than a little stupid. I could have turned to others for help, but I didn’t; it was far easier to allow myself to implode. In short: I’m not attempting to make you feel sorry for me.

Okay, then:

As some of you know, the 16 months between June of 2001 and December of 2002 were not, to put it mildly, blue-ribbon days for Yours Truly. During that time, I lost, within 9 months, my grandmother (heart failure), my father (cancer), then my mother (emphysema); I’d moved to a new city, gotten divorced (my fault, all my fault), underwent surgery to prevent nerve damage to my right hand, and somewhere in there went off my anti-depression medication — yes, I know, stupid, Stupid, STUPID.

The result from all of this is that one week before Halloween of 2002, I found myself in possession of a lot of seriously strong and potentially dangerous medications taken from my parents’ house. (My sister, Gayle, had enough to deal with, so I went through all the rooms and cabinets shoving Mom and Dad’s medications into a box, intending to dispose of everything when I returned to Columbus.)

Bear in mind that though I am far from the brightest bulb in the sign, I am not (under the right circumstances) without a certain cleverness when it comes to finding ways to self-destruct.

I could not go for 5 minutes without thinking of my grandmother’s lonely last years, or seeing my father’s body, or the look on my mother’s face when I told her that I had come to the hospital to take her off life support, or the deep, deep hurt in my soon-to-be ex-wife’s eyes the last time we had seen each other.

I couldn’t sleep; I wasn’t eating, my writing production was down to practically zero because I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the People Who Weren’t There Anymore, and my right hand was becoming more and more useless (this was before the surgery). I was now surrounded by a circle of friends who were, on average, 15 years younger than me and with whom I ultimately had very little in common (I knew I was in trouble when I mentioned Harold Russell and not one of them knew who I was talking about), and I allowed my world to become more and more circumscribed by the handful of rooms in my apartment. If I could bring myself to get out of bed at all, I spent a lot of time sitting in front of the television watching re-runs of shows that hadn’t been very good the first time, but that didn’t matter because I wasn’t seeing them, anyway.

So it’s October, roughly a week before Halloween, and I’m not really here anymore; some empty, cheerless thing that’s wearing my face and using my body to get around has taken the wheel, and I don’t feel like fighting with it.

I have enough money to get a motel room for the night. I have more than enough medications in the proper dosages to ensure that the job will be done correctly (I’ve been researching this for several weeks). And I have recently purchased two packages of pudding cups so that there will be a way to ingest all these medications without causing myself to throw up. (The Shuffling-Off Cocktail Recipe ends here; just know that I had everything necessary to do the deed and knew how and when to take it.)

There’s only one glitch: all of the motels within walking distance of my apartment (I don’t drive) have no vacancies due to a Quarter Horse convention that’s in town. So, much to my disappointment, I’m going to have to do the job at the apartment and hope that my two roommates will still be able to live there afterward.

I’m walking back to the apartment and realize I’m thirsty, so I make a short detour to the neighborhood Giant Eagle to buy a soda. I’m standing in line behind a couple with several children, and the youngest child — maybe 3 years old — looks back at me, then turns to her mother and tugs her sleeve and says, “Mommy, that man’s crying.”

Damned if she wasn’t right. I’d had no idea, perceptive fellow that I am.

“Don’t stare,” says the child’s mother, but the little girl looks back at me, still gripping her mother’s sleeve, and says, “What’s wrong, mister?”

“I’m sorry,” I say to her sweet little face.

And then she starts crying.

Now everyone in this line and those on either side of us is looking over and trying to look like they’re not looking. Me, I’m standing there shaking like an alcoholic in the grips of the DTs, my face soaked, crying so hard that snot is coming out of my nose in buckets, and a police officer is coming toward me.

Oh, good, I think. Way to be inconspicuous, Einstein. Everyone’s staring at you, you’ve got roughly a thousand dollars’ worth of prescription medications in your bag, and now a cop’s coming. This is going to screw up the Shuffling-Off schedule something fierce if you don’t think fast.

The officer asked what the problem was, and I managed to force a smile to my face and told him that I’d just come from a funeral and I was sorry, this just sort of hit me unexpectedly, and he bought it, and I purchased my soda and walked back to my apartment, still shaking, still in sloppy tears. Pathetic.

I got back inside, walked up to my room, dumped all the medications and pudding on the bed, and just sort of … imploded.

I honestly don’t remember much about the next 12 hours — I have vague impressions of peoples’ voices talking to me, of someone holding my hand, of eating something, of sleeping for a while, of watching a movie — but when I finally came back to something like lucidity, I was being checked in to an emergency mental health facility here in Columbus. Two psychiatrists had been filled in on my recent history, both had talked to me (which I barely recall), and both had decided I was a danger to myself and to others.

I spent a week there before being deemed stable enough for release. I won’t bore you with the details of the intensive day-to-day routine of life in there, save for one thing: the book I had brought with me: Stephen King’s From A Buick 8.

Understand that I had given up hope. I had no faith left — not in myself, not in humankind, not in love, friendship, integrity, this ethereal whoseewhatsit called God, nothing.

And my writing career? — forget it. I was more than aware that a lot of readers considered my stuff to be too dark, if not outright depressing, I didn’t see my fiction becoming any more cheerful anytime soon, and as far as I could tell, the future was in no way bright enough to require my wearing shades.

Submitted for your approval: not a happy camper.

Still, I had already started King’s novel, wasn’t all that far into it, and God knows I didn’t have anything better to do with my extra time, so during those free periods — few and far between that they were — I read.

And something odd began to happen.

I started feeling … if not better, then no worse.

Don’t go thinking this is leading up to my describing some thundering, overpowering, Wagnerian epiphany, because it isn’t; I had no uplifting moment of realization; no heavenly choir began singing over too-loud, sentimental John Williams music as a beam of moonlight crept through the window and anointed my face and mind with the Silver Light of Truth and Inner Peace; I experienced no visions, no revelations, uttered no exclamations of “My God, the ghosts have done it all in one night!

No, what happened was, simply, this: I became caught up in the story (which, for the record, may not be the the best-written story King has ever told, but is, I think, the best-told story he’s ever written). I wanted to find out what happened next. And because I read slowly, I was able to pace my reading so that I had only enough time to read a chapter or two in the afternoon, and the same later at night. (Sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on what feelings I had “shared” with the group during any one of the five daily sessions that were held — and those weren’t counting the individual sessions.)

But here’s the important thing: I had something to look forward to. What was going to come crawling out of the car’s trunk next time? What was the deal with the lights and fireworks? Would the dog survive? (Dogs don’t fare well in King’s books.) Would King be able to pull off this round-robin of first person narrators? Inquiring minds wanted to know.

Okay — I wanted to know. And that came as something of a surprise to me. Because all of a sudden, I cared about something again.

Admittedly, it wasn’t myself, but why nitpick? Something within me still held on to enough wisps of hope that it allowed me to become immersed in a story. And that immersion, that curiosity, that wanting to know what happens next, began to spread over into the way I behaved toward the other patients, the doctors, the nurses, and myself. I started to actually talk to and not at everyone else. What did I have to lose? If nothing else, I had Buick 8 waiting for me at day’s end.

Yes, I’m skipping over a lot of things — those times when I fell back into hopelessness; when something one of the characters said reminded me of something of my mom or dad used to say and I’d hurl the book across the room, only to retrieve it a few minutes later, smoothing out the cover and pages; those times I was too heavily sedated to focus on the words — because the point here is that as both a reader and human being I had found consolation in imaginary things, and knew it my heart that it was not imaginary consolation.

Looking at my trusty dictionary, I read the following about “consolation”:

con-so-la-tion n
1. a source of comfort to somebody who is upset or disappointed
2. comfort to somebody who is distressed or disappointed
3. a game or contest held for people or teams who have lost earlier in a tournament

Arguably, all of these definitions could apply (the third one falling more on the metaphorical side of the coin), but for the sake of this argument, we’ll go with the first two.

I remember something comedian Red Skelton used to say at the end of his television show every week:

… if by chance someday you’re not feeling well and you should remember some silly little thing I’ve said or done and it brings back a smile to your face or a chuckle to your heart … then my purpose as your clown has been fulfilled.

That is the kind of consolation I’m talking about, and it is the kind of consolation that I found in reading King’s novel at that time, and in that place. I honestly don’t think any other book could have done this for me, under those circumstances.

What I came away with — aside from three different types of depression medication that I have to take twice a day — was the knowledge that good storytelling can be a source of great consolation, and that this consolation can give back a glimmer of hope to a weary heart.

How many of you reading this have been lost in depression, or sadness, or lingering grief, or loneliness, or doubt, or any of the thousands of shadowed corners in the human heart where even the blackest darkness would look like a star going nova, and found some moment of comfort in a book or short story that you’ve read?

And, yes, you bet your ass that this can apply to horror fiction. I’m not talking about that old happy horseshit that says imaginary horrors help us to better deal with the real ones — we’ll get into that at another time — but, rather, how the very act of reading something that raises anxiety or provides a good chill reaffirms the immediacy and necessity of your own existence.

If some part of you is still willing to choose to be frightened, or disturbed, or repulsed, then this same part is embracing life by embracing fear: if you can still be scared, then you still think life has value and meaning; and if you still think that life has value and meaning, then there is still hope in your heart.

What greater gift could a storyteller hope to pass on to his or her readers?

So, yes, the consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation. Even if those imaginary things live in dark corners and aren’t sometimes particularly pleasant or uplifting.

As long as there is fear of the darkness, there will be hope.

Book Review: The Girl in the Basement and Other Stories

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

book coverThe Girl in the Basement and Other Stories by Ray Garton
184 pages; Subterranean Press, 2004
ISBN: 1-59606-012-3

Oddly enough, reading Ray Garton’s collection of stories kept reminding me of the original Get Carter starring Michael Caine.

Let me explain: throughout Carter, you see how Caine’s hardened criminal is complex, strictly moral within the boundaries of his own code, and very, very dangerous and scary. Yet at the end of the film, you walk away with the feeling that, as dangerous as he’s shown to be, the character never really even touched upon the depths of the violence of which is capable…and that makes him all the more formidable and frightening when you view the film a second time.

The same can be said of The Girl in the Basement and Other Stories, which now takes its place alongside Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From and Harlan Ellison’s Slippage as one of the few collections that I immediately re-read upon finishing it. And, like the original Get Carter, as good as it is initially, it’s even better the second time, and a lot of that is due to the remarkable restraint that Garton exercises throughout the title novella and four accompanying stories.

If you’ve read any of Garton’s novels, then you know that he can turn on the gory fireworks with the best of them; in fact, his last 2 novels, Sex and Violence in Hollywood and Scissors, are so gloriously over-the-top that Garton has arguably invented a new sub-genre: that of the Grand Guignol Black Comedy. He remains a master of the horrific set-piece, and some writers (like myself) might consider selling our souls to have half his ability at pacing. But what a lot of readers love about Garton’s work are those amazing fireworks.

Potential readers should be warned that The Girl in the Basement contains no such fireworks, yet the collection suffers not a whit from its lack of violence and gore; in fact, it emerges as all the more intense and affecting for its restraint.

All of the stories in The Girl in the Basement are concerned, at their core, with the same thing: corruption; be it moral, physical, spiritual, psychological, or societal, Garton touches upon corruption in all its attendant forms, even those we don’t often recognize on the surface as being such.

Take the opening title novella. Ostensibly a story about a possessed child, one begins to prepare oneself for all of the usual trapping associated with this type of story, secure in the knowledge that Garton-an expert hand at injecting new life and energy into the more traditional horror tropes-will not fall victim to cliché.

The story focuses on 15-year old Ryan, a young man who, at the beginning of the story, is living in a foster home with several other teens, having endured a series of abusive foster parents before arriving at the home of Hank and Marie Preston. Ryan has a job bagging groceries at a local market. He has a budding romance with Lyssa, another teen in the Preston’s care. He has a troubled (at best) relationship with his mother, a drug addict who is trying to get her life back together. He harbors dreams of becoming a writer, dreams that are encouraged by the Preston’s neighbor, Elliot Granger, himself a published horror writer who is currently recovering from painful hip surgery and must rely on Marie Preston and Ryan for help with many of his physical chores.

Already die-hard fans can see several Garton-esque elements in place; the abused kid, the isolated writer, characters struggling with addiction, the internal scars carried by those survivors who’ve seen the uglier side of life but haven’t yet given up. If you hear echoes of other Garton novellas like "Monsters" and "Dr. Krusadian’s Method" early on in "The Girl In The Basement", I suspect it’s because Garton wants you to; after all, the best way to surprise readers’ expectations is to pull a sleight-of-hand by setting them up to expect more of the same and then pulling the rabbit out of your hat.

Which is not to say that "The Girl In The Basement" is an exercise in narrative and structural trickery (even though there is some sly trickery involved on Garton’s part, and it’s both justified and enviable); this novella is very much its own story, but it’s most definitely not the story you’re expecting.

There’s a 9-year-old, mildly retarded girl named Maddy who’s kept in the basement of the Preston house, you see, and sometimes she talks in the deep, gravelly voice of an adult, one who seems able to predict things, one who knows things about you that no one else knows or has ever known…

Think you know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to happen? Forget it. About the time government agents showed up to "talk" with Maddy in private (something they’ve been doing for quite a while, as it turns out), I had to shake my head in admiration because I had no idea where he was going with this.

What makes this title novella one of the most accomplished pieces of Garton’s career is not just the remarkable restraint he exercises when dealing with the more overtly horrific elements (which at times become almost secondary, and at one point superfluous), but the depth of emotional realism he displays when dealing with the characters. This is hands-down the single most compassionate piece he’s ever written; every character is fully fleshed out, both their strengths and weaknesses, their pettiness and kindness, their courage and cowardice, are on display here, and as horrific as this "possession" of the little girl is, it pales in comparison to the portraits Garton paints of how this horror affects the characters. There is a scene near the end of the story where Ryan has a meal of cookies and juice with his drug-addict mother that is one of the most heartbreaking things you’re likely to read this year, simmering as it is with a palpable sense of desperation, loneliness, terror, and tragic inevitability.

The horrific elements of the story are for the most part kept on the periphery, and while I think this is going to be a turn-off for readers who look to Garton only for fireworks and fury, those readers like myself who look to Garton to always challenge himself as a storyteller and us as readers are going to come away feeling like we’ve just left a feast.

And while "The Girl In The Basement" raises many points and answers many questions about the nature of corruption, it leaves just as many unanswered, and rightly so: if one is powerless to fight against corruption, then is it better to simply turn away and ignore it or use it to your own personal advantage? And does that corrupt you, as well?

I don’t mean to make this sound philosophically heavy or (God forbid) heavy-handed, because it’s a damned entertaining and suspenseful novella, but the depth of emotional maturity and thoughtfulness-as well as the previously-mentioned restraint-elevate this (in my eyes, at least) to the highest form of storytelling that can be found in the horror field; it’s suspenseful, horrifying, emotionally rich, perceptive and wise, and-here’s the kicker-surprisingly intimate. The "possession" of this little girl (once you read it, you’ll understand why I keep putting that term in quotation marks) might be affecting the world and universe at large, but Garton keeps the focus on Ryan and those around him, creating a claustrophobic microcosm that, like all good fiction, mirrors our own everyday lives just enough to make us genuinely uncomfortable enough to question the solidity of the so-called real world surrounding us.

With the exception of the next story, "Cat Lover", all of the stories end with an image of something mudane-a woman crying, a man getting out of his car, someone watching television-that is made darker and more tragic by the context in which it appears; it’s Garton taking snapshots of the everyday and like all good writers making us wonder what’s going on behind these seemingly inconsequential pictures.

"Cat Lover" is an impressive story, made all the more so when, at the end, you realize that you’ve just read a story wherein all that physically happens is that a man has a stroke and spends the rest of the story lying paralyzed on the floor of his home worrying that no one is going to feed his cats. While the shock ending can be seen coming from the second page, "Cat Lover" isn’t about the nightmarish image that closes the story; it’s about loneliness and isolation, and what happens when an individual must suddenly rely on those he/she views as corrupt as their only source of salvation. It’s also one of the most sharply-rendered character studies I’ve read in a long time.

"Reception" is a hard one to talk about without giving away its devastating one-two punch at the end; suffice to say this portrait of a family recovering from the death of one its children manages to achieve in 7 deft pages what I myself strive toward as a writer: to simultaneously chill you to the marrow and hit you square in the heart.

"The Night Clerk" may be my favorite of the shorter pieces contained here-and it’s also the one story in the collection that I think most readers are going to finish and go, "Huh?", if not outright dislike. For starters, it’s not a horror story in the traditional sense-is, in fact, Garton going mainstream. This seeming vignette about a guy who goes to a an all-night convenience store only to meet up with a laid-back yet oddly pompous night clerk reads like a cross between John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Yeah, there’s some violence and tension involved when a masked gunman storms in to rob the place, but this isn’t a story about violence; it’s a tense meditation on the difference between genuine courage and like cowardice…and bear in mind that the courageous character in this piece is not who you initially think it is. Of all the stories in this collection, "The Night Clerk" is the one that might require you to read it a second time in order to pick up on the myriad subtleties of character and foreshadowing that are sprinkled throughout.

The closing story, "Housesitting", brings the overall theme of corruption full circle, as its central character, housesitting for her best friend while she’s on vacation with her husband-uncovers some hidden secrets about her best friend (via some disturbing photographs) that not only forever taint her relationship with her best friend, but corrupt her view of the world around her, as well. The closing scene between the two friends-taking place in a brightly-lighted kitchen on an almost too-ideal suburban afternoon-is Garton writing at the height of his power; as heartbreaking and affecting as this scene is, there is so much more going on beneath the surface, culminating in a single, powerful, beautifully understated final image that will haunt you long after the book is finished-might even, in fact, make you go back to the beginning and start the collection all over again.

The Girl in the Basement and Other Stories is a superb collection, filled with countless surprises, genuine scares, and more than enough emotional depth to satisfy even the most jaded reader.

Of Subtext, Subtlety, and Coming In After The Fact

by Gary A. Braunbeck

There’s a certain type of story, one that I have come to call the After-the-Fact story. I have not seen many After-the-Fact stories written in the horror genre; mostly, they’ve stayed in the neighborhood of “literary” fiction. So, why haven’t we seen more of this type of story in horror?

After-the-Fact stories are tricky little bastards, because the main action of the story has already happened before the first sentence. After-the-Fact stories do not employ flashback, nor do they resort to the obvious mechanism of having a character offer a quick recap of what happened before the reader came into it; no, in these stories, you’re presented with a situation that, nine times out of ten, is in no way connected to what actually happened; you have to piece together the events by what is said and done by the characters. They’re a little like walking into a room just after someone’s had an argument or gotten a piece of bad news; even though you know something’s just happened, no one will tell you what it was, so you have to figure it out for yourself by observing the effect it’s had on those around you: you have to pay attention to the detritus, because that’s all you’ve got to go on.

A classic example is John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer”. On the surface, it’s about nothing more than some rich guy in suburbia who’s spending a Sunday afternoon running from neighbor’s house to neighbor’s house to use their swimming pools. “I’m swimming my way home,” he tells his friends and neighbors, all of whom laugh and remark on what a card he is as they go about mixing their martinis and discussing events at the country club. Occasionally someone remarks, in passing, ” … he’s looking better, don’t you think …” or … I’m really surprised to see him out like this, after, well …” Then the main character comes over to them and that line of conversation is dropped. This goes on for a while, each successive neighbor becoming more surprised and anxious at seeing him, offering more whispered comments when he’s out of earshot — ” … didn’t realize he was back …” etc. — until it becomes obvious that something fairly awful has happened to this guy sometime before the story began, and though Cheever never once directly states what happened, everything you need to know is there.

The first time I read “The Swimmer”, its sudden shocker of an ending seemed to come out of left field, so I went back and re-read the story, much more slowly than the first time, and realized that Cheever had, indeed, dropped a ton of clues; unfortunately, the majority of them were hidden in the detritus, given only through subtext.

Raymond Chandler (creator of Philip Marlowe, the hero of such classic novels as The Big Sleep and The Little Sister) once gave the best example of what constitutes subtext that I’ve ever encountered (and I am liberally paraphrasing here):

A man and woman, both middle-aged, are waiting for an elevator. It arrives, and the man helps the woman get on. For the first several floors they are alone, watching the blinking lights. They do not speak and stand well apart from each other. The woman wears a very nice dress. The man wears a suit, tie, and hat. The elevator stops — not their floor — and a young woman gets on; she smiles at both the man and the woman, who smile at her in return. The man removes his hat. The ride continues in silence. The elevator stops, the girls gets off, the man puts his hat back on. A few floors later, the man and woman get off and walk together toward a door at the end of the corridor.

It was usually at this point that Chandler would ask the listener: “What’s written on that door?”

So I’ll put the question to you: what words are written on that door which our middle-aged couple are heading toward?

How the hell am I supposed to know? some of you may cry. No one in that freakin’ elevator said word one to anyone else, and on the basis of all the nothing that happened during that boring, boring, boring ride, I’m supposed to guess what it says on that stupid door?

Yes, you are.Because an awful lot happened during that elevator ride:

  1. The man and woman never spoke to each other, even while they were alone;
  2. They also made it a point to stand well apart from each other even though the man helped her get on;
  3. When the young woman got on, the man, obviously out of respect and courtesy, removed his hat;
  4. Once the young woman disembarked, he put the hat back on; and,
  5. The man and woman got off on the same floor, and are heading toward that door together.

Still say nothing happened and that you have no clues to go on?

Detritus. Subtext. The unspoken information that is conveyed to a reader through a character’s behavior, actions, speech, or lack thereof. In acting, it’s referred to as “nuance”. It’s subtle, but its implications are quite direct if you care enough to pay attention.
That is, in my opinion, what the horror field has lost over the last few decades: a willingness on the part of both writers and readers to (respectively) employ and appreciate the quieter, more delicate, and less obvious details of character and scene that can make fiction so much richer and rewarding.

Last chance; take a guess what it says on that door.

Try: Marriage Counselor.

That was an After-the-Fact story; tricky little bastard, wasn’t it?

There’s usually very little action in these stories; nothing much seems to happen at the core — it’s on the periphery that you have to watch out for yourself.

A handful of other After-the-Fact stories you’d do well to search out and read include Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”; Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path”; Raymond Carver’s “What Do You Do In San Francisco?”, “Popular Mechanics”, and “Why, Honey?” (these latter two being arguably horror stories); Carson McCullers’s “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud”; Michael Chabon’s “House Hunting”; John O’Hara’s brilliant “Neighbors” (a horror story if ever there was one); and a personal favorite of mine, Russell Banks’s “Captions” — perhaps in its way the most extreme After-the-Fact story I’ve yet encountered –wherein Banks details the agonizing disintegration of a married couple’s existence through captions taken from newspapers or written underneath pictures in photo albums.

You’ve undoubtedly noticed that the above list contains no horror writers. There is a reason for this: not many have attempted an After-the-Fact story. Maybe it’s because the structure of this type of story seems to self-consciously “literary” to them; maybe it’s because horror readers have become far too accustomed to having everything spoon-fed to them and don’t think they should have to work a little while reading a story, and so horror writers just automatically assume that All Must Be Revealed as quickly and in as simplistic of terms as possible. I don’t know, I’m guessing here. But I’ve been going through my books searching for at least six examples of a successful After-the-Fact story in the horror field, and here’s what I came up with:

  • “Sitting in the Corner, Whimpering Quietly,” by Dennis Etchison
  • “Petey” by T.E.D. Klein
  • “Red” by Richard Christian Matheson
  • “Snow Day” by Elizabeth Massie
  • “Taking Down the Tree” by Steve Rasnic Tem
  • “Gone” by Jack Ketchum

… and that was it (even with this small a list, Klein’s, Matheson’s, Ketchum’s, and Tem’s stories almost offered too many concrete hints to qualify).

I thought perhaps Peter Straub’s “Bar Talk”, “The Veteran”, or “A Short Guide To the City” (all from his magnificent collection Houses Without Doors) could be used to beef up the list, but that would have been stacking the deck (pardon my mixed metaphors); Straub’s work is the result of an exceptionally well-read literary background, so of course the sensibilities of his work are informed from countless sources, resulting in fiction that is challenging in its approach to structure and subtext — no more so than in the “Interlude” fictions sprinkled throughout Houses.

So no Straub; it wouldn’t be playing fair on my part. Same goes for Stewart O’Nan, whose wonderful collection In The Walled City contains not one, but two After-the-Fact stories, “Calling” and “Finding Amy”. (I exclude O’Nan because, though he does sometimes dabble in the horror field, he is not primarily a horror writer.)

So I came up with six stories, four of which (though superb) just barely made it onto the list. I’m sure there are other After-the-Fact horror stories out there that I missed, but my guess is, not that many.

Horror may be trying to outgrow its popular definition, but it’s still suffering from a case of arrested literary adolescence — and I’m not one who apologizes for using the term “literary” when talking about horror. It can be among our most literary forms of storytelling; emphasis on can be; we still need to take chances, even if we fall flat on our faces in the attempt.