“Don’t be ridiculous,” Albert said as he carried a hollow, plastic donkey through the snow to the nativity display in front of the strip mall. “There were no rabbits in the manger with the baby Jesus.”
Beside him, Ed’s right arm was wrapped around Joseph’s neck while he cradled the baby in the crook of his left elbow.
“Then how did a rabbit get involved in his resurrection?” Ed said.
Albert’s feet stopped sloshing through the melting snow in the parking lot and he turned to Ed, right arm wrapped over the donkey’s back, left hooked under its belly. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Ed stopped walking a few steps beyond where Albert stood and turned to him. “Don’t talk to me like I’m a dummy. You’re the dummy. The Easter Bunny, whatta you think I’m talkin’ about?”
Ed was five years older than Albert, but they’d gone to school together since the sixth grade because Ed had been held back a few times. Now they were in their forties and both worked for the man who owned the strip mall, Harvey Keith. He was the best boss either of them had ever had, although they worked for him in different capacities.
Albert’s shoulders drooped as he tilted his head back and rolled his eyes, then he started walking again. “The Easter Bunny isn’t in the bible, you mook.”
“I never said it was in the bible! I’m askin’, if there’s no rabbit involved in Jesus’s birth, then how come there’s one involved in him comin’ back from the dead? I just figured, hey, maybe there was some bunnies in the manger, or somethin’, y’know, with the other animals. And then later, maybe when he came out of his tomb, there was some bunnies hoppin’ around then, too. That would make sense.”
Albert walked around the manger facing the street, stepped inside, and placed the donkey next to Mary so it seemed to be peering into the makeshift crib. To Ed, he said, “Can you tell me how that would make sense? Or why it would make sense?”
Ed plopped Joseph down on the other side of the crib from Mary, then leaned forward and gently placed the baby Jesus in its bed. “I don’t know if it makes sense so much, but at least it’d be a bunny somewheres near Jesus in the manger and somewheres near Jesus on Easter. And now, maybe, when we celebrate Easter, a bunny comes around and hands out candy to the kids. You know, maybe so they won’t scream in church.”
Albert’s sigh became a frothy cloud of vapor in the cold. “Then why isn’t there a Christmas Bunny?”
Ed frowned at him and narrowed one eye, suspicious of mockery. “I dunno! ‘Cause we got Santa Claus, I guess. Santa helps Jesus out at Christmas time and the bunny helps him at Easter.”
Albert laughed quietly and shook his head. “I don’t know if you’re being funny or if you were deprived of oxygen in the womb.”
A silver Hyundai Sonata Hybrid slowed to a stop at the curb in front of the nativity scene. The passenger’s window slid down to reveal a man in his late twenties or early thirties wearing tinted glasses. A young woman of the same age sat behind the wheel. The man said something, but they couldn’t hear him, so Albert and Ed crossed the sidewalk — Albert in his dark suit and overcoat, Ed in his jeans and down jacket — and leaned toward the window.
“Is this private property?” the man said, nodding toward the large holiday decorations.
“Are you kidding me?” Albert said, sounding at once weary and deeply annoyed. “It’s a strip mall, not a courthouse.” He pointed behind him at one of the storefronts. “You see that? You can’t get your nails done at City Hall.” He aimed his finger at Stumpy’s Liquors, with its bright red-and-green greeting painted on the window: HAPPY HOLIDAYS! “And the government doesn’t run liquor stores, okay? This is all privately owned property, none of it is taxpayer supported. Okay?”
The man in the car waved a hand at the manger. “So this is legal?”
“Legal? What the hell is wrong with you?” His voice grew gradually louder as he spoke. “Who are you, Santa’s gestapo? Of course it’s legal, it’s mid-November and this is America, you rocket scientist, it’s been the Christmas season since the first Halloween decorations went up at the beginning of September!”
“Hey, look, I was just wondering — ”
“Yeah, yeah, I know what you were wondering! Now why don’t you go donate some toys to an orphanage, or something, to make up for being an obnoxious douchebag?”
As the window slid back up, the car drove away, kicking up a few clumps of dirty slush.
“Jesus Christ,” Albert muttered as they headed back toward the mall. “When did they change that damned song?”
“What song, Albert?”
“That fa-la-la song. When did they change it to ‘’Tis the season to be an asshole, fa-la-la-la-la-fucking-la?’”
Ed chuckled. “I don’t think they’ve changed it yet, but I know what you mean. I didn’t think you believed in any of that stuff, though, Albert,” he added, hooking a gloved thumb over his shoulder at the nativity.
“No, I don’t. All that Jesus stuff ... I mean, if there was a Jesus and even half of that stuff in the bible happened, I don’t believe he walked on water or did all those other magic tricks. But, hey, he shook things up, spoke out for the poor and the sick, and he pissed off the people in charge, so that makes him okay in my book. But it’s Christmas! Does everybody have to agree on everything, now, before we can digest our fudge and fruitcake? Yeah, I know, they can’t represent one religion on government ground unless they do it with all others, I get that. That’s fine, I’m all for it, and it’s the law. But why does it all have to be so ugly? And come on, it’s a strip mall! What the hell did that idiot think, that Palace Massage and Aromatherapy is a government operation? Jesus!”
They stopped to wait while a pickup truck slowly backed out of its parking space.
“Remember when we were kids, Ed? The whole idea at Christmas time was to at least make a little effort to be a better person, right? Whatever you thought that was supposed to be. Maybe you smiled and said hello to the postal carrier you never acknowledged the rest of the year, or you tried to be friendlier to your cranky neighbor, or you gave more to charity, or maybe it was the only time you gave to charity. Or you went to church and maybe put a little extra money in the offering plate. Things like that.”
“‘Member that time we decorated old lady Taggart’s front yard?” Ed said with a laugh.
A smile grew slowly on Albert’s face. “Oh, yeah,” he said, nodding. “I remember that.”
“We put Santa and his reindeer on the lawn and lights on her porch.”
“That’s right, she wouldn’t let us put them on the roof.”
“Yeah, ‘member? She caught us climbin’ up on the roof and came after us with a broom. Kept yellin’ ‘Your parents are gonna sue me!’”
Albert let out a full, throaty laugh. “Yeah, see, that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. We knew she didn’t like us, we knew she didn’t want us around, but it was Christmas!” He smiled again. “She sure was a mean old woman.”
“‘Specially at Christmas time. She hated Christmas. She was a widow twice as long as she was married. Last few years of her life, I’d go over and do some yard work for her.” He shrugged one shoulder. “You know, anything she needed doin’. She was always mean about it, thought I was tryin’ to cheat her out of somethin’, always tried to chase me off. Christmas come around, and she’d get even meaner.”
“Whatever happened to her? I don’t remember hearing.”
“Blew her brains out with her husband’s shotgun. Used her toe. Did it on Christmas Eve about twelve years ago.”
The pickup truck pulled out of the parking lot and turned right on Convention Street. It was starting to rain and the pickup’s windshield wipers came on as it merged into traffic. Albert and Ed continued their walk toward the mall, slower now.
Albert shook his head back and forth slowly. “What’s happened to people, Ed? I know things are bad, everybody’s broke, jobs are scarce. But things have been bad before. And Christmas time brings a lot of pressures, I know that. But wasn’t there a time when people tried to be nicer at Christmas?”
Ed squinted as he thought about the question. “Maybe it just seemed that way when we was kids.”
“Maybe. But people weren’t so ... angry. Why the hell is everybody so angry?”
“I dunno, Albert. Maybe everybody’s so angry ‘cause ... well, ‘cause everybody else is so angry. But I’m pretty dumb, even for a janitor, so I dunno.”
Albert frowned and gave Ed a sidelong look with hooded eyes. “You’re not dumb, Ed. I keep telling you that. Didn’t they have you tested for a bunch of stuff back in school? You know, learning disabilities, stuff like that?”
“Oh, yeah, yeah. But I failed all the tests.” He barked an abrupt laugh.
“But they were negative, right? There was nothing wrong with you. And what did everyone conclude was the problem?”
Grinning, Ed said, “I’m a lazy ass. And I am. Long as I got some beans and Mountain Dew, a place to sleep, and a bowling alley nearby, I’m happy. I don’t need nothin’ more’n that.”
“That’s right. But you’re not dumb. Don’t talk about yourself that way.”
Ed looked at him briefly with a surprised smirk.
They stepped onto the canopied sidewalk that stretched along the front of the shops. “Would you like a drink, Ed? Some jerky, or something? I think I’d like a cup of coffee. Let’s go into Stumpy’s. My treat.”
They turned right on the sidewalk and walked by one of the strip’s empty units, previously Captain Collectible.
“What are your plans for Christmas, Ed?” Albert said.
“Hell, I don’t even know if I’m doin’ anything for Thanksgiving yet. Last Christmas, me’n some friends had a nice turkey dinner down to the bowling alley, and then we bowled our asses off. Probably do the same thing again this Christmas. How ‘bout you, Albert?”
“Oh, I’m doing the usual family thing.”
“That’s good. It’s nice to have family at Christmas time.”
“Oh, yeah. It’s all planned. Last year, we drove upstate to see my wife’s family. This year, we’ll have Christmas with my family here in town. It’ll be a typical family gathering, I’m sure. Dad will get drunk. Mom will get hysterical. My sister will get slapped by her husband, and the Children of the Corn will be screaming about how Santa screwed them. Yeah, I can almost feel the warmth now.”
As they walked by Mia’s Nails, Albert’s phone vibrated in his pocket. It was Mr. Keith. Albert stopped to answer the phone. While he talked to the boss, Ed stared idly at the traffic on Convention. Neither one of them saw the young man in the denim jacket who, farther up the sidewalk, reached out to push the door of Stumpy’s open but stopped for a moment to look at the front window before going inside.
“I’m here with Ed,” Albert said. “I helped him put up the nativity out front. My meeting with Miss Lee at Palace Massage is in — ” He checked his watch. “ — twenty minutes. Shouldn’t take long. She’s a reasonable woman and she knew the rent increase was coming. I’ll be back in the office after lunch, if that’s okay with you.”
After the conversation ended, they continued up the sidewalk.
“You gettin’ a massage?” Ed asked.
“Here? God, no. I have to meet with Miss Lee over a rent dispute.”
“What’s that title Mr. Keith gave you again?”
“Vice President of Field Operations.”
Ed grinned. “Sounds important.”
“Half the time, it’s not much more than a glorified errand boy, but it’s a good job.”
They stepped out of the cold and into the warm stuffiness of Stumpy’s Liquors. It was a cluttered store all year long, but during the holidays, it became even more cluttered with decorations and Christmas displays. To their right stood a Santa Claus that looked bigger than it was because it stood on a three-foot-tall base wrapped in corrugated paper with a red-brick design. He wore red velour coat and pants with the traditional fluffy, white cuffs and collar, with the traditional shiny black boots, and his shiny, white beard appeared to be made of spun glass. He had a green bag slung over his right shoulder and held in his extended left hand a bottle of vodka. Small toys were scattered all around his feet. Just behind Santa’s bag stood a green Christmas tree covered with sparkling ornaments and lights.
To their immediate left was the register, behind which stood Stumpy himself, a stout, craggy Vietnam veteran in his early sixties with a prosthetic right leg from the knee down. He had a droopy white goatee and long white hair that he pulled back in a ponytail. He stood with his beefy, tattooed arms folded together across his chest, talking quietly with a tall, slender man in a denim jacket who had his hands cocked on his hips, elbows pointing outward.
“What’s your poison, Ed?” Albert said as he headed for the coffee station. “You’re still guzzling that Mountain Dew stuff, aren’t you?”
There were four carafes lined up, each labeled to identify the kind of coffee it held. Albert pulled a medium-size Styrofoam cup from the holder, held it under the nozzle of the carafe marked “REGULAR,” and pumped the top to fill the cup.
Ed chuckled as he passed Albert and opened one of the soft drink coolers. “I ain’t ever drank nothin’ besides Mountain Dew since high school, I think.”
“If you’re not careful, you’ll spend the last years of your life drinking nothing but Mylanta and crapping into a bag. Those sodas will eat up your guts after a while.”
“Yeah, that’s what Mom used to tell me. Course, she was a drunk who died early of liver failure, so I guess nobody’s perfect.”
“Look!” Stumpy barked.
Startled by the shouted word, Albert and Ed turned toward the register in front. Stumpy was leaning forward, both hands flat on the countertop beside the register as he glared at his young customer.
“I got Jews who come in here, Muslims, Shintos,” Stumpy said. “There’s a family of Sikhs lives up the road and they buy their milk and eggs here like clockwork. None of ‘em celebrate Christmas. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but this city’s got diversity up the hoo-ha and my business depends on customers buying things. So I put ‘happy holidays’ in the window this year to include everybody, okay? And I’ll be doin’ it every year from now on, until people like you make me so fuckin’ crazy that my head explodes and they gotta close this place down.”
The guy in the denim jacket straightened his back. He had shaggy blond hair and wore black jeans, black-and-red winter boots. He dropped his arms at his sides and his bare hands looked pink and gnawed by the cold. In his left, he held a wool cap that he crumpled in a fist as Stumpy finished his little impromptu speech. “But you’re a Christian, Stumpy!” He raised his right fist and brought it down hard on the countertop on the word “Christian.”
“I said I was raised a Christian, but I haven’t been to church since Christ was a corporal and I got no interest in goin’. That’s got nothin’ to do with this!”
“But you know what they’re doing. You know what they’re trying to do to the holiday, it’s just another way of squeezing Christianity out of America. We’ve talked about this!”
“No. You’ve talked about it, and I’ve stood right here being a congenial host in the hope that you’ll buy another Coke or Baby Ruth or, if I’m lucky, another round of both.”
“Oh, come on, Stumpy, I’ve been coming in here for three years! I thought we were friends.”
Albert finally mustered the strength to walk back to the front, smiling and saying loudly enough to be heard, “Hey, Stumpy, you know, none of us want you to go exploding your head all over the place, or anything.”
Stumpy smiled and gave Albert a nod of recognition. “It’s okay, Mr. Antonellis. This guy’s a regular customer who’s complaining about my decorations. He’s gonna change the subject or leave, right Chris?”
Chris’s head turned slowly from side to side. “I can’t believe this. What are we supposed to do?”
“About what?” Stumpy bellowed, spreading his arms.
“Come on, guys, it’s Christmas,” Albert said.
Standing just behind him, Ed popped open his can of Mountain Dew.
Stumpy’s body jerked once as he released a single laugh. “No, it’s not, Mr. Antonellis. We haven’t even gotten through Thanksgiving yet. I used to love Christmas, but it’s like a tumor. It just keeps getting bigger and pretty soon, it’ll metastasize and spread through the whole year. The radio’ll be playing ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Silver Bells’ in May. They’ll probably make Santa Claus president. Tell you the truth, if I didn’t have the store, I’d punch anybody wished me merry Christmas before December first. But people buy more,” he said with an exasperated shrug. “Put up a Santa Claus, some snowmen, they spend more money. Pavlov’s elves. Even this year, with everything so bad, everybody so broke — that doesn’t stop ‘em! It’s insane.”
“But it’s not Christmas,” Chris said. His voice was low but had suppressed anger behind it. “They’re taking Christ out of it.” He pointed a finger at the store’s front window. “You’re taking Christ out of it!”
Stumpy rolled his eyes. “Oh, Jesus, here we go again.”
“Hey, nobody’s taking Christ out of anything!” Albert said. “We just put up a nativity scene out front. Jesus is right out there where everybody can see him!”
Chris jerked his head back and forth insistently. “Not at the capitol building. Not at City Hall.”
Albert said, “No, that’s not true. There are Christmas displays there, but they include other religions, too. This is still America, despite the best efforts of many, and religion is still a big part of it. But Christianity isn’t the only religion!”
“It’s the American religion, the religion of our founders."
Stumpy tipped his head back and laughed.
"This country was built on biblical Judeo-Christian principals and — ”
“Don’t include the Jews!” Stumpy said with a cold laugh. “They don’t celebrate Christmas and they got no problem with ‘happy holidays,’ so don’t drag them into this.”
“Christians are the only group it’s still acceptable to ridicule. Gay marriage is making Christianity a crime! Don’t you guys watch the news?”
“Just because it’s got the word ‘news’ in its name,” Stumpy said, “doesn’t mean it’s not feeding you a bowl of shit. You ever think of that? Haven’t you noticed that some will deliver news while others, I don’t know, looks like all they want to do is piss people off? You ever notice that? Wonder about it?”
Chris’s nostrils flared and when he spoke again, his voice trembled. “Atheists are going around this country tearing down Christianity.”
“No, they’re not,” Albert said. “They’re going around the country being annoying assholes, but what they’re doing is perfectly legal. This is a free society and there are assholes everywhere, so you’ve just got to learn to deal with them, or ignore them, or something. You don’t go to jail for being an asshole in this country, and if you did, everybody who gets pissed off about ‘happy holidays’ would be in jail with them.”
A sneering look moved across Chris’s face as he glared at Albert. He nodded slightly, then said, “I suppose you’re a Jew.”
At the same moment, Albert and Stumpy let loose a loud “Ooohhhh!”
“I’m Italian, you dick. I was raised Catholic. Like that makes any fucking difference.” He nodded toward Ed. “He’s Jewish.”
“On my mother’s side,” Ed said. “Personally, I lean more toward Buddhism.”
“Yeah, sure, that’s okay,” Chris said, his voice sounding more breathy and tremulous. “All that’s okay. But if you’re a Christian, you’re a target, you’re an outcast. Pretty soon, they’re gonna start rounding us up and putting us in camps. They’re already built, waiting for us. Gay marriage will be legal in all fifty states soon and Christians will be criminals.”
“Jesus Christ, you know what you are?” Albert said. “You think you’re some kinda patriot, some kinda warrior for Jesus, but all you are is angry and stupid, and all those two things do is feed each other.” Albert clapped his hands together. “Okay, you’ve worn out your welcome here. Anything you want? Some gum or a pack of cigarettes? Get it and get the hell out, and if you come back, keep your goddamned opinions to yourself or you’re banned for life, you understand me?”
“You can’t do that. Who the hell are you to do that?”
“Vice President of Field Operations for Harvey Keith Properties, that sound important enough for you?” Albert stepped toward Chris, put a hand on his shoulder and gently turned him toward the door.
Chris pushed against Albert’s hand with his shoulder as he reached his right hand around his own back and slipped it under the denim jacket.
“Oh, shit,” Stumpy said, moving fast but not fast enough.
Chris’s pink-fingered right hand held a gun when it reappeared from behind him, and he raised that gun in Albert’s direction. Stumpy bent down, reached beneath the counter and produced a sawed-off shotgun.
Chris fired his gun before he’d finished aiming it and the bullet entered the left side of Albert’s abdomen, just below his rib cage.
“Albert!” Ed screamed, his voice a shrill knife that sliced through the cluttered store.
Stumpy was racking the shotgun when Chris fired a second time, sending a bullet into the right side of Albert’s chest.
Since the first gunshot, all Albert could hear was a loud, unwavering ringing sound. The first bullet hit him like a cannonball, making him bend at the waist with clenched eyes as he was punched backward, unable to breathe. The second bullet kicked him in the chest and he straightened somewhat as he fell backward, arms flailing. His back slammed into something and he began to slide into a sitting position against it, but his flailing arms hooked onto something and prevented him from hitting the floor. He felt the rough surface of the corrugated paper under his hands.
There was another explosion when Stumpy fired his shotgun, but Albert did not hear it through the ringing. He felt bits of Chris splatter onto him, though, warm and wet on his face and neck.
Chris hit the floor hard, a bloody mess.
Ed screamed Albert’s name again and again.
Albert opened his eyes as he tilted his head back. Something had opened up deep inside him and all that came out was wrenching pain that rapidly spread through his whole body. Overhead, he saw a face slowly falling toward him, its white beard tumbling over itself like foam, its left arm outstretched and held up, clutching the phony vodka bottle in its black-gloved hand. Falling behind it was the green pyramid of dangling, twinkling ornaments and lights. They engulfed his field of vision as he died, and Albert’s last thought was, Peace on earth, ho ho ho ...
© Copyright 2013 by Ray Garton
My first novel, Seductions, was part of a two-book deal with Pinnacle, so as soon as I was done with that book, I went to work on the next. There had been a good deal of sex in Seductions and the book had a high school setting. I wanted this novel to be as different from the first as possible, so sex would not be a priority and it would not be school-related. But I had no idea what it would be about. My thoughts turned to a recurring nightmare that had haunted my sleep for years. I had been wanting to use it in a story or book for quite a while, and I thought this might be the time.
In the nightmare, I was being wheeled very fast down a hospital corridor on a gurney as pain exploded in the right side of my abdomen, just below my rib cage. I was rushed into the operating room where doctors and nurses in surgical masks and gowns were waiting. The sense of urgency was great and I wasn’t even transferred to an operating table, they just started working on me there on the gurney (dream logic). Doctors began the surgery without bothering to anesthetize me. I felt the scalpel slice through the skin of my abdomen, but it didn’t hurt. The pain inside me, though, raged on. Masked faces with intense eyes hovered over me as the doctors continued to work.
Then they froze and I saw all the eyes above the surgical masks widen in horror as they stared down at my open abdomen. They didn’t move for a long time, and then some of them slowly backed away from me. The doctor in charge looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do for you.” When I asked what was wrong, instead of explaining it to me, he showed it to me — for just a moment, I was able to see through his eyes as he looked into my abdomen.
Clinging to the underside of my rib cage on the right side was a glistening black mass about the size of a man’s hand. It was either pulsing rhythmically or breathing, I couldn’t tell which.
An instant later, I was looking at the doctor again. When I asked him what it was, he said, “We’re not sure, but ... it’s evil. If we take it out of you, it will kill us all.” Then he silently went about the business of sewing me back up as the intense pain continued. That’s where the dream always ended.
I wasn’t sure how, but I wanted to use that dream, or at least elements of it, and one of those elements was the hospital setting. I knew from personal experience that few places can go from quiet boredom to frantic chaos faster than a hospital emergency room.
As a boy, I had some mysterious health problems that required me to spend a lot of time in the hospital while doctors tried to figure those problems out and fix me. I would stay for weeks, sometimes months, at a time at the Clinical Research Study Center, which was located in Ward 18 at San Francisco General Hospital. It’s tough for a little kid to be locked up in a hospital for such long periods of time and the doctors and staff at Ward 18 knew that, so I was allowed to wander around the hospital and sometimes even leave the hospital when I wasn’t undergoing some test or procedure. On Friday and Saturday nights, the place to be if you wanted some quality entertainment was the San Francisco General Hospital emergency room. With a paperback novel and a notebook and pen, I would wander down to the ER early so I could find a seat, and I’d sit in the waiting room and wait for things to get interesting. They always did.
By nine o’clock, the ER was a crowded madhouse, usually with a bloodied floor. Stabbings, shootings, car wrecks, overdoses, heart attacks, attempted suicides, battered wives and girlfriends and hookers, injured children, people with every imaginable wound and sickness, and always, without fail, at least one nasty fight broke out in that waiting room before midnight, usually more. And that was just the waiting room! I could only imagine what was going on in the back, beyond the pale green door where occasionally I could hear muffled shouting or screaming or miserable wailing. I always had a book with me, but I never read it because I was too busy writing. I wrote down descriptions of the people I saw, snatches of conversation, and tried to capture images, odors, behavior, people and atmosphere on the page. It was probably one of the best writing exercises I’ve ever engaged in because I didn’t have time to think, I had to write fast to keep up with everything, so fast I was practically scribbling, trying to keep up with my thoughts and with all the frenzied — and often frightening — activity around me. I didn’t think of it as a writing exercise at the time, of course. I was just looking for something to do.
I’ve never given it much thought before, but looking back on it now, I suspect I learned more about writing from just a few of those emergency room visits than in a whole semester of creative writing classes. It’s something you might want to try. If you live in or near a big city — someplace where the hospital's ER is going to be a-hoppin’ on Friday and Saturday nights — take a notebook, sit in the waiting room, and do what I did. Stay as long as you can and collect as many observations as possible. Then come back here (or contact me on Facebook) and let me know if it was a useful exercise for you.
Having decided that my new book would open with an intense scene in a hospital emergency room, and keeping in mind my recurring nightmare, I sat down at my electric Brother typewriter and dove in headfirst.
No matter how much preparatory work I do on a book, no matter how much outlining (something I don’t waste my time on anymore unless a publisher absolutely must see an outline) or character sketching I do, I have no idea what the hell I’m working on until I’ve been writing it for a while. That’s when I discover the story and characters, when I actually have my hands on the keyboard and I’m working on the manuscript. I’ve tried everything else, all the preparation and outlining, and it just doesn’t work for me. I can write a full outline and have a stack of notes and character sketches on my desk, and no matter how hard I try to stick to all that stuff, the book, when it’s done, will bear little or no resemblance to anything on those pages.
This book, I discovered, was about a physical manifestation of evil that takes the form of small, glistening, black creatures that can flatten out like crepes or roll up into worms that will do horrible things to anyone they enter. The original title was Evilspawn, but the folks at Pinnacle didn’t do any backflips over that. My editor, Michael Bradley, suggested Darklings, which I liked much better than my idea, and that became the novel’s title.
Whenever someone tells me he’s about to read Darklings, I always say, “Be sure to hold your nose.” It always gets a laugh because people think I’m being self-deprecating by cutting my own book down a little. But that’s not what I mean when I say that. To find out what I do mean, you’ll have to read the book.
Now, more than thirty years later, Darklings is back, available for the first time for Kindle from Amazon, for Nook from Barnes and Noble, and in paperback. To see all my other books and keep up with new releases, visit my website at RayGartonOnline.com.
Seductions was my first novel. I couldn’t close my mouth the first time I saw the book and held it in my hands. A half-naked woman dangled from the dripping, embossed letters of the title, which were written in glimmering blood-red foil. It was lurid. It was garish. And I was thrilled. That meant it would fit right in with all the other lurid, garish, blood-dripping paperback covers on the shelves in every book store, grocery store, convenience store, pharmacy, truck stop and airport in the country. I was in! The novel’s publication owed a great deal to luck. I was in the right place at the right time.
It was published in 1984, a wonderful time to be a horror fan. I think the roots of the horror genre’s enormous popularity at that time were in the success of Ira Levin’s terrifying 1967 novel Rosemary’s Baby, which became a huge bestseller, putting the modern horror novel on the publishing map. It came along in a period when the country was beginning to go through startling changes, when the United States was involved in a controversial war that was eating up our young before our eyes on the evening news, when old traditions and ideas were being left behind by some and actively torn down by others. The previous year, Time magazine had run a cover that asked the question “Is God Dead?” and Anton LaVey had established the Church of Satan in San Francisco. Levin’s novel struck a cord with readers and sold over four million copies. The following year saw the release of Roman Polanski’s movie adaptation, which was a huge success, and which remains, in my opinion, one of the greatest horror movies ever made.
As the 1970s got underway, Satan was big in America. Levin’s book and Polanski’s movie had launched a Satanic trend that seemed to take over the genre in fiction and film. Novels like Fred Mustard Stewart’s The Mephisto Waltz and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist were turned into successful movies. The Exorcist, in particular, was a blockbuster hit that had lines going around the block wherever it played and injected the trend with steroids. Whether it was black-robed Satan worshipers in movies like The Brotherhood of Satan, Race with the Devil, or The Devil’s Rain, or the devil and his minions in The Omen, To the Devil, a Daughter, The Sentinal, The Legacy, and so many others, Satan was a big enough box office draw to compete with Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood. There were made-for-TV movies like Satan’s Triangle and Satan’s School for Girls. He possessed a baby on the network sitcom Soap. I even remember an episode of Mannix in which the detective was up against a Satanic cult. Satan was everywhere.
If Satan wasn’t your speed, there was the new guy who was blowing everybody away with one scary-as-hell novel after another, Stephen King. His first novel, Carrie was a runaway hit, and Brian De Palma’s movie was iconic. King brought the horror genre into the modern world, even into the mainstream. He filled it with McDonalds and Burger Kings and familiar brands and products, and populated it with real people we recognized, people we cared for and wanted to follow. That world was also occupied by real horrors like cancer and crib death and mental illness, so that the horror, no matter how wild and supernatural, always took place in the real world where we all lived. He entertained us with excruciatingly terrifying stories while showing us ourselves and the world in which we lived. And with those novels came a wave of Stephen King movie adaptations. Each new King bestseller and movie adaptation fed the wave of popularity the genre was riding.
By the late 1970s, the horror boom was booming. Genre novels were everywhere from writers like the astonishingly prolific Graham Masterton, who’s 1975 novel The Manitou was a bestseller and became a popular movie starring Tony Curtis, to former movie actor Thomas Tryon, whose elegantly written novels The Other and Harvest Home were bestsellers and adapted into a popular movie and TV miniseries respectively. At least one horror movie, and often more, was opening every weekend, whether it was a glossy studio offering at the local movie house or a tacky exploitation movie at the drive-in. Horror was everywhere.
It was into this stream that I dove when Seductions was published in 1984. Publishers were buying up horror novels as fast as they could be written, and every book store had a sizeable horror section. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. I agree with Woody Allen, who said, “People are afraid to acknowledge or to face what huge dependency they have on luck.”
An advance reading copy had been sent to Robert Bloch, among other writers. Bloch replied to my editor with a letter explaining that he could not endorse Seductions because he was too disturbed by the close relationship between sex and violence in the book. I was flabbergasted that I had “disturbed” the man who wrote Psycho. In the late summer of 1984, a few months before Seductions was published, I met Bloch at a convention. I introduced myself and mentioned his response to my book. “Ah, yes,” he said, clamping his cigarette holder between his teeth. “You’re unwell.”
I had found a literary agent by accident. That, by the way, is the only reliable way to find one, because there’s never one around who’s interested when you’re actually looking. He was a friend of an ex-girlfriend’s father, and once we connected, I sent him some short stories. He said they were good, but he didn’t sell short stories. Did I have a novel? Of course, I said! I was halfway through one and would send it to him as soon as it was finished. That was ... less than factual. I was not working on a novel. But I decided to get to work on one fast.
I knew I wanted it to be erotic, but that was all I knew. I thought sex and horror were a perfect match, because when are we more vulnerable, more naked, than when we’re engaged in sex? I was barely twenty when I wrote Seductions, and keep in mind that I was a very sheltered and inexperienced twenty-year-old. That may explain the book’s high school setting. In fact, it may explain a lot. I’d recently read an interview with Stephen King (I think it was in Playboy) in which he’d mentioned that he liked the idea of vagina dentata but had been unable to come up with a way to use it in a book. I latched onto that, never giving a thought to how much it would endear me to feminists everywhere.
I was living with my parents for most of the time that I was writing Seductions. One morning, I got up and went to the kitchen for some breakfast, where Mom was waiting for me. My unfinished manuscript was on the kitchen table. Mom had been unable to sleep the night before, so she read what I was writing, and now she wanted to talk about it. Oh, goodie. It’s important to note that my mother, a very religious woman, was, if possible, even more sheltered and naive than I at that point. To this day, she thinks an orgasm is a complex structure of interdependent and subordinate elements whose relations and properties are largely determined by their function in the whole. Our conversation went something like this:
“I read your book last night.”
“What did you think?”
“Well, you know I don’t care for that kind of story. It’s well written, but ... I know things have changed and it’s no big deal to write about things like sex, but ... well, they don’t really swallow it, do they?”
“Oh. And ... how do you know?”
“I read a lot.”
My first novel did not set the world on fire. America was not seized by vagina dentata fever. Best of all, there was no merchandising, which would have led to nothing good. But the book put me on the map. After that, I simply refused to go away.
Seductions is now available for Kindle at Amazon, and for Nook at Barnes and Noble. For information about all my work and updates on new releases, please visit my website at RayGartonOnline.com.
When I finished Ravenous, the story had not ended. That’s clear to anyone who read the book, which has a rather bleak ending that leaves a whole lot of things unresolved. Bestial picks up shortly after Ravenous ends, as the werewolves begin to organize an effort to take over the town of Big Rock.
In Ravenous, I introduced sex into the werewolf mythos. That had always been the domain of the vampire, ever since Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Vampires are sexy. Werewolves ... not so much. Rather than an erotic kind of sex, the focus was on the sex drive and how someone normally able to control him- or herself might react to it while in a lycanthropic state. The most important thing about Bestial, or any sequel I write, the thing that I kept repeating to myself like a mantra as I began work on the book, was this: IT CANNOT BE MORE OF THE SAME!
I’ve written far more sequels than I ever thought I’d write (for many years, I claimed I would never write one), and I’ve only written four. I generally don’t like sequels because they tend to be nothing but more of the same. In film, I think the best example of a bad sequel would be ... well ... just about all of them. There are a few exceptions, though. James Whale’s 1931 classic Frankenstein is grim, subversive, and bleak. His 1935 sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, is quite upbeat and playful and even more subversive. It strums a range of emotional strings and can take you from laughter to the edge of tears. It tells more of the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his creation but does it in an entirely different way than the first movie. The same can be said of Aliens. While Alien is a dark, claustrophobic horror movie set in space, Aliens continues the story as a big, loud, testosterone-infused action picture that still manages to scare the hell out of us. I’m of the opinion that, whether it’s a novel or a movie, if a sequel is just more of the same, then either it should not have been done, or it was done for the wrong reasons.
For Bestial, I decided to borrow another stock ingredient of the vampire tale and apply it to the werewolf tale: Religion. Ever since Dracula, vampires have been hissingly repulsed by the crucifix, the Christian symbol of redemption. Dracula was a kind of stand-in for Satan — a demonic predator, perverse, unnatural, the embodiment of evil — and the church and its symbols — the crucifix, holy water, hallowed ground — stood for goodness and righteousness, god by proxy. I would have to use religion in a different way.
Eons ago, I wrote a novella called Monsters, about a horror novelist who is harassed by members of the fanatical church in which he was raised, a church that does not approve of his work. It was inspired by my own experience with the Seventh-day Adventist church. It has been called a werewolf story, but technically, it’s not. I’m pretty sure the word “werewolf” is never used in the story, and there is no description of a werewolf. But the protagonist has been told for so long — since infancy, really — that he is a monster because of his interests and what he writes that he begins to turn into one. It’s a nonspecific monster, but a monster nonetheless.
I liked that concept a lot, and I’d been meaning to return to it in one form or another for some time. It seemed perfectly suited for Bestial. Bob Berens, a character in the book, has been raised in the Seventh-day Adventist church — write what you know! — and he’s been emotionally crippled by it. He still lives with his mother and is pretty much afraid of life. He’s been told for so long that he’s a filthy, sinning worm in the eyes of god that he has come to believe it.
I based Bob Berens on an old friend of mine from my Seventh-day Adventist school days. In middle age, he still lives with his mother. He has never had a relationship, doesn’t date and never has, he is socially crippled and paralyzed by fear of virtually everything. I have great empathy for him because for some time early in my life, I was paralyzed by those same fears. I managed to get out from under it. He did not. I know of many others like him within the church. It is a controlling religion that instills terror in its children early on, and I’ve seen the long-term damage it does first hand. My friend’s situation and state of mind are worse than Bob’s, but I had to water things down for the book or people would have found him hard to believe. I know my friend has a bounty of repressed resentments, anger, and bitterness, to say nothing of all the desires and needs of any human being. But they are repressed by the overwhelming fear that has been created in him, by the belief that he is simply a horrible sinner and will never be anything else.
The werewolf is an assault on society, on civilization. “Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night,” — a good, decent man who follows all the rules and always takes the high road and is upright and moral — “may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” When the change takes place, all that goodness and decency and upright moral crap go right out the window. The crucifix and holy water are useless. All the things that have been repressed — selfish desires and buried lusts — take over. It seemed like the perfect place for religion in my story because nothing else represses so effectively and so fearfully.
My choice to insert religion into the story has been the focus of some criticism. A number of reviewers accuse me of having some kind of personal vendetta against religion, of “Christian-bashing.” This happens every time a religious character in one of my books or stories is a less than moral person, or when something unsavory is done in the name of a religion (except for the Satanic religions, nobody seems to mind dissing those). If that were true, there would be no good Christians in my work and religion would never be portrayed in a positive light — and that simply isn’t the case. My novels The New Neighbor, Dark Channel, and Shackled are perfect examples of this.
In Shackled, for instance, there’s the Walker family. Ethan Walker is a pastor, a good guy, a family man, and a devoted Christian. His son Samuel is kidnapped, and other horrible things happen to the family, but as devastating as all of it is, Pastor Walker’s faith gets him through it, gives him hope. He refuses to blame god or let go of his religious beliefs. He kind of stands out among the cynical characters who surround him — in a thoroughly positive way. Those who accuse me of hating Christians or having some kind of search-and-destroy vendetta against religion based on my fiction either aren’t aware of my other work or are deliberately not taking it into consideration.
If I write a character who is a Christian and who does bad things, it doesn’t mean I’m bashing Christians any more than writing a female character who does bad things means I’m bashing women. I chose to use religion in Bestial not so I would have a chance to portray it in a bad way, but because, in this case, it was a useful ingredient in my storytelling mix. I chose an exceptionally repressive and fear-based cult — one with which I have close, personal experience and about which I wrote nothing inaccurate or untrue in the book — because the eventual result of all that repression and fear is always some kind of deviance or weirdness ... like turning into a fanged, hairy monster with no inhibitions, a monster driven only by its previously denied lusts and appetites.
Although it’s still quite dark, Bestial has a lighter tone than Ravenous because I think it’s a mistake to take something like werewolves too seriously for too long. Personally, I think it’s a mistake take anything too seriously for too long, but that’s just me. Karen Moffett and Gavin Keoph had something to do with that, as well, I think. They tend to lighten things up on their own.
Moffett and Keoph first appeared in Night Life, the sequel to Live Girls. They are private investigators who work independently in different cities, but who are sometimes brought together on jobs for bestselling horror novelist Martin Burgess, who has a burning interest in the paranormal, conspiracy theories, UFOs and alien interaction with humans, and just about anything weird. He’s wealthy and he can afford to hire Moffett and Keoph to investigate his unusual interests. Burgess wants to see if any of the things he writes about in his horror fiction are real or have any equivalent in reality. His network of computer geeks has alerted him to rumors of werewolves in a northern California coastal town and he sends Moffett and Keoph to investigate.
I like Martin Burgess. In addition to writing, his great talent is enjoying being Martin Burgess. Although he’s fully aware of his eccentricities and how others perceive him because of them, he doesn’t apologize for them.
I like Moffett and Keoph, too. They’re smart, funny, and although they’re skeptical of everything Burgess wants them to look into, they’re not as skeptical as they were before they encountered vampires in Night Life. Now their skepticism is mixed with some feelings of fear and dread for what they might encounter. There is a spark of romantic interest between them, but they only see each other when they’re hired for a job by Burgess, so they haven’t pursued it. Yet.
Come with Moffett and Keoph to Big Rock, smell the sea air and browse the shops. But don’t be surprised by the weird vibe, the tension in the air. There’s a new order in town, and a new baby has been born. A baby that isn’t interested in milk.
Bestial is available as a trade paperback, for Kindle at Amazon, for Nook at Barnes and Noble, and as an audiobook. To keep up with news and new releases, visit my website at RayGartonOnline.com.
It’s been about two months since my last blog because I’ve been huddled over a book that was giving me a lot of trouble as the deadline grew closer and closer. It was a new writing experience for me — they all are, but this one called for me to write in a way I’d never written before — and it tripped me up. I finally finished the book last Tuesday in a writing marathon that lasted all day and all night, and all of Wednesday morning. Then I couldn't sleep, no matter how much I wanted to. I finally managed to drift off around three o'clock on Thursday morning. I learned an invaluable lesson from the experience: I’M TOO DAMNED OLD TO DO THAT ANYMORE! I always feel a bit adrift after a project, a little anchorless until I start the next one. But this time, I’ve felt exhausted and it’s taken me a few days to start feeling human again.
Since the last blog, I’ve jotted down some observations and thoughts for the specific purpose of including in another “Ramblin’, Ramblin’, Ramblin’” post. Here are a few of them.
Is it just me, or are people losing all awareness of their surroundings? Every time I go shopping, it seems that everyone in the store is completely unaware of everyone else in the store. Everyone seems to think they’re the only person in the building, as if they’re Michael Jackson and the grocery store closed down and evacuated all its customers just so they could shop alone and undisturbed.
We live in a small town on the outskirts of a Walmart. It’s the closest store to our house, and because Dawn and I tend to keep weird hours, the fact that it’s open 24 hours a day makes it convenient, even though I have nothing but poisonous hatred for that store. But hating Walmart is like hating the weather. It’s pointless. It just gets you worked up for no good reason.
Every time I go into that store — although to be fair, it happens in every store these days — I feel like I’m invisible. Everyone is in a bubble that separates them from everyone else. People seem blissfully oblivious to the fact that THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE IN THE STORE!
I’m serious, if you aren’t careful, they will maim or even kill you while they’re looking for the Gold Bond medicated powder — and it doesn’t even have to be on sale! I don’t care if you’re dressed like Bozo the Clown, they cannot see you. No, scratch that — they will not see you! I’ve been struck by carts and slammed into by people, and most of them don’t even acknowledge that I’m there after we’ve collided. And you know those electronic carts they provide for handicapped people? Those things are a fucking menace! Don’t get me started.
But it’s not the store. It’s the people. We’ve become so isolated in our own custom-designed personal bubbles that we remain completely isolated even in a busy grocery store, or any crowd of people. We’re shutting each other out. Doors are slamming and locking, windows are being shuttered. Facebook and Twitter give us the illusion of interaction and human contact, but they’re empty substitutes. It’s as if we’re trying to forget each other.
When I was a kid, there seemed to be only one expert consulted by talk show hosts and news programs, one woman who would discuss relationships and sex and marital problems seriously and then yuck it up with Paul Lynde and Rose Marie on The Hollywood Squares. She was everywhere, giving calm, reasoned advice, citing experts in various fields to back up that advice. Dr. Joyce Brothers died on May 13 at the age of 85, and it made me feel old because, since the announcement of her death, I’ve encountered people who’d never heard of her, who didn’t know who she was.
Dr. Brothers had been out of the spotlight for a long time. Then she showed up in some commercial and I remembered how ubiquitous she used to be. She had the most soothing voice and manner and was always unfailingly polite and respectful to those around her when she appeared on talk show panels. She was the first of the TV psychologists to openly discuss things like abortion, breast cancer, and homosexuality, topics that previously had been taboo on television. She never shamed or bullied anyone on TV and expressed only interest and concern for others.
That’s why she’d disappeared for so long. She’d become obsolete. Today’s media advice-givers are largely assholes. Why? Because to become a recognized figure in the media today, it seems you have to be an asshole or no one will pay attention to you. I’m of the opinion that people like “Dr.” Phil and “Dr.” Laura should be publicly flogged. I think things like the stocks should be brought back for people like Dr. Drew Pinsky, who stopped being a doctor of any kind long, long ago and has been nothing but a media whore for years.
Dr. Joyce Brothers was the butt of a lot of jokes because she was everywhere. It was often said that she would attend the opening of an envelope. She enjoyed her celebrity, no doubt about it, but she took her position as a source of advice and information very seriously. She kept up with the latest research and always turned to a long list of experts in various fields for her source material. I’m sure she was horrified by the likes of the lumbering bully, “Dr.” Phil or that simpering exploiter of addicts, Dr. Drew. She was a class act. Her passing is more than just the loss of an intelligent, gentle woman who always had a helpful word for everyone. It also marks the passing of people in the media that we could respect, look up to, and admire. Now all we’ve got are assholes.
I’m reading a book called Hard Bite by a woman who writes under the pseudonym Anonymous-9. I haven’t enjoyed a new novel this much in a long time. It’s dark and funny and gritty and shocking, and the writing is tight and compelling, and I don’t look forward to reading the last page because I'm going to hate to see it end.
Hard Bite is about Dean Drayhart, a paralyzed, wheelchair-bound hit-and-run victim who has devoted his life to killing hit-and-run drivers. But because of his condition, he can’t do it himself. He needs help. That’s where his adorable but deadly capuchin monkey Sid comes in. No, you didn't misread that sentence. Sid the monkey is the killer.
It’s doubtful that you’ve read a book quite like Hard Bite and I recommend that you read it now so you'll be ready for Anonymous-9's followup. She's a fiercely original and witty writer and I look forward to reading more of her work.
My biggest complaint about the job of writing is that you can’t walk away from it. I can’t, anyway. Most jobs aren’t like that. You go to the office, or the factory, or the strip club, wherever you work, and you do your job for the allotted amount of time, and then you go home. You leave the job and go do something else. I’ve never been able to do that. I’m probably better at it than I used to be — I should be, I’ve been at this for about thirty years — but I still haven’t mastered the ability to stop writing, walk away from the desk, and go do something else. I mean, I do that, but I’m unable to completely leave the work behind. It’s still going on in my head.
Right now, I’m working on an extremely difficult project that’s driving me crazy. I’m behind, the deadline’s approaching, and I can’t help feeling that I’d be able to handle it a lot better if, for just a little while, I could STOP THINKING ABOUT IT! But that’s not how writing works.
Once I get a project going, it’s stuck in my head. I may walk away from the desk, but the characters are still right where they always are, in my head, doing the things I’ve made them do. They’re solving problems, or creating problems, or they’re stuck in a problematic loop that, for whatever reason, I can’t solve.
Right now, I’ve got about a dozen characters running around in my head trying to survive a hurricane, a deadly virus, and each other, and they don’t take breaks. They can’t! They’re dealing with the horrible situations I’ve put them into, some of which I’m not sure how to get them out of, and wherever I go, whatever I’m trying to do, they’re in my head trying to survive, or kill somebody, or kill each other, and THEY WON’T SHUT UP! How the hell am I supposed to sleep with all of that crap going on?
The result is that I’m often distracted, preoccupied, unaware of my surroundings. I might be sitting in the living room staring at the TV, but that doesn’t mean I’m watching or listening to it. I might wander through the house slowly late at night as if I don’t know where I am. I do, but it might not seem that way. I might be in the middle of a conversation with someone when the people in my head have a breakthrough and solve a problem, or discover a new layer to the story, which means I'm not longer in the conversation.
If you live with a working writer, you know what I mean. You’ve seen it first hand. You’re probably nodding your head as you read this.
This is one of the reasons people think writers are weird. It’s not that we are necessarily weird — yeah, okay, I admit, most of us are in one way or another — but what we do is weird. I suppose that in order to want to do what we do, you have to be a little weird in the first place, because so much of it is sitting in a room alone and writing. But even when we leave that room, we’re still writing, whether we want to or not, which is a part of this job that makes us weirder than we were before we started doing it.
Are you a writer who has this problem? If so, how do you handle it? Do you live with a writer who has this problem? If so, does it make you crazy or are you used to it by now? Share your solutions and funny stories in the comments below.
I haven’t blogged in a while because I’m working on a new book with a looming deadline and it has consumed most of my life lately. I’ll be able to discuss the project in detail soon. When I’m involved in a book, especially one that has a quick deadline, I tend to become somewhat useless. My brain never stops working on it, so no matter what I’m doing, there’s always a lot of distracting activity going on in my head. Sometimes I’m surprised other people can’t hear it. I have a tendency to utter baffling non sequiturs or spontaneously retreat into my head in the middle of a conversation, and I spend more time than usual asking myself why the hell I came into the kitchen, or the living room, or the hall closet. Does that ever happen to you? You get up, walk into the kitchen with a specific purpose in mind, but by the time you get there, the purpose has drifted away like a puff of smoke over St. Peter's Basilica and you’re left standing there wondering what the hell it was. This happens to me with more frequency the older I get, but when I’m deep in a book, its frequency becomes a nuisance.
I’ve also been keeping weirder hours than usual. I’ve always been a night person, but lately, I’m still in the office at four and five in the morning. Normally, I prefer to be asleep by then, but when things are rolling at the keyboard, I don’t want to stop. Having to set the clocks ahead an hour did not help this situation. I found myself still up and wide awake when Dawn left for work at a little after seven on Monday morning, watching old second-season Twilight Zone episodes and waiting for my brain to quiet down enough to sleep. The cats loved it, though. I’m usually asleep when Dawn leaves for work, which means there’s no one around to show them obeisance until I get up, and there’s nothing for them to do but nap or lick themselves. When Dawn left on Monday, I planted myself on the couch for more Rod Serling weirdness and was suddenly surrounded by a needy, purring cloud of pleasantly surprised cats. In spite of my preoccupation with the current project, I’ve been doing some other things lately. ...
I just finished reading Carl Hiaasen’s Star Island from 2010. If you’ve never read Hiaasen, I urge you to do so. The Los Angeles Times called him “an Old Testament moralist disguised as a comedian” because in his frantic and absurd Florida-based novels, cold, hard justice is unfailingly doled out to those who deserve it. But unlike the Old Testament, that justice comes in hilarious and sometimes delightfully gruesome forms and it always makes sense. His prose remains tight and punchy as he piles on layer upon layer of crazy characters and increasingly complex and berserk plot developments, so no matter how close the whole thing might seem to spinning completely out of control, Hiaasen is always solidly in charge. He’s a writer who regularly makes me burst into laughter that sometimes goes on a little longer than it should. In Star Island, for example, he writes that a character who’s just been zapped with an electric cattle prod “made a sound like a chicken going under the wheels of a truck.” Cracked me up. This is his best novel in some years and I strongly recommend it.
We have so many books in our house that deciding what to read next can be stroke-inducing. It’s like choosing a movie on Netflix streaming or off the shelf in our movie room. I probably could watch several movies in the time that I’ve spent trying to decide what to watch on Netflix, or standing in our movie room staring at the thousands of movies on the shelves. Sometimes I look at the pile of books I intend to read and wish there were some way I could read them all at once. No matter how long I live, I know that, at the end of my life, one of my biggest regrets will be not having time to read all the books I wanted to read.
I’ve been fascinated lately by the story of H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago as his hunting grounds. Dawn is currently reading The Devil in White City by Erik Larson, and I’ve recently watched a couple of documentaries on the subject. I vaguely remembered that Robert Bloch had written a novel based on the story of Holmes, but I couldn’t remember the title. I launched an expedition to see if we had the book somewhere in the house. Sure enough, I found it. The edition of American Gothic that I have was published in 1975 by Fawcett with one of those standard gothic woman-in-peril paperback covers that were so prevalent back then. I think I read the book ages ago when I was a kid, possibly before I was old enough to appreciate it, but I'm not sure, so that’s what I’m reading right now. I’ve only finished the first chapter so far, but once again, I am blown away by Bloch’s deft economy with words and his ability to evoke so much imagery with so little description.
Not since Boston Legal have I been as addicted to a TV show as I am to the Netflix original series House of Cards. This show is delicious, like some dark, rich dessert you know you shouldn’t eat but can’t resist. I was hooked immediately, in part by Kevin Spacey’s juicy performance as Congressman Francis Underwood. Spacey is always fun to watch, but here, he so clearly relishes his role that he’s even more riveting than usual. Underwood knows everybody’s secrets and where all the bodies are buried and he uses that knowledge to get what he wants, whatever that might be at the moment. He and his wife Claire, played by Robin Wright, are a couple of web-weaving spiders who are prepared to do whatever (and whomever) is necessary to achieve their goals. Underwood sometimes breaks TV's "fourth wall" by addressing us directly to let us in on his schemes and fill us in on how things really work in the halls of power. This device makes all the devious plotting even more fun.
I’m no Washington insider, of course, but from what I do know (combined with all the things I’ve always suspected), House of Cards feels like one of the more brutally accurate depictions of our government. Remember Aaron Sorkin’s turn-of-the-century White House soap The West Wing? It was a great show, but if it were put in a cage with House of Cards, it wouldn’t last two minutes. And there’d be a lot of blood. The West Wing was about morality, about doing the right thing. In House of Cards, corruption is the default position and it’s a given that just about everyone is on the take in one way or another.
A remake of a 1990 BBC miniseries based on the novel by Michael Dobbs, the show has some talented writers, like Rick Cleveland, whose credits include The West Wing, Six Feet Under, and Mad Men, and directors like David Fincher, Joel Schumacher, and Carl Franklin. My only complaint is the overuse of the phrase “the American people” — it’s used once in the first season. I firmly believe that phrase is never used in Washington, D.C., unless cameras are rolling, because what goes on there seems to have little or nothing to do with “the American people” and everything to do with the accumulation of power and the covering of asses. Netflix made all 13 episodes of the first season available for streaming on February 1 so you don’t have to wait a week for the next episode, and it’s such an addictive show that it’s extremely tempting to watch all 13 episodes back to back.
House of Cards is brilliantly entertaining, but it also made me angry. It should make everyone angry. Because in the United States, you and I are the government, we determine who takes office, and this is what we’ve allowed our government to become. We point our fingers and complain about all the other politicians, but for some reason, we all want our favorite politicians from our political party to remain in office because, for whatever reason, we think he or she isn’t like all the others and only the other political party is a problem. We really need to wake the hell up.
When I came into the office today and turned on the TV, there was nothing on but the goddamned papal conclave. It was everywhere. And it was being covered in a way that strongly suggested I should not only be interested but sitting on the edge of my seat biting my fingernails. I didn't even know who was competing, and I hadn't even watched the auditions — I haven't watched that show since they fired Paula Abdul. On the screen, a vast ocean of people had gathered to see who would be the next CEO of the world’s largest organization of child rapists and their protectors. By the time I joined the festivities, white smoke had already puffed out of the chimney, so a pope had been chosen and everyone was waiting for him to be introduced. I flipped around the channels looking for the coverage that was being hosted by Joan Rivers — I knew it had to be out there somewhere, because that was the kind of coverage this event was getting, like the biggest show business event since the O.J. trial, and I wanted to hear Joan had to say about what the new pope was wearing.
Given everything we now know about the Catholic church, it seemed to me that all those people gathered outside St. Peter’s Basilica should be angrily dismantling the place. But instead, they all cheered when it was announced that the new pope would be some old fart from Argentina. Afterward, everywhere I turned I found only post-game shows with everyone analyzing the whole thing. So I turned off the TV.
If you’re wondering why there is still smoke coming out of that chimney, it’s because Cardinal Snoop Dogg is visiting from the states.
Dawn and I rarely go the movies these days, and once a movie I want to see becomes available at home, it usually takes me a while to get to it, so I’m typically way behind when it comes to current movies. I only recently watched The Artist, which won the Best Picture Oscar more than a year ago. I’ll probably see the new winner, Argo, sometime next year.
I recently watched Drive, mostly because I was eager to see Albert Brooks’s Oscar-nominated performance as a villain. Brooks is a comedy genius who’s been making me laugh since I was a kid. He’s also a great director who started out making short films for Saturday Night Live in the 1970s. He’s written, directed, and starred in some of the funniest movies out there, like Real Life, Modern Romance, and Lost in America. I had to see what kind of villain he would play. I was blown away — not only by Brooks’s portrayal of a ruthless businessman, but by the whole movie.
It felt like I was watching a movie made in the 1970s or early 1980s. It quietly took its time setting up its story and introducing its characters, and then it kicked my teeth down my throat. I'd barely noticed Ryan Gosling until I saw this movie. He has some Steve McQueen in him, with a James Caan vibe, but they make up a style that’s all his own in Drive, where he plays a guy who says very little, but means what he says. It’s a very violent movie, but it’s the right kind of violence. It takes its violence seriously. It made me squirm and grunt and even look away briefly. Director Nicolas Winding Refn doesn’t wallow in the violence because he doesn’t seem to enjoy it, but he doesn’t shrink away from it, either. And it features another fine performance by Bryan Cranston. I’ve been a fan of his work since the daytime soap opera Loving, which I watched faithfully for a full year after seeing the pilot in 1983.
Drive is a hard-edged action thriller that has some real humanity. Sure, there are great car chases and plenty of violent action, but it is, first and foremost, a movie about people, which makes us care about the car chases and action because we’re emotionally invested.
I have not seen any of Refn’s other work yet, but he’s a director I will watch from now on. I’m especially excited about the fact that he’s remaking Logan’s Run. I’m hoping he will remain true to the novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. The 1976 movie starring Michael York was a lot more bright and light-hearted than the dark, disturbing novel, which has a much better movie in it. I'm hoping Refn will make that movie.
What kind of writer would I be if I got through a pointless, rambling blog post like this without plugging my work? A whole bunch of my novels are now available as audiobooks! Meds, Live Girls, Night Life, Ravenous, Bestial, Trade Secrets, Pieces of Hate, Scissors, The Loveliest Dead, The Girl in the Basement, and Murder was My Alibi are all available now, with Dark Channel coming on March 29. You can find them all right here. For regular updates like this, keep checking my website, RayGartonOnline.com.
In the new Fox horror series The Following, Joe Carroll, played by James Purefoy, is both a serial killer and a novelist, two things that have been romanticized and mythologized all out of proportion. (A perfect example of the mythologized writer is Carroll’s idol, Edgar Allan Poe.) Carroll is the villain of the series, and the reason people will keep coming back. Kevin Bacon’s damaged FBI agent Ryan Hardy and all the other characters are really just window dressing. Let’s be honest — this might as well be called The Joe Carroll Show.
Carroll is a serial killer with groupies. Maybe it would be more accurate to call them disciples because they carry out his orders while he plots and schemes in prison. While the first episode of The Following was not ideal viewing for dog lovers (if you saw it, you know what I mean), it’s off to a good start. It’s well written, has a fine cast, and overall, it’s a beautiful production. It occurred to me while I watched the show, sitting stiffly on my couch during a tense moment, that serial killers are the new vampires.
Not too long ago, the vampire was a scary predator. That was before, as Craig Ferguson puts it, they got sensitive and started sparkling and expressing themselves through their rippling abs. The vampire is now Fabio — a figure of airbrushed romance and teen angst. He’s dark, but in much the same way those teenagers who hang out at Hot Topic are dark — and if you’re fond of the vampire of old, just as annoying. In fiction, it’s hard to successfully dress up the vampire as a scary predator anymore, and the same thing is rapidly happening to the werewolf. If you do, you’ll inevitably hear from some upset female readers who will proclaim, “Your vampires (or werewolves) are scary! I don’t like that!”
The position the vampire once held in the horror genre is now held by the serial killer. He is the new boogeyman in horror. But it’s the position that’s new, not the serial killer. He’s been around in horror movies and fiction for decades. Serial killer movies have been popular for a long time. One swept the Oscars more than twenty years ago. Now there are even serial killer comedies. But now he’s come into our homes. First there was Dexter, which has been running since 2006, now The Following, and coming soon are primetime series about Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates. When there are enough serial killer shows on TV for people to have a favorite TV serial killer, you know the serial killer has gone fully mainstream. I’m waiting for a serial killer sitcom. (In fact, I have a pretty good idea for one — if you have any pull in the TV biz, message me.) We Americans love our serial killers. And we should — we’ve produced some of the very best. Along with porn and guns, serial killers are one of the few things we still make, and make well.
The vampire of old could manipulate people with hypnosis and/or telepathy. He could turn into a bat, or a wolf, or a creeping mist, and he had superhuman strength. He was, of course, a dead man resurrected. Undead. He drank his victims’ blood to survive, it sustained him. Traditionally, his only weaknesses were sunlight, garlic, and the trappings of Christianity, but those came and went depending on the movie or novel. The vampire usually looked like a human being, but he was a monster with supernatural powers. There was an air of romance about him, but it was dwarfed by his menace.
But he is no more. Not really. He used to make women scream, but ever since Anne Rice started writing vampire novels, he’s had to turn swooning women away due to his own exhaustion and bloat, and because, even when you live forever, there just isn't enough time in a day. In other words, he has a new career, his dance card is full and he doesn't have time to be scary anymore.
The serial killer is a human being, a mortal who can be killed. He has no supernatural powers. But ... he might as well. Just as the vampire must drink blood, the mythological serial killer must kill. It is his outlet, his meditation, his happy place, and it sustains him. He is brilliant, a seductive genius whose razor-sharp powers of perception keep him one step ahead of everyone else. Chances are, if you analyze any fictional serial killer story, you’ll probably conclude that he does have supernatural powers, which would be a requirement to do the things most fictional serial killers do. But we don’t think about that much as viewers or readers because we’ve come to expect it. That’s what fictional serial killers are, that’s what they do.
Real serial killers are different animals altogether. They are deeply dysfunctional people who always have in their background some combination of abuse — physical, sexual, psychological, or all three — personality disorders, and mental illness, a deadly brew that leaves him with deadly, bloody desires and no conscience. The one who came closest to being a seductive genius was Ted Bundy, and he was just a bright, handsome guy who also happened to be a monster. He fooled a lot of people for a while, but he wasn’t manipulating them like chess pieces on a board. But that’s neither here nor there. We’re not talking about real serial killers. We’re talking about the boogeyman.
Some people don’t think serial killer stories qualify as horror because of the absence of the supernatural. I disagree for the reasons above. We have imbued the fictional serial killer with ersatz supernatural powers because the real serial killer scares the hot, steaming shit out of us precisely because he is not supernatural. He’s just one of us. It’s never possible to recognize him for what he is, we only learn about it later, after it’s too late for his victims. Sometimes he’s an odd, quiet loner and sometimes he’s active in local politics and entertains local children by playing a clown. And sometimes he’s a mass killer who walks into a mall or school and opens fire. He is impossible to spot or predict. Because he’s one of us.
The vampire grew out of ignorance and superstition. There was a time when people were sometimes buried a little too early, and if they managed to get out of the grave, they probably didn’t look so good. Imagine happening to see someone crawl out of a grave and stagger away looking dirty and sinister. It’s the kind of thing that would stick with you, the kind of thing you’d tell others. There was never a real vampire, of course, but there was a time when the fear of vampires was very real.
The fictional serial killer is scary, but he’s scary in the way a movie or novel or TV show is scary — he’s safe. We’ve made him that way. We’ve distanced him from ourselves, made him different. He’s a seductive genius who reads people like cereal boxes and basks in his own evil. We can enjoy the gruesome chills of a Hannibal Lecter movie because he is clearly what we want him to be — not us.
The real serial killer is not different from us. He is us. He is somebody’s son, somebody’s friend, maybe somebody’s brother, maybe even somebody’s spouse. Yes, he’s a monster, but he’s a monster who’s also one of us.
We had to turn the serial killer into a supernatural boogeyman. The reality is just too horrifying.