Posts Tagged ‘Unworthy’

thestandjpg-7125d8_1280wIn his epic 1978 novel The Stand, Stephen King killed everything. An intensely aggressive form of influenza is accidentally released from a government research facility and one panicked guard escapes before quarantine is initiated. The guard spreads the plague, which grows exponentially, until 99.4% of the population is dead. Those who remain are alone or in splintered groups scattered across the United States, with a common thread. Many of them begin to have dreams: some dream of a kindly old woman in Nebraska, while others see a dark man in Las Vegas. Drifting aimlessly around the corpse of America, the paths of survivors eventually intersect and when it is realized that they are having the same dreams, the groups decide to travel to one of the two dreamed-about locations. The battle lines are being drawn; the time has come for humanity to make its stand, in the final war of good against evil.

While the story is one of survival in a radically changed landscape, it is also one of humanity lost and humanity found; each of the nearly thirty main and incidental characters faces a choice at some point in his or her journey, and it is these choices that ultimately dictate where they will land. The central protagonist, an East Texan called Stu Redman, is a good ol’ boy whose life is marked by tragedy and regret, and his mysterious immunity to the disease unfortunately lands him in a government research facility, located in Vermont. His experience in quarantine is truly nightmarish and through Redman, the reader is subjected to the horrors of isolation and confinement, of having no say in the course of one’s life, instead subjected to the poking and prodding of scientists who have no answer for his resistance to the illness. A frightening parallel could be made to the experiences of those who were subjected to imprisoned in concentration camps, whose minds and bodies were completely controlled by doctors whose motives were less than humane.

Other central characters include a rock star whose self-centered ways may be his ruination, a young expectant mother, a high-school boy whose resentment over being an outcast at school guides him bitterly but, in the new post-plague world, he has the chance to reinvent himself, provided he can leave the past behind. A sociology professor, a troubled woman with a dark secret, a developmentally disabled man, a young deaf-mute, a petty criminal, a schizophrenic pyromaniac, and numerous others round out a diverse cast, each of which have a past to contend with, and a future to decide.

While the characters are well-developed, as is common with King’s work, two particularly stand out: Harold Lauder, a sixteen-year-old whose intelligence and social awkwardness made him an outcast in the pre-plague world, and Donald Merwin Elbert (aka “Trashcan Man”), the aforementioned pyromaniac whose own troubled past appears inescapable and guides his actions, even when salvation is at hand. Like Arnie Cunningham in Christine, these two characters are incredibly well-written, both having significant paternal issues and episodes of being bullied and tormented at school, and the rage that fuels the actions of each. These characters are essential to the King canon, being possible extensions of his own childhood; indeed, bullies appear in nearly all of King’s works, and the ends that come to many of them reinforce the possibility that King may have been cathartically working out some issues.

Although published thirty-five years ago (with an extended version released in 1990, The Stand is eerily prescient with its themes of nuclear and biological warfare, governmental bungling, religious fanaticism, and police-state imagery. It is a cautionary tale for the ages, inviting the reader into an all-too real America in which each person must wade through their personal nightmares and pasts, and decide whether to take a stand, to make a claim for their own life and the direction in which they choose to take it.

In 1979, the paperback edition of The Stand noted that the book was soon to be made into a film by George Romero (Night of the Living Dead); however, after languishing in development for years, Romero dropped out and the plans were scuttled. In 1994, The Stand aired on television as an eight-hour (about six hours without commercials), four-part miniseries.

Long-time fans of King’s masterwork were split on their opinions, and for valid reasons: important characters were eliminated, unnecessarily changed or combined with others, plotlines were altered or abandoned, and the casting of actors was wildly uneven, ranging from brilliant to absurd. Fans rejoiced in the casting of Gary Sinise as Stu Redman, Ray Walston as Glen Bateman, Bill Fagerbakke as Tom Cullen; the decision to have Rob Lowe portray Nick Andros was at first curious, but worked out well, while casting Matt Frewer as Trashcan Man was absolute, demented genius. However, the project was bogged down by the unfortunate casting of Molly Ringwald and Corin Nemec as Frannie Goldsmith and Harold Lauder, Laura San Giacomo as Nadine Cross, Miguel Ferrer as Lloyd Henreid, and Jamey Sheridan as Randall Flagg, the Dark Man. Ferrer was completely wrong for the part of the gullible, criminal man-child; Nemec carried none of Harold’s toxic rage or inner conflict; Ringwald made Frannie whining and weak, San Giacomo bumbled around, seemingly lost and, worst of all, Sheridan turned Flagg, the embodiment of death and destruction, possibly the Antichrist, into a leering caricature more suited for a soap opera.

The horrifying set pieces from the novel appear restricted by the small screen both in scope and in budget, their terror muted and sanitized for a general audience, and even the final confrontation, in which an enormous, angry mob draws together for a show trial, a final reckoning, during which all present must decide which side they stand on, comes off as a small gathering, carrying none of the gravity that it could and should have. Budgeted at twenty-eight million dollars (US), there simply wasn’t enough money to make The Stand as grand as it should have been, and eight hours did not give enough time to bring the book truly to life. Additionally, the sensibilities of 1994 did not allow ABC Television the freedom to bring much of The Stand’s horror and grimness to life, and many of the book’s themes were downplayed or muddled. Still, ABC made what appears to be an earnest attempt and, given the constraints under which they were working, one can forgive some of the decisions that were made.

That said, it has been reported that that Warner Brothers and CBS Films are developing a feature-length film adaptation of The Stand, and that it may be produced as a trilogy of films, with Ben Affleck at the helm. Given his recent run of successes and rebirth as a serious player in Hollywood, The Stand may yet make a transition to screen that will not only satisfy its lifelong fans, but also spur the uninitiated into taking on the dark nightmare of King’s epic masterpiece. The recent casting of Matthew McConaughey as the Main in Black (Randall Flagg)  in the big-screen adaptation of King’s Dark Tower, has many fans hoping that he will carry the role over to the new telling of The Stand; this writer thinks it would be a perfect match.

9f4768b4bd4a205e1d3a60398ab022a2_567x210There is a special kind of magic when a guy gets his first car; it’s a feeling of liberation, of freedom, to climb in and just take off. The mysterious allure of the open road, the siren song of several hundred horses under the hood and a tiger in the tank, rocketing into the future without a care in the world. There is a darker side as well, that of squealing brakes and crushing metal, the bitter sting of humiliation, shattered dreams, and innocence torn asunder. Of love betrayed and forever lost.

These are the central themes of Stephen King’s Christine (1983), in which Arnie Cunningham purchases his first car, a broken-down 1958 Plymouth Fury, against the wishes of his parents and against the advice of his best and only friend, Dennis Guilder. Arnie is portrayed as a quintessential high school nerd, scrawny and pimple-faced, constantly harassed by the school bullies, invisible to the opposite sex. As Arnie gets to work on restoring the car, which he names Christine, the visible changes to the car causes a metamorphosis in Arnie; the blemishes disappear, awkwardness gives way to coolness, and even the girls begin to pay attention to love-starved Arnie. Arnie’s liberation, however, carries with it a steep price: a bond forms between Arnie and his car, and Christine appears to be systematically killing those who had victimized him and those who attempt to attract Arnie’s attention. Christine, as it turns out, is a jealous sort, and she won’t tolerate anyone coming between her and her man. Arnie’s newfound confidence and appearance finds him with the prettiest girl in school, with calamitous results.

Christine is a story told in three parts: first is a first-person account from Dennis’ point of view, the second is in third-person and focuses on Arnie, then returns to Dennis in first-person for the conclusion. This technique makes for a very intimate telling, and allows the reader to gain the perspective of one who is losing their best friend to forces they can’t understand, as well as the painful changes that often happen in long-term friendships when those involved grow in different directions, for different reasons. Dennis likens Arnie’s spiral into obsession with Christine to that of a nice guy who winds up with the school tramp; try as he might to convince everyone that she’s really a special, wonderful person, they all know deep down that she’s trouble, and that no good will come of it, but he won’t hear of it, because she is the first girl who ever paid attention to him and sometimes, that’s enough.

Arnie Cunningham is doubtlessly one of King’s best-written characters and the reason is readily apparent: Arnie, just like Harold Lauder and Trashcan Man from The Stand, are extensions of King himself. The years of not fitting in, social and physical awkwardness, bullying, humiliation, crushes, and pent-up rage are masterfully funneled into these characters and it is this authenticity, this heartbreaking honesty, which makes these characters so compelling, so real. We cheer Arnie’s growing coolness at first, but are later repelled by his inability to understand the reality of his situation and his unwillingness to extricate himself from a relationship that redefines the concept of codependent dysfunction.

Each chapter in Christine opens with a passage from a 1950s car song that gives subtle indication to the action that will follow, and the three parts, titled Teenage Car Songs, Teenage Love Songs, and Teenage Death Songs, give us an idea of where the exquisitely paced story arc is headed, without giving anything away. From the first page, the story is suffused with a feeling of profound loss at that most delicate time of life, when one attempts to make the transition from child to adult. Being written by Stephen King, we can assume that Christine is a horror story, which it most certainly is, but perhaps the horror isn’t the scary car, but rather the realization that youth’s blossom fades too quickly, and that not all of us are able or willing to grow up. Despite all our best intentions, fate follows its own agenda, often with tragic, irreversible results.

Also in 1983, legendary filmmaker John Carpenter directed the film adaptation of Christine, at a time in which King adaptations were being produced at a furious rate, with often-dubious quality. Happily, Carpenter’s version follows the source material keenly, and the casting of Keith Gordon as Arnie and John Stockwell as Dennis works very well; the chemistry of the actors is organic and believable. In Carpenter’s version, Christine’s pedigree has changed: in the book, the reader is introduced to the car as it sits moldering in its owner’s yard; in the film, Christine is first seen on the assembly line, injuring several workers in the act of building it. This change is significant, as it turns Christine from being a vessel for the suppressed rage of its owners into something that was essentially ‘born bad’ and causes a major shift in the relational dynamic from personal to impersonal. The resulting film, which is very enjoyable, loses a fair degree of the emotional depth and overwhelming sense of tragedy that the book conveys.

This is a chief complaint with many King book-to-movie adaptations: when the author invests a great deal of energy and emotion building characters to very specific standards, as King does, much is inevitably lost in the transition to film. While Carpenter’s film is well-directed and worthy of respect, the themes of the book, as discussed above, are largely lost. In both versions, ancillary characters are not nearly as developed largely because their purpose is to propel the main characters, Arnie, Dennis, and Christine. When all is said and done, both versions stand up well, each on their own merits, and each worth a second look.

lifeforceThe Cannon Group. To those who were of a certain time, in a certain place, mere mention of The Cannon Group conjures giddy images of days spent in second-run theatres with sticky floors and scratchy prints. When the lights went down and the Cannon logo appeared on the screen, the audience knew precisely what to expect: low budgets, second-tier stars, improbably laughable scripts, and cheesy special effects. Cannon was for the 1980s what American International was for the 1960s: a reliable workhorse that churned out B movies with an ethos that quantity was far more valuable than quality. And yet, for those devotees in the dark, Cannon signified nothing less than magic.

Fresh from the box-office triumph of Poltergeist (1982), director Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) signed a three-picture deal with Cannon; his first project, which was reportedly forced on him, was a film adaptation of the lamentably titled 1977 novel Space Vampires. The picture was given a twenty-five million dollar budget, an astonishing sum for Cannon to put into a single feature. With Hooper at the helm, a screenplay co-written by Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, Alien, Return of the Living Dead), cinematography by Alan Hume (Return of the Jedi, A View to A Kill, A Fish Called Wanda), effects by the legendary John Dykstra (Silent Running, Star Wars, Django Unchained), and music by Henry Mancini, Lifeforce seemed poised to make a big splash. But this didn’t happen. Cannon co-owners Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had intended Lifeforce to be a mega-budgeted science fiction / horror blockbuster; however, the film ended up grossing around eleven million dollars and was considered a flop. Home video fortunately allowed Lifeforce to find its audience, giving it the second chance it deserved, and a devoted cult following ensued.  

A joint United States / British scientific team are investigating the passing Halley’s Comet, when they find what appears to be a ship in the midst of the comet. Further investigation reveals the presence of three humanoids in suspended animation, which are taken into their shuttle for analysis. As it turns out, the three are vampires of a sort who, instead of blood, siphon the soul, the energy, of their victims. When they come to Earth, all hell breaks loose and Armageddon is but a stone’s throw away. The themes explored in Lifeforce are familiar to the vampire genre: the loss of control over one’s self, killing to live, and immortality. The film’s strength, however, isn’t in the story, but rather the telling; Steve Railsback (Helter Skelter, The Stunt Man) handles his starring role capably, balancing action and drama well, despite the occasional rough patch of dialogue. Patrick Stewart maintains a small but vital role, just two years before finding international fame as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise. The effects work is excellent, particularly when considering the budget and lack of computer generated imagery. As the film winds toward its climax London descends into chaos, and the scenes of terror in the streets are extraordinarily well done although, admittedly, scenes of terror in the streets are my weakness.

The film works because of, rather than despite, the occasional bit of ham-fisted dialogue that harkens back to American horror films of the 1950s (obviously intentional with O’Bannon as the writer), astounding practical effects, genre-appropriate scoring, outstanding cinematography, solid performances, and the jaw-dropping Mathilda May in a one-of-a-kind performance that none will forget.

The real star here is Scream! Factory; their Blu-Ray treatment of Lifeforce is superlative, and includes the truncated US release (101 minutes), and also the vastly superior, international edit (116 minutes). The prints have been nicely restored and for the most part look great, aside from a few scratches here and there. The sound quality is top-shelf, and sounds excellent on a 6.1 surround system. Extras include a vintage “Making Of” featurette, as well as new interview segments with Railsback, Mathilda May, and Hooper, all of whom look back fondly at the film. To have taken the time to film new segments with the three principals is a commendable touch, especially for the fans who have embraced this great, if somewhat odd, film for nearly thirty years. If the treatment of Lifeforce is any indication of Scream! Factory’s dedication to preserving and presenting genre films to a new generation of viewers, the future looks bright indeed, provided there aren’t any naked space vampire invasions on the horizon.

happiness-07All along the boardwalk, happy people and happy families wandered, enjoying the warm late summer sunshine that carried with it the faint but unmistakable light of the approaching autumn. The air was saturated with the smell of corn dogs and soft pretzels, and children scampered around their parents, playfully shrieking with the sense of unfettered freedom that only comes with the very young, a freedom that would be lost soon enough to the vagaries of adulthood. The parents knew this, as all adults do, and quietly mourned the loss of innocence that would one day fall upon their children, as surely as it had fallen upon them.

Music rang out softly from cleverly concealed speakers; 70s pop from bands whose names few remembered, but lyrics everyone knew, their contagious catchiness declaring with anthemic earnestness that happiness was only a heartbeat away, just one more kiss away, that her magical spell was working so well, and that all would be right on a Saturday night. A slight breeze off the ocean wafted past the revelers as they took in the sights and the sounds of one last weekend before the weather turned.

The town’s autumns were its best kept secret; known locally as “Second Summer,” it was the delicate span of two to three weeks after labor day, when all the tourists had gone back home, and the town again belonged to those who lived and worked there. The pace slowed, rules relaxed a bit, and a cheerful glow enveloped the strand along the beach. This was the time in which, as if by communal agreement, nothing happened, as per the unwritten code of the tourist towns across the country. In the absence of Them, all that remained was Us.

Hands held, arms around waists, moving at a pace that spoke of neither hurry nor worry, everyone just happy and content to be here, to be sharing the quiet joy of Fall, and even if something was lightly fouling the air, a faint whiff of what, decay maybe, it would pass soon enough and be as quickly forgotten. Except that to some, the smell was growing stronger, more pungent. More wrong.

A gasp arose from somewhere in the crowd, the sound repeating as others turned to see, a susurration of shock whose echo grew louder, instead of diminishing. Children cried, their mothers and fathers drawing them close with iron-gripped hands, shielding their eyes from what they had already seen, could never un-see, their childhoods crashing down around them like milk bottles in a rigged carnival game. The throng of people parted, not unlike the Red Sea, at the sight of the woman among them.

The woman, if she could even be called that anymore.

She staggered along the promenade, this ruined wreck of a human being, oblivious to the multitude staring at her. Barefoot, shambling toward an unknown destination, each step leaving a bloody smear on the ground, gangrenous toes the dark purple-green of putrefaction, the hem of her tattered sweatpants as filthy as the feet beneath them, the knees torn through and crusted with dried blood, suggesting a lifetime spent on her knees; a torn, sleeveless cardigan hung open, making no secret of the nakedness behind it, the awful, shameless bruising and open sores weeping sickly yellow pus and blood, and the arms, the terrible arms with countless scratches and scars, suggesting that she might have been a cutter, but even worse, much worse than that, were the blackened track marks that flowed down from the crooks of each arm, the wounds that had never closed, homemade tattoos unidentifiable now but staining the flesh for ever more.

But the left arm, it must have been a trick of the light, certainly that if nothing else, because the left forearm…the skin was rotting away, the radius and ulna brownish-white and exposed like a dirty secret for all the world to see, ragged flaps of desiccated skin and tendons hanging loosely, hardly any meat to cling to, just empty air, the hand, if indeed it was a hand, flopping limply at her side and wrapped in a towel soiled and dripping, no tissue to give it life, to give it motion. As the horror of the arm attempted to lodge itself in the minds of those who saw it, they were powerless as their eyes went to her face, which was perhaps the worst of all.

Her hair, which may once have been strawberry blond, was a dirty, matted mess, hanging in her face, but not enough to cover it, not nearly enough, for her face was a tattered roadmap of self-hatred and abuse of many types. Blood vessels had bust like fireworks in one eye, leaving the sclera red and angry, while the other eye, its pupil dilated, wandered about, searching everything, focusing on nothing, blood leaking like awful tears from the depths of a hell beyond comprehension, her nose partially eaten away, scarcely more than a diseased crater in the middle of her face, yellow-green snot hanging in thick ropes, her occasional sniffles doing nothing to stem the tide of mucus running into and out of the hole where once had been a mouth, where once had been strong, white teeth, but now was home to rotting, ragged stumps of black and brown, lips chewed to shreds as though incredible pain had been sustained.

Her shoulders slumped, betraying any sense of height, and such was her appearance that her own mother, had she been there that day, would have failed to recognize her. The woman’s ruination was so complete, so absolute, that nothing of her humanity remained. Dragging a leprous foot behind her, she slouched onward, humming a song to herself, a discordant but familiar tune, so quietly that none of those nearest her, who cleared a broad path, could have heard it. Had they chanced approaching this malignant, walking nightmare, they might have learned something about her, but none there on that awful day were willing to cross the line between caution and foolishness which, as it turned out, made no difference whatsoever.

The sniffling got louder and she stopped in her tracks, body shuddering and trembling as though current was passing through it. Suddenly, explosively, she sneezed, the force of it doubling her over and as phlegm spattered the horrified faces around her, the sneeze caused her to violently void her bowels, a vile torrent of toxic shit staining her pants and cascading down her leg.

Screams erupted as those covered in her mess caught the smell, as though all they had seen had been abstract until they were spattered in her filth, that they were shocked back into reality. As the people scattered and ran, frantically clutching their children, the woman coughed slightly and pitched forward, her swollen, distended abdomen disgorging an impossible amount of black bile onto the ground, her face landing in the puddle of vomit. With death, the last of her muscles gave way, and a reeking lake of dark waste soon surrounded her, her wretched destruction complete.

In the distance, a siren wailed. By the time paramedics arrived on the scene, the woman’s purpose had been served; the poison that had exploded from her orifices and leaked from her pores, had reached nearly every soul on the boardwalk with absolute efficiency.

It had begun.

desktop-1430323952“We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way.” — Hunter S Thompson

This past weekend, Epic Steph and I went back to the Museum of Death for our second visit. We’d gone earlier in the year for my birthday, but this time we were grizzled veterans, bringing friends who’d never been. That first visit had been on a Monday morning, just after the museum had opened; this time, it was a late Saturday afternoon. Packed but silent, save for the one woman who was there with family, obviously drunk. Whatever.

Having already seen the sights, I contented myself with observing the other guests, and looking, really looking, at the hundreds of photos that line the walls. This time, I saw that all the victims in all the photos bore one common trait: they died alone. Even if there were two or three together, they died alone. Sharon Tate, Elizabeth Short, Abigail Folger, Albert Dekker, the sad sacks of the Heaven’s Gate comet cult, the incomprehensible nine hundred and eighteen of Jonestown, the suicides, the executions, the murders…no matter how many were there, each of those people went to death by themselves: their final breath, their final pulse, a desperately personal act as they made their way to the other side.

Even the Serial Killer Gallery, the first exhibit in the museum, stands as testament to the loneliness of the deviant mind. Artwork by Gacy and Ramirez are poor attempts at portraying an alienated inner landscape few of us can really understand. Here and there are the random teams, Toole and Lucas, Bianchi and Buono, but even in those cases, it was the loneliness of alienation that bonded these people together. This is no attempt at justification; just an observation that these were some profoundly fucked-up people who had trouble relating to most others and acted out in abhorrent ways.

Leaving the museum, we ventured up Hollywood Boulevard in the waning light of the fall afternoon, the setting sun seeming to light the street on fire as the city’s night shift emerged. The boulevard fascinates me; tourists make pilgrimages here every day of the year, seeking that magic that might have once lived here, but has long since fled. Graumann’s Chinese is owned by some big company that has set retail kiosks out in the courtyard, the souvenir carts covering the very signatures and handprints that bring people there in the first place, while poorly-costumed geeks wander the crowd, demanding money for photos no one wants, while a guy selling five-dollar t-shirts calls a girl a fucking bitch because she doesn’t return his aggressive flirting.

Across the street is the El Capitan, a former movie palace that’s been restored to its former glory by Disney. It’s beautiful, but in a cheap and tawdry way because it’s just another cynical way for Disney to pimp itself, but it stands in stark contrast to the ugliness, the desperation, the despair of Hollywood Boulevard. All the other storefronts are cheap souvenir shops, luggage shops, food stalls, ‘naughty’ costume shops, strip clubs, liquor stores, and on and on, foul, dirty, untended, uncared for. One would think that with all the tourism, someone would step up and take back at least this block, reclaim it as a tourist destination and make it pretty, clean, photogenic and worth visiting, but it’s painfully obvious that no one has given a damn about this place in a very long time.

Lining the star-embedded sidewalks are the legions of the homeless and the addicted, the lost and the lonely, hustling a buck to get through the night, the stink of urine rising from the sun-baked street makes me think of Times Square circa 1976, wondering which of the countless, wound-up Travis Bickles wandering the street, lonesome and unloved, alienated and alienating, will be the next to snap, and how many they’ll take with them.

We see two prostitutes inside the Roosevelt, and my friend tells me that the dark-haired one will die tonight, and I have no problem believing that. The words are spoken without humor, an honest, genuine gut-hunch that I’m in no position to argue, because when night falls on the Boulevard, anything is possible and the darkness is absolute. It’s then that I realize that all of this, the hustling, the squalor, the stardom, the death, all of this – it’s all a monument to loneliness, the uncomfortable silence that falls between friends, between lovers, between family members, that which drives people apart and away, sending them scuttling into the dark corners of their homes, the streets, their hearts,  their minds, fighting the thoughts, the voices, the need, the desire, the desperation, the despair, the longing, the heartache, the past, the future, until there is no fight left, the will exhausted, the battle lost, and the curtain finally falls.

storyWell, here we are again. Another year over and done, and a brand, spankin’ new one just ripe and ready for the plucking. Or so it would seem. Honestly, I’m just happy to see 2015 in the rear view mirror. It wasn’t a terrible year, but it was overstaying its welcome by around September. And now we prepare to take another trip around the sun, 2016 promises to be a good year, to eat all its vegetables, and to not make too much of a stink over an upcoming, dreaded milestone.

So yeah, I took a few months off, because I found myself at a point in which I felt I had little of value to say. Do I now? I dunno, but I feel like writing again so, you know, there’s that. And there’s also a renewed sense of purpose and direction, fueled by encouragement. Who’d have thought?

I was looking at my overall sales for Unworthy, and found that it’s doing some business. I’ve sold copies in the UK and Australia, which just has me shaking my head in disbelief and happiness. For such a uniquely American story, I guess there are some themes and ideas that cross the various cultures. And while neither Mr Fincher nor Mr Zombie have yet reached out for the film rights, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time, yeah?

I digress.

I’ve begun work on a new novel, and I’m pretty stoked about it. While I’m far too superstitious to give up the title or what it’s about just yet, I will say that this will be a far more personal story, and I can already see that we’re going to be swimming in some very dark waters (sorry Mom, I’m just wired this way).

So stick around, won’t ya? I promise I’ll be better at keeping in touch (like we’ve never heard that before), have some updates along the way, an excerpt or two, and maybe even some awesome news.

Stay sick, and keep reading scary stories. And hey, if you’re reading this and happen to have read Unworthy, drop me a line or leave a review, would ya? We’d sure appreciate it.

Cellar LightWe had to put Gramma in the cellar. We told ourselves it was for her safety, which was easier than admitting it was for our own.

Her ‘spells’ had been coming on more often, and with greater…passion. I guess that’s the word for it. There was no talking to her then, once she got it in her head that she was, well, once she got it in her head, is all.

We’d considered the attic, but there were too many chances for problems. She could have fallen or jumped out a window. Neighbors (not that there were many left) could have seen her up there and called the authorities, in some noble but misguided effort to help a crazy old lady they didn’t understand. And honestly, the noise wasn’t as bad when she was in the cellar. Call it callous, call it selfish, but you don’t understand. You can’t understand.

So yes, we decided, as a family, to put her down there. Because we couldn’t control her anymore. Because we love her. Because we deserve some goddamn peace. How the hell were we supposed to know what would happen? I built a bed, a solid pine bed, just for her. I sank the posts two feet deep into the earth of the cellar, so she couldn’t move it around. We put down a nice rug and made sure no drafts could get in.

She wanted her candles, but we knew better. Pa ran some basic electric down there, so she could have light to read her Reader’s Digest and bible stories, and we made sure to take her meals down every day. A hefty lock on the door helped us sleep at night. Routine settled in.

Days turned to weeks, then months and seasons rolled by, and we almost began to believe we were a normal family again. Except when Gramma had one of her spells. During those times, Pa and I dutifully took the van for the four-hour round trip up to the city, to fetch a playmate for Gramma. A playmate, for God’s sake. There wasn’t enough craziness in our heads to call it what it really was, and that’s saying a hell of a lot. Because it was the crazy that kept us afloat, kept us from coming completely unglued, kept us from calling the authorities, kept us from admitting that we were doing bad things. Really bad things.

That’s the power of family: It kept you doing things you knew were wrong, knew were bad, because there’s this bond that says family is more important than anything else. So you abide, and God only knows the depths to which you’ll sink to preserve that goddamn bond, even if it drives you to do the Devil’s work. Damn our souls.

So yeah, we took the van to town, and cruised skid row, looking for some poor drunk with one foot already in the grave. It’s a public service, we’d tell ourselves in the quiet, dark parts of the night. We’re helping those poor souls on the road to salvation. Because what they had to endure, we desperately hoped God would show them mercy, just as we knew He would have no mercy on us. We deserved no mercy, no salvation; we’d damned ourselves from the outset, booked our passage to hell because of family.

Gramma had come from the old country, making the passage across the ocean in the windowless hold of a wooden ship, with hundreds of others, all piled atop one another, with not enough room for all to sleep at the same time, taking shifts standing while others lay on raised planks, the floor covered in vomit, piss, and shit, all for the sake of escaping to the Promised Land, enduring Hell on earth as shipmates died from exposure, pneumonia, infection, beatings, and God knows what else, while those that lived choked on the stench of death and sewage in the hot, rolling chaos of the ship’s steerage hold. Food was scarce, causing some to shatter long-held taboos out of desperation.

Occasionally, a mate would open a hatch in the deck, allowing sunlight to stream in, fresh sea air mingling with the unspeakable reek emanating from below deck. When land was finally sighted, the dead were gathered up and unceremoniously dumped overboard, their tattered clothing and meager possessions long gone to the wretched horde, half-insane in the darkness of the hold.

Out of this waking nightmare came Gramma, not knowing that even then she was carrying the sickness in her gut like a despised parasite. Even at her tender young age, she came out of the darkness and brought with her a viciousness that few would ever live to see, and fewer still would ever believe.

Gramma, in her better days, would tell us her story, over and over, like a record stuck in a groove, as though we’d never heard it before, wanting us to understand the sacrifices she’d made, the things she’d had to do, to provide for us, to give us a chance in this place. To make us understand that we were beholden to her, forevermore.

So Pa and I would find a lost soul and bring it home. Send it down the cellar stairs, where we assured it that there would be food and drink, and a warm, safe bed. Our challenge was to get the door closed and bolted before the screaming started. Before the wet, tearing sounds found their way to our ears and burrowed into our souls, an ironclad guarantee of a sleepless night, fraught with images best left to a slaughterhouse.

Later, after Gramma’s hunger was sated and she was asleep, we would descend the stairs with the buckets and clean up what remained, thankful for the earthen floor of the cellar, into which the blood and other fluids had seeped, which fed an army of beetles and worms that kept Gramma fed and satisfied until the next time she had one of her spells.

I tried not to look at Gramma; we’d given up on trying to keep her clothed ages ago. Anything we tried to put on her would end up stained and shredded, as though the fabric on her skin was a sacrilege she couldn’t abide. The sight of her, covered in sores and filth, made my heart ache, despite the monstrous things she did. Her skin sagged, a testament to her years, its elasticity long since lost to the brutality of gravity and time. She stank of a dangerous musk that ran deeper than simply an aversion to bathing; though alive, a pervasiveness of decay floated about her like a dark and awful cloud. Stray teeth, blackened and jagged, glistened when she licked them with the remains of her tongue, chewed upon so much and so often that it had given up any hope of regrowth.

The madness of Gramma had forced Ma to flee while I was still a child, her teary eyes beseeching us to run with her, far from the grasp of Gramma, all the while knowing we would never, could never, leave her, not until the old woman died, which wasn’t going to happen any time soon. She’d already passed her one hundredth birthday, and seemed hell-bent on outliving all of us, despite the sickness that had ravaged her brain.

Ain’t nothin’ gonna stop her, short of a silver bullet,” Ma had wept, her breath hitching in her chest on that last night, rain coursing down her face as she stood in the doorway, taxi idling a few yards away. I remember her eyes then, soft and pleading, heartbroken and miserable, hating herself for the abandonment, but determined not to fall under the wheels of this inherited madness.

Those words resonated in my mind down the years that followed, as I scoured the land around our property for metals, slowly finding bits and pieces of what I sought, knowing that I could simply steal what I needed, but knowing too that, despite all the wrong I had done for the sake of Gramma, I couldn’t do the one wrong that might deliver us from her. By and by, I’d put together enough to melt down, the last of it coming from a small crucifix I’d found on the roadside, its tiny Christ shedding tears of pain and joy in his last torturous hours on this earth. I shaped the blob of metal carefully, burning my fingers time and again as I bled to make it absolutely perfect, leaving part of myself in it, as if a sacrifice was demanded as a means to this particular end. I carefully tapped the slug into a brass casing, already set with gunpowder and primer in place.

While Pa slept fitfully upstairs, I retrieved his rifle from the hiding place he didn’t know I knew about, and made for the cellar. Before opening the door, I racked my bullet into the chamber. I descended the stairs carefully and quietly, so as not to disturb Gramma.

Who is that?” she grunted, her words slurred, as if she weren’t accustomed to using the language, instead recalling it from distant memory.

It’s me, Gramma,” I said quietly, keeping myself in the shadows, hoping she wouldn’t see the rifle or, at the very least, not know what it was. “Just come down to tell you we’re making dinner. It’ll be here soon.”

You’re a good boy, Henry,” she said, her voice taking on a timbre and tone that I’d not heard in ages, sounding much like it did before she got so bad. Through my tears, I knew it was a trick of my mind, not to be taken seriously or given any semblance of meaning. Because while I knew I was doing the right thing, there was a still, small voice inside of me that thought I was doing bad, committing evil, despite the evil I sought to put down.

You abide by family no matter what, the voice said. At the end of it, family’s all you have. This was Gramma’s voice, echoing down the years. I knew its refrain by heart, and yet it caused tears to well up in my eyes as I shouldered the rifle.

I love you, Gramma,” I said quietly, my teary eyes sighting down the barrel, my finger on the trigger. I gently squeezed the trigger, just as I’d been taught.

The shot rang huge in my ears as the rifle’s recoil slammed it into my shoulder, instantly numb and deaf. Gramma slumped against the wall of the cellar, legs askew with no inclination toward modesty, the right side of her head blown to vapor, and I watched the last dim light leave her cataract-clouded eyes. A voice from the doorway above broke the silence.

You did good, son,” Pa said, his voice calm, without a trace of judgment or sorrow.

I watched our house burn from the rear window of the van as we drove away, into the cold light of a new day, the road stretched out in front of us.

Somewhere out there, I knew, Ma waited for us.

WindowShe sits in the window, a vague silhouette softly backlit from an unseen source. She sits there, day in and day out, looking out across the garden and over the fence at the streets of the town, always observing, but never participating. She stares without seeing, listens without hearing, as the rest of the world passes by, rarely glancing up.

The woman gazes out, recalling a childhood full of promise, full of possibility. She thinks of a time in which love was light and nothing hurt. A recollection of love unfettered, of proud teachers and adoring classmates. Ribbons and trophies, a precocious interest, a mangy stray, the slip of a knife. The curiosity of a child, with an adult’s desire to make something hurt. A horrifying discovery, a tearful admission.

A distant memory of a parent’s anger, remorse, for having brought such a thing into the world. The slam of a door and tires screeching off the curb, an engine revving off into the distance, not seen again. The unbearable knowledge that they left because of her. The lash of a belt, the loneliness of a childhood locked in the broom closet. Because she is mean, awful, terrible. Because she escapes and keeps on doing it. Because she cannot help herself.

She dreams from the window, remembering a time when she would go for rides in cars with boys, their voices filled with promises of everlasting love as their bodies made mad lunges toward things best left unmentioned. Desperate for their love, dying for it, she remembers the bitter anger in their voices as she pushed eager hands away, feels again the sting of hand on cheek. The salty taste of anguished tears as promises gave way to hurtfulness, showered and pelted by gravel as yet another car pulled angrily away, stranding her.

Abandoning her.

Discarding her.

The woman in the window thinks of the time she finally gave in, to the hot, beer-laced breath of an aggressive young man, deciding to go through with it only to give herself the illusion of having had a choice. She remembers her fingernails clawing into the grey upholstery, a thin trickle of blood from where she’d bit her lip in pain, the tracks of tears slowly descending her face. His anger at her awkwardness, his wicked words at her inexperience, his hand raised, illuminated in the moonlight, seeking to punish her for his hasty fumbling and quick expiration.

A hand in her purse, clutching the pommel of an old familiar friend, the glint of light on steel, the violation of penetration, red on grey, red on the windows, the dashboard. The sound of her laughter, as though coming from someone else. The feeling of absolute, electric life, of ultimate power, and ultimate release. Walking home that night, feeling a joy to treasure forever.

She was home long enough to pack a bag, and long gone before first light, taking the first bus to anywhere, still desperate for the love she now understood would never be hers, but taking solace in the knowledge that there were many more things for her to feel, things that were close to love, or at least close enough.

She remembers the infinite lights of big cities, the wee twinkling of small towns, and the world of possibilities that lay within all of them. She remembers a bathtub, anchored to the floor by iron claws, filled with the glorious red, splashing around like that woman she’d read about in another time, in another place, feeling life seeping into her very pores, filling her senses, overloading her mind.

The woman in the window feels every moment, every sensation, as though they happened yesterday. The garden far below her window grows lush and wild, fortified with the essence of long-gone lovers, each and every one of them holding a special place in her heart, each one a notch on the wrought iron fence that contains them.

In the still of night, the woman hears voices, interrupting her solitary vigil. She recognizes them, recognizes them all, and tries to understand their rage, their anger, their hateful words, their spectral threats. Of late, they appear nightly, screaming their pain at her, their outrage at the desecration she visited upon them. She usually bears them no mind, allows them their indignant ramblings, but tonight they find her weak, find her vulnerable. The rantings of the dead fill her mind, her heart, her very being with their sorrow, an emotion for which she has no understanding, having abandoned such things a lifetime before.

Tonight, the woman in the window stands, and pushes aside her chair, moves it aside and walks calmly to the other side of her sitting room and turns her back to the wall. She pushes off with her feet and launches herself at the window, legs pumping madly, hitting the glass with her feet off the ground, but while the window cracks, it does not break. She is cut and bleeding from the impact as she returns to the wall and propels herself, again and again, at the stubborn window.

On the fifth attempt, she finds success. The glass gives way and she sails out, weightless in the night, her arms out in front of her, as if in flight. Bits and shards of glass accompany her, and she believes she flies among the stars, that heaven and earth were made just for her. Then the ground beckons her, invites her closer, and she sees the wrought iron flour-de-lis that sit atop the fence-posts rushing to meet her, and in that last moment, the woman in the window understands.

She smiles.

 

Continuing from an earlier post called Bad Day at the Trailer Park

Buddy’s El Camino tore up the road at a furious pace, matching his mood. Not content for having gotten the better over Dean, Harley, and Monster, he turned his dark attention to Wanda Jean.

“Baby,” Buddy said, an edge of violence to his voice. “Tell me again what you done to them old boys back there.”

Wanda Jean rolled her eyes, careful to look away when doing so. “Honey, I done told you half a dozen times already, ain’t nothin’ more to say about it.”

“That’s for me to say, woman. Thing is, I’m leaning toward thinkin’ maybe you done a little more for them than just serve up some nasty rock.”

“Like what, Buddy? You think I screwed ’em? Is that it?” Like it ain’t enough that I went in there, alone, got them to snort death, and made it out with my skin in place while you just sat in the car, waiting?” Wanda Jean’s voice had taken a turn, her words laced delicately with spite. She hadn’t meant to taunt Buddy, but she was enjoying the feeling.

“The hellyou mean by that?” Buddy shouted, his face reddening with anger. “You callin’ me a punk for not tending to my own affairs?”

“Shoe fits, baby,” Wanda Jean said with a laugh, wondering just how far she could push the idiot before he went completely sideways.

Without taking his eyes from the road, Buddy’s right arm shot out, his fist exploding across Wanda Jean’s face. Neither shocked nor startled, Wanda Jean turned toward the window, spat out the remains of a tooth, before turning to look at the man behind the wheel.

“Oh baby, you done that good, didn’t you?” she asked, tauntingly. “You just uncorked one on me, and I reckon you feel justified in doing it, don’t you?”

“That weren’t my fault, missy. You made me do that, made me lose my temper, and I had to teach you a lesson. You learned, didn’t you?”

“That I did, sugar. I learned more than you think,” Wanda Jean cooed softly. “I learned what turns a man into a boy, I learned what sets you off, and I learned that you think it’s okay to put hands on a woman if you think she provokes you.”

“You listen to me now, bitch, and you listen good,” Buddy snarled, white knuckling the steering wheel. “What you just got was a warning, and it was about a six on the Buddy scale. You don’t never wanna see me take it to a ten.”

“Reckon I don’t, baby,” Wanda said quietly. “Now I know you’re a stone cold, natural born badass, and I done learned my place.”

Buddy laughed, the tension easing from his face, from his voice. “Ain’t that better? Now we understand each other.”

“Here’s what I want you to understand, Buddy. Them old boys back in the trailer? You’re right, I did more than give them that bad batch. Before that, I let them have me, all at once. And it was good, baby, so goddamn good. Better than you could ever be, that’s for damn sure.”

“You filthy-”

“ENOUGH,” Wanda Jean shouted, loud enough to hurt Buddy’s ears, loud enough to rattle the windows of the beat up car. Wanda leaned in close to Buddy, a sharp fingernail pressed against the side of his neck, blood pumping furiously through the artery beneath it. “You keep driving, and maybe I’ll let your sorry ass live. Maybe.”

Fear and rage fought for room on Buddy’s face. No woman had ever spoken to him like this, and damn if it was going to start now. “You ever raise your voice against me again, Wanda Jean, and I swear to you, there’s gonna be Hell to pay.” The menace of his words was betrayed by a tremor in his voice, a signal to both that while Buddy’s heart still believed he was in control, his brain knew better and just couldn’t give up the fight.

Wanda Jean put her hand at the back of Buddy’s neck and leaned in close, whispering in his ear. “Loverboy, you got but one last chance to say something decent. Just one.”

“You goddamn–”

Wanda Jean’s hand shoved Buddy’s head forward violently, his skull shattering the windshield. Stunned, Buddy’s hands gripped the steering wheel and threw a hard left. The car’s tires chirped against the asphalt in a desperate attempt to keep contact with the road, the rear of the vehicle swinging out and clipping a telephone pole, sending the car into a sidelong roll, over and over, down into a ditch filled with reeking sewage, where it settled on its roof.

Buddy never wore a seat belt, because he said that no man would ever tell him how to live his life. The crash had tossed Buddy around the cabin of the car like a rag doll while Wanda Jean, safely buckled in, laughed and laughed as his body rolled and rolled, bones breaking and joints snapping, cartilage tearing and flesh torn asunder.

When the El Camino finally came to a rest, Buddy’s breathing was wet and ragged, one lung collapsed and the other perforated by broken ribs as his body lay crumpled against the roof of the car.. Wanda Jean giggled to herself, upside down and suspended by the seat belt, giddy over what she had created. Even as he lay dying, Buddy attempted to talk.

“What…bitch…I kill you…who…are you?”

“Who, me? Lemme put it this way, genius: it weren’t no accident you found me at that titty bar, Buddy. Fact is, I was looking for something new, someone new, because I have work to do. I thought you might have been the one to stand by my side, but it looks like I was wrong, wrong, wrong.” She punctuated her words with pokes to Buddy’s chest, each causing him to shriek with fear and pain.

“Goddamn…bitch…” Buddy sputtered, blood bubbling at his lips.

“Even now, you just can’t let shit go, can you?” Wanda Jean rolled her eyes in disbelief. With the slash of a fingernail, she cut through her seat belt, her hands unbelievably fast, catching herself before she fell to the roof of the overturned vehicle.

“Aw shit Buddy, you done turtled your car!” she exclaimed, as she slithered out of the ruined car.  The smell of gasoline was strong; the tank had ruptured and fuel was dribbling out. Wanda Jean looked at the growing puddle of gas, cleared her throat, and spat at Buddy, who had by now also smelled the gas. Despite the angry protests of his ruined body, he was trying to claw his way out of the El Camino.

Wanda Jean stood and watched his pathetic struggle, still giggling at his pain. She’d put up with so much from this clown; the verbal abuse, the threats of violence, the leers from his degenerate friends, the hostility of his mother, living in that goddamn trailer, because she thought that he could be the one to stand at her side when she took her rightful place in the world.

“Not this time, shitheel.” Wanda Jean pulled a cigarette from its battered pack, struck a match on her zipper, and inhaled deeply. Nothing as satisfying as a smoke to help with life’s little troubles. One more inhalation took the cigarette nearly down to the filter, which she tossed absentmindedly at the puddle of gas.

The butt landed and almost went out; then, an almost inaudible foomp signaled ignition, as flames raced toward the tank. The sudden increase in heat panicked Buddy, whose screams  were those of terror, rather than simple pain and fear. The car erupted suddenly, cloaking Buddy in an envelope of fire, his screams silenced forever by the flames consuming his clothes, his skin, his muscle. Even as he burned, he tried desperately to pull himself out of the car, his pain sensors now completely shut down as his body went into full panic survival mode.

Wanda watched with mild interest, having seen such things before, so many times before. By and by, Buddy stopped trying, and once it was clear that he wouldn’t be coming back, she reached down and snapped off a couple of his fingers, and stuffed them in the pocket of her Levi’s jacket. She loved her barbeque.

Wanda Jean climbed up the embankment and onto the highway. She bent at the waist and fluffed her auburn hair, then stood quickly, throwing her hair back. After a quick adjustment with her bra (one of them had popped out in the crash), and she began walking, backward, her thumb raised, just a pretty girl in need of a ride.

Hope you guessed my name. Let’s party!

Ebola. The name’s Ebola, and the mere mention of it sends the mind into paroxysms of fear. For good reason: Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever is a particularly nasty illness, with symptoms straight out of a horror story. The mysterious disease that may have come from a cave in deepest, darkest Africa, which causes uncontrolled bleeding through all orifices, through the pores, the eventual liquefaction of internal organs, resulting in a painful, violent death aren’t symptoms that typically lend themselves to romantic notions; it is a mean, dirty way to go. It conjures up images of Richard Preston’s terrifying 1994 book The Hot Zone and its portrayals of the Reston, Zaire, and Marburg strains of the virus. Ebola is real, and it is a threat.

And now, it’s landed here in the US. To briefly recap, two volunteers from a Christian organization, working in Sierra Leone with Ebola victims, contracted the disease, which is a risk one takes with this sort of work (one could also snarkily note that as missionaries, coming down with the disease must be a rather ironic expression of God’s will, and who are any of us to question it?). Rather than leave them there, however, like everyone else in the area who has the disease, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta have brought these two people home to treat them. Needless to say, there is a bit of outrage over this: a seeming majority of Americans, doubtlessly educated by the movie Outbreak and quacks like Drs Mercola and Oz, are up in arms that our government would be so reckless as to transport people we know are infected and showing symptoms of the most terrifying sickness yet discovered, via airplane, to a continent with no known instances of the disease. It just seems like an awful lot of bad decisions are being made, and we don’t have any say in the matter. And I kinda thing we should.

I don’t begrudge the worries many people feel about this; after all our government, if we’re being brutally honest about it, hasn’t shown a lot of skill at keeping sensitive things under wraps and, this time, it could be the end of all of us. The fanatics are busily dusting off their “End is Nigh” signs, the preppers are at Costco stocking up for life underground, the conspiracy fantasists are choking the internets with “I Told You So” posts blaming the Knights Templar, Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati, chemtrails, the “Kenyan President” and who knows what else for this sorry state of affairs while not-so-secretly hoping a mass extinction event will happen, if for no other reason than to substantiate the lives that they’ve wasted while looking between the lines for their beloved, invisible boogeymen. Add to that the ever-increasing number of people who just want a ringside seat to watch the world burn, and you’ve got quite a party on your hands.

The latest additions to the conspiracy brigade is the army of Mommies who believe that childhood vaccinations cause autism, simply because the idiot known as Jenny McCarthy, whose only claim to fame is getting naked for money in Playboy magazine, told them so. The theory that vaccines cause autism has been roundly stomped out, no proof whatsoever that this actually happens, but the idiocy remains. If a vaccine for Ebola is ever developed, be assured that these folks will have no part of it.

The truth of the matter is that Ebola isn’t all that easy to catch. The primary vector for transmission appears to be via bodily fluids or blood, so avoidance is rather simple. Those in contact with infected persons need to exercise extreme caution when in the presence of them. The disease itself is not airborne but, since coughs and sneezes usually eject fluids, there is a possibility that this type of transmission can occur. Essentially, quarantine even those suspected of carrying the virus, treat them as Level Four contagions, burn the bodies of the dead, and all will be well.

And yet, there’s the still, small part of me that worries. What if there’s an accident? What if someone catches it by mistake and in a moment of hysterical selfishness, runs? What if the ventilation system is compromised, as it was with the 1979 Sverdlovsk accident? What if there’s a rogue researcher deep in the bowels of the CDC, just waiting for the time to be ripe to launch their Doomsday vendetta against the world? What if a shadowy somebody makes a researcher an offer they can’t refuse for the contents of the candy jar? And why on earth do they take samples of every awful pathogen known to man and keep them in storage? I want to believe that it’s in the name of stalwart research and working to eradicate disease, but as long as there are people involved, accidents will happen. Personal fears and prejudices will dominate and those on the raggedy edge between genius and madness will follow agendas the rest of us can only guess at.

What it comes to, as it always does, is for all of us, for it is in our best interest, is for us to educate ourselves responsibly, take whatever precautions that make you feel comfortable, discard fantastical or conspiratorial thinking for the garbage it is, and to respectfully demand transparency and accountability from the organizations that work for us, and to trust them until or unless they give us real, sufficient reason not to. Facebook groups won’t change it. Internet forums and bulletin boards only feed the crazies. Do not pay attention to Jenny McCarthy, who is an idiot.

Read and absorb the excellent information that the Centers for Disease Control is making available, and understand it’s bad business to allow the entire population to be wiped out. After this scare is over, we’ll all go out for a pint and have a laugh about all of this. Or we’ll all be dead and none of it will matter anyway. Either way, won’t you feel silly for not having read my book?