CREEPY CLOWNS ARE THE NEW ZOMBIES

“Dost thou know the difference, my boy, between a bitter fool and a sweet fool?”

–Fool, King Lear, Act I Scene 4, William Shakespeare

So are clowns the new zombies? I don’t mean to draw too much attention to a fad that will likely fade much faster than the undead who have risen and kept stalking through pop-culture for decades now. But I do think the media’s current fondness for “creepy clown” sightings, along with lots of pranksters joining in may be a certain kind of colorful canary in a certain kind of collapsing coal mine that is worth exploring.

Before we go further, though, I’d like to make a distinction between “creepy” clowns and what I’ll call “spooky” clowns. “Spooky” clowns, in my view, are part of an entertainment and arts profession that delights in performance art, imaginatively dark makeup and costuming, and engages in everything from fire juggling to stapling each other’s flesh to the strains of gypsy jazz. I’m very fond of spooky clowns, and when I went to Portland, Oregon, to a horror convention a few years back, an evening of smoking and drinking with spooky and brilliant clowns was by itself worth the trip.

But when I talk about current news articles concerning “creepy” clowns trying to lure kids into the woods for money, that’s an entirely different wad of face-paint. So what’s up with the clown-thing? It’s not like they haven’t been a theme for as long as zombies, vampires and werewolves. Google them and you’ll get the works—American Horror Story, Stephen King, Rob Zombie, John Wayne Gacy, to name a few. And yet the fact that we currently have this phenomena of news items about people seeing them “out of place” in typical yet menacing combinations of baggy clothing, wigs, and makeup, means there has been a new and foreboding incarnation of the threatening fool.

Literary criticism will tell us that fools and clowns represent an inversion of societal structure. Shakespearean fools subvert the roles of the highest and lowest in European history—who is the real clown, the king or the jester, they ask. Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin offers his theory of the carnivalesque—that everyday folks, when participating in “carnival” situations, such as, in contemporary terms, holidays like Halloween and traditions like Spring Break and Homecoming, can break out of traditional roles and commit subversive acts with impunity. Some would say the archetype of the creepy clown comes in part out of this tradition. And yet the point of the aforementioned “subversive” behavior is that it’s condoned—like you can go topless on Spring Break and still grow up to be a lawyer right?

So then, whence comes the menace, and more importantly, the current popularity, of the creepy clown? I think it’s likely a complex story, but I’ll offer what might be one clue here, starting with thoughts on the zombie-craze. This got me thinking about the clown sightings not so much because of what the zombie-craze is wholly about, but what I have frequently overheard people say about it in casual conversation—that the popularity of zombies comes from fearing that the masses are numb dimwits who do what they’re told. The zombies are supposedly symbols of people who work bland jobs and just live to eat and shop and don’t question their existence. They obey without knowing they are obeying. The heroes in zombie stories therefore, are the people trying to “survive”—live “real” lives—without becoming zombies.

Okay, let’s entertain that concept for a moment, that the “zombie” symbol can be tagged to whoever we think these zombie-masses might be. One could be a Trump hero fighting Clinton zombies or a Clinton hero fighting Trump zombies or a prepper-conspiracy-theorist fighting off Oak Grove zombies. However you cut it, it’s a cornucopia of rotten choices. But maybe that’s just where we bring on the clowns—maybe there’s a bit of a consciousness developing that there really is no “other” to deem the zombies. Maybe there’s a sense of trapped-ness that the idea of droves obedient undead consumers doesn’t conveniently sum-up.

Some have offered theories that clowns can be scary because their appearance occupies the “uncanny valley”. Masahiro Mori, a Japanese Engineering professor, coined the term when talking about why life-like robots can seem scary (see interview). Some argue clowns can occupy this “uncanny valley” with their “life-like” appearance with a face that is frozen in some ways like a robot’s. But here’s where I point out an important difference—typically, clowns’ faces are frozen in an happy state. They do not merely possess a life-like appearance—they possess a happiness-like appearance. Except creepy clowns aren’t happy. Creepy clowns, like John Wayne Gacy, would just as soon say “kiss my ass” (his last words before his lethal injection) after killing your kids. They’d just as soon stab you as jingle their bells and giggle. A disturbing notion, but then, think of it in contrast to the folk-theories on the zombie-craze—maybe the people with the bland jobs shopping at the mall who before were going to metaphorically eat your brains, maybe they’re not so obedient after all. Maybe for some of us, there are cracks showing in the smiles painted on our faces. Maybe when we scratch our heads, wondering where all the so-called random violence is coming from, maybe there’s a little bit of orange hair and greasepaint under our nails. I offer the possibility that the popularity of the creepy clown-craze could be a backlash to forced happiness, an anger that forced discord between our outsides and the insides can have dangerous results. Ever have to give service with a smile when inside you are not smiling at all? Ever considered that feeling that way every day is freezing your face into a grotesque state of happiness and anger?

Of course most of the time we can separate stress from leisure, say that’s how the polka-dotted ball bounces and move on. But I do wonder, in a time of increasing automation, a time when concepts of an automated dystopia are coming frighteningly close to reality, if the idea of the vengeful clown, frozen in a smile, has become too appealing for some of us to resist. For these folks, it’s time to stand in the weeds beside the highway with a wig, baggy pajamas and a steak knife—just as a prank, of course—we hope…

Carl R. Moore is the author of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, forthcoming from Charon Coin Press.

Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

The Crimes of Heaven and Hell is back in action. Find below an installment of the Is That an Old Book? review series. For more on that concept, the link is here. Meanwhile, suffice it to say that a health issue, combined with a rigorous writing and revising schedule with my publisher, has kept me more than occupied, and the blog has had to go on sabbatical. It’s back however, and I hope this fall will be a fruitful time for all forms of writing. As for an update on Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, I have been in recent communication with Charon Coin Press that we are still on track, yet do not yet have a release date. As soon as I know, it will certainly be announced here. In the meantime, enjoy the following review of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself:

A friend first handed me Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself because they knew I was a George R. R. Martin fan. Of course, the series A Song of Ice and Fire has gotten so popular its mere mention threatens the conversation with the juggernaut of its massive context rumbling over all else. This type of phenomena takes attention away from the aesthetic that made such stories popular in the first place. In the case of A Song of Ice and Fire, a significant part of its strength lies in its mercilessness. The story is merciless not only with its characters, but with any form of the comforting hope that usually accompanies fantasies and other stories that are considered to lend themselves well to escapism. With The Blade Itself, Abercrombie delivers a story that rekindles that sense of how extremely difficult it is to have a feeling of hope in the face of crushing odds and forces that leave a protagonist trapped and vulnerable to fate. An even more intriguing aspect of Abercrombie’s effort resides in the story’s lack of relying simply on whether a character lives or dies to create drama, but whether a character is able to reach their own realistically developed personal goals and desires. Survival of the soul becomes as important as the survival of the body beneath the looming specter of invasion and war.

The book draws an intriguing contrast between innovative characterization and common fantasy themes. Many of the scenes take place in a large city called the Agriont, a sort of late medieval fortress mixed with budding mercantilist berg. The ruling oligarchy and military vie for power while trying to simultaneously prepare for an invasion from the north. Jezal, a slacker of an army officer from a wealthy family, prepares for a fencing contest against a hardened champion while trying his best to ignore more serious political realities. Unsure of his odds, he detests his training and trainer, and remotely fears what an actual war will mean for his future. He develops some redeeming qualities when, against his better judgment, he finds himself falling in love with his commanding officer’s sister, Ardee West. Ardee is herself an exiled peasant who resents her dependence on her brother’s station for survival. Abused and powerless, she knows the limits of her option too well. Though a somewhat minor character effaced by most reviewers, she earns interest by well-sketched frustration and attempts to maintain her own a quiet yet gritty brand of bravery. Her self-destructive habits reflect an internal turmoil over how to confront her situation head-on without empowering her with some kind of ridiculous deus ex machina, oh-just-cast-a-spell or draw-a-sword solution. It is this type of real decision making set within a fantasy context that revives the aforementioned feeling of merciless fate one got in the early installments of A Song of Ice and Fire. The relationship between Ardee and Jezal, along with the build-up to the duel, becomes one of the book’s main story arcs and vehicles for developing the characters in the Agriont. Sand dan Glokta, another character who earns the reader’s sympathy very gradually, is a former POW turned torturer, who suffers constantly from his former wounds and present knowledge that helping the city’s ruling oligarchy is to paint oneself into a corner with a bucket of blood. Through these characters’ points of view we enjoy the unfolding tragedy of what amounts to a medieval dystopia about to devour itself.

As these events are taking place, another pair of story arcs, one in the frozen north, another in the desert south, begin to creep toward center stage. Logen Ninefingers, a reluctant northern warrior and former servant of a sadistic king, fights to survive as the leader of a troop of rogue bandits. A kind of Conan-meets-Robin-Hood figure, he regrets serving the cruel and instead enlists in the service of Bayaz, a merlin-like wizard who is returning to attempt to restore some balance to the lands. As close to ‘forces of good’ as the novel gets, Logen and Bayaz carry their rough ethics south to the Agriont and reveal a connection to the world’s rich history and mythology which allows them to make a bid to possibly thwart the dystopian oligarchy.

The novel contains many other worthy characters, as well as many other worthy subplots. Suffice it to say that the outcome of Jezal’s duel and love interest, as well as the outcomes of Logen’s and Bayaz’s quests, do not hinge simply on whether they live or die. Without spoiling the duel’s outcome entirely here, I will only say that the well-sketched resolution might have one reviewing the meaning of the word ‘Pyrrhic’. While I grant that the action sequences might be a little slow for some readers, overall, The Blade Itself offers enough originality and insight to make it a welcome addition to the ranks of high-quality ‘adult’ fantasy, with the especially impressive quality of not relying on simplistic kill-or-be-killed outcomes.

RETURN OF THE JADED: WATCHING MY DAUGHTERS WATCH STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Even as a kid who liked sci-fi and grew up when the original Star Wars movies came out, I was only ever a moderate fan. The closest I came to excitement was when I was seven years old and saw the first episode (which in the story’s chronology is the fourth). The swaggering Han Solo was my favorite character, but I liked Luke, too, and all the excitement the movie had to offer.

When The Empire Strikes Back came out, I was a little older. I was starting to get to where I could appreciate the story’s darkness, though was borderline with the episode’s ending. I didn’t like that my favorite character had been frozen, and wasn’t sure how I felt about the Empire having won the day. I also had not yet adopted an understanding of In Medias Res when it came to narrative, the importance of how to use and perceive events starting (and arguably and in this case ending) in the middle of things. I also disliked the New-Agey aspects of this installment, the events going on with Yoda and Luke on Dagobah. I didn’t understand why everybody was going around quoting Yoda. He was just a little green guy that I didn’t realize teleported from the future to escape being a character in Harry Potter. You can’t blame him, and yet I wasn’t feeling the Force mumbo-jumbo. Still, I liked the straight up battles and remained a fan of the series, though with less enthusiasm than when I was seven.

Then came Return of the Jedi. I was twelve going on thirteen going on twenty by then. I remember being excited about the opening sequence. Jabba the Hutt had a cool mafia party going on at which part of the entertainment would be Luke’s execution. At that time, I had almost abandoned my interest in Luke’s character, and yet he rose in my estimation when he took on a little bit of attitude, threatening Jabba while still a prisoner. He acted calm yet meant business, like Dirty Harry with a lightsaber. I’d watched plenty of R-rated movies by then, was a Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger fan (in a time when my family didn’t have a VHS player, I was pretty good at scamming my way into age-inappropriate movies; for more on that, see the essay I wrote about seeing The Shining when I was ten years old).

Then something happened—all admiration I had for the third installment of the Star Wars series collapsed.

It was the Ewoks. The fuzzy little teddy-bear people. They did not compute in my twelve-year-old brain. It was more than just that they were little-kiddish. It was that they were a big thematic risk for the significant number of Star Wars fans who were young males already risking their dating future by openly playing Dungeons & Dragons and engaging in other nerdy pursuits. The Ewoks just took it too far. I was growing up in rural Maine and was pretty sure you could take Ewoks in December with black powder, and my father, avid hunter that he was, had a few skinned specimens hanging in the garage between the deer and the woodpile. Though I may not have put it in these terms at the time, I knew that an interest in the fantastic in film and literature would be mitigated as I matured by a growing appreciation for stories with grayer ethics, stories that relied less on the themes and conventions of the Epic and more on those of Tragedy.

Fast forward to 2016—I now have two daughters, Maddy, age nine, and Izzy, age seven.

“Wanna see the new Star Wars this weekend, kids?” I asked.

“Yay,” they said.

“All right,” I said. “Let’s go Saturday afternoon.”

And so we drove to the mall theater. Though I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies, I rarely actually go to a theater. As we entered the lobby, I got to enjoy Proustian moments of flashbacks to knowing we were entering while it was light, and would return to the car when it was dark. The girls got some treats (cotton candy, because it was $3.00), but not a soda (because they are effing $5.50). As we settled into our seats, I felt somewhat hopeful that maybe I would be able to regain some appreciation for the Star Wars series for what it was.

“Daddy, when are these previews going to end?” asked Izzy.

“Soon. I think,” I said.

“Is this gonna be another one of those movies where the good guys win?” asked Maddy.

“You don’t like it when the good guys win?” I asked back.

“They just always do,” she said. “It’s more boring.”

“Well, we’ll see,” I said.

“Daddy it’s still the previews,” said Izzy. “Can you get me a soda?”

“Honey, sodas are $5.50. We can get you some water.”

Supplies finally set and previews finally over, The Force Awakens made its symphonic start. Maddy appeared glued to the screen from the get-go. Izzy, not so much. Though the same age as I was when I saw the first movie, she doesn’t share her sister’s penchant for action and violence. I got ready to help cover her eyes when The First Order started wiping out the village in the beginning, but she managed to do without them. Maddy watched the whole thing and asked who different people were, thinking old people must already know all the characters.

“Hey, the bad guys are winning,” I commented.

“Yeah,” she said nodding and grinning.

I was starting to be kind of impressed—it took me until twelve to reach that level of appreciation for the dark side of the Force. Maybe she’s like me, I thought. I mean, she doesn’t need to be, but it’d be nice to share that perspective, Sith and Sithling laughing it up while the Jedi get their butts kicked.

As we watched, however, it became clear that The First Order was a significantly lamer set of villains than The Empire. The only place I could give them high marks was in appearance—Kylo Ren looked a little black metal. And though the scene with the rally alluded to clichéd images of World War Two fascism, Kyle Ren looked more medieval, like a dark Teutonic Knight. The best touch was the crossbar on his red lightsaber. Slender Man meets Nazgul. While the Jedi dress like the hippies who got thrown out of the yoga retreat, Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma mixed intimidation with a touch of beauty. Unfortunately, that’s where it ended. While I can appreciate the writers trying to differentiate Kylo Ren from Darth Vader, and make his methods of maniacal rage contrast with Vader’s aristocratic control, the change fell short due to Ren’s ineffectiveness in combat. At least Darth Vader actually dueled and held his own with Obi Wan Kenobi before Kenobi let himself be slain. When Han was killed, it’s as if the only way Ren could get away with it was by deception. And when Rei fought him later on, his inability to keep her from pulling a lightsaber through the air came off almost as a continuity error when juxtaposed with his stopping a laser bolt mid shot at the film’s beginning. While I understood and was cool with Rei as the hero, her victory over emo-boy didn’t come across as much of a conquest. I wanted her to take on a real corporate badass like Vader.

Well, as Maddy said above, the good guys always win. The intimidation factor and awe that came with it that I felt somewhat as a kid watching the first two movies just didn’t seem to exist for her.

For a moment, when Kylo was talking to the giant image of Commander Snoke, she seemed to perk up:

“Whoa, Daddy! Who’s that? He’s giant.”

“I think he’s supposed to be a projection, honey.”

“Oh. So why do they listen to him? Can he fight?”

“I don’t know. Hey Izzy, what do you think, is he scary?”

Snore.

I poked her, but she remained asleep. She did wake up in time for the end, and both girls seemed pretty into Finn’s and Rei’s victory over Kylo Ren, even if it was predictable.

“So who was your favorite character?” I asked when the lights went on.

“Rei,” said Maddy.

“Yeah, Rei,” said Izzy with a yawn.

“So you’re glad the good guys won again?”

“I’m glad because we get to go home,” said Izzy.

“It doesn’t really matter, because they just always do,” said Maddy.

She must have noticed I was crestfallen as we rode down the escalator, so she tugged my sleeve. “Cheer up, Daddy,” she said. “The good guys always win in the end, but the bad guys always win in the middle. And the middle’s longer.”

* * * * *

In Medias Res—perhaps that has proven to be the entire Star Wars franchise’s most redeeming quality. Though I was far over the series by the time episodes I-III came out just after year 2000, I had enough friends who liked them to tag along and see them in the theater. For the most part, these were even more painful, Ewok-y, and New Agey than Return of the Jedi. Forget the debacle that was Jar Jar Binks and go straight to the nauseating love affair of Annakin and Padmé. But there was a scene that I appreciated and appears now to me to be the key to the entire series—it came at the end of Episode III and consisted of Darth Vader stepping off the contraption that completed the transformation of the wounded Annakin Skywalker into the Sith Lord. The scene echoed the original Frankenstein, when the monster took his first steps off the operating table. At that moment, Star Wars became The Tragedy of Darth Vader, and though the audience knew that within the story’s chronology this took place in the middle and the good guys had a victory to look forward to in Return of the Jedi, in real time, this was the end of the series and succeeded in presenting to a contemporary American audience how it feels to recognize the choosing of evil over good, and how this can be emotionally cathartic. This is the series’ true triumph, a catalyst by which, as Nietzsche put it, “art approaches, as a redeeming and healing enchantress; she alone may transform these horrible reflections on the terror and absurdity of existence into representations with which man may live.” And so though I remain a skeptical Star Wars fan, I’ll give the series credit for being one of the few places where a relatively family-friendly American story has embraced the tragic.

DOUBLE FEATURE BOOK REVIEW: THE LIBRARY OF THE DEAD AND PAYING THE FERRYMAN

2015 has been a productive if somewhat frantic year for me, and yet here I’ve reached the end of the calendar with several projects not quite finished. The upside is that I will have a lot of new stories to promote in 2016. For now, please enjoy this double-feature book review of two fantastic anthologies that came out in 2015—The Library of the Dead, edited by Michael Bailey and published by Written Backwards Press, and Paying the Ferryman, edited by Margaret L. Colton and published by Charon Coin Press.

First, The Library of the Dead—a collection that holds as its thematic centerpiece a mausoleum wherein the ashes of the dead are interred in book-shaped funerary urns. Each short story involves a character whose remains are destined for one of these urns. A librarian who acts as both host and a kind of mortician leads the reader through this selection of exquisite tales, depicting death not only as the greatest of finalities, but possibly the wildest of collages.

The anthology brings together an A-list of bestselling and award winning horror authors, as well as a number of new names. Although all of the stories are top quality, I will pick my five favorites to give readers a glimpse of the anthology’s insightful and entertaining contents:

A master of the oblique when it comes to character development, Lucy’s Snyder’s Cthylla offers a heroine who is anything but a Mary Sue. Daughter of a mother who is the star of a cult classic horror film titled Cthylla and father who is a software mogul, young Kamerynne struggles in her late adolescence to find her place in life in spite of (and partly because of) her parents’ success. When a new housekeeper arrives, Kamerynne falls in love with her enigmatic and mysterious daughter, Natalya. But Natalya is keeping a secret from her new lover, a secret that somehow appears to be connected to the tentacled monster from Kamerynne’s mother’s film. Though Kamerynne attempts to use her family’s resources to run away to Los Angeles and protect Natalya from her secret’s mounting threat, disaster strikes her family, and Kamerynne has to look to her inner resolve and work to develop new strengths and skills. The climax of this story does not disappoint, and once again we are shown that any anthology where Lucy Snyder’s name appears is guaranteed to contain stellar work.

Rena Mason’s Jaded Winds has everything I like in world-building—a broad cast of characters, an atmosphere of gray ethics, and a mesh of competing motives. Set in San Francisco’s nascent Chinatown, just before the great earthquake, Jaded Winds tells the story of Ming Li, a ruthless businessman haunted by the ghost of the wife he strangled. Ming has ambitions to fleece his business partner Lew Hong, deceiving him in a real estate contract despite the ruin it will bring to his family. Pursued not only by the ghost of his wife but The Fox Demon, a mythological creature that itself knows the art of enticing with a raw deal, Ming’s character arc brims with a tension that includes a mix of violence, erotic allure, and narrative slight of hand. I got the feeling reading this story that I would like to read a longer work by this author, so astute and well-wrought was her pacing.

Sydney Leigh’s Night Soliloquy tells the story of a night club performer who renders deadly nocturnes on her concert flute. Told in a pleasantly meandering monologue by the club’s bartender, a man well connected with San Francisco’s elite, the story’s playful near romantic opening changes to a mounting sense of dread as the club’s clientele start dying one by one. With an excellent sense of portraiture when it comes to the murder scene, Leigh’s story proves an innovative serial-killer tale with just the right touch of the supernatural.

With The Last Things to Go, Brian Keene and Mary San Giovanni pen a strangely wistful tale about a woman who grieves for the lover she lost to war. At first she struggles with the emotions that surround re-reading his letters, the painful memories of being so close to someone who has suddenly and irrevocably vanished from her life. A subtle transition occurs when there is a sea-change in the main character’s consciousness. With an uncanny ability to create drama with mental action alone, events take a surreal turn. Readers stumble through the fog of the ephemeral nature of identity itself until the authors set them gently down in a place both horrific and bittersweet.

Tears of the Dragon, by Michael McBride, presents an astonishing piece of historical fiction centered on a prison camp in Manchukuo, Imperial Japan’s name for its colony in northern China during World War II. The narrative ostensibly tells the story of Doctor Himura, a scientist who is confessing his war crimes to a post-war audience in the United States. As the narrative unfolds and the reader discovers the prison camp’s horrors wrought with jarring detail (such as the wrapping of children in blankets crawling with fleas infested with bubonic plague), it is revealed that there may be more to the doctor’s motives than first imagined. McBride handles a difficult subject with style and force, and without being contrived, brings about a cathartic yet believable conclusion.

Next we move to Charon Coin’s Paying the Ferryman, which supplies a near seamless thematic segue from The Library of the Dead. From a book wherein at least one character in each story is destined to die, we switch to one where the stories feature characters who are already dead. Beginning with an eloquent introduction by Hal Bodner, Paying the Ferryman showcases a diverse set of new and talented authors who imagine what tales might be told while crossing the river Styx. Here are my five favorite pieces:

Melody’ Romeo’s Malefactor paints the portrait of Malachi McGrath, the ghost of a serial killer who wishes to torment the victims that got away by haunting them. Unfortunately for him, Satan’s minions pursue him all the while, hoping to claim his soul for their own. As the chase unravels, Romeo proves capable of adroitly changing POVs between victim, killer, and demons. She gives us well-developed characters, including edgy detective Brooke Livingston, attack survivor Ashley Walker, and even Lord Satan himself. Though McGrath gives the demons a run for their money, a Dantean fate awaits him. The story’s ending is solid, yet arrives too soon, so intriguing is the world the author imagined.

30 Days in Hell by Rick Scabrous proves one of the anthology’s most tightly plotted pieces. It imagines a hell where one Damion Edwards must die thirty different ways before moving to the next level. The author’s descriptions of the man’s experiences at these “death stations” come off as both funny and frightening. From the Injection Booth to the Rabid Dog Booth, the reader gets to vicariously enjoy some pretty gruesome endings until the story’s actual ending merges one of the booth’s themes with an all too real consequence.

Herika R. Raymer’s Repetition starts as a somewhat soft, almost comforting vision of the afterlife. At the story’s opening one might almost call it New-Agey. This changes when the author unveils startling connections that exist within a series of reincarnated lives. A mind shattering horror awaits when the truth of the story’s version of rebirth is revealed.

Armand Rosamilia’s Black Tooth Grin gives us a mash up of a rock’n’roll ghost story and serial killer thriller. Deceased eighties rock star Gilmartin is a hungry spirit who wanders to gig after gig, year after year. He becomes confused as to why he’s less and less recognized, and with his eighties-fabulous attire and hair, even made fun of. The way he flays wayward fans alive in alleys and isolated backstage rooms, however, is no laughing matter. A psychologically disturbing tale with tasteful vignettes of music nostalgia, Black Tooth Grin can be enjoyed on this plane of existence, and Dimebag’s and Lemmy’s alike.

The Mai’tas Prophecy, by Jerry Benns, reads like the opening chapter to a fast-paced urban fantasy novel. It tells the story of a down-on-his-luck rake named Michael who gets hit by a car during a drunken ghost tour in New Orleans. Skeptical and acerbic, the protagonist refuses at first to accept that he himself has become a ghost. When a tour guide with top hat and cane named Jonathan begins to show him the ropes of being dead, Michael discovers the afterlife requires more courage and fortitude than he could ever have imagined. For he must leave his heckling aside and face the Mai’tas—shadowy, soul-devouring spirits that prey upon the newly dead. Benns delivers a tale with solid action, a mysterious and soulful cast of characters, and the right amount of sardonic humor. It leaves the reader satisfied with its resolution, yet intrigued to read more stories taking place in this world.

Carl R. Moore’s collection Slash of Crimson and Other Tales will be published in 2016 with Charon Coin Press.

LITTLE UPDATE, LOTS OF THOUGHT

Alas, my blog has been silent for a month, yet not because it has fallen off my mind, rather, I have just been focusing on fiction, finishing the upcoming book (yes, it is taking a bit of time–I can only say because we are working hard to make a fine product), taking care of a busy month with my family, and not shirking time in the depths of the woods and in the city, both of which are essential fuel for my psyche.

Hopefully I will have at least one book review up this month, and then plenty more fun once SLASH OF CRIMSON AND OTHER TALES is out. A full length novel will follow after, and I promise a good storm before which these recent weeks have been the calm. Until then, enjoy November’s beautiful decay.

Beauty’s Edge–The True Nature of Jack Ketchum’s OFF SEASON

Some of this blog’s readers are already familiar with my book review series Is that an Old Book? in which the scope of books I review spans years, decades, centuries. Essentially, I consider anything written since 1970 a relatively new book. This installment features Jack Ketchum’s amazing novel, Off Season, one of the finest and most disturbing tales ever typed.

I have recently been considering writing an essay on the role of wilderness in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. I then began spinning the ideas into a longer piece on the aesthetics of New England horror. I decided I didn’t want to focus on any one writer so much as consider the way the region’s landscape is treated in a variety of works that take place there. I was going to reach back to include pieces by writers such as Hawthorne, Melville, and Dickinson (all of whom include horrific elements in their writing) alongside more contemporary names like Joe Hill and Stephen King. Keeping in mind, however, an emphasis on the story’s geography rather than the author’s, I decided to begin with a review of Jack Ketchum’s pivotal gem, Off Season.

First released in the early 1980’s, when Twenty-First Century catch phrases like “slasher” and “extreme horror” were not so familiar, Off Season has worn a number of different skins in its publishing life. The version discussed here will be the Leisure Books edition, which includes an afterward by the author that describes the novel’s editorial history, along with a bonus short story titled “Winter Child” that well complements the book’s main feature.

Off Season tells the story of three young couples from New York City who are spending a week in northeastern Maine. Carla, a successful editor, has gone ahead of the rest, to finish a professional project. She rents a cabin in the “off season”, a time when the region’s already sparse numbers of summer tourists have returned south. She finds the cabin an ideal place to get work done and enjoy some nature into the bargain. Her five companions join her on a Friday evening, and much of the novel’s first act focuses on the dynamics among these friends, a well-paced narrative of their struggles with love and with careers. One of the companions is Carla’s sister Marjie, with whom she enjoys a certain closeness, even if Marjie hasn’t shared her career success and lives a generally less stable life.

Unknown to the cabin’s tenants, along the nearby coastline there exists a cave inhabited by humans of a most bizarre ilk, namely, a family of cannibals. They are a partial-echo of the Scottish legend of Sawney Bean, a group of humans whose forebears existed within a civilized culture, but have incrementally changed into something feral and alien to all known ethics. Ketchum draws a deft genesis of this family, how they grew from the shadowy roots of a lighthouse keeper and his wife and children, how they starved on a remote island after a storm, and how this starvation brought on a taste for human flesh that began to be handed down through generation after incestuous generation.

With the group of couples arranged on the altar of their isolated cabin, the cannibals mount a vicious attack. They sacrifice their victims to their stomachs even as the siege still rages. Structurally brilliant and deceptively subtle, Ketchum dizzies the reader with this abrupt turn from a nearly “emo” novel about love and success, to a blow-by-blow account of a horrific massacre. To this point, the reader has become invested in a set of conflicts and intrigues among the couples—Carla’s romantic entanglement with an egocentric actor named Jim, Marjie’s relationship with good-hearted yet economically struggling Dan, and writer Nick’s regret at losing chances with both sisters and ending up with catty and self-doubting Laura. All of this is in full swing when the shadow of murder arrives, interrupts, and forces all to bow.

The cannibals attack ruthlessly, employing means of exhibitionist torture as they bring down their prey one at a time. At this point, to many, the story arc may seem like the conventional pattern of a slasher film—an isolated group trying to survive psychotic killers in an enclosed space. And yet this is an artistic ruse—for even within the novel’s concise economy, Ketchum writes scenes from the points of view of the killers that juxtapose alien and frightening streams of consciousness with the terrified thoughts of the victims. We have an author well aware of what prose can do that film can’t, and he uses inner monologue to great effect. Thoughts intersperse well with action, and bloody butchering and grotesquely violent erotic gestures meld into something beyond scary to eerie and uncanny.

The family of cannibals includes men, women, and children. They are wild and know that fear struck in a victim can tenderize the meat. But these tribesfolk have their own fears—their distant, semi-forgotten origin on the island with the lighthouse haunts them. The sea itself breeds strange feelings in them when they are near it. They know what guns are and that though strong, fast, and vicious, they are well aware of their own mortality.

I want to emphasize this point when discussing Off Season as a novel of New England, not because it doesn’t have broader appeal and themes, but because it is one of the more useful ways to discover its hidden beauties and conceits.

It happens I grew up in Bangor, Maine. I lived a bit in Brewer, a bit in Orono, and went to college in Portland. My father’s family has been living in the region for generations, up and down Maine’s coast. When I was a kid in the 1970’s, I spent most of my time experiencing a “classic” small town life. Growing up in that area, I also became very aware of a writer named Stephen King who lived nearby and was having some success. His presence and his works certainly influenced my life and my interest in literature. I have written a bit about this in another blog post in an essay about The Shining and a micro essay that began to discuss thoughts on the concept of wilderness. Suffice it to say here, that while I enjoy much of King’s work and note its importance, I take from it an impression of its concerns with “small town” culture that is very different from what I would call “wilderness themes”. Many of King’s horror stories strike me as Norman Rockwell paintings with vampires and ghouls. I recognized, growing up in Bangor, how this evolved. Yet there was another kind of feeling the northern landscape gave me that did not echo the kind of fear instilled by King’s aesthetic.

Though I lived and went to school in a small town, my father owned an old log cabin on an isolated lake near the Canadian border in Washington County. This is the same county in which Off Season takes place.

To get to this cabin, one had to drive north to Lincoln and then further northeast to the Grand Lakes region. At the time there were no roads to the lake on which the cabin was built, so we had to unpack the pickup truck, repack the boat, then head another seven miles in across a lake, a stream, and another lake. Once there, a wood stove served for cooking and heating, and we slept on bunk beds with the mice and the spiders.

As kids we had a lot of fun there to be sure—the lake boiled with fish at the time, the coves were alive with critters from tiny frogs to colossal moose. On a clear night the weather treated us to crystalline starlight and occasionally Aurora Borealis. All plenty of fun, even idyllic. I was often allowed to bring a friend, and there were certainly glimpses of paradise, and to revive the earlier King aesthetic, touches of Stand by Me wistfulness.

But there was also another feeling in those woods. If it was not a clear night, when the cabin’s lanterns went off, a pitch blackness descended like none I have experienced since. I lay in the top bunk feeling irksome drafts between the logs and hearing owls’ cryptic hoots and humans’ wheezy snores. Although I was blinded by the darkness, there was plenty of activity going on that didn’t care about this particular creature’s downtime. I did not sense then the awe of nature’s beauty, its majestic eagles or its shiny starlight, but rather sensed its completely impersonal continuum. The feeling that scuttled up my spine with the spiders instilled a sense that nature was not just arbitrary about me, but arbitrary about being arbitrary—it could just as soon oppress and attack as be beautiful and serene. It could just as soon change my place in its hierarchy as leave me in it. It had no concern for my ethics on the one hand, and yet could easily produce something that cared deeply about what to me would be an aberrant and horrific new order. That blinding and crawling darkness whispered that the version of nature we were enjoying with canoes, sunsets, and ducks, was a skein mounted for a puppet show. A human version of nature. The nights lying in the darkness hundreds of miles from hospitals and police taught me a different version. And there were many times when I would wake up to a bright day and that feeling would not subside. Paddling through sun-cooked weedy shallows run with leeches, it felt as if the light teetered on the same edge of an alien order as the darkness.

Early in Off Season Ketchum gives his own description of the landscape in Washington county, citing (and this is my paraphrase) the way the pines look a little shorter, the scrub boggier, with hints that the north’s longer winter will be arriving early. He gives a palpable sense that the arctic is not far away, and that because of this the land has been a little mutated, a little deformed by its harshness. He hints at this in a way I have rarely encountered in a writer describing the region. I must also interject here—there are many more famous, and for lack of a better word, “hip”, American wildernesses—The Rocky Mountains, Alaska, southwestern deserts, to name a few. But here is where Ketchum’s descriptions include another critical element from his choice of settings, namely the region’s economy. He describes how the region’s poverty causes the architecture to be a bit stunted, and how the tourism of the southern parts of the coast visibly tapers off that far north. Even today I can say that the coastal economy struggles due to not holding the attraction other more “popular” wilderness destinations do. Most of my New Yorker friends much prefer a trip to Alaska or California.

And so wilderness—be it a physical wilderness, cultural wilderness, or in this case both—makes its own rules. Ketchum gives this accurate portrayal in contrasting the culture of the young couples with the culture of the cannibals. In this rendering, he makes good use of what many would call extreme violence. I would argue that one cannot generate the kind of feeling I had in that cabin long ago, that grand feeling of vulnerability coupled with the desire to survive, in any other way.

In his afterward, the author reveals that Off Season’s original publisher backed away from the project after coming under fire from media critics. He cites an article in The Village Voice that wrote off the novel as too heavy on torture and even as pornographic. This is unfortunate, for while I would force no work of art on an unwilling audience, I think we risk a great deal in not giving “extreme” works of art the same consideration with regard to complexity as we would others simply because of their aesthetic. I remember going to the Sensation art exhibition in 2000 at the Brooklyn Museum, an exhibition Mayor Giuliani tried to ban, and there looking at photographs of car accident victims and sculptures of school children with genitalia for noses and thinking to myself, whatever one might think of horror novels, they aren’t any more potentially offensive than this. Perhaps all of these works have a purpose, and in the right setting, the chance for insightful impact.

In the back of the Off Season’s Leisure edition appears the bonus short story, “Winter Child”. In his introduction, Ketchum describes the permutations of its development, how it might have been part of another novel or stand on its own, and how either way had a connection to the cannibal family from the coastal cave. This story, too, takes place in Washington County, and features the arrival of a pretty and mysterious young girl at a widower’s farmhouse. The widower’s son tells how her father adopts the girl, brings her into their cozy yet obscure rural life. Of course the son’s foreboding is ultimately correct—but by then, particularly after having been in the mind of the cannibal women in the edition’s first offering—the careful reader has experienced uncanny glimpses of how ethics can fall away in the world’s empty places. Echoes sound of the landscape’s secret and ominous warnings, as in Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows and The Wendigo. Like a diabolical twist on Wordsworth’s sublime, Ketchum weaves a vision where the reader can taste the nature of the land and the nature of the mind in an environment not locked-in by the customs we’ve learned since birth. He offers instead a glimpse of an open continuum, tethered to the familiar neither by light nor darkness, a humanity frightening in its monstrosity, and more threatening by the possibility of its alien sense of beauty.

Carl R. Moore lives and writes in upstate New York. His collection Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, including novellas Slash of Crimson and Torn from the Devil’s Chest, makes its debut this year from Charon Coin Press.

Canto II: Revelation, Part 7

When Nate returned to the apartment, Gillings was passed out on the kitchen floor. He dragged the man into the hall stairway, and by the time he showered, gathered his gear, and headed back out, the vagrant had vanished.

The vision in the tavern’s basement was enough to make him wonder at his own sanity, and despite knowing better, he considered buying a bottle of whisky, seeking out Gillings in his shack, and trading all responsibility for the chance to ride a wave of oblivion as long as it lasted.

It never lasted long enough, though, and whatever the origin of what he’d seen, it was his dragon to slay, to the benefit of all Littleneck’s residents, including the heinous old oxygen fiends from the church. He wondered if they’d say thank you next time they haunted his dreams.

With the echo of the old man’s derisive chant of Yuh bum! Yuh goddamn bum! ringing in his head, he made sure he had an extra magazine for the .44, then hopped in the car and rolled into the fog. Driving around to the back cove, he unchained the Boston Whaler from where he’d locked it to the pier.

Before transferring his gear to the boat, he texted his new so-called deputy that everything was a go for the yacht. To his surprise, the deputy confirmed, feeding a shred of confidence as dropped into the thirteen footer and took a final inventory. He double checked the gas feed was ready and the craft’s very specific armaments loaded. He’d borrowed them from a tuna fisherman friend, and hoped the makeshift mount would be stable on his small craft. If that detail held, it awaited merely to be ignitioned and throttled.

* * * * *

A heavy wind kicked up that evening as Nate boarded the Star Garnet along with the other guests. The steel gangplank smacked against the water taxi’s hull. The man who offered to help up local journalist Macy Delrayne had a hand covered in a caste. Nate pretended not to recognize him, and was happy when the journalist made the small talk.

“I’m told you’ve a very unusual work of art aboard,” said Delrayne. “May I see it?”

“It’s in the Captain’s Lounge,” said the man. “Through the back, then follow the length of the bar around front.” He indicated the yacht’s rear deck, where a U-shaped bar was taking heavy splashes of sea-foam. Its strings of white lights flickered with the crashing waves. The barkeep, dressed in a nauseating combination of caterer-meets-deckhand vest and shirt, was doing all he could to keep his bottles upright.

Most of the guests looked like tourists from some inland hotels and resorts. A frigid scene on a colder than usual summer night, and many glanced at the skiff like they wished they could catch a lift back to shore.

But another thug the first called ‘Big D’ materialized from the pilot house, pulled up the ladder, and waved the water taxi off.

“Not to worry, please, there’s naught to worry,” said Groves, who emerged from behind the second bodyguard. “Although we’ve a bit of a gale blowing, I’m sure we can find something to keep you warm. Wade, Dennis, could you please escort our guests to the bar?”

Nate clambered along with the other guests behind the guards who led them back to the U-shaped bar. Once the group of them were either leaning against it or holding on to one of the stools riveted to the deck, they closed a metal gate that had previously been left open.

“Don’t want nobody overboard, know what I mean?” said Big D in a thick Brooklyn accent. It was a flimsy cover, but he clearly didn’t care in the first place. He chuckled over some private joke with Wade, who leered at Nate as he made his way up the deck, as if to say he’d be back.

By then nobody was bothering to order anything from the man who himself looked like he was about to tether himself to the steel vent-pipe he was already holding onto. One guest, a gentleman with patches on his sport-jacket who’d been staying at one of the upscale health spas, was retching over the side of the boat, while others seemed to be trying to get their cell phones to work.

Nate scanned the length of the yacht, stern to bow, and picked out the “Captain’s Lounge” as being a large, glassed-in chamber that extended from the right front of the pilot house. It looked to be the size of a lengthy dining room, with white-gold track lighting along the edges of door-sized glass panels.

At the far end stood a steel object made of a girder, pulley, and arm cross-hatched with iron bars. It was a crane with a giant hook on the end. The base protruded from a raised dais, and faced a set of double glass doors that opened directly onto the horizon so that whoever stepped out would drop into the sea.

Macy Delrayne, who’d been mingling despite the deck’s queasy tilt, slid up beside Nate, tablet and stylus in hand. “What do you think that is?” she asked. “Some type of fishing equipment?”

“Of a sort,” said Nate. He turned to her with finality in his smile. “Note the locations of the life jackets,” he said, pointing out where a pair hung from a cord beside a fire extinguisher case.

He glimpsed the woman’s face turn pale as he turned away and moved up the deck to meet Groves.

 * * * * *

“I call it Lure’s Allure,” said Groves with a smirk.

The guests assembled in the Captain’s Lounge were soaked and pale. The seasick man wrapped himself in a wool blanket and crouched like an old clairvoyant crone, rocking back and forth in anticipation of witnessing an unfortunate vision come to pass.

“Are you sure that thing’s safe?” called the local assessor. He looked like he was beginning to sweat his bribe money, making a calculation of risk-versus-reward.

“But of course it will,” said Groves.

“Hooks through my harness,” said the girl beside him. It was Diana Fields, standing among Groves and his men like a magician’s assistant. She wore a silver sequined dress that cut in a low V in the front and back. Her figure could fool the unknowing that its dimpled muscles came from the art of a dancer rather than a life of amphetamines and alcohol. Just above her hips, a thin leather belt followed the shape of her pelvis. Twisting around, she thumbed a pair of steel rings stitched just above it, anchored in the taut flesh on either side of her spine. “All about balance,” she said.