We are in the proverbial best of times and worst of times here at deepdarknight.net. The year has been a busy one, and while I have been writing fiction and have a new release coming up (Enchanted Realms: Tales of Fantasy in Light and Shadowanthology), I have not had the opportunity to post lately.
That trend reverses with a review of the recent Dungeons & Dragons movie which I watched with the my teen and her friends. Fear not—here at deepdarknight.net the main focus remains on horror and the grimmest of grim fantasy stories. I continue to seek themes along the lines of Game of Thrones meets Aliens with extra nudity, graphic violence, and smoking—lots and lots of smoking! Even Gandalf freakin’ smoked!
Above all, the flick is a “family show” à la Star Wars and all the rest that is fun to watch with a mixed age audience, hence taking my daughter and her D&D group. The RPG humor is spot on, and the action revs up after a slightly, but not deal-breaking, amount of exposition.
The story follows an adventuring party’s quest to steal back a bunch of loot from Forge, a treacherous former party member, who has fallen in with a gang of undead sorcerers. The motive is simple and a touch sweet with the characters’ promise to share their loot with the poor once they succeed. Edkin the Bard, the party’s ostensible leader, is also attempting to snatch a tablet that can resurrect his dead wife.
The movie’s strength lies in its characterization—A slightly Xena-esque barbarian gal with a thing for dating halflings, a confidence-challenged wizard on the brink of coming of age if he can just overcome his anxieties, a sarcastic tiefling druid who kind of stands in for the “rich elves” trope, except instead of Rivendell, she’s saving the Emerald Enclave. The writers lay the snark on thick which keeps everyone awake and frequently laughing. Even a curmudgeon like me couldn’t help but like the paladin who was so uptight and perfect he walked over, instead of around, boulders.
Best of all were the quick references to classic D&D themes and creatures. A pair of rust monsters fight over a scrap of armor as the camera pans over a castle, intellect devourers pass over a chance to attack the party because they are too dumb, and a red dragon that has grown too plump to fly demonstrates what really happens when all you do is sleep on a pile of gold all day.
So I recommend enjoying Honor Among Thieves if you’re up for a fantasy-comedy, particularly if you are looking for something to watch with a younger crowd. Of course, what kind of card-carrying nerd would I be if I didn’t offer at least one complaint?
Let’s stick it to the bard, because for all of its accuracy and keen sense of humor, one category where I felt this film lacked was in its cliched portrayal of the goofy and feckless lute-picker. For Edkin is the same sort of bard we see in The Witcher—the type who can’t be bothered to heft a dagger, let alone a longsword.
I understand we’re trying to avoid the grimdark aesthetic here, but it would be nice sometime to see a bard who is rough around the edges, someone who writes a poetry for their slain foes in the manner of Grettir the Strong.
On that note, while it will certainly be fun to have a raucously funny sequel to Honor Among Thieves, it might also be fun to have a slightly darker D&D movie put the “dungeon” back in Dungeons & Dragons—I’m thinking a movie version of R.A. Salvatore’s Homeland, a novel about the drow warrior Drizzt that takes place in the subterranean city of Menzoberranzan, complete with priestesses of Lolth lashing the male warriors with snake-headed whips and tentacle-faced illithids wondering whose brain will be served for dinner.
I have a favorite tune by the blues-metal band Down titled Ghosts Along the Mississippi. It may be an apt soundtrack for Tommy B. Smith’s New Era: The Black Carmenia Book I. A short, sharp, yet somewhat lyrical horror thriller set in the southern countryside, it tells the story of two families connected across time by a shared doom and a desperation for survival despite their tragic fates.
The narrative centers on a middle-aged couple, Marjorie and Terry, making a new start, having moved to the country and restored a cabin in search of a quieter life. Their adult daughter away and on her own, traumas inflicted by city life also buried and locked away, they look forward to a more idyllic life surrounded by nature and a bit of quaint history.
The “history” proves to be anything but—for the land around cabin holds secrets that awaken to haunt them. Marjorie finds a black flower along the edge of a property fraught literally with an undue number of snakes. It signals the inception of secrets ready to rise from the dark recesses of time. She proceeds to discover letters and stories of the land’s previous inhabitants, a family that experienced terrible events on their farm.
As the story jump-cuts between the Marjorie’s and Terry’s story in the 1980’s and that of the area’s previous denizens in 1918, it focuses the conflicts between the farm family’s son, daughter, and overbearing father. The reader witnesses their step-by-step descent into repressed, soon to boil over, anger and intra-family vendettas. Her research also reveals the existence of a serpent cult that wanders the countryside and how the farm family falls into their clutches.
The book’s pacing establishes an addictive rhythm that toggles between Marjorie’s incremental discovery of the farm’s secrets, the serpent cult, and work wrought by ancient silversmiths to create beautiful yet cursed artifacts. As the cult’s legacy stirs to life and proves it is far from extinct, Marjory and Terry must struggle not only against the vestiges of a family torn apart, but also against a terrifying creature, an ancient god that would make even the most ardent of occult enthusiasts do a double-take and set their Lovecraft and King aside long enough to take in this dark, dangerous, enticing ravine of a novel.
Some years back I wrote an essay on Jack Ketchum’s Off Season, in which I shared some thoughts on his descriptions of coastal Maine. This invited comparisons to Stephen King’s portrayals of Maine, and how I thought King wrote about “small town” Maine, as opposed to Ketchum’s portrait of a certain kind of “wilderness.” It led to calling King’s descriptions “Norman Rockwell paintings with vampires.” Since then, I’ve wanted to write about a King novel and go into more detail about what I think really gives his books their power, namely his ability to present that which is not real in a way the feels like it is real, a kind of supernatural realism.
At first, I considered writing about the novel It. I thought It a good candidate because I grew up in Bangor, Maine, the locale on which much of fictional town in King’s novel is based. The barrens, the bridges, and the library were all familiar places. I don’t recall ever looking into Kenduskeag Stream and seeing a fanged clown poking out of a drainpipe, but I do remember as a young teenager occasionally running into a guy accused of throwing someone off a bridge. This is one of the violent incidents touched on in King’s novel as part of fleshing out the evil underbelly of the small American town (though for a more in-depth treatment of the incident of the murder of Charles Howard, I would suggest reading Dwight Cathcart’s Ceremonies).
In King’s It, Pennywise the clown becomes the symbol of all that is violent and cruel, and his image ‘photo bombs’ every scene where dirty deeds are going down. Pennywise is a vestige of a nastier ancient creature that lives in the sewers, something few in the town have dared to confront until a ragtag band of friends, the “Losers Club,” comes along and gets up the nerve to hunt it down. Because of this setting, I thought this might be the best book to represent King’s use of supernatural realism. After consideration, however, I decided it isn’t the right candidate, and may even be the opposite. The problem is that the aforementioned “Rockwell factor” is quite strong in this novel, and the nostalgia, however one feels about it, serves to obscure the true power of the supernatural imagery.
Though there may be attempts at a kind of grayness in the book’s morality, to my mind, good and evil ultimately come across as a bit black and white with the gang of “good” kids who ride bicycles and like movies and clubhouses, versus the “bad” kids who play with their parents’ guns and act like bullies.
In my experience, life in Bangor, Maine, wasn’t quite that sweet. I can remember walking downtown Bangor at around age 16 with a friend who liked to wear a jean jacket with a Madonna patch on the back and little silver studs. I looked more like a hippy, but the pair of us were perfect fodder for the shirtless dude working on nearby construction scaffolding who wanted to take a break and threaten violence. I won’t repeat his exact label for the two of us, but it wasn’t “Hey fanboys!” I can still picture him clearly, one sinewy arm extended to the scaffolding, blond eighties hairdo like a character out of Stranger Things (except it actually was the eighties), eyes glaring, beginnings of a wicked grin on his lips.
And this is where we depart from the novel It’s portrayal of good and evil. Because when this guy made his threat, my buddy Rick (name changed, of course) said, “Keep walking.” But at first, I did not keep walking. I stopped and stared back at the dude. I had reason to. Because even though we were supposedly the proverbial ‘good kids’ on our way down to meet other misfit-but-good kids at the coffee shop, I was ready to inflict far more damage on our assailant than anyone would have estimated, and in a manner that would have more resembled the evil characters from King’s novel. I didn’t think the asshole had a right to threaten us, nor was I at the time running late for a baseball game, nor was I going to pick up a rock to throw, and most of all, I definitely wasn’t aiming to engage him in an honorable round of boxing. At the risk of alarming kin still living up in Maine, the ethic inherited from my old man’s extended family more resembled Ketchum’s tribe of coastal cannibals than the nice (if a little awkward) members of King’s “Losers Club,” and I wasn’t going to have what Captain Scaffold was dealing out.
I glared back at the dude long enough for him to lose his smile, though he certainly wasn’t going to back down. If I had not changed my mind and heeded my friend Rick’s advice, Captain Scaffold might have dealt me some real newsworthy wounds. Or even worse, instead of moving on downtown to play guitar and hangout with pretty girls, I could have succeeded damaging him instead, which could have led to profoundly bad and life-changing consequences.
For better or for worse, I opted for the first, gentler decision. I was likely leaning that way all along, but not nearly as much as one might think. And this is why I couldn’t quite relate to the good-guys-bad-guys rock throwing battle in It—our group of friends resembled both sides of the battle. Themes of small-town nostalgia just didn’t ring true for me. The indictment of the rot underneath the town did not go far enough in this particular story.
Instead, I found a more recent work closer to the mark. Normally, I would argue King’s earlier work, e.g., Pet Sematary, The Shining, has a certain rawness and stark honesty in its depictions of America’s evil underbelly through its supernatural realism. But 2018’s The Outsider revives not just the motifs, but the style, of the earlier works. Although the story retains some of the Norman Rockwell-esque nostalgia, The Outsider tempers it—even interrupts it—with a certain stark clarity in the descriptions of its supernatural villain and the terror it wreaks upon its victims. It may also help, for me personally, that it is one of his works that takes place outside of the northeast, as I ultimately feel that, while he does write with an authentic appreciation for New England and its culture, something which has its own value and beauty, in the end, such is not the author’s primary strength.
Ralph Anderson, The Outsider’s flawed hero detective, begins his quest with a devastating mistake. He arrests a much-loved local little league coach during a baseball game for the murder and sexual assault of a child. The novel’s technical prowess, the characterization presented through witness interviews and professional forensics, begins delivering tension by inserting an I.V. drip with accuracy as its active ingredient. As the story progresses, it presents the supernatural villain, a kind of vampiric doppelganger after which the book is named, to a reader already primed by the detailed rendering of police procedures.
So intent is the narrative on making the detectives, lawyers, and uniformed cops realistic, there are moments where the equivocating becomes almost too much. The investigators pursuing the creature repeatedly state their disbelief in the supernatural, and even when Holly Gibney, a P.I. more amenable to the possibility of the otherworldly, enters the story, she qualifies her hypothesis with so much research as to appear to be questioning her own sanity.
The descriptions of the supernatural activity are what tip the balance in favor of the novel’s effectiveness. While having a care not to slip into the gratuitous, King always delivers a full view of the unreal in the language of the real. Unlike authors such as H.P. Lovecraft, whom I feel receive far too much credit for leaving the supernatural details to the imagination (a device that I often hear presented as original and clever, but in my opinion, is just miserly), King inserts throughout the narrative full-on portraits of things that do not exist but are described in a manner the tempts one to believe they do.
In the case of The Outsider, we witness these descriptions in a scene where the half-transformed doppelganger arrives at murder scene outside a courthouse and reveals a glimpse of its distorted face. We see it when the shape-changer appears beside a young girl’s bed and not so subtly wears two faces at once. We see it in the descriptions of its “straws” or “prongs” for eyes and its “doughy” features. The vocabulary draws less on dripping blood than it does on distortion. The details of this distortion are what lend the realism to what is otherwise so hard to believe.
This skill, more than any other, separates King’s work from so many others and allows it to be one of the major translators of American culture’s dark side. The “good” Americana that appears in his books, the baseball games and the bicycles is just as authentic, but I would argue it would be intolerably sweet if it weren’t for the author’s unusual talent for presenting the unbelievable in a manner at which even the skeptics will take a second look. While I once wrote an essay championing the way in which author Jack Ketchum presented the feel of Maine’s “wilderness,” no one comes closer than King to getting mainstream America to begin examining its dirty underbelly. I may remain a little too much of long-haired guitar-picker to engage and comprehend the full symbolic importance of America’s favorite pastime in King’s work, yet I am still vulnerable to the potency of seeing two faces at once. Whether it is The Outsider’s “prongs” for eyes, or Christ in Night Shift possessing a “vulpine” visage, King’s message about American evil fashions the right words with a realistic warp so that they always ring true.
Rock’n’roll lives—and so does sword and sorcery—in Brian Keene’s and Steven L. Shrewsbury’s Throne of the Bastards. The title alone lets the reader know the fun’s in the fury when it comes to Rogan, barbarian king of Albion.
Throne of the Bastards is the sequel to King of the Bastards, the first installment in Keene’s and Shrewsbury’s horror-meets-sword and sorcery mash-up series. It picks up where the first slash-fest left off, with Rogan, having adventured to the land of Olmek-Tikal, returning by ship to retake the Kingdom of Albion from a usurping son. This is where the horror elements seep into the fantasy—for the king sitting on Albion’s throne still possesses Rogan’s legitimate heir Rohain’s body, but is controlled by the spirit of his bastard son, Karza.
War ensues immediately upon Rogan’s return. The narrative introduces a diversity of characters similar to an epic such as Game of Thrones, though with sleeker descriptions. Before he can confront his enemies, Rogan must balance an uneasy set of alliances. The motley and slightly monstrous rebel army comprises General Thyssen’s battle-hardened soldiers from the north, a rag-tag troop of Albion loyalists from the capital, and his bastard-daughter’s host of Pryten wildfolk, including her otherworldly and disturbing horde of tree-dwelling troglodytes. From General Thyssen’s darkly sarcastic humor to Pryten Queen Andraste’s violent lusts, the alliance is no easy beast to yoke, and there are adventures to be had in consolidating his rule of the rebellion alone.
Having secured his power at no small price, Rogan then journeys to the capital to confront Karza. He discovers his son’s minions are even more fiendish than the abominations conjured by his allies. Here the book develops a level of tension and suspense that hits the page-turning sweet-spot. By making no apologies for its homage to Robert E. Howard and what now passes for unabashed, hard-rocking ‘grimdark’ fantasy tropes, Keene and Shrewsbury achieve a certain freshness and fun not often seen in today’s more commonly encountered fantasy aesthetics.
Throughout the novel, a cast of shrewd and outlandish villains adds spice to the flavor. A wizard named Papa Bon Deux, a winged aberration of a demon called the ‘Helvectia,’ and a heavy-helping of family betrayal, tragic sacrifice, and well-described action keep the pace alive until the story reaches its climactic conclusion. This, of course, lends itself to the possibility of more installments and even prequels. Suffice it to say, if you put your money down for an action-packed ride with a smart sense of style, Throne of the Bastards will leave you satisfied yet ready for more!
One week ago, I returned from Louisville, Kentucky, to Albany, New York, from the world of the Imaginarium Convention. I returned to my home, my family, and my study, exhausted but happy from another amazing trip. Most folks who attended the convention posted their after-convention thoughts and thanks in a timelier manner, but due to the pace my schedule is at these days, combined with a rather erratic sleeping pattern, I am just now putting up a blog post about last weekend.
This year, my main purpose is to express gratitude to Stephen Zimmer and Holly Phillippe of Seventh Star Press. There are many, many, many folks on their team who also deserve praise and thanks for making such a unique and dynamic convention possible, but here I want to emphasize their vision and passion as being central to the event. So, thank you, Stephen and Holly, for making this happen and for doing something that benefits all who participated.
After the last Imaginarium (or at least, the last one I attended in person in Kentucky, in 2019), I took an “urban hike” across Louisville with author Dean Harrison. The blog entry regarding that adventure is linked here.
This year was a little different, and I’m posting a photo of what, for me, the convention is ultimately really about. There were many moments of great fun, epic meetings and parties, all the informal interactions that are essential to the whole convention experience.
But I am posting here a photo of my laptop and desk in the hotel room, the little writing setup I was using to do some work each morning before the panel discussions began. However fun the parties were (and they were dang fun), I value the technical talks on the craft of writing above all else. Though I did some champion kvetching to Holly about the fact that I had a 9:00 a.m. panel on Saturday morning titled “Crackaccino and Prose” after the Facebook and Twitter posts I put up after my daily writing session, you can bet I was up and on time for that panel, and early even, so that I could get said session in before the day started.
That’s not to say drinking bourbon is not also important. The “Books and Bourbon” panel this year was epic, as was exchanging stories of youthful misadventure in the room parties and getting a chance to get to know so many talented authors, filmmakers, musicians, and artists. There are too many amazing people to name here, but I thank all who took the time to discuss the craft, buy or swap a book, sign a book, have a drink, or point me in the direction of the coffee.
Dostoevsky meets Terry Pratchett— The Life and Death (but Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn is a surreal tale with a twisted sense of humor that makes room for emotional depth, and does so with pacing and aplomb.
But first things first—the novel tells the story of a young woman who dies in a car accident after an argument with her husband. She finds herself trapped in an anguished afterlife, having left the love of her life in the midst of a conflict.
She discovers this is doubly unfortunate, because death is not what she could have expected, with the potential to be not all so bad, had she not been cursed with unfinished business. Sara Marian paints a mural of the land of Hades that would not make Hieronymus Bosch blush so much as raise his eyebrows by positing, “I see your scary triptych, and raise you a carnival of laughing souls (albeit with some equally freaky landscapes in the background…)”
Riffing vaguely on a Greek mythology theme, she gives us a portrait of death that is a lot like life, where souls start out in the city of Hades, an urban landscape that’s sort of a Lower Manhattan meets Coney Island amusement park. A “River Styx” runs through it, and the currency among the dead is something called “joy swapping,” where each soul can recall a memory of an amazing experience and transfer it to the soul from whom they are purchasing a similar experience. For protagonist Erica, this means a wallet full of perfectly toasted marshmallows.
Without offering too many spoilers, this is just a “taste,” as it were, of the kind of surreal curveballs Marian’s prose throws readers ready to buckle up for the ride (though it’s not so much a roller coaster as it is a Ferris wheel spinning inside a room full of funhouse mirrors). That’s not to say there aren’t thrills—any novel that features a hardcore swordfight with a creature dubbed the “Pepto Bismol monster” qualifies as action-packed.
But Erica’s quest—to fool the control-freak god Hades into letting her journey back to the land of the living in order to take care of her unfinished business—delves deeper into the topics of time, experience, fear, and regret than we sometimes get from your average fantasy read. This is also where it wanders into the Dostoevsky-esque themes. The novel answers existential anguish by championing how our imperfections can sometimes be our strengths, and offers that often the best riposte to what is frightening is what is funny.
So give Life and Death of Erica Flynn a read in order to experience what it’s like to feel heavy and light at the same time, a paradox as impossible, yet pleasurable, as simultaneously being alive and dead. Don’t believe it can’t be done—Erica Flynn will show you it can.
Carl R. Moore is the author of Chains in the Sky and Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, published by Seventh Star Press
Caught the new Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary on Hemingway and ended up enjoying it, though it contained moments of painful bathos in the commentary. The film could have better reconciled the apparent contradiction between Hemingway’s direct “declarative” style and the subtlety of a story’s unseen action. Such insights are valid and valuable, and a part of Hemingway’s signature aesthetic, but the film repeated these motifs without explaining their coexistence. Also, at the risk of digression, I think it’s worth pointing out that the assertion “what’s left unsaid is important” is no longer a surprising truth or unusual angle in literary criticism. Whether one agrees with it or not, it is a common viewpoint championed much more often than the promotion of spectacle and detail.
I was more interested in the way the documentary presented the timeline of Hemingway’s life. They made the case a few times that he relied significantly on his second wife’s family fortune to finance his adventures. I have not read any Hemingway biographies, but having read many of his novels and their introductions, gathered that once he’d published The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, he had become financially independent. I saw him as a figure similar to J.K. Rowling or Stephen King in his financial success, yet the film hints that this was not the case. I was intrigued by this point and wish the directors had further explored this aspect of his career.
For all my reading life, I have had a strange relationship with Hemingway’s work. I first encountered most of his stories through the lens offered by undergraduate professors. They tended to spin the myth of his life and work in a way that the Burns documentary attempts to mitigate and, to some extent, unspin. But I didn’t have a problem with what has come to be known as his “masculine” style. I did not struggle with his approach to the morality of combat, hunting, fishing, philandering, and drinking. Instead, I tended to dislike the standard interpretations of his work. And when I voiced this disdain, I encountered the second problem of being lumped in with those who saw him as an old-fashioned, violent, egotistical bully.
I’m not saying those (to the extent true) are good things, but they weren’t the main issue. I was more concerned with how Hemingway’s art was often presented as realistic and juxtaposed with writers like Algernon Blackwood, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft, whom many considered less able to imitate real emotions.
The idea of “Hemingway as Realist” proved problematic as, over time, I read more of his work and got really into the writing. I read For Whom the Bell Tolls a few times, and while I felt spellbound by the characters and style, the real revelation came from discovering its utterly idealistic views on love, war, and survival.
Instead of seeing Hemingway as a Realist with a sentimental touch, I began to see him as a Romantic intoxicated by earned sentiment. I saw him as an idealist who understood that you could only reach the sublime when you acknowledge stark realities. The Burns documentary purports to try and get around these issues, but with limited success. While it touched on ideas that Hemingway’s views on love and the erotic were more fluid and imaginative than classic interpretations offered, it didn’t go far beyond. With an overconcern regarding the themes of suicide and “masculine” bravado, the film made too much apology to break into new territory. I still recommend giving it a view, because as always, Burns is on his game when it comes to weaving in authentic texts—excerpts from letters, novels, and early articles—with photomontages in a way that creates a memorable and intriguing portrait of his subject.
If we consider Mandy a slasher film, I think it’s arguably the greatest yet. I first saw it at a bar where they had a Sunday evening horror showcase. The manager was somehow hooked up with the film promoters and ran an event complete with beer specials and “44” t-shirts.
A great time was had by all, and since then it’s been one of those movies that I watch from time to time like putting on a favorite album. Any thoughtful viewing will likely come to the conclusion that the film is more than an excuse to watch gratuitous violence inflicted on stock victims. And yet the same time, it doesn’t apologize for how much fun gratuitous violence can be. Director Panos Cosmotos and producer Elijah Wood pull punches on neither action nor emotional complexity. I guess that’s why Amazon’s Prime Video adds the category ‘arthouse’ to its tags.
The storyline could be called simple—man takes revenge on his lover’s murderers. A bizarro Jesus cult and a maniacally drug-addled biker gang burn her on a rope. Some would write this off as shock horror of the worse kind. But the poetry of the camera work and the couple’s life in their forest hideaway that might be California or might be a moon of Jupiter has an additional draw for those with a taste for the surreal.
I’m not aiming here for a review of the entire movie, but rather to point out what I’d consider one of its more inspired moments (there are many—the Cheddar Goblin, the chainsaw duel, the forging of the ax-hammer, to name a few). But the scene where Mandy (played by Andrea Louise Riseborough) faces her abductors while tripping on high-octane LSD is one of the most effective artistic indictments of cult psychology ever rendered.
Cults, as villains go, are popular in film and fiction, but they are not always drawn well. In this case, Jeremiah Sand (played by Linus Roache, who will always sort of be King Ecbert to me) makes quite a spectacle with his violent lunacy. But the brilliance occurs when he tries to impress Mandy while she’s tripping.
He’s already had his goons beat up Red Miller (Nicholas Cage), her ‘rough and tough’ yet ‘humble and recovering-addict’ of a mate. Now Sand tries to close the sale by playing her tunes from his old band while she’s high. He plays the hippy music and basically relates, yeah that’s me on lead flute.
This is where I would point out that burning somebody alive isn’t necessarily so bad, in fact, Riseborough does a commendable job giving a look somewhere between get me outta here and please kill me now. At first, things only get worse when Sand stares at her and tries to convince her to be his lover. Their expressions transform, and as the acid flows, we see an amazing blend of their faces. The ordeal is pretty obviously her realization of how pathetic the man is, how much he tries to elevate his ego by seeing his reflection in those he abuses and over whom he has power, as if the more beautiful his prize, the better the rush he gets from destroying it:
But she obliterates his plans to make her a victim with a single action. Though she is high on hallucinogens, her state heightens, rather than diminishes, the truth. When the cult leader follows up his pitch with exposing himself in all his full-frontal glory, Mandy laughs. At first, it’s a natural really dude? kind of laughter. It then takes on an aggressive and vengeful kind of ring, as if to say, whatever you do, you can’t change certain facts. Here Mandy’s own revenge sets in motion the violent acts that follow. You can burn a human being, but you can’t burn the truth.
I’ve often wondered how anyone could do anything but answer a cult’s sales pitch with anything but vengeful laughter. Perhaps that’s why the more successful cult leaders value their big catches, the rich and famous, politicians, business elites, and even star actors. And yet Mandy’s point remains free for the taking—you don’t have to have an eight-figure bank account to make an asshole feel small. All you have to do is laugh.
I first read Flannery O’Connor in a college course on the modern short story. The course felt hit or miss up to that point, but her work caught my attention. I was a young rocker and liked its brutality (though apparently, she did not like that word as a descriptor). Later, I came across a quote where she stated she also didn’t like it when “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is treated as a horror story. The quote occurs in a letter to Betty Hester in July 1955:
“I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard, but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”
(The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor, Flannery (1979). Fitzgerald, Sally (ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Kindle edition, pg. 90)
What I find interesting is not her frustration with the reviewers but her claim that there is nothing less sentimental than Christian realism. I suspect that her annoyance with those who call Good Man a horror story is about over-emphasizing the violence. Many feel shocked about a short story in which an entire family gets shot by an escaped convict, as if wow, that’s just so scary. And yet, this is something every horror author has to deal with—what’s wrong with you that you would make art out of such things?
But the story’s violence must not efface the story’s real horror. The real horror lies in the torments the characters inflict on one another long before their judgment day comes at the end of a pistol. It lives in the grandmother’s incessant delusions, cruelty, and racism, her son Bailey’s fecklessness and apathy, and her daughter-in-law’s meek ignorance. It lives in Red Sammy Butts, a domineering husband and boss, as he behaves like a total asshole at his roadside grill.
The real horror exists in the ability of humans to believe their own fantasies and ignore the truth. And these fantasies tend to be selfish. When the narrative leads the family to a car full of escaped convicts led by an infamous criminal named the Misfit, any reader but the most sensitive is ready for them to be shot.
At the story’s climax, the grandmother touches the Misfit’s shoulder and calls him one of her children. The gesture tempts readers to decide whether this is an act of redemption. The Misfit himself gives a short speech on how he is tormented in wondering whether Christ is real, whether the resurrection is real, and how he cannot know because he was not there to witness Christ’s miracles.
Here it becomes useful to look at the story through a non-Christian lens. Whether O’Connor’s Christian realism has any relationship with a literal belief in the supernatural is beside the point. Redemption and salvation are at stake, and while it is important to look at the story in the context of these ideas, it is more important not to let the interpretation become stuck within these ideas.
An evaluation of Good Man’s ethics and its characters’ morals fails when examined as an all-or-nothing affair. To decide whether the grandmother’s gesture was one of sincerity and forgiveness (redemption and salvation) or a final attempt at deception (damnation) is so sentimental as to be inaccurate. While O’Connor herself calls her work “Christian realism,” I feel she asks for a great indulgence in asserting there is any work concerning itself with the possibility of salvation that is not significantly sentimental.
If we give “A Good Man is Hard to Find” an unsentimental reading, we discover that every action counts—every cruelty and every mercy, and one cannot cancel the other out. To read the story in the context of original sin (e.g., the Misfit’s original, forgotten crime), the truth is that there is no original sin, but there are inevitable mistakes. Acts of kindness might matter, but we cannot erase errors. Good works can pay the bill, but they cannot erase the charge.
June Star, the young girl who perpetually calls bullshit on the whole family from the story’s start, makes the real heroic gesture before the grandmother touches the Misfit’s shoulder. She refuses to hold her killer’s hand when the Misfit orders the thug to escort her to her execution. This gesture, unconcerned with the truth of salvation, is the real jab at sentimentality, and it has nothing to do with Christ.
Happy to announce that my first book since 2017, Chains in the Sky, is available today from Seventh Star Press. Huge thanks to Stephen Zimmer and Holly Phillippe for making this a reality. I have been writing steadily for the past three years, yet for various reasons, 2019 did not see a new book release (and in 2018, I only published one novelette, Mommy and the Satanists). However, this year is ending with a new beginning, and I hope readers will enjoy this fast-paced supernatural thriller that is also my first full-length novel:
I also look forward to returning more attention to this blog, particularly since the new release is set in the Crimes of Heaven and Hell world (after which this blog is titled). But this space isn’t just for promoting my work—it’s for reviewing some of the millions of amazing books out there. So please take a look through some of the past reviews and author interviews, and I look forward to more to come!