Look What I Got in the Mail Today!

This crawled into my mailbox today from littlest K, another Horrorfeminista.

Cockroach Letter 1We sent her some swag for her birthday.

IMG_0739And unbeknownst to us, she had a surprise coming our way—our cockroaches ended up crossing in the mail. This is the other side of her paper roach with legs that stick up and eyeballs.

Cockroach Letter 2Its wings and body open up into a letter.

Cockroach Letter 3Now I need to figure out how to display it. It’s a 3-D piece of art, and I want to be able to see its legs, wings, and eyeballs, and open it up to read the letter once in a while. The fridge doesn’t seem like the right place to put it. Any ideas?

The Life and Times of a Phone Psychic

I bought my first deck of tarot cards when I was nineteen from a B. Dalton bookstore, I believe. I’m not even sure if those stores exist anymore; I think they’ve been taken over by Barnes & Noble. This deck came into my life during a precarious time—that brink between high school and college, kid and adult—and the idea of divining the future appealed to me. It still does, really.

The deck was a simple Rider-Waite, probably the most common, and I can remember feeling jealous of a friend’s deck that had what I thought were more superior illustrations. Now, I’m happy with my Rider-Waite deck; the images are iconic, and if I see the High Priestess, in a flash I get the card’s story, its positive and negative meanings, and how that might affect a querent. That’s what the person who’s asking questions is called in tarot-speak: the querent.

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In college, many of my friends read tarot, and sometimes we’d sit around in a circle and give each other readings. I learned a lot from that: setting the stage, analyzing the cards and matching them up to what I knew of my friends’ experiences, and getting the story rolling. It’s like therapy, doing everything you can to make your querent feel comfortable so they’ll start revealing their worries and secrets. You’d be surprised how accurate I could be in a reading. I’ve always liked to think of my cards as mirrors, and because I knew my querents, I could give them a worthy reflection of who they were and what they wanted to be. It’s not lying; it’s weaving a story between what the cards represent and what I knew was going on in my friends’ lives.

I also would read for myself, which usually happened when I was scared, stagnant, or not sure of what direction I was going. It’s comforting shuffling the cards that are almost too big for my hands, making me stretch my palms, the sound of slapping them down on my bedspread in the shape of the celtic cross, my favorite layout. (I’ve tried more exotic layouts at times, but I always go back to the celtic cross.) I know every crease of my cards, can almost pick out which one is which without looking at its face. That’s how much I’ve used them.

My deck got quite a workout when I moved to Portland, Oregon, and couldn’t get a job for months. My friend Susan was my roommate, and she told me about how she had worked once as a phone psychic. At the time her schedule was erratic and working as a phone psychic fit since she could log in whenever and take calls. The company sent her a check every month, and though it wasn’t big money, it was money.

She’d just had a baby and couldn’t work a regular schedule, and with my dim prospects, we decided we’d start up a psychic hotline and work it together, using a combination of astrology and tarot cards. We rented out a house with four or five different roommates, so we had a separate phone line installed in our basement, where we could have some privacy. Susan scrounged up a phone—probably something that a past resident had left behind; it was clear plastic showing different-colored wires and it lit up when it rang.

Suz and I set up our work area on an abandoned futon frame and put down carpet squares beneath that. Then we had our assorted astrology and tarot books spread out around us so we could easily consult them. Before we opened up our business, we drilled each other on the quintessential celebrity for each star sign. Kurt Cobain was our classic Pisces while Madonna worked for Leo.

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Our psychic network work space.

When we had time and were ready to work the psychic hotline, we logged into the system, letting the powers that be know we were available, and calls started being forwarded to our extension. Our ranking on the hotline was based on how many calls we took and how long we could keep a querent on the line. We were encouraged to keep people talking as long as possible because after the special rate, or first free three minutes, the charges really started to pile up.

Susan and I would log into the system and tag team as calls started coming in. The one on the phone would get the necessary information to construct a star chart and start laying out the tarot cards while the other consulted sources and drew up a rudimentary star chart that was used to supplement the reading.

We were just barely scraping by money-wise at the time and knew the value of a buck, so when people called and just wanted a quick reading, we aimed to please. Our reasoning was that they would be repeat callers, requesting us as their personal phone psychics, and we’d quickly climb the ranks. Susan and I had a steady stream at first.

I was very nervous when we started taking calls, and during my first few sessions, my voice would quake. I can remember a pushy woman from the East Coast who was concerned about if a check was in the mail. There were Pentacles in her reading, but not an immediate money card. Though I tried to tell her this, she kept saying, “So the check’s coming—it’s in the mail.” It wasn’t a question; this was what she wanted to hear.

Finally, I said with guilt, “Yes, looks like it.”

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We coached each other through the calls and were learning more about astrology and just plain human nature through the stories we heard. Really, a lot of what we did was counsel people through dark times—a bad relationship, conflicts at work—but with a kiss saying that the universe had ordained it.

I answered a call from a woman addicted to drugs who wanted to know if she should get off them. I knew the obvious answer, but I shuffled the cards, used my soothing voice, and dealt out ten cards.

“You have Death as the heart of the situation.”

“Death?! I’m not going to quit if I’m gonna die.”

“No, that’s not what Death means here. It means a complete change, transformation.”

I tried more and more to calm her down, to guide her to the realization that it was time for a good change, but between her interpretation of death and worrying about when her boyfriend would get home, it was hard to keep her on track.

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I think the scariest call Susan ever took was from an immigrant woman who was pregnant and suffered many miscarriages before; she called the psychic hotline when she started having some troubling symptoms. Suz ended up with the Hierophant in that reading and told the woman she saw a doctor in the cards, recommending that she seek out medical advice. The Hierophant represents authority usually interpreted as religious, but it can be a healer or assistance, too, and that was what her querent needed to hear.

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These were the calls where we weren’t really qualified to help, but at the same time, through an ad on TV, we were who these people chose. Who knows if they would seek out help in any other way.

During one frenzied session, Susan and I did so many readings that our two tarot decks got mixed up together. I went to put my deck away in the dove-gray silk shirt that I’ve kept my cards in forever and discovered that I had two Eight of Cups. We separated out the cards so we each had a complete deck, but for sure I have some of Susan’s cards and she has some of mine. Sometimes I think that’s why we’ve been bonded together so long. I’ve known her for more than twenty years, lived in five different states with her, and seen her raise her daughter from an infant to the sixteen-year-old she is now.

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Eventually our rating in the psychic network dwindled, and sometimes when we logged on, we wouldn’t get a call at all. Giving customers a good deal didn’t count for much with the company. We both found another job that would pay the bills, and I haven’t read cards for money since then. But it’s a skill I still cling to, thinking, If the editing work ever dries up, I’ll just become a full-time psychic. Right now, that’s my retirement plan.

Hannibal Degrades in His Earlier Years

I just finished Silence of the Lambs, a reread for me, but it was a read that came after the movie—my absolute favorite. For a long time, I thought the novel by Thomas Harris was one of those rare cases where the movie surpassed the book, but it’s probably because the movie is filtered through the female viewpoint, psychological horror where the female protagonist solves the mystery and is the hero. I enjoyed the novel, but it was nowhere near the level of the movie with its two famous portraits of evil (Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter and Ted Levine’s Jame Gumb) and the two strong ladies who are determined to overcome it (Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling and Brooke Smith’s Catherine Martin). The movie version condenses events, rearranges them, and makes Lecter like Jaws—a menace getting about ten minutes of actual screen time, but the one who also underpins the entire story.

 

Lecter’s scary, but there are so many other elements that work in the story, making it transcend the horror genre. One of the biggies are strong female characters who aren’t accessories for men. Clarice Starling is presented in both the book and movie as a steely recruit for the FBI. She’s ambitious but also vulnerable because of her inexperience and a difficult past. Foster says that Clarice Starling is still the best role she’s ever had and that’s something, coming from a woman who’s spent her whole life in the film industry. In the book, Starling is what puts the plot into motion after spurning the advances of Dr. Chilton, the man in charge of Hannibal Lecter. Harris captures Starling’s quick perceptions but also her awareness of herself as a woman and how she can use that in her career:

“She saw his bleak refrigerator, the crumbs on the TV tray where he ate alone, the still piles his things stayed in for months until he moved them—she felt the ache of his whole yellow-smiling Sen-Sen lonesome life—and switchblade-quick she knew not to spare him, not to talk on or look away. She stared into his face, and with the smallest tilt of her head, she gave him her good looks and bored her knowledge in, speared him with it, knowing he couldn’t stand for the conversation to go on.”

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This is glossed over quickly in the scene where Dr. Chilton is introduced in the movie Silence of the Lambs, and instead the movie’s heart lies in the twisted mentoring relationship that exists between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter. Lecter also can’t abide Chilton, who doesn’t have a medical degree and uses his proximity to the cannibal psychiatrist to further his own career (this first comes up in Red Dragon).

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Recently I started watching the TV series Hannibal with my sister, and I liked the first few episodes. It was interesting to see the period of time when Hannibal was practicing as a psychiatrist and perhaps committing the first few kills that would eventually land him in Chilton’s psychiatric hospital. But now the series is really starting to piss me off because it’s screwing around with the Hannibal Lecter canon and destroying the original character that Harris built.

At first, I was annoyed because each episode dealt with a new serial killer, and I found that completely unrealistic. If a story is set in a zombie apocalypse, I expect there to be a lot of zombies. But Hannibal is set in contemporary times where there are only supposed to be about forty or so active serial killers at any time in the United States. Yet every episode I’ve watched of Hannibal features a new serial killer that the FBI and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) are dealing with. And these serial killers borrow heavily from the imagery associated with Hannibal’s later crimes; unless there is a plot twist from hell coming up, this pretty much makes Lecter look like a copycat.

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What Lecter does in Silence of the Lambs.

Another serial killer's work in prequel series Hannibal.

Another serial killer’s work in prequel series Hannibal.

 

The series also takes the great lines from Silence of the Lambs and repurposes them for the current story, saving nothing for later. Dr. Chilton has been brought in to work with the FBI when authorities would never have dealt with this bozo in the first place, according to the original canon. A pseudo Clarice has also been produced and almost immediately catches Lecter out through his sloppiness. All of these plot lines aren’t true to the characters as I know them, and I’m just barely halfway through the first season of Hannibal. I don’t see how the series can sustain itself much longer, and I know I’ve got to quit watching these episodes because I just get madder and madder with each one, turning into one of those comic book purists.

Hannibal’s creator Thomas Harris is one of those rare reclusive writers who doesn’t like to give interviews, but at some point he sold the film rights of Hannibal Lecter to Hollywood maven Dino De Laurentiss. Later, after Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs, and Red Dragon, De Laurentiss supposedly threatened to film a prequel to Hannibal’s story with or without Harris’s help, which spurred the writer to write Hannibal Rising.

 

I guess that wasn’t enough background for the character because now we have Hannibal the TV series. Dino De Laurentiss died a few years ago, but I see that his wife Martha De Laurentiis is attached as executive producer to the series. I don’t know if these film rights transfer or if Harris sold them again. Either way, I hope he’s getting good money for it. A writer’s got to eat, but I really don’t care for what’s been done to his characters.

2013’s Carrie Tries a Cyber Version of Stephen King’s Story

I’ve been jonesing to see Carrie since watching the previews in the movie theater early last year. The shower room scene in Stephen King’s novel and the original movie is a classic of how mean and out of control bullying can get, but the preview showed cyberbullying being introduced in the new version, and that’s something that excited me. Bullying has evolved, like everything else with the Internet, and where a kid might once have been able to get a little peace at home after a school day of harassment, they can now be haunted in cyberspace through Twitter, Facebook, or what have you.

 

At this point, I don’t think there are any spoilers in Carrie. It’s a Cinderella story that the brothers Grimm would approve of. Carrie White is the daughter of single mother Margaret White, a religious fanatic who chooses to keep her daughter ignorant about the facts of life, thinking she’ll remain pure that way. Carrie gets her period while showering after gym, and her classmates throw tampons and maxipads at her, yelling for her to plug it up. With the onset of her period, Carrie rediscovers her telekinetic powers. One of the shower room bullies feels bad about her role and, as compensation, makes her boyfriend ask Carrie to the prom. Carrie accepts and sees this as her chance to be normal, making and wearing a pretty dress, dancing. Another of the bullies, though, won’t let her get away with this and hatches a plan to drench Carrie with blood onstage. She doesn’t know about Carrie’s newfound powers and what she’ll do for sweet revenge.

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The original Carrie is iconic. When friends and I are feeling insecure, we’ll jeer, “They’re all going to laugh at you,” imitating Piper Laurie’s over-the-top performance as Carrie White’s mother, and laughter almost always results. But it is a different world now, and I’m okay with that line going to Julianne Moore, with a more understated tone of voice, who’s able to convey ultimate love for her daughter alongside crazy, masochistic religious beliefs. I don’t think I ever really saw that mother-daughter love in Piper Laurie’s version of Mrs. White. Carrie just seemed to serve as an audience for her ravings.

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The girl picked to be Carrie in this version, Chloë Grace Moretz, is very pretty. She doesn’t have the unusual looks of Sissy Spacek (the original Carrie), which made it easy to see how such cruel taunts started, but plenty of beautiful people are bullied. I’m thinking of the stories of Phoebe Prince, who was bullied until she committed suicide, and Daisy Coleman, a popular freshman cheerleader until she accused an upperclassman of rape and eventually had her house burned down by bullies.

Moretz plays Carrie White as a sweetheart who only wants to be a good girl, and it comes across as a little wishy-washy. Spacek’s Carrie had a witchy streak at times, so the ultimate destruction at the end of the movie didn’t come off as incongruous. Where Moretz might be a little more believable, though, is as a high schooler who hasn’t hit puberty yet. She looks very young and unformed in her plaid shirt and jumper next to sophisticated classmates in full makeup and hair, toting their iPhones. And her ignorance of the changes that a girl goes through as she becomes a woman is explained away with home schooling. I don’t think anybody could have bought Carrie having no knowledge of a period without this update.

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One thing I like in this movie is Judy Greer (Jawbreaker) as Ms. Desjardin. She brings a little something different to the character that King envisioned, I think, who is a former teen queen now teaching gym. Ms. Desjardin understands what motivates her students to humiliate Carrie White in the locker room because she’s closer in age to them than the rest of the teachers. And Greer brings a zany, goofball quality to the character that I haven’t seen before, making the role a surprise—one of the few in the movie. I’ve seen Brian De Palma’s Carrie so many times, that it ran like a loop in the back of my brain as I watched this recent remake of Carrie, and almost all of the performances in the 2013 movie came off as paler versions, except for the character of Ms. Desjardin.

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A big part of King’s Carrie, which carried through in the original movie, is the theme of how random events can quickly accumulate and snowball into something awful. The bullying, the late period, even Carrie’s conception—these small things all build to the ultimate showdown, and each fresh piece keeps the story rolling. This version of Carrie felt choreographed to me; there was a slickness to it like a Broadway production. The brutal shower room scene is videotaped and posted online, and it’s shown again and again and again, even played on big screens when the prom queen and king are announced and the bloodbath begins. The repetition takes away from the initial cruelty, and the scene just doesn’t seem that shocking by the time Act III rolls around.

The cyberbullying that I thought would add a fresh element to the movie ends up being clunky. I have a hard time believing the big baddie Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) would be so stupid as to leave evidence of the taped shower room scene on her phone, which screws up an important plot point. (She’s supposed to be whip smart, torturing others for her own entertainment.) Also, such a contrast is set up between the tech-savvy, sophisticated high schoolers and the rube Carrie that one of the most important scenes comes off badly. Chris Hargensen’s boyfriend, Billy Nolan, is supposed to kill a pig for blood. The modern version shows Chris and Billy menacing pigs in a sty, and it comes off as silly. The characters haven’t looked or acted like farm kids through the entire story, so just when did they learn how to kill a pig? YouTube? If only that had been shown.

Flynn Gets Creepy in Dark Places

I gulped this book down in about two days, completely unprepared for it. I loved Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, such a nasty treat, and meant to read her other novels, but the wait list is long at the Brooklyn Public Library. I didn’t even know what Dark Places was about, but when I started flipping through the opening pages listing the reviews that compared it to In Cold Blood, I knew the novel had to go to the top of my book pile. In Cold Blood has to be one of the most reread novels in my house. I had to retire a copy because the cover came off and it started flaking off pages one by one.

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While I don’t know much about Kansas and the area where the Clutters were killed (the murder that’s the focus of In Cold Blood), I do know Kansas City, Missouri, and the low-rent satellite communities that surround it. I did a year of high school in Grandview, Missouri, and it was terrifying. I can remember the mean poverty surrounding me in a land of plenty, and it was a marked contrast after coming back from Germany, where my father had been stationed. Flynn recreates this setting in the most creepy and delicious of ways, and I think she gets it right: “He led me around the corner and down a hallway of former offices. I crunched broken glass, peering into each room as we passed: empty, empty, a shopping cart, a careful pile of feces, the remains of an old bonfire, and then a homeless man who said Hiya! cheerfully over a forty-ounce.”

The characters populating the story are as much of a knockout as how Flynn captures the Missouri setting. Unlikely protagonist Libby Day is in a precarious position. She’s now in her early thirties, the only other survivor besides her brother of her family’s brutal murder that happened one night in January 1985. Libby’s brother was accused of murdering her two sisters and mother; only Libby survived, after running away, though she sacrificed some toes and half a finger to frostbite.

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Charlize Theron will play the adult Libby in the movie version of Dark Places.

With Libby’s testimony, her brother is now serving a life sentence in prison and she has been living on money put up by strangers long ago in a fund in her name. Not having a job for most of her life, she’s burned through almost all of it, even when supplemented by a ghostwritten self-help book capitalizing on her story.

Libby has incomplete memories of the time the murders happened, but she starts thinking back on those events after a strange man approaches her, offering money for any mementos or recollections. She’s made her apartment and bed a cocoon from the rest of the world and would rather go back to that defining moment of her life and make money from it than to acquire new skills and go out into the world. Libby is still a brat as an adult, seemingly stuck at the age when tragedy struck, but she has her sweet moments, too.

Flynn is a master of suspense and skillful at balancing the two story lines of Dark Places. She alternates going between the events that built up to the multiple murder in 1985 and what is happening to the adult Libby as she starts recovering her memories of that time while going outside of her comfort zone and meeting new people. Flynn’s able to keep the tension mounting in both story lines until they meet and the mystery is revealed. The smallest details contribute to the major revelation at the end, but they’re not clumsy and never give the story away. I never saw the real story behind the multiple murder coming, yet it didn’t come off as implausible.

Still from the movie Dark Places , with Chloë Grace Moretz playing the meanie.

Still from the movie Dark Places, with Chloë Grace Moretz playing the meanie.

 

Flynn is one of the authors that I try and press friends to read, and when my sister was looking for a good book, I insisted she read Dark Places. She couldn’t guess the ending either, and she’s usually really good at it. We have a game we play when watching episodes of Law & Order: SVU where she has to guess the perpetrator in the first five minutes, and she almost always pegs it right. Not this time.

I really think 2014 is going to be Flynn’s year. Both Gone Girl and Dark Places will appear as movies (according to IMDb), with excellent casts attached, exposing more people to her work. Now, if only I had another Flynn novel to look forward to because I’m down to the last one.

Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn

Hunger Games Catching Fire: the Marketing of a Girl

Catching Fire picks up a few months after the Hunger Games left off. Katniss and Peeta have arrived home to District 12 and now live in elegant digs compared to what they had before taking part in the Hunger Games. Peeta’s sulky because the romance he dreams of with Katniss has not taken place offscreen, and Katniss is suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome. President Snow, the creepy and elegant Donald Sutherland, visits Katniss right before her Victory Tour, telling her she has to sell this romance and make it believable. Signs of dissent have spread throughout the Capitol and surrounding districts, and Snow is even seeing the results in his own household, when his granddaughter (Erica Bierman) appears at the breakfast table in Katniss’s trademark braids, telling him, “All the girls wear their hair like this.” This girl from District 12 has become a symbol of something he doesn’t want, but everybody else likes, even loves, her.

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For going against the rules and inspiring others to question their drudge of a life, Katniss must be punished. And Jennifer Lawrence’s acting is a gem here, as she pretends to be a bad actress while on the Victory Tour, all hammy, SNL skit-like with eyelash batting and fake smiles, alongside Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). President Snow is not pleased with the results, and with Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he decides she must be eliminated. The Quarter Quell is upon them, a special edition of the Hunger Games that comes about every twenty-five years, and the twist this year is to reap past Hunger Game winners from each district and make them repeat the games with the best of the best.

I found this installment of the movie much more emotional than the first, now that the main characters have been established and people have gotten over their Fatniss fixation. There were so many times I felt my heart in my throat, especially in the scenes with Katniss and Peeta showing real love for each other, in contrast to what they faked during the Victory Tour. Though Katniss doesn’t have the love connection with Peeta that she does with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), he is the only person who understands what happened to her during the Hunger Games. And he loves her desperately, though she doesn’t understand why.

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There are very few changes between the book Catching Fire and the movie, and most are those of omission. Peeta tries to save Katniss from entering the arena again by dropping a baby bomb, which isn’t described as such in the novel but the term is adopted in the movie, and I like how parallels are drawn between our celebrity-driven culture and these bloody games. A baby bump becomes a complete game changer, and while Katniss cannot avoid the Quarter Quell, she’s able to manipulate the sympathies of viewers and possible sponsors.

The omissions, I think, help heighten the tension, so viewers aren’t bored and easily able to figure out what’s going to happen in the end. And maybe that’s good for those who have read the trilogy as background before going in to the movie, but I watched it with two who had not read the books, and they both felt like they were missing important information. Then I watched Catching Fire again with my nine-year-old niece when I was visiting for Christmas, and she needed information to process what was going on on-screen. I answered her questions in whispers, trying not to piss off the people in back of us, and when she got it, her face lit up with pure pleasure, enjoying the story of tough ladies and guys trying to make it out alive.

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Afterward, she wanted to play Hunger Games, using characters from the movie Catching Fire. She didn’t want to be Katniss, who she deemed too nice. Instead, she invented her own character Catty, who had Katniss-like traits with a little bit of Johanna mean. Johanna’s mean streak intrigued her (a standout performance by Jena Malone), but my niece didn’t feel like she could act out those parts so I was assigned her character. It made me happy that instead of one girl part, my niece had several female roles to choose from—a healer, a genius, a warrior, etc.—to see what fit her personality.

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Our playacting brought to mind one of the press junkets the Hunger Games cast did for the first movie. One of the questions given was which character would the other actors liked to have been, and Jennifer Lawrence mentioned how nobody ever chooses Katniss. I think it’s because we already envision ourselves as a Katniss, a hero who is brave and loyal, but we would like to try on brutishness or vulnerability, traits that aren’t usually interpreted as heroic.

Measuring My Life in Donna Tartt Novels

I remember when Donna Tartt’s first novel came out while I was in college, The Secret History. My professor for my Henry James and Virginia Woolf class, a fusty, old man who in some ways did resemble the classics professor of the story, said, “I’m getting The Secret History in my Easter basket.” I had a lot of respect for this professor, and if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me.

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A few days later, with a fresh paycheck deposited in my bank account, I found a signed copy at Prairie Lights Books and ate it up in a matter of days. Tartt’s novel was a world I understood, where a plain nobody wants to be a somebody and reinvents himself after a big move. That had been the story of my young life at that point, and one I saw often on my college campus, with virginal freshmen coming in off the farm and transforming themselves into wild party animals within a semester. And then the frozen winter landscape where the protagonist of The Secret History can never quite get warm—oh, that was Iowa, all right, where my glasses sometimes stuck to my face when I trucked home from the newspaper in subzero weather. Of course, I didn’t have a murder to contend with or Dionysian rituals taking place at a family manor in the countryside, but it was fun to imagine that I might.

About a decade later, I was launched in my career and Tartt’s second novel came out, The Little Friend. This is four moves after my time in Iowa City, and now I was in New York, where my Midwest roots were sometimes viewed as exotic. I went to see Tartt on her book tour at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square, and the space was absolutely packed with people. She read from the first chapter and sang (a part of the story), then took a few questions from the audience. This is standard procedure at a reading, but Tartt’s one of my literary heroes so it all took on so much significance for me. The line was long to get my book signed, and I shifted uncomfortably, wondering what I was going to say. I had to say something. I stood for probably an hour, got my yellow Post-it where the bookstore clerk properly spelled my name and marked the title page for Tartt to sign. And then I was there at the head of the line and it was my turn.

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I’m one of those creepy fans who can barely get a word out I’m so starstruck, and I think it makes authors uncomfortable. I can hear everybody ahead of me telling what sounds like their life story, and then I get up there, all silent like a serial killer. I can remember Neil Gaiman offering me a cookie during a signing, trying to be nice and make conversation, and I could only shake my head. No words would come out of my mouth. Well, I got up there with Donna Tartt, watched her sign my book, and finally, finally, I got some words out—a first for me: “Until next time.” Then I was off with my signed book tucked under my arm. Immediately, I started scolding myself: Doofus, could you have said anything stupider?

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Now it’s eleven years later and Tartt’s third book has come out, The Goldfinch; I’ve been living in New York for almost a third of my life, and I feel pretty confident that I’ll never leave the city. It feeds me. I went to see Tartt read from The Goldfinch at one of her two New York stops (the one that didn’t require money up front). I hadn’t read a word of the new novel. I knew that it revolved around a stolen painting, The Goldfinch by Fabritius, but not much else, and when Tartt took the stage, she said that there were three settings to the book—the Netherlands, New York, and Las Vegas. She first saw the Goldfinch painting when she was in the Netherlands, and by a strange coincidence, it happens to be in New York right now at the Frick. I thought for sure this was a sign and waited until I had read the book all the way through before I went to view the painting.

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On the surface, The Goldfinch seems like a deceptively simple story, yet it captures truths about life that I struggle to understand today. A boy, Theo, grows up in New York, living with his difficult father (until he abandons the family) and artistic mother. One day he loses her in an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the city’s beacons, and by chance, he exchanges words with a mortally wounded older man who admires the Goldfinch painting and encourages Theo to take it. He does and, after his mother’s death, arranges to stay with his friend’s Park Avenue family when none of his own kin is too eager to claim him. Eventually Theo’s father does come to get him and relocates the boy to Las Vegas at a McMansion so far outside the city limits that they can’t get garbage service.

Theo’s father supposedly has his drinking problem under control and has taken up with a bartender girlfriend. He contributes to the family with his gambling profits, consulting his Scorpio almanac when he needs help. Theo meets Boris, a worldly kid about his age, whose similarities to the Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist are too big to be ignored. He becomes Theo’s lifelong friend whether he wants it or not, introducing him to boozing and drugs. Later, Theo returns to New York and becomes part of a family through the old man who originally convinced him to take the Goldfinch painting.

As Theo matures, he starts thinking about the purpose of art in life through his meditations on the Goldfinch painting, and this particular novel of Tartt’s comes at a time when I’m having such existential ramblings myself: “To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole; but ever since the painting had vanished from under me I’d felt drowned and extinguished by vastness—not just the predictable vastness of time, and space, but the impassable distances between people even when they were within arm’s reach of each other, and with a swell of vertigo I thought of all the places I’d been and all the places I hadn’t, a world lost and vast and unknowable, dingy maze of cities and alleyways, far-drifting ash and hostile immensities, connections missed, things lost and never found, and my painting swept away on that powerful current and drifting out there somewhere: a tiny fragment of spirit, faint spark bobbing on a dark sea.”

That Fabritius’s painting The Goldfinch is now part of an exhibit showing at the Frick seemed no accident. The Frick is an art collection and museum housed in a really opulent mansion that belonged to one of New York’s richest families. It may not be Park Avenue, but it’s only two streets over, and the parallels between these rich rooms and the decadent setting that Theo finds himself in after his mother’s death pleased me. Getting to view the painting in an atmosphere similar to Theo’s living situation lifted the artwork and story to another dimension, like a grown-up version of a pop-up book or living within a real-life version of the novel.

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The Goldfinch, by Carel Fabritius

Lady Monsters Rule American Horror Story: Coven

My original complaint with season one of American Horror Story was that my favorite characters were killed off, so what was the point of getting invested in characters who would only die? (It’s also sort of how I’m feeling about The Walking Dead at this point.) But then in season two of American Horror Story, the Asylum story arc, some of the first season’s actors did come back, but as different characters. I followed the second season for a few episodes but had to quit when Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) started performing unnecessary amputations—I have a really hard time with mutilation.

With this third season of American Horror Story, the Coven story arc, I have a feel for what’s happening with the series and the different incarnations of the characters. It reminds me a lot of Japanese storytelling, like the manga series Umineko and Higurashi, where a set of characters is presented and one story line, and then in each arc, bits and pieces of a larger story are revealed and characters are reincarnated and given a second chance at getting their lives right in a different story line.

I’m as in love with the setting and the stories American Horror Story: Coven brings along with that as with the returning actors. The ghost stories associated with New Orleans are ripe for telling, and I’m surprised they haven’t been featured more often in books, movies, and TV. There’s the story of Marie Laveau, the voodoo priestess who supposedly haunted New Orleans’ streets for a century, never changing physically. Before I’ve relied on Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Voodoo Dreams, a historical novel about Marie Laveau, to get my fix. Now I get a modern, tart version of Laveau with Angela Bassett’s portrayal of her. Laveau was a hairdresser in nineteenth-century New Orleans, and some people say that’s how she knew so many secrets rather than through voodoo. In American Horror Story’s modern day New Orleans, she’s shown running the hair salon Cornrow City and plotting to get rid of the rival coven led by Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) and her teen witches Zoe and Nan (returning actors Taissa Farmiga and Jamie Brewer), Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), and Madison (Emma Roberts), who Laveau says has stolen the magic of her people.

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One of the most horrible stories of New Orleans is that of Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a high society lady who mistreated her slaves and, some say, performed sadistic experiments on them. Madame LaLaurie was exposed when a slave set the house on fire, trying to kill herself rather than be subjected to any more cruel treatment. Authorities found Madame LaLaurie’s torture chamber and the woman was forced to flee New Orleans. The only visual I’d seen before for this story is the tableau at the New Orleans wax museum, and that’s pretty scary. American Horror Story: Coven brings in Kathy Bates as Madame LaLaurie, and the writers have bent these two ghost stories so they intersect in the series. Madame LaLaurie ends up being cursed by Marie Laveau after torturing Laveau’s lover in a scene that’s very graphic and unsettling. Many years later, Fiona resurrects her.

American Horror Story’s version of Madame LaLaurie is a much different take from what I’ve heard before, where the wealthy woman was sent off to Paris, France, by her son and always hoped that gossip would die down one day so she could return home. Supposedly, she never understood why people couldn’t forget about it, and it’s this racist that is dug up in modern day New Orleans.

Kathy Bates’s Madame LaLaurie is unapologetic; I haven’t seen her play anybody so terrifying since her turn as Annie Wilkes in Misery. She softens when she’s revived in the current century, and there end up being some really funny moments as she confronts society today, like when she’s shown weeping as she realizes President Obama is in the White House. It’s tricky showing racism as it exists today in America, and I like how the show has come up with the device of a 200-hundred-year-old racist interpreting modern culture to give commentary—the old ways confronting the new. Too often, the subject is only viewed from our racist past with movies like The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and Lincoln, as if the years give us safety from uncomfortable truths.

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I also like the unlikely friendship that springs up between Queenie and Madame LaLaurie and how they’ve come to bond over fast food. Queenie’s talent in the young witch coven is quite unique; she’s like a reverse voodoo doll, using her body as the doll’s to inflict pain on her enemies. Her move over to Marie Laveau’s camp seemed natural to me and was a much more interesting story than what had been composing most of American Horror Story up until last week: the battle going on for the coven. Because Queenie’s been able to heal herself after doing her particular kind of magic before, I don’t think she’s completely out of the picture yet. She took one for Marie Laveau in episode nine, but she’s left beside the powerful voodoo priestess of New Orleans.

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I hope the next four episodes continue to focus on the issue of racism as it exists today rather than the bickering that’s been going among the teen witches as they try to figure out who’s the next Grand Supreme. Queenie’s diversity training for Madame Lalaurie, consisting of the miniseries Roots and footage shot during the civil rights era, seemed to be working miracles on the old racist, and I’m hoping other miracles are yet to come.

IT Ends the World in Howey’s Wool

I first encountered Hugh Howey’s Wool while me and my Girls Write Now mentee were milling around McNally Jackson bookstore, waiting for the launch party of the Girls Write Now fifteenth-anniversary anthology, New Worlds, which features both of our work. Tessa picked up a copy of Wool from a stand advertising hot summer reads and flipped through its pages. “This one looks good,” she said and handed it over.

 

The book had a nice cover and intriguing cover copy—the idea of a subterranean society was something I had played with before. But after reading the first few pages of Wool, I knew I could never have written about such a world as well as Howey: Right away, he transports readers to a dank underground silo that made me immediately claustrophobic, though I was in a bright, airy bookstore. The silo goes underground for more than one hundred floors, and there is one big rule governing this post-apocalyptic society: never, ever, ever ask to go outside.

The minute somebody does they are escorted to the first floor of the silo, the one that’s closest to aboveground, and locked up in a holding cell with a screen that shows a view of ravaged Earth, complete with rotting skyscrapers, urine-colored sky, and the bodies of Cleaners past. That’s the punishment for wanting out—the guilty party becomes a Cleaner and must go out into the poisoned atmosphere and clean the sensors that provide the silo with its view of outside. Through the years and generations of the silo’s existence, a Cleaner always gets the job done, and within seconds of completing the task, he or she drops down among the other bodies littering the landscape to die. A Cleaning becomes a strange kind of celebration within the silo, and families take trips to the top floor (often lasting for days with all the silo’s levels and going uphill) to view the screen of outside with the kids, like somebody’s family today visiting Disneyland.

Wool opens with a Cleaning, an immediate downer, but it does get the reader into the rules of the society right away. The silo is governed by a mayor, who has to run for the job, and a sheriff and deputy, but all of them are overseen by mysterious IT. Unfortunately, the one who wants to be set free is the current sheriff of the silo, leaving a vacancy, and one of the recommendations for his replacement—the top recommendation—comes from the bottom of the silo in Mechanical.

Howey describes silo society as being divided caste-wise—at the top are the elected officials and IT, akin to our white-collar workers, and then come those who work with their hands, the farmers and the mechanics who provide the energy for the silo.

With this subterranean silo and the makeup of its society, Howey really knows what he’s talking about, having lived and worked on ships before, where there is a very distinct class system and the ship becomes your everything when out at sea, he says. The atmosphere he creates is compelling, but the amount of detail started to bog me down until the protagonist of Wool is finally revealed. Juliette is a mechanic who’s in her thirties and views the mayor and deputy (and their job offer) suspiciously. She reminds me of one of my favorite characters, Ellen Ripley, in the first permutation of the Alien series, where all she cares about is keeping her ship and crew together and everything functioning as it should.

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Howey first published Wool with Amazon’s Direct Publishing program, so the novel I read is actually composed of several short stories/novellas that are still available in their original format on Amazon. As the Silo series evolved, readers would comment and sometimes reach out to Howey about the different plotlines. The repetitive details may come from condensing all these stories into a digestible novel, which is part of a Simon & Schuster deal for an intended trilogy. Movie rights have already been snapped up, with Ridley Scott attached to the project. (I think this would be a perfect fit as he did the original Alien where Ellen Ripley, so similar to Howey’s Juliette, is introduced.)

There is somebody who’s against Juliette’s appointment, the head of IT, Bernard, who wants the elected officials to rubber-stamp one of his candidates. He doesn’t like Juliette because he believes she’s made unauthorized requisitions for her department, which he likens to stealing from the silo society. Within Bernard’s first scene in Wool, it’s clear who runs the silo, not the people-elected mayor and her appointees, but IT. And that really frightened me because it reminds me of how things exist now and where we might go.

At one of my first in-house jobs in New York, there was an IT guy who had gone rogue. Probably the biggest reason for the problem was that one guy was given too much power and no oversight existed, so he did whatever he wanted without any checks against him. I started to notice a certain icon at the bottom of my screen when IT was checking activity on my computer. At first, this seemed to be set on a random timer, and I was okay with that, realizing that a company does have to monitor its employees somewhat, making sure they’re not looking at porn in the office or finding out how to build bombs. Eventually, though, I noticed that icon on my screen more and more, especially as I was checking e-mails with more salacious details.

Once my mother forwarded e-mails about a family member who tried to commit suicide right before he was due to turn himself in on a sex-crime charge. The company’s IT guy, who had never spoken to me before, made a point of going by my cubicle that day to ask if I was okay. I knew then what was going on and that I wasn’t being paranoid.

As technology and tracking gets more and more sophisticated, I notice strange ads and pop-ups appearing on my personal computer while doing freelance work. Sometimes it takes me a minute to figure out why I’m being targeted for a particular product or service as I have to google some bizarre things, depending on what books I’m editing at any moment. But it all leads back to some program monitoring every keystroke I make in cyberspace. As leery as this makes me now, Howey increases it a thousandfold with Wool, where IT leads to humanity’s downfall.

The Conjuring Is Pee-Your-Pants Scary

The Conjuring was something completely unexpected and refreshing for me this year. I first saw the trailer while watching the painful reboot of Evil Dead and automatically lumped it in that category, especially when I saw the noose hanging in the tree. I knew I had to see it, though, because the actresses Lili Taylor and Vera Farmiga were involved. They’re actresses I really respect, and what I like best about them is that they always make interesting choices. I don’t feel like they’re out in order to make millions of dollars and become the biggest star of whatever year; they pick roles because they’re challenging and give them room to grow and stretch. Or maybe it’s because they’re so good at their craft that they transform these roles from something two-dimensional and shallow to people and characters that I really care about.

The Conjuring is a period piece from the 1970s featuring a large family that moves into a big, rambling house that they bought at an auction. Mother, father, and five daughters, ranging from about five years old to the upper teens, are excited to finally have a place that fits all of them and run about decorating on their first day in the home. Lili Taylor plays Carolyn Perron, a stay-at-home mom, and father Roger (Ron Livingston) supports the family as a truck driver (is that even possible anymore?). The first night, the family notices something wrong with the house when the kids play a variation of hide-and-seek and stumble upon a boarded-up cellar full of old furniture and castoffs that might be antiques.

In a parallel story are two parapsychologists, Lorraine and Ed Warren, who travel around the country, visiting college campuses to talk about the hauntings and exorcisms that they have studied or participated in. (The Warrens are based on a real-life couple, who are probably most famous for their investigation of the “haunting” that The Amityville Horror is based on.) The couple has one daughter and a roomful of haunted objects that evil entities have attached themselves to, including a cracked antique doll named Cindy, who’s locked in a cabinet after a scene reminiscent of the Talky Tina episode from The Twilight Zone.

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Vera Farmiga plays Lorraine, the sensitive psychic wife, and is the real powerhouse of the couple, projecting a warmth and kindness that translates effortlessly from the big screen. After an exorcism gone wrong not long before the main story of The Conjuring takes place, her husband (Patrick Wilson) is fiercely protective of her and what cases the two take on.

While setting up house, Carolyn keeps discovering mysterious marks and bruises on her body, as if a baseball bat were taken to her at night, which her doctor blames on an iron deficiency. Meanwhile, the violence in her household escalates to a point where the family confines themselves to the ground-level rooms. The whole buildup of their house haunting is done old school scary, like the 1980 movie The Changeling. The suspense is ratcheted up degree by degree until it’s excruciating, and members of the audience were screaming when a door suddenly opened—whether a person was doing it or not. The wonderful thing is that you don’t know where the monsters or ghosts lie; it’s very much like Jaws in that the evil entities barely get any screen time. Instead, with a little atmosphere and good acting, the unbearable tension is built.

Because the film’s set in the 1970s, the terrorized Perrons don’t have easy access to the history of the house. Things aren’t as simple as an Internet search. Instead, Carolyn eventually makes contact with the Warrens when they make one of their campus visits. A few of these scenes are shown throughout the movie, with the couple on a creaky stage showing slides and then the scene is flip-flopped and there’s a pan of the audience members in all their seventies’ fashion glory, clasping mimeographed flyers. There’s a palpable sense of relief when that last flash of the audience shows Carolyn Perron in attendance. At last, you think, somebody’s going to do something about her problem.

She approaches the couple, and immediately they take on the case, mostly because of the invisible communication that goes on between mother to mother. When the Warrens arrive at the Perron house, they immediately sense that something’s off, but instead of just one little ghosty, they realize they’re dealing with multiples led by one nasty in particular, who seems intent on breaking through to the other side.

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Next come scenes I recognize—the observation period, asking for help from the Church, the cleansing—but there’s something new and different that was brought to each of these, and while I was reminded of Poltergeist, The Haunting, and The Changeling, the scenes were still fun to watch. The ending is able to sustain the nerve-racking first part of the movie and it’s left wide-open for another installment, yet everything is tied up neatly—even the haunted doll that’s thrown out there as a gun, Anton Chekhov-style, in the first act.

For me, the real test of a scary movie is what happens after. The Conjuring is one of those that kept me up—on more than one night. And sometimes when my eyes are strained from editing too long and I see something weird in my peripheral vision, I flash to the scariest scene of the movie. And maybe pee a little.