Metal Cats: Make This a Series, Please?

On May 12, Kristi and I went to powerHouse Arena in DUMBO, Brooklyn, to see Jo Nesbo in a Q-and-A promoting his new stand-alone novel The Son. While waiting in line to buy our discounted copy of the book, we spied a plastic folder full of postcards featuring a metal guy with what looked like grumpy cat on his shoulder. On the back were all events for powerHouse during May, and it turns out that the bookstore has also launched its own publishing house. One of its first offerings is Metal Cats, a photo book of West Coast metal guys posing with their cats and kitties, who often resemble their owners looks- and personality-wise (as far as a photo can capture). There was a book launch later in the week with three metal bands performing, a raffle, and a chance to meet some of the guys who posed with their cats.

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That was three nights out in a week for me, which very much goes against my Taurean nature that likes to putter around in my home office while pondering participial phrases, but I made myself go. I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t because I might miss something like this:

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We started out at Bushwick Country Club, where we thought we could have a few beers and warm up for the event. A fellow Taurus was having a birthday party on the back deck, and she had her guests wear pajamas. I got to see footie pajamas on adults, and when I made my way to the bar, there was a sign advertising Tecate with a tequila shot for six dollars. In other parts of the country that might seem expensive, but in New York that’s a hell of a deal. And very heavy metal. After girding ourselves with a few rounds of those and seeing a pair of Wonder Women arrive to the back deck birthday party (one a man), we headed to Union Pool, where the Metal Cats benefit was taking place.

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Kristi at Metal Cats benefit.

 

We met the book’s photographer and editor Alexandra Crockett, picked up a few free pins, and looked at the book’s photographs. I love the Metal Cats photographs, but I really thought it was going to be a coffee table book with a thick, stiff binding that could take a lot of abuse. Instead, Metal Cats is a paperback slightly smaller than a composition notebook. Some of the pictures continue over a spread, and I’m afraid to open the book fully and crack its spine to look at them because then I might lose pages. And these are pictures that a metal person wants to study and absorb all of the details.

I’m so intrigued by the metal lifestyle and found the background details of the photographs as interesting, or more so, than the subjects and their cats. I want to see the book titles on these metal guys’ bookshelves, I want to know exactly which Kiss posters are tacked up and papering the walls in their rooms, and I need to check and see if those are indeed matching potholders in the kitchen that appears in the background. I’ll probably be going over those photos later with a magnifying glass, like Guillermo del Toro used to with monster movie magazines, trying to figure out how filmmakers achieved certain special effects.

My dream is that powerHouse Books turns Metal Cats into a series—preferably as calendars. I want big, blown-up pictures of metalheads posing with their cats, so I can study and take in all the photo’s details for a full month. Right now my monthly calendar is a freebie from my grocery store, and I’m sick of seeing the same chicken recipe every day. It’s been some time since I’ve found a calendar I can live with month to month, and I’d gladly pay $12 or more for a yearly calendar of Metal Cats, especially since I know that a portion of the proceeds goes to no-kill shelters.

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Metalhead at Metal Cats benefit.

 

There was a $7 charge for the Metal Cats benefit show, but the money raised was dedicated to no-kill shelters, along with a portion that I paid for the book. I felt completely comfortable in the crowd watching the bands, knowing I was among metalheads who are also animal lovers. While paying for my copy of the book in the lobby area between shows, Young WillCheadle, one of the musicians featured in Metal Cats, came up and showed me where his picture was with Matika. Then he was kind enough to sign me and my sister’s book—addressed to our cats, of course.

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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.

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.

Imperial Bedrooms Reunites Less Than Zero Characters 25 Years Later

About a week ago, I was visiting the Cortelyou branch of the Brooklyn Public Library and amazingly had no hold books to pick up. I was in a lull. I browsed the shelves for titles that looked interesting and found Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms, which featured the characters of Less Than Zero twenty-five years later. The last thing I read by Ellis was Lunar Park, a hybrid horror novel that I really enjoyed, and Less Than Zero was an important book for me when I was in college, so I added this sequel to my pile.
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With Imperial Bedrooms, Ellis seems to be mad at the precedence that film takes compared to the source material he’s provided, and he goes about trying to rectify this. Significant changes were made to his story in the film version Less Than Zero with Robert Downey Jr.’s star-making turn as the character Julian, and sometimes I confuse the stories and the movie version is what I remember, though I’ve read Ellis’s original novel more than once.

Right at the beginning of Imperial Bedrooms, he addresses this problem in the voice of Clay, who’s portrayed as the do-gooder in the film version of Less Than Zero but was really the much more apathetic narrator of the original story:

 

“But the thing I remember most about that screening in October twenty years ago was the moment Julian grasped my hand that had gone numb on the armrest separating our seats. He did this because in the book Julian Wells lived but in the movie’s new scenario he had to die. He had to be punished for all of his sins. That’s what the movie demanded. (Later, as a screenwriter, I learned it’s what all movies demanded.) When this scene occurred, in the last ten minutes, Julian looked at me in the darkness, stunned. ‘I died,’ he whispered. ‘They killed me off.’ I waited a beat before sighing, ‘But you’re still here.’ Julian turned back to the screen and soon the movie ended, the credits rolling over the palm trees as I (improbably) take Blair back to my college while Roy Orbison wails a song about how life fades away.”

 

Now Clay is in his midforties and makes a living as a successful screenwriter. He gets his women from a pool of ladies who are desperate to be actresses and think that he has enough power to get them into the business. Clay has been living in New York but goes back to revisit LA and his old crew when casting for his new film is happening there. He reunites with Julian, who is clean and sober now and makes Clay feel uncomfortable with his drinking and addictions. Blair has married Trevor, but they both pursue affairs outside of their marriage. Trevor is an agent who represents a young actress that Clay becomes quite infatuated with. The only problem is she can’t act and she’s dying to be in his next movie. Rip, the drug dealer from Less Than Zero, has had so much work done on his face that it looks like he’s melting. They all wear clothes that are too young for them but still listen to the same songs and bands that they did in the ’80s.

The structure of Imperial Bedrooms is built around a series of murders that are happening in the LA area, and the book ends with a whimper. I have heard the mystery writer’s trick for writing good suspense is to make the murderer the least likely suspect. That’s what Ellis does in this book, but I have a really hard time buying it in the end. In this very slim—let me emphasize slim at 169 pages—novel, he wraps everything up with a funeral scene that happened so hopefully in the movie and writes what he believes should have happened to these kids in Less Than Zero, though it takes them twenty-five years to get there. And I find I really don’t care. I’m sick of them, which is funny because I can remember a time when I really did care.

I remember rereading Less Than Zero and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, and the stories seemed to be brimful of exciting characters that did things, big, glittery things. When I was reading and rereading these novels, I was stuck in the frozen Midwest landscape where nothing exciting really happened, except once a turkey factory exploded. (I thought that was pretty funny and exciting, but the local news didn’t play it that way.) I would read these books and think that once I moved to LA or New York, exciting things would happen. I did eventually make that move and what I realized is that an office is still an office; it’s what your mind makes of it. If you keep going there day after day, whether it’s in Iowa City or New York, eventually it will get old and not nearly so mystical or magical.

And I guess that’s the point of Ellis’s books Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms. He shows us characters who have everything, and as a result, they have become emotional zombies. By having everything, I mean material things—it seems like the real human qualities of love, compassion, and caring were never showered on these characters. And after reading Imperial Bedrooms, I don’t think I ever want to spend time with these characters again.

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Now Ellis is living the life of Clay, having written the screenplay of the upcoming film The Canyons and using what weight he had to make sure that porn star James Deen was hired for the leading male role. The making of the movie sounds like a real disaster, according to a New York Times article that focused on Lindsay Lohan’s bad behavior. It will be interesting to see what material Ellis can get out of this for his next novel. I crave something like Lunar Park—no more Less Than Zero stuff. I hope he’s outgrown that.

 

Making Mischief in New Orleans, Part I

I haven’t been in New Orleans since before Katrina, but I love the city. When I got to LaGuardia, all stressed out after finishing a very long, tedious proofread and having the messenger pick up the package just in the nick of time, I found it soothing to hear Southern accents all around me. Our flight was delayed because a group from Mississippi (about forty people) had been in a bus accident. Nobody was injured, but the group had been delayed and the airline held the flight rather than leaving people displaced until the next day. When they straggled onto the airplane in groups of twos and threes, some personally thanked us for waiting, as if we other passengers had anything to do with it. It was a nice thing to do, though, and it put me in a good mood for an almost three-hour flight in such tiny, cramped seats—and of course, I was behind one of those guys who insisted on reclining all the way back so he could take a nap.

I got off the plane all right in New Orleans and taxied to the bed and breakfast, which me, my friend Sarah, and her daughter Megan are renting for the week. It’s called the Dauphine House and is supposedly haunted. The owner told me that there are five ghosts in her house. One is a couple from the 1860s that she saw on the staircase; she guesses they’re from right before the Civil War based on what they wear. One is a little girl who’s about six to eight years old and likes to play in the closet near our rooms. (I think I can handle that as long as she’s not like the kid from The Changeling.) The owner believes she died during the yellow fever epidemic. There’s also a ghost who’s very concerned with money and paces one of the balconies, and then another man who’s a dapper dresser and runs around in a top hat.

I was starving after two teensy bags of peanuts on the plane so we went to eat at a place that the bed-and-breakfast owner recommended, and on the way there and back, we saw the biggest, most luxurious cockroaches I’ve ever encountered. They put mine to shame in The Collectors. With shadow, they looked as big as three inches long and didn’t move too quickly since they were busy sucking heat out of the sidewalk—that is, until we started photographing them; then they got their hustle on. With the heat and humidity, I was covered with a fine sheen of sweat by the time we came back, but I was too tired to shower. I climbed into bed and slept for the next nine hours with no visitings.

New Orleans cockroach

We had drawn up our itinerary for our time before the World Horror Convention begins and decided to go on the cemetery voodoo tour the first day. After browsing through a few shops, taking breaks from the heat, we met up with our tour guide Gwen, a natural-born Creole, she said and then explained the differences. Gwen said spirits and ghosts are attracted to large bodies of water and that’s part of the reason why New Orleans is such a spiritual place.

She took us to Saint Louis Cemetery, No. 1, where Marie Laveau’s crypt is, the great voodoo priestess. I’ve been interested in her history ever since reading Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau. People leave all sorts of tributes, but I was truly puzzled by a set of nail clippers that had been set on the edge of her crypt. I know Marie owned a beauty shop, so maybe it’s referencing that? Or somebody’s looking for extra help while opening a nail salon?

nail clippers for Marie Laveau

We were taken to another crypt that apparently held a hoodoo priest, though nobody can tell his name because the face of the stone is so badly damaged. Gwen told us about the serious black magic that this guy could do, and how cops would enter locked rooms to find bodies with their throats mysteriously cut…by nobody it appeared. I’ve heard NYPD talk about similar things, coming into a room where Santeria had been practiced and just feeling oppressive, bad things. This priest’s grave was decorated by three X’s, calling for magic, and other shrine-related items that had been deposited throughout the day. My favorite—somebody’s hotel room keycard.

tributes left for a hoodoo priest

We were lucky on our tour and ran into one of Gwen’s friends who runs the Golden Feather, a Mardi Gras Indian restaurant gallery. He let us see the Mardi Gras Indian suits on display and told us how each member spends one year making his, with a design that has special significance for him. (The owner told me there are only two shops in New Orleans that carry these supplies, and now I’m wild to find them.) When the suits are completed, the Mardi Gras Indians parade in different festivals as a way to honor the American Indians who protected the enslaved people during the slave revolts.

Mardi Gras Indian suit at the Golden Feather

Our tour group was flagging at the end, and Gwen offered to take us and a few other hardy souls to visit Priestess Miriam at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple and Cultural Center. Priestess Miriam was mixing up perfumes when we arrived and took a while to come to the door and let us in. She has two rooms full of shrines and altars that she’s been building since the 1990s. Gwen showed me her Burmese python and told me that Priestess Miriam reads bones, which are supposed to give really accurate, dead-on readings. I was curious about all of the Virgin of Guadalupe images that I saw in her altar room and asked Priestess Miriam about that since I have a shrine dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. She told me that the Virgin is a door, and all doors are feminine because it’s through a woman that anybody gets into or out of this world. I definitely see the getting-into part and have to think more on the getting out, but I’m in love with the idea that all doors are feminine.

Priestess Miriam, Gwen, Megan, and Sarah

After our tour, we had a sit-down and food, and then took the streetcar along the Moon Walk. Sarah told me she had run out of stickers for Horrorfeminista, so I gave her a new load, and she did this decorating while riding the streetcar. Now our paper roaches will be alongside the real ones in New Orleans.

Horrorfeminista!

 

Mama as an RPX Experience

I was so surprised to see that Mama was only playing in three theaters in New York on opening weekend. A horror movie in January—it’s almost guaranteed to be number one at the box office given the popularity of the genre and people who are sick of the serious, highbrow Oscar fare currently crowding theaters. Why, I thought, would execs hobble a movie’s chances by only allowing it to show at three theaters in NYC on its opening weekend? I’m puzzled, and it seems that the theaters that did show Mama tried to jack prices up even more—at least one of them.

I went to see Mama at the Court Street Theater in Brooklyn, the closest theater to me. Because of the movie’s limited release, I was afraid it would sell out so I bought my ticket ahead of time online, which padded the ticket price by another $1.50. And that was on top of a $17.50 admission because I was supposed to be getting an RPX experience (which is apparently better sound and seats). I didn’t really notice a difference unless squeaky leather seats count, and that’s an experience I don’t want to pay for.

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Mama is a very simple story on the surface—almost too simple to justify the hundred minutes of play time. Two little girls, Victoria and Lilly, are at the mercy of their parents, who apparently have had some sort of meltdown. Their father says their mother is gone, packs them into the backseat of his car, and drives them on icy roads through the woods. There’s an accident and the girls are left on their own in the woods where they live for quite some time as feral children until people, who their uncle has employed, discover them. Their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays both father and uncle) and his girlfriend Annabel are barely making ends meet in a studio apartment with their freelance jobs, and all of a sudden they find themselves in charge of two disturbed girls, who have been removed from society long enough that they’ve lost their language skills.

I believe the best thing about this film is the ladies. The shape-shifting Jessica Chastain plays Annabel, a dark-haired punk with tattoos who is so not ready to be a mother. The two young girls who play the feral children Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) are also very effective, especially Nélisse. She has some moments that are downright eerie, considering that she only says about four words in the movie.

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I think where the movie falls short is style over story. I see a lot of loving care dedicated to the CGI and atmosphere, which leaves the story feeling thin and underdeveloped. The movie is beautiful to look at, but sometimes my mind wandered. A few images and details are revealed that are never followed up on, and I didn’t feel like they were big enough to just be ambiguous. While the witchy ghost provides a few scares, I never found her a real threatening presence because there’s not much to her story. Instead, I puzzled in the dark about what had originally happened to the two girls—what was going on in the beginning of the movie with the father and mother, which led to them being stranded in the woods in the first place.

I still enjoyed myself. I love watching a horror movie in the theater because of the audience participation, which didn’t disappoint at the Court Street Theater. There was a man with a big, throaty laugh that he let loose after the scariest moments, and the woman behind me was really getting into it, too, saying things like, “That’s funny. I’m going to make that my message,” and “She needs to be killed right now.” I think I would have liked Mama better had it not been an RPX experience. There’s a big difference between $12 and $17.50.

Insidious Has Some Good, Genuine Scares

With Hurricane Sandy, we were housebound for a couple days, but my sister and I were two of the lucky ones. During and after the storm, we kept our power, Internet, and water. The most major inconvenience we experienced was not having direct subway service for a week, but on Monday the glorious Q started working between most parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan. With Internet and power, we were able to entertain ourselves with streaming Netflix, and I finally got to watch the horror movie Insidious, which has been haunting my queue for a while.

I’m glad my sister was home when I decided to watch it because the first half was so scary that I jumped a few times and maybe even yipped a little at one point. In Insidious, a family of five moves into a large house—mom and dad, two young sons, and an infant daughter. Patrick Wilson plays Josh, the father of the family, who is mysteriously absent for the first part of the story. He’s a schoolteacher and claims he is suddenly busy grading papers and tests. Knowing what a teacher’s salary is, I don’t see how this family can afford their living situation. Renai, his wife (Rose Byrne), is a stay-at-home mom and once-in-a-while music composer, yet they live in a house like this:

While Dad is teaching and grading papers, Renai gets to set up the household and take care of the kids. After getting her two boys off to school and her fussy baby down for a nap, she’s finally able to take a break and sit down at her piano for some R & R with her trusty baby monitor…and that’s when she hears mysterious, threatening voices over its speaker. I feel like I’ve seen this plot device used before in a movie, but for the life of me I can’t remember which one. It worked fabulously in Insidious, though—that’s the moment when Renai is aware that there’s something not quite right in her house.

Besides living in a haunted house, things start to get so much worse when one of her sons, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), falls into a mysterious coma. He’s whisked away to a hospital where doctors and specialists are unable to say what’s caused this condition, but they give the family hope that he may just wake up. When Dalton comes home (still in his comatose state), the haunting kicks into serious gear and various ghosts pop up, menacing Renai and her children but generally leaving her husband alone. This is the seriously scary part of the movie, where the entities appear for a flicker of a moment, like in The Sixth Sense or The Orphanage, and you never know where they’re going to be.

Renai finally comes to believe that it’s not her house that’s haunted but her comatose son. I have heard of this happening before, where for some reason ghosts attach themselves to a living person because of their warmth or some other quality. I’m not sure if I buy it. Once I had a dentist who liked to practice her New Age skills on me after cleaning my teeth or drilling and filling. She would do reiki treatments or something else where she would ring bells and wave tuning forks around my head. I didn’t mind that as long as it was free. But then she started telling me about how she could see spirits attached to me, one older, nasty woman in particular. She told me her daughter could get rid of her in a session and that she would set me up with an appointment if I wanted. I declined nicely and never went back to that dentist again. It just got a little too weird.

Rather than going this route, the movie ends up taking a Shirley MacLaine turn that was unexpected for me. But I found that once the monsters’ motives were revealed, they just didn’t seem that nefarious. After that, they end up getting a lot more screen time, but I liked it better when the monsters were mostly hidden in this movie. When they did come out, the scares were gone and they just weren’t that interesting anymore. Instead, I found myself more curious about this family’s source of income. Renai must have penned an incredible film score or something that kept them afloat since the family brought Dalton home in his comatose state—plugged into various machines with home health aides dropping by every once in a while. Either that or teachers get some killer health insurance.

Damien Echols’ Life After Death Is a Heartbreaker

I had never heard about Damien Echols and the West Memphis Three before reading the memoir Life After Death. Somehow I completely missed this case in the 1990s when three teenagers were sentenced to life—and in the case of Damien Echols, to death—based on no real evidence to speak of except for a coerced confession. This is the case that started a slew of reactionary stories in the media about cults and satanic worship among teens. This was just not true, though, in the case of the West Memphis Three—Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols—and these guys lost almost twenty years of their lives behind bars, not to mention suffering the unspeakable torture that occurs in jails.

Echols starts his memoir with two definitions of magick, which appear to have been the guiding principles for much of his life. He says, “The first is knowing that I can effect change through my own will; and the other meaning is more experiential—seeing beauty for a moment in the midst of the mundane.” Echols’s view of life was probably his saving grace in jail, and he describes how much of the population there was batshit crazy—if not before they went in, they came to that point after a few years behind bars.

Echols had simple memories of the eighteen years of free life he experienced before he was sentenced to death. He grew up mean poor—not a little poor with family meals of Ramen noodles, but really poor with no running water at times or heat. Despite that, he carried treasured memories—the feel of the different seasons and an appreciation for nature, the meaning of music in his life and what it felt like, and real affection for his friends and family. In jail, he had to ration his memories and only take them out every once in a while so they wouldn’t get used up. Often, he talks about having to deny himself things while in prison, because otherwise there was nothing to break up the monotony. He had to keep experiences from himself so they would remain special.

I’ve never had a clear picture of what jail is like, I don’t think, until reading Life After Death. The idea I had probably came from Stephen King’s novel and novella The Green Mile and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, and in those stories, there are saving graces—a mouse that becomes a pet, decent guards who look out for their prisoners no matter what they’ve done, and adequate access to books. Echols’s experiences in jail have destroyed whatever notions I might have held, and I believe he could school Stephen King (who Echols learned the art of writing from) in giving a more realistic portrayal of what life is like behind bars.

Echols is taken off his antidepressant cold turkey once he’s on death row because there’s no point in fixing a guy who’s going to die anyway. When he’s beaten by guards and his teeth sustain nerve damage, he’s given the option of having them pulled out and replaced by dentures because fixing them is too much trouble for a guy who’s supposed to die anyway. Echols is never allowed outside to see the sky. He’s in his cell most of the time, and when he’s allowed to walk, he must be shackled and can then pace back and forth in something akin to a grain silo.

The list goes on and on, but what seems most cruel is when the author is suddenly slapped with something he did not realize he had lost. With startling comparisons, Echols writes, “God, I miss the sound of cicadas singing. I used to sit on my front porch and listen to those invisible hordes all screaming in the trees like green lunacy. The only place I hear them now is on television. I’ve seen live newscasts where I could hear them screeching in the background. When I realized what it was I was hearing I nearly fell to my knees, sobbing and screaming a denial to everything I’ve lost, everything that’s been stolen from me. It’s a powerful sound—the sound home would make if it weren’t a silent eternity from me.”

Damien Echols.

 

What scares me the most about this story is that it ever happened at all. After reading Life After Death, I became obsessed with the case and watched the documentaries that brought the West Memphis Three to the public eye—Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Paradise Lost: Revelations, and Paradise Lost: Purgatory. The footage taken of West Memphis during 1993 makes the town look like a doppelgänger to the one where I attended high school; it’s eerie how similar the landscapes are. The teenagers put on trial for a supposed satanic ritual murder of three children could have been the friends I hung out with in high school with their long hair, Metallica T-shirts, and taste for horror movies and literature. And it just seems crazy and impossible how these trappings of youthful rebellion, heavy metal/goth style, could be twisted into a case about cult ritualistic murder.

 

All three were convicted of the crime based on the flimsiest of evidence and served seventeen years before somebody finally overruled the original trial judge, David Burnett, who shut down all of their appeals, and the Arkansas Supreme Court agreed to allow new evidence that could set them free. Thank God, those materials still existed. With the amount of bungling that happened in this case, I would have expected for the evidence to have been destroyed or “accidentally” thrown away. But it didn’t, and during those seventeen years in jail, Echols taught himself how to write so he could give us this dark jewel. I’ve gobbled up everything I can read and watch about the case and now just have to wait for the Peter Jackson-produced documentary West of Memphis to come out at Christmas to put a cap on this. Echols is a powerful writer, and I’m curious to see what he puts out next now that the West Memphis case is over. I’m hoping for a horror story—a fictional horror story.

I’ve Been Robbed!, Part II

I went to bed shortly after the police left and didn’t sleep all night. Every creak in the house, ding of a nut on the fire escape—those sounds made me sure the thief was returning. As I tossed and turned, I thought about the last time I was robbed when living in Austin, Texas. We lived in a house at the end of a dead-end street (prime territory for a thief to hit, the police later told us), and it was about the same time of year, I think. The first time the thieves robbed us there, they took my computer and a few CDs. A week later, they came back and cleaned out everything valuable. To add insult to injury, they piled all of our possessions in our roll-away trash can and used that as their get-away vehicle. We were scared after two robberies in a row and got an alarm system for the house that the cats were particularly adept at setting off. That didn’t stop the thieves, though. Periodically we would return to that house and find that the front porch light had been unscrewed and that they had tried to jimmy open a window. They never got back in after the second robbery, but they sure as hell tried. With so many tries, the terror level dialed down, and the robbery attempts just became a nuisance, like gnats. Now, with the new robbery in New York, I’m beginning to believe there’s something in my star chart about this. Something with my Saturn?

The next morning I was up early, early, early, having given up on sleep at about seven, and a good thing, too, since the NYPD’s Evidence Collection Team showed up at eight. These were two young ladies with tightly braided hair. I showed them my desk where everything had been taken out of my computer, but they said these were poor surfaces for fingerprinting. They finally decided to check the front door for prints, and I tried to do some editing while they worked. I couldn’t concentrate. I kept drifting to their conversation, where they gossiped about people at work. After they finished with that, I had to be fingerprinted so they could eliminate my prints. We did this at my now-empty desk, and my cat Ellie (who usually hates women and hisses at them uncontrollably) came right up to this lady with a gun and head butted her, wanting pets. She probably did this to the thief, too.

My door after the NYPD Evidence Collection Team lifted prints off it.

Kristi was up by now, and we took a short walk up to Cortelyou Road, a block from our house, meaning to get coffee, and I noticed the sad-face looks we were getting from our neighbors that we happened to run into. Word spreads quickly when you’ve been visited by the police during the night (or during the day, for that matter). I waited for the detective impatiently (I had to pick up a friend at the airport that day), and when he finally came, he gave the lock on my door an appraising glance, then told me how easy it was to pop open with a piece of paper or credit card. He recommended that we have a deadbolt installed, as the ladies of the Evidence Collection Team had done a few hours earlier. He asked about what types of work I did and if I had been working on a particularly newsworthy piece of investigative journalism or something like that. I had to snort at that—unless Alison Bechdel’s next possible graphic memoir counts, well, no. He had me call the building super so he could talk to him about the security cameras in our building and then went through our stairwell, knocking on all apartment doors and questioning our neighbors. I was impressed. We sure didn’t get this kind of service when we lived in Austin.

Friends and family were sweet, calling, texting, and e-mailing to see if there was anything they could do, offering to lend us things that had been stolen or a safe place to stay until we felt more secure in our apartment. One person who was not sweet was our building manager or landlord. I shouldn’t have expected anything different. I have never experienced anything but corruption from the New York City landlords I’ve had to deal with in the ten years I’ve lived here; they come from a long history of this I’ve learned from lectures and tours at the Tenement Museum.

My sister called our building’s management company to report the crime and tell them that the police would be collecting the security camera footage from when the robbery happened. She was passed from person to person and said the guy she was finally patched into must have had a phone that only gets the shit calls, because he was a hard-ass from the start. She asked about the cameras, and he said that they hadn’t been working for three months because somebody had stolen the recording equipment that was in a room in our apartment building. So the security features that the building manager had been touting when we moved into the building were essentially decoys. Kristi asked about getting a deadbolt installed and reported that most of the apartments in our stairwell were equipped with one. He said that we were welcome to have one installed at our expense, but that we must use a licensed locksmith. Kristi brought up the yearly rent increase that we had just been hit with for “luxury items” in our building and said that a deadbolt surely qualified as such. He blathered on about how if she tried to find a comparable apartment in our neighborhood, she would see that our rent was really quite reasonable and even below market value. Kristi was spitting mad by then and hung up with, “So sorry to have interrupted your day.”

So I had our deadbolt installed today by a very understanding locksmith from M&D Locks and Keys, and we had to pay for it out of our pocket. He said he’d just installed another deadbolt in an apartment in our building just the other day. For free, he will come back and take out the deadbolt when we move. That makes me happy; I don’t want our landlord getting anything free off of us. My next-door neighbor told me that they had a similar robbery just last year and only his son’s laptop was taken. So I guess we’re living in a building that’s popular with thieves.

Locksmith from M&D Locks and Keys showing off my new deadbolt.

I still miss my computer, especially the collection of heavy metal videos that I had amassed. I really hope those thieves are enjoying my copy of Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law.”