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.

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Joe Hill Kicks Ass in NYC

I was so excited to see Joe Hill read yesterday that it was hard to keep myself tethered to the ground. But then a series of mean, petty incidents at the place where I’ve worked in-house the last five months escalated to an unbearable level, and with mad tears, I quit just like that. I was so upset and called my sister after my walkout, wondering if I should just go home because I felt so miserable. She said, “No, no, go to the reading. It’ll make you feel better.”

Somehow I took the subway up to the Upper East Side and realized that I was on the wrong side of Manhattan. I needed to be at the Barnes & Noble on Eighty-Second Street and Broadway. Looking at the map in the Eighty-Sixth Street station, I thought it would probably be faster to walk through Central Park than to loop back to Grand Central and transferring and transferring. Also, stomping through the park helped me burn off some of my anger.

Smelling of armpit wrapped in a merino wool sweater—how I hate business casual—I sat near the back, where I could get a clear view of the stage. I had an aisle seat a few places down from an adorable girl who had outfitted herself with a pair of red horns à la Iggy Perrish from Joe Hill’s Horns. I read a few pages of the paranormal romance series project that I’m in the middle of editing, and then read the acknowledgments page of NOS4A2. There it was—another public thanking of his copyeditor. This pleased me so much as one of those working in the trenches of publishing—when an author takes time out to thank those who help them look their best with their words. Feeling a little bit better, I was ready to hear a story when Joe Hill came onstage to read.

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He was very courteous, making sure to read a different part of the book because there were some repeat attendees in the crowd and he didn’t want them to be bored. He was also a bit of a smart-ass—but a nice smart-ass—threatening to call on random members of the audience if they didn’t have any questions for him after the reading.

He was a good reader, and I settled in and was visualizing a bald Keith Richards with small, brown teeth—a horrifying image—when a couple, running late, tapped me on the shoulder. I think I must have jumped a foot. The guy apologized for scaring me and they slid into the available seats next to me, but I’m sure it was Mr. Hill who was responsible for that.

After the reading, Hill talked about his theories of horror, which I wholeheartedly endorse. He noted a part of his book that seemed to slow down and get too mechanical and said, “I…got thinking about Hannibal…When we met Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon, he was the most terrifying thing anyone had ever seen. He’s only in that book for about two chapters. When we come across him in Silence of the Lambs, he’s onscreen with Jodie Foster for fourteen minutes. That’s it, fourteen minutes. And he’s the thing everybody remembers from that film, how terrifying Hannibal Lecter was.

“But then there was another movie and then another movie and book after book, and now there’s a TV series, and at a certain point, he becomes so familiar he’s like your toaster. You’re just not scared of him anymore…What’s really scary is that shark in the water, which we hardly ever see in Jaws. The shark is terrifying because you don’t know how to stop it and you don’t know where it is.”

I’m a sucker for hearing about other writers’ processes and routines and was happy when Hill shared his. “I’m very habit driven. I have a to-do list that I follow religiously,” he said. “I have a morning routine that consists of five items. The fifth item on the list is getting a thousand words. And nothing else in my day happens until I do that. And the other four things aren’t necessarily all that interesting but it’s read a poem, read one article in the New York Times, feed and walk the dog, take my Paxil.”

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Surprisingly, nobody brought up Hill’s famous mother and father, but when the Q and A sped into the lightning-fast round, an audience member asked who his favorite writers were. Hill said, “My parents both write; they’re my favorite writers. My brother would definitely be running a close third.”

I admire that kind of fierce family loyalty, but it’s even better when it’s true, and Stephen and Tabitha King, Owen King, and Joe Hill have become a kind of American literary dynasty.

After the Q and A, the line was long to get books signed by Hill, but truthfully I had expected it to be much longer. I was imagining a Gaiman-length line. I sat around sending texts to another pal in publishing until it shortened up, and then joined behind a family in matching heavy metal T-shirts—a mom, a dad, and a son who was about eight years old and carrying a Shakespeare puzzle. They had a bagful of books and insisted that I go before them. We chatted about books, the talk Hill had given, and the crazy guy who was on line about eight people ahead of us. It made me so happy and brought me out of my slump. Horror folks are good people.

My signed copy--in gold!

Evil Dead Reboot: Only the Strong Need Apply

So far, 2013 is shaping up to be a great year for horror. Both a Stephen King and a Joe Hill book are coming out this year; the Stephen King miniseries Under the Dome comes out in June; and Donna Tartt, who I consider gothic horror, is putting out a new novel this fall. This last weekend I had choices about what to see out in the theaters—two! That almost never happens. Granted, one was a documentary on theories behind a very famous horror movie, but still, the diversity.

My horror-loving friends and I debated which movie to see, and we finally decided on Evil Dead at the Union Square movie theater, planning on drinks and food afterward to dissect the movie. I was excited because I saw Diablo Cody’s name attached to the screenplay on IMDb. A lot of people have bagged on her work after Juno, like Jennifer’s Body and United States of Tara, but I really like her. She writes strong, complex female and male characters, and the lady really likes her horror.

The Union Square movie theater’s gem is a man in a wheelchair who greets customers as they enter the theater. One of my friends was running late, so as two others saved seats, I waited downstairs for the straggler. Me and the greeter started talking about what movie I was going to see, and he said he’d seen it and that it was scary.

“How scary is it?”

He gave me a mischievous smile and said, “If I’m still working after you see it, come tell me what you thought.”

Another woman, a lover of the original Evil Dead trilogy, joined in the conversation, and we talked about our favorite Evil Dead movies and moments, and the greeter told us which were the best theaters in the complex and that I didn’t have to worry about being late for my 4:30 p.m. movie—it wouldn’t really start until 4:45 p.m.

I’d received e-mails telling me about how one woman, a movie critic, walked out of the theater because of a self-mutilation scene, and I started to get a little worried. I do not like torture movies—that’s why I had to quit the Saw franchise after the second movie. I draw the line at torture and animal cruelty, and guess what? This Evil Dead reboot hits on both.

 

I knew the filmmakers of the Evil Dead reboot would have to take a much different direction from the original, which is a classic. You can’t touch the zany mix of humor and over-the-top grotesqueness that are the original Evil Dead trilogy. The filmmakers decided to go with gore, and I knew I was in trouble, with the first scene establishing the story of the evil cabin in the woods, when I saw the torture instruments lying out on a wooden table in the basement, where all the bad juju happens.

It’s an interesting premise how the young group is gathered in the woods in the first place—to stage a drug intervention, where everybody promises to stay through to the end, no matter how crazy it gets, in order to help and support their friend/sister. When shit starts to go down, nobody’s able to really scream at the screen, Leave! Go! Get in the car and drive. Instead, it’s understandable when the character Mia (Jane Levy), going through withdrawal, is not believed after saying there’s something in the woods.

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Her friends bumble through the cabin, trying to clean up the place, and come across the Book of the Dead locked up in the basement. One ends up releasing the demon complete with my favorite, the Raimi effect. Who knew that a camera strapped to a two-by-four would become such a legacy? I’m sure the footage was shot more artfully in this Evil Dead reboot, but it looks the same to me, and it’s an important link to the original trilogy.

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The problem for me with this version of the Evil Dead is the too-realistic gore that doesn’t seem to serve a purpose. I saw at least five people get up and leave the theater, not able to stomach any more, and at the end, reading credits and waiting for the legendary Bruce Campbell’s cameo, I didn’t see Diablo Cody’s name go by for screenplay. It made me wonder if her efforts were rubbed out.

I guess this is a great movie for some, but not me. The acting is good, the story makes sense, but I just don’t like torture films. I was counting down the bodies, knowing only one would be left standing and it was just a matter of time. Because the characters were all dying in such grisly ways, I didn’t grow attached to any of them. I don’t think I’ll be watching the movie again when it’s released on DVD, though the small screen might make the gore more tolerable. I prefer the goofy fun of the original Evil Dead.

James Smythe’s Rereading Stephen King Series Is Brilliant

I stumbled across James Smythe’s blog series for The Guardian while having my lunchtime Internet break at work, and I was immediately taken by the concept. Like me and so many others, Smythe has been a Stephen King fan since childhood, rereading his novels over and over again so much that he is intimately familiar with King’s work and recognizes the bigger patterns in it overall.

James Smythe, writer of the Rereading Stephen King series at The Guardian.

James Smythe, writer of the Rereading Stephen King series at The Guardian.

King was the author who ushered Smythe into grown-up reading, and the same thing happened to me. My mom was checking in with me when I was eleven years old to make sure that I knew what menstruation was. I let her know that school had pretty much covered this. “Good,” she said. “I just don’t want anything to happen to you like Carrie.” I asked her what Carrie was, and as she told me, my eyeballs got wider and wider, especially when she got to the part about pigs’ blood and prom. I had to read that book! I went to the library to check it out, but Carrie wasn’t there. I settled instead for Salem’s Lot, which kept me awake all night at a Girl Scout sleepover, and I never went back to the juvenile section again. Not when there were so many horrors to be had in the K aisle.

One of the bookshelves holding me and my sister's well-worn Stephen King books.

One of the bookshelves holding me and my sister’s well-worn Stephen King books.

Smythe has grown up to be a writer himself, and he has set himself the task of rereading all of King’s work, aiming to post a blog entry on each work about every two weeks. He estimates this will take him about two years. This is an incredibly ambitious project considering some of the gigantic tomes that King has put out—It (1104 pages), The Stand (original version—823 pages; uncut—1200 pages), Under the Dome (1088 pages), 11/22/63 (880 pages), to name a few. Just rereading one of these books in a week or two’s time is almost a full-time job, and that doesn’t include the writing, research, or critique time that Smythe puts in. Each one of his King entries (he’s at Week Seventeen so far) draws many comments from readers, and Smythe gets down in it with them, arguing the finer points, coming up with Top Ten Favorite King Books and Least Favorite Five King Books as readers ask for such lists. And though he is a King fan, he realizes there are some real clunkers in King’s oeuvre and does not hold back in his reviews. He also mentions his first feelings about reading the book as a child or teen and how he views the work differently now as he rereads, and he is not afraid to change his mind about what he now considers King’s best. Sometimes, the entries get clogged with literary references, especially the short story collections where there are so many tales to cover and quite a few of them feed into King’s novels. How can you not cover them? Also, Smythe is a huge Dark Tower/Randall Flagg fan, which I never quite got into, and he points out appearances all the time. I’d probably like these parts of the blog better if I was in on the joke, and I might give the Dark Tower series another whirl so I can decide how I feel about this omnipresent character. So far Smythe has reviewed most of King’s good work, but I can’t wait to read his critiques of the really bad works, like The Tommyknockers, Dreamcatcher, and Black House (which I couldn’t even finish after reading one hundred pages of the narrator flitting around from scene to scene, “setting” the story). I only wish that it was easier to read these entries one after another. However, this is the book blogs section of The Guardian, so I have to page through or click on links in the sidebar and then go somewhere else to find readers’ comments, which is a big part of the fun with this series. Already, though, I’m envisioning this project as a book, and I hope Smythe does, too, and puts this out in a more user-friendly format. This far in, I can see Smythe having a nice pile of summary, criticism, and memoir that will be book length by the time he’s done. I’m happy to take this trip since King has been such an important influence in my personal and literary evolution. He’s been the backbeat for most of my life, and reading the blog posts and other readers’ comments, I can see that I’m not the only one. Smythe gives me ideas, too, for my own literary odyssey. I believe my lady, Joyce Carol Oates, has written even more than Stephen King. What if I read and reread all of her works in the order they were published? I think I would need more than two years, though, to complete this task, and a Medici-like benefactor to support me during all of this reading and writing.

Another shelf holding our King books--the pages are falling out of our favorite ones.

Another shelf holding our King books–the pages are falling out of our favorite ones.

Week One: Carrie

Week Two: Salem’s Lot

Week Three: The Shining

Week Four: Rage

Week Five: Night Shift

Week Six: The Stand

Week Seven: The Long Walk

Week Eight: The Dead Zone

Week Nine: Firestarter

Week Ten: Roadwork

Week Eleven: Cujo

Week Twelve: The Running Man

Week Thirteen: The Gunslinger

Week Fourteen: Different Seasons

Week Fifteen: Christine

Week Sixteen: Pet Sematary

Week Seventeen: Cycle of the Werewolf

Week Eighteen: The Talisman

Week Nineteen: Thinner

Week Twenty: Skeleton Crew

Week Twenty-One: It

Week Twenty-Two: The Eyes of the Dragon

Week Twenty-Three: The Drawing of the Three

Week Twenty-Four: Misery

Week Twenty-Five: The Tommyknockers

Week Twenty-Six: The Dark Half

Week Twenty-Seven: Four Past Midnight

Week Twenty-Eight: The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands

Week Twenty-Nine: Needful Things

Week Thirty: Gerald’s Game

Week Thirty-One: Dolores Claiborne

Week Thirty-Two: Insomnia

Week Thirty-Three: Rose Madder

30 Years Later and Cujo Still Scares Me

I was afraid to rewatch Cujo because when I saw this movie as a kid it terrified me and holds a special place in my mind, filed under “scary.” Some of the things I was enamored with at that age don’t stand the test of time, but I’m happy to report that Cujo still scares as a movie.

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I first saw this at my next-door neighbor’s house when my family was living in Landstuhl, Germany. Our house had a color TV tuned to the military station with about twelve hours of news programming on per day; the only commercials were for recruitment—about “Be all you can be.” Certain neighbors, though, had VCRs and connections in the United States who would tape movies from the premium cable channels. That’s what I used to think was rich, walking into somebody’s living room—which was the same exact size and in the same location in every base housing apartment—and seeing a dark wood shelving unit loaded with VCR tapes and the boxy apparatus that would take them. Some people had both tape brands and equipment—Betamax and VHS. That was really rich.

Cujo takes some mundane elements and combines them brilliantly, and most of that is because of its excellent source material, Stephen King’s novel of the same name. What if the friendliest dog in the world (and one of the biggest) got bit by a rabid bat and developed rabies? What if the owner went away, but somebody came by and was trapped by the dog? What would happen? A tense little horror movie, that’s what.

 

In Cujo, there’s an American family of three—a mom (Dee Wallace), dad (Daniel Hugh Kelly), and son (Danny Pintauro as a wee boy)—and on the surface everything looks okay. But the mother is having an affair with the handyman—out of boredom it appears—threatening to destroy the family. When her husband needs quick work done on his car and goes out to see a man who’s good with engines, they run into another family. This is a country family of a different class, where everybody has a job to do, even the dog Cujo.

The mom’s affair is discovered, or rather suspected, and she chooses not to lie about it. The way this is played out is very quiet but well done—more like what an affair really does in a family, I think. There’s incredible tension between the husband and wife that the kid picks up on, and when the wife’s car is acting up before her husband has to take an emergency business trip, he’s not inclined toward helping her out any. This keeps the plot humming along, and when the mom takes her broken-down Pinto to the farm where the rabid dog lives and gets trapped with her son, the audience isn’t surprised that she’s left alone there. Her husband doesn’t freak out because he can’t get a hold of her; no red flags are sent up. After all, he’s just discovered she’s having an affair and isn’t sure what he’s going to do about it.

The music soundtrack is a bit bizarre, ranging from something that sounds like what played during the Little House on the Prairie opening credits—this is used when Cujo does his running and leaping about as a normal dog—and then when Cujo turns rabid and dangerous, the music changes to something like what the band Tangerine Dream specialized in, a particular kind of eighties soundtrack for genre movies.

I could tell during the dog-fighting scenes that some sort of a stand-in was being used, either a huge puppet or somebody dressed in a dog suit, spliced in with shots of a dog that was probably going for bologna held up behind a door. That didn’t distract me; rather it reassured me that no harm came to any dogs during the making of the movie. Standards were more lax back then, and after hearing about how the children’s classic Milo and Otis went through countless numbers of orange kitties and pug dogs to film all the stunts, I’m suspicious of animal movies.

As the mother, Dee Wallace does a great job playing the mama bear, doing everything in her power to protect her son from the monster and sometimes even snarling at him in frustration because of their situation and her fraying nerves. She is the hero in this movie, and she’s a very human hero with lots of flaws. A Pinto station wagon is a very small space to set most of a movie, but Cujo does exceedingly well with this plot device. You can feel the claustrophobia and fear, and the first time Cujo makes himself known to the mother and son—well, it still makes me jump almost thirty years later, reminding me that a car can be freedom, but sometimes it can be a trap, too.

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.

Colson Whitehead Takes Smack for Zone One

I don’t know what it is about public libraries and their ability to draw the wackaloon factor, but when a writer does a reading at a library, something unexpected always seems to happen—at least in my experience. In February, I decided to go see Colson Whitehead’s reading and Q-and-A for Zone One, his newest genre-bending novel about the post–zombie apocalypse in Manhattan. Zone One has been described as a “thinking man’s novel about zombies,” and while I’m not crazy about the descriptor, I was anxious to read a literate take on zombies.

There’s not a lot of good zombie lit out there. Stephen King’s Cell and Max Brooks’s World War Z shine, but I’ve found most of zombie lit to be a wasteland, where the major plot point becomes the living women who are forced to become sex slaves for the surviving male population. Is this the best we can come up with for the end of the world?

Whitehead’s zombie apocalypse is much more civilized, where teams are mobilized by a centralized government in Buffalo, New York (which the author admits he has never visited), and corporate sponsors step in immediately, taking over just about where they left off pre-apocalypse. Whitehead’s zombie nightmare also has very different types who survive the apocalypse. Manhattan is a beacon for ambitious types from all over the world, and you would think that it would be the tenacious Wall Street traders and fashion flacks who would survive the chaos. Surprisingly, it is the meek who inherit the earth in Zone One. They’re the only ones who can handle it.

Going by what I overheard from the sixtyish Park Slope couple behind me who had come out for the reading based on name factor alone, I was expecting a low-key event. This was the Colson Whitehead who had won a MacArthur Fellowship, after all. Thankfully, the library wackaloons did not disappoint. There’s always one in the audience, and authors who do public library readings and especially Q-and-A’s are my heroes. I think they have to know what they are getting into; it’s a trial by fire that only the strong survive.

The reading had gone well, and there was a little back-and-forth going on between the host and Whitehead about how the book came to be, zombie anxiety dreams, and so on. Then the talk was opened up for questions from the audience. This is always when it gets interesting. As soon as a microphone was being walked around, a man in the front row of the auditorium lurched for it. He argued some points that had been made in the general discussion and then got right into it about Zone One. “I was fortunate enough to get an advance readers copy, and I was eagerly looking forward it, but when I was reading it I got the sense that I…had read basically the same novel before by another writer and that writer was Richard Matheson who wrote I Am Legend. I felt as I was reading Zone One and then looking back…at Matheson’s work that in main respects you were trying to deal with the same issues, but that back in the fifties, I think, Matheson did a much better job.”

People started heckling the guy right away and a woman wrestled the microphone away from him. Whitehead was good-natured about the criticism, though, and he knew his zombies well. He said, “The first zombie novel is I Am Legend. That’s where the zombie comes from. That’s the master text in terms of fiction. For me, I’m mostly influenced by novels, by the movies of Romero and…28 Days Later and its sequels, so if somebody said that this is the second-best zombie novel after I Am Legend, I’m very happy.”

Ah, you gotta love the library loonies. They bring out the best in everybody.

Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars

I haunted the library’s one-week express bookshelf, looking for Stephen King’s latest four novellas titled Full Dark, No Stars. I visited the shelf three different times at the Mid-Manhattan Library, hoping the supply would be replenished, but each time there would be no King—only Laurell K. Hamilton and Dean Koontz. I had finally picked up Peter Straub’s latest collection of short stories and resigned myself to that when I made one last pass near the One-Week Book Express and found a library cart nearby with King’s new book on it. So happy, I cracked it right open on the subway trip home to read the first story of the collection, “1922.”

This story ended up being my favorite in the book, dealing with a farmer right before the Great Depression who has a contrary wife. She has inherited land from her father that’s worth a lot of money and wants to sell it and move to the city where she can open a shop. Her husband wants to add the land to his and farm it. Since he can’t talk his wife into what he wants, he decides to kill her, enlisting the help of his fourteen-year-old son, and that of course is just the beginning of their problems.

Shortly after the man murders his wife, rats begin to plague him, but these aren’t normal rats—they’re supernatural rats the size of house cats, which seem to equal the amount of guilt that he carries around with him. That’s what got me the most in this story—the crippling guilt that the farmer and his son carry around with them after doing the deed. It’s like a palpable mass that is much more frightening, I think, than the rats could ever be. I read this story in broad daylight on the subway and it terrified me, yet was so engrossing that I almost missed my stop. That almost never happens.

All of the novellas are related by characters with two selves—the light, good public face that most of the world sees and then the dark, evil face or self that comes out during the worst times. In “A Good Marriage,” the good wife “Darcy supposed that if she had been able to tell her mother what she was looking for, if she had explained about the Darker Girl who wasn’t quite her, she might have passed some time with a child psychiatrist. But it wasn’t the girl who interested her, it had never been the girl. What interested her was the idea that there was a whole other world behind the mirrors, and if you could walk through that other house (the Darker House) and out the door, the rest of that world would be waiting.”

Poor Darcy gets to see beyond her husband’s public face, and then finds herself immersed in that Darker House, and a darker world.

Full Dark, No Stars ended up being a satisfying read, and I finished it before the week was up. I’ll be thinking about identity and duality in a dark way for a while after the way King has tilted them in his novellas.

Stephen King’s Under the Dome

Stephen King’s latest–Under the Dome–returns to the Stephen King formula that I adore: take a huge population, a cast that must be creeping toward at least a hundred characters, and make something happen to them, something terrible. Then sit back and watch how they react. I suppose that is pretty much what every story is, but when Stephen King dedicates one of his thousand-pagers to this, he does it all on such a grand scale in his mythical Maine settings and makes the complexity seem easy, child’s play. I felt sorry for the copyeditor that took this book on as a manuscript; their style sheet must have run to more than twenty pages with all the names and details to keep straight.

Under the Dome is a hodgepodge of Stephen King’s usual elements and themes–religion, especially when it’s used to mask evil doings; the end of the world and how people behave when it is upon them; innocence; and a touch of gristle-gore to keep the reader hissing under his or her breath: Ouch! But there are new elements as well that reference the world we now live in today: terrorism and the impact of trashing the environment.

In the sock-shaped town of Chester’s Mill, near Tarker’s Mills (another one of King’s imaginary places), a day begins like any other underneath a clear blue sky on an October morning. Everybody goes about his or her business–good and bad–when suddenly an invisible, impenetrable dome locks into place over the town, effectively sealing Chester’s Mill and the people remaining there inside and keeping everybody else out.

The outside world tries to influence what goes on inside the dome, but Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie, who has always been big fish of a little pond, sees his chance to go national and tightens his reins on this town. Anybody who gets in his way is mowed down, and when a death occurs, Rennie eulogizes about how that person in now having supper with the Lord: roast beef and mashed. Rennie controls everybody by marshaling the resources left in the town to his benefit and then having them guarded or doled out by a police force of young town bullies whom he has recruited in the face of this disaster.

King has fun with this story, playfully self-referencing himself–“‘Exactly like in that movie The Mist,’ one blogger wrote”–which few authors can do and get away with, and he uses simple tricks of the trade that I had forgotten could be so effective. With one sentence of foreshadowing about Rusty, one of the town’s good guys and the closest thing Chester’s Mill has to a doctor, I gulped down an extra twenty pages of the book than I had intended before my bedtime: “He did not think to take Big Jim’s chart, an oversight he would come to regret.”

Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King

I’m going through a werewolf phase right now. A week ago while sitting in the bathtub, my favorite thinking spot, I pondered my next story. I know I want the stage to be the setting, so I can play with the idea of outer life, performance, with inner life, what it takes to put forth that performance. I want to inject a supernatural element into the story, but the first thing that naturally comes to mind, haunted theater, has already been done so much, and I just finished 80,000 words about a haunted object with The Charm Quilt. I want to do something new now.

My sister Kristi has been working on a werewolf painting for months, and she just finished the canvas. 

So werewolves are on my mind, and I think it fits with what I have envisioned. A performer who’s werewolf, whose art and stagecraft improves with the ebb and flow of the moon and peaking pheromones, where erratic behavior is almost expected of the artist.

After my bath, I hurriedly scanned my bookshelves for werewolf literature, which I seem to be severely lacking in, and found Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf, a book I haven’t read since I was a teenager. It is a lean and mean work and seems to be a smashup of graphic novel and novella, with illustrations by Berni Wrightson of the story’s climactic scenes and remarkably brief prose by Stephen King, who usually lets it all hang out in his writing. Cycle of the Werewolf is set in a small Maine town, Tarker’s Mills, populated with vivid characters: an obese woman who dreams of love and sends herself valentines from Ace Frehley and John Travolta; a small-town constable who talks too much and listens too little; and a ten-year-old boy in a wheelchair, Marty Coslow, who confronts the monster and lives to tell the tale.

The illustrations remind me of artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben when they were illustrating Alan Moore’s run of the Swamp Thing. (The spider monkey story with the Ouija board still scares the bejesus out of me.) And now that I look at my graphic novel of The Saga of the Swamp Thing, I see that Berni Wrightson created the original horror comic Swamp Thing, so that makes sense. Must find more werewolf literature. And good werewolf movies. Any suggestions would be welcome.