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Archive for June, 2007

In a recent post I mentioned finding Richard Matheson when I was 14 or 15 after reading about him in King’s Danse Macabre.  Matheson was not the only author I picked up–King lists many horror authors and recommends all of them.  I tried to find many of them in my local library and bookstore, but came up short on a lot of them.  One of the authors I remember searching for was Harlan Ellison.  Now, I know that Ellison is not really all that obscure, but I was sheltered, uninformed, naive, and I had never heard of him.

On one of our family trips to the Southglen Mall, I installed myself, as I usually did, in the Pickwick bookstore.  Pickwick was, I think, the precursor to Waldenbooks, and it was a typical mall bookstore: a selection neither broad nor deep.  I was terribly excited, then, when I found that they stocked two different books by Harlan Ellison, a single copy of each.  I grabbed both of them, feeling very sophisticated for searching out and finding an author like this, who did not make it to the big bestseller lists, and who had, from what I could tell, a devoted and very clique-ish group of readers.

I took my books to the counter.  The girl working the register was probably proto-Goth, since Goth hadn’t been invented yet, or at least not in suburban Denver in 1981 or ’82.  Something about her attitude said “outsider.”  She had long, dark hair, and very geeky glasses, the sort of glasses that are hip and cool if you can pull it off, but that I would never wear because I would simply look geeky.  Combined with her black dress, the glasses sent out that sexy librarian vibe.  From what I could see of her figure behind the counter, she looked on the voluptuous end of the scale–not heavy, but soft and rounded and unabashedly feminine.  In other words, she sent all sorts of confusing messages to a hormone-addled teen boy.

When she turned to ring me up, she got this huge smile and her face lit up behind those geeky glasses, furthering the sexy librarian fantasy: it really made you wonder what it would look like if she whipped them off and cast a sultry glance your way.  She leaned forward, giving me a panic-inducing glimpse of pale cleavage, and stuck her hand out at me.  Confused, and wondering if I was being made fun of (girls with panic-inducing cleavage did not, as a general rule, even acknowledge me, much less thrust themselves at me), I tentatively took her hand.  She shook it vigorously, saying, “It’s so great to see someone reading Ellison!”

I stammered something in return.  She rang me up, smiling and chatting the whole time about what a great thing it was that people were reading Ellison, and I walked away, my two books in their green bag, my head spinning.

This was my first experience with the insiders’ club of book readers.  For every obscure or neglected author there is a cadre of aficionados who keep the flame burning, eager to spread the gospel of their author.  As I saw it, the excitement of belonging to one of these groups is heavily weighted with an erotic charge.  Reading can be such an intimate and personal thing, and sharing a love of reading can be very much like sharing the love of anything else–it involves an intense emotional connection.  When the girl shook my hand, it was an invitation to a dance, a seduction, an intellectual party.

As for Ellison?  I’m not a huge fan, I have to admit.  But there will always be a special place for him in my affections, right next to that girl at the Pickwick.

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Eliminating Evil

I have come to a difficult conclusion about horror novels.

The endings suck.

Years ago, I read Stephen King’s nonfiction overview of horror in America, Danse Macabre, and immediately went out to read some of the other horror stories he recommended, including a couple by Richard Matheson–I Am Legend and  The Shrinking Man.  A couple of weeks ago, I found a copy of Matheson’s Hell House at a library book sale and brought it home with me.

Hell House clearly stands as the link that connects Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (note the similar names!) to King’s The Shining.  As in Jackson’s novel, Matheson provides the classic horror story set-up: a haunted house that screams out for investigation.  In this case, the investigators are a physicist trained in parapsychology who seeks to place the study of paranormal phenomena on a solidly scientific basis, his wife, a rather flaky medium/religious guru, and a once-famous psychic.  This psychic is also the only survivor of the last expedition to Hell House thirty years before.  The four have been hired by a strange, irascible media tycoon probably modeled on Hearst, who is dying of cancer and wants scientific proof for or against an afterlife.  He is convinced the hauntings of Hell House will provide the evidence he needs.

Hell House is a huge mansion built by the enormously wealthy and decidedly insane Emeric Belasco in the early 20th century.  The house became notorious for its progressively more deranged and depraved orgies, with whispers of satanic rituals, virgin sacrifice, and cannibalism reaching the outside world.  In other words, the house has been the setting for a perfect assortment of vile wickedness.  Matheson seems to be most happy when he gets into the sexual depravities–he has a decidedly Victorian fascination with the naughty bits.

Eventually the ghosts succeed in killing off two of the four.  The final confrontation between the psychic and the dominant spirit, though, is a huge let-down.  Fischer essentially mocks the ghost, pointing out what a tiny, despicable little worm the creature is, until the ghost more or less dies of shame.  As I said, the endings of horror stories suck.

The problem, as I see it, is in the impossibly large job that horror writers set for themselves of eradicating evil.  Once a sufficiently evil force has been created, it is very difficult to conjure a creative antithesis.  King often goes over the top with explosions and other dramatic devices.  Matheson sort of mumbles off.  Jackson cloaks herself in ambiguity.  Other authors go the Scooby-Doo route, with elaborate but ultimately unconvincing rational explanations for everything that just happened.

I am currently deep in the revisions of my novel–over 50,000 words in–and, as I approach the decidedly anticlimactic climax, I fear the same Curse of the Ending that Sucks.  I know that the ending as it appears in the first draft just does not work.  Well, it works–it gets rid of the evil–but it does not do anything interesting.  It flops.

As many have noted long before me, and have done so far more eloquently, evil is infinitely more interesting than good.  Satan gets all the good lines in Milton’s works, and Dante is best when he is gleefully telling of the horrors of hell but yawn-inducing when piously praising God’s goodness.  When Good steps forward, things get boring, banal, and bland very quickly.  The blandness of good is what torments every horror writer when that ending draws near.  Perhaps it is far better to let evil go, let it live and thrive, let it run amok and create more horrors to write about.

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Hard Boiled Sentiment

I received Blaze in the mail last week–I belong to the Stephen King library, which means the latest books are mailed automatically. Technically, I guess, it is not a Stephen Kng novel, since it is published under King’s dead pseudonym, Richard Bachman, though the foreword is by King. In this foreword, King describes rediscovering the old “trunk novel” buried in his papers at the University of Maine archives at which point he thinks about finally publishing it. Upon re-reading it, he decides it is horrible so he shelves the idea for a while, then decides to look again. This time, he thinks he can clean it up, so he undertakes a rewrite.

In the foreword Different Seasons, King talks about being typed as a horror writer and the problems that this caused. After Carrie, he thought about publishing a novel written in the tradition of the Naturalists–Dreiser and Norris, for example–and the hard boiled pulp writers–Cain and MacDonald. Instead, he sent Second Coming to his agent, which was published as ‘Salem’s Lot. From that point on, he was a horror writer, whatever that means.

Blaze is the hard-boiled naturalist novel that he set aside, and, the name on the cover notwithstanding, it is really a King novel. Bachman tends to be more brutal, less human, than King, but this book displays a deeply sympathetic picture of a criminal and, though bleak, is ultimately a humane novel. The protagonist is Clayton Blaisdell, Jr., a mountain of a man with the intellect of a mouse. When he was a boy, his alcoholic father tossed him down the stairs a few times, so Blaze–as his friends call him–is left with a huge dent in his forehead and a brain that just won’t work right. After his father is locked up for the horrific abuse, Blaze grows up in the tender loving care of the State of Maine, where he encounters a variety of embryonic criminals. He eventually meets a hustler named George–an obvious reference to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men–who trains him in the finer points of fraud, theft, and other petty crimes.

The main plot follows Blaze as he attempts to pull of the final major crime, the thing that will set him up for life: the kidnapping of the scion of the wealthiest family in the state. He does this on his own, though the voice of George, who was killed in a fight some months before the main action begins, haunts him, heckles him, and urges him on.

Though he writes “plot-driven” novels (whatever that means), King has always been interested in characters and what makes them tick. Some of my favorite moments in The Stand are when he illustrates the effects of the plague by showing a series of vignettes around the country. In one, a young woman tries to kill a potential attacker but the gun misfires. In another, the father of a large family and the sole survivor, runs and runs until he drops dead of a heart attack. In yet another a young mother accidentally locks herself in a walk-in freezer. Each of these episodes are transitional filler–the literary equivalent of a film montage–used to establish the tone of the post-apocalyptic world. But King fills in tiny details, gives us a glimpse of backstory to make us understand the characters as if they were fully realize and fully real. The young woman who gets locked in the freezer, for example, got pregnant at 16 and is now locked in a joyless, desperate marriage and the death of her husband and baby at first make her happy. The implied death in the freezer seems a fitting, O Henry sort of end to her.

Blaze is the triumph of the backstory. King alternates chapters: first we watch Blaze clumsily prepare to kidnap the baby, then we see his father’s alcoholic rages. Then, more preparations before jumping back to the orphanage. In this way, we see not a blank, moronic monster but a human who came this close to slipping past the demons that pull him to his horrible end. In one flashback, Blaze and some of the other residents of Hetton House (the orphanage) are hired out over the summer to a blueberry farmer. The farmer takes a shine to Blaze, teaches him how to drive, and decides that he would like to keep the big lug on the farm. Mere hours after the farmer makes the offer to Blaze, he drops dead of a heart attack. This is a Dickensian world, a universe imagined by Zola, Norris, and Dreiser, and white-trash, brain-damaged orphans are not allowed to rise.

Although King reworked the novel, there are some clunky parts. The clearly foreshadowed death of the farmer comes far too quickly and thus melodramatically, and a few of the other characters feel like mere plot contrivances. The Bible-quoting FBI agent is too single-dimensional to be at all interesting, and George himself remains a cypher. However, King’s real strengths are on display. He can craft a narrative that keeps the pages turning, and he makes his readers feel for his characters.

This last point is worth considering further. Although the novel is clearly a descendant of McTeague, Sister Carrie, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, sentimental elements contribute a great deal to the novel’s power. The classic sentimental narrative arc–the young person is separated from a loving family–is here, but, instead of redemption, the novel ends with the naturalistic descent into hell. Imagine Susan Warner and Frank Norris collaborating on a novel and you get the idea. Finally, this is perhaps one of the reasons why King’s novels draw such heavy fire from academic critics. He is an author of the nerve-endings, and he always runs for the emotional buttons. The sentimental authors were criticized because their tear-stained narratives were “unhygienic” (as Fred Lewis Pattee characterized Warner’s novel). Intellect is easy to appreciate if you are an academic critic, while emotion is sloppy, messy, and difficult to quantify.

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Breaking Away

At the Tuesday Night race, everyone was tired.  The promoter asked us to raise our hands if we raced HHRR on Sunday.  Over half the hands went up.  He asked us to raise our hands if we got dropped.  Almost all of the hands stayed up.  So, we were tired, we were sore, and we didn’t feel like going fast.  Right.

As usual, the race started with lots of little attacks, as someone would jump out in front to see who would follow.  This went on for quite a while, even though we were tired, we were sore, and we didn’t feel like going fast.  Then some of the strong men went to the front of the pack and started to work hard, pushing the pace faster and faster.  I went to the front to make sure that no one would get away without me.  Not that I was interested in going too fast, you understand.  After all, I was tired, etc.

At some point, someone yelled, “Go, go go!  We have a gap!”  I looked back and thought, Yes, it is a gap, if you consider three bike lengths a gap.  But we went hard anyway, and I was soon in the first successful break of my less than stellar cycling career.  At times I was at the front, pedaling until I thought my heart would explode, and at other times, I was gasping at the back of the 14-man break, thinking seriously about just easing up and drifting back to the main pack.  After all, I raced hard on Sunday, and, well, you know the rest.  But I didn’t.  I knew that if I could hold on to a certain point on the course, the pace would ease up and I could catch my breath.  I knew I really didn’t want to drop back, not even if my legs were screaming at me to do so.

Some of the spectators called out our gap (how much we were in front of the main pack) as we passed:  “Thirty seconds!”  And then a couple of laps later, “Forty-five seconds!”  And finally, “More than a minute!”  As we neared the final lap, the pace eased up a bit since everyone wanted to save something for the final sprint.  I needed this easing.  When the final mad dash for the line started, I performed well, finishing seventh.

Now, seventh does not make me Lance Armstrong, by any means.  But every rider in the break was one of the strongest local racers.  Add to that my sore legs from the Sunday race, and I feel like I really accomplished something.  After the race, I walked past one of the Cat 2 riders who was getting ready for the A race (the really fast guys).  “Hey, that was a great race–good job,” he said to me.   Very cool.

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I Spy

I got my hot fudge sundae yesterday, and it was great. I weighed myself after the race, and I had lost about five pounds, which is something like 2.7% of my body weight. I felt that I could justify a hot fudge sundae or two after that. My weight, sadly enough, is back to normal, and I have recovered fairly well from the intense race; I feel ready to race tomorrow.

But to books. When I went to the library booksale a couple of weeks ago, I had been thinking about thrillers and other sorts of genre fiction because of a couple of essays I had read recently and mentioned in earlier posts. Because of this, when I found two John le Carre novels and the reissue of Casino Royale, the first Bond book, I had to buy them. When I was in junior high and high school, I devoured international thrillers, and had quite the collection of Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, and Ken Follett paperbacks, so I was interested to see how well spy novels had aged for me.

I recently rented the new Casino Royale with the new Bond, Daniel Craig. Although it may be heretical to say, this was one of my favorite Bond films. The special effects were not intrusive, the plot more or less made sense, the gadgets were relatively low-profile, and the car was an Aston Martin DBS V12, the finest Bond car since the DB5 in Goldfinger. And a DB5 got to play a role in the new movie. In short, I like the movie because it reversed the excesses that made so many of the later Bond films so tiring for me to watch.

Casino Royale was Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, and there is some creakiness here and there to show that Fleming was still learning his trade. Although it updated many things, the new movie version was fairly close in plot and spirit to the novel. There is a certain sense of moral ambiguity beneath the surface that perhaps does not come through in many of the films (and I don’t know about the later books). Bond is not a very nice guy, and Fleming really does not seem to care all that much that his character is more than a little mean. The Cold War certainties that fueled so many bombastic speeches before the 1990s are not quite so certain.

John Le Carre writes a significantly darker sort of spy novel than Fleming. Whereas Fleming’s character seems ripe for flamboyant modifications (e.g. you will never, ever see anyone named “Pussy Galore” in a Le Carre novel), Le Carre’s spies are gray figures who melt into the background, and in reading The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, I kept thinking of the very, very excellent movie, The Lives of Others (awesome, incredible, go-see-it-now movie–it won a richly-deserved Oscar). Both are set in East Germany, and both feature characters who have some sort of decency buried deeply within but that rarely has a chance to come out.

Le Carre’s vision is bleak and modern, seeming to belie the relatively early publication date–1964. It had the feel of a book written later, when the Cold War had dragged on interminably and the desperate foolishness of the intelligence games had become tiresome. The plot twists and turns so many times that I was not sure if I saw the events coming or if I was caught completely by surprise. The ending, though, did shock me–a dark, dreary, bleak vision indeed.

So, how did the spy novels stand up for me? I was not as blindly entertained as I had been reading something like The Odessa Files or The Matarese Circle back in the early 1980s. The light shining through the thin characters was more obvious to me now than it was when I was 14, and the actions of the intelligence agents seemed more painful and desperate than romantic and daring. That said, however, I am looking forward to reading Smiley’s People, which I will get to later this summer. I’ll be finishing up The Ox-Bow Incident soon, and then I will regale you with my thoughts on the “recovered” Richard Bachman/Stephen King novel, Blaze. It came in the mail today, and I can hardly wait to read it. Stay tuned.

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A Sunday in Hell

The post title is also the title of a great documentary on the “Hell of the North”–the Paris-Roubaix bike race.  P-R is a brutally hard race, and the race I did today does not come anywhere close to the epic nature of that classic.  However, The Housatonic Hills Road Race is very popular and is famous for being one of the toughest races in the northeast.  For an amateur like me, the HHRR is tough enough to warrant being called A Sunday in Hell.  Plus, part of what makes Paris-Roubaix so hard are the many stretches of cobbles.  The HHRR covers several roads that feature the notorious New England Potholes of Death, which are even worse than cobbles.  We New England racers are hardcore-tough.

Those unfamiliar with Connecticut might be surprised to learn just how hilly this little state is.  Most of the hills are not very long–there is nothing like the Mount Diablo climb in NorCal, for example, (I’ve done that one, and it hurts!) but there are a lot of little hills that make up in steepness what they lack in length.  The HHRR course follows a 27 mile loop through the glacier-gouged hills around the Housatonic River, and we lucky Cat 4 racers got to do two laps.  To add to the fun, there is a King of the Mountain (KOM) prize, and the temperatures are usually high, along with the humidity.

Despite the pain, I like the race.  It counts as a local race for me, and I do a lot of training on the course.  I also see a lot of familiar faces, guys I see almost every weekend in one race or another.  I don’t know the names of many of them, but we recognize each other by our team jerseys, give the head bob, ask “how ya doin’?”  It is also a race of attrition, meaning that the pack will get shattered on the first lap, and just staying in the race and slogging away will yield results.

I have never done well at this race.  The first time, I got dropped very, very hard on the first KOM and rode a lap and a half alone.  The next time, I had a mechanical problem and abandoned.  This year, though, I felt better about things.  The course starts off with about five or six miles of relative flat before the hills start, and I stayed right near the front of the pack here, never dropping deeper than tenth.  When we made the turn to the first set of hills, I was sitting in third, and I attacked.  Soon we had a five-man break, and, for a while, I thought we might make it stick.  The pack was determined to catch us, though, and we settled down for some serious pain.

I did well for the first lap and a half.  On the hills the second time through, though, I started to cramp in my legs, and the pain got steadily worse.  I thought about falling to the side of the road and screaming in agony until someone would take me back to the start, but I realized that such a finish would be extremely embarrassing.  Ignominious, even.  So I kept working away, even though I had been dropped.  I cramped again very badly about five miles from the end, but managed to limp in, dehydrated, slobbering, ready to fall over.  To make matters worse, the race organizers have the finish climb this nasty, wicked, evil hill.  Despite this, I stayed upright, and finished okay.  There were five guys from my team in my race, and I was the first from the team to finish, so that’s an accomplishment.

Now, I am very, very tired.  Dorothy, who also raced (and I hope she writes about it), and I came home, gobbled up a huge second breakfast, and took Muttboy for a walk before finally collapsing.  I am having ice cream fantasies.  Maybe a hot fudge sundae.  With whipped cream.   Mmmmmmm……

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Yesterday I met with a new writing group consisting of some students from last semester who are working on long fiction projects. Hepzibah talks about it over here. It looks like it is going to be a great group to work with. Only two of the others were able to make it–Hepzi herself and one of my “non-traditional” students. Both of them are enormously talented writers, with a great deal of sensitivity. I think that the best way to write well is to develop an acute sense of the way language sounds, or the way that the words feel in your head when you’re writing, and both of these writers really demonstrate this.

I was more than a little nervous about the meeting, since it was the first time that I have ever given something I have written to some students for them to critique. Some may say that this is a dangerous and foolish thing to do, undermining the teacher’s authority and reversing the roles, but anyone who has read my blog knows that I am not terribly interested in maintaining the status quo. But still… In my writing classes, we spend a good bit of class time critiquing student writing, and I always preface it by saying, “Let’s see if we can make X cry today.” Of course, we never really make anyone cry, and “making me cry” has become a running joke among my students. Yesterday, when my group pulled out the first forty pages of my novel and said, “Let’s make him cry,” I had a moment of panic, but then assured myself that their familiarity and comfort was a good thing. And it was: the comments were extremely helpful, thoughtful, useful, and dead-on. It made me feel great for two reasons. First, they were comfortable enough to be honest and talk about writing as a serious thing, something worthy of perfecting. Second, and here I’m blowing my own horn a bit so forgive me, my students must have learned something from me to be able to critique so well. We’re planning on meeting again in a couple of weeks, and I know that our discussion has inspired all of us to write more.

Yesterday being Tuesday, it was of course also Race Day. Despite a tough little thunderstorm that rumbled through in the late afternoon, the course had almost completely dried out by the time my race rolled up to the line. It was a “snowball” points race, where the last ten laps (of 25) were all sprints for points, with each subsequent lap being worth more points (the points “snowball”–get it?). I had heard that one of the teams was planning to attack on the first lap, so we lined up with more jittery feelings than usual.

The team did just as the rumors said and went hard from the first corner. Since I was there at the front, I jumped on a wheel and went with them. We were not able to make a real break–the biggest gap we ever had was maybe ten meters–but the pace stayed very high. After an attack faded, someone else would mount a counter-attack, and I have to say that I was guilty here, jumping hard on the hill when all we really wanted was to catch our breath. This is good strategy. If you are a strong rider, it is a good idea to keep hitting away at the pack, making everyone work hard and softening them up so you don’t have to face anyone with fresh legs at the end of the race. The ruling adage of bike racing is that if you are hurting in a hard race, everyone else is hurting too, and some may be hurting worse. The goal, then, is to spread a lot of pain around.

After fifteen very fast laps, the sprints started. I watched the first one, and made some efforts to contest it, but did not try all that hard–it was not worth that many points, and I wanted to see who was going to make the moves. The first sprint did stretch out the pack, and I was sitting in fourth place as we reached the back of the course leading to the second sprint. We were flying at about 28 mph when one of the guys from Pawling started the lead-out for his sprinter. I immediately pulled in behind the sprinter and we flew to the hill. At two hundred meters out the lead-out rider pulled over and the sprinter started his dash for the line. I waited two pedal strokes and then let him have it. I passed him at about 100 meters, and he tried to stay with me, but I dug a little deeper and saw him fade. I passed the line with three bike-lengths to spare. As I came around the first corner, I looked back and saw that I had a large gap, so I tried to muscle my way to a second consecutive sprint. I got caught and passed by two on the hill just before the next sprint, though.

I sat in the pack for a while after that, trying to get my breathing and heart rate back to normal. With about four laps to go, I took second in another sprint. In the last lap, the pack was screaming hard, but I found myself caught behind a guy who inexplicably slowed to a crawling pace (only about 25), and I thought my race was over. I saw a tiny gap, though, and hopped through it, and then another little gap. I was moving very tactically, threading my way through the bunched-up pack, almost like Aki does in sprints (he’s a LOT better than me at it, though). At the bottom of the hill, where the sprint starts, there were twenty racers ahead of me. The road here curves to the left, so most like to take the left line, as it is shorter. I then decided to take the right, or outside line, where I would have room to maneuver. I jumped as hard as I could go, passing as many as I could. At the line, I managed a fifth-place finish, not quite good enough for the points (which only went to the top four), but I still felt very pleased with my race. With my points from the earlier sprints, I was good enough for fourth overall. Finally, I’m racing smarter.

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