We had a blah sort of holiday season this year at Chez Oddbooks. Lots of reasons but mostly some years you are just ready for it all to be over with so you can start a new year and get going again. We decorated but we didn’t bother giving gifts and instead just gave each other permission to buy whatever we wanted. And of course, being who we are, we ended up buying a lot of books.
Somehow we bought 119 books. I’m not even exaggerating. I scanned them and put them into their own tag over on our Goodreads account. Have a look if you enjoy browsing through other people’s books as much as I do.
I took a picture of some of my more photogenic choices from our holiday book binge.
The most interesting purchases I made were not photogenic at all but I want to share them anyway. All three were used and were just sitting there in the “collectible” section at the big Half-Price Books in Austin, waiting for me.
The first is Instant Lives by Howard Moss. This is a collection of short, humorous stories about various poets and authors and composers, like Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and Claude Debussy. I purchased it because the book is illustrated by Edward Gorey. This is a first edition from 1974 and is going into my “Gorey” collection.
The second is one I think Mr OTC is going to appreciate as much as I do, if not more. Act Like Nothing’s Wrong: The Montage Art of Winston Smith is a book I owned many years ago but lent out and never got it back. Mr OTC and I were once SubGenii, and I guess we still are. Once a SubGenius, always a SubGenius, right? Winston Smith’s strange and incendiary collages were an important part of the 80s ‘zine culture and still have a cultural punch. I was so happy to find a clean, collectible copy of this book. Most copies of this book I’ve come across since losing my original look like someone found them in a dumpster. This was a righteous score.
The final book is The Secret Books, with poems by Jorge Luis Borges and photographs by Sean Kernan. It’s a large format, soft cover collection, with gorgeous photographs incorporating Borges’ poems. I wanted to scan one or two examples but our scanner tests my patience. But never fear! Scroll through this site and you’ll get a good idea of what the book is about. This is one of those books that called to me. I can’t tell you exactly why I needed to own this book but I needed it. Some books are yours without you even knowing they exist and sometimes you’re lucky enough to find them before someone else buys them.
How was your holiday? Get or buy any good books? Any awesome plans for 2017? Have grave concerns about our next credit card bill? Share away!
Lots of people I know have declared 2016 the worst dumpster fire of a year since the beginning of time, or at least since 1914 or maybe 1347. The reasons for this seem to involve Brexit and lots of famous people dying. Also adding to the sense of doom is the election of Trump, a socially liberal, isolationist blowhard who talks a lot of shit. Americans aren’t used to politicians talking shit that doesn’t involve pleasant lies about policy. It’s been a long time since Andrew Jackson. Frankly, Lyndon Johnson was way worse than Trump in terms of saying really gross things, but he said them during a time when the press was more restrained and didn’t report that the President was pretty much the sort of man you would throw out of your house before dessert was served. Aiding his legacy is that the recordings of him berating his tailor because his pants crowded his balls didn’t come out until after he died. I mean seriously, had smart phones existed in the 1960s, many Twitter pundits would have died from exhaustion reacting to Johnson pissing in a washbowl in front of his secretary as she took dictation or using racist epithets as he farted audibly during discussions about The Great Society.
I don’t mean to seem flippant because I know a lot of people seem to be very afraid of Trump and I don’t want to mock genuine fear. Most of those people are very young and don’t remember the continual fear of nuclear war during the Reagan administration. Some were children when the Twin Towers fell, creating a fear of Islam that replaced temporarily a fear of Russia, so all of this is new to them. Of course Trump is a terrible choice to lead America. But so was Hillary Clinton. At some point all elections force us to choose between either an unqualified person who says terrible things about grabbing genitals while berating fat women, or a person who really wants to go to war with Russia and compromised national security when a lanky Australian wiener got into her e-mail. Anyone who really feels either side in the recent election would have done a radically better job than the other is either in their 20s or became completely lost online and didn’t mean to read this entry. But all of this is my way of saying that we survived Nixon, we survived Reagan, we survived Millard-fucking-Fillmore. We’ll survive Trump, there will be no genocide of whatever group is most upset, at worst he’ll quit or be promptly impeached and we’ll be stuck with Pence until the 2020 Democratic candidate inevitably defeats him. Then we’ll have neo-cons threatening to come to Texas and secede from the USA. Again.
But even though Bowie and Prince and Carrie Fisher all died, even though an unqualified and gross dude is gonna be in charge of my country soon, my 2016 wasn’t all bad. It was a biochemically difficult time – I tried to wean myself off sleep meds, with plenty of medical supervision, and still I failed. My year was spent in a vague, depressive state. Not despairing – just muffled and incoherent. I’ve been absent mentally since 2013, since my mother told me she was dying. She then spent a year dying, then we spent a year coping with the fact she died. Then I tried to detox and sleep naturally despite my REM disorder, and here we are. It was bad losing my mother, of course, but even so I expected it and dealt with it, as well as everything else that came my way. Yet it seems like the last four years passed in a couple of months. Time is rushing to an end for me in a way I never thought could happen. All those older people who told me that time would eventually accelerate were right. Time is off in the distance. I can almost see it. But it runs faster than I can and one day I won’t be able to see it all.
This is a moment we all will have. That realization that we have reached the age when there is no more time for fucking around. You simply cannot waste anymore time. You cannot give into weakness. You can’t sit in a near-fugue state, babying your brain during a bad REM cycle, reading conspiracy theory online rather than books written by some of the greatest minds ever to live. You can’t watch the same comforting television show in a loop instead of writing your books, instead of reacting to the great books you read. You can no longer wait for things to get better before you begin to accomplish your life’s work. The time you have now is the time you must use as it happens, while you can see it, before it outruns you at last. You cannot risk wasting another day because years pass in a month and what will you have done at the end?
That’s where I am right now. I have goals for 2017, none of which I will share because resolutions at the New Year are lies until you make them real and I am tired of lying to myself. But maybe some of my goals will be evident to those who read here.
I’ve been listening to Amorphis’ album Under a Red Cloud a lot lately. The song “Sacrifice” means a lot to me (and the way Tomi Joutsen pronounces “treasure” triggers my echolalia like mad, which is strangely comforting as I mutter “trezshure” to myself) but lately “Death of a King”* has resonated with me because it, in a mythic and grandiose way, explores the revelation I had recently.
You will stand there amidst silence
In the void of endless winter
On the ice of an unknown lake
There you will meet yourself
There you’ll weigh your crown
On the ice of the lake of death
On the mirror of time
It’s Scandinavian metal so it’s a bit melodramatic but, as I’m fond of saying, everyone’s life is melodramatic. We all live epic lives even as we nestle into suburbs and live quietly. Against terrible odds, sperm met ovum and we happened, we managed to be born, we survived all sorts of modern predations and we are here. There is a reason for that. Some think that reason is God, or god, or gods. Some have kids, some have important jobs, but at the end we all are our own Sovereigns and we will weigh our crowns, our works, and even if there no Heaven at the end, there will come a moment before we die when we see that scale, and we will see our life laid before us, and woe betide us if the arm bearing our crown doesn’t move before our eyes close.
Yeah, yeah, melodramatic. But I’ve lost close to four years and my branch of the Dalton family tree is not long lived. My father died 22 years short of the national average, my mother 13 years short. If I follow the trend, I really cannot afford to lose any more time.
That’s what I’ve been doing since around September. Contemplating the day I take off my crown, gathering the mental energy to make sure that when I take it off the accounting of my life will be worth the dozens and dozens of ancestors who lived and died and got me here. My branch of the Dalton tree ends with me. I can’t rely on continuation of my DNA into further untold generations to add weight to my life.
I wonder if that is what middle age is – the real gut punch of knowing you will one day die and that these blocks of time you waste may be held against you when it comes time to add up sums. If 2017 ends up being a year that is not lost to me as the recent past has been, 2016, the year I became aware of how flimsy my crown is, will have been a very good year.
*I don’t know why in the video the guitar player is forced to use an electric guitar for the intro instead of using a sitar and swapping out as the song progresses. I also feel I should mention the conversation Mr OTC and I had when I played this song in the car one day.
“So the singer can actually sing. He has a good voice,” he said when the song reached the chorus.
“Yeah, he does sing well,” I replied.
“Then why does he waste time doing that hollering, growling noise.”
I’d known about the legend of the infamous Liberty Hill witch grave for a while but only recently managed to drive up there and have a look around. It seemed a perfect thing to document for Halloween, because the legend, though unlikely, is fueled by witchcraft, cruel death and creepy graveyard stories. But this was one of those times when the damage done by the legend far outweighs the value of recently-created folklore.
The Liberty Hill witch grave is an example of new folklore, and is largely a creation of Internet sites that breathlessly repeat rumors as fact and take EVP tapes gathered by ghost hunters as solid evidence. My research shows that the stories of the witch grave really started to get traction in the last 20 years or so, and have been spread through ghost hunters who visit the cemetery at night to talk to the dead witch and assorted “weird” sites that tell ghost stories. Older locals in Andice and Liberty Hill, small towns north of Austin in the Texas Hill Country, especially those who don’t spend hours online each day, haven’t heard of the witch grave or only know about it now because they are appalled by the amount of destruction ghost hunters and drunk teenagers have done to the cemetery.
Often legends need to stand as they are – critical analysis of the legends seldom does any good because people who have a will to believe will not be dissuaded by facts and because most of the time truth in such stories doesn’t matter. For example, I’ve shared my trip to Baby Head, Texas on this site – Baby Head gets its name because there are stories of a Comanche raid that resulted in the beheading of a little settler girl. I don’t know if that happened, but have come to believe that because the first grave in the Baby Head Cemetery is that of a little girl who died on New Year’s Day, and because Baby Hill/Llano was once in the middle of Comanche territory, the town name may not be based in whole truth but is certainly derived from genuine trauma or terror. Real Comanche incursions into pioneer settlements combined with that tiny dead girl fueled the legend of the little girl who lost her head to the Comanches, the girl behind the legend that gave Baby Head its name.
Such legends are organic outgrowths of genuine events and even if they are not true in the factual sense, they are true in that they represent the collective fears and anxiety of a particular group of people in a particular place and time. The Liberty Hill witch grave is not one of those kinds of legends. It’s cobbled together using elements borrowed from other places and times, it’s not a story that attempts to explain some unpleasant reality of frontier life because tensions regarding slavery were long in the past when the myth was created (though certainly elements of the story may have some factual basis in social injustices that happened to other black women in Texas). It’s a bad ghost story that doesn’t really add to the lore of Texas or depict social issues of the past so much as it contributes to wholesale vandalism of historical sites.
So let me tell you about the story of the Liberty Hill witch grave, show you some pictures, and then explain, using common sense, why the story is nonsense, and using factual record to show why it’s absolutely false. I’m going to leave the analysis of the myth under the cut so that way people who just want to revel in the ghost story can skip my commentary. Also, I have set up an album in Flickr that shows the whole of the cemetery so those who love cemetery porn can see some old Texas graves, some of genuine historical worth.
Click on any picture in this entry to see a larger version.
The Liberty Hill witch grave, located in the Bittick family cemetery in Williamson County, is said to contain the mortal remains of a slave named “Elizebeth Simpson.” The legend says that in 1862, “Elizebeth Simpson,” a slave woman, was hanged to death for stealing one of her master’s horses. She was dragged to the Bittick family cemetery, hanged from one of the oak trees in the center of the parcel of land, then cut down and buried there. Other legends indicate Elizebeth was hanged for witchcraft but witches in the Hill Country were thin on the ground. I can’t find a single historical record to indicate anyone was ever executed for witchcraft in Texas. Frankly the horse story makes a lot more sense – stealing livestock is serious business even now, but common thieves seldom make curses from the grave the way hanged witches do.
Her stone said she was born on April 10, 1834 and died on September 24, 1862. Her head stone had the following saying:
And remember as yo ar pasin by yo must die as well as I
That inscription has been interpreted by some to be a dark curse of sorts, with people insisting it means that anyone who walks in front of “Elizebeth’s” grave will be hanged unless they leave her some sort of offering to appease her. And I use past tense describing the stone because it’s been destroyed – I am relying on an older picture of the stone I’ve found online to show its original form. A picture taken by someone else before it was wholly obliterated is under the cut.
Ghost hunters have come to “Elizebeth’s” stone and recorded all kinds of EVPs they claim demonstrate moans they claim no one heard while they were recording, as well as ghostly whispers.
To keep from being hexed by the curse on the stone, or possibly in attempts to curry favor with the dead slave, people leave gifts and offerings on the grave, like toys, alcohol and coins. Curiously, other stones throughout the cemetery are covered in coins, mostly pennies and quarters. I worry that because “Elizebeth’s” stone has been destroyed and lacks visual impact that ghost seekers are going to other graves. One grave of a dead child who was born the day before Halloween 150 years ago was festooned with quarters, and a rock tomb belonging to a child was also covered with change.
Some try to raise her spirit to speak to them via seances and ouija boards. Mr OTC found this handmade ouija board folded up in some tall grass in the northwest corner of the cemetery.
Far creepier than leaving beer bottles on the gravestone of a possibly executed slave woman is that it appears that people engage in carnal activities on or near “Elizebeth’s” grave.
I would like to beg everyone who thinks of going into this cemetery to commune with a dead woman to please not have sex on her grave. From the standpoint of courtesy, having sex on a grave is impolite. But I suspect the sorts of folk who fornicate in cemeteries are not often bothered by social niceties. If you are the sort who doesn’t care about graveyard etiquette, bear in mind I got poison oak just walking through the cemetery – the sap seeped through my jeans. And let us not speak of all the broken glass from shattered beer bottles around “Elizebeth’s” stone. If you anger the dead by engaging in any sort of activity that may require even partial nudity, you may find the dead achieve vengeance in itchy or painful ways. Be sure your tetanus shot is up to date.
So here we go – the physical location where people go to talk to, torment, or otherwise irritate a woman they believe was a slave witch executed in the cemetery for stealing a horse or for being a witch.
Now let me explain to you why none of this happened and why this legend is so tiresome where history and the residents of Liberty Hill are concerned.
Type of Book: Literary fiction, fiction, novel, ghost story
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s a wholly modern ghost story and part of the selection of books that I reread every few years or so. I do my best to read this book at least every other Halloween.
Availability: The edition I own is the 2004 Bloomsbury edition, which isn’t easily obtained, but the novel itself is still in print and you can get a copy here:
Comments: Stewart O’Nan is a pretty mainstream author and I doubt he’ll come up too often on this site in the future, but I couldn’t let another Halloween go by without discussing The Night Country. O’Nan is not a particularly odd writer and his stories can be remarkably prosaic but he is a master of characterization and his characters never fail to appeal to me in a very direct way. Mr OTC keeps me in middle class splendor, but I have some very working class roots (as does Mr OTC, for that matter). O’Nan captures perfectly the life of the man who clocks in and works an hourly wage. He depicts relationships in a tender manner that lacks sentimentality. His novel Last Night at the Lobster was a revelation to me – I discussed it on my old and now defunct site, I Read Everything, and that book alone cements O’Nan as one of my favorite mainstream writers.
But it was a bonus read because The Night Country was already in my to-be-reread-until-I-die rotation. I’m going to force myself to write as concise a discussion as possible because I don’t want to run the risk of spoiling this novel for anyone because I think just about everyone who reads here will like this book, and I hope you all read it after this review. That’s going to be hard because this book causes me to want to go on at length and explore every line. Let’s see how succinct I can be while honoring my desire to rave.
Here’s a quick synopsis: A year prior on Halloween, a car with five teenagers caught the attention of a patrol officer and tried to outrun him. The officer gave chase and the car crashed, killing three of the teenagers inside, gravely injuring one, while one walked away with few injuries. Marco, Danielle and Toe (real name Christopher) died. Marco is narrating this book while Danielle and Toe serve as a sort of third-person Greek chorus, chiming in with opinions and dark humor when they feel the need. Kyle suffered brain damage that rendered him child-like, and his mother is trying to hold on to hope now that she has a son who will be mentally a grade-school boy the rest of his life. Tim, who sustained no harm in the wreck, is groping through as he grimly plans to recreate that terrible night as best he can this Halloween. Brooks, the cop who gave chase in dangerous conditions, has lost everything – the esteem of his fellow officers, his wife left him and he is being forced out of his home because he can no longer afford it. Brooks senses that Tim is not going to let the first anniversary of the accident pass without some dark action but has become so uneven at performing his job that the reader has no idea how (and if) he can help Tim come out the other side of Halloween.
This book is a traditional ghost story, in a way, in that the dead come back to comment on the living, but this is a ghost story full of meta. The ghosts know they are ghosts and at times find the whole thing very tiresome but they have no choice in the matter – when the living invoke their memory, they are summoned and they cannot refuse. The three dead teenagers find themselves being pulled all over town the Halloween the year after their death and sometimes it’s miserable and sad, but sometimes the teens snark on the nature of being a ghost, invoking Dickens’ Marley, moaning and rattling metaphorical chains. But the teenagers know the fallout their deaths have caused Tim and Brooks. They also know how their deaths affect Kyle’s mother because she’s been faced with a death of her own – the black-jean-and-leather-jacket-wearing son she raised, the rebellious boy who listened to death metal, is now a shuffling, clumsy teenager who needs supervision constantly. He can’t even tie shoelaces anymore and must use velcro sneakers. He has a part time job at a supermarket that he maintains because he and Tim work together and Tim supervises him closely. But Kyle also must ride the special education bus, is gaining weight at a rapid clip and it can be said the old version of him died in that car Halloween a year ago. But his mother knows three families lost their child and feels that she must feel grateful because her child lived, even though she knows, really, that he died, too.
Tim especially feels disembodied in his life. Danielle was his girlfriend and because she wanted to sit in his lap that night the two of them moved to the backseat. Had he remained in the front seat, he would have died. Instead Danielle was thrown from the car and Tim doesn’t have a single visible scar remaining of that night. But his psychic scars tell him in no uncertain terms that he and Kyle should have died that night and is on a mission to set right that cosmic oversight. He’s going through the motions and no one but Brooks seems to understand that Tim is not okay, that he is not handling all of this well, that he needs far more from his parents than they realize, but Brooks has issues of his own. His entire life has fallen apart because he blames himself for what happened that night and so do many others.
I’ve been consuming a lot of media on YouTube lately, mainly in the form of various “creepypasta” channels. Various people with good or interesting voices read short stories and vignettes written for online readers – Reddit’s nosleep is a good source of creepypastas – and sometimes put in appropriate sound effects. I listen to hours and hours of such readings as I sew or iron or do repetitive tasks that don’t need my full attention to perform. It reminds me a bit of old radio serials – I wonder if my grandmother did the same, listening to assorted radio dramas as she ironed or cleaned the bathroom.
Creepypastas are fun but ultimately most are pleasant diversions as opposed to something that inspires me to write about them, but the last few months I’ve found myself combing through a couple of accounts that have proven to be far creepier than story recitations that have creepiness as an actual goal. Of course, both accounts aren’t shying away from presenting unpleasant, upsetting or gross content but when it’s not the goal and it happens sort of organically, it’s all the more interesting, I think.
Type of Book: Fiction, horror, weird fiction, short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Ultimately this may not be an odd collection but this book creates the feeling that the reader is consuming something wholly new. Too often originality in content and voice in the horror genre are somewhat odd, sad to say.
Availability: Published by The Dark House Press in 2014, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I already know, writing the first sentence of my discussion for After the People Lights Have Gone Off, that I will be using the delete key quite a bit. I find it difficult to put into words why some stories in this collection were the literary equivalent of throwing a lead weight over the side of a ship and why some stories soared, excellent examples of literary horror at its best. Some of Jones’s stories were so perfect that I felt that familiar pull of envy that comes when I read something so wonderful that I wish I had thought of it first. But some of Jones’s stories were impenetrable for me, leaving me wondering if he missed the mark or if I was just too dense to understand what he was trying to convey. Ultimately I decided I just wasn’t the sort of reader to appreciate those stories, that taste was at issue and not talent.
The hell of it is, this has been a pretty dense year for me. Sort of muddy and brackish. I don’t feel as on the ball at the moment as I have in years past. But what made me decide that my divided reactions are righteous was analyzing why I am so divided about the stories in this collection. The answer is that while Jones has a distinct voice, he is also a malleable writer who is moving around within his chosen genre. The stories that have a familiar ring to them are written in a style that makes them seem fresh, but Jones also ventures out into new territory, with strange ideas and storytelling techniques that can be maddening when one is the sort of reader who needs the conclusions to be neater. Jones may luck out and find readers who love every bit of his work, as he twists the horror genre into new shapes, but chances are he’s going to end up with a substantial number of readers who love it when he’s wearing a particular storytelling hat but less so when he puts on another.
One hat that Jones kept on throughout this collection is the “weird” hat. Much of this collection could be considered weird fiction, which may be one of the reasons why some of the stories didn’t work for me. I like weird fiction, as a rule, but this horror subset lends itself well to muffled storytelling, mushy conclusions, entire story lines that can be up for interpretation. I’ve been clear in the past how I feel about such writing. That sort of remote remove in writing irritates me because it is too often a cop-out, a lazy attempt to force the burden of storytelling onto the reader. Jones, when his writing is up for interpretation doesn’t echo the laziness of others who write this way, and this entire collection is refreshingly devoid of irony, but even purposeful, earnest writing that employs this sort of post-modernist equivocation will likely always ring false to me.
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s not too odd, per se, but it’s horror and it’s the week before Halloween so…
Availability: Published by Quirk Books in 2014, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I can be pretty rough on horror novels. I’m persnickety. I own that. But I also have come to understand that it is bad faith for me to use the same metrics of quality to discuss every genre of book I read. It’s not that I’ve come to expect so little from horror novels that I embrace anything that isn’t overt crap. Rather, I’ve come to understand that you cannot evaluate a cat using the same criteria one uses to evaluate a dog. They’re both pets but they’re still wholly different creatures and a cat would fare poorly if one expected it to herd sheep, guard the house or stay off the top of the refrigerator. I don’t regret the bad reviews – some savage – I’ve given to the horror genre thus far because even evaluating them as cats found them lacking. But I did realize that most horror often has a different goal from that of mainstream literature and I need to keep that goal in mind as I discuss horror novels.
That whole paragraph is a long-winded way of saying that I enjoyed Horrorstör as a fun, at times silly, horror novel. This isn’t Joyce Carol Oates drifting in and out of genre as she engages in her unique brand of literary hypergraphia. It’s not Ray Bradbury. It’s a pleasant diversion with a clever concept and within those parameters this is a good book. Not a great book because pleasant diversions can still demand top-notch characters and fresh plots, but a good book because it’s entertaining – it’s a very quick read – and because sometimes having a clever-enough hook can make a book of this sort worthwhile.
Horrorstör is that book you’ve seen on bookstore shelves, the one that looks like a knock-off of an IKEA catalogue. It’s set in an IKEA-like furniture and house accessories store, called Orsk, and this location of Orsk seems to be stalked by some unspeakable evil that a handful of employees must battle in order to survive a night spent on the sales floor.
Quick synopsis: Amy, the heroine of this book, hates her life and her job at Orsk, but she is behind on rent and takes an overnight shift in order to try to make up the rent shortfall. She, another female employee called Ruth Anne and their boss, Basil, discover two other employees have remained inside the store without permission in an attempt to have a seance and contact the evil in the store, hoping to record the results and possibly land a reality show gig. They soon discover that the store harbors forces far worse than they initially imagined and that the store was built on the location of a former mental hospital run by a madman who has not let death prevent him from engaging in horrific and cruel experiments. Not going to spoil how it ends but it concludes in a manner that could result in a follow-up novel, sort of open-ended but the conflict involving Amy and Basil resolves well-enough to stave off annoyance that elements of the novel were not completely concluded.
The novel itself is visually appealing (with enormous font size, which is one of the reasons most readers will power through the book in a couple of hours) and at the beginning of each chapter there’s an ad for an Orsk product, like chairs, sofas, small clothing wardrobes and the like. The items become more sinister as the book goes on. A later promotion is the “INGALUTT,” which has the following product description:
Submit to the panic, fear, and helplessness of drowning, with the hope of death a distant dream. This elegantly designed INGALUTT hydrotherapy bath allows the user to suffer this stress again and again until the cure is complete. Available in night birch, natural maple, and gray oak.
If you are someone who enjoys this sort of thing, this will be the price of admission for this book. I for one like these sorts of silly ads and they remind me a bit of the clever ads one finds at the backs of Jasper Fforde “Thursday Next” novels. But if this is not something that rings your bell, the rest of the book may fall a bit flat because the visual appeal and scene structure based on the IKEA parody are the backbone for this novel that, while amusing, is rather familiar in concept and execution.
I wanted to discuss some horror films before Halloween and have watched quite a few in the last couple of months. I haven’t been too impressed with what I’ve seen. Last year I wrote about the somewhat pompous but ultimately enjoyable Only Lovers Left Alive (which featured Anton Yelchin, may he rest in peace) and wanted to look into more vampire films. I remembered seeing Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction some years ago and watched it again and was… well, kind of appalled. Was it really that unredeemingly pompous when I first viewed it? Was the dialogue that stilted? Was Lili Taylor’s character that tiresome? Not even Christopher Walken could save it and I lack the energy to write about how sincerely disappointed I was.
I then watched The Hungerbecause I’ve watched it several times and always loved it (and, of course, may Bowie rest in peace). But this time it hit some sour notes with me. It was hard to see Susan Sarandon’s allure. She lacked any sex appeal – she seemed like she had no muscle in her body, her eyes bulged like Barbara Bush, and her very voice made me wonder how I ever bought the notion that after living with David Bowie’s character for years Catherine Deneuve found Sarandon to be a good replacement. But I’m also in what my late mother used to call “a mood.” I’ve found myself hating everything lately so maybe I just need to avoid discussing vampire movies I’ve seen several times. I’d hate to go on record as hating this film and next year realize my views were altered because I was in “a mood.”
So I watched a few I’d never seen before and found some good films. What We Do in the Shadows was fun but there’s not much to discuss in something that is successfully funny without much depth beyond the humor. The Collector and The Collection were also fun in that improbable way that complicated “fiend” movies often are. Josh Stewart is actually a pretty good actor and the films had a The Cell-like quality to them, especially The Collection. But I do confess that I appreciated style over substance and when I make a conscious decision to enjoy that which will fall apart if analyzed, I try to avoid discussing it. We all have our failings.
But then I watched It Follows, the film everyone was talking about in 2015. People either loved it or hated it. First time I watched it, I hated it, too. But something about it niggled in the back of my head and I watched it again and suddenly everything about it that seemed wrong with the first viewing fell into place. I realized that the ending that I initially found pointlessly ambiguous showed a clear moral decision on the part of two of the characters as they deal with the supernatural evil stalking them.
Oh my god, I am going to spoil the hell out of this movie in the discussion that follows under the jump. Stop reading now if you have not seen this film yet but are planning to see it. In fact, you should always assume I am going to spoil the hell out of everything I write about here, but seriously, I am going to ruin this movie for you if you haven’t seen it yet. Clear? Good! Let’s discuss the ethics in It Follows.
Author: Tama Janowitz (can’t find a blog or twitter account she runs)
Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s not odd, per se, but it is a book very important to me and I just want to discuss it here.
Availability: Initially published in 1986, I am discussing a much later Washington Square Press Contemporary Classics version. You can get a copy here:
Disclaimer: This is the longest piece I’ve ever written for online consumption and I am copping to the fact now that this is a length wholly unsuitable for this format. This is a very self-indulgent thing for me to do, but I’ve wanted to write about Eleanor for a while. This is long, but it’s also my love letter to one of my favorite characters in modern literature. I suspect soon I will be writing a similar entry for Donna Tartt’s Richard Papen, or Fay Weldon’s Esther Wells. I will understand completely if no one reads this, though I hope you will, and promise that the third installment will be a much more online-friendly length.
Comments: The second part of my three-part discussion of Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York is focusing on Eleanor, the ostensible heroine of this themed short story collection. Three characters in this book have resonated with me at different times in my life and I find my changing attitudes towards these characters interesting (and hopefully others will as well). The first installment discussed Cora, a depressive young woman whose relationship with a self-absorbed, obsessive and ultimately very weak man reminded me of myself and the people I attracted as a young woman. My upcoming discussion of Marley will focus on his delusional faith in his own talent and how irritating he was to me when I was young and how refreshing he is to me now. This discussion of Eleanor is going to look at her neuroses, her logical fears, and how she is an excellent representation how it felt to be a very specific young woman in this particular time and place in America.
Eleanor is portrayed in eight short stories. Since I am discussing Eleanor as a whole rather then the individual stories, I’m numbering the stories and will use those numbers in quotes to show which stories the quotes come from. You will find the numbered list at the end of this discussion.
Here’s a quick summary of Eleanor’s life as told in these stories: Eleanor lives in New York City with her artist boyfriend, Stash. She lives in Stash’s apartment, a one-room, seven-story walk-up, and has little money of her own. She wants to design jewelry but her ideas are not terribly unique at first and the drama of living with Stash makes it very hard for her to concentrate on her work, though she has many excuses to explain her failures. Stash is difficult to live with and is not a good boyfriend, though like Cora’s Ray, one does not hate him. He’s got his good points and bad. He and Eleanor spend a couple of years irritating the hell out of each other, eventually separating. Eleanor begins to slowly become the person she thinks she should be but even at the end she is trying to figure out how to live her life without engaging in relentless self-improvement. But as she has a short-lived rebound relationship and throws a party on a whim, you leave the collection with hope that Eleanor is going to stop spinning her wheels in her attempts to be someone she is not and placating men in an attempt to create stability in her life.
I’m a well-known neurotic and I’ve never really given much thought as to how I’ve turned out this way. I suspect it’s a nervous nature combined with the lasting effects of a less than ideal childhood. It is my neurotic nature that caused me to appreciate Eleanor even when I was a teen and had no real idea what adult life would be like. Eleanor is a character I would like to grab at the shoulders and shake, but she’s largely likeable even in the worst of her neuroses. I find my affinity for Eleanor particularly interesting because I had to grow into the character. I was too young to wholly get her the first time I read her stories. Then I experienced a slice of her life. Then I grew out of her, and can look at her and the person I used to be with fondness tinged with a hint of frustration.
Eleanor is a young woman whose neurosis is an artifact of an interesting time in American life. Eleanor’s story takes place in the early to mid 1980s, a time wherein women found themselves with many choices to make. Second wave feminism had sought to end or equalize various inequalities and one of the end results of that activism was the first generation of young women whose lives didn’t follow a prescribed historical script. Such a time should have been very heady for Eleanor and girls like her (and me). But like so many elements of freedom, the 1970s – 1980s was a time for women that looked better on paper than its actual execution.
With all the choices suddenly available for women, emphasis was made on the choices themselves rather than the need to choose. So many women didn’t choose – they saw the vista open before them and decided to try to do everything and ended up trying to balance all of their choices, creating the 1980s Superwoman caricature, who sought a career, a fulfilling romantic relationship, a couple of kids, a nice home, a bevy of interesting friends, and an array of hobbies. In the course of trying to do it all, women forgot that men, whose choices they wanted access to try on for size, themselves could not do it all. They had wives to handle everything outside of the workplace and some of the women, faced with a life quite different than their mothers’, swallowed a bitter pill of lower pay, household stress, unhappy children and strained marriages. Yet some women still needed to present a perfect face to all who looked upon them, or needed to pretend to themselves that their ideal life was the life they were living.
I understand how that happened. When you suddenly have access, it’s hard to settle on one role. When you fail to decide and try to do it all, knowing all the while that you have societal forces looking down on you, waiting to see you fail, you want to appear as close to perfect as possible. Neurosis is often caused by the chasms between our real and idealized selves and I think that chasm accounts for a lot of Eleanor’s neuroses. Eleanor would have been neurotic no matter what time in history she lived, but living in New York in the late 70s and early 80s didn’t help, what with liberal mores regarding feminist expectations and rents that were beginning to soar and price out struggling artists. The days of Patti Smith living and creating on a shoestring were over but only those at the bottom, like Eleanor, really saw the financial cultural shift. All those shifts created various neuroses that manifest in different ways as Eleanor navigates the world she finds herself in.
Author: Tama Janowitz (if she has a blog or an official site, I cannot seem to find them)
Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This book is one of my favorite books of all time and I just need to discuss it here.
Availability: Initially published in 1986, I am discussing a much later Washington Square Press Contemporary Classics version. You can get a copy here:
Comments: I’ve had a hard time writing, lately. I’ve got around half a dozen nearly complete entries, with at least twice that many partially finished discussions. I sort of know why I haven’t been able to finish them all but I also think that thinking about the reason why is irrelevant. I’ll finish them when I finish them. But in the middle of all that unfinished writing, I found myself wanting to discuss in detail one of my favorite books. Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz is in my Top-Twenty-All-Time-Favorite-Books and I’m sort of surprised I have not discussed it here yet.
The literary Brat Pack has gone to the rats, it seems. Donna Tartt is still doing well but she has yet to match the mind-blowing talent she showed in her very excellent novel, The Secret History (which I also cannot believe I have not discussed here yet). We still have Bret Easton Ellis doing things, good and bad, mostly entertaining in a rubbernecking-on-Twitter sort of way. I think Jay McInerney is still alive but I never liked him much in the first place. Same with Susan Minot. The two best Brat Pack writers in my estimation are Tartt and Tama Janowitz, and Slaves of New York is Janowitz’s masterpiece.
It really is a masterpiece.Though there are some pop culture references that age it a bit (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, y’all!), this book has held up well because the stories are character-driven and the situations reasonably universal. Struggles between relationship dependency and independence, faith in one’s skill and talent, difficulties with parents, depression, anxiety and neurosis – it’s not going to read too archaic to modern readers. The stories had a period of acclaim but then more or less disappeared from the literary landscape. I see plenty of buzz around Bret Easton Ellis’ current and older works but very little about Janowitz, and even less about this short story collection. That’s a shame because this collection, while being funny and clever, is also so well-written that its power isn’t necessarily obvious after the first read.
I used to read Slaves of New York a couple of times a year, then it trickled down to once a year, then every other year, but it’s still a book I revisit. Each time I read it, I find myself marveling at something new I pick up in terms of plot and characterization. This book has proved to be a strange barometer of where I am as a human being, because over time my identification with specific characters has changed. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that this novel is a paean to neurosis, a goddamn hallelujah to nervous, miserable, delusional, yet ultimately likeable headcases. If I love a book enough to reread it continually because I identify with characters, it’s a safe bet the book will be populated with neurotic people.
This is a collection of linked short stories, taking place in New York City, with a couple of outliers. The characters show up in walk-on roles in other stories, each story in this collection can stand alone, and each story is worth reading. Sometimes the links are subtle – one character speaks of having to rehome a cat that hated her boyfriend. A friend of hers took the cat in, and that same cat shows up in another story, tormenting a different man. (And that story, “Snowball,” is a look at a male neurotic, Victor. If you are prone to acid reflux, pop a Zantac before reading this story because Victor will give you sour burps. Victor, a nervous, anxious, miserable man, was portrayed by the suave, cool Chris Sarandon in the film adaptation of these stories. It’s hard for me to think of a film that was as completely miscast as Slaves of New York. John Wayne as Genghis Khan comes close. Skip the film, read the book.)
Of all the characters this book, there are three characters whose stories resonated with me at different times in my own life. Cora meant a lot to me when I was still quite young. Eleanor came up in my 30s. Marley, while I don’t necessarily see him in myself, is infinitely more understandable to me in my middle age. This depressive, neurotic, delusional trio, respectively, will make up the basis of my look at Slaves of New York. Cora, Eleanor, and Marley – my Disordered Trinity. To prevent this from being the longest discussion of a single book written by the Internet’s most verbose book lover, I will discuss each character in a separate entry. And yes, this will likely be a discussion of a story that may be longer than the story itself.