Yasunari Kawabata and What Can You Do With a Sleeping Girl (and why would you do it?)

Because I don’t sleep for the USA Olympic Insomnia  team and am thinking about going pro, I find myself falling down rabbit holes online at 4:23 a.m. You know how it is. Lately I’ve been lucking out and find myself falling down smaller, less tunneling holes.  The rise of what I like to call “weird shit” YouTube channels are a great source for short-term rabbit holes and one of my favorites is Nick Crowley’s channel. He’s covered some of the more time-intensive Baby’s First Late-Night Google Search topics like Dyatlov Pass, Elisa Lam, and Black Eyed Children, but he also branches out into lesser known weirdness.

For extra nightmare fuel, she’s clutching a humanoid-shaped object covered in blood. You’re welcome.

He earned a permanent place in my heart when he was among the first to share the debunk of the extremely messed-up Seattle Zombie Woman story. I’d long suspected it had something to do with medical current events, but I wasn’t sure because it was, frankly, so well done that I couldn’t immediately rule out that she was a gravely wounded woman who had suffered all kinds of abuse, be it at the hands of a maniac in a torture chamber or a maniac in a medical lab.

I wandered a bit into his back catalog a few months ago and caught his two videos on MrSleepyPeople (first video, second video).  The topic weighed on me for a lot longer than I would have expected. Both videos show the actions specifically of the man who was behind the now banned MrSleepyPeople YouTube channel and, in general, others in that bizarre community. As one so often experiences in these sort of “watch me do something taboo behind the scenes” videos, Nick demonstrated an escalation of grossness within the community.

MrSleepyPeople had a catalog of videos that showed he liked to lick – thoroughly lick – the eyeballs and tear ducts of sleeping women. All of the women he featured in his videos were passed out asleep with their similarly unconscious boyfriends next to them. MrSleepyPeople would pry open the females’ eyes, touch their eyeballs and then begin to lick them. It beggared belief that just alcohol intoxication could render the girls so out of it that they did not react when light and wet pressure were applied to their eyeballs, but I suspect other sedatives were at play. Nick also explained that it’s possible, especially if it occurs during certain stages of sleep, to engage in such intrusive behavior without the victim waking. A couple of times the women stirred a bit when he touched their faces and he quickly retreated, but for the most part he was able to lick the eyes of a variety of women without them reacting.

It seems likely from repetition of backgrounds and a certain amount of context that these women knew MrSleepyPeople in some manner, as he had access to their sleeping spaces, as if they became intoxicated in his home and stayed there overnight. There was never any sign he broke into homes to perform his fetish. I wondered too if these women had given him permission to do it. Perhaps they didn’t care what he did to their eyes when they were sleeping. I also wondered if there was a quid pro quo element, trading access to their sleeping eyes for money, drugs, or just a place to crash for a while. I guess it’s possible that these women had given him permission but it seems unlikely because the creepy subterfuge was very much an element of the fun for MrSleepyEyes, as much of it took place in the dark, with other unconscious people. Permission would have spoiled the fun for him.

It’s equally unlikely that these women were actors. Pretend to be asleep knowing someone plans to pry open your eye and lick it for a prolonged period of time and see how long it is before your voluntary neural control shifts into automatic neural control. You can control when you blink, to a point, but the instinct to force the eye shut when lids are pried open or an object is lowered onto the eye is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to control without a lot of conditioning. I doubt these women were subject to such lengthy pre-video conditioning. There was an unexpectedly robust comment section on these videos, and his watchers urged him to do other things to the women, like play with the unconscious women’s feet, or to put his fingers in their mouths or up their noses.

As I mentioned already, the videos take a disturbing thing and make it worse.  Nick later found videos featuring children as victims. He even found the channels of men who attempted to do similarly invasive things to unconscious, homeless men. Reminiscent of those requesting that MrSleepyPeople play with the feet of his sleeping female victims, many videos of homeless men centered around their feet, and it never seemed as if those men had given their consent to be subject of fetish media. So if it wasn’t bad enough that probably drugged young women, asleep in beds, often next to their boyfriends, were victimized, even more vulnerable people, like children and the homeless, were also subjects of this subculture’s focus.

So, with all of that said, I come now to the portion of this discussion wherein I ask: What the absolute fuck and why, oh my god, why?

Because he is presumably saner than me, Nick doesn’t spend a lot of time asking why MrSleepyPeople wants to lick the eyes or noses of unaware victims. That may be because the overall tone of his videos is this fetish is on par with a sex crime. I too believe that to be the case because a fetish act is being performed on people who are too drugged or young to be able to give meaningful consent.

But even though my own first impulse was that MrSleepyPeople’s actions fit the legal definition of assault, I had a hard time expressing why something so gross but mostly harmless in terms of physical damage made me feel so angry and disgusted. Within what constitutes assault, there are levels of harm done to the victim. Unless you are arguing on Twitter, people generally agree that a slap in the face is far less traumatizing than gang rape. Similarly, non-consensual eyeball-licking seems a lesser crime to inflict on people than, say, stabbing them in the eye.  It’s also hard to codify the level of harm that a person experiences when another person does something to them while they are sleeping that will not cause them physical harm when they wake and about which they will have no memory. This isn’t the same degree of bodily violation that a drugged woman may experience when raped.  And if MrSleepyPeople’s victims were identified, it’s unlikely the victim would be dragged through the mud in the usual assignations of blame in rape because this is an act so far beyond the experience of sexual assault that the traditional shame scripts can’t apply. What sort of mental gymnastics would even the most hidebound rape apologist have to master to be able to say that a woman passing out right next to her boyfriend was just asking to have her eyelids pried apart and her eyeball licked? The shame will stay with the licker, not the licked.

So after saying all of that, licking the eyeballs of the unconscious doesn’t seem like it should have the same nauseating gravitas as genital rape to me, but it does, and I can’t really pin down why until I understand the motivation behind this act.

Hashing this out with Mr OTC, he too was unable to explain exactly where lines cross. He said he’d have similar retributive reactions if he walked in on a woman whose eyeball was being licked while she was unconscious as he would if walked in on the same woman being sexually assaulted while unconscious. Mileage varies but we two who have seen a lot feel this crosses a line that we can’t explain and feel we’d be moved to violence should we walk in on anyone licking the eyeballs of someone who appeared to be unconscious.

As unlikely as it seems, eyeball licking is indeed a “thing” that is called “oculolinctus” but keep in mind that this Latin neologism was seemingly coined in 2013. There was a brief moral panic about oculolinctus that is reminiscent of the “rainbow” parties suburban moms were panicking over in the early aughts. Dismissed as a hoax, publications like Business Insider and The Guardian reported that the oculolinctus craze taking over the youth in Japan had led to outbreaks of pink eye. Whether or not that story is just another moral panic, licking a person’s eyeball can give them more than just pink eye – herpes and chlamydia are possibilities depending on the health of the licker. Corneal abrasions are also on the table, especially if the victim is wearing contact lenses. It was clear a couple of MrSleepyPeople’s victims were wearing contacts when he licked their eyes.

Based on absolutely no scientific research or proper studies, I’ve reached the conclusion that Christopher Walken has inspired many people to develop unusual kinks.

Dazed Digital was able to speak to oculolinctus fetishists and one, Rose, said she saw Christopher Walken interacting with a dead person’s eye in the film The Prophecy and she found it extremely compelling sexually.

She could not explain what it was specifically that caused her to link her sexuality to licking eyeballs, but for her the fantasy switch is also tripped when she sees fluid being drained out of an eye during a crime show. Rose likes to lick eyeballs and to be licked in return, and doesn’t indicate that sex, gender or orientation matter at all when she engages in oculolinctus.

She describes it as “full body sexual excitement, with electricity pulsing through your body.” Before adding: “It’s not the explosion of orgasm but the tense building of pleasure. It’s pretty wild.”

Fair enough. I suspect for some sensation can be enough to embrace eyelicking. Sensation can be motivation, and it’s important to note that Rose appears to be an ethical oculolinctus practitioner. The article only spoke to one male eye fetishist and he had a sort of spiritual motivation to lick eyeballs.

When asked to pinpoint his infatuation, he says: “Something to do with their beauty, mystery, intrigue, being the ‘window to one’s soul’. Have you ever really taken the time to stare into someone’s eye? To just think about nothing else and look deeply into their eyeballs? You would be shocked at what that does to you, and to them. It can be a life-changing experience. How could you not be interested in something that powerful?”

When I first began to think about the motives of eyelicking, the notion of trying to probe the organs that are so often called “the window to the soul” was something that I considered early on. In the context of a consensual exchange, this isn’t that alarming. Most weird things when considered from a completely consensual point of view aren’t alarming though, it must be said. The victims in the MrSleepyPerson videos were unconscious and there was no romantic or even sexual connection between two people. Had their pupils not reacted to the light that MrSleepyPeople focused on them as he pried their eyes open, they could very well have been dead for all the feedback they gave the man licking their eyes. When we die, our souls leave our body, and when we sleep, our souls nap along with us and that mental absence is shown in our unanimated eyes. MrSleepyPeople definitely was not coming at this from a romantic “windows of the soul” perspective.

As I mused over motivations, I initially tried to draw links between MrSleepyPeople and Bataille’s Story of the Eye, but the content, though extreme and often invoking eyes, did little to help me. Beyond just the outrageousness of MrSleepyPeople’s eye licking and the demented duo in Bataille’s book urinating in a dead girl’s eyes, there wasn’t much to the book to apply to the videos.

But Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties did offer some answers. I revisited my discussion of the book from over a decade ago and found some possible answers to my questions.

Kawabata’s novella is an examination of an older man named Eguchi, whose life had been defined with fraught relationships with women – his wife, his mistress, and his daughter, notably. He visited prostitutes in his youth, and at age 67, he decided to frequent a different sort of brothel, one wherein the beautiful young women were drugged to sleep every night so that old men could lay next to them in bed. The men were not permitted to have sex with these girls. Indeed, most of the men who visited  the House of the Sleeping Beauties were impotent. However, even the madam of this house of mildly-ill repute knew that there is more than one thing a man can do with a sleeping girl:

He was not to do anything in bad taste, the woman of the inn warned Eguchi. He was not to put his finger into the mouth of the sleeping girl, or try anything else of that sort.

Eguchi sees himself quite differently from all the other old men who patronize the sleeping girls. Those old men are impotent, but Eguchi says he is not, and “lies” to the madam and says he cannot sustain an erection. Though we are left to wonder how much Eguchi is lying to himself, the madam seems to have him pegged. She runs an entire establishment that caters to the desperate need some old men have to be in the chaste presence of a warm, female body, and she tells him later that only men she can “trust” are permitted to lay with her girls. She doesn’t bother to warn him again against having sex with the girls because she can tell the only way he can disgrace these girls with distasteful acts is to use his finger.

Which harks back to the commenters on MrSleepyPeople asking him to stick his fingers in the mouths of his victims. And of course Eguchi disobeys the madam and sticks his finger in the mouth of one of the sleeping girls the first chance he gets. He immediately disobeys the rules and one realizes that if he’d been able to violate the girls sexually, he would have done so if the rules meant so little to him. But then again, the appeal of these beautiful, young, sleeping girls is that the men get to avoid the physicality of sex while engaging in a caricature of conquest. Eguchi associates sex with attachment and he loathes women, even his daughter to an extent. He may have wanted easy sex when he was younger but his aversion to what he considered messy relationships made it impossible for him to create the sorts of attachments that one needs to be able to lay naked next to someone in bed in the absence of sexual contact.  He romanticizes the notion of being with women but believes all women are erratic, overemotional, and finds fecundity repulsive. He just wants the end of seduction – laying next to an attractive sleeping partner. Even if he was still virile, the actual union of two bodies in love is an impossibility for him because he is too misogynistic to find any pleasure in women before and beyond orgasm. So he has to rent sleeping girls.

Eguchi sleeps with six girls over the course of five visits – that’s right, he has a sleepy girl three-way – and the girls are always drugged and in bed when he arrives. He too is eventually drugged but he gets to spend time with these girls while they are unconscious and at his mercy. He poses their bodies, presses his flesh against theirs, pokes around on their faces. One girl is very young and beautiful and as he strokes her hand, he knows “she would not open her eyes.” That is the only part of these girls unavailable to him. Stroking their hair, making value judgments about their characters based on genetic traits they could not control, moving their legs and arms, peering into their ears, and throughout it all, he wondered if the drugs would wear off too soon and their eyes would open. The potential of this was tantalizing to him.

Did he want them to open their eyes? Did he hope they remained closed? If their eyes opened, they would see him, a frail, miserable old man so lonely he had to sleep next to unconscious girls in order to regain some implication of lost virility and emotional connection. He would see himself reflected in their eyes and from their eyes he expected harsh judgment. He makes an active attempt to open one of the girl’s eyes, but he only does it because he knows he cannot wake her. He wouldn’t have tried had he not been certain she could not wake, and he does it because he is annoyed that these unconscious girls deny him the thing he wants the most: to be admired or feared by women.

Eguchi lies to himself something fierce so one is unsure if he understood why exactly he was so unhappy that the girls could not reflect his own image back to him. But the reader senses he did realize what a worm he was, because his first impulse was to pat himself on the back for being so honorable not to sexually defile the girl when he supposedly could, assigning honor to his physical inability to do what he really wanted. But then again, Eguchi also hoped the girl would open her eyes and feel afraid because she could at long last be confronted by the reality of all the old men who paid to simply sleep in her presence. If she opened her eyes, she would be humiliated if she saw him again on the street, or so he thought.

Then we are presented with the following:

But old Eguchi was not yet used to keeping company with a girl who said nothing, a girl who did not open her eyes, who gave him no recognition. Empty longing had not left him. He wanted to see the eyes of this witchlike girl. He wanted to hear her voice.

But when he hears her voice, she rejects him. She does not wake, but she talks in her sleep and tells him to stop, don’t, go away, and he is so angered he wants to slap her but eventually he realizes the dream is about her mother and he feels unspeakably sad. She wasn’t reacting to him manipulating her body. She was a child dreaming of her mother. He imprinted nothing on her. She was beyond his reach. His depravity could not touch her.

Of course there are miles of cultural differences between an elderly Japanese character from a novella published in the 1960s and a YouTuber licking eyes in the 2020s but there are some interesting similarities. The most obvious is that they did what they did to drugged women. They could only be emboldened when in the presence of women who could not resist a single thing they wanted to do.

A second similarity is their reaction to girls opening their eyes. MrSleepyPeople and Eguchi were both startled by the prospect of their sleeping girls opening their eyes organically or waking. MrSleepyPeople had to pry his victim’s eyes open and Eguchi wanted one of his girls to open her eyes but had either genuinely been able to control their nervous systems enough to open their eyes and see them, the gig would be up. MrSleepyPeople would be exposed as a very strange pervert who posts what amounts to non-con fetish porn and Eguchi would be exposed as a miserable misogynistic man forced to pay for the slim comfort that comes from sleeping next to an unconscious girl.

A third is perhaps the most important similarity and is speculative with both men: impotence. Of course we have no idea if MrSleepyPeople is impotent and Eguchi swore he wasn’t but the terrible fact remains that men generally do far more terrible things to sleeping girls. MrSleepyPeople licks eyeballs, Eguchi pokes his finger in mouths. Why? Probably because neither can do much more.

Initially MrSleepyPeople reminded me of a man I read about decades ago when I first entered the realm of true crime. There was a serial killer in Texas who removed the eyes of his victims, some with surgical precision (but then they always say killers carve up victims with surgical precision when often the crime scene looks like the killer used a barbecue fork and a PlaySkool saw). Charles Albright died in 2020 after over 30 years of imprisonment and his name is well-known among those who like to collect serial killer memorabilia. He made paintings and drawings of bloody eyes and women with bloody, empty eye orbits when in prison and it’s remarkably hard to find any representations online these days, though you can find a rose he painted for sale on a serial killer memorabilia site. His crime reminds one of the primitive belief that the last thing a person sees, especially if it is violent, is stored in the human eye, provoking killers to carve out eyes to cover their murderous tracks. Charles Albright was absolutely frightening and he certainly didn’t remove human eyes due to strange superstitions. He took them because his victims were stand-ins for his mother, an overbearing, abusive, cruel woman who went with him on dates so he couldn’t even kiss girls goodnight. She micromanaged his life in such emasculating ways that the only way he could symbolically escape her gaze was to kill and remove the eyes of women, over and over again.

That doesn’t seem like MrSleepyPeople, but there may be some small behavioral link between him and Charles Albright. Perhaps MrSleepyPeople has felt so emasculated in his life that the only way he can express himself is through women who cannot fight back, and he is symbolically rubbing their noses in their powerlessness by licking the organs that would ordinarily permit them to perceive the assaults he committed. But that admittedly seems like a stretch.

After researching this story, I still feel like eyeball licking is akin to sexual assault, but I think now the reason behind my reaction, and that of Mr OTC, is related more to the grubby nastiness of the motivations behind non-consensual eyelicking (and mouth poking and nose licking). The person who engages in non-consensual eyelicking surely knows the eyes are considered the window to the soul and licking the eyes of an unconscious person is a flagrant assault on their dignity and personhood. But those like MrSleepyPeople are also terrified of being seen, of being reflected back to themselves in the eyes of their victims. And it’s hard not to see the motivations behind this fetish to be rooted in physical and personal impotence. The former is easy enough to understand but the latter needs some explanation. By personal impotence, I mean these are people who can only satisfy themselves furtively, in the dark, with people who do not consent to such behavior. They have no personal power or worth socially to be able to meet people in the light of day, and since they seem to see people only as sources for their fetishes, they’d have little to offer them in the way of conversation or companionship after the first few hours of a small houseparty wind down. They are also so lacking in power that they make recordings of non-consensual criminal activity so that they can keep the memory of their sole connection to a woman that they then sell to similarly weak, unscrupulous people.

This level of lurking, hiding in the dark, racing back into the dark when eyes open, reminds me of finding a mess of grubs under a rock, or nests of silverfish or roaches discovered in a dark corner of an abandoned house.

Just put the rock back and walk away quietly.

None of these creatures can kill you but your first response at seeing them is often an instant revulsion that causes you to slam the rock back down or to begin stomping as hard as you can. Evidently eyelicking is also known as “worming” and I think that ties in neatly with the sort of wriggling, wet, slithering disgust I am trying to describe.

It’s amazing how this managed to stay underground long enough for Nick Crowley to have collected so much information across so many channels. But I think its longevity as a “hidden in plain sight” fetish began to decline when it became more aggressive and included children as victims because originally it was just a bunch of roachy dudes scurrying around under cover of darkness. These soft, craven men who engaged in this behavior passed unseen because they were able to hide quickly when the lights came on. Most of them are gone off YouTube after Nick’s videos, but you can get the gist of it all through Nick’s two documentaries.

I think I understand the motivations of these men a bit better now, though if you’ve had the time to watch these videos and think about them, let me know if you understand the impulse to lick eyes. Why eyes? Is it the concept of eyes being the window to the human soul, so the licker can bask in that soul, or show contempt for it? Is it just some issue in the sexual hard-wiring that happens by accident, like the girl who became transfixed with eyes due to a horror movie, that happens with so many people who develop fetishes for things like high heels or specific body types or hair colors? It would be interesting to know what you think so share away.

Lazy Eyes by James Nulick

Book: Lazy Eyes

Author: James Nulick

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction, experimental fiction, transgressive fiction, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it straddles very fine lines that separate literary fiction from experimental fiction from transgressive fiction from outright strangeness.

Availability: Published in 2022 by ExPat Press, you can get a copy here.

Disclaimers: You will find my name in the “thanks” section in this collection, and I have edited works for James in the past. I also like James and consider him a friend and the readers of this discussion may have to decide for themselves if I like James so much because his writing is amazing or if I am fondly disposed toward his work because he’s so likeable. Safest bet is that it is probably both but as usual I will make my case.

Comments: James Nulick is one of the most under-rated writers working. There are a handful of names I frequently say this about, including Ann Sterzinger and Hank Kirton, and it never fails to baffle me that each one of them isn’t far better known. Each book James writes should be the book that makes his name, so to speak, and this short story collection is no different.

I think one of the reasons that James has yet to achieve the renown he deserves is because it is very hard to pin down his style. Part autobiographic, part utter fiction, his work combines a direct, often visceral confessional tone that he mixes with magical realism. His unflinching look at the worst people can do is balanced with his keen insight into why bad people are unexpectedly good, and why good people so often fail morally. He marries that unyielding yet sympathetic gaze with otherworldly examinations of life and death that are so fantastic that they are akin to fairy tales or alternative takes on religion. His work is complex yet accessible, dark and hopeful, discrete and irreal, and in a literary world where people need writers and their works summed up in a couple of sentences, it can be hard for the genuinely innovative and interesting to reach the audience their talent is due.

Lazy Eyes seems to me to be a continuation of James’s 2021 novel, The Moon Down to Earth. Moon is a remarkable work in which James took the stories of three very unlikely people – an Hispanic super-morbidly obese, bed-bound woman, a white elderly widower, and a young mixed race aspiring musician – and showed the cosmic threads that wove them into a common human tapestry. The invisible strings that connect all the characters can be small things, like common cultural touchstones, to larger issues of coping with loss and abuse. James honors their individual natures while also showing an almost Jungian commonality that removes barriers of sex, gender, race, and age from the inner lives of extremely different people.

In Lazy Eyes, James picks up the central theme of unlikely connections and takes it a step further. No longer bound to the physical, human-dominated world, James created a universe wherein the line between animal and human experience is erased, one where death isn’t the end of personal growth and achievement, and one in which we create our own haunted lives. Cats dream of ascendance, the dead don’t die, and mannequins become sons in James’s strange but instinctively familiar world. Graphic and emotional, visceral and ethereal, relentless and sympathetic, the way James writes is so sui generis that it can only be called Nulickian.

It’s somewhat difficult to discuss these stories the way I prefer. I don’t want to spoil them, of course. There’s also a challenge that comes when one is presented with a series of stories that handle concepts of ceaseless transformation. It’s altogether more difficult when those stories need to be read together in order to understand James’ conceptual world-building. And then you need to bear in mind that I guarantee you there will be one or two elements from these stories that will haunt you or will intrigue you as you try to understand the numerology (and possibly angelology as I believe there are hierarchies among the spirits in these stories) that James salts throughout. I personally found myself ferreting out the meanings behind the numbers nine and fifty-seven, and want to talk about it in depth but am exercising rare restraint. I also never want to see a stick of beef jerky ever again. If you read this collection – and I think you should – please let me know the plot points, meaningful details or strange cosmic filaments that remained with you long after reading.

Since I am trying very hard not to spoil these stories, I am going to limit myself to the pieces that spoke to me the most. There isn’t a clunker among the ten stories in this collection, covering varied topics like alien (species) invasion, dark and fatal magic, or the difficulties of coming of age when one is different or anxious to be different. The stories that stuck with me the most were those that demonstrated the most world-building, verging almost into slipstream as James takes the mundane and makes it fantastic while never leaving behind the very specific, emotional literary effort that defines his style.

My favorite story in the collection is “Doe,” a heartbreaking look at how the dead never really go away, not even when they are nameless, not even when an argument can be made that they never really lived. Having no name and being literally dead on arrival, however, do not mean that the dead don’t stop growing after death. There is a balance in life and death, in body and soul, summed up in the best line in the story:

God is, if anything, symmetrical.

What is remarkable in this particular story is how grounded in reality it is – sadly it is very much a story that can be said to be ripped from the headlines over and over again – while also dabbling in ideas of what it means to be haunted, of why the dead may be both unwilling and unable to lie down. “Doe” makes no distinction between crushing guilt and spiritual revenge, and in fact I wonder if the point of this piece was to give a new insight into human conscience and what is behind our inability to shed the negative emotions we carry after we’ve done terrible things. We may create our own psychological prisons but we may not be the jailer who holds the key to freedom. This story also challenged my sense of what I supposed was my own moral stance regarding life and death, forcing me to consider the idea that simply not being does not mean not existing and wondering who, if anyone, has the right to make decisions regarding life and death when conscious existence may continue forever. This story reminded me a lot of Stewart O’Nan’s The Night Country, a book about dying young and how those left behind can be haunted in vastly different ways.

“The Black Doberman” would be hard for me to discuss even if I were not resolute regarding spoilers in this discussion. Because it disturbed me, I reread it a few times to try and define the uneasiness I felt. This is the story from which the title is derived, as the titular Doberman is named Lazy Eyes. This story is a gut punching combination of Bret Easton Ellis-style empty materialism, post-feminist yearning for traditional domestic titles, and a subtle sort of Freaky Friday role-switching as a character eliminates a rival in her romantic relationship only to take on the moral and social worth of her defeated foe. Best line in the story:

My entire life has been an unattended funeral.

The female character in this story is despicable while also being very pathetic, which then made her even more despicable because the god in my own symmetrical heart wants those who feel pain to be kind, strong, and brave. There is an intelligence that comes from personal misery that allows people to see how others feel the same way, yet this character refused to see the link between herself and that which she hated. There was a similar disconnect at play in “Doe” and it feels very much as if the unattended funeral is the end result of not seeing the tendrils of connection. Being deliberately cut off from the ebb and flow of life and how it affects conscious experience is itself a lonely death in the world James created.

“Dark Web” surprised me with how much more I took away from it after a second read. I suspect most of the stories in this collection will offer up more and more with additional reads. Anil and Ridhi are a couple working at home during the Covid shutdowns that closed many offices. Each stake their claim in the house – Anil becomes a chronic masturbator in the basement as he toggles back and forth between Pornhub and work, and Ridhi works in the kitchen in between her forays onto Reddit. James took a basic story, that of the couple who grows apart when forced to be very close, and subtly embroidered the theme of connection into it. When something genuinely strange happens that disrupts the tiresome routine that Anil is frantically trying to break free from in unseemly ways (like masturbating in public near other joggers while walking his dog), the loss of routine and real intimacy ensures that Anil finds himself just as haunted as those who suffered genuine deaths in this collection.

Beyond that, James draws attention to certain bestial elements of Anil’s viewpoint that closely mirror other, very different minds in this collection. Specifically, he imagines his wife’s ass and thighs, but refers to them, tellingly, as “hind quarters.” Anil is not diminishing his wife, nor is he a closet zoophile. Rather, James is showing the ways that the bestial and the humane can become intertwined because, in the magical world in Lazy Eyes, the animals think as humans do, and their thoughts, betrayals, and desires are very similar to those of humans. Anil is protective of his dog, lamenting planting trees that could poison her so he keeps her safe, creating a close connection with his dog. Not so much with his wife and when it may be too late, he merges the protective love he has for his dog with the protective love he wished he had had for his wife.

This, by the way, is an excellent example of what happens when you dig around in these stories a few times. I can’t think of a book with similar characterization and handling of plot wherein subtle phrases and descriptions reveal a yarn-like skein of connection. It’s genius.

“Strange Captive” broke my heart. It ended on a very hopeful note, but it’s still a rough story. The dark revelation of this story is that you read it in one of two ways, depending on that which horrifies you the most. This isn’t a wishy-washy piece, speaking of dark things without the courage to describe them accurately from the mind of the captive, but rather another example of the commonality between experiences that is the backbone of this collection. The hell of it is, even though the events in the story are specific and defined, I still ended the piece wondering what it was I had really read. The final paragraph and exacting details do not equivocate but my own personal horrors made it less clear.

“The Beautiful Sister” is a surprisingly unpleasant look at a teen girl who strikes out at her older sister in an absolutely calculating way. She’s seeking redress for years of what she considers abuse and dismissal and I was surprised at how much her anger shocked me. Was the revenge she sought so terrible if an adult and her boyfriend did not shrink away from helping her? This is a connection I may not understand, having been raised an only child. Perhaps the tension between siblings can result in such reactions. We have plenty of examples of it, with this story standing as a sort of witchy Cain and Abel update, but my experiences lack that specific tendril attachment. With that in mind, it might be interesting to read this book to see what you don’t connect with as much as what you do.

I won’t mention too much about “Spiders” because I genuinely cannot think of a way to discuss the story without completely spoiling it, but I want to mention that I read this story not long after reading articles about how it is that octopuses give human beings the best way to examine alien minds that we can find while confined to this planet. I had also recently seen the 2015 film Evolution, a minimalist horror story demonstrating the way humans could one day find themselves exploited for the benefit of a completely different, though somewhat visibly familiar species. Both media examples colored how I reacted to this story.

In fact, it was interesting how many of these stories, very unique in world-building and theory-creation, I read on the heels of or alongside media that traveled similar paths. The 2021 film Lamb comes to mind, as well as lower-rent movies on Shudder about angry teen girls who avail themselves of darker magic that seems a bridge too far considering the slights that caused them to lash out. I find coincidences like that meaningful though I seldom can pin down the meaning. Interesting nonetheless.

It’s a very rare short story collection when more than half of the stories are each worth the price of admission, as I like to put it. This collection is definitely worth reading and I highly recommend it.

Elaine by Ben Arzate

Book: Elaine

Author: Ben Arzate

Type of Book: Fiction, novel

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because I descended into the depths of a rabbit hole as I tried to puzzle out what this book meant.

Availability: Published in 2020 by Atlatl Press, you can get a copy here:

Comments: On the surface, Elaine appears to be a relatively straight-forward read. It’s a fun little book, creepy and frustrating with forays into the incestuous and the priapic. Good times!

But say you’re a woman who has recently been thinking of immigrating to Finland* because you are certain the legislature, the governor, the climate and the slowly crumbling infrastructure in Texas are all teaming up in some god-forsaken superhero quad that will destroy the world in general and you in the specific. If you are such a woman, you might find yourself a bit… uneasy. In fact, I’d finished reading a book about the charming custom of kalsarikanni, translated as “pantsdrunk,” right before picking up Elaine. The Finns take relaxation and drunkenness very seriously, it seems, but mostly I mention this because it seems a bit weird that once I had finished a book about Finnish relaxation, I immediately picked up a book, written by an American, that was populated by Finnish-Americans, most of them named Elaine.

Synopsis: Chris is dating a woman named Agnes, who grew up in a town in Michigan called Elaine. Agnes’s mother just died and Chris is joining her in her hometown as funeral plans are finalized. The roads to Elaine are closed, and the only way he can get there is by train. Every woman he meets is named Elaine, and none of them seem aware that every other woman is named Elaine, too. Agnes functionally disappears for the duration of the novel, leaving Chris in the company of her father in a town that is isolated, empty and unnerving. Chris is disturbed by bizarre, sexual dreams that initially focus on his sister, growing to include Agnes and other women he encounters in Elaine. No one is where they should be, Chris cannot find Agnes, her father eventually disappears as well, the town seems like a ghost town and the train in and out of Elaine stops running. Terrible things happen to Chris at the hands of the Elaines in Elaine, he finds disturbing connections between Agnes and the Elaines that are increasingly menacing and sexually overwhelming, and all of this is punctuated by a creepy, incestuous TV preacher who encourages father on daughter incest. Later Chris finds photos of Agnes with an Elaine who behaved sexually provocatively around him, and it seems very likely that the overall atmosphere of sexual degeneracy in the town caused Chris’ dreams that began on the train into Elaine. Was Agnes a victim of the Elaines herself? Maybe – the ending makes me believe perhaps she was. But all of this doesn’t really help me answer the question of what the absolute hell was going on in Elaine?

It’s a quick and fun read, but my inability to answer the above question plagued me. I didn’t descend directly down into the fear, paranoiacally assuming that the book was cosmically trying to tell me that my desire to go to Finland was a bad idea, Ben peppering the text with clues that would convince me to stay put. But Elaine did raise a lot of questions that I cannot answer. Well, I can’t answer them yet. I finally asked Ben some very generic questions, just outright demanding to know if there was subtext. Ben said there is, that he intends to follow this up with a story that will answer some questions. He didn’t give me any specifics, thankfully, but that confirmation that my instincts are on the mark, that there is something going on and the text gives clues caused me to descend yet again into the rabbit hole and worry all kinds of names and details to see if I could connect the dots.  I haven’t connected them yet but give me time.

Some rabbit hole samples:

“Elaine” is a French form of the Greek name, “Helen.” Helen literally means “shaft of light” or “rays of sun.” That might lead one to believe that there is some greater truth in Elaine, a symbolic revelation that occurs when in Elaine, or a beacon that leads people to Elaine so they can experience some form of enlightenment.

But the link to Helen also makes me wonder if all those Elaines wandering around the city of Elaine were the mid-western equivalents of Helens of Troy, possessing such intoxicating beauty that men would engage in all kinds of heroics to possess them. Most of the Elaines were young and very sexually attractive, and seemed more akin to sirens than a beauty so profound wars were fought over her, but the point is certainly worth mulling over.

A young couple goes missing early on in the book. A cat finds their bodies and the cat’s owner isn’t the least bit alarmed when her cat comes back home covered in viscera – in fact, the cat’s first instinct was to eat the couple’s exposed organs, which is weird behavior for cats. I know we all hear the stories about a cat lady dying and her starving cats eating her body, but cats have to be pretty hungry to do such a thing, and the cat, named Prami, is a pet who is presumably fed by its owner. But the cat is its own rabbit hole. “Prami” is a Finnish name that means “the sea” and a variant of this name is “Pontus.” Pontus was a son of Gaia, ruling the oceans before replaced by the Olympian god Poseidon. We also see the name in “Pontius Pilate,” the man who ordered the death of Jesus Christ. There’s so much there but I have no idea how to pull it together, and it’s made all the more maddening that I am doing this with a cat’s name but what would you have me do? Not worry all these details?

The couple who went missing in Elaine were young, and Elaine is an easy town to disappear into, as Chris will himself experience a bit later. Elaine appears to be a ghost town almost, but there are always people around the corner, in a store, scurrying around unseen until they enact some form of violence or create confusion for Chris. The town also has issues with power supply and cellular phone connectivity so one cannot seek help very easily. The couple who disappeared immediately rang a bell for me. In 2005, a young couple became lost in the Nebraska winter. They were on meth, and became so hopelessly turned around in the snow at night that they could not give accurate information to 911 operators, and their cell phone pinged from one tower to the next, making it impossible to narrow down where they were. The couple eventually left their car and died of hypothermia, but this case has some interesting traction because, much like the Elisa Lam case, many have a hard time believing that psychosis is a thing that happens, be it via mental illness or drug consumption. The couple reported seeing people in the trees, dressed in robes, convinced that they were being stalked and were about to be murdered. Some believe the couple were indeed being stalked by a cult of some sort, and were specifically driven out of their car into the snow in an attempt to kill the couple via hypothermia, based on the female’s account of blacks and Mexicans in cult garb moving cars around to confuse them. There is something very dark and cult-like in Elaine, something that obviously killed the young people whose innards ended up as cat snacks. And cell phones wouldn’t have saved the dead couple in Elaine either.

Does this mean anything? Probably not. But maybe?

Last point I niggled around with was Pastor Toivo, the repulsive televangelist whose giddiness describing biblical incest was unnerving. Later the pastor revealed he himself had been having sex with his daughter, named Elaine of course, and had sired children with her. Agnes’s father doesn’t have much of a reaction to any of this and says that he knows Pastor Toivo and that he can introduce Chris to him. Agnes’ father, Karl, says Toivo isn’t that much of a kook once you get to know him. If Ben revealed Toivo’s last name, I missed it, but “Toivo” means “hope” in Finnish. Pastor Toivo was the final nail in the coffin for me, so to speak, where Elaine was concerned. A lot of what is happening in Elaine can be explained away as just a young man experiencing sexual dreams under stress, a sad daughter acting strangely after her mother’s death, a small town that seems strange to outsiders, an overzealous police force with a Barney Fife level of incompetence combined with a demented blood lust. But Pastor Toivo? What father is okay with a man who uses the Bible to justify raping his daughter and having children with her? Who can look at such behavior and call it kooky? There’s something very wrong in Elaine and even the common folk there don’t seem to recognize it.

There’s more in this book to analyze, from the sexual behavior of the Elaines to a cloying figurine with an upsetting spiritual message. But you can also ignore all of my digging around and just enjoy the strangeness and upsetting nature of the book, which is often softened a bit by some of the ridiculous things that happen to Chris. Ben’s style is one I enjoy – he paints a picture without excruciating scene setting. He uses caricatures of specific behavior to paint ambiguous looks at surprisingly complex characters. It’s an enjoyable book that doesn’t require the sort of poking I do to enjoy it. But, if like me, you have a love of Finland combined with a lot of knowledge about weird stuff that resonates with you as you read, this book may become a bit more than a story of a young man in love being swallowed up by a weird town full of malignant people.

I recommend this book and really need for Ben to explain what Elaine is. I’m very likely on the wrong path, not seeing what Ben is hoping to convey in Elaine, but even if I am completely lost, it was still an enjoyable trip. This is a book that invokes a sort of creepy, insular pagan behavior that causes outsiders to call out for a cleansing fire, though who should burn isn’t entirely clear. Have a read and let me know how you feel at the end.


*Invariably, when I mention my desire to live somewhere in Scandinavia, people helpfully mention that it is cold there. It’s evidently very hard for people to believe a native Texan would want to go to some place so cold, and I guess they figure I must not know that Finland is a bit nippy at times and want to save me from making a terrible mistake. To me, the weather in Finland seems delightful because the only time they really seem like they are sweltering is when they specifically recreate in their saunas the conditions I find on my back porch nine months out of the year. Though as I type this I am sort of remembering how awful the February snow storm was, but I suspect Finland doesn’t have the same grid issues we have in Texas and I would have access to heat when the snow begins to fall in Helsinki. Even so, I would consider such cold to be a feature, not a bug.

Oh Shit, Should I Be Worried: An OTC Primer for Threat Assessment

Our hosting provider, A Small Orange, is the online equivalent of the human taint, also known as the gooch depending on regional dialects. I will often receive all at once several months to a year’s worth of comment notifications or emails sent to me via the site’s email address.  One time a terminally-ill author sent me a lovely message asking me to review his last book because he was so moved by my first review of his work. I received it months after he died. I do not know why we haven’t changed providers yet, but I suspect it’s because I don’t stay mad long enough to make it a priority. I also am less active on the site lately and check the back end far less often than I should, so I don’t notice gaps in messages in a timely manner. However, this last flurry of notifications contained a comment that gave Mr. OTC pause, enough pause that he became angry that such a comment had gone months without us seeing it.

“Some asshole is effectively threatening you and this comment sat unseen on the server for months until A Small Orange deigned to send us notification,” Mr. OTC said. “What if he’d said, ‘I’m on my way to kill you!’ and we had no idea?” I suspect A Small Orange, who as a company sucks balls (which, by the way, are near the taint) will not be my host much longer. It should be mentioned that Mr. OTC ultimately was more angry at the taint than the asshole because he understands what is considered an actionable threat and what isn’t, but I was surprised that he was so appalled at the comment. He knows what I write about.  He knows that I get terrible comments. Yet he looked at the comment and did not see what I saw. He saw the potential for genuine threat.

Here’s the comment, with the beginning of my reply.

I think most spouses would feel uneasy seeing that their partner receives comments that invoke torture, extrajudicial murder and final judgement for perceived wrong-doing. But I’ve got this. I’ve been doing this for thirteen years and somewhere along the line I learned how to analyze documents in a way that gives me a pretty good metric for whether or not I should be afraid or concerned about what angry commenters say to me when they are especially pissed off.

Finally! A use for an English degree!

While it has to be said that I am not a behavioral sciences expert, nor am I a legitimate threat assessor, I’ve been reading the words of madmen and reactions to the words of madmen for so long that I reckon I can differentiate between a threat and a dude who unloaded on me after a really bad day (or month, or year). Rob may have intended for me to feel afraid, but offered no harm that I felt could endanger me or my family.

I’ve had two or three threats I considered legitimate since running my book discussion sites and those messages were radically different than Rob’s. Those comments showed that the authors know who I am, meaning they know my full name, where I live, the names of some of my pets, that my husband is ex-military. They had specific issues with something I definitely wrote, showing that they actually read what I wrote and were reacting to me specifically, and they did not speak in generalities. They made reference to how easy it would be to find me or a specific pet, what they wanted to do to me or the cat, and mentioned a time frame wherein they hoped to do harm to me.

Rob’s comment wasn’t anywhere close to being genuinely threatening. Unpleasant? Yes. Reason to freak out? Nope. I know some people will disagree with that assessment so let’s break his comment down and hopefully I can explain why I think Rob hollered at me online rather than metaphorically kick the family dog after having a bad day, and hopefully this analysis will help anyone else who is periodically frightened by what angry (mostly) men say online. Plus, sometimes it’s just fun to hyper-analyze the hell out of weird comments.

Election Day Special: The Hunt

Tuesday, November 3, 2020, is going to be a hell of a day.  I despise talking about politics because the only discussions less useful to intelligent discourse lately are forays into conspiracy theory.  But I think I have a perfect way to express the angst, fear and disgust many people have felt when they realized 2020, a year with numbers that represent perfect vision and clarity, was descending into chaos, sickness and violence while those in power exploited the chaos, sickness and violence.

Enter The Hunt.

The conversation about this film gets derailed frequently. Due to release just after the horrific mass murders in an El Paso Walmart in August 2019, The Hunt’s opening was delayed after President Trump and right-wing pundits like Laura Ingraham insisted the film’s goal was to inspire partisan violence against conservatives.  The film’s opening was delayed until late September 2019, then again until March of 2020. It opened right before Covid-19 caused theaters to shut down in the USA. Not many people got to see it on screen, but those who did found the film uncomfortable viewing.  Leftists were angry that the liberals in the film were such assholes.  Those on the Right were angry that the conservatives in the film were such assholes and also felt that the asshole liberals were coded as conservatives.  That, my friends, is a pretty good sign that this is a film that may show you some uncomfortable truths about class, politics, objective and subjective truth, and what happens when the schism becomes all anyone can see.

If it makes you uncomfortable, interrogate that feeling.

Here’s a brief synopsis of The Hunt, and there will probably be spoilers (I don’t think you really can spoil a film like this, but step wisely if you prefer to go into films utterly tabula rasa): The Hunt is a riff on The Most Dangerous Game, humans hunting humans, but this time it’s personal.  A cadre of elite liberals, very wealthy elite liberals, made a dumb joke in a group chat.  One of them spoke of shooting “deplorables” in a hunt, and the others reacted in a tongue-in-cheek manner.  This chat got hacked and released to the public and conspiracy theorists took it seriously.  The elites eventually lost their jobs and decided to track down some of the most virulent proponents of the conspiracy theory and kill them in a hunt, making the conspiracy theory real after the fact.  Conservative and conspiracy theory caricatures were kidnapped, flown to an estate in the Balkans and killed. The last woman standing is Crystal May Creasey, a lower-middle class blonde with a thick Southern accent. The mastermind behind The Hunt, a woman named Athena, researched the prey she and her peers would hunt, but got it very wrong with Crystal.  Athena kidnapped the wrong Crystal Creasey, not knowing the Crystal behind the social media accounts talking about The Hunt spelled her name “Mae.”  That mistake costs her and you need to watch the film if only to see the final confrontation between Athena and the wrong Crystal.

Athena and her comrades in arms are extremely wealthy and very white, with the exception of one Arabic man who is their token minority. They are wealthy in a way that makes them part of the 1%.  They are so wealthy that losing their jobs means little to their overall net worth as they are able to charter airplanes, pay off staff who fly them around, rent entire compounds for weeks, hire a military advisor to help them train, etc. Their absolute privilege fuels their rage at the mostly blue-collar advocates of the conspiracy theory.  How dare those “deplorables” interfere in their lives in such a way? They must be taught a lesson, an individual lesson that results in their deaths. They messed with their “betters” and that cannot stand.

Liberal discomfort at watching these caricatures is interesting.  Athena and her cohorts get very upset over language – while hiding bodies in a back room at a fake general store and gas station set up to catch anyone who escaped the compound, one older married couple argue over whether or not “black” is an appropriate description for human beings. They come to the conclusion that “African-American” is the only polite term, no matter what NPR has to say about it because NPR employs mostly white people. They have no problem policing each other’s language as they literally kill three people with poison gas because they talked conspiracy theory online. Similar conversations happen in a bunker on the compound, as the tiresome elites wait in anticipation for Crystal to return.  When they accidentally shoot a pig named Orwell, their anger at hurting the animal far outweighs any concern they have for the human beings they rounded up and slaughtered.

Oh, and it is a slaughter.  It’s not a hunt. The conspiracy theorists find a box of weapons but the moment they get their bearings in a clearing, they are immediately shot from an enemy they do not know is there, with no knowledge of why they are there and the rules of the hunt. Those who escape instant death are chased into booby traps, tracked with drones, blown up or gassed and the notion of an actual hunt only comes up when Crystal proves hard to kill.  It was never a hunt until Crystal, the wrong Crystal, hunted them.  It was graphic, outrageous revenge against people who had very little power outside of their capacity to talk about jaded and cruel rich people online.

But bear in mind, the people getting shot and gassed and blown up are also distasteful. One of the guys is a big game hunter, posing with animal carcasses like that asshole dentist who lured a lion out of an animal preservation to kill.  One is a hard-core conspiracy theorist who sees a crisis actor in everyone he sees, even babies, and it strips him of any real humanity and makes him an easy target. Another is a dead ringer for Tomi Lahren, so much so that we don’t need much more from her than a couple of sentences because it’s clear who she is meant to portray (checking the name for spelling showed me as I was typing this, the real Tomi Lahren was tweeting and retweeting about the election and evidently wrote a book called Never Play Dead that came out a year after The Hunt finished production and I sense we’ve come full circle, in a way).  And while I don’t like Tomi Lahren, for many of the same reasons I lipfarted at Phyllis Schlafly, I don’t think it will get me cancelled to say that I don’t want to see her kidnapped and her head blown off.  These ringers aside, the rest are just Q-Anon and Pizzagate true believers who never really understood that there were real people on the other side of their accusations, that what they were saying could potentially ruin lives. If they consider that their actions could ruin lives, they feel it was a morally upright decision to ruin those who prey on the weak, even if the basis for such a decision is bad logic and supposition. They just had the bad luck to cross people more motivated for revenge than the Podesta brothers or that dude who runs Comet Ping Pong.

The Tomi Lahren stand-in and the big game hunter may have had some money, but that they are so easily kidnapped and illegally flown into Europe speaks to being far lower on the financial ladder than the liberals who want them dead. This is a class war, pure and simple, and it is based simply on class because the liberals feel it would be terrible to kill any of the people of color who spread the conspiracy theory about The Hunt. It’s an interesting place to stand, to be so attuned to white privilege that one is willing to kill any number of white people who say the wrong thing but utterly unwilling to kill minorities who do the same because that’s just not politically correct.

In the middle of these warring class factions stands Crystal.  Her skills are of a Neo-in-the-Matrix type and her flat deadpan delivery is often far too calm, but in her hyper-aware, violently competent, quiet sense of self, we see the only real human in this film. She may be part of the working class the elites hate, but she was never a part of the conspiracy theory and as an outsider to wealth and conspiracy, she is the only one who can see clear enough to survive.  While the other hunt victims woke with bits locked in their mouths, convening together in the clearing where a large box containing weapons was placed, Crystal was pulling apart her name badge and placing the pin on a leaf in a pond to show her the way north.  She never banded together with the rest of them until she was forced to when other victims found her  – she didn’t even wait around long enough to find out who they were or what any of them may have known about what was going on.  We don’t know her political beliefs.  We know she was in the military and that she had a crappy job at a car rental place.  Beyond that she’s an Everywoman, a stand-in for every person who has watched the world split apart, with loved ones on either side of the divide, tired of the rhetoric, cruelty, entitlement and fear.

The prelude to the final fight is very interesting. Athena’s arrogance and distaste for the messy lives of the underclass is sickening.  She taunts Crystal, reciting knowledge about Crystal Mae Creasey’s sad life.  Parents were meth addicts, life spent in foster care, and that pedigree of poverty and despair to Athena is a sign that Crystal, in some Calvinist assignation of blame, earned her terrible life because she on some level deserves it, that her misery was pre-ordained.  Crystal Mae was scum, she was foul, and she had messed with Athena via comments online and had to die for it.  It’s just a shame that she kidnapped Crystal May Creasey, whom she knew nothing about.

The end of the fight is instructive, showing the way the 1% looks at those who don’t have an MBA and who live paycheck to paycheck.  All of the victims have nicknames the elites use and they call Crystal “Snowball.”  Crystal asks Athena why she called her that and Athena immediately thinks Crystal is asking because she doesn’t have any idea who Orwell was nor had she read Animal Farm.  She begins to pedantically explain it to Crystal, who cuts her off, telling her she understands the reference but doesn’t get the link between her and Snowball.  Athena is visibly shocked that this woman, this woman whose identity she now knows she fucked up, read a book, let alone a book almost every high school freshman in America reads. Athena is so married to her idea of those unlike her being genuinely deplorable that any sign of intelligence in her perceived enemy is shocking.

By the way, I’ll be damned if I understand the way that this film viewed Snowball, the pig who represented Trotsky and whose death was used as propaganda by Napoleon/Stalin, who bastardized Snowball’s ideas. Perhaps the conspiracy-minded Crystal was Snowball, but the Crystal they kidnapped was not.  More puzzling, Crystal says she thinks Athena is Snowball, and that makes even less sense, unless it is a way to convey that Crystal is going to somehow misuse Athena’s image to achieve some larger goal.  If that is the case, it’s unclear at the end.  And that lack of clarity may be the point.  At the end, education, literary allusion and decent analogy meant nothing – they were all slaughtered like pigs. In that regard, Athena really was Snowball.

This is an uncomfortable movie to watch.  It parodies conservative conspiracy theories and parrots the worst people think about elites who use the lumpen proletariat however they want but tantrum like very pampered babies when the proles speak out of turn.  It shows how impermeable conspiracy theory is to rational or reasonable thought.  It shows how perhaps we are right to be very afraid of those who wield power and have money.  Conservatives thought the immoral liberal elites were a parody of them, and maybe they were.  Liberals really hate the way the elites were more focused on the minutia of civility than the morality of killing people for sport and revenge.  This film shows what incompetent assholes many who are rabidly partisan become, and won’t let us off easy in the end by telling us much about the heroine who outlasted her financial peers and bested her economic betters. We may be far more like Athena or the ersatz Tomi than Crystal.

The days ahead are going to suck regardless of who wins the election.  I’m a liberal, or a leftist – I don’t even know anymore because the labels change online constantly – and I see Athena in some of my own. And I know that though I am far from rich, the intellectual company I keep may make me seem like a pandering asshole to those to the right of me. Enemy lines have been drawn in a way they never have been before and I worry about the days to come.

That’s it.  That’s the end.  I have no great conclusion here. No matter what happens today, restoring our faith in the government, politicians, and even our peers will not come quickly. Maybe watching this film will result in some sort of catharsis but right now it might just feel like the movie gods are mocking us.  Just buckle in and hope your level best that we will one day live in a society wherein it is not so easy to constantly invoke Orwell.

Oddtober 2020: Sinful Cinema Series vol. 5 by Doug Brunell

Book:  The Amazing Mr. X from the Sinful Cinema Series

Author: Doug Brunell

Type of Book: Non-fiction, cinema studies, film criticism

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Less odd than disheartening – this book illustrates how it is that being very good at what you do is no assurance you will ever become famous or even well-respected in your craft.

Availability: Published by in 2020 by Chaotic Words, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Doug Brunell has become a staple of my “Oddtober” adventures.  I’ve read a little of his fiction (I read Black Devil Spine and my main criticism was that I wish he’d just let loose a bit more and wallowed in the depravity because he was soooo close to pulling off the most difficult feat a horror writer can achieve – pornographic violence that doesn’t pander) but am mostly familiar with his looks at weird, fringe and/or under-known films.  I hope he keeps updating his Sinful Cinema series until either I or this site dies because I think his work has become the OTC version of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. You gotta watch Linus out there in the pumpkin patch and you gotta have a Sinful Cinema volume or it just doesn’t feel like Halloween.

I am in a strange place with The Amazing Mr. X because I want to engage in my usual, endless examination, and this film isn’t outrageous like some of the films Brunell has explored. I have had no qualms about spoiling the plots of those films because the plot and characterization took a backseat to the shlock, sleaziness or overall hokeyness.  Few watch Crypt of the Living Dead or The Abductors for plot complexity or interesting characterization and god help those who find such titles and hope that at least the acting is decent.  But Brunell has a gift for seeing the intent behind bad or outrageous films, showing his readers unexpected ways to look at the plots, character arcs that would have been missed among all the stilted delivery and random boob shots, and his biographies of those involved in the films show the crazy ways Hollywood is connected, from the winding paths between sexploitation and Disney franchises to how the name of a small boat that takes a researcher to a vampire-infested, in-bred island can demonstrate the uneasy interactions between rational science and pagan tradition.  Without Brunell, the average film fan might not have ever understood all of these connections and ideas that permeate even the crappiest low budget horror film, and his extraordinary love of the subject redeems films I would have ignored had I known about them.

That is not the case with The Amazing Mr. X. I can see watching this just because.  In fact, I sort of want to watch it with Mr. OTC to see what he thinks of it.  As Brunell notes in his examination, this film has a lot of things that hamper it, mainly the title, which leads one to believe that this is going to be some sort of character-driven science fiction film.  It’s not.  Brunell says it’s a noir film disguised as a horror film and he’s right.  Every actor hits their mark, the plot is a masterful series of misdirections that never seem forced or false, and all the important characters have unexpected redemption arcs that make sense and are not insulting, forcing a schmaltzy and happy ending.

So I don’t want to spoil this film.  I think you need to watch it, decide what you think is happening, and then read Brunell’s book.  This film is fairly easy to get hold of.  I watched it on Amazon Prime for free but the film is also all over YouTube.

Quick synopsis: The extremely wealthy Christine was widowed when her husband Paul died in a car crash. She feels his presence still and is having trouble moving on. Her somewhat annoying but adorable younger sister, Janet, wants her to accept an engagement ring from her new suitor, Martin, a likeable guy, but on the night when Martin proposes, Christine meets Alexis, a clairvoyant and spiritualist (who has a big squawking crow as his familiar, a bird whose role in this film was not clear to me until Brunell explained the ending), who knows all about Paul and Martin.  His unexpected knowledge weighs on her until she consults Alexis for help and becomes a regular client of his as she uses his psychic powers to try to reconnect with Paul.  Paul’s memory is causing Christine to become unhinged and Janet and Martin become suspicious of Alexis. They hire a private investigator, who is a former magician who knows all the tricks of psychic con men (a sort of James Randi figure, may he rest in peace), to look into the psychic and, sure enough, he has a file on Alexis.  To make sure Alexis is the man he thinks he is, the investigator and Martin send Janet in as bait to get his fingerprints but Alexis is two steps ahead of them because he is, indeed, a con man. That may seem like a spoiler but it isn’t because the viewer knows Alexis is a fraud the moment she sees him.  But in the end, Christine really is in danger, Paul is the source of this danger, and by the time everyone figures out what is going on, Christine is more or less a second thought as far more interesting characters shape the end.

This film is an interesting history piece.  Filmed in 1948, it comes at a sort of crossroads in cultural reactions and social movements.  Young widows filled with grief at the untimely deaths of their young husbands were not uncommon after WWII, so this movie had a sort of anchor in Christine. But spiritualism was dying off, men like Alexis raising more suspicion than praise, so much so that the film’s title was changed from The Spiritualist. But Christine (and Janet) are wealthy, presumably through their family, leaving them prey to con men, while also showing that they didn’t need anyone to take care of them.  Moreover, Alexis, played by Turhan Bey (who was known as the “Turkish Delight” and once dated Lana Turner but couldn’t marry her because his mama didn’t approve), was shoved into a role that was losing potency.  The trope of women swooning over suave sheik types of men was drawing to an end.  Yet in spite of these issues, from the terrible title to the tired tropes to the lack of a “big name,” the film works.  Brunell speculates that if one big name had been cast, this film would today be far better known than it is.

One of the benefits of reading Brunell’s books after watching these films is that they encourage me to watch carefully, almost training me in film analysis.  I missed the subtext behind the ending, and there were other bits and pieces I didn’t pick up on.  But it’s interesting what I did see before I read Brunell, things I would have missed ordinarily.  For example:

–I didn’t entirely connect the dots but I felt a sort of discordance at first because it seemed like Christine, who was played by the lovely Lynn Bari, was the protagonist of the film.  Why was the film called The Amazing Mr. X if Christine is the lead character?  Well, she isn’t.  Alexis is, and that misdirection is intentional and part of why this film is so clever.

–Janet, who is at least ten years younger than Christine, has a chipmunk voice, appears ditzy and silly, and Alexis is able to ingratiate himself to her by insinuating that she is actually the more mature, more grounded of the sisters. Even Christine scoffs at this but Alexis is not wrong. Janet may be silly but she is not plagued by ghosts of dead husbands with questionable motives, she offers unwavering moral support, and is capable of saving lives when the chips are down.  Christine, who has a sort of Joan Crawford, 1940s remote elegance that often is linked to feminine intelligence, is easily fooled, ridiculously unable to act in her own best interests, and at the end the least interesting character in the film.

–I wondered why I liked the bad guy – Alexis – so much when he was a con man.  Because I’m supposed to.  Again, the director laid out a path I was walking on before I knew I was even walking.

And I picked up on these things because I was anticipating Brunell’s book and what it would show me.  It’s a fun sort of mental exercise, a puzzle that connects my experience to the ideas of someone very well-versed in film while showing me the puzzle pieces that I missed.  For example, Brunell’s discussion of the lighting in the film was fascinating and far outside my wheelhouse.

And though the cast and crew biographies are not as salacious as those in the other volumes of Sinful Cinema I’ve read, they are still very interesting.  For example, one of them was blacklisted by McCarthy.  One was utterly beloved by all who knew him. One actress lost her acting contracts when she refused to divorce her husband at the demand of a studio executive. And all of them, very good at their craft, never achieved the fame they deserved.  Seriously, this was a tight cast.  The weakest link was the detective and even he had decent acting chops.  If you dislike Christine, it’s because Lynn Bari’s performance was deliberate in its attempt to create that emotion.  If you begin to enjoy the Gidget-like Janet, well-done because she’s a character who only seems like a caricature of a chatty blonde until you juxtapose her with the more “competent” female character and realize she’s pretty cool.  (And though you aren’t wholly expected to want to root on Alexis as he cons Christine, if you do find yourself feeling ambiguous about him, you’re in good company because I didn’t want Christine to come to harm, but if Alexis got a few bucks out of her, c’est le vie.)

Brunell’s other four volumes in the Sinful Cinema series focus on more outrageous or fringe fare and initially I wondered if I was watching the correct film because I didn’t find myself falling into the sort of MST3K mindset one uses when watching a film that is notably terrible in some manner.  This is a well-crafted, though certainly flawed film, with an interesting script, good actors, and mystery elements that are always honest, never resorting to uneven characterization or left-turn plot twists.  Yet in its own way its as much an outlier as Crypt of the Living Dead because the cast and crew themselves remained outliers in an acting community that never gave them their well-earned dues, the film itself got lost among other noir films that didn’t mislabel themselves via terrible titles, and this film seems… cursed in a way, including a leading lady who died in a notorious fashion before the film began production, and terrible timing.

I really enjoyed Brunell’s tour through The Amazing Mr. X. It was particularly enjoyable seeing his keen eye take on a film that isn’t mostly boobs, poor acting, terrible casting, and inexplicable plot elements.  It’s great to see unexpected weirdness in more mainstream and conventional fare.  Highly recommended.

Oddtober 2020: WNUF Halloween Special

WNUF Halloween Special is one of the best “found footage” films the horror genre has produced in years, which is kind of grim because it was released in 2013.  It doesn’t really matter if the premise has had every drop of ingenuity and decent story-telling wrung out of it.  If it worked once, why not keep doing it until not even the mafia will finance your film?  Given my dim view of other films that mine this vein, the only reason I selected this film on Shudder is because I was doing mindless chores and wanted some background noise. Five minutes in, I understood this wasn’t just another V/H/S.  So I stopped it so I could watch it later and pay attention, and forced Mr. OTC to watch it with me.  Good times.  (By the way, I could only find this on Shudder and couldn’t find it elsewhere to stream, sorry.)

The premise is fairly simple: The news station on WNUF, Channel 28, in some northern town some time in the 1980s is hosting the “first live on TV seance.” We are watching a VHS video someone recorded of the news program that aired right before the Halloween special, wherein we learn about this little town and all its problems. Periodically, the film fast forwards through repetitive or uninteresting sections, mimicking what we all used to do when we recorded network television back in the day, placing the audience in the role of an active viewer of the tape. Interspersed throughout the news and the later seance special, we see commercials that are so absolutely true to 1980s concerns, mores, cultural issues and consumer habits that it was hard not to cringe at how awful the 80s really were. The program for the seance begins after the news, and the audience learns that a son slaughtered his parents in the house, and a couple who are paranormal investigators, a hapless priest, an oily reporter and a cat find out that the dead should be the least of anyone’s concerns.

The only way to discuss this film is to recount both the plot and the running commentary Mr. OTC and I engaged in, as we were delighted and utterly appalled by how much this film got completely right, balancing perfectly between retro cringe and upbeat nostalgia, lampooning and lauding the 1980s.  I’ll swap back and forth between the plot and the best of the commercials, but know that if I could explore every commercial without writing a novella-length discussion, I would.

The film begins with a fast forward through commercials, some of which are helpful PSAs (“Wait! Stop! Think! There’s nothing sexy about STDs!”) and then the news begins.  We meet hosts Gavin Gordon, looking like a young Fred Willard in a vampire costume, and Deborah Merritt, with perfect mom makeup, wearing a witch hat and a saccharine smile.

First thing they tell us about is the upcoming special with reporter Frank, and make terrible Halloween jokes.  “No, you didn’t tune into the Transylvania Public Access station,” Gavin says.  Then they give a rundown of the evening’s news stories: a religious organization is praying for the end of Halloween because Satan is bad, the ads in the governor’s race are getting dirty, and they announce Frank Stewart is going to take us along as he traipses through a murder house.


Mr. OTC: Did you see that smile and little shrug she gave him.  You know that wasn’t on the cue cards.  He’s ad libbing and she hates him.  I bet he even bounced the whole Transylvanian cable access joke off her beforehand and she told him she’d strangle him if he did it and he did it anyway to piss her off.

Me: Really?  I got the impression those two are having an extramarital affair.  That’s weird sexual tension, I think.

Mr. OTC: No reason it can’t be both.

Oddtober 2020: Expiration Date by Laura Flook

Book: Expiration Date: Special Deadition

Author: Laura Flook, illustrated by Brian Williams

Type of Book: Comic, (dark) humor, horror

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s so over the top and tasteless and reminiscent of the early, irreverent, impolite and extremely fun days of Internet usage, it’s almost old school in it’s approach to gross humor. The font colors, size and unique lettering also required a new bedside lamp and, I’m not even ashamed to admit, a magnifying glass to read.  That was a first, and, I fear, a sign of things to come, when not even progressive lenses will be up to the task.

Availability: Self-published by Flook in 2015, you can get an autographed copy from her website.

Comments: Long-time readers of this site, of whom there are at least three, may remember my discussion of Expiration Date from what feels like last year but was really seven years ago. It was delightfully weird, somewhat silly, made references to The Misfits and basically wallowed in comedic grossness.  I was very charmed by the toe tag Flook sent along with the comic.

Expiration Date: Special Deadition is a re-print of the 2000 issue, with a second part that includes the dark illustrations represented on the cover, along with a page from The Rotten Times, a newspaper that is evidently mostly obituaries and reprinted letters sent to an advice columnist who offers sage wisdom to parents whose shoe-polish consumption results in children needing better toothpaste as well as kids seeking ways to deliberately develop diabetes. I note that one of the obituaries is of a gentleman named “Don Morris,” who also gave Flook a rave review for the 2000 edition of Expiration Date. It’s fun noticing little details like that, little self-referential Easter eggs.  It’s also nice to see that Flook is really fond of her fans.

The comic showcases the antics of Jelly, a funeral home director, and her demented assistant Calvin. Jelly collects genitalia from their dead clients (relatives will ask if you remembered to put Granny’s contact lenses on her dead eyeballs but will never notice if you’ve absconded with her vagina) and Calvin collects boils.

That's repulsive!

It’s the sort of funeral home wherein people come in to plan the funeral for the baby they intend to kill and MeeMaw may end up looking like Ziggy Stardust in her open casket.  The second part is devoted to the newspaper I reference above, because Jelly attended an autumnal equinox party that left her so plastered that she remained unconscious but uninjured for days after a car accident and is among the obituaries until she wakes up.

Lots of gross humor, irreverent references to child abuse, yet no necrophilia (which would have been too on the nose, I think).  The comic costs $15 plus shipping, which may strike some as a bit pricey for a comic that is around 2/3 reproduced content.  But it’s not like it will be easy to find the first issue anyway so you are unlikely to end up owning both, the illustrations are suitably angular and sharp, given Jelly and Calvin’s edgy humor and use of scalpels, and sort of unlike anything I’ve seen recently, the price is actually pretty good given the production values, and it’s refreshing to come across content that is so utterly unrestrained.

But mostly the real reason to buy this is because Laura Flook is all about the details.  No toe tag this time, but she had it shipped the same day I ordered it and it was impeccably packaged with a very striking gift tag.

I was touched to see the comic was dedicated to her late dog, Trocar, who was Flook’s dog equivalent of my late Adolph. I remembered her dog because I looked up his name when I bought the first edition of Expiration Date (as per the Internet, a trocar is “a surgical instrument with a three-sided cutting point enclosed in a tube, used for withdrawing fluid from a body cavity”).

Plus it’s nice to have the chance to directly support artists you like. Flook has other merch on her site, like face masks, interesting funerary-inspired jewelry, and clothing (if your leggings have embalming instruments on them, who cares if you look a bit sausagey wearing them, is what I am telling myself…).

Shortest entry I’ve written, probably ever, but this is a brief comic.  There are times when the having of media so well-produced and dedicated to a specific craft and sub-culture is equal to or greater than the time spent actually consuming said media, especially when you find the creators interesting in and of themselves.  It’s a comic about a demented funeral director and mortician and it’s really sort of pretty.  It’s worth owning on that merit alone but it’s also funny, gross and clever.

Check back soon for more Oddtober content but until then feel free to recommend your favorite optometrist.

Oddtober 2020: The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll by Jean Nathan

Book: The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright

Author: Jean Nathan

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: The Wright Family was odd.  Dare Wright’s upbringing is a perfect distillation of what would happen if you crossed Grey Gardens with Martha Stewart’s micro-managed zest for living with the entirety of the old “cluster B” section of the DSM.

Availability: Published in 2004 by Picador, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This didn’t turn out to be as creepy an analysis as I had hoped.  I may have misjudged the overall creepiness because I’m not really scared of dolls. I never understood the people who were and still are scared of the Chucky franchise.  It was too campy and an active fire and competent voodoo priestess could have wrecked that doll’s shit right quick. The Annabelle franchise is a bit more frightening, I guess, but I also feel that if a possessed doll could be safely secured in a glass case in the home of two elderly fraudsters (no real shade, I love Ed and Lorraine Warren) who kept chickens in the house, maybe all you have to do if confronted by an evil doll is send it to whomever is in charge of the Warren estate and ask that it be put behind glass too.  Or maybe encase the doll in concrete and send it to the Vatican or drop it into the Mariana Trench? But really who cares because if I’m not scared by dolls, I won’t get it and people who aren’t scared by people wearing masks will not understand my utter revulsion at Slipknot or the original Shatner Michael Myers configuration. Horror is relative.

But creepy or not I am going to continue because maybe the creepiness is the books we read along the way. This is the second part of my look at The Lonely Doll and Dare Wright. You may want to have a look at the first part because in that entry I discuss the book itself and my speculations behind what was at work in the book and what may have happened to Dare Wright to cause her to create such a needy, emotionally shattered character in what was meant, one supposes, to be a pretty little children’s book. I wondered why Dare included the spanking scene and what the reader was supposed to take away from the message behind such a spanking.  I had some conclusions, given my tendency toward armchair psychoanalysis.  Among them:

–The Lonely Doll was terrified of abandonment by a male father figure, and that she would submit to any sort of punishment if it meant that the father figure, Mr. Bear, would stay.

–I wondered if Mr. Bear and Little Bear’s sudden arrival signified a stepfather and step-sibling, forcing Edith into submitting to a male figure who was essentially sprung on her, while negotiating a relationship with another child, whose own rebellion against a father figure could create all sorts of problems.

–Because of these two possibilities, I pegged Dare Wright as having been a little girl whose own parents were divorced and who missed her father.  I thought perhaps she had a stepfather whose assertion of his authority over her was at times draconian but she still wanted to please him because he represented stability and because her new step-sibling brought her companionship she missed out on when her mother was single.

I was kind of right but I was also very wrong.

Oddtober 2020: The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright

Book: The Lonely Doll

Author: Dare Wright

Type of Book: Children’s fiction, photography, inadvertently creepy

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it’s only odd if you’re a grown-up.

Availability: Initially published in 1957, it went out of print for a while but the copyright was renewed in 1985.  I cannot find a publication on my copy but it was published by the Sandpiper division of Houghton Mifflin, and is visually identical to copies you can purchase new:

Comments: When I was bouncing around the idea of trying to get out of my rut and rev my writing engine for Halloween, my friend and PUBLISHER WHO IS STILL PATIENTLY WAITING FOR MY FINISHED WORK ON MANIFESTOS, Chip Smith, mentioned that last year’s foray into children’s books was interesting and made a few suggestions on other works I could pursue.  He didn’t mention The Lonely Doll, but his enthusiasm for the topic reassured me I was on the right path.  So here we are, discussing this pretty but potentially alarming book.

This book was not a part of my landscape as a child. It wasn’t just that dolls didn’t frighten me – I never set eyes on this book until very recently. I first became aware of the book when actress Famke Janssen filed a police report believing that someone had broken into her apartment and did nothing but leave behind a copy of The Lonely Doll.  Police were highly skeptical about her claims, though they never charged her with making a false police report because they believe Janssen believed this happened and was sincere when she made the claims.  There were no signs of entry, the security cameras at her apartment never showed a break-in attempt, and inside the book the police found a to-do list that was written by Janssen herself.  It was the book that grabbed my attention more than the notion that an actress would make up such a story because regardless of whether or not the break-in really happened, I’m still left wondering about the significance of the book and why anyone, Janssen or an intruder, would feel the book conveyed malice or ill-intent.

The story was not enough to provoke me into purchasing The Lonely Doll, but over the last couple of years, the book has come up on various list sites (Top Ten Sewer Disasters, Five Reasons Why You Personally Are Worse Than Hitler, etc.) when the topic of terrifying things from childhood make their rounds. I’m unsure how all my years in the book arena, from childhood to a year ago, passed without me seeing this book but I suspect it’s the case that I tune out that which is not relevant to my interests. I very quickly passed from picture books with minimal text to books marketed to teens and adults, and when I was still reading books for little kids, I liked drawings more than photos. I also tended toward smaller books, like the Little Golden Books.  So the uneasiness this book caused some readers and still causes adults who investigate the book wasn’t something I experienced either as a child or in retrospect as an adult who read this book as a child.

The awkwardness in the final sentence in the above paragraph is intentional because it’s important to narrow down who is upset by this book and why. From what I have seen, children don’t really respond poorly to this book, or at least the children who were the target market for this book during its heyday, and that audience is mostly women who now are between 40 and 70 years old, though younger readers of the book pop up from time to time.  I walked an uneasy line when looking into this book because I genuinely don’t want to know much about books, even fluffy picture books, before I look into them for myself but one statement came up so often that it was unavoidable, words to the effect of:

“I didn’t realize how creepy this book was until I found my old copy in a box in the attic and thumbed through it for the first time in decades.”

Though I was terribly interested in what sparked such a retrospective reaction, I managed to stop reading before these (mostly) women explained themselves. I’m glad I did because I was able to see the book through mostly uninfluenced eyes and, in the end, my reaction as an adult who did not read this book as a child is similar to the women who did. When I went back to review their reactions, there one one large commonality that I will discuss in a moment, but mostly we all felt a strange uneasiness that is hard to pin down. And though I feel I must emphasize that this is a book that is despised by the woke among us, the fact is that this is not a wicked or deliberately unpleasant book.  It’s a relic of its time and possibly a very useful tool in armchair psychoanalyzing the author, a favorite pastime of mine.  Unless one was a child who was very frightened of dolls in general, this book is unlikely to be that upsetting.  More modern children may have a negative reaction because of changing mores regarding appropriate discipline for children but much can be said for any book about children written before the 1970s.

Though this is a very well-conceived, well-executed book, it’s an emotionally taxing book for an adult to read.

Little Edith, the Lonely Doll, is terribly lonely, to the point that she begs pigeons to stay and be her friend but all they do is eat the bread crumbs she leaves them and fly away. When Mr. Bear and Little Bear show up, it is literally an answer to this forlorn toy’s prayers, and that it is visually adorable helps draw you in.

The bears and Edith quickly settle into a domestic life that involves lots of playing, mischief and even vacations to the beach. All is right in the world until one rainy day, Edith and Little Bear find themselves at loose ends because it is raining and they cannot go outside. Mr. Bear is not there – running errands one presumes – and the two decide to explore the house, finding a wardrobe full of clothes and shoes and a dressing table covered in cosmetics, perfume and jewelry.

This scene is compelling for little children who enjoy dressing up and especially compelling given the grown-up nature of the items they find on the dressing table, like jewelry and expensive perfume. The two play dress-up until Little Bear dares Edith to put on lipstick.  She demures, certain Mr. Bear would be angry if he found out. Little Bear is feeling rebellious and takes the lipstick and writes, with a nod to Christopher Robin, no doubt, “Mr. Bear is just a silly old thing.”  He then hands the lipstick to Edith, egging her on. She puts on the lipstick, playing along with Little Bear’s antics.  Of course this is when Mr. Bear walks in and is appalled that she is wearing lipstick, something he believes she knows better than to do.

And this is where most people focus their unease with the book. Mr. Bear spanks her.


After her spanking, still defiant, Little Bear still stands by his “silly old thing” comment but Edith breaks down into sobs, terrified that Mr. Bear will leave her and take Little Bear with him if they continue being bad.  Little Bear, immediately chastened, soothes Edith and together they clean up the mess and then seek out Mr. Bear for absolution.

Mr Bear, who was reading the newspaper on the couch like a furry Ward Cleaver, was waiting for an apology and willing to forgive them both of the heinous crime of acting like children.

There’s a lot in this book that adult me finds unpleasant.  The spanking thing is kind of nasty but let’s bear in mind that in the 1950s spanking was the norm and perhaps being spanked over the knee of a teddy bear isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a pretty, unsupervised doll. But the rest of the book is disturbing outside the realms of relativist parenting techniques.

Like, who the hell does this bear think he is and why does he think he has the right to spank this doll?  If Edith is a doll, where is the child who plays with her?  Where are the other toys?  If she’s a stand-in for a little girl, where are her parents?  Why was this doll left utterly alone in this house that she hasn’t even explored enough on her own to discover the dressing room before the bears showed up?  These are real toys interacting with real objects, which gives the reader a voyeuristic feeling as they watch photos that maybe shouldn’t be shown to others.

The author of this blog uses The Lonely Doll as a graphic stand-in for the way adults view spanking of children versus the spanking of adults and wonders if people are upset about Edith’s spanking because they are blurring the lines between childish fantasies about the secret lives of toys and their own reactions to past and present spankings in real life. The author finds fault with some of the negative reaction to this book because the adult is viewing the punishment from the lens of receiving it as an adult, and even if I may not agree, I can see the logic. Whether or not there is anything sexual about spanking Edith, and plenty think that there is indeed an erotic element, the fact that spanking children was not taboo when this book was written and photographed is important.

But we also need to ask ourselves what this spanking was meant to convey. I’m deliberately shying away from discussing spanking in media aimed at children because up until the 1970s, most cases of spanking in children’s media at worst were portrayed as a necessary evil and the children receiving such spankings – think of Tom Sawyer and similar – were just fine. There were some rather Dickensian looks at abuse but the wholesale beating of a child was generally not seen as appropriate discipline and was a thing apart from spanking.  Moreover, the spankings were not the larger message of such books.  They seldom were the actual message of any media that presented spanking. Through the 1980s, media as a whole, including advertising, didn’t shy away from spanking – a trope that seems fairly negative – as they sought to sell their products because the message the ads were conveying was so outrageous as to be culturally understood to be outrageous, or they sought to avoid spanking altogether. Ads featured children and adults alike being spanked. When it was a child receiving the punishment, the message the ads conveyed was that use of their product could avoid discipline issues that led to spanking, which was a thing a good parent would want.

As for spanking adults, most of it was tongue-in-cheek, slyly implying that a wife might be a slattern or slipshod in the hopes of receiving an erotic spanking over the knee of her husband.

Sometimes the script was flipped and the man got the spanking but most of those ads were deliberate inversions of previous ads and it was difficult finding an “organic” use of a woman spanking a man.  This one comes very close.  The man in this ad is not being spanked but her dog bit his ass, ruined his pants, and he ends up humiliated and sprawled over her knee with a pained posterior. The posture of this ad is of submissive acceptance of authoritative dominance and her arm is raised up above her head in a perfect mimic of spanking. Incidentally, this whole ad encapsulates why the seventies was so very awful.


It’s remarkable how many movie posters featured spanking. These ads invariably show how fun spanking a full-grown woman is, especially if there’s at least one person watching as it happens. Spanking was “racy.”


Women evidently wanted to be “tamed” by old screaming men, and, again, it was all in fun, even if the dude looked downright homicidal like John here. This is a nicer version of the poster – another shot has a crowd gathered, presumably to cheer him on as he wrecked this woman for sass or maybe she put on some lipstick, too.


While few modern women will look at these ads and find them wholly amusing, it’s hard to get too worked up over adult women in heels and shellacked hair getting spanked in perfectly posed technicolor.

But mostly these images are deprived of miserable impact because of how fucking stupid they are.  Spanking a wife for not “store testing” coffee or implying drug store shampoo will help a modern woman assert disciplinary dominance are on their faces really stupid premises, deliberately stupid, in fact. Spousal abuse was less discussed when these ads ran and physical violence in relationships was a societal ill that still plagues us but the audiences then, as well as now, understand that these ads are hyperbolic, and that only a lunatic would hit their spouse over supermarket coffee and lunatics were not the target audiences for these products or films. Audiences today might see far more violence in these images than a 1960s housewife but within the times these ads ran, the audience understood the message being conveyed – buy fresh coffee, get the right shampoo, we can’t show you pent up perverts penetration on film so spanking will suffice. At no time is the actual message, “Beat your spouse.”

As an aside, I found this image when searching for spanking images.

Our grandparents were absolute madmen. Jesus Christ, the kid is farting so often that his teacher has to get involved, dragging his mom into class and everything.  But helpful Ovaltine saves the day, proving that the boy isn’t a bad kid, farting up the place on purpose.  No, the problem is with the parents since dad leaves his idiot wife alone to her devices and without him there to instruct her, she evidently feeds her son like a goat at a petting zoo.  But as remarkably awful as this ad is, the message is to avoid spanking your kid by reducing his flatulence.

Back to the book.  What is the message behind Edith’s spanking? The doll in this book is one of the most emotionally desperate child characters one can find outside of depictions of war.  She’s utterly alone, bereft and literally praying for relief from her torment of loneliness.  Then two bears – an adult and a peer – arrive and a weird power balance develops wherein Edith is now subject to the will of a masculine parental figure and the whims of her brother-bear can result in this adult bear hitting her (because Little Bear egged that shit on, for sure). For Edith, the power of the spanking is not that she has disappointed her father figure because she engaged in behavior that any loving caretaker would want to correct, but rather the fear that a spanking is the prelude to future abandonment, a fate she will do anything to avoid.

The message can vary but it boils down to variations of a child learning appropriate boundaries and trusting that bad behavior will not result in parental abandonment.  These two do not have such a boundary set in place, so shown when Edith is spanked and this resulted in her sobbing from fear of being alone again.

And let’s discuss how she got spanked by a random male doll who showed up one day to live in her home.  I do not yet know much about Dare Wright though I hope to have her biography finished today so I can discuss it next, but I guarantee you many young girls whose mothers remarried after divorce or just moved their lovers into the house understand a message very specific to their lives.  One day, a male figure whose arrival and possible departure has nothing to do with you or your wants, has physical and social control over you.  How many abusive stepfathers were seen as Mr. Bear spanked this emotionally shattered doll? For many adults, childhood is a horror they compartmentalize until they are old enough to cope with it all and I can see very easily how an adult woman can see herself in this doll and remember being a child who was not treated fairly and who feared being left behind more than physical violence.

But you don’t even have to have this specific memory to feel uneasy about a book that features a stand-in for a little girl who begs pigeons to stay with her and talk to her. When confronted with this book, you see dolls interacting in a human environment, standing in for humans.  There is a reality to this book that I did not encounter in my Little Golden Books.  It is very easy to assign Edith a human role even though she is clearly not a real little girl because the rest of the book is very real. Plus the environment is clean, pretty and the dolls themselves are very cute.  A sad little girl is finally given a sort of family and then BOOM! The goddamn big bear is apparently looking right up her dress as he spanks her and she descends into a fit of sobbing despair.  That they seem like they’ve mended fences at the end is nice, but that is not the ebb and flow of childhood. It takes a long time to overcome the misery of years of loneliness and fear.  The reality of this book mirrors the reality of the unstable nature of childhood itself, where lessons have to be learned over and over and children don’t always spring back.

Dare Wright produced eighteen other books in the Lonely Doll series (one features a kitten and another features Edith kidnapped and tied to a tree), and this book still routinely makes “Best of” lists for children’s books in defiance of how adults may feel about it.  Clearly the message children receive from this book, even modern little children, is very different than mine.  I don’t know what they see when they read this book but the beautiful photography, cuddly bears, pretty doll, the allure of the make-up and high heels during dress-up all likely play a role in the enduring interest some children have with this book series.

But I still wonder, what message was it that Dare Wright wanted to convey?  What caused her to create such a sad, needy character?  Did she even realize Edith was needy and miserable? Why did she create a scenario wherein a doll is spanked by another doll in a genuine attempt at discipline? Did she really think Edith deserved a spanking for something so minor?  Was the scene a touching look at a father’s attempt to tame an unruly child, or was there something far more malignant that only distance from childhood can show us?  Will any of this information help us understand why this book was involved in an actress’s presumably delusional belief someone planted the book in her home?

We’ll find out in my next entry.  Until then, share with me any books you read as a child that now as an adult freak you out.