Monday, October 27, 2008

While at Barnes and Noble this weekend, I picked up Neil Gaiman's new short novel for children The Graveyard Book and Kelly Link's new Young Adult collection Pretty Monsters. Despite the fact that most of my tattoos are from classic kid's books, I'm not a huge reader of contemporary children's or young adult literature (it may amaze some of you that I've never read Lemony Snickett or even J. K. Rowling), although my ex-girlfriend was, and my last published novella, "They are girls, green girls," had something of a Young Adult feel to it.

But Neil and Kelly are friends, albeit friends that I've not talked to in several years, and I think Kelly is one of the two best short story writers currently working in the English language (Neil agrees with me on that) and that Neil is hugely talented and deserves his huge success, even though I don't read him as much as I used to (I strongly disliked American Gods, which seems churlish of me to admit, as I'm one of the many people he thanks in the afterword).

Surprisingly, Kelly's book proved easier to find, as it was prominently displayed on the New Releases shelf at the front of the Young Readers section. Neil's I couldn't find at all, causing me to check the fantasy and the graphic novels sections, to see if it had been shelved where his older fans might notice it, but no, it wasn't there, and the bookfinder workstation claimed it was in "Juvenile Fiction." I finally asked a dottering old guy in a Barnes and Noble apron, but he couldn't find it either, and it took him asking a goth girl co-worker "have you seen the new book by that Neil Guy-man fella?" to turn it up. It actually had its own display rack, but one buried away at the very back corner of the Children's section.

At least I hadn't tried to find it at the local Borders, where I'm told by a former manager that their computer claims they don't have it yet, even though they really do, similarly buried in the back of the children's section where none of the staff knows to look. This seems odd, as the book has been getting a lot of press; a rave from Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields in the New York Times Book Review, a rave at the Onion's AV Club, an NPR interview, etc.

I actually prefer Kelly as a writer to Neil (it's okay for me to say that, as he'd immediately agree with me), but I saved hers for last and am currently midway through his. It think it's the best thing he's written since Coraline (which I consider to be his most artistically succesful non-comics work). That it's essentially a riff on Kipling's The Jungle Book, with an orphaned boy being raised by ghosts (and a vampire who is essentially the Bagheera character) in a crumbling graveyard, only adds to the delight.

In the last couple of weeks I've seen Apaloosa and Tell No One in the theater. The first is a really fine old-school kickass Western that tweaks the traditional plots (there are several) in unusual ways, with exemplary work from Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen as gunslingers who are practically a platonic couple and some really well-staged shoot-outs, refreshingly nasty and quick. Plus, Lance Henricksen! The second is a terrific French thriller based on an American novel by Harlan Coben, the plot of which it actually improves considerably. I can't recommend it strongly enough; the performances are all first-rate, there's a scary female henchman (an Asian male in the book), a splendid tense foot chase through Parisian traffic, and a nice sense we're seeing the "real" Paris rather than the usual movie one. Plus, despite the pace, it gives its characters room to breathe and they aren't just there to serve the plot. For instance, Kristin Scott-Thomas (who's been working in France for years) plays the wife (yes, wife) of the hero's sister, who is also his best friend. In an American thriller, you know she would end up either the killer or a victim, but I think it's one of the film's virtues that neither happens, and that her friendship with the protaganist is treated as something that just IS, rather than a red herring.
Now to watch the season finale of Mad Men, once it pops up On Demand.

Friday, October 17, 2008

I Was Twelve Years Old: She Was Naked and Headless

The story you’re about to read is true. Nobody’s name is changed and nobody is innocent. And oy, did I just date myself with that Dragnet riff! You young whipper-snappers are probably thinking “what’s that duffer going on about, anyway?”

I’ve told this story before and will again. It formed the basis of the rather belated “Christmas” letter I mailed out to various friends since this last Spring. I've also sold a version of it to the local arts and politics tabloid Yes! Weekly, where it's the cover story of this week's issue. My editor there thought my title above too subtle and understated, and called it "A Haunting on Holden," even though the actual address is on Friendly Avenue.

When I was a kid growing up in the vibrant sin-filled metropolis of Fayetteville, NC, my grandfather would regularly bring me here on weekend trips to Greensboro, where his brother and sister-in-law lived on a poultry farm in the middle of the suburbs, at the intersection of Friendly Avenue and Holden Road.


My uncle (actually, my great-uncle) Olan had owned that farm since the surrounding land was countryside, and although the city had grown up around him, he was grandfathered in and allowed to keep chickens and geese and pigeons until he died in the mid 1980s


I loved the visits to the farm, even though I was a bit freaked out the first time my uncle deftly picked up a chicken, snapped its head off with a single twist, and dropped it, watching it stagger around in circles and chuckling at how "that damn fool thing still has more brains than most folks I know." Once the chicken collapsed (which might take some time), he would pick up the headless corpse, dip it in scalding water to loosen the feathers, and then it was my job to pluck it for our supper that night.

I wasn't disgusted or horrified by this. Even as a small child, I understood that the food we ate came from animals, and was fascinated rather than disturbed by the connection between a drumstick and the carcass it once came from. Whenever my mother cooked a turkey or a capon, she would always show me the liver and heart and giblets and explain how each functioned in the living fowl. She also liked to put Cornish game hens (a phrase, which she explained to me, was nothing more than a euphemism for “a little chicken barely out of grade school”) on her hands and make them “dance” on the tabletop for me.

That didn‘t bother me, and the plucking and cleaning of a recently living bird‘s carcass held no horrors for me. What did bother me was the way a decapitated chicken could still stagger around sans head, a spasmodic reflex that became downright terrifying the time one flapping victim came stumbling right at me and seemed to chase me no matter which way I turned, until it finally collapsed in a kicking heap..


Rather than being sympathetic to my terror, my usually taciturn uncle laughed, saying "don't be such a sissy-boy, Ian Keith, the damn thing can't exactly peck you any more, can it?"

Life was hard for the poor chickens on my uncle's farm, in more than just the usual ways. Olan owned a friendly (well, to me) drooly pitbull bitch named Ginger, who lived in a chain link run beside the chicken coop


Every so often an unlucky chicken would fly over the fence and into Ginger's territory. No, she wouldn't eat it or tear it to shreds, Instead, she buried it, taking apparent care not to injure it in the process, leaving behind a small mound of earth with the poor chicken's feet sticking out of it. My uncle liked to joke that Ginger was trying to grow herself a chicken patch. If he found one of Ginger's victim's while the smothered bird was still relatively fresh, we ate chicken stew that night.


Ginger and my uncle weren't the only chicken killers who lived on the farm. There was my Aunt Virginia's rangy black tomcat, who'd lost an eye and half an ear in his battles with chickens over the years (roosters are pretty damn tough).


When he was just a kitten, the cat had been named, ahem, "Niggerman,“ just like in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls,“ but my mother told my great-aunt that she didn't want me hearing that word, and thus the cat was re-christened Tar Baby. My uncle hated Tar Baby for the way he kept killing chickens (oddly enough, he generally left the pigeons, which should have been much easier prey, alone) and continually threatened to shoot him or feed him to Ginger, but my Aunt Virginia would then sweetly say "Olan, anything happens to that cat, I'll invite my sister Margaret to come live with us." That always shut him up.

Now, Tar Bay may have hated chickens, but he loved me, and whenever I visited, he spent the night on the pillow beside my head, purring like an electric engine.

One weekend when I was maybe eleven or twelve years old, I'd come with my grandfather on one of his regular visits to Olan's and Virginia's. I forget what I'd done that day, but I'll always remember that night.

The house was very old and drafty and creaky, full of heirlooms and dust. The guest room I slept in was on the third floor (fourth if you count the basement, which was actually ground level around back, as the house was built on a steep incline). I was supposed to be sharing a bed with my grandfather, but he preferred to fall asleep in the big recliner in front of the floor-model Westinghouse television in the second-floor living room, while I'd go upstairs to read myself to sleep after Wrestling (or as my grandfather called it, "My Fights") was over (well, on Friday nights, I would; on Saturdays, I'd stay up to watch Shock Theater).

So there I was, alone in the wee hours in that high creaking room under the attic eaves, Tar Baby purring in my ear, drowsing off while reading a book of horror stories from Whitman Classics (a line of small, cheap children’s hardcovers that were sold in the toy sections of department stores) called More Tales to Tremble By. I still own this excellent little anthology of horror stories, which cost $.69 at Woolworths and which was my introduction to such classics as Saki’s “Srendi Vashtar,” H. R. Wakefield’s “The Red Lodge” and M. R. James’ “Casting the Runes.” I still own it.


When my eyelids got heavy, I put the book on the end table, laid my glasses beside it, and switched off the light. Sometime after that, I’m not sure how much later, I became aware that someone else was in the room with me.

For most of my life, I've been troubled by dreams, or apparent dreams, in which I'm lying in bed, apparently still awake, and a dark form enters the room. In my childhood days, the form was usually a menacing one, a monster or boogeyman, and I'd awaken with a shout or a scream. A few years later, it would be a female one, sometimes that of a girl I knew and had a crush on or lusted after. In those later waking dreams, the figure (which was generally a silhouette, but which I could "see" far more clearly that I would actually have been able to see anyone or anything in a dark room while not wearing my glasses) would remove articles of clothing as it approached., and I often felt more frustration than relief at the way I always woke up before she either got completely naked or actually climbed into the bed with me. This apparition may have been a harbinger of those hormonal adolescent fantasies, but it was not erotic or tantalizing.

The whole experience much clearer and detailed and more coherent than my usual dreams, and at no time did I think "oh, I must be dreaming." I could feel my beating heart, hear my own breath and the creaking of the ancient house around me. And the figure was more than just a silhouette.

That house, which still stands, is on the corner of Friendly Avenue and Holden Road, a busy intersection, and there was a street lamp on that corner. Filtered through the tall trees that surrounded the house, that light formed a pale rectangle on the bedroom wall. I "awoke" conscious of someone in the room with me and immediately knowing it was not my grandfather, and when that figure stepped in front of the pale rectangle of light, it was more than just a shadowy form.


It was a woman, dressed in a long dark old-fashioned dress with a high neck, and a pale apron with dark stains on it. The light illuminated her from the shoulders to just below the knees, so that I couldn't see her head or her feet.


Standing silently there, she began to undress. It wasn’t a striptease (not that I’d seen one at the time). There was nothing lascivious about it. She undressed like someone preparing for bed at the end of a long and draining day. First the stained apron came off, then layer after layer of clothing, including a girdle and bloomers, until at last she stood there nude.

She didn't look like any nude woman I'd ever seen or thought about. At that age I’d never actually viewed a naked woman in the flesh, but I imagined them a lot, and sometime sketched them in the secret drawing pad I kept behind my bookshelf. In doing this, my primary model was 1970 Playmate of the Year Marilyn Cole (yes, I was actually able to remember her name without looking her up in the delightfully named Her “hot librarian” photo spread in my father’s hidden magazine had been burned into my subconscious, and was invariably what appeared behind my eyelids whenever my hormonal imagination conjured up on undraped female form.


But that’s not what happened in this case.

The female figure that had begun undressing in the guest bedroom of that creaky old house nothing like a Playmate. She had wide hips, meaty thighs, small floppy breasts. Much like a typical nude in a late 19th century photograph, albeit even fleshier and somehow older and more careworn.


She began to walk towards me. As she padded closer to the bed, the rectangle of light from the window moved her up her body, illuminating the place where her head should have been. There wasn't even a stump, just a depression between her shoulder blades.


I did four things more or less at once. Woke up (assuming I'd been dreaming and this wasn't really happening). Hurled the cat curled up beside my head at where the headless apparition was standing. Switched on the light. Fumbled for my glasses.


There was nothing there. Just Tar Baby, crouched stiffly in the middle of the floor, glaring at me with his one eye in way that seemed to say "What the fuck is your problem?"


Then he sat down and began to lick his own balls (he was not a neutered tomcat), before stalking back to the bed, jumping up beside me, and sitting with his head pointing away from me and his ass in my face, which was his way of getting me back for throwing him like that. But he was a forgiving sort, at least with me, and in a few minutes he was curled up and purring again.

I never said anything about this dream, if it was a dream, to my aunt or uncle or my grandfather. Decades later, when my grandfather and my Uncle Olan were dead and my Aunt Virginia had sold the farm and moved into the Quaker Friends home, I attended a party in that house, which was owned by a local doctor and rented to a bunch of Guilford College students. One of the girls who lived there said that the house was haunted, and that the ghost was that of a woman. I asked her if the ghost had a head. She said she didn't know, that she herself had never seen it, and that those who claimed they had simply described brief glimpses of a female form in a long trailing dress disappearing around corners. On one of my last visits to my Aunt Virginia in the Friends Home, I asked her about this, but she was badly failing at that point and couldn't give me a coherent answer.

Do I actually think I saw a ghost? No, I do not, at least not in the daylight, or when I'm sober. I'm very much aware of the vagaries of memory, and of how our subconscious can lead us to construct coherent and detailed narratives from badly recollected and impressionistic scraps. Late last year I was reading the World Question Center website, where a variety of leading scientists and intellectuals were asked “What have you changed your mind about?” For Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, it was the fundamental nature of memory:

Like many scientists in the field of memory, I used to think that a memory is something stored in the brain and then accessed when used. Then, in 2000, a researcher in my lab, Karim Nader, did an experiment that convinced me, and many others, that our usual way of thinking was wrong. In a nutshell, what Karim showed was that each time a memory is used, it has to be restored as a new memory in order to be accessible later. The old memory is either not there or is inaccessible. In short, your memory about something is only as good as your last memory about it. This is why people who witness crimes testify about what they read in the paper rather than what they witnessed. Research on this topic, called reconsolidation, has become the basis of a possible treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction, and any other disorder that is based on learning.

It's true that, if my childhood self had been asked to sketch a naked woman, that mini-me would have drawn someone like a temptress from a Frank Frazetta paintin or a Playmate. So, no, the apparition didn’t have the kind of female body my eleven or twelve-year-old imagination would have conjured up. And before she disrobed, she was wearing a long dark dress of the sort that the students who later lived in that house described.

But this doesn‘t convince me. As LeDoux says, memories aren’t a digital video loop that plays back over and over again in the same form. Today, and ten years ago, upon thinking back to that night, I "see" the body I've sketched in here, but that doesn't mean I really "saw" it that way then. I have the writer's instinct to make stories detailed and convincing, and I suspect this "memory" has mutated quite a bit in the many years since it happened.

Still, I've found myself thinking about it in the last couple of years, and I think I'd like to find out who's living in that house now, and ask them what they've heard and seen and dreamed while under that creaking roof