Haunted

It’s gray outside this morning, and right now the trees and the crepe myrtles are swaying in a strong wind. It must have rained at some point during the night because the sidewalk looks wet, but I’m not sure. We’re supposed to experience tropical storm conditions, and it looks as though that won’t be until later this evening; we’ll see how that turns out though. Our syringe program may be short-staffed today so I am probably going to go into the office to help out–the storm may not reach us until around five thirty and I should be able to get home by then (am I crazy? The jury, as always, remains out on that one).

I’ve been sleeping really well lately–stress reduction has occurred on many different levels over the past week. My back and shoulders feel relaxed and not knotted anymore–I hadn’t noticed how much of my stress was being carried there until it wasn’t there anymore–and maybe I am going to be able to start focusing with laser intensity again. I miss that, frankly; the ability to focus all my brain and creativity and intelligence (such as it is) on one particular thing and get it finished; I think I may even go back to being able to keep all the plates spinning again–stop that crazy talk, Greg!–so we shall see. As I said, some things that have been weighing heavily on my mind–and knotting my shoulders–have wrapped up now and if i can finally manage to get myself organized, look out world.

Do keep Lake Charles and western Louisiana/eastern Texas in your thoughts, Constant Reader, as they are going to get hammered again tonight.

Yesterday as I made condom packs I queued up Terence Malick’s debut film as part of the Cynical 70’s Film Festival, Badlands,which starred a very young Martin Sheen and an even younger Sissy Spacek playing a version of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril (in the movie they are Kit and Holly); as they embark on their killing spree–although in the movie it’s South Dakota and Montana, as opposed to the Nebraska and Wyoming in reality. It is set in the 1950’s, which is also when Starkweather went on his spree (makes you think about how everyone remembers the 1950’s as this idyllic time; what I call Leave it to Beaver Syndrome), and the performances are stellar. The movie is narrated by Spacek’s Holly, in an almost unemotional monotone that captures the spirit of the movie itself. The movie doesn’t explain why Kit decided to start killing people, or why Holly chose to go with him, other than they fell in love and her father–the first victim–disapproved. (It’s also very weird seeing President Bartlet on a shooting spree, really.) Both are terrific in their roles, and the movie is visually stunning, really hammering home the isolation of the countryside in those rural states and their vast emptiness–and literally, how on the great plains or in the badlands there is no one to hear you scream. It made me think also of In Cold Blood; and of course, gave me some story ideas.

I decided to make it a Sissy Spacek double feature and queued up Carrie next–it was also a cynical 70’s movie, after all; and while it can hardly be termed a teen movie, it was about high school, after all, and the only adults in the film are supporting characters–Miss Collins the gym teacher; the principal; and of course, the piece de resistance, Margaret White–and everyone else is theoretically a teenager/high school student. I’ve not rewatched Carrie in years, and I’d forgotten what a great film it is; it’s one of the best (if not the best) Stephen King adaptations ever made–I might even go so far as to say it may be one of those rare instances when the film is better than the book. (And as a big King fan, I am quite aware of what blasphemy I just uttered.) Both book and film might be the first time bullying was addressed so strongly, and an argument can even be made that Carrie is one of two Stephen King novels that could be classified as young adult novels (Christine is the other one). Reading Carrie was a revelation to me as a teenager; it was the first time I’d ever read anything in fiction that depicted high school as I knew it that closely; most books and films at the time that did so were completely unrealistic. I had found junior and senior high school to be jungles of cruelty and viciousness with a rigid caste system; it was the first time I’d ever read anything centering the poor kid whom nobody likes, everyone picks on or mocks, and did it with sympathy. It was the first time I saw high school girls depicted as “mean girls”–it later became a trope–and the book was also the first time I ever saw in fiction anyone try to explain the weird, visceral group reaction to a figure who is more to be pitied than hated. (The book was also the first time I realized that we all love an underdog story–is there anything more popular in American popular culture than rooting for the underdog–while in real life the majority of us all will kick the underdog in the ribs or stand by and do or say nothing when they are being abused; King got that, as well as the shame decent people feel about doing nothing later) The movie is incredibly well done; there’s more gratuitous female nudity than perhaps necessary but it doesn’t feel exploitative; the locker room scene that opens the book features female nudity but it would be unrealistic to not show some–and later, we see Spacek’s nude body when she bathes and washes the blood off herself. It’s also very well-cast: Betty Buckley is terrific as the gym teacher who goes from irritated with poor Carrie until she realizes the girl has no idea what her period is; Amy Irving as Sue Snell, the decent girl who participates in the taunting but later feels remorse–a difficult role to be believable in, but she manages it; Nancy Allen is perfectly cast as spoiled hateful bitch Chris Hargensen; and of course John Travolta, playing against type as Chris’ low-life drop-out boyfriend and co-conspirator, which was really a brave move on his part–he was a star already and a teen idol from Welcome Back Kotter, and making his screen debut as a dirtbag thug was a risk (and his next film was Saturday Night Fever); but the movie truly belongs to Sissy Spacek, who is perfect as Carrie, and Piper Laurie as her mother, Jesus-freak Margaret White. Watching them again, I can’t help but feel that each deserved to win Oscars (they lost to Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight, both in Network). The use of music in the movie is perfect, and the whole movie seems to be shot with this weird, slightly blurry, out of focus dreamlike style, like the camera was coated in vaseline or covered in gauze. And the clothes and hairstyles! The prom tuxedos with the ruffled shirts and in bizarre color choices! The feathered hair and the gym shorts pulled up so high they barely covered the girls’ asses! William Katt as Tommy Ross, the nice guy who takes Carrie to the prom! Even a young Edie McClurg as one of the teenaged girls, I think the character name was Frieda? As I rewatched the movie, I couldn’t help but think how King subverted the trope of the underdog story by making Carrie so sympathetic to the viewer, and then of course she blossoms at the prom with her make-up and her hair out of her face, in the beautiful dress she made herself, escorted by the most popular boy in the school, and elected Prom Queen–only to have it all come crashing down around her.

The movie differed from the book in several important ways, too–in the book, they do all laugh when Carrie is coated with the pig’s blood; the election for King and Queen isn’t rigged in the book; and in the book Carrie wreaks havoc and destroys the entire town on her walk home. The book also–a stylistic choice I may have questioned as an editor–made it very clear almost from the very beginning that Carrie’s story has a terrible ending, by intercutting the chapters with clips from news reports, books, etc. talking about the Black Prom–the reader just doesn’t know what happens at it, and whatever we may have been expecting, it certainly wasn’t the extreme it turned out to be–and my sympathies were entirely with Carrie, all the way to the very end.

I may need to reread Carrie.

It’s been such a fucked-up year that I forgot that I usually spend October reading horror novels, to celebrate the Halloween season. So maybe tonight, after I get home and the storm rages around us, maybe I’ll take Carrie down from the shelf and give it a reread.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines. Stay safe, everyone, and I will catch you later.

Drops of Jupiter

I got my flu shot yesterday, as well as the second and final vaccination for shingles, and just like the first shingles shot, my shoulder (flu went into the left, shingles to the right) is achy and sore again this morning. But I have absolutely no regrets–a few days of sore shoulder is certainly worth never having shingles. Ironically, one of my goals for this year was to be better about my health in general; who knew, of course, when setting my goals there would be a global pandemic and all of the resultant fallout? But while I still need to get that damned colonoscopy scheduled, I have managed to get the lumps in my chest X-rayed (fatty cysts, RUDE!) and my shingles vaccination. I was in a regular routine of going to the gym again before it closed (and I really really miss it), and need to get into at least a regular routine of stretching, push-ups. and abs every morning (which hasn’t happened yet). I think that will help with what I call malaise, but really is depression.

Malaise just somehow sounds better to me than depression–but that’s also due to stigma. I don’t know why I am so reluctant to admit that I have depression sometimes–it never gets truly bad, just bad enough that I fail to see the point in doing anything of any kind–but of course, when i had to go to the office every day and see clients that helped keep it under control; helping people every day and talking to them about their own problems and issues made me feel better about myself–hey at least you’re helping people and you can do that even during a bout of depression–so obviously, only working with clients two days a week now does not help as much with that. I also am not one who likes to admit to weakness of any kind–thank you, systemic toxic masculinity–and so talking publicly about it, let alone admitting to it, has always been an issue for me.

I did watch The Believers while making condom packs yesterday, and yes, I was right; it doesn’t hold up and it’s really terrible about what is essentially just as valid a religion as Christianity. At one point an expert in santeria does explain to the main character–played by a very handsome younger Martin Sheen–that there is a difference between santeria (white magic; the forces of good) and brujeria (dark magic; the forces of evil)–but throughout the film it’s only referred to as santeria, and the entire point of the film is to exoticize an ancient African religion, make it seem mysterious and evil. Ironically, even though the film was made in 1987 or so, it actually fits into my Cynical 70’s Film Festival because it, too, is about paranoia and conspiracy and not being able to truly trust anyone. There was also a fear of Satanism rampant in the 1980’s; devil cults and so forth–and a lot of it had to do with heavy metal music as well. I suppose this swing back in the 1980’s was to be expected, almost predictable; after the social upheavals of the 1960’s and the cynicism of the 1970’s, the 1980’s saw a swing back to older values of a sort. Evangelicalism–which began to uptick somewhat in the 1970’s, on the wings of end-times religious theory, like The Late Great Planet Earth and The Omen, began preaching about “family values” and trying to censor film, books, television, and music. The film, which I didn’t really remember much of, played down some of the paranoia and motivation of the novel (which was called The Religion, until the release of the film); in the book the religion followers were being warned by the Seven Powers that child sacrifice–three children, in total–was necessary to prevent the coming end of the world; and the stakes of the novel lie in the fact that the main character’s son was to be the third. This plot point was written out of the movie, which obviously turned them into crazy child sacrificers; at least their motivations in the book were sort of pure–an end justifies the means sort of thing, which was a very popular mentality in the 1980’s, as I recall. The book ends with the main character, his new second wife (love interest throughout the book) and the son, saved from sacrifice, living on a farm somewhere; their radio and television goes out, and the adults look at each other with worry as the sky outside also begins to change to an eerie color…the movie obviously ends differently, and not as satisfyingly; I liked that the book depicted that their unwillingness to allow their son to be sacrificed in order to save the world–selfishness, really–doomed the entire world. (The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay also does a most excellent job of portraying this same dilemma–seriously, Constant Reader, you need to read that book.)

Thinking about this book, and rewatching this movie, naturally has me thinking about the connections between santeria and brujeria to the type of voodoo that was practiced in New Orleans; something I’ve long been interested in but hesitant to write about, particularly, as I’ve said before, because the historical writings about New Orleans and voodoo culture is extremely, horrifyingly dated and racist. My story “The Snow Globe”–coming next year in the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime’s anthology Magic is Murder–touches on New Orleans voodoo, and I was absolutely terrified of getting it wrong. The primary issue I have with both fictional and historical depictions of voodoo under any name is that it’s always painted as devil-worship and evil, which is predicated on the notion that Christianity is the only good religion. (I’ve also, often, noted that horror fiction–film, television, novels–while always attacked by Christians, actually almost always portrays Christianity as good, and true, and real; a confirmation of its beliefs and value systems. Vampires inevitably recoil from the cross and holy water; same with demonic possession–and inevitably not just Christianity but Catholicism in particular. I’ve always thought that rather curious.)

Scott Heim’s wonderful story “Loam”–available here at Amazon–was very interesting (not just because he’s a terrific writer and it’s very good) to me because it was about the after-effects, years later, of one of those devil-worshipping/Satanic cult scares from that time period, in which child abuse and so forth were also alleged, and convictions gained, only to later discover the kids had “false memories” that were implanted by the questioning (similar to what happened to Greg Kelley in that documentary we recently watched, where he was falsely accused and convicted of molesting two children). I’ve always been curious about the after-effects of these kinds of traumas, not just on the children but the adults involved as well. How do you parent in that situation? I have a book idea that’s been lying around here for quite some time called I Know Who You Are, which is sort of based on that idea; someone escaping a deeply troubled past and starting a new life with a new name somewhere else, only to have someone from that past turn up, because you can never escape the past. It’s a great idea, and one that I was originally intending to use as a Paige novel in that aborted series, but I think it will also work as a stand-alone–I’ve considered using it as the spin-off from my true crime writer Jerry Channing, who has shown up in the Scotty series a couple of times.

But I must get through these other manuscripts before I can even consider writing anything else.

And on that note, tis off to the spice mines with me.

Forever and Always

Wednesday morning and the sun is shining, which is always a lovely thing. After the last few days of incessant rain and gloom–but not as bad as a tropical storm coming through–it’s nice to see the sunshine again. The weather is also beginning to take that shift towards cooler, which is also incredibly lovely. I slept really well last night– I inevitably do on the morning after two consecutive days of getting up at six–and as such, I don’t feel very tired today. Also a lovely thing. I am working from home today–I think I am going to pick an 80’s movie today for watching during the inevitable making of the condom packs; I had already cued up Martin Sheen’s The Believers, a horror movie about santeria, because I wanted to see how it held up after all these years–and i am relatively certain it is probably guilty of a lot of things that would keep the film from being made today; not the least of which would be portraying a non-Abrahamic religion as a tool of evil. I read the book the film was based on as well, The Religion by Robert Stuart Nathan, and a quick google search brought up this: The Religion is a horror novel written in 1982 by Nicholas Conde*. It explores the ritual sacrifice of children to appease the pantheon of voodoo deities, through the currently used practice of SanterĂ­a. (*Nicholas Conde was the pseudonym he used for the novel.)

Yeah, that doesn’t sound terribly promising.

As I said, it’s probably a terribly offensive movie (and book), but reading/seeing it made me more interested in both voodoo and Santeria, and was the first place I learned about how the enslaved Africans in this hemisphere adapted their religion by replacing their gods and goddesses with Catholic saints to fool people into thinking they’d converted to Christianity. Voodoo was something I didn’t know much about at the time–I still don’t really know much about it–and I’d never heard of santeria before; I’ve always wanted to learn more about it, but the problem is so much of the available material cannot be trusted, particularly when it comes to the New Orleans version of the religion; so much history here is word-of-mouth legend, and when people started to write “histories” (such as Robert Tallant’s Voodoo in New Orleans) most of what they wrote was deeply racist and most likely inaccurate–and can one really trust white Southern historians writing about the culture of people of color?

Probably not. At any rate, it’ll be interesting to rewatch the film through a modern lens.

We finished watching Ratched last night. It was highly entertaining, and visually spectacular, but you also kind of had to turn off your brain a bit, as there were enormous plot holes and there were more than a few things didn’t make sense; not to mention the connection to the character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was marginal, at best, and completely absent at worst. But the sets, costumes and visual aesthetic of the show was stunningly gorgeous, similar to the old Douglas Sirk films of the 1950’s. And it did keep me entertained, which is saying something–I don’t have much of an attention span these days, which is why I am having difficulty reading these days again. It’s so weird; I’ll have some sort of reading breakthrough and then tear through a bunch of novels in a short period of time, and then go back to not being able to focus again. I intend on working on the book again tonight once my workday is finished–I wasn’t joking about that mess of a chapter–and I also haven’t worked on anything short-story related at all this week either; even if it’s just to reread and figure out how to fix one that has a finished draft already, or one that is unfinished while trying to figure out how to keep going with it.

And on that note, I am going to get some more coffee and get this day started. Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader.