Candyman

I moved to Houston in the spring of 1989, basically to put the past into the rearview mirror and get my shit together. A fresh start was called for, my parents lived there, and so I shipped some stuff and whatever I couldn’t check as luggage or carry on was thrown away. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but rather what I needed to do; I was on a horrible downward spiral of depression and self-loathing and I didn’t see any way to break that cycle while remaining in California. So I boarded an early morning flight and moved to Houston.

I knew relatively nothing about the city. I knew it was in Texas and was a major port, but it didn’t appear to actually be on the Gulf Coast (I would later learn that the Houston Ship Channel was how the city had become a major port), it was big, they had a baseball team (the Astros) and a pro football team (at the time, the Oilers) and a basketball team (the Rockets) and the Astrodome was there. Anything else I knew about the city came primarily from reading Thomas Thompson’s Blood and Money–still one of my favorite true crime books–but admittedly, that wasn’t much. That book had been published fourteen years earlier, and one thing that is very true about Houston, and remains true, is that it changes all the time, sometimes very quickly.

I liked Houston, but as always, whenever I’ve moved there was some severe culture shock. Texas is most definitely not California…and I had never really driven on major highways in a city before. I was soon to learn that it was impossible to exist in Houston, for the most part, without spending time on highways. I was also kind of taken aback by the amount of gun racks in the back windows of pick-up trucks, and was also amazed at the size of some of those trucks. It was a weird, interesting, sprawling city, and I had no idea where anything was or how to get around or how to adapt…but I learned. I liked it there, and it was there, at my first job (selling natural gas, of all things) that I first heard about Dean Corll. I don’t remember how it came up in conversation–maybe a serial killer had been caught, I don’t remember, it’s lost in the mists of time–and she told me about Dean Corll–and even brought me a copy of a book about the killings–Mass Murder in Houston, by John K. Gurwell. It was very short–it was one of those quick books about true crimes that was cobbled together undoubtedly in a hurry to capitalize on the notoriety, but the one thing that always stuck with me was that one of the ways he and his accomplices would torture the boys was to insert glass rods into their penis and break it off.

After I returned the book, I never really thought much about Corll again, until we watched the Mindhunter series on Netflix. In one of the episodes the FBI guys interviewed Wayne Henley–and that reminded me. Paul had never heard of Corll, and the show reignited my interest in him, so I ordered a copy of Jack Olsen’s The Man with the Candy: The Story of the Houston Mass Murders. But I was in the midst of something–probably writing another book or who knows what–and so I simply shelved the book and forgot about it….until we watched The Clown and the Candyman…and I hunted up the book and started reading it.

In his canary-yellow house on shady Twenty-seventh Street in The Heights, a worn-out section of Houston, Fred Hilligiest got up long before the sun. A gaunt, wind-dried man of forty-nine, he striped streets for the city of Houston no weekdays and ran a small painting business in his spare time. This morning he had to be on the job at five; the Gulf sun would catch him soon enough and sear another layer of brown into his deep-lined face, as dark and dry as old parchment.

Dorothy Hilligiest, a radiant, pudgy woman with china-doll hands and a small voice to match, saw her husband off and began to work through a list of chores. In a few days, the family would being its annual vacation to the riverside town of Kerrville and there were still errands to run–to the bank, the car wash, the grocery, the hardware store, to Sears for the last few pints of paint to finish trimming the windows. The Hilligiests worked on their house endlessly, landscaping and painting and decorating till the little bungalow gleamed like a model home on its corner lot. The fact that The Heights was generally considered run-down did not discourage the Hilligiests. A family could live in only one house at a time, and theirs was more than adequate. Others had weakened and lost heart, but Fred and Dorothy, deeply religious Catholics, intended to complete their ordained task of raising a family within these familiar walls.

Two children were already married and gone; three sons and a daughter remained, and by the time Mrs. Hilligiest returned from her first batch of errands in town, they were up and babbling about the vacation to come. It was May 29, 1971, Memorial Day weekend blazing hot in Houston. There was talk among the three boys about going to the pool at the Bohemian lodge to perfect a few strokes they would use later at the river. On the previous year’s visit to Kerrville, they had met a couple of young water nymphs who had impressed and outswum them; this year would be different.

David, the family’s blond-haired court jester and jazz drummer, called a friend to suggest a swim, but the friend was busy. By lunchtime, David still had not been able to round up a swimming companion for himself–being thirteen, he did not relish accompanying his younger brothers–and he ate his customary skimpy meal, a hot dog and a glass of root beer. As usual, Dorothy Hilligiest worried about him. He was a small boy with delicate features, five feet three inches tall and not yet a hundred pounds in weight, and he ate like a gerbil. “Don’t worry,” Fred Hilligiest had told his wife. “He’s as strong as a li’l ol’ bull.” Sometimes the boy earned a dollar an hour working for his father’s striping company and pulled a man’s load without complaint.

Like Blood and Money, one of the strengths of this book is its focus on the city of Houston as a character. He also picks a couple of families who lost their sons to Dean Corll and his accomplices, tracing their suffering from the day their child goes missing out of the blue to the discovery of the bodies. It’s hard not to feel sorry for them, and Olsen does a great job of exploring what they went through without being exploitative, as well as their shock and surprise that the Houston police aren’t in the least bit interested in looking for their sons, telling them their child clearly just ran away. (This is a common thread through a lot of the serial killer documentaries and stories from the late 1960’s through the mid-1970’s; the assumption that missing kids just ran away because a lot of that was going on within the youth culture of the time–San Francisco, of course, being a primary destination for the lost kids running away. It’s also why the serial killers got away undetected for so long; the cops dismissed the concerns of parents–you can almost see the knowing smirk on their faces as they listened to parents insisting their child wouldn’t have run away.) That actually is haunting; the incredible suffering the parents must have gone through, knowing their child didn’t run away and being turned away by cops.

Olsen also explores Corll’s background–his many-times married mother, his own aversion to actual gay men despite his own sexuality–he wasn’t into going to gay bars or meeting other men of his own age, always being interested in young boys and children (his victims were of all ages, but I don’t think any were younger than twelve; I’d have to check to be certain though). There aren’t any answers here, though; why did he become what he did? How did he somehow convince two young men (Wayne Henley and David Brooks) to not only be accomplices but to lure in victims? Did Henley and Brooks tell the whole truth, or did they push most of the blame off on Corll?

I’ve been wrapping my mind around this horrible story since watching The Clown and the Candyman, and reading this book is currently an inspiration for an idea that is developing in my own head for a fictional approach to telling this story. I can see telling it from two directions, actually; which could also make for an interesting book, or two completely separate ones entirely.

It’s also weird that Corll is so completely unknown to most people these days; Gacy stole most of his thunder, and there haven’t been any books about Corll published, new scholarship or investigative reporting, in decades.

Vicious Streak

I skipped posting yesterday because we had to have Paul at the hospital for his colonoscopy by 6:45 am. We were home by nine, but I was completely exhausted–undoubtedly in no small part by turning in the manuscript on Monday–so I decided to just kind of take the day off from everything. I read for a while, Paul and I finished season 3 of Mr. Mercedes, and then a Jeffrey Dahmer documentary, which was creepy as hell and then we found a weird docuseries on ID network in which convicted killers talk about their crimes….also creepy as hell.

Which could explain last night’s insomnia. I slept for about four hours straight through before waking up, and just kind of drifting the rest of the night before the alarm went off. I imagine I am going to be incredibly tired after work tonight; I was thinking about heading to the gym, but I am going to see how I feel when I get home tonight. I’ve not been to the gym in over a week–I correctly recognized going to the gym inevitably wears me out and unable to write (the voice of experience speaking in my head) and so I skipped until the book was finished. I should have gone yesterday, but again–was very worn out and tired for most of the day.

Sunday night as we finished watching The Clown and the Candyman, I kept thinking, some of these neighborhoods and suburbs sound familiar. Constant Reader may remember that I grew up in Chicago, and moved out to the suburbs when I was ten, where we remained for another four and a half years. I grabbed my iPad and typed in the name of our suburb, then asked for the distance between it and Des Plaines, which was Gacy’s stalking ground….and he was thirty miles away from where we lived. I don’t think he and his recruiters ever ventured that far outside their area, but it was still kind of scary and chilling.

I would have been the right age and the right type they were hunting for during the time they were killing.

I think subconsciously that’s why Gacy–and by extension Dean Corll (I’ve been spelling it wrong) in Houston–have always been so interesting in a macabre way to me; if we had lived in that neighborhood in Houston when Corll and his recruiters were killing, again, I was a bit on the young side for Corll when he started killing but would have just squeaked in before he was killed and the spree came to an end.

Yikes.

I also found my copy of Jack Olsen’s The Man with the Candy: The Story of the Houston Mass Murders, and there’s an idea about this story forming in my head for a future book…because of course. It’s been nagging at me since we started watching the Gacy/Corll documentaries; today between clients I will probably scribble down some notes for it.

My new espresso machine arrived yesterday, and I was able to use it this morning. It’s much simpler and easier to use than the previous one, and it works just fine. Huzzah! (It also takes up less space on the counter.) I also got an email that our new washer shipped yesterday, so it should be arriving on Friday. I am really looking forward to having everything in the apartment operational again–the electricians still haven’t come out about the fuse that keeps tripping, though. But the new washing machine will make me feel less like I’ve lost a limb, which is kind of how I feel about it now.

And now, back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader!

Elegia

Ugh, Monday morning.

At least I finished the draft of the book yesterday, so huzzah! It’s probably still a big old mess, and a whole lot of revision and rewriting is going to be required by my ever-patient and long-suffering editor, but it’s fucking done. And I have to say, in addition, that I’m kind of glad to be done with that manuscript, at least for now, and at least it’s in some sort of shape that makes sense and is hopefully fixable.

The espresso machine is still not making cappuccino shots, still only making an espresso shot despite having enough water for the larger shot; apparently just turning that extra water into steam. The new one should arrive today, so this morning will be the last time I have to use this old, no longer properly working one. I’ve also learned my lesson from the debacle of last Wednesday as far as how to drink the proper amount of caffeine this morning. What I should do is not make another and simply swing through the Starbucks drive-thru at St. Claude and Elysian Fields and pay a ridiculous amount of money for one of their lattes with a shot of vanilla in it…but as it also still causes me physical pain to pay that much money for one, I will most likely repeat the enormous mistake of last week and wind up over-caffeinating. I’ll be sad to get rid of this espresso machine; it was cheap and served me well for seven years almost, but I am really looking forward to using the new one, and seeing what it does.

I have tomorrow off so I can take Paul to his colonoscopy. Big excitement, right? At least I can take The Russia House with me to read while that’s going on. We don’t know what time his appointment is for; he has to go get a COVID test today, and once they get the result will call to let him know what time he needs to come in tomorrow morning (or afternoon; it could be at any time). Our new washer is also being delivered this Friday, and now of course I am stressing about how they are getting the old one out and the new one in. I’ll probably go ahead and remove the laundry room door on Thursday, as well as taking out the bottom shelf and everything on it to make as much room for them in the tight space as possible. I keep telling myself they’re used to this sort of thing and not worrying; after all, they were able to deliver and install the original one, weren’t they? And we’ve had three dryers delivered and installed over the last sixteen years, so I am probably worrying about nothing, right? Right? But so many things have been going wrong around here for so long–this weekend, we kept blowing a fuse in the kitchen–which is worrisome, especially since the last time it blew yesterday it wouldn’t flip back, and it was hot to the touch, so I let it sit for about two hours and then tried again. It worked that time–the kitchen lights are still on this morning (it’s also the same fuse the refrigerator and dishwasher are on, so I’ve not been able to. use the dishwasher as the fuse goes every time) so here’s hoping the guys can come out today and replace the fuse or figure out the problem with it so it will stop tripping.

We finished watching The Clown and the Candyman yesterday, as they tried to make the connection between the two notorious serial killers and the John Norman pedophilia ring, and as I watched and listened, I kept thinking to myself this sounds like where that QAnon pedophile conspiracy theory probably got its start–which doesn’t mean that it’s not based in some kind of fact; the QAnon conspiracy theory might actually be grounded in some kind of reality–which doesn’t, of course, mean what they are saying on those message boards and so forth is true, either. But it was interesting, to say the least, and the parallels and possible connection between these two mass murderers is fascinating to contemplate. And of course, the entire time I was watching I was scribbling down notes and ideas for stories and so forth. We also finished watching Resident Alien last night, which was exceptionally clever and rather well done; I am assuming last night’s final episode we watched was the season finale because the end was the perfect cliffhanger.

Fun!

I’ve also fallen behind on Superman and Lois, and with this draft of the book finished, I should be able to get back on track with everything else that I’ve fallen behind on–groan, my email inbox alone–and I have to do some tweaking of Bury Me in Shadows, which I am hoping to get to work on this coming weekend. I kind of want to take this week to kind of chill and relax and get a handle on everything. I’ve never felt caught up at all at any time over the past year, which is terrible and drives me crazy; there’s nothing worse than feeling behind all the time and like you’re never going to catch up.

And on that note….tis back to the spice mines with me! Happy day after Easter, everyone!

Chemical

Sunday, and time for the final push on the book. I’m at the point in writing where I feel like my entire life has become subsumed by the book; that point where it has seized almost complete control of your brain and you are thinking in terms of when this is done I’ll have my life back. I am also at the point where I hate everything about it, am heartily sick of the story and the characters when I am not actually working on them, and also when I am questioning any and all of my life choices.

I had a socially distant drink (or two) with a friend in from out of town for the Easter holiday, and her mixology skills may have gotten me to switch my allegiance from vodka to gin when it comes to martinis. They are two very different drinks–I’d never particularly cared for gin when I’d tried it in the past, but the traditional martinis she made me yesterday were quite tasty. I did all the errands I had to do yesterday, including the laundromat trip I’d talked about–which was interesting, and I did get much further in The Russia House while I was waiting to switch clothes from washer to dryer and then to finish drying–and then I came home to work for a bit before the cocktail date. It has been quite a long while since I’ve had anything alcoholic to drink, and it was so nice and normal I wasn’t quite sure how to act. After I got home and made dinner, we watched the regional final (LSU qualified for the national semi-finals; they did better than they had the day before, but it was still a rather sloppy meet for them; they can do better and score higher than they have) and then it was on to watch another serial killer documentary series–The Clown and the Candyman (recommended by a friend on Facebook).

Gacy is the more famous of the two serial killers who targeted and tortured boys and young men; Gacy came after Dean Korll and is better remembered for some reason. I guess it’s the whole clown thing, but Korll was, I think, even more sadistic than Gacy and the whole candyman thing–he used to work in his mother’s candy store and gave candy away to kids. It’s kind of terrifying, really, to think about how things usually associated with children were twisted around by these horrible killers. It’s like if the ice cream truck driver turned out to be a serial rapist/killer (Stephen King kind of did this in Mr. Mercedes), or some other trusted person people felt safe having around their kids. This documentary touches on something the Gacy docuseries briefly touched on; that Gacy may have been involved with a nation-wide ring of pedophiles involved in sex trafficking boys. The similarities between the Korll and Gacy murders are eerie and creepy; the assumption has always been that Gacy kind of copied what Korll did, but what if they actually were connected in some way–which is even more terrifying to think about or consider. I’ve always wanted to write about Dean Korll; I heard about the mass killings in the Heights when I first moved to Houston back in 1989, and have been fascinated by the story ever since. I am really looking forward to watching the second half tonight….if I finish my book.

Speaking of which, I am so close to being finished!

So, when I finish this I am going to go back and read the previous drafts of these last two chapters–I don’t think there’s much to be saved from them, frankly, but hey, stranger things have happened–and get them reworked to fit the final narrative. It’s been quite a journey writing this book, frankly–going back all the way to the summer of 2015 when I wrote the first draft in a burst of energy and excitement that hot and fetid July in New Orleans. I’ve also been so horribly disorganized, computer wise, since the Great Data Disaster of 2018, when things started going haywire with my desktop computer and nothing has really been the same since (I’ve not really tried to organize my computer files since then, with so much to do and so much going on; one of the things I decided yesterday was to make sure that, with the manuscript finished and so forth, that I spend some time over the next month–when not revising Bury Me in Shadows one last time–getting all my files and so forth organized–it’s been an absolute bitch revising this manuscript because there are so many versions and so many drafts scattered throughout all my storage–iCloud, dropbox, back up hard drive–that I am never entirely sure I am using the most current version of any of it, to be honest; but it’s fine, really. I am pleased with this version of it, and if there exists better drafts of chapters I’ve been working on, oh well). It’s just so time consuming to go through everything, opening and reading files, determining where the right space for them is, and so forth.

Sigh. So much organizing to get done.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Happy Easter, and have a lovely day.