The Girls aren’t Alright – American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin and The Girls by Emma Cline

Ah, the Seventies. What a groovy time to be alive! As proof that history really does repeat itself, the revolutionary fervor of the 1970’s recalls the Anarchist movement and bombings of the early twentieth century.

The civil rights activism of the 1960’s gave way to a decade where revolution seemed more formless, less goal-oriented, more about implementing chaos than fomenting change.

What a surreal time it was, with an unwinnable war raging overseas, a ghoulish decade bracketed by the Manson murders in 1969 and the Jonestown massacre in 1978. Cults and radical groups were alive and well, with the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and the sad story of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a group with anarchist ideals and poor execution.

Not knowing much about Patty Hearst beyond her affliction of Stockholm Syndrome, American Heiress was a quiet revelation of American history that offered a pleasing counterpoint to the encroaching onslaught of conservative politics that defined the Reagan era.

The book doesn’t take sides. It’s plain in defining the SLA as what would be considered a terrorist group today; they successfully committed murder, kidnapping, and theft, despite their unorganized structure and zealous politics. Their ransom demands included a plan to feed the hungry, and their Robin Hood antics are almost admirable, despite their propensity for violence and impressive armaments. The character of Patricia Hearst-heiress, rebel, victim, anarchist-is compellingly portrayed as infinitely unknowable, quick to abscond the comforting fold of her parents’ conservative, privileged world, and just as quick to return.

The question remains even at the end of this comprehensive work: Did she really believe in the radical ideals of her captors, or was she just playing a role until she was delivered safely back into her old life of comfort? The answer may lie somewhere in the middle; she’s often described as savvy, and maybe she was just a survivor, a realist, enchanted by ideals, ultimately swayed by a more realistic vision of her future, the future where she was privy to fortune, fame, and safety.

The Girls by Emma Cline describes a similar type of inauguration, another teenage girl seduced into a lifestyle that preaches love and acceptance, a rejection of authority and slavish adoration to a charismatic messiah figure who eventually goads his followers into horrific acts of petty violence.

The parallels to Charles Manson and his gang are unmistakable in this novel that chronicles the story of a massacre from the POV of a teenage girl that is at most tangential to the main show of the murders. The novel is an incisive dissection of the teenage girl’s psyche, with the petty obsessions of friends and social life and wondering “what does he/she really think of me?” That self-centeredness prevents the protagonist from noticing the little warnings leading up to the eventual massacre.

Beyond the main character, he titular “girls” are poorly fleshed out, their motives opaque and their inner lives unknowable. Even the most prominent one, Suzanne, is a cipher, to the reader as well as the main character, and if there’s a question of what led this group of young women to conduct such horrific violence, that question is never answered. Indeed, it may be unanswerable. It’s little consolation that the reader is stuck inside the head of a bratty teenager, mired in hopeless crushes and fuzzy goals. Even as a middle-aged woman, she is rootless and victimized, and we’re left wondering if she ever left the cult, ever defined herself beyond her place, tenuous as it was, among the girls.

Both books tell the story of women in a changing world, their roles unclear, constantly shifting and evolving. It was a time when they were finally able to be something more than a vessel and a housewife. Women were spilling out of that shoebox where they existed solely for the pleasure of men and procreation of the species and refusing to go back. “Girls” could be people too: anarchists, murderers, revolutionaries. But even in these unprecedented times, often remained in thrall to powerful men who seduced them into small-scale war. It was a time of transition, and the fights we fight today are the same ones because the revolution takes time. The revolution is less violent, perhaps, but the consequences, of fighting and not fighting, remain equally high.

Are you Afraid of the Dark? Certain Dark Things by M.J. Pack/Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz (50 Scariest Reads)

I just finished watching a movie called Lights Out, a tidy little horror film about a malevolent force that’s only visible in darkness. A trope that’s been done before (Darkness FallsVanishing on 7th Street ) this might be about the best. If you plan to watch it, skip the trailer, since most of the good scares are spoiled there. If you’re short on time, just watch the trailer.

The duct tape is truly genius. Too bad ghosts seem to have a formidable command of the power grid (source)

In a strange coincidence (what Milan Kundera might call “a dimension of beauty”), I listened to a podcast that same night called Lore, which relates true life inspirations and stories for some of our most enduring fears and myths. The episode I listened to began by talking about Nyctophobia, or fear of the dark. How fitting.

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You’ll get the cover soon enough (source)

The theme of darkness continues with M.J. Pack’s Certain Dark Things, a collection of horror stories that explore themes of love, loss, friendship, and family with mixed results. Some of the stories don’t land, like a story of a certain “Norma Jean” who visits a seer to cast a curse on a certain famous family. She pays the price, but the emotional impact is blunted by a tired familiarity with the source material. In the stories live women with impossible desires; some are punished, some live to “feed” another day. The best stories exploit these women and their relationships with other women, such as Tracking, where a series of disturbing DVDs leads the main character to revisit the scene of forgotten childhood traumas. There is a pervasive theme of sleeplessness, where characters are haunted by their own misdeeds or chased into insomnia by a perverse desire for horror. You get what you ask for, the stories warn, and it’s never what you think it will be. Certain dark things are better left alone.

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I left this book out in the rain. It refuses to die. 

To complete the nightmare, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. A classic that I would have loved as a kid, this is the kind of book that really is an ideal campfire read, complete with instructions on when to scream (NOW SCREAM! AHHHHHHHHH!). I happened to read this out loud one night while sitting around a campfire and after performing a theatrical scream for my 9 year old sister, who clearly thought my mind was beginning to go, the fire popped and she jumped. Mission accomplished!

I’m not immune to nyctophobia. As a kid, I would watch the shadows morph in my room and imagine the furniture moving with evil intent. My most recurrent nightmare always involves light fixtures that fail to light. Darkness falls indeed, and when it does, who knows what lurks in the shadows (NOW SCREAM!!!)

*other dark things

  • Are You Afraid of the Dark?
  • Don’t be Afraid of the Dark.
  • The Darkness, starring Kevin Bacon.
  • The Darkness 2: I believe in a thing called love!
  • Alone in the Dark starring Tara Reid as an archaeologist.
  • Say the word Dark repeatedly. It gets weirder. It’s a weird word. Dark. Dark. Dark. Dark. Dark.
  • I haven’t watched Darkness Falls since it was released in 2003, but now that I know it stars Emma Caulfield, I may have to suck it up and watch it again. Bunnies! It could be bunnies!
  • I don’t recommend the audiobook version of Certain Dark Things; the narrator doesn’t jive with the source material, like Julia Child reading The History of the Third Reich.
  • Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark includes a variation of one of my favorite poems, The Man of Double Deed. In my Google wanderings, I found this amazing music video for the song.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix – A Review

When it comes to possession, those pesky demons seem to only have a limited repertoire of tricks. In fact, it’s as though they work through a checklist. My Best Friend’s Exorcism hits all the standard demonic possession tropes: Projectile vomit? Check. Sudden lack of hygiene? Check. Weird sexual behaviors? Check. Change of personality? Check.

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Anyone familiar with Hendrix’s previous work, Horrorstör, a terror-infused version of an Ikea catalog, expects there will be some gimmick. Bracketed with the conceit of a high school yearbook, within the pages there are very few non-traditional novel elements. In one chapter, increasingly dire fragments of a food journal effectively ratchets up the dread, but exists mainly in a vacuum.

The protagonists and even the so-called demon vie for the spotlight with Hendrix’s clearly favored character, THE EIGHTIES! Each chapter is named after an 80’s song, stirrup pants and roller skating rinks are in full force, and the “Just Say No!” and War on Drugs rhetoric of the decade loom large in the novel, playing a pivotal role in the interpretation of the unfortunate best friend’s demonic possession. This abnormal fear of drugs influences the “adults” to behave in nonsensical, paradoxical ways, simultaneously dismissing a generally normal character as a drug pusher while ignoring clear signs of disturbance in another. The blase stupidity of every single adult in this book defies belief, even in a book with a demon possession. The only character that seems to behave with a modicum of sense is the possessed girl.

This book had me constantly thinking of A Head Full of Ghoststo the point I was consistently confusing the authors. Although the source of the possession in each book differs dramatically, as do the themes (drug paranoia vs. mental illness), but it landed me on a specific question regarding possession narratives in general: Why do demons typically possess women?

All of the demonic possession stories seem to share another checkbox in the list in common: Young female victims. Both books and films in general align with this trope. The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Conjuring 2, The Last Exorcism, Paranormal Activity, The Possession, The Devil Inside – all of these star young women as victims of malevolent demons, along with My Best Friend’s Exorcism and A Head Full of Ghosts. 

Why? Why female? Most of the suspicions I have are not flattering to women or progressive; the idea that young women are most susceptible to possession, that they are vulnerable, easily invaded, easily controlled, victims in a world hunting for vessels to manipulate. It plays to a patriarchal fear that our young women can be influenced by whatever the devil happens to represent: drugs, sex, feminism, the right to choice, control over her own body, education, trousers.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism doesn’t elevate itself above the cliche, and towards the end it devolves into some treacly sentimentalism regarding FRIENDSHIP, yet it remains a compulsive, nearly single sitting read. For a fun time (+demons).

*minor devils

  • The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty was inspired by a case in Maryland, where the reported possessee was a young boy, changed in the novel to a girl.
  • Working title: The Girls with all the Demons. 
  • Another gimmicky conceit that never pans out: scraps of a Seventeen style quiz about best friends. The questions sound genuine, like they were ripped from the pages of a teen magazine, but they don’t illuminate, and don’t devolve into the queasy horror that made Hendrix’s Horrorstör simultaneously hilarious and sickening.

How My Hike was a Perfect Metaphor for the Election

*Warning: Poo-related material. Dogs are gross.

On Monday I took a hike up the lovely Mount Washington. A 3250 foot gain, 8 miles round-trip, the hike was a thigh-burner that rounded through young forests and streams, and crossed an alpine meadow and a boulder field. Quite an excursion.

After lunching at the summit, we headed back down. I had kept Aggie off leash for most of the journey, only reconnecting her around some steep walls edged with loose gravel. As I was about to unleash her again, she lunged for something off to the side of the trail. I pulled her back and saw she had something in her mouth, greenish and slick, like an unpeeled kiwi.

I grabbed her muzzle to try and dislodge the object, but by that time she had swallowed it whole, and I was left with some kind of green goo on my hands.

“What is that?” I exclaimed. I won’t go into the details of how I ascertained the following fact, but I determined without a doubt: “It’s poo!”

I was still pacing in disgust and disbelief, holding my hands out like I was about to receive the Holy Spirit, when my sister Dallas said: “Or something worse than poo.”

“What’s worse than poo?” I yelled (let it be noted the trail was mercifully empty that day), manically applying apple-scented hand sanitizer, which has forever ruined the smell of apples for me.

“Intestines,” said Dallas, pointing to a pile in the leaves. Sure enough, a glistening lump lay among the leaves. I investigated, finding a coil of white intestines bursting with greenish matter and a lump the size of a golf ball which I guessed to be a stomach. Nearby, a single furry rabbit foot lay discarded among the detritus.

Little did I know this story would become a metaphor for the presidential election the next day, a lesson our country is going to learn the hard way. Everyone says there was no good choice in this election. But there’s always a better choice. There’s always something worse than a little poo on your hands, like poo straight from a pile of rotting guts.

Steaming maggoty shit stew. That’s the choice we made. Now we’ll be eating it the next four years.

Enjoy your entrails, America!

For more adventures with Aggie, CLICK HERE!

Booknado 2016: November – Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson + 50 Scariest Books: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

…the other contained a verse or two of Revelation—these words among the rest, which struck sharply home upon my mind: “Without are dogs and murderers.”

– Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson

…and yet not alien none of it more than were their own hearts alien in them, whatever wilderness contained there and whatever beasts.

– Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

Theme: A book you read when younger but don’t remember.

This is Dallas’ pick for November (to clarify, she read Treasure Island as a child, NOT Blood Meridian, thank the Lord. I’m combining the two reviews because I’ve noticed some interesting parallels. )

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Published approximately a century apart, Treasure Island and Blood Meridian are both adventure stories of a sort. Treasure Island is the straight-forward tale of a boy who meets a pirate, discovers a treasure map, and embarks on a famous journey to Skeleton Island, where he must contend with the scurrilous, crafty old Long John Silver and his obnoxious parrot. Blood Meridian is a western yarn, turned on its head to upend the heroic vision of the Wild West as a glorious world where heroes and villains are easily identifiable, and good and evil stay in their separate quarters. The protagonist of Blood Meridian is a 14 year old boy called “The Kid,” and the treasure that he seeks is of a more gory variety than that of Treasure Island. To be specific, he’s a member of a group contracted by the Mexican government to procure as many Indian scalps as possible.

Each story has a big bad: In Treasure Island, it’s the one-legged Long John Silver (now immortalized in a stomach-churning fast food chain), effortlessly charming and hilariously self-interested, he’ll feed you to the fishes if it saves his neck from the gallows, or speeds him closer to the treasure. His facility with a crutch borders on balletic, and yet in the end, his greed proves him easily confoundable. But shiver my timbers, the guy manages the last laugh in the end!

The Big Bad in Blood Meridian is a tall, mysteriously hairless man unsubtly named “The Judge.” The only educated man in the Kid’s group of vicious varmints, he spends half his time expostulating on the nature of mystery and morality and the other half doing fun things like drowning puppies and killing children. An unpleasant, manipulative psychopath, he makes the plainspoken cruelty of the others a relief by comparison.

The characters in both novels are archetypes; in Treasure Island, we are meant to side with the plucky hero, Jim Hawkins, cheering him (and by extension, ourselves) as his cleverness bests the pirates time after time. This tendency to identify with a protagonist works against the reader in Blood Meridian, however, because The Kid is no saint, an aimless wanderer who spills his own fair measure of blood for profit on his journey across the Mexican desert. In Blood Meridian, there is no one to root for because there seems to be nothing but evil permeating the bleak landscape. Men kill and rape and drink and fight and die. Plenty of them die for no reason.

Bloodshed is prominent. It’s an easier pill to swallow in Treasure Island, because the bad guys are trying to kill them and steal the treasure. But aren’t the so-called “good” guys trying to steal the treasure too? What really separates the pirates from the heroes? A pirate is an easy archetype to despise (unless they are of the Caribbean variety or named “Captain Morgan.”) It follows the similar western archetypes of Cowboys and Indians, a trope turned inside-out in Blood Meridian where no matter what side of the river you’re standing on, the actors are all capable of the vilest atrocities.

At this point, I have to take a detour to address language. The language of Treasure Island is straight-forward and fairly comprehensible despite the garbled language of seafaring men. Blood Meridian takes a more literary approach that melds the “manly” prose of Hemingway with a lyrical descriptive quality. Having never read a McCarthy novel before, it took me fully a third of the book to find a rhythm and parse a narrative out of the almost surrealistic nature of the prose (time and time again Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain came to mind). I won’t deny that McCarthy’s imagery is striking and sometimes beautiful, such as when he describes “the dusk where lizards lay with their leather chins flat to the cooling rocks and fended off the world with thin smiles and eyes like cracked stone plates.”

Just try writing something that evocative with such simple words.

But I am slow to praise even as the blurb on the back reads: “brilliantly subverting the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the Wild West” because McCarthy’s skill at portraying violence is too good, lurid, voyeuristic, loving, even. If the novel is meant to demean the glorification of violence, it fails, because what it does instead is linger with fond eye on that perversity and sickness. In film, that’s called “torture porn” and many times (I Spit on your Grave and Last House on the Left comes to mind) it puts on a pedestal the violence it seeks to denounce.

I’m all for the gore. Bring it on. But don’t pretend that depicting a head recently liberated of its scalp in tender, loving detail is subversion. Show of hands: who here thinks Anton Chigurh is a total badass? Who really watches No Country for Old Men and remembers it as an epic meditation on the nature and ultimate condemnation of violence? Film critics, maybe. Most people remember Javier Bardem in a terrible wig carrying around a cattle gun and flipping coins. Everyone wanted to be that guy. Tommy Lee Jones who?

To be fair, the blurb may be doing a disservice to the novelist’s intentions, perhaps willfully misreading the message of the novel to assuage a kind of guilt that accompanies such a visceral, amoral story. Take this quote from a 1992 interview with McCarthy:

“There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed,” McCarthy says philosophically. “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”

Irregardless, this book makes a strong case against nostalgia. The “good old days” weren’t really that great, and even adventures are overrated. We see the baggage The Kid carries around from his early days of bloodshed. Would it have been any better for young Jim Hawkins?

*Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum

  • Blood Meridian is fresh off Flavorwire’s 50 Scariest Books list that I’m working through. 29 down!
  • Drinking game! Every time someone spits in Blood Meridian. You’ll be drunk by chapter 2! I’m not sure if that makes the experience of reading the book better or worse. I read a big chunk of it on a plane that smelled like vomit, so there’s that.
  • According to IMDB, there are thousands of Treasure Islands, the definitive version, of course, being 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island.
  • Blood Meridian has yet to be transformed into film. Is there a rule that if I’ve read a book, I have to see the movie? This has turned out badly for me so many times.

 

The Final Time I Threw a Book across the Room, or, how Horror Makes me a Modern Girl

“Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.” Douglas Winter, Prime Evil

My formative encounter with the horror genre occurred when I was 11 years old, staying at my Grandma’s and reading Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

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This seems like a good idea. (source)

It was indeed late at night, and the house was silent, my grandmother fast asleep. It was just me, a book that I found high on a shelf in the closet, and probably some cats. I can’t tell you anything about the book; I don’t remember a single story, but I do remember that as I turned a page, there was a spider, smashed flat and stuck to the paper. The little corpse, the size of a quarter, had likely been there for a long time.

I would like to say that the spider merely startled me. But in reality it scared the crap out of me, for no logical reason, and I spent a long, sleepless night trying to calm my jangled nerves.

I also may or may not have thrown the book across the room. It’s been known to happen.  On multiple occasions.

For me, the genre of horror is a web of experiences woven with books, movies, and the feelings and memories evoked while reading and watching. More than any other genre of film or fiction, the deep-rooted visceral reaction inspired by horror had formed a fabric of memorable experiences that I’ll never forget, beginning with that very dead spider.

My experiences form a mythology, a story of me, an identity that encompasses a deep respect, if not love, for the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Agatha Christie, Shirley Jackson, David Cronenberg, Robert Wise, Dan Simmons, George Romero, David Lynch, and many others.

Well, October is over, but horror never leaves. It grinds along the joints in our bones, even if we never pick up a horror novel or watch a horror film. It lives in bloody westerns and procedural network dramas, in fantastical lands haunted by dragons and the uncharted reaches of outer space. Whatever name we apply to our genre of choice, horror lurks at the edges, from the horror of the bad marriage to the menace of murder mysteries. We seek it in fiction in hopes of exorcising it in real life. It visits our dreams and our news feeds. Horror is the primal emotion. It lives in our lizard brains, in dark corners and cobwebbed attics and damp basements, and in the twisting, twisted labyrinth of the human mind.