Thursday, October 04, 2018

October 5th, 1975: The Night Salem's Lot Gave Its Life

Dedicated to Sarah Smarsh's mom, Jeannie; Stephen King's mom, Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King; my dad, Roger Elton Alexander and my step mom and fellow King lover, Mary Nettie Alexander

"The town knew about darkness....The land is granite-bodied and covered with a thin, easily ruptured skin of topsoil. Farming it is a thankless, sweaty, miserable, crazy business. The harrow turns up great chunks of the granite underlayer and breaks on them. In May you take out your truck as soon as the ground is dry enough to support it, and you and your boys fill it up with rocks perhaps a dozen times before harrowing and dump them in the great weed-choked pile where you have dumped them since 1955, when you first took this tiger by the balls. And when you have picked them until the dirt won't come out from under your nails when you wash and your fingers feel huge and numb and oddly large-pored, you hitch your harrow to your tractor and before you've broken two rows you bust one of the blades on a rock you missed. And putting on a new blade, getting your oldest boy to hold up the hitch so you can get at it, the first mosquito of the new season buzzes bloodthirstily past your ear with that eye-watering hum that always makes you think it's the sound loonies must hear before they kill all their kids or close their eyes on the interstate with the gas pedal to the floor or tighten their toe on the trigger of the .30-.30 they just jammed into their quackers; and then your boy's sweat-slicked fingers slip and one of the other round harrow blades scrapes skin from your arm and looking around in that kind of despairing, heartless flicker of time, when it seems you could just give it all over and take up drinking or go down to the bank that holds your mortgage and declare bankruptcy, at that moment of hating the land the soft suck of gravity that holds you to it, you also love it and understand how it knows darkness and has always known it. The land has got you....The bank has you, and the car dealership, and the Sears store in Lewiston, and John Deere in Brunswick....There is no life here but the slow death of days, and so when the evil falls on the town, its coming seems almost preordained, sweet and morphic. It is almost as though the town knows the evil was coming and the shape it would take." The Lot (III). 
“No one pronounced Jerusalem’s Lot dead on the morning of October 6; no one knew it was. Like the bodies of previous days, it retained every semblance of life.” The Lot (IV)

I wrote a version of this originally as a Facebook status update for Stephen King's birthday, a notation to accompany a photo of the original paperback cover to the first book that changed everything for me, Salem's Lot. I read it the summer I was 12, picked it up at the bus station in McPherson, Kansas (my grandparents’ home) for the six hour ride back to Bartlesville, Oklahoma. It began with a man and a boy against the world, which was one way I saw that period in my life, living in a small apartment with my father, understanding my father in a way that it felt maybe no one else did, one reason he was no longer married.

The book’s boy protagonist, Mark Petrie, was a monster kid like myself; he collected the same Aurora models I collected and read Famous Monsters of Filmland. Perhaps the book's scariest night creature was named Danny, like me, and there but for the grace of something.... I didn't know this author yet, but I would go back and read his previous book, Carrie, and eagerly await the new one, The Shining, which I would buy as one of 6 with a penny through my book club. That book starred another Danny, and his struggle to hang onto his father was central to that book (a huge difference from the Kubrick movie, and one reason many of fans of the book, like myself, didn’t know what to make of the movie when we first saw it).  

My relationship with my father was the solid center to my universe, but he was struggling. My parents had split up, and he and I lived together in a tough neighborhood near downtown. Dad worried about his drinking, and (perhaps unfairly but it seemed like the most natural thing in the world at the time) I counseled him. Once, about a year before I discovered Stephen King, Dad wound up on the fourth floor (the mental ward) of our town’s old Memorial Hospital. I was in a sixth grade assembly when I got the news, and my future disappeared for a moment. All the safety nets were gone.

However, up on the fourth floor, I found a copy of Dracula (the book that inspired the soon to be born Salem’s Lot). No one seemed to care if I took it home, so I did, and I read it for the first time. Bram Stoker filled my head with dread and wonder while my father recovered. I do not remember a time when I wasn’t a fan of horror, starting with the old movie stills of Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff I found in my mother’s movie books when I was a child and the stories my grandmother told me about seeing the silent Phantom of the Opera when she was 19 years old. In her early twenties, she would see Frankenstein and Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. She told me about seeing these movies in Shreveport’s Strand Theater and I felt like I was not only there but watching the movies with her. Grandma, Nana as I called her, was an important constant in my life, and ghost stories were a huge part of the fabric of her childhood remembrances. And she always emphasized the pathos. I could tell how much pain she felt for Karloff’s monster whenever she recalled the story.

This gothic art helped me face my fears and hang on to my loved ones. When I stumbled across Salem’s Lot, I had gone through this drastic move from a semi-suburban existence to something closer to The Outsiders. Where I lived, I had to be a little harder just to walk down the street. I was also entering junior high, the preying ground for bullies, cliques and petty school administrators. My mother had remarried and divorced again. My brother was off living on his own in an apartment building where one of his roommates would wind up murdering a friend. Within a few years, seemingly half of my friends’ parents would wind up losing their jobs because of downsizing by the town’s oil companies. But though that change reached its peak after I’d gone away to school, I read Salem’s Lot at a time when the death of everything that always seemed it would never change was well on its way. King’s book connected the ghost stories of my childhood to the dreadful changes in my present. And most importantly, it did so in a way that conceded the change was indeed permanent while clinging to a sense of hope, at least for those left behind. That boy and that man, they stood a chance, in large part because they had each other.

As it turned out, honestly, those three years Dad and I struggled together in that apartment turned out to be some of my fondest memories. And, in the long run, Dad never let me down; in fact, he was always there for me. But King knew about the ways love and pain and danger intertwined in the best of relationships. And he kept writing books, and I've eagerly awaited each next one for the 42 years after that bus ride from Kansas to Oklahoma. He never quit talking with me--about where I was, when I was, where I was going and how I was going to get there. He never quit insisting we were okay if we could simply find each other, hold onto each other and face our fears together. King’s relationship with this Oklahoma kid was just such a lifeline. 

Near the end of the book, which I’ve just reread for the third or fourth time and found to be astonishingly rich and terrifying on entirely new levels, there’s a moment when the man turns to the boy and says, “I want you with me. I need you.” He’s speaking for my father, and he’s speaking for me, and of course he’s summing up how I feel about the storyteller and our four decade long relationship. In my heart and soul and mind, when the world’s falling apart all around (which it generally is), I really believe that wanting and needing is what it’s all about.

Other conversations with King—

On The Outsider (2018)—
On The Wind Through the Keyhole (2013)—…/weathering-starkblas…

Pictures--The original paperback of Salem's Lot, The Forgotten Prisoner Aurora Model, my undead friend William, a werewolf and maybe Tor Johnson fighting on the abandoned house down our street (one of those would be my friend Scot), and this blogger looking a bit undead himself.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Live to Tell: Stories of Power, Abuse and Silence

"A man can tell a thousand lies/I've learned my lesson well," Madonna, "Live to Tell"

"Try to forget this/Try to erase this," Pearl Jam, "Jeremy"

"I walked into the door again/If you ask that's what I'll say," Suzanne Vega, "Luka"

"It took a whole damn year to repair my body/It's been about five years," Mary J. Blige, "Whole Damn Year"

"Don't you push me, push me, push me/Don't you push me down," Woody Guthrie, "Don't You Push Me Down"

I'm glad to see these discussions of past abuse moving in a unifying direction. This is really about people with power and how they take advantage of people without power. Famously, my hometown witnessed years of abuse by a powerful, connected pediatrician, Dr. William H. Dougherty, who went unchecked for years. It is crucially (I might say for me in some ways life-savingly) documented in Patrick V Brown's film In A Town This Size. A friend of mine watched it last week and said that she could see and hear me repeatedly in the many stories told there.  
My abuse began around the age of six. I believe I asked some questions pretty early on, generally only of my friends, and we managed to rationalize it together. Pretty soon, I grew shy about what was happening and didn't talk much again until I was close to 10. I believe I felt complicit. I even felt somewhat protective of my abuser. At 10, I said something to my mother, and things began to change, starting with what doctor I was seeing. I don't know what other action she took, and I don't think she would know now.
Brown's film documents the fumbling ways people moved toward action. I remember a time when, among kids, it was sort of an awful secret that, if talked about at all, was talked about in quiet, half-joking ways. By the time I was in high school, hundreds of cases were coming to light, but my doctor still had a practice. At some point, he was pressured to move into an office with several other doctors.
The first time any state investigator talked with me I was in college. This would be at least 8 or 10 years after my 4 years of abuse. Dr. Dougherty would eventually lose his private practice, but he would die this past year with his beautiful contemporary home in Bartlesville and a new family (including children) and life he had created in Tulsa.
That's a big story, but it certainly wasn't my only experience with abuse growing up a male in our culture. I remember a 40- something junior high gym teacher who would hold the smallest member of my gym class up against the top of the lockers and laugh at the way he kicked his legs to get down. The point was for the entirety of the locker room to laugh along with him. I remember that same gym teacher popping a ninth grade girl's bra in the hallway between the cafeteria and the main building. The girls laughed it off. He laughed it off. I never forgot it and only ever told people in casual conversation. I certainly didn't think about reporting it. That was just the fabric of the power relationships in my junior high.
And I remember a friend (an acquaintance really, though I'd done many things side by side with him for years) in my high school gym class whom I'd known since I was a cub scout. RV was tall and awkward and shy. He couldn't speak up for himself, and he wasn't a fighter. And he got towel whipped, red-bellied and humiliated every week in gym class. His bully, a handsome teenager who most people saw as the definition of cool, was merciless. He wouldn't stop until my friend was begging and crying. I don't remember any of us saying or doing anything to stop this. I certainly don't remember us reporting the behavior to anyone else. It was something that we all treated as normal, though it haunted me.
It still haunts me. RV was not a communicative kid, and he was no doubt troubled. His awkwardness was part of why everyone stood aside and let it happen. The truth in that behavior is what made Stephen King a successful writer with the publication of Carrie. When RV's car was hit by a train and his brother killed, I think there were others like me haunted by our role in the fact that it was said he simply didn't move the car off the tracks. When he later died in an industrial accident, alone in a part of a construction site no one was supervising, I think there were others like me who felt we were in some way to blame.
This is the tip of the iceberg. To grow up in the world I grew up in, I suspect the world we all grew up in, we accepted and rationalized abuse inside and outside of our homes, in our neighbor's houses in our schools and at parties, over and over again.
Depending on where you are in the social strata in any given dynamic, it's worse. In my experience, we were trained to accept many forms of abuse of power from a very early age, and only a very few brave, bold individuals ever stood up and called it out. I had my moments. I got my collar bone broken when I thought a couple of my friends were being picked on, and I stood by friends who were suffering abuse from time to time, gave them support, stood up for them.
But most of the time, I stood by and said nothing. I think that's how we learn to get by. And it's a damn good thing we're living in a world where that group think is being challenged on a regular basis. It's a rough birthing process, to be sure, but I'm looking forward to a world where we don't allow anyone to treat another person as anything less than equal, deserving dignity and respect.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Aren't You A Little Old For This, Overdue Downloading Part 1--Terry Ware, J. Cole, Kamasi Washington, Janelle Monae and Nalani & Sarina

Aren’t You a Little Old For This?, Terry “Buffalo” Ware (OkieMotion Records) As with his instrumental records, Ware's latest may be counted on to provide surprising hooks and clean lines that compel one play after another. Maybe it’s the carefree attitude, bright chords and bouncing beat of opener “Fine, Fine Day” that makes the darkness that follows so surprising. It deepens with each listen. Even that song hints at the wind and rain that will pour throughout. Featuring the gorgeously upbeat but haunted, “Over My Shoulder,” the album’s first “side” struggles with hard-won wisdom filled with contradictions, finally descending to the global warming simmer of the downright apocalyptic “Late December.” “Side Two” feels considerably more hopeful, but it’s the kind of everyday, small hope that comes with each dawn—the satisfied yearnings of the guitar on “Laura" and the promise of reward that lies just past the battles in “Going Down the Other Side” and “Coming Out of Nowhere.” With its menacing garage spiral of sound, “Price to Pay,” states the struggle behind everything here—“A hole in your heart, it never goes away/A pocket full of nothing, but still you got a price to pay.” The storms never let up, but the music provides more than a little shelter.

KOD, J. Cole (Dreamville/ROC Nation) For a long time, the concept of a “conscious rapper” was problematic, implicitly setting itself close to a bourgeois sensibility rejecting the music most people loved. Often the music itself seemed pleasant and non-committal, too, unlike the visceral compulsions of gangsta and trap. Like the Southern complement to Kendrick Lamar that he is, J. Cole uses his fifth album to embrace a lean, trap sensibility that’s fighting hand to hand with the desire to give up, in other words, true to the form. After all, this is a late-night, hard hitting conversation. Cole counsels all kinds of dangers—delusions and poisons and dead-end reasoning, but he doesn’t do it from one-up, not from on high. He’s pleading with his brother and his sister and, ultimately, himself. Oh, to keep the conversation going, these beats and keys and the lyrical refrains all hook and catch and pull you straight through, over and over again.

Heaven and Earth, Kamasi Washington (Young Turks) This album pretends to be shorter than 2015's three hour The Epic by concealing another 40 minutes in a third disc, which includes welcome covers of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" and "Ooh Child." That said, the Earth first then Heaven sides do stand as a mind-blowing whole. The album opener and closer tell the story broadly, a cover of the theme music to Bruce Lee's Fists of Fury promising a fight for justice ahead and the last cut asking if I fight for you, will you sing? That's the mission here, not just any struggle, but a vision of humanity unleashed. It takes countless forms (because any way you might add it up, you can listen from another angle and list the changes differently). While sax solos abound, this album is really about the orchestration of one musical universe after another. A shimmering example of the infinity in an idea, "One of One," takes a two-dozen-note bass figure, a salsa line, and bats it around for ten minutes' worth of possibilities, giving the sense it could go on forever. Solo sax dances ecstatically over that bass, driving the piece to what could be a closing crescendo before breaking down and stoking it from another direction. Trumpet, as only trumpet can, heralds another crescendo before trumpet and sax rejoin, the whole band bouncing hard on those bass notes until they find a resolution.

Another wonderful cut, the only video yet, "Street Fighter Mas"--

The Circle, Nalani & Sarina (Telepathy) These young singer/songwriters share a belief in music that sometimes feels like a thing of the past. Of course, in one sense, it is... firmly rooted there at least. Something like 50,000 years of prehistory documents musical instruments. Of course, those instruments brought us together and helped build the best of what we have today. Nalani & Sarina aren't done building. Sure, the rock and roll generation and the hip hop generation look backwards at a moment when they thought they'd discovered the keys to the universe, but that doesn't mean those keys are gone. When the music industry dies and desperate entrepreneurs completely take over the radio turning YouTube talent into the latest soda pop, artists like Nalani & Sarina will insist the essence of music radiates from the depths of the human spirit and offers visions of community and possibility far beyond the blinkered world that tries to hem it in.

Four albums deep, this New Jersey duo shows that commitment every time out. This latest album paints a portrait of a generation that's been sold a very limited idea of what's possible and rails against it with superb songs like "Young and Inexperienced," "Welcome to the Rest of Your Life" and "Coming for You." The final song, "Tomorrow and Yesterday" is a heartbreaking illustration of the eternity carried by a song, but "Pretty Lies" sets up the central challenge, to live for real whatever the cost.

I find the video the duo made for the song especially poignant, two girls against the world, a big old world snarling in reaction. What better testimony to the power of the music than the strength they radiate against all odds?

Dirty Computer, Janelle Monae (Bad Boy) Four months out, it’s clear that this Quindaro, Kansas revolutionary has transcended the world of her debut EP and two increasingly-ambitious sci-fi concept albums with a lightness of touch both improbable and devastating. For starters, these 14 tracks are seamless and effervescent, the endless hooks growing more seductive, soothing and exciting with each listen. Grief over Prince’s death underpins everything, but he’s utterly alive here, too, and the alchemy Monae gathers from his mentorship as well as that of Stevie Wonder creates a focused, coherent and vital call for liberation that’s absolutely singular. Crucial are the links she keeps reinforcing between her working class roots and the wonderland (or Wondaland) promised by her art. On “Americans,” Reverend Sean McMillan explicitly draws on Dr. King and Langston Hughes to speak to the promise of an America where poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, women and “same-gender loving people,” where everyone, may not just survive but thrive.

Core to how this album works is its relentless sexiness, and the refrain “Everything is sex/Except sex, which is power/You know power is just sex/Now ask yourself who’s screwing you” gets at the reason rock and roll still poses an essential threat to the powers that be. In her tearjerker liner notes, she apologizes to Prince for cussing so much here, but the frankness of her words, her ability to make listeners both blush and sing along is nothing less than crucial.

For those not easily offended, take a listen to the mix of despair and defiance that fuels “Screwed,” a song that takes on sexism, the military industrial machine and commercialization as varied features of the same beast. Hope against hope demands we take the future in hand.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Over a Scrap of Paper: King's Ka-Tet and the Fate of the World

Stephen King’s The Outsider ranks with the finest work of the 70-year-old author’s career. It's a sleek synthesis of all that's come before. It's also a book that uniquely tackles the contradictions of America in crisis mode, America 2018.

I say this as a kid who fell in love with the idea of writing after reading a paperback (“by the author of Carrie”) the summer of 76, when I was 12. I had seen Carrie and wasn’t much interested in it (the paperback, no, not the movie--that would come along a year or so later and change everything), but King grabbed me with this one. If I remember right, the Salem’s Lot I picked up at the bus stop in McPherson, Kansas, had no title on the cover. It was a solid black book featuring an embossed child’s face, one slightly red drop of blood at the corner of her mouth.

It was so sinister. The information about the author and Carrie was on the back and inside. As important as anything was the soft texture of the paper the story was printed on. It felt a little too good  just flipping the pages. I bought that book because it felt like I shouldn’t. When I finished it, I realized I’d read the best book I’d ever read (give or take Treasure Island and The Secret Garden). In some ways, like a first kiss, I’ve been pursuing it ever since.

The Outsider is a sequel from the other end of an author’s literary landscape—a landscape that started with familiar gothic archetypes transplanted to 1970’s Maine (and Colorado, and nationwide) and then, by the 1990s, evolved into an extended (three or four novel) contemplation of the terrors that face women in this “post-feminist” society, and ultimately, a wonderful decade of writing that is less gothic horror than magic realism. Recently, King finished a mystery series that culminates in a reconciliation of detective fiction science and the question of the unexplained. Actually, this book is a sequel to that series, too.

The Outsider collapses the bulk of King’s career into a single, sleek narrative. This story—seemingly inspired by Poe’s “William Wilson” but in some argument with it—focuses on a crime with two possible solutions, equally plausible. There is absolutely definitive evidence that a baseball coach has done something unimaginably horrific to a child, and there is absolutely definitive opposing evidence.

What do the characters do? First, they make terrible mistakes, mistakes that deepen the wrong in sickening and unforgettable ways. But key characters here don't give up, and they do what the heroes of King’s Dark Tower series do, which has been the tendency of every novel since Salem’s Lot. They form a "ka-tet." This is a community of souls united to pursue a collective goal. At the heart of all great horror, they are the community that forms around accepting the necessary reality in front of them, no matter how implausible. They often have to let go of the framework that has defined their lives and accept something new built on faith in each other. They're the ones who figure out a way to fight.

This issue has a special weight during the current political climate, when the concept of reality or objectivity gets erased for the sake of power. King has to ask himself, as the readers do, what is the point of celebrating the irrational in a world that seems to have lost its mind?  

And that’s just it.  While we’re trapped with our irrationality as a species, horror’s job is to accept what's in our path and find a way forward with our best selves intact.

So, in this novel, King takes a Salem’s Lot-level bogeyman and turns him into a modern day challenge to our faith in one another, invoking aspects of almost everything King has ever done, from The Dark Tower series to the gorgeous minor-epic Desperation. Desperation was a Southwestern hell-mouth story, and that’s significant to compare to King’s Oklahoman and Texan landscape here. For what it’s worth (and I love Desperation) the contrast between these two is like the difference in the best of the summer blockbusters and a straightforward little tale that left you shaking on the way out of the theater. 

With a grace that has exploded over the past two decades, King makes sure every word of The Outsider carries lethal weight while sounding like these are simply the only words that will do. The crimes are horrific but simple, the victims list is not a slasher movie affair. It is intimate but also contextual and atmospheric—the expanding portrait of the cost of despair around-the-edges of the central drama. The central drama being a question of how to define reality in a world where nothing makes sense anymore.

Context is huge here. This is King’s second stand-alone horror novel in a row with a significant Oklahoma setting. (Please set aside Owen King and father’s extraordinary—and equally important—Sleeping Beauties for me to make this point.) The description of Tulsa and Bell’s Amusement Park, a world of my childhood, is spot on in King's last straight-horror novel, Revival. I don’t recognize, so easily, the Flint City and Cap City of this book, but, that said, the people feel like the people I’ve known all my life, and the terror of the book’s bottom-feeder of the heartland echoes the appeal King has always had in the landscape where I grew up. It works the oppressiveness of open spaces and the heart of the American gothic. If you live in a world where nothing seems to ever happen and no one seems to take notice, there's a special intimacy to malevolence that can consume the widest horizons..

This terror over a wrongfully accepted mental construct of reality binds these characters together. It’s them (the ka-tet of the Dark Tower) against the world, against Heartland American decency, values King treats with more respect than we’d ever expect to see out of Hollywood. The book forces its characters (and its readers) to hold in mind absolutely contradictory truths. The only solution comes from grappling with that reality (right down to the smallest scrap of paper) and looking for—against society and everything they think is common sense—deeper truths and bigger realities than they may ever understand.

That’s the heart of horror as a heroic genre. It asks you to accept a new reality, and, almost always, it asks you to work with a diverse community who offer different pieces of the puzzle. The Van Helsings of these worlds need all the help they can get, and they’re likely to get the chair (or the gallows or a lethal injection) for their efforts. But they risk everything for the group, and the group risks everything for them. In this case, the hero every other core character eventually looks up to is a character the world might see as socially inept. This perceived ineptitude is exactly the quality that allows her to awaken the imaginations of the community she needs.

And that’s why we write, and that’s why we read. We’re looking for each other in one way we know can fire the vision and focus of each member of the group. The Outsider himself is the threat to the community. He exploits our assumptions and ratchets up our senses of isolation and confusion. He’s effective because he's not a national alien; he’s an enemy from within. He lives in those dark caverns where we lack any sense of hope or justice. In this book and so much of the best horror, those who salvage hope for the rest of us have faced the unimaginable. They have been written off in some way and are all outsiders in the working world. But  the quest of the horror novel is to find each other. Sometimes we best connect in our fear, but our humanity makes choices even there. This ka-tet (like the ones in real life calling us even as we read such a book) knows its only chance at salvation demands devotion to the community we all so desperately need. And this is why we write. And this is why we read.