Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Day 7 of Countdown

“She was aware of how small they were, she and her daemon, in comparison with the majesty and vastness of the universe; and of how little they knew, in comparison with the profound mysteries above them.” --Philip Pulman, The Golden Compass

A black house stood to the side of a long, nearly deserted road that led from my home to a drive-in theater. To adults, the place no doubt seemed nothing special, just an abandoned tract house with what might have been tar-papered walls, but while the ghosts of my home were tamed by warm lighting and family, this was the place they ran free. The first crayon pictures I drew peopled this house with ghosts, vampires, werewolves and the Frankenstein monster lit only by a full moon, a moon I always drew with two black clouds across its face. The first stories I pecked out—just a few lines each--on my mother’s typewriter were always set at that black house, and it was that black house I thought of on spring afternoons when the sky turned dark and green and the threat of a tornado hung over the games I played with Paul and Devlin Hancock next door and Nancy Bates from across the street.

The way that “haunted house” and tornado weather go together in my memory says something about how our fears link up and intermingle.

“It’s a twister, a twister!” Ray Bolger called out to Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz, and my favorite part of that yearly television event was watching that long, gray monster snake around the horizon, leisurely working its way toward Dorothy’s farm. My grandparents in Kansas had a storm cellar like the one in the movie, and my Southern grandmother, Nana, had the best tornado stories I’d ever heard.

Nana would tell me of the tornado that passed just behind her house when she was a child, sounding like a freight train barreling through the woods laying its own tracks. She told me about the night half of Shreveport, Louisiana went to see the premiere of Gone with the Wind only to find their neighborhoods destroyed after the movie was over. The newspaper headline the next day merely needed to shout the movie title to tell the whole story.

And she told me of that day in second grade, at a little one room schoolhouse in East Texas where her family had moved to work a rice plantation. The teacher said, “There’s a storm blowing up. You children run along home.”

My grandmother and the younger of her two older brothers, Lewis, had set off across the fields for a mile long journey to their home. With a speech impediment made worse by the doctor’s solution, cutting tissue from under his tongue, Lewis was easy prey for bullies, and my grandmother saw herself as his protector. Nana was always the protector, just as she would later be for me and my brother.

I asked for this story more times than I can count, so I see it vividly. I imagine them trudging across that big field in the greening light. I feel the panic that must have shot through that little girl’s limbs, knowing this mysterious and deadly force as tall as a mountain could find them before they got home.

Just as they were reaching railroad tracks at the edge of the field, my grandmother and Lewis heard a booming voice ask, “What are you children doing out here?”

My grandmother looked up to see a giant of a man, a black man who she assumed was a field laborer, staring down at her. (When telling this story, without rising from the couch, Nana would lean forward and reach, acting the scene that followed.) The man picked Nana and her brother up and lay them in the ditch by the side of the railroad tracks. He stood over them with his back to the tracks. They didn’t have long to wait. Almost immediately, they heard the horrible sound of that freight train that wasn’t a freight train roar just a few feet away.

When she told that story, it always ended there, and she always gave the impression that she’d never seen that man before and never saw him again. But I think of that tale as uniquely central to the woman my grandmother was—a woman tossed fiercely by the world’s horrors but who—with her plum jelly, toasted cheese sandwiches, ghost stories and I-Spy games--always offered a refuge of unconditional love and security in our own turbulent lives.

When I think of the liberal dreams that died in the 60s, I also think of my grandmother, who--despite her tendency to pronounce Negro as “nigra,” and despite the way she held up her head with the regal heir of a descendent of southern aristocracy—believed in the dreams of the Civil Rights Movement. She hated bullies of all stripes, and she instinctively watched out for others. “Children can be so cruel,” I heard her say more times than perhaps anything else. In a white supremacist world of bullies, a solitary Black man watched out for her and her little brother with the funny way of talking. I'm sure Nana's stories had much to do with why I connected so early with To Kill A Mockingbird, so much so that the scenes with Boo Radley and the children became a part of my childhood play with the neighbors.

To Kill A Mockingbird certainly wasn’t a horror movie in any conventional sense, but it was one of the scariest movies this 6 year old had seen, and I loved it for that. The same could be said for other movies I discovered that year, movies that undid something at the back of my skull even if they might seem to others to be going for laughs (The Fearless Vampire Killers) or anything but made for children (2001: A Space Odyssey). The bumbling vampire killers only made their supernatural foes seem more lethal and evil, and Hal 9000s’ seemingly gentle nature only made his madness more terrifying.

But to get back to ghost stories and tornado stories (my grandmother’s repertoire) I need to get to a movie made in 1933 by RKO studios that I also saw when I was 6 years old, a movie without a ghost or tornado in it, but that's not the point.

It was Halloween night, my favorite night all year long (or at least a close rival to Christmas Eve), and all but ruined because I was sick. I often was, but I was especially sick--at heart that night as much as anything--because my mother wouldn’t let me go trick or treating with what must have been worse than my usual cough.

But she did something wonderful for me that night. She decorated the den near the front door with jack-o-lanterns and black and orange crepe paper and spider webs complete with spiders, turning the room where I would spend the night watching TV into my own haunted house. And we watched what felt like the best movie I’d ever seen that night, King Kong.

I still feel how awe-inspiring that massive, ancient wall on Skull Island seemed then, lit only by torch fire and holding back some great beast in the jungle beyond--that feeling you only get once with Kong and maybe not ever unless you're 6 and clueless about it. I felt Fay Wray’s terror at hearing Kong’s footsteps, followed by the crashing of trees and brush, underscored by the loping (almost sadistic) Max Steinberg horns, and finally the face and torso of the thing itself. That scene comes a half hour into the film, but it was the most satisfying crescendo I had ever experienced.

Still, another scene haunted me more. It’s a small scene. After Kong has broken free in Manhattan come several shots of him rampaging through the city. He derails an elevated train, and he miraculously finds his way to the window outside Fay Wray’s hotel room. Those are frightening scenes, but the one that got me was a cut away to a police station. Several people are huddled around the dispatcher’s radio listening to the whereabouts of the giant on the loose in the darkness of the city. Now that scared me!

It was the idea of this great beast wandering in the darkness. And I think I know why. It is the same feeling a kid in Oklahoma gets listening to the storm reports of twisters over crackly AM radio on a windy, lightning and thunder torn night. It is a feeling of helplessness and mystery. Out there in the darkness somewhere is something worse than the average monster out to get you. Out there in the darkness is a monster that doesn’t care about you, or anything or anyone. If you get in its way, you’re just a random, inconsequential victim, and that may be the scariest thought of all.

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