Read This! Volume 10
Childhood is a time of both wonder and horror.
We experience the most ecstatic of emotions in our youth, but the dark ones are deeper and more dangerous than they can ever be in adulthood. Even the everyday can be terrifying. Clothes flung over a chair become a lurking monster once the lights are out. The slightest stray sound can be imbued with deepest dread. We worry that an absent parent might never return, or that a barking dog could attack at any moment. Even random rainstorms can provoke terror with every flash and roll of thunder, as Steven Spielberg portrayed so brilliantly in Poltergeist, a moment utterly lost in the remake.
Fear lives side by side with safety and security.
Stories about childhood horrors always remind me of that time in my own life, back when my imagination was more powerful than facts, when I could scare myself silly over things adults around me dismissed. In horror films and literature, children always see lurking danger more clearly than grownups around them. There’s clarity in our youth that’s suppressed as we’re taught limits on life by our parents and teachers. Their rules and regulations rein in the impossible and tell us that the world works the way they say it does, not the way we say.
Even when we’re right.
Sometimes those fears don’t fade with youth. They dig deep, and shadow our days with dimly recalled dread that lurks beneath the surface, waiting for a chance to leap out and remind us we aren’t always in control of our feelings or our lives. Those are the experiences not easily forgotten or resolved, dragged behind us like a dead dog on a leash we can’t release.
Black Rose Writing, September 12, 2019, 294 pages
Hellish Beasts explores the impact childhood trauma has on us long after we enter adulthood. It says some scars don’t heal, whether of the mind or body. Trent and his friend Mike Kripke are buddied up on a sixth grade school field trip to Colonial Williamsburg, a “living museum.” Trent insists they go to a cabin where candles are made. Inside, the boys encounter a hulking maniac who plunges Mike’s hand into a cauldron of hot wax when he mocks the man’s mediocre candle-making skills. It is a moment to remember, and one that defines both their lives. While his best friend screams, Trent flees, as he tells himself that he’s going for help, but knows he’s driven by pure uncut terror. The guilt of abandoning Mike, even though he did return with aid, has haunted Trent all the way to Los Angeles, where at twenty-nine, he’s a midlevel scriptwriter working in television, pitching projects, making a decent living, but no real impact.
While doing research at the library, Trent meets a man wearing one black glove. It’s obvious to the reader, if not immediately to him, that the man is his old friend Mike Kripke, burned hand kept covered. Their initial conversation consists of conceptual acrobatics as his companion plays with words and ideas in ways that confuse Trent, interrupted only when they hear an injured cat cry out in agony. They look for it in the stacks, only to find a desiccated corpse, long dead, swarming with bees.
This is the beginning of a surreal series of increasingly eerie events that drag the reunited friends into an underworld of madmen and monsters ruled over by the enigmatic King of Wax. After a brief encounter with him at work, Trent’s new bartender girlfriend, Lilith, describes the King as a cross between an effete literary giant—Truman Capote—and a WWE wrestler, The Undertaker. It’s another of the oddly disturbing contradictions that surround him.
In time, Trent and Mike discover the King’s connection to the mad chandler at Williamsburg who burned Mike’s hand when they were nine. That encounter turns out to have been the first domino to fall, and it triggered a seemingly random series of events that put them on the King’s trail far earlier than they realized. Their search takes them through a murky Hollywood underground where nothing is what it seems, from a posh private club for psychiatrists to an ill-fated winery in the country, until they find who and what they’ve been looking for—much to their regret.
I spent the nineties writing animation in L.A., and met a lot of Trents in that decade, at Starbucks while they worked on screenplays at laptops, or on studio back lots as they searched for a staff job to put down roots, a way to stay. They were part of why I ran back to New York after 9/11 . . . A city recovering from the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history was preferable to staying in Hollywood yet another year and turning into one of them. The Trents survive, but they don’t thrive. They’re minor gears that keep the Hollywood machine moving between blockbusters, essential to its operation, but easily and cheaply replaced. Low budget television shows, original web series, minor movies, commercials, all the places writers and directors rise from if they’re lucky enough to come up with the right project or make the right contact. They serve a purpose, and if they do their job well enough they get stuck in it, a reliable element that serves the system well where it is, even if the job burns them out.
In Hollywood, there are always new parts for the machine.
Carmody does a great job of taking us into his hapless hero’s head, either because he is a Trent after years of pitching scripts in L.A. and making indie horror films, or because he’s met enough of them in his time there to create a character that rings true. Like Quentin Tarantino and his auteur obsessed ilk, Trent fills his running monologue with movie and TV trivia, cites scenes from movies both real and perversely imaginary, like one where Madonna plays a succubus that I’d hoped was real. Replaceable part or not, Trent’s likable enough for us to listen to his tale of terror and woe, without giving him more sympathy than he’s due. Told in first person past tense, there’s a presumption of his survival, which sadly protects none of those surrounding him, from the bartender he just met, Lilith, a tattooed Cuban-American Trump-supporter who served up the green drink garnished with an eyeball that dragged him into his mystery, to his old friend Mike Kripke, or the cute, perky, but weirdly disturbing blonde girl who comes on to Trent in the worst possible ways at the worst possible times.
Carmody has captured a deer in the headlights vision of Hollywood’s sinister underbelly. Trent’s eyes are opened by events he can’t explain. He suddenly sees a predatory force beneath the glitzy glamour that fuels and then frustrates dreams until they slide into nightmares it can feed on. It’s the world of Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard; beautiful, but broken, tiny, almost imperceptible cracks in the painted porcelain the only hint that all’s not perfect in paradise.
A writer in Los Angeles once described Hollywood to me as the only place you can die of hope. I saw it time and again in writers and directors past any possibility of success, due to age or obscurity. Watched them cling to a dead dream and stay on past their welcome, fade a little more each day into phantoms, sure tomorrow would bring a life changing deal, if only an option to keep them alive until the big score. Trent’s Los Angeles is a haunted city filled with hellish beasts of all sorts, human and inhuman, natural and supernatural, but still very much like the one I felt I was trying to escape. His book, both satirical and scary, is very much the kind I would write about the town, a large part of my enjoyment while reading.
By the end, all is horrifically revealed in blood and fire, but much like life, not everything is resolved, which promises the possibility of a return of the King of Wax and his literally mad minions. As daunting as that might be in real life, as a reader it would not be unwelcome.
Tinfoil Butterfly: A Novel
Rachel Eve Moulton
Paperback / Ebook
Publisher: MCD x FSG Originals, September 10, 2019, 272 pages
I couldn’t help but picture a ragged Billie Eilish in the role of eighteen-year-old Emma as I read the opening chapter of Tinfoil Butterfly. The book has the same darkly engaging atonal poetry her songs have for me; lyrical, but drifting off center from where you expect them to go. That sense of startling spontaneity may fade after a national tour and the release of a graffiti clothing line, but if she’s looking for a debut movie role, she couldn’t find a better character fit.
Told in the first person like Hellish Beasts, this tale is also in present tense, which makes its unfolding events that much more immediate and unpredictable. We meet Moulton’s heroine as she’s hitchhiking to The Badlands, on a mysterious mission she shared with her suicidal stepbrother, Ray. She’s found a ride with Lowell, a shaggy young hunk in a beat up Volkswagen van that she christens Veronica and vows to rescue.
He’s either on his way to a happy reunion with his ex-wife and child before he goes to join a carnival as a contortionist, or plans to kill her and abduct their offspring. It’s the sort of casual ambiguity in motives the author plays with throughout the book, with all her characters. Even as Emma lies about her identity and real reason for getting to The Badlands, everyone around her is equally cagey about who they are and what they want.
He handcuffs her after she falls asleep, and lets her loose only when she wakes and seduces him into freeing her for sex. When she realizes that they’re driving through the Black Hills, already past The Badlands, and that Lowell has no intention of letting her out where she wants to go, or at all, there’s a confrontation. He’s seen her in the news and knows police want to question her about her stepbrother Ray’s death, and makes the mistake of thinking that gives him an advantage. The fight ends when she shoots him in the leg with his own gun after he attacks her with a knife. She leaves him wounded on the road and drives off in Veronica.
On the run again and almost out of gas, she rolls into the parking lot of Earlene’s Diner. It looks abandoned, except for big black crows everywhere in the trees around it. Soon she finds Earl, an eight-year-old boy in a tinfoil butterfly mask he made to cover his burned face and things go severely south. The deep hole Emma had dug herself into suddenly gets deeper and darker. She’s forced to unearth Earl’s secrets before he’ll tell her where to find gas, including those of his dead mother and missing father. As a threatened blizzard rumbles closer, she slowly unravels the mystery of a nearby ghost town, and how Earl’s family thought they’d turn it into a lucrative tourist attraction, and how that became yet another failed American dream. On the way, Moulton shows us that dreams don’t just die, they take their dreamers down with them, and Emma’s still being chased by the ruined remains of her own.
While she peels away the layers to reveal Earl’s past, she recalls and re-evaluates her own . . . A forbidden love between her and her stepbrother, the circumstances of his death and nearly her own, the pact they made that she’s trying to fulfill, even as Emma realizes it’s all pointless. Like Earl, she’s trapped in the tangles of someone else’s dead dream, lost in what’s now a shared nightmare.
Moulton’s Emma reminds us that the protagonists of tragedies aren’t necessarily tragic figures. More often they rage on, resist the path they must inevitably follow, as they slowly realize how complicit they are with it at every step.
There’s a growing claustrophobia in both these novels that can only be found in vast desolate spaces or crowded anonymous cities, where the feeling of being trapped, constricted, is your head and heart closing in on you, not walls. Emma and Trent seek as much salvation as they can find in worlds that offer precious little. In their struggles to survive, they find new truths and new purpose in lives they see with fresh clarity, no matter how grim, with sufficient vision to move forward, no matter how difficult their next steps.
In that regard, they take a journey that would do us all good.
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