Read This! Volume 8
Different generations have different ideas about childrearing.
Over the last few years, news stories have informed me that parents have been accused of abuse for letting their children return from school to an empty house, or go to playgrounds unescorted . . . I was raised as a latchkey kid, kept in line by belt when my parents got home for any transgressions performed in their absence. My friends and I played on rickety metal backyard swing sets on concrete or bare dirt, grass worn away by kicking sneakers, held together loosely with rusty bolts. You weren’t having real fun until the feet of the frame began to bounce off the ground at the apogee of your flight, when you swung faster, farther, in an attempt to tip it . . .
It was a Ray Bradbury life.
On weekends and in the summer we left home in the morning and came back in time for dinner, no questions asked. Lunch was a quarter spent at McDonald’s for a burger, fries, and a Coke, eaten next to bikes we raced all day from yard to yard. Or we dumped them to roam the wild woods on foot behind the housing of every Air Force base where I lived. No one asked anything except why we might need a Band-Aid, and then asked only that we not do whatever we did again. Band-Aids aren’t cheap, they said. We saw ourselves as free and easy if we toed the line, and we were when we did.
After school I left college owing only $1200. I paid that off in the next two years with a TV production job that paid $250 a week in my second year. With a high school friend, I split an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that cost me half of $287 a month. I spent a summer in 80s Europe living in hostels and filling journals like Burroughs in Morocco, though without the sex or drugs. I bought a loft in Brooklyn for less than most kids now have paid for a semester of college dorm residency. I don’t tell them that. I buy them dinner and change the subject when it comes up.
Of the two upbringings, I prefer the issues I endured in mine, minor maltreatment spread across years so I could adapt to it, over the current generation’s last minute sticker shock when their idyllic childhoods end. As the current generation discovers that they’ve been abused in an imaginative new way when they leave home—if they can leave home—this issue’s offerings look back at the suffering of my forebears.
By contrast with the two, my generation got off easy.
This column has allowed me to cover a broad range of fiction that isn’t strictly considered to be in the horror genre. Like these two novels, it’s all work I feel qualifies by evoking horror’s essential elements in a way that takes me to the same place. I found both of these novels just that terrifying, in large degree because of their subject—physical and psychological child abuse—and their treatment of it, whether in an obsession with the afterlife or racism at its worst.
I first learned of the institutionalized idea of child exploitation in the works of Charles Dickens. His work left me with an impression of industrial smokestacks smoldering over nineteenth century cities filled with kids of all ages forced to work in factories or on the streets, selling, stealing, starving, with worse left unwritten, but easily imagined. Until Dickens’s day, children, as well as women, were considered property of the men who ran their households, to be dealt with as routinely as any other article in their possession. The proponents of the #MeToo era work hard now to change that erroneous assumption, while millions of women in this country and around the world live in communities that still believe.
Unlike women, the cruelest aspect of exploiting children to me has always been that the victims are too young, too inexperienced to know any other life and accept their abuse as the norm. These two books tell their stories.
Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children
Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
Black Balloon Publishing, October 16, 2018, 512 pages
Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children relates the curious alliance of two women at the beginning of the twentieth century, one rich and white, one poor and black, both stutterers. They are bound to each other by an unorthodox study of spiritualism which may or may not be a sham, its purpose to train the dysfunctional mouths of inarticulate stammerers into instruments of otherworldly communication, living telephones if you will, for the dead to speak through.
Both raised to believe they’re flawed because of their serious speech impediments, they’ve found a way to not only make their afflictions special and useful, but to reshape similarly inclined children into their own image, youngsters gladly given up by frustrated parents in a variety of circumstances. Isolated in an insular pseudo-educational world that at times transcends or transforms reality, they all pursue the intangible with military precision.
The novel is introduced as non-fiction, the obsession of an academic who first stumbles across mention of the SJVS in an old newspaper clipping pressed between the pages of a random volume in a used bookstore. It’s a slight news story with a whiff of scandal and the supernatural . . . A dead and partially burned body is found on the grounds of a peculiar private school that may or may not be that of a superintendent sent to inspect it. A dead headmistress with a dark past, who may or may not have killed him, was found at her desk. Her assistant offers to communicate with the murdered man using the spiritualist skills of the school’s students to uncover answers.
The police decline.
As the intrigued academic digs deeper for more facts about the enigmatic institution, he publishes papers on the subject, and debates them with both fellow obsessives and eventually with the school administration itself. Like the Dalai Lama, each headmistress since Sybil Joines’ death channels Sybil’s guiding spirit. In essence, she retains control of her school as she speaks through the mouth of each successor, which leads to questions about the authenticity of mailed communications in anachronistic ballpoint pen from a woman dead for decades. Overcoming such objections, our anonymous editor eventually gathers and organizes enough material to produce the book in hand.
Epistolary novels are the found footage films of fiction, related scraps of story assembled into larger, greater, narratives from assorted alleged sources. Riddance is so comprised of documents recovered from public records, news publications, school files and correspondence, and the journals of another obsessive academic who spent time there writing observations of events that make no sense to him, then too much.
Much of the novel is in the form of dispatches from beyond the grave taken down by Jane Grandison, the young black orphan who becomes Sybil’s afterlife amanuensis, taking dictation through a curious device with a large horn to amplify the voices of the dead so she can type what is said, one of many innovative artifacts used at the school. This is her task from the day she arrives at the school as a child and lies when asked if she can type.
Sybil’s side of her story is told mostly in these accounts of her life and the other side, which may or may not be reinterpreted or possibly even invented by Jane from the beginning. As Sybil—or possibly Jane—says through the typewriter, who can really be sure of anything in a world that may be only an illusion of the dead?
Philosophical discussions of the nature of this life and the next, their relation to each other, and the techniques and devices used to facilitate necrophysical communication make up some of the more eccentric and imaginative scenes in the book. Students of all ages and genders wander the buildings and grounds, engaged in exercises from listening closely to plants or insects for messages, to wearing an increasingly odd assortment of headgear and body augmentation to make them less like humans and more like receivers. Auditoriums and rooms mimic the organs of speech, mouth, tongue and teeth filled in for by the students when in their proper places. Rooms, random things, and ectoplasmoglyphs—oddly shaped waxy objects coughed up during sleep—are given a David Lynchian significance, resonating with meaning that changes the meaning of what people say around them like suffixes or prefixes.
Shelley Jackson has carefully crafted a grimly convincing narrative that is by turns satiric and shudder-inducing, filled with—presumably, if not hopefully—altered period photos, diagrams, and technical documents by her artistic collaborators scattered throughout that lend a creepy verisimilitude to the scrapbook nature of an academic work. I read a hardcover print copy of the book, not a PDF galley, and it made a major difference, because the book is so involved with its own bookness—the feel and smell of a printed volume, passages cresting in waves of black ink against the white sea of pages, letters surfing paper.
After regaling us with descriptions of the sensuous solitude of her father’s library while he is away, Sybil confesses to fits of pica in her childhood, tearing off and eating edges of pages of his books while she’s secreted there. At the same time, she consumes an education in reading and writing that he’d forbidden until she could speak clearly, a hard won skill that eventually leads directly to her father’s murder of her mother, his death in a fire that she may—or may not—have set (ambiguity is all in this world), and her rise to headmistress once she reaches adulthood and her inheritance.
The rest of the book is composed of Jane’s story told in her own words and in letters Sybil wrote to dead authors and occasionally their characters to defend her actions. It’s an intricate tale of the two women’s shared lifelong endeavor to communicate with the dead and the consequences of their obsession.
In Los Angeles I had a screenwriting partner whose husband was a member of The Magic Castle, the famed private club open only to practitioners of stage magic. I was invited to join them and other friends at a Houdini Victorian Séance to be conducted by the late great Ricky Jay. A ten course dinner in a private room was followed by a traditional 1920s spiritualist séance, and as it began the room was plunged into complete and total blackness. We had been warned, as I recall—you don’t plunge people into stygian dark without letting them know, in case of phobias or other issues. It was still disconcerting, hands grasped on either side, ears sensitive to the slightest sound, newly sightless eyes inventing images in the darkness.
My first thought was, are you kidding? After all I’d read about the famed spiritualists of the 1920s, spirit horns, table rapping, levitations, I’d had no idea it was all done in dark rooms where almost anything could be faked by any variety of means. As entertaining as the evening was, I couldn’t help feel that our forebears were more than mildly gullible. The surge of popular appeal in spiritualism at the turn of the twentieth century had always struck me as curious. Even as science, medicine, and industry were growing by leaps and bounds, people flocked to seek supernatural revelations, almost as if to urgently deny the facts laid before them.
Then I am reminded of current climate change deniers, the anti-vax movement, the staggering popularity of cable ghost hunter shows and endless exorcist movies, in the age of quantum physics and space travel.
Perhaps things have not changed so much after all.
The Nickel Boys
Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
Doubleday, July 16, 2019, 224 pages
It’s impossible to talk about The Nickel Boys without deep diving into the history of Jim Crow in these United States. If you are unaware of it, even after the background given in the last decade’s increased coverage of police killings of unarmed blacks, this novel brings the truth of its horrors vividly to life in a way I had been spared so far. Reading it is by turns excruciating and heartbreaking, but also sadly necessary.
The novel is fiction inspired by incidents uncovered at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida that Colson Whitehead first heard about in the summer of 2014. Out of the cold, cruel facts he’s written a book that had me weeping openly by its end, with a dark catharsis that is both heartbreaking and honest. Even that tells you more than I should, except that reading it opens a door to a part of human history that needs to be seen as clearly as he writes it, no matter how terrible. We need to see it and understand it as a part of us we don’t want to feed.
The Elwood we meet at the beginning of the novel was me at that age, me and so many other optimistic upbeat black boys I’ve known protected enough from the downside of being black that we found nothing wrong in it, and walked into the world with that attitude, embracing all and getting kicked in the teeth. I was raised by a generation that left small towns and sprawling ghettos to pursue the dream of the American middle class in the sixties—of a home in the suburbs, a two car garage and your loving family living next to friendly neighbors who wouldn’t burn the foundations of your house when they heard you were moving in.
The road was rockier than they would have liked, but they persevered, bolstered by community and church, and the belief that they were right, and that those things would change. They didn’t even seem to believe or care if it could be better for them, but they were determined that it would improve for their children and their children’s children. I had it easier than my parents, and my nieces and nephews grew up mixed race in a less racist country, but as their limitations faded, so did the memories of what life had been for us and could be again.
The pain begins to slip away. We forget, get comfortable, and are unprepared for it to come back to knock at our door again. What happens to Elwood over the course of the novel is a reminder, and explains so much about the underlying attitudes in this country through the twentieth century that created our country’s current climate of division and distrust. It’s been barely over a century since my kind were literally property, and that’s not enough time to heal wounds that deep. More than restitution, we need therapy, deep analysis, to see ourselves for who we are and not what we were shaped into. To see the correlation between how we treat our children, each other, and the world, and how many of the reflective reactions we have date back to surviving under the deeply engrained multigenerational institutions and customs of slavery.
The Nickel Boys took me back to a world that still existed in my lifetime, one I was saved from by geography and my parents’ opportunities. It’s one I would have never survived. Octavia Butler once said that she’d started writing Kindred with a male protagonist, and found that any reaction a twentieth century black man would have to every encounter in the Old South got him killed. Only a black woman could surf that antebellum society unscathed, and I know what she meant. In the sixties, if I’d walked my big mouth off the Air Force base and shot it off in the wrong southern town, it could literally have gotten me killed, as it did Emmet Till. The thought of that is terrifying, and it is why this book is so horrifying to me. It could have happened to me. It could still happen.
Whitehead uses the classic gambit of easing you into the water, letting you get to know Elwood and get comfortable before pulling you under so deep so fast that you lose your footing for the rest of the novel. Even when Elwood and his one real friend Turner have moments of grace, the threat’s always there, the fear of damage, defilement, death. It was as impossible for me to relax as it was for the characters. It is not a book to read in one sitting.
The boys of Nickel—black and white, but especially the black—are disposable bodies. The boys are deprived of state-sent supplies that are sold to fill their keepers’ pockets, and used as cheap labor and sex toys. They’re there because no one cared enough or had power enough to keep then out, and by virtue of being there, they’re at the disposal of the staff.
A lack of any real supervision allows the penal and educational institutions in these novels to be exempt from rules regarding involuntary forced labor, which in effect permits legal slavery. The use of minors in both period narratives makes the situation more poignant, but the same abuses still apply to adults and youth incarcerated today as well. Millions languishing in privatized prisons and state run reform schools face the same kind of impersonal disposability exhibited in the novel, even if it has become less blatant or frequent. There have always been easy ways to harvest humans, and systems like Nickel are just that, until we become serious about genuine reform and our humanity. A little more moral isn’t moral enough. At any age, incarceration is still the same dehumanizing Hell.
The horror of these two novels is that the source of the danger faced in each is all too human, all too real. The usual tropes of horror fiction, from serial killers to supernatural evils, pale compared to what we are capable of doing to each other, and the best fright fictions always encompass that truth behind their monsters.
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