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Johnson

I woke up this morning to the news that writer Denis Johnson has died (two days ago). He was 67 years old. I don’t know what the cause of death was, but, as Buddha reminds us, the real cause of death was being born.

I was introduced to Denis Johnson’s writing during a time in my life when my circle of writer-friends and I were infatuated with the idea of the visionary, self-destructive artist, a crew that we casually lumped Johnson into. Like many young self-styled bohemians, we were enamored with the ideal of the reprobate-renegade writer in pretty much the same way we’d been infatuated with rockstars, imitating their “look” both in life and on the page. You know––the style but not the substance. We had no idea.

In many of the descriptions of Johnson’s writing that I’ve seen today, the word “raw” comes up a lot, as if there’s some special virtue in being wounded. There’s not. Everyone is wounded, sooner or later. What matters is how you heal. Or how you don’t.

As anyone who has spent time trapped in the jaws of addiction and depression will tell you, when you find a source of beauty in the world, you swim toward it and hang onto it like a life preserver. Because that’s what it is.

Denis Johnson, like many of us, found that beauty in words. There are still plenty of people out there who think of writing (especially personal writing) as an elitist activity, something that comfortable and privileged folk do with all that time on their hands. Even people for whom art and life are a struggle sometimes say that when life becomes too much of a struggle, art (and art-making) has to wait––sometimes forever.

But here’s the problem. Art will not wait because life will not wait. Waiting to make art is like waiting to be yourself. Or waiting to breathe. Denis Johnson knew that. I don’t know, but I believe that he made art because he had to in order to live. That’s the sense I get from his words––that they were necessary in a way that went way beyond being published or getting awards or good reviews.

When I read Johnson today, I no longer feel that he was romanticizing or celebrating the darker edges of his life––he was transforming them, practicing the writer’s alchemy of turning base metals into gold. Jesus’ Son. Angels. Fiskadoro. The Stars at Noon. Resuscitation of a Hanged Man. The Name of the World. Tree of Smoke. The Incognito Lounge. Train Dreams. He tried. And he succeeded. We should all be so lucky.

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As a lifelong lover and writer of horror and ghost stories, I’m sometimes asked, “Do you believe in ghosts?” The answer to that question is quite long and likely to wander off into all kinds of strange and esoteric areas, so I won’t subject you to it here. (See how I got out of that one?)

A somewhat easier question that tends to come up in these conversations is, “Have you ever seen a ghost?”

My answer is, No. But I have heard one.

I was fourteen years old at the time, hanging out at my best friend’s house on a Saturday afternoon. My friend’s grandmother, who had been living with his family in the same house, had recently died. We were just sitting around in his bedroom, listening to records, when he reached over, turned down the record we’d been listening to, and told me something. Sometimes, he told me, he thought he could hear his grandmother walking around the house. My friend was a no-nonsense, scientific-minded guy (who is now, in fact, a scientist), not someone given to exaggeration or hallucinations, so what he’d just said impressed me.

A little while later, his mother came in to drive him somewhere on some kind of errand. They would be back soon, she assured me; would I be okay waiting in the house by myself? I tried to catch my friend’s eye, but he had already left the room, so I smiled at his mother and said yes, yes, I’d be fine. A minute later, I watched through the window as they both got in his mother’s white car and drove away.

I went back to listening to the album my friend and I had been playing. I turned it up loud, relying on the power of rock & roll to push back any negative thoughts or presences, and for a while, it worked just fine.

Soon, though, I couldn’t help but think about what my friend had said, and the thought came to me––I wonder what would happen if I turned the music down? After all, it was pretty loud and would probably cover up any other noises in the house. Why don’t I turn it down, just for a second, and see? I remember sitting there, staring at the volume knob on the stereo, trying to decide. Then I reached over and turned the music down.

Immediately I could hear the sound of someone walking around in the hallway, right outside the bedroom door.

Here’s the thing––it did not frighten me at all. If it had been a more mysterious noise, a series of spooky creaks, pops, or groans in the woodwork, or if it had been nighttime instead of a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon, maybe then I would have felt frightened. But it was so clearly and unmistakably the sound of someone’s shoes walking across the linoleum floor (heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe..) that my first thought was that my friend and his mother had returned early, so I got up and went out in the hall to greet them.

Nobody. The sound had stopped. I was alone in the empty hallway with the sun streaming down on me through the high windows.

Still convinced that they’d returned, I started walking through the house, room by room, looking for them. No one in the living room, no one in the kitchen. When I looked into the carport, I saw what I already knew I’d see––the empty space where their white car had been, still empty.

The feeling of certainty being stripped away in layers from your mind is, I’d say, a physical sensation, raw and terrible. A slow-burning visceral shock like going blind, not over a period of years, but minutes or seconds––that’s what I felt, walking around my friend’s house. Even after I realized that what I’d heard was not them, I could not stop my body moving from room to room, looking for them. I remember moving faster and faster through their house, not so much to outrun whatever might be behind me, but because of the thought that if I moved fast enough, I might be able to erase myself, so that by the time whatever it was had caught up with me, there’d be nothing left.

I’m not sure how long it was before I finally heard the familiar sound of my friend and his mother entering through the front door. My friend came in and put on another record for us to listen to. I waited for a while, then told him what had happened. I remember that he simply listened, nodded once, and said, “Yeah.” Or maybe he just nodded and said nothing. I do know that we didn’t talk much about it. It felt like there was no need to talk about it. It was just a thing that had happened. And now it was over.

That’s my story.

There’s a remarkable scene in Algernon Blackwood’s story The Wendigo in which one character makes a brave attempt to snuff out the supernatural hysteria that’s building among the other characters by offering rational explanations for all the strange and frightening things they’ve been experiencing. It’s a terrific scene, first because of it’s realism. (When confronted by the unexplainable, that’s what humans really do––try to explain it.)

But what’s strongest about this scene is how starkly it depicts two separate realities. While the character’s reasoning is sound, and his logic good, the other characters (as well as we, the readers) can’t deny the feeling that what he’s saying ultimately makes no difference. By engaging in scientific logic, he has clumsily and tragically missed the point.

So, allow me to offer a few rational explanations of my own story:

(1) What I heard was actually some other household noise that I mistook for footsteps.
Possible. But very hard to believe. What I heard was clearly the sound of human footsteps––shoe-leather hitting linoleum, heel-toe, heel-toe––crossing the hallway, clearly moving from one place to another.

(2) What I heard was in fact human footsteps, but of someone else who entered the house. Again, possible, but not likely. Remember, I investigated immediately upon hearing the sound, then searched the house, and found no one. Plus, my friend later confirmed that there was no one else in the house with me at the time.

(3) My friend and his mother played a trick on me by pretending to leave and then circling back around to sneak into the house and frighten me. Extremely unlikely––my friend’s mother was not the kind of woman who’d conspire with her son on a practical joke. And my friend was not the type who’d play a joke like that and then never gloat about it. (Plus, remember, I investigated immediately and found no one.)

(4) I can’t think of a fourth rational explanation.

So what are we left with? Are we forced to conclude that what I heard was, in fact, the ghost of my friend’s grandmother?

Of course not. What we are left with is, I believe, potentially much more frightening than that. And that is the realization that we do not understand the world we live in. That we do not know what we think we know.

What does that mean for us as writers? I think it means that what can make our work truly powerful is not simply how well we write about the unknown, but how well we write about what it’s like to experience the unknown, that split second that feels like an eternity when we step off the edge of the cliff and feel like we might either fall or fly.

 

 

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If you work with high school kids and spend any time discussing scary stories and you haven’t heard of Creepy Pasta, you’re either deaf or just not paying attention.

This summer I was picking stories to share with my students, really good horror stories to serve as examples of the best of the form. I was planning on shaking things up a little, not just Poe and M.R. James who I’d exposed them to before, but “new voices”, edgy contemporary stuff I hoped would unsettle and impress them.

While I was planning my new syllabus, I kept observing my students passing their Smart Phones around, alternately cackling and squealing in gleeful terror, carrying on long and energetic debates about which “Pasta” was the scariest or best-written, and shouting out their favorite lines.

These online stories that they were discussing almost non-stop were called Creepy Pastas, and, apparently, there were thousands of them. After a few days of this, I understood that I was witnessing a full-fledged cultural phenomenon, or at least, an internet phenomenon, which for kids these days is more or less the same thing. I also realized that my students (all smart and well-read young writers) had not once mentioned a single short story or novel of horror literature––for them, apparently, this was their horror literature.

A few years ago I might have made grumpy old man-noises about crazy youngsters or the decline of western civilization, etc. But since I really didn’t know enough about what they were talking about to make snotty comments, I pulled up a chair and asked them to educate me.

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Creepy Pasta, I learned, is both the name of a particular website (which is responsible for popularizing the form) as well as a noun that refers to any individual piece of writing done in that form (as in, “I read a really good Creepy Pasta yesterday.”). The name has become ubiquitous and is now used to refer to any Creepy Pasta-like story on the internet, regardless of whether or not it appears on the original site.

The best description of a Creepy Pasta comes from one of my students, who defined it as “kind of like a campfire ghost story or urban legend, but told on the internet.” And indeed, many Creepy Pastas simply read like one of those bite-size tales torn from the pages of a Scholastic ‘Scary Stories’ book. (Think of ‘The Ghostly Hitchhiker.’)

The best Creepy Pastas, though, make maximum use of the medium by masking as web forums, blogs, or Email conversations. In many ways (as I pointed out to my students), this is simply the latest version of the tried and true epistolary technique in horror literature where authors present their stories as “found documents”; letters, diaries, interview transcripts, and newspaper clippings (like Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthullu’, Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, Avram Davis’ ‘The Boss In the Wall’), all calculated to create the impression that this is real––this really happened.

Of course, when we read ‘The Call of Cthullu’ and other “found document” horror stories, we’re asked to believe that the author has discovered certain documents and papers whose contents he’s now reporting to us second-or-third-hand––but we don’t actually get to see those original documents right in front of us.

That’s where Creepy Pastas have the advantage––they appear to “cut out the middleman” by putting the reader in direct contact with the actual source-material itself (the fictional online forum/blog/Email exchange) so there are practically no “degrees of separation” between the reader and the experience they’re being asked to believe. (Imagine, for example, instead of reading Stoker’s novel ‘Dracula’, getting to hold Jonathan Harker’s travel-diary in your hand, being able to see the words he scratched out and smell the worn leather cover…)

Some Creepy Pastas masked as non-fictional web content seem so inseparable from the medium they’re presented in that it’s impossible to imagine them in any other format. Try to imagine, for instance, Stephen Volk’s ‘Ghost Watch’ without the medium of television news, or ‘The Blair Witch Project’ without personal video cameras.

Of course, both ‘Ghost Watch’ and ‘Blair Witch’ are stories we experience as video, not as writing––they’re written, of course, but they don’t require us to read words and sentences on a page or computer screen. Creepy Pastas do. And that’s where things can get tricky…

The fact is that most real posts written on real web forums or chat rooms (along with most Emails) are not particularly well-written. They’re usually composed on the fly by people who have no intention of crafting richly constructed sentences or vivid and evocative images. So a writer who sets out to create a work of fiction in one of these web formats may (in the interest of “realism”) be compelled to write in the bland and hurried language of the web–––and somehow craft something interesting and compelling out of it.

Whether or not a writer succeeds in creating a genuinely disturbing and memorable story in the colorless and slightly clunky style of “web-speak” may depend on one thing: is it a deliberately crafted style that the writer is consciously employing for effect? Or is it actually the best that the writer can do?

When I asked my students about the difference between Creepy Pastas and “traditional” horror fiction, one of them answered with a question: “There’s no editorial control on the internet, is there?” “You mean,” I said, “some of them are really good and some of them are really bad?” He nodded, sadly.

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The second Creepy Pasta story I ever heard (more about the first one later) is a good example of how a little editorial input might have made a pretty good story pretty great. In this story, the narrator who works at a 24-hour gas station is asked by his boss to review a set of security-camera videos in order to catch a fellow-employee in the act of stealing. Needless to say, the videos turn out to be lot more unusual and disturbing than anyone expects.

The writer’s explanation for what’s happening (sorry, no spoilers here) is a good one. It’s the kind of core idea that could easily give birth to a dozen possibilities, any one (or two) of which would make a good, solid story. Unfortunately, the writer throws all of those ideas into the mix and the result is a bit of a mess (although a smart, interesting mess).

The story is presented as a kind of online journal or report that the narrator’s boss has asked him to write while watching the security videos––setting aside the whole question of how likely that is, the writer does a good job of keeping these journal entries in the simple, unadorned style of a real online journal. And that’s where the problem arises––whenever the narrator is reporting a frightening experience.

The experiences that the narrator describes are, without a doubt, creepy, even frightening. And he tells us so, in more or less those exact terms (as in “it was the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen,” or “I’d never been so scared in my whole life,” etc.) which is exactly the way most real people would express themselves on a web-forum or in an Email. But while that may be a victory for “realism”, it does nothing to give the reader a real sense of what the narrator is feeling and robs the story of any visceral power it could have.

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The first Creepy Pasta I heard (read aloud by one of my students) was, I thought, very good. Called Candle Cove, it’s presented as an internet forum with multiple participants chiming-in to discuss a (fictional) childhood TV show. The reminiscences become stranger and stranger until the final post, which provides a twist that’s either terrifying or disappointing, depending on who you ask. (More on this later…)

While the fictional “posts” in Candle Cove are all written in the flat, hurried tone of real forum posts, what (I believe) keeps the tone from becoming distracting or tiresome is the fact that there are multiple (fictional) speakers/posters which prevents you from expecting an individual in-depth narrative voice to develop (and becoming displeased when it doesn’t). The rapid-fire volley of multiple voices also helps keeps the focus on the strange phenomenon at the heart of the story.

That’s what makes Candle Cove a typical Creepy Pasta (albeit a very good one)––it’s all about the idea, the clever/disturbing conceit that the writer comes up with. In fact, from listening to my students talk, it seems that the main appeal of a Creepy Pasta is what happens, not how (or how well) it’s told.

Ultimately, Creepy Pastas are not so much stories or pieces of writing as they are concepts or viral ideas that seem to exist independently of the medium they’re communicated in. The same core narrative idea in a Creepy Pasta may pop up on the internet as a text-story, a photo or meme, or a video, often in multiple variations. I could, for example, post a Creepy Pasta about the laughing face of Satan appearing on my Smart Phone and in less than a week there may be dozens of other stories, pictures, and video-clips all featuring the ‘Laughing-Face-of-Satan-in-a-Smart Phone’ trope.

When I hear my students swapping rapid-fire verbal summaries of Creepy Pasta plots, the impression I get (from some of them, anyway) is that it’s these summarized core ideas that are the Creepy Pasta, and that any piece of writing that expands on those core ideas is almost incidental. All of this is fine in a playful, post-modern kind of way––unless, of course, you want to read a really good story.

In an essay on his website, the author of Candle Cove (an intelligent and hardworking writer, from all the evidence) laments the lack of “new ideas” in horror fiction (although, being a modern guy, he prefers the T-word, tropes).

Here’s an idea: If contemporary horror fiction has a problem, maybe it’s not the lack of new tropes or ideas––maybe it’s the lack of well-written ones.

So, as much as I hate to be the old codger who says something as predictable as It’s the writing that matters…

It’s the writing that matters.

My students know this. One day I overheard two of them having a friendly but spirited debate about the final post in Candle Cove that provides the “twist” that many Creepy Pastas thrive on.

“It’s a great story,” one student admitted, “But that last post is terrible.”

“What are you talking about? It’s great!”

“No. It’s not. If something like that happened to someone, they’d be terrified. They’d be screaming and losing their mind. They wouldn’t say, Oh, I think I’ll sit down and post something on the internet.

“I don’t know,” I interjected, “Maybe they would. It’s possible, right?”

“Sure, it’s possible,” my student answered, “But he wouldn’t sound so matter-of-fact about it. He wouldn’t sound so calm.”

“You mean the fear,” I said. “The fear doesn’t come through.”

My student nodded and like smiled like a teacher who’d just gotten his point across. “That’s right––in a web forum post, no one can hear you scream.”

The Mind of Fear

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The last time I taught a class of Middle School students how to write scary stories, I gave them the following instructions: “Make a list of things that have actually scared you––things you’ve seen, places you’ve visited, incidents you’ve witnessed.”

My own list, for example, would include the creepy sewing room where I had to sleep in my aunt’s house, the abandoned one-room shack covered with kudzu that my family drove past every summer on our way through rural Kentucky, a certain remote and desolate campsite in the Badlands of Nebraska…

The kids’ lists surprised and disappointed me. There were a few original and unsettling images, like the young boy who saw the face of an old lady he didn’t know grinning down at him from his apartment window one night. Or the girl who was convinced she was being stalked by a killer cow.

But for the most part, the kids‘ lists of fears were pretty evenly divided between two basic categories: (1) faceless boogiemen hiding under their beds or in their closets, or (2) homeless people.

It was this second type of fear that troubled me. I’ve worked with homeless people for years and have seen how destructive this kind of public prejudice and fear can be.

However, when asked later to write essays about social problems, many of these same kids chose hunger and homelessness as their topics and wrote passionately and persuasively about the need to help the homeless.

I wanted to ask these kids if they saw the contradiction between these two modes of thinking––how were they able to switch so easily from one to the other? But like many teachers, I was reluctant to ask a question I didn’t know the answer to.

Once the kids had selected a topic from their list of fears, I told them, “Now write about it, and ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen?” What if the homeless person they were afraid might follow them home really did follow them home? What if the monster in the closet really was in the closet. What would it do? More importantly, what would you do?

Imagining the worst is something these kids were all very good at. In fact, it’s something we’re all very good at. To a large degree, it’s why most of us are still alive––not crossing the street without looking both ways feels a lot more important if you can imagine being hit by a car.

There are some cases, however, in which our ability to imagine danger overshoots the mark and ends up harming instead of helping us. The person who can’t sustain a relationship because they imagine a future filled with pain and betrayal. The person who can’t leave their house because of all the dangers they imagine lurking in the outside world. Or, a recent tragic example, the man who shoots and kills an unarmed teenager because he imagines himself a hero protecting himself from a deadly enemy.

The power of fear is that it can take the worst things we can imagine and make us believe not only that they might happen, but that they actually are happening. Until we recognize the power that our minds have to twist reality to fit our imaginings, we are doomed to react accordingly––and that is when the worst usually does happen.

People have argued for years about the harmful effects of violence in movies, television, and video games. But, as I tell my students, what makes a scary story good isn’t monsters or violence––not flesh eating zombies or serial killers with chainsaws––it’s fear, a deep and realistic understanding of what it feels like to be afraid and the ability to communicate that feeling on the page.

The question is, why would anyone want to do that? Everyone knows (or will know) someone whose life has been troubled, damaged, or destroyed by their fears. So the idea of deliberately generating a mind of fear and then spending time there may seem foolish at best, destructive at worst.

What about my young students who wrote stories about being stalked and threatened by homeless people––did they become more fearful and prejudiced towards homeless people as a result? How could these same kids then turn around and write so passionately about the need to provide the homeless with food and shelter and support? Which of these two feelings was real, the fear or the compassion?

I believe they both were. Those kids were not really writing about homeless people––they were writing about their own fears that they’d felt at one time when their imaginations had run away with them. Fear doesn’t come from the object that inspires it––it comes from inside the mind, and it was their own minds that these kids were writing about.

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Horror stories provide us with a unique way of examining just how good our minds are at making up terrible scenarios and believing in them. We are, quite simply, making things up. Generally speaking, there’s no harm in imagining things––as long as you realize that’s what you’re doing.

In Kadampa Buddhist meditation, there is a practice in which you generate the negative mind you wish to rid yourself of. Instead of denying or repressing your negative and destructive ideas and impulses, you look at them directly and deeply. You familiarize yourself with them so you will recognize them when they appear again, so they can no longer manipulate you or take you by surprise.

Let’s become familiar with our fears. Let’s paint them on the walls where we can look at them until we know every feature on their faces, until we know them so well that we can see them coming from a distance and recognize them––even in the dark.

A writer of ghost stories (whose name escapes me now) once said, “I’m not so interested in ghosts—I’m interested in the people who see them.”

The idea that some people see ghosts and others do not is not new, and is quite a popular one now, thanks to a slew of “reality TV” shows featuring various psychics, mediums, and other sensitive types. Some people, according to this notion, just happen to be “sensitive” to ghosts the way other people are sensitive to shellfish and ragweed.

There is, of course, another explanation of why some people tend to see ghosts, and it’s been around at least since Shakespeare’s time. According to this explanation, people see ghosts because they are under intense psychological/emotional stress, or are suffering from psychosis or some other form of mental illness. In other words, they are “seeing things” that aren’t really there.

What does this mean for a writer of ghost stories? Specifically, for a writer of modern ghost stories?

As a writer, I confess to favoring the psychological approach. I want to know (and want you to know) who my characters are first, what’s going on in their lives, in their hearts and minds. What is the thing that’s leaving them open to an “intervention” from the other side?

The hazard for a writer who concentrates on the psychology of his human characters is that it can drain the energy from the supernatural element of your story—or, in some cases, push it out altogether.

That has happened to me on more than one occasion. I’ll start out writing what I think is a ghost story, then get to the end and discover that the ghost never showed up. This is what David Longhorn, editor of Supernatural Tales, calls “an almost ghost story.” And it’s a perfectly respectable and powerful type of story to write and read.

But subtlety can also be a vice in a ghost (or horror) story. Or, as a friend of mine said after seeing ‘The Blair Witch Project’, “When I spend my money on a movie like that, I want to see something!”

Another friend of mine recently remarked about how brilliantly Shakespeare “personified” the psychological torments of his characters as “ghosts.” I agreed, but also felt that there was something simplistic, even dismissive about his comment. Yes, I thought, Shakespeare’s ghosts” are rooted firmly in the deepest guilts and fears of his living characters. That’s where their raw power comes from. But is that all they are?

To put it simply, if a ghost can be explained away so easily, then it probably doesn’t belong in the story in the first place.

To have any real power at all, a spirit, any kind of spirit, must be more than a metaphor or a symbol. When I hear someone say that Banquo’s ghost is symbolic of Macbeth’s guilt, or that the ghost of Quint is a metaphor for the governess’ repressed sexual hunger, I flinch. For the characters who come face to face with them, these terrifying apparitions are not symbols or metaphors. They are experiences, vivid, powerful experiences that do not ‘represent’ something else, but demand to be taken seriously at face value for what they are.

By the way, this has nothing to do with the question of whether or not ghosts “really exist”—that’s a debate for another type of post (and maybe another type of blog). This is about having respect for what you’re writing about. And for your reader.

Our job as writers is to provide our readers with an experience. In other words, to make them believe.

For ghosts to feel real, they need to resist our easy explanations. They need to have a little unpredictability, a little wildness. They need to shock us as much as they shock the character who sees them.

One of the oldest truisms in writing is, “Show, don’t tell.” That’s good advice for a writer of ghost stories. Don’t just give me a Freudian explanation or psychological rationale. Show me the ghost.

The funny thing about the horror genre is how it serves to both comfort and discomfort. Certain “tropes” of horror—crumbling moonlit castles and graveyards, foggy cobblestone streets—now stimulate the same pleasure centers in our brain that are also tweaked by images of favorite childhood places, and are just as familiar and beloved.

On the other hand, a function of horror (as Braque once said about art) is to disturb, to strip away the comfort and safety of the familiar and leave us alone and unprotected in the company of our fears.

The remarkable thing about the production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Jeffrey Hatcher now playing at Center Stage Theater is how well it does both—-playing to our familiarity with Stevenson’s classic tale as well as the raw and disorienting fears the story can awaken.

The production opens with all the typical visual accoutrements of the era—a backdrop of the foggy London skyline, actors in top hats, bowlers, and waistcoats speaking in a variety of British accents—a deliciously rich and heavy gaslight-vibe, Steampunk-style, nicely stimulating all the appropriate genre-loving pleasure-centers of your brain.

Then, things get weird…and the weirder it gets, the more real it gets.

The most famously weird feature of Hatcher’s play—the choice of having five different Hydes played by five different actors, sometimes all onstage at once—is disorienting, but it’s a deliberate and powerfully effective disorientation that highlights the fragmented and uncontrollable nature of Jekyll’s experience. There is no one Hyde because, as the play shows us, all of Jekyll’s perceptions are tainted and cannot be trusted.

In one of the most chilling and imaginative uses of the “manifestations of Hyde”, Julia Rust, who also plays Sir Danvers Carew, the corrupt chief of surgery who Hyde has murdered, appears as a manifestation of Hyde to taunt Jekyll at the murder site. It’s a brilliant choice of direction, and Rust plays it with a kind of demonic coolness that’s all the more frightening because of its restraint. The deliberate slowness and ease with which she stalks and toys with Jekyll feels like a cat taking its time with a mouse whose blood it can already taste.

It’s been said that Jekyll and Hyde is a parable about alcoholism and drug addiction. It’s easy to see why. Hatcher’s play rings all the bells, with its discussion of alcohol and opium abuse and its frequent allusions to blackouts. Alcoholics in recovery speak of alcoholism as a “spiritual sickness” that is aggravated by alcohol but exists independently of it, which makes the process of recovery much more complicated than merely “stopping”. Jekyll “stops”—temporarily—but starts again when he decides it’s the only measure of control he has left over the unwanted changes that have started to come over him—a decision that any addict will be familiar with.

 

As Henry Jekyll, Elliot Robinson embodies a man who has so repressed and compartmentalized his own destructive urges that he can barely notice when they’ve started to break through. In the two scenes where he acts like Hyde without actually becoming Hyde (restraining Elizabeth in the hotel room, and later killing Lanyon in his laboratory), Elliot is all the more frightening by not acting like a monster, but instead showing us a man who is incapable of dropping his obsequious, civilized smile, even as he assaults a woman and strangles his friend.

Ultimately, Jekyll is a man who will not and cannot accept responsibility for his own actions. Does that make him more of a monster than Hyde? Hyde may be guilty of many horrific things (some of which we merely hear about, some of which we see onstage) but (the play seems to tell us) one thing Hyde is not is a liar.

Is it truly more monstrous to lie than to mutilate and kill human beings? Perhaps—especially if the lie is what enables those horrific crimes to occur, again and again.

In one scene, Hyde overhears Jekyll lying to the authorities about him, blaming him for things Jekyll himself has done  in order to seal his fate and be rid of Hyde forever. Tal Azevier, who plays Hyde like a man constantly trying to spit out the poison that’s eating him alive, rages at Jekyll, unheard by everyone else, calling him a liar. But the name he roars the loudest and for which he saves the most venom is ‘Actor! ‘ As if there could be nothing worse.

When Lanyon later swears to Jekyll that he’ll never tell anyone about his  secret identity and horrific crimes, Jekyll seems to react with good natured joviality, complimenting him affectionately. “Good old Lanyon. Always doing the right thing. ‘Know you like the sun…”—seconds before he strangles him to death.

And that, in the end, is probably more frightening than any bogeyman with a top hat and a cane slinking down a foggy alley—the knowledge that the friend or loved one right next to you could turn on you at any second—the fear that, without warning, we might no longer be able to recognize the people closest to us—or ourselves.

When I took my daughter to the Brooklyn Museum last Sunday and asked her what she wanted to see, she told me right away. “Mummies.”

This both was and was not a surprise. After years of fleeing the room whenever something “scary” is on TV, my daughter—at the age of eleven—has started to take a personal interest in scary things. Her favorite books changed from ‘Henry and Mudge’ to R.L. Stein, and every Wednesday night she now plants herself on the couch next to me with a bowl of popcorn to watch ‘Ghost Hunters.’ At first I was egocentric enough to believe she was humoring me, knowing that her daddy writes “scary stories” and loves “scary movies.” Now I think it’s something more.

We enter the Brooklyn Museum’s Egyptian exhibit—one of the finest in the world—and almost immediately, my daughter begins explaining the exhibits to me. This temple guardian, she says, must be Sumerian because of the way his beard is styled. (In the ancient Middle East, as in modern Middle School, hairstyle is important.)

I see my daughter four days a week. Under these circumstances, being fully present becomes a serious thing. The usual haze of self-absorption I move around in every day becomes the enemy and as we walk through these rooms together studying the ancient statues and carvings, I’m also studying her.

She explains the hieroglyphics to me. This one, the one that looks like a bowl, is the letter C. This one, the one that looks like a hawk, is an A.

I follow my daughter as she hurries from room to room, looking about appreciatively but impatiently. “Daddy, where are the mummies?” she asks. At that moment I remember—the Brooklyn Museum has no mummies. Never has, and I start to explain, reluctant to disappoint her. As I start to speak, she says, “Here they are!” and rushes into a darkened room ahead of us.

The sign above the door says THE MUMMY CHAMBER. How did I miss this? A closer look and I realize it’s a new exhibit, one I’ve never seen before.

The darkness, in contrast to the other brightly lit exhibit rooms, feels deliberate and solemn, a feeling that makes sense. The dead are here.

When we are younger, we are drawn to mummies and their tombs, etc. because they remind us of exotic adventures and old movies, of Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney, Jr. (Imhotep or Kharis—take your pick.) Later, when we are old enough to look at mummies and see what they really are and what they mean, we may have a very different sort of reaction.

The darkness in here feels red, like the inside of an eyelid with a great light burning on the other side. That, I can’t help but feel, is something these ancient Egyptians would have understood.

There are four mummies here. A princess. Two priests. And what the exhibit refers to as “An Anonymous Man.” It’s this “Anonymous Man” whose name, occupation, or place in history we do not know who most of all makes me feel like we’re intruding on something private and sacred.

My daughter is disappointed that the mummies are not unwrapped. She wants to see their faces. In this place and at this moment, that seems not especially horrifying, but like a transgression. The curators seem to have felt this too. The only visible concession to morbid/scientific curiosity—CT-scan images revealing the ghostly outlines of preserved flesh and bone—are, remarkably, as small as playing cards and mounted inconspicuously at knee-level as if the people who put this exhibit together are slightly ashamed by them.

+

No one knows what happens after you die. That’s a statement that people either find comforting or terrifying, depending—as so much else does—on the state of mind with which you receive it.

Some people do claim to know what happens after death, and their answer is nothing. Death, according to them, is extinction, pure and simple, like turning off a light switch. For proof, they point to the cold, hard facts of biology, the cessation of metabolic functions—brainwaves, heartbeat, etc. We are not conscious of anything after death, they say, because our consciousness ceases. And that is precisely where their argument breaks down. Because here is one more cold hard fact; no one knows what consciousness is.

Some people say that just because science can’t provide an explanation for everything, that doesn’t mean you are free to make up whatever fantastic story you wish. Actually, that is exactly what we are all free to do. And the value of the particular story you believe may not depend on whether or not it is true (which you may never know anyway) but whether or not it is useful.

This is not an idea that sits well with the scientifically minded. It is not the job of science, they say, to prove that heaven does not exist.  Fair enough. However, unlike heaven, pretty much everyone agrees that consciousness does exist, and to claim without proof that consciousness ceases simply because it appears to cease may not be that different than claiming the sun is extinguished forever when we see it set in the West. Even the ancient Egyptians knew better than that.

+

I follow my daughter through the darkness, looking for more mummies. As we pass from one room into the next, I glance to my left and see a long, brightly lit passageway hidden between the two larger chambers. Against the wall there is a long, glass case containing an ancient scroll, the longest I’ve ever seen. The sign tells me this is The Book of the Dead of the Goldworker of Amun, Sobekmose, and that it contains the spells needed to bring the dead back to life for the journey to the afterlife. I stop to read the translations posted on the wall.

Earlier, my daughter had explained to me that mummies have all of their internal organs removed, except for one—the heart. For the dead to return to life and begin their journey through the afterlife, the first thing that must be revived is the heart. And it’s with the heart that the scroll begins.

SPELL FOR GIVING THE HEART TO THE GOLDWORKER OF AMUN, SOBEKMOSE, JUSTIFIED IN THE NECROPOLIS.

O HEART THAT IS IN THE HOUSE OF HEARTS, O HEART THAT IS IN THE HOUSE OF HEARTS, I HAVE MY HEART AND IT IS PLEASED.

These are the first words I’ve ever read from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Everything else around me seems to fall away, and I stand there reading for a long time.

If you grow up learning about all the worldly things the Egyptians brought with them into the tomb—food, drink, money, books, tools, toys, chariots, even their pets—it’s easy to think of them as suffering from a massive and deluded sense of materialistic entitlement, like rich people who insist on dragging too much luggage on board cruise ships or airlines.

But that’s not the voice I hear speaking in these words in front of me. It’s not the voice of a crass, smug, consumerist mentality toward the afterlife This voice is not boastful—instead, it feels devout, earnest, and most of all, radically and overwhelmingly naked and alone.

BEHOLD ME, I AM COME. I HAVE BROUGHT TRUTH TO YOU. I HAVE REPRESSED WRONGDOING FOR YOU. I HAVE NOT DONE WRONG AGAINST ANYONE. I HAVE NOT IMPOVERISHED MY ASSOCIATES. I HAVE NOT DONE EVIL IN PLACE OF TRUTH. I HAVE NOT KNOWN THAT WHICH SHOULD NOT BE. I HAVE NOT DONE ANYTHING BAD.

I have not done anything bad. How to hear those words? How to even begin to say them?

We all say things we’re not really certain of in order to make them true. I’m trying as hard as I can. I am lucky to be alive. Everything will be alright. I am a good father.

I AM COME BEFORE YOU. NO SIN OF MINE EXISTS. NO DISPLEASURE OF MINE EXISTS. NO EVIL OF MINE EXISTS. NO WITNESSES AGAINST ME EXIST. THERE IS NO ONE AGAINST WHOM I HAVE DONE THINGS. I LIVE ON TRUTH. I SWALLOW DOWN TRUTH.

We say or think these things in order to carve out a space in the darkness around us so we can move and breathe again, a space where we can change. And the harder it is to believe, the bigger and stronger our words need to be.

For a modern society that mostly no longer believes in an afterlife, a whole culture devoting itself to preparing for it may seem like a colossal and tragic waste of time. But looking at the words on these walls, I start to feel that what these people were preparing for was not some mysterious future world but this one.

In Kadampa Buddhism it’s said that we don’t need to be afraid of death—what we should be afraid of is dying with an uncontrolled mind. Because that is something we can do something about.

Remembering this, I look around at the words on this scroll and the hundreds of statues, carvings, and objects around us, and I start to think of them not as a people’s deluded and pathetic attempt to control death, but as an imaginative and heroic effort to control their own minds.

+

When my father was in the hospital dying, the moment my sister and I were both in the room with him, he drew us both to his side—me on his left, my sister on his right—and held on tightly to our hands. The feeling of relief and gratitude that came radiating off of him at that moment was nearly blinding. We were his, and in that moment he had what was his. I wondered if he wanted to take us with him. If I’d known how, I think I would have done it.

You can’t take it with you, they say. But what if you could? What would you take?

First you think, Take only what is most precious. Only what is absolutely necessary. Then you think, How can I leave this behind? Or this? Or this? Until, in the end, you see that what is precious, what is absolutely necessary is everything.

I look over and see my daughter taking pictures of the scroll and of the words on the wall, the same words I’ve been reading for a while now. She’s been reading them too, silently, and now she reads them aloud, her young voice echoing softly in the dark:

O HEART THAT IS IN THE HOUSE OF HEARTS, O HEART THAT IS IN THE HOUSE OF HEARTS, I HAVE MY HEART AND IT IS PLEASED.

We are finished here for today. My daughter and I are both silent as we leave the museum. Walking beside her, I see how tall she’s grown. I’m hoping she’ll let me hold her hand, and on the way down the big marble steps, she does.

Out here the sun feels bright but not too bright—looking up I see that it has already set. There is a hollowed-out space inside my chest, but it does not feel empty. Not entirely.

For all the things I don’t know yet (and they are many), I do know this—we need to wake up. And we need the things around us to wake us up. Whether it’s the bare branches of the tree outside my window against the morning sky, or watching my young daughter’s fingers trace the words on a 3,000 year-old parchment and then slip into my hand—in these things and through these things, I have my heart. I have my heart and it is pleased.