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Archive for June, 2010

When my first girlfriend turned sixteen I took her to the movies on her birthday. The movie? Deliverance. Yes, that’s right. Deliverance. (Happy birthday, sweetheart. Squeal like a pig..!)

What the hell was wrong with me, you might ask. (She did.) Believe it or not, I really didn’t take her to shock her or make an impression. If I’d thought about what kind of impression I was making, I probably would have picked a different movie.

Why did I take her to see this harrowing descent into the wilderness full of violence, terror, sexual assault and murder? Because I thought it was cool. A lot of people did. She was definitely not one of those people, and we broke up soon after that.

My next girlfriend got pretty much the same treatment on movie night. I remember we went parking one night after seeing Clockwork Orange and as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t make out with her because I felt like someone had been jabbing me in the stomach all evening with a baseball bat—that was how I knew it was a good movie. Or, at least, that was how I knew it worked.

Fortunately, my second girlfriend thought the movies I liked were cool too—at least she kept seeing them (and seeing me). Our local college ran a Bergman festival and we went to almost every one. I remember watching Winter Light, wondering how much darker this damn thing was going to get. And then it got darker. And darker. It was like watching a car wreck in slow motion. A beautifully lit, black and white car wreck.

American movies were throwing the same kind of darkness at us. Deliverance, Chinatown, Deerhunter. Dark, dark, dark.

And here’s the thing—these were mainstream movies. Not art-house flicks (excluding the Bergman, of course). These were the big movies of the day that you plunked down your money for and bought your popcorn and watched. What’s more, you expected them to shake you up.

No one would have called these horror movies back in the seventies. For horror, we had The Exorcist. The Omen. Carrie. Movies that looked like horror movies.

Now I think films like Deliverance and Deerhunter may be the greatest horror films of that decade. Maybe any decade.

Long before Christopher Walken put the cherry on his ever-scarier screen persona by playing the Headless Horseman in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, he won his first and only Oscar for his role in what I believe is one of the greatest modern ghost stories on film—The Deerhunter.

The Deerhunter is a ghost story without a ghost. Like the fiction of Glenn Hirshberg and Dan Chaon, the film challenges our notions of what it means to be “haunted”. And shows us that the scariest ghosts are the ones living right beside us.

I’ve heard people wonder out loud why Christopher Walken’s character chooses to return to Vietnam and live the rest of his life playing-out that same horrific game of Russian roulette again and again in the underground gambling parlors of Saigon. What strikes me is that if Walken’s character had died earlier in the movie, seeing his empty-eyed ghost pressing the revolver to his temple again and again would make perfect sense—because that’s what ghosts do.

If the definition of insanity is repeating the same action endlessly while expecting a different result, then being a ghost must be a kind of insanity. It’s this kind of insanity that Walken’s character is gripped by, living like a ghost, forever stuck at the scene of his own violent death (even if it was “just” a spiritual death), repeating the same action over and over in hopes of getting a different result—until he gets it.

Like Christopher Walken’s character in The Deerhunter, the “ghosts” in the stories of Glenn Hirshberg and Dan Chaon are missing persons. Neither living or dead, they have entered into the land between life and death that exists in the mind of the person left behind.

In Hirshberg’s story ‘Shipwreck Beach’ a young woman visits her beloved, troubled cousin who has fled to Hawaii after the death of a friend in a drunken auto accident, a death he is responsible for. Although he seems to have relocated to the island to “start a new life”, it quickly becomes apparent to the narrator that her cousin has come here for an altogether different reason. As he circles closer and closer to his self-imposed doom, the narrator can do nothing to stop him; she also cannot look away. All she can do is watch.

Unlike Walken in The Deerhunter, Hirshberg’s doomed character spares the cousin who loves him the final spectacle of his suicide and succeeds in simply slipping away. He is presumed drowned but his body is never found, leaving an open-ended mystery, a hole in the fabric of the world through which he can slip back and forth from one side to the other, if only in the narrator’s mind.

It’s the subtlety of his disappearance that forever blurs the line between his being here or not-here, alive or not-alive. He becomes the mystery we mean when we say “the living dead.”

Another writer who deals with the “ghosts” of missing persons is Dan Chaon. His brilliant collection is itself titled Among the Missing. In the title story, the narrator’s magnetic but unstable mother has vanished, but he continues to be haunted by her influence, by her presence.

In on particularly unnerving scene, he returns to their old cabin and is frightened by the sight of a lone tree standing outside the door because for a moment it looks like a woman wearing a nightgown (the kind his mother used to wear). That Chaon chooses to end this scene by having the narrator involuntarily cry out and flee the place feels wholly natural and necessary.  It’s a subtle moment of plainspoken, quiet terror and I don’t think any other passage of fiction has unnerved me as much as that one.

In his truly horrific story The Bees, anthologized by Peter Straub in Poe’s Children, Chaon’s main character, a recovering alcoholic who has lost touch with his ex-wife and son, imagines they are dead and consequently starts seeing visions of his son’s ghost. Is the son really dead or not? It doesn’t matter. The possibility that he might be dead is enough to summon his angry spirit.

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Our lives are, in a way, composed of unfinished stories; some are ongoing, some are cut-off abruptly, often without warning. Our unfinished stories want to be finished. Or, sometimes they want a different ending. That’s why Walken’s character stays in Saigon, pulling that trigger night after night.

In the end, I think that movies like The Deerhunter, Deliverance, even The Godfather, Mean Streets, and Raging Bull, had more influence over the kind of ghost stories I write (and read) than Carrie, The Omen, or the whole Halloween franchise—because they delve deeper into what it means to be human. And haunted.

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When my family and I took a trip to Philadelphia in February, 2009, I brought along my copy of that big Barnes & Noble collection of Poe, hoping I could get my kids into it while on the road. Cailey did read the first few stanzas of ‘The City In the Sea’ aloud while riding in the back seat, then read the rest silently so I didn’t have the pleasure of  hearing her pronounce those final lines, “Hell, rising from a thousand thrones, shall do it reverence,” in her sweet, eight year-old voice.

After three days of running around the cold, windy streets of Philly, checking out the Liberty Bell, the Franklin Museum (and the Philly cheese-steak guy on the corner), I was scanning the well-worn green map of tourist attractions when I saw two tiny words, ‘Poe House.’

I’d been to the Poe residence in Baltimore years ago, and had more recently seen his old dorm room at the University of Virginia (sealed-off behind what looks like a sheet of bulletproof plexiglass), so I didn’t think “Poe” when I thought of Philly. But there it was, easy to miss because it was far away from the other patriotic attractions clustered together, isolated by itself in the upper right-hand quadrant of the map. “Poe House.”

On our way out of town we drove down Spring Garden Street to the corner of 8th where the old red brick house stands off by itself, a national park sign and a statue of a raven visible from across the street.

A light rain was falling when we walked up to the door and knocked. A kindly gentleman with tidy grey hair and a disconcerting but lovely Virginia accent let us in. After a stroll through some modest displays and framed documents, then an informative but uninspired 8-minute video, we stepped into the rooms where Poe (along with his wife Virginia, her mother “Muddy”, and their cat Catterina) had lived and worked.

The first thing you notice is that the national park service has not attempted the typical restoration or redecoration; instead, the rooms are bare of furniture, the walls cracked and peeling. The effect, more than being simply “spooky” is that Poe has just moved out (“one step ahead of his creditors,” as my mother would say) and that nothing has been touched since he left. Walking through these empty rooms I had a feeling similar to the one I’ve had while touring vacant apartments in New York—that odd double-vision of imagining the former tenant’s life while also visualizing yourself living there.

The night before, I’d sat up alone in our hotel room and read ‘The Black Cat’ It had been years since I’d read it. I was astounded.

One of the powers of Poe’s stories—the vivid images conveyed in them—are also one of the greatest dangers that prevent the casual reader from appreciating their full power. The razor-sharp pendulum swinging closer and closer to the helpless prisoner’s chest, the yowling one-eyed cat sitting on the head of the woman’s rotting corpse—these images are so powerful, you can carry them in your head for years, vivid as photographs, and believe that you know the stories, that you know Poe. Those images, indelible as they are, are not the half of it.

What hit me full-force as I read ‘The Black Cat’ was that Poe’s real power was his unsurpassed ability to inhabit the hearts and minds of people who are confronting (and often being devoured by) fear, by terror, sheer horror, and to convey that experience in language that somehow manages to be unforgettably beautiful while losing none of the raw, visceral reality of those terrible thoughts and feelings.

But Poe deals in a very particular type of horror that also gets overlooked by his more casual admirers.

Much is made of Poe’s “obsession with death” (and with dead beautiful women, in particular). While there’s no doubt that Poe was indeed  obsessed with death (or at least extremely ‘interested’ in it), death itself is almost never the real source of horror in his stories or his poems where it’s elevated to near-romantic (some would say necrophiliac) status—particularly when a beautiful woman is involved.

When Poe deals with Death (with a capital “D”) as an object of contemplation, not as a mere by-product of violent crime, Death is a destroyer but is also the means by which we are reunited with the ones we love—a complicated set of emotional responses, for sure, but not exactly horror.

The kind of horror that Poe excelled at portraying and generating doesn’t come from any outside source—it comes from within. The horror of loss of control, the loss of self.

When people talk about the relationship between Poe’s troubles with alcohol and his art, there are typically two schools of thought—first, the one that romanticizes or glorifies his alleged substance abuse (Man, he must have really been stoned when he wrote that one) and the one that denies it outright, claiming (often indignantly) that Poe’s stories are the pure products of superior intellect and craftsmanship alone.

When I read Poe’s stories today, they feel like brilliant life-and-death struggles between his considerable craftsmanship and his even more considerable devils, only one of which was alcohol.

The devil that Poe (or the typical Poe narrator) returns to again and again is his own horrifying inability to control his thoughts and actions. Poe’s narrators are often deeply deluded individuals, like the narrator of ‘The Black Cat’ who firmly believes he is a gentle and compassionate soul right up until the moment he buries the ax in his wife’s skull.

Every alcoholic can tell you about things they did that they have no idea why they did. One moment they were laughing and playing with their children, the next moment they were raging at them. One moment the bottle is full, the next moment it’s empty. It wasn’t me. That’s what we tell ourselves. Because, in those terrible moments, it feels like the truth. It wasn’t me.

Then who was it?

Evil spirits. Witches. Gremlins. The Little people.Vengeful ghosts. The others. The one’s outside of us.

But Poe knew who really did it, and it scared the hell out of him. Which is why he still scares the hell out of us.

Poe’s best stories affect us so strongly because they occur right at that place where the harm that we’re capable of (and the guilt and fear it causes) makes us unrecognizable to ourselves. It’s the place where ghosts are born. (And it’s evidence of Poe’s mercilessness toward his narrators that there are no ghosts in his stories to take away the character’s burden of responsibility).

Poe once wrote a story called ‘The Imp of the Perverse’ in which he describes this aspect of human behavior that troubled and frightened him the most. It’s not a very good story. Taken as a work of fiction, it reads like a half-ass practice-run at  ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. Taken as a narrative/psychological/spiritual essay (like Kiergegaard), it’s ramifications are terrifying.

If there is something you know you must not do, must never do (Poe’s narrator says), then you will inevitably do it. Knowing we must not do something makes it irresistibly attractive to us.

Whether you take this to be Poe’s own personal neurosis or a central truth of most human behavior depends a great deal on how strong you’re feeling today.

This is what makes Poe’s stories tragic at their heart. So when I read ‘The Black Cat’ in that Philadelphia hotel room, it wasn’t just terrifying. It was heartbreaking.

Poe’s narrators spend a great deal of energy explaining themselves, justifying themselves, or just simply trying to make some sense of their unruly lives. Poe gives these deluded, tragic humans a desperate eloquence that reaches some pretty amazing heights (and depths).

When I read the passage where the narrator describes hanging his pet cat and attempts to explain why (both to us and to himself) I felt like I’d touched a live electrical current. Unbearable, undeniable human feelings are laid out bare for us to see, while (at the same time) the language sings. If I could have fallen to my knees in that hotel room without anyone seeing me, I would have done it.

So it was the morning after reading that story that I found myself climbing the narrow, winding stairs to the room where Poe wrote it.

When I’d first arrived at the Poe house, the friendly guide with the unexpected Southern accent had asked me if I had any questions. I had only one. “Do we know which room he worked in?”

“We have a pretty good guess,” the guide responded immediately. He told me that each floor had only two rooms; the first floor was the parlor and the kitchen. Bedrooms would be on the third floor, the highest, for quiet and privacy. Poe had most likely worked on the second floor, in one or both of the two rooms there.

I climbed to the second floor and entered the room on the right. It was small with one window. The walls, like the others, were cracked and peeling with one particularly deep and dramatic crack, jagged as lightning.

I stood there and tried to imagine Poe working in this room. I leaned on the windowsill where I imagined he had leaned, looking out at the same bare tree branches he must have also looked at while he was waiting for the words to come. I put out my hand and touched the cracked wall where his writing table must have stood and waited to feel something.

But the feeling I was chasing, the same awe and electricity I’d felt while reading his story the night before, receded. It was like, instead of putting my hand on hardened plaster, I was trying to press my hand into mercury.

I knew it was because the spirit I was looking for was not in this wall, not anywhere in this room. It had gone into the words that were written in this room a hundred and sixty years ago, and was still there. As it should be.

Before I left the room I took out my cell phone and snapped a few images to take with me—the light pouring in through the window across the peeling wall, the narrow wooden steps I’d climbed to get here.

I wanted to get a shot of the doorknob Poe had touched every day when he came into this room to work, so I knelt on the creaking floorboards to get a good angle. Then it occurred to me—I was on my knees in Poe’s writing room. And that was when the feeling finally came over me, maybe because I was no longer looking to get something for myself—instead, it felt like I was saying thank you.

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