MansoniaThis is my story, and I swear it’s all true.          As night fell, the day’s heat lingered and rippled on the asphalt of the narrow mountain road. Mosquitos spun lazy circles over still puddles of sprinkler runoff, not quite awake enough and not quite hungry enough to go looking for food just yet, still finding their wings after the stillness of another hot afternoon. At the dog end of a summer’s day, the night creatures stirred to consciousness, emerging from their dens and warrens, to seek out whatever treats the night had to offer. A coyote gamboled onto the warm road, sounding quiet yips and barks to the others, that the time to hunt had come, that the night was theirs. It was to be a good night for pack hunters, those too cowardly, too weak, to prowl on their own. 
Far below, down in the valley, lights flickered on and the city came to life, reborn, shimmering, as the night shift knuckled the sleep from of its eyes and came out of the houses and apartments, down from the trees and up from the sewers, predators and prey alike, all seeking that elusive something that made this town, this city, the destination of dreams and the depositor of nightmares.
      The city erupted into life; radios blared from open windows and doors, as neighbors gathered in yards and garages, unfolding lawn chairs and cracking open beers, to meet and talk and laugh and love and hate and fight and fuck and live…and die. This would be a night that, once over and done, would never be forgotten, a permanent stain on the still-idyllic city that had already known more tragedy than any hundred others.
      Down the road a piece, a family-friendly haunted mansion greeted guests for the first time while, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Four Horsemen were photographed at a zebra crossing; a momentous day for all, in a year that saw the ascension of King Dick, Chappaquiddick, Woodstock and Altamont, the return of Elvis and the departure of Brian Jones, the rise of the Weathermen and Zodiac, Kissinger’s failure to broker peace in Vietnam, and the reappearance of the draft.
      From out of the desert, chugging along lazily, a ‘59 Fairlane rambled up the highway, dinged and dented, its original cream color bleached by the harshness of the Santa Susana sunshine, fenders mismatched and spotted with rust and primer, creaking with every shimmy and shake of its beat-down frame, its occupants tripping balls on some high-power lysergic nightmare fuel, three girls singing and one boy driving, passing a joint back and forth, without a care in the world. They were the masters of the universe, those four; they were legion, and their names would soon become the stuff of legend, such was the divine mission upon which they had been sent, from God’s mouth to their ears, from the low desert to the high mountain, on a quest to slay dragons.

    Young demons, sent to do the devil’s work.


August 9, 1969

      I woke up in the canoe that Doug and Mary had kept in the pool at Pickfair, half-in and half-out, with a mean motherfucker of a hangover that only worsened as the rising sun hit the water, the brilliant splashes of light drilling a hole straight into my brainpan, like those nasty worms that sit at the bottom of the ocean, waiting, just waiting, for some dumbass fish to swim along and then they strike, strike like lightning, and then it’s so long sucker, your dance card just got punched, and you’re on the way to the big empty, baby, no-tomorrow-style.
From the chapel, the big bells rang, so loud they damn near cracked my melon, my eyes squeezed shut against the pain of the newborn day.
“Sunday morning, praise the dawning, my ass,” I grunted, struggling to pull myself out of the pool, green water sluicing down the legs of my torn and dirty jeans, my feet filthy as though they hadn’t been left soaking for god knows how many hours. I crawled out of the canoe, and onto the cement that lined the pool, leaning back against its coolness, in the quiet peacefulness of the valley, where so many good memories had been birthed. I guess that’s why I ended up here, of all places, after a long night’s wickedness.
“Morning, Doug,” I said, wiping a weary hand across my brow, feeling in my skin that it was going to be another hot one, just as it had been yesterday, and last night. So goddamn hot. The sound of sirens in the distance pricked up my ears, the tattered remnants of my conscience hinting that I might have had something to do with whatever Johnny Law was up to on this fine and sunny Summer morning. It felt like his ghost was looking down at me, in that haughty way that a person might look down upon an old friend who’d just awoken in the swimming pool of their home, and may or may not have pissed in it. Probably by accident. Whatever; not remembering gave me plausible deniability. The sirens rose and fell, rose and fell.
“Well don’t look at me,” I laughed sheepishly. “Ain’t any blood on my hands.”
And then I saw the blood on my hands.


      “What’d I do this time, Doug?” I asked, feigning exasperation. “Jesus, I can’t take my sorry ass anywhere!” I crawled back down to the pool and washed the blood off, noticing chunky bits of something beneath my fingernails, pulling embedded hairs from the open cuts on my knuckles. Whatever I’d done, I’d had a hell of a time. Good for me.
I shambled back down to Hollywood Boulevard as a matching set of rollers roared up Gower Gulch, their sirens tearing my mind to shreds, so bad that I screamed in pain, howled at the sound of them, so weird to hear so many on a Sunday morning, even here in the City of Angels, where Satan kept a penthouse suite on the Miracle Mile, and dreams died, strangled by bedsheets at the glorious old Roosevelt. When I stopped, my head was clearer, and it started coming back to me.


      I’d hitched up with the little guy a few months earlier; he’d been busking at Hollywood and Vine, playing for pennies from Minnesota tourists who still bought into the dream that their fabulous La-La Land vacation would actually have them rubbing elbows with all the bright, shining stars in this most mythical of locales, the reality being much more earthy, and by ‘earthy’ I mean dirty, filthy, scabrous, hooked on goofballs and probably carrying a weapons-grade case of the clap.
So there he was, like a pint-size Jesus with a beat-up old six-string, three hippie girls kneeling on the sidewalk, singing backup to whatever song he was mangling, suede hat upturned on the sidewalk, optimistic in its purpose as a tip-catcher, nothing but a tattered dollar bill inside, and me giving even odds that he’d put it there himself as a cue to the passers-by, as if they’d have no idea what to do with an empty hat in front of a grubby little troubadour at the most famous corner in the world.
Some ridiculous lyric about garbage dumps came out of him, like a caged cat that couldn’t wait to get free and about as tuneful, eyes wide and unblinking, trying to lock on to each who passed with what I’m sure he thought was wholesome, heartfelt intensity but which, in reality, came off as kind of sad and made him look more than a little retarded.
But the girls, that’s what really turned me on. They were hot, sexy in the way that lady down the street with all the cats and the living room filled with newspapers was sexy: dangerous, strange, possibly demented, and absolutely unhygienic. When Cat Lady stood on the front porch and yanked up her tattered skirt while screaming at airplanes about Communists and Kennedys and submarines you didn’t want to look, didn’t want to see, but you completely had to look, and in doing so you died a little, part of your soul lost to something so awful and profane that you wanted to go to church and bathe in holy water and dry-hump the confessional until the priest clubbed you over the head with Hail Marys just to get your nasty ass out of there, but damn son, you’d look again when the opportunity presented itself, sure as shit.
And yeah, I’d gone back and looked again, I sat on her porch and got a good, close-up look at both doors and brothers and sisters, for my sins, she took my bad self inside and did unto me things that would have made Caligula blush, and I barely minded the next day when it felt like I was pissing napalm because when you get the chance to take a walk on the wild side with a bonafide, card-carrying agent of terminal madness, you climb on top of that pile of garbage, you strap in, and you take that goddamn ride.
The girls were kneeling on the sidewalk, clapping in time with the music or at least giving it the old college try, which was about as close to college as any of them would get, aside from getting g-banged by the chess team, their white girl’s sense of rhythm mercilessly wrecking a simple four-four beat, tunelessly chanting along with Wee Jesus, looking for all the world like castoffs from some low-budget prairie movie, like the crap that rolled out of Monogram or Republic back in the old days, the better days.
They were dirty, unkempt, unwashed, uncultured, and uncivilized, with smudges and streaks of dirt on their faces and fur on their calves, and my surprise that they were capable of human speech was genuine, so convinced was I that these were prime examples of feral womanhood, raised by wolves, brought up bad to be treated worse, and yet I will admit there was something about them, each of them separately, all of them collectively, that made my nether parts go all aflutter, twitterpated, as it were. I believe, in hindsight, I may have a thing for filthy women. I don’t know where it comes from, or why it’s there, but there it is. You can have Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, she’s all yours; for me, the wild-ass barnyard halfwit is the one that makes my compass go full magnetic north.
That’s why Doug and I got along so well; we were attracted to polar opposites and never once in competition for the same piece of strange. He had Mary, America’s Sweetheart, and I was gutter diving for trashcan tramps. I couldn’t see the fun in virtue any more than he could see the attraction of going a-hoggin’. To each their own, yeah? Anyway, Doug’s dead and Mary’s drunk and angry, making a hermit of herself up at the main house, releasing the hounds at me for simply dropping by to say a quick hello and pass out in her pool. Hell, I’d even brought a bottle to accompany the one I’d already drank, but she’d have none of it. Still pissed about that thing back in ’33. Wasn’t even my fault, that time. I think.
I miss Doug. He was a good guy, and a hell of a friend. Thirty years gone, and I still miss him.
Fuck, where was I?
Right, dirty filthy hippie chicks.


      So one of them eyeballed me and I was done for; her eyes dropped to my belt buckle or thereabouts, and I looked at Little Guy, and he just grinned and nodded, and that was that. I loitered until they finished, having made little more than the dollar that was already in the hat, but looking like they’d just conquered the world over a couple bucks in spare change. Something’s better than nothing when nothing’s all you’ve got.
So we got to talking, and it was clear from the get-go that theirs was a man’s world, and the Little Guy was the world to them, as evidenced by their constant fawning over him, touching him, smoothing his hair, stooping a little so that he appeared taller than them, but that was all part of the gig. For as often as they called him by name, they also called him Jesus, and he really got off on that, believing as he did that he was the Son of Man. He told me his name, and I told him mine.
“Now we know each other’s true name, brother,” he said slyly. “A bond is formed, and ain’t nothin’ any man can do that’ll break that bond.” Oh little Charlie, I thought to myself. If only you had the real measure of me; if only you knew half of what you think you know.
They had a beat-up old school bus parked around the corner and as we rode out of town, he laid down his quasi-hippie rap, us all being God’s children, what’s mine is yours, and on and on, as we left LA and made our way to the desert. They had a commune, he told me, a place where they could groove on nature, without the constant hassle of the pigs, because although every single person on Mother Earth loved him, the pigs, man, those damn pigs just loved to bust up their beautiful trip, because they felt threatened by him, his essence, his reality.
The more he talked, the more he lapsed into yardbird jive, bad English and colored slang, peppered with jailhouse posturing, so I balled up and asked him straight out.
“Where’d you do your time, man?” I asked casually, hoping to express my sincere curiosity without any tone of judgment.
“Shit, man,” he replied with a laugh, high and reedy, “You went straight to it, didn’t you? Well that’s okay, my brother, for as I am all things, so too am I a charter member of the brotherhood of the unjust, the hopeless, wretched, tempest-tossed, and ain’t no man alive who can say I ain’t done my time.
“I been in one kind of jail or another since I was a kid, and my mama traded me to a pervert kiddie-fucker for a pitcher of beer. She was a whore, you know, so it was just business, and that’s a business I know a lot about, learned what I learned from my man Karpis up at McNeill, now I’m runnin’ my own stable, these girls’ll do any goddamn thing I tell ‘em to, and they come back to me every time, wantin’ more.”
So he reckoned himself a pimp, catering to a base that wanted them young and stupid, lost, dirty in every way. Fine by me, I thought, so long as I got to take a run at them when we got to wherever the hell we were going.
Turned out we were going to an old ranch out in the desert, a place I knew well from the old days, back when they were shooting Westerns at a furious pace. This old coot owned the place, made up to look like an old west town, and the surrounding land had stood in for just about every part of the geography of Hollywood’s version of the cowboy days. Only thing is that now, they’re not making many Westerns anymore, and when they do, they’re going out to real locations, rather than a run-down, bullshit, plywood version of it. These days, they needed authenticity to sell the fantasy.
So we hop out of the bus, and Little Fella struts around like he owns the place. He points out the kitchen, the nursery, the buildings where they lived, and barks out a command for one of the girls to go fetch the rest. That’s the funny thing about communes: no matter how much they preach about love and equality and freedom, it always comes down to one guy who tells everyone else what to do.
And ‘The Ranch,’ for as much as he built it up on the bus, was dilapidated, falling apart, its best days so far behind it that it isn’t so much as a speck of dust in the rearview mirror, and this idiot is casting himself as the Messiah for what turns out to be a couple dozen drifters and runaways, half-wits with one foot in the sewer and the other in the grave, just one or two bad decisions away from making fuck flicks in the Valley for a sawbuck or a couple tabs of window pane. Or, as I saw it, a fertile field for a special sort of chaos.

      Go ahead and cast that first stone, if it’ll help you sleep at night.


      That night, the Family, as they called themselves, laid out their version of a feast, food scavenged from only the finest dumpsters and trash bins of Los Angeles, poorly cooked or re-heated, all the girls grooving and doting on Charlie, all the boys digging the girls’ scene. Though most of the ranch hands didn’t truck with the hippies on their claim, a couple were there, passing around joints of Mexican stink weed, the cheapest shit around. A few bikers rolled in after dark, obviously there for a quick hug and tug from the girls, payment directly to the Son of Man by way of crank and acid.
I kept an eye on Charlie, watching his deliver his jailhouse-pimp-hippie screed about how the age of materialism had created a void in human consciousness, how the fathers and grandfathers had stripped women of the life spirit and all he wanted was to show the women how to love and be loved and find their place in this awful world of men. It was his divine mission, telling women what to do, in order for them to find their place in the world, as he explained exactly what that was.
Inwardly I laughed. You don’t last long in this world without a decent bullshit detector, and mine has been honed and tuned a lot more than most, although to be fair, a blind and deaf six-year-old could catch the curve of his rap from a mile away. I saw Charlie slipping his ‘family’ tabs of acid before diving headlong into his messianic, I’m-gonna-save-you-from-The-Man-by-being-The-Man boogie, and I figure why not, when in Rome, you know?
So I drop acid with them, and soon enough, his church service turns into a full-on orgy, only Charlie’s directing everyone who to partner with and he’s just sitting back, watching the whole thing, leering at the writhing, sweaty, fucked-up mass of humanity he’s created, chanting some shit about how they’re all his children, one-two-three-four-five-six-seven, all that is is as it was, all that was will be again, surrender the soul, cease to resist, cease to exist, and on and on, incomprehensible hippie nonsense and it’s all I can do to not bust a gut and laugh at him, but I’m more concerned with laying some pipe with this trippy brunette who calls herself Sadie, and finally getting an answer to my lifelong question about how it would be to get it on with a real life, fire-breathing psychopath, and I cannot lie, it was fucking amazing. I really can’t recommend it highly enough, even if you have to steal a helicopter and freefall into a lunatic asylum with a backpack full of Thorazine and Everclear.
After a while, all the grunting and moaning and wheezing and panting and wailing starts to die down, and they all fall asleep then and there, without worry that they were cementing themselves together with all their spilled fluids. I extricated myself from the mass, and sat on a table, looking down at them while I thumbed a match and lit a cigarette. It was then that I looked up and there’s Charlie, staring at me with that same, beatific grin, trying to look friendly but the smile not quite reaching his eyes in which, I now saw, a fire burned.
Honestly, he made me uneasy and that, my friend, is not something that happens every day. I reckoned he’d learned how to hide emotions from a lifetime in jail, that to show weakness, especially for someone as small as he, would be a death sentence. I quarter to no one, but in this strange little man, despite his swaggering, I saw a child, lost and alone, desperate for love and acceptance, demanding it, and building a world for himself that, however dirty, however pathetic, was his, where he was important, loved, worshiped. I saw a fertile field, into which I could sow my seeds of chaos.

      “Charlie, let’s take a walk,” I said quietly.


      Under the blue light of a full moon, we walked around the property, Charlie back in convict/preacher mode, talking big about his music, how everyone loved it and how the Beach Boys wanted to get him in the studio to cut an album, telling lies about how he played The Whiskey and The Troubadour, how he’d been in Laurel Canyon and jammed with Stills and Nash and Joni and Cass, how his music would ‘heal’ the terrible rift between parents and children, and that’s why he took them in, his precious girls, because their mommas and daddies threw them away, abused and discarded, and he found them, picked them up, and became their friend, their confidant, their parents, their God.
“Ain’t no one been there for them, but me,” he said, shuffling his feet on the hard-packed dirt, sounding for all the world like the Good Samaritan, benevolently taking in society’s castoffs, misfits, and disposable innocents, giving them all the food, love, and shelter that they never had before, and never asking anything in return, except maybe their love, their loyalty, their admiration, their worship, and their bodies, but only if they offered. He talked as though I hadn’t just witnessed him getting them all high and making them have sex with whoever he desired; I admired this quality in him, this ability to cast and re-cast himself as the moment required, without a shred of self-consciousness.
“I just need to get into that damn studio,” Charlie said, with desperation in his voice. “I figure once I get that record cut, we’ll be on easy street. I’ll buy me a big ol’ house up the canyon, I been to one where the record producer lives, big place just like that, with room for all my girls and friends and a studio in the garage to make my music.”
Talking like that, he sounded like a child, voice full of innocence and big dreams, tinged with resentment at those who had it better than he did which, truth be told, wasn’t much of a challenge. I’d been in some serious shitholes in my time, and while Spahn Ranch hadn’t been the best of places even in its heyday, it had gone to serious hell in its decline. The owner was half-dead, the property occupied by squatters, left behind to rot, just like so many people and places, as the big American Dream Factory chewed them up and spat them out, again and again.
The more he talked, the more bored I became, because there’s only so much that can be said on any subject before tedium sets in. So I tuned out, switching channels to things I liked better, things that appealed to me, but still nodding and responding to whatever the shit he was saying, as though I were still enraptured by the sheer strength of his personality. It was in the midst of this that the probing roots of a plan emerged.
Quietly at first, I began to explain to this little hillbilly how a war was coming, that it would be bigger and more important than his dreams of stardom, and that he could be the true Messiah, so much more so than he was already playing at, that a time of great darkness was coming, and he could be the one, The One, to come to bring humanity out of the darkness and into the light. I helped him understand that he already knew these things, that I only saw them in him, and by and by, he accepted the reality I was pitching, and made it his own. Just that fucking simple.


      Weeks passed strangely at the ranch; usually too damn hot to do much in the daytime, Charlie sent the girls out into the city to forage for food and handouts, leaving a couple behind to keep the property owner occupied while he went into Hollywood, plunking on his guitar and playing the part of the ersatz folk singer and hippie Jesus, but at thirty-five, he was almost closer in age to the parents they had fled than he was to his flock.
Nights were spent with the Family all together, unless Charlie decreed otherwise; there were all night ‘jam sessions’ where he played the same feeble folk songs over and over, while the girls giggled and sang backup, but there were also nights where he would make a girl, usually one of the shy or self-conscious ones, strip naked in front of the entire commune while he simultaneously praised and ridiculed her, to free her of negativity and doubt, to encourage the hive mind of the Family.
Then there were nights were he would preach for hours, and that’s when the shit got entertaining. He would rail about the pigs and their hatred of him, how the cops feared his light and essence; he would rant about the mistreatment of, as he put it, the ‘coloreds,’ and how in his vision for the world, there would be no segregation, no hatred, just him and his cosmic Family, of them disappearing into the desert while urban blacks rioted against the pigs, looting white businesses, burning cars, taking what was rightfully theirs. Then, when all the bad white people were gone or enslaved, America would become a black nation. I had only given him the rough framework; he filled it in with his own jailhouse wisdom and prejudices.
The problem, as Charlie saw it, was that blacks couldn’t do a damn thing without a white man telling them to, and so after the riots, the race wars, he would have to emerge from the desert and run the world for them, but that was the burden he would happily take on, selfless messiah that he was. The little fella was getting brain-baked out in the desert, contradicting himself left and right, but no one gave a damn, so long as the drugs kept flowing (for the girls), and the girls kept giving it up (for the boys). Honestly, I was impressed; the little shitheel had one badass imagination.
At some point, the old man got tired of all the garbage and squalor, and kicked us all out. We headed east, landing at Barker Ranch, which Charlie claimed to have known about from his prison days. Now, even more remote than before, they all went even more nuts, which has got to be a stretch for even the wildest of imaginations. At my urging, they started stealing cars and modifying them for desert use, per a plan that I’d been quietly planting in their heads, that it would be really handy to have a fleet of dune buggies real soon. Nothing solidifies the madness of a cult than the idea of surviving Doomsday, except maybe making them the deliverers of Doomsday itself.
After months of false promises and run-around, Charlie finally got wise that he was not going to become the next rock star, that the pros were just using him for the drugs and the girls, and the especially nasty news that his demo tape was making the rounds as an example of just how bad music can get, something for the swells to laugh at while partying it up. It was then that I saw the opportunity, the window, and I just went for it.
Look, sooner or later you’re going to ask the big question: Why?
Because fuck you, that’s why. I groove on the chaos, and the Big Fear hadn’t visited town in quite some time. The gig in ‘Nam was going robustly sideways, kids were marching in the street against the war, the South was erupting in racial lunacy, again, and there was no way in Hell I’d go back there, we’d just walked on the goddamn moon, Brian Jones was dead, and America was tearing itself apart, even as the Summer of Love rolled peacefully onward.


      “Here’s what you do, Charlie. You remember that house where you met that bigshot producer?”
“Yeah, up in Benedict Canyon,” he replied, sullenly, his eyes red, as though he’d been crying, which struck me as funny. You’d expect the Messiah, Jesus, the Son of Man, to have more balls. In the passing months, I’d come to see him as he really was, that for all his macho swagger and jailhouse posturing, there wasn’t much to him.
In prison they’d have called him a weak sister or a sissy, a little bitch, putting on a big show around others but when you got him alone in the shower, mano a mano as it were, he’d bend right over and offer it up without a fight, and would do so with a smile, and offer to rinse you off when it was done.  I’d seen my share of punks like him and had availed myself of their hospitality more times that I can be reasonably expected to recall.
“Okay. Go up to that house, barge in the front door, and tell that son of a bitch that no one, and I mean, no one, pulls shit like that and walks away clean. You make him pay. You dig me?”
“Pay?” he asked. “Like money?”
Pay, Charlie. Really and truly pay. Like, with blood,” I said softly. “You have to make a statement, take a stand. You cut him down, and take his ass out. Do it well. Make it witchy, make it send a message: their time is over, and your time is now, the rap you’ve been laying down all this time. Blame it on the darkies, kick off the race war that will put you, Charles, in the driver’s seat.”
“No buts, Charlie. Do him and anyone else at that goddamn house, and do ‘em bad. Make it messy. Make it a nightmare in the City of Angels and better still, send some of your girls up there to do it. Hell, I’ll go and help out, because I believe in you, I believe that you’re the one to lead us into a new American age, that your songs will become our battle hymns and our anthems, that your name will be on the lips of every goddamn person on this goddamn planet. Are you with me?”
In the end, he was.


      I was at Cielo before the kids arrived; I found myself a nice seat on the low-hanging branch of a tree in the backyard, where I could oversee and guide the evening’s festivities. The games were about to begin, and in earnest. Even in my best of abilities, I can’t describe the feeling of anticipation I was feeling that night. The last couple of years had been exciting for me, watching the country tear itself apart over the changes that were coming, digging on the older generation’s hatred for and fear of anything that wasn’t an old white man or old white man-related, grooving on their utter, confused revulsion over the idea of peace and love, responding by throwing their aggression at the little savages in their black pajamas, in that faraway land no one had even heard of ten years before.
That’s what I love about Americans: their ability to hate and fear so completely, defying reason and sanity, fighting so hard to preserve and conserve what was rotten from the start, terrified of progress to the point that they’d gladly throw their own children to the wolves if it meant another year of their black-lynching status quo. They came by their hatred honestly, or so they told themselves, claiming to follow the word of the god they’d created, the god who hated all the same things they did, conveniently enough, and without a trace of irony.
The kids parked the Fairlane down the street and slipped into the black clothes they’d been instructed to bring. He was already on the property, sitting in a tree in the backyard, silently watching the three people inside the house, a man and two women, enjoying a quiet Saturday evening together, while a second man dozed on a couch. One of the women was pregnant, really pregnant, positively radiant with the expectation of motherhood, and I knew that this was too good to pass up. It was time to make a statement.
Walking in the shadows, the boy climbed a telephone pole and cut the line, so no calls for help could be made. A car turned into the driveway, driven by a young man around their age. Startled and with a pistol in his face, the driver begged for his life; for this, the boy slashed at him with a knife, opening a gash in the palm that tried to defend him, before putting four rounds in the young man’s chest. The sound of the twenty-two caliber pistol barely sounded down the canyon; what little sound it made was quickly lost in the night. The party then climbed the fence, stealing onto the property with creepy-crawly stealth, just as they’d been instructed.
Once inside the house, the boy saw a man asleep on a couch; as he awakened, the boy kicked him in the head, stunning him. The kids had been given clear instruction on how to handle the scene, and I aimed to be sure that they would run it by the numbers.
The four confused occupants were rounded up and brought to the living room. Eyes wide with fear, trying to make sense of the shouts of the intruders, barking conflicting orders, trying at once to comply with too many instructions. Absolute, delectable chaos.
They tied the pregnant woman and one of the men together at the neck and tried to hang them from the exposed beams in the ceiling but couldn’t manage the rope they’d brought; it kept slipping through their hands, their steady diet of garbage food and low-grade acid leaving them somewhat to the left of physical fitness. The couple was too heavy, and they couldn’t make the woman stop screaming, pleading, to spare her for the baby, the sake of the baby, didn’t they know who she was? And that tore it. I pushed Sadie, pushed her hard, and she waded into that nice pregnant lady but good. One of the sexiest damn things I’ve ever seen; that bugshit girl earned the sobriquet in a high style that night.
The man tried to defend his pregnant friend and was shot for his admirable efforts. The boy set on him with his knife, and made short, awful work of him. He died in the living room, rope around his neck, his purple shirt stained deep red. In the confusion, the other woman panicked and escaped out a window; her fleeing form, wrapped in a white dress, looked almost ghostly to the man in the tree, but her sprint for safety was short-lived, as she was taken down in the yard by the boy and one of the girls, tackling her by the pool and stabbing her twenty-eight times, and as her life ran out of her on the grass, saturating the earth, some of it falling into a storm drain near her head, the last thing she saw was the waning moon overhead.
The other man, the one from the couch, put up a strong fight, but in the end was stabbed fifty-one times, pistol-whipped, and shot twice before he went down, not far from the woman in the dress. That goddamn Polack was like a Timex; he just kept on ticking, despite the most hellacious licking he was taking. He died whimpering, as even the toughest of men will, and though they had begun the evening together, each of them died terrified and alone.
It was on Sadie to cut the baby out of the hysterical pregnant woman, as a sign that they had fulfilled their mission of doing something ‘witchy’ at the scene, plunging her knife deep in the woman’s abdomen, but in the end she couldn’t do it, opting to stab her multiple times, despite her begging to be left alive for the sake of the unborn baby, while great arcs of arterial spray painted the room. It was a stroke of genius, and while I’d love to take credit for it, Sadie made that choice all on her own.
She died in front of the couch, the back of which was draped with a blanket version of the American flag which was, appropriately, upside-down. Unintentional yet blindingly symbolic, the flag, along with the lives lost, sent a clear signal to the rich, the famous, the powerful, the Hollywood elite: No one is safe, death owns the night. In the days and weeks and months that were to follow, fear rippled down the hills and into the valleys, across the flatlands to both desert and ocean, and the Summer of Love began its death spiral.
When the dark work was done, I hopped down lightly from my perch and walked into the living room, breathing deep the coppery stink of death, mixed in with everything else that had been released into the carpet. I cracked my knuckles and set in to add my own flourishes to the scene. Nothing flashy, mind you – just a little extra mess, to let Johnny Law that he no longer owned the night.
I departed the scene, taking great care to not step in any puddles. I hiked down the dark canyon to the streets below at a casual pace, found a suitably decrepit bar, and drank a great many toasts to myself, while I waited for the shit to hit the fan.


      “So, damn, Doug, it’s not like I actually killed anyone, you know?”
The brass silhouette on Doug’s crypt just sat there passively, like a big metal pain in my ass, while the town stirred and the sun growled even more menacingly in the sky. I soaked my aching feet in the reflecting pond in front of Doug’s tomb, that gorgeous slab of marble where he was finally laid to rest, stained as it was with the lipstick traces of so many admirers. Even now, I could feel Doug with me, quietly calling me the asshole I knew I was, but doing so with the style and great good humor that had made him the King of Everything.
It took a few hours for the scene on Cielo to break but when it did, holy shit. You’d have thought it was the end of days. Famous people, rich ones, got killed, and nothing kick-started the fear machine into high gear more than that. People got killed in East Los every damn day; Watts had burned for six days, just waiting for someone to take notice and give a damn. It was a weird day indeed when those places didn’t rack up body counts and, along with the nightly parade of death from ‘Nam, Angelinos accepted that the city required a blood sacrifice for its continued prosperity, but let that shit happen in Echo Park or Silverlake, if it’s all the same to you.
Hell, go downtown and watch life get primal; pick up a whore and hope her dick doesn’t pop out before you finish. Get drunk and wander down Skid Row with a twenty-spot pinned to your shirt, take a dump in front of Graumann’s – it’s all part and parcel with living in the greatest city on Earth – so long as the crime doesn’t reach into the realm of the beautiful, the worthy, the moneyed, especially when it’s as horrific as what happened up the Canyon. That kind of deviancy is the music of the streets, not the song of the stars. They can sit up on the mountainside and consume themselves in any and all possible ways, but don’t ever bring the street to them, oh no, that’s when the important people well and truly lose their collective marbles.
I reckoned my part in this was not unlike giving Dumbo a feather; those hippie wastrels were already strung out and crazy. They already had the madness: all I did was give them direction. Their sad little leader, Charlie, was never going to be a recording star, not even if he holed up in Laurel Canyon with two hundred pounds of blow for everyone to jump on. He wanted fame, he was starved for it, desperate for it. He was ready to sell his soul and the souls of his ‘family’ to get there, too. By the end of the year, the whole world would know his name, and I made that happen. The little turd never even thanked me.
When the news finally broke that afternoon, I’d shaken off most of the hangover from the night before. Doug still wasn’t talking to me, and I didn’t want to chance Mary again; word had already filtered down that the rich and fabulous were in full freak-out mode, and I was like the plague to her on even the best of days. Wandering into an exclusive neighborhood like that, on a day like this, could likely get me shot, and that would be damned inconvenient. It could also land me in jail, which would provide its own buffet of fun possibilities, but I really wanted to be outside for this one. With all this in mind, I decided to lay low, to walk the Boulevard and get a feel for the sweet, delightful tension that had the entire town on eggshells, as if it were all built of kindling, just waiting for that one spark to set it ablaze.
Strange days in the City of Angels, but delicious. I cruised the streets as the sun set, savoring the richness of the city’s smells; the scent of food carts and spilled beer, the coppery tang of blood and the acrid stink of piss, the mélange of sounds coming from open windows and doorways, radio in a dozen languages, down here the fear wasn’t as strong as it was up in the hills and the better areas; down here, we weren’t protected from the wildness, the savagery, that was just part of the landscape. In the flatlands of downtown, you hid fear, because if you didn’t, the animals, the two-legged ones that came out at night, they would smell it from a mile away, and they’d fall upon you like a plague, real biblical.
I walked a lot of miles that night, taking care to be seen in various places, and studiously avoiding Los Feliz. That area was going to get all kinds of famous tonight, and I didn’t need to be anywhere near any of that. Tonight’s plan was to make an even bigger statement than the night before, and after it was done, there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Hell had come to Hollywood. I’d fed Little Charlie a laundry list of instructions for this one, since the kids had done such a half-assed job the night before. I mean, it was a slaughter, but it had no style, no panache. Hell, the man they’d gone there to kill wasn’t even living there anymore (of course I knew, which made it more fun for me), but those knuckleheads didn’t know their asses from their elbows, and it was time for the game to be seriously ramped up. Tonight, there would be a bloodletting, there would be terror, there would be brutality and heartbreak, but there would be no mistakes.


       I have to give those kids credit, because they really cranked it up at Waverly: as I understand it (having been nowhere near the scene, of course), their work, our work, made a couple of cops flee the house and lose their lunches. If I can make a cop puke, I know I’ve done well.
Waverly, maybe even more so than Cielo, solidified the Big Fear and truly set the gears in motion, a clarion call that you didn’t have to be beautiful or famous to get deadly attention. Anyone and everyone was grist for the mill, regardless of their station in life. War had been declared, in ways that were loud, proud, and endlessly profane. Waverly was no simple break-in; it was a butchering, and I made damn sure that the victims would walk those now-hallowed grounds forevermore, a mute reminder for those attuned to such things.
The pressure cooker that was La-La Land was now shrieking at a deafening pitch, swelling and threatening to explode. I walked the crazy streets of the desperate areas, inciting bums to beat each other to death with just a glance, painting random swastikas on Jewish businesses, tossing firecrackers onto the porches of Watts in the middle of the night just to watch the residents come spilling out with guns drawn and violence in their eyes. I chucked rocks at soldiers returning from ‘Nam; I spread rumors that our glorious American fighting forces were killing babies and raping grandmothers, that what had happened a year before in My Lai (yeah, that was mine) was but one of a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand, transgressions committed in that most unholy of wars.
I passed out sugar cubes in Elysian Park, telling the kids it was LSD when it was really a megadose of horse trank, eagerly anticipating the freakouts and superhuman strength that the cops, those poor saps, wouldn’t be expecting and wouldn’t know how to react, wanting to keep the peace and not provoke, not knowing until exactly too goddamn late that they were going up against Superman.
I kept busy, waiting patiently for tensions to reach a boiling point, and then I tipped the bulls about a bunch of hippie car thieves out in the desert, to ratchet up tensions not just with Charlie and the Family, but also with the squares, adding fuel to the fire of their hatred and distrust of the kids. To be honest, I was hoping the cops would fuck it up and not make the connection to the murders but Sadie, that adorable half-wit, ran her fool mouth about the killings to cellmates and then the beans spilled all over Hell and gone, and that’s all she wrote baby, the cow’s out of the barn and Katy bar the door, we’re in for one motherfucker of a ride.
I planted the seeds of Helter Skelter in the minds of Charlie and that idiot prosecutor, whose lust for fame clouded his already questionable judgment; together, they built a doomsday cult out of a bunch of fucked-up kids and carved a messianic hippie Christ out of a petty criminal and wannabe pimp.

      It was all too beautiful.


On Pendle Hill,
My love did dance.
The fires burned,
A blessing asked.
Dancing in the dark so spritely,
Prayers to not be taken lightly,
Under clouds that turned to black,
Black as coal on that lovely night.
On Pendle Hill,
She spoke the words,
Uttered in the fire’s light.
Bless this crop, she dared to ask,
Beseeching nature do its task,
And in due course the lamb was given,
In hopes the past year’s sins forgiven,
Something in the darkness summoned,
Summoned on that fateful night.
On Pendle Hill,
My love did sing.
An ancient rhyme,
From the time since time,
To the crow above and the hare below,
When the bitter winds of Autumn blow,
Those lost to the ages sought,
Sought upon that holy night.
On Pendle Hill,
An offering made.
The dagger rose, the lamb did cry,
Its blood upon the ground so dry.
A tribute to the harvest made,
Another fallow field forbade.
And in the dark the dagger fell,
Fell upon that blessed night.
On Pendle Hill,
The earth did part,
Exposing thus its beating heart,
Laid bare all secrets hence concealed,
The glowing rock within revealed,
Revealed upon that sacred night.
On Pendle Hill,
The thunder roared,
Torrential rain from above poured,
Surging clouds flew overhead,
Ignorant hearts filled with dread,
Hearts and minds were split wide open,
Open on that stormy night.
On Pendle Hill,
The gallows built,
Creaking in the wind,
That blew through the grasses,
The parson shouting to the masses.
Condemning all the ancient ways,
Calling these the End of Days,
His holy tome spinning madness,
Madness on that awful night.
On Pendle Hill,
My love did climb,
A rope around her neck,
Parson following quick behind,
Leading all in single mind,
Torchlight, flickering, lights the path,
Whispering for god’s vengeful wrath.
The village, all behind her trailed,
Trailing on that dreadful night.
On Pendle Hill,
The crate was kicked,
The rope cracked tight,
My love’s neck snapped,
Her dear body swayed in the breeze,
In heartbreak I fell to my knees,
Crushed beyond all measure,
I had lost my greatest treasure,
I condemned the crowd to fire eternal,
And damned them all to pain infernal.
The crowd fell hushed and silent,
Silent on that murderous night.
On Pendle Hill,
The flowers grow,
The crops below protected.
The skies above, serene and calm,
And healing rains expected.
So the field will reap its harvest,
Though its seeds were sown in darkness.
The gods received their sacrifice,
Sacrificed on that hallowed night.
On Pendle Hill,
I sit alone.
My love lies in an unmarked grave,
For it was she I could not save,
Her labors spent in love complete,
To make the autumn harvest sweet,
They killed just her, but we both died,
Died on that forsaken night.
Available in print at Folk Horror Revival,
in the Corpse Roads anthology.

Rebel graves

Light the fire, there’s a tale to tell,
Of a man who was more than man.
He came here many years ago,
A stranger to this land.

When the wind sings through the branches,
And yonder fire’s burning,
We shall set off on a wicked journey,
From which there’s no returning.

Now, this tale I wish to tell,
Of men and blood and war,
Is unlike many other stories,
In that it’s no mere folklore.

No, my friend, this really happened,
So draw your loved ones close.
And we’ll talk of Death’s own madman,
While winter’s chill wind blows.

When Henry landed on the New World’s shore,
Far from his native land,
He carried with him a lust for blood,
And a soul bound to be damned.

At once he was conscripted,
And sent straight off to war.
In the conflict between North and South,
On the New World’s blood-soaked shore.

Henry fought with rage unequaled,
His body count was rising.
He was feared by all, both foe and friend,
His methods paralyzing.

For Henry’s love of blood was such,
That when enemies did dwindle,
He simply switched his uniform,
And his death-lust was rekindled.

He killed by knife, he killed by gun,
He killed by bloody hands.
His savagery and brutality,
Was feared throughout the land.

In the blood of many he did bathe,
And drank their crimson veins.
In leaner times, he ate their meat,
And feasted on their brains.

One day, by chance, a musket ball,
Sank deep into his chest,
And Henry fell down to his knees,
Hands clutching at his breast.

Said Henry then,
“Come take me, Death!
I’ll take your place for certain,”
Death looked down at him and said,
“Oh no, dear lad, I won’t be had,
No man will draw your curtain.”

“From this point on, accursed man,
Your name will be Dead Henry.
You’ll have the world your slaughterhouse,
From the rabble to the gentry.”

“Wage all manner of perversity,
Impress me with your numbers.
But here’s the thing, my only string:
You’ll never know death’s slumber.”

Dead Henry’s wound did thusly heal,
And all wounds ever after,
As he walked the land, forever banned,
From Death’s own sweet hereafter.

He landed in Elmira,
That Hell upon the Earth.
Dead Henry found the pickings easy,
As he embraced rebirth.

He killed his way through inmates,
He took them day and night.
Their suffering at his horrific hands,
Gave Dead Henry great delight.

By and by the war was ended,
The prisoners were set free.
Dead Henry vowed to walk the land,
To kill just as he pleased.

So now, all these years later,
Though countless many tried,
His scars stand a mute testament,
To the times he should have died.

And here, my friend, the story ends,
Although without an ending.
Dead Henry walks among us,
His damage never mending.

So hurry home, and tell your children,
In the stillness of the night,
Dead Henry cares not what you’ve done,
And he’ll take what is his right.

For no innocent is innocent,
When all is said and done.
Dead Henry makes fools of us all,
But his battle’s never won.

Because a man who is damned,
Is more than a man, and possessed of one thing more:
A love of death in a strange new land,
On the New World’s blood-soaked shore.

Available in print at Folk Horror Revival,
in the Corpse Roads anthology.


On The Nickel

A cruel sun broke hard over the city skyline, giving no quarter to the hope of a gentle birth to this new day. Ripples of heat shimmered along the pavement, releasing the acrid stink of urine that carpeted the ground with a low-lying fog and in the tents, lean-tos, cardboard boxes and draped tarps, life rumbled and coughed, stretched and farted, sneezed and cursed, as Fifth Street awakened, or at least regained consciousness from having survived another long, desperate night. Soon, the air was filled with shouts and accusations, cries and curses, the language of poverty’s jungle.

Crows sat upon the power lines overhead, cawing their accusations, their judgments, to whatever ears might be listening, fixing their eyes on the sleek, glistening rats that meandered through the gutter, picking through the accumulated garbage for a few scraps of food. The crows watched the rats intently; if a choice piece of anything looked promising, they would drop down and take what was theirs. If the rats didn’t scatter, they might find themselves plucked from the earth and taken for food, for the crows knew to take a rat high, so high, and then simply let go. After gravity had taken its turn, the burst-open carcass made for a fine breakfast.

On the Row, or The Nickel, as it was called, there was no easy transition from night to day, no gentle awakening; rather, the scramble for sustenance began anew, for there were aching bellies to be fed, and dangerous habits demanded attention, life-or-death cravings that demanded fulfillment, needs that must be sustained, old grudges and hurts that defied time and reason, that started anew, their pain and resentment digging ever deeper into the shattered mind of the bearer.

In amongst the maze of makeshift habitats, inside an old military surplus tent that seemed impossibly old, Crying Mary blinked away the crusted dirt at the corners of her eyes, although she hadn’t slept. She lay under a filthy blanket, sweating already as the morning sun turned the canvas shelter into a convection oven, her head resting on the chest of the man lying next to her, rising and falling with his fitful breathing, listening to the staccato rhythm of his heart, her hand tracing an intricate and familiar pattern on the bare skin of his abdomen, fingernails wet with blood as she quietly, calmly, dug into him, so gently as to not disturb his restless slumber. Her nails, so sharp, passing through each layer of skin, then into the spongy yellow fat, pausing for a moment before making her way into the tougher muscle.

As with most drifters this man, whatever his name, had a fair amount of muscle hidden below the fat, the result of so many fights and flights, decades of hard living, and countless beatings. This was a man who had slept on concrete for much of his life, whether on the street or in a cell, and living like this toughens a person, makes the meat rich and dark. The man stirred, his brow furrowed as if in concentration or, more likely, the feeling that something wasn’t quite right, but had yet to announce itself. Mary froze in place, eyes open and watching his face, looking to see if he would awaken and, in doing so, ruining this most intimate of moments. For what he had done with her that night, for what he had done to her, he had earned this many times over. Soon enough, he settled back into slumber and she continued.

Her fingernails like scalpels, Mary slipped through the striated layers of muscle, delicately working her hand into his abdominal cavity, feeling his warmth, his electricity, her forearm gradually disappearing into him as she gently, so very gently, made her way upward to the center of his being, the engine of his damnable machine. Delicately, with all the care of a mother cradling her newborn, her fingers encircled his heart.

It was then that Crying Mary smiled, an unsettling sight under the best of circumstances. Her long, dark hair was matted and wild, as though it had never known comb or brush. Falling from the corners of both eyes were tattooed teardrops, too many to count, cascading down her cheeks like rain, jailhouse tattoos from an eternity of transgressions, thousands of nights spent without sight of the moon, the screams and cries of other inmates poorly taking the place of the crickets and bullfrogs of her youth, so many lifetimes ago. Opinions on Mary’s tears varied: some said each tear represented a prison stay, while others claimed the tears indicated lives taken, while still others claimed that the tears were symbolic of much darker deeds, things that go unmentioned even among this salty and seasoned group of travelers. That each tear was a different color only added to the depth of the impromptu mythology that had sprouted up around her.

One thing upon which all agreed was that one would never dare look directly at Crying Mary’s tears; to do so, it was rumored, would wreak a fate worse than those who dared gaze upon Medusa, that turning to stone would be preferable to being caught staring, and to stare would be the most common and understandable reaction to seeing Mary, especially for the first time. To add to matters, Mary stood well over six feet and her man, the whereabouts of whom was also cause for great speculation, was rumored to stand even taller. Some, who claimed to have met him, said in hushed whispers that Dead Henry, as he was called, was older than time, and others murmured that he himself was a demon, ejected from Hell for being too wicked.

Mary’s face also carried scars, as did her left arm, from a night long ago when two frat boys on a dare, drove into the Row, and looked for a homeless person to set fire to. For their sins, they had made the mistake of picking Mary, whose peace had been interrupted with the sharp stink of gasoline, a moment before the match dropped. She had burned, but her pain was nothing compared to the hell she unleashed upon the drunken boys. She had lost her mind during her assault on them, and had landed in the county mental ward for almost a year, all but braindead under the barrage of drugs being pumped into her system. Eventually she was pronounced ‘better,’ and released back onto the streets, all of which led, as they always will, to the Nickel. Still homeless, burned and broken, still alone, in a state of drug-induced psychosis.

In moments like this, Crying Mary’s heart longed for Henry, a yearning that stretched across a broken landscape of miles and an ocean of tears, and when she took a person, as she was about to, it was bittersweet in that she would not be able to share it with him. She was stronger than any ten men, and never forgot this simple truth; however, she felt incomplete without Henry, he was the one who made it all make sense. One day, she told herself.

One day.

Her fingers wrapped around the sleeping man’s heart, and she tugged lightly, causing him to stir. As his eyes opened and looked toward her, Mary stroked his forehead with her free hand, whispering quietly to him.

“Let this be a day of wonder, as I make this sacrifice to myself and my kin and as this man finds his way to the other side, let him know the true meaning of pain and fear, that I have held his heart and known the darkness it hides, that I have seen the things he has done, and that what comes next he has earned many times over.”

The man’s eyes opened wide at her words, the cold reality slicing through his mind, through the hazy years of drugs and booze, with a sobriety that shocked and horrified him. “Hey, wait – you wanted that stuff, you said so, afterward at least. I just did what you told me.”

“Hush now,” Crying Mary said, a beatific smile gracing her face. “This is what happens; it’s already done.”

She delicately slipped her middle finger between the aorta and pulmonary artery, gripped firmly and, with a single, savage motion, tore the man’s heart from his chest. When she held it before his eyes, it was still beating. “Your poorly-lived life can still have value,” she said quietly as comprehension dawned in the man’s eyes, even as the light of life faded from them.

Mary stuffed the dead man’s heart into her mouth and chewed vigorously, swallowing whole chunks as if it were the first food she’d had in years, as blood spilled from her lips and down her chin, savoring the coppery taste upon her tongue. As quickly as it had begun, it was over.

Later, after Mary had packed him away in a dumpster and rolled up her tent, she stood on the stained and filthy sidewalk of Skid Row, breathing deeply and tasting myriad scents that the street offered up, dark and delightful, reeking and filled with sin. She stuffed her tent deep into the shopping cart she used to carry her belongings and, for a moment, looked up at the crows perched on the power lines above, and winked while pressing a bloody finger to her lips.

Singing quietly off-key to herself, Crying Mary shuffled down the street, pushing the cart in front of her, into the bright light of a new day.

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but I always will be true, and when your mama’s dead and gone, I’ll sing this lullaby just for you…”

maxresdefaultA once-fabulous mansion in decline, its worn vestiges of better times heartbreakingly reflected in the deep shadows of its spider-webbed corners. A large 1930s home in a quiet, upscale suburb, hiding a lifetime of pain and dark secrets. The sprawling landscape of Hollywood is littered with broken dreams and ruined lives; the never-were scrambling for a chance at making their mark, while the has-beens fall into obscurity, earning, at best, a footnote in the clutter of contemporary American culture.

The movie industry is a particularly cruel business; everyone involved is just one flop, one bad review, away from ruin, a concept that most of us will never understand. We live our lives within our small circle of friends and family and, except in cases of abuse or neglect, that is where we stay: unknown to most, close to a few, in simple, manageable lives. For those who have tasted and enjoyed stardom, however, to be unknown is akin to being dead, but without the relative comfort of eternal rest and a marker at Forest Lawn.

In Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950), struggling writer Joe Gillis makes a fateful turn into a driveway while evading repo men, and finds himself propelled into the world of Norma Desmond, once the darling of film’s silent era, “the greatest star of them all,” as she puts it. As happened with countless others, Desmond’s career came to an abrupt end when the film industry changed over to talking pictures.

Protected from the outside world by the remains of her fortune and her loyal servant Max, Norma Desmond surrounds herself with memories, both real and imagined, blissfully unaware that she is all but forgotten in 1950 Hollywood. Seeing an opportunity with the young writer who falls into her life, Norma plots her return to the silver screen, with a script she has spent the last several decades writing. Gillis sees in Norma Desmond a chance to make some money and get ahead of his debts, because her script is, predictably, awful, not least because the fifty-one-year-old actress wants to play the role of Salome herself, despite the three-decade gap in age.

In her efforts to defy the advancement of time, Norma surrounds herself with past associates from the silent era, diligently applying her makeup to stave off the evidence of age, and re-watching her old films, night after night. Her sense of fashion is thirty years out of date, and we readily see that she is living in a time capsule, a safe place far from the world that has long since forgotten her. She is as much a prisoner in her world as Joe Gillis, bound by her delusions and an intricate web of dependency and lies, as real as the fan letters she continues to receive.

Gillis soon finds himself a captive in Norma’s world, seduced by the gifts she lavishes upon him, the convenience that her money provides. He becomes essentially a kept man, unable to break away for the sake of Norma’s fragile grip on her version of reality, as he discovers that his benefactor’s sanity is a delicate balancing act, enabled and supported by Max, and the secrets that bind them. Norma Desmond desires is to be back in the spotlight, on the screen, to beg for the acceptance and forgiveness of the fans that she left so long ago, and incapable of accepting that time continued marching forward and she has been all but forgotten. When she is ultimately faced with the terrible truth, tragedy naturally prevails, as inevitably as night follows day.

As Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson gives the performance of a lifetime, and an ironic one as well. Swanson, who had been Paramount’s top star for six straight years during the silent era, had retired from film and moved to New York, where she worked in radio, and later, television. Swanson, however, understood that her time in film had passed, and was comfortable with this knowledge. It is notable that numerous silent film stars had been invited to a screening of Sunset Boulevard, and gave Swanson a standing ovation at the film’s end.

Sunset Boulevard holds a brutal mirror up to Hollywood, daring it to look itself in the eye and acknowledge its complicity in the using and discarding of lives, giving no support or counsel to those who fight the tide, or whose demons won’t go unheard.

Robert Aldrich’s film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), further examines the phenomena of those whom the world once adored, but then discarded, in a story as dark as Sunset Boulevard, but with the added elements of sibling warfare and toxic co-dependency.


In 1917, Baby Jane Hudson is the darling of the vaudeville stage, while her sister Blanche watches from the sidelines, seething with resentment while their father gives all his love and attention to the spoiled, tyrannical Jane. By 1935, both sisters are working in Hollywood, but it is Blanche who is now the star while Jane has nothing but failure, despite Blanche’s demand that for every film she makes, the studio must make one for Jane as well. A drunken car crash leaves Blanche confined to a wheelchair, with Jane as her caretaker. Jane’s failure has turned her into a bitter lush, and whose grip on reality has become tenuous at best. By 1962, their already difficult relationship has turned dangerous: Jane’s psychosis has become more delusional and violent, while Blanche seems to have all but surrendered to her demented sister. As sibling dysfunction and the realities of aging pile up, the sisters rush headlong into an inevitable confrontation in which secrets and lies come to light, leaving neither woman untouched.

Each sister carries her own demons and responsibility for the events that have led them to this place in time, and neither is completely innocent. Davis plays Jane as a grotesquerie, a monstrous, raging gargoyle that dresses as she did in her childhood heyday, heavily piling on makeup in a vain attempt at covering the ravages of failure, alcohol, and hateful spite. There is, however, a delicate sorrow to her character, of which we are given glimpses as the story progresses. Jane Hudson has become a lost soul; forty-five years have passed since she was a star, and she appears to have no idea how the time has passed, and the damage it has done to her, forever trapped in the mind of a petulant, over-indulged child. It is a tour-de-force performance for Davis, which won her a well-deserved Academy Award nomination.

Crawford, on the other hand, imbues Blanche with an almost noble, quiet dignity, enduring Jane’s viciousness with the grace and compassion that we would think could only come from true caring. Blanche is the rational adult of the two, looking out for Jane even as Jane’s attacks become increasingly violent and disturbing. We learn that while she wants to sell their house and find a place where Jane can receive the care that she needs, Blanche doesn’t appear to have any plans for herself, so deep is the love that she seems to have for her troubled sister. With time, we come to realize that Blanche may not be as loving and altruistic as she appears, and that deep secrets and hostility run on both sides of their bitter divide, and that this is perhaps a shared family trait, with neither sister having exclusive ownership of bitterness.

 At the heart of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? lies a story of family, and the damage that family can inflict upon itself. Who would put up with Jane’s constant abuse, if not a family member? Who would take charge of Blanche’s needs, if not a sibling? While these are admirable traits, family can oftentimes be a source of great discomfort and frustration, causing more pain than any stranger ever could, and enduring abuse that we would accept from no one. Family can be a fine and wonderful thing; it can also be a nightmare of dysfunction and heartbreak.

Like Sunset Boulevard, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? examines the lament of the forgotten; whenever Jane is out in public, she compulsively asks whomever she is talking to if they know who she is, seemingly unaware of how much time has passed since she was popular, and dreams of returning to her former glory in a world that has moved on without her, in much the same way as Norma Desmond, but without the funds, direction, or backhanded support that Desmond enjoyedJane and Blanche Hudson are prisoners in their lives as much as Norma Desmond, their horrors are what connects them to us, and make no mistake: these are both horror films. The horror of growing old and being forgotten, of having no control over one’s life, of all-consuming, soul-destroying resentment and rage, of losing oneself to madness. The monsters in this film are very real, and all the more horrifying because of their familiarity to people we might know.

The streets and graveyards of Hollywood are filled with the lost and forgotten, those who couldn’t make the transition from from child star to adulthood, from silent to talkies, who had their shot at stardom and blew it, who never had a chance or a prayer, with no clue what to do as time marches mercilessly forward, and no protector to save them from themselves. Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? are harsh indictments against an industry that prizes youth and beauty above all else, but it is also a judgment against us, the audience, for our capricious willingness to discard those whose dreams, whose desires, are to gain our acceptance and love, to make a name for themselves by making a place in our hearts.



In the pursuit of examining any significant era in filmmaking, and perhaps horror films in particular, one must first gain an understanding of the time in which it happened, as history provides context. Without context, films are merely images on a screen, events without meaning and while they may still evoke an emotional response, we don’t truly understand the depth, the scope, of the emotions.

When the First World War came to an end in 1918, the Treaty of Versailles, dated 28 June 1919, required Germany, which had been defeated by the Allied Forces, to “Accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage” incurred during the war. In addition, Germany was forced to disarm, make territorial concessions, and pay reparations for damages caused to the civilian populations of the Allied nations and their properties. As with any event in which countries seek to make demands of those they vanquish, it is often the general population that has the least involvement, yet pays the highest price.

In other words, Germany was defeated, humiliated, and broke, left in a state of social, economic, and political bedlam. The reparations demand placed a heavy burden on the economy, leading to a period of hyperinflation, during which the value of German Mark plummeted and came close to ruining the country’s economy. The average citizens had no choice in the matter, no options they could exercise; rather, they were forced to make difficult sacrifices, which led to unrest and suspicion of convenient scapegoats, which ultimately set in motion the events that would, in 1933, bring about the rise of the Third Reich.

 The generation of artists who came of age during this turbulent time were quick to assign blame on the preceding generation’s values and ideals; gone were the traditional notions of beauty and art, replaced by darkness, violence, and the emotional chaos felt by many in the post-war years. On painters’ canvasses and on motion picture screens, cities were in ruins, with their denizens lost in inescapable states of fear, rage, and paranoia. By an odd turn of events, Germany’s embargo against imported films caused a boom for its own motion picture industry, as the populace clamored for entertainment and distractions. Rather than offering fantasy-laden escapist fare, filmmakers chose to express the inner angst and confusion of the times in a stark and surreal fashion, creating films in which the inner turmoil spreads radially, concocting a world of distorted angles, deep shadows, and altered perception where no one, despite their alleged social standing, was immune from corruption.

cabinet-of-dr.-caligariAgainst this dark and emotionally brutal background, director Robert Wiene unleashed The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), the story of a traveling carnival, and one of its attractions, a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who can answer questions about the future while in his sleepwalking state. Cesare is controlled by the mysterious Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss), whose motives may be far more sinister than providing mere carnival tricks. Cesare ventures out into the world at the hypnotic behest of his master, performing whatever tasks are demanded of him. It is within these scenes that Caligari is at its most masterful; surely, the idea of being completely controlled by another person, while in a sleeping state when one is at their most vulnerable, has been the subject of countless nightmares for untold generations, and calls to question the very sanity of existence. Indeed, insanity is a significant component not just in Dr Caligari, but in many films of the German Expressionist era.

As the tale of Dr Caligari plays out, it sheds many layers. When one believes they have the story puzzled out, it changes; the rug is pulled out from under the viewer so many times that it becomes difficult to accept the reality of anything projected on the screen. This may have been the ultimate goal of expressionist cinema: the disorientation of the viewer and the total immersion into a world at once disturbingly alien and yet eerily familiar.

Dr Caligari is a landmark work in the field of motion pictures; the actors are grotesquely made up and move in unnatural ways, making them appear at times to be controlled by unseen puppeteers (as many of the time no doubt felt, completely out of control of their own lives and destinies), while the sets are abstract and exaggerated, reflecting the ravaged landscape and emotional turmoil of postwar Germany. Shell-shocked and reeling from the devastating effects of war, it is not unreasonable to believe that many moviegoers felt a warped kinship with the sleepwalker as Caligari directs his every step. The effect of these efforts is that the viewer cannot help but to be drawn in, to experience the nightmare on a personal level, for the simple reason that there is no semblance of normalcy to cling to. In the expressionist world of Dr Caligari, nothing is as it seems, and no one is innocent.

Wiene’s unprecedented use of light and shadow was revolutionary for its time, providing a virtual blueprint for the horror and film noir genres that would soon find their genesis in Hollywood, particularly as German filmmakers would flee the country in ensuing years, as right-wing fanaticism gained a foothold and horrors far worse than those in films arose to lead Germany into unfathomable darkness.

By most estimates, the Expressionist era lasted seven to ten years, but its trademarks of anti-heroes, moral ambiguity, and inescapable human darkness have endured and earned a much-deserved place in the canon of filmmaking and film history.

The films of the Expressionist period struck a discordant resonance with audiences, even if they weren’t quite able to explain what exactly moved them. The psychological currents of a nation in decline were writ large upon the movie screen, and people turned out to see the elements that came to define the movement: anti-heroes, an underworld populated by criminals, madness, paranoia, and extreme use of light and shadow, to name but a few. While films of this time generally relied upon exaggerated sets that mirrored the chaos of the story and its characters, one film stood out for its use of locations that conveyed the same themes, and while its story took place in the preceding century, it came to define not just a style of filmmaking, but also a primary mythos of horror films, the rules of which are still followed to this day.

NosferatuShadowNosferatu (1922), FW Murnau’s film about a vampire was almost lost to history; the story was taken from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Stoker’s widow went to court to have the film destroyed. All prints were burned, save but one, which had been traveling abroad. Without that single print, the film would be a mysterious footnote in history, not unlike London After Midnight (1927), all prints of which are believed to be lost.

Nosferatu illustrates the growing of sense national xenophobia in a clever fashion; its antagonist, the vampire Count Orlock (Max Schreck) is shown as a beady-eyed, hooked-nosed, leering monster that sleeps in a box filled with dirt, and seeks to relocate from his home in Transylvania. This portrayal reflects the fears of many Germans, who were seeing immigrants pouring into the country with strange customs and unfamiliar appearances, bringing with them their money and religions, and the threat of their blood mingling with that of the German people. With these factors in mind, there is little wonder why this film was a success. In this landmark work of horror, the vampire, like the rats it sleeps with, is vermin, a literal plague carrier. It is no coincidence that vampiric folklore appears to have found its roots in Europe during the Black Death, and were vampires were suspected of being the source of the plague that claimed an estimated seventy-five to two-hundred million people in the fourteenth century. In a genre filled with beautiful, sensual and, perhaps most horrifyingly, sparkling vampires, it is important to realize that the cinematic birth of the undead bloodsucker shows it as a parasitic rodent.

The-Hands-of-Orlac-insideIn 1924, Robert Wiene and Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) re-teamed for The Hands of Orlac, which tells the story of a concert pianist who loses his hands in an accident, only to have them surgically replaced with the hands of an executed killer. Orlac (Veidt) cannot play the piano with his new hands, but soon learns that the hands still carry their previous owner’s urge to kill. The feeling that one no longer has control over one’s own body or mind, coupled with advances in medical science, fueled fears over the loss of self in the midst of a changing world over which the individual had no control, are archetypal of the era. Orlac, while an Austrian production, is nonetheless considered an important film of the Expressionist movement.

As the 1920s progressed, the themes expressed within the Expressionist era became more pronounced, as the gap between the privileged and the poor grew ever-wider, and the nation teetered closer to a breakdown, nowhere was this disparity been documented as spectacularly as in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, Metropolis (1927).

300007-metropolis_productionstill_300dpi_09While wealthy industrialists and their children live and play in aboveground luxury, the masses toil below, working at the machines that provide power for the city, in subhuman conditions. To die from exhaustion is a common occurrence, but a minor inconvenience, as there are always more ready and willing to enslave themselves to the machines. A chance occurrence leads a young man of privilege to see the world that exists just beneath his feet and it is from this revelation that the young man fights to bring the rich and poor together.

The story of Metropolis echoes the desire of the industrialists who sought to overthrow the postwar Weimar Republic, and the working and unemployed classes who were left with no choice but to float along in their wake, assured of nothing but a future filled with uncertainty. Unfortunately, the collapse of the Republic led to the ascendency of failed artist and former prisoner (sentenced for treason) Adolf Hitler, whose rise to power would effectively bring an end to the already fading Expressionist movement, and ushering in an new era of unimaginable horror, forcing scores artists and filmmakers to flee their homeland. Not coincidentally, many German filmmakers found a new home in Hollywood.

the-last-will-of-dr-mabuse-aka-le-everett1933: Fritz Lang, acclaimed director of Metropolis (1927) and Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922) finds that his latest film, The Testament of Dr Mabuse, has been banned by Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda under Adolph Hitler, stating that the film would be a menace to public health and safety, because it “showed that an extremely dedicated group of people are perfectly capable of overthrowing any state with violence.” Goebbels was, however, impressed enough by Metropolis that he extended to Lang the opportunity to make films for the Nazi party, which caused him to flee to Paris that night, according to Lang, although this accounting has been questioned.

Whatever the case, the tide in Germany was turning, and it comes as no surprise that many of the first casualties of the rise of the Third Reich would be the artists, those who were able to communicate complex ideas to the masses; truly a terrifying ability in the eyes of those who sought to control those same masses. Starting around 1933, directors and actors Karl Freund, Billy Wilder, Max Ophuls, Curt Siodmak, Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Edgar Ulmer, and Douglas Sirk, to name but a few, emigrated to the United States due to a ban, by Goebbels, of all non-Aryan film professionals whose politics or lifestyles were considered unacceptable by the Nazi Party.

The flood of immigrants into Hollywood would have far-reaching effects on American filmmaking, particularly in the realm of horror films. Carl Laemmle, a German Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1884, founded Universal Studios in 1915. By the 1920s, Universal was making a name for itself in horror, with the legendary Lon Chaney proving to be a vital draw for the company with such films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). In 1928, Laemmle gave his son, Carl Jr, Universal Studios as a twenty-first birthday gift. Carl Jr went to work creating what is now known as the Universal Horror era, releasing Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Wolf Man (1941), and many others. Many of these now-classic films contain vital elements of the Expressionist style, such as heavy use of light and shadow, disfigurement, mental instability, mad science, loss of identity, and flawed antiheroes.

003-sunrise-theredlistFW Murnau, director of Nosferatu, immigrated to the United States and was immediately put to work directing the silent masterpiece Sunrise, A Song of Two Humans (1927), which is widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, winning three Academy Awards in the Academy’s first ceremony. Sunrise makes use of the mise-en-scene, a common element of Expressionist cinema, to ‘bring’ the audience into the picture, utilizing all aspects of the shot, from sets, composition, costumes, music, and performances, all carefully composed to convey a specific message; in this case, the mise-en-scene takes the viewer into the heart and mind of a man and woman’s affair, which may lead to a devastating outcome.

Flicker_coverOf the homages to the German Expressionism movement, particular attention must be paid to Theodore Roszak’s 1991 novel Flicker, which takes the art of the era to a sinister level. Flicker is the story of Max Castle, a fictional German filmmaker who immigrated to the United States, making Poverty-Row movies, few prints of which still exist. Castle’s films utilize the darkness of shadows and the gap between frames (the ‘flicker’) of motion picture prints to install subliminal images that could, if the lost and missing films are seen, bring about tragedy of an apocalyptic scale, perhaps echoing the concerns of those who sought to ban such ‘subversive’ films in real life. Meticulous in detail and message, Flicker is a dense, disturbing, and fascinating look at the power of filmmaking, and an absolute must-read for any enthusiast of cinema.

The impact of the Expressionist movement upon American and international cinema is immeasurable, with countless films, from The Third Man (1949) to Blade Runner (1982) to music videos (Rob Zombie’s Living Dead Girl is a loving tribute to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari,) owing much of their appeal, aesthetics, and emotional impact to a filmic movement created by a post-war desire for humiliation and blame-laying, and fueled by the rise of a nationalist fascist dictator.

thestandjpg-7125d8_1280wIn his epic 1978 novel The Stand, Stephen King killed everything. An intensely aggressive form of influenza is accidentally released from a government research facility and one panicked guard escapes before quarantine is initiated. The guard spreads the plague, which grows exponentially, until 99.4% of the population is dead. Those who remain are alone or in splintered groups scattered across the United States, with a common thread. Many of them begin to have dreams: some dream of a kindly old woman in Nebraska, while others see a dark man in Las Vegas. Drifting aimlessly around the corpse of America, the paths of survivors eventually intersect and when it is realized that they are having the same dreams, the groups decide to travel to one of the two dreamed-about locations. The battle lines are being drawn; the time has come for humanity to make its stand, in the final war of good against evil.

While the story is one of survival in a radically changed landscape, it is also one of humanity lost and humanity found; each of the nearly thirty main and incidental characters faces a choice at some point in his or her journey, and it is these choices that ultimately dictate where they will land. The central protagonist, an East Texan called Stu Redman, is a good ol’ boy whose life is marked by tragedy and regret, and his mysterious immunity to the disease unfortunately lands him in a government research facility, located in Vermont. His experience in quarantine is truly nightmarish and through Redman, the reader is subjected to the horrors of isolation and confinement, of having no say in the course of one’s life, instead subjected to the poking and prodding of scientists who have no answer for his resistance to the illness. A frightening parallel could be made to the experiences of those who were subjected to imprisoned in concentration camps, whose minds and bodies were completely controlled by doctors whose motives were less than humane.

Other central characters include a rock star whose self-centered ways may be his ruination, a young expectant mother, a high-school boy whose resentment over being an outcast at school guides him bitterly but, in the new post-plague world, he has the chance to reinvent himself, provided he can leave the past behind. A sociology professor, a troubled woman with a dark secret, a developmentally disabled man, a young deaf-mute, a petty criminal, a schizophrenic pyromaniac, and numerous others round out a diverse cast, each of which have a past to contend with, and a future to decide.

While the characters are well-developed, as is common with King’s work, two particularly stand out: Harold Lauder, a sixteen-year-old whose intelligence and social awkwardness made him an outcast in the pre-plague world, and Donald Merwin Elbert (aka “Trashcan Man”), the aforementioned pyromaniac whose own troubled past appears inescapable and guides his actions, even when salvation is at hand. Like Arnie Cunningham in Christine, these two characters are incredibly well-written, both having significant paternal issues and episodes of being bullied and tormented at school, and the rage that fuels the actions of each. These characters are essential to the King canon, being possible extensions of his own childhood; indeed, bullies appear in nearly all of King’s works, and the ends that come to many of them reinforce the possibility that King may have been cathartically working out some issues.

Although published thirty-five years ago (with an extended version released in 1990, The Stand is eerily prescient with its themes of nuclear and biological warfare, governmental bungling, religious fanaticism, and police-state imagery. It is a cautionary tale for the ages, inviting the reader into an all-too real America in which each person must wade through their personal nightmares and pasts, and decide whether to take a stand, to make a claim for their own life and the direction in which they choose to take it.

In 1979, the paperback edition of The Stand noted that the book was soon to be made into a film by George Romero (Night of the Living Dead); however, after languishing in development for years, Romero dropped out and the plans were scuttled. In 1994, The Stand aired on television as an eight-hour (about six hours without commercials), four-part miniseries.

Long-time fans of King’s masterwork were split on their opinions, and for valid reasons: important characters were eliminated, unnecessarily changed or combined with others, plotlines were altered or abandoned, and the casting of actors was wildly uneven, ranging from brilliant to absurd. Fans rejoiced in the casting of Gary Sinise as Stu Redman, Ray Walston as Glen Bateman, Bill Fagerbakke as Tom Cullen; the decision to have Rob Lowe portray Nick Andros was at first curious, but worked out well, while casting Matt Frewer as Trashcan Man was absolute, demented genius. However, the project was bogged down by the unfortunate casting of Molly Ringwald and Corin Nemec as Frannie Goldsmith and Harold Lauder, Laura San Giacomo as Nadine Cross, Miguel Ferrer as Lloyd Henreid, and Jamey Sheridan as Randall Flagg, the Dark Man. Ferrer was completely wrong for the part of the gullible, criminal man-child; Nemec carried none of Harold’s toxic rage or inner conflict; Ringwald made Frannie whining and weak, San Giacomo bumbled around, seemingly lost and, worst of all, Sheridan turned Flagg, the embodiment of death and destruction, possibly the Antichrist, into a leering caricature more suited for a soap opera.

The horrifying set pieces from the novel appear restricted by the small screen both in scope and in budget, their terror muted and sanitized for a general audience, and even the final confrontation, in which an enormous, angry mob draws together for a show trial, a final reckoning, during which all present must decide which side they stand on, comes off as a small gathering, carrying none of the gravity that it could and should have. Budgeted at twenty-eight million dollars (US), there simply wasn’t enough money to make The Stand as grand as it should have been, and eight hours did not give enough time to bring the book truly to life. Additionally, the sensibilities of 1994 did not allow ABC Television the freedom to bring much of The Stand’s horror and grimness to life, and many of the book’s themes were downplayed or muddled. Still, ABC made what appears to be an earnest attempt and, given the constraints under which they were working, one can forgive some of the decisions that were made.

That said, it has been reported that that Warner Brothers and CBS Films are developing a feature-length film adaptation of The Stand, and that it may be produced as a trilogy of films, with Ben Affleck at the helm. Given his recent run of successes and rebirth as a serious player in Hollywood, The Stand may yet make a transition to screen that will not only satisfy its lifelong fans, but also spur the uninitiated into taking on the dark nightmare of King’s epic masterpiece. The recent casting of Matthew McConaughey as the Main in Black (Randall Flagg)  in the big-screen adaptation of King’s Dark Tower, has many fans hoping that he will carry the role over to the new telling of The Stand; this writer thinks it would be a perfect match.

9f4768b4bd4a205e1d3a60398ab022a2_567x210There is a special kind of magic when a guy gets his first car; it’s a feeling of liberation, of freedom, to climb in and just take off. The mysterious allure of the open road, the siren song of several hundred horses under the hood and a tiger in the tank, rocketing into the future without a care in the world. There is a darker side as well, that of squealing brakes and crushing metal, the bitter sting of humiliation, shattered dreams, and innocence torn asunder. Of love betrayed and forever lost.

These are the central themes of Stephen King’s Christine (1983), in which Arnie Cunningham purchases his first car, a broken-down 1958 Plymouth Fury, against the wishes of his parents and against the advice of his best and only friend, Dennis Guilder. Arnie is portrayed as a quintessential high school nerd, scrawny and pimple-faced, constantly harassed by the school bullies, invisible to the opposite sex. As Arnie gets to work on restoring the car, which he names Christine, the visible changes to the car causes a metamorphosis in Arnie; the blemishes disappear, awkwardness gives way to coolness, and even the girls begin to pay attention to love-starved Arnie. Arnie’s liberation, however, carries with it a steep price: a bond forms between Arnie and his car, and Christine appears to be systematically killing those who had victimized him and those who attempt to attract Arnie’s attention. Christine, as it turns out, is a jealous sort, and she won’t tolerate anyone coming between her and her man. Arnie’s newfound confidence and appearance finds him with the prettiest girl in school, with calamitous results.

Christine is a story told in three parts: first is a first-person account from Dennis’ point of view, the second is in third-person and focuses on Arnie, then returns to Dennis in first-person for the conclusion. This technique makes for a very intimate telling, and allows the reader to gain the perspective of one who is losing their best friend to forces they can’t understand, as well as the painful changes that often happen in long-term friendships when those involved grow in different directions, for different reasons. Dennis likens Arnie’s spiral into obsession with Christine to that of a nice guy who winds up with the school tramp; try as he might to convince everyone that she’s really a special, wonderful person, they all know deep down that she’s trouble, and that no good will come of it, but he won’t hear of it, because she is the first girl who ever paid attention to him and sometimes, that’s enough.

Arnie Cunningham is doubtlessly one of King’s best-written characters and the reason is readily apparent: Arnie, just like Harold Lauder and Trashcan Man from The Stand, are extensions of King himself. The years of not fitting in, social and physical awkwardness, bullying, humiliation, crushes, and pent-up rage are masterfully funneled into these characters and it is this authenticity, this heartbreaking honesty, which makes these characters so compelling, so real. We cheer Arnie’s growing coolness at first, but are later repelled by his inability to understand the reality of his situation and his unwillingness to extricate himself from a relationship that redefines the concept of codependent dysfunction.

Each chapter in Christine opens with a passage from a 1950s car song that gives subtle indication to the action that will follow, and the three parts, titled Teenage Car Songs, Teenage Love Songs, and Teenage Death Songs, give us an idea of where the exquisitely paced story arc is headed, without giving anything away. From the first page, the story is suffused with a feeling of profound loss at that most delicate time of life, when one attempts to make the transition from child to adult. Being written by Stephen King, we can assume that Christine is a horror story, which it most certainly is, but perhaps the horror isn’t the scary car, but rather the realization that youth’s blossom fades too quickly, and that not all of us are able or willing to grow up. Despite all our best intentions, fate follows its own agenda, often with tragic, irreversible results.

Also in 1983, legendary filmmaker John Carpenter directed the film adaptation of Christine, at a time in which King adaptations were being produced at a furious rate, with often-dubious quality. Happily, Carpenter’s version follows the source material keenly, and the casting of Keith Gordon as Arnie and John Stockwell as Dennis works very well; the chemistry of the actors is organic and believable. In Carpenter’s version, Christine’s pedigree has changed: in the book, the reader is introduced to the car as it sits moldering in its owner’s yard; in the film, Christine is first seen on the assembly line, injuring several workers in the act of building it. This change is significant, as it turns Christine from being a vessel for the suppressed rage of its owners into something that was essentially ‘born bad’ and causes a major shift in the relational dynamic from personal to impersonal. The resulting film, which is very enjoyable, loses a fair degree of the emotional depth and overwhelming sense of tragedy that the book conveys.

This is a chief complaint with many King book-to-movie adaptations: when the author invests a great deal of energy and emotion building characters to very specific standards, as King does, much is inevitably lost in the transition to film. While Carpenter’s film is well-directed and worthy of respect, the themes of the book, as discussed above, are largely lost. In both versions, ancillary characters are not nearly as developed largely because their purpose is to propel the main characters, Arnie, Dennis, and Christine. When all is said and done, both versions stand up well, each on their own merits, and each worth a second look.

lifeforceThe Cannon Group. To those who were of a certain time, in a certain place, mere mention of The Cannon Group conjures giddy images of days spent in second-run theatres with sticky floors and scratchy prints. When the lights went down and the Cannon logo appeared on the screen, the audience knew precisely what to expect: low budgets, second-tier stars, improbably laughable scripts, and cheesy special effects. Cannon was for the 1980s what American International was for the 1960s: a reliable workhorse that churned out B movies with an ethos that quantity was far more valuable than quality. And yet, for those devotees in the dark, Cannon signified nothing less than magic.

Fresh from the box-office triumph of Poltergeist (1982), director Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) signed a three-picture deal with Cannon; his first project, which was reportedly forced on him, was a film adaptation of the lamentably titled 1977 novel Space Vampires. The picture was given a twenty-five million dollar budget, an astonishing sum for Cannon to put into a single feature. With Hooper at the helm, a screenplay co-written by Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, Alien, Return of the Living Dead), cinematography by Alan Hume (Return of the Jedi, A View to A Kill, A Fish Called Wanda), effects by the legendary John Dykstra (Silent Running, Star Wars, Django Unchained), and music by Henry Mancini, Lifeforce seemed poised to make a big splash. But this didn’t happen. Cannon co-owners Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had intended Lifeforce to be a mega-budgeted science fiction / horror blockbuster; however, the film ended up grossing around eleven million dollars and was considered a flop. Home video fortunately allowed Lifeforce to find its audience, giving it the second chance it deserved, and a devoted cult following ensued.  

A joint United States / British scientific team are investigating the passing Halley’s Comet, when they find what appears to be a ship in the midst of the comet. Further investigation reveals the presence of three humanoids in suspended animation, which are taken into their shuttle for analysis. As it turns out, the three are vampires of a sort who, instead of blood, siphon the soul, the energy, of their victims. When they come to Earth, all hell breaks loose and Armageddon is but a stone’s throw away. The themes explored in Lifeforce are familiar to the vampire genre: the loss of control over one’s self, killing to live, and immortality. The film’s strength, however, isn’t in the story, but rather the telling; Steve Railsback (Helter Skelter, The Stunt Man) handles his starring role capably, balancing action and drama well, despite the occasional rough patch of dialogue. Patrick Stewart maintains a small but vital role, just two years before finding international fame as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise. The effects work is excellent, particularly when considering the budget and lack of computer generated imagery. As the film winds toward its climax London descends into chaos, and the scenes of terror in the streets are extraordinarily well done although, admittedly, scenes of terror in the streets are my weakness.

The film works because of, rather than despite, the occasional bit of ham-fisted dialogue that harkens back to American horror films of the 1950s (obviously intentional with O’Bannon as the writer), astounding practical effects, genre-appropriate scoring, outstanding cinematography, solid performances, and the jaw-dropping Mathilda May in a one-of-a-kind performance that none will forget.

The real star here is Scream! Factory; their Blu-Ray treatment of Lifeforce is superlative, and includes the truncated US release (101 minutes), and also the vastly superior, international edit (116 minutes). The prints have been nicely restored and for the most part look great, aside from a few scratches here and there. The sound quality is top-shelf, and sounds excellent on a 6.1 surround system. Extras include a vintage “Making Of” featurette, as well as new interview segments with Railsback, Mathilda May, and Hooper, all of whom look back fondly at the film. To have taken the time to film new segments with the three principals is a commendable touch, especially for the fans who have embraced this great, if somewhat odd, film for nearly thirty years. If the treatment of Lifeforce is any indication of Scream! Factory’s dedication to preserving and presenting genre films to a new generation of viewers, the future looks bright indeed, provided there aren’t any naked space vampire invasions on the horizon.

bed sheet phantom


What follows is an article I wrote for a skeptic journal a dozen years ago. I re-discovered it a couple of days ago, brushed it off and prettied it up, and present it here. Enjoy.
Physicist Costas Efthimiou, a professor at the University of Central Florida, offers a theoretical glimpse that purports to put to rest the notion that the dead walk among us in spirit form: According to the laws laid down by Sir Isaac Newton, it is impossible for a non-physical entity to simultaneously walk upon surfaces and pass through solid objects, such as doors and walls; if a being is applying force to the ground in order to propel themselves, they therefore can’t pass through other solids without also falling through the floor. As a physical being, I know for a fact that I cannot pass through a floor, and I have walked into enough walls and doors to assume that I will have no chance of ever passing through, even if I were approaching Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station.
There are, however, several issues with his theories, foremost the idea that Newtonian laws pertaining to the physical world somehow apply to entities that do not exist in the corporeal realm. If ghosts are, as often hypothesized, beings constructed of memory, energy, and/or other non-physical materials, how then can we reasonably expect them to be bound by the same laws that us mere mortals by nature must adhere to?
The article then abruptly takes a sharp turn and notes that, according to a 2005 Gallup poll, approximately 1 in 3 Americans believe that houses can be haunted, and that it is possible to communicate with the dead. The impression I was left with, as a reader, was that the writer of the article really wanted to make the point that individuals who believe in the paranormal are rubes; an act of pseudo-intellectual elitism that served no good purpose at all.
Nearly every culture on Earth embraces some sort of belief system about the afterlife; why is this so? My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that no matter how technologically advanced we become, no matter how much science advances our understanding of the Universe and our place within it, no one as yet has been able to answer the biggest of all questions: Where do we go when we die? I think the question for most people is so staggering, so terrifying, that the average mind can’t comprehend the notion of our consciousness simply ceasing to exist. I certainly can’t, and believe me, I’ve tried. Or is it all just a matter of ego – is it a way of saying, “Hey, it’s ME we’re talking about here. I simply can’t accept the fact that when I die, that’s the end of the story.” Unable to accept the idea that the world keeps turning without them, many people need to believe that there is something amazing, something special, that was built just for them to ride out eternity.
So we create afterlife archetypes that conform to our particular sets of sensibilities, primarily that good people go on to a place full of happiness and joy, where they can spend eternity with all the people they loved on Earth, and the bad people move on to eternal punishment in the burning lake of fire, or something equally nasty. Is it possible that the ideas of Heaven and Hell are natural, physical constructs? It’s highly doubtful; history has proven time and again that good and evil are often highly subjective views of morality, and that nature rarely, if ever, makes a judgment call based on the moral qualities of an individual’s personality.
I believe that we, as humans, build our own ideas of existence beyond death from the twin factors of fear and justice. Not knowing what happens after we leave this physical realm, we still attempt to control our destinies and in this attempt, we create afterlives we can accept, that make sense to us. Also, we all want to be rewarded and remembered for the good things we have done, but we also desire that the guilty be punished, if only for the fact that by comparison, we look that much better. Never underestimate the power of humans to sandbag the next guy, especially when the possibility of eternal damnation is at stake.
And then there’s ghosts. The world in which we live is often a difficult and dangerous one; it can also seem quite unfair although that is again assuming that nature understands or even cares about the complexities of fair and unfair, of right and wrong. Many people die before we believe it is their time, and many good people often die in horrible and senseless ways; conversely, lots of truly awful people live long lives. In our uniquely human sense of cosmic justice, is it unreasonable to think that for those people, their earthly journey is not quite over? Not really. As moral creatures, we by nature feel that every person’s life has to have meaning and purpose and we are not very adept at accepting the idea that sometimes bad things just happen. I think that for many of us, it is more comforting to believe that the person who was taken by bad circumstance has been able to linger and exact some sort of spiritual revenge on those who were responsible for their misery, or even that since it wasn’t their time, they have nowhere to go and are stuck here on Earth in some sort of limbo. We take comfort in the idea that those who have left us are still around, that they’re watching over us or guiding us from beyond, that they miss us and still think about us.
It has been suggested that some ghosts and hauntings are the manifestation of guilt and anxiety; in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, the story’s protagonist is not taunted by the person he murdered; rather, it is his guilt for the murder that haunts him and eats away at his sanity until he confesses his crime. Perhaps the only thing that is truly haunted is the mind and imagination of the individual who experiences the phenomena. If enough people are empathetic to the idea of the spiritual manifestation of the dead, particularly in a place where one could logically conclude that many people died horrible and unnatural deaths (battlefields, prisons, hospitals, sanitariums, mental institutions, etc.), it is entirely possible that there may exist a sort of shared psychological experience. However, this idea is by no means all-encompassing when attempting to explain the widespread reports and experiences of such phenomena.
Studies have indicated that people who are inclined to believe in ghosts stand a better chance of encountering one than people who don’t believe and if a person visits a location that is known for paranormal activity, then they already have a set of preconceived expectations before they even enter the area. Many years ago, I spent a summer working at a toy store in Northern California that had achieved a large amount of notoriety for having been haunted and in knowing this, I experienced a number of events that I immediately ascribed to the ghost which was said to be in residence. However, my mindset was not entirely objective: I like to believe that spirits do exist and since I was already aware of the alleged haunting, I was predisposed to believe that anything weird that happened was automatically due to the ghost and nothing more conventionally explainable.
And now, ghosts are big money: several cable networks run documentary series that show paranormal investigators plying their trade in places that, as previously mentioned, should be rife with paranormal activity. These shows run the gamut from earnestly sincere to the downright goofy, and I’m sure each have their devoted followers. That said, we faithfully watch them all, week after week, in hope of that one piece of evidence that will answer the question, once and for all. Maybe next week.
Many towns, at least the more touristy ones, offer local ‘ghost tours’ which, depending on the area, can be sort of fun, in a kitsch way, and you might even learn some history. As for ghostly encounters…individual results may vary. The demand for otherworldly thrills has also impacted the venerable Winchester Mystery House; again, in my early days, I worked briefly as a tour guide at the house. In those days, we were strictly forbidden to even suggest that  there might be spooks about; however, the attitude seems to have changed, because now the house hosts midnight tours, seances, and proudly proclaims itself to be haunted. And maybe it is, but I never experienced anything more than a freezing, drafty old house in San Jose in February.
Whatever the case, the chances are strong that we will probably never really know the answer of what happens until we actually die and so far, no one has come back to tell us about it. Harry Houdini, arguably the greatest illusionist and skeptic there ever was, on his deathbed, promised to make a spiritual return if it was at all possible, to prove once and for all if there is existence beyond our physical world, and this is a man who made passionate sport of exposing and debunking mediums, spiritualists, and cold readers.
For the sake of transparency, my wife and I live in a house where things happen, and the community in which we live is next door to a large Catholic cemetery. We have each been grabbed or touched, shadows have passed in front of light sources, unseen weights have settled down on our bed at night, and we often hear footsteps – heavy, human, footsteps. Something plays with one of our cats, in much the way that a child would. We had a team of paranormal investigators visit our home for two overnight sessions, and they produced evidence that can’t be readily explained away. One evening, the team dropped by to go over evidence from the weekend’s investigation, and during that conversation, footsteps directly overhead resulted in an impromptu investigation.
So, here we are, at the end of this, and I have no answers. The skeptic in me says that every bit of evidence has to be rigorously examined, while the believer in me wants to, well, believe. If you’ve read this far, thank you. I’m sorry to have left this unresolved, but perhaps in the next life we’ll see a conclusion to the story.