Terror Destroys a Small Town

‘Salem’s Lot

By Stephen King

Ever wonder what Bram Stoker would make of the industry that has sprung from his groundbreaking 1897 Dracula? Though not the first vampire novel, it proved to be the one that launched hundreds of sharp-fanged anti-heroes. It’s an industry and a character writers, film studios, and television have worked practically to death. Yet, we never seem to tire of the Count and his brethren.

Which brings us to Stephen King, the writer most will acknowledge as the modern master among masters of horror and the macabre. For his second outing, he chose vampires in a small Maine town, and readers, even now, are the luckier for it. You can say this about most of King’s early works, Carrie, The Shining, and The Stand (first half): it’s a masterwork of terror.

What makes ‘Salem’s Lot, as well as these others so appealing, appealing enough to read a second time years after your first reading? It boils down to small town life, ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, clear writing, terrific pacing (at least in these early novels), and powerful, literal descriptions. King puts you in the situation and the action and because his characters are much like his readers, you can easily project yourself onto the pages. In short, he’s completely relatable.

You’ll find no better work among his pile of writing illustrating King’s strengths. Could there be a more representative American small town than the Lot? Don’t many small towns have a sinister house occupied, or once home to, the town curmudgeon (not a killer, for sure, but scary, especially in the eyes of children). The Lot has a rhythm to it, a way of living that stretches back years, a dull sameness that locals like and set their emotional clock by. Like any town, though, it’s not perfect bliss, or even close to blissful. It’s relatively poor. It’s filled with its share of misfits. It even has a town dump that many who grew up in small towns will recognize. Above all, everybody knows everybody else, maybe a virtue but which contributes to its succumbing to evil.

Even Ben Mears is a small town boy. He’s published a couple of books, true, but hasn’t achieved any kind of fame and no fortune. He returns to his roots to face a fear that has haunted him, and to get a really good book out of the experience. That fear resides in the old, abandoned Marsten House stilling atop a hill overlooking the Lot. Horrible things happened there long ago, long before when Ben was a boy.

Ben gets more than he bargained for. He gets his greatest fear multiplied a hundredfold in the form of Barlow, an ancient vampire come to establish residence in the Lot coincidental with Ben’s arrival. Poor Ben loses so much: a new love in the form of tragic Susan, new friends in the forms of Matt the high school teacher and Jim the doctor, the new novel he’s written deeply into, and most of all, any comfort and joy in living. Yet, with young Mark at his side, he does gain a new and pretty meaningful purpose in life as one who now can see behind the curtain of quotidian life, like that that the Lot enjoyed before Barlow’s arrival.

There’s one other characteristic of King’s writing that unfortunately ‘Salem’s Lot doesn’t have: stunningly memorable characters, among them religious lunatic Margaret White, rabid fan Annie Wilkes, pyromaniac “Trashcan Man,” the list is long. Vampire master Barlow could have been such a character, ancient, big, nasty, egotistical, and above all, wonderfully bombastic. It isn’t often said about novels, but ‘Salem’s Lot would have benefited immensely from deep background on Barlow. Nonetheless, ‘Salem’s Lot is still a heck of a powerful horror yarn. w/c

The Price of Waking a Sleeping Dog

Down There (aka Shoot the Piano Player) 1956

By David Goodis

File this classic noir tale, made all the more famous by François Truffaut’s retitled 1960 film adaptation Shoot the Piano Player, under “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.” As Goodis’ very dark novel illustrates, they might yawn and lick you, or, more likely in noir land, they might be wounded by the past and explode to engulf you in violence that tears your world apart.

Eddie Lynn earns his meager keep by scratching out tunes on a beat up upright in Harriet’s Hut, a dive bar in the seedy part of Philadelphia. He a quiet man in worn clothes who comes across as milquetoast. He’s tightly scribed his existence in a  tiny circle of playing, lying in his room, and occasionally paying Clarice for a bit of sex. So divorced from the world is he, he’s not aware that a young, attractive waitress, Lena, has her eye on his.

Then Turley shows up battered and a little disoriented and urges Eddie to help him. Eddie hasn’t laid eyes on Turley, or his other older brother Clifton, nor his parents, or their modest homestead in the dark woods of south Jersey in nearly a decade. Turley and Clifton have been involved in a caper that has gone seriously wrong. Two gunsels, described as real professionals, are after him and he needs to get away fast. Eddie doesn’t want any part of the action but fate dictates otherwise. The pros turn up at the bar and in the first of many violent outbursts in the book, Eddie enables Turley’s escape. Now, however, Eddie is a marked man who himself must avoid and eventually flee the gunmen.

Unfortunately for Eddie, the affair awakens his senses, especially to Lena, who helps him, and to whom he begins to become attached. He sufferers internal conflict, in fact the core of the book is about his constant internal struggle to not love again, to hide his true identity, to keep clear of his notorious brothers, all of which bubble to the surface and help readers understand the real Eddie.

Debate himself as much as he will, he can’t suppress his growing feelings for Lena, and can’t keep his previous life, love, and agony over causing his young wife’s death bottled up. It sort of replays itself when the bouncer, who is also Harriet’s husband and an ex-wrestler known as the Harleyville Hugger (specialty: bear hugging an opponent into submission) tries to take liberties with Lena. A brutal and exhausting fight ensues between him and Eddie, when Eddie defends her. It results in the stabbing death of Hugger.

Now Eddie with the aid of Lena, for whom he finally concedes his growing affection, has to lam out of Philly to the one place he’s certain nobody will find him, the family house in Jersey. Naturally, this being noir and ultimately nihilistic at heart, complete disaster engulfs every character in the novel, until Eddie reins in his emotional monster, and the novel ends on these notes: “He opened his eyes. He saw his fingers caressing the keyboard.”

Modern readers will probably find the dialogue somewhat stilted and anachronistic and Eddie’s motivations a bit overwrought, but Goodis more than makes up for these with his word pictures of a dark, brutal world, and the idea of a guy who just wants to be left alone to stew in his misfortune and, most important, not to care and love again to only enviably hurt the one loved and himself again.

As mentioned, François Truffaut brought this novel to the screen in his French classic Shoot the Piano Player. Here’s the trailer for those interested. w/c  

A Sophisticated Sociopath on a Rampage

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)

By Patricia Highsmith

Psychological thrillers don’t get much better than this. Patricia Highsmith plants you deep within the brain of American sociopath Tom Ripley as he deceives one person after another, assumes the life of a young man he envies, and lashes out murderously to achieve his ends. Even today, more than sixty years after its first printing, with truckloads of psychological crime novels featuring psychos carted of to the remainder bins, and a swamp of crime movies and television shows spilling from our screens, this still stands out as an achievement of perfectly blending literary and hard-edged noir.

Succinctly, Tom Ripley is a young man in his mid-twenties existing in New York City. He really can’t do anything, doesn’t own anything, rooms with friends, and engages in petty forgery and scamming, not to make money but to amuse himself. As he says, he is very disappointed in his life and what he has made of it. Then his life changes. Mr. Herbert Greenleaf approaches him thinking him a close friend of his son, Dickie. Dickie has been taking an extended vacation in Italy trying his hand at painting, when his father needs and wants him back home in the family boat building business. Would Tom, all expenses paid, of course, sail to Italy and persuade Dickie to return home?

Tom connects with Dickie in short order and methodically befriends him. What Tom admires most about Dickie is his smooth approach to life, his nice manner, fueled, naturally, by lots of money. In a letter to Dickie, that is, Tom as Dickie, Marge Sherwood, Dickie’s wannabe girlfriend, writes of Tom, “He’s just a nothing ,,,” Perfect, as Tom is a blank canvas awaiting paint, and Dickie is the paint. Tom hatches a plan, really sort of a scatterbrained plan that feels almost spontaneous, to kill Dickie, which he does. Then the adventure truly begins as Tom dodges, weaves, and deceives (the police, Marge, Mr. Greenleaf, and Dickie’s friends) his way around Italy, subsuming Dickie into the very core of his being. So perfectly does he do this that later in the novel he begins to believe he has a talent for painting and an appreciation of art. And no secret here, as you probably know the Ripley story turned into a five-novel series, he gets away with it.

Highsmith’s Ripley is a brilliant creation. He’s at various times a knockabout, a petulant child, a hedonist, a terrorized boy, a self-doubter, an explosive killer, a conniver, and a man unable to understand or even define his own identity. Paramount, though, above all, he thinks of only one person, only what’s good for Tom Ripley. Striping away Highsmith’s literary polishing, he sounds quite despicable. Yet, credit to Highsmith, you find yourself liking him, hoping, too, that his bobbing will succeed. Forget that you know, like all sociopaths, he doesn’t experience emotion but mimics it. Pay attention to Highsmith’s sentences and descriptions, the declarative style she employs here; you’ll see how it helps us feel Tom’s coolness, his emotional void.

Even her plotting captures the essence of Tom, his lackadaisical ambling approach to life, by giving us the impression stuff just happens. A situation presents itself and Tom improvises on the spot. So we readers feel like we’re just skipping from situation to situation, almost as if Highsmith is making it up as she goes, perhaps chortling at each twist.

A must read for everybody who loves their psychological fiction on the highest order. And after reading it, you might enjoy seeing how Hollywood realized it on the silver screen with a stellar cast. w/c

Who Killed the Boyfriend?

I Married a Dead Man (1948)

By Cornell Woolrich (as William Irish)

While you may not recognize the name Frank Stockton, you surely know his short story “The Lady or the Tiger?” You the reader are left to decide if the woman or the tiger exits the door at the end. And so with Woolrich’s twisting and turning noir classic, who done in the dastardly ex-boyfriend, husband or wife? This really gives nothing away as you know from the outset that somebody is dead and two people, a couple, wonder which of the two brought him to his well deserved end.

What makes Woolrich’s novel so interesting, so propulsive, is how he introduces plot twist after plot twist at just the right moment, each time pushing you forward to the end when you confront that Stockton-ish question.

After a prologue in which a married couple with a child do a tortured dance around a horror they share, the story opens at the beginning, when Helen is a young woman, around nineteen, fleeing the city. Her boyfriend has left her pregnant and with five dollars (about fifty dollars these days). She buys a train ticket and on the train meets a young, very much in love couple, Patrice and Hugh Hazzard, returning home from Europe, where they have lived for some time. Like Helen, Patrice is pregnant, but unlike her, Patrice has a husband, apparently money, a family to go to, everything Helen lacks. They strike up a train friendship and share the bathroom before retiring. Helen even tries on Patrice’s wedding ring. Then the train crashes, Helen lands in the hospital. There authorities mistake her for Patrice (that ring, you know), who, along with Hugh, has died in the accident.

What to do? Out of desperation, she assumes the identity of Patrice and goes home to the Hazzard family, painted by Woolrich as an ideal family in an ideal house in an ideal town, all Helen never had and always dreamed of. They accept her and the baby as their daughter-in-law. All proceeds swimmingly, until the old boyfriend turns up. How he learns about her new life, how she avoids detection, how she finally frees herself, what happens with Hugh’s brother, Bill, all this Woolrich handles craftily to create suspense and the novel’s driving force.

And then, in the end, there’s the question that tears at Patrice and Bill, the one which Woolrich leaves you to answer for yourself. Frank Stockton must have smiled down on that (he died in 1902).

Turned into a film, as many noir novels were, in 1950 starring Barbara Stanwyck and retitled No Man of Her Own. w/c

Hardscrabble Crime in West Texas, 1937

Thieves Like Us (1937)

By Edward Anderson

Among the most glamorized and followed criminals of the Great Depression were bank robbers. How people might have found anything admirable in these people—among them Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, a sprinkling of the better known bandits—should be no surprise to those who experienced the Great Recession. As Anderson’s Bowie Bowers observes, “Them capitalist fellows are thieves like us….They rob widows and orphans.” If you find yourself nodding in agreement with Bowie then you’ll want to join him, his young girlfriend Keechie and his brothers in crime T-Dub and Chicamaw as they pull off a series of successful bank robberies, battle the “Laws,” and traverse west Texas of the 1930s.

Like many, if not most, of noir crime fiction of the period, the nihilism of the characters and plot are nearly palpable from the first pages of Thieves Like Us. These outlaws regard themselves as a unique band of brothers, an A-team of thieves like none other. At the same time, they continually express the idea their robbery proceeds are a stake on a settled life of little care. Of course, the next job lures them, like the Sirens leading ancient sailors onto the shoals. And here the old saying, “No honor among thieves,” bears no weight as these fellows, particularly Bowie, prove themselves to be a loyal bunch to each other. Irony abounds in this notion, as loyalty leads to some pretty bad outcomes for these guys.

Within Anderson’s tale of life on adrenaline and thievery, readers will discover a love story, that between Bowie and Keechie. With Keechie beside him, Bowie manages to breakaway from the gang for a while. He and Keechie set up housekeeping in the hills of west Texas and New Orleans, fleeing when locals seem too suspicious of them, neither realizing that they are the subject of regular newspaper features, much like Bonnie and Clyde, but also because Bowie can’t help acting out his aggression in even trivial confrontations; Anderson strikes a fine balance of innocence and viciousness in his Bowie.

Naturally, in period fiction as this, and especially in one heavily intertwined with fatalism, things can’t be expected to workout for the best, at least not best for characters like Bowie and Keechie. How the wheels come off the getaway car is left for readers to discover for themselves.

Notable for the way Anderson’s story rings with veracity (he based his novel on an interview with his cousin, Roy Johnson, who was serving a life sentence for armed robbery) and the effective use of argot, now pretty much extinct, which proves transportive. 

There have been a couple of film adaptations. Here are the opening couple of minutes of the 1948 version They Live By Night, and the trailer for Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us 1974 adaptation.

American Crime Series: Slavery Today

Season Three of the ABC series American Crime premiered on March 12. This season shines a spotlight on indentured servitude, essentially slavery, in the U.S. agricultural industry. So, what better time to take another look at a book recommended last May. While the idea at first may seem farfetched (what? slavery here?), it is anything but, as the reference in the opening paragraphs of the review show; it couldn’t realer. 

Delicious Foods

By James Hannaham

Every once in a while when sitting down to dinner, perhaps you wonder idly where your veggies and fruits come from, maybe even who grows and picks them for you. Even under the best of circumstances picking and packing crops is hard work. But who would believe slave laborers pick and pack our food? Overworked, underpaid, yes, but not virtual slaves, right?

Yet, while not the norm, slave labor does exist in the USA. Don’t believe it? Google Jewel Goodman, Tampa Bay Times, and read about near slavery of the type James Hannaham uses as a focal point of his powerful and fast-paced novel of people in desperate poverty and in the throes of crack cocaine addiction. As the story reports, “Goodman is one of more than 1,000 slaves who have gained freedom in Florida since 1997.” The thrust being: Delicious Foods is less the product of wild imagination than even wilder and sadder reality for too many.

We meet Eddie in flight, on his way to Minnesota, driving a car, steering with his forehead and arms, as where once he had hands, now are phantoms and bloody stumps. We see how he overcomes and establishes himself as the “Handyman Without Hands,” and then how his predicament came about.

Scotty tells the bulk of the sorry. He, or it, turns out to be quite a novel narrative device, for readers will be hard pressed to think of a novel narrated by crack cocaine. It’s through his smokey, quelling, and even at times humorous vernacular that readers learn about Darlene, Eddie’s mother.

Darlene, once a happy college girl, wife of a college basketball star and later civil rights activist, has been reduced, through guilt and hopeless, to a street hooker, answering to the siren call of escapism preached by Scotty. Fleeing her past, enraptured by her addiction, she falls prey to the promises of a better life offered by representatives of Delicious Foods. Once in their grasp, they encumber and shackle her, from the very first moments, in financial servitude.

For the majority of  time, the novel centers on Darlene’s years at Delicious Foods. She lives in deplorably filthy conditions, subsists on what most would regard as not even good enough to be garbage, works long, hard hours under the harshest conditions and abusive supervision, torments herself over her false belief she caused the death of her husband, longs for her son Eddie, dreams of escaping, and mellows all her emotional and physical suffering into the background with the help of her companion, the always available Scotty. It’s her entire servitude to Delicious Foods that readers might think fiction but which, to some degree, is reality for many, and sets you to wondering, “How much pain is in the produce section of the supermarket?”

The story reconnects with Eddie, a young teen, when he finds his mother and ends up working years beside her on the farm. It’s only his intrepidness, combined with a handful of other determined characters, and a newsman with a nose for exposé, that springs them free of Delicious Foods’ grasp, but at the cost of Eddie’s hands and his relationship with his mother.

However, readers should not fear a grim ending, as Hannaham brings his tale to a close on a note of hope and redemption regarding Darlene and Eddie, though for some readers this may push the bounds of credulity understanding the tight clutch of Scotty. w/c

Pulp Fiction Redux #5: Horace McCoy

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935)

By Horace McCoy 

When your world falls down around you, when most of everything you believed true proves false, as happened to many in the Great Depression, then the entire idea of existence, of your existence can go from optimistic to hopeless, from rational (or at least somewhat rational) to completely absurd, in the sense of meaningless. With this in mind, you have a reasonable framework for understanding why Robert Syverten stands before a judge receiving his death sentence for the murder of Gloria Beatty. Here you have the bright eternal optimist, Robert, dancing with the ground-down pessimist, Gloria, both isolated in a ring of absurdity, the marathon dance ring (popular entertainment in the 1920s and 1930s).

Robert and Gloria meet by accident at a movie studio, where both have failed to land jobs as extras. Gloria persuades Robert, who is as down and out as she, to partner with her in a dance marathon down on a pier in Los Angeles. As the two get to know each other over the course of the five weeks they dance and walk together, readers learn about their lives.

Robert’s a farm boy who came to L.A. to become a director, a wildly optimistic pursuit as he has no training or film experience. However, he is stubbornly hopeful, always trying to look on the bright side of life.

Robert could not have found a more polar opposite to himself than Gloria if he had tried. She sees only the darkness in the world and openly and often tells him she wishes she were dead, that she would die, that once she had tried killing herself. Her parents are dead; she fled her relatives in West Texas, where her uncle attempted sexually abusing her. In addition, she is argumentative and pugnacious, calling for a married pregnant contestant to get an abortion, while herself having sex with one of the promoters to advance her chances of winning.

For five weeks, they live and dance in the confines of the dance hall. The audiences build and cheer them on, attracted by the promise of drama on the floor. Couples, pushed to and beyond their limits in derbies (extended periods of racing to avoid elimination), collapse, arguments and fights breakout, and, in the end, a fatal shooting (not Robert and Gloria’s) take place, ending the competition abruptly.

In other words, the pair, and the other contestants, exist in a pressure cooker of frustration, false hope, and fear of elimination and a return to an ever rougher, more unforgiving world. It’s enough to wear even an optimist like Robert to the nub, to the point where even the absurd seems reasonable. And the ultimate of that, Robert becoming the agent helping Gloria exit her dismal world of pain. Then accounting for his action with a remembrance of how his grandfather dispatched an injured horse they both loved, saying, “They shoot horses, don’t they?” By extension, why should suffering humans be treated any differently and allowed to linger and suffer?

Notable for transforming an otherwise inexplicable murder into an excursion into philosophical nihilism.

Adapted for the screen in 1969, starring Jane Fonda as Gloria and Michael Sarrazin as Robert.  Nominated for nine Academy Awards, as well as numerous other awards. w/c