My wife and I are arguing over the amount of books in our house. She says it stresses her out that there are stacks of my books piled into every corner of our duplex.
I ask if it would make her feel better if all of my books were placed on the built-in bookcase in the back of the house.
She reminds me that the back bookcase is already overflowing, some shelves being two books deep, others having stacks of books on top of the books lining the shelves.
We start boxing up some books and DVDs to sell at the McKay in Nashville. I hope this will alleviate her stress, but then she asks what we’ll buy with the store credit I’ll inevitably insist upon in exchange for my prized books.
We can get whatever you want, I tell her.
All I want are books and things for the baby, she tells me. Then she concedes we’ve already developed a pretty great book collection for him.
Finally, something we can agree upon with regards to books. Our son is not even six months old and he has an entire shelf of board books and even more picture books. My wife and I have also prided ourselves on our discerning taste, returning or selling books like Chamelia and Skippyjon Jones with problematic messages. Plus, in our state all newborns are eligible for the Imagination Library, so our son’s book collection grows by at least one book every month.
My wife and I come from impassioned reading stock. My mother bought me tons of books (some of which are now on my son’s aforementioned shelves) and my mother-in-law was a preschool teacher for years. I’m certain ya’ll can see why we want to pass on the joy of reading to our kid.
Daddy Cool is “an anthology of writing by fathers for and about kids.” It’s an idea that is intoxicating to Gen X and Y parents—the hip dad, the cool dad, the dad who shares an interest with his children. In many ways it’s a direct backlash to how their boomer parents treated them.
I can certainly relate. I spend far too much time agonizing over which book to read my son at bedtime (it’s not like he cares). I also am on the hunt for books to share with him that match my same literary tastes, which is why when I learned about Daddy Cool I was very excited, especially because it’s edited by Ben Tanzer, who is a shining star in both the dad writer and indie writer circles.
Tanzer’s introduction to the anthology is heartrending, too. He begins his introduction by discussing how he intended to begin his introduction:
I imagine I would have gone on to say something about the profound impact of reading to your child, telling stories, bonding, and brain development, and how as a writer anything I might say about any of this can only be magniﬁed, or maybe it’s illuminated, though regardless, I would have said something about just how cool this project is, because we are about words and narrative and immersing ourselves in the stories of our lives.
But what Tanzer winds up doing is even more important than stressing our future’s need to love reading. Tanzer writes about his dad, how he read to Tanzer and his brother as children, how he frequented the library, how he made Tanzer the writer that he is today, and how now that he’s gone, Tanzer thinks about his dad, especially when working on projects like the Daddy Cool anthology. It’s this sort of honest pathos that draws me into a book.
March 14th, 2014 / 11:00 am
Black Candies: See Through: A Journal of Literary Horror
Edited by Ryan Bradford and Jay Wertzler
SSWA Press, 2013
141 pages / $13 Buy from So Say We All
The 1978 John Carpenter film Halloween opens with the camera serving as the viewpoint of a child. The audience watches the boy spy on his sister from an outside window, then put on a clown mask, pick up a meat cleaver, and climb the stairs. We, as the audience, then see from (who we learn later to be) a young Michael Meyers’s perspective as he surveys his topless sister and then proceeds to stab her.
There is little to no blood in this iconic murder scene. In fact, the only real blood is a relatively small dab on the knife as Myers stands in his clown costume on the front lawn awaiting his parents in the following shot. And yet, this is one of the tensest scenes in the movie as it blends a creepy synthesized score, eerie lighting, and that mask over the camera effect to create an unnerving sequence. What’s particularly intriguing about Halloween is that this scene of the film has so little outright gore more because of a shoe string budget and restrictions with child actors than for any consideration of taste or propriety.
Those who are familiar with the rest of the Halloween franchise know that only Carpenter’s original pulls off the lack of blood effectively. In fact the rest of the series, especially the Rob Zombie reboot of 2007, amps up the blood by the gallon—mainly because they lack Carpenter’s subtle, directorial hand.
There is a proliferation of gore in horror film franchises. Compare, for example, the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which does begin the film with disinterred corpses and uses a shot of the actress Marilyn Burns really being cut by Gunnar Hansen, but never explicitly shows anything much worse to later iterations. Rather, in the 1974 film, Tobe Hooper only suggests girls being impaled by meat hooks with close up shots of dangling feet and a squishing sound effect or being chopped up with the eponymous piece of hardware. However, later iterations of the film, especially the 2013 3D extravaganza that features the same hook scene with the hook pointing out the other side of hapless Kenny’s gut followed by a slow grinding in half via chainsaw thanks to Leatherface added, add far more gore, but at the cost of the plot and ambience of the films.
Wes Craven’s 1977 The Hills Have Eyes is one of my favorite of the late 70s New Horror films because it depicts a stranded family beset upon by inbred hill people. There is little to no suggestion that these folk eat baby flesh for any other reason than because they are crazy, and the final scene in which the father takes his revenge on the clan leader with a knife repeatedly to his chest is par excellence, but this was all undone with the 2006 remake which replaced Michael Berryman with giant radioactive horrors with oozing tumescence.
In many ways, horror fiction is subject to these same issues. Zombie novels and backwoods killers are all depicted with such heavy-handedness. Black Candies, on the other hand, is a journal of literary horror which strives to feature horror fiction that features a little more panache. It’s a relief to see a journal trying to push for quality horror writing, especially writing from women (who are woefully underrepresented in the genre at large). As a result of these efforts, the very best selections in the most recent issue (with all selections reacting to the theme “See Through” ) operate under the same principle as the best horror films of the seventies—that less is more.
In “I’m Pogo,” Lindsay Hunter uses the reader’s previous knowledge of John Wayne Gacy and the touchstones of pedophile clowns spawned by his crimes to build dread. There’s no outright violence in her story, rather repeated phrases like “tourniquet, tourniquet …” and sentences like “You know, tremblefleshed wifebound line cooks jailed for sodomy learn quick how not to be jailed the next time. The word is pederast.” In many ways, this is more terrifying for her readers than a direct description of pedophiliac rape.
Jac Jemc’s story “Angles” also builds upon haunted house tropes, but uses the affectless phrasing, “maybe it was the neighbor children who rang the doorbell that night or maybe it was just some faulty wiring or maybe the faint ring we heard was something else entirely: a thing we would only recognize later,” which increases in intensity as the story progresses as the narrator later says, “maybe I find a body and it’s hard as diamonds or maybe I find the body and it’s just a pile of soft bones and teeth or maybe it’s a body whose nails have screamed themselves free of absent fingers. What will a rat eat first?” The story becomes scary more because of the narrator’s refusal to acknowledge the strange goings on rather than because of actual ghosts or guts.
In other stories Aaron Burch uses the familiar frustrations of hotel life to depict a man driven too far by a dog, and Ken Bauman’s “Lathe” meditates on the real-life horror that is surviving the death of loved ones to make something chilling and beautiful.
Not all mainstream horror is heavy-handed. Ti West’s contribution to the film V/H/S is one of my favorite recent horror movies and Joe Hill and Benjamin Percy are frequently producing quality horror novels and short fiction, but the best of the best of the genre remains see through to the general public. Maybe this is because, on a base level, audiences don’t actually want to be scared. They just need something to watch on a date which encourages squeezing hands and not much further thought. Mainstream horror is populated by zombies, maniacs, and sharktopi which require little headspace—they’re spooky, but they don’t affect people in the real world, whereas literary horror inhabits the subtle, everyday terror that pervades people’s lives. After all, the scariest horror is that which we cannot see. In “This is a Ghost Story,” a ghost asks the narrator of Juliet Escoria’s story “What are you so afraid of?” She responds “Everything, … it’s everything in this world that scares me…”
Quincy Rhoads teaches English composition at Austin Peay State University. He lives in Clarksville, TN with his wife and their son. His writing has been featured online in Everyday Genius, The Fiddleback, and Unicorn Knife Fight.
December 30th, 2013 / 11:00 am
Proving Nothing to Anyone
by Matt Cook
Publishing Genius Press, July 2013
86 pages / $13.95 Buy from Publishing Genius
Matt Cook’s newest collection of poetry opens with a telephone call: “The dry cleaner calls up and says he’s taking responsibility for my pants.” This line comes across as particularly mundane, even unpoetic, but starting a poem like you’d start a conversation has a long literary history. Back in 1959 Frank O’Hara wrote a whole manifesto about writing poetry this way. Of course, O’Hara was not entirely serious when he wrote “Personism: A Manifesto,” but the concept of directly placing the poem “Lucky Pierre style” between the poet and the reader has had a lasting impression on American poetics and Matt Cook’s Proving Nothing to Anyone reflects this pedigree.
Much like the poetry of Frank O’Hara, the poetry in Matt Cook’s Proving Nothing to Anyone has an air of artlessness to it, but this is a carefully calculated and constructed facade. Frank O’Hara’s work, especially poems like ”The Day Lady Died” are line after line of the banal, which abruptly shifts to the significant, creating a sense of the poetic sublime. The best of Cook’s poems are doing a similar thing. Take Cook’s “The Emotional Center” as an example. It starts off with the lines “Don’t mess with me right now, I’m all stirred up with emotion, man. / I’m in a rage right now because I can’t find my car keys” and continues to describe all the annoyances of life which are piling upon the speaker of the poem. The poem ends with this great description of anxiety:
And you’ve got all these emotional condiments,
And you take one bite and all this emotion oozes everywhere,
And you’ve got emotion running down your chin and your arm. …
Even though the words seem off the cuff, the perceptiveness of the lines really strikes the reader. The poetry in this collection reads as if Cook is on the other end of the telephone, or Gchat, or whatever popular means of communication is the equivalent of Frank O’Hara’s telephone analogy, and what Matt Cook has to say is really deep just as all 2 AM conversations have some element of deep importance beneath all the talk of bars and television.
July 5th, 2013 / 11:00 am