Eagles & Princes & Yellow Pages

Fall is approaching. Time to dig in with horror movies and funky-weird goth punk music.

“He made me important.” – Robert De Loungville, Rise of a Merchant Prince 

I snatched up some Raymond Feist novels form my brother to re-read. I’ve been so immersed in work recently and besides the crime fiction I have around (I’ve been doing a bit of an incompletely and unofficial Elmore Leonard re-read as I worked on something about him for The Means At Hand) that I wanted something comforting, and Rise of a Merchant Prince was one of those re-reads. The pages are slowly yellowing, the paperback still in good shape, but definitely showing its age and its use from re-reads.

This scene, where (spoilers I guess) drill sergeant of the Crimson Eagles, “Bobby” De Loungville, lies dying in his protege Eric’s arms in an ice cave on a foreign continent, his lungs pierced by a broken rib. All the character can do is declare the importance of their leader, who lies burned and injured himself, the man who started the Crimson Eagles army, Calis the half-elf. It’s a bit meant to illustrate the character Calis as being vital to the mission and to the overall story of the books, but also, to me, what makes it so emotional is that it’s an illustration of the importance he had to these other characters. It’s an expression by De Loungville about just what Calis means to him. He raised him up from lowly soldier about to be hung into a man with responsibilities, with duties, with others who looked up to him for guidance. De Loungville was living before, but now, he had a life.

It’s an incredible way to express platonic adoration and relationships, in that small way that we never expect to hit us so hard when we read about relationships between men. It’s an honest admission of the root of friendship, devotion, and love, and it’s so painful to watch someone dying (even in fiction) thinking only of someone else, the man who means everything to him, because he gave his life purpose.

I love this scene. It makes me tear up every time.

I’ve been finding a lot of good nonfiction to read online actually, which feels rare;

I’m sure there’s lots of good nonfiction out there, it might just honestly be I’m tired of the same six or so I re-read a lot because I teach them. This latest batch is refreshing and I might incorporate them into what I assign.

The piece I mentioned above about Elmore Leonard went up at The Means At Hand and I’m proud of how it came out, and I’m also excited about both what I’m working on for Patreon as well as a possible other fiction thing. More on that as I get closer to an idea of where it’s going.

I’m trying to get writing done even with a bunch of teaching and grading, but I’m trying had to keep the balance as well as maintain some personal sense and personal space for movies and time with my loved ones. I keep meaning to do a list of all the movies we’ve been watching and rewatching, but I’m trying to watch more movies and less TV so we’ll see how that goes.

Kim Shattuck of the Muffs passed away and in a just and righteous world, the Muffs could have been and should have been bigger than Green Day.

So I guess it’s National Poetry Day, whatever that means, go read some poetry. That’s it for now kids, I’ll be seeing you around.

“A sword rang as it was drawn. ‘Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.'” – JRR Tolkien

 

Innings & Spinner Racks

I love baseball, but I love it in a weird way. I don’t actually know a lot about the math of it, of statistics and sabernomics. My history on it is spotty at best sometimes, beyond what I like and what really sticks out for unusualness and morbidity. But I love it nonetheless, because I love going to games and watching games, listening to people talk about it, reading about it, and I love that it’s one of the things that I have to share with my father. It’s an impulse we’re drawn to and we automatically follow if the game is on TV or the radio. We don’t have much in common honestly, but of the few things we do is baseball.

The other is reading.

Genre fiction is one of my other major loves, in particular detective-slash-crime mysteries. I read voraciously as a small child, jumping as soon as I could to my parents’ straight-to-paperback novels about cops and private eyes, about mobsters and deep conspiracies unraveled by reporters and hapless civilians. They were his books for the most part, retrieved from the bookshelf in my parents’ room on his side of the bed, and I ate them up. I still eat them up, the discovery of a mystery-themed bookstore by one of he schools I teach at is a delight that made my day.

It’s hard sometimes to describe why I like these books sometimes, why I can be so obsessive about this genre that in a lot of ways can feel incredibly limited. It’s hard to describe how that can be the appeal of it, how it’s amazing to watch this very classic framework that ebbs and flows with suspense and comfort, that can be a slow burn with small but amazingly-important moments of fast loud burns and bursts, where you can’t blink for fear of missing something, where you have to go back and just revel in the amazingness of what just happened.

It’s just like baseball, right?

I have a hard time explaining why I love baseball, because to most people, it’s also seen as boring and stale, as conventional and limited, just like mystery novels. It’s so hard sometimes to explain to people how engrossing the strategy of it can be, how I’m on the edge of my seat for so long and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it aspect forces me to actively pay attention to every bit of motion on the field.

While it sounds intensely cliché at this point, I was an odd child more interested in reading and loud music and being alone and contemplative, making me shy and overthinking teenager with zero interest in traditionally masculine things like sports. I leaned more on my mother for emotional support, not really understanding my dad’s seemingly-simplistic and stripped-down methods for approaching problems and discussions. I wasn’t embarrassed of him like I knew other teenagers were or would be of their parents, but I just didn’t understand what drove him, and I knew that he didn’t understand me and what drove me.

In the same way, my father has struggled, not just with understanding his older son, but in his own way with his personal life and with his work. He’s by no means a perfect man, but he’s always been a figure I could look to for practicality, even when I knew, logically, that he just wasn’t physically around to help me. It’s from him that I get my propensity for useless knowledge about anything and everything I read, that I get my sense of humor at times, that I get my love of grilling. Sitting down with him when I visit family isn’t a deep personal or existential dive into self and emotion, but it’s a comforting one, where so much just gets stripped away to focus on what really matters at that moment, big or small.

I got to appreciate this more as I got older, and he and I have settled into a level of understanding with each other. Time and life experience sometimes have ways of making you look back on a parent’s up and downs and recognizing what they really meant or what they were trying to do. Hindsight’s great like that. He and I each have our own definitions of what it means to be a man, an adult, a Greek-American with immigrant roots, a successful and functional person. We’ve both recognized that we can’t rely on the other to be anything other than the person they are, insecurities and overthinking and all.

So often we want our relationships with people to be intricately-intertwined braids, when in fact they’re independent threads measured by where they intersect briefly, and how often they intersect. He and I intersect repeatedly with casually enjoying baseball and reading mystery novels, because they’re both emblematic of the major and solid intersection we both have, which is the strength of reliable comfort.

The familiarity and comfort that exists in that familiarity is intensely attractive to me. So much of daily life, especially these days as the news and or daily interactions continue to actively drain us of energy, sometimes of the very life and legitimacy we’re owed as people. Is it any wonder we try to find solace in familiarity? In comfort food, in comfort reads and experiences? Baseball and crime fiction are fundamental comfort experiences, not just because they can be the threads that help a weird kid connect with his awkward father, but because those two people are emblematic of the kinds of people who need that comfort.

Disintegration

annihilation-gina-rodriguez

We finally got around to watching Annihilation (2018), and holy shit.

In the same vein of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, both of which I really loved, I can 100% see why people struggled with this film and that it struggled (apparently) to find some kind of conventional sci-fi Hollywood release. It’s vague, it lacks a cohesive struggle or conflict that can be easily described or laid out, and the ending is such a non-ending that it ultimately leaves you sitting there actively wondering what you watched.

I absolutely loved it, mostly because it actively works against these demands of cohesiveness that gets places on horror, fantasy, and science-fiction rather than accepting the power of these genres. In this sense, Annihilation is probably a more “pure” science fiction film than say, The Cloverfield Paradox (the only sci-fi movie I could find that came out in 2018, gimme a break, I know it was awful).

Because I end up tying so much back to it constantly, I feel odd making the comparison again, but the nature of “the Shimmer” in Annihilation and the realization of other-ness and very non-humanness attached to its presence reminds me a lot of the AI’s Neuromancer and Wintermute in William Gibson’s book Neuromancer, one of my favorite novels of all time. In the book, there’s a specific notice about how despite our ideas on how an artificial intelligence is “alive” like a person, they are very much not people, both in a literal but also existential sense. It’s exceedingly difficult in Neuromancer (as well as the follow-ups Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive) to talk and get anything out of an AI, and not because they’re purposely-obtuse or malevolent. Rather, their senses of existence and drive and desire are so radically different from our own that they (ironically, drawing that line right to Annihilation) are almost alien to humanity. Mona Lisa Overdrive ends with these new AI-born lifeforms finally finding someone like them…in freaking outer space.

Ultimately Annihilation‘s underlying these is that time and life and the world move on without us, marching forward for better or worse, but marching forward regardless. Often too, that forward movement really has no care for, or even awareness of, us as human beings, which firmly puts it into the category of existential dread that permeates horror as much (if not arguably moreso) as sci-fi. Annihilation (which from what I understand actually deviates quite a bit from the novel its based on) covers both the small personal forward movement of mourning death as well as directly connecting it to the larger forward movement of recognizing that humanity is in fact not the central tenet of anything on Earth.

Anyway…

Like I said, I can see how this is not a science-fiction story that people would want to see in film, despite how incredibly beautiful and dreamlike the film is, how amazingly-well done the sound is, and how the surrealness of the visuals matched the minimalistic surrealness of the story, where so much is about interpretation and acceptance of non-linear storytelling. In a way, it’s more like an experience than a story to follow, which is great and works like literature, creating an experience for the reader to immerse themselves in and come out of with interpretations of their own. The codification of so much of lore and information dumped through exposition into genre storytelling is almost completely absent here, and I feel like more storytelling should take those risks.

In a similar fashion, I just finished reading RS Belcher’s book Brotherhood of the Wheel, a library find. It’s kind of boilerplate “urban fantasy/horror,” drawing on a lot various classic folklore, religion, myth, and urban legends in building its world and story. 52362052Basically, the Knights Templar didn’t found the Illuminati, but rather a variety of other smaller fraternities in the wake of its death, including “the Brethren,” a collection of truckers, bikers, and other perpetually-traveling ne’er-do-wells who protect travelers on highways and interstates from both human and supernatural threats.

There are some weak points that made me cringe, but overall it was a fun read and I felt like it had a lot of interesting points. One of them is something that I actually saw in a review of the book (I think it was the Kirkus write-up on the book but I can’t remember) about how the book’s “mythos” required on a lot of slap-dash mushing of pagan and proto-Christian beliefs and theology alongside modern Internet-based urban legends and classic horror movie monsters.

And yet, that honestly is something I actually really loved about it, that so much of what we consider concrete “lores” were just interwoven and loosely-defined ideas that were more than capable of adapting to the modern world (and to the needs of the story). In the same way, there’s a few bits of dialogue in the Steve Niles (and various artists) supernatural horror/mystery comic Criminal Macabre, featuring semi-supernatural PI Cal McDonald. Cal comments on how so much of what people think about when it comes to vampires, werewolves, etc. is just junk built up by movies, disinformation, rumor, and human desire for some sense of order. In a way it’s a writing loophole to justify the story using lots of guns and explosives to kill vampires and werewolves and ghouls and goblins, but it also highlights (and makes fun of) the ridiculousness of lore and a reliance on it.

I love lore and the depths to which some of it can go when it comes to creating amazing fantasy worlds, but honestly, it can bog down a story, and the complications of assuming that a story will have an understandable lore is the root of so much misreading and misunderstanding of fiction. It ended up tainting people’s expectations in regards to Annihilation and I think it’s overall a problem that taints people’s reading and watching experiences.

There’s no real solution here, because this is basically the end-result of so much (fan culture, fan entitlement, a degradation of critical reading and writing as acceptable and easy things to take it, disingenuous “takes” being take seriously rather than laughed at, etc) and it’s incredibly hard to get through a lot of it. Like the Shimmer and the Road though, it might just be about accepting that some things can never fully be controlled, because they don’t exist to be controlled. Things exist simply to exist, with out without what you think.

No Paperback Paradise, issue 5; THE MAMMOTH HUNTERS by Jean M. Auel

Oh hey, yeah, I still do this…

I’m so rarely embarrassed by what I read or used to read, because A) I maintain I’ve got impeccable taste and B) I feel like people should’t be embarrassed by reading habits, it’s a 6c0908457071ffe60f4b7e1399c24dcc--jean-auel-read-booksweird byproduct of a culture that artificially draws lines between “genre” and “literary fiction” and…anyway.

I’m not really embarrassed but in hindsight, thinking about Auel’s The Mammoth Hunters and how it has  a place in my memories of reading makes me wonder just how much “focus” I had (or didn’t have) as a young man immersing myself in escapist literature. Was there any real focus, like a love of murder-mysteries or modern (at the time) takes on pulp and spy adventures? Or is that some historical revisionism of my own reading past?

Jean M. Auel’s series (that started with The Clan of the Cave Bear, which got turned into a movie in 1986 starring Darryl Hannah) is an installment in a series about a young Cro-Magnon woman who’d been raised by Neanderthals and travels through the ancient world, making friends with animals and other people, looking for her tribe, inventing things like crossbows and advanced medicine or whatever (I’m exaggerating a bit here obviously but Ayla, the protagonist of these books, is noted for basically inventing a bunch of modern stuff. She invents saddles for the horses she tamed and invented riding on, for example.) In this one, she and her buddy/boyfriend/travel partner find a society of people who, as the title of the book suggests, circle their lives and spirituality around giant wooly mammoths, and they spend some time with them.

Then the fucking begins…

Oh yeah, there’s a lot of sex in these books and I have a vivid memory of being a little mortified the first time I realized that.

I was a young teenager, maybe 14, who spent a summer in Greece visiting family hanging out with an aunt at times and helping basically babysit her small daughter once in a while, because she’d moved from the US to Greece with her husband, so not only was she one more person to talk to in English, but she also had a stash of English-language books that she let me borrow, and as I’ve written about a bunch of times, I’d read just about anything. Even this SUPER-smutty caveman historical fiction, basically a different take on bodice-rippers.

It’s sort of fascinating to think about these books (this is the first one I read but like the third in the series I believe) being so immensely popular and having created this fairly-large social impact in terms of readers and on genre fiction. Like, I remember them being in hindsight really trashy, but at the same time it’s such a dense and heavily-researched world that also appeals to the escapist pulp sensibilities I so desperately-craved at the time.

Ultimately it always comes back to that with me, escapism. It is in a sense the truest and rawest thing I crave in literature, microcosms of other lives and worlds that I can safely slip in and out of to distract myself, to calm my own thoughts, and to experience rapid highs and lows without the stresses of reality that come with those scenarios. Some kids read because they wanted to see themselves, but I (and I perpetually acknowledge this is due to my own privileges) wanted nothing more but the luxury of escapist fantasy. What’s more escapist than life in the Upper Paleolithic era about 72,000 years ago?

Also, there’s something to be said about the power of suddenly being given all this softcore literature  at a time when the Internet was nonexistent as a source of porn, especially to some kid suck in the sticks  for the summer. Magazines? Forget about it. Movies or the foreign version of scrambled cable porn? Man, I didn’t even have access to a TV, much less a single on the rabbit ears. It was a bit of an eye-opening experience.

I’m not saying I treated this book like pornography, but I was a shy teenage boy who had little access to anything remotely titillating, zero luck with the opposite sex for a long time, and parents who for the most part didn’t really seem like they were going to be plopping down a copy of The Joy of Sex for me to read so I could learn. So in a way, these kind of books filled in for that in terms of introducing sex to me. I mean I knew what sex and romance and relationships were in an abstract sense, but…you know what I mean, right? It was the first time I was exposed to what it was supposed to ideally “sound” like, in as much as prose can convey that.

Every time this book comes up in my radar in some fashion nowadays, I ultimately think of it as one of those “I need something, ANYTHING to read” moments, as well as thinking about helping my aunt out with her little girls, who are teenagers now, and I feel so old. I don’t know if it’s some level of subconscious shame or maybe just an acknowledgment that it was a moment in a particular period of time in my life when I needed this book, but I’ve never felt any real desire to ever go back to it (or any of them). It happened, I consumed a fascinatingly-weird caveman sex novel when Iw as a teenager that turned out to actually have been really famous and popular, and now, at 34, I can safely say you should probably read one of Auel’s books too, just so we have something to talk about.

Also, on a somewhat-related moment, I think this book was one of my first exposures to wraparound covers, a thing that paperbacks used to do a lot but nowadays you almost never see thanks to to the proliferation of hyper-simplified book covers. The edition I found a picture of is the one I read twenty-odd years ago and the spine and back continue to the front’s illustration, of a group of Neanderthals stalking a herd of mammoths. I looked up more modern editions and they’re way more boring, a thing paperbacks and books in general have lost that I don’t think you can ever really get back on the huge scale they used to have…but that’s another thing for another time.

No Paperback Paradise, issue 4; THE CARDINAL OF THE KREMLIN by Tom Clancy

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Hey, we’re back!

This is such a “parent book.” Of all the books and authors I as a young teen I swiped from my parents to read, Tom Clancy books were the most “parent”-y. The cliche is of course that Clancy books are the only fiction books that suburban (white) dads read because everything else they consume is nonfiction about WW2 and the Cold War, which is partially true. I mean, think about what it is that they embody ultimately, which is American exceptionalism. It’s the veneer of extralegal operations in the name of greater “good” that inevitably always reflects and reinforces American interests both at home and abroad, and a general disdain for structures that stand in the way of “the right thing” like soft indecisive liberalism, corrupt politicians that are inevitably portrayed as hiding behind some kind of faux-populist veneer. Of course, being a stupid moron at that age, I ate them up. And as a 30-something now critically wading his way through nostalgia whenever the mood strikes, I still…sorta look back on them fondly?

I wrote about Tom Clancy’s impact on me and my family briefly when he died in 2013. I think out of all the writers that I was exposed to because of my habit of filching my parents’ books as a kid, Tom Clancy was the one I immediately remembered and recognized as “famous,” because there were also all the movies. About the time I first read his stuff, like The Cardinal of the Kremlin, stuff like Clear And Present Danger and  Patriot Games (starring Harrison Ford as Clancy’s creation of Jack Ryan) was in movie form and on TV, so I was watching Clancy on the screen too. Because of all this, it was so strange to find out he’d actually passed away, and then having to actively come to terms with the fact that he was probably the first writer I’d read that would make me think about the “separate the writer from the writing” dilemma (what with him being a fairly notorious neocon pro-military type and me being a godless liberal red scumbag).

But, like baseball and making fun of my aunts at family gatherings, Clancy books like this one (which involves the torture and interrogation of someone using sensory deprivation to make them think their body is paralyzed so they go into an existential crisis and spill state secrets, which at the time was one of the most depressingly-scary things I’d read at the time) are one of the things that I have that connect me to my dad.

My father and I have a weird relationship (which I struggle to try to describe because I’m not entirely comfortable talking about it in terms of what should be private and what I should talk about to try and get off my chest), in that he was the “cool” parent (compared to my mother the lawkeeper), and the older I get, more and more people tell me I’m like in terms of humor and mannerisms. I don’t think he’s ever really understood his older son, who grew up quiet and kinda wimpy and emotionally stunted, preferring to read and skateboard and be alone. Also, I’ve never really done much more talking-wise with him other than casual conversations about work, school, and bills. But we’ve had baseball and movies, and even though we’re not necessarily a family that “discusses what we’re reading” (despite being a family of voracious readers…we’re people who read for fun, not for dinner-table or party conversation), we’ve had books.

I think my dad’s openness with letting me read any of those books of his the closest bond we’ve ultimately had, because even beyond just Tom Clancy, my dad is the one who ultimately let me me know it was OK to read “adult” books, stuff with  nudity and explicit violence. He also gave me some Indiana Jones novelization the was very much in the vein of the pulps that inspired it (Indiana Jones and the Seven Veils by Rob MacGregor, after a quick Google search) that I remember 12- or 13-year old me being initially mortified at discovering having sex described in it.

Those shift moments when you go from “kid stuff” to “adult things” are intensely subjective and personal, honestly. It’s also hard to talk about them at times if you’re uncomfortable with discussing seemingly-taboo topics like sex, sexual attraction, and the shallowness of our attractions to those topics (i.e. reading books just for the dirty parts, which is coming up in this misshapen excuse of a “series”, I promise). Who wants to admit that some of the books you remember fondly from your childhood or teenage years are the ones that finally introduced you to graphic violence, or to depictions of sex that were early forays to masturbatory material for those who didn’t immediately have access to porn?

They, like so many adult things you gravitate towards, are hidden, secret at times, the books I’d hid in a corner of my bedroom as I read them. To get that “Yeah, it’s OK” when I (for some stupid guilty reason, who knows) asked my dead if it was fine for me, a kid, to be given stuff like this to read, it was life-changing, honestly. I’d been encouraged to read controversial work before (both my parents encouraged me to read the usual spate of 70’s/80’s/90’s “controversial” young adult Newberry Medal winners, stuff touching on death, bullying, and racism like Maniac Magee, and of course classics like Huckleberry Finn and Where The Red Fern Grows), but this…felt different. This wasn’t serious stuff for kids, this was an Adult Thing.

Ultimately, the more I think about it the more I realize that my dad never really treated me like a little kid, and was more than willing to let me completely fuck up to learn a lesson, which is just as good as anything I’ve gotten from anyone else as a gift. It’s just taken me a bit of time to figure out what it was there, and that it was something to appreciate.

“a ride home and a couple days of sleep…”

So I’ve been writing recently about the impacts and memories of specific books from my teenage years, in particular the various paperbacks I tended to read a lot that were borrowed or swiped from my parents and other older family members. It’s odd though because, as someone mentioned online recently in a casual question, it made me think about why I’m choosing those books at all. A lot of them are not that great, or I just haven’t read in a long time and honestly don’t know if I ever will.

The question I saw floating online was what was one of the first books to truly make you fall in love with reading and…I can’t say. I honestly don’t remember, and I don’t know if it’s just because my brain can’t stretch that far back, or if it’s because I don’t think there was one book that “made” me a reader. I’ve always been a reader, and I think it’s because of narratives. In particular, it was about how I saw my own “narrative.”

We tend to view our personal narratives as the stories of our lives, but in a way we’re also thinking about how we make decisions and end up with experiences in those narratives. Our narratives are so intensely personal, but also heavily molded by our experiences, creating this symbiotic relationship where we test the limits of our control of that narrative, compared to the subconscious influences on it from outside forces.

Honestly, I don’t think I ever felt that as a kid.

I don’t think that, as a young kid and later on as a teenager, that I actually had any sort of control of my narrative. I had friends but not a lot of them, and mostly in a casual way, I had interests but not ones that made me “me” in any way (except probably for punk rock, which is more of a thing of seeking out your tribe, but who wants to hear another white guy talk about that over and over although I’ve been reminded that since I’ve been thinking about him again, Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned is the best expression that I’ve been able to relate to), and I felt like I was a constant state of anxious uncertainty in terms of what I could do, what I couldn’t do, what I couldn’t bring myself to do, and where I was even going. There’s a very specific memory of being 16 or so and realizing that the low-grade gut pain that I associated with uncertainty was gone and that I couldn’t remember when I’d last felt it but that I’d somehow been feeling it for years almost constantly.

Being 16 was an interesting year.

Books though? Books already had a pre-defined narrative. It was a narrative that I could immerse myself in and, temporarily, not have to worry about my own. I didn’t have to lament about the state of my own direction because I was so heavily invested in the direction of someone else, a whole cast of other people at times. Maybe it was some sort of early pre-aware appreciation for metaphor and symbolism in literature, but more likely, it was just what I tend to tell people when we talk about the love of reading;

As a kid, I read to escape. I didn’t seek or particularly appreciate work that had to do with people similar to me (young adult work, books about teens aimed at teens, etc) because I already knew, deep down, about stuff like that, even if I wasn’t particularly aware of the minutiae of my parents worrying about work and bills, about bullying being symptomatic of other things, of what my own struggles with fitting in meant. Hence my immersion in fantasy, science fiction, and horror, to get to stories that addressed things that could take me away from my own lack of control over my own story.

In reading, I knew that I didn’t have to worry about my own anxiety and awkwardness about figuring out what I needed to do in order to not come across like a weirdo desperate for friends and peer approval. I was both above that in being the viewer of the narrative, but also had that-preset awareness by following the protagonist, written by someone with (to my mind) far better expressive capacity and also, better social skills.

I’m sure this isn’t a unique feeling, but until recently I don’t think I’ve ever been able to really articulate it before, a problem I’ve noticed when it comes to trying to talk and write about WHY certain things resonate for me. This tends to make me oddly-cranky when coming across others’ explanations for why they like or connect with the same things I do, and finding that their connections either don’t make any sense to me, or just seem to be trite and too-perfectly framed in their explanation, even though thinking that just makes that uncertainty and anxiety flare up again, a fear that I’m just too hard on others who are expressing their love for things in far more eloquent ways than me. After all, a lovely side-effect of this fear surrounding your own narrative is imposter syndrome.

“Surely they can express themselves better in their love of books because they’re better writers, they’re better educators, they’re more into it and truly love it, I’m just some dumb asshole who stumbled into this and perpetually lives on the benevolent blindness of others to not recognize my fraudulence”…or something like that. And while I tend to go through this cycle every couple of months when it comes to my job (“imposter syndrome” is fairly common in academia), it’s a weird feeling to have it rear its face when it comes to just expressing why I love to read.

Ultimately, in my mid-30’s nowadays I’m far more confident in my personal narrative in general, so this is just a collection of passing thoughts about how people seem to express their own influences and inspirations these days. This idea that there are singular moments or items/experiences that trigger these changes in personality surrounding media is just such an odd one for me, because in my experience and in the experiences of people around me, it’s both far bigger and far more opaque and hazy.

Every start of something in my life that’s made me me is a haze. A haze of books and reading experiences made me a reader, a haze of friends and musical exposure made me love punk music, a haze of so many things made me a fan of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy…it’s all a haze of mixed experiences in my narrative. Sometimes those hazes can be good things, and we just look back on them and figure out how to express it as best we can.

No Paperback Paradise, issue 3; THE CHAMBER by John Grisham

Who the hell let me read this book?md20482718725

Yet another “claimed from my parents” read, this was my first exposure to Grisham (I ended up working my way backwards into his body of work from this point) and it’s still a really odd work. Ignoring the kinda ridiculous movie that came out of it with Gene Hackman, The Chamber by John Grisham is an incredibly dark path to let a 14-year-old brain down.

Basically a young and naive lawyer who just graduated from law school allows himself to get drawn into the last-ditch appeals of a KKK member on death row, about to be executed for the deaths of several young children during a church bombing at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Grisham was, at the time to an impressionable young reader, incredibly good at capturing what I thought the South would be like (and my limited exposure has sort of reinforced) of being incredibly hot and intensely slow in a metaphorical and spiritual sense (in that the hectic thrum that I, a garbage northerner from New York, consider the standard of energy for a metropolitan area is far too much and all wrong in how one conducts oneself).

There’s the obligatory horrific family secrets and some level of odd closure about broken families you expect from sad books like this, there’s some action, crooked politicians, and what I identified as something Grisham held in a unique regard, lots of drinking.

Alcohol is so pervasive in this book in my mind. Everyone drinks constantly, and for some reason I associated it with being a lawyer, that the stress of this righteous job would make you dive into the sacred blur of alcohol to escape the harsh world you deigned throw yourself into willingly. Of course nowadays I can look back on those memories of reading that and realized it was just Grisham’s reinforcement of the white Southern moneyed “good ol’boys club” mentality where alcohol and complaining are the standards of behavior, rather than legitimate coping mechanisms.

Still, I’m pretty sure this was the summer I first tried alcohol. To get drunk, that is.

I’m the grandchild of immigrants, part of a large extended family with heavy roots in Eastern Europe. Alcohol’s a huge part of the culture, and letting small kids nip from the dinner table during celebrations is pretty standard. Summertime when you’ve got a family background like mine is basically being cut loose for the most part all day and most of the evenings, which means that young teenage Costa first started to experiment with getting drunk.

Honestly, there’s a lot I don’t remember, and not in a “ha ha I was so drunk” way. I just…don’t remember stuff, or remember it poorly (it’s partially why I’m so hesitant to do more personal essays). There’s a nice chunk between 14 and 16 that’s mostly a blur, honestly. It’s a lot of introduction to punk rock, reading books because I didn’t have a lot of friends, experimenting with drinking, and occasionally bursting into fights with other kids (fights I usually lost) because I kept constantly stuffing rage inward over dumb stuff I couldn’t tell what it was now. It’s strange to think about how some people can mine their pasts with such regular clarity and confidence in those memories. I honestly don’t know why I just can’t seem to remember certain times beyond just the vague impressions they left on me. Dates elude me, and the cloud of personal prejudices and perspectives also make me terrified that I’ll just never tell the “right” version of a story and be obviously corrected by someone. It’s honestly easier to just work on fiction sometimes, to write my own The Chamber rather than try to remember that specific summer I spent reading this book.

But I remember stealing beers at family events, and I remember a big public thing while visiting family in Greece for a whole village by the ocean, being drunk on the beach thinking everything was super-fucking funny. Who knows what I was thinking about? Maybe it was this book, and thinking in some way, that me being drunk and waxing poetic on the two or three beers I’d downed (I was a super-small kid and a skinny teenager so I was a real lightweight) made me just as deep as I thought the protagonist of this book was in that one scene where he thinks deep thoughts about his messed-up family or whatever was going on in the book or that particular scene. Southern gothic novels feel like they’re full of nothing but messed-up families and lots of drinking, so it’s possible that in his own way, Grisham was continuing the tradition?

Probably not. If anything, it’s probably just what I thought, the reflection of his own upbringing and his own background work- and social-wise as a liberal Southerner who worked in law but was still heavily-immersed in his own boy’s club world. Which isn’t to say Grisham is necessarily a bad person (from what I understand he’s fairly liberal, involved with stuff like The Innocence Project, workers’ rights, and calls for prison reform), but the characters in his books, in particular the legal thriller ones, clearly reflect his previous lives working in politics and law and the privilege that comes with those kinds of lives.

Still, for a teenager looking to try and bridge that weird wobbly bridge between being a kid and being an adult and really only had books to guide him, I have a weird place in my heart for Grisham’s books. This book and his previous work, A Time To Kill, are rife with racism, the history of post-Reconstruction Southern states, and the overarching theme of how dangerous but necessary things like digging up the past and pushing past the uncomfortable to get to the truth can be.

It’s odd to think that depressing legal thrillers read during sun-drenched summer afternoons about the legacy of the Klan are such a huge part of my youth. If anything though, I managed to learn a lot about how the death penalty worked in the US thanks to this book, which made me a big hit with punk girls at parties and outdoor stoops bumming cigarettes, trying to impress each other.

No Paperback Paradise, issue 2; “Mind Prey” by John Sandford

[UNSET]

You bet I’ve got more of these. I was one of those annoying kids who raided their parents’ book stashes, after all.

I liked doing the last one of these because saying it out loud (or rather, typing it) makes me realize how bizarre so many of these kinda books really were, and how reading them as a teenager instead of whatever YA books my parents periodically got me, like Where The Red Fern Grows or whatever (which is a great book, but not the point here).

This book is kinda fucked up, the more I think about it.

John Sandford is actually writer/journalist John Camp, writing under a pseudonym. He’s another one of those glossy paperback mystery/cop thriller writers I picked up from my parents’ stashes of books. I carted this one back to New York from overseas to finish school in America. Or maybe I found it among my dad’s leftovers in my grandma’s house. It’s one in a series involving Sandford’s police detective character of Lucas Davenport (portrayed on TV by both Eriq La Salle and Mark Harmon, respectively), another one of the gimmicky Holmes-esque badasses that populate these sort of novels. Davenport is a gun collector, a crack shot, a scarred badass with a bevy of sexual conquests, and is somehow ALSO independently wealthy because he makes RPGs and runs a video game company (and from what I remember, Sandford/Camp actually did his research is knowing how to describe the terminology and mechanics of how stuff works). Davenport’s basically every nerd’s wet dream rolled up with the standard hardass cop of these types of books.

Liberal but not valueless in that way that neocons and people with pro-cop bumper stickers disdain, he’s a man of action. His vices are masculine and coded as cool. He represents law and order, but also bucks the system to both overcome bureaucratic red tape AND corruption (a prevailing theme in a lot of these sorta books). Yeah he makes video games and isn’t a raging racist, but his tolerance and empathy is limited because of the near-vigilantism that he tends to embody (that most fictional law enforcement tends to, in general), skirting with breaking the law because sometimes laws and social niceties just “get in the way”.

You know exactly what kind of literary character I’m talking about. While the root is older, the 80’s and 90’s are rife with these types, part of what’s now obviously a weird shift in how we depicted law enforcement in fiction to foster a positive “lone wolf” sort of vibe, making it “cool.” In a way, Sanford, like a lot of other guys, took Robert Parker’s Spenser to the next seemingly-natural stage (at least to me). Davenport is, for a large chunk of the books, a bachelor, and even in the author’s own words is kind of a sociopath with few real connections to the world around him other than the job. That is, in reality, not a good person, and definitely not the kind of person you really ant as an actual cop. In fiction, on the other hand? Especially escapist detective/neo-noir/suspense paperbacks?

Anyway this book, Mind Prey, is actually one of the first times I think I read a book that was really explicit in depictions of sexual violence (it’s about a serial rapist/killer kidnapping a woman and her daughter) and, thinking back on it, it’s kind of jarring and disturbing (though a lot of these books, not just Sandford’s, thinking back on it, cover a lot of horrific and very brutal crimes…William Diehl comes to mind). And what’s even weirder is that somehow, I ended up doing a report on this book in high school for my 11th-grade English class on “classic detective novels”.

The teacher for that class was the personification of the “cool high school English teacher” trope. His class was fun (I read Sherlock Holmes in his classroom), we got to laugh and joke but also do work that we (or at least I remember) liked. He was one of the chaperones for the senior prom (which I went to for some reason, and was miserable at, but that’s another story) and the common belief was that since he (and several other teachers) had been there for a couple of hours before students showed up, he was mostly drunk as shit (he acted it). He was a “cool teacher” (something my school had a bit of a problem with but…again, another story) For our final project, let us do weird reports about readings from class or that we’d found on our own. I, being a dweeb, used Mind Prey. I did some faux-profile of the antagonist and compared him to some other characters from some other readings we’d done in class. It wasn’t the best assignment honestly, and to this day I think I got by mostly because I picked a reading that wasn’t one of the in-class ones, which counts for a lot.

I wonder sometimes what happened to him. I occasionally have a dread feeling about trying to look up teachers I admired in high school, because there’s a part of me that is definitely thinking “shit, if it turns out he was some kind of abusive or predatory weirdo I’m gonna be sad”. I saw him once wandering around my old neighborhood near the school when I was 19 or 20, and was briefly tempted to yell out a hi, but of course, awkwardness and that perpetual fear he didn’t remember who I was kicked in. Sometimes too, I think about just how “cool” a teacher he was, and if it was just a mask for something worse that my privilege protected me from. I know that’s a pretty bleak outlook to have, but really, I feel like deep down it’s not an unfair assumption to have as a possible scenario.

A cursory Google search shows me that this teacher isn’t at that school anymore, and I don’t have a yearbook or anything laying around to get his first name and do a more thorough look (they, like a lot of my stuff from high school, is scattered around my parents’ house on bookshelves and in boxes). I still think about that class and that book though, and doing this half-ass project on a fucked-up detective book involving a cop who also made video games.

No Paperback Paradise, issue 1; William Heffernan’s “Ritual”

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So I’ve talked before about being the kid who read a lot of mass-market paperbacks because A) I just read a lot and B) they were all we had around. I’ve been thinking back on those books as I’ve been browsing Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks From Hell, a humorous look at paperback horror novels through the past decades.

It’s a weird art form/subgenre that (I think rightfully) has started to again garner a bit of a spotlight in pop culture (not necessarily for the right reasons but whatever) again, but to me, Hendrix’s work is just one part of a much larger tapestry that I distinctly remember being a part of as a kid. I joke that I’m a book hoarder and the son of book hoarders, but my parents both read voraciously, and used to have tons of books of all sorts all over whatever home we lived in. Even now, with them wanting to have less and less stuff around, I know that in the attack are just crates of old paperbacks, waiting for a new life cycled out of there onto the bookshelves in the house proper for a tour of duty.

I think I found this book (Ritual by crime writer William Heffernan) during the period when my family lived overseas and I was basically grabbing and consuming any and every English-language novel I could see to satisfy a desire for something. I must have been about 13 or so, I remember reading and re-reading it one summer, my usual habit since I didn’t speak Greek that well at the time, didn’t have many friends, and there was no TV or radio, so I had to ration the batteries for stuff like a Discman (and later, a Gameboy). It was my first exposure to Heffernan, just one of however many my parents had accumulated, being book hoarders themselves (especially my dad). Also, I was (and still am probably) one of those types who was really into weapons, like the budding sociopath I was.

As a kid I was fascinated with swords and axes and bows and arrows, so a book with a weird knife and crazy title on the front (I’m gonna say I read Relic by Preston & Child about the same time so the cool one-word titles were a thing) was almost custom-made to draw my attention in. Did it have some kind of fantasy elements to it? Was it scary? It gave it a sense of fantastic to the book, clashing (on the cover) with the policeman’s shield/badge. A lot of the Signet books (an imprint of NAL, the New American Library publishing company) had designs like this. It might have even been partially-raised, giving a cool texture feel to the cover too, I don’t remember exactly.

Why did we have so many of these kinds of books? My parents are not necessarily the types of people to seem like they’d be obsessed with mostly just crime-slash-mystery novels, they’re fairly run-of-the-mill middle-class types, the children of immigrants. Then again, you never really know about that, about what is going to appeal to people, or why it does.

Also, it’s entirely possible that as a family that travelled a lot at times, these types of train station/airport novels just turned out to be the perfect thing for travelers/commuters to grab and read regularly, and save because they were cheap and fun escapes to come back to once in a while. I’ve read a lot about the crime/mystery market and the whole subculture of straight-to-paperback airport novels, and how they’re a pretty natural evolution of dimestore spinner-rack cheap pulps. I’ve never not paused in a bookstore (even if I know I’m not gonna buy anything) in an airport or a bus/train station, unless I’m in a rush. The desire for a quick fun slab of entertainment with a semi-predicatable but still enjoyable twist is a strong one, maybe moreso than any sort of apparent higher literary calling. They’re so intensely American to me (while I do know the tradition isn’t rooted necessarily in anything uniquely American, it just feels like that), a literary field completely devoid of pretension and desire for anything other than wide readership so that the checks coming in can buy the fancy whiskeys.

Anyway, this is obsensibly a Heffernan book about his character Paul Devlin, but Devlin’s a secondary character compared to the Holmesian Stanislaus Rolk (at least he’s Holmesian in my imagination, I haven’t read this book in like twenty years). I think I really loved it because (SPOILER ALERT FOR A BOOK THAT CAME OUT IN 1990) Rolk turns out to have been the killer all along, and his tough partner Devlin has to be the one to bring him down. It was also gruesome as all fuck and moderately titillating, involving naked human sacrifices, decapitation with an obsidian knife, and the wearing of human skin like a cape. The intellectual detective let his dark side overtake him through his curiosity, delving more and more into obscure Toltec rituals and beliefs (this book is probably the only time the Toltec people were ever mentioned in pop culture), ultimately becoming the obsidian knife-wielding spree slayer. I don’t remember much else about the story, how it ends, how the twists and turns go. Part of me wants to find a cheap copy of this and re-read it, or maybe see if my local library can get me a copy, but part of me recognizes too that a lot of these books from that time of my life were probably not that great for a variety of reasons.

I read a bunch more Heffernan after this book, he’s incredibly prolific as a writer, my parents had a ton of them stashed around our home. A year or so ago When I got my short story “Hit The Till” published through Akashic Books, I found out that Akashic had also published some of Heffernan’s work and I almost hit the fucking ceiling. Those books, with their slick and raised covers, cheap paper pages fat in the glued paperback binding, with the ads and mail-order catalogues in the back, were some of my earliest connections to crime writing/mystery novels, and…yeah, it was wild to, in a tiny and very roundabout way, have my little short mystery story now in the same spider’s-web of publication as his.

Random aside to this whole thing; Looking for a picture/scan of this book’s cover, the cover I remember as a kid is pretty much the main one that comes up, compared to the searching I had to do for other books to find the covers of the editions I remember. It makes me think I wasn’t the only one who loved this cover and was drawn into the book solely because of it. Makes me think maybe I wasn’t as weird a kid as I thought.

Some Kinda Darkness

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Gary Oldman as the eponymous character in 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, arguably the best page-by-page adaptation of the Stoker book 

I recently finished my more-or-less-yearly reread of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, something I like to do mostly because I still think it’s fascinating the impact this book has had. Also, there’s the usual “I discover something new every time” thing. It’s such a dense read, that I feel like every time something new sticks out to me.

Usually I can point to “We want no proofs. We ask none to believe us!” as one of my go-to great lines from the book, though, to go back to the idea of new things hitting you with each re-read, this time, Renfield’s casual and quiet warning to Dr. Seward right before the horrific events leading up to the attack on Mina, saying that he hopes the doctor remembers Renfield trying to warn them all to flee…reading that this time for some reason gave me a shudder, however slight, that I still went “Huh” at.

What I tend to find myself usually really fascinated with though for the most part about Dracula is what’s ultimately come out of it. Post-grad school it’s always seemed to actually be a work all about the dangers of hypersexual foreigners and solitary, predatory strangers who exist outside of the post-Enlightenment western European barriers considered the edges of acceptable behavior. That’s why the post-Anne Rice post-Vampire: The Masquerade world that has spun out of Stoker’s book is so strange to me, although weirdly a lot of Rice’s work is much more heavily-tied to Stoker when it comes to certain things.

Even though I’ve consumed a lot of horror, like zombies, vampires were never a horror thing I really enjoyed as much as say werewolves or other kinds of monsters (I am an early-in-life and perpetual fan of the Gill-Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon). I’ve seen a ton of vampire movies, especially Sir Christopher Lee in the golden age-Hammer Horror “Dracula” movies, and I’ve read a bunch of Anne Rice stuff (I’ve read a lot of horror books about vampires, actually). I never played V:TM, though I knew of it and the heavy gothic underpinnings of it. It was later on that I realized how much of it heavily influenced that weird “coven” element of meatspace vampire subculture that sees it as an intensely-romantic thing with large groups coming together as sub-communities, in direct comparison to the Stoker aspects that emphasized the lone nature and non-communal elements of the vampire as predator. Yes, Dracula has a connection to pack animals like wolves, but unlike wolves, he’s an unholy creature who craves singular domination and power, so a large “coven” (a word that didn’t actually appear in the English language until like 1921-22 and is arguably a variation of “covin,” or “deception” as well as related to the verb “convene”) just…it just doesn’t make sense.

Considering the xenophobic elements surrounding Dracula as a pervasive and infectious element (a singular one that is a metaphor for larger groups), to view him as a representation of just repressed sexuality kind of takes away the rest of the things that he can potentially represent. He’s a holdover of pre-Enlightenment/pre-age of revolution Europe (something that Stoker touches on and that Jeanne Kalogridis addresses as well in her books), believing in absolute rule, serfdom, and divine right. The vampire arguably does “adapt” to blend in (in the manner of a conqueror or a stalking predator, as Van Helsing notes in the book) but only as a means to an end. There is no “coven” or community to build, only servants to make.

Anne Rice started her stuff in the 70’s, V:TM came out first in 1991 (as did the pre-Twilight teen novel series “The Vampire Diaries”), so a lot of that definitely explains the root of the 80’s/90’s interpretations of the sexual and social aspects of Dracula. I feel stupid thinking about a lot of them though, because yes, even though I do know that technically any interpretation with the right evidence is a good one, and yes, a lot of the more modern academic readings of Stoker’s life indicate he was working through a  lot of repressed sexual issues in his own life through his writing. Does that mean that my own readings of Dracula are tainted, that I can’t recognize what seems to be just an internet joke, that the book is about a vampire who wanted a threesome with a husband and wife?

Ultimately, it’s probably just because I hate nerds and weird fandoms that make these immense connections based on tenuous, almost nonexistent threads and use those threads as the root structure for something huge to lean their lives against entirely. It’s not necessarily bad per se (one of these days I’ll write about learning how punk rock scenes were bullshit as the root of learning to always criticize fandom and subcultures), but man can it get fucking annoying.

Anyway, I still like re-reading Dracula.