Sunday, September 24, 2017

Culture Diary - Day 7: The Baleful Howl of the Commonwealth

9/19/17 – 9/24/17

Matthew M. Bartlett is a horror writer I’ve been curious about for a while, ever since Nathan Ballingrud, author of the terrific collection North American Lake Monsters, started talking up Bartlett’s Gateways to Abomination on Facebook. I finally satisfied that curiosity with Dead Air, a collection of Bartlett’s early stories about radio station WXXT, out of Leeds, MA. Dead Air is mostly comprised of on-air dispatches from WXXT, often seemingly personal, and infernal, yet still tied to WXXT, which is, ostensibly, a rock station. Most stories (and they’re very short, three pages being the norm) have a tone of the absolutely horrific and bizarre, but also of the comic. One story, called “The Broadcasts. Transmission 99” ends like this:
I woke to a sunny morning and all was well. Remembering my fear and my dreams, I searched my whole house and nothing was disturbed. My doors were tightly locked, even the bulkhead. Satisfied, I grabbed a New Yorker and headed to the smallest room in the house for my morning ritual. I glanced at the mirror and I screamed.
You’re listening to WXXT, radio for the foul, the fucked, and the furious. Keep it to 87.1 on your radio dial. It’s 1:22 a.m. and morning is very far off. Stay tuned – up next is a Genesis rock block…with a little solo Phil Collins thrown in for variety.

WXXT. Let us in.
Running through Dead Air is a macabre sort-of history of WXXT, some peaks behind the scenes, but mostly it’s brief shots of deadpan ghastliness. Bartlett has written extensively about WXXT, and in an author’s note at the end of Dead Air Bartlett reveals that he doesn’t really consider this book to be canon. The book is for those curious to see how this corner of horror got started. Anyway, it’s where I started, and I’m not sorry. I plan on continuing. I also wonder if Bartlett, who started writing these stories and posting them online in the early-to-mid 2000s, has a case against the Welcome to Night Vale people.
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Peter Prince’s short novel Play Things from 1972 is an unlikely choice to be reprinted in America, being, as it is, not only about 120 pages long, but also about an unnamed protagonist whose job is to monitor a local playground, but this is why we love Valancourt Books. Considered something of a loser by just about everybody, including his wife, this protagonist – referred to only as the Playleader – at first has to fend off the older who children who would, and do, vandalize and destroy playground equipment, but eventually finds relatively, he hopes, harmless yet softly extra-legal means of protecting the park and the young children who use it. This brings him into contact with some unsavory people, but then again, hints linger that the Playleader is somewhat unsavory himself, and that the novel itself is, as well. It includes, for example, a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a pedophile (not the Playleader), which could be excused by or chalked up to any number of factors, such as the time period, or finding something inherently pitiful, or pathetic, about such a man. I don’t know. Didn’t sit quite right with me, though. A note similar to the one I believe Prince was going for with this subplot could have been struck without coming off as glib regarding the man’s crimes, which Play Things does. Otherwise, Prince’s novel, which won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1973, is an effective, modest black comedy, one with a subtle heart.
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I recently finished reading You’re All Alone, Fritz Leiber’s short novel from 1950 about a Chicago man who works in an employment office suddenly learning that the world is a giant machine, and everyone in it is essentially a robot, or a puppet, or dead. In any event, we’re all just going through the motions that have already been plotted out for us, and if one of us “wakes up,” as Carr MacKay does with the help of Jane Gregg, then we can move around unseen outside of the preordained actions of those around us. If we’re out of it, and someone still in the machine is supposed to hug us, they’re going to hug empty air.
There’s a lot of good, creepy imagery in this vein, but I think Leiber made a mistake by grafting a sort of vaguely noir-ish plot to it. Jane is being chased by a trio of people who’ve always “awakened” and their designs on her are pretty awful, but I found all this to be a distraction from what Leiber could have been doing with is idea. Then again, there is something bracingly nihilistic about his idea that most people who make the discovery that the awake characters here do, that the world is a machine and its inhabitants blind to anything outside of their pattern, would use this knowledge to seek out grotesque kicks wherever they could be found. Maybe if he could have made You’re All Alone longer, something he may have been practically unable to do given the market at the time, he could have really had something.
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I really like the song “She’s Long Gone” by The Black Keys.
Also I heard “I’ve Just Seen a Face” by The Beatles for the first time in I don’t know how long, and it occurred to me that Paul Simon may have spent a decent chunk of his career chasing that song.
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Earlier this year I finally read Madame Bovary (pretty good!), and it inspired in me such an unquenchable passion for to works of Gustave Flaubert that several months later I’ve now read a second one by him. Three Tales is the last book to be published in Flaubert’s lifetime, and, I’ve gathered, was one of the few out-and-out commercial and critical successes of his career. Each story – “A Simple Heart,” “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator,” and “Herodias” – is essentially Christian in its concerns, though whatever grace can be found within them is of a distinctly jaundiced variety. “A Simple Heart” is about serving-woman who lives almost her entire life at the service of a widow and her two children. The servant, Felicite, once loved and nearly married a young man, but when that didn’t happen no other love came her way, save for the family she served, God, and, later, a parrot she inherits as a pet. There is something so heartbreakingly proto-Southern Gothic about “A Simple Heart” that I’m sure Flannery O’Conner must have loved it.
“The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator” begins as horror and ends in sainthood. It was interesting to see that the way a man treats animals has pretty much always been seen by society indicator of both their moral strength and their mental health, never mind how that particular society treats animals in general. The early stages of this story contain several depictions of Julian’s cruelty to animals (one of which in particular will probably always haunt me), and it’s understood that this means his soul is in danger. That in thirty pages Flaubert can credibly bring him to sainthood is saying something, although the moment of that sainthood is described in such a bizarre way that I’m still not sure how to take it. I bet Flannery O’Conner didn’t mind this one, either.
“Herodias,” a re-telling of the story of Salome and John the Baptist, affected me less strongly, though I liked how a big chunk of the second half takes place at a party, or I guess a banquet, with a lot of characters talking back and forth to each other, from which Salome eventually emerges, and et cetera. And the last line is great, too.
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I still can’t watch anything good. Or at least, I’ve been too exhausted this weekend to watch anything good. I can read whatever, but I only want to watch mindless stuff. You may take the preceding as you will when I now add that this led me to American Vandal, a new comedy on Netflix that I was hearing was just the best, you guys. It’s what they call a “funny fake documentary” (I think that’s the term) in the now-popular “true crime” style. Set at a California high school, the mystery revolves around who spray-painted a bunch of dicks on a bunch of teachers’ cars. One stoner dropout guy has already been all but convicted, but the student filmmakers behind the documentary we’re watching have their doubts. And so on, ad infinitum. There are some decent jokes here and there, and Jimmy Tatro gives a really, really good and funny performance as the accused kid. But American Vandal is essentially opportunistic bullshit, hitching its star to true crime by pretending to have anything to “say” about it. Not everybody is as bad as they seem! But I swear, when this thing actually starts to get serious about halfway through, I thought “What kind of balls…” The mystery is exasperating and repetitive, I can’t believe anyone watching is or was invested enough in finding out who painted dicks on cars to justify the way they keep spinning it out, and the filmmakers, the actual ones, not the fictional ones, show no interest in sticking to the cinematic (ha ha just kidding) constraints that they’ve set up for themselves, making the whole enterprise give off an even greater stink of phoniness.
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At age 84, Ernest J. Gaines, author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Lesson Before Dying, has published his tenth book, a short novel called The Tragedy of Brady Sims. Set in Louisiana sometime in the 1960s, it opens with a black man, the title character, shooting his son in the courtroom where that young man had just been sentenced to death. Sims then tells the two deputies present to tell the sheriff to give him two hours. Then he leaves.  Much of the rest of The Tragedy of Brady Sims is given over to other characters talking about Sims, his past, what kind of man he is, and how it all came to this. A big part takes place in a barbershop, where the novel’s main narrator (there are two first person threads, though one is extremely brief), a black reporter, has gone to find material for a human interest story he’s been ordered to write. This is all on the day of the shooting, and in the barbershop is a guy who isn’t local. I liked this section a lot, in part because as the story of Brady Sims is being told by various characters in the barbershop (though one character dominates the telling), this out-of-towner becomes increasingly exasperated by how many irrelevant detours the storytellers take.
Anyway, The Tragedy of Brady Sims is an interesting book, a good one, that approaches its questions with the same unwillingness to create easy demons (and the same unwillingness to make excuses for evil) as Gaines’s earlier A Gathering of Old Men.

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I watched a couple of movies. I don’t care to spend much time on either of them, and in one case I don’t even like admitting I watched it. But 30 Years of Garbage: The Garbage Pail Kids Today is another entry in the “if I liked it when I was a kid it must have immense historical importance” documentary subgenre. There’s some good stuff early on about the history of Topps, and the artists who created Garbage Pail Kids, and some good stuff about the technical aspects of it all. But when it tries to go deeper, it slips and goes barreling headlong down a flight of stairs. Even Art Spiegelman can only offer up boilerplate “question authority” shit.
I also watched The Little Hours, an adaptation of The Decameron by the guy who made Joshy. Then again, I’ve never read The Decameron so maybe I should watch my mouth. Still, I didn’t much like The Little Hours. It’s never that funny, though it thinks it’s a hoot, cast to the gills with comedy stars both hip (Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman) and venerated (John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon), all of who do perfectly decent work in a film that wants to be Your Highness up until the point where it wants to actually be The Decameron.
Anyway, it’s over, and I’m choosing to move on with my life.

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