September 28, 2009

Landry, TX

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The whole place shook, windows busted, the lights flickered off and on, and a fine powder-dust sifted down from the ceiling, enough to choke the air.  Iris d'Mint stood outside her doublewide with a daughter under each arm.  She wanted to know if anyone had heard what happened down the road in Landry.  "Them rockets hit awful close by," she asked, "are those folks all right?"

            Dazed neighbors slowly made their way outside.  "I heard it's all on account of Washington," Crystal McNite said, still in her slinky nightgown.  She worked at the Road House Bar, when she worked at all.  "Them and the Minutemen want to keep the Mexican border under constant round-the-clock surveillance, so they came up with this idea to make the live feeds from the surveillance drones available on the Internet."

            "Hell no!" Iris retorted.  She clutched her daughters more closely to her sides than even before. 

            "Just the other day I heard them say so on the radio," Crystal went on a little more aggressively.  As usual she tried to force the point home the only way she knew how, which was with a hard sell.  "According to the GAO, or some such, it is the most 'cost effective' approach to monitoring such a long boundary line as we have with Mexico, the manpower necessary is simply more than anyone can handle.  The more eyeballs the better.  That was what the radio man said, anyway."

            "Just look at this mess," Iris d'Mint cocked her head in the direction of her place.  "My home is about to fall off its moorings.  Are you telling me that just any old snot-nosed nobody so-and-so with Internet access the world over can fly one of them nasty drones over my house?"  Iris was exasperated.  "Quite frankly I don't reckon none of it makes a damn lick of sense to me."

            "I saw the whole thing," Garry Quiver started in.  As far as anyone knew, the man slept with his eyes open, as if he was always expecting something terrible to happen any minute.  Anything that moved caught his eyes.  "I was parked up yonder hill all night."  He pointed to the toothy jagged ridge that loomed over their little cul-de-sack.  His eyes darted around wildly as he spoke.  "You could see the missiles rake the dessert sand.  If anyone lived out that way they are goners for sure."

            "The impact was felt as far as ten miles away," Crystal redoubled her self-satisfied tone of authority.  She didn't like it when Garry was around because he always made her feel self-conscious.  "They announced it on the radio that they nailed a parcel of illegals!" 

"There's no telling what was hit with all that firepower," the nervous man coughed into his elbow.  "Probably more like a poor coyote, or rattler.  On my way back here I stopped over to check on Clark Worthington, down by the gulch, and he said he heard on his satellite TV it was two guys sitting at a bar in an Australian strip-club in Sydney.  They told local reporters they thought they saw something move low to the ground in the shadows behind a shrub."

"You're telling me two drunk Aussies caused all this terrible mess?"  Iris choked back her anger.  She was clearly close to tears.  

"Phone's out," her husband Wilson d'Mint dejectedly mumbled as he brushed his hair back with his hand and came down the steps.  "Can't get a signal.  'Gonna have to go check on the feed store, myself." 

You would have thought a tornado had hit the town, some kind of awful hurricane anyway, except it was even worse than that.  The old Oak in the main square was still smoking when he pulled up to the curb.  Just about every building still standing was smoldering.  Firefighters, mostly volunteers, were doing their best to save what they could, but the wooden buildings kept falling.  Emergency medics tended to several others who must have gone to work early before the sun came up.  Otherwise the place was strangely quiet, like a vision of hell: cars turned upside down under a vivid purple morning sky, the carcass of a dog in the parking lot of the gutted strip-mall across the street, a geyser of orange flame where the gas station used to stand, nothing but the crackle-'n-pop of ruin up and down the road. 

"Genetically engineered, freak-of-nature monster Rainbow Trout over nine feet long, lawmen in the Capital just about criminalizing something new every day, and now this," Wilson exhaled.  "What next?"  He bent over to pick a dandelion that had somehow survived unscathed, the only colorful thing left, as far as he could make out in all that twisted wreck of singed lives and property ruined, and put it in his shirt pocket to give to Iris and the girls when he got back with the bad news about the store. 

Turning off the interstate another drone shot past him with an awful mean sounding whistle.  In his rearview mirror he saw the explosion a couple of seconds later. 

As he hung a right into the gravel drive he saw a troop of National Guard.  Heavy vehicles rumbled up the road.  Loudspeakers blared out evacuation orders.  A weekend warrior explained to anyone who cared to know why that Congress, in order to prevent a similar disaster from happening in the future, voted to expand the border by twenty miles.  "Everyone who lives in the newly declared no-man's land is ordered to immediately relocate!" the militia General barked into his megaphone.  "These soldiers have their orders.  Now move along people, we don't have all day!" 

Iris d'Mint witnessed a couple of National Guardsmen strong arm the elderly woman who lived down the street out of her house.  To get people to move faster, the soldiers prod them along with the business ends of their AK-47s.  Folks were screaming and crying and in all the chaos and hullabaloo some kids got separated from their parents and were walking around lost and afraid. 

"That there was the rat-tat-tat of semi-automatic weapons-fire," Wilson grimly told his wife.  "I'd recognize that sound anywhere."  He wiped off the stock of his own riffle.  Even if the d'Mints didn't want to go, it was too dangerous to stay.  If the missile attacks didn't kill them, the soldiers would.  Besides, even if they could stay, there was nothing left for them there.  In Drone Wars Version II the winged robots came in faster and more often.  After the last explosion the roof of the doublewide was stove-in by a fallen tree and their feed store had completely burned to the ground.  Everything they had known was vaporized and gone, just like changing the channel on TV. 

Iris d'Mint stuck the yellow flower behind her ear, packed the family up in their old Buick as fast as she could, and they drove up north a bit, past the military check-point, up to higher ground where they could park and watch the firestorm on the border from a safer distance, out of earshot of the ripple of percussive explosions.  As the late-afternoon sun came down the dessert sky seemed to flare up in an artificial shade of blue.  Drones zipped around.  "Some kids out there," she thought, "are sure having fun." 

 

--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2009



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September 22, 2009

LAPD Drone

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            A mile beneath the passing LAPD drone a jackrabbit froze with fear on the ledge of a clay mesa.  The sun was high when the unmanned remote control airplane nosed its way out of the red rock canyon. 

As it swept past the mountain foliage along the Angeles Crest, a family of deer stopped chewing flowers and pricked up their ears. 

At the antenna array near the Wilson Observatory, the remote control aircraft banked hard to the west, and swooped in over downtown Los Angeles.  Art Deco skyscrapers with Aztec themes, every last pane of glass top-to-bottom smashed in, tilted up at the drone.  If there were any folks down there among the ruins they definitely kept themselves out of sight of the winged robot's sensors.  Nothing but the saddest haunting howl of wind whistled through the grid of smashed glass and broken windows.

When the remote control plane unexpectedly turned in their direction, some Latino Emo Rockers skateboarding in the LA River, shaded their eyes to check it out. 

The flying robot sliced through the sky, its shadow wavering over the hot, graffitied concrete of the riverbed, its wingspan strangely silhouetted across the mangled steel of old abandoned train tracks, its dark outline slowly crawling over the vermin infested landfill mounds, the no-man's land of junk yards, and the smoldering black hillside tire dumps -- headed north, according to the computer, where there were nothing but miles of abandoned lots. 

"My nephew was talkin' shit about Evil 13," one gang-banger confided to another.  Both suspiciously eyeballed the approaching Predator, and braced themselves in case of trouble.  "He told me, 'I'm from Bell Gardens.'  I looked at the kid and I asked: 'Where are you from?'  He got my meaning.  'Nowhere,' Little Tee said.  'Damn straight,' I told him.  'Nowhere is right.'  Little Tee's got a sneaky uppercut and a wicked right hook," he relaxed a bit after the drone flew by.  "I think he can be the next de la Hoya, up to his eyeballs in pussy and cash.  That's what I told his mom..."

As the unmanned aerial vehicle continued its flight-path, it began to look more erratic.  A more seasoned viewer might have wondered whether there was something wrong with the drone operator, but the teenage black girl with a backpack on who caught sight of it near Mount Washington, sniffled, and thought little of the odd side-to-side motion the winged robot made.  She was more interested in feeling sorry for herself, and reluctantly continued on her way up the steep grade. 

            Just beyond her, three cars hugged the curb of a shuttered elementary school.  Not so long ago it was clearly an affluent neighborhood.  Now, no one was around anymore.  Up there among the old trees, it was quiet and desolate. 

Not that there was anyone outside of the surveillance crew to notice, but in contrast to the sad demeanor of the teenage girl, the people in the first two cars looked visibly anxious.  Even though it was Saturday, they were dressed in their Sunday church best.  The women wore big, taffeta hats in tasteful bright colors.  Their men were impeccably outfitted in fine dark suits and white shirts.  One, a big man with a shiny face, was a very well respected local Baptist minister.  The East side of LA was well outside of their comfort zone.  None of them looked too happy.  And, to see the drone come in behind the girl at such a strange angle definitely didn't help set anyone's nerves at ease. 

In the lead car, further down the block, sat a single man, no doubt on somebody's payroll.  The question was whether he was an undercover police officer provided by the city, or whether he was a rent-a-cop or bodyguard the pastor had contracted independently.  You could tell just by looking at him he was not a man accustomed to fear, but when he saw the Predator fly in with such menace, he didn't even try to hide his alarm. 

Across the street, a middle-aged white man in khakis raked leaves.  He was definitely LAPD undercover.  No question about it.  The minute he saw the drone overhead he dropped his act and radioed his commander.  He told the man on the other end that they were about to take the girl into custody and what the hell was the remote control airplane doing there anyway?  It wasn't part of the plan.  "Get it out of here before something goes wrong," the man urgently requested. 

            A trigger-happy drone operator was the last thing any of them needed.  The pastor held his breath as the winged robot angled in closer.  While he waited, he wiped his forehead with a starched white handkerchief. 

The girl was instructed to sit quietly in the backseat of the car until someone could call her parents and tell them the exchange had gone down successfully -- the kidnappers had released her unharmed.  She didn't make a sound, didn't put up any kind of argument.  They were the only ones up their on the mountaintop, without a doubt the reason the authorities had chosen it for the drop.  The girl knew it was time to face the music, and did as she was told.  Besides, she had caused enough trouble already, and anyway, her mind was elsewhere.  She never took her eyes off the drone even after it flew past them back out towards the freeway that flanked the backside of the mountain. 

            The initial explosion was loud.  No one but the teenage girl had cared to follow the drone's flight once it was clear it wasn't going to pose much of a risk to the outcome of the operation -- or bring any unwanted media scrutiny to the low-profile hush-hush undertaking.  She was the only one atop Mount Washington to witness the whole thing as it happened.  And it was amazing.  If anyone else up there had been watching, what they would have seen was a SkyView traffic helicopter hovering over the Golden State Freeway completely unaware of the LAPD drone that bore straight down on it. 

            "The rear propeller of the chopper was clipped by the winged remote control police robot," she told her older brother when he arrived with the rest of the family moments later.  "It looked like it flew in low, almost like it did so on purpose.  After the traffic helicopter was hit, the pilot never regained control.  Man it was crazy," she said.  "The copter spun wildly.  It bounced off the southbound lane of the freeway, clipped a taco truck, and skidded through the guardrail into the fast lane of oncoming traffic on the opposite side of the median strip.  'Took out a semi truck and exploded in a great ball of fire.  Don't know about anyone in the semi, but," she added, "I can tell you no one walked away from the chopper alive." 

She pointed out over the city.  "Looks like the drone fired its payload somewhere west of here, but it must have been damaged when it hit the chopper, 'cause there's another plume of black smoke up by Griffith Park."

On the Glassell Park side of the mountain, another witness, much closer to the freeway and the actual mid-air collision, when questioned by police, wondered out loud: "What the hell does the LAPD expect when they let kids fly these drones around like anybody's business?" 

A wail of sirens rang out as squad cars, fire engines, and other emergency vehicles including ambulances, fanned out to the three separate locations.  "It's a no-brainer," the Glassell Park eyewitness continued to harangue the uniformed man who came to her door.  "Just look at the advertisements for Drone Wars Version I.  Can't miss 'em.  They got 'em posted everywhere around town.  On all those electronic LED billboards and all.  It's not exactly like brain surgery or anything.  First chance any of these kids get, no big surprise, they are going to hotdog and do stupid shit like this."

 

--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010

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Some Old Print Ads

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Originally published in Meise #1, 2003

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Originally published in Meise #2, 2004

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Originally published in Meise #3, 2006

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I Want to Kiss Your Apocalypse

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            Corniness is the other side of marvelousness.  What

            person believing in a fantasy can bear to have its other

            side discovered. --Jack Smith

 

Although D.H. Lawrence's posthumously published Apocalypse and the 1932 horror flick The Mask of Fu Manchu appear within a year of each other, they could not represent more opposite views of the primitive and exotic symbology of Orientalism.  Apocalypse makes a strong case for the poetics of ancient and mystical archetypes, while the classic B movie, starring Boris Karloff as the fiendish Dr. Fu Manchu, reveals a paranoid Western attraction for Orientalism. While the fantastic language and proto-psychedelic imagery of the DHL essay is inspired, it is, however, difficult not to view its exotic and primitive passion through the simulated cartooniness exemplified in a flick like Fu Manchu. 

DHL's last essay, Apocalypse, is probably the most coherent record of his Romantic and individualistic personal politics, and proposes an extremely unselfconscious celebration of Orientalism.  DHL, in fact, perversely chooses "primal stupidity" over what he calls the "new impudence"--the contemptuous disregard we have for the great cultures that have come before ours.  While, at the other extreme, The Mask of Fu Manchu presents a deeply acculturated example of pre-war Hollywood's absurdly comical caricature of Asian culture.   There is a self-contradiction in the movie that would later become integral to Camp iconography.  More than anything else, Hollywood is in the business of producing desirable images.  No matter how anti-Orientalist and paranoid the movie's sentiment is, it needs to idealize its subject.  Even when the outsider is demonized, a perfected stereotype is required to heighten the fantasy.  In his novel The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer provides the first description of the film's villain.  Rohmer writes: "Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green... Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man."  Fu Manchu's xenophobia sharply contrasts DHL's naive optimism of direct and unmediated involvement.  In fact, the movie manifests many of the same traits DHL is critical of in Revelation, especially the random redistribution of primitive iconography into simple polarities, like us vs. them.

Revelation is, admittedly, much more bizarre than Fu Manchu.  It is the vision of John of Patmos, in which he is transported to a parallel universe where half-human/half-animal beasts with amazing powers still rule the day.  The attributed author and protagonist has disturbing visions of Armageddon and a bejeweled golden city afloat on shiny crystals in outer-space.  And it doesn't stop there.  Revelation Christ is not the hippie-Christ who rides around on a donkey preaching love.  John envisions the first rider of the apocalypse with silver hair, fiery red eyes, day-glo green skin, and a long bloody saber jutting out of his mouth.  What DHL finds so loathsome in Revelation, are not so much the strange visions--a pregnant woman perched on the crest of the moon and "clothed with the sun," horses with scorpion tails, or monsters made of eyeballs--but the pan-mythological mix-and-match of these clearly Pagan symbols.   In the strange world at the end of the portal, there's no shortage of primitive and primal figures.  Very old and archetypal powers abound.  They are equally at play under the emerald rainbow of the heavenly throne where six-winged beasts mix up designer drugs that are methodically dispensed to desexualized white-frocked men so they can plague the mortal world, as they are present among the racier earthbound men and woman who live among dragons and leopard creatures with bear's feet and lion's teeth.  And, who's to say which apparition is more monstrous?  Still, somehow, the six-winged beasts who dispense poison and the white frocked man--whom William Blake portrayed as a bearded, plump, pink skinned and big bosomed androgen--are the winners! 

Even as a negative example of vengeful browbeating, it's hard to tune out the righteous tone of Revelation's blood lust.  This is the infamous book wherein the number of the beast is revealed as "Six hundred threescore and six," and where the jeweled Whore of Babylon sits upon a "scarlet colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns."  In taking on such loaded language, DHL faces the same kinds of obstacles that Black Sabbath did in its Gothic self-styling.  Both are equally attracted to the mystery of a sensual and powerful pre-modern sensibility.  DHL's point is that in our self-policing (Christian-psychoanalytic) world, the poetic fantasy tends to get pre-figured in the kind of visionary language that DHL criticizes as "moralistic or ecstatic."  In order to appropriate primitive cosmologies, symbols are redeployed as metaphor.  The dragon, or ancient Logos, for example, is no longer recognized as the natural/amoral power of cosmic energy that it was once understood to represent.  It is, instead, recast as Satan, or the metaphor for pure evil with 666 branded in the middle of its forehead.  Like DHL's attraction to the cosmic Pagan iconography so oddly prominent in Revelation, Sabbath's attraction to the poetic iconography of Alister Crowley and the Occult was not meant to reflect their own off-the-shelf Catholic tastes.  When asked about the bands supernatural symbolism, John "Ozzy" Osbourne went so far as to say that the band's only real interest was due to how fashionable it was in London at the time.  And, yet, even though it was probably not their intention, a clawing preachiness lingers in the band's Medieval sensibility. 

DHL, who is clearly no saint, comes similarly close to his subject and gets caught up in the infectious nastiness of Revelation.  No doubt, Apocalypse, drafted within months of DHL's death, literally represents the final words of a complex psychology that is still hard at work to liberate its own personal cosmology from the ecstatic language of detached absolutes-- and fittingly, the essay is left unfinished.  On numerous occasions, however, DHL expresses surprisingly uncharacteristic anti-Semitic sentiments.  The Jewish Messiah is described as vengeful... as opposed to DHL's celebration of imaginative and sensual vitality, the Jewish people are characterized as "bookish" and "great keepers of accounts: reckoning up sins throughout the ages," etc.  As a result, the essay is not able to fully account for one of the misconceptions attributed to Orientalism.  In exalting the barbarian as exotic, DHL denigrates the transcendental fantasy-scape as monstrous.  The animal is placed above the intellect (a sentiment not uncommon in our super body-con culture of personal consumption).  An age-old paradox, not lost on the horror movie genre, is somewhat obscured in the essay: if the monster is by definition that which we are not (Oriental), then shouldn't it encompass both what is divine and what is animal? 

Dr. Fu Manchu is just such a monster of the silver screen--supposedly doubly frightening for his feline features and extreme intellect.  Where Revelation represents more of a suppressed Orientalism, Fu Manchu is totally anti-Orientalist.  Gone from the picture are the magic six-winged beasts that lord over heaven and lend the pale androgens their powers of absolute destruction (whether or not they still count out their cryptic numerology in the boardrooms of trans-national corporations is, however, not clear).  The heroines and heroes of Fu Manchu are perfectly white-bread ladies and gentleman, fresh from the Banana Republic outlet store in their oversized safari gear.  Their mission, which they accept with unwavering zeal, is to foil the fiendish Dr. Fu Manchu's plot to take over the world.  The race is on.  In order to prevail they must unearth the sword and mask of Genghis Kahn before it gets into the hands of the diabolical genius.  There is no attempt to psychologize Dr. Fu Manchu as a perversion hidden in the recesses of the human heart.   The villainous Fu Manchu is not the monster within that emerges in the scientific era.  Rohmer simply tells us to "Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present..."  The movie's overt bigotry is not diminished by the blankness of the monster.  What is diminished is the ability of the demon to frighten (which is probably why, for many years, horror movies did not like to reveal their monsters).  In order to make the beast truly horrible and frightening it must be differentiated from the norm, and made exotic.  Since the effect is generally achieved by idealizing the subject, the monster has to be extra-special--more splendid than the world it haunts.  In order to make Dr. Fu Manchu horrible, in order, in other words, to set the villain apart from the rest of the world, the movie monster has to be astonishing, quite literally bigger than life, and is represented as an excess of artifice.  The beast literally becomes a caricature of itself: a joke monster!  The short-lived Tales of Bizarro World series of Superman comics is a great example of how absolutely idiotic the spoof-villain can get.  Bizarro World, as the reader was reminded on the first page of every new installment, is the inverse dimension of our universe.  Everything in this world is the exact opposite of the world we live in.  The Bizarro World planet is square, baseball players hit the bat with the ball, failure is the highest possible achievement, monsters are hailed as heroes, every building is crooked except the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the U.S. flag is hung upside down, etc.  The only really creepy thing about the strip is that Bizarro Superman is rendered crystalline like a pseudo-modernist robot, and the entire adult male population of the planet consists of his identical replicants.  Dr. Fu Manchu is, of course, not meant as a spoof.  Boris Karloff plays him marvelously and he's intended to look every inch the "yellow peril incarnate."  Yet, in constructing the exotic monster, the film has to simulate the very aspect of Orientalism that it finds so disturbing--Orientalism's undeniable allure.  It is forced to invent its own artificial version of exotic primitivism; a sense of desire whose exoticism is determined by the monster's excessively indulgent self-caricature--its simulacral otherness. 

Humor also inadvertently creeps into Apocalypse, generally resulting from some odd juxtaposition of language in sentences like, "But our modern police-women have no nakedness, they have their uniforms.  And who could want to fight the dragon of the old form, the poisonous old Logos, for the sake of a police-woman's uniform?"  Otherwise, DHL is railing against Democracy, "Whose motto," he writes "is: we have nothing and therefore nobody shall have anything!"  Or, he is promoting the rugged individualist who sets out on his own--whom he calls the "noble aristocrat"--to escape the "meaninglessness" and "powerlessness" of the "modern world."  DHL's is a kind of back-to-nature ethos, a preference for ancient knowledge, and his Orientalist take on the vital power of the cosmic life-force is probably best updated by a quote from The Soft Boys:  "They say you pass through life, but it seems more like life passes through you."  As a consequence, Apocalypse can be difficult to penetrate.  Aside from the inherent Dungeons & Dragons corniness of Revelation that practically reads like the latest Marine Corps ad campaign, there is a more general sense in which the Pagan symbology has been received in the West primarily as caricature.  From the outset, it is clear that DHL's intention in Apocalypse is to recuperate the pantheism from Revelation.  Direct access is, however, as difficult today as it was then.  Such a pantheism has not only been subsumed by the morality of Christian dogma (the apocalypse which Revelation describes), it has also been recast in horror movies, pulp fiction, heavy metal, etc. (white culture Orientalizing itself).  To regain some sense of the primal meaning DHL is intent upon requires working through the moral metaphor and artificial exoticism of its popular reception.

 

--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2001, originally published for the show by the same name at London Street Projects. 



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September 14, 2009

Final Boarding Call

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            Of all the dumb luck Gunner Thompson had to kick the bucket Monday morning.  They wanted me to write a press release for the media.  God damn it!  It had been years since I had to put out copy that crappy.  Wasn't I senior staff for shit's sake?  What was I supposed to write?  Gunner Thompson was the best?  Gunner Thompson had class?  Those were the good old days before the age of character assassination?  Before hacks like me came along and ruined it all?  Before the 24-7 news cycle when gentlemen were still gentlemen and ladies were still ladies and everyone had white picket fences and bought soda pop at the pharmacy?  Well screw that! 

So what if purple prose is my particular style.  I'm a proud industry hack.  No one ever wrote a finer run-on sentence than I did, except maybe Lautremont.  I mean the dude got the prize.  The guy could go on for pages.  But, what of it?  Everyone new he was psycho, certifiably nuts, crazy, not to mention soft in the head!  I am more like Mitch Courtney from The Space Merchants -- "copysmith star class".  The shit I put out is top-of-the-line, number one, best in the biz.  Maybe I don't have the jingle-jangle , elastic-band discipline, tight as a Kinks song, like others, but I have a flair for the epic, the grandiose, life under The Big Tent.  No one can match me for my exploitation of pathos.  If there is a heart-wrenching storyline I get it.  When you read my stuff and the subject takes a spill and skins his chin, I want you to feel the sting and taste the dirt and blood in your mouth like it was you who just fell on your face. 

"Old geezer died in his sleep" was simply not going to cut it.  High drama was called for -- operatic drama that would make your hairs all stand on end like you just got a little electric shock.  I was thinking something along the lines of the JFK assassination scenario the protagonist comes up with in Terry Southern's short story "The Blood of the Wig".  Nothing so totally creepy as the paranoid schizophrenic hallucination he comes up with, though we don't really know what it was, except that it was in really bad taste.  No, if I had to do this, I was going to go for something even more sensational and over the top. 

            All I knew about the man was that he was as old as the hills, maybe older.  Gunner Thompson was one of McCarthy's oldest friends and political allies.  He got where he got by throwing his competition under the bus.  All I knew was all I heard, and all I ever heard was how those guys and gals were so God-dam famous for their dignity and grace despite what everyone said about them.  Well check this!  I've never checked a fact in my whole entire life.  Story is legend.  How am I supposed to check if Gunner Thompson's mother actually said "It was like he was trying to prove that you could live by eating snot alone", there was no way to know for sure if he was really ever put into shop class because he tried to burn down his high-school, or later in life if he was ever actually over-heard to scream in a private bathhouse stall:  "Suck it hippie, suck it!" 

Fact checking can go to hell for all I care.  I mean this guy was like the no-good, low-life punk in Freaks and Geeks who, when pressed to answer a question on a math test he was accused of cheating on, doodles for his answer:  "'Zepelin' Rules!" 

Everyone knew Gunner Thompson was the biggest boozer and sexaholic in the county.  Everyone knew he practically single handedly kept the industrial pharmaceutical giants in business, and from what I heard he generally taught the legendary Shakes-the-Clown every act of perversion the sad sack ever engaged in.  How am I supposed to fact check that little bit of information?  It's not like it's just sitting there in some arcane database waiting for me to figure out the correct search terms.  Let's face it, all I really knew about the man was that he had a bad porn name, the kind network Weather Reporters these days have in the local news, like Dallas Rains and Johnny Thunder, but not even that good because the old fart's name sounded so God-awfully out of date by today's standards, like it was the pseudonym of a men's magazine writer from the late Fifties or early Sixties. 

            For the sake of full-disclosure the last time I even saw the chicken-hawk weasel was at a Christmas Pool Party up in the Hills about ten years ago.  I only remember because my boss asked me if I was going to let Gunner drive home drunk.  "What do you want me to do?" I asked.  "Tie him up and throw him over the saddle of my horse?  Put him in a flowery dress?" 

Chuck Barris already clamed he was a game-show pioneer by day and a CIA agent by night in his 1984 autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.  So the spy thriller angle was tired.  I mean the guy was the lowest form of human filth whose best idea of dignity was rampaging around like a maniac, destroying everything he came into contact with, like the kabala-inspired zombie in The Golem.  I briefly entertained the idea I could make him out as some kind of avenging Jewish angel made of dirt, but I tried to picture a hulking mud Gunner Thompson squishing phantom-like through the halls of Hollywood High, scaring all the little kids half to death, and I couldn't quite make it work.  For starters, he was a big sporty blonde guy. 

Dream sequences are generally frowned upon, especially if the story ends: "And then he (or she) woke up."  But if you start right off with a dark anxiety fantasy you can get away with a bit more poetic license because there's the added advantage of foreshadowing the inner turmoil of the character.  Despite the pleas from my boss to just get the damn thing out the door, I adamantly believed we had to get inside the head of this guy, or failing that, get inside the inner-life of some guy, try and come up with some kind of believable motivation.  I mean besides the simple fact that Gunner Thompson was the worst kind of slob.  Dreams are good mood setters and they can go a long way to establish a salable temperament where otherwise there was none. 

So Gunner Thompson was on the run.  "Robot grasshoppers chased him through the ghost town.  Tinny silver-alloy bodies bound across empty streets, past Jack-O'-Lantern houses -- windows and doors all boarded up -- set loose to hunt him down."  In constructing the surreal Gothic necropolis of male fantasy the sky is the limit, nothing is too far fetched, you can exaggerate every detail like a mad German Expressionist. 

"Spindly steely police bugs clicked and clattered as they chased him down the empty streets with tiny spotlights mounted on their bug-skulls, each aimed at his heels, miniature video cameras for eyes that zoomed in and out."  I emphasized how steely the machines were.  How they all did the job they were supposed to do, without question, like good robots do.  I even indulged in a little comic relief as I elaborated about how the first wave of police drones were followed by more sophisticated robots, one for every task imaginable.  I wanted to create the feeling of a deadly urban theme park and there has to be something funny about that. 

"Some police robots dug up the ground to analyze soil samples for signs of life.  Others were robot trackers, robot archeologists, robot sociologists, robot historians, robot shrinks, robot prospectors, robot whores, robot addicts"... anything I could think up... you name it, it just poured out like brain-vomit from my cracked skull.  But what I most wanted the reader to feel was the thing that scared Gunner Thompson more than the robot lawmen and their robot bugs, more than anything else; namely, himself. 

"When Gunner Thompson opened his eyes, this time with a start, his heart was in his mouth and he was out of breath.  All around him metallic grasshoppers glinted, and their mechanical mandibles clicked at his feet with robot malice."

 A sense of dread and powerlessness was what I was after.  "Gunner Thompson lay on his back and squinted up at the officer in charge.  As the man came closer he was struck dumb with fear.  The man who approached him was his exact double.  It was like the moment in the 1978 remake of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers where the lead character, confronted with his inhuman double, hesitates for a moment at the prospect of pitch forking it to death." 

My main point was not to imply a difference between the two, but to show how similar they were.  "His nose bled," I wrote,  "The nose of his double bled."  I wanted the reader to understand Gunner Thompson's anger at seeing his own ugly mug, I mean really seeing it for the first time.  He wants to scratch out the eyes of his double.  Looking at himself in the face of his twin he imagines he claws and claws at the reflection, but it is hopeless.  "No matter how deep his fingernails dug into the skin of his reflection there was nothing but makeup."  I turned it up a notch.  "He wanted to obliterate the hideous image of his double, but the deeper he imagined he dug his fingernails into its face the less there was to claw at, until there was almost nothing left of the putty face that stared back down at him but a messy stump of concave flesh." 

            Arlington Road made the most sense to me as an inspiration for the world Gunner Thompson woke up to the next morning.  A kind of neo-realist suburban sprawl is depicted in the movie, not quite with the kind of fake documentary style fashionable these days, but definitely favoring some hard-to-define uncanny notion of hyper-clarity.  An anarchist terrorist is bent on the destruction of the country.  A college professor is obsessed with conspiracy theories ever since his FBI wife was gunned down in a raid gone awry on a well-armed cult enclave.  Faraday does his best to foil a terrorist attack on The Hoover Building only to test the limits of his own sanity.  In the end he realizes he was the dupe all along, set up by puppet masters he was totally unaware were pulling the strings. 

Not that Gunner Thompson is any smarter than Faraday.  If you haven't figured it out yet, the guy was a dope.  Faraday is obviously supposed to be smart.  He is a college professor, after all, and what makes the picture move at the clip it does is that he holds fast to his personal and intellectual ideals right till the bitter end when he and everyone else discover the explosives they are all looking for are packed in the trunk of his car and its too late, the bomb is about to go off.  I can't stress it enough.  Gunner Thompson was a total and complete moron -- way too stupid and rudderless to stick to anyone else's game plan.  Faraday's undoing is that he is selflessly driven by good intentions.  Megalomania was more Gunner Thompson's trip.  His own ass came first and last and always.  In many ways it was even better than Faraday's personality flaw.  How tragic is the man who only cares about #1?  Given the right set of circumstances, you could snap such an ego between your fingers like a greasy chicken bone.  I'm all for the story that overtakes the story, and if Gunner Thompson never had a conscience to speak of, by golly I was going to furnish him with one. 

            There's something implicitly dreamy about strict factual accounts, especially if they are momentum driven.  All I really needed was an event to jolt the big lug out of his meat-headed complacency, the more theatrical the better.  Dress up some local talent and give them a little direction, was all I needed to do, nothing too hard to remember.  And I got a gift in the form of a ripe news item.  Several days ago a prominent member of the company's board of trustees was reported as missing under "mysterious circumstances".  The man has since been found pant-less and sleeping off a drunk in a dyke near the Sultan Sea.  Gunner Thompson, though, could never have known that the board member was discovered a couple of days later a little scruffy and worse for wear, but perky and even surprisingly vital as evidenced by the footage of him smiling for the camera and giving a thumbs-up sign.

            The office digs were thoroughly modern -- all steel, marble, and glass -- designed to let the light in, an architectural Baroque wet dream of unexpected lines of sight and distorted reflections.  Gunner Thompson would have awakened from one dream-space into another.  Los Angeles Plays Itself is Thom Andersen's tribute to LA.  He puts together a history of the city based on how Hollywood has used and abused the local landscape as a backdrop for some of its most famous pictures.  Among the many insights is the way modern architecture, including folks like Frank Lloyd Wright, is generally used by the film industry as the domicile locations for arch-villains, with the noted if ambiguous exception of the Mayan House interiors in Blade Runner, left open to question only because it is ultimately unclear if the main character is human or machine. 

There is an argument to be made that our consciousness can only expand so far without experiencing serious trauma.  I tend to doubt it, but what I can't take away from the flick is the point that Hollywood has always seen through the cultural optimism of modernity to its darker side.  The Renaissance scribbler Leon Alberti never imagined a world where there could be so many windows.  Poor Gunner Thompson.  The man may have taken every conceivable advantage of his station in life, but he was definitely not a modern man.  All the geometric angles and the harsh daylight pouring in every-which-way would have likely confused him upon waking, not to mention all the electronic windows that pulsed around him, like the array of oversized computer and video monitors on his wall.  For a split second he might actually have thought he was still dreaming. 

            "Gunmen climbed the stares," I pressed on.  "Gunner Thompson saw two of them round the corner with automatic weapons and ducked under his desk.  Two more advanced from the back." 

In reality Gunner would probably have gone out to greet them.  When it came to spontaneous interviews the man was the king of drunken rambling.  In an instant he could forget the mental calculus required to keep all his romantic affairs in order, and shove the microphone in your face with the hot shiny eyes of a boozehound.  There was never a let down in his enthusiasm.  Big story or little story he always gave it his incoherent all.  After watching a televised red carpet event, my friend's eight-year-old once parodied his buoyant hyperbolic style by saying, "He poured the water onto the dirt.  And look -- mud!"  Even if the man didn't have an interview lined up there was always the priceless commentary you could expect from the sidelines. 

What would Gunner Thompson have said about the gunmen?  He would probably have reached into his glad-bag and pulled out something like a Cruising reference.  A cop goes undercover to solve a murder in what the promotional material for the movie described as New York City's "sleazy gay underground".  Gunner Thompson wouldn't have missed a beat.  The gunmen who entered the building had their weapons drawn, but they were all wrong from the point of view of a Great Generation army veteran.  For him it would have been genuinely surprising that the contemporary American fascist esthetic, whether for cops or the armed forces, was so close to gay S&M drag.  I had to move the story along before the ornery bastard said: "Get a load of these guys, folks, they look like fags!" 

            The challenge was to convince him that what he saw first-hand was the assassination of the board member.  "When he made it safely down to the causeway," I wrote, "he took a knee behind a large protruding block of concrete.  The sun was bright overhead, but when he squinted he could see above him.  And on the roof of the structure he'd just escaped, stood a single gunman with a long black rifle.  When he saw the puff of smoke and heard the loud report, his eyes instinctively slid down the trajectory of the barrel to try and see the target.  A body lay prone in the parking lot two stories down, but his view of it was partially blocked by a large tree."  If I could only plant a seed of doubt in his head I could maybe hope to convince him that he was witness to the board member's murder.  Gunner Thompson resisted the suggestion more vigorously than I thought he would, but he finally gave into the fact he had just seen someone wasted, that much seemed real, anyway, and it could very well have been a prominent member of the corporation. 

I left well enough alone.  If the old man was seriously convinced he saw a killing, I could very probably persuade him of just about anything.  And if I wanted to make him think he was in some way responsible for the assassination I had to come up with a reporter who would tell the story I wanted told.  The shrinking violet Anna Winter came to mind readily.  She was made up and dressed like the famous Vogue editor by the same name and quickly dispatched to cover the story of a growing crowd of mourners outside company headquarters.  They were gathered outside our metropolitan offices peering over the yellow police tape at the chalk outline on the ground.  The well-wishers looked a bit stone-faced to me, like they were blankly staring at the building, but Anna Winter jumped in at exactly the right moment with her pronouncement that the board member was "beloved by all!" 

"Gunner Thompson made his way to the bathroom." I felt confident enough at this point to slip in the phrase: "Something nagged at him."  Everyone who ever met the cretin knew full well the man had no scruples.  But there he was staring into a toilet bowl with his brand-name poise in shambles, wondering if this time he had really been party to more than just the usual character assassination.

I sent in the jack-boots to collect him as fast as possible.  The old man was pulled from the bathroom kicking and screaming, babbling the kind of shit any sane person would describe as paranoid delusion.  My nefarious agents had a heck of a time restraining him until they got him to the airport terminal.  It took a while, but eventually Gunner Thompson resigned himself to his fate.  This airplane ride would be his last.  There was no doubt of that.  His destination was his death, and maybe that's what he deserved.  Maybe he'd been a real asshole and a creep all his life, like everyone said, the kind of swine who trashed other people's lives, but never considered his own role in the destruction of reputations and all the countless many nervous breakdowns he had no doubt helped to trigger with his revealing insult-comic-style profiles.  Maybe it was time to finally look hard into his own soul, and maybe what he saw was an ugly monster -- it sure looked that way to the rest of us! 

The final boarding call eventually got him out of his seat.  Four agents accompanied him.  Two went ahead and two followed behind in case he made any last minute attempt to run, but he didn't.  Gunner Thompson looked around to the small flock of fans that reached out to him with mementos they wanted autographed and said his last good-buys.

***

There was a little more to the dream I left out earlier.  Gunner Thompson's double is standing over him.  "Metal alloy machines tested their own equipment, flexed, started, stopped, extended and retracted electric organs, pirouetted, swung axe blades and wielded other brutal implements.  His double in the black military uniform spit.  Gunner Thompson was dragged to a field behind a shed by a machine that looked something like the Mars Rover, except without the solar panels which were in any case useless in a dark necropolis.  'Shit-for-brains,' the officer grunted.  'Say yer prayers.'  A magnificent cacophony of gears and hydraulics and belts filled the night.  His double watched with sinister glee as the shiny robots did their work.  'So long, Gunner Thompson,' he said, and pulled his night-vision goggles down over his eyes."  I changed the line after to read, "What happened next was pretty unclear," and sent it on its merry way. 

 

--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2009



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The Eyeless Automaton

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Just as the fleshless human skull with worms and snakes writhing out of its hollow eye-sockets became a popular image of mortal doom during the Middle Ages, the android double with unblinking, black pools for eyes in The Stepford Wives (1975) was, for a late 20th-century audience, anyway, definitely among the more fearsome of unnatural depictions. The original eyeless automaton was the Romantic horror writer E.T.A. Hoffmann's bleak invention -- a wooden doll's face with dark, empty orbs where there should have been eyes; a specter of lifeless beauty to which Sigmund Freud over one hundred years afterwards dedicated the significant part of his interpretation of the uncanny. While subsequent storytellers like Robert Bloch tended to favor Freud's clinical read, downplaying the more disturbing symbolism of Hoffmann's allegorical monster, Stepford Wives Director Bryan Forbes saw the far greater potential of assimilating the superstitious and occult iconography of the Romantic horror story into his depiction of the twisted male fantasy of the suburban, robot housefrau.

            Hoffmann's "The Sand-man", upon which Freud relied heavily for his analysis of primitive fear, was in large part a product of the prevailing cultural mood of subjective uncertainty and psychic turmoil at the beginning of the 19th-century. Maybe Hoffmann's contemporary Heinrich von Kleist expressed the general anxiety best in a couple of letters written in 1801. "Lately," Kleist wrote to his then fiancee Wilhelmine von Zenge, "I became acquainted with the recent so called Kantian philosophy." The challenge to Enlightenment principals apparently had a profound affect on the writer. Thereafter the tone of his dispatches takes a turn for the worse. To Wilhelmine, he complained, "We cannot determine whether what we call truth really is truth, or only seems so to us." To his half-sister Ulrike, Kleist melodramatically opined, "The thought that here on earth we know nothing of the truth, absolutely nothing... has shaken me in the very sanctuary of my soul -- my only purpose, my supreme purpose has collapsed; I have none left." Hoffmann, it appeared, thrived, if only creatively, on such anxiety and indecision. The characters he created could seldom tell fantasy from reality; a great fan of the doppelganger motif, veracity and identity in his stories was constantly cast into doubt; advances in science and technology provided a regular source of phenomenon which cruelly tricked the senses and played havoc on the mind; and, just as significantly, old-world magic and superstition were never too far afield, and always lurked around the very next corner. Throughout "The Sand-man" things are rarely, if ever, what they seem. Nathanael has great trouble distinguishing the folk tale of the ogre who pours fine particles of sand on children's eyes to make their lids feel heavy with sleep, and the trauma of his father's death in a laboratory explosion. In fact, Nathanael's fragile, ever more fallible mental state colors every detail of the story. The most common objects, like a spy-glass, gain, by inference, magical powers. Nathanael's own faculties of perception constantly betray him. So much so, the object of his over-passionate adoration, it turns out, is nothing more than a wooden mannequin.

            Freud recognized in "The Sand-man" a virtual lexicon of Romantic horror motifs by which he could describe the uncanny. Nathanael's confusion of the Olimpia doll for an actual living being was not, however, what most resonated with the analyst. Freud found Hoffmann's appropriation of the childhood legend of the Sand-man much more compelling. For greater effect, Hoffmann had embellished the tale a little bit, and, consequently, the phantom was given a slightly more lurid spin than usual. In Hoffmann's version the fiend came at night to little children in their sleep to rob them of their eyeballs. According to the nursemaid: "He is a bad man who comes to children when they won't go to bed and throws a handful of sand in their eyes, so that their eyes jump out of their heads, all bleeding. He then throws their eyes in his bag and takes them off to the half-moon as food for his children. These children sit up there in their nest; they have hooked beaks like owls, and use them to peck up the eyes of the naughty little girls and boys." Freud's argument was that the uncanny was not frightening because it was alien to our sensibility. More accurately, such a fear came about at the moment when what was previously considered familiar was rendered unfamiliar. So the argument went, folk tales like the one about the Sand-man, told over time, may have come to appear innocuous at first but they have not entirely lost the gravity of their original meaning; in some cases they still provide us with a link to our most primitive archetypes. The uncanny pertained particularly to those primal fears which, to quote Evil Dead II (1987), "were and will be again". Freud, of course, had his own peculiar agenda for focusing exclusively on the theft of the eyeballs. In "The Uncanny" the "loss of the eyes" was offered as the single most important motif in Hoffmann's tale. All other myriad possibilities, no matter how probable, were dismissed out of hand. The predictably single-minded psychoanalyst wasted absolutely no time in ascribing the bedtime story to his own nightmare scenario of "castration anxiety".

            Robert Bloch (best known for Psycho) was among the rare writers, in the wake of Freud's take on the uncanny, to revisit Hoffmann's theme of a wooden doll mysteriously brought to life. Originally published in the 1939 volume of Weird Tales, "Mannikins of Horror" is essentially the story of Edgar Colin's God complex. Once a doctor, Colin marks his days and nights in an asylum for the incurably insane feverishly making pint-sized clay figures that are anatomically perfectly correct. Although Bloch primarily wrote horror stories, he couldn't help but share in the general modern-day skepticism for primitive superstition. Unlike Freud, however, Bloch was not afraid to take on the more cryptic implications in Hoffmann's motif of an animated man-made object. Boundaries between science and sorcery understandably become blurred when the subject is artificial life. Bloch's representation of the mannequin was further updated by the Frankenstein monster which had already given a stark form to the theme of fragmented subjectivity. The Hans Belmer-like image of the schizophrenic body as an assemblage of many parts which barely hold together is Bloch's own touch. It is a theme that is, admittedly, more developed in the original story than it is in the Amicus film version, Asylum (1972). In crucial ways the picture favored Freud's scientific gloss of the Sand-man over Hoffmann's darker meaning. Amicus was an early champion of the comic book inspired multi-story movie format. To increase the suspense, Director Roy Ward Baker used "Mannikins of Horror" as a loose framework in which to present a number of other Bloch stories as shorter vignettes: notably including "Frozen Fear", a tale of marital discord and murder gone awry; and, "Lucy Comes To Stay", about a mentally disturbed woman who is haunted by a diabolical make-believe friend (played by Britt Ekland). There are, in the screenplay, a number of minor alterations to Bloch's original story. Colin's name, for example, is mysteriously changed to Byron. The major distinction between the two versions, however, are the details of how the mannequin is brought to life. In a strangely comical moment in Asylum, Byron is pictured desperately willing his consciousness into the clay automaton by staring at it as hard as he can; found no where in the original Hoffmann tale, it is an image which instead makes clear reference to Freud's anecdote of a little girl who was convinced her dolls would come to life if she simply looked at them "as intensely as possible". While "Mannekins of Horror" dabbles with the theme of telepathic transference, it is, on the whole, much more faithful to Hoffmann's idiosyncratic obsession with the significance of the doll's eyes.

            "The Sand-man" is as much about the black visions and terrible omens that hound Nathanael to his eventual death as it is about the art of telling a tall tale. To underscore Hoffmann's experimentation with the artifice of narrative voice, the story is itself proposed as a segmented composite of at least three distinct personalities. He did not set out to sensationalize the rantings of a crazy subject. Hoffmann's intention was to write a story from a delusional point of view. His aim was to actually attempt to construct a mood of incoherence and dementia, to see the world, in other words,  as Nathanael might have seen it. But Hoffmann was not content to simply give us Nathanael's voice of insanity. His fiancée Clara's clinical and reasonable response to his alarming letter also provides the reader with a rational perspective that allows us to suffer shock and embarrassment at the frightening delusions which characterize the young man's rapid descent into madness. The result is a fragmented story based on Nathanael's paranoid reoccurring nightmare from childhood in which the old man Coppelius is actually the Sand-man who goes around stealing the eyes from little children in order to bring to life the eyeless automatons he and his father build in the laboratory at night. Nathanael's initial decent into total mental depravity occurs at the moment when he realizes the object of his adoration was nothing more than an inanimate puppet. Not only are many of the characters in the story interchangeable, so are Hoffmann's symbols for madness and death. Frantic with despair Nathanael imagines it is the cursed Sand-man, this time in the guise of Coppola, who has played this treacherous and evil trick on him. Hoffmann wrote: "Nathanael was stupefied -- he could see only too distinctly that in Olimpia's pallid waxed face there were no eyes, merely black holes in their stead."

            "Mannikins of Horror" and The Stepford Wives pick up on the motif of the eyeless automaton slightly differently. Bloch only subtly alludes to it when he describes one of Colin's doll-sized, clay puppets: "It was a perfect man, with unusually muscled arms, and very long fingernails. The teeth, too, were very good. But the figure was incomplete. It had no face." To complete the automaton and grant it life, Colin, so it follows, must give it a face and eyes. The Stepford Wives, which begins with the ironic foreshadowing of a man awkwardly carrying a naked mannequin down a Manhattan street, makes much more overt references to Hoffmann's eyeless doll. As a number of critics were quick to point out, while it is difficult to gauge the sincerity of the film's satirical, political intent (is it a stab at misogynist male fantasy, or a poke at mainstream feminist paranoia?), the outcome of The Stepford Wives is very predictable. In the era of the big American station wagon with faux wood paneling, Joanna Eberhart, a self-described "hopeful, would-be semi-professional" shutterbug, moves to a small suburban community with her husband and two children. Everything seems perfectly placid and idyllic in this bucolic world far from the noise and hazards of the big city. There is, however, something wrong with the women of Stepford. They have no more personality than your average television commercial housewife. One by one they all eventually turn into these automaton-like house fraus, and Joanna soon realizes it's her turn next. As she puts it: "There'll be somebody with my name, she'll cook and clean like crazy, but she won't take pictures and she won't be me! -- She'll be like one of those robots in Disneyland." The Stepford Wives, like the Ira Levin novel by the same title upon which it was based, is, for the most part, content to play mild homage to Hoffmann's specter of the life-like doll. The full weight of the connection only becomes abundantly clear in the dramatic finale of the film, when Joanna is finally forced to confront her automaton double. As the robot turns her head to meet Joanna's gaze we see that it has no eyes, only big black pools. In order for the automaton double to become complete and finally replace Joanna it must first take her eyes. For Joanna, the skull-like face of the eyeless automaton is the last thing she will ever see -- the image of her own death.

            It's as if Freud refused to look the eyeless automaton squarely in the face. The potentially far more sinister implication of the acquisition of human eyes for the final and necessary step of animating the automaton, which Hoffmann hinted at and The Stepford Wives keenly picked up on, was not even considered in "The Uncanny"; nor was the obvious comparison of the eyeless doll's face to a skull-like death-mask deemed worthy of mention. Freud's selective examination of "The Sand-man" is all the more puzzling given his definition of the uncanny as a return of the primitive and supernatural in a secular or modern context. But, if the uncanny derives from a once familiar fear that was repressed, is it then not more accurately characterized by the form it takes at the moment of its re-invention? Primitive fears are conceivably ahistorical. Fear of the unknown, or of death, for example, never goes away. What presumably does change is how a culture chooses to represent those primitive fears. When the basis of rational reality was cast into doubt by Romantic thinkers, Hoffmann might have imagined that death would resemble a life-like automaton. At the height of our own technological and scientific optimism, it was not far-fetched to imagine that death might very well have reappeared as an android double. The origin of the uncanny in our most primitive fears is never in doubt. What remains unknown is the shape fear will take next.

 

--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2004, originally published in the 2004 USC MFA Catalogue.

 



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Pink-9 Has Begun

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            Welcome to Stalingrad where we have just learned that the apartment next door to Stalin's is the gateway to Chaos. So says Stalin's mom who is keeping it under the closest surveillance. Stalin's mom, in fact, never leaves her perch by the window. She's absolutely transfixed by all the activity out there. Pink trucks pull up every day. New neighbors are moving in. There's something pink and smooth and lifeless about them. They're almost human-like, the way they move. Except they can't stop smiling. See the way their faces are always transfixed. The way they expose themselves to the light.

            Stalin's mom sputters when telling Stalin. Takes a shaky sip from her Bloody Mary. Throws her head back revealing her long soft neck, and smiles ironically to no one in particular.

            Stalin's mom remembers quiet children at Stalin's 10th Birthday Party. The sky was fat and gray and a procession of dark clouds came and went all day long. She remembers the lid of a trash can clanking in the tranquil silence of an alley and a revolutionary pamphlet lightly lifting into the stillest breeze. At noon he and his friends will gallop through the factory streets and swarm over chain link fences chasing down all the little girls in the neighborhood. They will tie them up and set every thing they touch on fire. Stalin has never looked so noble. Stalin's mom can still see his dusted coal cheeks and hear his cracking voice. As he stands there, in the fiery swirls of black and red, the crackling heat all around him, she remembers him looking up and saying: Fire, I bid you to burn!

            Stalins mom blows her nose into a handkerchief. She thinks his uniform's too big. And she tells him:

                        Joseph, you're so pale and skinny and you're practically falling out of your jacket.

                        Joseph, you still comb your black mustache like a Tzarist.

                        Joseph, what a pathetic little Napoleon you are.

            To shut her out Stalin runs the blade of his pen-knife up and down his thumb. What does he care about old stories? He's wondering why a glimpse of squirting red blood in the glint of his blade excites him so much, and he grabs his dinner napkin from his soldier's collar and claps it on the table. Turns it around and jams his thumb into it. Grinds it all around. Stalin doesn't stop either. Not 'till his thumb has stopped bleeding and the napkin's good and red.

            Either: At precisely 11:30 PM, after sports and weather, Stalin's mom says good-night to Stalin, he's escorted by three security officers to his waiting red car, and quietly whisked away. Or: At precisely 11:31 PM his security officers don't meet him, and there's no waiting car. Just a dark empty street and all its dark empty shadows. And, either: Stalin waits there a long time. Shuddering in all that cold and dark. Or: at precisely 11:32 PM a pink Impala pulls out behind his red El Dorado and three men in pink ski masks radio in: Target in sight! And begin clawing and scratching at his car window until Stalin has to bury his face in a fluffy red pillow.

                        THE PINK CAPTORS, laughing electronically: Hardy Har Har!

            What's definite is Stalin is taken at gun-point from a red El Dorado or LeBarron at the corner of Berkshire and Valley Forge or Scarlet and Blanch by either four or five men in pink suits while eye-witnesses clap and shout biting epitaphs at him at the top of their lungs. As he's carted off they scream "sissy" and "panty-waiste" and tell him to go home to his mom. The pink captors shove Stalin, his big red flannel jacket pulled down around his wrists, to the apartment next door, dope him up, and drag him kicking and screaming into a pink cell.

            Names! Names! Names! Stalin wants names! The names of all the people who ever laughed at him and called him names. The names of every Capitalist-bastard. There's gonna be hell to pay for every Yuppie-child-pornographer-one of them! Only he's having a lot of trouble imagining the executions and mass graves he will have to order for all these names. How can he think about blood baths in such a pink cell? Nothing but pink wherever he looks. Pink floor. Pink walls. Pink ceiling. Pink, pink, pink. Mom! It's revolting. Pink is not a primary color!

            Point of fact: The cell is exactly Pink Delight. Otherwise Stalin's right to describe the cell as sparse. Besides the metal frame chair Stalin's sitting in and the monitor on the wall there's little else. Only a cot in the corner, and a pink, metal office desk with a big, pink plastic telephone plopped--dag nab it--right in the middle. No windows to speak of which suits Stalin just fine. Except for a fly won't leave him alone! Lands on his nose.

            But who cares?

            The boys in pink who file into the room are too busy sporting high-tech safety goggles and other nifty gadgets. They have style. Panache. A flair for the little things that make a difference. All spit and polish. And well groomed, too. Not a hair out of place on a one. Not a dirty fingernail in the bunch. These boys know how to wear a uniform. "Glamour Is Fear." That's their motto. Quite the contrast from the kinds of volunteers Stalin's been getting lately. Nothing but Cossacks and hillbillies walking into the recruitment offices these days. How are you supposed to build a brutal war machine with the likes of highwaymen and mongoloids? How are you supposed to beat back History with the sloth of today? I ask you: How is the Great Hammer of Progress supposed to smash the swarming enemy when drunkards and perverts hold the trenches?

            Once again the door flies open! And this time a large entourage of women in pink file through. Turning their graceful dresses. Staring nonchalantly over their shoulders at the helpless host. Step back men in pink. Make room for the girls in their big pink sun hats who talk and giggle amongst each other. Checking themselves in compact mirrors they keep in small purses the women whisper into each other's ears. Spinning and dancing. Frowning. Batting their long eyelashes. Pointing to Stalin and covering their mouths to suppress their obvious mirth.

            At this point I should add that the pink room erupts into spontaneous conversation.

            Woman to man: We were following up on reports all day. Older woman to younger boy: The subject appears calm. Older man to younger woman: Irreversible damage to the cerebral cortex. Girl and boy: The subject suffers from an acute case of Infantilism.

            The pink phone rings.

            --For Stalin!

            A young man in pink makes his way through the delirious throng with the phone.

            --Mom to Stalin, do you read?

            --Stalin, copy.

            --Loud noises from apartment next door.

            --Copy.

            --Over and out.

            A pink suit takes the phone from Stalin and, pointing to the gold plated half-note on his lapel, introduces himself as chief science officer, otherwise known as Crawdaddy. He is surrounded by beautiful women and has one at each elbow. Each holding a pink martini glass and smiling forwardly. Crawdaddy hopes Stalin won't mind a little company, and a very long-legged young lady whips out a pad and pen. The woman brushes back her pink bangs and introduces herself as chief medical officer, apparently indicated by her raised hem-line. --But my friends call me Nurse. The science officer in her very very short pink nurse's skirt addresses Stalin directly. Nurse wants to know about Surgical Experimentation. A topic which brings a little color back to Stalin's horrified face. Now there's a topic worth conversation! No mistaking Stalin's new-found glee. Stalin is very proud of the advances that have come out of the field. Stalin has personally overseen and witnessed countless such operations. At first only animals were employed. Then the severely retarded. The insane. Deviants. Vagabonds. Social degenerates are fun to cut up too. And combinations of any of the above make for a hardy laugh.

                        QUESTION: Gene therapy?

                        ANSWER: Truth serum, nerve gas, and psychological warfare.

            Stalin doubles up. He is really feeling sick. His chair is too hard. Crawdaddy's head is too large. The pink finger Nurse waves before Stalin's black eyes is way too long and cold, and moves way, way too slowly. But wait a sec!

 

                                    Stalin's got a hammer'n'sicle

                                    On his car

                                    And one on his chest

                                    A three-fifty-seven on his hip

                                    And the right to arrest.

 

            So why's it the lovely Nurse in pink's lovely nurse's hand is sheathed in a pink latex glove? And why's it that all Nurse's attendants who should be saying aloha as graceful as the lapping waves on planet Why Kee-Kee are pencil thin and! twice his size?

            (Of course, the answers to these and other questions are black-inked from official records.)         

            At this point I would think the alien cocktail set would have been fully debriefed. They should probably be receiving their orders from a hidden intercom just about now. Commands like: Don protective pink gear this instance! Prepare to carry out the prime directive at once! I might imagine the alien fashion set is supposed to begin clearing a stainless steel table as fast as they can. Sharp enamel implements would supposedly get laid out in basins by the alien party set. Hup, two, three, four. . . And a mad scientist would walk through the door with a diabolical smile on his twisted face and a huge syringe in his right hand.

            Instead, Stalin simply gets a haircut, a shower, and a shave. The mustache is trimmed. Snots wiped from his hairy nose. A pink shirt and pink double breasted suit's brought in for him along with a pink cravat, pink cufflinks, and pink wing tips. The Nurse personally offers Stalin a mirror: What a handsome man! And pulls a pink beret over Stalin's square head at an attractive angle. Phase #1: Completed.

            Stalin takes off the beret and balls it up in his fist.                                     OBSERVATION: The subject appears angry.

            Phase #2 is implemented. Weekly visits to Stalin's cell by Crawdaddy and The Nurse are designed to monitor the subject's progress.

            As was directed the subject has taken up doodling. In an unprecedented move the aliens allow Stalin, who sits at his desk for hours on end, to use a red pen. Nothing Stalin doodles looks red enough. Stalin is all bloody thumbs. So he doodles bloody stumps. Nothing he doodles is doodle-like. Stalin tosses off one scribble after another. The scrawl is wrong. The scratch needs work. The red splotch is an eternal mystery to him. 

                        OBSERVER'S REPORT: The subject is still durn mad.

            The light is too bright in Stalin's room, and, to avoid the buzzing fluorescent pink bulbs, Stalin clawls under his cot at night. Apparently, they never turn out the lights in this place and it makes him feel safer!

            In the morning the attendants leave his breackfast tray at the foot of the bed and try to poke him out from under the boxspring. But, Stalin will not come out. The attendants can swatt at him all they want with their long pink prods. Stalin likes the feal of cold, surging pain dancing in his stomach.

                        Later that day he talks frankly with the head attendant: It somehow makes me feel alive.

            Phase #2a: Stalin's phone calls are closely monitored and recorded for further study. They are, of course, heavily censored. Although the affable aliens assure Stalin they only bleep-out the words they think sound the nicest. 

                        STALIN'S MOM: Bleep the bleeping bleep bleeps!

            Since the subject does not hide under his bed and is observed doodling in a rather light-hearted and carefree manner during these episodes, apparently totally unaware of what's going on around him, the phone calls are encouraged. What Stalin doodles is given the highest priority and deemed invaluable. So much so the doodles are immediately collected and sent by courier phone to the nearest sky lab for study.

            In the 3rd and final phase: The doodles are hung on a freshly painted pink wall. Crawdaddy and the Nurse inspect them closely checking and double-checking computer printouts. Viewer discretion is advised. The wheelchair crowd has turned out anyway. Not everyone wears the pink uniform. Tonight the doors of the apartment next door are opened to the world. Generals and dignitaries mill about. Businessmen of all stripes and colors discuss the rising markets. Pink Chablis is served at seven.

            Stalin sits in the corner tipping a bottle. Let these soft-batches remember the iron fist of Stalin. Let them beg for Stalin's mercy. Let them clutch their stomachs and swallow hard. Let them cry out in pain. Shrink with fear. Whimper. Plead Stalin's forgiveness. Let them pray Stalin please cover the terrible red doodles. Please take them away. Stalin will hear little. See less. Stalin, muttering: I'll wipe my nose on my sleeve and grab them by their bald ugly heads and throw them at the walls; I'll knock them to the ground and crush their frail genitals under my heels; The world will tremble at my. . .

            Stalin looks up. A crowd of candy-apple faces has gathered round him. 

                        STALIN, looking at the crowd: Worms!

            The gathering multitude step closer. At the head of the pack a large woman with green hair motions for Stalin to bend over. Stalin does so spitting on the ground. This 'Tree-Woman,' Stalin takes it, is demanding to know more about his doodles. 

            TREE WOMAN: Mr. Stalin, what do you think of when you're doodling?

            STALIN: Red.

            The woman points to a doodle behind Stalin's block-head.

            --How about that one? 

            At the top of the Post-it there's what appears to be a burning farm house and a barn with crows and vultures gathered on the roof.

            --Come gather around, folks. 

            Stalin, smile coming back to his face.

            --If you look closely you'll see that in the barn a wealthy landowner is mounted on a headless woman.

            Stalin pauses for reaction and continues.

            --Over here soldiers are clubbing the hick farmer and his wife to death.

            Another pregnant pause and Stalin goes on.

            --Those are two pigs eating a mutilated body while the grandpa farmer is pouring a bucket of pig's blood on his head.

            Stalin looks around and starts in again.

            --That's a farmhand stoking a pile of burning limbs. While this band of ruffians over here is performing an autopsy on a little girl.

            A proud Stalin . . .

            --I am cutting out her heart. I call it Twilight Vivisexion. And, I doodled it while I was on the phone with my mom.

            What a hit! There has never been such a doodle. Examine the craftsmanship. Awe at the expression. Everyone loves it. They can't get enough. Not a dissenter among 'em, either. Which is enough to send Stalin sprawling to the floor kicking and screaming and hammering the wooden boards with his large fist.

                        STALIN, clutching his stomach: Argh!

                        CRAWDADDY, looking down at stalin: But you're a hit, son.

                        STALIN: I am Stalin!

                        NURSE: The psychopathic schidzo!

            At these words everyone raises a glass, apparently mis-hearing. To the Sociospastic Psycho! Hip, hip, hooray! And Stalin cautiously raises himself to his feet and takes a painful bow, choking down the salt pouring out of his tongue by the gallon.

            If he could only focus on something­­--a­nything! Stalin tries the pink-ness of a window. But the pink window is no good. So damn pink it only makes him sicker! So he grabs for the wall to hold himself up and bends over to squint at the pink glow of the floorboard. And that doesn't work either. Quite the contrary. It only makes him even sicker than he already was. So he swallows hard. Real hard. But he can't swallow hard enough. His stomach grips him like a Marxist Robot Hand. And he makes for the Men's room.

            Mixed red stuff and snot everywhere. Pink tiles covered in red. Long red curls in the water lapping the sides of the pink bowl and the seat is all spattered red.

            At first, Stalin's happy. He thinks it's blood in the bowl. His insides floating around down there. Him torn up pretty bad inside.

            Only the People know Pink Chablis isn't really red. No matter how much Stalin wishes it was so. The People know there's no sense in pretending. Pink Chablis is pink. And don't put a quick change-up past these folks. The People can tell a good turn when they see it. During a brief huddle they decide to heartily commend Stalin's bold move. Yes, indeed. What a genius! After all, red is really such a blood-thirsty color. So painfully obvious. Who wouldn't think of blood? Now pink, on the other hand! That's what Stalin needs more of. What a friendly color, and what a fine and upstanding message it sends the world! No doubt about it. Pink is a vast improvement over red. And who knows what it could inspire in such an impressionable young man? The People welcome the day with open arms when Stalin's forgotten all about red. In fact, the People are so obsessed with their new and bloodless fantasy, they secretly talk to each other about a world in which Stalin sits by his window listening to the singing birds all day long. Stalin happily doodling nothing but bon-bons and cherry blossoms and all the pretty things.


--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 1996, originally published in Asteroid Impaired: Righteous American Fiction.


 



Posted by d-m-b at 03:17 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 11, 2009

In The Garden of The Skull-Faced Master

poltergeist.jpg

 


 

You are watching TV and the newscaster tells you to turn on your porch light and go to sleep.  Only you cannot sleep.  You are lying awake in your bed when one by one the lights go out on your street.  Every light but yours goes out.  So you turn yours off too and hide inside your house, listening for human sounds outside your door, but all you hear are screams.  Then, one day, a man shows up on your front porch a bit thin and out of breath, but carrying a briefcase all the same.  You think you recognize him.  He does not look exactly like the same man you remember, but who knows?  You cannot be too careful.  Still, you cannot just turn a man away at the door...

 

            Downstairs the bell rings and rings.  Valerie Hubbard goes to see who it is.  "Can it be?" she wonders, pulling the curtain back -- not much, just enough to get a better look at her not so unexpected visitor.  "It's the evil funeral director," she whispers under her breath.  "Finally come with his red shifting moods and rhythms."

            If it had been a week ago when her daddy Elron was still alive he would have said, "Look at the mortician, Val.  Look at the man who's wearing black as distant and unfeeling as a winter night."  Elron would have given her that cross-eyed look of his and said, "Look, Val, it's a smoked fish with greasy hair like a catfish's muddy whiskers and his stiff yellow collar is all coming undone!" Afterwards he would have slapped his knees with his favorite Greek sailor's cap just a bit too loudly, with just a little bit more intensity than was necessary, a bit wild-eyed, like he was off just a bit, not quite dialed in to the same frequency as the rest of us.  "Val, will you get a load of that black hat with the arching, wide brim," she could hear her father like he was standing right next to her.  "He's a Quaker, look a Quaker, a skinny man with a wicked pride!" 

            Valerie thinks the undertaker is smaller than she remembers, but it's been forever since she has been anywhere near the old funeral home.  "Come in, Mr. Hall," she says holding open the front door.  How bloodless his face has become since she last saw him at her brother's wake.  Valerie is tired, but she knows she has got to put up with the director's smoldering presence as long as it lasts, she knows she has to welcome in the odd sounds the man carries inside himself like quiet whispers in an abandoned shopping mall garage or the silent rumble of a growing mob of hungry zombie corpses still out of sight.  She takes him all in like a deep breath of damp basement smells.

            "Look at the head on that monkey," she can hear Elron's voice jack-hammering away insides her head like a cartoon robot Woody Woodpecker.  She can remember the way his voice would have squeaked just a little with irreverent excitement like a loose floorboard when the mortician's toothy smile failed to do anything other than amplify his unnatural menace. 

            For Valerie, however, there was actually a feeling of welcome relief in the arrival of this otherwise stark apparition.  (And anyway, Mr. Hall was a local celebrity of sorts -- famous for his role as a master hypnotist in the 1940 Bella Lugosi movie Black Friday.)  For her the waiting was over.  She was, in fact, in a weird way expecting the undertaker.  It did not take a rocket scientist to know that someone would have to come sooner or later and it might as well be the funeral director with all his strange slinking about and spitting -- the mortician who, at her brother's wake, repeatedly referred to her as "Little-Miss-Valerie-With-Her-Finger-Up-Her-Nose".

            That Valerie's dreaded enemy had taken so long in coming, well what can you do?  He was after all a slave to Time.  The stark appearance of Mr. Hall did not bother her at all.  She welcomed it.  That it had been the funeral director all along, dressed as a man under God, well so be it, that also somehow made perfect sense to Valerie.  After all, God could be a clever front for the master of the conquering worm.  It was a convenient enough cover, Valerie thought.  You could prove Time with numbers, but you could not prove God, not with a calculator anyway.  Time would be wise to disguise its troops as morticians.  Anyway, the better to go unnoticed, Time's helpers might do well not to wander the second millennium still dressed as Knights Templar.

            Valerie had her own name for these marching legions that nothing, not in heaven or on earth, could slow down or stop.  She called them "Mountain Eaters" because, she reasoned, they just kept coming, like glaciers, eventually destroying everything in their path.  Large or small, living or inanimate, it all eventually was trampled underfoot.  No matter how silly the costume the Master had decreed for them to wear, whether dressed as the Knights Templar, funeral directors, or, even, Catholic school girls, if it was in their path, they chopped it down.  The Mountain Eaters had their marching orders:  "Attack!  Attack!  Attack!  And, when in doubt, attack again!"  Nothing can possibly outlast them, not man, not the greatest civilization or idea -- nothing, not even the mighty Himalayas.  They are pure patience, these Mountain Eaters.  You can protest all you wish, but Valerie knew, eventually, they would erode your spirit, just as they ate away at rock and stone until there was nothing left but undigested sand.

            For sport the Mountain Eaters will make another smaller mountain from the dirt left over.  They can make anything they want from the mud -- whole planets, sliding continents -- even people.  "Together Master Time and the Mountain Eaters," Valerie would warn anyone who would listen, "are one original unstoppable far out cosmic force!"  Valerie imagines the opening number in a neo-Expressionist horror show. "Step right up.  Welcome to the most burnt show on Earth, starring from left to right the soil from which we grow and love and die, and the Mountain Eaters and their skull-faced Master, like an inter-galactic plantation owner and his astral gardeners.  To plant and weed… plant and weed… plant and weed!  That is their sole mission.  Step right up folks and please be advised.  The show you are about to see may contain language and footage which is not suitable for some viewers…"

            The screen door swings out into black nothingness.  "Please come in from the cold, Mr. Hall."  There is a note of urgency in Valerie's voice.  "Come in," she says.  "I'll put some hot water on for you.  Do you like tea or instant coffee maybe?"  But Mr. Hall stands unmoving in the green light that pours out of the house.  "What a surprise," Valerie tries to act cheerful.  "We hardly ever get visitors out here. Come on in before you let the dog out."

            It is going to be hard work with the funeral director, she can tell.  He is the kind of man who keeps things to himself.  She can see it in the way he looks around her, trying to see if it is all clear.  Does the skull-faced Master not like witnesses? Valerie wonders.  It makes her worried.  No man should ever give up so much of himself, no matter how great the cause.  She concluded long ago, it just cannot be healthy.

            "Mr. Hall, you've got nothing to worry about in here," Valerie says, maybe a bit too jokingly considering the 200 lbs. of dead weight she has got stashed upstairs.  But she knows the implications are mostly lost on the undertaker.  Mr. Hall has no sense of humor, only some odd sense of duty to a higher cause.  She figures him for the kind of man that was always going off by himself on a winter's day to read heavy tomes by people like Oswald Spengler or the occultist Guido von List, going off to his corner by the stove when everyone else might have gone mad with cabin fever without any cards or games to play or without any television to watch.  And the things he probably thought to himself learning all about man's greed and callousness, Valerie wonders.  What evil things he must have thought about other people and their inconsolable boredom.  To him they must all have seemed like monsters, talking nothing but nonsense to each other for hours on end.  Morality must have come easily to the lips of a boy who saw meaninglessness and corruption wherever he turned.  Valerie is almost tempted to feel sorry for a man who needed so much meaning when there was not any to be found.  But she catches herself short of telling him.  She is carefully trying to get the mortician to talk about himself, and she doesn't want to sound too outrageous to him.  God knows his own ideas about her have probably been formed long ago.

            "Don't you believe in God?" Mr. Hall had asked her ten years earlier when her brother Jed's body lay in state.  To this day, Val was still proud of her answer.  Quite plainly and without hesitation she had said: "What does it matter when the Mountain Eaters are coming for us all?"  She told him how she had seen with her own two eyes the one who took her brother down by the quarry behind the cement factory.  "There were rocks so ancient they'd been left there by volcanoes more than 200,000 years before the dinosaurs."  Mr. Hall stared back at her in disbelief.  "Do you want to hear the part about how I got a rock stuck in my sneaker and was looking for a place to sit down and take it out when I looked up and saw all the great big earth mounds around me?" The undertaker stood as ridged and quietly then as he did now in her doorway.  "Some of the mounds were gaping wide open, Mr. Hall, and you know what I saw looking into one?"  Not a word did he say all those many years ago, but simply stiffened all the more.  "Oh, I bet you do, Mr. Hall…"

            "What a fertile imagination you have for such a young girl," the mortician finally conceded, smiling over her shoulder.  Daddy Elron was standing behind her listening in.  He looked totally perplexed and, considering the solemnity of the occasion, Mr. Hall did not want to seem rude to his daughter.  After all, Valerie was nothing more harmful than a little girl with a child's stormy fantasy. 

            "But I wasn't imagining, Mr. Hall, was I?  It was Jed's arm all right, I know I'm not lying.  And the mound wasn't a mound at all, was it?  Not any kind of mound I've ever seen.  Sure as I'm standing here it was a great big mouth!  A Mountain Eater's great big mouth, all black and deep and crawling with wet earthworms, centipedes, ants and miles and miles and miles of stomach!" 

            For a while afterwards it had bothered Valerie the way the funeral director pretended not to know what she was talking about.  To Valerie it was a simple case of bad manners.  "City Manners," was her favorite adolescent phrase for a while.  She would use it to criticize anything she did not like.  Valerie had read it in a backdated woman's magazine at the beauty salon.  According to the article it meant when folks pretended they were simple minded when they were really just mean spirited.  She could not understand how big city folks put up with it, but that was apparently just how they were.  No one, anymore, the author of the article asserted, cared about anyone but #1 in those towering ash-heaps they called big cities.  They did not believe in anyone but themselves in those places and whom had they learned it from?  Valerie knew.  It was people like Mr. Hall, that is who.  People so sneaky and inhuman it braced her to think she could not even hear them coming down the driveway.  Those kinds of people do not do anyone any good.  She knew who they were working for, whose side they were really on and it was not hers.  They were the enemy Mountain Eaters in disguise and they worshipped a skull-faced monster. 

            "So," Valerie asks.  She is just talking for the sake of talking, trying to hold back a little, not let everything out at once.  But, it is too hard.  The undertaker has a way about him.  The demon is able to pull words out of her mouth like a midwife bringing a protesting baby into the world.  Mr. Hall's mere presence is draining her of her energy.  The way he is starting to frighten her with his standing there in the doorway so accusingly, without saying a word. 

            "Don't just stand there.  It's not polite, Mr. Hall," she says, nervously wiping her wet hands on her jeans shorts and heading back to the kitchen to check on the boiling water.  She knows he cannot touch her.  The only thing she is guilty of is of loving her father.  Where does it even say, she wonders, that everyone has to love the same way?  She is making tea for him she decides.  "How can I help you, Mr. Hall," she asks again, yelling it from the stove so the old man cannot pretend he does not hear her.  She is being infinitely polite to her guest she thinks.  Anyone else would have moved the mortician along a while back.  Valerie knows good manners can seem awkward sometimes, but what else can she do?  The man in the doorway is the funeral director and a small time outsider celebrity to boot.  For the sake of decorum she has got to keep her cool, stay civil.  Still, how far can she take it?  The prospect of answering any of his lurid questions makes her want to curl up and hide inside herself like some underground bug that only comes out at night. 

            "Well, Mr. Hall!"  She is trying to mask the impatience in her voice with a gruffness she has never quite managed to master.  More than anything else she is desperate to assert herself.  It is, after all, her house, and there is no good reason for her to be intimidated by a stranger in her own house, is there? 

            Her visitor cups his withered hands close to his black necktie and jacket in an expression of something like understanding.  The undertaker is looking at her like she is a drowned rat.  Mr. Hall holds a cold hand out to her.  Valerie takes it for the formal gesture that it is intended.  She tries to image what he must see when he looks through those dead eyes of his.  A wild-haired girl in a torn High Times baseball T-shirt she saved from her brother's closet, cut-offs, boney knees and dirty high-tops.  Or can he see what she is thinking?  Can he see her organs moving around inside her body?  She really does feel like she is drowning, she realizes, and how incredibly sad to think it, but the undertaker probably is actually the only one who can save her.  There is no one else -- no father-mother-brother figure out there.  Only him to see her desperate clinging to life and he is the one with the lifeline in his hands.  Only the mortician is just standing there teasing her with it, waving the rope in from of her face.  "Now you see it," she thinks.  "Now you don't."  The cruelty of it makes her squirm with fear and excitement.  To think that his hate has come from so far away, from such distant places she has read about like Atlantis or, maybe even, Lemuria to rest itself inside her ear like a vengeful larva waiting to hatch its thousand-year reign of terror on her mind. 

            "Ms. Valerie, you're not well?"  The question may come painfully slowly, it may not be very sincere, but the funeral director asks it anyway.  Mr. Hall is secretly pleased with his good fortune.  Valerie was definitely the kind of adversary he was looking for.  The rest had given in so quickly and easily, without putting up the slightest fight.  Mr. Hall was definitely disappointed in his fellow citizens -- mice, every last one of them.  What he needed was a good fight, a spirit to awaken, someone else to understand his infinite hatred of all living things. 

            Not that Valerie does not sometimes hear voices inside the house, she does, and it happens often enough too.  But she knows she is no lost soul.  She knows a window has been left open somewhere in the house when it is her dead mother calling out to her, or a cat is stuck in a tree, or it is a field mouse in a night owl's claws when it is a baby's crying that she hears.  These are not sounds that cause her to doubt her sanity the way the undertaker's voice does. 

            "Isn't it cold in here, Ms. Valerie?" the mortician asks, obviously fine tuning his approach as he finally steps through the door into the green glow of the living room. 

            How transparent, Valerie thinks.  The creep probably wants to change the subject too.  She bets herself that the husk of a funeral director would like nothing better than to spend the rest of the evening analyzing her every fault, scratching at her fragile mood with his clinical claws.  How like an oversized rodent, she thinks.  The undertaker cannot help his instinct to burrow into fertile soil.  At least that is the way it seems to her.  The question may seem innocent enough at first, but Valerie knows it is only the beginning, only his opening salvo.  If the mortician is allowed, she knows full well he will find his way into the darkest crevice of her mind.  Given half a chance, he will find a place deep inside her where she cannot reach in to pull him out, and his silent accusations will grow louder and louder until she finally becomes totally paralyzed inside. 

            "I'll be happy enough for these cold rooms when the summer heat comes," Valerie says, still in the kitchen.  Mr. Hall is moving around the living room touching things, poking around intimate objects for God only knows what reason.  Valerie can see him through the kitchen door.  She cracks open a tall boy.  The funeral director takes a framed photograph of her father from the mantle and looks at it.  He is probably trying to master the tin-pan fury he has been born with, Valerie thinks; inner noise like Vulcan's hammer that has never let him rest as long as he has been alive, the deadly invocations of the skull-faced monster always ringing in his ears.  Valerie pounds her beer.  She cannot go on giving the undertaker excuses like this, she thinks, slamming her empty can on the counter.  Mr. Hall has got to finish what he has started or he must leave her alone with her accursed fate.  Valerie knows these feelings of hate and mistrust are not her natural inclinations.  Mr. Hall is most likely already penetrating her innermost unguarded reptile brain with his own special brand of hatred.  She feels clammy just being so close to such incredibly negative energy.  What can she do but keep a close watch on these telekinetic vibrations lest they completely scramble her mind.  The mortician covets her sanity much more than her young body and she knows it. 

            The funeral director can already hear it, stirring far away at first, and then closer -- it is the sound of Valerie pleading for his help.  People become a lot like the land they live on, thinks Mr. Hall.  Valerie has always lived with the cats and raccoons in her attic.

            "Quiet grows wild in an abandoned town like this," says Mr. Hall.  "It grows the way weeds grow on unkempt sidewalks.  There isn't anything or anyone to stop it or slow it down."  The undertaker wants so badly to hear an innocent voice, a voice completely dependent on him.  The deafening silencing of those people who cannot bear not to hear the sound of their own voices makes him feel strong and powerful, very powerful indeed, but what he really wants to hear is the muffled noises of those in fear of having their secrets discovered.  Valerie, the undertaker believes, could give him just such pleasure as he wants.  But he knows she is not yet scared of him the way he needs her to be.  More probing must be done.  So he continues the charge.  "It's been awful quiet outside your door, lately, Ms. Val." 

            "I definitely hope you didn't come all this way to lecture me about silence, Mr. Hall," Valerie says, clenching her teeth.  The rush of his thin voice over her body is chilling like the air blast released from an underground vault cracked open for the first time in centuries.  "I know more about silence than you might have imagined." 

            "My dear," Mr. Hall advances on the young girl. "Your silence does truly betray you.  Silence is always found in the shadow of Wisdom's guiding hand.  Men like me, we know.  We have given our lives to follow those mighty intellects into the darkest quarters of the human mind.  Truth's unfailing pointer always reveals corruption.  Are not the most quiet quarters always the most corrupt and has it not been very quiet around here lately?" 

            What should she tell the funeral director: the truth?  My father is upstairs arranged respectfully on his deathbed and shrunken with eternal sleep -- and not only that, but the body has been up there for over a week now!  Even if Valerie does tell him, what then?  Mr. Hall is not liable to take the news very well, not standing up at least, and she does not want him to take root in the living room.  She has made up her mind: the undertaker is not to stay a minute longer than he has to. 

            "Best to come clean were truth is concerned, Ms. Val."  The words, Valerie knows, are sticky with corrupted sweetness, like a dropped lollipop covered in pine needles.  "Your father Elron has not been seen at his place of business nor has he been seen anywhere else for that matter.  He has been, shall we say, conspicuously absent these past days."

            "What can I say? Elron's up and gone," is Valerie's best effort at a convincing answer.  "Like everyone else in this bone-yard who wasn't strong enough to hold out, he's just disappeared into the hills.  That just leaves me and some others, doesn't it?"  Valerie was not sure who the "others" were when she said it.  It was more wishful thinking than anything else. 

            She has been so sad here, these last few days, so desperate for her father's sake.  It is not easy having a dead body around the house.  Not even if you love it, she thinks.  All she really knows is that she is on her own now and she has to be extra smart.  "You can't be too careful," she has told herself, crying in the bathroom with the doors and windows shut tight so her neighbors cannot hear.  If she is to foil the Mountain Eaters, she has to remain strong, resilient, not bend or sway to her fears or to the taunts of her adversary.  Her enemy cannot understand.  Mr. Hall is, after all, no doubt the one who was sent for Elron, sent for his body for the purposes of some hidden agenda.  She sure as hell did not know all the shapes and sizes the Mountain Eaters could muster or who in town they held reign or sway over.  Not even her dog was beyond suspicion anymore.  It did not look like a gaping whole in the ground, but who knows.  Neither, for the moment, did the funeral director.  The mad dog's appetite, however, did hint at miles and miles of insatiable stomach, did it not?  The dog had, she had often noticed, a torso at least as large as a person's.  Come to think of it, it even shit human-sized turds.  All torso and tiny legs, she thinks, like one huge walking intestine.  So, was it not, after all, all stomach, just like the Mountain Eaters?  Would it not, given half a chance, gladly swallow her father, return him into the waiting arms of the skull-faced monster and his mythical garden to be mixed back in with the depleted soil.  Valerie could easily picture the dog with a white arm sticking out of its mouth at an odd angle -- only this time it would be her dad's.  There was always a new crop being planted in the Master's sprawling domain, so very bright, like the polarized acid colors of the Goldenrod fields she had seen in her sleep.  The Mountain Eaters were forever pruning this orchard and tilling its soil. 

            The thought of losing her father to their greedy, insatiable mouths was unbearable.  Valerie did not have a clue what to do without him.  He had always been there for her with junk food, videos, and all manner of tall tales that he told her, usually about an epic battle between good and evil in which powerful aliens fight over spirited creatures called "manimals".  Facing down the Mountain Eaters was something she had to do, for her own sake as well as her father's.  She had to hold them off as long as possible or all the things she loved would slip away like a smoking butt caught in the rapid rush of a swelling river. 

            But she was beginning to doubt herself.  What if the Mountain Eaters did not come for you like the mortician did, all arms and legs with a black hat on his head? Valerie wondered.  What if they were full of tricks? Like what if they came on the wings of flies and were dropped into the open mouth of their victim like war pamphlets demanding the dead surrender their bodies?  Paranormal psychological warfare fought beyond the grave!  It was not something Valerie had figured on.  How long would it take before her and her father would both crack up under the strain?  How long could they last in that dark room with the television going all day and all night, her singing jingles and knowing what the actors would say next, her dead father's soul bullied and harassed by the unending paranormal propaganda of the skull-faced monster? 

            Or, far worse: what if the Mountain Eaters were already inside you when you were born?  Dormant sleeper cells waiting for the telepathic signal from the Master.  "The soil is cold and baron and it needs poor Elron's body back so it can begin the whole damn cycle again!"  At a certain point, Valerie realizes, they would just start eating you up from the inside out, until you were no more human than a compost.  What a way to go, she thinks. "Wouldn't that just suck." 

            Upstairs and down the hall, Elron's body remains stretched on the bed, motionless as a carnivorous plant, his mouth partly open, a fly caught in his teeth.  He is dressed in his baby-light-blue best suit that was three sizes too big even before his dead body began to shrink.  In his hands Valerie has placed his old Greek sailor's cap and a bouquet of garishly painted plastic flowers she has "liberated" from the K-Mart rests store on his chest.

            Just before the funeral director had arrived she had turned the light in the bedroom off, changed the channel to his favorite daytime show, adjusted his pillow behind his round head, and climbed into the bed with him.  The Mountain Eaters would dispatch someone to the house, they most definitely had to.  The skull-faced monster would never allow his fields to grow barren.  Wrapping her arms around Elron's stomach, she had said, "We still have just a little longer."  There was not much recognition in his cross-eyes, though they seemed to her oddly penitent for a man who was such a foulmouthed pig when he was alive.  Valerie had wiped her eyes with her sleeve.  Elron looked so stupid to her.  The thick black rims of his prescription eyeglasses were hopelessly out of place looking on his soapy skinned dead animal face.  Even though she could not remember him without them, they did not seem right anymore.  "What did a dead man need glasses for?" Valerie had asked herself.  "They can't help him now can they?  No they can't, and that's a fact!  What good are his glasses when Elron's eyes are so far away?  They don't look at anything anymore," she had said.  "They look past you… no… through you… as if they can see something sneaking up just behind where you're standing."  Right after that is when the doorbell rang. 

 

An empty mill town early in the morning -- it is the voice of the funeral director talking.  You have been running all night and you see your High School up ahead.  For some reason it looks abandoned, but you run there anyway.  You know every nook and cranny of the building.  You can hide inside from the angry dogs that chase you.  You can hear them bark.  They are barking like crazed animals outside the windows, pawing at the red brick walls.  You can hear them charging the Plexiglas barriers, you can hear the bone-crushing thud of them throwing their bodies against the metal doors as they become angrier and angrier.  They want you, Valerie Hubbard.  They are trying to get inside…

 

--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2004



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