A Font of Horror: Stranger Things

The type is called Benguiat. It's the font of my childhood, big and mysterious and curving in a way that suggests the edge of something sharp, something dangerous. Something we, as children, should not be handling. Viking used it, in part, to make Stephen King's name iconic on their covers, though most would agree (myself included) that King himself did the real carving out, cutting his name into our imaginations like a mad-skilled butcher -- but not with Benguiat, no; he did it with the dull, spoon-like edges of an Underwood's Courier-shaped keys. And in this way, the Duffer Brothers' Stranger Things affects us. It entices us with a font, makes us remember a very specific set of iconography, then draws us into something far deeper, far richer: a collective well of imagination.

The pitch is easy to imagine. It's Stephen King meets Steven Spielberg, the ultimate campaign: boys on bikes and a telekinetic girl battle monsters from another dimension. The execution, of course, could have been terrible. Nothing sits so uneasily as half-baked nostalgia that doesn't pay off. Super 8 is testimony enough to that. It tried. It wanted us to believe. It struck out in the last inning, gave us a monster that couldn't live up to its forebear in the great white shark from Jaws. The glorious thing about Stranger Things is that it seems to understand this danger throughout, and it negotiates the inherent pitfalls with wit, grace, and masterful storytelling. It's an eight-hour campaign that never flags, a novel that never disappoints; both keep you up late into the night. Catching references to Goonies, E.T.Alien, Aliens, The Thing, Stand by Me, Carrie, Cujo, It, Firestarter, The Stand, Silver BulletNightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Poltergeist, Rambo: First Blood Part II, The Breakfast ClubJaws, Gremlins, or even Tobe Hooper's re-make of Invaders from Mars is only half the fun. The rest is in how these things all seem at once familiar and new, like how old artifacts stuffed in boxes become treasured memories you'd forgotten.

It's the Upside-Down, as the Duffers call it: that place that's like our world but not, the Vale of Shadows -- the place we escape to, are dragged to, and, upon waking, hopefully return from. It's a post-modern technique that's less critique and more compliment, suggesting that modern American horror stems now from not only a shared or collective unconsciousness but a pop-cultural unconsciousness. It's a fantastic conceit, one I see bearing fruit in the works of a whole new slew of great horror writers, among them Joe Hill, Nick Cutter, Paul Tremblay, Christopher Buehlman, and Stephen Graham Jones. It's almost as if the Duffer Brothers have re-opened a mainstream gateway to horror, at a time when a few of us were already wandering into the woods again anyway -- in part, I imagine, because the evils of our present dimension have become so commonplace and frequent that we tend to overlook those monsters that have always lurked in the periphery. No Eater of Worlds likes to go unnoticed.

My favorite image in the series is a baby's crib topped off by a mobile of clowns. It's a visual metaphor for so much in the series and in the genre. It suggests that horror is the stuff of childhood dreams from the very beginning, that we're shaped by it almost immediately after exiting the womb, whether we want to be or not. It's always present. It suggests that adults are oblivious to the monstrous nature of what they impose on innocence. It suggests that terror hangs over us when we're least expecting, least equipped. And, of course, in a very literal way, I guess, it (or It) suggests that, well, clowns float.

And we all know how that one goes, don't we. Say it with me, friends: "We all float down here...."

When Animals Dream

Written by Rasmus Birch and Christoffer Boe and Jonas Alexander Arnby. Directed by Jonas Alexander Arnby. 2014.

When Animals Dream belongs to a recent class of monster movies that is itself a hybrid creature: the monster movie as art film. We have its like in Let the Right One In, Only Lovers Left Alive, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. What's common among these, aside from an aesthetic beauty that beggars belief, is the monster as protagonist: each is a werewolf or a vampire movie in which the werewolf or the vampire is the hero, not the villain. I like this, if only because it delves into mysteries of character and motivation that we've always been content to keep at arm's length in this genre in order to call the monsters scary. But part of living in a postmodern world, I think, is that we're mostly beyond fear of the other; nowadays, what we really fear--what represents everything wrong with the world--is the normative. Traditional family structures that require the maintenance of a facade. Small-town secrets that aren't really secrets save to those they're about.

Here, Marie's life is hard, bleak, and ultimately very typical of a girl her age; she doesn't seem to mind it, but she doesn't seem to enjoy it. It's mundane. Which makes her turn into monstrosity much more than a metaphor for sexual awakening, which is itself a kind of normal, boring thing--at least here, in this seaside village, where every wasted youth works through his urges in tedious nightclub grappling. Marie's evolution, it seems to me, is more about women who defy and transgress traditional beauty and thereby become beauty because of some inherent truth. Women who grow hair in unusual places. Women who bleed in public spaces. "You're beautiful," men keep telling Marie, and she is. In fact, the more monstrous she becomes, the more beautiful she becomes. Her turning is almost an ascension. And, of course, the more monster she becomes, the more she discovers that the true villains are the ones around her, the men and women who have worked so wretchedly to keep their normal, tidy world in peaceful slumber.

Midnight Special

 "I saw the sunrise this morning. I think I know what I am now."

"I saw the sunrise this morning. I think I know what I am now."

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. 2016.

Fellow Arkansan Jeff Nichols is emerging as one of the most original and talented voices working in movies today. I've seen three of his four films -- Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special (Shotgun Stories is still out there, waiting on me) -- and all three have featured a by-turns lyrical and spartan style, outstanding character work, and deftly structured plots. They're engaging and resonant. They dig deep, down to the roots. I imagine the pitch for Midnight Special had something to do with John Carpenter-meets-Steven Spielberg, with a little Kubrick on the side. But the story plays out in such an original fashion -- beginning in media res and following Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Jaeden Lieberher until their journey's end (and perhaps beyond) -- that I can't help feeling Nichols stands wholly apart from any other contemporaries. He's in a class of his own, a director to watch; he's building a stairway to greatness.

Big Bad Wolves

 "This fairy tale was written by the Israeli police, based on true events. And like any fairy tale, ours also begins with a wolf. The wolf is you, by the way."

"This fairy tale was written by the Israeli police, based on true events. And like any fairy tale, ours also begins with a wolf. The wolf is you, by the way."

Written and directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado. 2013.

The scene: two men, Dror and Micki, imprisoned in a basement. Micki's a cop, Dror an accused pedophile. Their captor, Gidi, is a father. His daughter's corpse was found in the woods, missing a head. Gidi wants to know where Dror has buried the head. His plan: torture Dror by breaking his fingers and pulling out his toenails. Eventually, once he's learned what he wants to know, Gidi plans to cut Dror's head off with a rusty saw. Micki, the cop, is a tough guy with a conscience, and his conscience got in the way, so he's handcuffed to a pipe, helpless to watch as all manner of torture is wrought upon the shackled Dror. At one point, Gidi bakes a cake laced with sedatives and plans to feed Dror a slice, if only because this is one of the methods Dror has allegedly employed on his victims: he drugs them with sweets, violates them, tortures them, and decapitates them. "I put one candle," Gidi says, presenting the slice of cake to Dror, who is strapped to a chair, his fingers already broken by a hammer. "At our age, many candles would be impolite."

Did I mention this is a comedy?

Big Bad Wolves is a perfect concoction: part Tarantino and part Coens, part Grimm's and part Hitchcock. The music evokes Bernard Herrmann at every turn, and the premise, imagery, and violence are all firmly rooted in the juicy subtext of "Little Red Riding Hood" and, well, pretty much every fairy tale you've ever heard. And yet: at no point does the movie seem unoriginal. Israeli directing duo Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado (the first directors to make a horror film in Israel!) have written and directed a thrilling movie with a sense of humor a mile wide. They call it a revenge narrative, something to pay back the adults for telling them bedtime stories that were so horrific. It's evident, from the first shot, they know precisely the effect they intend with every scene.

There's a lyrical moment in the final act, when Micki escapes the basement, flees through the woods, and, after bursting out of the trees, encounters an Arab on horseback in the middle of the road, lit in a circle of orange lamplight. Micki throws his hands up, and the shot's constructed so that we don't immediately see the threat. The tension deflates when, surprise, there is no threat: the Arab isn't armed; he's just a guy on horseback. Micki asks to borrow his phone. The Arab hands over his iPhone 4S, exasperated by the assumption he is dangerous. "You know how it is," Micki apologizes with a shrug. The two men agree: they get it. It's how fear works.

Very much, this is a horror film, and it's rooted in an age-old tradition that surprises, delights, and terrifies. As children, we fear the big bad wolves. What the fairy tales never tell us is how we grow up to be them.

The Shining: In Praise of Shelley Duvall

Post-Doctor Sleep, there was a great deal of talk in book presses and blogs about Stephen King's well known take on Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of The Shining. No secret by now that King has strong dislike for the film, mostly owing to Kubrick's interpretation of the characters and his cold tone. Wendy, for example, King says, is one of the most misogynistic portrayals of a woman ever committed to film (his take paraphrased). I recently re-read Roger Ebert's review of The Shining, one of his Great Movies, and at the end of the review he tells the story of asking Shelley Duvall what it was like working on the picture. "Almost unbearable," is her answer. She describes the year-long shoot as nine months of crying, five and six days a week.

She means crying in the role of Wendy Torrance, of course, but in Vivian Kubrick's documentary, Making The Shining, we catch glimpses of very real tears. Duvall has a fainting spell; the assistant director cracks wise. Jack Nicholson ignores her, directs his flirtations elsewhere. Kubrick himself mutters impatiently, occasionally yells at her. Duvall, as tall and strikingly pretty as she is, like a weird, wide-eyed forest creature by way of Tim Burton, seems small and frail on set, almost overlooked. "After all that work," she tells Ebert, "hardly anyone even criticized my performance in it, even to mention it, it seemed like. The reviews were all about Kubrick. Like I wasn't there."

King noticed her, though. His comment to the BBC is that she's basically just "there to scream and be stupid, and that's not the character that I wrote about." In this, King's both right and wrong. No, he didn't write a stupid screamer in Wendy Torrance, but it's no stupid screamer that Shelley Duvall's playing. In light of what Duvall says to Ebert, I don't wish to give Stanley Kubrick any more credit here for how great The Shining is than I've given him in the past (a lot). I say, instead, let's talk about Shelley Duvall's Wendy, about misogyny, and why she's every bit as strong as King's character in the novel.

First, it's important to note that Wendy, in the movie, performs no action that Wendy, in the book, does not do. Wendy in the book looks out for Danny. Wendy in the movie looks out for Danny. Wendy in the book stands up to her husband when her son appears with bruises on his neck. Wendy in the movie does, too. In fact, Wendy in the movie locks Jack Torrance in the pantry all by herself, whereas in the book, her hands are shaking so badly her five-year-old son has to slide the bolt in place for her (granted, that's because she's been beaten with a mallet by her deranged husband, but Wendy in the movie never allows herself to be beaten). My theory is that Shelley Duvall simply isn't the Wendy King describes: long blonde hair, great legs, beautiful. Not that Duvall isn't beautiful, but she's not King's Wendy. She's an altogether different kind of woman whose long features and odd physicality are amplified by near-constant screaming and crying (all of which is perfectly logical within the circumstances of the film; her terror is meant to be our terror). Simply put: she doesn't look strong because she looks odd and she cries and screams a lot. But how or why do these things equal weak? Does a woman have to look or act like Rebecca DeMornay to be strong?

Was Kubrick a misogynist? On this set, probably. Does he destroy Duvall's performance, crush her spirit? No. Conversely, does the way he treats her somehow add to her performance, make it better, more natural, more harried? Not in the least. She persists in spite of Kubrick, I think, not because of him. To endure a year-long shoot in such isolation with so many men, I think, is the strength we're ultimately seeing in the film version of Wendy Torrance. Is it a quiet performance? Not always. Is it pretty? Not always. Is it graceful? You bet.

Consider what's happening in Shelley Duvall's early monologue about Jack dislocating Danny's arm. Notice the fragility she conveys, the complex psychology at work behind her mask. She tells the psychiatrist it was just "one of those things you do to a child a thousand times," but we get the sense that Wendy has never done any such thing to Danny, or would she ever. It's her husband she's really talking about in this scene, and the subtext of her fear of him is all there in the way she trembles, the way her eyes widen, the way her cigarette ash lengthens, forgotten. The way she smiles. Hers is, in fact, the first great moment of naturalistic acting in the movie, following a scene of oddly calculated, mannered dialogue between Nicholson and the manager of the Overlook Hotel. How is this, then, a misogynistic portrayal, to shoot her in light and colors so becoming, to make her the first great moment of the movie?

One thing I will give Kubrick credit for here, because it's relevant: he understands Jack Torrance. Detractors of Nicholson's take on the character often cite the fact that he seems crazy from the beginning. But in the novel, well, Torrance is, in fact, crazy from the beginning. He's the heavy, an angry man whose issues with rage, not alcohol, seem to be the true root of his madness. Yet in the novel King allies Danny with Jack, creates a bond between them that his Wendy is jealous of. Kubrick, to his credit, makes Jack the villain with no apology, and allies Danny with his mother, not his father. It just makes sense.

In fact, in the movie, Duvall saves Danny's life on at least two occasions. She drops him down the snowbank away from Jack and takes up a knife to defend herself. She finds him outside the hedge maze and drives the Snow Cat down out of the mountains. What's more, she's confronted with the horrors of the hotel after the horror of her husband, and she survives both.

In Vivian Kubrick's documentary, there's an unforgettable moment in which Scatman Crothers, who plays Dick Halloran, is asked what it was like working on the film. His eyes water. Tears spill down his cheeks. Extraordinary, he says. Just extraordinary. Shelley Duvall's answer to that same question, ten years later, from Ebert: "Almost unbearable." In light of the fact that Kubrick put Crothers through almost 160 takes of a single scene, I can't help wondering if the actor was spilling tears of relief just to have survived.

Duvall's Wendy is just that: a survivor. Her performance is one of the great naturalistic performances in horror, made even more special by the fact that it's found in one of the most mannered horror movies ever made. She's the warm light at the center of this cold, cold movie. She's the one we root for.

Too Long for the Bed: Hemingway's Swede Finds a Home

 "Couldn't you get out of town?" "No," Ole Andreson said. "I'm through with all that running around."

"Couldn't you get out of town?"
"No," Ole Andreson said. "I'm through with all that running around."

So I've been feeding two cats outside my day-job office. One is completely feral but as sweet as any feral cat can be. Small and dark with a little white patch on his/her chest (after two years, my wife and I still haven't gotten a good enough look at the nethers to gauge the sex). This one I've been feeding for a while; his/her ear is notched, suggesting he/she was spade/neutered, at some point long ago, before I came into the picture. A few weeks back, a second cat showed up: big, scarred, missing some teeth. A real big-headed male Tom bruiser. But he got along sweetly with feral Littlecat, who seemed to welcome the company. His presence even seemed to help socialize him/her, who started meowing for the first time after Bighead showed up. And with us, well, he was perfectly insistent that we feed him and love him and not touch his head (I have the scar to prove it).

It was Crystal, I think, who first noticed Bighead's toes. She counted seven on one forepaw, six on the other.

Over the years, we've made a few pilgrimages through writers' homes, among them the rural farmhouses of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Carl Sandburg, and -- nothing farmy about it -- the Key West estate of Ernest Hemingway. Of course, Hemingway's house was the best, if only because it was, in fact, home to several generations of mutant cats. Polydactyl cats: if you've never seen one in the flesh, wow. What a treat you're missing. There, they have names like Charlie Chaplin and Nick Adams, names that suggest they are, in fact, heirs to royal personalities: grand entertainers and characters that spring forth from traditions both literary and cinematic. Two things, well, I love.

So. Yeah. We weren't looking for another cat. Really. But it wasn't that long ago that I bought Criterion's double-release of The Killers, both the 1946 and the 1964 versions, featuring Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin, respectively, as the washed-up prizefighter Ole Andreson, the Big Swede two men have come to town to kill. And so, imagine my delight, when into our lives walked a twenty-two-toed brawler with no upper teeth and scars so thick they bent two needles at the vet's office. A cat equal parts Lancaster and Marvin: all Swede.

We came out to feed the pair of them last Friday and discovered Bighead's left foreleg -- the one with seven toes -- was swollen and fevered. So we got him to the vet, after taping towels around my arms, just in case he didn't want to walk into the carrier of his own accord (he did). And thus Ole Andreson -- after a snipping and a lancing and a tending -- was ours, and my years-long dream of owning a polydactyl cat, ever since meeting Charlie Chaplin at the Hemingway estate in Key West, came to pass. In his story, Hemingway describes Ole as a "heavyweight prizefighter" who's "too long for the bed." Of the big boxer's fate, Nick Adams says: "I can't stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he's going to get it. It's too damned awful." I guess that's how I felt, seeing him with a fevered leg. George advises Nick not to think about it, and that's the end of the story. That's never been an option for me, when it comes to critters, and so: welcome to the family, Ole Andreson. You don't have to run anymore.

A Room or Place or Hut or Lodge or Corner of Your Own

In the fall of 2014, faced with the longest, most difficult portion of a major revision for my not-yet agent, I decided to commit wholeheartedly to an endeavor I had only thus far daydreamed about: I would make myself a writer's space, separate from our house. Partly, yes, this seemed like simple procrastination -- avoiding the monumental challenge of a task that would largely define the beginnings of any future I hoped to have as a writer. No small thing, this revision. So, I told myself that it was also a very practical course of action: our eighteen-year-old cat, Harry Potter, had lately been howling at odd times of the day and night, making working out of the house near impossible (and my wife and I live in a small house in a small town, the nearest coffee shop a forty-five minute commute). If I were to make any progress on my manuscript, I told myself, I would just have to have such a space, no doubt about it, no way around it. Yep.

I did a little research into writers' huts and shacks -- famous retreats of the mind. Virginia Woolf had one, more a lodge of her own than a room: a converted toolshed with a brick patio and big glass windows that looked out upon the lawn. She wrote there in the summers and, once heating was supplied, winters, too. George Bernard Shaw had one, a little shack built on a turntable so it could rotate and take advantage of the moving sun. Americans had their writing huts, too. Mark Twain. Dylan Thomas. A New England writer named Michael Polland actually built his own, after the fashion of Thoreau, and wrote a book about it. I read his book, A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams, and decided, knowing nothing of ground-thaws and shifting foundations, that it would probably be best to simply buy my room and have someone else install it.

At that point, Crystal and I -- she, my life-partner and soul mate, ever-so-supportive of the architecture of my own daydreams -- began looking at pre-fab sheds. We also looked into renovating our own backyard storage shed, which would have required any number of structural repairs, along with new wiring, insulation, air conditioning, sheetrock, flooring, heating, and any number of other semi-expensive refinements. (Here, perhaps, it is worth noting that Virginia Woolf, in her famous essay on the subject of women and their subjugation, also notes that money is important, as well as space; she is, of course, absolutely correct.) Too many decisions! We kept researching, and all the while, the weeks crept on. And the manuscript went unrevised in its black, three-ring binder, bright pink and blue and yellow and green Post-It notes sticking out at me from between the pages like little tongues.

Eventually, I went back to one of my earliest fancies: Roald Dahl's writing hut, a cozy little room in a day-shed. It possessed no stained glass windows, no view of the Downs, no complicated architecture to capture the natural light. It simply was a hut: a practical, small space made warm by the presence of the imagination and character of the artist who worked there. It was intimate.

Roald Dahl Day shed at museum in Great Missenden
Roald Dahl Day shed at museum in Great Missenden

All the other spaces I had considered were huge by comparison: sheds and barns and free-standing structures with nooks and crannies and corners to turn. Why not simple, I thought. For the first time, I thought of the room just off our carport: a long, narrow space, full of unused junk from top to bottom, mostly leftover stuff from eight years past when Crystal and I were married. The room was frigid in the winter, sure, but it was small enough for a heater, and it had a ready supply of electricity. In the summers, it was naturally cool, like a cellar. And it was dry. It had walls made by people who (mostly) knew how to make walls. Most importantly, any work it needed done was doable by me: someone who had never framed anything or run a wire anywhere, who knew nothing about foundations or frost-lines or any of a hundred other potential structural hazards that precluded his building a freestanding structure that could withstand the elements.

This is what the room looked like in September, 2014.

 Junk.

Junk.

First, I cleaned it out: one box of holiday decorations, one tub of action figures, one hoe and rake and mattress pad and extension cord at a time. Chemicals and paints and bookshelves and bike helmets and potting dirt. Two Christmas trees. Spider webs and dead bugs. The homemade shelves the previous owners had erected were packed to the very edge, and once they were emptied, it was clear, in their emptiness, what ridiculous things they were. The first real structural change to the room was to tear them out.

 In progress...

In progress...

Emptied, the space was perfect. Bare, simple. The right and rear walls, the outer walls of the house, were solid brick. The left wall featured framing over brick and mortar, the mortar sloppy and careless, as if never intended to be seen. The room was strangely incomplete and whole, all at once, a room in want of a revision. I knew right away that I would leave the brickwork on the left wall partially exposed so that I could use the framework here and there for bookshelves, to emphasize that it was and would always be a place unfinished, a place always in the process of a draft, never quite complete.

So I sketched, measured, planned. I went to Lowe's and Home Depot and bought furring strips and electrical cord and expensive oak plywood I wouldn't even use. I bought sawhorses and power tools and turned the carport into a workshop. I sawed and nailed and screwed into the late evening light for two, three weeks. I watched YouTube videos on how to install electrical boxes. I watched a lot of YouTube videos. I learned to do this:

 I learned wiring...

I learned wiring...

The ceiling of the room was made of cheap plywood, gaps here and there to the crawlspace above the carport. I didn't like those dark crevices, so I covered them over with pine boards. And then I taped off around the boards for painting. I scrubbed and cleaned the concrete floor, laid down a primer, then painted. Got the color wrong (too light). Painted again. Painted the ceiling a warm brick red. I sealed cracks with water-proof acrylic and discovered that my hatred for caulk and caulk guns knows no bounds.

 This color is wrong.

This color is wrong.

With the room prepped, Crystal and I arranged to have a new door professionally installed, my one real extravagance, as Georgia is, after all, a spidery place, and a good seal is a good investment. Next came the furnishings. We drove to IKEA in Atlanta, looking for a simple, inexpensive desk and some simple, inexpensive lighting (IKEA, for us as a couple, is a Nordic-themed wonderland where life is simplified to a kind of ice-flow essence without, somehow, sacrificing style; yes, Crystal and I do fantasize about getting small in a 632-square foot apartment). Not all the furniture was bought. I also included a bookshelf made by my grandfather, a shelf that's been with me since graduate school (this and a carpenter's pencil and a denim quilted shirt are all of his things that I own, and I used each of them throughout the course of this project). Soon, it was late November, and I had two hands with callouses, a solid knee injury from ascending and re-ascending a ladder more times than I ever will again for the rest of my life, and a genuine room of my own, in which I could then complete my revisions.

 Situated, finally.

Situated, finally.

After Thanksgiving, as the day-job allowed, and for one solid week of eight-hour days in December of 2014, I sat down at the desk above and I worked. I made the revisions in a room that smelled of pine furring strips and fresh paint. I added over 15,000 words to the manuscript, filling in holes and gaps in characters and narrative. In the end, those revisions got me an agent, though there would be even more changes to come, some minor, some major (I happily suspect there are always changes to come in this profession). But all of them since have been undertaken, religiously, in that room. I may not write every page of every book I ever write there, but each one will have some genesis or, at least, re-birth in this room, because it is, if nothing else, a space for working and reworking, the perfect nook for creativity. In a way, it's the cave of my own imagination, and somewhere in the darkness there, I know, I can always count on fire.

I say all this to say: you'll hear a lot of conflicting things when it comes to whether you should set yourself to the task of writing or first preparing a space to write. Stephen King famously tells a story about wanting a big writer's desk and getting it and finding it worthless. By contrast, there's a picture of him in his office in the early 80s that I like very much, cocked back in his chair with his feet on his desk, a notepad on his lap, a dog under his chair. You can tell he's getting things done. The late great Barry Hannah said he did his best writing at the kitchen table, long-hand. Rowling, of course, wrote in a coffee shop. Some say spaces don't matter. Others, like Virginia Woolf, have said famous things on the subject that are usually quoted out of context by folks like me, urging the need for such a space. But Woolf had trouble concentrating in her own room, turns out -- the dog scratching at fleas, church bells ringing in the nearby village (one can't help wondering if the last thing she ever wrote in that place -- her goodbye letter to her husband -- was  written in a state of distraction).

Ultimately, the thing is this: where we write, like how we write, is up to us. Writing is, after all, a deeply personal, private act, encompassing the way we speak, the way we think, the way we view the world. Why should that process not include the necessity of a quiet, intimate corner of the world -- a shelter from howling winds or even howling cats? Know your own needs. And be honest with yourself. Sometimes procrastination is not so much a stalling tactic as a kind of unconscious creative patience at work: slow instinct, let's call it. Trusting your subconscious to know what you need and when you need it to support the work. Sometimes the deepest, richest parts of ourselves as writers -- those places we can only tap into at certain times, in certain chairs, in certain slants of light -- are guiding us, gently, toward the coziest, most productive place imaginable. At least, on a rainy night like the one pictured below, I like to think so, anyway.

 A doorway into my head.

A doorway into my head.

Finch v. Finch: or, the Strange Case of Harper Lee's GO SET A WATCHMAN

So: it’s a little over forty hours after the release of Harper Lee’s new-old novel, Go Set a Watchman, and by now, like me, like the rest of the world, you’ve either read the book or an article (or even just a headline) from TheNew York Times or The Guardian, preparing you for the eventuality that you aren’t going to like the way the story shakes out.

Wherever you fall in the conversation, you’re no doubt attempting to make sense of a few things. Me, I read the novel over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday, via iBooks, and my own initial reaction to the text itself hewed pretty close to the five stages of loss and grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, finally, acceptance. Even now, having finished the book and numerous reviews, most of which are being mildly generous to the text, I can’t quite settle on any one emotion.

Ultimately, the only way I can join the conversation is from the perspective of a writer. With Go Set a Watchman, we find ourselves at a strange juncture between the literary past and the literary present, and the effect is a kind of reader’s vertigo. In a way, we’re through a looking-glass, and nothing is what it seems.

But It’s Not a Sequel.

Before Tuesday’s release of Go Set a Watchman, here’s what we thought we knew, a la To Kill a Mockingbird: Jean Louise and Jem Finch come of age in the summer of 1936, when their father unsuccessfully defends a black man on trial for the rape of a nineteen-year-old white girl. Their lives are put in jeopardy by this defense. Their father, Atticus Finch, is a principled man who believes all are equal in the eyes of the law. He also believes his children should never presume to know another person’s mind or heart until they’ve walked in his or her skin.

Now, after Tuesday’s release, here’s what we think we know: Atticus Finch, later in life, is a pro-segregationist and a member of Maycomb’s white citizens’ council, and when Jean Louise and Jem were young he successfully defended a black man on trial for the rape of a fourteen-year-old white girl. His defense was successful based on proving consensual sex between the two. He openly loathes the NAACP and its political agenda, which has led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision threatening Alabama's right to maintain separate but equal facilities for whites and negroes.

But remember: nothing is what it seems.

My initial concern, before reading the book, was that Americans would not be able to hold in their heads two separate notions about such a sainted figure as Atticus, that this evolution of his character would be a dose of cynicism too strong for most to swallow. That no intelligent conversation would emerge from such a disappointing characterization of one of the great fictional heroes in American literature. Basically, that To Kill a Mockingbird’s themes would be undercut and served up on a plate to a cynical age when, in reality, America is in desperate need of racial healing.

One thing to keep in mind: this fear was predicated upon the notion that Watchman was a direct sequel to Mockingbird, a continuation of the same characters' stories. The book was sold to the public as such, complete with unrealistic expectations bound up in Harry Potter-esque midnight release parties, Atticus impersonators, and potluck read-a-thons (picture a moment when readers at coffee shops all over America spat hot lattes late Tuesday afternoon when Jean Louise discovers a racist pamphlet in her father’s pile of reading). But Go Set a Watchman is simply not a sequel. As the history of Mockingbird reminds us, it’s essentially a rejected manuscript that the author never visited again over five decades. At best, it can only be an alternative history to the one established in Mockingbird, as it presents a portrait of Atticus that is largely inconsistent with what came before.

Writing for Mashable, critic Hillary Busis posits that Go Set a Watchman could be the true account, that “Watchman is Jean Louise (a.k.a. Scout) Finch’s reality, while To Kill a Mockingbird is a gauzy imagined past." A “memory play that Jean Louise chose to write down after learning the heartbreaking truth about her father.” In her thoughtful piece, she calls Mockingbird a “cleaner story told by a nostalgic narrator.” While I do appreciate the challenges and conundrums such a re-visioning of Mockingbird entails, as a fiction writer who tends to emphasize process (a series of ordered steps: outlining, drafting, revising, publishing), I tend to think that what was published was final, unless, of course, the future text deliberately attempts to subvert the original (which Watchman does not and cannot, by virtue of being a scrapped project written before Mockingbird).

In the end, Go Set a Watchman just doesn’t jive as a sequel. Ultimately, it's far too mature a work to be re-jiggered via the "It was all a nostalgic fantasy" reading. And if certain crucial details of this book had aligned with Mockingbird’s (e.g. the outcome of the Tom Robinson trial, the presence of the Radley family, etc.), it might have started a conversation about fictional characters and their place in our hearts and lives, what happens when they let us down, but this is, factually, just not the same Atticus. Nor is it the same timeline. It’s not an extension or a deepening of the story; it’s a contradiction.

Finch v. Finch

In some ways, Go Set a Watchman would be a more interesting novel if To Kill a Mockingbird had never been written. Just getting over the emotional baggage of what it does to our beloved Atticus from Mockingbird gets in the way of talking about the progressive ideas in Watchman, and I don’t necessarily mean the book’s heavy-handed preoccupation with racism. Watchman presents in Jean Louise a Southern hero with a nuanced and intellectual point of view, and through her the book deals deftly with the subjects of feminism and classism. All men in the novel—from Jean Louise's doctor-uncle to her suitor Henry to Atticus himself—condescend to her and treat her as if she requires protecting from herself. Even the novel’s climax revolves around the notion of men enabling Jean Louise to become her own person. But throughout the book she maintains a fierce individualism and takes her Maycomb peers to task for their small-minded points of view about men, sex, religion, and, of course, civil rights—though she is hardly a crusader for the last of these when the novel begins.

Of particular interest to me was the book’s climax, in which Jean Louise and her father face off in a courtroom-style argument, Finch against Finch. At first, the argument concerns itself with the law, with the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the resulting fallout for states’ rights, which Jean Louise is actually a proponent of. (Curiously, Atticus, who believes in the law above all else, fails to see the validity of the Supreme Court’s decision and cannot abide it; this is a prescient moment in the novel, with our current climate of “religious freedom” advocates opposing the recent Supreme Court ruling with regard to same-sex marriage.)

Jean Louise, faced with the moral contradiction of Atticus’s racism, cannot confine her arguments to the Constitution, though, and soon father and daughter’s back-and-forth devolves into a verbal attack against Atticus, in which Jean Louise accuses her father of being a coward, a snob, and a tyrant. “You deny [negroes] hope,” she says. “Any man in this world, Atticus, any man who has a head and arms and legs, was born with hope in his heart.” In her fury, she goes on to imply that Atticus Finch is no better than Adolf Hitler. “You just try to kill their souls instead of their bodies,” she says.

Atticus remains calm and unflappable throughout, insisting that he loves his daughter, even as her trust in him completely dissolves. When she tells him she despises him, his answer is: “Well, I love you.”

This interplay is followed by a final scene in the Finch household between Jean Louise and her Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, who attempts to put his niece’s confrontation with Atticus into perspective. After slapping Jean Louise twice and giving her a bit of whiskey to calm her down, he accuses her of being, by definition, a bigot herself. “What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions?” Uncle Jack wants to know. “He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out.” This is the most complex moment in an altogether challenging and difficult novel, when a man whose viewpoint Jean Louise (and we) oppose turns the hero’s righteous indignation against her.

In this way, Go Set a Watchman is a heady work. It offers no easy answers and deals in shades of grey, whereas To Kill a Mockingbird painted in starker contrasts. The novel's release now, with the recent controversy over the Confederate flag in South Carolina and the ongoing civil rights struggle of same-sex couples, makes it a genuinely timely work—if not a timeless story, as its predecessor remains.

Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins

“Prejudice,” Uncle Jack says to Jean Louise in the final scene of the book, “a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.” Go Set a Watchman takes us to the end of reason when Jean Louise has no words left for her father, when his wrong-headed thinking has exhausted her, has killed her spirit. But at the end of reason she also finds an end to a lifelong faith, faith in her father’s godhood. Her journey mirrors the reader’s, in this regard. And it is a dreary and fitting end, to be sure, given this Atticus Finch’s pro-segregationist views. There is hope, too, that in recognizing her father as human, there will come some type of reconciliation between them.

“I called you some pretty grim things,” she says to her father in the final pages. Atticus replies: “I can take anything anybody calls me, so long as it’s not true.” And one page later, the book ends, with Jean Louise's reflection upon her father as a flawed individual she must continue to love, in spite of her own watchman, her conscience. “I can’t beat him,” she thinks, “and I can’t join him—” And so the novel ends in emotional stalemate.

To Kill a Mockingbird also takes us to the end of reason, when Tom Robinson, an innocent man, is shot on the fence of a penitentiary. This defeat is no less dreary than Scout’s loss of faith in her father in Watchman, but Mockingbird understands the enduring power of defeat, how it shapes us, reveals the ways we can improve. Mockingbird gives us, in Atticus Finch, a man whose very ideals—his reason and devotion to the law—are ultimately inadequate to protect the lives of those he is sworn to defend, especially his own children. And here, in the final pages of the better novel, when a ghost saves the Finch children from the inevitable outcome of their father’s wrong-headed assertion that Old Man Ewell will not make good on his threat of violence, faith has its beginning, not its end. “Thank you, Arthur,” Atticus tells Boo Radley, “for my children.”

Go Set a Watchman makes no mention of Boo, and the narrative is lesser for it. Boo, after all, is the central mystery of Mockingbird. He is the unseen force in which the children place their faith, and their faith, ultimately, is rewarded, reminding us, the readers, of the dignity of all people. For this single thread, if no other, the story of Mockingbird is inherently more powerful, and this was something at least one good editor—and Harper Lee herself—understood over fifty years ago.

Not all novels are intended to reflect only the stark realities of the world in which we live. Some show us a world in which we’d like to live, and this is no small thing. In fact, a compelling, successful story set in such a world is a far greater achievement. Such a story is not the stuff of fantasies or childhood fairy tales, but the stuff of hope. The stuff of faith, which steps in to save us when reason cannot.

How Killer Nashville Taught My Wife to Fight Crime

In August of 2014, my wife and I attended our first writers' conference together. We went to Killer Nashville, which -- for those of you who don't know it -- is a fantastic conference for crime writers. I went with a manuscript and, eventually, through contacts made at the conference, found my agent. And until today, almost nine months later, the good people at Maria Carvainis and the incomparable Elizabeth Copps were the greatest things to come out of that experience. But today, friends, I learned that Killer Nashville is, in more ways than one, the gift that keeps on giving.

Apparently, it also taught my wife how to fight crime.

First, some background: Crystal and I got married in July of 2008. About a year later, for our first anniversary present, we bought each other Electra bicycles. We opted for Electras because, well, we're grown-ups now, and neither of us had ever owned a truly expensive bike and thought the cost alone might encourage us to keep using them after the first week of euphoric togetherness, those yearned-for spring and summer afternoons spent pedaling past fields of blooming flowers. Not the greatest logic, to be sure, but there were other, sounder ideas at play, too: the craftsmanship, the engineering, the idea of something that would endure. We bought cruiser models, the kind you might take to the beach and poke around on leisurely. (According to the logos emblazoned on the sides, their design features "patented flatfoot technology"; to be perfectly honest, I still don't know what this means).

I'd like to tell you that we kept riding them and riding them and that every glorious sunset here in Georgia ended with our biking silhouettes tall against it, but that wouldn't be the truth. In fact, we rode them for about six months, semi-regularly, then put them in the shed and forgot about them for a while.

This past May, feeling guilty and wistful and in need of some good, heart-pumping exercise, we took them out and brought them into the shop for repairs and tune-ups, and we began riding them to the college campus where we work, about a mile from our house, to feed a stray cat that lives under my office building. In the evenings, we returned and left them unchained on our carport, hidden by our parked cars. We live in a small town, and while small-town life doesn't always suit us, it does carry with it the distinct advantage of letting out slack when it comes to trust. Alas, about a week ago, during the day, when both cars were gone from the carport on separate errands and the bikes were left exposed, that slack pulled taught, and someone crept onto our property in broad daylight and stole my black Electra.

We did our due diligence as citizens: we made the police report and thanked the officer, thinking to ourselves that the bike was lost forever. We felt victimized. We felt responsible. After all, by leaving the bike unchained, hadn't I supplied the criminal with opportunity? We talked about the possibility of whether the thief would be foolish enough to ride it around the neighborhood, whether we'd see it ditched along the roadside, whether it was already in a truck somewhere driving away. Anyway, we went on with the business and pleasure of our lives.

Today, at work, I got a call from my wife. "I've called the police," Crystal said. "I saw a guy riding your bike. I've followed him into an apartment complex. I'm going to hang back, but the cops are on their way."

Oh, friends. How to describe, now, the latent thrill of your wife tailing a thief? Or recovering your stolen property like Wonder Woman? I won't even try here.

Instead, this: at Killer Nashville last August, Crystal and I both attended a seminar by a female private investigator. She covered surveillance equipment and surveillance techniques. Among her advice: "Hang back and fly casual." When Crystal spotted the man on my bike, pedaling down the street toward the apartment complex, she did just that. She was driving her Kia on an errand to Walgreens. She turned after him, remembering what the P.I. in Nashville had said and keeping her distance, all the while forming a description of him for the police, anticipating the inevitable moment when he would run. And run, he did. But the details were fixed by then: white sport shirt, shorts, sandals over socks, a beard. A man not necessarily young, but dressing young. A quick process that played out in her head, one picked up in a seminar meant for fiction.

The time was 10 a.m. Crystal waited on the cops, they got there, and she and I texted details for about fifteen minutes after that. She sent word that the officers had found the bike, but the guy riding it was gone. So I drove to the complex to collect the bike. It was mine, for sure, scratched and muddy. Crystal was beaming, and the cops had nothing but praise for her actions. Quick-thinking. Eagle eyes. Good judgment in hanging back.

We were late for a veterinary appointment by then, and when we walked into the doctor's office, carrier in hand, Crystal apologized. "I'm sorry we're late," she said. "I was fighting crime." And it was my turn to beam.

Disclaimer: If you witness a crime occurring, do not assume a writer's conference has taught you to fight it. Use good judgment, as any writer would.

Batman and Me: On Tim Burton's BATMAN Turning 25

Tim Burton's Batman came along the summer I turned eleven and awoke my creative soul.

Looking back, of course, it also introduced me to consumerism, just as Star Wars had done for the first wave of my generation only ten years prior: I bought lobby cards, comic books, a novelization of the script, posters, action figures, rubber masks, rubber gauntlets. I had the breakfast cereal. The Batwing. The Batmobile. Bob the Goon. I asked Mom to order a copy of the Warner Bros. catalogue and checked off three pages of merchandise for Christmas that year. Pins. Playing cards. A laugh-box that, to my great disappointment, looked nothing like the Joker's in the movie. Mom also made me a homemade costume out of a gray sweatsuit, black fabric, and cardboard (for the ears). There's a picture of that somewhere, God help me. And, to this day, I still have a wooden fridge magnet I made myself at my grandmother's house with the bat-logo painted in acrylic. I was swept up in the rising tide of what the media called "Batmania." These days, we just call it fandom, which is, by turns, one of the great social movements of the twenty-first century or, more or less, a correct term for a marketing demographic.

Batman the movie brought with it a resurgence in the character's popularity. He was in demand, and he wasn't just for kids anymore. He was dark, he was brooding. He was Gothic. He was, in essence, Frank Miller's nightmarish vigilante, a hero of the modern psyche. I remember the first time I saw the leather-bound collection of Miller's Batman stories on display in the window of a Waldenbooks in 1988: The Complete Frank Miller Batman. Before this moment, as a kid, I had not paid much attention to anything called a "graphic novel." I doubt I even knew what a graphic novel was back then, but here was a beautiful, black, adult-looking thing with pages trimmed in silver, and when I priced one, I was thrilled. Sixty dollars! Serious stuff. Had I ever paid sixty dollars for anything at that point in my life? Moments later, I overhead two twenty-somethings talking about how great the book looked on their shelves at home, and that, I suppose, was how my epic Christmas list started. I couldn't pick the book up and flip through it because it was shrink-wrapped, and so the mystery of what lay inside was a tantalizing one. The reveal when I finally opened my copy was nothing short of a revelation: The Dark Knight Returns. Thirteen years later, I would place this book a reading list of influential fiction for my creative writing comps at Ole Miss. It was a book that taught me to take the fantastic seriously, to see the world not as a child sees it but as an adult, to look beyond the surface of a symbol and see the myriad complexities and contradictions at work within. I devoured it, read it and re-read it so many times the spine began to crack. There were other books that came along, among them Bob Kane's somewhat questionable autobiography Batman and Me, a book less interested in truth-telling, you might say, than myth-spinning. But it was filled with full-color panels of original 1930s storylines, and at the time, those weren't so easy to come by.

I began to draw around this time, too, at first just reproducing the character's various poses in the artwork that permeated the culture. Eventually, once my parents started paying for lessons, I came to art for its own sake, not to create color-pastel reproductions of Jack Nicholson's eyebrows and hairline but to make art as a fundamental expression of my own inner life. I never came to enjoy sketching as deeply as writing, which had come a few years earlier for me, but I did understand the connection between the two, the visual and the written: after all, Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren and Frank Miller had also written their stories. So Tim Burton's Batman goes deep, I suppose, the whole phenomenon surrounding it, as well as the thrill of the film itself. Every year, as more and more Marvel movies come out, each more bombastic and labyrinthine than the last, each so determined to say something but clueless about what that something is, Batman grows more refined, more artful. Its chief pleasure stems from its timeless, mythic qualities: the city in decay, order out of chaos, the orphan hero. And beyond the superficial trappings of the merchandise I amassed and eventually lost or sold in so many garage sales, beyond its place as a touchstone of my childhood, it's a flashpoint of creativity: the moment when I understood the difference between standing on the outside of a display window looking in and wanting to make art for myself.

A version of this post originally appeared via The Banana Tree of Jean Louis in 2014.