Get Me Some Book-Larnin’

Drawing: Samuel ClemensJust because I have had the benefit of a decent education doesn’t mean I am smart. We all know that it’s entirely possible to have any number of degrees and diplomas, plaques and endorsements, letters and titles decorating your name and still be a complete fool. Idiocy is a far less rare condition than the number of high school and university graduates would have us believe.

Indeed, I have read a great quantity of writings during the course of my life, but I would never go so far as to say that I am well read. Among other contradictions to that claim would be my incredible slowness as a reader, both in speed and in comprehension: as a multifaceted dyslexic, able to turn words, letters, numbers, directions and relative spatial placements all inside out and upside down without even trying, I can easily spend four times the amount of energy and hours reading that any decent reader would need to get through the same amount of text. And of course that doesn’t guarantee that I will actually understand what I read in precisely the way the authors intended.

A more important reason that I don’t consider myself well read is that I have managed to conquer only a relatively small segment of the library most scholarly and literate persons would consider to be well written, informative, accurately researched and defended, or just plain must-read, important stuff among books. Long before I knew why it took me so long and so many tries to read a mere paragraph, let alone a book, I was required to tackle a handful of the so-called Classics of literature, and a bit of contemporary contenders for the title as well. It’s just as well I didn’t imagine I had such an anomalous reading style or that it was considered a disability by others, because I might have had yet more frustrations and difficulties in trying to fit the mold of how one was expected to overcome such things, instead of finding that by plodding through in my own backward way, I became attached to some of the books and stories to an equally unexpected depth. Whom should I, as a struggling reader, admire most among authors but those champions of the dense and complicated, say, Charles Dickens and Robertson Davies.

On the other hand, it’s probably less surprising that I also favor the purveyors of the most outlandish and appalling and ridiculous, from Ogden Nash, Evelyn Waugh, and Edgar Allan Poe to Mark Twain, S.J. Perelman and Franz Kafka. This part at least makes some sense, if you tend to believe I’d read writers who reflect something of my own mind’s workings or the weird ways in which I see the world. In any event, this latter crew might explain a little more about my tending to choose the least arduous paths in life, since I find a certain sort of familiarity in the strangest of their inventions and so can perhaps navigate their writings with a surer strength than otherwise.

So while I may not be the sharpest pencil in the drawer or the most edified of readers, I have at least a few pieces of proclamatory paper in my coffers to prove that I did my homework somewhat dutifully if not doggedly. My degrees don’t confer any special wisdom upon me, but they at least excuse my curmudgeonly attitude about how long it takes me to read my own posts, let alone anyone else’s books and articles and poems and proposals, no matter how brilliant and scintillating and clever and beautiful they are. I’m still trying, but give me plenty of time!

From Heavy as Lead to Light as a Feather

graphite drawingThere are places I go, whether on foot or by car–whether passing through or staying a while–that are like instant decompression chambers for me. Whatever has been weighing on my heart and mind seems to fade away into the distance with every step taken, every thousand feet traveled by car, bus, ferry or train. Flying used to be in that category too, but post-9-11 security hassles and the resultant grumpiness of the industry and travelers alike has meant that I need some of that other kind of travel just to recover from the flying days anymore. But that other kind, oh, it’s amazing how much it can do to change me.

I’ve had the sort of trip that was more like a descent into the maelstrom as well. The true recognition of my need for therapy and medication for my clinical depression didn’t happen for a long time over the years of sliding downward but rather in the few hours of being driven home from a long weekend getaway in a favorite decompression place to the place where my depression was gathering up a thunderhead over me at work, when I simply started crying and couldn’t stop. It was a dark, grim day for me (not to mention for my poor husband the driver), but it was at least purposeful in bringing out into the open what had been lying hidden in me for ages, and in leading directly to my finally seeking and getting the help I needed. What’s more, thereafter when I or we took off on any of those favorite walks or rides of renewal and anticipation and refreshment, it actually worked again, and the good wasn’t undone by the return lap of the journey.

It’s been a good long time since that ugly, interminable day of rain and tears. My life is inexpressibly happier; even though I had been able to find much happiness to paint over that swinish inner angst and agony, it was still only a pig in lipstick until I could remake myself rather than trying to remake the rest of the world to distract me from my own brokenness. That, in itself, was a journey of letting go of unwanted burdens and lightening my attitude and perspective. And it made me so much the better able to appreciate and regain that wonderful sense of freedom, the shedding of cares and escape from ordinary and tiresome things that comes when I take off on one of these expeditions. Short or long, real or imagined, they let me let go of what small troubles I might have, take a deep, strong breath or ten, hold still in awe and enjoy what is right around me, and then come back to the rest of life with a renewed ability to find beauty in them, too.

Real-Life Mysteries

While I’m on the subject of mystery stories (see yesterday’s post), there’s a true one that I hadn’t ever heard of until recently that almost defies imagination, even generations later. But that’s what true mystery stories do, isn’t it.

The story of a female immigrant serial killer/mass murderer, born in Norway but made in America, was a hideous and irreconcilable tale of horror and crime in the 19th Century and remains one today. Belle Gunness, who is believed to have killed all of her own children, two husbands and a handful of suitors, not to mention an accomplice or two of her own along the way–possibly executing as many as forty people in her lengthy crime spree–is surprisingly little known nowadays. I fear that this may be because we have so many other hideous and oversized monstrosities and real-life mystery stories handy to horrify and mesmerize us that many likely get pushed out of memory by the current ugly news. Undoubtedly the advent of World War I‘s dreadful specter was a factor in overshadowing a single murderer’s story rather immediately on its discovery.

All the same, once I knew of it, I found the woman a compellingly repellant subject for another mystery story illustration, being a subject worthy of an Edgar Allan Poe style drama or, yes, a true-crime cinematic epic. Though it was one of those news stories that ‘rocked the nation’ when uncovered a hundred years ago, the tale of Belle Gunness is relatively obscure nowadays. There have been a few generally tepid and mostly heavily fictionalized stories, books and movies based on the horrors wrought by this one woman’s apparent sociopathy and the trail of blood left in its wake, but it’s remarkable to me that such a grim, terrible story is scarcely known on a wider scale anymore.

Frightening, dark, and perhaps an indictment of the worst of human nature in general, yes–but I think perhaps part of the reason I find mystery stories so gripping is because I think they remind us–again in that somewhat ‘safe’ and detached format of past-history or fiction–that brilliance and the abyss are constantly in conflict in the human heart and only by understanding this and being willing to examine it in ourselves can we have a chance of rising to beauty and shunning the grotesque urges that we might have–and, if we’re truly fortunate, catching up the would-be wrongdoer in humane and forgiving and healing arms before she can ever fall so far. That’s my hopeful fiction, and I’m sticking to it.

digital collage

La Belle Dame sans Merci of the prairies, Belle Gunness. What fearful horrors shaped this woman’s inner darkness?

Today, I present Belle Gunness, a truly fallen woman and black widow whose mystery may never be fully unraveled, for your contemplation. May we never see her like again.

Where Carryings-on could Lead to Carrion

digital illustrationSaturday Night Study Group

Lo, the lazy morning passes,

Finds the weary lads and lasses

Still abed, or on their asses,

Half awake and half a-snore,

‘Mid detritus of the pizza,

Hot wings, chips and other treats a

Sober student seldom eats, a-

Strewn in heaps upon the floor–

Partied late; what was it for?

Shattering the blissful quiet

Suddenly, a loud impiety

Is screamed and starts a riot

Right among the corpse-like corps:

All a-scramble, grabbing trousers,

Shirts and shoes, these late carousers

Start remembering the wowsers

Of the night they’d passed before,

Though recall was rather poor–

Finally, wakening more fully,

One of them, if somewhat dully,

Crawled across, his brain still woolly,

To fling wide the knocked-on door

And reveal the dawning horror

Come to waken every snorer,

Standing, looking faintly, more or

Less, like someone seen before–

Somehow shook him to the core–

Ay! It’s Mother stands there staring,

Arms akimbo, nostrils flaring,

Challenging his story, daring

Him amain: Explain this war!

What’s this wreckage, who these bodies

Strewn among the butts and toddies,

Some dressed only in their naughties,

Covered all in festive gore?

He stood gawping, nothing more.

In the cursèd silence stretching,

From a distance came a retching

Sound and instantly, all fetching

Up as though a manticore

Chased them out of their reclining,

They responded to this shining

Call and left the poor repining

Lad, with Mother, at the door,

Beast and trembling matador.

Dust now settling, son and mother

Gazed intently on each other,

Understood this bit of bother

Must be rectified, the score

Evened out: this was the chore.

Mother, calm now and quite cool,

Explains to him that, while in school,

Her son shall still observe the rule

Of sober thought. The lad’s encore:

Will I party? Nevermore!

(And means well, just as before.)digital illustration

Brightening Our Days with Scary Stories

The news and indeed sometimes our own everyday lives provide plenty of stories of sorrow and horror and True Crime, which is–oddly enough–precisely why I like a good fictional tale of dread, doom and destruction. It’s such a relief to remember how to detach from dark and grotesque and terrifying things and even to laugh at them. But I’m mighty squeamish, when it comes to the real thing or even a too-good simulation of it, so slasher movies just don’t do the trick for me. I do need the remove and control that reading or visibly stylized and artificial images provide.

BW photo

Something is amiss in the conservatory . . .

It’s why when it does come to film I love the Alfred Hitchcock classics of suspense, or the genteel Gothicism of movies like Bunny Lake is Missing, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and Gaslight. I avidly read the yarns of Roald Dahl and Edgar Allan Poe and Saki and their ilk, and bask in a good Henry James or Robertson Davies ghost story. I thrive on the dark-tinged fantasy of Edmund Dulac and the witty weirdness of Edward-too-good-to-be-true-named-Gorey.

Oh, yes, I’ll happily digest the terrors of a good contemporary thriller novel or the occasional modern fright-night movie, but I’m a sucker for old-school drama, it seems. Even in music, I can find lots of vicarious thrills and scare tactics in a great modern film or TV score and there are some current composers that excel in this (Danny Elfman, are your ears burning?), but my heart never ceases to lean back toward the bejeweled darkness of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre and, if I’m in the mood for cinematic music, perhaps one of Miklós Rózsa‘s classic romantic scores.

photo

I am haunted enough by my own spooky imaginings . . .

It’s a fine thing to have the worlds of imagination in which to safely plumb and defeat all horrors and terrors. So I do like to indulge the urge myself with stories and poems and artworks of the brooding and twisted or the cheerily perverse and demented sort whenever I need reassurance–or just want to share the twinges a little.

  • photoWhat better way to find comfort on a drearily dark day than to curl up with a bit of artistic darkness?

Be Not Afraid of Me,

Unless You have a Good Reason

I buried the various body parts

in secret locations around the state,

reserving the heart of him I hate

to pin on the board for a game of darts,

and when it was thoroughly pierced and minced

I put on my favorite dress and heels

and danced a couple Virginia reels

before I washed up the room and rinsed,

then took the mincemeat left of the rat,

put it in the kiln for a nice hot burn,

where it made a fine glaze for a lovely urn,

and filled it with daisies, and that was that.

You might think I’m a teeny bit callous, cold,

rejoicing in vicious destructive acts,

but perhaps you’d relent if you knew the facts

and the rat’s true story at last were told–

but worry you needlessly? I? A shame,

when it’s highly unlikely by any stretch

of imagination you’d be a wretch

of such magnitude and incur the same . . .

now let us sit down for a cup of tea,

our own snug little tête-à-tête;

don’t worry about what you have just et,

unless you have reason to fear from me . . .

sepia photo

So what's the score on horror? Do we close the book on beastliness? Oh, no, there's ALWAYS so much more . . .

Smile and be

What looks like a smile

From this distance might

Be the bared fangs

Of monstrous threat

Or then again might be

The hateful grin

Of rigid death

So much to read

Out of a single smile

But all I need to know

Is, do I keep on

Going toward it

Beware the One-th of the Month

skull drawing and Hitchcock portrait

Even when you expect the worst, something worser may lie ahead . . .

Alfred Hitchcock was known to tell a certain little story that subsequently stuck (ouch!) in my mind. This is my recollected version of it:

Wilfred’s wife Muriel had been missing for some time and the incessant rain had abated when the search party finally found what might be a sign of her in a ditch beside the winding and desolate country road. At first, it did look like Muriel’s shoe, and Wilfred was distraught. He clutched at the shoe–which, it turned out, had a foot still in it.

“Oh, I hope nothing terrible has happened!” he cried, “Muriel never takes her favorite shoes off when she’s out of the house!”

A little farther along the lane there was a torn macintosh sleeve that, when he rushed to pick it up, had an arm in it showing Wilfred a hand with familiar jewelry. He was beside himself with worry.

“Gracious! Muriel hates to be late for anything, but she would at least pause to take off her mac when the rain stopped–it’s much too warm to wear in this fusty weather. Surely she would take a moment to get more comfortable.”

The search party progressed slowly, finding bits and pieces of what had surely once comprised most of Wilfred’s missing wife. Wilfred grew more and more frightened at what might have happened to his dear Muriel, but he dared not let himself think the worst. Finally they came to a weir where, caught in its grate, there was a familiar looking head. Wilfred leaned forward to address it:

“MU-riel! Are you all right?”

*********************************

Funny, isn’t it, how we tend to assume the worst and still somehow be so surprised that things turn out to be as bleak as they are. The first of the month (any month) looms large as the archetype of a Bad Day for many people. It’s the day when most of the bills are due, accounting must be made at work for one’s actions–or inaction–during the previous thirty days, filters must be replaced in the machinery, timers reset, and all manner of drudgery and doom are assumed to lie in wait. “I can’t believe it’s already September! Where did August go?” The month begins with a day of dread.

But I’ve found too that there’s a palpable truth to the old idea that while pessimism feeds on its own energy and dark expectations tend to be fulfilled with dark results, optimism and positive expectations can be equally self-fulfilling. Of course it makes sense to be prepared for and know how to survive and rise above disaster. But doesn’t it make great sense to get beyond that and, if necessary, work and will good things into existence instead? If I’m going to spend energy on thinking about the future, I hope it will be with the belief and intent that the future should be filled with good stuff of every kind.

Alfred Hitchcock, it seems, may have been a slightly shady character himself; perhaps it fed his genius for black humor and suspenseful psychodrama, but the tension between his deep-dyed wit and the truly grim storyline with which he would present us was necessary both to leaven the tale and to remind audiences of a better possible outcome. Without the contrast of an occasional flash of light, darkness becomes meaningless and incomprehensible.

Never mind the Fear of the First. Begone, nagging soothsayers of the End Times. I’m not afraid of the cursed Ides of March. Superstition and despondency, get thee behind me.

I prefer to keep my moments of fright to those contained in good scary fiction, and dwell, myself, in a much sunnier place where I expect pleasure and prettiness and plush pillows and poached pears and perfection. At least when I curl up with the likes of Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King in that place I can be assured that they’re only tall tales I’m reading and the bogeys will all go away again when I turn on the lights and tell them to go. Then the terror is finite and fictional and even fun, but finally, it’s also conquered.

  • Edgar Allan Poe portraitRepeat after me: It’s only a story, it’s only a story . . .