Monday, March 2, 2015

"On the Morning of Christ's Nativity"

In December of 1629, the twenty-one-year-old John Milton com­posed one of his first great works, his Nativity Ode. Using the trope of writing the poem at the first light of day on Christmas morning, in fact looking out his window to witness the arrival of the three orient Kings, he presents himself as hastening to compose a “humble ode” to lay at the feet of the Christ Child. What follows is an entirely non-traditional Christmas poem, one that ranges from the infant Christ asleep in the manger to the image of the pagan gods trooping in defeat into Hell at the mere coming of the Child. In twenty-seven meticulously structured and rhymed stanzas, the youthful poet (whose adult works would include what is arguably the greatest sin­gle poem in the English language, Paradise Lost) explores the global and cosmic ramifications of the Incarnation in tones that move mag­nificently and seamlessly from the intensely personal to the unlimited universal. For any poet, the poem would be a masterpiece; for a poet of twenty-one, who had yet to publish a single poem, it is nothing less than miraculous.
The following piece, strictly modeled on Milton’s stanzaic form and rhyming pattern, and borrowing (in a perfectly acceptable seven­teenth-century manner) his title, represents my own attempt at ex­pressing the roles and functions of the Infant Christ--incorporating such LDS beliefs as that Christ was born in the spring. It represents at once a statement of my deep appreciation of Milton and his works, gleaned from over forty years of engagement with them on various levels, and—more crucially—a personal vision of Christ as both God and Man. It would be ingenuous to argue that it should not be com­pared with Milton’s achievement; but at the least I hope it does not fare too poorly in the comparison.

The Ode

It’s dark and drear today,
The sky a numbing gray,
      With cloud-banks bowing near to brush the ground;
The wan white snow is gone,
Absorbed into the lawn
      That stretches in brown desolation ’round,
While in the barren garden beds
The first brave tulips break, to raise their gladsome heads.

And in my heart I yearn
For Spring’s rainbowed return,                                  
      And wish that I were now in Other-When;
That darkness veiled the land
And in a starry Band
      Bright Angel courses, far as eye could ken,
Proclaim in verses pure, and call
The advent of Good Will and Peace on Earth to All.

If I were Other-Where
And heard that holy Air
      Resounding over shepherds’ eager ears,
Then might I join the throng
And know that I belong
      With hosts of worshippers who shed all fears,
Might joyfully meld my song with them                       
And journey through dark vales to distant Bethlehem;

Where Mary enfolds her Son,
Her strenuous labors done,
      Near Joseph, steward of the mortal Maker
Chosen from before
Wild oceans voiced their roar
      Or whispered in a world-wide, blue-froth breaker;
Or eagles soared through tumbled skies,
Or spirit shone through lion’s, tiger’s, lynx’s eyes.

Elected ere each world                                  
In cosmic order whirled
      About a thousand thousand thousand stars;
A simple child, to grow
And know both joy and woe
That mark His trail of days like shadow bars;
Though Son withal of Father-God,
Content to bear His pall of needful flesh-façade.

In that Other-Where
A rough-hewn manger, bare
      Of all but fragrant golden straw,
Would serve as cynosure
Within the night obscure,
      And silent eyes—now moist with tearstains—draw
From Heaven to long-expectant Earth
As simple shepherds greet an Infant’s Holy Birth.

The Child with eyes tight-closed,
His fragileness exposed
      To all the vagaries of mortal life,
Sleeps peacefully and dreams
Perhaps—or so it seems—
      Of Heaven’s rest exchanged for earth-bound strife,
Of praises formed on every tongue,
And crystal anthems by hosts of Angels freely sung.   

Or should we still extend
Beginnings without End
      And see Him in divinest Councils speaking;
Where two exalting Plans
Are offered forth, for Man’s
      Eternal Destiny and Fate both seeking;
Intelligences without start,      
As Spirits clothed, hear that each must soon depart;

And whether yet impelled,
By One’s strong will compelled
      To troop in irons back to Heaven’s cell;
Or if by faith return
And endless honors earn,
      Or fail, and through their choices merit Hell—
The lot is theirs—no vote sustained;
Each heart is free, and thus, strict agency maintained.
Some seek the safest way,
That in stolen freedom lay,
      Where One will force each Spirit’s right decision,
And joined in gleeful mirth
At those whose trial on Earth
      Might end with them soul-bound by Sin’s derision,
While they who chose in fear this plan
Were guaranteed safe-conduct back to God, as man.

But more were stirred by Him
Whose Plan at first seemed grim,
      Since it retained the chance that some might fail;
But those whose true Will spoke
Would break Perdition’s yoke,
      And after trials endured in bodies frail
Might through the Son’s unending Light
Thus prove themselves full worth Celestial Worlds bright;

And sing forevermore
Creation’s mighty score
      From worlds unnumbered through perpetual Space,
And hymn with one accord
The Glories of their Lord,
      Whose life and death rang greatness for their race;         
While every note to Him thus sung
Trebles but the praise of God from every tongue.

But would that be too much
Encumbrance laid on such
      A sweet and tender Babe as this here sleeping?
Would the jading weight
Of untold worlds’ fate
      Disturb his pleasant rest with weary weeping?
Is this too great a burden still
For One so tiny, weak, and helpless to fulfill?

If aye, then we must turn
To future years to learn
      How His Plan’s fruition might unfold;
But oh! that leads to fears
And terrifying tears
      Upon a high and lonely Mountain cold,
Where He alone must suffer woe,
And He, of all God’s Sons, alone to Death must go;

And so conclude His Word                                                   
By countless Spirits heard
      That He thus takes upon Him Mankind’s sins,
And by that selfless Act
Completes the Eternal Pact,
      And Heaven’s approbation fully wins;
While millions taste their pented breath—
In awe, regard on High the instant of His Death.

To tarry at that sight,
Or marvel at His plight,
      Would prove too much for mortal heart to bear;
To look beyond were wise,
A respite for frail eyes
      And solace to all hearts worn thin with care;
For through His death he works a change
And fashions thus a vessel for our souls’ exchange.

For after three dark days
He our full forfeit pays,
      With broken heart and blood for Mankind shed;
And with the morning dew
      And walks this Earth with simple footsteps’ tread;        
’Mid lilies white and diamond pure
He works for us forever deadly Sin’s last cure.

But now the Infant sleeps,
While Mary softly weeps
      In joy and sorrow for the coming years;
And falters, filled with awe!
At Mercy wedding Law
      And treasures up great promise mixed with fears;
And in His face, composed and fine,
She sees the coming Judgment of great Adam’s line.

For the bright Son dawns with Power,
Whose Might and Grandeur flower
      With full achievement of His chosen Task,
And mounts above wide throngs
Repentant of their wrongs,
      Content in His great Presence now to bask;
While he with Wisdom’s somber grace
Consigns each spirit to its well-appointed Place;

Until each Heavenly Sphere
Bides, eager to draw near
      The seat of Radiance and ethereal Throne;
Across the cosmic waste
Each planet waits in place
      To feel the sear of flame that each must own
Before they wheel through reverend skies
And humbly bow before their loving Sovereign’s eyes.

And He will judge each kind,
Each Making of His Mind
      On counted Worlds that whirl without End;
From them accept His Crown
Of Honor and Renown,
      And every knee in every Where shall bend
In recognition of His power
Foretold, and now encompassed by this final hour.              
Then the Creator-Son
His mortal conflict done,
      Will fold all Cosmos in His firm embrace,
Where vast Intelligence
Uncounted Eons hence
      Will praise His Name and magnify His grace;
And each, enrobed in flesh and bone
Renew the Plan and seek progression as His own

But no! it is not so;
For us there can be no
      Other-Where or Other-When than here;
Let us softly leave
While day-larks gently weave
      Their lullabies to fall on Infant ear;
And let Him, as we found Him, sleep
Surrounded by poor shepherds, with their lowly sheep.

The sullen clouds have fled,
By day’s sweet brightness led;
      And in my heart I find a welcomed bliss;
For while the Infant dreams,
The nooning Sun now beams
      And on my burgeoning garden leans to kiss
The warming earth and interpose
With crowning Iris spears, the Lily, and the Rose.

[This poem appears in Tales Through Time, Wildside Press, 2010.]

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Joe McKinney, CROOKED HOUSE--A Worthy Successor to a Literary Tradition

Crooked House
Joe McKinney
Dark Regions Press, 2013

Joe McKinney’s Crooked House has all of the elements necessary for a successful…and deeply eerie…tale of a haunted house.
It has a central family, in this case two parents and a child, the parents keeping their own secrets while working to hold the small group together. Individually and as a whole, they are fragile, their reality verging upon becoming a nightmare. For Dr. Robert Bell, the impending catastrophe takes the form of an onslaught of bills that he will never be able to meet, coupled with just having lost his teaching job at a Florida university due to a “catastrophic meltdown.” For his wife, Sarah, it is the persistent threat that her daughter’s natural father will somehow convince the courts to grant him full custody. For both of them, it is the sense that their lives, their marriage, their fundamental connections to each other are unraveling.
Into their darkness comes a sudden offer of redemption: a new position at Lightner University in San Antonio (which is, by the way, a wonderfully suitable name). And with it comes the unexpected bonus of free housing, not in some stereotypical cookie-cutter unit but in a house that is indisputably a mansion. And here the true nightmare begins to insinuate itself. The house, while “simple, even elegantly so” and not unattractive in spite of its fourteen bedrooms, conservatory, formal entrance, and all of the other trappings associated with wealth and power, is…well, crooked. Bell’s first reaction is that it is haunted. In light of his immediate impression, he is wary: “I've read my Henry James, my Shirley Jackson. Christ, I even read The Shining. This place is crawling with ghosts, isn’t it?” Then he enters.
And there it is, the sine qua non of haunted-house fictions, the notorious Bad Place that systematically attempts to destroy those who enter.
Even though Crook House—named for its builder—is located in an upscale part of San Antonio, it is as isolated and as isolating as the Overlook Hotel or Hill House, although more psychologically than physically. From the moment Bell walks in, he feels uncomfortable, out of his element, and weighted down by a wrongness that has nothing to do with Crook House’s size or checkered past. And every moment he spends within its walls, every moment that Sarah and their daughter Angela spend there, something essential is leached from them, altering the personalities and their relationships. Most of the story takes place inside; and those passages that do not merely emphasize the extent of the changes taking place.
The story covers nine days, concluding on Christmas Eve day. In those nine days, McKinney methodically strips the characters bare, penetrating the secrets they have struggled to keep, and setting up a series of devastating revelations, the repercussions of which echo backward and forward, contorting every assumption that Bell, Sarah, and the readers have made about the family and their abrupt good fortune.
The ending is appropriately savage, bloody, and ultimately discomfiting. McKinney has learned well from James, Jackson, and King; the story concludes with a certain ambiguity, an uncertainty that locks the story firmly into the uncanny. It is not, perhaps, a just ending, certainly not a Pollyanna ending, but it is entirely appropriate to this particular Bad Place, to the cast of characters and their complex interactions, and to the histories—those alluded to and those in part developed—that form the backdrop of Crook House.
 Crooked House is a seamless read, riveting from the first page to the last…and in some important ways, unsettling from the introductory quotations from Nathaniel Hawthorne, Anne Rivers Siddons, and D.H. Lawrence. Everything about the book compels interest; emphasizes darkness and dread, isolation and disintegration; and results in a solid reading experience.  

Friday, February 13, 2015


Dark Bride: 3 Gates of the Dead—Book II
Jonathan Ryan
Open Road Integrated Media, April, 2015

The second installment in Jonathan Ryan’s 3 Gates of the Dead series, Dark Bride, caught my attention on page one and kept it for nearly 340 more pages…but not for the reasons I might list for most novels generally classified as “horror.” In fact, the first sentences—“The church is a whore. The church is your mother”—seem to link the story more to theology than to monsters, gruesome deeds, or uncanny situations.
Nor do the next few pages suggest the directions the story will soon take. A small group, referring to themselves as “Scoobies,” have met in a local pub for their Sunday-evening get-together, where they discuss matters relating to religion, not unsurprisingly since one of them is a Presbyterian pastor and another an Anglican priest. Also among those present is the “resident skeptic,” a physics professor from a nearby university, whose self-appointed purpose is to keep thinks from becoming too ethereal, too other-worldly. For much of the time, they simply chat.   
A summary such as this sounds rather insipid, until one realizes how adroitly Ryan is using the time—to establish essential characters through their actions and their speech rather than by merely describing them; to suggest the commonplace, largely ordinary locale for the story—mid-west America; and to leaven those introductions with touches of humor that humanize every participant, especially with the mention of the “curse jar” into which each drops a quarter for every bad word, the contents to go to charity.  
But more than that, and almost without the reader noticing it, Ryan surveys the key actions and consequences covered in the first volume of the series, 3 Gates of the Dead (2014). In lesser hands, such information would probably have ended up as undigested lumps blocking the current narrative; in Ryan’s it forms a seamless part of a dialogue that ends abruptly with the intrusion of the supernatural.
With the second chapter, things become complicated. There is a sacrifice evoking a voodoo ritual. Eerie events at a local farm that rapidly escalate from spectral lights to physical assaults and spiritual sieges. One man’s seemingly innocuous flirtation with computer sites best left unviewed that gradually entwines everyone in the story in a perilous web of fear, terror, and horror. The discovery of an ages-old secret society devoted to hunting down and destroying evil…actually, of two of them, one bluntly physical and the other partaking of the mystical, yet both essentially seeking the same ends. There is a world in which “the fight against evil is a real fight, with real casualties and real sacrifices.”
By the end of Dark Bride much has been accomplished in that fight…but much more remains, presumably to form the core of subsequent books.

Dark Bride is, to me, a remarkable novel for what, on the surface, seems a rather unremarkable reason.
It is a difficult story to categorize precisely. The first novel in the series has been described as blending “theology, murder mystery, horror, and paranormal investigation,” which might serve as an overview of Dark Bride, except that stringing together the names of so many disparate genres and sub-genres suggests that Dark Bride might be more patchwork than integrated pattern—and it certainly is not. It is focused, unswerving, and precise in what it sets out to do and how it achieves its end.
More generally, Dark Bride might be called simply “horror,” but to do so would miss multiple layers of complexity, several almost as important to the novel as are its eerie happenings, gruesome deaths, and inexplicable appearances. And while that single word might be the tag assigned by a bookstore as a convenient sales strategy, it would ultimately not be true to the novel.
Lest anyone think I have lost sight of my earlier sentence, I haven’t. Trying to pin the novel down to a specific “kind” leads directly to the reason I found the story so remarkable. Let me explain.
Several months ago, I published a short study of C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) titled, unsurprisingly enough C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy. In it I attempted to show that one of the most direct ways into the three novels was by seeing each as Lewis’s attempt to use different literary forms to achieve a single end. Out of the Silent Planet, I argued, seems superficially science-fictional, when in fact it opens itself more completely when read as essentially fantasy. Perelandra is so strongly tied to mythic backgrounds, particularly the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, that it seems difficult to see it through any other lens except that of Myth (meaning the ultimately true Stories we tell ourselves to explain the universe). And That Hideous Strength…well, that one is almost always the sticking point for contemporary readers. It is science-fictional, yes, but then there is also that untidiness, almost an unpleasantness, with Merlin, with Planetary Overlords descending to Earth (also read: angels), with the Tower of Babel, with the Fisher King…with any number of things that basically have nothing to do with science fiction.
And that, I concluded, is the “secret” to the novel. It is science fiction, but of a sort that encompasses not only scientific innovations but—gasp!—God and Angels, Myth and Religion,   as functional components of  Lewis’s narrative reality. That Hideous Strength can incorporate theology, murders, elements of horror, and the supernatural and still claim to be science fiction because it is SF of a particular sort: Christian Science Fiction.
Wait a moment…. “Theology, murders, elements of horror, and the supernatural.” Given a slight difference in wording, those are the same characteristics readers have found in 3 Gates of the Dead and will find in Dark Bride. And the reason is as unremarkable as the novel is remarkable: Jonathan Ryan is writing, not just contemporary horror or yet another supernatural thriller, but Religious—even, perhaps, Christian—Horror.
Actually comparisons between Ryan’s story and Lewis’s Ransom novels are quite fitting. There is a tone to each, a matter-of-factness that elevates them above the superficialities of their genres and allows readers to enter their worlds completely, especially its religious elements. Neither Lewis nor Ryan overtly preaches, although the theological underpinnings are always present. Neither presents a merely one-sided view of humanity, nature, and the universe; hence, the presence in both stories of an objective, dispassionate rationalist. Both accept from the inception that great evils exist—supernatural evils—that must in the end be combatted by mortals. But a key addendum to that acceptance is a parallel assumption. In the words of a seventeenth-century writer, “If witches, then God; if no witches, no God.” In other words, if great evil exists, even if only for narratives purposes, then so must supernal goodness.
Dark Bride deals with mere mortals confronting immortals…or, at least, entities whose lives seem not to fall under normal rules. Ryan’s characters know that they represent righteousness; but they do not sit back and wait for God to take care of them. Nor do they behave as do the stereotyped priests and ministers of much horror, who seem content to thrust a cross in the face of a vampire and expect the creature to self-implode; Stephen King destroyed that cliché in ‘Salem’s Lot decades ago.
Instead, they set out to meet evil on its own grounds but steadfastly refuse to play the game according to its rules. And that is why I enjoyed the novel so much. Common people are revealed to be much more than what they appear to be, in a world that, layer by layer, similarly reveals itself to contain more than one might ever imagine. Through reading Dark Bride, one may take that imaginative step and enter.
Highly recommended.      

Monday, February 9, 2015

Stephen King's THE TOMMYKNOCKERS--A Glance Back

The Tommyknockers (1987)

 During the latter half of 1987, many of Stephen King’s fans were concerned by rumors that he intended to retire. Certainly the pace King had set over the past two or three years had been strenuous and exhausting. From early 1985 through October, 1987, he had published seven books: Skeleton Crew, Silver Bullet, The Bachman Books, It, the revised version of The Eyes of the Dragon, Misery, and The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three.  Almost all of them were long, sophisticated narratives; any one might justifiable have been considered the task of a year to see through publication. In addition, he had written and published scores of short stories and non-fiction articles ranging from the politics of publication to baseball, along with completing screenplays or teleplays for Cat’s Eye, Silver Bullet,  Maximum Overdrive, “The Word Processor of the Gods,” “Gramma,” and “Sorry, Wrong Number.” During that time, he had appeared on the bestsellers lists with a record-breaking five titles simultaneously, and more than once settled in with three. By the end of 1987, his titles appeared at #1 (The Tommyknockers), #4 (Misery), and #10 (The Eyes of the Dragon) on the annual hardcover bestsellers list.
That he might need a break seemed obvious; but to retire…?
In the September, 1987, issue of Castle Rock: The Stephen King Newsletter, Stephanie Leonard noted that while King was not retiring, he did intend to slow down (he later indicated in “Straight Up Midnight” that the stories in Four Past Midnight [1990] were substantially written during the two years when he had presumably “retired”). Even so, when the final novel of 1987, The Tommyknockers, appeared, it was greeted as a summation of some kind; when the major publication of 1988 proved to be Nightmares in the Sky, it seemed to many of his readers that King might indeed have decided to publish less frequently.
The sense of The Tommyknockers as an ending was fostered by King’s own comments about the book. As early as 1986, he had referred to it in precisely those terms. In a letter he sent me in March of that year, he noted that It would be his last monster-centered novel. Misery (then nearing publication) would have no monsters other than those that exist in the world around us—and for that reason, its horrors would be of an entirely different (but not necessarily lesser) order than those of his earlier novels. In The Tommyknockers, he continued, the monsters would have already been dead for millions of years.
When it appeared, The Tommyknockers confirmed the fact that King’s perennial concern for children had largely been resolved, or at the lease set aside for more adult concerns. Both Misery and The Tommyknockers are about adults, and it is not coincidental that key adults in both novels are writers at crux points in their respective careers. Or that whatever happens in the narrative challenges their perceptions of themselves and their art. But the central point is that they are adults.
In addition, The Tommyknockers refurbishes the overt dark fantasy of earlier novels with a science-fictional overlay. King almost immediately thrusts his readers into a world where alien spacecraft might lie hidden under tons of soil…but still be capable of reaching out to disrupt hundreds of human lives.
Equally rapidly, however, it becomes clear that this fundamentally science-fictional premise becomes primarily the vehicle for quintessential horror. Aliens may influence humans, but after a while, it is difficult to tell whether the motivation for horrific acts is truly to be blamed on the aliens or more properly on unacknowledged pools of darkness within humanity (a theme expanded upon in Needful Things). And on a more essential level, the novel has more in common with the then-recent Cycle of the Werewolf (1983, 1985) than with stories about defunct flying saucers and alien technology that provides almost unlimited power. In The Tommyknockers, an unexpected evil simply materializes. As with the abrupt appearance of the werewolf in Cycle, there is no reason why Bobbi Anderson should stumble onto an exposed piece of the ship and thus set in motion the destruction of everything she loves. It is its time; it just happens.
The Tommyknockers not only seems to shift genres but also incorporates more self-referential allusions than any other of King’s preceding works. The frequent mention of previous novels and previous characters can either be read as part of the summation he intended The Tommyknockers to provide, or as merely self-inflating. Critics who saw the novel as overly long, under-edited, and careless in its particulars were especially savage about the intrusion of Jack Sawyer, from The Talisman; Pennywise the Clown, from It, appropriately enough as a hallucination; David Bright, John Smith, and the dead zone itself, from The Dead Zone; the Shop, from Firestarter; and more generalized but nevertheless recognizable allusions to Silver Bullet, Thinner, Pet Sematary, Cujo, Roadwork, and ‘Salem’s Lot, along with echoes of several short stories.
At one point, in fact, King even included himself as an allusion, when one character refers to stories “all full of make-believe monsters and a bunch of dirty words, like the ones that fellow who lived up in Bangor wrote.” If It suggested an encyclopedia of horror and monsters, The Tommyknockers equally suggested an encyclopedia of “Things-King,” a sense that has only increased in his writing over the years.
The charge of self-indulgence these reference elicited, coupled with the sense that the novel was wordy even by the standard set by King’s other novels, has given The Tommyknockers the general reputation of being among his weakest works. Certainly its bleak ending denies readers any sort of continuing empathy; by the end, only two major characters remain alive, and they are children who have no understanding of what has happened. As with ‘Salem’s Lot, an entire town (and the area for miles around) has been destroyed. There has been more than a full measure of grief and suffering and death (and a living form of death that is even more horrifying, since it is inflicted not by aliens but by humans in the process of transforming).
In spite of this, and in light of subsequent stories, it is not unreservedly dark, certainly not as bleak as was Pet Sematary, with his truly horrifying final scene. Bobbi Anderson and Jim Gardener learn what Louis Creed refused to acknowledge: that there are things worse than death. While probably not among King’s most effective works, The Tommyknockers nevertheless repays the five years King spent working through its themes, tying together disparate strands that had accumulated in over fifteen years of storytelling and end-bracketing one segment of his progress as a writer that began with the appearance of Carrie and, in some important senses, concluded with It.

[A version of this essay first appeared in The Stephen King Companion, edited by George Beahm (1989).]

Wednesday, February 4, 2015



They hatched today. Last night
when I peeked among the apples
they were eggs, four, end to end
among twigs and scraps and a twitch
of white yarn looped up and around,
an inadvertent infinity.
           Jamie called
last night to say he was doing well
and for her not to worry.
This afternoon I stood on tiptoes
at the patio’s edge and saw her tail
upright, white striped with charcoal gray,
upright and alert. I backed away and
moved to the other side of the concrete
slab to finish the barbeque.
           Jamie was going to come by for dinner
but did not. His mother thinks his car
broke down again, but I don’t think
that was the reason.
After dinner, while we were cleaning up,
I glanced at the nest once more. She was
perched above my head on the power line,
and this time when I leaned into the apples
she shrilled at me—and then I saw four tiny
bits of greyish fluff, four sharp orange throats
stretched taut and expectant. It startled me.
She shrilled again, and I stepped back
into the shade.
Tonight Jamie called but would
not speak to me. His mother cried. I waited
but he would not speak through
the static and the silence of
the telephone.
Sitting in my office, I can hear them, a subtle
chirrup just beneath the Mozart horn concerto
playing on the tape to ward away the silence
and the memories.
Their infant song hangs softly
fragile on the air, underneath the mellow horns.
I shall leave the window open for a moment more,
then slide it shut, shut out their nascent song.


One died.

An unripe apple
too soon
onto the rumpled
                                   One died.
Hollow bone and
hollow almost-pinfeathers and
empty skin
in black twigs and
white twine.
                                   One died.
sockets black
above a withered beak
crumpled like a bit
of yellowed
                                   One died.
Small black ants
the trunk   disappear
beneath shaded umbels of


The other three are gone

Morning brought the adults
with the dawn   they echoed through
leaves hung heavy with green
apples   they flicked greyandwhiteandgrey
through shadows

The other three were gone

The nest slid sharply groundward 
its outer lip torn   twigs pulling away
as if too grownup to be held in
precious tension with the rest

The other three were gone

cat perhaps   or ‘possum from across
the road    or fruitrats from the plums
beyond the fence    
no feathers marred the white rocks
beneath the tree

But the other three were gone

At night   when heat presses against
dull windows I hear them    high pitched
demanding  throatstretched and
waiting     tomorrow I will take out shears
and cut the nest away before the apples


Jamie called
from Baltimore—a continent

away from
us. He arrived safely, he said,

and hoped to
find work soon. He spoke ten minutes

with her, less
than thirty seconds with me—“Hi, Dad,”

followed by
naked silences and long breaths

that spoke most
eloquently of long-dead words

ice angers
raw retreats. Slick static on the

line sounded
high and thin—nestlings’ hungry cries—

and both of
us breathed unspoken promises

to brace bare
branches and mend an empty nest

[Published in Matrix: Echoes of Growing Up West—Autobiographical Poems. Wildside/Borgo Press, 2010.] 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Stephen King, MR. MERCEDES--Literary and Extra-literary Comments

Mr. Mercedes
Stephen King
Scribner, June 2014, 449 pp.

Mr. Mercedes is vintage Stephen King of a particular sort—Stephen-King-without-supernatural-monsters. It is indeed a horror story, much as Misery was a horror story, or Gerald’s Game (although that one remains my least favorite of all of his works), Dolores Claiborne, “The Body,” or other tales in which the monsters look like us, act like us, and in fact are us. In this case, the monster is a psychopath determined to destroy as many people as he can in as spectacular a way as possible, yet to everyone around him, he is simply a pleasant, rather nondescript young man, as unthreatening as anyone else.
Opposing him is another of King’s older protagonists, reminiscent in some ways of Ralph Roberts in Insomnia. Hodges is a retired detective, arguably near-suicidal, certainly at odds with himself for having failed to solve several crucial open cases. When he receives a long letter signed “THE MERCEDES KILLER,” he rediscovers his sense of purpose and recommits himself to capturing the serial killer that had eluded him for years.
Mr. Mercedes touches on a number of contemporary themes, including the isolation of individuals in our world and their paradoxical lack of privacy (Mr. Mercedes seems to know a great deal about Hodges personal moments, far more than he has any right to). It looks at the fact that there are killers—either real or potential—among us, waiting for the right moment, the right stimulus, to destroy. It considers the increasing significance of electronic media in our lives—much of the ‘detecting’ in the novel takes place using computer networks. And, as do so many of King’s stories, it depends upon bonds of friendship, even love, forged through common loss, common sacrifice, and common danger.

Beyond being a meticulously developed examination of sanity and insanity, responsibility and ultimate selfishness, the novel is intriguing for two additional reasons. One is that the present-time episodes are told in present tense: “Hodges sits where he is for two minutes, four minutes, six, eight.” Normally this approach bothers me; I am traditional enough to prefer past-tense, third-person narratives. Still, I was halfway through Dolores Claiborne before I realized that that novel was not only technically first-person but a single, uninterrupted monologue told in present time about past events. In Mr. Mercedes, King employs a variation of the device carefully, integrally, differentiating between past and present actions accurately and effectively. After a while, the shifts come to seem natural, actually facilitating the flow of the story.
Another reason is extra-literary but fascinating. I read Mr. Mercedes on my Kindle—which seems appropriate considering the importance of such devices to the story. About three-quarters of the way through, I came upon the following comment, already underlined, with the note that it had been highlighted 603 times by previous readers:

Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue. (324)

Six-hundred-and-three highlights! Reading through the passage, I could imagine seeing it appearing eventually as a meme on Facebook or one of the other social media sites, accompanied by an a suitably Mephistophelian photograph of King, as evidence for the ineffectiveness, if not total uselessness of faith in a science-oriented, objective world. Certainly I’ve seen sufficient other quotations attributed to famous people to evoke the same belief.
There is only one problem with the fact that 603 people apparently felt the comment correct enough and important to highlight it: it is spoke by a madman, a sociopath, a human monster, and therefore does not—in fact cannot, considering King’s other overt statements about God in such works as Needful Things and Desperation—represent King’s beliefs. Context is everything.  And some pages later, King writes the following: “Gallison doesn’t reply, and Hodges turns back to the two unlikely associates God—or some whimsical fate—has ordained should be with him tonight” (404). While the sentence suggests ambiguity, this time the context of the novel as a whole indicates that emphasis should fall on the first possibility rather than the latter.

These two rather technical matters aside, Mr. Mercedes proved well worth the read. Considering the ice and snow outside and the hint of chill seeping around the double-glazed window panes as I write, it seems appropriate to conclude by saying that Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes is both monumental and glacial.
Generally, words such as these are negative, especially when applied to novels, as in “the pacing is glacial,” i.e., events move so slowly that it would be more entertaining to wait until summer and watch the grass grow. In this case, however, I refer more to the physics of glaciation than to apparent movement. Mr. Mercedes at times seems slow, almost as if the plot had come to a halt, but beneath that stillness, events and understands move, imperceptibly perhaps, but with a powerful sense of inevitability and even—perhaps—destiny.
Strongly recommended.