Send in the Clowns

Clowns have always scared me, yet I seek out the most terrifying clown images. A few years ago there were reports of a clown standing on a dark Northampton street, under just enough light to make it scary as hell. It’s not illegal to stand on a dark street corner dressed as a clown. It should be.

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On a side note, I worked at a grocery store years ago and there was a shady guy who liked to hang around and chat up the young checkers. He used to brag about being a clown and going to children’s birthday parties. The guy gave off weird vibes and a co-worker chided me: “How bad can he be? He dresses up as a clown for children.”

“So did John Wayne Gacy,” was my answer.

ItI first read Stephen King’s It when I was 13 (now the puzzle pieces are coming together to explain why I’m so….me) and then watched the TV mini-series with Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Nobody could have done a more terrifying job than Tim Curry. He’s helped to ensure millions of us sleep with a light on and dread hearing that the circus is coming to town.

King’s epic childhood fear book, It, begins in 1957 when kids start disappearing from the small town of Derry, Maine. Bill Denbrough is down with a cold on a rainy day. He makes a paper sailboat for his little brother and puts paraffin wax on the bottom so Georgie can sail it in the rain run-off in the gutters. It’s the last time Bill (or anyone else) will see his brother alive. Georgie’s body is found with one of his arms ripped off. Bill’s family and his childhood are forever changed.

Bill, Ben, Eddie, Ritchie, Beverly, Stan and Mike are all outcasts in school and for many of them, outcasts from their families. The summer of their twelfth year, they find each other and form the Loser’s Club. Strange things are happening in Derry. The bullies seem to be bloated with rage and cruelty. And these aren’t pulling- your- hair or putting a whoopee cushion under your seat kind of bullies. These are kids who in a few more years will be robbing liquor stores and killing old ladies for their pensioner’s checks.

More kids are disappearing but now there’s an even darker undertone to it. Pennywise the Dancing Clown, a supernatural shape-shifter, knows every child’s fear and uses it. To Ritchie, it’s his fear of the werewolf from I Was a Teenage Werewolf. For Eddie, a mama’s boy and a hypochondriac, it’s a leper. Pennywise feeds on their deepest fears and calls the fear “Salting the meat.” That summer, the Loser’s Club finds out that the evil in Derry has a cycle.

Every 27 years people disappear and it’s not always kids. Back in the 1700s, It woke up and 300 residents of Derry disappeared. In 1957 a vicious storm ripped through the town, awakening It. That summer, the Loser’s Club defeated Pennywise but they know that in 27 years, he will be back. The group ends up going their separate ways, moving out-of-town and losing touch. Mike, however, has stayed in Derry and has become the local librarian. Since Mike stayed, he’s the only one who truly remembers that summer. The others have repressed the memory so deeply that nothing from that summer stands out. They even forget about each other. 27 years after their defeat of Pennywise, Mike begins to call the Loser’s Club to say it’s happening again. It’s back.

One by one they all come back to Derry to defeat evil again. But this time, they’re not scared kids. They’re scared adults and realize they’ve always been haunted and that their grown up lives aren’t as glamorous as they seem. But the bond that brought them all together as kids is still there.

If you want to be scared (and probably end up huddled in a closet with a flashlight and winter coats covering you) by clowns taking children and eating them and you like stories where a bunch of lonely 12-year-old kids find friendship and banish an evil clown, this is the book for you. And if you see some clown standing under a street lamp during the darkest part of night, run. Just run.

The Book of Bad Things by Dan Poblocki

bookofbadthingsI should keep a notebook of bad things so I’ll always be able to look out for them. I should have started it 30 years ago but better late than never.

BAD THING # 1

Never eat anything out of the staff room vending machines. The trail mix expired two years ago and the grape juice has gone back to grapes.

BAD THING #87 (you know there’s a lot of  bad things in-between  #1 and #87 but I’m trying to catch up on 30 years of bad things)

Run from anyone who says “Hey. Pull my finger.”

BAD THING # 192

Never get in the car with your grandpa who stops at stop lights and says “Is the light green or red? Tell me when it’s green.”

In The Book of Bad Things, Cassidy Bean lives in New York City in a one bedroom apartment with a mom who doesn’t take much of an interest in her daughter’s life. Most single moms would give up that room so their kid could feel like they had space to be alone in. Cassidy doesn’t get the bedroom.  She sleeps on the couch. She keeps a notebook of every bad thing she can think of. It’s her way of meeting her fears head on. When you recognize the scary thing in the dark you’re still scared, but you can come up with a plan. Some of her Bad Things are about zombies, ghosts, hauntings, sleep walking and nightmares.

For the last three summers she’s been a part of a program that pairs up city kids with families in a more rural setting, as in, a house and a lawn and neighbors who don’t scream at all hours of the night. This is her last year with her host family because the cut off age is 13. She’s fallen in love with the Tremont family over the years because they were so welcoming and treated her like one of their own. She’s best friends with Joey Tremont.

But this year is different. Usually she gets a phone call or a letter in advance telling her to pack her stuff up because she’ll be spending the summer with the Tremonts. She finally hears from them but she and Joey haven’t spoken. Something is wrong with him. Her first big clue that something if off is when she gets off the bus and Mrs. Tremont isn’t there to pick her up. Maybe they changed their minds. Maybe they don’t want her there. Cassidy begins to have  a panic attack and decides to go into a grocery store to use their phone.

Mrs. Tremont forgot to pick her up because weird things are beginning to happen in the neighborhood. Ursula Chambers, the hermit/hoarder who lived in an old house down the street, has died under mysterious circumstances. There are bins upon bins of hoarded items in the driveway and people have been stopping by to root through the dead lady’s things and take them home.

That’s a bad thing. A very bad thing.

Ursula’s body goes missing. There are people who have seen her walking around town. They’ve reluctantly shared that they’ve also seen her in their houses. People who went through her things are being haunted. Or, as Cassidy starts to wonder, are they being warned? Does crazy Ursula Chambers want her precious things back? Or is it something else altogether? A few people who took Ursula’s things die in mysterious ways and their bodies disappear from the morgue. Last year Joey’s beloved dog died. And now he’s seen the dog and Ursula walking around.

The Tremonts live in a subdivision (I immediately thought of the movie Poltergeist and how all those houses looked exactly alike, except for, you know, the corpses popping up in the newly dug swimming pool and the fact that there was a portal to the other side in the little girl’s closet) and Ursula Chambers house was a hundred years old. Plenty of dark things in her basement bumping into things. Cassidy, Joey and a new friend know that the answers about the dead bodies disappearing, ghosts wandering by, and some nasty zombie-esque stuff are within Ursula’s old house and decide to sneak inside the ancient farmhouse to find out what’s going on. Bless children under the age of 13 that still have that streak of fearlessness in them. I would have stood on the lawn with a gas can and matches and yelled “Let it burn!” but I’m not very adventurous any more when it comes to finding zombies in basements.  Well….maybe I still have a bit of the old me around here somewhere, the one that says “Hold my beer. I’m going to do something really stupid.”

Don’t let the J Fiction spine label fool you. There were a couple of times that I was positive The Book of Bad Things wasn’t a kid’s book. And it’s not. It’s a book for everyone who likes to be so scared they have to leave a light on all night. That’s not me. Of course not.

Yeah, it was me.

Into The Grey by Celine Kiernan

intothegreyI wanted to have a twin when I was little. Even last week I was thinking to myself: ‘You know who would get that joke I just told?  My twin.’ If she got stuck with a needle I’d feel it too. If my heart was breaking and I was choking on the pieces I’d have her with me, hurting just as much and helping me plan revenge on the person who tore my heart into bits. But then I thought: ‘Is it really a good idea having two of me stumbling through the world?’

No.

In Celine Kiernan’s YA novel Into the Grey, it’s 1974 and Patrick’s grandmother has burned the house down. Not on purpose. She’s got dementia but back in 1974 they called it senility or having a fit as in ‘Granny put her bra on the outside of her blouse today.’ The short stories and novel Pat had been working on? Gone. Dom’s drawings and sketches? Gone. Their mom and dad hate each other and now that their house has burned down, they hate each other more. The family couch surfs for a couple of weeks before going to a seaside cottage they rent once a year while on holiday.

Patrick and Dom think they’ll die from boredom, surrounded by a closed fairgrounds and the sea. It’s beyond cruel to have a fairground within walking distance only to find that it’s closed for the season. Nothing to look at but tourist shops, the sea, pubs, the sea. What’s that over there? Oh yeah. The sea. One day the boys are out for a walk when they see an old man being ejected from a bar. He’s singing an English tune in an Irish pub. Not a good idea. He gets thrown out of the pub with a warning: “If you come in here again singing your old army songs and wearing your old army poppy, I will have you disappeared.”

Pat and Dom watch the old drunk reel around. The man’s not only close to black out drunk but he seems almost…haunted. And he is. The old man walks into the sea to drown himself. Pat and Dom go in after him, nearly drowning themselves. They manage to get him to the shore and get help from a woman in a small shop. She tells them the old man’s name is James.

So, finding a majorly depressed old drunk who was a soldier in WWI  is kinda on the weird scale of things. But Pat begins to have vivid dreams that aren’t his own, nightmare images of muddy trenches. Dom begins to have nightmares too, only he becomes a ghost of himself. Something wanted Dom and Dom was wide open for a spirit to slip in. Dom says his name is Francis and that Patrick is named Lorry. One night Patrick wakes up in the bottom bunk and sees a small pale hand gripping the sides of Dom’s upper bunk.  It’s a boy. “Maybe ten years old.  White face.  Dark, dark eyes, underscored with deep lines, surrounded by purple shadows.”  I saw that creepy little kid from The Grudge when I read the description of the small boy.

Soon Dom is lost to Patrick and Patrick thinks Dom’s soul has flown the coop never to be seen or felt again. Francis, a soldier from WWI, has hijacked his body and isn’t going to give it up.

I don’t do spoilers. I won’t ruin a book for anyone.  Unless I hate them. Then I will blast the entire plot on a boom box and hold it over my head at my enemy’s house a la John Cusack in that one movie that I can’t remember the name of but I remember being annoyed by the movie but confused because I really liked John Cusack. What was I saying?  Celine Kiernan has written a seemingly simple young adult novel about the relationship between siblings. It’s not a simple book at all. It reads like a fast paced thriller but it’s about what you would do for your brother or sister, how far would you go to keep them safe and sound. Evidently, battling for your sibling’s soul is pretty high on the list of “Hey, brat. I rescued you from purgatory. Now gimme your fries.”

Looking for Ghosts

hauntedstuffI’ve been on the hunt for a good ghost story, not because it’s October but because ghosts scare the bejesus out of me. My friend gave me a book last week called Haunted Stuff: Demonic Dolls, Screaming Skulls and Other Creepy Collectibles by Stacey Graham. It’s not only about traditional hauntings but also about all the seemingly innocent junk around our houses that could have a dark past that is still with the object and shooting out trouble. I woke up at 3am and couldn’t go back to sleep and decided to read through this book. Big mistake, especially when I got to the chapter about a doll named Robert in Florida who likes to move around rooms and look out the windows all on his own.

That is so not cool. So not cool at all.

Ghost ships, skulls in walls that don’t stop screaming until they’re put back into the walls (because I guess there’s nothing to scream about when you’re sealed up tight in a wall), séances, this book has enough terrifying stuff to cause me a few sleepless nights. But it’s those dolls sitting on a shelf, staring and maybe moving around at night or, God no, crawling down from the shelf and touching your face while you sleep. Those were the stories that I craved. And feared. I creaved them. Yeah, I just made up a word.

roomsI wanted more ghost stories, something a little somber and less frightening than a doll moving around a room and staring out at the people in the streets. (Man, I am not going to get over that one.) I picked up Lauren Oliver’s Rooms. Ghost jackpot! In Rooms, Richard Walker dies and in swoops his estranged and EXTREMELY screwed up son, daughter and ex-wife to settle his estate. The house is already occupied by two ghosts: Alice, a house wife from WW II and Sandra, a woman who died in the house in 1987. Both ghosts watched Richard’s children grow up, lovely Minna who always seemed to have a hard edge to her and angelic Trenton.

The ghosts are disappointed to see what has become of this brother and sister in the 12 years since their parent’s divorce. Minna has become a bit of a whore although when a woman has daddy issues I don’t think you’re supposed to call her a whore when she uses sex to get what she wants. I think you’re supposed to shake your head in pity and go clean your own house. The funeral director comes over with picture samples of urns for her father’s remains and the next thing you know, bang a gong they’re getting it on. Minna’s 6 year old daughter Amy nearly catches them in the act but Minna stows the funeral director under the bed and doesn’t flinch when he calls her a crazy bitch. She moves on to the fed ex guy.

Trenton is now a pimple ridden 16-year-old who almost died a year before in a car accident. He goes to an all-boys school and is a miserable kid, more miserable than usual because he remembers almost dying and he wants to return to that feeling, of being in a warm and comforting place, a place where he doesn’t have an embarrassing nickname earned at a party. Their mom Caroline has spent years hiding in a bottle and is now a throwing-up-blood alcoholic who can’t make it past 8am without a glass of vodka. They have a whole house to get through along with a funeral. The two ghosts, Alice and Sandra watch them. Trenton is the only one who can sense them and sometimes catches them talking to one another. The ghosts have terrible secrets. In alternating chapters each tells her story full of tragedy, loneliness, and regret. But a new ghost appears out of nowhere and she can’t remember who she is or how she died.  And she tempts Trenton into killing himself so they can be together.

Like most great ghost stories, Rooms unfolds layer after layer of the past, examining wrong turns, unkindness’s and broken hearts. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. I think we’re so chock full of energy that we leave an imprint behind, a mixed tape cassette left on repeat that keeps playing our lowest points and maybe even some of the good times.

Good news? There’s a happy ending to Rooms. Bad news? I have a weird take on what a happy ending means. Enjoy a good ghost story that won’t have you checking under the bed for evil dolls.

Conversion by Katherine Howe

conversionWhen I was in high school there was this kid with Tourette syndrome and a glass eye. None of us knew what Tourette syndrome was. We just knew he blurted out things that came as half swears: “Fu, fu, fu!”  Or “Shi, shi!! shi!” He had a few facial tics, his body would twitch and he was exhausting to watch because he was constantly moving. We thought he was an annoying kid. We also thought he was lying when he said he had a glass eye. You couldn’t tell like with Colombo or Sandy Duncan when you look at them and go ‘Yup! That one’s the glass eye. It goes off a little to the left.’

But one day in theatre class he was on stage and his glass eye fell out. I was sitting in the theatre seats with some other students and was looking down at my lap reading a book (because theatre class was boring and the girls wore all black and the meat head footballers thought it was an easy A which it was) when I heard everyone gasp. I looked at the stage to find the kid bending down scurrying around for his eye. There was some nervous laughter and he may have wiped the eye on his corduroy pants but I was just pissed I missed the actual eye falling out of his actual head.

In Katherine Howe’s Conversion, Colleen Rowley attends St. Joan’s Academy, a school known for producing graduates that go on to Ivy League universities. Colleen is at the top of her class and is a runner-up for valedictorian. The aim to be top student is unbelievably stressful. Some of the girls begin to have breakdowns which the parents and teachers brush off as hormones. But when Clara Rutherford topples over in class and begins to have a seizure, the entire world of St. Joan’s Academy grinds to a halt.

Girl after girl begins to have tics and Exorcist-like contortions that lands a few of them in the hospital. Parents begin to worry. Is there something in the environment that’s causing the girls to collapse one by one? Fearing that she might be the next girl to be hit by the mysterious illness, Colleen begins to read about a girl in the 1700s who, along with other girls, began to have strange fits that were blamed on demons and the cranky old ladies in town. That town was called Salem.

A therapist explains to Colleen that the girls are suffering from conversion disorder which produces neurological symptoms (tics, fits, blindness, sometime even paralysis) but has no real cause. It was once known as hysteria or as I like to call it: This corset is suffocating me and I haven’t eaten in 3 years because these are  Victorian times and I have to be the paragon of femininity and that means I have to faint in a pretty and lady-like way and then spend a week every month being reminded that I’m a woman and should cinch my corset a little tighter.

The media descends on Colleen’s town, camping in front of the school and hollering embarrassing questions at the girls. At a time when Colleen and her classmates should be excited (and nervous as hell) about their last year of high school and the new possibilities of university, they’re terrified, hiding away, becoming sicker and more paranoid as the days go on.

Katherine Howe has written a kick-ass book full of insight into the minds of driven girls and who they think they are when every last bit of them is stripped away. As I read this book I had flashbacks of my time in high school. Well, mostly about skipping classes so I could go home to read. I was an almost straight A student but that was more out a fear of being ordinary than any real ambition to be a stellar student. I still have those high school dreams, though. I’ll be trying to get my math book out of my locker, can’t remember the combination and realize I haven’t done any of the math assignments for 3 months. Just as I’m about to topple into despair that I won’t graduate, I’ll remember I’m 37 years old and done with high school. All these years later and high school still slips in and gets a hold of me. Ugh. Shake it off, Jennifer.

Being 16 is hard enough. Add in the pressure to get into a top university and live up to the expectations of everyone else and no wonder the human body goes into meltdown.

Still, I wish I could have seen that kid’s glass eye pop out of his head.

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Once in a while (or more often than I care to admit) I’ll zone out and start thinking about stuff that does me no good. Here is an example from when I was staring into space for five minutes in the produce section at Safeway:

They’re going to peel open my skull, take a peek around and be devastated by what they find. Or don’t find. I don’t know if they can tell this from an autopsy, but the way I live doesn’t adhere to anyone’s expectations or standards. In fact, I’ve been a disappointment to a lot of people. When I die, it will be unremarkable but not in a sad way because hey, I’ll be dead. Anyway, the only information they’ll get out of my autopsy will be that I ate 3 pints of Ben and Jerry’s Toffee Coffee Crunch, was still using Clearasil at the age of 80 and I may or may not have 76 cats back in the apartment I died in.

It’s the weird stuff you get obsessed about while picking out carrots or trying to figure out the difference between red cabbage and plain lettuce.

closeyoureyesIn Chris Bohjalian’s Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands Emily Shepard is a teenager who loves the poetry of Emily Dickinson and seems like your run of the mill 17-year-old. There’s mention of mental illness and wildness but I could never tell if that was just Emily being a teenager or if she was in need of hefty medications and therapy three times a week. She’s a door-slamming and yelling teenager, hates her drunk parents most of the time and likes to go out and party. Both of her parents work at a nuclear plant in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. They have loud drunken fights and quiet hung over mornings.

One morning with every boring thing in its proper place, Emily goes to school, her parents go to work, and things go to hell. At Emily’s school there’s an announcement. All of the students are filed onto buses they’ve never seen. As the buses leave the town and the army comes in, rumors and pieces of the story start to come together. One of the reactors had a meltdown, Chernobyl style. There’s whispering that Emily’s father was working while loaded and caused the tragedy.

Emily tries to think back to the morning before leaving for school. Did her dad seem drunk or hung over? Was it his fault? Everybody thinks so. Since he’s dead they all look to her. She’s his daughter. It’s her fault. Her hometown becomes a ghost town with the national guard surrounding it. The area won’t be inhabitable for hundreds of years. Emily realizes both her parents are dead from the nuclear meltdown and she’s on a bus to God knows where. She decides to slip away.

It is the beginning of her new life.

She becomes a homeless teen with a made up name. She falls in with a bunch of other kids who crash at a filthy crack house. She services truckers for money and drugs. She tries not to think of her parents or the town she grew up in. As strange as it sounds, she worries most about her dog Maggie who may have been locked in the house during the meltdown. She obsesses on this. She decides that while yes, her life sucks big time, she’s still alive. It’s the dead of a New England winter and at least she gets a warm place to stay.

But this isn’t what she wants. She disappears and builds an igloo out of frozen leaves and garbage bags. She meets Cameron, an eight year old boy with a black eye. He’d been through a series of foster homes and was used as a punching bag. She feels a terrifying and unexpected tenderness for the kid and takes care of him; making sure she gets healthy food for him to eat and getting him to read the books she steals. But one day Cameron gets a cold he doesn’t seem to get over. It’s a bitter winter and they’ve been sharing a cold back and forth but this is something different. Cameron’s fever won’t leave and he can’t breathe. Emily takes him to the ER and then splits because she feels guilty that she didn’t take him in sooner and that she didn’t take good enough care of him.

She decides there’s only one place to go: back to the uninhabited town she left almost a year ago. She has no doubts that the radioactivity will eventually kill her. She just wants to go home. Sleep in her own bed, look at her journals and books. She wants to find the body of her dog Maggie and give her a proper burial.

A friend of mine recommended this book as we were driving around town and listing the past couple of books we had just read. I stored it away in my brain because I’ve read some of Chris Bohjalian’s other work and really liked them. Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is a book to read when you’re in a particular mood where all you can think about is where you’ll end up in life. A mood where all the people you interact with become satellites orbiting your world. It’s a good book to read when you believe you’re the most selfish person in the world and you have no redeeming qualities..

In the end, you can go home. You might die from cancer or radiation sickness. You might have to eat refried beans from cans two years out of date. You might not even realize you’re lonely because you’re sleeping in your own bed.

But you will still be you and you will still find your way home.

House

houseIf you want to meet a real jerk watch House. I’ve gone through 5 seasons in a little under a month- don’t judge me! I do so have a life. It just involves watching a lot of TV. And let me tell you, House is never dull.

Gregory House and his team work out of the Plainsboro-Princeton teaching college. To say he’s a genius would be like saying Beethoven was kinda good on the piano. He’s a genius without a filter and even though he has an unusual way of finding out what’s wrong with people, he can say things that would drop a Hell’s Angel in his tracks. He’ll insult your mother even if she’s been dead for ten years. He’ll tell you your kid is ugly and that’s why no one wants to be friends with him. He’ll tell a married couple that one of them has an STD and leave them screaming at each other in the doctor’s office, each of them professing fidelity.

House says these things because they’re basically true and when he’s said them, he usually finds out the mystery illness. And holy biggoly are those illnesses mysterious. I’m talking about diseases so rare that it hasn’t been heard about since the 1600s or it’s a disease that might affect 1 in 6 billion people. It’s up to House’s team of doctors to figure out what’s going on with the sick person and with each other.

Oh yeah. I forgot to mention that House is a pill popping doc. As a distraction he likes to shake his prescription bottle around to listen to the rattle of the pills. I thought he got shot and that’s why he walks around with a cane and is addicted to pain killers. It takes a couple of seasons to find out the reason behind House’s illness and that his injury makes him a better doctor. But I counted once how many times he took Vicodin in an episode. I counted 6.

Wilson is an oncologist and House’s best friend. He enables House’s behavior and is often an unwitting companion in House’s revenge plans.

Dr. Cameron is a right fighter. She’s incapable of lying and is also a pawn in House’s plans. And she’s kind of in love with him. I think I kinda love him too. Except he’d yell at me, probably something with the ring of truth, and then I’d hide in a supply closet and cry. Like I do in real life.

Dr. Foreman was a troubled kid who landed in juvie when he stole a car. He made a life for himself by going to med school and becoming part of House’s team. He starts off aloof and then thaws a bit and then does something 2 seasons later that will have you throwing magazines at the TV.

Doctor Chase is Australian and pretty. I mean really pretty. Kind of FML pretty. He’ll do anything to get ahead. He fascinates me because manipulation is a skill. Not a nice one but still. I can wiggle my ears. Does that mean anything?

I became disgustingly attached to everyone on House. I would go to work and wonder how they were doing. I called my mom once because a character had died and I needed to talk about it. And now I’m in mourning because I’m finished with it. I’m still in mourning for Dexter as well.

If you don’t mind seeing someone throw up blood or get a flesh-eating infection or discovering that the bubonic plague still claims a handful of people each year, watch House. Okay, I’ll warn you. Somebody throws up at least 8 times during an episode. And it’s always unexpected. A patient will be lying in bed, joking around with the nurse and then BAM! Projectile vomiting. This is a show that sticks with you. Don’t be afraid to start diagnosing your friends and family after watching a couple of episodes. Just remember to always stand back two feet in case there’s some liquid shooting your way.