Time Means Nothing Here

You gotta forgive me. I just adopted a puppy and my reading life has gone straight down the toilet. I’m either chasing after him because he has nabbed something he shouldn’t or I’m trying to break the land speed record to stop him from pooping on the floor. I have a theory that puppies are 50% sweetness and 50% crackhead. So, I’ve been reading novellas in the short time my puppy is passed out.

In the Tall Grass, a novella that you can find in the story collection Full Throttle, was kind of a cheat for me. I saw that Netflix had made it into a movie and before I watched it, I wanted to read the novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill. Side note: when I first started reading Joe Hill’s work I’d think “Man, this writing reminds me a LOT of Stephen King.” Turns out Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. If I had just tracked down a photo of Joe Hill, I would have seen he’s the spitting image of his father.

In the Tall Grass begins with siblings Cal and Becky Demuth making a cross-country drive. Their parents call them ‘Irish twins’ because there’s only 19 months between them and they are as close as twins. Becky was in her sophomore year of college when she got pregnant. Her parents decided that the best thing for their unwed pregnant daughter was to go stay with an aunt across the country. Since it’s spring break, Cal decides to join her and the two make it a sort of adventure. They do a few touristy things, including seeing the world’s biggest ball of twine; I must be getting older since the idea of seeing a giant ball of twine actually peeked my interest.

After three days of driving, they come to a stop at a never-ending field of tall grass. Not just waist high grass but towering, over Shaq tall grass They hear a little boy crying for help from the grass. A woman’s voice, also calling from the grass, tells the boy to be quiet because “he might hear you.” Cal parks the car in the dusty lot of a dilapidated church. There are several other cars parked, all of them looking like they have been there for months.

While Cal is parking, Becky goes into the grass to investigate. She can still hear the boy, who says his name is Tobin, calling for help. The woman, named Natalie and presumably Tobin’s mother, has gone quiet. Cal enters the grass and calls out to Becky and Tobin. He expects his sister and the kid aren’t too far off since it sounds like they’re five feet to his right. And then they sound like they’re behind him. Cal blames the long swaying grass for distorting sounds.

Becky tries to call 911 on her phone, but the call is dropped. Meanwhile, it’s maddening to both Cal and Becky that they can hear each other but can’t find each other. It’s like a never-ending game of Marco Polo. Already uneasy, Cal begins to panic as Becky’s voice gets fainter and fainter. Night falls with only one or two voices calling for help.

Cal passes a decomposing dog tangled in the grass. It looks like someone (or something) has taken a bite out of it. The night begins to get more and more terrifying and Cal thinks he might never see his sister again or escape the tall grass. What seems like an innocent field of grass is becoming a dark, almost alive, creature with the intention of driving people insane who get lost in it.

Do you trust me, Faithful Readers? You know I can’t say anything else because it would spoil the story much like a dead rat stuck under a couch. You’ll be glad I didn’t say anything more. Trust me.

And would you do me a favor (Please and thank you)? If you see a field of monstrously tall grass, keep driving until it’s only a blur in your rearview mirror.

I’ll Give You $3.50 For Your Soul

One of the drawbacks of being an avid reader is that I sometimes don’t retain much of a book in my head. I might remember specific scenes or characters. I might not remember the entire book, but I do remember if I liked the book or hated it.

I read Peter Staub’s The Hellfire Club over 20 years ago. I had already read the two books he collaborated on with Stephen King: The Talisman and it’s follow up Black House. Already a King reader, those two books urged me to seek out more Peter Straub books. And I did, starting with The Hellfire Club.

Nora Chancel is married to Davey Chancel, the son of a man whose father built a publishing house in the early 1900s. Nora, a former combat nurse in Vietnam, is haunted by her service in the war. Her sleep is often broken by nightmares that send her digging under her pillow for a gun she used to keep there.

Someone is murdering women in the small Connecticut town where Nora and Davey live. The killer’s latest victim is the real estate agent who sold the Chancels their home. Like many women in town terrified of being the next victim, Nora has had an alarm system put in.

Meanwhile, her husband, who has always been obsessed with an author published by his family’s publishing house, seems to have become almost unhinged in his obsession. His father is a blowhard who likes to keep Davey under his thumb. Davey’s mother is a more often than not drunk who spends her days in her study ‘writing.’ Davey’s father has always thought that Nora (10 years older than Davey) was too old for his son and likes to insult her under the guise of flirting.

One day on the drive home from a tense lunch with Davey’s parents, he and Nora drive by their real estate agent’s house. Crime scene tape still scars the front door. Police roam the house. Davey and Nora go to the front door where they’re met by a detective who asks them to come inside since they knew the missing woman and might have answers to his questions. He observes them as they walk through the house.

The woman’s bedroom is a blood bath, blood spatter on the walls, the bed soaked. Nora doesn’t think the real estate agent is dead, but with all the blood in her bedroom it’d be a miracle if the woman was alive. When they get home, Nora sees that Davey is almost manic about something. He stole a couple of paperbacks from the real estate agent’s bedroom, books published by his family and written by the author Davey is obsessed with. He begins to tell her a bizarre story about a woman from his past who was equally obsessed with the writer. She introduced him to The Hellfire Club, an unusual place where time and memory seem to be skewed.

He gives Nora a couple of paperbacks with a scribbled message inside. The same paperbacks the missing and presumed dead real estate agent had on her shelf in her bedroom. But it turns out that Nora was right, the woman is not dead and has been found. The police want Nora and Davey to positively ID the woman.

It is indeed the real estate agent, but she explodes into hysterics when she sees Nora. The killer is caught: a man identified as one of Davey’s former classmates as well as a lawyer for the publishing house. And this is where Nora’s nightmare begins as she becomes accused of heinous crimes and tries to outrun a killer who is actually on the loose.

Peter Straub is a master storyteller, weaving tales both supernatural and steeped in reality. The Hellfire Club is a fast page-turner and if my heart wasn’t a shriveled up black lotus flower, I’m sure it would have been pounding in terror.

Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?

Even though I’m a huge fan of Stephen King’s work (move over Annie Wilkes because I’m his number one fan), I’ll admit that sometimes I do skip one of his books when it gets published. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it. I’ll acknowledge the book and go about my life, knowing I’ll catch up to his latest and greatest at some point. But some of his novels I visit over and over again, like meeting an old friend for a cup of coffee to swap stories about the paths our lives have taken. Or with King’s books, those coffee catch-ups take the form of terrifying tales told by the light of a campfire.

In Gwendy’s Button Box, a novella crafted by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar, it’s 1974 and 12 year old Gwendy Peterson likes to run up a set of cliffside stairs known as the Suicide Stairs. At the top of the stairs she can hear the summer sounds of pick up baseball games and kids on a playground. One day, a gentleman dressed in black calls to her from a bench. His name is Richard Farris and the neat black hat he wears will haunt her dreams for years to come.

Farris seems to know her mind and her desires. He gives her a wooden box inlaid with eight different colored buttons. He presses one button and dispenses a small chocolate candy. He tells her the chocolate will help her lose weight and stop kids from calling her names like Goodyear (as in the Goodyear Blimp). Gwendy takes the box with its buttons home and her life begins to change.

The chocolates do help her to lose weight. Another button, when pushed, dispenses old silver dollars. As she gets older, she knows the silver dollars are worth a lot of money and will be her ticket to be able to pay for college. Another button seems to help her parents to quit drinking and steer them away from an inevitable divorce. The other buttons tempt her and she knows, if pressed, a button might bring about something truly horrible.

Gwendy decides to try and experiment one day and presses a button that leaves her with an uneasy feeling. What happens next makes her terrified of the Button Box and the power it yields. But along with the evil that the box is capable of, the good it brings to Gwendy’s life is there as well.  She goes through high school making good grades and excelling at sports. She takes a couple of coins from the Button Box to a coin collector and finds out they are indeed valuable and will help her pay for a good college. She begins to worry about the box falling into the wrong hands and takes great pains to make sure it’s safe. But one day, a monster in human skin gets a hold of the box and Gwendy’s life takes another turn.

Gwendy’s Button Box is not only a chilling supernatural tale, but also a coming of age story about a young girl who doesn’t believe she’s special until she’s given a magical box equipped with buttons that shape not only who she is but her own destiny.

To all the kids out there who feel invisible and unremarkable, I hope you find your own Button Box that helps you become who you need to be. Just don’t, you know, press any of the buttons that might bring about the end of the world. I’m just saying….

He’s a Real Nowhere Man

Sometimes you find an absolute gem of a book in the least likely of places. For me, that unlikely place was in a grocery store.

When my mom was alive, I’d go grocery shopping with her. Unfailingly, I would find her in the book aisle after having looked for her for what seemed like an hour. She’d almost always get a paperback, one of those bodice rippers with a man in a kilt filling the cover. Mom liked her time traveling romance books. I got a lot of my love of reading from her.

So it isn’t too surprising that I ended up in the book aisle of Safeway recently. I started to peruse the shelves and discovered a book that looked like I’d want to devour it in a day. Hard to say whether Lisa Jewell’s I Found You found me or I found it.

Alice is a single mother raising three kids. Saying she has bad luck with men is an understatement. Recently, a man has washed up on the beach. Alice decides to go and see if the man needs help. He tells her he can’t remember his name or how he got there. Alice detects something in him, some tragedy and trauma, enough to hollow out his brain and leave him with giant gaps of time he can’t account for. She decides to take him in, get his clothing dry and make some phone calls.

Meanwhile, Lily is newly married and still head over heels in love with her husband who swept her away from her home country of Russia. But one day he doesn’t come home at all. Lily begins to panic because her husband is a routine fiend. She sets out in a foreign land to find her him.

The amnesiac Alice discovered on the beach spends the night in the backyard of a cottage owned by Alice’s mother-in-law. Alice introduces her three children to him. Alice’s youngest child decides to call him Frank. Bits and bobs of his memory are coming back. Alice and Frank set out to see if anything else can be found.

Lily is hitting brick walls when it comes to finding answers to her questions about her missing husband. The lives of Alice, Frank, and Lily are about to collide with horrifying results. This was one of those books where I continued to think about the characters after I finished the book and hope they were finding good days, if not awesome days.

But, I also talk to the toaster.

I need a life.

Send help.

Sometimes Dead is Better

I read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary when I was 10 or 11. My brother (who is 2/1/2 years older than me) had finished it and left it on the couch. I picked it up and began reading. That book sealed the deal on me wanting to be a writer.

Stephen King has admitted that Pet Sematary disturbs him more than his other horror novels because the plot included every parent’s worst fear: the loss of a child. Back in the 1980s, Stephen King and his family moved to rural Maine. The country road in front of their home was anything but empty and quiet. Large semis often barreled down the road, claiming beloved pets and inadvertently teaching kids about death. King said his youngest child, still getting the tricky thing of walking down, had made his way to the edge of the road where a semi was rocketing down.

King couldn’t remember if he’d tackled the toddler in time or the child just tripped, preventing what could have been every parent’s worst nightmare. The seeds of the novel were planted when he discovered a pet cemetery behind his house. He didn’t have a place to write in in his new house, so he wrote in a room in the grocery store across from that road made for tragedy.

In Pet Sematary (misspelled by the children who made the place their pets final resting ground) Louis Creed and his family move to the rural town of Ludlow, Maine. Louis was an ER doctor in Chicago, but wanted a quiet place where he could spend more time with his wife and two children. He takes a job as infirmary doctor at the university and begins to settle his family.

His new neighbor Jud Crandall, a nimble 80-year-old man, introduces the Creed family to the pet cemetery near the woods behind their home. Generations of neighborhood children have buried their pets there. Many were claimed by the hell-bent for leather semis on that country road.

Louis’ 5-year-old daughter Ellie, like all children, starts to ask questions about death and why her beloved cat Church won’t live as long as her. He explains that death is a natural thing, earning the wrath of his wife Rachel who believes death isn’t to be talked about. Her anger might be because of a tragedy in her youth with her older sister dying at home while Rachel was the only one there.

The road claims Ellie’s cat, Church. Jud, who has become a good friend to Louis, tells him about a place beyond the pet cemetery, ground that belonged to a local tribe. The earth there is bad, the ground stony. Jud tells Louis he has to bury the cat himself.

The next day Louis is surprised by the return a much changed Church and even tugs a bit of plastic from the garbage bag he buried the cat in out of the feline’s mouth. Jud regrets telling Louis about the place beyond the pet cemetery and tells a couple horror stories of his own from the 80 years he’s lived in the same house. The hard ground is sour. What comes back from the soil is not the same that went in.

From there on out, Pet Sematary delves deeper into loss and darkness and what a man will do to keep his family together.

After finishing Pet Sematary, King gave it his usual 6-week cooling off period and read it again. He was so disturbed by the story that he stuck it in a drawer and left it alone until another book was needed to fulfill his contract with Doubleday. Decades after its publication, it’s a book that still manages to disturb readers.

28 Barbary Lane

The first time I read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City was 23 years ago. I had seen the six-part miniseries on PBS and wanted more. I usually read a book before seeing the movie, but this was a fluke; one of those 3 A.M. PBS airings when insomnia has had its way with you so you watch TV hoping late night TV will work as anesthesia. Instead, I became infatuated with the characters. I hit up the bookstore the next day and bought Tales of the City, a book I’ve read 9 times now.

Picture it: San Francisco in the 70s. The hippies are still around but the up and coming disco era is in ascent. The city is a haven for gay bars, discos, and bathhouses. All places to have intimate, no-strings-attached sex.

24-year-old Midwesterner on vacation, Mary Ann Singleton has been in San Francisco for five days. She’s made a decision that will drastically change her life: she calls her mother at home in Cleveland and tells her mother to tell her boss she’s not coming home. Her mother cajoles her and says she’s had her fun but enough is enough: time to come home and never look back at that modern day Sodom and Gomorrah.

But Mary Ann’s made up her mind. She needs to make a life of her own and she’ll do it in San Francisco. She crashes at an old high school friend’s place, a woman she considers a typical California airhead who, my God, not only has a pet rock but the Joy of Sex and dirty magazines right out on the coffee table for anyone to see. Mary Ann’s trying to shed some of her Midwestern naïveté, but when her friend talks her into cruising at a Safeway, Mary Ann decides she’s done living with her high school friend.

She answers an ad for an apartment at 28 Barbary Lane on Russian Hill. The landlady, Mrs. Anna Madrigal, is somewhere in her 50s and a mix between a screen siren of the 30s and a mystical gypsy.  She welcomes Mary Ann to her new home and later on tapes a joint to her door as a welcome to the family gesture. Anna Madrigal has a few shadowy secrets of her own, as all eccentric landladies should.

What follows is the story of the tenants of 28 Barbary Lane; their lives intertwining with their neighbors, their eccentric landlady and the lives of others outside the apartment. These tenants include Mona Ramsey, at the tail end of her own hippie years, who is close with Mrs. Madrigal, a sometime lesbian who works for an advertising firm.

Michael “Mouse” Tolliver is Mona’s best friend. She calls herself his ‘hag,’ a woman who constantly spends time with gay men. He says if things were different, he’d be in love with her. But Michael is looking for real love, the kind where you buy a puppy together and still go on picnics after being together for decades.

Brian Hawkins, a former lawyer turned waiter, is chasing women while saddled with a romantic heart. He thinks the best thing about San Francisco is that all the men are looking for each other and leaving him with plenty of women to choose from.

Each character is trying to find their lives in the city while they get into and out of relationships, life and death, the 70s, and what the 80s will bring. I honestly have not stopped thinking about these characters for the last 23 years. They’ll randomly pop into my head while I’m driving somewhere, in the middle of watching TV, and during my own writing. I’ve reread all 9 books in the Tales of the City series in the last two weeks and, though this will sound cheesy, I turn to them when I’m not feeling so hot or need a story I know is going to take me out of my own head. I all but stroke the cover of Tales of the City while hissing “My preciousss.”

So get in the Way Back When machine and immerse yourself in 28 Barbary Lane, where people find family even when their biological family is scattered in all directions. There also might be a murder somewhere in there, and one hell of a huge secret about Mrs. Madrigal.

And don’t forget the Welcome to Your New Home joint taped to your front door. You’re going to need it.

Even Cupid Screws Up Sometimes

It’s good to know that Love (aka Cupid) sometimes thinks she’s a jerk and admits to pulling stunts that rank high on the jerk spectrum. And boy, Love admits to mucking up the stables of love and wants to smooth out the love life of Gael in Leah Konen’s The Romantics.

Gael is days away from turning 18, loves movies and is about to tell his girlfriend of a few months “I love you” for the first time. What happens after saying I love you? Gael’s girlfriend doesn’t say I love you back and that confuses Gael. The next day he sees his girlfriend Anika and his best friend Mason getting cozy together.

Cue a John Hughes film epic of a betrayed boy who goes on the rebound.

Gael’s mother invites Anika and Mason to his 18th birthday dinner not knowing what is going on. And Gael promptly explodes and walks out on his own dinner and crashes into a girl on her bike as he’s walking away.

That girl is Cara, a college freshman who is nursing her own broken heart. Well aware that they’re both rebounding, Gael gets advice from Sammy, another college freshman who is tutoring Gael’s sister in French. Sammy’s had the same boyfriend for three years and Gael thinks she’s blissfully in love but he doesn’t know the truth, that things have come to an end.

Gael does his best to see his relationship with Cara as more than a rebound thing. Unbeknownst to Gael, he has been the object of love that Cupid’s been trying to fit together. His parents have ended their long marriage and Gael thinks everything he believes about love is now wrong. But as it happens, Gael wasn’t looking in the right direction when Love chucked an arrow at him.

Will he realize that he’s been in love with the wrong person and Love was trying to fix everything by pushing him towards the right girl? Is love even worth it if people aren’t going to stay together forever? Is it real or I can’t Believe It’s Not Butter? Sorry. I’m writing this with the TV on in the background. Commercials are longer than the show itself.

Watching as Love admits to wrongdoing and tries to clean up the mess of feelings was as satisfying as hearing a man ask for directions. And if you enjoy (like me) seeing Love make mistakes and attempt to fix them instead of letting a cliche happen, The Romantics is for you.