Where I End and You Begin

I find it unsettling that serial killers -both male and female- have been sexualized in the last couple of years. Ted Bundy has become somewhat of a rock star thanks to a documentary on Netflix and a movie based on his life starring Zac Efron. There’s even a young woman somewhere in the world who got a tattoo of Bundy’s bite imprint from one of the bodies of his victims.

With that said, I do have to admit I find true crime beyond fascinating, but mostly I’m fascinated by what makes killers the way they are. I know some people think my fascination is weird and they refer to me as ‘one of those creepy girls.’  Yes. Yes, I am one of those creepy girls. It’s the creepy girls of the world that make everything burn a little brighter.

Stephen King used to keep a notebook full of newspaper clippings about murders when he was young. He said he kept the clippings because it was a way for him to recognize the nightmare people who donned a normal every day face while out in public. I, too, like to be aware of monsters that roam around with false human grace. But if you throw me a character from novels or a television series like Dexter who is a serial killer but only kills evil people, well, that’s something I can easily be obsessed about.

Joe Goldberg from Caroline Kepnes’s book You, throws off major Dexter vibes. Joe runs a bookstore in the East Village in New York. He’s obsessed with books, with literature, and with seeing people for who they really are. Characters fill his thoughts. You know what else he’s obsessed with? Guinevere Beck. From the moment she walks into the bookstore he’s got it bad for her. Like writing their names together on a notebook bad.

Beck, as she’s known to everyone, is a teaching assistant and aspiring writer. She’s working on her thesis, although it seems she never really spends time writing but heads out into the night to pursue a career in drinking and partying all night. Beck is everything Joe wants: beautiful, smart mouthed, and fiercely intelligent. Joe begins an odyssey of learning everything he can about Beck.

Instead of getting to know her through the normal channels, he stalks her social media and spies on her any chance he can get. Is this terrifyingly creepy? Yes. Can you kind of let that slide because Joe seems like one of the good guys? Surprisingly, yes.  That is until things begin to take a sinister turn and the reader begins to learn more about Joe’s past and his level of obsession with Beck. Will nothing stop Joe from being with Beck? Will anyone in the way of gaining Beck’s affection survive?

If you like books where you feel a little guilty about cheering on a main character who’s a lovable sociopath, You is your cup of tea.  Look, we’ve all had a crush that makes the rest of the world fall away and we can’t imagine a time when our crush isn’t a part of our life. But there’s a difference between a crush and an all-consuming obsession. It’s what you do in the middle-ground that makes all the difference.

And if you like You, there’s a sequel called Hidden Bodies that follows Joe after he leaves New York and settles in LA. You can move across the country, but obsessive love, like college debt, will follow you.

Spare Parts

Where was this book when I was a teenager? Oh yeah. It wasn’t written yet and I was already more than obsessed with the works of Stephen King. If ever I needed a manifesto (and not in a creepy way: there’s no dog-eared Catcher in the Rye nestled in any of my coat pockets) it would be Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl. Shuffling and stubbing my toes into my 40s, I still need a guide to help me see who I am and who I’m becoming. It’s a process I still haven’t acquired a taste for, like lima beans or small talk. But Johanna Morrigan is my new hero.

It’s 1990 and 14-year-old Johanna Morrigan lives in a small town in England with her exasperating family. Her family is on government benefits because of her father’s ‘back pain.’ None of the children can tell anyone they’re on benefits because questions would be asked, such as “Didn’t I see your father bent over a car in the driveway the other day? I thought he was physically unfit to wield a wrench?” Johanna’s father thinks he’s going to make millions as a rock star (what do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless) and her mother is in postpartum decline from giving birth to twins. Johanna slips up one day while talking to an elderly neighbor and mentions the benefits. She realizes she’s put her family in financial peril. She waits every day by the mailbox to intercept any official letters saying the family’s benefits have been cut off.

Johanna always had a knack for writing and decides to write a poem for a contest. She wins and along with a tidy sum of money, she gets to read her poem on live TV.  She bombs so badly, humiliates herself so roundly, that she decides to become someone else. She creates an alter ego and gives herself the name Dolly Wilde. Wilde after Oscar Wilde, the decadent and naughty writer who once said: if you find yourself in the gutter, roll over and look at the stars. Johanna stumbles onto a job writing for a music magazine which involves going to clubs as well as interviewing up and coming and already established bands. For a kid who’s always immersed herself in words and music, this is a dream job. Her first essay is about a popular singer named John Kite and it reads like a mushy fangirl letter. The two have a connection that will span several years.

Two years pass and a now 16-year-old Johanna/Dolly Wilde is an old hand at interviewing bands. She dresses as a goth and often wears a top hat cocked at an angle. She’s aware that she is a chubby small-town girl, but it doesn’t stop her. She begins to smoke like a chimney, get drunk, and go on liberating sexual adventures where she convinces herself she uses her sexual partners just as much as they use her. There is no falling in love. Life is just one experience after another. She’s also financially supporting her family now and drops out of school to devote all her time to writing.

She indeed becomes someone else entirely. She uses her writing gift to eviscerate bands, making many enemies. A man in a band that got a less than favorable review from her dumps a drink on her head, saying he wanted to pour his urine over her head instead. Dolly laughs it off, telling herself that’s what happens when you’re a truthful writer. Things begin to change when one of her sexual escapades involves another writer at the magazine. She starts to think of him as her boyfriend, only to overhear him describe her as a ‘piece of strange’ meaning she’s from the wrong side of the tracks and he’s slumming it. It’s like a light bulb goes off in her head (or completely shatters, sending glass shards through her brain) and she realizes Dolly Wilde isn’t who she is. While Dolly served her purpose, she now knows that she is Johanna Morrigan:

But one day you’ll find a version of you that will get you kissed, or befriended, or inspired, and you will make your notes accordingly, staying up all night to hone and improvise upon a tiny snatch of melody that worked. Until-slowly, slowly-you make a viable version of you, one you can hum every day. You’ll find the tiny, right piece of grit you can pearl around, until nature kicks in, and your shell will just quietly fill with magic, even while you’re busy doing other things.

As Johanna makes these life changing realizations, she pulls another humiliating stunt by getting drunk with John Kite and professing her overwhelming love for him. She doesn’t remember much from that night except for spilling her guts to him and him going off to sleep in the bathtub:

Since I met you, I feel like I can see the operating system of the world-and its unrequited love. That is why everyone’s doing everything. Every book, opera house, moon shot, and manifesto is here because someone, somewhere, lit up silent when someone else came into the room, and then quietly burned when they didn’t notice them.

Now older, Johanna sees that her parents did their best with what they had. Her father with his outrageous schemes and blind faith in himself, her ghost of a mother just beginning to surface from her depression with the help of an antidepressant cocktail, Johanna sees them as two people doing their best:

They made you how they want you. They made you how they need you. They built you with all they know, and love-and so they can’t see what you’re not: all the gaps you feel leave you vulnerable. All the new possibilities only imagined by your generation, and nonexistent to theirs.

And finally, I wish I had heard (known) this going into my late teens:

And you will be quite on your own when you do all this. There is no academy where you can learn to be yourself; there is no line manager slowly urging you toward the correct answer. You are midwife to yourself, and will give birth to yourself, over and over, in dark rooms, alone.

Not just a coming of age tale, How to Build a Girl is an anthem sending a call to all humans to pick through the flotsam and jetsam of who they are, dig for the seeming detritus and know it for what it is: they key to becoming who you are and who you need to be.

Thanks for reading. I gotta go write a book. I’m going to title it How to Put Back Together a Middle-Aged Woman.

Hoarder’s Delight

A dozen years ago my mother flew to California to help my grandma pack up her tiny apartment and move into an assisted living home. Now, my grandma wasn’t the classic definition of a hoarder. There were no precarious stacks of yellowed newspapers or National Geographic magazines going back to the 1940s lying around. Grandma Flower was more of a pack rat: squirreling away slips of paper she’d scribbled on or pretty papers that caught her fancy, even if she never looked at them again.

During the visit, my mom and grandma sat on the couch watching television. My mom studied my grandma as she ripped a piece of Kleenex into tiny pieces and shoved them down the side of the couch. “Hey mom, why are you doing that, why are you tucking pieces of Kleenex into the sides of the couch?” My mom asked gently. Bewildered (and no doubt embarrassed about someone witnessing her little ritual) my grandma spat out “I just don’t know, Linda!” Now my brother and I yell it at each other when we catch each other doing something downright goofy.

In T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones, Mouse’s aging father asks her to clear out her deceased grandmother’s home in rural North Carolina. Mouse thinks, why not? She’s a freelance editor and can work anywhere. Plus, her father said whatever the house sells for she can keep. Mouse and her hound dog Bongo head to North Carolina. How bad could the old woman’s place be since the last two years of her life were spent in a retirement home?

Turns out, pretty damn bad. The house is crammed with the junk of a long life; a house of nonsense collections of items her grandmother couldn’t throw out. Had her grandmother been a kind and warm person, the task might have been a terrible emotional war, but Mouse’s grandmother was nothing but mean with a cruel streak ten miles wide. Instead of taking only a few days, Mouse realizes it’s going to take weeks to clear the house out, especially when she finds a room dedicated solely to her grandma’s creepy doll collection.

She picks out the most livable looking room to stay in and finds a journal written by her step-grandfather. She barely remembers the man. He was mostly a quiet person who read the newspaper all day. As Mouse reads through the journal, she starts to wonder if he had been in the active stages of dementia. He mentions marrying Mouse’s grandmother because ‘They’ steer clear of her. There was something about her that ‘They’ despised and avoided.

He mentions his birthplace in Wales and wonders if ‘They’ crossed the ocean with him. Because really, the old gods and creatures, whose only joy lies within darkness, like to follow humans wherever they go. They’re like ancient pop stars who fear being left behind and made irrelevant. Cotgrave, her step-grandfather, had a mantra he repeated to himself to keep ‘Them’ away: I made faces like the faces in the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones.

Mouse finds the sing-song chant creepy but chalks it up to an old man whose mind was beginning to sour. In the following days making trips to the dump (bye bye terrifying dolls) the chant begins to roam through her mind more and more. One night she’s awoken by her dog Bongo who is growling at the window. Mouse looks out to see deer crossing the front lawn except one of them seems disfigured, its legs bent at odd angles. Pretty weird but nothing to be afraid of.

Taking a break from cleaning one afternoon, she takes Bongo for a walk in the woods. The house itself is out in the boonies with a couple of neighbors down the road. Mouse and Bongo follow a trail only to discover something grotesque hanging from a tree. It looks like a deer, but the skull is upside down and pieces of it seem to be held together with wires and strips of cloth. Is it alive in that tree and watching her? It makes a clicking sound: rocks hanging in its chest knock against rib bones, like wind chimes from the deepest reaches of hell.

Mouse and Bongo almost break a land speed record running back to the house. After a fright, humans are good at rationalization, our brains making excuses for what has been seen. But that night she’s woken again by Bongo’s growl. The thing she saw hanging from a tree is at her window and looking at her. There’s no explaining that one. Mouse fears she might be losing her mind.

She’s made friends with people down the road, people her grandmother labeled sneeringly as hippies. Foxy is head of the household, a woman in her late fifties and far from a hippie. More like Annie Oakley, target shooting over her shoulder using only a mirror. Mouse tells her everything that’s been happening and Foxy’s not surprised. She says there has always been spooky happenings in the woods and even more remote places. People don’t talk about it much and treat it like a biting insect: if we don’t bother it, it won’t bother us.

Not really relieved to hear that otherworldly creatures exist and people just accept it, Mouse is ready to pack up her dog and go back home. Her father gave her an easy out. If cleaning out the house was unimaginable, then it could be bulldozed and the land cleared. But before Mouse can make her getaway, Bongo disappears. There’s no way Mouse will leave without him. Foxy invites herself along on the search, because what lies on the edge of their known world is a different and uninviting world.

This was a unique book that brought old customs and beliefs into this century, along with a compulsively relatable friendship between a woman and her dog. Great. Now I can’t see a deer without imaging its skull pressed against my window, watching me. I’d better twist myself about like the twisted ones. Maybe that will help.

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.