"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


It's easy to dismiss comic books. Certainly as I was growing up, they were seen as a childish form of entertainment best grown out of quickly. If you were ten and reading comics, nothing was amiss. If you were twenty and still reading them, you could expect some eye-rolling at your expense. And this attitude was reflected in how other forms of media treated comic books. Saturday morning cartoon versions took comic book stories and characters and wrote them "down" for an even younger audience, and the few stabs made at them in cinema and television were "camped up" to make them palatable for adults, as if the material was too light weight to be treated seriously. But all of this began to change, and change in a big way, at the turn of the 20th century, largely thanks to the cinema adaptation of one of the best-selling comics in American history; Marvel Comics' X-Men. The success of the first X-Men film in 2000 was instrumental in Hollywood's modern love affair with the comic book, showing that if the material was treated with respect, and presented by top-notch writers, directors, and actors, then comic book adaptations had powerful stories to tell. Stories even adults could appreciate.

The X-Men were a perfect place for Hollywood to start. For those who aren't familiar with the series, the X-Men comic appeared in 1963 and has been running, continually, for nearly fifty years. It centers around the idea of "mutants," human beings who carry a gene which produces some sort of mutation that usually erupts and expresses itself during adolescence. These mutations grant some sort of super-power--the ability to read minds, walk through walls, or fly--but are often uncontrollable, come with a side-effect, or cause a disfiguring transformation in the individual's appearance. Mutants are a very small percentage of the population, but are widely hated and feared for a variety of reasons. They might look freakish, be a danger to themselves and others, or just be so "different" as to make others uncomfortable. There are also uncomfortable implications surrounding them...as homo sapiens came along and replaced Neanderthal man, many believe that the mutants (or "homo superior") are here to replace man.

From the very start, the X-Men saga blended comic book action with very real social issues. Appearing in the civil rights era, over the decades the mutants would be used to explore racism, the treatment of minorities in society, and even gay and lesbian issues. Mutants were the subject of military experiments, used as slave labor in foreign countries, and even targeted to be rounded up, labeled, and detained by conservative politicians in the United States. Most were forced into hiding, with mutant adolescents running away from home or hiding in "the closet."

In response, two opposing poles or forces arose. One was Professor Charles Xavier, a mutant who believed humans and mutant kind could peacefully co-exist. His opponent (and old friend) was Eric Lensherr, better known by his name Magneto. A Jew who had watched his family die in Nazi concentration camps, Eric had seen first hand how humanity treats minorities, and believed that co-existence would never be possible. Magneto formed a team of mutant terrorists to apply force to human society and push for mutant rights. Appalled by his violent methods, Xavier formed his own team, the X-Men, to oppose them.

In those early years, Xavier and Magneto reflected the approaches to African American civil rights as championed by Dr. King and Malcolm X, but as the decades passed the X-Men continually introduced new story lines to comment on current affairs. While the world watched South Africa struggle with Apartheid, the comic created the South African nation of Genosha, which became a global power built on a mutant slave class. When AIDS first appeared and fire-breathing pastors called it a "gay plague," the comic introduced the Legacy virus, a disease that killed mutants. In 1982 they made waves with "God Loves, Man Kills," a story about a minister preaching against mutants and a commentary on growing religious intolerance. Even the movies continued this theme. In the midst of the American debates on homosexuality and whether or not it could be cured, the third film created a plot of the government devising a cure for mutation. As a gay man, when a young mutant character asks "Is it true, they can cure us now?", and older mutant leader Storm replies "No they can't cure you because there is nothing wrong with you," I nearly stood up and cheered.

The X-Men are on my mind again because I recently started reading Ultimate X-Men, a series that ran from 2001 to 2009 and is conveniently available in 20 trade paperback editions (check out the first volume here). Catching up with fifty years of storylines and characters is daunting for newcomers, so Ultimate X-Men was a "reboot" of the story, modernizing and condensing what had gone before. It is a different take on the characters, and there are enough twists that a long-time fan will find new surprises, but it is ideal for new readers to enjoy the X-Men and get a taste of what the comic is all about.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Baby mama drama's screamin' on and too much for me to wanna
Stay in one spot, another day of monotony's
Gotten me to the point I'm like a snail
I've got to formulate a plot or end up in jail or shot
Success is my only mothaf****n' option, failure's not
Mom, I love you, but this trailer's got to go
I cannot grow old in Salem's lot

- Eminem, Lose Yourself

I grew up in 'Salem's Lot. Many Americans did. The town that is the titular character in Stephen King's second published novel is instantly recognizable to millions of us. It's a dead little place. Nothing ever happens there. Everyone knows everyone, and it is so safe you can leave the keys in the ignition of your pick-up truck at night. If you live there, you probably don't even have a lock on your front door. After all, the crime rate is just about zero. Because 'Salem's Lot doesn't know the inflated and grotesque evils of the big city; its evils are all the small and whimpering kind. The neighbor's wife cheating with the postman. The guy who smacks his girlfriend around. The kids who shoplift at the dime store. But there hasn't been a murder in years, and everyone knows nothing really evil could ever happen there. Just the monotonous and banal evils that slowly bleed you dry like a million paper cuts.

"...The town knew about darkness. It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul. These are the town's secrets, and some will later be known and some will never be known. The town keeps them all with the ultimate poker face..."

When horror works, and it works extraordinarily well in 'Salem's Lot, it does so because it makes us uncomfortable with ourselves. In deciding to rewrite Dracula for the 20th century, King understood this perfectly. Stoker's novel worked because it preyed on all sorts of things the late Victorians felt uneasy about, from the dark and Dionysian sexuality underlying proper Apollonian England to fears of foreign powers rising from the East. All King does is import Count Dracula to rural America from late Victorian London, and the effect is chillingly the same. All the lesser evils--the teenage mothers getting knocked up young and taking it out on their kids, the alcoholic priests, the crooked real estate men, the cheating wives, the bullied disabled man--get sucked up into the ensuing vampiric whirlwind and transformed. Vampires don't cast reflections, but 'Salem's Lot makes us squirm because it turns the mirror on us. Like Eminem says in the song, he can't grow old in 'Salem's Lot. He's desperate to escape and become something more. And that is what the vampires in King's novel feed on, far more than blood. They drink up that quiet desperation, that ennui. With their cold dead smiles they seem to say "you will never need to worry about growing old here again."

"...Tourists and through-travelers still passed by on Route-12, seeing nothing of the Lot but an Elks billboard and a thirty-five-mile-an-hour speed sign. Outside of town they went back up to sixty and perhaps dismissed it with a single thought: Christ, what a dead little place..."

King makes several references in 'Salem's Lot to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, a book that deeply influenced him. No where is that more clear than in the way he characterizes Small Town, USA. 'Salem's Lot is the geographic incarnation of Jackson's protagonist, Eleanor Vance, a deeply conservative and self-obsessed woman who secretly longs for something, anything, to "happen" to her. It finally does; she encounters Hill House and allows it to seduce her. The small Maine town of Jerusalem's Lot just about does the same with its vampires...creatures that of course have to be invited in. There is a grim undercurrent running through the novel that the town is pleased something interesting is finally happening to them. And even when you love your little town, there is always that desire under the surface.

"...No one pronounced Jerusalem's Lot dead on the morning of October 6; no one knew it was. Like the bodies of the previous days, it retained every semblance of life..."

It's this quality, this deep and intimate awareness of Americana--and especially small town "folksy" Americana--that puts King in a different class from his competitors. Sure, he has a tendency to go "too far" at times, even to get slightly clownish, but few other readers tap the American subconscious as well as he does. It doesn't always work for me--Christine was just a bit too American Graffiti with ghosts--but when King nails it he is the envy of a thousand other writers, myself included. And this quality speaks to those of us who know 'Salem's Lot, who grew up there. By the same token, when I hear King's critics, I can't help but wonder if they are from suburbia or the city.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


I haven't gotten around to talking about King yet. I will. Suffice it to say that I think 'Salem's Lot is one of the best damn horror novels of the 20th century. But a pair of authors over at Salon.com caught my attention, and I wanted to post some links here.

The first is the Dwight Allen piece, "My Stephen King Problem." This was precisely the sort of self-important literati piece that makes my head want to explode. I was so irritated about it that I was preparing a counter-piece, until I found Erik Nelson's response, "Stephen King: You Can Be Popular and Good." Nelson said mainly what I had planned to, so I will simply refer you, oh gentle reader, to these articles. I will have a few words of my own on King to say later.