Sunday, June 28, 2015

American Nightmares

A friend of mine recommended this volume of short stories, by an author whose name was unknown to me, and although I'm perhaps not the easiest person to suggest books to she hit the money on this one. Maybe she just knew that "lake" and "monster" are a combination I can't resist.

Actually, there's only one lake monster in the collection, and it's a doozy, but there's horror of some kind in all nine tales. I won't get into the question (a fairly tired one at this point) of whether Nathan Ballingrud is a "horror writer" who happens to set his stories among down-and-out, emotionally drained working-class Americans, mostly in the South, or whether he's essentially a "realist" who likes to draw on the horror playbook for material; let's just say that his approach, which is leavened by a good bit of subtle black humor, is his own, and a refreshing one at that. So here on the one hand you have convincing characters who are waitresses, building contractors, oil rig workers and the like, and on the other you have vampires, werewolves, and the undead. There's one story ("S.S."), dealing with a young New Orleans man dawn to a Neonazi group, that appears to have no fantastic element in it, although it may be as uncanny as any of the others. One tale ("The Crevasse"), the only one not set in the US, is a kind of homage to Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.

Ballingrud is quite deft at juxtaposing these elements, and also in the way that he works into the stories an underlying substrate of guilt, much of it connected with family members who have let each other down in one way or another. There's a father whose neglect may have led to his son's kidnapping, another father who is struggling to revive his relationship with his family after a stint in prison, and a number of characters who are simply overwhelmed by their family responsibilities. In "The Good Husband," for example, a man wakes in the middle of the night and finds his wife's body in the bathtub, the result of the last of multiple suicide attempts, and decides to go back to bed without calling for help. (What happens next I won't reveal, but it's one of a number of stunning plot twists in this collection.)

North American Lake Monsters is available from Small Beer Press. Ballingrud has published one other book, a novella entitled The Visible Filth, which is published by This Is Horror in the UK.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Dance


People of Argos, I say to you that this woman is committing sacrilege. Unhappiness be upon her and on any among you who listen to her.


Oh my dear dead ones, Iphegenia, my older sister, Agamemnon, my father and only king, hear my prayer. If I commit sacrilege, if I offend your doleful shades, make a sign, make me at once a sign, that I may know it. But if you approve of my actions, my dear ones, then be silent, I beg you, let not a leaf stir, nor a blade of grass, let no sound disturb my sacred dance: because I dance for joy, I dance for peace among men, I dance for happiness and for life. O my dead ones, I demand your silence, that those around me may know that your heart is with me.

Sartre, Les mouches

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Clementa C. Pinckney (July 30, 1973 – June 17, 2015)

His life has been taken, but his voice is not stilled. Give the pocket history lesson above a listen. Below is his official biography, compiled before his death:
The Reverend Honorable Clementa C. Pinckney was born July 30, 1973 the son of Mr. John Pinckney and the late Theopia Stevenson Pinckney of Ridgeland, South Carolina. He was educated in the public schools of Jasper County. He is a magna cum laude graduate of Allen University with a degree in Business Administration. While there, Reverend Pinckney served as freshman class president, student body president, and senior class president. Ebony Magazine recognized Rev. Pinckney as one the "Top College Students in America." During his junior year, he received a Princeton University Woodrow Wilson Summer Research Fellowship in the fields of public policy and international affairs. He received a graduate fellowship to the University of South Carolina where he earned a Master's degree in public administration. He completed a Master's of Divinity from the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. Rev. Pinckney answered the call to preach at the age of thirteen and received his first appointment to pastor at the age of eighteen. He has served the following charges: Young's Chapel-Irmo, The Port Royal Circuit, Mount Horr-Yonges Island, Presiding Elder of the Wateree District and Campbell Chapel, Bluffton. He serves as the pastor of historic Mother Emanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, South Carolina.

Rev. Pinckney was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1996 at the age of twenty-three. In 2000, he was elected to the State Senate at the age of twenty-seven. He is one of the youngest persons and the youngest African-American in South Carolina to be elected to the State Legislature. He represents Jasper, Beaufort, Charleston, Colleton, and Hampton Counties. His committee assignments include Senate Finance, Banking and Insurance, Transportation, Medical Affairs and Corrections and Penology. Washington Post columnist, David Broder, called Rev. Pinckney a "political spirit lifter for suprisingly not becoming cynical about politics."

Rev. Pinckney has served in other capacities in the state to include a college trustee and corporate board member. In May 2010, he delivered the Commencement Address for the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.

He and his wife Jennifer have two children - Eliana and Malana.
Source: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina.

The Rev. Pinckney was one of nine victims:
In addition to Mr. Pinckney, the victims were Cynthia Hurd, 54, who served as the regional manager of the St. Andrews branch of the county library; the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49, the mother of four daughters — the youngest is in junior high school and the oldest is in college; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a coach of the girls' track and field team and a speech therapist at Goose Creek High School; Tywanza Sanders, 26, who had graduated from Allen University as a business administration major last year and was looking for a job; Ethel Lee Lance, 70, who had worked at the church for more than three decades; the Rev. Daniel L. Simmons Sr., a retired pastor from another church in Charleston; Myra Thompson, 59; and Susie Jackson, 87.
Source: The New York Times.

Donations to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church may be made via its home page.

Monday, June 08, 2015


I rounded the corner, walking from one sleepy back street to another, and just for an instant a view opened out, between the trees in their fullest summer green, of the little valley where the heart of town lay, and of the long lake stretched out in its center. But it was only an illusion, the dark unbroken streak nothing but the roof of a building a few yards away. There was no lake in the valley, only, invisible from where I stood in any case, an easily forded stream.

If I could arrange the world to my liking, everyone would have a view of deep water. Water, as the Taoists knew, is what is beyond us, what we cannot know or define. It can be channeled, contained, but in its nature it remains recalcitrant to our purposes. Its inexorable erosive downward course into the inaccessible can be delayed, but in the end, as any child who has ever made the experiment knows, it slips through our fingers. Even in our bodies it is only imprisoned for a time. It flows through us and sustains us, but when it is done with us it will strand us in the sterile deserts of our dreams.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Notes for a commonplace book (15)

Glenway Wescott:

"There were two albums of embossed leather studded with buttons which resembled shoe buttons, and one with celluloid roses glued upon a velvet binding. There were daguerreotypes in cases closed by a metal clasp or a loop of worn cord, which Alwyn opened and tried to read as if they were a library of miniature books. At the left a leaf of red satin, at the right in a mat of beaded gilt the portraits: heads and busts and family groups, pygmy men and women as if seen through a telescope — the men in a daydream, the women anxious about their children, their lovers, their clothes. Mouths like bits of carved wax, nostrils of an insatiable arrogance; eyes long closed in death — or the young, suspicious eyes of men and women who were now old and patted Alwyn's head and peered at him dimly and benificently — staring out of the picture frames as if he were an enemy in disguise ... The lifeless light (in which innumerable photographers had covered their heads with large, black handkerchiefs and imitated a bird with their hands) half hid and half revealed all the possible combinations of all the motives there were — greed and sensuality and courage and compassion and cruelty and nostalgia; all the destinies there were — manias, consolations, regrets.

"The same motives and similar destinies existed still; but these people whose playgrounds they had been were gone. Nothing came back from the oblivion into which they had vanished (for old age and death were equally oblivion) not a sound came back but a little slightly exultant, unhappy laughter — Alwyn's grandmother laughing for them.

"He listened to her comments — old-fashioned maxims, scraps of tragi-comic narrative, implicitly mocking, explicitly compassionate — and what she told revealed little more than the photograph albums themselves: another set of pictures, photographs of actions and opinions, also noncommittal and badly focused. But he knew what she knew and tried to forget: that each picture was a tomb where a dead heart (or merely the youth and freshness of a heart which was now old) lay buried — buried with its affections, its apathy, its fury. He knew that on each insignificant grave there stood (though he could only guess what it was) a secret like hers, wild and perfect as a wild flower, nodding in its everlasting leaves, or dangling from a broken stem ..."

The Grandmothers (1927)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Notes for a commonplace book (14)

Glenway Wescott:

"There was a shell on the sideboard, a conch shell in the shape of a horn, which, when held to the ear, repeated the surge and collapse of breakers, infinitely faint, as if heard across the great width of America which separates Wisconsin from the sea. It seemed to the boy that in the same way every object in those rooms echoed the forces which had once been at play around it, very faintly, from a distance of years instead of miles. The pleated fabrics and sheets of old paper enfolded little, agitated ghosts; and the odor of unfamiliar clothes, beds, and pillows, the residue of spiritless perfumes and bouquets long since thrown away, suggested energies now exhausted and passions now forgotten: the energy which had chosen this farm in the wilderness, cut down the trees, uprooted the stumps, built and demolished the log cabins, and founded this home; the long series of passions which had in the end produced himself."

The Grandmothers (1927)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Armed with a Broken Heart

Singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston doesn't exactly flood the market with releases of new material, and Neon Repairman, just out, is only his second CD of new songs since 2001. Like many of his peers among major-label refugees (or even minor-label refugees), he's more or less on his own these days; this CD was issued by Singing Magnet Records, which I suspect means that he put it out himself.

There are pluses and minuses to going it alone, but at this point in the evolution of the pop music industry a lot of talented people don't have much choice. Happily, this is a fine CD, one that can comfortably be set beside records like Can You Fly and This Perfect World that Freedy made in the 1990s when it was still possible for someone like him to get promotion and airplay. Freedy continues to tour and I hope at least a few people get a chance to hear this one.

As melodic and jaunty as Freedy's songwriting is, I doubt he's ever been accused of sugarcoating things, and this record is no exception. In addition to drug dealers, waitresses, and damaged war veterans, his characters run the gamut from the ordinary lovelorn to the borderline creepy. The gentlest song on Neon Repairman is sung in the character of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and even that one looks back to "that hole in the ground we lived in during the war." Not that Freedy has cornered the market on dark material, but there are few songwriters who can combine romanticism, down-and-out grit, and human sympathy quite this successfully. Plus he just flat-out knows how to compose a pop song.

Neon Repairman is available from CD Baby (which has audio samples), and presumably at Freedy's gigs. You could do worse.