So here we are, exactly six months after my last entry. That’s a good healthy span of time, and I’m glad to say it covers a healthy range of works.
True to my intentions shared here in July, I started small, with a couple of mini-scenes in watch cases from Midnight Steps. Sheer fluff, but I had fun doing them. I think I spent two whole evenings on these (in front of bad horror movies from the eighties). You wouldn’t think there’d be that much to them, but it’s the getting it just right that eats up time, not the cutting, pasting, sculpting, yada yada. The cases were purchased from the steampunk section, very dear to my heart, at Michael’s art supply.
But perhaps a step back would be advisable. During the summer, I read Mark Dery’s book Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey. Gorey is, as I’ve noted before, one of my “molding muses”, if you will; a huge wellspring of morbid fascination and inspiration, with his one hundred-plus little macabre storybooks illustrated painstakingly in pen and ink. He was, indeed, a genius–the impeccable crosshatching of his Victorian Gothic settings alone are worthy of accolades.
Books like The Doubtful Guest, The Gashleycrumb Tinies, The Gilded Bat, and The Listing Attic are considered classics today, although during Gorey’s lifetime (shades of Poe?) popular culture didn’t recognize him that much, and even his various publishers didn’t know what to do with him. How to market these gloomy (and sometimes controversial) mini-books which might look as though they were designed for children, but whose subject matter (which included poisoning, kidnapping, immolation) was anything but? Adult storybooks, then? However, as this was long before the acceptance of comics and their ilk as a mainstream reading staple, what adults would buy them? His greatest fame resulted, arguably, from his set design for the 1979 Broadway revival of Dracula, and the animated titles for the PBS series Mystery!
Gorey and I have both faced this perplexing obstacle. I don’t portend to share even a single watt of his creativity or wit or whimsy, but I think my work might face the exact same indifference/confusion as his (and has) if released and promoted on a reasonable scale. I remember the days of my art studio, and the bemused expressions of people who leafed through my books, trying to be polite but with no idea what to make of them. “So, it’s a play? Oh, it’s illustrated. So it’s a children’s play? Ah, a play that can be read as a book…with pictures. And it can be put on like a real play? Yes, of course…I see now.”
No, you don’t.
I gleaned much about Gorey’s creative output from Dery’s biography, which I would recommend, although it focused far too much on his (virtually nonexistent) sexuality and upon his obsession for the ballet. Of particular interest to me were the offbeat projects he did at the end of his career, including The Helpless Doorknob, a deck of cards featuring scenes to be “shuffled” into infinite stories (something I’ve always wanted to do, possibly as part of a game); The Dwindling Party, a pop-up book; and most of all, The Tunnel Calamity, which, true to the title, is a throwback to the classic “tunnel books” which present a three-dimensional scene to tell a story. Here are some examples.
Aren’t they a phenomenon? I think so. And when I finished reading about Gorey, I decided to build my next project around a tunnel book of my own. I knew I wouldn’t seek to mass-reproduce the piece itself; rather, I planned to use it as a “set” for photography to illustrate the novelette I would write during the second half of 2019. I love trying new writing/art formats, and this one especially tickled my fancy.
But instead, I wound up taking a few months just to develop not one, not two, but three plot scenarios, full-out, with character biographies and backstories, prior to settling on the one that would be the subject of my tunnel project. In brief, the first one, Homestead, resembled The Horrible Hand! too much in its story of a dysfunctional family all home for the reading of the will. Its conceit included an heir born of a (possible) rape and heavy questions about morality and atonement. The next was Smoke for Fog, a rather intriguing to-do involving a three-cornered affair on a slum street, and a semi-retired prostitute pushing her daughter into the family business. I don’t know what made me shelve this one, as it really held promise in regard to both storytelling and art. In retrospect, I think it was my rereading Carrie, by Stephen King, in September, that sent me in yet another direction.
Carrie, in her novel, (three) film, stage musical, stage musical parody, and (it is safe to assume) recently-announced miniseries versions, has been one of the cardinal works to inspire my own writing over the years, ever since I first read it in the eighth grade. Aside from being an intensely powerful portrait of teen angst, its dramatic structure could hardly be improved, and the possibilities for variations of the plot in other settings, with other casts of characters and subplots woven in with its central theme of retaliation against oppression, are limitless. Also, I have always been fascinated by (dysfunctional) mother/daughter relationships, and the one in Carrie is truly the mother of them all.
Here is the same scene pictured above in the gripping musical version.
Teenager Carrie White, having been raised by her psychotic, fanatically-religious momma, Margaret, is the poster child for abuse and bullying both at home and at school. Following a particularly nasty prank played on her in the girls’ shower room when she fails to recognize her first period for what it is, one of her classmates, Sue Snell, develops a conscience and asks her all-star athlete boyfriend, Tommy Ross, to take Carrie to the upcoming prom as atonement. A noble idea, to be sure…but there are two snags to it. One, Chris Hargensen, the school bitch goddess, is hell-bent on getting revenge on Carrie with her bad-boy toy, Billy Nolan, because her punishment for ring-leading the locker-room stunt was exclusion from the prom. Two, Carrie has the power of telekinesis–the ability to move or cause changes in objects by force of the mind. This power has grown quickly to cataclysmic magnitude following her recent development as a woman…
I won’t go any further, because the tale is so ingrained in pop culture that even those unfamiliar with it still know what happens.
They’re all gonna laugh at you!
A personal favorite? The fact that I wish I had written it myself (uncommon for me) speaks libraries.
So…revisiting this incredibly evocative, achingly sad–not frightening, to me–epic rekindled my desire to write, if not my own version of Carrie, then a story vaguely similar in its overtones, with its focus on a mother/daughter conflict of Carrie/Margaret White-esque proportions. That desire resulted in my next endeavor–Eden’s Reach.
Now, with this work, I hope to pay homage not only to Stephen King’s brilliant first novel, but to a certain branch of Gothic literature which has always fascinated me just as much. You know those old paperbacks (1960’s-70’s), their covers usually graced with a painting of a scary mansion, with a girl in a long white dress in front and a menacing storm in the distance? Well, that’s what I’m talking about. The classic fable of the Gothic heroine terrorized by predatory villains inside the gloomy house, but always with a hunk of a hero around to save her at the last moment. A cliche situation without doubt…but show me a popular book or movie that doesn’t have a universally-adored cliche situation at its heart. And this particular genre, along with Carrie (which might be viewed through squinted eyes as an extension of it), is another strong, perennial–maybe even seminal–influence in my own writing.
Lord, I do love the smell of those dog-eared, yellowed, fabulously overwrought throwbacks to the Victorian penny dreadful. Always after ’em at the flea markets, baby.
I write too much. That is annoying, but not as annoying (at least to me) as those who talk too much. So I will do my best to wrap up this self-indulgent aria as quickly and succinctly as I can.
Eden’s Reach. My main projected project for at least half of 2020. The story: Eden Walstad, sixteen, has lived on a tiny island in the middle of a lake in the town of Valhaven, Ohio all her life. Virtually the only other people she has ever known are her aunt, Bridget, and her invalid grandfather, Guthrie. She has never left the island. The Walstad home is, not unlike that of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, frozen in the past, specifically November 16, 1959. (The present day is September, 1976–my birth month. No particular reason.) Bridget has brainwashed Eden into believing that time in their house has never progressed beyond the night when her parents went away on a very long trip fifteen years ago. Why? In order that everything will be just the same when they return to claim Eden, who has been “permitted” to mature just enough to absorb life knowledge and lessons imparted by Bridget, so as to be ready to accompany her parents back into the outside world. Bridget rules the home with an iron hand and, when she feels Eden resisting her authority or the 1959 illusion, locks her in a room below the stairs, outfitted with all sorts of 1950’s memorabilia, so that she can “realign” herself with the time.
“Go to your closet and pray, Carrie…”
While I freely admit that the volatile relationship between Eden and Bridget bears an intentional resemblance to that of Carrie and her unstable mother, the parallels are limited. Bridget is not fanatically religious, or much of a believer at all. Eden has no otherworldly psychokinetic powers. What’s more, there are no jeering high school students, no prom, no pig blood. There are overtones of both Tommy Ross and Billy Nolan in Zack Archer, a young contractor’s assistant, who shows up as part of his work-release program after a brief incarceration. (The Walstad house is in danger of literally sinking into the ground due to long-ago overzealous digging through a cellar wall which damaged its foundation. What was the reason for the digging? Was something hidden behind it?) One might catch a glimpse of the well-meaning Sue Snell in Diana Seabrook, Zack’s parole officer (and, most unethically, his girlfriend), and of Chris Hargensen in his biker-chick ex, Tiffanie Redwood. But again, Eden’s Reach bears almost no overt resemblance to Carrie beyond the rebellious daughter and stifling mother figures, and various plot twists distance it even further so that it shape-shifts into the more general realm of the Gothic novel. What really happened to Eden’s parents, Althea and Cyrus Flood? Will Zack’s presence in Walstad House unbalance, perhaps irrevocably, the lives of those within, particularly Eden, who crushes on him at first sight through the keyhole of her “reading room”? Will Zack’s crusty boss, Moses Priddle, attempt to blackmail Bridget when he accidentally spies Eden and deduces that she is a well-guarded secret? And who is the mysterious–and frightening–young man in black slouch hat, cape, and dark glasses who keeps dramatically appearing to the characters, and wants more than anything to be “invited” into the Walstad home?
It will, I think, be a lark for both me and my two audiences to find out. Also to see how one of my other pet themes, redemption, plays throughout the story.
Two audiences? Oh, didn’t I mention? Eden’s Reach will be written literally in public, on Wattpad, chapter by chapter, for display through Facebook and this blog. I haven’t attempted this before, and I think it will be good for my pace in telling the story, which I plan to keep fairly short. Just like Carrie. And I’ve decided, while writing it, to simultaneously adapt it into a play as well. It’s been too long since my last one, and I would love to see this tale brought to life onstage.
Real quick…the tunnel book theme for Eden’s Reach visuals. I designed this 3D piece (not a genuine tunnel book, but with the same concept; a real one will come later) to capture the feel and look of Walstad House’s shadowy silence, its loneliness and isolation which, in its way, harks back to the austere and forbidding home of Carrie White.
I think I succeeded. Opposite is a detailed floor plan for the stage version so that I can more easily imagine the action. While the novelette form of ER will definitely contain illustrations, I’m thinking seriously of not showing any of the characters. Just deserted corridors…an empty rocking chair…a door left ajar. Haunting. Somber. Less is more.
My other plans for 2020’s creative output are to publish two older works, Flickers and Draconfyx (illustrations for each above, see links for details). I want to build up my inventory, so to speak, and these, along with (hopefully) Eden’s Reach will be worthy additions. Midnight Steps got a top-to-bottom revision last month in preparation for Draft #2. It went well and I love it, love it, love it…but I need time to mellow before taking that one any further, which will be worth it. As one of my favorite books, it deserves the utmost in nurturing so that it finishes at premium quality. Only the best for Ethan.
Oh, yeah…I wrote an essay about my taste in music which was recently published in an anthology, In Context: The Eclectic Works of the Write Stuff Writers Group. I like it. I don’t know how good it is, because I haven’t gotten one word of response from anyone who’s read it (except my editors)…not even my parents. Maybe I should stick to fiction. All my autobiographical stuff turns out snarky and bitter. No idea why.
Last thing…I tried my hand at a thirty-day project in December, from conception to completion. I didn’t quite make it, but that’s okay, because I’m having so much fun with it. Mr. Waverton’s Missing Head is a short little fable about a man who, well…loses his head and goes to considerable lengths to get it back while chilling in a sort of institution with other, similarly maimed and infirm “clients”. It begs the question of whether, by helping others, we can really help ourselves. This one will go in my own anthology that I’ve started building, comprised of short works intended as breathers between major ones. These are some of the illustrations thus far.
I’m not productive at all, am I? Apply myself? What’s that? Nah, I don’t do nothin’. Just sit on my arse in front of the TV and guzzle beer, watching the Kardashians or whoever the hell’s big on reality shows now, or play video games 24/7. Or sit on the patio and swill Jack Daniels and shoot rats with my pellet gun. That’s how I pass my days. What’s ironic is that if I did, I’d probably have so many friends there’d be no time to write.
It’s lonely at the top.