Mind Candy: The Winged Monkey on My Back

So, I have a confession. It’s big. But not the “there are bodies in my basement” or “I wear ladies underwear under my suit” big. Because I don’t. No bodies. No ladies underwear. Well, actually, I can’t say for certain about the former because I live in an apartment. Technically speaking, there may be bodies beneath the concrete of the building’s basement, but I didn’t put them there. If I did that would mean I would have had a hand in pouring the foundation and I would have been only…what? Four years old when this place was built? Ditto for ladies underwear. Unless of course you count the boxers I’m wearing…My sister used to wear boxers as shorts when that was all the rage in the 1980s. My sister is also a lesbian with a loving partner and two children. She’s pretty much well-adjusted; even if she plots out her work attire on a calendar a month in advance. I guess we all have our little quirks. But you stick by your family, no?

Here it is. The big confession. I just finished Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot tonight.

Yes, I am a closet horror fan. Sure, I have read many great writers: Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Woolf(Virginia), Wolfe (Thomas), Garcia Marquez (how I detest going into a bookstore and finding his work with authors whose names begin with ‘M’), Joyce (of course…although I’ll save my take on Ulysses for another entry one day…it’s not pretty), Rushdie, Auster, Pynchon, Dickens (I still have nightmares), Eliot (George…not T.S.), Bronte (Emily), and too many others to list here. But horror is my mind candy. Always has been, always will. Crap! I should have thrown in Stoker and Shelley (Mary, of course) in my list…

 Growing up, I read my fair share of Stephen King. One week I stayed at the Jersey shore with a high school sweetheart and her family and read The Stand (the old version…the properly edited version…not the money-making scheme with original pages tacked on). I also remember Firestarter scaring the crap of out of me.

 There’s that word again…crap. That reminds me of a discussion (yes, I am digressing) I had with my son about people who curse too much. My father used to say that people who curse too much (alluding, he did, to the fact that there are boundaries within which profanity is called for?) did so because they lacked the vocabulary to express what was really on their minds. My son never met his grandfather. So I shared this sage advice with him. Then my son asked me if it was true. To wit, I told him “how the f*** should I know?” True story, by the way.

Anyway, back to the master of the macabre. Carrie never interested me. And by the time Misery hit the bookstores I was well on my way to becoming the literary giant you see before you, shunning my mind candy for the pursuit of more lofty works of fiction.

Over the past few years, I pursued and will shortly receive my MFA in Creative Writing. During my stint in graduate academia I had to put the brakes on and quit feeding the winged monkey on my back with horror novels. It wasn’t that I was afraid of being seen with a cheap paperback by the likes of King, McCammon, Clegg, etc as much as it was the reading load I was responsible for each semester. I had no time for recreational reading.

So it happened one night a few weeks back I went out to my local Barnes and Noble (because there are no more bookstores left in the world save for the used one in my neighborhood that some nights smells like a cross between wet cat and cooked cabbage). There I purchased Salem’s Lot because I had never read it. I no longer blow through books within a week. Then again, I’m not sixteen years old anymore so there are some things I have to do more slowly and other things I do more quickly which is quite embarrassing, but this is hardly for the forum for that sort of boudoir humor. Tonight marked nearly two weeks since I started the book.

I am on the fence, however. Aside from the vampire angle, which was probably the last book in recent history that pulled off the old-fashioned take on bloodsucking undead creatures, I had a huge problem with the main character Ben Mears, a writer who comes to Jerusalem’s Lot to overcome a childhood fear and perhaps write a book about it. Why a writer? I suppose you would have to ask Mr. King that. Mears could have easily been a carpenter, a vacuum cleaner salesman, a snake oil peddler, or some sort of hobo. Another pivotal character in the book knows more than Mears about vampires and that was, for me as a reader, rather unsettling. Still, say what you want about popular fiction but I think Stephen King is a good writer. His job is to tell tale and use the suspension of disbelief to his advantage, drawing the reader into the world he has created. I suppose this is what Mr. King has mastered. And for good reason, given how long he has been in the game.

Tonight, I will begin Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. This was another classic that I had missed growing up. There were plenty of other Bradbury books and stories along the way, but this particular book I’m looking forward to. Bradbury, perhaps even more than King, makes it all look so effortless. And for a writer like me I think that is important.

To draw the reader in while appearing, at least on the surface, to make no effort to do so is, in my humble estimation, the mark of a good writer. More than that, it takes a certain finesse, I think, to convince the reader that he is actually in the world the writer has created. The reader should never have a clue that what is unfolding on the pages before him is something made-up; an artificial representation of a world can be disastrous. We’ve all read those books. That’s why I think Stephen King will be read decades from now. When I tell people this they scoff and make George Plimpton faces at me; as if I am some sort of kook who wears ladies underwear or keeps dead bodies hidden in my basement. And that just shows how little some people know…about what good writing is…not the other things…

…the winged monkey on my back is gnawing at me…time to begin Mr. Bradbury’s book.

Iris

I should start by saying I know very little about Alzheimer’s disease except for what I witnessed in my uncle who passed away some time ago. I am a writer, not a man of medicine. I know nothing about the neuro-chemical processes that brings on the disease. What I do know are words.

Tonight I saw a preview on demand for the movie Iris, a bio-pic about writer Iris Murdoch and her eventual succumbing to Alzheimer’s. I was about to rent the movie when I remembered that Something Special, a short story by Ms. Murdoch, drove me to write a long story of my own which eventually became my first novel that I was proud to have written. Two other novels I wrote prior to that were rather sophomoric attempts at the craft. I was young, really young, less than half as old as I am now when I completed both of them seemingly back to back. Those manuscripts were type-written long before I could afford a computer of my own. In those days I was one of the tech-dewy nay-sayers, a veritable rustic who believed the jury was still out on whether or not the word processor would replace the time-tested typewriter. I am the first to admit I was wrong. Ultimately, the long story I wrote after reading Ms. Murdoch’s story I workshopped in an undergraduate writing class. My professor told me to shelve the story I had written. “Let it simmer,” she said. “This is more a novel than a story.” She was right.

One night after having completed that novel (and making the ill-advised decision to self-publish it) I remember my uncle visiting my mother’s house. He still seemed to have all of his wits about him. However, he had wetted his pants and when he realized what was going on he began to cry. My uncle was a veteran of WWII, having served his country in the army. When the war ended my uncle returned home and purchased the home his father had rented. In old photo album my mother kept pictures of her wedding day; more than a few taken in the house my grandfather rented and later my uncle bought from the man who owned it.

My siblings and I have many fond memories of going to Southwest Philadelphia to visit my uncles (my mother’s two older brothers who lived there until each of them passed from this world). After the war my uncle worked and, perhaps ahead of his time, invested in IBM. When he passed, he had made considerable money in his investments which surprised my mother. I mention all of this because by the time my uncle died he no doubt had any recollection of his former life. Toward the end I would make the trek from New Jersey into Philadelphia to visit my uncle. With each subsequent visit my uncle always asked me “How’s the army treating you?” The first couple of years I explained that I had received my honorable discharge and was attending college at the time. But my uncle kept at me, believing I was still in the service. Soon, I caved and played into his deteriorating memory by assuring him that the army was treating me fine.

Over the years, like so many other people, I had my fair share of fears. Some unfounded; others completely grounded. Fear of sharks as a boy after the movie Jaws came out: unfounded. Fear of being sent to some shit hole country to fight Soviet soldiers: grounded (though me and my peacetime brothers in arms never saw combat and were grateful in that respect). Fear of flunking out college: unfounded (unless I completely gave up studying and handing in papers). Fear of being alone as I grew older: unfounded. No one is ever truly alone. Fear of ending up my like uncle: grounded, to be sure.

I used to think I was afraid of being alone. I used to think that I needed a woman in my life to complete me. For many years, especially after I gave up drinking, I was envious of those guys who studied hard, landed good jobs, bought homes and had families. Then I went through a spell where I thought property was a crime; and if not a crime to own a home I used to think that people were hoodwinked because I saw no difference between renting and paying mortgage. I was a fool. Somewhere around my 40th birthday I started seeing the light of day. I still don’t own a home; but my plan is to have one soon so my first home won’t be in a 55-and-over community.

What I fear these days is Alzheimer’s. It has taken me decades to become comfortable enough in my own skin to consider myself a writer. Sure, I work a full-time job. But now when people ask me what I do I tell them I write. Poems, stories, novels and for a long stretch I even tried my hand at screenplays (a dozen in all). The best part about writing screenplays that were never optioned or bought (though I did land an agent for one year who fought effortlessly to hawk one of my scripts) was having a story outlined and complete. Everyone of those screenplays could turned into a novel…not page for page, mind you. But you get the gist.

Anyway, back to my fear. I was thinking about Iris Murdoch tonight and how utterly horrible it must have been to create the body of work she did only to get older and no longer have any recollection of doing so. Is it enough for someone else to tell us what we have accomplished if we suffer from the disease? More than that, are we responsible for the lives we have led if we no longer possess the ability to recall memories of that life? I don’t know that answer. What I do know is that it would be terrible to one day no longer recollect having written the poems, the stories, and the novels I have written. But then I wouldn’t know it is terrible because I would no longer remember having done so. All I would have left would be manuscripts and computer files; each one as alien to me, perhaps, as the names of loved ones.

Of course, I understand the order of things. It is far worse to no longer remember the ones we love than it is to dismiss a body of work because we have no memory of writing it. Still, as any writer knows, it is more than putting words down on paper. Writing can be, at times, akin to skimming the surface of the divine, stirring the collective memory out there beyond what we see, think, feel, hear, etc and transmitting some self-discovery that carries with it a universal truth either experienced by the reader or at least one with which he can empathize. Worse than not being able to remember what one has written would be having no memory of those moments of self-discovery, of communing with something larger than our own selfish egos, at least temporarily, of having created something genuine.