We were strangers on the train, staring blankly at the dark glass, reflected in ebony sheets of remembrance. If I pressed my face to the pane, I could tell we were rushing by. But apart from a pale, flickering shadow on the window, we were nowhere.
No one spoke at first, too awkward among strangers I suppose. Then a woman searched in her bag and offered some sandwiches across. Polite conversation ensued. It was as if we had discovered the power of speech, testing our voices in low, hallowed whispers. I didn’t notice at the time that nobody ventured their name, but that was the first clue.
How do you judge a voyage without daylight? Time holds no power in darkness – a minute, an hour, a lifetime? As we talked on, the mood raised itself to one of conviviality. In the far corner of our carriage, a family began to sing songs, clapping their hands to a familiar childhood ballad, breaking sharply from their revelry as the wooden door unlatched.
The conductor passed silently through the carriage, pausing here and there to hold the paper slips high against his lantern before returning them with a purposeful nod. But for all our merriment, something of his somber nature trailed him like a shadow and when he arrived at my seat I shrank in his gaze.
“Good sir” I forced myself to a cheery voice; “Can you tell me, is our train on time?”
He looked at me over the rim of his ancient glasses, and then back at my ticket, as if I had disturbed his lassitude. Those onyx eyes diminished for but a second yet I saw all too readily how he questioned my presence aboard. Finally, reluctantly, he approved my ticket as valid for travel and cast an oaken glance back at me as he walked at a measured pace to deliver his small service to my companions.
Other passengers drifted in to join our scattered throng, each untroubled by the lack of amenity, and each a welcome addition to our party. Never had I heard such a wealth of discussion and exchange of ideas.
Our host returned on a second trawl through the carriage, and reviewed my docket again. This time his gaze was less guarded, his grey face crinkling at the edges as he wrestled with an enigma.
He shook his head meaningfully, save that the meaning eluded me still.
“May I speak with you in private, sir?”
His words, though couched in hushed tones, conveyed so dire a sense of importance that I immediately left my companions and followed him to another part of the train.
“The thing is, sir, you appear to be on the wrong train.”
For the first time I saw lines of tension in the lantern glare, and if I were to need further convincing, I could no longer hear the laughter and merriment I had left behind.
The fellow outlined a plan of his own devising, a scheme which disturbed me to the core. Since the train could in no way be greatly delayed, the conductor had taken the good measure of calling on ahead and arranging for the train to reduce to a crawl, allowing me to disembark at a suitable port of call. He assured me any danger in the procedure was minimal – a small risk besides the inconvenience to the other legitimate passengers. If I tell you I agreed, it would indicate some measure of choice in the matter, which is assuredly not the case. Let me simply say that I took one harrowing look at those dark pools of emptiness, and prepared myself for a literal step into the unknown.
The train slowed to a grinding tremor and the conductor stood beside me at the doorframe, ready. A black shadowy mass crept towards us as the station platform approached.
“Farewell sir, and Godspeed you on your journey,” The fellow told me, putting forward an arm to assist me as I gripped the door-handle.
It moved lightly, so lightly in fact that had it not been for his sturdy arm (which I mistook at first for gentle persuasion) I would have overbalanced altogether and tumbled out. As it was, my feet found the comforting shingle of gravel, which moved to accommodate me in murmurs of indefinable patience. My task met, the conductor reached forward and pulled the door to, tapping his hat to me generously as he closed the door against me.
I stood, utterly alone, watching the train lights retreat into the darkness.
The stationmaster’s office shone like a beacon at the far end of the platform, and I made my way towards it, masking my apprehension in solid footholds of stone.
The unlocked door yielded without pressure, which in my strange night foray came as no surprise. Inside, a fire crackled in welcome, and for the first time on that long night I was weary for warmth. I entered the room with less fear than perhaps I ought to have felt in a stranger’s domain, and crouched by the flames.
I found a waiting seat and must surely have dozed, for when I opened my eyes I was in my hearth chair at home, a farewell note from my dearest Charlotte crumpled at my side. An empty bottle lay at my feet and the remnants of powders upon my kerchief. Had I dreamed in my turmoil, and in dreaming chosen life over death? I cannot say for certain. I only know that I clung to life that night, my heart’s blood roaring deep as any furnace. And I came to realize that however alone I felt in this world, death without companionship is a far lonelier business.
Derek Thompson writes articles, comedy and fiction. He blogs at Along The Write Lines.
“The earworms are the worst part,” she was saying.
Ivan looked up from his beer. She was staring at him with a nervous half-smile, her eyes wide black holes in the dim of the bar. Her fingers interlocked around a glass of cranberry juice that she still hadn’t brought to her lips. “What?” he asked.
She straightened. “You know what an earworm is? It’s a little bit of music that catches in your head and plays on a constant rotation. Have you ever spent a day humming the same line over and over?” Ivan nodded. She continued. “The only way to get rid of an earworm is to listen to the song from start to finish. But that’s the problem. If I get a song stuck in my head, I have to wait months before it’s even recorded. Before it’s even written. For weeks I’ve been humming this one chorus that I can’t remember the lyrics to, and I won’t find out for years.”
Ivan scowled. This doe-eyed talk of earworms was an attempt at charm, and he didn’t want to be charmed. “So that’s the worst part about the future,” he said. “Vague unwritten choruses?”
“I’m not from the future,” she answered. “Stop making it sound so sci-fi.”
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from right here, same as you.”
“But you knew me in another life.”
“The same life. Just another thread of it.”
The waitress stopped beside their table. Ivan made a swirling motion with his finger to indicate that they each needed another drink. The waitress nodded and continued toward the mahogany bar, ducking between tables circled with happy hour revelers in wrinkled business casual. Ivan returned his gaze to the girl across the table. She was still staring at him, absently drumming her fingernails against her glass.
Ivan sipped his pint and licked his lips. He felt like the butt of some carefully-orchestrated joke. At any moment a curtain would be pulled and the studio audience would applaud. Her sheepish presence across the table unsettled him.
“What did you say your name was?” he asked.
“It’s Amy,” she answered. She paused. “And you know it’s Amy. You always do that when you meet people you don’t like; you pretend to forget their names. You told me once you do it to make them feel less important, and I told you that was mean.”
“Thanks, Amy,” Ivan said. “And when did this conversation take place, exactly?”
Amy sighed. “That’s hard to explain.”
“When we were dating, right?”
“And when was that?”
“That’s hard to explain, too.”
“We would have started about six months ago.”
“We would have, but we didn’t.”
“Yeah, I get it,” she said, rolling her eyes. “God, Ivan, why are you being so nasty about this?”
“What is ‘this’?” he asked. “I don’t know you. You’re just some lunatic who appeared from nowhere and dragged me to a bar to say you were my girlfriend in another life.”
“You have a birthmark in the shape of a heart on your left butt cheek.”
“You have an apartment across the street from mine and a great pair of binoculars.”
“And before your mother died she used to tell you it was where an angel spanked you, to remind you to always be good.”
Ivan choked a little on his last gulp as Amy shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But I want you to know that I’m not crazy. I really do know you.”
The waitress returned with the drinks and placed them on the table. Ivan slugged his pint and watched Amy pull the lime from her new glass of cranberry juice to squeeze it into the old one. She dropped the rind onto a piece of ice and laced her fingers around the sloshing red of the glass, still without drinking.
It was she who broke the silence. “Time is linear, right,” she said. “It only moves forward. Usually. My life moved forward, on a regular old timeline just like anybody else’s. The difference is that one day I hit a certain point and I jumped back, like a rewind button. And then instead of moving forward on the same path I’d taken initially, I made different choices. Where your timeline is a straight stick, mine had a branch that forked off to the side. Now I’m living that branch.” Ivan didn’t respond. “It’s like a do-over,” she said. “A second shot.”
He took another long drink. His head was spinning and he knew he was drinking too quickly, muddying an already senseless situation. But he needed the mouthful and the accompanying swallow, needed to buy himself some time.
Amy continued. “On the initial stick, the first timeline, you and I used to date. If I had gone through my life on the path I took the first time, we would have started seeing each other six months ago.”
Ivan stared into his glass, watching the suds pop one by one along the surface of the beer. The comment about his mother had shaken him. He coughed and tried to sound sarcastic. “So where did we meet, exactly?”
“At a stupid bar. The usual thing. We went home together but we ended up hitting it off. You used to say it was a one night stand that got out of hand.”
“What happened this time around, you just avoided that bar?”
The corner of her mouth twitched. “I’ve been,” she answered. “I even went that same night, to see you. But I hung back and we didn’t talk. You went home with some other girl. A blonde.” Her voice wavered a little on her last word, betraying a twinge of jealousy.
“That’s cool,” Ivan sneered. “That’s adorable. You go to bars just to watch me, you pounce on me on my way out of work and beg me to buy you a drink, and then you tell me you know what my ass looks like because you were my girlfriend in another life. This is really spectacular; you’re making quite a splash.”
Tears collected in Amy’s eyes and she swallowed hard, staring at her cranberry juice. It was driving him crazy that she still hadn’t touched it, while he had nearly finished his second beer. Again silence swept clean the table, and he looked at her hard, watching her lower lip wobble. She wasn’t unattractive, really. A bit plain, maybe. It was no wonder he hadn’t noticed her at a bar night six months ago. But she had deep, dark eyes that he found enticing, even when they were wet. And a nice rack, he thought. There was no denying that.
When Amy cut the quiet again, her voice was low and controlled. “I know,” she said. “I’m sure this is a lot to take in. And I’m sorry if I startled you by grabbing you outside your office, but I remembered that you use the side door, and you always leave fifteen minutes late because you don’t like sharing the elevator.”
“Will you stop doing that?” he said. “Stop describing my personal habits. All you sound like is a really accomplished stalker.”
“I’m trying to explain myself.”
“Why are you even telling me this?” he asked. “You’re saying you knew how this whole scenario would play out, so why didn’t you just follow the script from your other timeline?”
“It didn’t go well last time,” Amy answered, lowering her eyes.
“You thought it would go better if you threw this alternate-ending director’s cut crap at me?”
“Look,” Amy answered, meeting his unblinking gaze. “It’s been almost two years since my whole life was restarted. I’ve had plenty of time to think about this. At first I planned to avoid you altogether, but I wanted to see you. And not in a fake way, pretending to be some stranger who seduces you at a bar, acting surprised when you get that promotion a year from now.” Ivan raised his eyebrows and she finally looked away. “I know this doesn’t make sense to you,” she mumbled. “But I missed you.”
Ivan shook his head. “This is quite a fucking story,” he said. “Have you had these sorts of meet-ups with a lot of people?”
He’d been attempting a joke, but Amy didn’t laugh. “No,” she said. “It’s a little too crazy to explain to everybody. I haven’t really bothered trying to befriend people from my old life. I thought I should take the fresh start for what it was, and build myself a whole new future, all surprises.”
“Then why me?”
She shrank into her chair, flushed. Finally she lifted the first cranberry juice to her lips. She took a sip and dropped the glass on the tabletop, her eyes averted. “Because,” she said finally. “In that other life… on the straight stick, you meant a lot to me. You were important.”
Ivan didn’t respond. The waitress came back to the table and he nodded without looking at her, making the same circling motion with his finger. Amy brought the juice to her lips once again.
“So…” he said, searching. He was uncomfortable with the idea of a shared past with this woman, even a past that played out on another plane of existence. “If you’ve changed your whole life, has the world become dramatically different? Isn’t that the butterfly effect? The idea that everything everybody does affects everybody else?”
Amy smiled. “I thought about that,” she said. “I wondered if that would happen. But for the most part, the rest of the world seems to be rolling along as expected. Headlines are all the same. I guess in the scheme of things I’m not that important.”
“Have you tried to prevent any crimes? Murders? Or, hey, what about the lottery? Can you always just pick the right numbers?”
“I thought about being a superhero, but I don’t know how to do it without getting into trouble. It’s not like I could just call up the police to say, ‘Hey, there’s a bomb going off in this building tomorrow.’ And I never bothered to memorize any winning lottery numbers.” She paused. “I did okay in last year’s Super bowl pool.”
“Where do you think the old you is now? The one on the straight time stick. You think she’s still out there, living out your life in some parallel universe?”
“I don’t know if she exists,” said Amy. “I don’t really care, I guess. I’m here now.”
“On a twig full of earworms, right.”
She smiled. “Yes. Earworms from the future.”
“How far along did you get before you jumped backwards?”
“About three years from now. Three and a half.”
“And how did it happen?”
Amy’s smile faltered. She brought her cranberry juice to her lips again as the waitress deposited another round of drinks on the table in front of them. Ivan’s empty pint glass was whisked away. Amy placed her juice glass back on the table, in a straight line with the other two. She drummed her fingers against the glass.
“How did you do it?” Ivan persisted.
She hesitated, opening her mouth twice before any sound came out. When she finally spoke her voice was apologetic. “I didn’t do it on purpose,” she said. “I mean I wanted it to happen, but I didn’t think it was possible. Why would I?”
“How did you do it?”
Amy took another sip of cranberry juice. “I was at a really low point,” she said. “Really low. And all I could think was that I wished I could go back… ” She coughed and straightened again in her chair. “I wished I could go back and never have met you. I thought if you had never been in my life, none of it would have happened and I would have been better off. And I used to just say that over and over in my head, like a mantra, ‘Go back, go back, go back,’ like if I said it enough times I could make it happen. For weeks, probably months. I was obsessed with it. And then one day I woke up, and it had happened. I didn’t know how. But I had jumped back to my life before you—way before you, actually. I calculated and I think I went back about five and a half years. I mean obviously at first I didn’t believe it was real. For three days I thought I was having a very vivid dream. But eventually, when I saw everything play out the way it had before, when I started to act differently and to see that I could make changes to my future, then I started to believe it. ” She looked at him with raised eyebrows.
“That’s it?” asked Ivan. “Just ‘Go back’? You altered the space-time continuum through the power of your mind?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know why it worked. Maybe because I said it enough times, maybe because I thought it hard enough. I have no idea. Like I said, I just woke up one day and I was five years younger.
“You’re glossing over something,” he said. “The fact that you wanted to go back to a life before me. What did I do that was so horrible that you had to change the rotation of the earth to undo it?”
Ivan watched a little shiver work its way through Amy’s shoulders, left to right. Her breasts bumped briefly against the edge of the table, a subtly intoxicating movement. If he had ever picked her up at a bar, he thought, she would have been wearing a V-neck.
“We got serious,” she said. “We were living together and it was pretty good. I started law school and you were making money with your promotion and we were doing okay. But then I got pregnant, and it messed everything up. I didn’t want to drop out of law school and you didn’t want to get married, so we decided that I would… you know. That I would terminate it.” Her hands shook a little as she brought the glass of juice to her mouth, barely making contact with her lips before she dropped it back to the table. “And it turned out, you know, it turned out I just couldn’t handle it. I got so depressed… I felt so guilty. This crazy sense of loss. And you didn’t feel that way at all. You didn’t really… care, I guess. At first you tried to comfort me, but after a few weeks I was getting worse and you were mad that I couldn’t snap out of it. I stopped eating, stopped going to class, after a while I stopped getting out of bed.” She took a deep breath and met his eyes again, searching for something, but Ivan looked away. “So, I mean, naturally, that was a pretty serious strain on our relationship. You couldn’t take it and you didn’t know how to deal with me. So you moved out. And I couldn’t do anything, I just lay in bed crying and wishing that I could go back. Because if I had never met you, none of it ever would have happened.”
Ivan’s beer was a little warmer than it should have been for a fresh pour. He was trying to feign indifference, but something inside him was twisting. He felt suddenly furious with this woman for trying to make him feel guilty about something that had never happened. She was just some stranger, insistent that their intimacy had ruined her life. And yet an aching sense of culpability chewed at his stomach. It confused him and made him even angrier.
Amy was lost now, her dark eyes gazing past him at the dark bar. “What’s weird,” she said, “is the way I feel today. I really did change my whole life. I didn’t go to law school; I went to nursing school instead. And on weekends I volunteer at a nursery for HIV-positive babies. But I still feel so guilty. Even though, in this life, I never did it. She never even existed, but I still miss her.”
“Her?” said Ivan. “You anthropomorphosized your abortion?”
Amy blinked and dropped her eyes. “Fuck you.”
“Lady,” said Ivan, “What the hell are you talking about? You’re like my own personal Ghost of Christmas Future, trying to warn me about the dangers of unprotected sex. Who are you?”
“You asked,” said Amy. “You wanted to know so I told you.”
“You told me you rewound your whole existence to write me out of it, and then you came to find me anyway.”
“I wanted to see you,” she said. “I missed you.”
“Because I was this monster who destroyed your whole life despite the fact that I don’t even know you.”
“I told you,” she said, “I didn’t do it on purpose. It just happened. Everyone has regrets, I’m just the lucky one who got a chance at a re-do. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t like to change your past. Isn’t there a point you’d like to go back to, to start again?”
“I don’t know,” said Ivan. “Is there? You seem to know everything about me; you tell me. What is it I want to undo?”
Amy stared into her half-empty glass of juice, still gripping it with both hands. “I think,” she said quietly, “that you’d go back to Columbus Day weekend of your freshman year. I think you’d tell your mom not to come pick you up. Tell her not to get in the car.”
Ivan rose from his chair, jostling the table. Some cranberry juice sloshed and dribbled down the side of one of the glasses. “Well,” he said, “I’ve got to be somewhere. And it looks like you’ve still got quite a bit of juice to finish here.” He pulled out his wallet and tossed two twenties in Amy’s direction. “Thanks for the chat; it was nice meeting you.”
“Ivan, can you wait?” she asked. “I know you’re confused, but I’d really like to talk to you—”
“You know how to get a hold of me,” he spat. “Right? You probably know my address and phone number, don’t you? What else? My credit card? Social security number? I’m sure you’ve got all of this information, since we were so tight in that other dimension. You think of something else to say, come find me and say it. But I’ve got nothing more to say to you.” Ivan took one last hard look at the girl shivering across the table, at the bills soaking up the red juice. Then he turned and barged between the other crowded tables, leading with his shoulder against the boisterous after-workers who blocked his way out.
The heavy front door swung behind him as he stepped into the chilly city streets. Ivan shoved his hands in his pockets and tucked his chin to his chest, stomping against the wind in the direction of his apartment. Go back, he thought. Go back go back go back go back…
Kaitlyn Gentile has lived out of a suitcase on four continents, but she finally unpacked in New York. She writes personal essays and travel pieces.
He did not covet gold or jewels, though he had won them. He traveled only with the whetstone needed to sharpen his spear, and punished anyone who came near it. He slept soundly, and when he dreamed of the faces he had killed they were all turned away.
On Sparta, he had been a captain of soldiers until he had been denied wine by a colonel. The wine had been more important than rank, and he’d had it. In Ithaca he had been called Pelinorus, and slaughtered a family of merchants whose son had put his greasy hands on his spear. In Athens he had slept peacefully in a grove dedicated to Athena until a rain had woken him from a dream in which wisdom’s face, too, had been turned away, and he had stripped the priests naked and lashed their backs with ceremonial rods in punishment. He’d told them his name was Hedoclus. He boarded a ship to Crete, where he fought the bulls for many years, until a woman with silver hair had teased him too much, and then it was time to move on.
He had been recruited, by Paris himself, to stand guard before the walls of Troy. He had been told the queen the Greeks sought, Helen, was the most beautiful woman in the world … and the only thing in the city he could not have, as long as the walls were guarded. The Trojans called him Aremistes.
Some of the Greeks whose chariots stormed across the shredded planes recognized him through his bronze helmet as the man who’d killed their brothers, or recognized his spear, now rusted but still perfectly honed. Some of them saw him the way he saw himself, as one more warrior who stood in their way. He pulled their chariots apart wheel by wheel, and bludgeoned them to death with their own weapons. The Greeks began to say that Ares himself guarded the city gates.
He thought, in between battles, about Helen, about what he would do with her, when he was the last man standing and the walls had fallen and the ships had burned. She stood on the balcony of Priam’s palace, and smiled slightly at the carnage that came from her broken promise. He did not think she loved Paris. He thought the two of them would get along.
When he saw Achilles’ chariot for the first time, and his tarnished sword, and his battered faceplate, riding a wave of blood from the ocean to the city, he stopped thinking about Helen. He stopped thinking about wine. He remembered the heart of a bull he had killed that would not stop beating, and a storm off the coast of Mycenae that had sunk three ships before him. His skin reddened, and he closed his eyes, and saw all the dead turn around, their faces full in view, their bloody lips turned over in faint, slight smiles.
Last week I met the President, and discovered I’m not cynical after all. I’m as surprised as you are.
I'm not usually one to be starstruck. But I can't deny that my meeting with our once and future president three days before his reelection left me in something of a euphoric tizzy (euphoric enough, clearly, to eschew embarrassment and use the word "tizzy" to describe it). Emotionally and energetically, I bounced somewhere between one of the less histrionic teenage girls watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and a small boy about ready to open a big present on Christmas Day--already knowing it's exactly what he wanted but never dreamed he'd get.
When I say "meeting," I mean the customary three seconds one gets with The Man as he makes the rounds after a rally, this particular communion having just wrapped up in a horse barn on the fairgrounds in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio (truly the Heart of the Heart of it all--both the capital and the dead geographic center of the state.) So it wasn't exactly the high-level policy discussion I'd love to have with him about, say, the National Defense Authorization Act or his inexplicable jones to shut down medicinal marijuana dispensaries. But I met him. We exchanged words. Then he moved on.
I saw the evidence of my unabashed exultation later that night on CSPAN, after my father recorded the network's replay of the event. Even viewed from dozens of feet away, my posture and my smile bordered on the absurd; I was showing more teeth than any horse in the barn ever had. I was shocked. As an experienced, urbane metrotextual, hadn't I developed a greater sense of The Cool than that? Not in a detached, hipster ironic way (I'm far too old for such shenanigans), but: holy %^%! Batman! I'm not jaded!
I've conversed with my share of remarkable men in my life: world-famous, top-of-their-game, sure-to-be-hall-of-famer rock stars; pioneering, Oscar-winning, studio-founding animation visionaries; Pulitzer Prize winning writers with whom I was fortunate to study. I've engaged my fair share of remarkable women as well, though in the realms of what the world considers "remarkable," my own chromosomal composition seems to be something of a man magnet, Annie Liebowitz aside. (Bring it on, Maya Angelou!)And I've never been very plussed by it all. They are, after all, merely men. Mortal like you and me, their significant or even history-making accomplishments ultimately meaning no more to them than the less remarkable details of everyone else's lives, once the worms (or the incinerators) have their way in a few decades. And I suppose I've usually regarded these remarkable peeps as peers ; I've grown beyond the adolescentia of hero worship, and I've always considered myself (and most people) fairly remarkable as well--even if one’s remarkability is not widely recognized.
So in that magic moment in that unremarkable horse barn, I found myself perplexed. As the president’s lanky silhouette sashayed through the spotlights and took its place twenty feet in front of us--before I’d even realized that, yes, since we were on the fence line his rounds would likely take him right to us during the meet and greet--I wondered why I was so moved. Then, as he said his hello and the crowd erupted, the explanation struck me: Walter Benjamin. That’s why. Of course! Walter Benjamin! Or, more precisely, his conception of “aura.” (Yes, I'm that kind of intellectual/nerd/geek/auto-pedantic Arschloch. While the leader of the free world was working the stage twenty feet in front of me, I’m thinking of literary critics and their brainchildren.) Aura!(emphasis on “awe”...): that ineffable extra something that only the original can provide--whether it’s a person or a work of art. That X factor so often denied us these days as physical presence dwindles, subsumed in a culture mediated by reproduction and simulation, a world of replications and recordings and web sites, an onslaught of disembodied everythings giving us anything and everything we want anytime at all. (You see? Even that obnoxious onslaught of words was a grand--or not-so-grand--act of mediation between the Real and this Abstracted Expression Thereof.) Voices on the phone. Images on the tube. Words on the screen divorced from the presence of the body of the brain that brought them into being. Words divorced even from the page which, although still alphabetic abstraction, is at least anchored by tangibility. It's all a grand simulation. A dance of representation. And we seem to like it like that. Presence doesn’t elude us. We elude it, even when it tries to chase us down. We eschew the actual in favor of the abstract, experience in favor of object, corporeality in favor of virtuality. The invisible glow of aura that has infused human interactions and creation since, well, creation has been replaced by the all-too-visible glow of LCD screens as they cast "reality" at us like a demi-urgic video projector.
Don't get me wrong: despite the Unabomber Hir-Suit that currently adorns my face, I'm no Luddite. But that morning in the horse barn made me feel what we all seem to be missing, whether we’re aware of it or not. Aura. Of a friend or family member or work of art--or of the ostensible leader of the free world. Because aura changes everything. The President of the Screens is nothing more than a two-dimensional cipher, all too easy to idolize or demonize, love or loathe as we project our fantasies and our failures onto “him,” this unreal and ultimately mediated being who we pretend controls our fate as a nation and as individuals. But the President of Presence, with a brow that sweats and a voice that's hoarse and eyes that seem to actually see you and your own aura as his hand grasps yours in appreciation and solidarity: you might not like his policies, but you can’t deny his humanity--as the ultimate Otherizing machines known as the modern media are so good at helping us do.
I've probably seen as many images of the President than of anyone else in the world. But there in the wilds of the real? There in the barn? A whole alternate reality. Unlike anything else I've experienced. The closest analogue, despite the gulfs of power, was a David Foster Wallace reading I attended about a year before his death. (Then again: perhaps the gulf isn’t that wide. The President can do anything in the world he wants to, literally. Wallace could do anything in the world he wanted to do, figuratively. He could bend words to his will and make them do anything they were capable of doing, just like Hendrix could do with a guitar.) Readings aren't usually my thing, but this one was remarkable: warm and empathetic, devoid of the detached intellectualism his linguistic pyrotechnics had prepared me to expect. And then came the micro- meeting when I spoke with him afterwards. I had no book to sign. I wanted no advice. I simply thanked him for his presence, saying that while I had always appreciated his work, I now appreciated his humanity. (if only he could have appreciated it enough himself.)
In other words: I thanked him for sharing his aura. Which was something I never could have felt by reading his words on the page, those bastard step-children representations of our thoughts and our voice, those reproduced signs and symbols that are stripped of the humanity that conceived them the moment they go to press. Transcending our oral tradition may have been a boon to our advancement, technologically and culturally. But I’m often not sure what it’s done to our humanity. The Wallace of the Page may be a technical and conceptual marvel, an eternal inscriber in stone for all ages. But I got to experience the Wallace of the Presence: a real-time, live-action hunter-gatherer of vowels and consonants, summoning us around the fire as the shadows flickered across the walls, grunting out tales that would sustain us through the long nights and impossible days of our short, brutish, and nasty existences. The aura of the artist is what we want. It’s what we always want. It’s why we go to live shows rather than blast the latest record at home, where the beer is cheap and there are no bathroom lines. It’s why we prefer a canvas full of paint that touched the brush that touched the hand rather than an immaculately produced print. We want the aura. We want the connection. It’s what it means to be human. At least it used to be.
Again: I’m not hoping for some armageddon meltdown to toss us back to the stone age. I’m not wanting to lose my library of books or music or photographic memories. (Let alone the Internet connection that’s letting you read this.) But without aura, it’s a two-dimensional world, literally, emotionally, and philosophically. And something in me laments that all of our advancements haven’t been satisfied with complementing the real--they’ve wanted to replace it. In a very real--and unreal--ways. It makes me think of the live concert albums that were so big in the seventies and eighties. To use an old but befitting analogue simile: it’s like our lives have gone from real to reel, safely memorialized for all time on a spool of tape. Like we’re living in a recording of our own existence, addicted to the simulated and suspicious of the real.
But listen to me rant and rail. And feel free to tell this simulacrum of my thoughts to shut up. Because what was I doing in that horse barn, as the awe-ra rained down upon me? I was already half gone, thinking of this piece of writing, somewhat detached from the experience itself as I hurled myself in the abstracted abyss of concept and language---the first great “triumph” of civilization, the one that traded immediacy for eternality, presence for representation, singularity for universality. There’s no going back. All we can do is dive in.
Preparing her dinner the other night, my wife was disappointed to notice that the “Sausage Rolls” she’d purchased from Zehrs contained “spicy chicken” filler. Apparently “Sausage Rolls” wasn’t meant to be read as an adjective modifying a noun but as a complete proper noun pertaining to a certain style or genre of substance-filled pastry. Because even though any type of animal may be ground up and stuffed into its own (or another’s too, I suppose) intestines, I believe the sausage default, as in when not otherwise specified, is pork. So one shouldn’t have to read further to discover that trustingly purchased “Sausage Rolls” contain instead wiggly whale blubber, or crispy rat ears, or spicy chicken entrails. So I think my wife had a legitimate beef. But then mitigating her disappointment came her discovery that the doughy material encapsulating or ensconcing said minced and processed chicken (not pig) byproduct was “new” and had been “improved” to be even “flakier” than before. And so she did not, as is her custom when deceived or misled in this way, return said boxed ostensibly consumable foodstuffs to Zehrs’ customer service counter for a full refund of her money, but instead popped it in the oven. And I could not help but marvel how, in this day and age, almost 65 years since detonation of the first nuclear bomb and more than 40 years since landing on the moon (each, by remarkable coincidence, occurring on July 16), when for ten bucks I can buy in Zehrs’ photo shop a USB flash stick with enough memory to store 2000 novels in and a little ring to attach it to my keychain with and we smash hadrons together at relativistic speeds and measure planetary distances in microns—we can still discover ways to produce an even flakier sausage roll. I’d have thought we’d have long ago reached some sort of quantum or God-imposed barrier to increased flakiness. I’d have thought by now pastry thickness would be measured in Planck lengths, a scale at which space itself lacks smoothness, the faintest touch of fork or photon or even consciousness finding said penultimately flaky sausage roll phyllo coating exploding into subatomic dust if not pure energy. But oh no, we’ve managed to get it flakier, but still not flaky enough. There’s still room for improvement.
Christopher Miller’s fiction has appeared in COSMOS, The Barcelona Review, Hopewell Publishing’s “Best New Writing 2010″ anthology, Redstone Science Fiction and other print and web based magazines and anthologies. He works as a systems analyst. He writes for fun.
The cliché “with eyes wide open” presents an interesting irony when instantiated physically and in a conversation about whether or not the Indians ever hung out with Jesus. I’ll explain.
Once, there was Alex, the dishwasher. Alex was a lanky, blandly white kid in his early twenties. He spoke in a halting, Comicon cadence and moved around with the tightly wound economy of someone for whom the body was only meant to taxi around his imagination. I used to know him from working at an unbearably hokey Mexican food chain here in upstate New York about 10 years ago. I “knew” him in the way that you know anyone in foodservice that you’re not already friends with and you haven’t seen naked. For those of you fortunate enough to have avoided it thus far, foodservice is a rare sort of environment which brings together isolation and intimacy in a mixture that tends to dilute and adulterate both. The isolation is that which is born of the knowledge that the work you and your colleagues are engaged in is objectively frivolous. But it’s also frantic and high-stress work, outside of any due proportion to how meaningless the consequences of failure at any given task might be. It has a way of making the act of fetching forgotten side-dishes feel like Cold War diplomacy. Foxhole bonds abound.
So, in light of this, I used to know Alex. Alex was by all accounts a weirdo, albeit the harmless kind, so he got along with everyone just fine. Word had it that he was an Olympic level drug user in his teens, but had turned himself around suddenly, with the help of Joseph Smith and the revelations of the Angel Moroni. So yes, he was a Mormon. And my first Mormon, I believe.
Regrettably, not much of what he said to me about this, his beliefs, really stuck if I’m being completely honest. But what I do remember is the way Alex looked at me. His gaze in conversation, especially about his faith in the Latter Day Saints Church, had a sort wattage which conveyed simultaneously the possibilities that behind it was either an emotional life that was rich and enormously complex – an electrical storm of frenetic engagement with the world – or the opposite: a vacant and reductive internal life that sees in the universe nothing amiss, as the answers to all questions have been settled forever.
Here was young man for whom “wide open eyes” were a natural and constant feature. Yet in spite of this de jure embodiment of the well known phrase, Alex was a kind of de facto refutation of its message. In everyday circumstances, we are rarely exposed to the kind of sclera-explosive gaze that this phrase suggests is the ideal way to greet the day. Rather, we cucumber-cool moderns, glide about this world with half-lidded nonchalance- an epicanthal attitude which serves to weed out, dismiss and filter rather than let light to simply flood in indiscriminately. Such is our conception of wisdom, I suppose. In direct contradiction to the wide-eyed picture of omnivorous openness to experience, we create but slits of our perceptual faculties and dare data to find a way in. We judge first, with an eye toward condemnation always. We mistrust our world and we bar it entry to our thoughts, pending approval from the array of diagnostic bouncers we set as sentries to the eternal nightclub of our brains. One imagines Diogenes, lamp up to face, eyes widely narrowed in expectation that the glare might impede his search.
At the time, I was a pretty strident Atheist. The kind of strident Atheist who went out of his way to pick fights with believers with the relish of sport. But in Alex’s case, I didn’t feel the need to beat up on him. I liked him and I was curious, not so much about the beliefs, but in the way he processed my objections, my re-interpretations of evidence he adduced in his apology, etc. Often, a talk with him felt like a half-hour Turing test: an initially gleeful simulation of engagement that tended to end in a vaguely unsettling sense of solipsism. Being a know-it-all-Atheist, I found his beliefs completely unwarranted. But in retrospect, I find that my interest in him was quite a bit different from my interest in encountering zealous believers in more “mainstream” religions. And this is still something I struggle with as an adult: Why is there this additional quantum of bizarreness in my estimation of something like Mormonism, when the assertions all of the major religions I don’t believe in have roughly the same truth-value?
I readily admit that part of this bias is an inherited, cultural one. Mormonism’s standing in our society, up until the recent ascension of public figures like John Huntsman and Mitt Romney, had been one of dismissive neglect. Even this state of affairs was progress when you take into account the L.D.S. Church’s outright pariahship during the mid-19th century, where anti-Morman violence reached its zenith with both the killing of founder Joseph Smith and the besetting of the Mormon outpost in the Utah territories by federal troops in which close to 200 were killed in incidents related to the siege and the tensions which brought it about. As a minority religion, Mormanism has been pretty thoroughly marginalized in this country. And this is something one should always keep in mind when appraising the movement. But there are other, more material reasons for my intuitions. I suspect modernity, and its relationship to the founding of the LDS, might have something to do with it.
I’m surely not alone in feeling that, in spite of my incredulity toward the stories and truth-claims made by, say, Catholicism, I can still find a great deal of gravity and beauty and awe in its cultural products. Often the art, rituals and texts strike me as if something profoundly and urgently true is trying to smuggle itself through to our understanding from the meager stuff of human device. I can bracket out all the obvious tribal superstition and find a deeply poetic core at the center of these cultural products. And I can relate to them, sometimes viscerally. The birth of the ideas and aesthetics out of which these cultural products rose is, in human terms, deep time. It seems to come out of the chthonic blackness of primordial history.
Temporal remoteness of this kind is essential to a belief system’s capacity to sustain mystery for the vast majority of us. And this mystery is the self-renewing fissile core which animates religious belief. Even though a church may still exist in the present, it is constantly drawing power from revelations that came to men in its infancy. Men for whom there were no alternative explanations or theories about where these flashes of wisdom came from. My aesthetic judgments about the kind of profound religious transmission of knowledge that it would take to found a system of faith, on which depend the fates of countless souls, demands a pure and psychologically/spiritually clear space into which this wisdom may flow. So the thought of a man in upstate New York getting a divine message which significantly alters one of these “mysterious” theological canons, roughly around the same time Americans were getting a handle on the relationship between electricity and magnetism, strikes me as a bit hollow. Truth is, our world and the world of the ancients are distinct. Theirs was a world of constantly intervening deities, plainly visible through miracles, epic punishment and incarnations. Ours is the world of coy gods whose methods of appearance constitute a kind of burlesque fan dance behind the twin plumes of Tillichian Grounding and Negative Theology.
And it’s not only modernity’s naturalized picture of the relationship between God and man that make a recently created religion seem flimsy and suspect to me. There is also the self-awareness that has been both the gift and curse of our species’ cultural evolution to consider. When Moses began his trip up Sinai to visit the lightning engravers, I am almost certain that the first thought through his head was not, “ok, I guess this is the part where I go into the wilderness alone, away from the straying rabble who have grown decadent and willful, and receive the saving scripture of divine command”. Moses knew nothing of tropes or Hero’s Journeys. No themes, plot structures, archetypes, nothing save the direct human experience of doing what one is told by and wrathful and exploding sky.
But just imagine something like that happening in the present day. How many times would the chosen communicator of the Law think about Charlton Heston? How would our narrative-savvy modern prophet intertwine this living and breathing experience with the constant internal meta-commentary on how revelatory moments are to appear, to the spectator? The spontaneous and transcendent way that the original Moses story resonates for us depends on the idea that Moses’ actions were directed by the divine, and not merely a rehearsal of deeply ingrained narratological grooves set by a lifetime of education and reflexive media. Even in the not-quite-so-advanced time of Joseph Smith, there was still a tradition, going back as far as the mid 17th century with philosopher Baruch Spinoza, of a “higher” criticism of the bible as an historical and literary artifact. The L.D.S. movements founding occurs around the time that distinctly American literature, and criticism of that literature, was coming into its own on the world stage. The language of the texts dictated to Joseph Smith attest to this literary self-awareness. Although these are purportedly words given to Smith by an angel, the style of expression is inexplicably reminiscent of the King James Bible- a ubiquitous document written in language suited for a monarchy both an ocean and 200 hundred years away. So this objection can essentially be boiled down to this question: what to make of a revelation which comes in an environment that is already primed with the idea of “revelation” as a structural feature of religion as such?
But, perhaps the complete and immediate absorption of modernity is an unfair expectation with which to saddle new religions, such as Mormonism. After all it has taken the more established churches centuries to fight their way to incomplete modernity as it is. And this not without tumult, schisms, and often bloodshed. These are powerful institutions which rely on a naked type of authority whose underpinnings must remain explanatorily self-sufficient lest the work of evaluating truth be progressively outsourced to science, psychology or philosophy. Controlling the world often means having a monopoly on the way that world is understood, this much is clear. But the relative believability of the new or old religions isn’t really of interest here. It’s the aesthetic appeal of the religion as a culture, and the differences between how a “legitimate” one might differ essentially from the upstart faiths we are presently considering. A religion’s founding – its bedrock texts, its historical circumstances, the often harrowing stories of the dangerous lives and deaths of its earliest emissaries – are more than simply beginnings. A founding sets a trajectory which continues throughout the course of the religion’s path through time to affect our perception of its legitimacy or folly.
The significance of the foregoing attempt to show that differences in the circumstances of the birth of a modern religion, from those of what we collectively consider to be the legitimate Churches from antiquity, rests on this very current state of affairs: that one’s religion in post-modern America is the consequence of choice. It is no longer the case that we take on a religion as an inextricable tangle weaving together our basic metaphysical and cultural assumptions, in the way that humanity had for most of its existence. For us, no matter what lengths our parents and sect authorities may go to in order to keep the outside world from presenting itself to us, there is always a sense that there are other people, other cultures, who believe all manner of different things about the world from us. And these people get along just fine without our most vital assumptions and rituals. The sheer panoply of ways to engage with the world and the media which give us in America access to that array of faiths creates something of an Empire of Options which subsumes all the tiny kingdoms of sectarian spirituality. And what this means at bottom is that the faith we land on is always a choice of some kind. Even the act of sticking to the faith of one’s father and mother is a negative selection in the face of all these possibilities.
So, when it comes down to it, what I find novel in the intensity of the dishwasher’s febrile gaze is not the ecstatic fervor of true belief. There’s nothing novel about that. No, to my own surprise, I discover that what I find so discomfiting is really the profound absence of good taste in making that choice.
Which leads me to this: my reaction has much more to say about me and the condition of belief in modern times, than it does about some really nice kid who is just trying to survive emotionally in a hard and chaotic world. Faith of that type, a default mode of being for most of human history, has become impossible. But perhaps it is the case that many of us, for whom modernity has made faith impossible, cope with this impossibility of experiencing faith by sublimating that need into an aesthetic appreciation for religion as artifact. We cannot participate, but we can value a well-formed, beautiful theology. Where pre-modern humans found transcendence in devotional art, our detachment can only allow us to appreciate devotion as art. So when we see a faith system that lacks the mysterious quality which draws us toward a religion as a beautiful object, we instinctually spurn it as, well, kitsch.
It’s a warm summer evening, the kind that radio loves. Down at Rochambo the tv is on the fritz, vanquishing CNN, ESPN, and a whole slew of letters. Lou, the regular, can be heard saying, “the way things are going these days, I don’t know whether to laugh or shit or go blind,” as bartender Marty futzes with a radio. It crackles to analog life. Old school country, and Brady (semi-regular) applauds. “This is a different station,” says Marty. Then the DJ mentions “Abilene” and Lou slurs, “shit, this is coming all the way from Kansas.” A beautiful anomaly, Brady thinks. Thank you, atmosphere.
Jess strolls in. And here is the regular anomaly. At 22 and wearing shirts that read “Well-Behaved Women Don’t Make History” she doesn’t belong. But she argues politics with the old-timers shaking dice. Mostly likes to pull up a stool next to her old History teacher. “Evening, Brady.” He ceased being Mr. Stimpson mere nanoseconds after graduation.
Jess pontificates something she read online. Lou either echoes or argues, hard to say, as Brady’s attention tightens on the radio. A voice says,♫ take that summer dress and hang it on these lazy days…. ♫ Right on. “Where are we going and why the hand-basket, is what I ask,” Lou mutters. “You gotta agree,” Jess beckons.
“I don’t care,” Brady mutters and exits through the rear. They chased off the Abilene radio, and he hoped, by miracle of summer heat, he could sense it humming in the long grass out back.
Seconds later Jess is there. “Something wrong?”
“You taught me to care about those things, back in class.”
“I did?” Shrugs. Waits. “You ever really look at the stars?”
“Sure. They’re beautiful.”
“No. Do you ever. Really.”
“Well, we won’t be able to if we keep pumping all these greenhouse gasses…”
And Brady isn’t listening anymore. The stars free-associate into snowflakes, falling in Cleveland. He is young and writing poetry in a cheap apartment he shares with a woman too much like Jess. He was a poet who killed the inspiration to celebrate the grief. He was socially-conscious, but was he awake?
How’d he end up teaching Jess to mimic that? Didn’t mean to.
“Let it all go,” he croons, hoping that’s enough to change her, to absolve him of wrongs done. The grass is humming. He can hear it now. “Just listen…”
Martin Brick’s fiction has been published in many places, including The Beloit Journal of Fiction, Vestal Review, Pindeldyboz, and Sou’Wester. He was raised in rural Wisconsin, but currently reside in Columbus, Ohio.
Are you a horror fanatic with kids? You ever want to turn your kids onto the genre without giving them night terrors? Here’s a list of scary movies that are (sorta) appropriate for the whole family!
Like it or not, horror movie fans are breeders. More of ‘em every day. These innocent babes see the rising zombie face of Dawn of the Dead before they see any pigeons wanting to drive anything. Horror film posters, dinner table debates on who would win in a fight – Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees – and racks of DVDs with covers so very different from the latest Disney/Pixar release makes them ultra-aware that there is a another viewing choice out there, and they may be curious. And for them, this is all normal. Of course daddy has a rubber ax set against the corner. Naturally, Mommy likes to trickle fake blood from the corner of her mouth to get a laugh. And Halloween – forget about Halloween! It’s more than candy: it’s a household explosion of fake cobwebs, dangling spiders, and fog machines.
There are many of us out there who love both our children and horror culture. Why not? Both are entertaining and, sometimes, known to surprise us. I was surprised when my daughter saw her first old school cemetery and whispered in my ear, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara…” And I was equally amused when my son ruined perfectly good pair of mittens trying to outfit them with his Wolverine claws to look like Freddy Krueger. Are these kids damaged and destined to be America’s next most wanted? No. Are they good kids who love to be scared if it’s all in good fun? Yes.
But nowadays, it’s just so hard to show them the actual movies. Instead, the under-ten set must settle for posters and paraphernalia, with occasional bedtime story synopses of horror cinema’s greatest hits with all the good parts taken out and happy endings in abundance.
Growing up in the Seventies, horror played late night shows, stuff like Shock Theatre in Dayton, Ohio, hosted by Dr. Creep who, during the daytime, was a co-host of a popular children’s show called Clubhouse 22 that showed old Bugs Bunny cartoons. Dr. Creep made horror welcoming and led many into the fold. But what did he have to do it with? Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolfman. Maybe, once in a while, something from Roger Corman. But the movies were safe, slow-paced, and with very little blood. Certainly no boobs. Kids today will not sit still for this.
What to do, what to do? I want my kids to love horror and I can’t wait ‘til they’re teens! So, consider this a resource – a short list of horror films that will work for the five to ten-year-old crowd without making scream and cry. You need films where you don’t (often) have to cover their eyes for or make them leave the room. And something that won’t make them whine, “Horror is so boring. Can we just watch Wall-E again?” (Not that I’m anti-Wall-E.)
Having said all this, you should be sure your kids are ready to be a little scared. After all, this ain’t Rumpstiltskin. But now that I think of it... that story is really friggin’ creepy, too. Pay attention to the “intensity meter” below and, as always, use your best judgment. You know your kids better than anyone.
1 – Baby stuff (age 5 to 6)
2 – Good clean fun (7-8)
3 – Use some caution (age 8-9)
4 – You’ll want to skip a few parts (age 9-10)
5 – Only the strong survive (age 10+)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Want to introduce your kids to the classic monsters? This is the ticket, ‘cos it’s not just Frankenstein, but Dracula and others. I doubted if my kids would stay interested in this, but they loved it and laughed a lot. Then they tore through A & C Meet the Mummy and A & C Meet the Invisible Man. They loved ‘em all, but this one is certainly the best.
Why it’s scary (but not too scary): There’s nothing scary in here that isn’t punctuated by a dumb joke.
Things to be careful about: Nothing.
Intensity Meter: 1
Carnival of Souls (1962)
This cult black and white low-budget classic is an atmospheric wonder, an old fashioned ghost and afterlife parable about a young woman who is the sole survivor of a car crash. Followed by a stranger to her new town, where she has taken a job as a church organist, she is continually wooed by her boarding house neighbor, a genuine creep, and slowly she becomes lost in her obsession with a remote, abandoned amusement park and the spirits who beckon her to follow.
Why it’s scary (but not too scary): No blood, no gore, no sex (except for some leering), with a female character of unique beauty and quality whose journey to understanding is simple enough for children, but complex enough for adults.
Things to be careful about: The kids may wonder why that horn-dog neighbor keeps trying to put the moves on the heroine. He’s not the most subtle guy. And the people from the beyond, though only in greasepaint, have really weird smiles on their faces and spring up in unexpected ways.
Intensity Meter: 1
Planet of the Vampires (1965)
Italian horror/sci-fi tale about is a great way to show your kids Alien without actually showing them Alien. Two spaceships answer a rescue call, but when entering the atmosphere, the crewmembers are gripped with the momentary urge to kill each other. The heroic Captain Markary is the only one to come to his senses and break the spell of his crew. But it’s too late for the sister ship. Dead, the crew members turn to bloodthirsty vampires who stalk the second ship in an attempt to flee the planet.
Why it’s scary (but not too scary): Boys raised on modern space adventures (or even “Star Wars”) will enjoy the limited special effects budget and the rousing laser-battle that ends the film. The vampires are all fairly tame. They move slowly and most of the death occurs off-screen. Girls will enjoy the strong female characters on equal footing with the men, a precursor to Ripley.
Things to be careful about: Buried crew members rise out of a grave in a way that Lucio Fulci would be proud of, but without the nastiness. The vampire leader is revealed to have his organs outside his skin in a split second shot.
Intensity Meter: 2
Horror Hotel (1960)
When a young female college student goes to do on-location research for a college paper on witchcraft, she finds herself in the middle of a Massachusetts town full of secrets (and witches!) Following her disappearance, her classmates attempt a rescue her from a haunted town with a past. Will they be in time to stop another sacrifice?
Why it’s scary (but not too scary): Fog, spooky dialog, and collapsing New England architecture abound.
Things to be careful about: The heroine is lured into the basement of the local hotel and suffers a quick, off camera fate that might be a shock for those used to Hollywood’s guarantee of a character’s survival, no matter how likeable. But all turns out well in the end.
Intensity Meter: 3
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
An underrated adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s admittedly superior novel remains a fantastic ride. Two young boys are drawn to the traveling carnival visiting their small town where prominent townspeople seem to disappear or change under the control of the mysterious Mr. Dark, the carnival’s owner.
Why it’s scary (but not too scary): Two young boys try to survive and outwit the man who is, obviously, The Devil Himself, keeping their wits, their town, and their families intact. Jason Robards turns in a wonderful performance as an aging father who is tempted by youth. The scene of his confrontation with Mr. Dark in the library is an intense reveal of his character’s strength and weakness.
Things to be careful about: The kids are also attacked by spiders. Really scary imaginary spiders.
Intensity Meter: 3
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
This black and white gem is the Alpha and Omega of the modern zombie movie.
Why it’s scary (but not too scary): No foul language and the only blood is chocolate syrup. A zombie gets its fingers chopped off in a door. A lot of yelling. You see a zombie’s naked butt. There’s a dead body in the attic with a scary face.
Things to be careful about: Actually, you may want to just stop it at the truck explosion and tell the kids it all turns out fine in the end. Yeah, that’s for the best. But the first hour and ten minutes is no problem. Unless you have something against a naked zombie butt.
Intensity Meter: 4
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
A rare PG horror film that’s creeee-py. Jessica’s recovering for a nervous breakdown in the city, so her boyfriend and third wheel decide to abandon urban life and squat on a family farm. The town’s full of weirdos and some hippy chick, who looks a lot like a girl who drowned in the local pond a hundred years back, wants to hang out and play folk music.
Why it’s scary (but not too scary): There is the implication of an attraction between Jessica’s boyfriend and the hippy girl, resulting in what may or may not be actual necking. The villages all have weird bloody scars on their necks, indicating… something bad, I’m sure. A young girl is seen popping up all over town, scaring the pants off anyone when she appears. There’s an intense ending where Jessica may or may not have escaped and may or may not have killed everyone she likes. Oh, and there’s a scene in the pond that’s freaky. And classic.
Things to be careful about: You may end up talking to your kids about the hippy movement, which could be awkward. Or insanity, which may be enlightening.
Intensity Meter: 5
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Have a kid who loves the first person shooter game? Then this is the ticket!
Why it’s scary (but not too scary): A little blood.
Things to be careful about: Nothing. Free and clear.
Intensity Meter: 1
(For the record, I’m totally kidding. DO NOT show anyone under 16 or so this movie. It’s fantastic. Amazing. Has a good message and a point and is well made. But, as star Ken Foree once told me, “Sometimes parents tell me their young kids have seen this movie and think, man, what is wrong with you? This movie was rated X when it came out!”)
Note – this list is just a start. I tried to avoid cartoons, but there’s Hotel Transylvania to ParaNorman, Coraline to Corpse Bride. Monster House. The Nightmare Before Christmas. There are other non-animated movies, such as Ghostbusters, or Gremlins, or The Hole, or The Gate that you may want to consider. Maybe even a film like The Innkeepers or Monsters (which is more Sci-Fi, so I kept it off the list.) Keep in mind with Gremlins that it spoils the story of Santa Claus! Feel free to post comments on this article with other recommendations. I’m sure there are many more out there worth exploring! Happy hunting!
Darren Callahan has written drama for the BBC, SyFy Channel, National Public Radio, and Radio Pacifica New York. As the author of several successful stage plays, including The White Airplane and Horror Academy, both published by Polarity Books, he is highly involved in theatre as a writer and a director. Novels include The Audrey Green Chronicles and City of Human Remains. Screenplays include Documentia, Nerves and Summer of Ghosts. He is writer, director, and composer of the films Under the Table and Children of the Invisible Man. He is also a musician and has released many records, including film soundtracks, on various labels. His website is darrencallahan.com
I’m going to tell you a story. It’s about a long winding staircase, a long winding staircase into darkness. Thick darkness. You will have to step carefully, feeling each step beneath you with your foot, with your toes, to make sure it’s there, to make sure you aren’t about to put your weight on empty space, having missed a turn in the dark. You might want to take your shoes off. Taking your shoes off might help, and you don’t want to fall. This is not a game. There is no net.
I’m going to tell you a story about why you took the first step. Why you entered the dark place that curves and crawls. In this story, no one put a sword at your back. You weren’t walking the plank. You lived in the shade of a great tree, and when the sun was hot in the sky you found shelter in its shadow, and when the clouds opened up you found safety beneath its leaves, and when you were hungry fruit fell from the sky. Fresh ripe peaches squirting juice. You had everything you needed. The story goes on for some length about this: you did not want. You were safe. You were secure. You were not alone: there was always someone to climb the branches with, or to kiss between the acorns. You did not need to go anywhere.
But you did. The day came when you walked over to the hole in the earth, the place that offers you nothing but mystery, and you took that first step. I’m telling you this story so that you don’t expect me to feel sorry for you. I’m telling you this story, which is true, because you decided to leave the tree and its leaves, the tree and its branches, the fruit of the tree, and the friends and lovers who circled it – and no one made you. You walked away, and you knew what you were doing. You were not the first to release their hands. You were not the first to cross the roots and walk over to the uneven ground. You stood at the top of the stairs and you could not stop yourself from putting your foot down on the first step. Or if you could stop, you didn’t.
The story I’m telling you is a common one. The story I’m telling you is ordinary, even if you do not meet anyone else in the darkness along the stairs, even if you are alone on the stairs, taking careful steps, for the rest of your life. You are not exceptional: you only made a choice.
Because, and this is the end of the story, in the end it was not the tree, or the leaves, or the fruit that mattered. In the end, it was not the branches, or your friends, or your lovers that mattered. In the end, the only thing that mattered to you was this stairway, and the steps you take as the wind blows in your face and you feel your way, barefoot, down another level.
That’s what matters. Don’t blame me. You came here by choice. You always do.
Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues.
If you haven't seen Omnibucket's first iPad book "The Ravens & the Rhyme," take a look in our store and download the free App. It's amazing.
Our next iPad book will be a very different story - but once again we're going all out. "Life of the Gallows," by Scott Lambridis, is the story of a court jester whose king decides to promote him to executioner.
He's so successful that the king begins importing prisoners to fill the popular demand for more executions. Naturally this is hard on a man who just wanted to make people laugh ...
Production's still a ways off, but the story is ready to go and artist Tyler Landry is finding the style that makes it come alive.
Take a look at some recent samples: you'll want to come back for more.