Thursday, August 16, 2012


Seeing Peter Straub speak at Readercon this summer forced a revision of my reading list. Bump R. Scott Bakker down a few notches, bring Koko from the bottom of the queue.

Koko reminds me a lot of Thomas Harris' "Silence of the Lambs." Both slunk out of the same dank cave in 1988. Both stalk the same haunted, decrepit rustbelt scenery, and both track serial killers with an uneasy mix of sensationalism and clinical detachment.

Meeting for the purpose of visiting the Vietnam Mermorial in Washington DC, four veterans take time to consider the deaths of journalists in the far east. Each of the victims has been mutilated in the same fashion, each tagged with the killer's name: Koko. The four veterans, believing this killer a member of their unit, travel to Singapore, Bangkok and then back to the jungle of New York to track down the killer. Not to stop him, but to save him.

This synopsis leaves out the best parts of the book which are the slippery suggestions that Koko is not truly a person at all. Much like the haunting in Toni Morrison's Beloved, Koko exists in a twilight realm as a living ghost. A lethal killer, but also a symbol of the mutilations of war.

Where Silence of the Lambs became, well, Silence of the Lambs, a book and then movie with significant pop cultural impact - Koko has largely subsided into the horror market. Why? Harris' book is good, but Straub has a real gift for language, able to paint complex and fully rounded characters, and sketch with a very light brush strokes fine gradients of suggestion and dread.

Which is probably why Anthony Hopkins became Hannibal Lector and not Koko. Koko is not so much a mystery as it is a ghost story. Silence of the Lambs works because Clarice Starling catches Buffalo Bill. Order is returned to the world (OK, Hannibal Lector gets out but he likes Starling so she's probably fine.) Koko ends in disorder, like the dust settling down after a shell detonates.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Pottery Barn

I was all set to write this post about finishing Peter Straub's Koko (which is an amazing book, by the way) when I turned my head and saw my apothecary table on the set of "Friends." Then Rachel and Phoebe started talking about my table and how it's so unique. Then Ross buys the same table and has to cover up the fact that he bought it at Pottery Barn. I bought my table used, I didn't even know it came from Pottery Barn. I'm not upset by that, I'm just surprised.

I guess what I'm trying to say is it feels weird to have a celebrity sitting in front of my couch.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Flash Fiction: Faces in the Woods

This is adapted from the first chapter of a novel I wrote called "Dreams and Monsters," the original works was nearly 5,000 words, this gets pretty much the same point at 600.

The barn was in the same state of decay as the house. Trees had burst through its windows and roof, straining against the confines of the structure to capture their share of the sunlight. A rich, sour odor filled the air and that more than anything made me call out for my brother. 
He had his back to me and he didn’t even turn around as I sloshed through dry leaves towards him. He was staring into a copse beyond the barn, not moving. I almost followed his gaze, I swear I almost did. Even after everything Mom and Dad told me, I almost looked at it too.
"Don't you take him!" I screamed. My feet kicked up leaves behind me. The leaves were everywhere, falling, tumbling in the dappled sunlight. Spinning around my brother where he stood frozen. His mouth was open, and drool ran from the corner of his lips.
I pushed him, hard, and he fell like an old dead tree. Through the swirling leaves I caught sight of it in the grove, a trick of branches and shadows that wanted to be a face. I squeezed my eyes shut until the dark flashed red. When you saw faces in the woods you didn’t stop seeing them.
  "You get out of here." A wind buffeted me with leaves. "You aren't supposed to be around here."
  I grabbed Jessie’s ankle and dug in. Every tendon in my brother's body stuck out as he strained against my grip. The leaves switched direction and now they were all rushing in towards the grove. A moan came through the woods. The winds had shifted, so strong now they were bending the trees in the clearing. Everything was bowing towards the thing in the grove. My grip was slipping and I knew that I was going to lose Jessie. I knew it to the center of my being, that the pull was too strong and that he was going to go to the thing and that I would never see him again. My brother was mine; he didn’t belong to something in the woods. He belonged to me. 
Throwing myself backwards I got him loose of the rock he was clinging to. We both rolled on the ground but I got up on top. There was no help for it. I pressed down on his face with my left hand and struck him half way up the thigh with my right. I made sure I got my knuckles in it to really raise a welt. Jessie yelled and clutched his leg. I sprang back, slipped on some leaves, fell on my butt. My brother was up, but the charlie horse I gave him put him right back down. There was a final gust of leaves and I made ready to spring for him but the crazy dead look had left his eyes. He was just Jessie again.
                 "Did you see it?" he asked. Neither of us could look at the grove. It was around, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standing up so I knew it was still there but I also knew it was safe to look around.
   The clearing was empty. The trees were swaying and creaking and the last of the leaves settled to the ground.
“No,” I said, breathing hard. “I didn’t see it and neither did you.”

Flash Fiction: Two men and a Slot Machine

This is a snippet of a work I'm still idea mining for called "Surveillance." I liked the idea of two professionals engrossed in the physical processes of a machine. Sort of a computer but a computer as I remember them (badly) from the 80's.

He went into Boreman's office after lunch. Boreman was busying typing at his terminal, occasionally switching the feeds displayed on the screens along one wall of his office. One hazard of the job was that even a vice-director like Boreman couldn't ever get away from the most basic function of the agency: watching. The screens were always on, always tugging at his attention. The task distorted the office. Boreman seemed to recognize this, bringing in paintings of landscapes and potted plants and slapping a big green pad for his desk. He had an approved landscape painting mounted behind his desk. Although he didn't rate a window, he had installed blinds to cover where one might be. Boreman wanted visitors to see a space devoted to more than simple observation. He was a decision-maker, the bold manager. 

"Hello, Jules!" Boreman smiled, waving him in. He was tall with curly blonde hair and an easy smile. "How goes it?"

"It's Wiklund, Vince, I think he's been exposed."

"Okay," Boreman waited, expecting the punchline. When there wasn't one he leaned back and tented his fingers in front of his chest. "I'm not seeing this on the news. No alarms are going off. I'm guessing only one person has figured it out."

"Gus Harron, he's one of--"

"Oh come on, Jules, what are you doing?"

Jules gritted his teeth, so much for the easy way out. If he had given Boreman enough detail he might have been able to recuse the entire department from the case. But Boreman was nothing if not quick when it came to self-preservation. And now he was annoyed. "Sorry, I slipped."

"Not like you. Not like you at all," Boreman studied him, and for a second Jules thought he had figured him out but it was only impatience. So many messages to send, so much back-stabbing to do. "What's got you troubled?"

"This is a random exposure," he began but Boreman wouldn't like that. Surveillance didn’t believe in random events, the whole point of surveillance being the removal of surprise. "The person involved, they didn't know what they were doing."

"Are you sure?"

"They don't have a jacket. I checked every directory and the metadex. He isn't in it."

"Which means your very next thought was to see me, and figure out if he had some super secret jacket that they don't let the average analyst access."

Something like that, Jules thought.

Boreman swiveled in his chair and cleared his screen of the letter he was writing. Turning the dial on the side of the terminal, the screen shifting through various modes until it settled on the catalogue search function. Boreman smoothly typed in his password and then stood up while Jules typed in the relevant information. A camera perched high up on the wall above the blinders watched them both. Even if Boreman knew the name, appearances had to be kept.

When Jules pressed submit, the terminal vibrated suddenly as two long columns of search topics scrolled upwards. The big wire drive in the back of the machine sounded like a pair of sanding blocks rubbing together. Finally the columns slowed, items began to collect at the top of the screen, reference numbers and image keys. All of it was very conventional, social security number, birth certificate, nothing that would interest the agency at all. Except for…

"Well, there you go, that's his jacket right there," Boreman was leaning over Jules' shoulder. Jules' heart sank. He hadn't expected there to be anything. Somehow someone had thought it a good idea to enter the name Augustus Harron in the system. It was probably a fluke or the artifact of a ghosting but those were the kinds of things you caught on a higher access terminal. Ironically, if he had kept the search to his desktop, he'd have an easier time passing Gus off as a civilian. The higher levels of the Metadex tended to collect the most debris. 

Dreading what he would see, Jules moved the highlighter toggle until the jacket was selected. A stack of catch cards sat next to the terminal, Jules found a blank one, slotted it into the temporary jack and let the card's wire spool up to speed. When the amber light went green, he pressed 'retrieve,' and watched as the screen automatically left the search function, the dial on the side of the terminal clicking ahead until it got to ‘display.’ Then the screen wavered in rubbery cathode lines as the contents of Gus' file rendered.

There wasn't much to look at. "That's it?" Jules said.

"Seems a bit thin,” Boreman agreed. “What does CF referent doc.251 mean do you suppose?"

Jules didn't have to suppose, he knew. He had memorized the anomaly codes for the still impending badge exams. Hope was a thin trickle now coming from a frozen faucet. "It's a referral to another case number."

"Another case? Which one?"

"A closed one. Probably a ghosted relative."

"Very impressive,"  Boreman smiled. "Still, it's pretty clear. The kid has a file."

"This isn't a file, it's a footnote, Vincent. This referent should have been deleted with the actual file. It happens, it's an honest mistake."

Boreman didn't like that. He pushed his eyebrows up and wiped vigorously at the underside of his nose. "An honest mistake? Would that be the same kind of mistake that leads a kid to get into a confrontation with an identity anomaly? Innocent mistakes are most of what we handle, Jules. You know that. When you have a name in the Index, that means they have a jacket. He's in the game. I'm sorry."

"He doesn't belong. Once you're in the game people start thinking you want to play ball. A jacket never goes away."

"I think you just pointed out that they do."

"Yeah, when a file finally gets handed over to the Ghost desk."

Boreman raised a finger at him and then paused. Smiling he rapped the top of his desk with his knuckles. "That's not going to happen. You've got to have a little more faith in the system, Jules. Plenty of ordinary, decent people have jackets on them. They live normal, productive lives and never know any different."

Yeah, except they've got a guy like Diamond watching them everyday of their life, just praying that they slip up so he can write an actual report. Diamond wasn’t looking for advancement anymore, that wasn’t true of his co-workers. Sooner or later that steady upward pressure brought everyone in the system to an active status. This was a well-known and much lamented fact. 

Everybody slipped up once in a while. No one liked to admit it but everyone woke up confused and got on the wrong train or took a turn meant for someone else. Civilians slipped up and then they went back to their lives. A person with a jacket could end up ghosted. Jules wanted to believe Boreman. He wanted to embrace the system but he couldn't believe Gus was safe.

"Let's call this a favor, Vincent. Let's call it an unlimited favor with no expiration date. Wipe this jacket, correct the mistake, let this kid out of the game."

Boreman thought it over for a moment. Jules knew what he was offering. As Diamond had pointed out, Jules was going places. He wasn't going to be at Surveillance forever. Maybe someday Boreman would be answering to Jules. Stranger things happened in the agency.

The vice-director tapped the side of his nose and winked at Jules. "Consider the kid benched. Don't lose a moment's sleep over it."

Jules went home and tried to follow the advice. But in the morning he found himself turning left out of the elevator, taking the long way around the building, deliberately slowing down in front of Processing so he could sneak a glance inside. Diamond wasn't at his desk -- hardly unusual. So it was the easiest thing in the world to saunter over and flip through some of the files lying in his inbox. He found Harron's file three down from the top. Sweat started to bead at his forehead and his neck and he heard voices approach from a nearby cubicle. Without thinking, Jules pulled the file, slipped it into his briefcase and continued on his way to his desk. Tucked behind the HVAC tubes on the ceiling was a fist-sized TC-140 camera, recording his theft and get-away. 

     He sat for a long time facing his terminal, the black face capturing a man who looked utterly lost. Why had he done it? He hadn't bought the kid much time. Maybe a week before Acquisitions started breathing down Diamond's neck about Harron still unprocessed file. Then they'd print off another jacket and Diamond read it, certify it, and pass it to Surveillance. If he was really unlucky someone would look at the reels from the TC-140. Then they'd have some interesting questions for Jules. Strange though, ever since he had pulled Harron's file, he had stopped sweating, his heart was steady. He picked up his hands and looked at them. He had done the right thing, even a little time could turn this situation around.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reading Response to “The Colonel”

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not Hannah Arendt was correct when she described the “banality of evil,” let’s use the phrase while meditating upon Carolyn Forché’s excellent prose poem, “The Colonel.” That, essentially, is what Forché is attempting to describe in her visit to an unnamed leader of a country presumably in Latin America. The Colonel is not a fanged monster dwelling in a dank cave. The Colonel lives with his family in a comfortable estate, capable of enjoying the finer things in life, good wine, conversation, and even poetry. His family behaves as families do, the son going out for the night, the daughter casually listening in.

When The Colonel finally reveals his methods for ruling a country difficult govern, we are shocked by the ordinary, dismayed by the normality of what is going on. What spills from a “sack used to bring groceries home,” is described as being dried apricot halves. Lured in by the ordinary, we the readers read the rest very closely, conscious that we are in a suddenly perilous space. The Colonel shakes an ear in their faces. Some of the ears are still catching The Colonel’s words, others have flipped to listening to what’s beneath the surface. An incredible image left in pristine ambiguity. Despite the mutilations, the Colonel still commands an audience. The poet is in this audience, so are the ears, and so are we, the readers. We are all right there in a perfectly normal dining room surrounded by an atrocity. But are some of the ears listening for the approach of something else?

I chose this story to respond to because I love its use of language. An entire world exists within its narrow bounds. The words are common place, soothing. “There is no other way to say this…” Well, with all apologies to Forché, of course there are. There are always others ways to describe the incomprehensible -- Forché chose her language very carefully to paint a brutal series of images. While the events at dinner are appalling they kept at a conversational tone. Her casual approach is not just meant to surprise. It is meant to suggest, as Arendt did, that evil is not extraordinary. It is not something exotic and distant but as close as the dinner table.