Saturday, September 29, 2018

Review of 'Doll House' by Ashley Lister

Here’s a fun, highly atmospheric horror/mystery thriller that will keep fans happily engaged, eagerly turning pages and jonesing to find out what happens next from beginning to end. In Doll House, UK author Ashley Lister sets up a dark, creepy tale with the macabrely-sophisticated psychology of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and the terror-tinged eroticism of François Ozon’s Swimming Pool, all with a decidedly British sensibility.

Lister’s less-than-perfect protagonist is Ben Haversham, a best-selling author of fictionalized memoir, though what little life or imagination he seems to have hardly suggest that the books were very thick. For a writer, Haversham seems chronically incurious, content to know what he knows, bugger-all the rest; getting by on fading charm and the cachet of his flagging literary reputation, his guttering creative spark now fueled mostly by drugs and alcohol. Desperate for a third best-seller, Haversham’s agent proposes something of a radical intervention, depositing his dissolute client in a small, isolated village somewhere in northern England, leaving him a virtual prisoner in a  cottage-retreat with no distractions and nothing other to do than “write the damn book!” (Don’t we all wish we had so thoughtful an agent!)

Of course, weird and uncanny things start happening right away. There is something deeply unsettling about the village and its inhabitants, especially the mysterious Marian Papusa, owner of the Doll House, a creepy “Addam’s Family” mansion-cum-museum/factory just across the street from Ben’s cottage. Weirder still is the little army of dolls that populate the cottage, giving anyone who stays there a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, not to mention the grotesque oil paintings of evil clowns almost everywhere one looks. Throughout the novel, Lister draws on the macabre ambivalence many people feel toward dolls and clowns; seemingly innocent figures of childhood fun and amusement, they can also appear as dark avatars of the subconscious’ most disturbing tendencies, the stuff of very grown-up nightmares. Enter a vindictive religious fanatic from Haversham’s past, household staff who are just a little bit too accomodating, and a grisly backstory that drives everything towards a horrifyingly inevitable denouement, and the stage is well set indeed.     

I do have a couple small complaints to register. First, whether because the book was written in a great hurry or indifferently edited afterwards, there are far too many instances of repetition, the same information—usually part of a character’s inner monologue—restated, sometimes two or three times, in almost precisely the same way within the space of a few lines. This occurs repeatedly throughout the text, lending the distinct sense of an early draft: one begins to feel as if some heavy from a Guy Ritchie gangster epic were standing alongside them, shouting at the top of their lungs, “if you didn’t get the obvious point I was trying to make in the previous sentence, I will now make the same point again, but this time I will hit you in the head with a lead pipe so the point will be even more obvious…”  Second: there are a few glaring continuity errors that ought to have been caught in the editing process: the names of the two local pubs are mixed up at a couple points later in the story, and the character of a helpful local barmaid is confused with a denizen of the Doll House towards the end.

Small complaints, and mostly irrelevant once one begins to go with the flow. It’s easy—almost inevitable—to find oneself invested in the engaging story Lister so skillfully unfolds here; a good, fast, entertaining read, definitely worth a look! Recommended.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

'Salix Sepulcralis'--third of three short stories by TAS

(III) Salix Sepulcralis

Sharon would have been appalled by the sheer ordinariness of her death. It was all so badly staged.
There was no poetry in it, no melodrama or mystery. The Grim Reaper had not waited for the shattering three-hanky climax of a La Traviata or a La Bohème to step onto the stage, making his vaunted cameo with a dark flourish. Sharon had not warbled away the first two acts like Violetta or Mimi, the tragic center of attention bravely denying her piteous fate, slowly fading, if barely consumed, by consumption. No family or friends had gathered about a deathbed strewn with roses—Sharon would have adored that particular detail. No penitent lover wept upon her bosom or took her dying breath into himself with one final passionate pledge.
She had simply ‘dropped dead’ one afternoon, the way just-plain folks so often do, without fuss or fanfare. One moment she was standing in front of her kitchen sink, drying dishes, talking and laughing with one of her chums on the phone. The next she was lying lifeless on the faux-marble tile, surrounded by broken shards of heirloom china. This supernaturally youthful, magically intriguing woman with three or perhaps even four dazzling decades ahead of her had become, virtually in the blink of an eye, an unextraordinary mass of diverse necrotic tissues turning to mush on the embalming table, this soul that had so longed to sing, reduced to a voiceless assortment of cells in random, untidy decay.
No explanation had been forthcoming beyond some nebulous pronouncement of ‘natural causes,’ a verdict that satisfied no one and only inspired the sort of cruel gossip Sharon herself had thrived on in life. ‘Still,’ people said, ‘such a tragedy! She was so young! How could God be so uncaring—so capricious? Why would He do this? Especially to someone so well-liked and popular—so righteous and upstanding? The heavens, as ever, were stolidly silent, and Sharon (née Chance) Kennedy-Sweet-Street-Withers-McDonald had been buried on what would have been her 55th birthday under the lowering slate-gray sky of a snowless Iowa February.
“You were at the committal service,” her daughter said. “I saw you—”
True. I’d paid my respects from a discreet distance, standing, hat over heart, in the naked willow grove that etched the borders of the Chance family burying ground, itself a flat, dreary acre, five miles beyond town, shadeless in summer, ever open to the wind—one might as easily have planted corn there as corpses. I watched the old rock-ribbed country preacher saying his semi-literate piece over the tasteless gunmetal casket—knowing her people, it had been open full-length during the service at the poky white-frame church back in town—watched and witnessed the assembled mourners bowing their heads in solemn unison to mumble the Lord’s Prayer—words that I had given up long ago.
“It’s like I told you, honey, Sharon and I were friends once upon a time.”
“But you were there?”
“I had my reasons.”
“Which were?”
My reasons.”
“Why didn’t you come over and say something? To Dad? To me and Ash?”
“I didn’t think it would be appropriate. I’d been out of your mom’s life for so long.”
“That sounds like an excuse—”
“As opposed to what? I don’t owe you an explanation.”
“I know. But I was hoping—”
What? To hear me confess that I absolutely hate funerals? All that unfocused emotion, and everybody’s suddenly manic depressive, laughing one minute, weeping uncontrollably the next. People are impossibly raw-nerved or cataleptically numb, both at once more often than not, and everybody’s miserable. Irrationality becomes contagious, and it’s far too easy to say things one shouldn’t.
“I didn’t want to make a scene, that’s all.”
“Fair enough,” she said. “We all deal in our own way.”
Yes, my sweet, nubile nymph, and we all want our death to mean something. We want it to be a kind of eloquent summation of our life no matter how badly we may have screwed it up, our passing from it deeply dignified, poignant and powerful, with the people we love most hovering around us, straining to catch our final words, something glorious, pithy, true, and wise, a perfect aphorism that will echo down the ages, as if, somehow, we could stage manage our own legacy for all time. We want death to make us famous, even if we never had a claim to it in life, our funeral an elaborate media event, televised live around the world for all our inconsolable fans to share in real time.
“When were you friends with her?” she asked.
“Your mom was 39 when we met—”
“I would have been 5.”
“That’s right. I was nine years older than Sharon. We were... close for about three years.”
“What attracted you to each other?”
“Shared interests—fine art, music, culture—”
And sex, of course—that most common of common interests—there was a lot of that, too.
“—you knew she was something of a frustrated artist?” And, for much of her life, a frustrated mother as well. She dreamed of buying some grand old Victorian mansion in the city, filling it up with fine antiques and perfect children—a Currier and Ives Christmas card come to life. She wanted to throw lavish parties with expensive champagne and caviar and string quartet music to accompany the kind of brilliant conversations you hear in old movies.
What she ‘got’ was Rory McDonald, a man so obviously beneath her that even his few friends scratched their heads in utter disbelief. I gleefully cuckolded that hapless hayseed without ever giving much thought to anything beyond my own enjoyment of his wife’s stupendously fuckable body. And Sharon had been right there with me every pelvic thrust and earth-shattering climax of the way, my concupiscent co-conspirator, unblushing, blithely brazen, seductively cold-blooded in her spider-like embrace of infidelity, though, in the end, she could never bring herself to leave the fool, whom, for all practical purposes, she’d married as a ‘legitimate’ sperm donor.
One weekend we managed to get away together to Chicago. I’d wrangled tickets to the Lyric Opera’s production of La Bohème and Sharon was over the moon. She’d never looked so heart-stoppingly stunning as she did that evening, stepping from the cab in a long, sequined evening gown with the sort of daring décolletage that would have inspired a month’s worth of disapproving sermons in church back at home. She swept into the Civic Opera House on my arm, a vision in midnight blue, and, for one shining moment, all eyes were upon her and her alone. She herself was far more impressed by the glitter of the audience than the rather sentimental tale of impoverished artists unfolding on the stage—until that moment in the final act when Rodolfo rushes to Mimi’s side only to discover that she is past all hope.
And suddenly Sharon was weeping because it was all so beautiful and there was nothing like that kind of beauty in her ‘real’ life. She was clinging to my arm, burying her head in my chest, trying to muffle her sobs, “Oh Jim! Let’s move to the city! Let’s buy that big house and have a couple more kids of our own! I want this! I want it so badly! I’ll leave him now for sure, I promise! I’ll divorce him and marry you, and we can live happily ever after...”
Back at the hotel that night, making love, she swore through her tears that I was her true soulmate, the only one she’d ever truly loved, the only one who could make her dreams come true...
Brave words, yet I knew she would never follow through. I’d heard the same promises a hundred times before—and what is it they say? You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl. For all she longed so fiercely to deny, a part of her was still that simple farmer’s daughter from Iowa, the good girl who never disappointed. And Sharon simply could not bear the disapprobation of her people, could not tear herself away from the world she knew, that place where existence is predictable and safe and certain, a million miles from where real life actually happens. For all her dreams, her gilded hopes and starry-eyed ambitions, Sharon (née Chance) Kennedy-Sweet-Street-Withers-McDonald had simply dropped dead one afternoon, having never truly lived at all.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

'Red Cedars'--second of three short stories by TAS

(II) Red Cedars

I follow the sound of water, the sluggish gurgle of the creek my only frame of reference in the dark, east, towards the spot where it empties into the ice-choked pond. East, where she is waiting, cursing me for my tardiness, wondering whether to circle back and give me a second chance, asking herself if it’s worth the risk.
I thought I could save time by cutting through the park this evening—thought it might be less conspicuous to double back along the tree-lined hiking trails. I had not counted on the snow. The landscape has been rearranged by the whistling December breeze. A white pall obscures the path, camouflaging the familiar terrain, turning it into an obstacle course. I’ve already lost my way once through careless haste, slipping down into a ditch and hurting my knee. I am limping frantically towards the gravel access road beyond the pond and the back entrance to the park just off the sleepy two-lane highway that connects her town with mine.
Please be there!
I stand stock still beside the road, staring fixedly into the empty west, watching for the halogen glimmer of her headlamps rising like a faint pair of stars above the distant horizon. Motionless, I root my feet to the earth, willing myself, chameleon-like, into the shadows, invisible to everyone but her. Has she given up on me? Been and gone, exasperated, damning me as she pounds the steering wheel, swearing above the radio’s static babel, the white noise of her discontent?
“Where were you?” she demands.
“Got lost—” in more ways than one.
We head east over the whining asphalt. The rear wheels make their irregular lub-dubbing noise as they pass over the old highway, beating out a rhythm like a heart in terror. I squeeze her thigh, gently conveying my impatience, pointedly reaching for the zippered fly of her soft denim jeans. She takes her right hand off the steering wheel to stop me. “Wait!”
“All we ever do is wait.”
“I know.”
“I’m tired of waiting.”
“You think it’s easy for me?” She turns left on to a narrow access road that leads to our destination. Beyond a low hill the landscape opens out into a lonely expanse of graveled flat surrounding a manmade lake. She parks near a stand of wind-gnarled cedars, the same ubiquitous red dwarves that cling to the hillsides or cower, wild and weed-like, along the ditches, their needles sharp and unforgiving.
“Missed you.” I kiss her slowly, tenderly, hoping to draw out the moment.
“Me too.”
It is too cold to undress. We slither into the back seat. She is already looking at her watch.
“You know this might be more fun if we tried taking it slow?”
“I have to get back.”
“Just sayin’—”
“You want to fight or fuck?”
“Sorry. You’re right.”
We writhe like untried adolescents on the impossibly narrow bench seat. I impale her shallowly, lacking leverage, flexing my thighs with awkward passion. I try not to read too much into her facial expressions, her pained looks of boredom and disgust. She grits her teeth, wanting it harder, berating me for my gentleness. I try to please her though it means I will climax too quickly, ejaculating with a groan of resignation, though I barely feel a thing.
Six weeks of anticipation and it has all come down to this, a frigid brush in the dark, a gray, motion-blurred memory made like a frenetic time-lapse photograph in a spoiled five-minute exposure. There is never time to do it more than once. Wham! Bam! Thanks for nothing! That is all.
I am weary of our routine. It has gotten to where all we ever seem to do when we are together is complain about not being together. Or worry. We worry more than we make love. Me about being found out. She about getting pregnant, or picking up a rash from the cat dander on my clothes—worse than being caught red-handed—or whether we might be leaving incriminating evidence in the back seat; condom wrappers, semen stains—anything ‘he’ might find to use against her.
We turn home, west towards the twinkling lights of the little farming village where everybody knows who I am and thinks that gives them the right to know my business. I have kept this secret from them for nearly two years now.
Another five minutes and she will be dropping me off at the back entrance to the park. I will watch her drive away, red taillamps a pair of beady eyes receding into the distance like a nightmare of a guilty conscience, a winter mirage hurtling inexorably towards the vanishing point. She will be gone and I will once again be aware of the cold, of the pain in my injured knee, of the hunger that anticipation cannot assuage, the yawning hollowness that all our lofty promises cannot fill.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

'Salix Babylonica'--first of three short stories by TAS

(I) Salix Babylonica

“So... were you and my mom ever, like, together?” The girl strokes my wrist, tracing an invisible bull’s eye around my pulse.
“Please don’t do that if you don’t mean it.” She thinks I don’t know what she’s up to, assumes I have not noticed the humid web of sex she’s been weaving around me now for the past five minutes. And it’s true, I am unaccustomed to such closeness. The intimate proximity of her young body is bliss and terror, lulling my spirit into languor even as it wakens something warm and hungry deep within my too-long slumbering loins. I know that I will be telling her the truth sooner rather than later.
“So?” she presses.
“You have to understand, Willow,” the words fall mechanically from my mouth, “your mother loved you very much—”
“I know—”
“You and your brother were her whole world. Everything else came second.”
“Do you think I haven’t heard that before, Mr. Laclos? Two hours standing in the receiving line at Mom’s visitation and I could probably count the number of people who didn’t say those exact same words on the fingers of one hand. Please, tell me something I don’t know.”
“Call me Jim. You used to call me Jim—”
“You were around almost all the time—”
“Your mother and I were friends.”
Only friends?”
“How old are you now, honey?”
“24 in October. Why?”
“It just doesn’t seem possible—that it could have been so long ago.”
“But you do remember?”
Of course I remember. I remember everything and forget nothing—it is my gift and my burden. I remember her as a bright-eyed 8-year-old, a gawky, towheaded Disney princess-in-waiting, tearing around with her little brother, all giggles and shrieks, blissfully oblivious to the turmoil in her parents’ marriage. A fairly unremarkable little girl, I’d thought, though children seldom hold much interest for me.
But Willow is no longer a child. A dozen years and she has blossomed into a striking young beauty, uncannily grown to resemble the supplely graceful tree for which she is named. Her hair has darkened somewhat, and she has begun to look more like her mom, or, at least, what I imagine Sharon would have looked like in her early twenties, long before we ever met. The young woman before me has that same sultry social-butterfly nonchalance, the same bright blue eyes and easy sunny smile I once found so utterly disarming in the mother.
How could she do this to me? Make a copy of herself only to torment me from beyond the grave.
“What is it you want from me, Willow?”
“I want to know who my mother was.”
“I’m hardly the person to ask—”
“Please, Jim.” She touches my arm.
“Don’t, honey—”
“There are things I want—no—things I need to know—”
“Such as?”
“All the stuff she was supposed to tell me when she was older. The stories and the secrets, the life lessons, the warnings.”
“Didn’t she ever warn you about me?”
“I’m serious, Jim—and I’m seriously confused. See, I always thought I knew exactly who she was, but lately I’ve discovered things, things that make me wonder if I ever really knew her at all. It’s as if I’d found two pictures of her that don’t look anything alike, and I can’t figure out how to reconcile them. I need to know the whole truth, the good and the bad. I need to understand this weird jigsaw puzzle that was her life—”
“And you think I’m a piece of that puzzle?”
“I know you are, Jim.” She looks me in the eye for the first time. “I found some of the e-mails the two of you sent each other all those years ago—”
“She kept them?”
“She kept everything.”
“I don’t know what to say, honey. I...”
I promised never to tell and I never have. I was always true to her, at least as regards that small final request she made of me. But does this mean I’m free at last? Can I tell the daughter the truth now that she’s found out on her own? Now that she’s—
“I’m not trying to blackmail you if that’s what you’re thinking,” Willow says. “I only want to understand—”
“There was something about the passion in those e-mails, something about the way you got into her head and under her skin. She showed you a side of herself that nobody else ever got to see, and, to tell you the truth, I’m kind of jealous.”
“She had lots of friends—”
“Oh, my mom knew lots of people, but I can’t find anybody who really knew her. She was married five times, but none of those guys—not even my dad—seemed to have a clue about what was deep down inside her soul. None of them ever really owned her heart. And all those strangers at the visitation telling me what a great friend of theirs she’d always been, and how much fun she was to be around? Well, it’s true, she was friendly with hundreds and hundreds of people, but I don’t know a single person who was really and truly her friend—except maybe you, Jim.”
“We were close for a little while, I suppose.”
“Close. That’s one way of putting it.”
“Yes, for a year or so, until we weren’t.”
What is the opposite of close where the heart is concerned? Not far away. No: Forgotten, perpetually unremembered, ever out of mind—
“She always seemed happy when you were around. I remember one time when Ash was about 6, he said ‘Mommy! You should marry Jim!’ and when she asked him why he said ‘because Jim makes you sing!’”
“The darndest things from the mouths of babes.”
“You were together, weren’t you?”
“If I say that your mother and I were lovers, what difference can it possibly make now?”
“It makes a difference to me if I can begin to understand her.”
“And you think that flirting with me will help you gain insight?”
“If I can see the same things she saw in you—”
“She saw a much younger man back then.”
“—and what you saw in her.”
“Tell me, Jim, am I anything like her?”
“You’re beautiful like her, honey—”
“And you’re a good little actress—”
“Is that what you think?”
“Just like her, yes. She was extremely good at using people to get what she wanted.”
“The way I’ve been using you this afternoon?”
“Are you denying it?”
“No. But let me ask you this, Jim. Can you make me sing? Can you...” she whispers the rest in my ear.
“Willow.” I reach out to frame her lovely face in a garland of trembling fingers, staring into the infinite blue of her eyes, the calm surface sparkling now with a promise of salacious anarchy. But will I also find her mother’s madness there?
The moment unfolds slowly, though I will probably remember it only as a fevered blur, an aging agnostic’s fleeting glimpse of heaven. We undress each other, uncertainly at first, with a kind of awkward reverence, paying our final red-faced respects to the past. The details themselves are unimportant. All that matters now is that she is perfect, young, and beautiful, and willing, freely giving herself over to the tender mercies of my lust.
My mouth waters at the sight of her body—so wondrously, aptly willowy—her long lissome limbs, and the sweeping, luxurious arc of her torso. She is naked now except for the silver crucifix around her neck, like the one her mother always used to wear—or perhaps it is the same one—Jesus resting in the blooming bosom of eternal youth. We lie on the couch together. I use my tongue and fingers, drawing her into a state of moist wakefulness, though she has been ready from the beginning.
She shudders as I come into her. Wanton, she arches her platinum cunt to meet my dusky animal thrusts, over-excitedly at first, unable to control her breathing. I slow the pace long enough to reassure her, giving her the time to relax. We kiss, open-mouthed, as beneath me, she eases gradually into the rhythm I set, the intricately metered cadences of grownup lovemaking. She whimpers softly as I fill her, each forward surge eliciting a giggle of joyful surprise, each lugubrious withdrawal, a questioning sigh of forlorn despair, until, at last, the daughter comes the way the mother never dared, with a full-throated wail of primal ascent, her body tremoring in hysterical ecstasy from the blazing epicenter of its core, as she begs to be taken again—as somewhere, far away, the ghost of her mother begins to weep.