Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Son of the Attack of the Halloween Grinch

 [New to some of you, but not to others, a fulmination against a holiday that, I’m told, has surpassed Christmas--yes, Christmas--in popularity.]

As a few of you know, I love the horror genre. My bookcase is haunted by several illustrated editions of Dracula and collections of such admired authors as Peter Straub and Ramsey Campbell, most of them first editions, many signed. My shelves of horror story anthologies, mostly in paperback, have impressed more than a few visitors.

Catch me at the right moment and I'll crack open your ear about the aesthetics and subtext of classic horror films from Murnau's Nosferatu and the early Universal horror films, through Val Lewton, onto modern classics such as The Innocents, Robert Wise's 1963 The Haunting, Session 9, The Ring (U.S. version), The Others, and Shutter (Thai version) while expressing reserved admiration for parts of Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street series and even kind words for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
But, I have to add, I hate Halloween.

Halloween at my house means porch lights out and not even sugar dust by the door. We wear no costumes, attend no parties (though Elizabeth likes to enter pumpkin carving contests, which she almost always wins).
A few years ago, she and I sort of "did" Halloween: I cooked a chicken paprikash, the dish that Jonathan Harker orders in the town of Klausenburgh on the road to Castle Dracula. It turned out to be quite good. (The recipe comes from Craig Claiborne's original The New York Times Cookbook.)

As we dined, we enjoyed two fine movies, courtesy of the Greatest TV Channel in the World: The Body Snatchers, one of Val Lewton's great string of horror films from the 1940s, starring Boris Karloff (one of his best performances) and Bela Lugosi (who, sadly, hasn't enough to do); the next was James Whale's droll, atmospheric, and little-seen The Old Dark House, from 1932, with Karloff, plus Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, and Gloria Stuart (who, some sixty years later, made a splash in a little B-picture I missed a few years back, name of Titanic.)

I hate Halloween. With vicious snarl, with sharpened teeth, I hate Halloween.

For years, for me, Halloween has been like St. Patrick's Day: an occasion for hiding under the bed, out of the way of the deadly flood of maniacs, amateurs, and amateur maniacs.
Am I getting conservative, in the former, Burkean non-debased sense? Probably. The last Halloween I spent out in public was in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood, sometime in the mid-1980s, as an assistant on a low-budget mockumentary. My most vivid memory of that occasion was of chasing a baby-skinned, bashful blond boy, clad only in a silver strip of body floss, down the street through the roistering crowd. As I tried to persuade him to appear before our cameras, the look in his eye bespoke naked terror (though I was fully, sensibly clothed).

What the hell is he doing here in the first place, but to make a spectacle of himself? I wondered. Good luck with keeping your secret, pal! It made the 11 O'clock News!

My only Bradburyian Halloween memory comes from when I was a boy in Mohegan Lake, New York: walking a dark country road on the hill above the house on Red Mill Road, in my blue nylon-polyester eagle costume. Fall leaves skittered crisply over the black road, driven by a wicked wind while, to the east, dark hills slumbered under a blood-orange moon glowing through the bare branches of elms and maples, a demon's eye, fat and full. The world seemed huge and mysterious, death awesome and close.

Maybe I "grew up" into a self-serious, sensible, and rational man; or became too self-conscious, inhibited and easily mortified. As a young man, I took feeble stabs at dressing like a deliciously sinister Gunfighting Movie Star, but who trembled before my gun-sight eyes, or my black-dyed mustache? No one and, really, I only dropped by for the booze, the buzz, and the girls.
Ask me to throw on some costume, I don't care how cheap or expensive, I don't care how much it makes me look like Christopher Lee or Lee Van Cleef: I. Will. Not. Care.

Tonight, Wednesday, the Greatest TV Channel in the World is showing more horror movies. That's enough Halloween for me (and probably enough for you Easterners rising up from under the muck of Sandy). We also have Carl Dreyer’s Vampyre, on the DVR.

No! Don't mind me! Go! Knock yourself into next week! See you when you stagger home tomorrow morning, Mr. Potato Head!

I hate Halloween. With curses and floggings, I hate Halloween!

No, I've not gone all literal-minded. Still, my attitude mystifies me too, as much as why Dracula should fly so powerfully in the imaginations of millions in a world stripped of its ancient mysteries.

I'm no fan of camp. It'll be a hard frost in Hell before I even consider casting my cold eye on The Rocky Horror Picture Show My wild-ranging imagination turns into David Brooks' brain whenever I envision myself in leotards.

Author David Skal, in his 2002 cultural history of Halloween, Death Makes a Holiday, posits that this unruly, extra-legal holiday, from its origins as pagan festival, through its awkward absorption by Christianity, has entirely floated away from its spiritual, mystical, and agricultural roots morphing into an purely secular, capitalistic bacchanalia of dis-inhibition, forever tinselly, forever tawdry.

Halloween may share Christmas's tragic fate to be kept true to its roots only by a comparatively small group of believers. It's no longer about our relationship with the harvest rhythms of Life and Death, and the possibilities of an Afterlife, even for those who dress up as zombies. Except for the notable—and alarming--exception of Barney the Dinosaur, none of this could be considered scary.

Like all our traditional holidays (and our religions, too), Halloween's origins were rural and now that most of us are uprooted from the soil of Creation, it's been urbanized, denuded and has dissolved--I hate to say this--into money-making, self-referential, bored and joyless post-modernism.

Just a joke, folks. Ha. Ha. Ho. Ho. Wink. Wink. Boo.

Halloween seems to provoke waves of paranoia and schoolmarm moralism, but for the huge majority, at least in this country, it's about Switching the Self, crossing the boundaries of identity, or at least blurring them: Geek-boy becomes Spiderman; the Bookworm turns Elvira, though s/he may need a pair of Super Falsies, while Spiderman needs a high-priced girdle under those tights and some way to hide the panty line.

I take the supernatural, in the artistic sense, seriously. I want it served that way. Remember the UFO poster that hung in Fox Mulder's office in The X-Files: "I Want to Believe!"?

In some sense, I do. I want the Death and the Awe.

Now for a word from our rational sponsor: I must emphasize I don't literally believe in the supernatural, UFOs or that Barack Obama is both Christ and Satan, returned from Kenya.

Even so, I get irritated at another Halloween ritual: the lemon-faced scientist staggering from his lab into the offices of the Associated Press to remind everyone that vampires, ghosts, werewolves et al don't exist.

As if that were the point.

In fact, very few of the best horror artists and writers possess any standard transcendent faith at all; many seem to be agnostics or atheists, H.P. Lovecraft being the most famous example, Russell Kirk, a famous rare exception.

When I say I take horror seriously, I mean I wish in my soul to be hypnotized and seduced into believing, for a time, that such things can be. I want to be drawn into that unique weird state of dream-life, of anticipation, dread, death, and awe.

I crave that sense of standing before a darkened door, and the beckoning chasm beyond; of the thin ice of everyday reality cracking under my feet, plunging me into murky depths; of being enwrapped in a fatal mystique of something unfathomable, perversely sweet, dangerous to both body and sanity, heart and soul. Something eternally mysterious, like life and death themselves.

Except for comedy, no genre is easier to bungle in execution or more vulnerable to cynical, indifferent commercialism. But I believe that horror, in the hands of poets and artists, can, in its twisted glass, also mirror the human condition. We’re all going to die. The ground always shifts under our feet. We’re strangers to ourselves, each other.

And all of us are afraid of the dark.

A real frightening experience, like a physical assault (of which I've had my share) or an accident, has never permitted me perspective. In my own moments of real-life terror, I was all lizard brain. I was not wondering or mystified about anything. When I escaped, I was grateful to be alive. Most of my thoughts were murderous Dirty Harry fantasies. I might angrily ask why--or maybe why not--me? When will it happen again?

It's only in the best horror fiction and film that the original meaning of Halloween can be sensed nowadays and that's because the truth underneath--or behind--our fears lies: that we are alone, that we are vulnerable, that we are strangers to each other and to ourselves.
Great Art always strives to heighten reality; to take unreality and make it real. The horror genre fails at this most of the time, but when it does succeed, the results are as moving and artful as any work of realism.

Some examples of what I mean by Horror as Art: Eleanor Lance's lonely anguish as she succumbs to the perverse architecture of Hill House in both the book and the 1963 film version of The Haunting; the crumbling of Miss Giddins' spinster's psyche as she finds her own dark desires beckoning to her and the children in her charge from the fog-shadowed world of The Innocents (co-adapted by Truman Capote from The Turn of the Screw by Henry James); the four old men of Peter Straub's Ghost Story who tremble as their privileged white male ground is blizzarded by demons they themselves have called from the corners of their lonely souls. ("I am you," the Demon tells them. Truer words . . . truer words . . . . )

And there are those extravagant, wonderful archetypes from film: Boris Karloff's childlike, savage alienation as the Frankenstein Monster is as great a piece of acting as any in film history and survives, like the monster itself, all the parodies lumbering in its wake. Lon Chaney Jr. may not have been a great actor, but in addition to its atmosphere, what still lives in 1941's The Wolf Man is the anguish in Larry Talbot's dog-like eyes as he realizes his safe, proper upbringing has done little to save him, or those he loves, from the transforming violence within him. And Bela Lugosi as Dracula brings perfect grace and mystique to the deadly glamor and amoral, capering freedom lived by sociopaths.

It’s to them that I open my door on Halloween, in my own grouchy stubborn way. I might even invite some of you into my haunted house sometime, you dear and patient readers, for a good story, for a good film.

I only make one request: save your money, keep your dignity, and leave that fucking Scooby-Doo costume at home.

Photo by author; taken at Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Butchertown Chronicles: First Draft


Around the first of September, my health shaky, my mind fluttering and befogged, I shuffled to the end of the first draft of my next novel Butchertown. I finished later than expected, figuring June or July. Didn’t happen.

Butchertown is a gangster thriller set in 1922 in a fictionalized West Coast city. First among its antecedents is Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. Some may hear an echo of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire while others will sense the ominous thunder of the original The Untouchables TV series and the original Scarface. But whatever the echoes, I hope readers will forget them, as they’re pulled into its bloody torrent.

One quality of a great genre novel is that it gives the reader the illusory feeling that they’ve never read anything like it before, though they have many times. From my own experience, I think of Red Harvest, Ghost Story, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Among more recent books, The Sisters Brothers gave me that vibe. I hope readers will have the same experience with Butchertown.

The first draft of Butchertown runs a total of 231 pages and over 67,000 words. Those of you who were around during early Dragon’s Ark days will recall the first draft of that book topped 600 pages, around 170,000 words.

Butchertown’s page/word count represents quite a drop, but is easily explained. Dragon’s Ark was told from multiple viewpoints. The events stretched over a period of months. Butchertown, like many—maybe most—noir novels, is told in first person singular; further, its querulous events tumble across a compressed period of time, namely one really horribly long weekend and a day.

No worries about over length here. However, I do feel a little concerned with under length; with a writing a tale that comes off as an undernourished herky-jerky, Post-modern mashup of older, better books, rather like Tarantino movies at their most annoying.

Writing the draft went smoothly. (Then again, I wonder if that isn’t always the case. The words bubble and sizzle quickly up on the screen as I jam along, their true worth unnoticed until much later, when I see them, thin and lonely, stranded across bleak snowfields of paper.)

As I finished each chapter, I would read it aloud to my wife, Elizabeth, who, whatever her natural and correct biases, found the story to be a ripping, gripping page turner. That was the first thing I needed to know.

My pace slowed along with me when I fell ill in early July. I lived in gaps of thoughtless time, wobbling at the office door before retreating back to bed to the warm bliss of sleep and the sleek rectangle of my i-Pad. I even took to handicapping horse races just to keep the brain cells mindlessly churning. I hated the news and rejected all attempts at profundity.

Finally, as recovery slowly began and a wedding anniversary/recuperative vacation approached, some kind of closing appeared called for. The last two chapters floated up in the anemic pond of my miasma. I scooped them off the surface and poured them out.

When I returned home, I let the draft stew and simmer out of sight a couple of weeks more, as my body continued to heal. At the end of September, I printed it out in double-space, 12-point Roman and sat down at the dining nook table to read it over line by line, paragraph by paragraph.


As I predicted, writing the first draft was a lot more fun than reading it. I promised myself that I wouldn’t stop to wrestle and fuss over every tree, but instead read it for the forest; meaning for its general attributes such as flow, story, and the general cloth of its characters. I found, after a while though, that I couldn’t really keep that promise.

For one, those weedy details count for a lot: do I need that strand? Do I not? Do I need it here or elsewhere—this is especially a problem with crime clues. A mystery writer is always caught in the dilemma between giving away the game too soon or waiting too long so it looks he’s dumping a thousand rabbits out of his hat.

Further, filigree is not always merely filigree. A choice of neck scarf, an allergy to certain materials matter; even one’s choice of drink might be a life and death trigger. The stray detail, spit out, slapped down, considered useless suddenly becomes a thin but strong stand in the larger web, while another lovingly detailed and admired moment means nothing after all and is discarded with only a pang.

So, I slowed down, but not too much, dodging entanglements with the always absorbing details of adjectives, adverbs, and sentence structure. I swore a lot, left red slashes like Freddy Krueger, circled with question marks, and jotted down actual questions.

Sometimes all I could do was emit a self-forgiving sigh, mumble something about Shakespeare et al writing pages of absolute shit before getting it right. (I’m the only one who really has to smell it.) Then I moved on.

On many days, rereading and rewriting Butchertown is only a job like any other. Let no one call this romance. Ecstasy is brief and fleeting. Like the English say so aptly, “Well, get on with it then!”


No, not an entirely pleasant experience. Though I think my story an excellent one, its tissue remains distressingly patchy in many places, especially toward the end, the Sick Section, as you might call it.

One thing I like very much is my protagonist, a fellow seldom seen in the back alleys of crime and thriller fiction nowadays. (Those who’ve read my criticism likely know my attitude toward contemporary genre heroes.) I’m already outlining a new adventure to maneuver him in to. By force, if necessary. “My characters,” a favorite writer of mine was known to say, “are slaves.”

My antagonists so far, are a colorful, meaty stew of femme fatales, trigger-happy lowlifes, thugs, and self-styled schemers, grimy and unwashed with one or two exceptions. There are two others characters whose appearances I hope surprise, as people like these don’t often appear in this genre (or are treated with any understanding.) Some characters are still much too scrawny, too much in the wallpaper and need to be brightened and beefed up, pushed into this small arena, into the bloody swirling chaos of Butchertown.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Dreams and Days at the Races

"The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's how the smart money bets."—Damon Runyon


This week, I’ll let you in a secret, one I’ve been keeping from you for the last couple of months: nothing soul-shattering, just another curious turn in my curious life.

I’ll start with a dream.

A couple of nights ago, I dreamt I was handicapping an afternoon of thoroughbred horse racing at Golden Gate Fields, the last equine racing facility still operating in the San Francisco Bay Area.

That’s all I did for almost the entire dream—handicap an upcoming race card, meaning I analyzed each horse and jockey and picked which might win, place, or show for each of the nine or so races on the card. I don’t recall any of the entries, but it was intellectually strenuous work. It was a long, singularly focused dream. I’m sure you’re dozy just reading about it, but I was fascinated.

I finally flipped to a new scene, this one co-starring Tim, a San Francisco buddy I’ve not seen for way too long a time. He and I were arriving at Golden Gate Fields. Tim went through the gate ahead while I hung back. It was my birthday and, I recall, I started haggling with the ticket taker about whether I would get an admission discount for this special occasion.

Then, damn it, I woke up. I always wake up. Just when I’m about to pick the money off the floor, pluck the fruit off the tree, collect my Pulitzer Prize.

The meaning behind this dream is simple, transparent--remember to ask about discounts and specials when I celebrate my birthday at Golden Gate Fields in a few weeks (probably the first weekend in November.)

(Yup, I just keep popping with the surprises, don’t I? Next week, I’ll tell you about my dream of becoming a Sumo wrestler.)


I attended my first thoroughbred race a few years ago when another now-faraway friend, Toni and her husband George, invited me to Toni’s birthday party at the Turf Club at Golden Gate Fields.

From the second the horses stormed out of the gate I was entranced--by the action, the energy, the drive, the thunder of those beautiful beasts and the brave jockeys as they galloped along the track, around the turns and raced toward home. Even from the high vantage point of the Turf Club, the power and genuine danger of the sport was as palpable as a storm. I felt a unique excitement lacking at other sporting events, even the Big Game.

I was lost that whole afternoon as my focus fiercely shifted from the track to the racing form, trying to get a sense of who would win, who would place, who would show. Then, after horses and riders zipped across the finish line, up I would leap and fly off to the betting window to collects my winnings and place my next bets. Aside from the sporty Runyonesque fashions worn by some of the other bettors, I recall little else of that singular afternoon. Whoever spoke to me, I probably looked right through them, my eyes as glassy as the lenses of my binoculars.

Because I was a pure beginner, I stuck with simple straight bets—win, place, show, two dollars per horse per race, no wagering on long shots, no “exotic” bets. Elizabeth and I came to the track with a hundred dollars. We left with around eighty dollars remaining. Later I found out that, for a novice, I’d done alright.

The glow lasted a long time, but I didn’t go back, not after Seabiscuit, not after the premier of the HBO series Luck¸ a drama I found thrilling and enjoyable, even though it never quite found its stride before being scratched.



This June, worldly magic struck again, at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton. (California is the last state to maintain the tradition of the county fair racing circuit.) We were there at the invitation of Elizabeth’s sister Margaret and her husband Charles.

We’d attended the races here last year, but we only stayed for one sprint, I think for quarter horses, before plowing on through the rest of that cheerfully gaudy, tacky, sensory experience whether you like racing or not--exotic farm animals, Roller Derby, has-been pop acts, and enough delicious bad food to clog the arteries of every vegetarian in the Bay Area.

This time around, I asked if we could stay at the track a little bit longer.

Forgetting my first experience, I blew my first bet, betting three horses to win, a betting strategy known as “dutching,” a legit way to go, but only with certain longshots.

The next race, the fourth race, I cooled down and studied the program. Then Charles suggested we visit the paddock, the circle where horses and jockeys parade before heading out for the post parade to the starting gate.

The second I got there, my brain lit up. I understood instinctively what to look for. County fair circuit races don’t feature the best horses; that is, they’re not the top-graded stake races you read about on the front page of The Daily Racing Form and seldom see on TV, leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

But even though these weren’t top grade horses, these thoroughbreds were some of the most beautiful animals anywhere: gleaming coats, rippling powerful muscles. Like so much of Nature, human hands could not create anything more beautiful, more moving.

Without prompting, I looked for horses with spirit, focus, and energy, the ones that enjoyed being there and were ready to run; those who walked with their heads held high, alert, their ears on end, who were one with their jockeys. No one had to tell me. It just made sense. Run with the one who wants to run.

A horse who bucked nervously about or one who plodded like a plow horse or office clerk, there just to punch the clock, collect their check, and go home . . . I passed on those.

In five minutes I found three horses worth my six dollars. After I placed my bet at the window, I rushed back to my group, happily waving my fists in dopey joy: “Elizabeth! I just bet all our savings on a twenty-to-one pick!” (I don’t know why no one finds those jokes funny, really.)

No joke this time though: My win pick won, a 6-1, six year old named Summer Suntan. However, I must admit, he won by disqualification. Running second, he was bumped out of his line by a horse named Fly Blue near the end of the race. Fly Blue was disqualified by the California Racing Board stewards. Summertime Suntan walked the winner’s circle.

Nevertheless, I was right enough about that horse, right enough to win me $13.80, the only winnings in our party.

But . . . it wasn’t my party. And so, with my hands in my pockets and Charles grumbling alongside, the two of us kicking up dirt clods like a couple of five year old boys, we left the racetrack behind.

“The next time,” I pouted, jabbing my thumb at my chest, “it’s gonna be myyyy party! And we’re gonna stay allllllll day!”

[To be continued]

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.