Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Butchertown Chronicles: Draft 2, Slightly Nervous


Morning: The writer is preparing his upcoming novel for distribution and review to his select group of beta readers when nausea suddenly surges.

Who the hell wrote this crap? he grumbles, his mouth still crusted with sleep. Then he sighs: He knows the answer. Its whiskered visage stares back every morning from a spotted mirror.

A pent-up hiss whistles out his teeth. He moves on with his grim lonely work.

Butchertown, the writer’s novel, is far enough along that he’s decided to send it toddling around the block to see what the neighbors think. No matter the fear. No matter what they might do.

And believe it, he knows very well what they might do.

At night, the writer fears sleep, because there, underneath the black tarp, bad dreams lurk, portentous nightmares of dismal reviews:

“Former Local Hack Again Humiliates Hometown: School Council to Strike Burchfield’s Name from Records After Literary Effort Flunks Literacy Test”: Peekskill News Service

“If you’ve been waiting for a revival of the Roaring Twenties gangster novel, wait another ninety years. So bad, it’s the best advertisement for the re-institution of Prohibition I’ve ever read.”—Single Malt and Beer Monthly.

“It’s a shame bad books aren’t printed on paper anymore, otherwise I’d throw this latest crock by Burchfield right in the fireplace. Oh hell, guess I’ll take this hammer to my Kindle instead”—John Pilcrow, Pushcart Prize award winner (and real-life writer).

“Citing Burchfield Novel, Congress Unanimously Passes Censorship Law; Obama Promises to Sign. ‘We’ve Got to Do Something About This Flood of Bad Books!’ Says Speaker Boehner.”

The writer sincerely believes joking will help ease his anxiety.

That in itself is funny.


The writer now believes he can spill a little more about Butchertown, work up some anticipation among readers, both old and new.

The year is 1922, two years into the ruinous idealism known as Prohibition. The place: a highly fictionalized Northern California. The hero, Paul Bacon, a young up-and-coming junior assistant city attorney, glib fashion plate, and love-struck Lothario, ferries across the Bay one fogbound Friday evening, about to step out on the worst date of his life.

Through Butchertown’s frantic, bloody pages race dames sultry and devious, two motley gangs of trigger-happy mobsters, fatally obsessed Prohibitionists, two-fisted brawls, and hair-raising escapes down endless warrens of grimy alleys. The bullets fly, the bodies pile up. The air gets so hot, even water catches fire.

Somehow too, a love story flowers from the mud and grime, a good and offbeat one; or so the writer believes, the sap.

Butchertown fits in a number of genres: Roaring ‘20s shoot-’em-up, cat-n’-mouse thriller, fish-out-of-water story, noir mystery. Its roots lie in the crimson soil of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, sprinkled with the fizz and spectacle found in novels and stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald and other Jazz Age writers and journalists; and maybe a tinge of Eric Ambler for its coiled viperous intrigue and the innocent soul who blunders into and through its treacherous landscape.

Butchertown in no way mocks or brushes away the laws of physics, but it is a kind of horror tale. But, as the meat-ax title implies, it serves up a brimming bowl of horror. The writer is even considering warning labels, and fears he may be forced to cover the eyes of anyone he sees reading it, yes, even those of Stephen King.

It may be a good sign that the writer is scared by his own book.


The second draft of Butchertown comes to a mere 263 pages, around 77,000 words. The writer hopes to trim a few fractions more.

How did it come up so short this time? Simple: Butchertown is told from a single, first-person POV over one extremely harrowing weekend, from Friday afternoon to Monday morning. A single POV means tighter focus and less plot juggling.The reason why

Of course, shorter does not mean better, but as far as story and plot go, the writer experiences waves of pleasure with Butchertown.

Sometimes he actually says out loud (while alone), “The birth of my book is inherently more interesting and exciting than royal queenly people birthing babies or whatever it is they do over there.”

Yes, he is that self-obsessed—He doesn’t even care what they name the baby!

The writer bets that crime and suspense fans will especially like Butchertown because, out in the world, what the writer thinks matters little. Someone has to like his book besides him. Preferably lots of people. Lack of readership is no indicator of literary virtue either, crabby Bohos to the contrary.

As for bestsellerdom, like his pleasure-loving hero, the writer knows there are better odds at the race track. But he goes on writing anyway, for reasons that will remain mystifying as long as he lives.

As for more literary questions, there is the common quandary about to handle the plot. The setting seems vivid but the author is frankly undecided about how much of the real NorCal of the 1920s to use. As for literary matters of style—or non-bad writing--that’s for the final baking.

Whatever Butchertown’s current flaws, the writer thinks his book is good. That’s not a new thought. Now he needs some people to tell him whether or not it’s true and what he can do to make it even better.

And so he reaches out to those Lucky 7, those readers, both writers and not, to get their opinions and insights. You might well be one of them (yes, even you, vile Pilcrow!)

As a first-timer named Robert Galbraith recently found out, even great is not good enough. (The man got so desperate, the author hears, he’s started passing himself off as J.K. Rowling!)

The author strokes his mustache, then suddenly sits bolt upright, grabs his phone and dials:

“Steve . . . Steve King? Tom Burchfield here . . . say, I got this book comin’ out in a while and I’m wondering if you’d mind . . . you would? Great! I knew you’d be a pal!”

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by Elizabeth Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has just completed BUTCHERTOWN , a 1920s gangster shoot-'em-up. He can be “friended” on Facebook and tweeted at on Twitter. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Thoughts on "The Accursed" by Joyce Carol Oates

Bellefleur, a Joyce Carol Oates novel from 1980, sat on my shelf for a while before I finally opened it in the mid-2000s. I  stepped through the door half-expecting some earnest, weepy, melodramatic family saga-soap opera, by way of East of Eden and Oates’s 1971 naturalist novel, Wonderland (whose central character, Jesse Vogel, suddenly reminds me of Mad Men’s Don Draper . . . but never mind).

What I found behind the doors of Bellefleur was one of the most outrageous, outlandish Gothic horror tales I had ever read, one whose memory I cherish in a special hollow in the storm-lashed backwoods of my mind.

So it was with some excitement that I opened her newest novel The Accursed, which, reviews indicated, appeared to be something of a return to the weird climes of Bellefleur. (Oates is known to be a champion of horror fiction and has edited several anthologies, including a collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s work; she’s also won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers of America.)

Indeed, The Accursed is a broad baggy mishmash of high Gothic, supernatural horror, romance, alternate history, and politics, both racial and sexual. It’s set during the years 1905–1906, behind the exclusive ivy-covered ramparts of Princeton University. The main narrator—and document collator--is a fussy, enigmatic regional historian named Van Dyck, who, we learn, has his own secret agenda in revealing the secret history of Princeton, a place where demonic forces struggle secretly for power.

The tale weaves together a large population of characters, some historical and some not (as in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime et al): the Reverend Joseph Slade, a Presbyterian and former dean of the University and New Jersey governor; future U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the university’s current president; the Reverend Slade’s children, including his troubled son, Josiah and his beloved cousin Adelaide; and various other friends and relations, University faculty and administrators, and their sprawling network of families. Upton Sinclair and Jack London also wander from factual history into this fictional world.

Two major academic factions of Princeton are at war—on one side there’s the fussy, prim, and paranoid Woodrow Wilson; on the other, corpulent sensualist Andrew West, Wilson’s bitter rival for control of elite Princeton U, a man who, it is whispered about, has been engaged in what is delicately called “occult practices.” (Oates has great fun with the modes of polite indirect discourse common at that time. Her prose blushes delightfully with coy embarrassment.)

Into the middle of this academic kerfuffle drops a demon who nearly destroys this privileged sanctuary of white male power. He is sometimes known as Axson Mayte, at other times, Count Von Gneist, from Wallachia. Whoever’s path he crosses, he becomes a projection of their inner darkness: "The devil has no name and no face." Only the names and faces we give it.

Astute readers will quickly see the tribute to the great Dracula and other Gothic novels. Night-blue shadows cast their welcome everywhere, even by daylight. Like Dracula, the novel is designed as a collage of newspaper articles, diaries, and third-person narrative that chains together ghoulish hauntings, bloody murder, tender and thwarted love, vile unnatural lust, evil snake attacks, and subterranean wheelings and dealings, both in this world and those beyond our meager ken.

Further, like another Recent Novel by an Author Whose Name Shall Go Unmentioned, Oates is frankly disinterested in the Freudian/sexual interpretation imposed on Dracula and his descendants. In The Accursed, the vampires are creatures of power, control, and exploitation. 

And like all Gothic novels of that era, good and bad, The Accursed does its share of lumbering and digressing. With florid, colorful, and rambling pen, Oates does a great job of keeping our minds within this time and place, so we forget just enough about ours.

Most of The Accursed is pleasurable and once in a while, genuinely eerie and creepy; especially a demonic encounter in a lonely swamp and a young woman’s realization that she has become an unwilling object of lust for the most powerful men in Princeton. There are also floating spirits, ghost-children, snake attacks, people turning into statues and other things wondrous and strange, things we like in this kind of book, spun with great skill and atmosphere.

The Accursed often loses focus and strays, however. Several chapters feel choked up with the static emanating from some of the more bilious and unstable characters; other chapters seem digressions that lead nowhere instead of weaving themselves back into the narrative (for instance, Woodrow Wilson’s seemingly pointless vacation in Bermuda.) The literary and thematic motives for sewing Upton Sinclair and Jack London into the tapestry feels forced. An episode about Sinclair and London meeting in New York is thrilling and colorful but seems to belong entirely in another novel.

Like many Gothics and Victorian novels I’ve read, the ending is contrived almost beyond tolerance and full of miraculous—and I do mean miraculous—reversals, closing with a VERY VERY LONG RANT WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS REVEALING WHO WAS BEHIND THE CURSE ALL ALONG AND THAT GOES ON AND ON EXACTLY LIKE AN INTERNET COMMENT BOARD POPULATED BY RAGE JUNKIES AND OTHER TROLLS WHO SHOUT ALL THE TIME!

The point Oates makes here is a theological and ideological one and I guess I’m supposed to be provoked into either yaying or naying on the issue, but, as always when people start shouting, I found myself wishing I were both blind and deaf. (Maybe I’m just a boiled noodle.) At any rate, I finally closed the book with more relief than probably intended. According to my Kobo reader (if it be reliable), it took 13.8 hours for me to read The Accursed, but it felt longer by a couple more.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has just completed BUTCHERTOWN , a 1920s gangster shoot-'em-up. He can be “friended” on Facebook and tweeted at on Twitter. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.