Friday, January 30, 2015

Maggie Bjorklund Interview:
The Pedal Steel Guitar Peacock

Conducted by Anthony Servante


Maggie with Jack White and the Peacocks 
at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles

Maggie Björklund has played pedal steel guitar for Jack White's band (away from The White Stripes), the Peacocks, but the Danish singer-songwriter has since begun a solo career and released two records to date: Coming Home (2011) and her current Shaken (2014). She is touring but has taken a few moments to join the Servante of Darkness readers for a chat. 

Maggie Bjorklund Biography: 

I was born in the country side of Denmark, south of Copenhagen. It was rural country and I lived way out. Near the end of the road. Mind you the roads are very much shorter than almost anywhere else in the world since Denmark is such a tiny country, but for a child even a few kilometers separation from the classmates is a huge distance. So while growing up I learned to entertain myself and music was easy to fall into and occupy me. I loved the nature around me and took great interest in the forests and the fjord, but besides riding horses, music was my big passion from early on, and there was plenty of time to indulge in that.

Through high school I forgot a little bit about that passion; the world was so wonderful and strong and there was much else that caught my interest in those years, though I did take lessons on different instruments. But once I was out of high school and not knowing where I should go, I started looking at the music again, but wavered for a few years until there was a point of no return where I became a professional musician. And I have never looked back ever since. 

The Interview:

Anthony: I’d like to begin with your early interests in music. When did you decide being a musician was for you and why? 
Maggie: I was deeply fascinated by LP’s and the music they produced when I was a tiny child. My parents listened to a lot of classical music, and I was captivated by the music of Mozart and the story of this wonder child who could write operas and perform for kings and emperors. The radio provided some modern music, but I didn't know anyone who really indulged in that kind of music so my passion for rock and all sorts of other musical styles came later. After high school, I was a little lost as to what to do and where to go and I took dance lessons, and lessons on guitar and viola, and played in a lot of different bands. But at one point I knew that I should either get real serious, or stop, and go to university and get a degree in something completely different. I decided to go to GIT in Hollywood for a year, and that was where my life turned, and as soon as I returned to Denmark from there, I was hauled into a life as a professional musician, and have remained so ever since.

Anthony: Did you see or expect any obstacles to reaching your musical goals because of your gender? If so, how did you overcome them? If not, were you welcomed with open arms? 
Maggie:——IF my gender should be an obstacle to my musical goals then it is all in my own head. Once you reach a level of security and ability with your instrument, gender has absolutely nothing to do with how you can work as a musician. On a recording you cant tell if a guitar is played by a woman or man. That said, there sometimes is a slight difference in how men and woman play their instruments, but it is more like a faint perfume of something undefinable, a fragrance that you can not hear but only feel sometimes. Being a woman that plays pedal steel guitar has of course made me a bit more visible since it is an instrument traditionally not played by women, and even further being of Scandinavian origin is also somewhat of a novelty in the steel guitar world. But if I couldn't play, nobody would care where I came from or if I was a man or a woman.

Anthony: Tell us about your entrance into the music scene. Your first bands. 
Maggie:—— At the GIT in Hollywood I had a fantastic country guitar teacher. I thought it was so much fun to learn how to play all those styles of chicken picking and bending and all those things. I think it is the nerd in me that was happy. So when I returned to Denmark I immediately started an all girl country band called Darleens, and within a few months we were signed to Sony music in Denmark and was out on tour and recording albums straight away. I wrote most of the music for that band. And it was a blast. I had so much fun. Those were years of learning how to be a professional musician and what it entails. A good basis for my further career after that band broke up, as bands have a habit of doing sooner or later. 

Anthony: How did you transition into your current band? And can you introduce its members? Maggie:——- I started my solo career after years of being a side man for danish and international acts. I reached a point where I just knew it was time to explore the artist and composer side of me. I wanted to have my steel guitar at the center of composing and venture into unknown steel guitar territory. I love the blind spots on the map. What lies there? What sounds can you escalate that no one else have found. Its like a beautiful treasure hunt. The members of my current band are a group of danish and Swedish musicians. Anders Pedersen on guitar, Peter Dombernowski on drums, Erik Olevik on Cello. Anders and Peter have toured for many years with Howe Gelb and Giant Sand, and they have worked with a lot of international acts such as Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell. And Erik is a Swedish bass and cello player with loads of experience. I was so happy to find these great musicians in my own country. I wanted to have musicians with a bit more international sound than the average danish musician, and the fact that they have all toured extensively in america and Europe has given them a feel in the music that is very rare. I am so honored to have them with me on stage. 

Anthony: Can you tell us how your musical styles evolved into the “Shaken” recording? 
Maggie:——— On my first solo album “Coming Home” I had started writing some of the songs on the pedal steel. It is but rarely something people do in this world and I was so happy with the melodies and textures that comes from that approach. Touring extensively with my won music and of course big international acts really sharpened my senses towards the magic of the pedal steel and what it can do. So for Shaken I just walked on down the path into the musical jungle of my mind. 

Anthony: Can you list the recordings you have available and any links where readers can purchase copies? 
Maggie:——— “Coming Home” ( Bloodshot Records, found on itunes, etc ), “Shaken” ( Bloodshot Records available through all normal channels including itunes, etc ).

Anthony: Can you tell me the story behind “Missing at Sea”? It’s a haunting piece of music. 
Maggie:—— Missing at sea was based on the crazy lick of bouncing the steel bar and slides that is persistent all through the tune. When I came up with that lick I just loved the groove and the strangeness of it and building the rest took only a very short time. It came as an almost finished gem to me, and I just had to sit down and weave the pattern on a recording. I really like that it is such a dark piece of music. I am a big fan of disharmonies. They make the world an interesting place. 

Anthony: What are you working on now that we can look forward to hearing soon? Can you tell us a bit about it? 
Maggie:——- I am fooling around with a loop pedal a lot these days and coming up with some very fun tunes and landscapes that is for solo pedal steel. But I am as always constantly recording little scraps of ideas on my phone or any other device that is near by. I may not write whole songs at this point but I am gathering a scrap book of musical ideas that will be the basis for the new music later down the road. 

Anthony: Can you tell about your current or upcoming tour plans? 
Maggie:———- I am on my way out on tour later this spring and summer. I am starting with a small tour of Denmark, which I am really looking forward to. It is but rarely I get a chance to play in my home country and it will be so much fun to be on the road here. Then we head on down into main Europe and the summer will bring festivals. All together very exciting. I LOVE touring.

Anthony: Lastly, can you list for us your Top Ten Songs that have helped shape you and your music. They can be your own songs or songs by other artists or bands. And can you tell us a little about the significance of each song?

Maggie's Top Ten Song List: 

1. Wasteland ( by me, this tune was the first I wrote for the pedal steel and the fact that I was able to do it had a big significance to me going down the road as a solo artist with my pedal steel guitar ).

2. - Requiem - Mozart ( the depth of this music is bottomless. So full of emotions and dark power and it is still a big inspiration for me to listen to it ).

3. The Persuaders theme - John Barry (listening to film and TV music as a child has shaped my musical liking and I love film scores and TV themes with all my heart ).

4. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Beatles ( I have to put up the whole album; Beatles fills up a good part of my musical heart. They are the modern day Mozart. The depth of their arrangements and melodies is bottomless ). 

5. 1917 - Emmylou Harris - this song helped me through a patch of a musical dark period in my life. I was in a place where I didn't know if I wanted to go on being a musician or if it was time to do something else. I didn't listen to music in that period, it was too hard, but one day I put this song on, and it went straight to my heart rekindling my love for music, and making me understand that giving up my life in music is not an option for me. 

6. Waltz#2 Elliott Smith - so simple so full of emotions and melodies that carries you along. 

7. Sprawl - Calexico - the first time I encountered Calexico was on a festival in Denmark, and I was blown away by that strange mix of Mexican exotic-ness and Americana. The way John Convertino plays those drums has been a big inspiration for me, and I am so proud that I have been able to have him work with me in the studio on both my solo albums.

8. Vertigo - Bernard Herman - the film score is a master piece as is all his scores. I have learned so much listening to his music. What can I say, I LOVE film and TV music. 

9. High Ball Stepper - Jack White - He is a musical genius and having the honor of having worked with him has been such a path of learning and growing as a musician for me. I’m really proud of the steel guitar I put on this track. 

10. Picacho Peak - Howe Gelb - such a beautiful haunting song that goes straight to the heart. Having the honor of playing music with this musical icon has been an adventure and a milestone in my musical life. He is an amazing and unique artist through and through.


I am always impressed by the songlists by my musical guests here on the blog. Maggie's list covers the spectrum of eclectic favorites, from classical to TV and movie themes. Very amazing selection. 

I'd like to thank Maggie Bjorklund for joining the Servante of Darkness for this interview and providing this thoughtful song list. I'd also like to thank the readers for stopping by to meet this talented artist. Please treat yourself to some enthralling mood pieces from her solo works (click here). You won't be disappointed. 

Until next time, this is your host, Anthony Servante.  

Monday, January 19, 2015

Deadstock by Ian Rogers
Reviewed by Anthony Servante 

[Originally published in The Black Glove: Horror Culture and Entertainment 12/04/11]

Introduction: As a preview of the Weird Western critiques I'm working on, I republish this review of Deadstock by Ian Rogers, which echoes the elements of the critiques to come. 

Welcome, dear readers, to my fifth installment into the workings of Horror in literature today. This month we trod the dusty trails of the Weird Western, from Ghost Rider to Samuel Dryden and his sidekick, Raisy. We’ll take a peek at the genre of Western novels and see how the Weird Western tweaks it. Horror fans need not be Western fans to enjoy the supernatural bent of “Deadstock” (2011).

We connote the literature of the Western with Cowboys and Indians (alright, Native American Tribes People), Trailblazers and Gunfighters, Ranchers and Banditos, Wanted Men and Bounty Hunters, a lawless land prospered by Easterners, Children of the Mayflower seeking to expand their colonial roots by ‘Going West’ into the American Frontier; we think of cattle drives, the burgeoning of new towns, shops and saloons, the new Sheriff, pioneers settling down on “Injun” territory, some surviving, others being massacred for pilfering Indian lands, the railroad looming large across the frontier, reaching from coast to coast. The Age of the West marked its turf between 1849, the Gold Rush, and 1886, the surrender of Geronimo, the final and fatal attempt by an Indian to strike back at the White Man, interlopers and squatters on Native American country. With Geronimo’s failure to reclaim Apache soil, the Wild West ended and the Industrial Age began.

We acknowledge authors such as Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour with Romanticizing the Old West. They give us heroes and villains, damsels in distress, and the anti-hero, an outlaw admired and feared by the law-abiding citizens of the New West. But the Romantic Age is a two-edged sword: Whereas the Wild West deals with good guys and bad, the Weird West breaks new ground by turning to the Supernatural for its villains. While Western literary heroes such as the Lone Ranger, Shane, and Lash Larue kept readers fascinated with the genre, Lon Williams in 1951 introduced Lee Winters, a Marshal’s Deputy who fought demons, ghosts and terrible Greek gods. A few years earlier, the Ghost Rider, created by writer Ray Krank and artist Dick Ayers, took on vampires, werewolves and other creatures of the night. Ayers revived the character in 1967 for Marvel Comics, who later turned the character into the fiery-skulled anti-hero on a flaming motorcycle, while AC Comics purchased the rights to the original western hero garbed in white, renaming him The Haunted Horseman.

Ian Rogers continues the tradition of the Weird Western in his latest work. Rogers writes, “Stonebunny Press recently published my first foray into the Weird West, a novelette called "Deadstock." No one knows who or what is killing the cattle at Groom ranch, but Sam Dryden, with his supernatural greenwood gun, and Raisy, with her ‘deck’ of knives, are determined to find out. What they discover is more horrifying than either of them ever dreamed, and the secret may be one that takes them to the grave.” As the story unfolds, elements that comprise the mystery can be discerned. 

The symbolism of the Weird Western jumps out at the reader from the get-go. The Marshal Jacobs rides out to meet our heroic duo dressed in black, a foreboding sign given that he’s beyond 60 years old, an abnormal age for this period when 50 years was the common life expectancy. Statistically, only 2.5 men reached the age of 65 in the late 1800s. That means 97.5 men didn’t live much longer than their forties on average. In contrast, Dryden has “babyface” looks, signifying an uncanny youthful appearance of innocence to an inward grittiness or hardboiled-ness; Raisy has “flaming red hair”, denoting a temper and an infernal nature (she pack knives as weapons—an ancient armory; note also Dryden’s ancient pistol). And the Marshal seems only interested in checking their weapons, as if he were waiting for a pair of riders carrying such ware. Raisy also carries a cat (August Finch—named for a fortune teller), a ‘familiar’ in the days when the colonists feared witches. Add to this contrast in ages that a man and woman travel together out in the Wild West, and we get a glimmer of Adam and Eve tossed out of Paradise into an unknown world of sin and evil. Even as they approach the mysterious ranch, Dryden points out, “He didn’t understand why anyone would want to settle in such a godforsaken place.” These are foreshadows of evils to come.

Against the naturally torrid and hellish heat of the desert, there are the supernatural elements subtly described, an inversion of Nature. At the ranch, a young girl plays with a scorpion, the symbol for death, and even as Dryden warns her of the danger of such play, she snatches up the insect and tosses it into the water to drown. Whatever evil has infested the ranch, it has had its effect on the child as well as the other children. She loves saying ‘devil’ again and again, while her pa, Chester Groom, refers to Dryden as “a gift from God.” The Groom family also seems to be suffering unnatural aches and pains, and abnormal behavior is displayed. Even though the cattle at the ranch are mutilated, the vultures avoid the carcasses. Nature is unbalanced. As Dryden and Raisy burn the carcass of the steer, “They stood in silence as the steer went up in flames. The heat blanketed them, but they still felt a chill, as if there was a part of themselves that could never be warmed.” Even the term ‘deadstock’ is the antonym of ‘livestock’. Something evil has inverted the natural order. Our heroes, too, are warned of the evils upon them: “[The supernatural threats] have been brought back against the natural laws. They will not rest until order has been restored.”

The symbolism and supernatural elements come to a head as the mystery of the deadstock becomes clearer to our heroes and they understand what must be done to put nature back in balance. Horror fans will not be disappointed with the final battle.

The novella captures the West with descriptive details of the desert, the small town, and the Groom ranch. The dialog also echoes what we have come to expect from western-speak without relying on clichés. Because the visage of the old west looms so large and accurate, the sci-fi and horror elements work within the framework to create a good counter-balance between the normal west and the weird west. Deadstock is a welcome addition to the Weird Western tradition. Dryden and Raisy can be placed with confidence alongside Joe R. Lansdale’s Jonah Hex, Ray Krank’s Ghost Rider, and Lon Williams’ Lee Winters. I look forward to further rides into the Weird West with Ian Rogers.

--Anthony Servante

Thursday, January 15, 2015



Anthony Servante

First Printing February 2012
Copyright © 2012 Anthony Servante
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents
are the product of the Author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to Actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales
is entirely coincidental No portion of this book may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means without the
express written consent of the author and publisher.

Summer had finally arrived and we were glad to be through with the fourth grade, headed for the fifth. With school out for three months, playtime was in again, and there was nothing we enjoyed more than a good old game of hide-and-seek.

Our small group of players included the Mojave twins, Beanie and Stevie, me and Catch-Up, who was being kept back in the third grade again. He said that someday he would catch up to us in grade and ever since he said it we have called him “Catch-Up.” He grew so fond of the name that whenever we couldn’t find him and had to yell “ALL YE ALL YE EXTRA ALL GO FREE!”, he would yell back, “CATCH-UP FREE!” instead of using his real name, which was Ernesto.

Catch-Up was a pro at hide-and-seek. We must have called him FREE! in every game he ever played with us since he first moved into the neighborhood two years ago. Whenever he was called home FREE!, he would always pop up out of nowhere. Now you don’t see him, now you do. It was spooky. He was either the best player in the neighborhood or he was tricking us. That day when school let out, I came to the conclusion that he had to be cheating. There was no other explanation. I refused to waste my whole summer playing hide-and-seek with someone who was cheating. We never found him or his hiding places, so he had to be using other ways to win every time. The time came to kick Catch-Up out of our group of players. We could still play with only three of us. We didn’t need four players, especially when one was a cheater.

The next day I met with the Mojave twins to discuss the matter of kicking Catch-Up out of the group. We held the meeting at my house since Dad was at work and Mom didn’t speak English and wouldn’t know what we were talking about. I really didn’t want her to hear that we were about to kick Catch-Up out of our group. She liked little Ernesto, as she referred to him in Spanish, and I doubt she would have approved of our move against him.

“He has to be cheating. How come we never find him?” I asked the twins.

“Maybe he’s just a good player,” Beanie suggested, trying to defend him. “Just ‘cause we can’t find him doesn’t mean he’s cheating. We almost found him once. Remember?”

“I remember that night,” Stevie beamed, as if it were a day of legend or something short of a miracle. “His mother called him in ‘cause it started to rain and he didn’t have his jacket on. We were getting ready to yell “ALL YE ALL YE EXTRA!” when he came out of nowhere. He just appeared right behind us. All we had to do was turn around and we would’ve caught him. We almost did catch him that night.”

“Yeah, almost,” Beanie sighed, and the memory brought a smile to his face.

“Well, ‘almost’ don’t count,” I whined. “You either find him or you don’t. And we didn’t. We didn’t see where he was hiding. For all we know, he might have been following us around. Maybe he didn’t even have a hiding place. That’s against the rules, isn’t it?”

“I never heard of that rule,” Stevie protested modestly.

“Maybe he was hiding inside that apartment behind us. The rules say no one can use the insides of houses to hide or go across the street to hide—only the outsides on this block can be used. You guys remember those rules, don’t you? We’re the ones who made them up way before Catch-Up even moved to our block. I say he’s cheating. And how long should we stand for it when we know we’re never going to find him? Why bother even looking?”

“Maybe we shouldn’t give up either,” Beanie said. “I don’t want to be a quitter.”

“It’s not quitting to stop looking for a cheater. It’s quitting to keep looking for him when we know we’re never going to find him. Understand?” I stared Beanie down until he nodded his head that he understood.

“Kind of, but what about Catch-Up? He never did anything to us. Don’t you think we’re going to hurt his feelings?” Beanie tried but couldn’t suppress another sigh.
“He should’ve thought of that before he cheated us,” I said.

Stevie avoided meeting eyes with me but managed to agree somewhat reluctantly. “Well, I guess I don’t want to end up looking for him forever. But I don’t want to be the one to tell him, that’s all.”

“Me neither,” Beanie added. “I like him too much.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll do it.” I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants. “Tonight he’s out.”

Catch-Up’s jaw fell open when I told him. He looked to the twins for some sign that it was all some kind of joke, but they avoided his gaze. “You guys don’t want me to play with you anymore, really?” he asked them.

“You shouldn’t be asking us,” Stevie said, pointing to me. “Ask him.”

“You don’t want me?” His wide-eyed look fell clumsily on me.

“It’s just that we can’t find you,” I said. “You’re too good to be playing with us. The guys across the street play better than us. Maybe you should play with them.”

“My mother doesn’t want me going across the street. She wants me only to play with you guys.” He wiped his runny nose with his dirty sleeve as he fought to keep the tears from flowing. “I could let you find me, if you want. I just want to play with you guys, not anyone else. I’ll let you find me, I swear.”

“It’s not the same thing,” I insisted, ignoring the pleas in his voice. I had hoped after I told him he was out that he would simply leave without a word, that he would merely accept it and walk away unfazed. I didn’t think he’d get watery eyes. I had to counter his tears somehow. The twins looked like they were ready to change their minds and back Catch-Up. I had to act quick. “You go play with someone else. You’re too good for us. We can never find you.”

“How ‘bout I don’t play but just go along with you? My mother likes me to play with you. Come on,” he begged, and the tears broke free.

“No,” I said, interrupting Stevie who was about to say something. He was quiet now. And Beanie stared down at he ground, pretending he wasn’t there, never once looking up at us.

Catch-Up wiped the tears on his cheeks, and composing himself as best he could, he said, “That’s okay if you don’t want to play with me anymore, but I still want to be friends with you, okay? Okay? I don’t have to play. Really. I just want to hang around with you until my mother calls me in at night. Okay? Please?”

I said no again and in anger pushed him back. “Go away. You’re a cheater.”

“I’m not,” he sobbed. “I won’t get in your way. I swear I won’t.”

“I don’t care, you cheater. Come on, guys, let’s go and leave this cheater alone.” I walked off and the twins followed.

“I’ll see you guys maybe tomorrow!” Catch-Up shouted after us. “Okay? Okay?”

“Yeah, m-m-maybe,” Stevie stuttered.

“No,” I countered. “No way. You go play with someone else, Ernesto.”

“Okay then, if that’s what you want. My mother says that you know what’s right and wrong and that I should always listen to you. ‘Cause then maybe I’ll catch up to you in school.” His sobs calmed to gentle sniffles and a few whimpers. “You were the best friends ever. Bye.”

He waved at us, turned and walked away. And for the first time in over two years, we played hide-and-seek without having any fun.

The next morning the twins demanded that I let Catch-Up back into the group. I agreed. They were surprised but glad. I told them about my dream where Catch-Up was all alone in a forest at night. The trees were petrified, and there were no insects or birds or anything living anywhere around. Catch-Up was hiding somewhere in the forest, waiting for us to come and find him, but he didn’t realize that we weren’t going to search for him anymore and waited so long for us that he turned into one of the trees. I woke up shaking and crying, and felt alone and afraid. I suggested that we go find Catch-Up so we could apologize to him. No, not we. Me. The twins hadn’t caught my mistake: It was me who owed him an apology.

When we got about halfway to Catch-Up’s apartment complex, we saw his mother walking toward us. She looked like she hadn’t slept in days. She walked right up to us and stopped. Her eyes were red and glazed; they seemed to stare right through us.

“My son is dead,” she said emotionlessly. “Why wasn’t he with you? I told him to only play with you because you know better. You get skipped ahead in school, and my poor boy gets held back. He liked you so much. No brothers, no father—you were the men in his life. You were supposed to take care of him. Where were you? Why does everyone abandon him? I work, you know. I couldn’t watch him all the time. That’s why I told him to play with you till I got home. Where was he going? I told him never to cross the street. The truck driver said he didn’t even see him. My poor boy, where were you going? Where was he going? Tell me. Where?”

She reached over and grabbed a handful of my hair, but she immediately relaxed her grip and stroked the top of my head.

“You were supposed to take care of him. He liked you so much. Said that he wanted to read all the books you read, see all the movies you see, and have all the friends you have. Where was he going? Why? My poor boy.”

There was crying in her voice yet none in her eyes. She seemed drunk, though I knew she wasn’t. But she was drunk of a different kind that I didn’t understand. She walked away, glancing around as if she expected Catch-Up to appear out of nowhere. After she turned the corner, we remained quiet for a few minutes, waiting for someone to break the silence but not wanting to be the one to do it.

It was Beanie who finally spoke up. “What do you think happened?” The question was directed at me.

“I don’t know. Something about a truck, I think.” I tried to sound like I didn’t hear it right. I didn’t want to be the one to sum things up.

“I know where he was going,” Stevie said. “He was going to play with the kids across the street like you told him to.”

“Yeah,” Beanie agreed.

There, it was out in the open.

The twins glared at me with expressions of dishonor on their face. I could feel the resentment surging through them. But the hatred was short-lived. ”It’s our fault, also,” Stevie said to Beanie. “We should blame ourselves too for him being dead.”

“Wait a minute,” I cut in. “How do we know he’s dead?”

“His mother said,” Beanie answered.

“That doesn’t prove anything,” I argued. “His mother always acts weird like that. Maybe she just thinks he’s dead, but he’s really alive.”

“Maybe he ran away,” Beanie suggested.

“Maybe he’s lost,” Stevie added.

“Maybe he’s hiding,” I said with a wide grin on my face.

And after I said it, we all grew quiet for a moment and let it sink in.

“Well, what are we waiting for?” I asked sarcastically. “Let’s go find him. Only this time we don’t quit. This time we find him.”

“Yeah,” the twins chorused. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

It was early afternoon, and the brightness of the sun made hide-and-seeking too obvious,  too easy. Hide-and-seek was a game for the night. Under daylight there didn’t seem to be too many places to hide, and soon we had explored all the possibilities. But Catch-Up was a pro and must have found the impossible places to hide in. We had to search where we wouldn’t even think of searching. It would be there where we would find him. And everything would be back to normal.

We searched the garbage cans, the trash bins, under cars, between the long bedspreads hanging out to dry, behind bushes, up in the trees, beneath porches, on roofs, almost every square inch of the block. And the same thought kept occurring to me: Maybe Catch-Up was cheating. But no. He was hiding somewhere. He was somewhere. We continued searching even as the sun went down, and the long shadows stretched like black carpets laid out for the night.

We were exhausted, but we kept going. We split up and renewed the search. I must’ve looked in the same places a dozen times each. I checked the locks on several garage doors to make sure Catch-Up wasn’t hiding inside. They were all securely locked. I saw Stevie by the clotheslines and went to join him. “Where’s Beanie?” I asked.

“Right here,” he said, stepping out of a shadow made by the telephone pole.

“You scared the hell out of me. I didn’t even see you there. With those dark clothes on, you looked like part of the shadow. Don’t ever…”— Then it struck me. “Beanie, step back into the shadow.”

He did, and vanished into thin air. I could make out his face a bit in the dark, but that’s because I was squinting and trying to see him. If I wasn’t looking for him, I wouldn’t even know he was there.

“That’s it. Don’t you see? Catch-Up was using the shadows to hide in. He wasn’t cheating. He was there right in front of us the whole time. Don’t you see?” I pulled Beanie out of the shadow and stood in it myself. “Can you see me?”

“Yeah, with that white T-shirt on I can,” Stevie replied.

I yanked off the T-shirt and stood still for a moment so my brown skin could blend in with the darkness.

“Hey, that’s pretty good. I can see you but not completely,” Beanie said. “Let’s hide. Stevie, you try to find us.”

And the game began. We found literally hundreds of shadowy hiding places all over the block. Anything that could cast a shadow was a potential hiding place: a parked bus, a tree, bushes, buildings, garages, almost anything. We ran around, screaming for joy when we found a new shadow to hide in, finding each other with ease as we became accustomed to the game at hand. Catch-Up was playing a different kind of hide-and-seek than the twins and I were used to. How could I think he was cheating? We were cheating ourselves out of a better version of the game. Yet he looked up to us.

Completely exhausted, we fell on the moist lawn of Mrs. Garcia’s front yard. We sat there, trying to catch our breath. Suddenly, four teenagers walked menacingly up to us. We stood, readying ourselves to run off if one of them pulled a knife on us. When they moved beneath the street light and I saw their faces, I recognized them as the high-school dropouts who lived across the street. I had seen them many times spray-painting their nicknames on the walls in our neighborhood.

“Did you know the retard kid that got killed last night?” the one referred to as Puppet wanted to know.

“We don’t know any retarded kids,” I answered.

“Yeah, sure you do. You know, the one that got run over by the truck last night. He lived around here somewhere,” Puppet said, glancing around.

“Why do you want to know?” Beanie asked.

“’Cause we’re going to rob the place when his mother’s at the funeral,” the one labeled  Jughead divulged.

“Shut up, pendejo,” Puppet scolded him. “Don’t tell them everything.”

“I didn’t tell them nothing they can do anything about,” Jughead apologized half-heartedly.

The other two wannabe gangsters stood like sentries in the background.

“Well, where’s the retard’s house?” Puppet demanded.

“His mother doesn’t have any money,” Stevie tried to explain. “She lives real poor.”

“Not from what we heard,” sneered Jughead. “We heard she earns her money on the streets and on the sheets.”

“I told you to shut up, vato,” Puppet growled. “So keep it shut. Now, you kids, I’m going to ask you one more time: Where does she live?”

“Nowhere. And you leave her alone,” I warned them. “We know who you are and where you live, and we’ll tell the cops what you told us. So you better get out of our neighborhood and forget about robbing anyone.”

“We have a hero here, eses,” Puppet mocked. “What shall we do with the big hero?”

“Kill him,” Jughead threatened.

“He’s all yours, Jughead, my man.” Puppet stepped back.

Before I could run, Jughead swung a fist that caught me square on the shoulder. I punched him back, and he laughed at the feeble little hits. He grabbed me by the neck with his hairy gorilla hand and lifted me off the ground. Then Puppet snapped his fingers and the two sentries attacked the twins. I could hear their grunts as the bullies pummeled them. I felt dizzy; Jughead tightened his grip on my neck. Suddenly the porch light went on, and Old Mrs. Garcia, the widow with all the cats, ordered the seven of us to go play somewhere else.

I took advantage of the startled Jughead and kicked him below the belt. He dropped to his knees in agony, releasing me. I landed on my feet and charged the sentries, knocking them off balance, then yelled at the twins to run. We darted into the alleyway with the drop outs right behind us. Jughead seemed to have recovered quickly and led the pack. But we were younger and faster than them, and soon we outdistanced them enough to elude them in our new hiding places.

They searched all our old hiding spots. Puppet sent his soldiers to look for us on the opposite side of the alley, while he and Jughead checked the trash bins, closing up the exits from the alleyway. They kept walking right by us. We remained calm and quiet, still in the shadows, watching them as Catch-Up must have watched us while we searched for him. I fought back the giddy excitement that was welling up in my belly. But now was not the time to laugh.

Jughead took a knife from his back pocket and unfolded it.

“Good idea,” said Puppet and readied his own knife. “I’m going to cut them slow, the way heroes should die.”

Jughead cackled as if killing were not new to him. “They’re in here in this alley somewhere. They can’t get out. They’re trapped como ratones, vato.”

Puppet dragged the blade of his knife along the cement wall by the telephone pole shadow where Stevie stood hidden. The sparks from the knife lit up Stevie’s frightened face for a split second. “What have we here? Looks like dead meat.”

Stevie didn’t move as the drop out leader raised the weapon above his head. The shiny blade whooshed downward. The shadow swirled around Puppet’s arm and crushed it. I heard a big crack and then a bunch of little ones. He opened his mouth but didn’t scream. The blade dropped with a clang to the ground. But the shadow was not finished; it slithered like a snake into Puppet’s mouth then broke off all his teeth and carried them down his throat into his guts. I could hear him choking on the little pieces of his own teeth. He moaned as Jughead tried to figure out what was happening.

“Get over here,” Jughead yelled to his homies, who came just in time to see the darkness burst out of Puppet’s stomach. Teeth and blood and vomit struck the cholos’ faces. Additional shadows in the alley joined in the attack. Some had claws, some had fangs, others had black blades. The sentries swatted the darkness with trash can lids, but the shadows cut through the metal and twirled like black chainsaws into the scared faces of the two bullies. Their cheeks and noses and lips and eyebrows flew all over the place. Blood and snot ran out of the holes where their noses used to be. Jughead swung the knife in front of him, but a shadow covered his hand and the sound of breaking sticks echoed in the alley. The black snake returned and tore into one of Jughead’s ears and came out of the other. Lumpy stuff poured from his ear, as his jaw kept moving up and down like one of those wind-up skulls. Suddenly his jaw stopped and he dropped to the ground. The shadows came together and made the shape of a little boy. He waved to us. And then the shadows went back where they belonged—on the walls, on the ground, under the trees. I didn’t even notice that the shadows had put all the pieces of the four drop outs into a pile in the middle of the pavement.  

It all happened so fast. I stepped out of my hiding place and looked at the pile of flesh steaming in the alleyway. The twins each grabbed one of my arms and told me to move, that we had to get out of there. As we ran across Mrs. Garcia’s front yard, we heard her screams coming from her backyard by the alley. She must have found the bodies. We stayed quiet on Mrs. Garcia’s front lawn and wondered what had just happened to us.

“The shadows saved me,” Stevie said.

“They saved us,” I corrected him.

There was an awkward pause as it all sank in. Then Beanie suggested, “We should get back to looking for Catch-Up.”

The words caught me off guard. I sat on the grass and sobbed till my body was sore. Stevie dropped to his knees and wept. Beanie knelt on one knee and cried as well. In the background police lights spun and police car radios buzzed with static voices. It seemed that we would never run out of tears, but we did. The search was over. We were beat by the best in the game of hide-and-seek, and our friend protected us. He had appeared out of nowhere again and helped us.

Throughout the neighborhood we could hear parents calling their children home from this night of violence and death. I heard my dad calling. The twins heard their mom yelling their names. We stood, wiped the tears and cleared the sniffles from our runny noses. Then together we shouted “ALL YE ALL YE EXTRA ALL GO FREE!” and ran home without waiting for the reply that we knew we would never hear again: “CATCH-UP FREE!”


Saturday, January 10, 2015

The New Poetry Today Column 
January 2015


The language of poetry extends beyond the bars that imprison the words in poetic form (sonnets, odes, etc.). The form can sometimes distract (and as with certain forms--like the limerick--it is meant to distract) if the words themselves do not or can not dominate the structure, think bad rhymes. So, the words and their meanings (be they layered or singular) must utilize form, and form must serve language. As such, the poem disappears before the readers' eyes and seeps into their minds like an abstract mural. For example, the words "cloudless clime" depicts a clear sky, but the word "cloud" must be used to paint the picture. The measure of poetry, then, must be the clarity of the images painted by the prose, and to measure it, one must take into consideration the poet's technique and style. Whether the picture is concrete or abstract is irrelevant; what matters is the use of language to create the mental image.

In the two years I have written the Poetry Today column, I have found poets who have exemplified a language style that is timeless, writing poetry that would be relevant 100 years ago or 100 years from now. Luckily, for poetry readers today, they are part of the Age of Information, our generation now. I will use the new Poetry Today column this year to focus on these poets and to discuss their particular styles, one per month. This column will be part of a work in progress that follows the current trend of these unique poets and their styles that not only capture the voice of the new millennium but also the traditions of structure and form in their use of poetic language common from generation after generation.

 Poetry Today: Andrew D. Blacet
A Critique
Anthony Servante, PhD

In "The Occupant of the Ditch", Andrew D. Blacet brings a new voice to the language of poetry. Prizing internal meaning and significance, Blacet approaches prose with a stream-of-consciousness flow; however, he is always in control of the intent and draws his readers in with an alluring wordplay that ignores structure, although he does provide a poetic framework not uncommon to the Victorian Age poets. The narrative is the cohesive element of his voice. Its slight echoes to a bygone poetic age are flavors created by a combination of spices, so to speak, a hybrid of thoughts born of unrelated words.

In "The Thing in the Ice", Blacet intentionally uses the word "thing" to denote a real presence of a concrete element, but its name is never given and need not be. He writes of this thing, "A mouth feeding on itself,/Gasping for blood and air." The thing "gasps" for blood and air, implying the presence of lungs and a heart, but it is a mouth, a Cheshire smile without a body. We see the body through its self-consumption as in the paradox of the Ouroboros (the snake consuming itself); it feeds to exist, but devours its own existence to survive. Then we learn "it" is an ice sculpture of a man, "though it had never come quite to life/It [my italics] was not exactly dead", echoing the paradox. But Blacet is not content with this life trapped between worlds and comments on its demise by a return to its roots: "I pray the shrieking wind erode/That thing of ice.../And wash it back to the sea," the origins of water before becoming ice. Blacet has included the reader's imagination to complete the cycle of the paradox, for the "Ice" is the "thing" and itself simultaneously.

The poem "The Moon Became Her" extends Blacet's use of language to coalesce another paradox. Here we have a personified "moon" before the eyes of an insane man: "Moon pressed her belly to a wine glass,/Somersaulted to singing wolves, dancing/Bats/And a man in a padded cell." We can read the line as three objects to the verb "somersaulted" or as two subjects (the moon and the man). In the former interpretation, the multiple objects include the "man" into the moon's perspective (the moon imagines the man in the cell), while in the latter interpretation, it is the moon that the man imagines as an animated object, like a 1930s cartoon with the moon exhibiting a body (again, unseen except in the imagination of the reader). Both interpretations play counterpoint to each other, producing a melody with their two separate tunes. Ultimately, it becomes the moon's story, but is it told by the man in the cell? Without a clear-cut answer, Blacet weaves a new and clever conceit for the reader to ruminate over.

"Nothing There", Blacet's closest work to a traditional poem, employs the paradox form again, but hidden behind the words spouting nature and love. Framed in the phrase "'There's nothing there,' she said", the poem transitions from a pastoral description where lovers sit by a creek and enjoy their surroundings of trees and songbirds to an existential experience of the narrator. He spies something in the creek, something unknown. He tries to find comfort that it may be a "crawdad or fingerling trout", but his girl points out that there's nothing there. He sees the water is empty and "grimly laughed". The beauty of nature in an instant became the grotesque underbelly of the creek, that side of nature that's creepy because we don't know what lives down there, but we know there's something there, for the chills we feel remind us. The juxtaposition of the words "grim" and "laugh" speak to the reader of the contrary meanings of these words that together create the new meaning, that hybrid we referred earlier to as the paradox. Happy laugh, yes. Serious grimace, yes. But grim laugh? No.

We should be reminded here of Jonathan Swift's definition of natural beauty: Nature at a distance is beauty; up close it is grotesque. In Swift's "Gulliver's Travels", Gulliver is both giant and miniature. From the giant's point of view, nature is flawless: mountains, valleys, forests, et cetera, are visually stunning, but from the miniature's point of view, Gulliver sees from up-close the enormous nipple of a young woman and gags on its hideous imperfections: the thick hairs, the pimples, the obscene wrinkles, a nipple that from a distance was sexy and erotic. In this sense, Blacet shows us the distance of nature with the first half of "Nothing There" with its unblemished beauty, but in the second half, he shows us the up-close look in the deep part of the creek, where the unknown resides in all its grotesqueness.

With his work, "The Occupant of the Ditch", Andrew D. Blacet engages the readers' imagination with challenges of his paradoxical language, creating mental puzzles and visions with oxymoronic hybrids built with poetic contradictions and clever juxtapositions of lines and images. What many poets strive for with ten percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration, Blacet accomplishes with his stream of consciousness writing that naturally plays out in poetic conflicts that the reader must resolve for himself. In the Victorian Age, Nature and Beauty and the Age of Industry (think Browning and Dickens) were the rage. Andrew Blacet has shifted that paradigm to make free-flowing imagination the new poetry. He is not the first, but he is one of the best. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Grotesque in Modern Horror
Anthony Servante, PhD

Chapter One
Toward a Definition of the Grotesque and Irony

The noun Grotesque comes from the Italian word "grotta" for underground, what we would call sewers today. The distinction between lit places above-ground and dark habitations below-ground served critics who focused solely on darker works in Art and Literature. The adjective grotesque describes facets of such works. The various approaches to defining the Grotesque include perception, imagination, and irony. 

Let's begin our definition with some examples of perception.

Human perception includes touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. The tactile sense is responsible for our sensory understanding of tangible or concrete "reality", real objects in the real world (a chair, for example). Even in the dark we can determine the chair's properties by touch: back, seat, four legs, wood, height, et cetera. The Grotesque enters when touch fails or falters to perceive what is no longer real or misconstrues the properties (thinking the chair is a dog, as an extreme example). The failure of the tactile is more subtle than an error. When a person has a leg amputated, he can still feel the leg, even though it is no longer there, no longer "real". This phenomenon is called "phantom limb pain". Therefore, the experience of touching something outside of reality we can refer to as grotesque perception. 

Visual acuity also follows a similar path as the tactile experience. What we see in a mirror is not us: it is the inversion of ourselves. That scar on your right hand appears on your left hand in the mirror, but your mind accepts that they are both the same hand, when they are not in fact. In another example, when we turn a picture of rivets upside-down, they appear to be dimples rather than protrusions. This also holds true of the moon's craters, which are actually mounds, depending on your view or perception. So, the Grotesque here relies on what the mind accepts as real. 

Aural, olfactory, and taste perceptions can be understood along these lines without going into too much detail. We hear things that aren't there or things that are there but heard as something else (it must have been the wind, a cliche by now). We smell something good and it tastes terrible. Something that looks terrible (a fried grasshopper or escargot) but tastes delicious. Our perceptions lean toward a reliable interpretation of reality, and when they fail, we perceive grotesque dimensions that can only be entered by a failure of perception. 

The human imagination takes over when perception fails. You are riding your bike, a bug flies in your mouth, and you gag till your vomit. It turns out you merely swallowed a leaf. This is a grotesque experience. Someone taps you on the shoulder, you turn around, and no one is there. It turns out your sweater shifted and it felt like a tap. You imagined an unreal bug and an unreal person, but for an instant, they were real. This false reality is the Grotesque. It is the face at the window staring at you when you know there's no one there. It is the person you glimpsed in the kitchen when you know you are alone in the house. (In no way do I include medical conditions as schizophrenia that cause people to hear voices, as this enters chemical understanding, which is not necessary here). We imagine things to fill the gap left by the perception's failure. 

Which brings us to Irony. When we intent or cause the perception to fail by word or gesture, we manipulate how the gap of misperception will be filled. In Wayne C. Booth's A Rhetoric of Irony, he establishes four steps for defining irony, the most important being "reconstruction" of "intent". As one example Booth uses Chaucer's line, "My wit is short, you may well understand." He just called the reader "stupid" (intent). The reader must deconstruct "well understand" short wit to mean "You only understand stupid (short wit) things" (reconstruction). Chaucer appears to be complimenting the reader when he is in fact mocking him. 

As such, when the writer intends the reader to deconstruct and reconstruct meaning from his writing, he is employing Irony. So, in this sense, we are not using the classic definition of the word, which is incorrectly defined as the opposite of what is said, calling the fat man thin, for example. This is sarcasm, one of the tools of Irony, not irony itself. 

To recap: the Grotesque is an experience brought on by a failure of perception. The experience can be either imagined or initiated by irony. Either way, the gap left by the misperception must be explained or filled, per se. Booth further details how one fills the gap of misperception:
"Four steps to reconstruction:
Reader must reject the literal meaning – recognize a dissonance between what he reads and what he knows
Reader must try out alternative interpretations – eg that guy must be crazy
Reader makes a decision about the author’s knowledge or beliefs
Reader chooses a new meaning based on his beliefs about the author."
(A Rhetoric of Irony 1974)
Let's consider Night of the Assholes by Kevin L. Donihe. Our initial perception is Night of the Living Dead. We are wrong and reject it. It must be a typo. No, the author intended us to misperceive it; therefore, Night of the Assholes is legit. The gap (no Living Dead) is filled by Assholes. The irony is that the author intended the work as a parody of Night of the Living Dead. Keep in mind that we are examining these steps slowly; for many, irony is perceived in an instant, while, for others, it takes a few seconds before the "ohhh" moment is realized ("My wit is short, you may well understand", remember?). So, now we have a working definition of the Grotesque and Irony.

How then do we apply the Grotesque to works of Horror? Well, quite simply, we first need to distinguish the tools of Irony (parody, absurdism, satire, sarcasm, et cetera) as well as distinguish the sub-genres of the Grotesque (horror, terror, weird, strange, odd, bizarro, supernatural, et cetera).

Which is where we will pick up in our next chapter.

Chapter Two
The Grotesque, Horror, and Sub-Genres