Monday, May 30, 2011

On Cannibal Moms and Little Girls (and Boys) Under Glass

     Back in 1995, along with much of the world, I was transfixed by the widely publicized case of Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who murdered her two young sons by rolling her Mazda into a lake with the boys strapped inside. Smith gained notoriety by claiming that a black man had carjacked her vehicle and taken her sons, but after going on television to plead for their safety, she eventually confessed that she'd killed them, in part to free herself up to be with a wealthy local man who had no use for a 'ready-made family.'
      The story both horrified and fascinated me. How could any mother commit so callous and brutal a murder? What must those last terrible moments have been like for her children? And had they sensed, during their tragically short lives, that their mother was capable of becoming their deadly enemy?
      When I was invited to write a story for Richard Laymon's anthology BAD NEWS, I thought of the Smith case and decided to use a theme I've visited before--the 'Medea' mother, the cannibal mom who consumes her offspring without a flicker of remorse because they are, after all, an extension of herself and she may do with them what she likes. I felt I could do such a story justice, in part, because I know a little bit about narcissistic parenting myself.
     My own mother was a "southern bell' who came from humble origins. She married late in life for those times, but oh, what a marriage she made, leaping up the social ladder many rungs at a time when she snared my father, scion to a North Carolina tobacco family. As often happens, though, things didn't quite work out according to her plans. A marriage finally took place, a child arrived, but my father lasted only a few years before taking off. Eventually, he remarried--to yet another narcissistic belle, (but that's another story). My mother's fury at this final abandonment was terrifying and much of that cold rage fell on me--it was made clear that the failure of the marriage had been my failure, too. All contact with my father was forbidden because "if you have any love for me, you couldn't possibly want anything to do with that man."
     From the vantage point of my current life, of course, I see the enormous stress my mother was under, having invested everything in a marital project that proved a resounding failure. Having lost what she desired most, she clutched onto what was left. In "Girl Under Glass," Allison's mother does the same--in a submerged car filling up with water, she grips her daughter's arm.
      Thankfully, few narcissistic parents go to the extreme of murder/suicide. Most of them just kill their children's spirits. But for anyone who's ever existed behind the glass wall of a controlling person's ego, who's viewed the world from the perspective of a child prisoner, crashing through into the light of life is a formidable experience, never to be forgotten, never to be taken for granted.
     From that perspective, I like to think "Girl Under Glass" is an escape thriller with a really happy ending.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Madhouse, A Ghost Cat, and Wild, Storm-tossed Seas

          I remember being on a panel at a writing convention where the question came up: was there anything the panelists would not write about. My answer was that I would never write anything depicting explicit cruelty to animals. For one thing, when I come across a passage like that in a book (even if it's a great story by a favorite author) I immediately skip over it. There are images I don't want in my head and images I don't want to put in anybody else's head. So when Ellen Datlow invited me to contribute a story for TWIST OF THE TALE, an anthology of feline-themed horror stories, the first thing I crossed off my list was anything that had to do with causing pain or distress to a living cat.
       A spectral cat, however, was a different story...
       Some years ago, I had visited the town of Stromness in the Orkney Islands and found it an enchanting, if sometimes foreboding place--a tiny seaport town of narrow, winding lanes, austere cathedrals, and fierce seas that have claimed the lives of seafarers throughout the centuries. On that same trip, I also visited Glasgow, where I learned about the terrible custom in medieval Europe of walling up a live animal in the foundation of a house or church In order to bring good fortune to the builders.
      So I came up with the idea for a story in which the unjust and cruel fates meted out to two very innocent beings converge: that of a cat walled up in the fictional Dunlop House and that of Plush, a woman gifted with paranormal abilities who has been confined to an insane asylum as a result.
     And although I didn't set out to create a Gothic tale when I was writing "Walled," I realized later it's actually very much a Gothic story. The plot includes mental illness, the supernatural, a woman held captive against her will, illegitimate birth, isolation and betrayal, and wild and treacherous seas--all familiar fare to fans of the Gothic genre. The only Gothic tropes lacking were an element of the erotic and a male character or characters to play the role of rescuer or persecutor.
     I felt great empathy for Plush, whose life had been brutally constricted--as the lives of many women still are today--because of her poverty, lack of education, and gender. That she had psychic gifts that gave her visions of a world beyond our own only made her a more vulnerable target. And while I didn't envision what could be considered a traditional 'happy ending' for Plush, through her compassion for the cat trapped inside the wall, she gained a freedom from the earthly realm that I think most of us, on some level, long for.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Title That Ended A Relationship

      Most of my stories first come to me as a 'what if this or that happened?" question, as a few lines of intriguing dialogue or perhaps a location I find especially compelling.  While I'm writing, I usually come up with a 'working title', but often it takes a good deal of hemming and hawing and ruminating to finally arrive at a title that seems to work. Rarely does a title itself come out of the wild blue of my imagination and then demand that I invent a story to go with it.
      That's pretty much what happened, though, with "A Hairy Chest, A Big Dick, and A Harley."  I don't really know how that title came into my mind--although my ex-husband could reasonably assert he might have been the inspiration--all I remember is one day that phrase popped into my head, and I thought, wow, that would make a great title!
     Assuming I had a story to go with it. Which I didn't.
     So I set it aside with a mental asterisk to remind me that one of these days I was going to discover the story that went with the title. Some time went by and finally I knew I had to write something.  I kept thinking about how women like to dish about men, the ones they used to have, the ones they wish they had, and what might happen if three very different women made a game of deciding what attributes or qualities they most wanted in a man. And there had to be a dark spin on this, so maybe if one of the women was being abused...maybe if her friends decided to put a literal twist on one of the attributes she wanted...lo and behold, I found I had a sweet little tale about female bonding and birthday celebrations with just a teensy bit of murder thrown in for good measure.
     Of course,  a short story entitled "A Hairy Chest, A Big Dick, And A Harley" isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea. I was astonished, though, (and quite a bit amused) when a man I'd gone out with a couple of times claimed that reading the title alone caused him so much distress he had to see his physician. And no, I am not making this up. We were having dinner at a restaurant here on the lovely central California coast when my date turned pale and seemed to be having a hard time swallowing. Somewhat alarmed, I asked him if he wanted to go to the emergency room, but he said no and, after a few minutes, seemed to recover from whatever had happened. The next day, I phoned to ask how he was doing. He told me that the day before he'd looked me up on the internet, discovered the story in a list of my published work, and was so rattled by the title alone (he never read the story) that he'd suffered a gastrointestinal attack.
       Wow. No kidding! Really!!
      So there you have it, a title that's actually been accused of being a health hazard.
      Which is why, no matter how far out there a writer's imagination may go, nothing can possibly top the nuttiness of reality.

Monday, May 2, 2011

On Learning to 'Live in the Air'

        The idea of a house full of water as a metaphor for dysfunction came about when I found myself bored and fretful on a cross-country flight and began plotting a story as a way to distract myself. I imagined a young girl who has this amazing secret life within her own home, the life of a fish essentially, and how being able to swim from room to room exhaling streams of bubbles might make it hard to have friends over, although the inability to hear people screaming at each other might be a plus. I imagined what events might have triggered the house 'filling up with water' and how the two sisters in the story might experience this taking place at different times in their lives.
       On a personal level, I grew up in such a house, in an atmosphere of silence, coldness, and relentless judgement and gloom. Within those walls, what was considered 'normal' behavior was anything but, and learning to accept the unacceptable was a necessary survival skill.
       From an emotional standpoint, it was life on the bottom of the ocean as far as I was concerned, but the details of it were very different from those of the family in my story.
       Once, after reading "The Family Underwater" at an arts retreat in Colorado, a woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and said that she too had grown up with a sexually abusive, alcoholic father and was moved by my willingness to share such intimate details of my life. I thanked her, but didn't tell her the truth--that my father was virtually absent from my life throughout my childhood, that both my parents were rigid and fantatical teatotlars, and that the only physical contact my father ever initiated with me was a stiff handshake upon meeting, as though I were a business colleague, not a child--and certainly no child of his.
      I didn't say that at the time, though, because I didn't think it really mattered. Underwater is, after all, underwater, whatever caused the psychic inundation to take place. It's living in an an ongoing state of denial about how bad things really are that does as much, if not more damage, than the actual abuse, whatever form it takes.
     In the story, the protagonist is a survivor. She runs away and makes a life for herself in the outside world. What she doesn't count on--and what I didn't count on either when I was growing up--is that if you live for a long time under a severely dysfunctional system, that system can start to seem normal. Or at least tolerable. Or, worse, it may seem exciting, the only thing that separates you from others' bland, drama-free lives. Peace, serenity, and relationships based on kindness and respect may seem mind-numbingly boring when it takes a bloodbath in the Octogon to really command one's attention. And fear gets the body amped up in spectacular ways to do something, be it flight, fight, or that other f-word.
       After many years of relishing the rush of that old familiar fear, I cultivated a taste for the air and stopped living underwater. Haven't for quite a few years now. Don't even visit. But I still find it damned hard not to take a second look when I meet a man who I'm sure must live at least part of the time underwater. So I take the second look. Then I walk away.
      Ah, the price of sanity.