Being a child of the 70s puts me squarely in Generation X territory. Those kids born between 1965 and 1980. The ones who grew up with TV, a single landline telephone, and playgrounds of steel and concrete and concussions. But the Generation X experience is not uniform. Not indeed is any generational experience for that matter. A Baby Boomer born in 1947 likely had a much different experience growing up versus one born in 1962. And so an Xer born in 1967 had a different experience than one born in 76 or 77. The early Xer grew up watching Banana Splits and The Incredible Hulk and CHiPs. They grew up with Led Zeppelin and Foghat, with the Bee Gees and Donna Summer, with The Jam and The Clash. A child born in the mid 70s would have grown up with Duran Duran, U2, Culture Club, MTV, Spielberg movies, Freddy Kruger, and the earliest days of the internet.
Point is, that early X-er era had a much more 70s upbringing than the ones born in the 70s. Their brains were developed enough to come home, grab some fresh-mixed Freshie from the fridge, click the TV dial over reruns of Gilligan’s Island and Batman on the local affiliate, or go to their bedrooms and and tune their radios to the local rock or disco stations while they half-assed their way through the day’s cursive homework and consulting textbooks printed and in circulation since 1946. For those of us born in the 70s, the 70s were and would remain terminally uncool through the 80s and into the 90s. The 70s were tacky and tasteless and kitschy, with bad hair, bad fashions, and bad music. A punchline, along with hippies, greasers (outside of Arthur Fonzarelli- he did jump a shark after all), The Village People, and 8-Track cassette.
And to talk about why, we need to talk about Quentin.
Compared to the 1980s, the 1990s are regarded as a golden era for American cinema. gone was the schlock excess of the worst of 80s cinema. this was the era of the indie film, of Miramax and New Line, Artisan, of bold new voices in film like Richard Linklater (Dazed & Confused), Allison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging), David O. Russell (Spanking The Monkey), P.T. Anderson (Hard Eight), Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket), Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), and many more. Some made a big splash, others faded into the wood-work. But I would correct that belief, and say that in the 90s movies didn’t necessarily get better compared to the 80s but they did sound better. This was when old theaters were retrofitting with THX and Dolby Digital sound, new theaters were being build with stadium seating and state of the art sound systems. And the movies responded with aggressive sound mixes that really took advantage of having a 24 track playback system to blow the roof off of.
I saw this when I worked at a video store in the Toronto suburbs, full time in the summers, part-time during school to help pay for my college education, this towards the tail end of that time when you could pay for a semester plus of schooling, rent, and food, on a part time job (I still graduated with student loans to pay off but nowhere near to the amount classmates did). This was one of the only stores in the city that rented and sold Laserdiscs, a creaky format now but at the time state of the art.
And so you’d have these guys coming in to buy or rent movies that … weren’t particularly great. Stuff like Anaconda and Species and that Charlie Sheen skydiving movie. Not good movies, but the sound mix was spectacular. And these were guys, always guys, who’d invested in the big screen plasma TV set, the surround sound Dolby Prologic AC3 THX sound system, and they wanted to show it off. They invited friends and family, made popcorn, and had a movie night in the comfort of their own home.
So nom 90s movies weren’t necessarily better than 80s ones. And I would argue that today, the movies of the 80s hold more of the imagination than 90s cinema does. They were more varied, more diverse. There were more companies making movies that actually got into theaters. Orion, Carolco, New World, New Line, Canon, Vestron; those companies that went under or were bought out. They were scrappier, the movies were quirkier. Starting in the 90s that all changed, the smaller companies disappeared and we were left with the big studios. Fox, Universal, Paramount, Warner’s. Columbia Tri-Star. United Artists in name only.
And the movies followed, more corporate, less independent. For all their considerable crimes against decency it makes you miss Miramax and Dimension Films, whose track record was more miss than hit, but they were still chipping away at the studios. The 90s saw growing consolidation, the smaller scrappier production companies and studios fall by the wayside. It was the movie version of the Telecommunications Act doing the conglomerates’ dirty work. Like the great indie radio stations that broke Hip Hop and Alternative Rock and Grunge were subsumed by Clear Channel and I Heart Radio, the sharp edges filed away, those quirky unique voices stifled and buried beneath mounds of corporate newspeak.
[Not just in the US mind you – Canada has always followed the path trod by its older sibling. Canada and Toronto of the 80s and 90s had Much Music, YTV, and a host of independent TV stations. Now? Well, They all exist in some form but they are not the same.]
This is why Reservoir Dogs was such a lightning bolt for me and my film school friends. Toronto in 1992 felt like what San Francisco and Berkley must have felt like in 1966 going into 1967, or what Greenwich Village must have felt like to a NYU Freshman in 1961 – the epicenter of the universe. Reservoir Dogs premiered at TIFF the year I began film school. The musical revolution we were all seeing as Generation X asserted itself sonically was making its way over to the film world, and indie film, not studio films, were where things were exciting. Heck, the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series prompting thousands to pack Yonge Street, then two whole blocks from where I was living.
While technically a late stage boomer, Quentin Tarantino’s story is the prototypical GenX story. The latchkey single child of divorce, raised on TV in the wilds of LA while mom worked. A troubled youth, struggling in school, whose education came in watching movies over and over again. Working as a video store clerk in the now infamous Manhattan Beach Video alongside up and coming filmmakers Roger Avery and Craig Hamann.
Much of this is detailed, by the way, in Tarantino’s non-fiction book CINEMA SPECULATION, which I recently read. If you ever wanted to hear Tarantino opine on the legacy of his favorite era of film (the 70s) and some of those films – The Getaway, Bullitt, Taxi Driver, The Funhouse, Daisy Miller, Rolling Thunder, and more, I’m told there’s also an audiobook.
My tangential connection to QT came through my manager, his former manager Cathryn Jaymes. She helped usher him into the Hollywood system, beating the street and pounding on doors and putting his screenplays in front of producers and execs. Of course, once he was a certified star he dropped Cathryn because he didn’t need her to open doors. Yet despite all that bad blood to her dying day Cathryn still spoke highly of his work, once offering me a copy of his Inglorious Basterds screenplay a few years before the film came out. He had talent, she said, but he was an asshole. I can’t disagree. I do like his films despite the crappy way he treated people I liked. But that’s hardly the only case in my checkered career.
But to paint a picture of those early 90s years means painting a picture of my life circa 1992. Being in Toronto at RU meant being within close proximity to what must have been forty movie screens. Eaton Center, Uptown and Backstage, Plaza, Carleton, Varsity, that one on Queen. Those were walking distance. Beyond you had rep theaters The Bloor, The Paradise, The Royal, The Roncesvalles, The Revue. You had the Chinatown theaters, you had screenings at U of T and Ryerson. Toronto was a movie town and still the best movie town I ever lived in (and I’ve lived in NYC).
[It was also a music town. Don’t believe me? In my first four months of college alone I saw The Beat Happening, Grasshopper, Henry Rollins, Ministry, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice In Chains, Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Lowest of the Low, hHead, Mudhoney, Malhavok and probably a whole lot more musicians than I can easily recall now. Subsequent years would have me see Nirvana, Soul Asylum, The Breeders, Belly, Juliana Hatfield, PJ Harvey, Smashing Pumpkins, The Beastie Boys, Jesus and Mary Chain, Primus, Rage Against The Machine, Alice In Chains (again) and several consecutive years of Lollapalooza]
Now you have barely half that number of movie screens. Of the aforementioned The Varsity and the Carleton are all that remains. The rest were bulldozed and turned into condominiums. Downtown excitement was once just footsteps away but they paved paradise and put up a high-rise. Even the Yonge-Dundas epicenter died out. The big record stores like HMV, Sam the Record Man, A&A Records, the video arcades and head shops are all gone now too, replaced with bubble tea and vape shops. Everything has this grey paint wash on it, the color has been drained from everything. The busiest intersection in Canada now resembles any number of box stores. yes there’s street life, but it’s more a case of you getting from one building to another.
We were a different breed – Generation X. No way would we buy into the mainstream acceptance the way Gens Y and Z seem to want to. We hated being marketed too. Now it’s taken as an insult and a micro aggression when you’re not. We got old, we got sadly conservative. I recently read a poll saying more than 53% of currently registered Republican voters* identify demographically as Generation X. That is what really blows my mind and simultaneously bums me out. That people my age, who grew up on Star Wars and Steven Spielberg, who rocked out to The Cars and U2 and Nirvana and Lollapalooza, who were the first to go online, who snarked their way through South Park and Beavis and Butthead could becomes so mainstream and middle-class. Watching concert footage of those punky kids with the nose rings and hot pink hair-dye and trying to mentally age them up to forty and fifty-somethings with a suburban house, two SUVs and three kids, watching FOX News or whatever the Canadian equivalent is and letting the hatred algorithm drive them further away from the person they wanted to be.
As far as why Gen X made its mark when it did I would argue that it all boils down to demographics. While technically a late-stage Baby Boomer, Tarantino came of age in the 70s and early 80s so by the time the 90s rolled around he and filmmakers, storytellers, and musicians of his ilk with the similar shared cultural experience of Saturday morning Cartoons, Drive-In theaters, MTV, quirky syndicated TV stations and independent rock radio had “matured enough” to the point where the money-holders realized there was an untapped audience of young adults out there who grew up with the same touchstones. In other words, there’s a reason the 18-34 year old demographic is so favored by Madison Avenue ad companies.
Generation X was the first generation to grow up in a world with TV and music videos. Gens Y and Z had those same things, yes, but they had the internet as well, and it was the internet more than anything else that took what was once a shared cultural experience and splintered it into a thousand little subcultural pieces. In other words once MTV and Much Music stopped playing music videos, once YouTube and Spotify and streaming services became the norm, the idea of mass-media as a unifier died and was buried.
Reservoir Dogs felt like a signpost telling the world that things were going to be different. The Hollywood mainstream pap wasn’t going to cut it with GenX anymore. We were Smells Like Teen Spirit, not Teen Spirit the deodorant.
We were so naïve.
Because a few years later Cobain was dead and Tarantino next film, Pulp Fiction, won the Palm D’Ore at Cannes and became a genuine box office hit. A mainstream hit. He wouldn’t make a film like Reservoir Dogs again (though The Hateful Eight came close). But there was still that brief moment where it felt like we were taking over. That things would change.
The intervening thirty years have been good for QT. The rest of us not so much.
Every generation wants to change the world, especially when it is young. But the world is what changes us. It gives us experiences, it imparts its hard, sometimes harsh lessons upon us and one way we wake up and realize just how much time has passed. We seem to live in this state much of our lives where things like death and decline, aging and disease, occupy this almost abstract place in our minds. We’re aware of them but they seem nebulous, difficult to nail down or contextualize, until friends and family begin to pass away.
That’s the place I’m at right now. Depressing? Yes, but it is what it is and I can’t change that.
I feel increasingly distant from the world I once grew up in. Visiting Toronto last summer was a humbling experience. The city looked the same, the streets looked the same, but everything had changed. Towers stood where corner stores once sat. My muscle memory of being a Torontonian remained, but it was like I was walking and driving streets that were erected upon the ghostly remnants of my life. Close but not close enough.
You realize as you get older how temporary everything is. Your life, those milestones. The people whose lives you intersected with for only a brief while. old friends and family now gone. The old neighborhood restaurant hangout you once frequented is now condominiums. This can be depressing but in a way I feel liberated by it at the same time. That those things you fret and stress about turn out to be nothing. The part time job that made your life hell goes under, goes bankrupt, whatever.
In my mind the most important film of Tarantino’s career after Reservoir Dogs would be his last, most recent film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
Here’s a film set during Tarantino’s childhood of 1969 (he was born in 1963) that must still hold the same romance, the same nostalgia, as those early Toronto years of the 1990s now hold for me. A film told from the older, wiser perspective compared to the young angry man of 1992. A eulogy and an elegy to an era that was here for a moment, consigned to history the next.
For me those years and Reservoir Dogs‘ place in my memory were were a very brief moment when the world seemed a much more unknowable place. Where it felt like the big adult journey of my life was beginning which, in a way, it was. There’s a very long thread connecting the here and now to the way back when. But each year it gets a little more frayed, those years a little more distant before eventually fading altogether.
And so, as Nick Caraway said in The Great Gatsby, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
One of the many things I dislike about getting older (besides everything) is how boring and mundane my dreams have become. As an adult you sometimes forget how vivid, how epic your dreams were in your childhood. That age when the veil between what’s real and what isn’t is a lot more diaphanous than it becomes in the ordered, structured, logical everyday of the 9-5 life of the adult. Our child is still in the former age, where shadows lurking in the corners of his bedroom at night take on a malign, malevolent presence.
However, every now and then I do have one of those vivid, deep dreams where everything feels so real despite all signs of it not being so. One such dream I had last summer, not long before we took our end-of-summer vacation to Toronto, Canada.
It was in this dream that I found myself standing on my old street in my old Toronto neighborhood growing up, standing in front of the house I lived in from April 1982 to the end of June,1985. It was nighttime, and all was dark except the street lights. Most of the houses on my street were dark, except for ours, where warm, inviting light blazed from every window. The front door was closed, but somehow in that dream logic I knew it was unlocked. I knew I could walk up the driveway, mount the front step of the front porch, and open the door and I could step inside.
This also being a dream, I was performing these acts as I was thinking about them. I went up the step and found all the little details I had forgotten over the intervening years still there. The creeping ivy, the door to the garage, the doorbell.
So I opened the door and stepped inside the house, standing there for the first time in nearly forty years, and found it all exactly as I remembered it, save for the fact it was completely empty. The rooms were all where they should be but there was no furniture, no furnishings, no pictures or artwork, no signs that a family – any family – lived there.
I wandered through the house like I was some ghost, silent and unseen. I threaded my way through the main floor, the living room, the dining room, the kitchen. I moved down the hall to the living room, where I looked out the patio doors to the backyard and swimming pool we would spend the next three summers enjoying (now filled in by earth, if Google Earth is any indication).
I avoided the basement because, well, come on right? But I went upstairs, breezed through my parents’ room, my sister’s room, the spare bedroom, and finally stood in my old bedroom.
That was when I knew I wasn’t alone.
There was someone else in the house. Someone downstairs, waiting for me.
I slowly descended the steps to the main floor and found him in the family room. he was an older gentleman, who resembled the Glad Garbage Bag Man. White hair, white suit, white toothy smile. Really, really white.
I can’t really recall details of his face. Frankly he reminded me a bit of the actor William Daniels who played Dr. Craig on St. Elsewhere (also the voice of KITT from Knight Rider) with a bit of Efram Zimbalist Jr. from 77 Sunset Strip and The FBI (can you tell I watched a lot of TV as a kid?) thrown into the mix.
So anyway there I was, facing William/Efram/The GLAD Garbage Bag Guy. He told me that where I was standing was April 9, 1982. A Friday night. The next day was the day we – my family and I – would move into that house and live there for the next three years.
Okay, so far, so good.
He then told me I had a choice. I could stay there, and reset the clock, and wake up in my old room, my old bed, a fresh new day in April 1982. I would to my old school anew, I would meet my old friends again, I would live my life over again, from that point on, from then to the here and the now.
Every aging person’s dream, right? Haven’t we all, at some time or another, wished we could go back, reset the clock, and re-live our lives? To experience the things again that were gone to us now? Christmas dinners with family members no longer here. Amazing, transformative vacations and holidays? Seeing classic movies in the theater, for the first time again? To go through my teens and twenties and make smarter, possibly wiser decisions than I did at the time. Heck, even going to the video store to rent The Right Stuff or Robocop or Strange Brew on the day of their release would have been enough.
I have to say it was sorely tempting. But there was a catch. There always is.
William/Efram/The GLAD Garbage Guy explained I could have all those years back – all forty of them – but it would be the same life. The life I already lived. All the triumphs, all the pains, all the mistakes would be mine to make again. I would break my leg skiing in Vermont the following winter. I would endure a disastrous move to North Carolina three years down the road. I would witness the breakup of my parents’ marriage, I would have to endure those long, difficult, profoundly unhappy years of the late 90s-early 2000s again. I would end up in the same place I am now.
There would also be those moments of grace. Of profound happiness. Of meeting my future wife. Of the birth of our son. But those would be years away. Decades in some cases.
The most important thing to note, I was told, was that nothing would change. My memory of the future would essentially be wiped clean and I would revert back to that child again, and would live the next four decades identical to the ones that actually followed. I couldn’t change anything. I couldn’t make different decisions. All my mistakes and accidents and errors I would get to experience again for the first time.
All I had to do was go upstairs, to my bedroom. I’d find the furnishings from 1982 – my bed, my dresser, my desk. My Star Wars and Indiana Jones posters. My books, my toys, my games, all waiting for me. All I had to do was crawl under those covers and fall asleep and reawake in 1982 and reset the clock from that moment on. I’d have my bowl of Honeycomb or Honey Nut Cheerios for breakfast, I’d head out the door for the ten-fifteen minute walk to my school.
I would learn it all over again. I would discover favorite authors again. I would make those old friendships again. I would get to experience birthday parties at Chuck E Cheese, day trips to Canada’s Wonderland, a return to the world of three major TV networks and a dozen channels on the dial. I’d go back to TV sets with dials. I would discover David Bowie, Duran Duran, Queen, U2, The Cars, the Miami Vice Soundtrack, Alternative Rock and Grunge. I could see it all then and there in that moment; the safe and the familiar.
I could see my grandparents again, alive and well. Aunts and uncles no longer with us. Friends and faces long gone, brought back to me.
The other choice?
Wake up. Resume my life in the present day of 2022. The dream would remain just that – a strange dream, nothing more. I would resume my life where I left it off the night before. I would continue on as I have been these last few months.
I thought about it. I thought about all my life in the next forty years, and experiencing it all again, the good times and the bad. It was tempting. Very tempting. For who among us hasn’t wished they could go back to a time in their lives when life seemed simpler and happier and overall better?
But then I realized it would mean nothing, that the memory of those years was already with me, locked away inside.
Yet what really baked my noodle was what happened when I told the mysterious figure that, as tempting as a return to the world of 1982 was, my place was in the present, In 2022, in the life I had created for myself. Good and bad, it was where I belonged. Not as some shade reliving his life over and over again, but as an adult moving ever forward as we all must.
The man smiled, and said:
“I’m glad to hear you finally say that. Because we’ve had this conversation before. Twice, in fact. And both times previous you chose to go upstairs to your room.”
That was when I woke up. In 2022. In my bed, my wife sleeping beside me. My son in the next room over. I took a breath in, I let it out slow, and laid there until sunrise.
The past is very much on my mind as of late, especially through what has been a very difficult year. I’ll even go so far to say 2022 has been the worst year for me in recent memory. Over the past twelve months many people I knew or have known in some fashion have passed away. Some were quite old, some were younger than I. Some were anticipated. Others were shocks. I’m entering that age when people begin to leave. A trickle at first but soon that trickle becomes a flood as an older generation passes on. In the last twelve months I wrote and delivered the eulogy at one relative’s funeral; I’m currently penning the obituary for another relative. The father of my oldest, closest friend passed over the summer. Two of my wife’s uncles also passed – one suddenly so just a month or so after we visited him in Toronto.
Despite not being religious I am not so arrogant to believe in an absolute certainty such as death. None of us know it’s what comes next, if anything comes next. Wiser men and women have debated this since the beginnings of human civilization. But it’s a question we all find the answer to eventually.
But in reflection I have been looking back at my life a little more than I used to and I have done that a lot these last dozen or so years. The nostalgia of the past holds a much greater appeal because the past is there, it’s safe, and the people who are gone in the present are still alive back there.
I realize I have been fortunate and cursed by the fact that death has spared its intrusion into my life over the last 30-odd years. My grandparents both passed in the early 90s. An aunt and uncle passed in the early 2010s. And now this year. That’s where the difficulty come in; I know I won’t be spared such a lengthy period again.
I think the significance of that aforementioned dream is a reflection of that, because of the time and place. People will often talk about the best years of their lives. That time and place where they were – or at least felt were – their happiest. For me it was those years, 1982-1985, that house, that street, that neighborhood. I don’t think I was ever as happy as I was in those years, and that includes the time I broke my leg in a ski accident. Even now with all I do have – which is considerable – I find myself reflecting more on that time and place when I was happy, when I felt loved, when life was full of hope and promise. I look to the future with much less hope of things getting better than I did five, even ten years ago. I do the best I can, I put on the best brave face I can but it’s not something I can say I look forward to.
It’s funny how the big changes in life happen without you realizing it. Weirdly enough I was thinking about malls and mall culture and how they’re fading away, a temporary blip in the human landscape. Malls were a retail location, but they were also a meeting place. A place your teenage self went to be seen, and went to see others. A place where you worked your part-time after-school job. A place to to tell the world – or at least your very small part of it – that you exist.
[God, I can’t believe I’m actually nostalgic for shopping malls, but it’s 2022 and here we are.]
Social media and smart phones have eliminated that need now because now you can send out a photo of yourself, what you’re wearing, what you’re doing, to a wider range of people and places. But the interactions are a lot more shallow online; I’m talking a mile across and an inch deep here. Not that the food courts at the local shopping malls were the Algonquin Round Table, but you could sit there eating fries and run into someone you knew, and the trajectory of the evening or afternoon changed. Even if it was just a conversation, one party coming, the other going. Now it’s all by design, managed and algorithmic.
That’s why I subscribe to the view that loneliness is the challenge of our age, mental health wise. The pandemic exacerbated what was already an endemic problem for many of us. This sense of longing, a need for connection. Social media and smart phones in particular do a better job of driving us apart than bringing us together. Ask yourself, do you have more “friends” online than in real life? Think of the online friends you do have, how many do you also know in the real world and know well. What social media has done is given us the illusion of closeness. And it is an illusion. It’s made us susceptible to bad actors, bad influence. It’s given us a skewed, funhouse mirror version of reality presenting itself as fact.
I have found the best way to alleviate that loneliness is by strengthening the real-world/real-life relationships I do have. More one-on-one time with people, less screen-time and phone-time. To get out into my community more frequently, to not be in such a rush to drop my kid off and pick him up from school. To take pause from all that the 21st century tries to continuously shove down our throats.
That is why I’m stepping away from this website for a spell. Ditto the remaining social media I still use. I gave up Twitter in 2019 (well before Elon Musk dropped in to finish the beast off), my wife runs the Facebook page, and I have a small private Instagram page to keep me distracted with photos from travel and art accounts, and to keep up with friends I’ve made over the years. But I think going forward into 2023 my focus will be on two things; writing things that actually matter, and living my life in The Real. The hard truth of it is I have more miles behind me than I have remaining in front, and that just makes me want to spend what time I do have left going all in on what I want to make my priorities.
So those are my thoughts as we head into 2023. There will be no December or January updates to this website as I plan to take a hiatus from posting through the holidays and likely will not be returning until spring. I do have more content planned for 2023, including a couple more installments of my surprisingly popular “Celluloid Heroes” series, and a new short story that will drop just before summer. I may also take a deep-dive appreciation of another favorite album from a favorite band, and probably some surprises as well.
So on that note, good-bye for now, happy holidays, and if you happen to have a dream of standing in your childhood home with the GLAD Garbage Bag Guy who offers you a chance to go back and live it all again, think very carefully before you decide.
October is my favorite month of the year. The month where the blast-furnace heat of summer has finally departed, where the days are shorter, the air crisper, the autumnal colors exploding everywhere. Where I can wear that jacket that makes me look cool.
And of course, October is Halloween month. Not day – month. That’s when I turn my personal preferences in media – film, TV, books – changes to the strange, the dark, the unusual. Halloween is the one holiday-that-isn’t that everyone is free to celebrate in his/her/their own way.
I would argue that to know the truly inherent kindness of people, look to Halloween. That one night of the year where people will decorate their homes and give out candy to children with promise of nothing in return other than spreading about a little bit of magic and wonder before the long, dark onset of winter. Unlike Christmas and Easter and the religious holidays Halloween is for everyone. There’s no agenda, no moralizing – well, except for the religulous (NOT a typo) types who loudly – always loudly – proclaim we’re going to hell for giving some snack-size M&Ms to a kid dressed as Peppa Pig.
Halloween month for me is always a magical time. It always has been, from when I was a young tyke in a home-made Darth Vader costume cobbled together from Glad trash bags and a store-bought mask, to a teenager whose Halloween night meant watching horror movies with friends, to the now parent of a child who anticipates Trick or Treating with almost as much delight as his father does.
Yet October represents another seasonal moment in my life, recurrent since I was around twelve going on thirteen, as October is the month I will inevitably drag out my old paperback copy of this book for an annual reread:
Something Wicked This Way Comes is the book I’ve read more than any other. Something Wicked may be my favorite book solely because it’s had an outsized influence on my own writing. Not directly (though it is referenced in Magicians Impossible) but thematically.
Looking at my work (Mixtape in particular), Something Wicked is the one that’s left the deepest mark. Not for the magic and mystery, nor the terrors of Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, its hall of mirrors, its Dust Witch, its cursed carousel.
No, it’s for the central relationships in the novel.
I’ve been thinking of Something Wicked a lot lately for many reasons, not the least of which was a trip back home over the summer that saw us driving through the small town where I lived out my teenage years (the same town that became basis for Garrison Creek – the town where Mixtape is set). There’s something about revisiting the places of your youth; the places you couldn’t wait to leave, only to now wish, in some small way, you could return to. As Teo Stone in Magicians Impossible described, “You spend half your life trying to run away from home and the rest of your life trying to run back to it.”
Seeing my old stomping grounds was an experience. A sad one in some ways. The old town hasn’t done so well in the years since I lived there. Factories closed, people moved. Indeed it is one of a select number of small-to-mid-sized towns in that part of the country that experienced negative population growth. When I lived there in the late 80s and early 90s its population sat at around 21,000 people. Today in 2022 its population sits at … around 22,000 people. That’s thirty years of negative growth. People grew up, they moved away, and the aging population just … left. Some relocated, some moved, some passed away.
In a way I wish I hadn’t visited it at all. I wanted to preserve the memory of what it was, not what it had become. The same feeling carried itself with me when I was able to reconnect with some high school friends during that same holiday, the six of us convening at a patio in Toronto’s west end. It had been years since I’d seen any of them – one I hadn’t seen or spoken to in nearly 25 years. The last time that group had all been together at the same time in the same place would have been the night before we all left that small-town for the big city, for college, for the beginnings of our adult lives. THAT particular night had occurred almost 30 years earlier to the date we met again on the Danforth.
It was a fun gathering but again, a little sad. Thirty years ago we were all teenagers at the beginning of our adult lives. Thirty years from now, well, the odds are good we won’t all be here anymore. Hard and sad but true. The fact that over the past year a good half-dozen people I’ve known or known of have passed away really hits hard. People I went to school with. Spouses and parents of friends and colleagues, and people even closer than that
Something Wicked is about that impulse as stated by Teo Stone – that we spend half our lives trying to run away from home and the rest of those lives trying to run back to it in some fashion, right down to those childhood touchstones – the movies, the books, the music – that got us through those sometimes difficult times. It’s about looking past the borders of your home, your neighborhood, your small little piece of the world, anxiously stepping over that threshold, only to look back and see that single step has carried you miles from there. In distance. In years. In experience.
On the surface, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a story principally of two thirteen year-old friends, Jim and Will, and their harrowing experiences with the mysterious and enigmatic Mr. Dark of Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show. However, the novel also touches on several of the townsfolk of Green Town, Illinois, who all must struggle with one of the oldest conflicts known to humankind; a deal too good to be true. A devil’s bargain. It’s the story of Faust, set in Depression-era America. A place that, at the time of Something Wicked‘s publication in 1962 was as far removed from that present day as the 1990s are today. No doubt there were some in the early years of the space age who looked back on the 1930s with a wistfully golden nostalgia; Rod Serling’s work on The Twilight Zone in particular demonstrated this in stories like “Walking Distance” (my personal favorite TZ story) and “A Stop In Willoughby”. The shanty-towns, dustbowl, and Hoovervilles of the dirty thirties never made an appearance. In Bradbury’s case he both looks back at those childhood years with fondness but also acknowledges the darkness of an insular small-town upbringing. It’s the flip-side to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, and the current waves of nostalgia masquerading as content we see today on Disney Plus.
That’s the premise. The story, however, is of these two friends, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, both thirteen, both unaware that life is already pulling them apart. Will (whose last name – Halloway, recalls both Halloween and “away” meaning he’s destined for greater things) born just before midnight on October 30. Jim, born just after 12:01am on October 31st is the Nightshade; the Dionysian opposite of his friend. the troubled kid. The kid who’ll never amount to anything but trouble (and yes, the kid knows this). Yet these two are friends for life, but life is, as always, far too fleeting and much too brief.
Second, more importantly, is the relationship between Will Halloway and his by then middle-age father Charles. The book is written as a reflection from an adult Will, meaning by the time of its telling Charles is no doubt long in his grave. Charles is old for a parent to a thirteen year-old and knows it, like Will knows himself. He’s janitor at the local library (the so-so 1984 film adaptation starring Jason Robards – a movie which led me to seek out the book – re-cast him as the town librarian, presumably because janitors couldn’t be heroes in the 1980s). Charles mourns his youth, and fears the coming years of his health failing while his only son is still young. Charles of course, is the real hero of the tale, which becomes as much about defeating the insidious Mr. Dark as it is in Will saving Charles, and Charles saving everyone else. Something Wicked is about the end of childhood, and the realization that not every friendship stays with you. It’s also about the realization that your parents will someday pass on and make you truly an orphan.
I think of this book at this time of year, every year. But this year in particular its bite is a little deeper. Death has been making more frequent appearances in my life. This year in particular has reminded me of autumn, of final goodbyes before winter’s onset. The older generation, my parents generation, the Baby Boomers passing away.
It echoes what I wrote about back in August, about the movie Stand By Me and the novella it’s based on. Stephen King’s work is full of Bradbury’s influence – note the blurb on the book cover further up – though perhaps a little less whimsical; the depression era Green Town Illinois, replaced by the vampiric ‘Salem’s Lot and the haunted Overlook Hotel. King, that master of horror, made a career of charting childhood innocence and the loss of it, in Gordy, Chris, Vern, and Teddy from The Body but also Danny Torrance from The Shining and the Losers Club from It. I started reading King because I was a fan of horror. I became a fan of King because of his writing so succinctly captured life’s little triumphs and tragedies. Of being young, and seeing the adult world encroaching like a freight train on a railway trestle. Of those four friends – Gordie and Chris, Teddy and Vern – and that one fateful weekend in 1959 and how it represented the beginning of the end of that once close friendship.
Something Wicked now reminds me of myself and my relationship with my son, who’s at that age now where he’s able to take his bike and go riding with his friends, to have adventures in our little suburban corner of the world. I watch him ride off and hope he’s careful and mindful of traffic, but also that he not ride his bike too quickly. To not make those wheels spin so fast that sooner than either of us realizes it he’s left home. The carousel at the heart of Bradbury’s novel can make the old young and the young old, but only on the outside; the mind remains the same. A child could age into an adult but posses none of the wisdom of adulthood. An elderly woman can return to their youthful self, though plagued by the loss of memory, the slowing of thought, the onset of dementia and senility. Bradbury’s warning here is to enjoy where you were in life, be you child, middle-aged, or elderly.
Being the older-than-the-average parent to a child still in his single digits weighs heavy on those 3am wakeups. At the same time I think of all the experiences yet to come and realize the key to remaining young at heart is to be in the presence of the young. The ones who still taking delight at the sight of a bird, or an inch-worm, who still believes in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, that this heartbreaking world of ours can still contain some magic.
I often wondered what became of Will and Jim. Will was clearly not long for Green Town. You could sense he was destined for greater things, and the fact that the book is written as a recollection an older Will is making of that fateful October many years before. Jim, however, probably stayed. Living, working, aging, and dying in that little patch of rural Illinois. Maybe he lived a long life, certainly long enough to see his town, his world change. Maybe he met someone, married, and started a family of his own. Maybe he lived old enough to see his children and their friends grow up, grow older, and move away. Left behind as one of those people who just stayed there, to age and watch the town he knew change, and the people he loved pass on and pass away. Living in a town and a time rapidly becoming another phantom, another shade of what once was.
And Will? Well, he clearly became a writer. He became Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles, A Sound of Thunder, The Halloween Tree, The Illustrated Man, and Fahrenheit 451. But I wonder if Ray too, in his later years, thought back to the friends he had, the people he knew, that small town of his that grew and changed so much it wasn’t his anymore. Just a place occupied by shades of memory.
It’s the same reason my old hometown still holds a piece of mental real estate for me. Not a grave, but a memory of what once was. It was shocking and a little sad to see and hear second-hand through an old acquaintance how the town had fallen on hard times after we all left. This friends’ mother was a teacher who witnessed first-hand generational poverty, in the faces of the kids she taught before her retirement, the off-spring of the children she’d taught at the start of her career. Still trapped in that vicious circle.
There’s a song by the Kinks (naturally) I keep coming back to, called “Do You Remember, Walter?” In the song Ray Davies’ narrator recalls an old school friend, wondering what became of him. Ray wrote the song at age twenty-three; quite prescient for a rock and roll song. But the lyric that jumps out at me is the one that goes —
Do you remember, Walter, how we said we’d fight the world so we’d be free? We’d save up all our money and we’d buy a boat and sail away to sea But it was not to be I knew you then but do I know you now?
Walter. Jim and Will. The Losers Club. Gordy and Chris, Teddy and Vern.
My old friends. Some still here, still friends in the day-to-day, but many more of them forgotten. Some not here at all.
The people you share that ride on the carousel with for a time, but eventually they climb off and resume their lives, the common experience of being together fading as you move off and move on with your life.
But memories still remain, whispers in the night reminding you that we’re all on the same journey. Unlike Cooger and Dark’s carousel there’s but one way forward; a journey every one of us takes. But what we do on that ride … that’s up to us.
So a commenter – hi Bailey – asked if I was doing the “31 Days of Halloween” Movie-TV challenge (in which you attempt to watch one movie or horror-themed TV show a day for the 31 days of October. As it happens this year was the first year I attempted it. But to make things more challenging I decided to watch only horror-spooky movies and TV I had NEVER seen before so it was all new. I did all of that, my reward would be a viewing of John Carpenter’s The Thing on Halloween night (a movie I have seen and numerous times). As of this writing I did it – 30 never-before seen spooky entertainments in 30 days:
It’s hard to believe, especially for me, but it was a half-decade ago that my first novel Magicians Impossible entered the world on September 12, 2017. It was a busy time. The stresses of fatherhood, of working while promoting my first ever novel all combined forces to end up making 2017 a pretty hectic year overall.
[As to the status of my next novel, that’s on hold for the time being as I’m up to my neck in the Mixtape TV series. We film the pilot teaser later this month with everything being delivered to the network in early December, so just by typing this paragraph I’m now two weeks behind.]
The book tour for Magicians was loads of fun. Hollywood Boulevard. Orange County. San Diego. The Mysterious Bookshop. Bakka Books. And many other points in between. Podcasts, interviews, guest articles, reviews both glowing and, er, not so glowing. “Best Debut” according to Suspense Magazine. Starred reviews in Booklist, Library Journal, School Library Journal. Thanks for all of this and more go out to my editor Brendan Deneen, himself an accomplished author, as well as publicists, marketers, designers, and overall great people at St. Martins Press/Thomas Dunne Books for all their hard work in getting Magicians Impossible into the world.
That was five years ago today.
And in those five years since its publication , the question I’ve been asked more than any other about Magicians Impossible – in interviews, in reviews, on podcasts, and many years after the fact is “will there be a sequel”.
I’ve long been cagey about it, citing the usual “if there’s interest, if the first book does well enough bla bla bla-de-bla.”
But I’ve had a secret I’ve hidden from the world ever since the promotional cycle of Magicians Impossible began
There was never going to be a sequel.
There was never intended to be a sequel.
That’s because, in a way, you already read it.
Magicians Impossible was conceived, written, and released into the world as a one-and-done story. I never planned for there to be a sequel or continuation of the published novel.
The original version of the novel was much different after the midpoint. Following the events in The Louvre, the story originally went in a completely different direction, culminating in a grand Battle Royale atop the various levels of the Eiffel Tower where The Invisible Hand and The Golden Dawn squared off in an epic conclusion that set the stage for more stories in the series, and a continuation eventually leading to the equally epic Battle of the Citadel.
The fact that we reach The Battle of the Citadel in the third act of the published story (and not say in in book six or seven of a multi-year series) would indicate that things changed. It was my decision too – not Brendan’s, not anyone else’s. I wanted to get to The battle of Hogwarts, essentially, in book one. Point of fact I called my illustrious editor and said “hey, I have a new idea to pursue” which was basically me taking all those wild and crazy ideas for later in a proposed series and moving them up into Book One and Only. I wanted to make Star Wars when it was just Star Wars. Not Episode IV, not A New Hope, not one of nine installments in “The Skywalker Saga”. Just a one-and done story with no promise of more to come.
“But Brad, with everything fantasy expected to be part of an overall epic story, didn’t you essentially shoot yourself in the foot?”
“Yes. Yes I did. And I’d do it again.”
For me the best stories, the ones that resonated most with me as a child, as an adult, were the ones that were one and done. Ray Bradbury never wrote a sequel to Something Wicked This Way Comes, Stephen King never penned a follow-up to The Body (a.k.a. “Stand By Me”) although that story’s teenage hoodlum nemesis Ace Merrill did pop up now and again in subsequent King novellas and novels, most notably in Needful Things. My favorite novel by my favorite contemporary author, the great Joe R. Lansdale titled The Bottoms, was a one-and done with a definitive conclusion which makes that book so much more precious to me (spoken as a ride-or-die fan of Lansdale’s own Hap & Leonard series of crime novels)
Magicians Impossible, the book, ends with Jason Bishop’s rejecting his calling. The eons-old battle between The Golden Dawn and the Invisible Hand continues but Jason refuses to be a part of it. He’s discovered his past, he’s discovered himself, and by the time he connects with the greatest mystery in his life – spoiler alert; his father – he’s found his place in the world. The place he’s spent his life searching for. His arc is concluded. The story of Magicians Impossible is, essentially, a character-driven tale. With Jason’s journey as a character complete there really isn’t anywhere for him to go that wouldn’t be a retread of a story already told.
That’s the end of the story. The end of his story.
Thanks for buying and reading and leaving a nice review on Amazon or Goodreads.
Now … that being said …
As I finished the last final round of edits and sent the book off to my publisher I asked myself what did happen next, on that train, when Damon and Jason were sitting across from each other? I didn’t go so far as to plot out a whole second novel, but I did let ideas stew as I asked “what if there is a little bit more in the tank?”
Enough to push us over that next rise in the road to see what’s on the other side?
So today, on Magicians Impossible‘s fifth birthday, I have a little gift for everyone who read the book, enjoyed the book, befriended me because of the book, and constantly asked me “will there be a sequel”.
This is not that sequel.
But it is a bit of a coda, detailing what happened between father and son on that long train ride back to Manhattan.
So without any further ado I give you …
SPITE THE DEVIL: A MAGICIANS IMPOSSIBLE STORY
The gentle rock of the train had driven Jason Bishop underwater, into a dark, warm calm that reminded him of death. It was peaceful there. It was quiet. The considerable cares of the world but a distant memory. It was a wonderful dream, but the tricky thing about dreams was you always awoke from them in the end. And so when Jason’s eyes opened the first thing he noticed was the deck of playing cards on the seat next to him. The next was the figure sitting across from him. Jason studied the man quietly, like he was running every possible scenario through his head. That was good, and smart as well; in a world of magic you never could be too certain the person sitting across from you was the person they seemed. Finally, Jason settled back in his seat.
“You owe me a hell of an explanation, you know that?” he asked.
“A good magician never reveals his secrets,” Damon King replied. “But I should probably make an exception in your case.”
“We’re an hour out from New York. Will that be enough time?”
“Should be,” said Damon. “Though to be fair I’m dying for a drink.”
“I know a place near Fort Tryon.”
“Time enough for me to answer some of those questions of yours?”
“Time enough to answer all of them.”
Damon settled back in his seat. He tented his fingers and flashed a grin.
“So where would you like to start?”
Jason raised the deck of cards. “How about a magic trick?”
Damon nodded, slowly. He knew what came next. The question was; did Jason?
“You sensed them too?” Damon asked.
“From the moment I stepped on the train.”
“You tell me; you’re the Mage.”
Jason stared at Damon silently. Then, he closed his eyes.
Damon leaned forward and could see his son’s pupils darting back and forth behind his eyelids. Seeking was a simple enough trick for a Mage; not unlike REM sleep. It was like those moments in bed, when you could sense someone else slip inside the room before you opened your eyes.
“First one’s three rows in from the rear doors,” Jason said. “You know the type; the Alpha Male with the bushy hillbilly beard they think makes them look like some Special Forces badass but in reality hides bad skin and a weak fucking chin?”
Damon nodded. Not bad. Not bad at all. “Who else?”
Jason shook his head. “Quid pro quo, Clarice; you ask me something I ask you something back.”
Damon checked his watch.
“We have time,” Jason said.
“We’ll be to Spuyten Duyvil in twenty minutes. We have time, just not a lot of it.”
“Twenty minutes?!” Jason shook his head. “We’re nowhere near close to – ”
“This train is about to go express. But you were saying …?”
“Last fall, at Murder Hill. I scattered your ashes there, like you requested. I poured them in, I waited. I expected … something to happen. Only ‘something’ never did.”
Damon smiled. That had been the last test of Jason’s training; the one Carter Block, leader of the Invisible Hand, had failed to anticipate when he’d hatched his plot. He’d thought Jason would be just another pawn, a powerful Bishop on his chessboard. But Carter hadn’t anticipated that Jason was a King and the son of a Queen.
“What were you expecting?” Damon asked. “A big pillar of water, a puff of smoke, your dear departed dad returning to save the day?”
“Kind of. Yeah.”
“Well, to answer your question, yes, returning my ashes to the water was what I needed for you to pull me back out of the Pocket. But returning from death isn’t a simple matter. It’s … painful. Exhausting. Even when I did return I didn’t know who I was, where I’d come from. I was just a shadow, struggling to manifest a corporeal form. It took months to return completely.”
“But what I don’t understand is –”
“Uh-uh, my turn. Who else?”
Jason leaned back in his seat and furrowed his brow. The train was rocking faster now. It didn’t slow as it rolled through Ossining, leaving confused commuters and conductors and dispatchers in its wake. It accelerated as it raced to meet and blast through the next stop.
It was beginning.
And they were running out of time.
“The woman, midway-down, window seat,” Jason said. “Hitchcock blonde. Business professional. Very well put-together. Why’s she on her way to the city and not out of it?”
“Lots of people reverse commute,” Damon offered.
“Not on a Tuesday afternoon and not carrying a Gucci handbag they don’t. The genuine article, not a Canal Street knock-off. I could tell that when I boarded. The bigger give-away were the shoes. They look fresh-out-of-the-box. Never worn before today. That’s a hell of a gamble on the Metro North no matter where you board. Clumsy feet, scuff-marks –”
“Then how did she board the train?” Damon asked.
“My serve.” Jason picked up the deck, opened it, and slipped the cards out. “Our little chess-game. That was all real. It happened. But where was it? You mentioned a ‘Pocket’?”
Now it was Damon’s turn to lean back.
“Carter didn’t tell you everything.”
Jason began to shuffle. Marking the cards. Making them his. An extension of his own self. That was good; he was going to need them shortly.
“Pockets are Way-Points between this world and the magical,” Damon began.
“A Soft Place,” Jason interrupted. “How Mages move instantaneously to points on a map. Or moved – past tense.” He smiled, awkwardly. “I, uhh, kind of broke all that last time ‘round.”
“That’s why we’re on a train.” Damon continued. “With the destruction of the Citadel, Soft Places have become much harder to access, but they still exist. Soft places are how we traveled between worlds, how we opened a door in Los Angeles and walked out into Moscow. Way-Points are kind of like highway rest stops. Some are massive; some are only the size of a sitting room. They’re a place to catch your breath; a place where the rules of Magic don’t work. A place where the Mages of old could meet to parlay without threat of battle.”
“When the Temple of Bones collapsed, I remember falling …”
“Was that a question?”
Damon nodded knowingly. The Temple of Bones had been a hiding place for the Golden Dawn, beneath the Paris Catacombs. It had been destroyed by Damon’s protégé, Allegra Sand, with Jason in the middle of it. He’d been struck unconscious, but the rending of the Temple had opened a Soft Place, and deposited him in the Pocket where Damon could reach him.
“It’s no coincidence the phrases ‘falling to sleep’ and ‘falling unconscious’ employ identical adjectives.” Damon said. “Unconsciousness is not quite dreaming but it is close enough. All the unconscious mind needs is someone already inside a Way-Point to pull them in. That’s where I was and that’s where I was waiting. I couldn’t reach you in the Citadel; not awake, not in dreams. I could only do so when you were outside, in the mundane world. Now, who else?”
The train rocketed past Scarborough. Angry shouts filled the car, from passengers facing a longer-than-usual commute back north, from crew just as confused as their angry patrons. The only two who weren’t perturbed were, notably, Special Forces and Hitchcock Blonde. The noise made Seeing more difficult. It wasn’t until they were on the approach to Irvington that Jason was able to isolate the third.
“The Influencer,” Jason said.
On the opposite side of the car a few rows back, a raven-haired woman in designer shades, designer dress, was clutching a designer phone case and flashing an alluring expression for the benefit of her iPhone and who-knew-how-many social media followers.
“She’s not complaining to her followers that the Metro North just blew through the last two stops,” Jason continued. “Influencers live for that shit. They wither and die without attention.”
“Well done,” Damon said. “But we’ll have to continue the quid pro quo portion of the conversation another time.” He tented his fingers and stared into space. “We’re approximately fourteen miles from where this train makes the curve at Spuyten Duyvil; where the Harlem River meets the Hudson. At a normal rate of speed, that trip takes twenty-seven minutes–”
More angry shouts sounded as the train accelerated past Irvington, now bound for Dobbs Ferry.
“At the current rate, this train will take that bend in fifteen minutes. It’ll hit the curve at over one hundred twenty miles an hour. I don’t need to paint a picture of what happens if that happens, but if I do, it will utilize a lot of red.”
“I suppose that means someone has to stop this train,” Jason mused.
“Which means stopping the four Mages aboard it first.”
“Two cars up. The one manipulating whoever’s manning the controls in the locomotive.”
Jason pocketed the deck of cards and cracked his knuckles.
“Well let’s get this done.” He moved to stand. “I’ll take Special Forces if you want to –” “There is one other thing…”
Jason stared at Damon, and then sunk back into his seat.
“There always is …”
“Ley Lines. They’re conduits between Soft Places. Not as powerful; more like tributaries feeding into a river. The entire world is crisscrossed with Leys. They’re how the first Mages were able to map Soft Places in the beginning.” Damon tapped his arm-rest with his finger. “This particular line intersects with a Ley just below Greystone. It runs straight south from there to just above Spuyten Duyvil. While we’re on that particular stretch of track, magical abilities will be amplified.”
“So we hit hard, it lands harder?”
“And the inverse. This particular Ley is powerful. Short but strong. Any magic utilized while on it will be amplified tenfold. Bad for us, bad for anyone on this train not a Mage.”
“So what you’re saying is we need to stop these four before that happens.”
“In five minutes, at current rate of speed.”
“Sounds impossible,” said Jason.
He raised hands over his face and slowly dragged them down and as he did his visage changed as the Enchantment did its work. Gone was the face not so dissimilar to Damon’s own. In its stead was that of a much older man’s; the shell Jason had worn to his uncle’s funeral earlier that day. The same he’d boarded the train with. His sandy-blonde hair went silver-gray, his taut face muscles went soft, his cheeks jowly, his eyes sunken into recesses of tired flesh. He looked, Damon reflected, exactly what you’d expect to see at a funeral.
But still, Jason’s youthful eyes glittered from his now aged face.
“Fortunately, ‘Impossible’ is our specialty,” he said.
Ramon Santos was so busy getting an earful from seemingly everyone in the car he barely noticed the old man in the black suit until he was right in front of him. The Metro North conductor was just as confused, just as angry, as everyone else. Maybe even more so, because he sensed that this was all going to land on his head and hard. Bullshit always ran downhill, and Ramon was at the bottom of the ramp. Just his luck; his first week on the job and he already had his hands full with a speeding train not making its scheduled stops, no response from the engineer, dispatch screaming at him through his walkie, and a baker’s dozen passengers throwing their Noo Yawk attitudes in his face, the same they did every time something went wrong. There was nothing that he could recall in the manual or months of training that told him what to do in case of a speeding train other than tucking your head between your legs and kissing your ass goodbye. So he was well and unprepared for the old man as he grabbed Ramon by the lapels, and pulled him close.
“On the floor! NOW!” he shouted
Almost simultaneous, Ramon felt something heavy press down, like a blast of air had hurtled down upon him and the other passengers milling about. They all hit the floor hard and stayed there. Ramon was the only one facing down the car, so he was the only one on the train outside its participants, to watch a battle unfold.
The old man pivoted and thrust his hands out, and a blast of … something … catapulted a muscular, bearded passenger out of his seat and into the reinforced glass of the window beside him, cracking it under the force of the blow and splintering the glass lengthwise. The shock of this moment was doubled as the passenger recovered and crouched on the window itself. He yanked his shirt sleeves down to reveal tattoos comprised of words and symbols crisscrossing his powerful forearms. He slammed those arms together. A shockwave hammered the air and propelled the old man into the seats opposite. The old man’s skin disappeared in puff of smoke, dissipating and revealing a thirty-something man Ramon didn’t remember even seeing board the train.
Further down a well-dressed man stood, and faced one, then a second woman opposite. The two women seemed to be in league with each other because the ice-cold blonde made a pushing motion with her hands that propelled the second girl at the other man. As she rocketed at him she disappeared in a burst of smoke that split the air with a thunderclap and shattered windows all down the length of the car. The glass splintered but held, thanks to its engineering but the cracks widened with each jolt of the train as it rocketed down the tracks. The Dobbs Ferry station was an indistinct blur of grey and green through fractured glass.
And impossibly, the train was still accelerating.
The second girl erupted from a blast of smoke behind the well-dressed man. Her hands clenched into fists that glowed red, then white-hot, then nearly translucent. Ramon felt the hairs on his arms and neck stand rigid. He could smell ozone in the air.
What the hell was happening?!
A hand grasped his. The thirty-something man’s face was inches from Ramon’s.
“Get everyone off this car!” he shouted.
He swiped left with his hand. Behind Ramon, the door leading to the next car up slid open. The man then pushed with that same hand and Ramon felt himself slide backward along with the other screaming passengers. Ramon didn’t wait for further instruction; he scrambled to his knees, grabbed the nearest passenger, and hauled them back with him.
“C’mon people let’s MOVE!” he shouted.
Further down, Ramon saw the younger woman thrust out with her hands. White-hot energy erupted from her palms. The well-dressed man either saw them or sensed them because he pivoted smoothly, and redirected the energy with his hands, sending them slamming into the blonde woman and catapulting her backward with a pained, surprised yelp.
Something slipped from the younger man’s jacket sleeve. It was a deck of cards.
“What the fu –” Ramon began.
“Sorry. Trade secret,” the younger man said.
He swiped his hand right. The door slid shut, and there was a harsh metallic rending sound.
The passenger car shuddered and screamed –
Then there was just the clatter of wheels on the track. Ramon stood and stared out the window to see the front two cars of the train and its locomotive screaming ahead, doubling the speed the tail of the train was diminishing by, slowing with each clatter of rails under its wheels. By the time the Metro-North’s five rear cars had come to a gentle stop Ramon Santos could only wonder what the hell had just happened, and what was still happening somewhere down track on that runaway train.
The card deck in his hand felt like an extension of his own being. It had been months since he’d last wielded one in battle but it had been a long winter and he’d had plenty of time to practice. He parted the deck swiftly and pivoted as Special Forces propelled himself off the window and landed in the aisle mid-way down. Special Forces thought this would be easy.
Special Forces was about to learn a hard lesson.
Jason dealt the cards in a flurry, sending them on their deadly path. Special Forces quickly cast a defensive spell, scattering the cards, sending them wild. The bulk buried themselves in seatbacks and ceiling, but the ones that remained the most found their carefully-aimed marks, slicing Special Forces’ arms, slashing a groove across his cheek, and giving his bushy beard a trim. He retreated, trying to cast spells by mashing the tattooed markings on his arms together in an attempt to form a word, a command to unleash hell back on Jason.
Special Forces wasn’t looking so “special” now.
Further down, Damon had his hands full with the twins, as he was calling the two women he was facing off against. He recognized their magic, but not them, even though they were natural-born Mages; not conjurers like the Golden Dawn, presently getting his ass handed to him by Jason. They must have been Carter’s acolytes. Or maybe new recruits. Either way, they were definitely –
“Invisible Hand, huh?” Damon asked. “I guess this means I’m off the team.”
“It’s a new world now, old man.” Influencer smiled. “And you’re history.”
“Your time is over,” Hitchcock Blonde added. Her clenched fists crackled with malignant energy. “Our time is beginning and we will –”
Damon unleashed the full deck. Not at her but past her, striking the glass behind her, widening the cracks, tearing the opening wider, wider still. Air rushed in and that coupled with the speed of the train did the rest. The entire window exploded outward, the wind howling its way inside. It was enough distraction for a quick jolt of a push from Damon to catapult Hitchcock Blonde out the window and off the train entirely.
He turned to face Influencer. The cards swept back through the air past her, and filled his waiting hand with a perfectly shaped deck.
“First rule, kid? Show, don’t tell, and certainly don’t talk when you should –”
Something lurched. But it wasn’t the train, it wasn’t the compartment; it wasn’t even Damon. He wasn’t the only one who felt it too. He could see it in the stunned expression on Influencer’s face. In the brightening glow on Special Force’s tattooed arms.
The Metro North had crossed over. They were riding the Ley Line.
“You feel that?” Special Forces asked. “Yeah, you feel that; that vibration in your fillings? Those hairs standing on end. That electricity in the air, that …” He sniffed dramatically. “… that burnt-metal aroma? That’s power just waiting to be tapped.” Special Forces’ tattoos burned white hot, and Jason had to avert his eyes from their brilliance. “Unlimited power.”
Jason unleashed his remaining cards. They cut their deadly path through the air with Ley-fueled lethality, but Special Forces merely gave them a disgusted flick of the wrist, scattering them and embedding several into the walls, floor, and seats of the passenger car.
Special Forces raised his hands. With a mighty rending the passenger car shuddered as chairs and tables were wrenched from their mounts and brackets and catapulted at Jason. He had a moment’s grace and took it, focusing on a point further down, and blinking towards it, past Special Forces, past the debris hurtling at the empty space Jason was standing in a heartbeat before. He got clear of it for the most part; a glancing, painful blow across the shoulders from the last of the seats twisted him about and sent him crashing.
Special Forces raised his hands again. The debris piled about him lifted off the floor.
“Remember what I told you!” someone behind him shouted.
A man’s voice. Damon’s voice. And a reminder.
That the Ley Lines amplified everything.
Special Forces directed the wreckage full-blast at Jason, who raced forward and thrust his hands out at the precise moment of what would have been impact. The fragments stopped on a dime and blasted back at their thrower, slamming arms and legs and chest, pinning him to the door and holding him as the remaining projectiles crashed into him and burying him beneath their ruin.
Jason could feel the energy pulse through him. His muscles, his very veins trembled with white-hot adrenaline. He felt like he could do anything.
The train car began to roll, like it had uncoupled from the tracks. Jason lurched, staggered, and fell against a wall. He was going over. The entire train was going over. He slid up the wall to the roof, felt himself dragged across that by the incredible force of the barrel roll.
Influencer was standing on the ceiling, now the floor, perfectly perched and seemingly unaffected by the warping of the compartment. She had her hands cupped before her, like she was cradling something round and precious in her hands. As she twisted her hands, manipulating the unseen shape, her movements were matched by the rolling of the train car.
This wasn’t a derailment. This was magic. Unlike anything Jason had seen or experienced.
And by the looks of things, neither had Damon. He was pinned against the same ceiling as Jason, only he was trying to push himself back off it. Influencer countered, sending the train and its occupants, save her, careening and falling with the movement of the train.
One-eighty degrees. Three-sixty.
And around again.
This isn’t real, Jason thought. It’s an illusion. She’s enchanting us, destabilizing our equilibrium.
He fell to the floor, bouncing hard off a chairback and landing harder on the ground.
Feels pretty damn real to me …
A hastily discarded iPhone tumbled across the floor between them, as they held on. The phone slid up the incline, up the wall, and was sucked out the window as it rolled over the tracks. Twin beams of steel were briefly visible, then there was the embankment, houses and high-rises racing by, the blue sky above. The train was corkscrewing again.
Jason could sense the crash of debris a moment before he could hear it. Special Forces was freeing himself from his prison. A quick glance confirmed it; the conjurer was bruised, battered, bloodied, his eyes burning hatred.
“Jason!” Damon shouted above the crashing din.
They were going over again.
“Get ready! I set him up you knock him down!”
Jason braced himself between two seats as Special Forces stood, the tattooed markings on his arms burning angry. He tightened his fists, and brought his arms back. As he slammed his forearms together Damon reached out and grasped Special Forces and yanked him towards them. Special Forces was caught off guard by the sudden pressure and was mid-way to Jason when Jason pushed.
The force of the blast threw Special Forces out the shattered window just at the moment the train rolled, and he was out and under the train a second later. There was a pained scream, then a wet crunch of bone and blood and meat as the side of the train mashed him to pulp along a mile-long stretch of rail.
“Told you,” Jason muttered. “Bushy beard and a weak fucking chin.”
The passenger car slammed down hard on the tracks. Jason and Damon were thrown up to the ceiling, hard-bounced off it and collapsed to the floor.
Pain stabbed at Damon’s side; a cracked rib. Jason managed slightly better.
Influencer set down on the floor. Her tear-streaked cheeks glistened against the harsh glow of her hateful eyes. She and Special Forces clearly had been more than just team-mates.
“At least we outnumber her –” Jason began to articulate.
The roof of the Metro North unzipped from end-to-end with a rending sound. The metal peeled back and away, like it was just a strip of aluminum foil. Through the opening they both could see a figure standing, her white-blonde hair whipping madly in the ferocious wind.
Hitchcock Blonde was back for round two.
Influencer smiled, pushed against the floor, and levitated herself out of the passenger car. As she did the entire compartment began to shudder. Metal screeched, walls buckled, glass shattered. The entire car was being crushed, like it was an empty aluminum can being squeezed.
Jason locked eyes with Damon.
“After you, Damon said.
“Age before beauty,” Jason replied.
Damon grinned, but there was no joy in it. This was life-and-death now. The train raced past Glenwood. After that would be Yonkers, then Ludlow. Then Riverdale.
Then Spuyten Duyvil
They were running out of time.
They were clear of the passenger car a moment before it imploded. It was as though the unseen hand of an angry god had brought itself down upon the eighty-five foot long, ten foot wide, one hundred forty-four thousand pound metal tube, the train car was crushed flat. It slammed against the tracks and held there with such force it trailed sparks for a full three miles of drag before Damon and Jason were able to uncouple it from the train. The mangled debris came to a shuddering, smoldering stop just at the edge of Yonkers.
The train roared into the city and Jason and Damon alighted upon the first passenger car. Glass and steel skyscrapers vaulted above the rail line, jockeying for space with the 19th century brick and mortar buildings still awaiting redevelopment. Facing them were three Mages. Hitchcock Blonde and Influencer, by this point, needed no introduction.
But the third was familiar to both Damon and Jason.
In the latter case intimately so.
“Hello lover!” she shouted above the howl of wind.
Jason’s blood went molten. His fists clenched. Anger began its slow steady build.
A name and a face from the not-so-distant past. Jason’s “ex” had survived Murder Hill. Jason knew there’d been a split in the Invisible Hand’s ranks following the destruction of their Citadel; that Allegra Sand and Katja Eis were warring with each other. Clearly Katja had enlisted some outside help. But Golden Dawn involvement was another matter; one he’d have to ask his mother about the next time he saw her.
“You are looking well,” Katja continued. “Much better than our last meeting.”
A flash of memory intruded. Of a car sinking beneath Hudson river waters. Of Carla’s terrified face. Of Noah’s alarmed cries. The two people in the world Jason die to protect, facing their own deaths at the hands of Katja Eis.
Jason took a step forward. He felt Damon’s hand rest on his shoulder.
“Focus,” he muttered. “Don’t let anger get the better of you. You do and she’ll exploit it.”
Damon gave his shoulder a squeeze, then released. Jason felt the anger simmer.
Katja held steady against the hurricane
“I had to see it for myself,” she said. “Wherever you’d been hiding yourself, it was truly out of the way. But when I saw the news about your dear departed uncle I knew you wouldn’t be far.” She shifted her hateful gaze to Damon. “And look who else you brought to the party! Damon, you are looking surprisingly spry for a dead man your age!”
“It’s not the age; it’s the miles,” Damon shouted back.
Katja’s smile was like jagged ice. “Girls … ?
Influencer and Hitchcock Blonde took position, legs planted, hands at the ready. Spells on their lips, just waiting for the order. Despite the rush of wind howling, Jason and Damon could hear the cries emanating from the passenger car beneath them. Dozens of lives were in their hands; if they failed, those dozens would die.
“Prove him wrong,” Katja said.
There was a thunderclap cloudburst. When the smoke parted Katja was gone, and Hitchcock Blonde’s hands were glowing translucent. Influencer cupped her hands for another go-round.
“I’m open to ideas –” Jason began.
He didn’t get a chance to finish; the world went upside-down again.
Jason and Damon dropped to the train’s roof and grabbed onto its recessed handholds as Yonkers and all surrounding it went upside down. Jason felt himself slipping, his legs dangling into open space. If he fell off he’d keep falling, up, up into that beautiful blue sky. Until the world righted itself that is; then he’d fall all the way down.
Ahead of them the two Mages stood unaffected. Hitchcock Blonde cast her spell. Electricity spilled from her upturned hands and fell to the train’s metallic surface. It sparked there and surged across the roof, spilling along towards Jason and Damon like water from an overflowing sink.
“Those shoes of yours. Rubber soles?” Damon asked.
“What?!” Jason gasped.
“Yeah – sure, I guess!”
“Focus on Influencer. On her center of mass.”
Jason focused on Influencer. The world around her was rotating, sweeping around like the runaway second hand of an analog clock. As he set his gaze on her and concentrated, the world surrounding became less distinct, more blurred. Then, it stabilized. It was still spinning but the train felt unaffected. As the electrical charge reached them, Jason and Damon stood. The electricity licked at their shoes but did nothing else. Like a stream of water split against the toe of an insulated boot, it parted. For the first time since this ordeal began, Hitchcock Blonde and Influencer looked less certain of themselves. Like they didn’t know everything after all.
“After you …” Damon said.
Jason crouched, and blinked.
He was on Influencer a moment later, pushing her with a blast of concentrated magic. She slid and staggered backward to the edge of the train where it was coupled to the engine. Jason skidded to a stop as Influencer teetered on the precipice, her eyes registering genuine fear for the first time.
“This is your stop,” he said.
He flicked his wrist. Influencer was wrenched off the train and sent crashing through the plate-glass window of a passing condominium tower. Not enough to kill, but certainly enough to sting.
Further behind, Damon and Hitchcock Blonde faced off. The shattering of glass directed them momentarily to Influencer’s exit from the stage, but only momentarily. The train was screaming through Yonkers and now actually and impossibly accelerating towards Ludlow.
“Get to the engine!” Damon shouted to Jason. “Stop it!”
Jason nodded. There was a blast of air and smoke and he was gone.
“He won’t be able to stop it,” Hitchcock Blonde said. “And he won’t be able to stop her.”
“You’re awful confident for one so young,” Damon replied.
“And you’re quite arrogant for someone whose time’s long passed, old man.”
“You know, a lot of people say I look a bit like Cary Grant.”
“Who’s Cary Grant?” she sneered.
Kids these days … Damon thought.
The train cleared Yonkers. Further down through a break in the trees the GWB loomed closer.
Hitchcock Blonde’s hands blurred. Damon felt the blast take him square in the chest. He staggered and slipped, tumbling hard to the roof. He felt that cracked rib break. The pain was so sharp, so jarring, it almost ended everything.
But he was wounded now, and Hitchcock Blonde couldn’t resist assuming the role of the cat.
She approached calmly. Slowly.
She held her hand out and Damon felt the fingers enclose him. They squeezed, sending paroxysms of pain tearing through him as he was slid backwards, to the rear edge of the train. Hitchcock Blonde’s mouth curled into a sneer as she pushed him the last way and released him. He fell, grasping the edge of the train, holding on as best as he could. But his hands were damp. Sweaty.
She stopped to loom imposingly over him.
“So, ‘Cary’; any famous last words?”
“Just one,” he said with a pained grimace. “‘Duck …’”
Her brow creased in confusion. Then she turned.
The bridge overhang Damon had spotted thirty seconds prior slammed into her body with lethal force. It was so fast, so brutal, so final. Hitchcock Blonde was there one moment, gone the next. The train passed beneath the bridge and was out the other side a three-count later. Damon pulled himself painfully to the roof and collapsed there. His side was throbbing. Just to breathe sent fresh pain cutting through him. He could feel the bones grinding against each other. Setting a broken rib was something he’d done several times before. To others. To himself.
But in his defense he was a lot older now.
He just hoped Jason could handle the rest of it.
He closed his eyes, reached inward with his magic, and snapped the rib back into place.
Prying the door to the engine compartment open proved a challenge courtesy of the hurricane intensity wind pressing against it. Inside the cab, the first thing Jason noticed was the eerie calm. Like the cab was the eye of a particularly violent storm. Everything vibrated; the floor, the walls, the front-facing windows. Through those he could see Ludlow station approaching, slow at first but closing the distance rapidly and blasting past the train a short intake of breath later. So fast you could barely see the commuters, the station employees, the police. Emergency cherries flashed against the window but they disappeared as quickly as the station had.
Riverdale next. Then Spuyten Duyvil. Then …
He turned his attention to the engineer. It was a heavy-set man with a bushy mustache and a beer belly resting on his thick thighs as he sat, staring benumbed at the monitors displaying the forward and rear views of the train. His eyes were glazed over, his meaty hand was on the throttle, pressing it all the way forward. His arm was rigid, as he was rigid.
Jason moved to the engineer and grasped the throttle. He struggled against it almost as much as he had with the door. The engineer was not letting go.
“Think, think,” Jason muttered. Was there a sleep spell? Something he could cast that would break the connection, the enchantment, the whatever Katja had done to –
The engineer’s hand was on his throat a second later. His grip was like frost-bitten steel. He threw Jason, catapulting him back into the cab door. The wind pressing against it, thankfully kept him from falling through it but it still hurt. He shook the pain away and stood as the engineer’s fat potato of a body evaporated like mist.
Katja stood in his place.
“It was never going to be that easy, Jason,” she said. “I’m disappointed, but not surprised. You always chose ‘easy’ over literally anything else.”
“Well, I did choose you didn’t I?” he replied.
Rage flashed across Katja’s face. There was a barely perceptible ripple and for a momentary gasp, Jason could see the scarred visage beneath. The scar bisecting her from eyebrow to lip, clean through the mangled nub of a nose; Katja’s true face. The one she hid from everyone at all times, most pointedly, from herself. Then it was gone.
“Where’s the engineer?” he asked.
“He went under the wheels south of Cold Spring. I’m certain he is many places by now.”
“Why?” he asked. “What’s the point? To all of it?”
“You went to ground, Jason; too well, in fact. I needed to flush you out. The world has changed, you see. And we need to know where you stand. You and your father.”
“I’m retired. You and Allegra want to squabble over the pieces, do it without me.”
“Oh Jason …” Katja’s sigh was almost disappointed. “You cannot hide from what’s coming.”
She raised a hand, and clenched it slowly into a fist. Beside her the control console of the train crumpled, into a mass of twisted steel and crackling electronics. It all enclosed over the throttle, locking it in its forward position, shielding it from anything Jason could do.
“So consider this your warning,” Katja said. “Next time there will not be one.”
She snapped her fingers. The forward windows her imploded. Wind shrieked into the cab. There was a crack of air and smoke, then Katja was gone.
Damon arrived a moment later. He was clearly in pain, but hid it well.
“Where’s Katja?” he asked.
“She dumped me. Where’s the Hitchcock Blonde?”
“She had a hot date with an immovable object,” Damon replied.
“Well, there’s bad news and there’s bad news,” Jason said.
“Oh, there’s bad news?”
Jason gave him the low-down on what Katja had done, but Damon waved off her warning dismissively. Like he already knew what she’d told Jason. Or maybe because they were still on a speeding runaway train and that took precedent. In either event, Damon had eyes and could see for himself. He took a moment to consider their limited options.
“Alright, we need to cut the passenger car loose. Then we deal with the engine.”
“Why?” Jason asked. “The track bends at Spuyten Duyvil. Just let it derail. I know the area; it’ll land in the river. Big splash, end of story.”
Damon shook his head.
“Too risky. If a Circle Line boat is sightseeing or there are track workers on the line? They’re long-shots but not ones I’m willing to take. You uncouple the train. I’ll slow the engine.”
Damon blinked out of the train compartment. A moment later, Jason followed.
The wind whipped his hair, his suit and tie, but as Jason crouched at the front of the passenger car and focused on the train coupling below he felt calm surround him. The wind diminished. His clothing ceased their flag-in-the-wind flapping. Silence descended like a shroud as he studied the coupling for a moment, then reached out with his thoughts, with his magic. It was slightly more elaborate than a padlock but the principal was the same. Because Damon had done the lion’s share with the previous car, it took Jason a few attempts before he was able to separate the lock lift assembly from the knuckle. There was an audible clank of metal separating, then the rattling passenger car steadied. The engine pulled away, speeding forward as the remainder began its gradual slow-down. Jason crouched there watching the locomotive and Damon atop it racing down the track until both had disappeared from view.
The passenger car screeched to a stop at Riverdale station. Those watching, dumbfounded, from the platform were so focused on the lone train car delivered without aid of the locomotive that had raced past moments before they didn’t notice Jason atop or the puff of smoke as he blinked away a second later.
Spuyten Duyvil station was approaching rapidly. The waters of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, where the Harlem River joined the Hudson were unoccupied. Beyond it, the forested springtime green of Inwood Hill Park gleamed in the afternoon sun. Trees had begun to bud, leaves unfurling. Rebirth was well underway.
Crouching atop the locomotive, Damon tried to slow the accelerating train but Katja’s enchantment kept that throttle buried in the forward position. It would have been simple enough to disembark and let the train derail to plunge into the waters, but he wanted to send a message to whomever may be watching; that Damon King was back, and ready for anything his multiplying adversaries had in store for him and his son.
Damon raised his hands.
At the curve a half-mile ahead, there was a metallic rending as one, then a second train rail was pried off of the ground. Ties popped loose with a ping-ping-ping of clattering steel. The rails squealed as they bent backwards, their twin blades pointed at the locomotive rushing to meet them.
When the moment did happen Damon was already off the engine, blinking from the locomotive to the safety of the platform at Spuyten Duyvil station. Nobody on the platform noticed his arrival; their attentions were directed to the locomotive as it was impaled through the front of the cab by the bent steel rails. There was a titanic groan of metal loud enough to be heard in Hoboken as the locomotive upended, catapulting end over end, landing with a crash that set off the alarms of automobiles parked up on Edsall Avenue. The locomotive landed on its back, tearing deep furrows in the ground as it slid across that last length of land … and stopped at the water’s edge. The rumble sounded over Upper Manhattan – a mighty roar not unlike the death throes of a dying prehistoric beast.
It was over.
* * *
Jason stood on the small peninsula that jutted from Inwood Park out into Spuyten Duyvil Creek. Across from him, the wreckage site swarmed with emergency vehicles and crew. Sirens screamed through the air, nearly drowning out the beat of NYPD and network news choppers circling like angry flies above.
He heard the approach of footsteps behind him. He didn’t need to turn to know who it was.
“Not exactly how I’d envisioned my return to New York,” Jason said.
“I’m sure it isn’t how you envisioned a lot of things,” Damon replied
For a moment or several, father and son just watched the unfolding action across the smoothly flowing waters of Spuyten Duyvil Creek. Then Damon turned to Jason, and smiled.
“So … how about that drink?”
TM and (C) 2022 by Brad Abraham. All Rights Reserved
Welcome to the third and final* installment of Celluloid Heroes; my look back at the movies and moviemakers that inspired me to become a storyteller. Parts 1 and 2 can be read by clicking the links. In this case I actually do recommend reading in order. Got it? Good.
As a writer I get asked a lot of writer questions. About my work, about my process. But sometimes I get asked more personal things. Who’s my favorite author, for example.
Living would be Joe R. Lansdale.
Deceased? Harlan Ellison.
Favorite short story is Miss Gentilbelle by Charles Beaumont, with Godzilla’s Twelve-Step Program by Joe Lansdale a close second.
Favorite novel is Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, with JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit a runner up.
Favorite comic book series? That would be Larry Hama’s original run of GI Joe: A Real American Hero. Favorite comics miniseries is Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell.
Looking at the above you’ll see I skew towards the genre side of things. Genre fiction over literary. That’s just my preference.*
*and before someone chimes in with “that’s very fine and well, Brad, but were there really no women authors who inspired you” I owe an unpayable debt to the works of Judy Blume and Beverley Cleary; two genuine titans of literature who wrote the first books I truly, truly loved at a time I began to love reading. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without them.
Which brings us to Stephen King.
King is a genre to himself and I always make sure to read whatever he puts out. His latest, Fairy Tale, will, I’m sure, be no exception. I’ve read most if not all he’s written, though I confess I’ve always struggled to get through his Dark Tower series. The first King novel I ever read was The Dead Zone. That was followed by It, Needful Things, Misery, and the four short novels contained within The Bachman Books (“Rage” and “The Long Walk” being my favorites from that collection). I actually didn’t get to his “best” books until much later, when during a summer spent working in Niagara Falls in the 1990s I made regular trips to a local used bookstore to grab TheStand, Pet Semetery, ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining.
Yet there’s one King story I keep revisiting, the one I’ve probably re-read more than any of the others:
Which became the basis for this movie:
The reasons for both is something of an origin story.
My origin story.
As close to an autobiography as I’m ever to pen.
It’s 1986. I’ve just turned 13 years old. We’ve been living in North Carolina and it hasn’t been a great experience. Probably the worst year and a bit of my life. To this day I dislike the Southern USA precisely because of that year in the Tarheel State, despite some of the warmest, friendliest, all around nicest people I’ve ever known being from the south. I just wasn’t a good fit. In my previous home and neighborhood, I did fit. I had friends, I was happy. Content. I could have remained there forever, or at least until I graduated high school. And, to be honest, when we were told by my dad we were moving to North Carolina I was looking forward to it. We’d been told this was to be a two-year “loan” assignment from my dad’s company to another company that was a subsidiary of it. We didn’t even sell our house; the plan was to live in North Carolina for two years then move back to the same house, the same street, the same neighborhood on the suburbs of Toronto to resume life (spoiler alert: never happened).
So North Carolina was not a good fit. If you want that background before we continue I’d rather you click here and read that than make me reiterate the reasons why here. The one rare bright spot of being friendless in Greensboro was that in Greensboro I really became a movie fan. More like an obsessive. I must have seen a new movie every week. New release, second-run repeats, and weekly trips to the video store. I did a lot of movie watching at home, thanks to the whole “not having friends” thing. I also re-watched these movies, and began to notice things like motifs and symbolism and themes. That movies could be about more than just “plot” and “story” was a divine secret learned at the foot of our VCR which was actually, yes, a Betamax.
So the short version of North Carolina; I survived. And I got a boost when my dad announced we were returning to Canada a year early, though unfortunately not to our old neighborhood, for him to take a big promotion. I almost didn’t care; I just wanted to get the hell out of Greensboro. We moved back to Canada in August of 1986, a couple of weeks before I was due to start school. In those two weeks we got our feet wet in our new town, and that included a trip to the local cinema (we only had two in 1986, soon to become only one 2-screen theater).
That movie was Stand by Me.
Now at the time I didn’t know it was based on a Stephen King story. At that time I hadn’t read Stephen King. I only knew him as the guy who’s name was mentioned in the TV commercials for Christine, Cat’s Eye, Firestarter, Cujo, and, yes, the 1986 stinker Maximum Overdrive (filmed in, you guessed it, North Carolina). So, when “based on the novella by Stephen King” appeared at the end I, like most in the audience, was surprised. Stephen King was a horror writer. He wrote scary books about possessed cars, possessed dogs, girls who set things on fire with her mind (a mind possibly possessed). And here he’d written a story about four twelve-going-on-thirteen years-old boys that felt real and genuine. They felt like real kids. It felt like me and my old friends in Toronto, having an adventure, wandering the woods and fields, smoking cigarettes and bragging about non-existent sexual conquests. Stand By Me almost made me wish I could go searching for a dead body with my friends.
As soon as I was able I trekked to the local used bookstore in town, searched for, and grabbed their worn copy of Different Seasons, the collection that contains “The Body” along with other notable King shorts Apt Pupil and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. I read The Body first, and must say to really get to the dark heart of the story you really need to read the novella. As grim as Stand by Me can be at times, it’s a bright and sunny fairy tale compared to the novel, which carries a much darker, much more mournful tone. The Gordie (Wil Wheaton) of the movie is a troubled, sad kid whose friends become his lifeline and his family. There’s tragedy in the future death of best pal Chris (played by the equally tragic River Phoenix), and a gradual drifting apart with Teddy (Corey Feldman) and Vern (Jerry O’Connell), but the movie ends sweetly, with the adult Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss, who also narrates) fulfilling a promise to his twelve-year old son to take him and a friend swimming. The child of 1959 now an adult in 1986, striving to be a better parent to his son than his parents were to him.
The Body is not the same story. The skeleton is the same, but the flesh and muscle is bruised, battered and scarred. I won’t spoil things for those of you who haven’t read it, but the tragedies in The Body; about growing up, growing older, of death, area lot more cutting. Friends die; old bullies and tormenters live on. It was as if King had channeled the early teenage experience, identified why “he never had the friends like he did when he was twelve”, but also acknowledged that those friendships inevitably faded with time. People grow up. They move on. They move away. And they die too young.
I think of Stand By Me a lot these days as I get closer to my fifties. As a father to a young child, a son with the same wanderlust I had and still do. As an adult who’s faced the untimely passing of several high school era friends and acquaintances in recent years. But I also think of my father, who really loved Stand By Me and recommended it others constantly. He may have loved it more than any movie I’d ever seen him love. I think in part because of the era but also the timing. He was born in 1947 so he would have been the same age as Gordon, Chris, Ted, and Vern in that year 1959. Stand By Me he saw at age 39, then father to a child the same age – 12 going on 13 – as the kids in screen, the same age he was that summer. I think he came to be more introspective about his youth back then. The friends he had. The ones he’d lost touch with. The ones he’d lost along the way.
Both the book and movie really lean into that line about the friends you had when you were twelve, and when I did begin school that fall and found I made friends – a lot of them, actually – quite easily, a part of me knew that those friendships wouldn’t last the test of time, but in that case I was wrong. While in NC I was friendless (and really doubt if anyone I attended that one year of school with even remember my name), but the Brockville years would introduce me to new faces, some of whom I’m still friends with to this day. Heading into the back third of my life I find myself thinking about those years more and more. Especially with Mixtape, which is firmly set in and about those years where a teenager becomes an adult and learns that growing up frequently means saying goodbye.
I think Stand By Me and The Body were really what sparked my interest in becoming a storyteller. More so than Star Wars and Indiana Jones, more than Back to the Future and Terminator 2 and the big genre movies of my youth that I still unabashedly love. Both that novella and that adaptation of it showed me that my seemingly normal, mundane, everyday life possessed moments of grace, of beauty, of joy. That being “normal” and “average” was not a death sentence. That my life mattered.
That last statement – my life and the moments within mattering – forms the crux of this Celluloid Heroes series. I realize a lot of this is Generation X philosophizing, casting fond golden hued looks back at a period in life that seems a lot more sunny than it probably was. I recognize my nostalgic gaze isn’t so dissimilar to my parents’ generation looking back on their youth, the same way millennials now likely look back on the early 2000s with the same wistfulness. Everybody does it, and the ones currently complaining about it likely do the same when the doors are closed. I would argue that looking at where you came from is important to find the best way forward, for who are we but the sum of our experiences and memories?
The music of my parents’ generation is beginning to fade. Take a spin around terrestrial radio and you’re unlikely to hear Buddy Holly (unless it’s the Weezer song from 1994). Give it another ten years and fifties culture will largely be forgotten, glimpsed only in the movies of the 80s that people still remember. And even then I know that the cultural touchstones of my youth will not outlive me by very much either. Everything passes in the end. Everything, as Kink himself wrote, is eventual.
They say that among a lot of artistic types it’s a fundamental unhappiness that drives a lot of creation; like we’re all trying to rewrite the unhappier parts of our childhoods, where we can be the cool kids, the quick wits, the people everybody likes. While I certainly have grappled with my own moments of dreary darkness, I feel that my life and the experiences I’ve had – the good and the terrible – all shaped me into the writer I’ve become. One whose work still grapples with the overall theme of my life; looking for a place to call home.
Fortunately for me I found a place where I belong. And it was these movies – these three Celluloid Heroes in particular – that helped me find that way home.
*I’ve enjoyed writing this series and a whole lot of you have enjoyed reading it too so I think this is one I will revisit in the future.