Places We’re From

The places we’re from aren’t always where we’re born.  The funny thing about reaching “middle age” is the amount of reassessment that goes on.  Where we’re from has a tremendous impact on who we become.  Not that we can’t change how we turn out, but we will always carry along with us some of where all that coming about took place.  I wasn’t born in Rouseville, but I lived there from the time I was eleven until I left for college, and then for good.  A recent creative project sent me back to the web for some information on my former home.  I’d been a (fairly local) immigrant, and I didn’t know much about this tiny town.  Although from only sixteen miles away, I’d never heard of it before moving there.  It was a small town of about 900 people.

The home of a smelly Pennzoil refinery, not everyone wanted to stop there on their way through, along route 8.  What prompted this post, however, was that web search.  According to a recent census, the population of Rouseville is now just over 500.  The Pennzoil refinery closed years ago, and my return trips to the area have always been bittersweet.  Those teenage years were tough, but formative.  Growing up in a town that small you have no connections.  You eventually learn that connections are how you get ahead in life and if you ain’t got ‘em, you ain’t got ‘em.  Even as I met other Pennsylvanians during college, none of them had heard of Rouseville.  The one exception was my advisor who’d recalled a former student from the town.

I’m not certain that it will ever become an actual ghost town—many oil boom towns did back when the petroleum industry began—but it has started on that trail.  The last time I visited, the house where I’d lived was gone.  The elementary school I’d attended had been razed.  The huge refinery was missing.  Some of the paved streets had reverted to gravel.  Part of my childhood was being erased.  Rouseville wasn’t an easy place to live.  The nearest bookstore was thirty miles away.  You couldn’t buy regular groceries, or ironically, even gas for your car in town.  Drug use was rampant and violence wasn’t unheard of.  Even so, I know the town will always be part of me.  And even if Rouseville never becomes a ghost town proper, there will always be ghosts from there living in my mind.


Television Fed

There have been a number of television shows—The Simpsons primary among them—that instead of castigating the media-raised generation, celebrate it.  As I watch the younger, internet-raised generation, I realize that we were the kids raised on television.  Before the fifties and sixties televisions were too expensive to reach into every home.  Although we were poor, we managed to scrape and scrounge enough to buy a color television by the time I was an early teen (what’s now technically a tween).  And even before that I had a television habit.  Dark Shadows, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Gilligan’s Island, Get Smart, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and the list could go on and on.  Since neither of my parents finished high school, we used television as a window into the wider, more educated world.

Photo by Ajeet Mestry on Unsplash

As an adult I’ve moved beyond that academic stage of being embarrassed about being raised on television.  I’m inclined now to embrace it.  It was forming me long before I started reading and these days I prefer reading to television, which I practically never watch.  Still, I have a great appreciation for its formative influence.  How else are you supposed to learn about the world when you’re poor and uneducated?  Dark Shadows taught me about vampires.  The Twilight Zone made me appreciate the strangeness of life.  Star Trek awoke wonder about space.  Gilligan’s Island and Get Smart taught me to laugh in tough times.  The Partridge Family taught me about music and the Brady Bunch prepared me for Zoom.

For many years I’ve tried to put this behind me as a cause of shame.  I was an academic.  A book-learner.  That way of life, however, shouldn’t deny what has made us who we are.  While following the new rendition of Sleepy Hollow in television format, I came to realize that there was a new direction to go.  Religion in horror had been lurking in the background for many years, even before my career malfunction.  To deny it was to deny the same academic pretentiousness that has refused me a place.  Media can hold meaning for us.  There’s no replacing those younger years in front of the tube, the intravenous meaning that successful writers and media producers of the sixties and seventies were giving us.  When you don’t have the free time for research, you can still access what childhood taught you in the first place.  And perhaps, if you’re lucky, move it forward.


Shadows of Childhood

Childhood, it seems to me, is where we define ourselves.  In the days when life expectancy wasn’t terribly long and people generally lived only long enough to reproduce, there was not much of a need to revisit childhood.  Now that we live several decades, however, childhood begins to loom large.  We have time to revisit and reassess.  This is one of the reasons I’ve been addressing Dark Shadows so much, and why my memories of it have been of such interest.  I recently watched the second feature film based on the series, Night of Dark Shadows.  This was aired after the original soap opera had been cancelled.  It focuses on Quentin Collins rather than Barnabas and it again caused me to reassess.

The story is complex—the soap opera was quite literary and intelligent to begin with—and it involves several characters from the series.  In my mind Quentin is a werewolf.  In the movie he’s not.  This made me realize that my image of Quentin is largely from the Marilyn Ross novels, not from memories of the television show.  I never did see the original series through.  Nor did I ever read all the novels.  Like most people my childhood was a pastiche of this and that as I sampled the somewhat small set of offerings made available in a modest family in a small town.  Fossil collecting and exploring within two or three blocks of home were about all the options.  And then there was television.  I watched a lot of it.  When the rigors of homework started to really hit in high school, I stopped watching so much.  I’d begun reading quite a bit by middle school, and many of those books are the ones I’ve been seeking out in recent years.  Not that middle school was that great, but it was formative.

Night of Dark Shadows, although set in Maine, lacks the Collinwood I remembered.  Yes, it’s a grand old house, but there’s no hint of being on the Atlantic coast.  No crashing waves.  No theremin.  Quentin is instead haunted by the ghost of Angelique and is apparently a reincarnation of an ancient ancestor whom she loved.  Angelique decides to kill off Quentin’s young bride so as to have him to herself.  It wasn’t bad, but I guess I was expecting a werewolf movie.  My view of Quentin was formed by the imagination of W. E. D. Ross, I’m coming to realize.  Sam Hall wrote many of the original episodes.  He also co-wrote this movie.  My childhood, however, remembers all of this differently.


Shadows of Childhood

While it may not seem to fit my current re-fascination, I’m not really a “fan”personality.  My interests are far too diverse.  Since I’ve been thinking about Dark Shadows a lot lately I decided to do some reading on it.  There’s a genre of nonfiction that involves small format, short introductions to various media.  I’ve read a few of the Devil’s Advocates series about horror movies and I recently discovered the similar TV Milestones series about, well, TV.  They have a volume on Dark Shadows by Harry M. Benshoff, and I knew it would help scratch my current itch.  You see, I wasn’t really a devoted fan of the show—I watched it after school like a lot of kids did in the late sixties and into the early seventies.  I read a few of the novels.  I never attended any conferences (they exist) and never wrote any fan fiction.  I think my level of engagement was different.

Nevertheless, this is an informative little book.  I found out that there’s even more to the phenomenon than I already knew I didn’t know.  I never really followed the whole plot line.  I didn’t realize just how complex the story is.  Perhaps on some level I knew the series was culturally significant.  As a child I didn’t know much about the wider culture.  We were working class poor, how was I to find out about such things?  For me, Dark Shadows was a kind of escapism, I suppose.  A fantasy that met a need, not a plot to be unraveled.  I wasn’t aware of how sophisticated, if cheap, it was.

By the time I got to college and started to meet different people, it was a moment that had passed.  I really didn’t think much about Dark Shadows again until after my own gothic tragedy of Nashotah House.  During the days of my career malfunction I rediscovered my childhood, perhaps looking for something better.  I started collecting and reading the novels again, and if I’m honest, were it not so expensive I’d consider watching the original series again.  Like all things nostalgic, I know my Rosebud will never be today what it was back then.  My reading sense wasn’t developed enough to see what might’ve been going on behind the scenes.  Benshoff does a good job of bringing much of that to the light.  I’ll likely read more on the series as time goes on, but I now have a better framework for looking at this particular milestone.  Not, however, as a fanatic.


New Twilight

The strange thing about The Twilight Zone is its ability to endure in the minds of those exposed to it at an early age.  Often it’s more the image of it, that feeling of awe and wonder, that remains with me.  Rod Serling cut a sophisticated figure with what, for the time, was an unbounded imagination.  New Stories from the Twilight Zone was the last of the three standard collections of his tales.  Another book of stories published the same year, From the Twilight Zone, is a little difficult to pin down from online descriptions.  It’ll probably be the subject of a future nostalgia-laden post.  Reading the current collection is like déjà vu; some of the stories I remember from seeing on television, and others I’d probably read before.

In some ways these stories are time machines.  A slice of the early sixties.  The cover of my edition emphasizes that dramatically with Serling’s head hinged open and colorful ideas (“weirdies” in the copy) flying out.  Over half a century later the Zone continues to fascinate, despite the obvious context in which Serling originally wrote.  The enduring nature of his contribution somehow validates me, and probably many other kids of the sixties too.  The stories all suggest that the world isn’t quite what it seems.  It relates to what I posted on a couple days back, the weird, the eerie.  In other words, these are good stories.  Timeless in their own way.  Reaching back toward childhood, they help with the aging process.  

Weird tales have become a popular genre, and I suspect the popularity is due largely to the internet.  Those of us who liked stories such as these were an earlier generation of nerds (of the non-technical variety), those who didn’t find sports or girls or controlled substances—the more mainstream forms of diversion—to our liking.  We were perhaps misfits, but we knew we could well find a place in The Twilight Zone.  This may have been its great, subliminal draw; anyone could find her or himself in the Zone.  Some of the narratives were scary, some were funny.  Others were just odd (“weirdies”).  But they could sell books and Serling was able to make himself a household name through his imagination.  The internet has, in turn, made it more difficult to get noticed in its democracy of expression.  Indeed, it has become a twilight zone of its own.  At least it’s one where it’s a simple matter to still find the books that made us who we are.


Book Life

Like a book, life can be divided into chapters.  This is perhaps an instance of art following reality, or perhaps it’s the other way around.  The episodic nature of life suggests the chapter structure of books.  As I was waking up this morning (disappointingly before 4:00 a.m.) I was reflecting on the chapters of my life.  As with a book, the most recently read decade is perhaps freshest in one’s mind, but the decades do seem to fall roughly into format.  We tend to think of that first decade—childhood—fondly, even if in reality it wasn’t all games and candy.  It’s biology’s way of encouraging us toward that weird teen chapter of puberty with its intense emotions and maturing bodies.  That chapter is recalled, at least in my experience, as a turmoil involving both good and bad.

The twenties, in my book, were spent in higher education.  It was a cerebral chapter.  Finishing college and starting grad school.  Finishing a masters and discovering employment difficult to find with a master’s degree.  In my book marriage was in the twenties chapter, along with a doctorate.  The next chapter, the thirties, was spent entirely at Nashotah House.  That involved becoming a father as well as a professor.  The other faculty were fathers of a different sort.  I always thought chapters should show some continuity but the forties chapter was that part of the book known as the crisis.  The upending of convention.  The self-reinvention.  The move.  I suppose in terms of a novel that was when it started to get really interesting, but from my perspective life had been plenty interesting enough by that point.

The fifties have been a bit more settled.  The publishing chapter.  The house-buying move added drama, of course, but otherwise the nine-to-five is like a mind-numbing drug.  Mine involved a commute that lead to its own unpublished book, as well as two somewhat academic  tomes.  All of this was going through my head the way thoughts do when you can’t force yourself back to sleep.  The paradigm suggests itself to someone who has, in one form or another, been writing for his entire life.  Or writing his life.  My first attempts at being a novelist began in chapter two.  On yellowed paper somewhere in the attic I still have that first handwritten attempt at literary expression.  The current chapter has me becoming a gruncle (with a nod to Gravity Falls fans) and wondering how a great niece might read a book written like this.  If she will even have an interest.  That’s the way of books, as any librarian knows.  Maybe some warm milk and a cookie are indicated.

Life is a book.


Birth of a Notion

Childhood is an impressionable time. Our phobias begin then. Children are vulnerable. (Of course our current government is intent on making us all afraid of bullies again.) This theme of childhood keeps coming up in interviews with directors of horror movies. A friend recently sent me a New York Times article by Erik Piepenburg about Annabelle: Creation. The piece includes some horror auteurs discussing what frightened them as children. We all experienced fear at a young age. For some of us it hung around awhile longer. Horror movies have, despite their low brow reputation, been reliable revenue streams from the beginning. People will pay to be scared, for a little while.

I have to confess to having fallen behind on The Conjuring diegesis. Since I’m the only one in the family who really likes to watch horror, I don’t see these movies in theaters and, well, there’s a lot to do besides watching movies these days. And finding DVDs is getting harder as well. Streaming scares me. Anyway, I missed The Conjuring 2 and the original Annabelle. I’ve read accounts of what supposedly happened in real life—Annabelle is one of the cases investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren—and it has been written about a number of times. The Warren’s take on it was that a doll can’t actually be possessed. (Sorry Chuckie.) They suggested that it could act as a conduit that would’ve eventually allowed a demon to possess the two young women who kept the original Annabelle in their apartment. The doll showed up in The Conjuring, although it wasn’t part of the main story. The haunted doll trope is scary enough that the second knock-off in this universe focused on it.

Interviews with older horror directors reveal that they often grew up without fathers. Despite the gender profiling, for kids fathers are generally thought to represent protection. A child without a father often feels insecure. Even today when people talk of their fathers I have to remind myself that they can be a good thing. I often wonder if those of us who like horror films had childhood parental issues as a regular part of our pasts. I’m generalizing, of course. Growing up into Trump’s America has given us all plenty of things to fear in the present. Since January a number of high profile horror films have gotten notice in the press. Sometimes a real bully can cause as much fear as a possessed doll. That’s especially the case when our government wants us to submit like a bunch of frightened children. Childhood fears may, in some cases, serve us well.