Archive for the ‘Inspiration?’ Category

The Evil Dead: Or how I came to long for higher-level problem solving abilities in central horror characters
April 19, 2013

Evil-Dead-poster

I don’t want to say that without Evil Dead me and my friends wouldn’t be friends, but before we got to the stage of life when the only excuse we needed to hang out and have fun doing so was a case or two of beer, we did it through movies. Of those movies, Evil Dead was probably the only one of consequence.

In darkened rec rooms and cabins we chugged off-brand colas and shouted at the screen with each weird homicide. At school in the days after, we’d make inside jokes about it all, as though it was something we had actually done. As though we had actually had an adventure and not just stayed up late and watched a weird movie.

And so when Evil Dead’s second coming was announced, we agreed to do something that premium cable, Netflix and Roku have rendered almost completely obsolete: go to a theater.

When the night finally came, when we got together, though, half the group opted out. If Bruce Cambell wasn’t in it, they had decided, it just made more sense to stay home and drink beer.

There are worse arguments.

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Go ahead and try to make the case that Sam Raimi was the franchise auteur, that the whole thing was his baby, but if we’re honest with ourselves, out of Evil Dead I, II and Army of Darkness, the only thing that mattered was Bruce Campbell.

And yes he is missing from the remake and yes his orange-sized chin could benefit any motion picture, but if I have a problem with this Evil Dead resurrection, and I may have a few minor ones, it’s with the elements that actually were carried over from the original.

But let’s not get off on the wrong foot here. Let’s not get too negative too quickly. There’s a still a cabin. There’s still a chainsaw. The bones of the thing are still there.

The gore, for example. You can’t put the words Evil and Dead that close together without ramping up the human destruction to the point that it’s comic. For example, in this new Evil Dead, one character vomits out more blood in one continuous geyser than you could ring out of a bag of humans. Which for anyone who has seen the original is an obligatory, yet flattering nod to the source material.

But, to be sure, the gore has changed. If you look at the original franchise (and I think it makes more sense to talk about the original franchise as a whole than to dedicate the time to compare the remake to each of the three original films individually) the blood and dismemberment was frequently shone through a filter of camp and comedy.evil-dead-poster-red This iteration, though, is straight-ahead, no-nonsense horror. Although the volume of gore is somewhat comic, it’s delivered in a way that Eli Roth would do it, or the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake would (two references used only to provide context for the film’s approach and not necessarily for its overall success). That is to say, it may be comic at points, but it doesn’t put a lot of effort into trying to shift gears. There’s little comedy and less romance. It conserves that energy instead and redirects it toward a clean, focused march toward violence. Which not only changes the gore, but escalates it to a level that I don’t think Raimi or Campbell have or ever will consider. To what level? Young co-ed Olivia finds herself a knife-sized shard of broken mirror, puts it in her mouth and saws with it to carve away her face the way you would draw your jack o’lantern’s grin deeper and wider toward its ears. And the chainsaw. When the chainsaw comes, because you know it must, the way it’s used, the way it struggles and the volume of blood that it causes, squeezed out of our audience a groan that would turn Roth green.

 

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Like the vomiting of blood, the chainsaw is an obvious and obligatory nod. And do not be mistaken, these references are obligatory. The only way Evil Dead Jr. gets the greenlight is if the built-in audience, the army of fans that adores the original, is guaranteed to come in tow.

And although they are obligatory, and although the chainsaw is obvious, these references work. As do all the rest in the film, but for different reasons. Where the chainsaw is obvious, the other nods are in direct contrast with the gore – they’re relatively subtle.

For example, I’m thinking of the film’s throw-away character (I can’t remember her name and the character is so inconsequential that I’m not going to waste the time at IMDB to find it. Because there’s only a half-dozen characters in the thing, that may be a problem). After Ms. Throw-away gets bit on the hand by a zombie-demon-banshee hybrid, we watch the poison, the bad slowly curdle up her arm. And as the pink flesh slowly turns black-green I couldn’t help but think of Cambell’s Ash, what happened to him and what he said of the evil: “It got into my hand and it went bad. So I lopped it off at the wrist.” As if silently directed by Ash, Ms. Throw-away promptly does this. The big difference, not that it matters: Instead of sawing at the wrist, which because it’s at a joint, is a much easier job, she uses an electric meat carver to saw through her bicep, which obviously isn’t possible. But nonetheless.

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Here’s another example: as their friends drop off in increasingly demented ways, our dummie of a protagonist, David (and we can talk about him more later) tries to be optimistic. He starts muttering about how things will probably turn out fine.

“OK. We’re all going a little crazy right now,” David says. “It’ll stop raining in a couple hours the bridge will be clear, and we’re gonna go look for help. Everything’s going be fine.”

Our buddy the blonde bearded Eric, though, turns to him and sets him straight. Let’s say he says, “You don’t freaking get it, do you?”

What Eric and David are offering us is a useful paraphrase of what our original Ash says. Ash though didn’t need a sounding board. He delivered all the lines himself, to his own reflection in a mirror.

“I’m fine,” he says. “I’m fine.” Only to have his reflection come back at him: “We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw, does that seem fine?”

When I thought of the worst-case scenarios of this remake, I pictured Ace Ventura in the woods or a shot-by-shot remake starring the Twilight cast. But what this remake did — and I want to do this using language that is far too elevated for a movie that demands a tree do what this movie demands a tree do – is it evokes the original without plagiarizing it. It doesn’t merely quote the original. It doesn’t dress up some handsome young jerk in flannel and have him spew forth with Evil Dead quotes like some knobby chinned parrot. These makers of horror movies (and I say it like that because it’s probably an epithet in some circles) have somehow realized something relatively sophisticated about their fans. To engage their core audience, they don’t need to pepper the script with “boomsticks” and “S-Marts.” They’d look needy, too eager to please. Instead, by just dropping clues and eliciting the Bruce Campbell memories, they instead make the viewer feel like they’ve solved something, like they’ve picked up and decoded the hints.

Writer/director Fede Alvarez seems to give his viewers credit, at least the franchise’s fans. And it works. Where the film struggles, on the other hand, is where it gets lazy, where it fails to challenge itself and its viewers.

And unfortunately one of the central example of this lies within one of its major plot devices.

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In the remake, a band of friends has retreated to a remote cabin to help their friend Mia kick a heroin habit. (Which, as far as I’m concerned, is a pretty solid premise) Unfortunately the cabin previously played host to an exorcism and one of the friends, Eric, stumbles upon the leftover Necronimicon and starts reading some passages, which kicks up some bad spirit that lodges itself deeply in Mia.

 

Along with them is Mia’s brother David, whom I’ve mentioned is just a straight dummy, but nonetheless the brother-sister combo set ups a conflict that has become obligatory in the zombie genre. It’s the conflict of one loved one being forced to put another loved one down. It’s obligatory, but I would argue it’s not cliché.

The evidence to support this?

Exhibit A: Daryl, in the Walking Dead, who has to stab out the brains of his beloved brother Merle after Merle gets the bug.

Exhibit B: To bring some unearned gravitas into this: Othello, the protagonist of his own Shakespearean tragedy, smothers the life out of his wife, Desdemona, after he believes he can’t trust her anymore. He thinks she’s cheating, which isn’t exactly the same as worrying that she’s going to eat his brains out, but it’s roughly within the same realm, and Shakespeare just isn’t that bold.

It’s a conflict that challenges us to ask questions about our humanity, such as, at what point are we willing to kill someone we love? Would we do it to relieve them from pain or torture? Would we do it to protect the greater good? Do we wait to the last second, or do we pull the trigger as soon as we know it’s the right thing to do? And this conflict does presuppose it is the right thing to do. It implies that only a coward would let their wife or brother or favorite Caddyshack star wander the wilds of Beverly Hills with a hunger for brains than put them out of their misery.

The conflict is usually effective enough in and of itself, but if you feel like you need to complicate it, just make it less clear that a well-placed 12-gauge round is the right decision. It’s what the original Evil Dead franchise did. At some point after Ash’s girlfriend goes bad, her demon subsides or at least tricks Ash into thinking that the throws of possession have passed. It’s a trick, a ploy, to draw Ash in so the demon can get at him. To be fair it’s not until “Army of Darkness” that Ash truly learns his lesson. In Army, after Ash knocks a banshee out of the air, she plays dead. Instead of falling prey to the old movie cliché, instead of leaning in, tapping her on the shoulder and asking if she’s OK, he drops a historic one-liner: “It’s a trick. Get an ax.”

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David, our stand-in for Ash in the remake doesn’t learn though. He’s maybe incapable of learning. A better journalist would put a solid, objective count on the number of times that David falls for the trick. But objectivity matters little to the viewer. It feels like a hundred times. It feels like Groundhog Day. I wanted to beg him to stop.

He knows his sister is possessed, but every scene or so, she shakes the raspy demon vocals and calls out to him in her calm, innocent former voice, begging for help. It’s chronic, almost rhythmic, but that connotation is too generous. It’s repetitive.

Again, this conflict is necessary. In the play between Eric and his sister Mia, we’re supposed to learn something about their bond, their relationship, and what kind of person Eric is by how long he is willing to hold off doing the unthinkable, removing her head.

Instead, though, it comes off as David being simple. If we’re being generous we could read his character as an attempt to evolve a horror cliché. It’s one that “Scream” did a lot of work combating. It’s the cliché of the good looking girl, who just as pretty as she is, is just as unwilling to make one good decision, even if it means saving her own life. She runs but inevitably trips and falls. As Scream points out, instead of running out the door, she runs upstairs and paints herself into a corner. Which is exactly the type of character David is. He’s brain-dead eye candy. The only difference is that instead of being a bumbling teenage girl, he’s a bumbling teenage boy. Which, again, I guess could be considered a step toward horror evolution.

But if the goal truly is to evolve the form, why not employ that old timey saying that George Bush II tried to roll out: “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice … shame on … shame on … fooled man can’t get fooled again.”

Eventually David’s dogged stupidity pays off. He saves his sister, even if it defies logic and physics and biology and all the other rules we’ve come to agree upon. But where the subtle Evil Dead references gave the audience credit, this took it way.

David shouldn’t have saved his sister. He’s being rewarded for repeated bad decisions. It’s as if David takes an exam drunk because he’s spent the last two weeks studying drunk. And the way Alvarez writes it, David aces the test.

David should have made the hard decision. He should have killed his sister. It keeps him alive and some of his friends. But worst of all, while David is waffling back and forth between killing his sister and not, the plot is stalled. The growth of the film is static and stunted.

See the thing is, he’s not battling his sister. He’s battling a demon. Which we’re led to believe through the mythology of most other movies, are conniving, calculating, charming and able to escalate along with a situation.

So if David, our poor-man’s Ash, launches a calculated offensive, it forces his demon adversary to make a move too. Evil Mia can no longer play the same note. She’s got to move out of her below-the-floor lair. She’s got to employ elevated demon powers and strategies.

I mean, for Bruce Campbell’s sake, at the end, the sky rains blood. Now this isn’t really a tactical advantage, but it does illustrate that through a bit of creativity our villain could have taken things to another level. Perhaps she takes hostages. Maybe she summons their dead mother from hell, or at least details to David the extent of her torture in the underworld. Perhaps she dissolves into blood, rises through the floor-boards, soaks into his skin, and murders him from the inside. Perhaps she summons more demons, or the apocalypse, or the evil guy that they allude to throughout the whole film but are probably saving for a sequel. By going this way, both David and the villain become bigger and greater than they were.

But this never happens. Our characters remain somewhat medium sized and in its goal of scaring, the film relies mostly on gore instead of creeping us out by making us think this demon will out think us and out scheme us.

Much of the problem is a result of the character David himself. The writers force him to make bad decisions. But what aggravates things is that not only is the character simple, but the actor who portrays him, Shiloh Fernandez, seems to be, too. Perhaps he was well cast. It’s easier to believe David is willing to make the same bad decision over and over again when it appears he can’t think of a better plan.

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But he’s dull and one-dimensional. And what aggravates that situation further is that Mr. Fernandez is directly juxtaposed against two talented young actors in Jane Levy who plays Mia and Lou Taylor Pucci, who’s David. I’ve only caught a bit of her work on ABC’s “Suburgatory,” but it’d be an understatement to say that Levy has a sense of humor and a charm which take a specific kind of intelligence. She can emote. She can convey emotion and sell a joke with facial expressions.

And Pucci, I’ve seen a good deal of his work, most notably when his character in the Horsemen arranges his suicide in front of his father played by Dennis Quaid. I’m not James Lipton, but portraying something of that kind of emotional complexity is probably challenging. This isn’t illustrating my point at all, but what I would say is that Levy and Pucci appear to actually be making decisions about what they say and why they say it. Fernandez on the otherhand performs as though he’s trying to remember what someone who once saw Evil Dead told him about it. He can’t quite remember it and doesn’t have much of a connection to the story either. To be fair, David isn’t our hero, Mia is. But David probably gets the most screen time, which means something’s got to change.

The Evil Dead remake is a good movie. But it is not great, neither in the way that a B-level horror movie is or in the way that normal films are. What it needs is to give David a little more credit, the ability to think more complexly and feel more complexly, the ability to act on those thoughts and feelings, as well as an actor that is capable of doing the same.

Unfiled Thoughts of a Thousand-Mile Pennsylvania Loop
October 5, 2011

We had seen the spires from across the valley. Three crosses, each with two extra arms, poked from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church into the sky above Centralia. We thought it looked like or might be the church from Silent Hill, a movie inspired by the ghost town and populated with people made of ash and embers. So we wandered into the valley and up the leftover streets, up the hill and found it, the church but no driveway. We had to pull to the side of the road, the roadway not wide enough for two cars, at a strong incline, and a 50-year coal fire underneath. And I get nervous. Always. I pushed the parking brake down and urged Anna to hurry with the camera. And that’s when the chainsaw started. Just yards off and unseen.

And I thought I was scared then. But it was the escape I should have worried about.

We had wandered miles away from Centralia, hoping to find more of it, and found coals fields and a soccer game instead. When the sun went down, we punched the hotel’s address into the GPS, and like we had before, followed the chirps of the British woman inside it.

This time, though, she took us off the primary roads, onto some pitch black, unlined loop, where some monster SUV bore down on us, forced its headlights toward our rear window, tried to run us off the road, but eventually passed. But still I trusted her, the woman in the box, because she brought us back to roads with lines, and because I did, I followed her again, off on another side road, some barely paved mountain climb. But the trust waned, as the panic set in, as the road narrowed, and the pavement seemed to slowly dissolve, washed out nearly as much as the earth around it. The world was black around us and the headlights showed only the ruts in the road and downed limbs ahead. And the road choked down to where the Impala could barely pass, tree limbs slapping at both sides of it. And I kept climbing, because I could see the headlights of some road ahead, through the trees between us and it, even though what was under our wheels had become more dirt than road.

And even though I kept climbing, the farther I got from pavement, the more I thought something had gotten into the GPS. Probably, obviously in Centralia. Because we had come to their town gawking at their catastrophe, and what was left of the people who had been there, spirit or worse, was directing us to where the Centralia faithful could remove our limbs from our bodies and drop us into the fire.

Eventually fear would get the best of me, and I would, gingerly, make an eight point turn and climb back down to safety, but I assume it was some kind of haunting. Couldn’t be a mistake in the GPS.

Like the Trojans won’t ever take in a wooden horse ever again, I’ll never fully trust GPS. But this is only one thing I learned in my thousand-mile loop around Pennsylvania:

  • Although the law may frown upon it, if I was a resident of Centralia, or nearby, I would set up tours of the near abandoned town. They could guide you through the labyrinth of empty, overgrown streets, tell you what used to be there and where the plumes of coal smoke sprout, tell you the story of the place and how it still runs. But most importantly they could guide you to the abandoned portion of Highway 61. Unless we were going about it backwards, the most accessible entry-point to it is at the top of a steep incline, on a bad curve. There’s really no place to park, and because of it, and because I was driving my dad’s car, because we were afraid my 10 year old Malibu wouldn’t survive the trip, we were hurried in our exploration. We still don’t understand what we saw or what we missed, we still feel a great amount of mystery about the discarded and unused roadways, but if you were to lead an ATV expedition up that hill and around the earthen barrier, I would pay for that.
  • On a much more serious note, the sites of Philadelphia do much now to make clear the hypocrisy of the founding of our nation on the subject of slavery. At the site of the President’s House, a window down into the ground, to the foundation of the home where our first two presidents lived, just yards from the Liberty Bell, placards discuss the nine slaves in Washington’s household. At Independence Hall, tour guides explain that one of the sections that Thomas Jefferson wrote into the important document that was ultimately removed during revisions, berated the British monarchy for supporting slavery. A couple signers would threaten to walk out without it in there, Jefferson wasn’t happy either, but the document went to press without it.
  • I’m not a huge fan of cheesesteaks, but Geno’s Steaks in Philadelphia very well might be the best.

  • It may be kind of cheap and it might be kind of a ploy, but Punxsutawney was a lot of fun, even six months after Groundhog Day. I have seen roughly 10,000 woodchucks in my life, but finding Punxsutawney Phil in his burrow at the Punxsutawney Memorial Library, all the groundhog statues around town, just the unifying whistle pig theme around the town, in short, was fun. I’ll call it the Mickey Mouse Phenomenon. Just like how every hamburger and pool of water at Disneyland is in the shape of the famous cartoon mouse, it seems when every aspect of a place is designed around the same spirit, same historical era, or in these examples, the same animal, it gives some kind of undefinable value to a place. As small towns around the country try to find ways to bring people to their town, I wonder if this something that would work elsewhere. Distill your town to its most defining or unusual moment, industry or rodent and design away. Sure it reduces a place to one dimension, but there is something comforting about a place that you can understand quickly, that you know what to expect from. But if you do it right, you’ll get nerds willing to traipse around your town looking for the groundhog dressed up as the mail man, as the mayor, as the Sottish Presbyterian.
  • Probably the coolest hotel I’ve ever stayed at was the Cork Factory Hotel in Lancaster. Looking like a cleaned up, scrubbed down, shined up factory, its name adorns it in a plain, black font, indicative of its upscale interior. The rooms are warm, not only from the exposed brick walls, but the exposed wood ceilings, too. Its restaurant, Cap and Cork, serves probably the best food I’ve had in years, and maybe the best chicken, in the Lancaster County Barbecue Chicken and its crispy skin. Maybe the best chicken I’ve ever eaten. The only drawback to the place is those same exposed wood ceilings that creak and leak sound like a sieve. I lost two hours of sleep because who ever was above us sounded like a family of seven suffering through cold and flu season and holding basketball practice starting at 7 a.m.
  • Second coolest would have to be The Woodlands Inn in Wilkes-Barre. The hotel faces unremarkable Route 315, but then we get into our room, opened the door onto our balcony, and looked out onto the Laurel Run Spring. It’s got a handful of restaurants, bars, one of them outdoors, and the largest jacuzzi I’ve ever seen.
  • I have never been to the real Grand Canyon, and it’s probably safe to Pennsylvania’s version isn’t as grand, but Pine Creek Outfitters provide a nice little service for those who might enjoy biking through the “canyon.”

And now for the complaining:

  • When I stay at a hotel I get a bed better than mine, a bathroom cooler than mine, but a TV always smaller than my own at home, usually not even a flat screen, with a picture quality and cable offerings greatly inferior to what I get on my own couch. Who is responsible for this incredible oversight in every hotel in America?
  • On the highways of Pennsylvania there is a constant threat of construction, and intermittent follow-throughs. As common as construction is, it’s just as common to find signage warning of road work that never materializes, even a sign for flaggers ahead and never find them, or find them miles after the sign.
  • I once thought truck drivers were the order-keepers of the interstate, but the recent trip has affirmed recent hunches that that isn’t the case. They will ride in the left lane for miles for absolutely no reason. They will tailgate at 75 miles an hour. They will pass you while you’re going 75. They will box you in. They love to pass in rain and snow to throw the garbage of the road onto your windshield. They are the bullies of the road.

What happened, truck drivers?

The Picker Sisters, Lancaster Cork, and Fossils of an Industrial Past
September 14, 2011

As we dropped down out of southern Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, into the slopes of the City of Johsntown, we dropped further into a place that reminded me much of Pittsburgh — cut up and confused by rivers, abandoned behemoth brick structures dominating the circuitous paths through town, long stretches of rusted rails.

I wanted to pull over, to have a closer look. At the vacant mills, like rectangle red mountains, and the deep cement-walled ravines guiding the rivers, precautions from the 19th century flood that destroyed the place. But we were on a schedule, had just come from Punxsutawney and still had to get to Lancaster, three and a half hours east. But when we did get to Lancaster, as I tried to sleep even, I was still thinking of Johnstown.

We were at the Cork Factory Hotel. Built in 1865 as Lancaster Cork Works, it’s served other purposes since, a glass factory, for example, but a hotel, now, too. “Upscale” and “boutique” are the words used to advertise it, and it was, but it — its exterior and exposed interior walls — were the same brick we’d left behind in Johnstown. Just polished up by Urban Place LLC in 2005, because they saw the beauty in the old mill, the red smoke stack that stands above the entrance. And knew their customers would too.

Thinking about terms like “ruin porn,” designed to leave an aftertaste of guilt any time aesthetic value is found in places like Johnstown, the Cork Factory holds the key for me.

Whether it be a mill, a market, anything it seems, what’s made today are steel warehouses, pole buildings, aluminum shells, just larger versions of Dollar Stores. Utilitarian structures with eyes, with no room to budge, on the bottom line. And as I tried to sleep in an old cork warehouse, I had to wonder, in 150 years who’s going to want to fix up a Dollar Store, who’s going to want to stay the night in one of those?

Live fast; die young; leave a pretty corpse. And industry did, and a lot of them. But the real trick is making that beauty obvious. Making it as valuable as a steel warehouse is cheap. Taking these old, abandoned resources and making something of them.

It’s called bricolage, taking what’s on hand and making something new from it, something I first learned at Carnegie Mellon from Professor Scott Sandage in a brilliant course titled “The Roots of Rock and Roll.” It’s all rock and roll is, he explained, as he showed us the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, Son House, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Nirvana, all the pieces from which they built their music, and the pieces of their music that were used to make what came after. My term paper, to illustrate, was on the bricolage of Bob Dylan — when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, making his music new by using something on hand, the electric guitar.

Bricolage was at work in not only the structure of the Cork Factory Hotel, but also what we saw on TV — the Picker Sisters, who took old silos and broken motorcycles and make custom tables and chairs — and also in its restaurant, the Cork and Cap. There we found maybe expected dish names — Lancaster County Barbecue Chicken and a beef stroganoff, more specifically Petite Filet Stroganoff — but elevated with what was on hand, culinary techniques and upscale ingredients. Our appetizer, for example, was stuffed peppers, but instead of run of the mill beef, they were filled with veal. (And maybe its vice versa, the idea or tradition of the dishes being what was on hand, like the Lancaster County Barbecue Chicken with a cucumber coleslaw and German potato salad that came to me as something that wouldn’t be confused with something found on a paper plate.)

So I guess the point is, beyond the inherent aesthetic value of these abandoned monuments to an industrialized age long gone, that these broken antiques can be and should be used to build the future. They should be considered natural resources as much as the oil and gas that were left under the soil from another age. As each rust belt town works to move from its industrialized past into some post-industrial success, it’s important to take stock of what came before, what’s left over from it, and how that can be used. Not every town is going to have a Cork Factory Hotel or Heinz Lofts. And there may only be broken windows and poisoned ground left over.

But I look to my town, Greenville. There is a railroad museum and an Erie Extension Canal museum, a historical society, and now each July to draw attention to them and the town’s heritage as a whole, there is Heritage Day. To be sure such an event won’t have the same effect as if a steel car plant opened its doors again, or Chicago Bridge & Iron, but it is, at least, a step in the right direction.

Tourists of Disaster
August 29, 2011

I had designed the trip as a loop, a tour around Pennsylvania. No theme or thread in mind, but I knew there’d be something. And sometime after Johnstown, it became clear that this was a trip of disasters.

Sure there was some argument about where we were going and how to get there — suprisingly most glaringly when trying to make the short jump from Scranton to Wilkes-Barre after losing the directions to the hotel — but that’s not what I’m talking about.

Johnstown, obviously, is the greatest flood this country has ever seen, one of its greatest disasters, and as we tried to board the city’s incline — allegedly the world’s steepest inclined plane; more superlatives — we learned we couldn’t. There was an earthquake in D.C. and they were shutting down.

We didn’t feel it — An older couple also turned away from the incline, said they had — and it really wasn’t a disaster, but there was more to come. After wandering through the ghost town of Centralia — the residents of which were pushed out in 1992 after a coal fire that had burned for 30 years under the town and continues to burn — we woke up in Frackville, about 10 miles southeast of Centralia and about 8 miles north of Pottsville, home of the Yuengling brewery. We turned on The Weather Channel to find broadcasters there and then on the 24-hour news networks staring into the clear skies of North Carolina and cranking their panic meters to 10. Hurricane Irene was coming.

The panic would follow us to Wilkes-Barre where, sitting at the Executive Lounge of the Woodlands Inn, we watched the panic grow — professional sports postponed, the east coast evacuated. Fear and loathing in eastern Pennsylvania.

As I check the headlines now, on Sunday, when Irene was supposed to ravage Philly, New York, etc., she has been downgraded to a tropical storm. A FEMA administrator is reminding people though that no one has dodged a bullet. People have lost their lives.

But is it a disaster? According to the same article in the LA Times, about 15 people have died so far, and the damage is estimated to be between 7 and 20 million dollars. We may have been expecting a bigger one, but compared to the D.C. earthquake, it most certainly is a disaster.

There is no glory in ranking these unfortunate events, but having just seen the sites of two disasters that started 50 and 100 years, respectively, before, it seems, beyond the count of the dead and the final price tag, a more accurate way to measure these earthquakes, floods, underground hell fires is how far out their shock waves can be felt.

The Jonstown Flood, on May 28, 1889, killed 2,209 and caused more than $17 million in damage. The Johnstown Flood Museum works to illustrate what that really means, through photos of the aftermath, newspaper stories, an artistic installation of white washed pieces of detritus — boards and wire and mannequin parts — attached to the wall like how they would have been left by the flood. But what does it best is a model in the center of the museum’s main room. Green lights snake through the valley as the flood builds and culminates with sounds of crashing and red lights like sirens where the fires grew after. That and the markers around town, one near the city’s famed incline. There is a walkway about 15 feet above state Route 56 that connects the incline, which is about 30 feet above the Conemaugh River bed, with the rest of town. A sign points to that walkway — well above the road and the cars on it, which are well above the river and its high cement-walled ravine, and says that’s how far the water rose.

The markers and museum are arguably the most obvious reminders of the 122-year-old flood, but it’s a much more different picture in Centralia.

A couple miles out in any direction, on state Route 61 specifically, there are road signs that advise you the little borough is there and within reach. We climbed north on 61, up out of Ashland deeper into the coal hills of east-central PA, and had read of the abandoned, former-portion of the highway, what was labeled on the map as a logging road. We looked for it as the road whipped back and forth on an incline, but as it peaked and fell, we knew we’d missed it. It wasn’t till about half way down, until we saw the St. Ignatius cemetery to our left, and then found a note to Gov. Corbett in the form of a poster board sign, that we knew we were there. We had come from Philadelphia, and because of some GPS complications coming out of the city, we didn’t have as much time, and therefore daylight, as I had budgeted for. The sun was falling and the sky was becoming orange behind the sign. The free-handed words of the sign beg the governor and the representatives of the residents of the tiny borough to leave them alone. Stop wasting money to push them out, the sign says, which the state has been doing since 1992.

Because the fire is still burning, because the state won’t let them stay, we expected the streets to be vacant and quiet. Reportedly there are still five homes in the borough, and if that’s the case, we likely saw half the town’s population. We saw two at the borough building, which is just up the hill as state Route 42 climbs north out of town, and another, a teenager washing the wheels of his truck on one of the borough’s abandoned streets.

Most signs of civilization have been removed, through eminent domain, leaving just wild bushes and grass to spill over and eventually choke off the streets. They are a network of squares around the central intersection of state routes 42 and 61. You can find a map of it on Google, but there are no street signs, and no markings. What we found most were abandoned campfires, empty beer cans and cases, graffiti warning you of the fire that is either imperceptible or dormant underneath the road. We had read of the plumes of coal smoke and steam that rise or have risen out of the road surfaces, but they appear sealed over now. Just patches of black squares. And as we drove over them the car sagged down into them, and I braced for the car to crack through and fall into the eternal fire below.

But what is most intriguing is the abandoned road, which we were yet to find. Route 61 still drops down into Centralia, but that’s not its original path. There is about a mile of roadway, which would essentially join 61 at the top of the hill and then loop back down to rejoin it just above the cemetery. In the photos we had seen, there were road markers blocking off the old road, in view of the new one. There was none of that, but we knew it was there. We drove again back up to the peak, and down a little ways again, to the first big curve. There was just enough room to pull off and we did. There was only a wall of dirt and grass, like at the edge of all the other curves, but we put the parking brake on and climbed over. And hidden back in behind the wall of dirt was the abandoned road. It was stopped off and walled off too, by more dirt, but then climbed even steeper than the road we’d just gotten off of. The aged roadway was coated nearly end to end in graffiti. Some of it crude illustrations, other more warnings as to what lies at the end of the dead road, and even some more self-aware, welcoming you to Silent Hill, a 2006 horror film inspired by the town.

The lasting evidence of the disaster isn’t as obvious as we anticipated. Nearby towns of Aristes, Ashland, Mt. Carmel, and Girardville are well inhabited, and in addition to the car washer, residents are very active, including a man near Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, the last active church in the borough, was chainsawing something. I hoped it was something.

Despite whatever evidence we gathered or missed, according to all reports, the fire is still burning, though, and the residents are still in court, fighting to stay in their homes, i.e. the aftershocks are still being felt.

What really sets apart the tragedies of Centralia and Johnstown, which came to be aligned in my life with Irene and the D.C. earthquake, is that they were man-made. Although neither was purposefully caused, them coming by the hands of man makes them that much more devious.

Heavy rains were one cause of the Johnstown Flood, but more so was the South Fork Dam. The dam, created as part of a cross-state canal system, created Lake Conemaugh. Railroad would make canals irrelevant and eventually the lake would end up in the hands of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. The club was just about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh and had a membership of some of the richest men in the world, the likes of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon. Despite that though, little was done to maintain the dam. Over the about eight years that they owned it, it sprang leaks and inspired rumors of its impending failure, which is exactly what happened — 20 million tons of water barreled down on the city.

The cause of the Centralia fire isn’t as well documented, but the most frequently cited story involves the town’s dump. The mayor had the fire department burn it down, as was the annual convention, as the story goes, but the fire wasn’t put out properly and climbed into a nearby mine. It followed the seams of coal under the town and burned and put up plumes of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and otherwise reduced oxygen levels.

We watched a great amount of traffic just whip past the nearly abandoned center of town, past the fully abandoned portion of state Route 61, maybe listening to their radios to the disasters of Irene and the D.C. earthquake. And although the toll on life and repairs would be much greater from Irene, looking back on Centralia, I have to wonder if that little town’s plight isn’t greater. It will be expensive and heart wrenching, but the victims of Irene can rebuild. The residents of Centralia cannot, and neither will be rebuilt the homes of their neighbors, the local businesses that defined their town, the churches and social clubs, the entire culture of and memory of a community nearly erased. 

Rust Belt Fiction: Chapter 1
August 5, 2011

I’m just now finishing up all the pieces to go up on the latest Cleveland Review, and it’s not till now — having read each story and poem, the writers’ other work, their connection to the Rust Belt – that I’m beginning to fully appreciate how important The Cleveland Review is.

When I decided to really start writing about three years ago, I had to ask myself, what stories did I have to tell, what kinds of things did I have to write about. And pretty quickly I started looking at the world around me, to the places, beautiful or not, that I’d begun to catalog here as a journalist. And when I began to write about union votes and brownfields, rust and chicken pie and yinz, I started to wonder how that fit into the broad scheme of things. I started looking for the heritage of Rust Belt Literature.

Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but I didn’t find much, and reading the remarks from other Cleveland Review contributors, it seems there’s others hungry for the same.

I think our first desire is for our culture to be represented. Through movies and music and books, it seems we have a pretty firm grasp on the culture in every tiny neighborhood of New York City and half the ones in Boston. Chicago has a whole set of characters on SNL; Austin has its art scene; Portland has “Portlandia;” and LA is LA. It goes on and on and it seems so many other regions already have representation: the Southwest has Cormac McCarthy; you could probably argue New England has Stephen King; and even the less densely populated Ozarks have representation in Daniel Woodrell.

But what about the Rust Belt? There’s Michael Chabon, who Burgh Diaspora, quoting a Guardian article, has recently mentioned, uses the “grit” of Pittsburgh as a background. And although I love “Wonder Boys” and “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” you really can’t call any of it Rust Belt Ficiton. And as fellow members on goodreads.com point out, there is the mystery writing of Les Roberts, “Crooked River” by Mark Winegardner, a “Simple Plan,” by Scott Smith, and I’d add “American Rust” by Philipp Meyer as being the closest to matching some definition of Rust Belt Fiction.

But like one Cleveland Review photographer, Bridget Callahan, put it, we’re looking for our Flannery O’Connor. And so far, the closest thing we’ve gotten is “Youngstown,” by Bruce Springsteen.

I think we’re looking for someone to set the story straight. As Cleveland Review poet, Rochelle Hurt, writes recently, most outsiders’ first impression of the Rust Belt is that it’s depressed. A recent article on The Cleveland Review, talks about how the older generation resents the term “rust belt.” But those of us that grew up after the massive layoffs and grew up living amongst the vacant monuments to industry, we embrace it all. Sure that may be a bit perverse, and surely I don’t speak for everyone, but we’re living amongst history and ruins, and now, at some kind of bottom, are surrounded by great potential.

And that’s argument one, why The Cleveland Review is important, because although we don’t yet have a Flannery O’Connor or Cormac McCarthy, there seems to be a lot of writers willing and interested and able to express what the Rust Belt is and what we really are.

Argument two is that this kind of writing and thought is important and necessary for the future of the Rust Belt. Like I said, we’re living amongst history. In Brooks Rexroat’s story, that means abandoned coke ovens and other apparati; as Hurt writes, it means our towns are “jallopy-strewn.” There are countless factories and mills, tracks and bronwfields, that sit vacant and fallow, to remind us, 1) of the great power and success these towns and cities and burghs had; and 2) The mistakes that felled them.

Sure there are overarching, nebulous lessons to be learned, that selling out on American industry while a much cheaper labor force was waiting to be tapped outside our borders, or vice versa, that fair trade and labor practices can’t be ignored, I’m thinking of something much more tangible. Like the poisoned soil of the countless brownfields around the region. That sit empty and undeveloped because of carelessness, and probably worse, with dangerous materials. And even beyond the corporate level, these ruins serve to remind us of the municipal mistakes we made, too. Here municipal mismanagement compounded the effects of the industrial fall and crippled the local government financially, even to this day.

Newspaper reports and accounts can only enumerate and express the factual causes and effects. They can’t even approach the ability that fiction has to take the emotions of all of it, parse them, and begin to present the full picture.

Fiction gives us a way to understand our struggles in a way that non-fiction never will be able to. I mean, what do you remember of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression? I remember John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” And it’s true so many times: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” etc.

This writing, Rust Belt Fiction and Poetry, reminds us of our past so we can learn from it, it helps us process the emotional burden so we can get past it, it provides a light to the future.

Until our Flannery O’Connor, our Cormac McCarthy, our John Steinbeck emerges, tapping a whole chorus of Rust Belt voices will more than suffice. Will likely do more than one voice ever could. And for that, you have to thank the editors of The Cleveland Review.

The Smartest Brother
August 1, 2011

My short story, “The Smartest Brother,” just went up Sunday at The Cleveland Review.

It’s about two guys that grew up together and ended up working together at the same plant and voting on the same contract that closes the only place they’ve worked in their adult lives. They’re on opposite ends of the vote, they find out after it’s over, and things get tense.

And it does happen. The story comes from covering union votes in Greenville. One in particular, there was a threat — pass the deal so we can sell you, they said, or we’ll close the place down.

And even when votes aren’t that dramatic, there’s always some heaviness. Not a lot of smiles. Always at least a little drinking. Because these days these votes are a gamble. Used to be you pushed for more pay and better benefits, figuring worst case scenario your union reps get negotiated down. Now, it’s pushing for a little more pay and hoping not to foot all your health insurance. And hoping, too, ownership doesn’t decide they can’t afford it.

Those thoughts aside, it’s been a good experience working with The Cleveland Review. I’ve only had a handful or so things published so far, but this was the first time a journal had notes for me. Wells Addington, especially, specifically. He suggested I take another look at the ending, among some other ideas, all of which made the story you are reading stronger than the one you’re not.

There are good people in Cleveland, it appears. I was encouraged when I found them, some place looking for Rust Belt writing. Just glad to see there’s more of us.

P.S. Read this. Great piece on The Cleveland Review.

Rust is Beautiful
June 21, 2011


“Ruin photos speak to our desperate desire to have our world re-enchanted. We want the banal structures and scenes of our everyday life dignified by the patina of decay, so that we can imagine ourselves as noble, mythic Greeks and Romans to a later age … “

— Rob Horning, Popmatters.com

Ruin porn. I didn’t know there was a such a thing. The term at least. Familiar with porn of course and what I thought to be the relatively new term of “torture porn” for the mutilation, blood and guts of Eli Roth and his contemporaries. But never “ruin porn.”

If you follow it out, if you take the meaning of torture porn — graphic depictions of decapitations, delimbings, guttings and the same for the sole purpose of big-screen spectacle, i.e. not considering or requesting critical thought, often at the expense of its subjects — and extrapolate it out, ruin porn is the depiction of the gutting of a once great industrialized land by lazy, privileged, white photographers, cashing in on and exploiting the blight and plight of their subjects, the people who suffer from it. At least that seems to be the argument of Vice and John Patrick Leary. 

Which obviously, sounds pretty bad, but maybe we’re talking about different things here.

They’re often talking about truly urban areas, abandoned schools, abandoned neighborhoods, and the people who have to live in and amongst the detritus.

I guess what I’m talking about is the aesthetics of rust.

I admit I’m not a photographer. And when I took these photos, it’d be years before I heard the term “ruin porn.” I took them because they inspire me. They’re part of the world I live in and write of. And that’s the industrial past that built this world, toppled it, and the graves it left.

But consider the alternative. I’m thinking of shuttered factories and the fenced-in brownfields from where they’ve been uprooted. When they were working mills, they came, attached to them, with smoke stacks and black clouds.

And I guess the response to that would be, surely you can find beauty in development. But, the most prevalent development in this area in recent years has been Dollar General, and its cousins, and WalMart. Which not to knock them, but if we’re talking purely aesthetics here, they’re ugly. They’re boxes. They’re utilitarian. They’re gray. At least rust has some color.

I guess maybe growing up here, I take a little more offense to it. I think the inherent argument is that you can’t find beauty in the Rust Belt. Call it patina, like Horning does with a different tone, but rust is like ivy, growing wherever it wants. Call it a snowflake, because no pattern is the same. And the mills themselves, just worn out husks with broken windows, exposed rebar, no different than a stubbly corn field in November. Just like an old tree, knotted over itself and scarred from growing. I hope being inspired by these things is ok.

All I know is I always turn my head to look at what some call “ruin porn.” Maybe because it’s a mystery. Like a burned out house. But instead of asking yourself, who were these people, this family. Where’d they go? You gotta ask yourself, what happened? And you gotta ask yourself, what’d they used to make here? And, where did all the people that used to work here go? Where do they work now? Who are they now?

The questions turn to the future — Where will they work? Where will they live?

And it will keep the polluted brownfields in peoples’ minds until they’re clean.

So there’s your call to action. Your call for critical thought. But maybe still porn to some. Maybe the exploitation of decay and loss to others. But they’re not all going to be Van Goghs, are they?

Focus Unfocused
June 20, 2011

I’ve sent out the press release to all the major news media (and this happens. A dude in Wisconsin will write a self-help book on how to make you and your dog more patriotic and he’ll work up his little press release complete with picture of him and his dog both in Uncle Sam hats, staring longingly into each others’ eyes, drifting ever so gradually in for what I can only assume is an open-mouth kiss or at the very least a sharing of some very intimate secret, and he will email blast every TV and radio station, every major and minor newspaper that is connected to a computer, even the very local ones, who, the only book they’ve ever reviewed is the Bible, and not the whole thing, just the Old Testament, “before God got all fast and loose with that love business.”) but you’re probably reading it here first.

As you probably know, I started putting all these electronic words and photographs here as a means of plotting my course, however loopy and meandering and impossible it may be, toward my grand delusion of having my book published. As I gained perspective, after I peered out into that abyss and realized just how far off that likely is, it became more a headquarters, too, if you will, for my short stories, and then other projects. But subsequently, presently, I’ve come to understand I could better serve the internet and the rest of society, you know, the good ones, the ones not on the internet, by expanding that focus. Only by ever so much.

I hope now to include thoughts and ruminations, illustrations and other graphic representations of the themes in my writing, listed in ascending and descending order: The American Rust Belt, The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Western Pennsylania, and Zombies, because however infrequently they may show up in my writing and reality as a whole, they are prone to wander into frame at any moment.

For those of you out there playing one of my favorite games from Sesame Street, one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other, and saying to yourself, Zombies have no place in any of this. You’re listing geographic divisions and then you throw in some mythical voodoo creature that is fueled only by human brains. Pure nonsense. Perhaps what you don’t understand is that the Zombie is as Western-Pennsylvania as Holsteins or abandoned industrial fields. The modern Zombie was created here, not far from where I sit, in Pittsburgh, and just a little farther north of it, in Evans City, by the Honorable Dr. George A. Romero, a fellow CMU alumnus. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of, Day of, the original The Crazies, and so and so on, all born here in Western Pennsylvania. (With Night of the Living Dead being released in 1968, just a few short years before the industrial complex of the metropolitan Pittsburgh area and America as a whole began to give way, giving way to the Rust Belt, you could argue that zombies were an allegory for that industrial complex, unaware as of yet, that it has died, that it has been dead, and instead just goes on living like it’s not dead, making pilgrimages to the mall, hanging out, eating brains, but I think Romero was speaking more about class, race, and general consumerism.) So it’s not arbitrary, the inclusion of zombies. It’s just another arm of trying to document, understand, and preserve my own culture.

With that said, in introducing what is currently my sole short zombie story, “Why’d You Come Back?” I wrote, “Think Gabriel Garcia Marquez but less Colombian and more zombies.” And some wonderfully blessed person stumbled upon my site because of those words, by googling, “Gabriel Garcia Zombies.” That’s got me thinking. I should write a Gabriel Garcia Marquez zombie story. It’s not here yet, but to show you how serious I am, I direct you to the art above, the head of some sombreroed, likely intoxicated Gabriel Garcia Marquez, crudely photoshopped into a frame of Night of the Living Dead (It’s near the end when they have that really uptight jerk guy throw molotov cocktails down at the zombies. Molotov cocktails. How perfect for Gabriel. And how self-indulgent for me.)

Coiled and ready
May 20, 2011

You know, I thought I hadn’t posted on here for maybe three or four years, but I just checked and it was just October. Not so long ago. And to think I thought I was negligent.

No matter. The real reason I’ve brought you all here is to announce the pending publication of my short story “Wire Chest” at Alice Blue.

Surely you all know one of those unfortunate children, who, because of defective hearts or bad wiring or I don’t know, I’m not a doctor nor mechanic, have to walk around with a car battery wired to their heart.

It’s a sad sight, but finally someone is telling their story and that someone is me.

I’ll be sure to let you know when the story’s up. Thank you for your time.

That Dead Cat Scourge
October 1, 2010

In local government, there is one basic, yet essential, right: To stand before your elected officials and address them.

As a journalist, as someone who actually has to go cover that, there is a second right that makes it all bearable: The right to be a crazy person while doing it.

To do this though, you will need a few things. White hair, first of all, a lot or very little, and eyebrows the same, preferably like two huge dead albino cats clinging to your face (yes I’m referencing my story. Because it’s important. That’s why.) If you’re a woman, though, and you may be, you should not have eyebrows. They should have been shaved or olded off and then drawn back on.

You should then pace and point with at least two fingers. Demand your elected official speak louder — can’t hear you, you know that. And raise your voice to match theirs, even if it comes to yelling, especially if it comes to yelling. Please yell, but do not be aware of it. Because they need to understand that garbage trucks are going way too fast through town. They’re racing. And the new street lights are yellow. Too yellow. They’ve never been that yellow. You can see that. And you’re plowing my street way too much. How clean does a street need to be? We’re in two wars and a salt shortage. We all know that.

Far too few people take advantage of right number one, and even less of right number two.

That’s why I wrote, “That Cat.” Because that guy is out there. Go to a meeting of your local municipal government and he will be there. He will not swear nearly as much and he most certainly does not have the balls to burn down anything, but you will find him there.

On a related note, I hope it’s not a related note, since this story was published, I’ve received five rejections. Life is cold. Cold.