Review: The Laboratory of Love, by Patrick Roscoe

TheLaboratoryofLove1>>Published: October 2013

>>Finally got around to it: January 2014

From the outset, I understood that my investigations into love must be conducted through the medium of flesh: what I seek lies beneath the skin, below bone, under organs, deeper than blood, beyond scalpel’s reach.

I accepted, too, that this path toward the truth would not travel through lush surfaces or shapely limbs.

(Pure science must always practice discrimination for which no apology is required; embracing one theory means coldly denying others.)

Human beings who are encased within less aesthetically fortunate shells have always provided the richest raw materials for research.

My thesis is built upon a single fundamental principle.

When desire denied too long is finally fulfilled, when withheld beauty is belatedly possessed, when longing for wing and flight are at last unshackled: such ecstatic experience can unleash extraordinary reactions that originate from the deeply buried, molten core of love.

My physical self, this form shaped and honed for satisfaction, provides the catalyst.

***

The Laboratory of Love, Patrick Roscoe’s eighth book (and first since 2001), is a globe-spanning collection of thirty-three short stories—twenty-six which have been previously published—divided into five thematic parts. These stories explore, often with un-tempered vulnerability, the darker sleeves of love and its ability to simultaneously uplift and destroy.

In the first part, the stories contain wounded, troubled children, overwhelming tones of parental abuse and/or neglect, abuse from elders, and possession—sometimes positive, often negative—by religion, employing a fair amount of cloud, sky, and angel wing imagery. In “The History of a Hopeful Heart,” the story offers an abstracted point of view of a child taken in the night who proceeds to fall for his captor and the violence that exists between them, his old life nothing more than a ruined shadow. “Angie, Short for Angel” follows the idea of a prostitute as an angelic receptacle for men’s scorn and abuse—loss of child and parental abandonment are both heavily implied.

The second part is a linked narrative of sorts following the lives of Honey. Honey is a stripper who ran away from her hateful mother, but is forced to send her son back to live with her. The first story in this section, “Honey,” sets the stage for the difficult grandmother-mother-son interaction; the second story, “The Real Truth,” further explores the life of Honey’s child, Billy; “Eureka, California” shows Billy’s birth and Honey’s brief reprieve in the town of Eureka before eventually returning to the life she’d hoped to escape; “Lucky” gives readers a better glimpse into Billy’s life as he adapts new identities to create barriers as a defence against shitty, abusive authority figures, and he sees glimpses of what his mother must have been like as a child; and in “After the Glitter and the Rouge,” Honey returns home to her mother after having had acid hurled in her face to learn that Billy has disappeared.

Part III offers another series of linked stories, this time following the lives of a Canadian family living abroad in Africa while their mother is in a psychiatric hospital in Brale, BC. Like in the book’s second part, the stories in Part III shift between different narrators and points in time. “Beggars” introduces readers to Ardis, the mother, while “The Lena Tree” continues the narrative from Mitch, the father’s perspective, and “Wild Dogs” jumps into the minds of the children to set the stage for one of them following in their mother’s unfortunate footsteps. The opening story to this section, “Rorschach II: The Black Hole,” is littered with imagery of births and abandonment, of black holes and needles related, potentially, to depression, drug use, and other possible struggles; the poetry of the writing in this section masks the truth of these issues and whether they happen to be internal or external realities. The story “Chiggers” is the strongest in this section.

The fourth part of Roscoe’s collection contains the book’s strongest story in “The Sacred Flame,” which also marks the first time I felt there was genuine passion and belief in a character’s development—interestingly enough, it’s a malevolent force that seeks only to destroy:

I believe in the sacred flame. When my father asks me to spread fire, I obey quickly and without question. Ours is not to wonder why; we’re here to carry out His commands. On one level, my duty is to cleanse through fear. At every funeral, the survivors look like they’ve been shaken hard by their near escape from flame; despite television and Xanax, they’ll never feel safe again. Extreme heat destroys germs, eradicates disease. Sin purifies into cinder. Ash absolves. Sprinkle it on wounds and sores. Strike the match and set them free. Let them feel the holy heat, raise them with smoke above this sick and troubled land, dissolve them into divinity. Then my works is done and my Father allows me to leave. The traumatized town will not notice I’m gone. There’s never a goodbye.

As well in this part we reconnect with the family from the third part in the story “The Murdered Child,” which jumps ahead in time so that we may see Lily, one of Ardis’ children, living a similar, solitary life in Brale, BC, after her mother’s death.

The final, and largest, part of the book pulls the camera back to offer a wider perspective on the collection as a whole. “The Tattoo Artist” is an elegant, fable-like tale of the price of deliberately marking one’s body as different, as “other,” and how one is forced to live with past decisions and indiscretions. “Hieroglyphics I: Only the Bird Knows the Wing” and “Hieroglyphics II: Only the Wing Knows the Flight” are a two-part meta-narrative that read as if the author has split himself in two and is detailing a love affair between the two halves. These stories read on some level as if the author is issuing a statement about the world’s inability to recognize his talent for what it is, and how frustrating it is that he hasn’t figured out how to allow himself to love and accept himself for who he is. “The Truth About Love” documents what it’s like to fall in love with a serial killer, and the fear that the slightest sea change might turn the tides of their relationship in life-threatening ways. And in “The Laboratory of Love” we’re given a glimpse into the overarching, Quantum Leap-style narrative that runs through all others in the collection, examining the relationships of all the previous stories from a pseudo-scientific perspective.

I had a difficult time making it through The Laboratory of Love. The book itself feels as if it’s in the middle of an identity crisis; it doesn’t know if it wants to be a mosaic-like collection of short stories or a novel culled from disparate but similar pieces. In the past, I’ve found I have quite an affinity for mosaic collections, where several of the stories (or all of them) are linked in some way. In The Laboratory of Love, however, I felt the linked nature of the collection was actually to its detriment. Mostly this is due to the fact that the family at the heart of so many of the stories was never interesting enough for me to feel any sort of connection to them. And while each of their stories is written from the perspective of another member of the family, there is little to no differentiation in voice; they feel uniform, dull, and without life. Secondly, the overarching efforts of the titular story, while at first blush an intriguing idea, were marred by its rather plodding nature and disaffected tone.

Additionally, Roscoe’s writing is uneven; while it is of a high intellectual measure throughout, it’s often overwritten, so delicately constructed and concise that it feels wholly inorganic—contributing, unfortunately, to the lifelessness of its characters. As a result of me not feeling drawn into the stories of these characters, I started noticing a regularly recurring writer’s tic—that Roscoe writes many of his descriptors and actions in three’s:

… the hallucinogenic heavens swam, swirled, spun.

Between the blank spaces, I visit the cash machine, the supermarket, the supplier of my medication.

Not by accident, from whimsy, for fancy.

This might seem inconsequential, but I noticed it enough times throughout the collection that it frequently pulled me out of what I was reading.

I suppose the most damning thing, however, is that despite the previous publication of most of these stories, only two or three of them really felt to me as if they could stand on their own—specifically “Chiggers,” “The Tattoo Artist,” and “The Sacred Flame.”

As I stated above, Roscoe’s writing is quite clean and elegant, but in the end there simply isn’t enough identifiable character or soul in The Laboratory of Love for me to recommend this book. It feels in many ways like a short fiction collection aspiring to be a weightier novel, but not succeeding at being either.

Review: The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside “The Room,” the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell

9200000011484752>>Published: October 2013

>>Finally got around to it: January 2014

Tommy set his chopsticks aside. “For me,” he said, “I always wanted to have my own planet. Call it Tommy’s Planet. Build a giant building there, you see, like… Empire Tower. Some casino thing. My planet will be bigger than everything.”

I found myself unexpectedly charmed by this burst of subdued bravado. It wasn’t obnoxious. It was sort of endearing. I felt like I’d just asked a child what he wanted to be when he grew up. And a child had answered me, honestly, with no adult filter telling him what was and wasn’t possible.

“Your own planet,” I said. I wanted to laugh but I couldn’t. In fact, I had goose bumps. This man sitting in front of me had no detectable talent, did everything wrong, wasn’t comfortable saying how old he was or where he was from, and seemed to take an hour to learn what most people picked up in five seconds. Still, for that moment I believed him. I believed he could have his own planet.

“Yeah,” he said, looking up. “I see this big thing and big light and big events with stores and hotel and movie. All these things all together. It will be spectacular.” He reached for his glass of hot water but hesitated before lifting it to his mouth. Tommy peered at me from beneath his large protruding brow. “And you can live in my planet, if you decide. Maybe I let you stay for a little while.”

***

I was already fascinated with Tommy Wiseau—the mysterious and enigmatic man behind what’s known as the Citizen Kane of terrible films, The Room—long before picking up Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s The Disaster Artist. After reading the book, which is both an exposé on the lives of Tommy and Greg as well as a post-mortem on the film itself, I’m somehow even more baffled by the existence of the half-pirate, half-vampire man, his seemingly limitless pockets, and his absolute tin ear and lack of narrative comprehension.

Though primarily authored by Greg Sestero, who plays Mark in The Room (and in tens of thousands of “Oh hai, Mark” Internet memes), The Disaster Artist is very much the story of Tommy Wiseau. Divided between two timelines—Sestero’s first steps into acting, meeting Wiseau, and the difficulties faced in moving to Los Angeles to find work as an actor; and the troubled production and subsequent release of The RoomThe Disaster Artist is a brutal, sometimes impossible to believe account of one man’s ridiculous dream to make a film so shocking, so utterly soul destroying that it would stay with anyone who watched it for weeks on end, and having it turn out to be quite literally one of the most laughably terrible films ever crafted.

Upon meeting in an acting class in San Francisco in the late ’90s, Sestero talks about his first encounter with Wiseau as if the latter were a peculiar wildlife specimen he couldn’t help but want to observe:

His accent, at least from what I could hear, didn’t quite sound French, which he obviously knew and spoke. He looked older in everything but his attitude; he sat in his seat like a slouchy teenager in detention. The more closely I studied him, the odder he appeared. He seemed half comic book character, half hair-metal icon.

Despite Wiseau’s outward awkwardness, Sestero was inexplicably drawn to him, going so far as to offer to partner with him in class. This action sparks a strange union—not so much a friendship as one person’s tacit acceptance of another far stranger individual, either out of curiosity, sympathy, or fear of cutting ties once they’d been established. From the simple beginnings of this sort-of friendship, the narrative follows both Sestero and Wiseau as their careers diverge—Sestero finding some modicum of early success while Wiseau continues to paddle upstream against the industry’s total lack of interest in him—before eventually coming together again for the filming of Wiseau’s Tennessee Williams-esque “masterpiece,” The Room, which he intended to use as his calling card for future film stardom.

As should be obvious for anyone picking up a copy of this book, what wound up being filmed has gone down in history as an incomprehensible mess of character inconsistencies, plot holes, timeline problems, and amazingly awful acting and production values across the board, even for an indie project. The Room is the Rocky Horror of terrible films, one that inspires audiences to come together with startling regularity to mock its quirks and weirdness and the all-around difficult to pinpoint “Wiseau-ness” of it all. The Disaster Artist embraces the film’s fate, exploring how, in retrospect, given the litany of production problems and Wiseau’s difficult to work with nature, it’s nearly impossible to believe that the film was ever released at all, let alone that it has become a veritable cult phenomenon.

From the beginning, Sestero writes about Wiseau as if the latter is from another planet altogether. From his broken English and his inability to be truthful about his age or his origins to his overactive love of America, his extreme nocturnal habits, an inability to take advice or criticism from literally anyone, and a dangerous Red Bull habit, Wiseau is a clearly broken individual wrapped half the time in a boisterous, threatening shell determined to shake Hollywood and the film industry in general to its core, and the other half of the time turtled beneath a shell of self-delusion so thick that no amount of doubt or criticism could ever successfully break through. He’s seemingly incapable of learning anything—ever. This includes his own dialogue, which he seemed to flub more than anyone else on the set of the film he himself wrote and directed.

While the chapters detailing Sestero’s life and moderate success as an actor are interesting, as one might guess it’s the chapters devoted to the production of the film itself that really give The Disaster Artist its meat. From the first day of production it’s clear that Wiseau has no idea what he’s doing, or for that matter how to work and cooperate with actual flesh and blood human beings. He’s perpetually late, verbally abusive, mistrusting, withholding of payment, and overly demanding while at the same time underperforming in his own roles. The film has a rotating stable of DPs (Director of Photography), most of whom storm off set calling Wiseau a liar and a fraud, others who, like most of the actors, simply grin and bear an impenetrable narrative with character motivations that change on a dime and new characters and story threads being created and shoved unceremoniously into place with little or no thought as to how they work (or don’t, as was often the case) with the existing narrative.

In short, these chapters offer a fascinating and greatly illuminating look at the many ways a film’s production can spiral totally out of control. In fact, the only way the film was ever finished was that Wiseau himself was willing and somehow able to personally tackle the production costs, further cementing the idea among many of the cast and crew that The Room truly was nothing but an elaborate vanity project concocted by a man who’d deceived himself into thinking he had some idea as to the workings of the art form. Where this money came from is another of the book’s more curious subplots. Was Wiseau actually a business savant who’d started and sold off a number of ventures to great personal gain? Was he laundering money for a criminal enterprise? Even after having known Wiseau for fifteen years, Sestero makes clear he still knows so little of the notoriously protective man—a man who hired an individual specifically to film every interaction on set so as to effectively spy on his own production.

The Disaster Artist is a hugely entertaining read, though one’s mileage will be determined by their love of and interest in the film industry—especially failed (or should have failed) productions—as well as, naturally, one’s familiarity with the film. If anything, after reading Sestero and Bissell’s book, I’m even more amazed by the existence of The Room. The sordid details of the film’s creation, in combination with the unsettling and in some ways frightening aspects of Wiseau’s stalker-ish personality, which are on full display throughout both the film’s production and his relationship with Sestero, are often shocking, always interesting, and quite frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious.

If nothing else, The Disaster Artist has achieved the impossible: it’s made me want to sit through The Room all over again.

Review: Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight, by M. E. Thomas

122719-121559>>Published: May 2013

>>Finally got around to it: January 2014

I don’t mean to redefine sociopathy as the new normal, and certainly not “better than normal.” Sociopaths are not a race of Übermenschen. We’re not out doing good among the populace—standing up for the disenfranchised when everyone else is too afraid—not often, at least, and never as a general rule. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always loved vigilante-justice movies, but I often root for the bad guy. Society labels the subversive a criminal or revolutionary, not him. He rarely needs to tell himself stories of moral justification in order to engage in his flourishes of elaborate violence. I know I’m not alone in my love of the villain. In him, we see freedom.

Perhaps that is why the sociopath has loomed so large in our fictive spaces—Hannibal Lecter pulling Clarice’s strings from behind bars; the talented con artist Tom Ripley infiltrating and destroying the life of his wealthy beloved, Dickie; the perfectly coifed Patrick Bateman traipsing through yuppie New York soaked in blood, real or imagined. They constitute walking manifestations of overblown desire and destructive forces, characterized by the absence of limitations, whether it be empathy, guilt, or fear. Indeed, the most enduring of cold-blooded villains, Dracula, is so limitless that he dissolves into mist. Historically, the diagnosis for sociopathy has in many ways served as an amalgam of miscellaneous reprobate traits, a depository for wayward, antisocial behavior from which its members can be identified and separated from everyone else. In the gothic vampire myth, the existence of the nocturnal creature can be explained, and thus contained, in the realm of the supernatural. In everyday life, however, explanations for the existence of the sociopath are much more elusive.

***

Strange as it might sound, as an extreme empath—someone not only heavily attuned to the emotions of others but often pulled up or down by them, as if tethered to those I care about like a dog on a leash—I’ve always been fascinated by sociopaths and the space the occupy on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. The expectation of a sociopath is of someone who is ruthless, cold, and capable of pushing their emotions to the side in favour of a more calculated, survival-of-the-fittest way of operating in day-to-day life. They are stereotypically the Wall Street elite, those with a cutthroat attitude to the world around them, especially as it relates to climbing social and business ladders, and a willingness to play by only their own rules of ethical conduct. As detailed by pseudononymous author M. E. Thomas, this assumption is not terribly far from reality.

Confessions of a Sociopath is both a memoir of sorts and a loose academic treatise on sociopathy. With unflinching honesty, the author invites readers into her unique life spent coming to terms with being labelled a sociopath, learning to embrace the distinction, and how it has affected everything from her family life, friendships, and relationships to school and her professional career.

Just what defines a sociopath? As Thomas writes, elements used to identify someone as a sociopath include:

Superficial charm and good intelligence
Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking
Absence of nervousness or psychoneurotic manifestations
Unreliability
Untruthfulness and insincerity
Lack of remorse and shame
Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior
Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience
Pathologic egocentricity and incapacity for love
General poverty in major affective reactions
Specific loss of insight
Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations
Fantastic and uninviting behavior with drink and sometimes without
Suicide threats rarely carried out
Sex life impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated
Failure to follow any life plan

As a devout Mormon, a law professor, and a Sunday school teacher, Thomas’ life is a fascinating mix of successes, failures, and sacrifices one might not immediately attribute to a sociopath. However, what’s clear after reading this book is that the specific mixture of ideals and practices that make up Thomas’ life are part of a larger chess game in which she’s positioning her pieces not necessarily to take over the other players but to disappear amongst them, so that she might use their moves to better calculate her own. As put forth in chapters such as “I’m a Child of God,” “Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers,” and “Emotions and the Fine Art of Ruining People,” Thomas offers readers a sociopaths’ eye-view on the world and the divergent paths taken by sociopaths and empaths, or “normal” people; where, in certain situations, an empathic person would feel a desire to protect a wounded friend or colleague, the sociopath would typically see an opportunity to get ahead by pulling said friend further down into their own abyss.

Thomas goes to great lengths to show that although sociopaths do not fit into any normative spectrum socially defined as “right” or “proper,” they do in fact have a full template of feelings and emotional responses to situations and stimuli—the difference, as she writes it, is that they are not governed by these responses but in fact can choose how best to pay into them or ignore them outright as the case may be. In some ways, the sociopath’s incredible capacity for emotional control can seem robotic. The truth of the matter, though, is decidedly more worrisome. Unlike a machine for whom emotions are calculable transactions, the sociopath is as capable as anyone at weighing the emotional heft of a situation, and knowing through a lifetime’s worth of interacting with those dissimilar to themselves how best to play an individual to suit their specific whims and/or needs.

The question of nature versus nurture in the development of a sociopath of course makes an appearance, and Thomas explores this via her own relatively cold upbringing, in which her parents—her decidedly obtuse mother and father, the latter prone to excessive fits of explosive violence—and siblings are all seemingly on different points of the emotional spectrum. It’s clear that, like in many situations involving divergent or unique psychologies, a sociopath isn’t bred—at least not entirely; there must be something “off” in the chemistry to begin with. However, as Thomas makes clear, it’s in the nurturing that helps determine whether or not a sociopathic child will grow into someone capable of fitting in with society, or someone forever skirting the boundaries, possibly coming into frequent conflict with people and rigid social structures.

Alongside my pre-existing interest in sociopathy, my desire to read Confessions of a Sociopath stemmed largely from my interest in writing fiction and a compulsion to learn more about specific character archetypes—specifically villains. Interestingly enough, one of my favourite villains in literature—Cathy Ames, from Steinbeck’s East of Eden—is regularly employed as an example of a pure sociopath, someone for whom the pain of others is a kind of sustenance. Cathy is a monstrous figure, malevolent and seemingly without a soul; she is the not-so-shining light of a sociopath for who even the basic concepts of decency and the wellbeing of others are nothing more than simple trifles. What Thomas makes clear is that Cathy is not necessarily the exception to the rule, but neither is she the rule itself. Cathy is a dot on the far side of the line of sociopathy, but not a definition of character for all sociopaths.

In first hearing about this book, I came across a review of it in The Boston Globe. The first paragraph reads: “Talk about an unreliable narrator: Just what are we to make of a book by a diagnosed sociopath that functions alternately as a warning against sociopathy, an apologia for it, and an embodiment of its worst manipulative tendencies?” After reading Thomas’ book I feel compelled to weigh in on this. Yes, it’s entirely possible that in seeking to write about sociopathy Thomas is manipulating the reader, offering them just enough of a carrot to feel threatened by the sociopaths in the world around them, hiding in their midst like passive assassins who will one day sweep their lives out from beneath their feet. However, unlike the reviewer from The Boston Globe, I have no doubt that what Thomas has provided is a truthful account of her life as a sociopath and the struggles and benefits contained within. In fact, I feel it’s worth mentioning that Confessions of a Sociopath in many ways feels like one of the most honest books I’ve read in a very long time. Though writing under a pseudonym to protect herself from potential personal, professional, and legal ramifications (given the touchy reaction many in society would have to someone “outing” themselves as a sociopath, a word which is too often linked to criminal psychopathy), Thomas writes as if exposed, completely and utterly. Like one would expect of a sociopath, given the distinction’s penchant for ego and high levels of confidence, it feels as if while reading the book you’re peering into the confession of someone uninterested in hedging their bets; Thomas writes with blunt profundity, as if she’s got nothing to lose. This is a fascinating, albeit deeply disturbing book, one that will get you looking carefully at your own life and social circle, wondering just who the sociopaths in your midst truly are.

*And goddamn I love this book’s cover…

Review: Nerd Do Well, by Simon Pegg

nerddowell>>Published: October 2010

>>Finally got around to it: January 2014

It was at Bristol that I discovered the joys of critical analysis, which eventually inspired me to pick apart my beloved Star Wars as part of my final-year exams. Lectures and seminars on populist cinema were hugely interesting, since they enabled me to consider what I had previously assumed to be a disposable art form as a rich source of academic study. I was able to watch my favourite films again then address them as historical ‘texts’, reflecting a host of psychoanalytical complexities. Alien became a treatise on genital terror and fear of the mother, Terminator became a tale of Oedipal obsession and mutations in received notions of masculinity, and Top Gun became about… well, we all know what Top Gun is about. The process was fascinating and enlightening. At the beginning of our first film studies lecture, Professor George Brandt informed us that after that day, we would never be able to view a film in the same way again. By developing and engaging our critical faculties we would effectively be given the ability to see through the artifice in three dimensions, able to detect meaning both intentional and unintentional, understand the intellectual mechanics at work in the narrative as well as identify temporal expressions of social neuroses and preoccupations, and thereby become boring cunts.

***

It’s almost impossible to be a pop culture nerd these days without holding at least a little envy towards the life of Simon Pegg. Here is a man who grew up on Star Wars, Star Trek, and the zombie flicks of George A. Romero, and not only is he now playing in each of these sandboxes, but he is also impacting their futures. (Granted, the bulk of his impact on the Star Wars universe is impassioned criticism; however, it’s likely only a matter of time, with JJ Abrams at the helm of the upcoming Episode VII, before Pegg’s footprint will exist there as well.) At the same time, it’s difficult to hold anything against the man’s incredible good fortune, because as his biography Nerd Do Well points out, his success is very much warranted.

The book itself is split between a mostly-linear biography with several comedy/sci-fi chapters interspersed throughout. The pulp fiction chapters tell the story of the heroic, sexual, action-hero dynamo version of Pegg and whether he’ll manage to save the world yet again—or at the very least, finish writing the first draft of his book before his looming deadline. Meanwhile the meat of the book—the true-to-life story of a slightly strange kid with strong comedy, sci-fi and attention-seeking tendencies—is an earnest, self-effacing narrative that reveals not only the origins of the man in part behind Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and 2013s The World’s End, but also a great deal more nuance than expected.

Pegg covers the full spectrum here, from his earliest childhood flirtations with acting, acting out, and theatre (not to mention his first flirtations with flirtation, fondling, and other words that start with F) to his evolution as a stand-up comedian, actor, writer, and a man with perhaps a not-so-shocking breadth of knowledge regarding film theory and history. Indeed, many of the asides taken into pulling apart Star Wars and other cultural touchstones of his life provide some of the book’s more fascinating content. Along the way he takes the time to offer insight into his family’s dynamic and the push towards the arts he received from his parents—his mother, especially—and the connections and inspirations that led him first to develop Spaced, and then to his career in film, which to date has resulted in some of the more well known and respected science fiction, horror, and comedic films in recent memory.

What can’t be discounted, however, and what Pegg spends an entire chapter on late in the book, is the impact of chance—of coincidence—and being in the right place at the right time. It’s through chance he met Nick Frost and first connected with Edgar Wright, both of whom have fostered the style and substance of Pegg’s own work and with whom he’s in many ways inextricably linked. It’s even through chance that he and his wife were brought together whilst vacationing separately in Greece, but having crossed paths previously. However, what Pegg imparts, and what all those who envy the seemingly charmed path he’s on need to keep in mind, is that chance alone cannot be counted upon; for chance to work, one must put themselves out there, producing, creating, and forcing their work out into the world. Throughout this book, Pegg makes it abundantly clear that the coincidences and chance encounters that have helped make him the man he is today would not have happened had he not already been forcing himself out into the world as a creator to whom others would be drawn.

There’s a sweetness and a sincerity to Pegg’s writing; while not annoyingly self-deprecating, he manages at all times to be humble. Though he’s had a degree of success most would find unimaginably grand, he always seems aware as to just how lucky he is to be doing what he’s doing, to have met and had the opportunity to work with some of the most amazing and talented creative forces in the film industry. The writing itself is a reflection of this sincerity; Pegg’s narrative voice is intelligent, dry, and at times quite biting, and is immediately recognizable for anyone who’s followed his career to date.

Nerd Do Well is not as scandalous as many other celebrity biographies, nor is it as fraught with past traumas or roiling insecurities. That’s not to say there aren’t difficulties along the way—bumps in the road, so to speak—but one gets the sense while reading this biography that Pegg isn’t easily bowled over by many things in life. Recommended for fans of his work, certainly, but also for anyone with even a passing love of the types of films through which Pegg has built an admirable, passionate career.

Review: Wild Fell: A Ghost Story, by Michael Rowe

wild-fell-jacket>>Published: December 2013

>>Finally got around to it: January 2014

But in this case, by candlelight, in spite of the veneer of ducal hauteur in this portrait of the laird of Wild Fell, the face rendered here was the face of a monster.

The surface of the painting had been slashed with some kind of long, sharp instrument. There were no jagged edges; rather the cuts appeared to have been made almost lovingly, as though the vandal in question had taken his or her time and profoundly enjoyed the sensation of carving Alexander Blackmore’s face into strips.

I shuddered and turned the portrait away from me, facing it against the side of the crate. At that moment, a cold draft wafted through the basement, and I distinctly heard a soft sigh from the darkness behind me. The flame of my candle flickered, then went out. I heard something behind the locked third door, something that sounded like a piece of furniture being dragged across a stone floor.

I didn’t wait for the scraping sound to repeat itself. I turned tail and stumbled as fast as I could back through the basement. When I found the stairs, I took them three at a time, as though the light from the kitchen windows was oxygen and I had been buried alive in the dark.

***

The town of Alvina, Ontario, some 3,000 souls strong, is a quaint, summer destination with, like so many towns of its ilk, a Main Street, a busy season, and a dark history shrouded in secrets and death.

Wild Fell opens in 1960, with a pair of young teenage lovers: Sean “Moose” Schwartz and Brenda Egan. The two Alvina residents go for a late drive one night, winding up on the shore of Devil’s Lake near Blackmore Island where, in glorious horror fashion, they almost immediately start making out. Of course, being a horror story, their make-out session results in nothing good (save for the hauntingly beautiful shroud of moths on page 22).

Following this extended prologue, the novel switches gears—and perspectives—and we’re introduced to Wild Fell’s true protagonist, the sympathetic, forty-year-old divorcé and former English teacher Jameson Browning. Though we’re introduced to Jameson as an adult, the narrative quickly jumps back in time to 1971, where we see him as a young boy, before progressing through the steps leading back to adulthood. Jameson, however, isn’t a typical boy; he’s shy and mistrustful of other boys his age. His only real friend is Lucinda “Hank” Brevard, a tomboy and a source of frustration for Jameson’s über-conservative mother. Together, Jameson and Hank are balanced in their traditional gender-role inversion—she being the more masculine of the two, and he a delicate flower of a child, a personality reflected more in his soft-hearted father than his icy, cruel mother.

Beyond Hank, Jameson confides in his “mirror pal” whom he imagines as his self externalized. It isn’t long, however, before imaginary mirror pal becomes not-so imaginary Amanda, a girl—an apparition—who appears one day in the mirror in Jameson’s bedroom and speaks to him in his own voice. Though seemingly benign at first, it isn’t until Jameson’s new bike is stolen from him by an older bully that he gets his first taste of the dark power that has visited him in the guise of a young girl.

As we return to Jameson the adult, post-divorce, post-accident which has left him with a considerable amount of disposable cash, we see a man who has forgotten much of his past—including the dangerous apparition in his mirror—and who is in need of something to act as a distraction from his current life of loneliness and concern over his father, who is now suffering with Alzheimer’s. On impulse, Jameson purchases, sight unseen, the historic house Wild Fell on Blackmore Island, on sale for a steal of a price, with every intention of turning it into a summer bed and breakfast. It isn’t long, however, before Jameson’s past, and indeed the history of Blackmore Island itself, clambers to the surface once more.

As was the case with 2011’s Enter, Night, which upended the vampire mould in interesting and unexpected ways, author Michael Rowe offers up a new type of ghost story in Wild Fell. Absent from Jameson and Amanda’s story are things like rattling chains and spectres passing through walls, somehow leaving ectoplasmic residue on surfaces. In place of these tropes, the author has injected the narrative with psychological unrest and confusion, and layers of misdirection, beginning with the division between the prologue and the rest of the novel.

Like Enter, Night, which opened with a multi-chapter prologue of sorts, Wild Fell begins with a story so complete and tonally different from what’s to come that it feels like one story nested inside another. This feeling is increased when, upon being introduced to Jameson, the narrative switches from third-person to first. Beyond simply shifting perspective, though, the overall tone of the writing changes as well. The prologue is a disturbing, sexy, and heavily atmospheric scene that simultaneously plays to the expectation of doomed teenage lovers while at the same time carving the outline of its own unique mythology—an outline that is later filled in by Jameson’s more elegantly written, almost provincial tale. Unlike Enter, Night, in which I felt the length and pacing of the prologue detracted somewhat from the larger tale that followed, the opening to Wild Fell feels like an essential, swiftly-told kernel around which Jameson’s future and fate are determined.

As previously stated, much of Wild Fell is written with a careful elegance that really sells the delicate nature of Jameson’s personality—one that is as at odds with the brashness of the boys at camp in his youth as it is with his own mother, and later on, his wife, Ame. While Hank is in some ways equally brash, the connection they share, forged in childhood, is a near-perfect example of brotherly love. In fact, it is the relationships between Jameson and Hank, and Jameson and his father that provide Wild Fell with its emotional core, as well as its greatest ammunition for tragedy.

Going a step further, Rowe nails the discomforting gulf in the parent/child dynamic across both Jameson’s parents, achieving a hateful, mendacious character in Jameson’s mother, a truly horrid, heartless person (and through her actions, is placed right up there with the deplorable Lemmy Drinkwater and his dog fighting ways from Craig Davidson’s Cataract City). When contrasted with Jameson’s father, who is portrayed as about as loving and caring as a father could be, her actions and mannerisms seem that much more despicable. If there were ever a woman unfit for motherhood…

The overall narrative to Wild Fell doesn’t hinge on an elaborate plot or attempt rewrite the rules of the genre so much as it simply infuses it with a strong dose of character and a legitimate sense of history—Jameson’s history, and that of Blackmore Island. The connection between Jameson and Amanda, the girl in the mirror, is not so much the heart of the protagonist’s arc, as it might be in a lesser novel, but the twisting, turning knife boring a hole through his very finely tuned exterior. As carefully manicured a personality as Jameson has, it’s rather tightly wound around itself, primed to snap as it did one fateful day as a child in the back of a bus when he nearly beat another boy half to death over the life of his pet turtle, Manitou. In that sense, there’s an argument to be made that Wild Fell is equally about psychological disturbances as it is supernatural ones.

Before going any further, I must warn readers that the rest of this review will dive fairly heavily into spoilers as I try to unravel the book’s ending. Should you wish to cut yourself off now and actually read it for yourself, know that I wholeheartedly recommend this book—Rowe’s seemingly small and intimate ghost story is an unsettling delight from start to finish.

For those of you still with me, here we go.

I’m not entirely sure what I trust regarding certain late-novel revelations, specifically those involving Jameson’s father and the possibility of molestation. There are layers of misdirection at work in Wild Fell, be they from sincere psychological unrest brought on by Amanda’s presence or by the burying and subsequent unearthing of past trauma. I know at first I was utterly indignant towards the possibility that Jameson’s father, who’d been so lovingly crafted as a paragon of kind and proper parenting, could be such a terror. I’d grown so unexpectedly attached to what the elder Browning represented that any subversion of that image felt… Well, it felt like an attack. To that I say kudos—because I wouldn’t have felt so wounded had he not been so expertly designed to begin with.

I want to say that I believe Amanda was lying in an attempt to draw another lonely soul to Blackmore Island to keep for herself, but two things keep me wondering just how much of the novel was actually a ghost story and how much of it was endemic of one man’s psychological break. The first is the breadth of the glamour cast over Jameson’s sight: not only does he not see what Wild Fell truly looks like, but his vision of the travel agency in its original state, and the resurrection of Velnette Fowler, point to something greater—to either psychological misdirection or possession of a sort, where Amanda is so tightly linked to his mind and soul that he sees only the memories and images she wants him to see. The second possibility is revealed in a small, seemingly innocuous section of dialogue on page 31:

We had no secrets from each other, except for the one I kept: I never told Hank about Amanda, the little girl who lived in my mirror, the little girl who had my face and spoke in my voice, but who was someone else entirely.

Amanda makes her first appearance prior to the night that Jameson’s father spends in bed comforting his son—the same scene later perverted by Amanda, recounting to the adult Jameson the things he (possibly) buried in order to maintain his sanity. This to me indicates two divergent possibilities: that either Amanda was conjured by Jameson’s mind as a response to previous molestation, and her supernatural capabilities for vengeance are in fact intended to reflect the hatred Jameson feels but refuses to acknowledge toward his father; or that Amanda sees the closeness between Jameson and his father and decides the only way to bring Jameson over, eventually, to her reality is to distort his own with lies and misdirection aimed at destroying the only positive familial relationship he has. In the former, Amanda is a defense mechanism through which Jameson has learned to cope; in the latter, she’s little more than a vengeful spirit re-experiencing the hatred she felt toward her own sexually abusive father by twisting Jameson’s view of his.

That these possibilities are to me equally viable is an example of Wild Fell’s strengths. This novel is a layered, expertly crafted piece of entertainment, and so much more than just another ghost story.

2014: The Year I Read (and Re-Read) All the Books

1. Bridges With Spirit – Adam Voith
2. Wild Fell – Michael Rowe
3. Daytripper – Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon (re-read)
4. Nerd Do Well – Simon Pegg
5. Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight – M.E. Thomas
6. The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made – Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell
7. The Laboratory of Love – Patrick Roscoe
8. Aya: Love in Yop City – Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie
9. Hygiene and the Assassin – Amélie Nothomb (re-read)
10. It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls – Adam Nayman
11. Raise Some Shell: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Richard Rosenbaum
12. Mundo Cruel – Luis Negrón
13. Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell
14. Quaternity – Kenneth Mark Hoover (Unpublished Manuscript)
15. On Loving Women – Diane Obomsawin
16. Dear Leaves, I Miss You All – Sara Heinonen
17. Red Rising – Pierce Brown
18. The Family Unit and Other Fantasies – Laurence Klavan (Unpublished Manuscript)
19. The Bear – Claire Cameron
20. Blood: A Scientific Romance – Meg Braem
21. The Martian – Andy Weir
22. The Body Artist – Don DeLillo
23. Tampa – Alissa Nutting
24. Divergent – Veronica Roth (re-read)
25. Insurgent – Veronica Roth
26. Allegiant – Veronica Roth
27. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Nine: The Core – Andrew Chambliss, Georges Jeanty, Jane Espenson, Karl Moline, and Joss Whedon
28. Angel & Faith: What You Want, Not What You Need – Christos Gage, Rebekah Isaacs, and Joss Whedon
29. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu (re-read)
30. They Do the Same Things Different There – Robert Shearman (Unpublished manuscript)
31. One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories – B.J. Novak
32. The Book of Proper Names – Amélie Nothomb
33. The n-Body Problem – Tony Burgess
34. Loving Sabotage – Amélie Nothomb
35. Look Who’s Morphing – Tom Cho
36. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller Jr.
37. Praying Drunk – Kyle Minor
38. The Troop – Nick Cutter
39. Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft – Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
40. Locke & Key: Head Games – Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
41. Locke & Key: Crown of Shadows – Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
42. Locke & Key: Keys to the Kingdom – Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
43. Locke & Key: Clockworks – Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
44. Locke & Key: Alpha & Omega – Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
45. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking – Susan Cain
46. The Last Days of California – Mary Miller
47. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
48. Yellow Wood – Melanie Tem
49. This One Summer – Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki
50. Blindsight – Peter Watts
51. The Illumination – Kevin Brockmeier (re-read)
52. Antichrista – Amélie Nothomb
53. All You Need is Kill – Hiroshi Sakurazaka
54. The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination – Matthew Guerrieri
55. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers – Tom Rachman
56. Beautiful Darkness – Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët
57. Photobooth: A Biography – Meags Fitzgerald
58. Sweet Affliction – Anna Leventhal
59. Moxyland – Lauren Beukes
60. Young God – Katherine Faw Morris
61. How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? – Doretta Lau
62. The Stranger Next Door – Amélie Nothomb
63. The Indifference League – Richard Scarsbrook
64. Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad – Brett Martin
65. Wool – Hugh Howey
66. Summer House with Swimming Pool – Herman Koch
67. Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
68. Polyamorous Love Song – Jacob Wren
69. The Tiny Wife – Andrew Kaufman
70. When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism – Martin M. Antony, Ph.D., and Richard P. Swinson, MD
71. The Book of Dahlia – Elisa Albert (re-read)
72. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami
73. She of the Mountains – Vivek Shraya
74. Zoo City – Lauren Beukes
75. North East – Wendy McGrath
76. Bunny and Shark – Alisha Piercy
77. Rewrite – Temenuga Trifonova
78. Universal Bureau of Copyrights – Bertrand Laverdure
79. Hypocritic Days – David Fiore
80. The Miniature Wife and Other Stories – Manuel Gonzales
81. Lex Talionis – R.S.A. Garcia
82. Silence – Shusaku Endo
83. The Delphi Room – Melia McClure
84. Runoff – Theanna Bischoff (unpublished manuscript)
85. Silence Once Begun – Jesse Ball
86. When Everything Feels Like the Movies – Raziel Reid
87. Wolf in White Van – John Darnielle
88. The Brief History of the Dead – Kevin Brockmeier
89. One – Cody Smith (unpublished manuscript)
90. Five Little Bitches – Teresa McWhirter
91. Amphibian – Carla Gunn
92. Parasite Eve – Hideaki Sena
93. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work – Mason Currey
94. Broken Monsters – Lauren Beukes
95. Don’t Let It End Like This Tell Them I Said Something – Paul Vermeersch
96. Skandalon – Julie Maroh
97. V For Vendetta – Alan Moore and David Lloyd (re-read)
98. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World – Lewis Hyde
99. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski
100. The Strange Library – Haruki Murakami
101. The Cosmic Puppets – Philip K. Dick
102. Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer
103. Authority – Jeff Vandermeer
104. Acceptance – Jeff Vandermeer
105.