Wednesday, July 28, 2010

It was the best of lines, it was the worst of lines

Is there a more famous opening line in all literature than, "Call me Ishmael"? It introduces a mystery (the narrator doesn't say, "My name is Ishmael," he says you can call him that), it sets up the tone, and it tells us that the narrator has a wry, dry wit. It's brilliant. So brilliant that even people who've never read Moby Dick know it, and it's been used as both a joke (in the film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and a pick-up line (in the novel Ahab's Wife).

I love Melville's book: I'm not a scholar, mind you, but a fan. I've read all about the symbolism, what the whale represents in Melville's cosmology, and so forth, but I love the book because it's an ass-kicking adventure with a monster and a strange, compelling protagonist. I even like the outdated chapters on whale biology, because it tells me what the book's characters knew about the beasts they hunted.

Stick with me through this next bit, because it all pulls together.

There's a subgenre of books that retell classic novels in simplified terms for young readers. Some are more obvious choices than others: you can read my interview with the author of a kid-friendly edition of Dracula here. But Melville's classic, featuring as it does a genuine monster, an obsessed peg-legged maniac and loads of exciting seafaring action, is a favorite. We own several different versions.

Our go-to version is the Great Illustrated Classics edition, "adapted" by Shirley Bogart. She retains the classic opening line. So does the Dalmatian Press Children's Classic version, "condensed and adapted" by W.T. Robinson, which also includes a neat disclaimer/mission statement that says, in part, "...this is not the original version (which you really must read when you're ready for every detail)." The Treasury of Illustrated Classics version, "adapted" by Donna Carson, goes a bit askew, changing the line to "My name is Ishmael." That immediately jettisons Melville's ambiguity, which I know kids can understand because my five-year-old and I have discussed it.

But in the Oxford Illustrated Classics edition, award-winning children's author Geraldine McCaughrean adds two entire paragraphs before the famous line:

There is a whale in the sea, as white as a ghost, and it haunts me. It haunts me on winter nights, when the sky tumbles like a grey sea, when the sun overhead turns the grass sea-green, and the almond blossom rears up white over my head.

Sometimes, when I'm afloat in sleep, like a drowned sailor, he swims toward me--a nightmare all in white, jaws gaping, and I wake up screaming and salt-water wet with sweat. Somewhere out there in the bottomless ocean lives Moby Dick, a great white winter of a whale, and I shiver still at the thought of him. Even in summer.

Call me Ishmael.

(p. 7)

When I read this, I thought: why did Ms. McCaughrean feel that one of the classic opening lines in literature needed a little more set up? So I asked her.

She responded, "Given the huge and leisured length of the original, I knew I had not only to get the story moving quickly but also state my intention on the first page - this is going to be a book about a whale, a really big, scary, menacing nightmare of a whale. Structurally, it's my promise to the reader - 'Look, even though you can't smell salt just yet, and I'm going to take a while introducing you to an assortment of oddballs, this is where we are heading - to an encounter with a damn great killer of a whale.'

"I also thought, given that this whale is at the centre of the book, the hub at the centre of the wheel, he ought to have 'first billing'. Naturally, I couldn't do without the famous line, but I thought if anyone is going to step into the room first, it ought to be Moby."

So it seems she had a reason, and I appreciate her taking the time to explain it to me. And I can see her point, were this any other book. But I think she missed something crucial: Moby Dick isn't a book about a whale, it's a book about a whale's effect on its human characters. Ishmael is our guide and proxy, leading us into the story not of a whale, but of a man (Ahab) whose sacriligious single-mindedness destroys everyone around him except Ishmael. And it may very well be that Ishmael's slightly aloof nature, the fact that he observes rather than fully participates in the madness around him, is what ultimately both saves him and lets him tell the story. He was "floating on the margin of the ensuing scene," as Melville puts it.

My point is, Ishmael earns his place at the story's introduction. And to begin any version of this story any other way is, in my opinion, to miss a whale-sized piece of the point.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Solving the Murder at the Cheatin' Heart Motel

Longtime readers of this blog will know I have a somewhat unresolved relationship with my home region of West Tennessee. It's not the most scenic area: the state of Tennessee slopes downhill from Appalachia in the east, so the western end is the lowest, muddiest and flattest part. Except for Memphis, there are no notable cities (I suppose you could count Jackson, but it's always felt like a city consumed by its own worst interests). And the people? Well, let's just say that when I lived there, they thought nothing of beating up a kid for reading a book. Because reading was weird.

So the last thing I expected to do was to find that this dull area had inspired hard-boiled genre literature. But damned if it didn't.

I ran across Art Bourgeau's Murder at the Cheatin' Heart Motel in the late Eighties, when I lived in Huntsville, AL. It was written in 1985, and concerned Claude "Snake" Kirlin, a freelance reporter for Ultra Suave magazine, and his buddy F.T. Zervich, trying to solve the murder of Snake's aunt, proprietor of the titular motel. The establishment is located on Chocktaw Lake, which Bourgeau describes thus:

"Anyway, in the winter of 1811 three earthquakes hit right where you're sitting. Each one was several times worse than the famous San Francisco earthquake. It was so bad that a land area of about a hundred miles simply fell into the earth. The banks of the Mississippi broke down, and the water rushed in to fill it. That's how Chocktaw Lake was formed."
(p. 13)

Wow, I thought. That sounds familiar. It sounds, in fact, like Reelfoot Lake. According to this entry on the ever-reliable Wikipedia:

"Popular history says that the lake was formed when the region subsided after the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811–1812, and that the Mississippi River flowed backward for 10–24 hours to fill it."

Someone wrote a mystery set on a fictionalized version of Reelfoot Lake, a place I'd gone fishing and on picnics and visited my whole life! It was, for me, a world-shifting realization. And it got better.

Bougreau introduced the book's villain, Sheriff Casper Denny, with this:

"I'd heard of him before. Everyone had heard of him. He was a genuine, bona fide legend. A twentieth-century Wyatt Earp who had single-handedly taken on the west Tennessee mob, a group whose roots went all the way back to Jean Boquin. They had tried to move into his county, and in the process, the sheriff had been shot, had his house bombed, and his wife and son had been killed."
(pp. 17-18)

The resemblance to Sheriff Buford Pusser seemed unmistakable.

Recently I spoke to Art Bourgeau about his book, and to my surprise he said, "The sheriff character wasn't modeled on Buford Pusser. Sheriff Pusser was a heroic figure, my character wasn't. The two things that could make you think it was Sheriff Pusser was his haircut and him fighting the mob. I used the Glen Campbell haircut which he and many other sheriffs of the time wore as a metaphor to show he was a very uptight, stressed-out, anal type of person. The job didn't make my character this way, it was his nature. You can tell a lot about a man by his haircut...As to the nastiness of the personality of Sheriff Casper Denny, that was not a reflection on Sheriff Pusser. Quite the contrary, I never met the man. As far as I know, he was a saint. The character of Sheriff Casper Denny was an extension of my own life. My father was a Tennessee Deputy Sheriff and he was a shit."

So for twenty years, I'd had that wrong. But by the time I found out, I'd learned to look at the world of my youth with a writer's detachment instead of a ex-pat's ambivalence. Hints of that world have shown up throughout my work, and will probably always do so.

And at least I was right about Reelfoot Lake. Bourgeau told me, "The idea of the lake comes from reading about Reelfoot Lake and thinking it must be one of the neatest places on earth, but I've never seen it. However, I have seen the bayou of Louisiana and the wetlands of New Jersey, so I am familiar with how it might look. Still, it is darn fascinating. The New Madrid Fault and all that. It is larger than history. It belongs in fantasy."

Fantasy, huh? Hey, I write fantasy. Hmm....

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Last Mile(s): a review of King of the Road

Recently I wrote about Miles O'Keeffe, movie star and former resident of west Tennessee. Thanks to that post, I corresponded with Monica Surrena, the writer-director of Miles' most recent work, a short film titled King of the Road. You can see the trailer here, and she was kind enough to send me a DVD.

King is the story of Wild Bill, an aging biker who simultaneously loses his dog and his favorite bar. He challenges the bar's new owner to a bike-off in a bid to regain both his watering hole and his self-respect. As the poster's tag line says, "A man without a bar is no man at all."

As I said, this is a short film (20 minutes) so it makes its points quickly and clearly. It also feels like a movie, something a lot of short films (and I was a judge for a local film festival last year, so I'm speaking from experience) don't accomplish, or often bother to try to achieve. There's humor, pathos, and narrative surprises that come out of left field and yet feel perfectly right for the story. And there is a story, well-constructed and effective. The film's also shot in widescreen format, and Surrena gets the most out of her means, resulting in that rarest of qualities in today's flash-cut film world: King of the Road actually has real movie sweep.

And Miles? He's dead-on. The rapport with his best pal Igor (John Bigham) is perfect. Plus the cultural weight he brings to the part (former big-screen actor now working in student films) is exactly right for a once-famous outlaw biker. I admit to teasing his image a little in my prior post, but his work here, while definitely amusing in places, is no joke.

Surrena is currently shopping King of the Road to film festivals, so if you're involved in one, let the organizers know. There are enough navel-gazing one-joke short films out there; your audience deserves a film that's also a real movie.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"I've got a lot of patience, baby": the story behind the dedication of The Girls with Games of Blood

My first Memphis vampire novel, Blood Groove, was dedicated to the memory of Duncan Browne (read why here). Browne remains a fairly obscure musical figure, although I hope I've nudged a few people toward seeking out his work. But The Girls with Games of Blood is dedicated to one much better known, whose songs helped define the Sixties, even if those songs were performed by other people.

Laura Nyro wrote classics: "Eli's Coming," "And When I Die," "Stoney End," "Wedding Bell Blues." And while her versions languished in relative obscurity, cover versions (Three Dog Night, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Barbra Streisand, The Fifth Dimension) were enormous hits, insuring both her reputation and her economic security. Safe from the pressures of commercial hitmaking, she created a piano-driven, soul-based body of work that, in its willful difficulty and self-referential symbolism, predated similar performers (most notably Tori Amos) by twenty years. Tragically, she died of ovarian cancer in 1997 at age 49, the same age her mother died of the same disease.

In The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen and the Head-On Collision of Rock and Commerce, Fred Goodman describes her thus:

"[Laura] Nyro, who resembled a chunky Morticia Addams, was both unusually talented and just plain unusual. Dressed in black with her long hair reaching down to her thighs, Nyro wore purple lipstick and used Christmas tree ornaments as earrings." (p. 122)

I had written an early draft of Blood Groove just before Goodman's book came out in 1998, and was toying with the idea of a sequel based on the idea of two girl vampires fighting over Zginski. There was no story yet, and no clear concept of the new characters. But the description in Goodman's book stuck with me.

I had a passing familiarity with Nyro's work, but I followed my new obsession where it took me and began listening intently. In the larger sense, it exposed me to a lot of awesome music I might otherwise have missed (does anything evoke a lazy, woozy summer afternoon better than "Stoned Soul Picnic"?). And in the song "When I was a Freeport and You were the Main Drag," I found this:

Well I've got a lot of patience, baby
That's a lot of patience to lose

Somehow the image from Goodman's book clicked with this snippet of lyric and created, full-blown in one burst, the character of Patience (as well as providing her onstage catchphrase). She's not a direct copy of Nyro, of course; in fact, she ultimately has very little in common with her inspiration beyond a basic physical resemblance. But without Laura Nyro, there would be no Patience Bolade. And without Patience, there would be no Girls with Games of Blood.

Nyro performing "Save the Country" on TV in 1969:

Leave a comment on the last vintage musician you rediscovered and you might win a signed copy of the new book.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


It's release day for The Girls with Games of Blood, the follow-up to my first Memphis vampire book, Blood Groove.

When Blood Groove came out last year, I of course checked at my local Barnes and Noble to see if they carried it. I was disappointed at first not to see it among the other vampire novels in the Sci Fi/Horror section, so I asked if they planned to stock it. The clerk said it was in stock, shelved in the Literature Section.


Okay, first let me say, that's flattering. Certainly I'd like to think I write literature. Still, Blood Groove is about vampires: hard core, drink-your-blood-and-toss-your-wasted-carcass-aside undead. It's not romance, it's not light, and it's certainly not heartwarming. The audience for the average literary novel would be blindsided, I fear, by its contents (see this recent review).

I asked how this classification was determined, and was told it was done at the corporate level. So apparently someone at Barnes and Noble HQ thinks I belong just before Lucy Jane Bledsoe (The Big Bang Symphony: a novel of Antarctica). Which, again, is flattering. Publisher's Weekly says about her book, "Bledsoe finds the spark of life amid the ice and desolation." Heck, that could almost work for mine as well.

The point to this little post is, if you go to Barnes and Noble to find The Girls with Games of Blood (and you should; you know you want to), don't look with the other vampire books. Check in literature, under "B," next to Lucy Jane.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Exclusive new Memphis Vampires short story

As a thank-you to all the folks who enjoyed Blood Groove, and in anticipation of the release tomorrow of The Girls with Games of Blood, here's the first part of a short story that takes place between the two books. You can read the whole thing on my website here.


(c) 2010 Alex Bledsoe

Memphis State University, late summer, 1975

"You again," the sour librarian said as she looked up.

"Yes," Alisa Cassidy said, "me again." She struggled to smile despite the stab of pain. Six months, the doctors said, and that's if she put herself in their hands, which she refused to do. Lying bald in a hospital bed was not how she wanted to go. She had no patience for this wrinkled old crone's little power trip, but it was a barrier that had to be negotiated if she wanted to reach her goal. She added helpfully, "I called ahead."

"Oh, I know," the librarian said as she rose from her seat. Her long, spindly limbs made her resemble some insect unfolding; her tall beehive hairdo added to the effect. "I have it ready for you."

Alisa dearly wished Mrs. Cutlip, the former librarian, was still alive. For that matter, she supposed, so did Mrs. Cutlip. This replacement, brought in from one of the state system's outlying campuses, seemed determined to make Alisa's remaining time as miserable as possible. Whereas Mrs. Cutlip was always glad to see her and never insisted on the protocol of appointments, this bitter artifact was a stickler for meaningless details.

Alisa followed her to the Special Collections reading room, where the book waited for her. It sat on the pristine table like a fat, well-fed slug, its leather cover swollen with mildewed padding. The metal clasp and hinges were green with corrosion, and a black patch on the spine showed where someone had once attempted to burn it. The antiseptic confines of the rare book reading room made it look even more rancid. The thought of touching it again always made Alisa's stomach turn.

"Wear these," the librarian said, indicating a box of disposable cotton gloves. She looked disdainfully at the book, then at the woman who dared to consult it. "This book is the work of the devil, you know."

"So I've heard," Alisa said. Every time I talk to you, she added in her head.

"You can't study it and not be affected by it. It wouldn't surprise me if that's why you got cancer."

Alisa's head snapped up, and the glare she gave the old woman was the first thing that had ever cracked the hag's smug superiority. "If you'll excuse me," Alisa said through her teeth, "I have work to do."

The librarian scurried out. Alisa trembled with suppressed rage and almost dropped the contents of her briefcase all over the floor. She sat and took several deep breaths, fighting the tears burning behind her eyes. It was a small campus, so naturally word got around about things like a faculty member with a terminal illness. Still, how do you justify calling yourself a Christian when you say things like that?

Alisa struggled to concentrate on the book before her: the Festa Magotta, a.k.a. the "Feast of Maggots." She put on the gloves and turned the pair of metal clasps. She lifted the cover and scowled at the puff of noxious odor that escaped.

She consulted her notes and began turning the heavy, stiff pages. Translating this book was her life's goal, and since that timetable was now significantly shortened, she had no time to waste.

She reached the point where she had stopped at her last session and turned the next page. Tucked into the fold was a thin stack of paper, of a much more recent vintage and covered with handwriting in English. She held her breath and leaned close, discerning the words "horror," "insanity" and "poodle."

She looked over her shoulder. If the mantis-librarian saw this, she'd snatch the papers away and Alisa might not see them again for months--months she didn't have. So she carefully pulled them out, hid them among her own papers and began to read....

Read the rest of the story here.

And you can order your copy of
The Girls with Games of Blood here.