On Urban Legends

Picture this: a still, starlit August night, as warm and clear as it had been all day and the day before and the same as it will be tomorrow. An open field, surrounded by pine woods so dense and dark that the seam between sky and earth has vanished. Soon, the campers will be packing their T-shirts and shorts, their tennis racquets and baseball gloves and bags full of dirty laundry, and heading home to New York, to Connecticut, to New Jersey and beyond. 

         Campfires light the faces of the boys as they sit in circles: the younger ones toward the center of the field, the older campers by the edge of it, nearer the woods. Dinner—hot dogs on sticks cooked over open flames, potatoes baked in foil among the coals, marshmallows blackening on twigs—is over. The fires move from glow into fade into cinders and, in just a few minutes, into ash as, pacing the perimeter of the circles, the counselors tell the same story they’ve recited from one year to the next, quietly and reverentially, as though it were a secret meant to be kept forever. A tale that was by now as woven into the camp’s culture as the songs they sang in the social hall—odes to the outdoors, to teamwork, to Echo Lake and the hills beyond. The boys stare into the dying embers, watching the words come to life or keeping their eyes shut as though wishing camp were already over and they were home, where nothing bad could ever reach them. 

         “One night, every seven years since Camp Waukeelo was founded in 1937,” one of the counselors begins, “long after lights out, a local man, John Otis, would sneak into the camp through the woods behind the bunks and take one of the younger boys.” He falls silent, the better to let his words take root in the boys’ minds. “Townsfolk said that John was someone who wouldn’t stand out in a crowd, just a guy of average height and weight, but”—he pauses a moment—“with the eyes of a dead man. When you looked into them, you felt the temperature drop.” 

         So begins my seventh novel, The Drowning, to be published in January 2019 by Sourcebooks Landmark. The next night one of the boys will disappear, eight-year-old Joey Proctor, only to return to life, it seems, twenty-one years later.

         A campfire is where many of us first heard an urban legend: at summer camp, or Boy Scout camp, or simply camping with friends. When I first heard about John Otis I was in the last summer camp I attended, in the Berkshires. This wasn’t the usual camp tale about monsters or vampires, the familiar creatures of the movies; this was a crazy man, and that was somehow far more terrifying. To make it worse, the counselors would show us the old leather binders filled with camp photos dating back thirty and forty years, to the 1920s and ‘30s, and point to this camper and that: “He disappeared one August night in 1944. His father was in a prisoner-of-war camp. His mother never saw either of them again.”

         Showing us the photos was the key to making it all the more credible. Add a detail, show a face, and suddenly a story made of words told around a campfire has come to life. And I think we all realized then that woven into our mundane lives of camp and school and families was a thread of mystery. People disappear; people go mad; bad things happen in that house they told us about where John Otis lived, high above the camp with the marble steps cut into the hillside leading to the lake, where Otis would quietly row to the camp’s waterfront and make his way up to the bunks every seven years at two or three in the morning, never leaving empty-handed. And where were the boys he had taken…?

         There’s another I heard about a young couple. They’re out in the country and run out of gas. The guy tells the girl to lie down in the back seat to stay safe and unseen while he locks the car and walks to the nearest gas station. After a long while she sees the reflection of police flashers, and a cop taps on the window. “Sit up and don’t look back,” the officer tells her. She follows his direction, unlocks the car, and the cop continues to tell her not to look back at the car.

         Sitting on the trunk, looking into the car, is the decapitated head of her boyfriend.

         I’d heard that story many, many years ago, and often told it when I was in college and we were all a little stoned (it was the sixties, after all). But what I added were specifics: the kind of car he drove, actual street names, usually prefacing it with, “You know what I’m talking about, that corner where the white house is…?” They could picture exactly where it was taking place and then imagine was happening. I once saw a very large football player cry real tears when I told it, slowly, adding one detail after another. That’s the power of storytelling: make it specific, make it real, make them believe. And always, always, add that tiny element that is so unbelievable your audience has to believe it’s true.  

         Though it’s a psychological thriller in every possible way, The Drowning is also a novel about narrative and credibility, and making the fictional a little too real. Which is when the novel tips its metaphorical hat to horror: when even a real person can become part of a story created by someone else. And then all control is lost. Forever. 

On Writing from (My) Life

 

I have always resisted writing out of my own life, because by necessity it would involve writing about people I knew, or have known, and to me this seems unseemly and—yes—even a little disrespectful. Because, of course, were I to shine a positive light on them they’d still be offended, because, really, who wants to be defined for some as that weird guyin that novel I just read. I have, however, on one or two wicked occasions, added tiny cameo (though non-named) appearances of people who may have deserved eternal damnation and hellfire, or at least mockery in a few lines of prose. And once, with his permission (and a subtle change in name) based a secondary character on a guy I knew in college. As for the others, they won’t know who they are, but I will, and it makes me feel all the better. 

But I’ve also broken my rule on two occasions. The event that triggers the action in my sixth novel, Airtight, was directly based on something that I was involved in during in my first year of college. The idea came to me while watching the Quentin Tarantino film, Jackie Brown. Seeing all these middle-aged people involving themselves with planning a crime reminded me of something I had completely forgotten. I turned to my wife and said, “We never dug it up.” 

And then I realized I had a story to tell about a drug deal in Cincinnati, about the worst batch of $450 weed I had ever helped to purchase in those very interesting years, and how, unable to sell much more than a nickel bag or two at the very straitlaced Midwestern college I had mistakenly decided to attend (and which eventually, and politely and to my eternal gratitude, asked me to get out), my co-conspirators and I buried them in airtight Mason jars on the college property. And then promptly forgot about them. 

 In a similar way, my forthcoming novel The Drowning was triggered by a movie, writer-director Joel Edgerton’s The Gift, starring Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. It’s about an affable and successful man who has relocated to L.A. from Chicago, and who, while shopping with his wife for furnishings for their new house, runs into Edgerton’s character, whom he’d known in high school, and whom he called “Gordo the Weirdo.” And then Bateman’s world comes tumbling creepily down because of something he’d done in the past to this man, who had never forgotten it, and whose life has been marked by this trauma. And Bateman goes from being an affable guy to something of a monster. 

 Something about the concept—the idea of the past coming back to haunt and even sabotage one’s life—stuck with me. I remembered what happened to me when I was eight years old in summer camp, and saw exactly the hook for my next novel. Which is how The Drowning came to be. More on that in my next blog… 

Somewhere Else in the Universe

[Before I begin a series of blogs leading up to the publication of The Drowning in January, I thought I’d start with this, a slightly-revised essay I’d originally published at The Nervous Breakdown in 2010(and later adapted as a screenplay) and, with the website’s permission, repost here.]

  

Somewhere Else in the Universe

It seems to me that in every writer’s life there’s one event—an epiphany, even—that can be considered a defining moment when the seed is planted that will one day blossom into a lifetime of putting words on a page.

When I was in college, while others were assiduously working towards becoming attorneys, bankers, and various other highly-remunerated and potentially-indictable members of society, my choice was to be a rock star. Not a great musician, but a rock star. It’s mostly about the perks, of course: chauffeurs, groupies, stimulants, and stepping onto a stage while 40,000 people scream YES!!!

For me, this early stage of my ascent to stardom involved playing bass guitar in an under-rehearsed band that gigged most Friday nights at Harvard Law School smokers where none of us, save the rhythm guitarist, was actually studying. We were paid well and in cash, an amount that today would probably be the equivalent of something like $200 apiece. In any event it bought one lots of records, books, a late-night dinner at the Deli Haus (where all the musicians playing Boston came after their last sets, save that they were instantly recognizable and we were just a bunch of guys with their girlfriends eating pastrami on rye), and a pair or two of nine-dollar Landlubber bellbottoms. Being a rock star at this level involved not a lot more than showing up, keeping your instrument in tune and convincingly vamping your way through requested songs whose chord changes were still something of a mystery. It was fun watching future federal court judges trying to dance, but my being an English major inevitably led me to graduate school, then a teaching job, and then becoming a writer. My Gibson Thunderbird is now just history. As is my music career.

Just as Proust could date his start as a novelist to his sudden vivid awareness that the past is eternally here in the present, I think I can locate my origins in something far more mundane, and yet also very out of the ordinary.

In my very early teens, perhaps as a means of escaping a distinctly neurotic home life tipping into full-blown disfunctional, I joined an organization devoted to the study of UFOs. While other boys were studying baseball statistics or even, oddly enough, doing schoolwork, I was reading about sightings, visitations and—though these were fairly rare back then—outright snatch-and-grab jobs (and the ubiquitous anal probings one always heard about in later accounts) by little green men. I now see that this was a gateway to some very serious years of drug use, both psychotropic and of the harder variety, that came later in college. By which time I wasn’t the least bit interested in waiting around for things to appear in the sky. I saw things without even having to glance out the window.

Meetings were monthly, and were usually held in one seedy hotel or another in the West 40s, an easy walk from Grand Central. These hotels had about them the lugubrious air of suicide and failure, the smell of tough luck emanating from every peeling wall and acre of stained carpet. One rarely saw what one might think of as guests there—none of your ladies in furs and gentlemen in their Brooks Brothers suits smoking in the lobby, waiting for a taxi to take them to a show and dinner afterwards at Longchamps or Sardi’s. But there was no one, and never was, save the elevator man, always beyond weary as he sat in his little box going up and down the floors.

The organization was run by a perfectly decent man from New Jersey who could have easily passed for an accounting professor at a community college. Meetings were attended by some forty or so people of various ages (and, from the outer boroughs, a few followers of the John Birch Society, which in retrospect doesn’t surprise me in the least), and the evening would begin with the group’s accountant, a harried-looking middle-aged man in a gray suit who looked like he’d walked out of a pinochle game in Washington Heights. He’d step up to the microphone and detail the treasury. “Cash on hand, $356.54. Bills paid for the month of March, twenty-two dollars and forty-nine cents to the printers; twenty-three dollars to Cohen’s Hebrew National for lunches; a hundred and fifty for this evening’s speaker.”

Behind him would sit his British wife, who, in a deep trance sometimes broken by alarmingly loud outbursts and exclamations, would hold a Ouija board on her knees, her fingers resting daintily on a planchette as it zipped around the alphabet grabbing messages from the great beyond. This was a scene of immense absurdity I cannot convince anyone actually took place. Yet it did. Many times. I am your witness. And I have photos. 

The speakers ranged from disgruntled Air Force officers to the respected Saturday Review journalist who in a few years would write the first account of Betty and Barney Hill’s supposed alien abduction, Incident at Exeter. In the audience on some evenings could be found such personalities as the legendary broadcaster Long John Nebel and the magician known as The Amazing Randi. Meeting him I asked if I should call him Amazing or simply Mr. Randi, and we settled for Jim.

Among the regulars there was the Mystic Barber, a chubby ordinary man with a five o’clock shadow and a pencil mustache who wore on his forehead a kind of TV antenna and an earphone attached to what looked like a transistor radio wrapped in electrical tape. He claimed he was listening to Mars, and he told me that for five bucks I could, too. (Though after a time he was good enough to allow me a freebie: static, sadly, is still static, no matter how much you pay for it or what planet generates it.) In real life the Mystic Barber was Andy Sinatra, a Brooklyn-based tonsorial artist who claimed to have traveled not only to Mars but also the center of the Earth, and whose afterlife lingers still in a photo taken of him by Diane Arbus. He had also been a guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

The exceptionally tall skinny man in the light gray suit, the one who could be either an advertising executive or a retired basketball player (from my altitude, always near to the ground, I assessed him as being close to seven feet tall), was the entity known as Ed from Venus. The man was dead serious and immensely articulate. I remember he told me with a completely straight face: “This is the form I assume when I’m on Earth. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to look at me.” He would ask intelligent questions of the speakers, listen attentively to the answers, and his manners would not have been out of place in the court of Louis XV. Yet he claimed to be from Venus and, if asked, would always tell any interested party how things were up there. (“Cloudy,” was the usual response. And, no, I’m not making that up.)

Another regular was a young woman—I would guess in her late twenties—who, wheelchair-bound, would be pushed in by her companion, an older woman. She remains for me the true enigma of these times. I remember her as genuinely beautiful; radiant, with a kind, serene smile, golden hair, and always dressed as if she were a bridesmaid. She carried a wand with a foil star on the end of it, just as on her gown had been pasted foil crescent moons and planets. This was the Princess of the Galaxies. It was what she called herself, it was how she was greeted, often accompanied with a slight bow, and as she was wheeled to her place at the front row she would bless us with a graceful wave of her wand. For me she became a matter for speculation. Was she, like Miss Havisham, a bride deserted at the altar years before? Or someone whose promising early career, perhaps as an actress or a fashion model, had been tragically cut short by a car accident? 

She seemed to me just too young and dazzling to be so entangled in this flying-saucer fantasy: what, I wondered, had led her to assume such an identity? Did she also use it after hours, so to speak, when having a drink at the Carlyle or checking out the latest titles from the public library? At least the Mystic Barber had his haircutting business, and, I assume, Ed from Venus some perfectly respectable job in a Madison Avenue office. But the Princess…? Where did the fiction begin and where did it finish? And did it, in fact, ever end?

What remains of my memories of those times isn’t anything about flying saucers or lights in the sky, but rather the people who came there—these wonderfully eccentric men and women who, possibly bullied in their youth for being handicapped or outrageously tall or simply as ordinary, I now imagine preening for these monthly events, adjusting antenna, wand or gray suit, and then returning to a life of solitude in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side or in Brooklyn where all that remained for them was their imaginations, their sometimes identities, and their boundless desire to flee the four walls of their room with its unchanging view, the bottle of bourbon on the counter, the voice of Johnny Mathis emanating from the Zenith radio beside it. For them going to these monthly gatherings may have been an escape into a galaxy far from their own where they could be considered an equal, accepted for whatever they wanted to be. Had the Princess of the Galaxies written the narrative of her own life, a story of light years and distant travel and visits to places unimaginable?

This rich history with its own mythology, its own royalty of which she was the shining representative, may have given her a life that even had she had the use of her legs might have been forever denied her. For me, their worlds became a matter of speculation and empathy. It became, in fact, my gateway to the nature of fiction.