Reading, Writing

The Monster In Jack.

It’s been a cold winter for Toronto, with wind frigid enough to freeze your nostrils together. Perfect weather to bundle up under a warm blanket, sip on some canned hot chocolate (because let’s be real, I’ll probably NEVER make anything from scratch ever), and read a cheery tale of mayhem and murder at the behest of a sentient hotel of evil.

Published in 1977, The Shining was Stephen King’s first bestselling hardcover and helped put him on the horror genre map. Three years later it was made into a movie that, upon having just finished the book, deviated greatly from the central themes of King’s actual novel. (Let’s set aside the author’s own feelings about Kubrick’s version of his story, you can sift through the Google results at your own leisure.) I’ve read enough of his work to consider myself one of his Constant Readers, and this book has jumped up my list of favorite novels to sit somewhere near the top.

Spread out on the couch in my living room with the TV playing in the background, I’m having trouble even knowing where to start. I chose The Shining for the fifth book on my 20 In 2015 list. I finished it a couple days ago and knew instantly I’d need a few days to bounce back from it. King is the master of taking otherwise unsympathetic characters and finding a way to humanize them. I never expected to see so much of myself in Jack Torrance.

It’s a simple enough concept, and I’m sure by now most people are familiar with the story: down on his luck after having been fired from his teaching job (because he lost his temper and beat the everliving shit out of a student), Jack takes a job as the winter caretaker of The Overlook hotel. Like most hotels, the place has got a few skeletons in its closet. During the winter months, the hotel gets snowed in and the only road leading into town is closed, effectively cutting the family off from civilization until spring thaws the earth. A former caretaker once went insane and murdered his wife and daughters before killing himself, a fact that the hotel manager shares with Jack during his interview. Jack assures him he can handle the long cold winter. Turns out, he can’t.

Jack struggles with a dark past. He is a recovering alcoholic, determined not to repeat past mistakes like breaking his then-three year old son’s arm while disciplining him. He’s a wounded man trying to become a better person but anger burns constantly under his surface. When describing the attack on his former student or the abuse of his son, King writes that it’s like he goes into a trance, seeing red and only partially aware of his actions. I’ve never heard consuming rage described so well. I saw my own past issues with anger manifested in Jack, and that frightened me. Seeing the world through his eyes was a disturbing look into my own psyche.

It’s hard not to have mixed feelings about him. Ultimately he wants to be a good man and take care of his family but his own twisted upbringing has tainted his worldview and added to his anger problem. He tries to keep himself under control but the evil inside the hotel senses this weakness and exploits it.

I can relate to his situation. My mind is The Overlook and I’ve spent a long winter trapped inside it with only my echoing thoughts for company. I’m prone to depression, especially in the winter, and a lot of factors in my life have led me to feel trapped within my own life. Ultimately, I seek a redemption of sorts, much like Jack at the end of the novel, when he manages to regain control over himself and stop the entity controlling him long enough for his family to escape. In his final moments, I felt bad for him. No one is ever all bad or all good and Jack is a shining example of that (see what I did there?).

Wendy desperately wants to have a normal, happy life with her husband and child and she embodies what hope looks like in a dysfunctional family. Her only option when she begins to sense the darkness in the hotel is to go stay with her mother, with whom she has a strained relationship. Her self-confidence issues stem from a lifetime of being taught that she’s not good enough and is partially to blame for her sister’s early death. Her mother has spent her life grinding her daughter’s self-esteem down until there’s barely any left and her struggles with Jack’s alcoholism have only emphasized her perceived flaws. She loves her family but recognizes when things start to go downhill and tries to convince Jack to abandon his post and flee the hotel. Again, it’s easy to sympathize with her. I’ve been in similar situations where you just want to hold on and wait until things get better. Her unwillingness to give up on her husband and the strength it takes to defend herself and her son when Jack tries to attack them are something to be admired.

There’s a moment in the book where the hotel elevator begins to run on its own and Wendy begs Jack not to leave her and Danny alone to go investigate. Jack responds that it’s his job and Wendy wails, “DON’T YOU LEAVE US HERE ALONE”, to which Jack coldly replies, “That was an incredible imitation of your mother,” and I had a moment where I froze and reread the dialogue a second time, because it packed such a punch. King has an amazing ability to write dialogue I can actually hear inside my head, and this particular exchange made my blood run cold. Jack knows how Wendy feels about her mother and still takes that dig at her. Anyone who’s spent too much time with another human being knows how much a person can become annoyed at another person. Cabin fever is a real thing, and whatever crawls inside the walls of the hotel feeds off the negative energy between Jack and Wendy.

We, the Constant Readers, get to sit back and watch as Jack mentally unravels and falls prey to the hotel’s whims. It’s a devastating process, and all through it I found it incredibly difficult to blame Jack for his choices. He’s under tremendous pressure, as we all have been, and I drew so many parallels between his life and mine that reading this book shook me to the core.

Who among us hasn’t made mistakes or taken wrong turns in life? Who is blameless in the pain of others? I’ve been down some dark roads in my time and it can be hard to keep your head on straight and your tongue still. There’s something evil inside all of us, but most of us can keep it under control. Confronted with the forces inside the hotel, any one of us might fall victim, and that’s what makes this book so terrifying. When I finally put it down, I knew I’d have to take a few days to get over the emotional punch it delivered straight to my gut.

The Shining is easily one of my absolute favorite Stephen King novels, it’s a fucking masterpiece in emotional and mental destruction. Reading it in winter seems to have only amplified its effect.

The monster isn’t the thing lurking inside The Overlook, it’s the thing lurking inside Jack Torrance.

Life, Writing

Writing Through It.

I’m by no means an expert when it comes to writing. I’m an avid devourer of books and the written word has been my religion for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, friendless and shy, there were always books. My family wasn’t exactly affluent but books opened up a whole world of adventure and I went through books in only a few days.

My sixth grade teacher once told my mother he’d be surprised if I didn’t grow up to be a writer. I appreciate the compliment, but writing is a hard game to get into, especially when you have no real contacts in the industry. I’ve gotten by just fine running this blog, even sticking to something resembling a schedule at one point and time. Although my posts have been sporadic for the last couple months, I find myself drawn back to scribbling down my thoughts and then barfing them onto the internet. The only way you can call yourself a writer is to write, so that’s what I’m doing.

It’s no secret that I’m currently dissatisfied with my life. I’m tired of being a barista, a job I’ve been doing for about eight years. Without any formal education, it’s impossible to get jobs writing. Not that I can’t rectify that, I’m just not currently in a financial position to be considering the pursuit of higher education. That’s OK, I’ve made my peace with that for the time being. I find I’m happiest when I’m sitting at my computer, trying to find a way to translate the abstract thoughts and feelings that ricochet in my head into plain English. It’s a challenge. It’s an even bigger challenge to try to write a novel.

I’ve failed at NaNoWriMo two years in a row. The first year I did so spectacularly. I don’t think I wrote even one word, even though I had an idea and a bare bones outline. My writing buddy and I even avoided each other because neither of us had written and each had assumed the other had ground out a novel in the time we’d wasted. We both failed and celebrated our mutual failure. The second year, I managed to crank out just over 7000 words of the 50 000 needed to win the challenge. That’s OK too, because at the very least I had written more than the year before. I always afford myself a little breathing room considering the fact I have to work a full time job. I let the beginning of my novel stew in its own literary juices for about three months before deciding it was time to get back at it.

I’ve been marinating this story in my mind for the past few years, always feeling like it was bigger than anything I could create. But it was born from my own insomnia and my love for adventurous, dystopian novels, so who better to write it? So last week I fired up my computer and picked up where I left off.

I left off in the perfect spot for writer’s block to get its hooks in me. I didn’t know where to go next with the story. Having my main character wander helplessly in the woods, aided only by a map her dead father had left behind, was boring. No one wants to read about someone building campfires, fending off cold, and making their way through the forest. So I took a break, checked my Facebook, and generally fucked around on the internet before deciding to look up some tips on working through writer’s block. This article by the fabulous Chuck Wendig ended up being the kick in the ass I needed to get my story moving again.

The only way to get through writer’s block is to just keep writing through it. Editing and revising are what will end up shaping what my novel becomes but without the words, there’s nothing to be shaped in the first place. So I wrote through it. 

I hit just over 10 000 words, the most I’ve ever written for one thing. The short story I published on this blog is only about 5000 words, so this is double that and then some. I was terrified I would run out of story before making it to novel length, but I still have so much to tell. So many roads to travel to get my protagonist to her destination. And it’s exciting. Truthfully, it’s what’s getting me through my shifts at work, thinking about my characters and their motivations and ways to move the story along. When doing something mundane to pay the bills, it always helps to have something to look forward to. The point isn’t to get it published, necessarily, although once it’s done and edited and if the few people I’ve managed to talk into reading it deem it good enough, maybe I’ll pursue that. The point is to DO SOMETHING. I’ve been in such a goddamn funk since November and there’s still a lot of winter time left, so I need to distract myself.

I’ve found the best way to keep myself somewhat sane and motivated is to write through whatever’s happening.

Maybe my sixth grade teacher wasn’t wrong.

Reading, Writing

Twenty Books In 2015

It feels like I’ve been reading for a million years. I was one of those weirdos in school sitting by the fence, nose buried constantly in a book, hardly ever speaking or making direct eye contact with other people. By the time I was in second grade, I was reading at a twelfth grade level, according to those standardized tests they make everyone take so the special children can learn how to be full of themselves early on. The entire point of my saying this is not to wordsturbate all over the place about how I love books and books are my life and SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE ALERT. The point is to admit that for most of my adult life, I’ve spent a lot less time reading actual books and a lot more time reading funny things on the internet.

I’m not going to sit here and wax poetic about the appeal of a physical book or talk about the so-called evil of e-readers. Personally, I’ve become a bit of a tech junkie as of late and as far as I’m concerned, any way folks are consuming books is just fine, so long as the words are still getting devoured and processed and writers are still managing to break even and pay their bills. My mom bought me a tablet for my 27th birthday and I’ve been using the thing to read books like a woman possessed. I’ll still be reading funny things on the internet because they’re amazing and make me laugh, but on top of that I’d like to crack a few spines this year. (HAHAHAHAHAHA BOOK SPINES, GET IT?!)

There are a shitload of things I’d like to accomplish this year. If you’ve been following this blog at all (and why wouldn’t you? Don’t you love me?!) then you already know I’ve been having a bit of a rough go of it when it comes to depression and dealing with all my lovely repressed-and-rearing-their-ugly-heads-now feelings. One of those things on that monumental list is to read more books. So I’ve decided to challenge myself to read AT LEAST twenty books in 2015. And what kind of writer would I be if I didn’t WRITE about what I’m reading?

(A bad one.That kind of writer. Obviously.)

When it came to deciding what to read, I called upon my brilliant and well-read group of friends for suggestions, figuring that with so many different tastes in books, I’d get a nice selection from which to choose. My friends didn’t disappoint (because they’re amazing and wonderful and smart and I love them, they’re SO FINE) and now I find myself staring down a list that might well grow beyond twenty and carry me into 2016. And better yet, I’m genuinely EXCITED about something! Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I let myself feel excited about anything?! It’s great!

My self-imposed rules for the 20 books are simple.

1. It MUST be a book I’ve never read before. Otherwise I’d just read Jitterbug Perfume 20 times and be done with it.
2. I MUST track my progress using Goodreads and hold myself accountable.
3. I MUST post book reviews. (Written or maybe a YouTube video if I’m feeling dashing that day.)

The third rule is a new one. I’m into the fifth book on my list already, so I’ll be starting with that one. Lucky for you, it’s The Shining, which I actually thought I’d read before except I hadn’t and now I’m ashamed to call myself a Stephen King fanatic. Of course, my reviews will be rife with spoilers, so keep that in mind if I end up reviewing something that WASN’T published in 1977. Or that you haven’t read. Whatever.

If you’re interested in challenging yourself to read however many books this year, GREAT! Tell me about it, we’ll keep each other motivated/trade book suggestions. Obviously I’m going to tell you to read Green Grass Running Water  and the aforementioned Jitterbug Perfume, because I’m biased and those are my favorites.

Friend me on Goodreads so I can snoop through your shelves too. Because I’m nosy.

Fiction, Life, Writing

Salt Meat: Part Three

PART ONE | PART TWO


She says it’s a game. He’s asleep, he won’t notice if we take the remote from him and watch YTV. Baseball is boring and he started snoring fifteen minutes ago so it must be safe. So we crawl across the living room, our matching track pants loudly scraping the carpet, and reach the edge of his recliner. On either side of him, like bookends, we peek at each other over the arms of the chair. His breathing remains steady, with a soft snore every couple seconds. My sister smiles, signaling that it’s time to make our move. She reaches up over the arm and wraps her fingers tentatively around that all-important piece of plastic and batteries. I giggle and try to stay quiet as she begins to tug at the remote and it stays snug in Grandfather’s hands. His snoring stops and a smile breaks out on his ancient face. He cracks one eye open and says, “Betcha thought you could pull a fast one on old Gramps, didn’t ya?” and guffaws. His belly rolls and rumbles and my sister and I collapse in a fit of giggles on the carpet. He only makes us watch one more inning before he concedes control of the TV and lets us watch cartoons on his floor model.

Summer days in the house my grandfather built for his wife were spent playing with the horses next door and flinging army men with plastic parachutes, flying shopping bag kites in the brisk Atlantic air, stacking rocks together to form pretend computers and using cinder blocks as mailboxes. My sister and I never went into the shed, we weren’t allowed to play anywhere near the power tools so we’d pretend the shed was home to an evil, child-eating demon. If we so much as caught a glimpse of him, he’d devour our souls in one gulp. Sometimes we even believed it.


“The phone had plastic-covered keys that shone in the late afternoon sunlight. I squinted against it and tried to read the numbers. I had just started learning about numbers and could count from one to ten. On the small television, an episode of Land And Sea about the S.S. Kyle was turned down so low I could barely hear it.”

Jessie takes a breath and her pause goes on long enough for the others gathered in the room to wonder if she would continue speaking.

“We heard him coming up the driveway. Muttering, crashing into things – the drugs he was taking combined with the alcohol he’d drank at the bar had turned him into a mess. He stumbled into the house and lurched past the living room. I turned my attention from counting the numbers of the phone keys to him and called out, ‘Daddy! I love you!’

“He turned back and walked slowly into the living room, smiling but cold and unfriendly. ‘Oh yeah? Well… I don’t love you.’ Blinking, he headed back down the hallway to his room while I stood on the couch and wept with everything I had in me.

“What do you do when your own father tells you he doesn’t love you when you’re four years old? The thought buries itself so far into your head and adds itself to the cacophony of discordant voices inside that you no longer recognize it for what it was – a bad trip and too much to drink.

“So you find yourself wandering dark alleys long after midnight smoking too much and drinking just enough to keep the feelings crushed somewhere underneath your rib cage. For awhile it works out all right and you’re able to keep yourself going with a cocktail of caffeine in the morning and alcohol at night, but eventually the rug under your feet wears out so much it’s threadbare by the time life rips it out from under you. Finding beauty in the world or even a reason to get up at all is too difficult to try.

“Finding love is impossible, because who would want to love somebody unloved by her own father?”

The tears that threaten to spill over are not self-pitying, but burn with a rage that has stoked for twenty-two years. Jessie swallows hard and takes her place in the hard wooden chair. She surveys the room around her as she brings an unlit cigarette to her mouth with shaking hands.

She swore she’d never become a smoker. Not like him. But in group therapy, nobody dares to judge her.


“It’s a butterfly!” Becky held the pickle jar up to the porch light and peered inside. The grub Jess and Charlotte had been looking after all winter had shed its former skin and clung to the lid of the jar, tapping gently as if politely asking to be let out to fly around.

It was the first summer in the house on Neck Road. The winter had been cold and all the lights had gone out so Becky and the girls dragged their mattresses into the living room and shared the heat provided by a creaking and ancient kerosene heater. Jess kept trying to close the window that had been left open for ventilation so Becky had to sit her down and explain that without the window ajar, they would all suffocate and die. That did the trick and Jess satisfied herself by sitting furthest from the window.

Once the frost had melted and the power returned, they had waited out the rest of the winter in relative comfort. Eventually the ground had thawed as well and then Jess had made the tearful discovery of her little grub at the bottom of its jar, nothing more than an empty husk.

The storm door gave a mighty groan when Becky opened it and hustled the girls outside. She bent down to Jess and asked her if she was sure she wanted to set her friend free. “Yes,” the small girl answered resolutely. “Butterflies don’t belong in jars.” So she twisted the lid and opened it, letting the viceroy out of its glass prison. It flew high in the air before circling back to the girls. It circled twice more before taking off into the blue skies of a bright June Newfoundland morning.

Jess would talk nonstop of butterflies for the next couple of years, and even save a couple more from certain frozen deaths more than fifteen years later. Good deeds sometimes come in cycles.

(To be continued.)

Writing

How To Burn A Bridge.

My first piece for Ben Gresik and Jason Woudsma’s brainchild writing collective The Prosers went live this morning. I’ve been half-shitting myself all week because I’ve never written something so personal and revealing and had it shared publicly before. But I’m proud of it, probably more proud of it than anything else I’ve put out into the world. So it would mean the world to me if you’d stop by the site and give it a read. While you’re there, you should check out the other stories that have been posted since the site went live. They’re incredible.

READ “HOW TO BURN A BRIDGE” HERE.

Writing

Introducing The Prosers.

I’ve been frighteningly dull this winter. It refused to release its icy grip on the city and I refused to crawl out of my cave of self-imposed solitude until it stopped snowing. I had a desperate moment last month as I strapped on my heavy winter boots and shoved my arms into my 80lb winter coat wherein I fantasized about setting the lot on fire and dancing naked around the flames. Then I remembered this is Canada and I’ll be needing that winter gear again in seven months so I opted to put down the matches.

April showers bring May flowers, and once it finally stopped dumping fluffy whiteness down upon us, it really did start to rain. Then it started to get warmer. But this ain’t no weather report — I’m here to tell you that as the ground thawed out, so did I. I’ve been feeling better. Not great, but better, and sometimes that’s all you can really ask for. I’ve been burying myself in work, both the kind that gets me paid and the kind that feeds my soul, and I’ve got a new project I’m really excited to tell you about.

The Prosers.

Ben Gresik and Jason Woudsma, the masterminds behind the project, happen to be friends of mine. Ben told me about the project and asked if I’d be interested in writing for it (DUH. I SAID YES). Every week a piece by a different writer will go up on the site, and already some of the most skillful writers I know are getting involved. My first piece, “How To Burn A Bridge” will be going live on May 28. I’m already working on my next one. Jason’s first piece kicks so much ass and you should go devour it with your eyeballs right now. RIGHT. NOW.

So that’s what I’ve been up to. That and venturing back out into the real world.

It’s going to be a great summer, I can feel it.

Life, Writing

Occasionally, I Poem.

Back in my late teens, I was a fairly prolific poet. Not a particularly good one, mind you, but I sure did love staying up late into the night and mashing words together until they turned into something not-quite-beautiful. About a year ago, I wrote a poem centered on what it might be like to age.

I have an obsession with aging. After all, barring unforeseen circumstances, it’s something we’re all going to have to deal with sooner or later. I’m not afraid of it, I’m not afraid of getting wrinkles and grey hair and all that. It’s just a part of life. Society’s obsession with staying young and beautiful forever strikes me as not only foolish, but also damaging. So I say, bring it on, Father Time!

Anyway, the poem I wrote has been sitting between the covers of an old journal for the past year. I dug it out a few months ago and submitted it to a poetry blog, and much to my surprise and delight, it was accepted to be featured! On December 10, “Grandmother” went live on We Poets Show It and I’d love it if you’d check it out. Let me know what you think! How do you feel about the process of age and our culture of youthful preservation?