‘It’s Tennessee Williams in Hell’

Cause we’re brothers, brothers, brothers
I don’t approve of anything you do
Cause we’re brothers, brothers, brothers
Cain and Abel and me and you

–John Mellencamp, “Brothers”

Rated SK

For more than thirty years, I’ve been listening to John Mellencamp sing about the struggles of life, love, race, and redemption. For approximately that same amount of time, I’ve been reading Stephen King’s stories about the struggles of good versus evil and…well, redemption. Ever since I learned that the two idols of my youth had collaborated to create the Southern gothic musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, I’ve been bouncing around the Internet like a puppy chasing a tennis ball, looking for any news or information I could find about the production. With boundless anticipation I waited, longing for the announcement of show dates much the way neophiles slobber over rumors about the latest Apple gadget.

At long last, on April 28, I attended the matinee showing of Ghost Brothers.

I was not disappointed.

True to the character of both artists’ previous works, Ghost Brothers is, at its core, a tale of redemption. Two present-day siblings, Frank and Drake McCandless, are constantly at each other’s throats, much to the chagrin of their beleaguered father, Joe “Skunk” McCandless, and their no-nonsense steel magnolia of a mother, Monique. When the rivalry becomes violent–to the point of Drake breaking Frank’s arm–Joe attempts to intervene. He calls a meeting at the family’s cabin in Lake Belle Reve, Mississippi, hoping to accomplish two objectives: to prevent his sons from killing each other and to clear his own conscience. Meanwhile, Frank has formed a relationship with Drake’s girlfriend, Anna, who only stokes the fires of the brothers’ animosity.

It turns out that the boys’ uncles, Joe’s older brothers Jack and Andy, had in 1967 allowed their own rivalry to fester to the point that it cost both of them their lives, not to mention the life of their mutual love interest Jenna and (possibly) Dan Coker, an elderly black man who was the caretaker of the family’s cabin and who, for reasons not exactly clear at first, also tends bar at The Dreamland Cafe, which Joe frequents.

As a ten-year-old child, Joe witnessed the deaths of his brothers and Jenna in 1967. He has never come clean about what happened to them. Now that his own sons are at risk of repeating history, he finds himself struggling with the truth. If he tells what he knows, will it put a lid on the boiler of the modern rivalry? Or will he simply provide more fuel to the demons that have haunted him his entire life?

To make matters more complicated, the living McCandless family’s thoughts, words, and actions are all quietly influenced by a malicious devil figure known as The Shape, who makes it his business to both enflame resentment and offer one-liner witticisms to the audience about the events as they unfold. Meanwhile, Dan Coker, Jenna, and the deceased McCandless brothers all work to mitigate the evil influence of The Shape and come to terms with the circumstances of their own tragedy in the wake of the one unfolding before them.

Mix all that twisting Stephen King plot together with the emotionally charged music and lyrics of John Mellencamp, and you get exactly what The Shape says you get: Tennessee Williams in Hell. The story is brilliant. If you get emotionally invested in it, the ending might even force you to swallow a lump. The musical numbers are foot-stomping. “Tear This Cabin Down” at the end of the first act makes you want to stand in your seat. But it is the skill of the actors and the never inappropriate use of the projected special effects that really makes this show the entertainment that it is. Both The Shape and the projector act as a sort of Greek chorus to the events of the play. As such, something interesting is always happening in every corner and crevice of the set. Often you’ll find yourself eyeballing areas of the set that have little to do with the current main action because you’ve caught a glimpse of a ghost, or a phrase, or an image from the past that reflects the thoughts and feelings of the character emoting.

The entire cast is superb. I happened to see the show at a time when Gwen Hughes, a member of the ensemble and understudy to Emily Skinner, was playing mother Monique McCandless. In spite of the criticism about female characterizations that was offered by one member of the audience during the after words, Hughes’ portrayal of Monique led me to the conclusion that her character was actually the strength in the family. I have no doubt that if we had been allowed to follow the McCandless family from marriage through the boys’ early years, it would have been Monique alone that held them together for as long as they were. She can also take a punch to the mouth better than most men. In fact, it is only when tragedy befalls Monique that the rest of the fecal matter is splattered by the spinning blades.

Then there’s The Shape, played by Jake La Botz. As in any Stephen King tale, it is always the purely malicious character who is the most fun. Part sideshow barker, part Hank Williams, and all devil, The Shape is evil, charming, and able to make you laugh. Part of you even wants to root for him.

In the end, though, I was most impressed with the performance of Christopher L. Morgan as Dan Coker, the elderly black man who primarily serve’s as the Mother Abigail/God figure of this tale. Morgan himself is a young man, but I never would have guessed had I not looked at the cast photos in the playbill. From my spot in the Mezzanine, Morgan truly had me believing that he was a hobbling older fellow. Additionally, he has an incredible singing voice that probably could have filled the auditorium without the use of amps and mics. Morgan’s portrayal of Coker is the heart and soul of this play, as far as I’m concerned, and I wish that he’d been explored with a little more depth.

In fact, my sole criticism of this production is that Dan Coker’s living role during the events of 1967 seemed glossed over in more than one way. We do find out that his death is related to the deaths of the older McCandless brothers and Jenna, but how is only briefly touched on during a family discussion about the broken grandfather clock that stands in the cabin. Secondly, there’s a brief mention about the role of 1960s racism in Dan Coker’s life. “It was always convenient to have a black man around to blame,” he says at one point, which leads the audience to the conclusion that Coker was suspected of having been involved in the deaths of the three youths. Again, it’s only hinted at. Given both Mellencamp’s and King’s passions for the Civil Rights Movement, I was a little disappointed that, at times, Coker’s role in the story seemed to be little more than an aside.

Overall, however, I couldn’t have been more fulfilled in my expectations for Ghost Brothers. It is my sincere hope that this production will move beyond Atlanta after its May 13 closing date there. This tale may be Southern gothic in the truest traditions of that genre, but it is one that all of the country needs to see.

Stranger Than Fiction

You don’t need me to remind you that this coming Sunday is the 10th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on America. You know it. I know it. And if you don’t know it, you’ll be reminded of it on Sunday the moment that you login to any social network or tune in to any media outlet.

I’m always reminded on this date of how much more horrifying reality can be than anything even the most demented creator of fiction can conjure by typing words into a piece of software. Horror fiction, like most fiction, is an escape. We all know it is fantasy, that it is not really happening. We even enjoy the thrill of being scared.

All too often we want to live our real lives as if we were simply watching them through a lens, detached from the world by a technological or media barrier: the Web, social networks, television, books, magazines, and more. The rise of reality television throughout the past two decades is testament to that. Reality is no longer lessons learned through the process of living. It’s entertainment.

However, September 11, 2001, was not horror fiction, not entertainment. It was reality dealing a powerful upper-cut that knocked the majority of us American citizens off our feet. For a few short moments in my generation’s lifetime, the invisible barriers in which we shelter ourselves on a daily basis were shattered. The bubble burst, forcing us to briefly consider that we regularly live our lives in a state of passive receptivity, convincing ourselves that we are simply watching the events of our lives unfold before us rather than participating in them. We were reminded that we are human, that we are not here to simply be entertained, and that we truly can be hurt.

In all the years that I’ve entertained myself by reading horror fiction, I have never yet read any so terrifying that I had to look away.

I cannot say the same about the real world.

Travels Through Time

I hope people are reading my work in the future. I hope I have done more than frightened a couple of generations. I hope I’ve inspired a few people one way or another. –Richard Matheson

I have a confession. Until very recently I had never in my life sat down and read a Richard Matheson novel.

That’s not to say I was unfamiliar with his work. Matheson’s 1954 vampire novel I Am Legend  inspired the films Night of the Living Dead, Omega Man, and, of course, 2007’s I Am Legend. His novel Bid Time Return became the cult classic film Somewhere In Time. Hell House naturally became The Legend of Hell House. He also penned the teleplays for many of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone. Therefore, I was familiar with Matheson’s work for the screen, but not especially with his prose. For that, I am deeply regretful.

I am now a Richard Matheson fan.

Stephen King, of whom I’m also a fan, has stated that Matheson’s work was influential on his own. Upon reading I Am Legend, I can see that. King’s narrative style is quite similar to Matheson’s, particularly in the early works of King’s career (The Shining, Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone).

For me, dusting off and finally cracking that copy of I Am Legend was like finding an early unread King story crammed behind the volumes of his other works on my bookshelf, or like traveling back in time to when I first discovered King’s work. I Am Legend stirred the same page-turning excitement in me that I experienced from King back then, an effect that has not been reproduced in me by King’s post-1980s work (although Bag of Bones is an exception).

If you’re a fan of early King and have never read any of Matheson’s work, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of I Am Legend or download the recently released eBook. As for me, I’m ready to step back in time again, to experience those old familiar creepy sensations of horror that only works like these can produce. I’ll be adding more Matheson to my library.

I Just Wrote a Novel

After nearly two years of intermittent work on it, I have completed the first draft of my novel. It’s been a very long road, fraught with frustration over finding time to write, overflowing with joy over putting words on the screen, and replete with discovery as I learned more about the writing process, even at this stage in my experience.

In the end, I have a 405-page double-spaced manuscript with 1-inch margins all around, and typed in 12-point Courier. I chose Courier just because it’s the closest I could come to the way old-fashioned typed manuscripts were formatted, and it made the old-fashioned manuscript word count process (250 words per page) easier to track. I realize that style of word count isn’t as important in publishing as it once was, but it did make my math easier as I wrote and kept track of the size of my manuscript versus the length of the book when it’s eventually typeset.

All-in-all, I feel rewarded by having completed this process. And I will be rewarding myself by taking a few weeks off from the novel before I begin the rewrite process, which, as any would-be novelist learns, is the part of the process where the story really comes together and all the nuts and bolts are tightened. It is my hope that the time away from the manuscript will refresh my perspective on it, and help me polish it into the most perfect novel it can be when the process is complete.

I think it will ultimately be a couple of days before I can actually put the manuscript out of my mind completely for this break. I can’t seem to prevent these three words from cycling through my brain right now: "I did it!"

And Then All Hell Broke Loose

Last night, I passed the 92,000-word mark on the first draft of my novel. I have written eleven chapters so far. I have one final chapter to complete. Interestingly, the last two chapters have come along much more rapidly than the middle of the story. I’m not exactly sure why that is, except that I have developed a quirky new habit about my work while I’m plotting chapters and scenes.

Every night, when I’ve ended my final new sentence for the evening, I start a new paragraph and type the words "And then all hell broke loose."

When I begin writing again the next night, the first thing I see is that sentence: "And then all hell broke loose." It spurs me on to ratchet the story up a notch higher than I had the night before. As a result, my writing is more productive and I feel better about the work I’ve already completed.

I don’t know where I developed that habit, or even if it’s original to me. I suspect that it is not my invention. I will say, however, that it works when I’m worried about where the story is going and whether I’m keeping things moving at a good clip in terms of advancing the story.

Try it sometime in your own work.