A Town Called Chasm: A Genealogical Mystery

I’ve always had ambiguous feelings about genealogy. Throughout my childhood, “genealogy” was a field of study responsible for long and tedious lectures, primarily at the whim of my maternal grandfather. He eventually wrote a book about my family’s Tennessee roots, compiled from material painstakingly developed before his audience of me and my brothers. I admit I never read it, having had the displeasure of experiencing the endless series of rough drafts first hand.

On the other side of the familial gulf, my maternal grandmother, also held in thrall by the curse, didn’t fare much better. Her one saving grace, however, was creativity. If you ask her, we’re related to The Beatles (all of them), Elvis, the Kennedys, and Marilyn Monroe.

Perhaps it was out of sheer nostalgia that I decided to end the ten-year genealogical void in my life with a exploration of my paternal grandfather’s shadowy bloodline. My initial findings were what you’d expect: a mundane chain of salvaged letters and portraits leading back into oblivion. It wasn’t long, however, before I stumbled across great-great-uncle Charles and an apparently nonexistent town called Chasm.

Charles Burnett was born on March 3rd, 1887 in West Virginia. My grandfather never met him personally, although vague references to a family delinquent sometimes surfaced in his father’s conversations. His memory survives in scant written material, including a marriage certificate indicating an early union to a woman he quickly abandoned.

According to rare correspondences with his step-sister, Margaret McDougall, with whom a scandalous but quite secret liaison seems strongly indicated, Charles was a wanderer, eschewing the settled life in order to satiate a passion for photography. His letters each bear a different address scrawled in a surprisingly meticulous hand. Atlanta, Pittsburg, Knoxville–although he never dwelled long in one place, he remained rooted to the Appalachians, hauling along his Butcher & Sons, quarter plate camera.

None of this would be worthy of mention if Charles hadn’t stumbled across Chasm. Where is Chasm? I would happily tell you if I could. Charles omitted the return address on every letter after 1912. Google searches turn up nothing, and no map, current or otherwise, recognizes an American town of that name. In his last known letters to Margaret, Charles describes pine-covered mountains that surround the town; to place Chasm somewhere in the Appalachians is pure speculation on my part.

What seems more certain is that Charles remained in Chasm. He lavishly praises the “quiet” town, “filled with the righteous fear of the Lord” to Margaret, who responds in justified bewilderment at Charles’s uncharacteristic mention of the Christian God. He sends her photographs, none of which are available in the public archives, over the span of a year. He seems to gain steady employment at “the mines,” although it is never indicated what material they are designed to salvage. “This year,” Charles writes at close of the summer of 1913, “has been the best of my life.”

Charles never penned a letter to Margaret following up on his successes. Apparently, he continued to send photographs, since Margaret addressed a desperate letter to “Charles Burnett, Residence: Chasm” in 1926 imploring him to stop. “I can bear these haunting images no longer,” she writes, “they only make me fear for you all the more. Why don’t you write me, dear Charles? Is it so impossible to allow your love this one small comfort?” Two months following the post date, Margaret’s letter was returned unopened.

I continued to search for another glimpse of Uncle Charles. A death certificate bearing his name was issued in 1944, appended by a description of a “private” burial plot in the middle of the Appalachians, “some fifteen miles from the nearest general store.” As useless as this information was, it was the only additional evidence of Charles I was able to recover. The only evidence, that is, until I contacted Gladys Barnes.

Having no survivors in my own family to query, I turned to Margaret’s. Margaret had married a man named William Barnes in the thirties, so I promptly wasted, hoping against hope, a dozen phone calls to various West Virginian Barnes households. On the verge of frustrated surrender, I finally stumbled across Gladys. Gladys, an unmarried woman of 90 years, fondly recalled her mother, Margaret, although she had never heard of Charles.

As I described the enigma of my uncle and the mysterious town of Chasm, the bubbly old woman grew quiet. Mistaking her silence for boredom, I hastily drew my narrative to a close. To my surprise, she asked me for my mailing address. “I have a file of some old family photos that belonged to my mother,” Gladys explained. “They’re copies of the originals, which largely vanished in the estate sale. There are some… odd ones that I always thought were kept by mistake.” I thanked her, and a week later a package arrived from West Virginia. Inside were four reproductions of old photographs. They are posted below.

Is this the elusive town of Chasm? Are these Charles’s photographs? While answers don’t appear forthcoming, I am determined to investigate further. If there are any future findings of interest, I will certainly share them here.

Justin A. Burnett

Going Underground: An Interview with Jeff Arwadi, (not) a Member of Kekal

Jeff Arwadi joins us for our second musician interview on SMM. We talk about Kekal’s new album, Deeper Underground, which I review here. As usual, check out the album on Bandcamp and visit Kekal’s official website. You won’t be disappointed.

Justin A. Burnett: The first thing that strikes me about Kekal’s latest release, Deeper Underground, is that this is clearly a carefully composed labor of love, given the album’s exceptional quality. Are Kekal’s composition standards typically this high? How long did it take to write?

Jeff Arwadi: Deeper Underground took about 2 years to make; that’s because all the songwriting and production happened at the same time, so the music were written as it was produced and recorded. The whole thing was composed through trial-and-error. So many musical elements did not work and they got scrapped during the process. Sometimes, it’s hard to throw away your ideas when you think they’re good, but, then again, if it doesn’t work to fit the bigger picture, it just doesn’t work. I think one of the “standards” in producing this album is to always confront the ego from taking over the whole direction. For example, the ego wanted more solos, but if the overall song doesn’t need them, the ego has to be fought during the production. Believe me, it is not fun confronting your own ego, but when you do this as an exercise, it could also affect you on the personal level.

Justin: Deeper Underground’s Bandcamp page states that Kekal has had no official members since 2009. How does a Kekal release happen? Are the albums written collectively or by a single person?

Jeff: I believe during the most difficult time when the album 8 was recorded back in 2009, we realized that Kekal could go spiralling down and could even implode if the band stayed as it was. After that, all the band members decided to leave the band and became anonymous contributors. That way, any contribution becomes voluntary, you could contribute working only on this song, on that song, on that album, etc. it doesn’t really matter anymore who does what. Kekal itself is a collective DIY (do-it-yourself) anarchic institution, so everything is done collectively without property rights. Whether an album is one by a single person or 100 people, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the continued existence of Kekal, not the individuals who contribute to the work of any album.

Justin: Deeper Underground is Kekal’s eleventh full-length release. Do you mind describing, for the benefit of Kekal initiates such as myself, the stylistic arc Kekal has undergone from Jakarta to now? What has changed? What remains the same?

Jeff: I believe that nothing has really changed with Kekal, if we talk about the core of the band. I can give an analogy of a person: a person grows older and can gain or lose some weight, has more grey hair or becomes bald, wears different styles of clothing, gets some tattoos, has some scars from fighting a grizzly bear like Leonardo DiCaprio did in a movie, gets cataracts, hemorrhoids, etc. but in essence it is still the same person you could either love or hate.

Justin: How did Kekal become one of the first Indonesian bands to reach an international audience in the early 2000s?

Jeff: Well, our 1998 debut album, Beyond The Glimpse of Dreams, was released by a record label based in Singapore, who traded CDs with some underground distributors in Europe and North America, and from there we got some early exposure from underground fanzines who caught the album and gave good reviews of it. By the time we released the 2nd album, Embrace The Dead, the exposure went broader and it caught the attention of a European independent label based in Netherlands called Fear Dark, which then released the next 3 albums in the European market. So it was not really the band’s main intention to “go international”, the term which we didn’t quite like, actually. It was because the music got attention for one reason or another.

Justin: What are Kekal’s musical influences? Do you feel a particular stylistic affinity with any other contemporary bands or musicians?

Jeff: I don’t think I can list all of Kekal’s musical influences because there are just too many. Everything that caught your attention would influence you to some extent. Even anything you wanted to avoid also means your music is shaped or modelled based on avoidance to that particular thing. It is called “negative influence”, an influence by avoidance. I personally don’t listen to music based on styles or genres, not even to bands. I give you an example: one of my most favourite albums of all-time is Seventeen Seconds from The Cure, but I don’t call myself a fan of The Cure because only that particular album I really really love, and I just can’t dig their other albums. By the way, Kekal lists about 150 influential albums on Facebook here.

Justin: Kekal seems to lyrically address issues as diverse as politics, philosophy, and spirituality. Is there overarching message you seek to convey to listeners?

Jeff: Music is part of life; it’s an artistic expression to what we’ve experienced in life. So it’s very normal to use music as a medium to share what you think and feel. We live in a broken world. For me, it would be weird to write songs based on expression like “hey my new cat is so handsome, let’s celebrate”, when you have many other things to say.

Justin: What’s next for Kekal? Is there anything you’d like your listeners to know about future releases or other Kekal-related events?

Jeff: I really have no idea! Let see how everything goes, and maybe in a next 2 years or so something new would come up. To get latest updates, follow/like Kekal on Facebook and Instagram.

© 2018 Silent Motorist Media

Pandaemorthium Album Review

Band: Esoctrilihum
Album: Pandaemorthium (Forbidden Formulas to Awaken the Blind Sovereigns of Nothingness)
Country of Origin: France
Release Date: February 23, 2018
Genre: Majestic black/death metal
Label: I, Voidhanger Records

This album is so damned good I can leave aside the Lovecraftian lyrical leanings and have plenty of praise left over. Esoctrilihum, a one-man piece hailing from France, is certainly worthy of serious attention from fans of utter darkness. I was skeptical at first: dark and furious riffs pound over a relatively low-mix growl; everything sounds like it was recorded while somehow buried in Japan’s Aokigahara forest. In essence, nothing out of the usual. Right?

Oh, so wrong. “Folk” passages (although they really aren’t folk) soon begin to shimmer against the dark, muddy pool, adding a breathtakingly melodious interlude to the deep and hazy sonic atmosphere of Pandaemorthium. These dreamy, sonic strolls through torch-lit catacombs remain simple in composition. You won’t find Opeth’s acoustic frills or a host of alternative instruments crashing like frat dudes into the wrong party. These understated melodies, however, add the perfect adjustment to the damp and rancid chaos, often evoking a breathtaking moment of subdued beauty that you’ll unhesitatingly return to. Like sex with a new partner, it’s even better the second time around.

Even when Pandaemorthium winds into a repeating riff, you don’t notice. You want these songs to repeat, in fact; you need the few extra measures to truly absorb the power Escotrilihum wields on this sophomore bombshell. Asthaghul (Escotrilihum’s sole member) deserves a standing ovation for his creativity, taste, and utter bleakness of vision. I’ll certainly be keeping tabs on his future work.

Rating: 4.5/5

-Justin A. Burnett

Your Happy Life: Day Two

You are awake. You make it, somehow, to the coffee pot. You know the routine. It doesn’t change. Do you fill the filter or pour the water first? It doesn’t matter, really. As long as your wait for the coffee is minimal, as long as the kids don’t wake up before the brewer cackles to a finish. No kids? Your spouse then, your pet. If you are alone, then beware the awakening of something more evil still: your thoughts.
Cream? Sugar? Black as the void from which you surfaced with a gasp and back to which you return in intervals of mornings spent in agony?
Enjoy the coffee. Today, I am merely here to remind you that you have awakened closer to the end. In all your years of living, you have never been more dear to death than you are now.

By C. M. Bartolomeo, ©2018 Silent Motorist Media

Your Happy Life: Day One

So. Your life is happy? Splendid! If anything is worth celebrating, surely it is a “happy life.” Go ahead and accept my congratulations. You deserve them! And not only that but add to them the implicit applause of the unhappy multitudes. They envy you, make no mistake. And what is more flattering than basking in the light of envy? Universal envy, no less? There is nothing.

Certainly, since your life is good, it is reasonable to assume you possess certain qualities. You aren’t impoverished, that much is beyond doubt. Happiness is rare in the slums, where the daily imperative to obtain sustenance more or less trumps the necessity to categorize the general quality of existence one way or the other. In poverty, you are directly connected to the material dimension. What concerns the starving person is food absent from the table. If you have the time to consider the matter and decide that you are happy, you must be free from material constraints.

Freedom from material constraints! How grand! Roll the words along your tongue. Oh, we will have much more to say about your happiness throughout this passing year, its days marked like gravestones by these celebratory pages. Pause a moment, nevertheless, to consider this important detail, your freedom from material constraints!

This means, of course, that you have or can easily obtain the things you need. This evening, a 24-year-old girl from Michigan falls from the doorway of a trailer house onto an unfamiliar expanse of sand. She needs to run, but her unused legs have forgotten their function. Run, she tells herself, as her hands clutch pointlessly at the blowing sand. She hurts. Oh God, she hurts. She hurts in places she’s hurt before, and in places she hasn’t. Her bare wrists and ankles are ringed with blood. Dark matter cakes the crotch of her unzipped jeans black. Run. Just fucking run. He will return. Colt legs alternate in a series of betrayals. Her mind screams. Finally, she moves, falls, anchors herself in the sand with her elbows and drags along her body which has lately blossomed into a prison of pain. The girl finds no city light in the dusk. It doesn’t matter, of course. Surrender means only one thing. All she needs is one house, a solitary porch marked by the miracle of a single porch light. A phone. A goddamned phone.

But not you, happy liver of life! You have no need to worry over a phone, or any other such material trivialities. You already have one, of course. You have all you need. Take a moment to congratulate yourself.

C. M. Bartolomeo, ©2018 Silent Motorist Media