Watch Out for the Hallway by Tonya and Joey Madia – Book Review

by Zakary McGaha

[Note: I need to start this review by touching on the frequent reference of my own paranormal encounters. I am, in no way, laying my experiences down as trump cards for those who don’t believe. I don’t distrust myself…what happened to me happened…but I’m open to the possibility that my age played a part in some of my early experiences. Logic leads me to believe that the house I lived in as a young’un was haunted since the experiences, which were quite intense and terrifying, stopped after my family moved (ironically, to a house where someone actually died). I’ve had subsequent encounters, some of them while ghost hunting, but none of them have been as horrifying. I’m not going to list them or anything, since this is a damn book review; I figured I would simply touch on my frequent allusions, since my own experiences influence my reading of the book.]

Ghost stories and supernatural discussions are simply entertaining. But they’re not simple. In fact, the topic can get very complex; philosophy plays a heavy part. For those of us who have been graced with genuine, unexplainable encounters, the topic plays out on a human-to-human basis: it’s a topic you discuss with REAL people who aren’t afraid of having their academic integrity shattered.

Ours in an age in which materialism and industrialization go hand in hand. Religion and spiritual topics seem to be fading into the past. It’s no surprise, though, that paranormal happenings have become enormously popular topics in entertainment. Since spirituality is draining out of our lives like blood from a machine-fucked factory worker, it makes since that the population would try to stop the leak by following the path of least resistance: watching TV!

Ghost-hunting “reality” shows have always attracted me. The main reason for this is that I’m both naturally curious and naturally drawn to dark, spooky things, but the fact that I’ve had frightening, paranormal experiences since an early age probably influences my fascination as well.

While I like the entertainment these shows provide, I can’t help but feel saddened by the fact that our society HAS to attach “science” to the topic. Like, seriously: if there are ghosts and spirits running (floating?) around the world, what makes anyone think “science” is going to help them understand the fuckers? By definition, they exist outside of science: it’s a case of “consciousness” surviving the death of the body.

But I digress. Luckily for me, Joey and Tonya Madia digress as well. One of the first topics they discuss in Watch Out for the Hallway is the world of ghost shows. They discuss the two types: ghost-hunting shows like Ghost Adventures and story-driven, eyewitness-interview fests like My Ghost Story…(which just so happens to be my favorite television program ever, after SpongeBob SquarePants). Although they come to a similar conclusion I do…Joey discusses his love of using story arcs to attack the philosophy of the paranormal, considering the fact that our very lives are stories we tell and re-tell ourselves in our minds…they realize that physical manifestations can be recorded, and can even act as modes of communication.

HOWEVER, they agree that relying on “science” and “technology” in this respect is sure to lead to disappointment: who says ghosts are going to perform for your finicky little gadgets? If I was a ghost, I sure wouldn’t: I’d be a dick. However, if some investigator flattered me and brought me some roses, I might be willing to give ‘em something.

It’s this approach that Joey and Tonya use in their investigations. They’re not strutting around like frat boys trying to punk out ghosts who may or may not be there. Instead, they’re using intuition, psychic abilities, and genuine, normal attempts at communication to elicit responses. And boy, does it provide some interesting material in the way of EVPs.

Although the main topic of discussion in Watch Out for the Hallway is the couple’s two-year long investigation of the Webb Memorial Library in Morehead City, North Carolina, a subtext running throughout is how deeply paranormal happenings can impact your outlook on life. In fact, my favorite parts of the book involved stories that weren’t related to the main topic. Some people, it seems, have a tendency to experience this sort of thing more than your average joe…or, perhaps your average joe is simply prone to shrug off said experiences.

Nevertheless, documenting experiences…the couple obviously keeps a record of the stuff that happens to them while ghost hunting and not…provides for some highly engrossing reading material that, when added together, shows you that life is a lot more magical and meaningful than your boss at the local office compound would lead you to believe.

Now, as for the meat of this book: it’s more than intriguing. Two years’ worth of serious paranormal investigating at the same place can add up to a lot of material. Everything from EVPs (ghost voices caught on tape, for the few out there who don’t know that) to guest testimonials are compiled for your reading pleasure.

There’s a profoundly human aspect the ghosts at the Webb had that I found to be both chilling and beautiful. Many of them displayed the moods we all go through on a day-to-day basis…some days, we’re happy and jovial, other days we’re don’t-look-at-me bastards…and others appeared to be consistent jokesters. Many of the ghosts were referred to by the authors as “characters,” which is an interesting take: the spirits aren’t mere attractions or pawns that are supposed to provide chills and thrills to dull-minded hucksters; instead, they’re complex…albeit mysterious…beings that deserve respect.

Other entities were mentioned in this book, such as “interdimensionals” and “men in black.” One of the greatest paranormal books ever written…The Mothman Prophecies by John Keel, which deals with the possibility that a lot of paranormal entities, from ghosts to mothmen to aliens, may be things that are trying to trick us into believing they’re something they’re not…is referenced a couple times, which only deepens the mystery of the Webb and the paranormal world in general.

All in all, if you’re a paranormal enthusiast, you can’t go wrong with this book. It’s got everything you’d want. However, you don’t have to be “in the know” on anything to thoroughly enjoy it. It’s a well-written, entertaining read that’s sure to keep you up at night. Plus, it got a fucking blurb from Nick Redfern.

GO READ IT!

The Gleaming Crest by Brandon Adamson – Chapbook Review

by Ben Arzate

Arizona poet Brandon Adamson is the author three prior poetry collections. The Gleaming Crest is his fourth, though technically his first as it’s a re-release of a handmade chapbook created in 1995 when Adamson was still in high school. It’s even designed to resemble the original chapbook with its typewriter font and the intentionally crude looking hand drawings by Mark Shoenecker.

Personally, I want every single poem I wrote in high school to be burned and the ashes buried six feet deep. However, Adamson had some of these poems published in literary magazines at the time, so it seems he was farther ahead in his writing abilities than many other high school writers. Reading the chapbook, I can confirm that’s the case.

Some of the themes of nostalgia and futurism that appear in his later collections are here as well. For example, “Computer Animated Glass Sphere” is a mediation on a commercial for an IBM Aptiva commercial. Specifically, about a young man wearing a beanie who briefly appears in the titular glass sphere in it. It reminds me of the hope for where technology could take humanity which ran throughout his later collection Skytrain to Nowhere.

Some of Adamson’s poetry here is pretty mature for having been written by a high school student. For example, there are poems here about drifting away from friends which are neither whiny nor place any blame. “Three Year Reunion” is in the form of phone conversation. One person calls the other with the intent of reconnecting after years of not seeing each other.

However, it’s clear the person he’s calling has too much going on in their life to be able to take the time to reconnect. This is also the theme of “Cereal Boy,” where Adamson describes meeting an old friend who’s changed a lot as being “like a bowl of ‘Alpha-Bits’ cereal that no longer contains alphabet letters.” It describes these feelings of loss without delving into overbearing angst as many lesser high school poets do (ahem).

There still is, however, an aura of juvenilia around much of the book. “Diamond Poems” is a set of three poems shaped, as the title suggests, like diamonds that are little more than word associations. Some of the rhyming poems, like “The Lonely Beach,” read like the lyrics to a not particularly great song.

The Gleaming Crest does show that Brandon Adamson had talent from a young age. However, this book is really only for those who’ve already read his other works. I would recommend his poetry collections Beatnik Fascism and Skytrain to Nowhere first. If you find those compelling, then pick this one up.

The Unreprinted: Almost Transparent Blue by Ryu Murakami

by Ben Arzate

Before there was Tao Lin’s Taipei, before there was Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, before there was Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, there was Ryu Murakami’s Almost Transparent Blue.

“’A lot of things happened awhile back, right, but now I’m empty, can’t do anything, you know? And because I’m empty I want to look around some more, I want to see a lot of things.’”

Ryu Murakami, best known to Western audiences as the author of Audition, had his first novel published in 1976. It was a semi-autobiographical novel about a group of young Japanese friends living near a US Air Force base. The book is a haze of sex, violence, drug abuse, and rock music as their lives spiral out of control and all of them are left empty and unsatisfied.

The book is narrated by Ryu, a disaffected university student and aspiring musician. Although his aspirations aren’t very well pursued. At a couple points, his friends encourage him to play the flute for them, but he brushes them off.

He seems to have few interests beyond sex and drugs, despite coming off as incredibly bored by them, especially towards the end. He is, however, very observant of his surroundings and describes them in often very poetic ways.

The rain made a variety of sounds in different places. As it was sucked down into the grass and pebbles and earth, it sounded like tiny musical instruments. The tinkle of a toy piano, small enough to hold in palm of the hand, blended with the ringing in my ears, the aftermath of heroin.”

One of the early scenes in the book is an orgy between Ryu, his friends, and several black soldiers at the American air base. The way the orgy is described is far away from erotic; it is both disturbing and hilarious.

Despite their claims of enjoying the orgies, many of Ryu’s friends spout racial epithets in reference to the men at the air base when not there. There is also obvious jealousy among the men for their girlfriends having sex with the American airmen.

Ryu is surprised when one female friend, a heroin addict, states she wants to get married someday. A conflict between the traditions of pre-war Japan and the new zeitgeist of international post-war Japan is a subtle theme here.

Ryu’s best friend and sort-of girlfriend is named Lilly, an American girl living in Japan and making money as a prostitute. She seems to be the only person that Ryu actually cares about.

His relationship with her, however, is strained by his inability to communicate his feelings to her until it’s too late. The “epilogue” of the book is a letter to Lilly where he expresses his desire to see her again four years later.

It’s clear that Ryu and his friends’ lifestyles are tearing them apart. Much of the friction between Lilly and Ryu begins when they get in their car on mescaline and drive without a purpose. This takes them to the runway at an airport where their drug-induced hallucinations nearly get them both killed. This results in the police showing up at Ryu’s home and dragging him and his friends to the station, though they’re let off without charges because the police can’t find their drugs.

The two end up departing for good when, later, Ryu has a psychotic breakdown, hallucinating a giant bird looming over him and preparing to crush him. Lilly runs away in fear and Ryu stabs himself with glass and has to go to the hospital.

It’s easy to see why this is regarded as a classic in its home country of Japan. It made a huge splash when it was released and it’s still in print there and, as far as I know, has never gone out of print. In the United States, the English translation only recently went out of print and there’s a good chance it will come back into print soon.

I can only hope it does. It’s a short book at only around 130 pages, but it fits a lot into those pages. It’s an intense, beautifully written (even in translation), and engaging coming of age book.

Almost Transparent Blue transcends cultural boundaries in its existential themes while also retaining uniquely Japanese ones. I believe this is a much better book than Audition (the only other Ryu Murakami book I’ve read so far) and I look forward to reading his other ones.

The Universal Baseball Association: a Review

Life is a series of disappointments. If I were designing one of those pessimistic memes posing ironically as an inspirational quote, I’d add a snappy modifying clause to my opening sentence to eclipse the glaring cliche; in this case, however, I mean exactly what I wrote. You never really get what you want, and there’s no way around it. Life is set up to sort-change you, and expecting otherwise is the perennial wellspring of human suffering. It isn’t love in itself that we love to hate, but the tendency love has to blind us to life’s insurmountable disregard for our grievances. At heart, even organized religion is less interested in offering pseudoscientific explanations of the world than attuning us to our inscrutable dissatisfaction with “God’s plan.” And no, I don’t mean the Drake song—our dissatisfaction with that is of a different character.

Take Robert Coover’s protagonist in The Universal Baseball Association, Henry Waugh. Without a doubt, Waugh himself didn’t intend to sacrifice the concerns of his waking life to the maintenance of a fantasy baseball league of labyrinthine complexity. But sacrifice he did, and you can sense his tiny pangs of disappointment throughout the book. Although these small discomforts pale in comparison to Waugh’s Great Disappointment, which I’ll decline to discuss here in deference to those of you who wisely decide to read The Universal Baseball Association yourselves, they are keenly felt in their accumulated mass, mirroring the inertia of a disappointed life that has collapsed at the core yet remains functioning, like a happy dog chained to a tree.

Here are a few minor disappointments of my own: that Coover’s work doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves (despite the William Faulkner Award), that I can’t write a lengthy work of fiction with the seamless combination of deceptive ease and emotional depth that Coover commands, that I still don’t own all of Coover’s books, and finally, that we don’t have more great fiction like his in the world.

Robert Lowell Coover is most known for metafiction and his association with Chicago’s Electronic Literature Organization, a collective intended to promote and embrace hypertext, interactive narrative, and other emergent electronically-inclined movements in contemporary fiction. The “meta” tag on Coover’s work might lead some readers to expect various narrative twists and upheavals–to expect, in short, the unexpected. Just read Pricksongs & Descants, Coover’s legendary 1969 fiction collection, and see if he doesn’t deliver just that and more.

But for now, we’ll focus on just one of Coover’s greatests twists:

When you discover The Universal Baseball Association, and if you manage to resist your inherent assumptions evoked by the word “baseball” long enough to skim the blurb on the back, you’ll inevitably find yourself stacking expectations like a house of cards around the novel’s protagonist, J. Henry Waugh. The fact that he lives in a world of pure fantasy will suggest an ambiguous sadness, as if a normal, fantasy-free life is a commodity of high value that exists to be envied. That Waugh’s activities–working, eating, sleeping, and screwing, like the rest of us–are all subservient to the grand, invisible world of the UBA should be enough to call for the grandest of biblical misfortunes, since we’ll tolerate evil before we cast a kindly glance at uselessness. “What a sick man,” we think to ourselves. “What a freak.”

Expectations exist to be broken on the rack.

Not only is Waugh’s fantasy elaborate, engaging, and frighteningly compelling, but it’s also a work of sheer genius. I mean this literally. Waugh is not a simpering imbecile muttering himself to sleep beneath a heap of soggy newspapers in the shadowed end of a hidden alleyway. He’s a mathematical savant who has sent maddeningly complex papers to game companies who didn’t understand them. He’s a writer of enviable diversity laboring over a history of the UBA written from a growing array of voices and perspectives. He’s a master of high-fantasy who knows that he must strike a balance between the living world and the cocoon of the mind, a man who has stashed uncashed paychecks in a drawer in preparation for the day when the world of the living comes ‘round with the bill.

And most importantly, The Universal Baseball Association traps the reader in a web of her own expectations. We wanted Waugh’s world to be worthy of pity, but we fell in love with it, despite disinterest in baseball. As readers, we realize that our world of books is no different (other than being less in need of genius) than Waugh’s “pathetic” delusions. Coover’s work is a stern reproach for our haughty high-handedness, and a challenge to the pragmatic currency of Horace Zifferblatts everywhere.

It’s as if Coover didn’t even need The Public Burning or Pricksongs and Descants. The Universal Baseball Association is brilliant enough to support a career; that it seems to be one of his “minor” works is a testimony to Coover’s brilliance rather than a sign of poor quality.

Life is disappointment, and that’s why Waugh is an uncanny reflection. His insanity is ours, and Coover shows us there’s nothing to fear.

Justin A. Burnett

The Unreprinted: Mama by Ruby Jean Jensen

The Unreprinted: Mama by Ruby Jean Jensen

by Zakary McGaha

In today’s installment of Ben Arzate’s The Unreprinted, author Zakary McGaha takes a look at a buried treasure from the mind that gave us Baby Doll and Chain Letter.

A lot of die hard pulp fiction aficionados are okay with the fact that a large percentage of the trashy stories aren’t worth the paper (the cheap paper) they’re printed on. No one publisher exemplifies this more than Zebra Books. In the 80s, as almost everyone already knows, they were a staple of the horror boom. Now…they do romance and shit.

Ruby Jean Jensen is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence in popularity these days, along with the books of her publisher. Or, perhaps it’s better said that the covers of these books are becoming more popular. After all, if you ask anyone what their favorite 80s skeleton covers are, there’s a 90% chance Zebra will be mentioned and an equally good chance that at least one of Ruby’s books will be on the list.

Ruby is also remembered for her killer doll books. Annabelle is, perhaps, her most well-known doll book and the best one, as far as I’ve read, but she put out quite a few novels in this category. The focus of today’s Unreprinted column is 1983’s Mama, a killer doll book not as shitty as Victoria but nowhere near as awesome as Annabelle.

Mama follows the exact same topic all of Ruby’s books that I’ve read and, possibly, all of the other ones follow: children in peril. This time, there’s a girl named Dorrie. Her father just died, so her family has moved to an old, Victorian house in the middle of nowhere.

If that premise sounds gothic-y, you’d be onto something—before writing for Zebra, Ruby wrote for the Gothic genre (or “romantic suspense,” as it’s sometimes called). I’m a die hard fan of the Gothics.

As far as modern-ish times go, they comprise the first wave of the paperback horror boom; their covers all featured women running from mansions, and their plots all featured women inheriting mansions that have ominous pasts.

There may have been something predating them, but I’m fairly certain I’m right. Regardless, Gothics are like Zak-nip for me. I’ve not read as many of them as I would like (once you’ve read one, you’ve read 95% of them (even more so than westerns), but the ones I have read all ruled. Subtlety and atmosphere are two of the biggest draws to Gothics.

After they died out and “horror” became a thing, along with covers with dancing skeletons and super-violent plots, many Gothic writers made the transition quite easily. Florence Stevenson is another one off the top of my head, although there are many others.

Since Ruby ended up writing for Zebra, I think it’s safe to say she was given the green-light to stay within her Gothic roots. The editor was probably like, “Okay, you can keep up the Victorian mansion stuff. Just make a lot of people die and add in some monsters.”

Mama is pretty much that, nothing more and nothing less. It’s within the subset of Ruby’s novels that follow a frigid formula. I’ve never understood why writers would write the same story over and over again, but if you’re making a living as a pulp writer and the same shit keeps selling, I can sort of sympathize…but c’mon!

Mama is exactly like Jump Rope which is exactly like Lost and Found which is very similar in structure to Wait and See. On certain technicalities these novels are different—they don’t all involve family members dying—but they’re all lame in the same ways.

The “kid’s in peril” shtick can only work for so many novels before faithful readers are saying, “Okay, which kid’s gonna become obsessed with keeping the family safe from the supernatural bogey only to end up dying, and which family member is gonna act like they don’t give a shit?”

The cheesiness of Mama isn’t a good thing, in my opinion. While its cover may promise spookiness, its words deliver boredom. Nothing particularly interesting from a character study perspective takes place at any point, despite the fact that the entire family has been uprooted and placed in an old house full of toys that suck people’s breath away for sustenance.

No one cared. No one did anything. Nothing happened. The body count in this one was slim to none, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but by page 50 the reader knows that violence is the only thing that could possibly make the novel interesting.

It probably sounds like I’m dogging on ole RJJ, but I’m not. There simply isn’t a lot to say about this book. It’s for that reason that I’m ending the review here. Mama gets two stars for readability and an extra star for not being as bad as Victoria. Calling it a bonafide three-star book feels weird, but in relation to some of her other stuff, it’s decent.

Now, why exactly do I keep reading Ruby’s books if I hate them so much? Answer: I don’t hate them. She’s fairly dependable, but if you’re unlucky enough to get one of her more formulaic works, you’re certainly not in for a treat.

Home Sweet Home, Celia, and Annabelle are three of my favorite novels. They’re proof that Ruby was a fantastic writer. But, like many pulp maestros in the 80s, she was pressured to keep up with the market.

Zebra was the perfect vehicle for her to be able to have a ton of books littering drugstore racks across the nation, but, sadly, it was a short-term interest sort of thing. If only she would have focused on producing more novels like the three I just mentioned, and less like Mama, her awful work wouldn’t have drowned out her fantastic work, and, thus, she wouldn’t find herself in such an obscure, niche-like section of readers’ consciousnesses these days.

One can only hope. I, for one, wish Valancourt would bring back her good stuff. Readers don’t deserve collector’s prices for good books…and they certainly don’t deserve them for platitudinous pieces of putrescence like Mama.