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Excerpt from A Thing You'll Never Do

“We stayed at a small ‘historical’ hotel on the main street and that night played for the mayor and his family and guests in the living room of his high-ceilinged Victorian house on Charlotte Street. Across the way was a lovely, illuminated skating rink, right next to the bandstand. Like the music of Erik Satie or the smell of Pears soap, it was a town that made you nostalgic for something you never had. We played the usual stuff. Beethoven before dinner; Bach afterwards. We don’t take requests but we got a few anyway. To wit, the mayor’s daughter, a blond, curly-haired high school student, asked us for Stairway to Heaven which I thought we should learn because it kept coming up.

While we were playing, I looked out the window; it was still snowing; it had been snowing all day, big flakes whirling around in the park floodlights. I thought, this could be trouble.

Later, the four of us were having dinner in the kitchen—it was between sets. Pretty penguin girls were going in and out with trays when the mayor himself came in wearing a Scottish kilt. He was a red-faced noisy fellow (they’re always short) who prided himself on being a “character.” But he was friendly and I like friendly people.

“If this snow keeps up, you folks aren’t going anywhere,” he declared. He had an engineering degree from Stanford but like many ageing private school boys, he patched his speech with occasional rural intonations.

He offered to put us up for another night in the hotel until the roads were cleared. “We get the last of everything here,” he said, “including getting the roads shoveled.” He gave us four tickets to the local orchestra’s performance the following night. “They’re not in your league,” he said, “but they’re pretty damn good and they work at it.” He gave us a meaningful look, his mayor’s look, through two slightly blood-shot, protruding eyes. “Which is all you can ask from anyone, right?” A volley of laughter rocked his short body. We accepted the tickets but, really, can you imagine? The last thing I wanted to do on a day-off was to listen to an orchestra recital. As we were filing out of the kitchen, he gave us his gold embossed card. “If you’re ever in town, folks, just call me.” Pause. “Just don’t call me late for supper.” Ha-ha! ha! Supper.

Next morning when I looked out the second-floor window of the hotel, I could see the whole town was snowed in. Tree branches weighed down, cars buried; there must have been two feet of snow on the main street. Very quiet. The cellist’s car, a mound of white. So we stayed on.

Oddly enough, the library down the street was open and, after a generous breakfast (homemade whole-wheat bread and thick back bacon) in the Talk of the Town Café, I wandered in later that afternoon. I looked at the “We Suggest” table, novels by the usual Canadian nightmares, one of them signed by its cavern-voiced, peculiarly unattractive author; a musty edition of Montaigne’s essays (how did that get there?), and an oral history of the town. I chatted to the lady librarian, fiddled on the computer, looked up the names of a few old childhood tormentors who, I was happy to see, had done nothing special over the years; watched a YouTube video of Bruce Springsteen doing a cover of the Stones’ Last Time. Just knocked around in the snowbound library and had a nice time. Felt as though I was “living well,” that my blood was clean, which is a pleasant sensation but not one I can describe. The bell on the church across the street rang out the hour, the brass vibrations expanding and shrinking in the cold air. There was a clank in the old-fashioned radiators.

I wrote my girlfriend, Mary-Anne Deacon, an email. I always liked her best when I was out of town. Sometimes I even imagined I was in love with her. But when I saw her standing in the doorway of my apartment, after I’d looked forward to seeing her all day, something always sank in me. Something must have sunk in her, too. But I didn’t see it at the time. It was a period in my life when I got a lot of things wrong, especially what people thought of me. Looking back on it now, I think I was suffering from some kind of reverse paranoia, the assumption that people were going around thinking good things about me all the time. If you live long enough, you find out how a whole bunch of your own stories end and it’s usually not the way you thought they would. Not at all.

The day passed slowly as it always does when you’re away from home. I kept looking at my watch; it seemed to be running at half speed. I watched television in my room; I read a chapter of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. (My father gave it to me when I was having dinner at his apartment. He liked Russian writers. Especially when he was depressed. Whenever I saw War and Peace—his favorite—on the night table, I knew to stay an hour or two longer, that he’d like the company even if he was too shy to ask for it.)

Darkness fell shortly after five o’clock and with it came that slight relief that I always experience with the onset of darkness, a sense that the world is a more mysterious place; the street lights came on; kids in snowsuits pulled toboggans across the park. Somebody had built a snowman in the bandstand; carrot nose, black eyes. From the angle of its head, it appeared to be looking right at my window. A kind of rural take on the T.J. Eckelburg billboard.

I returned to the Talk of the Town for dinner, the “early bird special” with cranberry sauce. The snow lying even and sparkly on the outside window sill; teenage boys in toques and ear muffs: you could see little puffs of their breath when they talked. It reminded me of a place in the deep south that I hitchhiked through when I was fifteen, when I thought you could outrun a broken heart. For three days, I descended through the heat and gradually thickening air; got in and out of cars and trucks and eighteen-wheelers, slept here and there; somebody gave me twenty dollars; somebody took me up a deserted country road when I was asleep and put his hand on me. It was a long walk back to the highway. But it was oddly sweet; birds chirping, cicadas in the high grass, the hot sun pouring down, a dog trotting along beside me and then disappearing into the trees. Hard to believe that the world could contain all this in the same hour.

A day later? Maybe two? I can’t remember the name of the town, it was just a cluster of white cottages by the sea, the waves gently patting the sand, clouds from a child’s coloring book overhead. But I was very young and I hadn’t learnt yet to stay put when you’re happy. So I moved on and when I got to the next beautiful place…etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

They were glad to see me back at The Talk of the Town. The librarian was there with her husband, who was missing an arm. They asked me if I wanted to join them, I said thank you but I had some work to do. I put my book on the table, face down, and pulled my pen from my pocket and laid it ostentatiously on top of the book, all as if I were just about to start something important. The truth is, then as now, I preferred eating in the company of my own thoughts, alone. They may be prosaic, these pensées, but they didn’t bruise me as people often do, albeit accidentally.

There’s a curious quality to loneliness: you hurry back to it. You end up sort of protecting it.

I sat by the front window; people passed by on the sidewalk. They smiled at me or nodded. It was like sitting in a painting. A man shoveled his driveway soundlessly. A snow plough paused at a red light. By eight o’clock, the streets around the park were mostly cleared, but Errol, the cellist in our group, had got drunk that afternoon with a couple of the locals, and didn’t want to leave. Ever. Said he wanted to move there. You could see his point. Christmas lights in all the trees, teenage girls with white skates over their shoulders going somewhere pleasant. Everybody asking how you are.”

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Here the Dark

April in Snow Lake


The summer I turned nineteen my girlfriend went to Italy to work as a cook for a crew that was rebuilding houses in the aftermath of the earthquake in Udine Province. She wrote me long letters on thin sheets of paper. The letters arrived two weeks after she wrote them and as I read her words I was aware that what I was reading had already passed, she had moved on to some new experience, and so I felt as if I was following her from some great distance, catching a brief glimpse of her, only to have her disappear into a future that I would hear about fourteen days later. She had met a wonderful group of people from Belgium and Holland and France. There was Paul, who was six and half feet tall and played the banjo and admired Woody Guthrie. He wore a bandana. And there was Lillian, who was German Swiss, and was teaching her French. Lillian had taken her to Venice one Sunday, on their day off, and they had stayed overnight in a tiny villa. They had shared a bed and woken in the morning and made coffee on a hotplate and then had leaned out the window of their room and watched the lovers pass by below. It is all so romantic, she wrote. When I read this I was forlorn and I wondered how I would last the rest of the summer without her. I had found a job driving a truck for the local feed company, a job that required a lot of sitting and waiting, usually in the lot of an abattoir where I had been sent to pick up several tons of meat meal. Every evening I showered and scrubbed myself in order to remove the smell of dead animals from my hair and skin.

A year earlier I had decided to become a novelist, or a writer of short stories, or a poet, though I did not truly understand poetry and was more attached to narrative crescendo. I would write in a frenzy over the weekend and show my stories to my girlfriend on Monday evening. Of course we talked about my lack of life experience and my lack of voice and my lack of worldliness. She thought that my religious background, my faith in God, how I saw the world, would be a detriment to my writing. She said that Ernest Hemingway’s father had been religious like my father was, but that Hemingway had managed quite nicely to walk away from all the baggage. I said that I had no desire to walk away. There was room for grace as well as sin in the world of novels.

One morning, before I left for work, my girlfriend telephoned from Italy. At first I didn’t know it was her because I had not expected the call, and then when I finally recognized her voice I told her that I missed her horribly and I couldn’t wait for her to come home. She said that that she knew that but she planned to travel after finishing at the work camp. She might visit Lillian in Basel and then hitchhike up to Amsterdam where Paul lived. I’ll be home at the end of the summer, she said. Then we’ll get married.

This had been our plan, to marry in the fall. It had been my idea, my wish. She would just as happily have moved in together, but I had convinced her that we should marry. She agreed. But first, she said, she wanted to spend time traveling. She was quite willing for me to join her but the offer felt too easy. She knew that I could not afford it.

Her voice on the line faded in and out, and there was a delay, so that our conversation overlapped. At times we were speaking simultaneously and then we had to repeat ourselves and this led to long silences while we waited for the other to speak, and then it started all over again. Finally I just let her talk and as I did so I was aware of the tremendous physical distance between us and that her heart seemed smaller. And then the line went dead. I sat beside the phone for half an hour but she never called back.

That week a letter arrived in which she informed me that she wasn’t sure anymore if we should get married, in fact she wasn’t clear about her love for me. She claimed that the world was a big place and that she had one life and was she ready to spend that life with me? She wasn’t sure. I knew, as I read the letter, that the words had been written before her phone call, and this fact made our conversation irrelevant. She had been talking to me on the phone, promising that she missed me, and that she would return in the autumn and we would marry, while all along she knew that this wasn’t true. The space, the geographical distance, and the gap between what she wrote and what took place after she wrote it, all of this depressed me. Why had she not told me the truth? What was she afraid of? Was there something about me that she feared?


Two weeks later I quit my job driving truck at the feed mill and I rode a bus five hundred miles north to Snow Lake where I worked construction for an old friend of my father who was pouring basements. The crew worked long hours, getting up at five in the morning and working till nine or ten in the evening. The summer nights were short and the light was forever blue and then white and then briefly yellow, and again blue. We did not sleep much and this did not seem to matter. Because darkness barely existed it felt as if sleep was something that other people might require. Not us. Perhaps it was a madness to behave this way, and perhaps this is why the summer lacked a moral focus. The lack of sleep, the wild dreams when I finally did sleep, the anguished poetry I wrote to my girlfriend, my predilection for feverish musings, an inclination to save the world from sin—all of this might have been the result of a lack of sleep.

I was not a drinker, and at nights, when the men were finally free, they went to the local bar while I stayed in my motel room, or sat out on a chair on a rock and read John Steinbeck. And the Bible. The other men on the crew, mostly older than me, kept trying to drag me down to the bar for some pussy. This was their way of putting it. I told them that I was engaged to be married in the fall. Shit, they said, that’s exactly why you need to get laid. I smiled and humored them and shook my head. They went off to get drunk and find a woman, or at least to imagine that possibility, and I read. They had taken to calling me Preacher, because I had let them know that I was a Christian. That fact amused them.

On Sundays, our day off, I was lonely and so I wandered through the town. I noticed that the children on the streets and in the yards were aimless and, my nature being inclined towards industry, I decided to organize a Sunday Day Camp for youth. The ages would be 14 to 17. I didn’t want any small children. I planned to do some hiking and orienteering and I planned to tell these kids stories that were mature and I planned to save their souls. I knew that a sixteen-year-old was able to think along the lines of metaphor more easily. At the local hardware store I purchased several compasses, a filleting knife, a hatchet, and two fishing rods. I canvassed the town, knocked on doors, and asked if there were teenagers living there who might be interested in joining my Day Camp. We would meet under the shelter at the town park. Some folks said no and closed the door, others were willing to listen, and one older woman who had no children asked me in and brewed tea and we sat in her dark living room and listened to the clock tick on the mantle as she cautioned me against presumption.

The first Sunday, three kids appeared. Two sisters, Beverly and April, and a boy named Rodney. I told them a little about myself—I was nineteen, I came from a small town in the south, I liked to read, I wrote poetry and songs, and I believed in God. I asked them to tell about their lives. They looked at each other and giggled. Finally April said that she was there because her younger sister Beverly wanted to come. She shrugged. April had long dark hair that she wore in a single braid and, unlike the other two, she looked right at me when she spoke. She was seventeen. I found her very attractive and so I concentrated on Beverly and Rodney, sneaking looks at April when I thought she didn’t notice.

That afternoon I taught them how to build a lean to, and how to use the compasses, and we caught two fish and filleted them by the lake. These were all things that my father, who considered himself a bit of an outdoorsman, had taught me. We built a fire using the log cabin method and we fried the fish and ate it with our hands, right from the frying pan. Later, I played a few songs and I sang and then I told them the story of how I had become a Christian. I had asked Jesus into my heart. Everyone needs to do that, I said. Would you like to do that? I asked. They looked at me and then April said, Maybe. Someday.

That’s good, I said. Really good.

That night I went to bed imagining that I might fall in love with April, or if not that, we would walk in the park at the edge of town and hold hands. At that time in my life I was full of ego and pride and I could not imagine April liking anyone more than me, in fact I thought that if I were to be with her, I would be the gentlest and kindest person she had ever known. These were similar to the thoughts I used to have about my girlfriend who was in Udine.

I had not heard from her since the last letter, and though I had asked my parents to forward my mail, no letter had arrived. I believed at the time that she would come to regret her decision.


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How to Die: A Book About Being Alive

No one forgets their first time. It’s the other first time, the one that darkens the mind rather than delights the body, that isn’t always as instantly memorable. But it’s there—somewhere—along with the initial recognition that our parents aren’t the wisest, most powerful people in the world who will always be there to protect us, and that people don’t have to love us back just because we want them to, and that the game of life doesn’t come with a set of inviolable rules that everyone is obliged to follow in the interest of fair play. Not that it’s difficult to understand why we don’t always remember the precise time and place when we first became aware, however dimly, of death. That everyone is going to die. That I’m going to die. Human beings tend to hide from what hurts. Or at least attempt to. But Grandma’s funeral or the family pet’s last visit to the veterinarian or a flattened frog in the middle of the street remind us of what we try to forget but never entirely can.

Novelists aren’t good at much. Busy describing how the world lives, there isn’t much time or inclination left over to do much worldly living oneself. But remembering things—in particular, the seemingly inconsequential but singularly significant minutiae of daily existence—is an occupational necessity. I remember my first whiff of nothingness. Wrote about it in my novel What Happened Later:

Let’s go around, I said.

An August afternoon Sunday when I was six, an idling '69 Buick Skylark with power windows but no air conditioning, a train that wouldn’t end like Christmas will never come and summer vacation will go on forever. I was hot and bored and thirsty and there was cold pop at home on the bottom shelf of the bar fridge in the basement.

We can’t go around, my dad said.

Why not?

Because they’ll put you in a box and put you in the ground and they won’t let you out.

I thought about what he said. It didn’t make sense. I said the only sensible thing I could think of.

But you’d let me out, I said.

My father leaned against the steering wheel and craned his neck left, looked as far down the railroad track as he could. Sweat rivered down the back of his neck. He looked in the rear-view mirror to make sure there was no one behind us; put the car in reverse and gave the steering wheel a sharp tug to the right. We weren’t going to wait around anymore. Finally, we were moving. Looking in the mirror again, this time at me in the back seat:

I don’t want to see you fooling around when there’s a train coming, he said.

I won’t.

You either stand back and wait for it to go by, or you walk around to where it isn’t, you hear me?

I know.


I’ll wait for it or walk around.

My mother sucked a last suck from her Player’s Light and pulled the ashtray out of the dash, crushed out her cigarette on the metal lip. It was full of mashed cigarette butts crowned with red lipstick kisses.

Because when they put you in that box in the ground, boy, that’s it, nobody can help you.

But, I wanted to say. But . . .

But I didn’t say anything. And my dad, I waited, but he didn’t say anything either.

Not that I consider myself as having been particularly thantosophically precocious; death-consciousness simply comes to some early, while others don’t attend their first class in Introduction to Eventual Personal Extinction (a.k.a, Death 101) until they’re well on their way to graduating from life. When I asked a friend of mine from high-school, now a successful dentist in his mid-fifties with a much younger wife and three small children and a vacation home in Arizona neighbouring a private golf course, if he ever thought about his eventual non-existence, he answered, “I’m too busy to think about death.” His response might seem glib, even for a dentist with a three handicap, but is typical of most people’s attitude if asked the same question.

And why shouldn’t it be? Not just because there are other things more pleasant to contemplate or because considered rumination isn’t as common a human activity as, say, envying, lying, or over-eating, but because, as Freud argued, it’s virtually impossible for human beings to imagine their own deaths. “Whenever we attempt to do so,” he claimed, “we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators . . . At bottom no one believes in his own death. . . [I]n the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.” And not just when we’re young and ontologically unsophisticated. Consider the seventy two year old writer William Saroyan’s last public words (in a phone call to the Associated Press announcing his terminal cancer): “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” (Perhaps understanding that we must die yet not really believing it is merely a helpful evolutionary trick, a pre-programmed delusion that allows us to live more secure, hence more adventurous lives—and therefore be happier, more aggressive procreators. It wouldn’t be the first time biology got caught calling the shots.)

But even if we’re simply not psychologically capable of fully comprehending death (ours or anyone else’s we care about), we are able to feel its presence, however dimly sensed or no matter how imperfectly we might be able to articulate it. Even without staring directly at the sun it’s possible to point to its place in the sky. Literature is humankind’s best record of who it is—most everything else is, at best, either reality-corroding clichés or, at worst, egocentric self-advertising—and the most compelling evocations of death in literature (whether in the form of novels, short stories, poems, memoirs, essays, et cetera) approximate Mallarme’s Symbolist poetic dictum: “Paint, not the object, but the effect it produces.” We might not possess the psychological equipment to take a clear and definitive photograph of death, but, by snapping away at its varied effects, we can, by implication, know the unknowable a little bit better, just as the mystic doesn’t speak directly of “God” but, instead, of God’s manifestation in nature, music, or the experience of love.

It’s because impression, metaphor, and inference (and their employment in literature) are superior to purely conceptual thinking in disclosing some of death’s mystery that philosophers tend to obfuscate more often than illuminate. Art is empirical—what we see, hear, touch, taste, smell—and therefore the ideal tool for handling something that is understood, to whatever degree, on a primarily experiential level. “No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel . . . is going to believe anything the . . . writer merely tells him,” Flannery O’Connor counseled. “The first and most obvious characteristic of [good writing] is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.”

Even philosophers who make a point of differentiating themselves from other thinkers deemed cripplingly logocentric tend to double death’s riddle by obscuring it in a mess of twisted syntax and near-meaningless nouns and verbs. Here’s Martin Heidegger taking a crack at the subject with characteristic Heideggerian clarity and linguistic grace: “The existential project of an authentic being-toward-death must thus set forth the factors of such a being which are constitutive for it as an understanding of death—in the sense of being toward this possibility without fleeing it or covering it over.” And, yes, many German thinkers do seem to believe that it’s an intellectual virtue to construct prose that goes down about as well as a tinfoil sandwich, but here’s a sample sentence from Being and Nothingness, France’s most well-known twentieth-century philosopher’s, Jean Paul Sartre’s, magnum opus: “Death is not my possibility of no longer realizing a presence in the world but rather an always possible nihilation of my possibles which is outside my possibilities.” Got that? Have the scales begun to fall from your eyes? One immediately thinks of Friedrich Nietzsche, one German philosopher who did write with lucidity, elegance, and even (rare for his profession) wit: “They all muddy their waters to make them appear deep.” No matter how seemingly impressive their academic credentials or how long their list of prized publications, as the nineteenth-century man of letters Jules Renard avowed, “So long as thinkers cannot tell me what life and death are, I shall not give a good goddamn for their thoughts.”

More than our opposable thumbs and consequent ability to create such contemporary wonders as microwave ovens, shoot-and-splatter video games, and reality television, foreknowledge of our own mortality is humankind’s defining characteristic. We may not know when we’ll die or how or why or what happens afterward, but we do know we are going to die. It’s ironic, then, that many individual’s first encounter with death is achieved through the loss of the family pet, who, lacking our gift (curse?) of self-consciousness, is denied this bitter wisdom. Our beloved cats and dogs may have felt pain and loss of vitality preceding their expiration, but not anxiety or sadness or fear at their impending annihilation. Those feelings are left for us to experience, often for the first time.

My first pet was a bushy-tailed grey Persian cat named Pepe, as in Pepe Le Pew (she came with the name—we inherited her from an elderly neighbour who couldn’t care for her any longer), who died when I was nine years old. Unlike children who are raised on farms and see the life cycle up close on a daily basis (“Don’t get attached to the animals, they’re not your friends, they’re food”), those of us who grew up in suburbia or in the city tended to be shielded from death’s glare. One day Pepe seemed to be lying around more than usual and wasn’t interested in her toy mouse as much, and the next day, when I came from school, she was gone. My mother told me that she and my father had taken Pepe to the vet because she hadn’t been feeling well, and the vet said she was very, very sick, and it would be cruel to let her suffer, so they’d had her put to sleep. It was then that I noticed that her food and water bowls were gone from their usual place on the kitchen floor and that the living room wasn’t littered with her balls, toys, and the long piece of silver tinsel she’d claimed as hers from the Christmas tree a couple of months previous. My mother then told me that dinner would be in about half an hour. We were having pork chops and canned green beans and boiled potatoes.

I’d heard the expression “put to sleep” before, when our next door neighbour’s beagle had been euthanized. I was friends with the family’s younger brother, who was my age, but it was his older brother by a year who I overheard saying, “I wonder what Molly is dreaming about today” when the subject of their recently deceased dog somehow came up. My friend smiled and said, “Squirrels, probably,” and his brother smiled too. “Yeah, probably,” he said. I didn’t know what happened to Pepe or Molly or anyone else’s pets once they made their only one-way trip to the veterinarian, but I knew they weren’t sleeping. Not what we called sleeping, anyway. People who said that their pet “had to be put down” seemed closer to the truth. Put down wasn’t much more helpful in aiding my understanding of what actually occurred behind the veterinarian’s walls, but the polite violence of the phrase felt right, if uncomfortably right. Poor Pepe: she’d been put down.

I felt sorry for her, that she wouldn’t get to slap at her piece of tinsel again. I felt sorry for me because I wouldn’t get to tease her with it again, holding it in front of her face then pulling it away, the way she liked. I missed her because other people’s cats weren’t her, were different colours and different sizes and didn’t like to play the same way—weren’t my cat. I felt funny because someone who was here all the time suddenly wasn’t here anymore. She was just a cat, I knew, but she was Pepe, and now there wasn’t a cat called Pepe anymore. It didn’t make sense. It didn’t seem fair.

Still, it’s not in old age, but in our youth that death is most common as a voluntary topic of conversation. A pet’s loss excepted, because death is usually so far removed from childhood or adolescent experience, it’s easy to talk about. (Why would a senior citizen want to be reminded of death when one goes to bed at night wondering whether or not one will wake up in the morning?) Further, because it’s, if not forbidden, at least discouraged as a topic of conversation (like sex), it’s even fun, feels slightly scandalous, to talk about. Who didn’t toy around with the “Would you rather be shot or stabbed?” question, the “If it had to be one or the other, would you rather drown or suffocate” game? It’s easy to whistle past the graveyard when it’s difficult to believe that such a place really exits.

The desire to be scared in the form of watching horror movies is another one of youth’s ways of flirting with the enticingly unfathomable. In my case, “watch” isn’t the appropriate verb. “Gorge” would be more apposite. Not just because it’s quantifiably more accurate, but because it better captures the tang of my cinematic gluttony. I couldn’t get enough of vampires who bit, mummies who choked, werewolves who clawed and tore, prehistoric monsters risen from their frozen tombs by hydrogen bombs (and man’s nefarious hubris) and driven to stomp, smash, and skewer. Granted, the thrill of the fright was often diluted by the implausibility of the plots or the wooden acting or the dead (and not in a good way) dialogue—or, frequently, all three—but underneath all of the amateurishness there was still the tingle of good old terror. In retrospect, this more than occasional improbability likely aided in maximizing the films’ fright values. If I hadn’t been intermittently reminded that the werewolf looked more like a college football team’s overly furry, frowning mascot than a half-man, half-wolf killing machine or been made suspicious of those flying saucers that resembled the tinfoil pie plates my mother used for her baking, I might not have been able to stay plunked in front of the television until movie’s end. A little bit of laughter—especially derisive laughter—help makes the terror go down.

With films that featured ghosts, exorcisms, or the occult, however, things could be more complicated. There was still a fair share of cinematic clunkers, spirits that went boo-boo instead of Boo! in the night, but there were also movies like The Changeling, The Exorcist, and The Haunting, films where the production values were high, the acting was professional, and, most importantly, the writing was generally first-rate. (First-rate for a horror film—any genre film or book is necessarily limited by existing within a genre, with all of its stylistically restrictive conventions.) Because the movies seemed real, so did the terror. In addition, the fright value of a satanically possessed child or a haunted house wasn’t generated by “look-out-behind-you!” suspense or blood-and-guts shock and gore, but by things, for the most part, unseen. Unseen and therefore impossible to unequivocally deny. Dracula and zombies and pissed-off mummies were fun to pretend to believe in, were the paranormal price one paid for a ticket on a day-trip aboard the supernatural express, with stops along the way at Death, Decay, and Dread, but no one believed in vampires and the resurrected recently deceased. Not really. But demons and lost souls . . .

Aside from absorbing the usual amount of Christian conditioning that goes with growing up in North American society, religion-wise, I was raised working-class, small-town Canada circa the 1970s: God means Love and be nice to other people and they’ll (probably) be nice to you and beware of all those spouting Holy Joe hocus-pocus. For the most part, I was a contented believer in non-belief. But one couldn’t really know for sure, could one? Not 100%. That just because we don’t see something—particularly something chill-inducing—it wasn’t real. That the fear brought on by a dark room at the top of the stairs, a strange sound in the middle of the night, a well-told ghost story that someone claimed actually happened, wasn’t rooted in a strange, inexplicable, but bona-fide reality. Hamlet wasn’t on my reading list until Mr. Rose’s Grade Thirteen English class, but “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” could have appeared on the television screen prior to the start of every Saturday night horror film and I would have nodded away in at least partial understanding.

Later on, as one gradually grows more cognizant of death and the genuinely frightening, as opposed to cinematically-fabricated, consequences of mortality (that’s it, that’s all, there ain’t any more), there’s even an appealing logic to the likely illogicality of ghosts and demons and three-day exorcisms. On the one hand, a gleefully sadistic, projectile-vomiting, profanity-spewing possessed person can ruin your entire day (my parents saw The Exorcist when it was released over forty years ago and remember one viewer vomiting in disgust in the aisle and two couples having to flee the theatre out of fright). On the other hand, if the devil exists, ergo, God (however defined) does too. If there’s evil on the other side, that means there is another side. Monsters make metaphysics possible. Because there’s something even more terrifying than heads spinning around on their owner’s necks and houses that want you to vacate them strongly enough that blood flows from the shower faucet and the walls whisper your name: nothingness. Confronted with death’s promise of never-ending nothing, the devil can be a comforting thought.

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Selected Stories 1982-2012
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