Sunday, September 10, 2023

My Corona Diary (Take XLIV): I Got Ambushed At The Banana Aisle, And Then...


<"Close Encounter
(Of The Unwelcome Kind)/Take I"
The Reckoner>

I often get recognized around my little town, though it's not because of any red carpet magic that I've worked. It goes with the journalistic territory, where you deal with people from all walks of life. More often than not, your face -- or the work you've done -- sticks in their brain, which results in close encounters with your readers, or subjects.

Most are positive and rewarding, such as the Black veteran's daughter I met at a medical clinic for people who lacked  adequate coverage -- or cash -- for specialized services, like dental care. She credited my article, and her quotes, with prodding the VA into helping her father get services that had been languishing in red tape.

Some are stressful and disturbing. Call it a cliche, but you always stumble across the aggrieved CEO or county politico at the grocery store, right after your paper runs a story that really pisses them off, triggering the inevitable, "You'll-never-work-in-this-town again" speech. 

Others fall into the head-scratching category, which is how I'd describe what happened a couple Saturdays ago, at Murrow's Frugal Acres.  I was toddling around on my cart, when a woman with frizzy blonde hair rushed into my line of sight. "Danny?" she said.

"Sorry, my name isn't Danny," I responded.

"Well, you remind me of him. You look like a musician..."

Oh, Lord, here we go, I tell myself. Outwardly, I smile. "Lots of people tell me that. Anyway, I do know Danny, and he is a friend of mine. We met at one of The Stables' open mike nights."

"The Stables? I haven't been there in a long time. Are they still around?" the woman asks.

"They just celebrated their eighteenth anniversary, so yes, they're still around."

"Oh, that's cool." We blah-blah-blah a little bit more, until  she jabs her finger in the air, and asks, "You're still wearing the mask? You know it's not effective."

I smile indulgently, though she can't see it behind the mask. "If it was good enough for folks in 1918, it's good enough for me," I respond.

"Well, this might help you..." She whips out a folded piece of paper from her purse, and pushes it into my hand. "You know what Zooms are, right?" I nod. "Well, I'm hosting one for this particular product, which might change your life."

I take the paper, and stick it in my pants pocket. "Sure, I'll check into it, and see if I can make it. Thanks so much."

With that, I say goodbye, and head from the banana aisle, to the bread counter, where the Squawker's waiting for me to continue today's shopping trip. Just as we're about to launch ourselves to the frozen foods cases, I hear a man's voice call out behind me: "Don't listen to her!"

<"Close Encounter
(Of The Unwelcome Kind)"/Take II: The Reckoner>

I turn around, and see the sixtysomething gent who'd been rearranging the bananas, moments before the woman ambushed me. "Say what? Excuse me?"

"You know the masks work. They are safe, and they do make a difference, right?" he asks.

"Oh, don't worry about it," I reassure him. "I wasn't going to take it off, and I'm not going to this Zoom session, or whatever it is she's pushing. I was just being polite."

The man flashes me a knowing smile. "Good."

"Yeah, it's like when the neighborhood cat lady follows you around the parking lot, demanding that you sign her latest petition against something-or-other," I continue. "It's not worth the headache to argue about it. I just listen, and go on my way."

"OK, great. You have a good day now!"

I unfold the paper, and steal a quick glance at  it, as I rejoin the Squawker. The Zoom session is pushing a skincare product or supplement of some sort, plus a "workshop experience."

I've seen this come-on many times. You bait the hook by dangling some type of freebie out to the fish (the skincare cream), as a lead-in to your real purpose -- the seminar or workshop or whatever alleged life-altering experience it is, that costs a fair bit of loot to attend. 

But if they do show up, and/or pay, it presumably opens the door to bigger, badder and costlier come-ons, all designed to lighten the wallet. The trick is to seem low-key and neighborly enough, so you won't see any of this coming, until you've stuck around a little bit.

<Do Not Pass Go 
(Hit 'Em Up For $200..."/The Reckoner>

As our trip continues, I notice the woman stopping to hit up other customers. Some listen closely, or so it seems, while others give her pitch short shrift, as I hear one irritated woman declare: "Sorry, I really don't have much time. I gotta go."

That's when the penny drops. The Murrow's trip is really just an excuse for this woman to hit people up with her well-oiled pitches, all tailored to the appearance and demeanor of whoever she's decided to bushwack.

For me, it must have been my hair, which cued up her opening line ("You look like a musician"). Those who don't share my apparent rock star looks get a different pitch, I'm sure.

It's also a pretty brazen act, since most businesses don't want people hitting up their customers -- hence, the "NO SOLICITING" sticker you'll invariably see plastered on the entrance doors. If anyone caught the woman working her pitch, they'd shoo her out on the spot, and probably slap a permanent ban on her presence.

Then again, there are probably aren't a lot of managers actually running a store this large. If my apartment complex thinks one maintenance man can handle four massive buildings, I shudder to think of what kind of logic Murrow's might be using to justify a similar maneuver.

At any rate, I doubt the Pitch Lady -- make that, Virtual Cat Lady (Zoom Session Style) -- notices, nor cares. Whether it's some type of questionable side hustle, or she thinks it's the dream gig of a lifetime, I can't really tell, but her body language and insistent tone suggest that she's digging in for a long stay.

She's not resting until she's hustled everyone pausing to recheck their grocery list, it seems. At any rate, the Squawker and I pass her by, staring silently ahead. I avoid making eye contact (successfully), and leave her to get on with it.

Like I told the older gent, I don't want to get sucked into an endless, circular argument that goes nowhere, and resolves nothing.

There's a Joe Walsh album title that sums up these unwelcome random encounters better than I ever could, and it goes like this: You Can't Argue With A Sick Mind. So there you go, then. May you dodge your cat ladies more successfully than I seem to manage these days . --The Reckoner

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Life's Little Injustices (Take XX): "We Moved Out, Because We Had No Choice"

 Oh, Saturday night
Mmm, everyone's having fun
I'm down at the laundromat
Trying to get my washing done

Time and time again
Watching the clothes go 'round
Another week sees its end

Watching the clothes go 'round
Watching the clothes go 'round

<The Pretenders:
"Watching The Clothes">

A couple Sundays ago, I happen to be wrapping up my weekly pile of laundry, when a couple of older women enter the room.

For much of my time here, our laundry room has served as a monument to how ancient civilizations lived -- as the twin presences of the '60s-era cigarette machine, and '80s-era pop machine, can attest.

Both took up an enormous amount of space, for the longest time, until somebody or other finally removed them. And, oh yeah, the laundry's on the second floor. Who does that nowadays?

Another reminder of the Mike Brady Era of Architecture, when nobody bothered about such things. Ah, they'll trudge up the stairs. They'll curse under their breath, but they'll put up with it. They won't have any other choice.

Anyway, I'm minding my own business, like usual. Two drying cycles have come to a halt, at last. Time to start folding and stuffing clothes into the cobalt blue cart that helps me haul them back and forth. 

Just when I look up again, I notice two women -- this one, sixtysomething, with fair white hair, that one, taller and stockier, in her forties, with braided brown hair, also wearing glasses -- bent intently over the washers.

They seem like a mother and daughter team. I watch them study the washer controls for a couple more minutes. Finally, I speak up. Must be new arrivals, I told myself. They don't know that management switched over the machines, from coins to e-cards, a couple years back.

"If you're trying to decide between medium or heavy, the only difference is the time, honestly," I say. "They just raised it a quarter not too long ago." (I now pay $2 per load, per washer.)

"Oh, thanks." Mom flashes a quizzical look. "We just moved here a couple weeks ago, so we're still figuring everything out."

"Well, in that case, welcome," I answer. "What brings you both here, if you don't mind me asking?"

Now it's the Daughter's turn to sigh. "We were both renting a house, until the owner decided to sell it..."

Mom finishes the thought. "And didn't want to rent it anymore." She frowns, as the memory seems to flash, still fresh, still raw, across her lips. "They waited until our lease was up to tell us, too."

"Lovely timing, as usual," I agree. "Nice of them, wasn't it? No worries, I get it. I've heard a few stories like that, in my time."

"Yeah, that's how it worked out," Daughter says. "We moved out, because we had no choice. We had to find another place quick, and this is where we ended up."

"A familiar story. Well, good luck, then," I say. "If you need to know how anything else really works around here..." I've been here awhile, so I've seen a few changes in my time."

"Will do," Daughter says. "Thanks for your help."

I watch them load the washer, slam the lid shut, and leave, without another word. I wheel my cart behind them, following in their footsteps, as the clock ticks on. "There goes my Saturday night, without a fight," just like the song says: it's almost midnight. A
s usual, I have way too much work to do. --The Reckoner

Links To Go (Hurry, Hurry,
Before Another Spin Cycle Betrays You Again...)

The Pretenders: Watching The Clothes:

Support National Rent Control (Don't Let Landlords Stuff The Ballot Box!)


<Screenshot from the More Perfect Union 
mini-documentary (see below)>

Picking up from our last post, I want to call another opportunity to your attention, one that will prove interesting to those who follow housing issues. This email bulletin came through People's Action, a million-strong grass roots organizing group with 38 member organizations in 28 states.

Tomorrow (Monday, July 31) is the deadline to voice support for rent control and tenant protections that the Federal Housing Financing Authority (FHFA) is considering -- including a ban against evictions without good cause, limits on rent hikes, and standardized leases. These changes would affect landlords who receive federal financing, in an estimated 12.4 million apartment units nationwide. 

For those who don't already know, the FHFA is the entity tasked with regulating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose money has been used to buy apartment complexes like so many dominoes (see More Perfect Union documentary link below), one of the most obscene aspects of the whole skyrocketing rent craze. Are the FHFA proposals some type of atonement, or a tacit admission of guilt? Either way, it works for me.

Now comes the sticky part, as Peoples Action's email details: "In a callous and greedy move, corporate landlords are flooding the comment portal, opposing tenant protections, and trying to drown out the voices of hundreds. It's critical that they hear from you." Here is the place to do it:

Landlord industry groups have spent $10 million lobbying against the proposals. That's an awful lot of legalized bribery, though nothing on the scale of the pharmaceutical and healthy product industry's spending spree ($372 million alone in 2022, according to Open Secrets).

How typical of the bastards to pull these stunts, isn't it? The only democracy they understand is the one they can buy off the rack. The only representatives they respect are those they can bribe unconditionally, intimidate absolutely, or control completely. The only concept of civic engagement that interested them is the sound of the coins clanking into their perennially overstuffed, bottomless money bins.

All of their noxious, malicious, feral notions of unimpeded and unrestrained commerce are directed toward feeding the monstrous status quo that empowers them at our expense. As Shane McGowan puts it: "Greed knows no boundaries, greed does not feel." 

Obviously, this type of proposal is only a starting point for what should happen nationally. That's of the great curses of our system, with all its endless Rube Goldberg mechanisms -- like the Electoral College -- designed to thwart the most badly needed changes.

All of us need basic protections against these predatory operations, not just those living in federal housing. Otherwise, we're doomed to playing a perennial game of 50-State Whack-A-Mole, which benefits the monied interests and their deep-pocketed far right allies -- the same ones who brought us the "Corporations are people, too" logic that saddled us with the infamous Citizens United ruling.

The other obvious thing that needs to happen is getting the next generation -- the voices of the Tennessee Three, and others like them -- into power sooner, rather than later, and finally start nudging all these Boomer politicians off the national stages that they've hogged for decades. Obviously, getting that goal done is a much bigger job, but a necessary one, too.

The flipside of the argument is that we have to take our opportunities when they pop up, to negate whatever ballot stuffing that these outfits are trying to do. So take some time to review the video link -- there's lots of good info there, I've seen it -- and crank up that Pogues song, as you fill out your comments. as Peoples Action asks us to do:

"We know that the rent is STILL too damn high. And we know that this is flexible, so we will keep fighting for our rights and our homes. These proposed tenant protections are a critical step toward holding greedy corporate landlords accountable, and your voice needs to be heard."

To which I can only say, "Amen, and then some." You don't have to be religious to get behind that sentiment. Still, it's fair to say that if Jesus ever returns, in all of his apocalyptic glory, he'll likely send landlords and their corporate allies tumbling into the Lake of Fire first -- before he gets around to the other sinners on his list. --The Reckoner

Too much pressure, and 
all them certain kind of people
Too much pressure, them having it easy
Too much pressure, them having it easy
Too much pressure, them sail through life

Too much pressure, them have no joy
Too much pressure, them have no joy
It's too much pressure, it's too much pressure

Links To Go (Hurry, Hurry,
Before Your Rent Goes Up Yet Again):

More Perfect Union:

The Pogues: Bastard Landlord:

Looking For A Picket Line? The AFL-CIO Has Your Bat-Signal

"There is power in the factory, power in the land,
Power in the hands of the worker...
But it all amounts to nothing,
if together we don't stand:
There is power in a union..."
<Billy Bragg: "There Is Power In A Union">

I've been on various mailing lists for as long as I've surfed the 'net, and the AFL-CIO happens to be one of them. This latest nugget of theirs, which I got last week, really got my attention, though -- it's a link to find strikes that they've authorized, which you can check out right here:

To find out about all strikes happening across the U.S., click  this map from Cornell, via its niftily-named Labor Action Tracker:

Whichever one you click, there's a fair amount going on, as you can easily see. The entertainment industry strike is obviously the hottest one of the moment, by no means the only action that's happening. 

The AFL-CIO link also offers various resources to follow up, and show solidarity, to make its link even more relevant and valuable -- like the Tom Morello tune, which I have to check out yet, as well as advice, contacts, and other organizing tools.

Overall, it looks like a neat package, and it's certainly good to see organized labor flexing some kind of muscle again, after decades of dormancy, and continued attempts to dismantle unionism as a political force -- which is always a precondition for wannabe authoritarians, like Donald Trump, or the water carriers he jammed onto the so-called Supreme Court, like Sam "I Love Giant Salmon" Alito.

Or maybe we can call him "Scandal-ito," for short? At any rate, whatever gets you to click that link, don't ever forget the central premise, as the AFL-CIO expresses it:

"Working people want safe jobs with good health care, flexibility, sick leave, and where they feel respected and valued."

Now there's a bottom line that we can all get behind! On your mark, get set...start clicking! --The Reckoner

Links To Go: Get Organized (Not Atomized):

Billy Bragg: There Is Power In A Union:
Why The Current Supreme Court Is A Threat To Democracy: There Is Power In A Union:

(*Remember, folks -- this analysis came out before we heard about their giant salmon, giant stogies, and all the other extravagant bribes lavished on these right-wing culture warriors they've installed there! 

(But, worth a read, all the same, to remind us what we're fighting for, all the same -- the curbing of all this unchecked corporate power, and the brutalist architecture on which it depends to function.)

Sunday, July 23, 2023

My Corona Diary (Take XLIII): Earth To God/Satan, Your Latest Poll Numbers Look Wobbly

<"The Road To Hell (Blah, Blah, Blah...)":
The Reckoner>

We've all been hearing a lot about poll numbers lately, which isn't a surprise, with the another Presidential donnybrook looming only five months from now. Amid the usual chatter about the usual suspects, and the usual subjects (Trump's numbers rising, despite indictments; DeSantis's standing continues to shrink; voters feeling dour about a Biden-Trump rematch), it seems that God and Satan might want to check their latest numbers, too.

At least, that's the conclusion of a Gallup poll of May 1,011 adults, conducted May 1-24, Yahoo reports. Seventy-four and 69 percent of adults believe in God and Heaven, respectively. However, belief in Hell and the Devil clocked in lower, at 59 and 58 percent, respectively.

Across the board, Gallup continues to record decreasing belief in God and Heaven (16 points), Hell (12 points), and the Devil, and angels (10 percent), since the venerable pollster began tracking the issue in 1944. Lower income and less educated Americans are more likely to believe in a higher power; so are older people, Republicans, women, and those who already attend church. Belief runs lower among Democrats and independents, making all those Republican jibes against "godless liberals" seem less stereotypical than you'd think.

Overall, about 17 percent of us pooh-pooh any connection to the Almighty, the lowest such percentage recorded. That's a big change from the 98 percent who declared belief in God, which held until 2011, when it dipped below 90 percent of the time -- and this year, when it fell to 81 percent.

What accounts for these changes? You could chalk it up some of it to weariness over the constant barrage of historic events we're being forced to witness, over and over and over, like some horrible "Saturday Night Live" sketch from the show's direst season. The COVID-19 bomb, I suspect, prompted similar outcries to those caught on the wrong end of events like World War II.

"If God can intervene, 
why doesn't he do it? 
Where is he? 
What's taking so long?"

<"God's Not In Right Now, So..."/The Reckoner>

Somehow, though, I don't think that's the whole story, honestly. Personal trauma, or failure to navigate it, does play a role in loss of belief, or a switch to one that seemingly squares better with the arbitrary logic of whatever current events we're experiencing.

But I've also come to believe that how people experience their faith has some bearing on when and where they part company with it. We've all seen this movie before, at churches that we've previously attended. You know the scenes by heart, like the cheeky, chirpy young woman who rushed to welcome you, hot coffee in hand, at that first worship service.

There's also the low-key, graying, fifty- or sixtysomething longtimer who serves on all the committees that matter, and those that don't, amid dropping subtle hints about "opportunities for service" (because you haven't realized yet, with so many comings and goings, few stick around to serve for long).

Let's not forget the endless stream of soccer moms, with herds of children to supervise, and well-heeled Boomer men, who tell you more about their investment and landscaping priorities than you could ever imagine, or want to hear again.

But you smile and shrug roll your eyes on your own time, because you want to make connections, right? You go along to get along, and all that.

As the weeks and months of services, committee meetings, movie nights, and other assorted events unfolds, you get used to seeing these new faces, till they're practically part of the furniture, day...they're gone... and you don't see them anymore. They disappear into some twilight area, and are usually not mentioned again.

"What happened?" you ask yourself. "Where they did go, exactly?" Sometimes, you hear the whole story -- so-and-so got divorced, followed a new job, or just moved away -- but more often not, you're left to fill in the blanks yourself

I remember three women in our congregation, who decided to celebrate Women's Month by filming a video, singing some popular song whose name escapes me now. By the time we actually got to see it, they were all long gone. 

<"Satan's Not In Right Now, So..."/The Reckoner>

Such news amounts to a humorous footnote, but it makes for a slightly concerning one, too. When I sorted out what had happened, I found myself thinking, "What brought on that development? Did we scare them off, somehow?"

I'm seeing these divides in my own household, as The Squawker finds our congregation's progressive posture increasingly at odds with more traditional Christian beliefs that have lain dormant for five or six years. On the other hand, I may end up staying, simply because I like most of the people. They've treated us well.

The interactive aspects of our church remain a major draw for me, too. Our services are lay led, meaning the congregation plays a role in planning them, and members can give brief talks (myself included). Our minister shortens his own sermon, one that seldom breaks the 10- or 15-minute mark, or even skips it, if we're running short on time, since we still do hybrid services (in-person and Zoom).

That's a sea change from more traditional (read: stodgier) churches I've experienced, where the minister drones for 45 minutes at a stretch, and rarely allows anyone to get a word in edgewise during other activities, like Bible studies. 

I don't want to endure that situation again, and The Squawker has promised not to take me back there, if I end up leaving later.

On the flipside, we owe some $600 in pledges from last year. Between the usual bills, and all the greedflation that we're seeing -- those $4.50 cartons of milk here, $7 mayo jars there -- I have no idea how we're going to make it up, since I have a contract job that ends Friday. 

Did we bite off more than we could chew, pledging X amount of dollars a week? Maybe. Possibly. I guess. But like so many others, I never saw those $7 mayo jars coming. 

At the same time, it's a strangely familiar experience. It reminds me of a telling conversation that I had with a previous minister, the kind who often intoned, "If you don't work, you don't eat," even as he promoted a 10 percent tithe that I couldn't afford, and the sort of Republican politics that I couldn't stand. 

Whenever those awkward subjects came up, I typically responded, "The sad fact is, you can work your damnedest, and hardest, and still starve, through no fault of your own."

Or, as I told other gung ho evangelicals I'd encounter in my travels: "I have no doubt that God will provide. Whether I can work on his budget, or his schedule, is an altogether different matter entirely." Apparently, Gallup has drawn similar conclusions, judging by their summary paragraph:

"And while belief in God has declined in recent years, Gallup has documented steeper drops in church attendance, church membership and confidence in organized religion, suggesting that the practice of religious faith may be changing more than basic faith in God."

In short, the same advice still goes whether it's giving an old favorite's latest, greatest recorded masterpiece one more chance, or sticking with a church that you somehow still love, or have merely come to tolerate -- let your heart be your guide, and sometimes, your gut. That's all you can do these days. --The Reckoner

Links To Go (And Now, For Some Suitable
Soundtrack Music For You Swinging Non-Believers):

Gallup: Belief In God Dips
To 81% In US, A New Low:

Ian Hunter: God (Take I) (with lyrics!):

The Livingroom Busker: isgodaman (Cover Version!):

The Snivelling Shits: isgodaman:

The Snivelling Shits: Lyrics: isgodaman:

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

O Beautiful For Spacious Skies (Say What?): Reclaiming Our Democratic Heritage

Our July 4, 2020 Cartoon:
"Happy Birthday, Dear America,
Happy Birthday To Us..."/The Reckoner
Take II: Above
Take I: Below

Another Fourth of July is upon us, with all the familiar images and rituals that accompany it, from the massive outdoor orchestral concerst televised on PBS; the parades and picnics held in or around cemeteries of long-dead soldiers; and the President, whoever it happens to be, saluting the enormous responsibility of safeguarding our democratic heritage, in a suitably solemn backdrop, such as Arlington National Cemetery.

The homespun simplicity of such images is enduring and appealing, even reassuring, for millions who associate the Fourth with a more basic appeal: a day or two off. It marks one of the few times that the hamster wheels of America's economy go on pause. If the Fourth falls on a Thursday, or Friday, so much the better. At many jobs, it may even mean the possibility of a three- or four-day weekend.

So much the better for the little man, right? Yet our democracy has never seemed less responsive, never seemed more dysfunctional, never shown more signs of sclerosis. The old hippie rallying cries of "We want the world, and we want it now," or "Never trust anybody over 30," seem little more than quaint punchlines in a landscape dominated by 70-year-old rock stars who no longer release new albums, and near 90-year-old Senators, who no longer move significant new bills.

It's a culture also built on enshrined mediocrity, and repackaged banality, as we see from Fall Out Boy's cover of the Billy Joel Baby Boomer infomercial, "We DIdn't Start The Fire." Nobody expected it, and nobody asked for it, but thanks to the Internet, it's carpet bombing our brains into submission, anyway -- complete with clanking rhyme schemes, and key events jumbled in random order, guaranteeing a seat-shifting experience for anyone who hears it. because Cut, print, and roll out the crime scene tape (but not here -- you can find that version on your own, if you must!).

Once again, Billy and his brethren have a lot to live down. So do unrepentant fossils like Senator Charles Grassley, of Iowa, who ran for re-election last fall, at the ripe old age of 89. Other than his donors, I suspect, nobody asked for it, and nobody wanted it; yet there he sits, anyway, enshrined in the Beltway crypt that he's comfortably inhabited for decades.

Ditto for Grassley's dysfunctional twin, DIanne Feinstein, of California, whose physical and mental decline seems painfully apparent, to any reasoned observer. Yet she refuses to step down, apparently resigned to sequestering herself amid a phalanx of longtime aides, who presumably don't want to do what everyone else must, in such situations -- that is, look for a job.

Yet no mechanism to ensure a smooth transition exists, other than somehow persuading her "to do the right thing," and retire now, so that Governor Gavin Newsom can appoint one of the previously announced candidates, Barbara Lee, Katie Porter, or Adam Schiff, to the seat. Any of them would mark a major upgrade from "Di-Fi," whose  practical and political relevance expired long ago. But first, we endure the gruesome public spectacle of her ongoing decline, until she herself finally passes from the scene. A culture of learned helplessness demands no less, even though it requires little else.

Our July 4, 2021 Cartoon:
"So You Just Bought That?"/The Reckoner:

"My Corona Diary (Take XXXIII):
Fourth Of July Notes:
(The Long Arc Bends Towards Justice? Suuuure...")

Our current stasis seems especially painful, when we consider how much damage the so-called U.S. Supreme Court continues to inflict on the fabric of our democratic framework. You can start with the fall of Roe v. Wade last year, or its newly-concluded term, where an increasingly imperial court took a wrecking ball to affirmative education in higher education, public accommodations protections, and student loan debt relief.

The court's 6-3 rejection of President Biden's plan exemplifies the reactionary right's capacity for raising chutzpah to breathtaking heights. Much of the case focused on standing to sue, yet the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority had nothing to do with the legal challenge to Biden's plan, of which it only learned through news reports (see link below).

What's more, the authority hadn't paid into the state's student loan fund in 15 years, nor did it intend to; but no matter. For 45 million borrowers, their indentured servitude will continue, even as those who spiked their relief remain radio silent about the fairness of subsidizing the uber-rich -- the same ones, remember, who captured the federal courts, and loathe paying taxes, in any form.

A similar critique holds for the 6-3 decision in Creative v. Elenis, in which the court supported a fundamentalist website creator's alleged fear that the mere prospect of providing her services for gay people might chill her free speech rights. This, even though the New Republic found that "Stewart," the man cited in the complaint, had never actually contacted the designer; this, even though he was married -- to a woman (see Yahoo News links below).

No matter. Elenis highlights a different problem, one that starts with the manipulation of simple facts, and rapidly escalates to the corruption of the so-called Justices -- whether it's Clarence Thomas, in accepting decades of luxury travel to settings like Indonesia and the Adirondacks -- thanks to a billionaire benefactor with a fetish for collecting Nazi memorabilia -- or his equally grease-coated counterpart, Sam Alito, for gallivanting to Alaska on the private jet of a different billionaire who successfully steered cases to him.

Ah, you may ask, so what about the handful of voting rights victories that also came last week? Yes, the court's rejection of gerrymandered maps in Alabama and Louisiana is a much-needed win for Black political power. And true, the court's curt dismissal of the far right fringe's "independent state legislatures doctrine" in Harper v. Moore provides appropriate "Trump-proofing" for 2024, should the Orange Menace return to haunt us for another presidential election.

However, weighed against the scale of the court's overall corruption -- much worse than previously acknowledged -- these victories, such as they are, seem more like cynical damage control exercises, orchestrated by "Chief Justice" John Roberts. As Pro Publica's recent expose makes plain, the "Justices" work for the billionaires who bribe them, no more, no less.
Always keep this reality in mind, when you view their latest handiwork.

To put it another way, the enemy of your enemy isn't always our friend. That Roberts prefers to roll back commonly held rights at a relatively slower pace than his more combative-minded colleagues, like Alito or Thomas, is  like saying that you prefer to eaten by a crocodile, instead of a great white shark. And even then, what doesn't kill you doesn't always make you stronger. Sometimes, it will kill you, without firing a shot.

Our Lead Image, July 4, 2022:
Found on Facebook (I changed the color)

As badly as the current Supreme Court is surely behaving, they -- and the Corporations Are People Too Crowd, who happily subsidize its Nero-esque excesses -- would hardly get away with so much, if we had a political class capable of correcting the problems.

Such notions seem fanciful and magical, given the various penalty boxes that the Democratic Party have inhabited since the mid-2010s -- starting with the abuse of the filibuster, that makes 60 votes the price of doing even the most routine business. The stalling of 250 military nominations by Alabama insurrectionist Senator Tommy Tuberville, followed by the public vow of his Ohio counterpart, JD Vance, to hold up future Department of Justice nominations, are just the latest, unhappy expressions of this syndrome.

The resulting legislative permafrost, aggravated by a paper-thin 51-49 Democratic majority, also makes it impossible to address the other penalty box -- the aggressive abuses of power through gerrymandering and supermajorities, a related problem that is equally noxious, but only now beginning to get the same degree of scrutiny.

Six states (Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia) have Republican supermajorities of 70 percent or greater -- meaning, they can pass whatever legislation they wish, and override any veto that comes -- which makes extreme politics more routine, and more rampant. Twenty-eight states in all -- 19 Republican, eight Democratic -- have supermajorities. You can hardly blame people who live in such climates for viewing their votes as theoretical exercises.

The more I watch the antics of the current political class, however, the more convinced I become that a new generation will have to clean up whatever current messes it leaves them to inherit. Consider President Biden's continuing dismissal of calls to expand the Supreme Court, even after he criticizes its latest judicial output: "This is not a normal court." That begs a logical question: if the court is so abnormal, surely, isn't it high time to actually begin doing something about it?

Try to imagine a Republican President taking such a passive stance in a similar situation. No past examples, nor similar images, will come to mind. However, inert expressions of outage, like Biden's above-referenced, represent the Minimum Payment Thinking that bedevils the Democratic Party, whose elders remain frozen in some 1990s-era time warp -- when lesser evil politics became standard operating procedure, one deemed sufficient to continue doing business. It wasn't then, and isn't so now.

When any organization's prevailing mantra becomes, "Wow, we sure dodged a bullet," or, "All things considered, it could be worse," it should hardly come as a surprise when your enemies come calling to feast on whatever flesh they haven't already pulled from your bones. Or, as Winston Churchill so aptly put it: "An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last."

<July 4, 2023:
"You Broke It, You Bought It"/Take I: The Reckoner>

Apparently, I am not alone in expressing doubt whether July Fourth is really the "New Year's Eve of the summer," as one doubter tells the New York Times (see below). So where does this roll call of repressive consequences leave us on this particular Fourth of July, as we near the 250th year of our democratic existence? We cannot leave it there, nor should we. Yet overturning it won't come without recognizing some inconvenient truths; call them the price of reclaiming our democratic heritage. How, then, do we go about it?

It will require a readiness to push back harder against a mainstream media that still treats authoritarian wannabes like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis as conventional candidates with a few rough edges. The stakes are too high to repeat the blinkered narratives of 2016, that yielded blanket coverage of Hillary Clinton's emails, the scandal that never was, yet ignored Trump's unwillingness to release his tax returns -- for reasons that only became clear six years later, when House Democrats finally obtained them. A democracy cannot function under a backdrop of delay, delay, and delay.

It will require promoting a grass roots resistance that shouldn't feel shy of demanding more from its uninspired leadership. One of the biggest mistakes that progressives consistently make is giving up whatever leverage they gain, in exchange for vague promises that never materialize; the sacrificing of the COVID-era child tax credit is one of many unhappy such examples. If you don't want to be treated like a cheap date, don't continue enabling the behavior.

It will require jolting the Democratic Party leadership out of its "lesser evil" comfort zone, and into a more activist mindset that doesn't always settle for doing the bare minimum legislatively, and calling it a day. We will never reach the more transformational political age that we hope to achieve, if all our aspirations begin and end with sentences like these: "It could always be worse," or, "We're not as horrible as they are." 

It will require a willingness to move beyond the transactional thinking that led to the Democratic Party during the 1990s and 2000s to downplay its traditional strength of building broad-based coalitions, in favor of chasing a different shuffle of dirty money (reactionary Big Tech Bros, instead of traditional pinch-nosed Big Business interests), and a newfound philosophy of passive, reactive thinking.

It will, most of all, require the inner strength to confront the various penalty boxes that we all inhabit -- the filibuster, the gerrymander, the supermajority, and twisting of federal courts to serve reactionary interests -- with their most potent antidotes, the powers of public opinion, and public pressure.  

The example of Martin Luther King is especially relevant here. As King often stated during his lifetime, he could never settle for a political strategy that enshrined the pursuit of legal reform at the expense of his greatest, most pressing priority -- that is, of mobilizing public opinion to strike at the roots of of
 entrenched inequality, and in doing so, drive a stake through its dark, toxic heart.

African Americans "must not get involved in legalism [and] needless fights in lower courts,"  King urged, which he saw as "exactly what the white man wants the Negro to do. Then he can draw out the fight." Without a commitment to direct action, King argued, nothing else that he and his mass movement hoped to achieve would ever happen: "Our job now is implementation... We must move on to mass every community in the South, keeping in mind that civil disobedience to local laws is civil obedience to national laws."

<"You Broke It, You Bought It," Take II/The Reckoner>

Thankfully, some groups of Americans are drawing comparable conclusions, and launching similar reclamation projects, without waiting for a suitable cue from some Beltway eldercrat. Start here in Michigan, a state that Trump carried in 2016 by just over 10,000 votes, where the governor, attorney general, and secretary of state were all Republicans, who also enjoyed majorities in the State House and Senate -- thanks to the usual artful gerrymandering -- and a majority on the Michigan Supreme Court.

Then came last November's midterm miracle, which landed with the most stunning results in Michigan. Voters decisively re-elected Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to second terms, and sent their election-denying, would-be authoritarian Republican opponents back to the belfry from which they emerged, and where they belonged.

Voters also gave control of the Michigan Supreme Court, and both state houses, back to the Democrats -- an event that would never have happened without the creation of an independent redistricting commission in 2018 -- and codified abortion rights into law, by decisive margins. The resulting momentum has led to the passage of many bills long stifled under Republican rule, such as the scrapping of right-to-work laws, measures to control gun violence, the end of taxes on pensions, and targeted tax relief for workers, among others.

A similar reclamation effort is underway in Minnesota, where Democrats also hold narrow majorities, including a one-vote margin in the State Senate. Sound familiar? Unlike their excuse-mongering counterparts on Capitol HIll -- whose trademark refrain, "We can't, we can't, we can't," rings hollow, over and over, like some pitiful broken record -- Minnesota Democrats simply got to work, resulting in a plethora of progressive legislation that is impressive, by any measure.

But all this legislative success would mean nothing, without Gopher State Democrats' willingness to pass measures that benefit the voters who put them in power. The Democratic Party of tomorrow cannot continue to look like the Democratic Party of yesterday, an entity content to hoard power purely for its own theoretical sake, as it has done, time and time again, in election after election.

And that reclamation may yet happen in Florida, where momentum is growing to place a measure enshrining abortion rights onto the 2024 ballot, an outcome that DeSantis and his allies will surely do everything to prevent. After all, they hold every lever of power that counts, right? But leave that image to one side, for the moment.

Imagine the embarrassment, the emotional hammer blow, the psychological jolt that the Tallahassee Mussolini and his fascist shock troops would feel, if Floridians ever pass such a measure. It would undercut the most potent argument in
Mad King Ron's arsenal -- that he alone can implement the MAGA agenda, without the baggage that dogs his rival, Donald Trump.

How could such an outcome happen, in a state that re-elected one of the nation's most reptilian politicians by a 20-point margin? As Ricky Ricardo might say, he'd have some 'splainin' to do, and it wouldn't sound convincing. But this where our hopes for reclamation start, in the knowledge that the most critical aspects of fascism are built on sand.

A nation cannot live in perpetual fear of some ill-defined "other," driven by a counterfeit moral panic, and an all-powerful ruler who demands absolute loyalty from the cult of personality that he's spent a lifetime building up, even as he and his underlings systemically steal whatever isn't nailed down.

That is the reality of illberal democracies like Hungary and Turkey, after all. Yet here in America, at least, no popular majority for any of those premises exists -- and that is where our hope still flickers, and our reclamation starts. To celebrate, or not to celebrate, is an individual decision.

But if we really want to ensure a better tomorrow, let us turn the page to July Fifth, and gear for the task that lies ahead. For there is much work to be done. The reclamation -- and, ultimately, in the long run, restoration -- of our demcoratic heritage demands nothing less. -- The Reckoner

Links To Go (Food For Thought)
Democracy Now: Supreme Court Case
To End Biden's Student Loan Cancellation Plan...:

Down WIth Tyranny:
Michigan Voters Are Too Savvy To Help Trump Win Again:

Illinois Institute of Technology:
Martin Luther King, Jr., The Law & The Courts:

The New York Times:
No Sparklers For These Folks:
Fraud Justice: Anti-LGBTQ Decision
Based On A Fake Case Showcases
The Supreme Court's Illegitimacy:
Two Anti-Equality Decisions 
Billionaires' Return On Supreme Court Investment

Friday, June 30, 2023

The Pitfalls Of Popcorn Fiction: Why I Don't Read James Herbert Nowadays


<'70s Cheesiness Incarnate: 
My original paperback copy of The Fog 
looked something like this...>

Last week, I sold three paperbacks that have been quietly gathering dust on my bookshelves since the '70s, all by the British horror writer, James Herbert. As I stated in my description, if you wanted a quick 'n' dirty introduction, this trilogy does the job: The Rats (1974), which launched him as a mass market phenomenon; The Fog (1975); and The Dark (1980). 

These books played a key role in my preteen literary soundtrack, when fantasy, horror, and sci-fi writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Clive Barker, James Herbert, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Stephen King ranked as must-buy, must-read affairs. My preferences also coincided with my interest in becoming a writer, one who'd presumably follow my heroes into the upper echelons of fantasy and weird fiction stardom.

ucking and dodging Herbert's giant, flesh-eating rats seemed like a more enjoyable pursuit than cranking out the next Great Expectations, or Great Gatsby -- which also grabbed me. But those works featured characters and settings that seemed distant and remote (the 1800s and 1920s, respectively). Like most 13- or 14-year-old boys, I felt too impatient to do the heavy research that such classic masterpieces invariably demand.

Such a task couldn't compete with the glamour of, say, writing the next Rats -- substitute giant sea slugs, spiders, squids, or some equally menacing, creepy-crawly creature -- and hoping to strike it rich, a fantasy undoubtedly fueled by blockbuster hits like Carrie (1976), Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1978), The Shining (1980), and so on.

The small screen had heated up, too. Revivals of classic shows like The Twilight Zone, and upstart series like Tales From The Crypt -- essentially, the horror equivalent of "The Love Boat," where many an out of work actor popped up -- were drawing viewers, and turning heads. Horror, sci-fi and weird fantasy were big business again, thanks to stronger storylines, and rapid advancements in special effects.

No longer did we need to giggle through the campy spectacle of some stuntman in a fuzzy suit, battling overripe dialogue, and glaring technical glitches. Authors and filmmakers now had to serve up a first-class escapist experience, and on a purely commercial level, James Herbert definitely delivered. His 23 novels racked up 54 million sales, with translations into 34 languages (including Chinese, and Russian).

Yet Herbert -- who died a couple weeks shy of his 70th birthday, in 2013 -- remained far bigger in the UK. I don't recall my classmates dropping his name, the way they dropped Stephen King's -- an ironic twist, given Herbert's tag as "the English Stephen King." And there lies the sting in this particular tale, that I'm about to unfold. Sit back, and while you're at it, pass the popcorn.

We've all heard of the "popcorn movie," right? It's a commonly coined critical term for unapologetic mass entertainment. It's the kind of film that says: Hey, schmuck! Have we got a story for you! For the next 90 minutes, you're ours, and we promise one hell of a thrill ride. Sit down, relax, and don't think about it too hard, or it all falls apart. And oh, yeah. Pass the popcorn.

By this definition, we can call James Herbert a popcorn writer, a quality that's vividly apparent in his second novel, The Fog. Essentially, it's a dystopian thriller about a mysterious yellow fog that drives all who encounter it to commit unspeakable acts of depravity and violence -- ranging from rape and murder, to spectacular orgies of mass destruction, as we'll see shortly.

The Fog follows John Holman, a government investigator trying desperately to unravel the chaos spiraling around him. For starters, why the fog hasn't affected him? Eventually, Holman works out that the fog is actually some kind of military experiment gone wrong, an inconvenient truth that his employer naturally wants to keep secret. 

Herbert intercuts Holman's detective forays with interludes of people doing unspeakable things to each other -- such as lesbianism, or so I conclude, after revisiting Chapter 10, which opens with a distressed young woman, Mavis Evers, as she's contemplating suicide on the beach, in the coastal resort town of Bournemouth.

The reason, we learn, stems from the manipulative cruelty of Ronnie, a childhood friend who wastes little time initiating Mavis into the wicked, wicked ways of Sappho -- as an impressionable eleven-year-old. (Ronnie's a year older, which seems sufficient to cast her as the dominant partner.)

We're then treated to a brief scene of mutual masturbation, with overripe language that wouldn't feel out of place in Penthouse Forum ("Ronnie had suddenly asked Mavis if she had ever touched herself. Perplexed, she had asked where?"). It's creepy, and distasteful, but thankfully, Herbert doesn't linger on it for long.

Once their sexual frolics cool down ("Mavis had been surprised and excited by the strange tingle that had run through her"), the steelier, worldlier Ronnie heads off to London, where Mavis encounters her again -- this time, as an impressionable 21-year-old who can't find a flat, or even a friend. Without missing a beat, Ronnie cheerfully invites Mavis to spend the night. Why, you might well ask, when they haven't seen each other for several years?

The reason for that proposition soon becomes apparent after Ronnie suggests a bath for her weary friend. With that stereotypical cue, it's back to Penthouse Forum-ville ("She opened her legs slightly, so that the journey would not be hindered -- and Ronnie was there"). Coded language abounds, such as the author marveling at how their couplings "excluded any artificial contrivances" -- he means sex toys, like dildos, right? It makes me chuckle, but apparently, even the likes of Herbert couldn't go there then. marking a rare show of restraint, for such a sensationalist writer.

What's notable is how long Herbert leers over these proceedings, which ramble on for several overheated pages -- a luxury that he doesn't allow his other major characters (at least, in these books). Even if you accept this scene as a means of fleshing out Mavis and Ronnie's backstory, it's still a jarring interruption. The Fog would fare just as well without it.

Once this final bit of softcore porn concludes, Herbert speeds the story off to its inevitable, stereotypical conclusion. Ronnie gradually begins to withdraw her affections -- at one point, even knocking Mavis to the floor, "screaming that she must never touch her again" -- before she lowers the boom on her clueless, largely passive partner, whom she's ditching for good. For a man, as it happens.

Philip, it seems, is waiting for Ronnie in his car, blissfully unaware of the double-dealing bedmate that he's about to inherit 
("He doesn't know about us, and I never want him to"). Cue one final kiss-off from Ronnie, which is revealing for what she doesn't say, once you've read between the lines: "Believe me, Mavis, I didn't want this to ever happen -- I didn't know it ever could -- but it's the right thing. I think we were wrong. Forgive me, darling. I hope someday you'll find what I have."

<Caught in the promotional crossfire:
A reluctant celebrity greets his public,
"This Is Your Life," circa 1995>

At this point in our proceedings, a more astute reader might well wonder if Philip won't end up as chopped liver himself, given Ronnie's transactional duplicity -- and honestly, why Mavis isn't reaching for the nearest kitchen knife? Or, at the least, asking for a wad of pound notes -- maybe the keys to Philip's car --  to seal her lips, and ensure her silence?

Of course not! This is a popcorn horror novel, so Mavis stays true to her passive remit. After spiraling into a total emotional breakdown, she's off to Bournemouth for one final march into the sea, to join thousands of countless other unfortunates, all frozen in some hellish trance ("Most of the people were in their nightclothes, some were naked, as though answering a call that Mavis neither saw nor heard").

As the water grows colder, darker, and deeper, Mavis experiences a change of heart -- but, in the end, her renewed will to live means nothing. She drowns anyway, unable to escape a final trampling amid countless other fog-crazed human lemmings ("She fell to her knees again, and this time, as she attempted to rise, other bodies fell on top of her. She squirmed around beneath the water, becoming entangled in other arms and legs").  

Of course, we already got a suitable whiff of the epitaph, several pages beforehand: "She finally recognized their affair for what it was -- two women living together in an abnormal relationship. She had never accepted the fact that she was homosexual, but somehow, Ronnie's leaving took away all the sensitivity of their mutual inclinations and revealed Mavis in her true light. A lesbian!"

It's impossible to miss the gleefully vicarious bigotry of such a passage, or this one, as the author delivers his final verdict on Ronnie's actions: "She had found a 'normal' love and left Mavis unwilling now for any other kind of love. What would she become? A lonely, embittered lesbian. She cried out in self-pity."

There you have it. This type of relationship is unhealthy, and if you desire one like it, you'll end up on the bottom of some English seabed or other. See, you don't have it so bad, boys and girls, Herbert suggests, with a wink, and a nod. Aren't you glad you're boring and normal, after all? But it's not the first time that he's stacked the deck this way, as we'll see in our next section.

<More '70s Cheese: The Rats, original front cover>

Before The Fog came The Rats, which sold 100,000 copies in just three weeks, and launched Herbert as a full-time writer. However, although Mavis and Ronnie's relationship doesn't survive, at least they get to experience a few moments of bliss, and lustful abandon.

No such pleasures await Henry Guilfoyle, a deeply closeted paper company salesman who loses his job after colleagues learn of his relationship with a much younger co-worker, on whom he's laser focused (
"And then he knew -- oh, that glorious moment when he really knew").

In just over six pages, Henry goes from a promising management candidate (
"large orders were coming in, and he saw Francis most every day and most evenings"), to a total outcast, targeted by crude bathroom graffiti ("How could they? How could they destroy their precious love like this? Dirty little minds coming in here, sniggering"). Today, we'd call this an example of outing, the popular term for a revelation of gender and sexuality without the affected person's foreknowledge, or agreement.

By page seven, Francis abruptly quits, unable to stand his colleagues' homophobic bullying, and Henry soon follows, "to lose himself in the quagmire of countless other disillusioned people" (fitting description of pre-punk London, isn't it?). When he's not sleeping rough, Henry focuses on taking whatever odd jobs he finds, to earn enough money for his next bottle of gin.

He even squeezes in the odd evening of light entertainment, though it's one that has more in common with the disgraced Pee Wee Herman's antics: "At one time he'd been able to fill his sexual needs in dusty old cinemas, sitting next to men of his own kind. Only twice had he been threatened, once very quietly with menace, the other time with much shouting and fist-waving, as eyes in the cinema centered on his shame." 

Telling, isn't it? Especially the description of Henry's newfound tribe -- who aren't even described as "fellow homosexuals," but "his own kind." That pronouncement follows reminders of his lack of hygiene ("his body smelt of grime in the market and the sheds where he slept"), a condition that kills what desirability he still has left. But that's what happens when you're "a kind," or an "other," something to be feared, hated, and shunned.

As miserable as Henry's post-work life has become, it pales compared to what awaits him next, when he sneaks into a crumbling inner city house for a quick drink. Henry wakes up from his stupor, to find London's finest super-vermin making short work of him, in just over a page  ("Rats! His mind screamed the words. Rats eating me alive. God, god help me"). 

The final epitaph for Henry -- now referred to only by his surname -- leaves little doubt about the futility of a life disrupted by his own transgressive tastes: "He died with no thoughts on his mind, not even of his beloved, forgotten Francis. Just sweetness, not even pain. He was beyond that." 

Like fellow traveler Mavis Evers, Henry dies knowing that the emptiness he feels picked up steam from a sexuality that he apparently had no business expressing, anyway. Why else would he come to such a sticky end, in a dirty, deserted, rat-infested house? 

<The Rats: Original rear cover edition>

Similar complaints of homophobia and lurid writing have dogged The Dark (1980), which I'm not exploring here, because frankly, I don't remember anything about it. Which says something about how little of an impression it made,  even at the time, and why I've turned to Google, to jog my memory.

The Dark focuses on Chris Bishop, a paranormal investigator who's looking into a malevolent darkness inhabiting a deserted house, that -- surprise! -- drives people to orgies of feral, amoral behavior, such as a stadium savaged by beserk soccer fans. (Hang on, doesn't that happen regularly over there? Right, never mind.
) Sounds very much like The Fog, only crossed with a touch of The X-Files.

The Dark marked a major shift from Herbert's earlier disaster-driven style, to a focus on religious and supernatural themes. As Herbert's commercial fortunes held, he even broadened his palette slightly, to alternative historical fiction. '48 (1996) imagines the maniacal German dictator, Adolf Hitler, unleashing a toxic plague on London, to avenge his crushing defeat.

(2012), his final offering, plunks the late Libyan dictator, Moammar Gadafi, down in a Scottish castle with Lord Lucan, press baron Robert Maxwell, Princess Diana, and her secret love child. Hmm... Maybe I should seek that one out, since it sounds rather different than his standard fare.

Whatever you take away from his books, though, don't expect much help from the author. The 23-minute Terry Wogan clip (see below) typifies the challenges that I encountered in trying to get the measure of the man -- who comes off as earnestly bland, low-key, a little vanilla, even.

The first half drags on, amid the usual banal shop talk ("If I'm in the study all day working, I'm 'James Herbert'" -- get this man the hook, Igor!). However, the temperature starts to rise when they're joined by a pair of mediums -- who plop on the couch, and argue passionately that they really can speak with the dead. For his part, Herbert mostly hangs back, though he tosses out an understated retort or two ("I'm not sure if it's quite the way you say it is").

It's left to Clive Barker, his younger, gayer counterpart, to
 inject whatever edge that the show has conspicuously lacked so far ("I don't argue that we go on," he tells the mediums. "Why do we hang around? That's the bit I don't understand"). Despite my best efforts, I haven't found out what Barker thought of his fellow author's depictions of "his own kind." But I can probably hazard a guess.

<"Lemme tell you about life with 'my own kind...'"
Clive Barker (left) and James Herbert (right) yuk it up
for Terry Wogan's Halloween special (10/31/88)>

The Dark didn't end up being the last Herbert novel that I read. That honor goes to The Magic Cottage (1986), the star of his so-called "supernatural period" -- though he'd mined those themes earlier, with The Survivor (1977), and Fluke (1978), about a killer dog. Wait, didn't Stephen King cover that, too, in Cujo? Right, never mind.

So why did I stop reading James Herbert, exactly? Punk rock happened, and then, life. in that order. Once I heard the Clash's and Sex Pistols's raging power chords, my tastes changed. I wanted to learn how to do that, instead. Suddenly, the image of hunching over a typewriter for hours on end, no longer seemed so appealing. My interests had taken a slight detour, if you will. I still planned on becoming a writer -- only one who'd also learn to perform, play guitar, and write songs.

My discoveries of punk, postpunk, and garage music also coincided with a family member struggling to cope with severe mental illness, an ordeal that lead to several hospitalizations during the late '70s and mid-'80s. Suddenly, the 3-D graphic scenarios of those books seemed so quaint, just so much old hat. They didn't resonate anymore for me.

So would I have kept reading Herbert, if those twin lightning bolts had never struck? No, because I'd worked out his bag of tricks, which were wearing thin. The best you can say for his style is that it's atmospheric, and efficient. At 186 pages, The Rats would rank as an outlier in today's literary scene, where authors routinely churn out epics of 600, 700, even 1,000-odd pages. 

Unlike those offenders, Herbert instinctively grasped that less is more, which I consider an outgrowth of his pre-fame career in advertising. Getting people to open their wallets is the game, so every image and syllable has to work toward that end. If your idea doesn't get people to buy, your boss won't let you try it again.

In hindsight, coming up in such a conversion rate-driven culture paid off handsomely for Herbert. If you're not fussy, and don't expect a lot, he gets the job done. That much seemed clear to me, when I reread sections of these books, before I slid them into the padded envelope. But if you want more than immediate gratification, you'll probably end up going elsewhere, after reading a book or two. 

For all the graphic energy that he pours into his gross-outs, Herbert often spaces out on surprisingly basic details. It's a tradeoff that only works if you don't think too hard -- 
 for instance, just how exactly does Mavis make it to Bournemouth, without showing any ill effects of the fog?

At other times, he struggles to breathe flesh and blood life into his characters. The stereotypical likes of Henry Guilfoyle, or Mavis and Ronnie, simply wouldn't fly in a pop culture where gays and lesbians now occupy major chunks of film and TV time. 

I get a similar vibe from heroes like Holman -- tough, practical men of action, who also seem cast of solid cardboard, unlike the clammy bureaucrats 
that they encounter, in book after book after book, when they're not rescuing girlfriends who seem little more than neurotic, needy accessories.

But that's the trouble with popcorn, isn't it? Once you've eaten enough kernels, you begin to yearn for something more substantial, and then you move on. Like I did. --The Reckoner

UK TV: Terry Wogan (Wogan Halloween, 10/31/88):