THE NIGHT WATCH (2006)

Sarah Waters often traffics in thrilling historical lesbian romances, which is obvious by the names of her earlier novels, such as TIPPING THE VELVET (1998) and FINGERSMITH (2002).

THE NIGHT WATCH (2006) is a bit of a detour, as it’s far more Dickensian — in spirit, not time as it takes place in various times before, during, and after World War Two in London — and far more of an ensemble, which features not only a lesbian couple, but also a straight couple, and one jailed man whose sexuality is slightly more complex. (There are additional supporting characters, but those are the major players.)

If that description sounds maddeningly vague, it’s by intent. THE NIGHT WATCH is incredibly restrained with doling out character particulars, and jumps around in years to intentionally provoke intrigue and drama, but also serves to contrast how these characters have coped with wartime and recovery.

In that sense, it feels remarkably relevant in this age of COVID-19, as you read how the characters shelter-in-place, experience how they put themselves at risk by venturing out into the world, tales of first responders, and the like. More than anything, it’s about living with an invisible threat while also living a hidden life, and yes, it’s just as loaded as it sounds.

While all of the characters are richly drawn, I can’t help but wish that Waters had dialed back the scope a bit, as I found myself drawn to the queer relationships lived by Helen, Kay, and Julia, as opposed to the straight and male romances lived through Viv, Reggie, and Duncan, all of which felt like their relationships were hitting the same notes, but with less-satisfying results.

Regardless, Waters is an expert at balancing literary storytelling while also penning extraordinary steamy content, and it’s worth reading THE NIGHT WATCH solely for the more tantalizing passages and the relationship dynamics that she details.

THE SECRET HISTORY (1992)

In the ‘before-times’, one of the last novels I read from start-to-finish in a bar was Donna Tartt’s THE GOLDFINCH. It was the first novel of hers I’d read — practice for a film I’d never bother watching — and the bartender/manager/owner of said bar asked me: ‘Have you read THE SECRET HISTORY?’, which I vaguely knew as Tartt’s first novel. I responded that I had not. He solely replied: ‘You should read it,’ then walked away with an aloofness which stunned me, one that I would have found offensive if it weren’t for a specific lilt in his voice.

I had really, sincerely, stupidly, hoped that I’d be able to read it at his bar — it’s Burke’s Public House; if you’re ever in the Chicago Uptown area, they are still open, and they have great burgers — but no. COVID-19 intervened, obviously. Instead, I idly read the bulk of it at a generic suburban resort, far away from home, in a starchy, itchy bed.

THE SECRET HISTORY is a astonishingly beloved novel, one of found families, and it revels in nuanced academia of the Ancient Greek sort but, at the heart of it, it’s a Hitchcock-ian tale of power dynamics while also being a cautionary story about when everything goes sour in the most platonic of relationships, when one trusts too much in others without fully realizing the implications of doing so.

The details of THE SECRET HISTORY are rather difficult to discuss, precisely because the novel is the slowest of slow-burns, luxuriating in setting and character before finally diving into the details of its inciting incident, but I’ll summarize it as so: Richard, an indecisive, lower-middle-class Californian dude from Plano* changes majors several times before moving to a very liberal, fictitious, Vermont college in a made-up town, and throws his all into a group of well-off Classics intellectuals: Henry, the fountainhead of the group, brilliant but has a specific disassociation from humanity; Bunny, a dyslexic but charismatic individual that comes from privilege but isn’t given a cent and relies on his charm to live; Charles and Camilla, lithe fraternal twins who live together; Frances, mostly queer and moneyed; and Julian, the Ancient Greek professor who doesn’t need to teach to pay the bills, allowing him to be extraordinarily selective about the students he enlists, the students of whom murder Bunny.

THE SECRET HISTORY also scrutinizes Vermont, where I grew up, but it is firmly positioned in Central Vermont and, despite the fact that you can drive vertically through the state in under four hours — less than two horizontally — Vermont is surprisingly fragmented. There’s Northern Vermont which was — when I lived there, many moons ago — very upper-middle-class in a basic way. Families of engineers and the like. Southern Vermont I mostly knew as Bennington, specifically Bennington College, which isn’t nearly as illustrious now, but in its heyday it was all David Mamet and Shirley Jackson (who, admittedly, didn’t attend or teach there, but her husband did, and her spirit still looms large, and directly inspired THE SECRET HISTORY via her novel HANGSAMAN — about a woman finding herself at a liberal college — and perhaps her under-published short story THE MISSING GIRL).

Central Vermont though, well, there’s not much there apart from struggling farming boroughs, and the well-meaning capital of the state, Montpelier. It’s a mess; it’s always been that way, at least to me.

Tartt is a Southern American — from Mississipi — but attended Bennington College, along with other novelists like Bret Easton Ellis (of whom she partially dedicated this novel to). However, THE SECRET HISTORY is placed in Central Vermont, a nebulous place out-of-time that houses this group of (mostly) over-privileged Classics scholars who feel similarly displaced.

Consequently, THE SECRET HISTORY is a small-scale tale told in an epic way, and I’m gobsmacked that it’s never been adapted into a film, as in many ways, it suits that medium more than a novel. Conversely, Tartt’s latest, THE GOLDFINCH, which was adapted into a film, feels ill-suited to cinema, due to its severe interiority and reliance on static imagery, as opposed to HISTORY’s language and cadence and bold personalities.

(For more info on why a film adaptation of THE SECRET HISTORY stalled, see: https://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/arts-and-culture/a28954524/donna-tartt-secret-history-movie/ )

DIETLAND (2015)

CONTENT WARNING: Eating disorders.

I previously recommended the TV adaptation of DIETLAND back in January which I described as a ‘woman-focused FIGHT CLUB’. While I last watched the show when it first aired in 2018, revisiting the pilot inspired me to check out the source material, Sarai Walker’s novel of the same name.

Upon reading it, I was struck at how close Marti Noxon’s adaptation hewed to the source material, while still fleshing Plum’s story out to be a bit more action-oriented to meet the requisite runtime of a TV series. However, the novel has an interiority and command of character that strikes closer to the reason why these pieces exist, which is:

Fuck capitalism, your body is fine, accept it and stop funneling money into the weight loss industry, but you will never, ever, be able to fit in without fighting for your right to do so. (And you still might hate yourself for doing so.)

To summarize: Plum Kettle is an ghostwriter giving private email advice to whomever mail her under the name of teen lifestyle magazine empress Kitty Montgomery. Plum is also fat, has always been fat, and wants to get surgery so she’ll be ‘Alicia’, her given name, the thin girl waiting inside of her. While working for Kitty, she’s roped into a group of ‘Jennifers’, an extremist organization that has no qualms about killing men and women who perpetuate a masculine agenda at the cost of women’s lives. Matters escalate.

While Noxon’s adaptation scrutinizes the changing of Plum from a meek, self-loathing woman into a revolutionary, Walker’s novel takes a different tact in exploring the dichotomy between who Plum feels as a fat person, and who she’d feel like as Alicia, a thin person. The Jennifers are backgrounded, a means to an existential end. It’s purely about Plum and the reader’s journey.

Look: I know I’m a middle-aged CIS dude. I am not the target audience for this work. However, I’ve struggled with my own weight issues. As a teen, I was definitely a calorie-counting anorexic, a behavioral note that DIETLAND hammers home. At my lowest scale reading, I was 130lbs, which for a 6’2” person was not healthy, but health be damned — I was a lithe goth boy!

Then, after working in diners and then meeting a woman who introduced me to the wonders of fine dining — as opposed to the same reliable carbs I’d routinely eat — I got fat. Then I found a very stupid, but very healthy and fun way to lose that weight: DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION, a videogame that knows a bunch of weight-obsessed folks play it, as it counts your calories with each track you dance to. It was way ahead of PELOTON with gamifying weight loss but, sadly, apparently is no longer profitable, and no longer exists due to the whims of its corporation.

Predictably, I gained the weight back, although under better circumstances: mostly beers in-between theater screenings and the like. I recall waking up one morning and realizing ‘oh, I’m just a fat person. This is who I am now.’ I felt a bit at peace with that reckoning. I stopped weighing myself and just started accepting my girth for what it was.

Then, the pandemic occurred, and in a fit of stress-induced anxiety, lost twenty pounds without even realizing it, which then provoked a flood of endorphins and, well, I thought: I lost this much through inaction, so let’s try action! And now I’ve lost at least fifty pounds, I can wear pants and shirts I haven’t worn in over a decade — although that’s probably a fashion crime — but I still feel like garbage. My wife calls it self-control, but I know the real term for it, and I haven’t felt the same sort of acceptance that I felt when I told myself that I was fat.

What DIETLAND instills is that the fat, insecure person will always live in you. It becomes part of your identity. You will always see them, even if others don’t. It’s a resignation that, in the novel, leads to a personal and political revolution. In real life, that doesn’t really happen.

I’d like to say I ‘recovered’, but as anyone who has struggled with weight knows: there’s no recovery; not really. There are highs and lows, at least until a final acceptance, which is the ultimate point of DIETLAND, but at the end of the day, DIETLAND is still a fictional work. Living with that is far harder than turning the last page.

I don’t feel that most men think about their looks or weight, or at least more than they have to which — by American standards — is very little if they’re heteronormative. I’m thankful to have a network of friends I can confide to about this, but I fear many don’t, which is exactly why I’m writing this. I can say: both the series and the book have helped me process a number of weight-related issues, and if you suffer from that, maybe these works will speak to you, too.

Favorites of 2021: Books

I straddle a number of release years while reading so I rarely read as many contemporary texts as I’d like, but here are my favorite 2021 works:

DREAM GIRL – Laura Lippmann

“[DREAM GIRL] is peppered with all sorts of references to old-school noirs and detective fiction, novels like THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, references to her friend and author Megan Abbott, […] so many riffs on classic Hollywood and horror films, and even a quick moment with Tess Monaghan herself. In other words, it was tailor-made for me, but there’s also a lot to appreciate about the novel from a structural standpoint. [Laura Lippman is] exceptional at setting everything up so that, right before the reveals come, the curtains fall from your eyes, and you can’t help but appreciate the breadcrumbs she’s strewn through the prior pages.”

THE FINAL GIRL SUPPORT GROUP – Grady Hendrix

“THE FINAL GIRL SUPPORT GROUP goes above and beyond [horror tropes], and is a surprisingly brilliant example of what the genre is capable of.”

GIRL ONE – Sara Flannery Murphy

“[A] very inventive and engrossing take on, not only, the Frankenstein tale, but also witch folklore.”

GLAMOUR GHOUL – THE PASSIONS AND PAIN OF THE REAL VAMPIRA, MAILA NURMI – Sandra Niemi

“[A] classic Hollywood tale, but not the classic Hollywood tale most want to hear.”

IT NEVER ENDS – Tom Scharpling

“[As] amusing [of a memoir] as you’d expect from Scharpling, [and] far more interesting and deeper than you’d suspect.”

NIGHTBITCH – Rachel Yoder

“Nightbitch goes through one hell of a journey and, while it’s not nearly the horrific transformation tale I expected to read, it is a very satisfying one.”

NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THIS – Patricia Lockwood

“Patricia Lockwood’s novel — which is primarily concerned with self-reflecting on being extremely online, until it isn’t — may come across as utterly obnoxious to anyone who isn’t familiar with the litany of terms, memes, and bluntness that being ‘extremely online’ entails, but I’d like to think that her artful prose and peculiar framing supersedes the need for that sort of knowledge.”

THE SECRET TO SUPERHUMAN STRENGTH – Alison Bechdel

“[A] tremendous accomplishment, one that I look forward to revisiting.”


2021 pieces waiting for my attention:

GIRLY DRINKS – Mallory O’Meara


DEATH AT GREENWAY – Lori Rader-Day

THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE (1962)

As noted in my ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER post, in 2021 I completed a seven-year-long endeavor to read every Poirot novel. Why? I wanted to scrutinize how Christie adjusted Poirot and his scenarios to adapt to the passage of time, given that the initial Poirot novel — THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES — was first published in 1920, and the last-penned novel — ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER — was published in 1972. A single author continuing the journey of a character explicitly created to examine human nature, over the span of fifty years, is a curious thing indeed.

However, THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES was not my first Christie book; that would be the second Miss Marple book THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY, which I picked up on a whim while in London, several months prior to reading my first Poirot novel.

While I haven’t found the need to burn through all of Christie’s Marple novels, I became intensely curious about THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE (CRACK’D from here on out), as it features Marple diving into the world of Hollywood, specifically the world of acting, when the acclaimed-but-aging actress Marina Gregg moves into Gossington Hall*. While throwing a lavish introductory party, one of the locals ends up being poisoned, and Scotland Yard presumes that the murder was misplaced, that Marina was the actual target, and the mystery is then investigated.

While CRACK’D takes place in the early sixties, its reliance on the Hollywood of old, and Christie’s demeanor and approach makes it feel more like a post WWII mystery novel, even down to the scandal trades that she notes (CONFIDENTIAL and the like) makes the tale feel aged and artificial, as if it’s something Marple is regaling a relative with as opposed to living in the moment. In other words, it’s not one of Christie’s finest moments.

There’s also the fact that the mystery is nakedly cribbed from real-life events. Spoilers follow, so reader beware.

CRACK’D is essentially the story of Gene Tierney, perhaps best known for the enigmatic film noir adaptation of LAURA. Tierney was quite the starlet during the 40s, was the model for Mariana Gregg, and whose child was afflicted due to being in close proximity to someone inflicted with German Measles. If you know that fact going in, the mystery is quite straight-forward. Whether it was common knowledge in the early 60s is questionable, but given the fact that I knew it going in, it cast a bit of a pall over the story, especially since Marple barely bookends the story, leaving the heavy-lifting to Detective-Inspector Craddock.

Nonetheless, it’s an eminently brisk read, one worth your time if you’re interested in the inside baseball of 40s Hollywood, but if you aren’t, and aren’t a fan of Miss Marple? Feel free to return to the library.

  • Gossington Hall was where the titular body in the library was found in THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY, bringing my Christie journey full-circle.

THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES (2017)

I once saw a post on Twitter from someone who said their partner once told them this:

“You think you’re the protagonist in this relationship. You are not. This is my story.”

THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES, from Catherynne M. Valente (with illustrated plates from HAWKEYE and BLACK CANARY artist Annie Wu), reminded me of that stinging barb, even though it’s ostensibly focused merging the confessional honesty and anger of THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES play with the ‘women in refrigerators’ comic book trope.

If you aren’t familiar with THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES, Eve Ensler interviewed 200 women about their experiences about being a woman, which she then turned into a series of stage-based monologues.

Regarding ‘women in refrigerators’, it’s a term that comic book writer Gail Simone coined for when a woman is killed in a comic solely to heighten the dramatic and narrative potential of a superhero the woman is involved with.

Valente was inspired by both but, instead of using the prefab characters of the Marvel and DC universes, she would weave her own, which makes for a far more inventive, insightful, creative commentary on how writers use intriguing characters full of depth as disposable props.

The novella takes place in Deadtown, a seedy literal Hell-hole of a town, at a bar populated by gargoyle bartenders. A clutch of misfit outsider young women gather there once a week, self-named the ‘Hell Hath Club’. The members come and go, depending on the circumstances of their place in the living world, but it’s always women who have been ‘friged’.

The Hell Hath members who tell their story range the gamut from a brilliant lab scientist who watches her lab partner turn into Kid Mercury (basically THE FLASH) to an Atlantean punk rocker-in-line-to-be-queen who falls in love with half-human/half-Atlantean Avast (basically AQUAMAN) to a talented photographer who has a sickeningly adorable relationship with a graphic designer/graffiti artist who finds a charm that allows him to draw things to life.

Their involvement with these men all lead to their death, and they become little more than footnotes in their prior boyfriends’ lives, but thanks to these monologues, they — and Valente — are able to detail their stories, their frustrations, their rage, their idiosyncrasies, and turn the limelight on to their trauma and troubles, to become the protagonist in their own story.

While I obviously loved this book, teenage me would have fallen in love with it. THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES is rebellious while being amazingly sharp. It opens your eyes to how so-called loved ones/characters are treated as disposable, how they only exist in service of the male character, and how that’s a reflection of society at large, and it does so all the while having a bit of fun, riffing on so many bits of pop culture, including a little snippet of an Atlantean version of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS’ -Skid Row-!

One last note: Amazon had plans to adapt THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES into a series called DEADTOWN but, since that was back in 2019, it’s probably safe to say that the project has been friged.

https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Refrigerator-Monologues/Catherynne-M-Valente/9781481459358

BURNT OFFERINGS (1976)

(VOD) I happened to read Robert Marasco’s 1973 horror novel BURNT OFFERINGS a few years ago, a properly enigmatic ‘house possesses and feeds off of its guests’ work, focused more on male/paternal/provider anxieties that hasn’t necessarily aged as well as one would hope, but it’s an intriguing enough qualified read.

I had absolutely no idea that, not only had it been adapted into a feature film in 1976, but that it has a surprising roster that features Oliver Reed as Ben, the father who drags his family to a spacious, yet dilapidated, summer house for vacation, Karen Black as Marian, his wife, Bette Davis as Aunt Elizabeth, as well as Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart as the brother and sister renting the house to the family.

As you might suspect based on the roll call, what ends up on the screen is an eclectic oil-and-water mix of performances: Reed brings an old-school stiffness that occasionally balloons to an overly grandiose show; Karen Black plays it a bit more naturalistic, bringing a haunted quality to the film, and Bette Davis gleefully leans into the creep factor of the aunt’s ailing body. Only Meredith and Heckart bring a playful vibe to the film, but it helps that they’re both on-screen for less than ten minutes.

While the film mostly hews close to the novel’s original tale, which primarily consists of putting the family’s young son David (Lee Montgomery) through the physical and psychological wringer, it deviates in two important ways. First, director Dan Curtis inserted a bit of back story for Ben where he keeps seeing a pale, grinning chauffeur, first at his mother’s funeral. Allegedly, this was a bit of dream-inspiration on Curtis’ part, but it slots into the adaptation quite well. Second, the end is significantly more close-ended and shocking than the source material but, again, it suits the work.

Tonally, the film is far more interesting, if not occasionally maddening, especially given how it contrasts against similar horror films of the time. It’s not quite a throwback, but it doesn’t quite embrace the evolving style and leniency of 70s horror.

Warning: the trailer pulls no punches and spoils some of the biggest moments of the film.

THE DEVIL FINDS WORK (1976)

As someone who attended film school explicitly for film criticism and analysis (before I realized ‘oh I’ve made a huge mistake I love this but this is not a viable career’ and changed minors), and as someone who has followed longform film criticism since then, despite all of that, I had no idea that James Baldwin had penned this three-part essay on being Black and watching and disseminating American film via films from the silent era (you know Baldwin has a lot to say about THE BIRTH OF A NATION), the 30s (including Fritz Lang’s YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE and William Wyler’s DEAD END) to the 60s (IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA) to the 70s with THE EXORCIST.

Everyone knows that Baldwin was an amazing essayist, but with THE DEVIL FINDS WORK, he’s exceptional at interweaving his personal life, the films he’s examining, and the American cultural climate in an effortlessly gorgeous manner. This essay is certainly necessary reading for any writer, doubly so for anyone writing about media.

Again, while I’m frustrated I didn’t read it in my youth along with Chicago’s own Jonathan Rosenbaum, Kracauer’s FROM CALIGARI TO HITLER, and Lotte Eisner’s THE HAUNTED SCREEN, reading it now as someone who is familiar with many of the texts and films he references and examines — as opposed to myself as a blinkered teen who was largely unfamiliar with most of the works he discusses — makes me appreciate it in a way I doubt I would have then.

You can buy it, and many other amazing books that disseminate media, at the illustrious critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s personal storefront:

NIGHTBITCH (2021)

I blindly bought NIGHTBITCH, Rachel Yoder’s debut novel, knowing only that it sounded like a maternal, early-middle-aged version of the teen girl werewolf-as-puberty film GINGER SNAPS: the struggles of a woman trying to reconcile her life as a stay-at-home mom tending to her toddler son, having abandoned her artist life and career, her loving-but-simple engineer husband bringing home the bread, while also thinking she is turning into a werewolf.

While GINGER SNAPS leans on filmic horror conventions and tropes, NIGHTBITCH relies more on dark literary fairytales and lore and mystery, but they both get to the same place: underscoring and subverting what is perceived to be a woman’s place in society, of suburban ennui, of letting loose a howl, of diving into the dirt and grime, to take yourself off of this cultural leash and not give a shit about the repercussions.

NIGHTBITCH is singularly focused on interiority. The mother, the son, and the father are never explicitly named (although the mother does eventually refer to herself in her head as Nightbitch), and dialogue blurs into internal thoughts. The bulk of the novel is the mother examining and evaluating her life in the here-and-now and is thrilling and leaves you wondering what this is leading up to, which utterly flummoxed me while I was reading it, but I was delighted as to where it ended up. Nightbitch goes through one hell of a journey and, while it’s not nearly the horrific transformation tale I expected to read, it is a very satisfying one.

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/665285/nightbitch-by-rachel-yoder/

THE FINAL GIRL SUPPORT GROUP (2021)

There aren’t many genres I actively dislike, but the slasher genre is one of them. Sure, I’ve read and watched more of them than the average person — even recommended a few (FINAL DESTINATION 2 in particular) — but I often treat slasher pieces like homework, that they’re often cruel and misogynistic, and am always pleasantly surprised when they turn out to be intelligent and have something to say (e.g. SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982 — I haven’t had a chance to check out the reboot yet) and WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE).

Near the end of October, I was running out of horror novels to read, and the feminist bookstore down the block predictably didn’t stock much in the way of horror, and most of what they had on the shelf I’d already read except for one book: Grady Hendrix’s THE FINAL GIRL SUPPORT GROUP. I hemmed and hawed about a dude writing a horror novel about women, violence, and trauma, but looked at the back and all of the blurbs were from women authors who I am big fans of, so I decided to give it a chance. (For what it’s worth, I didn’t realize until later that my wife had previously gifted me a copy of PAPERBACKS FROM HELL, which he also penned, earlier this year.)

THE FINAL GIRL SUPPORT GROUP takes place in an alternate ~2010 universe that asks the question: what if all of the slasher film franchises we know — HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13th, SCREAM, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, etc. were based on real-life events, and the final girls were real, and 20-30 years after the fact, after their film franchises have faded, how would they be coping, and how would their lives turn out? Well, they are in a therapy group to chew over their experiences, and have been for quite some time.

That said, some of them are doing worse than others, and that goes from bad to worse once it’s apparent that someone is murderously chasing after all of them. Again.

In the wrong hands, this novel could have been schlocky, insensitive garbage but, instead, it’s a surprisingly sensitive portrayal of living with trauma and fear. While Hendrix is lifting a lot from prior sources, he doesn’t revel in it, there’s not a lot of winking — it’s more along the lines of ‘oh, I see what you did there’ — and he makes the characters distinct, separate and often more interesting than the composites he is working from.

It’s also thrillingly plotted, with deft feints and twists and turns. In other words, it’s the total package.

I was initially attracted to horror when I realized that it could be more than sensationalism, when it also served as a way to highlight matters of humanity — especially emotional matters — that many refuse to acknowledge or publicly discuss. THE FINAL GIRL SUPPORT GROUP goes above and beyond that, and is a surprisingly brilliant example of what the genre is capable of.

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/658406/the-final-girl-support-group-by-grady-hendrix/