Book ‘Em: The Foot Of The Bed.

When I was in grade school there was a woman who worked in the lunchroom. She wasn’t a lunch lady in the sense that she didn’t fill the tray compartments with stewed prunes and reconstituted potatoes and processed meatloaf by-product. She sat out in the lunchroom itself and it was her job to break up fights, open snack packages, and stop us from blowing up paper bags and popping them. Mostly her job, though, was to just keep us quiet. She also lived on one of the streets where I went trick-or-treating, and always had the coolest house. She had spiderwebs and decorations up, and colored lights, and she dressed up as a witch, complete with green face and fake warts. I realize now that, while she probably took the lunchroom job just because she liked kids, she was also a bona fide Halloween fanatic. One of her ways of keeping us quiet during lunch was to read stories, and I distinctly remember her reading to us from Maria Leach’s The Thing At The Foot Of The Bed.

While you’ll find Some of the same stories in One Minute Scary Stories, the versions here tend to be longer, and they range from the very funny (the title story, for one, has a hilarious and surprising ending) to pretty violent. There are two stories in which people are beheaded. Did I mention this was a children’s book? Leach doesn’t just tell the stories, though; some of them have historical background, such as her version of The Vanishing Hitchhiker, and the book also begins with an introduction to ghost stories. I’ve never forgotten that people born at midnight are supposed to be able to see ghosts.

Maybe it’s just the neighborhood where I live, but it seems like very few kids go trick-or-treating anymore. Ghosts and monsters under the bed have been replaced by admittedly real fears of child molesters and exaggerated concerns about poisoned candy. One story from the book, Big Fraid And Little Fraid, seems like a funny comment on these concerns, as a young boy who doesn’t know what fear is drives his parents crazy with worry. Finally his father plans to scare the boy, but ends up being scared himself.

This Halloween, just in case, I’ll be sitting by the door with some candy. And I’ll see if I can find my old, worn, and much-loved copy of The Thing At The Foot Of The Bed. Just in case some trick-or-treater comes by, I’ll slip it into their sack and hope they’ll appreciate it.

Word Of The Week: October 24th, 2009

Someone suggested ruddy to me as a Word of the Week, and it really got me thinking. I know ruddy means reddish, or maybe orange-red, like rust, and ruddy, red, and rust all start with r. Do they have a common ancestor, or is it just a strange coincidence? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ruddy comes down from the Old English rudith, and, although the origins get really complicated, all three words can be traced all the way back to the Sanskrit word rudhira, which means ‘red’.

What I also thought of, though was, how the English will sometimes use the word ruddy almost like a swear word, saying “ruddy weather” when it’s raining and cold out, for instance. I’m pretty sure it’s a replacement for bloody, that wonderful British swear word. I once asked a British guy what he thought would be the American equivalent of bloody, and he said, “Probably damn.” So bloody is a very mild, barely-PG swear word, but sometimes, out of propriety, they feel the need to replace it with ruddy. The American equivalent of ruddy, then would probably be darn. Are the British words better? Consider this: ruddy rhymes with bloody, and ruddy means red, the color of blood.

Darn doesn’t rhyme with damn, and darn also means ‘to repair’—such as darning socks, while damn means ‘to condemn’. In fact damn and condemn come from the same root word, while darn is from somewhere else.

Ruddy swear words.

A Game Of Pool.

Every college campus should have a game room, and every game room should have at least two pool tables. The reason is simple: playing any game of pool teaches important lessons in physics, geometry, sportsmanship, and how to pick up strangers. It’s good stress relief. The Vanderbilt campus used to have a game room, but, before I get to that, let me say a few words about the pathetic excuse for one they’ve recently installed. Positioned right outside the Overcup Oak restaurant in the Sarratt Student Center are two pool tables with a foosball table in between. Here’s the first problem: the pool tables are in a high-traffic area where someone who’s about to make a shot will inevitably poke someone going into the restaurant. While this will be unpleasant for the person being poked, it could be disastrous for the person making the shot, especially if they’re trying to sink the eight-ball. The foosball table right in between the two pool tables just compounds this problem, since up to twenty-seven thousand people can play foosball at a time.

The second problem is that there’s no control over table access. Sooner or later someone’s going to think they need an eight-ball to decorate their room and that’s going to make the game unplayable. This will probably be even more likely if some bonehead decides to post something to his blog about the new pool tables.

Several years ago Vanderbilt had a real game room in the same Sarratt Student Center. It had pool tables, video games, and pinball machines. Like most campus pool halls you had to hand over your ID to get a set of balls which you could then take to a table. When you were done playing you’d get your ID back and you’d be charged a small fee for the time. Due to poor planning on the part of administrators the game room was closed on the weekends–the time when it was most needed. When the student center was renovated the game room was eliminated. The two pinball machines were briefly moved to the Overcup Oak restaurant where I (being a pinball addict) would go and play them two or three or twelve times a week. Every time I went there’d be the same three guys clustered around one machine, all of them playing so well I’m pretty sure they put in only one quarter and won free games for the rest of the day. One day I went to play pinball and only one of the guys was there. We nodded at each other as I put my quarter in, then, before I pulled the plunger, I asked, “Where are the other Lone Gunmen?” He simply said, “Class.”

The pinball machines disappeared at the end of the semester.

Going even further back, the college I went to had the perfect pool room, in the basement of the student union building. It had industrial green tile floors and white walls. It was called Tom’s Pool Hall, because it was run by a man named Tom, who’d known every pool player who ever lived personally and who I’m pretty sure was old enough to have been around when the game was first invented. Tom really was a great guy who always had a funny story to tell. One day he saw me eating a bacon cheeseburger and he told me about a friend of his who was so unhealthy the doctor gave him only six months to live. The friend turned his diet around completely, ate healthy foods and exercised daily. “Would you believe,” Tom said, looking at me over his half-moon spectacles, “that son of a gun managed to live seven months?” When he learned I was from Nashville he started reserving a particularly nice antique pool table, which he called “the Minnesota Fats special” for me.

I was at work the day an old friend I played pool with sent me a message that said simply, “We have lost Tom.” I’m sorry to say I never knew Tom’s last name, I never knew whether he had any family, or even what his life story was. I joke about his age but the truth is he must have seen some extraordinary changes. He was well past retirement age when I met him, but I get the impression that running a pool hall gave light and joy to what might otherwise have been a very lonely life. And now, seeing that miserable excuse for a game room that’s been installed on the Vanderbilt campus, I think how what this place really needs is its own Tom’s Pool Hall, even though Tom himself was one of a kind.

Happy Birthday, Doris Lessing.

In my senior year of high school I took college-level English, and the teacher decided we needed to read some contemporary British authors. People got assigned Tom Stoppard or John Fowles, and I got Doris Lessing. At the time I’d never heard of her, but after reading several of her short stories and her incredibly disturbing first novel The Grass Is Singing I became kind of a fan and kept on reading her work long after I’d left the class. Her story Through The Tunnel (which you can read in its entirety here) is still one of my favorites. It’s about a young boy making an extremely dangerous and daring trip through an underwater tunnel.

When I heard Lessing won the Nobel Prize in 2007 my first thought was, “Well it’s about bloody time!”

Today, though, there’s something different to celebrate: Doris Lessing turns ninety today. Happy birthday, Ms. Lessing.

I Want THAT Job!

Have you ever wondered who writes the film plot blurbs for newspapers, magazines, or, for that matter, the backs of the cases the films are packaged in? I’ve often read them and thought whoever does that has one of the greatest jobs in the world. Watch all those films would be a definite plus. Yes, that would mean sitting through some really awful movies, but imagine being paid to spend all your time watching movies. Then, as an added bonus, there’s the special challenge of having to sum up the film itself in sometimes fewer than a hundred words.

Just so you know, that paragraph was ninety-nine words.

What really made me think about this was the plot summary  on the back of a two-movie DVD I picked up because, Wow! it was just $1. Actually it was fifty-cents. The summary for Revolt Of The Zombies (a nifty little 1936 zombie film) was very straightforward and professional-sounding, the sort of summary you’d read in your cable guide or in a newspaper. The summary for Vengence [sic] Of The Zombies was more like a book report written at the last minute by a third-grader on the bus. And I’m being generous. Here it is in its entirety:

These two grave robbers are robbing a tomb when they get trapped inside. Then this voodoo guy shows up and brings the body to life and it kills them. The dead body’s cousin (I think) goes to this seance, then goes to a cursed house to visit this guru.

I kid you not. The funny thing about this summary, though, is it accomplishes exactly what these summaries are supposed to do. It makes me want to see this movie, if only because I’m curious to see just how bad it really is. Also I really want to see “this voodoo guy”.

Rude For Thought.

In the September 2009 issue of Travel+Leisure, Peter Jon Lindberg considers The World’s Rudest Restaurants. He does mention a few restaurants that are actually known for their rudeness, places where rudeness is part of the décor, such as London’s Wong Kei. It’s a Chinese restaurant where, so he claims, you can expect to be greeted with ” “SIT DOWN THERE YOU ORDER NOW NO MORE DUCK!” The place has even gained a cult following, although the problem with becoming known for such performances is that they may have started off as spontaneous outbursts but it’s hard to be rude to patrons when they expect it. Lindberg explains that “some veterans have even complained that the new employees are ‘too nice.'” What really interests Lindberg, though, is why people would go to a restaurant where they’re yelled at or treated rudely. He suggests maybe it’s ” to atone for our guilt over stuffing ourselves”, but then adds,

maybe it’s not so twisted and Freudian. Knowing the rules is a way of showing you belong, that you’re an insider—not some clumsy neophyte who thinks he can ask for ketchup. I remember being paralyzed with fear while waiting in line at the Beacon Drive-In, a greasy spoon in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where the scowling counterman shouts “TALK!” at each new customer and then sends him off to the pick-up area with “WALK!” Making it out of there with my burger alive was like surviving a skydive; my first thought was, Wow, I want to do that again.

An article from a January 1999 issue of MacLean’s called Dishing Up Rudeness describes Toronto’s Elbow Room Café, a place where the owner claimes “people will pay to be insulted”, and where customers also sometimes complain when staff are “too polite”.

Personally I don’t want to go to a place where I’m treated rudely–there’s a sushi place where my wife and I regularly get dinner. Maybe a little too regularly, but I love it that I can call them and as soon as I say, “Hi, I’d like place a to-go order” the guy who usually answers the phone replies, “Hi Chris, how are you?” As far as I know they’re polite to every one of their patrons, but being called by name–and sometimes having to say, “I’d just like the usual”–makes me feel more like an insider than some guy yelling, “ORDER AND GET OUT!” would. If I knew it was all an act, if it was all being said jokingly, it’d be easier to take, but I still won’t pay to be insulted. In that same MacLean’s article, Michael Pearce, director of the University of Western Ontario’s undergraduate business program, points out that by cutting customer service companies often undermine themselves. He says, ” [L]ook at the department stores…They cut back the service because sales were down, they were hurting, so what do they cut back? Payroll. You cut back the service and the sales go down more.”

People may actually be willing to pay a little more, and go a little further, for better service. There’s some real food for thought.

Book ‘Em: Don’t Go Into The Woods.

Food is a recurring motif in the work of William Sleator. From House of Stairs to Parasite Pig (sequel to Interstellar Pig) where food is central, to The Boy Who Couldn’t Die (in which a young man almost gives away his secret by grabbing a hot dish with his hands), The Last Universe (in which the brother is wasting away), and Singularity (spending a year alone requires careful stockpiling), where it’s a detail, but not central. And then there’s The Beasties, in which food is again a detail, but the primary theme of the book is consumption of a different kind. Consumption of the environment—destruction of the forest, specifically, and its consequences—and consumption of the body as well. The latter is surprising. Although Sleator’s books for young adults almost always deal with the supernatural, there’s usually not a lot of gore in them. Here, though, there’s a fair amount of bodies being dismembered and stitched back together. And early on the protagonist Doug and his young sister Colette discover an extremely disturbing, and crude, underground surgical theater.

As with most horror stories, though, it starts with something small, even appealing. Outside their new vacation home, in the growing dark, Doug and Colette find a baseball bat, a ball, and a book—Frazier’s Golden Bough, in fact, which is an intriguing choice. The gifts seem almost too obvious, though. Dough is into sports, and Colette loves to read. Doug even comments on the coincidence. When they discover a secret trapdoor, Doug is, at first, afraid. It’s the younger Colette who points out what is an obvious flaw in most horror stories.

“If some crazy person wanted to do things to kids, they wouldn’t just sit here waiting months and months for us to come along. A normal murderer would go out and look for victims.”

Colette is, of course, absolutely right, although the creatures they find have been waiting for them, and eventually Doug will have to make a large sacrifice.

Sleator does an excellent job of keeping up the suspense, and, while there is an underlying theme of environmentalism (the titular Beasties rely on the forest for their survival) it’s not obtrusive. It’s thoughtfully and intelligently treated, suggesting that our actions may have unforeseen consequences. And if your mother ever warned you not to do something because you’d lose an eye, well, The Beasties gives a whole new slant to that.

Word Of The Week: October 17th, 2009

My first computer had 640K and a monochrome monitor and I thought it was so cool. And for its time it was a pretty good computer. I even had a modem and could download things at the staggering rate of 1200 baud. (I’m not sure, but I believe at that rate it would take 297 years to download a single post from this blog.) Naturally I went looking for games, and somehow found a game called Rogue. I realize now how rudimentary Rogue was, as it used ASCII characters. The hero I moved through the dungeons was an @ sign, exclamation points were potions, parentheses were weapons, and so on. The monsters I encountered in the dungeons were represented by letters. Moving up next to the letter B, for instance, I’d see “you hit the bat” flash up on the screen.

Many of the monsters were real-life animals: R was a rattlesnake, E was an emu, F was a venus flytrap. Technically that last one isn’t an animal, but it is a real organism. And there were mythical beasts as well: H was a hobgoblin, V was a vampire, Y was a yeti, and so on.

Then there was Q, the quagga. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I’d never heard of a quagga. It wasn’t until a trip to the Nashville Zoo where, reading the information plaque about zebras, that I first learned the quagga was a real, albeit extinct, animal. Sadly the quagga was overhunted in South Africa where it lived. It became extinct in the late 19th century.

The game Rogue was somewhat tongue in cheek. (If you read a scroll called “scare monster”, for instance, you’d hear “maniacal laughter in the distance”.) And yet there was a certain poignance in the inclusion of the quagga. And this was not the only case of Rogue expanding my vocabulary. Since my first computer did not have a mouse the commands were all keyboard-based. The letter ‘d’ was the command for “drop item”. So when I found a potion, rather than drink it I’d press ‘q’, for quaff.

Rain, Rain, Go Away.

Even though Ray Bradbury’s description of Venus as a planet covered with dense jungle where the rain is constant was wildly inaccurate—it does rain on Venus, and sometimes even snow, but it’s sulfuric acid, not water—the rain we’ve had here made me think about some of his stories lately. Yesterday morning I woke up to rain and I thought, “Wow, what a surprise. More rain.” The rain gauge in the backyard is overflowing. Sometimes I think of his story All Summer In A Day, published in his collection A Medicine For Melancholy, about a young girl who’s moved from Earth to Venus. Her classmates despise her and are suspicious of her because she’s seen the sun and they never have. On Venus, in this story, the sun only comes out for two hours every seven years.

Yesterday, though, with a heavier rain coming down, I thought of his story The Long Rain, from The Illustrated Man. A group of soldiers slogs through the constant rain of Venus. It was a story I thought about several times as a Boy Scout, whenever we had to hike in the rain, except for me there was no Sun Dome, which the soldiers had to look forward to.

They crossed the river, and in crossing they thought of the Sun Dome, ahead of them, shining in the jungle rain. A yellow house, round and bright as the sun…in which was warmth and quiet and hot food and freedom from rain.

At least I do know that sooner or later this rain will stop. Maybe even some morning soon I’ll wake up to a clear sky and be able to look east and see Venus.

No Harm In Horror.

Dark Horse Comics, publishers of, among others, the Sin City and Hellboy comics, is now republishing a classic comic book called Creepy, one which, ironically, was first published in 1964. That’s ten years after the infamous hearings held by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency–hearings which were spurred by the “excesses” of 1950’s comic books. At those hearings, comic book publisher William Gaines was asked if it did children “any good” to read stories about murder and robbery. Gaines replied, “I don’t think it does them a bit of good, but I don’t think it does them a bit of harm, either.” It was an exchange Gaines had with Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, though, that may be most memorable. Here’s how it’s described in the essay ‘No Harm in Horror’: Ethical Dimensions of the Postwar Comic Book Controversy, by Amy Kiste Nyberg, in the book Comics As Philosophy:

Gaines insisted,“My only limits are bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste.” His remark sparked outrage from Senator Kefauver, who seized a copy of a comic book featuring a man with a bloody axe holding the severed head of a woman.“Do you think that is in good taste?” he demanded.Having just said he applied the standard of good taste to his choice of material to publish, Gaines had no recourse but to answer, “Yes sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic.”

Sometimes it’s okay to judge a book–especially a comic book–by its cover. And I love the cover of this first republished issue of Creepy. That “hell hound” is very reminiscent of a scene from John Carpenter’s The Thing.

As far as the issue of whether comic books are “appropriate”, here’s something to consider: there’s plenty of sex and violence in The Odyssey, the hero of Oliver Twist joins a gang of pickpockets, and Gulliver’s Travels is excessively obsessed with bodily functions. And yet these classics are often considered good reading for children. So why couldn’t a comic book like Creepy be just as much of a classic? Maybe someday it will be.