That Feeling When It Turns Out Your Granddad Is Best Friends With The Devil

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That Feeling When It Turns Out Your Granddad Is Best Friends With The Devil

You’re not going to want to do this, but I need you to briefly picture me in the bath.  It’s okay. You can think about something nice again afterward. 

Because here’s the thing. After I’ve bathed, I have a specific way of drying. You may even do the same. I don’t get out of the bath right away. I dry all parts of me except my feet, while still standing in the water. Then I raise one foot, and dry that, before putting it down on the mat. Then I dry my remaining foot, before finally departing the tub. This has the benefit of meaning I don’t drip water all over the bathroom or turn the bathmat into a sodden mess, but that’s not why I do it. I do it because I learned it from watching my father when I was a small child. The real question, therefore, is why he did it that way — and I only thought to ask him when I was older, and the habit was permanently ingrained. He explained that when he was a student at university in Nottingham, the lodgings where he lived had no heating — and so he developed the technique to stay in the warmth of the water as long as possible. 

I live in California now. Most of the time, it really ain’t that cold. The way I continue to dry myself when I get out of the bath — last mention of this, I promise — is thus wholly a result of the frigidity of the the digs where my father lived in the faraway black and white era of the 1950s, long before I was born, in a country five thousand miles away. 

Increasingly I've come to realize that’s how life is, all the time — each of us shaped and constrained by emotional characteristics, behaviours and world-views that we’re often not even aware of. Some come from personal histories, our own paths, but others were born in the lives of forebears, passed down like strange heirlooms. We’re never just ourselves. We’re everyone who came before us, doggedly manifest in the shadows of our souls, in some sense still alive.

And that’s what my new book is about. 
Well, partly. It’s also about a four-foot-high talking mushroom called Vaneclaw.

 

This week marks the official publication (in UK stores, and on Amazon, and for the time being it’s also available in the US here) of HANNAH GREEN AND HER UNFEASIBLY MUNDANE EXISTENCE. It’s not quite like anything I’ve done before. I’ve made something of a habit of writing things not quite like anything I’ve done before — as my agent/s, publisher/s and probably some readers will wearily attest — but this one’s even more of a swerve than usual. 

The title is noticeably long (and was originally even longer, with “The Story of” at the front, but there’s a limit to how many words you can fit on a book especially when your name already has three parts). The novel’s road to publication was pretty long, too. When my son Nate was younger I put him to bed on alternate nights. For the first several years I’d read to him, but then — while he was in a sustained phase of believing “Ben 10” to be the most compelling piece of entertainment ever conceived by mankind — one night I started making up a story involving its characters. This almost immediately stopped bearing the remotest relationship to the TV series, but Nate enjoyed it (and soon wouldn’t accept any alternative); it saved me having to try to read a book in low-light conditions; and while on some evenings it was a struggle to make up story in real time when I’d spent my entire day doing exactly the same thing, it had the advantage that I could tailor the narrative to his readiness for sleep… slowing the action as he got drowsier. And it was kind of fun.

So we stuck with it, for over two years, every other night, across two countries, three houses and more than a few hotel and motel rooms along the way. 

Eventually there came a point where Nate had long-ago stopped watching “Ben 10” and I’d gone through every conceivable combination of circumstances the characters could endure. So one night back in 2013 I started a totally different story — about a girl called Hannah Green, who lived in Santa Cruz. It got zany and dark pretty quickly and I fell into the habit of making a short note of whatever random stuff I’d come up with each night. I can’t recall why the story was abandoned halfway — possibly because of an abortive attempt to read Nate some Ray Bradbury — but a while later I came upon the notes I’d made and realized that I'd like to know what happened next. 

The rest of the book came quickly. It was, however, unlike anything I’d produced before, and so I didn’t know what to do with it. I showed it to my wife, who said it was worth putting out there. So I then sent it to my then-publishers, who did the publisher equivalent of staring at the manuscript as though it was a half-chewed mouse deposited on the kitchen floor by a cat. In their defense, it was nothing like what I’d promised, nor even a new version of the book I was actually supposed to be rewriting for them at the time. So I put HANNAH to one side and got on with hacking away at the other novel — in the end, unsuccessfully. We couldn’t agree, and parted company in 2015.

In the unnerving void that followed I was drawn back to HANNAH. I did another couple of drafts, and got some positive comments, most encouragingly from my old friend Jo Fletcher. Eventually I was delighted to sell it to the best editor I’ve ever had, and my previous publisher — Jane Johnson, at HarperCollins.  

And… so here it is. It has a young protagonist, but there are grown-ups in it too. I wrote the book for adults, but also for kids, or maybe it was the other way around. And for old people. And the twenty percent of cats that can read. It really does have a talking mushroom in it. But also the Devil. And Big Sur, and Siberia, and Santa Cruz, of course — where I live. And a rollercoaster, and Bach, a handy map of the frozen foods section in Safeway, and quite a good recipe for pork rillettes. Okay, some of those last things aren’t true. But you may rest assured that nowhere in the novel is there any mention of me being in the bath. 

I have a lot of affection for HANNAH. Partly because it’s the result of making up whatever the hell I liked — without rhyme or reason or being bound up in commercial realities — for the first time since my first novel, ONLY FORWARD. Also because I remember those nights, nearly four years ago, when I sat with my back against the wall in the quiet dark, and made stuff up for my son.

The early years of childhood pass terrifyingly quickly in retrospect, at least for the parent. What at the time can feel endless will seem like the blink of an eye once it’s done. As I write this, Nate’s twelve, and generally finds his own stories at bedtime these days. I’m very glad to have some of our earlier evenings together preserved in this book. 

I’m excited to hand it over to you now, and I hope you like it. 

Michael

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Another piece of annoying crap in your inbox

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Another piece of annoying crap in your inbox

So I'm setting up a newsletter mailing list. You could join it.

Why on earth would you do that?

1. Well, “breaking” news — using the term incredibly loosely — will generally go up on Twitter when I get it, but the newsletter will bring it all together, along with useful links and whatever else swims into my ken that I think might be of interest.

2. In a world this full of strife and excitement, sometimes having something crushingly dull to read is actually rather relaxing.

3. There will be exclusive giveaways and competitions, along with the right to demand that baristas address you as "Your Worship", preferential access to experimental gherkins at the deli counter, and one (1) free instance of the ominous sound of footsteps approaching from behind in the darkness, in participating back streets and abandoned warehouses*.

4. Also because otherwise it'll just be me and my cat on the mailing list, and I know all this shit already and she frankly doesn't seem to care.

So do it

 

*T&Cs apply, plus some of it simply isn't true. 

 

 

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What Are We For?

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What Are We For?

A while back I read something interesting about the word “demonstrate”. I can’t remember exactly where I saw it, but it was a real book, not some fake news site or that guy Keith who sits in the back of the bar selling cut-price but totally genuine iPhones that for some reason only run Android. The author cited the word as an example of how important it is to take account of subtle usage differences between cultures. 

In the West, for example, one meaning of to demonstrate (derived straightforwardly from the Latin demonstrare, to "point out") means to make a protest against something. Its traditional usage in Russia and some other Eastern European countries, however, was to make a visible sign of support for something. Not only is that diametrically opposed in intent, it manifests an interestingly different slant on activism.

The reason why I bring this up is the forthcoming marches over the weekend. Sounds like they’re going to be quite a thing. I really hope so. I'll be there. But a thoughtful friend of mine was dismissive of them the other day, questioning what people thought they were protesting, and what good it would do. He’s got a point. You can’t just “protest Trump”, or not meaningfully. While I understand (and fully share) the sentiment of #NotMyPresident, it is just that — a sentiment, and as of a few hours ago, factually incorrect. And I worry (excess empathy is one of the curses of being an elitist libtard snowflake) about what will happen within the psyche of a deeply insecure man who finds that even becoming the freakin’ president won't stop people ripping the piss out of him, his hair, his hands, and his achievements. He's never going to stop chasing validation, and the search may become more desperate and dangerous. 

He’s the president now, God help us. Yes, it seems he’s an asshole and a philistine and a narcissist and a liar and would quite possibly not be in the White House were it not for the actions of a foreign state. But the latter has yet to be proved beyond reasonable doubt and negative personality traits do not explicitly disbar you from holding high office, as history shows. It seems possible Trump will fall foul of various constitutional restrictions, but he hasn't (impeachably) done so yet. Walking the streets merely yelling “Trump out!” and breaking windows and setting fire to things is not only futile, but a spasm of panic that leads nowhere — giving the #MAGA crowd another excuse to bleat about sore losers and Liberal Tears. 

So on what basis do you march? You borrow the other inflection of "to demonstrate". You march not against, but for. You march in favor of things. You demonstrate not to say how much you hate something or someone — that is the alt-right/Trumpie way — but to point out your ardent support for something. Anger is so much easier to muster than hope, but it’s the latter that leads to positive change. So you demonstrate for women’s rights, in society and the workplace and with regard to power over their own bodies. For the rights of the LGBTQ community — rights that not merely legal, but relate to the basic respect they are due. For voting rights. For racial equality, and the land rights of indigenous peoples. For the right  not to get shot — including in schools — just because some dickhead in another state yearns to own an assault rifle. For the crucial role of arts and humanities in our culture (the Trump team, FYI, is considering eliminating the National Endowments both for the Arts and the Humanities). For the protection of the environment. For support of public schools. For encouraging and celebrating diverse communities of race and religion, in a society that is open and inclusive and bold. For… I'm sure you get the picture. 

The Trump playbook is to keep throwing sticks — spewing little knee-jerk pieces of bile. It’s hard not to chase after every one, like desperate dogs, hoping that if we collect them all like weird chunks of ideological Pokémon then the world will realize what a moron the stick-throwing man is. That won’t work. He has infinite sticks. We all need to pick our own particular stick or sticks and chase them down… chewing until they break. The marches are for people to say what their sticks are — the things they’ll work to preserve or protect or improve. The marches aren’t against Trump, in other words, they’re for the things that matter: and as such are an extremely positive and long-overdue expression of the specific ways in which people care deeply about the world. That’s actually a great thing. It’s bigly huge, and it could lead to meaningful long-term victories. It’s just a shame an utter loon had to get into power to make it happen. 

Anyway, what the hell do I know and why on earth should you listen to my simplistic musings? No reason. I'm sure much of the above is implicit and rather obvious, but I guess I’m just trying to work the thing through in my head. The bottom line is that as of now, Trump is in charge. (Well, most likely it’s Steve Bannon, which is even more worrying, but Trump’s the guy with his name on the door). And my point is that — to VERY heavily paraphrase Obama in his farewell address — there's only one of him, and there's a lot of us.

The more clear it becomes that Liberal progress is not inevitable, the more actively and stridently it has to be chosen. You don’t march to say “no” to the bad things.

You march to say “yes” to the good.

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Life vs Art

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Life vs Art

I don’t mind being a writer. It is, after all, what I do — and that's a lucky position to be in. There are however few professions where the gulf between how civilians think is is, and the reality, is quite as wide. As a public service I’m therefore going to outline how a typical day in the life of an author works. But first…

WHAT PEOPLE THINK IT’S LIKE

I wake to the sound of my assistant standing outside the palatial bedroom suite, whispering the current bestseller positions of my most recently-published novel. By the time she reaches the news that it has held its #1 spot in Turkmenistan for yet another week — the same position it holds in the US and all of Europe and everywhere else — I am ready to greet the day. While I am in the shower the sound of the water drowns out some of the sales information about my backlist, but I am reassured by her frequent use of the word “unprecedented”. 

Arrive at my desk at ten thirty sharp. Spend a while being updated by my agent on negotiations for the upcoming book contract, specifically the advance money on offer. He is concerned that conventional mathematics cannot readily cope with numbers this large. I suggest he gets in contact with Dr. Stephen Hawkings — he’s a fan — and see if he has any advice. 

Work tirelessly for twenty minutes, in which ten thousand words of profound and moving prose drip from my fingers like nectar from a fecund bloom. 

After a simple repast prepared by our personal chef, I spend an hour listening to my editor on the phone as she pleads that I not change a single word of the first draft of the novel I wrote yesterday: she insists that it is a thing of immaculate perfection, citing as evidence the fact that the head of the publishing company, upon reading it, “passed out with joy”. Reluctantly, I agree to leave it as it is. 

Read over my morning’s work, and am astonished by how good it is. I am sufficiently accustomed to my own prose to avoid losing consciousness with delight, though when I appreciatively read aloud one especially good sentence, my assistant — who has been standing nearby, fanning me with a palm frond — keels over into the corner and remains insensate for an hour. 

Spend the late afternoon choosing between potential cover quotes for the next novel. Decide against using the one from JK Rowling on the grounds it’s perhaps a little too gushing. Opt instead for the one that Ernest Hemingway insisted — unsolicited — on providing via a spirit medium. 

Following a light supper I attend a book-signing event for my current bestseller, exchanging cheerful waves with people waiting patiently in the seven-mile-long queue. After inscribing a little over a billion copies, I allow the grateful store owner to ply me with foie gras and Chateau d’Yquem, before being carried home in a chair by the last four winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who ask only for the opportunity to serve. The townsfolk doff their caps and bow as we pass. Only a cynic would put this down to the meteoric rise in house prices in the area since I moved in. 

Because I am tireless, on my return I spend an hour dictating responses to fan mail. How bittersweet it is to reply to the one from President Obama, knowing that he may be the last president who knows how to read. 

Retire contendly to bed. I drift off to sleep lulled by the distant sound of my assistant, who is now standing outside in the garden shouting the names of every A-list star who is desperate to appear in the avalanche of upcoming movie adaptations of my work. For all I know, this continues all night.

As opposed to…

THE REALITY

Wake far too early with a howl of despair, remembering it’s my turn to do the school drop-off. Enjoy a tiny beat of relief on realizing at least that means it’s not a day I’m supposed to go running. 

Lurch out of bed, putting foot in small but strategically-placed puddle of cat sick. Drink seven cups of tea. Wake child by hitting him rhythmically on the head for forty minutes with a brick. Haul him through process of dressing, eating breakfast, gathering school materials. Drive to school, late. 

Visit Safeway on way back, find self standing blearily in checkout line with a basket containing nothing but capers and jam. Have no idea why.

Approach desk with weary trepidation at 8:45. Ignore emails from just about everyone, as they involve hassling me over things I’m late on. Explain to the credit card company that when I said I'd be paying their bill today, I meant “today” in a metaphorical sense. Also “pay”. 

Spend morning editing the previous day’s prose, wondering where on earth I got the idea I could write, and specifically why the fuck I thought this was a good idea for a short story, as it’s clearly a piece of worthless crap. Waste time on email instead. Notice that agent has started using quote marks whenever he refers to my "career".

Realize that child had clothes to wear, all the lights work, and the place is not a complete pig-sty. Assume all this has somehow been achieved or co-ordinated by spouse. Consider making mental note to thank spouse. Decide this constitutes extra writing, and will do later. Forget. 

Eat hurried lunch of whatever looks least dangerous in the fridge. Spend afternoon wrestling with editor’s suggestions for draft sixteen of the current novel. Consider emailing explaining that her apparently simple and uncontroversial suggestions will actually provoke the irrevocable collapse of the book’s structure, but settle instead for spending two hours banging my face on the desk instead. 

Enlivened by a mild concussion, have literally just hit my stride and am about to produce some real work when child arrives home from school, requiring immediate assistance with math homework that I don’t bloody understand. This takes approximately forever.

Drink a couple of moody beers on the porch afterward. Wonder if there is any other way I can earn a living. Conclude for the millionth time that the answer is no, especially after local circus issued a restraining order. 

Cook dinner, an improvised pasta dish whose main ingredients are capers and jam. 

After threats of physical violence fail, eventually get the child to go to bed before midnight by offering to give him fifty dollars tomorrow. Hope he doesn’t start comparing notes with the credit card company. 

Go to bed. Sleep fitfully. Dream of supportively attending the launch for a friend’s new book, to find myself joining the back of a line that is seven miles long. 

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We All Like To Sing The Die Song

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We All Like To Sing The Die Song

Santa_Cruz_Sentinel_Mon__Jul_22__1985_.jpg

I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole.

I don’t usually do a lot of research, to be honest. As a novelist my method has generally been to just make stuff up. Stephen Jones has asked me to write a story for an upcoming project, however, and suggested I set it in Santa Cruz in the 1930s. I thought I’d better at least pretend to be professional, and look into the town’s history for half an hour. 

Weeks later, I haven’t even started the story. Why? Well, it turns out there’s a heck of a lot to look into. 

I knew some of it already — including that there was a time when Santa Cruz was dubbed “the murder capital of the world”. I’ve speculated wildly about the underlying causes for this in a novel I wrote a couple of years ago — but which has not, for reasons too tedious to relate, yet been published. The factual basis for the town’s nickname was that in early 1970s there were not just one, but two serial killers operating in the neighborhood.

The better-known is Ed “The Co-Ed Killer” Kemper, who killed his grandparents when he was sixteen because he “wanted to see how it felt”. Kemper was intelligent and personable and after some years in institutions convinced people he was cured. He was released to the (not very) tender care of his mother, in nearby Aptos, after which he murdered six young UCSC students before eventually dismembering his mother and her best friend in an evening of Grand Guignol that makes the Saw movies look like Great British Bake Off. During the period of the murders he hung out with local police in a Santa Cruz bar called The Jury Room, which is still in business and a strong contender for the dive-iest dive bar on this or any other coast. He was convincing enough that the cops not only accidentally kept him up to date with the progress of their investigation into the killings, but loaned him a pair of hand-cuffs to play with. The Santa Cruz Police Department acknowledges that this was not their finest hour. 

I’ve spent a while trying to get inside the heads of people of this type — as the Straw Men novels hopefully attest — but even by the standards of the breed, Kemper's behaviour was dispiritingly unpleasant. The other man killing at the time was a little different, however, at least to my mind. 

Herbert Mullin spent his teenage years in Felton, a mountain town fifteen minutes’ drive from my house. In the month during which he killed ten of his thirteen victims (late January to mid-February 1973), however, he may have been living in the McCray hotel, a building I’d already become intrigued by in relation to the novella I’m planning for Steve. 

Originally a grand Victorian villa on Beach Hill, near the Boardwalk (the beach-side fun fair featured in seminal 1980s vampire romp The Lost Boys), by the 1940s The McCray had become a low-rent rooming house. As you can see from the photo above, it looms. It’s believed, in fact, to have been the visual inspiration for the domicile of Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho: Hitchcock owned a property in nearby Scott’s Valley for many years, and though the design of the McCray is a little different, the building’s presence on a hill, poised above a motel, is clearly mirrored in the film. In a delicious irony, the McCray was redeveloped in the early 1990s and is now an assisted living facility for the elderly. The photo is from when it went on the market in 1985. 

It took three years to sell, at two thirds of the original asking price, possibly because of its reputation. In my digging I discovered the hotel had already attainted a little notoriety back in September 1933, when a female resident stalked, shot and killed a former employer living next door — and that it’s also only a couple of houses from another striking Victorian mansion called the Golden Gate Villa, in which Major Frank McLaughlin killed his daughter and himself in 1907, on the anniversary of his wife’s death. The owner of the McCray in the 1880s, E. J. Swift, died in the hotel for no apparent reason one afternoon, immediately after a nice lunch. And to add yet further to the building's spooky cred, I eventually came upon a story in the Santa Cruz Sentinel from June 28, 1908, concerning skeletal remains, a battle axe and a cache of shells that plumbers had found during excavations nearby. It appears that the McCray Hotel, therefore — inspiration for Psycho, and also the (almost certain) home of a real-life serial killer during the height of his murdering spree — was built on an honest-to-god Indian burial ground. 

No, I’m not making this up. This is what Santa Cruz is like — which is possibly why the town makes a far bigger deal of Halloween than it does of Christmas. 

Anyway. Having already been dragged a long way from material even tangentially relevant to the story I’m supposed to be writing, I wound up reading a slew of books about Mullin, in an attempt to find corroboration for the claim that he briefly lived in the McCray. I do this stuff so you don’t have to, and I hope you’re grateful. I haven't yet established that alleged fact to my satisfaction (though an email I've received this morning suggests it might happen very soon), but I have learned some other things. 

The bottom line is that it’s clear Mullin suffered from schizophrenia. This is a common defense offered for the murderously deranged, but episodes of echopraxia and periods when he was able to control his behavior through medication appear to confirm the diagnosis. He heard voices. They told him to do things. To kill people. One of the most distinctive aspects of Mullin’s mania is he believed that through this he was helping stave off an earthquake, a concern doubtless related to the fact that he was born on the anniversary of the devastating San Francisco quake of 1906. April 18th is also the anniversary of Albert Einstein’s death, and Mullin became convinced this gave him alone the foresight to help the world avoid catastrophe.

So, yes, he was — in the common parlance — something of a nut. But the curious thing is that in many ways Mullin does not fit the standard rules-of-thumb for becoming a serial killer. He was not a loner. He was decent-looking, popular, good at sport, smart — even voted “Most Likely To Succeed” at the end of his senior year. Though relations with his ex-Marine father later became strained, he came from a close family. He had a long-term girlfriend, who was kind. He did not, unlike Ed Kemper, have a strange and domineering mother. He had not, unlike John Linley Frazier (another Santa Cruz murderer, who in 1970 disposed of an entire family, including two children, before setting their house on fire) suffered a head injury that might have contributed to his behaviour. 

So what happened?

It seems that Dean Richardson happened. 

Dean was a boy on the same football team at San Lorenzo Valley High School. He and Herbert had become inseparable friends — like brothers, people said. Then one night, on June 17th, 1965, Dean was driving in the mountains near Felton when he lost control of his car, rolled it. And died, alone, on a forest road. 

And Herbert Mullin changed. He built a shrine to Dean in his bedroom. Became distant from family and friends. Before long he was experimenting with pot, and then LSD. There’s little doubt that heroic doses of these, and the kind of people they brought him into contact with during a period living in San Francisco's Tenderloin district, contributed to Mullin’s future steep decline. And yes, there was the schizophrenia. 

But within a few years of Dean’s death Mullin was taking male partners, having finally worked out that’s who he was. I'm speculating here, I admit. But it's hard not to wonder if unrequited and probably unacknowledged and deeply buried emotion underlay Mullin's dramatic change.

Why am I telling you this? I guess because when trawling deep into the newspaper archive, I came upon a tiny piece in the Sentinel from September 12, 1965 — and it stopped me in my tracks.

I’m not defending Mullin, nor trying to excuse his actions. He killed thirteen innocent people, including a priest, and ruined countless associated lives. 

But seven years before any of that, he was a boy helping to carry a coffin, a young man whose mind — I suspect — was breaking in half with grief at the death of a friend he hadn’t realized he was in love with. A friend who could have taken that bend in the road a little more slowly that night, and lived. 

That's real horror. Sure, there are spooky buildings like the McCray Hotel, tales of gothic deaths gone by, dressing up like vampires or Frankenstein’s monster or putting on Dias de las Muertos makeup. But there’s genuine horror in the world, too — the kind that will touch all our lives from time to time. Things that happen and change everything — from terrorism and murder to simple acts of fate or unkindness that cause people to believe the world is against them, that make them pull down the shutters and hide. Things that we have to try to understand, and treat with compassion and respect and love, if we’re ever to get to the bottom of what it is to be human.

These things happen, and we are drawn to them. As Mullin said in one of many interviews with the psychiatrist who judged him fit to stand trial: “People like to sing the die song, you know, people like to sing the die song”. 

This is why horror is so important. It’s about the deep stuff. It’s about us. Our secret selves, the inner lights. The things we truly feel, that make us who we are, even if we have to keep them hidden inside.

And it’s also the only genre with the balls to look the die song in the eye.

Happy Halloween.

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