We All Like To Sing The Die Song

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We All Like To Sing The Die Song

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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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BREAKING: Donald Trump endorses Ememess Press

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BREAKING: Donald Trump endorses Ememess Press

Loath though I am to overshadow the election, I’m moderately pleased to announce that the major publications of Ememess Press — both of the story collections, and (in the US) the STRAW MEN trilogy — are now available on iTunes. I’m also mortified to reveal that we have received a ringing endorsement from one of the main presidential candidates. 

In a statement earlier today, Donald Trump shouted:

“Michael Marshall Smith is a good friend of mine, and I know many things. So now these books are in iBooks as well as the Amazon. I don’t know where that is exactly. I don’t have investments there so I have literally no interest in it whatsoever. Is it nice? I don’t know. Do you know? I don’t know. Maybe the Russians do. I don’t know about that. 

But let me be clear on one thing. I have a daughter. She’s a woman. So, there’s that. She's not fat. And she, unlike some other women I could mention, is not part of NATO. Which is the worst deal in history, right? But she was not a part of that. Ohio — they’re hurting there too. I have been all over Ohio. It’s a great city. But it’s a disaster. Another deal my daughter was not a part of is this one. But I am. Not part of it, but I read about it. Okay, actually I saw it on Fox News. 

So now these books or whatever are available in iBooks. And I’m very proud about that. 

Let’s be clear. These books are not in Whole Foods or Publix or Safeway. Supermarkets are a whole different thing. I have no idea what they are exactly. We're looking into that. The last time I had something remotely like a regular person’s life, I was in the womb. It was a woman’s womb. And that’s important, because all across America our communities have women in them. And so we need to, to think about that.  

Many people are saying that these are great, great books. I have read them, and let me tell you, I know they’re going to be fantastic. But I have not read them, so I don’t know about that. Maybe. China, you know? It could be that. It’s a beautiful thing. Law and order. Mexico. 

Huge.” 

 

Available worldwide:
MORE TOMORROW & OTHER STORIES
EVERYTHING YOU NEED

Available in the US only [published by HarperCollins elsewhere]: 
THE STRAW MEN
THE LONELY DEAD
BLOOD OF ANGELS

www.ememess.com 

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Let's Deconstruct A Meme, Kids!

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Let's Deconstruct A Meme, Kids!

Ten minutes on Twitter — if one wanders cautiously outside the elitist libtard echo-chamber that is my natural home — demonstrates that one of the alt-right’s very favorite things is the creation of memes, especially ones targeting the Democratic candidate for president.

Here’s a recent favorite:

The allegation being that, while working as a staff attorney on the Watergate Investigation, Hillary was fired for unethical behaviour, thus “proving” forty years of corruption, concerted attempts to destroy the United States and its constitution, and general evil naughtiness. 

In fact, two seconds on Google will show the assertion is nonsense, and that Clinton remained on the Watergate Committee until Richard Nixon resigned and the Committee’s business was concluded. Here’s just two take-downs, from leading (and politically neutral) urban myth sites — Snopes and UrbanMyths.

So what does this meme actually demonstrate? That Clinton has been subject to counter-factual right-wing smears for decades, of course — but something more important, too. It illustrates that she has been working as a public servant, at the heart of American politics, for over forty years. The emails that the alt-right go on and on and on and on about actually show the same thing: a dedicated, compassionate professional doing her job, day after day. No, of course she isn't perfect. Do you know anybody who is? Especially a politician, particularly one who's spent decades making judgement calls? But also — have you seen the choice? (And don’t start bleating to me about “Dr” Jill Stein. She’s a clueless dilettante.)

Trump, of course, has never held elected office, nor spent a moment of his gilded life working for the good of the people, in any role. As a matter of interest, what was he doing in 1975, you may ask, when Clinton was on the Watergate Investigation? Well, in 1973 the Department of Justice sued Trump Management for a concerted policy of discrimination against African Americans in buildings they owned — a practice that included attaching a piece of paper to applications with the letter C for “colored” on it. In 1975, Trump and his father were finally compelled to sign an agreement with plans to desegregate their properties. You’ll be unsurprised to hear this was not discussed during his outreach spectacle in Detroit on Saturday night. [UPDATE: this did come up in the first debate, in which Trump answered the charge by bragging he was able to settle without admitting fault.]

Within this meme, therefore, is interesting truth — but the opposite of that claimed by people who hate Hillary with a pathological fury that’s hard to comprehend, and borders on disturbing (have a brief look at the #SickHillary tag on Twitter, to see how luridly obsessed these people are). The Internet is creaking under the weight of this bullshit, gleefully brandished and recycled by people who — despite the insight they feel they have on politics — deploy grammar that makes my eyes bleed (and yes, I know I keep going on about this like some dreary elitist bore, but if you can’t learn the simple rules of apostrophe use then I’ll be damned if I’ll take your word on the complex issues of international political praxis. Or even the best place to buy a breakfast burrito).

This election has become rabidly personal in a way none has ever been before. Even major news agencies are conducting their coverage with a degree of relish for the ad hominem that is shoving all issues of substance into deep background — and it's hard to avoid, when Trump's entire campaign strategy rests on attaching a pejorative adjective to the name of every opponent. The process is not bringing out the best in anyone. I am, for example, intrigued by the — curiously generally undiscussed — suggestion that Trump may be required in October to attend a pretrial conference in the matter of Doe vs. Trump et all, for a Personal Injury - Assault, Libel, & Slander suit. But I know that I have to fight against a predisposition to believe that Trump has a case to answer here (you can do your own research to find out what this case is (allegedly) about — I don’t have sufficient proof it's real, and we libtards tend to like a bit more evidence before we head to the meme-generator) on the basis not even of a distrust of the man himself, but a fervent dislike of his swivel-eyed fans, and the people out there monetizing their discontent.

The truth is that Clinton and Trump are barely important any more. They (and Bernie, and that dreadful wanker Milo Yiannopoulos, and others) are merely talismans on the tattered flags brandished by sides at war, images of conflicting ideas of what the country — and by extension, the world — should stand for. Perhaps it’s always been that way. But this time it's worse, and the Internet really isn't helping. Social media is becoming increasingly allopathic, continually smashing opposites against each other, crushing reality to dust in the process. That's not taking us anywhere good — and I choose to believe we're far better than this. That there is no wall that we cannot climb over, or knock down... and the most powerful direction of attack is always through a centre line. In the meantime, let's stop dignifying the alt-right with the idea that it's a political position. It's not. It's a psychological condition, born of fear and ignorance, and nurtured on a diet of lies. 

On a slightly related note, today represents the fiftieth anniversary of my family first coming to live in the United States, when I was one year old. I am very grateful that this country allowed the huddled mass of the Smith family to settle here: though we were, of course, white and ideologically suitable, which always makes it easier. I know that my mother — an old school feminist, and also involved in the movement to unionize black domestic workers in Florida, a non-trivial enterprise in the South during the late 1960s — would be shocked by how this election demonstrates that issues of race, sexism and homophobia remain front-line battles to be fought on a day-to-day basis. But they are wars that must be won. And they will, eventually. Not through memes, but through hope, patience, and a willingness to walk a long, long road.

Happy Labor Day. Now, let's grill. 

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Stop shouting. Come closer.

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Stop shouting. Come closer.

As always, I'm posting mainly to get something out of my system. I don't expect anyone to give a damn. But I keep hearing people at the moment saying that “democracy” is failing us. It’s not. Democracy is an abstract noun. We made it up. It’s not failing us. We’re failing it

We’re failing it whenever we vote on the basis of misinformation and lies, and reject “experts” (when exactly did that become a term of abuse?) or “elitist intellectuals” who suggest it might be a good idea to understand the issues. We’re failing it when we throw our vote away in protests nobody will ever know or care about, and may bring about the opposite of what we want. We’re failing it when we use narrow referendum victories to validate racism, but also when we allow narrow referendum losses to dismiss every person who disagrees with us as a fascist. We’re failing it when we wank on about “revolutions” that will never happen and which the vast majority do not want (having spent sufficient time on the planet to have noticed how badly revolutions tend to work out for all concerned), but also when we ignore the frustrations of people on both right and left, young and old, who feel alienated and ignored by the political system. We’re failing it when we set up straw men adversaries and waste all our energy trying to set them on fire, taking offense at anything that does not conform with our definition of acceptability. We’re failing it when we spend our lives in online echo chambers, never attempting to positively engage with people living in the opposing chambers, instead becoming self-radicalized niche-fundamentalists. 

As a parent you find yourself being addressed from afar a lot of the time. Children take a while to understand that “I can’t hear you” doesn’t mean “shout louder”, but “come closer”. But we all seem to have trouble understanding this, because the same applies to political discourse. 

Nobody is right all the time. That’s why we have democracy, to average out all our wrongnesses into something that hopefully approximates the political mood at any given moment. That snapshot may provide a map for the road ahead, but equally it will confront us with ourselves, our present angers and confusions — and there may be periods when it’s more important to acknowledge and engage with those uneasy revelations than it is to believe voting gave us an “answer”. It will suggest to us that rather than obsessing about our abstract nouns, we should be focussing on proper nouns, the real people with whom we share our societies and countries. 

Failing democracy isn’t good. But failing the real people around us, those who need our tolerance and understanding — and that includes everyone, all the time, even if they're small-minded xenophobic assholes — that’s a crime. Every time we dismiss someone solely on the basis of their religion, race, sexual orientation or politics, we’re failing democracy and ourselves. And every time we care less about someone for those reasons, we're failing humanity too. We might get further with the war on terror, for example, if we appeared to give more of a shit when Muslims get slaughtered. Over a hundred and fifty people — including many children — died in Baghdad yesterday, on Ramadan, in a single attack. That's a lot. I didn't change my avatar to reflect this — did you? No. None of us did. It didn't get a hashtag. It didn't even trend. This morning, Chris Evans bailing from Top Gear is trending instead. That's insane

Nobody is perfect. It’s not just middle-aged het white guys who are capable of being offensively dumb. There are infuriating Muslims, Jews, women, African-Americans and LGBTQs and young people too. Some of the most virulent alt-right Twitters are women, including the appalling @AnnCoulter (and yes I'm aware how many of the other accounts are feeble men hiding behind personas): plus there's this guy — @Nero. Failing to acknowledge the diversity of wrongness risks reducing any group to a concept, the fate that befell the Native Americans. Once they’d been elevated to the status of noble savages dripping with ancient wisdom it became okay to steal their land, because abstract nouns don’t need homes. It should go without saying that the groups listed above have spent more than enough time being grievously mistreated and discriminated against to be owed special consideration now. But we can’t make all our decisions based on the fact that we’re male or female or conservative or Muslim or black or love guns or straight or Christian or leftist or poor or rich or intellectual or an over-privileged white, male, heterosexual living in the Bay area (that would be me). As soon as you can never be in error, you stop being real — and you stop contributing anything useful to any debate, ever. 

Because just as everybody is sometimes wrong, everybody is sometimes right — even if it’s only about their particular situation, and needs, and fears. Yes, even that Trump supporter racist homophobic craphead in line in front of you in Safeway, recycling counterfactual Fox News bullshit so loudly and obnoxiously that after a while you start to wish you were in favor of guns after all. He or she may know nothing about the things you care about, but they know about themselves — and they get to vote too. The world — and social media is increasingly implicated in this — is steadily driving us deeper into niches. We’re getting further and further apart, and shouting even louder as a consequence. 

Countries will always be run by political elites. To believe otherwise is naive. But our towns and streets can be different, and that’s where we live. We need to stop only talking to the people on the same side, and take the risk of trying to engage in calm, polite, worthwhile discussion with those we don’t agree with. It’s extremely unlikely anybody will change their mind as a result — people almost never do — but we would all be far better informed when the time comes to vote. Voting with your heart is not enough. Your mind needs to be involved, and your conscience too. True democracy requires soul. 

Don't get me wrong. Personally I despise a lot of these people, and despair of them, and a few clicks on Twitter will introduce you to a cesspool of misogynist, antisemitic, homophobic racist vileness that beggars belief. There's no helping those assholes. They are lost to the debate and thus also, in a sense, to humanity. But there are reasonable people on all sides, and we have to talk. That’s real, grass-roots democracy, the only type which most of us have any chance of influencing, and the kind that could actually make a difference to the lives of the proper nouns we all are. 

 

Meanwhile I’m off to England for a month, which should be... interesting. Apparently some events have occurred there recently. Look after California while I’m gone, okay? Don’t let it do anything weird.

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Stop making excuses for racist stupidity

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Stop making excuses for racist stupidity

I know this will lose me some friends, but I’m now getting very, very bored of compassionate, intellectual people on both left and right patiently explaining to me that what happened in Britain — and what could happen in America in November — isn’t the fault of thick, small-minded xenophobes, and the poor little things were misled and confused by a naughty elite. This is just a more subtle form of patronizing elitism. 

Let the thick, small-minded xenophobes own their dreadful victory, even if many of them appear too thick to have realized the whole thing wasn’t a drill, or an opportunity to give a bloody nose to the same right-wing assholes THEY ELECTED. Respect their agency, and its deeply unpleasant reality. Stop thinking the “intellectuals” covertly control everything, because we really, really don’t. The stupidity is real

Read the comments in the Daily Mail or Sun or on Twitter. Watch the wankers in the streets of England now jeering at people who've spent their whole lives there saying “Ha — time to go back where you come from”. Ignorance is no defence in law, and it’s not in politics either, and we do not have to respect or excuse or second-guess the views and actions of people too stupid to work out how to sit on a toilet, never mind influence a country’s future. 

Look at this asshole. No elite made him wear that. HE DID IT ALL BY HIMSELF.

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