Goodbye Crabtree

In 2013, my first novel, The Sound of Loneliness, was released. Those that read the book appeared to enjoy it. For some, the events of protagonist Daniel Crabtree resonated, even if they didn’t quite like him. The majority of reviews on Goodreads and Amazon were five stars. Respected authors like Dan Fante (May he rest in peace), Mark SaFranko, Paul Tremblay and Kyle Minor sang it’s praises. In my hometown, where the novel takes place, a local drama group performed one of Crabtree’s monologues on stage. The Salford Gazette interviewed me, and I was featured on the local authority’s Famous Salfordian list alongside such esteemed actors as Ben Kingsley and Albert Finney. I had, after years of struggling, established myself as a writer with two new books ready to be published. Everything was looking promising.

Seven years on, The Sound of Loneliness is out of print. You will no longer find my name on the famous Salfordian list. There have been no recent reviews for the book. No monologues. No interviews. Daniel Crabtree has gone to that place where many protagonists visit and often never return – obscurity.

For those untrained in the world of publishing, when a novel is accepted for print, the writer relinquishes the rights to the book until sales drop to a point whereby royalties dry up. Until that point, the book remains in print. In some cases you can reclaim the rights back, which I did. My decision was not an easy one to make, but for reasons I will not document here, it was the right one. Whether Crabtree will drag himself from obscurity and gain a second lease of life is still undetermined. Having lived with Crabtree for so long, I know that would piss him off. Sorry, Daniel.

I just wanted to take this moment to thank all the people who bought the book, and extra gratitude to those that did not burn it after reading. If you hated Crabtree, know he would have hated you more. If you tolerated him, know he would never show you the same courtesy. And if you liked him, understand he would have thought you weaker for it. Crabtree was no George Bailey. He began his journey an angry and embittered man, and ended it much the same way. But he was honest, and I believe had there been more of this at the start of my own journey, then his wouldn’t have been so short lived.

Thank you, reader, for giving a lonely man a home.

2019 Reading List

Below you’ll find all the books I got to in 2019, listed in order of best to those that left me indifferent. I’ll only add comments to the top books in each category.

FICTION:

1. The Book of X by Sarah Rose Ettar: Sarah Rose Etter can write. Jesus, can she write. The Book of X, her debut novel, is beautiful. Telling the story of Cassie, a girl born with a hereditary disorder where her stomach is wrapped into a knot, we are plunged into a world where meat is harvested from quarries, male prostitutes can be amputated if you can’t afford the cost, and jealously forms in the body as granite. More wonderful than this is seeing this world through Cassie’s eyes. Part Amy Hempel, part Margret Atwood at times, I was instantly captivated by her voice, and long after reading, heard it resonate in my mind long into the night. If Bridget Jones was written by William Burroughs, this would it. Dark, hypnotic, surreal, heart-breaking, honest and sublime. Seek it out.

2. The Sister Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

3. Extremely Loud, and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer

4. Cool Moon Over Babylon by Michael McDowell

5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

6. Big Maria by Johnny Shaw

7. The Bone Weaver’s Orchard by Sarah Read

8. Carrie by Stephen King

9. Necronomicon by HP Lovecraft

10. Pet Sematary by Stephen King

11. The Dead Zone by Stephen King

12. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

13. Fly Already by Etgar Keret

14. Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias

15. Bird Box by Josh Malerman

16. The Institute by Stephen King

17. Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky

18. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

19. The Soul Standard by Caleb Ross, Axel Taiari and Nik Korpon

20. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

21. Don Quixote by Cervantes Saavedre

22. The Humans by Matt Haig

23. The Fog by James Herbert

24. The End of the World Running Club by Adrian J Walker

25. Legion by William Peter Blatty

26. Night of 1,000 Beasts by John Palisano

27. Moonglow by Michael Chabon

28. The Tattoist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

NON FICTION:

1. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. As lead prosecutor in the Manson trail, Bugliosi proves to be an invaluable source into the atrocities that happened on August 8th/9th 1969, that involved the brutal murders of seven people, the most well known of whom was Sharon Tate. While the cast is many, which at times becomes disorientating as most of the Manson family also went by aliases, Bugliosi does well in keeping the wheels on a vehicle that moves at a fair pace. Beginning with the discovery of the bodies located at the Tate house on August 8th, then moving chronically through the first responding officers, forensics, the second murders at the LaBianca residence on August 9th, interviews, and extensive research before leading to the trail, you can’t help but get caught up in the story. The blunders made by police officers, the brutality and sheer madness of the deaths themselves, and of course Charles Manson and his crazy ideology that spread through the family like a virus, further bolsters the need to keep turning the pages. As with most notorious killers and evil people, there is a morbid curiosity to understand why these people did what they did, and while we are happy to ask these questions, and indeed delve into the minds of the sick and disturbed from the safety of our homes, as proven with many fictional books that deal with murder, it’s always worth reminding yourself that this is not a work of fiction. This was real, which makes it all the more chilling. While at times Bugliosi’s account of the events leading to the Manson trail turned into a genealogy chart with an infinite amount of members, and that his articulating of the American judicial system, and its many follies, acted as literary speed bumps, I believe that there is no one better placed to exhibit the story and evidence with such skilful finesse as Bugliosi. I personally took the trip into Manson’s life, and that of his family, because of Tarantino’s new movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which makes reference to the killing of Sharon Tate. I wanted to know as much as possible to see how accurate the movie is. Whatever reason propels you to delve into this book, be reassured you’ll come out of it realising that had this been a work of fiction you would have never believed it. And, that whatever factions of society believed Manson was innocent, they were wrong. Very very wrong.

2. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty (close 2nd)

3. Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Powers Of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

4. Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

5. The Beastie Boys Book by Mike D

6. Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

7. The Exorcist by Mark Kermode

8. Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giula Enders

9. Zodiac by Robert Graysmith

10. The Silent Guides by Steve Peters

11. Happy Brain: Where Happiness Comes From by Dean Burnett

https://www.goodreads.com/user/year_in_books/2019

BLACKWATER by Michael McDowell – Book Review

I have lived with the Caskey family now for so long I feel part of it, like a long distance cousin, or nephew by marriage. I know every lane, and sawmill in the tiny Alabama town of Perdido, every water oak and grain of sand on the Casky land. The feminine brogue of James, the shrill of Queenie, and the long drawl of Bray are as common to me as any birdsong or howl of wind. This is not the consequence of having spent so long in its six volumes, totalling some 1,200 pages and spanning half a century, it is simply down to the richly detailed lives, and at times, sad and haunting writing of Michael McDowell.

BLACKWATER was my first McDowell book, and I began it with no preconceived idea of what to expect. I had no expectations, nor was I privy to the fact McDowell had been dead for nearly twenty years, and that he had, in the late 1980s, penned the first draft of the Beetlejuice screenplay, which, through subsequent research, was a lot darker than the movie we know today. To me, McDowell had always been dead, and like the many ghosts born from the Perdido over the course of his book, he had wandered into my life, made bright the lights around me, and chilled my skin. And for that, I’m grateful.

The story is best described as a supernatural soap opera. I’m not saying that to dumb it down. This isn’t a book that can be dumbed down. But it is a story about family, beginning in the year 1919 and rounding off in 1970. At the start, the Caskey family had garnered a reasonable wealth through their sawmills, and things seemed to be going well until a great flood submerged most of the small town, including its homes, business and even people. And it’s here where the story begins. Oscar Caskey and his black servant, Bray, take a small boat into the town; there they find Elinor Dammert waiting to be rescued, though I use the term very loosely, in the upper floor room of the Osceola hotel. Elinor is not like other women. She is different, mysterious, and instantly wins the heart of the guileless Oscar. The only person who doesn’t take to Elinor is the matriarch Mary-Love, the head of the Caskey clan, and certainly a force to be reckoned with, as are most of the Caskey women. The truth is, women rule the roost in Perdido. They are the strongest characters, and by far, the most interesting. McDowell’s gift in shaping these woman, from Mary-Love, to her daughter Sister, to the servants, Ivey Sapp and her daughter Zaddie, and more importantly, Oscar and Elinor’s estranged daughter, Miriam, is beguiling to observe. It’s fair to say the women of BLACKWATER are violets unwilling to shrink for anyone, least of all the men.

“Oscar knew that Elinor was very much like his mother: strong-willed and dominant, wielding power in a fashion he could never hope to emulate. That was the great misconception about men… there were blinds to disguise the fact of men’s real powerlessness in life. Men controlled the legislatures, but when it came down to it, they didn’t control themselves… Oscar knew that Mary-Love and Elinor could think and scheme rings around him. They got what they wanted. In fact, every female on the census rolls of Perdido, Alabama got what she wanted. Of course no man admitted this; in fact, didn’t even know it. But Oscar did…”

It’s worth noting, the Caskey men are not anvils to bear every harsh word or mighty strike of each women’s doings. They are not victims of domestic violence, nor do they whimper or cower. But they do serve a purpose, and that is to make sure they do the things asked of them by the women, or at least agree to what the women are asking of them. The Caskey men’s strength is their understanding they will never be as shrewd, calculating, all-knowing and persistent enough to undertake such tasks as counter arguing. They know when best to remain quiet, and know that no matter what happens, be it handing over their children to curry favour with a senior member of the family, or amassing wealth beyond their comprehension, all of these things were conceived, implemented and executed by a woman, and done for the greater good.

The supernatural aspect, that at times gives most horror stories a run for their money, is delivered with enough bite you feel it’s teeth sink into you, and long after the moment passes, stare incredulously at the impression in your skin that refuses to fade. These moments are few, but when they come along, they shake the very pages. I’ve read a lot of ghost stories and I can say that what McDowell does in a couple of pages takes most authors fifty. Elinor’s character, in particular, has a past that stretches beyond the norm, and while not exactly chilling, there are moments you spend with her that renders your jaw slack and skin goosed. Each bloody end to a life, each resurrected spirit, they’re all crafted beautifully and interspersed appropriately so the reader does not feel gorged on gore, but instead, thirsty for more. I cannot praise McDowell enough. I cannot find fault in his prose, nor thumb my nose towards any character he gave flesh to. It’s a beautifully sad, haunting and awe-inspiring piece of fiction that will stay with me for such a long time.

The Caskey family opened their door to me. They allowed me to walk their halls, console myself in their chairs, eat at their tables, sleep in their beds and attend their many funerals. They looked after me like I was one of their own, and for that, I’m indebted and humbled. Now it’s time for you to knock upon their door, pull up a chair, and savour their hospitality while listening to the song of their ghosts.