Forgotten Carnival

I post on this site, from time to time, some of my experiments with short fiction.  I recognize that they aren’t very good, certainly not good enough for publication (I have written a couple of pieces I haven’t posted to this site yet that I hope are worthy of publication and submitted them to various literary journals, so far, to no avail).  I do find some value in them, however, as exercises in trying to learn the craft of short fiction writing.  I am vain enough to aspire to writing something memorable, and humble enough to know that I still have much to learn.

As a neophyte, and as a devoted fan of the art form, I am sensitive to when I am making use of tired clichés and a lack of originality.   Two of the short stories I’ve posted on this site (“Highway Q”, of which I’m quite embarrassed, and “Night Watchman”, which is if nothing else better than “Highway Q”) rely upon that tired old plot device of the main character not knowing he is dead.   When I wrote these stories, I thought I was ripping off things like Ambrose Bierce’s great short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (which, in “Highway Q”, I was) and movies like “The Sixth Sense” or “The Others.”  In all honesty, this wasn’t my intent when writing either story, and I remained somewhat mystified at why this was an attractive plot device to me.   Last night, something triggered a memory for me, and I think now I know where my fascination with this cliché came from.

I was 12 or 13 years old, and it was the last day of school, the best day of the year.  School being out meant summer and baseball and sleeping in and, best of all, it meant staying up late at night.  That year, on the first night of summer vacation, a Friday night, I vowed to stay awake for Nightmare Theatre, with Dr. Cadavarino, on channel six, sometime after midnight.   I didn’t quite make it, falling asleep on the couch, but I woke up in time to see black and white footage of a strange woman wandering through a deserted carnival.  I had missed the beginning and the name of the movie, but I saw enough to realize, by the end, that the woman was dead and didn’t know it, and I saw enough to be genuinely creeped out.

I never saw the movie again until last night, when I stumbled upon a title and read the synopsis.  Intrigued, I found that the movie in its entirety is on You Tube, and I watched it, and I am pleased to announce that the movie remains as creepy to me now as it did then.  The movie is the original, 1962 Carnival of Souls, a low budget ($33,000) horror film directed by someone named Herk Harvey.

Carnival of Souls begins (the part I was asleep for all those years ago) with a drag race between a car full of young men against a car full of young women.  The cars end up on a rickety old bridge over a river, and the car with the women goes off and crashes into the water below.  While authorities dredge the river to no avail, a little ways downriver one of the women emerges, shocked and soaked.  She has no memory of how she survived the crash.

In a great plot device, we learn that the woman’s occupation is a church organist, and she’s been hired by a church in Utah to play their enormous, creepy pipe organ.  She leaves her hometown, vowing to never come back, only a couple of days after the accident.  Driving at night on her way to Utah, strange things begin to happen.    First, her car radio starts to play strange organ music.  She tries to change the channel and shut the radio off, but the same music continues to play.   Then she has her first encounter with a strange ghoulish-faced man, this time replacing her reflection in the passenger window and staring at her.    She passes by an abandoned amusement park and is strangely attracted to it.

She gets to town and rents an upstairs room in a small boarding house.  Just as she hopes to settle in and start a new life, things start unraveling, and she appears to be going mad.  Aside from additional visits from the ghoulish man, she experiences periods where she is seemingly shut off from the world, where there is no sound and nobody can see or hear her.   She ends up at the deserted amusement park, and sees dead people dancing to the organ music in a dance hall.  She tries to flee from them, but they chase her, and she collapses on a beach with them closing in on her.  Then the movie cuts back to the river, the dredgers have found the car, and her dead body is in the front seat.

Prior to the 1970s, before advances in visual effects, before The Exorcist, horror movies had to rely primarily upon atmosphere to frighten audiences.   The notable exception to this was Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho, which included graphic violence (the famous shower scene, which is brutal despite the fact that the camera never shows the knife touching Janet Leigh’s body) and explicit shock (the shot of Mother’s rotted corpse at the end).  But these exceptions were rare, and even bigger budget horror movies of the time (like Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents” and Robert Wise’s “The Haunting”) were rich in mood and atmosphere.  The only advantage these big budget films had over the low budget films was that they could pay for better writers and directors and actors.   The result is that occasionally, low budget horror films were able to compete with and often times surpass their big budget rivals.

And there were certainly enough horror films being made in the 1960s.  There were the famous William Castle and Roger Corman B-movie products, as well as the Hammer studio films starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.  Possibly the greatest horror film of the time, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”, was a low budget, independent film made in Pittsburgh.  Romero’s genius was in that he let the lack of a budget work in his favor, the grainy black and white footage and the straight forward story telling approach and the use of amateur actors all resulted in a  heightened realism, making the attack of flesh eating zombies more urgent and realistic.

Carnival of Souls is similar in that the low budget cinematography, the amateurish acting (although the actress playing the lead, a Candace Hilligoss, is actually quite good, and brings a surprising range to her performance) and the simple but tight script and direction work and result in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.   Harvey’s direction is top notch, as he uses the camera efficiently but creatively to convey the woman’s psychological state and maintain a consistent eerie atmosphere.   He brings a level of storytelling and sophistication that is unexpected in a low budget production.

The thing I find interesting in all this is that I had seen this movie once, about 40 years ago, and never knew the title, and never thought that much about it, until last night.  Yet it stayed with me, buried in my subconscious,  influencing what I’ve been writing.   It makes me wonder what else is buried in there.

I Am Smoke

(I should probably explain – this is an attempt to describe a dream I had after a frustrating day with Parkinson’s.  In the dream I was literally smoke from a fire, moving freely through the air.  I’ve had a few of these dreams now, usually on my more rigid days, and they always feel wonderful)

I wake in the diminishing daylight and I am smoke, rising from red burning embers in a campfire in an open field on the top of a high ridge.  I rise higher and higher above the red and blue flames and the white hot coals, leaving the warmth of the fire and floating on the breeze, feeling the chill of the late afternoon air, above and over the trees, carried on the breeze, dissolving into the wind, until I melt into and become the wind, making the leaves on the trees tremble and shake.   I move out past the ridge and over the river, pushing small blue lines that silently glide across the water.  The trees that line the water’s edge are leaning and bowing in silent deference to me.   I lift dead leaves from the ground and breathe life into them, making them dance in the cool air.  I make flags wave and I whisper through pine trees.    I am silence and grace, I am young and old, I am familiar and comforting, and threatening and foreboding.  I am life and I am death.  I am the sum of my contradictions.

I find her, working in her garden, and I wrap myself around her.  She bundles her jacket tight around her shoulders as I move through her hair, lifting and caressing it, until she turns around, and I caress her cheeks and I fill her lungs. I brush her skin and make goose bumps rise.  I taste her and she tastes me, and she becomes fire, ignited by my breath, and I am the smoke she exhales from her red and blue flames.

List-O-Mania: Films of the 1970s

The 1970s was a traumatic decade in the U.S. A.   The first half of the decade was dominated by historic failure – 1974 saw our president resign in disgrace, and 1975 saw the fall of Saigon, the official end of more than a decade of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.   Post 1975 was dominated by economic issues, as we started to lose our grip as the leading economic super power.  We were throttled by runaway inflation and gas shortages and rising interest rates.  There was the emergence of serious automotive competition from Japan, and the start of the decline of our textile and steel industries.    

Culturally, the 70s is remembered as an age of hedonism, of sexual freedom and casual drug use.    The writer Tom Wolfe summed it up best when he referred to it as “the Me decade.”     The culture of self absorption was summed up in popular music, with the early 70s dominated by the laid-back, California sounds of the Eagles and singer songwriters like James Taylor and Jackson Browne, and the late 70s dominated by the pulsating beat of the disco explosion.  Punk rock came around in the mid 70s as a form of rebellion against both of these forms.

As mediocre as much of the music output was, film was going through a renaissance, with the emergence of some of the greatest American filmmakers ever.   The 70s saw young directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, Terrence Malick and John Boorman  making some of their most innovative and personal films, stretching  boundaries and bringing the influences of rock and roll and the French New Wave movement of the 1950s to mainstream Hollywood.   Woody Allen transformed from brilliant comic to serious and talented filmmaker.  Giants like Stanley Kubrick and John Huston continued making great films.  Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson established their places with the greatest film actors ever, and Faye Dunaway and Jane Fonda were not only brilliant actresses but also pioneers, breaking down barriers, challenging stereotypes, and changing perceptions of women in film.

 For me, film in the 70s can be divided between the personal and introspective films of Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver) , Coppola (The Godfather, The Conversation) and Altman (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville) and the emergence of the big budget, special effects, sensory orgies of Lucas (Star Wars) and Spielberg (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Mind).  In fact, one film strived to combine these two genres with exhilaratingly mixed results, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

The fact that the Lucas and Spielberg extravaganzas were huge box office successes would have a profound effect on how films would be made, marketed and distributed in the decades that follow.  Unfortunately, the personal and introspective films that Hollywood liberally produced in the early 70s would become few and far between, with sequels to big moneymakers taking their place.

My favorite film of the 70s is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, which is more than a homage to the great 1940s detective films, it takes its place alongside The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep as the best the genre has to offer.   Although it takes place in the 40s, the film is really about the 70s – its story, centering on the manipulation of the Los Angeles water supply, suggests the government scandals of Watergate, and the self absorbed and murky morality in Robert Towne’s screenplay neatly echoes the confused chaos of the time.  Throw Polanski’s atmospheric direction, and great performances by Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway into the mix, the result is pretty damn close to perfection.

Here’s my list of favorite films of the 70s:

20.  Jaws (1975), Directed by Steven Spielberg

19.  Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen

18.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977, Spielberg

17.  Network (1976), Sydney Lumet

16.  Deliverance (1972), John Boorman

15.  The Godfather (1971), Francis Ford Coppola

14.  Dog Day Afternoon (1973), Lumet

13.  Wise Blood (1979), John Huston

12.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Milos Foreman

11.  Days of Heaven (1978), Terrence Malick

10.  The Conversation (1973), Coppola

  9.  Nashville (1975), Robert Altman

  8.  Mean Streets (1973), Martin Scorsese

  7.  Taxi Driver (1976), Scorsese

  6.  Apocalypse Now (1979), Coppola

  5.  The Godfather Part 2 (1974), Coppola

  4.  The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Huston

  3.  Annie Hall (1977), Allen

  2.  A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stanley Kubrick

  1.  Chinatown (1975), Roman Polanski


(I’ve been working on a novel in recent weeks, resulting in fewer postings to this web site, so without any other new material, I thought I’d post a short excerpt.  The novel is about a fictional northern Wisconsin community, and is currently very fragmented and disorganized.  I’ve been having fun making lots of terrible things happen to lots of the characters I create, but I thought I’d share a kind of sweet and innocent moment –this scene takes place in the early 1960s.  The characters are 15 years old and just met at a church benefit dance and have instantly become smitten with each other)

“Would you like some punch?” Joe heard himself asking Kim.

“That sounds nice.”

He went up and returned a moment later with two plastic cups filled with punch.  She was standing up when he returned, they were both feeling restless.  He handed her a cup, and they wandered together back to the hallway.

“This is good”, she said after taking a sip.

“Yeah, it is.”  Joe said.   “It’s too bad you have to leave tomorrow,” he added.

“I know”

“I mean, if you weren’t leaving, I could show you and your brother and sister around”

“I’d like that,” she said.

Silence overtook them, neither knowing what to say, both sensing the mutual attraction as they sipped from their cups.  Finally, Joe said, “Let’s go outside.”

Kim trusted him enough to go with him.  They stepped outside.  The air was warm and still and crisp.  Joe led her out away from the church, to the center of the parking lot.  The music faded to a faint murmur.   Darkness engulfed them when Joe said, “Look.”

Kim had to squint in the darkness to make out the silhouette of his arm pointing up to the sky.  Looking up she could see, scattered across the night sky above them, a million stars and their dust.   It was the first cloudless night of the week, and the first time Kim had ever seen so many stars.

“Wow”, she said.

“There’s the big dipper”, Joe pointed, “and there’s the little dipper.  See them?”

“I do”, Kim replied.  “Wow, it’s so beautiful.”

“They look so close, but they’re so far.  They’re so far it’s taken thousands of years for their light to reach us. “

Kim was looking up, her eyes wide and moist.   Joe could see, in the darkness, the reflection of stars, and he knew that that moment, with the light from thousands of years shining in her eyes, would stay with him forever, and it occurred to him that when he first saw her earlier that evening, standing by the table reading her raffle ticket, that same reflection was already there, it was what made her shine and glow.  He didn’t understand any of this; he just knew it, and he felt it, like he had never felt anything before.

After a while, they went back inside, even dancing a couple of dances, with Joe teaching Kim the little he knew about polka dancing.   They spent some time sitting with the rest of the Hamel family, Joe feeling more and more comfortable with them, everybody in high spirits, everybody having a good time.

The night slowed down and came to a halt around 11:00, the hallway slowly emptying as people made their way to the parking lot. The Hamels offered to give Joe a ride home, and he accepted, climbing in the back seat of their station wagon, with Karla sitting between him and Kim.  Josh had climbed far in the back and curled up; he was fast asleep before the car made it out of the parking lot.  They turned down County Highway O to drop Joe off.  Joe promised he’d ride his bike to the Mighty Casey’s in the morning and see them off.  Then they were in Joe’s driveway, a light was still on in the house.   He said his good nights to the Hamels, opened his door and got out, taking one long last look back at Kim, lit by the car’s dome light.  He shut the door and stood in the car’s headlights and waved as Dean backed out of the driveway.   Then he became aware of the cool, still night air, and the night song of a thousand crickets keeping perfect time from the depths of the darkness.    Everything seemed fresh and new.  It was as if he had never felt the night air or heard the sound of crickets before.