Cruddy by Lynda Barry (Simon & Schuster, 2000)

Cruddy by Lynda Barry.The book starts with a suicide note, addressed to “Anyone Who Finds This.” The book, in fact, is a sort of extended suicide note; since she’s about to die, Roberta Rohbeson can finally tell the truth about that road trip with her father. She’s never told anyone before. Now she’s going to tell you.

Roberta is sixteen, living in “a cruddy rental house” with her mom and her sister. The book intersperses chapters detailing her sixteen-year-old life with descriptions of the fateful road trip five years earlier. There’s copious abuse and trauma in both narratives, but Roberta is a fighter. She can find a way out of any situation, however harrowing.

The book is hard to read at times, written in a trippy, adolescent style. The style fits the subject, but it’s still an acquired taste. Take this paragraph as example:

He looked very relaxed laying on his back in the straw. He seemed to be somewhere around our age, a little older maybe, and he was looking very much like a typical glue-sniffer dropout. The extreme relaxation of the guy was interesting to me. A very fat fly lifted itself and made a worn-out buzzing sound and flew a lopsided circle around his face. He followed it with his eyes and said, “Not now.”

The book is full of abuse in many forms: casual, intentional, emotional, homicidal. In the end, we’re led to believe, Roberta kills herself––that’s it. No one grows, nobody learns anything. Maybe that’s the point.

Rogue Messiahs: Tales of Self-Proclaimed Saviors by Colin Wilson (Hampton Roads, 2000)

Colin Wilson may be a flawed thinker, deserving neither the reverence nor the revulsion he inspired in turn, but he is very good at introducing the reader to new authors and ideas. This book showed me some common aspects of messianic movements that I might have otherwise missed:

  • Many would-be messiahs figures preach that the end of the world is close at hand. During the end of the world, only the figure and his followers will be saved.
  • Messianic cult leaders often use their ministry to gain sexual access to many willing participants. Wilson discusses some of these men’s exploits in graphic detail, which is both disturbing and darkly hilarious.
  • As messianic movements grow in power and influence, their leaders become more paranoid and grandiose. Prophecies of the end-times often grow more dramatic. The results are often tragic: Waco, the Tate-LaBianca murders, Jonestown, etc.

There’s a lot of bad behavior, and abuse of power, detailed in this book. If the recent Hollywood sex abuse scandals have turned your stomach, I’d give this book a miss. However, if you want to get some insight into messianic cults throughout history, this book is a good starting point, if you take Wilson’s intellectual deficits into account.

The Haight-Ashbury: A History by Charles Perry (Wenner Books, 2005)

The Haight-Ashbury: A History is a detailed, in-depth history of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, focusing on the late-1960s counterculture years. Perry shows how the neighborhood evolved during this time, and how the “hippie” subculture evolved with the neighborhood. The book covers every concert, every new venue that opened and closed, every “happening” on a week-by-week basis. This can make for arduous reading, but it makes the book a great starting point for more in-depth research.

Although Haight-Ashbury started as a student neighborhood, it quickly became the locus of a new artistic movement. Beginning in the mid-sixties, concerts, multimedia shows, student cafes, and other “happenings” bloomed in the neighborhood. Kids would parade around the neighborhood in outrageous costumes from the neighborhood’s many second-hand clothing shops. The remaining beatniks, now in their thirties and forties, called this new generation “hippies,” i.e. junior hipsters. The name stuck.

The police looked the other way––at first. Haight-Ashbury formed a “buffer zone” between the mostly-black Fillmore and the mostly-rich Pacific Heights. Some students want to wear costumes, put on a play, even smoke a little dope? Not a priority.

After 1967’s “Human Be-In,” though, the neighborhood attracted thousands of runaways, who in turn attracted many shady characters: dealers, pushers, pimps, hustlers, acid heads, speed freaks, junkies, crazies, and other ne’er-do-wells. Charles Manson lived in Haight-Ashbury for about six months, picking up girls who would later become part of his “family.”

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in 1960s culture and counter-culture. Perry is a little too close to his subject matter to be objective, but it’s still an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to know what happened, and what it felt like.

The Case Against Satan, by Ray Russell (Penguin Classics, Reissued 2016)

Cover of The Case Against Satan by Ray Russell. The Case Against Satan details a young woman’s exorcism at the hands of a bishop and a priest. The bishop, traditional and hard-line, clashes with the modern young priest; the girl, who may or may not be possessed, tries to use this conflict to her advantage. At just 140 pages, the book doesn’t waste any time, taking us through the whole experience in brief but powerful chapters.

Russell’s spare but expressive prose drives the story and adds to the horror of the situation. Some of his characterizations feel a little on the nose, from the bigoted crank to the perverted, murderous father. The recent sexual abuse scandals also color how one views this book. Despite these qualms, the book managed to hold my interest to the end, and the final revelation is both surprising and satisfying.

The Case Against Satan delves into the role unconscious motivations may or may not play in an individual’s salvation. Would God damn you to hell for an action you committed unconsciously? The anguish surrounding this question reflects a growing anxiety about how psychology was revealing and restructuring our views of the mind, even of the soul.

There’s a subtle irony in the title. The modern priest, Gregory Sargent, doubts the existence of the devil. Over the course of the book, he comes to believe that Satan is a real creature that wills evil. Who is making “the case against Satan” here––and what kind of case is it? Are we arguing that Satan is wrong, or debating his existence?

Last Night at the Viper Room, by Gavin Edwards (It Books, 2013)

Cover of Last Night at the Viper Room, by Gavin Edwards.I’ve never seen a River Phoenix movie.* After reading this book, I’m not sure I want to. Not because he sounds untalented, but because this book hints at the darker side of Hollywood that’s now coming to light.

Let me clarify. Edwards never says that Phoenix abused, or was abused, by anyone in Hollywood. A few situations detailed in the book seem…dicey, to put it charitably, but there’s plenty of disturbing content here without stooping to speculation.

River Phoenix was born into the Children of God cult, which preached and practiced child sexual abuse. River lost his virginity at age four. It was okay, he insisted later in life; “I took a vow of chastity from ten to fourteen.” The family (then the Bottoms––yes, they named their son “River Bottom”) lived as missionaries in Venezuela, where River and his siblings sometimes sang on the street to earn money. His parents were either too brainwashed, dissociated, or unaware of the abuse to leave after River’s early experiences in the cult.

The Bottoms eventually left the Children of God and moved to Hollywood. They changed their last name to “Phoenix,” symbolizing a new beginning. River wanted to change the world through music, though he took some acting jobs to make money for the family. As time passed, he decided that he could also change the world through acting.

Phoenix co-starred in Stand by Me with Jerry O’Connell, Wil Wheaton, and Corey Feldman. This section is hard reading, given Feldman’s descriptions of endemic sexual abuse that he endured as a young actor. Did his costars suffer the same fate? Was River seen as an “easy target,” given his background? Last Night… doesn’t say, but these unanswered questions cast a shadow over the entire book. Even potentially innocent comments, such as River’s (and Corey’s) agent comparing child actors to meat, look more sinister in light of the scandals now engulfing Hollywood.

By all accounts, River Phoenix was a gentle and kind person until the last six months of his life, when his addictions consumed him. I felt sorry for him, but mostly I felt angry at all the people who failed him, both through action and inaction.


*Since writing this, I’ve seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He was a good actor. I’m still not sure I want to see any more.

Swim Through the Darkness by Mike Stax (Process Media/Feral House, 2016)

Cover image of Swim Through the Darkness by Mike Stax, a biography of the late Craig Vincent Smith.Craig Smith had the world at his feet. A talented singer-songwriter, Smith was handsome, charismatic, easy to get along with; his songs were unique and inventive, both in composition and production. And yet, for the last 35 plus years of his life, Smith wandered the streets of Studio City, homeless and apparently friendless. What happened?

Answering that question led Mike Stax on a fifteen-year odyssey of discovery. Stax conducted hundreds of interviews, combed through public records, and searched newspaper and magazine archives to piece together the details of Smith’s life. This odyssey culminated in Swim Through the Darkness, an exhaustively researched biography of Smith.

Some pieces of Smith’s story are irretrievably lost. There are so many Smiths, even Craig Smiths, that it made it difficult to find the needles in the haystack. Stax’s interview subjects, recalling memories from forty or fifty years ago, described vague recollections or second-hand rumors. A few people, including the Smith family, declined to comment. Some are now dead.

Despite these considerable hurdles, Stax found out a great deal about this once-promising musician. Craig Smith was his high school class president. At some point, he developed an interest in the burgeoning folk music movement, and learned to play guitar and sing. He declined scholarship offers from several colleges to sing backup vocals on the Andy Williams show. Smith’s good looks and charisma are evident in clips from the show, where he looks and sounds like an all-American kid.

In those early days, Smith was well-liked, even adored, by friends and colleagues. Stax’s book is full of effusive descriptions of the effect Smith had on people: he had a “beautiful dazzling smile,” whole families were “in love with him as a human being,” he was funny and popular and “the typical, wonderful All-American boy.” Not everyone felt the same way, though. Smith sometimes fell into dour moods that came and went without explanation. Doug Brookins, another backup singer, remembers Smith being closed-off and strange:

I knew there was something wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I would try to promote conversation and there was just some dark screen that came in front of him. He wouldn’t even respond to friendly conversation…So when that dark screen came up in front of him, I just walked away.

Smith found success writing songs for others, including Andy Williams, the Monkees, and Heather MacRae. One of his songs, “Christmas Holiday,” appeared on one of the biggest-selling Christmas records of the 1960s, presumably earning Smith a hefty sum in royalties. Despite these successes, stardom eluded him.

While reading, I was surprised by how many times Smith almost made it big. He was the lead in a pilot for a show called “The Happeners,” which was sure to get picked up. It wasn’t. Record deals with several duos and folk groups fell through. Smith’s band, Penny Arkade, was produced by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees. The group was well-liked and seemed destined for success, but they never got a record deal. Smith had many other friends and supporters in the music industry, including Mike Love of the Beach Boys. Nevertheless, Smith never became well-known outside of the Los Angeles music scene.

At the age of 23, Smith went down the “hippie trail,” a path that ran from Greece to India, in search of spiritual enlightenment. According to one fellow traveler, Smith regularly ingested both LSD and hashish on his journey. Instead of finding enlightenment, Smith lost a part of himself that he never recovered.

In Kandahar, Afghanistan, something bad happened to Craig Smith, no one’s quite sure what. Rumors swirled that Craig pulled a knife on a fruit vendor, that he ran through the street wielding a knife, that a mob chased him and beat him up. Smith told several people that he was kidnapped, beaten, and raped over the course of several days. Smith may have also spent time in an Afghan insane asylum. If he was high during the initial attack, which seems likely, the experience may have been that much more frightening and traumatizing.

While Stax heavily emphasizes Smith’s possible brain damage in the attack, I think the assault and possible rape may have also strongly affected him. At that time, there was no real cultural script for how men dealt with sexual trauma––there still isn’t. A friend of Smith’s said that, in his moments of relative clarity, Smith told him that “the major cause of him flipping out was this kidnapping and sexual abuse that he went through.”

Bruce Barbour, another associate, believed the attack may have deeply wounded the Smith’s self-concept:

[Craig Smith] was all about peace and love, and had never encountered anything like that before. That would have been such a betrayal to him that it might very well have been an awakening that he didn’t want to deal with…He was personable, attractive, talented—everybody loved him…if somebody beat him up he would’ve been just so astounded that it may well have turned his head around.

Whatever happened, Smith came back to the states a changed man. Gone was the carefree, charismatic, happy young man the world had known. Craig developed a massive Messiah complex, proclaiming himself to be “Maitreya Kali,” the living incarnation of the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Gandhi, and half a dozen other spiritual leaders all in one. Craig self-released two more albums, “Apache” and “Inca,” in the early 1970s, under the name Maitreya Kali. The albums combine Penny Arkade tracks with newer compositions.

Why self-released? Sadly, Craig Smith, once so effervescent and effusive, now alienated nearly everyone he came across. He was frightening where he’d been charming, disturbing where he’d been disarming. Right at the moment when he most desired a loyal band of followers, he found himself pushing away even his closest friends. He started to drift away from normal life; after a stint in prison, Smith lived an itinerant or semi-itinerant lifestyle, living in transient hotels and on the streets, for the rest of his life.

There were several issues with this book. Stax clearly worked hard on his material, and I appreciate the care and love that he put into the book. However, he has one “tic” that gets a little annoying. Stax describes some of his interview subjects as “successful” or “acclaimed” without elaborating. Here are several examples:

Barbour…went on to become a hugely successful Hollywood stuntman, appearing in countless films and TV shows.

Jackson, who was still based in Los Angeles, had gone on to enjoy a successful career as a songwriter and a session musician…

Baskin would later become a film composer and movie producer, Edie an acclaimed photographer and art director, and Shyer a successful screenwriter, director, and producer.

These descriptions are a little frustrating to read. Successful how? What movies, songs, albums, or other projects did these people work on? What are they doing now? Have they moved into other lines of work, or are they still in the entertainment business? It isn’t always clear. Mentioning a couple projects, e.g. “Bruce Barbour went on to work as a stuntman and stunt coordinator for numerous films and tv shows, such as Charmed, The O.C., and Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds,” would make these sections a lot more engaging.

There are also a fair number of typos. Maybe I shouldn’t say anything, since I’m pretty much the king and queen of typos put together, but it’s still a little off-putting. Despite these issues, I recommend this book to anyone interested in psychedelic music, American popular culture, or the Los Angeles music scene in the 1960s and 70s.

There are thousands, if not millions, of similar stories throughout the world. Most of them will never be told. Mike Stax has gone to impressive lengths to tell this one. I hope that Craig Smith’s story will feed into the broader cultural conversation on mental illness and drug use. I also hope this will also lead to a rediscovery of Smith’s music, which I’ve grown to love.

Endless Holiday

“Young, dumb, spiritually numb,” the sallow man laughed. “That’s me. That’s you, too.”

“No,” I said, turning away. His eyes were black pits. If I looked at them too long, I knew I’d fall in. Don’t ask me how I knew, because I can’t tell you.

“You’ll see,” he said, and laughed. His laugh turned into a hacking cough. I examined the ice at the bottom of my drink. God, I thought, if only there was some way out of here. Of course there wasn’t, not really.

We were sitting at the bar on the ninth floor. No alcohol served after dark––and it was always after dark. I watched two men stumble across the dance floor, arms entwined, faces slack with boredom. The pianist plowed through a joylessly jaunty tune, the musical equivalent of a man dancing at gunpoint. My drinking companion grinned.

“Want to hear a joke?” he said. I didn’t, but oh well.

“What’s eternity minus ten minutes?…Eternity. What’s eternity minus ten days?…Eternity. What’s eternity minus ten years?…Give up?”

“That’s not funny.”

“It will be.”

I got up, leaving my drink at the bar. That was the one good thing about this place: you could come and go as you liked. I didn’t look at the man with black pits for eyes.

“Where you going?” he said. “Off on urgent business?”

“Something like that.”

The doorman handed me a coat, not mine, and disappeared. It was too big, ripped to bits at the back. At least it wasn’t a woman’s coat.

The muggy air in the hallway sucked up every thought in my head. I stood at the threshold, jaunty music tinkling away behind me. The wallpaper was always flaking off up here, but someone had ripped a great big piece off the wall, revealing yet another garish pattern underneath.

“Looking for your room?” a woman said, and laughed, as she passed by. She wore a faded ballgown, probably not hers either. I smiled, not really meaning it.

There’s a window by the elevator on this floor. I don’t look out. I used to, but there’s literally nothing to see. The hotel is surrounded by a void, the void, and you can go out its front door and get swallowed up, forever, no appointment necessary. Only no one does.

Why not? I don’t know. Maybe they do, and the void spits them out again. Maybe no one notices when they disappear. I wouldn’t.

The elevator clanged open. The attendant snarled at me, like a gangster in an old movie.

“Lobby,” he said as I got on. I didn’t argue.

Twenty people boarded at the sixth floor. One man glared at me as he squeezed in. Fiftyish, in a faded old suit, hair slick against his skull. Two boys laughed as the doors closed.

“This holiday will end,” another man, fat, said to the girl under his arm. “And when it does, they’ll see what a good girl you’ve been.”

“I haven’t been good,” she said, to titters from the crowd. The fat man pulled her close.

“No?” he said. The boys elbowed each other, eyeing the girl.

“I don’t care if this holiday never ends,” she said, looking vaguely into the middle distance.

“No?” said the fat man, a bit more uncertainly.

“No,” she said. “I just want to find my room.” Murmured laughter filled the air.

The doors opened on the lobby: a crush of bodies by the bar, dirty, dizzy-making carpet, bells ringing and voices shouting without end. More music. The smell of smoke.

In the restaurant, men with cigars coughed over empty plates. Girls sat with them, scanning the crowd or studying their nail beds. People wandered through the restaurant, peeking into the empty kitchen, leaning on tables or hiding in one of the corner booths. Near me, two men leaned close together, trying to talk. The knot of young people shrieking by the pool door made that impossible.

“He’s in there, he’s in there!” several hoarse voices cried out, serving as counterpoint to insane laughter. Hands banged on the pool door. No one was in there; the pool was closed, due to reopen in a morning that would never come. The door never gave, not even an inch.

I got up and left the restaurant. The two men followed me out.

“…lines of communication are open,” the older man was saying.

“Of course,” said the younger. “You’d be a fool not to demand verification. I — ”

“ — They can see us, of course,” the older man blurted. “That’s why there are those holes in the walls — so they can look inside— ”

“––Quite,” the young man said, with a glance to the side. “If you’ll excuse me.” With a short bow, he walked away and melted into the crowd.

“I bet there’s nobody up there,” a woman said behind us. The older man, who was still standing where the younger one had left him, looked at me. He’d heard her, too.

“It’s just the hotel, and that’s it,” she said. Boredom was written into every line on her face.

“No,” the man said. “Everyone knows that — ”

“ — Everyone’s wrong,” the woman insisted. “This is all there is.”

The man’s face fell. I looked to the woman, expecting to see a triumphant smirk. If anything, she looked more bored than ever.

The three of us walked together, not talking. The crowd thinned out around the entrance; it always did. I stopped to look. The revolving doorway turned slowly, lazily, although there was no one and nothing to turn it. Beyond the doorway, utter and complete darkness. Not even a curb or a walkway.

“You ever seen anyone go out there?” the woman asked. The old man didn’t answer.

I didn’t realize I was walking until my shoe scuffed the linoleum. If I reached out, I could now touch the door as it passed. Behind me, someone gasped.

A hush had fallen over the lobby. I turned back; an endless, silent sea of faces stared back at me. The woman and the older man drew back, eyes wide.

Someone in the crowd laughed. It was my old drinking companion, his black-pit eyes dancing with mirth.

“Bet you won’t!” he called out.

I turned back to the door. I was inside the arc of its revolution now; it was coming closer, slowly. I could see the crowd’s reflection in its glass, faces like little pale stones.

“Bet you won’t!” the black-eyed man called out . The glass door came closer and closer. Maybe I was backing away from it, maybe I wasn’t. You learned not to trust anything down here, least of all your own body.

“Bet you won’t!” the black-eyed man shouted, his voice breaking. Well, what if I did? Either I’d end up back here, or I’d dissolve into nothing, or––joke of jokes––wind up at an even worse hotel, one with no bars, no doors and no windows. Maybe I’d even wake up in my own room. Who knows?

The door came closer and closer. I couldn’t hear anything now, even the hush of the lobby. I wanted to find out what came next. I had to.

I closed my eyes.

This story was originally published on Twitter, as a response to a prompt by @horrorprompt.

Hotel Durant

I’m writing a new story on Twitter. Current title is “Hotel Durant” though that may change. It’s in response to a prompt by @horrorprompt to write a story based on the words “spiritually numb.”

You can read it starting here.

Video 6

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Video 5

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