No 583 Motel Chronicles & Hawk Moon by Sam Shepard

What is it I want to make something of? A collection of sound’

Motel Chronicles

Motel Chronicles and Hawk Moon doesn’t appear on this year’s 20 Book of Summer list, but it was on my list in 2014! I don’t feel so bad swapping one of my current list for this one as I didn’t read it then and thought I would turn to it now following the sad news of Sam Shepard’s death last week.

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I am a big fan of Sam Shepard’s work, from his plays to his movie appearances, but Motel Chronicles & Hawk Moon is a collection of his prose work for which he is not so well known. If you are new to Shepard, I wouldn’t advise this as a good place to start, but if you know his work and his exploration of the themes of family, abandonment, masculinity and temporality, then these collections might just appeal.

Motel Chronicles are billed as autobiographical snap shots of Shepard’s own life, all based in and around the transience of motel rooms. As a child, Shepard grew up on the road, moving from place to place with his parents as his father was a US soldier and later in the 1980s he drifted around the south-west creating these autobiographical vignettes.

What follows is a scrap book of very short stories, reminiscences and poems of his time as an actor, a ranch hand, a waiter and a musician, which all have a romanticised vision of the transitory nature of life on the road. Many cover themes that Shepard built on in his later plays but at heart is a belief in the magical, mystical nature of the American West.

Often the scraps of stories read like the lyrics to an early Tom Waits song, populated as they are with drunks and jukeboxes, car thieves and put upon wives. A man receives a postcard from his woman that simply says

‘Darling, I got the report back from the doctor and he said, its best I don’t see you anymore’

A woman trying to escape her abusive partner runs for the lights of a neighbouring house because ‘any light is better than the dark’ while a man emptying his bins muses on the end of the world

I’d just as soon not know if you wanna know the truth. I’d just as soon take it as it comes. Not get all het up about it. If I dissolve, I dissolve. Nothing to it. Just as soon dissolve in peace. Except they say it doesn’t happen all at once. Supposed to be slow. Tortured like. Belabored. Ghastly breathing.

Nice thoughts. I only came to empty the garbage.

There is a world weariness, a sense of life lived on the edge that permeates these glimpses into the lives of Shepard’s characters. Many are yearning for connection of any kind, like the boy who pretends to sleepwalk to get his parents attention

Humour was the farthest thing from my mind. It wasn’t to make them laugh. It was only for the thrill of having a relationship with them outside the ordinary

Some pieces are unsettling, like the story of the two nurses and a man in a tuxedo who creep around town in the dead of night leaving a white wicker chair they believe to be a symbol of death in other people’s gardens, and many of the stories centre around people being where they aren’t supposed to be and seeing things they really shouldn’t see.

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There is a strength to the obviously autobiographical pieces in the collection, including a profile of Shepard’s isolated father who lives in the desert and the longest story in the book, at 14 pages, which details the near fatal stroke and subsequent surgery of a female family member, who would seem to be Shepard’s mother. The writing is accompanied by photographs of Shepard with his father; his first wife O’Lan Jones (his ‘natural woman’) and with various friends, family members and cars. It adds to the scrap book/ notebook feel, as all the poems and prose pieces are untitled with no real through thread to connect them to each other.

The pieces feel like flash fiction, before flash fiction existed – short, sharp, ethereal scenes that work best when they tap into the themes that permeate plays like Fool for Love, Buried Child or True West.

Hawk Moon is less successful, an earlier collection, it lacks the cohesion of Motel Chronicles. It is a much darker collection of writings, a series of unpunctuated prose poems that don’t quite capture the imagination in the way that the Motel Chronicles pieces do. There is an apocalyptic feel to these pieces but they work best when they are more structured. Seven is a Number in Magic depicts a group of nurses who are mugged by a group of young boys and one of them has her ear cut off.

The next day the six nurses bring the seventh one with one ear a transistor radio to her room in the hospital where she used to work. They all make jokes about at least she knows what she’s in for.

The kid with the nurse’s ear sits on top of a roof on his haunches staring down at the ear. He drives a hole through the white lobe with a nail and threads it on a leather thong then puts it around his neck. He stands up and raises a fist to the sky. The Gods are well pleased.

Generally speaking Motel Chronicles & Hawk Moon are collections to dip in and out of, and will probably be more enjoyable if you are familiar with Shepard’s plays. The poetry is, for the most part, not very good, and the marketing that suggests that these stories were the basis for the screenplay of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, seems to be a little misplaced.

Yet, there are stories here that linger long and lay the groundwork for that mythic territory that Shepard created in his work.

 

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Top Ten Tuesday – Name That Tune!

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I couldn’t resist this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic from the Broke and the Bookish, which is all about books and music, my two favourite things! The topic this week is songs I wish were books but instead I decided to pick my Top Ten songs inspired by literature. I even got a bit over-excited and have created a little Spotify playlist (with a few extras added in!) is case any of you are inspired to listen!

 

1. Wuthering Heights – Kate Bush

Heathcliff, it’s me, it’s Cathy

I’ve come home….

Well come on. It had to be on the list didn’t it? I knew this song before I read the book and spent my primary school years having it sung to me because of my name. Kate Bush manages to capture the wildness, the spirit and the dark romance of Bronte’s classic perfectly

2. Tread Softly – Tiny Ruins

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Tiny Ruins are a band from Auckland in New Zealand fronted by the gorgeous voice of singer/ songwriter Hollie Fullbrook. I’ve been captivated by this band since hearing the beautiful song ‘Me at the Museum, You at the Winter Gardens’ and this version of WB Yeats’ He Wishes for The Clothes of Heaven is equally captivating.

3. The Ghost of Tom Joad – Bruce Springsteen

The highway is alive tonight

But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes

I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light

Searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad

When you think of Bruce Springsteen, it’s usually the crowd-pleasing anthems of Born in the USA and Dancing in the Dark that come to mind, but I do love the quieter, more introspective albums like Nebraska and the gorgeous The Ghost of Tom Joad. Taking inspiration from the character from The Grapes of Wrath, Springsteen’s acoustic album is heavily influenced by literature, each sparse, poignant song like a novella of the desperation of ordinary people trying to live and ordinary live but trapped by poverty and depression.

4. Alice – Tom Waits

And I must be insane

To go skating on your name

And by tracing it twice

I fell through the ice

Of Alice

Not just one song, but an album of wonderfully odd songs, Tom Waits’ Alice was written for theatre director Robert Wilson’s stage adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale. Waits is perfectly suited to the weird and the wonderful and this whole album evokes a ramshackle carnivalesque world of lost girls, strange creatures and mad hatters.

5. Big Julie – Jarvis Cocker

And this song may lead her far away

But tonight it seems to light the way

And she can almost see the future shine

And everything’s in tune and everything’s in time

It will play until the day Big Julie rules the world

Big Julie rules the world

Last week, Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker presented a documentary on Radio 4 about Carson McCuller’s whose writing he is drawn to for its musicality and focus on the outsiders in life. Big Julie takes inspiration from her book The Member of the Wedding and opens with McCullers herself reading an abridged version of the opening paragraph and the lyrics of the song borrow freely from the text McCullers other masterpiece, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

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6. Sylvia Plath – Ryan Adams

I wish I had a Sylvia Plath

Busted tooth and a smile

And cigarette ashes in her drink

The kind that goes out and then sleeps for a week

Ryan Adam’s Gold is one of my favourite albums of all time and Sylvia Plath is less of an ode to the poet herself and more an ode to the idea of her, a type of woman, a Sylvia Plath who will be complicated, dark and intriguing. Which is, I suppose, a little bit odd….

7. Scentless Apprentice – Nirvana

Like most babies smell like butter

His smell smelled like no other

He was born scentless and senseless

He was born a scentless apprentice

In Peter Suskind’s masterpiece Perfume, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the historical novel’s protagonist, is a perfume apprentice with hypersomnia, which gives a person a strong sense of smell, but ironically was born without a body scent. Kurt Cobain was on record as saying it was his favourite book – he carried it everywhere and reread it constantly before using it as the inspiration for this song.

8. Suzanne – Leonard Cohen

And you want to travel with her

And you want to travel blind

And you know that she will trust you

For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.

So, this is a little bit of a cheat, but Leonard Cohen’s classic song Suzanne began life as a poem ‘Suzanne Takes You Down’ which was included in his Selected Poems, 1956 – 1968. Cohen turned several of his poems into songs, including True Love Leaves No Traces and Queen Victoria and Me

9. A Good Man is Hard to Find – Sufjan Stevens

Once in the backyard,

she was once like me,

she was once like me.

Twice when I killed them,

they were once at peace,

they were once like me.

A Good Man is Hard to Find is Flannery O’Connor’s dark story of the brutal murder of an entire family by a killer on the loose called The Misfit and contains a moment of connection between the killer and one of his victims, the elderly grandmother. In this song, Sufjan Stevens sings from the point of view of The Misfit, using the same empathy as the grandmother in the original story.

10. Tear in Your Hand – Tori Amos

So you say you don’t wanna stay together anymore

Let me take a deep breath babe

If you need me Me and Neil’ll be

hangin’ out with the dream king

Neil says hi

This song is not entirely inspired by a work of literature but does make reference to Neil Gaiman and his Dream King character. Amos recorded Tear in Your Hand on her 1991 demo for Little Earthquakes and a mutual friend, upon hearing the reference introduced the pair. They have remained friends ever since and Gaiman returned the favour by immortalising Amos as a talking tree in his book Stardust.

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So there you have it! If you have a look at my playlist, you’ll see I whittled this down from about 25 possibilities!

Have you any favourite songs inspired by literature? Or any music you think would be a good soundtrack to your favourite book?

 

No 697 Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye

 

your house is on fire your children all gone

I may not have got the full creepy quotient with my previous RIP read, Joyland, but Your House is On Fire Your Children All Gone has more than made up for it.

With echoes of Shirley Jackson and the Brothers Grimm, Stefan Kiesbye has created a series of interconnected stories that culminate in a terrifyingly detached meditation on the nature of evil.

A group of adults – Martin, Christian, Alex and Linde –  have returned to the village of Hemmersmoor in rural Germany to bury one of their childhood friends, Anke. Growing up in Hemmersmoor has left it’s mark on them all, being as it was a village out of time, shrouded in superstition and rumour and shadowed by true evil. There are hints that the village may be cursed and as their childhood stories are recounted, we are reminded that true horror comes more from the things that humans can inflict upon each other than from any other-worldy entity.

Each chapter is narrates by one of the friends and each of their stories seems to be vying with the last to be as cruel as possible. An entire family is murdered over a pie-making contest. A woman is found to have buried nine babies in her flower pots. A young boy kills his sister to trade her soul for a glimpse of hell at a carnival stall. Minor cruelties and jealous tricks have disastrous consequences resulting in death and destruction. Each chapter leads into the next, building up a picture of a village gone wrong, a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the dark heart of the story.

Comparison’s have been made to Children of the Corn, but in Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, it is not just the children who are cruel. Everyone is cruel. The children commit horrible acts with an odd sense of detachment and seem surprised if there are consequences resulting from their actions.  Yet their parents are no better, fostering distrust and hatred based on rumour and heresay and being abusive towards the children who are then abusive in return. No one seems to leave the village and if they do nothing good comes of it, so with no outside influences, jealousies and resentments foster and fester through the generations.

There is a suggestion that the village itself may have something to do with the behaviour of its inhabitants;

Time is of no importance. I was young and didn’t know a thing about time. There had never been a different one in Hemmersmoor. In our village time didn’t progress courageously. In our village she limped a bit and got lost more than once

It the village cursed? Have the years of incest and in-breeding meant that the village is eating itself from within? Or has the abandoned camp on the outskirts of the town cast it’s unspeakable shadow over everyone’s lives?

What lay beyond the factory, outside our village, we all have dutifully forgotten….We had nothing to do with it.

The sense of detachment in the children is carried over in to the writing style. The prose is stark and to the point. There is no indication of where the next horror will come from and as such, I read the book with a constant sense of dread. Murders are described in the same manner as meals, the death of a baby conveyed in one simple sentence. There is little embellishment and a lot is left to our imagination.

Her cries, her begging, her shrill voice didn’t help Helga one bit and stopped no one and when the village was done with her and her five children, the bodies shapeless, resembling five small and one large bag filled with rage, sticks and stones, my father led the way to Helga’s house.

Kiesbye has channeled the anxieties and heartbreaks of early adolescence to create a fearful, chilling atmosphere through all these stories, but what is missing is a plot. The book is all atmosphere, unrelenting atmosphere, but to what end? It’s hard to tell and it’s also hard to read a book where there is no one to empathise with, no one redeeming character to give the reader room to breathe.

On the other hand, This may also be the novel’s real strength. It is a Grimm’s Fairy Tale for adults and in Hemmersmoor, Kiesbye has created a strange and nightmarish place which has in turn shaped its inhabitants into strange and often nightmarish people. By the end, the four remaining friends seem to be trying to put the past behind them, but whether or not Hemmersmoor will loosen its grip is another story altogether.
I’m grateful for the fact that Your House is On Fire, Your Children All Gone was short, as it was relentless but Kiesbye has crafted a subversive fairy tale, where home is not a refuge, but somewhere to escape from. Preferably alive.

 

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