Girl, Interrupted

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Pulp Nonfiction: The Art and Business of Memoir

1.
In the late 1990s, a young writer fresh out of rehab began writing a novel about his escape from a life of addiction. Like his hard-drinking literary heroes Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac, the young novelist wanted to set down the facts of his life with searing honesty, but like his heroes, he juiced the truth to make the story more interesting. Some years earlier, for instance, he had been locked up for a few hours on a drunk-driving charge. In his novel, he threw in a punching match with the arresting officer and a bag of crack cocaine and left his protagonist to rot in jail for three months. In another instance, a girl he had known as a kid had been killed in a tragic train accident, and in his novel, he wrote his protagonist into her story and added a scene in which the whole town blames him for her death.

But when he tried to sell this thinly disguised autobiographical novel, it was turned down by 17 major publishers. In fact, his novel might still be sitting in a drawer had not Nan Talese, a big-name editor at Doubleday, one of the houses that had originally rejected it, offered to publish it instead as a memoir called A Million Little Pieces. By 2006, after Oprah Winfrey put the young author James Frey on TV, his novel-turned-memoir had sold 3.5 million copies.

A decade after Oprah dragged Frey through the mud on national television, memoirist Mary Karr is still pissed at him. Karr, who has chronicled her own battles with addiction, says she smelled a rat in Frey’s tale all along, but what sticks in her craw is the brazenness of his deception. “He didn’t really believe he was incarcerated for months, when he never served a day,” Karr writes in her new craft book, The Art of Memoir. “He set out to fool people.”

That’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that Frey wrote a mediocre autobiographical novel and a savvy editor saw that, given how the modern publishing industry is built, his unsellable work of fiction had the all makings of a hit memoir.

As a literary form, memoir dates back at least to St. Augustine’s Confessions, but as Julie Rak reminds us in her book, Boom!: Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market, it is only recently that writers who weren’t already well-known began turning nonfiction versions of their life stories into bestsellers. Which is not to say that writers weren’t retailing their life stories with great success long before the so-called “memoir boom” ignited in the early 1990s. As Frey himself notes in an interview with The Guardian shortly after the Oprah dust-up, many classic novels of the 20th century might today be published as memoir. “I mean, the idea that The Sun Also Rises is not about Hemingway’s life,” he says, “or On the Road is not about Kerouac’s life, or anything ever written by Bukowski or Celine or Henry Miller is not about those men’s lives, is a ridiculous idea.”

Frey then adds:

What’s interesting is that On the Road was going to be published as nonfiction, and they altered it [because] they were worried about legal ramifications. And because at the time fiction was much more popular than nonfiction. For me it was almost the opposite, y’know — nonfiction is much more popular now.

Whether or not this is literally true of On the Road, Frey is right that readers have long been drawn to autobiographical tales of authors’ youthful misadventures. What has changed is that we no longer require these writers to don the respectable veil of fiction — and in fact, as book buyers, we would rather they didn’t.

As writers of literary fiction increasingly find they have to traffic in high-concept premises or be satisfied with poorly paid critical respect, a writer with a personal, character-driven story to tell is more likely to cash in if he or she can claim the story is true. Thus, we get James Frey and an ever-growing shelf of “fauxmoirs” like Love and Consequences, a 2008 work of fiction about race and gang life in South Central, L.A., by Margaret Seltzer, a middle-class white woman who changed her name to Margaret B. Jones and went on radio speaking with an affect so readers would believe her novel was a memoir.

2.
Critics of the modern memoir tend to credit its rise to a culture of narcissism and navel-gazing among the young, or less pejoratively, to a yearning for authenticity, a reality hunger born of a blurring of truth and fiction in public life. In reality, the growth in popularity of the form has as much, or more, to do with the restructuring of the publishing industry than it does any cultural shift. As Rak notes in Boom!, the advent of cheap paperbacks in the postwar years not only created new markets for popular detective, romance, and sci-fi novels, but also for quickie nonfiction books about a person in the news. These could be produced quickly and cheaply, with a sensibility more in keeping with the news business than that of the stodgier book business, and were sold not in bookstores, but alongside their “pulp fiction” brethren in drug stores and train station newsstands.

Thus, for a decade or two after World War II, American publishing operated along two parallel tracks. Older, more prestigious publishing houses produced high-quality hardback volumes of nonfiction about ex-presidents and other grandees alongside literary fiction written for an educated elite who shopped at independent bookstores. At the same time, a far less prestigious book industry sold pulp fiction and nonfiction to middle-class and working-class readers who bought their books where they bought their newspapers and magazines — in drug stores and train stations.

These two business models collided, however, when publishing firms began merging in the 1960s. Between 1960 and 2001, by Rak’s count, there were 1,250 publishing mergers, subsuming literally thousands of small, often family-run publishing firms into a handful of multinational conglomerates, which were in many cases owned by even larger media companies. In this mad shuffle, prestigious literary houses got swallowed up by the same companies that bought out firms producing cheaper books, blurring the institutional line between “literary” and “pulp.”

While the merger frenzy injected fresh capital into publishing, it brought with it a corporate-style focus on high profit margins, creating ever more pressure to produce bestsellers. At the same time, publishing houses began to publish the hardback and paperback editions of the books they produced, further diluting the distinction between “quality” and “cheap” books, which helped give birth to a new species of book, the “trade paperback” — the form, not so incidentally, in which most bestselling memoirs take off.

As publishing was evolving in the postwar years, so were bookstores and media companies. Fifty years ago, good bookstores were rare outside major cultural centers, but by the early 1980s bookstore chains had invaded malls across the country, draining business from the drug stores and newsstands that had sold pulp books in the past. Now, not only were publishers producing literature and pulp, but readers were finding them in the same store, sometimes shelved side by side. Meanwhile, as newspapers began their long descent into digital irrelevance, the book page was often one of the first casualties, and TV and radio became prime drivers of book sales. Since a talking head reviewing a book is deadly boring, hosts instead began inviting authors onto their shows to talk about their books — an exercise made exponentially more entertaining when a book’s author and protagonist are the same person.

This, then, was the state of play in 1989 when Tobias Wolff, author of several respectfully reviewed story collections and a prize-winning novella, published his first memoir This Boy’s Life, which became a national bestseller and a hit movie starring the young Leonardo DiCaprio. A few years later, Susanna Kaysen hit the bestseller lists with Girl, Interrupted and Elizabeth Wurtzel bared her navel on the cover of Prozac Nation, and by 1995, when Karr came out with her first memoir, The Liar’s Club, the gold rush was on.

3.
You will find little of this history in The Art of Memoir, but it is there, albeit subtextually, in the defensive crouch Karr adopts toward critics of her chosen genre. Boiled down to its essence, Karr’s defense of memoir rests on her belief in an artful admixture of truth and storytelling moxie. Karr readily admits that no memoirist can be expected to perfectly recall dialogue spoken decades earlier, and that even if she could, the very act of choosing one detail over another distorts the objective truth of the events in question. “Memoir done right is an art, a made thing,” she writes. “It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page.”

Still, she has zero time for memoirists who don’t aim for the truest versions of their life stories they are capable of telling. Speaking of another writer who admits to embellishing details in nonfiction, Karr is blunt in her disdain: “It’s as if after lunch the deli guy quipped, ‘I put a teaspoon of catshit in your sandwich, but you didn’t notice it at all.’ To my mind, a small bit of catshit equals a catshit sandwich, unless I know where the catshit is and can eat around it.”

This is both funny and true, but while Karr appears to be addressing the largest knock on memoirs, her book neatly sidesteps the deeper, structural problems with the genre. Though she doesn’t use the term, The Art of Memoir, which grew out of MFA courses Karr teaches at Syracuse University, focuses on what one might loosely call creative nonfiction. This term means different things to different people, but if it has any practical meaning in a publishing sense, it denotes a work of nonfiction conceived and written exclusively by its author, not dreamed up or shaped by an agent or editor.

But while the creative nonfiction model may be the one taught in university classrooms, it isn’t how most commercial memoirs are actually produced. With rare exceptions, novels are submitted to agents and editors only after they are finished, while nonfiction books, including memoirs, are typically bought based on a proposal. A book proposal can take many forms, but generally it includes some sample chapters, an outline of the book, and often a discussion of who is likely to read it and why. In other words, while novelists arrive in the publishing marketplace with a finished product, memoirists show up with a business plan, which has itself typically been heavily shaped and edited by a literary agent.

In my reporting in the publishing world, I have sat with agents whose job it is to trawl the blogosphere and tap their personal networks with an eye out for someone whose zeitgeisty blog or proximity to the pop culture spotlight might net a book contract. In some cases, these people created the blog or instigated their brush with fame precisely in order to cash in on it. In other cases, the would-be memoirists have no notion of themselves as potential protagonists of a book, and are stunned to learn they might be. Either way, the agent helps the memoirist craft a proposal, offering advice on how to structure the narrative, how to position it in the current market, and, if need be, providing a ghostwriter to write the actual book.

This, the old-school pulp mentality that produces so many of those strange quickie books that appear and then disappear from bookstore shelves, is the real enemy of the creative nonfiction Karr so avidly defends in The Art of Memoir. Because whether its practitioners like to admit it or not, contemporary memoir, to a far greater degree than contemporary fiction, is an agents’ and editors’ medium. Readers, even those who couldn’t care less how publishing works, sense this, and are put off by it.

4.
When the consolidation of the publishing industry lumped pulp publishers in with prestige literary houses, it gave literary artists like Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr access to a lucrative mass audience they wouldn’t have had otherwise, but it also forced them, and more particularly the writers who came after them, to play by the rules of the pulp world, which emphasizes extremes of experience, often involving emotional or physical trauma, coupled with a yearning for middle-class normality.

Think for a moment about the authors whose books set the memoir boom in motion. Wolff and Karr were academics. Frank McCourt taught high school. Susanna Kaysen was the daughter of a famous economist at MIT. Any educated American reader could identify with these people, even aspire to be them. In their books, they reveal horrific trauma they endured in their past, but what made their books so moving, and what moved so many units, was that they survived, thanks to a mix of smarts, pluck, and a deep yearning for a respectable middle-class life. In one way or another, all these books recast the American Dream in a fable-like form — except that these fables were true.

In the mainstream imagination, where literary and pulp sensibilities meet, the fact that the stories are true matters enormously. Wolff has written heartbreaking fiction about growing up poor with his half-crazy mother, including one of my all-time favorite stories, “Firelight,” collected in the 1992 Best American Short Stories, but it wasn’t until he used real names that Hollywood came calling. If his story is true, and Wolff really survived the childhood he describes in This Boy’s Life, then whatever life lessons he might have to impart are also real, and I as a reader can apply them to overcome whatever traumas I might have suffered.

This trick was easy enough to pull off for these early trailblazers, whose lives fit the template without too much embellishment. But once creative nonfiction left the rarefied sphere of literary publishing, where the author is king, it entered a rougher, pulp-minded world whose books look the same as their more literary cousins, are sold in the same stores, and follow much the same narrative playbook, but are partly or wholly created by publishing professionals who know a money-spinning formula when they see it.

In this world, the agent notes that the cooking blogger was single when she started and is now married and tosses out, just as a possibility, the title “Table for Two: How a Single Girl Cooked Her Way Into the Heart of the Man of Her Dreams.” Your recipes are great, he explains, but the book needs an arc, a journey the reader can travel. In this world, an editor asks a newly successful entrepreneur if by any chance he had a overbearing father who belittled his ideas. Was he dyslexic as a child? A teen drug user with a rebellious streak? Before long the entire genre is tarred with the pulp brush, and even the most earnest creative nonfictionist knows he needs at least one heroin overdose in his past because a merely unhappy childhood, no matter how artfully rendered, equals a life of quiet literary desperation.

And then, into this world, walks the next James Frey.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Old Corner Bookstore Is Now A Chipotle

1.
Summertime, and I spend my days working in a museum located in downtown Boston. Over the months, I learn how to count a cash drawer, teach Italians the meaning of a state sales tax, and struggle with how exactly to break the news that the Old Corner Bookstore is no more.

“Well?” The older couple across the counter brandish their map and press on, looking expectantly at first me and then my manager, to whom I have turned for help.

My manager grimaces. “You’re not going to like the answer.”

2.
“Think libraries are boring? Proper Bostonians would beg to differ. Once renowned as a hotbed of writers, the city remains a haven for readers. The continuing popularity of these institutions is a case in point.” The Fodor’s travel guide has nothing else to say about the city’s literary past.

Boston. Once this was the Athens of America, the Hub of the Universe; no longer. Anne Bradstreet, America’s first poet, walked these streets, as did Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Most of Infinite Jest is set in Boston. The Atlantic was founded in this city. e. e. cummings is buried here.

But for all these names, all these movements, all this history, Boston has, like other American cities in the new millennium, faded from literary prominence. On its face, this seems an exaggeration; there are journals, there are bookstores, there are eager young writers spilling forth from all the schools that litter the city. This is the digital age, after all; weren’t these kinds of physical borders supposed to dissolve — wasn’t the Internet supposed to create connections previously impossible in the days of pen, ink, and paper? But I am a child of the digital, and let me tell you this: sometimes it feels as though every young writer I know is in the process of moving down to Brooklyn.

And this bothers me. — Why?

3.
On certain fall days in Boston the air veers sharp, humming like a too-charged cell phone, and I understand why they hung witches here. The cliché of New England and the absolute rule of New England is its weather, and this is the season in which our ears prick, our senses grow fearful; soon, the trees will wither.

The literature of Massachusetts seems to reflect this fear. It is a literature of insanity, of extreme emotion; “Boston!” the teenage lunatics of Susannah Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted cry, in between bouts of failed suicide attempts, “Boston! You could jump out at a red light and split.” In the old Ritz-Carlton, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath used to meet after poetry workshops to down martinis and discuss their respective death wishes. And the Old Corner Bookstore? — Built in 1712, the building itself was erected to replace the ruins of Anne Hutchinson’s home, that Puritan woman cast out of Boston for talking to God.

Today, the Old Corner Bookstore sits, as its name implies, on the corner of Washington and School Streets, five minutes from Downtown Crossing and perhaps another 10 from the Common. It is a squat building, many windowed, and on its left side hangs a brief green sign.

“Timothy Crease built this structure as his apothecary and residence shortly after the great fire of 1711 destroyed Anne Hutchinson’s house on this site,” reads the sign. “Timothy Carter opened the Old Corner Bookstore here in 1829. Between 1845 and 1865, the booksellers Ticknor and Fields established the building’s lasting literary significance as the publishers of Hawthorne, Longfellow, Stowe, Emerson, Thoreau, and other prominent American and British authors, who often gathered here…In 1960, civic leaders raised money and established Historical Boston Incorporated to acquire and preserve this site.”

Now, this sign is the last vestige of the bookstore’s past. Though tourist maps still mark it as a landmark, today the Old Corner Bookstore is no more. Today, the Old Corner Bookstore has been replaced by a Chipotle.

October. Witch season in New England. I visit the Chipotle out of curiosity. At 11:30 in the morning it is empty, save for its workers, and inside it is all red walls, steel counters, and the kind of eco-platitudes now necessary to convince office employees to buy fast food. Vats of lettuce sit next to vats of salsa stand next to vats of sour cream.

I speak with Jessica, the store’s assistant manager, who has worked at Chipotle for over two years. I ask her if people come in asking for the Old Corner Bookstore. “All the time,” she says, nodding. “At least a couple times a month. There are a lot of pamphlets on it. Some people are disappointed but most move on.”

On the wall behind her, a sign informs me that this is “food with integrity.” A dozen meat strips sizzle on the open stove; Chipotle’s chicken, boasts another sign, “is raised without antibiotics and fed a diet free of animal by-products.” But I cannot tell what animal is being cooked.

“Personally, I think it’s slightly sad how easy it was to get,” Jessica says, referring to the building. She brightens. “But everyone at Chipotle was really excited to get this spot because of the history, the chance to be a part of Boston’s history. This is the oldest retail location in Boston.”

Lunchtime approaches. Soon the restaurant will be filled, Jessica assures me, and I leave, not wanting to get in the way. Outside the air is brisk. The sun is bright. I wouldn’t say no to one of Plath’s martinis.

4.
The oldest retail location in Boston. Technically, this is true.

In the weeks that follow my Chipotle visit I work, intern, and read the dozen or so New York-based but not New York-centric blogs, journals, and papers that stand alongside more local offerings in my RSS feed. I try to write this essay. I tell myself that it is no mistake that I am writing this on the heels of the announced Penguin-Random House merger; I consult the books that crowd my shelves and feel a small, withered sense of triumph whenever the copyright page points to a New York publishing house. I attempt to draw parallels between U.S. politics and to argue against monopolies and to say something pat about the digital. The results are unconvincing.

November comes, and so too does that famous New England cold. When I exit the warmth of the red line I brace myself against Central Square’s wind, and the sidewalk’s bricks are red and the buildings are brick-laced and even when I close my eyes the lids remain red, always red: inescapable. I open them.

I do not want to be a cliché. I think of this on the walk home, dreading my return to this essay, and immediately feel annoyed with myself. But to be 22 and a writer and a liberal arts graduate, on top of it, seems in this day and age to bring with it a certain stigma, a whiff of that dreaded scarlet letter: hipster. Lena Dunham and Thought Catalog and that New York Times article on irony: to distance myself from this epithet, this implicit accusation of frivolity, I latched onto a city that once surpassed New York: Boston, where “history sticks / like a fishbone in the city’s throat,” to misquote Robert Lowell.

“You do of course realise that your entire blog sounds like you are a hipster desperately trying to be so cool as to not to appear to be one, right?” an anonymous commenter once wrote on my blog. I tried to shake it off; I tried to laugh. Why get upset over something on the Internet, right? But in the game of authenticity that has consumed my particular subset of 20-somethings, even the act of writing turns self-conscious, a method of avoiding vulnerability. What Was the Hipster? asked n + 1 two years ago; the hipster was me.

The Old Corner Bookstore is no more. Sometimes I read old writing of mine and wonder what I was trying to hide. At the same time, I do, in fact, find myself agreeing with The New York Times, as late in the game as that article appeared. There is a glibness to so much of the writing of my generation; an artificial exposure of the self. No matter how many confessional blog posts or top 10 lists concerning what it’s like to be a Millennial I read, I still feel no closer to the writer. Between us, there is always a screen.

“God is in your typewriter,” a priest once begged a despondent Anne Sexton. Perhaps it is time to listen.

Image courtesy of the author.

The Mad Girls Next Door: Mary Stewart Atwell’s Wild Girls

When I pick up a new piece of fiction, it’s hard to resist a story of girls gone bad. Stories of young women, brimming with newfound beauty and sexuality, and lacking means of escape, make for fascinating fiction. Just think of the desperately sad and self-destructive Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides, who one by one chose to remove themselves from a world that wouldn’t let them fly free. Their allure is in their violent and completely comprehensible exit strategies: as the boys who loved them later said, “We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together… We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.” These dreamy girls hold a special place in the hearts of all female readers, right next to the girl gang of Joyce Carol Oates’s Foxfire, the scorned Abigail Williams and her band of pretenders in The Crucible, and in the residents of McLean hospital in Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. The tendency towards violence, towards rebellion, is the same tendency as a caged animal would throw against the bars. For readers, no other circumstances are required to make the actions of these women plausible — and heartbreaking.

It seemed, initially, Mary Stewart Atwell would take the same direction in her novel, Wild Girls. Focusing her narrative on the small Appalachian town of Swan River, Atwell gives us a community famous for its regular outbursts of violence, destruction, and death — all propagated by terrifying teenage girls. Kate Riordan, our protagonist and mild-mannered resident of Swan River, is willing to concede that the history of violence is the strongest thing the town has to recommend it. “It was our thing, our trivia fact, and it occurs to me now that if the Chamber of Commerce had known what they were doing, people could have come to us the way they go to the Massachusetts town where Lizzie Borden axed her parents.” The town has a significant economic and privilege divide, between the residents able to send their young daughters to the posh Swan River Academy and the residents from the wrong side of town, the part that includes the Bloodwort Commune, a small community of down-on-its-luck former hippies who dabble in illicit drugs, sex, and even the occult. Kate is a local girl attending the Academy, and so she regularly fluctuates between a resentment of the Academy’s elitism (and its queen bee cliques, lead by her wealthy friend Willow) and a fear of the threats emerging from the Bloodwort compound, which suffers from its own wild-girl initiated violence at the beginning of the novel.

Each girl in Swan River is a ticking bomb — with the lore of the wild girls comes the assumption that every girl is at least a little bit susceptible once she hits puberty. “When you turned sixteen everybody started to look at you as if you were the suicide bomber at the checkpoint, the enemy in disguise.” Crystal Lemons, a girl from the Bloodwort community, was always a bit of a threat; she had, Kate says, “an interesting ripeness about her, an early voluptuousness…grown up too soon.” When Crystal becomes a wild girl and burns down a huge portion of the commune, it comes as no surprise. For if what makes a Swan River girl go wild is her circumstances, then it makes everyone in the town and academy an accessory to the violence. Kate’s friend Willow is exceptionally pretty and popular, but her chameleon-like tendency to adapt to please others raises a red flag. Changing her eye color with contacts, talking about summer homes and dressage with the Academy’s trust fund babies — Willow is playing roles with everyone, including Kate, and the sense that all girls have to negotiate their identities carefully in this community would drive anyone to madness. The threat of going “wild,” of exploding under the pressure of performance, is more powerful when Atwell treats the conditions as the cause. Gossip, prejudice, extreme poverty, and limited opportunities — all are present in Swan River, and so there’s plenty of fodder for a hotbed of violence and insurrection. In building up an Applachian crucible of backstabbing and suspicion, Atwell seems to be dabbling in the territory of Daniel Woodrell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Donald Ray Pollock. The Swan River setting, by turns bleakly abandoned and claustrophobically crowded, makes for a perfect prison for the girls to rail against.

If Atwell had stopped right there, Wild Girls would be a treatise on female rage, a rage justified by years of subjugation and humiliation. But on top of this sociological mystery, she spreads a thick layer of supernatural schmaltz, neutering the real-life explanations for the violence and taking away the female agency in it. When Kate’s older sister, Maggie, shifts from being a motivated student and driven young woman to a wild girl, it is attributed not to a condition, but to a sudden supernatural occurrence. Kate awakes one evening at the Academy to find her sister glowing, “not focused like a flashlight beam but diffused, sourceless…the room got as hot as a sauna. Maggie knocked over the bookcase, smashed the CD player, and grinned up at us from the wreckage, hands on hips.” A few seconds later, she takes a leap out the window, the glass holding “the outline of Maggie’s body, the lines clean as if cut by a torch.” Maggie had no incentive to flee, to act out, to become a “wild girl” — she had her whole future ahead, and yet Atwell has her saddled by a glowing light and a sudden desire to destroy property. When Atwell lays out the rest of the mystery, linking the Academy girls together in a cult-like plot to destroy the town, she gives too much credit to all the wrong forces: to a handsome and manipulative Academy teacher, a series of suspicious clues at the Bloodwort commune, and multiple acts of horrifying violence. All the circumstances about poverty, education, and female expression come to naught.

It may be that true-to-life stories of teenage rage don’t interest Atwell — and it’s problematic that, regardless of their execution, stories like these can quickly fall into Lifetime movie-of-the week territory. (After all, where would Drew Barrymore and Tori Spelling be without their “good-girls-gone-bad” miniseries?) But substituting supernatural forces for real circumstances removes what was initially, for me, the true delight of Wild Girls: the exploration of how small communities can become pressure cookers for young women, and how the roles we’re expected to play during the journey from little girls to teenagers could drive anybody to violence. The supernatural and mundane can live side by side; writers like Karen Russell and Shirley Jackson manage to do this in all their stories, imbuing small towns and Florida swamps with mythical, lyrical language and extraordinary possibilities. But they all begin with supernatural launching pads: we know, when we enter Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, that it’s not merely economics contributing to the Bigtree family’s woes. But I believe more in natural horror, the gut-wrenching retreat we long for at the end of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, when we discover that human failure can be just as violent, as cruel, and as devastating as anything that might emerge from a deep dark cave or a scorching wildfire.

A few weeks ago, in many towns like Atwell’s Swan River, Halloween brought a special attraction to town: a fundamentalist Christian tradition known as “Hell House.” This “scared straight” performance is designed to keep teenagers away from sinful behaviors by showing off their dangerous consequences. The tableaus of horror and gore require no monsters and demons — instead, we see a girl lying in a pool of blood, the victim of a botched abortion after having premarital sex. Or a girl takes drugs at a rave — she is later raped, and then commits suicide in despair. After each of these tableaus, Satan appears and drags the victim off to hell. One in five attendees at a Hell House vocalized a renewed commitment to Jesus. If Atwell contributed a tableau to a Hell House, it might go like this: a handful of girls giggle and gather over an old spell book or Ouija board, prodding each other to up the supernatural ante. Dabble in the occult, and you’ll later be served up as a human sacrifice.

Granted, this tableau has a lot of flash to it, but I personally find the horrors of real life to be far less giggle-inducing. Why build a hellmouth when you already have high school?

Surprise Me!

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