Snow is story. Snow can be an interruption and annoyance, but it is difficult to not appreciate a child’s awe for the white flakes. Snow clogs and closes roads, but it also turns lonely hills into slopes for sledding. Snow is the possibility of a new landscape, if only until for an hour, a day, or a week.
I was born during an Ash Wednesday snowstorm. My father rushed my mother to Morristown Memorial Hospital while white cloaked the streets. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I scoped side roads for hills and banks. The best routes had speed and a smooth finish, and though I would drift to a stop, I would stare into the sky, and not care that I was cold. I listened for school closings on a Sansui, my face lit by the dial. Now I refresh the National Weather Service website as watches become warnings, and still pine for storms.
That white world has influenced my writing: my novella, This Darksome Burn, begins during an Oregon storm, and one of my poems, “The Mailman,” laments undelivered mail. Snow has also become a refrain in my reading. Snow fractures storylines and complicates characters. Snow forces writers to capture atmosphere and mood, and to uniquely describe a common event. Although we may experience many snowstorms in our lifetimes, each fall must be prepared for, dealt with, and, possibly, appreciated. I’ve noticed that writers often raise their descriptive bar when representing this winter world. What follows is a list of snow in poetry, fiction, and film. The usual suspects are mentioned, but my focus is on lesser-known gems. There’s enough reading and watching to keep you busy during the next polar vortex, blizzard, or even onion snow.
I. Snow in Poetry
“Antarctica” by James Hoch (2007)
Friends kneel on the dirt floor of a baseball dugout. They pop nitrous canisters “into the communion shapes / of our mouths, slipped inside where / everything seemed to be falling snow.” The poem continues with that steel-like chill, as some boys drift toward further abuse, and even death. Hoch never glorifies drug use, but, like the blur of side-falling snow, he muddies the space between regret and nostalgia. The grown narrator sees kids “running in the heat of a taillight / swirling behind them,” and recalls his own youth, when he and his friends “wanted only to quiet our bodies, their / unnatural hum, a vague pull inward, / some thin furrows gliding over the snow.” Hoch’s poem appeared in an issue of Painted Bride Quarterly, but I prefer the version that was included in his second book, Miscreants.
“A Winter’s Tale” by D.H. Lawrence (1916)
Snow and love are commonly intertwined, but Lawrence begins this poem in the “grey” past, where the woman’s footsteps document her existence. She is gone: “I cannot see her, since the mist’s white scarf / obscures the dark wood and the dull orange sky; / but she’s waiting, I know, impatient and cold, half / sobs struggling into her frosty sigh.” Yesterday, she had rushed to meet the narrator for their “inevitable farewell; / the hill is steep, on the snow my steps are slow– / why does she come, when she knows what I have to tell?” No warmth in this storm.
“Invocation” by Denise Levertov (1969)
In 1994, Levertov wrote “Swan in Falling Snow,” based on the photography of her friend, Mary Randlett. Although the title sounds pleasant, the poem is not: the swan is nearly dead, a “barrel-sized, heart-shaped snowball.” Levertov uses commas as knives: “splayed feet, balanced, / weary, immobile.” Yet Levertov had long been interested in snow’s ability to turn a narrative. “Invocation” is a sparer piece, resembling patches of dirt on a snowed page. The collective narrator is about to leave home, and each line in the first stanza is its own sentence, building the anticipation. Here, snow is not worried over, but wished for: “Deep snow shall block all entrances / and oppress the roof and darken / the windows.” Only snow can shutter a home and prevent entry. And that is fine, because the narrator hopes Lares will “guard” the “profound dreams” between the walls, so “that it return to us when we return.” It also contains my most favorite line in all of poetry: “The house yawns like a bear.”
“Early October Snow” by Robert Haight (2013)
A nor’easter slammed New Jersey the day before Halloween, 2011. Trees snapped power lines as some counties saw nearly 20 inches of accumulation. Haight’s poem brought me back to that moment: “this morning we wake to pale muslin / stretched across the grass.” The narrator knows the snow will not stay, but the blanched landscape still fascinates him. I love a poem that isn’t supposed to happen. Snow should wait its turn, but Haight makes this early fall so believable, from the pumpkins that look like “planets / shrouded by clouds” to “leaves, still soldered to their branches / by a frozen drop of dew, splash / apple and pear paint along the roadsides.”
“Ash-boughs” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1885)
Hopkins’s final sonnet, “To R.B.,” is a lament about the narrator’s inability to experience “the fine delight that fathers thought:” inspiration to write poetry. “R.B.” is Robert Bridges, poet laureate of England, but more importantly, Hopkins’s friend and posthumous publisher. The pair met at Oxford, and agnostic Bridges was the perfect contrast to Hopkins, a Catholic convert who became a Jesuit priest. Bridges named this fragment “Ash-boughs” when he published Hopkins’s Collected Poems in 1918. A curtal sonnet, one of Hopkins’s idiosyncratic 12 line variations of the form, the poem begins with a narrator’s wonder at “a milk to the mind:” the branches of ash trees. He enjoys their shapes, reach, and color: “ May / mells blue and snowwhite through them, a fringe and fray / of greenery.” The tree reaches through the memory of snow to the promise of spring and light.
Hopkins had always connected snow and ash trees, and used their intersection to present his central poetic theory, inscape. Hopkins once explained to Bridges that “no doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness.” His theory of inscape is equally unusual: “the essential and only lasting thing…species or individually-distinctive beauty of style.” The theory became the core paradox of Hopkins’s poetry and life, which Bridges observed as “the naked encounter of sensualism and asceticism,” and what W.H. Gardner calls the “tension between the inborn creative personality of the artist and the acquired religious character of the Jesuit priest.”
That one of our most inventive poets synthesized his poetic and personal theories using snow brings me joy. From his notebook, in February and April, 1873: “In the snow flat-topped hillocks and shoulders outline with wavy edges, ridge below ridge, very like the grain of wood in line and in projection like relief maps…All the world is full of inscape and chance left free to act falls into an order as well as purpose: looking out of my window I caught it in the random clods and broken heaps of snow made by the cast of a broom…[in April] the ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first. I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.”
A great list of snow poems appears in the essay “Turning Up the Gravity” by Floyd Skloot. After a bad storm, Skloot heads inside and envelopes himself in winter verse: “Snow-Bound” by John Greenleaf Whittier, “Snowflakes” by Howard Nemerov, “Snow Light” by May Sarton, “SNO” by e.e. cummings, “The Snow on Saddle Mountain” by Gary Snyder, “Snow” by Charles Wright, “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter” by Robert Bly, “Snow” by Philip Levine, “Winter Poem” by Frederick Morgan, “Snow” by Louis MacNeice, and “Desert Places” by Robert Frost: “A blanker whiteness of benighted snow / With no expression, nothing to express.” I would also add “Snow” by Mary Ruefle, “A Winter Without Snow” by J.D. McClatchey, “[Like brooms of steel]” by Emily Dickinson, “February Snow” by Francisco Aragón, “The Snow-Storm” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Letter from the Ice Field, December” by Sara Eliza Johnson, and, of course, “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens, which ends: “For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
II. Snow in Fiction
The Pedersen Kid by William Gass (1961)
Gass wrote his novella “to entertain a toothache;” I first read it while sitting in the waiting room at the dentist. Within his plans for the story’s draft, he explains his goal to “present evil as a visitation –sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable,” bringing to life a line spoken in the text: “nobody’s ever ready for snow.” Gass’s cast is full of effective caricatures: drunken Pa, confused Ma, conniving farm-hand Big Hans, and young Jorge, the first person narrator. Snow appears in the second sentence: in the midst of a North Dakota blizzard, Big Hans discovers a child, the Pedersen kid. The child is resuscitated but delirious, and the family attempts to discover why he is there. Armed with shotguns, sandwiches, and coffee, the men of the home cross snow to hunt the man with mysterious “yellow gloves:” assumedly, someone who has killed the rest of the Pedersen family.
In a story that both parodies and praises the adventure genre, the men experience horse troubles and shudder from cold. Pa loses his whiskey bottle in the snow, and Gass spends several pages on Pa’s obsessive search, leading to Jorge’s conclusion: “It was frightening — the endless white space.” The horse ultimately shatters the bottle, and the “brown stain spread,” the “snow bubbling and sagging.” Big Hans laughs, and Jorge thought they “could melt and drink the snow.” Jorge hates Big Hans; would hate him “forever — as long as there was snow.” A Beckett-style scene unfolds. Snow and storm create a maniacal world that is equal parts caricature and deadly real. The men reach the Pedersen barn, and Jorge hears gunshots. In the novella’s final psychotropic pages, Jorge feels reborn in the abandoned Pedersen home, though the killer might near: “More and more, while we’d been coming, I’d been slipping out of myself, pushed out by the cold maybe.” His thoughts drift toward “a movie where the months had blown from the calendar like leaves. Girls in red peek-a-book BVDs were skiing out of sight.” He sees his motionless father being buried under new snowfall, and realizes there is nothing he can do until spring: “There was no need for me to grieve…The snow would keep me.” He accepts that the “winter time had finally got them all.”
“Wickedness” by Ron Hansen (1988)
From the introduction to Ted Kooser’s book of poems, The Blizzard Voices: “[these poems were] snagged…from actual reminiscences, recorded in old age, of people who survived the most talked about storm in American history, the Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard because of the many children and their teachers who were trapped in rural schools on the bitterly cold days of January 12 and 13.” Hansen’s fictional dramatization of the blizzard is frightening. “Weather in Nebraska could be the wickedest thing she ever saw:” wicked suggests snowfall as sentient villain. The storm took most by surprise: “Weeds were being uprooted, sapling trees were bullwhipping, and the top inches of snow and prairie soil were being sucked up and stirred like the dirty flour that was called red dog.”
Animals are thrown about: “Cats died, dogs died, pigeons died.” Humans appear to lose their minds. “Ainslie Classen” (Hansen’s usage of proper names lends a dated census-like feel to the narrative) “work[ed] his hands into the pigs’ hot wastes, and smeared some onto his skin.” Mathias Aachen’s house is in disarray: “When a jar of apricots burst open that night and the iced orange syrup did not ooze out” the father of the house promises that “every one of us will be dying of cold before morning.” Aachen doesn’t wait for the storm: “he tilted hot candle wax into his right ear and then his left, until he could only hear his body drumming blood. And then Aachen got his Navy Colt and kissed his wife and killed her. And then walked under the green tent cloth and killed his seven children, stopping twice to capture a scuttling boy and stopping once more to reload.”
The wicked storm kills “a Harrington woman,” “an Omaha cigar maker,” “a cattle inspector,” “a Chicago boy,” “a forty year-old wife,” and many more. This is certainly no ordinary storm based on volume alone, but Hansen redoubles the almost mythical convention of snow through description: “Everything she knew was no longer there. She was in a book without descriptions. She could put her hand out and her hand would disappear.” Hansen makes snow a legend.
“Time and Again” by Breece Pancake (1977)
Although she deemed the story “relatively weak” and having a “sort of comic book Gothicism” in her 1983 review, Joyce Carol Oates anthologized Pancake’s morbid story in American Gothic Tales. I assume her appreciation increased with subsequent readings. I was sold on my first reading. Pancake’s story begins indoors: “Mr. Weeks called me out again tonight, and I look back down the hall of my house. I left the kitchen light burning. This is an empty old house since the old lady died.” The sentences lean forward; they are blinks of an eye, individual shots, appended with heavy periods.
The narrator’s son has been gone for years. This lonely man keeps hogs, “old hogs. Not good for anything,” but makes his money driving the plow for Mr. Weeks. Besides a loud clue — “the lug wrench is where it has always been beside my seat” — the narrator first seems more cantankerous than murderous: “The snow piles in a wall against the berm. No cars move. They are stranded at the side, and as I plow past them, a line falls in behind me, but they always drop back. They don’t know how long it takes the salt to work. They are common fools. They rush around in such weather and end up dead.” He soon picks up a hitchhiker, “a polite boy,” who reminds the narrator of his son. The talk reaches the man’s hogs, and he says they die hard, much harder than men in war. Death remains the topic of discussion: they talk of a serial killer who prays on local hitchhikers. The narrator then talks of snapping the necks of German soldiers in a French farmhouse during a World War II snowstorm. “People die so easy,” he thinks; unspoken words, but heard by the reader. He grips the lug wrench, and asks the boy to look under the seat for his flashlight. But the killing strike never comes. He spares the boy, and drives up the mountain. He tries to think about all the men he killed in France, but can’t think past that night in the storm. He returns home, and Pancake hints at what the narrator usually feeds the hogs. This time, they are unhappy.
“How to Talk to a Hunter” (pdf) by Pam Houston (1990)
Besides “Forever Overhead” by David Foster Wallace, I haven’t found better usage of second person narration. The unnamed main character has fallen for the hunter, who “won’t play back his messages while [she is] in the room.” She is attracted to him, but also to the comfort of a warm body in bed during the winter. She imagines that it will snow for “thirteen straight days,” and that they will spend the hours together.
She soon learns that those unchecked messages are from another woman. Houston’s second person narrator outlines a hypothetical storyline: the other woman will bridge the distance from Montana and bring heavy snow with her. Closed highways will snowbound them, and the main character will realize that this man is like all the others: he is his needs and wants, and nothing more. Although not a drop of this storm actually falls, Houston absolutely convinces the reader that this character can worry herself frozen. In fact, by the end of the story there is little discernment between past, present, and possibility, except the realization that the “nights are getting shorter now,” but no less painful.
“A Change of Season” by James Bond (1984)
Bond’s story was anthologized in Best American Short Stories, and he also published fiction in Willow Springs (“Whiskey Sunday Refusal” and “Fools Fall”), but has disappeared from the literary radar. This is both surprising and not. The story torques its authentic tension through a rotating first person narration, yet it feels somewhat provincial on a first read. Two logging families, the Yanceys and Davazs, are in the midst of a competition for timber and pride. Both think the other clan is unfit for this work, but both agree “if a man can last the winter here he’s got a chance; if he can beat the winter here, he’s somebody.” Buck Davaz claims the Yanceys are “scared of snow:” the second they see fall, they “grab up everything and run, axes, tractors, trucks, saws, and what they can’t carry they throw ahead of them.” Randall Yancey, one of the sons, says Buck “didn’t know winter.”
But Buck needs Bill Yancey’s help. His Snowcat is stuck up on the mountain, and he’s got forty to sixty thousand feet of timber that he’s willing to “pay a pretty penny for help hauling.” Yancey hates scaling the mountain during a fall, but money talks, so he agrees to help. Buck needs the help but revels in Bill’s poor driving in the snow. They load and chain the Snowcat to a truck, but Bill’s towing truck slides before getting stuck. The narrative shifts perspective but never relents, as each man criticizes the other, before Buck ultimately gets his own ride stuck. Angry and frustrated, Buck smashes the windshield with a maul, and strides toward the Yanceys, wielding an axe in his other hand. Each time I read this story, I expect the worst possible ending, but Buck only walks past them, echoing a maxim he speaks earlier in the story: “Knowing when to stop fighting, that’s a side of strength most never learn.”
“The Hermit’s Story” by Rick Bass (as well as his non-fiction, Winter: Notes from Montana), the haunting conclusion of “Master and Man” by Leo Tolstoy, the “Snow” chapter in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, The Grace That Keeps This World by Tom Bailey; Snow by Orhan Pamuk, The Call of the Wild by Jack London, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg, “Hunters in the Snow” by Tobias Wolff, and, of course, “The Dead” by James Joyce (“And he [wrote the story] when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” — Mary Gordon).
III. Snow in Film
A horror movie about linguistics, radio stations, and snow? It exists, and begins with a riddle that includes Norman Mailer, the JFK assassination, and how “physical details spasm for a moment” after a tragic event. Shock-jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is unhappy with his new assignment in a small Ontario town: “These late winters I feel like I’m living in the basement of the world.” On his way to work on Valentine’s Day morning, Mazzy encounters a distraught woman who smacks against his window, says the word “blood,” and then disappears into the snow. And that fall is only beginning: the storm is about to last all day. Local news reports of a hostage situation and gunfire flame into a zombie attack. Their virus is language. The film’s director, Bruce McDonald, calls them “conversationalists.” Cult followers of the film (and its novel basis, by Tony Burgess) point to an essay by William S. Burroughs, “Ten Years and a Billion Dollars:” “the Word clearly bears the single identifying feature of virus: it is an organism with no internal function other than to replicate itself.”
This virus begins as a repetition of a word, like a broken record. The album is love: this is Valentine’s Day, so those infected repeat terms of endearment. The repetition devolves into fracture, and words break down. During the final stage, the medium swallows the message: “you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.” Soon the entire town of Pontypool is placed under quarantine. Mazzy steps outside into the blizzard, but the snow pushes inside, just as the infected pound against doors and windows. Mazzy shifts from sarcastic to serious as he recounts obituaries for those killed and who kill each other, shown in a snow-white and black interlude that recalls Wisconsin Death Trip. Soon the infected smash their way into the studio, and the snow follows, blown like wavering lines of stereo sound.
The Shining (1980)
Disciples of Stanley Kubrick have been mining this film long before Room 237 (2013) made basement theories mainstream, but its depiction of snow also deserves mention. My first viewing was a version recorded from WPIX in the late 1980’s. There was no audio during the opening sequence (the Torrance family driving to the interview at the Overlook Hotel, with scrolling, aqua-colored credits breaking beautiful scenery), but the sound kicked-in like a shock. The film is suffused with snow. When Jack (Jack Nicholson) is being interviewed for the caretaker position, the window behind the manager beams light, as if the sun is burning off snow. The manager explains that the hotel closes until May, since the cost to plow the collected 20 feet of winter snow is prohibitive. A former schoolteacher and hopeful novelist, he longs for the isolation afforded by this job. He lives in Boulder, but is from Vermont, a place of snow, and claims his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), will love the change. He also claims that his wife will be entertained, not frightened, by the manager’s revelation that a former caretaker murdered his family before committing suicide. The eccentricities of the Torrance family are nothing compared to Danny’s psychic powers.
Jack gets the job, and the snowfall doesn’t disappoint. Phone lines are down during a storm early in the film, so Wendy contacts the forest service on a radio. The ranger says it is one of the worst storms they’ve had in years. A shot of the heavy fall precedes Danny’s wandering into the forbidden room 237. The hotel’s cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) shares Danny’s psychic powers, and realizes that Jack’s eccentricities have descended into violence. Dick flies from Miami to Colorado, and then drives along a highway littered with overturned trucks and spun-out cars, a white graveyard. He is on the way to the hotel, but his well-intentioned help is not enough.
During the climactic scenes, Wendy has locked herself and Danny in the bedroom to hide from Jack’s wrath. She is only able to open the window halfway. She lifts Danny through, and he slides down a gentle hill of snow to the ground. Wendy can’t fit, so, knife in hand, she waits for Jack to reach her. He axes through one panel of the door, but stops when he hears Dick’s Snowcat nearing the hotel.
The film’s infamous final sequence occurs in the hedge maze, where Danny knows snow holds the key to his survival. The curious photograph at the film’s conclusion hints that, like snow, evil always returns.
Snow’s power as a visual backdrop makes it ubiquitous in film, but here are some particularly notable whiteouts: The Ice Storm (1997), based on the 1994 novel by Rick Moody; Ang Lee’s representation is beautiful, but Moody’s prose is tough to top: “The ice had built up on every surface, on roofs and shrubs and avenues and cars and waterways. It formed a glittering and immense cocoon on tree limbs and power lines, a cocoon of impossible mass. The sound of tree limbs giving out under this weight was like the crackling of gunfire. Mike Williams, who was wandering around in the earliest part of dawn, heard these explosions in the stillness and laughed giddily at them. He was up really late. The threat of heavy weather impelled him out into the elements. To watch.”); Fargo (1996), where snow is present in the first and climactic scenes, and almost everywhere in-between; The Thing (1982), Antarctica is the perfect place to have a showdown with shape-shifting aliens; The Virgin Spring (1960), where a soft snowfall pierces the viewer’s already wounded heart; Black Christmas (1974), watch it for Keir Dullea’s maniacal destruction of a piano, Olivia Hussey’s authentic screams, and Margot Kidder’s dirty-mouthed sarcasm, but snow completes this precedent for John Carpenter’s Halloween; Road to Perdition (2002), Sam Mendes’s dramatization of a former mafia hitman’s (Tom Hanks) revenge was renowned cinematographer Conrad Hall’s final film, and is marked by rain and snow; A Simple Plan (1998), an unusual film in Sam Raimi’s catalog, where friends discover a small plane that had crashed into a snowy forest, with 4 million dollars in tow; Antichrist (2009), the appeal of snow brings a child to an open window, leading to tragedy in the film’s opening minutes; Snow Angels (2007), based on the Stewart O’Nan novel, is an incredibly moving drama about a fractured family that cannot escape pain, and a girl’s wayward walk in snow; Frosty the Snowman (1969), because cinematic snow does not always need to equal sadness.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Double murderer Gary Lee Rock (center) after his capture, before his unsuccessful suicide attempt.
There are certain experiences so mystifying, so unsettling, so flat-out weird that we can hope to understand them only through books. I had a cluster of such experiences in the late 1970s that haunted me for more than thirty years – until just recently when I came to two very different books that finally helped me understand what I’d lived through and how my response to those events shaped me as a writer. The books are Wisconsin Death Trip, a genre-bending work of history by Michael Lesy, and American Pastoral, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Philip Roth. It would be hard to imagine two more unalike books, and yet they spoke to my mystification with one voice. But before I tell you about these books, I should tell you about what happened back in the 1970s.
In November of 1976, on the Monday after Jimmy Carter was elected president, I reported for work as a cub reporter at Public Opinion, the daily newspaper in Chambersburg, Pa., a hamlet of 20,000 souls in the dead middle of the state just above the Mason-Dixon Line. I was spectacularly unqualified for the job. I had taken one creative writing course in college, had never studied journalism, and could offer as credentials just three short sketches I’d written for my college newspaper. But I was determined to become a writer – a real writer, a novelist – and like many before me I believed I needed to serve my apprenticeship in the whirlwind of a daily newspaper’s city room. So after graduating from college I spent months knocking on newspaper doors up and down the Eastern seaboard, getting told again and again to come back when I had some experience. This was the post-Watergate season, it was a buyer’s market, and I didn’t have much to sell. But the editor at Public Opinion decided to take a chance on me. At $140 a week – with a strict Gannett corporate policy of no overtime pay – it wasn’t much of a gamble. Naturally I jumped at the job.
From the very first day I sensed that I had landed in a strange place. The paper’s star reporter, Brad Bumsted, was working an ongoing story about a man named Robert Bear who’d been “shunned” by his conservative Reformed Mennonite congregation for disobeying doctrine. Church members were forbidden from doing business with Bear, and his wife and children were not allowed to talk to him, or even look at him. The poor man was coming unglued. Every day I received other reminders that I was deep in “Pennsylvania Dutch” country – bearded, straw-hatted men and their bonneted wives clopping along the rural roads in horse-drawn carriages; similarly attired men, known as “black-bumper Amish,” driving black cars with blackened chrome; names like Slaybaugh and Klinefelter larding the phone book; and diners serving “Dutch” (that is, German) dishes I’d never heard of, including shoofly pie and a dubious breakfast meat called scrapple.
While the Amish and Mennonites struck me as benign cults, there were other things going on that were far from benign. The first I experienced at close range was a local legend named Merle Unger, a charming rogue and petty criminal who had a history of breaking out of the county jail at night to visit his girlfriend, then breaking back into the jail before deputies counted noses in the morning. But on one of his breakouts Unger made the mistake of killing an off-duty cop during an armed robbery in Hagerstown, Md. The charm was off the rogue. The editor sent me to Easton, Md., to write sidebars while Brad Bumsted covered Unger’s murder trial. After the jury returned a guilty verdict, One of Unger’s lawyers got so drunk celebrating with the cops that he tipped over his chair and landed flat on his back, cackling like a hyena. The cops roared with glee. It was like an out-of-kilter drug trip: a petty criminal who breaks into jail and becomes a cop killer; a defense attorney who celebrates a guilty verdict.
There were far darker local legends. Public Opinion had won a Pulitzer Prize 10 years before my arrival for its coverage of strange goings-on in Shade Gap, a tiny town tucked into the Allegheny Mountains, which begin their rise just west of Chambersburg. There, an ex-convict and ex-mental patient named William Diller Hollenbaugh – known locally as “The Mountain Man” and “Bicycle Pete” – terrorized the community before kidnapping a teenage girl and holding her captive in the wild mountain terrain for seven days while authorities mounted the largest manhunt in Pennsylvania history. Eventually they shot Hollenbaugh dead while rescuing the girl. It was like some Yankee version of Deliverance.
Then there was the case of Debbie Sue Kline, a 19-year-old hospital employee in nearby Waynesboro who disappeared on her way home from work in the summer of 1976 and had not been seen since. In January of 1977, Public Opinion reported that Dorothy Allison, a well known psychic from Nutley, N.J., had come to town at the Kline family’s request to help police with their stalled investigation. Allison traveled the route between the hospital and the Kline home, she visited the missing girl’s bedroom, touched clothes, ran her hands over the bed sheets, slipped the girl’s class ring on her finger and left it there. Allison told police they would find a skeleton on a dump or in a junkyard in a town with double letters in its name. Then she left for New York City to undergo hypnosis to help her pinpoint the exact location of the girl’s remains.
“Police said the woman promised to identify the car used in the alleged abduction, the license number of the vehicle, the names of the people involved, the route they took and the location of Debbie,” Public Opinion reported. “Police credit Allison with ‘a fantastic track record,’ and said Allison revealed things concerning the investigation ‘that you wouldn’t believe.'”
It’s likely those newspaper reports made their way into the Franklin County Prison because there, on the following Wednesday morning, an inmate named Richard Lee Dodson offered to lead police to Kline’s body. He took them to a landfill near the town of Fannettsburg and pointed to a frozen, nearly fleshless skeleton. Dodson said his accomplice in the kidnapping, rape and murder was Ronald Henninger, who was then serving a manslaughter sentence in an Illinois prison but had been free on parole the summer Debbie Sue Kline was killed.
And finally, most spectacularly, there was the Fourth of July weekend in 1977. On that Saturday morning, Gary Lee Rock, an ex-Marine with an “expert” marksmanship rating, did something unimaginable. Unhappy in love, unhappy with his $3.50-an-hour clerk’s job at the local Army depot – exactly what I was making at the newspaper – Rock awoke with a hangover in his rural home. For reasons he could not explain later, he dressed in fatigue pants, combat boots and his Marine dog tags, then flew into a rage, smashing plates and windows and furniture. He doused the interior of his home and a nearby shed with gasoline, lit them up, then crouched nearby in the woods with a 300 Savage rifle, a shotgun, a Marine Corps knife and boxes of ammunition.
When a neighbor, alerted by an explosion, came running up Rock’s driveway, Rock shot him once through the heart, dead. When the revered chief of the local volunteer fire department arrived in his car, Rock shot him in the head and right arm, also dead. Rock fired more shots through the windshield of the first fire engine on the scene, wounding two firefighters. Then he melted into the woods, where he was captured that evening after state troopers wounded him with a salvo of shotgun pellets. After coming out of surgery, Rock smashed an IV bottle and slashed his own wrist and neck, but failed to kill himself. Of course this lurid, nearly ludicrous spasm of violence made national news.
All of this – the Mountain Man, the shunned Mennonite, the charming cop killer and his drunk lawyer, the psychic, the dead nurse, the burning house, the homicidal/suicidal ex-Marine, the dead fire chief – all of this was overwhelming to me. Kidnapping, ostracism, the paranormal, rape, murder, insanity, arson, more murder, attempted suicide – it added up to a collective nervous breakdown. And it all happened in a charming American town that looked like a Norman Rockwell painting.
Wisconsin Death Trip lives up to Walter Benjamin’s famous dictum that all great works of literature must either dissolve a genre or invent one. The genre Michael Lesy invented with this astonishing book might be called Portrait of a Society in a State of Mental and Physical Collapse. Greil Marcus aptly described the book as “absolutely a thing in itself: its own construct, its own nightmare, its own scream.”
Through photographs, newspaper accounts and his own impressionistic essays, Lesy tells the story of what happened in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, in the last decade of the 19th century, the so-called “Gay Nineties.” It was a time of paranoia, disease, economic upheaval and harrowing violence. For those who couldn’t take it, suicide came in many flavors: arenic, carbolic acid, strychnine, morphine, an insecticide called “paris green,” plus hanging, jumping in front of a train, ingesting match heads, slitting your own throat, plunging your head in a barrel of water and of course, this being America, self-inflicted gunshot wound. If you didn’t kill yourself you had a fair chance of getting murdered, or starving or freezing to death, or dying from a smorgasbord of diseases that included diphtheria, smallpox, cerebral meningitis, typhoid fever and croup.
Fire was as common as rain. “In the early days,” Lesy writes, “people set fires for business as well as pleasure. The courthouse got burned down before it was even built in 1857. In 1861 the town’s entire business block, valued at $30,000, went up in smoke.”
People saw ghosts, they saw 40-foot-long reptiles in the river, they were routinely carted off to the insane asylum at Mendota. The photographs of these people, taken by town photographer Charles Van Shaick, paint a bifurcated portrait of life in a small Midwestern town: on one hand there are the predictable pictures of weddings, funerals, picnics, barber shops, musical ensembles, groups of sawmill workers, men with their hunting trophies, their drinking buddies, their tractors and animals; and then there are the pictures that look like Diane Arbus prototypes, portraits of dwarves, amputees, babies in coffins, nudists, snake handlers, madwomen.
Lesy’s method is to lay all this out with zero inflection, just a steady drumbeat of facts that indeed darken into a nightmare. It’s as though the denizens of Winesburg, Ohio went on a decade-long amphetamine bender and killing spree. By the time I got to the end of the book I had begun to see my experiences in Chambersburg in a fresh light – not as implausible aberrations, but as modern manifestations of dark impulses that have always lurked beneath the surface of every American place. What’s extraordinary, Lesy concludes, is that the things that happened in Black River Falls – and, by implication, in Chambersburg – are not at all extraordinary. In a nice bit of understatement, he quotes from an 1897 issue of the American Journal of Sociology: “It is a popular belief that large cities are the great centers of social corruption, and the special causes of social degeneration, while rural districts and country towns are quite free from unmoral influence…. Yet the country has its own social evils.”
Or, as a close friend never tires of reminding me, “The truly weird shit rarely happens in big cities; it almost always happens in small towns and suburbia and the boondocks.” I have come to believe that while this is not an iron-clad fact – the Son of Sam was terrorizing New York City during the summer of 1977 – it does pick at the scab of something approaching an unpleasant truth. I’m thinking about Dick Hickock and Perry Smith slaughtering the Clutter family in their remote western Kansas farmhouse, a horror immortalized by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I’m thinking about Joan Didion’s unforgettable piece of reportage, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” which tells the story of how weather and dislocation and history (or lack of it) led a pregnant mother of three to douse her sleeping husband with gasoline and burn him to death inside the family Volkswagen on a desolate stretch of southern California desert. Twenty miles from where I’m writing these words, police have just discovered the remains of the tenth victim of a possible serial killer on a remote Long Island beach. A few weeks ago a woman in the small upstate town of Newburgh drove into the Hudson River with three of her children in the car, killing them all. Such acts have become emblematic of what Walker Percy called these “dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A.”
In American Pastoral, Philip Roth puts a name to these dark American impulses. The novel tells the story of a sensationally handsome and athletic Jewish boy from Newark named Seymour “Swede” Levov who marries a former Miss New Jersey, takes over his father’s thriving glove factory, and moves with his wife and daughter into a stone farmhouse in Old Rimrock, out past the suburbs, out in the gorgeous green folds of an America that still looks much as it looked before the Revolutionary War. There in 1968, as a way of protesting the Vietnam War, the Swede’s teenage daughter, a life-long stutterer, plants a bomb in the local post office that kills a respected doctor, forcing the girl to go underground and effectively demolishing the Swede’s immaculate world. Roth writes that the Swede becomes the victim of something unthinkable:
…the angry, rebarbative spitting-out daughter with no interest whatever in being the next successful Levov, flushing him out of hiding as if he were a fugitive – initiating the Swede into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking, the plague America infiltrating the Swede’s castle and there infecting everyone. The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral – into the indigenous American berserk.
And so, thanks to books, I finally came to terms with the mystifying things I’d witnessed and written about in Chambersburg more than thirty years ago. Books showed me that those mysteries were not extraordinary or even unprecedented, and they actually have a name, and that name is The Indigenous American Berserk.
My first published drawing: Cop killer Merle Unger (left) with his defense attorneys during his murder trial.
After I finished reading those books I went back to Chambersburg to scroll through microfilm of Public Opinion from the 1970s. I wanted to see if I could recapture my response to the events I’d lived through and written about, and how that response had shaped me as a writer.
Microfilm is a wonderful corrective for a faulty memory. It reminded me that Merle Unger’s murder trial took place during my very first weeks on the job, and that it was a dream assignment. For one thing, my name was sure to be on the front page every day. Better yet, while Brad Bumsted covered the trial I was free to write from the margins of the main event. I wrote about the ankle irons Merle Unger wore to court every day – a badge of honor for such an accomplished escape artist. I wrote about the prosecutor persuading the two local newspapers to keep a lid on pre-trial publicity so a slam-dunk murder trial wouldn’t get yanked from his jurisdiction – which had the added benefit of giving Bumsted and me a virtual exclusive on the story. I interviewed Unger’s grim mother as we waited for the jury to deliver its guilty verdict. I even drew a sketch of Unger and his defense attorneys in the courtroom, my first published drawing.
After the bloody Fourth of July weekend in 1977, on the other hand, Chambersburg became the setting for a media circus. Like everyone on the Public Opinion staff, I contributed to the saturation coverage of the shootings and their aftermath. And I hated it, hated jockeying with other reporters for scraps of news, hated the obviousness and falseness of covering a manufactured news event. Simply put, I hated being part of a pack.
As I read more microfilm, I remembered that I was always much happier writing stories about people who existed outside the news, stories that I felt were somehow my own – about a struggling mystery novelist, a taxidermist, a night nurse, a man who built a futuristic solar house, a puppeteer, a peach farmer, a teenage Emergency Medical Technician who delivered a baby in the back of an ambulance as it screamed toward the hospital. On the day of the fire chief’s funeral, I wrote a by-lined story about a schoolteacher announcing his quixotic plan to run against an entrenched Congressman. The story was not big news, but it happened outside the tent of the media circus, and it was mine. The fire chief was not yet in the ground and already I was distancing myself from the pack.
I now realize that this attraction to people on the margins puts me in good company. While reviewing The Silent Season of a Hero, the new collection of sports writing by Gay Talese, I noted that he was drawn to people on the downslope of greatness and to those who worked in the shadows of the sporting world – boxing referees, timekeepers, horseshoe makers, agents, midget wrestlers. Then I read an article in the current issue of GQ magazine about David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King. In the article, John Jeremiah Sullivan recalls what happened when the magazine assigned Wallace to write a story about a presidential candidate’s speech writers: “Early in 2008, GQ asked him to write about Obama’s speeches or, more largely, about American political rhetoric. It was still a somewhat gassy idea as presented to him, but Wallace saw the possibilities, so we started making inquiries to the Obama campaign, and even made reservations for him to be in Denver during the convention. Our thought was to get him as close to the head speechwriters (and so as close to Obama) as possible. But Wallace said, very politely, that this wasn’t what interested him. He wanted to be with a worker bee on the speechwriting team – to find out how the language was used by, as he put it, ‘the ninth guy on the bench.’ It also seemed like maybe a temperament thing, that he would be more comfortable reporting away from the glare.”
This made perfect sense to me, this idea of wanting to talk to the ninth guy on the bench, of being more comfortable reporting away from the glare. I’m sure it makes sense to Gay Talese, too. This has nothing to do with stage fright, or a fear of going after big game, or the reporter’s eternal dread of getting scooped. It’s something much deeper, and maybe much darker, than that. It’s an understanding that it’s so hard to get another human being to open up to you, and it’s so scary to crawl inside them if they do open up to you, that you’re wise to get rid of as many impediments as possible. And one of the most forbidding impediments is that glare Wallace and Talese instinctively avoided. Whenever there are bright lights, clusters of cameras and microphones, spin doctors and handlers, packs of hungry rivals with notebooks, the writer’s chances of getting something genuine, or even merely unique, shrink monstrously. I experienced this so many times that it is one of the few things I absolutely know to be true.
I began to understand this on the Fourth of July weekend in 1977, and it explains why I feel grateful that I’ve never had to cover a political convention or campaign, that I’ve had to attend very few press conferences, and that I’ve had to interview just one former president and one movie star.
As I learned from reading that scratchy old microfilm, I’ve always preferred to write about interesting nobodies. Maybe it’s a temperament thing. And as I learned from reading those books by Michael Lesy and Philip Roth, the dark beast that lurks beneath the glossy surface of American life can show itself anytime and anywhere, from the smallest town to the most bucolic countryside. Because it’s everywhere and it has always been with us and it always will be. Those two books also taught me that, somehow, it’s a strange comfort to be able to put a name to such a thing. Which is another way of saying they taught me the power of the written word.
(Images courtesy the author.)