Discharged from his service during World War II, Hazel Motes returns home to Tennessee in his early twenties, his childhood doubts over salvation, sin and his faith further shattered by the war, to the point he identifies himself an atheist, or anti-religion. A chance meeting in the city with a blind preacher, Asa Hawks, and his daughter Sabbath, exacerbates Motes’ detestation of the Church, and he vows to form his own ministry, The Church Without Christ, and he delivers impassioned sermons from the hood of his dilapidated car. All the while, a teenage boy, Enoch Emery, follows Motes on his blasphemous path, compelled by the ‘wise blood’ that runs in his veins, infatuated with the idea of The Church Without Christ.

wise-blood2Wise Blood is Flannery O’Connor’s first novel. Along with her second, The Violent Bear It Away (a dark and superbly challenging book) and several short story collections, it represents a small but powerful collection of writings of a woman who died tragically young, with an imagination so powerfully vivid she was willing to examine and dissect the ruminations of man’s relationship with God.

I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them, there’s only one truth and that is that there is no truth… No truth behind all truths is what I and this church preach! Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place… In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.

As to be expected with O’Connor’s work, there are the powerful themes of religion and faith, there are several flawed but deeply fascinating characters, and there are dark, violent, macabare twists and turns. Wise Blood is a simple tale, but O’Connor introduces us to several ignition points and has them dance dangerously close to one another. Motes alternates between an anxious, confused young man and a bitter, violent wretch, cast from the shadow of his preacher grandfather, and as the story progresses we discover Motes cannot completely reject God. False prophets and phoney preachers and corrupted teenage girls are ultimately too much for him to handle. His crisis of faith descent into religious fanaticism and while sad and at times, horrifying, there is black humour throughout. The scene where Enoch stabs a man in order to steal his gorilla suit is deliriously freakish, and just one of many intimate pieces of life and characters that O’Connor exposes to us in this strange city. “Her name was Maude and she drank whisky all day from a fruit jar under the counter.” 

“Do you think, Mr. Motes,” his landlady asked hoarsely, “that when you’re dead you’re blind?”
“I hope so,” he said after a minute.
“Why?” she asked, staring at him.
After a while he said, “If there’s no bottom in your eyes, they hold more.”

At times the narrative doesn’t flow, which I attribute to the fact that several of the scenes were originally released as individual, stand alone stories, but it doesn’t take away from the overall feeling I took from the book. O’Connor is a giant of southern gothic literature, and her stories never fail to shake me. Wise Blood is no different.

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Image taken by Tyler Forest-Hauser, who captures stunning scenery in his native Canada. You can find more of Tyler’s work here.

“Whatever happened to the Italian girl you were with?”
“What Italian girl?”
“In Milan. After you broke up with Monica and left Paris – you told me about a girl you were seeing in Milan. Not for long, if I recall correctly.”
“Oh you mean Sofía. I met her in Milan but she was Colombian actually, and had lived in the South of France most of her life.”
“Oh I see. Did I meet her? I think I did. She had big brown eyes right?”
“She had brown eyes, but they weren’t particularly big. And you never visited me in Milan. You couldn’t get time off work. Or that’s the excuse you gave me. We last met briefly in New York before I came back here. Left or right?”
“Take a left. I swear I had been in Milan to see you. Must have been to see someone else, or for business. But then how did I know she had brown eyes?”
“I would have told you about her on the phone. Maybe I even sent you a photograph. I was pretty hot on her. I would have sent you something.”
“Maybe. Yes, I remember, you sent me a letter and there was a picture of her. She was hot, sure. So how long were you together for?”
“I don’t know. We were never really ‘together’ I guess. She was difficult to pin down. We spent a lot of time together, but she was still seeing other men.”
“And you weren’t seeing other women?”
“Well sure, I knew a couple of other girls out there, but with my writing I never had much time for the others. But I would always make time for Sofía.”
“So for how long?”
“It’s funny you thought she was Italian. Sofía was nothing like the Italian girls I spoke to. The Italian girls always seemed preoccupied with something else, whenever I tried to speak to them. They never kept eye contact.”
“Maybe they found you boring?”
“I thought that. I really did. But I’m not so sure.”
“Easy, I was joking man. Keep your eyes on the road.”
“No but I found something different about the Italian girls. And some of the other girls in Europe. Even with Monica, I never felt that close to her. Sofía was different. After knowing her I became aware of the stagnancy and decay in the city, and the misery of the people living there, whereas she, she was fresh. Sofía wasn’t afraid to stare at me.”
“So how long were you seeing her?”
“I guess two months. A little longer I suppose. I met her in my first week in the city. She was at a bar where I was reading some of my poetry. It was a Thursday night and there weren’t many people around. She came with a friend who had heard of me, had read my work.”
“And Sofía, was she a fan of yours? Is that how it started?”
“Not exactly. She approached me at the end of the night and said she wasn’t a big reader and she certainly didn’t know much about poetry, but she enjoyed what I had read and would like to hear more. I never really found out if she was really interested in my poetry or was just flirting.”
“Did you mind?”
“About what?”
“Keep your eyes on the road, man. About whether she was interested in your poetry or not.”
“No. Maybe she did like my work on that night, or maybe she just used it to start a conversation. I never asked – after a few dates I did not care.”
“Did she put out straight away?”
“She invited me back to her apartment after our second date. But I wasn’t chasing sex with her. I just wanted to spend more time with her. I wanted to know more about her. She had a knack of captivating me, of holding my attention, without really saying much. She would tell me about her work, her friends, her thoughts on films and music, and to anybody listening in on our conversations they might think them normal discussions – normal questions and normal answers. But it was what she chose not to say – what she chose to leave out – that fascinated me. Like there was something going on behind the scenes. Do you know what I mean?”
“Not really. You thought she was hiding something from you?”
“No, no. Nothing like that. Or perhaps a little.”
“You were in love with this girl weren’t you?”
“I don’t know. Can you fall in love with someone you don’t fully understand? The more I tried the more distant she would get. She didn’t sleep much and sometimes I would wake up in the night and the glare of the television would be flickering in the living room, and I would get up and she would be sat there watching late night shows with the sound off. I never asked her why she did that. I decided I didn’t want to know.”
“You haven’t changed. You just ramble. This is why I don’t read your poetry.”
“You can’t read any poetry.”
“Fuck off. So? What happened between the two of you?”
“She went cold. Or missing. Just disappeared. She wasn’t at her apartment anymore, she had moved out when I asked her neighbour, and she wouldn’t answer her phone. I used to try every day, then I tried every week, then every other week. Then I just kind of gave up.”
“Strange. Sorry, man. ”
“Don’t be. It was easier that way. She arrived in a fog and she left in a fog. Any other exit would not have suited her. And besides, we barely knew each other, so what do I have to moan about? This place looks familiar. Are we close?”
“Oh yeah. we’re pretty much here. Slow down, it’s just around this bend.”

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2017.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly, arguably his most successful novels, Philip K. Dick mastered existential science fiction and the dark and personal hell of addiction and schizophrenia. With Ubik he created a purgatory of uncertainty and horror, and The Man in the High Castle is a spiritual and captivating piece of reimagined history. I’m a huge PKD fan – yet I was indifferent to VALIS. I’m sorry Phil, but for large parts of the book I didn’t really know what the fuck was going on.

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VALIS, which stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, and the titular VALIS, an artificial satellite capable of communicating with humanity and passing on intrinsic knowledge, is drawn from Gnosticism, and is Dick’s vision of an aspect of God. Horselover Fat (a schizophrenic personality of Dick) experiences bizarre visions and with his friends, the sceptic and cynical Kevin, and the Catholic David, they attempt to make sense of the information, in the forms of pink laser beams, Fat seems receptive too.

The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than a razor’s edge, sharper than a hound’s tooth, more agile than a mule deer. It is more elusive than the merest phantom. Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.

Meandering, ponderous, and at times incoherent and inconsequential, it’s a difficult read. The book is so heavy with Fat’s philosophical and theological musings, various interpretations of religious events and histories, that it can be hard to keep up. But at times, VALIS really shines. When Fat discovers a film (named VALIS) which contains imagery and references to identical revelations Fat has been exposed to, the group are stunned and for a second, the pieces fit. Amongst the thousands of words there is some semblance of shared knowledge. As the group speculate with excitement on every scene in the film, on every possible meaning and theory, it is hard not to share their enthusiasm and disbelief.

Ultimately it comes to nothing. Maybe it never was anything. Schizophrenic hallucinations or visions from a damaging addiction. As a novel it is disappointing. As a series of ideas and beliefs, as a window to Philip K. Dick’s brilliant brain, it is fevered and frenzied and strange.

America wins the Vietnam War. The Watergate scandal is never exposed. Tension between the US and Russia and the looming threat of World War III. History has been changed by the emergence of costumed superheroes . . . but who watches the Watchmen?

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Watchmen is an American comic book series published by DC Comics in 1986 and 1987, created by the British trio of writer Alan Moore, illustrator Dave Gibbons and colourist John Higgins. Its primary theme, the idea of masked vigilantes into a gritty and realistic world, is something that marketed subsequent superhero fantasies to a more literary, mature crowd. With modern and contemporary fears of the time, such as the Cold War and threat of nuclear annihilation, Watchmen adds to this grounded layer, grounded superheroes. Superheroes that feel silly in their costumes, that question the very nature of what they do, that stubbornly resist or meekly bend, becoming puppets of the government or being destroyed by the insistence on their values.

In other words, these vigilantes are painfully human. The Watchmen are a former group of costumed vigilantes who have flaws, desires, dreams and fears, who must disband once the United States passes the Keene Act, which prohibits ‘costumed adventuring’. And the only member who can genuinely be considered a superhero is the iconic Dr. Manhattan, who through an accident at a nuclear plant becomes a superhuman blue entity who can control atoms and matter. The rest of the cast have no special abilities as such, but are compelling and memorable characters. Rorschach, Nite-Owl, Silk Spectre, the Comedian, Ozymandias. All play key roles with different views on the state of their world, and what they are prepared to risk to ‘fix’ it.

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There is plenty to like about this collection. Illustrations are detailed, realistic, and the structure is consistent throughout, with each page divided into a nine-panel grid, but for a few select scenes where the drawing takes a page and does the talking. A villain who isn’t hopelessly inept with a morally reprehensible plan that could save the world. A comic within a comic, Tales of the Black Freighter, which are intersected between panels in certain chapters of Watchmen and seemingly provide juxtaposition to events occurring in the real world. Within the panels of the comic there is genuine excitement, suspense, violence and tragedy.

Watchmen was adapted into a live-action film directed by Zack Snyder in 2009, which I admit I haven’t watched. But the comic collection is a classic and absolutely worth your time if you have any interest in graphic novels and the origins of gritty, realistic universes in which superheroes fight to protect.

 

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This image of an old schoolhouse was taken in rural Iowa, by American photographer David Sebben. See more of David’s work here.

Look at me. Standing here under the wintry sun having walked three miles up hill and now me sweating and panting like some herded animal. I should have met him at the house, lord knows he’s passed out drunk somewhere without the slightest recollection of our talk yesterday. He stank of booze then and he’ll stink of booze now. If he were an easier man to pin down I dare say I’d like the old fella. But as it stands I been here nearly a half hour and he’s nowhere to be seen and in my eyes that makes him a drunkard and a layabout and a waste of space and in particular my time. It is beautiful up here though.

Well strike me down lord look look here he comes now, the old man Liles walking on over here I see him. Could only be him. Jesus look at that greasy hair, all tied up under that ranger hat, as battered and worn as he is, the old goat, sweat drenched shirt with stains in the pits, if I wasn’t surrounded by cowpat I think I’d smell him from here, and he’s swaying, one side to the other, what a sight. He’s been drinking all day I guarantee it, and only as a means of continuing from the night previous, hell what a state of a man. Good-natured and mild-mannered by all reports, but I mean unclean, don’t give a damn about his appearance, not slightly, cares even less about what other folk think, but by accounts other than my own he’s just odd, a strange lonely man and being strange weren’t a crime last time I checked. People don’t like dealing with him but he’s done me no harm, folk like rumours and treat rumours as fact. Truth is I think folk are jealous of this lucked son of a bitch, he owns more land in this valley than there is land to own, and no family or woman or child to drain at his resource, all the more for him to spend on whisky and whores. Or whatever he spends it on. Maybe he’s not interested in what women can give him – like I said, I don’t know the man. Maybe he just likes being alone. He’s not a normal fella but he is rich, and I think he would rather have nothing and do without all the prospectors and farmers who pester him every day like flies round shit, but if you own as much land as old Liles does then there will always be folk looking to do business, land is the most valuable thing there is they say, and there’s some beautiful land round here and everyone wants a piece. He’s only selling what he has to, and even then it’s the land furthest from the house, so he don’t get disturbed. Neighbours are the last thing old Liles wants. Well I don’t plan to stay long. I just want my piece, I don’t need much but if I can get what I want I might be able to make a mark. Make something of this life anyway. Here’s the old goat now.

“Morning Liles.” Joe Abbott said as the old man approached.
Samuel Liles waved or swatted a fly. He was half drunk when he woke this morning but that was three hours ago and he’s had more whisky since.
“How’s the day treating you, kindly I hope?” Joe Abbott asked. The old man stopped near the fence a safe distance from the younger man enquiring on the land. Joe Abbott continued.”Was starting to think you weren’t coming.”
“Let’s make this quick.” The voice of Samuel Liles was quiet but it was not weak. As if were being suppressed beneath a pile of gravel and dirt.
“Sure Sam. If that’s what you’re wanting.”
Liles put a hand against the fence to steady himself and looked across the valley. “Everything you can see here is mine.”
“Yes.” Joe Abbott said.
“So point out what you’re wanting.”
Joe Abbott looked at the land for a while, then pointed. “From this stump here to the rise over there. Or whatever you judge to be two-fifty square feet. And don’t you try and stitch me. I’ll be getting it verified by those surveyors in town.”
“Do you want the barn?”
“No need for it. How much you thinking?”
“Fifty dollar. Sixty with the barn.”
“What’s in the barn?”
“Nothing worth having.”
“I’ll leave it then.”
They stood, having established the land and its boundaries, in the long grass and the afternoon was calm and the valley was silent.
“Now what?” Joe Abbott asked.
“The land is yours as soon as I get the fifty dollars. Put it in an envelope and leave it at the house. Leave the forms to me.”
“Don’t I need to sign anything?”
“I’ll send them into town. They’ll be at the post office by the end of the week.”
And with that old Samuel Liles swayed back in the direction of the house.
“Pleasure doing business with you Liles.” Joe Abbott called out to the old man, but the old man did not respond, so he turned back and studied the land he had purchased. He smiled and muttered under his breath. Old goat.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2017.

It’s here!

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The first ever issue of 404 Ink has been released, and my short story, reboot, is published within. I haven’t fully digested the magazine yet, but from what I have seen and read, there is some fantastic work (not just fiction, but essays, poems, even illustrations and comics). It’s also really well put together. Editing, layout, print is all great. It feels ‘proper’.

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I’d encourage you to purchase it – not only to check out my writing, but to support the guys at 404 Ink. They have a lot of talent and passion and it would be great to see them do well. You can buy a printed version, or as an e-book, here. Cheers!