A text by the 2017 creative non-fiction Sozopol Seminars fellow and CapitaLiterature participant Evan James
I went out for a run one lightly rainy morning – on Halloween, actually. Movement kept at bay the dreadful sensation that the island hungered to swallow me up, annihilate my spirit. And so I laced up, pulled the hood of an old sweatshirt over my head, and ran along the road that served the beach house. Relief came only when the road fed into a park, and the park into trails that twisted through the woods. My sneakers splashed mud up onto my shins and calves. The woods – rainforest, really, full of wet ferns, thick-trunked fir trees, cedars, small frogs, branches bearded with bright green moss – resounded with the patter and hiss of rainfall. Here I felt wonderfully alive, and like I was, for an egoic moment at least, mastering this place, this lush, sodden land, by mastering myself.
Back at the beach house I returned to my downstairs lair, panting. I stripped and showered, relishing the water pressure and heat in the shower, that borrowed shower with stone floor and glass door that steamed up within a minute. I felt comfortable and wealthy inside the shower. When I stepped out, however, and dried myself on a towel belonging to this family I'd never met, and I dressed, and went back upstairs, the strangeness of my circumstances returned to me. I felt the rightful owners of the house could appear at any moment and drive us out.
All my inner gripes and worries, though, all my doubts and my compulsion to dissect, all of it melted away when the opportunity to watch TV arose. Though never much of a TV watcher as a teenager – anti-TV liberal Romanticism had its claws in me then; SHOOT YOUR TELEVISION, a bumper sticker on my English teacher's pickup truck had read – I found lately that I missed it, and given half the chance, whether in a hotel room or a housesitting situation, I would binge on its wonderful offerings. Why, I pleaded with TV as I sank into couch, armchair, or bed, why was I ever cruel to you? What came over me? Come back to me, TV, I can change! Sitting in the Eames chair of the absent, nouveau riche Microsoft workers, I turned the TV on. I found Turner Classic Movies. All-day old school horror programming awaited.
To my great pleasure, William Castle's The Tingler was on, starring Vincent Price. I fell faintly in love with Vincent Price as the movie got rolling. Vincent Price, his voice somehow shot through with a tone of thrilling perversion. I wished I could become Vincent Price – become a suave, prolific character actor most often cast in villainous roles. I wondered, as I watched Vincent Price play the role of pathologist Dr. Warren Chapin (who discovers a parasite attached to the human spine, the titular Tingler, that feeds upon the fear of its host), whether I could ever have a side career as a screen villain. I would probably have to play the sort of villain that appears cheery and charismatic and well-adjusted, I thought, but who is then found to be a seething psychopath just beneath the surface. People long to be reassured that admirable qualities in others conceal shameful impulses, especially if those others dwell in the public eye; this Puritan-tabloid mindset supports a simplistic conception of truth in which the fallen state constitutes our shared, essential reality. The notion of original sin, I thought as Vincent Price removed the corny, centipede-like Tingler prop from the actress Judith Evelyn during her dead character's autopsy, runs so deep that even many of those who believe themselves atheists – or New Age pantheists – probably still think and feel by its logic. The very idea of redemption feeds and grows upon it, much like the Tingler, which can only be defeated by the frightened screaming of its host, fed and grew upon the fear of Martha, a deaf mute murdered by her movie theater-owning husband, Oliver Higgens, who frightened her to death with what amounted to a series of elaborate pranks, knowing that she couldn't scream and would therefore succumb to the growing, eventually spine-crushing Tingler. At times, I thought, almost all of popular American culture seemed to thrive upon this same addictive lust for redemption – even that which endeavored to subvert its insidious laws often read as little more than tantrum, which is to say a scream of sorts that shrank the Tingler only temporarily. A prolonged shot in the film showed the silhouette of Vincent Price's gloved hands holding a monstrous, wriggling Tingler removed from Martha's corpse behind a surgery curtain. I thought: redemption means regaining ones soul by paying for its loss with a life of virtue; more to the point, it means never really regaining ones soul in life, but devoting ones life to an ongoing penance, enduring temptation and making up for temptation with acts of virtue until death comes, a release. If the Tingler is sin, I thought, then screaming in fright – an expression of that weakness taken for the true essence of humanity, taken for the truth behind any hubris, any stoicism, pride, self-regard, or "boastful" show of strength – is a form of virtue, at least in the cinematic playworld of William Castle. It was one way of doing things, this screamful approach to the Good.
My mother returned to the beach house from wherever she'd been. Choir practice, I think.
"Ooh, whatcha watching?" she said.
"The Tingler, with Vincent Price," I said.
She made herself a cup of black tea, then joined me in watching The Tingler, which was a little more than halfway over. "What is that thing? The Tingler?" she said; the Tingler had broken free.
"Yes, mother, that's the Tingler," I said. I explained the way the Tingler worked, and summarized the plot developments she'd missed. We laughed each time the Tingler reappeared, for each time it looked more ridiculous, more like the rubber toy that it was.
"This is too good," my mother said.
The Tingler escaped into the movie theater owned by Oliver Higgins. (In the film, the theater only played silent movies.) There it seized upon a woman's leg, until her screaming drove it away; Vince Price shut the lights off in the theater then, and commanded the whole audience to scream. At last, he and Higgens recaptured the Tingler in the projection room. Price then put the Tingler in question back in Martha's corpse where it belonged, and sewed her up. But Higgins, after confessing guilt to Vincent Price, died after the reintroduced Tingler in Martha sort of reanimated her corpse, making it sit up in bed and scare the murderer husband so severely that he was unable to scream. "Ladies and gentlemen," Vincent Price intoned over the black screen, "just a word of warning. If any of you are not convinced that you have a Tingler of your own, the next time you are frightened in the dark, don't scream."
And with that, The Tingler ended.
"Wonderful," I said, truly pleased.
My mother agreed. "Too funny," she said. After a few minutes of shuffling around in the kitchen, she recalled something she'd wanted to tell me. "Did you know that they're having a memorial service for Bob McAllister tomorrow?"
"I didn't know he'd died," I said. Bob McAllister had been a legendary high school teacher for decades, a champion of young writers and actors passing through his classes or theater productions. He wore wildly-patterned ties and colorful Chuck Taylors. His truck bore the SHOOT YOUR TELEVISION bumper sticker. He had opened the minds of many students to the glories of the literary and dramatic arts with his passion. Meanwhile, he'd maintained a reputation for hipness, knowingness, a bohemian, even dangerous friskiness and rebellion.
"Lung cancer," my mother said. I recalled now that he often smelled like stale smoke as well. The tips of his fingers were yellowed with tobacco stains. He had lived into his early seventies; my mother and Tad and I had all had him as a teacher. "The service is at the high school," my mother continued. "I ran into a woman I knew from back then at the store, and she said to me, ‘Will there be a section at the memorial where all of the students he slept with can sit?'"
"I don't think I'll go," I said.
A documentary about William Castle came on as a follow-up to The Tingler. I was keen to watch it. My mother went upstairs to make some money by taking calls from people wanting psychic consultations. That all happened online now – psychics like my mother advertised their services on one forum or another, posting their personal sales pitches, and then set up call times with their querants. Among her areas of expertise: the power to help people communicate with intimates who had crossed over, who had died. She enjoyed ongoing professional psychic relationships with some clients, while others sought her ought for a single reading. She told me, before going upstairs to work, that she was annoyed because a woman who she'd told to end her relationship had left her a negative review online. "I didn't tell her what she wanted to hear," my mother said, drifting out of the room.
Evan James has written for Oxford American, Travel + Leisure, Catapult, The New York Times, The New York Observer and many other. His essay "Lovers' Theme" was selected by Eula Biss as the winner of the 2016 Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction. He earned an MFA in Fiction at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and has received fellowships from Yaddo and the Carson McCullers Center. His first novel, Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe, will be published in the United States, in 2019.
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