wicKED of the "Something wicKED this way comes" blog picked me to be one of the inheritors of the "Minions of Misery" title. Something like a chain letter, only with the dark piquancy of terrible secrets. So, I am bound to share with you A) Dark Book, B) Dark Film C) A Dark Secret of my Past, before passing on this mantle to three lucky souls.
The House With a Clock in Its Walls
-By John Bellairs
and illustrated by Edward Gorey
Not particularly dark, being a children's novel, but this book had a huge impact on me when I was a child. I read it one summer, as part of the library reading program, and being the weirdo monster kid that I was, I only really read books about devils, werewolves, and vampires.
But The House With a Clock in Its Walls is something special. The characters stuck with me long after reading. I had vivid dreams of adventures with Lewis, Jonathan, and Mrs. Zimmerman. The house at 100 High St seemed something out of my own unconscious mind.
It begins with recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt arriving in the quaint town of "New Zebedee" Michigan, where he is to become the charge of his good-hearted Uncle Jonathan, who turns out to be a gen-yoo-wine wizard. Jonathan lives next door to his best friend, and honest to goodness witch, Florence Zimmerman. Jonathan's house is a grand mansion built by its previous owners, the malevolent wizards Isaac and Selenna Izard.
Lewis discovers that Jonathan roams the halls of the mansion after hours, stopping all of the hundreds of clocks in the house for the night. All but the one he can't find, the titular clock in the walls, a mysterious device left somewhere in the house by the insidious Izards, to tick away the seconds 'til doomsday.
The mystery of the clock aside, Lewis settles in to a happy life with Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman, and his not quite as happy life at school. Lewis is bullied by the other kids, he doesn't quite fit in. He only has one friend, Tarby, a kid who is seemingly everything that Lewis isn't. Strong, brave, and coveted for his talent at sports.
But their friendship is tenuous at best, so Lewis plots a plan to secure their flagging friendship. He'll use Uncle Jonathan's magick books to cast a spell, just a little Halloween trick to impress Tarby.
I really sympathized with Lewis, myself being a shy-uncoordinated-tubby little dork. I knew painfully well the feeling of alienation on the schoolyard, and the fear of losing your one and only, but largely incompatible, friend. So I understood how Lewis could stumble into dark powers, with only the best of intentions. How Lewis could unleash the dark forces that he did, without intending to.
I picked up a collection of the Lewis Barnavelt stories at Smith Family Bookstore, and I still read this every year. It's written for children but it doesn't pander. The author John Bellairs respects the intelligence of his juvenile audience and like the best children's cinema, it's just as heartfelt for adults as it is for kids.
Sante Sangre (Blood Saint)
-Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky
I debated whether I should choose this for my dark film. It's more than just dark, and more than just a horror film. It delves into the fractured psyches of characters with broken souls.
Much like Peter Medak's excellent "The Ruling Class" it's a movie that seems to delve deeper and deeper, darker and darker. There are no reprieves, no cinematic hand of god, to save the characters from the fates that unfold for them. It has no mercy, much as life shows us no mercy.
More than anything, it reminded me of how it felt to be a child, growing up in a world of seemingly mad adults.
Sante Sangre is a film about a boy, Fenix, the son of the abusive circus ring-master and knife thrower. Fenix mother is a trapeze artist, and the leader of a sacrilegious catholic cult, that worships a saint of their own choosing, a little girl whose arms were cut off during an assault. Alma, deaf and mute, is the daughter of the tattooed lady, the target of the knife throwing act, and mistress to the knife thrower. Together, Fenix and Alma perform a magic show in the circus, and rely on each-other to weather to excesses of their parents dark compulsions.
The film follows the story of Fenix and Alma's traumatic childhood, and then their traumatic adulthoods. A story of pain, and perhaps catharsis. I don't want to say too much, I think that the film needs to be absorbed moment by moment, without expectations. I was more or less paralyzed while watching it.
It's really hard to think of a dark secret. I'm not altogether secretive, and honestly, my conscience is pretty clear. If I've done misdeeds, I'm pretty open about them. But I thought of one story that I haven't had cause to recall recently. It probably is a secret, if the others involved don't recall it.
When I was kid, I had two friends on my block, one was a girl and one was a boy. We had a creek, despite growing up in the city, around the ghetto, a thin sliver of jungle forest ran behind my house. We played in the creek sometimes.
One time, we were exploring, when we found a dead cat. I think it was black, and it laid, dry, flattened, and tough, safely away from the waters edge. We were sort of overcome with the revelation of death, entranced. We agreed that we should do something with this cat. Maybe we wanted to honor its life, offer it a proper burial. Maybe we were a little drunk on feeling of triumph over death.
We each found a stick, and pushed it down the creek bed, chanting a song about the dead cat. I don't remember the words, or the meaning of the chant. I think we went a little mad. It was ritual, compulsive and inexplicable. We slid it over concrete and sand. Down the creek-bed, to the waterfall. The water poured off of a concrete wall, over a fifteen foot drop, into a pool that flowed into a man-made tunnel. We cheered as we pushed the dessicated cat over the brink. It stayed there for a while, in that pool. Stupid street kids went swimming there sometimes, the water was probably toxic, running through the city as it did. But it was also tainted by that dead cat.
I'm not sure what came over us that afternoon. We reveled in what we were doing. Afterwards I was frightened, I've been a very composed person since, afraid of the dark forces that I learned could overcome people. I became hyper-sensitized to my own unconscious compulsions.
Years later we would explore further down the creek, even into the tunnel. We always fancied we could see the cat's skeleton, still bobbing in the algae black water.