Sheri Holman is a difficult writer to categorize. She can write an elegantly observant novel of domestic absurdity, and she can write a book humming with Romantic misery and ghastly horror. There is no predicting what we will encounter when we land on either of these seemingly well-trod shores: what natives, what flora, what fauna. Holman is an original, and her literary ideas are so sublimely odd that they seem to have exited her imagination of their own free will. The Dress Lodger, her best-known book, is a powerful story set in a nineteenth-century London of Dickensian poverty that positively oozes with fear and despair. The novel, peopled by freaks, prostitutes, and medical dissecting knives, is full of heart, though one of the hearts, that belonging to a baby, beats outside of its tiny owner’s body.
Holman’s next book, The Mammoth Cheese, is utterly different: an impeccable, irresistible comedy of manners that manages to encompass both the big, politically sensitive subjects of abortion, fertility pills, family farms, and religion, and the more intimate, quotidian ways of mothers, daughters, cows, and Thomas Jefferson. Far more austere in its imagery, the novel is no less wondrously strange than its predecessor. One of The Mammoth Cheese’s most prominent characters is, indeed, a very, very large cheese.
Holman’s new novel, Witches on the Road Tonight, is, again, a happy surprise. She has brought together the crisp, domestic comedy of The Mammoth Cheese and the seeping ghoulishness of The Dress Lodger to create a marvelously creepy, touching, and tender novel. The supernatural is simultaneously questioned and accepted, as if being a witch were as impossible and as inescapable as a loved one’s rare genetic disease. A thoroughly modern ghost story, Witches on the Road Tonight is also a tale of the ghosts of real life: the ghosts we cannot shake, the memories and choices that haunt us.
One of the characters notes:
If she’s perfectly honest, she has to admit she doesn’t much care for horror movies. There, she’s said it. She doesn’t understand why people would want to put themselves through something so unpleasant. It’s not that she’s squeamish; no, she used to pore over Butler’s Lives of the Saints in the library at school…. Breasts on a plate and a body pierced by arrows; she didn’t turn away from violence, she just felt it shouldn’t be purely recreational.
Holman has built her novel around recreational fear, the fear we insist on seeking in horror films, novels, or scary stories around a fire at summer camp. But Witches on the Road Tonight, though both extremely entertaining and periodically terrifying, is not, itself, an example of recreational horror. Even more than it is a scary story, this is a story about what it means to be scared. Holman asks why we crave that sensation, generation after generation; and why, as well as how, we use narrative to escape it.
The novel follows three generations of the Alley family and the three generations of the horror stories they tell. It begins in present-day New York City at midnight. “Of all the props I saved, only the coffin remains,” reads the first line. “I used to keep it in the carport,” the narrator continues a few lines below. Coffin and carport—with just two words and their powerful associations and unlikely combination, Holman has whisked us into her world. The narrator of this first section is Eddie Alley, known to his fans as Captain Casket, the host of a Zacherley-like TV show in the Sixties and Seventies. Like Zacherley, whom tristate area residents of a certain age may remember with great fondness from adolescence, Captain Casket provided horror-parody patter between segments of grade-D monster movies. There is a membership card that reads:
This entitles the owner to one kidney, half a brain, and a scream transfusion. To be redeemed at any City Morgue between the hours of midnight and half past midnight, nights of the full moon only. Void in Canada.
When he was offscreen in those younger years, stripped of his spooky greasepaint, Eddie lived in a conventional house with his highly conventional wife, Ann. In one of the many graceful touches of humanity in this book, Holman gently satirizes her as a woman without insight, but not without feelings. Now, decades after Captain Casket’s TV glory and Eddie’s tense marriage, far from the suburbia of carports, the coffin serves as a coffee table in Eddie’s New York apartment that has a view of the Empire State Building; and Eddie, an aging gay man with terminal cancer, has taken an overdose of pills and climbed inside to die. From there, waiting for his fatal dose to take effect, he remembers and addresses his memories to his daughter, Wallis:
Sometimes when we couldn’t find you, your mother and I would look outside and you’d be curled up inside it, asleep, your hand bookmarking the eternally youthful and nosy Nancy Drew, your mouth brushed with cookie crumbs.
As Captain Casket, Eddie was a man who made his living diffusing fear with humor:
When people approach me about my show, they never want to talk about the cut-rate monster movies. Most can barely remember the titles. No, it is the irreverence of the interruption they cherish, the silliness and explosions. I made it my career for decades, but only now do I begin to understand the need to terrify, followed by the even greater need to puncture the fear we’ve called into being.
In a brilliant deadpan stroke, Holman makes Wallis carry on the family tradition not, as we might have expected, as some new age wicca adherent or vampire novelist, but as the anchor for a twenty-four-hour cable news show. On the news networks, Eddie notes, even the weather forecasts have morphed into “recreational” fear. “I don’t like to think the weather has made my decision for me,” Eddie says in his coffin,
but at my age, it’s difficult to face inclemency in any form—you can’t help but feel the world has given up, and yourself a bit with it. It has been the coldest, wettest summer on record, hasn’t it? At least that’s what you keep telling us down at your news network where you are always searching out new ways to panic us. Something to add to the wars and the stock market and the Depressions. Your twenty-four-hour cycle has grown more hysterical each year, that creepy crawl across the bottom constantly breaking nonnews.
The founding member of the family horror, Eddie’s mother, is a character of memorable menace and power. Backwoods lean and backwoods stern, Cora lives in a dogtrot cabin in a remote hollow of the Alleghenies called Panther Gap. Her story, like Wallis’s, is told by a third-person narrator. In 1940, Eddie is a poor boy whose shirt is sewn from a flour sack. He is playing a circle game after school in which the other boys surround him, boys like DumbDon, whose hands “are weak as fresh butter, but Eddie could never break through on DumbDon because he has water on the brain and it would be shameful.” Or the brothers Monty, Jim, and Calamus:
Calamus has been left back three times and Jim twice, so that they are all bunched up in their youngest brother’s fourth grade class at school, which is also Eddie’s class. It’s rare they all show up on a given day, but the crops are in, so their mama sent them to school to get them out from underfoot.
The point of the game is to break out of the circle. “Is the door locked?” Eddie asks, approaching two boys, who tighten their grip, then chant:
“Yes, child, yes.”
“Can I get out of here?” Eddie asks.
“No, child, no.”
Eddie is ritualistically tossed and punched back inside the circle, escaping only when the noise of an unfamiliar car engine causes a distraction. It is when that car hits him that Eddie’s real escape begins.
Tucker, the car’s driver, is a writer working for the Virginia Writer’s Project charting a course of landmarks and local history for tourists. His partner in this venture, and after weeks on the road a partner in his bed, is a photographer named Sonia. For Eddie, the writer and photographer are his first glimpse of the outside world. He thinks they must be movie stars.
Dazed, bruised but not seriously injured, the boy is carried up a dirt path to his home,
a hand-hewn dogtrot cabin, built of chestnut planks and divided by a breezeway, [which] teeters at the edge of another drop-off. Tucker has seen a lot of miserable dwellings in his travels, but this isolated shack, roofed with flattened Pennzoil cans, the chinks of its windows stuffed with dirty rags, is among the poorest.
No one is there: Eddie’s father has been gone for months working on a distant construction job, and his mother is out scouring the woods for ginseng. “They pay most for the roots that look like men,” Cora has told Eddie. “Listen close and you might hear them scream when you tug them from the ground.” The two of them “never gather or collect the sang, but hunt it, like a wild and sentient creature.” The little boy in the small, mean shack accepts his mother, as children do, and is still young enough to find her beautiful. Even when he
hears the boys and girls whisper. When Cora Alley is mad, milk sours in the pail. Storms blow in from the east. And they don’t even know what Eddie knows. The men she keeps buried in the woods. Or how she slips out of her skin from time to time, leaving it hanging on a peg in her bedroom while she disappears through the keyhole.
This glimpse of Cora Alley comes from a child’s fevered memory of other children’s taunts, cruel and ignorant scraps of mountain superstition, but Tucker and Sonia know nothing of the childish tales and are far too sophisticated to be concerned even if they did. For Tucker, horror can be contained. He carries with him an old hand-cranked movie projector as well as a reel of the first movie he ever saw, Frankenstein. This is not any old Frankenstein, Eddie tells the boy. This is the first horror movie ever made—the thirteen-minute Edison version.* Tucker projects the film on the bedroom wall to entertain the boy, and for Eddie, the monster, a lumbering rag man with a kabuki face and big hair, is a ghost story come to life:
As Eddie watches, charred flesh attracts more charred flesh, it’s like his daddy at butchering time, tossing chops and ribs into a pail, rebuilding a hog in section slices. Suddenly an arm jerks up in salute and a misshapen head appears through the fog.
Instead of a Perfect Human Being, the Evil in Frankenstein’s Mind Creates a Monster….
He doesn’t understand. There was nothing to show Frankenstein was a bad man. He went to college, he got a wife. Yet here is proof, just as his mother says, that wicked thoughts take on a life of their own.
Holman soon introduces her own creature, Cora Alley, Eddie’s mother with her “hollow cheeks and freckled, parched lips…her skin has the dusty look of flattened snakes [Tucker] has seen along the road.” The reader is still comfortably certain that Cora’s supernatural existence is just a product of the backwoods tales of children, the imagination of a little boy. Even with the introduction of Frankenstein’s monster, there is no real clue to what will soon take place. On the contrary, Frankenstein’s monster is in a film, a film based on a book: two removes from anything we think we ought to suspect as real. Nor does Holman ever give us the reassurance of genre. In a proper horror tale, the hero is put in danger, then rescued by the author…or not. But Holman’s horror slips in and out of daily life like sunlight through the leaves. It is as incidental as a dirt road or a suburban backyard.
Tucker and Sonia end up spending the night, and after Cora lays out musty cushions on the floor, the increasingly dismayed Sonia wraps herself in every piece of clothing she has to protect herself from bedbugs. But Tucker is strangely, nervously excited by everything that has happened, by the boy, by the house, by pale, dry Cora. Recently drafted, he imagines a future in which “he will be crammed into a stifling barracks and made to march, to drop, to clean, to parade, to aim, to pivot, to shoot, to dig a grave in concert with men.” He goes out to take a walk and, bending over a pool of water to drink, he sees the reflection of the moon and of himself:
He looks more like an animal, he decides, than a man. A milky beast with flaring nostrils and the rolling eyes of a horse, white like the moon, a creature of the full moon and the glowing mushrooms…. He looks to himself like Pegasus sprung from the blood of that which turns men to stone and he feels like he could actually be a beast, rising up and running, and then Tucker realizes that he is running, just by virtue of wanting to. He hears his feet on the forest path, the gallop of hooves. The wind is in his hair as he makes straight for the dark wood, which opens, just a slit for him. Tucker feels weightless almost, leaping tree roots and stammering gullies, a hobo jumping trains, an atom fissioning into starlight, letting go of thought, he thinks, and then thought is snuffed.
Tucker’s transformation feels sudden, terrifying, and unexpected in a book that has so far been so careful in its realism, so accurate in its detail of human desire, of houses and applejack and the upholstery of cars. In fact, Holman has led us into the fantastic with as much care and subtlety as she has used to describe the hollows and the sky, the yellow ginseng leaves and the bent lead pipe through which spring water rushes into Cora and Eddie’s sink. The words “beast” and “creature,” the rolling eyes, the moon and the mushrooms glowing, the dark wood—this is the language of the ghost story, the gruesome fairy tale. And then, as we’re still reeling from the metamorphosis of a slightly petulant but charming young writer into a frothing horse, Holman puts on his back a rider. She does not even leave us time to catch our breaths. The story, like Eddie, has taken off.
For one moment, toying with her readers, Holman does let us wonder if we’re on solid ground again: the imagery changes from a reality of myth and monsters to a different, more familiar, more palatable frenzied wildness:
Under her hand—he knows it is a her, he feels the lean and the touch of her—he works himself into a rocking, rhythmic canter which is itself flesh breaking like a wave, and soon those tortured human associations are no more than the wind behind him and Tucker surrenders to the pleasure of being ridden, feeling the fluidity of horse and rider, savoring the weight as if it were all that kept him earthbound and connected to life itself.
The rider urges him on with her heels, kicks his flank, it is a challenge, can he keep up, is he the man she thinks he is? The language and imagery of sex lulls the reader back into a luxurious sense of relief—we get this, it is grand and imaginative metaphor, full of movement and surprise. But then Holman the realistic fantasist brings us up short. Tucker “can taste the slaver in his mouth,” and it is not metaphorical slaver. It is “the boiled egg of the afternoon, the applejack, ham soup and biscuit, fresh milk with butterfat.” When Tucker’s rider finally dismounts, he sees it is Cora Alley, without her skin, “a vision of blood and sinew, standing raw against the moon.”
Holman’s playing with fantasy and reality extends to her prose—that lunging, overwrought language is again and again brought to earth by the language and detail of a quotidian world. Her use of horror story conventions, as well as the allusions to great horror tales of the past like Frankenstein, sets up the expectation of a conventional horror story meant to scare us with or teach us about the power of evil. But it is Holman’s cheerful rejection of that path that makes the book so lively and so much fun to read. For her, horror is not where we came from or where we will end up. It is simply a part of our mundane lives, a coffin in the carport. Nor will it be vanquished. Unlike Frankenstein’s, her monster never disappears into the mirror.
By morning, Cora is again tidy in her tight dry skin, and Tucker is wondering if he has a hangover. Then she tells him a story about a girl, an ancestor who was a witch and was betrayed by her lover. As he ran through the woods from an avenging panther, he threw pieces of his beautifully tailored clothing to the animal to distract it, until he was naked. Tucker, in turn, tells her the Greek myth of a suitor throwing golden apples to distract Atalanta so that he can win the race with her and claim her as his wife.
“But mine is not a love story,” says Cora simply. “Nobody wins. And that’s how you can tell it’s the truth.”
It is not accidental that Captain Casket began his TV life as a weatherman, telling his viewers of impending disaster. When his daughter, Wallis, comes back from the seething violence of the Middle East to become an anchor, Eddie watches her with a feeling of relief. She is home, she is safe:
Then you read your first story. It was about missing uranium rods and their suspected links to weapons of mass destruction. Next came bird flu. The missing blond child, the deadly bacteria in our kitchen sponges. I pictured you in the editing room, choosing which truths to include, which ones just confused the story. Mixing in your anxiety music, conjuring your bold and commanding graphics. You had claimed your full Alley family inheritance.
Witches on the Road Tonight is about the power of narrative and its hold on us. “A ghost story in the mountains, a monster movie on TV—mere local, minor terrors,” Eddie writes to Wallis. “But you—you have the influence to back the whole world into a corner….” Stories, like Frankenstein movies, can be told over and over again, and fear, Holman writes, “has a dialect for every occasion.” The dialect we speak now, Holman says with eloquence, humor, and urgency, is that of televised natural disaster, war, starvation. Instead of horror, we have terror.
April 7, 2011