This is the first post in a new series discussing my 40 favorite films.
Groups can so easily turn against a single person, as I learned at the end of my freshman year in college 10 years ago this month.
Skyler* and I had met on the first morning of orientation, and for much of the year we were inseparable. Our friends said we were like twins. We listened to the same obscure bands, treated Shakespeare like a religious text, and, ultimately, fell in love with the same girl, Mary Ann*.
This was never going to end happily, as anyone with a cursory knowledge of Shakespeare probably realizes. Throughout his career, from his early comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona to a late romance, The Winter’s Tale, the prolific playwright wove stories about inseparable friends whose friendships are ultimately torn apart by jealousy and mistrust.Continue reading →
In 1995, Stuart Murdoch’s life did not seem to be moving anywhere fast. The twenty-seven-year old Scotsman had been suffering for upwards of six years from the effects of myalgic encephalomyelitis, better known as chronic fatigue syndrome. Because his condition made even playing on the piano an exhausting endeavor, he was unable to find work.
Living in Glasgow on public assistance, Murdoch joined “beat box,” a government program for the unemployed. He would later compare it to a “refugee camp for unemployed musicians.” The unemployed took a music training course and played music together. Once a month they were given access to a recording studio.
It was here that Murdoch first connected with the people who would form Belle & Sebastian; and it was here in the summer of 1996 that they recorded what are now widely regarded as two of the best albums of the 1990s, Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister.
Though the beloved indie band has covered a range of genres in their nearly twenty-year career, from folk to shoegaze to chamber pop, and has stylistically referenced bands as disparate as The Left Banke and The Smiths, the elegiac wistfulness of If You’re Feeling Sinister has become their defining sound. Even after they gained renewed critical acclaim and an unprecedented level of public attention with The Life Pursuit (2006), a collection of irresistibly danceable power-pop anthems, critics and long-time fans rightly pointed to their earliest work as their magnum opus.
Writing and recording twenty songs in the space of a few weeks would be a career-worthy accomplishment for any band. But Belle & Sebastian went a step further, crafting songs that seem to have been whispered out of the ether, songs that don’t so much seem to have been written as captured.
Take, for example, the Satie-like simplicity of “Fox in the Snow.” With piano, guitar, violin, and vibraphone, the band conjures up a serenely autumnal world in which soft-hearted youth have fallen on hard times. For me the special gift of Belle & Sebastian, my all-time favorite band, has always been its ability to evoke the rhythms and changes of the seasons, using lyrics and music to engage the senses so fully that it really feels as though the listener is standing on a wintry street corner in Edinburgh.
Fox in the snow
Where do you go
To find something you can eat?
Cause the word out on the street is
You are starving
If the lyrics are precious, they’re also devastatingly effective, compressing whole years of hope and despair and angst into the space of a few verses. “Fox in the Snow” showcases what would become one of Belle & Sebastian’s hallmarks, their knack for writing realistic, sharply observed character sketches about people who are young and lost and very much in over their heads.
“I always wanted to write about normal people doing normal things,” he recallsin a Pitchfork documentary about the making of the album. “Because I wasn’t normal, I was out of the game. It was very attractive to me what normal people were doing.” So he set out to write songs about the “normal” folks he ran into in the streets and on the buses of Glasgow, though his own sly perceptiveness was always winking through, creating vividly eccentric figures who are instantly recognizable and yet somehow bigger than life: a track star who was driven to fame by the lure of getting to wear terry underwear; Hilary, who’s into S & M and Bible studies; Judy, who walks the streets dreaming of horses.
Of the ten songs on this album, the penultimate song, “Boy Done Wrong Again,” is the weakest, a slow sleeper that saps much of the energy from an otherwise rollicking back half. Like Tigermilk before it, the album begins in minimalistic fashion, with only the quiet plucking of strings to accompany Murdoch’s voice. But as “Stars of Track and Field” progresses, the rest of the band gradually joins in, adding new instrumentation (organ, trumpets) layer upon layer, building slowly and progressively to a powerful conclusion that promises good things to come. “Seeing Other People” is a near-perfect evocation of early morning and the ambivalence of two people trying to let go of each other but not being able to. “Me and the Major” explores the unbridgeable gaps between classes and generations with lyrics that are both spirited and resentful: “We’re the younger generation / We grew up fast / All the others did drugs / They’re taking it out on us.”
In terms of pure atmosphere, the next two songs are probably the album’s high point. “Like Dylan in the Movies” recalls Murdoch’s experience of having to walk through Kelvingrove Park, a shady Glasgow park. The combination of guitar, strings, and xylophone powerfully evokes a sense of the year ending, of autumn, and twilight. “Dylan” is followed by the wintry and underrated “Fox in the Snow.” The placement of these two songs on the album, and their musical kinship, seem to suggest that one is a continuation of the other. It’s worth listening to the two back to back.
“Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” is a light rocker about a naïve young man. Musically it’s as good as anything on the album, but the lyrics are achingly, almost embarrassingly sentimental. “I always cry at endings,” Murdoch sings, and then, as if already regretting this exercise in vulnerability, adds in the next verse, “Oh, that wasn’t what I meant to say at all.”
However, the shortcomings of this song are more than offset by the eerie brilliance of the one following. If You’re Feeling Sinister’s title track is also the album’s standout, with a backing track of children playing and enigmatic lyrics that have been variously explained as a satire of organized religion and the final thoughts of two people preparing to kill themselves.
Finally, “Mayfly” is a jangly guitar ballad in the style of The Byrds, while “Judy and the Dream of Horses” closes the album in high spirits with an almost pure distillation of pop craftsmanship.
Not satisfied with the production quality of the original recording, Belle & Sebastian recorded a live performance in 2005 for All Tomorrow’s Parties. It’s worth hearing just to assess the differences between the two recordings—in 1995, the band was young and unproven, while in 2005 it was one of the most successful indie rock bands in the world. But the original is the reason for their breakout success, and it remains the better version of their best album.
One of the best episodes of Buffy shows Xander having his own crazy adventure while in the background the other Scoobies battle to save the world from being destroyed by a hideous monster. We catch glimpses of their battle throughout the episode. They’re all crying and yelling at each other. At the end Buffy tells Giles he did one of the bravest things she had ever seen (but we never learn what he did).
It reminded me very much of the weekend in 2007 when our cult had to unite and battle the demonic spirit that was over Southwestern: all the feelings that come to the surface when you’re fighting an enemy that only a few people are able to see.
And then I got to thinking about… something I thought a lot about in the aftermath of that weekend: the scary things I used to see in my bedroom that weren’t normally there. Traveling out of my body was an experience very much like that of Frodo when he put on the Ring. He went into another realm and could see things no one else could. And basically, when the group started, we were all doing that.
And then I read a story about how Rwanda’s Christians arecoping with the aftermath of genocide by turning to Pentecostalism. It provides them a framework for understanding the supernatural evil that was unleashed on their country in 1994. This article in Foreign Policy magazine tells the story of a young woman named Rebecca whose family was offered sanctuary in a Catholic church. It turned out to be a trap, and her parents were killed.
And then this happened:
Two years later, having found a home with a foster family, Rebecca made friends with a girl of her own age named Alice. One day, Alice led her into a cemetery, and there, as Rebecca tells it, the ground opened up, revealing a flight of stairs that led down into the realm of Satan. “It was a place where there was always twilight,” says Rebecca. “It was a world of bad spirits. They put an evil spirit into my body and then they sent it back out into the world.” For the next five years, she says, her body wandered the land, causing ill wherever it could. “I had the power of causing accidents on Earth. The demons gave me that power.”
It took her five years to fight her way back. She suffered terribly, she says. But one day she encountered a group of Pentecostal Christians who prayed for her release from the powers that plagued her. With their help she finally found release, and “accepted Jesus as my king.” At age 17, she converted from her ancestral Catholicism to the Pentecostal Church, a move that finally brought her “inner peace.”
So when I think about The Children, and invisible realms that are super-imposed on this one, and mysterious invisible objects, and the Air Loom Gang, and my own made-up kingdom of Elsia, I can see a mythology emerging. Inevitably, I think the story will have to be about four or five kids who have, or think they have, unusual powers, and who are at war with unseen forces that no one else sees. And they belong to a society of people who have these gifts. And this society believes the end of the world is imminent. And it provides a place for the kids to learn and grow up and fall in love when they’re not saving the world. And the world itself seems to be going to pieces around them, with living houses and nightmare clouds and whatnot, strange disturbances in nature. And as the series goes on they begin to question the nature of their mission, especially as friends die and the “enemy” becomes not just invisible creatures but real people. And they begin to wonder whether they really are doing the right thing, and whether they’ve been misled, and whether the world is really ending.
On April 23, 1899, a man named Sam Hose was stabbed, burned alive, and cut to pieces.
Sam was a black farmhand from Georgia who was suspected of murdering his master. On the run from the law, he fled across country, was captured and taken into custody. But as he was being transported by train to Atlanta, word leaked out that the infamous fugitive had been arrested and was going to be lynched.
Hose was hauled off the train at gunpoint and taken to a nearby farm in a small town while a crowd gathered round him. Some estimates place the size of the crowd at over 2,000 people. The news sparked a mad rush of worshipers from churches in Atlanta, where Sunday services were just ending. Demand to see the lynching was so great that the railroad company arranged several unscheduled runs, while those who were unable to buy tickets climbed in through the windows and clung to the sides of the trains.
Sam Hose was chained to a pine tree. His ears and fingers were cut off, and as the crowd cheered, he was stabbed and set on fire, dowsed with kerosene they had been given by a local vendor at no cost. He tried to pull himself out of the fire with his fingerless hands, but was pushed back in.
Twenty minutes later, he died. His last words were, “Oh my God. Oh, Jesus.”
What remained of his body was cut into pieces and passed among the crowd as souvenirs, like a twisted form of communion. His knuckles were placed on display in the window of a grocery store in Atlanta.
Sam was one of 27 people lynched that year.
This is why I can’t understand when people say America is more wicked than it’s ever been, when they long for the glory days of our Christian past. Sam Hose was murdered by the honest, God-fearing folk of Atlanta. Sam Hose was burned into cinders by a crowd on its way home from church. And when I think about the rhetoric used in our churches to demonize outsiders, when I think about how so many believers are gearing up for what they believe is an apocalyptic war between the forces of good and evil led by a vengeful, slaughtering messiah, I can no longer accept the lie that a true Christian would never be swayed by a mob, that we could never find ourselves fighting on the wrong side in the conflict of right and wrong.
Some people say, “It’s hard to see how conditions in America could ever get so bad that Christians would be willing to murder.” But the truth is, it already happened. And it happened for a long time.
On the night I returned home from a long trip at the end of January, I called Booth and he filled me in onwhat had happened in Alvinduring the week I was gone.
Winter had taken over our high school. Friends were behaving differently, not like themselves at all. They were grumpy and depressed. They walked through the halls with scowls on their faces, barely lifting their heads to greet one another. Even the timid and pure were drinking, throwing wild parties, having sex. Booth had been invited to an orgy, but politely declined: he could see what the lure of sexual temptation was doing to the rest of his friends, and it scared him.
But the biggest changes of all had taken place in Brandon. He had injured himself playing soccer and was no longer sure he would be able to attend the school of his dreams. His teammates had held him down and shaved his head. Now he was bald and wore a hood all the time like a Sith lord.
And he hated me. “I hate Boze,” he told Booth. “And you’re turning into him!”
For much of the first half of the school year Booth had been skeptical of our prophetic encounters and the battle that Adriana and I both felt was coming to our campus. But now he was beginning to reconsider. He told me how Brandon had yelled at a girl and threatened her with a baseball bat because she took a kitten that he wanted. He related how Mr. McGowan had snapped in the middle of class and started running through the room with a pair of scissors, screaming and laughing.
“I walk through the halls in the mornings,” said Booth, “and all I can see are faces of despair. I look into their eyes, and there is no hope. One by one, it’s overtaking everyone.”
It was after midnight. Booth told me to hang on for a second and put down the phone. When he returned a moment later, there was a note of worry in his voice.
“I don’t know what that was,” he said. “There was this thing, this noise… I think it was coming from under my bed…”
And then, without any warning, he began yelling hysterically.
He took the phone and ran from the room. From the safety of the kitchen, clutching a knife, he explained to me what had happened. There was a heavy breathing sound, and at first he thought it was the cat. But the cat was in the other room, and the noise was getting louder, and closer…
When Booth’s parents found him sleeping in the hall the next morning, they grounded him. But it didn’t matter. He knew what he had heard that night, and for the first time all year we were unequivocally on the same side. Too long had the darkness lingered. It was time to take back our campus.
* * *
Over the Christmas holidays Blazes O’Reilly had returned home and summoned a council. Though I had not mentioned to him the specifics of Adriana’s prophecy, I told him I felt they needed to become better acquainted, so the three of us gathered one wintry night in a back room of his parents’ house.
The reception was not cordial. From the beginning of the meeting Adriana sensed a dark aura around Blazes, “the darkest I’ve ever seen.” At one point when he left the room to make tea, she confided, “My voices just told me not to trust him, because he’s been tempted”—an assertion that was seemingly affirmed a moment later when he returned and told her as much of his story as he had already told me. How could she possibly have known that? I wondered.
For his part, Blazes swore he could see spirits of deception circling around Adriana. “There were three of them,” he explained with a casual air. “They were each taking turns whispering lies in her ear.”
Oddly, though, Blazes couldn’t deny that he felt a strong sense of destiny about her. “I just have this feeling about her, like our fates are intertwined. Like we’re destined to fight to the death. Kind of like Lucifer and Gabriel, only I’m not sure which of us is which.”
Adriana was sure, though. “My voices have shown me,” she said, “that Blazes is the Antichrist!”
* * *
For my own part, God had revealed to me during the break that Lauren and I would be sexually tempted in the first week of March. Each of us who were called to be players in the end-time drama would be tempted by the end of the trimester. Whether we passed on to the next stage of our mission would depend on whether or not we passed the test.
As if to confirm my suspicions, my first week back on campus I was propositioned by a sweet blonde girl with a twangy East Texas accent and her best friend in gym class. They wanted to know if I would have a threesome with them. I reached into my tote bag and pulled out a copy of the most recent edition of the school newspaper, in which I had written a long article about the importance of saving yourself for marriage. They read the article with expressions of deep fascination and thanked me. I implored Booth not to tell anyone else, but the whole school knew before lunch.
As a result of some back-room finagling, I began giving a short message on the intercom every morning right after the Pledge of Allegiance. I urged the campus to pursue joy and beauty and resist the darkness that was seeking to devour. Together Booth and I wrote six pages in the next issue of the newspaper exclusively devoted to that subject. Booth even penned an article about the “Economics of Joy” in which he graphed the school’s GDP: “Good Deeds Potential”:
I negotiated with Mr. McGowan to let me teach European History for an entire week. On Friday I announced that I had brought in a motivational speaker, Mr. “Ebenezer Scrooge” of Scrooge & Marley’s. The entire class groaned as Booth strode up to the front of the room. Then, as if out of nowhere, music began playing. Scrooge and I spontaneously broke into a dance and were joined by a guy in the third row who knew all the lyrics to the original song (from the 1970 Scrooge musical). For four and a half minutes we twirled around the room and sang about the pleasures of enjoying life:
Where there’s music and laughter
Happiness is rife!
Because I like life!
The entire class watched with mounting incredulity, and by the end of the song Lauren was in tears. “That was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen,” she said sadly. Booth and I sat quietly back down as though nothing had happened.
* * *
We waited for the first week of March, for the end of the second trimester.
I began having utterly terrifying dreams in which I seemed to be traveling out of my body at night and wandering through the rooms and halls of the trailer in which I lived. There were things in my bedroom I had never seen before. I heard footsteps in the hallway and saw strange lights outside my window.
I received my letter of acceptance from Southwestern University. I wondered if it was wise to go. I thought about staying in Alvin and fighting alongside my friends in the battle that was soon to come.
And then the trimester ended. We all settled into our new classes. And nothing happened.
There was no battle, no moment of tempting. Lauren started dating a guy she had met two weeks before. And I could feel the ground giving way beneath my feet.
* * *
On a quiet and warm afternoon near the end of that week, Booth, Adriana, and I sat facing Mr. McGowan from across the desk in his classroom. We were all disconsolate and hoped he could give us answers.
Adriana told the story of how she had nearly died the summer before, and how she began hearing the voices shortly after. Booth and I tried to explain all that had happened since Christmas, but it was clear from the moment we began talking that Mr. McGowan didn’t believe us. And by the time we related how Adriana learned that Blazes was the Antichrist, and how Blazes himself seemed to think that he was, and how we had briefly debated using physical force to try and subdue him, small beads of sweat were breaking out on the sides of his round face.
I watched him imploringly. I just wanted someone to explain what was going on. My prophetic gift had never been wrong before. Why had it failed me now, at the most critical time?
“First of all,” he said, in a very low and quiet voice, “what you’re going through is not unusual.”
I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but it wasn’t this. “Are you serious?” I asked.
He nodded. “For one, the three of you are reading from a shared text. Whenever three or four people read from a shared text, it’s not hard to induce shared delusions.
“Second, I think you’re scared. You’re scared because you’re about to graduate, Boze, and you two will be graduating in about a year. And you’re leaving the only home you’ve ever known, and that’s an incredibly traumatic experience. And it’s not uncommon for students who are juniors and seniors in high school to start having apocalyptic visions, because it’s their way of expressing kind of the terror they feel at the future.
“Because, let’s face it, the world may not be ending, but the only world you’ve ever known is ending. You know how they say, ‘You can’t go home again.’ You may come back in a few years, but the school that you knew will be gone. Reality won’t live up to your memories. When you go away to college, you’ll forget about me. And when you think about me at all, you’ll think of me as some sophomoric teacher who liked to pretend he knew everything. But I don’t. And some day you’ll realize that.”
My entire experience of the last eight months, all I had felt and foreseen and suffered, was slipping away. The apocalypse wasn’t going to happen, it might never happen, or else it had been postponed. But I was determined to hold on.
“What about all the others?” I asked. “We’re not the only ones. What about Blazes?”
Mr. McGowan shook his head. “There’s something very dark and unnatural about that man,” he said. “He went wrong somewhere… became something different than what God intended.”
He stood up summarily from his desk, as though to suggest that the meeting was over. Together the four of us walked to the door.
Booth turned in the doorway and faced him.
“I do have a question,” he said. “Was it you? Were you the one who orchestrated… you know, all of that?”
Mr. McGowan stared at him quizzically. “No,” he said with finality.
We waited. I looked at him, more confused than ever.
“Do you mean, was I pandering and manipulating you?” He laughed lightly. “Oh, of course.”
He clapped us both hard on the shoulders. “It was quite fun, actually. I’m honestly kind of sad it took y’all that long to figure it out. Your senses were picking up on stuff, but I was putting a spin on it. It’s good that you wanted an order to life, but you have to want it in order to see it. That’s why the super-sensible is so hard for empiricists to get.”
He closed the door behind us. Adriana and Booth and I walked forward into the harsh sunlight.
* * *
It’s been ten years since that conversation in Mr. McGowan’s room, but the course my life has taken since graduation has been in a lot of ways a vindication of his warnings. Sociologists tell us that conspiracy theories and apocalyptic thinking are deeply intertwined, and that wherever you find one, you’re likely to find the other. It’s a pathology in the American psyche, a sickness, this fascination with the end times. There’s something deeply un-Christian about it. It’s as though Jesus and the Bible have become nothing more than cultural totems with the power to drive us mad.
I’ve held on to my faith, but just barely. The realization that I was not a prophet was devastating, but what has been much worse is seeing the damage caused by End-Times fanaticism, the toll that it takes. I’ve seen it drive otherwise sane people to the brink of madness. I’ve watched it transform them until they were no longer recognizable, until they were willing to do the most horrible things to even their closest friends. I’ve seen it claim the life of one of my dearest friends in the world.
So I find myself thinking about the events of that year, and the great disappointment of third trimester, and Mr. McGowan’s explanation for what had happened to us. I think about it whenever a good Christian whom I respect is incredulous that I’m not prepping for the end times, as though it makes me some lesser species of Christian that I don’t have an opinion about when Jesus is coming back. I think about it when I’m sitting on the shuttle next to a man who wrote a 200-page book about the role of the nephilim in the last days that he’s trying to sell me,when I’m in a meeting with Christian counselorswho are demanding that I pray out loud to accept my calling to battle the forces of the Antichrist. I think about it whenever someone on Facebook tells methey can’t wait to be martyred, that they hope they continue to laugh long after their head has been severed from their body.
“Boze, where do you find these people?” Bethany once asked me, the first time I recounted my story—back when the dangerous group was just forming.
And sometimes I listen to that song, “Lake Geneva,” by The Handsome Family, about a woman whose husband is hospitalized because he sees visions of the heavens in the stumps of falling trees:
“You remember how he cried
When they strapped him to the stretcher
Convinced his arms were burning
With electricity from heaven
“You remember how he told you
Black holes were like Jesus
And the crucifix was a battery
That filled the air with fire”
And I hear that and I think, isn’t that my story, and the story of our country? That we’d rather read aboutthe mysterious codethat foretells the day of judgment than lift a finger to help the teeming masses on whose treatment the nations will be judged? And aren’t we a sick society, when conspiracy theories and end-times mania, the province of the young and confused and deranged and scared, are mistaken for true worship?
After my last conversation with Mr. McGowan, I accepted the nature of the fantasy I had been living in. I was no prophet. I wasn’t destined for greatness. The only certain thing in my life at that moment was graduation.
And instead of running away from it, as I had been doing all year, I learned to accept it. I embraced my own normalcy, and in doing so I found freedom and a certain measure of happiness.
And at the end of May I graduated and left high school behind me. I worry that some of us are there still.
My last year in high school was a strange time in my life.
It’s a year that I haven’t talked much about since I left the dangerous group a few years ago because it’s hard to describe what happened without sounding a little insane. But I’ll try.
Eric Booth had been my best friend for about three or four years. To the rest of our friends, we were an inseparable duo, one of the classic teams, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Boze and Booth. We were always getting into trouble and wreaking havoc.
And we were a great match. Booth was tall, outgoing, and good with women. I was quiet, bookish, a little awkward, and spent most of my time writing down entire conversations in a notebook I carried around everywhere. And while I was whimsical, romantic, and full of weird ideas, Booth was rational, pragmatic, and rigorously logical. (Once when a friend boasted that she was “one in a million,” Booth did the math and pointed out that there were at least 6,000 of her.)
Me, my senior year of high school
Booth and I had a teacher I’ll call Mr. McGowan. Mr. McGowan was our European History teacher, but he seemed to view himself as an entertainer first and teacher second. On the first day of my last year in Alvin in 2003, the day our story begins, he delivered a ten-minute monologue on the day’s news. “My Middle Eastern friend hasn’t been happy ever since we had that talk about Allah,” he said. “You know, Allah this, Allah that…”
(“Welcome to Mr. McGowan’s stand-up comedy class,” whispered Booth.)
I’d been feeling sort of anxious about going back to school. So, to alleviate my concerns, Booth tried to think of the worst things that could possibly happen. “Watch, you’ll get put in the Criminal Law class!” he teased me. To our friend *Brandon he said, “Your counselors will mess up your schedule so bad, you won’t be able to fix it. And, you’ll get put in Child Development with all the pregnant chicks!”
So our whole first day back at school was interesting, because yes, I did get put in Criminal Law, even though I hadn’t signed up for it. When Brandon went to the counselor that afternoon to complain about his schedule, she tried to put him in Child Development. By the end of the day Booth had also correctly predicted that *Lauren, a girl I was interested in, would call me, even though she hadn’t done so in almost two years.
But we thought it was all just an incredibly weird string of coincidences—until the next day.
New England was experiencing a tremendous electrical shortage. The night before, over 45 million Americans had lost power in eight northeastern states. Mr. McGowan decided to begin his daily monologue by plugging the virtues of the Texas electrical system when compared to the infrastructures of New York and California (which was currently going through a recall election in which actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was the clear frontrunner).
“See, here we have a superior electrical system,” said Mr. McGowan, slowly warming up to his audience. “On the East coast, their facilities are sixty and seventy years old, and no one even knows how to fix ‘em anymore. Whenever a generator blows, they have to call out these really old men to take care of it. That’s why the New York electrical system sucks!”
Booth leaned over and whispered, “Watch, the lights suddenly go out!”
“Oh, and Ah-nold!” said Mr. McGowan, shaking his head and grinning slightly. “Can you imagine? ‘Governor Schwarzenegger, we have a problem with immigration!’” He held up an imaginary gun. “‘I VILL TAKE CARE OF IT!’”
But at that moment the laughter of the class was interrupted by the lights going out. There’d been a power spike across the entire east side of Alvin and over a thousand homes had lost power.
Booth denied it as best he could, but I could no longer doubt it: he was a prophet. Something strange and uncanny was happening in Alvin, and him and me and Brandon were about to be swept up in it.
* * *
Brandon and I became convinced that tragedy was going to strike our campus. In the swirl and haze of late summer, omens were all around us. Thirteen ravens sitting on a power line, the mysterious imprint of a child’s hand on the window of a car, the continual recurrence of the number 42. One Sunday the Houston Chronicle’s daily Bible verse was Isaiah 13:13, in which God warns that judgment is about to fall on the land.
On the thirteenth day of school the three of us took a walk around campus during our last class, and we saw some strange things. Total strangers who looked just like people we knew (“Doppelgangers,” I explained to Brandon. “Omens of death”). Two ambulances flashing their sirens in the exact same place. (We fled when we heard a third one coming).
The whole day had a weird, uncanny quality about it. Booth and I spent most of the evening on the phone, speculating about what it all could mean. But then at about a quarter to nine, Brandon called and explained everything. The parents of a good friend of ours had just been caught up in a high-speed police chase. A man had rammed their car, and the three of them had been life-flighted to a hospital.
“Do you need me to spell it out for you, Boze?” said Brandon darkly. “We know two of the three people in that accident. Just like we saw three ambulances, but only heard the third one.”
“We saw it,” I said quietly, my eyes brimming with sudden awareness. “We saw the whole thing.”
“Yes,” said Brandon. “And this is only the beginning. Whoever is behind this is trying to warn us of something. Something big that’s about to happen. Someone is going to die, unless we can stop it.”
* * *
The whole world had become a secret code begging to be deciphered by us. At first it was an exhilarating feeling, being privy to secrets that were hidden from the rest of our classmates and teachers. Mr. McGowan, the only person who seemed willing to listen, encouraged us to stay alert and pay attention to the numbers and patterns all around us.
He urged me to keep journaling our encounters, but he also advised caution. “Your senses are keen and you’re making connections; you just may not be correct about them. That’s the strength of a novel: it’s fun.”
And it was, at first. But the longer it went on, the lonelier I felt. I was getting trapped in the maze of my own connections, and I wanted out, but there was no way back. Sometimes when I went into the cafeteria at lunch I would see four people I knew in succession, and the order in which I saw them would show me, with uncanny precision, how my relationships would unfold going into the next semester: which of my friends would suddenly betray me, which one would make an unexpected return to my life. And I was never wrong, and it was scary, in a way, because I felt sure I could see the future but I didn’t have anyone else except Brandon and Booth who believed me, and increasingly I felt isolated even from them.
And sometimes I wondered if I really was crazy, like that woman in the old song “who wrote poems to Jimmy Carter but forgot to feed her kids.” Though, as the first trimester of school wore on, a lot of strange things were happening and people were beginning to notice. Booth and our friend *Adriana had the same dream on the same night. I heard the exact words Brandon was thinking, as though he had said them aloud, as I lay on the floor half-asleep. Mr. McGowan’s wife saw an angel in their house.
* * *
In November I reconnected with *Blazes O’Reilly, a friend who had recently left Alvin to attend an advanced school for mathematics in north Texas. Blazes had been in love with Booth for a long time. (Those were his two major temptations, he had once told me: homosexuality and witchcraft). Before we’d been on the phone for more than a minute I asked if anything strange had happened to him lately.
“Funny you should ask,” he said. He told me that since the middle of August demons had tried to possess him on ten different occasions. He would start cursing and throw his promise ring across the room. “It’s like Satan and the angels are fighting a war over my body,” he explained matter-of-factly.
“And what do you think it all means?” I asked.
“Well, I was going to say, you’re going to think I’m crazy, but after the story you just told me, I’d be very surprised. I think we’re heading into a major spiritual battle, possibly the final battle, and both sides are gathering their key forces for a major offensive.”
Blazes O’Reilly seemed to think I had a major role to play in the final end-times battle. That was insane, crazy. I told no one what he had said to me on the phone that night, because my reputation had already suffered enough.
A few weeks later, on a cool, sunny Saturday, Adriana came and sat down next to me at a UIL competition in San Antonio. She was a thin, quiet girl with short black hair and blue, sprightly eyes, and every time she watched the trailer for The Return of the King she wept, because it reminded her “of the great battle that is coming for us all.”
“What would you say if I told you that Jesus is going to return in our lifetime,” she asked me, “and that I will be one of his closest followers?”
I was too polite to tell Adriana what I really thought, which is that it sounded like Satan was preparing her heart to receive the Antichrist.
But apparently Adriana had similar feelings. Feeling encouraged by our conversation, she wrote me a letter that weekend. In it she revealed the horrible truth about her life. In dreams and visions God had shown her that she was soon going to meet the Antichrist. She would fall hopelessly in love with him, and the fall of men would begin.
“In a battle,” she wrote, “my love will be wounded and killed, though not by my hand, and he rises again. In the last battle, I am able to get past his defenses and, in the most horrifying moment of my life, kill the darkest love in the universe. And though I realize that I have saved my life and my fellow men, I know that my life will never be normal. I will never again feel the all-powerful passion of that love or the security of that touch. Though I know it was worth it, I can’t help but hate the loneliness that will accompany me for the rest of my life.
“Can I deny this fate and give it to someone else? And if I do, will there be someone to answer my call? Am I the only one who can achieve this end? I need to talk to someone, but no one but you believes me.”
One thing you learn in writing stories is that certain objects have a mysterious and almost magnetic power that defies words. Castles, swords, rings, goblets, buried treasure—the appearance of any one of these in a story is like a radiant stone that vibrates with its own intensity. Perhaps that’s why I became Catholic, because as a storyteller I was naturally drawn to a religion that invests material things with sacramental power: holy water; crosses; bells, books, and candles.
Bell towers have fascinated me ever since I saw the movie Vertigo when I was nine or ten years old. Recently votedthe greatest film of all timein the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll, Vertigo tells the story of a retired detective (James Stewart) hired to trail a young woman (Kim Novak) who may be possessed by the ghost of a long-dead ancestor. He pursues her to an old Spanish mission, the Mission San Juan Batista, where, at the very top of the bell tower, tragedy strikes. And then strikes again.
The understated use of Hispanic and southwestern folklore in this movie slowly worked its way into my brain, taking root in dark corners. During my first couple of months at Southwestern University, ten years ago this summer, I was enchanted by the beige limestone, the rounded-arch doorways, the old chapel at the heart of campus with a door leading up to the tower, a door that was only unlocked on the rarest of occasions. I remember being struck with a sense of the history of the place.
It was there that I had the idea to write a series of children’s books, books that would draw on the cultures and legends of the Celts (my ancestors) and the Southwest (my adopted home). This summer in going back and rereading some of the folklore and mythology of England I’ve been struck by how many stories center around the ringing of bells. In the days before telephones and wireless, sometimes the cathedral bell was the only means of communication between one town and another, or between the church and those in peril on the ocean’s dark waters.
One such story from County Surrey tells of a man, Neville Audley, who was captured fighting on the wrong side during the long-ago War of the Roses. Arrested and sentenced to die when the curfew bell tolled on the next night at Chertsey Abbey, he realized that the only hope of being spared was to obtain a pardon from the king.
Neville conferred with his girlfriend, Blanche Heriot, and their mutual friend Herrick. Herrick agreed to ride towards London to seek pardon. But on the next day, with only five minutes left before the bell tolled, Herrick was seen flying towards the town from half a mile away—still too far away to save Audley’s life.
The minutes passed. The townsfolk awaited the tolling of the bell. But the bell did not ring.
Just as Herrick arrived in town, the sexton, accompanied by soldiers, went up into the tower to investigate. There they found Blanche Heriot, dashed against the bell and frame but still clinging to the clapper with a tenacity born of desperation. Luckily she had hung there just long enough to save her beloved, who was spared from death by the king’s timely pardon. The two were married shortly afterwards.
Another story with a less happy ending is told of the tenor bell of Burgh le Marsh church. The people of Burgh le Marsh once made a living off the debris of doomed ships, lighting the beacon on Marsh Hill to lure poor sailors to their deaths. Once the sailors were all drowned and the weather had calmed, the townsfolk would scramble ashore to loot the broken vessels.
As the story goes, in 1629 the Mary Rose was sailing from Leith, Scotland along the Lincolnshire coast on its way to Flanders. A storm began to gather. The wind howled and the rains beat against the ship, while the people of Burgh watched from the shore with growing excitement.
But not everyone was pleased by the buffeting of the storm-tossed ship. The elderly sexton Guymer, when he learned what was being planned, begged them not to light the beacon. No one listened.
A crowd made its way towards Marsh Hill and the beacon was lit. Captain Frohock, seeing what he mistook for a lighthouse, called out to his men that they were safe. The crew turned the ship in the direction of the light.
Back on shore, desperate to avoid the collision that was imminent, Guymer ran towards the church. Ascending to the top of the bell tower, he grabbed the rope and rang the bell with all the strength he could muster. Captain Frohock, realizing how close he was to shore and certain death, ordered the Mary Rose back to sea, away from the treacherous sands.
Enraged by the tolling of the bell, the townspeople stormed into the church. Breaking down the belfry door, they found Guymer, still clinging to the rope, his dead body swaying to and fro. His heart had burst open from exhaustion.
When Captain Frohock returned to the village a year later and learned what had happened, he bought an acre of land known as “Bell String Acre.” He ordered that rent from the land be used to buy a silken rope for the bell. It’s said that he married the sexton’s daughter.
They’re sharpening their cleavers and their knives
And taking all their whiskey by the pint
— The Decemberists, “The Shankill Butchers”
They were the worst gang of serial killers in British history. From 1975 to 1979 they terrorized Northern Ireland. Today the area they haunted, Shankill, has become synonymous with savagery.
The Shankill Butchers were a loyalist (Protestant) gang, many of whose members belonged to the Ulster Volunteer Force. Headed by Lenny Murphy, a former convict, the gang brutally murdered 23 people within a period of four years. Catholics were abducted on the streets and slowly tortured. Some were ferociously beaten. Others were shot or had their throats cut open.
The group’s deeds were so legendary that they soon passed into folklore. Catholics who grew up during the height of the “Troubles” (as the war came to be known) recall how their mothers would warn them not to go out at night, or the Butchers would get them. Yet as sadistic as their methods were, it’s worth asking whether this gang was really the most extreme form of evil in a conflict that ultimately claimed nearly 4,000 lives. Continue reading →
A good story, whether in the form of a song, novel, TV series, or movie, should give the illusion that you’re experiencing something new and unprecedented. There’s a moment near the end of the story where the heroes find themselves in a unique situation facing extraordinary challenges, and the hair on the back of our necks stands on end because we know we’re witnessing the culmination of a series of choices, and if any of those choices had been different, this moment would never happened.
It’s thrilling. It gives us a rush because we know life is like that. There’s a grandeur that invests even the smallest moments because we have a dim appreciation of what it took to get here.
The following are three of my favorite storytelling moments across all media, moments where a protagonist revealed his or her true quality and the brilliance of the narrative mechanisms on display were like nothing I had seen before.
. “I made a promise, Mr. Frodo”: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
With all the computer-effects wizardry and operatic spectacle of the later films, it can be easy to forget the promise of Peter Jackson’s first foray into Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The genius of the first movie (and, to a lesser extent, The Two Towers) is that they somehow married the scale of an epic fantasy story with the intimacy of a small character drama. This was never more apparent than in the under-stated denouement of Fellowship, in which human warrior Boromir dies protecting two Hobbits after nearly betraying Ring-bearer Frodo Baggins. Frodo makes his escape by boat, thinking to finish the journey alone. But his gardener Sam Gamgee has other plans, and it’s in showing how the two of them end up together that the films have one of their best moments.
The Death of Krishna: The Mahabharata (1989)
The ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata, the longest poem ever written (two million words in 17 volumes), has a cast so large and a story so convoluted it rivals the Lord of the Rings, featuring demons, gods, weird monsters, vengeful reincarnations, and a magical weapon with the destructive capacity to annihilate an entire planet. But the narrative thread holding the story together (and keeping it from buckling under its own weight) is the conflict between the Kauravas and Pandavas, two halves of one family who are determined to exterminate each other.
Hovering in the background of this out-of-control family quarrel is the mysterious figure of Krishna, who for much of the story seems to be just another member of the family (albeit one who is revered by all parties), but who reveals himself, in the poem’s most famous set piece, to be more than they had ever guessed. Naturally the question arises, “If you are a god, why can’t you stop this massacre?”
Peter Brooks’ five-hour 1989 film The Mahabharata plays up the more enigmatic aspects of Krishna’s character, suggesting that perhaps there’s a more sinister agenda behind his ostensible attempts at peace-making. But the film’s best moment comes at the end when Krishna, wounded and dying, reveals that he’s just as confused and vulnerable as anyone else in the story. A young boy asks him, “Krishna, tell me quickly: why all your tricks and your bad directions?” Krishna responds with his last words: “I fought against terrible powers, and I did what I could.”
“One Day More”: Les Miserables (the Musical)
Victor Hugo’s sprawling, relentlessly poetic 1,400 page novel Les Miserables, which tells the story of an 1832 student uprising in Paris, boasts some of the most brilliant character arcs in literature. (The culmination of the longstanding feud between Javert, the police inspector, and Jean Valjean, the criminal-turned-mayor whom he has hunted for twenty years, deserves its own place on this list).
The musical Les Miserables takes all this plot and condenses it into a lyrical and at times devastating two-and-a-half-hour saga of war, vengeance, grace, redemption, and romance. The entire last half of the story functions as a series of climaxes. And while the tear-inducing lament of Marius on re-visiting the barricades where his friends met their grisly end is probably the emotional high point of the play, in terms of sheer narrative power, praise is owed to the entire sequence where Marius, Cosette, Eponine, and their love triangle is introduced, and especially the song “One Day More,” which takes the emotional journeys of ALL the characters, crystallizes them into a few simple verses and chorus, and reveals that in spite of their many conflicts, our heroes (and villains) have far more in common than they would ever admit.