The Shankill Butchers

Paddy Thompson's shop, Belfast

The Shankill Butchers ride tonight

You’d better shut your windows tight

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.
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Thirty Days of Poems: The Fiddler of Abilene (Day 5)

lrg_fiddle-on-lap There are tales they tell in Texas that’d make your blood run cold

 Tales of vagabonds and outlaw men with a burning lust for gold

 But of all those men with all their sins the worst there’s ever been

 Was a man in white who showed up one night in the town of Abilene.

 

            For Fernando McGraw of Statler Hall, it was the best day of his life

            He’d waited six years and now through tears he made Marie his wife

            Two hundred guests merrily processed behind the bride and groom

            With hurrying feet through the rain-filled street to Winchester’s Saloon. Continue reading

“One More Dawn, One More Day”: 3 Moments of Storytelling Brilliance

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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.
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“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.

 

Thirty Days of Poems: She’s Ubiquitous (Day 3)

05-02-2013i            She’s ubiquitous

            She wouldn’t call herself a genius

            but I know she is

            A novelist, an actress

            She’s on billboards and Broadway

            The writer, star, director

            of a one-woman play

 

            She’s pale as the sun

            as quiet as the moon

            and she doesn’t

            understand the world

 

           

            She’s ubiquitous

            she wonders what the moral of the story is

            she takes her coffee black

            she stays out past midnight

            sipping Chardonnay and reading

            N. T. Wright

 

            She’s ubiquitous

            but lately she’s been feeling nervous and listless

            She’s sick of putting up with boys

            and their pathetic grandeur

            and wishes she could meet a guy

            who understands her

 

           

            She’s pale as the sun

            as quiet as the moon

            and she doesn’t

            understand the world

 

            (and sometimes late at night

            we take that desert road

            out where the stars are street lights

            and when we hit the end of that trail

            where the dust shines like fog

            and the grass hums around us with a million voices

            I pull out my flamenco guitar

            and she dances).

 

A Poet of the Margins

BreakingBadFelinaThe whole first half of this year I was so sure I wanted to write a “mundane,” realistic fantasy story about the boring lives of ordinary people.

 

But when I went out to dinner with Spencer last night, he said, “You, Boze, don’t have to write something realistic.”

 

And then today I was writing poetry as part of Teryn’s “Thirty Days of Poems.” And I started reading the lyrics to some of my favorite songs. And I realized there’s a thread running through a lot of them, and it may be the same thread that’s got me reading Flannery O’Connor and that made me fall so much in love with Breaking Bad.

 

Maybe the reason I loved that show so much wasn’t because it was gritty and realistic (a lot of critics said it wasn’t), but because it was all about people living on the margins. And maybe that appeals to me after all I’ve been through, as I begin to see more clearly the outline of the crucified God.

 

I wrote on Twitter, “I’m realizing that a lot of my favorite songs are about people on the margins, dreaming, fighting, desperate, struggling to get by.” And then quoted Walt Whitman: O you shunned persons, I do not shun you. I will be your poet.” And said, “Like Whitman, I want to be a poet of the forgotten and unsung.”

 

And I think that’s the kind of story I need to be writing, because that’s the kind of person I’m becoming. A person who sees life’s ragged edges. Who listens to the hurting, gets to know them, hears their stories. Who loves those who are trapped in desperate places.

 

Up until now, as Spencer pointed out, my story hasn’t really had a center. I think this is the center. These are the kinds of people I’m called to write about.

 

Thirty Days of Poems: Darren and Me (Day 2)

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Darren and me

 are sitting in his apartment

 drinking rum and soda.

 

 The glow of the screen

 illuminates

 our tired faces

 as we gaze upon our heroes.

 

            “Clooney’s the MAN,” I say

            and Darren nods a little sadly.

            “I could be like him.”

 

            “Naw, bro,” says Darren.

            “You gotta get yourself a car.”

 

            “Hugh Jackman, man,” I say.

 

            “Hugh Jackman,” he avers,

            and we are quiet.

 

            *           *           *

 

            Darren and me

            we stay up talking

            eating hazel nuts and almonds

            with the clarity that only comes

            from sipping vodka

            after hours.

           

            “Dude, I gotta find myself a girl,” I say,

            “I wasn’t made to live this bachelor kinda life.”

 

             Darren says, “Well, what about Rebekah?”

          

            “Bekah ain’t interested in a guy like me.”

 

            “B. S.!” He points a shaky shot glass at me.

            “You should see the way she looks at you.”

 

            “Ain’t no one ever looked at me that way.”

 

            “Have you ever even asked a girl out?”

           

            “Dude, not if I really liked them.”

 

            Darren sits back on the couch

            and pours us both another glass of Evan Williams.

            On the TV, Louie’s eating dinner in Manhattan.

            Chicken rolls, lamb pasanda, flatbread.

            I grab another handful of pretzels.

 

            “What about you?” I ask him.

            “When you gonna find somebody?”

 

            “Some day, maybe.”

            He never takes his eyes off the screen.

            “Romance is great and all, but man,

            I got so many dreams.”

Thirty Days of Poems: Sky Canoes (Day 1)

Night_Sky_by_Ravens_Stock           ‘Not all canoes are for swimming,’

            she insists, with the casual air of one who knows.

           ‘Some canoes are for flying

          flying through rivers of starlight.

            Which is why

            when we go on vacation

            (me and mom and Kristina)

            we strap the canoe upside down

            to the top of the car:

            that way when we get out on the road

            where the sky rivers flow,

            they pick up the boat and the car

            and we soar through clouds together.”

 

            She pauses

            standing lightly on her toes

            as though reaching up towards the stars.

 

            ‘But how would that work?’ I demand

            and she blinks back her confusion.

           

            ‘It floats!’ she insists, and her arms burst like rockets.

            ‘There are rivers on the ceiling

            There are rivers in the twilight

            And the current grabs the boat

            And it and we sail off together.’

 

            ‘But it doesn’t work that way.’

           

            As I stamp out my cigarette

            she looks at me

            her mouth a perfect O

            her eyes a question.

 

            ‘Because’ I explain

            ‘If that were to happen

            you’d be floating upside down.

            You and your sister and your mom

            would fall out of the car.

            You would die.’

 

            ‘Oh.’

 

            She doesn’t say anything else

            but when I leave that night

            she wanders out into the driveway

            and with upturned face

            and quiet restless eyes

            peers through the hazy silence

            at that other world

            whose trees bend down to scrape our own

            and at the river people

            rowing the winds

            amid moonlight and starlight

            that she feels sure must be.