One Helluva Ghost Story

April 27, 2010

I just finished reading Tom Piccirilli’s A Choir of Ill Children–for the second time.  I read it back in February and decided that to do it any justice, I needed to set it aside and reread it.  It’s not an overly complex book, but I’m not used to the Southern style.  The last book I read that felt stylistically similar was Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying–over fifteen years ago.

The first thing that I noticed is the uniqueness of every character.  I was familiar with the book prior to reading it, and had an admittedly biased expectation that at least some of the characters would be backwater rednecks.  Piccirilli, however, invests each character with a distinct personality that I don’t believe fit any stereotypes.  Further, I expected at least some of the dialog to have poor diction.  Again, I was totally wrong.  Most of the dialog uses good diction–Piccirilli makes very prudent use of “ain’t”s throughout, for which I’m grateful.

But–why did I have those expectations?  As a reader, I’m not sure I would have ever noticed the very subtle use of regional dialect.  As a writer, however, I noticed it because I often fail at capturing dialect or using it properly.  Reading Piccirilli’s book has made me aware that my failure comes in large part from personal bias.  I’m born and bred mid-west; I’ve lived in Ohio my whole live, though I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many states and abroad.  But still, part of me connects southern dialect with uneducated, not through any conscious decision, but simply from my experiences (or lack thereof).

But the characters presented in A Choir of Ill Children are anything but uneducated.  They lack formal education, but are full of the knowledge and experience life offers in such a setting.  We’re told as much in one section where Thomas, the main character, reflects the fallacy of his father who built schools for the county:

The schools sat empty until the storm and wind damage wore them away inch by inch.  You couldn’t blame the people of Potts County just because the board of education hadn’t offered any kind of a useful curriculum.  Chemistry in a tube wasn’t pertinent. The wheel of the universe didn’t turn when the cream went bad. Logarithms, geometry, and algebra did not apply to the height of the river during flood season. (p. 24)

So throughout the story we find characters who speak with very little regional dialect, which I believe helps the reader see them as honest people and not just a collection of rednecks.

So if these aren’t rednecks, who are they?  Piccirilli presents a truly unique and memorable collection:  a biker obsessed with fencing, a pair of drug-addled film students, a monastery dedicated to The Flying Walendas, backwater granny witches who fight to stave off storms, a child molester and the ghost of one of his victims, and a mute girl who appears from nowhere.  There is also Thomas, heir to a huge house, a sizable family fortune, and The Mill–the town’s only sustainable business.  The story is told from Thomas’s point of view, in present tense, with calm clarity and deep inquiry into the events that surround him.

Thomas also has three brothers, which I hesitate to count as more than a single character,  conjoined at the frontal lobe, sharing a pineal gland, and at times speaking as one although each has a distinct voice as well.  Ah, this must be the backwater, uneducated redneck of the book.  Well, no:

Sebastian is full of malice, Jonah with regret, and Cole speaks of love and nothing but love, no matter how hideous his words. (p. 1)

Interesting.  Or how about:

My brothers speak as one, each mouth working like a pipe organ, playing a different portion of their communal speech.  It’s the way that the brain works.  The “ch” goes to Sebastian, along with the glottal noises, “uh” and “ooh,” “ing,” names of foreign countries and pronouns, anything that brings the teeth together.

Jonah gets the hisses, the “ph” and drawn-out orgasmic “eeeeeee,” titles of symphonies and sit-coms, all the poetry.

Cole is left with the growls and hard consonants, the adverbs, numbers following ten, dirty words, colors, sweet nothing, and every predicate. (p. 5)

Now that’s one (or is it three) intriguing character.  So what’s this guy sound like when he speaks?  Just a sample:

Jonah’s up there already beginning to squawk and croon, the poetry pouring into the air.  “For where she lies, my swept drifted spirit follows, the course unmatched and not known, nor cared for, whether it dies or is kept…” (p. 22)

And again, later, Thomas describes Jonah’s poetry as he tries to woo Sarah (one of the drug-addled film students):

His sonnets have poorly stressed syllables but the meaning is worthy.  He has talents that would have meant something a century ago. (p. 90)

So very clearly this, the most deformed character in the book, is not a redneck but a complex character who is more than capable of the full range of human emotion.  This is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and challenging characters I have ever encountered in horror.  I think Piccirilli plays against the reader’s bias, particularly in this case, to develop interesting characters that the reader can relate to.

Later in the story, Velma Coots (a granny witch) tries to convince Thomas to give some of his sperm for a brew to stave of a storm of souls.  Their brief dialog is follows, with Thomas speaking first:

“What the hell do you want from me?” I ask.

“Jest a little blood and vinegar, there, in the pot.”

“Vinegar?”

“Some of yer seed.”

“My seed?”

“Sperm.”

“You’ve got to be shittin’ me.” (p. 51)

I call this out to because Velma Coots’s diction, a backwater witch, has minimal dialect–just two words of improper English: jest, and yer.  Even this woman’s dialog is kept relatively clean, letting the reader focus more on what’s being said than how it’s being said.

Another example of fine dialog is found when Thomas speaks with Abbot Earl of The Holy Order of the Flying Walendas, a man who used to drive a bulldozer for Thomas’s father.  Abbot Earl wants to discuss Lucretia Murteen with Thomas, a prominent nun of the order who the Abbot was once intimate with.  Thomas tells the Abbot he has nothing to be ashamed of, and Abbot Earl replies:

“And I’m not, to be sure.  But it’s also true that she’s been acting…reticent lately.  Perhaps a bit taciturn.  She refuses to tell me what’s bothering her.  I’m afraid that these troubles are actually making her consider leaving us.” (p. 86)

Once again, through using words like “reticent” and “taciturn”, Piccirilli shows the reader that this man is not just some dumb redneck who runs a strange cult of acrobat worshipers.  The word choice gives the reader a sense of depth to the character.

The last character I want to touch on is Darr, a biker who has a couple run-ins with Thomas.  On their second encounter, Darr and Thomas come face-to-face, and Darr asks Thomas a question:

“You know what I simply cannot stand?” he asks me.

“I’ll play along since this has the structure of a rhetorical question.  What is it that you cannot stand?”

“Fencing.”

I clear my throat.  ”Fencing?”

“Watching fencers who have no notion of the hardcore reality behind the art form.  They think it’s a sport, the damn fools.  Or worse, some kind of performance they’re putting on for their mamas, like ballet or synchronized swimming.  It was never meant to be a sport.  You’ve got to have convictions to live with the blade.  Belief.  True belief, that’s it, that’s what I’m talking about.  But those players, they might as well be shooting hoops or sliding into third base.  They never embrace the…the tenets, the ideology behind that discipline.”

“I can’t say that I have an opinion one way or the other.”

“Trust what I’m tellin’ you.  No matter how much training they go in for they always got that swashbuckling bullshit fantasy going on in their heads.  No way around that for most of ‘em.  They feel gallant sashaying around with their Musketeer sword, lunging after each other on the mats, shouting in French like it means somthin’ special when they can’t even pronounce the words.  With those silly helmets on over their faces, you shouldn’t be caught dead in one’a them, and the machines buzzing when they tap each other on the chests.” (p. 119-120)

Now clearly this biker has not only been exposed to fencing–something most would consider an upper class sport–but he’s put the time into contemplating the sport and how it relates to him.  This, and the subsequent dialog, give Thomas (and the reader) a unique insight into this biker character:

Not only does Darr expect the world to handle itself but he’s also got high hopes for the logic of his assertions to eventually come to validity all on their own.  Maybe he’s talking in metaphor.  I wonder if this is some vague attempt at intimidation. (p. 121)

Is that a threat?  How does one respond to a man like this?  I think Thomas’s reaction reinforces Darr’s character by matching closely what most people would think.

I have one more section of dialog to call out.  Whether Piccirilli meant this to reinforce the idea that the people of Potts County are anything but uneducated, or whether he simply meant it to be funny I can’t say.  But to me, it works well in both ways.  This is an exchange between some minor characters in Leadbetter’s, the local bar.  One character, Verbal Raynes, was recently left by Gloria, a woman who has decided to return to her husband Harry.  Gloria and Harry left for a second honeymoon, and left their kids with poor Verbal:

“No wonder she and Harry are lookin’ so sprightly these last couple weeks.  I thought it was just ‘cause they were heading to the Caymans, but–”

“The hell’s the Caymans?  That near Gainesville?”

“Western Caribbean, a peaceful British Crown Colony known as the Cayman Islands.”

“What?”

“Consists of three islands just 480 miles south of Miami.  The Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman.”

“Goddamn!”

“Me and Deeder went down there once, few years back, after the insurance settlement came through for when we caught the game warden illegally tapping our phones.”

I found the interjection on the Caymans funny and revealing.  These people don’t all just sit around the bar drinking (well, maybe most of the time) but have been exposed to the world at least enough to know that there’s a bigger world out there.

The last thing I would like to touch on is the story itself.  I said I had to read it twice, and I believe this will be a book I pick up every year or so to reread because I have trouble understanding exactly what the story is about.  And I realized why on the second reading.  Piccirilli poses so many story questions, using a setting and characters that feel like a fevered dream, that I struggled to keep track of what all the events meant.  But on this second reading, I realized that not all the events are necessarily important to the story.  Piccirilli admits as much in the last chapter, where Thomas reflects on the events and goes through all the unanswered story questions and dismisses them in one way or another.  Normally, I would say that it’s bad form to leave major story events unanswered, but in this case I can accept it.  I think many of the unanswered events serve to build the characters and setting and need no explanation.  But the risk is overwhelming the reader with questions and not satisfying them at the end.

This is one helluva ghost story.

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