Novel

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On discovering The Worst Thing Who Ever Happened To Me.

Published April 1, 2020 by mandileighbean

My last blog post was all about finding my passion for writing again and making writing more of a priority. Consider this post me diving head first into being a writer.

It’s been said that all good writers write what they know. And during this period quarantine during this coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been bingewatching “Sex and the City” to pass the time. Right now, there’s something really appealing about the simplicity and style of it all. I’ve slowed down the bingeing though, and very recently, I’ve decided to try to only watch one episode a day, to make it last through this indefinite period of social distancing. The episode I watched the other day had my favorite scene of the series (so far, I should add; I have between ten and fifteen episodes left).

Carrie Bradshaw, elegant and graceful heroine, goes to San Francisco as part of her book tour. Her book, it should be mentioned, is a collection of articles from her newspaper column, and those articles are just anecdotes and observations from her dating life. A lot of the anecdotes and observations revolve around Mr. Big, charming and complex leading man who hurt her terribly time and time again, but Carrie just can’t help herself when it comes to Big.

Do you see why I felt compelled to watch?

Anyway, the San Francisco stop on her book tour is not AT ALL what Carrie hoped for and at probably her lowest moment (pimple on her cheek and no one interested in what she had to say through her writing), Big shows up. He was at her reading the whole time and stood to ask a question: if the Mr. Big character was based on a real person. How fucking suave; it reminds me of  particular moment with a particular man from my past (who irritatingly reappears in my present).

Later, they’re in Carrie’s hotel room and all she wants is sex, but all Big wants is to talk about what she wrote. He actually read her book cover to cover and realized how badly he’d hurt her.

So that’s my new fantasy: the man who ruined me for all other men to come reads my book and becomes determined to talk it out with me. And maybe it ends in sex, but whatever. I don’t think that’s the point – or the only point.

Does this mean I’m ready to write about him? Intentionally, I mean, because everything I write is really about him anyway. But even if I’m ready, does that mean I should? Would everybody know if I tried writing about him on this blog? And by “everybody,” I mean the seven fucking people who read it.

Shit – I think I’m actually getting excited about this. That has to be a good sign, right?

So stay tuned for my first installment next week: episode one of The Worst Thing Who Ever Happened to Me.

On weathering uncertain times.

Published March 26, 2020 by mandileighbean

We’ve been quarantined for about two weeks. Just under 14 days. I think I handled the first week with aplomb, with grace, and with a resilient kind of optimism. I cut my hair, I ordered a wireless printer and other tools for my “home office;” To quote a very good friend, I was t h r i v i n g.

This week? Not so much.

I went to confession and it was bizarre. They had a portion in the far corner of the parking lot sectioned off by little orange cones. Father sat in one of those uncomfortable plastic chairs that always seem to be painted a shade that hasn’t been popular since the 1970s. I pulled up, rolled down my window, and shouted my sins across the distance, loud enough so he could hear me over the wind. Even Father said he was unsure about how this could possibly continue. And he told me mass was cancelled indefinitely, but he would live stream mass.

Driving home, I passed the bank and the line of cars for the drive-thru wrapped around the building.

The park by me has yellow police tape around the entrances so no one can get in.

All of that was disconcerting, but I think this overwhelming sense of being disconnected and kind of lost started when I watched “Blinded by the Light,” which is NO WAY a comment on the film. I loved it! I cried from my heart being so full that all the excess love and hope and faith and goodness had to spill out through my eyes. I know I’m late to the party, but if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s all about this Pakistani boy growing up in Lutton, England (which is about 200 miles from Manchester, just for perspective). He becomes OBSESSED with the Boss, which in turns helps him follow his dream of becoming a writer.

The kind could have been me. Hell, the kid was me. It made me wonder, where did that passion, that desire go? Is it too lost to be recovered, rediscovered? The kid sat up in his room and wrote poem after poem. He wanted to become an English major. He wanted to work as a writer and even got the job at the local paper.

That was ALL me! What happened?! I mean, I’d write e v e r y s i n g l e d a y. I’d constantly be scribbling something. My notebooks were filled with scenes I just had to get onto paper and covered in inspiring lyrics. I used to be focused, driven. WHAT HAPPENED???!!!?!

Then again, the REAL question is: can I get it back?

I tried to stay on this inspired kick, tried to desperately to start an irrepressible fire burning in my belly. I watched “Western Stars,” the Bruce Springsteen concert film. I loved it. He’s just so fucking smart and passionate. My favorite quote:

Are we moving forward? Mostly, we’re just moving.

Damn, Bruce. Just @ me.

I did work on Moody Blue; I recently discovered there’s a whole chapter that needs to be re-written, so at least that’s something to focus on. I have really been busy trying to stay on top of remote learning as the longer we’re out of the building means the more instruction my students need. I will say that being more creative about explaining key concepts and skills is definitely helping me become more passionate about reading and writing.

But I haven’t seen anyone in real life in over a week (my parents being the exception). On sunny days, I walk the boardwalk and offer strangers a friendly nod, but that’s it. I feel so isolated, and I know that’s the point and it’s important to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Not to be a total downer – I ordered some blue light glasses from Amazon, and I L O V E them. I’ve been spending SO MUCH time staring at screens, as we all have I’m sure, that my eyes were really starting to bug me. These glasses, while stylish, have also been a godsend.

I’m sharing an article about relieving eyestrain, just so we can take care of ourselves.

On adjusting to a new normal.

Published March 18, 2020 by mandileighbean

I absolutely love where I live. I just got back from walking the full length of the boardwalk, and it was obvious where maintenance had been done, where old boards had been ripped up and replaced by new boards. On the new boards, people had written encouraging messages for those walking the boards. There were messages like, “CONFIDENCE” and “MOVE IT!” and “Happy Day!” and “Have a BEER!” There were reminders that it takes “90 Days” to change a lifestyle and that “You can do it!” It made me smile and made me so glad I ventured outside today.

Not too many are venturing outside lately. Some of us can’t because it’s a serious risk to our health, and some of us are following recommendations and mandates about how to stop the spread of the Coronavirus. I’m not scared, and I’m not really worried about falling victim, but I have been creeped out by how fast my life has been knocked from its normal course. A week ago, there was an emergency faculty meeting at work. I leaned over to a colleague and whispered, “There’s no way we’re shutting down.” Within 48 hours, that’s exactly what we were preparing for.

On Sunday, I went to church with my parents like I always do. Usually, the church is packed from wall to wall and if you don’t arrive at least ten minutes before the scheduled start time, there’s no guarantee you’ll find a seat. I was running late and was worried I’d have to sit away from Mom, but when I arrived, the parking lot was empty. There were only about 100 people in the church, and during his homily, Father recommended we spread out even more. He assured us mass and confession would not be cancelled, but all other church functions basically were. Try as I might, I don’t ever remember a time when churches were closed or masses were cancelled. That really made me think of the post-apocalyptic novels I used to devour (shout out to my homeboy Stephen King) and for just a moment or two, I was scared.

But in times like these, I think it’s really, really important to maintain a healthy amount of perspective. I’m not classified as “high risk,” so the odds of me contracting the Coronavirus are really in my favor. Remote teaching is a new and exciting challenge; I’m blessed to be employed as I am. And if I’m to be indoors for the majority of the upcoming days, that just means I have plenty of time to read and write.

So stay safe, readers. Let’s all be especially kind to each other as we adjust to a new normal. With that in mind, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share a great article (linked here) I read about how to stave off cabin fever while self-isolating – or “social distancing” – during this pandemic. To sum up, here are some ways to beat cabin fever, thanks to Eerie Insurance (the full article is linked here).

  • Break out a good book.
    • May I recommend Her Beautiful Monster, which you can order here. Also, follow me on Goodreads! Currently, I’m TOTALLY ENJOYING Broken Harbor by Tana French. I also check out Belletrist on Instagram for great recommendations. I even signed up for their newsletter. 
  • Start a new hobby.
    • I’m revising my novel and plotting a new one, but I’m also planning a garden, using The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch. As soon as the weather is more consistently conducive, I’m going to get out there and get my hands and knees dirty.
  • Do a puzzle.
    • I have an Elvis jigsaw puzzle I’ve had for years (there’s dust all over the plastic wrapping). I think my dad got it for me for Christmas, so it’s about time to dust it off and put it together. I have another Elvis puzzle that I put together and my dad actually framed for me. It’s hanging in my basement… pretty cool.
  • Engage in some pre-spring cleaning.
    • I could probably just say Spring cleaning because Spring officially arrives on Friday. This is actually at the top of my list. I want to rent out my house while I plan to study abroad in Ireland (a trip that’s been delayed a year). I want to paint and update appliances and purge whatever clutter is keeping my home from feeling cozy and bright.
  • Have a movie and popcorn night.
    • I’m doing this tonight A N D tomorrow night. Tonight, I’m sticking with a St. Patrick’s Day theme. I’ll be eating fish and chips and watching either “The Boondock Saints,” “Angela’s Ashes,” or “The Departed” (which seems like a s t r e t c h, but DAMN do I love Leonardo DiCaprio). Tomorrow will likely be a beloved romantic comedy and food terrible for my figure.
  • Write a letter to touch base with an old friend or family member.
    • I cannot stress enough how important this tip is. Loneliness can have serious, damaging effects on the psyche and the body. I’ve been texting with friends regularly and plan on catching up on emails tonight. I gave up social media for Lent (what timing, eh?), but that doesn’t mean I can’t reach out and keep those vital connections alive and well.
  • Go for a walk.
    • It’s fitting I’d end with this tip since I started this post talking about how I went for a walk. It was nearly 60 degrees by me today, so I made sure to walk along the shore. It helps stave off depression and cabin fever,

Stay healthy, be smart, and I’ll catch ya on the other side, friends.

On not really knowing life at all.

Published March 11, 2020 by mandileighbean

In support of my last post, and proof that I do sometimes keep my word, here is a short story I wrote because I AM A FUCKING WRITER. Hear me roar. And read my stuff. Please and thank you.

Writing Prompt: A former child star has an existential crisis as he watches reruns of his show on TV Land.

David wasn’t sure what time it was, but judging by the way the sun burned fiercely through his westward facing windows so that his entire kitchen glowed orange, it was nearly evening, way later than he wanted it to be. He’d wasted another day. He blinked hard in an effort to come back to himself. All that came into focus was a half-empty bottle of vodka and a couple of roaches perched precariously in the ashtray; just more evidence he could never finish what he started.

David rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms, hard enough to hurt. That actually helped him see clearer and he reached for his cell phone.

There were no new messages.

There were no missed calls.

He considered checking his email, but decided against it as there was obviously no point. No one was trying to reach him. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone had tried, and that realization depressed him, so he reached for one of the remaining roaches and the remote.

He turned the television on and suddenly found himself staring at the eleven-year-old version of himself, immortalized in off-network syndication of “Mary’s Boys,” a terribly corny yet endearing family sitcom from the late 1980s. He played the precocious middle child of three boys sent to live with their free-spirited but ill-prepared Aunt Mary after their parents die in a car accident. It’s five-season run ended abruptly when the youngest of the three child stars died of an accidental overdose. His character’s name was Dylan, but his real name was a mystery. Maybe if David watched the episode through to the credits, a scrolling name would jog his memory and he wouldn’t feel like such a piece of shit.

The laugh track sounded tinny and irritating. They’d filmed in front a live studio audience, but not every joke landed, so the laugh track was an insurance policy.

Some scholars estimate that Jesus of Nazareth was eleven-years-old when he found out he’d be crucified to save mankind. When David was eleven, he traveled separately from his parents and demanded an infinite number of chilled glasses of chocolate milk be made available for him whenever he was on set, no matter which set it was. He’d nearly blown an interview on late-night TV over his fucking chocolate milk. And he’d been old enough to know better at that point.

God, how could anyone stand him? Watching himself flitter across the television screen, David didn’t think he was all that cute or charming. He couldn’t see anything special, so what exactly had it been that qualified him as one of America’s sweethearts for five years? Five years that could have been a hundred years ago.

Whatever it had been, it was long gone now.

Christ, what was that kid’s name? He had been nice and funny, like really funny. He was a good kid, a sweet kid, a good, sweet kid. And then he ingested God knows what at some night club he never ever would have gotten into if not for his privilege. He wandered in adored but alone, terribly alone, because no one kept count of the lines of powder he snorted, the pills he swallowed, the booze he swilled. No one cared enough to follow him into the bathroom and keep him breathing. David could have been there. The more he thought about it, the more David knew he should have been there. What had he even been doing that night? Admiring himself in a mirror? He wasn’t doing anything important, he was sure of that, and a better kid than him had died. Just a kid.

And David was such a pile of putrid garbage. What did he have to show for being famous when he was eleven? He lived alone in a crumbling apartment. No wife, no kids. He couldn’t remember the last time he talked to his parents. The residuals were eventually going to run out, and he’d have to venture out into a world he turned his back on because he thought he was too good, too special for it.

David stood and walked to the start of the short hallway that led to the bathroom. He hated who he was, hated where he was, so he pulled his fist back and launched it at the wall. It hurt, but at least David felt something, so he did it again. He thought about threatening emancipation from his parents and cutting them off when all anyone was doing was the best they could. He punched the wall and cracked the plaster.

He thought about the women he slept with, the starry-eyed girls stumbling about but never stopping and staying. He never saw sunlight shimmer in someone’s hair strewn across a pillow in the morning. He punched the wall and made a hole. It hurt, but not enough.

He thought about the screenplays he started and abandoned, coming with up with bullshit excuse after bullshit excuse. He thought about the auditions he’d ruined or ignored because he had such an inflated idea of himself. He punched the wall, leaving his knuckles read and throbbing.

He punched the wall. His knuckles were bleeding and the pain became sharper, more intense. Something was broken but that was nothing new. David started to sob, cradling his broken hand against his chest and dropping to his knees. If he didn’t quiet down, someone would call the cops.

Joshua, he suddenly remembered, his eyes going wide. His name had been Joshua.

On Chuck Palahniuk, with love.

Published March 4, 2020 by mandileighbean

This blog post is going to serve as nothing more than a thinly veiled love letter to Chuck Palahniuk.

This week, I devoured his book on writing titled Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different. Simply put, this book was amazing. You know I’m always looking for signs from the universe, and I firmly believe that the cosmos put this book into my hands at the right time for the right reasons. One of my favorite passages reads:

Was it Kierkegaard? Was it Heidegger? Some egghead pointed out how people decide the nature of their world at a very young age. And they craft a way of behaving that will lead to success. You’re praised for being a strong little kid so you invest in your strength. Or you become the smart girl. Or the funny boy. Or the pretty girl. And this works until you’re about thirty years old.

(64).

Damn, Chuck. Just @ me next time. I think a lot of the uncertainty in my writing life comes from uncertainty in life in general. Last year was tumultuous; I lost friends I thought I’d have forever and essentially had to find my new identity. It was never a good idea to allow myself to be defined by other people, but I did it and here I am, reconstructing myself one piece at a time. I’ve finally come to accept that people will enter and exit my life at various times for all different reasons, and every entrance and exit does not necessarily have anything to do with me. “Through our lives, our relationships are based on proximity. We attend the same school. We work at the same company or live in the same neighborhood. And when those circumstances change, our friendships dissolve” (146).  Those changes and dissolutions do not have to be earth-shattering. They do not have to be moments after which everything is different. But when they are, I think it’s more than important to stop and take note. Losing my friends and thereby upending the woman I thought I was led me to the dream of Ireland.

I want Ireland to be a part of my rebuilding, maybe even the foundation upon which I can build my writing life, and though that journey has been delayed, the desire is there and it is as strong as it ever was. Palahniuk writes, “Perhaps this is why people dream of traveling a lot at retirement. Seeing the world and recognizing one’s own insignificance makes it okay to come home and to die” (117). That’s depressing as hell, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. To be comfortable with myself, and that includes being comfortable with my mortality, I think I have to be uncomfortable first. I’m happy to admit I’ve been uncomfortable as hell for nearly four years. So something’s gotta give soon, and I think this book by Chuck Palahniuk has prepared me for the moment I’ve been waiting for: the moment after which everything is different.

So much more than some bestselling author pontificating about craft, Palahniuk’s book is entertaining as hell. He includes entertaining anecdotes from his writing life that validate a writer’s many insecurities and intuitions, balancing humiliations with small victories. For example, Palahniuk recalls when he was a participant in Tom Spanbauer’s writing workshop and Tom gave him a book to read after his “…work had been rejected by some magazine or ten magazines or yet another agent had written to say he only represented ‘likeable’ fiction” (57). Tom chose the book and told Palahniuk it would help his work “enormously” (57). Palahniuk writes:

The following week I read and reread it. An easy job because it hardly topped a hundred pages, but a tough read because the characters were hard-pressed and put-upon cornpone hound-dog types just scraping by in the burnt-over backwoods hills of wherever. They lived on a farm, eating the same grits for breakfast every morning. They did nothing exceptional, and nothing happened to them. Each time I finished it I felt angry about wasting more time for so little return. I hated the author for wasting my time. But mostly I hated myself for being too backward to appreciate this work of art documenting the lives of folks interchangeable with the folks I’d been raised next door to

(58).

So when Palahniuk brings the book back, he’s hesitant to admit he hated it because he’s afraid that makes him dumb, too stupid to appreciate a book praised by anyone and everyone who knows anything about literature. Palahniuk lies “to fit in with the smart people” (59), which is a pressure I completely understand and have barely survived. I usually do the same thing Palahniuk did. “If all else fails among the literati, always claim the language is beautiful” (59). Throughout the course of the evening, however, Palahniuk finally cracks and admits he hated the book and that he’s probably stupid. But Tom smiles and reveals his true intentions. “This book is awful…. I wanted you to see how terrible a book could be and still get published” (59-60). I give Palahniuk credit for not naming the book and shaming anyone (“If you don’t have anything nice to say…” and all that) and for being honest. He’s acknowledging that being published and successful can have very little to do with talent. And I think it’s important to note that Palahniuk found his writing tribe, a suggestion stressed by all different kinds of authors time and time again. Writing is a lonely job, so it is crucial to find people who share your writing philosophy and tastes and work ethic. It’s crucial to have a community, and I think Palahniuk is starting one with the publication of this book. In a cosmic coincidence, I am in desperate need of a tribe, so let this book be my calling card/open invitation.

I wrote a somewhat scathing review of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction because it wasn’t accessible. It was condescending. It didn’t inspire me. Palahniuk echoes these sentiments and goes on to explain, “I’ve found that most writers fall into one of two camps. The first rise from academia and write gorgeous stuff with very little plot momentum or drive. The second camp of writers emerge from journalism and use simple, clear language to tell stories rich in action and tension” (192). I think, organically, I come from the first camp. I was an English major, am now an English teacher, and will earn either my Master’s or MFA in the near future. But I’m drawn to the second camp. A perfect paragraph or scintillating sentence is great, but I’m afraid that’s not what sells. Readers want stories rich in action and tension that are also accessible because they use simple, clear language. That’s why Her Beautiful Monster was a joy to write and earned positive reviews, I think – because I enjoyed writing it. I think I need to get back to basics and not overthink my creative process.

Palahniuk does not spend valuable space romanticizing the writing life or going on and on about some abstract, academic approach. He gives real, practical advice. For example, he writes, “Once you’re published and trying to scratch out a living you’ll find these regional bookseller associations are a great ally” (1). First paragraph of the first page, and I’m learning something new. I was so disappointed when my first novel didn’t go flying off the shelves, but in hindsight, I realize I was doing nothing to help. To be fair, I didn’t know where to start. Thanks to Palahniuk, now I do.

He does discuss the act of writing itself and gives great tips and tricks without singing his own praises. For example, he suggests that “Instead of writing about a character, write from within the character” (47). He recommends avoiding common units of measurement and instead, using units of measurement unique to a character, like “a man too tall to kiss” or “a man her dad’s size when he’s kneeling in church” (47). This idea may not seem revolutionary, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. This is a wonderful and unique way to give a story texture and to really develop my writer’s voice.

Palahniuk attributes some of his most followed advice to other writers, and it lends him a great deal of authenticity. That was my favorite aspect of the book, how real Palahniuk is. It reminds me of a sentiment expressed by Stephen King, that all writers come to drink from the same pool, so it’s only natural that all writers beg and borrow and steal from one another. Hence why I salivated over this book from one of my most favorite writers.

Palahniuk writes, “If you’re dedicated to becoming an author, nothing I can say here will stop you. But if you’re not, nothing I can say will make you one” (xv). Palahniuk shares advice he received from Bob Maull, founder of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Maull told him, “If you want to make a career out of this you’ll need to bring out a new book every year. Never go longer than sixteen months without something new because after sixteen months people quit coming in that door and asking me if you have another book yet.” Fuck. Shit. Balls. My book came out nine years ago. Is it too late for me? Do I not have enough time to write because I’m a full-time teacher? Palahniuk doesn’t think so. He describes, in detail, how one writing approach solves the struggle for time. For all the dark human truths he exposes or touches upon, he is not a fatalist. He writes, “But if you hold a full-time job, have a family, and have to juggle every other duty in life, this scene-by-scene experimentation will keep you sane” (135).

So where do I go from here? I become a fucking writer. I carve out time for writing. I truly and fully believe I am one. I get to work.

On mediocrity … especially in thinking of titles.

Published February 20, 2020 by mandileighbean

So I’ve neglected this blog for two weeks. I wish, I really, really wish I could tell you it was because I’ve been furiously working on a new novel or that it was because I’ve been off having all sorts of romantic adventures that I will fill you in on. Sadly, neither one of those excuses presented as valid, interesting reasons is true. We started a new semester at school on Wednesday, February 6th and ever since then, I’ve been pretty much consumed by work. That coincided with a last-minute visit from my sister and her four kids, so I was swamped with family and work obligations. I haven’t written anything, haven’t been taking care of myself or my house. I’ve barely been reading. To be honest, I haven’t been doing anything to inspire my writing life or my Bohemian endeavors. I’ve been mediocre, limping through the daily rat race.

It sounds overdramatic, but that’s the only way I know to make things interesting.

Anyway, here’s a short story I wrote based on the following prompt:

 

“Mom, you’ve got to stop dragging me into the middle of things.”

The glass of chilled white wine was sweating in front of me. I hadn’t had a sip. I wanted to walk outside and have a cigarette, but I couldn’t leave Mom alone at the table. And she’s a smoker too, so I couldn’t go without her. She’d be pissed. I had to just sit there in nearly unbearable silence and take it.

“You’re not going to say anything?”

I blinked. “About what? About being a child of divorce at 31?”

Mom rolled her eyes. “Don’t be dramatic.”

I laughed even though nothing was funny. “I think taking me for lunch to tell me you and Dad are splitting up is dramatic.”

“What? You wanted me to tell you over the phone? Should I have texted you?” Mom rolled her eyes again and shifted away from me in her seat. She took a long swallow from her chilled glass.

I rubbed my eyes. “What do you want? For me to go to pieces? For me to ask why when I don’t want to know why?”

Mom still wouldn’t look at me. She wrapped her arms around herself and just sat there, breathing. I finally started drinking my wine. I took a long, slow, deliberate swallow so I wouldn’t have to say anything. I couldn’t think of anything to say anyway.

“I want you to talk to your sisters for me.”

I choked on my pinot grigio.  “What?”

“Please. I can’t -”

“Mom, you’ve really gotta stop dragging me into the middle of things.”

“I’m not-”

“Yes, yes you are! That’s exactly what you’re doing! That’s what you’ve been doing my whole life!”

Mom looked like I’d slapped her. I was disappointed when she didn’t grab her face and turn away. She didn’t say anything, so I kept going. “When Cora was sleeping with Mr. Slattery, you told me to tell her that you knew and that she needed to stop because it was shameful to have a slut in the family.”

“I never said that,” she lied. Mom started blinking rapidly.

“Okay. When Timmy was hiding the empty vodka bottles in his closet and the maid found them, you sent her to me. I found the rehab, I packed his bags, but you dropped him off at the airport.”

Mom shook her head. “When I left my therapist’s office and I couldn’t breathe because I was crying so hard, I called you. I didn’t want to drive because I couldn’t see the road for all the tears in my eyes and I wanted to talk to you, to hear your voice, so I called you.” I crossed my arms over my chest and leaned back in the chair, away from her. “What did you do?” She looked away, shook her head once, quickly. I asked my question again. “What did you do?”

The complete silence that followed let me know I had been talking too loud. The complete silence meant that conversation had stopped, forks had stopped moving, and that everyone was listening. I leaned closer to Mom and lowered my voice. “You didn’t answer. You never called me back.” I was speaking through a clenched jaw. I was gripping the edge of the table so hard my fingertips were white. “You need to call your daughters and you need to tell them. Your divorce from Dad has nothing to do with me.”

Mom cleared her throat. She reached up and delicately brushed the single strand of pearls hanging around her neck. “I just thought-”

“What if they ask me why, Mom? What if they have questions?”

Mom paled. She looked away from me. Her face turned red.  “I guess I didn’t think at all.” She swallowed hard. “I’m sorry.”

It was the first time my mother had apologized to me for anything. Naturally, I felt inexplicably and incredibly guilty. “I’m sorry, Mom. I should-”

“No, no, you’re right,” she said.

I wasn’t sure what it meant that we rarely let each other finish our sentences.

Sheepishly, I stabbed at my salad with a fork. When I looked back up at my mother, she was crying silently.

It was the first time I had ever seen my mother cry. I watched the tears roll down her delicately powdered cheeks, leaving sparse but unmistakable inky black trails from the mascara she always applied in generous layers. Her hair was moussed, blow dried and then sprayed so it wouldn’t move, not even in a hurricane. She was wearing a smart looking pantsuit with a ribbed turtleneck, all in safe, neutral colors. And she was crying.

I didn’t say anything.

 

On truly terrifying and terrible villains.

Published January 29, 2020 by mandileighbean

Villain

Halsey’s new song that she performed on Saturday Night Live, “You should be sad” (you can watch it here) has had me D E E P in my feelings all week, ever since I heard the song. It reminds me of the only man I think I ever really loved, and how that relationship was doomed because he “…can’t love nothin’ unless there was somethin’ in it…” for him. In the story of my life (and all writers believe their lives have plot and theme and depths of meaning), he is most definitely a villain. No matter how handsome, how charming, how complicated, or how conflicted he might be, he is most definitely a villain, a dangerous narcissist, a sociopath who takes and takes until there’s nothing left and simply leaves.

Thinking along that admittedly bitter and self-serving vein conjured up images of villains crafted from ink and paper rather than flesh and blood. Do imagined, constructed villains have anything in common with those of the living and breathing variety? The answer: absolutely they do, so for your reading pleasure, here is my list of truly terrible and terrifying villains in literature (in no particular order and there’s only nine because I couldn’t think of one more villain; I’m the worst, I know, and I’m sorry). AND SPOILER WARNING!!! SPOILERS ABOUND!!! (Actually, I think I did okay in keeping secrets, but better to be safe than sorry).

doloresumbridge

  1. Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

    When they entered the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom they found Professor Umbridge already seated at the teacher’s desk, wearing the fluffy pink cardigan of the night before and the black velvet bow on top of her head. Harry was again reminded forcibly of a large fly perched unwisely on top of an even larger toad” (Rowling 238).

    One of the best qualities of a villain, outside of the comic book variety, is his or her ability to surprise by flying under the radar. What I mean is that Dolores Umbridge is perfectly put together, what with her matching cardigan sets and bows and seemingly perfect manners. The depths of Umbridge’s dastardly depravity are revealed slowly, layer by layer, as the character herself unravels as she spirals into madness. At certain points throughout the fifth installment of the Harry Potter series, it seems as if she is simply unbeatable. She matches Harry step for step and is a worthy adversary. I would even argue she’s a more terrifying villain than Lord Voldemort because Voldemort is essentially a monster while Umbridge is a monster hiding in plain sight. And while she does not have special skills or super strength or advanced technology, she does have the scariest weapons of all: political backing and the ability to completely manipulate the bureaucracy.

    amydunne

  2. Amy Dunne from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

    “I’m so much happier now that I’m dead. Technically, missing. Soon to be presumed dead. But as shorthand, we’ll say dead. It’s been only a matter of hours, but I feel better already; loose joints, wavy muscles. At one point this morning, I realized my face felt strange, different. I looked in the rearview mirror–dread Carthage forty-three miles behind me, my smug husband lounging around his sticky bar as mayhem dangled on a thin piano wire just above his shitty, oblivious head–and I realized I was smiling. Ha! That’s new” (Flynn 219).

    Amy Dunne is without a doubt a psychopath, maybe even a sociopath. However, Amy’s ability to remain hyper focused on her goal to meet success at all costs is admirable … except for the fact that she’s either killing or manipulating every single person around her. Amy is the voice inside a woman’s head that tells her to forget everything and everyone else and “do you.” Amy seeks revenge against her cheating husband in a brilliant plot that involves her faking her own death and becoming a more authentic version of herself. What terrifies me about Amy is that the authentic version is amalgamous and essentially nonexistent. Amy is a chameleon and can change her personality in order to achieve whatever her aim is. That kind of intense and fearless and devotion to one’s self is something I envy on my really bad days. Still, Amy is a horrible narcissist and violent psychopath with no redeeming qualities, really.

    randallflagg

  3. Randall Flagg from The Stand by Stephen King

    “He looks like anybody you see on the street. But when he grins, birds fall dead off telephone lines. When he looks at you a certain way, your prostate goes bad and your urine burns. The grass yellows up and dies where he spits. He’s always outside. He came out of time. He doesn’t know himself” (King).

    It’s no secret that King can have trouble constructing plots; sometimes they’re convoluted and sometimes they’re lacking in a satisfying conclusion. What King is always a master of is creating dynamic characters and his legendary antagonist Randall Flagg is no exception. He is as charming as he is terrifying and King’s careful construction of his character shows glimpses of humanity. King doesn’t completely alienate his reader from Flagg, which is brilliant, because it keeps readers invested in his story. If there was nothing to latch onto, this ageless and universal adversary would become tiresome and excessive. But to see him become frustrated when thwarted and to see him become threatened when meeting his match rounds out and fleshes out his character. I would totally buy Flagg a beer at a local dive bar. The kick is that I’d be in some serious, fatal trouble before I even knew what was happening.

    chrishargensenbillynolan

  4. Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan from Carrie by Stephen King

    “‘Period!’ The catcall came first from Chris Hargensen. It struck the tiled walls of the steamy locker room, it rebounded in vibrations, and struck again. Sue Snell gasped in laughter from her nose and felt an odd, vexing mixture of hate, revulsion, exasperation, and pity. She just looked so dumb, standing there, not knowing what was going on. ‘God!’ said Sue, ‘You’d think she never…’ ‘Period!’ Chris shouted again, even louder than the first time” (King).

    King’s my favorite author, so it’s no surprise he makes my list twice. Also, I’m a complete and total sucker for toxic couples. Chris Hargensen is the popular bitch who’s had everything handed to her and has to feel like she accomplishes something by shitting on others. Chris is a girl we all knew in high school, but King does what he does best and pushes Chris to the extreme. Her need for revenge becomes obsessive, overly cruel, and deadly. Naturally, such a bitch on wheels needs a hapless but equally psychotic lover boy to assist. Chris and Billy are disgusting and miserable in their relentless pursuit of Carrie. But before they go balls to the wall, they’re kids you avoided in the halls, kids you gave a side-eyed glance to during class. They’re rooted in the real world high school hierarchies, and that realness makes them all the more terrifying.

    nurseratched

  5. Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

    “I’m mopping near the ward door when a key hits it from the other side and I know it’s the Big Nurse by the way the lockworks cleave to the key, soft and swift and familiar she been around locks so long. She slides through the door with a gust of cold and locks the door behind her and I see her fingers trail across the polished steel–tip of each finger the same color as her lips. Funny orange. Like the tip of a soldering iron. Color so hot or so cold if she touches you with it you can’t tell which” (Kesey 4).

    OMG NURSE RATCHED. I truly believe she’s the most hated character in all of American literature and even American cinema. Her cold, calculating, unfeeling demeanor as the head of the psychiatric ward perfectly sets up the conflict between her and McMurphy. She is unflinching, immovable, and undefeatable. She’s exhausting and terrible and miserable. Generations of readers have had such strong and visceral reactions to Nurse Ratched, and that is a testament to her power as a literary figure. She’s simply awful and as a reader, you don’t just root for her downfall, you deeply and desperately desire it.

    tomanddaisybuchanan

  6. Tom and Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby  by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (Fitzgerald).

    Another toxic couple I love to hate. Much like Chris from Carrie, Tom and Daisy have had everything – absolutely everything – handed to them on a silver platter (probably literally). How do they feel alive and know that they exist? They ruin everything around them. They’re apathetic to the plights of others, careless in cruel and even calculating ways. I know Luhrman wanted to create a more sympathetic Daisy in his film adaptation, but I call bullshit. When you read the novel, she never calls Gatsby, never thanks him, and was never ever going to leave him. She just wanted to continue to have her cake and eat it too. She’s a mother who doesn’t raise her own daughter – hired help takes care of that. Tom may cheat, but Daisy does the same with Gatsby, and there’s no actual evidence of Tom being abusive other than a bruised pinky. Daisy’s full of shit, manipulating Gatsby into believing exactly what she wants him to, to keep him hanging around for her own amusement. And Tom’s just a douche bag.

    tylerdurden

  7. Tyler Durden from Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

    “Tyler spliced a penis into everything after that. Usually, close-ups, or a Grand Canyon vagina with an echo, four stories tall and twitching with blood pressure as Cinderella danced with her Prince Charming and people watched. Nobody complained. People ate and drank, but the evening wasn’t the same. People feel sick or start to cry and don’t know why. Only a hummingbird could have caught Tyler at work” (Palahniuk 31).

    It’s been said that we are our own worst enemy and damn, does Palahniuk drive that point home in his amazing novel. Tyler is everything a man would want to be; sexy, charming, carefree, hyper masculine, stylish, unapologetic … but all of those attributes come with a price, and the cost is compassion. Tyler’s a great villain because for 90% of the novel, he’s a role model. Readers gulp his Kool-Aid in greedy swallows, nodding enthusiastically to his anarchist, libertarian ranting and raving. But when his ideology is actually put into practice, it is violent and dangerous. Tyler’s terrifying because on paper, he’s perfect. In practice, he’s a deadly disaster.

    macbeth

  8. Macbeth from Macbeth by William Shakespeare

    “ I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.4.142-4).

    I am a total sucker for a tragic hero. I love me some Macbeth. Equal parts tragic and terrifying is Macbeth’s total descent into madness. He’s loyal and brave and valiant and loved; he has it all. When he’s promised more, and when the woman closest to him urges him onward, he’ll stop at nothing to obtain and maintain his glorious destiny. Macbeth is every single one of us, wanting to make those who loves us proud and wanting the best for ourselves. When Macbeth is unable to stop and finds himself drenched in blood, it’s scary because it happens all the time in real life. Greed and ambition are common motivations when committing serious crimes and Shakespeare knew it over half a century ago.

    eliot

  9. Eliot Andrews from Her Beautiful Monster by me 😉

    “‘Do you know what our last session together consists of?’ Eliot was smiling, but tears were pouring down his cheeks. It was pathetic. Sammy shook her head, terrified and trying to think of what to do next. This was no time for a conversation. ‘I’m going to give you a Glasgow smile. Do you know what that is?’ Again, Sammy shook her head and squirmed fearfully in Eliot’s arms. ‘I slit your mouth from ear to ear, and the scars that remain resemble a big smile, like the Joker from Batman. You saw that movie.’ Sammy needed to run, needed to get free; but how? Eliot was still rambling. ‘That in and of itself isn’t deadly, but if I were to then punch you in the stomach or make you scream in pain, you’d bleed out because the wounds would be constantly kept open. It’s a beautiful piece of irony, isn’t it?’ Grinning, Eliot took his shining scalpel and tried to slip it between Sammy’s lips. The metal in her mouth helped her to concentrate and she brought her knee up as hard as she could against Eliot’s groin” (Bean).

    Shameless self-promotion here. Eliot is a GREAT villain. He uses the greatest gift there is, love, to manipulate and injure Sammy. What could be worse? Buy it here.

So how did I do? Did I miss your favorite literary villain? Comment and critique my list!

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