When Fiction Lives Down the Street

My town…

Hang on.

I can’t really call it that yet.

The thing about being a preacher’s kid is that we often moved where Dad felt God needed him most. This meant my family never really planted roots in any one town for very long. The concept of a “hometown” is still a bit lost on me, but I think Bo and I have found a place where our kids can grow, safe and happy.

There’s just one major street through our town, a farmer’s highway that connects several farming communities like ours to the capital.  We’re a very rare Wisconsin town: for having over 3,000 people, we can’t seem to keep our two bars open. Disgraceful!

Now, I called you here to this bland, wet street for a reason.

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Take a look at that big building with the peeling white paint.

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No name but “Mercantile.”

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We moved to this town two weeks before the boys were born (lesson learned: NEVER move while pregnant with twins), and in all that time I’ve never seen this store keep actual hours. It’ll go months without opening, and then suddenly early one Saturday morning its door will be open with stuff on the stairs. Weeks closed up. Monday night: open. Days closed up. Wednesday midday open, but Wednesday afternoon, closed. No pattern, no time. It’s gotten to the point where Bo and I will text each other every time it’s open, which of course only happens when we’re on the way to or from something with kids in tow.

One time I came home after grocery shopping with the kids to give Bo an hour’s quiet. “It’s open!” I say first thing. There’s no question what “It” is. “If you wanna go, I’ll stay with these guys.”

“No way,” he says while marking yet another historical inaccuracy in his umpteenth book about the Three Stooges. “I’m not losing my soul to Max Von Sydow. You go in.”

Max Von Sydow?”

“The movie Needful ThingsRemember?”

“Ooooh.” We’d watched the film based on the Stephen King book some time ago. The story was meh, but Von Sydow was wicked fun as LeLand Gaunt, demonic proprietor of a store selling only one’s most desperate desires. Somehow this conversation led to a wager about Stephen King books and films: We’d both read a King book with a film version and compare stories. I chose Needful Things while Bo chose The Shining (which I’d read and will NEVER read again.)

The films won, but that’s not the point here. As I read Needful Things, I started getting the heebie jeebies anytime I drove past the “Mercantile” of our town. Fiction’s supposed to be set in an Elsewhere, a source of escape. It’s not supposed to creep into my reality and stake a claim. Is it?

The display window of Needful Things had been cleansed of soap, and a dozen or so items had been set out there–clocks, a silver setting, a painting, a lovely triptch just waiting for someone to fill it with well-loved photographs. (43)

Suddenly Hugh looked like a tired little boy up long past his bedtime, a little boy who has just seen what he wants for Christmas–what he must have for Christmas, because all at once nothing else on God’s green earth would do. (77)

Here [Keeton’s] thoughts ceased. He was standing in front of the new store, Needful Things, and what he saw in the window drove everything else slap out of his mind for a moment or two. (212)

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There was a lot more merchandise in Needful Things on Friday; that was the important thing.

There was a music box, old and ornately carve–Mr. Gaunt said he was sure it played something unusual when it was opened, but he couldn’t remember just what…Mr. Gaunt did a fine business that day. Most of the items he sold were nice but in no way unique. He did, however, make a number of “special” deals, and all of these sales took place during those lulls when there was only a single customer in the store. (166-7)

Were we to enter that store, what would be waiting for Bo? For me? I remember posing that question to Bo once, and receiving a shrug in return. I think I know why, though. Despite Bo’s Amazon wish list being 14 pages long (at least shopping for him’s pretty easy) (and for the record, mine’s TWO pages, so, yeah), we’re both rather clear about what we miss most of all: our folks. That seems to be protagonist Alan’s immunity to Gaunt: still in mourning after the loss of his wife and son, Alan has no desire for any thing.

Alan stood looking into the display window for a long time. He found himself wondering what, exactly, all the shouting was about…Rosalie had made Needful Things sound like northern New England’s answer to Tiffany’s, but the china in the window…was rummage-sale quality at best…He cupped his hands to the glass in order to see beyond the display, but there was nothing to look at–the lights were off and the place was deserted. (223)

Still, I don’t think I’ll be taking any chances with my soul for a box of Diana Wynne Jones’ old story notes any time soon.

As if having such a store like “Mercantile” wasn’t eerie enough, we have our own carnival stationed year round. During the summer, it’s a nice place to take the kids for the afternoon. The rides are mostly geared for their size, being a collection of old drive-in theater cast-offs.

Once summer’s done, though, the place is stripped down to bones for winter. The pavement grips its quiet abandon. An old home with older memories, and neighbored by, of all dramatic places, a cemetery.

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A carnival should be all growls, roars like timberlands stacked, bundled, rolled and crashed, great explosions of lion dust, men ablaze with working anger, pop bottles jangling, horse buckles shivering, engines and elephants in full stampede through rains of sweat while zebras neighed and trembled like cage trapped in cage.

But this was like old movies, the silent theater haunted with black-and-white ghosts, silvery mouths opening to let moonlight smoke out, gestures made in silence so hushed you could hear the wind fizz the hair on your cheeks. (51-2)

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How does this NOT make one think of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes? I knew the movie as a child, and read the book in college. The book wins for better imagery, character, plot, and everything else in spades (though Jonathan Pryce was brilliant for Mr. Dark, and as I listen now to the score by James Horner, I will concede that Disney managed to get a couple things right).

In-season, though, it’s easy to forget these things. Even in the book, Will and Jim see an ordinary carnival come daylight:

And the deeper they went, the more obvious it became they would find no night men cat-treading balloon shadow while strange tents plumed like thunder clouds. Instead, close up, the carnival was mildewed rope, moth-eaten canvas, rain-worn, sun-bleached tinsel. The side show paintings, hung, like sad albatrosses on their poles, flapped and let fall flakes of ancient paint, shivering and at the same time revealing the unwondrous wonders of a thin man, fat man, needle-head, tattooed man, hula dancer… The train? Pulled off on a spur in the warming grass… (61)

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They peered in at the merry-go-round which lay under a dry rattle and roar of wind-tumbled oak trees. Its horses, goats, antelopes, zebras, speared through their spines with brass javelins, hung contorted as in a death rictus, asking mercy with their fright-colored eyes, seeking revenge with their panic-colored teeth. (72)

But with the coming of the cold months, I wonder if this place truly sleeps. I wonder if there is a night, when this small town turns off the porch lights, when the autumn fire pits burn the last bad beer on the embers, when the moon’s face hides because it knows what’s coming, when the stars aren’t quite aligned for rightness…I wonder.

With a pop, a bang, a jangle of reins, a lift and downfall, a rise and descent of brass, the carousel moved….It was running backward.

The small calliope inside the carousel machinery rattle-snapped its nervous-stallion shivering drums, clashed its harvest-moon cymbals, toothed its castanets, and throatily choked and sobbed its reeds, whistles, and baroque flutes. The music, Will thought, it’s backwards, too!…Then the calliope gave a particularly violent cry of foul murder which made dogs howl in far countries…(77)

I wonder.

 

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41 thoughts on “When Fiction Lives Down the Street

  1. Why does Alfred Hitchcock come to mind, reading your words, studying the photographs? The Mercantile and the horses on the merry-go-round in particular make me feel uncomfortable (I admit here, those type horses, along with Victorian dolls have freaked me out ever since I was a child). An eerie post, I thoroughly enjoyed. Your take on the real town compared with works of fiction delivers a powerful, almost ‘both are real’ feel for this reader, sparking my imagination and delivering me up in long forgotten corners of my mind. Nice on, Ms Lee. Very fine indeed.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Have you ever bought a ‘rock’ from Steven’s ‘Rock & Gift Shop’? The town you live in looks a bit like those in France, with overhead wires and things you wouldn’t expect to see next to each other, like fairgrounds and a cemetery. Odd, but good odd.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t, but I have been tempted by the occasional crystal readings they hold.
      The fairgrounds are a curious item. Apparently founded by a farming family (the toy railway goes through their farm, actually), it was some sort of hobby of the patriarch to gather up these old rides and decided to start a little amusement location of his own. But his death a few years ago seems to have put a sense of pause on the place–oh it’s still open every summer, and many people enjoy it, but the rides aren’t really cared for, and the railway runs by these half-finished fake-fronts where you can see all the garbage and storage. Odd indeed, to be sandwhich between dead machinery and dead people.

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      • I was rushing last night. I wanted to add, where we live is so different, this was a wonderful snapshot of another place and it was great to see where you live . I kept imagining you there my darling friend. I just had to agree re the notion of some of it being strange!!! Cos you were putting that writer’s slant on it too . I read Needful Things years ago. I did love the idea and some of it was very funny. Anyway a great post x

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      • Oh! Yes, I’d love to visit where you live, too. Ever since I was a little kid, I was always fascinated by other towns. What was it like to live on that street, or that one over there? And I should note that Plainfield, home of the infamous Ed Gein, looks a LOT like this…sans, carnival, but still.
        Oh yes, King’s got a knack for throwing a touch of humor in, especially since the plot initially moves forward in the pranks people play as payment for their heart’s desires. I still prefer to the movie’s ending, though, with one of the characters blowing the store up. Von Sydow steps out, suit smoking and mildly annoyed. “You’re no fun!” THAT is brilliant. 🙂

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      • Ha! Yeah, the chaos in the end is…hmm. It’s a mix in my mind. There’s hilarity to be had, but there’s also some unnecessary plot devices bordering on the absurd, even for King, that I think detracts from the book. It’d be interesting to know your take on the film if you ever choose to watch it! 🙂 xxxx

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      • Well, while one doesn’t like to criticise the great, this was the first King book I read. While I do like horror stories, I prefer the older, gothicy type and therefore modern writers who stick to classic horror. Anyway we were on holiday and I quite liked the book, it was funny, it was interesting, well written etc. and I was glad to discover a ‘new’ to me author with a treasure trove of books I had never read. I tried a few others after that but I just felt what you say there …strongly. I love his ideas and I love his prose but there’s other things that spoil the overall for me so I have given up on King I am afraid.

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      • Nope, I totally understand. And then there are some writers I feel like I SHOULD be reading more, but I know their stories won’t help me escape, or lift emotionally. Louise Erdrich has some of the most beautiful language I’ve ever seen–like, mind-blowing awesomeness with her imagery. Yet her stories are sooooooooooooo depressing. There’s only just this bare glimmer of hope at the end. I read three of her books and just had to stop because they were so emotionally draining.
        (If you’re intrigued, the book that got her big attention was LOVE MEDICINE. I always recommend it, but yeah–not a heart-lifter.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • I so very much agree about the uplift. I’ve been debating whether or not to write about her, so if you wish to hold off, I wouldn’t blame you. She’s an amazing writer who relates the tragedy of her people in every story, which…damn. Important to know, to feel, but there’s just only so much one reader can take, you know?
        Ah! I should just actually send you a link, or somethin’, so you can make up your mind. xxxxx
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louise_Erdrich

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Love the way you have interwoven the mysteries playing out in your town and the ones raised in two books of fiction. I’ve read Bradbury’s but not King’s, and I haven’t seen either movie. Love the idea that Alan doesn’t want anything, and that you and Bo have realised you don’t either—except for those wish-lists for Amazon! 🙂

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  4. You sure know how to pick them! First a town with an abandoned mine, now these- you have some fantastic real-life settings in hand 😉 Thanks as always for sharing- and I’m glad it’s a bright, sunny day here!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a wonderful article, Jean. As ever, you bring a wonderful tilted imagination to your writing:). I love the look of the small town where you live – even if you have given it a rather creepy cast… I take it you’re not employed by your town’s tourism committee…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! 🙂
      Oh I’ve thought on it, believe you me. Loads. It doesn’t help Blondie keeps saying, “Man, a lot people died right there.” I’ve explained time and again people die elsewhere first, but she’s gotten me thinking, too…

      Liked by 1 person

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