Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Creature in the Cauldron: Sheri Holman's Witches on the Road Tonight

Sheri Holman’s fourth novel, Witches on the Road Tonight, begins at the end of Eddie Alley’s life as the has-been host of a campy TV horror show writes what appears to be a suicide letter to his grown daughter Wallis.  In this opening paragraph of Holman’s book, we find a good illustration of how the author of The Dress Lodger and The Mammoth Cheese uses detail to bring her sentences to life:
Of all the props I saved, only the coffin remains. Packed in boxes or tossed in the closet were the skulls and rubber rats, the cape folded with the care of a fallen American flag, my black spandex unitard, white at the seams where I’d stretched out the armpits, sweat-stained and pilled. I saved the squeezed-out tubes of greasepaint, the black shadow for under the eyes, the porcelain fangs. Of the gifts fans sent, I kept that bleached arc of a cat’s skeleton, the one you used to call Fluffy and hang your necklaces from, and a dead bird preserved with antifreeze. I kept maybe a hundred of the many thousands of drawings and letters from preteen boys and girls. There were some from adults, too, confessions of the sort they should be writing their shrinks or the police, and not a man who plays a vampire on TV. “Dear Captain Casket, Fangs for the memories.”

Just as The Mammoth Cheese embraced everything from dairy farming to Jeffersonian politics, Witches on the Road Tonight is a novel which takes a wide-angle view of mid-century American life.  Holman touches on matriarchy, Appalachian witchcraft, silent movies, FDR’s Works Project Administration programs, homosexuality, traumatic childhoods, and the fleeting nature of fame—but especially the latter.  Imagine Captain Kangaroo in a blue funk after the television studio cameras have blinked off for the last time and you’ll have some sense of the malaise which settles over Eddie Alley after he’s hung up his Captain Casket cape.

Witches on the Road roams across the 70-year timeline of Eddie’s life, from his childhood in Panther Gap, Virginia to his campy popularity in small-market television in the 1960s to the twilight of his life in a Manhattan penthouse at midnight.  While Holman is good at capturing the spirit of each era, the one which crackles to life most vividly is the 1940s section, which opens with a WPA writer and photographer--Tucker Hayes and his lover Sonia--driving through the Blue Ridge region on a government project to document rural American life.  In a moment of distraction, they hit eight-year-old Eddie when he runs into the road.  They take the boy home to the ramshackle cabin he shares with his mother, a woman who has, to Eddie’s embarrassment, earned a local reputation as a sorceress:
He hears the boys and girls whisper. When Cora Alley is mad, milk sours in the pail. Storms blow in from the east. And they don’t even know what Eddie knows. The men she keeps buried in the woods. Or how she slips out of her skin from time to time, leaving it hanging on a peg in her bedroom while she disappears through the keyhole. Still, is it proof enough? A boy never wants to believe ill of his own mother.

Holman never comes out and says Eddie’s mother is a shape-shifter, but there is one jaw-dropping scene where Tucker, who stays the night at the cabin with Sonia, imagines he’s ridden through the woods by a very naked Cora—“a vision of blood and sinew, standing raw against the moon.”  He hears his feet on the forest path and they sound like hooves.  The ride is sexual and terrifying and, for the reader, completely enthralling.

Holman never quite matches that mystical fever pitch in the rest of the book and I found myself wishing there was more cavorting by moonlight and less of a long subplot involving a homeless teenage boy named Jasper who works at Eddie’s TV station and worms his way into the family, a move which twelve-year-old Wallis finds both repulsive and thrilling.  The Jasper sections are important to the outcome of Eddie’s life, but they don't vibrate with as much visceral narration as the chapters set in the 1940s.

One of Holman’s greatest strengths is her ability to transport readers back to other eras through the carefully-placed details she slips onto the page.  For instance, take this paragraph where Sonia, the WPA photographer is wandering through Eddie’s Appalachian home, clicking her documentary shutter at all she sees:
On her dresser, Mrs. Alley has grouped her personal possessions so as to hide old water rings on the dark wood. A butterscotch Bakelite vessel for loose powder and a furry, store-bought puff for applying it. A man’s comb with a spine of white, compressed dandruff. Her leather-bound Bible with gilt edging, bloated from humid weather. A chipped bubble-ware dish holding four black bobby pins and a long curling hair.
In these flashbacks which dot the novel, Holman turns every page into a Dorothea Lange photograph.

The early scenes of the novel are the most crucial (and the most satisfying to read) because they document the turning point in Eddie’s life when, at eight years old, he sees Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein for the first time.  By way of apology to the boy he’s injured, Tucker fetches his hand-cranked movie projector from his car, promising him a special treat.  There, on the rough chestnut planks of Eddie’s bedroom wall, the two of them watch the flickering images of the 1910 film.  “The first horror movie ever made,” Tucker tells him.
Rising from the cauldron is a hint of creature. As Eddie watches, charred flesh attracts more charred flesh, it’s like his daddy at butchering time, tossing chops and ribs into a pail, rebuilding a hog in section slices. Suddenly an arm jerks up in salute and a misshapen head appears through the fog.
Edison’s Frankenstein will haunt and obsess Eddie for the rest of his days.  He becomes a flamboyant provocateur of the macabre, an Ahab always on the harpoon-hunt for Death, a guilt-dogged man with as many failures as triumphs.  In the end, Eddie believes he’s just another misshapen creature rising from the cauldron.

Horror has permeated Eddie’s entire life.  Having a witch for a mother will do that to a kid, I suppose.  Years after he leaves Panther Gap, Eddie reveals little to his wife and daughter of his upbringing by a woman who allegedly took off her skin at night and rode men like horses.  When a teenage Wallis asks him to describe the grandmother she never knew, Eddie replies: “She believed in telling ghost stories at bedtime.  I never knew until I met your mother that parents were supposed to comfort their children to sleep.  I thought they were supposed to scare them into staying in bed.”

Cora is also the kind of mother who gives her young son advice that’s as mystical as it is inscrutable for someone at that age:
Eddie, you will meet people who mean something and you know there is meaning but you don’t know yet whether they are your ruin or salvation and they go underground and live inside you until they reappear maybe years, maybe decades later, but by then you have grown so much of your own skin around them, layer upon layer, you don’t even recognize them anymore, and that’s how you become your own ruin or salvation, that’s the power of not knowing what’s growing inside you, what you’ve lost for so long.
It’s moonshine wisdom Eddie will carry for years, whether he understands it or not.  He grows to be an unsettled man, a vampire who belongs to neither this world nor the next, a person who wrestles against a longing he cannot name.  And that, Holman seems to be saying, is the destiny of us all: the struggle to save ourselves from our own ruin.

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