Remember when you could drive into any old American town and find a tavern with character. Those places where cigarette smoke oozed out of the walls and almost hypnotized you. Nowadays every suburban dystopia has the “sport bar,” typically frequented by yuppies who scarf down chicken wings and guzzle beer as they endlessly discuss . . . sports. Such establishments have all the appeal of a concentration camp. Thank God I lived through the 1970s before the Molochs of consumerism devoured everything of value.
Autumn evenings in Maine behoove one to get drunk and pontificate late into the night on obscure subjects. My kind of place.
As I drove into a small town somewhere around Bangor, I noticed a watering hole on the corner with neon sign blinking WERE TOWARD ETERNITY. Inside a collage of tables with four chairs and a bar. Pall Malls dominated the air. Like most taverns in New England the walls were covered with Red Sox memorabilia and snapshots of Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski. Pictures of writers everywhere. American literature pulsated from the anxious New England mind - Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Longfellow, Dickinson - those exotic temperaments of the WASP persuasion. A quote from Emerson, hung on the wall in gothic script, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” My kind of place.
I grabbed a stool beside two young men with long hair and coke bottle glasses. They were having an intense discussion about Night of the Living Dead.
. . . .”Romero made the film of the 60s man. Social breakdown. People literally eating each other to death - having their babies for breakfast - that’s where it’s going man!”
His friend replied, “Whatever you say Steve. You need to slow down on the ale buddy. I'm going home.”
“Come on man, it‘s Friday night.”
“Your better get home to your wife Steve.”
“Don’t worry, she likes her alone time.”
I sat down beside the boisterous guy, “Sounds like you're a horror fan?”
He looked at me with amusement, “That’s right, we got nothing better to do up here. The isolation can induce a little madness now and then.”
He offered his hand, "Steve King, nice to meet you man."
"Good to meet you. I'm Henry."
“So Henry, what are you doing in Maine if I may ask?”
“I’m scouting some locations for a movie. But I love coming here, I’m from Boston, but live in L.A. now. I'm scouting locations, mostly of old haunted houses for a movie. I love being here - feels like home."
His face lit up, 'That's really cool man!"
“Let me buy you a beer. What do you do for a living?”
“I teach High School English."
“What's that like?"
“Well, the kids are cool for the most part. But the hours suck and the job takes up all my time. Man, it’s hard to find the time to write!”
“So, you want to write horror?”
"It's my favorite genre, some of the best writing of the 20th century came from horror- Shirley Jackson, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury - those are the writers I admire."
"What drew you to horror?"
A darkness came across his face: “Goes back to my childhood. One day I saw a kid get run over by a train.”
He flashed a deadpan look directly into my eye and then laughed.
“Just joking, if I ever get famous that’s what I’m going to tell people. Because if you write horror, they always want to know what fucked you up as a kid.”
I laughed as well. We watched the World Series with some interest, the A’s and the Reds. Catfish Hunter threw a masterpiece that night. He went on about his college experience with the professors.
“- No seriously man, in college they throw all that serious literature at you. The professors have fascist tendencies when it comes to what counts as literature. No respect for pop culture. But it’s the wave of the future man - Psycho proved it.”
“Right, Hitchcock took a pulpy novel and made it into high art.”
The bartender came over and I ordered another round.
I could tell he liked an audience; he possessed an infectious enthusiasm. “We’re a pop culture nation now. The professors don’t get that. The generation that grew up on television is now coming of age.”
“Harlan Ellison thinks we're going down the tubes. We’re all slaves to the Glass Teat.”
“Maybe, maybe not. I'm more optimistic.”
I replied, “As times get crazier will get more popular. People love the idea of paying for their scares.”
“I suppose so man, that's a good point.”
The jukebox played “96 Tears” by ? And the Mysterians.
“So, who are you going to vote for - Nixon or McGovern?”
“Let me tell you something man, I used to be as conservative as they come. Hell, I drove into college with a Goldwater sticker on my car’s bumper. I changed - I went to the barricades in 1968 and got gassed by the Chicago PD.”
“So, McGovern, I presume.”
“You got it, he's the last decent man in politics.”
I agreed, “Nixon’s taking us to a dark place - the time seems perfect for someone like him.”
“I know man. America is built on corruption, but we're in a whole new thing now. Calling it corruption is way too easy, it's something worse than corruption. We don't have a vocabulary for it yet - whatever "they" are up to. That‘s what I want my fiction to explore. But hey man, it’s a beautiful fall night. Why go there?"
‘You’re right, but back to your point about pop culture. I think some of the answers might be in the White Album."
Intrigued, he asked,“I hear you man, but how so?”
“Think about the mayhem in the music and all the mayhem it created.”
“You’re referring to the Manson family.”
“Not just that - any type of art which inspires a bunch of crazies must have something to it.”
Now on beer #8 at least, he looked at me thoughtfully: “It is something. All the influence they had - there's something biblical about them."
We continued drinking as we watched the A's beat the Reds. Everyone started to clear out.
"Need a ride?"
"That would be great!"
"That would be great!"
Before getting into the car I asked him, “Before you go home - want to experience something truly frightening.”
He chuckled, “Come on, how could you frighten me?"
“Come with me. I can make it happen.”
“Where did the train hit the kid?”
“Are you serious, I was messing with you.”
“Sure you were.”
I perceived a fear in the young man’s eyes, he looked at me as if I was otherworldly.
“Ok man, I'll show you."
About three miles outside of town on country road we pulled off the road, “Come on man, this is where it’s at. We’re gonna have to walk the rest of the way.”
The night had turned cold. I could see my own breath. The trees grew thicker; the moonlight glowed. We arrived at a clearing in the woods and railroad tracks loomed in the distance.
“Are those tracks still in service?” I asked.
“Nope they stopped a few years ago. Some claim they hear them - phantom engines I suppose.”
“Is this where it happened?”
He shivered as he spoke, “To the best of my knowledge. This is it. I was maybe six or seven years old. We were just here playing hide and go seek in the woods. Suddenly, there was a horrible bang and then a silence. I caught a glimpse of the remains. It was awful.”
He paused and continued to speak in a lower tone:
“The image of something alive and vibrant transforming into something inhuman and ghastly remains the ultimate horror we cannot escape."
I stood there in silence with him, lost in the past. Finally, he spoke like Nicholson in The Last Detail, “Well, there man, you’ve seen it. Let's get the fuck out of here!”
Before I answered a sudden gust of howling wind and the unmistakable sound of a train whistle. Then an animal like scream, possibly what a banshee sounds like.
We hurried back to the car.