Sunday, December 15, 2019

Like Shadows in a Condemned Building: My Search for Shane Stevens, nonfiction by Chad Eagleton

“Beatnik-attired, Bread Loaf Fellow Shane Stevens was on stage in spring 1970, his reading calling for armed rebellion against the white power structure for sending Puerto Ricans, blacks, and hippies to die in Vietnam”.
—Jo LeCoeur. “Fierce, Kind Friend: John William Corrington”. Legal Studies Forum, vol. 27, 2003.

I’ve spent the last ten years attempting to construct a biographical portrait of Shane Stevens, the best crime fiction writer you’ve probably never heard of. Stevens was the author of Go Down Dead, Way Uptown In Another World, Dead City, Rat Pack, By Reason of Insanity, and The Anvil Chorus. Under the pseudonym J.W. Rider, he wrote the novels Jersey Tomatoes and Hot Tickets featuring a PI named Malone, an ex-seminarian and former FBI agent living and operating in Jersey City.

If you have heard of Shane Stevens, then, like me, you probably discovered him through Stephen King. In the afterward to The Dark Half, the Master of Horror confesses that he borrowed the name Alexis Machine from Stevens’s Dead City and praises Shane for having produced "three of the finest novels ever written about the dark side of the American Dream."

It was this praise that cause me to seek out his work. As only one of his novels has remained in print with any regularity here in the US, the struggle to track down his work and to understand it, lead me to the mystery of the man.

Stevens was white. He grew up in the largely black neighborhoods, first Hell’s Kitchen and then Harlem. He played his cards close to his chest, as can be seen by how he described himself to Contemporary Authors: “I never give interviews, stay in shadow, travel by night. I don’t associate with writers, don’t do book reviews, don’t play politics or give advice. I try not to hurt anyone. I go where I want and write what I want.”

Nowadays, the average person generates a ridiculous amount of easily-found information. If the person is famous or engaged in some sort of artistic career, then they’re likely maintaining an active social media presence that easily doubles that available information. Before the internet, however, this was not the case—you could go through life, be nearly invisible and leave almost no trace.

Match this tendency toward secrecy with a life lived pre-internet, add in failing memories and a dying-off witness pool, then include the few people who simply will not speak to me (including Shane’s daughter from an early marriage), and I think you can understand why my search for Shane Stevens has been slow.

But what I want you to understand is why the mystery surrounding an almost entirely forgotten crime author has held my attention for nearly a decade and how the work and the man and my search all feed each other.

When I began, I knew, if I were to find out anything about Stevens, my first resource was the work itself. What do the author bios say? Who took the author photographs? Who are the books dedicated to? Who or what details are mentioned in the foreword? What about press surrounding the book—are there any details there?

I gave myself three rules: 1) Find documented sources, 2) Treat “facts” from people as valid only when they are repeated by multiple people consistently or can be verified some other way, 3) Clearly identify my own conjecture and include reasoning.

This gave me many avenues to pursue, lots of dead ends, but also immediately hooked me into the sheer breadth of Stevens’s mystique. Even his birth year remains an unknown.

Among the sundry biographical snippets that ran with his various articles, newspaper bylines, and dust jacket photos, Shane’s birth year varies greatly, if you do the math, all the way from 1937 up to 1941. (The only thing he never changed was the month and day – October 8th).

For a brief example of what I’m talking about: the 1941 date is the final birth year Shane provided himself to Contemporary Authors. This is also the date you’ll usually see listed on something modern if it has any biographical info at all. However, the author bio on the dust jacket for Go Down Dead, states the Stevens is 28 years old. The press surrounding his first novel (see “Books: Harlem Idiom,” Time, Feb 24, 1967), repeats Stevens’s age as 28 years old.

Go Down Dead was published in 1966. If Stevens was 28 years old, then he was born in 1938, not 1941.

Jump forward to 1968. The biographical blurb at the bottom of his December article for The Writer, lists Stevens as 27 years old. An article written two years later, and Stevens is magically one year younger.
Shane Stevens lecturing at Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Middlebury College?
This ever-changing age pattern, repeats until Stevens finally settles on 1941 as his birth year. I’ve spoken to roughly 10 or so people who knew Stevens in real life. All have confirmed that he regularly lied about his age. This was not due to vanity, they claim, but rather the desire to be seen as the young rebel trying to shake down the towers.

Stevens likewise claimed to have been born in New York City. Based on various references in his letters and conversations with a few people who knew him, I suspect—but cannot at this juncture prove—that Stevens was born in New Jersey (probably Hoboken).

Next I turned to Harlem. The neighborhood features in three of his novels, and Shane talked about Harlem a lot:

“I look uptown, thinking of the years I lived in Harlem, white sheep in wolf’s clothing but lean and hungry. Just about a mile from here at 128th Street and Park Avenue. But from where I started a little while ago, at 86th and Fifth, my old block’s way uptown in another world.” (“The Rat Packs of New York,” New York Times Magazine, November 28, 1971.)

In an interview at The Harry Crews Online Bibliography, Damon Sauve questions Crews about Shane and their time together at The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. While Crews has great things to say about Way Uptown in Another World, the real gem in the interview is this passage here:

“Yeah. He was raised in Harlem. And he's white, but—he's white, but in every possible sense, he's black. Everything, including speech, clothes, hating white people. Not that every black hates white people. Strange dude. Strange dude.
“But the first time he was there, about the first three days and nights, he didn't sleep a wink. He sat on the step all night. He said it was too damned quiet. You know, raised in Harlem.”

While waiting on info from Middlebury College about Shane’s time at Bread Loaf, Crews’s praise of Way Uptown In Another World, sent me back to that book. The dust jacket bio tantalizingly mentions jail time in both San Francisco and Mexico.

I tried to follow those trails but they both lead to dead ends. I don’t know where exactly in Mexico Stevens did time, San Francisco’s digital records don’t go back for enough, and I lack the funds to pay a researcher to delve through the paper records.

When those leads went for naught, I returned back to Way Uptown In Another World. The dust jacket photo was taken by a man named Alan Caruba. Researching Caruba, led me to how he met Stevens and another trove of tantalizing info.

Caruba wrote an article for the September 21, 1970 edition of Publishers’ Weekly called “Bread Loaf 1970: Boot Camp for Writers.” The article is mostly a fluff piece about the Vermont writer’s conference, but the passages concerning Stevens are very revealing. Caruba describes Stevens as having friends who were wanted by the FBI. He also says that Stevens has a “Marlon Brando kind of sex appeal,” as all the girls had posted signs all over Middlebury that read: “Shane is sweet.”

Stevens’s sex appeal would lead me to his novel Rat Pack, which he dedicated to “all the young girls”, and then eventually to a line of ex-girlfriends.

While nosing around for any press on Way Uptown In Another World, I discovered an essay Shane wrote for Black Review #1, edited by Mel Watkins. A passage from Stevens’s “The White Niggers of the 70s” provides a succinct clue to his penchant for secrecy and moving in shadows. Stevens admits:

“I have been shot, stabbed, beaten, gassed, stomped, whipped, jailed and had acid thrown on me. I have smelled death, seen its shadow and heard its cry. Violence has been my natural playground, and I know a little about it. And about the darker side of violence too, the violence that is within oneself. It’s just beneath the surface, lurking there, waiting, always ready to smash and destroy.”

Mysteries fill Stevens’s life like shadows in a condemned building, drawing me ever onward. But while so many of the darkened hallways prove to be empty and the dingy rooms can only offer broken tidbits, the best clue into Shane Stevens is his work. As Samuel Butler wrote, “Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself, and the more he tries to conceal himself the more clearly will his character appear in spite of him.”

While represented by his first agent, the legendary Henry Volkening, Shane Steven’s first novel saw publication at the tail end of 1966. Go Down Dead centers on an African-American youth named Adam Clayton Henry who everyone calls King. (A nod to Adam Clayton Powell Jr—the first African-American member of the House, elected and sent to Washington by the people of Harlem). He’s the “president” of a Harlem street gang called The Playboys. One of his gang was put out of commission by members of The Tigers, a white gang from the next neighborhood over. The Playboys responded in kind and now the tension between the two has risen and is ready to explode.

From the opening pages we know that King is planning a big move against the enemy and he’s not messing around. The young gang leader knows where he can score some dynamite and plans on blowing up the Tigerman clubhouse, taking all the whites out for good and leaving The Playboys to reign unopposed as the “swingiest bop gang in New York.”

Go Down Dead is very strong first novel that provides a startling look into the violent lives lost on Harlem’s streets. It’s written in what can sometimes be a hard to follow street-slang. In short letter, Stevens wrote and circulated to reviews, he says, the prose is “the language of the people who live it. So that the reader may become a participant and not just a spectator. It is a language of pain, or despair and neglect—yes, and of hope as well.”

His next novel, Way Uptown in Another World is, for me, Shane’s masterwork. Unlike his first, Uptown is both simple and starkly poetic, authentic but approachable. In this messy, but beautiful book, Stevens explores the themes that would come to dominate his more well-known works. Here, Stevens dissects that dark side of the American Dream and its false promise of opportunity. He explores the true division between peoples—money and class. And Stevens reminds us that it doesn’t have to be this way.

This second novel sweeps through the life of a young African-American named Marcus Garvey Black. Marcus has a quiet childhood in Mississippi. He and his family are far from rich, but they’re happy and get by as best they can, until his father is run over by a white man. The white man feels a tad guilty so he pays Marcus’s mother ten dollars as recompense—thus establishing one of the main themes: how much is a man worth?

Like many African-Americans Marcus and family head north for the promise of better job opportunities and the hope of eased racial tensions. Marcus quickly learns, however, “The kids in Harlem were not the same as back home in the country. They hung out in gangs and a lotta them shot up on dope and got in all kinda trouble. The streets were always full and you hadda fight for everything.”

In the early chapters Uptown functions as sort of picaresque: the adventures of a lovable rogue. Marcus ditches school and tries his hand at a variety of jobs, most illegal, many of them funny, until he finds his true calling as a con man with a host of money-making schemes.

The novel takes a darker turn when a fistfight at a baseball diamond leads to murder and Marcus is sent to prison.

After his release, the book becomes essentially plotless There are drug dealers and killers and thieves and robbers, white girls looking for some “dark meat” to make their fathers’ angry before returning to the safety of their wealthy lives somewhere far away. There are hippies and love children who think they can topple the structures of power with nothing more than a hug. There are militant Civil Rights leaders, Black Power junkies, evil blacks and evil whites. But, yet, kindness everywhere, if you look for it.

Each chapter is a sort of lesson. Lessons of crime and poverty and violence and love and life, as Marcus tries to understand himself, to make sense of a world that seems to only want to teach him hate, “I mean, what’s the good of living if you can’t go around hating all the people who screw you down? Without that hate, you got no cover, no protection. And if everybody’s the same and you ain’t better’n nobody, how can you feel like a man? That’s the game everybody plays, but without them all you got is love and beauty everywhere.”

Dead City is Stevens’s New Jersey mob novel and the source of the name Alexis Machine. Multiple people who knew Shane when he was tending bar at the Corner Bistro in New York, have confirmed that one of the mobsters in that book is based on a real gangster who drank there often. This third novel follows two men trying to work their way up the ranks. Charley Flowers worked his way up once already, but after blowing two big hits, he’s reduced to flophouse living and strong-arm work. Now, he wants to return to real money, to his previous position of power. Charley wants to be somebody in the only way he knows how to be anybody.

When the novel opens, Flowers is paired with the new kid, a Vietnam vet named Harry Strega. Harry grew up with few options and an inescapable sense of detachment. The war widened the gulf separating him from the rest of humanity. Freshly stateside, he sees violence and crime as his only road to not just success, but his only road to anything at all.

Here, Stevens boldly weaves thoughts, memories, fears and flashbacks amongst the action and the narrative. He splatters violence and sex against the cityscape until the city becomes a character, our tour guide through the characters’ private hells and twisted psyches as they search for their share of the American Dream. While I think it lacks the depth of his other work, Dead City builds to one of the most stunning endings I’ve ever read, a beautiful parallel to the beginning of the novel, twisting back on itself and forming the “closed-system of perfect evil” that Stephen King praised so highly.

Stevens’s fourth novel grew out of a Nov 28, 1971, New York Times article called, “The Rat Packs of New York.” Here Stevens opens by profiling the case of a young medical student who cuts through Central Park with his girlfriend on their way home. Four black youths accost the couple for a quarter. When the student tries to ignore them and keep walking, one of them shoots him in the back. I tracked down both the med student—now doctor—who was shot and the beat cop who investigated the incident. The med student didn’t want to talk and the cop tried to sell me a copy of his memoirs.

Stevens uses this incident to trace the history of juvenile delinquency from the early youth gangs that arose after WWII to the city under siege era brought on by easy drugs, plentiful guns, and systemic poverty. Stevens dispels the myth that gang culture was and is about race. The racial lines that separate gang from gang, criminal from criminal, according to Stevens is a racism of pure chance. He argues that those lines were really neighborhood lines drawn by the uncaring hand of poverty. Money was the issue when Stevens was writing and it’s still the issue now.

In the course of his investigation into the student shooting, Stevens interviews, befriends, and follows four black youths he calls: Jumper, Wolfie, Chester, and Johnny Apartment.

His non-fiction article directly informed and shaped his next fictional novel. Billed as “An American Clockwork Orange” and described by Chester Himes as “a classic of the lowers depths,” Rat Pack follows four Harlem youths over the course of a single violent New York City night as they look for the big score that will finally help them escape the soul-crushing poverty and the misery of living in the uptown ghetto.

While his last Harlem novel may have been as slim and as sharp as a shiv, it was his fourth book, By Reason of Insanity, that would prove to be his breakout book: $100,000 advance on the hardback rights (“Book Ends: Sharing the Wealth,” New York Times, Jan 15, 1978.) and $455,000 for the reprint rights in paperback (“Betting on the Big Book”, Book World, October 1, 1978). This serial killer novel predates both the term and Thomas Harris’s far more famous Red Dragon by two years. Written in a style that reads more true crime than thriller, Stevens uses reporter Adam Kenton’s manhunt for Thomas Bishop to confront abuse, poverty, loneliness, crooked politics, sex, media manipulation, the death penalty, opportunism, the changing face of police work, and, as if seeing the future, our twisted habit of making killers famous.

Producing a book Stephen King called, “One of the finest novels ever written about perfect evil,” Shane avoids the flights of fancy that would come to dominate the serial killer subgenre. Harris’s esteemed Dr. Lecter is a comic book villain with a taste for human flesh, a Bond baddie with all the ridiculous background trappings—Eastern European nobility raised by a Japanese sexpot aunt, genius level intelligence, photographic memory, superb physicality and master level artistic ability—but stripped of all the pulp fun.

Stevens’s Thomas Bishop is a realistic and brutal killer, a terrible manifestation born of a lifetime of horrors. There are no diabolical schemes, no ridiculous clues hidden under fingernails and down someone’s throat. There are no bodies left in strange tableaus that echo some forgotten 16th century Italian artwork. There’s just blood and guts and rage and gore. The novel builds to an incredibly thrilling climax, then immediately pulls the rug entirely out from under you with an exceptionally clever twist that confirms: monsters are made, not born.

The success and big money from his serial killer novel allowed Stevens to pursue and research firsthand a much different project: The Anvil Chorus is an international thriller set in 1970s Paris.

Inspector Cesar Dreyfus is an Alsatian Jew and distant relative of the famously persecuted Alfred Dreyfus. Cesar is called in to investigate the death of Dieter Bock, a former SS member who for the last several years has lived secretly in a Paris suburbs until someone hanged him with piano wire in a locked room.

Like all of Steven’s characters, Dreyfus is repulsed by the inequality of the system, horrified at the manipulation of the people, and the unfairness of—everything. He attacks the murder investigation ferociously, risking the ire of his superiors, the French Intelligence Community, and the government himself. This particular case sinks its claws into him tighter than any other. Dreyfus’s parents were killed during WWII and the investigation into Bock fuels his burning desire for revenge, “Thought his adolescent years, Cesar dreamed of finding their killers, becoming a hunter of murderers. When he finally did, he discovered there were many murderers, more than he’d realized, more than he’d ever imagined. They were everywhere, in every walk of life, looking just like everyone else, and so his quest turned into a calling, his job a profession. But the dream never went away, or the nightmares either.”

The case escalates and what seems like a simple murder becomes something more. Dreyfus discovers the link to more murders, shady political dealings, and a woman who inspires a terrible obsession in every man she meets. The Nazi’s death starts Dreyfus on a journey through a twisted labyrinth of lies and deceit born during WWII and nurtured in evil by a secret Nazi plan code-named: Anvil. As Dreyfus storms through his investigation, surviving attempts on his life and manipulation on a global scale, he realizes exactly how little separates us from the things we so deeply hate.

The Anvil Chorus is the most traditional novel Stevens wrote in terms of plot and narrative. In some ways, this makes it more difficult to discuss without giving away plot points. However even at his most traditional, Stevens writes as only he can. He weaves the cut-and-dried procedural with passages of deeply poetic prose and a haunting depth of character while still investing everything with his usual social critique.

If there’s any clue to the two, fairly traditional and surprisingly funny PI novels that Stevens wrote under a pseudonym, it lies perhaps in the pseudonym itself—J.W. Rider. Perhaps after his big success and big money, Shane wanted to simply be just a writer.

The first novel, Jersey Tomatoes, finds Malone investigating two separate cases. A shady real-estate developer wants Malone to find out who’s been sending him death threats. Meanwhile, an anti-religious activist is convinced her devout mother’s suicide is actually something sinister.

Hot Tickets, the second in the series, again centers on two cases and follows a similar pattern. A wrestling promoter hires Malone to track down who’s been threatening his big star, Samson. Meanwhile as a favor to his secretary, Malone tries to help out one of her tenants, a stripper studying to become an Episcopalian Minister.

In addition to numerous book reviews, investigative pieces, and non-fiction articles, Stevens also did screenplay work, providing the first pass on a straight adaptation of Sol Yurick’s The Warriors before rights passed to Lawrence Gordon, who took the film to Paramount where Walter Hill shaped its comic book aesthetic (“Movie Call Sheet,” Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1969). Stevens also adapted the rock musical The Me Nobody Knows (“News of the Screen”, New York Times, Feb 24, 1974.) for a film version that was to be directed by Gil Cates but unfortunately never got made. His working relationship with Cates was such that the two planned to follow that film with an adaptation of Stevens’s own Way Upton in Another World. Before his death in 2011, Cates described both projects to me as typical Hollywood—projects “that just never materialized.”

Never materialized is, likewise, a good way to describe the adaptations Stevens provided for his own By Reason of Insanity and Jersey Tomatoes. As a screenwriter, his career was filled with these near misses. Though if the rumors I’ve chased for years are true, Stevens spent his years after the publication of the second and last Malone novel working as script doctor in Hollywood.

Whether that rumor is true or not, I like to think it is. There’s no better place to hide in the shadows than in the city that survives on them.

Shane Stevens: An Expanded Bibliography
Stevens, Shane. “After Twenty Terrible Years.” [Rev. of THE BERN BOOK: A Record of a
Voyage of the Mind. By Vincent O. Carter.] The Washington Post and Times Herald,
May 27, 1973.
. The Anvil Chorus. Delacorte Press, 1985.
. “Black on Black, Issue No. 1.” [Review] The Washington Post and Times Herald, May 10,
. “The Best Black American Novelist Writing Today.” [Rev. of Blind Man With A Pistol by
Chester Himes.] The Washington Post and Times Herald, April 27, 1969.
. By Reason of Insanity. Simon and Schuster, 1979.
. “The Cat Lady’s Trying To Survive, Like Everyone Else.” The New York Times, Jan 1, 1972
. “The Child’s Gonna Live.” The New York Times, June 19, 1969
. “A Day Like Any Other Day in Junk City.” The New York Times, May 29, 1972.
— “The Death Watch.” The Minority of One, Volume 10, August 1968.
. Dead City. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973.
. “Die, Nigger, Die!” [Review of Die, Nigger, Die! By H. Rap Brown] New York Times Book
Review, June 15, 1969.
. “Eldridge Cleaver ‘A Soul Brother Gone Wrong’” The Progressive, Vol. 33, No. 7, July,
. “Fiction.” [Rev of Corky’s Brother by Jay Neugeboren.] The Washington Post and Times
Herald, Feb. 8, 1970.
. “Fantasy in black.” [Rev. of Horn by D. Keith Mano.] The Washington Post and Times
Herald, March 23, 1969.
. “The Final Adventure.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Volume 53, No.2, February 1969.
. Go Down Dead. New York, NY: William Morrow, 1966.
. “Growing up black in South Africa.” The Washington Post and Times Herald, March 1,
. “A Guided Tour In Hell.” [Rev. of The Ink Trunk by William Kennedy.] The Washington
Post and Times Herald, Oct 5, 1969.
. “I Am Clarence.” [Rev. of I Am Clarence by Elaine Kraf] The New York Times Book
Review, November 2, 1969
. “Inside; Prison American Style.” [Rev. Inside; Prison American Style edited by Robert J.
Minton Jr.] The New York Times Book Review, May 30, 1971
. “Instant Urban Renewal.” The New York Times, June 19, 1971
. “Lucid Madness” [Rev. of The Serpent by Luigi Malerba] The New York Times Book
Review, May 19, 1968
. “The Most Dangerous Ghetto; Street Kids.” The New York Times, November 22, 1970
. “The Murder of Aziz Khan.” [Rev. of The Murder of Aziz Khan by Zulfikar Ghose] New
York Times Book Review, January 26, 1969
. “The Pornographers” [Rev. of The Pornographers by Akiyuki Nozaka] The New York Times
Book Review, November 24, 1968
. “Quest for Dignity.” [Rev. of Soul on Fire by Eldridge Cleaver.] The Progressive, Vol. 32,
No. 5, May, 1969
. Rat Pack. The Seabury Press, 1974.
. “The Rat Packs of New York.” The New York Times Magazine, November 28, 1971
— “The Ruined Map.” [Review of The Ruined Map by Kobo Abe] The New York Times Book
Review, August 3, 1969.
.”Savior, Savior.” [Rev. of Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand By Piri Thomas.} The Washington
Post and Times Herald, Oct 1, 1972.
. “A Special Kind Of Justice.” [Review of The Crime of Martin Sostre by Vincent Copeland]
The Washington Post and Times Herald, Aug 23, 1970.
. “Suddenly Last Summer” [Rev. of The Fourth Angel by John Rechy.] The Washington Post
and Times Herald, Aug. 12, 1973.
. “Tickets A Writer Needs”. The Writer, December 28, 1968.
. “Time and Time Again.” [Rev. of Seven Long Times by Piri Thomas.] The Washington
Post, August 11, 1974.
. “Trixie.” [Rev. of Trixie by Wallace Graves] The New York Times Book Review, November
30, 1969.
. “Way Uptown In Another World.” Evergreen Review, Volume 6, Issue 27, 1962.
. Way Uptown In Another World. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971.
. “What The Kid Knew.” The Washington Post and Times Herald, April 12, 1970.
. “What The White Man Has.” [Rev. of Three-Fifths of a Man by Floyd McKissick.] The
Washington Post, Times Herald, June 1, 1969.
. “The White Niggers of The 70s.” Black Review #1, Mel Watkins, ed., Morrow, 1971.
As J.W. Rider
Hot Tickets. Arbor House Publishing, 1987.
Jersey Tomatoes. Arbor House Publishing, 1986.
Go Down Dead
  • William Morrow, 1966. Hardcover.
  • Pocket Books, 1968. Paperback.
  • Pocket Books, 1974. Paperback
  • A Quokka Book (Pocket Books), 1978. Paperback
Way Uptown In Another World
  • G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971. Hardcover.
  • Lancer Books, 1972. Paperback
Dead City
  • Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973. Hardcover.
  • Barrie & Jenkins, 1974. Hardcover (UK edition)
  • Pocket Books, 1974. Paperback.
  • Corgi Books, 1976. Paperback (UK edition)
  • Corgi Books, 1980. Paperback (UK reprint)
  • Carroll & Graf, 1992. Paperback (US reprint).
Rat Pack
  • Seabury Press, 1974. Hardcover.
  • Pocket Books, 1975. Paperback.
  • Simon & Schuster of Canada, 1976. Paperback
  • Pocket Books, 1976. Paperback.
By Reason of Insanity
  • Simon & Schuster, 1979. Hardcover.
  • George Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1979. Hardcover (UK edition)
  • Sphere Books, 1979. Paperback (UK edition)
  • Dell Publishing, 1980. Paperback
  • Sphere Books, 1980. Paperback
  • Carroll & Graf, 1990. Paperback.
  • Chicago Review Press, 2007. Paperback.
  • Simon & Schuster Digital Sales Inc., 2014. (eBook edition)
The Anvil Chorus
  • Delacorte Press, 1985. Hardcover.
  • Andre Deutsch, 1985. Hardcover (UK edition)
  • Dell Publishing, 1986. Paperback.
  • Fontana, 1986. Paperback (UK edition)
  • Carroll & Graf, 1993. Paperback.
Jersey Tomatoes
  • Arbor House Publishing, 1986. Hardcover.
  • Pocket Books, 1987. Paperback.
Hot Tickets
  • Arbor House Publishing, 1987. Hardcover.
  • Pocket Books, 1987. Paperback.

Chad Eagleton lives in the Midwest with his blind wife and a rescue pug. He is a former reader for Needle: A Magazine of Noir, former co-editor of Beat To A Pulp, and one of the last folks to write for the legendary counter-culture site Disinformation. His work is available in print, ebook, and electronically online. Join his fray at:

Monday, December 9, 2019

HELLBENDERS: Warren Read's Ash Falls

Ash Falls
Warren Read
ig Publishing
Reviewed by Gonzalo Baeza

The gritty opening of Warren Read’s debut novel Ash Falls (2017) introduces us to convict Ernie Luntz. Serving time for murder, Luntz is being transported from the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla to a medium security prison. When the driver has a heart attack and the car crashes, Luntz trains “his eyes on the tiny farmhouses freckling the far horizon” and disappears into the countryside.
Luntz also vanishes from the story and instead becomes an ominous presence – an individual whose singular act of violence created a traumatic schism in the Pacific Northwest town of Ash Falls. Almost like a Chekhovian gun introduced in the opening act, whether Luntz will return to the scene of the crime –and the story– is a question that lingers in this accomplished novel driven by the strength of its characters.
Each chapter in Ash Falls is named after a character or a set of characters and told in a close third-person point of view. Through their stories, Read weaves a kaleidoscopic tapestry of a downtrodden community, where Luntz seems to be the embodiment of a deeper malaise brought by isolation and economic depression.
High school nurse Bobbie is Luntz’s ex-wife. She tries to carry on with her life and raise her teenage son Patrick on her own after her husband went to jail. Four years ago, Luntz was involved in an altercation with a group of teenagers. After one of the boys, Ricky Cordero, says “something” to Patrick, Luntz beats him to death. Read’s account of the event is deliberately muddled, just like real-life impactful happenings are often blurred by emotions and the convenient rationalizations that allow us to move on with life. Later on, we learn that Luntz is a Vietnam veteran who sometimes reacts violently, often sleepwalks, and may even have burnt down a building in town while in a state of somnambulism. Like a detective trying to build a narrative from disparate accounts, Read comes up with a story where past events pose as many questions as they provide answers.
There are hints that Bobbie once had an affair with former teacher Hank Kelleher, but Ernie’s crime seems to have driven them apart. Hank now sells pot and pays house visits to his typically impoverished, elderly customers. These interactions bring to mind the risks involved in his new trade and often make him doubt:
It was moments like these – when things came unexpected, when the money didn’t match the promise, when caterwauling kids wandered from back bedrooms to paw at his things and ask nosy questions, or strangers suddenly showed up from nowhere – moments like these Hank found himself wondering what the hell turn he had taken in life to end up where he was. In a moist tin box dense with the smell of cat piss, choked with water-spotted furniture, shoeboxes coughing out forests of paper, and flaccid houseplants that looked the way he felt.

Patrick works at a mink farm for the gruff Tin Dorsay and often spends the weekend in Seattle at the home of one Mama T, a woman who helps runaways. Her son, Shadow, is Patrick’s occasional lover. Patrick bears the weight of being Luntz’s son. While his introverted character doesn’t offer but glimpses of what he carries inside, he expresses his trauma in other ways, such as his queasiness when it comes to killing the minks he helps breed. “Does it hurt?” he asks his boss Tin, who explains that the animals are put to sleep with CO2 gas. “[T]here ain’t no such a thing as a nice way to kill something,” Tin says. “You can look at it any way you want, but that’s the God’s honest truth. It don’t matter if it’s a mink or a mouse or a mosquito. One minute there’s a life in front of you, and the next, it’s gone. By your hand.
Like many residents of Ash Falls, Patrick feels confined by his own life and longs to leave town. These visions of freedom become entangled with his ambivalent sentiments toward his father:
There were times when the news excited him, the vision of his father free of his own cage, wandering the countryside like a nomad, making his way, perhaps, back to Ash Falls, crouched in an open boxcar or thumbing for a ride along some lost highway. Even better, somewhere no one would ever find him. Other times (…) Patrick could only see his father as just another loose mink, slinking along the perimeter of the fence somewhere out there in the snow, searching for an opening or a deep rut where he could slip through and run free. Free, out into the openness of the roadway and a distant light, or directly into the path of an oncoming truck.
The above is only a part of the vast map of fully realized characters and stories contained in Ash Falls, a novel that starts as a rural noir (which would explain why it has been compared to Daniel Woodrell’s work) but becomes a dark portrait of small town life in the vein of Kent Haruf – albeit grittier. But a rural novel is also a novel about the land, which Read captures in prose that is both lush and atmospheric, as the somber beauty of the Pacific Northwest helps set the tone for the story.
Read’s first book, The Lyncher in Me (2008), is a memoir about discovering his great-grandfather’s role in the lynching of three innocent men in 1920. In Ash Falls, Read once again explores buried trauma and the price of reckoning with the past but in a fictional work that hopefully is the first of many.
Gonzalo Baeza is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. His books have been published in the U.S., Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, Estados Hispanos de América, Tintas, and The Texas Review, among others. 

Sunday, December 1, 2019

After Ed Glasgow's House Was Sold, fiction by Stefan Kiesbye

She had very white skin, and her husband was a captain on a freighter crisscrossing Lake Superior. They moved in next door, after Ed Glasgow's house had stood empty for nearly a year. They were new to Severe, unaware of its history and unaware of their neighbors until I dropped off a pie one afternoon. She opened the door and thanked me, but neither did she invite me in, nor did I want to impose. I needed to get going, I told her and walked back to my truck. She returned my wave and kept standing on her porch, holding the pie as though it gave off a strange stench.

By spring she was pregnant and it was showing. She looked different then, as though she might be sliding out of her skin at any moment. There was a slowness to her movements, and she started to smile when I drove by her house on the way to the hardware store. Her name was Ruth, and her hair was not the prettiest brown. She had large, white teeth.

Pamela and I had lived on Mackinac Lane for nearly seven years. She hadn't wanted to raise kids in town. She was queer about it, as though Severe were a large city with police sirens tearing up the night and arsonists stealing into backyards. She said our children needed space, they needed to play in the woods. They should come home covered in dirt and burrs, and they should have a dog and a swing set in back and a treehouse. At night she would give them a bath and look for ticks on their lithe bodies. She loved the smell of baby shampoo. We'd bought twelve acres of woods in the back of our home, but after those seven years we still had no children to fill the air with screams and come home with bruises, and dirt, and pine needles stuck to their clothes.

We got married the year after we both graduated from high school. She'd been the kinky one, the one who had slept with several members of the baseball team by the time she set her eyes on me. What they saw the first time she even recognized I was alive I never asked her, and she was wise enough not to tell. But soon after we started going steady, she began to teach me what she had been taught. I had never been with another woman. Not in that way, not so completely. Pamela proved to be a stern teacher.

My dad had lost everything he’d worked for all his life, save for the hardware store. He’d had big plans for Severe, had invested all his money to connect the town with the larger world. But Severe had held its course, the one it had always taken. Pete Sr. died of a stroke the year after the wedding, and for some years we lived in a small house on Teague Street. Pamela wanted to move away -- to Ann Arbor, or to Wisconsin, where her cousin was a teacher. She said, “Pete, I’ve slept with half the boys here; do you really want to sell them lawn mowers and nails and attend their weddings?” But we stayed because we had a life in Severe, and other places didn't know, and had no memory of, our families and who we were.

Pamela and I made love for hours most every night. We did it in every room of the new house on Mackinac Lane, checking them off one by one. On a summer night, she made me chase her into the woods and tie her to a tree. She arrived unannounced at the store and took my hand and led me to the backroom and opened her winter coat to show me she was wearing nothing but her boots. “Make sure it’s a boy,” she said, or she’d cup my balls, squeeze them and scream, “Twins.” We would have three children, each of their names starting with 'P.' We made a list: Peggy, Peter, Patsy, Preston, Patrick, Patricia, Paige, Priscilla, Phoebe. We loved each other. We really did. Once she had decided on me, she never looked at anyone else. But I was gone most of the day.


Ruth worked in her yard during our short spring in Severe. Ed's old brown truck had disappeared from the front yard, and so had his gutted Camaros. The man had died without a will, and apparently without any living relatives. Karen Brand, the realtor, only shrugged when I asked her who would receive the money from the sale. She’d told me more than once that the property was a bargain, and once our neighbors moved in, Pamela chided me for not making up my mind sooner. But the truth was, I couldn’t do it. In my mind, it was still Ed’s house. I had liked him. The way you might admire a raccoon or a bear. You didn’t invite them into your home, but there was something endearing about them. Nothing I could articulate or talk about with my customers at the store, but real nonetheless. I believe he buried guns and ammunition in the field behind his house.

Times when Ruth’s husband stayed home, his black Impala was parked where once the truck with the giant flames had stood. There was no sense in stopping in front of the house for a chat on those days, but I slowed to crawl to just get a glimpse of Ruth kneeling in a flowerbed or drinking iced tea on the front steps.

Ruth had long fingers. When she was alone, and I stopped on my way to work, she would grab the window frame of my truck and peer in; her lips parted as though a silly question was forming in her mind. Those lips were sharply cut and full. She held on to that window frame and talked about how humid the days were, how slow she was these days, how cumbersome and painful her movements had become. “I look like a giant pear,” she said. “I just don’t want anyone to look at me.” She said, “I can’t see my feet anymore.” More than once she furrowed her brow and asked me how I had burned my arms, what the scars meant. Each time she approached the open window, I offered her a ride into town and she declined most days. For the first time I could make out the shape below her dress below her dress. Ruth’s elbows were sharp, her knees protruding. Maybe I had wanted children even more than Pamela.


I had committed the mistake of a man who is too sure of himself and his place in the world. Maybe I lacked the imagination to anticipate the horrors of living past ‘Just Got Married.’ Our house on Mackinac Lane had five bedrooms, and when we painted the place, I mixed a light-green color and ordered a crib and big yellow stars to attach above it. It didn't matter to me, boy or girl. After I finished decorating, Pamela and I made love in that room, too, against the wall, the paint smell still overpowering, and she called me Daddy.

Having the large house to ourselves made Pamela restless; the quiet ate at her like moths eat a winter coat. There’s plenty left, but it’s not quite what you wanted or what you’d choose to wear. She was still beautiful, though, she was. And yet, every morning I didn't see the black Impala parked in front of Glasgow's house, I stopped and talked to Ruth. I left the house earlier and earlier so I could talk to Ruth for an extra ten or fifteen minutes. On my way back I stopped again, to drop off some flowers she could plant, a small tree perhaps, or I gifted her a watering can that was only lightly dinged. I tried to sound as though I didn't enjoy getting out of the truck and leaning against the hood, talking. Sometimes I lingered, complimented her garden, told her a joke I heard at the store. But I never touched her. Not once.

She wore loose dresses that summer, and by the afternoon dark spots appeared in the front and back. She wore large, floppy hats, and she complained that she was always thirsty. She could drink Lake Superior empty, she said and laughed at her own silliness. To me, she grew more arresting every day. But she didn't always look pretty -- her face would be red, her limbs swollen. Her sweaty skin could barely contain her.


At the end of October, she was gone for two weeks and then for two weeks more. She reappeared with a baby carriage on Mackinac Lane, but most often she would carry her girl in a sling. Snow was covering the ground soon, and on days she ventured outside, Ruth wore a long down coat and moon boots. Her face was red from the cold and she waved hello every time I passed her. It would have been natural to invite her and her husband to dinner -- we lived only two-hundred yards apart, and we were close in age. But maybe we had missed the right time to become friends, or maybe Pamela just wasn’t interested. Despite asking about our neighbors, she never asked to meet them. She had ignored Ed when he was alive, and she ignored Ruth. So how could I take a first step? It wasn’t my place. And how could I prepare dinner for our neighbors and sit across from Ruth without giving my feelings for her away? I trembled at the thought of her stepping into our house and taking off her coat.


I dropped off rock salt in the time before Christmas. I gave her a stupid plastic tree with the lights installed. I told her one of the salesmen had dropped it off, free of charge. Did she ever look at me with suspicion? Did she tell her husband over dinner that their neighbor came by the house way more often than seemed neighborly? She smiled so much each time I stopped by, I didn’t have the heart to ignore her. I was acting ridiculously and without any shame.

In January, after the black Impala had been gone for several days, I waited in front of Ruth’s house until I saw her return from a walk, her girl strapped to her chest, with a woolen hat and a puffy one-piece suit. I'd waited for over thirty minutes, and my coffee mug was empty.

After I spotted her, I put the truck in gear and rolled down the window. "How are the two of you?" I asked. The girl babbled and made Ruth laugh happily. She wore a green hat, her full lips were cracked. "Let me give you a ride,” I suggested. “You should get out every now and then.”

A few minutes later she had changed into a long, woolen coat and leather boots. The girl sat in her lap; Ruth's hand were folded in front of her stomach. The vents worked on full, and the cabin was so warm that on our way into town she opened her coat. In the footwell she had a bag with a bottle and wipes and Pampers. This was Ruth's first full winter in Severe. She said, "I have cabin fever. There's only my little bug and myself."

I nodded. "All I remember are winters." This was no lie. Summers were hazy as daydreams you had as a teenager. There seemed to be world out there, but you couldn't quite grasp it yet. You hadn’t seen enough to put the tiny pieces your imagination grasped at together. You squinted, but the images escaped you every time. But our winters were solid, you could never mistake them for anything else. They forced you to quit dreaming and focus on the next step in front of you.

When I didn't stop outside the hardware store, she turned to me, lips open without forming words yet. I said, "I just need to swing by our warehouse and pick up some shovels." We drove through town and took a right on Longshore. All year round, the warehouse held the doors and windows we stocked but lacked space to display in the store. In the summer we shelved leftover rock salt and snow blowers, but at this time in January, only a few lawnmowers, sheds, and potting soil lined the walls.

I said, "Just a minute," and went inside and the blue tarp lay spread on the ground. My hands were shaky and I bit into a pointer and thumb to quieten them. My nails dug into my scars until they bled.

I remembered to smile at Ruth when I approached the truck again. I nearly ran towards her, before pulling the passenger door open. "Let me show you," I huffed. She wouldn't get out. She didn't make a sound and forced me to grab her arm and pull her from the seat. She never let go of the girl, even when I dragged her into the warehouse. I knew what she was thinking and I hated her for thinking something so stupid.

"Pete." She was crying now, her eyes already red and begging. “Pete. Don’t,” she stammered. It was Pamela who struck her with a shovel. After the second time, Ruth went down hard, but Pamela didn't stop. I scooped up the girl and lifted her into the air as though she were about to take flight. "My bug," I said.


Ruth's husband put up the house for sale in April, after he’d given up waiting for his wife’s return. Women left her husbands all the time. He blamed himself for being absent so often, and I only nodded when he told me. I’d spotted him in the yard and stopped. He asked me inside. I said I needed to get home, but then followed him up the porch steps, through the open door and into the kitchen. When he asked, I repeated what I had told the Sheriff the week after Ruth had disappeared — that I had dropped her off in town and that she’d carried an overnight bag and asked about the next Greyhound. Nobody had seen her after that. Not even a coat or hat was ever found. No card or letter arrived, and when his phone rang, it was never her voice at the other end of the line. “Maybe she doesn’t want to be found just yet,” I suggested. “Maybe she panicked.” I took the whiskey he offered, and we clinked glasses and he made an insufferable toast. “You shouldn’t say that about her,” I said. “She’ll contact you when the time is right, I’m sure.” He was gone several days later, and Karen installed the ‘For Sale’ sign again. I wasn’t interested this time either, even though it must have been a bargain.

Pamela didn't leave our house for a while. "She isn't well," I told people in town. "We think it might be morning sickness." I blushed each time I said this.

Stefan Kiesbye is the author of six novels, among them Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, The Staked Plains," and Knives, Forks, Scissors, Flames." He teaches creative writing at Sonoma State University in the North Bay Area.