I’m drawn to reading about and watching and writing about the underbelly of the beast that is us in our mortality. Two of my favourite classic novels, Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, have long been on banned book wish-lists in libraries across America, most especially in the Bible Belt, and I think that may well be because both of these novels are especially good at exposing the naked underbelly. They tell stories that frightened, rigid people would rather have us forget.
American Gothic literature and its elegantly cruel relative, Southern Gothic, are alive and well and living on precisely because so many people, Bible Belt and otherwise, will cross themselves six ways from Sunday to keep themselves, and all others, too, from seeing life for what it really is – the frightening beauty and ugliness of mortality, of the fight to wrench some meaning from what is a very short time on earth. And of what humans are capable of doing, have always done, to one another. I’m damn glad there are enough of us around who want to see the truth of life laid out, all of it, to keep gothic going, along with all of its friends, noir et al.
If you give some people (make that a lot of people, actually- no, not you, of course!) – an inch, and there’s no one watching over their shoulders to tell on them, they won’t just take a mile, they’ll take a mile and a half, and maybe your life, in some way or other. Suck the life out of you and leave your shell behind And these people will rationalize why they had a perfect right to screw you over; long past the inch you were kind enough to give them in the first place. Maybe even legalize the behaviour. Make it a way of life.
When I write, I look for that underbelly behaviour and write about it –not that it’s hard to find if you’re not wasting a lot of time trying to pretend it doesn’t exist – the flaws humans hide away from others, the feelings they have that they don’t want to have and won’t admit to having, the rationalizing and the bargains made to this or that devil, the things they think about or think about touching while their faces are hidden away in their pillows, down in the dark.
I love the down-in-the-trenches shit that is the messy answer to the question: what’s it all about?
What I don’t love and I don’t trust are the black/white, yes/no answers on what is or isn’t justice between human beings. Not the kind of ‘answers’ as you’d find on a one hour crime show, where everyone gives long, purportedly meaning-filled looks to one another while the background music bangs the point into watchers’ heads. Here ya go, this is the point, get it… in some kind of self-righteous PC World or Punish-the-Sinners wrap-up, with the credits playing.
To that end, I give you a chapter opening of the novel I’m working on now:
If the Indians had been smart and slaughtered each and every pale man who’d climbed off a boat when Europeans first started landing on their shores, if they’d butchered every single one of the fucking bastards and burned their ships in deep enough water so no trace of their ever landing showed, the Indians could’ve kept their way of life going for a long, long time. Maybe always.
A watchful eye on the horizon and absolute annihilation of intruders with no recourse was what should’ve been done, but the Indians, they’d fucked up. They’d had mercy at first. Now, they had fucking squat.
Joshua Powell thought of those Indians as he took aim.
It was drizzling as he lay in the fallow weedy field beside the new strip mall, but that was all right. He didn’t need blue skies to get him in a good mood. Any day was a fine day for a killing if it preserved a man’s way of life.
Here’s an excerpt from my first novel. I’ve been sitting on this novel since the fall because I need time to do some structuring edits. The underbelly in this scene is that of the secrets kept from childhood:
This one girl, Karen Creed, who lived in the one rundown house on the block, right on the corner, she stood down on the sidewalk watching us parade up and down. Karen Creed didn’t go to St. So-and-So the Archangel with the rest of us, and she didn’t have blonde hair like we did. I felt bad for her, standing down there in her little shorts and stuff, and holding her arms folded close to her body, but I didn’t say anything. And then I felt bad that I didn’t say anything, and that made me not like her to be there, because she was always doing that, making me feel bad. I said Hi, Karen and she said did I want her to go and get her swimsuit on and I said No, no don’t bother doing that, I’m about to have to go inside. So that did us in for the day, and I went inside, and the other girls walked home.
When August was only days away from being gone, Karen caught me walking past her house one afternoon. All I was doing was walking past, but she wanted to stand and visit with me in her yard. I tried to talk to her, but I kept looking at her one arm. Her one arm had red blotches up and down it and they weren’t going away, and Karen almost cried when she told me there was nothing wrong with her, they were just birthmarks, just birthmarks, that’s all. I don’t remember what I said to her. I tried to be nice. But I wasn’t going inside her house. And that made me feel bad all over again, that I knew I wouldn’t go, and that she was still hoping I would. And my mother didn’t want me to go in there. I tried to feel better because of that, but it didn’t work.
When someone is sad or pitiful and even if they mainly have a good reason for it, you just want them to go away sometimes, so no tainting of you happens. Like Karen Creed, who kept saying the big, ugly red marks up and down her arm and under her armpit were just birthmarks and there was nothing wrong with her and she was almost crying but we all stayed away anyway, because we were worried we’d be tainted too, by her and her marks.
It seemed like Karen Creed’s only hope was to meet someone else with bad birthmarks, or to wear long-sleeved shirts even in summer until she got older, and hope people forgot about her marks. Or to move.
Bio: Robin Billings is from the American South and so has seen first hand the nutsy background life that lends itself to the noir/gothic literary perspective for which the region is famous. She has stories (of the underbelly persuasion) published in The Potomac Journal: http://thepotomacjournal.com/issue10/Fiction/Billings.html, and in Wilderness House Literary Review: http://www.whlreview.com/no-4.3/fiction/RobinBillings.pdf. Both are excerpts from her first novel, which is sitting in a drawer (of sorts), waiting for a final edit. Meanwhile, she’s at work on a crime novel, told from the perspective of four folks who, of course, don’t think of their combo-plan killings as criminal at all. Robin can be reached on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/RobinABillings.