Ned Condini, internationally published author and poet, Italian translator, and playwright, recently honored me with a review of my book. I copy it below with his permission.
GRISLY OPTIONS IN CALDERIN’S FIRST WORK
The first book by D. Elaine Calderin, WHO BETTER TO PLAY THE DEVIL (Sense of Wonder Press, Florence, SC, 2009) will shock you, surprise you, irk you and make you curse or bless literature’s darker side; it will urge you to look for angels or join forces with the devil; it will make you shudder and dismiss the few opaque moments; it will challenge your previous views of the presence of evil and debunk your assuredness and brittle sense of superiority.
Intriguingly, the title WHO BETTER TO PLAY THE DEVIL right away sets the tone. Or does it? Because the book is not really about the devil: it is a carousel of presences (or absences); of ghosts; of out-of-space creatures; of monsters; of subterranean and malicious entities. And even if it relentlessly deals with stories of horror complete with torture, aberration and crude fantasies, it resonates at times with plangent musical notes, with eerie melodies, with the voices of infants ‘chantant dans la cupole.’
Typically, the narratives are much like Poe’s tales. Taking place mostly in North Carolina and the area around Asheville, they are compendia of pathological cases in which humanity is vivisected to expose its worst malaises. So “Blood” is a symphony worker’s account of an old lady who falls down the stairs near a CD table at the local Symphony Hall concert. A medic tests her and shortly sends her away, apparently no harm done. Or at least the little pool of blood she left behind on the floor had been no cause for alarm. Except that it started moving, and then it became two splotches that crept up the leg of a young lady and disappeared under her skirt. In a happier mood the old lady hailed a cab, but the man who had watched the blood stain invade the young lady’s privacy knows that it will crawl into her body and mar it forever: “I lay on my bed in my darkened room and wondered: Would it be AIDS? Leukemia? Or sickle cell? Would it be meningitis, tetanus or fever? And would I be next? Or someone I loved? Or maybe you?”
There are people thirsty for revenge on geneticists; or victims complaining about invisible aliens, like the one in The Aide’s Tale. He’s sick so they put him in a hospital and eventually let his wife and kid visit him. Everything looks cozy, until one day he kisses the kid then smashes his head against the edge of a coke machine. Later we learn that this Russian killer, Piotr Nassanova, was once one of the world’s premier child psychologists. He argued that a child’s brains were different because they had less experience; that some children learn a different way to form ideas, and disappear because of it. So he decided to buy and protect kids from the influence of vicious aliens. His purpose in life? To kill as many of them as he could.
There’s Emily Claythorne, who gets into an accident. Her two children die and she buries them in the snow. In the remains of the car she finds some frozen beer–the proof that she, the driver, was intoxicated. She drinks the beer and let her wounded palms bleed on the snow, like the palms of Christ on the cross. She dies, but is resurrected in the body of Vera Emily Claythorne who would later be convicted of murdering two children and inseminated with the embryonic clones of a pair of twins: “…And she was sentenced to life as a surrogate mother to all those children, lost and dead, until she herself lay cold in the ground.”
Even more graphic is “A Dog Lover’s Revenge.” Caleb, a bad neighbor, drunk and bored shoots a puppy to death. Cathy, its owner, now dreams only of guns, knives and slaughter. One day Caleb, the puppy’s killer, goes hunting; Cathy stalks him and pumps two shots in his back. He becomes a vegetable. Feeling pity for Caleb she decides to be merciful. She shoots him again, just to make sure.
An organ piping the sounds of several meowling felines is the chilly topic of another story: a congerie of “tunable” cats placed securely in small boxes tight enough to restrain all movement and lanced only by small spears. The builder of such an organ of course had to learn where to hunt healthy cats, to study anatomy, physiology, appropriate castration techniques. In due course, the idea of wafting unseen through the world as a musician, poet and impaler appealed to him. He longed to have the abject mastery of Vlad and Dracula. Unfortunately, one day he gets caught and the killings have to end. The judge sentences him to become an organ farm, alive and always on the brink of mortal illness, forever taping recordings of the most odious music one can imagine.
The Cherokee have a word for dreadful wind gods that wreak havoc. A Hispanic barfly who had cut some of her friends up for fun tried to blame the wind gods for her crimes. Believing she was one of those omnipotent cannibal spirits, in the cell where she was imprisoned she slew and ate her mates, killed the guard and, after donning his uniform, strode out of jail completely free.
In “Naga” a thug is the driver of a V8 coupe, and with three chums (Stan and two young ladies) he enjoys hitting old dodos, robbing their money and goodies, and driving away as fast as possible. During an umpteenth raid the robbed girl at the counter rings the alarm, for all the death threats that Stan piles on her. The two young ladies make it to the car, but Stan doesn’t, and the first shots by policemen whiz around. The driver roars away, but the girl at the counter, now become half maenad and half snake, huge and fanged launches her attack. She’s hooded like the meanest cobra… but after eating Stan she has to digest him, so the driver is safe.
The horrid tales multiply as do the wild experiments, the heavy tolls paid for past misdeeds, and here and there some comic relief peppered with agile slang and a cultivated knowledge of science fiction, plus the ironic mockery of today’s crazy fashions. Take Lester, the inveterate liar who scot-free breezes through his harem, until he messes up with LaVeda. He double times her going for a little blond dish, so LaVeda voodoos him, verbally flaying Lester’s hide, and his bad luck begins. The blond dish is chased away, Lester’s landlady is after him, his mangy dog is hit and killed by an invisible truck, and whatever lie Lester tells takes shape instantly as if it were the holy truth. When one day he tells his boss he cannot come to work because of a broken leg, he breaks his leg for real. He’s arrested later and has to go to trial. He calls his lawyer and tries to get a postponement. “Only if you have a death in the family,” the lawyer says. “Oh,” Lester continues. “My sister’s kid has just been hit by a truck.” You hear the wail of an ambulance…
At this junction an imperceptible change occurs, with eerie implications.
Perhaps tired of shocking surprises, of heinous felonies, of ghouls, ghosts and vampires, Calderin tackles a self-revelatory story: “In the house of Bedlam.” This is the tale of the Ward of Suicides, a haven for the demented and delirious. “Here there were bitten fingernails and the arid vistas of rocking autistics. Here… were the moans and neologisms of the schizophrenic, their goatish smells ground into the paint of their rooms.” As you can see, the style has grown, risen to unexpected heights. It is the style that after the tears secreted by the author’s poetical nature and the vengeful words of her wounded heart, will culminate in Rossini’s triumphant notes of joy and peace, and finally deliver a long blast of hope in the valley of gloom of WHO BETTER PLAY WITH THE DEVIL.
“The House of Bedlam” is not only a place for crazy people. It is a ghetto for “the truly lost, for those who write shit-smear syllogisms across the walls or lap their own blood until their teeth show red… those who kill or would be killed… the retards who are not quite self-sufficient, the autistic whose family chose to write him off, and the widowed Jew in the newspaper hat.” The character in the story is a guest in this Bedlam for the third time. He has been ‘hospitalized’ because of the trauma he fell into after losing his son to leukemia. “He sometimes mingled with the others, watched a football game in the rec room… played with the slow-witted boy who folded newspaper hats.” As he records: “He (the boy) is into origàmi and folds whole newspaper sheets into things–large boats, fanciful flowers, geometric structures, but never into anything animate.” His parents seemed nice in the beginning but then the visits stopped, a decision made more by his father than his Vietnamese mother. So “…The kid began to fold the newspapers again, but now he created a phantasmagoria of the living: insects and lizards and birds… cats and dogs … and spiders, many spiders… He made a dragon and a mate for him, a praying mantis that took a place beside the rose on the narrator’s desk. And then he waited until one dark night and he ate of the papers unfolded and crammed his throat full so that he was found dead by the orderly the next morning.” But that’s not all. On my desk (the narrator expounds) in the soft dingy light of my privileged person’s lamp, the boy’s praying mantis was eating my rose, its hands in prayer of thanksgiving for its paper meal.