Every Paperback from Hell Ranked from Worst to Best

In 2019, Valancourt Books began reissuing out-of-print horror novels under the Paperbacks from Hell label. It was inspired by Grady Hendrix’s excellent Paperbacks from Hell, itself an entertaining and fascinating history of a publishing subset most people saw as disposable. (Not entirely without reason, but still.)

I’ve snapped up every Paperbacks from Hell reprint, and I’m glad I have. I expected I’d be in for some gory, dopey fun. And, sometimes, I was. In a few cases, though, the material has risen well beyond what I thought I’d find. I encourage you to give the series a look, if you’re interested at all, and I might as well do so by ranking every Paperback from Hell, worst to best. And yes, I stole the format, but I stole it from myself so I think that’s okay.

You won’t find any story-ruining spoilers below, but obviously I will cite some sequences and examples from the books, so if one of them piques your interest and seems like something you’d enjoy, don’t hesitate to stop reading my mini-review. Proceed at your own risk, basically.

Also, Paperbacks from Hell is an ongoing series. As I write this, two other books are in the pipeline. My plan is to update this list as I read them, but I do not intend to revise the content of the existing entries any more than would be absolutely necessary. That’s sort of an experiment — I prefer letting my posts stand as they were written — so we’ll see how it goes.

And, finally, Valancourt is a great press and a not especially huge one. My intention here isn’t to belittle or discourage the purchase of the books I ended up ranking toward the bottom. It’s the opposite; I want to celebrate the ones I think are absolutely great. Of course, I am more critical about the ones I didn’t enjoy as much. Please don’t take that as a slight against the publisher, the Paperbacks from Hell label, or even the books themselves. These are just my opinions, and I’d always encourage you to support an endeavor like this if you are interested. Don’t let me talk you out of a purchase, in other words; allow me instead, if you will, to guide you to what I think are the best places to start.

With that out of the way, let’s rank every Paperback from Hell from worst to best.

12) The Spirit, Thomas Page (1977)

The Spirit, Thomas PageWhen you hear the phrase “Paperbacks from Hell” your mind is probably flooded with all kinds of monsters. Real, imagined, human, supernatural, even monsters that turn out to not be monsters at all. Indeed the series has so far done a great job of representing different kinds of monsters, keeping it from ever feeling too stale or similar. The Spirit, by Thomas Page, chooses Bigfoot for its monster. Before I read it, I looked forward to it. You can do a lot of things with Bigfoot in the role of villain. The Spirit does very few of them, and it doesn’t do any of them memorably.

It’s sort of a relief that I can so easily identify the worst of the Paperbacks from Hell. It’s about the only one I’m even comfortable applying that label to, as all horror fans know that even “bad” horror can be seductively, adorably, or riotously good. To christen something like that as the worst is to say that it has the smallest amount of value, even in an ironic sense. The Spirit has none, so it gets to prop up the rest of this list.

The real problem with The Spirit is that it’s so unrelentingly dull. It’s written exactly well enough to bore. Its competence is its liability. If it were smarter, more clever, more exciting, or more engrossing, it would obviously be elevated by those qualities. If it tried to be any of those things and failed, it would, potentially at least, be an amusing wreck.

Thomas Page wanted to write a novel about two men seeking Bigfoot, each for his own reason. He wrote that. One of them is a Native American on a spirit quest and the other is a hunter seeking revenge. He wrote that, too. He wrote it so well as to stifle both inventiveness and incompetence. It’s a book about Bigfoot that will sit as neatly upon your self as any other book about Bigfoot, and you will never be obligated to think about it again.

The closest I came to finding joy in the book was through Jack Helder, a character who runs a ski lodge doomed by his own idiocy and mismanagement. Helder has a major role around the middle of the book, and he’s interesting both for having a goal too hazy to be of any use (he wants to succeed) and for being his own biggest obstacle on his way to fulfilling that goal (he has no clue how to succeed). It would be a pretty massive stretch to say I enjoyed the time I spent with him, but I could at least see the ghost of a better version of his story playing out in my head. Hell, it would have been difficult not to.

I’m not trying to lay into Page. He may be a great author; this is all I’ve read from him. The introduction to the Paperbacks from Hell edition, though, has a number of quotes in which the author denigrates his own work, so I don’t think his feelings would be too hurt by learning that some idiot in Colorado agrees.

Speaking of the introduction, it’s there that Grady Hendrix states flatly, “The Spirit is the best Bigfoot book out there.” He might well be correct; I haven’t read enough Bigfoot books to know. If this is truly the high-water mark, though, I think sticking to other monsters has been wise.

11) Stage Fright, Garrett Boatman (1988)

Stage Fright, Garrett BoatmanImagine somebody telling you about their dreams for hours upon hours. Every so often there’s some interesting imagery or a moment that resonates with you, but for the vast majority of the time, you are listening to somebody describe nonsense that has no connection to anything you recognize, understand, or care about. That is the experience of reading Stage Fright.

The novel is a disconnected mess that periodically achieves competence, but never for very long. It’s about — as much as it’s about anything — the dreamatron, which is a futuristic device that essentially allows artists to beam experiences directly into people’s minds. Whatever you can think to do with that premise is already more interesting than anything author Garrett Boatman thought to do with it. He explores the technology through Izzy Stark, a dreamatron virtuoso who basically uses the thing to make immersive horror films. The monsters become real. That’s about as far as Boatman’s imagination brings us, though he certainly takes the scenic route.

I would like to say that the dreamlike nature of the book is deliberate — the central device is called the dreamatron, and those who play it are known as dreamers — but it feels much more like poor writing. Sections are disconnected and logic rarely evident, sequences overlap and seem to repeat each other, and none of this happens with any clear artistic intent. It happens, instead, with what feels suspiciously like artistic incompetence. Characters — main characters — disappear from the story for long stretches, only to resurface for scenes that seem to be and are irrelevant to the larger story. We’re given no clear reason to root for or against anything. Pages and pages are dedicated to the specifics of who has concert tickets and who does not and who gives them to who and when and how and why, and exactly none of it matters. It’s just stuff that happens in a book that’s already so full of stuff happening that the story drowns in its own subplots.

All of which could be forgiven to some extent if the actual horror content were any good. Sometimes, to be clear, it is. There are evocative images and decently harrowing sequences throughout, but they always take too long to find and Boatman can’t seem to tell them apart from the hackneyed, writing-workshop level material that surrounds them. Even the best writing in the book is clunky, with common words being misused and every instance of foreshadowing being so overwrought that it’s basically just a direct preview of chapters to come. In spite of that, its imbecilic ending still manages to come out of nowhere, and intends to chill the reader in a way they did not expect. All it got out of me were the words, involuntarily out loud, “Oh, fuck off.”

The dreamatron is an important part of the book, until it isn’t. Stark freebases blood from schizophrenics (don’t even bother asking), which leads to its own mysterious subplot that runs directly into a brick wall and doesn’t bother standing back up. Another character — who may or may not be the protagonist of this story — is writing a book about Stark, but only when Stage Fright feels like talking about it. Stark’s journey from beloved schlock-slinger to murderer could carry the book, but it’s introduced so abruptly that it feels like Boatman remembering there’s supposed to be a conflict somewhere in here.

And it’s a conflict I don’t believe. I am willing to believe that a character gradually embraces his murderous side — especially in a horror paperback! — but Boatman never gets me to believe it. I am willing to believe his long-term girlfriend would stay beside him even after she learns he’s killing people (and has tried at least once to kill her), but Boatman never gets me to believe it. I am willing to believe this assortment of barely related characters could be woven together into a larger narrative that justifies including them all, but Boatman only gets me to believe he wrote an extraordinarily bloated first draft that nobody helped him edit.

Top it all off with some casual racism and a tiresome fascination with describing the “tits” of every female character — from teenage through geriatric — and you have a book that dodges its few good ideas and embraces its many bad ideas so expertly it’s almost impressive. But Stage Fright is not, I hasten to clarify, impressive in any way. It’s less boring than The Spirit, but so is actually being dead.

10) The Nest, Gregory A. Douglas (1980)

The Nest, Gregory A. DouglasThe Nest is essentially what I expected all Paperbacks from Hell releases to be, barring one or two exceptions at best. As you can see from its placement, I was very much and very happily mistaken.

The Nest is by no means poorly written, but it scratches little more than the most basic itch we expect to be scratched by horror novels. There’s some well-drawn gruesomeness and just enough in the way of characterization that we know what to feel when each character faces their reckoning. So far, so unexceptional.

What gives The Nest its identity is its near-perfect choice of monster: the roach. We hate roaches. We are naturally revolted by them. See one roach in a public place or business or — God forbid — your own home and the entire place feels irredeemably tarnished. I am by no means suggesting that roaches aren’t disgusting creatures, but we as human beings don’t just have an aversion to them; we have a built-in exaggeration of that aversion.

And so The Nest features swarms of roaches. Shiver-inducing on their own. Gregory A. Douglas doesn’t stop there, though; his bugs have developed a colony, much like ants or bees. They’ve learned to communicate and work together, operating like a single, larger entity, making them genuine threats as opposed to unwelcome pests. When some of the bugs are attacked, the entire colony knows and adjusts strategies accordingly. When some of the bugs sense an opening, the entirely colony takes advantage.

It’s gross, dumb fun…at least, overall. At times it’s gross and dumb in a different and less rewarding way.

Far be it from me to suggest that artists should keep their personal views out of their creations, not least because it would be literally impossible to do so. A creative mind is shaped and informed by the person who carries it, that person’s experiences, and that person’s environment. Every work of art is filtered through that artist’s understanding of what the world is. That’s as it should be and as it always will be. But it doesn’t mean all understandings of the world are equal. They provably are not.

In the case of Douglas, his beliefs about women’s place in society, about the nobility of country living over city dwelling, about sexuality…well, they’re what we could charitably refer to as backward. I am certainly aware that the opinions of characters do not necessarily reflect the opinions of their creators, but Douglas is writing a book about angry roaches; it’s a superficial experience, and what’s on the surface is too often insulting and regressive. Also, there’s a sequence in which a young girl loses her virginity to a swarm of roaches that consume her from the vagina inward. Y’know, in case you think I’m not giving Douglas enough credit as an artist.

9) Nightblood, T. Chris Martindale (1990)

Nightblood, T. Chris MartindaleChris Stiles hunts down supernatural entities in the hopes that he will eventually enact revenge on the one that killed his brother, who is now a ghost that gives him advice. That is the greatest horror paperback premise imaginable. Sadly — well, kinda sadly — T. Chris Martindale’s Nightblood focuses on one specific hunt when the possibilities should be endless. Evidently Stiles was supposed to continue his adventures in a series of books, but that never happened. We’re left instead with one book about a guy fighting a vampire, which is a bit less interesting and a lot more disappointing.

Nightblood really does feel like the only surviving installment of a long-forgotten series, and in a way it only makes sense to view it as one. While Stiles is serving in Vietnam, his brother Alex is murdered by…something. Together — from both sides of the veil — they follow some spooky clues that lead them to a vampire. Is the vampire what killed Alex? No. Does the vampire have any connection whatsoever to what killed Alex? No. So we’re left with one hell of a confused narrative. It would be sort of like a version of Moby-Dick in which Ahab spends the vast majority of the book beating up the mafia. It’s difficult to buy into the idea that a character is engaging in a single-minded pursuit of something when most of the time they aren’t focused on their goal at all.

And yet, for maybe a third or a half of its duration, Nightblood is incredible. It’s stupid in every one of the right ways. It’s written well enough to be entertaining and is executed clumsily enough that it’s endearing. It helps that Stiles — like the characters in The Pack, which we’ll get to — is kind of an idiot. He rides into town to deal with their local vampire problem, and the town is then just sort of stuck with him. He’s not Abe Van Helsing; he’s a redneck with some firearms. The town could certainly do better, but Chris Stiles: Vampire Shooter is what they get.

I’m not entirely certain how deliberate this was on Martindale’s part, but his protagonist has a knack for making a quiet pitstop into an explosively extended stay. At one early point in the book, he literally chews the town vampire into pieces with gunfire. Bits of the monster fly everywhere, until only one small, crawling, pathetic chunk remains. It disappears into the woods and Stiles — even though another character pleads with him to go finish it off — doesn’t bother to kill it. He assumes the sun will come up and fry whatever’s left. Fast forward a bit and the entire town is now under siege by a vampire army, each member of which can be traced back to the single entity Chris didn’t think it was worth pumping one more bullet into. The town goes from having approximately zero victims to having…well, whatever the population of the town is, minus about six. Whoops!

Stiles being an idiot becomes the story, in spite of Martindale’s intentions I’m sure. It’s appealing to watch somebody’s story about at a roaming badass going toe to toe with the undead turn into an Ernest movie before our eyes. Stiles is supposed to be our flawed hero, but Martindale only remembered to write the flaws. The only reason anyone gets out of this alive is that Stiles is surrounded by far more competent supporting characters.

I won’t spoil the ending, but it isn’t Stiles who figures out how to vanquish the vampire menace; it’s a group of townsfolk who specifically ignored his orders and went into action while he was asleep. I wish I were making that up, because I’d be tremendously proud of myself for that joke. Instead, that’s just the way Nightblood works, and it is astounding.

It’s also, however, overlong. Like Stiles himself, it overstays its welcome and never lives up to what we’re told was its potential. At one point the book shifts from a surprisingly endearing trainwreck to a competent but unremarkable vampire bloodbath. It gets boring and never approaches its own early, idiotic heights again. Those heights are damned high while they last, though.

8) The Pack, David Fisher (1976)

The Pack, David FisherBurrows Island, a lovely little destination for rich tourists, is home to an astonishing pattern of vacationers abandoning their dogs when they’re “done” with them. Dogs are adopted, made part of the family, and then left to fend for themselves when the season is over. It’s villainous behavior on the part of characters we either never see or only see briefly. The prime example of cruelty in the book takes place when we aren’t looking. By the time we get here, it’s been happening for years.

If you want your readers to feel sad, do something awful to a dog. Pretty obvious, but I can’t say for sure that David Fisher had that in mind while writing The Pack. I can’t speak with any authority as to his intentions, and yet it feels quite a lot like he’s trying to push that concept to a natural extreme, just to learn as an author whether or not it always holds true. And so we have a pack of abandoned dogs literally waiting to tear a family to shreds. Will we feel bad for the dogs when they’re poisoned? Shot? Beaten away with golf clubs? For me the answer was yes, but The Pack at least made me stop and think a bit.

Part of the reason we sympathize so easily with dogs is that it’s easy to see them as human. We can see in them the same emotions and qualities we see in each other. Loyalty, stubbornness, playfulness, sadness, happiness…the list goes on. It’s likely dogs also see in us the same emotions and qualities that they see in each other. There’s a common emotional language that we share. All of which is to say, for the purposes of The Pack, that we don’t want to see a dog get hurt any more than we want to see a person get hurt.

But we do want to see a person get hurt in a story like this, right? That’s part of the fun. And if the person is a killer, or makes clear the cruel designs that he has on others, we’ll actively root for some degree of comeuppance. Now sub that person out for a dog. It should be easy, right? We see so much humanity in those animals anyway. Do we still want to see a dog get its comeuppance? In The Pack, each of these dogs was once a friend, a pet, a loved one. Do we want to see them get hurt? Even if we know they want to hurt us?

The net result is a strange sort of emotional stalemate. We don’t want either side to win, and we certainly don’t want either side to lose. It’s probably not the sort of balance most authors can maintain for long, and Fisher is smart enough to move briskly. The book is just a hair over 200 pages, and none of those pages are wasted. If a character doesn’t need to stick around, they won’t. If it takes some time for the dogs to organize into a pack of killers, we’ll skip that time and introduce them when they’re ready to kill.

Ultimately, Fisher’s smartest move is to make its two structural heroes — estranged brothers Larry and Kenny — dumb as two boxes of distinct but similar rocks. Each of them makes exactly the wrong choice at every possible opportunity, leading to an unnecessary (and easily foreseeable) death for one, and a much more difficult time of survival for the other. There’s an innately destructive pride at play that keeps either of them from…y’know…doing anything that might help. They each want to play the hero, and they’re each better suited to sit quietly and wait for an actual hero to turn up.

That helps maintain the balance as well. The dogs do some bad things, but the humans do the worst things to themselves. They all but place their own necks in the dogs’ mouths. It’s not an endearing stupidity, but it’s definitely engaging. We turn each page not quite wondering which party will outwit the other, but excited to see how the humans will bungle what should be an insurmountable advantage. And I can’t imagine The Pack working better than that.

7) The Auctioneer, Joan Samson (1975)

The Auctioneer is a difficult book for me to rank. If you had asked me how I felt about it as I approached its ending, I would have said it was among my favorites. If you asked me soon after I finished it, I’d have been a bit less generous, but still happy with it. The more time has passed, however, the more my opinion of the book has fallen. In many cases — especially with horror — the experience is enhanced by how long it lingers in the mind. That’s where The Auctioneer falls down. It doesn’t linger. In fact, it doesn’t allow itself to linger.

Explaining exactly what I mean would spoil the ending, and I’d prefer not to do that. Suffice it to say, there are always at least two options for how to end your horror story: the good thing wins, or the bad thing wins. Am I oversimplifying? Good lord, yes. But my point is that either of those outcomes is equally valid, as long as that’s what the story actually builds toward. If a story builds toward the triumph of evil only for evil to shrug, say “I’m bored now,” and waddle away so that good triumphs by default…well…that’s not all that satisfying, is it?

Reading The Auctioneer, it felt like I was reading a novelized episode of The Twilight Zone, and I do mean that as a compliment. As with many episodes of The Twilight Zone, the central concept is stronger than the writing around it. And that’s okay. The Twilight Zone presents a what-if situation. The writers need to do enough of the work to explore that concept, but they don’t need to drain it of all potential. They give the audience enough to work with mentally that it…well…lingers.

For a long, long while, author Joan Samson is doing that. She takes a what-if situation and explores it enough that it feels satisfying and that our minds run wild with possibilities of where the story can go, might go, should go. Where it does go is almost certainly less interesting than anything a reader will come up with, and that’s disappointing. More disappointing is that she brings the story just about to a perfect, cruel, incredible conclusion…and then chickens out.

The story is about an auctioneer who ambles into a little rural town. He offers to run a police auction, and that sounds like a grand idea. Residents donate their old junk and furniture that’s just taking up space. He auctions it off — largely to out-of-town vacationers who want to purchase a bit of the rustic charm — and the police get to hire more officers and upgrade their gear. Lovely!

Then the auctions continue. The residents quickly run out of things to donate. They start donating cherished heirlooms, farm equipment, things they love. They do this because those who stop donating meet with unfortunate ends…often at the hands of the now supremely equipped police officers.

It gets to the point that the residents are donating the very last of their belongings. Property is seized, often from under their feet, obviously to be auctioned off. At one point, children end up on the auction block.

That’s your story. How would you end it? Hopefully not the way Samson does, because it undercuts so much of the great work she did along the way. Like a Twilight Zone episode, she took a premise that was absurd on its surface, but structured her narrative in a way that it felt chillingly recognizable. Around 75% of The Auctioneer is a genuine achievement. The remaining 25% actively dismantles that achievement.

6) The Tribe, Bari Wood (1981)

The Tribe, Bari WoodVampires, bugs, dogs, Bigfoot…so far, so familiar to American popular culture. The Tribe chooses as its central monster a golem, and that alone makes it intriguing. That’s a monster from an entirely different horror tradition. It’s one that, to my benefit as a reader, hasn’t lost its ability to surprise or to unnerve. Even if The Tribe were poorly handled, I think I would have enjoyed it enough for that reason alone. I’ve seen almost every kind of monster go through its motions more times than I can count. But a golem? That’s something I’ve mainly known peripherally. Even a bad golem story would feel unique.

The Tribe is not a bad golem story. It’s not a bad story in general. Its central characters — a Jewish family and their Jewish friends — offered what was, for me, a fascinating window into a culture that isn’t far removed from my own but to which I’ve never belonged. I’ve had Jewish friends and colleagues, and that’s about it. Their rich — and often sorrowful — cultural heritage gives the story a great social backbone. We see the characters at their happiest and at their lowest. We follow them through triumph and through profound grief. And at each step, I felt like I learned a little more about the ways in which different cultures express themselves when faced with the same changes in life.

The big change in The Tribe is the senseless murder of an elderly rabbi’s son. It happens on the then-crime-ridden streets of New York. There’s no reason for it. It’s cruel and upsetting as it would be for any family from any culture. And yet, because the family in this book is Jewish, they are the “other” to those who do not share their history. They are the weird, scary caricatures depicted so often in propaganda throughout the ages, meant to dehumanize them and stir up antagonism. Am I reading too much into The Tribe? Being as a major plot point occurs when we flash back to a concentration camp in which several of our characters are imprisoned, I’m going to say no. Author Bari Wood is tapping into modern history’s worst crime against the Jews to inform the way they’re seen in this book, and to inform as well the way they respond.

It’s difficult to argue that a desire for revenge isn’t understandable here. A good young man is taken from the world in a hate crime. If you can fight back after that, few would begrudge you for doing so. An elderly man and his elderly friends cannot fight back, but they are aware of something that can. Together, they create a golem.

Being a horror story, we know the golem won’t be used for that purpose alone. We know that things will escalate. We know that an understandable act of revenge will spiral into something unforgivable. And when it does, it’s up to a friend of the family to figure out what happened and how to stop it. The friend of the family is Roger Hawkins, a black cop. Another “other.” Another person who knows through a different chain of experience what it’s like to be dehumanized. Another person who has had to weigh his own concepts of revenge and restitution and come to his own conclusions.

It’s an insightful book in terms of the dividing lines humans are keen to draw between themselves, and Wood is never content to let one example stand as definitive. The Nazis draw a line between themselves and the Jews. The Jews draw a line between themselves and the rest of New York. They also draw a line between themselves and Hawkins, who is a friend but who is kept at a distance for not being one of them. The white police draw a line between themselves and Hawkins. He has enough in common with any of them that they’d all benefit from being welcoming instead of shutting him out, but they shut him out. As we shut out our own “others.” And as we each give life to a monster we feel is justified and within our control. I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Tribe, but I didn’t expect to be pulling life lessons from it months later. It’s a damned good story.

Also, Stephen King provided the following quote about the book: “Marvelous…had me nervous about going upstairs.” Which sounds like a great compliment until you read the book and there isn’t a single time the golem or any kind of danger is upstairs. Nor is there a time any character is even mildly apprehensive about going upstairs, at least as far as I can recall. Stephen King will give you a quote for your book as long as you’re willing to cut him a check. He may well read it first, but he won’t do so very attentively.

5) Black Ambrosia, Elizabeth Engstrom (1988)

Black Ambrosia, Elizabeth EngstromIn the first “season” of Paperbacks from Hell, I fell in love with Elizabeth Engstrom’s When Darkness Loves Us. We’ll get there, but for now I’ll just say that it was such a remarkable book that I wanted more. In the introduction to that book, Grady Hendrix wrote a bit about Black Ambrosia, a vampire novel of Engstrom’s that I immediately tried to get my hands on.

It was out of print. The very few copies I could find were absurdly expensive. I figured all I could do was keep Black Ambrosia in mind any time I looked through shelves of old novels in used book stores or thrift shops. And then Paperbacks from Hell announced its second season, and Black Ambrosia was there. I could not have been happier.

Then I read it, and…couldn’t really get into it. It wasn’t at all what I expected or wanted. I made it a short way through the story and put it back on the shelf. I’d get to it at some point, but it wasn’t anywhere near that urgent read that I hoped it would be.

The second time I picked it up, I had my expectations far better aligned, and I ended up enjoying it a lot more. Black Ambrosia the first time around didn’t strike me as bad; it struck me as slight, and that was the last thing that I expected a full-length horror novel by Engstrom to be. Finally reading it properly, I was more willing to engage with it on its own terms. I’m glad I did; it’s quite good and at times achieves greatness. It’s worth reading. Its biggest crime is not being the heart-stopping work of horrifying brilliance I’d read earlier.

T. Chris Martindale’s Nightblood, which we’ve already discussed, featured a type of vampire that had more in common with the monsters seen in Night of the Living Dead than with Dracula. That’s okay. Engstrom’s vampire is of a more classical bent, and that’s by design. Not just the author’s design, but the vampire’s.

The vampire here is young Angelina Watson, and to her being a vampire is something like a career choice. She has a natural aptitude for it and it suits her personality. She likes being a vampire. She likes what it represents. She likes its tradition. She likes the label. In his introduction here, Hendrix posits that Angelina isn’t a vampire; she’s a lost girl who stumbled upon an identity. I won’t say he’s wrong, but I am at least not sure I agree. I think the truth is a bit of both. I think Angelina is a vampire. I also think that it doesn’t quite matter, because even if she weren’t, she’d choose to live this way.

Engstrom’s most interesting artistic choice here is to essentially write each chapter twice. We get the narrative version — basically, we get the novel Black Ambrosia — and then we get a first-hand account from one of the characters involved. We cut from one perspective to another. It’s an interesting method of telling the story, but in the end I’m not sure quite how much it adds. I think most of what “really” happened — or at least most of the interpretations other characters would have — is already there in the main narrative for those who are paying attention. But an overly cautious Engstrom is still damned good Engstrom. It’s not fair to be disappointed when somebody capable of A+ work turns in a B+ paper, but we always will be.

4) The Reaping, Bernard Taylor (1980)

The Reaping, Bernard TaylorThe Reaping is a difficult novel to explain, at least in terms of its appeal. With others, I can point to big moments or indelible images, and sort of dance around those as illustrations of my feelings. Not so with The Reaping; its appeal is almost impossible for me to articulate.

I think that’s because it’s a very atmospheric book. In fact, in terms of sheer atmosphere, it might be the best release Paperbacks from Hell has given us yet. I was swept away by it not because of what was happening or because of what might happen next, but because of the way in which things happened. Bernard Taylor, basically, gave us a book so well written, it almost didn’t matter what was in it.

The story follows an artist who is commissioned to paint a portrait. He’s offered a massive sum for the job, but is required to reside in the same manor as his subject until his work is done. It would be a lie to say that there isn’t more to the story than that, but that’s more than enough space for Taylor to give us a spooky mystery that only gets stranger as its questions are answered.

…to a point, at least. The Reaping falls down pretty hard in the end, mainly due to just how good it was until its central mystery was resolved. Maybe that’s the problem; The Reaping is at its best when resolution seems to be permanently on the horizon, always there but impossible to reach. I think Taylor’s talent trapped him. Had he provided no resolution, we’d obviously be disappointed. But any resolution he can provide can’t possibly live up to the heights of the mystery he created.

The book is at its best when it just exists. Sounds in the night. Shifts in behavior. Sentences unfinished. When you don’t know what’s happening, everything has significance. That’s true for us and for our protagonist, a character whose entire life involves taking what he sees and immortalizing it on canvas. Throughout the book he sees so much but understands so little. It’s a naturally frustrating situation for an artist, and a playfully frustrating one for a reader.

There’s also a strange social anachronism at play throughout the book. It was published in 1980, but could at times pass for a comedy of manners from 100 years prior. It would make perfect sense for the strange residents of the manor to be many decades out of step, clinging to some kind of imagined social order that is not remembered by anybody beyond the boundaries of the estate, but our artist does get to go home. Our artist does get to spend time in the “real” world. Our artist does get to walk us through his daily routine both before and after his commission is complete. It’s not the manor that exists out of time; it’s The Reaping. And I love it.

Taylor’s book is such a difficult one to discuss. In fact, I wouldn’t have bought it on its own, and I can’t think of a single thing that somebody could have written about it that would have convinced me that it was worth my time. (At least, not a single honest thing.) You just need to be invited in, without knowing what awaits you, and see what you find.

3) Let’s Go Play at the Adams’, Mendal W. Johnson (1974)

Let's Go Play at the Adams', Mendal W. JohnsonWhen reading the Paperbacks from Hell releases, I read the introduction before the text proper. I’ll have certain things spoiled for me, but I honestly don’t care much about spoilers, and with original release years running (so far) from 1974 to 1990, getting a bit of context around what I’m about to read is helpful. I’d like to engage with the books — as much as possible — on their own terms. That’s more fair to them and I’m happier for it.

Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ opens with an introduction, but it’s one that pleads with you not to read it first. And so, for the only time so far, I read a book in this series without prefatory matter. I don’t want to speak for Grady Hendrix, who wrote that introduction, but I think there’s tremendous value in going into this particular story blind. The escalation of cruelty is the story, and that’s something no introduction can explain. It’s something that must be felt.

I will be honest with you: Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ is one of the most haunting things I’ve ever read. I spent weeks having difficulty falling asleep without certain moments rushing back into my head. The book is vivid and unrelenting in its horrors. You will see very clearly in your mind everything author Mendal W. Johnson describes, whether you wish to or not. (To be honest, I’d hate to meet anyone who wished to.)

And so I won’t be spoiling anything here. I will only tell you what I knew ahead of time, and then emphasize how true it is. What I knew ahead of time was that the book was about a babysitter who is bound by her young charges, and that what follows is a harrowing and horrifying story that takes itself farther than you’d ever expect it to. Knowing that ahead of time, I set my expectations quite a long way out indeed. It went still farther. Knowing this, you’ll set your expectations even farther out. And it will go farther still.

I think the reason the novel disarms so effectively is that it’s good. I don’t know anything about Johnson outside of this book, but I don’t get the sense that he’s writing shocking things for the sake of shocking his readers. What happened is that he created a very specific cast of characters, and then let everything happen as it must happen. And so as awful as nearly every plot point is, they are also always the correct plot points. To take them anywhere less extreme would be a disservice to the hideous world Johnson let us peer into. Everything happens because it must happen. Everything gets worse because it must get worse. Nothing gets better because nothing can possibly get better.

It is a work of artful excess. It seems that a lot of critics dismissed the content of the book as being Johnson working through a sick fantasy. I was willing to believe that myself; it’s difficult to read something like this and not see it that way. But Johnson is not writing fantastically. Johnson is writing with icy commitment. I never got the sense that this reflected his desires — as a person, as an author, as an artist — in any way. I wish it did, because that would let me off the hook. That would let me shrug off everything that happens in Let’s Go Play at the Adams’. That would let me box up everything I experienced in this book and put a label on it and never open it again. But it’s not sick fantasy; it’s a horrifyingly natural sequence of events that shocks and horrifies and overwhelms not because we’re peering into the mind of some weird writer but because we’re peering into the souls of too many people we already think we know.

Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ does tell one scary story, but the real horror comes from the fact that you close the book and it’s still there around you. It’s in the air. It’s in people whose smiles seem so genuine. Johnson isn’t writing sick fantasy; he’s chronicling sick reality. And he does it so fucking well, I promise you it’s worth reading once. Exactly once. You won’t need a second time.

2) A Nest of Nightmares, Lisa Tuttle (1986)

A Nest of Nightmares, Lisa TuttleI’m not sure if I’ve ever gotten into the discussion here, but I am not a fan of short fiction. Do I mean that uniformly? Of course not, but the novel is the perfect delivery method for fiction, as far as I’m concerned. With few exceptions (Carver and Chekhov, mainly), I don’t feel satisfied by them. I can’t so much explain why as I can guess. I think it has something to do with the appeal of fiction — to me — being the opportunity to be transported to a world of the author’s creation. Short stories feel more like glancing through a narrow window. I have respect for short stories, but rarely much love.

All of which is to say A Nest of Nightmares was far and away my least-anticipated installment of Paperbacks from Hell. If I don’t even enjoy the greatest short stories, what would I possibly get out of this collection? The fact that it’s this far up my list reveals, I’m sure, that I got a hell of a lot out of it. If I could have snapped my fingers and had Valancourt publish just about anything else in its place, I would have done so. I know now how much I would have regretted it, too.

Lisa Tuttle’s tales here absolutely qualify as horror, but they’re not limited to horror. There is so much effective, efficient storytelling here that the horror — whatever form it may take — is just one element of each story. You get some degree of spookiness, but it’s one part of a larger story about the people who encounter that spookiness. It isn’t great horror writing; it’s great writing that happens to be horror.

The real Nest of Nightmares, if you’ll allow me this indulgence, is the series of flawed relationships we forge as we go about whatever we consider to be our lives. And so while terrible things pop out and yell their personal synonyms for “boo” at various points throughout the collection, what haunts is the tortured relationship between jealous siblings, the failing marriage being taken out on a pet, the hurtful thing we said to somebody who made the mistake of caring about us, the perfect marriage lost forever through untimely death, the distance between who we are and who we wish we could be to others.

Those are the things that leave the worst scars. The monster in the closet feels incidental. By comparison, the time he revealed himself and tried to eat us is the funny story we’ll share at dinner parties. The rest is what we keep and fight and struggle to process alone, in silence, in the darkness.

Tuttle’s work here is astounding, and you’ll have to forgive me for going light on details. That’s one of the other things I’ve always tripped over when it comes to short stories; it’s impossible to describe them, even vaguely, without giving away so much of what they are.

But I will single out “Flying to Byzantium” as my favorite in this collection. It’s the kind of story that hurts to read at the same time you’re laughing at the insight. Maybe it won’t hit all readers quite as hard as it hit me — a writer, like the protagonist, with my own new book that I’m hawking — but it was, I felt, Tuttle at her absolute best, speaking the mundane truth in a profound and unforgettable way, elevating a tiny, quiet tale into something that quite literally redefines the world.

I can’t recommend this one enough, and it’s still not the best Paperback from Hell.

1) When Darkness Loves Us, Elizabeth Engstrom (1985)

When Darkness Loves Us, Elizabeth EngstromAnd, yes, both of the top slots on this list are taken by things that aren’t full-length novels, despite the fact that I nearly always prefer full-length novels. It’s a weird feeling, but don’t worry; it won’t make me reconsider a thing about my preferences or the entertainment I choose to consume in the future!

When Darkness Loves Us is a set of two novellas. The first gives the book its name, and it’s one of the most affecting and unsettling works of literary horror I’ve ever read. It’s strange and funny and unnerving and terrifying, and it easily would have been worth the cost of the book on its own.

On the surface, it’s a story about a young woman who explores an underground tunnel while her new husband is doing yard work. It’s a tunnel she explored as a child and, slipping back into it now, as an adult with a brand-new life ahead of her, is a sort of comforting indulgence. The tunnel is then sealed behind her so that nobody will fall into it and get hurt.

That’s the entirety of the premise, and that’s probably enough on its own to make for a solid read. Engstrom does not stop there, however. It’s not enough to trap her heroine underground without anybody knowing where she is or even that she’s in need of help. She compounds the nightmare, many times over, drifting further from reality at about the same pace our main character does. Protagonist and narrator slide away in a mutual spiral of insanity, executed with horrifying beauty and a strangeness that feels both inventive and inevitable. It’s an excellent novella, and had this been the only pleasant surprise I’d gotten from Paperbacks from Hell, I still would have considered it a worthwhile purchase.

The second novella, “Beauty is…” has a completely different tone, and while I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did “When Darkness Loves Us,” the fact is that just about anything would have felt like a step down after that. “Beauty is…” is much longer and takes its time weaving a believable, recognizable world before the horror truly sets in; precisely the opposite approach from “When Darkness Loves Us,” which thrusts its heroine into Hell within a page or so and only digs deeper from there.

“Beauty is…” is a story of several kinds of cruelty visited upon a character who doesn’t seem to be able to recognize or process them. It centers on a mentally disabled woman who proves herself slowly to be more capable than anybody around her suspected, which — depending on how you read it — could lead her into an even worse situation than being universally dismissed as useless. It’s a melancholy story with a sadness that sometimes feels too human to be entertaining. Unlike in “When Darkness Loves Us,” there’s not the comforting barrier of obvious fiction. Engstrom here is working through and exploring a very human tragedy, and it’s one that hurts more the closer we get to resolving it.

I’d love to say that when taking them both together we end up with one larger whole, something greater than the sum of its parts, which manages to achieve more than either story could on its own. That would not be true. We don’t end up with a singular, unforgettable collection as much as we end up with two separate unforgettable novellas. When Darkness Loves Us isn’t a work of brilliance; it’s two works of brilliance. That’s a neat trick in itself.

Announcing: Resident Evil, by Philip J Reed

Three years in the making, it’s finally time for the official announcement: My book, Resident Evil, is part of season five of Boss Fight Books.

Boss Fight Books is an excellent publisher, and I cannot express how profoundly honored I am to be included in their lineup. Each of their books focuses on one particular video game and then branches — to varying degrees — into larger topics, histories, personal journeys, and so much more.

This season includes books about The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Red Dead Redemption, Silent Hill 2, and Final Fantasy VI.

My book is about Resident Evil. Here, I can prove it:

Resident Evil is my central case study for discussing horror and how it works, with an extended tour through the deadly Spencer Mansion allowing us to discuss the writing, directing, and structuring of scares, along with the surprising power of horror to bring us together.

It’s done. It’s as ready to be distributed as it can possibly be without actually being printed.

Which is where you come in.

The Kickstarter campaign for season five is live right now.

If you were only ever interested in a copy of my book, then don’t worry; think of this as a preorder. Pay $5 for a digital copy or pay $15 for both a physical and digital copy. You get my book and you support the campaign by doing so.

Nice and easy!

However, there are other options available that are worth exploring. Pay $25 and you’ll get all five books digitally. Pay $30 and get two physical/digital copies of any of them. (Resident Evil and Silent Hill 2 fit nicely together, I hear.) Pay $75 for the entire set physically and digitally and get a personal thank-you within the books.

The list goes on. Check out all of the different ways you can support the campaign and get some nice goodies for yourself.

The nicest goodie of all might be Nightmare Mode. If the campaign hits $20,000 in funding, backers will receive this anthology featuring additional material from 10 Boss Fight Books authors past and present, myself included.

I have put more work into Resident Evil than I can express without sounding like I’m writing a suicide note. There is no doubt in my mind that if you enjoy my writing in general, you’ll enjoy this. (To be frank, you’d be nuts if you didn’t enjoy it more. Working with professional editors makes a huge difference.)

You can read all about my book and the others on the Kickstarter page.

I hope you will consider supporting the campaign, which you can do no matter what title or titles you decide to buy.

During the campaign I’ll be sharing more information about the book right here on this site. (Seriously, I’m not going to shut up about it.) I hope you’ll join me in reading about the adventures I’ve had off the page and getting a sense of just why this game — like the writing of this book — has been so important to me.

For now, though, please visit the campaign. Watch the video to learn more (and to hear the original Resident Evil narrator Ward Sexton introduce my book!), decide what awesome stuff you’d like to have on your bookshelf, and consider supporting some great authors and an even better publisher.

I hope you enjoy reading Resident Evil even half as much as I enjoyed writing it.

More to come. See you soon.

Review: Third Editions’ new English translations

Note: Third Editions provided me with exactly one physical copy of each book in exchange for a review. No other compensation was offered, asked for, or delivered. The opinions you read here, as always, reflect my honest feelings as fully as the limitations of the English language will allow.

I’m a fan of Boss Fight Books. From the publication of their very first batch of titles, I’ve been following them closely, as excited about each new wave of announcements as I once was on Christmas morning. Sometimes they write about something I know well, and I look forward to the gift of experiencing a game through somebody else’s eyes. Other times it’s about a title I don’t know well at all, and I get to learn about the experience the game offers from afar, whether or not I end up particularly interested in playing it myself.

It’s a great series of books, and while there are a number of them that didn’t really resonate with me or work for me, I’m sure that those same titles are ones that hit other readers in genuinely profound ways. I don’t know how much agreement there is about which books are best and which are weakest, because they’re all so decidedly different. So unique. They’re like the people who write them; you’re going to immediately click with some, and you may never click with others.

I’m not complaining. I think that’s a selling point, especially if you dive in and grab a bunch of titles at once. The ones you end up enjoying the most could well be the ones you least suspected.

I mention Boss Fight Books for two reasons. Firstly, because the myriad different approaches demonstrated within that series – emotional, analytical, autobiographical, snarky, reverent – are appropriate for the still-young field of games scholarship. As a relatively new medium, and an interactive one, there is not yet an established, accepted method of writing about them seriously. Boss Fight Books represents the excitement at that new frontier, the giddy experimentation of holding up a game that may never have been given serious artistic consideration before, and creating, from nothing, the very discussion that will keep that game alive.

If I’m romanticizing that, so be it. I’m a romantic. I love art. I love discussing art, dissecting art, and sharing in somebody else’s passion. Boss Fight Books is a publisher that certainly does not lack for passion.

The other reason I mention them is that when Third Editions approached me for a review, Boss Fight Books was the very first point of comparison that crossed my mind.

On a very superficial level, I expected them to be quite similar. In fact, I wondered if this series could be theoretically absorbed into the other, and, if so, how well it would fit in.

I think that’s something Boss Fight Books should take as a compliment; they established a standard for games scholarship that anyone else who strolls into that area will have to live up to.

Third Editions does live up to it, but it also does so much differently that it almost doesn’t matter. The two series don’t – and shouldn’t – jostle for direct shelf space. Their intentions might seem similar, but their executions are very different. And they both work very well.

Full disclosure: I’ve pitched ideas to Boss Fight Books in the past, which is part of the reason I haven’t featured them directly on this site. I wouldn’t want there to appear to be any kind of conflict of interest should something work out between me and them in the future. I’d like to think my readers believe in my sense of integrity and that I wouldn’t ever dream of giving someone a good review in the hopes that I’ll get something out of it later, but mainly I wouldn’t want my words to seem retroactively hollow should one of my pitches actually pan out. (“Of course he likes them…they published his 750,000 word manifesto on Bubble Bobble.”)

Third Editions, though, is new to me. I don’t know any of the authors involved, I don’t know the publisher, and I know nothing of their plans for future books. In short, there’s nothing between them and me that anyone should even be able to misconstrue as a conflict, and I was free to approach the three books they sent me as a reader and a critic.

I’m glad I had that opportunity, because they were great.

The titles they sent me were Zelda: The History of a Legendary Saga, The Legend of Final Fantasy VII, and Dark Souls: Beyond the Grave. (Two other titles, covering Bioshock and Metal Gear Solid, are also currently available.)

In the case of Final Fantasy VII, the book is almost entirely about that individual game. The other two books, though, are about the series in general. This is in contrast to the Boss Fight Books releases, which almost exclusively focus on a single game each.

Each of these books is attributed to two authors. How closely the pairs worked together, I can’t personally say. But I will say that the books certainly read as cohesive works, and I didn’t notice any issues in terms of a shifting of authorial voice. They read well, they’re written clearly, and section breaks are meted out generously enough that no topic overstays its welcome.

That would be the whole of my general feedback if not for this fact:

These books are gorgeous.

As strong as the writing is – and we’ll discuss that momentarily – there’s no denying the books’ sheer physical appeal. These are some absolutely beautiful publications, and for fans of the covered games, I’d say they’d make for incredible gifts for that reason alone. These have value simply as collectibles, and I think it’s worth pointing that out. They’re lovely, and the photos I’ve taken do not do them justice.

Furthering their value as physical gift pieces, they’re all printed on impressively thick paper, which was a pleasant surprise. They each also have a color-coordinated ribbon for holding your place: gold for Zelda, white for Final Fantasy VII, and black for Dark Souls. I’m assuming this qualifies as a bonus, but I have to admit I’ve always found these ribbons difficult to use; I keep worrying that I’ll close the book on them wrong and crease them. That’s obviously just one of my many neuroses, but I’d be curious to hear if anyone out there has strong feelings about them either way.

Visually and physically, the books are great. It is, however, worth noting that they don’t contain any art assets. No illustrations, maps, or anything along those lines. That’s fitting for the approach the authors take, and their absence wasn’t felt to me as a reader, but if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s good to know in advance.

In my position –- reading all three books in fairly quick succession –- I will say that the font size for Final Fantasy VII took a moment to get used to. Zelda and Dark Souls use a large, easy-to-read font, but Final Fantasy VII uses one that’s noticeably smaller. I don’t think it’s anything that should be a deal breaker for somebody interested in that book alone, and I will emphasize that it’s not difficult to read, but it was rather jarring coming off of the easier fonts of the other two. As first I thought this was done so that the books could be kept of a relatively equal number of pages, but Zelda has 221 numbered pages, Dark Souls has 303, and Final Fantasy VII has 199, so I’d guess it could have afforded a larger font after all.

But, well, what of the actual content?

I have to admit, it’s a bit difficult to review that.

See, the approach of the Third Editions authors is largely clinical. It’s fact-based, with little in the way of personality or conversation. That’s not a problem at all, but it does make reviewing them difficult.

Typically, I’m used to novels. Fiction. Which allows me to discuss (and judge) things like style, pacing, creativity. Non-fiction is a lot different. I can judge a work of non-fiction on how much I learned and whether or not it kept me engaged, but beyond that, I’d struggle for much to say. And, of course, I’d prefer not to simply regurgitate the information the books provide. (That’s, y’know, what the books are for.)

This is also another area in which a comparison to Boss Fight Books might be helpful. Those books weave (to varying degrees) the information they provide into and within more personal narratives. Those do provide an element of creative expression, even while relaying relatively dry facts and histories.

So, hey, bear with me as I feel my way through this, and learn to review something in a way that’s pretty new to me.

I will say that the writing is solid. The chapters are clearly delineated, with very little overlap in subject matter, which means that you can either read them straight through (as I did), or hop around to the particular subjects that interest you. Reading straight through won’t bury you in redundant information, and hopping around won’t strand you without context. That’s nice.

It’s also worth pointing out that these three books are English translations from French originals. I can’t speak much to the actual translation process, but I can say that if I didn’t know they were originally written in another language, I wouldn’t have been able to guess. The English versions don’t come across as clunky or confusing at any point, and I’d guess their translator has done impressive work in that regard.

Ultimately, I think I can also vouch for the value of these books as informative texts. I personally know quite a lot about the Zelda series, a decent amount about Final Fantasy VII, and very little about the Dark Souls games. In each case, however, I learned a lot. This was especially surprising to me in the Zelda book, as I was more or less convinced I’d read everything I’d ever have to read about that series. It was a great surprise to me that there was still a lot for me to learn in terms of the design of those games, their development, and their larger inspirations.

For that reason alone, I’m confident in saying that these books go well beyond what you would find in the standard wikis and retrospectives you’re likely to read online. And that’s important, I feel, because with so much information available in so many formats at our fingertips, it may be difficult to justify spending money on what may turn out to be little more than a printed version of some small fragment of that information.

Third Editions does actually bring new (or at least uncommon) information to the table, though, and I certainly enjoyed the professional, clean approach taken with the material here far more than I enjoy the amateur writeups I usually find online. The quality of the writing and presentation here justifies the purchase price for fans of these games, and you’d be hard pressed to find better ways of learning about them.

In fact, these titles read almost like textbooks at times, and I mean that as a compliment. They successfully present themselves as definitive sources, and it’s easy to imagine them being used in the college lectures on video games that are certain to become more commonplace in the future. They serve as reference materials and study guides at once, providing relatively little in the way of interpretation but giving readers all of the tools they’ll need to interpret these games and series themselves. It lays the groundwork, in other words, for designers and gamers to reach the next level of understanding. As odd as it may sound in regards to books about video games, these are genuinely educational.

And, frankly, they’re pretty great. I was given these books in exchange for a review, but I’ve also placed an order for the Bioshock book, as I think that is a series that will lend itself very well to the Third Editions approach. I didn’t just read these and enjoy them…I read them and wanted more.

For fans of any of these games, especially fans who are interested in studying them, it’s hard to go wrong with Third Editions. They’re well-written, surprisingly informative, and deeply comprehensive. They look and feel great, and they’d make a great gift for gamers and scholars alike.

Whether or not the more clinical, detached approach will appeal to you is something I can’t answer. If the kind of video game chat you enjoy is held with good friends over a long night of drinking, then Boss Fight Books is probably a better fit for you. But if you’d prefer video games to get the exhaustive, thorough, scholarly treatment films and music have been getting for decades, give Third Editions a spin.

Personally, I enjoy them both for different reasons. But I look forward to seeing what Third Editions covers next. It will be interesting to see if it achieves the staying power Boss Fight Books has. I certainly wish them luck, and I hope they find the exposure they deserve.

You can view and purchase the books available from Third Editions right here.

Time’s Up, Me Too, We’re All Shitheads

My recent piece on Jen Trynin — on her music, on her book, on her — was a bit long and meandering. I know that. But I also know that it could have been much longer and far more meandering.

That’s a credit to her. Sometimes I’ll read, play, watch, or listen to some work of art and think about a post I could write, focusing on something that I found interesting or important. Nearly always, it’s one something. In that post, though, there were dozens of somethings, and even more I never get around to discussing.

I wondered a couple of days ago if maybe I shouldn’t have scrapped that entire post and wrote a different one about the nature of fame, using her book as a jumping-off point. That would be have been far more focused.

But, hey, wouldn’t you know it? Everybody’s a shithead, and I ended up with a more timely reason to write a post about that after all.

Trynin’s book, Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be, did a great job of telling a number of stories at the same time, all of them, ultimately, about her. In my previous post I talked about the time she caught her own video being riffed on Beavis and Butt-Head, and how nervous she was that they’d say something negative about her.

Not about her video, or about her music, or a particular lyric…but about her personally. I made one point in that post about how human that revealed her to be, but I can make another one here: she wasn’t cut out to be famous.

Let’s step back and think about that, because I mean it in no way as an insult.

While unkind words can hurt, if you put yourself in the public eye, you need to be able to handle them. Trynin, it seems, was not prepared. And it’s worth pointing out that nowhere in the book does anybody truly say anything mean to her or about her. She’s braced against a criticism (or perhaps an attack) that never comes. In fairness there is one less-than-glowing review she gets in Spin magazine, but even that negative piece contains words of praise. I’m sure you can guess which words she clings to.

Again, she’s human. Bad words feel bad to her. She’s already buckling beneath their weight before they arrive. She’s preemptively upset by them.

I can understand that. Of course I get negative comments here and there, and have to read some negative thing somebody’s said about a project I worked on, and it hurts. I think I do a decent job of not letting things get to me, but I certainly slip up in that regard more than I wish I did. You put your heart into something, or at the very least your time and effort, and you know not everybody will love it. You know that. You’re fine with that. Why wouldn’t you be? But you also sort of wish that the folks who don’t love it will…be nice? Keep criticism constructive? Move on with their lives without making you question your worth?

I avoid receiving widespread criticism because, quite simply, I don’t have a massive audience. The more eyes on you, the more negativity you’ll find. (The more positivity as well, but…you can guess which words I’d cling to.) If I were bigger, I’d have to face that more directly, and maybe I wouldn’t be able to handle it well anymore. Based on what I read in her book, I’m fairly confident that Trynin, had she made it bigger, wouldn’t have been able to handle it well, either.

You need to turn it off. You need to reach inside and flip whatever switch exists that causes you to care about what others think of you. I think that’s fair to say. You can’t care.

But I wonder if what people really do is turn off their humanity.

What I loved about the Trynin I met in Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be was her humanity. It’s what caused me to become invested in (as opposed to, say, entertained by) her story. It’s what allowed it to resonate. It’s what made it matter to me.

In a comment on that post, ace commenter FelixSH said he’s invested in the stuff I write here for the same reason: “I feel connected. You open yourself up, and I feel like there is someone who feels similar to me. The melancholy that I find in your posts (especially ones like this) touch me and feel relevant.”

I appreciate that, of course, and I also believe it. I’m sure I still have my humanity. I’m sure because I can probably name a handful of positive things people have said about my writing, but I could repeat for hours all of the negative things I’ve heard that I’ve carried with me. If I could switch off my humanity, it wouldn’t hurt as much. But…well…humanity has its value, too.

Right now, every few days, another high-profile actor, director, or personality is accused of some appalling sexual coercion and behavior. I doubt very much that such behavior is anything like a recent phenomenon. Speaking up is recent. Publicity is recent. Fan backlash is recent. But this kind of behavior has surely been going on as long as we’ve had celebrities of any kind.

It’s also, however, been easy to overlook for far too long. I’m glad that those who engage in predatory behavior are now being held accountable for their actions. This is great news, in itself. But it also brings with it so many smaller jolts of bad news. Or maybe I should say disappointment.

Most recently (as I write this), Aziz Ansari has been accused of hideous and unwelcome sexual advances. Another day, another celebrity, right?

But Ansari feels like a kind of blow to me. Not only because I liked the guy — he was a consistent highlight of anything he was in — but because he didn’t seem like a creep at all. In fact, he presented himself quite directly as being the opposite of those who were abusing their power, manipulating sexual partners, and shirking responsibility for their actions. He spoke out against it. And yet, on a date with a woman he found attractive, he ignored clear signals, and respected her refusals just long enough to lull her into complacency and press her again.

The account linked above is a difficult read. It’s upsetting. The photos and text messages (from a number the blogger verified belongs to Ansari) make it all too clear that this actually happened, and we’re left with one less person we can allow ourselves to respect.

(Ansari has since responded to the accusations with a non-apology that I’d argue says very little.)

The thing is, though…I don’t know if Ansari is an innately scummy human being. Let me be clear that if this event unfolded as described, his behavior is truly scummy. But was he always that way? Did he start out that way?

Or at some point, did he switch off his humanity?

You need to turn it off if you’re going to survive stardom of any kind. We hear about tormented artists not only because torment has the potential to fuel such great art but because artists themselves are human. Humans, by and large, don’t cope well with being judged constantly by strangers. They often turn to self-destructive behaviors or, in some cases, take active steps to tank their own careers. Fame and humanity may not be universally incompatible, but they certainly don’t play well together.

And once you turn it off…if you seal yourself off from your humanity…it probably gets a bit harder to see that person telling you “no” as a person. It probably gets a bit harder to accept that somebody doesn’t want to sleep with you. It probably makes you feel that you can do as you please, because without the guilt, without the regret, without the contrition that comes packaged with humanity, you don’t have as much incentive to behave. If you don’t have to live with the fallout, you care less about triggering the explosion.

It all makes sense in my mind. In order to succeed in the public eye, you need to insulate yourself against criticism. You can’t bristle against every little slight. You need to let the vast majority of potential conflicts pass by without your involvement. So you turn off this part of you that feels, that cares, that listens. And, in doing so, you make it emotionally easier for yourself to commit atrocities you never would have otherwise.

Of course, the fact that it all makes sense in my mind doesn’t mean it’s not bullshit.

I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t know if I’m grasping at straws, but if I am it’s because I don’t want to believe that anybody is inherently awful. I want to believe that there’s a reason they behaved abhorrently. I’m not looking to excuse them and even less am I looking to excuse anything they’ve done (or been said to have done, as the case may be). Maybe there are just bad people. But do there have to be so many?

I want to justify it. Identify a cause. I suppose it’s possible that people who behave in hideous sexual fashions are themselves drawn to stardom, but I think that would be one hell of a leap, being as we hear about pretty awful sex crimes regularly from people who have absolutely no public standing whatsoever, and we know that there’s no “standard” celebrity profile. Stars come from all backgrounds, all walks of life, and exhibit the entire spectrum of personality traits.

I don’t know. I’d be interested to know what people think. I don’t want to conclude that any man in a position of power defaults to the tactics of sexual assault. In fact, I know they don’t. That alone isn’t it. That alone isn’t enough. So what is it?

At a number of points in my life, I’ve held positions of power. As a teacher, as a tutor, as a manager, an an editor. I think it would be idiotic to claim that everything I did in those positions was perfect and I am to be studied and emulated, of course, but I can say that I’ve never used that power to manipulate or coerce anybody. What’s more: I never wanted to. I never reached a point at which I needed to make a decision about whether or not to…push.

My mind doesn’t operate that way, and I think that’s why this is so bizarre, fascinating, and frustrating to me. I want to know what people are thinking when they behave like that. I have never looked at a woman I found attractive and wondered whether or not I should force her beyond her zone of comfort. I don’t even understand what that would feel like to consider, let alone pursue.

I feel as though I’d have to have turned off my humanity. I feel as though I’d have to be somebody else entirely.

But, hey. I’m a shithead, too.

Because while I stand by what I’ve just said…there was a time. There was behavior on my part I truly regret. There was a situation into which I placed a young lady that appalls me to remember.

I was in my early 20s. She was younger, but not by much. A year or so. Even a first name would be too obvious to anyone who knows her, so for the sake of privacy, I’ll call her D. (I truly doubt she’s reading this, but if she is and would like to reveal her own name for any reason, and/or share her side of the story, she is more than welcome to do so in the comments below.)

We worked at the same store. I met her and we hit it off immediately. We were very similar. She read and wrote, I read and wrote. We talked books a lot. We talked music. I liked her. I wanted to date her.

She had a boyfriend at the time, and of course that was fine. We talked a lot. We hung out a few times. At one point she wanted me to help her improve her writing, so we worked on a few things together. She sent me what she wrote, asking for feedback. I’m sure I was polite in my feedback, but I also did genuinely want to help. I was flattered she came to me at all, so I wanted to make sure she got something out of our working together.

At one point, she split up with her boyfriend. I don’t remember the details, but I remember thinking this was my chance. I didn’t think twice. Why would I? I liked D. We got along. At various points, even while she was with him, I got the sense that she liked me as well.

We were talking online one night. I got flirty. Excessively so. I’m not self-censoring here; it’s been over a decade and I don’t remember specifically what I said so much as I remember the intention, which was clear. Blunt. I didn’t ask her on a date. I said and suggested things that were more directly sexual.

I don’t remember what she said that night, but I remember the conversation we had the next day. I’d made her feel cheap. She was surprised I would say things like that to her. She made it very clear that she didn’t see our relationship that way, and it was clear to me that I had damaged our friendship, and that I had breeched some kind of unspoken trust.

She and I remain friends today. We live a thousand-odd miles apart, so it’s not as though we see each other often, but we stay in sporadic touch. I don’t think she’s still mad at me. She made her feelings known, and I apologized without question. I was in the wrong. I had made her feel uncomfortable, and I had said things that were unwelcome. While I don’t remember the specifics of what I said or what she said in return, it’s safe to say she was not reciprocating in a way that should have encouraged me. I brought things to a point that upset her.

I upset her.

That was my fault.

I felt bad immediately. Not now, at this point in the future, when I see other people’s misbehavior being exposed…but then. Right then. Because that’s who I am. At the time, that night, I didn’t feel as though I were doing anything but pursuing someone to whom I was attracted. That was the spirit of my remarks. But I hurt D. I made her feel as though I were only her friend because I wanted more. I probably made her second guess every bit of feedback I’d given her on her writing.

That’s my fault. Nothing I said was inherently wrong, but it wasn’t welcome. Words are words, but they were out of place. I upset her. I still — here and now — feel terrible about it.

Which is why I can’t understand those who refuse to listen to the word “no.” Or to many other words that clearly mean “no.” Or to the body language and cues that make it clear the answer is “no.” I don’t get it. What’s missing? How do they live with themselves?

I’m haunted by the fact that I jeopardized a friendship by misjudging a situation and saying things I should not have said. I was obviously listening to my own feelings, and wasn’t listening anywhere near well enough to hers. Somehow I got it in my head that she liked me. I’m not saying she led me on — in fact, I’ll say the opposite: she did not lead me on — but I let myself believe it and that was that. I moved forward as though what I believed she wanted was what she wanted. And I upset her. And I’m sorry.

I don’t know how it’s possible to force yourself on somebody — anybody — and look at yourself in the mirror ever again. I couldn’t possibly do it. Not that I’d want to, but I can’t even imagine doing it without severing myself from my own humanity.

That’s the only way it makes sense to me.

The revelation about Ansari is particularly notable to me, because it’s the first time one of these accusations has targeted someone I’d say I really liked. (Unless we count the David Letterman non-scandal from a few years ago, but I think that’s in a very different ballpark, both in terms of its nature and how it was handled.)

So I reflect. And I wonder. Is Ansari just a shithead by nature? Or did he let himself become one? Did he sacrifice his humanity, or am I giving him too much credit by assuming he had any to begin with? How many things would have to change within me before I could possibly behave the same way?

I don’t know. I don’t have answers. But I sure do have questions.

For the record, as much as the Ansari situation bothers me, I refuse to to truly lose hope in mankind until we start hearing stories about one of these:
– Wes Anderson
– Will Arnett
– Michael Palin

Please be good boys.

The Compleat Jen Trynin

The mid-90s were a strange time for me, culture-wise. It was the first time — and probably still the only time — that I really followed “current” music. Prior to that and for the most part since, I’d kind of hop around, exploring genres, artists, and time periods as the mood dictates. Very rarely does an album come out that I feel the need to buy or listen to immediately. I’ll eventually get to it, or I won’t. Who cares? There’s so much music out there…why prioritize something just because it’s new?

From around 1993 – 1995, though, I cared. I followed. I watched MTV constantly, which feels like an embarrassing admission, but it’s worth remembering that during that time, the channel was of genuine cultural importance. That’s not say it didn’t air or perpetuate complete garbage (such as anti-vaccination game show Singled Out), but it is to say that it also did things that mattered. From the inventive animated showcase Liquid Television to the brilliant sketch comedy of The State to the slacker-generation icons we found in Beavis and Butt-Head (which itself gave eventual rise to the misfit icons of Daria). MTV was an urgent and important cultural force.

I say all of this to provide a bit of context. I had the bands and artists that I loved specifically, such as Green Day, R.E.M., Beck, Oasis, and a few others. Those were the ones whose videos I’d want to catch, whose songs would periodically keep me interested however many others came and went without making an impact. But I also just kind of absorbed other songs in the background. Ones by artists that, for whatever reason, didn’t strike me with the same immediacy. They were often fun, cute, catchy. Sometimes they were none of those things, and you’d still end up retaining them. That’s one of the amusing quirks of popular music, after all; even things we don’t like can lodge themselves permanently in our brains.

Every so often, now, as I go about my day, my brain will feed me some snatch of a long-forgotten song. A melody, or a lyric. Maybe with a particular memory tied to it, but usually not. And because I spent so much time experiencing the songs that flit by on MTV or KROQ or the mixtapes my friends passed around, it can be difficult to identify the song I’m half remembering. I have to employ some detective work. I’ll hum it for people, as best I can. I’ll describe the kind of song it is. I’ll hope against hope that whatever fleeting pop song I’ve somehow internalized will be the same one that a peer has.

A few months ago, this happened. I remembered a chorus, but little else. And while the chorus is probably the most fruitful thing to remember, Google didn’t help, because the chorus was “I’m feeling good.” Lots of songs feature that line and title, or some very minor variation, and so there were too many results, none of which were correct. That was it. I couldn’t find the song that was haunting me.

My brain tosses me a few other bones. I start to remember more about it. I remember riding around in the summer time, in the car of an older friend, asking him to turn up the song because I liked it so much. I remember catching it playing in a restaurant or a store, and being cheered up immediately. I remember singing along to it. And the rest of the chorus comes back. “I’m feeling good. I’m feeling good. I’m feeling good. For now.”

And now I find it, under a name I never would have remembered. The song is not named after its chorus; it’s called “Better Than Nothing,” and the artist is Jen Trynin.

I watch the video a bunch of times. Memories come back. It was one of my feel-good songs from that era. Cynical, but upbeat. Catchy, but honest. The mid-90s come back to me in the video’s editing, in Trynin’s clothing and hairstyle, in the song itself. It’s very much of its era, but…it holds up. It’s good. I’ve been listening to it off and on ever since. While you could certainly make a list of 90s pop songs that are better, I’d argue that that list would be relatively short.

“Better Than Nothing” is great. It constituted the only four minutes I’d ever heard from Jen Trynin, but that’s fine.

The phrase “one-hit wonder” has a bit of a negative connotation in popular music, and that’s something I’ve never totally understood. Having a hit is a good thing. Having one hit puts you, mathematically, leagues above almost every other band or artist that has ever existed. The overwhelming majority of musicians never have a hit. To have one is a triumph. It should be celebrated.

Instead, “one-hit wonder” always feels like a snarky way of referring to a musician that didn’t have staying power. Maybe it’s odd to me because I don’t think there are similar sentiments toward other kinds of artists. I genuinely don’t know. Does anyone look at a great painting and dismiss the painter because he or she didn’t also paint five other popular works? Does anyone care if a director makes just one beloved film? In literature I know for a fact that it doesn’t cause readers to look down their noses. To Kill a Mocking Bird, Lord of the Flies, Catch-22 and many other massively important works all came from one-hit wonders. Who cares?

Music, though, seems different in that regard, and I’m not sure why.

So I looked Trynin up and, sure enough, “Better Than Nothing” was her commercial peak. She had two albums, some other singles, and that was largely that.


But I found that she also had a book. Her first album, Cockamamie, featured “Better Than Nothing” and was released in 1995. In 2006, she released Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be, a memoir chronicling her brief experience with music stardom. What’s more, the book got rave reviews. I started skimming them as I found more and more, because I was increasingly sold on the book and didn’t want to spoil anything for myself.

Reviewers talked about how funny it was. How charming. How insightful. What a great writer Trynin was. What a great story she had to tell.

And…man, that sure sounded like fun. A great book by someone who wrote a song I loved (and now love again) telling a story I never knew existed? Sign me up.

I bought it, but could only find a used copy. After all, it was published over a decade ago. As a collector that disappointed me (shelfwear, dog ears, sticker residue, the horror) but…well, I still didn’t know if I would like the book, so I didn’t worry too much about it.

It arrived. I read it soon afterward. I liked the book.

Hell, I loved the book. It’s no secret that I read often, but it’s relatively rare for me to read something continuously. I’ll usually read for a bit, take a break, and come back to it. As much as I love books, it’s not common that one will dig itself so deeply into me that I can’t put it down.

Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be did that. I expected to read a few pages and get a sense of its content and style, and ended up reading a third of it in one go. Over the course of the next day or so, I finished it. The reviews raised my expectations to an impossible level, and the book exceeded them. It was every bit as good as the reviews said.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the book grabbed me the way it did. Sure, it’s about someone I remember. It’s about a topic that interests me. It’s well written. But those things describe so many other books that I never necessarily feel compelled to keep reading, or sometimes even finish.

I think the difference is that Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be is so relentlessly human. I don’t know anything about Trynin other than what I’ve read here, and surely there’s always some degree of finessing when it comes to presenting yourself to the world, but I never got the feeling that she was presenting herself as anything other than what (and who) she actually is. Account for some simplifications for the sake of readability, some omissions for the sake of focus, and some inaccuracies due to the limitations of memory and I’m confident that the book shows us the real Trynin.

And the real Trynin is so identifiably, tragically, wonderfully human. I bought the book expecting a good story about one woman’s experience with the music industry, but I ended up reading about a person. A person who isn’t perfect. A person who makes bad decisions, and not always for the right reason. A person who doesn’t know what she wants. But a person who, at heart, is good, who works hard, who cares about people long after she should cut them out of her life. She’s flawed in the ways that we’re all flawed, but she has talent, drive, empathy…I was invested in her the way I’d be invested in a really great character. I wanted to see what happened to her. I wanted to see where she ended up. And the journey is humorously and engagingly complicated by the fact that she’s not even sure she wants to be famous to begin with.

The main thread of the story kicks off when Trynin decides that after years of trying to make her mark on the Boston music scene, she’ll make one last push (and financial investment) toward stardom. If she makes it, great. If she doesn’t, the universe has made her place very clear.

…but she makes it. It’s a surprise to her, her peers, her boyfriend, her family. Her album debut Cockamamie, released through her own invented label, gains traction. There’s buzz. There’s murmuring. Seemingly overnight, there’s a bidding war involving everyone from indie publishers to major labels.

Jen Trynin is going to be a star.

Listening to Cockamamie now, I can understand the fuss. It’s not the best debut I’ve ever heard, but there’s a strong sense of self-confidence throughout, suggesting that the album doesn’t represent everything Trynin has to say. In short, it’s an assurance of potential. It’s easy to listen to and wonder what she can do next, with proper support…and that’s just the baseline feeling you get overall. Focus on the perfectly refined standouts like “Better Than Nothing, “One Year Down,” “Snow,” and “Do it Alone” and…well, why not make her a star?

The parallel thread of Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be, however, focuses on the kind of star they want to make her. Specifically, her marketing representation is insistent on positioning her as a “woman in rock,” as opposed to a rocker in general.

It feels understandably disparaging to her, and it’s something of a backhanded compliment to be sure. So Trynin bristles against it. At the same time, though, it’s easy to see why they’d want to market her that way: it worked. I remember very well a number of “women in rock” that were sold (to varying degrees of success) with that very label. The time period was rife with them. Heather Nova, Lisa Loeb, Juliana Hatfield, Sheryl Crow, Mazzy Star, Liz Phair, Courtney Love, and countless others. Not the least of which is the musician whose rise kicks off quietly in the background of Trynin’s tale: Alanis Morissette.

Morisette leaned into that kind of marketing, and saw incredible success as a result. Trynin fights it, pulls away, rejects it…and finds her career crippled.

I’ll step in here to make clear that Trynin doesn’t assign blame. There are a few specific moments during which she admits she herself made the wrong decision (“Better Than Nothing” should have been called “I’m Feeling Good,” as its title makes it difficult for DJs and fans to know what the hell it is), but she never points her finger at anybody else, or at any circumstance, or at any quirk of poor timing, and say, “That’s it. That’s the reason I’m not famous.” She just tells her story. It’s up to you, if you’d like to find a villain. Trynin’s motive clearly isn’t to make anybody feel bad…it’s to share a personal story that, briefly, became a public one.

The “women in rock” thing resonated with me, I think, because it feels so cosmically cruel. Trynin does the right thing, artistically speaking, by not letting herself be defined primarily by her gender. But in addition to struggling against her own representation in this regard, she also overcorrects for the perceived issue: she refuses to let women open for her on tour, so that there’s no chance her concerts can be seen as a kind of “chick night.”

This kicks off its own scandal, which Trynin then tries to manage herself, arguably digging the hole deeper. One interviewer wonders why she sees something like this as a problem. She responds by asking if he’d be okay with a “Jew night.” The spirit of this response is something we all understand and would probably agree with, but it’s also obvious why it doesn’t go over so well. Trynin doesn’t say this because she’s anti-Semitic. (In fact, it’s probably worth noting that she’s Jewish.) She says it because she’s a human being, trying to articulate something she has trouble putting into words, and stumbling into things she shouldn’t say.

Much of Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be plays as a sort of cringe comedy, during which you hope against hope that Trynin will manage to stop herself from babbling a sentence too much, such as when she makes a misjudged joke about shooting heroin to one of her representatives, who suddenly becomes genuinely concerned for her.

As a result of her misguided attempt to convince the industry to focus on her music rather than her gender, her concerts end up protested. Interview questions shift from being about the bidding war, her sudden rise, and whether she prefers Jen or Jennifer, to what her problem is with other female rockers. One DJ, on air, openly tries to instigate a feud between her and Morissette. (Trynin defuses this masterfully, which registered to me as a significant triumph after the many David Brent-ian interactions that preceded it.)

But the heart of the story is just who Trynin is. There are major, identifiable touchpoints in her career, but it always comes back to our author, our narrator, our protagonist, our tragic hero. There’s a scene in which she and her band catch an episode of Beavis and Butt-Head while on the road…and find the duo mocking their music video for “Happier.”

Trynin is overcome with fear that they’ll make fun of her. Call her ugly. Say some kind of deeply cruel thing about her that she’ll have to carry with her and be internally haunted by forever. She’s relieved when they don’t (they seem to focus more on the silliness of the extreme closeups in the video), but that says so much about who she is, and about where she was in her life.

Worrying when you find out (however you find out) that these two doofuses got their hands on your music video is understandable. If they say you “suck” instead of “rock,” that could absolutely have an effect on your career and on public sentiment. But she isn’t watching the episode as the rock star she temporarily is…she’s watching it as a human being who doesn’t want to hear people say mean things about her.

A single. A video on MTV. A spotlight on one of that generation’s most popular shows. These are breaks many people would have killed for. But she’s human. She’s talented, and she’s good at what she does…but she’s a person. With a heart, and with feelings she can’t let go of. It’s the most personal and moving sequence involving Beavis and Butt-Head I’ve ever read.

The book is full of these great, unexpectedly heartbreaking moments. She insists on buying an expensive dinner for everybody in her entourage out of some unplaceable sense of guilt, including her wealthy lawyer who intended to pay for everyone himself. She fights for her band to reap the financial rewards of her contract, despite the fact that this band didn’t play a single note on her album and only formed out of touring necessity. She’s confronted by other musicians who either never made it or made it briefly and failed, each of whom assure her that she’s going to come tumbling down…and you want to hug her, tell her she can do it, tell her that they’re just cynical, jealous assholes…but we already know they’re right. We already know how the book ends. They are cynical, jealous assholes, but they aren’t wrong.

Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be is such a good read, and it surprised me with just how…wholesome it was. The sex and drugs and chicanery you might expect from a story about a rapid ascent to rock stardom rear their heads only as small, adorable equivalents. Trynin kisses a man who isn’t her boyfriend, unthinkingly takes NyQuil before a radio appearance, and keeps the television low in her hotel room so that nobody will know she’s in.

It’s so…human.

What’s more, I never got the sense from Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be that anyone in the music industry was out to screw her. Everybody we meet seems to have her ultimate best interests in mind. They treat her well. They try to help her. Even as it becomes clear that she’s not going to be the wondergirl they hoped she would, they remain helpful and accommodating and friendly.

Toward the end of the book, Trynin puts together Gun Shy Trigger Happy, her followup to Cockamamie.

It makes good on every ounce of potential anyone saw in her to begin with. I’ve listened to this album too many times to count now, and I’m convinced it’s a minor masterpiece. I like a lot of things about Cockamamie, and I think a number of the songs — “Better Than Nothing” chief among them — are fantastic.

But Gun Shy Trigger Happy is superior in every way. It’s smarter. It’s better. It’s stronger. It’s more varied. It’s more mature. It’s more impressive. It’s really, truly great on its own merits.

It also sinks without a trace. Trynin’s rock and roll fairy tale, as she calls it, is over. Her record company renames one song and releases it as a single. There’s no music video. There’s not even any art on the copy that gets sent to radio stations. The album gets very positive reviews but the record company goes through the promotional motions, and no further. The album that should matter is treated like it doesn’t. Reading about this, I felt disappointed on her behalf.

There’s a truly sad moment toward the end of the book when she and her band play an abbreviated set as part of a long bill of acts. The set goes great. The crowd loves her. They cry out for another song, and Trynin starts to give them one. But her microphone is cut. The lights are cut. Her time on stage is over. And that’s that. It doesn’t matter what would have come next. It’s finished.

Some fragment of memory, a half-forgotten song, sent me on this little journey. There was a song I used to like. A song that used to help me. A song that made me feel happy.

It was nice to find it again. But I had no idea what happened behind it. Why would I have? I had no idea what else was on the album. Why would I have? I had no idea about Jen Trynin or her gift as an author or her incredible, overlooked followup. Why would I have?

Now I know. And I’m glad I do. Because there’s a story there. A person there. A moral there, whatever we’d like to take from it. (Trynin leaves us more than enough room to take whatever we please.)

And, selfish reader that I have always been, I found what is probably my favorite (and certainly the most gripping) work of non-fiction. That’s a happy enough ending for me.

But because I liked the book so much, I actually started to feel bad that I was only able to buy it used. That meant that the author didn’t see a penny from me. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me much. But Trynin had taken me on a journey, one I really enjoyed. One that led me to music I never would have listened to otherwise. One that…mattered to me.

I reached out to her. I let her know how much I enjoyed the book. I let her know that I ended up with a used copy, and if there were some way to support her (such as by purchasing an autographed copy; I told you I’m selfish) as a way of saying thanks, I’d love to do that.

She wrote me back. I won’t share her message here, but I will say that the image I’d built of Trynin — from her music and primarily from Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be — was accurate. She didn’t have to write me back at all. The fact that she did meant a lot. The fact that she was every bit the sweet, understanding, deeply human person I expected her to be meant so much more.

She thanked me for my message. She told me not to worry about paying for an autograph; she’d send me a new autographed copy just for the hell of it. Evidently, the book didn’t sell as well as anyone expected it to, despite the wealth of hype and positive reviews.

History repeats. However much talent she demonstrates, in whatever sphere, however positively the critics respond…well, there’s always next time.

It was a thematically appropriate fate for the book, but a sad one as well. It really did deserve better. It still does. So does her music. But…I don’t know. I guess we all have our place in the universe. I used to think I’d be a famous author one day. Of course, I might still be, but, more likely, I’ve found my place.

I have a job writing, and it’s a job I love. I work with people I love. I come home and I have a platform. An audience. I have a place to say anything I’d like to say.

That’s not what success used to look like to me. Whatever image I had in mind, it was probably a lot like Trynin’s. And you get closer for a while. Closer, and closer, and closer. And then no closer. You’ve found your place. Your audience may not be as big as you thought it would be, or as others expected it to be, but you have one. And that’s more than most people can say. It’s…y’know. Better than nothing.

Trynin also added me to her mailing list, and I’ll be notified whenever she’s playing with CUJO, her current band. Hopefully she’ll come out this way. I’d really like to see her live. Maybe I’ll get the chance to say hello, and maybe I won’t. But how often do you get the chance to see a great author rock out?

No moral here. No ultimate point. Just a little journey spanning decades that reminds me there’s always more to that four-minute song you love. I don’t know how many of those stories are worth knowing, but I’m glad I got the chance to hear hers.