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The Mask of Apollo ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Mask of Apollo ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Mary Renault’s 1966 novel, The Mask of Apollo, is historical fiction, based, in large part, on historical fact. The main character is Nikeratos (“Niko” to his friends), an Athenian actor who is relating the story in his first-person voice. Nikeratos is a fictional construct, but most of the other characters and incidents, including a very young Alexander the Great at the end of the story, are real.

The setting is Greece about four hundred years before Christ. Nikeratos, being the son of an actor, is born into acting. He finds success in his calling early in life and moves up through the ranks of desired actors. To me the most interesting parts of the novel are the descriptions of the stagecraft of the period, which, even by today’s standards, were very elaborate and sophisticated. Plays were the entertainment of the masses, instead of just the cultured few. Theatres seated as many as fifteen or twenty thousand people and plays often began before dawn, with the rising sun sometimes used as an effect in the play. Only men were allowed to act on the stage, so men played in women’s roles. People in the audience never saw the faces of the actors during a performance because they wore elaborate masks (mask-making was a craft in itself). Underneath the masks the actors spoke the lines the playwrights had written. The best and most successful actors became celebrated.

If Nikeratos’s life isn’t interesting enough as an actor, he becomes involved in political intrigue in Syracuse, a powerful Greek city state at the tip of the island of Sicily. Syracuse has been controlled by despots, first by Dionysius, and then after his death by his son, Dionysius the Younger. Nikeratos befriends Dion, a moderate politician and pupil of the philosopher Plato. (They never become “lovers” in the Greek sense because they are of different worlds, but there is definitely an attraction going on there.) Dion is trying to bring stability and democracy to Syracuse by teaching Dionysius the Younger about more tolerant forms of government. Dion entrusts Nikeratos to convey sensitive political documents between Syracuse and Athens. Plato and Dion attempt to restructure the government of Syracuse along the lines of Plato’s Republic, with Dionysius the Younger as the archetypal philosopher-king. Of course, things don’t work out the way they had hoped.

The Mask of Apollo is a readable classic, somewhere between pop fiction and literature. It’s plenty engaging enough, but for me the political intrigue began to grow thin and meandering toward the end of the book. History tells us that things didn’t end well for Plato and Dion, but the last hundred pages or so seemed kind of anticlimactic. It might have been gripping but isn’t. All in all, though, it’s an interesting and informative journey to the ancient world, an escape from the dreary times we live in.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

If I Had a Heart

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If I Had a Heart ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“I feel like firing somebody today,” Mr. Punsley said. “Who shall it be?”

“I don’t know,” Mr. Cundiff said. “Go down the list and pick somebody.”

“Well, now, let me see,” Mr. Punsley said, folding his hands and going down the list of names. “We have lots of suckers to choose from. Are there any standouts? Yes, there are many, many standouts. Anybody you’ve found especially offending lately?”

“Otis Nadler spends too much time in the men’s room,” Mr. Cundiff said.

“He has a chronic bowel disorder,” Mr. Punsley said, “so I don’t think we could get him for that. He might counter with a lawsuit.”

“How about Tenny Peterkin?” Mr. Cundiff asked. “I’ve noticed him staring off into space a couple of times lately when he ought to be working.”

“He just lost his wife to an automobile accident,” Mr. Punsley said. “We gave him three days’ bereavement leave, but I think it takes longer than that to get over the accidental loss of a wife. Sometimes it’s a good idea to have a heart, or at least pretend we do.”

“Yes, you’re right, of course,” Mr. Cundiff said. “As usual.”

“Always being right is what got me where I am today,” Mr. Punsley said.

“Well, now, let me see,” Mr. Cundiff said. “Judith Traherne comes to mind for some reason.”

“Can’t fire Judith,” Mr. Punsley said. “She makes the best coffee in the office and, anyway, her father is on the board at the country club. We don’t want to make him mad.”

“How about Florence Lawrence, then?” Mr. Cundiff said. “She’s put on a lot of weight lately. That means she’s not carrying her share of the load.”

“She’s carrying a load, all right,” Mr. Punsley said. “Haven’t you noticed she’s going to have a baby?”

“No! I just thought she had been eating too many donuts,” Mr. Cundiff said.

“You can’t fire an expectant mother, no matter how much you may want to,” Mr. Punsley said. “Pick somebody else.”

You pick somebody,” Mr. Cundiff said. “Somebody good. Just let me alone for a while. I feel one of my headaches coming on.”

Mr. Punsley and Mr. Cundiff managed the company, or at least they thought they did. In reality, they did practically nothing, having no idea of what needed to be done or how to do it. When there was any real work to be done, they put it off on one of their underlings and sat back and took the credit (and the profits), if there was any to be taken.

Mr. Cundiff locked himself in his office to be alone to try to make his headache go away, and Mr. Punsley continued looking down the list of company employees for prospective firees. When this task became tiresome, he called one of his current mistresses, one Mona Montclair, on the phone and chatted with her for close to an hour about sundry personal matters, including her two pet poodles and the lousy manicure she had from a manicurist who was obviously high on drugs. Then she told him about how she had been taxing her intellect looking at travel brochures, trying to decide on a vacation destination (the French Riviera or Paris?) and grew pouty when he told her he didn’t know when he would be able to get away to join her.

“You don’t know how difficult it is to run a large corporation with thousands of employees,” Mr. Punsley said.

“Have one of your little secretaries handle things while you’re gone,” she said. This was a reference to the dozens of female employees of Mr. Punsley’s of whom Mona Montclair was jealous.

By lunchtime Mr. Cundiff’s headache was better and Mr. Punsley had had enough of the office for one morning, so the two of them left to have a steak-lobster-martini lunch at the most exclusive restaurant in the city.

They made it a rule never to discuss office matters while lunching, so Mr. Cundiff didn’t ask Mr. Punsley who, if anyone, he had chosen to fire. Mr. Cundiff trusted Mr. Punsley’s judgment and he knew that Mr. Punsley would pick somebody who would be absolutely crushed at losing his job and would probably cry or maybe become violent and have to be bodily ejected by the security staff. It would certainly spice up the afternoon.

Mr. Cundiff had a dull, dowdy wife in the suburbs and four miniature Cundiffs, so he was always eager to hear about Mr. Punsley’s exploits with the opposite sex. Mr. Punsley had never been married, had always steered away from it, in fact, because, as he said, he would lose too much in a divorce settlement. He would lead women on, though, and make them think he was going to marry them, and then, pull the rug out from under them, in a manner of speaking, just as they believed they were on their way to the altar.

After two hours of excellent food and drink—and after Mr. Punsley had ogled all the women in the place from seventeen to seventy—Mr. Cundiff and Mr. Punsley paid their tab and left.

Once back at the office, Mr. Cundiff retired for a little siesta, while Mr. Punsley again sat down at his desk with the list. Now that his mind was clear after a good lunch and six martinis, he settled on the name of a person to fire: Nelson Dunwoody. When Mr. Cundiff emerged from his period of rest refreshed, Mr. Punsley greeted him with the news.

“Which one is Nelson Dunwoody?” Mr. Cundiff asked.

“He doesn’t talk much,” Mr. Punsley said. “He didn’t get drunk at the office Christmas party the way everybody else did. In fact, he wasn’t even there.”

“I still don’t know who he is,” Mr. Cundiff said.

“He always keeps his head down and doesn’t try to flirt with any of the ladies,” Mr. Punsley said.

“You’ll have to give a reason to fire him,” Mr. Cundiff said.

“Well, somebody told me he uses a lot of soap and paper towels when he’s washing his hands in the men’s room,” Mr. Punsley said.

“He must be very clean,” Mr. Cundiff said.

“And that he has arrived for work five minutes late two times in the last year,” Mr. Punsley said.

“Well, that was the commuter strike and the snowstorm, I’m sure,” Mr. Cundiff said. “Everybody was late those days!”

“Somebody else told me they saw him put a packet of sugar in his shirt pocket, obviously to take home with him,” Mr. Punsley said. “Now, when employees begin stealing sugar from the company, you know it’s time to take some action!”

“Truer words were never spoken!” Mr. Cundiff said.

“And, if all that wasn’t enough, there’s simply something about the fellow I don’t like,” Mr. Punsley said. “I think it’s the way he carries himself when he walks. He seems just a little too sure of himself.”

“He’s cocky,” Mr. Cundiff said.

“Yes, that’s it exactly!” Mr. Punsley said. “I can always rely on you to find the right words.”

“Have your secretary show the man in, then, and we’ll get right to it!” Mr. Cundiff said.

Mr. Punsley and Mr. Cundiff both greeted Nelson Dunwoody with enthusiastic smiles, shaking his hand and patting his shoulder.

“Take a chair, please, sir,” Mr. Punsley said.

Nelson Dunwoody sat in the large leather chair in front of Mr. Punsley’s desk, crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap. Even now, Mr. Punsley thought, when he’s obviously in trouble, this Nelson Dunwoody person is entirely too sure of himself.

“What can I do for you gentlemen today?” Nelson Dunwoody asked.

“You’ve been with the company now for about—what is it?—sixteen months?” Mr. Punsley said. He was nervous and seemed to be having trouble getting the words out.

“Yes,” Nelson Dunwoody said.

“And how do you like it here?” Mr. Cundiff said.

“Well, I have to say I’ve found it very enlightening,” Nelson Dunwoody said.

“In what way?” Mr. Cundiff asked.

“I’ve accomplished everything I’ve wanted to accomplish and more,” Nelson Dunwoody said, smiling confidently.

“That’s fine!” Mr. Punsley said. “The reason we asked you to come in and chat with us today is…”

“Well, I’m afraid whatever it is, it won’t matter much now,” Nelson Dunwoody said. “I was just typing my letter of resignation when the secretary came and said you wanted to see me.”

“Oh? You’re leaving us?” Mr. Cundiff asked.

“Yes. I didn’t think it would be necessary to give you the usual two weeks’ notice since my work here is completed,” Nelson Dunwoody said, taking a folded letter out of his pocket and placing it on the desk in front of Mr. Punsley.

“No, of course not!” Mr. Punsley said, not wanting to admit that he didn’t know what work Nelson Dunwoody was talking about because he didn’t know what Nelson Dunwoody’s job was.

“I’ve already removed my personal effects from my desk and said goodbye to my co-workers,” Nelson Dunwoody said, “so I guess there’s nothing more to be said.”

He stood up and shook Mr. Punsley’s hand briskly and then Mr. Cundiff’s hand and went out the door, leaving Mr. Punsley and Mr. Cundiff at a loss for words.

“Well, I never!” Mr. Cundiff said.

“That’s very disappointing!” Mr. Punsley said. “I thought we would at least see a temper tantrum from the fellow and have to call security.”

“You just never know about people!” Mr. Cundiff said, shaking his head.

“Did you ever see anybody with more gall?” Mr. Punsley said. “He wouldn’t even let me fire him!”

“It takes all kinds,” Mr. Cundiff said.

“I wasn’t even able to make him feel humiliated,” Mr. Punsley said, “and I’ve always been so good at that!”

“Well, pick somebody else from the list,” Mr. Cundiff said.

“I’m afraid it’s going to have to wait until Monday,” Mr. Punsley said. “That fellow gave me a headache.”

“I’m going to take a little lie-down in my office,” Mr. Cundiff said.

At four o’clock, with one hour left to go before time to go home, Mr. Punsley was relaxing in his big chair in front of the window, thinking about where he was going to have dinner and with whom, when he heard a commotion in the outer office. Before he had a chance to go and see what it was, three men, with several others behind them, burst into his office.

“Mr. Cornelius Punsley?” the tall man in front asked.

“Yes!” Mr. Punsley said, showing his indignant side. “And just who the hell are you?

“We have a warrant for your arrest, sir!” the tall man said.

What?” Mr. Punsley said. “I believe there’s been some mistake!”

Mr. Cundiff, also hearing the commotion, emerged from his office.

“Are you Mr. Alonzo Cundiff?” the tall man asked.

“Well, uh…” Mr. Cundiff said, unable to go any farther.

“I’m afraid you’re both under arrest, sir!” the tall man said.

“What is this all about?” Mr. Punsley asked.

“You’ll have plenty of time to ask questions later,” the tall man said. “All we’re doing now is taking you in.”

“In where?” Mr. Cundiff asked.

As a diversionary tactic, Mr. Punsley began grabbing articles and papers from his desk and throwing them about the room. While the tall man and the others were distracted, Mr. Punsley grabbed Mr. Cundiff by the arm and they ran out the side door into the hallway.

“What now?” Mr. Cundiff said.

“I’m not going to jail!” Mr. Punsley said.

“Me, either!” Mr. Cundiff said.

“To the roof, then!” Mr. Punsley said.

They ran up to the roof before anybody spotted them and, joining hands, jumped to their deaths, thirty-three stories to the street. They created a monumental traffic jam in all directions and were the top story on the evening news.

While Mr. Punsley and Mr. Cundiff were sitting in Satan’s outer office, waiting to be admitted to hell, Mr. Punsley said. “Maybe we should have treated people a little better than we did. Showed a little more humility.”

“I think it’s too late for that now,” Mr. Cundiff said.

“You don’t think they’ll let us go if we apologize?” Mr. Punsley asked.

“I don’t think it’ll do any good now,” Mr. Cundiff said.

“Who would have ever guessed that Nelson Dunwoody was a federal investigator?” Mr. Punsley said.

“There’s no way we could have known,” Mr. Cundiff said.

“Who hired the fellow in the first place?” Mr. Punsley asked.

“It was you!” Mr. Cundiff said.

“No, it wasn’t me!” Mr. Punsley said. “I remember now! It was you!

“What does it matter now?” Mr. Cundiff said. “I do hope, though, that I get a nice room with a private bath and a view.”

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Less Time to Spend With Hermaphrodites

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Less Time to Spend With Hermaphrodites ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Chick came home at seven in the morning, quietly letting himself in at the back door. Mother was waiting for him in the kitchen.

“Where the hell have you been?” she said loudly, startling him.

“I thought you’d still be asleep!” Chick said.

“Well, I’m not! I want to know where you’ve been!”

“I told you I was spending the night at Squeamy’s house. You said it was all right.”

“I called Squeamy’s mother and she said you weren’t there.”

“Well, I wasn’t in the house. That’s what she meant. We slept out in Squeamy’s tent in the back yard.”

“Who did?”

“Me and Squeamy.”

“Who else?”

“Vic Barker and Arden Halton.”

“So there were four of you?”

“Yes.”

“Isn’t Vic Barker the one with the harelip?”

“Yes, but what’s that got to do with anything? He’s going to have surgery in August.”

“And Arden Halton,” she said, leaning her backside against the range. “Where have I heard that name before?”

“How should I know?”

“Isn’t he the one that…”

“He doesn’t go to regular school. He goes to special school.”

“Why? Is he retarded?”

“No! He doesn’t go to regular school because people there are too mean to him.”

“I know now!” she said. “He’s the one that…”

Before Chick knew what was happening, she was on him, slapping at him with both hands. He raised his arms to protect his face.

“What’s the matter with you?” he said. “I didn’t do anything!”

“You’re thirteen years old! What do you mean by spending the night with a freak?”

“He’s not a freak!”

“So, it’s a ‘he,’ is it? How do you know tomorrow ‘he’ won’t be a ‘she’?”

“What difference does it make?”

“You come from a respectable family! You know you should not be spending the night with people like that!”

“We didn’t do anything!”

“Everybody in the neighborhood will know you spent the night together.”

“It wasn’t the way you make it sound!”

“What do you do in the tent all night with a hermaphrodite, if that’s what you even call them?”

“There were four of us! We didn’t do anything!”

“I’m going to call the law! Freak kids should be locked up and should not be allowed to associate with normal kids!”

“Please don’t do that!” he said. “You embarrasses me!”

I embarrass you? You’re the one spending the night with freaks!”

“He’s not a freak! I like him! We all like him!”

“Well, that says a lot about you, then, doesn’t it?”

“He’s smart and funny. He’s been to Washington, D.C. and New York City. He’s seen ghosts and he’s been inside the embalming room at a funeral home.”

“I want you to promise me that you won’t ever associate with him again and you will, above all, not be seen with him in public!”

“No!” he said.

“No what?

“I won’t promise that I won’t see him again!”

“You little shit!” she said, slapping at him again. “When you’re thirteen years old, you do as you’re told!  I’ll tell you who you can go around with!”

“I’m going to invite him over so you can see he’s not as bad as you think!”

“And do I address him as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’?”

“Don’t address him as anything! Just be nice to him!”

Hah-hah-hah!” she said, lighting a cigarette and throwing the match in the sink. “You’re just a punk kid and you don’t know shit!

“We’re all going roller skating together on Saturday night!”

“I don’t think so! You are as of this minute permanently grounded! If you don’t know what that means, just ask your sister!”

When father came home, mother went outside to meet him as he got out of the car. Chick was watching from the upstairs window. He knew exactly what she was saying as she stood there in her ugly gray housedress that looked like a prison matron’s uniform.

Father didn’t rant and excoriate the way mother did, but he was judge and jury. At the dinner table, he looked solemnly at Chick and said, “I hear you’ve been keeping some inappropriate company.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Chick said, looking down at his plate.

“Starting tomorrow you can scrape the old paint off the garage and give it a fresh coat. Also you can take over the cutting of the grass for the rest of the summer. That should keep you busy right up until time for school to take up again.”

“Why don’t you just take me out in the back yard and hang me from the tallest tree?”

“We could also do that,” father said.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Three Famous Short Novels ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Three Famous Short Novels

Three Famous Short Novels ~ A  Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

William Faulkner (1897-1962) is arguably the greatest American writer of the twentieth century. He was a genius, a literary stylist and innovator; there has never been anybody else quite like him. While some of his books are more accessible than others (As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary), his work is notoriously challenging to read. It helps sometimes, when reading Faulkner, to have a “study guide” or at least a synopsis of the chapters to be able to keep up with what is going on. He switches around from one time period to another, and the relationships among his numerous characters are often difficult to keep straight. There might, at times, even be different characters with the same name or with very similar names.

In this volume are three of Faulkner’s shorter, standalone works: Spotted Horses, Old Man, and The Bear. Not much happens in Spotted Horses. It’s about poor country people at an auction of some very wild Texas horses in Mississippi. These people are so poor that buying a horse for five dollars places a terrible financial burden on them. The thing about the horses is that they are so wild they can’t be caught after they’re sold. You don’t want to spend your last five dollars in the world for a horse you can’t catch. “Give me back my money. I wasn’t able to find the horse I bought.” “The owner of the horses took your money and has gone back to Texas. Too bad.” A fool and his money are soon parted.

The “old man” in Old Man is the Mississippi River. This readable and entertaining short novel is set in the Mississippi Delta in 1927, during a terrible flood in which there is much destruction of property, loss of human and animal life. (Faulkner renders a wonderfully vivid and evocative description of the flood.) Local officials enlist the aid of prison labor to help with sandbagging. Enter a stolid convict whose name we never know, in prison for the old-fashioned (even in the 1920s) crime of train robbing. He is soon swept away in a small boat on rising flood waters. He wants to get back before they think he has escaped, but he is not in control of where he goes. Eventually he rescues a woman who—guess what?—is about to have a baby. He saves her life (and the life of her baby) and with his strength is able to keep the boat upright. The man, the woman, the baby, and the boat end up very far away from where they started out. The prisoner wants nothing more than to get back to the relative comfort of the prison to finish his term. The irony is that he gets ten additional years tacked on to his sentence for his adventuring. Talk about gratitude! After all he went through, he should have been released from prison as long he promised not to rob any more trains.

Then we come to the short novel The Bear, which is notoriously difficult reading, at least in the fourth and fifth sections of its five sections. The time is the 1880s, when the wounds of the Civil War and slavery are still felt in the South (more about that comes later in the story). Every November all the hunters track the legendary bear, Old Ben, but there seems to be kind of an unspoken agreement not to kill him. Old Ben has been shot many times but never brought down. Tracking him is a sort of sport, not unlike a boxing match or some other sporting event. Young hunter Isaac McCaslin (“Ike” for short) grows up in the woods, becoming a more accomplished woodsman and hunter than most grown men while still a child. He comes to revere Old Ben as a sort of god. In one fateful encounter with a “legendary” dog, however, Old Ben has met his match. When one of the hunters, Boon Hoggenbeck, sees that Old Ben is about to kill the dog, he steps in and kills the bear with a knife instead of a gun. So much for the unspoken pledge not to kill the bear.

The death of Old Ben comes at the end of the third section of the novel. For the next two sections, Faulkner switches gear for some reason, making the story seem uneven. (He must have had his reasons; after all, he was the genius.) Fast forward to 1888, when Ike is twenty-one. He and his cousin, McCaslin Edmonds, are in the plantation commissary, looking at some old ledgers in which Ike’s father and Ike’s father’s twin brother, McCaslin’s father, recorded some semi-literate entries about slaves they had bought and sold before the Civil War and Emancipation. Ike and McCaslin read the ledger entries and we (the reader) read them too. They go on and on and are not all that interesting. Ike and McCaslin then engage in a long and dense discussion of how wrong slavery was for the South and how the South and everybody in it is cursed because of it. There are some very long sentences here and some very long paragraphs (one single sentence is 1600 words). You have to be a dedicated reader to wade through all this.

Faulkner is Faulkner and he is the one and only. Nobody else even comes close. You either find his work rewarding or completely incomprehensible. After you’ve read one of his sentences or one of his paragraphs, you might have to go back and break the sentence or the paragraph down into its various parts to understand what he is saying. And, as wordy and dense as his work is, he is also the master of the unspoken. Read him and you’ll see what I mean.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Immoral Purposes

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Immoral Purposes

Immoral Purposes ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“When was the last time you saw your granddaughter?”

“Saturday night,” Mrs. Cassin said.

“What did she say to you the last time you saw her?”

“She said ‘goodbye’.”

“That’s all?”

“I was watching TV. If she said anything more than that, I didn’t hear it.”

The big man shifted uncomfortably on the brocade sofa and cleared his throat. Mrs. Cassin looked at him in anticipation of the next question and smiled vacantly.

“Now, she had been dating this boy, this Eddie Weems, for how long?”

“If that was really the son-of-a-bitch’s name!” Mrs. Cassin said.

“How long had she been dating the boy you knew as Eddie Weems?”

“About a month that I know of, but I guess it was going on even longer than that.”

“And you disapproved?”

“You damn right I disapproved!”

“And why did you disapprove of Eddie Weems?”

“He was too old for her!”

“Was that your only objection?”

“No! He was trash! And a hellion!”

“Why do you say that?”

“He wore overalls. He drove a car that made a roaring sound and he didn’t care who saw him smoking cigarettes.”

“So these are the reasons you didn’t like him and didn’t want your granddaughter associating with him?”

Peachy Faraday, the next-door neighbor sitting beside Mrs. Cassin on the red velvet settee facing the brocade sofa, made sympathetic clucking sounds and patted Mrs. Cassin on the hand. “Anybody with eyes in their head could see that Eddie Weems just wasn’t the right kind of boy for Toppy to be going around with,” she said.

“Maybe it would be best if I speak to Mrs. Cassin alone,” the big man said.

“She stays!” Mrs. Cassin said. “I want somebody here on my side to hear the questions you’re asking me.”

“All right,” he said, “but there’s no need for it.”

Peachy was now emboldened to speak: “I heard some awful things about Eddie Weems in church. One of the ladies in my Sunday school class who knows the family says he preys on young girls.”

“Preys on young girls how?”

“How many ways are there?”

“Sounds like gossip to me,” he said. “Gossip is of no use.”

“I’ll have you know I never gossip!”

“Mrs. Cassin, what was your granddaughter wearing the last time you saw her?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I didn’t pay much attention.”

“I know what she was wearing!” Peachy said.

“You were here when she left?”

“I was just coming onto the porch as she was leaving. She was wearing black slacks, a red sweater and an old mink jacket.”

“Mink jacket?”

“Yes. And she had a red hair ribbon in her hair.”

“Did you speak to her?”

“I asked her where she was going but she didn’t answer. Then she ran to the car that was waiting for her and got in and the car sped away.”

“Did you see who was in the car? Who was driving?”

“Well, no, it was too dark to see who was driving, but I know it was the car belonging to Eddie Weems.”

“You were familiar with his car?”

“Everybody in the neighborhood knew his car because it was so loud. You could hear it from two or three blocks away.”

“Is it possible that it was some other car?”

“I don’t think so!”

“She lied to me!” Mrs. Cassin said. “She said she was going to the movies with a girlfriend who had her own car.”

“So it couldn’t have been that car you saw?” the big man asked. “The car of the girl Toppy was going to the movies with?”

“I’m absolutely certain it was the car of Eddie Weems I saw!” Peachy said.

“Now, Mrs. Cassin, did you notice any change in Toppy’s behavior in the days before her disappearance?”

“Like what?”

“Did she seem worried about anything or fearful?”

“No.”

“Did she receive any mysterious phone calls or have any mysterious visitors?”

“Of course not! Don’t you think I would have known if there was anything like that going on?”

“How long had Toppy lived with you?”

“I took her in and raised her as my own little girl from the time she was eight years old. Eight years ago.”

“Her father was your son?”

Is my son! He’s still alive as far as I know!”

“And where is he now, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Prison. No parole.”

“And the mother? Your son’s wife?”

“She’s a no-good tramp! If she’s not dead, she should be!”

“Does Toppy speak to her mother or know where she is?”

Mrs. Cassin raised both her feet and brought them down on the floor with impatience. “There’s no good in asking all these questions!” she said. “You find that asshole Eddie Weems and there you will also find my granddaughter!”

“Are you sure of that?” the big man asked.

“I’ve never been so sure of anything in my entire life!”

“Well, I have to tell you,” he said. “The family of Eddie Weems has also reported him missing.”

“I knew it!” Mrs. Cassin said.

“He probably took her to another state,” Peachy said. “There’s a name for that. Immoral purposes.”

“Could they have gone off someplace and got married?” the big man asked.

“If they did, I’ll kill that bastard Eddie Weems!” Mrs. Cassin said.

“Getting married is not a crime, Mrs. Cassin,” he said.

“He’s taking advantage of my little girl. She’s a minor and he is not. Isn’t that enough to put him behind bars for the next thirty years?”

“Try to keep calm,” he said. “These things usually work themselves out.”

“I want you to find them and bring them back!”

“We’ll do our best to locate them,” he said. “It might take a few days.”

“When I get my hands on that Eddie Weems, I’ll make him wish he had never been born! And, as for Toppy, it’s convent time for her!”

“She’ll make a pretty little nun,” Peachy said.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Clown Voodoo

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Clown Voodoo

Clown Voodoo ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

It was autumn and the back yard was littered with walnuts. Mother had husked some and some still remained in the tight green outer husk, drying in the sun. If you’re not careful, you’ll get that stuff on your hands and it’s the very devil to get it off. You don’t want to go to school with brown hands, do you?

Ian was seven. His father died when he was a baby and his mother married a man named Devin when Ian was five. Devin was Ian’s stepfather. There was an unspoken thing hanging in the air between Ian and Devin: They didn’t like each other. All Devin had to do was walk into a room for Ian to want to leave it.

On more than one occasion Ian spoke to his mother about it. “Devin doesn’t like me, mother,” he would say. He didn’t even have to ask her if she thought it was true because he already knew it was. He also didn’t mention that the dislike was mutual.

“Of course he likes you,” she said. “He’s just a little distant.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means we have to give him some time. He’s not used to children.”

“Why did you marry him?”

“I guess I got tired of being alone.”

“Would you be sad if he died?”

“Of course, I’d be sad! He’s my husband. We’re a family now. You shouldn’t even think such things.”

“Devin doesn’t like me, mother. I think he’ll try to kill me one day and try to make it look like an accident.”

“Don’t be silly!” mother said. “Go and find something to do and stop having such morbid thoughts.”

“Devin doesn’t like me, mother.”

When Ian and mother were alone in the house without Devin, they were happy. They watched TV together, played monopoly or scrabble, and baked cookies or brownies. As soon as Devin walked through the door, though, Ian saw the change that came over mother. She stopped laughing and became uneasy. Devin jerked things out of her hand and cut her off when she was talking. Several times he threw a sandwich or a cup of coffee or a beer bottle at her, barely missing her head. Then he would storm out of the house and she would have to get down on her hands and knees and clean up the mess he had made.

Devin made Ian go to bed every night at nine o’clock, even on  weekends. Then in the morning he would stand over him and force him to make his own bed “military style.” He wouldn’t let him eat more than one cookie at a time or drink more than two sodas a week. When they had liver and onions or Brussels sprouts, which Ian hated, Devin made him eat every bite before he could leave the table.

At times Devin made Ian work in the yard, hoeing the flower beds or raking leaves, while Devin sat in the shade and watched. If Ian made a mistake or missed some leaves or weeds, Devin called him a “little turd” or a “worthless piece of shit.” Ian began to have antagonistic feelings toward mother for not standing up for him, but he knew she was afraid of making Devin mad.

Ian saw a story on TV about voodoo. An old woman had an “effigy,” a small likeness, of a person who was supposed to be her enemy. She said magic words and stuck pins in the back and through the neck of the effigy, which was supposed to inflict pain and suffering on the enemy.

Ian found an old clown doll in the trash. He cleaned it up and sprinkled it with Devin’s aftershave and hid it in his room. At night after everybody had gone to bed, he took the effigy out of its hiding place and, saying his own magic words, stuck pins in its stomach or through the eyes, drove a nail into its head. He fashioned a hangman’s noose out of a shoelace and hung the effigy in the back of the closet where mother wouldn’t see it and ask him what it was.

On the last Sunday in October, Devin was working in the back yard on an old Cadillac he was restoring. The car was jacked up in the back, all four tires removed. He was underneath the car, only his legs sticking out from the knees.

Ian went out the back door and saw at once the thin arm of metal that was holding the car up. He knew Devin was there, underneath the car; he wanted to escape Devin’s attention before he put him to work picking up walnuts or raking leaves. He had a library book, so he crept quietly all the way to the far edge of the back yard, all the way by the back fence that separated one yard from another, intending to sit underneath the trees and read.

On the ground near the fence was an old slingshot he had never seen before. He picked it up and looked at it. He thought it must belong to the neighbor kids and was going to throw it over the fence into their yard when he decided he’d like to give it a try first. He picked up one of the walnuts off the ground and put it in the slingshot and pulled the heavy piece of rubber back as far as he could and let go.

He wasn’t aiming at anything in particular. With amazing velocity and uncanny accuracy, the walnut struck the jack, knocked it over, and brought the car down on top of Devin. He saw Devin’s legs jerks, the big feel sticking out comically as in a cartoon. Scared at what he had done and not knowing what else to do, Ian ran into the neighboring yard to the alley and all the way to the Methodist church and on past that to the cemetery.

He hid out in the cemetery for what must have been more than an hour and when he decided to go home, the neighbor woman from across the street was waiting to corral him into her house.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Your mother had to leave in a hurry and she asked me to take you to my house until she gets back,” the neighbor woman said.

She gave him a big plate of spaghetti and a piece of cherry pie and when he was finished eating she told him to sit quietly and watch TV until mother came for him.

When finally he saw mother, well after dark, he saw she had been crying. “Where have you been?” he asked. “Did something happen?”

“There was an accident,” she said.

When she told him what had happened, he pretended to be sad while feeling nothing, not even fear that he might be blamed.

“It’ll be all right, mother,” he said, turning his face away so she wouldn’t see his smile. “I’ll look after you.”

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Conjuring 2 ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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The Conjuring 2

The Conjuring 2 ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

If we are to believe the current spate of horror movies, there are many, many evil spirits (or demons) waiting to do bad things (or horrifying mischief) to ordinary people. In the movie The Conjuring (2013), based on a “true” story, a working class couple with a houseful of daughters buys a quaint old farmhouse in rural Rhode Island, not knowing that it’s the residence of a malevolent spirit from long ago who tries to make the mother kill her daughters. The family turns to Ed and Lorraine Warren for help. Lorraine is a psychic and her husband, Ed, is a sort of psychic investigator who assists people in ridding their homes of these spirits. Ed and Lorraine Warren are real-life people (not a handsome pair like Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson who play them onscreen) who travel around from place to place working on cases of various “hauntings.”

In the new movie The Conjuring 2, Ed and Lorraine Warren travel to England, to  the home of a beleaguered, divorced mother with four children in a dreary working-class neighborhood in northern London. The family’s name is Hodgson. Janet Hodgson is eleven years old. She’s been levitating, her bed shakes violently when she’s asleep and she hears and sees things (people) that apparently aren’t there. Finally, the spirit of an old man named Bill Wilkins who died in the house forty years earlier begins speaking through Janet Hodgson. (Or is he?) The house is his, he says, and he wants the current occupants to get out. After much investigating, it appears that eleven-year-old Janet is just faking the whole thing to get attention. Wait a minute! How can she have faked all the psychic occurrences that have been documented? It seems there are always those skeptics willing to find a “logical” explanation for any “proof” of ghosts or an afterlife. 

We learn finally that the spirit of Bill Wilkins is just a “pawn” for a really malevolent spirit named Valak, who manifests itself in the form of a horrifying nun. Janet Hodgson is being forced to appear to be faking the whole thing; if she doesn’t, the demon will kill her family. After many twists and turns, Ed and Lorraine learn the truth and then know how to counter the demon. 

The Conjuring 2 is formulaic, as these ghost stories usually are, but if you like well-made horror films (not slasher films) with a real plot, characters (not jiggling teenagers) and dialogue, this one is well worth your time. We are always left with the disquieting suggestion at the end that, although the living people may have won this round, the demons are only temporarily discommoded and will be back. As long as The Conjuring 2 makes money, there is bound to be The Conjuring 3

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp 

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