On the Road Among the Drug-Fueled Face-Eaters: Dark Books and Dark Vacations For Dark Times
So, my family and I are gearing up for vacation. We’re leaving for three weeks (while my armed, badass friend Josh watches the house with Jake the giant, irritable, paranoid dog) on a classic road trip that will take us across the plains and through the Rockies to the homes of friends and loved ones, reveling in the grandeur of the American road and the thunder of our big, fat wheels.
Too bad it’s zombie season. Some kind of bad, evil season is happening out there. People are getting their faces chewed off. I just bought a wicked, 40-piece knife-tool combo gadget at the Bass Pro Shop because of all the cannibals, and because we might have to cut open clamshell packaging at some point (the apocalypse is subtle, and creeping, and plastic. Who knew?)
It’s alright. We’re good at this. My wife, writer Janine Harrison, and my stepdaughter, Jianna Harrison (7), are ready for anything.
And when we get back, it’s only a few days ‘til my book comes out. Up Jumps the Devil (from Ecco Press, an imprint of HarperCollins). Here’s a picture of the cover, with the cool blurbs from Christopher Moore, Daniel Wallace, and Patrick deWitt:
With the book release in mind, I find myself looking back on another road trip. The one I took in the summer of 2009, to do some research for this very same book. Me and my armed, badass friend Josh camped our way east, from Gettysburg to Salem, Massachusetts, looking for traces of the devil, and finding him, here and there.
At Gettysburg, some drunk came and thumped on Josh’s tent in the middle of the night, bellowing “Where’s Mike?”
Who knew who this guy was? But Josh just threw me under the bus, pointing out my tent and saying “He’s over there. Leave me alone,” and vanishing back inside his tent. So I had to conversate with this person, who wasn’t looking for me, but another Mike, and off he went without mayhem.
In Salem, we were negotiating prices with a campground keeper, and he looked kind of interesting (he had tiger stripes tattooed around his throat), so Josh wanted to take his picture. The guy wouldn’t allow it, because, he explained, “Some law-people types might be looking for me.” So I took his picture while he was talking to Josh. Only later, looking at the picture on my camera, did we notice the word ‘REDRUM’ tagged on the wall behind him. Salem was fun. In the night, raccoons visited our picnic table and ate our Pringles and some shampoo.
When I first started writing Up Jumps the Devil, an elderly woman with a supernatural bent tried to warn me against it at an American Legion beer blast. “The devil is real,” she said. “He’s like the ocean. If you disrespect him, he will notice, and there will be a price.”
Her words stayed with me.
There was a reason they stayed with me. See, when I was about fifteen, I tried to sell my soul to the devil. I don’t know why. I wanted to be famous, probably, or wanted to do it with some girl in Mrs. Flynn’s class. I didn’t believe in the devil in any real way, any more than I believed in Jesus or the Easter Bunny. But I got out the Bible that Pastor Matevia at the Lutheran church had given me for my 8th birthday, and tried to tear it. It was going to be like a signal to the devil, if by chance he existed, showing him I was ready to talk business. I grabbed, like, Deuteronomy through Second Kings or something in both hands, and ripped with all my might. But paper is strong stuff, when you’ve got a hundred pages of it in your hands…well, it just bent and wrinkled, and before I could give it another go, my mom called up that dinner was ready. We were having tacos. Now, tacos I believed in for REAL! I forgot all about selling my soul and went downstairs, and never gave it another thought until that old lady at the party said what she said.
I was living alone at the time, in a run-down house by some woods. In the late afternoons and evenings, I worked on my devil novel, and later I’d sit and read a book and pet my dogs, and try not to hear the woman’s voice saying “…there will be a price…”
And what was that noise, outside? The wind.
And what was that, moving there, in the dark beyond the patio? A shadow. Some trees. Something blown by the wind.
Or something else.
Did I really believe in the devil? Not as such, no.
Did he or she show up and eat me? No.
But there are, as they say, strange things in Heaven and Earth, and being a scientific sort and thinking rational thoughts is no defense against getting good and creeped out, sometimes.
So what was I doing, if I was so rational, writing a book about the devil?
It was my way of writing a book about people, and about America in the 21st century. About how the nation that wrote the Constitution could be the same nation that depended on slavery. How a nation full of people who go to church and say God is Love can hate gay people and insist on restricting their freedoms. How a nation of volunteers and good neighbors can also breed people who get psycho-high and try to eat other people.
We’re a nation of contradictions. Like the devil, who began as an angel. The devil is our most enigmatic fiction. Like our own national soul, we haven’t quite got the devil figured out.
The devil in Up Jumps the Devil is NOT particularly Satanic. He is not in charge of Hell, because there is no Hell. He became the devil because he thought God was too bossy, basically. He is proud. He’s a rebel. He wants to make earth cooler than Heaven. And, after millenia of human history, he believes America is his best shot at accomplishing this. America, too, is proud and rebellious, and even a little godlike. Here’s an excerpt involving Benjamin Franklin (Chapter 7: The Excellent Mr. Scratch, A Patron of Science):
“Properly controlled,” Franklin argued, “electricity can kill.”
“Lightning kills,” said Bosley. “That’s no surprise.”
“Man can not control lightning,” answered Franklin. He indicated cylinders attached to the leads. “He can control this.”
Soberly, Franklin knelt before the cage, and hobbled the turkey with a pair of copper manacles.
“With apologies to this fine bird,” he said, “I offer you gentlemen the advent of electricity as a weapon both terrible and --”
Franklin twisted something as he spoke.
A thousand suns of light! Followed by thick smoke and the stench of overcooking.
The smoke sank to reveal a recumbent Franklin, rising like an island in a receding tide. He seemed to be asleep. One of his hands was burned. Indeed, it still smoked.
The turkey was on fire, and also somewhat inside-out. At the front of the cage, the copper manacles and their wiring lay melted.
The ministers Poole hovered over Franklin from a distance.
“Is he --?” said Bosley, coughing.
“Has he --?” said Jacob, trembling.
The Devil observed that Franklin was breathing evenly.
“The good doctor will live to strike another day,” he assured the Presbyterians, ushering them toward the door. “Let us consider our adventures complete for the day.”
“But --” began Bosley, indicating the blazing turkey.
“See here --!” barked Jacob, indicating the battery, which had begun to glow and spit marmalade.
The Devil drew himself up, dark and tall.
“Good day,” he bid them, in a certain voice he had.
The ministers made their Goodbyes. The Devil bolted both doors, and closed the windows. With a wave of one wooden hand, he extinguished the battery and the turkey. He located a roll of clean linen and a jar of ointment, and sat down to tend Franklin’s hand.
“Wake up,” he told the scientist.
Franklin’s eyes shot open. He spied the Devil leaning over him, and smelled smoke.
“If this is Hell,” he grouched, “It’s a disappointment.”
“You’re not dead,” the Devil told him. “Only foolish. Now listen…”
In the course of the book, the devil interacts with a lot of Americans, famous and otherwise. In this way, it owes a great deal to folklore and literature. The idea that the devil is hiding under the bed or in the woodshed is an old one. Maybe this idea first sparked for me when I read Stephen Vincent Benet’s story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” in which a hard-luck farmer sells his soul, but regrets it when his seven years of prosperity is up. When it’s time, as the old lady at the American Legion put it, to pay the price, he hires fabled senator Daniel Webster to advocate for him in the devil’s midnight court. In the course of debate, Webster says that the farmer owes nothing to the devil because the devil is a foreign prince. To which the devil replies
“...When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck. Am I not in your books and stories and beliefs, from the first settlements on?... Tis true, the North claims me for a Southerner, and the South for a Northerner, but I am neither. I am merely an honest American, like yourself, and of the best descent -- for, to tell the truth, Mr. Webster, my name is older in this country than yours."The devil’s name is old in America. He has been the dark side of America’s very strong religious tradition going back beyond the Pilgrims. In Up Jumps the Devil, old Scratch takes a Pilgrim woman (and, um, some of her cows) as a lover. He turns George Washington into a werewolf. He possesses JFK to help forestall nuclear war (and to have access to JFK’s super-hot and under-attended wife). He storms the Angle at Gettysburg, and burns in the fires of Hiroshima. He intimately knows the greatness of his adopted nation, and he knows its monsters, too.
When I say ‘monsters,’ I mean it in a couple of different ways.
One, of course, is metaphor. Our human failings. Our huge moral mistakes, like slavery and segregation, like awful, world-ending weapons. Like runaway science and, worse, runaway religion. Like our worst monster, runaway TV.
In Up Jumps the Devil, the children of Plymouth fall under the devil’s spell, and scry the monsters of America’s future in a sort of fortune-teller trance:
…The children described the future as if it were something that had visited them in their sleep. They pointed at the woods as they spoke, because the woods were west, and the future was west.As we, here in Indiana, get packed up to hit the road, keeping a weather eye on the news, it’s beginning to seem lately that the line between our metaphorical monsters and…what I guess you’d call “the real thing”: zombies, vampires, werewolves, and such… is getting blurry.
They said that the Indians would die of mumps and pox and tooth decay, and other white diseases.
They told how the new country, starting right here in their churchy little village, would grow up rooted in blood and gold and slavery.
There would be a race of retarded people called Rednecks, kept like a national pet. There would be schools like factories, factories like prisons, and prisons like cities. There would be a machine like an eye, which would talk to people and show them pictures, and people would do whatever the eye said…
Some naked guy by the highway ate another guy’s FACE. It’s been on the news. Also on the news: a number of people apparently think this is the dawn of the zombie apocalypse.
That’s intense, and not a good sign, but it’s not what makes me cautious. Here’s the blurry part: enough people think this that the CDC felt obligated to respond.
Not by simply denying it, saying, “No, ‘tis just another weird, psychoactive street drug.”
They have also started a website explaining how you WOULD go about preparing for a zombie apocalypse. It started as kind of a joke, but the joke, as Dr. Ali Khan of the CDC explained:
“…has proven to be a very effective platform. We continue to reach and engage a wide variety of audiences on all hazards preparedness via Zombie Preparedness; and as our own director, Dr. Ali Khan, notes, "If you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake, or terrorist attack." So please log on, get a kit, make a plan, and be prepared!”The lines between fiction and reality are getting fuzzy out there.
Does it mean we really can’t tell the difference? I don’t think it’s that simple. I do think that role-playing has taken hard root in in the multi-screen era. Our real lives are no longer enough. We don’t just want to watch our myths on TV, we want the myths to surround us. We want to BE the myths. If we believe it, it will come. My God, we’re BORED.
Up Jumps the Devil harbors the premise that the devil lives in all of us, a little. In our leaders and celebrities, and in our neighbors (Hey Charlie). Under that premise, my editor and I had this idea for a Twitter account, where I would write tweets as the devil. The most fun part of that was getting photographs together. What does the devil, as an American folk icon, LOOK like, after all?
He could look like any of us. In my book, he usually has a goatee. He smokes. He likes hats and sunglasses. He misses his girlfriend, who prefers to live in Heaven. He likes to stay at the Holiday Inn, when he’s on the road.
He likes to be on the road.
So do I. So does Janine. We hope Jianna will love the road, too.
We’re teaching her all the important stuff, like how to play the Alphabet Game and find license plates from all the states, and say in advance when she needs a rest stop. How to pack snacks that are good for you, and night-vision goggles, and some cool games and CDs and a trick or two with Kung-Fu.
See you out there, if something doesn’t gitcha first.
For additional information about Up Jumps the Devil, including links for ordering, please visit me at mikepoorehome.net, and feel free to follow me on Twitter: michaelpoore007. Alas, the Twitter devil account, @ScratchTheDevil, has been suspended. Not for rules violations or even offensive content, but because certain people complained on ideological grounds. This is called censorship, folks, and it should scare you. If you’d like to help show Twitter the light, think about complaining to them at: https://support.twitter.com/forms/general?subtopic=web_restore
Under "Description of problem," perhaps write / paste:
"@ScratchTheDevil was not in violation of Twitter Following Policy or Best Practices, and has been suspended in response to negative reports by users with an ideological objection to its content. This is a clear and unjust violation of the spirit of the First Amendment. People with narrow perspectives should not be allowed to simply vote free speech "off the island."
About Up Jumps The Devil
Up Jumps the DevilEcco (HarperCollins), July 3, 2012
Trade Paperback and eBook, 368 pages
A stunningly imaginative, sharp, funny, and slyly tender novel featuring the Devil himself, John Scratch.
He's made of wood. He cooks an excellent gumbo. Cows love him. And he's the world's first love story . . . and the world's first broken heart. Meet the darkly handsome, charming John Scratch, aka the Devil. Ever since his true love, a fellow fallen angel named Arden, decided that Earth was a little too terrifying and violent, John Scratch has been trying to lure her back from the forgiving grace of Heaven. Though neither the wonders of Egypt nor the glories of Rome were enough to keep her on Earth, John Scratch believes he's found a new Eden: America.
John Scratch capitalizes on the bounty of this arcadia as he shapes it into his pet nation. Then, one dark night in the late 1960s, he meets three down-on-their-luck musicians and strikes a deal. In exchange for their souls, he'll grant them fame, wealth, and the chance to make the world a better place. Soon, the trio is helping the Devil push America to the height of civilization—or so he thinks. But there's a great deal about humans he still needs to learn, even after spending so many millennia among them.
Overflowing with imagination, insight, and humor, rippling with history and myth, Up Jumps the Devil is as madcap and charming as the Devil himself.