Remembering Charlee Jacob: Geek Poems and Wormwood Nights

Cover of Geek Poems by Charlee Jacob

In 2005, the same year that Vestal was published, Charlee Jacob’s novella Wormwood Nights was given a limited edition run by Bloodletting Press.

This story hops back and forth in time, taking place across various years between 1887 and 1898 as seen through the blurry eyes of Frederick Sterling. A crime photographer by trade, Frederick finds that he has plenty to capture as he voyages between the London of Jack the Ripper and the France of Joseph Vacher. But his vision is distorted by his weakness for absinthe, so much so that he has trouble even keeping the order of events clear—accounting for the story’s loose approach to chronology.

This being the nineteenth century, Frederick’s photographs of grisly crime scenes are typically black and white. But during the course of the story he notices an oddity—his images are turning green, like the absinthe he imbibes:

He’d taken at least twelve pictures there on Brick Lane. Black and white. Shades of adultered charcoal between all the hard absolutes and misting edges where bystanders hadn’t kept still. Blood in the street looked black as oil. Gaslight hovered in a static, pearly St. Elmo’s Fire.

But the abortionist’s victim and, yes, the vaguely cherub-faced fetus were yellow-green. Stark in the photograph’s center, almost lifting from the surface like carved lettuce-jade […] Frederick checked the photographs made from this particular strip. Including the one where this woman in them as she’d traipsed down the alley and into the street, gouting like one of Saucy Jack’s disembowelled harlots. And, ah! Look… There was the frail umbilical cord linking Mother and baby. This, too, was green as a mint stem.

In France, absinthe was referred to as la fée verte—the green fairy—and this anthropomorphic figure turned up regularly in advertising images. In Wormwood Nights Charlee Jacob makes the green fairy of absinthe a literal if ambiguous presence, haunting the streets in which serial killers, prostitutes crime scene photographers ply their respective trades.

Dealing as it does with murderers, victims and investigators, Wormwood Nights is nominally a mystery narrative. And by its close it has tied up the more literalistic aspects of its plot by revealing the connection between the elusive green fairy and the eccentric artist Chadwick Hales, who becomes an avid purchaser of Frederick’s photographs.

But the mystery genre—with its reliance upon motivation, deduction and explanation—was never going to hold the interest of an author like Charlee Jacob. What appeals to her is the mythology of nineteenth-century urban vice, something she embodies in the green fairy. While perhaps a lesser deity to the gender-bending Shiva of Soma or the scatological goddess of Dread in the Beast, this character clearly belongs to the same pantheon as the other twisted gods that preside over Jacob’s fiction.

In 2006, the year after Wormwood Nights was published, Jacob took readers on a further tour of her personal Mt. Olympus with the short story collection Geek Poems.

Mythological imagery runs through most of the stories in this volume. Not all of them, admittedly. It is hard to read mythic significance into “Room”, a brief ghost story about a would-be lodger,  exploring the loneliness of the bereaved homeowner as well as ghosts of the literal variety. But beyond this exception, Jacob invokes elements from various world myths to convey her themes.

“Frigid” plays with imagery from Norse mythology. The main character, Annika, is comfortable only when surrounded by freezing cold. This stems partly from fond memories of her childhood in Norway, and partly from her trauma at having been raped in high school—a violation that she associates with heat. Having grown up with age-old stories told by her Norwegian grandmother Annika connects with such mythic concepts as the frost giants, the frozen primeval waste of Nifelheim, the chill abode of Hel, the icy apocalypse of Fimbulvetr. Annika shuns the company of hot-blooded young men and mingles with horror authors, only to find that those who write chillers are often warm at heart. Even the homeless who sleep in icy streets are unsuitable companions for her, freezing to death at her touch. In the end, Annika can find kinship only with her frost lover – an icy elemental that haunts the chilliest parts of the city.

“13 Hours Spent Stalking Eurydice” is, as its name suggests, a riff on the Orpheus myth. It depicts Orpheus as an immortal who walks the streets of a modern American city, still stinging from the conclusion of his legendary romance (“I had faced the Lord of Death Himself—and she couldn’t be bothered to move a little faster? There was gratitude for you!”) His seething resentment has  turned him into an arch-misogynist, a brother to This Symbiotic Fascination’s Arcan Tyler or Dread in the Beast’s Jason Cave, and he finds appreciation in the brutally exploitative culture that surrounds him.

In one scene Orpheus watches a stage musical about Ted Bundy, which portrays the serial killer as a hero who saves women from ever having to suffer old age. As he witnesses increasingly bizarre specimens of performing art, Orpheus reminisces about the ancient world with its sacred rites and profane atrocities—the boundary between which is not always clear. Revolving as it does around a predatory immortal, “13 Hours Spent Stalking Eurydice” has obvious connections to vampire fiction, although its protagonist is careful to distinguish himself from any specific genus of monster: “I am pressed between the millstones of sunset and sunrise like a vampire—but I’m not one. I bear an intense hunger with hands and face pale as the desert as if I were a ghul—yet I’m not one of those either.” The story is more interested in the richness and intangibility of myth than in the literalistic divisions of monster movies.

Naturally, the collection also uses one of Jacob’s recurring mythic motifs:  the Willendorf Venus, a distorted feminine figure invoked by Dread in the Beast and Vestal amongst other stories. In Geek Poems the image is incorporated into “Locked Inside the Buzzword Box”, a harrowing tale of child abuse in which a woman describes acting as an unwilling test subject by her psychiatrist father, “the perfect mesh of Krafft-Ebing and Mengele.” Force-fed Jungian theory, the woman uses wordplay and quotations to articulate her traumatic past, drawing upon mythic imagery in the process. Her catatonic mother, used as a prop in her father’s experiments, becomes the prehistoric Willendorf goddess; the story details the protagonist’s own progress through the maiden-mother-crone triad, eventually becoming a “massive and fem-grotesque” Venus herself.

Geek Poems recognises that mythical figures are not merely characters in old stories, but can also embody deeply personal spiritual paths—and given how far outside the margins of accepted society Jacob’s protagonists tend to be, those paths are often unorthodox indeed. “And Where Thy Footstep Gleams” is written from the perspective of a psychologically troubled and physically underdeveloped young man who struggles to express his thoughts, desires and anxieties: while his inner monologue waxes poetic, his dialogue with the other characters emerges as gibberish.

He develops a sexual fixation with the city’s homeless women, not for fetishistic reasons but rather because—it is implied—they occupy the same social margins as him: notably, the woman he becomes most attached to is mute. He sees the homeless women as potential mothers, the story dotted with imagery of pregnancy and childbirth, including a disturbing scene in which a nurse flushes a (possibly hallucinatory) baby down a toilet. But they are also religious figures: the story’s final pages invoke a swirl of spiritual images from stigmata-stained dresses to angels on the streets, rendered homeless by society’s loss of faith.

The myth of Pandora is reinvented by “Tales of a Gray Womb”, a fragmented piece that straddles the boundary between prose and blank verse, representing Jacob at her most dreamlike. The story portrays Pandora as an elderly woman attempts to reclaim a child she previously put up for adoption. The clinic obliges by handing her a badly-burned baby, but she protests that this is not her child. Next, they present her with a “crippled teenage idiot” and Pandora reacts violently, again protesting that this is not her child. Meanwhile, the narrative intercuts with asides that depict Pandora’s mythical jar-opening in gynaecological terms: “Gray walls glow, reflected from some slimed moon, momentum aching/building toward a final cramp…”

She continues to plead with the clinic’s staff, the story’s descriptions and dialogue becoming increasingly bizarre (“I have seen my child in every dream I’ve suffered all these years. In waking episodes, dark dementias and raving regrets I have discovered my baby’s likeness lurking about the depressed season’s suicidal fringes, deceiving clay and flesh alike”). Only after Pandora shakes reality by speaking her name is she finally reunited with her child. “No wonder we couldn’t find it”, exclaims the clinic supervisor. “It was filed by mistake under FACADES OF AN IMPOSTER TIME, which doesn’t truly exist anywhere.” The child is not described directly, but Jacobs employs Lovecraftian allusion: the final chapter of the short story is entitled “Happy Endings Are Subjective, Subject To Xenophobic Whims Of Excruciating Flashes of Azathothic Insight”.

This is not the only story in the collection that draws upon the invented mythology of H. P. Lovecraft. “Yeah, Yeah, Dog Gone South”, like Jacob’s earlier story “Dust Dancer”, relocates Lovecraftian cosmic horror to an arid Texan backdrop. The main characters are a widowed mother of three and a traumatised Iraq veteran who find themselves caught up in a slow-burning apocalypse: this  manifests as various small, strange incidents and the vast, ominous presence of a darkening cloud in the sky.

The aspect of the Cthulhu mythos that Jacob makes the most use of is the idea of cosmic indifference. The story’s apocalypse is neither a triumph of the Devil nor the return of God, instead being a gradual shift that is almost banal in its inevitability, albeit enlivened by macabre carnivals (a favourite Jacob motif). The tone of the end times is summed up by the meaningless, repetitive song that the mother hears her children singing, with the lyrics “Yeah! Yeah! Dog gone South! For a wagon!”. Eventually, the story reveals that this is actually the Lovecraftian invocation “Ia! Ia! Yog-Sothoth fhtagn!”

The collection ends with its title story, the novella “Geek Poems”. Although set a century after Wormwood Nights this tale feels like a companion piece to that book: each novella deals with serial killers and a culture fascinated by them; each imagines the cracks in polite society being populated by supernatural, even mythical beings.

“Geek Poems” opens with teenager Jean sneaking away to visit a carnival after reading Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. There, she falls in love with a man named Mike Minor and—despite being nearly ten years his junior—eventually marries him. In doing so Jean becomes stepmother to Anselm, Mike’s son, whose mother died in childbirth.

Mike avoids talking about the boy and does not keep photographs of him or even take him to the wedding. When Jean finally meets her stepson, she learns that the child is deformed:

Anselm had only half a head. One eye, one nostril, part of a mouth with only a few crooked teeth in it. There was but a single ear. On the other, flattened side of the head was a hole out of which slowly dribbled something which seemed at turns to be mucous and wax and which smelled like a church after the candles for Mass have been blown out. One arm was shrivelled and the hand on it adactylous, lacking fingers and claw-shaped. There was the barest wisp of hair, a yellow-feather across the morphogenically irregular lump of skull.

In one scene, while alone with her stepson, Jean hears Anselm speak for the first time. He points to a photograph advertising a carnival, the same one at which Jean and Mike met, and says “I belong there”. But Mike cares little for his child: he insists that the boy is incapable of intelligent thought and, when Jean shows him Anselm’s sophisticated drawings of angels, Mike merely tears the pictures up. Jean, too, becomes a victim pf Mike’s abuse, as he first rapes her and then locks her up for months before she is rescued.

Elsewhere, a young man named Ruben Thumm applies for a job as a prison warden, only to find that his role will involve administrating lethal injections. The first felon he is tasked with executing is Solomon Moon,  a notorious serial killer who—in an echo of Jean’s half-son—is paralysed down one side of his face. Solomon speaks in a storm of strange, fragmented poetry, invoking the moon, wild dogs, red fruit and other assorted images, and shows a personal affinity with Ruben: “I said when I met that you and I weren’t so different”, he reminds his killer-to-be. “Geek-hungry. Do you believe once there was a war in heaven and I ended up the king inside himself, the man in the Moon? We could be brothers.”

A few years later, with Jean the sole survivor of her tragic family and Ruben now calling himself Rob Tulsa to escape his past, the two fall in love. Their relationship develops against a backdrop of death-as-spectacle: they first meet as part of a crowd around a horribly mutilated corpse; they audition together for a play about Peter Stumpf, a man executed for lycanthropy in the sixteenth century; and they bond at Thanatos Cups, a coffee house frequented by Goths, where Rob reads poetry inspired by his time with Solomon Moon.  Like Orpheus in “13 Hours Spent Stalking Eurydice”, they also attend a piece of performance art about serial killers. A narrator describes a woman trying to sleep by counting murderers instead of the traditional sheep:

Ed Gein jumped first, wearing only a belt of moldy nipples, like Madonna in a stage corset—only he didn’t sound as good. Followed closely by David Berkowitz riding a grinning dog, both of them with toothmark eyes. Edmund Kemper pulled a string of heads while Miguel Rivera—who the children nicknamed Charlie Chopoff—scattered the Bible pages where God had instructed him to change little boys into little girls […] Armed with pompoms—large breasts cut free and taped strategically with streaming crepe paper—graceful Ted Bundy cheer-led as he bounded over, dressed all in red and red. John Wayne Gacy went over in a clown suit, chased by Solomon Moon who thought he was a freak friend from Sammantha El’s Carnival.

The story’s final segment takes place in 2004. Jean is reunited with Rob after he vanished from her life thirteen years ago, and finds that he has shifted from poet to geek—in the sense of a carnival performer who eats live animals. This is the point at which the story’s mysteries begin to unravel, and we learn the connections between Jean’s family, the sinister carnival and the killer Solomon Moon. At the same time, as with the conclusion to Wormwood Nights, the story’s recurring themes and images begin swirling together into a single dream-picture.

When Jean has flashbacks to the childhood trauma of seeing her suicidal father hanging from a cherry tree, this forms the climax to a preoccupation with cherries that runs through the story. The mangled head of a corpse is compared to a large cherry; a man who has a heart attack in the carnival spills cherries on the ground as he keels over; Jean’s infanticidal husband grows cherries on his property; a description of the Mexican Day of the Dead includes a reference to cherry-filled chocolate skeletons. “Geek Poems” is cherry-red as much as Wormwood Nights is absinthe-green.

The story’s association between cherries and corpses feeds into a broader theme of the consumption of death. In one scene Robert watches television and sees an endless succession of predators and prey: “Cartoons with one viscerally funny character always trying to eat another. News with one country trying to eat another. Cop shows where predators made figurative meals of victims and romances where lovers consumed each other. Reality programs where so-called civilized people were reduced to survival under what passed before the camera as savage conditions. All staged.”

Another indulgence that “Geek Poems” relates to death is sex. In one scene Jean, watching a particularly bloody geek show, notices a couple in the audience having sex; this causes her to contemplate how people in the past might have become similarly aroused by public executions (“Many went to brothels afterward which always did a booming business whenever there was to be a public death. Others fucked in their carriages, slavering from primitive spectacle, sniffing handkerchiefs they had dipped in the spilled entrails.”) This is common enough in horror fiction; where Jacob takes things further is in her equation of death and horror not merely with carnal ecstasy, but with the sacred.

To Jean, the rats eaten by geeks and the insects devoured by Dracula’s servant Renfield are “poisonous symbols of the old gods”, their consumption serving as a warped religious rite. “We fear the gods themselves so we eat the blood and flesh of Christ”, she remarks in one scene. “We make it us. We fear love so we eat beauty and children. We eat and eat because anything we can eat can’t be dangerous.”

In this context, that recurring image of the cherry takes on both sacred and profane connotations: the forbidden fruit of sex and death. Embarking on a journey that puts her into contact with carnival freaks, dark angels, lycanthropic rites and the poetry of serial killers, Jean is—like the absinthe-imbibing, crime scene-frequenting photographer of Wormwood Nights—another manifestation of Charlee Jacob’s favoured character type: the seeker of the horrific sublime. The perfect guide to accompany us through the twisted mythology of Geek Poems.

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Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.

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