Remembering Charlee Jacob: Still

Cover of Still by Charlee Jacob

Still, published in 2007, is perhaps Charlee Jacob’s most accessible novel. This is not to say that it is more conventional than her other books: the dreamlike surrealism, loose narrative structure and graphic portrayals of depravity that characterise much of her oeuvre are all present and correct. Rather, Still is comparatively accessible because of its choice of themes.

While all of Jacob’s novels are about horrors of one sort or another, Still is largely about horror as a genre. This is a novel that asks what horror is, and why people find fascination in it: the story opens a conversation with its readers, particularly readers who share that fascination, and invites them to see themselves reflected in the characters.

Cover of Still by Charlee Jacob

Still is divided into three parts, the first of which takes place in the fifties and includes two main characters. One is Zane McFadden, a detective who has seen more than his share of gruesome crime scenes throughout his twenty-year career. Rather than trying to block out his memories, he pores over a scrapbook chronicling the mutilated victims from each of his cases. Zane’s morbid fascination with the scrapbook has cost him his family, leaving the book his only sexual partner:

Alone in the house, Janie having divorced him and taken the kids ten years ago, he touched every page as he turned it, seeing a blood-red spark from each crisp corner. A shiver ran down his spine to settle in his scrotum with a kind of desire and something not unlike love. He would get an erection which always made him sick with shame, even as he understood it was the identical hard-on men went into battle with, when they stormed out to protect their families from the enemy. It was the same boner some men died with as they strained toward a merging with a death passionate to possess them.

And when he got to the end of the photos in the scrapbook, he would ejaculate into the paste, mixing it, then applying some to the latest picture to be added to the rest.

The other central character is a small boy, nicknamed Pearly, whose father is killed in the Korean War and whose mother is murdered by an angry mob (a fate that lands her a place in Zane McFadden’s scrapbook). Pearly goes to live with his Uncle Dan, an eccentric artist whose work is informed by his time in the army.

Dan’s apartment is painted with visions of warfare and apocalypse, and even the bathtub has a graphic depiction of a mutilated corpse. “Uhh, do I actually have to put my ass on that?” asks Pearly. “Yeah,” replies Uncle Dan. “And every time you do it’ll make you consider the politics intended.“ Dan later takes to cross-dressing in an effort to ward off a man-eating succubus which he believes is pursuing him in the form of Marilyn Monroe.

Down the local library, the precocious young Pearly begins devouring such books as Machiavelli’s The Prince, Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis and – a particular favourite – a book about Jack the Ripper written by a man named Noom Chambers. Inspired by this volume, Pearly decides to become a murderer at the tender age of eight.

He starts by killing a homeless man, after which he catches sight of a passing bag-lady he comes to think of as being Mrs. Death (“He’d read in Chambers’ book that some described having seen The Ripper as a man carrying a black bag. Maybe this hadn’t been The Ripper. Just Mr. Death trailing along in his awful wake, collecting the death screams of whores”) Later, when a little girl named Emily is killed by a motorist – an occurrence followed by another apparition of Mrs. Death – the neighbourhood children hire Pearly to hunt down and slay the man responsible, and he happily does so.

Remaining fascinated with Noom Chambers’ inspirational book on Jack the Ripper, Pearly becomes convinced that it was written by the killer himself. He tracks down Mr. Chambers, who admits that he was in fact Jack the Ripper. The scene is partly a meeting between a boy and his idol, partly a Wild West showdown between an old gun and the new kid – and it ends with the Ripper allowing Pearly to kill him:

“You’ve only t’ open th’ artery. T’ slit my throat ear t’ ear would be unnecessary. Too showy for broad daylight and out in public, such as it is. Besides, that isn’t quite as easy as it looks. Perhaps you know this already?”
The kid nodded, thinking of that first man in the park he’d had to stab several times with the broken bottle.
“Take your coat off first. Right. Set it where it won’t get splashed when you do me. Then put your coat back on and button up. That’s ‘ow I did it. Do it on this side. If they pass by, they might only see me slumped and think I’m sleepin’. Gives you time t’ get away.”
Pearly removed the coat. He then cut Chambers as he asked, right where the pulse tapped and begged for freedom.

Pearly’s new career as a homicidal child prodigy gets him the attention of the local gangland, and before long, he is initiated into a notorious crime family – a family also being investigated by the increasingly deteriorated Zane McFadden.

The title of Still has an obvious double meaning, indicating both an artistic work and a state of death. This is a pun that taps into a central theme of the novel, and indeed, of Jacob’s work as a whole: the consumption of death as spectacle.

Still introduces us to a set of characters whose lives have, in one way or another, been shaped by death – Zane the homicide detective, Dan the army veteran, Pearly the orphan – and explores the ways in which they process the horrors that they have witnessed by keeping a scrapbook, creating art or reading about crimes. Like so many of Jacob’s protagonists they are seekers of atrocity, with Pearly taking this pursuit further by committing atrocities of his own.

The fantasy aspects of Still are not quite as overt as those of Jacob’s previous novels, but they remain present in a number of forms. The ghostly figure of Mrs. Death, manifesting as both the Marilyn Monroe succubus and the murder-scene bag-lady. The story of eight-year-old serial killer Pearly tracking down and slaying his idol Jack the Ripper, like something out of a children’s story gone wrong. The hallucinatory visions experienced by the Dexedrine-popping Zane. The novel’s depiction of the fifties ids ultimately a dreamscape, one from which the reader awakes when Still jumps ahead in time to 2005 – arriving at a different yet similarly bizarre setting.

Zane McFadden is now dead but – the story suggests – he has been reincarnated as Peter Beta, a Californian high school teacher with a wife and two children. Where Zane had a background in the real horrors of crime-scene investigation, Peter’s formative years were surrounded by fictional horrors: his parents took him to see films like Rosemary’s Baby during his infancy in the sixties, and as an older child he eagerly watched such extreme seventies fare as Last House on the Left with his friend Curtis.

But this childhood love of horror ended in trauma, as Curtis died of a ruptured appendix during a trip to see Texas Chain Saw Massacre: in Peter’s mind, it was the celluloid fear that killed his friend. Only as an adult was his love of horror reignited thanks to his friend Dunkel, a trader specialising in niche, obscure and possibly illegal films of horror and violence. At this point, a number of the novel’s main themes ooze freely from subtext to text.

During the stretch of the novel set in the fifties, Jacob makes an effort to engage with the popular culture of the period, largely in the form of crime novels by Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett and Ed McBain, but there is the underlying feeling that she is not entirely at home with this genre: the gangsters who adopt Pearly are the weakest characters in Still. Once Peter Beta takes over as protagonist, however, Jacob is free to explore something evidently closer to her heart – the canon of extreme horror and exploitation films that developed since the late sixties.

Peter’s reminisces about his cinema-going youth and his subsequent conversations with Dunkel come across as a treatise on cinematic atrocity, encompassing not only comparatively mainstream fare like Texas Chain Saw Massacre but also the likes of Giichi Nishihara’s Grotesque Perverted Slaughter and Hisayasu Sato’s Guinea Pig series, with a quick dig at Scream along the way (“If you giggled during the movie, it wasn’t scary”) and a shout-out to Chas Balun’s book Beyond the Horror Holocaust, published four years previously.

For all his outré tastes, Peter Beta is – crucially – depicted as an everyman figure. He is a character the reader is expected to feel an instinctive connection to, and a representative of mundane materialism to contrast with the story’s supernatural elements.

These come into play when Peter obtains Zane McFadden’s scrapbook of murder victims from Dunkel’s memorabilia shop. While at a restaurant with his utterly embarrassed wife – a character who embodies repression and conservatism – Peter feels the temptation to lick one of the photographs. Upon doing so, he experiences a vision of the death captured on the image:

There came a taste of ancient developer so bitter it shrivelled his tongue on contact and burned down his throat. His eyes watered and he gagged, Mongolian barbecue starting to lurch upward from his stomach on a tide of Shiraz and szechwan pepper sauce. He clenched the photo in one fist and with the other clutched his face.

Then everything tilted.
Fade in…
Black and white.
Black and white.
Blackandwhite.

Color was an intrinsic component reserved for those with a future.
He was a she, Rosaluna Pasolini, age fourteen. She lay helpless in the back seat of a Detroit Tyrannosaurus Rex, man straddling her pregnant belly, pressing down on the fragile stem of her windpipe. She’d had her charm bracelet around her wrist and slapped her assailant in the mouth, leaving a cross-shaped cut.

Recovering from this experience, Peter finds that the scene from his vision has been transferred to the skin of his hand as an animated tattoo: “Rosaluna moved, as if still alive. On the brink of death, not quite pushed over it.” Perhaps it is a psychic gift Peter had from birth; perhaps it is the spirit of Zane McFadden acting through him; either way, something bizarre is happening.

Peter carries on licking Zane’s photographs and has still more visions, each one accompanied by the appearance of another moving tattoo on his skin. Just as the scrapbook led to Zane losing his family, the development disrupts Peter’s life. His wife, who never approved of his fascination with horror, decides to keep him away from their children; meanwhile, his employers at the high school fire him.

But his therapist, Nika Noll, is fascinated, comparing the tattoos to stigmata. More than that, she finds Peter’s death-adorned body sexually arousing:

“Forgive me,” she murmured as she stroked the horrors on his flesh, bringing up one leg to clasp his left hip with. “I’ve never been so aroused. Your skin is so hot.” […] She pulled up her skirt and guided the burning brand of his erection beneath the elastic of her thong, rubbing it against herself. All the time muttering, “This is aberrant. I’ll be needing to see a psychiatrist myself. You’re worse than a Roman Circus. Not you, you understand. But this is the greatest manifestation for the purely fetishist I’ve ever encountered…”

Nika is expert on paraphilias, having dealt with a wide variety of cases (“She’d treated people who liked to suck toes dipped in dog shit and folks who walked around with toes severed from dead bodies inserted up their anuses and pussies”) Now, she is forced to confront the fact that she has a paraphilia of her own:

She considered lots of things, trying to convince herself she wasn’t absolutely the lowest bug on the planet.

Roman circuses. The most flagrant displays of barbarity. Men fighting to the death. Criminals torn to pieces by lions, tigers, wolves. Maidens raped by other beasts. All to the roar of delighted crowds who couldn’t get enough. The Renaissance. High art. The Rape Of Europa, The Rape of Leda (Leda And The Swan), The Rape Of The Sabine Women. And popular hellish torments by Sandro Botticelli, Mathias Grunewald, Hieronymus Bosch. The picnic outings of low and genteel alike who gathered to ogle those burned as witches at the stake—or to see other condemned disembowelled and quartered. Brothels always did a booming business after executions.

The list goes on, passing through the Marquis de Sade, lurid murder-scene illustrations in newspapers of 1888, Pearly’s beloved Psychopathia Sexualis, and into the modern era of H. R. Giger, Clive Barker and Jeremy Caniglia. Peter and Niki are made for each other, with Jacob emphasising their bond by listing the paraphilias studied by Niki in as much fascinated detail as the horror films viewed by Peter.

This depiction of a love based on horror is entirely appropriate for a novel that is, itself, a love letter to horror. Jacob always did have a distinctly meta relationship with the horror genre, something that went back at least as far as her playful usage of the vampire and werewolf archetypes in her debut novel This Symbiotic Fascination. Still makes no apology about continuing themes and motifs from the author’s past work: the image of a protagonist whose body is tattooed with atrocities turned up in her 1995 short story “The Woman in Red”; Niki’s musings about the history of death as spectacle are essentially paraphrased from “Geek Poems”, right down to the observation about brothels and public executions; and Dunkel, the mentor-figure with a fondness for extreme Japanese cinema and a dark secret in his backstory, would have got on swimmingly with Dread in the Beast’s Big Garth. But never before had Charlee Jacob’s fascination with horror been laid out quite so neatly, with Still frequently looking like a manifesto as much as a work of fiction.

The novel captures the evolution of the genre from the horror comics of the fifties, through the gore films of the seventies, and into the twenty-first century. The macabre tastes of the millennial generation are embodied in Peter’s high school pupils: “These were kids who—the year before—had flocked to see THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST for the gore, and then had made the very next number one box office hit the remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD. Splatter-Jesus the opening act for brain-scarfing zombies. Rockin’ and sockin’ in the pews. Go figure.” In modern times, the novel argues, media horror is all-pervasive:

Beta’s vintage stuff wasn’t as bad as what Nika watched on regular television these days. The popularity of ‘survivor’ soap operas, explicit forensic dramas, and news vérité (watch Uday and Qusay Hussein get blasted into dog poop before your very eyes!) had pretty much turned everybody into jaded voyeurs.

While Still spends much of its time celebrating exploitation and extreme horror, it acknowledges that there should be limits. In the third and final part of the novel, Peter and Nika go up against the story’s main villains: Videre, a secret society which, since the days of ancient Rome, has been trafficking in sex and death. Nothing in the couple’s lives spent surrounded by horror and depravity prepares them for what they witness when they confront this heinous snuff ring on its own turf.

The novel’s finale harks back to the early chapters set in the fifties, with Zane McFadden’s son Clay and the now-grown-up child prodigy serial killer Pearly also caught up in Vidare’s machinations. During a climax set against the backdrop of a nightmarish circus-cum-auction-cum-geek show, all elements of the often loose narrative finally come together: the perfect conclusion to what could fairly be called the quintessential Charlee Jacob novel.

But Still was also Charlee Jacob’s last novel for nearly a decade. Her physical disability, arising from a combination of Parkinson’s, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, led to a period in which she was unable to write. Her next novel, Season of the Witch, would not be published until 2016 – and she would have only one more novel published after that.

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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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