Genre Identity

Back when I finished The Land of Grace and began sending it out, I noticed that the first thing publishers and agents wanted me to do is hang a tag on it. Is it a crime story?  a thriller? a romance? a horror story? a comedy? Of course, they wanted to know how to sell it by identifying who to sell it to. Hell, I wanted to sell it more than they did, but as much as I would have liked to have accommodated them, I couldn’t help thinking the book is  all of these things and, at the same time, it was none of them.  For example, the story is chocked full of crimes, but crime is not what the story is about. While there’s action, violence and a rising sense of danger, no one who favors a thriller for a leisurely  read would ever list this as her go-to book. The thread of an attraction between a man and woman runs through the narrative, but the story would fail miserably trying to be a romance.

It has humor. Hey, does that make it a comedy? As I wrote the story, the humor just arose naturally from the absurd circumstances, who the characters were, and the way they viewed their world and interacted with each other. As the absurdly comical layers are peeled from the story, an absurdly horrific core is revealed beneath. That little twist caused me to strike out in this category too.

Horror? Well, now there’s a genre I could almost cram it into because the story includes some creepy and monstrous people doing creepy and monstrous things. But you won’t find any zombies, werewolves or vampires anywhere in The Land of Grace. You won’t find any ghosts rattling chains or demon-possessed children, twisting their heads around, spraying the walls with projectile vomiting.  In fact, there’s nothing even remotely supernatural involved in the story. So a reader of horror, unless she would accept psychological horror as a sub-genre, might be terribly disappointed.

The reviewer at Kirkus Reviews hit it on the head by calling it “A satirical novel about a religious cult built around the worship of Elvis Presley.” The reviewer went on to say, “Overall, the book artfully asks probing questions about the basic human need for mythology of whatever kind and about the point at which the tensile cord of innocent fascination snaps.” Did I start out trying to write a satire in order to “artfully” ask probing questions? Naa! I just began by asking what would happen if an Elvis impersonator was lured into a zealous  Elvis cult. I didn’t try to write a book that a “target audience” might want to read. I tried to write a book that I would want to read. Of course, now that it’s headed to the printer, I hope I’m not the only one.

An Elvis Cult?

In December of 1977, I was taking my leave of  a boring party when the host asked me to take one of his female guests home. The woman had had an argument with her boyfriend over something, and the boyfriend split, leaving the poor woman all upset and stranded. She lived north of Birmingham, so far out in the country that as I followed her directions, I became a little concerned with finding my way back to the interstate in the dark.

As best I can recall, the woman was thin and had blondish hair styled in a short cut. I think she wore a Christmassy outfit in green and red. I want to say she had little Christmas ornaments dangling from her ears, but that may not be right.  One thing’s for sure, she smelled really good. Though I can’t describe the cologne she wore,  I remember it as a subtle fragrance, sweetly permeating the inside of my ’69 Olds Cutlass as the headlights sliced through all that rural darkness.  I was single, and getting lucky was always on my mind.  So even though I thought her to be unremarkable, in those days unremarkable was just sexy enough.

She talked a lot. The term compulsively autobiographical comes to mind because she told me what kind of person she was and what kind of person she wasn’t in three or four different ways. And she told me what kind of person she liked and what kind of person she couldn’t stand in no uncertain terms. Other than her directions, I had tuned her out because I figured I was the kind of person who understood exactly why her boyfriend had left her back at that boring-ass party.

At some point during that ride, she said she was the kind of person who thought having sex was the most natural thing in the world. She suddenly had my undivided attention. After telling me to turn in front of a little white clapboard house, she asked me if I wanted to come in for a drink. I said, “I believe I do.”

I remember the house as being really small and white with a narrow front porch and an eerie light flickering through the blinds of one of the windows. There was no foyer, so after she opened the door and flipped on the lights, we stepped straight into a tiny living room/dining room/kitchen combination that stretched across the front of the house. A door in the center of the back wall opened into a narrow hallway. Across the hallway was a bathroom. I imagined that the bathroom was flanked by a couple of bedrooms. But I never did get that far.

I felt as if I had stepped into a mini-museum with the walls splattered in pictures of Elvis—Elvis as a kid in a cowboy hat, Elvis on a motorcycle, Elvis in a sequined white jumpsuit onstage in Vegas, etc. Most of the pictures were framed photos, but she had two full-sized, color posters thumb-tacked to the walls. I’m certain about the Love Me Tender poster in the kitchen, but the one in the living area could have very well been from any of the umpteen movies that the King made.

In the living area, one of those uncomfortable, thin-cushioned, plastic padded couches with wooden armrests had been pulled away from the wall and faced a matching chair and three ladder-back chairs from the kitchen table. A long table with tall legs sat in the center of this snug seating arrangement. At one end of the table, a three-foot statue of Elvis with a guitar looked as if he were serenading a half-dozen votive candles flickering into puddles on what looked like a big aluminum cookie sheet.

The woman draped her coat on the couch and said, “I keep telling my sister she’s going to burn this place slap to the ground one of these days.”

After she blew out the candles, I’m sure I stood there speechless for a while, trying to take the whole thing in. I finally came out with something like, “Y’all must really be Elvis fans.”

“Oh, we love Elvis,” she said.

With getting lucky still my objective, I thought I would say something that would endear myself to this woman, so while copping the somber expression of a funeral director, I said, “I was really saddened when I heard the news about Elvis’ death.”

In the silence that followed, something about her face changed. My skeptical nature tells me that my memory is flawed, and it was just her expression crinkling up in disapproval. But every time I think back on that moment, my imagination runs wild, and I see Lon Chaney, Jr. transforming from a whiny, passive Lawrence Talbot into the fierce and growling Wolfman ready to rip out somebody’s throat.

One thing I’m not mistaken about is the fact that this woman shrieked, “Elvis is not dead! Don’t you ever say that again!”

Women have been yelling at me for years. My mother yelled at me a lot. My sister yelled at me. Teachers, female cousins, and a girlfriend or two have all yelled at me at one time or another. My wife has damn sure yelled at me. She might not admit it, but she woke me one night yelling at me in her dreams. So I’m well acquainted with being yelled at by a woman. This wasn’t a yell, it was a shriek that sounded like it was coming from some demon imbedded deep inside this woman.

“No, ma’am. I’ll never tell you that again,” I said. Then I glanced at my watch too fast for the time to even register on my brain and said, “God, I didn’t know it was so late. I need to get going.”

She said something. Maybe she asked if I was still interested in that drink she’d offered. If she did, I’ll bet I declined a hell of a lot faster than I accepted in the first place. Then I was out the door and into the yard, imagining Anthony Perkins in a wig and a long grey dress, coming up behind me with a butcher knife.

As I pulled out of her driveway, I didn’t notice whether she was standing on the porch or not. But if she was, she probably shrieked, “You’re going the wrong way, you damned fool.”  Because I was going the wrong way. When I finally calmed down, my inner compass took over, and I turned around and found my way back to the interstate.

I’ve made several failed attempts over the years to turn this shaggy dog anecdote into a short story. I could never get past the “so-what?” factor. So, some guy took some mysterious chick home. Then he gets freaked out because she’s an Elvis worshiper. So what?   I’ve wished several times that I’d had the courage to ask the woman about her passionate devotion to Elvis. I’ve always wondered  if she, her sister, and some of her friends actually gathered around that shrine while lighting candles and offering prayers up to the King.

While I think of that Elvis display as the weirdest  thing I’ve ever seen in my life, I realize that my interpretation of the events of that evening have undoubtedly been muddied by the passing years and colored by my avid interest in horror movies. I’m sure the combination of the dark rural location, being surrounded by Elvis pictures, the crude little Elvis shrine, and the woman’s shriek just creeped me out.

Something very benign and sweet may have been going on in that little house for all I know. So the woman, her sister and their friends loved Elvis. Good for them. Maybe they loved Elvis a little more than I would consider healthy.  Not my business. Still, I wonder about it to this day.

Back in 2006, I saw a notice in the newspaper that Dr. Gregory L. Reece was having a signing for his book, Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King at the Eclipse Coffee and Books in Montevallo, Alabama. I got him to sign a copy for me, and I told him a little about my Elvis story. He said that while researching his book, he had heard a few similar stories. In fact, he had an Elvis experience of his own. His encounter involved a woman adorned in Elvis jewelry at a Memphis hospital emergency room. She told him she had moved to Memphis to be close to Elvis and that she took great comfort, knowing that when her loved ones died, they would be in Heaven with Elvis. He could tell that this woman was much more than a fan, but their separate business at the emergency room separated them before he was able to find out more about her.

Reece’s encounter with the woman kicked off a campaign to discover the depth of this Elvis spiritual movement that ended with his interesting book. Reece didn’t find an actual Elvis religious movement.  But there’s something going on out there that kind of feels like one.

All those bogus stories of people seeing him in laundromats and doughnut shops after his death aside, the King’s been dead for forty years, and he’s still all over the place. At this writing HBO has a two-part documentary called Elvis Presley: The Searcher scheduled for the spring of 2018. Since his death, he’s had six albums and seven singles that hit number one on some chart or other in the U.S. or the UK or both. And how many singers who’ve been dead for forty years have 500 fan clubs worldwide? If somebody wanted to start an Elvis religion, those might be some pretty good places to start.

I look at TCB with a lightning flash and see a potential religious symbol not unlike a cross or a star or a crescent moon. And didn’t the Memphis Mafia follow Elvis around like disciples? Then there are the Elvis imitators that keep popping up everywhere. For example, the Krewe of the Rolling Elvi at Mardi Gras is an army of side burned Elvis wannabes  on motor scooters. Those guys make me wonder how many covert Elvi  are walking among us with jumpsuits secretly  dangling in their closets at home.

The  300 professional Elvis impersonators registered on eimpersonators.com remind me a hell of a lot of priests in that they’ve been performing the same routine in the same outlandish garb for decades. Instead of feeding the faithful the Host, they conclude their leg-shaking, karate-kicking  services by distributing pastel scarves dipped in their sweat. Of course, the Elvis faithful have their Mecca in Graceland, the pop culture shrine that millions trek to from all over the world.  Among historic residences in the U.S., only the White House has more visitors than Elvis’s Memphis home.

The whole thing got me to thinking. What if that woman and her sister did belong to some wacked-out Elvis cult? What would it look like if to this mix I added a charismatic leader with some deep pockets, a devoted cadre to help sell the faith, and a sacred text containing a theology with rules for the faithful, explained in myths and stories about the King?

Elvis, 1956

If you don’t find me waxing nostalgically about America of the nineteen-fifties, it’s because for much of that decade my family owned neither a telephone, an automobile, nor indoor plumbing. We lived so far back in the sticks, my mother and I had to flag down the Greyhound bus out on U.S. 11 and ride ten miles into Fort Payne to pay bills and shop for supplies we couldn’t get from the peddling truck that came by every Wednesday.  Okay. I know what this sounds like. When I first told my wife this story she wanted to take a look at my birth certificate.

Our entertainment and news came to us via an old Crosley radio the size of a bread box in our living room.  But we kept seeing those multi-pronged aluminum poles springing up beside the houses out on the highway, and we knew what they were for. Every time we were in town, we lingered in front of the window of JT Morgan’s to watch the magic black and white images flickering across the screens of those shiny new 21 inch Zeniths.

One Saturday, we were excited by an invitation to a neighbor’s house to watch rasslin’ on their new television. To judge how badly we wanted to watch television, those TV-owning neighbors lived at least a mile away from us which meant we had to trek there and back in the dark. It looked as if our trip had been made for nothing because when we got there, no matter how many knobs our neighbor twisted, how long he’d stood outside turning the antenna, he couldn’t pick up rasslin’. Finally, he gave up and tuned  in to a CBS affiliate out of Chattanooga. The whole thing seemed like magic to me anyway, so I didn’t care what we watched, but the men were disappointed that instead of the he-man activity of sweaty, over-weight guys wallowing around on top of each other, they were reduced to staring at a sissy variety program called “Stage Show.”

“Stage Show” looked a hell of a lot more entertaining to me than ‘rasslin’. It started out with a troop of pretty girls dancing in intricate formation to a snappy  big band number. Then I thought it was really cool when the girls were followed by a ventriloquist and a couple of dummies selling Nestles chocolate mix.  I didn’t pay much attention to what the two guys who were running the show said next, but a man walked on stage through a chorus of girlish squeals. He had a pile of hair and sideburns, and he handled the guitar he had slung over his shoulder as if it were a machine gun. After giving the squealing girls a snarling smile, he launched into a bouncy song about blue suede shoes and how nobody should step on them. During an instrumental break, he hopped around, shaking his legs as if they were on fire. When he finished his song, everybody in the little living room was stunned. The men wondered aloud, “What the hell was that?” My mother said, “I liked him.” I was ten or eleven years old at the time, and all I knew was that  in the course of a few minutes, I had abandoned my desire to be a cowboy, a policeman or a fireman. I wanted to be that guy whoever he was.

Of course, it wasn’t long before everybody knew who Elvis was. My uncle sent us bus tickets to visit him out in California. For three days and nights, we heard “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” blaring  from the juke boxes of every bus station restaurant across eight states.

When we got back to Alabama, one of my friend’s parents had bought a television, and over the next few months, I finagled invitations to watch Elvis on a few of his appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. In the meantime, over my dad’s fierce objection, I blew whatever spare change I could scrape up on Vitalis Hair Tonic in a desperate attempt to train my hair into an Elvis-like pompadour. I must have looked goofy going around with my collar turned up, looking at everybody through hooded eyes, curling my lip when I smiled. I didn’t have a guitar or a record player, but I stood in front of my bedroom mirror at night, wiggling my legs and “caterwaling” as my dad called it.

The hair thing didn’t work out at all. Instead of handsome and sexually threatening, I just looked like an awkward  kid with greasy hair that wanted to lay flat on my head. My voice hadn’t changed, so when my class put on a program at the school assembly, my show business debut was reduced to a frantic pantomime  of “Hound Dog”. I was a big hit. But for the wrong reason. The auditorium full of kids roared in laughter. For a week they came up to me, telling me it was the funniest thing they had ever seen. They looked at me as a future comedian, while I knew I was a miserable failure as an Elvis imitator.

I spent the next  week climbing on the school bus to shouts of “Hey hound dog.” The whole thing made me want to crawl under something, but I couldn’t find anything low enough. On my next trip into town, I got the hair cut into a flat-top. Though I left Elvis on the floor of the barbershop, for a long time I carried deep feelings of envy and a painful sense of injustice. I had so much in common with Elvis. It just didn’t seem fair that he got to be the King of Rock and Roll while I had to keep on being a poor kid with an over-protective mother.

Over the next few years I saw a few Elvis movies but  found them boring. I thought his music fell far below the standard he set before the got drafted into the Army. By the time I got to college, Elvis had faded away, and everybody was listening to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and all those wonderful sounds coming out of Motown. Elvis’s appearance on television in a skin-tight leather outfit in 1968, looked as if he’d returned to reclaim his crown. But a few years later I went to a movie theater on Okinawa with some Army friends to see Elvis: That’s the Way It Is. I walked out of the theater, thinking, Elvis had gone to Las Vegas and traded in his rock and roll crown to become another Liberace.

But Elvis refused let me completely forget him. Every now and then something like “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” or “Way Down,” would hit the charts, and I would admit the guy could probably sing the Memphis Yellow Pages and make them sound pretty good.

On August 16, 1977, I was on the Bessemer Super Highway outside of Midfield, Alabama when the announcer interrupted the music on the radio to say that Elvis had died. Despite my feelings that Elvis’ music was no longer relevant, he was such a larger-than-life figure, that my first thought was, This is some kind of joke. Hell, this is Elvis he’s talking about. After I realized the report was serious, I pulled over in a parking lot and sat there for a while. It  wasn’t so much that I was sad about Elvis passing. I felt as if my youth had just been found dead on the bathroom floor at Graceland.

Reinvention

Welcome to the website of a man in the midst of the fifth, or maybe the sixth, reinvention of himself. This time, I’m making a change from lawyer to novelist. While information about my first novel, The Land of Grace, will take up most of the space on this website for now, I’ll try to comment on that reinvention in the blog section. I promise I won’t cliché you to death by calling whatever I’m doing a life journey or a search to find myself. I already know where I am. I’m right here inside my home office in Birmingham, Alabama, typing on my MacBook.  For some reason I’m compelled to write stories, but I would be perfectly happy to do nothing more than live in this house with my beautiful wife, Debra. Believe me, if I start navel gazing, it’ll bore me way before it does you.