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A CAROL FOR HIRAETH

 by Hamelin Bird



Perseverance.


It’s something I see long forgotten in the faces of our town.


It’s in the eyes, mostly.


It’s when I pass them on the street and they glare at me beneath wisps of snow-blown hair, and I know they’ve forgotten what it means to survive.


For those who’ve been around long enough, however, we know better.


Yes, we know…


And as I linger here at the window of time looking back on that magical summer—back when we were green and star-eyed, and had plenty of our best years ahead—I can still make out the rime etching spiderwebs up the glass, can see those first breaths of morning fogging the air like some ghostly vision of halitosis, just as they had all those years ago…



Things were different back then. Sure, it’s a platitude—but it also happens to be true.


Hiraeth was a simpler town in those days, belonged to a simpler world. Our family woke well before sunrise to milk Bess-Matilda and feed the hungry horses; yet we were merely cogs of a much greater communal organism, a bright country where front porches stayed crowded and screen doors left unlocked, where children kicked rusty cans and ran wild in the streets. The usual cash crops—tobacco, soybeans, corn—lay sprawled through the center of town, the harbors lining the coast and dotted by legendary fleets of

Hiraeth trawlers, names scrawled down their sides in flaky hard-boiled script: THE BOUNTY. SCAVENGER. EDWARD TEACH ENTERPRISE.


Festivals highlighted the year, the Tulips & Lager Parade in March, followed as always by the Blessing of the Fleet and, mother of all galas, the Croaker Festival—a time when families strolled the boardwalk and watched the Fourth of July fireworks before crowding to see which young miss nabbed the title of Croaker Queen. The men downed another Coors as their gals whistled for street dances and the band cranked “Brown-Eyed Girl” out into the night; children tossed firecrackers and ran barefoot over the Olde Towne bridge, water lapping beneath them as they pointed to the wild neons of jellyfish and man-of-wars and of their own imagination.




Then were the forever-rolling blackouts which haunted the town year-round. Occasionally it was the East Enders—Florence and Whortonsville and Paradise Shoals—occasionally the Aurora side, though most times the entire town was thrown into the blackness, hurled headfirst. Families collected ceremoniously under grandparents’ roofs to swap yawns and play charades, or perhaps gather in hushed candlelit vigils to whisper old haint stories. And later that night, as the crickets gabbed and the frogs told tall tales, everyone tossed and turned in the swelter of these dilapidated screen-door palaces. Those nights if you yellowed your sheets it came out so warm it burned…


Even Hiraeth-then was not immune to tragedy, however, and folks carried with them their weight of grief and hollow seasons. Yet even our darkest moments were only the usual sordid legends of broken-to-hell families, occasional suicides, mishap deaths. But there was also the chance olde-tyme massacre, most of these rarely as simple as a flared temper or barroom brawl but usually the culmination of a slow, steady slide into depression and, ultimately, madness.


Yes, that was the way things were.


Before.


As I sit here peeling away the layers of that summer, like the layers of some bitter onion, I recall that the first warnings were from the fishermen. Even these were slow in coming—but so, I suppose, was the storm itself. In a way I believe we all felt it coming, felt it growing, if not in the air then perhaps in our own skittish hearts. One morning we turned from the closet and, rather than the ripped-knee coveralls and white-tee we’d decided on, instead found ourselves clutching a winter jacket…mittens…a toboggan.


First came Mark Halpern down on Acorn Avenue, talking in his sleep, babbling away with tears in his eyes about freezing nights on the water—nights so cold he’s sure it was ice he’d heard scratching at the hull. Then it was old Tommy Rafferty, who’d left a leg in Korea and was first to call attention to the strange flock migrations in the area, pointing ominously as speckles of Mallards and swan winged away from the docks.



The stories escalated when the crew of the ALBEMARLE ELITE reported a hailstorm of frightening violence in the Sound; pictures of injuries received were documented in the local Clarion. From then it seemed we could all sense the nights becoming cooler, the days after that, and finally it was as if Hiraeth fell into a deep blue dream. Pipes burst. The sun lost its strength. Crops began to frost and worried farmers prepared to cut their losses and plow.


They wouldn’t have the chance.


The night of August 28th—two weeks after the hailstorm first appeared in the weeklies, and after light hours of back-and-forth sleet—the town of Hiraeth witnessed its first flake of genuine summer snowfall. Many more followed, and by morning the slush had topped four inches. School was canceled, at which time wild half-dressed children blazed from their homes, mouths blurting high nonsensical cries that tore through the streets like gunfire.


The rest of us only looked on in grave awe and wonder…some even fear.


The snowfall continued through that day and into night, pausing once to catch its breath and then never looking back. By next morning, the toll stood at eighteen inches. Still the blizzard raged, sweeping in from the darkness that settled over the Sound and piling snow in great heaps on doorsteps and beneath windows, flanking cars, burying roads. The looming sign as you entered town—WELCOME TO HIRAETH  WE SLEEP WITH THE FISHES!—was now covered in white and said nothing.




Reporters and press deluged the town; tabloids were printed, offering the truth of “The Arctic Bubble of North Carolina” or its purported effects (“Hiraeth Residents Growing Fur!!!”). The mystery of Hiraeth had become a national obsession, and soon we all began groping unnaturally for ways to handle this newfound fame.



Some came forward with tall tales of life out there. Oh yes, they’d seen them, the lights in the sky, and THEY were the ones responsible. Some said it was nothing short of a rebuke from the Almighty; others claimed it an “unprecedented weather anomaly” and left it at that. There was talk of the next Ice Age and one family—the Redmans—really did leave town and never returned. They’re getting along well now in Atlanta.


And yet, like so many pop culture fads before it, interest waned and the Arctic Hull of Hiraeth quietly faded away, vanishing into the dark night of America’s subconscious. For residents of Hiraeth, however, life did not change as the fad did. Summer wore on and ended. Winter came and went, with no lull in activity but thankfully no increase. Interest waned, but the snow did not; it remained and still remains to this day.


Longer piers were installed down at the harbors with federal grant money, a reckoning of the massive ice floes that have collected along the shore. Defying the weather, our fishermen trudged forth with admirable determination, continuing to serve the waters and thereby feed hungry mouths waiting back at home.


It was the farmers, however, who took the brunt of the hit—and what a hit it was.


The bulk of that growing season was lost, buried under ice, and for the next few years it appeared the fields would never be resurrected. My own father had passed away by then, my brother and I going our separate ways in the farm supply and construction businesses, respectively. The anomaly crippled him initially, but lately business has been picking up.


Others have made allowances, as well; only eight months ago, the miser Earl Hutchins completed what is said to be something of a greenhouse—big as two football stadiums, complete with the latest-day sprinkler systems and heat lamps and doors wide enough to let in the Cub tractors and combines. It’s going well.


Others quickly followed suit.


Of the one hundred counties in this state only seven are currently being affected by the anomaly, with three of those in it up to their elbows—none as bad as ours. There’s been talk of taking down the hothouses and stopping all attempts at growing; at this writing, the idea is in the minority, though the conversation itself shows just how much things have changed since the anomaly first hit. Tourism has suffered, and is close to being pronounced dead. That was a concern in the early years, when the first of the Roswell-like groups dwindled to pairs. But we’ve moved on. Sad to say, there’s much more to see in this Tar Heel State than our small white corner of the universe.


I am sitting at the window now as I write this, and looking out can see the barn where I shared my first kiss, the fence where I broke my first bone: the bitter and the sweet. My hair is white now and not the rusty brown it was for oh, some fifty years or more, but that’s not the snow.


Just age, that’s all.


Nights like these I wake sometimes, crawl out of bed. My wife is asleep beside me but she doesn’t stir, not anymore. She’s used to it by now—used to me, I should say, and my tendency to roam after dark. And some nights as I sit here looking out I still dream about the old days, about skipping stones and closed clams on the lake, and of crowded clotheslines on a balmy mid-afternoon. I dream about the dance of vapors over burning asphalt or the sweet miserable feeling of the dog days of summer. I dream so many things. But even I know that’s all these are, and all they’ll ever be . . .


Dreams.

 


 

 

 

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Updated: Jan 2



“A riveting blend of horror and suspense anchors Bird’s mind-bending novel…a smart, discomfiting, ultimately satisfying horror tale.”

Kirkus Reviews


e-Book PRE-ORDERS AVAILABLE NOW

I am extremely stoked to officially unleash my new novel, AMBROSIA, into the world! It's a project that was many, many years in the making and, after so long, it actually seems unreal to finally see it in print.


And THAT COVER??



STUNNING custom work by illustartor Dan Liles (Dan Liles Designs), with lettering design (and fabulous interior design) by A.A. Medina (Fabled Beast Design). Couldn't have asked for a better pair of professionals to work with and manifest my inner vision.


As you can tell, I'm very proud of the kind review the folks over at Kirkus gave the novel. Professonial reviews can oftentimes be cutthroat, so I'm incredibly grateful to have gotten the thumbs up verdict. (For those interested, the full review can be read here—but caution, there are slight spoilers). Here's a quick synopsis of the story:


When Travis Barnes returns home following the unexpected death of his mother, leaving his career with the Seventh Naval Fleet, he hopes to begin a new chapter in life. Unbeknownst to him, a series of impossible coincidences soon draws the attention of the Bureau, a fringe government agency formed from the rubble of Projects Monarch and Stargate.

But when Lola Agnew, the Bureau’s genetically-altered ringleader—along with her erudite headhunter, Drexl Samson—confront him with a clandestine force with powers beyond this world, Travis must face a forgotten secret from his past. His partner Tara Fitzgerald, meanwhile, has secrets of her own, and when the couple are pushed to their limits, they must join together to overcome the darkness...


Needless to say, I'm as proud of this number as any that have come before—indeed, this is my most ambitious release to date. The themes run deep, things get weird, and, fair warning, there are some acts of violence, torture, and gore that may disturb the more delicate palates. That includes this opening chapter, published here for the first time, which I am humbly stuffing in your face on this, my birthday, during a year that I'm finally old enough to not take such a thing for granted.


Massive thanks to all for your continued support during this latest book launch, with hopefully many more to come...


HB



CHAPTER ONE


Cheyenne, Wyoming

1979


Soon after their nuptials—there had been no honeymoon—the Wards moved into a cluttered cubbyhole apartment just outside Seattle, a place they would remain for what they’d hoped to be a spell, but was actually more of a prison term. Those early days had been hard ones for Nathan and Francesca, each holding down crummy forty-a-week jobs, Francesca picking up occasional shifts at the coffee shop—and, later, a downtown deli—when she could manage. All this while both attended night classes at the community college, working toward slips of paper they one day hoped to put behind glass and hang on a wall and hope it made a better life for them.

Six years later it looked as if their gamble was finally paying off. They’d moved from their apartment, renting instead a comfortable flat in a new complex across town. Sheepskins in hand, Francesca had been hired by a start-up software company out of Bellevue, while Nathan was busy preaching physics to high schoolers in nearby Meadowbrook.

Then something happened.

They’d quit their jobs and soon after exited Seattle, settling on a good few acres in the High Plains of Wyoming. Theirs was a simple double-story ranch house, wood-sided with a wraparound porch, though considering the investments they’d had their fingers in they could certainly have afforded bigger, with a white picket fence out front.

Even without the fence, the Ward residence glowed as the picture of class and elegance against the late-winter sky. The house stood silent, and while on any other night the Wards would’ve been locked safely away inside, tonight was not like other nights and as it happened the Wards were away. And even had their neighbors been closer than a few miles down the road, they still would’ve been hard-pressed to notice the shadow shuffling stealthily inside.

The shadow, whose name was Drexl Samson, shook and zipped his pants, blowing a sloow breath of satisfaction before flushing the bowl. He’d started away when he paused suddenly, glancing to make certain the rest of his cigarette stayed down. Once upon a time he’d made the mistake of thinking little things like that didn’t matter—that he could come and go as he pleased, too smooth to ever be fingered—then one night a few years back he’d gotten sloppy with his menthols. And while there’d been no official investigation by the local blue boys after finding the bodies, he’d been made to understand there were more than a few curious minds wondering at how a random cigarette butt had found its way into a house of clean-freak health nuts.

So Drexl checked the damned bowl, giving a quick flash of his mini-light—the water was clean, pure as a river—before moving down the hall, the faint smell of peppermint trailing close behind. He came into the kitchen and gulped water from the faucet, and wiping his mouth Drexl caught a reflection of himself in the window over the sink: his shining blonde hair and endless dark eyes, the sharpened ears that had always seemed a bit too large for his head. Not the prettiest face in the world—sure, he’d admit it—but it was one he’d owned for some time now, and never once had he taken it for granted.

He moved around and took a seat at the fancy bar, some sort of marble-granite deal with fruit bowls and dainty little knick-knacks, all things which seemed particularly meaningless to Drexl. Marriage shit. He’d had a family once—nice-enough wife, couple of kids—but that seemed all so far away, in another lifetime, and the idea of ever going back sent a chill straight down his soul. He shuddered, drawing one massive hand down his face before lifting his leg and letting one go. The stench rose, momentarily clouding the mint-candy smell, and Drexl kicked back in the chair and made himself at home.

On jobs like this Drexl made a habit of raiding the bookshelves of whatever house he was in, perusing whatever looked interesting. Over the past few hours since arriving he’d worked through a couple novels, a history-type book on Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, a collection of O. Henry short stories. He’d then moved on to Yeats.

Strange cats, these Wards were. Real eclectic.

Drexl lifted the next book—Tuck Everlasting—and began to read, his curious eyes scanning the pages so quickly he appeared the victim of an epileptic fit. His eyes had always drawn attention, not just for being on the jittery side but mostly because of how damned black the things were. You’ve got the devil’s eyes, a teacher had told him once, so black you could get lost in ’em and never find your way out. He’d hissed at her then, drawing down his tongue, just funning, but Mrs. Abigail was not the funning sort, and after school she’d led him to the woods out back the schoolhouse and given him the privilege of picking his own switch.

He scrolled the pages, mind falling away and getting lost in Winnie Foster’s world, deeper and deeper until a cold finger touched suddenly on his spine and he stopped. Outside, a Chinook wind whipped riotously around the eaves, howling a lonesome note across the night; windows creaked, bowing to the pressure. Only it wasn’t just the wind he was feeling here, there was something else. Something else entirely.

Drexl closed the book.

Looking on, one may have assumed the man was simply bored, restless after a long night of lounging in a stranger’s home. Even Drexl himself may’ve assumed such a thing, way back when. But now he was older, wiser—now he knew better—and stood from his chair, walking to the library, returning the book to the shelf. He made a final walkthrough of the house, checking rooms, making sure everything was exactly so. Great Satan’s in the details, he told himself. Life’s a game of inches, he told himself, and moments later heard a buzz and felt the pager on his waist vibrate.

Drexl smiled, pleased with himself for having anticipated, for having felt it before Lola so much as dialed. Perhaps, he thought, they’d forged some sort of mystic mind-meld, something to do with the Procedure. It had clearly affected their bodies, no question in that; maybe it had affected their minds as well. Some unforeseen side-effect. He didn’t give one good shit either way, all he knew was that in ten minutes the Wards would come strolling through that front door and be damned if he wouldn’t be ready for them.

Reaching in his pocket, he retrieved a letter written no doubt by some desk jockey with a thing for stencils but that would pass under parental scrutiny as one written by Francesca Ward herself. He’d looked it over but there wasn’t much to it; the standard intimations of depression, private despair, a couple well-placed lines bordering on the paranoid. Drexl supposed it could seem cruel, to lesser minds, what he was doing here tonight. To lesser minds, the Wards were blue-eyed sparkly-toothed angels with nary a sin to their name. And for all he knew they were right—look at this house, after all, the furniture, look at that yard. Hell, another year and they’d probably have a rugrat running around, pulling down curtains and puking all over the place.

None of that concerned Drexl.

He did not bother himself with morals, and did not particularly care for the betterment of the human race. Far as he saw it, he was a man hired to do a job and he’d been paid well to do it. He was good at what he did—damned good, to be so bold—and the Bureau knew it. And you could bet your sweet bippy Lola Agnew knew it too, or else he wouldn’t be here right now—no way, no how.

Drexl placed the letter next to a wire figurine—looked like a gnarled coat hanger—and proceeded to the dining room, a tidy area which smelled faintly of lavender. Unlike some of the other marks he’d had the pleasure of hosting, the Wards believed heartily in the Second Amendment and were proud owners of a Mossberg 500. Presently the shotgun stood leaning against the dining room table; Drexl snatched it up now before proceeding to the foyer. Back in the Bureau’s earliest days, they’d taken another approach. Played it way different. He’d read stories. But it didn’t take an Einstein to realize the setup worked best when the ducks were sitting and didn’t see it coming and so he’d pieced together a life of squatting in darkness, biding his time reading Hemingway or Shakespeare or the Bible.

A sudden splash of headlights swept the windows and Drexl crept forward, watching as Lola’s familiar Cadillac pulled to a stop out front. Moments later the rear door swung open and the Wards climbed doggedly from the car—first Francesca, a tall goosey-looking girl with big brown hair and lanky arms, followed by Nathan, some twerp with glasses and a chest like a kindergartner. Even in darkness their faces looked ragged and worn, dug-up corpses who had yet to shed their flesh. They lumbered toward the porch, glancing occasionally to the car as it reversed and sped away, and it was all Drexl could do not to grin.

Sitting ducks?

Hell, they might as well be pulling the trigger themselves.

Nathan entered the house, pausing a moment for his wife to wander in trance-like behind him before shutting the door. He fumbled clumsily at the knob, twisting the various locks into place, and was turning to hit the lights when suddenly Drexl sprang forward, erupting like a caged animal from the darkness.

Nathan turned, startled, his whole world spinning to life but not soon enough and Drexl unloaded, the blast nailing the boy squarely in the chest and lifting him off his feet. He crashed backwards against the wall and Drexl fired again, this one going to the gut and some of the buckshot spraying wide, tearing at wallpaper. Blood spewed, rushing out of him like water from a twisted sponge, and by the time the man-child slumped forward and sprawled motionless on the classy Karastan rug, his heart was still.

Francesca screamed, and that was her first mistake.

Any sane person would have (a) ran for their life, or (b) rushed the shit out of him, ripping the gun from his hands. She had done neither, and her second mistake was in making the first all over again as he moved in and propped the muzzle snugly beneath her chin. He watched as her face tightened, eyes meeting his and dawning with realization as she remembered, as she realized who he was, and though she’d not exactly been thrilled meeting him the first time, this second encounter was proving the lick of her spoon.

He reached up, giant fingers wrapping her head and dragging her down the hall to the living room. This shot was crucial, and there came a moment—fleeting as it was—when he thought this girl might just grow a pair and fight back; but the element of surprise was simply too much for her, overwhelming her ability to think and reason. Struggling to speak despite the barrel squeezing in at her jaw, she said, “But we...we did everything...you asked...

Drexl gazed into her with his cold black eyes, realizing now the fear had taken her completely, possessing and reducing her to no more than a quivering pile of flesh and bone. For some in Drexl’s position, there was the temptation for such a thing to make them feel powerful, superior. But it wasn’t like that for him. And though one would never guess it looking at him, it actually saddened him in a way, seeing some poor soul reduced to this, seeing them humiliated by their own base emotions. But then the weaker ones usually were...

Not everything.”

He pulled the trigger and the top of her head opened, spraying a mash of blood and brain matter up and up, gumming the walls, some of it clunking the ceiling and dropping like confetti and flitting around him in a gory rainfall. Drexl groaned and propped Francesca on the couch, lifting the girl’s lanky arms and taking her hands and wrapping the gun, leaning the barrel just so beneath her ruined face and then standing back, correcting, all the while doing his best to ignore the sudden draft that had taken over the house and which he knew would forever stain its walls, because that was the way houses worked, capturing every idle thought, every emotion, harnessing and remembering them for all those who had come and gone and who no longer had any memory.

He reached down, scooping a small palm-size camera from his pocket and taking a series of snapshots showing the gruesome aftermath of the past sixty seconds. The Bureau was nothing if not thorough, and though admittedly he’d succumbed to a sick satisfaction from taking these pictures, at the end of the night it was still just business.

Always business.

He pocketed the camera and backed away, the cool rush of the encounter moving through him, thrilling him. His hands shuddered and by a force of will he stopped them, pulling them tight at his sides. Making sure to avoid the tapestry of gore and blood spatter across the floor, Drexl slid quietly through the kitchen to the back door, slipping out, using the key the Bureau had provided to lock up after himself. By the time Lola’s Cadillac appeared once more down the road, steering back toward him, the clammy feeling had left him and his heart had ceased to dance, slowing to a dry thump in his chest as he readied for the long ride home.



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[CAUTION: SPOILERS and MORE SPOILERS]


The story is simple.


After ten hours on the road at the start of their vacation, Dutch couple Rex Hofman and Saskia Ehlvest stop at a gas station following a brief quarrel. They quickly make up, signifying their love by burying two coins at a certain spot alongside the station and covering them with a pebble. Afterwards, Saskia takes the car keys and heads inside to grab some drinks for the road.


And vanishes, without a trace.


Years pass, and Rex becomes obsessed in discovering what happened to her. He puts up posters, ads in the paper. Needless to say, this is a challenge for any potential love interests, including his latest flame Lieneke. Finally, one day he is approached by French chemistry professor Raymond Lemorne, who not only intimates that he knows what happened to Saskia but reveals the car keys with the familiar, frayed scrap of leather she took along with her into the station all those years ago.


The unlikely pair take a drive, and the stranger gives Rex an ultimatum: drink a cup of drugged coffee and experience exactly what Saskia experienced—or refuse, and Rex will never know what happened to her. Lemorne (his surname means “the gloomy one”) claims there is no evidence connecting him with the crime, and should Rex go that route, he will never reveal what truly occurred.


“You’re insane,” Rex tells him.

“That is irrelevant,” Lemorne says.



As it happens, Lemorne has driven them back to the station, back to the place where Rex and Saskia had last buried those coins signifying their love.


Rex drinks the coffee.


He passes out, dreaming briefly of Saskia before waking in total darkness.


He already knew. It was too horrible to know.


He has been placed within the wooden walls of a casket and buried alive—just as Saskia had been years earlier.


“Stay calm,” he thought. “I’ve been here for fifteen minutes. My name is Rex Hofman.” When he realized how ridiculous it was to have a name in this place, he began to laugh.


This is The Golden Egg.*





In my mind, this story has taken on the aura of a classic tale, not quite urban legend but worthy of the gold-emblazoned status afforded, say, “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs or that episode of the Twilight Zone where Rocky’s trainer breaks his reading glasses (“Time Enough At Last” with Burgess Meredith, for those keeping score at home). The central plot of The Golden Egg has, in fact, been compared to the urban legend of “The Vanishing Lady.”


Alternatively called “The Vanishing Hotel Room,” this tale concerns the world’s fair held in France in either 1889 or 1900. Accordingly, a woman and her daughter travel to Paris for the Exposition and, checking into their hotel, the mother soon falls ill. After consulting a doctor, the young girl is instructed to travel across town for the needed medication. Upon returning, she finds her mother not only vanished without a trace, but no one at the hotel having any memory of having seen either of them ever before.


Other stories credited with using this legend include Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), Terence Fisher’s So Long at the Fair (1950), the Julianne Moore flick The Forgotten (2004), Jodie Foster’s Flightplan (2005), and—one of my personal favorites—the Kurt Russell/J.T. Walsh thriller Breakdown (1997). The legend was also featured in the third edition of Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series (“Maybe You Will Remember”) and, the gold standard and Mount Everest of anthology programs, Fox’s Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction.**



The Golden Egg, originally published in Holland in 1984, was written by Dutch journalist and novelist Tim Krabbé, who is said to have based the story on a newspaper article he read about a tourist vanishing from a bus trip after stopping at a gas station in France (she was later found alive and well, having simply boarded the wrong bus). Krabbé went on to co-write the screenplay for the film adaptation, 1988’s Spoorloos.*** According to director George Sluizer, Stanley Kubrick contacted him after having watched Spoorloos as many as ten times, impressed by the film’s structure and ending—and purportedly telling Sluizer it was the most terrifying film he’d ever seen.


Likewise, at one time Entertainment Weekly had it ranked as the 25th Scariest Movie of All Time. I personally wouldn’t go that far—though, adjusted for cultural inflation, for its time I suppose this 1988 adaptation was about as wickedly grotesque as last year’s Speak No Evil.


Five years later, another adaptation would be released: 1993’s The Vanishing.

Starring Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland, Nancy Travis, and Sandra Bullock, this time the story got the Hollywood treatment, though with director George Sluizer returning for the remake. The film was considered a box office bomb, poorly received and widely panned by critics. Most notably, the tragic—and perhaps more nihilistically impressionable—ending had gotten a remix, and this time the villain was bested by love and everything worked out just fine (not so much for Sandra Bullock, but still).


Now for a little full disclosure. Having grown up with this version of the story, without knowledge of Tim Krabbé’s novella nor Spoorloos, I actually really loved this film—and still enjoy it to this day.

Jeff Bridges is magnetic and doofy and terrifying as Raymond, now named Barney Cousins (a rare villain turn for The Dude), and Sutherland (Rex/Jeff Harriman), Travis (Lieneke/Rita Baker), and Bullock (Saskia/Diane Shaver) play their parts perfectly. The happy ending certainly didn’t bother me,**** and I had no original to hold it up against and feel short-changed or kid-gloved.


Now, after having read the novella and watched the original film, I’ve come to appreciate them each for what they are—not just different arrangements of the same musical piece, but rather three movements making up one grand symphony. The original ending—that is, of the novella and 1988 film—had to exist, throwing a punch to the gut that lingers forever. But there’s an undeniable, conventional sort of beauty in the American adaptation, in a world where love conquers all and Jack Bauer doesn’t have to spend eternity in a pine box. Nancy Travis fleshed out the Lieneke/Rita role with charm and emotion. For my money, it also has Rex/Jeff’s most realistic reaction when confronted by Raymond/Barney and that dangling set of car keys.



In the film versions, as they embark on that final drive back to the station, Raymond/Barney relates a story. He’s a teenager, and while reading on a high balcony he begins to wonder what would happen if he jumped. He considers the pros and cons, “always with the dark sense that it was already certain he would jump.” He sits on the balustrade for an hour and half, pondering the implications—and then leaps.

He later spends six week in the hospital with a broken leg and an arm fractured in two places.***** In like fashion, years later while out with his family, his daughter spots a young girl drowning. Without hesitation, he leaps from the bridge, plunging down into the water. To the praise and adoration of his family, he rescues the drowning girl. Lemorne, meanwhile, considers his heroism as only one side of a coin. He wonders if he is likewise as capable of committing great evil as good. And so, he had methodically set his mind to doing just that.


For me, the most compelling—and disturbing—portions of the story are not those involving Rex's obsession with discovering the truth, but rather Raymond Lemorne/Barney Cousins and his meticulous planning and charades toward accomplishing his goal.

Dousing himself with chloroform and timing his chemical naps with a stopwatch. Practicing his approach to random targets, his delivery, his methods of abduction. Taking his pulse, getting his heart rate nice and low. Going through the motions of his step-by-step, sleight-of-hand dance around the car to ready his chloroform rag. And, most chilling, the smothering of his imaginary victim.



Focusing on the potential for and machinations of human evil in the story, we learn that the most terrifying sort of monster is not the serial killer who goes on killing, stampeding as a beast of unruly passions and blind fury.


Much more dangerous and cunning is the methodical slayer of life, getting just a taste and then returning once more to their normal lives, blending in among us. One random yet coordinated act of senseless violence, forever forgotten in the rush of ordinary years.



"Rex remembered an article he had once written for his magazine about falling, including accounts from people who had survived a fall from a plane. None of them had felt fear. They had been resigned, curious and, above all, lucid.


That was how he felt now too: dazzlingly lucid."





FOOTNOTES


*The title itself, The Golden Egg, is taken from a dream Saskia describes.


All versions of the story involve an incident in which the couple run out of gas on a treacherous stretch of road (a darkened tunnel in the films, a pitch-dark Italian country road in the novella). Rex abandons Saskia in the car, taking a jerry can in search of gas. Though entirely nixed from the 1993 adaptation, the novella and original film go on to describe a certain childhood nightmare of Saskia’s in which she is “locked inside a golden egg that was flying through the universe. Everything was black, there weren’t even any stars, she’d be stuck in there forever, and she couldn’t die. There was only one hope. There was another golden egg flying through space; if they collided, they’d both be destroyed, and it would be over.” As the novella relates: "Rex had been shocked that such an image of horror could arise in such a small child.


In both films, there is undeniable imagery of Saskia waiting at the end of that dark tunnel after Rex returns with the jerry can of gas; the halo of light surrounding her indeed resembles a golden egg. However, I think the couple's final resting places inside the wooden casket—each fitted with a small mattress in the original story—is the ultimate realization of this “golden egg.”


**To be honest, I don’t believe “The Vanishing Lady” legend is a perfect fit for The Golden Egg, as so many of these examples involve a certain amount of conspiracy among folks to cover the truth; in this story, not even Raymond Lemorne’s family is privy to his actions (apart from suspecting an affair).


***Spoorloos (Dutch translation: “Traceless” or “Without a Trace”) was submitted to the Academy Awards in 1988 as the official Dutch entry for Best Foreign Language Film—and later disqualified, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) ruled there was too much French dialogue in the film to warrant being a Dutch candidate.


****Speaking of Hollywood endings, this movie ends in essentially the same fine dining establishment where James Caan enjoys lunch after caving in Annie Wilkes head with a typewriter in the final scene of Misery.


*****It is, in fact, after coming across a picture of himself from this time, his arm shattered, that Lemorne hits on the missing ingredient in his abduction scheme: donning a faux cast and sling, he utilizes the Ted Bundy approach in luring his victims away.




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