It oozed from speakers hidden in elevators and doctor’s office. A sound so placid that you could ignore it, the euphonious tones of strings, the wordless ahhhing of a choir of anonymous people who were, no doubt, the whitest people on earth. It was the sound of pop songs turned into background music, stripped of their words and passions. I’m talking about Muzak, that ubiquitous radio of the 60s that died in the 90s. I hear its mellifluous sounds and I’m immediately transported into a realm of balmy bliss. The world turns as soft as lace, gently colored by pastel tones. I can even taste the music itself. It has the chalky sweet flavor of Pez candy, oblongs of sugar that dissolve on the tongue. Colorful, but flavorless. It numbs like novocaine, that symphony of vibraphones and string swells. It was years before I found out that The Girl from Ipanema was an actual song, with real lyrics. Cry Me a River was a jazz standard, and not a vaguely somnolent lullaby.
I think I heard that music more than most people because I was a child of a dentist, and my father would play that music constantly, even on the car stereo. He would hum bits from the songs, a meaningless but soothing cascades of la-de-de-das as he worked on the yard or on his car. Hearing that music immediately takes me back to his office, with its motorized chairs that went up and down, heavy with the smell of dental plaster, its shiny cabinets full of gauze and cotton. I would hear Muzak when I visited his office, masking the sounds of teeth being drilled. Daddy’s office was in a particularly rough section of Northwest DC, full of liquor stores and sub-shops. There was an old movie theater that was converted into a church called Fishers of Men nearby. A fish shop full of aquatic carcasses on chipped ice was on one corner. A barbershop full of regulars, including members of Nation of Islam devotees, was on the same block. The alley behind Daddy’s office was full of people shooting up drugs and/or bullets. (One time, a stray bullet flew into office; luckily no-one was there). There was a homeless man in the neighborhood that everyone called Two Quarters, because he would ask, “Do you have a quarter?” And when you said “No,” he would reply, “Do you have two quarters?” Daddy’s office was an oasis, full of dental care pamphlets and syrupy-sweet Muzak.
There was a local station in nearby Silver Spring that specialized in playing that kind of music, mixing in such easy-listening giants as the Carpenters and Engelbert Humperdinck into the vast Sargosso of floating music. (To this day, the voice of Karen Carpenter haunts me, her placid contralto singing about masquerades and starlight). The station was called WGAY, which, of course, was a major joke among my elementary school friends. WGAY had a building proudly displaying its letters in Georgia Avenue in utter obliviousness. The word gay in the late 70 was in a cultural limbo land in the late 70s/early 80s. There were still people who stubbornly held onto the old definition and wrote Sternly Worded letters that objected to the Homosexual Agenda hijacking a word that described genial bonhomie. Perhaps because of this, Muzak and Easy Listening music is indelibly linked to my burgeoning, hidden sexuality. “Gay” meant the soporific, tranquil sounds of Carpenter’s voice and the perverted flamboyance of a shameful lifestyle. Is there a smidgen of a Pavlovian sexual response when I hear an instrumental version of What the World Needs Now? Maybe, maybe not.
This connection to Muzak is at the heart of my interest in ambient/quiet music. I remember hearing the Brian Eno Ambient series and having my mind blown. It was music that immediately put you into a mood, and those moods weren’t restricted to the anodyne end of the spectrum. They could be sinister and otherworldly as well as soothing. Sometimes, they could be both, like the dual meaning of the word gay. Ambient/environmental music is activates my Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. I feel like inside one of those glass paperweights, the kind with bubbles and streaks of abstract colored shapes frozen in them. I drift, I dream, enveloped in a sound bath. The ambient music I love is heavily textured, full of swirls and eddies and sound effects, full of obscurantist titles.
My profile name, across many different platforms, is ethereallad, a name that reflects my love of things beautiful and abstract. My writing tries to invoke the feeling ambient music inspires in me: vaporous, inchoate and hypnotic.
My Kofi link is here: ko-fi.com/craiglaurancegidney
The poet Audre Lorde created the word “biomythography,” and the book that bears this subtitle, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, freely mixes the memoir with the mythic in new and inventive ways. I love how the word honors the fact that we’re all made of fact and fiction, and mythic tropes sometimes intrude on our more mundane, prosaic existence.
A Spectral Hue isn’t an (auto)biography, but I see bits and pieces of my personal mythology woven throughout the text. Subconsciously, I’ve drawn from stories that my family told, and fused them with fiction. The novel is a ghost story in more than one way.
Echoes of my mother’s life in Philadelphia show up in Iris’s story; I modeled the house Iris grew up in on my grandparents’ Ridge Avenue home. My aunt, Mom’s sister, told me about her visions, which were adjacent to, if not exactly, psychic. (She could guess people’s astrological signs, and was correct all of the time without knowing their birth dates). The “gay gang” Violet Rage is a thinly veiled version of the true DC ‘gang’ of gay black kids called ‘Check It.’ Family vacations were frequently held on the Eastern Shore—we went to Ocean City as kids. The whole area influenced and inspired the fictional town of Shimmer. The botanica in one of the chapters is in my neighborhood.
In my author talk on February 29 at the Petworth Library, I will discuss some of the other influences of the novel, focusing on the artistic parts. The DC Colorfield movement and the DC outsider artist James Hampton were all inspirations. To me, visual art is magic itself. Gazing upon it takes me to another world. It changes my mood, deranges my senses. The play of color, light and shape has an almost synesthetic affect on me. Outsider Artists, at least the ones I researched, believed that their art was a message or a portal to elsewhere. Spirits spoke to them through their chosen medium, and within their elaborate worlds they imbedded pieces of themselves. Henry Darger’s collages are filled with clues about his troubled childhood. Shards of his life are embedded in the stories of the Vivian Girls. Hampton’s private “angelic” language is deeply informed by his Baptist upbringing.
I’m too short. Standing at 5’1.5 I’ve been called Gary Coleman and Webster, shrimp, Napoleon, shorty, and midget. I’ve been ignored, not taken seriously, and even had people cancel dates upon learning my height.
I’m too fat. On my frame, 150 lbs makes me look like the mayor of Munchkinland. My tummy has stretch-marks and I have gynecomastia—more commonly known as “man boobs.” I avoid looking at my body in a mirror and my silhouette embarrasses me. My odd shape makes clothes shopping a herculean effort.
The skin around my eyes is dark and burned looking. I look like a raccoon, my dark brown eyes set deep within a charred ring.
I think of myself as a troll, a hobbit, an imp.
Then there’s my voice. It’s deep, but femme. I’m always mistaken for a woman on the phone, and many people, upon meeting me, assume I’m gay. Which, of course, is true and yet another thing I struggle with. (In the ever-changing gay male classification system, I am uncategorizable. Not Wolf, Otter, Twink. Not Daddy, or Bear).
There are days when I wish that were like Doro, the mindforce character in Octavia E Butler’s Patternmaster series. Like Doro, I would surf from body to body, trying on new physicalities like new clothes.
The black body is heavily policed. We are the wrong color. The wrong shape. Our lips are too big. Our buttocks too voluptuous. Our blackness is fetishized, criminalized, and pathologized.
Black hair, in particular, is demonized. The adjectives used to describe it—coarse, nappy, wooly, kinky, wiry—are in stark contrast to the way white hair is described. White women have silky tresses, fountains and plumes and cascades of follicles in a spectrum of color. Natural black hairstyles are treated as punchlines. A thousand Halloween costumes feature non-black people in dreadlock or Afro wigs. Black hair has to be tamed, chemically altered, woven with extensions, hidden by wigs. Students are suspended from school for wearing unprocessed hair. Boys are ‘Sideshow Bob,’ and girls and women are deemed unprofessional or unfeminine, and unkempt. My relationship with my hair goes through phases. Sometimes, I hate it. And sometimes, I love it.
Unfortunately, some of the policing of black physicality comes from within the black community. Some of the most vicious takedowns of black presentation comes from other black people. Colorism, and passing are very much alive and active.
Hairsbreadth, the novel-in-progress that will be serialized by Broken Eye Books (and eventually turned in a printed book), asks the question: What if the very thing we’re castigated for—our blackness—was instead the source of great power? The character Zelda came to me with her deep dark skin and ‘unruly’ hair that could heal and destroy, create wonder and horror, and begged me to tell her story. The story is borne out of the chthonic crucible of self hatred and a colonized mind. It’s a way to cast off toxic ideas, and honor the beauty of idiosyncrasy and otherness.
The first chapter, “Girl, Uprooted” is available if you subscribe to the Patreon.
I’m pleased as punch to announce that my new novel HAIRSBREADTH will be released in serial installments by Broken Eye Books.
Here’s the description:
Broken Eye Books is publishing the serial novel Hairsbreadth by Craig Laurance Gidney, a contemporary fairy tale in the tradition of Victor LaValle’s The Changelingand Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird.
Seventeen-year-old Zelda has always been isolated, born with deep dark skin and fast-growing hair that seems to have a mind of its own, and moving from place to place with her grandmother. But when the two of them move to the remote eastern shore town of Shimmer, her power grows in strange new ways—she can hear and see the dead, which proves useful to her grandmother’s folk medicine business. Zelda thinks she has a gift at first. But she soon discovers that there is a dark side to her powers. Hairsbreadth is a dark retelling of the fairy tale “Rapunzel,” steeped in African-American folklore, and a coming-of-age tale full of Black Girl Magic.
This book has been burrowing through my brain for years, revealing its dark beauty like a slowly unfurling flower. The first chapter is up for those subscribed to Broken Eye Books’ Patreon. Thanks to editor-publisher Scott Gable for taking on this project!
A couple of weekends ago, I went to a talk given by the curator of an art museum. The curator used the example of an exhibit he was currently working on: a retrospective of the artist Alma Thomas.
Her work sings to me. Mosaic geometries that vibrate with hue and saturation. Spheres that radiate color, trapping the eye. Blue that falls apart like leaves, or rain or snow. Colors that work together, in spite of their instinct to clash. Brightness falling from the air. Spectral chaos contained in matte precision.
A member of the Washington Color School movement, Thomas was the first African American female artist to have a solo show at New York’s Whitney Museum. The curator talked about how Thomas vacillated between being an African American artist and being an American artist, and how it was a constant struggle throughout her career. Sometimes, she was just an artist whose work was in conversation with other artists like Morris Louis and movements like Lyrical Abstraction. Other times, she took upon herself the mantle of pioneer, and accepted that she was a black woman operating in a structure that was stacked against her. Much of her identity was filtered through the lens of the Talented Tenth/ Uplift the Race aesthetic but that shifted over time as all things do.
All of this to say: sometimes, I’m a Black and Queer writer. My identity fuels my creativity. Other times, I am just an author who channels the visions my muse sends to me. Sometimes I have to strategically play the Game, other times, I am an Aesthete hermetically sealed in my airless mansion of art. There are times when I want people to read my work and be struck by the numinous quality that’s at the heart of all great work. Yes, my writing centers marginalized people. It is also ‘in conversation’ with other writing, from James Baldwin to Tanith Lee to bell hooks. When you are an artist of color, people often don’t recognize your works complexity. It’s an eternal struggle.
The first thing I noticed about the filmLittle Joe was the color palette. The tones of red and purple were present in many scenes, from the startling red hair of the main protagonist, to the eerie magenta glow of the greenhouse of the titular pseudo MacGuffin: the bloody tendrils of the plant itself. This palette, which drenches the scenes, is a signal to numinous occurrences. The color primes us for the subtle, hypnotic effect, and this color motif is the thing that stays with me.
Little Joe is about Alice, a scientist at a botanical biotech company who develops a flower that releases a scent that makes people happy. She calls it an “anti-depressant” plant, one that requires the owner be devoted to the care of the bright red bloom. Against company procedures, Alice brings the plant home for her son, who she feels guilty about neglecting. Soon, she notices subtle, disturbing changes in his behavior.
Little Joe is an example of Weird Cinema, at the interstices of several genres, including science fiction and horror. But the pacing takes cues from psychological thrillers. While there are moments of suspense and eeriness, this is a more cerebral type of horror, one that relies on ambiguity. The slow blooming, unfurling Little Joe plants are accompanied by ambient whispers that tingle along your spine. The influence of the plant is suggestive, and rather than over the top madness, the effect seems to be a malingering indifference to the world.
(Also, the idea of a supernatural flower in the purple-pink spectrum of course reminded me of the Marsh Bell!)
The movie IN FABRIC is infused with the ethos of hauntology, from the creepy soundtrack to the technicolor inspired palette. Ostensibly it’s a tale about a haunted dress. It tells the same story twice, like an anthology film (think of Trilogy of Terror). Act one centers around a recently single mother who’s going out on a series of terrible dates. She buys the bright red dress at a strange department store called Dentley and Sopor. The sales women wear elaborate Victorian funerary gowns and sport gravity-defying updos. The single mother Sheila, played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste catches the eye of the most striking saleswoman, played with sinister camp by Gwendoline Christie. Christie’s character speaks in riddles that pepper poststructuralist jargon with sales speak, about abstractions and paradigms with an erotic, hypnotic cadence that seduce Sheila to purchase the dress. The dress seems to have a mind of its own, and causes a series of bizarre occurrences—which I won’t spoil. Act Two follows a young couple who get the dress at a charity shop. Reg, a repairman buys the dress to wear at his stag party. He brings it home and the dress catches the eye of his fiance Babs, wherein the red dress plays out its seductive dance of death. Woven through the film are flashes of the empty department store, where the salespeople perform esoteric rituals with erotic overtones. The plot doesn’t really make sense; it relies on dream logic. The horror is stylish and textual rather than outright violent. The red dress slithers and floats and its filmed in lurid hues. It’s a mindscrew movie with mood whiplash. Did I mention that it has a bleak, black sense of humor? It seems to occur in an alternate world full of anachronistic tech (rotary phones, pneumatic tubes) and has an accompanying soundtrack of vintage synthesized sounds from a group called the Cavern of Antimatter. IN FABRIC is arthouse horror, in the tradition of A COMPANY OF WOLVES or the oeuvre of David Lynch.