Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Which is better?; The Ugly File

From my buddy Dave Zeltserman-

Ed, here’s a question regarding your post today, especially about your comments about George Higgins. What’s better as a writer—to writer 4-5 books that are considered great, and 20 books that are mediocre, or 25 books all of which are highly entertaining but none of them considered great? And then you had Hammett, who wrote 5 great books, but then the well ran dry.

Of course, with Stout, I’d argue that he wrote 5-6 great books, with the rest being mostly highly entertaining.

(in a later e mail he mentioned Harper Lee as an example of a one book author. She certainly had enormous and lasting impact.


Ed here: I've always been fascinated by the big producers. Westlake, Silverberg, John D. MacDonald. That said, I think that time judges writers on their very best work. Hard to imagine Harper Lee ever going out of print. Or Bellow or Roth or Kerouac. Not all their books but one or two deemed their best. But who knows. When you consider Gertrude Stein's "The Lost Generation" you have to wonder. No generation of Americans before or since has produced so many excellent writers. But today Fitzgerald stands alone with Hemingway a distant second.

So what do you think? In mystery fiction, as Dave says, Stout wrote a handful of great ones but that doesn't lessen the pleasure (for me) of his slightly lesser efforts. And I do consider him a seminal figure in mystery.

---------------------------THE UGLY FILE

In the late seventies I worked on a documentary about children born with severe birth defects. I'd never really thought about the subject. But in the course of putting it together, I spent a long afternoon talking with a lovely woman whose one year old was terribly deformed. She talked about what lay ahead for the child and for herself. The conversation came back to me in the early nineties and I wrote The Ugly File.

I sent it out to my usual markets. All the editors said they thought it was a fine story but they couldn't publish it because it didn't fit what they did. Was it mystery? No. Suspense? No. Horror? No.

Well I sold it to an anthology finally but when the book was turned in the NYC editor said they couldn't publish it. So it was cut. It finally ended up in a horror anthology. It's now been reprinted six or seven times so somebody must like it.

Mark Steensland and Rick Hautala asked me if they could film it and my first reaction was to laugh. I could not imagine how anybody could make a short film out of the story. But they did very good job. It's now played at something like twenty-three festivals here and in Europe.

The estimable Ben Boulden of Gravetapping announced last night that it would soon be on-line. I thought some of you might like to read the story. It's not very long. I would've used an attached file if I knew how to do it. Instead I've just printed it out.


Short Film: Lovecraft's Pillow
This is an interesting short film directed by Mark Steensland and written by Rick Hautala. It is credited to an idea from Stephen King. The pair--Steensland and Hautala--have collaborated on several short films including Peekers, and The Ugly File. Peekers is a terrific short, and I am anxiously awaiting the Internet release of The Ugly File. It is currently making the film festival rounds.

The Ugly File is based on a masterful short story by Ed Gorman and it would make a terrific film. It's too bad Masters of Horror didn't produce it. is Lovecraft's Pillow.



The cold rain didn’t improve the looks of the housing development, one of those sprawling valleys of pastel-colored tract houses that had sprung from the loins of greedy contractors right at the end of WW II, fresh as flowers during that exultant time but now dead and faded.
I spent fifteen minutes trying to find the right address. Houses and streets formed a blinding maze of sameness.
I got lucky by taking what I feared was a wrong turn. A few minutes later I pulled my new station wagon up to the curb, got out, tugged my hat and raincoat on snugly, and then started unloading.
Usually, Merle, my assistant, is on most shoots. He unloads and sets up all the lighting, unloads and sets up all the photographic umbrellas, and unloads and sets up all the electric sensors that trip the strobe lights. But Merle went on this kind of shoot once before and he said never again, “not even if you fire my ass.” He was too good an assistant to give up so now I did these particular jobs alone.
My name is Roy Hubbard. I picked up my profession of photography in Nam, where I was on the staff of a captain whose greatest thrill was taking photos of bloody and dismembered bodies. He didn’t care if the bodies belonged to us or them just as long as they had been somehow disfigured or dismembered.
In an odd way, I suppose, being the captain’s assistant prepared me for the client I was working for today, and had been working for, on and off, for the past two months. The best-paying client I’ve ever had, I should mention here. I don’t want you to think that I take any special pleasure, or get any special kick, out of gigs like this. I don’t. But when you’ve got a family to feed, and you live in a city with as many competing photography firms as this one has, you pretty much take what’s offered you.
The air smelled of wet dark earth turning from winter to spring. Another four or five weeks and you’d see cardinals and jays sitting on the blooming green branches of trees.
The house was shabby even by the standards of the neighborhood, the brown grass littered with bright cheap forgotten plastic toys and empty Diet Pepsi cans and wild rain-sodden scraps of newspaper inserts. The small picture window to the right of the front door was taped lengthwise from some long ago crack, and the white siding ran with rust from the drain spouts. The front door was missing its top glass panel. Cardboard had been set in there.
I knocked, ducking beneath the slight overhang of the roof to escape the rain.
The woman who answered was probably no older than twenty-five but her eyes and the sag of her shoulders said that her age should not be measured by calendar years alone.
“Mrs. Cunningham?”
“Hi,” she said, and her tiny white hands fluttered about like doves. “I didn’t get to clean the place up very good.”
“That’s fine.”
“And the two older kids have the flu so they’re still in their pajamas and—”
“Everything’ll be fine, Mrs. Cunningham.” When you’re a photographer who deals a lot with mothers and children, you have to learn a certain calm, doctorly manner.
She opened the door and I went inside.
The living room, and what I could see of the dining room, was basically a continuation of the front yard—a mine field of cheap toys scattered everywhere, and inexpensive furniture of the sort you buy by the room instead of the piece strewn with magazines and pieces of newspaper and the odd piece of children’s clothing.
Over all was a sour smell, one part the rain-sodden wood of the exterior house, one part the lunch she had just fixed, one part the house cleaning this place hadn’t had in a good long while.
The two kids with the flu, boy and girl respectively, were parked in a corner of the long, stained couch. Even from here I knew that one of them had diapers in need of changing. They showed no interest in me or my equipment. Out of dirty faces and dead blue eyes they watched one cartoon character beat another with a hammer on a TV whose sound dial was turned very near the top.
“Cindy’s in her room,” Mrs. Cunningham explained.
Her dark hair was in a pert little pony tail. The rest of her chunky self was packed into a faded blue sweat shirt and sweat pants. In high school she had probably been nice and trim. But high school was an eternity behind her now.
I carried my gear and followed her down a short hallway. We passed two messy bedrooms and a bathroom and finally we came to a door that was closed.
“Have you ever seen anybody like Cindy before?”
“I guess not, Mrs. Cunningham.”
“Well, it’s kind of shocking. Some people can’t really look at her at all. They just sort of glance at her and look away real quick. You know?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I mean, it doesn’t offend me when people don’t want to look at her. If she wasn’t my daughter, I probably wouldn’t want to look at her, either. Being perfectly honest, I mean.”
“I’m ready, Mrs. Cunningham.”
She watched me a moment and said, “You have kids?”
“Two little girls.”
“And they’re both fine?”
“We were lucky.”
For a moment, I thought she might cry. “You don’t know how lucky, Mr. Hubbard.”
She opened the door and we went into the bedroom.
It was a small room, painted a fresh, lively pink. The furnishings in here—the bassinet, the bureau, the rocking horse in the corner—were more expensive than the stuff in the rest of the house. And the smell was better. Johnson’s Baby Oil and Johnson’s Baby Powder are always pleasant on the nose. There was a reverence in the appointments of this room, as if the Cunninghams had consciously decided to let the yard and the rest of the house go to hell. But this room—
Mrs. Cunningham led me over to the bassinet and then said, “Are you ready?”
“I’ll be fine, Mrs. Cunningham. Really.”
“Well,” she said, “here you are then.”
I went over and peered into the bassinet. The first look is always rough. But I didn’t want to upset the lady so I smiled down at her baby as if Cindy looked just like every other baby girl I’d ever seen.
I even touched my finger to the baby’s belly and tickled her a little. “Hi, Cindy.”
After I had finished my first three or four assignments for this particular client, I went to the library one day and spent an hour or so reading about birth defects. The ones most of us are familiar with are clubfoots and cleft palates and harelips and things like that. The treatable problems, that is. From there you work up to spina bifida and cretinism. And from there—
What I didn’t know until that day in the library is that there are literally hundreds of ways in which infants can be deformed, right up to and including the genetic curse of The Elephant Man. As soon as I started running into words such as achondroplastic dwarfism and supernumerary chromosomes, I quit reading. I had no idea what those words meant.
Nor did I have any idea of what exactly you would call Cindy’s malformation. She had only one tiny arm and that was so short that her three fingers did not quite reach her rib cage. It put me in mind of a flipper on an otter. She had two legs but only one foot and only three digits on that. But her face was the most terrible part of it all, a tiny little slit of a mouth and virtually no nose and only one good eye. The other was almond-shaped and in the right position but the eyeball itself was the deep, startling color of blood.
“We been tryin’ to keep her at home here,” Mrs. Cunningham said, “but she can be a lot of trouble. The other two kids make fun of her all the time and my husband can’t sleep right because he keeps havin’ these dreams of her smotherin’ because she don’t have much of a nose. And the neighbor kids are always tryin’ to sneak in and get a look at her.”
All the time she talked, I kept staring down at poor Cindy. My reaction was always the same when I saw these children. I wanted to find out who was in charge of a universe that would permit something like this and then tear his fucking throat out.
“You ready to start now?”
“Ready,” I said.
She was nice enough to help me get my equipment set up. The pictures went quickly. I shot Cindy from several angles, including several straight-on. For some reason, that’s the one the client seems to like best. Straight-on. So you can see everything.
I used VPS large format professional film and a Pentax camera because what I was doing here was essentially making many portraits of Cindy, just the way I do when I make a portrait of an important community leader.
Half an hour later, I was packed up and moving through Mrs. Cunningham’s front door.
“You tell that man—that Mr. Byerly who called—that we sure do appreciate that $2000 check he sent.”
“I’ll be sure to tell him,” I said, walking out into the rain.
“You’re gonna get wet.”
“I’ll be fine. Goodbye, Mrs. Cunningham.”
* * *
Back at the shop, I asked Merle if there had been any calls and he said nothing important. Then, “How’d it go?”
“No problems,” I said.
“Another addition to the ugly file, huh?” Then he nodded to the three filing cabinets I’d bought years back at a government auction. The top drawer of the center cabinet contained the photos and negatives of all the deformed children I’d been shooting for Byerly.
“I still don’t think that’s funny, Merle.”
“‘The ugly file?’” He’d been calling it that for a couple weeks now and I’d warned him that I wasn’t amused. I have one of those tempers that it’s not smart to push on too hard or too long.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“If you can’t laugh about it then you have to cry about it.”
“That’s a cop-out. People always say that when they want to say something nasty and get away with it. I don’t want you to call it that any more, you fucking understand me, Merle?”
I could feel the anger coming. I guess I’ve got more of it than I know what to do with, especially after I’ve been around some poor god damned kid like Cindy.
“Hey, boss, lighten up. Shit, man, I won’t say it any more, OK?”
“I’m going to hold you to that.”
I took the film of Cindy into the dark room. It took six hours to process it all through the chemicals and get the good, clear proofs I wanted.
At some point during the process, Merle knocked on the door and said, “I’m goin’ home now, all right?”
“See you tomorrow,” I said through the closed door.
“Hey, I’m sorry I pissed you off. You know, about those pictures.”
“Forget about it, Merle. It’s over. Everything’s fine.”
“Thanks. See you tomorrow.”
When I came out of the dark room, the windows were filled with night. I put the proofs in a manila envelope with my logo and return address on it and then went out the door and down the stairs to the parking lot and my station wagon.
The night was like October now, raw and windy. I drove over to the freeway and took it straight out to Mannion Springs, the wealthiest of all the wealthy local suburbs.
On sunny afternoons, Mary and I pack up the girls sometimes and drive through Mannion Springs and look at all the houses and daydream aloud of what it would be like to live in a place where you had honest-to-God maids and honest-to-God butlers the way some of these places do.
I thought of Mary now, and how much I loved her, more the longer we were married, and suddenly I felt this terrible, almost oppressive loneliness, and then I thought of little Cindy in that bassinet this afternoon and I just wanted to start crying and I couldn’t even tell you why for sure.
The Byerly place is what they call a shingle Victorian. It has dormers of every kind and description—hipped, eyebrow and gabled. The place is huge but has far fewer windows than you’d expect to find in a house this size. You wonder if sunlight can ever get into it.
I’d called Byerly before leaving the office. He was expecting me.
I parked in the wide asphalt drive that swept around the grounds. By the time I reached the front porch, Byerly was in the arched doorway, dressed in a good dark suit.
I walked right up to him and handed him the envelope with the photos in it.
“Thank you,” he said. “You’ll send me a bill?”
“Sure,” I said. I was going to add, “That’s my favorite part of the job, sending out the bill,” but he wasn’t the kind of guy you joke with. And if you ever saw him, you’d know why.
Everything about him tells you he’s one of those men who used to be called aristocratic. He’s handsome, he’s slim, he’s athletic, and he seems to be very, very confident in everything he does—until you look at his eyes, at the sorrow and weariness of them, at the trapped gaze of a small and broken boy hiding in there.
Of course, on my last trip out here I learned why he looks this way. Byerly was out and the maid answered the door and we started talking and then she told me all about it, in whispers of course, because Byerly’s wife was upstairs and would not have appreciated being discussed this way.
Four years ago, Mrs. Byerly gave birth to their only child, a son. The family physician said that he had never seen a deformity of this magnitude. The child had a head only slightly larger than an apple and no eyes and no arms whatsoever. And it made noises that sickened even the most doctorly of doctors…
The physician even hinted that the baby might be destroyed, for the sake of the entire family…
Mrs. Byerly had a nervous breakdown and went into a mental hospital for nearly a year. She refused to let her baby be taken to a state institution. Mr. Byerly and three shifts of nurses took care of the boy.
When Mrs. Byerly got out of the hospital everybody pretended that she was doing just fine and wasn’t really crazy at all. But then Mrs. Byerly got her husband to hire me to take pictures of deformed babies for her. She seemed to draw courage from knowing that she and her son were not alone in their terrible grief…
All I could think of was those signals we send deep into outer space to see if some other species will hear them and let us know that we’re not alone, that this isn’t just some frigging joke, this nowhere planet spinning in the darkness…
When the maid told me all this, it broke my heart for Mrs. Byerly and then I didn’t feel so awkward about taking the pictures any more. Her husband had his personal physician check out the area for the kind of babies we were looking for and Byerly would call the mother and offer to pay her a lot of money…and then I’d go over there and take the pictures of the kid…
Now, just as I was about to turn around and walk off the porch, Byerly said, “I understand that you spent some time here two weeks ago talking to one of the maids.”
“I’d prefer that you never do that again. My wife is very uncomfortable about our personal affairs being made public.”
He sounded as I had sounded with Merle earlier today. Right on the verge of being very angry. The thing was, I didn’t blame him. I wouldn’t want people whispering about me and my wife, either.
“I apologize, Mr. Byerly. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“My wife has suffered enough.” The anger had left him. He sounded drained. “She’s suffered way too much, in fact.”
And with that, I heard a child cry out from upstairs.
A child—yet not a child—a strangled, mournful cry that shook me to hear.
“Good night,” he said.
He shut the door very quickly, leaving me to the wind and rain and night.
After a while, I walked down the wide steps to my car and got inside and drove straight home.
As soon as I was inside, I kissed my wife and then took her by the hand and led her upstairs to the room our two little girls share.
We stood in the doorway, looking at Jenny and Sara. They were asleep.
Each was possessed of two eyes, two arms, two legs; and each was possessed of song and delight and wonderment and tenderness and glee.
And I held my wife tighter than I ever had, and felt an almost giddy gratitude for the health of our little family.
Not until much later, near midnight it was, my wife asleep next to me in the warmth of our bed—not until much later did I think again of Mrs. Byerly and her photos in the upstairs bedroom of that dark and shunned Victorian house, up there with her child trying to make frantic sense of the silent and eternal universe that makes no sense at all.


mybillcrider said...

Not much of MacDonald is in print these days, and Ed McBain's practically disappeared. Evan Hunter, too, for that matter. I wouldn't have thought it would happen, and maybe it's not permanent. When Melville died, people thought he'd been dead for years. He was unknown and forgotten. Maybe later generations will rediscover MacDonald, or Donald Hamilton, or someone else. A good story, well told, can survive a long time. I've never read a story or novel by Stout that I didn't find worthwhile.

But let's face it, plenty of writers with big reps during their lifetimes aren't talked about now. Does anybody outside of grad school read Sherwood Anderson? What about Faulkner? I'm sure he still sells to the academic market, but does he sell anywhere else? Thomas Wolfe doesn't even sell to the academy now.

I'm speaking only for myself here, but I write because I want to entertain. Whether anybody reads anything I've written after I'm gone isn't going to matter to me in the least. If someone ten or fifteen years after I shuffle off happens across one of my books, reads it, and gets a smile, that's fine for that person. But for me as a writer, well, it doesn't matter. Even if someone digs out, say, BLOOD MARKS, reprints it and sells a million copies in fifty years, it won't matter to me. I guess knowing I'd made a big impact would be nice for me now, stoke my ego, but I'm not that interested in being Dan Brown, who, like his books or not, has made a been a huge influence on what's being published lately. I just try to do the best I can with what I've got and hope somebody gets a few hours of pleasure from reading it.

Looking back over what I've written, I'm not sure it makes sense. Oh, well.

Thanks for reprinting "The Ugly File." Fine story.

Ed Gorman said...

Makes sense to me and I agree.By the way for you folks who haven't read it BLOOD MARKS is one of my all-time favorite novels. Wry, sly, bloody and on hell of a good mystery. You won't have any trouble finding it on the net.

David Jack Bell said...


"The Ugly File" might be my favorite story of yours. "The Face" would be the other one. Similar stories too.

Most writing is temporary. It sounds great to think that after we die we could look back and see if anyone is reading or remembering us. But what would that do for us? Would Melville be happy now, or would he say, "Where were you when I needed you?"


Dave Zeltserman said...

hell of a story, Ed.--Dave

Gavin L. O'Keefe said...

Ed -

I hadn't read 'The Ugly File' before - so thank you for posting it. It's a powerful tale, and one that is incredibly moving. I can see why certain publishers didn't want to release it - but true publishers don't 'censor' works that touch us at the very heart of what we are. Every reader of 'literature' should read this story (and while they're at it they should explore your other great work).


Charlieopera said...

As usual, I'm late to the dance ... I just reviewed a Higgins novel that took me 5 tries to finally finish [Swan Boats at Four] and he really is my writing hero. I'm not sure why he ran of the rails but I admire his guts for trying different stuff.

I'm reading a lot of Graham Greene right now (every other book it seems) and some I love and some I can take or leave. I'm not sure arguments about genre, literature, mystery, crime writing, etc. make much sense. I "think" people read what they like and writers write what they feel comfortable with (although on that I wouldn't place any bets). I do believe that consistency marks a writer's career and that time is the ultimate judge of a book's "general" value, but to each his own (value).

Great story, Ed.

Anonymous said...

Like David mentioned above, "The Ugly File" and "The Face" are a couple of my favorite as well; it was a pleasure to revisit "The Ugly File" again.

It seems to me what lasts beyond the writer's immediate era is a crapshoot. There are brilliant works that fade away almost as soon as they're published, and others that have staying power (to varying degrees). I've never been able to work out the intangible factors and patterns that determine which way a particular work (or body of work)might go. Good writing, solid plotting and excellent characterization -- the usual suspects -- certainly doesn't seem to be enough.

~ Ron C.