Ginger Nuts of Horror
And that anger comes from where all anger always comes from, of course: fear.
There’s a ghost haunting my life in horror. He doesn’t haunt all the entries, but a few. Yes, quite a few. I know a big part of what I’m doing with this monthly column is circling that ghost wearily. Finding ways to talk about him without talking about him.
So tonight I’m going to talk about the most disturbing book I’ve ever read. I’m almost certain this will be one of the least read posts of this series, and that’s fine.
In a break with tradition, I’m not going to play the usual shell game either. The book is called Sleepers, and it’s by Lorenzo Carcaterra. I’ve only read it once. I can’t imagine I will ever be able to put myself through it again. Beyond using Google to get the author’s name, I’m not revisiting the text at all. That said, if your stomach and will are both strong, and descriptions of abuse won’t trigger you, I’d recommend it, I think. I cannot remember a more intense reading experience. And yeah, there was a movie. I’ve heard it’s good, but if you haven’t, I wouldn’t. There’s no fucking way it can beat t
Trigger Warning: contains discussion of sexual and physical abuse of children.
And I’m about to spoil the hell out of it, so if you don’t know and you want to find out for yourself - last chance.
It’s oh, 1998 or ‘99. I am somewhere between 20 and 21, and while life is better than it was back in my Endless/Nameless days, it’s still not exactly good. Having reached the entirely sensible conclusion that if I don’t leave my college town, I will be buried there, I’m sleeping in a spare room of a friends house in London. My memory is that I’m not yet working in the pub that will later inspire The Debt and the protagonist from Lifeline, so it’s probably ‘98. And I’m suffering one of my periodic bouts of insomnia. Worse, I have nothing to read. So I go to my friends room and peruse his bookcase, eventually pulling down off the shelf the black cover paperback, with the title picked out in white typeset on the spine.
It begins with a statement that this is a true story, with names and details changed. Later, I’d wonder about that a lot. It seems to me that you’d have to change one whole hell of a lot of details to avoid landing someone connected with this book in jail, but as far as I know there have been no prosecutions. At the same time, the story rings truer to me than any autobiography I’ve ever read, save that of Jim Thompson himself. So who knows? I’m sure Google would tell me, but I don’t want to know.
From there we meet our four kids. Street kids, essentially - working class, 1960’s, Hell's Kitchen, New York, New York. My memory is Italian American, which the author's name would seem to back up. Catholic. and absolutely not saints, that’s clear. Tearaways. Petty street crime. I can’t remember the ages with clarity, but I have them around 12 or 13 - old enough to kid themselves they were teenagers, but still really kids. And we get a few pages to meet them, their personalities, their street rips and dumb scams. It’s exhilarating, in an ominous kind of way.
Then they do a terrible thing.
They steal a hotdog cart. There is a pursuit. And then, at the top of some subway steps, they lose control of the cart. It falls down the stairwell, and it kills a man.
They kill a man.
And I mean, in the narrative, it’s horrible. The guilt and the fear is palpable. They go to their local priest for help (played by De Nero in the movie, I understand) and confess, and snot and cry and beg and just about shit themselves with fear. And it’s possible you’re thinking ‘What about the victim?’ and if you are, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong. They took a life, and that’s a terrible thing to do. It was an accident, sure, but they took irresponsible actions, and those actions had horrific consequences.
You may think they deserve everything they get.
But you’d be wrong.
My memory is the priest gets them to turn themselves in. That feels right. He does this not without misgivings. There is, of course a trial. The children plead guilty, express remorse. Certainly the author IS remorseful - his guilt is palpable.
The judge - is there history, with the priest, real or implied? Or the prosecutor? I can’t remember for sure. What I do know is that they don’t get suspended sentences. They get convicted of manslaughter, and they get sent to a tough ‘kid prison’ - reformatory? Something like that.
And the priest, he knows. He knows what they are about to face. He tries to council them. Be brave, he says. Be brave, be hurt, but don’t become hard.
Don’t go hard.
And that’s it, the four get shipped out. I think. Maybe one of them did get suspended. It would make sense, given what follows, but I can’t recall. It’s kind of overshadowed by where they end up.
And, I mean, on one level it’s indistinguishable from grownup jail. There’s shitty food, there’s guards in uniforms, there’s cells and PT and lights out and lockdown and solitary, and all the shit you’d expect from any prison movie you’d care to name.
The only real difference is that here, the guards are a gang of vicious sadists.
It starts with a scene you’ll immediately recall from the movie, if you’ve seen it - one of the boys is viciously beaten at a mealtime, causing him to drop his food. He is then made to eat the food from the floor. With his hands.
And okay, look, cards on the table - it won’t come as any kind of galloping shock to anyone who has so much as glanced at my author photo that your humble correspondent has issues when it comes to figures of authority. There is very little in life that will more readily make me angry, raging, sick-to-the-stomach snarling like abuse of authority.
And that anger comes from where all anger always comes from, of course: fear.
Violence frightens me. Pain frightens me. The knowledge that I live in a society where I could, theoretically, be put in prison, terrifies the shit out of me. The very concept of jail is a horror to me. Yes, of course because I’m not 6’ 2” and built like a brick shithouse, yes of course because I’d be at very high risk of assault. all of that. But/and also, because on a base psychological level, the notion that I’d be at the utter whim and mercy of armed men in uniforms makes my mind want to shut down. It may not be my worst nightmare, but it’s top 3, and I couldn’t tell you what the other two are.
So given all this, you can perhaps already see why this book has me by the scruff of the neck. Skin crawling. Throat closing. Heart pounding.
Then the guards, three of them, maybe four, take the kid from his cell that night, off to a private location. Then they orally rape him.
That pretty much sets the tone for the next hundred, hundred and fifty pages. The kids are beaten, raped, abused, mistreated. Over and over and over again. The guards claim that the sexual violence is being meted out as punishment for infractions, but it becomes increasingly clear as the events unfold that they’re simply doing it because they can.
It’s all kind of a blur, and honestly not helped by some of the overlap with Shawshank Redemption, given how many damn times I’ve seen that fucking movie, but Shawshank is like the Disneyland version of this story, and this is the full blooded Brian De Palma uncut version.
Based on a true story.
From the long, numbing litany of abuse and degradation, there is one thing that stands out - burned irrevocably into my memory as sure as a scar.
Every year, there’s a football match. American Football. Officially, ‘touch’ or ‘flag’ football, where physical contact is equal to a tackle. The public and press are invited, to witness this showcase of reform in action - good all-American fun.
The kicker? It’s guards Vs. inmates.
I guess by this point I’m stating the brutally obvious, but the guards always win.
So this particular year, our narrator talks to the kid who is currently the leader of the black youth in the institution, and tries to talk him into actually playing the football game this year. Playing to win. and the conversation goes something like this:
Narrator: So let’s do it, man. Let’s play them. Let’s BEAT them!
Leader: You want me to tell my people to actually play the game? Not just throw it like every year?
L: You know they’ll probably win anyway, right? I mean, one of them will be the damn ref.
N: I know…
L: And you know if by some miracle we DO actually win this thing, they are going to make our lives a living hell, right?
N: Yeah, I know it.
L: And you still want me to do this thing?
N: I still want you to do it.
L: Why? Why in the hell should I do this crazy thing?
N: Because fuck them. That’s why.
I feel so much, here. So much.
There’s the empathic anger, surging at the injustice, wanting to hit back. There’s the terror - of acting, of doing this crazy and dangerous thing, and the repercussions. I want them to do it. I don’t want them to do it. My eyes are bleary with tiredness, but I’ve never felt less like sleeping. I want them to do it for them. For me. I want vengeance, even if pyrrhic. I want the guards to feel just a touch of the humiliation and shame of their victims. I want it so badly I can taste it. and I am also bitterly, powerfully afraid for them. It’s an incredibly potent cocktail, and the memory of it keeps me up past my bedtime, now as it did then, reliving the trauma of a child I have never met, will never know.
The description of the match is blow by blow, and at that age largely incomprehensible to me, American Football being at that time in my life an utterly alien sport. What I do know is that the guards fight dirty, the ref cheats outrageously… and the kids still manage to win.
I think it’s the nearest I’ve ever come to understanding how one might feel a savage joy at victory in combat. I mean, I’ve never personally experienced it, except in retrospect. The few physical fights I’ve been in, win or lose, were always adrenaline and a kind of hyper-aware calm, followed by shakes, tears, and the urge to vomit. It’s only once the events have become history that I can look back with pride or shame at how I handled myself.
But reading this story, I felt something utterly savage surge in my chest. Something that was fundamentally unconcerned with fairness, or justice, though it used both words. The feeling was simply one of vicious triumph, of teeth grinding, rage filled… Joy? No. Too heavy for that. Too ugly, too mean. It felt great and strong and horrible and sickening all at once. I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything quite like it, before or since.
You can well imagine how the crash felt.
Because, of course, for the crime of winning. and humiliating the guards, our narrator is beaten. Badly. Then put into solitary, for - fuck, Shawshank interferes here again, but a long damn time. And when he gets out, he finds out that the kid he’d talked into this madness went one better - they beat him to death.
I remember crying then. I remember thinking that in any sane, just world, we’d all of us know the name of this kid. There would be statues to him in every city of the globe. He’d be considered a martyr. The day of his death would be a holy one, a day of quiet reflection and rededication to fighting corruption and violence-as-authority. We would remember, and our hearts would fill with righteous rage, and we’d each of us vow to do everything in our power to go forth and make sure this never, ever happened again.
How do we forget this? How do I forget this?
There’s more abuse, more pain and humiliation, but eventually the kids get out. Our narrator is released before his friends. On his last night, he is taken to the private place, and made to watch the guards abusing the friends he is leaving behind. They remind him they will continue to do this while he is on the outside.
Amazingly, the story doesn’t end there.
Our narrator gets out. He seeks out the priest, tells him what has happened. He cries. He has nightmares. He experiences night terrors and bedwetting and, well, all the PTSD shit you’d expect. But he remembers the priest's warning, and he does not grow hard.
his friends are not so lucky. By the time they get out, he sees that something fundamental has changed in them. There is a coldness at their core, now. A hardness. They become part of the mob. Become killers.
And then there’s the other kid. He becomes a lawyer.
and here’s the part where my refusal to go back is going to fuck this up. I think… No, I got it. He becomes a public prosecutor. Yes, that’s right, he works for the DA.
So when the two mob kids, now fully grown hard men, locate and shoot down the head guard in cold blood, he ends up prosecuting the case.
And if your bullshit detector just went off, well, I hear you. This is what I meant up top about how you’ve got to change a bit more than the names to make this shit fly. Because what this guy does is manipulate the prosecution in such a way that, while ostensibly running things to the best of his ability, he’s subtly undermining his own case.
And then comes the piece de resistance.
Our narrator manages to meet with the defence lawyers. And he hands them a big fat dossier that lists all the allegations, testimonies, and evidence that points to the systemic sexual abuses perpetrated by the murder victim. It’s utterly devastating, and transforms the chances of the defendants. It’s at this point that one of the defense attorneys, reading through this dossier that at a stroke destroys a man's character and legacy irrevocably, turns to the narrator and utters what is, for my money, the single greatest recorded moment of spoken dialogue in all of human history:
“Do me a favour, will you? If I ever piss you off, give me a chance to apologize, okay?”
Goosebumps, even now.
And of course they pull it off, and the killers are set free, found not guilty. And of course, in a very real sense, it doesn’t matter. Not just because some things cannot be made right - though there is that. But also. the killers are still killers, and the life they have chosen still destroys them. I’m reminded of the Henry Hill commentary track on the DVD of Goodfellas, where, during that long panning shot of the bar where Liotta via voiceover introduces the whole mob to us (“Mickey Four Eyes, Tommy Two-Times, etc…”), on the commentary track, Henry Hill (the real life, actual Henry Hill) says “This, right here, this is why I love the FBI. Because aside from me, every single person in this scene is dead now, or in jail.” These kids-turned-killers are never going to find the FBI, and their fate is inevitable.
But I’m also reminded of one of my all-time favorite movies, The Sting (which I’m about to spoil, so for fuck’s sake go and watch it if you haven't already, it’s one of the best movies ever made. Almost as good as Robocop.) At the very end, having successfully conned the vicious gangster who had murdered his friend out of hundreds of thousands of 1930’s dollars, Hooker (Robert Redford) turns to his mentor, Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), his face still and grave, and after a pause says “you’re right. It’s not enough.”
The two con men regard each other, Newman’s too-blue eyes burning up the screen with intensity.
Then Hooker’s face splits into a grin that goes all the way to his boots, as he says “ But… it’s close!”
They both laugh.
And it might all be bullshit. Like I say, I haven’t looked it up - I won’t - but it’s very hard to swallow the notion that the case is not identifiable - that the prosecutor can’t be found, and held accountable for perverting the course of justice. Maybe the ending is false, and maybe Hooker’s grin and laugh is false too - maybe he’s just giving Gondorff what he needs. He is, after all ,a conman. It’s possible.
But as with The Sting, Sleepers is a perfect revenge story - and unlike The Sting, claims to be true.
And I want to believe. Because some things can’t be put right.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Somebody wants answers.
North Devon, England. 1995. A born-again revival meeting in a public building. The usual mix of the faithful, the curious, and the desperate. And one other – an atheist suicide bomber. He's angry. He wants answers. And if God doesn't come and talk to him personally, he's going to kill everyone in the building...
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