Buzzed Books #92: Red Comet: Heather Clark’s The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath

 Buzzed Books #92 by Jan Elizabeth Watson

Heather Clark’s Red Comet:

The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath at nineteen, smiling broadly, her face scrunched into what Ted Hughes once described as a “tight ball of joy.” It was the photo on The Bell Jar’s back cover that hooked me first. Below that, a paragraph-long bio that ended with a terse, jarring mention of her suicide at age 30.  I needed no further enticement to check this book out from the library; I was fifteen years old, prone to despondency, and certainly on the lookout for a kindred spirit.

The reading of Plath’s poems came next. Then the journals. Then the letters home, carefully edited by her mother. Then the onslaught of biographies, each with its own agenda. Then the longer, unexpurgated journals and still more biographies. Somehow, the more I read about Sylvia Plath, the more I wanted to know. And in my blue-collar, small-town innocence, I had no idea that there were millions of other people out there who felt exactly as I did: those with an insatiable desire to have more of Plath, without being able to pinpoint exactly why.

What about Plath inspires such fierce, if misguided, identification? Is it, for some of us, a particularly female or particularly American desire for recognition and accomplishment?  Is it the incongruity of her public face, so exuberantly wholesome and beaming, measured against Plath’s writing voice: seething, theatrical, lethal? Is it the Grand Guignol nature of her late poetry, making the audience complicit in the inevitable course of her last days? Perhaps it is simply the question of looking at her life and her body of work and wondering where everything went wrong.

To satisfy this collective curiosity and appetite for Plath comes the biography that may at last be enough: Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, by Heather Clark. A decorated and tireless scholar herself, Clark wrote this 1,154-page colossus with cooperation from the Hughes and Plath estates and aided by documents that no prior biographer was privy to. The result is as complete an account as one could dream of. And Clark’s agenda is refreshingly pure. Rather than attempting to hold Plath up as a feminist icon or as a victim, Clark’s intention (made plain in her preface) is to make the “peanut-crunching crowd” disperse at last, ending the mythology of Plath as a highly performative femme fatale and inviting closer inspection of her legitimacy as a writer.  And to some extent, this approach works. I say “to some extent” because Plath’s most famous poems may always be viewed as predictive of her death… a blueprint for her suicide replete with knowing winks to the audience. (Clark does her best to debunk this idea, showing that the real story of Plath’s final weeks, which were not self-destructive and defiant but hope-filled in some regards, which in many ways is makes for a sadder story than the myth.) This is not a book of what went wrong so much as it is a great celebration of the many things that went right in Plath’s life, particularly her complete dedication to her writing.

Like many women who came of age in the 1950s and early 60s, the real Sylvia Plath had a tidy exterior and an inner life that was anything but tidy. She was, as many might say nowadays, problematic. She was a woman who wanted to be a rule-follower who was also highly sexualized and impatient with sexual mores of her time. She wanted to be a good wife and mother and a recognized force in the fast and loose literary world of London in the early 60s. She wanted to be a fresh-faced all-American collegiate girl and a serious English lady of letters both. She drew people in with her vivacity, but had a sharp, judgmental eye that often resulted in tartly written depictions of the people she was closest to. With a remarkable lack of bias, Red Comet contextualizes the many faces of Plath and gives fair treatment to many of the key figures whom Plath eviscerated in her writings… including the much-pilloried Ted Hughes, guilty of infidelity but also in possession of great sensitivity and a complete paternal allegiance to his children that was unusual for an Englishman of his time. This biography respects Plath’s perceptions and feelings, but it also gives us a great deal else to consider.

Despite the push-pull of Plath’s deeply human contradictions, her writing ambitions remained a constant, and her efforts to strengthen her writing voice had a heroic single-mindedness. The child of two academics, her talent for language manifested itself at a young age, and Red Comet chronicles Plath’s evolution from teenage writer of magazine fiction to the poet whom Al Alvarez described as one of the finest who ever lived. Her fiction, too, was taking off toward the end of her life. One of Clark’s most fascinating revelations is her discussion of Plath’s destroyed, unpublished second novel—a sequel to The Bell Jar entitled Falcon Yard—and the possible existence of a third manuscript (long thought lost) called Doubletake, a “funny” and “wicked” tale about an American expatriate wife and her philandering British husband. The thought that this novel could yet see the light of day is almost too much to hope for, but if it does, one can only imagine that readers might gain a greater appreciation of Plath’s humor and view her infamous, doomed marriage in a different light.

Ultimately, we all have our own ideas of who Plath was. Plath had her own ideas, too, and it is these ideas that Red Comet attempts to honor at every turn.  Though lumped in with the “confessional” poets, Clark reveals that Plath saw herself as a surrealist, and perhaps we would be wise to begin to view her work the same way: premised upon wild, representational fantasies as opposed to a literal depiction of the life she lived. Had Plath lived to old age and enjoyed a long career, her surrealist leanings may have taken her to poems to even more ferociously imagined heights and left a different legacy for us all. Lacking that, we must be grateful for the prolificacy of her poems, the feverishness with which she documented her life, and the arrival of a biography like Red Comet that celebrates and observes in equal measure.

Jan Elizabeth Watson is the author of two novels: Asta in the Wings (Tin House Books, 2009) and What Has Become of You (Penguin Random House, 2014). She received her MFA from Columbia University, where she was also a Teaching Fellow. Originally from Maine, she now lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and is at work on a third novel.

The Perfect Life #11: Risk a Verse

The Perfect Life #11

Dear Dr. Perfect,

My girlfriend always wants me to listen to her read her poetry. At this point, listening to her recitations takes up about ten hours every week. I don’t know how she can write so much verse. Frankly, the poems aren’t that bad, but her stentorian reading voice raises the hairs on the back of my neck. I’ve asked if I can just read them without the performance, but she let me know how insanely unsupportive I was. My alcoholism seems to be worsening. What can I do?


A captive audience


Dear Captive Audience,

That sounds wonderful. With so much poetry at your disposal, you’ll never be vexed by the mysteries of life again.

Forgive my sarcasm.

I dated two rather accomplished poets in my younger years. One believed she was Emily Dickinson incarnate, and the other was a vegan transcendentalist who liked to burn things. Fine women, but I would always wind up as some abstract metaphor, slipped into one of their pieces. Something about the wispy strike of the serpent tongue or the piggish rankle of the beguiling bore. It wasn’t flattering, but what can I say? They became quite bitter toward the end. I, of course, have no room for bitterness in my perfect life. Holding grudges against self-absorbed exes who tried to publicly sully my good name would be a disservice to my loyal readers. The iridescent malaise of what she doth spew turns the tide of knowledge against her.

Your girlfriend needs an audience, a kind ear that will build her confidence. She might be a little overbearing in her delivery, as you suggest, but that’s what artists call “passion.” She’s also apparently prolific. A poet doesn’t want you to just read their work. You should know better. Recitation is half the effort. I recall accompanying friends to some beatnik bar in Greenwich Village during the seventies. They had spoken word and bongo drums and all the works. Some of those cats could go all night, I tell you. This isn’t to suggest that your “old lady” is part of that scene. That’s what they called female companions back then. She might be a classical poet, publishing volumes of lyrical soliloquies for your ears only. Therein lies the problem. There’s only so much time in the day, and you can’t spend it emulating an audience for your girlfriend’s radio plays. Poets are particularly sensitive, so I’ve heard. Writers in general are a mess. So, whatever scheme you employ will require more tactical planning than the Normandy Invasion.

The first step toward any well-meaning imposition is to establish ground rules. Certain people understand things like personal space and consideration and certain people don’t. Your poet extraordinaire might fit somewhere in the middle. For all I know, you’re equally annoying, but I make no presumptions.

My college roommate was a theater major who would demand my attention as he paced our dorm, practicing his solo-performance plays. Increasingly baffled, I asked “Are all of your plays just one big monologue?” He would never break character or give me a straight answer.

Limit the poetry in your life. Wean her from ten hours to five each week, eventually relegating her to an hour or less. You’ve recently embraced a new model ship building hobby that requires your utmost devotion. That’s what you’ll tell her. She might scoff at first but remind her that it keeps you from drinking. “You have your hobbies, I have mine,” you’ll say. After realizing that you’ve stepped into it by referring to her poetry as a hobby, you’ll apologize profusely and watch as she storms out of the house. This will give you an opportunity to rearrange all of the furniture in the living room while she’s gone.

Once she returns, attend to your model ships in the study, as though everything’s normal. She’ll ask what you’ve done with the living room. Remain oblivious and suggest that it’s all in her head. This is known as gaslighting, a favored tactic among sociopaths. It’s perfectly harmless in small doses. You’ll say that she’s overworked, that her many endless verses have transcended even the most open of forms into madness. Like Icarus, she’s flown too close to the sun.

The important thing to remember is to be happy. Life is too short to suffer silently through the doldrums of appeasement. Shorthand was designed to conserve time when writing. Emoticons have sped up communication. Perhaps your girlfriend is just looking for a 👍 to let her know everything will be okay. Award shows and speaking engagements have strict time limits for a reason. Artists would go on forever if they could.

I enjoy poetry as much as the next freak, but we all have limits. Poems are supposed to be brief and enjoyable. I even prefer the kinds that rhyme. To share one’s work is an intimate exercise. Your girlfriend values your opinion, and that’s not to be taken lightly. Maybe your opinion holds no clout and she just needs someone to listen. I don’t know. But I do know that you should take up some kind of model building. It’s the perfect activity to do while you drink.

Dr. Perfect has slung advice across the globe for the last two decades due to his dedication to the uplift of the human condition.

Episode 465: Samantha Hart!

Episode 465 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on Apple podcastsstitcher, spotify, or click here to stream (right click to download, if that’s your thing).

In this week’s show, I speak with Samantha Hart about her wonderful debut memoir, Blind Pony,
Plus I speak with Scott Cunningham about the monthlong poetry festival, O, Miami.

Photo by Alexander Ruiz.




  • TDO Listeners can get 20% of a premium subscription to Scribophile. After using the above link to register for a basic account, go here while still logged in to upgrade the account with the discount.
  • Learn more about O, Miami here.
  • Check out my literary adventure novel, Guy Psycho and the Ziggurat of Shame.

Episode 465 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on Apple podcastsstitcher, spotify, or click here to stream (right click to download, if that’s your thing).


The Curator of Schlock #348: The Big Knife

The Curator of Schlock #348 by Jeff Shuster

The Big Knife

Serious movie time!

So Big Tom had a heart attack. The doctor says he’s forbidden from trucking for the next six months. That means there’s no one to deliver that fancy canning equipment for that ready-to-eat salmon salad canning factory up in Saskatchewan. No one except for me. That’s right. Edwige and I are taking a road trip up to Canada. Granted, I’ve only observed Big Tom driving a truck. I’ve never taken the wheel myself. What could go wrong?

This week’s Arrow Home Video release is 1955’s The Big Knife from director Robert Aldrich. This is a bit higher class than the typical movies we cover here, but I will persevere somehow. I should warn you that The Big Knife is based on the play The Big Knife by Clifford Odets. I can always tell when a movie is based on a play. You’ve got few sets and a lot of dialogue. I always ask myself why I’m watching this on the screen when I could be watching it on the stage.

We’ve got an incredible cast of Hollywood stars of the era like Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Wendell Corey, Jean Hagen, Rod Steiger, and Shelly Winters. As for the play—I mean movie—it’s another American tragedy deal. Don’t get me wrong. I love American tragedies. Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge is one of my favorites. What do you want from me? I grew up in the New York Metropolitan area where theatre is everything.

Jack Palance stars as Charlie Castle, a big Hollywood movie star living in the lap of luxury. Wine, women, and song are at his fingertips, but the only thing he wants in this world is his wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), who has separated from him due to all his drinking and womanizing. She’ll come back to him, but only if he doesn’t sign another contract with Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger), the head of the studio. Charlie promises Marion he won’t sign, but we all know he will.

You see, it seems that Charlie had a bit of a drunk driving accident a few years back. While he was sloshed, he ran hit and killed some poor girl. His good friend, Buddy Bliss (Paul Langton), took the rap for the hit and run because he thinks the world of Charlie and didn’t want his career to go down the toilet. You know, I don’t care how good a friend someone is, you don’t go to jail for him. Sucker. Later in the movie, Charlie will get seduced by Buddy’s wife, Connie (Jean Hagen), and sleep with her. Charlie has a darker nature, you see. Buddy is such a sucker.

Anyway, Charlie doesn’t want Marion to leave him for good and he’s also tired of making schlock movies for the studio. But Stanley suggests that he should sign a contract with him as he’s privy to several of Charlie’s dark secrets. Charlie agrees to sign on for seven more years of financial security. I feel terrible for him. Perhaps I should bad for Dixie Evans (Shelly Winters), a struggling young starlet that was in the car with Charlie the night of the accident. And Dixie is threatening to blab to the press if the studio doesn’t give her a plumb role. I’m sure everything in Charlie’s life will work out fine. I’m sure it won’t end in tears.

Photo by Leslie Salas

Jeff Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124episode 131episode 284episode 441episode 442episode 443, episode 444, and episode 450) is an MFA graduate from the University of Central Florida.

Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #115: How Bad Can It Be?

Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #115 by Drew Barth

How Bad Can It Be?

Long ago, in the pre-plague days, I was asked at my local comic shopif I would like to sign up for releases from a new publisher called Bad Idea. Knowing literally nothing about them, I decided, eh, why not? Well, I completely forgot about signing up due to the pandemic. A full year passed and finally Bad Idea’s first offering—ENIAC by Matt Kindt, Doug Braithwaite, Diego Rodriguez, and Lewis Larosa—is in my hands.

This first issue of ENIAC is interesting on its premise alone. The first programmable computer, ENIAC, is created and immediately the US military wants to start using it for artillery patterns and other means to win World War II. Its creators oblige as they want the project to stay alive and opt to feed in the total sum of human knowledge at the time into ENIAC to see if that would help it compute equations faster. This splinters off from history as ENIAC develops a consciousness, and begins a slow campaign of terrorizing various world governments with its presence and it’s access to every nuclear arsenal across the globe.

Cut to present day, ENIAC has started a countdown and two agents are tasked with finding ENIAC, destroying it, and, most likely, saving humanity from whatever that countdown is signaling. The first issue is full of that global-stakes comics fun that permeates the best thrillers in the medium. But there’s also more.

So there is a reason the publisher decided to call themselves Bad Idea. ENIAC and all subsequent series will only be available in certain comic shops in small numbers and never in digital or trade paperback. For the most part, you have to have lucked out to even get a copy of this first issue. The owners of Bad Idea have stated in the past that this is their way of making sure their books are actually being purchased and it does make sense. How many times have we all walked into a comic shop only to see the dozens of long boxes filled with last year’s back issues? But on the other hand, how many people are going to be able to read this story? Kindt, Braithwaite, Rodriguez, and Larosa have put in a tremendous effort with this series, but is it going to become a classic that no one will be able to read?

Would ENIAC have received the same attention if it was being put out by a conventional publisher? I’m honestly not sure—geo-political thrillers are fairly popular right now and Kindt is a name people would gravitate toward. But how many variant and incentive covers would normally be put out for this kind of series? How many copies of the second and third issues would sit in a long box for years afterward at your local shop? There is good comics here, but I really hope it’s something people will be able to actually read.

Get excited. Hopefully get this story.

Drew Barth at Miami Book Fair in 2019.

Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.

The Perfect Life #10: The Art of Compromise

The Perfect Life #10

Dear Dr. Perfect,

I love my fiancée, but I am beginning to be alarmed by our love life. He is sensitive and thoughtful, and even writes his own feminist blog. Plus, he loves to cuddle. But we make love only 2-3 times a month.

He claims he is too tired from his internship and that he has carpal tunnel from playing videogames (even though he doesn’t stop playing video games). On the rare occasion we do make love, he insists on playing the soundtrack to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. He claims that the music and MLPFIM make him feel more spiritual, and that he wants lovemaking with me to be special. He wants to get MLPFIM matching tattoos for our wedding.

How can I discuss with him how much this behavior creeps me out without being insensitive to his needs?


The Woman Who Doesn’t Want to be a Unicorn


Dear Not a Unicorn,

I can’t tell you how many letters I get from dissatisfied couples about their love lives. You’d think I was Dr. Ruth. But no, I’m Dr. Perfect. I’ve evaluated your case, and I can definitely see why you’d want to reach out.

The engagement period is often the time for couples to work out the kinks before walking down the aisle. You want to make sure all the pistons are firing and that neither of you are psychotic mass murderers, My Little Pony notwithstanding. I could be blunt and say that such dwindling intimacy before marriage is a red flag and could lead to further problems down the road. Nonetheless, couples experience this all the time.

Sometimes partners really are too tired. Sometimes carpal tunnel can be an issue. And who among us hasn’t made love to MLPFIM? Well, I haven’t. I prefer the delicate sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach to accompany me in the bedroom, but that’s all I’m willing to disclose. What you’re experiencing is a tale as old as time. The lack of intimacy in any relationship could mean any of the following:

  1. Your partner is having an affair
  2. Your partner takes you for granted
  3. Your relationship is doomed
  4. Your partner might just be in a funk
  5. You’re going to have to spice things up

I’ll spare you F – L, which are pretty much just cooking recipes. The problem with relationships is that we’re not mind readers. We can’t tell sometimes what is going on with someone who gets carpal tunnel from video games. You have to be upfront and honest with him but not enough to make him cry. You describe your love making as “rare,” and that to me sounds like someone on the cusp of a tawdry affair as well. Perhaps we could exchange numbers. Only kidding. I am a professional advice columnist.

Here’s some things you should ask yourself. Does it really matter what music your weirdo fiancé plays? Perhaps you can suggest some of your own. If no children’s show themes come to mind, go for something else. For instance, one reader revealed his own penchant for Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” during the naked tango. Don’t give your fiancé all the power. Tell him that he needs to spend less time writing blogs, playing video games, and attending furry parties and more time fulfilling your needs.

If none of that works, I have some surefire ways to bring him around. Slip arsenic into his meals and render him entirely dependent as you nurse him back to health. I saw that in a movie once with Daniel Day Lewis, and I think everything turned out okay in the end. Troll his blog posts with negative comments, thus fracturing his fragile ego and sending him into your arms. Stage an elaborate kidnapping hoax of yourself and demand ransom. I saw that in a movie too, but it didn’t work out so well.

I’d like to offer more advice, but I’m too distracted by the mental image of matching MLPFIM tattoos.

Perhaps we could exchange numbers.

Dr. Perfect has slung advice across the globe for the last two decades due to his dedication to the uplift of the human condition.

Episode 464: A Discussion of Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems (with Leslie Salas)!

Episode 464 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on Apple podcastsstitcher, spotify, or click here to stream (right click to download, if that’s your thing).

In this week’s show, Leslie Salas and I discuss Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half and Solutions and Other Problems.




  • TDO Listeners can get 20% of a premium subscription to Scribophile. After using the above link to register for a basic account, go here while still logged in to upgrade the account with the discount.
  • Check out my literary adventure novel, Guy Psycho and the Ziggurat of Shame.

    Episode 464 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on Apple podcastsstitcher, spotify, or click here to stream (right click to download, if that’s your thing).

The Curator of Schlock #347: The Shadow

The Curator of Schlock #347 by Jeff Shuster

The Shadow

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of Hollywood producers?

I’m going to take a break from the Arrow Home Video releases this week as Big Tom subjected me to a rewatch of his favorite movie, 1994’s The Shadow from director Russell Mulcahy. Tom had an old VHS copy that we watched on his old RCA TV. He was downing Red Ripple and pork rinds fast and furious. By the time the end credits rolled, he was gripping his right arm and passing out on the shag carpet. Mrs. Big Tom called 911. My kangaroo Edwige and I rode in the ambulance with him.

But enough about trusted friends holding on for life and limb, we’ve got a movie to review.

Somehow I had missed The shadow growing up. Maybe I sneered at another attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the Batman movies (probably due to my getting burned by Sam Raimi’s Darkman). But now having seen The Shadow some twenty seven years later, I can see if the movie stands the test of time. Oh, boy. Where do I begin?

Alec Baldwin stars as Lamont Cranston, an American who sets himself up as a drug lord in Tibet following the first World War. He’s a nasty man, cornering the opium trade and killing anyone who stands in his way. A Tibetan Monk summons Cranston to his temple, forcing Cranston to reform himself and trains him to use his dark side, his shadow, to fight evil. Fast forward eight years and we see some gangsters in 1930s New York City about to throw a poor sap with cement shoes into the Hudson River.

Here we’re introduced to Cranston’s alter-ego, a super hero with telepathic abilities. The Shadow can’t explode heads or anything, but he can cloud men’s minds, make them see and think what he wants them to think. Cranston can also change his facial features, giving himself a big nose and jutting chin.. The Shadow dons a black trenchcoat, black fedora, and covers his mouth with a a red scarf just in case.

The Shadow threatens the mobster, holding him over the bridge, and tells him to confess to the murder of a police officer. The mobster agrees. What’s interesting about this is that the Shadow has no problem murdering criminals whenever he feels like it. He doesn’t have a no-killing policy like Batman or Superman. So why spare the mobster? Who knows. What else? Cranston’s uncle is the chief of police that wants two take down “this shadow character.”  Cranston also has a love interest named Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller) who has the ability to read minds.

So far, so good. But then the movie’s main villain shows up. A silver coffin arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a coffin belonging to late Genghis Khan. Inside the coffin is Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the self-described last living descendant of Genghis Khan. That’s funny considering the fact that Genghis has an estimated 16 million male descendants living today! Like the Shadow, Shiwan Khan has psychic abilities and puts them to work right away by telling the museum guard to blow his brains out.

Shiwan Khan calls a cab and gets annoyed when the cabbie writes down Shiwan Khan’s destination. He then tells the cabbie to drive into a gasoline truck, resulting in a huge explosion. Shiwan Khan laughs maniacally at this, but he has work to do on the world domination front. None of this makes any sense. If you have powerful telepathic abilities, why not tell the cabbie and the guard to forget you were there? Why get shipped in a silver coffin when you can just rent an airplane? Why walk around New York City in a Mongolian Warlord’s outfit from the twelfth century? All this does is draw attention to yourself. I would think a super villain with plans for world domination would try to keep a low profile during the planning stages.

But what do I know? I’m not in the movie business. What else? Oh, Tim Curry stars as a wormy scientist who pledges his loyalty to Shiwan Khan. Later, the Shadow tells him to jump out a window to his death. Again, why spare the mobster, but kill the wormy scientist? Who knows? The Shadow knows. See what I did there?

Photo by Leslie Salas

Jeff Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124episode 131episode 284episode 441episode 442episode 443, episode 444, and episode 450) is an MFA graduate from the University of Central Florida.

Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #114: Highway Legends

Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #114 by Drew Barth

Highway Legends

I love legends—stories we tell about a location, leftover warnings about the dangers of certain roads and houses at night, and the spooks and ghouls that inhabit those spaces long after their welcome. Grant Morrison, Alex Child, Naomi Fanquiz, and Tamara Bonvillain stitch together those old legends with other horrors that hop in the shadows in Proctor Valley Road.

Cousins August and Rylee are joined by friends Cora and Jennie in a quest to save up enough money for a Janis Joplin concert in Chula Vista in 1970. The friends steal and perform grunt work before the realization that cashing in on local legends may be their best option. After bringing three guys to Proctor Valley Road in their VW Bus, they recount the legends and haunts of the road.

Then the monsters arrive.

This is slow and subtle work with the kind of creeping horror that sticks with you long after the first issue closes. It’s also another series from Morrison at Boom! that foregoes some of their more psychedelically violent visions seen in series like Nameless and Happy! in the past.

While Morrison and Child’s script sings with spooks, Franquiz’s art grounds the series in its time and place—not to mention Bonvillain’s colors that establish her as one of the best and hardest working colorists in the industry next to Matt Wilson and Jordie Bellaire. Throughout this first issue, the time and timbre of the story are set by Franquiz’s paneling—you can feel the spatial awareness of each page and how those page turns become scene changes. Those transitions let the slow, creeping horror gain its foothold as the eyes never panel-jump to spoil what’s coming up. Coupled with character details as rich as their fine dialogue, this first issue is already one of the best of the year.

Proctor Valley Road likely would have been one of my favorite first issues this year even if it didn’t have the local lore that I love so much. A new Morrison story is always welcome, especially when it’s buttressed by creators like Child, Franquiz, and Bonvillain.

Get excited. Get on the road.

Drew Barth at Miami Book Fair in 2019.

Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.

The Perfect Life #9: Love Thy Neighbor if You Can, and If You Can’t…

The Perfect Life #9

Dear Dr. Perfect,

My neighbor blasts his music too loud. I try not to dim anyone’s fun, but after three weeks of polka at 80 decibels, I am at wit’s end. I’ve asked him to stop. While he seems really nice, I don’t know if his English is strong enough to understand my request. The police won’t do anything, as they seem to be polka fans. Should I hire a hitman? My scarred eardrums need solace right about now.


In Search of the Sound of Silence


Dear Searcher,

Simon and Garfunkel sang about the fractured void of communication in their hit song “The Sound of Silence.” Uou just need to revisit the smooth folk-rock of one of America’s great duos. Transport yourself to simpler times of mass casualties in Vietnam and a new season of Gilligan’s Island on TV. Your neighbor is inconsiderate, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work things out. It might just involve a carefully layered strategy.

We’ve all been in similar situations, leaving some to live off the grid completely in log cabins deep in the woods. Alas, the survivalist lifestyle isn’t for me. I enjoy my morning coffee and heated foot bath massager far too much. I got a great deal on one too, using my Brookstone elite member gold card. You don’t want to know how many various types of massagers I own.

I once had an upstairs neighbor in my old apartment complex who practiced interpretive dance, day and night. Next door to me lived a family of five who regularly blasted Ingmar Bergman films. I didn’t get it either. The couple on the other side just yelled a lot about everything. One of their arguments involved the proper way to eat a baked potato.

In all circumstances, I wore headphones, for it was far too tiring to confront every lunatic in my building. My advice columns during this period bore the brunt of my irritation and were noticeably angry in tone. I responded to a woman from Seattle who asked the proper time to put down her ailing feline. I told her to abandon him in a park and get a new cat. The tremendous fallout that followed elicited an apology from yours truly, and I never let my emotions get the best of me again.

I’m now fortunate enough to own a house, far removed from the shackles of condensed dwelling. I still have neighbors, but none have crossed me yet, which is good, because I do hold grudges. On to your issue, polka music at such decibels is problematic. If I had to wager the amount of Golden Gate Bridge suicides from polka music alone, I’d say at least half.

Confrontation in these situations is usually the right answer but not necessarily the easiest. You’ve already spoken to your neighbor and tried to build a rapport, seemingly crippled by a language barrier. Like our former First Lady, I speak seven languages. I don’t like to boast, but I spent a lot of time and money on those Rosetta Stone CDs. Most of us in this country, however, are doomed to knowing one singular boring language just in time for the latest trashy prime time reality show. Don’t let my erudite, snobbish tone fool you. I’m still in touch with the common folk and here to advise you.

You tried talking to your neighbor and seem to think that your pleas of lowering the volume were misconstrued. I would argue that the polka fiend in question heard you just fine. He’s simply being obtuse. He knows the police will side with him, naturally, because law enforcement tends to favor polka. Where do you think their uniforms derived from?

A hitman would be understandable, but then you’ve got a messy murder on your hand that could easily be traced back. Nothing says paper trail like a hitman. They always crack under pressure. You can’t reason with your neighbor, you can’t kill him, and the law has failed you. Where can you go from here? Allow me to make some suggestions.

Polka originated from the Czechs or the Swedes or the Polish or something. I don’t really know, and I don’t want to know. Despite my misgivings, it’s a rather lively musical form. Have you ever heard a depressing Polka song? I think not. Your neighbor is just having a good time. He most likely blasts the music to block out the negative voices that normally consume his diseased mind. You’re going to have to gaslight him, and it’s going to have to be big.

Stage a pagan ritual within an earshot of your neighbor’s property. Pull out all the stops: big bonfire, woodland or Venetian masks, and willing actors to sell the thing. Blast some Richard Wagner for good measure. By the time he looks out the window, good and drunk, he’ll know that you’re not someone to be toyed with. At the least, he’ll be too shaken to ever bring up the incident again. Part of him, however, will know, that you’re not the passive American bore he took you for.

This is but one suggestion in my esoteric catalogue. I’d need another column to suggest more. The complexities of living next to one another can be a precarious thing. The Bible urges us to “Love thy neighbor,” despite violations of personal space and affronts of sound. I had a neighbor with five or six dogs, small, loud creatures, whose collective cacophony of high-pitched wails grated on my soul. Short of building a soundproof dome over my house, there was little I could do. It is better to hear even the most irritating of sounds than to not hear at all. A wise man once taught me that. He, like most wise men, was named Hershel. There will come a time when the polka music stops. Until then, take a breath and embrace your plight. Zing boom tararrel!

Dr. Perfect has slung advice across the globe for the last two decades due to his dedication to the uplift of the human condition.