Thirteen Days to the Suicide Woods: Day 13 — The Thirteenth View

•13/03/2017 • Leave a Comment

Before I was a writer, among other things, I was a philosopher. I taught ethics, but before that, as a graduate student, I studied Existentialism and the works of Albert Camus and Friedrich Nietzsche.  The epigraph to 13 VIEWS OF THE SUICIDE WOODS is a favorite quote of mine by the latter:

“And perhaps many will, like myself, recall how amid the dangers and terrors of dreams they have occasionally said to themselves in self-encouragement, and not without success: ‘It is a dream! I will dream on!’”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

I write and read and watch fiction because it allows me to dream. When I engage with fiction I can dream of being someone else for a little while. I get to be a person who isn’t afraid of drowning, who knows exactly what to do in the worst circumstances, who does the right thing even though it’s emotionally difficult. In fiction, I get to be young again, I get to be Black, I get to be a woman, I get to be gay, I get to be all the things I’m not but I wish I could understand just a little bit so that I can know better what it’s like to be fully human. When I read fiction, I get to dream. I can dream of being free and strong and unrestrained. I can dream of standing up and being better than I am.

Mostly though, I dream of not being afraid.

Because everything I’m afraid of is another view of my personal Suicide Woods. Everything I’m afraid of is the place where I will go to give up and die. And fiction is the force that holds on to me and says, you can weather this too. But still, I am afraid.

I am afraid of the water.

I am afraid of being weak.

I am afraid of not being liked by everyone.

I am afraid of losing my family.

I am afraid of not being able to cope with my feelings of inadequacy.

I am afraid of letting people down.

I am afraid of getting old.

I am afraid of being alone.

I am afraid of being with people.

I am afraid of how being a victim of sexual abuse has broken me.

I am afraid of destroying myself because I push down pain and sadness to appear strong.

I am afraid of myself.

I am afraid.

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But still, I dream.

And I will dream on!

The Woods Have Been Waiting

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Thirteen Days to the Suicide Woods: Day 12 — Vineyard Horror

•12/03/2017 • Leave a Comment

One year at my favorite writers’ conference, NECON, I was standing in the hotel lobby, staring at the flyers beside the check in desk, trying to find a menu for a local pizza place, when I ran across a card that showed a wet, red foot. Intrigued, I pulled the card and saw it was advertising a local winery. Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows I love wine. More than any beer or other spirit (yes, more than whisk(e)y), I love dry, tannic, earthy reds—pinot noir especially, but also barbera, and tempranillo wines. None of these varietals grow well in New England, but I was still intrigued by the image of a glistening red, nude woman’s foot.

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This wasn’t the picture, but you get the idea.

The picture was sensual, but it also more than hinted at gore with the red juice and dark grape skins sticking to the foot in the image. To me, in that setting, there was something very sinister about the implication of what that woman had done. How she had become stained. She had crushed something delicate and wore the evidence of its destruction on her skin.

Yes, yes, I know. Most people who’d see this advertisement would think of people laughing and having fun getting dirty making something delicious, meant to be drunk in fun. Maybe they think of that episode of I Love Lucy. I’m not most people. I think about the violence of winemaking. I think about the intimacy of that violence, the sexuality of it done with nude feet (though mostly by press, but let’s indulge our imaginations) and rolled up pants, or even better, a playfully lifted skirt.

The thought of it immediately made me recall the Poème de la vigne (Poem of the Vine) sculpture by Gustave Doré in front of the de Young Museum in San Fransisco.

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Gustave Doré created this vase for French winemakers, who exhibited it at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair. It represents an allegory of the annual wine vintage, taking the shape of a colossal wine vessel decorated with figures associated with the rites of Bacchus (the Roman god of wine). The revelers include cupids, satyrs and bacchantes, who protect the grape vines from pests. [source]

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That, naturally, made me think of Frederick Hart’s Ex Nihilo sculpture on the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. (and how its design was stolen and inverted—or perverted as he successfully charged in his lawsuit—for the movie The Devil’s Advocate). My imagination was off to the races.

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I’d long wanted to write small town occult horror story in the tradition of Thomas Tryon or The Wicker Man, and by the end of the conference weekend, the story of an outsider coming to an insular and somehow threatening wine making community was finished in my head. I just needed to get it down on paper. Most of the time I come home from any conference, but after NECON in particular, I am driven by creative inspiration that burns bright and hot. This fire was uniquely kindled, however.

I wrote the whole thing in about forty-eight hours, inspired by an image of a single woman’s foot, and all the sensuality and carnage it implied. I’d joked at the con that I wanted to start a new movement as a subset of what I thought of as “Harvest Horror,” titled instead, “Vineyard Horror.” Scary stories that revolve around wine and intoxication. Since then, I’ve met a couple of kindred spirits (notably Michael Griffin, whose Dim Shores novella An Ideal Retreat is something you NEED to read) who feel the same way about the subject. Like other writers provide soundtrack listening suggestions for their work, we’ve discussed pairing our stories with wine recommendations and tasting notes. The world of Vineyard Horror is ripe on the vine, in my opinion.

So, please, open a nice Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, have a couple of glasses, and enjoy The Blood of the Vine.

The Woods Have Been Waiting

NEXT STOP: The Thirteenth View

 

Thirteen Days to the Suicide Woods: Day 11 — Easter Eggs

•11/03/2017 • Leave a Comment

I throw “Easter eggs” into a lot of stories. Little hints and names and nuggets that are supposed to pass by you if you aren’t familiar with them. But if you are familiar, they’re meant to make you smile or think a little.

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For instance, a few stories in 13 VIEWS OF THE SUICIDE WOODS are set in places familiar to me and a few other people.

I wanted to set The Blood and the Body on the top floor of a three-story house to subvert the imagery of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven stacked on top of one another. As Em ascends, things become more sinister for her. But I didn’t want to have to think too hard about the layout of the house or the neighborhood around it, so I set the story in a friend’s former condo. I wanted a setting I could easily call to mind, but also, I wanted to poke at my friend by doing bad things to people in his study. I think he was amused. His only comment to me about the story (when he read an early draft), is that his back yard below the deck was brick, not concrete.

In The Bones has a similar moment on a high wooden deck, though it’s not the one at that friend’s condo. That one’s set outside on a law school friend’s apartment in Connecticut. Both scenes outside, however, are informed by my own experience with my first cigar on that deck.

My law school friend had smuggled at Cuban Cohiba across the border from Canada for me (those lawless Canadians!). He gave it to me at a party and left me to my own devices on the deck. Though I hadn’t ever smoked one before, I used to smoke clove cigarettes in college and thought I knew what I was doing. I got the thing evenly lit like I’d watched a couple of other people out on the same deck doing and then took a big drag, filling my lungs. I found out rather quickly, you don’t inhale cigar smoke. I didn’t want to choke and let on that I had no idea what I was doing, so I held the smoke in. I couldn’t breathe, I went blind, my head was spinning, and I was death-gripping the rail of his third story deck so I wouldn’t topple over the side and fall to my death. My friends saw how badly green I was turning (despite the dark night) and all had a good laugh. The friend who gave me the cigar informed me that it wasn’t a joint, I didn’t have to hold it. Lessons learned. I now know how to smoke a cigar, and I tend to get nervous on upper story decks.

The second half of that story is set in the hospital where I had my appendix out.

Blood Makes the Grass Grow takes place in a couple of locations I encountered on a family getaway in Maine a few years ago. We were vacationing with friends who had a dog who got injured jumping into a pond after a stick. The vet is the one we found on Yelp. And yes, that organic farm with the Rasta flag and the sign with the vegetable pun on it really exists (though everything about the proprietors, their real business, and their visitors are all fiction). That’s my dark vision of the Maine state motto: The Way Life Should Be!

Finally, The Boy Who Dreamt He Was a Bat and This Last Little Piece of Darkness are stories unique to this collection. Only a handful of people have read them. Bat is set in the house I lived in as a child in the Berkshires and on the shores of a lake in which I almost drowned. Darkness was also set in a childhood residence—this time in a duplex on the other side of the country. They’re chilling places that make me feel little and helpless when I think of them. I don’t expect anyone to find those Easter eggs. Those were hidden a long time ago in places only I know, so no one would ever find them. Except, I’m giving them to you now.

The Woods Have Been Waiting

NEXT STOP: Vineyard Horror

Thirteen Days to the Suicide Woods: Day 10 — The City of Children

•10/03/2017 • Leave a Comment

Several years ago I read a book by Roméo Dallaire about the Rwandan genocide titled,  Shake Hands With the Devil. Dallaire is the former Force Commander of UNAMIR, the peacekeeping force deployed by the U.N. to Rwanda prior to the genocide. He wrote the book about his experience during that atrocity, and how his failure to stop it affected him (it left him with severe PTSD that led to his medical dismissal from the Canadian Forces and almost killed him). It’s a harrowing, heartbreaking book written by a man struggling with guilt and trauma. If you think you know horror because you read Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft, you need to sit down with Shake Hands With the Devil. See how it shakes you in a way evil cosmic clowns and squidfaced monsters never will.

He followed Devil up with a book about his post-Rwandan humanitarian mission, titled, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children.

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As you can surmise from the title, it’s about the atrocity of using child soldiers to fight in war. And as you can also gather on your own, the truth at the heart of it is, you can take a child and create a vicious killer, because children are malleable, eager to please, and don’t have the same kind of physical or psychological capability to resist indoctrination that adults do. Armed with a machete or an AK-47 and properly indoctrinated, that child is a killer. But, when you shoot that soldier, he is a child again. Because emotionally, he’s always been one. War is one kind of horror. And destroying childhood itself in order to wage it, is another—an atrocity piled on top of tragedy.

It got under my skin like very few books do. Even the title haunted me. I wanted to write something to explore the idea of this duality between killer and child. But I didn’t want to just redo what Dallaire had already done. Not that this isn’t an oft-explored concept in dark fiction. From Children of the Corn, to Village of the Damned, and The Brood, this idea isn’t alien to horror. But the concept of real innocence lingering underneath the monstrosity of killer children doesn’t get enough exploration, in my opinion.

Another title occurred to me as I was contemplating the story taking shape in my head. Who Can Kill a Child?, or rather, ¿Quién puede matar a un niño?

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The movie itself is not bad, as a predecessor to Children of the Corn,1 it has a decent amount of suspense, and comes close to transgression, though by the end, it’s pretty by the numbers.2 The setting, however, inspired me again, and I came up with the idea for my titular Ciudad de los Niños, the City of Children.

I moved the setting from Spain to Mexico, and wrapped in my interests in both the narco-occult murders in Matamoros in 1989 and the continuing phenomenon of secuestro exprés.

I wanted to create a very blurred line between atrocity and empowerment. I wanted to explore the idea of child soldiers, but in a way that hinted at the adversarial relationship between adults and children. If it’s adults that destroy childhood by forcing them to be soldiers, what if someone amassed an army of children for the sake of protecting them from adults?

I like moral ambiguity. I like stories with no clear good guy, that make the reader really examine who they’re rooting for and why. I got a rejection for this story from one publisher, the relevant portion of which read: “we never understood why we should care about a dirtbag narrator.” Why indeed? Because the narrator is an unequivocal dirtbag. But he’s a dirtbag who loves his kid. Or thinks he does anyway. It’s up to you, the reader to determine which way love flows in this story, and whether the narrator’s daughter is better off with him or with my stand in for Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte. I’m not holding your hand along this path. I’m just pointing the way.

La Bestia awaits you in Ciudad de los Niños.

The Woods Have Been Waiting

NEXT STOP: Easter Eggs

1 The movie  ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? came out in 1976, while King didn’t publish his story until ’77 (though he may have written it earlier—I don’t know), and the movie adaptation wasn’t released until 1984.

2 It’s based on a novel titled, El juego de los niños (The children’s game), though I haven’t read it.

Thirteen Days to the Suicide Woods: Day 9 — Sympathy for the Devil

•09/03/2017 • Leave a Comment

I’m sorry. It seems we got going and I skipped a few of the exits. But here we are, and I’d like to talk a little about religion. I know. They say you shouldn’t ever talk about religion, politics, or child rearing among polite company. But this far down the road, we’re starting to get pretty friendly. Aren’t we? So, let me tell you about the Devil.


I’ve always been a little in love with stories about the Devil, and as a result I’ve written more than a handful of them. I’ve long wanted to publish a chapbook titled, A Little Red Book of Satanic Stories, though that might not ever happen. Instead, I included a few in THIRTEEN VIEWS OF THE SUICIDE WOODS.

But first, let me explain my history with the Devil.

I was a teenager in the ‘80s during the height of the “the Satanic Panic,” and it shaped a lot of the way I view the character of the Devil. I was a tabletop gamer and a metalhead which put me right in the crosshairs of every religious square1 who thought I was an emissary of Lucifer himself.  The thing was, I didn’t understand where it all came from. Me and my friends were playing Dungeons & Dragons and listening to heavy metal and punk and it was all benign to us. In the D&D modules we played, we were the good guys, trying to rescue towns and treasure from the forces of evil. It was fantasy, but it we were fantasizing about being heroes, not villains. The music was about having fun and sometimes about trying to make sense of our place in the world. Yes, there was Satanic metal out there, and we enjoyed it, but we could all see it was putting on a role. It was like going to see The Omen. No one really thought that little kid in the movie was the Antichrist. And no one really thought anyone in Venom or Slayer was going out in the woods to sacrifice stray cats and little babies. (Maybe some did, but they also got confused counting to ten with their hands in their pockets.) Not everyone had that same perspective of our pastimes as we did.

A cottage industry sprung up in the ‘80s, producing dozens of books and home videos on VHS giving parents the tools to identify and combat the evil in their own homes that was threatening to destroy the moral fabric of the whole world. Those of us who were constantly getting the game manuals knocked out of our hands in the hallway were left wondering when exactly we’d become so powerful. But the way the crusaders for our souls seemed so naïve and out of touch was still kind of funny. Geraldo Rivera did an hour-long special on the global “Satanic Underground” out to get your kids that, in terms of making him a household joke, hit somewhere in between getting his nose broken in a brawl during his special about neo-Nazis and finding Al Capone’s vault empty. I recorded it and had friends over to watch and laugh at both the absurdity of Geraldo’s credulity and Michael Aquino‘s stupid Mr. Spock haircut.

Still, there were people who were really afraid.

After a while, I loved the social cache of it. It was like that moment in The Wild One where the woman asks Marlon Brando, “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” and he replies “Whadda you got?”

Except, in my case, she said, “Hey Bracken, do you worship the Devil,” and I’d say, “No, but I listen to his records.”

I loved seeing people outside of a concert arena carrying signs with scriptures on them and dragging literal crosses around. It was like an extra part of the show. I’d give them a hard time for being weak asses and having wheels at the bottom of their crosses (I imagine those things are heavy, but still), and stick my first and pinky fingers up at them. I’d make the gesture and a kind of ripple went through their numbers, because while it was a joke to us, they seemed utterly convinced that we were a force of evil waging war for their kids’ souls. What we were waging war for was our own culture and freedom from an externally imposed morality. Very devilish indeed.

But, the Panic was not limited to just the comical, absurdist public performance of clowns like Geraldo and people who drag crosses around outside Ozzy Osbourne concerts. Real people got hurt in the moral panic, and by the end of the decade, the Satanic Panic led to the destruction of real people’s lives. As it was coming to a close, it became less funny and much more sinister. Except, it wasn’t the Devil who scared me.

~*~

In my freshman year at college, a classmate of mine asked if I’d be willing to help out with the haunted house her church was putting on and play the Devil in the final room. I thought she asked me because I was a theater major and they wanted someone who could act. It turned out that no one in her church was willing to play the Devil, and she thought that since I was an out atheist, I wouldn’t mind. I didn’t mind. I love Halloween, and I thought it’d be fun to be a part of a haunted house. I put on my best King Diamond style makeup and worked hard to scare the hell out of the people who came through that tent. This was before the phenomenon of Hell Houses as we know them now, and I didn’t realize until late in the permance schedule that I was being used to scare people into being “saved.” I have no idea how many people I helped drive into the arms of Jesus, but I did my best to give them a good Halloween scare. When the church asked me back the next year, I declined.

The story, Mine, Not Yours was inspired in part by my experience helping to put on that Hell House style haunted house. It was too provocative a setting not to use in a story.

~*~
There are two other devilish stories in 13 VIEWS. One is a sympathy for the Devil story about a man seeking a cure for cancer that also dials in my interest in a bit of chicanery I saw James Randi debunk on late night television in the ‘80s: psychic surgery.


The other is a not at all sympathetic shot at theistic Satanists who think they’re going to find some kind of personal reward by embracing selfishness and worshiping a literal supernatural figure. I don’t believe in the Devil or devils any more than I believe in gods, unicorns or orcs.

What all of these stories do is draw a bright line between my sympathies for the literary depictions of the devil as a symbol of personal autonomy and freedom, and my contempt for people who take advantage of others for their own pleasure or profit. I hope you like them.

The Woods Have Been Waiting

NEXT STOP: The City of Children

1 That is an old person word meaning not “hep” or “with it.” You’re welcome.

Thirteen Days to the Suicide Woods: Day 3 — The Texas Chainsaw Breakfast Club or I Don’t Like Mondays

•03/03/2017 • Leave a Comment

Several years ago, a friend asked if I’d be interested in writing a story for the new issue of the genre lit magazine he was editing.1 The issue was meant to be ’80s horror themed, and while I’m not a big fan of ’80s nostalgia, I said yes because it sounded like fun. I was stumped though. When I was a teenager, I enjoyed the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises along with all the others like them. But as an adult, they haven’t aged as well for me as have the movies from my favorite period of film-making, the ’70s. I’m much more into a Shivers, Last House on the Left aesthetic than I am a Chucky or Freddy Krueger kind of guy. When I did finally alight on an idea related the ’80s, it was one I thought hadn’t been deconstructed by a horror scalpel before: The Breakfast Club.

There’s a very sinister undercurrent running beneath the surface of The Breakfast Club which is visually hinted at early in the movie and pays off toward the end.

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This bit of graffiti doesn’t seem like much, when shown in the first moments of the film. It appears for only a second or two in a quick cut establishing the scene at the empty high school where the kids are going to be serving their detention. If you’re a fan of the Boomtown Rats, maybe it makes you think of the song. And maybe if you’re a big fan of that band, you know where they got the song title from. When I see this, the quotes around it make it feel like less than a lyric than someone trying to say something thematic, like an epigraph at the beginning of a book.

The line itself was spoken by Brenda Spencer. On January 29th, 1979, Spencer used a rifle her father had given her to kill two adults and wound eight kids at the elementary school across the street from her house in California. When police finally arrested her after a standoff they asked her why she did it; she declared, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”

Take this image at the beginning of the film and couple it with Anthony Michael Hall’s confession why he is in detention, despite being a “parent’s wet dream,” and I think there’s at least one very sinister subtext in the film which is, sometimes school is a place kids don’t survive.

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And that’s the thing, there’s a survival horror vibe to TBC. Though they are dancing and trashing the card catalog and getting high, the guidance counselor is a force of doom, stalking them. He’s the threat keeping them captive, and if any of their small rebellions are discovered, he’s promised to end their futures. But he’s not alone as a source of threatening. All the adults either appearing in or spoken of in the film, provide the key to the detention kids’ dread. Expressed in the language of children, the nerd’s parents are going to kill him for getting an F, the jock’s parents are going to kill him if he doesn’t win the wrestling meet, the burn out’s dad might literally kill him one day, and the princess’s parents’ indifference is presently killing her too. Like the guidance counselor, it’s the parents’ very existence that guarantees their children’s doom, because the kids can see what they’ll become if they survive their youth.

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And the end is even darker, because, while all the kids have had a personal revelation, none of them have changed their circumstances. In the movie, the basket case literally has to nullify everything unique about herself and pretend to conform to a conventional standard before the jock will recognize her as a person. The princess and the basket case are never going to be best friends, because of the judgmental clique that holds them both emotionally bound. The nerd is pressed into service by them all to satisfy the force of adulthood keeping them captive (and he still has an F), and the burn out, though he got to kiss the princess, still has to go home to the man who puts cigarettes out on his skin and beats him.
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It’s a very dark film… with a lot of laughs. So I tried to write my homage that way. Very dark, with some laughs. But to be honest, I think my story ends with much more hope than John Hughes’ does. His kids walk away from their monster, knowing it still has power and that they must return to its lair when the weekend is over.

Is it any wonder they hate Mondays?

The Woods Have Been Waiting

NEXT STOP: Sympathy for the Devil

 

 

His magazine ended up folding and the story didn’t get published until a couple years later when it was rescued in a very wonderful way by Jack Bantry over at Splatterpunk Zine.  If you’re not reading Splatterpunk, you need to be!

Thirteen Days to the Suicide Woods: Day 2 — Endings and Beginnings

•02/03/2017 • 1 Comment

I listen to music when I write. I try to match the tempo and rhythm  of an album to what’s taking place on the page. Every once in a while, a single song hits just right and it becomes the soundtrack for an entire story. That’s not too annoying for my spouse when the song is an epic half hour track like Swallow the Sun’s, Plague of Butterflies (which was much of the driving force behind my first novel, Mountain Home). When it’s a three minute song that I have on repeat for two hours while I work on a scene, it can get kind of annoying for anyone living outside of my head. (It’s a good thing that I mostly work while she’s out of the house in the lab.)

Every once in a very long while, a song doesn’t just provide the soundtrack for a scene; it inspires an entire story. And in the case of the final story in 13 Views of the Suicide Woods, the title as well. But first, a little backstory.

Back in 2007, Jwyanza Hobson and Afzaal Deen from the band Crisis, Dan Kaufman from Mindrot, and Nicky Bernardi from Eyes of Fire formed a post-metal/shoegaze group called The Angels Whispered Danger. They premiered the demos of two improvised songs on their MySpace page (remember MySpace?) before the band went their separate ways. They never released any more music as The Angels Whispered Danger, and those two songs were never officially released (though for a short while you could download them from MySpace—which I did). They went into regular rotation on my mp3 player.

 

 

Flash forward to the summer of 2011. My first and only child had been born a few months earlier and I was swimming in a sleep deprived cocktail of elation, fear, and hopefulness about his future and ours. One day, while he was napping (the time I had to write), I sat down to work on a story and queued up The Angels Whispered Danger demos. The second song, Khatam, hit me in just the right place at that moment. I remembered reading in an interview with Afzaal Deen that “Khatam” is an Urdu word that means “the end.” And while I was wrestling with the raw emotions of new fatherhood, a story about the intersection of beginnings and endings occurred to me. I put the song on repeat and wrote the first draft in a single naptime. It ended up being the second story I ever sold.

A few years later, I wrote the first story in the collection, Still Day: An Ending, as a companion piece of sorts. It was originally the prologue to a crime novel, but I realized (with the help of a good friend), that it worked better as a stand alone piece. It’s a vignette about the intersection of beginnings and endings, like Khatam, but where that story eventually becomes a frantic piece framed by fire, Still Day ended up being quieter and set in the water. Though I didn’t write Still Day to a song by The Angels Whispered Danger (it was written to Right Where It Belongs by Nine Inch Nails), the two stories are linked in my mind and go together as bookends for the seventeen other stories in between them.

The Woods Have Been Waiting

NEXT STOP: The Texas Chainsaw Breakfast Club