Wednesday, April 25, 2012

“Hell in a Motel”: A Review of Michelle Bowser’s Don’t Yell at the Damn Desk Clerk!

(Amazon Kindle [for PC, Mac, or smartphone with free downloadable app]. .99 cents) By Joey Madia I have long been fascinated by the genre-bending practice of fictionalizing one’s life experiences to turn them into “literature.” If we concede that ALL autobiography is to some degree fiction, as the human memory is dreadfully unreliable when it comes to the unfolding of events (we each cling to and exaggerate the details that meld best with our personality and values while downplaying or disregarding those that don’t) then this seems like a fair and useful practice in creative writing. In my writing classes, especially with middle school students, an exercise I find very useful is to have them write down in six to eight sentences something mundane that happened to them on a recent day. We then start to exaggerate two different elements, choosing from the Place, the People, and the Event (creating problems where there were none). I always have them keep one element the same throughout the exercise to keep the revised/exaggerated piece rooted solidly to the original. The end result is often wild and outlandish stories that get a few laughs and beautifully illustrate that the Exaggeration is really what makes any piece of creative writing work. According to the late, great comedian George Carlin, Exaggeration is the foundation of the funny little story we call a “joke.” Michelle Bowser’s Don’t Yell at the Damn Desk Clerk! makes excellent use of the Exaggeration, mostly through the characters, but also through the events (the place in this case stays the same)—the problems are never mundane and easily solved; they grow in complexity, yielding plenty of laughs and an elevator-load of sympathy for the poor night-shift clerk at an unnamed local motel. Yes—the night shift! We’ve all heard stories from our friends and relatives who have worked the graveyard shift at gas stations, Wal-Marts, and factories across this weird and wacky land of ours. This is the time when all the kooky dudes and wacky weirdos come out of their caves to shop and mingle. And if you’ve ever spent any time wandering the grounds in the middle of the night at a small-town motel, you know what a rich Petrie dish of characters and happenstances they yield (I’ve fictionalized and incorporated my own experiences as a traveler in one of my books). Split into ten chapters (strung together by a cumulative list of 17 sub-jobs that the narrator does as part of her main job as desk clerk), Don’t Yell at the Damn Desk Clerk! takes the reader on a funny, and often biting, tour of the world of the weirdo traveler and the troubles that come with trying to keep the vending machines, AC, and laundry machines all working while cranky curmudgeons crowd your desk with all their (mostly petty) problems. Through the course of the book we meet over-eager Black Friday shoppers, the rabble-rousing rednecks that represent opening day of Hunting Season, and nefarious co-workers and inept and penny-pinching management. There’s also a secret rendezvous gone wrong and, perhaps the stars of this Silver, Gold and Platinum motel saga—the Rip-Off kid and his grandma. Oh yes. And the crazy, rainbow spirit-dog, positive, Reservation Lady. And “zombies.” I think you get the idea. There were many times while reading Don’t Yell at the Damn Desk Clerk! that I laughed out loud. Bowser has an edgy, sarcastic sense of humor and a lively writing style that makes for quick and enjoyable reading. If you’re like most everyone else and have ever had a crappy job, this is a book for you. And if you haven’t, you’re probably one of the lousy-mooded travelers on which this book is based.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Monsters of West Virginia: Mysterious Creatures in the Mountain State by Rosemary Ellen Guiley

(2021, Stackpole Books,, $12.95, ISBN: 978-0-8117-1028-2)
[Disclaimer: The final chapter of this book, “The Enchanted Holler,” details many of the paranormal experiences my family has had on our 3 acres in north central West Virginia. I will not be discussing this chapter in this review and I do not believe that this precludes me from making a fair judgment about the rest of the book. JM]
There is an illustration going around Facebook recently that lists the qualifications of a Paranormal Researcher in the past as compared to now. As one can imagine, in this age of ready (but often questionable) Internet “data” and a glut of paranormal shows on cable television, anyone with a camcorder, an EMF meter (which a 10-year-old friend of my daughter’s recently got as a Christmas present), and some curiosity, what passes as a Researcher/Investigator is nowhere near as rigorous as it used to be.
True professionals do the leg work—literally—traipsing the natural landscapes and man-made locations where sightings are reported to have happened and spending countless hours in libraries and archives reading past accounts and, even better, interviewing witnesses.
True professionals in the field of Paranormal Research must do many things well: they must understand basic scientific principles, which can account for phenomena otherwise mistaken to be “paranormal”; they must be historians, anthropologists, and sociologists; they must also be adept at the skills of the writer and storyteller.
Most of all, they must be willing to be disappointed, or to not hold expectations that their forays into the field will bear tangible fruit.
Based on all of these criteria, I can highly recommend any of the previous 50 books written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley, and this new one is no exception. Why? Because I have been fortunate enough to be in the field with her on numerous occasions and to have read many of her books, and she meets all of the above criteria to an impressive degree.
In Monsters of West Virginia, Guiley investigates a wide array of Mountain State creatures and entities, from the two most famous—Mothman and the Braxton County (or Flatwoods) Monster—to some lesser known, but no less interesting, local legends.
In the five years that I have lived in West Virginia, my work has taken me to a majority of the places that Guiley chose to write about, and her feel for each locale is right on the money.
The 12 chapters covering each exotic entity are a balanced mix of field work, and firsthand and published accounts, and Guiley has a knack for not poking fun or pushing any one explanation or thesis too hard; this elevates her above many of her peers in this area of study, and is a main reason why I tend to use her books over others for my own research. In the rare cases, such as in the chapter “The Yayho: West Virginia’s Bigfoot,” where she favors one position over another (i.e., that Bigfoot and other creatures of its ilk are multidimensional beings and not from this planet) she enlists the help of other world-renowned researchers such as Nick Redfern.
In addition to the monsters already mentioned, there are excellent chapters on “Monster Birds, Thunderbirds, and Flying Reptiles,” “The Grafton Monster,” and “White Things and Sheepsquatch,” among half a dozen others.
Although particularly appealing to those interested in the Appalachian culture, chock full as it is of paranormal and folk stories, Monsters of West Virginia is fun, light reading for anyone interested in the myriad monsters that have roamed (and are roaming still) our world—and, perhaps, beyond.