Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Satanic Verses

An absorbing collection of mordant stories about goths, cybersex devotees, and believers in UFOs

By Katherine Guckenberger

AUGUST 2, 1999: 

My Date With Satan by Stacey Richter (Scribner), 223 pages, $22.

Though we have a tradition in this country of regarding youth culture as irresponsible and maybe even a bit dangerous, we seem to be living in outright fear of our own progeny these days. In fact, the irrational measures taken to prevent more tragedies like last spring's mass shooting in Littleton, Colorado, prove just how far off the deep end we've gone. Does anyone really think that banning trench coats in schools or cracking down on kids who sneak into R-rated movies will make a difference? Lawmakers aren't doing such a great job, either. Recently, the House voted to post the Ten Commandments in every public school, and just this month a handful of states decided to require kids who want piercings to get parental consent. (Of course, underage piercing will go on -- all a fearless youngster needs is a sharp needle and a cube of ice.)

Given the current atmosphere of paranoia, publication of Stacey Richter's first book, a collection of mordant and funny short stories, could not have come at a better time. Richter demystifies popular culture by poking fun at people who buy into the gothic lifestyle, look for love in cyberspace chatrooms, or believe in extraterrestrials. But rather than skewering her characters, Richter forces us to empathize with them, and by exposing their weaknesses she reminds us that behind every heavy-metal thrasher could lie a heart of gold.

Perhaps it's not surprising then that Richter's most hopelessly marginalized and misguided characters are also her most endearing. In "Goal 666," Gabriel (yes, like the archangel) -- the lead singer of the Lords of Sludge, a Swedish doom/classical goth band -- does his utmost to be a rage-filled devil worshipper. A former choirboy known in his own family as a sweetheart, Gabriel paints a pentagram in chicken blood on his doorstep and touts his "top-secret method of Satanic throat singing," a skill he cultivates by practicing with a Ping-Pong ball lodged in the back of his throat. Gabe admires the Swedish band members' "fierce hanks of hair falling in dirty curtains around their faces" and the lead guitarist's "mega-antisocial facial tattoos," but he's baffled by their impeccable table manners and their general cleanliness. Gabe works hard to convince himself and everyone else that he's dark through and through (the story is interspersed with his calls to arms -- "Corrupt the World/Spread the Metal!!!"), and he's horrified to think that the Swedes' "innocence" might corrupt his image. Sure enough, Gabe cracks, and in an unexpected turn of events begins to sing gleefully, like a boy in the shower: "It was as though all the loathing and resentment I'd been nursing at least since I was a sophomore in high school had burst like a soap bubble, had been popped and defused and dried out, and all that was left inside me was a lather of pure euphoria. I was so happy I thought I might melt."

Like Gabe, "PipiLngstck," the online handle of the narrator of the title story, "My Date with Satan," looks like someone to be avoided. Friendly but freaky, Pipi is subjected to snickers and threats because she dresses like Pippi Longstocking: "Maybe it was my unusual personal appearance -- the fact that I drew freckles on my cheeks with eyeliner or daubed teardrops under my eyes with mascara, or that my braids stick out at right angles from my head." Underneath her façade, however, Pipi turns out to be a quirky and strong-willed woman worth knowing.

"My Date with Satan" isn't the only story in this collection about a woman with certitude. In "An Island of Boyfriends," a materialistic co-ed washes up on an undiscovered island in the South Pacific, where she is saved by a band of sex-starved men she calls "boyfriends." After going through most of the men, however, the narrator finds she's dissatisfied. She moves into her own hut, where she can contemplate her situation and appreciate the virtues of solitude. "I'd like to discover what I want or who I am. . . . I want to find out why none of the boyfriends, or combination of boyfriends, has ever seemed right." The narrator's transformation, from dependent and self-absorbed to independent and philosophical, occurs in a surreal locale, but the point of the story transcends place and can be applied to young women everywhere.

Richter disguises themes in surreal stories throughout her book. In the cleverest, "Sally's Story," set in the 1970s, a family's greyhound finds fame when her sculptures are discovered by the art world. Beneath the surface of this unusual tale is a very basic message about equal rights. The family's mother, a career housewife, finds purpose in managing Sally's career, while the family's father, who refuses to recognize Sally's work as art and condemns his wife's involvement, is so blinded by pettiness and jealousy that he ends up leaving the family. In "Rules for Being Human," the ghost of a young man whose body was severed when he tried to jump a boxcar hangs out in a bar where other ghosts and living people drink side by side. The ghost regulars include: a pair of young women, "mashed in a car crash, pulpy but intact," wearing the "[s]ame shredded party dresses" in which they were killed; a husband carrying his wife's bullet in his heart; a bloated accountant who drank himself to death. The narrator himself is a mere leg -- his head, torso, and other leg were carried off by the train. Beneath the gruesome detail, the story is a moving one about longing and perspective: ghosts want to be close to the living who remind them of themselves -- "[n]ot the selves we had, not exactly, but the ones we wished for."

The most intriguing stories in My Date with Satan explore issues associated with fame. In "The Ocean," a has-been teen idol, Scott Hansen, chronicles his life story, from rich heartthrob to poverty-stricken alcoholic. When he was on top of the world, he was a greedy sex fanatic, sleeping with "an assortment of Bridgettes, Tamis, Kellys, Wandas, Tinas, Florences, Bibis, and Stephs." Years later, when his star began to fade, he slept with "a few Ellens, Barbis, Sukis, and Brads." Only a stalker named Cyndy, whom he remembers with the aid of hypnosis, stands out in his memory. In "A Groupie, a Rock Star," Connie, the former, and Eldon, the latter, react to the overdose of a young roadie, John, who is floating in Eldon's pool. Connie, who tries to fish John's body out with a croquet mallet, realizes that she identifies with him, and turns a critical eye on herself. This is the most serious story Richter tells, and it proves just how dangerous it is to be seduced by anything as artificial or ephemeral as fame. More important, however, it reveals Richter's thoughtfulness and maturity, proof that she's not just eccentric and entertaining, but is a writer of first-rate talent.

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Books: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics . Search

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . The Boston Phoenix . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch