Reading Graveyard Love, I'm reminded of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. William Holden as Joe Gillis typing away for the vanity and delusions of a demented old hag named Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson. Remember how his work environment decayed into an endless abyss of her crumbling memories, broken-down expectations, and finally led to good old-fashioned murder? Well, in Scott Adlerberg’s latest, a young man named Kurt is even more shackled to a woman—in this case his mother.
She wants her son, a struggling writer, to compose her memoir, which he reluctantly does. Kurt has had some success writing a piece for The New Yorker about his late father, and Kurt assumes his mother—who was always competitive with her deceased spouse—wants to top the magazine article with a novel of her own exploits.
Not exactly a healthy relationship to begin with.
Then, their working and living arrangements become even tenser when she nit-picks about the way he's recording her recollections. On one occasion, he shuts her demands down by quacking like a duck! One can only imagine the emotional drain it would be for a son to have to document his mother's entire life, including candid sexual history—she eerily instructs, “You’ve got to convey that my body was hot for him.”
In Sunset Boulevard, Joe Gillis is given a reprieve when he attends a New Year's Eve party with friends to loosen up a bit. If only Kurt had those available avenues. Well, he does frequent bars and endulge in the occasional one-night stand, but his preferred method of escape from his living hell is a cemetery that borders the family property—watching a mysterious, red-haired woman who makes repeated trips to enter a vault.
From the shadows, following this enigmatic woman, he soon gets up the nerve to enter the tomb while she’s in the rear chamber. At first, he assumes the noises he hears beyond a closed door are sobbing, but it’s soon identified to be more erotic in nature. After the woman departs, he investigates the inscription on the sarcophagus: June Hazzard, who died in 2011 at age 41. Instead of being alarmed by such unusual behavior, he finds himself aroused by the proceedings and disturbingly, for us the reader, “entertains” himself.
His stalking then doubles down, following the woman to a tavern where he hears from the bartender that her name is Catherine Embers—she’s a regular that doesn't mix very well with others and refuses all drinks she doesn't purchase herself. Later, he witnesses her kissing a young man before entering a theater. Kurt comes a little more unhinged:
… whoever he was, running his hand through her hair. Letting that red hair play through his fingers, teasing the luscious strands. Just to think of all this pissed me off mightily, and I'd been planning to enjoy my night.
Adlerberg’s storytelling is reminiscent of Julio Cortázar conjuring up the befuddled photographer in “Blow Up” (1959) or Vladimir Nabokov’s unhinged chocolate factory worker, who erroneously believes he’s found his doppelganger, in Despair (1934). Both represent unreliable narration from a first-person psychotic point of view—doing their best to convince us they are 100% sane.
Kurt is no different, telling us how he’s poles apart from other such obsessive stalkers, but the more he makes a case for clear rationality, the more it’s obvious he’s just plain nuts. In one of the most revealing passages, concerning his family’s past, he explains that his lawyer father had been the recipient of an unwanted pursuer himself, a woman who ultimately murdered him (the “I won’t be ignored” line seems a little too Fatal Attraction). Kurt tries to justify his own actions against those of that unhealthier variety:
So, yes, I stalked Catherine Embers. And I did feel like I’d gone beyond spying, beyond my stakeouts in the graveyard. Tracking her movements violated decency to an appalling extent. But I did my stalking invisibly. I never menaced her, sent her letters, dialed her number and hung up the phone, or called to utter obscenities.
It’s always bold to present a story in this fashion—eavesdropping on the inner workings of somebody’s mental deterioration. First time English readers to the above-mentioned “Blow-up” may have thought they had obtained a poor translation, as Cortázar reveals his protagonist’s mind in a jumbled, distorted clutter—a clearing of the cobwebs commences on the page right before our eyes. Nabokov composes entire passages in Despair only to have his character backtrack, confessing that he had made it all up.
Adlerberg’s method is quieter, but nonetheless comparable to those approaches: psychological realism as we are privy to Kurt’s gears turning, contemplating how to approach Catherine—assure himself again and again that he’s not creepy; kill the man in his wannabe girlfriend’s life; and hopefully, do away with dear old mother at the same time. When Catherine’s boyfriend—who we find out is named Ralph Soames—begins stalking Catherine as well, Kurt chides:
He thinks there’s somebody else, I thought. That she’s seeing somebody.
So happens she is – a dead person.
Hard to compete with the dead, huh, Soames? A dead woman, no less?
What do you do? Want me to tell you what to do?
Get in line, mister. Get in line.
There’s much to admire in Scott Adlerberg’s Graveyard Love, from the narcissistic, manipulative mother to the hypnotic and adolescent immaturity Kurt lavishes on Catherine. The author is obviously no stranger to mood-setting devices (the cemetery, telescope, femme fatale), and he nicely avoids any of these from falling into cliché, developing instead, a sound structural base all his own.
Oh, and that ending! A bookend of horrifying excellence that exists as a kind of homage of sorts to Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Downside? I would have enjoyed a little more background on a few of the supporting characters, but I’m quibbling unnecessarily here. Yeah, I just wanted to stay on Kurt’s crazy train just a little bit further down the track.
David Cranmer aka Edward A. Grainger is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP books http://www.beattoapulp.com/ and writer of the forthcoming The Drifter Detective #7: Torn and Frayed. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.