Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Girl Buried Beneath the Pine Trees

Robert Ellis
In the past I've written about some of the experiences I've had that may have contributed to the writer I'm still learning to become, particularly a writer working in crime fiction. One of the kicks to writing THE DEAD ROOM is the novel's setting in Philadelphia and the suburbs about fifteen miles out from Center City. This was where I grew up. In the novel, a young civil attorney, Teddy Mack, is forced by his boss to represent a man who may have committed multiple murders. Because Teddy is essentially broke, he still lives with his mother. In one chapter, Teddy stands at the end of the driveway gazing at the falling snow and the garish development of oversized houses across the street. It's the dead of night and he can remember a time, just as I can remember a time, when open fields and country roads snaked through the rolling hills all the way to the horizon.

One day when I was a young boy a rumor began circulating among my friends. Apparently, a girl's body had been found in a shallow grave beneath a small grove of pine trees. The gravesite was on a lonely road a mile or so from my house. The man who found the girl's body had been collecting pine cones with his dog. The dog caught a scent in the earth, became excited and started digging. I have no facts on this murder. I was way too young, eleven or twelve. But in my mind I can still see the girl's hair strewn through the soil. For whatever reason, I see long reddish brown hair. I can see it as if I was there.

Later that night I spoke with my parents and learned that the rumors were in fact true. A girl had been murdered and buried under the trees. A teenage girl, I believe. The news had an incredibly heavy impact on me, and I remember becoming terrified. The road where the dead girl had been found ran between two grass fields with no signs of barns or other homes for a good half mile. Worse, I traveled on that road every day. I rode my bicycle everywhere, and the only way to get to my friend's house was to ride past that grove of pine trees. My mother drove on that road everyday as well because that was the only way to get to the post office.

I can't tell you what it was like to ride past the crime scene and look beneath those trees with big, wide open eyes. The things that I made up in my head, seeing it all happen from a boy's imagination, the fear and panic that the world wasn't the safe place I had always thought it to be. Worse, there was a sexual component to the crime, or at least to my memory of the crime. My guess is now that she had been raped. At the time, the sexual implications were too deep for a boy my age to fully comprehend. All they seemed to do was make the crime more mysterious and more horrific.

It took me almost a year before I finally hit the brakes on my bicycle, lifted the tree branches, and went in for a look. I can remember being alone, my hands shaking, my heart beating. I can remember the shock I took when I noticed that the form of the shallow grave was still there. Still undisturbed. Images of the girl's hair radiating through the soil hit me again. I couldn't see her face, or the face of the killer. But I could feel the killer's madness, his sickness, just as I could feel the girl's last moments, the fear and terror she must have gone through. I could feel it in the air and all around me. The darkness lingering beneath the pine trees on this lonely road.

It was late afternoon and the sun was going down. My bike ride home was on the fast side. I didn't feel much like eating dinner that night, and went up to my room. I was too old to believe in ghosts, and yet, when the lights went out, there they were, hovering over my bed and keeping me from my sleep. I couldn't wait for dawn.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Tough Guys

Robert Ellis

I can remember sitting in a movie theater in Universal City waiting for what seemed like twenty minutes worth of film trailers to end so that the film I'd come to see might finally begin. The barrage of ads appeared endless. And then a trailer for a new movie called DIE HARD hit the screen. Everyone in the audience started laughing and booing and throwing popcorn. The movie starred Bruce Willis, an actor who was known for playing a smooth Beverly Hills PI alongside Cybill Shepherd in a popular TV series called MOONLIGHTING. People had forgotten that Willis made his debut on TV as Tony Amato, a ruthless drug dealer on MIAMI VICE. It seemed pretty clear that the light and cozy, too cute for comfort MOONLIGHTING, had poisoned the well.

Bruce Willis' remarkable performance in DIE HARD
But then, much like the detonation of a nuclear weapon, DIE HARD  was released nationwide. Before you could probably say, "I saw the moo- ," everything in the world of film and storytelling changed forever. First and foremost, the screenplay was absolutely perfect. Based on Roderick Thorp's novel NOTHING LASTS FOREVER, and scripted by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, we're talking about a written work so exciting that others would try to mimic and rip it off for the next twenty years. (It should be noted that no one ever succeeded.) Just as crucial, the film, directed by John McTiernan and produced by Joel Silver, was perfectly cast. Every single role in the entire film was exactly as it needed to be. Within the first half hour of the film, any memory of Bruce Willis on MOONLIGHTING had burned up in the nuclear fireball. Bruce Willis as NYPD Officer John McClane would be a guy who could take the toughest challenges, the hardest blows, and still carry the full set of human emotions that have made Willis, the actor, so watchable for so many years. Curiously, his opponent in the film is just as tough and just as human. Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber was so much more than just a bad guy. Somehow he made evil delicious, even elegant, yet I couldn't wait to see him die!  (The harder, the better.)
Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in DIE HARD

And that's the reason why I'm writing this post. So many writers today, no matter what the format, prefer to draw their characters in black and white. So many writers today work with caricatures, exaggerating their personalities and skills, their emotions and minds to the point where both the story and the character lose their meaning and become irrelevant.

Perhaps this is the reason why so many viewers have switched from network television and films on the big screen to series produced and broadcast on cable TV and now as streams over the Internet.