Allison here: I thought I’d be able to blog last week from RT … no such luck! I worked on revisions, had panels, and also lots of fun. I’ll wrap up some interesting tidbits here on Thursday … Until then, please welcome MSW Guest Blogger John Clement!
Before she passed away in 2011, my mother, Blaize Clement, asked me to take over her series of mysteries about a sleuthing pet-sitter named Dixie Hemingway. Dixie has an uncanny ability to understand the thoughts and needs of her animal clients, a talent rivaled only by her propensity for discovering dead bodies on a regular basis. Writing about the dark underbelly of fear has been an eye-opening journey for me, equal parts amazing and surreal, especially considering what a lightweight I am when it comes to murder and mayhem. (I’m one of those people who hide their faces in the movie theater during the scary bits.) But this week will be exactly three years since my mother gently nudged me into the world of suspense and mystery, so it’s got me thinking about my first exposure to the thrill of the Thriller…
It was August.
My parents had been divorced for two years, and I was spending the summer in the small Texas town where my father had moved with his new wife and her two teenage sons. I don’t remember there being any adults involved, or a thoughtful debate about what movie we were seeing, or whether I was too young. Frankly, I don’t even remember watching the movie at all.
1971 was a good year for movies. It gave us more than a few classics. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry, Harold & Maude, Klute, Fiddler on the Roof, Shaft, The French Connection, and Woody Allen’s Bananas — all in one year. There were others of course, perhaps not so classic, like Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster; Duck, You Sucker; and finally, a precursor to the blaxploitation genre,Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. But none of them could possibly have had a more enduring impact on me, a meek, socially awkward young man living alone with his mother, than the movie my two step-brothers took me to see that day. The movie was Willard, based on a little-known novella by Stephen Gilbert called Ratman’s Diaries, about a meek, socially awkward young man living alone with his mother.
Nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Movie that year, Willard tells the story of a lonely misfit who discovers he has an unusual gift: He can communicate with rats. He befriends a few, the favorite of which he names Socrates, and after his mother passes away, the rats move in to the house and bring all their rat friends with them. Soon, there are hundreds at his beck and call. Everything’s more or less fine until Willard’s antagonistic boss (played by Ernest Borgnine) bludgeons poor Socrates to death (which people sometimes do to rats). Willard flies into a fit of fury and commands his long-tailed army to exact revenge.
The resulting murder is so gruesome that even Willard is unnerved. Thoroughly chastened and horrified, he races home and drowns as many rats as he can get his hands on, then seals up the house so the rest can’t get back inside, but of course he’s doomed. The rats, enraged by Willard’s betrayal, chew their way into the attic where Willard has locked himself. The movie ends with a slowly zooming close-up of one of the rats’ menacing faces as Willard is eaten alive by the bewhiskered monster of his own making.
Did I mention I was nine years old in 1971?
I’m sure if my mother had been on the scene, I wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near that theater. I lived a very protected life. At the time, I was making my way through every issue of Little Dot, a comic book about a girl who’s obsessed with dots, spots and round colorful objects. My favorite TV show was Mister Rogers Neighborhood (seriously). I’m pretty sure my favorite song was Puff the Magic Dragon. In other words, I was in no way prepared for creepy Willard and his marauding band of sharp-toothed, higher-order thinking rodents.
Which, I think, is why I don’t remember much of the actual experience of watching Willard, although I do vividly remember emerging from the dark theater into the blinding afternoon sunlight, tagging along behind my older step-brothers as we made our way back home, profoundly aware that something monumental had just occurred.
John Clement is the author of The Cat Sitter’s Cradle, the eighth book in the Dixie Hemingway Mysteries. The Cat Sitter’s Nine Lives will be out this July. He lives in New York City where he’s currently working on the next book in the series and fast-forwarding through the scary parts. For news about the next book, join the Dixie Hemingway Mailing List at www. DixieHemingway.com or keep in touch on Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook.
What movie most impacted you when you were a child, something that you were perhaps too young to see? Join the discussion for a chance to win a copy of The Cat Sitter’s Nine Lives available in July!