Raymond van der Holt pondered the catalog. Would a seven-candle chandelier bring the front room into balance? The twelve-candle model that came with the house was excessive. He’d been thinking of downsizing for months and the Restoration Hardware sale had come to the rescue. Then again, if he could just wait it out, there was the discount weekend in December . . .
This was how Raymond had been spending the past five or six years. Pondering catalogs, being selective about what he wanted, and being even more selective about what he actually bought. He couldn’t spend as giddily as he used to—the royalties and movie options would dry up, and he’d be left with only his 1924 Craftsman house and the beautiful, pedigree-free objects within it. (He never antiqued—germs!)
At fifty-five, he kept himself smooth-skinned with a panoply of Kiehl’s ointments. He retained a full head of hair, which was a source of pride because his father had gone bald at thirty-nine, and he combed this silver nest before answering the door, no matter who rang, mailman or Jehovah’s Witness. He was not vain, per se; he just had an old-fashioned sense of decorum, and he liked what he liked: grownupness. During times of distress, he perked himself up by channeling Cary Grant gliding down the stairs with a highball. There was an original Batchelder-tile fireplace in his living room, muted and mellow with rabbits and pinecones. Gazing at it also calmed him, but Cary Grant had better dimples.
Many years ago, as a Midwestern man of twenty-seven, he’d churned out a grisly trio of novels, the Deathwatch cycle. Within two years, all three had become international bestsellers. By the time he was thirty, he’d been anointed a savant on both sides of the Atlantic, not to mention Japan, where his most ardent (and terrifying) fans lived.
His subjects were grave robbers, necromancers, zombies and—his favorite—vampires. Part of his success lay in his resistance to the term “horror” and his refusal to play the schlock-meister; he preferred that reviewers and fans alike refer to his works as “blood epics.” He found it gratifying, for example, when the New York Times described his books as “chilling chronicles of necromania,” tying him more to Lovecraft and Poe than to Stephen King. Although his characters were fantastical, he steeped his tales in truthful emotions—real wants and real fears, the other components of his winning formula. His zombie stories were allegories of xenophobia and race hate, and his vampire saga contained his own anxieties about aging. He never had mummies leaping out of the wardrobe just to say boo.
After a successful run of ten books, Raymond decided he had nothing more to say. It became tiresome to keep up with shifting expectations. Worse, he found himself too frequently invited to soirees with other practitioners of the genre. It wasn’t the competition he dreaded, it was the homework. Having to thumb through multivolume sagas so there’d be something to discuss—writers of this type were notoriously solipsistic and couldn’t handle conversation outside of their own invented realms. Anyway, their stories were never as vigorous and heartfelt as his, and there were few things more unbearable than an insincere werewolf epic.
Then, there were the fans. The disturbing ones, who sent him dead animals and decomposed body parts, lived in Japan, and he found them easy enough to ignore. But his target audience, the people for whom he started writing his books in the first place, were nowhere to be found.
In his naïveté, he’d hoped that his writing would draw in legions of tousle-haired, doe-eyed teenagers he could lure into his bed, ruby-lipped androgynes who wore Mom’s pantyhose late at night while listening to jazz or Terry Riley’s In C. Boys with faces like angels, and minds like devils. But instead, Raymond found—to his genuine horror—that the great majority of his readers were suburban housewives. These denim-wrapped females formed book clubs and organized role-playing weekends around his books; they invited him to inaugurate picnics and autograph raffle tickets. They squealed freely at his book signings, and too frequently, the chubby ones came dressed as sirens from his zombie cycle. He shuddered thinking about the way they bumbled around, jibberingly exchanging homemade business cards and Wiccan greetings. Whenever he read at a Barnes & Noble in the suburbs, he smelled the strip mall tacos on their breath.
Male children didn’t read books anymore. It broke his heart to see in the news how children now went on the Internet to broker friendships with strange, older men. He believed in Headloin Love, massive acts of spontaneity propelled by a lightness in the head and a fire in the groin. Being in the moment, being in the flesh. How he missed the boys who’d cover his face in kisses when he brought them ice cream and silk dresses. Modern boys wanted cold, hard cash—or gift cards from Blockbuster or Best Buy. He recoiled at their bluntness, their unabashed declarations that “I’m in it for this, I’m not really a fag.” The boys he loved best from the old days never had the time for grotesque words; they kept their heads down and their knees bent.
Dismayed, he channeled his energies into his house. Moving west from New York in the mid-nineties, Raymond had been in search of his own castle. But with new Hollywood money eating up most of old Los Angeles housing, he never managed to find a compound that was comfortable enough, stylish enough, yet affordable enough. Finally, his realtor sold him on the Craftsman aesthetic, a harmonious beam-exposing, grain-deifying style that was popularized at the turn of the twentieth century by a Wisconsin builder named Gustav Stickley. Classic Craftsman houses were chockablock in Alta Vista, a foothill area as yet undiscovered by the media throng; Raymond was instantly seduced by their shaded porches, shingled roofs and aw-shucks charm. He bought one on Santa Claus Lane, in cash.
Even though his own research told him that Stickley’s prototypes were one-story, one-bathroom models of economy, his realtor insisted that his sprawling, two-story purchase was the only authentic Craftsman on the street. The others, she said, were copycat kit houses from the Sears, Roebuck catalog, pretty but nonetheless nailed together like log cabins.
His was a beautiful house whatever the vintage, and he liked having a space he had to live up to. It was rustic yet regal, hanging back from the street like a diffident suitor. He hoped against hope that a slight boy with bee-stung lips and opalescent eyes, drawn to the amber glow of his mica-shade lamps, would someday prance up his porch, asking to borrow a cup of confectioner’s sugar.
That was the kind of visitor he waited for, not the bedraggled Korean neighbor who was currently waddling toward his door, Lord knows why.
He watched her from his picture window, hoping she’d change her mind and turn back. She was teary-eyed, clutching a bundle of paper. Probably some kind of a petition. Oh, shoo! When she stepped onto his porch with the dull, flat-footed thupps familiar from Jehovah’s Witness church marms, he sighed, got up, and combed his hair in the mirror.
“Hello, dear,” he said, at the door. “And what can I do for you?”
She refused to look him in the eye, possibly still raw from their encounter two years prior when he refused to retrieve her girls’ shuttlecocks from his roof.
“Hello,” said the Korean woman. “My husband, he say you writer. Yes?”
“Yes,” said Raymond. He counted seven plastic barrettes in her hair.
“You write book. Yes?”
“Yes. I wrote a few books.”
“Can you help me?”
“What, dear, would you like me to do?”
She paused and organized her thoughts. Then, casting aside fears about her lack of grammar or diction, she shoved the bundle of papers into his hands.
“Please. This my husband book. He write this. Please read. Finish read, please, you tell me if good or if bad . . . okay?”
Raymond glanced at the papers, smiling wryly at the letterhead: All-Friends Worship. The word Viagra on one of the pages leapt out at him. Hah.
“When do you need these back, dear?”
She flinched, stunned that he’d taken so little convincing. A smile of relief burst across her lips: “When you finish.”
She nodded her thanks and backed off his porch, bowing painfully low.
“I see you later,” she said. “Okay?”
“Okay.” He watched her scurry back toward her house, then remembered something. “Oh, wait, Mrs. Kim!”
She stopped and turned. “My name is Mrs. Park.”
“Mrs. Park . . . I’ve been meaning to ask you. You know that music that comes on at four o’clock every day? Does that”—he paused to find the least aggressive words—“bother you? It’s not from your house, is it?”
She seemed genuinely startled that someone would have thought that. “No, no!”
“I thought not,” he smiled, waving her goodbye. “I didn’t think it was . . . demographically probable.”