October 6, 2019 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
When I was in high school, there was a newly-instituted program where a small number of students could, in lieu of an AP class, take a class at a local college. To be honest, most of my classes bored me, so I jumped at the chance to spend less time at my high school. No, I don’t go to reunions.
One of the many high school classes I skipped out on was literature my senior year. While my classmates were reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and a bunch of Shakespeare, I was reading the Norton anthology and Goodbye Columbus. Oddly enough “English lit 100” wasn’t quite as rigorous as High School AP English. One of the stories in that Norton book which I read that really struck a cord with me at the time was – “The Greasy Lake” by T. Coraghessan Boyle (read it here).
Nutshell summary – a trio of poseur “toughs” try to raise hell in their small town (all the while firmly entrenched in the benefits of their upper-Middle Class families) end up one night at the usual hang-out spot, the titular “Greasy Lake”. They mistakenly start a fight with a stranger in parked car. After knocking him out (and possibly killing him) with a tire-iron, the trio assault and nearly rape the man’s girlfriend, until they’re interrupted by the arrival of car belonging to the other man and woman’s friends. The trio then flee from the new arrivals; the narrator taking refuge in the scummy waters of Greasy Lake itself. He stumbles across a several-days-old corpse putrescening in the water. Eventually the man from the car – he survived the tire iron thumping – his companion and their late-arriving associates depart, but not before battering the trio’s car. The three of them regroup around dawn whereupon they run into a pair of young women who seem to be looking for the dead man (and apparently their drug dealer). Perhaps having learned something (that’s not guaranteed), they reject the girls’ offer to “party” and depart Greasy Lake.
I know that the story is not horror exactly (and I am certain a summary of the plot does not do it justice), but I thought I’d include it here for a couple reasons. First off, while it is not a horror story, per se, it is a story about evil in a way, the sort of banal evil that is born of boredom and adolescent posturing. The trio at the heart of the story are all playing at being dangerous and tough – so much so that the narrator keeps a tire iron under his front seat “because bad characters always keep tire irons under the driver’s seat” – but transition with terrifying ease from acting at “bad” to becoming murderers and rapists (and a court of law would easily convict them of attempted murder and attempted rape, so the difference here is not so nearly great at the narrator imagined).
As a posturing adolescent when I read the story for the first time (I wasn’t playing at bad so much as I was playing at being a “cool college student who was well read and clever and definitely didn’t have a panic attack at the prospect of talking to a girl he liked and definitely had a kissed a lot girls who would all definitely affirm his skill in the art, etc etc.”) and recognized the impulse behind the faux-“badness” of the central characters if, hopefully, not their ready transformation from acting “bad” to actually being bad. While I had never been to Greasy Lake, I’d been to its flat midwestern cousins – sprawling, half-built shopping plazas, old quarries and gravel pits, houses where parents were never around. My friend didn’t carry a tire-iron under his driver’s seat (I didn’t have my license), he carried some cheap nunchucks and a very realistic looking cap gun in the glove-box. I saw in the story something of myself and my life and it both excited me – sorry Tale of Two Cities, I didn’t see myself in you – and revolted me. Could I stumble my way into cruelty and depravity out of boredom? Could my friends?
Secondly, while it was not a horror story, per se, it could easily have been one. The lake had once been so clean the Native Americans named it for its purity. Greasy Lake was a modern name, a symbol of how polluted and corrupt it was. What was this force of corruption? Why did no one live on it or even near it? It would not take much to give the story some occult overlay, and explain the place as having some malign supernatural presence or effect. The characters arrive, get into a near-fatal fight, assault a woman, flee for their lives, and in one case, find a dead body – this is not a typical night out for most people. Ultimately I did read it as a horror story, in a way, as the corruption and evil at Greasy Lake wasn’t some supernatural being forcing the narrator and his friends to do bad things, it was them who did them because they wanted other people to view them in a certain way. There was no devil or lloigor there to make them do it. It was evil freely chosen and that is horrifying.
Finally, while I’ve never been able to get into his novels (and damn I tried), I still love Boyle’s short stories. Check out the opening paragraph of Greasy Lake:
There was a time when courtesy and winning ways went out of style, when it was good to be bad, when you cultivated decadence like a taste. We were all dangerous characters then. We wore torn-up leather jackets, slouched around with toothpicks in our mouths, sniffed glue and ether and what somebody claimed was cocaine. When we wheeled our parents’ whining station wagons out onto the street we left a patch of rubber half a block long. We drank gin and grape juice, Tango, Thunderbird, and Bali Hai. We were nineteen. We were bad. We read André Gide and struck elaborate poses to show that we didn’t give a shit about anything. At night, we went up to Greasy Lake.
It pulls you in to a very particular state of mind and age. You know these terrible, tragically stupid young men in just a few sentences. It doesn’t condemn them so much as flag their idiocy and make clear how much of what they think is themselves is a toxic facade, which soon nearly proves fatal. They think they are “bad” but they’re just terrible. I love it.
Finally, I include this story as part of list because it likely was one of the major spurs to get me to start writing stories of my own – I’d tried a few times before, but my junior and senior years of high school were a time when I tried to write a novel and finished a few short stories. It was from fiction that my desire to write for RPGs solidified. Luckily for me in college all the English lit and creative writing classes were full so I remained a rather idiosyncratic writer whose stylings you hopefully enjoy.