Books

James Ellroy Takes Noir Quite Seriously in 'The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women'

James Ellroy paints penetrating portraits in the pulpiest prose!


The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women

Publisher: Vintage
Length: 224 pages
Author: James Ellroy
Price: $14.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2011-09
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When James Ellroy was ten years old, he summoned his mother dead; three months later, she was murdered. This story is told with merciless candor in Ellroy’s acclaimed 1996 memoir My Dark Places, which introduced the stunned guilt-ridden adolescent Ellroy, as well as the sex-obsessed younger adult Ellroy.

In the The Hilliker Curse, we mostly get the stunned, guilt-ridden, sex-obsessed late-middle-aged Ellroy. He’s just as self-lacerating and confessional, and yet also somehow more adolescent in his romantic sensibilities.

The hardcover version was released in 2010, but, given the author’s pulp-noir roots, the book seems more appropriate in paperback, preferably mass market over trade. The cover design is predictably pulpy: a voluptuously naked dame crisscrossed by crime scene tape emblazoned with the book’s title and subtitle, The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women. Those two phrases capture the book’s overriding structure. Though the subtitle hints at a Don Juan checklist, this is something much sadder: the effects of a mother’s murder on a writer’s writing, as well as all his subsequent behavior with women.

Though reiterated throughout, this theme is expressed in one very fine mid-paragraph prologue-like passage, in which two sentences pass like disconnected, discrete thoughts until the third line cements them: “My storytelling gifts are imperviously strong and rooted in the moment that I wished her dead and mandated her murder. Women give me the world and hold the world tenuously safe for me. I cannot go to Them to find Her much longer.”

Those capitalized pronouns form the crux. Through willful, worshipful acts of art and love, Ellroy hopes to emancipate himself from what he calls “The Curse”, a conflation of young James’s initial willing of his mother’s death, that death itself, and finally something much more definite and lasting: “It defines my life from my tenth birthday on.” “The Curse” is not just the impetus of this book then, but of all James Ellroy books, and thus what one may, and in fact the author does call, the Book.

This book is written not in the telegraphic minimalist style of his Underworld U.S.A. trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood’s A Rover), nor quite in the style of his L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz), nor even in the procedural-memoiristic tone of My Dark Places, but as a kind of over-driven contemplative confessional mixed with an alliterative gossip rag that is at times purposely tawdry: “It’s the Season of My Discombobulation. It’s winging into the Withering Winter of My Dipshit Discontent.”

Often the prose strays into what I can only think to call a penumbral style, a voice that lurks in the shadows of concretization: “My watcher’s lifetime ran nearly four decades. My debilitating hunger was vaulted and lockboxed. I believed that it had given me mastery and an endless ticket to ride. Unbodied sex had almost proved fatal. I had sought death to prove my love to a ghost. It was the unconscious courting of a reunion.”

There is a concatenation of clear-headed expository writing (“Her harshness was a defensive posture and a moment-to-moment stance to propel her through the prosaic tasks of the world.”) with something more indefinite, an interplay of hard sense and mystification: “She possessed significant human value and stood up to me. We were both intransigent and fearful. She was of me and therefore worthy of my obsessive attention. We were alternately brutally willful and sadsackish. Her intelligence was diffuse and unimpeded by conceit. My brainpower was didactic and stupefyingly attuned to personal advancement.”

Certainly, to pull quotes is to excise from the cadence of the book, as there’s an incantatory momentum to the prose that often threatens to overload, until cooled by Ellroy’s murderous wit.

The funniest bits are his self-depictions, as in this description of a pre-Curse photograph: “A jungle gym, two slides and a sandbox clutter the foreground. I’m standing alone, stage left. I’m lurchlike big and unkempt. My upheaval is evident. A stranger would mark me as a fucked-up child in everyday duress…” Or this from his 20, hilariously out of step with the dope culture, “I was big, short-haired and some weird bookish/fierce-looking hybrid. I vibed rookie cop/faux hippie. Nobody would sell me dope.”

But the book is far from only funny. Again and again, the author calls forth or proses the curse, that is imitates its living aspect, in part through a refraining time-travel trick that sometimes links kid-Ellroy with man-Ellroy (“I did it then. I do it still.”), and other times, divides them: “I was an Ellroy then. I’m a Hilliker now… my bifurcated identity.”

This particular split was generated in the author’s childhood, pre-Curse and pre-murder. The mother, a registered nurse, and the father, a “Film-Biz Slave” and “Hollywood Bottom-Feeder”, married as opposites and separated early. Ellroy paints penetrating portraits of his parents in the pulpiest prose: “She had the stones. He had the bunco-artist gab and the grin. She always worked. He dodged work and schemed like Sergeant Bilko […] My parents split the sheets later that year. Jean Hilliker got primary custody. She put my dad on skates and rolled him to a cheap pad a few blocks away.”

A two-home arrangement, replete with diametrically questionable role modeling, increased an already divided persona. It also precipitated “The Curse”:

"[My mother] sat me down on the couch. You’re a young man now. You’re old enough to choose. Would you rather live with your dad or with me?

I said, “My dad.”

She hit me.

I fell off the couch and gouged my head on a glass coffee table. Blood burst out of the cut. I called her a drunk and a whore […] I issued The Curse, I summoned her dead. She was murdered three months later. She died at the apex of my hatred and equally burning lust.”

How many children have performed a similar summoning, never to have their hexes fulfilled? For young James Hilliker Ellroy it worked. Subsequently, his one-time summons has been with him for the long-haunt.

In preparation for a writing career, the haunting initially manifests as peeping, not always in the looking-through-a-window sense: “I brooded. The practice entailed long stints alone in the dark. I thought about girls then. I brain-screened girls I’d seen at school and at church. It was a pure visual panoply. I did not impose story lines. I have formally brooded through to this moment. I lie in the dark, shut my eyes and think.”

Again, a sense of time-travel, from past tense to present, with the onanistic impulse transmuted in the process into a piece, or pieces, of confessional storytelling. Ellroy understands the shaping of this transmuted confession: “Content must dictate form. Form must be recognizable. Passion must never be squalid. Love must run in precise counterpoint to loss and death. That proportion stood [sic] as the basis of moral art.”

Confessions, of course, imply religiousness, and that’s just what Ellroy is -- religious rather than spiritual, the former suggesting perhaps a ritualistic link with the Divine, the latter a permeation. Ellroy’s religio-romanticism ignited with a book his mother brought home, “wholesome kids’ fare [whose] overall text buttressed religious lore I believed in then and believe in today. "There’s a world we can’t see. It exists separately and concurrently with the real world. You enter this world by the offering of prayer and incantation […] Your interior world will give you what you want and what you need to survive. […]That book formally sanctioned me to lie still and conjure women.”

Continually, the author emphasizes this connection between the Divine, “The Curse” women and writing: “Faith magnetizes me. It allows me to adhere to the world as I trek a narrow path through it. I am most moved by what I sense coming and can in no way actually see. I pull stories out of thin air. I know that women I have summoned in dreams and mental snapshots will make their way to me. Divine presence forms the core of my gift.” The emphasis on that last line is mine, as it is on this: “God has always had a job for me. I’m the guy who lives to tell you the story.”

This story includes some excruciating confessions: “I masturbated myself bloody. I brain-screened faces for stern beauty and probity. The dope drizzled out of my system. I drank myself comatose and woke up in random shrubbery and jails.”

Ellroy’s down-and-out L.A. denizen-vibe is occasionally reminiscent of Charles Bukowski, only more introverted and prolix. Both writers carry lone-wolf authorial reputations, but where Bukowski’s misanthropy shields him, in a sense, from humanity, Ellroy, being religious, craves human fellowship and communion, and is thus more vulnerable. He’s still a loner, but one who is always open, indeed, one who prowls for interchanges of romantic transcendence. Their square peg-ism is similar, but I couldn’t imagine Bukowski writing, at least not with a straight, sober face, “The moral point of struggle is to overcome it and change,” let alone the following paragraph, worth quoting (nearly) in full:

“Yearning is my chief fount of inspiration. I live in that exalted state. The drama of women sought and fleetingly found competes with History as tidal wave. My dark-room communion has given me a world to rewrite. Wanting what I cannot have commands me to create large-scale art in compensation… I must contain these stories and create perfect love in book form… I must bestow grandeur on my mother’s death and err on empathy’s side with all my depictions of women… The Hilliker Curse charged me to sit in the dark and seek art.”

The question, I suppose, is how much do we really want or need to know about an author’s -- really, a stranger’s -- private and sexual life? Surely, all this “brain-screening” would be unbearable if there wasn’t at least some sense of redemption, however temporary. One may think of St. Augustine, and his famous prayer for delayed salvation (“Give me chastity and continence, but not yet…”), but I was reminded more (much more, actually) of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, another story of a man who finds grace only after debasing and chastising himself.

The Hilliker Curse is broken into six “female” parts, from Ellroy’s mother (“Her”), through a series of women (“Cougar”, “Goddess”, “Rain”), up to Ellroy’s current relationship with a woman who not only, with his mother, merits the pronoun “Her”, but inspires some hopeful poetry as well: “We are divinely deigned. Our bodiment was purchased by a mutual recklessness and refusal to forfeit belief in love. Together, we are sex and courage… Moments that build and form states of grace. I’ve entered one now. I feel transformed. I’m Beethoven with the late quartets and his hearing restored.”

For Ellroy’s sake, I hope so. I can’t think of another writer who has taken the term noir so personally.

6

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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