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I went to Salem with a bunch of good friends on Saturday, and when I got home the writing bug did bite me. Twelve hours and 17,000 words later, I have this thing that does not have a name or a purpose, but I never did write anything this long before. I don't know what it is or where it came from, but it was fun to do; for the first time ever, I sat down to write three or four times over the last two days excited about learning where this would go. If you read this thing, may God bless you and keep your name forever upon the land. There are no rewards for completion, other than virtue itself. Here 'tis:





More than anything, I don’t want to Google “Dick Blood,” but the thin, intense man sitting across from me says I need to do just that or my story will be incomplete.

No, not incomplete; my story will be so fraudulent that “inaccurate” would be high praise if I fail to learn all I can about Dick Blood, says the man sitting across from me, whose name is Zane Nino.

“I’m not even sure I can do that on a work computer,” I tell him.

We’re having coffee in a diner somewhere near Los Angeles, and Zane Nino is losing patience with me.



“It’s not, it’s fucking, look, Google ‘Dick Blood’ and ‘Kevin Cross’ and ‘Dunwich Horror Magazine’ and ‘Montreal convention,’ OK, and you won’t get any gross videos and shit,” he tells me.

I write this down. “Tell me what I’m going to find when I do that,” I say. Zane Nino leans back in his booth and sighs.

Kevin Cross is the subject of my story, or at least one of the subjects. Cross makes films that are impossible to categorize beyond the vague, unsatisfying label “horror,” and he’s now enjoying the first mainstream success of his career with the dazzling, audience-dividing How She Loves Us, the Woman of Joy.

The film – a film-within-a-film, really, or better yet, films-within-a-film – initially drew interest because its star, Saraya Hyde, is by some distance the best-known actress in pornographic films of the new millennium. For three years, Hyde has been a vocal advocate for her industry, and for the films that find her participating in far more extreme acts than most female performers who have achieved something like her level of fame.

Hyde has been flirting with the non-sex film industry recently, and her attachment to a filmmaker with Cross’ cachet seemed like an ideal move for both of them: Cross, whose work has beamed out on the narrowest of wavelengths, gets some mainstream attention, and Hyde gets to avoid the kinds of films that tend to befall porno actresses “going legit”: Q-list comedies and dumb slasher films.

And while it’s hard to say you expect anything in particular from a filmmaker as sui generis as Kevin Cross, it’s probably safe to say no one expected the postmodern puzzle of How She Loves Us, the Woman of Joy. It’s even safer to say no one expected that Hyde’s involvement in the film would be accompanied by her announcement that she was leaving pornography, or that she would give strident interviews denouncing her old line of work, or – it probably doesn’t need to be said – that, shortly after the film’s release, she would disappear.

Certainly Zane Nino didn’t expect it. He was Hyde’s boyfriend until he found himself on the get-lost end of a restraining order she obtained towards the end of principal photography.

And while Nino is, by all accounts, a talentless lowlife and imbecilic petty criminal who badgered his high school sweetheart into becoming a porn actress not long after graduation, he seems genuinely distressed by the way events have unfolded, although that distress seems rooted mostly in his own self-pitying revelation that no other woman in the world will let him sponge off her in quite the high style that Hyde permitted.

This is why Nino, who has been scarce lately, is talking to me. I’m writing a story about Kevin Cross and Saraya Hyde and How She Loves Us, the Woman of Joy, and I have an interview coming up with the filmmaker himself – the only journalist to be granted such an interview, in fact.

I got that access because I work for the Times, I guess, but also because I’ve been following Cross’ career for years, ever since my first journalism job at the daily paper in Orford Parish, the seen-better-days New England mill town where he
grew up and where he shoots at least part of every movie he makes.

Cross is a weird guy. I know this, so I know the story of Hyde’s disappearance – which has helped keep the film firmly in front of mainstream eyeballs – has something to do with him. But I also know that Cross is a savvy guy: you don’t get to spend 15 years making bizarre horror films about Greek firewalkers and bleeding statues out of sheer weirdness alone. You need to know about money, and hustling, and promotion, which is why I suspect that Saraya Hyde is probably feeding Kevin Cross’ cats at his house in Orford Parish while the two of them count her Google News hits.

Zane Nino, though, is trying to convince me of something else entirely, and we’ve been talking in this diner for over an hour, with me getting increasingly frustrated that he keeps dodging questions about whether he used to beat his ex-girlfriend, and him getting antsy and combative at my lack of interest in Dick Blood. We seem to be at an impasse, until, after his long exhalation, he puts both elbows on the table and gives me an honest look for the first time since I got here.

“I’m going to tell you something, OK, and I know it sounds really fucking weird,” he tells me. “OK, really, really fucking weird. OK?”

“OK,” I say.

“Kevin Cross is,” he says this about four times before he can finally bring himself to finish the sentence.

“Kevin Cross is some kind of sorcerer,” he says. “As in, real magic powers. Black magic. And he’s trying to turn my girlfriend into this, like, ghost.”

I click my pen, an old and unbreakable habit. I try to make my face form an expression of engaged concern.

He keeps talking, and I wait to hear something that sounds plausible.

#

There was a ripple of interest in the mainstream celebrity press when Hyde was announced as the star of Cross’ then-untitled picture, and more elaborate discussion from porn industry blogs who feared that, after three years as the face of the industry, Hyde would leave it behind, robbing porn of its most marketable performer during an industry downturn that began in the mid-2000s and showed no sign of letting up.

Going back over stories from the time, though, I couldn’t find much in the way of details about the film itself, which was no surprise. Cross works with approximately the same crew on every project, and some of them are people he’s known since high school. Gossip on his sets tends to stay on his sets.

“Everyone thinks of him as this Goth kind of weirdo living in a garret and watching surrealist movies from the Thirties for inspiration,” says Tyce Mondell, who runs the horror blog Traumatic Arts and who has interviewed Cross multiple times.

Mondell is right: the book on Cross is that he’s an intellectual (or, his many enemies in horror circles would say, a pseudo-intellectual) and an aesthete, a filmmaker (he prefers the term “creative worker”) far likelier to quote Deleuze or Althusser than to reference his favorite Wes Craven flicks.

Some of this perception is thanks to Cross himself, who in the past has been a prolific scribe in the genre’s various outlets, using his columns and essays and blog posts to ponder the philosophical underpinnings of horror while attacking most of his contemporaries as hacks, sellouts, and “gorons” (a portmanteau he coined blending “gore” and “moron,” to refer to the dedicated seekers of stage blood and rubber intestines).

But, Mondell says, that impression is misleading.

“These are, like, Irish and Italian and Polish guys whose dads were firefighters and plumbers,” he says. “They met in the punk rock scene in the skinheads-and-cops days. These are straight edge guys, Louisville Slugger guys, hooded sweatshirt guys. They’re more like a gang than a production company.”

Presumably, then, the gang approved of Saraya Hyde giving an interview, shortly before filming wrapped, to Tub, the faux-transgressive hipster douche media entity that began life as a magazine and gradually became, in the words of founder Menzies Macready, “A space for the creation of intriguing situations.”

The relevant portion of the interview, which was conducted by a journalist going by the pen name Cokey LaJack:

LaJack: So when are we going to see you get nekkid on camera again?

Hyde: Um, never. Actually.

LaJack: Never?? Say it ain’t so! There’s so much more seed to spill!

Hyde: The thing is, you have to understand, porn is propaganda for rape. It’s the embodied fantasy of hate for women. I sort of didn’t grasp that when I was younger, although I knew it ontologically in a sense. After what I’ve learned, I really can’t imagine going back and doing that. In fact, the thought of it makes me nauseous.

That “I knew it ontologically” sounded a lot like Cross, and the porn industry gossip sites immediately exploded with exasperation, accusing the “art fag” filmmaker of filling Hyde’s 21-year-old head with all kinds of nasty lies about their wonderful industry.

Then again, Hyde’s interview was meat for critics of pornography, of course, because here was a young woman who had become the face of the industry – who had defended it on the Ellen show, for crying out loud – suddenly sounding like Andrea Dworkin. This, in turn, prompted outrage from the “pro-sex” camp within feminism and their allies in the anything-goes media, and Hyde stirred the pot by engaging in some Twitter sniping with former coworkers.

It was not a huge deal; I don’t want to overstate it. As famous as Saraya Hyde is within the world of pornography, she has less name recognition for the average American than the supporting players on the top-rated network sitcoms. And since her interview and subsequent social media comments mostly provided grist for old debates within feminism, most people didn’t care.

During this spat, Cross was silent. Reliably voluble when it came to opinions about other people’s movies or about obscure political conflicts or the nature of art, he had an oddly old-school professionalism when it came to his own projects, and that professionalism dictates that you don’t say anything to make your production appear “troubled.” The money being used to make How She Loves Us, the Woman of Joy was not, after all, his money.

At the time, I had just been promoted to covering independent films for the Times’ Arts and Leisure section, the culmination of a career that began with sitting through town government night meetings at a small daily paper and wound its way through larger papers, industry blogs, and a well-received book on independent horror filmmakers of the 1990s.

Thinking I might be able to squeeze something new out of the dustup, I sent Cross an email asking him for his thoughts on Saraya Hyde’s seeming transformation from video vixen to born-again MacKinnon. He and I knew each other by name, but weren’t exactly friends; I didn’t expect much from the email.

“Hi Brian,” he wrote. “I hope you understand that by weighing in, I’d be lending weight to the paternalistic trope that a man has to speak for a woman, so I prefer to let the woman speak for herself. Feel free to hit me up once the movie’s released, though, I’ve been hoping to interview with you. I’m really impressed by your work and think you’d be the perfect person for this project.”

A bit of flattery for the newly-minted Times movie reporter? Probably. He was a savvy guy, after all.

#

How She Loves Us, the Woman of Joy opens on a tight close-up of Saraya Hyde shaving her pubic hair. It’s clinical rather than erotic: you can see razor bumps and striations, and the light is harsh, like she’s in an operating room.

The demystification of this famous body is one of the film’s main projects: throughout its 127-minute run time, Hyde is photographed under unforgiving light, put in unflattering clothes, and is mostly shot without makeup, her trademark kohl-eyed stare nowhere to be seen, except in a few brief scenes.

But that’s an easy, obvious project, a didactic lesson about bourgeois vanity Cross picked up from his beloved 1970s Eastern European filmmakers. What the film really attempts to do is dissolve Saraya Hyde’s identity, and by extension, each viewer’s own sense of her own identity. It’s too ambitious to succeed, but it’s a remarkable film, the kind of picture that gets serious moviegoers arguing passionately with each other, which is not something you’d expect for a movie starring an actress whose previous screen credits include Ass-Eaters Anonymous and Tell Your Brother I’ll Fuck Him.

The plot is notoriously difficult to summarize (there are at least two Buzzfeed lists about this, actually), but here goes:

Hyde plays herself, an actress in pornographic films who’s looking to make the transition to legitimate movies via an artsy horror film, which is called The Woman of Joy.

So far, so Nineties: self-referentiality, intertexuality, a film-within-a-film.

The writer and director, in this film-within-a-film, is played by Lucas Boudreau, a longtime collaborator of Cross’ who, along with several other actors, makes up something of a stock company for the filmmaker. Boudreau plays a crass but passionate young director who sees Hyde’s involvement as a chance to finally make some money on a movie that people outside horror snob circles might actually see.

The plot of The Woman of Joy, the film-within-a-film, involves a young woman who moves to Northampton to attend college at Smith. She starts a photography blog to chronicle life in New England. After a while, she snaps a picture of a meadow in a town called Leeds where a woman dressed in white, or what looks like a woman in white, is standing off on the edge of the tree line.

Hyde’s character (“Madison”) thinks nothing of this, but before long the woman in white is popping up in other pictures, and instead of a indistinct blur in the background, she gets larger and more defined with each new shot.

Madison does some research, and finds a local legend about a figure called the Woman of Joy, a wraith said to have been bringing misery and death to a stretch of towns on the Connecticut River since the early 19th century. The Woman of Joy gradually stalks her prey, causing grief and sadness and inexplicable terror until the culmination: a kind of spectral embrace colloquially known as “overlooking,” in which the hapless victim dies by bleeding out through the eyes.

Initially skeptical, Madison becomes increasingly terrified as the Woman of Joy begins to manifest in terrifying ways: all the furniture in her apartment, along with her poor kitty cat, are nailed to the ceiling to correspond with how they were arranged on the floor; a mass of birds commit suicide by divebombing into the windows of Madison’s apartment building; her mother is afflicted by relentless, terrifying nightmares featuring the Woman of Joy, who’s played by Hyde, in a dual role.

Madison documents all of this with frantic updates to her photo blog. There’s a final confrontation with the spectre, in the emergency room of the local hospital, and the film ends with a last post on the blog: a photo showing two, rather than one, white figures in the Leeds meadow.

In Cross’ actual film, How She Loves Us, the Woman of Joy, we learn most of this through scenes showing table readings, snippets of storyboards, and conversations between the actors. We never see much of the actual film-within-a-film at all; we see Saraya Hyde being made up as the Woman of Joy, all white face paint and, in an interesting touch, a white hooded sweatshirt and off-the-rack skirt instead of a gauzy Victorian dress or Hammer horror cape. We see crew members struggling to affix pieces of furniture to the ceiling of a set on a soundstage (no cats, though, pet lovers).

In other words, rather than seeing The Woman of Joy, we mostly see the making of The Woman of Joy, which involves a fair amount of the dull but essential things that happen on any film set, and a growingly cruel campaign of psychological torment that Boudreau directs against Hyde.

Early in the film, he tells his casting director (played by Paul Cassin, another stock player in Cross movies) that, while Hyde’s presence is a coup that holds out the possibility of reaching entirely new audiences, there’s one problem:

“Her acting isn’t even wooden,” Boudreau tells Cassin. “It’s particle board.”

This is a criticism that’s been levied against Hyde in real life: prior to the Cross movie, she dipped her toe in the mainstream by playing a version of herself in four episodes of the HBO young-actors-in-Hollywood series Take Fountain.

While critic Tom Giles, writing in the Times, felt that Hyde’s flat, affectless performance was well suited for the character of a jaded porn actress who toys with the emotions of the series’ protagonist, the consensus of other critics was basically, don’t quit your day job.

If Boudreau is going to make this woman the centerpiece of his film, he says, he’s going to have to wring a world-class performance out of her. So he decides to “confront her identity” by breaking down any confidence she brings into the film from the porn world. To succeed as a real actress, Boudreau tells her, she has to forget everything she knows about being a porn actress. Since this is impossible, he instead decides to make her loathe herself.

He starts by making her do line readings of comments left on YouTube videos of her non-porn public appearances and other news-like articles. It starts out awkwardly, almost funny, as she titters nervously at the vitriol in the printouts Boudreau has handed her:

• “This dirty pox ridden little bitch makes me sick to my stomach. She's actually trying to tell everyone (in her delusion) that she's somehow empowering women all over the world. She’s a whore.”
• “All these fucking slut porn stars think we give a fuck what they say when they don’t have a cock in their mouth; don't care, you’re a whore. Next.”
• “Uh why does this stupid whore have a microphone in front of her face instead of a cock? Stick to what you do best, sweetheart.”
• “You’re talking out of your prolapsed asshole, darling. No one cares about you or what you think.”


“I don’t want to do this anymore,” she says at one point. “This is stupid.”

“Pretend you’re an actress,” he replies. “You’re reading this like it’s junk mail, but pretend it’s your script. Convince me you hate this whore.”

She looks at him, wavering, the piece of paper trembling slightly in her hand, when a voice from off camera (it’s supposed to be Boudreau’s, perhaps, but it doesn’t sound like him; it sounds like Cross) barks, “Read it again!” Startled, she complies, anger in her voice.

In another scene, Boudreau gathers the cast and crew together and screens one of Hyde’s movies, making her explain to them in detail what was happening, how it felt, and what she was thinking. It’s excruciating to watch, but it’s only a prelude to what happens later.

Boudreau and Hyde are driving somewhere in the New England countryside, probably one of the rural towns near Orford Parish. It’s late winter or early spring and an ugly, spare landscape passes by outside the windows of the car, something of a visual signature for Cross. The two are arguing over whether Hyde was sexually assaulted as a child. Boudreau insists she was, she attacks him, ducks the question, finally falls angrily silent. It’s an ugly moment that feels more like the audience is eavesdropping on a real argument rather than watching a scripted scene.

Finally, Boudreau slams on the brakes.

“Get out of the car,” he says.

“What?” she says.

“Get out of the car,” he says, with the maddened enunciation of someone who’s been arguing for a long time. “If you can’t be 100 percent honest with me, if you don’t understand the absolute commitment this part requires, if you don’t accept that the terminus of the self is the beginning of art, then I will find someone else to cast in this film. Get out of the fucking car, and walk your dumb ass to someplace where I don’t have to look at you.”

They argue some more; he yells, she starts crying. She gets out of the car and slams the door in fury. He starts to drive away; she runs after him, then falls. He stops. He walks over to where she lies, sobbing about being raped by her stepfather when she was 13. The camera pans to the field behind them, where a thin, sickly looking horse is standing near a ruined barn. All we hear for 45 seconds are her sobs, and then he (or someone else; the camera stays fixed on her, groveling in the mud) says, “Don’t you understand, I only want you to put off the warlike dress of the flesh?”

We don’t see Boudreau again until the end of the film.

#

Before continuing with the summary, it’s worth nothing that these moments, and others like them, immediately drew the attention of reviewers, who wondered how much of this abuse was scripted and how much of it was perhaps real. This is the kind of question Cross almost certainly wanted to raise by the Russian nesting doll narrative of his film: is Saraya Hyde the actress being put through these degrading exercises, or Saraya Hyde the character? And what’s the difference, given that she’s playing herself, or a version of herself, in a movie that’s a version of itself?

“How much of this is real? Is any of it real?” the film journalist Alyssa Gold asked Hyde shortly before the movie received its widespread release.

“I guess I don’t understand the question,” Hyde replied. “What’s your definition of ‘real’? There’s a movie about it, you know, I guess that’s real, right? You know, there are film reels of it. It will be available on DVD at some point. Is that ‘real’?”

“I mean, the abuse, the parts of the film where it seems like you’re being bullied,” Gold says, and Hyde makes a dismissive noise.

“No one laid a hand on me,” Hyde says. “It’s not ‘abuse.’”

“But that makes me think this is something that really happened,” Gold replies, talking over Hyde’s attempt to interrupt. “That they really did this, made you narrate the scene of some gangbang film you were in to a room full of people, and then film it, to make some kind of point. That’s what worries me; this seems, in a way, far more exploitive than a porn film.”

“I wanted to engage in a process that would allow me to emerge from it a different person,” Hyde says, calmly. “That’s what I told Kevin in the very beginning: I am only interested in this project if it changes me in some fundamental way. And I think we succeeded in that.”

#

Back in the film, while Boudreau is trying to break down Hyde’s psychological defenses, a parallel plot other members of the production company are busily trying to fabricate an urban legend about the Woman of Joy: starting blogs, seeding message boards and horror forums with doctored photos and bogus quotes, putting up an entry on Wikipedia that keeps getting deleted, calling into late-night radio shows that specialize in UFOs and spooks and pretending to be honest citizens relating a series of troubling dreams.

The goal of the film-within-a-film is not just to rebrand Saraya Hyde or bring Lucas Boudreau to a new audience, we’re told; it’s also to create a figure of folklore who will take on an existence outside the film, like the Slender Man, who gets invoked repeatedly in the script.

To that end, the filmmakers want to make it seem as if they took a pre-existing but obscure figure from local folklore and made a movie around her, rather than the truth, which is that they invented the Woman of Joy solely for the project.

The scene where staffers celebrate as the Woman of Joy shows up on a web forum previously unknown to them is one of the film’s few light moments. Their giddiness feels contagious, especially against the atmosphere of dread and hostility that otherwise dominates the picture. You want to yelp for joy alongside them as they read out a confused, fragmented message from someone relating a supposedly real-life encounter with their fictitious monster.

It’s also basically a scene of documentary filmmaking. When the movie was released, it became publicized that the crew really did these things, spreading the legend of the Woman of Joy in advance of the picture, a kind of sideways viral marketing. When one prominent reviewer started his writeup by noting the film was about “a well-known figure of New England folklore going back 200 or more years,” I can only imagine the high fives at Cross’ production offices.

There’s a wrinkle, though. Halfway through the movie, the narrative pauses and we watch a two-minute fake news clip slick enough to really have come from “Entertainment Tonight” about Saraya Hyde’s attempt to move out of the porn world by making a horror movie with the noted filmmaker Kevin Cross. This is jarring; Boudreau isn’t mentioned. It makes you wonder if you’re watching a real segment from a real celebrity news program.

In the clip, Hyde talks with the perky blonde reporter about the legend of the Woman of Joy, which Hyde says she first heard about from her New England-born grandmother.

Once the clip ends, back in the film-within-a-film, Hyde gets contacted by someone claiming to have information about the Woman of Joy. Crew members are ecstatic, urging Hyde to respond; for them, this is further confirmation that their hoax is being accepted in the world, and taking on a life of its own.

Eventually, Hyde arranges a meeting with the mysterious informant, and for protection she brings along Colin Maguire, one of Cross’ high school friends, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and a notoriously intimidating presence to the many enemies Cross has made in the horror world.

The man they meet, grandfatherly in a wreath of facial hair and leaning on a jagged cane, is Denis Goulding, listed in the closing credits as “Beloved Irish Communist.” Goulding, a playwright and political revolutionary, did a memorable turn as a sinister member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Cross’ previous feature, Devil Worship Feared in Locality, which was set in Belfast during the early 1970s.

Meeting in a local diner, Goulding, who tells them is name is “Charles Seagrave,” warns them not to trifle with the Woman of Joy, relating with hammy Irish melodrama a series of dire misfortunes that have befallen others who have taken this fearsome wraith lightly. Hyde can barely contain her laughter, and even Maguire seems amused.

“I’ll thank ye not to laugh so highly at this warning,” he says, trying to hold onto some of his dignity.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Hyde says, her eyes bright. “It’s just, well, we’re making a movie about, um, this folklore, right? And isn’t that all it is?”

“No,” Seagrave says, his eyes narrowing. “This is something that chooses you, and when it’s made its choice, there’s no appeal, no reversal, no way around that decision.”

“OK, so tell us, how does it choose people?” Maguire says, leaning over the table, an air of casual menace registering in his features. The camera lingers long enough for the viewer to see he has “HUIS CLOS” tattooed on his knuckles.

“It chooses the people who choose it,” Seagrave says, and Maguire barks out a harsh laugh.

“Isn’t that a little circular?” Hyde says, her tone still light.

“You have chosen her by thinking of her,” Seagrave says. “Now try not to think of her.”

Maguire, clearly tired of this, shifts in his seat and sighs. “The reality of this is, Mr. Seagrave, we did think of her, in the sense that we invented her for a movie. There is no ‘Woman of Joy’ outside the production we’re finishing up. All the references online, all the things you’ve heard, are things that we invented. This is a flattering tribute to our abilities, I guess, but we really should be going.”

Seagrave stares back. “Is that so, is that so, is that so?” he mutters.

Reaching under the table, he draws out and plunks down a book in front of them, its musty cover communicating its considerable age. The camera zooms into the cover to capture the title: Ghosts and Strange Stories of the Connecticut River Valley.

“Published in 1937,” he says. “Now. Tell me, what is the title of Chapter Five?”

With a quizzical, I’ll-play-along-old-man look on her face, Hyde picks up the book and flips to the table of contents. Suddenly, her eyes widen as she says the chapter title very quietly, and it’s exactly what anyone who has even seen one horror movie expects:

“The Story of the Woman of Joy.”

CUT TO SCENE OF ACTRESS BREATHLESSLY EXPLAINING MEETING TO SKEPTICAL HIGHER-UP.

This is a horror movie cliché, but it’s one that sent me in search of the book, which I found easily, and bought for $34.99 on Amazon. It’s a Cross trademark to use real but obscure materials in crafting his stories, which leads to occasional jarring moments when you stumble over something you thought safely confined to the realm of fiction staring at you from a shelf in a bookstore or from a road sign in an unfamiliar town.

The copy I bought from Amazon arrived, and sure enough, there was no chapter on the Woman of Joy; Chapter Five was about the Black Dog of West Peak. It’s a good thing I was able to put the purchase on my expense account.

I kept the book around, though, which I sort of regret now. Because, remember, I said there was no chapter on the Woman of Joy. Which was true. But there is now.

#

After the meeting with Seagrave, the narrative in the film starts to pull away from itself. We keep seeing behind-the-scenes footage from the film-within-a-film, interspersed with one set of crew members spreading the word about the Woman of Joy while another group, including Hyde, tries to track down information on the apparently pre-existing legend.

There are also scenes that could be from the film-within-a-film, but which don’t seem to fit into the narrative we’ve been given. In one memorable sequence, a group of mourners are gathered in a sparse, forlorn cemetery on a barren New England hill (which I recognized as Old Liberty Hill in the town of Sidon, not far from Orford Parish). The minister is dressed in Anglican vestments from the 19th century; everyone else, except for Hyde and another actor, are dressed as stock undertaker characters from the late Victorian era, with tall black hats adorned with crepe.

The undertakers all have some kind of odd makeup on their faces, as if someone had melted candles on them. They jostle for position while Hyde stares straight ahead and the other actor in modern dress, who isn’t credited, stands off to the side, scribbling steadily in a notepad.

“Set thou a wicked man over him, and let Satan stand at his right hand,” the out-of-time cleric says in a high, cracking voice. “When he shall be judged, let him be condemned, and let his prayer become sin.”

The wind stirs the vestments and the pages in the minister’s Bible. On the edge of the cemetery, a group of raggedly dressed children with blue skin have begun to climb over the rusty chain link fence as the priest continues his sermon.

But the scene doesn’t seem to connect with anything else, and soon the movie comes as close as it will come to conventional horror, as the Woman of Joy starts popping up in the lives of the cast and crew members.

There’s a lot of inventive camera work and some nice scares as the third act lurches toward the conclusion. People start going missing. At one point, when the pressure seems at its worst, Hyde has what looks a lot like a real meltdown, saying she can’t take anymore, she doesn’t want to be in the movie anymore, and then the director – it’s supposed to be Boudreau, but the voice sounds like Cross – yells at her from off camera.

Finally, she’s in her trailer, packing her things, ready to go back to California and get away from the mounting terror. Boudreau, who’s been off camera for nearly an hour, breaks into the scene and there’s a struggle; his eyes are bleeding. Hyde gets free of his grip and he liquefies while she runs out the door, but instead of a film set she’s in a parking lot somewhere in Orford Parish near an abandoned shopping center.

A costume parade is coming by, a bunch of revelers in bright and distinctive garb. Nothing makes sense; it’s not near Halloween, and the viewer is as disoriented as Hyde, who nonetheless goes along with the revelers just to feel the safety of human companionship.

They make their way to Main Street, and the statue of two bears dancing, which functions as a kind of sacred civic totem to the people of Orford Parish. Along the way, from the corner of her eye, she catches glimpses of a figure in white at the edge of the crowd, and now, at the statue, she’s sure of it: it’s the Woman of Joy.

Hyde – whose performance in the film, everyone agrees, is simply jaw-dropping, to the point where the word “Oscar” is being bandied about – frantically tries to warn people about the danger, but everyone’s too caught up in the party, so finally she claps her hands against the sides of one guy’s head in an angry, frustrated gesture, and his face pops like a balloon, with marbles spilling out all over the ground.

Laughing and crying, Hyde begins bursting the costume heads of the seemingly oblivious revelers, as candy, small toys, confetti, and streamers come falling out. Amidst all this party store carnage, a cop runs up behind her and grabs her arm.

Hard cut: she opens her eyes in the back of an ambulance, and a long, incredibly well composed tracking shot takes her on a gurney from the parking lot through the hallways of a local hospital into an exam room, where she’s taken from the stretcher and strapped to a bed.

Sweating and thrashing, Hyde screams that they have to let her go, they all have to go, the Woman of Joy is coming to the hospital for them all. It’s a great performance, leavened by the bored cynicism of the emergency room nurse (Dan Aykroyd, in a fun cameo).

“Too much of the joyful juice, huh?” he asks as he makes notes on a chart.

After this odd non-sequitur, he leaves and the TV in Hyde’s room switches to a black and white monitor showing the hallways of the hospital. In a slow, terrifying advance, we see a long shadow make its way into the frame.

And then we’re right there in the empty hallway – the hospital is half-lit and deserted as the Woman of Joy comes slowly down the hall, her arms impossibly long and spindly so that her fingers – which grow to the size of drum sticks before our eyes, a nice effect – touch the walls as she walks.

She’s boxy and angular, more a figure from Expressionist cinema than Hyde’s ghost-in-a-hoodie. Hyde screams and screams as the Woman of Joy advances through the completely empty hospital finally arriving at the exam room. At one point, she actually calls out, “Kevin, I want to stop, I don’t want to do this,” which pulls you up short; was that scripted, or were you really watching a terrified woman calling for an end to the scene, as the cynical aesthete stood behind the camera and mouthed, “Keep rolling”?

It’s an appalling thought, but before you can pursue it, a spidery arm draped in white linen reaches out, horribly, to twitch the curtain of Hyde’s room aside, and then:

FADE TO BLACK

Another cliché. But the scene swiftly reopens on Hyde, a tight closeup of her face, raccoon eyed makeup now back in place along with that thousand-yard stare made famous by a million .mov files and DVD box covers.

She’s jolting back and forth, and you can’t see what’s happening until the camera pulls back to reveal her nude, on all fours, in a bed while a fat, hairy-chested man penetrates her from behind.

A muffled voice says something from off-camera, and it’s hard to hear if it’s “more” or “whore.” Hyde wears an unreadable expression as a klaxon suddenly sounds, loud and startling like in a nightmare, and the film ends. A fractured, spare version of the “Nunc Dimittis” plays over the closing credits.

“Thus, the movie is bookended by its real, true horror: it begins and ends with unvarnished depictions of the exploitation of the female body,” wrote Montique Church, a horror writer and critic. “In this way, How She Loves Us, the Woman of Joy is the first truly conscious feminist horror film: the ‘joy’ is purely ironic, both in the terrifying spectre who haunts the film and in Saraya Hyde’s ‘woman of joy,’ the archetypal pliant object of male desire. Hyde and Kevin Cross have made a film that forces us to confront the horror in the ‘joy’ that lurk behind all social relationships with women.”

“What a crock of shit,” tweeted public radio’s Ira Glass after leaving a screening. “I didn’t get it.”

The polarized reactions of those critics were typical of filmgoers in general; the buzz around the film, and the passionate online arguments it inspired, helped propel the movie, in its third week of wide release, to the number one box office spot in the country (admittedly during a traditionally weak season for Hollywood), an astonishing feat for a filmmaker whose previous works hadn’t gotten much attention outside specialized festivals and DVD releases by boutique companies.

And while Cross’ script and direction got plenty of attention, both fawning and harshly critical, there was nearly unanimous praise for the raw, deeply felt performance by the film’s star, who pulled off exactly the kind of career-making role that could take her away from the San Fernando Valley and its biweekly STD tests and toward the world of award shows, prestige projects, and capital-a Art.

Not that Saraya Hyde could capitalize on any of it, because by the time the movie hit number one she’d been missing for two weeks.

#

And this, in a very roundabout way, is what brought me here, to a diner just outside Los Angeles, sitting next to Zane Nino, the lowlife petty crook and ex-boyfriend of Saraya Hyde, who is urging me to Google “Dick Blood.”

Nino is trying to make sense of how the girl he met when she was 13 and he was 15 has turned so abruptly in her affections, not only shutting him out of her life but getting a court to issue a year-long injunction requiring him to stay at least 200 yards away from her.

Hyde obtained the restraining order during the filming of How She Loves Us, the Woman of Joy, and in Nino’s telling, it was a shock: “One day, we’re talking about getting married, the next day, fucking, lawyers and restraining orders and all this shit.”

Nino blames Cross for this sudden change of fortune, perhaps somewhat expectedly.

“You know, Saraya’s a real smart girl, but she’s always been insecure about not going to college or anything,” Nino tells me. “So she tries to make up for it by reading all these philosophy books, history books, big ass novels, shit like that. And that’s fine, you know, that’s cool. But you put her around the wrong person, like this guy Cross, he’s going to see that, and use it to his advantage. I know guys like that, OK. Guys who look for a weak chink in the armor and go in for the kill.”

He pauses to take a drink from his cup of coffee.

“I’m saying he flattered her, OK, like, ‘Oh, Saraya, you’re so smart, you can be in these art movies, you don’t need that porn shit.’ And I think, OK, because I wasn’t there with her, OK, she was vulnerable to that respect.”

Nino was, indeed, not there with her, which hints that his version of events may be somewhat less than fully accurate. In fact, Hyde had broken off their relationship for good at least six months before work on Cross’ film began, the final act of a long and tempestuous attempt on her behalf to get free of Nino, which began shortly after she entered the porn industry.

“The guy’s like a fucking case of crabs,” says Vince Goliardi, former porn actor and auteur behind the acclaimed-in-its-field Ass Haven series. “He just won’t go away.”

In the telling of Goliardi and other porn industry insiders who worked with Hyde, Nino, a Concord, Calif. native, initially presented himself as his girlfriend’s agent, and almost immediately made a pest of himself.

“He’s far from the only guy who’s showed up on sets and tried to get involved with the filming,” says April Boggs, who has achieved fame in the pornographic film world as Deadly Nightshade, and who worked extensively with Hyde. “There are a lot of boyfriend types who are pains in the ass, but Zane really stood out. He wasn’t jealous at all; he didn’t care about the scenes she was doing. He cared about, as he called it, ‘artistic credibility.’”

Nino, it turns out, fancies himself something of a writer; a “creator of transgressive fictions,” as he has it, in the mold of his heroes Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and Chuck Palahniuk. He saw Hyde’s success in pornography not only as a source of easy money for himself – although, assuredly, he saw it in those terms as well – but as providing an entrée into the world of “transgressive fiction.” Nino believed that if Hyde were to gain a reputation as the most willing and shocking performer in what we’ll term “mainstream porn” for lack of a better label (i.e. porn made in the San Fernando Valley and not necessarily catering to far-out fetishes and niches), he would capitalize on that by being known as the boyfriend of the most willing and shocking performer in mainstream porn.

This plan-like object almost came to fruition two years into Hyde’s career, when a German publisher brought out a limited edition collection of her photographs – self-portraits, pictures of female costars, mirror shots of sex with various men, including Nino – adorned by Nino’s prose.

“No one bought that fucking book to read the words,” Goliardi says, shaking his head in incredulity. “Jesus Christ. That’s like saying people bought it to study how she does her makeup. What a fucking rube, this guy.”

The constant criticism from her industry colleagues took its toll; shortly after the book was published, Hyde kicked Nino out of her Los Angeles condo. A few stormy attempts at reconciliation followed, but never took. A few months after their last breakup, Hyde temporarily relocated to the East Coast for the filming of How She Loves Us, the Woman of Joy.

During the filming, she obtained the restraining order against Nino, alleging that he had physically and psychologically abused her for years, that he coerced her into becoming a porn performer, and that after their breakup he had sent her an escalating series of threatening texts and emails, including one short video clip depicting him shooting a target adorned with a picture of her.

“I was making a transgressive point,” says Nino, who seems to cling to the word like a magic amulet or a life preserver. “It was an artistic statement.”

The judge – presented with a thick file of Nino’s threatening communications – disagreed. The restraining order was granted, which meant that any contact Nino attempts to have with Hyde – phone, email, text, Twitter, fax, smoke signal, whatever – will put him in jail.

Although few in the industry were surprised by the restraining order, eyebrows were raised at Hyde’s claim in court documents that she entered the profession under duress. This was a an unwelcome hint of things to come for an industry constantly trying to present itself as respectable.

Nino, naturally, saw it as a baffling misfortune. Unable to contact Hyde, he spent long hours researching Kevin Cross, the man he blamed for the rift with Saraya, which is when he came across Dick Blood.

“You don’t have to believe a fucking word I say, OK,” Nino tells me, and I have to struggle to suppress a smile. Don’t worry, pal …

“But when you get the story behind Dick Blood, you’ll know that what I’m telling you is not bullshit.”

#

Dick Blood was a video store owner, prolific fanzine writer and blogger, and uber-guerrilla filmmaker whose work was often called “Extreme Horror,” a label that only hints at the depravity that was his fixation.

If you were the kind of boy who loved horror movies and had friends who loved horror movies, you are probably familiar with the childish desire to one-up each other when it came to seeing the grossest, scariest, most far-out horror films there were to see. You think The Exorcist is scary? Well, that’s nothing compared to Hellraiser. You think Hellraiser is gross? Well, that’s nothing compared to Cannibal Holocaust, and so on.

Eventually, this line of argument reaches a final destination, and that is Dick Blood’s work under his own Skullfuc Industries imprint. What he lacked in budget or craft he more than made up for in deranged, repulsive imagination, producing movies that would routinely get held up by customs departments in foreign countries and which were regarded as untouchable even by hardcore horror fans.

Blood cultivated an image for himself as “the lowest of the low,” bragging about his terrible personal hygiene (something richly attested by blog posts about his particular aroma and the state of his teeth, which I’ve seen alternately described as yellow, orange, green, and all of the above), his love for completely horrible drugs, his detestable sexual habits, and so forth.

A controversial figure in horror circles, Blood was often the beneficiary of robust defenses of his rights by industry insiders whenever one of his films would be seized by Canadian border police or something of that order; they were the kind of defenses that were almost always accompanied by lengthy denunciations of Blood as a human and an artist, but they gave him a level of prominence he wouldn’t’ have otherwise achieved.

The horror world is small enough that Blood and Kevin Cross had encountered each other on multiple occasions, run-ins that invariably left both parties infuriated. Cross, who prizes technique and skill and who has tended to make austere, “psychological” horror films that place philosophical terror above blood and guts, regarded Blood as a loathsome charlatan. Blood, for his part, dismissed Cross as a “filmfag snob” and a crypto-Christian, who made “yuppie horror for graduate students.”

In general, Cross tended to get the better of these exchanges. Memorably, he once posted a lengthy article detailing his findings from a recent trip to Blood’s hometown: that Dick Blood was born Gavin Richard Aurenberg to David and Rachel Aurenberg in Chevy Chase, Md., and that while in high school, young Gavin had been the president of the anime club and an Eagle Scout whose public service project was repairing a footbridge in a local park.

“Dick Blood would just as soon kill you as look at you, you filthy whores,” Cross wrote beneath a scanned photo from Blood/Aurenberg’s senior yearbook: a gangly young man with huge glasses and a Pokemon shirt, beaming for the camera.

After exchanging diatribes online and in person, the two finally had a physical altercation at the 2010 Montreal Festival of Fears, a massive convention that pulls together hundreds of exhibitors and panelists from the worlds of film, literature, music, art, and related fields, and draws tens of thousands of guests. Organized by industry Bible Dunwich Horror Magazine, it’s the most important annual gathering for horror fans and creators alike.

The proximate cause of the fight was A Serbian Film, a stomach-churning faux-snuff movie from the former Yugoslavia featuring depictions of child rape, sexual assault and necrophilia. The film was due to be screened at the Montreal festival, which enraged Cross on aesthetic and moral grounds.

After inveighing against the film on his blog for weeks leading up the festival, Cross finally succeeded in convincing the organizers to cancel the screening, allegedly by threatening to organize a picket line involving local feminist, religious, and child welfare groups.

This was met by predictable anger from liberals in the horror world, who accused the organizers of caving to “the Kevin Cross Taliban,” and by extreme horror practitioners like Blood, who argued they would be next to have their works banned from festivals.

During the panel discussion that opened the festival, Blood charged out of the audience and grabbed a microphone onstage, launching into an excoriating rant aimed at the organizers, at Cross, at the editorial staff of Dunwich Horror, and at a long list of other enemies.

“I am tired of this mealy-mouthed fucking Christer liberal PC bullshit ruining our community,” he said (his rant, and the chaos that ensued, can be viewed in numerous YouTube clips – the one that seems to have the clearest sound and picture is titled “Gavin needs a hug”). “I like ‘torture porn.’ I like seeing some dumb slut actress who thinks she’s going to be a star have to stuff her pussy with maggots and fucking puke up pureed roaches. Why should we feel sympathy for these bags of human garbage? You faggots in this [what he says next is drowned out by boos] that’s right, that’s right. Yell at me. But you know, first they came for the kikes, and all that. You’re next, if you let this go on.”

He tries to continue, but gets distracted by a figure on the edge of the crowd, calling out “GAAAA-VIN! GAAAA-VIN!” in a mocking, singsong voice: Cross. As panelists onstage try to take the microphone from Blood, he jumps down onto the floor and rushes over to Cross, arms pinwheeling in every direction, eventually colliding with the filmmaker, which sends both men tumbling to the ground.

I haven’t found a video on YouTube that shows what happens next, but every source agrees on it: when Cross and Blood were pulled off each other, and both men set back on their feet, Blood was gushing, well, blood from a cut in his forehead. It was a grisly although minor injury; a photo from the next day of the festival shows Blood at the Skullfuc Industries booth, with a Band-Aid over the wound, glowering.

Nothing came of the fisticuffs, except that the cut on Blood’s forehead generally led most people who cared about such things to say that Cross had “won” the fight, although no one wanted to give the scuffle much in the way of tragic grandeur (“It sounds like a sissy slapfight,” my editor told me, much later, going over a rough draft of my story. “Don’t be afraid to use your nails, girls!”).

And there it would have ended, except for two things which only seem portentous in retrospect. First, in one of the videos, while you can't see the actual fight, you can see the aftermath: Cross being held back by a group of festival-goers in black T-shirts and lanyards, and Blood being led away by a similar group, gingerly touching his forehead and looking at his blood-slicked fingers.

Someone off-camera starts yelling something that’s hard to make out; after my interview with Nino and further research, I’m fairly confident the person is chanting “Blood above the breath! Blood above the breath!,” although at the time it might have sounded more like “Blood about to break!,” which would be an odd taunt, but would make more sense in that particular instance.

The second thing that seemed more important in retrospect came a day after the fracas, when a blogger asked Cross about the episode. According to the blogger, Cross, who was strolling the floor of the convention, looking for old pulp paperbacks, said, “Dick Blood is not going to be anyone’s problem for long. He’s going to die from cancer, in fact.”

That would have been an ill-constructed piece of invective except for the fact that, three months after Cross made the remark, Gavin “Dick Blood” Aurenberg was diagnosed with a “galloping” pancreatic cancer that killed him in two days.

#

“That’s certainly a strange coincidence,” I tell Zane Nino two days after our meeting in the diner. We’re driving around Los Angeles in his Jeep Liberty, talking through my research into Dick Blood.

“It’s not a coincidence,” he says, less strident than he had been at the diner. “Why would you make that prediction unless you knew it was going to come true?”

“I don’t know that it was a prediction,” I say. “Did you ever see the movie ‘King of Comedy’? You know that seen where the old lady tells Jerry Lewis’ character, ‘You should only get cancer,’?”

He shakes his head. “Cross didn’t say Blood should get cancer, he said he will die of cancer. How did he know?”

“I don’t know,” I say, willing to humor him.

“He knew because he had scratched Blood’s head with a painted screw,” Nino says. “Marked for death.”

I had – sort of – run across this claim in reading about the fight at the Montreal festival. Blood had told people at the time that Cross had used a weapon – Blood said it was a nail – to scratch his forehead during their tussle on the floor, a charge that Cross had scoffed at.

“Yeah, I had just come from a hardware store and had a bag full of nails and washers,” he told the same fanzine writer he had made the cancer remark to.

Nino, though, was convinced that the weapon had been a “painted screw,” something he thought I should be familiar with.

“Didn’t you used to work in Orford Parish?” he asks me. “I Googled you, you know.”

Not sure where he’s going, I say, “Sure. Is that the home of the Painted Screw or something?”

“You’ve never heard of the Church of the Shaken House?”

Of course I’ve heard of the Church of the Shaken House, although to hear its name invoked here, in Los Angeles, a decade and a half since I left Orford Parish, was disorienting.

Not frightening, though; the Church of the Shaken House was effectively a graffiti gang consisting of weirdos who attended the local community college and who put up surrealist posters on utility poles around town.

“What does the Church of the Shaken House have to do with this?” I ask him.

“Cross,” Nino replies. “He learned the death spell from them.”

“You’re going to have to help me out, Zane.”

“OK,” he sighs. “Look. These guys are fighting, OK, and Cross cuts this fucking guy’s forehead, OK. Why does he do that? It’s called ‘drawing blood above the breath.’ It’s something people have been doing for-fucking-ever when they want to curse each other, to gain power over each other.

Cross cut Blood’s forehead with a painted screw, which is basically, OK, the set-up, or something, it’s like they need that to get everything in place. And then, OK, the next day, someone puts the Defeated Revolutionary in Blood’s bag at the convention. That’s the activation of the spell. He’s dead.”

I’m in the passenger side of the Jeep, wondering how on earth I am going to tell my editor how I spent the day.

“The ‘Defeated Revolutionary’?”

“It’s one of their cards! OK? One of their saint cards. They have their own saints, and this guy, the Defeated Revolutionary, was like a priest in South America or something who got killed by the Army, and they make these cards, OK, and depending on what little fucking rituals they do, if the card gets planted on you, they can make all kinds of bad shit happen to you.”

He was getting agitated again, so I put my hand up in what I hope is a calming gesture.

“OK, Zane, OK. You realize all of this is very hard to believe?”

“Dick Blood!” he yells, banging his hands on the steering wheel. “Don’t you believe that? Don’t you believe that a perfectly healthy guy dropped dead three months after having a fucking curse put on him?”

I’m quiet. We’re waiting at a red light.

“Can we pull in somewhere? I want a cup of coffee,” I say.

#

Zane Nino’s thesis was this: Kevin Cross was a member or otherwise an associate of the Church of the Shaken House which, far from the post-adolescent art gang I had remembered, was a powerful black magic cabal that could actually kill other human beings through spells and rituals.

But that, Nino believed, was only one of the things they could do. Their interest in Saraya Hyde, he believed, was far more ambitious: they wanted to use her to create their own immortal, phantasmagorical being, something that would live not only in stories and movies, but that would have real existence and, more importantly, the capacity to cause real harm in the world.

Such a being would be the ultimate weapon for a group like the Church of the Shaken House: instead of having to bother with the complicated and uncertain hassle of scratching a victim’s forehead and planting some magical card among his possessions, they could simply dispatch their very own homemade wraith against him. What defense would there be? Even if you were aware of what was happening, what would you do – call the police and tell them a ghost was coming to kill you?

“The Woman of Joy,” I say to him, as we sit at a Starbucks.

“Yes,” he says.

“But why your ex-girlfriend?” I ask, and notice he flinches a little at that “ex.” “Why make a movie about it at all, while we’re at it? Doesn’t that seem needlessly complex?”

“I’ve been reading about this, and I have the answer,” he says. “Do you know what a ‘tulpa’ is?”

I shake my head.

“Doesn’t matter. OK. Google it, though. Basically, it’s this idea in Buddhism that you can create an imaginary person that becomes real – well, not you, but, like, super advanced Buddhists. They’re so attuned to the cosmic forces and all that shit, OK, that these guys can just, like, think so hard they make this imaginary person appear, and become real.”

“You’re losing me here, Zane. I don’t think Kevin Cross is a Buddhist.”

“No! No! Listen! That’s just like, the scientific background. So you know it’s possible to create an imaginary being that becomes real. OK. So, the ‘tulpa’ thing is one explanation for Slender Man. You know him?”

I do; a figure in the background of two Photoshopped pictures posted in a web forum as part of an informal contest to create spooky images, the faceless, black-suited character had run like a virus through the Internet, popping up in countless web videos, blog posts, role-playing games and even turning up in “real life,” in the form of nightmares and graffiti and a few crimes committed by deeply troubled kids who claimed the creature as their inspiration.

You might say that Slender Man had “taken on a life of its own,” except I think Zane would say that was true in the most literal sense.

“OK, so you know Slender Man. So that’s how they learned to create a thing, a person, a ghost, a monster, whatever. The point is: they need lots and lots of people to think about this thing, to talk about it, make Internet videos about it, whatever. If it’s just five dipshits sitting around in a basement chanting over an old book, it doesn’t work. Nobody would know about it except them. But you make a movie, it’s a hit, OK, and there’s all this shit online all of a sudden, OK, about this thing, and suddenly, I don’t know, millions of people are talking about it and thinking about it.”

“And then what happens?”

“It comes to life.”

#

I had spent a week in LA tracking down people who knew Saraya Hyde, her ex-boyfriend among them. I didn’t believe his theory, of course, but I thought it would make an interesting angle for the story, maybe something unexpected to ask Kevin Cross about during our interview. He might appreciate it, given that he had a keen sense of his own personal mythology, something that was apparent from the terms of our interview:

The interview would be conducted at night. I was to come alone, without a photographer. Two men, Patrick and Tony (“Their surnames aren’t important to you”) would meet me at a coffee shop a few blocks from the Minuteman’s Inn, the rambling old Victorian hotel where I was staying in Orford Parish. From there, we’d drive – with me blindfolded, of course – to the location of the interview, which was to be kept strictly confidential.

Checking my equipment – laptop, notepad, spare pens and pencils, iPhone, backup digital recorder just in case, still camera – I was looking forward to landing this interview and putting a ribbon on the story that had already taken up nearly a month of my time.

We needed to move quickly, I realized; the movie was still in theaters and Saraya Hyde was still missing, but police had told me they weren’t treating it as a missing person’s case because she had been in touch with co-workers, by which I took to mean people from Cross’ production company. Once this made it to the celebrity gossip sites, interest in the story began to die down, and the emails from my editor back in New York started to get more pointed.

At least Cross’ ridiculous sense of melodrama – blindfolded in the back of a car! – would give the story some click appeal. I was composing Gawker headlines to myself when Patrick and Tony unmistakably walked in to the coffee shop.

Tony, a huge guy somewhere in his thirties wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, waved vaguely in my direction and headed to the counter to place an order. Patrick, in a long, scraggly beard and wearing an old gas station attendant’s jacket, flitted over to where I sat and held out his hand.

“Hey! Brian! I’m Patrick, he’s Tony,” he said, and laughed a little, an annoying tic I suddenly realized I would be hearing more or less constantly for the amount of time I’d spend in Patrick’s presence.

“This is pretty cool, pretty cool, pretty cool,” Patrick said. “You know you’re the only reporter type person Kevin’s talking to? Of course, Kevin talks to other people, he talks to me all the time, but like, I mean, reporter type people, you know?” and then that little laugh.

“Yep, I’m excited,” I said. “You go way back with Kevin?”

“Oh, dude, all the way back. Lunch money and recess days, you know. You know, he gets a lot of ideas from me. I taught him to skateboard. Did you know that?”

“No,” I said.

Patrick thrust a hand into the canvas bag he was carrying. “Shit! You just reminded me. Kevin wants you to have this. It’s a gift.”

He handed me a 4x6 framed photograph, a black and white shot of a kindly looking man, maybe a doctor of some kind, holding up a baby in a village of thatched roofs somewhere in the Third World, surrounded by other children looking warily at the photographer.

“It’s Camilo Torres,” Patrick said. “You’re down with Camilo Torres, right?”

“I have to confess I don’t know who that is,” I told him, which made his eyes open like portholes.

“Dude! Are you fucking kidding me? You don’t know Camilo Torres? Oh, dude, you don’t understand, man, Kevin is giving you wisdom, do you get that? Do you know how lucky you are?”

“I’m a very lucky guy, Patrick.”

Fortunately, this repartee was interrupted by Tony, who walked over to us with a huge paper cup of coffee and a sleepy expression.

“You ladies ready to go?” he said, without malice.

“Absolutely,” I said, stuffing the framed picture in my laptop bag.

On the way to the interview, I sat in the back, gamely wearing the blindfold, while Patrick jabbered and chain-smoked in the front passenger seat and Tony negotiated what I imagined was a winding route full of u-turns and doublebacks intended to disorient me. I tried to ignore Patrick as best I could, with that little laugh needling away at me, and finally, after what felt like a trip of 30 minutes but which might have been shorter, the car rolled to a stop and Tony shut off the engine.

“We made it, kids. Disneyland,” he said.

I took off the blindfold and knew instantly where I was: the ruins of the Champion Candle Factory, one of several prominent former industrial sites on the outskirts of town that played greater or lesser roles in the films of Kevin Cross. Champion Candle, with its whitewashed stone walls, piles of rubble, arched windows, and expanse of sinister graffiti, appeared so often in his work that it was practically a member of the stock company. This was going perfectly.

Tony pointed to the far right end of the building, where I could see portable movie lights set up, their harsh brightness a welcome oasis in the night. There were no inhabited buildings anywhere near us, it suddenly occurred to me.

When I turned the corner of the building, where the west entrance was located, the first people I saw were two men dressed roughly like Tony, but wearing balaclava masks over their faces. In between them was Kevin Cross, in a black suit with a white shirt unbuttoned at the collar and no tie, like a suburban dad dressing presentably for a parent-teacher conference. Behind him, the windows of the building were lit from within, and the faint sound of classical music could be heard.

“Brian! You made it!” he said, beaming. “I hope you don’t mind this little bit of theater.”

“On the contrary,” I said, eyeing the two brutes standing on either side of Cross. One had his hands in his pockets, but the other was cracking his knuckles in a way that allowed me to see the words “HUIS CLOS” tattooed on them. “This beats the hell out of meeting in a hotel room on a press junket.”

“Ha! Exactly. So. You have questions. I have answers. Let’s do this thing.”

I looked around. We were in the west yard of the old factory, much of which had been knocked over at some point. The entire property was ringed by a chain link fence and was theoretically off limits, but Cross filmed here so much I’m sure he had some kind of special dispensation. I took out my camera.

“I know you said I should come alone, but we still need photos,” I said.

“Sure! Of course! Snap away, brother.”

“Can I take their pictures, too?” I asked, gesturing to the masked man who flanked him.

“Yeah, of course. You can take everybody’s picture,” he said, making circles in the air with his index fingers, and for a second I thought he meant Tony and Patrick until I heard the soft crunch of gravel behind me. From behind piles of smashed rock and old Dumpsters, from the other side of the chain link fence, from all around me, men dressed in street clothes and masks were emerging. I noticed with some relief that one of them leaned on a jagged cane; Denis Goulding, the Irish actor, no doubt. With less relief, I noticed that another approaching figure was carrying a baseball bat.

“Who are they?” I asked, trying not to sound nervous. “Welcome wagon?”

“We’re all cinephiles here, Brian,” Cross replied. “Take any pictures you want, brother.”

Annoyed at the slight tremor in my hands, I swung the camera around and began clicking the shutter, which, to my satisfaction, at least halted some of the masked figures behind me. I turned back to Cross and took his picture.

“I like the music,” I said, motioning to the factory window above him as I put my camera back in its bag. “’Nunc Dimittis’?”

“Nah, not yet,” he said. “Mahler. ‘Der Kindertotenlieder.’ ‘Your beam was already returning homewards to the place / from which all rays emanate.’ You like?”

“I don’t know a thing about classical music,” I said, finding the recorder app on my phone, pushing the red square, and holding it towards Cross.

“OK,” I said. “Where’s Saraya Hyde?”

This was always going to be my first question; it was the newsiest and, I felt, the one with the most potential to create the kind of back-and-forth that made interviews work. Sitting in my room at the Minuteman earlier that day, I had run through every possible evasion Cross might employ, my answers to all of them, and his further evasions, and so forth. It was like a game of chess, I knew. One answer I didn’t prepare for, though, was the one he actually gave.

“I’m told she’s gone to Lourdes,” he said.

I paused, caught completely short.

“Lourdes? In … in France?”

“That’s the one! So I’m told.”

“Why … why is she in Lourdes?”

Cross sighed. “Well, Brian, I suppose there are all kinds of reasons one visits Lourdes, but there’s also one really big reason, you know, and if I had to place a bet on the motive for any particular human being’s decision to travel there, I’d put all my chips on that one big reason.”

“Is she sick?”

“We’re all sick, Brian. But to answer the question I think you’re asking, I’m not aware of any particular malady that compelled her to visit Lourdes, no. I suspect they even let non-sick people go to Lourdes, though, contrary to what you seem to presume. Can we confirm that? Anyone know if healthy people can go to Lourdes? Yeah? They can? OK. It’s confirmed; Brian, you didn’t see this, but behind you, your man with the Louisville Slugger nodded his head. So that’s confirmation enough for me.”

“Is the way the whole interview’s going to go?” I asked.

“Possibly, if all your questions are about Lourdes,” he said.

Annoyed, I changed tack. “How much of the abuse in the film is real?”

“’Abuse’? ‘Real’? Let’s define our terms, Brian.”

“In the first half of the film, there’s a great deal of time spent on humiliating Saraya Hyde, most of which is done by Lucas Bourdeau, who’s standing in for you. There are even parts when the audience can hear what sounds like your voice, and the scene at the end, where Saraya is strapped into the hospital bed, she calls out to you – not to Lucas, but to you – to stop. So how much of that is real?”

“Well, it’s all real, of course. I mean, you saw the movie; lots of people have seen the movie, have seen and heard the things you describe, and they’re not watching cartoons or puppets. So it’s real, but I question the term ‘abuse’ here.”

“I mean, was it scripted? Are you really making this woman cry in those scenes? That’s been a point of criticism of the film, as I’m sure you know.”

“Yes. Well, I am aware of that. Let me say this about that: nothing ended up on the screen by accident. This movie had by far the largest budget of any we’ve ever worked on, Brian, and we were meticulous about it. We had to be.”

“So you’re saying those scenes were all scripted? Fake?”

“No, I’m saying we knew what we were doing.”

“I just want a straight answer, Kevin, although I know you hate to give those. When you say ‘we knew what we were doing,’ it sounds to me like you’re saying you unleashed this abuse on –“

And there, he cut me off, with exasperation in his voice.

“’Abuse’! ‘Abuse’! ‘Abuse!’ That’s like your favorite word tonight! You’re really throwing it around like confetti, Brian. Do you want to know what I think abuse is? I think it’s abuse to take an 18-year-old from a dead-end family of fucking bozos, who’s bright but has no outlet for that, and put her in gape gangbangs, put her in the middle of a four-way milk enema, put her in the middle of any disgusting scenario you can think of and 500 you can’t think of, and then tell her to talk about how she feels empowered by that.

“I think that’s abuse, Brian. I think reducing someone to their body – to this suit of soft, ugly armor – is the beginning of all abuse. Embodiment is the first crime, Brian, the one that leads to all other crimes. Saraya – her name is Melanie Rutzik, by the way, her real, actual name – was in an industry where people are defined solely by these disgusting prisons we carry around on our bones. But here you are, telling me it’s ‘abuse’ to take someone through some thought exercises where she thinks about the philosophical implications of that industry. Boy! What a hero. Too bad Saraya’s not here, I bet she’d be so inspired by your gallantry that she’d immediately leap on your cock. Is that what you’re hoping for, Brian?”

I stared at him, and he stared back. Behind me, one of the goons shifted his weight.

“So, Kevin, is this movie anti-porn or anti-body?”

At that, a smile lit up his face, and he clapped his hands together.

“Now that is a fucking question, brother! Now we’re getting somewhere! The answer is that everything I do is, as you say, ‘anti-body,’ which I take to mean, anti-manufacture reality. Because all the shit we do with our bodies, all the little aches and pains we feel, the little or the big pleasures we experience, everything we perceive with our five senses: that’s what’s fake. People ask me what in the film is real and what’s fake. OK: the ideas are what’s real. The urgent need to communicate to people that things like identity are the only things they should worry about, and all the other stuff – sex, exercise, children, body – all that is smoke up the chimney.”

“You sound like Plato,” I said.

“I hope so! He was one smart cat. Plato! See, now we’re getting somewhere.”

“Can we change gears briefly?”

“Yes, Brian, tonight is a night for you.”

“What happened to Dick Blood?”

For the first time, he gave me a look like he was considering me as an individual human being rather than a film character – Reporter #1 – called in to witness a performance he had worked out in his mind. It was not a look that made me feel at ease.

“I rested a curse against him, and he died.”

Another answer I was not expecting.

“I don’t know if that’s supposed to be a joke, Kevin.”

“I guess, Brian, that depends on whether you find his death funny, which I suppose further depends on whether you were an intimate of Mr. Aurenberg’s. I personally find it, not hysterical, but funny in that sad, ‘a-ha,’ sort of way. Can I ask what Dick Blood has to do with How She Loves Us, Our Lady of Joy?”

“Do you know someone named Zane Nino?”

“A hard name to forget! Sure. The lowlife ex-boyfriend who got Saraya into the meat machine industry. I know of him, but have never had the displeasure of his company. Why?”

“Zane Nino is convinced that you caused the death of Dick Blood – Gavin Aurenberg – by black magic, and that you made How She Loves Us, Our Lady of Joy in order to turn Saraya Hyde into a kind of mystical folklore ghost who would serve as an assassin for a cult you belong to.”

There was a pause and out of the corner of my eye I saw Colin Maguire tense, as if to spring forward, but then Cross broke out in a long, deep laugh, which was echoed by the goons standing around the old factory yard.

Cross was really loving it; he bent over, and then immediately straightened up, holding his hands in front of him in a “take-me-away-officer” pose and managed to choke out the words, “Guilty as charged!,” which prompted more screams of laughter from his cronies.

I felt like a colossal dipshit, but also unaccountably suspected this was all a slightly hysterical show put on for my benefit, or perhaps for the benefit of my readers. I tried again.

“Is the Woman of Joy real?”

Cross gradually calmed down, his laughter dying away in satisfying mirthful gulps.

“Yeah. Yeah, the Woman of Joy is real. There’s a whole movie about her, brother!”

“What I mean is –“

“I know what you mean, but it’s slightly annoying that you don’t know what I mean. You’re asking me if the Woman of Joy was invented by us purely for the purpose of telling this story, or if we found her in some old book and shined her up for this movie. And I’m telling you, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the way people behave, and they’re behaving as if the Woman of Joy has always been with us. Ipso facto, she has always been with us.”

“So what does she do, if she’s always been with us?”

“She loves us, Brian. It’s right there in the title of the film. She loves us. She relieves us of the curse of embodiment.”

Behind me, I heard a car pull into the yard, and crunch its way up to where we were standing. From the driver side stepped the actor who played the anachronistically attired Anglican clergyman in the odd disconnected scene from How She Loves Us, the Woman of Joy, dressed once again in his 19th century vestments.

“You really pulled out all the stops for this,” I told Cross.

“New York Times, brother! Gotta put on a show,” he said, as he stepped past me toward the car.

“Wait,” I said. “Where are you going?”

“Gotta go, late for an important appointment,” he said.

“We’ve barely started –“

“You asked great questions, Brian! And I’m sure there’s more to discuss. Maybe we’ll have time for that later, but right now, I am the white rabbit in Alice In Wonderland; late, late, for a very important date!”

“’Maybe later,’” I repeated, incredulous. Around us, the goons were moving off, some to other parts of the factory complex, some inside the old building, some to the other side of the fence.

“You’ve been jerking me around for weeks! I’m here now, you’re here now. Am I going to wait for you to decide when the stars are right again?”

He paused with the passenger door open, the clergyman-actor already back behind the wheel.

“’Am I going to wait’? ‘Am I going to wait’?” Cross said in a mocking sing-song before turning suddenly solemn.

“You know, Brian, actually, that’s a very profound question you’ve just asked. In fact, I’d say that’s the primary question of each human life: Are you going to wait? Interesting insight, brother. Good luck with the story!”

I tried to protest, but he swung into the car and shut the door. The fake priest backed it out of the yard, and someone tapped me on the shoulder.

I turned to face one of the goons from earlier, a guy in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, wearing construction worker gloves on his hands and grotesque clown makeup on his face.

“Hey, man, you’re probably going to need a ride back into town, because Tony and Patrick took off already,” the clown said. “You can get a lift with me if you want.”

I was so annoyed with Cross that it hadn’t even occurred to me I was miles from my hotel, in the dead of night, without a car, surrounded by men whose identities were shrouded from me and who had just witnessed a hostile exchange between me and their boss, which I was duly planning to write up for the world’s most important newspaper.

“Oh, right, uh, thanks,” I said to the clown, and held out my hand. “I’m Brian.”

“I’m Paul. Cassin,” he said, motioning me to follow him.

“Oh, you’re the actor from the film?” I asked.

“You’re a very smart reporter, Brian,” he said.

On the way back into town, Cassin waved off my attempts to pursue some of the subjects I had questioned Cross about, but good-naturedly deployed clichés to answer some innocuous, actorly questions – “Saraya was great to work with, just a real all-around professional”; “It’s funny to play yourself, Brian, because in a weird way it’s the hardest role of all” – but we soon fell silent.

It was autumn in Orford Parish, the high season for that town, and the streets were crowded with decorations. Plastic jack o’lanterns glowed from inside tidy homes, black cats, ghosts and mummies stood frozen behind shop windows, and garish scarecrows, some topped with skulls for faces, lined the streets of the city, the old lampposts bathing everything in the orange glow of sodium light. As we cruised closer to the center of town, a kid on a bike, wearing a rainbow-colored Afro wig, rode past on the sidewalk, the words “Choose Death” on the back of his shirt.

“OK, Brian, end of the line,” Cassin said, slowing the car and pulling to the side of the road a few feet shy of a train bridge that served as an informal entryway to the center of town. There was nothing around us except a few fast food joints that had closed up for the night hours before.

“Um,” I said. “I’m actually staying at-“

“I know where you’re staying,” Cassin said. “This is where you get out, though.”

“It’s just a couple more blocks,” I said.

“I work for a company that has certain friends and certain enemies,” Cassin said. “Your hotel is in a part of town where, let’s say, a rival company has the kind of influence my company has on this side of the train bridge. I apologize for the inconvenience, but I just want to go home and watch television, rather than risk an unpleasant encounter with some of the people from that company. Do I make myself clear?”

He did not. “I don’t understand at all,” I said.

“I’m not asking you to understand, Brian. I’m asking you to get out of my car.”

Muttering to myself about Kevin Cross and his drama queens, I gathered my things and stepped out onto the sidewalk. Cassin gave me a little two-fingered salute and spun the car around in a u-turn, driving off toward the west end of town.

It’s only a few blocks to the hotel, I told myself, and it’s a nice night. But as I passed under the bridge and walked up the gentle incline to downtown, a sudden thought bothered me: what if this was some kind of dumb joke? What if Cassin was going to spin around and whip by, throwing water or something out of his window at me? What if Cross and Maguire and that creepy guy dressed like a Victorian priest were watching this whole thing on a camera and laughing their asses off? Well? Was it so crazy?

I turned around and looked at the street behind me. No Cassin, no kid on the bike, no cars at all. A quiet weeknight in the Old-Time City. Nothing to see, in fact, except what looked like new paint, in foot-high letters, across the side of the train bridge:

TERRIBLE IS THE CHURCH OF THE SHAKEN HOUSE

#

And now I’m back home in Brooklyn, contemplating the massive amount of material I’ve gathered for this story, dreading the prospect of actually having to write it. I’ve been procrastinating via the mindless activity of transcribing interview recordings but sooner or later, I know, I’m going to have to draft a lede and a nut graf and actually write this beast.

The first draft is 8,000 words; my editor won’t even open the story on his computer.

“Are you dumping your notes on me? What is this?” he asks.

“This is a bigger story than Saraya Hyde’s attempt at a career reset,” I say. “There’s a lot of context.”
“Gosh, when you say ‘context,’ what I hear is ‘material that is not actually news,’” my editor, Evan, says. “Cut your context by 75 percent and try again. And, rapidamente, por favor.”

I try again; it’s 5,000 words, and Evan sighs that he will try and skim it this time.

“Don’t put everything in your notebook into this,” he tells me. “This is a weird independent horror movie and a porn star staging a publicity stunt. It’s not the fall of Saigon.”

“Just read it,” I plead.

“You got it, Tolstoy,” he says.

While he’s doing that, I’m fact-checking the photo cutlines for the pictures I took at the ruins of the Champion Candle Factory. The editor in the photo department who’s working on the story sends me an email with one of the pictures attached.

“Any idea who the lady in white is?” she writes.

Frowning, I open the picture on my desktop. It’s one of the “crowd shots” I took of the goons. It’s not a great picture, but it adequately conveys the air of goofy menace I felt that night. Except in this picture, there’s one detail I somehow overlooked before: in the background, blurry and indistinct, is a white, shrouded figure standing behind a pile of rubble.

The Woman of Joy.

“Nice one, Kevin,” I mutter to myself. How did I miss that when I emailed the photos over? How did I miss her on the night itself? Was I that shaken by the dudes with masks and baseball bats?

Evan interrupts my pondering. He comes over to my desk and sits down in a chair across from me.

“Well,” he says. “I see your point about the context.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. This is a good story, Brian, and you can write the shit out of it. I don’t think it’s right for our section, though. I think we should pitch it to the Sunday Magazine.”

“Yeah?” I say, much more excited now.

“Yeah. They’re not going to love the idea at first, so we need to craft a killer pitch. Can you boil this down to 250 words and send it to me? I’ll tinker with it. In the meantime, put some of your beloved context back in. If this is going to be a magazine piece, we need to get the word count up.”

Over the next two days, Evan and I work non-stop on the story. I add in copious background info on Saraya Hyde, culled from interviews with half a dozen of her friends and intimates. I put together 1,500 words on the strange ouvre of Kevin Cross, beginning with As We Travel Further Down Dracula Drive, an anthology-style film centering around Orford Parish urban legends that he made when he was in college. I put in some information on the Church of the Shaken House I cull from old clips at my former paper, freshened with a quote from the PIO at the Orford Parish Police Department.

“I wouldn’t call them a cult,” he tells me. “Noisy kids, more like. Weird kids. They paint their faces and run around old buildings at night. They nail pictures to trees. To be honest, we don’t pay much attention to them. Sooner or later, they grow out of it.”

Evan rewrites our pitch to the magazine over and over, and grills me for potential multimedia content. We spend a lot of time talking about what to do with Zane Nino and Dick Blood.

“We absolutely can’t accuse this filmmaker of being an evil wizard who kills people with magic,” Evan warns.

“We’re not,” I say. “But, I mean, Nino’s terror at this guy speaks to his reputation. And we have him on the record laughing off Nino’s accusation …”

“We have him on the record saying he killed this Dickhead Blood guy with a magic spell, too,” Evan says. “No. I want a firm denial, on the record, from Cross. That’s a vital piece of this.”

I call and leave a message for Cross’ publicist. Then two more messages. I chase away the anxiety of waiting for those calls to be returned by more string-gathering: skimming online articles about tulpas, calling a professor to talk about Slender Man, doing another interview with a horror blogger who has an axe to grind with Cross.

Towards the end of the day, I remember something else to kill time with: Ghosts and Strange Stories of the Connecticut River Valley. I want to mention it in the story, so I Google it because I can’t find the author.

First result: “Ghosts and Strange Stories of the Connecticut River Valley (1937), a book written by antiquarian Odell French, who collected such well-known fables as the Ghostly Pedlar of Gay City, the Threndlestaves of Orford Parish, and the feared Woman of Joy.”

Not quite, I say, and marvel at how quickly the film’s ersatz version of history has caught hold with the public.

From the second result: “Odell French, a historian and Connecticut politician, is the earliest known written source for stories about the Woman of Joy, a fearsome spectral figure he includes in his 1937 tome Ghosts and Strange Stories of the Connecticut River Valley …”

“Oh, come on,” I say, out loud.

This will be a good anecdote for the story, though: the swift acceptance of lie over the truth. Hell, these first mentions might even have been planted by Cross’ people, who seem to know a lot about search engine optimization. I am savoring in advance the feeling of self-righteousness I’ll experience when I get home from work tonight and take a picture of the table of contents. Maybe I’ll tweet it at some of these people, citing French’s book like they’re experts on the Woman of Joy.

It’s a nice night, warm and crisp and light, maybe the last good day of the year, and on the way home I stop to watch a guy not far from my apartment, who’s drawn a crowd by rigging up one of those one-man band apparatuses, playing old songs from my grandparents’ time.

I shoot 30 seconds of video or so and send it to my girlfriend, who’s visiting her parents in San Francisco.

“See the culture you’re missing out on?” I write.

A few minutes later, she writes back.

“So bummed!! One-Man Band Guy AND Ghost Bride! Love you, home soon!”

Ghost Bride?

I play the video on my phone back as I stand in the doorway of our apartment building. Standing on the edge of the crowd watching the one-man band, but clear enough to see the white hooded sweatshirt hiding her features, is the Woman of Joy.

My pulse starts racing. Calm down, I tell myself.

I’m rationalizing with each step I climb as I get to our place on the fourth floor. I’m through the door and before I even take off my jacket I’m in my bedroom, looking for my copy of Ghosts and Strange Stories of the Connecticut River Valley.

There, on the Table of Contents, staring at me like reproach itself, is chapter five: “The Woman of Joy.”

Nope.

Nope. Nope.

Nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope.

No, that’s all wrong. Someone – Colin Maguire, maybe – has broken into the apartment I share with my girlfriend, and has switched out my copy of Ghosts and Strange Stories of the Connecticut River Valley – the true and right copy, the copy that I bought on Amazon after seeing the movie, the copy that devoted its fifth chapter to the Black Dog of West Peak, the actual book, as I’ve started to think of it – with this movie prop.

Good one, Kev. Very funny. A regular horror classicist, you are. What was it you said to me when I arrived that night at the candle factory? “Forgive me this bit of theater?” Well, playing dress up with the other Lost Boys at your secret no-girls-allowed clubhouse was fine, but I’m afraid breaking and entering is taking things a bit too far.

I’m going to call the cops. I’m going to report –

No, I’m not. Of course I’m not. What would I say? “Officer, I’d like to report a ghostly book swap!” No. That’s almost assuredly what Cross is going for; a New York Times reporter making a fool of himself over such a transparent stunt. Nope. Nope. Nope.

I walk back into the hallway, into our closet, and pull out the shopping back I lugged with me from Brooklyn to Los Angeles to Orford Parish and back home when I was reporting the story. I crammed the bag with receipts for my expense account, little souvenirs of the trip, magnets, half-depleted packs of gum, that kind of thing. I’m looking for one thing in particular, something I hadn’t even remembered possessing since that night at Champion Candle.

After rooting around in the bag, I find it: a 4x6 picture frame holding a black and white photo of a kindly looking man holding an infant in some Third World village somewhere. Around him is a crowd of children looking at the photographer – frightened, I decide now. Not warily, but with fright in their eyes. What are they afraid of?

In the foreground of the shot, looking directly at the photographer with an unreadable expression, is a woman dressed entirely in white.

I pull the photograph out of the frame, expecting to see witchy writing on the back. Instead, all it says is “Fr. Camilo Torres in Colombia, 1961.”

No time to power on my laptop; I take out my iPhone and swear at my hands for shaking as I type “Camilo Torres” into Google.

“Camilo Torres Restrepo (born in Bogota, Colombia on 3 February 1929 – died in Santander, Colombia on 15 February 1966) was a Colombian socialist, a Roman Catholic priest, a predecessor of liberation theology, and a member of the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla organization,” Wikipedia tells me. “During his life, he tried to reconcile revolutionary Marxism and Catholicism. He is venerated as a saint by the Church of the Shaken House, which refers to him as the Defeated Revolutionary.”

I leave messages for Zane Nino and for Cross’ publicist, again. I drink two beers and fall asleep with the TV on, playing something mindless, just to fill the apartment with sound.

The next morning, I’m tired and jumpy, spooked by any woman wearing a single article of white clothing; I nearly tackle some blond girl in her early 20s who was wearing a white scarf wound around her head. I badly want there to be a message waiting for me at my desk to clear away some of these jitters; a call from Cross, maybe, with him unable to keep from giggling as he talks to the voicemail recorder. Anything.

Instead, I’m distracted and irritated, unable to concentrate on Evan’s millionth rewrite of our pitch to the magazine. At lunch, I sit in a break room and stare into my plastic bottle of Diet Coke when my iPhone dings.

It’s an email from someone with a Gmail account that identifies them as Charles Seagrave. The stagey Irishman from the movie, Denis Goulding’s character, who gave the copy of Odell French’s book to Saraya Hyde and Colin Maguire, or to their characters, or to themselves playing characters, or to characters based on themselves playing versions of characters of themselves. It’s all the same.

I smile. Here’s my “Haha, fooled you” email from Cross or one of his lackeys, I know.

The email contains a link to a TMZ story and the message, “Vry sad news abt this. he was a fighter against th forces that cloak r world.”

I click on the link. It’s a short item: “Disappearing ex-porn star Saraya Hyde’s despondent ex TAKES HIS OWN LIFE”:

“Zane Nino, 25, committed suicide Wednesday morning in his apartment on the edge of West Hollywood, TMZ has learned.

“Nino, an aspiring writer who was the longtime boyfriend of Saraya Hyde, the ex-porn star turned mainstream actress who made herself scarce after her brainy horror flick How She Loves Us, the Woman of Joy became a critical and box office hit, was reportedly despondent at the collapse of his relationship with the smoky-eyed vixen, his friends tell TMZ

“Hyde obtained a restraining order against Nino during production of the Kevin Cross-helmed pic, telling a judge he had subjected her to years of physical and psychological abuse.

“Medical examiners have not yet determined a cause of death, but a police officer who arrived at the scene tells TMZ Nino’s end was grisly: before dying, he apparently tried to pluck both of his eyeballs out.

“’There was blood everywhere, just pouring from his eye sockets in huge trails,’ the shaken cop tells TMZ.”

It was 10 minutes before I was able to tell Evan I wasn’t feeling well, and was going to go home for the day.

I go home. I sit on the bed. I think about texting my girlfriend. Instead, I sit at my laptop and type a long, long email to Kevin Cross – what you’ve read, more or less. I tell him everything, and I finish it by telling him I’m not afraid of his bullshit, that I don’t believe he’s a wizard, that Dick Blood probably died because of a combination of genetics and incredibly poor health habits, that Zane Nino was a pathetic flake who tried to make his stupid death mean something by copying something from the Woman of Joy mythos (or should I say non-mythos, since it’s all made up by your marketing team, Kevin), that, hey, you’ve heard the old saying about not picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel?, well Kevin you’re picking a fight with the NEWYORKFUCKINGTIMES and we don’t back down my friend, so prepare to have a front cover Sunday Magazine story rammed up your gnarled Gnostic ass, BROTHER, and then we’ll see who’s spooked.

But what I really want to write is

Please

Please don’t let it happen to me

Not to me

I don’t have a crucifix in the apartment, or rosary beads, or any of that shit. I don’t believe. My mother hates it when I say that, but I don’t. I don’t believe. I don’t. I pace up and down the apartment, saying “I don’t believe” and trying to remember the Apostles’ Creed. Wasn’t there something in that about Jesus descending into hell?

Maybe half an hour after I send my long email to Kevin, he writes back.

“Hi Brian,” he writes. “Thanks for your note. Vry sad news abt Zane. He did it his way. Do you know when/if your article will run? Not sure what to say about all the rest, but you probably realize by now what’s up. Do you remember what you asked me that time, what I said was the primary question for each life – Do you wait? Well, let me pose that to you, friend: Do you wait? – Kevin.”

Fuck you, I say softly, as I close my laptop.

My phone is buzzing. It’s my mother’s number, ringing again and again, but instead of her picture on the touch screen it’s Saraya Hyde, her face painted white, and with an ivory hood pulled snugly over her head. I don’t answer. The absurd thought comes to me that I should write down all my passwords and PIN codes and leave them somewhere people will find them, because that will come in handy.

A sudden feeling takes me that I want this to happen in the street, under the open sky, and I stand up to leave, but I freeze as soon as I reach the door.

Out in the hallway, someone is walking toward my apartment, softly and insistently singing the “Nunc Dimittis.”

Don’t think of her

Date: 2014-10-28 11:00 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] la_cronaca
Well done! I really enjoyed this.

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