Left dead cold by "Clarkston's Curse"
Clarkston’s Curse, by Ann Margaret Johns, is a biography of sorts. It is also a tale of horror, of sorts. Finally, it seems to be an experiment in stream of consciousness, of sorts. It is a mostly well written, but inexplicably disjointed retelling of Ms Johns’ early life, dominated by her obsession with the accidents and deaths in her city.
The telling is interwoven, non-chronological, and often seemingly randomly connected. However, there are two lines in each chapter: one, Ms Johns’ family story and her personal experiences at the time; and two, the abundant cases of misfortune which traumatise her. By the end, she appears to make a case for it all resulting from a curse on the town, that she helped clear in a basic ritual. What is less certain is whether her own psychological issues (nightmares, substance use, and others) are successfully treated.
The connection to the supernatural, or even the simply extraordinary, is too feeble despite the many news-worthy cases mentioned in the book. They never demonstrate anything other than coincidence and wider-spread lack of common sense among the population. The effects of alcoholism, domestic abuse, neglect, etcetera, on young women, however, make this book otherwise interesting.
Who would enjoy this
Clarkston’s Curse could be a good choice for those interested in side-line social history. The cases and testimony of life in 60s-70s small-town America are a curio, the sort that draws lovers of newspaper research and hidden connections.
It could also be interesting for people with interest in social and psychological studies, particularly those relating to self-destructive teen women.
Who should give this a pass
I would not recommend Clarkston’s Curse to readers who like a solid premise. This is no book for anyone looking for a strong horror narrative, despite its title.
Additionally, this is not a good choice for people who enjoy structural logic in books.
Conclusions and suggestions
Ms Johns is a good writer in the sense that her use of language, her descriptions and dialogues, come across clearly so that it is an enjoyable despite the gruesomeness. Sadly, the incongruence of the jumps in the narrative, both in connection, subject and time, as well as the sudden breaks and starts of chapters, overwhelm the reading experience.
Given I could find no explanation for it other than it being a gimmick to create mystery and confusion, I felt increasingly detached from the stories. In fact, in the last third of the book I had lost all investment in the events and characters. I read through to the end both as a matter of professionalism and a hope that there would be a good explanation to tie it all up. Alas, there was none.
I do think Ms Johns has both the skill and subject matter for a good book, but this is not it. Something got lost between planning and editing this work, so that the reader got lost too. Nevertheless, it is still a good example of the delicate matter of using our own lives as subject-matter.
To anyone with a similar idea (i.e. writing a memoir to explore a mystery from their youth), I would remind:
· Make sure the reader can follow along.
· Have a solid solution to the mystery.
· Follow a structure – chronology is best when talking about lives.
· There’s a difference between a book, and therapeutic writing.
· Repetition is important, but should be handled like salt: sparingly and wisely, to increase taste rather than make us wince at the excess.