By Russell Brickey
After midnight. New York City. A shadow disengages and sucker-punches Ohioan Chris Barzak square on the chin — “The hardest hit I’ve ever felt in my life,” he says — sending the writer sprawling to the sidewalk. The jolt is so great, he is knocked from his flip-flops. But rather than staying down, Barzak picks himself up, shouting and cursing, and repeatedly whips his assailant across the face with the sharp edge of his iPhone until the man and his accomplice, who materializes a moment later, run away. Literally, Barzak has just used his cellphone to fight off would-be muggers.
After he posts his New York misadventure on Facebook, friends from home start riposting with “that’ll-show-them-not-to-mess-with-Youngstown” style comments. Yes, Barzak broke his arm just below the shoulder when he hit the pavement, and it will take months of rehab to regain full motion without pain. But he is undaunted. Within days of the incident, Barzak comments on iPhone’s Facebook page that their phone is both durable and, when the need arises, great for a little whoopass.
[blocktext align=”right”]The novel,which inspired the newly released feature film Jamie Marks Is Dead, is about a youth haunted as much by his surroundings as by the violence inherent in a culture of defeat.[/blocktext]This confluence of toughness, resilience, and humor is just right for a novelist from the Rust Belt. Barzak is not particularly tall, but he’s compact, like a wrestler, and strong across the shoulders. If you put a hardhat on Barzak’s head, he would not look out of place shoving a wheelbarrow past a backhoe or manhandling a jackhammer in a haze of cement dust—the kind of guy you can imagine duking it out with a mugger. At the same time, he knows where to find the best sushi in Youngstown: Michael Alberini’s, an Italian restaurant, “but only on Wednesday nights. They fly in fresh fish from I-don’t-know-where.” Barzak’s hands vibrate when he talks, as if he is both jazzed by the world’s most potent energy drink and nervous about some impending public performance. His voice is high and gentle and tends to rise even higher as he speaks. His pale blue eyes focus distantly, and the ends of his sentences are frequently cushioned by a friendly, galloping chuckle that counterbalances the perception of nerves. And he’s a really nice guy who writes ambitious, genre-bending horror.
Barzak has made a career writing about the Rust Belt and its supernatural possibilities. One of the few writers giving voice to the region’s flyover fields and streets, he has been recognized with a Shirley Jackson Award, a Crawford Fantasy Award, and four nominations for the prestigious Nebula Award, among several other honors.
One for Sorrow, the first of Barzak’s four books, is among a thimbleful of fiction set in this region of closing steel mills, shuttered stores, white flight, food deserts, and a steadily demoralized and deserting populace. The novel, which inspired the newly released feature film Jamie Marks Is Dead, is about a youth haunted as much by his surroundings as by the violence inherent in a culture of defeat. Barzak’s protagonist, Adam McCormick, is a fifteen-year-old high school jock who befriends one of the adolescent misfits, Jamie Marks, so ubiquitous to American secondary education. When another fellow student, Gracie Highsmith, finds Jamie buried in a shallow grave, the three teenagers enter a supernatural love triangle. Jamie is not a spooky, vengeful ghost, but a friend. Love for the trio only becomes apparent in the midst of grief.
“I wasn’t writing a whodunnit,” as in most ghost story murder mysteries, Barzak says, “but a coming-of-age story. You are seeing things the way Jamie does. And it’s a story about Adam — does he accept life or death? I wanted a story about a population whose worldview has been shaped by decline.”
Barzak’s own coming-of-age foreshadows his preoccupations as a writer. He grew up among acres of hope and ruin, watching Buckeyes fight through a lifetime of economic downturn. His family stretches like a root system connecting bumps on the map into a communal organism. His grandmother hails from the agrarian wilds of Cherry Valley Township located between the shores of Lake Erie and the cashew-shaped Pymatuning Reservoir, and his grandfather grew up in the post-steel industry hamlet of Warren. They raised their family on a farm in Johnston. His mother, a gradeschool teacher, grew up north of the worst-named manmade lake in existence, “Mosquito Lake.” Barzak says he grew up “just over the tracks” from Youngstown — an interesting description, considering Jamie’s ghost in One for Sorrow is found buried next to a railroad. These are salt-of-the-earth Buckeyes, not the kind of people you associate with haunted landscapes. Yet Barzak comes naturally to the supernatural.
“I was attached to my grandparents,” Barzak says. “They were storytellers — usually about real events, but occasionally my grandmother would bring out these stories … and hearing her ghost stories made me want to see a ghost.”
One day, when he was about eight, Barzak got his wish. The youngest brother by a number of years, Barzak spent a lot of time playing alone. He was down by a creekbed on his family’s land in Trumbull County when something caught his eye.
“I saw a shadow of a man standing back by the creekbed. But it wasn’t like a man. It was more like an unmoving shape of a man,” Barzak says, laughing now at the memory. “He was wearing a broad-brimmed hat, arms crossed, and standing very still.” Young Barzak fled for the house and the safety of adult company. When he told his grandmother what he had seen, she nodded knowingly. “That was just the man we bought this place from,” she said. “Don’t pay him any mind.”
In Barzak’s horror fiction, the dead and the living share the same space and often interact as everyday people would. “Grief and anger allows my characters to see ghosts,” he says. What is evident when he writes about the land is that Barzak clearly loves his homeland, but he is adamant about its sense of loneliness and defeat.
“I love the place, warts and all,” Barzak says, “but I think the landscape has been devastated and this also gives it a beauty. Your eye for beauty has to adapt. It can be found in something as simple as a disintegrating house or an abandoned church.” Such beauty has stories which need to be told, even if, according to Barzak, “they go against the grain of American progress and growth.”
Barzak uses local scenery in One for Sorrow, naming actual streets and towns, and describing the beautiful gloom of the countryside. Sometimes the main characters — two living teenagers, one dead — walk among the deserted wild scrub of Trumbull County, sometimes they hide in dark homes ruined by generations of family violence, and sometimes they cross over into “dead space” where “men without skin,” living corpses of exposed flesh, wander through a forest filled with howling wolves that are only heard, never seen.
At one point, after crossing through dead space, Jamie and Adam jump across time and geography to find themselves entering downtown Youngstown. What Adam sees reflects the overarching economic and environmental troubles of the region.
The valley itself was a wasteland. Vacant factories with smashed-up windows. Black scars on the ground where steel mills had been demolished by their owners years ago. Yellow-brown weeds and thorny bushes. Leftover machine parts. Rotting car frames and engines. Rusty metal workings. Toilets covered in strange stains. Broken forty ounce beer bottles. Couches with springs curling out of the stuffing.
Since this is a paranormal drama, the dead are everywhere. Unlike Hollywood ghosts which seek out little kids who “see dead people,” Barzak’s undead tend to lurk in doorways, smoking, or wander beneath train trellises, picking through the garbage. They almost seem like living people. Jamie Marks, the eponymous murder victim in the movie, spends a lot of his time playing a video game (“Nevermorrow,” made up for the novel) and making a mess by trying on his living friend’s clothing. Death is familiar, even pedestrian in the novel. The thing about this quietly supernatural dystopia is that it’s sometimes hard to tell whether you’re wandering through the world of the living or the world of the dead — kind of like Youngstown itself, where neighborhoods of wooden row houses look like an Edward Hopper still life painted after a pandemic. Old men on porches stare as you drive past. Grass sprouts jaggedly through cracks in the sidewalk. Elderly cars trundle along narrow streets, rust-worn and clanking, while newer models are suspiciously mint condition and expensive, their polished sides ostentatiously reflecting the dilapidated neighborhoods they charge through. They all bump and rattle over blacktop so potholed it looks like it’s been strafed.
[blocktext align=”right”]…it’s sometimes hard to tell whether you’re wandering through the world of the living or the world of the dead — kind of like Youngstown itself, where neighborhoods of wooden row houses look like an Edward Hopper still life painted after a pandemic.[/blocktext]One could easily become hopeless on overcast nights amid rusty acres of derelict steel mills and the eyeless “nightflight” houses with their small, mottled jungles of weeds and wildly overgrown lawns. But despite its ailing gut, Youngstown refuses to die. It took some distance for Barzak to appreciate that. He lived in California and Michigan and spent two years teaching grade school in Japan before returning to Youngstown and writing One for Sorrow at age twenty-seven.
“When I came back I had fresher eyes,” he says, “and I saw that the place may not ever be what it was, but things change, and that’s okay.”
Despite the focus on devastation, rejuvenation is at the heart of both the novel and the movie. Barzak memorializes his city’s struggle for rebirth and views his writing as participation in that struggle, a form of civic duty.
“Traditionally, the patriot’s duty was to comment,” he says. “The things that have gotten fixed in the last ten years are because people have spoken up.”
For his own part, the author actually puts hope into action. At his alma mater Youngstown State, where Barzak is now a tenured professor of creative writing, he takes his writing students on tours of downtown, pointing out new shops and restaurants that were not there when he was a child.
Barzak could be a synecdoche of this growth: he has hit the big time. His new novel, also a quirky ghost story, is due out from Knopf next year, and Barzak hopes Jamie Marks is Dead will have an afterlife like Donnie Darko, another indie flick about a messed-up kid half in this world, half in the next one. Barzak’s movie — starring Liv Tyler, Judy Greer, and up-and-comers Cameron Monaghan, Morgan Saylor, and Noah Silver — debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and is now making rounds in major cities across the US and in Europe. In Paris recently, 1,500 people lined up outside the theater for an advance screening.
Even though Barzak could trade up his academic and creative credentials to a university where he is paid more and teaches less, he seems extraordinarily grateful for his time at YSU.
“I had so much attention from my own profs there,” he says. “I was nurtured in a way I never would have gotten elsewhere.” Perhaps this created the author. His family was worried that he’d “always live in the basement” after completing a Master of Fine Arts at Chatham University. “I never lived in the basement,” he clarifies. Next year Barzak is set to take over as director of the joint Ohio universities’ MFA program — a multicampus consortium spanning Youngstown, Cleveland, Kent, and Akron — and take on the writer’s dread nemesis: administrative work. Still, he cannot see himself anywhere else.
“Sometimes I get flashbacks,” he says. “Walking around, I see my own little ghosts here.”
Russell Brickey is a Youngstown, OH-based writer.
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