The Page 99 Test: Tony Trigilio & Inside the Walls of My Own House:
The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 2
“Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” ―Ford Madox Ford
Page ninety-nine opens the final section of my new book, Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 2. This page is a key pivot point for all that has come before and all that will follow in the book’s final fifty pages.
“I plan to call Book 2 of this poem / Inside the Walls of My Own House,” I write on page ninety-nine, “but it’s become The Book of Violence.” Even though The Book of Violence wouldn’t have been the most elegant title, it’s an accurate reflection of the book’s conceptual framework, and this discarded title is central to the volume as a whole.
At this point in the book, page ninety-nine, one of the central principles of the project becomes clearer: the imagination, even in its most powerful form as empathy, can’t easily undo the violence that gestates at its foundation.
First, some background. This is the second book of a multivolume experiment in autobiography. I’m watching all 1,225 episodes of the old vampire soap opera, Dark Shadows, originally broadcast on ABC TV from 1966-1971, and writing one sentence in response to each episode. I shape each sentence into verse. This book, like the first volume, is composed entirely in couplets (Book 3, in progress, is a poetry/prose hybrid).
Each episode functions as a potential trigger for the book’s autobiographical excavations. Proust had his madeleine; I have Barnabas Collins, the show’s main character, a two-centuries-old vampire who haunted my nightmares as a child.
The book’s title derives from my firm belief, as a child, that Barnabas lived inside the walls of our house and came out at night to stalk my dreams (and bite my neck). On page ninety-nine, though, Barnabas is situated inside the walls of a different home: a ghost from the eighteenth century has sealed him inside the walls of his mansion, the Old House (in the room that, in true goth fashion, once housed Barnabas’s coffin) and Barnabas is slowly suffocating.
“Perhaps my childhood nightmares / would’ve abated,” I write on page ninety-nine, “if I’d understood // Barnabas actually was dying inside / the walls of the Old House coffin room.”
My greatest childhood fear was that a vampire lived like an undead termite within our walls. But by page ninety-nine, the threat posed by Barnabas had been stifled in the very location that once nurtured it—inside the walls of our house.
I should’ve been soothed by this turn of events, but as I explain on page ninety-nine, “I was too afraid of the vampire / to empathize with him.” My fear of Barnabas’s violence was too strong for me to be moved by the violence done to him.
Page ninety-nine also emphasizes one of the primary tensions in the book—the clash between the show’s escapism and the real-world social turbulence that viewers in 1968 could not escape.
I was only two years old in 1968, watching the show day after day with my mother as one of the most violent years of the late-twentieth century unfolded. The year began with the Tet Offensive, one of the bloodiest campaigns of the U.S. war in Vietnam; Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated just a few months after Tet began; then two months later, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated (Valeria Solanas shot Andy Warhol the day before alleged Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan took target practice at a Southern California gun range); two months after RFK was murdered, the U.S. was shaken by the infamous police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
The book’s “catalog // of brutality,” as page ninety-nine describes the previous two sections, includes one of my earliest memories of violence, when the Ohio National Guard opened fire in 1970 on unarmed student protestors at Kent State University—just two hours from where I grew up, and where I earned my undergraduate degree—killing four and wounding nine. The Kent State shootings represent my first childhood recognition of the violent lengths the state will go to quash political dissent.
Because this book documents my present-day documenting of Dark Shadows, the violence is contemporary, and local, too. As I describe on pages ninety-nine to one hundred, this final section of the book was composed in July 2014, a year in which 1,254 people had been shot in Chicago by midsummer—a rate of nearly six per day.
Page ninety-nine functions as a reminder that our personal and political histories can be found lurking inside the walls of just about anywhere.
Tony Trigilio’s most recent collection of poetry is Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 2 (BlazeVOX [books], 2016). He is the editor of the chapbook Dispatches from the Body Politic: Interviews with Jan Beatty, Meg Day, and Douglas Kearney (Essay Press, forthcoming 2016), a collection of interviews from his poetry podcast Radio Free Albion. His other books include, most recently, The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 1 (BlazeVOX [books], 2014), White Noise (Apostrophe Books, 2013), and, as editor, Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments (Ahsahta Press, 2014).