3 min

King Tut’s curse

A life told between the real & imaginary

Credit: Xtra files

Toronto writer and video artist RM Vaughan can do fiction. He proved that in a slim and smart first novel published five years ago. A Quilted Heart told a macabre tale of love and murder in deliciously tart prose, such as this snapshot of an encounter between old money and new art: “The gallery was a white, cold rectangle lit by aluminum potlights. Samson had grown up in gilt, in panelled rooms where paintings sat like pet reptiles under tiny lamps. Annoyed, he stared down the exaggerated, hotly painted works and watched the guests chatter at the corners of the frames, as if warming their hands.”

Labouring under the weight of early success, Vaughan’s second novel, Spells, never quite matches that level of keen observation and expressive precision.

We open in a St John, New Brunswick, Woolco store in 1972. Pubescent Andy Loch and his creepy, know-it-all dad, Al, are in the pet section looking at Siamese fighting fish, Andy’s choice for a new addition to his aquarium – and an apt one. The creatures pick fights with their own image. Andy and his father have a habit of childish bickering, but it’s the controlling daddy who picks these fights, and insists on playing them through to their petty ends.

Andy has other issues: fat (too much) and masculinity (not enough). Pudgy and fruity, he’s doubly cursed. “Girls treated him like a half girl, a girl they didn’t really trust. Boys treated him like a full girl, a girl they didn’t want around.” An additional burden is his conviction that dad is, “a witch… a real witch with powers and magic.” Al’s fatherly wisdom includes the news that women pee out of their bums. Andy tends not to challenge his dad’s whoppers, mostly as appeasement. How else do you respond to mealy-mouthed monologues along the lines of, “Now you be good to me and not be saucy or bad, because I love you. I take you to the store and buy you new fish because I want you to be nice to me and be good at home and not be mean or fight with me.”

At 13 Andy meets his first-ever best friend in the grotty men’s room of a local diner. Stacey is giddy drunk and has just vomited up her hot chicken sandwich in a toilet stall. Andy is summoned from the adjacent urinal to help Stacey find her shoes. The scene is a study in farcical gross-out. The shoes end up in the barfy bowl. Stacey fishes them out and spin-dries them over her head, “spraying the stall, the ceiling, the next stall over, and Andy with runny, warm bits of carrot, chicken and poorly chewed bread.” She smells “sweaty, like a boiled ham.” Andy is smitten. They become fractious sisters.

Both Andy and Al hallucinate without warning, seeing vultures in the bathroom or giant bird claws hovering in the sky. Then we move into full narrative hallucination. Stacey’s dumb jock, mouth-breather of a boyfriend is decapitated by a flying side-view mirror, torn from a police cruiser that’s sideswiped by Al’s car.

Meanwhile in a California orange grove, a woman called Four (short for Fourth Conspirator) joins other Conspirators in a terrorism plot against the touring King Tut exhibition. Andy is driven to Toronto by his dad’s cop buddy, Dan, to see Tut. In a motel bedroom, pudgy kid and burly cop have boyish sex in the middle of the night, and next morning pretend it didn’t happen.

Back home, pregnant Stacey reprises her careless use of public facilities by spontaneously miscarrying in a washroom cubicle. “It just came out. Like a shit,” she tells her annoyed mom afterward. It’s a weird passage, feeling somewhere between sad and simply ghastly, revealing the black currents under Vaughan’s cartoonish surface.

The Conspirators plan to bomb Tut in Toronto, and kindly supply Vaughan with a handy coincidence, arriving on the very day that Andy and officer Dan are among the crowd at the Art Gallery Of Ontario. Four detonates her purse bomb in a packed gallery, and body parts redo the room in shades of liver, crimson and pulmonary pink. Andy and Dan get liberally sprayed with gore but are otherwise unscathed.

But what really happens? Maybe the explosion was only a figment of Andy’s fevered, possibly Tut-cursed brain. And maybe the ensuing death of his father at home (his torso cleaved in half by a hex-driven shard of automobile glass) is also a figment. And does Andy actually go mad and chew all his fingers off, later to be found in a junked car and carted off to the loony bin?

It’s as if Vaughan can’t decide on what he wants to be real, or even what he wants us to understand about Andy’s actual or imaginary life. It’s a funhouse ride full of shock and shlock and half-hearted bursts of pathos, but finally little that seems worth the effort of comprehending.


RM Vaughan.

ECW Press.

220 pages. $19.95.