With He Is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson now safely released, my attentions have turned toward my next book—a poetry collection called Starkweather Dreams, to be brought forth into the world later this year by an eccentrically outstanding small press called Creative Guy Publishing. Check them out online at http://creativeguypublishing.com/.
As with my previous books of poems, Starkweather Dreams focuses on real-life people and events: in this case the notorious Nebraska spree killer Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend-accomplice, Caril Ann Fugate, who over a nine-day period in January 1958 murdered ten individuals, including Caril’s own mother, stepfather, and sister. A first killing, performed by Starkweather alone in early December, brought the ghastly total to eleven.
Starkweather was nineteen years old. Caril was fourteen.
She won’t know,
as the two figures materialize
on the road before them—a young man
with a shotgun, and a girl—that
In forty-seven minutes the young man
will be ripping a hunting knife
through her vagina,
Or that in forty-three minutes
he’ll be pulling the pants down
from her dead body,
Or that in thirty-eight minutes
he’ll place the shotgun behind her head
and burst her brain like crushing an egg,
Or that in thirty-seven minutes
he’ll order her to walk down
the steps of the storm cellar,
Or that in thirty-five minutes
she’ll stand in the Nebraska night
unable to move for terror or breathe,
Or that in thirty-four minutes
she’ll watch him shove her fiancé Bob
down the steps and explode six shots
into the back of his skull,
Or that in twenty-eight minutes
he’ll march both of them
across the frozen ground, shotgun
at their backs,
Or that in twenty-five minutes
he’ll order them both out
of the truck, the girl holding
the gun on them as they move,
Or that in twenty-two minutes
he’ll demand that they pull over here,
stop right here, while the girl tells them
they damn well better do it,
Or that in sixteen minutes
the shotgun will be aimed at Bob’s neck
while the girl rifles through his wallet
and extracts four dollars,
Or that in twelve minutes
the young man will declare You just do
what I tell you and you won’t get hurt,
Or that in four minutes
Bob will ask Don’t you drive
a Ford? Black? ’49?
Or that in two minutes
he’ll turn the truck around
to give those kids a lift to town,
Or that in one minute
he’ll look at her and say, We should
pick ’em up, I think I know that guy,
Or that in one second
two figures will materialize
on the road before them, a young man
with a shotgun, and a girl….
(Originally published in Poet Lore)
There was a time when Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate were as famous, and as notorious, as Al Capone or John Wilkes Booth or Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. In fact, when a publisher brought out a major biography of Fugate a full fifteen years after the killings, the complete title of the book was simply Caril. No explanatory subtitle was required.
Well, that was a long time ago. Caril Ann Fugate’s name has no currency today, and as for Starkweather, well, he is still remembered as an infamous killer, but few seem to recall exactly which one he was—there have been so many. Was he the man who shot all those people from a tower in Texas? The guy who killed all those nurses? The one who…?
In fact, Starkweather was a bow-legged kid who wore glasses and dreamed of being like his heroes in the movies—Mitchum, Bogart, Brando, James Dean. He came from a background of poverty-stricken, uneducated people, and was a poor student himself; the local school system had tested his intelligence and found it at the low end of the scale of normality (“dull-normal”). He left school after ninth grade and became a garbage collector.
Numbered for the Bottom
He sees, at sixteen, how the world works.
His hands bruised, torn, infected half the time
from the garbage he hauls, chucking great
bins filled with rancid cheese, rotten meat,
paint cans, maggoty rats, his body drenched
in the filth of it, the stench that brands him,
that doesn’t go away no matter how he washes
and scrubs. Even if he puts on a jacket and tie,
takes a girl to a nice restaurant with proper silver
and cloth napkins, he knows they’re laughing
at him, garbage man in fancy pants, dumb-looking
as a little girl in her mother’s cocktail dress.
They had me numbered for the bottom, he’d say
later, even then wondering who did the numbering
in this world, wondering if he could rip away
someone’s other, better number, re-number
the entire earth, before his own number was up.
(Originally published in Poetic Voices Without Borders 2)
The Skins of Dead Men
He does what he can to dress
like the man he should be:
but thrift shops don’t have atomic-white
form-fitting T-shirts, or bright red
windbreakers with collars
that angle just so, or blue jeans that hug
your groin tight like a woman, so
Charlie’s shirts are stained gray
in the armpits, his windbreaker too big
and not red at all, his blue jeans
colorless, too loose, ripped at the crotch
and fixed with heavy black thread
that’s slowly unraveling.
In the mirror, without
his glasses, he can convince himself
for a moment of his swaggering cool,
but if he moves at all it’s
Stumblebum City, bumping into walls,
knocking over tables, and yet with them on
he sees himself, knows
himself for what he is, cut-rate, fake,
a Salvation Army Dean, and he knows
that the people who’d owned these clothes
would have despised him as everyone
everywhere despises him, and later he’ll say
it was like wearing their skins, being in
those clothes, like wearing the skins
of dead men, and it makes him dead, him,
Charlie Starkweather, doomed from the start
to be dead, to die, to keep on dying.
(Originally published in Tamaphyr Mountain Poetry)
Cultural memories of all but the most spectacular murderers are short, and while Starkweather (who was executed in 1959) was spectacular in his day, he has since been outstripped by any number of psychopaths with higher body counts or more grisly methods of killing. The Manson Family, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Green River Killer…it’s a long list. Still, the idea of Starkweather and Fugate—teenaged killers on the run—has survived, at least in fictionalized form. A number of movies, including Badlands and Natural Born Killers, were inspired by the murders.
What has fascinated me in reading and dreaming about this case has been less Starkweather himself—a young man often bullied and ridiculed, who finally lashed out in the kind of ecstatic rage we would associate later with the Columbine killers—than his girlfriend, whose role in the killings has been debated for fifty years. After their arrests, Caril consistently claimed that Starkweather had held her hostage and that she’d had no choice but to participate in the murders. What she was unable to explain was why she made no attempt to escape him, despite numerous opportunities she’d had when they were in public places together. There were even occasions when she’d gone into stores and restaurants alone to get them supplies.
Caril’s story did not hold up, and she was sentenced to life in prison at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women. Having served seventeen years, she was paroled in 1976, after which she became a medical janitor, a position from which she is said to have since retired. She is reported to be living quietly in Michigan today.
Reading about the case, I found myself thinking about all the fourteen-year-old girls I’ve known in my capacity as a teacher.
What have I learned about them over all these years?
Mostly that, my God, a fourteen-year-old girl is young.
She’s even younger when, like Caril, she has learning disabilities, social adjustment issues, and comes from a broken home only imperfectly mended by her stepfather, a man twenty-two years older than her mother and known as a stern, old-fashioned disciplinarian. Add a new half-sister—blood relative to the stepfather as Caril could never be—and all the ingredients for an adolescent girl’s anger, resentment, anxiety, and confusion are in place.
Once she stands naked
before her bedroom mirror,
leans close to the glass, studies
her forehead, then slams it
hard with the heel of her hand.
Stupid, stupid, stop being stupid,
she whispers, repeating what
her teacher had said to her that day,
Caril Ann, a year behind
everyone else, math skills bad,
reading skills bad, spelling, everything
bad, just plain, well, stupid,
that’s all, and she bangs her head
again and again, making it hurt,
trying to dislodge the brains
she feels sure must be in there somewhere,
hits herself until tears of rage fly down
her cheeks, spatter her shoulders
and stomach, hiding the other tears
she’ll always refuse to set free, to see.
Such a girl is all too eager to be impressed by a nineteen-year-old in a James Dean windbreaker—one who drives his own car.
They tell her to stay away from him,
too old for her, good-for-nothing
garbage man, and she pictures him
covered in garbage, sees herself
licking garbage from his face,
mustard, oil, butter, grease,
eating garbage from his clothes,
old newspapers, hamburger wrappers,
wilted lettuce leaves, bloody Kotexes:
until he’s clean again, until they both are,
like snow, like sun, unsoiled, baby-pure.
Is her background an excuse? No, but surely it offers something of an explanation. When violence broke out in Caril’s home—Starkweather was arguing with her parents about how much time she was spending with him when he grabbed a nearby rifle, shot both parents and then killed Caril’s half-sister with the butt of the gun—it’s hardly a wonder that she was frozen into submission. This was a deeply troubled child whose world ended in a single cataclysmic instant. She had no money, no education, no home, no future. Nothing but her boyfriend, Charlie Starkweather.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Starkweather Dreams (subtitled Landscape With Figures) is moving through the production line at Creative Guy now. I’ve checked proofs twice, and a cover is being designed around a wonderful painting by the great Matt Sesow. With any luck we’ll be seeing the book soon. I think it’s one of my best, and some other worthy folks seem to like it too.
“…Christopher Conlon follows up his other masterful verse portraits (Gilbert and Garbo in Love, The Weeping Time, Mary Falls) with this stark—no pun intended—vision of inner torment and murder. In often savage, sometimes lyrical, and always jolting poetic images, Conlon word-paints a dark blood canvas which reveals the soul of one of history’s most notorious serial killers. Charlie Starkweather lives, loves, and death-dreams once again in these nightmare pages.” – William F. Nolan
“…If ‘True Crime Poetry’ is a genre, then Conlon is the reigning master of it, and this is his most accomplished work to date. Anyone who harbors a morbid curiosity for the underbelly of both life and love should spend some time with this dark and disturbing book of verse.” – Michael A. Arnzen
“…The poems in this collection deliver a series of searing portraits, often graphically violent and/or sexual, framed by the popular and everyday culture of that time. Recommended highly!” – Bruce Boston
I hope you’ll consider picking up a copy of Starkweather Dreams.