The Yam Sham by Avery Debow

Thanksgiving.

Norman Rockwell has ruined it for all of us.  Despite wild efforts to attain that perfect picture of familial cohesion and harmony, a blot always seems to mar the attempted reproduction.

You know how it goes—the pie crust burns;  the dishes pile high enough to graze the dust bunnies clinging to the ceiling fan; your old boyfriend shows up and sets about unnerving your dinner guests; your best friend develops a conscience about the historical ramifications of the day; and your other best friend is cursed with a range of diseases by a vengeful Chumash Indian spirit.

Something always seems to take away from that imagined, quintessential American moment, and turn it into something meaner, something un-Rockwellian.  That truth comes to light—especially in a genre driven television series.

In an episode entitled “Pangs,” stressed, lonely Buffy  the Vampire Slayer delves into her memory’s rendition of a perfect holiday—the Rockwell Holiday.  With no family to speak of, she forces friends into the conventional roles of patriarch and kin.  Even as vengeful Chumash spirits descend with bows, arrows, and mystical bears, turning the perfect table setting into kindling, Buffy refuses to relinquish her hold on the Great American Turkey Dream.

Clark Kent fares no better in the Season 10 episode of  Smallville, entitled, “Ambush.”  Finally united with his true love, Lois, Clark settles in for a cozy Thanksgiving for two when Lois’ sister and militant, military father drop in.  The father harangues, the sister goads, and poor Clark runs around completing the herculean list of prove-you’re-worth-my-daughter chores the father has provided him.   It is only after Clark saves Lois from a deadly missile that he finally proves he is man enough to carve the turkey.

The shattered myth of the perfect Thanksgiving predates modern genre television, as well.  Poor Samantha Stevens, the beleaguered witch on Bewitched, has just pulled her turkey from the oven and declared it, “Gorgeous,” when dotty Aunt Clara comes thundering down her chimney and ends up sending the family back  in time to the first Thanksgiving.  As it turns out, even the very first Thanksgiving was hardly paradigmatic.  Almost immediately, the happy couple are separated according to conventions of the time.  The women are sent off to slave over kettles while Darren sits down to eat with the men—and winds up getting accused of witchcraft.

So, what do these shows teach us?  That television can be a bit silly, yes.  But, also that the notion of the perfect Thanksgiving, the one drummed into our heads since we were able to sit at the tiny table and hold a fork, is—as one Slayer aptly put it—a yam sham.

It is only a picture, an encapsulated moment, in which the intended spirit of Thanksgiving can ever shine through. The coming together for a holiday is the easy part.  It’s the sticking around—even when things go terribly, horribly wrong—that matters. And if no one has to stab a mystical, maddened bear in the dining room, well, that’s just the freshly whipped topping on the pumpkin pie.

ESP Spotlight: Off The Beaten Path Bookstore


Owner, Sal, behind the counter

I spent my Friday hanging out at a new bookstore called “Off The Beaten Path.” It’s the first steampunk themed bookstore I’ve been to and I found the experience rather charming.

The store, which opened on October 1st, specializes in speculative fiction. A selection of steampunk accessories and merchandise are available as well. There is also a cafe with beverages and munchies.

The bookstore hosts various events like “Tea with Steampunk Fairies” and drumming workshops.


Me with some steampunk merchandise

If you’re in the area and want to check it out, it’s located at:

23023 Orchard Lake Rd. Farmington, MI 48336

The store hours are:
•Monday – Thursday: 10 AM to 10 PM
•Friday and Saturday: 10 AM to 11 PM
•Sunday: 1 PM to 7 PM

Stop in and say hi to the owner, Sal. She’s always around the shop and ready with insightful conversation and tailored book recommendations.

I love the intimate experience that a specialty store like this provides. Come one out and support your local steampunk shop!

I’m also interested to hear if others have found stores like this popping up in their area. Share your experiences!


She-Devil: Demonic Possession, Family and Women in the Paranormal Activity Movies by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

She-Devil: Demonic Possession, Family and Women in the Paranormal Activity Movies

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Demonic possession is a female thing.

Sure, the devil  usually manifests itself in a male form (The Devil’s Advocate, Constantine, etc.), but it’s women who are most often possessed and chased by demons in movies (The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism, to note a few examples). One could chalk this up to the Gothic ancestors of the modern demonic film. It used to be that fragile women were tormented by ghosts (Turn of the Screw or The Haunting), but for the past few decades they’ve been upgraded to Lucifer.

For that reason, it’s interesting to watch Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2, and see them through the lens of family and female roles.

I have read the argument that The Exorcist is a movie about the danger of turning away from traditional family and social structures. The Exorcist, some critics have argued, is a cautionary tale of what happens when you have an atheist single-mother helming a household. The Entity could be read as another cautionary tale of what happens when a woman lives alone without a man. The Exorcism of Emily Rose warns young women looking to leave their home of what may happen when they depart the family fold, and the protection of their fathers.

Note that the women in the Paranormal Activity movies, despite maintaining traditional roles (one sister is a student with an interest in jewelry, the other a stay-at-home mom; both live with a male provider, in sharp contrast to the mother of The Exorcist) end up in the hands of a demon.

Demonic possession in these films is not the product of a risky action by the protagonist, such as eschewing a male protector. But the men chosen to be the protectors are foolish and, one might even say, irrelevant.

The women in both Paranormal Activity have a boyfriend or husband, but both of these men are either clueless or incapable of protecting them. In the original film, Micha’s macho male posturing and constant promises that he is going to solve the problem lead to nothing. In the sequel, Dan does not even believe there is a problem, and he cannot even provide a solution, turning to a woman (the spiritually attuned Mexican nanny) for help. The only thing the men in these movies seem capable of doing is fill their homes with cameras or shoot video footage, with the occasional profanity uttered.

While in The Exorcist a priest, representation of the traditional male order, would have waged a battle against evil, and won, here there is no victory.

One important factor to note is that neither of the men in the movie turn to a priest to perform an exorcism and aid their afflicted beloved one, despite knowing a demon is in their home.

I believe this reflects current anxieties about changing family roles, and values. Most people no longer attend church or temple every week. A 2006 online Harris Poll of adults in the United States showed that 26 percent of those surveyed attended religious services every week. Thus, it is no wonder, that the protagonists of the movies do not even consider seeking the priest. Contrast this attitude with, say The Amityville Horror, where the priest is asked to perform a blessing early on in the movie.

Thus, the movies seem to weave a cautionary tale of how families, vulnerable due to their lack of faith and the men who do not perform their traditional duties of protectors and saviours, will crumble in the face of evil. Demonic attacks are no longer the fault of the women who choose to be single-mothers, or play with the Ouija.

What then, do these films tell us? Women are ripe for paranormal attacks (an old tale), but unlike in the old days of horror films, they can no longer turn to the men for assistance. The men are too busy with their large TVs or video footage. Ladies, you’re on your own, the movie tells the protagonists.

The Atlantic Monthly recently had a story titled ” The End of Men, ” a story which seemed to be a fear-fest on how women may come to dominate the workforce and the world. At one point the author says “the men, self-conscious about their diminished status, stand stiffly, their hands by their sides, as the women twirl away.”

I think Paranormal Activity is reflection of these fears, of a changing social landscape. And though I think we are hardly at the age of The End of Men (the reports of that death are greatly exaggerated), one could see why a movie like Paranormal Activity, made at a time when the United States has faced a recession unseen in decades, such fears would pop up.

The micro-families of Paranormal Activity stand as representations of the United States at large; the underlying fear of these movies: that the world has changed, and no one knows how to cope with it.

When Fantasy Becomes Reality

The boundary between science fiction and science continues to thin. While no one expects to be able to go to a department store and pick up Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak,  if the New Journal of Physics is to be believed,  work with flexible metamaterials at visible wavelengths may actually make such gear possible, at least in a limited way.  Perhaps this research will allow the sort of cloaking device utilized on Star Trek.

In an article available on Physics World the manipulation of time may also be a target for research, at least on a limited level. According to the article, “the latest development, by Martin McCall and colleagues of Imperial College, London, and the University of Salford, might see cloaks add yet another dimension to their capability: time. The idea is to create a tunnel through which an object could perform an action – move or change shape, for example – while appearing as though it is doing nothing at all.”

And finally, Lovecraft would be thrilled, or perhaps horrified, by the latest word coming from researchers at CERN, who hope next year to prove the existence of other dimensions. While researchers will probably not see what “From Beyond’s” Crawford Tillinghast was able to perceive, they hope to at least be able to prove that alternate dimensions are a reality.

A Season For Ritual by Kate Jonez

Perhaps the feast isn’t always a good thing. One supposes it depends on the purpose of the feast and what exactly is being served.While many in the U.S. may view Thanksgiving as a season of overindulgence, they can at least be thankful that they aren’t required to attend these gatherings…

The Blot – Vikings

The Blot or blood sacrifice was performed any time throughout the year when the Vikings wanted to thank their gods or encourage their favor.  For the most part, animals provided the blood for the Blot. But according to one popular Viking saga, humans were occasionally used. This particular saga recounts the sacrifice of the king of the Swedes to Odin.  For an everyday average Blot, animals were the most likely victim. Once the animal had been slaughtered, its blood was gathered up in a bowl. The priest recited songs in honor of the gods and the bowl was passed through a flame three times. Once the blood was sanctified, the priest sprinkled blood on himself, then on everyone else.  As soon as everyone was sprinkled adequately the feasting began.

Sati – Hindi

In many cultures funerals are an occasion for community get-togethers and feasts. The Sati ritual is performed by the widow of the deceased when she throws herself onto the funeral pyre of her husband. The act ensures that the couple will remain together in the afterlife. Not considered an act of suicide, the Sati is a high act of piety and an expression of love for the departed spouse.  The origins of the Sati are a bit murky, however. While it is performed as a religious rite, there is not much evidence that the Sati had its origins in religious practice. One theory suggests that the Sati was introduced to prevent women from killing their wealthy husbands to free themselves up to marry their lovers. Supposedly a voluntary act, many times the surviving spouses needed at little extra urging to participate. Before it was outlawed in 1967 instances of  women being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the fire were common.

Bacchanalia – Rome

Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) spawned the mysterious Cult of Bacchus. Originally, only women and girls performed the Bacchanalian rites which included frolicking naked while drinking and dancing. But soon, news of the cult’s especially merry festivals spread throughout the region. By the time the Bacchanalia reached Rome, everyone, even slaves, were invited to participate in the revelry. On festival days partiers painted the horns of goats with gold. They dressed in fawn skins or nothing at all. Participants would often bring their favorite sex toys to the party. When night fell, the party really got going. Devotees of Bacchus, danced, drank, whirled, screamed and worked themselves up into a frenzy that culminated with a mosh pit of sexual abandon. Often, the festival include frantic feats of strength or endurance. Revelers might rip up trees by their roots or eat sacrificial animals raw. The whole thing ended with everyone jumping into the river with specially made water-proof torches. Since the fire still burned even in water this proved the everlasting nature of Bacchus’ power.

A Constitutional and Family Evil: Ruminations on the House of Usher

September 1839 issue of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine featuring the first appearance of "The Fall of the House of Usher."

The September 1839 issue of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, a monthly periodical published out of Philadelphia, came fresh off the press with probably little fanfare.  Along with its usual assortment of sporting articles, poetry, and reviews appeared a piece of fiction that few at the time might have guessed would live on as one of the greatest enduring masterpieces of American literature, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

In July 1839, Edgar Allan Poe signed on to serve as editor of the magazine, published by a well-to-do actor and comedian William Evans Burton. It was one of several editorships to which Poe was appointed, and he agreed to supply a certain amount of material for the magazine in exchange for $10 per week.  Along with a list of book reviews and poetry, Poe’s first story for Burton’s Magazine appeared in August 1839, followed that September by the first appearance of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  Thanks to the wonders of modern technology and Google books, interested parties can read a scan of the story’s first appearance in those pages here.

While Poe’s later pieces, most notably his poem “The Raven” published in 1845, did garner him some critical acclaim, evidence of how his earlier works were received is difficult to find. One can only guess at what people thought of “The Fall of the House of Usher” when it first appeared.  A horror story through and through, I can only guess with a grin at the reactions of folks as they read a tale like this for the first time in such an unassuming periodical. My own first readings of Poe took place in my teens, and now re-reading the tales twenty years later I find that I missed a lot.  Not just because of the unaccustomed use of language, but also because of Poe’s subtle inferences which can slip one’s notice without careful reading.

Poe masterfully, if heavy-handedly, invokes a sense of dread from the outset of his tale.  Told from the viewpoint of a childhood friend of Roderick Usher, the descriptions are at once thick with menace and foreboding as the narrator approaches the Usher estate.  I find in reading Poe that you must throw away everything you know about modern fiction and recognize that few had really done this kind of writing before—such dark and oppressive tales that force the issue of dread upon you—and that much of what’s considered cliché these days is simply pastiche of those who first and famously trod that ground.  Such is the case here. The language has a rhythmic cadence to it, as one might expect given Poe’s poetic skills, and drips with evocations of the dismal and dire.  The narrator at once feels the gloom of the Usher grounds forced suffocatingly upon him.

(It bears mentioning that the next four paragraphs contain damnable spoilers, so if you haven’t read the tale, please don’t ruin it for yourself by traipsing through my Internet prattle.)

Roger Corman's 1960 film adaptation starred Vincent Price with a screenplay by Richard Matheson

As the narrator marvels at the desolation of the grounds, he’s shocked to find his old friend in a similar state of deterioration, physically and mentally.  The house and Roderick Usher himself are tied closely together by Poe, making each minute detail of description relevant to the horrific outcome.  The house and grounds are in an extreme state of decay; Usher is seen in deep depression, demonstrating a manic sensitivity to noises, and a supposed delirium in which he professes belief that the plants and fungi growing outside the house possess a strange sentience.  We’re also introduced briefly to Roderick’s twin sister Madeline, suffering from maladies of her own, catalepsy among them. Despondent and seemingly divorced entirely from the world around her, she drifts through and disappears from the scene, only to turn up dead the next time she appears on the page.  The gripping conclusion of the tale comes after the narrator has helped the grieving Roderick entomb his “tenderly and deeply loved sister; his sole companion for many long years.”  The final horror rears its head as—in the midst of a raging storm—the great doors to the chamber in which Roderick and the narrator sit reading are flung open to reveal the deathly visage of his sister’s “corpse,” bloody and clawed out of her tomb, stumbling against her brother and frightening him literally to death.

Nuances of the tale leave a lot to the imagination. The sister is represented as having an illness that makes her appear deathlike, thus spurring her premature burial, so her return from the grave is explained by natural means.  Likewise a glow that appears around the House of Usher during a storm and just before his sister’s gruesome reappearance is explained as a “faintly luminous and distinctly visible” gas from the tarn, attributing the glow to natural phenomenon, as well.  Certainly Roderick’s behavior is easily explained as madness, but Poe, in his inimitable way, insinuates that a spiritual sickness has come upon the house, and leaves the door open for the possibility that the eventual fall of the House of Usher is at least in part due to some supernatural force that has come against the once-great family for some unidentified evil.  This “evil” itself is referenced twice — once by Roderick, who confides in his friend that he and his sister are victims of “a constitutional and family evil.”  The second reference comes in a poem* attributed in the tale to Roderick, in which “evil things, in robes of sorrow, assailed the monarch’s high estate.”

But is the nature of the Usher evil truly unidentified?

This is where I note an important detail of this tale that utterly escaped my notice in those long-gone teenage years of mine: “That the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family had lain in direct line of descent.” Simply put, in keeping with many ancient lines of nobility, the Ushers never bred outside the family.  Take this tidbit and add it to the mention of how “tenderly” Roderick loved his sister, how she was his “sole-companion for many years,” and an additional mention of “unnatural sensations” to which Roderick is given as a result of his illness, and you have grounds for suspicion of an incestuous relationship between them.

In the end, it is no mystery why “The Fall of the House of Usher” endures as an American literary classic.  It is rife with mood and atmosphere, nuances and layers, not the least of which is symbolism nowhere more evident than in the comparison between Roderick and his sister as the last of the Usher line, and the cracked and ruined estate itself, which falls, after their deaths, into a pile of rubble and is swallowed by the tarn.

Robert McCammon's Poe-inspired novel, Usher's Passing

The Ushers have gone on to be celebrated in film, book, and audio media.  B-movie king Roger Corman kicked off a run of Poe adaptations in 1960 with the Richard Matheson-scripted House of Usher.  The film starred Vincent Price and changed the dynamic of the story by turning Price into a kind of paternal big brother, and casting Madeline as a prisoner of the estate from which her fiancée must set her free.  The year 1984 saw an excellent and gripping homage to Poe’s story in the form of Usher’s Passing, a novel by Robert R. McCammon.  Usher’s Passing opens with a scene in which a “real” Usher tracks down Poe in a run-down bar and upbraids him for slandering his family, and then transitions to the modern-day following Rix Usher, an estranged son who returns to the grim and sprawling family estate as the clan’s patriarch lies dying.  In the book, Rix must struggle with not only what he is, but what — if anything — truly lurks on the grounds of the sprawling estate, and what’s behind the Ushers’ legacy of madness. More recently, Hellnotes reported the release of an original audio drama in the old-time-radio style, Macabre Mansion’s production of “The Fall of the House of Usher” starring Kevin Sorbo, John Billingsley, Bonita Friedericy, and Jim O’Rear as professional voice talents.  An updated film adaptation starring Austin Nichols was released in 2006.

No matter your opinion of the original tale or the adaptations and homages that have followed, there is no denying the Ushers are truly one of the greatest and best-known families in the horror genre lineage — American horror royalty.  If history is any indication, as the interest in Poe’s work as source material continues, we can expect that to remain true for many years to come.

*A footnote: The poem attributed to Roderick Usher was actually a poem by Poe that had been published as “The Haunted Palace” several months before the appearance of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  An interesting bit of trivia related to the poem’s title goes along with the Corman-Poe adaptations mentioned above. When Corman set out to make a film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” in 1963, the studio insisted on a Poe-related title because those films had done so well.  Thus Corman gave his Lovecraft adaptation the title of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace with a story credit to H.P. Lovecraft, and a screenplay by Charles Beaumont.

CHRISTOPHER FULBRIGHT is a recovering journalist turned technical writer who drinks lots of coffee, writes in dark rooms, and probably won’t live long enough read all the books in his library.  His horror novella THE BONE TREE will soon be released by Bad Moon Books, with a novel SCAVENGERS, co-written with his wife Angeline Hawkes, coming in 2011 from Elder Signs Press.  His home on the Web is http://www.christopherfulbright.com.

The Family Perspective

Sometimes re-examining films and fiction through a different lens opens up new interpretations and deepens appreciation. While looking for subtext, intentional and unintentional, may seem like a good deal of work for little pay-off, it can provoke surprising and worthwhile connections—or one might just end up with such trains of thought as: “Is Superman faster than The Flash?” or “Why can Goofy talk and not Pluto?”

For the sake of argument, let’s take a look at one  lens for examining contemporary film and fiction—the family—and see if we can get the ball rolling. Family and genre? For many the connection doesn’t immediately come to mind, but one  only has to recall Darth Vader’s proclamation, “Luke, I am your father!” and the stage is set.

So why the family?

First, we can all identify with the concept. Even if we come from a dysfunctional grouping, we can immediately empathize with the members of such a unit.

Consider Norman Bates and his mother, Norma. Before her untimely death, the woman attempted to shield her son from the outside world, especially from the corruption of women. Projecting onto all females her own failings, she instilled in her boy such a violent loathing that he was unable to resist giving into his mother’s personality when confronted with sexual urges. While no one will question the unhealthiness of this mother-son relationship, it immediately resonates with anyone who has ever felt smothered by a parent and shamed for urges outside that family’s acceptable system of values.

Another reason seeing genre from a family perspective is so useful is that the family is a breeding ground for conflict. Even the most  ideal unit has potential to explode.  It isn’t hard to imagine the perfect father rocking back and forth in his favorite chair, hands dripping with blood after snapping on a Sunday afternoon.

Look at the sisters in the undervalued horror film, Ginger Snaps. Ginger and Brenda are close in ways most would consider unhealthy, but their continued dependence is also a source of strength for these two outsiders, and admirable to an audience. We could argue the deepest horror in the film isn’t provided by the usual werewolf or horror film tropes, but by the threat the supernatural presents to the sisters’ relationship. The pain they inflict on one another is more profound than any other emotional goal set by the film makers.

Lastly, the family lens feels natural. We are by nature social animals and the family is our first grouping. We feel comfortable and safe within its bosom. It doesn’t matter what form a family takes. People of different ages and backgrounds  can come together and create a unit for self-validation.

If we stop and think about several of the most successful genre films in the last year or so, peering at them through the family filter, it opens up interesting discussion. Rethink the use of family relationships and the possible statements made, even those expressed unintentionally, in Paranormal Activity II, Let Me In, The Last Exorcism, and Avatar . Give pause to how each uses family dynamics to create tension and develop character and  theme.

It’s just a lens, just a way of experiencing literature and film. Maybe it’s a conceit. Or maybe looking beyond the initial impressions brings the reader and writer closer and  deepens the experience.

James Cameron at TED

James Cameron has given much to the world of genre. His 1984 low-budget science fiction thriller, Terminator, spawned a franchise and helped solidify the star status of Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Working with other talents.  After working on several other successful  genre films, he produced one of the most successful motion pictures of all time—Titanic.  This blockbuster gave him the economic freedom to devote himself to several underwater documentaries and also to work with new film technologies would make his most recent triumph, Avatar, possible.

In February, 2010, he appeared at a TED conference and discussed his success and approach to technology and film-making.

Avery DeBow

Avery DeBow began writing after winning the zealous fandom of her third grade teacher with the abstractly illustrated flash piece, Crab Volleyball. Since making the difficult decision to move away from narrow market of aquatic arthropod fiction, Avery has devoted her literary energies to the dark fantasy genre.  Her first novel, Resonance, will soon be released in multiple ebook formats.

Visit Avery on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AveryDeB, and on her blog at http://www.averydebow.blogspot.com

Chas’ Family

Charles Addams began inking his twisted one panel cartoons in the New Yorker back in 1938 and continued until his death in 1998. While consistently steeped in black humor, the panels didn’t regularly begin to feature the cohesive family unit known and loved as The Addams Family until the forties, when apparently Addams did an illustration for the Bradbury short story “The Homecoming,” a tale about a family of vampires named the Elliots. They hoped to collaborate on an entire book about the family. When this project didn’t pan out, Addams continued developing his own family of oddballs until they eventually coalesced into the Addamses, when ABC requested their creator give them names for the television series.

The cartoonist was either a brilliant eccentrist, or a brilliant self-promoter. or both. Stories about his dark wit and unusual habits flowed through creative circles for decades, mostly at Addams’ instigation. Biographer Linda H. Davis, in her book Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life (Random House, 2006)  describes Addams eccentricties with a wry tone.
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“He visited snake farms. He was known to picnic in graveyards, and he sometimes took souvenirs. Friends of the cartoonist noted that it was always at Charlie’s instigation that they found themselves dropping in at the “booby hatch,” or the winter home of the Ringling Bros. circus freaks in Sarasota, Florida. “Charlie, what about you? What did you do over the weekend?” cartoonist Mort Gerberg asked Addams over lunch one day when the mundane conversation had turned to the subject of gypsy moths. “Well, it was really such a nice day on Sunday, I decided to take a friend for a drive — to Creedmore,” said Addams, referring to the state psychiatric facility in Queens. Gerberg wasn’t sure whether he was kidding.”
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Even his passing was noted with typical Addams wit. He died of a heart attack within his parked car. His wife, according to the New York Times, commented: “He’s always been a car buff, so it was a nice way to go.”
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After a few incarnations of the television show and three films, Addams’ legacy continues with a Broadway musical production of The Addams Family. Furthermore, there is the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation, dedicated to “advancing the artistic acheivement of the American cartoonist, Charles Addams.”