CR volunteer Brian Trapp is haunted. If you see him from a distance, you might think the noxious-looking cloud wafting behind him is indicative of a Pigpen-like stench, but really Brian smells okay (a bit like cashews, actually). The emanations trailing him like a comet’s gaseous tail are, in fact, [booming voice here] HIS DEMONS. Because he leads a cursed existence, we feel sorry for the guy, which is why we overlook it when Brian mutters darkly over his shoulder, burns the hair off his arm with his lighter, or drinks so much at parties that he loses skin tone.
Considering his plague-o-phantasms, it’s no surprise that when Brian picked a piece from our current issue to write on for the blog, he chose Steve Amick’s “Not Even Lions and Tigers,” a ghost story rooted in the actual and factual—with a throng of done-wrong souls that makes Brian’s own spectral assemblage seem like so many annoying uncles.
Brian Trapp: The premise of “Not Even Lions and Tigers” is the kind that I enjoy most: The seemingly fantastic is only a slight exaggeration from the absurd truth. Steve Amick’s main character and narrator, Harry Bennett, was a real-life executive of the Ford Motor Company. A former boxer, sailor, and all around street-tough, Bennett was “discovered” at a bar fight and eventually put in charge of the Ford Service Department, a clandestine and violent organization (part mob, part CIA) entrusted with busting unions and “settling” labor disputes, if you know what I mean. The man had a lot of enemies and was more than a little paranoid. He built immense fortifications dubbed “The Lodge” and “The Castle,” complete with dynamited moats, secret passageways, caches of arms and ammunition, escape routes, and, yes, lions and tigers.
While anyone can learn these things about Harry Bennett, Steve Amick takes the historical details and gives us back something even stranger and more wonderful. Told in a disarming free-indirect style, the story begins with Bennett convinced “his hunting lodge now had a full-blown infestation of haints.” He’s not sure who these ghosts are, but suspects that they’re some of the union agitators he’s snuffed out around the property. He flees from one stronghold to the other, but the haints follow. In comic escalation, Bennett squirms, going to greater lengths to disavow responsibility.
One of many moments that made me laugh out loud occurs as Bennett takes a bath to unwind. He hears one of the haints say, “Sou-oopp . . . !” Bennett thinks: “No one was turning up the boil on Harry Herbert Bennett, thank you very much. He would not be ingredients. Not today.” The story is full of moments like this. Amick renders Bennett as comic and pathetic without demeaning him, a skillful balancing act. In one poignant moment, Bennett recounts his “big break” meeting Henry Ford and teeters into self-pity, thinking of his younger self: “Before he knows it, it’s his life and maybe he’s kind of lost his way.”
With its well-crafted unreliable narrator, the story treads the line between paranoia and the paranormal, as any good ghost story should. I won’t be “that guy” who ruins the ending for everyone who hasn’t read it, but as Bennett makes his final dash, Amick ends with these fantastic lines: “He wished there wasn’t a moon tonight. Big bare bulb of a moon, looking down at him like that. Big know-it-all moon.” Bennett can’t hide, and neither can we.
Through Bennett, Amick shows how our conscience can manifest in mysterious ways. The piece is political without being overbearing or reductive, and in blending fact and fiction, it demonstrates that truth is not stranger than fiction, but equally strange.
In this spirit, after you finish reading this story, I recommend a family field trip to the outskirts of Farwell and Ann Arbor, where (clutching your Cincinnati Review) you can view both the Lodge and the Castle and re-enact Bennett’s flight from the “haints.” I’m slated to go at the end of August. Maybe I’ll see you there.