The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Womenby James Ellroy
Legendary crime writer James Ellroy gives us a searing, candid memoir about his obsession with women, his related search for atonement, and his literary career.
The year was 1958. Jean Hilliker had divorced her hustler husband and resurrected her maiden name. Her son, James, was ten years old. In a dark moment, he “summoned her dead.” Three
Legendary crime writer James Ellroy gives us a searing, candid memoir about his obsession with women, his related search for atonement, and his literary career.
The year was 1958. Jean Hilliker had divorced her hustler husband and resurrected her maiden name. Her son, James, was ten years old. In a dark moment, he “summoned her dead.” Three months later she was murdered. The curse was evoked, and James Ellroy began his unending pursuit of women. Here, he unsparingly describes his shattered childhood, his delinquent teens, his writing life, his love affairs and marriages, his nervous breakdown, and the beginning of a relationship with an extraordinary woman who may just be the long-sought Her. A startling revelation, a treatise on guilt and the power of malediction, and above all, a heartfelt confession, The Hilliker Curse is a brilliant, soul-baring revelation of self.
“A remarkable memoir . . . Once again . . . Ellroy [has] come up with the goods.” —The Economist
“Terrible, exhilarating, exhauting, entertaining and downright tragic. It’s also brutally honest.” —Las Vegas Review Journal
“Perhaps the most confessional memoir I’ve ever read.” —The Dallas Morning News
“Ellroy is a remarkable storyteller, and The Hilliker Curse offers an abundance of his unmistakable gristle-and-bone prose style.” —The Onion A.V. Club
“To say that Ellroy's prose is fractured or fragmented is like saying that an Impressionist painting is smudged and unfocused. It misses the point and describes the shadow of the thing, not the thing's substance. The words bounce around in a world where tense is fluid, where hard-consonants rule the day, where conventional definitions are tossed on their heads. He pushes his readers’ limits by demanding that they enter a world created solely for the purpose of brutally truthful revelation.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“As fascinating as it is at times utterly disturbing.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Crime writer James Ellroy’s most compelling mystery story has always been his own. . . . But The Hilliker Curse is not meant to be merely a confession. It is an act of creation. . . . There’s a truth of feeling in it, too, an underlying sense of what it is actually like to live in the vortex of an impossible yearning. . . . Ellroy is expert and relentless at dramatizing the effects [of his obsession].” —Wall Street Journal
“What a breathless piece of writing this is. When it comes to pinning down the most startling possible word collision, Ellroy's acrobatic pizzazz is beyond doubt. . . . This is literary knife-throwing at its most exhilarating and dangerous.” —The Observer (London)
“There’s no doubt about it: James Ellroy is a fascinating character. . . . He’s as hard to ignore as a burning fire truck. . . . The revelations are compelling, as the author indicts the tough-guy persona he has so meticulously constructed.” —Booklist
“A fervent portrait of the artist as a young screw-up—an old one, too, who writes like an avenging angel. . . . It’s vintage Ellroy.” —Kirkus Reviews
Noted crime writer Ellroy (Blood's a Rover, 2009, etc.) presents a sharp-tongued, acidic memoir of his life and loves.
The author's loose-living mother, Jean Hilliker, has figured deeply in his previous work—one need only readThe Black Dahlia (1987); his father less so, and Ellroy paints him memorably: "He had the bunco-artist gab and the grin...He dodged work and schemed like Sergeant Bilko and the "Kingfish" on Amos & Andy. The pastor at my church called him 'the world's laziest white man.' He had a sixteen-inch schlong. It dangled out of his shorts. All his friends talked about it. This is not a wacked-out children's reconstruction." That's a volatile combination sure to leave marks on a young boy's psyche, but it's the mother's curse—to say just what it is would steal some of Ellroy's thunder—that really does him in. The author's '50s is not that ofLeave It to Beaver—not with Dad and Mom setting the examples. By the time he was 13, Ellroy was chugging cheap wine, peeping into windows and reading deeply into warlock-haunted literature that "formally sanctioned me to lie still and conjure women." Ah, and the women he conjured. There's Susan, who swigged cough syrup and downed stolen pills with him ("we talked classical music shit endlessly"); Charlotte (who "thought I drank too much"); Helen ("I lacked her omnivorous view of the world in all its lively flux. She lacked my brutal will"; and...well, a lot of ands, remembered over half a century in this Nabokovian exercise in time travel, with confessions of vice and addiction and, mostly, half-truths told and believed. It's vintage Ellroy, full of bile and invective and utterly unsparing to anyone—including the author himself, who manages to let slip away most of the good things he finds and spends a few fortunes in the bargain, yet keeps on plugging.
A fervent portrait of the artist as a young screw-up—an old one, too, who writes like an avenging angel.
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
The numbers don’t matter. It’s not a body count, a scratchpad list or a boast. Statistics obscure intent and meaning. My toll is therefore ambiguous. Girlfriends, wives, one-night stands, paid companions. Chaste early figures. A high-stat blitz later on. Quantity means shit in my case. Culminated contact means less than that. I was a watcher at the get-go. Visual access meant capture. The Curse incubated my narrative gift. My voyeur’s eye pre-honed it. I lived a kiddie version of my twisted heroes thirty years hence.
We’re looking. We’re eyeball-arched and orbing in orbit. We’re watching women. We want something enormous. My heroes don’t know it yet. Their virginal creator has not a clue. We don’t know that we’re reading personae. We’re looking so that we can stop looking. We crave the moral value of one woman. We’ll know Her when we see Her. In the meantime, we’ll look.
A document denotes my early fixation. It’s dated 2/17/55. It predates The Curse by three years. It’s a playground shot in Kodak black & white.
A jungle gym, two slides and a sandbox clutter the foreground. I’m standing alone, stage left. I’m lurchlike big and unkempt. My upheaval is evident. A stranger would mark me as a fucked-up child in everyday duress. I have beady eyes. They’re fixed on four girls, huddled stage right. The photo is rife with objects and children in lighthearted movement. I’m coiled in pure study. My scrutiny is staggeringly intense. I’ll re-read my mind from 55 years back.
These four girls bode as The Other. I’m a pious Lutheran boy. There can be only one. Is it her, her, her or Her?
I think my mother took the picture. A neutral parent would have cropped out the freako little boy. Jean Hilliker at 39: the pale skin and red hair, center- parted and tied back—my features and fierce eyes and a sure grace that I have never possessed.
The photo is a windowsill carving. I was still too young to roam unfettered and press my face up to the glass. My parents split the sheets later that year. Jean Hilliker got primary custody. She put my dad on skates and rolled him to a cheap pad a few blocks away. I snuck out for quick visits. High shrubs and drawn shades blocked my views en route. My mother told me that my father was spying on her. She sensed it. She said she saw smudge marks on her bedroom window. I read the divorce file years later. My father copped out to peeping. He said he peeped to indict my mother’s indigenous moral sloth.
He saw her having sex with a man. It did not legally justify his presence at her window. Windows were beacons. I knew it in my crazed-child rush to The Curse. I entered houses through windows a decade hence. I never left smudge marks. My mother and father taught me that.
She had the stones. He had the bunco-artist gab and the grin. She always worked. He dodged work and schemed like Sergeant Bilko and the Kingfish on Amos ’n’ Andy. The pastor at my church called him the “world’s laziest white man.” He had a sixteen-inch schlong. It dangled out of his shorts. All his friends talked about it. This is not a whacked-out child’s reconstruction.
Jean Hilliker got bourbon-bombed and blasted the Brahms concertos. Armand Ellroy subscribed to scandal rags and skin magazines. I got two days a week with him. He let me stare out his front window and fuck with his binoculars. My ninth birthday arrived. My mother got me a new church suit. My dad asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted a pair of X-ray eyeglasses. I saw them advertised in a comic book.
He yukked and said, Okay. He sent a buck in through the U.S. mail. My wait was grindingly attenuated. I made lists of all the school and church girls that I could see naked. I concocted ways to tape the glasses to my toy periscope. It would provide instant window access.
I waited—March, April, May, ’57. Late spring through the summer. I couldn’t track the sale. I had to trust the manufacturer’s honor and efficacy.
The wait derailed my fantasy life. I spun out in new directions. I sat in my mother’s clothes closet. I loved the smell of her lingerie and nurse’s uniforms. I swiped my dad’s binoculars and spied on a neighbor lady. I saw her reach under her blouse and pluck at her bra strap.
Fall ’57. The Long Wait. Mickey Spillane wrote a book with that title. Spillane was the king of the anti-Commie thriller. My dad had a special shelf for his Spillane tomes. He said I could read them on my tenth birthday.
It’s the Season of My Discombobulation. It’s winging into the Withering Winter of My Dipshit Discontent. I was agitated. The TV news scared me. The Russians launched Sputnik. Colored kids caused chaos at Central High School. I was dreading Christmas. My mother had scheduled a trip to Madison, Wisconsin. We were going to see her sister. Aunt Leoda married a Catholic. My dad thought she was Red.
The X- ray eyeglasses arrived.
My dad forked them over. I unwrapped the package and put them on. I squinted through colored cellophane. I peered around our living room. It was tinted turquoise.
The walls didn’t melt. I couldn’t see the crisscrossed beams under the plaster. My dad laughed at me. Sandra Danner’s house was three blocks away. I sprinted there, full tilt.
Sandy and her mom were up stringing Christmas lights. I put my glasses on and stared at them. They laughed at me. Sandy touched her head and twirled a finger. It was ’50s-speak for He Craaaaazy.
The glasses were a shuck. I knew about confidence schemes from Whisper magazine. Hucksters sold elderly stiffs plutonium mines in the Alps. They bilked the old cocksuckers and sent them to the poorhouse. I ripped the glasses into shreds of cardboard and cellophane. Sandy Danner went He Craaaaazy again. Her mom offered me a cookie.
I ran back to the pad. My dad was still laughing. He gave me my consolation prize: a new baseball. I chucked it out the window. My dad yukked and told me to shake a leg. We were going to a movie up in Hollywood. My flight east was that night.
The flick was called Plunder Road. Psycho losers loot a train loaded with gold bullion. Two of the guys had zaftig blond girlfriends. They wore tight blouses and pedal pushers. The theater was near empty. I moved closer for a better orb on the chicks. My dad lobbed Jordan almonds at my head and chortled.
The heist went bad. The Main Loser and the Main Blonde welded the bullion to the front bumper of her car and chrome-plated it. They headed out to T.J. on the Hollywood Freeway. Malign fate intervened. The Main Loser and Main Blonde got in a fender bender. An alert cop noticed the gold underplating and wasted the Main Loser’s ass. The Main Blonde pitched some boo-hoo. Her big chichis shook.
The movie spooked me. My wig was loose. I didn’t want to fly to Dogdick, Wisconsin. My dad strolled me down Hollywood side streets and cut north on Cherokee. He installed me on the front steps of a building. He said he’d be inside for an hour. He gave me a comic book and said, Don’t roam.
I was a dirty-minded child with a religious streak. My shit detector clicked in, resultantly. My mom told a friend that my dad craved skirt action. I heard my dad use the term fuck pad. I concluded this: He’s porking the Main Blonde from the movie.
I noticed a half-full jug of cheap wine by the mailbox bank. I guzzled it and got goofy and euphoric. I’m tanked. I go window-peeping.
Cherokee north of the Boulevard. Spanish apartment houses and bungalow courts. Windows ringed with Christmas lights. Low first-floor windowsills. Perch spots for a tall little boy hot to LOOK.
I was blitzed. It was 53 years ago. I know I didn’t see the Main Blonde or my dad in the saddle. I know I saw a fat guy flipping burgers. I know I saw a skinny lady watching TV.
It all blurred then. Booze blackout—age nine.
I recall a queasy cab ride. I’m back at my mom’s pad in Santa Monica. I’m in my church suit. We’re on an airplane. Jean Hilliker’s wearing a blue serge dress and holding an overcoat. Her red hair is cinched by a tortoiseshell barrette. She’s drinking a highball and smoking a cigarette.
I leaned close. She misunderstood my intent and ruffled my hair. I wanted to nuzzle her and taste the bourbon. She didn’t know that.
I dozed off. Jean Hilliker dozed off. I woke up and watched her sleep. She was 42 now. She was boozing more. It showed on her face. She went back to Hilliker, post-divorce decree. It stigmatized me. Her pride, my bifurcated identity. I killed off the dregs of her highball and ate the cherry. It gave me a residual jolt. I saw a woman enter a lavatory at the rear of the plane.
I traipsed over and perched near the door. Passing adults ignored me. Women used the facility. I hovered and heard the door locks click. The women exited and scowled at me. I read biblical censure on their faces. One woman forgot to lock the door. I barged in accidentally on purpose. The woman shrieked. I saw sheer nylon stockings and some skin.
Madison, Wisconsin, was lake-bound and penguin-shit cold. A snow-covered field flanked Aunt Leoda’s house. I got into a snowball fight the first day. An ice-crusted ball busted up my face and loosened some wobbly teeth. I holedup in a back bedroom and brooded.
My cousins were off being happy kids at Christmas. Jean Hilliker was off with plain-Jane Aunt Leoda and porky Uncle Ed. Uncle Ed sold Buicks. My mother purchased a red-and-white sedan from him. The plan: drive the fucker back to L.A. after New Year’s.
I brooded. The practice entailed long stints alone in the dark. I thought about girls then. I brain-screened girls I’d seen at school and at church. It was a pure visual panoply. I did not impose story lines. I have formally brooded through to this moment. I lie in the dark, shut my eyes and think. I think about women primarily. I quite often tremble and sob. My heart swells in sync with women’s faces merged with improvised stories. History intercedes. Great public events run counterpoint to deep human love. Women glimpsed for half seconds carry a spiritual weight equal to my long-term lovers.
Bumfuck, Wisconsin, was a drag. My mouth hurt. The fucking snowball sliced my lips. I couldn’t kiss Christine Nelson from school. My dad said he knew a TV babe named Chris Nelson. She was married to a Hebe named Louie Quinn. Chris was a nympho. She flashed her snatch at him at some movie-biz party.
The adults came home. My mother brought me a library book. It was wholesome kids’ fare, full of mystical shit. It pertained to witchcraft, spells and curses. My mother turned the bedroom lights on. I had to read rather than brood.
The book jazzed me. I tore through it quicksville. It felt like it was written for me. The mystical jive derived from my ancestral home of Shitsville, Great Britain. Magic potions abounded. Warlocks guzzled secret brews and had visions. This wowed the incipient boozehound and dope fiend in me. The overall text buttressed religious lore I believed in then and believe in today.
There’s a world we can’t see. It exists separately and concurrently with the real world. You enter this world by the offering of prayer and incantation. You live in this world wholly within your mind. You dispel the real world through mental discipline. You rebuff the real world through your enforced mental will. Your interior world will give you what you want and what you need to survive.
I believed it then. I believe it now. My many years in the dark have confirmed it as a primary article of faith. I was nine then. I’m 62 now. The real world has frequently intruded on my spells in the dark. That book formally sanctioned me to lie still and conjure women. I did it then. I do it still. That book described the destructive power of formal invective. The notion of The Curse did not feel prophetic in late 1957. It was simply a footnote to my license to fantasize.
I have a superbly honed memory. My time in the dark has enhanced my process of minutely detailed recollection. My mental ruthlessness asserted itself early on.
I needed a Curse a few months later. I was insolently well prepared.
The new Buick was a full-dress road hog. It had wide whites and more chrome than the Plunder Road death sled. I wanted to zoom it back to L.A. and see my dad. I wanted to resume my fantasy life back on my home turf.
The adults went nightclubbing on New Year’s Eve. A German immigrant girl baby-sat my cousins and me. She was 17 or 18, acne-addled and plump. She wore a reindeer blouse and a flannel skirt with a pink embroidered poodle. She emitted Hitler-Jugend vibes.
She tucked me in last. The bedroom door was shut. Her fluttery presence felt un-kosher. She sat on the edge of the bed and patted me. The vibe devolved. She pulled down the covers and sucked my dick.
I dug it and recoiled from it in equal measure. I withstood thirty seconds and pushed her off. She talked a Kraut blue streak and bolted the room. I killed the lights and brooded out the bad juju.
I felt sideswiped, more than assaulted. I recalled the magic-spell book. I figured I could brew a blank-memory elixir. I could create X-ray eye powder at the same time. I got bilked on those glasses. My secret eyeball blend would set that straight.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
James Ellroy was born in Los Angeles in 1948. He is the author of the Underwold U.S.A. Trilogy—American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood’s A Rover—and the L.A. Quartet novels, The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. American Tabloid was Time magazine’s Best Book (fiction) of 1995; his memoir, My Dark Places, was a Time Best Book of the Year and a New York Times Notable Book for 1996. The Cold Six Thousand was a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2001. He lives in Los Angeles.
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