Monday, October 26, 2009

The Girl Next Door ... to a Coward

Not often has a story so viscerally affected me as “The Girl Next Door” did. For fiction to engage emotions and elicit a response, any response, is a good thing right? It is better to get some level of response than to bore the reader I will grant. But do you want the reader to so loathe your main character that they are rooting for something terrible to happen to them?

This novel is told from the point of view of an adult man remembering back to the most horrifying part of his troubled youth. As a pre-teen in a seemingly typical suburban setting he was given a glimpse of madness and evil. Right next door actual torture was taking place. What’s worse is the torture was of a supposed friend of our guide and narrator.

Meg is a beautiful girl who is orphaned by a car accident. Meg and her younger sister Susan, who is crippled and has to wear a harness of some kind, are sent to live with Ruth and Ruth’s sons. They all live next door to the narrator, David.

Pretty early on David lets the reader know Ruth is not right. Much of her erratic and odd behavior is not unlike Annie Wilkes, the not-so-gentle nurse, caretaker, and number one fan of Paul Sheldon in “Misery.” There are the long bouts of silence, the lack of hygiene, the hysterical anger and over reaction to trivialities. Also, Ruth obsesses on Meg, sees her as some kind of young hussy, not unlike the one who probably stole Ruth’s husband away. At least that’s how Ruth tells it, or, more accurately, how David the narrator tells the reader Ruth tells it.

I will continue to return to David the narrator’s point of view. I think it’s a key point in this story, and I wonder about his reliability.

Meg and Susan are interlopers into Ruth’s world of boys. At the most simple Ruth sees Meg as competition for the attention of the males in her life. At worst Ruth is a sadistic monster who goes mad with absolute power. Regardless, soon Meg goes from house guest to basement prisoner and is tortured daily over the summer of this story until she finally can’t take anymore and dies because of it.

As I said before, my response to this book was immediate and strong. I kept waiting for the narrator to get his ass in gear and do something, DO anything. He never really does. Even his attempt to help Meg escape keeps himself at arm’s length, safe in bed over the evening hours while Meg, after weeks of torture, malnourishment, and dehydration has to try and get away from her captors.

All this narrator has to do in this book is tell his parents. That’s it. Just open his mouth and tell them the new girl next door is being abused. David’s mother is no fan of Ruth’s to begin with. In fact, David’s mother is happy to see Meg take an interest in David through the painting she gives David. David’s father would have looked into it probably just as an excuse to escape the doldrums and tedium of going home to a failing marriage (again, if David the narrator can be trusted on the state of his own family).

He doesn’t open his mouth. He doesn’t get a weapon from his own home and try and break Meg and Susan free. He doesn’t spirit Susan away, which he very easily could have, and at least save her the blowback from all the torture heaped on Meg. He does nothing.

As a narrator the reader has to wonder about the validity of his point of view. True, the story he tells is damning to himself, but only slightly so. The horrors visited upon Meg I don’t doubt in the slightest. Ruth’s odd behavior I also believe. But it is the convenient way that David is present but doesn’t participate … much. It’s the convenient way that Meg welcomes him and talks to him as a conspirator when Ruth and the others aren’t around.

David gets to have both sides of this story. He gets the perverse pleasure of seeing Meg’s nude body. He gets to feel the power of not being the focus of the torture and humiliation. Then he gets to give Meg a modicum of aid and comfort between torture sessions to salve his conscious.
There is no way to verify or refute David’s point of view. By the end of the book Ruth is pushed down the stairs and dies rather conveniently. Her sons are carted away and wouldn’t talk to David again if they get to choose. Susan, David claims, maintains contact for a while, but she disappears into the history of this narrator.

And of course Meg can’t say anything because she’s dead, and David might as well have been the one holding her head under scalding water or putting cigarettes out on her body or raping her.

This story works in that the reader is put in an uncomfortable position. The reader is aware of what is happening, is a witness to these events, but is helpless. David makes himself out to be helpless, but he’s not helpless. He’s selfish. He fears getting in trouble for his part in these events. His unwillingness to step up and take responsibility, a responsibility he most certainly has earned, doomed a person, a supposed friend, to weeks of torture and eventually premature death.

David’s cowardice prolonged this entire series of events. How scarred is Susan by his inaction? Might Ruth’s other kids have been influenced for the better by someone stepping in sooner rather than later? This story is premised on the fact that most people would sit idly by and let this happen. I don’t believe that for a second.

David’s initial reticence to turn Ruth in, or to go to his parents was believable. But this story escalates the violence towards Meg to such a degree that no one would stand by and let this happen, even to someone they didn’t care about. Unless that person was the ultimate coward.

David cares more for his own skin, his own reputation, for himself than anything else. I don’t feel sorry for his inability to maintain a marriage. I don’t feel sorry for the constant guilt he carries around. One of his most self-serving statements occurs near the end of the novel. On page 295: “And I had some small sense of what it must have felt like for Meg all these weeks, all alone down here.”

That statement alone spun me into a quiet rage. David’s point of view, this near pleading with the reader to believe him when he says he couldn’t do anything, that nobody would believe him, that “back then” things were different for kids is just rationalization and garbage.

The coward dies a thousand deaths. When David finally dies and he gets to see Meg again, he better hope she isn’t holding the door open to a basement bomb shelter.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

For Love

This asylum just got a new nurse. She comes highly recommended from several prestigious locations. Yes, she’s moved around a lot. What? No, I wouldn’t make her mad.

Paul Sheldon was wrong about Annie Wilkes. On page 192: “In Annie’s view all the people in the world were divided into three groups: brats, poor poor things … and Annie.” But there is a fourth category, a category reserved exclusively for Paul Sheldon, writer of the Misery novels. That category is love.

Annie Wilkes truly loves Paul Sheldon. It is a childish imperfect love to be sure, but it is love, Annie style. Paul gets to see how much murder and mayhem Annie has given to the world when he discovers MEMORY LANE, Annie’s perverse scrap book from hell. From page 184 to 201 Paul gets to travel down a Memory Lane filled with newspaper clippings cataloguing what Annie has done throughout her life and career.

She starts at age 11 by torching an apartment building to silence the neighbor kids on page 186: “She was eleven. Old enough and bright enough, maybe, to spill some kerosene around a cheap liquor bottle, then light a candle, and put the candle in the middle of the kerosene.”

From there to “accidentally” tripping her father and a roommate down stairs, these people all fit into the major category of Annie’s life. On page 189: “The specifics don’t matter, do they? I killed her because she was a cockadoodie brat, and that was reason enough.”

Most of her killings are of sickly elderly people and newborn infants. To Annie she is ending suffering, maybe even doing them a favor. None of the newspaper clippings pasted in Memory Lane indicate a prolonged agonizing death. She doesn’t keep any of them alive for any length of time. She snuffs them out like candles.

As Paul reads through Memory Lane and discovers Annie was married briefly he expects to see a black widow like entry for Annie’s husband. But he escapes. From page 192: “The next page announced a wedding instead of a funeral. The photo showed Annie, not in her uniform but in a white dress frothing with lace. Beside her, holding her hands in his, was a man named Ralph Dugan.” To add to the previous section of this class, from page 192-193: “Dugan was quite unremarkable save for one thing: he looked like Annie’s father. Paul thought if you shaved off Dugan’s singles-bar mustache – which she had probably gotten him to do as soon as the honeymoon was over – the resemblance would be just short of uncanny.” Freud lives.

Ralph files for divorce from Annie after a year and a half. Annie slashes up the divorce announcement, and pastes it in upside down, so she had some level of emotional attachment to Mr. Dugan. I believe that had Dugan not seen the real and scary Annie his demise would have been slow and agonizing like Paul’s.

The rest of Annie’s memories play similarly, continued deaths in hospitals. She’s discovered and nearly convicted, but escapes. Paul is chilled to see the last entry is a story of him being reported missing. On page 201: “Reported missing, that’s all. Just reported missing. I’m not dead, it’s not like being dead.”

The only other death that occurs before Paul’s extended stay at the Annie Wilkes mountain retreat is of an unlucky hiker, and Annie dispatches him quickly as well. Paul doesn’t come out of his drug haze to find a double amputee roommate. Why? Because the hiker meant nothing to Annie, he was just another cockadoodie brat.

Paul is all that is good and right in the world to Annie Wilkes. He is noble and creative, and he breathed life into the character Annie idolizes and holds above all others: Misery. Even when Paul turns out to be a foul mouthed disappointment she can’t kill him. Even after he kills Misery at the end of Misery’s Child she wants to kill him, but she doesn’t.

What stays her hand? It would be nothing to shoot Paul, or hack him into little writer bits with her axe, or worse, the unseen and dreaded chainsaw she’s found holding in a literal death grip. Why doesn’t she kill Paul Sheldon when he is the one who killed her beloved Misery?

Love. A sick, twisted, overly possessive, childlike love that would have eventually killed Paul regardless of Annie’s intentions because Annie sees the world in a very unique and infantile way. If something is suffering, she should end the suffering. End of statement, end of thought. She has it in her power to take away pain, so she does. The wishes of the “something” or worse, the “someone” don’t matter. Annie has decided.

Worse, if you’re a cockadoodie brat, someone who doesn’t share Annie’s love of Misery, or sweets, or cuts her off in traffic, or tries to put a lien on her house, then if it’s in her power to make you stop then she will. Because Annie Wilkes will not be a “poor poor thing” herself. Oh no, nobody will victimize her. Not the townspeople, not her husband, not the hiker, and not Paul Sheldon.

But Paul she spares. The counter argument for this is she has to keep him alive to write Misery’s Return, and that argument has merit. However, after reading Fast Cars and Misery’s Child Annie could very easily have dragged Paul out to her Cherokee, driven him up into the hills, dumped him in a grave and hacked or shot him to death then driven home for some WKRP reruns and a big hot fudge sundae. She’s so angry after reading Misery’s Child she has to leave for a while.

She didn’t leave when the hiker turned out to be another disappointment. She just killed him. Same with the State Trooper. She keeps Paul alive because of love. Of course he has to be punished when he complains (personally the idea of having a thumb cut off was the most horrifying part of this book) about the typewriter and when he tries to escape.

Her image of Paul as perfect writer-god is shaken by actually meeting him, but Paul never completely falls off the pedestal she’s put him on. She loves him, so she gives him a chance to redeem himself by writing Misery’s Return. One wonders if she would have killed him after its completion? If no cops would have come sniffing around, if Paul had finished the manuscript and there had been no outside inquiry, would he have lived on to go completely mad under her lunatic care? Or would she have finished him off? I think she wouldn’t have killed him unless she was then willing to commit suicide herself. Her “gotta” was that strong, her love for Paul was that strong.

Annie Wilkes may be Stephen King’s most perfect antagonist. She’s a nurse, a person expected to provide aid and comfort, instead she deals out death. She’s female, and a reader doesn’t expect the level of physical violence she doles out to Paul Sheldon, especially in the grisly and personal ways she does it. Finally, she isn’t random in this book. Her other victims, most of them anyway, just happened across her path and she applied her warped code to them and found them in need of killing. But she is intimately involved with Paul Sheldon in a very real way. Her knowledge of him as his “number one fan” gives her even more power and more personal motivation. It makes her a very scary character.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Another Doctor, Another Terror

Freud, Jekyll, Pine, even Norman studied human nature. Starting to wonder about these learned men.

This section of class I was lucky enough to be able to post on Dr. Arnzen’s blog. So, instead of rehashing that post I thought I’d relate a personal issue that came up during all this Freudian analysis.

I must admit Freud’s theories I tend to smile and nod about. That is to say, it sounds good, but really it doesn’t seem to hold up to modern thinking. Freud has more credibility than alchemy, astrology, or phrenology, but I tended to put his theories closer to those pursuits than to actual psychological theories of today. Yet, as I read “The Uncanny” I had a repressed memory event happen, and it was disturbing.

Do you remember the television show “Ripley’s Believe it or Not?” Host Jack Palance in his breathless overly dramatic way would narrate little segments about all manner of things, most of them outlandish or over the top.

One of these segments concerned the nineteenth century European terror of being buried alive. This fear became so pronounced that the mortuary industry stepped in and began providing a device they attached to your coffin. If you were buried alive you could pull on a chain or handle and a little signal flag or device would pop out of a pipe attached to the lid of your coffin six feet down.

Think of it as a coffin chimney or coffin periscope. The live person in the coffin would pull this device and would then be dug up and returned to the land of the living.

Reading “The Uncanny” and seeing being buried alive as one of the uncanny fears brought this back up in my mind. I hadn’t thought about this since that show aired probably twenty-five to thirty years ago. I remember being terrified to go to sleep for weeks, afraid I would wake up in a coffin buried six feet down, but no chain or lever dangling over my head so I would just claw at the lid slowly suffocating in the dark.

Two nights ago I woke from a nightmare. In it I was behind Nazi lines in some kind of WW II dream. I had been separated from my unit and was being tracked by Nazis. Trying to evade capture I dove into a foxhole. The foxhole was actually a vertical cylinder of concrete, wet earth under my boots the only yielding soft thing I could touch. I pulled a dirty piece of plywood over my foxhole and stayed still.

Movement, shadow, then eyes peering down the slit between the lip of the concrete tube and the splintery wood, then something spoken in German and the sound of rocks or bricks being dumped atop the plywood. I panicked, and began pushing at the plywood, but it would not move. More noise, more heavy sounds of rocks or bricks being dumped on top of me. I clawed at the wood, at the concrete, all the while grabbing for a chain or a lever. Then I woke up.

Now, I’m not a big proponent of repressed memories, but I just experienced one. So, Freud was onto something, but I would still argue the root causes he attributes to his theories are a little too developmentally centered.

I don’t think my fear of being buried alive has anything to do with my mother or female genitalia. I think it has more to do with a feeling of helplessness, of being in a no-win-situation in which I can’t control the outcome or at least try and alter my fate. That and dying slowly down in the dark, I think that that thought has enough fear in it that I don’t need to equate it with some unrelated childhood trauma.

Finally, if there is one thing Freud was spot on correct about, it’s that repressing feelings, not facing up to one’s fears, will result in acting out or manifestations of a different kind. People are too complex to all fit into any one theory of behavior, but if something is bugging you it is probably best to deal with it than to let it fester. Freud was right about that.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Nola, your womb is showing

Where did all these kids come from? Nola!

First, David Cronenberg is a brave man, brave and innovative. Horror can be found in the simplest things and the darkest places. But the most terrible horror is the stuff found in places it shouldn’t be: a daycare, a honeymoon, etc. Cronenberg takes that even further by finding horror in motherhood, in the very act of birth.

The big reveal in "The Brood" is graphic and disturbing. It does two things that horrify the audience. One, it shows where the Brood of children is coming from, and since the audience knows these are viscous little murderers to see the source of this is terrifying. Two, and I don’t know if this was intentional by Cronenberg or not, it reduces the miracle of human birth to something akin to watching a barnyard animal give birth. The way Nola licks placenta and blood off of her latest Brood child is graphic and disturbing, but not because of the gore, because Nola seems less human.

That had to take guts. To not only write this story, but to put it on film. I can imagine the feminist movement was ready to crucify him after this came out. Lots of horror, especially the stories and category being studied this semester, center on fear of the opposite gender. In general the fear is from the male point of view, and in not understanding female sexuality, or being so drawn to that sexuality that they lose control or lash out (Norman Bates from "Psycho," or the poor protagonist in "The Head of Hair").

Cronenberg goes beyond that in "The Brood." To quote a movie I just saw, he “goes all the way through it, to the end.” Nola is presented as the unstable matriarch of a family, and she is sequestered away to get better. Instead of getting better she finds physical form for her rage and lashes out at those she perceives to have hurt her.

The concept is fascinating: emotions finding physical manifestation. Mike, the patient searching for a father, develops lesions and sores all over his visible skin. Jan may or may not have woken up a cancer that is now spreading throughout his body by taking part in psychoplasmics.

But Nola takes the blue ribbon. Nola can actually give birth, breathe life, to her anger. Her rage takes the shape of deformed children who then go and commit physical violence. In William Beard’s “The Artist as Monster, The Cinema of David Cronenberg” Beard states on pages 83 and 84: “Admittedly, Nola is moved by rage, by the wish to hurt and destroy, and this gives her actions an intentionality that Rose’s lack entirely. But then Nola is quite unaware of the terrible acts her brood perform.” Is she?

Beard continues on page 84: “In this sense, the deaths of her parents and of Ruth Mayer are not her fault; she doesn’t even know about them. Even the beating of Candice, which takes place before the action opens, is the result of a passing annoyance in Nola to which the brood overreact, because proportion and judiciousness are exactly what they lack. She is not responsible.” Really?

Beard’s assertion loses a lot of credibility at the end of the movie when Frank is repulsed by Nola’s external womb. When Frank’s revulsion becomes apparent to Nola she tells him she’ll kill Candice. This implies some level of control over the Brood children. It also implies some level of knowledge on Nola’s part about what they do. Also, when Raglan asks Nola how she feels about Candice’s kindergarten teacher, Ruth Mayer, the day after The Brood beats her to death, Nola is all smiles and relaxation. She feels alright about the teacher. She’s moved past it, no big deal.

And this makes sense. The Brood children are less autonomous and more a part of Nola. In that way, a viewer must completely remove Candice from being lumped in with The Brood. Candice is a product of Frank and Nola, hopefully a product of their love. The Brood children are produced by Nola alone, and are a product of her rage. In some ways The Brood children are no more than extra stomach acid or toenails or hair. But they are charged emotionally. When they kill, at least in one example, Nola is relaxed and feels like the problem she so recently had raged about is now taken care of, and it is. Permanently.

So, to completely exonerate Nola of the crimes of The Brood is a bit too polite, too nice. Raglan has some culpability to be sure. His psychoplasmics theories obviously have some truth in them, and he helped Nola develop this external ability to personify her rage. I’m assuming Nola’s external womb and ability to birth Brood children came about at the Somafree institute and not before. Surely Raglan is the one who built the little nursery or camp in which The Brood children live (the rustic look reminded me of summer camp with bunk beds in the woods). Towards the end Raglan is trying to atone for aiding and abetting Nola in creating these little monsters, but he suffers the fate of most mad scientists who busy themselves in mucking with God’s work.

But it all comes back to Nola, doesn’t it? Instead of getting better, it seems the Somafree institute has made her far worse. Dealing with her rage, “pushing all the way through it to the end” isn’t diminishing it, isn’t helping her to deal with it constructively. Far from it. She becomes a murderer using little living guided missiles to do her deeds while she sits in the woods creating new guided missiles that she can launch whenever somebody looks at her wrong.

And that rage? It isn’t going away. She’s still raging as Frank strangles her. Therapy isn’t working for Nola. One wonders what could have been if she could have let go of her anger and yet kept the external womb. Is it possible she could create Brood children who were nice and helpful? Or did the rage itself give her this ability?

Finally this movie can be summed up in one word: bleak. David Cronenberg’s "The Brood" is bleak from start to finish. At no point in the film does a character or any of the interaction between characters provide a smidge of joy or happiness. The setting is cold and harsh, as are the characters. Even family members don’t seem to share any love or warmth around each other. When Juliana is showing pictures to Candice there is one focused on the interior of a hospital room. No one is smiling. For Candice to pick this one as her favorite speaks volumes to the level of sadness and despair this entire family dynamic provides.

Fast forward to the end and Candice is developing physical signs on her arms. Are these the beginnings of her Nola-like abilities? Or just lesions and sores like Mike develops? Candice has almost zero emotional response to anything in the movie save her screaming as The Brood children try to kill her when Nola sics them on her. All that repression will lead to future issues, and the cycle continues. How sad, and I think that was Cronenberg's point.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Where are the Fathers?

The asylum is getting full now, lots of inmates. This one claims he needs two rooms, one for himself, and one for his mother.

Robert Bloch’s novel “Psycho” is excellent. Norman Bates, the first and most believable of all the slashers, is disturbed and wonderfully fractured. He can maintain some semblance of normalcy because he lives an isolated existence. If he ever had to spend an extended period of time around others, or if he were stressed or pressured, he’d pop like a cork at midnight January 1. On some level he knows this and stays isolated and alone, living in the shadow of “mother.”

After reading “Psycho” the thought of authority figures kept occurring to me. Authority figures and family relations, both important building blocks of any society, both of these notions kept pinging around in my head. Bloch’s novel drips with the perversion of the mother/son relationship. But where are the fathers?

Norman Bates and Marion Crane share an absence of good parenting. After reading Cyndy Hendershot’s “Taboo and Transgression in The Bad Seed, The Fly, and Psycho” a very interesting thought occurred. Hendershot points out that maybe the overbearing “mother” Norman blames his murderous ways on is just a construct for Norman to protect himself. On page 29 of Hendershot’s essay: “Thus, Mother of the film may well be only Norman’s creation of a mother who needs him.” And “…we cannot dismiss the sheriff’s original story “that Norman’s mother killed her lover when she found out that he was married, the poisoned herself, with Norman discovering both bodies in bed If we accept this explanation, Mrs. Bates emerges as a woman very much like Marion Crane, a woman who followed her erotic desire to the point of death itself.”

What an interesting notion, and one that puts a lot more blame on Norman than on his mother. Ultimately, though, I discount this notion. It reduces Norman Bates to an opportunistic killer who has a fancy cover story. I think he's far more interesting as a true split personality who has a true dual nature.

Marion Crane has a similar, though less violent, lack of parenting. Her parents left later in her life. In the novel “Psycho” on page 22: “The opportunity to go on to college had vanished, at seventeen, when Daddy was hit by a car.” Later on the same page: “Besides, Mom was pretty sick by then. It took her three years to die, while Lila was off at school. Mary had insisted she go to college, come what may, but that left her carrying the whole load.”

So, tragedy destroys both the Bates and the Crane homes, taking parents from children prematurely. Norman is far more damaged by this than Mary, though both resort to criminal behavior. Norman murders (Mary), then murders again (Arbogast) to cover the original murder. Mary steals $40,000 to cut the timeline short on her path to marriage and happiness.

So, what if the fathers were still there? Mary Crane lost her father, yes, but she seemed to get stronger because of it. She becomes the rock of the family, sacrificing her happiness and putting her future on hold on behalf of her dying mother and younger sister. Taking the money seems an out of character knee-jerk thing to do, her one true sin. Perhaps Mary felt she had waited long enough and her happiness was overdue? There is a hint of class envy as Mary’s reaction to wealthy old Tom Cassidy being able to throw $40,000 in cash around on behalf of his own daughter. Did Mary grow jealous, and maybe angry, at the lack of a father to buy her a wedding gift? Sure, the follow on thoughts were of paying off Sam’s debts and living happily ever after, but what was the trigger point for the theft? A daddy-based jealous reaction is not out of the realm of possibility.

This is a more interesting question to ask of Norman Bates. What about Norman’s father? Without a strong male influence Norman stayed in the shadow of his mother. Had his father stayed one has to believe Norman’s development would have followed more acceptable paths.

The entire first chapter of the novel, especially when re-read knowing Norman is just talking to himself, shows how Norman never developed into adulthood. Page 17 probably sums it up best as Norma berates Norman: ““Change, boy? Nothing’s going to change. You can read all the books in the world and you’ll still be the same. I don’t need to listen to a lot of vile obscene rigamarole to know what you are. Why, even an eight-year-old child could recognize it. They did, too, all your little playmates did, way back then. You’re a Mamma’s Boy. That’s what they called you, and that’s what you were. Were, are, and always will be. A big, fat, overgrown Mamma’s Boy!””

There are men in this story. Sam Loomis and Arbogast the private detective are the two most prominent. Sam is reserved and pretty quiet. He accepts his life and his fate. He is working off his own father’s debts and is focused on that singular task. He has a stereotypical male’s lack of emotional response to events, specifically Mary’s disappearance and the constant waiting that drives Lila, Mary’s younger sister, to near hysterics.

Arbogast is probably the most masculine character. He doesn’t accept any situation, or any story at face value. He is persistent, pushes for more answers and more information, and his curiosity and forceful nature lead to his ultimate demise. His fatherly nature is revealed in his civility and politeness towards Lila, and even Sam when he sees they are innocent of the theft. Arbogast probably scared Norman the most. Here is an adult male of authority, something Norman never became.

Norman/Norma’s quick dispatching of Arbogast doesn’t have the same impact as Mary’s murder. Hitchcock’s treatment of the shower scene, and the focus on mother/son relationships makes the male/female dynamic much more evident.

But think of the symbolism of Norman/Norma hacking at Arbogast, an adult male, to death. He barely gets in the front door before Norman is upon him hacking and slashing. He isn’t even allowed upstairs. What if Arbogast, an adult male, a real man, had gotten upstairs to Norma Bates’s bedroom? Norman couldn’t allow this to happen. Mary is at least sexual, Norman’s dual urges to be with Mary and to have “mother” protect him from Mary leads to her demise. Arbogast may be more of a threat. What if Arbogast sees mother and, instead of being repulsed or afraid, tries to take mother away from him?

The relationship dynamics in “Psycho” are what make this so compelling a story. I was lucky enough to have a fatherly moment right after I read this novel. My five year daughter was struggling to snap the front of her jean shorts. My wife was already swooping in to snap them for her. I had my wife pause and asked my daughter to try again, and she got the shorts snapped and beamed about her accomplishment for several moments afterward. I couldn’t help but think: what if Norman’s father had been there to keep his mother in check? What if Norman had done what everybody should do? What if he’d been forced to grow up?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dorian, You'd be Right at Home in the 21st Century

This asylum we’re investigating must be a rather posh place. Look at the beautiful high-society gentleman up ahead. One such as he wouldn’t be caught dead in a low class establishment. Odd how he’s covered the painting in his room though.

Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is interesting in that Wilde wrote a novel in which he can examine good and evil, and allow his characters to monologue on the subject. However, I would argue Wilde’s interest in, and words devoted to, evil is far more developed than his interest in good.

My evidence? Lord Henry/Harry and Wilde allowing him page after page of eloquent sounding rubbish. Harry’s value system, which quickly becomes Dorian Gray’s value system, is one of debauchery, worship of fleeting things (art, beauty), and self pleasure to the detriment of everything else. In short, Harry is a Hedonist, and a very good one. He disguises his massive appetites behind a hypnotic voice and a quick wit that leaves his fellow characters, and the reader, wondering if he means what he says or is just trying to be provocative.

His counterpoint in this novel is Basil Hallward, an artist of some talent who recognizes the basic good in the world. But his good is fleeting and really only is featured in spots. He too slips over to the dark side of the equation, though, in his devotion to Dorian Gray, whose beauty overpowers and inspires Basil.

Then we come to Dorian Gray. Wilde is wonderful in naming his main character “Gray” as he intends for Dorian to be in the middle of these two counterpoints (Harry and Basil). However, Wilde never really gives the good side of the equation much stage time. After the title “Picture” is painted Dorian essentially shuns Basil and allows his way of thinking and his life to follow Harry’s Hedonism. Dorian could very easily have been called “Dorian Black,” but of course that isn’t nearly as interesting.

Wilde does an excellent job of showing all three of these main characters vacillating between their positions on the moral scale. In Chapter One Harry says “I don’t suppose that ten percent of the proletariat live correctly.” Earlier he says “The masses feel that drunkenness, stupidity, and immorality should be their own special property,” Harry is telling Basil that people are generally bad, and that high society people are looked upon as worse when they do bad things, which is ironic and hypocritical since the common folks are at least as sinful as the upper class.

To this Basil replies “I don’t agree with a single word that you have said, and, what is more, Harry, I feel sure you don’t either.”

Throughout this book Harry makes statements that truly demonize society. From marriage to art, Harry has a quip or a theory, and all of them paint societal norms as a sham, a façade, something only dull or stupid people engage in or believe in. For example, when Dorian tells Harry he plans to marry, Harry has many comments on marriage. In chapter six, Harry tells Basil about Dorian’s actress/fiancé “Oh, she is better than good – she is beautiful,” and later in the same chapter he says: “You know I am not a champion of marriage. The real drawback to marriage is that it makes one unselfish. And unselfish people are colourless. They lack individuality.” Harry also says: “I hope that Dorian Gray will make this girl his wife, passionately adore her for six months, and then suddenly become fascinated by someone else.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of marriage, and that is the essence of Harry.

He is fascinated by fleeting things: youth, beauty, fads. If alive today he would be a Hollywood fashion reporter or a person who compiles lists of “what’s hot and what’s not” for some fluff magazine. He is all style and no substance. Throughout the book Wilde softens this cynicism by providing dialogue partners to counter his points or brush off his rhetoric as balderdash.

But the reader wonders: is Harry truly speaking to be provocative or does he believe the things he says? Wilde provides an example for both options. For the evil, Harry counsels Dorian to stay clear of the investigation into the death of Sibyl Vane and feeds Dorian’s ego further by having Dorian romanticize his role in her death into something of a little play. Sibyl was nothing more than an interesting plaything that is now broken and must be forgotten. For Harry she was pretty, yes, but she couldn’t act so she isn’t worth mourning. To the good, in Chapter nineteen Dorian essentially confesses to murdering Basil: “What would you say, Harry, if I told you that I had murdered Basil?” To which Harry replies: “All crime is vulgar, just as all vulgarity is crime. It is not in you.” Again, not exactly an angelic attitude from Harry, but at least he couches his dark side somewhat.

Dorian Gray certainly believes what Harry says. From the day he meets Harry to the day he takes his own life Dorian is living his life according to Harry’s code (if you watch “Dexter” you understand a double meaning here, if not, don’t worry, not central to the reading of this novel).

The other side of this equation is Basil. On two separate occasions he comes to Dorian Gray’s home and there is a chance his influence may help, or even save, Dorian from the path he is on. The first time is in Chapter nine, shortly after Sibyl Vane has committed suicide. Basil had heard that the night after her death Dorian had gone to the Opera: “I called last night, and they told me you were at the Opera. Of course I knew that was impossible.” Basil can’t believe that such an event (death) would be responded to with such indifference by Dorian, especially after so short a time (a day). Basil continues: “You can talk to me of other women being charming, and of Patti singing divinely, before the girl you loved has even the quiet of a grave to sleep in?” And later in chapter nine: “You were the most unspoiled creature in the whole world. Now, I don’t know what has come over you. You talk as if you had no heart, no pity in you.”

Dorian responds to Basil’s horror still later in chapter nine when Basil remarks “How fearful,” upon learning Sibyl’s death was suicide and not accident. “No … there is nothing fearful about it.” Then Dorian explains: “I suffered immensely. Then it passed away. I cannot repeat an emotion.” Dorian reveals himself to be void of empathy or sorrow here.

Basil then tries to take the picture that ages while Dorian remains young in appearance, and this is what drives the two once close men apart. Basil can’t have the picture, and Dorian will never sit for another one. Basil leaves confused and hurt. Later, in unlucky chapter number thirteen Basil is going to Paris, but stops at Dorian’s home again to quell his own fears as he’s heard dreadful things about Dorian Gray. Dorian shows Bail his painting, and how hideous and deformed the image has become.

Thank God Wilde gave the reader a second witness to the portrait changing. Had only Dorian put eyes on the picture after moving it upstairs to his childhood study/library, the reader could surmise the eternal youthfulness and the changing in the painting as all in Dorian Gray’s head.

But Basil sees it. He sees it and is horrified. Instead of fleeing, or threatening to reveal this terrible secret to the world, he tries to put Dorian Gray on the right path. He tries to save him. In chapter thirteen: “Good God, Dorian, what a lesson! What an awful lesson!” Basil continues: “Pray, Dorian, pray, … What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood? ‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together. The prayer of your pride has been answered also. I worshipped you too much. I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are both punished.”

Basil recognizes his sin, and tries to help Dorian recognize his sin. Basil’s reward? To be stabbed to death in the same library, left dead slumped over a table, then to be melted away to hide the evidence by Campbell, one of Dorian’s old friends (lovers?). Dorian’s reaction to Basil is hatred, and then murder.

So, why the title of this blog? As a person reading “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in 2009 my mind kept equating Dorian’s eternal beauty with our current societal obsession with youth and beauty (and sex), and how accurate a picture Wilde’s novel paints even today.

Today Dorian Gray would simply be known as “Dorian.” He’d live in Hollywood and be addicted to plastic surgery. Instead of jewels and tapestries he’d collect high end European sports cars and would be one of the people who just had to have the latest tech gadgets first so he could show them off. Instead of opium he’d prefer crystal meth.

Our present day Dorian Grays go by the names Paris or Britney. We have an entire class of people who exist in that rarified air known as celebrity who don’t have a discernable talent or contribute one iota to society. Dorian can play the piano a little, but he never is shown to have a job or a purpose other than fulfilling his every whim.

But even in this Wilde couches the evil in Dorian. Up until Basil confronts him and is shown the picture Dorian’s sins are mere rumor. Wilde gives us the dreadfully dull chapter eleven that painstakingly catalogues fad after fad, shallow interest after shallow interest that Dorian tries to lose himself in. Chapter eleven could have been a catalogue of visits to opium dens and Dorian Gray stealing into high-society homes to ruin reputations. Instead of seeing these sins directly Wilde has the reader learn after nearly two decades that Dorian has been a very bad person. Would the book have been too horrible if the reader could see what eternal youth can grant a person of standing?

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” was published in 1890/1891. Oscar Wilde is rebuking the nineteenth century as one filled with debauchery and decadence. He takes shots at society, art, vanity, relationships between men and women, and the classes. I bet even he didn’t know how accurate a portrayal of twentieth/twenty-first century society this would still be today.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Doctor Will See You Now

We’ve entered the asylum and found a mad doctor waiting for us. He has a secret, it seems a little thing, deformed and easily agitated, but his secret is why we’re here tonight.

Robert Louis Stevenson gave the world “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” a wonderful tale of the duality of man. My post on the Griffin Gate page excoriated (Dr. Arnzen’s word) Dr. Jekyll’s final statement concerning his transformations into the evil Mr. Edward Hyde, but this is one of those stories that allows for every generation to delve into their own darkness, to give meaning to Hyde.

Elaine Showalter delved into the darkness at the back of Dr. Jekyll’s closet and she found Hyde to be a homosexual mirror image of the good doctor, a free spirit reveling in the gay underworld of nineteenth century England. Dr. Jekyll let Hyde out of the closet, but he never allowed himself out of that closet.

Showalter makes an excellent case, one I personally didn’t pick up until Dr. Jekyll’s statement at the end of Stevenson’s book. There isn’t a female character outside of the maid who witnesses Hyde stomp and beat Carew to death. Not one. All the major characters are men of means, all have servants and homes, and they have some standing in their society. Yet, none has a wife; none even mentions having a girlfriend. Showalter states: “The characters are all middle-aged bachelors who have no relationships with women except as servants.” At first I wrote this off to them being a little older, but none refers to a past love or a wife who died in childbirth or anything of the sort.

The line that really got my mind thinking in Showalter’s terms, though, was “chocolate brown fog.” I’ve seen lots of fog, condition are excellent for it on a waterfront and at sea. I’ve seen gray and white, even green fog tinted by popping smoke to mark a target, and red smoke popped to show a helicopter where we were.

I’ve never seen brown fog. I was willing to write it off to an industrial age city full of soot, ash, and wood burning fireplaces. But that line did gnaw at my brain. It stood out.

The second point is Hyde’s slight stature. Monsters of the modern era are enormous. They overpower we puny humans, their very size is part of what is terrifying. Not Hyde, he goes the other way. He’s deformed, monstrous, he snarls and beats innocent old men to death, but he is small. Stevenson never uses the word dainty, but I got the impression that would be an apt description. Women, generally speaking, are smaller in stature than men so Hyde representing the feminine side of Dr. Jekyll, the side he must hide from society also fits.

However, her argument falters when Hyde is described as “ape-like.” I buy her arguments of femininity being considered less evolved (from that era), but I’ve never thought of a woman as “ape-like.” The other was Hyde’s hands. If he is to be the effeminate side of Jekyll, shouldn’t his hands be more delicate? She quotes Jekyll’s rather conceited assessment of his own hands being “large, firm, white, and comely.” This is far more feminine than Hyde’s “lean, corded, knuckly,” hands. I believe Hyde also had a lot of hair on his hands. If Hyde is to be the less evolved and feminine side of Jekyll, in my opinion, his hands can be small, soft, dainty, but hairy and knuckly evokes almost nothing female for me.

Ultimately, I think this is the genius of Stevenson’s story. He provides specifics for his era, but we never get a clear picture of Hyde, which makes him timeless and all the more scary. Also, we never hear from Hyde. Ever. All of Hyde’s dealings are provided to the reader second-hand, the most reliable is probably Utterson’s meeting him outside his shabby door, a “back entrance” to Dr. Jekyll’s home as it turns out, another point for Showalter there.

However, just off the top of my head, this story can be interpreted as a warning of drug addiction, self control, simply breaking free from strict society rules to run free among the common folks. Hyde can be any number of things.

Personally, Hyde doesn’t represent homosexuality. I don’t see homosexuality as dark subversive stuff. I think Showalter makes an excellent argument for this, but Hyde, to me, is too dark and evil, and that is what is wonderful about him.

Showalter cites several more modern examples of the Jekyll/Hyde tale, some of these bolster her arguments very well, some seem silly. Again, this is testament to the strength of Stevenson’s original idea, the duality of man, the constant struggle for good and evil.

Who knows? A hundred years from now this same story could be seen as drawing the line between remaining on earth, the sensible respectable Jekyll thing to do, or blasting to the stars to discover a new place to live, the youthful dangerous Hyde thing to do. I’m grasping perhaps, but I’m just trying to illustrate how very open to interpretation this story is.

I hope to one day write something that captures so central an idea to humanity as Stevenson has done here.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Madness and Time

We are dipping into madness, and on purpose, so what does that say about us? It's one thing to be mad, no fault in that really. It's another thing to recognize madness, and instead of doing the rational (sane) thing, which would be to walk away, perhaps even flee, we are walking towards it, embracing it, staring it straight in the face. It is said that those who lay down with dogs will get up with fleas, I wonder what will become of us as we step through the gate of the asylum? Will we return unchanged except perhaps a little more wise? Or will we not return at all?

This post is covering the three short stories we have begun the semester with: "Dread" by Clive Barker, "Telltale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe, and "The Sandman" by E.T.A. Hoffman. Obviously all three concern madness in one form or another, but what struck me was the historic difference each story approached insanity with.

"Dread" was published in 1984, and the madness or 'dread' Quaid is seeking is done in a clinical and near-scientific way. He befriends and interviews two separate lab rats, then takes them individually, imprisons them, and forces them to face the fears they have revealed to Quaid.

Madness, or insanity, in this instance is something to be studied, conquered, and ultimately triumphed over. If a person looks at this story from only Quaid's point of view, he is seeking answers to his own dread, and in a perverse way is perhaps offering a service to his unwilling lab rats. After all, isn't it good to face one's fears?

This is Quaid's perspective, and it is what makes him the craziest of all the characters in this story. He is completely removed from empathy, he simply doesn't care about what happens to others. Barker doesn't show Quaid taking pleasure in his torture of Cheryl or Steven, for him his experiments are purely academic. As the story unfolds the reader learns that he has his own dread, and it comes to visit him in the end.

"Telltale Heart," published in 1843, provides the reader with an insane person narrating, and never bothers to explain the source of the madness. The narrator has killed his or her boarder simply because the old man had an "evil eye." The narrator obsessed on the eye for a week, then killed and dismembered the person.

Throughout Poe's tale the narrator is trying to convince the reader, and later in the story the police, that they are sane. Obviously this is not true, and the madness proves to be the narrator's undoing as they reveal the location of the body to the police at the end because the murder victim's heart is still beating under the floorboards.

So, Poe and his era were well aware of sane and insane, but his story is less clinical concerning the madness. His narrator is insane, that's what drives the story. That character, I believe, is well aware of their instability, is aware of how they come across to others. That's why they are constantly assuring the reader that all is well, nothing to see here. In short, me thinks thou protest too much.

Finally "The Sandman" and poor Nathaniel. Published in 1817, this story's take on madness is one of many older tales. That is, that madness can grip a person in a "fever" or a "spell," but someone, especially of high social standing, can "come out of it." No need to lock them up, just let them sleep it off, or summer along the coast. That pesky madness will clear up in no time.

I'm being a little silly, but that does seem to be a trend of older works and insanity. The poor received full frontal lobotomies or were locked up and experimented on, those of some standing could buy their way out of it, or at least appear stable enough at times.

Alas, in "The Sandman" Nathaniel shows his true colors in trying to kill Clara at the end and instead falls to his death.

In fact, none of our insane characters ends their stories well. At the end of "Dread" Quaid is still lying on the ground of his apartment being hacked at with an axe while he begs for death or mercy, whichever comes first. The narrator in "Telltale Heart" reveals their grisly crime and is surely carted off to jail or an asylum for a long time. And in "The Sandman" Nathaniel ends his story and his life by leaping to his death gripped with madness shrieking "Circle of fire spin round! Spin round!"

Over time more evidence has been gathered about insanity and madness. There are all kinds of labels for it now: paranoia, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder. A person can be a sociopath, a psychopath, poorly adjusted, or have "blank" issues (fill in the blank with any number of things ranging from sex to parents to work or whatever).

It could be argued the pendulum has swung too far into categorizing every personality quirk as some kind of ailment, but that's great for writers. We can take any number of official clinical sounding issues and turn them into stories of horror and suspense. One might fear the more revealed about the psyche and the inner workings of the human creature, the less mystery there will be. However, it seems the more we reveal, the more we categorize, the more great fodder there will be for stories.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

There's a first time for everything

First, thanks to my ambassador of tech, Kerri-Leigh, for helping me establish a blog. Second, this will be short as I'm testing it out and seeing if this dog will hunt.