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.