Hell House

Please note that this review contains plot spoilers. If you don’t want to know what happens in the book, skip this review!

SPOILER ALERT

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SPOILER ALERT

There’s a scene in Hell House where Dr. Lionel Barrett, who has built a machine called The Reversor that also serves as his surrogate penis, debates where to put the body of his deceased colleague, Florence Tanner, on the ride home. Dr. Barrett has supposedly exorcised Hell House with his Reversor, and he is feeling smug about the fact that he was right and Ms. Tanner was wrong. A little background, here: Ms. Tanner has just been sexually brutalized and murdered by a ghost, and Barrett spends most of the book telling her she’s making it all up to get attention.

Barrett doesn’t know where to put Florence’s body. Their third companion – a man named Fisher – would object to putting her in the trunk, and Barrett’s wife Edith would find it painful to ride in the back seat with a corpse. I am happy to report that Barrett meets his demise soon afterwards, and that Fisher stuffs his corpse into the trunk of the car without a hint of hesitation. Normally you don’t root for anyone’s corpse to get stuffed into the trunk of a car, but Barrett is such an asshole I’ll make an exception.

The plot of Hell House is threadbare, and I mean that in a good way. Four ghost-hunters come to the “Mount Everest of Haunted Houses” to – well, they all have different desire lines. Doc Barrett is a stone-cold atheist who believes in spiritual phenomena but not spirits, Edith Barrett is his loving wife, Benjamin Fisher is a physical medium who escaped Hell House thirty years ago and Florence Tanner is a spiritual medium who believes in the power of love.

Hell House is dominated by Doc Barrett. Think of him as an iron sphincter, unable to bend or yield, totally full of shit. His antagonist Florence Tanner believes that the patriarch ghost of Hell House, Emeric Belasco, had a bastard son who died there. Ghost and spiritual medium have a bizarre courtship of sorts, which leads to such passages as – she felt a stir of sensual awareness in her body.

Holy mackerel, turn up the air, it’s gettin’ hot in here!!!

Benjamin Fisher is the book’s wild card; keep an eye on that guy. Dr. Barrett brings his wife, Edith, to Hell House, despite the fact that she is a prime candidate for a nervous breakdown. Soon afterwards, Edith begins having naughty thoughts and starts doing things like trying to throw herself into tarns and taking her clothes off. Doc Lionel no doubt thinks she’s acting out for attention.

Hell House reads quickly. If you’ve read this book before, as I have, reading it again quickly becomes a slog. Matheson excels at writing toxic men but can’t write women. The female characters of Hell House are all a combination of weak, stupid and irrational. There is also an offensive passage about gay people. I understand that this book was a product of its time, but maybe this is something you might want to edit out of future editions?

I possess a copy of Hell House with an introduction wherein Matheson explains how he wrote this book in reaction to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and I don’t get why he just couldn’t leave it alone. This is the sort of thing you do in an undergrad Creative Writing Class and end up wanting to burn the manuscript when you find it thirty years later. In a way, Matheson’s actions mirror the actions of the characters of Hell House, who should have left it alone and never entered that house.

Unfortunately, what’s done is done. It’s obvious that the characters of Hell House are loosely based on the characters in Jackson’s novel. Since The Haunting of Hill House– warts and all – blows Hell House out of the water, I almost felt embarrassed for Matheson. Today The Haunting of Hill House is viewed as a classic and nobody but hardcore horror fans read Hell House, but that’s all right. We’ll always have that magical scene where Barrett debates where to put Florence’s corpse.

Here’s the tally of Liked/Disliked books so far. 1/1.

 

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The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House is the greatest haunted house novel of the 20thcentury. You can make a case for Stephen King’s The Shining, of course, but Shirley Jackson’s book came first. Another contender is Burnt Offerings, by Robert Marasco, which shares The Haunting of Hill House’s nasty sense of humor but isn’t read much anymore. I’ll get into Richard Matheson’s Hell House in another post, but suffice it to say that I’d take The Amityville Horror over Hell House any day of the week.

I read the Penguin version of The Haunting of Hill House. I also read the introduction, wherein Eleanor (the book’s protagonist) is referred to as odd. The author of this introduction misses the point. Eleanor is a parody of a gothic heroine, a cloistered young woman who has spent her entire adult life caring for her ailing mother. Unlike a gothic heroine, Eleanor is realistic. She possesses rudimentary social skills and an active fantasy life, which she’s developed as a self-defense mechanism in order to cope with her awful life.

I am not being sarcastic here. I sympathized with Eleanor, who has lost years of her life caring for an unpleasant old woman. Ms. Jackson’s portrait of the family unit is refreshingly unsentimental, but not in an overt way. Too many writers tend to hammer that sort of thing home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, whereas the damage Eleanor’s mother has done to her daughter is psychological and thus permanent. There are echoes of Eleanor’s mother throughout this book, which is jam-packed with unpleasant people, from Eleanor’s sister to the woman who says she’ll pray for Eleanor to the Dudleys to – you get the idea. The Haunting of Hill Houseis full of petty, mean people.

What struck me on this reread is that The Haunting of Hill House is a parody of a gothic novel, right down to the walled-in nun and the sturdy tower piercing the sky. Except it isn’t really a gothic novel. A gothic heroine would be rescued by a handsome suitor, but the only suitor Eleanor has is Hill House. What makes this book so sad is that in the end Hill House is the only thing on earth that does want Eleanor.

The Haunting of Hill House’s middle drags a little, but the ending – which is inevitable – delivers. The book drags in places because Eleanor doesn’t have a desire line, as such, but her stakes are high. She’s spent her entire adult life caring for her mother and she wants a life for herself. Luke is a parody of a gothic hero. He and Theodora are having an affair, which explains why Theodora stays. What do you think Mrs. Dudley and Mrs. Montague are referring to when they’re talking in the kitchen? By the way, Mrs. Montague’s approach to the occult is a lot more sensible than her husband’s. I will note that Mrs. Montague goes to the trouble of calling Eleanor’s sister. She also suggests that Arthur drive Eleanor home two or three times, an act of kindness that Eleanor’s companions – who only want to get rid of her – lack. After all, they all have their lives to go back to. Of course, if one believes in Hell, they’ll be in trouble…

Unlike Mr. Matheson, Ms. Jackson resists the urge to explain her ghosts. She understands that the power of ghosts lies in the fact that you can’t explain them. Anyway, I’ve read this book before and after rereading it I still like it. I thought it might be fun to keep a running tally of how many of the books I liked vs. what I didn’t like this semester. So here it is!

LIKED: 1, DIDN’T LIKE: 0.

Joyride

I didn’t like Jack Ketchum’s Joyride. This essay will give the reasons why. Please note that this review contains spoilers of Mr. Ketchum’s Joyride and Off-Season and the comic version of The Walking Dead.

My first problem with Joyride is that it is domestic (family-based) horror, and this particular subgenre tends to have a nasty moralizing streak that I find very unpleasant. An example – in the Walking Dead comic, Lori Grimes thinks that her husband Rick is dead so she takes up with his friend Shane. After Shane dies and Rick returns Lori discovers she’s pregnant, and it’s not clear who the father is. In a later issue, Lori and her baby die horribly. Was this piece of cosmic irony intentional on the author’s part? I don’t know, but I’d say that the symbolism is pretty clear.

In Joyride Carole and her lover kill her husband, and cosmic retribution comes in the form of Wayne the Psychopath. I won’t dwell on the fact that plot-wise, divine payback makes a lot more sense than the only budding serial killer in Barstow just happening to witness Carole bashing her ex-husband’s brains in with a rock. Still, one wonders if God’s Middle Finger was intentional on the author’s part. You could miss the connection, but it’s there. That’s #1.

My second problem with Joyride is that it’s not very well-written. Mr. Ketchum head-hops like a frisky bullfrog leaping from lily pad to lily pad. The book isn’t edited very well and character development is paper thin. There’s a reason this reads so quickly. I wonder if Joyride was originally a screenplay treatment converted into a novel.

Mr. Ketchum doesn’t much care about plot, using real life as the starting point for many of his stories. This isn’t a critique. Dostoevsky got the idea for Crime and Punishment from a newspaper clipping. Mr. Ketchum states in his afterword that the idea for Joyride came from a pair of serial killers culled from the book Bloodletters and Badmen. I won’t say Mr. Ketchum’s material is derivative, but it’s easy to see his influences.

Thus, the fact that much of Joyride flunked the believability test in many places is a real problem. Some of this has to do with plot (see Paragraph #3), but I found the characters’ motives to be unbelievable. To me, Carole’s asshole ex Howard is the most fully fleshed out character of the bunch. He was totally believable. I found the actions and the motives of the other characters harder to believe and understand.

Ketchum tends to hone in on his characters’ weaknesses and most unpleasant characteristics and treat that as character development. Susan dates Wayne the Psychopath because…well, I don’t know why. From Susan’s description of him, he sounds like the grumpiest, most unpleasant fuck in existence, and that’s before we learn that he’s a budding strangler and serial killer. I’m sorry, there’s no way anyone would want to date this guy, and that to me is a real believability issue.

Here’s another example. One of the main characters of Joyride is Carole, who has been abused by her ex-husband. The particulars of Carole’s marriage are depressing and awful; domestic horror also tends to rub the reader’s face in wretched excess. I don’t believe that a writer needs to treat his/her characters with kids’ gloves, but if they become punching bags with no agency, that’s a problem.

Case in point: it is Lee, Carole’s lover, who decides that they must kill Howard and Carole goes along with it. To me, this is important because it strips Carole – the most likely candidate to be the main character of Joyride –  of anything resembling agency. Carole kills her husband because Lee botches the job. They bash his brains in with a baseball bat and then a rock and throw his body into a creek, where he floats off downstream to be discovered by a perverted Eagle Scout.

The final deal-breaker is Joyride’s message. When I read Jack Ketchum’s Off-Season I saw a writer interested in sadism. The opening scene of Off-Season features a character being whipped. The introduction to Joyride is all about hurting people, also. This is fine, except the author seems to think there’s some sort of profundity in such statements as (paraphrasing) LIFE IS PAIN or THE WORLD EATS YOUR MOTHER, when these statements are in fact eye-rolling hogwash. Nihilism disguised as philosophy is still nihilism.

 

Helter Skelter

I attended The Forum my freshman year of college. The Forum used to be called EST, short for Erhard Seminars Training – other people called it a cult. My father attended a number of sessions back in the 1970’s when he was younger, and he once told me it turned his life around. I went for two weekends – I think it was two weekends – in the Fall. I was having a tough time adjusting, and my dad thought it might help, so I went.

I would not call what went on those weekends brainwashing, but it was interesting. My first encounter with Eastern mysticism coupled with Western marketing techniques. Did it change my life? No, not really. There was no brainwashing involved (a few of my friends will tell you otherwise!), but if I took a bunch of LSD and had mind-blowing sex, who knows?

Anyway, that’s my fun personal anecdote of the week. This is my second read of Helter Skelter, which I enjoyed very much – every true crime fan should read this – but I don’t have much to say about the book. Partly that’s because I don’t find Charlie Manson all that interesting – he’s been mythologized, which is a shame. He picked up a few techniques from pimping and Scientology – as a folk-song expert says about his music, somewhere along the line Manson has picked up a pretty good…beat– to start up his own cult, dedicated to Charlie Manson.

Why would he have his followers commit such horrific crimes? Here’s a few reasons, just off the top of my head. Because he thought it was funny. Because he was a control freak and wanted to see how far he could push his followers. Because he was evil. Because he really was trying to set off a race war. Or maybe he was just pissed off at the world and figured he could get away with it. Who cares? Fuck him.

Here’s an update on the current status of the surviving members of the Manson family: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-lists/manson-family-where-are-they-now-100696/ “These children that came at you with knives”, as Charlie once called his followers, are now senior citizens begging forgiveness. That’s a quote from filmmaker John Water’s essay about his friendship with former Manson girl Leslie Van Houten (which can be found in his book of essays, Role Models). Huffington Post excerpted the essay. The first part is here: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-waters/leslie-van-houten-a-frien_b_246953.html Here’s the index to the rest of the essay (which comes in five parts): https://www.huffingtonpost.com/topic/leslie-van-houten

I like the Waters essay because it talks about issues such as evil and forgiveness and personal responsibility, and because Mr. Waters is very blunt about his obsession with the Manson family. Ms. Van Houten was just denied parole by the current governor of California and will probably die in jail. ‘Clem’ Grogan – the man who exposed himself to schoolkids and helped kill and chop up ranch-hand Donald ‘Shorty’ Shea – was released from prison in 1985.

Please note that I am not saying these people (I’m not talking about Charlie Manson, who should never have been released and who died in prison) should be forgiven (if they killed a member of my family, I wouldn’t forgive them) or paroled, although I think at this point (2018) the danger to society argument is mostly bullshit. Just be honest and say that the crux of the argument against parole is that they haven’t been punished enough, and that’s a good enough argument for most people right there.

Interestingly, since the crux of Mr. Bugliosi’s argument is that the Family members on trial were brainwashed by evil mastermind Manson, the man ultimately responsible for the murders, it’s clear that none of Manson’s co-defendants had very good legal representation. Bugliosi’s argument should have been made by the defense lawyers of all the Family members not named Charlie Manson. According to Bugliosi, Manson directed their legal defense, and they willingly chose to go down with the ship.

Is this relevant? In our current legal system, it sure is: if Mr. Syed, the subject of the podcast SERIAL, had decent legal representation at his original trial he probably would have been out of jail years ago. Why do you think the producers of SERIAL chose him as the subject of their first season? Because of his soulful eyes? If you look at Mr. Syed’s case a certain way, it doesn’t matter if he was guilty or not. He was victimized by the legal system.

Disclaimer #2: I am not saying that I believe this argument. The reason I’m stating it here is that people should be aware that Helter Skelter is very much a book about the strengths and weaknesses of our legal system – who gets punished, who eventually walks free. If the members of the Manson family had decent legal representation (i.e., anyone not named Charlie Manson), I’m willing to bet some of them would have been out of jail years ago. A few of them might not even have gone to jail at all. Disclaimer #3: I am definitely not saying the last sentence would be a good thing.

Anyway….what struck me most upon reread of Helter Skelter is how candid Mr. Bugliosi is. He openly states that the prosecution didn’t have much of a case. But the thing that really amazed me  is how frank Bugliosi is about the apathy and incompetence of the LAPD in regards to the Manson case. I believe he left his job before Helter Skelter was published. I doubt he would have been so blunt if he was still in the DA’s office. To put it crudely, you don’t crap where you eat – or where you work.

Mr. Bugliosi also realizes that details make or break a story. So we get details. Helter Skelter contains a mind-numbing litany of names and details. I don’t recall half of them, but that’s okay. Mr. Bugliosi uses them to bolster his story. I call Helter Skelter a story because Mr. Bugliosi fashions a coherent narrative from an incoherent mess, and you’ve got to admire him for his tenacity and grit. It’s for this reason that Helter Skelter is the best true crime book I’ve ever read, bar none.

Rereading this review, I’m not sure how coherent I’ve been, so I may edit for clarity in the next few days.

Misery

I might have trouble squeezing five hundred words out of Misery. It’s a fine novel, but when I do these reviews I always look for an interesting angle, maybe a funny story or anecdote, and nothing comes to mind here…

Okay, just thought of something.

Rereading Misery reminded me of seeing the movie Coraline. I had the day off from work because it was President’s Day, so I went to a matinee. I forgot that all the schools were off, also, and thus watched the movie with a theatre full of scared kids. The kids were scared because Coraline isn’t a kids’ movie. It’s a horror movie disguised as a kid’s movie.

The other thing that struck me about Coraline is that the main character, Coraline, wasn’t a nice kid. After watching the movie, I realized there’s no way a nice kid would have survived The Other Mother.

The selfsame thing struck me upon rereading Misery. Paul Sheldon isn’t a nice man. In fact, Paul Sheldon is a prick. King doesn’t make a big deal out of the fact that Paul Sheldon has no friends and can’t maintain a relationship with a woman, but it’s there. Paul Sheldon thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. It’s even hinted that Paul Sheldon might be a tad misogynistic.

Be that as it may, a nice guy wouldn’t survive what Annie Wilkes puts Paul Sheldon through; also, if I’m being honest, the fact that Paul Sheldon is not a nice guy made me sort of enjoy what Annie Wilkes put him through, at least at the beginning. I started feeling sorry for Paul when Annie chopped his foot off, but parts of that scene still made me laugh. Pre-op shot? Did she just say pre-op shot?

Speaking of laughter…Misery is a lot funnier than I remember. This book is a blast. I laughed a lot reading this novel. Annie is funny as hell and Paul is a dour prick. Annie says things like cock-a-doodie and brat and she spends four hundred pages emasculating Paul, hooking Paul on drugs, chopping off Paul’s body parts and making Paul resurrect Misery, the character he hates and she loves so much she named her pig after her.  The fact that Annie scrawls out all the f-words on Paul’s shitty manuscript and then makes him burn it was hysterical. Serves you right for not making a copy, dumbass!

Hey: did you notice that Misery is like a play in that most of the action takes place in a single room?

I thought King did a good job making Annie’s craziness seem realistic. Linking her moods to the weather is a great touch. I will say that the birthday cake thumb scene was a bridge too far for me. His editor should have made him cut that out, because that scene moves into gore-gore land and is dangerously close to self-parody.

One of the most brilliant things King does in Misery is flip the genders. This isn’t true to real life, but Misery is a horror novel, and 95% of King’s contemporaries wouldn’t have been able to come up with such a simple idea and then execute it in such a seemingly effortless way. That’s why Stephen King is Stephen King – he makes it look easy!

Red Dragon

Note: I curse in this review!!!

Red Dragon is a brilliant book. It is overshadowed by Thomas Harris’ follow-up novel, The Silence of the Lambs, partly because of the movie and partly because Silence has a happy ending (if you don’t read Hannibal). The other reason Red Dragon doesn’t get the accolades it so richly deserves is that it’s depressing as fuck. I can boil this book’s theme down to two words: People Suck.

Red Dragon’s protagonist, Will Graham, is mentally ill. All that talk about empathy and projection is a bunch of psycho-babble; Dr. Bloom has no idea what he’s talking about. Will Graham has a bunch of problems. One might say that his biggest problem is trusting Jack Crawford.  At one point in Red Dragon, Crawford says “I’m not a total asshole.” Crawford is lying. He is a total asshole.

The agency Crawford heads up doesn’t have a clue how to catch the loony, so they have to turn to the equivalent of a water dowser. Crawford is well aware that Will is damaged goods, mentally, physically, spiritually. He doesn’t care. If Crawford knew how Will does what he does, he’d drop him like a hot potato. But he doesn’t have a clue how Will does it. The funny thing is, Will doesn’t have a clue how Will does it either.

I love the scene where Will gets mad at the cop who doesn’t believe his story about how he captured Hannibal Lecter. I mean, are you kidding me? Arrow wounds? No, what happened is that Will’s subconscious whispered there’s something wrong with this guy into his ear, and Lecter saw it on his face. Are Will and Hannibal the same, like Lecter claims? Not really. Lecter is a lot more put together than Will.

One of Will’s problems is most likely OCD – he exhibits obsessive qualities throughout the book, most notably by repeatedly visiting Dolarhyde’s victims’ homes. But Will’s bigger problem is that he has no boundaries. When Will and Crawford eat breakfast at the diner, Will is disturbed by the couple in the next booth having an argument. Crawford is busy eating his ham and eggs and doesn’t notice. Will notices because his brain is wired that way and he’s incapable of not noticing.

This is not empathy. Will can’t control it. His ‘gift’ is like a mean Doberman Pinscher straining at the leash; very often that dog will turn around and savage the person holding the lead. That’s why Will is not a nice person. People who struggle with these issues aren’t easy, on others or on themselves. Another thing that struck me about Red Dragon is that Molly is a saint, because Will says some hurtful shit to his wife (Will on the phone, saying you can catch a baseball game after Molly’s first husband – a baseball player – died of cancer).

Which leads me to Will’s biggest problem: he thinks he deserves to be in the GUTTER, which is where he ends up. Crawford merely enables him. Do you think it’s a coincidence that both he and Francis Dolarhyde are disfigured at the book’s end? Will’s epiphany – that the universe doesn’t give a flying fuck about Will – comes thirty something years later than Dolarhyde’s selfsame epiphany, but it’s worth watching, in the same way car crashes are worth watching.

The other thing I want to mention about Red Dragon is the character of Niles Jacobi, the prodigal son. Niles is the son of Ed Jacobi, the patriarch of the first family killed by Dolarhyde. I was struck by the scene where Will and Niles talk because on the surface there’s no reason for it. The reader already knows that Niles didn’t kill anyone. This scene gives us a good character moment for Will – we learn that he’s vindictive, which pays off in spades when Will sets up Freddy Lounds. You mean to tell me Will spends most of the book telling people how Dolarhyde will react and he doesn’t know that he might go for Freddy? It’s no coincidence that Will’s downward slide really commences with Lounds’ death.

That’s not the reason for the Niles/Will scene, though. Niles Jacobi is a double for Francis Dolarhyde. When I read about Niles using the family portrait as a drink holder I didn’t much like him. Then I used EMPATHY and PROJECTION and looked at it from Niles’ point-of-view. Nile’s father abandons him when he’s a kid. Since its stated that Nile’s mother is disturbed, maybe he could’ve gotten custody. Maybe not. I don’t know. What I do know is that Nile’s father cuts ties, starts a new life and then reappears years later after the damage to his son has been done and it’s too late. He comes back hiding his guilt with his work hard/live clean horseshit, and Niles is like sure, whatever. But honestly, Niles doesn’t give a fuck about his old man. Would you, if you were him? It all ties into Red Dragon’s theme (if you forgot, see the first paragraph)!

Anyway: Red Dragon is a great book, but boy oh boy is it a bummer. I first read this book back in 1993. After finishing I was depressed as fuck. At the time I didn’t know why, but now I do!

 

The Sculptor

The Sculptor reminded me of the work of James Patterson, one of the most successful authors of the past twenty years. I’ve enjoyed reading a few of the authors Mr. Patterson has worked with. For instance, Michael Koryta’s The Ridge is a great, spooky read. If you like James Patterson, give The Sculptor a try. It’s a fast-paced mystery/thriller with plenty of action and romance.

Spoilers ahead.

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SPOILERS

Okay, here’s my unvarnished opinion. I did not like The Sculptor, but I see that the author is a contemporary, as it were. Robert Bloch has passed away. Stephen Dobyns is off teaching and Bret Easton Ellis is off being Bret Easton Ellis. A bad review doesn’t mean anything to them. In addition, there are many people who enjoy books like The Sculptor, which are often quite successful. I myself used to read forty to fifty mysteries per year. My tastes changed, as you will see by reading this review.

The Sculptor reminded me of a movie called Blood and Black Lace, a famous giallo by Italian filmmaker Mario Bava. I did not appreciate Blood and Black Lace on my first watch because all the characters were incredibly shallow and the movie’s look and music reminded me of an episode of Charlie’s Angels. Later, I realized how influential Mr. Bava must have been to have so many directors imitate him (this movie came out in 1964). I also realized that the characters were incredibly shallow on purpose; indeed, they worked in an amoral field that almost required it.

The Sculptor has no such excuse. Saddled with unrealistic characters, multiple inconsistencies and a cliched plot, this book reminded me of a bad TV movie. It wouldn’t be a Lifetime movie, because Lifetime movies can often be quite gritty. Maybe a movie of the week?

The Sculptor’s problems can be narrowed down to three issues, believability, predictability and agency. This book has multiple believability issues – how did the Sculptor get in and out of prison to cut off and make a sculpture of Stanky’s penis? Did Stanky wear a full-body hazmat suit when having sex with the Aussie woman? Why did the college’s housing department make Jesse and Mara roommates? A serial killer is preying upon exchange students, but apparently that’s not a big deal because it’s business as usual. The grad students like to drink and carouse – wait, that part’s realistic. College students love to party.

The characters are – look, real cops don’t act like Enzo. Good-looking guys like Jesse aren’t secretly vulnerable. ‘Secretly vulnerable’ is a bad pick-up line, replacing ‘I used to work for the CIA.’ The only character I liked was Stanky, mostly because of his magnificent nickname. He also does a great job of cock-blocking Jesse. When your readers start pulling for the villain, your book has problems.

Second, predictability. There isn’t any suspense. I knew Mara wouldn’t be in any real danger until the book was almost over because the author isn’t going to maybe kill off her heroine until the final act. I knew Mara and Jesse’s relationship would have its share of bumps, because that’s what the plot requires. These plot requirements aren’t bad things, mind you, but it’s the author’s job to make the reader lose herself in the book and not think about such things.

My biggest problem with The Sculptor is agency. Mara has no agency; the killer does. To put it another way: it is the killer, and not Mara, who drives the plot. Many movies and books are structured like this, but at this point in my life I don’t read those books or watch those movies anymore.

 

The Church of Dead Girls

I read The Church of Dead Girls for the first time over twenty years ago. The gold paperback cover attracted me and Stephen King blurbed the book, which at the time wasn’t unusual. At one point it seemed like Mr. King was on a mission to blurb every book on earth.

The Church of Dead Girls isn’t a horror novel. It’s a mystery novel written by a poet with literary sensibilities. The first time I read it I figured out whodunnit. I am not bragging. Back then I read forty to fifty mystery novels a year, and the author plays fair – which means it’s possible to figure out who the killer is.  The dead girls are covered with symbols, a topic the talkative killer can’t seem to shut up about.

So what did I think about The Church of Dead Girls on my second read-through? I have a lot to say about this book. The first thing that struck me is that the opening scene makes it obvious that the author writes poetry. People who haven’t read many poems might think poetry is all about the rhymes, but to me contemporary poetry is all about vivid, offbeat imagery.

James Dickey, former poet laureate of the U.S.A., wrote Deliverance, which has an awesome scene of canoeing past a chicken factory. Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s husband, was the poet laureate of England, and he wrote some of the most violent, fucked up poetry I’ve ever read. Read a copy of Crow, if you can get your hands on it. He’s most known for writing the children’s book The Iron Giant, which was made into an animated movie. I took a few poetry classes in college and one of the things that struck me about contemporary poetry is how many contemporary poets end up killing themselves. And how dark and violent their work is.

The Church of Dead Girls certainly qualifies as dark and violent. I suppose people will compare this book to The Crucible, but I think Our Town is a better example. This book is heavy on exposition and is told from the point of view of a townsperson who is essentially omniscient. However, there’s a difference. Unlike Our Town, everyone in the town of Aurelius is either involved in a weird incestuous relationship, sexually insatiable, harboring a horrible secret, a psychopath, or a blithering idiot. The town of Aurelius is the worst place on earth to live, and the fact that the narrator seems unaware of this is one of the ways that he reveals himself to be unreliable; the other way is that he conceals the identity of the killer from us.

A digression: years ago I saw a production of Our Town in New York City with my father. Paul Newman starred! I recall the play being full of pithy small-town wisdom, and my father – no doubt overcome by the pithiness – fell asleep. During a particularly pithy pause in the dialogue, he let out a great snore. I am not exaggerating when I say this was the single greatest moment of father-son bonding in recorded history.

Oh, yeah: the book. The Church of Dead Girls has two protagonists, Aaron McNeal and Ryan Tavich. Aaron returns to town to find the killer of his mother Janice, whose murder is the book’s inciting incident. The narrator tells us that Aaron blames the town for his mother’s death; I’m not sure I believe that, but I do think he figured that nobody there was capable of finding her killer, and he was right. Ryan Tavich, the other protagonist, is a cop who had a brief fling with Janice. He wants to find her killer, also.

If you combined Aaron and Ryan you’d have a kick-ass protagonist. Aaron is whip-smart, but you can make a good case he’s a psychopath himself. To be fair, that’s not totally true. Aaron has his moments of humanity. The narrator thinks he pays attention to Sadie to use her as bait to catch the killer, but they have something much more basic in common: they both lost their mothers. Ryan is a nice guy, but he’s not too smart. That’s not fair, either: he’s a small town cop, and not equipped to deal with the ensuing shitstorm.

The plot concerns three young girls who go missing. The authorities fixate on the Marxist reading group at the local college – no, I’m not kidding – because they are low-hanging fruit. In the authorities’ defense, in 99% of the cases obvious wins the day. Unfortunately, this is the other 1%. The author’s use of imagery, exemplified by the opening and the ear scene –  Aaron doesn’t just bite Hark’s ear off, he chews on it and then spits it out – is weird and unsettling. However, in some cases, it goes too far.

The thing that struck me most on my second read of The Church of Dead Girls is that this book’s treatment of women and gay people is just awful. Janice liked men and she liked sex, which is fine, but some of the descriptions of her sexuality read like something you’d find in Playboy Magazine. The murder of Jaime is off-the-charts violent and lurid. The narrator’s deep dark secret is a homophobic fairy tale that has been debunked for decades. I understand that this was the late 80’s/early 90’s, but in some cases the author goes way overboard and really rubs the reader’s face in it, as exemplified by the scene depicting the abuse of Barry in the graveyard. It is these passages stop me from recommending The Church of Dead Girls.

American Psycho

A note: since I read this book on my phone, I’m not going to list page numbers.

American Psycho is the dullest book I’ve read in years. This novel is long and it is boring and it repeats itself. We get the same jokes, ad nauseum (the characters all look and dress alike and mistake each other for other people) and we are subjected to an endless cycle of lunches, dinner parties, workouts, grooming tips and murder fantasies. Bateman’s pretend killings are brutal, but since they’re usually people we’ve met five pages ago it’s hard to care. Yes, the scenes are tough to read, but what’s the point?

Wait a minute…did I just say ‘Bateman’s pretend killings?’ Yes, the murders are all in Bateman’s head. No, I won’t argue the point, since what little plot American Psycho possesses occurs in the last third of the book and is all about whether Bateman is an actual killer. My read is that it’s not real, so that’s what I’m going with. At one point Bateman even says – ‘a pang of nausea I’m unable to stifle washes warmly over me, but since I’m really dreaming all this I’m able to ask…’ (during the lunch with Bethany chapter).

The fact that the characters have trouble telling each other apart can be viewed as satire, but it can also mean that Bateman has trouble telling them apart because it’s hard to keep track of that many people in your head. Bateman’s murder fantasies all highlight how strong he is and how weak and pathetic his quarry is – I was struck by how his Homeless Victim character is always hungry and crying.

Bateman even repeats a few of his fantasies, adding vicious flourishes – the first time he does The Man and His Dog Fantasy he mutilates Al and breaks his dog’s legs. The next time we see this fantasy he’s added a bunch of details – the dog is a Shar Pei and the dog’s owner wants to know if Bateman is a model before Bateman kills them. We have the scene where Bateman is taken aback by meeting the woman he’s acquainted with at the Chinese laundromat where he brings his bloody sheets. He fleshes out this scene later in the book when he’s taken aback by meeting Bethany, an ex-girlfriend, at a club. This segues into a new fantasy, Killing the Ex-Girlfriend. Ellis is a writer, so he’s familiar with the process of recycling material and fleshing out a scene.

The Bethany scene is when I realized I was reading about the fantasies of a sad man. Bateman has lunch with her in a public place, he makes a scene (‘do you have a non-smoking section?’), they get drunk, she reads his offensive poem loud enough for others to hear and then they go back to his apartment where he kills her. If we are talking about real life, Bateman would then be indicted by a grand jury. The tabloids would have a field day. Since this is a sex/murder fantasy nothing happens.

The timeline of American Psycho– or lack thereof – drove me nuts. I did have a frame of reference because I went to that U2 concert at Brendan Byrne arena. It was in May or early June 1987, and the fact that all the characters are stressed out about being in New Jersey is awesome. Anyway: the timeline skips all over the place. I thought about finding an episode guide to The Patty Winters Show online to try to nail down the dates, but apparently The Patty Winters Show doesn’t exist. My mistake; I was thinking about The Morton Downey Jr. Show, which I’m sure had an episode about dwarf-tossing.

Here are my positives: the dialogue is good. There are a few funny parts in this book, with the standout being the scene with the business cards. American Psycho portrays the sexism, racism, homophobia and misogyny that existed in the tri-state area in the late 1980’s very well. I know, because I lived there. Not everyone at that time was like Bateman and his friends, but the attitudes and conversations depicted in this book were more common than you might think.

And then there’s the plot. American Psycho doesn’t have a plot and at 400-plus pages is way too long for its subject matter, the definitive portrait of a man who has graphic sexual fantasies about killing his ex-girlfriend with a nail gun. Bateman describes himself as a void, and that’s pretty accurate. Everything he knows he’s read in a magazine. His eloquence about the band Genesis reads like something you’d find in a Rolling Stone article. Post Peter Gabriel Genesis is a joke of a band – even in the 80’s they were viewed as something of a punchline. Bateman also mentions Mike and the Mechanics. Anyone remember them? By the way, Phil Collins appeared in a Miami Vice episode that had no plot, just like American Psycho!

I figured out that this book was supposed to be satire when Bateman makes his speech about American interests and priorities at the sushi dinner party, so I suppose you could view American Psycho as a satire of the mores and attitudes of this country’s ruling class. You say you don’t think this country has a ruling class? Hahahaha. But again, what’s the point? The most horrifying thing about American Psycho is the characters’ attitudes towards anyone who isn’t a straight rich white male, and the book gets so caught up in porn and cannibalism and necrophilia that this point – which I’m not sure was intentional on the author’s part – gets buried in a sea of trash. And you want to have a point, don’t you? I mean, is this the hill you want to make your stand and possibly die on?

To quote Jack Skellington: What does it mean? What does it mean?

 

Psycho

I didn’t want to read Psycho. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the Hitchcock movie, which has thoroughly eclipsed the book, about a hundred times. Or maybe it’s because I’ve never been a fan of Robert Bloch’s writing. I recall reading a short story Bloch wrote when I was just a kid. A woman has an affair and runs away with another man. She makes a big deal about the fact that she’s never celebrated Christmas. At the story’s end her ex-husband comes out of the living room holding a big machete and says – “I have granted her dearest wish. She is decorating the Christmas tree.”

You know, over the years I’ve read and forgotten a lot of crap, but that line has stuck with me. Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly instill a burning desire to leap out of my armchair and read all of Bloch’s material. In fact, it had the opposite effect.

And then I read Psycho. Did I like the book or not? That would be yes. Bloch mentions his source material – Eddie Gein – but makes it palatable to his audience. Instead of wearing his victim’s skin, Norman wears her clothes. Although Norman is an occultist kook, there is nothing supernatural about Psycho. The only possible supernatural element is when Norman reads The Realm of the Incas (available on Amazon for $888.63!) in the first chapter. We learn that the Incas used their enemies’ flayed skins as a drum, and this scene foreshadows the auditory element to Norman’s transformations.  Whenever Mother takes over, there is the sound of drumming – the thrumming of the shower, Arbogast knocking at the front door and the thunderstorm. Nice writing, there!

Of course, Bloch writing style has its weaknesses. He is a lover of bad puns and his descriptions are sloppy (the two might be related). Bloch tells us – ‘it was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head’ – but later in the book, Mary’s head is still attached to her shoulders. His scene transitions are awful. Prime example: near the book’s end Sam and the sheriff are ascending the hill to Norman’s house when they hear Lila scream, and Sam has to use his heretofore unmentioned teleportation powers to teleport into the basement in time to stop Norman from killing his would-be beau.

The Hitchcock movie made a number of changes from the book, and most of those changes are for the better. Norman isn’t forty years old. When we learn of Norman’s taxidermy hobby we see a stuffed owl, not a squirrel, which makes sense since Mary’s last name is Crane. Mary herself is portrayed as a nice person who’s made a dumb mistake, and her dinner with Norman is actually kind of touching.

I will note that I didn’t like any of the characters in this book except for Lila. Norman is Psycho’s protagonist, but he’s too blatantly misogynistic to be sympathetic. Sam is – well, more on Sam later. Bloch gets away with this because Psycho is a short book that moves fast and presumably keeps the reader guessing. Well, it didn’t keep me guessing but that’s not Bloch’s fault. I can’t talk about the effectiveness of the book’s biggest plot twist because I’ve seen the movie too many times.

Speaking of predictable, let’s talk about Sam. Oh, Sam. Lila may seem headstrong, but remember she’s saddled with Sam. When Norman reveals that he’s batshit crazy and starts talking about how he dug up mother from the grave Sam just sits there nodding, and I was like DO SOMETHING JACKASS! One of my favorite parts of Psycho is when Lila turns Sam down cold. Gee, why wouldn’t she want to marry her dead sister’s fiancée, move into his basement apartment and share the joys of poverty?

I adored the psychological gobbledygook at the book’s end, where Sam explains to Lila why Norman is batshit crazy. Since Lila is the next-of-kin the authorities should have told her, but societal mores were different back then. Perhaps they were afraid Lila would swoon, although she is one of the two characters in Psycho who shows any grit. The second character is of course Norman’s mother, who singlehandedly runs a small business despite being saddled by an ungrateful failure of a son. She’s sadly missing from the pages of Bloch’s Psycho 2, which  features Norman Bates dressed up as a nun. But that’s another blog post…