The Exorcist

I have an Exorcist story, but you have to read my review first!

We’ve read a bunch of good books this semester, and The Exorcist is one of the best of the bunch. I’d rank it neck-in-neck with The Shining, probably my all-time favorite horror novel. In fact, I enjoyed all the books we read with the exception of two; I must confess to liking The Amityville Horror,which is craptastic but still fun to read in an awful sort of way.

If you have even a passing interest in horror movies, you know the plot of The Exorcist. The movie is faithful to its source material, even using a number of the book’s best lines. I believe Mr. Blatty wrote the screenplay. But hey, we’re not here to talk about the movie!

I have read The Exorcist a number of times. I’d say that number is less than ten, because that book never triggered my OCD, thus making it a must-read. So I know it pretty well. There is a sequel to The Exorcist, Legion, which is well-worth reading also. The main characters of Legion are Lieutenant Kinderman and Father Dyer, believe it or not.

Here are a few impressions, gleaned from reading the book again.

The biggest thing that struck me is how funny the demon is when it talks. Most of the things it says are blasphemous, but they are still funny. The demon has a sense of humor, something God seems to totally lack. This is an interesting decision on Blatty’s part.

Why? Well, there are theological implications. A sense of humor is a very human trait, especially considering I believe that one of the prerequisites for a sense of humor is suffering. That would mean that humans have more in common with demons than with god. Ah, you say, maybe the demon was a good mimic or channeling Burke Dennings, although Father Merrin states that there is only ONE entity possessing Regan. Possible, but unlikely. The demon has a PERSONALITY that comes through when reading the book, and that’s hard to fake.

One of the understated questions raised by The Exorcist is why do people suffer? It’s a good question (which the book doesn’t answer), explored in greater depth in Legion. People should read Legion, because Kinderman’s fabled carp in the bathtub makes an appearance.

Speaking of Kinderman…he’s based on Porfiry Petrovitch, the inspector in Crime and Punishment. The TV character Columbo is also based on Porfiry. Don’t be fooled by Kinderman; he’s a devious bastard. Denning’s death and the church desecrations are the book’s subplot, which hums along nicely beside Regan’s decline.

Here’s an interesting question: who is the main character of The Exorcist? The title refers to Father Merrin, who bookends the book but isn’t around enough to qualify. Father Karras is the demon’s intended target and a solid choice; Regan’s character has no drive of her own; Kinderman is a strong character, but in the same boat as Father Merrin. My personal choice would be Chris MacNeil, even though after a certain point she becomes little more than a spectator. One of The Exorcist’s strengths is the number of interesting characters; even the minor characters are fleshed out.

Anyway, here’s my Exorcist story. When they released the extended theatrical version, I went to see it in the movies. I was too young to see the original version back in 1973! Anyway, the theater was full of kids, and those kids laughed their asses off from start to finish. That’s the first time I realized I WAS GROWING OLD.

 

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The Shining

I’d like to use the space allotted to me this week to talk about Jack Torrance, because after at least twenty rereads of The Shining (I read this book for the first time when I was twelve years old) facets of his character still hold a certain fascination for me. I don’t find The Shining frightening anymore – I admire the book’s claustrophobic vibe, but at fifty years old the bathtub scene doesn’t scare me the way it did when I was twelve and I wouldn’t go into the bathroom.

What interests me now is Jack. Wendy and Danny are straightforward characters, in that we know what makes them tick. Jack is interesting in that his desire line isn’t so clear. What makes Jack tick? Let’s talk about him, shall we?

The thing that struck me upon this reread of The Shining is the fact that Jack Torrance goes through the pages of this book in a constant state of piss-off. If Danny is always getting hurt, Jack is always getting pissed off. Big things, little things, it doesn’t matter. Jack starts the book angry, and goes downhill from there. Rage is the key to Jack’s character. The first three words of the book – officious little prick– tell us everything we need to know about Jack.

I guess that’s why my view of Jack has changed over the years. I used to view him as a man in turmoil, but now I can honestly say that I just don’t like him. The description of Jack breaking his son’s arm comes early in the book, and it’s brutal. Looking back, I’m not sure why I kept reading. I’m not a big fan of the horror genre’s fascination with domestic violence.

So why did I keep reading? If I’m being honest, I guess it’s because King makes it obvious that Jack views breaking his son’s arm as the worst mistake of his life. He feels great shame and views himself with pure self-loathing. Yet he doesn’t stop drinking. That is a brilliant character moment. Even after breaking his son’s arm, Jack doesn’t stop. It’s not like Jack can’t stop. He doesn’t stop. All it takes to make him stop is a broken bike.

Yes, this tells us something about the nature of addiction, sure, but maybe it’s also a hint about how Jack really feels about his son. Don’t believe me? The plot of Jack’s puerile play is all about an older man beating an insolent youngster to death. The play is another brilliant character moment, because King doesn’t dwell on it. It’s just another view into Jack’s subconscious. Here’s another: Jack putting a wasp’s nest in his son’s bedroom. This is a man who has conflicted feelings about fatherhood, to put it mildly.

However, the true key to Jack’s character is that he’s in denial about being an asshole. Jack is a bad guy who thinks he’s a good guy. Jack isn’t a good guy. Jack is a self-destructive asshole. The Overlook didn’t make Jack beat the shit out of his student. The Overlook didn’t make Jack break his son’s arm. The Overlook didn’t make Jack an alcoholic. Jack did all those things to himself.

Jack tries to quit drinking using sheer willpower, which is lunacy. Let me explain my statement, lest people get the wrong idea: people can and do quit drinking all the time. However, the magnitude of Jack’s drinking problem isn’t something he can just walk away from without repercussions.

To expound upon my point: there’s a reason people go to AA meetings for years after they’ve had their last drink. Jack has no support system. Jack doesn’t seek treatment. Jack decides to hole up in an abandoned hotel in the middle of nowhere in the hopes that the experience will somehow solve all his problems and heal his fractured marriage.

It doesn’t work. Why on earth would it work? Jack is broken from the first page on. The book’s big question is whether Jack will also break his son. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but the biggest trick The Shining pulls off is making Jack seem interesting enough so that the reader doesn’t throw the book at the wall.

King’s obvious fascination with Jack is a big part of that. King starts the book with Jack. Danny Torrance is the main character of The Shining, but by starting the book from Jack’s point-of-view we get the impression that Jack is our main character. He isn’t. We see more of Jack than Wendy, even though Wendy is a stronger character. Wendy really loves her son and doesn’t harbor subconscious fantasies about murdering him. When the shit hits the fan Wendy kicks Jack’s ass. Jack needs the hotel to bail his ass out, just like he needs Al to bail him out. At the book’s end, Jack even screws up killing his son. YOU HAD ONE JOB.

To conclude, Jack is an utter failure at everything.

Loser.

 

 

The Amityville Horror

I read The Amityville Horror when it first came out, back in the wild and wooly days of the early 1980’s. Even as an impressionable youth (12 years old!), I knew this supposedly true book was full of shit. More on that later. I wish I had some enjoyable anecdote to share about the reading of The Amityville Horror as a young man, but nothing comes to mind. Honestly, I was nervous rereading this book. Was it as bad as I remembered? Would it be worth my entertainment dollar?

Reader, I needn’t have worried. I haven’t laughed so much reading a book in years. One of the joys of The Amityville Horror lies in its plethora of bizarre details. Where else can I learn about George Lutz’s diarrhea, or the particulars of the Lutz’s sex life (nightly, until their stay at 112 Ocean Avenue!), or how George and Kathy practiced TM? These are things that I – the reader – want to know. No, I’m going to go a step further: these are things that I DESERVE to know.

A short synopsis: The Amityville Horror is the supposed true story of one family’s experience in a haunted house. Ronald DeFeo murdered his family in this house (located in Amityville, NY) in 1974. George and Kathleen Lutz and her three children moved into the selfsame house a year afterwards and fled twenty-eight days later, claiming their former abode was full of poltergeists and demons, including a devil pig with laser beam eyes.

The Amityville Horror purports to tell the tale of what happened in those twenty-eight days. Here are some fun facts. The house was frigid. There were flies in the sewing room and black smelly goop in the toilets. A four-foot ceramic lion menaced the family. An invisible demon wearing cheap perfume hugged Kathy Lutz in the kitchen. George Lutz spent most of his time in a stupor, only rousing himself to throw logs into the fire and beat his stepchildren. More on this last point later.

Author Jay Anson is a hopeless exclamation point (!!!) addict. I can just imagine his editors, egging him on – ‘Jay, we’ve decided that this book needs more exclamation points. Oh, also more devil pig with laser beam eyes.’ I will give Mr. Anson credit for this. After finishing The Amityville Horror, it became clear to me that something was wrong with George Lutz. That something has nothing to do with literal demons, though.

The Amityville Horror is written like true crime, but it is clearly fiction. The influence of The Exorcist and The Shining shine over this book like twin moons; Jodie the laser beam devil pig is The Exorcist’s Captain Howdy while the ceramic dog mirrors the hedge animal scene in The Shining.

The attention to details is what’s supposed to make The Amityville Horror realistic. In better written books this can work; in this case, not so much. That doesn’t stop Mr. Anson from flooding the book with trivia, though. George Lutz wakes up at 3:15 a.m. every night; the coroner determined that the Defoe Familly died at 3:15 a.m. (wow, they’re good!). The DeFoes slept on their bellies; now, the Lutzes sleep on their bellies! Missy’s (Kathy Lutz’s daughter) pig friend’s name is Jodie and he’s male. Father Mancuso – the priest who blessed the Lutz’s house – was stricken with the flu by Devil Laser Eye Pig, and his temperature was 103 on such-and-such a night! Unfortunately, we never learn whether the good father had diarrhea.

Sometimes this attention to detail works against the author. In one of his nightly jaunts to the boathouse at 3:15 a.m., George Lutz sees his stepdaughter Missy standing in the window by the light of the full moon. LaserPig is standing behind her. This event happened on December 25th. Too bad the full moon was on December 18th; the 25this the date of the moon’s last quarter. Abraham Lincoln supposedly won a court trial by consulting an almanac about the phase of the moon, and what’s good enough for Honest Abe is good enough for me! Props to Mr. Anson for getting the day of the week correct (Christmas 1975 was on a Thursday), though.

Here is the source I used to look up the phase of the moon:  https://www.calendar-12.com/moon_phases/1975

I could go on and on about this book, but I won’t because I want to say a few words about the movie. The original Amityville Horror is a movie everyone should see, if only to witness the MOST AWKWARD LOVE SCENE IN THE UNIVERSE, courtesy of Margot Kidder and James Brolin. I don’t know what happened between these actors, but it sure wasn’t love, and their total lack of chemistry isn’t an act.

A final word: what happened at 112 Ocean Avenue was not demonic in nature. It was child abuse. Danny Lutz gives a detailed account of his ordeal in the documentary My Amityville Horror, released in 2012. While I am not sure whether Mr. Lutz believes in demons –the filmmakers clearly do, so he gives it lip service – he makes his point about his relationship with his stepfather crystal clear. When asked why he’s smiling, Mr. Lutz says – because  George (his stepfather) is dead and I’m a free man.

Truth.

Postscript: here’s a snippet of an interview with Margot Kidder (in Rolling Stone) regarding that love scene. I knew something was up!

“You should have been here earlier,” she said. “You missed some sizzling love scenes. Bright lights on me, Jim Brolin on me, and fourteen men standing around watching. In twelve movies, I’ve never had to do a love scene, and I started getting some funny thoughts, like, ‘How do you act like you’re a good lay?’ I don’t want to look like some fat New Jersey housewife. Last night I was pretty nervous about how I was going to look, so I ate an entire box of chocolate Ex-Lax, thinking I’d lose a lot of weight real fast. Well, I lost about six pounds, but it was all water weight and diarrhea. Boy, I feel terrible!”

Source: https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-features/the-education-of-margot-kidder-630259/

 

 

 

Nightmare House

Capsule review of Nightmare House: if you like ghost stories, give this a try. It’s short and the author quotes Tennyson. I will admit that this book was not my cup of tea, but maybe you will like it. And if you do enjoy Nightmare House, there are a number of sequels and prequels available.

Okay, that’s the short version. The longer review is below. If you don’t like spoilers, don’t read any further.

SPOILERS

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You know, one of the things that always cracks me up is when assorted writer folk/agents/the peanut gallery say that Stephen King can’t write endings. I recall one instance at a now-defunct convention in Westchester, New York, where an agent informed a panel full of enthralled listeners of this very fact. He then told us that if Mr. King worked with him, he’d straighten him out! The thing that makes this memory so beloved is that the agent gave out pens inscribed with his agency’s name, and when I put said pen into my pocket it burst and ruined a perfectly decent pair of khaki trousers.

((Side-note: Mr. King’s endings can be summarized thusly, people live, people die and the world keeps on turning.))

Whilst wiping blue ink from my leg, I starting thinking about Mr. King’s plots, the best of which spring from his characters. This is a long-winded way of saying that if I hadn’t been reading Nightmare House for an assignment, I would have put the book down after the first twenty-five pages.

Why? Because the book’s main character, Ethan/Esteban, has no desire line at all. He inherits a house from his wackadoodle grandpa in the late 1920’s, and travels to a small town in upstate New York to check it out. That isn’t a plot, it’s a situation.

That’s fine, because plots can spring from situations. Unfortunately Ethan isn’t a character, he’s a puppet of the plot. None of his actions even advance the plot. Ah, you say, what about unveiling the hidden room? Yeah, that did nothing, because the spirit of Aunt/Mommy/Crazy Matilde was already roaming the house freely.

The characters in Nightmare House are so paper thin I didn’t care if they lived or died. The garrulous housekeeper vanishes early in the book, never to return. Grandpa’s a loon, pure and simple. Ethan falls madly in love with a woman at first sight, because – well, I don’t know why. Because she’s pretty and makes him clean the bathroom? Pockets, the garrulous constable, only exists to unveil the backstory and give out cigars, which he does with great vigor.

There are a number of plot twists that don’t mean anything because they aren’t properly foreshadowed. The house’s history is hinted at, but not gone into in any detail. The ghosts say all sorts of stuff I didn’t understand, and I got the sneaking feeling I didn’t get it because I hadn’t read any of the other books.

In fact, Nightmare House reads more like a treatment that hasn’t fully been converted into a novel. It needs to have at least 50 more pages to be interesting. If Nightmare House reminded me of anything, it would be H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Rats in the Wall.” Both have that vibe of family rot/predestination, but Lovecraft’s narrator was batshit crazy, and Ethan/Esteban isn’t crazy. If the author really wanted me to believe Ethaneban was crazy, he shouldn’t have written four more books in the series.

 

 

Ghost Story

Hey, time for another story from my far-flung youth! Ghost Story is one of the first R-rated movies I ever saw. It scared me enough so that I made sure to finish my paper route before dark. I had to deliver a paper to this house atop a small hill, and for a few weeks the trek up that hill freaked me out. Thinking about that now – the fact that I had a paper route, and the fact that a movie could scare me – fills me full of sad nostalgia.

Anyway, back to the review. Ghost Story isn’t an original novel, but it’s told in an interesting way. The book is long and dense and full of bizarre imagery, much of it sexual. Ghost Story meanders into strange places. Characters do weird things for inexplicable reasons. The person I’m assuming is our protagonist appears in the first chapter and then doesn’t reappear again for many chapters.

I think part of Ghost Story’s appeal lies in its unpredictability. I am not sure what to make of this book, but feel sure that the author was in control every step of the way. I’ve read better horror novels, but I’ve never read a horror novel with as much style as Ghost Story.

The plot: The Chowder Society is a group of five old men (four when the story starts) bound together by the fact that they killed a woman when they were in their twenties, except that the woman wasn’t really a woman and they didn’t really kill her. Despite these facts, the not-woman and her creepy friends have returned, decades later, to murder The Chowder Society and anyone with even a tangential relationship to the aforementioned not-killing. We’re talking about sons, daughters, neighbors, paperboys, even nephews of the original players!

The Chowder Society is important to the plot of Ghost Story, but the actual members don’t appear much in the book. Ricky Hawthorne has a cold that seems to last a few months. I am sure that Sears James, Hawthorne’s law partner, is based on Orson Welles. Their last names are puns – (Nathaniel) Hawthorne and (Henry) James. Dr. John Jaffrey is a dope addict who takes a header off a bridge in the opening chapters. Lewis Benedikt lives alone in a big house in the woods and is attempting to have sex with every housewife of Millburn, NY.

The actual plot is driven by others. Exhibit A is Jim Hardie, teenage lunatic, lover, hotel clerk, rebel without a cause, town peeper. For awhile Jim is the little engine that could, single-handedly placing the plot on his brawny shoulders and running with it. I liked Jim. Collective IQs drop by fifty points whenever he enters a room, but you can’t have everything. When the shit goes down, Jim is the first to die, leaving his sidekick Peter Barnes to face the weirdlings alone.

Peter’s mother is having an affair with Lewis Benedikt, one of the members of the Chowder Society, and that’s enough to mark him and his mom for death. We also have Freddy Robinson, who sells insurance and lusts after high school girls. Don Wanderley is a youthful horror writer who I’m sure isn’t based on the author at all; he tells the story of his relationship with the strange woman who later kills his brother, seemingly unaware that he comes off as a neurotic asshole. What I like about Ghost Story is that although Wanderley doesn’t know that he comes off as a neurotic asshole, the author does.

Stuff happens, but not in the way you’d expect. The not-woman has style. There is a choreography to what she does, a strange dance. She’s like a movie director – or even a writer. It helps that most of the members of the Chowder Society are done. At times it seems like the not-woman is doing them a favor by putting them out of their misery.

Anyway: I loved Ghost Story even though I see how it could drive people crazy. Book tally so far – two thumb’s up, one thumb’s down.

 

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!

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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.

 

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!