Reminding Me of Me

Joyride is my second Jack Ketchum novel, the first being The Girl Next Door. I’ve come to think of Ketchum’s writing as similar to a punch in the face–simple, brutal and effective. Despite the lurid material with which Ketchum works, despite the fact that most of it occurs “on-camera,” and despite having been considered by The Village Voice an author of torture porn, he does not linger too lovingly on the gory details; he just tells it like it is. This economical quality makes his prose both powerful and highly disturbing to read.

What separates any of us from someone like Wayne Lock? This is the question Rule faces at the end of the novel, when he realizes that he became so deeply involved in the case because Wayne reminded him of himself. Rule is no murderer; he is a good cop, but in his mind he destroys lives just as much as Lock does. We all do, simply “by being who we are.” It’s an issue few of us would care to examine in our own lives, the effect that any given word or deed may have on another. The insects splattered on Rule’s windshield at the beginning of the book illustrate the idea that even a harmless act like driving destroys lives we view as insignificant. Rule has recently ended a relationship and feels a tremendous amount of guilt for the effect it has had on his ex and her young daughter. While this appears to be a function of Rule’s ego as much as anything else, anyone who has ever experienced a bad break-up can attest that it feels a little bit, at first, like being murdered. But our every day behavior toward others, while less dramatic, can kill the spirit in a hundred little ways. A cruel word, a look, a laugh. How many victims might each of us claim? And what if one of those victims were recording each incident in a notebook…

Wayne Lock destroys lives quite literally. He compiles a list of people whose perceived offenses against him can be as minor as having a name he dislikes, but what makes him frightening is that we have all, at one time or another, kept a mental inventory of people who have wronged us. We have all thought at one time or another, “If I could just get my hands on so-and-so…” We can relate to him on that level, at least, and it’s a little horrifying. But most of us, of course, will never cross the line into violence, and witnessing an actual murder would certainly not encourage anyone who is mentally stable to start working on their own personal hit list. Wayne, inspired and excited after Carole and Lee’s murder of Carole’s abusive ex-husband, decides they will be the ones to help him attain the special feeling one achieves only through killing another person. He cannot distinguish that their act was driven by desperation, whereas Wayne wants to kill for the sheer enjoyment of it. By the time Wayne goes on the bloody rampage in his own neighborhood, with Lee dead and Carole severely injured, he is experiencing “the very best day of his life.” Through the act of murder, through his own death at the hands of the police, he has awakened to his own twisted version of love. After all, there are few acts more intimate than watching the life drain out of someone. This, along with Psycho, may be the only text in this class where I felt certain we were dealing with someone who is truly psychotic. Wayne’s mental state noticeably deteriorates throughout the course of the novel until, near the end, he is in the grip of a delusion so severe he does not even care that he’s about to die.

If there is one thing that bothers me about Ketchum’s writing it’s the relentlessness with which his female characters are abused. I’ve read only two of his books, but in both the female protagonist is beaten, raped and tortured almost non-stop. Carole survives and Lee does not, but that does not make her a “strong” character, for she is victimized by nearly everyone in the book, just like Meg (who does in fact die) in The Girl Next Door. Her portrayal of an abused woman is accurate–and unfortunately I know from experience–but it’s troubling that his characters are subjected to these things over and over again. Referring back to John Dixon’s post about Seven, I do have a “button” after all and this is it. While Wayne Lock, as a power/sadistic rapist, ties into the chapter on sexual predators we read in Howdunit, I share Kevin Smith’s disgust (as voiced in the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated) at how often rape is used as a convenient plot device, both in Hollywood and in fiction. I started to question what sort of attitude Jack Ketchum truly harbors toward women. And that is a shame, because I admire him a great deal as a writer.

The Lord Works In Mysterious Ways

Having watched Seven many times over the years, I was ecstatic to find it on the syllabus as a required text. This is a film that has haunted and inspired me for a long time. It is likely the reason that the exploration of religious themes have crept into my own work so often. And, of course, it forces us to acknowledge that we can in some way sympathize with a serial killer given the right circumstances.

John Doe, brilliantly portrayed by Kevin Spacey, is a man on a mission. In a world that has forgotten the meaning of “sin” (and as an atheist I hate that term, but I will use it in the context of the film), he intends to jolt an indifferent populace out of their apathy by becoming an Old Testament-style instrument of God’s vengeance. He does not consider himself special, however; he knows that even he is not without sin and must be sacrificed for the greater good of his message. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the second definition of “martyr” is “a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle.” This is where Seven makes most people uncomfortable, because John Doe is, by this definition, indeed a martyr.

It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around the concept, and a testament to the genius of Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay. But it doesn’t take a mission-oriented serial killer to see that the moral compass of this world, and our country in particular, has malfunctioned. John Doe has certainly crossed a line with his “principles,” and let’s face it–a few murders probably won’t have much of an effect on a society up to its eyeballs in violent crime. Not to mention that John admittedly takes pleasure in lengthy sequences of torture (a year for poor Victor!) leading up to the actual murder. Do I find these aspects of his character sympathetic? Of course not; he is delusional and sadistic. What I can relate to, however, is the motivation that led him to such extreme acts–the idea that, as he expressed to the detectives, “Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.” In this day and age, anything and everything has to be more and more extreme just to attract the slightest amount of attention. The sins for which John Doe punishes his victims, sins once feared as a ticket straight to Hell, are now not only “common” and “trivial,” in some cases they’re even celebrated. Investment bankers, supermodels, porn stars–are these the people we want to emulate? How can things like Greed and Lust possibly provide a stable foundation for a society? They can’t, of course, and this is John Doe’s point. Society is crumbling around us while we continue to bury our heads in the sand, while we retreat into apathy as the solution, just as Detective Somerset acknowledges.

Pride was considered the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins, but in Seven Wrath is the most terrible sin of all, as it both punishes Envy and breaks the man wielding its power. Wrath is the crowning achievement of John Doe’s “work.” What appears on the surface to be suicide-by-cop is John’s bid for martyrdom; in confessing his sin of Envy, he accepts that he too must die in order for the message to be complete. But it is not enough merely to confess. It is not extreme enough to provoke Detective Mills into action. Only the murder and decapitation of Mills’ pregnant wife will suffice, and while we as the audience (at least those viewing it for the first time) hope that Mills can find the strength to resist, he is only human. Mills becomes Wrath, just as John Doe envisioned and urged him to, and empties his gun into him. Envy has been punished, and Wrath, embodied by the now-catatonic Mills, faces a lifetime of torment. Having dismissed John Doe as “crazy,” having not seen the bigger picture as Somerset did until it was too late, Mills helps create the very thing he tried to stop. He has made John Doe a martyr.

Seven is easily my favorite film in the serial-killer genre. It is a film that goes to very dark places, forcing an examination of our society and the ugliness inside each of us. Most troubling, it presents us with a serial killer who has legitimate problems with the world. Problems that all of us, whether we like to admit it or not, wouldn’t mind seeing eliminated in one way or another.

Still Slumbering

There are a lot of people who have declared that someday they’ll write a novel, implying that it requires only a little extra free time and nothing else. I hate those people, and Gregory Funaro reminds me of one of them. The Sculptor is so aggressively bad that I thought it had to be written as a joke, and as a result I can’t take him, or this novel, seriously.

The main problems stem from the fact that Funaro simply does not know how to write very well. His habit of starting most of his sentences with “Yes” or “Indeed” made me cringe. The fact that this book slipped past any editor’s desk simultaneously gives me hope for my own work, and makes me question the standards of certain publishers. Both the plot and characters are cliched, the dialogue is stiff and awkward and presented in giant infodumps (Cathy manages to crank one out even when she’s under sedation in the hospital), and his vocabulary seems to be quite limited. Every single female in the book is described as “pretty,” followed by either her hair color and/or her profession. Steve Rogers is “vain and self-centered.” I want to buy Funaro a thesaurus for Christmas. The characters have in-depth conversations with themselves on an alarmingly frequent basis. Cathy’s discussion with herself after a dream about her mother is utterly ridiculous and yet somehow manages to go on for several pages. We all talk to ourselves, let’s be honest, but if I were having this kind of dialogue in the middle of the night, I might question my own sanity. 

Description itself is something Funaro largely sacrificed for the sake of his unrealistic dialogue. Having read the book, I’m still not entirely sure what either Sam or Cathy actually look like. When they make love for the first time, an important night considering they end up married at the end of the book, and Sam’s love for Cathy is what allegedly drives him to continue hunting The Sculptor, it happens in a rushed paragraph that’s all of one sentence long. The Sculptor himself is obviously intelligent, yet every now and then Funaro adds a bizarrely infantile word like “poopy-head” or “boobies” to his dialogue–a desperate and poor attempt to remind us, Hey, he’s CRAZY!!! Given the level of sophistication involved in his crimes, The Sculptor cannot in fact be the sort of “crazy” that Funaro is attempting to depict here.

The main purpose of this book appears to be Funaro’s desire to tell us how much he’s read about Michelangelo. I would have advised him to write an art history textbook instead. However, I will give him credit for devising a unique method by which The Sculptor kills and displays his victims, especially in using the Plastination process. While it may seem a rather labor-intensive endeavor, mission or visionary killers will go to great lengths to ensure their message is delivered properly, as with John Doe in Seven. The Sculptor has converted part of his family’s house to a studio, and spent years experimenting in order to perfect his “art.” Having done my undergrad in studio art and tutored people in art history, I did find this aspect of the book interesting, though having The Sculptor come from a wealthy family where money is no object made things a little too convenient for my tastes. 

Take away The Sculptor’s MO and you’ve got characters and a plot you’ve seen a million times before. The FBI agent with a tragic past, the killer who was abused as a child and turns into a psycho, the career woman with a jerk ex-husband who gives it all up for love. Funaro did nothing innovative with these stereotypes, and because I expected nothing but the most cliched of endings–Sam and Cathy escape, the body of The Sculptor isn’t found–I guess he didn’t disappoint me after all.


Stephen King’s Misery was published when I was 11. And yes, I read it that year. It was my introduction to King, and after that I began eyeballing my mother’s hardcovers of Carrie, Salem’s Lot and The Shining with the intent of devouring them all. My mother is a writer herself, but I think my first exposure to Stephen King’s work truly planted the idea somewhere in my young brain that I wanted to do this, too. Few writers have been able to describe scenes so vividly that I can clearly see them playing out in my head as I’m reading (the handcuff-escape scene from Gerald’s Game still makes me queasy, and Salem’s Lot remains the only vampire novel that has ever terrified me). Misery presents us with a very real protagonist, and a very real villain. When writer Paul Sheldon remembers his resuscitation as being “raped back into life,” he already knows–and we do as well–that something is very wrong with his biggest fan. The horror of this book lies in the fact that there are people out there every bit as dangerously obsessed with the object of their affection as Annie Wilkes is.

Though published nearly 25 years ago, Misery seemed to anticipate the unhealthy relationship our society now shares with its celebrities. After the rise of the paparazzi and constant reality TV, we seem to feel that celebrities owe us their success, their careers–indeed, their very lives. The paparazzi get a lot of flak for their tactics, but if we were honest with ourselves we would admit that they are only doing our bidding. More and more people, the same people who would decry this level of intrusion into their own lives, demand access to every detail of a celebrity’s daily life, and fail to note the hypocrisy. To some extent media coverage does, of course, come with the territory of being famous. But when does a society recognize that it has crossed the line?

We build celebrities up and are even more eager to tear them down, to let them know who is really in charge. Annie frequently reminds Paul that he owes her his life after his near-fatal car crash; thus he also owes her a new Misery book. Never mind that he killed Misery off in the last book so that he could focus on writing a novel based on something more than an easy paycheck, and never mind that Annie is holding him hostage in her guest bedroom. Annie is the nightmare on the flip-side of celebrity–she is the “number-one fan,” the obsessive psycho who has fashioned a world, who has actually brought it into being through kidnapping, in which she gets to dictate to her favorite author exactly what she wants from him. She does not care about the artistic motivations behind Fast Cars, she wants her Misery back in all its overwrought glory. And if he fails to comply, well, there’s always the axe. When a celebrity deviates from what we have determined to be an acceptable career path, we frequently denounce them for it via critical reviews and poor sales; in effect, we are cutting off pieces of them, albeit figuratively, in order to force compliance. As a result we have a culturally bankrupt society in which overproduced pop music (I was a DJ for many years, so don’t get me started on the American music industry) and unimaginative sequels/remakes reign supreme.

King weaves in parallels to Scheherazade, but Paul knows that there will be no happy ending to his tale unless he finds a way to escape. His new Misery novel keeps them both alive only so long as Annie remains relatively stable, and that is something over which he is powerless. One of the most chilling moments in the book is when Annie describes her “Laughing Place” to him. If Annie’s sanity had been in question up to that point, her lack of it fully crystallized in that scene. It is almost enough to make one question whether they truly want to be thrust into the public eye, where people like Annie Wilkes do lurk in the shadows.

The novels that Stephen King wrote in the 70s and 80s remain some of my all-time favorites. At 11 I could not comprehend much of what Misery had to say. At 35, and a writer, this book horrifies me because of the realities that any celebrity faces. When you’re famous there are pieces of your normal life that disappear forever; Paul Sheldon’s missing foot and thumb signify this loss but, as he notes toward the end of the book, the limp from his shattered legs would be even worse with his natural foot than with the prosthetic. You adapt to a new way of living, as painful as it may be at first, and you carry on.

And you hope there isn’t another Annie Wilkes waiting for you in that crowd of adoring fans.

Fava Beans and A Nice Chianti

I was 15 when the film version of The Silence of the Lambs was released. I loved it immediately. Anthony Hopkins completely owned the role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and picked up a well-deserved Oscar in the process. From Red Dragon we have the return of the slimy Dr. Frederick Chilton, Jack Crawford still making questionable decisions (one wonders how he manages to keep his job), and of course, in a starring role this time, Hannibal the Cannibal.

Dr. Lecter is certainly a compelling character, now that we’ve gotten to know him better. Almost charming, if it weren’t for the stare that seems to bore straight into your soul. On one hand he represents the ideals of human society: a highly educated and intelligent man, a professional psychiatrist, cultured and sophisticated. He appreciates art, literature, classical music. But it’s his dark side that has fascinated us for the past 20 years. And boy, does he have a dark side.

Lecter’s power of suggestion is so insidious that I can’t help but wonder what his patients must have felt while sitting on his couch, not even realizing that he was toying with them. Even locked up in a maximum-security mental hospital, Lecter amuses himself by preying on the weak. The unfortunate Miggs, after a night of listening to Lecter’s whispers, swallows his own tongue. Coupled with this is the doctor’s uncanny perception; merely by looking at her, he is able to construct an accurate summary of Clarice Starling’s life, and does the one thing Crawford warns her against–letting him get into her head.

That’s not the worst of it, of course. This refined and cosmopolitan doctor engages in one of the most primitive and taboo practices of our species. He enjoys eating human flesh.

Once a widespread practice, cannibalism has been condemned over the last few centuries as a way to separate more “enlightened” cultures from those perceived as less than human (particularly to justify enslavement of the latter). Dr. Lecter presents a problem with this theory, since he is a far more cultured than many of us could ever hope to be, yet according to current societal mores, engaging in cannibalism makes him a monster. A common reason amongst some primitive tribes for eating others was to insult the deceased; Lecter’s motivations seem to fall within this category, particularly at the end of the film when he tells Clarice, as he spots Dr. Chilton deplaning, that he plans to have “an old friend for dinner.” Throughout the course of both Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs Lecter and Chilton antagonize each other; Chilton certainly recognizes that Lecter is, intellectually at least, his superior, and despises him for it. He metes out his petty punishments like a child throwing a temper tantrum. In deciding to cannibalize him, Lecter is merely returning insult for insult.

But what of his other victims? Lecter surely views them with contempt, for as a psychopath he is also a narcissist. We need only remember the census taker who dared attempt to test him, the poor man whose liver was famously cooked with “some fava beans and a nice chianti.” One can infer that Lecter’s cannibalism relates to another once-common practice, eating those who have fallen in battle. By consuming those who are weaker than he is, Dr. Lecter asserts his dominance over them. Cannibalism removed him from normal human society due to cultural restrictions; Lecter eats human flesh because he views himself as being superior to that society.

I enjoyed the opportunity to view The Silence of the Lambs again, and to view it in a vastly different way than I did as a teenager and even in my 20s. It remains one of my favorite films for many reasons, but largely due to a certain terrifyingly engaging psychiatrist.

Sympathy For the Dragon

My first reading of Red Dragon came in my teens, after having seen and then read The Silence of the Lambs. The former introduces us to the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter, here a minor character with a major influence on FBI profiler Will Graham’s life. After all, Dr. Lecter nearly killed him. In that first reading I doubt that I was capable of fully appreciating Thomas Harris’ many gifts. His greatest talent is the ability to humanize his characters, even the villains (Dr. Lecter just wants his books back). And while Francis Dolarhyde, the Red Dragon, is monstrous both inside and out, I felt a curious arousal of sympathy for this terrible man.

When we first meet him, Francis Dolarhyde is deep in the throes of his delusion that he is Becoming the Red Dragon. Despite an obvious psychotic disorder, he is able to maintain a job and the veneer of a normal life. It is this very job through which Dolarhyde selects his victims, for he processes home movie film. However, we eventually learn that Dolarhyde’s life has been defined by fear (much like Will Graham’s), and it is difficult to imagine how one could survive such an existence mentally and emotionally intact, which Dolarhyde clearly does not. Abandoned by his mother due to the horrific cleft palate with which he was born, terrorized by his manipulative Grandmother, Francis finds his only friend in Queen Mother Bailey, his grandmother’s cook. Her perceived betrayal of him leads to that hallmark of future serial murder, the killing of animals. The Red Dragon that he identifies with in adulthood is the manifestation of the power Dolarhyde was denied throughout his childhood; he now possesses the power of life and death. No one will ever again threaten to cut off his genitals, no one will ever again call him “Cunt-Face.” The Dragon can destroy them all.

Dolarhyde keeps newspaper clippings recounting the disappearances of elderly women in the area. Has he been symbolically killing his grandmother all these years (and truthfully, who wouldn’t have at least thought about it)? With echoes of Psycho, The Dragon speaks with what appears to be Grandmother’s voice, and Dolarhyde wears her teeth when he murders. And, like Norman Bates, Dolarhyde begins splitting into two distinct personalities. Where he once considered himself and the Dragon one, he is terrifyingly aware of the bifurcation occurring in his own mind. The reason for this unraveling?

He is falling in love.

Dolarhyde is at his most sympathetic when he is puzzled and frightened by his feelings for Reba McClane, the blind co-worker who cannot judge him by his appearance. She knows he has a cleft palate by his speech, yet she accepts him and even initiates their first sexual encounter. His emotions are so intense that he begins to dissociate; the Red Dragon is now a separate entity, something he wishes to stop for Reba’s sake. In desperation Dolarhyde travels to New York to confront the original painting of the Red Dragon. To all involved in his manhunt it comes as a surprise that he kills no one, but this is what Dolarhyde seeks–an end to the killing. He stuffs the small watercolor into his mouth, intending to reclaim the Dragon’s power over him for his own by ingesting it, as so many tribes throughout history have ingested the blood or hearts of their enemies. By now, of course, it is far too late for Dolarhyde to stop his murderous impulses, and yet when he believes that Reba has betrayed him, he still cannot give her over to a horrific death at the hands of the Red Dragon. He chooses to let her burn alive in his house, an act that he tells her he cannot bear to witness even as he lights the fire.

Francis Dolarhyde is a richly imagined character, certainly one of the most memorable villains in the annals of crime fiction. From his facial deformity to his massive dragon tattoo to his immensely muscled body, he is an imposing and terrifying man. The delusions and personality split that drive him to murder make him even more frightening, but the reasons behind his psychosis remind us that, underneath it all, he is still the ugly and unloved little boy rejected by society. His crimes are ultimately a bizarre and bloody plea for what we all crave: acceptance.

The Church of Dead Expectations

With a great title and promising premise, I expected Stephen Dobyns’ thriller to be just that–thrilling. Unfortunately I cannot join the choir of praise surrounding The Church of Dead Girls, because it was tedious at best, and poorly written at worst. Perhaps it’s just the terrible week I’ve had, but I utterly loathed this book. I almost hate to say that because there was so much unrealized potential.

One of the biggest problems facing this novel is the glacial pace at which events unfold. Whenever Dobyns finally manages to make something happen or build some tension, he immediately destroys it by following up with dozens of pages of exposition, subplots that ultimately go nowhere, or excruciatingly small and pointless details about minor characters. I fully understand that Dobyns wanted to immerse the reader in small-town life and thus make the burgeoning paranoia more authentic. It’s a shame, then, that his characters are wooden and unlikeable, that there are far too many, and that their dialogue is extremely artificial. I stopped caring about most of them long before the end of the book, if I ever cared at all.

Even more irritating is the rushed ending, after hundreds of pages detailing the minutiae of the town and its people. Donald’s conversation with Franklin in the lean-to borders on campy in its utter ridiculousness. It’s as if Dobyns thought, “How can I stress that he’s CRAZY?” and then threw in every idiotic serial killer cliche ever written. Girls are evil beasts that live to ensnare men with their sexual wiles? Yawn. Donald’s own demise at the hands of his brother is also unsatisfying; it essentially renders Aaron’s entire subplot a waste of time, despite Dobyns developing that character far more than he did Dr. Malloy. Not to mention that Donald (telegraphed early on as the killer due to the author’s obsession with his hands), being so underdeveloped, was not at all compelling as the murderer. I found the narrator far more sinister precisely for all the reasons Donald wasn’t. We get to know him; he presents a perfectly normal exterior, and yet by the end of the book there is no doubt that he has a few screws loose. By presenting his own peculiarities in such a calm and rational manner, he urges us to examine our own, and what we find may be as terrifying as the murders of innocent young girls. Perhaps, in this, Donald was merely the squeaky wheel, the foil to the quiet madness that lurks within all of us.

Another issue that pulled me out of the story was Dobyns’ reliance on passive voice. I know that he spent a good deal of time in journalism, and that has not translated well to fiction. At very few points in the novel did I ever feel I was being “shown” anything–most of the book read like a very long newspaper report. Part of me wants to believe that this was intentional, a way to reflect the suspicious nature of the townsfolk by keeping the reader at a distance. I also took issue with the POV. Either Dobyns is guilty of serious head-hopping, or the narrator is some kind of mutant who can be everywhere at once and enter people’s minds (it is not even remotely plausible that others revealed all of these events and their emotional responses to him after the fact). In either case, the result is confusing and sloppy. Dobyns clearly wanted an omniscient POV and his execution failed miserably.

Toward the end of the book the town’s paranoia becomes almost claustrophobic, and that is a good thing. However, it’s too little too late. Their plight, the secrets that all people keep and the idea that perhaps none of us are quite what we seem, are themes that could have been explored to great effect in the hands of a capable writer. Stephen Dobyns is not that writer. What should have been a disturbing exploration of the darkest parts of the human psyche was instead a boring chore of a book that I had to force myself to finish.

My Name Is Norman Bates…

Norman Bates has become a pop culture icon. Songs have even been written about him. Thus it is with a sense of shame that I admit, after 25 years of reading horror novels, this is the first time I’ve read Psycho. (I have, however, seen the film as well as its unfortunate remake.) My only other exposure to Robert Bloch up to this point had been Lori, a forgettable book at best. Psycho, on the other hand, offers up a thoroughly engaging, fast-paced story that is a deserved classic.

An aspect of Bloch’s novel that I found most intriguing was his female characters. In 1959 women in books, film and television were typically portrayed as submissive and timid, always waiting for the men in their lives to take decisive action for them. In Psycho, Bloch reverses the roles. He begins with Mary, who is tired of waiting for her fiance, Sam, to pay off his debts and marry her. Mary literally snatches the opportunity to change her fortunes when her employer gives her $40,000 to deposit in the bank; her theft of the money sets the novel’s plot in motion. While Sam and the sheriff are content to sit and wait to hear from the company’s private investigator, Arbogast, Mary’s sister Lila demands an investigation. It is Lila who decides to explore the Bates house by herself and find evidence of the crimes she knows have been committed, when no one else seems to care what has happened to Mary. Rather than punishing her character for being “emotional,” an epithet applied to women for centuries, Bloch makes it clear that, were it not for Lila’s emotions pushing her forward, the case would have likely never been solved. The bloody earring that Lila finds in the motel shower, a discovery driven by frustration and her refusal to give up when everyone else appears to have done so, leads her into the house and eventually the dreaded fruit cellar. To Bloch, emotions are something that all human beings ought to express, especially in a crisis, and Lila is rightfully troubled by Sam’s response to his fiancee’s disappearance.

Of course, even emotions can become a destructive force when not properly channeled, and so has Norman Bates’ codependent love for his mother destroyed his very sanity. At one point Bloch mentions that Norman believes he has symptoms of schizophrenia, though the true culprit reveals itself to be dissociative identity disorder (as noted in the DSM-IV-TR; elsewhere it is still known as multiple personality disorder). Both disorders are rare and not well-understood, even less so when Bloch was writing his novel, and DID has often been wrongly identified as schizophrenia. Despite this, Bloch does an excellent job portraying the symptoms of severe DID, the development of which fits perfectly with Norman’s past trauma. Norman’s “conversations” with his dead mother are frightening, but it is the final scene of the book in which the horror of Norman’s DID fully reveals itself. Having always been dominated by his mother, Norman allows her a twisted form of justice for his murder of her, his one last act of love–his personality “dies,” leaving Mother in its place and in his body. Not since reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian has a novel’s ending disturbed me in such a way.

Robert Bloch delivered everything I enjoy in a horror novel. We have a strong female character, a vastly disturbed antagonist, and a chilling plot trimmed of all unnecessary ornamentation. As a writer there is so much I can take away from Bloch’s book: the deceptive simplicity of his prose, his talent for characterization, his gift for building suspense. Not to mention an ending that will stick with me forever.

%d bloggers like this: