Sunday, October 25, 2009

The reason classes like our horror reading class are good is that I never would have read this book on my own. The subject matter would have put me off.

But I’m glad I did. I started out knowing nothing about the book and didn’t even realize it was based on a true incident until I read the end matter from the author.

Ketchum begins the book by setting up a question that makes us want to read more. Who is Ruth and why does the author have such a hatred of her? Why is it that he purposely never had children? The mystery deepens when we meet Meg, the object of David’s juvenile affection and her little sister, Susan, who are living next door after their parents were killed in a terrible accident.

We start out in a world of swimming holes, stay-at-home moms and endless languid summers spent getting into mischief with the other kids in the neighborhood. Things turn gradually dark with David’s description of “The Game,” a sadistic sport in which his friend’s little sister ends up getting tied up naked.

The author tips us off to what will happen when Meg tells David that she hates the fallout shelter her new family has in the basement.

From there, Ketchum masterfully escalates the action of the story. At first Ruth is just impatient and cross with Meg for apparently no reason, but her hatred of the girl turns cruller and cruller. David watches, amazed, as her sons and other kids from the neighborhood join in the torture of Meg. At first David is applauded at her treatment at the hands of his supposed friends with their mother Ruth giving adult supervision.

David chronicles Ruth’s slow slide into insanity. She gets sicker, paler, riddled with sores with a nagging cough. Her house grows more and more dirty and decayed. And the horrible tortures they inflict upon Meg become sicker and more lethal.

The most disturbing part of this story is watching David’s initial infatuation with Meg turn into apathy then distain as his friends abuse her. He fights his own sexual excitement at seeing her naked and tortured. While I was reading the book, I thought it was unrealistic that David wouldn’t have told some adult at the point that they started holding her captive in the basement. Still, Ketchum convincing portrays David being gradually drawn into that “Lord of the Flies” mentality.

When Ruth and the neighborhood kids’ treatment of Ruth becomes so deplorable that he wants to go tell someone, then he thinks he’ll be put away as an accomplice. He tells himself it will all have to be over by the time school starts because then someone will miss her.

The 1950’s is a perfect setting for a story in which people feel that what happens in a family’s home is their own business. Meg initially tries to tell a policeman of her plight, but he doesn’t listen. This adds to David’s mistrust of adults and his feelings that he can’t tell anyone about Meg’s captivity and torture, and it isn’t until he fears for her life that he actually tries to help her escape, and then all he actually does is open the door and let her escape on her own (which fails), he doesn’t actually help her. When one of the kids tells his mother, she expresses the belief that the girl probably deserved for being “loose,” and she felt she should stay out of another family’s business.

I was somewhat surprised at the end to find out that this was based upon an actual incident. I know that groups of people are capable of such cruelty, but David is set up to be a boy who is more sensitive then the norm and given that personality, I can’t believe he wouldn’t have told someone.

I know that people definitely have the mob mentality potential, but as a woman it made me wonder if young boys truly have the capacity to be that bad. Of course we know that some are that bed, but I think the book was especially disturbing because David was portrayed as a good kid. He even had a huge crush on Meg at one time, yet he was able to objectify her to the point that he ceased to care about her pain. He started taking pleasure in seeing her nude body and felt guilty about that, but somehow the fact of her being tortured and used degraded her in his eyes somehow.

I think the explanation would have to be that the whole turn of events took on an unreality for David. He felt like he wasn’t guilty because he was only watching, not taking part.

“And I remember thinking at least it’s not me.”

If I wanted to I could even join them.”

For the moment, thinking that, I had the power.”

Isn’t asserting power over others because you feel powerless yourself the basis for all abuse?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Writing lessons Stephen King gives us in Misery

In Misery, Stephen King gives us endless lessons in good writing. The book doesn’t begin with Paul Sheldon’s accident. It starts with Paul in a hazy thrall of pain. He fades in and out of consciousness, having some memories of a childhood picnic and seeing the water wash over some pilings. He could be in Edgar Allen Poe’s, The Pit and the Pendulum for all we know. We have no clue to his actual whereabouts until he has the experience of receiving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation from someone who has breath that is beyond foul. The pilings come to symbolize the Novril he’s taking that wash over his pain, and the person with the horrible breath becomes his worst nightmare, Annie Wilkes. This is a much more interesting opening than Paul’s accident would have been.

King’s descriptions of Annie are perfect. After Paul complains to her about her purchase of Corrasable Bond paper and he tells her he may have to put off starting Misery’s Return for a few days. “She rushed across the room at him, thick legs pumping, knees flexing, elbows chopping back and forth like…pistons.” “…she screamed, and brought her fist down on the bunched salt dome that had been Paul Sheldon’s left knee.” “…lips pulled back in grinning rictus.” The descriptions are wonderful, then King adds to it with a revelation about the depth of Annie’s insanity. Annie tells him he can scream and no one will hear him. No one stops by Annie’s house any more “because they all know what she did, even though they did find me innocent.” Now we know that others have been the victims of her murderous insanity.

King is a master of building suspense, such as when Paul picks the lock to his room and gets out into the living room only to have Annie return ahead of schedule, at the end when Paul’s only match almost fails to light, and at the end when we think Annie is dead, but we’re not quite sure.

The biggest writing lesson is in Annie’s recollection of the serialized Saturday matinees she saw as a child. One episode shows the Rocket Man going off the cliff in a car and she breathlessly awaits the next installment. The next installment “doesn’t play fair.” When the Rocket man opens a door and jumps out before the car goes over the cliff, young Annie gets hysterical that the author has cheated her. She could go for an improbable but possible resolution, like someone in a falling plane pulling a parachute from under his seat. (“Maybe it wasn’t realistic, but it was fair.”) But she could not accept an out-and-out lie. When Paul brings Misery back from the dead in a way that couldn’t have happened given the series of events of the last book, she makes him start it over again.

Parallel to this are Paul’s childhood recollections of stories told at day-camp. The councilor would start a story and each child would have to resolve the last one’s cliff hanger. The councilor would say, “Can you?” to ask if the next kid would continue with the story. Next the counselor would ask, “Did she?’ wanting to know if the last story had been plausible. Paul thinks to himself that the reason he’s been a fabulously successful writer is that he can. “…if you want me to take you away, to scare you or involve you or make you cry or grin, yeah, I can. I can bring it to you and keep bringing it until you holler uncle. I am able. I CAN.” Paul uses this ability as a survival tactic with Annie. He becomes Scheherazade who weaves a thousand and one tall tales to stop from being killed. In the end, Paul was Scheherazade to himself.

Because Misery is told from Paul’s viewpoint only, King had to find a way for Paul to find out the extent of Annie’s lethal insanity in order to build suspense. King uses Annie’s scrapbook as a way to give the character knowledge of something he would have had no way of knowing. We also later learn that Annie has set him up to find the scrapbook and is going to punish him for it.

The gotta,” refers to that elusive element in a story that makes the reader want to find out what happens next. “You don’t know exactly where to find the gotta, but you always know when you did.” It’s the thing that keeps you up all night, because you just can’t put the book down. “I think I’ll stay up another fifteen minutes, honey. I gotta find out how this chapter ends.”

Stephen King always, at some point in his stories, practices foreshadowing. “One day not long before the thumbectomy…” This increases the suspense, just like when Annie keeps referring to the upcoming surgery that results in Paul’s hobbleing.

Repeated symbolic imagery is used to give meaning and coherence to the story: the pilings that are washed over by water to represent the Novril taking away Paul’s pain, the rare African bird symbolizing Paul’s captivity, the grinning typewriter that gradually loses its teeth symbolizes Paul’s fear of having to go back to writing the Misery books he so detested.

With all of that said about Stephen King’s writing, I still feel that he is very long-winded. King has written several books in which the protagonist has a lot of time to think: Gerald’s Game, The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon and Misery. In each book, King goes into the characters heads to an excruciating and tedious amount. He takes stories that should have been novellas and drags them out with the character’s endless stream of consciousness. To me they each took a fair amount of tenacity to finish. I know that Stephen King is a master and I must be in the minority to feel this way. Still, I think that most of his books would be better if they were cut down somewhat.

I couldn’t help but think that King foreshadowed his own auto accident. After he was run over by a car on one of his daily walks, he spent years recovering. He described his body as being twisted much the same way Paul’s is and he talks about his sessions at the typewriter being agony. The only thing that took the agony were the drugs that he became hooked on. Reality somewhat mirrored fiction in that case and I’m sure the irony wasn’t lost on Stephen King.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Secundo House by Sally Bosco

Nervous about the waning light, I slid the silver key into the lock and twisted it. I’d wanted to come here by myself first so I wouldn’t get all emotional in front of the real estate person, but maybe I’d made a mistake in venturing here alone.

About ten years ago, my father had turned our rambling farmhouse into a restaurant. He made a go of it for a good long time until the economy turned bad and his health failed him.

Now I stood in the entranceway staring at the hostess station with its oak counter that my father had made. The grains matched perfectly; dad would have had it no other way. The lemon scent of the wood polish he always used transported me right back in time. I felt the tears rush to my eyes. Now I was an orphan. No brothers and sisters, no spouse. Get a grip, Laura.

A sudden noise made me nearly turn around and run. It was the grinding of the old water pump we used to have when I was a kid. It whirred and labored to siphon fresh water from our well every time the retaining tank emptied. But there was nobody here, and surely Dad had replaced that water pump years ago.

Struggling to superimpose the layout of our old house over the renovation, I stepped into what we used to call the music room, which Dad had turned into a small dining room.

I heard a creek like a footstep overhead and all of the memories flooded back into me of how I used to sit in that room, terrified as the light faded at four in the afternoon in the winter in Connecticut. In was in fifth or sixth grade and my dad was starting up a new business in the next town over. My mom helped him with his bookkeeping so I was often left alone in the old house until seven or eight at night.

I’d sit and watch The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Hitchcock Presents, trying to scare myself silly. I’d read the Stranger than Science books about invisible vampires sinking their teeth into innocent victims, houses that disappeared into alternate dimensions, but the worst of all was the case of the man who encountered his own doppelganger, which was an evil twin created by diabolical means.

After that, my biggest fear became getting off the school bus, coming home in the afternoon and finding myself already there. At that point I’d know I was mad and life would no longer be worth living. But one thing saved me: my best friend, Tippy.

The light receded more quickly now as I moved into the next room, our old living room. Beautifully carved wooden tables lay in the center of the room like abandoned ships afloat on a post-storm sea. The chairs were piled up carelessly on the right side of the room. A chill went through me as I thought about all of my nights alone, terrified of the unseen things in the attic.

To neutralize my mood I thought about Tippy, the tuxedo cat who had greeted me daily and joined me in my solo walks through the woods in the back of our house. He’d come to us in a unique way. We had a boy cat who had shown up one day holding a perfect little copy of himself by the scruff of the neck. We named the adorable cat Tippy and kept it as our own. We wondered what had made him rescue the kitty? A dysfunctional mommy cat? A pending custody suit?

There it was again. The creaking footsteps from above. I flipped the light switch next to the doorway. Just my luck, the electricity had been disconnected. How did that water pump go on then?

I walked up the stairs and looked around. Nothing. I was being silly, getting too caught up in my childhood memories.

Tap, tap, tap. I’d quickly finish my surveillance of the place and leave, go back to my nice, bright shiny room at the Marriott and forget about all this maudlin silliness.

My mood changed from fear to melancholy as I thought about my dad. Exhausted from my flight, I sat on a chaise lounge at the side of the room. Like the waves from a distant ocean, all of the stress drained from me and I realized how tired I was. I’d rest for just a minute before I drove to the hotel. Since the chaise felt especially comfortable, I leaned my head back and rested.

I awoke to a pitch black room, so black it felt like it was in my throat strangling me. I sat bolt upright trying to get my bearings. When I reached out to feel the tapestry texture of the couch, the memories flooded back. I was at Secundo, our old house.

Barely able to discern outlines of the windows, I got up and bumped my shin against some table. Ouch. I rubbed it and put my hand against the wall for support. I felt a light switch and flipped it on out of habit, knowing full well there was no electricity.

But the lights came on. When I looked around I started to hyperventilate. I saw a small television with knobs, a forest green couch that was fringed at the bottom. The scent of a Swanson turkey TV dinner wafted in from the kitchen. The house of my childhood.

I was dreaming of course. Was I a little girl again? I looked down at my hands and saw long painted nails. No, definitely not little girl hands. It was time to wake up, so I pinched myself. Nothing happened. I went in the bathroom and gazed in the mirror expecting to see something weird, but I saw a middle aged woman dressed in a black velour travel outfit from Talbot’s.

Then I rummaged through my purse, saw my iPhone, my red Mac lipstick, my business cards. This was all too real. I walked into the kitchen as though in a dream and saw Formica countertops, the cantilevered table my dad had built that jutted out of the wall. In our old dining room, I ran my hand over the mahogany table my dad had built that folded down into a coffee table or up into a full dining room table. I felt the smooth surface that my dad had so lovingly sanded and varnished.

I climbed the stairs to my old bedroom and saw my Chapman Chipmunks pennant on the wall, the stack of books I was reading at the time, the top of which was Ray Bradbury’s, Farenheight 451. I remembered devouring that book.

Tap, tap. I stood, frozen, terrified like the twelve-year-old girl who’d been left alone after school. It was coming from the attic. Could it be my dad? Was he caught in a nether world he couldn’t get out of? I needed to go and comfort him, tell him that it’s all right to go on to the next world, to reassure him that I love him and I’ll sell the restaurant to someone who will lovingly restore it and make it a living business again. Or could there be someone hiding up there? I hadn’t looked up there when I came in. This wasn’t a dream after all. I should just go. I gathered up my purse and made for the front door. But when I turned the handle, it was jammed. I tugged, twisted banged on it, but it wouldn’t open. I tried to open the windows but nothing. They were all stuck.

Again I heard the noise in the attic. I couldn’t get out, so I’d have to face it. I went out to the kitchen and pulled a knife from the drawer, to make sure I’d have ample protection, just in case.

I climbed up the stairs and noticed the window made of glass blocks that repeated the outside image in an abstract pattern I’d been so fascinated with as a girl, past the bedrooms and up the narrow staircase to the attic. I paused at the door and heard something within, a rattling around. Something breathing.

Gathering up all my nerve, I flung the door open and saw a figure hiding in the darkness. I gasped thinking it was some kind of misshapen gnome. My fight or flight instinct nearly took over until I heard a soft meow. A little girl with black bobbed hair dressed in a blue turtleneck sweater and black pants clutched a little tuxedo cat.

My paralyzing fear turned into tenderness at seeing the scared little girl.

“Laura,” I said. “Laura, don’t be scared.”

She burst into tears as she tried to make herself smaller and hide behind a stack of boxes.

“Laura, it’s going to be okay. You’re going to grow up and things will be just fine.” Realizing I was still brandishing the knife, I let it fall to the ground.

I knew what I had to do then. I had to leave. Had to get back to my own life. I bent to hug the little girl, but she scampered away. I walked down the stairs, past the bedrooms with their shag carpeting, past the television with its knobs.

I twisted the handle to the outside door and miraculously it opened. I knew it would, so I bolted out of there, nearly tripping over my own feet, got back into my car, and started the motor.

As I drove out, I saw a tuxedo cat holding a smaller cat by the scruff of its neck. I slammed on the brakes and backed up to take a closer look. But when I glanced again, it was gone.

Monday, September 21, 2009

“The Brood” by David Cronenberg compared to “Rosemary’s Baby” by Roman Polanski

Writing prompt: Barbara Creed describes the use of the "abject" maternal body in Cronenberg's film, The Brood. Beyond the examples she cites, have you seen other films that use the female body or womb imagery in similar "abject" ways?

The film that comes to mind in comparison to Cronenberg’s The Brood, is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. I think that Polanski does it much more successfully, however.

Nola was influenced by Dr. Raglan’s book, The Shape of Rage. She was perhaps convinced by him to give form to her anger in the end result of producing a monstrous brood, but it is ultimately her decision to create the brood and in the end, she is the one who controls who will be the victims of her little monsters. In the shocking scene in which we look under her cloak to see the bloody sac she rips open with her teeth, we watch her lovingly lick the blood off of her creation, thus showing her maternal love.

Rosemary’s body is used in the worst way possible, to give birth to the son of Satan, and it is definitely not her choice. Rosemary’s Baby has the shocking final scene in which Rosemary forces her way into the adjoining apartment by the use of a knife and insists upon looking at her stolen child. She exclaims, “His eyes, what have you done to his eyes.” We see the horror on her face. Polanski wisely refuses to show the actual child’s eyes, knowing that anything the audience can imagine is much worse and more personally terrifying than anything that could be portrayed on the screen. In the end, Rosemary’s maternal instincts get the better of her, and she can’t help but want to become a mother to the little tyke.

In The Artist as Monster, the Cinema of David Cronenberg, William Beard states, “… in the scene at the end of the film where she gives birth to one of them (the children of her rage), the film finally enters completely into the world of the visceral transgressive body – and returns also to the theme of the power and horror of the abject female body.”

Nola has, on purpose, created little monsters to do her bidding. She has reverted to an animal-like state that causes her body to break all of the rules of nature and create it’s own monsters. Rosemary has unknowingly created a child of Satan. At the end of both films we see what the female body is capable of producing.

The men in the films react differently. In Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary’s husband, Guy is the one who sells his soul to the devil, or more accurately sells Rosemary’s womb to the devil, in return for fame, fortune and a comfortable life.

In The Brood, Nola’s husband, Frank, is a passive bystander. His only desire is to protect his daughter, Candace, from the monster he fears his wife has become. In the end he isn’t able to protect her. We have some sympathy for Frank because the woman he married turned into a psycho, yet we grow impatient with his continual ineffectual behavior. When Juliana (Nola’s mother) is murdered by an unseen monster, Frank assures Candace that the monster is gone and she’s perfectly safe. Yet we as the audience realize that he’s being naïve in this assumption.

As far as the filmmaking goes, Roman Polanski’s interpretation of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby is timeless. We see that it’s clearly a period piece from the 60’s, but the horror we experience through Rosemary’s limited viewpoint is raw and real.

Chronenberg’s rendition of The Brood has a dated look and feel to it. Much of the acting and dialogue is melodramatic and screams 70’s but in a bad way. We’re never drawn into that world.

Both films confirm my belief that there’s nothing worse than a weird kid.

Works Cited:

The Brood by David Cronenberg

Rosemary’s Baby by Roman Polanski

The Artist as Monster, the Cinema of David Cronenberg by William Beard

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

How Robert Bloch manipulates chronological time and point-of-view in Psycho.

In Psycho, Robert Bloch effective uses time overlaps and flashbacks to tell his story. If he moved time forward only in a linear fashion, we’d miss out on much of the suspense that’s created when we have the limited viewpoint of one character.

Throughout the story, the point-of-view changes only at chapter breaks. Though we may have the same point-of-view character for several chapters running, Block never switches viewpoint in the middle of a chapter. This effectively keeps us in these characters’ worlds to the point that the reader gets emotionally involved with them.

Chapter one starts with Norman Bates showing background on his life and relationship with his mother. He hears a car driving up.

At the beginning of the second chapter, time rewinds to show us Mary lost on a dark road. The story moves into a flashback of Mary’s life the day she stole the money from her employer. Mr. Lowery. Inside of that flashback is another flashback telling about her youth with its missed opportunities to go to college or marry, and how she met Sam Loomis on a cruise. It wasn’t the “wild, surging thing” it had been when she met her former lover, but Sam offered her a possible future. He did have considerable debts, though. The story then returns to the Mary being lost on a dark road pulling up to the Bates Motel with Norman opening her car door.

The third chapter stays in Mary’s point-of-view as she meets Norman, checks in, goes up to the house for dinner with Norman. Their conversation reveals more about their respective personalities. Mary goes back to her room and decides to take a shower, but her peaceful night is cut short when she sees a figure standing on the other side of the shower curtain with a knife. At that point Bloch violates viewpoint when he says, “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head.” Presumably, she would have been dead at that point and wouldn’t have known that her head was being cut off.

In chapter four, we switch to Norman’s viewpoint. The timeframe again rewinds. He’s outside of his office trembling. Norman has a few drinks and looks through his peephole into Mary’s room as she’s preparing to take a shower. Norman semi-passes out and seems to see his mother standing over him. She leaves, he sleeps then startles awake, realizing that the shower is still going. He goes into Mary’s room, rips back the shower curtain and realizes that his mother has used her keys.

Norman is to some extent an unreliable narrator. He has actually killed Mary; he blacked out when he took on the personality of his mother and performed the despicable deed himself.

At the beginning of chapter five, we are back in Norman’s point-of-view. He’s walking back to the house, a bloody mess, even thou he has supposedly only looked at Mary’s dead body on the bathroom floor. After finding his mother gone, gets rid of the body.

In chapter six, time has jumped forward one week. Sam Loomis is in the back room of his hardware store listening to opera and wondering what he actually knows about Mary, when he hears a knock at the door. At first he thinks the woman standing there is Mary, but he soon realizes that it’s her sister, Lila.

Form here, time moves forward at a regular rate, until chapter fifteen. At the end of chapter fourteen, Sheriff Chambers has revived Sam after he’s been clobbered by Norman, and they both hear a scream from the old house. At the beginning of chapter fifteen, time rewinds and we see Lila going up the steps to the old house looking for clues to her sister’s death. At the end of the chapter, Lila stumbles upon Norman’s mother’s mummified body and screams.

At the beginning of chapter sixteen, time jumps forward to give us the resolution of how all of the cars and bodies were found. We also get a psychological evaluation of Norman.

The last chapter is the only one we see from Norman’s mother’s point of view, once he has melded all his personalities into one, that of his mother.

I wonder if Bloch consciously set out to manipulate time in Psycho or if he set out to tell the story in a way that came naturally to him. I think the latter is true.

Works Cited:

Bloch, Robert. Psycho. New York: Tor Horror, 1959. Print

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Reading Comments for The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Like Jekyll and Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray differed from what I expected based on movie versions I had seen.

Like many of the books written during this time period, the viewpoint wanders considerably. The story starts in the viewpoint of the painter, Basil Hallward. It changes to the viewpoint of a friend of Basil’s, Lord Henry, and finally we see the story through the eyes of Dorian Gray. After that, Wilde head-hops and changes point of view, sometimes within a paragraph.

Film versions tend to take the viewpoint of the main character and lessen the male-centric orientation, as did the film versions of Jekyll and Hyde.

As far as gender issues go, we know that Oscar Wilde was gay and we are now aware that his perspective colors the story. Obviously, readers of the time didn’t pick up on the homoerotic overtones in this book, because if they had it surely would have been banned.

Granted, the gentlemen of that time were rather foppish, perfuming their handkerchiefs, burying their face in lilacs and exhaustively reading poetry. In the text they call it “Dandyism.” But the men in this book are so completely absorbed in each other, one wonders.

Basil’s first description of Dorian is that of an infatuated schoolgirl. “Every day. I couldn’t be happy if I didn’t see him every day. He is absolutely necessary to me.” And “Now and then he is absolutely thoughtless. He seems to take delight in giving me pain.”

Basil tries to prevent Lord Henry from even meeting Dorian, then when he cannot prevent it, Dorian’s strong reaction to Lord Henry cuts Basil to the quick. Dorian says to Lord Henry, “ ‘…let our friendship be a caprice,’ he murmured, flushing at his own boldness.” And “For days after I met you, something seemed to throb in my veins.”

This book is also about the self-denial imposed by modern society. Lord Henry says, “The mutilation of the savage has its tragic survival in the self-denial that mars our lives.” The nature of this self-denial is never spelled out. It would seem that there is little that these privileged males have to deny themselves.

Lord Henry constantly derides women, most of all, his wife. When Dorian becomes infatuated with a woman, both Basil and Lord Henry are dismayed and try to talk him out of it. Sibyl Vane is more of an icon of idealized beauty to Dorian than she is a real woman, and once she shows her imperfections (in giving a bad acting job in front of his friends, due to her love for him) he discards her like a used doll. She has ruined his illusion of her.

After that he goes back to the company of men. “…entertaining the fashionable young men of his own rank who were his chief companions.”

Basil asks, “Why is your friendship so fatal to young men?” He gives a laundry list of young men whom Dorian has defiled.

Then there’s the matter of Dr. Alan Campbell whom Dorian blackmails into helping him dispose of Basil’s body. What is in the mysterious letter about Campbell that Dorian threatens to expose? We never know the specifics. One can only guess.

Ultimately, Dorian is a narcissist. He is self-centered, not only in not wanting to age. That’s the least of it. His entire life is an attempt to amuse himself. He has little use for anything that bores him or isn’t directly about him, and he is only interested in Sibyl when he can show off her talent. Dorian never thinks about doing anything for anyone other than himself. In the end, his narcissism does him in.

I also think it’s interesting to see, in the Norton Critical Edition, the differences between his first serialized draft and his final published version. He made small changes within the text, but he mainly dropped in whole chapters (and at one point added five), in order to extend the text and add depth to his characters. Some of it seems gratuitous and would never be accepted today, such as Wilde’s extensive descriptions of the interests Dorian immersed himself in to forget about Sibyl’s death, and some extensive cocktail party scenes that serve little else than displaying Wilde’s ability to inject wit.

The ornate style Wilde uses perfectly defines the era in which Dorian lives. He writes about privileged classes who have a lot of time on their hands to pursue the arts, read poetry, have extended discussions about philosophy. His flowery, overly descriptive language completely drew me into the spirit of the period.

Also, as noted in Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle, societies tend to become more decadent toward the end of each century. The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1891, so the depiction of the self-indulgent lifestyle as reflected in Oscar Wilde’s use of language is true to the period.

Works Cited:

Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle. New York: Viking, 1990. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray, a Norton Critical Edition. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2007. Print

Painting: Narcissus by Waterhouse

Monday, August 24, 2009

My Very Image by Sally Bosco - An homage to Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

On a steaming August day, I hurry to the International Mall past the outdoor shops of the Baystreet entrance. On my left, people spill out of the Cheesecake Factory waiting for a hallowed reservation. On my right, posers loll in the fake café society of the Blue Martini. My goal is the promising refuge of the air-conditioned food court. I enter and feel the heavenly burst of mock arctic. Haagen-Dazs and Sbarro oddly flank a Fit 2 Run store.

Shoppers dressed in sparkly Custo Barcelona tank tops and Banana Republic shorts walk by trancelike with a look of single-minded determination to consume at all costs. I feel strangely trippy the way I do in dreams at times, as though I can’t quite get my mind to work. Yet, I know this is no dream. I am on a mission to meet my friend to help her purchase some kicks for her upcoming cruise.

I notice the Cinnabon shop looming in front of me like a portal to the gates of hades. The scent of buttery cinnamon reels me in. Fog rolls out from in front of the counter as the cheerful, brightly dressed attendant beckons me. “Would you like to try some Cinnabon sticks today? Or maybe some Classic Bites?” Suddenly it seems like the most important thing in the world for me is to indulge in one of the cloying calorie-bombs.

“I’d like the Classic. Warm dough, filled with your legendary Makara Cinnamon, topped with freshly made cream cheese frosting,” I say as cheerfully as possible.

“Please, have a seat in our waiting area.” The attendant waves her hand toward some molded orange booths.

I grin to myself as I snatch some extra napkins and make my way into the small eating area. Sun visors, purses and backpacks look out of place hanging on yellow plastic hooks on the walls.

As I walk into the eating area, I notice people with ravenous looks on their faces, their hands outstretched to the waitress zombie-like wanting more and more of the deadly treats. It is obvious that the people around me have transformed their bodies into amorphous Jabba The Hutt shapes in order to better absorb the sugary delights. All have credit cards laid out in front of them like passports to hell: American Express, Mastercard, Visa and Discovery, all instruments of their death wishes. It is obvious that most of them have murdered their souls in pursuit of junk food.

After a few minutes the waitress walks up to me with a steaming object the size of a small animal on a cardboard tray. But I look up and notice that something is wrong with her face. It leers at me, skeletal with empty eye sockets as it extends the deadly offering to me.

Just as I am about to imbibe, I realize I need to escape that infernal place. “Sale for the next ten minutes at the Ann Taylor Shop,” a loudspeaker blares.

I sprint down the mall barely in control of my movements. Everything is off-kilter. The storefronts are tilted and the people look distorted. Some have tiny heads on huge bodies. Some are elongated like poles or are short and squat like fireplugs. The fountains that usually spout pretty turquoise streams, spew noxious-smelling green bile.

I know that my friend is waiting for me at the Ann Taylor Shop. That’s when my iPhone beeps and I pull it out of my purse, only to see this eerie text: “I’m dying to shop at the Gucci Store. Meet me there.”

“Dying I’m dying I’m dying,” echoes over and over in my brain while I pass leering refugees from a Diane Arbus photo. The trees in the mall are sticklike and devoid of life, the artificial flowers wilted.

I notice the Gucci Store looming in front of me like a portal to the gates of hades. The scent of posh perfume reels me in. Fog rolls out from in front of the counter as the cheerful, brightly dressed attendant beckons me. “Would you like to try on some tapered slacks today? Perhaps a leather jacket?” Suddenly it seems like the most important thing in the world for me to indulge in one of their ridiculously priced creations.

“I’d like a Classic Gucci bag in the flora print that Gucci has made famous around the globe,” I say as cheerfully as possible.

“Please, have a seat in our waiting area.” The attendant waves her hand toward some plush leather chairs.

I grin to myself as I snatch some perfume and make my way into the luxurious waiting area. Hats, purses and overnight bags look out of place hanging on yellow plastic hooks on the walls.

As I walk into the waiting area, I notice people with ravenous looks on their faces, their hands outstretched to the clerk zombie-like wanting more and more of the deadly clothing. It is obvious that the people around me are thin as wraiths, their ribs and collar bones poking out from under their clothing, bony mannequins in the theater of decay. All have credit cards laid out in front of them like passports to hell: American Express, Mastercard, Visa and Discovery, all instruments of their death wishes. It is obvious that most of them have murdered their souls in pursuit of fashion. My friend is among them, dressed in a perky Ann Taylor sundress with gold Gucci sandals. But her face looms gaunt and skeletal above her designer threads. I see that she is too far gone to help.

After a few minutes the clerk walks up to me with a luscious object the size of a football covered in a floral pattern. But I look up and notice that something is wrong with her face. It leers at me, skeletal with empty eye sockets as it extends the deadly offering to me.

As I listen to the hip-Eurostyle muzak that is intended to make me purchase more items than I require, the memory of the Cinnabon shop floods into my mind, I think that I must be in some kind of trance to have been brought from one form of death to another, the second of which seems even more sinister than the first.

I quietly slide out of the store, firmly resolved to do business with neither of them. Fate has something else in mind for me, however, because now all of the shops contain skeletal figures that beckon me in. Deciding that there is no escaping, I take up the position I will serve out for all of eternity, ironically as a counter person at Forever 21.

# # #

Painting is Circe Invidiosa by John William Waterhouse.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Influence of the Doppelganger in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

It’s well known in German literature that meeting the doppelganger portends a person’s imminent death. Meeting his doppelganger was definitely not a good thing for Dr. Jekyll.

Our first foreshadowing of the etheric double in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886) is seen in the characters of Mr. Utterson and Mr. Enfield. While Mr. Utterson, an attorney, was “a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse.” Mr. Enfield on the other hand, is a well-known man about town. It is Mr. Enfield is the first one who sees Mr. Hyde’s “odd doorway.” Enfield reflects more of the shadowy side of life as seen in Mr. Hyde, while Mr. Utterson reflects the outgoing personality of Dr. Jekyll.

When we switch to the story as seen through Dr. Jekyll’s eyes, he talks about his dual nature: One side wanting to be a sober citizen, the other wanting to give itself over to a “gaiety of disposition.” These two sides of his personality continually struggle. He creates a formula that at first makes him feel very happy and reckless, but “tenfold more wicked.”

This infers that Jekyll feels that the split has come as a result of repression of his true nature due to social conventions rather than from some evil beast within him that must escape. The more Dr. Jekyll tries to repress his true nature, the more Mr. Hyde becomes violent.

As Webber states in The Doppenganger, Double Visions in German Literature, even though Jekyll and Hyde never actually meet each other, there is a scene in which Jekyll sees his reflection as Hyde in the mirror and is startled. “I stole through the corridors, a stranger in my own house; and coming to my room, I saw for the first time the appearance of Edward Hyde.”

The concoction also, for some reason, makes him short. “The evil side of my nature, to which I had now transferred the stamping efficacy, was less robust and less developed than the good which I had just deposed.” Because that side of his life was so much less developed than the serious part, “Edward Hyde was so much smaller, slighter, and younger than Henry Jekyll.” But evil had left an imprint of deformity and decay.

“In my eyes it bore a livelier image of the spirit, it seemed more express and single, than the imperfect and divided countenance I had been hitherto accustomed to call mine.”

In this case, it’s the repression of the Victorian era that has caused Dr. Jekyll to manufacture his own doppelganger in order to express the uncontrolled side of his personality. Unfortunately in those times, that was punishable by death.

Works Cited:

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Webber, Andrew J, The Doppenganger, Double Visions in German Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996

Was Dr. Jekyll gay or just a repressed Victorian?

I think that Showalter’s assertion that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is actually a tale of latent homosexuality is interesting and quite possibly true. It definitely made me read the story differently. I looked into Stevenson’s life and found that he was rather a sickly man with a domineering wife. Since he was famous from his serialization of Treasure Island, it was true that he had the admiration of a great number of men. He also was reported to have feminine sensibilities. Around that time male homosexuality was finding favor in the more artsy circles, such as that of Oscar Wilde. It was also very much punishable by imprisonment. And it’s true that when you go back and read the story with that in mind, there are all kinds of gay inferences.

I somehow don’t think Stevenson said to himself, “I think I’ll write this story and hide all kinds of homosexual references in it so that people will analyze it for hundreds of years to come thereby giving me literary immortality.” Rather, I think that he may have had those tendencies secretly embedded in his personality, and when he decided to write a thriller, it came out of his subconscious. I’d venture to guess that if a critic of the times had suggested it, he’d have been horrified.

In reading this book, after having seen movie adaptations of it, I was surprised to find that there are actually no women at all in the book. Yes, all of the characters in the book are men, but I can see the “men’s club mentality,” that upper class males had their sanctuaries, furnished with leather clad club chairs, where they could drink brandy, smoke cigars and be free of female influence. This can be seen in many books from the era such as in that of Jules Verne or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Also, women in Victorian times were not allowed to freely roam the streets or go out by themselves, so their inclusion in the book might have limited the action.

But I think the story is more than that. It reflects the Victorian sensibility that you’d better be careful if you let out the hedonistic side of your personality, because if you do, surely all hell will break loose and you’ll be ruined and possibly die.

Dr. J states, “Even at that time, I had not yet conquered my aversion to the dryness of a life of study. I would still be merrily disposed at times; and as my pleasures were (to say the least) undignified, and I was not only well known and highly considered, but growing toward the elderly man, this incoherency of my life was daily growing more unwelcome.”

He creates Mr. Hyde initially as a way of blowing off steam, of escaping the confines of Victorian society. “I was the first that could thus plod in the public eye with a load of genial respectability, and in a moment, like a schoolboy, strip off these lendings and spring headlong into the sea of liberty.”

Since, in those times, reckless pleasure had to be punished, it all goes horribly wrong. Dr. Jekyll starts losing control of the transformations as Mr. Hyde takes a stronger hold over him. Then Hyde kills a man of high position. Dr. Jekyll vows to be rid of his evil side, and for a while, he fills his life with altruistic acts. But after a time, the evil side creeps back, and he transforms into Mr. Hyde without the special potion.

It begins to take more and more of the antidote to turn him back into Dr. Jekyll. As though in fear of his own death, Mr. Hyde starts playing diabolical tricks on Dr. Jekyll: destroying his papers and artwork, scrawling rude things in his books. Then the antidote stops working, and Dr. Jekyll kills himself. Again, the lesson is that no good can possibly come of an uncontrolled life of self-indulgent pleasure.

Also, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published at the same time that the public was whipped up into a frenzy of terror about the Jack the Ripper murders. Stevenson tells us that the shadowy beast isn’t some unknown creature that roams the streets; rather, it comes from inside of us.

Works Cited:

Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle. New York: Viking, 1990. Print.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Comparison of “The Sandman,” by E.T.A. Hoffmann to “Dread” by Clive Barker

When comparing Clive Barker's “Dread” to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” the first stylistic element that strikes me is that the through-plot of “The Sandman” is not as direct as that of “Dread.” When I was reading “The Sandman,” at times I had to go back and figure out what had happened, because the time frame isn’t exactly linear. “The Sandman” begins with two letters written by the protagonist, Nathaniel. One is to his friend, Lothaire that details a series of dark forebodings he has had going back to his childhood when he was told of a horrible entity called the Sandman. The next one is from Clara, telling Nathaniel that he sent the letter to her by mistake. The last one is from Nathaniel to Lothaire apologizing for his mistake. This seems like clumsy construction to me. The letters were a stylistic device used at the time, but I think the plot would have been better served in being told in a linear fashion.

“Dread” is constructed with a dramatic structure that is more fulfilling to people in western society, because we’re used to our television shows, movies and plays being composed of the three-act structure with rising conflict, climax and resolution.

Both stories deal with the philosophy of fear. In “Dread” an omniscient narrator begins the story with a few paragraphs about how we relish our misery. Stephen, a philosophy student, gets a bad feeling from the enigmatic Quaid, but at the same, he is fascinated by the man’s obsession with “ the things we fear… the dark behind the door.” “There is no delight the equal of “Dread.” As long as it’s someone else’s,” the narrator tells us. In “The Sandman” Nathaniel goes into detail about his childhood fears of the mythical Sandman. As a child, he refused to believe his mother when she told him that there is no Sandman, it’s just a tale to make children go to bed. But he wants to torture himself, so he pursues the question until he gets the response he wants from the nanny, who tells him the Sandman is an evil man who throws sand in children’s eyes in order to make them bleed, then steals their eyes to feed his own children. At that point, he’s satisfied and is able to pursue that horror into adulthood.

Both have a shift in viewpoint. In “The Sandman,” the story starts out in Nathaniel’s viewpoint by way of the letters. It then shifts to his friend Lothaire’s viewpoint, and he becomes the narrator. The story goes from Lothair’s perspective to a third person point of view. The viewpoint then switches to Nathaniel when we experience his obsession for Olympia.

In “Dread,” we start out with the narrator, switch to Stephen’s third person point of view. When we find out that Stephen is imprisoned and stretched out on a rack, the point of view momentarily switches to that of Quaid, and we see the infared photos and experience Quaid’s reaction to them.

Everything that happens in “Dread” is realistic; there is nothing supernatural involved. In “The Sandman,” I think it’s questionable. Coppelius could have had Nathaniel mesmerized into believing in his evil sorcery. On the other hand, it could truly be black magic.

In “The Sandman,” Nathaniel is sure that Coppelius is evil. Everyone else is trying to convince him that he’s not, that the evil is in Nathaniel’s head, then we find out it isn’t. The evil is real. In “Dread,” Stephen has a gut feeling that Quaid is dangerous, but tries to convince himself otherwise.

The plot of “The Sandman” would have to be altered to be palatable to a 2009 audience. Even given the fact that the story is set in Germany in the 1800’s, it’s difficult for us to believe that anyone could be fooled into thinking that a wooden automaton is a real girl, even if we were hypnotized.

Both stories give us an immediate feeling of foreboding. We know that something creepy is going to happen from the first paragraph. They both end tragically. Nathaniel is dead and Stephen is out of his mind.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Welcome to my horror reading blog!

I hope to be adding posts soon.