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.