Monday, September 24, 2012

Red Dragon By Thomas Harris

This isn't the first time I'd read Red Dragon.

I got it in my head at age 19 to get a big-ass dragon tattooed on my back. It was my first tattoo and it promised to be a doozy, so I took my entire rent check and wandered down to Telegraph avenue in Berkeley, CA. I walked in, paid my money, and sat in the chair.

Getting poked for seven hours isn't exactly a lot of fun but somehow I endured. In between the controlled karate breathing and occasional reminders to myself to uncleeeeench, I finished the book. The story of a man who believes himself to be ugly and reinvents himself as a dark, majestic god deeply resonated with me then and it still does now.

As a wanna-be writer, re-reading Red Dragon deeply intimidated me.

Sooner or later, all modern psycho stories become police procedurals. You have to have some reasonable grasp on how law enforcement works. I'm a research monkey in general, but if a serial killer was operating on the scale and violence of Francis Dolarhyde, then a writer would have to account for the massive amounts of resources and expertise that would be turned toward his capture. Harris has a background in crime reporting and, like The Wire's David Simon, he uses that insider knowledge to enrich his story. When I think about replicating it, I imagine having to know the structures and methodologies of federal agencies, the science of forensic pathology, and all the other details that make these sorts of stories work.

Granted, audiences are pretty forgiving. Cop shows on TV aren't particularly accurate, but people eat them up. But the smallest screw-up kills all that built up suspension of disbelief and I care about the small details. A good, effective, authentic police procedural is like a finely made watch and I don't know if I am a good enough watchmaker.

I'm going to get this out the way because I cover a lot of this ground in my Silence of the Lambs podcast, but I am kinda over Hannibal Lecter.

First, he's not really an authentic psychopath. He's too clever, too controlled, he lives in a creepy dungeon, and his abilities verge on the paranormal. He's basically a modern-day Dracula.

I like Dracula and Hannibal Lecter is one of the best monsters that has been created in the last 30 years, but I'm more interested in the psychological nuances of the other villains in Harris' work, both Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs and the Dolarhyde from Red Dragon

Plus, frankly, for all the bluster about how clever Hannibal Lecter is, he always seems to be undone by his own arrogance. In their first encounter, he screws with Will Graham but immediately capitulates when Graham prepares to leave. He receives a letter from Dolarhyde and, rather than destroy the whole thing, he keeps the part that strokes his ego. Lecter is terrifying, but he's got a pretty significant achilles heel. It's the kind of thing comic book villains get tripped up on all the time.

Please don't tell him I said that. 

On to Dolarhyde.

I sort of live by the philosophy of "fake it until you make it." If it were up to me, I'd spend my free time in blissful bookish solitude. But having friends and building a life and being popular has taught me savoir-faire and social adaptability. Those who know me (and I'm assuming most of the people who read this know me personally) can attest to my massive personal charisma, but it was a learned skill, not something that came naturally.

I cannot tell you how many times I've stared at my own reflection in the mirrors of nightclubs and douchey bars, looking at the fear in my eyes, and telling myself to put my game face on. The shortcut I used to developing a social persona was to copy the behavior of brighter, more charismatic people.

In other words, I created an avatar of the person I wanted to be. It's a much more minor version of what Dolarhyde did. I suspect every bullied, tormented, and angry kid does the same thing. When I was little, Jason Voorhees was my anger avatar. Dolarhyde's avatar is the Dragon. I sympathized with him, and it disturbed me.

Plus....sigh...let's just say I can empathize with Dolarhyde's body image issue. More than I'd like to admit. 

If Dolarhyde simply remained a well-designed maniac then Thomas Harris would already be ahead of the game. But the thing that makes Red Dragon special for me is that he starts redeeming himself from his own madness.

Okay, Reba McClane is a little bit too perfect for the circumstances. She's blind, so Dolarhyde's body image issues aren't a problem. She was a trained speech expert so she knows exactly what to say to alleviate his fears. And, of course, she's sexually confident enough to break through his barriers. Suddenly he's fighting his psychosis and trying to make deals with the Dragon. It made him a deeply tragic figure and one of my favorite psychos. Most psychopaths in horror fiction aren't really crazy but are instead cookie-cutter pulp fiction cackling evil. They do terrible things because it's fun. Dolarhyde's actions come from human weakness and insanity. I don't know if I buy that Dolarhyde would backslide so far as to attack Graham in his home, though. He was too confused and conflicted by Reba to suddenly turn into a third act monster movie villain.

Still, Dolarhyde has the one thing that most fictional psychos lack: authenticity. 

It probably is clear now that I really enjoyed this book, probably more now than when I first read it. Harris is a helluva writer and I enjoy it more now than I did when I first read it.

My final thought is something Hannibal says to Will Graham. Graham's big secret superpower is his uncanny ability to empathize with a killer's point of view and anticipate their behavior. Maybe it's the fact that I've always had a big imagination and it mostly turned to darker places, but the line "Fear is the price we pay for imagination" stuck with me.  It's true, or at least it's true for my imagination. The upside? Fireworks behind my eyes. The downside? Lots and lots of sleepless nights with monsters under the bed.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Church Of Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyns

True story.

I grind out the books for and knock out the blogs for this way in advance. I like to have something ready to go, I like to get a thought on paper early and let it percolate for awhile and I hate rushing through things at the last minute. I carry my books with me where ever I go, but when you're studying horror fiction you're going to get a lot of strange looks over your reading material.

Anyway, midway through the book, I decided to take in a burlesque show from the fine people at D20 Burlesque for their WTF Japan anime-themed costumed night. I had bought the tickets well in advance but I wasn't able to convince anyone else to go, my personal life turned into a hot mess, and I found myself in the front row seat, alone, in a bad mood, and with a bunch of naked girls wondering what kind of aspiring serial killer brings a copy of The Church of Dead Girls to a burlesque show. 

Clever, clever me...

Anyway, I was midway through The Church of Dead Girls and I wasn't really feeling it. Dobyns is a really good writer, but the framing device of having a withdrawn, intellectual townsperson narrate it drained any sense of tension from the story. I see why Stephen King liked it, as his blurb is prominent on the cover. King does the folksy narrator unspooling a yarn very well, but this story takes the voice of an uptight closet case middle school teacher and therefore feels cold. Midway through the book, I felt like I was reading a wikipedia page summarizing events rather than actually engaging in the storyline.

It doesn't help that the narrator has no way of knowing some of the details in the story while being maddeningly coy with others ("Who's the 'professional man'?" "I'm not telling yoooooooouuuu."). I kept waiting for the big tweest to be revealed where the narrator was the killer (in retrospect, he probably was) or the narrator was secretly dead or something. It was an odd mix of omniscient and focused narrative.

It strikes me that this is an interesting selection for my Psychos In Literature course. We don't discover who the killer is until the end of the book, when an otherwise lucid major character starts speaking in psycho-child-religious speak. Instead this story is about a town tearing itself apart out of fear of the predators inside their midst.

For all the complaints I had about the way the story is written, I have to admit it's an absolutely engrossing tale. I've read a million zillion stories about the big scary wolf bringing chaos to the sleepy little bedroom community of sheep but I rarely see a serial killer story where the serial killer is almost an afterthought. Really, this novel is more of a "Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" type of story, where the real enemy is fear and mistrust. You see this a lot in horror fiction but it's usually more garish and overt. I like the subtlety and slow-burn of this book.

I felt a tremendous degree of sympathy for the town scapegoat, the mysterious college study group Inquiries Into The Right. Yeah, most of the people in the group sound like assholes, but they don't seem that far off from the kind of radicals that were common in San Francisco State University: factually correct in the grand scheme of things, but so socially maladjusted and myopic that they are unlikable. If the idea behind this nice small town is that it only works because no one upsets the apple cart then it's easy to figure out why the town singles them out.

It doesn't help that some of their members plant fake bombs and ransack cemetaries.

Like all good towns-with-a-secret, this place has a dark past, specifically the murder of the....god, I feel terrible for thinking this, because for all my pro-sex/pro-feminist empowerment sensibilities, my first thought was "...murder of the town bike."

I don't like what that says about me. 

The book is obviously about the secrets we all keep and how they conflict with our public persona. Horror tales are full of towns like these, where every house has an adulterer or a pedophile or a hypocrite or a pervert or something. I can't help but feel like this sort of outlook is something people who grew up in small towns develop after dealing with a bunch of two-faced hypocrisy. I didn't grow up in a small town and I'm accustomed to being surrounded by strangers. I assume that everyone is disgusting behind closed doors. The only difference is that no one else gives a shit here.