Sunday, June 9, 2013

Night Show by Richard Laymon

Richard Laymon has always been hard for me to pin down.

I tend to pay a lot of attention to the subtext underneath fiction. It's very difficult for me to accept a story at face value. I always try to derive deeper meaning to the work, often when it isn't there, or I try to tease out the creator's motivations. Horror is particularly fertile ground because so much of the genre is symbolic. It's also often troublingly regressive. Horror is the genre of Don't: don't go into the woods, don't disturb the home, don't have sex, don't transgress, don't stray from the straight and narrow.

So I've always had a hard time wrapping my mind around Laymon. In short, he is either the biggest misogynist or the most subversive commenter on male entitlement in horror fiction.

Reading Laymon is a squicky affair. He writes a lot about sex, but it's the kind of hyper-described soulless mashing of anatomy that turns off anyone short of a Penthouse forum reader. It's always aggro, vaguely abusive, and unerringly predatory. Which isn't to say those things can't be fun, but there's something distancing and uncomfortable about the way he writes sex scenes that makes me feel like I'm watching particularly vicious porn in a room full of leering, past-their-prime frat dudes.

On the other hand, he never portrays predatory sexuality in a positive light. His leering men are usually brutal caricatures of unrestrained male sexual aggression. I've written a little about him in the past and it seemed that the point of his stories was that there's a slippery slope between entitled creep and misogynistic psychopath.

Laymon has sadly passed away. I've only been able to dig up a handful of interviews with him and they rarely address the subtext of his work. I do find it fascinating and ultimately rewarding. Either he was a complete creep or he was a master at getting into the mind of creeps and forcing us to see life from their perspective.

Night Show is the story of Tony, AKA The Chill Master. Tony is an 18 year old kid with severe psychological issues. He gets off on scaring people, he has no understanding of boundaries, and he becomes fixated on people he's attracted to. We first meet him as he kidnaps a girl who had previously rejected him, then tying her to a bannister in a supposedly haunted house. Following that misadventure, he leaves his home in upstate New York for Hollywood, intent on apprenticing with gore effect maestro Dani Larson. Dani is at first unsettled by Tony's outlandish behavior, but reluctantly takes the young man under her wing. He becomes fixated with her and works to sabotage her new relationship and take his place as her new lover.

 I really enjoyed this book. Aside from the fact that it hit all my Fangoria Magazine/Tom Savini buttons, the way that Laymon portrayed Tony's mental instability felt spot-on. He felt like a more accurate depiction of a psychopath, at once charming and manipulative but fixated on his own needs and unable to understand how his actions affected other people. What made Tony so dangerous was that he just didn't get it. He didn't understand how his behavior affected other people. His social abilities extended only as far as his own needs.

Most psychopaths in genre fiction aren't truly insane. They're evil and sexy. They sit in their little see-through cages and glower at the haggard detective with a knowing smile on their lips. That's not a person with a serious mental illness; that's just Dracula with no superpowers. Tony is sick and needs help. The potential damage a sick person can do is much scarier to me than just another bad-for-bad's-sake dude.

My favorite aspect of Tony's insanity as that he doesn't physically hurt people. Sure, there is violence in the book, but Tony's Chill Master schtick never actually causes permanent physical damage. I've seen dozens of stories where a person's fixation on violent media turns them into killers (looking at you, Scream) but Tony asserts his power by terrifying people, not hurting them. We're never quite sure how far he's willing to go as he becomes more fixated on Dani and the tension of escalation is more rewarding than simply dropping bodies like a slasher movie.

I suppose I'm always going to wrestle with my reactions to Laymon's work. He's a good enough writer to keep reading, but his subject matter and presentation make me want to take a shower. The ambiguity of his intentions will always get to me and I'm sure I'll hate the next book I come across. But I've enjoyed my experiences with his work, so long as I take long breaks between reading his novels.