The Banned Book Next Door

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Sometime in my teenage years, I found a list of frequently banned books.  I eagerly went off in search of those.  I made my way through Huckleberry Finn, Slaughterhouse Five, and whatever others I could find in my local library.  The one book I couldn't find was The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum.

When it was assigned for this class, I checked our local library, then the county library system.  Still no luck.  So I ordered it online, my curiosity piqued to see why this book was so much worse than, say, Misery by Stephen King.  I was also looking forward to reading it, because it's one of those horror novels everyone talks about.

I got the book.  I read it.  I couldn't stop reading, even though I wanted to.  It made me feel all those feelings that horror implies--and they're not good feelings.  This was the first book in years to literally give me nightmares.

I think that's a sign that this book, uncomfortable as it is, despite the taboo topics of child rape and torture it covers, still teaches us a valuable lesson about ourselves and the world around us.  And yet, when I think about whether it should be banned from libraries, I find myself vacillating.

On the one hand, the library has other books that cover similar material--for example, Night by Elie Wiesel.  That's also not comfortable reading.  Does the fact that it's nonfiction make it ok?  Is it worse to have a novel (even if it's based on real events) covering the same topics?  Does the ending make it somehow inappropriate?

At the same time, since I currently teach high school students, I think about them reading this book.  What would I say if they asked me if I recommended it to them?  I'm not sure that I could.  If this book had such a powerful impact on me, what might it do to a ninth grader?  I don't really think it would influence them to emulate the actions in the book (although I suppose that might be a concern to some people), but rather that they might not be emotionally equipped to deal with the emotions the book evokes.

It's interesting that this book addresses the issues associated with power, and how we use that power, since banning the book is an act of power.  Ultimately, I would say the book shouldn't be banned.  I think it raises important questions about horror, art, and personal responsibility in the face of evil.  These are all questions that we should equip ourselves and others to answer.

Number One Fan

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I was glad to revisit Misery for our horror genre readings course.  It's been several years since I first read this novel, and I was interested to see if it still held the same morbid fascination for me now as it did when I was a teenager.  King is definitely a master storyteller (well, as he points out, storywriter).  If anything, I found the book had more impact on me now, since I more fully appreciate some of the subtexts King has included about the relationship between reader and writer.

In her essay "Reading, Writing, and Interpreting: Stephen King's Misery," Lauri Berkencamp argues that Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes are both learning to read each other in the story, much as the reader reads and interprets the text of the novel.  I thought this was an interesting observation, and it gave me another perspective on the text.  The idea of literary criticism is a fascinating and often frustrating one.  How do you separate the subjectivity of your own ideas from an objective critique of a novel?  And how do you correctly interpret what the writer truly intends, as opposed to what you read into the text?  Is such a thing even possible?

In Misery, sometimes Paul correctly reads Annie and sometimes he doesn't.  The mistakes for him are costly--his latest manuscript, his medicine, and various bits of his body.  But through the mistakes, he does learn to assess Annie's moods.  He also goes from a dismissive attitude of her as another dumb fan into an almost religious fear of her power (the Burka bee goddess).  This can be seen as both King's ideas of his readers, as well as perhaps an inverted view of himself as a writer of "dumb" genre fiction.  Paul begins to read Annie so well that he predicts what has happened before (reading Annie's book of memories), as well as what will happen next.  The ultimate success, of course, is the climactic scene where he finally overpowers Annie and gains his freedom.

For her part, Annie is actually more astute at reading Paul from the beginning.  She knows of his escape from his room, and also knows exactly what motivates him and manipulates that in order to get what she wants from him.  In Annie, King has embodied the dynamic reader, and how reader expectations can affect a writer.  Ultimately, Annie misses Paul's final plan, but only because of outside interference and her own spiraling madness.  King may have been making a point that if a writer and a reader were sequestered, the reader's interpretation would be much closer to the writer's intention.  Those shared experiences and environment would meld the two into collaborators rather than dispenser of information and receiver of information.  Everything that separates the two, though, serves to blur and diffuse that sharing, until the two people are separate islands.  (Alternatively, perhaps he was just writing a cool story and didn't think this much into it.)

In any case, Berkencamp's ideas about the complexity of the reader-writer relationship present another way to view Misery.  It's always important, as a writer, not to underestimate your reader.  If you do, you hobble yourself (sorry!) and cheat your audience.  Of course, King noted in On Writing that the first audience should be yourself, but once you share that work with anyone else, you have relinquished control.  That's a scarier thing than most of us imagine.

(As a side note, my wife stole my thunder about Freud's "The Uncanny" and the castration fear present in Misery.  Suffice it to say, King makes a very clear connection between the amputations Paul endures and his anxiety about other parts.  "You're lucky I didn't cut off your man-gland," Annie says, and Paul agrees--even though he's minus a foot and a thumb at that point.)

Works Cited

Berkenkamp, Lauri. "Reading, Writing and Interpreting: Stephen King's MISERY."  In THE DARK DESCENT: ESSAYS DEFINING STEPHEN KING'S HORRORSCAPE. Ed. Tony Magistrale. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992. 203-11.

King, Stephen.  Misery.  New York, NY: Viking Penguin Inc., 1987.

The Big Uneasy

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In his essay "The Uncanny," Sigmund Freud discusses specific things that terrify us.  The uncanny, he argues, marks a specific sub-genre of horror literature.  He goes on to say it's not that these things are unfamiliar to us, but rather that these are things we've repressed. Not everything that's unfamiliar or new is frightening, but certain things are--because they represent the return of those things we've repressed, and the return of those thoughts and feelings is dreadful.  Freud lists a number of specific tropes that are uncanny: inanimate objects (such as dolls), doubles (twins or doppelgangers), being buried alive, déjà vu, and more. 

For The New Uncanny, editors Sarah Eyre and Ra Page challenged contemporary writers to read Freud's essay and write their own takes on one of his ideas.  The result is an interesting collection of short stories.  They're all being reviewed over at Dr. Arnzen's blog, so for this post I'm going to focus on the two that I found most remarkable.

"The Dummy" by Nicholas Royle deals with the double.  What I really liked about this story was the style Royle used to communicate that old uneasy feeling.  He switches back and forth from second person to first person, using this technique to induce dread in the reader as we realize what is happening in the story.  Royle showed how using literary technique can refresh a standard trope of the genre, making it uncanny all over again.

"The Sorting Out" by Christopher Priest had the most emotional impact for me.  While I enjoyed all the stories in the book, this one really gave me the creeps.  Priest deals with Freud's idea of confusion between reality and imagination.  It's a fairly straightforward tale of a woman who comes home to find that her house has been broken into, but nothing is missing--just slightly rearranged.  It's possible that her ex-boyfriend is responsible, or that it's all in her mind.  That ambiguity is what resonated most with me as a reader.

This entire collection is a great one for today's horror writers to read (can The Sims video game be uncanny?).  It points back to the roots of modern psychological horror, while showing how to make those ideas fresh again.  Ultimately, it makes us ask ourselves if Freudian psychology is still relevant to today's horror scene, and whether there are universal fears that work no matter what era we're writing in.

Terror in a Snowsuit

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In his book The Artist as Monster: The Films of David Cronenberg, William Beard discusses how The Brood delves into family dynamics and the ambiguity of childhood memories.  Was Nola really abused by her mother, or did she abuse herself and then manufacture her mother's participation?  He also discusses the fear of the female body, particularly, the fear of the female body's ability to create life.  He also brings up interesting ideas about the shift of power from men to women, something that was relatively new (maybe) in 1979.  Nola's father, Barton, is ineffectual and weak, blustering about kicking some ass while at the same time incapacitating himself with alcohol to the point where a tiny creature in a onesie can bash his head in.  Frank, Nola's husband, tries to be proactive but is hampered by the legal system and his own inability to face the seriousness of his wife's condition and the trauma she's suffered.


One thing that stood out to me about this film was the shift of power to the helpless victim.  Nola births tiny children of rage, who exact vengeance for real (or imagined) slights against those she is incapable of defending herself against.


First on the list is her mother, a heavy drinker (at least, when we see her) who may or may not have beaten her daughter.  The film also highlights issues with childhood memories.  How reliable are our memories of that time?  Have you ever visited a place you remember from when you were a kid, and found it tinier, dustier, and much more mundane than it had been in your mind?  What if we also manufactured the memories of hurts and slights from adults in the same way?  In The Brood, Cronenberg manages to capture that feeling of helplessness a child feels in an adult world.  Her "rage children" exact the revenge that Nola herself couldn't.


From her father to the teacher who has invaded her home, Nola's personified rage does what Nola can't.  Civilized Nola would not be able to bludgeon her daughter's teacher to death, but the "bad kids" she births have no compunctions about performing their pastel snow-suited destruction.


By comparison, Candice (Frank and Nola's daughter) represents the helplessness of a child in jeopardy.  It's interesting that Cronenberg wrote this movie in part as a reflection of his own divorce and custody issues, since we see how traumatic the events are on Candice.  At the end of the movie, the blisters on Candice's arms hint that perhaps she is discovering her own power, and point toward a future where her own repressed rage may boil over.  As Beard points out, though, Candice is virtually indistinguishable from Nola's brood, showing how sometimes those we perceive as powerless actually are not.


While some of the action in The Brood is a bit dated ("Let him go--can't you see he's drunk?"), the underlying themes are very thought-provoking and have a lot of power, even today.

In my post about Edgar Allan Poe, I discussed how psychological horror serves to reassure the reader that she is normal.  Dr. Arnzen pointed out in his response that we also "identify with the insane and 'go a little crazy' when we read".  In Psycho, Robert Bloch is highlighting that very point.


Norman Bates (who in the novel is much less creepy than Anthony Perkins--the description reads more like George Castanza) tells Mary Crane that "perhaps all of us go a little crazy at times" (Bloch 44).  It's particularly chilling for Mary to hear this, as she herself has just gone a little crazy and stolen $40,000 from her boss.


In one scene, Sam Loomis answers the door and "for a moment, the shock of recognition held him immobile; then he stepped forward and his arms closed around her...his mouth found hers, gratefully, greedily; and then she was stiffening, she was pulling away" (Bloch 83).  He can't even tell that it's not his own fiancée standing outside his store.  Norman Bates is not the only character in the novel dealing with self-denial and illusions.  Almost every character in the novel is forced to confront some aspect of themselves that they don't like, or do something they never imagined they were capable of doing.


Later, Sam is considering the fact that he doesn't really know the woman he thought he loved.  He starts to think about all the people in Fairvale he knows, "like old Tomkins, superintendent of schools...running away from his wife and family with a sixteen-year-old girl" (Bloch 102).  He goes on to list other examples, including a quiet man who worked as a clerk in his hardware store--a man whom he discovered had been discharged from the army for beating a chaplain.


Perhaps the most frightening thing of all is how any person is capable of almost any act, even those we would never consider.  Imagine the horror you might feel discovering your parents making out in the row behind you at the theater.  Whenever a person denies our perception of her, it's terrifying--and the most terrifying thing is discovering we, ourselves, are capable of something we never imagined.


In a party conversation once, I heard a woman talking about how angry she'd become when another driver cut her off on the road.  She stated that if she would have had a gun, she would have shot the person.  I'm not sure what was more chilling--the fact that she was willing to admit this (and no alcohol was involved at that point), or how several others admitted that they had felt the same way at some point.  Psychological horror may attempt to explain those impulses, but it also points out that abnormal though they may be, they are more common than we want to admit.


Works Cited


Bloch, Robert. Psycho. New York: Warner Books, 1982.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is universally considered a literary masterpiece, although at the time of its publication it received mixed reviews--editor John Drew notes that "its reception by critics anticipated the exaggerated hostility with which Dorian Gray would later be greeted" (Drew viii).  Today, many readers still debate the true meaning of the book, and question whether it should be included in the horror genre.  Indeed, the book's literary success may contribute to these questions of genre, fueling the debate concerning popular versus literary fiction.  Do an online search for Dorian Gray's genre and you will find it described as Gothic, philosophical, romantic, comedic, and even a treatise about aestheticism.  In terms of themes and tone, though, the novel definitely falls into the category of horror.


On its website, the Horror Writers Association states that "horror fiction has a rightful place in our educational system...classics like The Picture of Dorian Gray...can be labeled as horror" ("What is Horror Fiction?" par 9).  Of course, this claim does not prove that the book is horror, and even states that it "can be" labeled as horror--not that it "must be."


So perhaps the first question that should really be answered is: what is horror fiction?  The dictionary definition of horror is "inspiring or creating horror" or "an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear."  At the time of its publication, Dorian Gray was definitely shocking, and possibly revolting to the Victorian morals of the time.  The underlying homoeroticism and blatant hedonism was an affront on the values of society.  However, even today we can see that the tone of the novel is to shock its reader.  Indeed, while there is humor in the book, the underlying tone is one of menace, terror, and despair.


For example, in the story of Dorian's parentage we have "a beautiful woman risking everything for a mad passion...a child born in pain...the mother snatched away by death" (Wilde 38).  The fear of death and aging, a recurring theme in the book, is one of humanity's most universal fears.  Wilde often uses the language of horror throughout the book.  Upon seeing the effects his cruelty to Sybil have had on the painting, Dorian "drew a large screen right in front of the portrait, shuddering as he glanced at it.  'How horrible!'" (Wilde 81).  At the end of the book, when Dorian stabs the painting, the servants hear a "cry so horrible in its agony" that they are afraid to leave their rooms (Wilde 188).


Besides the language and emotion of horror, Dorian Gray also tackles themes common in horror fiction.  Noel Carroll asserts that "most suspense in horror fiction...has two logically opposed outcomes such is morally correct but unlikely and the other is evil and likely" (138).  Gina Wisker discusses what she calls object horror, which "deeply destabilises (sic) our sense of security in terms of what is real, what matters, and what we can trust about ourselves and others" (186).  Dorian Gray deals with what is real versus what is unreal--is Dorian really immune to aging, with the portrait bearing the scars that should be marking his face and soul?  Is the damage physical, metaphysical, or both?  Dorian himself struggles with reality, falling in love with Sybil only to realize he was in love with the characters she portrayed on stage, not with her as a person.  The morally correct thing for Dorian to do is destroy the painting, but even at the end that outcome seems unlikely--Dorian's motivation is not to absolve himself of sin, but rather to "kill the past...kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings he would be at peace" (Wilde 188).


In its language and themes, Dorian Gray presents the best of what horror fiction can achieve--a work of art that still generates comment and debate today, more than a hundred years after its publication.


Works Cited


Carroll, Noel.  The Philosophies of Horror, or, Paradoxes of the Heart.  New York: Routledge, 1990.

Drew, John M. L. (editor).  The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.  Wordsworth Classics Edition.  Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1997.

"What is Horror Fiction?." Horror Writers Association. N. D.. Horror Writers Association. 24 Aug 2009

Wilde, Oscar.  The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Lisa M. Miller and Joan Langham, editors.  Clayton, DE: Prestwick House Literary Touchstone Press, 2005.

Wisker, Gina.  Horror Fiction: An Introduction.  New York: Continuum, 2005.

I See Homosexual People

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In her book Sexual Anarchy, Elaine Showalter contends that Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde is actually describing "the nearly hysterical terror of revealing forbidden emotions between men....a case study of male hysteria" (107).  She goes on to further state her case, citing the use of the word "queer" (112) and the way the "male homosexual body is also represented in the narrative in a series of images suggestive of anality and anal intercourse" (113).

Showalter's assertions are interesting, and should remind us as writers that while we may think we are just spinning a simple tale of multiple personality disorder, our readers will bring their own ideas to the story.  They may end up reading things we did not write, or may sense a subconscious subtext that, real or imagined, we did not intend to include.  However, in this case it seems that Showalter may be over-reaching in her analysis of the story.

First, Showalter begins by suggesting that the author may have been gay.  She writes that "Stevenson himself was the object of extraordinary passion on the part of other men" (107).  While she does go on to say that "Stevenson's real sexuality is much less the issue in Jekyll and Hyde" (107), she implies that the book is a way for him to explore his own conflicted personality and most secret desires.

Using this logic, however, Stephen King is (or at least wants to be) a mass-murderer, Jennifer Cruisie has had sex with legions of men (doubtful), and Mark Twain was a racist.  Likewise, even if the book is a discourse on homosexuality, it doesn't automatically follow that Stevenson was gay.

Showalter cites examples of the personification of homosexuality in Jekyll and Hyde--"Hyde travels in the 'chocolate-brown fog' that beats about the 'back-end of the evening'; while the streets he traverses are invariably 'muddy' and 'dark,' Jekyll's house, with its two entrances" (113) is, to Showalter, the most explicit example of a man's body.

Interestingly, I had never noticed these things before, but after the Showalter article I started seeing homosexual references everywhere.  Stevenson writes "the stick with which the deed had been done...was...rare...wood" (34).  When Utterson and Enfield encounter Dr. Jekyll at one point, they have a conversation where Utterson tells Jekyll "'You should be out whipping up the circulation like Mr. Enfield and me'" and Jekyll replies "'I should like to very much; but no, no, no, it is quite impossible; I dare not'" (Stevenson 52).  Near the end, "where Jekyll perhaps might have succumbed, Hyde rose to the importance of the moment" (Stevenson 95).

It is interesting how a work of fiction may have many interpretations, and how, once exposed to a certain point of view, the reader may begin to see evidence supporting that particular interpretation.  For example, some reviewers feel "the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde is also characterized as almost a father and son relationship, and reflects further ambivalence on Stevenson's part towards living in a house purchased for him by his father" (Danahay 129).  At the time of its publication, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was "quoted widely in an example of the dangers of sin and vice" (Danahay 134).

So, is Stevenson's book rife with homosexual imagery?  In an effort to study reader expectations, I picked a sampling of books from my own shelf and inspected them for passages that could be construed as relating to homosexuality or the human body.  Here is what I found.  Charlotte Bronte swings both ways in Jane Eyre.  Early on the narrator says "to-night I was to be Miss Miller's bedfellow; she helped me to undress" (Bronte 42).  Later, though, Jane's attention turns to "Mr. Brocklehurst, buttoned up in a surtout, and looking loner, narrower, and more rigid than ever" (Bronte 59).

Despite Dumbledore's predilections, J K Rowling mostly focuses on hetero (if somewhat underaged) desires.  In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, "Hermione grimly" tells Harry to "'Watch your frog, it's escaping'" (Rowling 374).  Harry realizes too late that "he was indeed squeezing his bullfrog so tightly that its eyes were popping" (Rowling 375).  However, there are a few homosexual images, as Hermione has "suspected this ever since Filch accused you of ordering Dungbombs" (Rowling 374).

Even Elmore Leonard can not resist including homosexual images in his writing.  In Leonard's The Hot Kid we find this very revealing passage: "'Yeah, picking nuts. But he's always let me have my head'" (171).

Obviously, these examples are very contrived and almost (or extremely) silly.  However, they do prove that we as readers can inject almost any context we wish into a book, and then find the evidence to support our claims.  It is important to look at ourselves and our own prejudices when we are examining writing.  The danger of reading too much into a work is that we will be unable to convince others when we have valid points.  For example, while Showalter probably has many good and interesting ideas, I will view any literary criticism of hers with suspicion in the future.

Works Cited

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Dover Thrift Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc., 2002. Print.

Danahay, Martin A. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. 2nd edition. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2005. Print.

Leonard, Elmore. The Hot Kid. Paperback. New York: Harper Collins, 2005. Print.

Rowling, J. K.. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Hardcover. New York: Scholastic Press, 2003. Print.

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

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Travels with a Donkey. Art-Type Edition. New York: Books, Inc., Unknown. Print.

The New Normal

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At the root of most psychological horror is the underlying premise of abnormality, and an exploration of how that abnormality comes to be.  While we read these stories and watch these movies to see an exploration of the depraved mind of "the other," are we hoping to discover what drives someone to commit such horrific acts?  This week, we read Ramsland's article "The Psychology of Horror and Fantasy."  She contends that horror allows us to escape our isolation, categorize our own thoughts and emotions, and provide a cathartic release for both author and reader.  These are interesting theories, and certainly worth considering.  But might psychological horror also be appealing because it explores one of our own deepest fears, the fear of being different?  Perhaps this style of horror fulfills our need to reassure ourselves that, even with all of our flaws, we aren't that crazy.


This week we read Edgar Allan Poe's classic horror story, "The Tell-Tale Heart."  It starts with this statement by the narrator: "...very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am, but why will you say that I am mad?"  It's interesting that Poe's storyteller is willing to admit to murder, but not to have the reader think that he (she?) is abnormal.


In America, we have a desire to be rugged individualists, while at the same time we spend much of our time (especially during the teen and early adult years) struggling to achieve conformity.  Psychologists have identified a disorder called "gelotophobia," which is fear of being laughed at.  At its worst, the disease can lead to "breaking out in a sweat, heart palpitations, trembling or simply freezing up" (Woolls).  In popular magazines like Cosmo Girl, Men's Fitness, and more there are advice columns dedicated to reassuring readers that they are not different--that they are, in fact, normal.


In "The Sandman" by Hoffmann, we find that the protagonist is "quite indignant that Clara did not admit the demon's existence outside his own mind."  Again, the character is most concerned with being labeled crazy.  In "Dread," Barker makes the villain Quaid's first foray into psychological mind games an effort to prove to Cheryl that she is normal, and like other normal people experiences dread and fear.


It's interesting that in all of the fiction we read this week, we have unreliable narrators who are revealed to be different or abnormal, either to us as the reader or to the other characters in the story.  This allows us to reassure ourselves that our definition of normality holds true, while also identifying the abnormality of such perpetrators of violence.  In our horror fiction, we want to be reassured that despicable actions are the result of some flaw in the system, and be reassured that we are not different, that we are normal.  Sometimes, though, being normal isn't such a good thing.



Woolls, Daniel. "Gelotophobia, No Laughing Matter." 09 July 2008. CBS Interactive Inc. 2 Aug 2009 <>.




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