October 2009 Archives

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.

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