October 2009 Archives

Annie Wilkes Meets Ruth: A Frightening Duo

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Annie Wilkes, from Stephen King’s Misery, and Ruth, from Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, are both without a doubt psychotic antagonists with the upper hand in their situations.  Both women exerted strength with and over their captives, when in reality, they were weak and feeble minded women with pasts that included emotional abuse and abandonment by their loved ones. Now one of the first similarities that I found between the two was how both women had a type of routine that they carried out in order to stay as rooted to reality as possible; Annie would tend to her house …keeping up its appearances and reading her books, while Ruth would sit, watch TV and drink coke and smoke herself into a coma. But if anything disrupted this order, it was almost impossible for Annie or Ruth to handle it.  Sure, Annie would scream and Ruth would torture Meg, but while each went about their hysterics in different ways, they equally hobbled their captives (by either amputating a body part, or tying them up in the basement).  Control was definitely an essential factor in how both of these women lived their lives, and when a situation arose when the ball might not be in their court….as we know, they had only one way to deal with it.  I also liked the fact that both women were unpredictable in their actions.  I personally never saw what was coming next with Ruth and the kids, and everything that they did to Meg put me in a constant state of unease.  Now while Annie evoked the unpredictable, I thought that it became repetitive at some points and that you could almost see what was coming at times with how the small things set her off into one of her rants.  But even with that said, I’ll admit that Annie got to me when she stuck the needle in Paul for the first time, and starting playing doctor.

Despite the above comparisons, Annie and Ruth did have their differences. When we are first introduced to her, she comes across as a concerned, kind, cheerful individual whose sole purpose is helping Paul to get better.  But as we horror buffs know…first impressions aren’t always what they are cracked up to be.  Annie was clearly a loner, and by reading her trip down memory lane, we can see that companions weren’t always welcomed in her company.  If anyone got in her way, she simply did away with them.  Take her roommate for example; she was Annie’s competition for nursing school so one day she just happened to have an unfortunate accident.  The same thing coincidentally happened with her father.  You see, unlike Ruth, death appealed to Annie, and she took great pleasure in playing God.  She decided who was going to die and when it was going to happen.  But unlike Ruth, Annie didn’t believe in torturing her victims, but rather did the deed nice and quick.  Despite everything that Paul went through, with his two amputations, burning his book, etc., I’m not sure Annie would even think that she slightly tormented him because she believed that what she was doing was ultimately helping him.  By ridding the world of his filth (Fast Cars) Paul Sheldon could be reborn through Misery’s Return, thanks to her.

Now Ruth on the other hand, appears vile and harsh right from the start. She curses, isn’t concerned about appearances (doesn’t wear a bra), and drinks constantly; Annie would be appalled by her since her actions were more proper and confined. Ruth also appears to us with this hardened outer shell, yet ironically takes great pride in being surrounded by people.   In fact, she even brings over other kids from the neighborhood to keep her company.  One thing that I found particularly intriguing about the two characters was that we immediately get the impression that Annie has killed before; with Ruth we don’t get that.  We’re skeptical.  After we read a little bit and she how both she and the kids enjoy their heinous acts, it does seem like she has, but we’re never sure (a great decision by Ketchum in my opinion). Like Annie, Ruth thinks that she is helping Meg by submitting her to all of this torture to ride her of her impurity and save her from her whorish tendencies.  But Ruth goes way beyond anything that Annie could even dream of in my opinion.  Frankly, I’m not sure which one I think is worse.

The Game: Something so terrible that you can't look away

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"The first authentically shocking American film I've seen since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer over 20 years ago. If you are easily disturbed, you should not watch this movie. If, on the other hand, you are prepared for a long look into hell, suburban style, The Girl Next Door will not disappoint. This is the dark-side-of-the-moon version of Stand By Me." - Stephen King

The following is information that I got off of Wikipedia regarding the actual true story that Ketchum based his novel on:

Sylvia Likens and her younger sister Jenny were left in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, a single mother of seven children, by their parents, who were traveling carnival workers. As the months passed, Sylvia became the target of horrendous abuse at the hands of Baniszewski, who not only senselessly beat the young girl, but allowed her children to do so, as well as the neighborhood children who frequently visited the household. The final days of young Sylvia's life were spent locked in the basement of the home, where she was tied up, starved, beaten and tortured. Only three months after arriving in the home, Sylvia Likens succumbed to her injuries and died.”

A lot of my friends have watched or read Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door so I had an idea of what I was getting myself into when I picked up the book. I must admit that even though I knew what to expect… I was still a little weary of it as I started reading.  It wasn’t that I was scared per say, but rather constantly waiting for the torture or the abuse to begin.  I honestly was surprised at how unnerved I truly was while reading the book.  But even so…I couldn’t put it down; that’s what I want to talk about in my blog today.

Just as I couldn’t stop reading…the children in the novel couldn’t stop watching.  It’s a very creepy psychological hold that consumed us both regarding the characters of Meg and Susan.  It reminded me of how people react to a car accident.  You witness something that is so horrid, and so gruesome, yet you can’t look away from it.  It captivates you, and even though it brings you closer to death and allows you to look into hell….you can’t help it.  In a way, I guess that is what attracts us to horror.  We have the need to see how even the most terrible situations will end at the end of the day.  That’s kind of how David thought.

I’ll admit to being very frustrated with him throughout the story because he seemed so taken by Meg, yet waited till the end of the novel to actually begin to help it.  He had nightmares about the things that both Ruth and the children did to her, but was never man enough to talk to his parents or go to the police.  BUT, even though I feel like a terrible person for saying this, I feel like I can almost understand his predicament.  Here we have a young child who is clearly going through puberty, and he is in a home where his parents are dealing with the difficulties in their relationship and are talking about divorce.  That alone would make it hard to talk to them about anything, let alone anything serious that might end up forcing them farther apart from one another. Another matter would be that this was his closet group of friends that he was dealing with, and he felt as if he was betraying them by going against them.  I mean…in the beginning, they weren’t doing anything different from what they did to people in The Game right?  But even with that said...matters clearly escalated to a point where things went beyond punishment.  David knew Ruth was (basically) starving Meg, he knew that she was beating her and abusing her both physically and verbally, and he saw the effects that her words/actions were having on Meg-someone that he supposedly cared about. Sure, as a teenage boy he must of boy, he was interested in the sexual portrayal that the family positioned her as, BUT, this wasn’t some random girl hanging in the basement that he had no emotional ties with.  This was the girl that he dreamt about…that he wanted to love. That’s why I have to wonder why it took him so long to act on it. 

Another issue in the story that fascinated me in the story was the psychological turmoil that Ruth went through, and as to how the fact that was the adult figure in the book, not only gave her power, but invincibility in the eye’s of the children.  Ruth’s mentality was clearing deteriorating before the girls came to live with her, and it seemed to break when she realized that she had to more kids to take care of. Two more emotionally and physically unstable ones at that.  The fact that her husband left her with their two children, clearly screamed to Ruth that the man only wanted her as a sexual object, so therefore the female body was the problem in the relationship.  That’s why she was trying to get through to Meg.  To tell her that a man only wants her for her body so in order to prevent the pain of losing a lover….you had to destroy the body.

Now I pride myself in being able to read books and not cringe or have nightmares, but I’ll admit that this one got to me.  I cringed and got chills throughout the entire story, and even had dreams about it for a while after reading it.  It truly is a story that once you read it, you can’t get it out of your mind.  Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is horror and psychological pain. 

Psychological Horror...meet Annie Wilkes.

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I find it hard to characterize Annie Wilkes as anything but a psycho.  She is clearly suffering from some type of mental illness that seems to border the lines of being manic-depressive, and is also suffering from a severe case of paranoia.  Annie lives in a world where everything and everyone is out to get her, so she develops a way of living that only makes sense to her.  She goes about her daily routines and emphasizes the importance of keeping up appearances so that no one has anything to complain about. I think the example that stuck out most to me, regarding her paranoia, was when she left hairs around the house to see how many times Paul had gotten out.  She was so frantic about this that she accused Paul of going upstairs and wheeling himself out into the barn while both of his legs are pretty much shattered.  Hmmm....

Throughout the book we are introduced to 4 stages of Annie. First, we have her level state where she is both loving, and kind to Paul.  She gives him his drugs on time, she attempts to make him comfortable, she feeds him, gives him his bed pan, etc.  Then we are introduced to the enraged version of Annie were she lashes out at Paul, curses extravagantly, amputates Paul’s left foot and then cuts of his thumb. When she stabs/runs of the young cop at the end, she even does so without feeling, only to blame Paul for his death. Then, what I found particularly interesting, was that she typically went into a depressive state after this, which caused her to binge eat, neglect her body and slip into a state of self hate.  When she feel hard enough into this black hole, she would then hurt herself by digging her nails into her face, and slapping herself as hard as she could.  Now frankly speaking, if that doesn’t say “Hi, I’m psychotic” I’m not sure what does.

King’s portrayal of Annie Wilkes follows the tradition of psychological horror that we have been studying this semester because it allows us to witness a character who doesn’t understand the limits of her own mind.  Annie is disturbed and has a sick sense of control over the story’s protagonist, so we see as much of her thought process as we do of Paul’s.  To me, this is the ultimate in the psychological horror stories that I have read so far, because the story is horrifying in both the protagonist’s and the antagonist’s mind.  It’s not often that you get to witness the break of sanity between the good and the bad guy.

I don’t want to sound cliché, but I do think that her femininity does make her stand out from what we have read so far.  Annie is holding the cards in this story and she is the one calling the shots.  She is a complicated character with a horrific past, and she isn’t afraid to do what it takes to get what she wants.  Now while Nola was clearly psycho in The Brood, she’s no match for dear Annie.  In my eyes, Nola lost her mind way before the movie started, and she wasn’t fully aware of what she was doing…and she certainly wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be making decisions; now I’m not trying to say that Annie is sane, but the girl definitely knew what was going on, and she made sane decisions (in her mind) to the best of her abilities. She was able to plan out a course of action, keep Paul alive and out of control (until the end), and hide her tracts well enough to escape conflicts with the law.

Annie Wilkes may be psycho…but she does psycho well, if not better than most of the characters we have read so far.

While we are still on the topic of dear ol' Annie...I wanted to include something in this blog about the concept of horror and romance within Misery.   While this is without a doubt a psychological horror story, it also has the potential of being a (demented and twisted) love story.  Annie states (several times) how much she is in love with Paul, and that she has gone beyond just loving his mind and his stories.

Now one of my classmates wrote about the relationship of the horror genre to that of the romance world, and I think that our collaboration is noteworthy in including in this post. The following is my response to his thoughts on the subject above, but for more of what he has to say, one can check out his blog!

(My response)----I think you open up with a great point of how both horror and romance focus on the body, but in different ways.  Horror views the body as something to be tainted/defiled, whereas romance views it as an object of chastity or pleasure.

I liked that you stated "In romance, especially the more graphic/erotic areas, the descriptions get right to the flesh of things with genitals and breasts, deep breathing and pounding, every look interpreted through a lens of sex, every conversation potentially leading to a steamy moment."  While this is true of romance literature, I think it corresponds with the horror genre as well.  Most sex scenes in horror movies/literature portray the antagonist in a vile form of lust for their victim.  For instance, they will focus on defiling the body or torturing it before they have their way with it.  For example, I just watched House of Wax again this weekend, and when one of the brothers captures the girl down in the basement of the gas station, he glues her lips shut and only then proceeds to kiss her (or some variation of that).  So like you said, the reader/viewer forms a bond with the character(s) and then experiences some terror/pleasure of what happens to them while they read/watch.  I think the two genres have a lot more in common than people give them credit too.


-Quotes and ideas regarding the horror and romance genre were by and inspired from David Johnston.

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kathy bates misery.jpg
"Writing does not cause misery, it is born of misery"
-Montaigne

Writing Style in Stephen King's Misery

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I have to admit that I immediately fell in love with Misery the first time I read it a few years ago.  I thought the idea of a writer being captured by his number one fan was a brilliant concept to work off of, and I wasn’t disappointed with the outcome of the ending.  King was never one to sugar coat anything, I think that he did an admirable job when it came to incorporating the uncanny, the essence of gore, and naturally a sense of horrific suspense.   A while there remains a thought to discuss about this story… I wanted to focus on the linguistics and style that he used when telling the story.

I personally am a big fan of anything that strikes me as unordinary, and I love when people break the mold by doing something different.  From the first page of Misery, we are thrown into a writing style that uses punctuation sparingly, incorporates italics when felt necessary, and carries sentence structure on like a continuing realm unconscious thought.  This tactic brings the reader into the world that Paul Sheldon is living in, even though the reader doesn’t know what they are getting into quite yet.  Now while I’m sure Stephen King isn’t the only person to have done this technique… I still admire him for his willingness to not follow the crowd in his writing.

As one continues throughout the novel, he/she will realize that King’s writing style is mimicking the sanity of Paul at that certain time. King makes us hear what Sheldon is hearing, makes us see Annie Wilkes in a new light, and allows us to follow Paul’s thoughts in whatever direction they choose to take us.  For instance, if he is talking about one subject, which in turn reminds him of something else, King will stop in the middle of a paragraph, indent a completely new one, and continue the thought in italics or something.  It’s really quite interesting to get inside the mind of a protagonist and see what he is feeling at all times.

The other part of his writing that I did wanted to talk about, was his choice to include the actual manuscript of Misery’s Return within the book.  I wasn’t sure if I liked this tactic at first, and I think it took me a second read to appreciate what it really does for the story line.  For instance, this time around, I really felt like I was in the story…sometimes as Sheldon himself.  Since I was in his head so much (it seemed) I just felt natural that I should see and be a part of everything that was happening…including him writing the manuscript.  I also think that it helped to enforce the plot, while showing the reader Paul’s sanity and the trials and tribulations he was going through.  For example, in the beginning we see a clean cut copy of the book-to-be, with the absence of the letter N.  Now at first, it’s almost like ok….no big deal.  Just fill them in.  But then as the conflict gets worse, and the conditions of living become more gruesome, the letters T and E decided to stop working.  It’s like Paul has all the forces of the world forbidding him from finishing the manuscript, and from getting out of this situation alive.  Then, one also has to consider the ending, when Paul is forced to write longhand.  As writers, we all know how difficult writing longhand is, and frankly, I couldn’t imagine even writing a short story that way let alone a novel.  To think that after all Paul had been through, with his amputations, his mental status, his impending doom, etc. he has to force himself to find the will to finish the novel.  At this point, his writing is almost unreadable, and in a sense scatterbrained.  The longhand was what sold me on the technique.  I think King included it because it added the element of TIME to the story.  Paul was on a timeline, and finishing the book to him was like a race against the clock just as much as it was against Annie Wilkes herself. 

“Thus, for these critics, the reader and the writers are involved in a reciprocal participatory relationship, where the reader’s contribution to the text is as important to its meaning as are the literal words on the page” (203).

                Berkenkamp’s article helped me to look at Misery in an entire different light.  The first time I read misery, I was astonished at the relationship that built between Annie Wilkes and Paul Sheldon; I knew that they had a warped, twisted dependence on each other, but it never crossed my mind that it could be analyzed as a literary one.  I got the vibe that their bond was strictly a survival tactic: Paul needed Annie because he was badly injured and dependent on Novril, and Annie needed Paul because he was the person that breathed life into her through the character portrayal of Misery.  But thanks to Berkenkamp, I can look at the two characters in a whole different light.

                  At one point in the article, Berkenkamp states “Through the course of Misery the power dynamics shift each time a change occurs in one character’s level of insight, so that finally both Annie and Paul become creators as well as interpreters of each other as texts” (204).  When I read this, I had several different scenarios going through my mind from the story, and I couldn’t help but to realize how true this statement really was.  Paul learns (from painful experience) how to read Annie’s moods, body language, and facial expressions from the time that he was spent with her, and thus can begin to predict what type of mood she is in on that particular day.  This helps him to track her and plan out her next move. In Paul’s head, he is constantly alluding to a story line, where he is both the creator and the reader.  A good example of this would be when he rolled into the bathroom and stole a dozen or so capsules of Novril when Annie went to get his paper from the store.  The entire time he was moving, he pretended that there was an announcer giving a play by play of the scene, and as Paul listened to his creation, he gave me an adrenaline rush.    

                Now Annie on the other hand is not quite so different from Paul.  True she lives in her own little world where everyone is after her, but she both depends on and controls Paul Sheldon at the same time.  For instance, she forces him to burn his manuscript and then to write the final Misery novel for her pleasure only.  But while she is holding the math to him, she can’t control Paul and literally make him do anything.  Sure, if he doesn’t comply with her, he will likely die…but nonetheless, that’s an option.  AND, if Paul takes that option, you can be damn well sure that dear Annie won’t be able to live knowing that her role model has died.  To me, the two are acting out a game of cat and mouse.  Each one has something that the other one wants, but neither are able to retrieve it in the beginning (or in some cases...never at all).

PED-O-MATIQUE Critique

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              “The boots tightened their clasp around Karen’s ankles.  They began to vibrate. Karen tensed for a moment against the unfamiliar sensation, finding it oddly intimate.  She half-tried to remove her feet, but they were firmly clamped in position.  Relax.” - “Ped-o-Matique” by Jane Rogers

                “Ped-o-Matique” by Jane Rogers is a certifiably strange story about a woman named Karen who gets her feet/legs trapped in a foot massager.  This short story exhumes the concept of the uncanny because it portrays an inanimate object as animate when the machine appeared to develop a mind of its own by refusing to turn off when requested.  In a sense, I found the story somewhat relatable because we have all been in situations where we have wondered what we would do if the worst, most awkward situation aroused putting us in an uneasy state.  I know one time when I was little, I put my hands in one of those machines that squeeze your arm and take your blood pressure just for the heck of it. In fact, I didn’t even mean to turn it on.  Needless to say, I got stuck in it, and my mom had to get someone to come over and shut it off.  Now I know it’s not as dramatic as Karen’s situation, but it’s comparable nonetheless.  Now why was that fun fact about my life necessary to this blog?  Well, since Freud’s concept on the uncanny developed based on childhood fears or uncomfortable moments in our past, it’s easier for me to feel connected and relate to the story thus getting the true impression of the weird and strange.

                One of the most interesting points about this story was the gradual transgression of Karen’s panic.  In the beginning we’re shown a (somewhat) comfortable and relaxed character, who goes from one end of the spectrum to the other as the minutes tick by to the closing of the gate to her flight.  First we see her try to convince herself that there is nothing really wrong, and that she must be hitting the wrong button. Then, the fear builds and she starts to look for the control switch to turn the machine off all together.  When that fails, she tries to break out of it, but soon realizes the pain that the massager is inflicting on her as it grabs and grinds at her bones making it physically impossible to slip out of.   It’s at this point that she starts screaming for help in a panicked frenzy.   I liked that the author portrayed her breakdown slowly, and essentially stretched it out for the entire story to show the fear growing inside her.  Combine this with the stress of her job and the fact that she’s missing her child and we have an emotionally uptight damsel in distress.

                Another side note that crossed my mind when reading this short story was the subject of her feet appearing alive; this could go along with the whole inanimate object appearing animate detail that I mentioned earlier in the critique.  There is a great focus on the kneading of her muscles and the way that the machine grabs her, making it appear like the feet are the center focal point of the story.  Then, at the end, she exclaims something along the lines of her being so happy that she could dance; this addition would not only add comic relief to a tense story, but also give the limbs a sense of control that Karen does not appear to have.

Possum by Matthew Holness: A Critique of Uncanny Literature

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I think that Matthew Holness takes a very disturbing spin on the subjectivity regarding several of Freud’s causes of fear that are displayed within literature: the concept of being buried alive, mistaking inanimate objects as animate, and confusions between reality and imagination.  These three sections of the Freudian Uncanny are interwoven within the story in a modern setting as the narrator struggles with his ventriloquist dummy, the Possum. In regards to the author “updating” his work to Freud’s theories, I think he does an admirable job relating present obstacles to past problems.  It is obvious that our narrator, no matter how reliable he is, is dealing with a reoccurring ghost from his childhood that he sees and continues to experience through his puppet.  He treats it as if it were alive, and one has to question whether he literally believes that it is - now keep in mind the whiskey that he continually drinks throughout the story may or may not have something to do with the fact that he is confusing reality with his imagination.  Because he views the Possum as an enemy of his past, he feels that by burning the puppet, and or burying it alive in his case or drowning in outside in the shed, that this will vanquish the terrors that he went through as a child, which appear to me to be some sort of physical or sexual abuse.

I found myself constantly comparing the narrator to Norman Bates in the sense that he drank a lot, and spoke about Christie in an uneasy way, as if he both loved him and held at grudge against him at the same time.  I definitely felt an oedipal triangle starting to form between them and what the puppet represented to our narrator, and I’m not sure if Christie was really alive, or was just a infatuation like Norman had with his mother.

Overall, I think the story succeeds as a work of uncanny literature because it not only touches on Freud’s ideology regarding fear in several instances, but it brings in other aspects of uneasiness that add to the piece as a whole.  For instance, the setting itself was very disturbing to me because it exhumed an atmosphere that was taken over by filth and disease.  I know at one point, the narrator says that he licked the dead flies off of the Possum, and there was another instance where his bloodied, Eczema hands were wading through the puppets ashes as a reassurance that it was destroyed.   Take this setting and couple it with some suppressed childhood anger/anxiety and you have yourself an uncomfortable winner if you ask me.

I think that uncanny literature today expresses hidden fears that adults don’t want to acknowledge because they think they have conquered them throughout the years.  A lot of issues that we tend to block out in our childhood ultimately end up reoccurring throughout our lives, and by reading pieces that confront those issues head on, can be quite dramatic to some readers.  I think the part in Holness’s story that really stood out to me was when he actually got into a fight with the Possum, and ended up beating it to ‘death’ and severing its head from its body.  Clearly, there was some suppressed emotional/violent turmoil going throughout our narrator’s head that caused him such pain and anxiety that he felt the need to literally destroy this representation of his fear(s).