“The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” by Edgar Allen Poe

I’ve loved Poe’s work ever since I was introduced to him as a kid. Bedtime reading has always been a thing for me, so you can imagine what happened the first time I read “The Pit and the Pendulum” before bed – parental shouting to “Go the hell to sleep!” followed by threats of what would happen if I didn’t go to sleep, followed by nightmares. Ah, childhood.

Needless to say, I had to have more. Some of that “more” included these tales which quickly became favorites. Re-reading them for this assignment made me realize something I’d never noticed before – they are all written from the killer’s perspective. Also, that “The Black Cat” 220px-Aubrey_Beardsley_-_Edgar_Poe_2 is basically a re-write of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” TellTaleHeart

Both of those two stories involve a nameless protagonist who is bopping along, being a normal human being until one day he develops a twitch – he becomes obsessively, bitterly irritated by something he’d previously professed to “love” – a cat, and an older man, who may, or may not  be, his father. In the cat’s case, the cat became too attached to him, practically tripping him by winding around the narrator’s legs. The old man never did anything to the protagonist, he just had a pale “vulture’s eye” that annoyed, and then infuriated, him.vultures eye

We watch, helplessly, as he becomes more and more obsessed with the objects of his obsession until he finally, brutally kills them. The cat he leaves hanging in a tree – after having gouged one of its eyes out – oh, and the narrator’s wife gets killed too, then buried behind the wall. The old man gets dismembered, and then buried beneath the floor boards.

Both these tales of madness and murder are told by unreliable narrators who refuse to believe in their own madness. Could a madman describe horrors like these in such perfect detail? Could a madman exercise such monstrous patience, and cunning? Could a madman appear so cool and calm even after the police appear?police

The short answer: Yes. Yes, he could.

Poe’s narrators go to great lengths to convince us they are not mad, they could never be mad, while the whole time they are very, very obviously mad.

The third story, “The Cask of Amontillado” cask

– even though it too is told from the perspective of the murderer – is different from these two stories for a number of reasons:

  • There is no obsession over some minor point, developing into a monomaniacal hatred over time (unless you count whatever “slights” Montresor has suffered, which I suppose we can)
  • The atmosphere of this story is light, even witty at times; it takes place during a carnival (and not during the Dark Ages, at night, which is how the other stories feel)
  • The killer’s motives are somewhat more apparent to both him, and us – he seeks revenge for some former slights at the hand of a social superior (the murderers in “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” both insist there was “no reason” for their crimes, they just happened)
  • The narrator of this story appears to have gotten away with his crime! (unlike the other two killers who are so overcome with guilt they give themselves away just when the police arrive)

However, the ending is familiar in one important way – the murderer walls up his victim. Only here, the victim, poor Fortunato, is not dead when he ends up in the wall. He is still alive! Poe has been leading us from murder to murder to murder. Each one more awful than the last, until finally, he reveals his ultimate horror – it’s not getting accidentally killed like the wife in “The Black Cat”, and it’s not being deliberately killed and dismembered as in “The Tell-Tale Heart. For Poe the worst kind of death is a long, lingering one; where you’re trapped in a dark, forgotten place, and where no one can hear you scream. walled up

And that’s why we’re still reading Poe more than a hundred and fifty years later. cool poe

Batman: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

A fantastic graphic novel, originally written in 1988, Batman: The Killing Joke is still being discussed by comic book fans. The most obvious reason, initially, is because of Bolland’s stunning, legendary art. That’s what draws you in – all those amazing pictures. Bolland’s Batman is truly the Dark Knight, while his Joker is deliriously, magnificently insane. Know how you can tell? Those perfect, yellow teeth. 

Anyway, so you come for the art, but you stay for the story. Alan Moore is the guy who wrote The Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell – all extraordinary works that went on to become terrific films.   

The Killing Joke is supposed to be a stand-alone story in the Bat-verse – not part of the accepted canon, but tolerated as an alternate nightmare coming from the minds of two masters. Here we see an origin story for the Joker where he’s just a regular guy with a wife, and a kid on the way, who gets led astray by his criminal pals. This Joker seems almost unbearably naïve – anyone can see those “friends” of his are up to no good. (Of course, it helps that all the early Joker bits are done in a kind of Forties-style black and white. Nothing says “mob” and “criminal” like guys in fedoras and cheesy moustaches.) 

The Joker, appropriately enough, is a failed comic. But he used to be a lab assistant at a chemical plant, and that’s how he gets mixed up with the bad guys – they want to rob that plant – although I don’t think the reason why they want to do that is ever made clear. When it goes bad, the crooks run away, leaving their “friend” behind to get caught. Batman chases him; he falls into a vat of mysterious chemicals and eventually emerges as The Joker.

So Batman is there at The Joker’s beginning. You could say he was the cause of The Joker, because he never would have fallen into those chemicals if Batman hadn’t been chasing him. Maybe Batman feels a little responsible for the guy. Maybe The Joker blames him a little. Maybe a lot. In any case, in this story The Joker is trying to “Make a Point” – yes, he’s one of those psychos – by doing as much damage as he can think of to two people Batman holds dear – Commissioner Gordon and his daughter, Barbara. Things get pretty heinous. You could even say they get graphic

And the point The Joker is trying to make here? That anyone, anyone can be driven insane if given enough incentive. It’s been his theme song all along, it seems. The excuse The Joker needs to believe, the rationale has been telling himself all these years – It’s not my fault I’m crazy.

Does he succeed? Does The Joker manage to ruin three good people just so he can finally feel good about himself?

As if. Read it and find out for yourself.

I’ve been reading comics for years. The best ones are amazing collaborations of art and literature, and Batman: The Killing Joke is one of the best.

Joyride, by Jack Ketchum

 

Jack Ketchum’s writing is astonishing.

Pretty much as soon as I started reading this book, my entire body wanted to clench up. Literally. I usually read in bed before turning in, and by the end of the first chapter I had to remind myself to relax – it’s only a story.

So Ketchum really knows how to ratchet up the tension and keep it there.

Impressive.

The guy is talented. However, despite that, I didn’t like this book. I’ve read one or two other Ketchum books – since he is often found lurking in the horror section of Barnes and Noble – and even though they definitely had an effect on me, it wasn’t one that I liked.

Joyride is the story of Carole, an abused ex-wife, and Lee, her lover. They plot together to knock off Carole’s ex, since he can’t seem to either stay away from his ex-wife, or to keep his hands off her. The police, of course, see nothing and do nothing since the ex is a local, powerful businessman (is there any other kind in these stories?). The plan? Lure the ex to a secluded place in a nearby public park – lots of woods, hiking trails, and varied topography. You get the picture. Then, after a rather clunky murder of the ex, Carole and Lee take off, shocked by their experience, but also relieved. Like, Thank God, that’s over.

Except that it’s not. Up on a hill, looking down on them the whole time, is batshit-crazy Wayne. Wayne had just been in the process of trying to strangle his girlfriend while having sex with her, but it wasn’t working out. She gets up and leaves in a huff – and Wayne lets her go. It is here that Wayne’s character – bored, fickle, randomly violent – starts to emerge.

(I always cringe for the close-encounter- almost-victims in fiction and true stories: Girl, do you know how close you came…? Shiver.)

Anyway, Wayne watches the desperate lovers do the deed. Then when a nervous Lee glances up to see if anyone is around, Wayne recognizes Lee as a sometime-patron of the bar where he works.

Ouch. More randomness at play.

In that moment, Wayne mistakes them for his long-lost soul mates in murder and decides to make friends. It’s kind of all downhill from there for Carole and Lee as their lives descend into a pit of murder, rape, torture and mayhem, courtesy of their buddy, Wayne.

Joyride is not exactly like a written version of a gore-fest movie since there is an effort to create real and sympathetic characters with Carole, Lee and Lieutenant Rule, but it’s kind of a limp-fish attempt.

The depiction of Carole as an abused ex-wife felt like a checklist job. I also felt like Lee was just going through the motions of acting as the ardent, righteous lover who saves his girlfriend from her nasty old man. Towards the end, there, I honestly thought he was going to tell Carole, Bitch, you are too high-maintenance for me. I am outta here. But then he got killed before he could. Lieutenant Rule, the one cop in town who’d kept half-an-eye on Carole’s plight while she was going through hell, seemed like he’d wandered out of a different novel. You know, like maybe a detective story where he was the protagonist?

The real star of Joyride, though, had to be Wayne. He was a realistic, creepy psychopath; there’s no denying it. The fact that he was an amalgamation of two real-life psychopaths only made him stronger, in my opinion.

Speaking of that, a few people have complained that Ketchum basically steals his story ideas from true life situations and people. There is nothing wrong with this. We all do it to some extent as writers, and remember – Robert Bloch did it with Psycho and everyone loved it.

As far as I’m concerned, Ketchum is a terrific writer. His stories grab you by the throat and squeeze,

turning your head towards the horror that waits.

I just wish that horror was something more interesting than humanity at its worst.

Seven, directed by David Fincher

seven

I’ve had a complicated relationship with this movie. I’ve seen parts of it, several times, whenever it’s been shown on TV. Once or twice I might have seen most of it, but because it was so damnably QUIET I was never sure what was going on, or who was doing the killing. So this time I rented the DVD from the library and activated the closed caption feature.

Voila! Now I know what the hell is going on.

As it turns out – quite a lot.

Here we have one of the serial killer classics – a killer with an axe to grind.axe

Or, as I like to call it – a Guy with a Theme.

This guy’s problem is that humanity is corrupt, and so the best way to point this out to the blind masses is to make an example of seven “lucky” winners – by killing them. This killer, known only as John Doe (and played by the delightful Kevin Spacey), is a big fan of the Seven Deadly Sins. seven deadly sins

And, as every writer knows, once you have your theme down, everything else just falls into place. Now, armed with his list – gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, pride, envy and wrath – John Doe sets out to teach the world “A Lesson”.

However, unlike most of the serial killers we’ve encountered in this course, John Doe is very fastidious. He prefers to have his victims kill themselves. With a little firm “encouragement” from him, of course. You’ll thank me later, he no doubt tells them.

So, what can we make of a serial killer who never actually kills anyone himself … oh wait, that’s not quite true. At the end he does kill Tracy Mills (played by a luminous Gwyneth Paltrow), doesn’t he? He kills an “innocent” – someone who was not guilty of any of the seven deadly sins herself – but who was “responsible” for making him guilty of the sin of envy.

How’s that for evil?  evil

Other than that little slip up at the end, though, John Doe is a clever, and well-read, killer. He has the detectives assigned to his case – William Somerset, played by the always-great Morgan Freeman, and David Mills, played by the always-hot Brad Pitt – scrambling to figure him out. They even – gasp – have to visit the library to do research. (In one of the few light moments in the film, Brad Pitt receives a suspicious-looking item in a crumpled brown bag from a shady-looking guy in a trench coat – the Cliff Notes to Dante’s Inferno.)dante

John Doe is a terrific serial killer (the smart ones almost always are, The Sculptor being an exception), because once you figure out what The Theme is then it’s more like a game – which sin is next, and what will he do to punish the perpetrator?

Plus, serial killers with a Theme usually don’t just pick on women when they are making their point – unless, that is, their point is All Whores Must Die  whores

– so we get that whole equality thing going on, which is nice.

Now having finally seen, and heard, the entire movie, I heartily recommend “Seven” to anyone who loves serial killers. And to all you darkness freaks I say – John Doe is a worthy addition to your messed up collection.