“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.


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


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.

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry

helter skelter

Charles Manson is the first, and only, “true crime” serial killer we have looked at in this course. He is also the only serial killer to come with his own soundtrack, specifically The Beatles’ White Album. He was convinced that every song on the album held hidden significance aimed only at him. He was a lot like Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes in that he felt his musical idols, The Beatles, were speaking directly to him in their music. Only instead of creating romantic fantasies as a result of this belief (like most starry-eyed fans), Manson became convinced they were telling him to start a race war with their song lyrics, specifically the song, “Helter Skelter.”

This book is the work of the prosecuting attorney – Vincent Bugliosi – who was pretty much responsible for realizing that a seemingly unrelated series of murders in the Hollywood hills actually were related.  And, that they were the work of one man and his “family”. It was fascinating for the most part, even when I felt like I was getting bogged down by the weight of all that detective work.

Charles Manson, like nearly all of our fictional serial killers, had a shitty childhood. As a result, he’d spent most of his life in prison by the time of the murders. And of course, he has been in prison ever since.

Manson is a lot like John Doe, the serial killer in “Seven” in that he gets others to do the actual, messy killing. Only in his case, the motivation is not personal, or sexual, or moral. It’s political. With a little crazy thrown in there for good measure.

Nowadays it’s hard to imagine what was passing for philosophical thought and political discourse back then, but personal charisma went a long way towards smoothing any rough edges. And Manson apparently had that in abundance. Even so, it is hard to imagine all the hopeless drifters wandering around looking for something to believe in. Instead of joining the Peace Corps and making the world a little bit better, they ended up being part of a “family” who believed their leader was a man of vision who would help them survive the coming Armageddon. The fact that they were creating the seeds for that biblical event by committing these shocking, high-profile murders seems to have only made it sweeter.

If this post has not been full of my usual, snarky comments and wacky pictures it’s because, unlike every other killer we’ve encountered this term, Charles Manson and his “family” of weak-minded toadies was real. And their victims were real. Somehow it’s not as much fun poking holes in a serial killer’s motivation and methods when it’s the real thing. Manson is still alive, and still in prison. Most of the “family” is also alive. Before “Helter Skelter”, Manson was a wannabe singer-songwriter, and a number of musicians have recorded his songs.  There is a Charles Manson Fan Club.

Helter Skelter, the bookwas an amazing opus, an operatic rendition of the end of the Sixties. Complete with all the trappings – sex, drugs, rock and roll … and Death. If you were alive then, and you ever had a moment when you thought it would never, could never end – the publication of this book, with its 50 pages of black and white photographs of all the victims, their houses and properties, along with almost 700 pages of painstaking details and mind bogglingly horrifying facts was the final, orchestral blast of the decade. Kind of like the last song on another Beatles albumsgt pepper

Misery, by Stephen King


Misery is a fascinating work on so many levels.

First, it’s a horror story about a popular genre writer, Paul Sheldon, who finally meets his “biggest fan” – former RN (currently moonlighting as a serial killer) Annie Wilkes – much to his everlasting chagrin. Second, it’s a mystery full of tension, intrigue, and misdirection – how on Earth is he going to get out of this mess? Third, it’s kind of a “how-to” book on writing that I think many of us newbie writers really appreciated — like getting to look “under the dinosaur’s skirt” dinos-in-skirt

to see what’s what. ian-malcolm

And finally, there’s a pretty decent romance in there – what could be called the “romantic misadventures of Misery Chastain.”  Misery is the beloved heroine of an equally beloved series of romance novels. Beloved by everyone but the author, that is. It’s when writer Paul Sheldon decides that Misery has ripped her last bodice that he truly comes to know misery.  bodice-ripper

Annie Wilkes was a terrific serial killer. She is a refreshing break from the serial killers we’ve seen so far – she’s female, she has no “message” she’s trying to convey to the idiot masses, she doesn’t appear to have had a tortured childhood, and she doesn’t rape and sexually torture her victims. To be fair, she does torture Paul. A lot. But she agreed he had it coming, so it’s okay.

One thing she does share with one of the other killers we’ve read about so far – nursing. The Sculptor was a nurse, who used his nursing skills to both take care of his invalid Dad, and to keep his victims alive until he needed them dead. Annie is a de-frocked nurse (is this a thing, because if it’s not, it should be) who played one of those “Angel of Death” nurses until she got caught, and afterwards, she just uses her skills, and strength, to keep her favorite author alive until he finishes “her” book.

Apparently, nurses freak more than a few people out.scary-nurse

Another thing Annie shares with the other kids, er, serial killers, is her uncanny ability to notice that a knickknack on a table got moved by half a centimeter. She also has a kind of supernatural insight into other people’s motives – like when they’re trying to be her “friend” just long enough to kill her and escape. Those dirty birds.

While both of these “abilities” might be cool in a non-serial killer person, they are downright frightening in someone like her. Especially if you’re one of the people on the wrong side of the victim/serial killer equation.equation

This is what happens when Paul Sheldon finds himself in Annie’s “care” – it’s a nerve-wracking game of cat and mouse, or shark and octopus. (And if you think you know who will always win in a game between those two, you haven’t seen the video.) Trying to anticipate, reason-with, please, or otherwise deal with a truly crazy person looks like exhausting work. Even more so when you’re horribly wounded, like Sheldon was, and nobody — not even your agentknows where you are. agent

This is actually the second time I read this book. The first time was when it first came out. To be honest, back then I thought Meh. It was one of King’s earliest, if not the earliest, non-supernatural horror story, and frankly, I wasn’t that impressed. People being horrible was nothing new. Give me something freaky and monster-licious, or else! But I’ve grown up, slightly, and now I can really appreciate all the levels of horror King had going on in this book. Just so, so good. Read it!

Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris


As it says on the cover of my copy of the book: “The terrifying classic that introduced Hannibal Lector.” Yes, Dr. Lector is the kind of doctor that will give you nightmares. If you live long enough to have any, that is. And what’s amazing is Lector just “popped up” out of nowhere when Harris was writing this story. That’s got to be both fortunate for the author (because Lector made Harris rich and famous), and very, very chilling. It almost makes me believe in the supernatural power of … what? The power of evil fictional characters to summon a writer to tell their story? Gah! Creepy. Let’s leave Lector for a bit, since this is not really his story anyway. He’s only a guest here.

The real star is the Red Dragon, or as the media calls him, The Tooth Fairy.toothfairy

Francis Dolarhyde, the Red Dragon’s alter ego, is a very disturbed boy. Plagued with both a harelip and a sadistic grandmother, Francis never has a chance. I believe this is one of the first serial killer thrillers based on then-current FBI knowledge and techniques. Harris actually had to visit the FBI to do research for this book, so it was all pretty damned scary when this was published in 1981.

So, I loved the Red Dragon as a killer – he was twisted, smart, and poetic. That whole “dancing naked in the moonlight while covered in your victims’ blood” thing is just beautiful. And just how crazy do you have to be to track down your soul/nemesis in the Brooklyn Museum, and then, instead of admiring it, or even stealing it, you eat it!eat-it

Let’s not forget, either, the horrible, horrible fate the Dragon inflicts on poor, hardworking, tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds – he bites off Freddy’s lips and lights him on fire, sending Lounds’ blazing wheelchair down the hill towards his newspaper’s building. Ah, they don’t make serial killers like that anymore, do they?


Will Graham, the FBI profiler, was very good too. This earliest version of what’s become by this time an almost psychic character in our culture, Graham doesn’t make giant leaps of intuition when considering the serial killer. Instead, he suffers “profiler’s block” and bumbles and stumbles around, like a blind man in a strange room. This makes him both more realistic and sympathetic. Nevertheless, Graham does have something special when it comes to figuring these guys out. I see it as mostly a willingness to quit “focusing” on the killer, and to just daydream about him a little. That’s how he realizes that the killer already knows what he’s going to encounter at each scene, because he’s already seen it! Eureka. eureka

Hang onto your butts, people, because I can’t think of a single, damned thing to complain about in this novel. It’s well-written (and if there were any POV shifts in there, I never noticed them), the characters are awesome, and the science feels realistic and plausible. I even liked the movie version, “Manhunter”. Haven’t seen the remake yet, but I hear it’s also good.

So, even though many people only know of this book because it included the first appearance of Doctor Cannibal Lector, there was a LOT more good stuff going on in there. Read it for Lector, sure, but savor the rest of it too. It really is very tasty. hannibal