“What’s in the box, Poe?” A review of three short stories by Poe

 

Three Short Stories by Edgar Allan Poe

 

We were assigned a set of three shorts by Poe. These three represent some of his most famous stories and all have a theme: A crazy, unreliable narrator uses the story as a confession of sorts, a reasoning for his outrageous acts. All three of the narrators hide their murders behind a wall or in the case of the Tell-Tale Heart, the floor boards.

The Tell-Tale Heart: In this, arguably Poe’s most well-known short story, the unnamed narrator seems more interested in convincing us of his sanity than he does his innocence. Which is something we will see in the other stories, and seems to be a theme in much of Poe’s work. I tend to think that many of his tales have an autobiographical bent. Poe, like his characters was considered odd, unhinged, or straight up insane and his character’s protests often come off desperate, as Poe himself was to prove his talent and mental stability. This particular narrator admits to his wrong doing but states it was the old man’s clouded eye that drove him to murder. The constant look of it. But what I find interesting in this story compared to the others is that while nonchalantly telling his tale, if read carefully, we realize that he tortured the old man for days. I wonder if perhaps he was hoping to cause a heart attack and when it was clear that wasn’t going to happen, he went to extreme. Evidence of that is the complete unpreparedness of the narrator regarding disposal of the body and I believe it was that more than anything else that lead to him cracking. It was the dismembering and hiding the body parts that really unhinged him.

 

The Black Cat: Alcoholism drove this narrator to his evil deeds we are told over and over. He, again a nameless narrator, assures us that prior to succumbing to this disease, he was a mild, peaceful being who loved people and animals. In this story, I felt like Poe, who also was described as quiet and polite when sober but completely out of control the minute a glass of liquor passed his lips, wrote this from a familiar place inside himself. This narrator, like the previous one, shows no remorse for his actions but instead spends his time explaining his reasoning for what he did and how he was driven to it. For me, the theme here is alcoholism in general. He first cuts out the eye of his favorite cat (this time not a cloudy eye, more just a knowing one) in a drunken rage and from there, it’s as if he kills anything and everything that reminds him of his problem with temperance. While he acknowledges that he loses control when he drinks, he refuses to stop and rather than attack the cause, he attacks the reminders of it. His paranoia grows until he turns these reminders into almost paranormal forces that have to be stopped.

 

The Cask of Amontillado: This tale of pride, revenge and murder is also told in the first person point of view but we do get a name for our narrator. Montressor has suffered a thousand times over at the hands (or lips) of Fortunato but a recent insult is the last straw and he plans revenge. Montressor tells this tale from a date far removed from the incident and like his predecessors (at least on my blog), he too shows no remorse. Now, for me, this was the most interesting of the three. In this story, unlike the other two, we get to know the victim as well as the perpetrator. And Fortunato sounds like the rich asshole we all love to hate. The guy who thinks he is a big deal and that everyone loves him. (Use your imagination and see if anyone comes to mind…someone with a huge ego but little hands). I mean all Montressor had to do was feed the guy’s ego and string him a long with a cask of rare booze instead of a carrot. The whole time Fortunato is obnoxious. He makes a secret Mason’s sign and when Montressor misses it, he makes fun telling him he is no Mason. Monstressor shows him a trowel and disagrees. This was funny. In fact, Montressor makes many little quips and puns alluding to his plan for the loud mouth narcissist. This story was more amusing and more intellectual than the other two.

Unlike the other two tales, this killer had a reason I think many could relate to or at least understand a bit more. I also think there are autobiographical elements. Poe struggled with his contemporaries and critics. He bore their insults as best he could. I am sure there is some of his own unspoken desires in this story. Which I think is why he gave so much more personality to Montressor. Montressor was intelligent, funny and witty but most importantly sympathetic. Also, we don’t know what happened to Monstressor but we are not told he is in jail or has been arrested. For all we know, he got away with it.

 

I love Poe. His style is described as American gothic which unlike the paranormal elements of the European gothic, studies the darkness within humanity—the horrors of reality. These three stories are not my favorites of all his works and The Tell-Tale Heart has just been overdone. I’ve read it for every English class I have ever taken. But they were good choices for the psycho class (William Wilson would have been a fun tale to look at as well in this category). I think he was misunderstood in his time and I think he struggled with his own inner demons and that gave a life to his characters that many couldn’t appreciate until much later.

Batman: The Killing Joke

Batman: The Killing Joke

 

Let me preface this by saying that I do not read comics, I know nothing about the Batman universe or any superhero stuff. So, I will give both my thoughts on the reading, my questions that came up during the reading and what I managed to find in my research on it. I read it twice. The first time I read it, it was purely entertaining and I enjoyed it for the story it told. The second time, I looked at it more critically and became a little more jaded. Ultimately, I don’t know how I feel about it and after learning more about it and Batman in general, I’m just confused.

I enjoy origin stories so I was enthralled with the idea that the Joker was once a good guy and let a string of tragedies turn him evil. I understood his need to prove that he wasn’t just a lunatic, that he wasn’t any different than any other human being. His theory was it only took one bad day to drive anyone mad. I understood his motives more than I did Batman’s. I mean, I get that Batman wanted to stop the Joker from doing harm, but the whole impromptu visit to the asylum just to talk about their future was weird to me. I kept wondering what kind of relationship the two of them had anyway? I mean, he passes Harvey Dent in the asylum, you see him questioning the penguin, so why is the Joker so different for Batman than the rest? Why is he trying to make peace with him and why is he so sure they are going to end up killing each other as opposed to any of the other Batman “bad guys”?

I didn’t care for the naked pictures of Barbara Gordon and I felt like even a psycho like the Joker would potentially hold on to the love and loss of his wife and child. I had a hard time buying that he would or could be so vicious and disrespectful of her body. I mean shoot her, sure, but strip her naked (rape her?) and display her naked body for her father? I didn’t buy that from him. But I didn’t know, I didn’t know who she was or if there was more to her back story that I wasn’t aware of. So, I looked her up and was shocked to discover she was Batgirl and then after the accident, Oracle. And then I read up on the thoughts on this part of the story and found an interview Alan Moore did about tit. Turns out, he was even hesitant about doing this to her and asked a bigwig at DC about it and that person (a male) said “Oh why not, go ahead, shoot the bitch.” Suddenly I had a much bigger issue with this. I don’t think that kind of violence against women is necessary (unless it is) but in this story, it isn’t and it makes me think about other superhero stories. Men in these stories die. They are shot, they are thrown over buildings. Women in these stories are tortured, humiliated, raped, etc. But I digress.

One bad day…Batman (at least what I know from the films) also had a bad day that made him who he is. So, I can see where maybe (if he knows of the Joker’s past) Batman feels a strange comradery with this particular nemesis. They are mirror images of each other. Maybe Batman really does want to help the man. He sees the pain and turmoil that the Joker went through and thinks he is redeemable. Maybe Batman sees what he himself could have become and he can’t bare it. He wants it out of his mind and there can only be two ways to do that: heal the Joker or kill the Joker.

But let’s re-examine the idea that Batman does know Joker’s past. The Joker says he knows something bad happened to him (the Joker) once… “I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another…If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” So, if the Joker isn’t even sure what happened to him, how could Batman know? And if Batman didn’t know, it takes me back to my original question of why the hell does Batman just get a bee in his bonnet one day and goes to have a heart to heart with this crazy man, who as far as Batman knows is locked away in an asylum like the other enemies. So why is Batman so concerned that they will have to kill each other one day? Doesn’t he have the man locked away? Doesn’t he trust doing things “by the book” or that their “way works”? I had a really hard time liking Batman in this story. I mean who is he? Some bored rich guy just looking to stir things up? Is he the sane one? Maybe his bad day turned him into an narcistic, power hungry ego-freak. When he doesn’t have a victim to save, he starts something. I don’t know but thinking this story though, I’m not sure they made their protagonist so much better than their antagonist. Who’s the psycho here? I’m not sure.

Finally let’s talk about the ending. What happens at the end? I don’t know and apparently, no one else does either. I mean, one can assume that one killed the other but we all know both of them live on in other comics. Did the police show up? I mean, what exactly was the point of this comic? What in the entire scheme of things was the reason for this? One thing we learn in this program and craft books is to delete all the unnecessary stuff. Now, I don’t know how comics work, but from what I understand in my limited research is that different writers can come in and says “I want to write about this” and get permission and then they write it. It’s like that game we played in school where one person starts a story and the next picks up from there. Maybe that’s what happens in these stories. In which case, everything is important and nothing is. Kind of bleak final thought, isn’t it? Maybe that’s the killing joke. Everything in life is important and Nothing is.

 

(Not Much Joy in This) Joyride

Joyride

By Jack Ketchum

 

While the book was a quick and easy read, I was a bit disappointed in it because it all felt so linear. A to B to C to D the end. I wanted some twists and turns or at least a surprise or two but got nothing. I arrived at the end of the book thinking “Hell, I could have written that, it wasn’t that complex.” And I suppose you don’t always need complexity for a book to be good. But it was just so predictable once it got going. And if that wasn’t the worst part, I lost even more of my enjoyment when I read the short “On Writing Joyride” at the end of the book. Jack Ketchum uses true life crime stories on which to base his fiction (and I learned that he does this a lot—I didn’t know) but it seemed like outright stealing when he described the cases he used for this story.

He describes the book La Bete Humaine by Emile Zola in which there is a scene with the antagonist wanting to kill his female cousin but manages at the last minute to tear himself away. He flees and finds himself on a deserted railway where he sees a figure with a knife bent over another person. He gets really excited because he sees someone doing something he has always wanted to do. Hmm, I mean this sounds extremely familiar, doesn’t it? Ok, you say, but what about the rest of it? Well then there is Thomas Braun a real life spree killer who shot/raped several victims while on a road trip and Howard Unruh who kept a diary of all the offenses he believed people committed against him and ultimately went on a rapid shooting spree in his own neighborhood. He even wrote the word RETAL (Retaliate) beside the names. He built a gate in front of his house, his shooting spree ended up in a standoff with police back at his own house.

What Ketchum did was take two true life stories and use much of the details in his own tale. Ketchum’s part in this story was to have the antagonist Wayne, who has homicidal fantasies, become obsessed with Carol and Lee the two star-crossed lovers, and kidnap them. He forces them to participate in his road trip killing spree. Wayne foolishly believes that they will enjoy it since he watched them kill her ex-husband. They do not of course and eventually become targets of Wayne’s unstable psychosis.

I found this whole thing difficult to believe. Wayne should be scary but for me, he was more of a comic book character to me. He came off as a slow and goofy caricature of a crazed killer. And Lee and Carole were so flat, I really had a hard time caring about them. Lee didn’t seem to be in love with Carole at all and I felt killed Howard more because he hadn’t liked him anyways. It seemed that the two were at the end of the relationship. Carole was more sympathetic as seen through the eyes of the lead detective on the case who had also been involved in prior domestic abuses between Harold and Carole.

I’ve read Ketchum’s Off Season and admittedly, I didn’t care for it either. I didn’t like the characters in it, couldn’t feel for them either. And there were times it felt more like a comic, an outrageous, unbelievable tale than a horror story. Also, I have met Ketchum in real life. He was at last year’s Stoker Con and will be at this year’s as well. He was a friendly enough guy and very down to earth and approachable. I am signed up to take a course he is teaching about using your past pain and hurt to make your own writing stronger/more believable. I hope I gain something from it. Had I read this book before signing up, I may not have.

Is it the worst book I have ever read? No. Did I hate it? No. It was ok. But this is the second book I have read of his that for me was just “ok”. It’s a simple and straightforward work and I couldn’t get into the character’s heads. When I pick up a book, I want to lose myself in the world that’s been created for me. This book (just like Off Season) just didn’t do it for me.

Se7en

Se7en (1995)

Starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman

 

First and foremost, you must know that I do love this movie. I love the set-up, the grey, rainy atmosphere, the hardened but wise old detective and the new, reckless one. I enjoyed watching the creative nature of the murders and the sneaky clues left by the killer.

The first time I watched this movie (and I have watched it many times), I was shocked and somewhat confused when, just past the middle of the movie, the killer gives himself up. How could this be? The wise pro didn’t figure it out yet and the quick acting, easily angered rookie didn’t either. Also, there were still two more deadly sins to complete. What was he up to?

Kevin Spacey plays a psycho well, and his cryptic comments and passive aggression riles up Pitt’s rookie as they drive to the site where the killer promises to show them more bodies. The ending chain of events is just as shocking and unexpected as the off-formula killer turning himself in. In case you haven’t seen it, I won’t reveal anymore. I was taught that when ending a novel, go for the unexpected BUT make it an ending that the reading will think about and say “of course, it couldn’t have ended any other way, why didn’t I see that coming.” Se7en accomplished that.

I was also taught to be real with the reader. Don’t expect them to buy something so outlandish that it could never happen in real life or if a fantasy, something that breaks the rules of your world. And therein lies my critique of Se7en. These murders are so elaborate, the clues hidden away so that it takes multiple trips to the scene and a thorough search before finding them. Some murders were planned out at least a year in advance and many required much surveillance, research and money. Yes, money—there is that whole “how does the serial killer have so much specialized equipment at his/her disposal?” question again. What do these movie/novel killers do for a living and if it is a full-time job, when do they have time to see to all their complex, meaningful crimes?

And the end. The end required an almost ESP level of forethought. Even the most meticulous killer could not have pulled that off. This guy had to understand the psychology of the detectives potentially even BEFORE he started killing. As I said, this guy’d been planning this for some time. This is my problem with a lot of movies and novels about killers. And can you imagine the level of self-control this guy had in order to do these murders in the way he did. Do psycho’s have that kind of control?

My other issue is with Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Tracy. Is any spouse that completely and unconditionally understanding? Does she ever get upset or angry? Why is she so good? I couldn’t find her realistic, and because she seemed so flawless, I couldn’t like her which resulted in a little less impact on me in the end. Same for Pitt’s detective. He never really showed a softer side, he was the macho cop know-it-all the entire time. His relationship with Freeman’s older, almost retired detective was so formulaic you wanted to smack Pitt upside the head and say “would you fucking listen to him for once in your damn life, punk? Haven’t you seen these movies, don’t you know your attitude is going to fuck everything up just as he is trying to retire without a bad taste in his mouth?”

But it is fiction, it’s meant to first entertain. It does. The writer wants you to be intrigued by the unique MO of the killer. We are. Did it do its job? Yes, it did. So who am I to complain about the unrealistic abilities of the a super genius murderer? Just someone assigned to critique a movie that I have always loved—because it entertained me and the murders were pretty cool.

Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver

1976 Film by Martin Scorsese Starring Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, and Jodie Foster

 

A Vietnam war veteran, Travis Bickle is home and finds a job driving a taxi cab at night (because he can’t sleep anymore) in New York City. Travis spends the time he isn’t driving around the seediest boroughs of NYC by going to porno theaters and journaling his feelings about the filth he sees every day.

For a disillusioned young man back from fighting a war for a country who doesn’t give a shit about him, seeing nothing but poverty and human wreckage leaves him feeling agitated and disgusted. He finds escape in a beautiful and professional woman named Betsy who he sees working in a campaign office for a presidential candidate. Travis walks in and asks her out. But in an example of how out of touch and out of his league he is with Betsy, he takes her to a porno movie. She is angry and leaves him, refusing his calls and flowers.

His frustration and rage leaves him even more restless. When he finds the presidential candidate, Betsy works for in his cab, he strikes up a conversation. A flippant comment about cleaning up the streets leaves Travis thinking.

This is the beginning of the downward spiral into madness for Travis. Abandoned by his country (presumably), the girl who is too good for him, and having a front row seat to all the depravity of inner city New York, he begins working out, building contraptions for concealed weapons and then spending all his savings to purchase enough guns to supply a small country.

Watching Travis go through this, endears him to us. There is no question that he wants to be a good guy, he wants to clean up his city, he writes letters and sends Anniversary cards to his parents. His journal entries which we hear him read in voice-over tell the tale of a defeated man. A man who wants to improve the world but feels too small and impotent to do anything and so, in his failure comes to the realization that what cannot be improved must be destroyed. During this transformation, he uses his gun to kill a convenience store robber. Treated like a hero, the store owner tells him to go and the owner takes responsibility for the body’s disposal.

It’s hard not to root for the guy who, even in the process of his own destruction, befriends and attempts to save a very young (i.e. child) prostitute named Iris. He takes her to breakfast, he tries to get her out, leaves her all of his money so that she can go home although it’s clear to us as the observer and probably Travis as well that she will never leave (not without some major, life changing impetus).

Meanwhile, Travis, who has arrived at his own personal nadir, shaves his head into a mohawk and goes off to assassinate the presidential candidate. Why? Maybe because he wants Betsy to suffer or maybe he is disappointed in the lack of action from the candidate who spoke to Travis directly about cleaning up the streets of New York. Or maybe he’d just reached the limits of his own sanity.

I will avoid telling the end besides to say that even in his attempt to destroy himself, he fails.

This was my first ever viewing of Taxi Driver. For me, this was less of a pop-culture film and more an art film. Watching a man, who is lonely, lost, sleepless and likely suffering the effects of a war he never should have been in, slowly lose his mind, is gut-wrenching. A man who desperately reaches out for help, only to be told his feelings are normal (fellow cabbie Wizard) or that he is sick and perverted (Betsy) is a mirror of the anonymous violence he sees nightly. Violence that in the city goes unaided and unnoticed.

It’s hard to see Travis as the antagonist, or the psycho even though there is no mistaking his madness. He feels, he hurts, he cares about others. This may make him crazy but I don’t see him as a psychopath for those same reasons. We see him driven to this end as any other victim of chronic violence. His neurosis is a method of self-defense against a home that is no longer safe, no better than the place he just left. De Niro’s portrayal made this character who he was and I don’t think anyone else could have done it as well. Bottom line, this movie is a beautiful artistic vision of mental illness and should not be missed.

Helter Skelter

Helter Skelter

Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry (1974)

 

This was my second time reading Helter Skelter. My first time was many (many) years ago when I was twelve. It was this book that made me fascinated with serial killers and true crime non-fiction. This time around was just as fascinating and piqued my curiosity about the Manson family all over again. And I’m not the only one. Helter Skelter has been a best seller since it was released in 1974, and sparked movies, TV shows, and inspired many more works of fiction.

Written by Vincent Bugliosi, the Deputy DA who served as the main prosecutor on the trial against Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten. This book is both an account on that trial as well as Manson’s life and (other) crimes. It tells of the beginning of the Manson family cult and how one man with mental problems, paranoia, distrust of the government and an ego for miles became the driving force behind at least seven and as many as forty brutal murders.

Well written and authoritative, Mr. Bugliosi certainly had an insider’s view of the case and the information presented comes out believable and easy to follow. With a cast of so many characters, it would be easy to lose track of who committed what crime but Mr. Bugliosi manages to give each main player their own identity, personality, and role in the story.

Helter Skelter stands out as THE book on the Manson trial. I searched Charles Manson on Amazon books and there were 786 results. Guess what book was listed first? Then I googled the words Helter Skelter (which we learn was Manson’s “rally cry” which he took from The Beatle’s White Album and understood to mean Armageddon—a race war between the blacks and the whites) Now, The Beatles were a fairly popular band, so one might assume they would rank highly on the Google search. Their Wikipedia page came in second to the Wiki on Bugliosi’s book.

Almost everyone involved in this case wrote a book, and there are just as many versions of what happened, who did what, and who was ultimately to blame. And yet, Helter Skelter remains the go-to for the most accurate story of the Tate/LaBianca murders. Much of the book’s text is taken directly from court transcripts and other legal documents. Now, you could go dig up the 209 volumes of transcripts from the trial itself (made up of 31,716 pages) and read it yourself, but I’ll believe that Bugliosi’s version is a good summary.

I’m not saying that he didn’t paint himself as a bit of a hero in the book. And I do understand the idea of cherry picking the parts of the transcripts that best fit the story he was trying to sell. That may be and I’m sure he pissed off some people in the LAPD and LASO, as well as defense attorneys, judges, media and many, many followers of Manson. Which is not the safest thing to do from what I understand—see Ronald Hughs. But the book has stood the test of time and has continued to sell. It often serves as a reference in other Manson documentaries and Non-fiction. That has to say something.

There are a lot of non-fiction/true-crime books out there and there are many ways to present true crime. A more recent and popular format has been the creative non-fiction genre where you’ll find books like The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter reads less creative and more like an episode of Dateline or Forensic Files. It’s a hefty book coming in at close to 700 pages, but it’s all substance and little fluff. Yet, due to the nature of the crime and the psychology of those involved (including the defense attorneys and judges), you can’t put it down.

Bugliosi has since written several other non-fiction books on OJ Simpson, Bill Clinton (vs. Paula Jones), George W. Bush (vs. Al Gore and one blaming Bush for the deaths of 4,000 soldiers in Iraq), JFK and RFK as well as others on various subjects. As a prosecutor, he has won 105 out of 106 felony trials. He is obviously a competent speaker as well as a writer. To win over a jury, you need to be able to lay the facts out in a concise, organized and easy to understand format and you have to do it charismatically. You can’t talk down to them. Isn’t it the same with readers?

I haven’t read any other books by Bugliosi, and I will grant it that Charles Manson, his families and the Tate/LaBianca murders are fascinating in their pathology, but in the hands of a lesser writer, this book would be buried in the middle of those 786 other versions available on Amazon. Instead it leads the pack and will forever link a Beatle’s song to the senseless, bloody murders of seven innocent human beings.