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Monday, July 5, 2010

Playing for Keeps

A man (or boy) of indeterminate age wakens to find his mother dead in the other room. This monumental occasion in his life has not come unexpected; we are told (improbably) that it is something "he had always feared." Having given his mother's cat a bowl of milk and fed her chickens, the protagonist assumes a catatonic state in his mother's armchair "staring ahead, his mind vacant of thought." When the cat makes its next appearance he emerges from his stupor just long enough to strangle the creature to death with his bare hands, after which he curls up in bed with Mom's corpse. The passage ends with his realization that "for the first time in his life" he is "utterly alone in the world."

If in reading this passage you sense a Norman Bates in the making, you're not alone. Bates, for those who've never seen the movie (I almost said "or who've forgotten it" except it's unforgettable), is the title character of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (played to a fare-the-well by Anthony Perkins). He operates a motel at the bottom of the hill where he and his mother share a forbidding Victorian house—his dead mother, that is. Mrs. Bates has been dead for six years; Norman has kept her mummified body and propped it in her rocking chair.

I imagine a similar future in store for this protagonist—minus the motel. One needn't travel that far a psychic distance to get from strangling cats with his bare hands to stabbing anonymous fugitive women to death in a shower. Whatever his fate, there's little doubt in my mine that what we've got here at best is a creep, at worst the humble beginnings of a serial killer.

Which makes this an effective opening, provided that the story that follows lives up to its creepy nature, as I suspect it will. After all, a story whose first page treats us to two deaths and one murder isn't likely to turn into a comedy of manners or a romance—or, for that matter, a nuanced work of psychological or social realism. Not with passages like this
"It was then that he came to from his reverie, then that he put his hands around its scrawny neck and squeezed until it slumped limply, dead."
that call to mind Vincent Price's "Thriller" voiceover sessions. Here and at other points the writing feels downright Gothic, as if the author has dipped his quill into Edgar Allen Poe's inkwell. Nothing wrong with that, except that it plants us firmly in Gothic thriller or horror territory. If the story that follows doesn't measure up disappointment is sure to result.

I can quibble with grammar and style. To say the least the handling of tense here is problematic, especially with the penultimate paragraph, where after his mother's death the protagonist "knew that it would come some day" (should be "had known"). In the same paragraph we get "But he did not know that today she would die." In a past-tense narrative, unless it refers to the present from which the narrator is looking back, the word "today" has no place or meaning. The sentence should read, "But he hadn't known that she would die this day."

I'm also troubled by the last line, in which we're told that what the protagonist "[feels] most" is the "sense of being" utterly alone—packing psychic bubble wrap between the character and his experience, since he is most emphatically and in fact "utterly alone."

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