I just started and abandoned another one of those serial killer novels. I don’t usually read serial killer novels, even though I am sort of writing aI just started and abandoned another one of those serial killer novels. I don’t usually read serial killer novels, even though I am sort of writing a serial killer series. But really it’s more like an anti- serial killer series.
However, The Silence of the Lambs is one of my all-time favorite books and movies. I teach it in my film classes, I analyze it in my workshops and workbooks. It and Red Dragon are the platinum standard of serial killer novels and probably the reason that I ever pick up any other serial killer novel to begin with. And those books are also the reason that I almost always abandon any serial killer novel almost as soon as I start it – often in disgust and horror. Because let's face it - nobody has ever done it like Thomas Harris. And most attempts are not just bad - they're probably actually harmful.
It was Harris who mythologized the serial killer to classic monster status, although Stevenson’s Jekyll/Hyde, Stoker’s Dracula (supposedly based on the real-life Vlad the Impaler), and various depictions of Jack the Ripper were strong precursors. We are fascinated by the idea of pure evil in a human being. And because of Harris, the serial killer has become an iconic modern monster, like a vampire or werewolf or zombie (maybe replacing the pretty much defunct mummy!).
Because with Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, Harris did a completely brilliant thing. In the 1970’s Special Agents Robert Ressler and John Douglas of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (now called the Behavioral Analysis Unit) began a series of interviews with incarcerated serial killers to see what made these men tick and hopefully develop strategies for catching them. The agents, along with Professor Ann W. Burgess, compiled their findings into a textbook and started to train agents as profilers. This new department got a lot of press and media attention and a large number of authors jumped all over that research. But judging by the books that resulted, very, very few of those authors seem to have actually read those interviews.
Thomas Harris, though, took the same research that was available to everyone, and used a combination of absolutely precise fact and police procedure and a haunting mythological symbolism to create those first two books (and then Hannibal sort of went off the rails, if you ask me…). The result was two of the best horror/police procedural blend novels ever written. The killers Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill) and Francis Dolarhyde were both more and less than human. And Lecter, of course, is a mythic archetype of the evil genius.
And then everyone jumped on the bandwagon and there are now hundreds of Lecters-lite, if you will.
I love Harris’s first two books for their mythic resonance. But I have a real problem with the way most authors portray serial killers because it’s so incredibly dishonest. They romanticize and poeticize serial killers – portraying them as evil geniuses that play elaborate cat and mouse games with detectives and law enforcement agencies. Yeah, right. These men are not geniuses. They don’t leave poems at crime scenes or arrange their victim’s bodies in tableaux corresponding to scenes of great art or literature. They are vicious rapists who brutalize their victims because the agony of those victims gets the killer off, and a large number of them continue to have sex with the corpses of their victims because they are that addicted to absolute control and possession.
That’s evil. But the serial killer subgenre as a whole has perpetrated a very unrealistic view of what these monsters really are. Most authors who write about serial killers don’t show the sexual correlation. They skirt around the issue of rape.
The very worst ones write torture porn - sexualizing the violence, fetishizing women’s bodies, sexualizing the torture of women (conveniently ignoring the fact that many of these killers rape and torture and kill men and children as well) and basically avoiding portraying the pure horror of what these men actually do.
I’m sure some authors (not the last group) have an honest desire to create an exploration of mythic evil to rival Harris’s books. I get that. But the fact is, most authors (and screenwriters and filmmakers) who write about serial killers are dishonestly romanticizing them and leaving out the unmitigated, repellent malevolence of these men.
I can’t blame Harris for that. But sometimes I wish we could just say, "You know – the definitive serial killer book has been written. Twice. Let’s just move on from there, shall we?"...more
I finished the book and loved it, although for those who are finding it slow, I do have to admit that I was thinking it needed some cutting, especiallI finished the book and loved it, although for those who are finding it slow, I do have to admit that I was thinking it needed some cutting, especially in the second half. I'm surprised that her editor didn't ask for just some small, basic cuts for pace (I've read all of Tana French and I haven't felt that about any of the other books).
But the writing and the experience of the story was so superb I can't complain. (view spoiler)[I especially loved the depiction of real-life witchcraft - the way the girls invented a practice without really being conscious of it being witchcraft, and their pact of virginity that "required" such a terrible sacrifice when it was broken. (hide spoiler)] I thought all of that was very uniquely portrayed and also very true.
Re: the Daleks, though: I really have to wonder... has bullying gotten THAT much worse in the last ten years? We hear about it all the time, but I taught high school for a couple of years and I wasn't naive when I was IN high school, either, and I never saw anything even remotely like this thuggishness (of course, I grew up in California, which may have made a significant difference). ...more
The classic story of thirteen-year-old misfit Meg Murry, who on a dark and stormy night is visited by three mysterious and iconicallA Wrinkle in Time
The classic story of thirteen-year-old misfit Meg Murry, who on a dark and stormy night is visited by three mysterious and iconically eccentric women who transport her, her child prodigy brother Charles Wallace, and her high school crush Calvin O'Keefe, on a cosmic adventure to rescue her scientist father from the evil forces holding him prisoner on a distant planet.
Famously, when author Madeleine L’Engle finished the book in 1960 (pre-YA is putting it mildly!) it was rejected by at least 26 publishers, because it was "too different", and "because it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was really difficult for children, and was it a children's or an adults' book, anyhow?" Oh, and “It had a female protagonist in a science fiction book.”
I’m eternally grateful to whatever forces of light were looking out for it.
When people ask me why I write what I do, or even just why I write, instead of rambling on, I could just as well just say A Wrinkle in Time. Countless female author and screenwriter friends, and a good number of the men as well, have said the same thing to me over the years—I suspect just about every woman genre writer who came of age pre-Harry Potter. Meg Murry wasn’t just our Hermione – she was our Harry Potter, too. She is every smart girl who ever lived. We didn’t just read that book—we lived it. We are Meg.
I’ve read just about everything L’Engle ever wrote. Once in a while I realize I’ve missed something and it’s always a treat to add that book to my shelf. She was a huge part of my extremely random spiritual education… in fact she might have been single-handedly responsible for any spiritual sense I did have in my childhood and early adulthood. I was raised with both no religion and a smattering of a large number of religions. My parents took me and my siblings to Native American ceremonies, Orthodox celebrations, and Hindu holy days. If I spent a weekend night with a friend whose family had a religious practice, they’d drag me along to church or temple. But I was never sold on the idea of a single male God (I mean, come on, really? I love men in general, but omniscient? Let’s just look at the facts, here!).
Then A Wrinkle in Time introduced me to the concept of the Goddess, in the three “witches”: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and the very intimidating Mrs. Which. That powerful, eternal feminine triumvirate, whether you describe them as former stars, guardian angels, messengers, centaurs (don’t you love that scene where the three children try to explain them to Mr. Murry?) —is to me the Triple Goddess. It was the most positive depiction of spirituality I’d ever encountered, and the one that made the most sense to me: that the universe manifests itself in guardians, and we are watched over, and we are loved.
(L’Engle herself was a devout Christian, yet the book often appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books, because of references to witches and crystal balls, because it "challenges religious beliefs", and because Jesus appears on a list of “names of great artists, philosophers, scientists, and religious leaders".)
L’Engle’s equally profound influence on me (it’s inseparable, really) was as a genre writer. I always gravitated toward the spooky, the thrilling, the fantastical, the twisted, in my reading. I discovered A Wrinkle in Time when I was in sixth grade and something in my mind said – “THIS is what a book is supposed to be, do, feel like.” It’s a thrilling adventure with flawed but deeply moral characters, fighting for cosmic stakes. While you’re reading you experience it as a breathless, nail-biting ride, but the moral implications imprint on your soul.
In fact, I was so obsessed with the book the year I first read it that I wrote a movie adaptation of the book. This was a pretty radical and prescient thing for me to have done (at age ten!), considering a lot of adults don’t even understand that there is such a thing as an adaptation process from book to screen. I had no inkling at the time that I would grow up to work as a screenwriter and make a living adapting novels for screen. And no desire to, either.
It was just that book. I wanted to live in that book. I wanted to somehow create the world of that book around me. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything ever since (except, um, Hamlet) that feels as perfect in every way – character, theme, structure, dialogue, action, spectacle, catharsis – every single layer and detail.
I’ve read it dozens, maybe hundreds of times, and I learn something new about how to tell a story every single pass. And not just about the how of it, but the WHY as well. It makes no sense on the surface to write as dark as I do and say that I aspire to the spirituality of that book, but it’s true.
As L’Engle said:
“Why does anybody tell a story? It does indeed have something to do with faith, faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”
At the moment, I fully admit, I am struggling with Book 4 of my Huntress Moon series. These are very dark books. They confront crimes so heinous that I think they can only be called evil. My FBI protagonist is on the verge of giving up entirely; he feels so powerless in the face of what he’s being exposed to. But these crimes exist. Someone must face them and fight them. And once again, I’m looking to A Wrinkle in Time to remind me that even in the darkest abyss, the universe manifests itself in guardians—and we are watched over, and we are loved.
There are other books of L’Engle’s that shaped me as a writer, an author, a genre writer. She wrote thrillers: Arm of the Starfish is a wonderful YA spy thriller, again with a profound spiritual dimension, and even her dramas have such an thriller edge – I’m thinking specifically of A Ring of Endless Light – that I’d almost call them cross-genre. She put urgency and cosmic stakes into everything she ever put on paper.
But A Wrinkle in Time is a masterwork… and I guess it’s always in the back of my mind, the question – will I ever be open enough, focused enough, skilled enough, mature enough… enough anything – to write something that is everything I could write, in a perfect world?
I don’t know. But at least I have a light to guide me on that path. ...more