Tables of Memory: Fathers, Sons, and Ghosts in Ellis, King, and Shakespeare

REMINDER: you can buy Arcane #1 in print or for your ereader of choice right now, and it has a story by me!

But today I’ve gone through my archives and found this essay on Shakespeare, Stephen King, and Bret Easton Ellis, because certainly those things all belong in an essay together!  Anyway, if you’ve ever wondered how I can reconcile my love of Shakespeare with being a huge horror geek and pop culture nerd, this is probably the best example.  Please note that this essay will discuss the plots of all three texts in depth, so if for some reason you are wary of “spoilers” for old books, beware!

Read, enjoy, comment if you like, and so on.

Tables of Memory:

Fathers, Sons, and Ghosts in Ellis, King, and Shakespeare

–What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy.  One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.  …  Who is the ghost from limbo patrum, returning to the world that has forgotten him?  Who is King Hamlet?

– Joyce, Ulysses

 

Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park is unquestionably connected to Hamlet — one of the novel’s epigraphs is Hamlet’s vow after the ghost of his father tells him to seek revenge in I.v: “From the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past / That youth and observation copied there.”  The bulk of its action also takes place on Elsinore Lane, near Ophelia Boulevard and within spitting distance of Fortinbras Mall and Horatio Park.  Thematically, Ellis seems to concern himself with the relationships between fathers and sons — and how the son remembers the father who has passed on, as with Hamlet’s vow after meeting with Old Hamlet’s ghost.  And yet in addition to Shakespeare, another writer looms large over Ellis’s novel.  Following an incident where Bret-the-Narrator storms into his family’s house, drunk and high, wielding a handgun in order to fend off the serial killer he thinks is hiding out on the second floor, his wife Jayne refuses to let him sleep in her bed.  Bret brings up an earlier conversation they had about starting over, about “new beginnings,” to which Jayne replies, “You screwed that up sometime last night …. You screwed that up with your big Jack Torrance routine” (219).

Jack Torrance is the protagonist of The Shining, a 1977 horror novel by Stephen King, dealing with substance abuse, familial disintegration, and — a concern it shares with Hamlet and by extension Lunar Park — the relationships between fathers and sons.  I suggest, however, that Jayne’s seemingly offhand comment is a single explicit reference to the text from which Ellis draws most of King’s themes, giving them center-stage in a book that simultaneously rewrites Hamlet and The Shining, bringing to light elements of the former that are more obscure in the latter and raising the possibility that The Shining is itself another rewriting of Hamlet.  What this means is that Ellis’s novel, being the most recent text, does not simply include conscious references to Shakespeare and King, but embarks on what might be termed a renovation of both works, a very direct campaign to dismantle, remodel, and improve Shakespeare’s play and King’s novel so that the end result (to carry the house metaphor) has different molding, flashier wallpaper, new windows, more rooms, but still rests on what is essentially the same foundation.

This foundation, the key element that unites all three of these texts, is the way they dramatize the relationships between fathers and sons, and the mechanism of this dramatization is the supernatural — specifically the concepts of haunting and ghosts.  A ghost in fiction, speaking in very broad terms, is simply an indicator of trauma, of the past exerting some sort of malign or at least upsetting influence on the present.  In other words, the ghost in fiction can be a very powerful tool for presenting the way in which a character’s memory influences his actions — the past has an effect on the present because the living are constantly beset by their memories of the dead.  This is most concisely encapsulated in Hamlet’s meeting with Old Hamlet’s ghost: Hamlet’s dead father, or some demon taking that form, is speaking to him, calling him to action.

But Hamlet, no matter what he vows, is placed in a situation where he is uncertain of his father figures; Old Hamlet, a headstrong and commanding warrior, has been replaced on the throne by the physically weak but wordy and cunning Claudius, and while Hamlet admires his namesake more he wonders why his mother should marry his “father’s brother, but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules” (I.ii.157-158).  Hamlet’s concern here is primarily why his mother should have remarried so quickly – “within a month.”  Yet as Hamlet contemplates the situation, he remarks: “O, most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! / It is not, nor it cannot come to good. / But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (161-164).

To hold one’s tongue means to stop speaking, which of course makes sense as other characters have just entered the room, but it also suggest Hamlet must not say something in particular.  What could he possible feel so strongly about?  Voicing his dismay the marriage?  Everyone seems to know he’s upset.  Rather, I believe has made a realization, and the reason for his mother’s quick marriage has become very clear: if Gertrude did not in fact love Old Hamlet as she seemed, she may have been having an affair with Claudius for years, thus explaining the speedy marriage; and if this is the case, then there is a strong chance that Claudius is Hamlet’s biological father.  After all, Old Hamlet was a fearsome warrior, like Hercules, and Claudius is a talky intellectual; Hamlet knows he is nothing like Hercules, but in this scene he suddenly understands that he is a young man who likes to read books and hear himself speak — he’s more like Claudius than the man he’s believed to be his father.

Hamlet, perhaps unaware of what he is doing, even acts like Claudius for most of the play: we know that when Old Hamlet wanted something done (eg annexing part of Norway) he simply challenged the rival king to single combat; when Claudius wants something done (eg, the king dead and the throne and queen all to himself) he sets up an elaborate plot involving ear poison and a lie about a serpent in an orchard.  Hamlet seems to take after Claudius, in that when he wants to exact his revenge on his uncle he must first feign madness and put on a play in order to determine Claudius’s guilt.  If Hamlet is Claudius’s son, the implication might be that he naturally acts as his father does.

Yet Hamlet also has a moment of self-realization: while being escorted to England, he is struck by the similarity between Fortinbras’s self-motivation and Old Hamlet’s escapades, and wonders: “Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do,’ / Sith I have cause, and strength, and means, and will / To do ’t” (IV.iv.47-49).  Hamlet’s epiphany here is that — regardless of who his biological father is — he still has the power to act and to choose how he acts; if Fortinbras can be so forceful despite his own father falling to Old Hamlet, then so can young Hamlet, even if he might be Claudius’s son.  And from this point on in the play Hamlet does away with scheming, boldly doing battle with pirates, escaping back to Denmark, and calmly and confidently accepting the invitation to duel to Laertes.

Old Hamlet is distanced from his son by death; Claudius (if the usurper is indeed his father) has been absent for most of Hamlet’s life, and is furthermore estranged from Hamlet by his crime.  One possible point of Hamlet is that the young prince must make the choice of whether to heed the call of not one father, but two possible fathers; to choose not only to heed the call but to also choose which call to heed: will Hamlet do as the ghost of the old king or the nature of the new king bids him?  To choose one father over the other means to choose one way of acting over another; for Hamlet, for the son, it means choosing what sort of life he wants to live.  This is not only the crux of Shakespeare’s play, but the crux of the two rewritings of it I will discuss, and while Hamlet contains only one ghost in a minor role, the supernatural is unleashed with a vengeance in the other texts.

Of the three texts, King’s The Shining comes the closest to embodying the typical modern conception of a ghost or haunted house tale.  It is the story of the Torrance family (Jack, Wendy, and six-year-old son Danny) who are hired as the winter caretakers of the haunted Overlook Hotel, an establishment with a sordid history of illegal gambling, mob connections, suicide, and murder.  When the snow piles high, trapping the family inside the hotel, the Overlook’s past begins to seep out of the woodwork; it becomes apparent that the hotel itself has been bestowed with some sort of sentience by the aggregate emotional trauma experienced within it, and it desires to add Danny, who is a powerful psychic and telepath, to its menagerie of specters.  This is all suitably pulpy, the kind of supernatural melodrama that King is most well known for, and if the hotel simply used its collection of ghostly mobsters and turn-of-the-century business moguls to accomplish its goals the novel wouldn’t be much more than that.  However, it takes on a deceptive complexity in the way the Overlook chooses to attack the Torrance family: from the inside out, using Jack as its agent in the attempted murder of Danny.

The Overlook’s ghosts are unconnected to the Torrances, but when the hotel goes to work on Jack its methods become deeply personal.  He is a recovering alcoholic when the story begins, a point made clear in the early chapters.  As the novel develops, we learn two important details: first, that Jack has trouble controlling his temper (he broke Danny’s arm a few years before and was recently fired from his teaching job for assaulting a student) and Jack’s father was similarly violent and alcoholic, implying that his present behavior is tied to his father’s abuse.  During one of Jack’s more lengthy flashback sequences, we learn that he idolized his father, completely innocent as to the nature of his dad’s alcoholism.  However,“[l]ove began to curdle at nine, when his father put his mother into the hospital with his cane” during an irrational, drunken dispute at the dinner table:

[Jack’s father was] up out of his chair and around to where she lay dazed on the carpet, … [his] jowls quivering as he spoke to her just as he had always spoken to his children during such outbursts.  “Now.  Now by Christ.  I guess you’ll take your medicine now.  Goddam puppy.  Whelp.  Come and take your medicine.”  The cane had gone up and down on her seven more times before [Jack’s brothers] got hold of him, dragged him away, wrestled the cane out of his hand.  Jack … knew exactly how many blows it had been because each soft whump against his mother’s body had been engraved on his memory like the irrational swipe of a chisel on stone. (224-225)

The hotel, which appears to be psychic in its own right, uses Jack’s memories of his father to manipulate him; it conjures alcohol for him to drink, it speaks in his father’s voice through the Overlook’s emergency radio; his father’s bludgeoning of his mother is reminiscent of Jack’s eventual assault on his wife and son with a roque mallet, and the hotel (speaking to Jack through the person of Delbert Grady, the last caretaker to murder his family in the Overlook) casts the necessity of murder in terms of patriarchal punishment and discipline: “[Your son] needs to be corrected, if you don’t mind me saying so.  He needs a good talking-to, and perhaps a bit more” (352).

Jack has a choice to do as the spirit(s) of the Overlook command him or to protect his family; his wife Wendy understanding the crossroads her husband stands at, and casts it in very telling terms: “[Jack] looked to her like an absurd twentieth-century Hamlet, an indecisive figure so mesmerized by onrushing tragedy that he was helpless to divert its course or alter it in any way” (297).  The hotel, like the demon Hamlet initially supposes the apparition of the old king to be, is a monster in the form of Jack’s father, calling him to terrible action, and Jack, unfortunately, answers.  This culminates in him echoing his dad’s drunken cries while he stalks Wendy and Danny through the hotel corridors:  “You’ll take your goddam medicine for this, I promise you!” (383).  In a way, by making this decision, by siding with the Overlook, Jack becomes his father.[1]

This raises an interesting problem for King: if the nature of trauma is somehow recursive, if the sort of abusive father-son relationships The Shining explores are actually a self-replicating phenomenon, then what does the future hold for Danny?  This is remedied by Danny’s own unique nature; the manifestation of his psychic abilities is a ghostly young man he calls Tony, a figure the adults around him believe to be some sort of imaginary friend.  But Tony shows Danny the future, gives him hints as to what will come, and before Danny’s final confrontation with Jack at the end of the novel he sees Tony more closely than ever before:

And now Tony stood directly in front of him, and looking at Tony was like looking into a magic mirror and seeing himself in ten years ….  The hair was light blond like his mother’s, and yet the stamp on his features was that of his father, as if Tony — as if the Daniel Anthony Torrance that would someday be — was a halfling caught between father and son, a ghost of both, a fusion.  (420-421)

Danny is saved by this vision, by the implicit realization that while he may resemble his father he is not and does not have to be a copy of him; Danny cannot fully shed Jack’s influence and legacy of abuse, perhaps, but he still is (and will be) his own person, and is not doomed to imitate his father’s (or his father’s father’s) mistakes.  This sort of generational tension, the eventual self-realization of the son, and the personal nature of haunting are all Hamlet-esque elements of The Shining that Bret Ellis draws to the fore of Lunar Park, which he admitted in a Today Show interview to be his “homage to Stephen King.”

In the first chapter of Lunar Park Bret-the-Narrator gives an extensive overview of his early home life and his rise to fame as a young novelist in the 80s, with special attention paid to his troubled relationship with his father: “[M]y father had always been a problem — careless, abusive, alcoholic, vain, angry, paranoid — and even after my parents divorced … his power and control continued to loom over my family” (6).  He repeatedly mentions that leaving California for college in New England was a type of “escape,” and his unexpected success as a writer granted him a financial independence from his father that allowed the man to be cut from his life almost entirely.  When Bret’s father died, Bret explains, he stored the ashes in a California bank vault rather than scatter them in the ocean, and he let himself forget about them.

Yet despite his attempts to distance himself from his father, Bret falls into many of his dad’s bad habits; though he’s not physically abusive, he’s careless, alcoholic, and vain: “And soon I became very adept at giving the impression I was listening to you when in fact I was dreaming about myself: my career, all the money I had made, the way my life had blossomed and definde me, how recklessly the world allowed me to behave” (12).  The real meat of the novel lies outside the first chapter; Bret settles down with movie star Jayne Dennis and her two children: Sarah, from one of Jayne’s previous relationships, and most importantly Robby, who is actually Bret’s biological son, born after a tryst between Bret and Jayne a dozen years before their marriage (and, notably, conceived in the aftermath of Bret’s father’s death — Robby is named after the deceased).  Bret is “thrust into the role of husband and father” (38) and takes up teaching at a New England college.  However, the situation is fragile; Bret wants to continue the self-centered drug-abusing lifestyle he’s used to, while his new position as part of a family demands some measure of responsibility.

The tension between Bret’s old life and the requirements of his new one would make satisfactory fodder for a normal dramatic novel or perhaps a second-chance romantic comedy but, like The Shining, Lunar Park uses the supernatural as a vocabulary for (self)destructive behavior, the resulting disintegration of the family unit, and the ability of the past to encroach on the present.  Bret-the-Narrator (who is to some degree based on Bret Ellis the writer) wrote a novel called American Psycho about the serial killer Patrick Bateman who was, he confesses, inspired by his father: a rich, successful, vain man with a propensity toward staggering and horrific violence.  Bret is a little ashamed and afraid of the novel; he likens the experience of writing it to having been possessed.  And when Patrick Bateman (who for all intents and purposes is the conglomeration of all of Bret’s negative feelings about his father) shows up at a Halloween party, driving the vintage car Bret’s father drove, he becomes understandably upset.

The idyllic existence Bret has managed to construct for himself becomes more and more uncanny: he receives apparently blank emails from the bank where his father’s ashes are, a series of murders mimicking those perpetrated by Bateman in American Psycho occur in the surrounding area, Sarah’s toy bird takes on a life of its own and begins eviscerating stray animals, and boys Robby’s age are disappearing all over the county.  Throughout the ordeal Bret is the only character who suspects that something supernatural is at the root of what is happening — only he seems to see Bateman, or a college student named Clay who resembles both the narrator of Ellis’s first novel and Bret himself and perhaps even a younger version of his father.  Bret grows intensely paranoid and afraid, confused about what is happening around him but unwilling to explain it to anyone.  This stress only makes his drinking and drug use worse, and when he acts rashly (such as the episode recounted at the beginning of this essay, where Jayne compares him to Jack Torrance) the people around him assume drug use is finally taking its toll.  Much as in The Shining then, the supernatural is a mechanism by which 1) substance abuse is worsened, and 2) the family is forced apart.  Though Bret doesn’t attempt to murder anyone, the supernatural forces at work intensify the weaknesses already present in his relationships with his family, and they are particularly harsh for him because they are in some way related to his dad.

This is especially troubling for Bret because he finds that Robby treats him with much the same distaste that he treated his own father: after ignoring his son for twelve years Robby is a resentful stranger, and Bret’s inability to understand his son leads him to believe that the disappearing boys are actually running away from home, working together in some sort of conspiracy to escape their parents, and that Robby will soon join them.  Bret’s distrust of his son is also one of the key facets of the way in which Ellis works with Hamlet, in this case actually restaging an aspect of Shakespeare’s play while maintaining the notion of recursive or generational trauma found in The Shining.  Bret takes on the role of Claudius, the scheming usurper of the throne who is doing his best to guess the mind and motives of his petulant stepson, Hamlet/Robby.  But Bret hasn’t always been Claudius — he was once, in his own way, Hamlet His father, he tells us, “had no faith in my talent as a writer … [and] demanded that I attend business school at USC,” and despite this, Bret chooses to go to college in New Hampshire: “My father, typically enraged, refused to pay tuition.  However my grandfather — who at the time was being sued by his son over a money matter so circuitous and complicated that I’m still not sure how or why it began — footed the bill” (8).

The relationship between Brett and his father here mirrors — though not exactly — that between Hamlet and Claudius in I.ii, when Claudius orders his stepson not to leave Elsinore to return to school at Wittenberg.  Ellis switches things up by doing the opposite of what would happen in a Hamlet adaptation with closer analogues: he lets Bret, the Hamlet character in this scenario, go off to college against the wishes of the father.  However, Bret escapes to college only because of his grandfather, who in turn has a soured relationship with his own son.  Bret’s grandfather sends Bret to school just to spite Bret’s father, who in the meanwhile is carrying out a bitter legal battle against him.  This is an important move on Ellis’s part because it shows us that this Hamlet-like estrangement between fathers and sons is not some one-off event, but like King’s conception: a generational phenomenon, something that happens over and over again.  There is not just one scheming Claudius and one avenging Hamlet, but an interlocking history of them, and they move in and out of their roles when appropriate, as they age and father their own children.

Ellis is notable in his handling of the self-realization or self-determination of the son, the attempt to break out of the shadow of the father — because unlike Shakespeare and King, he shows that it may go wrong.  Bret ran away to college and essentially disowned his father, demonizing him in American Psycho, all in an attempt to free himself.  However, as Bret admits early on: “As much as I wanted to escape his influence, I couldn’t.  It had soaked into me, shaped me into the man I was becoming” (7).  So the escape was not entirely successful; we know this because we’ve seen Bret become a sort of lo-fi version of his vain, alcoholic father, though it doesn’t become obvious to Bret himself until he sees that Patrick Bateman (along with all the other monsters he created out of fear of his father) has come back.

“…[S]pirits who show themselves between night and dawn want something,” a paranormal investigator explains to Bret, bringing to mind Old Hamlet’s ghost walking at night and returning to the fires of purgatory at dawn.  He goes on: “It means they want to frighten you …. It means they want you to realize something” (340).  Like the Overlook Hotel masquerading as Jack Torrance’s father, or Old Hamlet appearing before his son, the appearance of Patrick Bateman, the mysterious emails, and every other supernatural facet of the novel is also, in a way, Bret’s father calling him to action — in this case, though, not murder or revenge per se, but to right old wrongs.

What the wrong seems to be, in the end, is that fact that Bret did his best to wipe his father from his memory, to forget him entirely, to leave his ashes locked in a bank vault in California, and only call upon him should he need fodder for a despicable character in a novel.  And Bret’s father probably was vindictive and abusive — though Bret is unreliable we have no real reason to doubt that, he probably doesn’t hate his father without reason.  But it seems that at some point, without Bret realizing it, his father changed.  When he finds an email video attachment showing his father’s death, Bret sees his father as he truly was at the end of his life: the product of a selfish, abusive existence, a weak old man who died alone and unloved and knew that was how he was dying.  And because he has copied the worst traits of his father despite himself, Bret is in danger of meeting the same end, of losing his son and everyone close to him and dying alone, pathetic, and reviled.

At the end of the novel, we discover that Bret had one opportunity to change this course of events.  The last time he met with his father in person was for dinner in LA; the older man was “fat and drunk” and Bret wonders to himself, “What if I had done something that day?” (394).  He elaborates:

The decision was: should you disarm him?  That was the word I remember: disarm.  Should you tell him something that might not be the truth but would get the desired reaction?  And what was I going to convince him of, even though it was a lie?  Did it matter?  Whatever it was, it would constitute a new beginning.  The immediate line: You’re my father and I love you.  I remember staring at the white tablecloth and contemplating this.  Could I actually do it?  I didn’t believe it, and it wasn’t true, but I wanted it to be. … I realized it could actually happen, and that by saying this I would save him.  I suddenly saw a future with my father.  But the check came … and I simply stood up and walked away …[,] thinking I could just let go of the damage that a father can do to a son.  (394-395)

Bret’s attempts to escape, to determine his own life, result only in tragedy.  His father is fractured, both in Bret’s memory and in his manifestations in the outside world: the human part of his father, the part that deserved pity and forgiveness, has been overtaken by Bret’s fear and hate for the man.  Added to that, Bret becomes a copy of his father, a repetition, and when he confirms that Robby is indeed part of a conspiracy of sons attempting to escape their parents, he finds himself in a situation analogous to that of his dad years before, when a young Bret insisted on going to college in New England and, once he achieved independent success, attempted to sever all ties.

Also like his father, Bret is unsuccessful in maintaining a connection with his son; by the end of the novel Robby has left him, just as Bret left his father, heading off “to the land where every boy forced into bravery and quickness retreats: a new life” (397).  Their final meeting in person, many years after the main events of the novel, mirrors that of Bret and his father: they have lunch together, and Bret is depressed and high on heroin.  But Robby doesn’t sit passively by, waiting for the check; he speaks, he tells his father that everything is okay, that he is “not lost anymore,” and when Bret tells his son he is sorry, Robby says he understands (396).  As Bret, after much denial and hardship, heeds the call of his father and forgives him for his wrongs, so does Robby forgive Bret, preemptively ending the father-son cycle of trauma and haunting – should we choose to believe Bret is writing the truth, and not a wish.

Hamlet puts forth that a son has a choice about which of his fathers (or father-figures) to listen to, whether they are estranged from the son by the son’s hate or by the father’s death.  The Shining holds that a son must not be his father, must contain the part of him that resembles his forebear, for not doing so means repeating his father’s mistakes and destroying himself.  Lunar Park also shows that a son must make a decision, must determine what sort of person he will be, and choose his own life; yet in fleeing his father’s influence, in containing that aspect of his being, he runs the risk of not actually escaping, but only continuing a cycle of resentment and fear with his own sons.

Every Hamlet, fearful and suspicious of his father, may grow up to be a Claudius, fearful and suspicious of his sons; every guilty Claudius may end up a wronged Old Hamlet, tortured in the fires of a purgatory real or imagined and begging to be set free.  To really make peace with his father and the past, a son must be forgiving; he must recognize that his father probably faced many of the same decisions he faces (or will face) and perhaps did not choose wisely; every father was a son once.  This is how the cycle is broken; this is how to make peace with the past and one’s memory of it.  This, Ellis seems to say, this is how ghosts are finally laid to rest.

 

Works Cited

Ellis, Bret Easton.  Lunar Park. 2005.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

“Easton Ellis on Lunar Park book.”  The Today Show.  Prod. NBC Studios, 8/15/2005.

< http://www.bing.com/videos/watch/video/easton-ellis-on-lunar-park-book/6ma6lch>

Accessed 11/26/2009.

King, Stephen.  “Before the Play.”  Whispers Magazine, 1982.

King, Stephen.  The Shining.  New York: Doubleday, 1977.

Shakespeare, William and Barbara A. Mowat, Paul Werstine (eds).  Folger Shakespeare Library: Hamlet.  1992.  New York: Washington Square Press, 2002.


[1] This bit is hammered home quite soundly in an earlier draft of the manuscript, in a prologue King excised.  Eventually released as a standalone story called “Before the Play” and now extremely difficult to find, the prologue gives a lengthy history of the Overlook and includes a short vignette from Jack’s childhood:  “In that long hot summer of 1953, the summer Jacky Torrance turned six, his father came home drunk one night from the hospital and broke Jacky’s arm. He almost killed the boy. He was drunk.”  Not only does this parallel Jack’s breaking of Danny’s arm, the vignette ends with young Jack passing out from the pain, thinking feverishly to himself, “What you see is what you’ll be.

 

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