Packing, The Tempest, ghosts, and so on

Obviously last Friday marked the first occasion of me skipping my self-imposed blogging day, but that’s probably somewhat understandable given 1) it was Christmas, and 2) I was sick as a dog.  Today is equally special because 1) it is the first day of a New Year, and 2) it’s five days until my flight to Old Blighty.  I have no particular enchantment with the idea of the new year and I’m not one to make resolutions so I’ll spare you that.  I’ve been packing on and off again for most of the past week, since I’ve never had a trip of this length or international variety before and I’m worried to pieces about whether or not I’ll have everything I need and still come in under the airline’s weight limit.

Also I have a new rejection count: 36.  Ta-dah.

In other news, my original plan to ring in the new year was to do a lengthy write-up of last fall’s most successful horror flick, Paranormal Activity.  It didn’t happen for a couple of reasons, the chief one being that there are far too many ways for me to talk about the movie — I can fit it into three or four different contexts and produce a coherent reading from any of them.  Suffice it to say that the movie is good — not as good as the press would have you believe, nor as scary (unless I am just desensitized), and it has a few notable flaws, but it still manages to be one of the best horror films of the past decade.  As someone who is very obviously picky about this sort of thing, I suppose that’s saying something.

A friend of mine, in response to my reading of American Psycho, jokingly asked me which Shakespeare Paranormal Activity rewrites, flippantly suggesting The Tempest.  I laughed, but the more I thought about it the more I realized it was absolutely true.  It’s obviously not an intentional rewriting, but screw intent, and I think highlighting connections between The Tempest and Paranormal Activity actually produces a really interesting reading of the latter.  So if I ever feel like doing something completely and utterly ridiculous, you can expect my writeup on that, though if my blog degenerates into me excavating Shakespeare from artifacts of modern pop culture I might have to change the name.  The same friend who got me to thinking along these lines was kind enough to even offer a title: Rebarded.  So props to her for that.

Now that I am about to go to England, let’s talk about Japan

You might have noticed I’ve added Daniel Lau to my links over there on the sidebar.  Like most of the people under his divider, he’s not someone I know personally, but he’s someone I think is very cool.  He blogs from Japan, and while it may seem excessive to link to two Japan-oriented blogs, especially when the first one is just so awesome, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I like Japan.  Big surprise, you say!  My whole generation likes Japan!  They love 4chan and Naruto headbands and Trigun beanies that look like that damn cat and Fullmetal Alchemist tote bags!  Well, yes, that is partly true, but I think those things are annoying.  KC Green’s Anime Club is, I think, a very accurate sendup of the whole mess.

I like Japan not because I’m obsessed with a cartoon show (unless it’s by Satoshi Kon or something I guess).  I like Japan because I like stories, and I’ve come of age at a time when Japan’s stories are translated widely into English and made freely available to unwashed barbarians such as myself.  This has all been a roundabout way for me to explain why I am so pleased that Daniel Lau exists: he translates a damn boatload of Junji Ito manga.  You may not be familiar with Junji Ito, or the idea of manga, so let me rephrase that: Daniel Lau translates a boatload of Japanese comics by a writer/artist named Junji Ito.  Specifically, horror comics — and we all know how I like to have big, self-important ideas about horror.

itoWell, I will tell you today’s big self-important idea about horror: I think Junji Ito might be the best horror writer of the second half of the twentieth century (scope limited to keep me from pitting him and Lovecraft against one another).  Yes he makes comics, yes he writes in Japanese, no it doesn’t goddamn matter.  Since he uses drawings there’s a lot of visceral, gross-out shock imagery — which is really fucking effective a lot of the time — but Ito can achieve a deceptive complexity that escapes you if you’re reading for jumps and gross-outs.  His longest and (to date, of those I have been able to read) best work is Uzumaki, about a small town that is slowly taken over by (of all things) spirals.  As in, the shape.  This series is great in its concept and just as pure entertainment, but if you read between the lines you come to understand that the entire thing is scathing critique of late-capitalist economics, the negative effects of devoted fandom, and celebrity culture.  It is fucking brilliant.

So I’m grateful Daniel Lau is around do to his own translations of Ito manga that probably either won’t ever be officially released in English or at least won’t be released any time soon.  Sure, most of Ito’s short works don’t come close to the heights of his longer stuff, but I think it’s a treat to be able to read anything by him.  If you’re interested in checking Ito out, then head on over to Lau’s blog and download a few chapters from the Voices in the Dark anthology — be warned that all or some of them are definitely not for the squeamish.  They jump between downright stupid and nasty to eerily poignant, which is something Ito seems especially adept at doing.  If you’re looking for cream of the crop gross-out, I recommend Glyceride, while the most sweetly sad story so far is The Earthbound.

Those are my particular favorites so far, which is not to say the rest are bad.  Some are stronger than the others, but they’re all worth checking out.  Interestingly, Voices in the Dark seems to have a lot of macabre humor in it — something else Ito does well, though I think the best example of that from him is “The Sad Tale of the Principal Post,” which was released as a bonus chapter at the end of volume two of his evil landwalking fish series, Gyo.  And since Gyo and “Principal Post” were both licensed, translated, and released officially in America, no links for you there, sorry.

American Psycho Part 4: THERE IS, IN FACT, AN EXIT

Hello to anyone who’s stumbled this way from Professor Brainworm’s blog!  I hope you’ll bear with me, since I can be pretty longwinded.  Anyway.

Our journey through the wonderful world of Bret Ellis’s novel American Psycho thus far could be summed up in the following way if it were a game of Clue:  Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Dante’s Inferno with Reagan’s Manhattan.  Today on the ominously dubbed Black Friday, I’ll finish up my little ramble.  I plan to for a rebuttal to the issue that, after the explicit pornography and violence, is the most challenged aspect of the novel: its nihilism.

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I encountered something like this when I first read the book when I was 14.  You’ll recall I took it as a straight satire, and so in the end I didn’t feel like it had accomplished the actual goal of satire: I didn’t know what better lifestyle was possible, because in the novel if you are not Patrick Bateman then you are one of his shallow friends or a homeless person, and none of these options are very good.  But as I’ve said, Psycho is not a satire.  It has satiric elements, certainly, in a similar way the recent film version of New Moon inexplicably has a scene that satirizes modern Hollywood action films.  Bret Ellis’s satire is much more deft, of course, and much more regularly implemented; it’s not a one-off scene, but a large part of the text.  Yet it is not, as we may be tempted to think, the heart of the text.

The heart is salvation.

Rewritings of Dante are always about salvation in the same way sonnets are always about love.  A traditional if boring sonnet is one that lists, without irony, the traditional values that make a loved one, well, loved.  An exciting sonnet is one that talks about how love is impossible, a lie, fake, a delusion — but even when it tries to negate those things, it is still a poem about love.  Similarly, a traditional rewriting of Dante is going to be about a dude going through some hardship, suffering, and becoming a better person in the end.  An exciting rewriting of Dante, like American Psycho, is going to pull the same trick as the not-about-love sonnet: it will try say that salvation does not exist, is impossible.  But the idea of salvation is still there, lurking behind every venomous negation, and sometimes — sometimes — it manages to glitter through.

The pattern is pretty straightforward in Dante.  Dante and Virgil travel through Hell in Inferno, where they see the consequences of sin, and then move onward to the Mountain of Purgatory in Purgatorio.  Purgatory, of course, being the place where sins are purged from the soul prior to entering Heaven.  To enter Purgatory, however, they have to pass by a robed angel who guards the gate; Virgil urges Dante to beg the angel to let him enter, and the following transactions occur:

Devoutly prostrate at his holy feet,
I begged in mercy’s name to be let in,
but first three times upon my breast I beat.

Seven P‘s, the scars of sin,
his sword point cut into my brow.  He said:
“Scrub off these wounds when you have passed within.”

Canto IX, 109-114

Each of the seven P‘s on Dante’s forehead represents one of the seven cardinal sins that Purgatory is supposed to rid him of; after passing through each circle one disappears and Dante feels lighter.

miquel-barcelo-purgatorioIf you’re in any way religious — particularly if you are Catholic — this may have echos of Ash Wednesday.  If you’re a godless heathen, then the short of it is that Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the period of penitence and fasting leading up to Easter.  On Ash Wednesday, the penitents are marked by the priest with a cross of ashes on the forehead, a reminder that human beings come from dust and, but for the grace of God, they’ll someday be to the dust returned.  In other words, it’s a humbling process, just as the journey through Dante’s Purgatory is meant to humble those souls that were sinful in life but not beyond hope.

Now that’s all well and good, you’re saying, but what in the hell does Ash Wednesday have to do with American Psycho?

Since there’s nothing I like more than tossing away conclusions I’ve already made, think back on our initial reading of the Inferno influence on Psycho in Part 2.  We mapped out a set of relationships between the characters to mirror that of the Comedy’s Dante-Virgil-Beatrice triad, and our best Virgil candidate was a sort-of-friend of Patrick Bateman’s named Timothy Price.  He’s like Virgil, I said, because he’s the most interesting person Bateman knows, someone he seems to admire in a really odd but genuine way, the closest thing Bateman has to a friend, and he leaves Patrick before the end of the novel.

But Tim Price is unlike Virgil in one very important way: he comes back.

….[F]or the sake of form, Tim Price resurfaces, or at least, I’m pretty sure he does.  While I’m at my desk simultaneously crossing out the days in my calendar that have already passed and reading a new best seller about office management called Why It Works to Be a Jerk, Jean buzzes in, announcing that Tim Price wants to talk, and I fearfully say, “Send him… in.”  Price strolls into the office wearing a wool suit by Canali Milano, a cotton shirt by Ike Behar, a silk tie by Bill Blass, cap-toed leather lace-ups from Brooks Brothers.  I’m pretending to be on the phone.  He sits down, across from me, on the other side of the Palazetti glass-top desk.  There’s a smudge on his forehead or at least that’s what I think I see.

“You’ve been gone, like, forever, Tim.  What’s the story?” I ask, again noticing the smudge on his forehead, though I get the feeling that if I asked someone else if it was truly there he (or she) would just say no.  (p.383-384)

Price disappears within the first 60 pages of the novel and returns in the last 20.  After he ran off into the fake train tunnel in the club, he has not been mentioned at all — but suddenly here he is, with a peculiar smudge on his forehead.  The chapter he reappears in is called Valentine’s Day, which is on February 14th, and it so happens that this part of the novel takes place in 1989, when Ash Wednesday fell on February 8th.

I’m sure you see what I’m driving at.ash

So Price, when he returns, comes in the form of someone penitent — or at least that’s how Bateman feels.  We know he’s prone to hallucinating, and here he openly questions whether or not he actually sees the smudge.  Nevertheless, we know that Price is someone Bateman admires — “I’m wondering and not wondering what happens in the world of Tim Price, which is really the world of most of us: big ideas, guy stuff, boy meets world, boy gets it” (384).  There is something about Price, some spirit or personality or agency, that Patrick sees as lacking in himself; suddenly it makes a whole lot of sense why the opening paragraph I quoted in Part 2 almost makes it seem like the novel is going to be a third-person narration about Tim Price, but is actually just Patrick thinking about Tim Price.

So what is it Price has that Bateman doesn’t?  In Part 3 I said Bateman’s chief sin is that of despair — he does not think the world can be made better, and his only attempts to even try are simply gross, violent parodies of the shallowness and greed he sees all around him.  Price, it would seem, is not a victim of this despair.  He’s just as rich and shallow as Patrick, just as obnoxious, but in the scene at Tunnel when he becomes fed up with the empty life he leads he doesn’t just lapse into a murderous frenzy (or fantasy) like Patrick seems to have done.  Instead, he actually tries to get out, something Patrick has never attempted — something that he is, in fact, probably afraid to do.

Is Price actually on his way to salvation?  After all, he left, but he came back.  His first conversation with Bateman may — just possibly may — imply that he is looking for girls to hook up with, since he asks Patrick for the number of a woman they both know who is in a relationship with a mutual acquaintance.  Like Patrick, we can’t be sure if Price is really penitent, and we don’t see much of him at all until the very last chapter, the one that ends with Patrick reading the NO EXIT sign.

Bateman and some of his friends, including Price, go out to a club.

On the [TV] screen now are scenes from President Bush’s inauguration early this year, then a speech from former President Reagan, while Patty [the talk show host] delivers commentary.  Soon a tiresome debate forms over whether he is lying or not, even though we don’t, can’t, hear the words.  The first and really only one to complain is Price, who, though I think he’s bothered by something else, uses the opportunity to vent his frustration, looks inappropriately stunned, and asks, “How can he lie like that?  How can he pull that shit?”

“Oh Christ,” I moan.  “What shit?  Now where do we have reservations at?  I mean I’m not really hungry but I’d like to have reservations somewhere.” (p. 396)

nancy-ronAnd from that, the conversation devolves into everyone arguing about where to eat, Price’s concerns left unaddressed.  Even if something else seems to be bothering Price, he does seem to have a bone to pick with Reagan — what was he lying about?  What sort of shit is he getting away with?  I wasn’t watching much TV back then, but one possibility is that Reagan is speaking about the 1989 IRS investigation of him and his wife Nancy for unpaid taxes on various gifts they received while in the White House.  It was eventually determined that the Reagans owed three million dollars on “fashion items” (to quote Wikipedia) that had been given to Nancy.

Reagan here represents the freewheeling economic attitude and casual greed that characterize Ellis’s portrait of the decade, the broad symbol of the lives that all of the horrible characters in the novel lead, and it is only Price who questions him.  And it’s Patrick, bored and uninterested, who changes the subject.

Price looks away from the television screen, then at Craig, and he tries to hide his displeasure by asking me, waving at the TV, “I don’t believe it.  He looks so… normal.  He seems so… out of it.  So… undangerous.”

“Bimbo, bimbo,” someone says.  “Bypass, bypass.”

“He is totally harmless, you geek.  Was totally harmless.  Just like you are totally harmless.  But he did do all that shit and you have failed to get us into 150, so, you know, what can I say?”  McDermott shrugs.

“I just don’t get how someone, anyone, can appear that way and yet be involved in such total shit,” Price says, ignoring Craig, averting his eyes from Farrell.  He takes out a cigar and studies it sadly.  To me it still looks like there’s a smudge on Price’s forehead.

“Because Nancy was right behind him?” Farrell guesses, looking up from the Quotrek.  “Because Nancy did it?”

“How can you be, I don’t know, so fucking cool about it?”  Price, to whom something really eerie has obviously happened, sounds genuinely perplexed.  Rumor has it he was in rehab.

“Oh brother.”  Price won’t let it die.  “Look,” he starts, trying for a rational appraisal of the situation.  “He presents himself as a harmless old codger.  But inside…” He stops.  My interest picks up, flickers briefly.  “But inside…”  Price can’t finish the sentence, can’t add the last two words he needs: doesn’t matter.  I’m both disappointed and relieved for him.  (p. 397)

Here we see that the sort of will Bateman perceives in Price is not a delusion — it’s real.  Price has the ability to change, he has the desire; only he is offended that a person in power lies, cheats, and steals.  Only he’s been to rehab, only he wears the phantasmagorical smudge of the penitent.  His description of Reagan as a harmless-looking man never seems to finish, perhaps because it frightens him: Reagan can look like an old movie star, an aw shucks nice guy, but within him dwells the capacity for cruel and casual evil.  Bateman is the same way: he looks normal, but there is something terrible inside of him, something he has decided to stop fighting, and that is why he finishes the sentence in a way Price probably wouldn’t agree with: he claims that what’s inside doesn’t matter.  Price’s gradual realization seems to be moving in the opposite direction, the idea that the inside does matter.  Success has a greater dimension than economics, than wealth and power and being physically attractive; it is a moral and spiritual matter.

Remember that the beginning of the story makes it seem like Price will be the main character — we are told what he is doing, who he is, we are told that he notices the words ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.  And now here we see him beginning to understand how life should be lived — with honesty and compassion.  Timothy Price is the Dante figure here, and he’s traveled through Hell and seen the results of a sinful life; now he’s penitent, the ash is on his brow, and it is his responsibility to cleanse himself, to work toward a more honest and compassionate life.

We don’t know for sure if he does — he’s a little afraid, as Patrick notes — but the fact that he can do this makes all the difference.  There is an exit, but it’s not easy to get to and even more difficult to pass through.  It’s a path Bateman doesn’t want to acknowledge, and thus he is damned.  He’s not Dante, and he’s not Virgil; he’s one of the screaming shades, tortured for eternity in Hell, punished in accordance to the decisions he’s made in life.

dantes-hell1

In a purely aesthetic sense, this is why I think American Psycho is a great novel: it is well written — extremely well written, in fact, and though Patrick Bateman’s endless recitation of brands and clothing lines may get grating, it’s also an inextricable part of his character, a fundamental element of his voice and his psychology.  The novel is also, I think, in meaningful dialogue with other works of literature that have come before it — it shows us how Macbeth may play out in the modern day, the unassuming madman, and it turns Dante on his head by showing us how one can so easily despair into Hell, or Hell on Earth.

In a more personal and moral sense, this is why I think American Psycho is a great novel:  It tells us something very profound and very important about human existence — not how to live in an obvious, satirical way, but more in the sense of what it is like to live.  We are surrounded on all sides by greed, cruelty, injustice, and horror; in such an environment it may seem like there’s nothing to do but give up, to become greedy and cruel and unjust and horrific in our own turn, and while that is always a possibility it is never the only choice.  There is a moral way to live, a good way to live, a better way to live; the trick is to remember that it exists, even when so many people around you don’t believe it.saturn

And this is why I think that American Psycho is a great horror novel:  Obviously the reasons above apply, horror should not be above the requirements for something to be a piece of literature, it should be well written and canonically articulate.  But it actually adds another criterion: a horror novel has to be scary.

There are two types of scary, as far as I am concerned.  One is the splatterpunk approach, graphic violence for violence’s sake, gallons of gore that gross you out, make you feel like barfing.  The thing about this type of horror is that it doesn’t last, it’s too physical, too visceral; it’s also, unfortunately, the more popularized part of American Psycho.  Yes, splatterpunk is here — loads of it, in fact, and yeah, it’s gross as hell and effective for what it is.  But there’s something more clever than that at work, too: the second type of horror, what you might call metaphysical horror or philosophical horror, the sense of fear and unease resulting from the sudden realization that the world does not function according to whatever rules you take for granted and the universe might be, in fact, a much more dangerous and inhospitable place than you believed.

Bret Ellis combines both splatterpunk and philosophical horror by making Patrick Bateman so unreliable.  Whether or not he commits the murders is unimportant in the splatterpunk sense, because the descriptions of them are just as graphic and gut-churning.  But the fact that these may all be fantasies — that Patrick is just some hopeless, repressed guy living out psychotic daydreams behind an ordinary exterior — takes it to another level.  Suddenly everything is thrown into question.  I’m thinking of a part near the end of the novel, where Patrick mentions his housekeeper coming into his apartment and cleaning bloodsplatter off the walls and floor — as if it didn’t matter, as if it weren’t a problem for her at all.  If the blood is really there, is the maid keeping her mouth shut just to save herself, or does she simply not care enough to report Bateman?  If Bateman is making it all up, how many people do you meet every day are just like him?  How many repressed psychotics walk among us?  If Patrick isn’t lying, if he does some or all of the things he claims to, then how believable is it?  Do we live in a society so disconnected, so unfeeling, that we would just allow this stuff to happen so long as we didn’t have to deal with it?

The cannibalism and rape make you queasy, and the implications make you uneasy.  You can forget about all of the murders in time, but can you get rid of the nagging question:  How does the world work?

To answer that is to overcome or make peace with the philosophical horror the novel instigates.  The easiest way to read the book is to say that yes, the world is cruel and senseless and evil and no one cares, the world is terrible and we are all trapped in it and THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.  But I hope that over the past few weeks I’ve shown that there is another answer.  Sure, it’s small and difficult to find, requiring a careful and thoughtful reading of the text, but it’s there.

There is hope; there is possibility; there is salvation; there is, in fact, an exit.

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American Psycho Part 3: “Is this a dagger which I see before me”

So far I’ve given a brief overview of Dante’s Divine Comedy with a special emphasis on Inferno and how the Dante-Virgil-Beatrice relationship works.  From this we were able to conclude that 1) American Psycho is a rewriting of Inferno, and 2) it is not just any rewriting of Inferno but one from the perspective of the damned, ie the narrator, successful 80s investment banker and serial killer Patrick Bateman.  But this raises plenty of questions, like: why is Bateman damned?  What did he (or does he) do wrong?  More complicatedly, what do we get by retelling the Inferno from the view of someone who can never escape it when Dante’s story originally is, by nature, about the actual change Hell puts the traveler through, eventually allowing him to evade its punishments?

I’m going to answer these questions, or at least try to.  To start, though, we have to step away from Dante and skip over a few hundred years and a couple city-states until we find ourselves in England with William Shakespeare.  Why is Shakespeare important?  Because, silly, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, and while Bret Easton Ellis has his own special rewriting of Inferno in American Psycho, it’s a very particular rewriting of the Bard’s Scottish Play.

macbeth_cat
Macbeth, ladies and gentlemen.

So if you’re unfamiliar with Macbeth here’s the rundown: Macbeth and his pal Banquo are thanes to the Scottish king Duncan.  They bump into three witches, who make some prophecies about Macbeth being king and Banquo being the father of kings; Banquo shrugs it off but the prophecy upsets Macbeth, who we begin to suspect is pretty insecure about things.  I think — I am probably wrong because I’ve never bothered to count and haven’t even read every play, but it strikes me this way — that old Mickey-B speaks in asides more often than any other Shakespeare character.  He’s constantly bopping off to mutter to himself about the witches, their prophecy, whether they were good or evil, who suspects him, who doesn’t, and on and on and on.  In modern cinema this would be conveyed by having a character almost constantly being heard in voice over, stressing over whether or not everyone around him thinks he’s cool or a dweeb.

As is so aptly illustrated by the kitties above, eventually Macbeth tells his wife about the prophecy, which turns out to be something of a mistake.  She goads him into murdering Duncan by essentially telling him that a Real Man would totally kill the king if it meant he could have the throne.  This convinces Macbeth pretty quickly, which only further proves how weirdly neurotic this guy is.  But it gets worse, of course, because soon Macbeth goes from “sort of pitiable henpecked regicide” to “completely fucking bonkers (but also still really insecure and a murderer).”  The bonkers part is hinted at early on, when Macbeth prepares to enter Duncan’s bedchambers and murder him, pausing to remark to the empty air, “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?  Come, let me clutch thee” (II.ii, my copy of the play ludicrously doesn’t have line numbers so screw you I’m not counting these things for my citations).

Now, it’s completely possible Macbeth has decided to be extra contemplative and poetic in this momentous time prior to coldblooded murder, but the other explanation is that Macbeth is hallucinating.  During the murder itself, as he tells his wife, he also thinks he hears phantom voices decrying his misdeed, in response to which she tells him to sack up goddammit.  But Macbeth’s mental state only declines further; due to an unfortunate confluence of events, he decides he must also have his old friend Banquo murdered — which happens, with more or less no complication.  Things get hairy, though, when the ghost of Banquo appears during a banquet, sending Macbeth into a babbling tizzy and leaving Lady Macbeth scrambling to explain to her guests what’s wrong with her husband.  You see, though there are stage directions for the ghost and Macbeth is very strongly responding to it, absolutely no one else can see it, meaning that it’s entirely possible that Macbeth is imagining the whole thing.

For me, this idea that a lot of the crazy stuff happening is all in Macbeth’s head is what makes the play so damn cool, and it’s a big part of how Macbeth ties in with American Psycho.  My linking of Inferno to Psycho relied a lot on narrative arc and inter-character relationships; this isn’t true for Macbeth, because the links here are not about the little clues Ellis scattered around the novel.  He quotes Dante directly, but unless I missed it, he never quotes Macbeth; if you comb through Psycho looking for an analogue for the witches or Lady Macbeth you’re not going to find them.  The connections between the play and the novel are much more subtle, in that there is really only one big link: a character type.

batemanTo put it quickly and simply, Pat Bateman is Macbeth.  It’s so cleverly updated, I think, that it’s pretty easymacbeth to miss: one of Macbeth’s defining early characteristics is his insecurity, so Bateman constantly obsesses over what he is wearing in comparison to what everyone else is wearing, which stereo system is the best or most expensive and can he get one, and in one scene practically has a panic attack when he sees that a colleague has a more stylish business card.  And just as Macbeth is prone to seeing things, so is Bateman, who imagines that Satan is speaking to him through Bono at a U2 concert, an anthropomorphic Cheerio is being interviewed on his favorite sensationalist talk show, a park bench is stalking him, and, in a scene launched into the general pop culture by the film version, an ATM wants him to feed it a stray cat.

And even though I said that the main connection is the character type, there is actually a tiny little Macbeth/Banquo parallel for Patrick and another banker at his firm, a guy named Paul Owen.  Bateman mostly resents Owen, with the implicit reason being that Owen is marginally more successful — he’s handling a very high-profile account but is being stingy on the details, something that annoys the other Wall Street guys but seems to drive Bateman up the wall.  So, of course, Bateman kills him, stages it to look like Owen took off for London without any advance notice, and starts mutilating prostitutes in Owen’s vacant apartment.

A detective shows up for a chapter or so to investigate Owen’s disappearance, and for a moment it seems like Bateman will be caught.  But, no, that doesn’t happen — because even though Bateman completely made up the story about Owen going to London, it holds water.  Other people claim to have seen him there, to have had lunch with him.  This is made entirely questionable because a recurring situation in the novel is Bateman and/or his friends trying to remember the name of someone they’ve seen in a club or, even more frequently, Bateman calling guys he meets by the wrong name only to find out later they are someone else, or Bateman himself being mistaken for another person.  There’s a lot of stuff there about how disconnected these guys are from each other and from their own identities, but in more practical terms it means that someone in London from the New York circle could have easily mistaken someone else for Owen.

Except it gets trickier.  A dozen or so chapters after Bateman defaces Owen’s apartment, he drops by again — only the entire place is clean, spotless, and a real estate agent is showing a young couple around.  Bateman is shocked and tries to figure out what happened to all the viscera he left behind, asking the agent how long the apartment has been for rent and who lived there last, but she seems oddly guarded.  Patrick notices the place smells especially clean, as if a lot of disinfectant or deodorizer has been used recently to get rid of a stench.  There are then two possibilities for what’s happened: the agent is complicit in a conspiracy to cover up the murders in the apartment, which were never reported, or Bateman has imagined the whole thing, even the excess of deodorizer.  The strange looks the agent gives him could either be hints that she knows that he knows she knows — or they could be because some random guy just barged in on her appointment and started asking questions.  Is Owen alive or dead?  It doesn’t matter, really, because either way, like the ghost of Banquo only Macbeth can see, Owen’s status is something that only Bateman has cause to doubt, and it threatens to overturn his entire life.

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I can't tell if that dagger's been photoshopped in or if it's the ugliest prop ever. Either way, fantastic.

And this is where Ellis turns the volume way, way up on my favorite part of Macbeth: not only are the floating daggers and phantom voices and ghosts possible hallucinations, the murders themselves are also of questionable authenticity.  We can’t trust a thing Bateman says, and as he comes to realize, he can’t trust himself.  Both Macbeth and Bateman suffer from this same self-doubt — they’re both neurotic as hell, after all — and though Macbeth and everyone around him eventually knows and understands what he has done, for Patrick this never happens.  No one ever catches him, no one ever even comes close to suspecting him, and to top it all off, maybe he’s actually never done anything to make himself suspect.  Say what you want about Macbeth, he at least managed to kill a king, but for all we know Bateman is simply a delusional psychotic, a man who can only assert himself — murderously or otherwise — in daydreams and fantasies.

The end result for both characters, though, is pretty similar.  When Macbeth sees where his choices have gotten him — his wife has committed suicide and he’s facing an insurgency of other thanes who think that king-and-Banquo-killing are not proper traits for a ruler to have — he has this famous, nihilistic little ditty:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (V.v)

This is the point where Macbeth basically loses it.  He decides that nothing means anything — not even his choices, whether he chooses to murder people or not, because no matter what you do life is going to be a bitch and then you are going to die.  I’ll say it again: it’s nihilism, a complete and utter lack of faith in anything.

Here’s what Pat Bateman has to say on the subject:

…where there was nature and earth, life and water, I saw a desert landscape that was unending, resembling some sort of crater, so devoid of reason and light and spirit that the mind could not grasp it on any sort of conscious level and if you came close the mind would reel backward, unable to take it in.  It was a vision so real and clear and vital to me that in its purity it was almost abstract.  This is what I could understand, this was how I lived my life, what I constructed my movement around, how I dealt with the tangible.  This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness.  Nothing was affirmative, the term “generosity of spirit” applied to nothing, was a cliché, was some kind of bad joke.  Sex is mathematics.  Individuality is no longer an issue.  What does intelligence signify?  Define reason.  Desire — meaningless.  Intellect is not a cure.  Justice is dead.  Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore.  Reflection is useless, the world is senseless.  Evil is its only permanence.  God is not alive.  Love cannot be trusted.  Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in… this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged… (p. 375)

Wow, okay, so a lot less pithy than Shakespeare, but it’s much the same sentiment.  It’s still similar in tone and tenor to Macbeth’s little outburst.  This is something a guy today — or a guy in 1980s Manhattan — would actually say, this is how he would articulate a revelation of nihilism.  This is the modern description of despair.

And despair brings us back, believe it or not, to Dante.

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Despair, by definition, is a state of losing hope or hopelessness.  And remember those words over the gate to Hell, those words Bateman reads in graffiti in the very first line of Psycho: ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE.  In Dante the inscription is meant to be read only by the damned themselves — they have nothing to hope for, obviously, because they’re already in a situation where there’s no recourse.  Dante-the-Character is simply a special case, a living man traveling through Hell; he’s not meant to lose hope but regain it.  And when you think about it, that’s a pretty strange thing to happen, especially when he sees the following things going down in Hell:

1) Dudes running around in circles for all eternity, being chased and stung by giant hellwasps, the stings on their back blistering and producing pus which runs to the floor on which they are running
2) Dudes encased in eternal flames
3) Dudes being bitten and transformed and burnt up by a never-ending series of snake bites from the pit of serpents in which they are rolling around for all eternity
4) Dudes turned into trees and torn apart eternally by bird women
5) Dudes submerged in lakes of fire or boiling shit, as the case may be

And that’s just some of the punishments — Hell is a big, violent place.  And that’s another way Ellis rewrites Inferno: the violence of Hell’s punishments is turned into the graphic violence of Pat Bateman’s murders (or murderous fantasies, as the case may be).  This was, as you probably know, the most controversial element of the novel, and yeah, it would probably make any reader laugh queasily when Patrick decides he is going to eat a woman he’s killed but, since he’s lived a privileged life and doesn’t know how to cook, he instead eats a bit of her raw and weeps at the absurdity of it.  But come on, Dante is just as bad — I mean, rivers of boiling shit and running around on a mixture of your own blood and pus?  Jeez.

But there’s a snag.  In Inferno all of the punishments are justly deserved and justly dispensed according to God’s love and infinite wisdom (or that’s the way things are set up in the moral universe of the poem).  In American Psycho many of the people Patrick kills are just as shallow and pettily cruel as he is, but Patrick is not an omniscient and loving God, he’s just some yuppie asshole, and some of his victims are actually innocents (even children).

This is crux of what Bateman is and what he has done: in his rant about the meaninglessness of existence, of how horrible society is, he almost sounds like he’s a guy who wanted to hope in the opposite direction but never quite grasped it.  And true, earlier in the novel he gets a little offended when his friends make anti-Semitic remarks, but otherwise he takes just as much delight in teasing bums as they do.  But maybe that’s because of Patrick’s neuroses — he doesn’t have to work, for instance, but he says he does because he wants to “fit in.”  He wants to be what everyone else is, he wants to make sure he is in good standing, he is attracted to a society that he on some level knows is despicable.  And since he knows it’s despicable, what does he do?

He murders people, or thinks about it.  And he constantly talks about it in conversations, slipping Ted Bundy trivia into debates on fashion, he calls his lawyer and confesses his real-or-imagined murders, everything.  Bateman, in fact, wants to be caught.  He wants to shatter the smug, superficial complacency of everyone around him, and apparently the only way he can think to do it is by being a psychopathic killer.  And it doesn’t work, nothing changes, nothing happens, he’s never caught, and he loses hope — what little he had.  But is murder the best way to change the world?

My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world now.  In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others.  I want no one to escape.  But even after admitting this — and I have, countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed — and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis.  I gain no deeper knowledge of myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling.  There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this.  This confession has meant nothing… (p.377)

No.  And Bateman, deep down, perhaps never believed otherwise, as he tells us earlier: “it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness.”

So the final despair is actually the endpoint of a much larger and more encompassing despair that Patrick’s been dealing with for a while.  He began with the assumption that the world was stupid and depraved, and he tried to change it by being very obviously stupid and depraved himself.  When it didn’t work he despaired in his despair.

In the seventh and eighth cantos of Inferno, Dante and Virgil come to the fifth circle of Hell, which is a rancid swamp surrounding the River Styx.  This is where the wrathful and sullen are punished — the wrathful run through the swamp, rolling around in the muck, clawing and tearing and biting at one another.  The sullen reside below the swamp itself, lying beneath the muck and visible only because their breathing causes bubbles to float to the surface, saying over and over again:

‘Sullen were we in the air made sweet by the Sun;
in the glory of his shining our hearts poured
a bitter smoke.  Sullen were we begun;

Sullen we lie forever in this ditch.’
This litany they gargle in their throats
as if they sang, but lacked the words and pitch.

So what are the sullen guilty of?  Of seeing the world, made for them and made beautiful by God, and saying, “Ugh, so what?”  Their punishment is to stay forever in one place, drowned, because they felt it was useless to act or care about anything in life.  They had no hope for anything — they despaired.  And so it is interesting to note that Patrick Bateman, regardless of what he has done, belongs there in the fifth circle of Hell: he is in pain and wants others to feel it, so he is wrathful, but if he never manages to actually go through with his desires, if he only fantasizes but maintains his hopelessness, then he is one of the sullen.

We have the THIS IS NOT AN EXIT episode because Patrick’s done his best to avoid every saving grace afforded him: he let his Virgil sleep with his girlfriend, he killed and dismembered his Beatrice.  He never believed he could do otherwise; Bateman’s despair is what damns him.  Macbeth at least gets to die fighting but Patrick is condemned, like the damned in Dante’s Hell, to live on in his sullen (perhaps murderous) stasis.

That does it for this installment.  I have to give props here to The Acquaintance Who Says Bret Ellis Is the Best Novelist for mentioning the probable Macbeth connection offhandedly once, since I obviously followed through on it for a lot of helpful stuff.

Next time: I’ll explain how there is, in fact, room for hope and redemption in the world of American Psycho, and how we see it play out.  There will also, I think, be a short wrap-up where I explain why this book isn’t simply a great novel, but a great horror novel, and that should be it for this series.  See you then.

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Significance to be explained in Part 4: THERE IS, IN FACT, AN EXIT

American Psycho Part 2: “Midway in our life’s journey I went astray”

Last time I gave some background on my own thoughts and experiences with Bret Easton Ellis and his book, American Psycho.  Naturally it is now time to talk about Dante.

Dante Alighieri composed the epic Italian poetic masterpiece The Divine Comedy, made up of three books (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) that chronicle an obsessively constructed and heavily allegorical religious journey made by the narrator (a fictionalized version of Dante himself) as he is guided through Hell, Purgatory, and finally Heaven, and is in the process expunged of all sin and allowed to gaze upon the glory of God.  Of these three books, the part of the Comedy that sticks with readers (and with the generations) the most is Inferno.  In much the same ironic and paradoxical way that Satan is the most interesting character in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hell is the most intriguing and interesting part of the Comedy.

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So it is that Inferno has been rewritten and restaged and adapted countless times to various means and ends, including what sounds like an absolutely hysterical Niven/Pournelle SF version.  If you’re unfamiliar with the basic premise of the whole Inferno thing: Hell is a series of concentric circles within the earth (below Jerusalem, even), and in each circle all the sinners of a particular type (the gluttonous, or the lustful, or even simoniacs) are punished in a multitude of allegorical and surreal ways that are the type of brutal you only get from medieval theology (like being buried upside down with the soles of your feet eternally aflame in a grotesque parody of baptism).

In the plot of the Comedy, the whole thing works like this:  Dante tells us that “Midway in our life’s journey [he] went astray,” meaning that in the middle of his life he wandered off the correct spiritual path and found himself “alone in a dark wood[.]”  (By the by, all of my Dante quotes are taken from the superb John Ciardi translation, so if the wording seems different than what you know because you’ve grown up reading blank verse translation of the Comedy or something, that’s why.)  The allegorical bits here are clear enough — I’ve lost the correct path through life and now I am in a spooky woods, oh no!  Fortunately, the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil shows up and explains to Dante that Beatrice, a fictionalized version of a woman who Dante had hella courtly love for and who now resides in Heaven, has demanded Dante be saved, so she’s pulled some bureaucratic strings and now Virgil is here to get the party started.

Dante and Virgil set off on their whirlwind journey through the afterlife, the idea being that once Dante sees the wide variety of earthly sins and their appropriate punishments, along with the virtues and their rewards, he’ll be better equipped to ward off sin and move toward virtue on his own.  So to start things off, Virgil takes Dante through the Inferno, or Hell, and pretty much right off the bat we get what is probably the single most famous line from the entire Comedy and one of the most famous lines in all of Western lit:

I AM THE WAY INTO THE CITY OF WOE.
I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN PEOPLE.
I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL SORROW.

SACRED JUSTICE MOVED MY ARCHITECT.
I WAS RAISED HERE BY DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE,
PRIMORDIAL LOVE AND ULTIMATE INTELLECT.

ONLY THOSE ELEMENTS TIME CANNOT WEAR
WERE MADE BEFORE ME, AND BEYOND TIME I STAND,
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.

Pretty heavy stuff, man.  This is the inscription Dante reads over the gates of Hell, and the “Abandon all hope” thing is everywhere in popular culture.  It’s also a launching-off point for me, since this series is ostensibly about Bret Easton Ellis and American Psycho and so far I’ve written 600 words on a medieval Italian poet.  So what do these two dudes have in common?

bret_easton_ellisAs it turns out, quite a lot. Let’s take a look at the very beginning of Ellis’s novel: dante

ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.

So there’s that pesky phrase, that thing about abandoning all hope, and right here at the beginning of the novel!  Perhaps — just maybe — it is not simply graffiti but a clue that the story we’re about to read is, in many ways, not about a successful investment banker on Wall Street in the 1980s but really about Hell?

Well, yes, of course that’s what it means.  This isn’t a one-off reference, either, something Ellis threw in to make us associate Wall Street with the Inferno; the novel has many parallels to Dante.  American Psycho is not, however, a one-to-one adaptation of the original in the same way, say, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is a pretty close retelling of King Lear, where the narrative architecture is almost exactly the same.  In Psycho Ellis consciously uses Dante for what might be termed the foundation of the story: certain ideas, certain character relationships.  But Ellis scrambles Dante’s vision, moves it around, cuts up characters (literally, I guess) and puts them back together as others; certain themes from Dante are excised entirely, while others that seemed pretty minor are pushed to the center-stage and exaggerated and elaborated for all they are worth.

In other words, what happens is that Ellis reads Dante, says to himself, “That’s pretty cool, I can do something with that, but I don’t need all this stuff about allegory or Heaven or Catholicism or which Popes are going to hell.”  So he tosses all the crap doesn’t interest him, takes what he likes, and builds a new piece of literature based on that.  The same acquaintance of mine who says Ellis is the best 20th century novelist calls this sort of thing rewriting, and I see no reason to call it something else.

So American Psycho is a rewriting of Dante.  But Michael, you say, you’re basing this all on one line at the beginning of the book!  Surely there is something more to it!  And boy, are you in luck, because there is.

Before I get into the real nitty-gritty of what’s going on between Psycho and Inferno, it may help to map out a few points about character relationships.  Remember that Dante was his own main character, though he in a sense reduces himself to an allegorical everyman; Dante is led through Hell by his artistic hero, the Roman poet Virgil, and the entire journey takes place at the behest of Beatrice, who is a woman beautiful and holy beyond mortal love, hence requiring the courtly stuff.  Virgil has no trouble guiding Dante through Hell and most of Purgatory, but once it’s time to tour Heaven he has to turn back because, as a pre-Christian, it’s simply not in the cards for him.  So when Dante finally does get to Heaven, it’s Beatrice who takes on the role of his guide.

Now, I have a very specific reading of these relationships that is not necessarily shared by anyone else, but it goes something like this: a confused and troubled guy is helped through a tough situation by his best friend, but the friendship is ultimately not enough to make the troubled dude okay and so he gets handed off (baton-like) to the woman he loves so the real healing process can begin (or something phrased in an equally asinine way).  The reading relies mostly on dramatic structures that I’ve seen in both old and new forms of  popular entertainment — like say, romantic comedy films.  The wacky sidekick characters to the protagonist are always plenty interesting, they usually get the best jokes or the snappiest lines, but they’re never enough to get the protagonist to stop pining after the love interest.  It’s always the same: your friends can help you, but it takes love to make you whole.

So naturally in adaptations and rewritings of Inferno we get relationships that mirror this setup.  There’s the troubled and/or somehow naive and/or clueless main character, almost always a smarter/sharper guide, and usually a wise third third party, beloved by the main character but in some way unreachable.  American Psycho follows this pattern to some extent — or seems to.

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The first paragraph/sentence is actually pretty disingenuous.  It makes you think the story is going to be told in third person, but it mostly isn’t.  It’s the first-person present tense almost stream-of-consciousness narrative of Patrick Bateman, the titular psychopathic American.  The first paragraph is him describing to us Timothy Price, who is a friend of his from the same firm.  The relationship between them is odd.  I mean, most of Bateman’s relationships with other people are pretty odd — whenever a character enters or re-enters he describes for us their clothing in excessive detail, including brand names and his own personal opinions on how well the outfits come together and I mean this happens every time — but with Price it’s even stranger.

You see, Price is having an affair with Bateman’s girlfriend Evelyn.  It’s something he suspects and is pretty much confirmed in the first few chapters when Bateman watches Price and Evelyn practically make out in front of him.  Surprisingly, Bateman doesn’t really care about this — it’s our first clear view of how amazingly detached he actually is from everyone, including the woman he is supposed to, in theory, love.  (Later, we find out that almost all of Bateman’s circle have quasi-open relationships like this, but here it seems like a contained incident.)  You also get the distinct impression that he’s letting Timothy get away with it because, as he tells us, Price “is the most interesting person” Bateman knows.  Of the various peripheral characters Bateman goes clubbing with, Price is the only one to emerge with a distinct personality at the beginning, and if Patrick has a best friend, well, it’s probably him.

So we have our Virgil.  And not only that, but our Virgil runs off within the first hundred pages of the book.  While in a club called Tunnel, named after the fake railroad tunnel and glow-in-the-dark tracks that run into it, Price suddenly begins to wonder where the it leads — “Where do those tracks go?” No one seems intent on answering him, and besides, the tunnel’s fake, but Price keeps asking.  He and Bateman do some subpar cocaine and finally, in a scene everyone except Bateman handles with surreal, amused complacency, Price jumps the railing and follows the tunnel away into the darkness.

“Price!  Come back!” I yell but the crowd is actually applauding his performance.  “Price!” I yell once more, over the clapping.  But he’s gone and it’s doubtful if he did hear me he would do anything about it.  Madison is standing nearby and sticks his hand out as if to congratulate me on something.  “That guy’s a riot.”

McDermott appears behind me and pulls at my shoulder.  “Does Price know about a VIP room that we don’t?”  He looks worried.  (p. 62)

Price is not mentioned again for another three hundred pages.  I mean it, he’s not even mentioned in the next paragraph.  He simply disappears — the most interesting person Patrick knows, poof, gone!  I’m sure you see what I’m driving at here: the friend who leaves.  And if Price is our Virgil, then who is Beatrice?

One candidate seems to be Jean (“My secretary who is in love with me,” as Bateman repeatedly refers to her) but really, though she is a kind and honest person, Jean seems to be just as susceptible to the materialism and superficiality of the world as anyone else — Bateman plays her like a piano, telling what she should and shouldn’t wear, what’s classy and what isn’t, and she’s in love with him but he is unreachable to her.  The better candidate is a fairly incidental character named Bethany.

She is Bateman’s ex-girlfriend from college, and he implies that he habitually beat her and this is the reason they broke up.  Nevertheless, when he runs into her by chance they make plans to have lunch together and catch up.  Bateman, in his relationships with women, usually lusts for control (he hires prostitutes, orders them around with very specific instructions for various sex acts, records them doing as he asks, then usually kills them and records that too) and, as with his secretary Jean, he usually has it.  After all, he’s fit and handsome and rich.  Bethany is notable, then, because she is someone who has escaped Patrick and, strangely enough, comes back; he seems to assume it’s because she wants sex, and when it turns out she really does just want to catch up, he becomes furious.  To add insult to injury, Bethany is actually engaged to someone else now, and she shrugs off all (or most) of Patrick’s advances.

So here we have the girl with a pre-established relationship to the main character, and she has somehow ended up in a situation where she is estranged from him and seemingly beyond earthly reach.  Seeing the connections here?  And what does Patrick do with his beatific guide once he finds her?

Why, he beats her, drives nails through her knuckles, maces her repeatedly, rapes her, mutilates her genitalia, dismembers her, partially cannibalizes her, and then leaves some of her remains sitting around his expensive Manhattan apartment to rot.  Of course.

So obviously something’s wrong here.  Either Ellis is doing a hell of a deconstruction of Dante or we’re approaching this from the wrong angle.  Virgil bails too early and Beatrice is ripped to shreds, and suddenly our Dante Pat Bateman starts looking like a very confusing character.

This is the part where I play the pedant and say, yes, I’ve been laying out this reading in the completely wrong way to prove a point: if American Psycho is a rewriting of Dante, then obviously we expect the main character to have the relationships I’ve described and have them play out in the expected manner — for sake of example, another Dante rewriting that pulls this off with remarkable skill and subtlety is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.

But that is not what happens in American Psycho.  The plot of the Comedy means the protagonist (in our case, Pat Bateman) needs to undergo expurgation, some change, he needs to become better.

He doesn’t.  Bateman kills what seems to be countless people, is chased by the police, confesses everything, and is still never caught.  The book ends with him clubbing, like always, and looking at a sign: THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.  We never leave the Inferno.  Why?

Well, this is when the novel goes from “pretty good” to absolutely fucking brilliant.

You see, Pat Bateman isn’t Dante.  He’s one of the damned.  He’s a shade condemned to Hell, enduring eternal torture, that Dante passes on his way to bigger and better things.  If Pat went astray midway through his life’s journey, then he never got out of the darkened wood again — his Virgil is a womanizing cokehead who left too soon and he kills his Beatrice out of sheer wrathful spite.  So not only is he damned, but, when you get right down to it, he chooses to be damned.

This installment ended up being longer than I expected, but the third may surpass it.  Next time I’ll explain in more detail how Bateman is damned, how it continues to relate to and rewrite Dante, and, in a surprise twist, how it also relates to and rewrites the work of this man:

See you then!

Why American Psycho Is a Great Novel (And Also a Great Horror Novel) Part 1: Some Background Fluff

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When I first read Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, I must have been around 14, give or take a few years.  The movie was out at the point — the movie was probably the reason I read the book — and while I remember somewhat enjoying it, it was also pretty inscrutable.  Even at 14 you can understand satire, and that’s what a large part of what American Psycho seems to be.  But if we treat it as a satire, then we run into problems, namely, that it doesn’t give us any viable path other than the one it criticizes.  This is not to say that satire should be didactic and have a coda explaining how to live a holy life, but that a satire implicitly shows us the ‘right’ way to live by very meticulously describing the ‘wrong’ way the characters in the satire live.  So when 14-year-old me set aside American Psycho upon first finishing it, I thought, “Well, gee, okay, so what was the point?”

The correct way to live, if you read the novel straight, seems to be “Don’t live as a young, successful investment banker from a well-off family in 1980s New York because the prevailing climate of superficiality and greed will strip you of your identity and your conception of human dignity.”  That’s all well and good, I suppose, but I never have to worry about being an investment banker in 1980s New York, let alone all the stuff about being successful.  On the other hand, a broader way to read the point is that we shouldn’t be greedy and superficial in any context.  Well, yeah, okay.  I mean, there are children’s cartoons that give us the same moral and with as little ornamentation, and it only takes like 22 minutes to tell us, not 400 pages.

So obviously I was sort of not impressed with the book when I was 14.

About two weeks ago, it happened that I got the flu.  I was laid up in bed and could barely gather enough strength to go search for food, I skipped going to the gym, and I completely neglected my homework.  What I did do, however, was reread American Psycho, sleeping in between chunks of the book for about an hour and having some pretty terrible fever dreams because of it.  Anyway, I did not just reread American Psycho for shits and giggles — an acquaintance of mine who is in a position to have knowledgeable opinions on such things has told me a few times that Bret Easton Ellis is the greatest novelist of the 20th century.  This is obviously a helluva thing to say, considering it means Ellis beats out Joyce, Nabokov, Faulkner, Hemingway, Pynchon, and whoever the hell else you want to name (maybe some women and people of color, as the liberal arts student in me is shuddering at the alabastar patriarchy of that list I just rattled off).

That Ellis is the best novelist of the last century is the kind of claim I want to take to task, but it’s also one that’s hard for me to assess since the only Ellis I’ve read is Psycho and, as I have explained, when I did read it I was a scrub.  So I am planning on working my way through Ellis’s novels, attempting to suss out whether or not my acquaintance’s claim is well founded.  I figured there was no better place to start than, well, where I started seven years ago, and so I reread American Psycho.

And holy cow, man, it is pretty awesome.

Also: turns out it’s not a satire, and to assume it is of course produces the deficient reading I had when I was 14!  Mostly.  Sort of.  Don’t worry, I’ll explain this all eventually.

So over the next few weeks I’m hoping to have a series of short-to-longish blog entries explaining why American Psycho is success from both a literary standpoint and from the standpoint of the conscientious horror reader.  This oughta be fun.  Keep an eye out, because in a week or so I’ll hopefully have up a piece on exactly what Bret Easton Ellis has to do with Dante Alighieri.

The Army Man

During my senior year of high school I got a job working at a large department store that I will not name (but if you think for even half a second about ‘large American discount department stores’ you can probably guess what it was).  I ended up working in the deli.  You know how things go when you first get plopped down into a group of people who’ve known each other for a long time: it’s pretty uncomfortable because they have lots of in-jokes or catchphrases that you have no hope in hell of understanding.  That’s what I thought the Army Man was, an in-joke.

You see, whenever there was some sort of accident — like, say, a woman working in bakery knocking over a stack of boxes, or one of my coworkers in deli dropping an entire eight-piece chicken on the floor — it was customary to jokingly grumble “The Army Man did it” and then restack the boxes or throw away the chicken.  I never bothered asking for an explanation since the only thing that makes you feel like more of a loser than not getting an in-joke is asking what an in-joke is all about.

After a while, though, I began to understand a little of what the crack meant.  Sometimes whenever anyone blamed something on the Army Man, they would put their arms out in front of them and do a sort of pantomime of an on-your-belly-under-barbed-wire boot camp crawl.  I took this to mean that that there was an imaginary solider crawling around on the floor of the store, causing all sorts of elfish mishaps, and some past joke to this effect had spawned whatever meme my coworkers were perpetuating.

But I’d been working for a few months when I finally decided to ask what the Army Man was all about.  I was in the break room when one of my coworkers, let’s call her Betty, happened to go on lunch.  She was about my mom’s age and took a motherly interest in my current affairs, so she asked me about how my grades were and if I’d been accepted to any colleges, what my plans were, and all that crap.  I humored her while she ate and then, about five minutes before my break ended, asked her about the Army Man.

Betty froze up completely, holding her lips really tight, and just shook her head.  She refused to say anything about the subject, not even trying to be subtle about it, but Betty was always one for melodrama.  I mean, Betty had made the joke along with everyone else; I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t talk about it now, unless she was being intentionally childish.  I dropped the subject and went back to work.

A few days later I was in the break room again when Ruth, one of the women working in bakery, happened by.  This time she brought up the subject with me, asking if I’d spoken to Betty about the Army Man.  I figured it wouldn’t make any sense to say otherwise so I admitted I had, and that Betty refused to say anything about it.

Ruth just nodded said, “Well, you know how Betty is.”  When I said that I didn’t Ruth held her hands in front of her and began to flap her lips in a silent imitation of prayer.  Betty was an ardent Pentecostal, I knew, and instead of swearing had a habit of yelling out “Help me, Jesus!” whenever she got hot grease on her hand, but why this meant she didn’t talk about the Army Man, I had no clue.

So Ruth explained:

Sometime the year before one of the unloaders working third shift had been moving pallets into the large freezer where we kept all frozen goods; it was common practice to keep the freezer door open for most of the night while the unloaders took stuff from the truck and moved it in.  This particular unloader had surprised his coworkers when they found him outside the freezer with the door slammed shut.  When they tried to open it he begged them not to and, when they ignored him, he tried to fight them.

At first they thought it was a joke, but soon it became obvious that this guy was desperate for them not to open the freezer door.  He refused to tell them exactly what had happened; from the way he talked it sounded like he’d seen an animal sneak into the freezer, though why this would freak him out they couldn’t guess.  They got the managers on duty that night, explained the situation, and against the unloader’s protests, ventured into the freezer.

There was nothing in there but boxes, though a few of them had been pulled down from their shelves and smashed, ruining quite a bit of merchandise.  The unloader was fired, since it was assumed he’d done something wrong and was trying to shift the blame onto someone else.  But before he left for good he worked a few more days, Ruth told me, and it was during this time he mentioned to some coworkers exactly what he had seen: a shape like a man on his stomach, naked and pale, just disappearing between the plastic flaps that hung down over the freezer door.

Of course the unloader could have mistaken a reflection in those same plastic sheets for whatever it was he claimed to have seen, so he was generally laughed at even after he was fired.  It became harder to joke when other people began to see and hear it, though.

It was just snatches of conversation you might pick up, Ruth told me.  The women working the returns desk, for instance, would mention that they thought they heard someone moving on the other side of their counter, but since they couldn’t see anything it must have been something on the floor — though they didn’t bother looking, because of course it was nothing.  Cashiers had similar stories of hearing something move through their checkout lane when there were no customers, something too low to the ground to be glimpsed over the edge of a counter.  Coupled with the description the unloader had given, this was when people began to think of the thing as a person trying to be covert, pulling himself around on his stomach by use of his forearms.  This was why they started calling it the Army Man.

Betty saw it — really saw it — in the deli.  We had a hot case, a metal and plexiglass display where we put warm food such as chicken and what-have-you under heatlamps; the top half of the case was filled with pans of food, french fries and so forth, while the bottom half was filled with boxed eight pieces and rotisseries that the customers could grab.  One night while closing, Betty bent down to clean the glass windows on this section of the hot case.  She screamed her all-purpose curse — “Help me, Jesus!” — before promptly tumbling back on her ass and twisting her ankle.

At first the people working with her thought she’d just slipped, since the deli floor was covered in grease pretty much all the time.  Betty was having trouble standing up again so they called in management, who quickly arranged a way to transport Betty to the hospital.  While they waited, Betty explained to them what she saw: on the other side of the glass, out on the floor of the store, was a thing looking back at her.  That was what she called it, Ruth told me, not a man but a thing.  Betty was out of commission while her leg healed up — it wasn’t broken, but twisted badly.

A few weeks later, a guy working in electronics insisted he’d seen someone crawling around on the merchandise shelves at the back of the department.  Thinking it was a customer’s kid, he ran over to straighten them out, just as a few plasma TVs were knocked over and shattered.  When he told management his story they of course didn’t believe him; there was barely enough room on the shelves for the TVs themselves, let alone a person, child or not, to climb around.  The employee was fired.

Four months or so before I started working, one of the mechanics in automotive refused to let a customer take their car back.  The customer was naturally pissed and called the department manager, a man named Rick.  As the mechanic later told anyone who would listen, he’d been working on the customer’s car when he had to take a leak.  Upon returning he saw something like fingers poking out from the vehicle’s undercarriage, curled around the bumper.  They withdrew before he could do anything about it.

He searched the car and found nothing, but when the customer came back he still had his doubts about letting the automobile leave the garage.  He explained the situation privately to Rick, who volunteered to test drive the car first and explained it away to the customer as some new quality control policy.

Rick drove fifteen feet into the parking lot before one of the front wheels of the car let out a groan and fell off completely.  Needless to say Rick was very much embarrassed and there was a tangle of the usual insurance issues, with the customer blaming the store for tampering with his car.  Somehow this was all settled out of court.

Rick killed himself two months after the car incident, though no one could say why.  He hadn’t seemed particularly depressed and he’d been working as hard as ever, but one night he went home and (from what Ruth heard) overdosed on sleeping pills.  Ruth had her own ideas, of course, and she was only too eager to tell me: the Army Man had gotten into the car with the intention of leaving the store, but Rick foiled its plans and so, instead of following the customer home, had chosen to follow him home instead.  This naturally raised more questions than it answered: what the hell was the Army Man, then, and how had it gotten to the store to begin with?  Ruth just shook her head and said something like, “Don’t ask me.  I just bake French bread.”  And that was that.

I quit the deli a few months later to head off to college.  In the intervening time I had begun to wonder why people continued to joke about the Army Man, if it ever existed in the first place and if it was half as serious as Ruth made it out to be.  Was it just some way of relieving stress, trying to make it seem less important than it really was, or were they fucking with me?  It occurred to me that if Ruth was right, if this Army Man could somehow pass between people and places, then there was a chance, however small, that it might come back to the store, or worse, that Rick had brought it back before he killed himself — and if either of those had happened, it could leave again with someone else.

Perhaps it was done out of fear, as a superstition.  I’d been doing it too, I realized.  It was just part of the atmosphere of the deli, part of working with people for an extended period of time: you adopt their references, their in-jokes.

I work in the campus library currently.  Whenever I’m not paying attention while stacking books on a cart, a practice that inevitably leads to a bunch of them falling over, or when the network goes on the fritz and we can’t figure out why, I often find myself muttering, “The Army Man did it.”

I think a few of my coworkers have overheard me, because they’ve started to say it, too.

Heh heh heh, as the Crypt Keeper would say.  Happy Halloween.  This story was originally written for one of the Ghost Story threads on a forum I frequent, and which you may also frequent if you want to waste ten dollars.  What you see here is a version with some redundancies removed, spelling checked, and various other tiny errors corrected.

The Horror Franchise

Fangoria has an interesting article comparing the modern Saw franchise to Friday the 13th from the days of yore.  I think the connection is one that is natural, even if subliminally, to many people; I’ve drawn a similar parallel here on this blog, though I chose Michael Myers over Jason for the sheer jumping of the shark the Halloween series accomplished.  Anyway, Saw is the horror movie for this day and age.  Not since Scream have we had a franchise of such, well, popularity.  However, Saw (like F13 before it) is very quickly petering out due to the advent of a new sequel every year.  Though the Scream films were progressively less entertaining, they still managed to be all self-aware and postmodern using the rules of sequels and trilogies and stuff, and even then the series had the decency to know when to quit.  Oh wait.

Regardless of all that, I think there are a few things in the Fangoria article worth considering.  Like the following comment on why F13 eventually started a slow decline:

A common bone of contention among fans of Friday the 13th is the “death” of Jason in part four and the attempt to take the series in a new direction with part five, subtitled “A New Beginning.” This was met with backlash from fans, resulting in Jason’s return in part six to hack and slash his way through sexy co-eds, only this time in full-on zombie mode. In the end, that’s all the fans wanted to see: their now iconic antagonist fuckin’ some serious shit up. No need for story, no need for emotion. Just murder, mayhem, and occasionally some tits for good measure. The damage, however, had been done, and while part six remains a fan favorite and received favorable reviews, the popularity and financial success of the series began a slow decline.

And then:

A loose parallel can be found in the Saw franchise, particularly in part three which concluded with the death of the infamous Jigsaw himself, John Kramer. With part four, much like in the fifth Friday the 13th installment, we’re introduced to a new, replacement killer, with hints and allusions to the original found throughout. Is it any coincidence that both films were some of the franchises’ most poorly received? The appeal of the first film, and by extension Saws II and III wasn’t just in its clever traps, it was the attempt of the filmmakers to inject a story amidst the chaos. Kramer is made to be a highly sympathetic, albeit psychotic, character, with his traps serving as a metaphor for the path his victims have chosen in life. The death of John was the death of the motivation behind the entire series, and thus dooming the series to mindless repetition. This sentiment was expressed by Elizabeth Weizman of the New York Daily News, who considered the conspicuous absence of Tobin Bell from the fifth film to be its biggest drawback, cheapening the series and allowing it to fall into a state of convention.

This touches on a few themes I brought up in my earlier rant on the death of horror, though not (I think) in a good way.  In his article Mr. McHargue rightly asserts that it was the fans’ criticisms that caused F13 to ride off the rails; the character of Jason was central, and removing him confounded whatever glamour the series had accrued.  Likewise, removing Jigsaw from the Saw films removes a central tether that draws the audience to the films, alienating the fans who have come to know these ambiguous antagonists.

I’ve talked before about how horror as a genre is pretty much crap, and it’s our fault.  I am not about to go back on that.  The audience’s desire for, as McHargue puts it, “their now iconic antagonist fuckin’ some serious shit up. No need for story, no need for emotion. Just murder, mayhem, and occasionally some tits for good measure” is a visceral and longstanding form for the genre, and it is what I think we need to move beyond.  Do you really need to see Jason and Jigsaw fuck shit up for nine movies, or a new movie every Halloween, or whatever the hell?

The issues with this desire is that these characters, in the end, do not represent healthy urges; no matter how mistreated they were, no matter how sympathetic they are in their backstory, these characters are villains.  Jigsaw has the better claim here, since he defends himself with a bunch of philosophical claptrap, but does Jason’s death at the hands of irresponsible camp counselors really justify him killing a bunch of people unrelated to the incident not just once but ten fucking times? These characters do not — cannot — change if the franchise should continue.  (Ironically, McHargue references a reviewer who apparently thinks doing away with Jigsaw somehow condemns the Saw franchise to convention — yes, nothing is more tired and convential than plot development, changes in the status quo!)  I appreciate a good vengeance story as much as anyone, but there is a point when justice has been served and enough blood has been spilled.  If we’re supposed to be sympathetic to Jigsaw or Jason, then there should be a point where they as characters have this realization and settle back into normal life.  Of course that won’t happen because it would be 1) fucking ridiculous, and 2) problematic for shitting out a sequel next year.

“Now, Michael,” you are surely saying, “how can you grudge me, the demagogue so reverently referred to as the Masses, my spectacles of vengeance and bloodshed?”  Well, the Masses, here’s the tricky part: I don’t begrudge you your spectacles, but I begrudge you your franchises of spectacles.  Horror, I think, should simply not be geared toward franchises.  I was a little off put by a comment in McHargue’s article, where he claims that Saw serves “as not only a means of introducing Generation Z and the tail end of Generation Y to horror, but also by reinvigorating the popularity and importance of the horror franchise.”  Well, I see what he means — but I doubt that the franchise model needed or deserved to be reinvigorated.

You see, if F13 or Saw were limited to one installment, my qualms with them would be nothing.  If you have one story about unstoppable vengenace murderer featuring an iconic character, then there you have it.  Make of it what you will!  But as you strain credulity by widening the circle of carnage beyond all reasonable limits — and convolute the overarcing plot to an unnecessary degree — things get tired, ridiculous, dull.  If you attempt to spice up the narrative by changing or killing off the main character, then you lose because the fans won’t respond well.  Franchises (unless they have a pre-planned story arc, which I think rarely happens in horror, and anyway wouldn’t be very good if stretched out over roughly a dozen films) are not a good thing.  It’s an absolute lose-lose situation, even if you give the audience exactly what they (apparently) want and release a bunch of identical movies, because eventually interest will wane and the continuity will be fucked all to hell.

Which paves the way for a reboot 15 or 20 years down the road.

Rejections: 26.

The Death of Horror

By way of Dread Central I’ve stumbled upon an article in the Newark Film Examiner by Mark Jones about seven reasons why the horror genre is dying.  While Mr. Jones offers some very good reasons, I feel like the article has a few details wrong, and who better to discuss this than someone with a grotesquely inflated sense of self-importance like me?  So here are Mr. Jones’s points in quotes, with my responses after.

7) Over Saturation
It would seem “quantity over quality” has become the horror adage. Each week more and more poorly produced, straight-to-video horror films hit the shelves and each week, the genre becomes a little more diluted. Horror is becoming the new porn, where anyone with a video camera and willing participants can shoot a film and get distribution. This lackadaisical approach to filmmaking turns a genre with little respect into a complete joke.

This.  This this this this this.  Is.  Exactly right.

But only in a certain sense!  For example, how many Saw films are we up to now?  How many more Halloweens will go by with another shoddily constructed offering in theaters?  I don’t know, because Saw stopped being relevant after the first installment.  It’s a cash cow, now, and an easy buck for the studios.  This same sequel-madness is what felled the great Slashers of the 80s, my friends — even Michael Myers in his resplendent glory was toast once magical druids were on the scene.

I think this problem can be neatly contained in an exploration of a horror subgenre, namely, the zombie movie.  Jones points out that any starry-eyed wannabe film student feels like he can (or should) make a horror movie because it is the “easy” way to go.  Doubly so if it’s a zombie movie.  This is a staggeringly wrong assumption on both counts.  Horror is not (or should not) be the easy course of action, and a zombie movie should be considerably more complicated than most filmmakers (prospective or professional) seem to think they are.  Fear, despite being an arguably primitive emotion, is much more meaningful than we like to think it is.  The overarching problem, I think, is that the audience for a horror piece seems to refuse to have standards.  People will focus on one aspect of the thing: gore, the variety and ingenuity of kills, the makeup effects on a zombie.  If these things are good, then suddenly it doesn’t matter what the story is, what it is about, what it teaches us.  Who cares about that stuff when there’s enough blood and guts that the filmmakers must have raided the meat section at a Super Wal-Mart?

Let’s talk about zombie movies.  Romero has run the standard zombie invasions make us question who the monsters really are rigmarole in the ground and perfected it.  It’s pointless, I think, for any zombie story to take this exact same tack again because even Romero himself has seemingly devolved into self-parody.  Do not get me wrong; this is certainly an important part of the zombie formula, but it’s getting tired.  It needs to be expanded, played with, questioned.  It will take effort to reinvent this type of plot, to move beyond it, and to make the zombie genre exciting again.  But unfortunately, if people are not retreading Romero’s ground (which they rarely seem to do with any finesse), they’re instead making purely stylistic movies based on how “cool” or disgusting something would be — the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, for instance.  But because, in the stylistic or technical sense, all you need for a zombie movie is a working video camera, some friends, and some makeup, it appears to be the easy way to get something done, so all your independently produced DTV zombie movies are the DotD remake without the pleasing editing or absolutely stunning Johnny Cash opening sequence.

So the genre stagnates only because we allow it, only because we do not, for whatever reason, hold horror up to the rigorous rubric of quality we apply to other genres.

6) Big Budgets
It might appear shortsighted to say a bigger budget would have a negative effect on a film. The more money spent, the better the film will be, right? Not always. What made many of the older films so scary is how real they seemed, looking more like documentaries than feature films. Also, no one in the films looked like actors. Leatherface’s family in the original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” looked like they were pulled from a local insane asylum, not a casting call. All in all, the films were so genuine that they scared audiences for days after leaving the theater. Today, horror films are so stylized and clean it would be like getting scared by a car commercial.

Debatable, I say.  While I agree that realism is a plus, low budgets are not always indicative of quality because a lower budget, as I pointed out in the zombie-movie syndrome, often forces a storyteller or filmmaker to follow the stylistic or technical approach to horror and neglect the deeper meanings and implications of the narrative.  The original TCM was somewhat boring, I would say, and I absolutely despise the first Evil Dead movie.  Now admittedly, in both of those examples the lower budgets and technical emphasis resulted in some pretty stunning special effects (mostly in the case of The Evil Dead), what’s the point if the narrative fails to engage me?  I suppose it’s preferable to the next insidious beast…

5) Computer Graphics
Has the price of corn syrup and red food coloring skyrocketed? Recent horror films have become so dependent on computer graphics that they look more like cartoons than live action movies. Think of how much better “I Am Legend” would have been if the monsters chasing Will Smith around dilapidated New York City weren’t those silly looking animated abominations. The thing with CG is it can be beneficial, but when it’s overused, the films tend to be less scary and more stupid.

Yes, I hate CGI.  Do you hate CGI?  You should, especially in horror films.  CGI almost unavoidably breaks my suspension of disbelief because it looks so unreal.  I cannot feel threatened by something that is obviously added in post hoc; it would be like being scared of a Photoshop filter, for crying out loud.  It really doesnt even have to be a CG monster; I would say that Let the Right One In is probably the best horror film of the last five years, yet it has one particularly heinous scene with CG cats that pulled me entirely out of the film.  Now this is something of a problem, of course, because I suspect that the scene would have been impossible (or illegal) to achieve with real cats, and may have even looked ridiculous with puppets or animatronics.  So I maintain that CG should always be a last resort — the recent film Splinter, while not as good as LtROI, is a fantastic example of the wonders we can do with makeup and puppets, with only minor help from computers.  (Still, there’s a cringe-worthy shot or two near the end, but like the heinous cat scene, it’s over quickly.)

4) PG-13 Ratings
Nothing makes horror fans gripe and groan more than seeing a PG-13 rating on a horror film. What this rating guarantees the audience is that there will be little language, no nudity, and toned down violence, while guaranteeing the producers of the film a better box office turnout.  The PG-13 rating plays to the teeny bopper crowd, who will scream in terror at every single cheap scare inserted throughout. It also robs potentially good films of any kind of legitimacy with unrealistic dialogue, little suspense, and moderate violence. Not to say violence in moderation isn’t sometimes a good thing, which brings us to…

Again, debatable.  You may ask me to think of a good PG-13 horror film and I would be at a loss, but I think if I did research I might find one. (EDIT – a friend of mine was kind enough to point out that the US remake of The Ring, which I hold as an example of cross-cultural-remake-done-right later in this essay, is also rated PG-13.  So hooray for that.) Horror is not — or should not — be proportional to the amount of tits and blood you can show.  In fact, in my personal philosophy, a horror story is especially successful when it manages to terrify you without these things.  The original 1963 version of The Haunting is a good example here; of course it was made before there was a ratings system for films, but it has no gore, no nudity, and little swearing, but I would say it is the best haunted house film yet made.  If there is anything in this movie that would warrant for it a higher rating than PG-13, especially in 1963,  it is probably the rather distinct currents of lesbianism the film (and its source material, Shirley Jackson’s immaculate novel) exude.

3) Torture and Rape
Many of today’s horror filmmakers are confusing what’s disgusting with what’s scary. In a genre where less can be more, over the top, bizarre violence has become a crutch. From the “Hostel” films to “Saw” one through one million, it’s obvious that these filmmakers are trying to get scares by repulsing their audience. What they need to realize is making someone vomit is far different than actually scaring them. Along with torture, rape scenes have become a way for filmmakers to push the envelope. Yes, some older horror films did contain both these aspects, but today it seems every horror film has a scene with someone tied to a chair getting god-knows-what shoved god-knows-where, while somewhere else a poor unsuspecting girl is about to be deflowered by some maniac. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself, is this really entertaining?

No real disagreement here.  The sooner we move beyond torture porn the better.  This ties in with my own opinions on horror, letting a lot go unspoken so your audience can fill in the blanks with whatever makes them the most uneasy.  But it’s also a matter of meaning I brought up back when talking about zombie movies; torture porn is porn because it lacks any merit beyond gore, pain, and suffering.  There is no lesson being learned, there is no reason for this pain!  Again we have a stylistic or technical emphasis over the narrative; torture porn is about what looks cool, with no greater message being coherently formed or stated.

A particularly strange strain of torture porn, I will briefly argue, is the Ju-On series, which is being consistently remade and sequelized in the states as The Grudge.  The characters encounter an evil female ghost who has at best a tangential connection to their lives; they remain mostly ignorant of this malevolence until they are too late, and then they are spirited away or whatever the hell it is the creaky throated ghost bitch does with them.  The series is significant because it does not fall into the bloody mess (heh heh) of other torture porn: there is little blood, really, and the gore is usually restrained enough.  Yet it still operates in the same way: characters, who are  pretty much completely innocent of the reason for the ghost’s vengeance, are murdered one by one and — this is the kicker — there is no way to stop it or save yourself.  Tell me, why in the hell would anyone want to watch this, because I don’t understand it.  What is the thrill in watching an unstoppable monster be literally unstoppable as it kills random people for no goddamn reason?

Compare the “classic” torture porn plot: some unstoppable and seemingly omnisicent antagonist (a collective of heartless, rich foreigners or something) for no evident reason other than perhaps their own evilness-for-evil’s-sake slowly murders a group of basically innocent protagonists who lack any possible form of recourse.  In the end one or two may escape, but there’s always the stinger ending where MAYBE THEY DIDN’T or, more likely, they get killed off in the first five minutes of the sequel.  This sort of thing could be a ripe criticism for the disconnect between upper classes and lower classes, let’s say, but you only have to watch one of the movies to see it’s not.  It’s about how badass people being hit by trains looks.

2) First Person Point of View
Why is it that every time someone runs in a film there are sequences of nauseating hand-held camerawork? Can the viewer not understand what the person on the screen is doing without seeing it through their eyes? If that’s not bad enough, there are the films in which the characters themselves are shooting the movie. Ever since “The Blair Witch Project” filmmakers have been making first person horror films and every time the characters use the same sparse reasoning of “I’m filming this because it’ll be important,” to justify their actions. Even horror legend George A. Romero took part in these shenanigans in his last film “Diary of the Dead.” There is nothing more unbelievable than a group of twenty-something idiots who think filming giant aliens or zombies or invisible witches is more important than their own safety.

I sort of agree here.  The shaky first-person-cam of Cloverfield of Blair Witch is annoying as hell.  Who cares about seeing a movie?  I’d rather watch blurs of movement while people scream at each other incoherently!  But the Blair Witch film, in particular, is interesting as a cultural artifact; if you will recall, many people were confused as to the movie’s veracity.  Was it really long-lost footage?  This is rather silly, of course, because it is about fucking witches and spirits and anyone with two brain cells should be able to tell you it’s fake as all get out, but the fact that the movie was shot realistically, with an every day video camera, somehow managed to blur the lines between reality and fantasy.  I am reminded of the Victorians and their delight at staging pictures of fairies and ghosts for photographs; among the populace there was a sizable portion of people who simply did not believe you could fake a photograph because a photo reproduced exactly what it saw — what was ostensibly “reality.”  Anything in a photograph simply had to be real.

A small aside, while we’re still on the subject of cinéma vérité: the Spanish film [REC] was well received among horror circles, touted as being frightening, got an American remake called Quarantine, and there is a sequel to both on the way.  I will tell you now, contrary to popular reports, this movie is terrible.  It has plot holes galore, has no cohesive horror-aesthetic sense, I could really go on and on.  But I will stop for now and bring it up again when I’m through with this list.  Speaking of which…

1) Remakes
It’s nothing new for filmmakers to rehash old ideas and characters, but the horror genre has become notorious for it. At this moment, there are over 60 horror films slated to be remade. Granted some of them are just talk, but it’s a staggering number even if only half of them come to fruition.

Yes.  This really needs no explanation.  How are remakes a good idea?  What is up with the current studio fascination regarding “reboots” for classic horror franchises?  Do we really need an Elm Street remake, no matter how dated the original is?  Just because this worked for Batman doesn’t mean it will work forever, guys.

I’ve already mentioned [REC] and how it got an American remake, and so I will take this moment to talk about importing horror.  Up until recently, most horror media were imported from Japan and other Asian countries — original movies, Americanized remakes, etc.  I like being able to take part in a sort of international culture of horror just as much as the next guy, you understand, but as per my comments above I don’t really like remakes.  It worked well for The Ring, and that’s pretty much it.

So as long as we’re importing the original films, then we’re good, right?  No, we’re not, because the original movies can be just as shitty as anything we crank out in America.  The amount of Japanese/Korean horror that has been imported is far too large and diverse to point fingers at every little thing, really, but I will say the original Dark Water is a good horror story while One Missed Call is not.  However, in the wake of Pan’s Labyrinth the American horror scene seems to have gravitated to the other big ocean and set its sights on Spain.  This is not a mistake in and of itself; after all, Guillermo del Toro is a wonderful filmmaker, a man after my own heart, and Pan’s Labyrinth is a great film.

But perhaps because of the astounding quality of Pan’s Labyrinth as both a piece of horror and a piece of cinema (genre does not exclude art, it turns out!) there is a marked tendency to call any Spanish horror film the next big thing.  The Orphanage, for example, was very highly regarded even by critics despite having plot holes you could drive a bus through.  Certainly it deals with Important Issues in the same way Pan’s Labyrinth did, but it’s wholly more clumsy and nonsensical.  It was a passable film, but not deserving of the praise it received.

[REC] is the flip side of the coin, a movie with little worth that (like The Orphanage) was undeservedly praised.  It is — again! — style over substance, sound and fury signifying nothing, and so on.  The plot holes in this baby are wide enough that we could slip a 747 through.  It’s torture porn, except the first-person perspective means you never have any clue what sort of torture is going on (unless it’s torture of you, the viewer, heh heh heh).  It is scary, but only in the way that a jack-in-the-box is scary to a child who has never seen one before.  You jump when the monster pops out, but beyond that there is no emotional engagement.

I feel I should draw this ramble to a close.  It’s something of a mess.

Horror is a crappy genre.

This is true.  It has been a crappy genre for a long time, because so much of it is bottom of the barrel, derivative and desperate scrapes at the feet of better works.  So much of it is style in place of substance, disgust in place of true horror.  This is the fault of fans like me and you, because we refuse to challenge this genre we love so very much.  We refuse to ask it to do great things, simply so we can watch it do cool things.  When the genre gives us something good — something that is art, or approximates it, or strains the conventions in even a wonderful little way — we stand back and let the sequels come, the remakes, the reimaginings, the next-big-things.  We refuse to think about what horror as an emotion means for us as a species, what it communicates.  We horror fans are content to sit here and simply amuse ourselves to death.

That’s pretty spooky, isn’t it.