The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

If I had to describe The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson, I’d say to reimagine American Psycho through a lens created by combining the works of Raymond Chandler with To Kill a Mockingbird. I know that probably sounds a little weird, but despite what I can describe you might have to read The Killer Inside Me yourself to see what I’m talking about.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Walter Kirn)

Lou Ford is a deputy sherriff in a small but growing town in Texas. He’s likeable, almost simple perhaps:

“Well, I tell you,” I drawled. “I tell you the way I look at it, a man doesn’t get any more out of life than what he puts into it.”

“Umm,” he said, fidgeting. “I guess you’re right, Lou.”

“I was thinking the other day, Max; and all of a sudden I had the doggonedest thought. It came to me out of a clear sky—the boy is father to the man. Just like that. The boy is father to the man.”

Unfortunately, that’s just the surface. Inside dwells what the calls “the sickness.” He’s an uncontrollable killer, a fiend:

“No, baby”—my lips drew back from my teeth. “I’m not going to hurt you. I wouldn’t’ think of hurting you. I’m just going to beat the ass plumb off you.”

I said it, and I meant it and I damned near did.

I jerked the jersey up over her face and tied the end in a knot. I threw her down on the bed, yanked off her sleeping shorts and tied her feet together with them.

I took off my belt and raised it over my head….

I don’t know how long it was before I stopped, before I came to my senses. All I know is that my arm ached like hell and her rear end was one big bruise, and I was scared crazy—as scared as a man can get and go on living.

He’s killed before, driven by impulses he cannot control, but that was in his youth. He was protected, but watched. Controlled. Unfortunately, that control is now gone with the deaths of his father and adopted brother and Lou meets a whore who makes the sickness again rise. He decides she has to die. People start sniffing after Lou Ford’s trail and he decides they have to die as well. Coldly calculating, he proceeds about his business.

The Killer Inside Me is a dark book. Not so much in the crimes Lou Ford commits, because though the murders are terrible I’ve certainly read worse and more graphic. The darkness for me is more in how reasonable he seems, how much Thompson gets you to like him at the same time you hate him. You find yourself rooting for Lou at the same time you want him stopped. You can’t reconcile it, and that’s the real mastery as I saw it in The Killer Inside Me. It’s certainly an impressive writing achievement…just a frightening one.

Dune by Frank Herbert

So.  I am embarrassed to admit that I cannot tell you who listed Dune in their top ten.  I looked it up last night, but then was unable to post.  I can now post but don’t have the book where I’m at.  So, mysteriously enough, I can tell you that it was just one person who listed Dune in their top ten and that I think their last name started with a “M”.  That second thing might be wrong though.

Prior to this, whenever I heard about Dune or saw the book around, I always had vague images of deserts and huge worms and weird 70s looking men and women pretending to be desert dwellers.  Then, those images would mix in my mind with Luke Skywalker whining and C3PO and R2D2 getting sand in various mechanical crevices.

Apparently, at some point, I either watched Dune at a time where my young brain quickly forgot it, or when my brain was intoxicated, ensuring that I would also forget it (which happened with most movies watched in that state, except, ironically, Dazed and Confused).

Segue to me saying “These are not the droids you’re looking for”.

The movie is notoriously bad.  Everyone I told that I was reading the book all looked at me in horror and said “YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THE MOVIE HAVE YOU?” and when I would say not that I remembered, they’d all look relieved and say “Oh the book is much better than the movie.”

The book is much, much better than the reputation and vague memories of the movie that I have.  I can’t say that it’s my favorite sci-fi I’ve ever read.  In all honesty, if it was written today and marketed, I can imagine it would be shelved in the YA section of the library.  That’s not an insult though, some of the best books I’ve read in the last 3 years have been shelved in the YA section of the library (Ashenfall, We Were Liars and Fan Girl, just from the last 3 months spring to mind).  It’s got an adolescent protagonist, Paul, who moves to the desert planet from Caladan which was a planet that was quite literally dripping with moisture (I refuse to use the word “moist”.  There is no worse word, well, except for Stephanie Meyers favorite word, “chuckle”).  His father has been assigned to the planet by the Emperor.  There is a huge feud between the Atreides (Paul’s family) and the Harkonnen household (which, going with the odd Star Wars parallels, has a version of Jabba the Hut as its patriarch).  The Harkonnens were the ones on the planet previously running the show.  The desert has something called “spice” which seems to be some weird class of something that is more than a spice for food but somewhere less than LSD.  People that can only eat food from Arrakis (mainly, the fremen who are the nomads of the desert on the planet) have eyes that are entirely blue, with no whites or pupils to them.  This indicates a diet entirely of food seasoned with “spice”.

Betrayal, disaster and exile occur.  Resurrection and retribution occur.  The book is both a novel of a humanity of the future’s quest to get genetics back under control and a group (they’d be the mage class if this was fantasy and not science fiction)’s desire to control the end result of the genetic manipulation and a coming of age story of a savior.

This is a completely PG novel.  While the main character Paul ends up having a son, if you were not aware of the mechanics of how sons come to be, you might think that a sand worm (yes, they do exist in the book but in a much cooler way) delivered them on door steps.  It’s also an accessible science fiction book.  I think some SF books are very hard to get into, obtuse and technical.  This reminded me a lot of Ender’s Game, in terms of the ease of reading it for a person who doesn’t read sci fi a lot.

And, the more I think about it, the more it seems like Lucas ripped a lot of Dune off for Star Wars.  I will have to discuss this with Greg.  Definitely put this on your list of things to read, while it might not be in my top ten, it’s worth the time and who knows, it might end up being in yours ;)

Have a great weekend!!

The Untouchable by John Banville

When a novel is all about a character being unmasked as a Russian agent, it seems like you’d be expecting a bit of a suspense thriller. Real cloak and dagger type of stuff. The Untouchable by John Banville isn’t quite like that. Elderly Victor Maskell has been unmasked as having spent much of his life as a Russian agent, demonized and even his knighthood stripped away though curiously not even arrested, but from there the book mostly takes the form of a slowly moving retrospective memoir.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Anita Shreve and 7th for Robert Wilson)

Victor Maskell is highly placed in English society as WWII approaches. He’s not exactly fabulously wealthy, but he is distantly related to the queen. He attends Cambridge and moves in the right circles. The sort of circles that with his Socialist ideals get him recruited by the Soviets:

I knew what was going on; I knew I was being recruited. It was exciting and alarming and slightly ludicrous, like being summoned from the sideline to play in the senior-school game. It was amusing. This world no longer carries the weight that it did for us. Amusement was not amusement, but a test of the authenticity of a thing, a verification of its worth. The most serious matters amused us. This was something the Felix Hartmanns never understood.

He also starts working for the English secret service. A double agent. Thrilling, right? Well, he’s an art historian.

Victor doesn’t jump out of windows or watch shop windows to see if he’s got a tail waiting to bump him off with prussic acid. He just hangs out in high circles and relays gossip. In his work for the British secret service, he sometimes passes along memos he comes across. There isn’t big adventure here, not the pulse-pounding sort at least:

“Do?” he said, putting on an arch, amused expression; his earlier, violent mood had subsided and he was his smooth self again. “You do not do anything, really.” He took a draught of beer and with relish licked the fringe of foam from his upper lip. His blue-black oiled hair was combed starkly back from his forehead, giving him the pert, suave look of a raptor. He had rubber galoshes on over his dancer’s dainty shoes. I twas said that he wore a hairnet in bed. “Your value for us is that you are at the heart of the English establishment—”

“I am?”

“—and from the information you and Boy Bannister and the others supply to us we shall be able to build a picture of the power bases of this country.” He loved these expositions, the setting out of aims and objectives, the homilies on strategy; every spy is part priest, part pedant.

No, Victor is old. He’s been disgraced…but he’s living quietly at home and remembering how it all came about. No locking him in a room and throwing away the room, just memories. How he was recruited, how he served, how he was betrayed, his homosexuality, his wife and children, all that. It’s a quiet book. For a spy novel, The Untouchable is very quiet.

The Untouchable wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It’s more remembrance, and much more slowly paced than I thought it would be….not much of a thriller at all. It’s well done, but the prose is fairly dense and the pacing is a little slow for my tastes. Really, it struck me more as a literary examination of a character’s life. The spy stuff was just details.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

So, for some reason, and I’m sure it’s because I read it somewhere, I keep wanting to say the “Taming of the Shrew”. Is that a real story somewhere? Does anyone know where this literary mistake keeps coming from?

Michael Cunningham listed The Turn of the Screw as one of his favorite books (but not the Taming of the Shrew).

I liked this story. I wasn’t so wowed by it that I’m going to heap loads of praise on it right now. I think part of the lack of wow factor is that it reminded me too much of both Rebecca and Jane Eyre. However, the thing that I -did- like about The Turn of the Screw was that it was honestly something supernatural, not a thing that seemed supernatural but was not.

At the beginning, they have a group that meet together at a club and tell stories. While I was reading/listening (I listened to the first couple of chapters then switched to reading the book) to it, it reminded me of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Which, if you’re looking for a more contemporary ghost story, I highly recommend it. One of the only horror novels to ever scare me so badly that I nearly jumped out of my skin in a crowded public place (Village Inn) while reading it when Greg tapped my shoulder. It was cool though to think that it might be where Straub got his inspiration for Ghost Story (partly). I’ve also read at least one short story/novella from King that had a similar premise.

If you like ghost stories, and you have never read The Turn of the Screw, you must do so. In some ways, I think it was the real genesis of the literary ghost story. I did get a couple of shivers up my spine towards the end, so it is definitely worth it for that.

I think part of it was scary though because of being a parent. Like, there was nothing that could be done to really protect the two children that the book centers around. The story is about the governess’s struggle to do so. This is not me crawling up on some high handed “I’m a parent you aren’t so you don’t know nyah nyah boo boo”. I’m just stating that I think it created a different dimension to the creepiness I felt that would not have existed prior to having a child.

Definitely read this one. Even though I’m not cooing over it and not heaping mountains of praise on it, it’s a damn good story and not very long either.

Hope everyone’s weekend is fantastic and Happy Valentine’s Day!! (had my brain been more on top of things, I would have tried to pick out something more “love” appropriate. For example, the poetry of Pablo Neruda is in The Top Ten, and would have been perfect. But since Dave and I have approximately eight more years to go on this, I’ll just save it for a different V Day!)

In which I go slightly offtopic

In light of recent events, both of which I will talk about in the upcoming paragraphs, I wanted to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird. You might recall that I previously discussed it here.

The first event is one that, unless you either don’t care about Harper Lee, Atticus Finch or To Kill a Mockingbird at all or live under a literary rock, you will have heard of. (And I’m unsure if that previous sentence is grammatically correct or is too long, but I’m leaving it. Because I can. Unless Dave decides to edit it. Which he has only done twice. After asking. And I’m unsure where this whole parenthetical rambling came from.) In the last few days, it has been announced that Harper Lee is doing the very thing she has been insinuating or outright saying since 1962 she would not do; publish both a second book and a sequel of To Kill A Mockingbird.

“”When you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go,” she once said to a cousin. “I said what I had to say,” she told a bookseller in 2000.”
(If you click the quote, it’ll provide the New York Times article from 2006 I found saying it.)

I am really, really torn on how to feel about this. It just seems slightly fishy to me that her sister dies in November, whom was the person who protected Lee’s privacy, and suddenly in February there is the announcement that she is publishing the “yay! Serendipity!” recently found by her lawyer manuscript. Considering that more than one source has stated that Lee has a horrible short term memory, and considering the flip flop that occurred in regards to The Mockingbird Next Door, the most recent Harper Lee biography to hit the shelves, it just gives me an uneasy feeling.

But, I am also willing to consider that maybe she has reached a point where she figures, well what the hell, I’m not going to be on this mortal coil much longer, might as well get this out there. Or that her sister was a horribly controlling woman that no one realized was dominating poor Harper and now that she’s finally free she’s going to publish her book and the rest be damned!

And, most likely, I will read it. And I will then hope against hope to not be horribly disappointed that I did. Or to later find out that it -was- published against her will and then feel the literary book reader equivalent of the walk of shame at 9:00 a.m. on a Sunday across the campus green.

Now! Onto the more fun second thing. Dave recently published a short, very, very, very short piece of fiction. You can find it here. The site is called Cease Cows and I strongly encourage you once you read Dave’s story (because you all are going to of course) to browse around on there. Dave’s story is called “To Kill a Mokkingbird II – Kill Harder by Ahrrper Leeeeee”. It’s a pretty good guess as to what the sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird will be about. (Just kidding :P ).

I have like three different things that this piece of fiction is trying to tell me, in addition to the thing that just says “Yay! This is funny!”. And everything I’ve just tried to type about those three things keeps sounding stupid and I keep hitting the backspace button and deleting it. But, it’s something about how some things in our entertainment culture come and go so fast that even when they’re big hits they don’t really stick but Boo, Atticus and Scout have all stuck with us, even if we can’t remember quite why.

Read it. Let me know if you agree. If you like it, tell Dave. And if you’ve never read anything else of his, check out all of that too (which you can find on his bio, or his own personal blog, or add him on facebook, or search David S. Atkinson on Amazon).

I hope everyone has a great weekend! And let me know too what you think about the sequel. Will you read it? Or will you pass on it? Do you think Lee really does want this published?

The Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda

(Dave here again. Kim will be back for the next two weeks.)

One of the main reasons I agreed when Kim came up with the idea to do this blog was to find books that I should have read and for whatever reason didn’t know about. Sometimes it’s just an excuse to reads books I’ve known about but never actually sat down to read, but often I come across something wonderful that I simply had never heard of. My reading is definitely better for doing this blog and The Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda is definitely an example of that.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Sandra Cisneros)

The Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda centers on Natalia, a woman who starts as a young counter clerk in a pastry shop out the time just before the Spanish civil war. The back of the book describes her as naïve, but she didn’t strike me as that way. Almost more passive, accepting life as it comes along except when she occasionally breaks. She’s swept up by the handsome and impulsive furniture carpenter Quimet, who though well intended is somewhat of a childish bully. He even insists on calling her Colometa, his own pet name, despite her initial protests:

And he said by the end of the year I’d be his wife and I hadn’t even looked at him yet and I looked him over and then he said, “Don’t look at me like that or they’ll have to pick me up off the ground,” and when I told him he had eyes like a monkey he started laughing. The waistband was like a knife in my skin and the musicians “TararIrarrarI!” And I couldn’t see Julieta anywhere. She’d disappeared. And me with those eyes in front of me that wouldn’t go away, as if the whole world had become those eyes and there was no way to escape them. And the night moving forward with its chariots of stars and the festival going on and the fruitbasket and the girl with the fruitbasket, all in blue, whirling around….My mother in the Saint Gervasi Cemetery and me in the Placa del Diamant….”You sell sweet things? Honey and jam…” And the musicians, tired, putting things in their cases and taking them out again because someone had tipped them to play a waltz and everyone spinning around like tops. When the waltz ended people started to leave. I said I’d lost Julieta and he said he’d lost Cintet and that when we were alone and everyone shut up in their houses and the streets empty we’d dance a waltz on tiptoe in the Placa del Diamant…round and round…He called me Colometa, his little dove. I looked at him very annoyed and said my name was Natalia and when I said my name was Natalia he kept laughing and said I could have only one name: Colometa. That was when I started running with him behind me: “Don’t get scared…listen, you can’t walk through the streets all alone, you’ll get robbed….” and he grabbed my arm and stopped me. “Don’t you see you’ll get robbed, Colometa?” And my mother dead and me caught in my tracks and that waistband pinching, pinching, like I was tied with a wire to a bunch of asparagus.

She does marry him. They get an apartment he makes her help pay for and makes her do much of the work to prepare. This carries through the births of her children as he starts to keep doves, conning her into working herself to death caring for the children, minding the doves that even fill part of the house, and working again outside their home. He dreams childishly, and indulges in pretend sickness to sometimes get out of work himself.

But then the civil war comes. The doves all die or fly away (though even before the war she did snap at some point and start killing them in the eggs herself). Eventually Quimet is gone and Natalia is destitute with her starving children. Backed as far as she can go, she decides she has no choice but to kill herself and her children by pouring hydrochloric acid down all their throats….but then:

Someone called out to me and I turned around and it was the grocer and he came up behind me and when I turned around I thought of that woman who’d been changed to salt. And I thought the grocer was going to say he’d given me bleach instead of acid and I don’t know what I thought. He asked if I’d mind coming back with him to his store. That he was sorry to bother me but would I mind coming back with him to his store. And we went into the stores and there was no one there and he asked me if I’d like to keep house for him, that he’d known me for a while and that the woman who’d been working for him had stopped because she was too old and got tired….And then someone came in and he said, “I’ll be right with you,” and he was standing in front of me waiting for an answer. And since I didn’t say anything he asked me if I already had a job and couldn’t leave it and I shook my head and said I didn’t know what to do. He said if I didn’t have a job he had a nice little apartment and it wouldn’t be much work and he already knew I was reliable. I nodded my head and he said, “Start tomorrow,” and he went inside and got two cans of food and nervously stuck them in my basket along with a little bag of something. And he said I could start work tomorrow at nine. And without realizing what I was doing I took the bottle of acid out of my basket and carefully placed it on top of the counter. And I went out without a word. And when I got home, I—who’d always had a touch time crying—burst into tears like it was the simplest thing in the world.

I won’t say any more. I’ve probably said too much already.

There is a soft hardness about The Time of the Doves that I absolutely loved. The writing comes across with a pleasant simplicity, but it is really more elegant craftsmanship that makes nothing about its earthy beauty ornamented or bejeweled, because you can’t see the seams. The introduction to the book talks specifically about the stream of consciousness style, but though I can see that when I stop and look for it (as I’m sure you can if you go back to the bits above) it’s so plainly and seamlessly done that I honestly didn’t notice while reading. The story just flowed right along.

The Time of the Doves speaks softly for the most part, but I doubt a reader could mistake that for a lack of power. It has power in spades.

The Outward Room by Millen Brand

I end up reading a lot of books for this blog. Kim and I both do, obviously. Some really impress me, and some not so much. Sometimes I even feel that I’m impressed with a book merely because I’m supposed to be, having heard enough to regard it a certain way by preprogramming. The Outward Room by Millen Brand is a little different though. This book struck me as one of the better books I’ve read for this blog in a while, and I’d never heard of it before. It doesn’t seem like that many people have these days.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Peter Cameron.)

In The Outward Room, a young woman in the 1930’s has spent the last seven years in a mental hospital, having broken down when she witnessed her brother die in a car accident. Frankly, she regards herself as having died as well…and given how prison-like the hospital is she doesn’t seem entirely wrong. She’s pretty much alone, particularly since she regards her parents as responsible for her brother’s death as they were the ones who asked him to drive their deathtrap of a car. Her doctor is useless at best:

“Here it is, then. At the center of your dream, clearly, you became your mother, you were putting yourself in her place in relation to your father. The letters, the ‘better half,’ everything shows it. It’s just another proof of something I’ve told you, that almost all children go through a period when they fall in love with the parent, the one of the opposite sex. It’s an old story now, well-known. And being in love with one parent, children are jealous of the other—you were jealous of your mother. During the period of your childhood represented by this dream, you were in love with your father, but not as much as at first. Already your father seemed inferior to you. Later, you substituted your brother for him, who was stronger and took after your mother[.]”

I mean, regardless of whether or not Freud had an accurate idea of how people form, this doctor has been unable to do a damn thing for this woman and her condition resulting from her trauma. He hasn’t been able to make any impact on her mental health in seven years. Facing all of this, she escapes to New York to make a life for herself (under the name ‘Harriet Demuth’) in the middle of the depression with only $5 she gets by pawning a ring her brother gave her before he died.

Of course, it’s difficult for her. This is the depression we’re talking about…it’s hard for everybody, sane or not. Her money runs out. She has nowhere to stay, no food, and no money. Lacking any other option, she happens into an all nigh cafeteria and gets very lucky:

At a nearby table a man was sitting. She saw him and her eyes gradually cleared. He had on a gray workingman’s shirt, open at the collar; the shirt was not too clean. Sweat had given the shirt the shape of his shoulders which were strong-looking. From the open collar she could see how his neck began, thick, strong. The oval of his head was outlined by black hair and a two-day growth of dark beard. Through the beard, she could see the case of his features; they were hard, yet young. His eyes were kind; they seemed to have understanding. They looked at each other in silence, waiting. Then—

“Come on, get going.”

The man got up and came over.

“What’s the trouble?” he said.

A man, evidently the night manager of the cafeteria, said, “She isn’t buying anything.” “Let her alone,” he said. “I’ll get her something.” The manager hesitated and then walked away.

This is John, a machine-shop worker. He takes her in, offers her help when she wants it. Aided by John’s quiet kindness, Harriet begins to grow again. She works, makes friends, and falls in love. She gradually starts to emerge from her death-like condition. Extended a little humanity, she does for herself what her Freudian doctor could never do. She lives.

I love when a book can be this plain and this quiet while still being highly emotionally evocative. The Outward Room is masterful really. The book doesn’t ride only off the emotional force tied to the underlying subject matter, though that is there. It doesn’t pull cheap tricks either. The words are just set out there, plain. Somehow that all explodes inside the reader as the words are read.

The Outward Room might not be one of my most favorite books, but I was highly impressed. I’m really surprised I haven’t heard more people talking about it. It deserves to be talked about.