Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture
(1900 - present), Spring 2003, Volume 2, Issue 1
In Danse Macabre (1981), his non-fiction study of the horror genre, Stephen King distinguishes three Gothic archetypes that embody the central issues with which the Gothic era was concerned. To be more precise, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) deals with "the refusal to take personal responsibility for one's actions because of pride" (62); Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) portrays perverse or, in medical terms, abnormal and repressed sexuality as well as double standards of sexuality; and, finally, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) exploits the possibilities provided by the discovery of the human psyche during the Gothic period, that is, the question of the double. Taking this third archetype as the subject for this paper, I will show that one of the central issues in the Gothic era, namely the paradoxical existence of both good and evil in a single person, remains an important issue in the fiction of Stephen King. This perpetuation reveals our inability to evolve past our base instincts, to purge them completely from the human psyche. The appearance and reappearance of the Gothic double also shows us that popular fiction provides a useful repository for our deepest fear-specifically the fear that each of us is capable of great evil.
The Gothic Double
I will begin by distinguishing the Gothic double from the terms related to it. Alongside Frankenstein's monster, the Wandering Jew, and the Byronic vampire, David Punter sets a fourth Gothic character, the Doppelganger which, in his view, signifies "the mask of innocence" and which is found in, for instance, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (21). On another occasion, he refers to the novel as a record of a split personality (2), and since the terms are far from being identical, they need to be defined at the outset. The term Doppelganger is defined in The New International Webster's Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language (1999) as "1 A person exactly like another; a double. 2 A wraith, especially of a person not yet dead" (378). Since the German equivalent, too, primarily assumes that the word refers to two separate entities, the term Doppelganger is rejected in this context, although it is widely used in literary criticism. The term split personality is not included in The New International Webster's Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language, rightly so, because such a diagnosis is no longer considered scientifically valid. After Eugen Bleuler in the late nineteenth century coined the term schizophrenia to replace the old one, dementia procox, the lay public mistakenly understood it as an equivalent to the term split personality. The confusion of the terms meant that the lay term split personality became replaced in scientific usage by dissociative identity disorder (Kaplan, Sadock and Grebb 457). The latter includes various states and signifies a personality disorder in which the person is unaware of what his "other half" is doing. Whether Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde can be diagnosed as a dissociative disorder patient or possibly a borderline personality may occupy a few psychiatrists, but the term Gothic double will do for my purposes.
Like Doppelganger, the word double calls upon ambiguous interpretations and needs therefore to be defined. My definition takes as a starting point the concept of personality. According to The New International Webster's Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language, personality is: "1 That which constitutes a person; also, that which distinguishes and characterizes a person; personal existence" (942). As the unity of the personality was endangered by Freudian notions, similarly, many Gothic narratives were consumed "by a paranoid terror of involution or the unraveling of the multiformed ego" (Halberstam 55). Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fittingly displays this juxtaposition of the smooth surface of Dr. Jekyll and that of the "dwarfish" (18), "ape-like" (27) Mr. Hyde. While Dr. Jekyll is pleasant and sophisticated, Mr. Hyde, stunted, crumpled, and ugly, is designed to shock. Indeed, the "Gothic effect depends upon the production of a monstrous double" (Halberstam 54). Thus, for my purposes, the term Gothic double refers to the essential duality within a single character on the further presumption that the duality centers on the polarity of good and evil.
Like many of King's works, Stevenson's novella examines the conflict between the free will to do good or to do evil as well as the theme of hypocrisy. King believes the conflict between good and evil is the conflict between, in Freudian terms, the id and the superego and refers also to Stevenson's terms: the conflict between mortification and gratification. In addition, King views the struggle both in Christian and mythical terms. The latter suggests the split between the Apollonian (the man of intellect, morality, and nobility) and the Dionysian (the man of physical gratification) (Danse 75). Influenced by James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) and Edgar Allan Poe's "William Wilson" (1839), Stevenson wrote his novella in three days in 1886 (Punter 1; Danse 69). King expresses his admiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, regarding it as a "masterpiece of concision" (Danse 69, 80-81).
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the story of a Victorian gentleman who leads a secret life of vice, uses multiple narrators to relate the story of a man doomed by the chemical reproduction of his double. "Man is not truly one but two" says Dr. Jekyll, tormented by a sense of "the thorough and primitive duality of man" (Stevenson 70). Through chemical experimentation, he discovers a potion which dissociates the "polar twins" of the self, transforming his body into that of his other self (70). The other self, Mr. Hyde, allows Dr. Jekyll to satisfy his undignified desires untrammeled by moral scruples. Haunting the streets of London, this small and indescribably ugly character "springs headlong into the sea of liberty" which finally leads him to murder a respectable gentleman (75). Frightened, Dr. Jekyll determines never to use the potion again. However, the metamorphosis has become spontaneous, and, as King aptly notes, Dr. Jekyll "has created Hyde to escape the strictures of propriety, but has discovered that evil has its own strictures" (Danse 73). In the end, Dr. Jekyll has become Mr. Hyde's prisoner, and Jekyll/Hyde's life ends in suicide.
Many of the themes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appear in King's work. Like Dr. Jekyll, Reverend Lester Lowe of Cycle of the Werewolf bases his influence on moral superiority, and his high views of himself produce morbidity in his relations with his own appetites. Arnie Cunningham of Christine illustrates another angle of the werewolf myth even more clearly, that is, the werewolf as an innocent victim, predestinated to its destruction. While the Gage creature in King's Pet Semetary constructs part of its maker, the dialectic between monster and maker is resolved in, for instance, Cycle of the Werewolf as a conflict in a single body. Gage Creed's monstrosity in Pet Semetary depends upon the fragility of his father's humanity, whereas the repulsive nature of the werewolf can only be known through the failed respectability of Reverend Lester Lowe. King characterizes Lowe as genuinely evil, whereas Jekyll, although a hypocrite and a self-deceiver, only desires personal freedom and keeps certain pleasures repressed. Punter points out that while Hyde's behavior manifests an urban version of "going native," Jekyll struggles with various pressures (3). Similarly, Lester Lowe who embodies social virtue takes great pleasure in his bloody nocturnal adventures.
Thad Beaumont's alter ego in The Dark Half expresses the violent part of the protagonist's character, of which he himself is not constantly aware. Likewise, the degree to which Dr. Jekyll takes seriously his public responsibilities determines the "hidden-ness" of his desire for pleasure. Punter notes that since the public man must appear flawless, he must "hide" his private nature, to the extent of completely denying it (3). Defying all logic, Beaumont's "dark half," George Stark, has somehow come into existence, and Beaumont must literally face his dark half in a confrontation in which either Beaumont's Jekyll or Stark's Hyde has to die.
The Drawing of the Three introduces a dissociative patient, Odetta Holmes/Detta Walker, who through Roland the Gunslinger and Eddie Dean's intervention is able to merge her two personalities into the woman named Susannah Dean. Odetta developed a second personality as a young girl, when Jack Mort dropped a brick on her head. Her two personalities—the sophisticated and wealthy Odetta and the uneducated and vulgar Detta—lead separate lives, completely unaware of each other. Since both are aspects of her self, she cannot become a whole until those "polar twins" are united in Susannah Dean. When the compassion of Odetta and the strength of Detta merge into Susannah, she becomes a worthy gunslinger on Roland's team.
The dark halves of King's Gothic doubles express unrestrained sexuality. Reverend Lester Lowe "wolf-rapes" Stella Randolph, and the shy Arnie Cunningham transforms into a vulgar senior citizen in the form of the beast; the sexually insatiable Detta Walker uses both foul language and teases men, whereas George Stark commits a sexually charged murder of Miriam Cowley—not to mention the rape-murders of Frank Dodd and the child murders of Carl Bierstone/Charles Burnside. Gothic monsters underline the meaning of decadence and are thus concerned with the problem of degeneration. Punter maintains that they pose, from different angles, the same question appropriate to an age of imperial decline: how much can one lose—individually, socially, nationally—and still remain a man? (1). The question has remained a central issue in the modern Gothic and in King's fiction in particular.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published at a time when the problem of prostitution was receiving considerable public attention in England. As in Frankenstein and Dracula, the protagonist's vice and decadence are once again sex-related, but also clearly sadistic—the serial killers, Frank Dodd (Dead Zone) and Charles Burnside (Black House), feature these sadistic traits in King. Stevenson had read W. T. Stead's series of articles on child prostitution and was aware that the demand for child prostitutes was being stimulated by the sadistic tastes of the Victorian gentlemen (Clemens 123). More importantly, the theme is evoked at the outset of the novella when Mr. Hyde tramples on a young girl. The violation of the girl's body is settled with a hundred pounds, which reinforces the prostitution motif. Also, the foggy night side of Mr. Hyde's London gives a glimpse of the Victorian gentlemen's subculture: "Once a woman spoke to him, offering, I think, a box of lights" (Stevenson 85)—clearly, she was offering something else. As in Black House where the Fisherman lusts for a young boy's buttocks, the hints of sexual exploitation also suggest male victims, as for instance, in the scene in which Mr. Utterson, "tossing to and fro" on his "great, dark bed," imagines Mr. Hyde blackmailing Dr. Jekyll. This dark "figure to whom power was given" would stand by Jekyll's bedside, "and even at that dead hour he must rise and do its bidding" (20). A disturbing novella, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gave a detailed depiction of some upper-class gentlemen, but, as Valdine Clemens notes, criticized moralistic middle-class sexual repression (for instance, the prevalent homosexual abuse in public schools and prostitution) and patriarchal power (124, 132).
Arnie Cunninham of Christine perishes because of his desperate loneliness. An unattractive teenager who finds little solace at home or at school, Arnie falls in love with a 1958 Plymouth Fury. Possessed by the evil spirit of Christine's earlier owner, Roland LeBay, Arnie is alienated from his family, best friend Dennis, and even his high school sweetheart Leigh Cabot. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Christine focuses on "humanity's vulnerability to dehumanization" which coexists with the fear of internal evil: "the upsurge of the animal, the repressed unconscious, the monster from id," or, as Douglas E. Winter points out, "the monster from the fifties" (137, 139; Danse 75). The novel also discusses the conflict between the will to do evil and the will to deny evil; the car becomes a symbol of the duality of human nature, as telling as the two sides of Henry Jekyll's town house which bordered both a graceful Victorian street and a slumlike alley (Winter 139-140; Danse 75): "It was as if I had seen a snake that was almost ready to shed its old skin, that some of the old skin had already flaked away, revealing the glistening newness underneath" (Christine 57-58). As Christine magically returns to street condition, Arnie also begins to change, at first for the better, but then he matures beyond his years: "a teenage Jekyll rendered into a middle-aged Hyde" (Winter 140).
In brief, although Stevenson's classic finds no single counterpart in King, its motifs occur in several of King's works.
Cycle of the Werewolf and The Talisman introduce us to another Stephen King double: the werewolf. Perhaps nowhere else in King's fiction is the Gothic double more pronounced than in this figure.
Beginning as a calendar, displaying twelve colored drawings by Bernie Wrightson with brief accompanying text by King, Cycle of the Werewolf evolved into a twelve-chapter novella. Each successive segment takes place on a specific holiday of the year, from January to December, relating the story of the recurring appearance of a werewolf in isolated Tarker's Mills, Maine, and its destruction at the hands of a crippled boy. King defines the predestined nature of the disaster: "It is the Werewolf, and there is no more reason for its coming now than there would be for the arrival of cancer, or a psychotic with murder on his mind, or a killer tornado" (Werewolf 14). Although the werewolf arouses fear and suspicions, only in October do the residents take systematic action to defend themselves. Like "Salem's Lot, Castle Rock, or Derry, Tarker's Mills keeps its secrets, and, similarly, the residents of Tarker's Mills embody all of the diversifying virtue and ugliness found in everyday people" (Larson 104).
What is more, each of the werewolf's victims expands the constant sense of isolation, due to the flaws in their physiques and in their characters (Collings, The Many Facets of Stephen King 80). As an illustration, the February victim, Stella Randolph, is isolated by her skewed romanticism and by her corpulence (80). However, this Valentine's day the lonely old maid receives a visitor: "a dark shape—amorphous but clearly masculine" (Werewolf 21). King depicts Stella's encounter with the werewolf in Gothic terms, combining dreams, sex, and death (21-24). He uses the common French metaphor "orgasm is a little death" to reinforce the Gothic effect of the February section. Indeed, what takes the place of the Valentine figure is a "beast" with "shaggy fur in a silvery streak" (22) its breath "hot, but somehow not unpleasant" (23). Despite Berni Wrightson's illustration of a lustful redhead embracing a werewolf, King never graphically describes the wolf-rape and killing of the fat old maid, but veils it in quasi-romantic images that might have derived from John Keats's classic poem, "The Eve of St. Agnes" (Reino 136).
Like the wheel-chair bound protagonist Marty Coslaw, the Reverend Lester Lowe did nothing to deserve his destiny. Until May, he remains as unaware of the werewolf's identity as anybody else in Tarker's Mills. On the night before Homecoming Sunday, he has, however, a most peculiar dream. In his dream, Lowe has been preaching with fire and force, but has to break off, because both he and his congregation are turning into werewolves. Lester Lowe's relief after the nightmare turns into knowledge when he opens the church doors next morning, finding the gutted body of Clyde Corliss.
King refers to the werewolf in biblical terms as "the Beast" and "the Great Satan," and in the Gothic manner the Beast can be anywhere or, even worse, anybody (Werewolf 45). Unlike a number of other monsters, werewolves, however, frequently arouse pity. Aptly, Collings states that the werewolf is more sinned against than sinning, and that the curse works in two ways: on the level of plot, it transforms an otherwise sensible man into a rapacious monster; on the level of theme and symbol, it divorces him from reality, isolating the person from society and from personal standards of morality (Facets 78).
Although Reverend Lester Lowe shares a fate similar to that of Arnie Cunningham of Christine, he does not evoke fear and pity to the same extent. In the same way as his hypocritical predecessor in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Lester Lowe makes excuses for his behavior without fighting against it. In November, having found out that hunters have been sent out after the werewolf, he deliberately takes the role of the beast and defends himself by comparing the hunters with irrational animals. Ignoring the threat of these adult men, Marty Coslaw's lined notepads, and his direct question—"Why don't you kill yourself?" (Werewolf 108, 111; italics original)—the Reverend Lester Lowe (that is, the werewolf) is forced to analyze his situation. With hubris like that of Victor Frankenstein, he turns to God: "If I have been cursed from Outside, then God will bring me down in His time" (Werewolf 111; italics original). In other words, against the advice of his own creator, Stephen King, Reverend Lester Lowe readily lays the guilt on "God the Father" (Danse 62) and refuses to take responsibility for his actions or to fight his werewolf instincts. Moreover, blinded by his own logical reasoning, Lester Lowe succumbs to even greater evil by deliberately contemplating the murder of Marty Coslaw—this time both premeditated and in full possession of his senses (Werewolf 111).
While many contemporary treatments tend to glamorize the virtues of evil, King's approach is more traditional (Larson 106-107). Larson regards Reverend Lowe as a man unable to free himself from the overwhelming influence of evil, and he is eventually only able to do so through the aid of an outside agency, through the sympathy and concern of Marty Coslaw (107). Despite his fear of the werewolf, Marty recognizes the human being beneath the beast. While aiming his pistol with silver bullets towards the attacking werewolf, he says: "Poor old Reverend Lowe. I'm gonna try to set you free" (Werewolf 125). In the same way, Mina Harker pities the vampire in Dracula: "The poor soul who has wrought all this misery is the saddest case of all" (367). Clearly, King's allusion to this sentiment reinforces the moral tradition that has lain at the heart of the horror genre and has been much absent in contemporary horror fiction (Larson 108).
Undoubtedly, King takes a traditional stand by letting evil perish in the end of the novella, thus, unlike Larson or Anthony Magistrale in The Moral Voyages of Stephen King (57-67), I argue that evil can often be conquered in King's fiction. Although Jack Torrance of The Shining succumbs to evil and takes the mallet to attack his family, Dick Hallorann is able to resist the same evil influence of the hotel— similarly, Lowe could have acted otherwise. In The Talisman, we encounter Wolf, a slow-witted werewolf from the Territories. When he senses that the full moon is rising and that his instincts might lead him to hurt Jack Sawyer who has become his "herd" and whom he is thus expected to defend against all imaginable threats, this righteous creature takes measures to prevent possible accidents and locks up the herd, that is Jack Sawyer, in a shed for three days: "He Would Not Injure His Herd" (321). Unlike the godly Lowe who attempts to silence his crippled eye witness, the animal-like Wolf avoids killing people. Lowe considers his werewolf nature alien to his true self and allows this alien part to commit even grimmer crimes, which pushes him toward greater levels of moral corruption. Wolf, in contrast, lives by the laws of nature, takes into account the facts caused by his instincts, and respects himself. It is interesting to note, however, that while an evil impulse may be conquered the temptation toward evil is never entirely eliminated.
The Writer/His Pseudonym
Another variation of the Gothic double in Stephen King's work is Thad Beaumont/George Stark or the writer/his pseudonym. In the author's note of The Dark Half, King expresses his gratitude to his pseudonym, Richard Bachman, maintaining that the "novel could not have been written without him." In an interview with Walden Books (November/December 1989) and quoted in Magistrale, King acknowledged prior to the publication of The Dark Half that Richard Bachman is the darker, more violent side of Stephen King, just as Stark is the dark half of Thad Beaumont (The Second Decade 66). Remarkably, then, the Gothic double resides within the Gothic double, that is, the reality of the novel reflects reality. Undoubtedly, both pseudonyms function as a dark alter ego for the artist, a chance to realize his most violent and pessimistic visions. Tony Magistrale notes that the details surrounding the union between Beaumont and Stark underscore King's intimate relationship with Bachman. Furthermore, even information relevant to those trusted persons who knew, protected, and finally revealed King's pseudonym corresponds to the fictional events that the reader discovers in The Dark Half (Decade 63-64).
Like Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, whose transformation is occasioned by scientific explanation, King attempts to establish credibility by the means of medicine. Having suffered from constant headaches, the eleven-year-old Thad Beaumont is operated on, and, instead of a supposed brain tumor, a fetal twin is discovered in his brain. In addition to being Thad's physical twin, George Stark has his origin in the writer's imagination. Considering George "a very bad man," Thad knows that he has "built George Stark from the ground up" (The Dark Half 155). The symbolic funeral of George Stark becomes a moral stand for Thad's part, because he has both indulged his dark fantasies in Stark's fiction and profited financially from his success (Magistrale, Decade 64). Wendy and William, Beaumont's identical twins, underscore the symbiotic relationship of Stark and Beaumont. While responding with similar affection to these different looking men, Wendy and William sense their identical nature. Sharing identical fingerprints and a capacity for mental telepathy, it becomes more obvious that George has a right to feel insulted (The Dark Half 331). Not even Thad is able to make a clear distinction between himself and George: "Who are you when you write, Thad? Who are you then?" (The Dark Half 129; italics original).
Since George constitutes an integral part of Thad's psyche, he does not genuinely attempt to get rid of George. Elisabeth compares the relationship with alcohol or drug addiction, stating that Thad revealed George's identity only through the force of circumstances: "If Frederick Clawson hadn't come along and forced my husband's hand, I think Thad would still be talking about getting rid of him in the same way" (The Dark Half 202). Indeed, this contradiction has resulted in alcohol addiction, a suicide attempt, and lifelike dreams. However, only as Stark threatens Beaumont's immediate circle, does he realize the intimacy of their relationship and its fatal consequences. Starting as a thriller, the final confrontation of the two brothers and its victory for Thad receives a mythological explanation. Conducting human souls back and forth between the land of the living and the land of the dead, sparrows are able to distinguish the original brother from the dead one and to take the latter where he belongs. Nevertheless, Thad's victory may prove of short duration, and he is referred to in a less pleasant context later in King: in Needful Things (1991) we learn that Thad Beaumont has broken up with his wife and in Bag of Bones (1998) that he has committed suicide.
The Serial Killer
The serial killer also represents the modern counterpart of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. The Dead Zone, for example, concerns the removal of masks, both political and psychological. The Gothic duality is displayed even in the novel's central symbol, the wheel of fortune, which, apart from representing blind chance, reveals a second disc. Winter explains that at its heart is the Presidential Seal, a symbol of a different game of chance—politics—and its paradoxes (76). Focusing on the masquerade of politics, Greg Stillson, a Congressional candidate whose name is an intentional conjunction of "still" and "Nixon" (263), takes the Vietnamese masquerade-game of the "Laughing Tiger" a step further: "inside the beast-skin, a man, yes. But inside the man-skin, a beast" (The Dead Zone 297). The Dead Zone also connects the fates—and masks—of Johnny Smith whose resemblance to Everyman is signaled in the prosaic simplicity of his name and Frank Dodd, the strangler-rapist whose identity is withheld until one of "Faithful John's" psychic revelations.
As a consequence of a car crash, Johnny lies in a coma for four
and a half years. Awakening in May 1975 at the age of twenty-seven,
he discovers that the world has changed: the war in Vietnam has
ended, a Vice-President and President have resigned, Johnny's girlfriend
is married and has borne a child, Stillson has made his political
move, and an unidentified rapist is killing young women in Castle
Rock. Apart from regaining consciousness, Johnny has acquired occult
powers of precognition and telepathy which both cause his estrangement
from his past life and force him to take a moral stand: whether
or not to stop Stillson and Dodd. Although this Faithful John serves
the purpose of good, his Jekyll-and-Hyde mask (The Dead Zone
14) haunts his girlfriend Sarah Bracknell (later Sarah Hazlett)
throughout the novel.
When Alma Frechette appears, fate plays a decisive role in a genuinely Gothic manner, and, again, everybody must be suspected. Familiar with the killer, Alma does not suspect anything but wonders at his Little Red Riding Hood outfit (The Dead Zone 66). Before long, she is strangled at the moment of Dodd's ejaculation. "Surely no hometown boy could have done such a dreadful thing," states the pious narrator (The Dead Zone 68), and from then on almost two years pass without more killings.
Significantly, Johnny Smith's awakening from the coma coincides with the fourth murder. However, it takes deep self-exploration on the recovered Johnny's part before he accepts the sheriff George Bannerman's request to assist in the murder investigation. By acknowledging his psychic abilities and acting accordingly, Johnny humbles before fate. In King's world, nobody escapes his destiny, and, at any rate, a well-developed brain tumor would cause Johnny's death within a few months. However, by bearing responsibility for his next, Johnny prevents Greg Stillson's presidency and its likely consequence, a nuclear war, as well as Frank Dodd from continuing his murder series. After all, the investigation turns out to be of short duration, since the deputy Frank Dodd commits suicide the same evening the two men meet at the police department. Remarkably, the childish face hides the Gothic mark of the beast (The Dead Zone 233), evil actions having their root in childhood. After gathered enough evidence, Bannerman and Smith visit Dodd's house and find him dead: "Knew, Johnny thought incoherently. Knew somehow when he saw me. Knew it was all over. Came home. Did this" (The Dead Zone 253). In other words, the two men are connected, and their interrelations are further reinforced by the nature of their mothers: the sexual neurotic, Henrietta Dodd, who "knew from the beginning" (The Dead Zone 252) and Vera Smith who marks her son with her religious frenzies: "God has put his mark on my Johnny and I rejoice" (The Dead Zone 61).
The opening page of Cujo repeats the story of Frank Dodd, stating that "he was no werewolf, vampire, ghoul, or unnameable creature from the enchanted forest or from the snowy wastes; he was only a cop named Frank Dodd with mental and sexual problems" (Cujo 3). Like Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Frank Dodd personifies a victimized human being who does not "suit in his skin." Although regarded as a respected resident of Castle Rock, Frank Dodd lacks identity and is perhaps therefore a master of disguise.
A number of serial killers suffer from impotence except during their violent acts and are not considered genuinely males, but are despised as freaks and monsters. Charles Burnside a.k.a. Carl Bierstone and the Fisherman of Black House has all but one of these characteristics: born evil and without conscience, he justifies cruelty as an end in itself.
Black House is a kind of sequel to The Talisman, both works being jointly authored by Peter Straub and Stephen King. A Victorian novel with allusions to Charles Dickens's Bleak House, Dickensian characters, and references to Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain, Black House reads as a tale of horror or a detective story with a blend of thriller and fantasy (Gaiman 2). The narrative reintroduces the then twelve-year-old Jack Sawyer of The Talisman. Now this retired, burned out ex-LAPD homicide detective lives in the small Wisconsin town of French Landing—interestingly, in scenery resembling Tom Sawyer's and Huckleberry Finn's foggy riverside. Children are being abducted from French Landing by a cannibal named "The Fisherman" who has disguised himself as an Alzheimer's patient in the local old people's home and is aided in his dastardly misdeeds by a talking crow called "Gorg." The Fisherman is a pawn in the hand of the Crimson King, evil monarch of End World, who attempts to abduct a wunderkind in order to annihilate the universe with his powers. Jack and a gang of philosophically inclined motor bikers called the Hegelian Scum take action to save the wunderkind, Ty Marshall, and arrest the Fisherman.
Parodying the thriller formula, the narrator takes us to the murder scene of Irma Freneau:
The Fisherman himself is named after Albert Fish, a real-life child-killer and cannibal, whose crimes he imitates in the novel's fictional world. In his study of the interrelationship between the reader and the novel, Edward Bullough states that a work of fiction has succeeded when the reader participates in the communication process so completely as to be nearly convinced that the art is reality (758). In Black House, the authors gap the bridge between the reader and the text by equating the reader with the narrator (a first-person plural narration), by using the present tense, and even by letting the reader choose the story ending that best serves his purpose. Perhaps the otherwise too fantastic occurrences of the story become more realistic by these means, combined with King's usual artillery: lifelike characters and initially realistic settings.
The serial killer turns out to be a tall, skinny, and senile old man (Black House 22). Although a soul brother to the other men who reside at the Maxton Elder Care Facility with his "sly, secretive, rude, caustic, stubborn, foul-tongued, mean-spirited, and resentful" character (Black House 23), Charles Burnside hides his true self:
The secrets with which Charles Burnside indulges himself turn him into a loner, forcing him to hide his misdeeds. As a tool in the hands of a greater evil, Burnside takes his pleasure feeding on children who are not worth sending to the End-World to the Crimson King, a creature who ultimately hides beneath the Fisherman mask.
Assisted by Gorg, the speaking crow, Charles Burnside addresses the End-World like a vassal or a stray dog fed with crumbs. While action is needed, the senior citizen undergoes a transformation. In Charles Burnside's place is Carl Bierstone and something inhuman (Black House 111). The inhuman inside Burny's head signifies Mr. Munshun, Crimson King's close disciple and servant, a vampire-like figure. Nearing the end of his usefulness, Burny is at Mr. Munshun's request forced to take Ty Marshall, a promising breaker to an appointed meeting place. The term breaker is used for those slaves of Crimson King who break the beams leading to the Tower, thus aiming at the total annihilation of the universe. Driven by contradictory urges, this odd serial killer is afraid of the consequences of his actions (Black House 541), but, despite a deadly wound, still lusts for Ty Marshall's "juicy buttocks." Like the witch of "Hansel and Gretel," he is reluctant to hand over his prey: "A good agent's entitled to ten percent" (Black House 550). Only seldom can a parallel be drawn between a serial killer and a wicked witch from a fairy tale, which perhaps bears further witness to King's genre blending.
The Gothic double of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde shares some traits with characters in King's work. First, flawed humanity moves between the two poles of good and evil, causing contradiction and anguish to the subject. Second, the Gothic gnome, that is, the "dwarfish" and "ape-like" half of the personality is hidden at the cost of hypocrisy and oft hideous crimes. Therefore, a disguise is needed, which causes further tension and the fear of getting caught. Tension also intensifies from the constant threat of transformation.
Monsters of the nineteenth century scare us from a distance while at the same time, as Halberstam notes, "We wear modern monsters like skin, they are us, they are on us and in us" (163). King, too, states that "the monsters are no longer due on Maple Street, but may pop up in our own mirrors—at any time" (Danse 252). Presumably, both convictions are based on two facts; good and evil can and do exist within a single person and, concomitantly, we are ultimately unable to evolve, to purge our baser selves from our psyche. King puts it straightforwardly: "Werewolf, vampire, ghoul, unnameable creature from the wastes. The monster never dies" (Cujo 4).
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