Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Killer in the Dark

After studying serial killers in popular fiction this semester, I am writing a story about one hiding in the wilderness. So for this final blog of the semester--a blog discussing a real psycho--I have taken a man from frontier times. Accessing this tale contributes to my story by illuminating what scares readers in a similar context. So, without further ado, Charles Kennedy is the psycho that contains several elements that can factor into my latest work.

Reports conflict slightly, but a few details tend to hold constant. Kennedy made his home near Taos, New Mexico. He lived in an isolated cabin with his family. When travelers passed by, he’d kill them. One night, his son informed a visitor that there were bodies under the house, which quickly sparked Kennedy into a murderous rage. His wife escaped, though, and found help. Kennedy was arrested, but instead of being given a proper trial, he was quickly executed (stories differ on how, though).

Kennedy’s tale terrifies for several reasons. The isolation creates an uneasy sense that even if victims escaped, they might not reach help and safety in time. Also, Kennedy knew the region, thrived in the seclusion, and could act as a trapdoor spider, tricking people in and hunting them as needed. He becomes the monster in the darkness of the wilderness, the evil that keeps people fearful of leaving the edge of town. Another detail that I’ve connected between different versions of this tale was the manner in which Kennedy handled the remains of his victims. Many agree that he burned and buried his victims. His place of residence thus becomes the heart of the evil. It’s a terrifying place to imagine, with bones strewed around the fire place, bodies waiting for cremation and rotting under the house, and Kennedy himself drinking and brooding about more victims. Animalistic in nature, his cabin becomes a lair of carnage.

My imaginings of his cabin correlated with at least one scene I’ve been planning for my own story: a cabin scene. Since my story has to do with an over-enthusiastic hunter, his cabin will similarly be a dwelling for his malevolence. He might have victims hanging upside down, some draining and some already skinned--but it would also be terrifying for the protagonists to gaze into a fire and see a charred skull staring back. These details are all pretty adaptable, yet very chilling.

On a final note, something else troublesome about Kennedy is that not all of his victims were accounted for. Some sources claim he may have had up to 100 victims. Fear stems from the unknown, and not knowing how many more bodies remain in the wilderness outside Taos is worrisome. Similarly, in my story, the killer may or may not be caught in the end, but bodies will certainly pop up from the cold earth for years to come after he’s through with the region.

Friday, November 9, 2012

That Joke's Not Too Funny

I'm a Marvel fanboy and have never cared much for the DC universe. Batman is my favorite hero from DC, though, especially considering The Dark Knight trilogy. The Killing Joke, however, did not live up to the stellar reviews and blurbs on the cover. It wasn't the worst read ever, but it felt generic, uneventful, and lackluster. I felt nothing while I read it, which is a bummer when I was expecting great things. The book does present some interesting ideas, though, and when being analyzed from the Joker's perspective, not Batman's, there are some fascinating issues to ponder.

This really was the Joker's tale, and one of the lines that stuck out to me was when the Joker tells Batman that he's not exactly sure what happened to make him lose touch with reality, that he remembers his story in different ways at different times. Admitting this nullifies the whole history readers are presented. Readers assume those scenes--the comedian looking for a job, the comedian working on a crime, the comedian's wife dying, the comedian falling into chemicals and becoming the Joker--are accurate. They make sense; the comedian's wife dies is a joke of an accident, which sets him off in the wrong direction, but being doused with the chemicals pushes him over the edge. However, since the Joker says he remembers his issues in different ways, readers can assume what they just read was a lie, too. Maybe it holds some truth, though. The point is, readers can understand that something tragic, yet absurd, happened to the Joker.

The goal of the Joker in this comic was to prove anyone can be driven insane. Although I think he's correct, one day isn't long enough. This reminded me of Stephen King's Pet Sematary, in which the wife of the protagonist fears and hates her sister who died when she was a child. The protagonist mentions that the sister was sick and in a lot of pain, so she was probably insane by the time of her death. And wouldn't being in pain for months on end, while a person watches his family slowly come to despise him, be enough to drive anyone insane? I think so. I think the Joker was right; it just takes longer than a day and more than a modified tunnel of love to do the trick.

And I can't leave off the finale: the joke. The Joker's last words tell the story of the patients who escape an asylum. While on the roof, one jumps to the next building, but the other is too nervous. Apparently planks connect the buildings, but the scared patient won't cross, claiming he's not crazy--he knows the other patient will turn his light off and leave him to die when he makes it halfway across. This is really a retelling of the tale of the frog and scorpion, in which the scorpion stings the frog while crossing a river, killing them both, because it's in his nature. The point is that if the Batman and the Joker tried to work together, it's in their natures to turn on each other. They're both pretty crazy--one just fights for good and the other for evil--but it's their nature to battle. They're not so crazy as to neglect their true natures. The premise is interesting and the joke works, but I couldn't help but feel it wasn't tied into the story enough. I was left struggling to apply meaning to it. Of course, I just analyzed it, so I must have found meaning in it, but I have to wonder if I forcibly applied that meaning or if the meaning was there to be found. I'm not sure.

Between not being a fan of DC superheroes and wishing there was a little more emotional impact and meaning filling the story, I didn't fall in love with The Killing Joke. I appreciated it, though, and admire the complex dynamics between the Batman and the Joker. I'd even recommend this book to fans of Batman, but I was left wanting a little more from it.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Two Minds Aren't Better Than One

Joyride was hit and miss for me. Between the extreme number of characters and the heavy use of passive voice, the story became very difficult to submerse myself in. Ketchum had reasons for these choices--experimenting with the pathos of characters being murdered and building massive amounts of backstory for those characters--but these issues still kept me away from really entering the world of chaos. At a certain point, also, Wayne goes from his joyride of murder to a killing spree of his neighborhood. I was so thrown out of the story by this change of pace, I had to reread the section several times. Not until the author's note at the end of my copy did I realize Ketchum took inspiration from multiple murderers and juxtaposed the madmen instead of interlacing them, which explained my confusion.

So, why didn't this juxtaposition work? Well, I suppose anything's possible, but it seems Ketchum has incorporated two different psychotics in this story. The first is set off by seeing a murder. He's charged (either sexually or with adrenaline) when he witnesses Carole and Lee murder Carole's husband; he can't control his fascination any longer. Wayne kidnaps them--after all, misery does love company--and goes on a random killing spree as he forces them to watch. This killer gets off on the act of murder.

The second murderer Ketchum combined into Wayne was a loner psychotic--a madman who sits alone at home, boiling about revenge. This murderer seemingly gets off on retaliating against those who have wronged him. The narration even mentions at a certain point that Wayne didn't want to hurt one victim, but he got in the way of Wayne's target. The killer Wayne started off as enjoyed killing everyone equally.

The second killer took up targets, he had a hit list, and his road to insanity included a past filled with incest, much like Psycho; the first was a stable character driven by the thrill of murder, always teetering on the edge until he realized he could take the leap. These two characters might work by themselves, but the book fragments because of their awkward combination. To be even more extensive, the second character came off as tacked on and almost two-dimensional as a cool idea or quick explanation for Wayne's murderous tendencies. The first killer's personality worked better. He was more interesting, and like John Doe from Se7en, he didn't even need a back story or motive to work as a man who just caves to his horrific desires.

The only character that really stood out to me as well rounded was the investigator, Rule. The author's note mentions him, too, and apparently, Ketchum started with an investigator who was too understanding of Carole and Lee, so Ketchum had to expand the character, give him some haunting backstory. His family leaving him and his counterbalance to Wayne worked very well, and his obsession with the dollhouse in the garage, a symbol of building rather than destroying, made him the most interesting character in the book.

I respect Ketchum and enjoy other tales by him, but this one was too sporadic and fragmented. However, in analyzing its faults, and taking the author's note into consideration, Joyride offers some good lessons in writing: by understanding how and why Ketchum worked the story the way he did helps me figure out how to keep my own stories active and coherent--a feat easier said than done.