Well, I am kind of stunned after reading this. Of course I thought I knew the story because of the way it has ingrained itself in our popular culture but there is truly so so much going on here. Just in terms of intertextuality Mr. Hyde casts a great long shadow, even just among things I have read recently. There are echos of this book in Planet of the Apes, and The Body Snatchers, both of which I read and reviewed earlier just this year. From last year other items come to mind, specifically, Altered States and The Island of Dr. Moreau. It makes me want to back track and review some of those works even before I continue here to review Stevenson’s classic itself. In short, this is no mere Treasure Island and I think that there is a lot of literary mileage as well as psychology to clean from doing a deep dive on Robert Louis Stevenson. At the very least, there are connections to be made and leads to be followed. Hopefully I don’t end up becoming Mr. Seek. Stay vigilant friends there is definitely more to follow…
…Was she an animal? Was all the mystery nothing more than that? Was she merely a sleek, golden kitten that unsheathed its claws when it had played enough and wanted solitude? But that brain was always at work, clicking away behind the eyes–no animal had such an organ; or was it the mark of a superanimal, a new species, something to be seen on earth in a few more centuries? Had nature sent out a feeling tentacle from the past, groping blindly into the present with a single specimen of what mankind was to be a thousand years hence? The brain held him; it dosed him with grains of wild joy, measured out in milligrams of words, the turn of her mouth corner, one single lustful flash from the gray eyes before the scales of secrecy came over them again.
The brain seemed always present, always hooked to his own by an invisible gold wire, thinner than spider’s silk. It sent its charges into his mind and punished him with a chilling wave of cold reproof. It would let him writhe in helpless misery and then, just before the breaking point, would send the warm current through to jerk him back to life and drag him, tumbling over and over through space, to the height of a snow mountain where he could see all the plains of the earth spread out before him, and all the power of the cities and the ways of men. All were his, could be his, would be his unless the golden thread broke and sent him roaring into the dark chasm of fear again.Nightmare Alley, William Lindsay Gresham
Nightmare Alley, the book by William Lindsay Gresham, and recently adapted into a movie by Guillermo del Toro, is a more than satisfying read, especially if you are the type of person who is captivated by midway buskers, the tinkling of syncopated piano crackling in the background of a Tom Waits tune, or the psychological turn which infiltrated American literature during the early-middle of the last century.
The book itself really takes place in three distinct phases – though followed by a significant coda – which work together to slowly reveal that backstory for our main character and lifelong grifter, Stenton Carlisle. Each phase of the book follows Carlisle as he scams his way out of obscurity and into fame and fortune, stone stepping his way as he climbs upwards on the backs of his female companions, be they mentors, lovers, or conspirators as the case might be.
The first act is set in the depression era carnival sideshow, where we find Stenton, a young carny in training, learning the ropes on how to dupe the rubes. We don’t hear much about his backstory yet, we only see carnival life as it unfolds before him, slowly pulling him, and us, along into the orbit of the fortune teller & mentalist Zeena, and her longtime, rum-soaked partner Pete. Zeena soon takes a maternal/sexual interest in the virginal Stan, who then seeks to replace Pete, not only in Zeena’s bed but also in her mentalist act. This is a not-so-subconscious wish soon accomplished by a seemingly accidental mixup between the wood alcohol used in the show and the whisky which Zeena has hidden from Pete’s insatiable thirst, a confusion that murders the hapless Pete while Zeena and her young protégée get frantically naked in the nearby woods.
If this all sounds a bit Oedipal, it should; this is one of the major themes Greshom is developing in this early psychological novel. Our author is clearly steeped in Freudian analysis ,as well as being knowledgeable about the occult, spiritualism, and probably Theosophy as well. These ‘superstitious’ world-views have been replaced by the newer ‘scientific’ approach of psychology in our author’s mental universe as a grand unified theory of human behavior. Because of this decidedly Freudian focus I can’t help but wonder what Gresham’s approach might have looked like if his therapy had been oriented towards the works of Jung or other depth-psychology traditions instead. Perhaps his outlook on humanity might have been more optimistic. Unfortunately, we are given the literature as it exists, not as we might wish for it.
In the second phase, we see Stanton’s meteoric rise to fame, first as a nightclub mentalist and then as a founder and reverend of his own spiritualist church – which he acquires after running a ‘spook act’ on loaded old ladies. This he does with the assistance of his second anima, Molly – a young refugee from the carnival, who he has seduced into following him into the con. Molly is presented throughout as a childish figure, orphaned prematurely by her father (yes she has Daddy issues), scorned and dominated by Stan, easily manipulated and unable to escape the influence of the older man. We are thus bordering again on a classic archetype of the feminine, with an older sexualized maternal woman followed by the naïef youngster. The whole set up mirrors a classical mother/daughter dualism, the whore and virgin, animating force behind a great number of mythic tales, especially that of Demeter and Persephone.
The final stage of course is – as if by design – the tragic fall, now overshadowed by a third and final feminine type, the inscrutable Dr. Lilith Ritter. She appears as the ultimate sorceress and temptress, allowing Stan to project his fevered feminine fantasies upon her. This Medea is played as an evil psychologist, encouraging Stan’s overwrought psyche to indulge in transference, the fatal embrace of the suggestive. Not good ethical practice, to be sure, but great fodder for the wicked psyche unleashed.
She uses Stan’s ever expanding dependence on her presence to drive him into his greatest and final heist which he must perpetrate with the coerced collusion and eventual prostituting of his meek mistress Molly, a vicious betrayal of her childish trust. The process is infantilizing towards the character of Molly, and falls a bit short of the psychological impact it might have had if she were a better rounded character. Nonetheless, we are given over to the suspicion that Stan is a lost cause; his psychological needs to dominate are becoming pathological.
The mark is a dangerous man, a wealthy industrialist with a dark secret Stan hopes to exploit with the aid of inside information provided by his dominating therapist. The consequences are predictably grim for all involved, but especially for Stanton, who is eventually double-crossed by his own Medea and forced to flee the evil forces of retribution which he now fears are pursuing him even in his newly won poverty, as he bums his way in flight across the depression era landscape.
Now, with Stan in his final throes, and consumed by the dame demon-liquor that once haunted his original rival Pete, the story enters into its fatalistic coda. We see Stan falling from a great height, like the figures falling from the Tower of Babel in the tarot card of the same name. Did I mention that each chapter is associated with one of the Major Arcana cards of the traditional tarot deck? Despite this push into the spectral, however, the story is firmly rooted in the Freudian world view. We come to see the whole narrative as a dramatic reenactment of Stan’s infantile desire to bed his mother and kill his father. It is a metaphor that, with the hindsight of the current psychological vogue, seems a bit too precise and literal. But, in truth, this is a relatively small complaint against a work which otherwise seems to mark and define the feminine archetypal complex, as it appears to the male psyche anyway, with some clarity. If that three faced anima image is obscured by the Freudian reading of Stan’s intentions, it is all the more impressive in the way in which it can be seen moving behind the screen of what appears to be a simpler motive, key lit in the foreground.
Stan is forced into extremis, and eventually he must kill in order to preserve what remains of his own life. But this killing is also an act of killing the self he has built up over his journey, and he is forced into disguise, subterfuge, and anonymity. It is his final encore.
Stan comes full circle in desperation and is reunited with Zeena, who, after a warranted denunciation, helps Stan back on his feet, setting him up with a new act disguised as an Indian mind reader, and providing some cash to help him find his way back into the carnival life. This seems, actually, to be a fully formed ending to the book, one which displays forgiveness, resilience, and the potential of recovery, even after a long bout of self delusion and denial. This is not the ending the author decided to settle on, however.
The final denouement is both brilliant and contrived, in the tradition of the works of O’Henry, if I remember my Freshman Lit class well enough. The novel is carefully crafted into a perfect circuit–even though there are parts (like the penultimate chapter) when it seems to want to break free of the form and end on an upbeat note. Instead we return to the first chapter, where we saw Stan learning the meaning of the word ‘geek’ as new blood at the carnival. On his way back to reenter the life he learns that his former therapist has married his nemesis, the industrialist who Stan still fears is stalking him across the countryside with the aid of invisible road agents and informants. In his paranoia, Stan returns immediately to the bottle with the extra cash he pilfered from his benefactor Zeena. Now in his throes, he finally returns to carnival in a state of disaster.
The truth is, his addiction was never really cured by Zeena’s well intentioned intervention. His obsession with Lillith has brought him back to the nipple of booze, which is dissolving the last fragments of his nervous system. We want the novelist to reveal to us a better case, a better potential outcome, but this is not to be. The redemption promised by the return to home base, in the person of Zeena, the matriarch of the carnival, the High Priestess, fails to pan out.
It really does seem to me as if the author started out with his dark ending already in mind, and worked his way towards this pre-drawn conclusion upon which the story was based: how to make a carnival geek. The chance of Stan’s escape through the nurture and compassion of Zeena was a mere stumble and diversion on the way towards a greater freefall. That it was included at all is some indication that even the author has not yet been able to abandon the notion of a beneficent humanity.
Yet, we still see the seeds of destruction in Stan’s encounter with Zeena. She asks him, at long last, if he had anything to do with Pete’s demise, but even then, in the moment of reckoning, the moment of decision and possible confession, Stan deflects the penetrating gaze of truth with accomplished misdirection, preferring, instead of admission to guilt, to startle Zeena with knowledge of Pete’s heretofore unknown last name. This move shocks her, and the subject is changed, too quickly to my taste. In so doing Stan seals his fate, by refusing to admit to his original sin to the only person capable of providing absolution. In this way, it seems to me that this book has two endings, one unrealized, and one which was inevitable by design, but also pushed onto us by the desire to encapsulate the story in a fully fixed and round figure.
In all, this book is a great deep dive into the psychology of the con-artist as well as an unflinching look at how people can be led along by their own wishful and magical thinking. There is a strong sense of disappointment implicit in Stan’s character in his failure to find a larger spiritual answer to his disease that we seem, by nature, to thirst and even strive for. This is one reason why I wish the author had encountered some Junginan thinking, not only because it offers a synthesis between psychological thinking and the mytho-poetic tradition, unduly underrated in significance by Freud, but also I think, because it permits the promise or at least the potential of self-fulfillment as a goal of the personality, an aspect that is shrouded in the darkness of the nightmare alley which runs through this author’s haunted world.
I am just starting with William L. Gresham‘s Nightmare Alley as I continue to read film adapted novels. After only the introduction I am pretty sure that this will darkly outshine even the most recent movie adaptation by Guillermo del Toro, which, by the way, I loved. This appears to be the real deal as far as the author is concerned, and it turns out that Gresham was a student of Ouspensky as well. He is talking the talk, in other words, and this looks to be an insightful read. The grim stars are all aligned on this one, so, let’s cut the cards and see what the future holds.
They say the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist. I don’t know about the Devil, but it seems it might be just as applicable to the surveillance state, once abhorred by the radical left. It is just this sort of creeping and relentless paranoia, so prevalent in the Cold War era, that Jack Finney co-opts for the premise of his sci-fi masterpiece, The Body Snatchers.
McCarthyism was in full swing during the first half of the 1950s, a prime example of what Richard Hofstadter was referring to when he wrote his influential article ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ for Harper’s a decade later. Hofstadter freely admits both the pejorative use of the term paranoid in his article as well as his appropriation of the term from the clinical desk references of psychology. One key feature of the psychological basis of paranoia is that it can be interpreted as both a defensive structure and a compensatory response to an identity in jeopardy. According to Jung, mass societies can react to threats and stimuli in a manner similar to that of the individual, lashing out in the political arena in ways that are analogous to the functions of the subconscious.
The Body Snatchers, by Jack Finney, is often considered an expression of Cold War paranoia, interpreted by critics as a symptom of a broader societal malaise. Hofstadter attributes other science fiction tropes to this category as well, such as fantastic fears about brainwashing and flying saucers. This latter, of course, spread beyond the domain of the fictional to become a subject of popular fascination, developing its own sub-cultures of believers and theorists, creating its own literature and inspiring evidence gatherers and researchers from across the globe.
Yet something is distinctly different about Finney’s work as well, there is an ambiguity towards identity that links it to another tradition, that of the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft and the later dystopian musings of Phillip K. Dick, and even the psychedelic personality disintegrations of Robert Anton Wilson.
At the same time, such mass produced Leave-it-to-Beaver notions of what families were and who people were supposed to be, left out whole ranges of others who existed on the margins of that suburban paradise, and who crept about like pod people threatening to invade from without and corrupt the work ethic of those who cared more about keeping the sidewalks swept than the did about nightmare visions at the edge of their optical range. In this sense the book has seemed very much of its time, both with respect to the dialogue, which seems short and snappy to the point of abruptness, like an old film noir picture, as well as the attitudes of the characters, paternalistic to the point of benign authoritarianism. It is telling, however, that both the main character and his love interest, Becky, no matter how facile their flirtations seem, are at the same time dominated by the shadow of divorce, from which both are emotionally recovering. This is as far as Finney goes in giving his characters a sense of greater depth, and it may well be the wellspring of anxiety from which the whole of the paranoia derives. Again and again the main character fends off the attraction he has for Becky by making crude or flippant remarks and takes time to note that he would like to avoid ‘the trap’ of marriage. It seems at times that the whole need to avoid attraction is just another aspect of the main character trying to subvert his unconscious needs, a denial of the physical in preference to the purely conscious and hence ideological. This need for emotional distance is undermined through the story, however, by the dangers they face together fighting off the menace from space. This sub plot, which I found to be annoying and unnecessary at first, gradually came to seem a countrapunal thread to the whole wider narrative.
Body Snatchers is as much about potential dangers of identity loss as it is about 5th columns of subversives, even if it manages to skirt some of the more terrifying aspects of the idea by projecting such losses outwards towards society as opposed to the internalization of the conflict sometimes expressed by those others just mentioned. This exteriorizing feature might well be an example of how deeply ingrained the identity consciousnesses of mainstream Americans were during the postwar era, typified by the need to latch onto and protect those notions of self so extreme as to border on the pathological. Finney seems to be lifting freely from the desk references as well.
There are other overtly psychological aspects to the story as well. The body doubles always are found forming and growing in the dark cellars and coal bins belonging to the main characters. This might seem to make sense from a rationalized narrative point of view, but one wonders how the alien pods would work their magic if faced with apartment dwellers or the homeless. These are not the subjects of the disintegrating influence of the space weeds, however, it is small town America which is explicitly endangered, and it is the town itself, more so than the individuals who seem to be suffering. Again and again the eye of the narrator, Dr. Miles Bennell, is drawn to weeds, and trash, and decrepitude which seems to be creeping into the town, a symptom brought on by the apathy exhibited by the replacement people once they have taken hold.
One of the most frightening sequences is early on, when the first replacement is found and examined in detail. A friend of the protagonist has discovered an unfinished blank of his own doppelganger forming in his basement storage nook and has tossed it up on a pool table for an impromptu examination. The description of the basement rumpus room is minimal but the swinging overhead light, focused on the body-laden pool felt, creating a strobe of illumination and shadow on the protean corpse, is a genius of macabre juxtaposition, laying the grotesque homunculus atop the casual mid century mundane. Eventually the new allies will recruit a psychologist friend to aid them in their attempt to understand the growing threat to their idealized lives, but when they return to exhibit the corpse it has vanished into a pile of gray fluff, like so many dust bunnies. This is another little trick that Finney seems to want to play on us, as this too seems to be the outcome of the absorbed. Dust to dust, indeed – and yet we fetishize the form of our own being.
That the whole thing might be an irruption of the shadow from the unconscious into the light is a possibility that is given again and again in little hints throughout. I already mentioned the predilection for basements, but another theme is the need for sleep. Consciousness is an absolute requirement to defend against the depredations of the aliens, they can only replace you in your sleep. In one instance Dr. Miles must rescue Becky from her own family house where she has returned to see her now replacement family one last time. He invades her house by breaking in and discovers her double hidden away in the basement of her house. When he goes upstairs he accidentally walks in on her sleeping father, also a replacement (one wonders why the aliens need to sleep at all) before finding her and carrying her out of the house. She needed saving from her hidden self, obviously, she was a woman, but furthermore, she is so deep into the transformation that she can barely wake up and literally has to be carried as dead weight away from the house. The psychological interpretations are obvious.
There are other examples of how the author uses psychology to inform his narrative. In one case, after the main resistors have become temporarily convinced that they are all imagining things, they rejoice in a too vivacious celebratory breakfast, even though in reality there is little about their situation that has changed. In another case they drive off into the night to flee the town that they now know has been overrun. But once they escape they more or less throw up their hands and, realizing there is nowhere else to go, they decide to just return to the place from which they had fled. It buys the narrative time, but also is a testament to the tendency of people to adopt and maintain persistent patterns of behavior, even when those patterns are dangerous or unhealthy.
Eventually the whole town is consumed by the vegitative. Apparently identical, what had once been a source of comfort now posed a threat. Finney writes:
The men, women, and children in the street and stores below me were something else now, every last one of them. They were each our enemies, including those with the eyes, faces, gestures, and walks of old friends. There was no help for us here, except from each other, and even now the communities around us were being invaded.The Body Snatchers, Jack Finney
Ultimately everything is reduced to function. Aliens consume planets just because that is what they do. Humans propagate for the same reasons. Love is a chemical response and we follow the dictates of our nature. It turns out that the author considers the will to life as part of that nature, and that is the one thing that the aliens can’t tolerate. When the protagonists burn a number of budding pods in the field the body invaders just give up, finding that they cannot resist the human instinct for self preservation. How loaded is that phrase, self preservation, something that cannot exist in a collective. And so the aliens just leave and float off into space, leaving our heroes behind to inherit the earth. Of course, we can easily imagine other more likely endings to the story but this one is Finney’s and I’m going to allow it.
More vintage sci-fi on tap. This time I am reading Jack Finney’s 1955, The Body Snatchers. I hope to have a review and some commentary by Sunday, so stay tuned. – Wm.
Spoilers for both book and film adaptations below.
Despite the popularity and resilience of the franchise, I suspect that the number of fans who have actually read the 1963 book by Pierre Boulle is relatively modest compared with those who have seen the movies. That is a shame, because, despite some significant differences between the source material and the films, the book offers us a new window into the cultural idiom of the 1960s. It also provides us with a satire of culture and technology that is timeless, if idiosyncratic.
This book has two characteristics that will likely be surprising to fans of the movies. For one thing this book is far more satirical, without becoming a farce, than is the movie. It is really only a science fiction novel in the broadest sense. Speculative fiction is perhaps a more appropriate term. Yes, it involves rockets and relativity and evolution and astrophysics, but the scientific rigmarole merely serves as a backdrop to the narrative. The truth is that the science is at best a pasteboard set in the novel. It is secondary to the social commentary, and the tale actually could have benefited from some research by the author in this regard. Not that the science in the movie is all that accurate either, but this is less distracting in a film, where the problem can be dissolved by hand waving, effects, and suspension of disbelief. This is harder to accomplish in a novel, especially when one has already been exposed to hard science authors like Arthur C. Clarke or, more recently, Andy Weir. It is perhaps a function of its era that the technical aspects of the story are less worked out than we might wish, coming from an age where science realism dominates the scene.
Perhaps this criticism is a little unfair given the state of science fiction in the early 1960s, as opposed to now, but I can’t imagine that calling apes ‘monkeys’ was likely never good practice from a scientific perspective, and I object to this careless use of language, unless it can be attributed an artifact of a poor translation or a French idiom of which I am unaware. In the latter case the fault is with the editor, but still, it is a fault.
A second difference between the book and the movie that will likely strike the reader is that the ape society presented in the book is not as backwards as is that in the movie. They are not a primitive culture so much as an imitative one. This actually turns out to be one the primary themes of the novel, and one that is hardly developed in the movies. Ape culture in the book is presented as being fully modern and contemporary to the time, but at the same time stuck, due to failure of innovation and original thinking on the part of the apes. This is a critique of culture and the humanities, as much as it is a meditation on technology and societal advancement. There is even a long passage where the author meditates upon the appropriation of literature from one generation to the next, and one gets the sense that the author is acutely critical of the derivative nature of much artistic production. It makes one wonder what the author might be appropriating, himself. The comments are wry and self deprecating in a way that almost breaks the fourth wall of the narrative.
There were some other themes in the novel that intrigued me as well. The animality of the humans was an interesting aspect of the book, and the way in which they fought against the trappings of society instead of resisting the apes themselves was an aspect that intrigued me. It reminded me very much of another recent read of mine, The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. A complicated book that covers a wide swath of modern anthropology. I was reminded of one of the books theses, that so-called primitive societies might not actually be primitive by fate or failure of the imagination but by conscious choice. The connection did not go much deeper than this faint resonance, but it did open my eyes to the possibility that the dichotomy presented by the novel, that between animal and human, civilization and savagery, was not at all clear cut. After all, we may think of apes as dumb animals, but in fact they are accomplished at tool use, strategic thinking, political thinking, and levels of communication that we normally attribute to humans alone.
Ultimately there are some significant changes in plotting that were made by the movie franchise. Most important of these is that the astronauts are not on Earth when they encounter the ape planet, only after going home does the protagonist discover that, after many centuries, his home planet too, has given in to the urge to abandon creativity for the sake of comfort and allowed the ape servants to take over there as well. It doesn’t quite have the shock value of Charlton Heston discovering the Statue of Liberty buried in a radioactive desert, but it does better highlight the author’s point that at some level we are victims of our own drive towards status, luxury, and comfort. It really is a tale as old as time, and one that the ancient Romans dealt with in their literature. When does society become decadent and begin to undermine the very necessity that caused it to evolve in the first place?
Anthropology and societal development aside, however, the author seems more interested in how people can, in some circumstances, overlook their physical differences, as well as how, in other circumstances, they can become ingrained in established modes of behavior. One feature that the book shares with the movies is the stratification of ape society into different casts that fail to think outside of their particular ethnic box. This is directly adapted into the films and is a key feature of the social commentary. Less evident in the movie is how the protagonist is able to move between worlds. He has empathy for his human friends based on their physical form, this is true, but he is able to more or less enter ape society as the tale progresses and to abandon his old connections, and his human mistress, based on cultural cues. Social hierarchy triumphs over physicality, at least for a while, and this is telling. Only when the mute and animalistic Nova is learned to be pregnant, does the protagonist deign to return to her and vow to protect her from her ape captors and tormenters.
This blaming of the social system harkens back to the original reaction of the feral humans to the trappings of society, physically fighting against the clothes and technology, as opposed to the strange humans that have come to exist among them. It is the trappings of culture, the clothes, the machines, the houses, the guns, that transform our thinking as much as the social connections that we make or the empathetic response we have due to natural biological similitude. This is the reason that the apes refuse to clothe the protagonist throughout much of the book, continually remarking upon its absurdity. To do so would be to make him tacitly one of them and undermine their own stratification based on physical appearance and caste. In the end it turns out to be the clothes that make (and unmake) the man, or the ape, as the case may be.
Featured Image “Concept Sketch of Forbidden Zone – Mentor Huebner” via Invisible Themepark.