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.