‘Sirens,’ a Horror Novella, Chapter Nine

The next morning, Eddie was in his apartment, trying to call Chad. His friend’s ringtone, Soundgarden’s “Drawing Flies,” just kept playing and playing.

“Come on, Chad, answer!” Eddie growled.

After a minute of letting the ringtone play, Eddie hung up.

I called him twice late last night and got no answer, he thought. I emailed him and got no reply, either. Please, God, let it be that he met a girl last night, and he’s so into her that he doesn’t wanna talk to me. One girl, not three!

***********

Nancy went to the occult bookstore, Raising Power, around lunchtime that day. A heavy-set, forty-something-year-old woman with her hair dyed black, in a black dress, and wearing goth makeup was sitting by the cash register.

“Hi,” Nancy said. “Are you the owner of this shop?”

“Yes,” she said, getting up and shaking Nancy’s hand. “I’m Deanna. How can I help you?” She looked in Nancy’s eyes as if, strangely, she already knew the answer.

“Nancy Sayers. I’m a reporter, investigating the string of bizarre deaths that have been happening over the past few weeks. Do you know about that?”

“I’m not responsible for them, if that’s what you’re implying.”

“Oh, no. I didn’t mean that. I just wondered if you’ve been following the story in the newspaper.”

“A number of young men,” Deanna said, “one died in a motorcycle crash, one flew off his bicycle and got impaled on the fork of a forklift, one got sliced up by an airplane propellor, and one fell off a building and got impaled on a flagpole.”

“Oh, no. That last one almost happened, but I stopped–“

“Oh, it happened. Believe me.”

“Oh? B-but–“

“It didn’t happen to your brother, Eddie,” Deanna said. “It happened to his friend instead.”

Nancy’s eyes bugged out at this revelation. “Chad died?”

“Yes,” the bookstore owner said, with the utmost conviction in her eyes. “He saw three hot babes at the time.”

“How do you know all this? How could you know their names, and all? That information wouldn’t be accessible to you.”

“How do you think I know?”

“You’re a psychic, I take it.”

“Correct.” Deanna had a slight smirk.

“How much of this case do you know about, beyond what I’ve reported?” Nancy asked, still fighting her incredulity at Deanna’s abilities. “How much of it have you…psyched out, as it were?”

“Quite a bit.”

“Do you know who’s behind all this?”

“A young woman named Serena Lavin bought a book here on how to raise spirits. She wanted to get revenge on the young men who…wronged her.”

“So, you know she’s responsible for these killings, and you never reported her to the police?”

“What police detective is going to believe a woman is using spirits to murder people? What policeman is going to believe what a psychic says?”

“Of course, but you didn’t try to use your own…powers…to stop her yourself?”

“I warned her of the dangers of bringing bad karma on herself,” Deanna said. “But those young men deserve to be k–…well, to be punished, anyway.”

My brother was almost killed by her spirits!” Nancy was looking at Deanna with accusing eyes.

“Your brother is as guilty as his friends are.”

“For what crime do they all ‘deserve’ to die?”

Deanna looked Nancy hard in the eyes. “They all gang-raped Serena almost a month ago.”

Nancy gasped. “How could you know that?” Her eyes widened.

“I felt it…Serena’s trauma, in all the vibrations in her body and around her. All those boys did it.”

No, Nancy thought as her jaw dropped. Not Eddie, too! Please, God, don’t let my brother be one of the rapists. He just watched his friends do Serena, surely that’s all; and he was too cowardly to stop them, but he didn’t participate. Please, God, let that be the truth! Deanna may be right about a lot of this, but her psychic powers aren’t strong enough for her to be right about all of it!

“Nancy?” Deanna asked. “You look a little dazed. I know this is hard for you to hear, and I assure you, I never meant for Serena to use the book to help her get revenge on those guys. I warned her not to let feelings of hate into her heart when chanting the book’s incantations. I told her: be in a calm, meditative state when reciting the words; allow the forces of karma to flow without your emotions to misguide them, for if you say the words with an angry or hateful attitude, those spirits will not only bring about far too harsh a revenge, but one day they’ll come back to you and make you destroy yourself, just as you, in your secret thoughts, want those boys to destroy themselves. I told her that; I guess she refused to listen.”

Nancy let out a big sigh. “Is Eddie the only remaining one of the boys that Serena wants to kill?”

Deanna closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and ‘felt’ the psychic energy in and around her for an answer. After ten seconds of intense concentration, she said, “Yes, he’s the last one.”

“How do I stop those spirits from killing Eddie?”

“Try keeping him immobilized, restrained somehow. The spirits are Sirens, essentially: they kill you by luring you into a dangerous situation with their singing and seductiveness…at least usually that’s how they do it. The idea is to make the victim kill himself with his own desires. The Sirens are agents of karma; they kill you with your own sinfulness.”

“So, I could tie Eddie to a chair, or something?”

“That…could work…maybe. But you’ll also have to confront Serena herself. Otherwise, Eddie will have to be tied up indefinitely.”

“I’ll have to fight this woman? How? Is there any magic you can teach me to use on her?”

“I’m uncomfortable teaching anyone how to use magic in confrontational situations. I’ve already gone too far with Serena; I sold her the book out of compassion for how much those boys hurt her, but now I realize I shouldn’t interfere–“

“But she’ll kill my brother!”

Deanna took a deep breath. “Karma may intervene to stop her. Eddie’s near-death, where Chad died, may be enough to have scared him into repentance. That may be enough karmic retribution to stop her from killing him again.”

“I need better assurance than ‘may be enough to stop her,’ Deanna!”

“Perhaps I can do some kind of ritual to help you. I can keep my emotions out of it, then there won’t be any karmic risks for you.”

“Thank you,” Nancy said. “Please do something to protect him–as soon as you can.” I can’t believe I now believe in magic and spirits, she thought. What a fucked-up day.

“I’ll do what I can. I feel responsible for selling Serena that book, so I have to take care of my own karma. I’m more than motivated to help you.”

“Thank you. I’m gonna go find my brother now.”

“Good. And if you confront Serena, remember not to let your emotions govern how you react to her, no matter what happens to him. The spirits will sense your hate, and react to it in a way you won’t like.”

“OK.” Nancy left the bookstore.

*********

She found her brother standing in the hallway in front of her apartment, his phone to his ear.

“C’mon, Chad!” Eddie said. “Answer!”

“Chad is dead,” she said with a blank look on her face.

“Oh, no!” he said, putting his phone in his jacket pocket with a shaking hand. “How did he die?”

“The same way you were supposed to die. I talked to the owner of that occult bookstore, and all it took was one chat with her to believe that spirits, psychic powers, all that shit, really exist. It was mind-blowing how she could know so much about this case with what little I was able to report about it.”

“Really?”

“She knew your name, Chad’s name, things never made public. It was eerie.”

“What am I going to do? All my friends are dead. Those ghosts have only me to kill now.”

“Come inside,” Nancy said, unlocking her door. “Stay in here with me, and you should be safe.”

“How?” he asked as they went inside.

“You’ll see. Go sit on the sofa; I’ll be right back.”

She looked for some rope.

‘Sirens,’ a Horror Novella, Chapter Eight

Nancy’s hand grabbed Eddie by the wrist, and she pulled back with all her might. She fell onto the gravel roof with a grunt of pain when her back made impact. Eddie hit his head on the floor of the roof, cutting his forehead and snapping him out of his hallucination.

“What?” he shouted, his head moving left and right as he tried to orient himself. “Wh-where am I?”

“Eddie, you’re with me,” Nancy said.

“Nancy, what are you doing here?” he asked, touching his bloody forehead and seeing red on his fingers.

“What are you doing up on the roof of this building, about to fall off of it to your death?” she asked. “That seems the more relevant question.”

“I was gonna fu–” he began, his eyes still darting all around the area, trying to make sense of what was going on. “Where’d the girls go? Their bedroom?” He took a tissue out of his shirt pocket.

“The girls? Their bedroom? Are you high?”

“There were three beautiful, hot girls that I was with. I was gonna get laid, then you took me from it.”

“Eddie, you were gonna die. I saved you from it. There never were any girls. At least not physically.”

“I don’t understand. What’s going on?” He was using the tissue to soak up the blood on his forehead.

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Did you do any drugs before this happened?”

“No,” he said. “I drank only a half bottle of beer.”

“You almost died, just like your friends, who it seems thought they were with beautiful women, too.”

“What is this? Some kind of black magic? Is someone messing with the spirit world? Raising up demons, or something?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t believe in that kind of thing.”

“Neither do I,” he said, remembering that night with his friends and that woman, but not wanting to bring it up and remind his sister of it.

“As crazy as it sounds, still, I can’t think of any other way to explain what the hell’s going on here. There’s a lady who owns an occult bookstore downtown; It’s called ‘Raising Power.’ I understand that she believes in the supernatural; selling the books is more than just a business to her–it’s like her calling. I’ll go over there and talk to her, see if she has any insight into all this.”

“OK. I’ll go back to the bar and find Chad.”

“You stay out of the bars.”

“But I should go see if he’s OK over there,” Eddie said. “Maybe these evil spirits wanna get him, too.”

“You should come straight home with me. Chad can fend for himself, for the moment. Call him on his phone if you’re worried about him. Right now, my brother’s safety is much more important to me than Chad’s is.”

*********

As the two of them got off the roof, went down the elevator, and left the apartment building, Serena Lavin had been watching the whole scene through the eyes of her three female spirits, a vision presented to her in a crystal ball on a table in the living room of her apartment, which was on the other side of town.

Who is that woman? Serena wondered. I’ve seen her face before. Oh, wait…yes! She’s Nancy Sayers, the reporter; her photo is with all the newspaper articles I’ve been reading. She’s been following the murders of my gang-rapists, including her kid brother, Eddie, over there. Oh, well, he’s safe for the moment. I’ll get him later. I’ll take care of Chad instead. I’ll also have to do something about that Nancy before she goes to ‘Raising Power,’ where I bought all this stuff. I don’t wanna hurt her, but I can’t let her know too much about me.

‘Sirens,’ a Horror Novella, Chapter Seven

Nancy’s brow furrowed as she leaned forward in her chair to see what her brother was doing.

“Who the hell does he think he’s talking to?” she whispered as she saw him grinning and moving his lips in conversation with the empty air.

After about a minute of this imaginary conversation, he put his arms around two imaginary waists.

“Invisible women, apparently,” Nancy whispered. “Two, at least.”

Still with his arms around those invisible waists, he began walking towards the door.

“Alright, that’s it,” she said, and rose from her chair.

She ran after him, bumping into Chad on the way.

“Sorry,” she said to him, then continued running. “Eddie!”

Going through the doorway with the three invisible, singing women, Eddie didn’t hear his sister at all.

“Eddie!” she called out again, following him outside.

“Eddie?” Chad said, then looked around for him at the bar. “Hey, where’d he go?”

************

Nancy saw Eddie get into his car after opening and closing the passenger and back doors for the three beauties that only he saw.

“Eddie!” she shouted, running to her car. She still wasn’t heard by him.

Chad, at the opened door, saw Nancy get into her car. Both cars drove off.

I guess Eddie got lucky while I was in the bathroom, Chad thought. Who was that other chick? A jealous ex-girlfriend, or something? He went back inside.

Nancy’s car followed Eddie’s from far enough away that she figured he and ‘the women’ wouldn’t notice her, but not so far back that she’d lose him.

She was torn about how she should deal with her brother’s predicament. Should she stop him as soon as possible to prevent another killing, or would a blunt intervention provoke a sudden killing? Also, it might have helped her investigation to observe what exactly was happening right up to and just before the killing, she hoped just in time to prevent it from happening.

Eddie parked his car near an apartment building about ten minutes away from the bar. She parked a block away from where he was and watched him. He got out, opened and closed the doors for his invisible lovers, and walked with them, his arms around two of them, into the building.

She ran over there as fast as she could. When she went through the front door, she saw the elevator door close with him in it. She watched it go up to the top floor before getting in.

Is he going up on the roof? she wondered as her elevator moved–far too slowly–up after his. Are those demons, or whatever the fuck they are, going to make him jump off?

The elevator was only at the third of ten floors now.

“Come on!” she growled in clenched teeth. “Hurry up!”

Meanwhile, Eddie reached the top floor, and he was being led by ‘the women’ to a door at the end of the hall leading up to the roof.

Only he saw something completely different.

“Wow,” he said. “This is a really nice apartment you girls have.”

“Thanks,” the blonde said to him.

The living room was adorned with luxurious furniture of leather and antique wood. The light purple wallpaper had flower motifs on it. Baroque and Rococo paintings hung on the walls.

“Wait ’til you see the bedroom,” the redhead said.

Their singing continued as they approached the bedroom door. The brunette opened it, and Eddie saw a golden flight of stairs leading up to another door.

“Stairs?” he asked as he and the women began their ascent.

“Yes,” the redhead said. “Our place of lovemaking is so heavenly, you have to go up to get to it.”

“Well, I guess that makes sense,” he said as they got half-way up.

The women’s singing continued to intoxicate him and drown out Nancy’s yelling as she ran down the hall to reach the door to the roof.

When Eddie reached the roof, the blonde had opened a shining silver door showing him a bedroom so decadent in its opulence, it was as if the three women were empresses: black satin sheets on the bed with matching bed curtains, a dark purple rug blanketing the entire bedroom floor, a dresser with a golden-bordered mirror, and paintings of erotic art, all over the pink walls, that only Sade wouldn’t have blushed at.

“Whoa!” he sighed.

They led him to the bed with lewd grins and more of their hypnotic three-part vocal harmonies as they sang in a language he’d never heard in his life. Only it wasn’t a bed they were leading him to.

It was the edge of the roof.

Where they’d have him fall was onto a flagpole, the top of which had been broken, leaving a sharp, jagged edge to cut all the way through his torso.

“Are you ready for the penetration of a lifetime?” the brunette asked him.

“Oh, yeah!” he grunted as he stepped closer to the ‘bed.’

“I guess we’d better get undressed,” the blonde said.

Eddie saw all three women drop their dresses, revealing lace bras and panties of–appropriately–black for the brunette, red for the redhead, and golden for the blonde.

Grinning and sighing with delight at what he saw, Eddie unzipped his pants as he reached the side of the ‘bed.’ His feet were now a few inches from the edge of the roof.

Panting Nancy finished getting up the stairs, and threw the door open with a loud slam against the outer wall…though the women’s singing still drowned out all other noise for him. She needed a few seconds to catch her breath; she staggered closer to him. Then she winced when she saw her brother pull out his erection from his pants.

His grin grew wider as he saw the three beauties removes their bras, panties, and high heels to be gloriously nude before him.

“What flawless bodies you three women have,” he sighed as he ogled them.

Three women, eh? Nancy thought, almost beside him now and keeping her eyes looking high enough not to have to see his dick.

“Go sit on the bed, honey,” the redhead said.

“And savour the coming penetration,” the blonde said with a lewd giggle.

Nancy saw him about to sit on…nothing.

“Eddie, no!” she screamed, reaching for his arm.

‘Sirens,’ a Horror Novella, Chapter Six

“Virgil is dead?!” Eddie shouted as he read his sister’s news story on the online local newspaper on his phone. “And all…sliced up…like that?”

He continued reading, his shaking hand making it difficult to read. According to Nancy’s report, Anne Petrovic, a pilot on the airstrip, saw Virgil by the airplane. “I tried to communicate with him,” she said. “I asked him what he was doing here, and I tried to get him away from the propellor, but he just ignored me. He looked like he was hallucinating, on drugs or something, because he was acting as if he was making love with an invisible woman or two. It was crazy. Even his zipper was down, with his…yuck!…erection sticking out. And he just let himself be cut up like that, as if he felt nothing!”

Then Eddie remembered seeing Virgil leaving the bar earlier that night, seeming to have his arms around two invisible women. According to Nancy’s story, the autopsy revealed no drugs in Virgil’s system, only about half a bottle of beer drunk.

The propellor turned off, as automatically as it had turned on, by the time it had begun to slice off the tip of Virgil’s nose and the edge of his protruding belly, Nancy’s story went on. A second or two before he fell down dead, he’d begun screaming in final recognition of what was happening to him. “He finally woke up from his trance,” Anne said. “Then he fell asleep again, so to speak, never to wake again.”

“All my friends are being killed in accidents,” Eddie whispered to himself. All of us who were with that woman we screwed…no, I don’t wanna think about that, he thought. “I do wanna talk to Chad about it, though.”

*****************

A few nights later, Eddie met up with Chad in front of that same dance club. “Have you given any more thought to what I told you in my text message a few days ago?” he asked Chad as they walked through the front doors.

“No!” Chad said with a sneer. “Look, I’m as shocked as you are that Virgil, Tor, and Ari have all been killed in freak accidents, OK? But they were accidents. You implying that something supernatural is happening to us in revenge for gang-banging that girl is, frankly, ridiculous.”

“OK, I agree that it’s incredible,” Eddie said as they approached the bar. “But don’t you think we took things a little too far with her?”

The bartender asked them what they wanted, and they ordered beers.

“Look, that bitch was a slut and she wanted it,” Chad said as he and Eddie each received a bottle of Heineken, then Chad gulped some down. “But even if what we did was wrong, why would our buddies’ deaths have to be related to it? They’re just coincidental.” He and Eddie paid for their beers, then Chad gulped down some more.

Sipping on his beer, Eddie hadn’t noticed that, sitting at a table on the other side of a dance floor half-filled with people, Nancy was watching him and his friend. I correctly made a mental prediction that Virgil was one of your friends, Eddie, she thought while sipping her glass of bourbon. Now I’m gonna see if you or your friend leaves with his arms around the waists of invisible women.

Ten minutes later, Chad gulped down the last of his beer. “I gotta go take a piss.”

“Wait,” Eddie said. “I’m worried about you walking off alone.”

“I’m just going to the washroom, Eddie. You wanna watch?”

“No, I’m just worried that–“

“The ghost-women are gonna cut my dick off? Don’t think so much. I’ll be back in two minutes.” Chad walked across the dance floor to the bathrooms, which were several feet away from Nancy’s table…not that Eddie ever noticed her there.

His eyes followed Chad all the way to the men’s room, as did hers. When the bathroom door shut behind Chad, Eddie’s eyes stayed on it, while Nancy’s returned to watching her brother.

Every second of those two minutes were agony for him. He more or less counted to one hundred and twenty as he waited to see Chad open the door and return. When Eddie had reached one hundred and twenty-two seconds, his heart started beating harder and faster.

The techno beat was pounding with a bland, repetitive, bass synth line of four notes. Then, Eddie heard a three-part vocal harmony on top of it.

“Hi, honey,” a female voice called out to him.

He turned his head to the right.

A hot blonde, a hot brunette, and a hot redhead were grinning at him.

He smiled back and stopped worrying about Chad.

Analysis of ‘Deliverance’

Deliverance is the 1970 debut novel by American poet James Dickey. It was made into a 1972 film by director John Boorman, starring Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox.

Four middle-aged men–landlord/outdoorsman Lewis Medlock (Reynolds), graphic artist Ed Gentry (Voight), salesman Bobby Trippe (Beatty), and soft drink company executive Drew Ballinger (Cox)–spend a weekend canoeing up the fictional Cahulawassee River in the northwest Georgia wilderness…only their imagined fun-filled weekend turns into a nightmarish fight to survive.

Deliverance is considered one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, and Boorman’s film adaptation–with a screenplay by Dickey–has also been highly praised, earning three Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing) and five Golden Globe Award nominations (Best Motion Picture–Drama, Best Director, Best Actor [Voight], Best Original Song, and Best Screenplay).

Here are some quotes from the film:

“Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything…A couple more months, she’ll all be gone…from Aintry on up. One big dead lake.” –Lewis

Griner: Canoe trip?
Lewis: That’s right, a canoe trip.
Griner: What the hell you wanna go fuck around with that river for?
Lewis: Because it’s there.
Griner: It’s there all right. You get in there and can’t get out, you’re gonna wish it wasn’t.

Lewis: The first explorers saw this country, saw it just like us.
Drew: I can imagine how they felt.
Bobby[about the rapids] Yeah, we beat it, didn’t we? Did we beat that?
Lewis: You don’t beat it. You never beat the river, chubby.

Lewis: Machines are gonna fail and the system’s gonna fail…then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game – survive.
Ed: Well, the system’s done all right by me.
Lewis: Oh yeah. You gotta nice job, you gotta a nice house, a nice wife, a nice kid.
Ed: You make that sound rather shitty, Lewis.
Lewis: Why do you go on these trips with me, Ed?
Ed: I like my life, Lewis.
Lewis: Yeah, but why do you go on these trips with me?
Ed: You know, sometimes I wonder about that.

Bobby: It’s true Lewis, what you said. There’s something in the woods and the water that we have lost in the city.
Lewis: We didn’t lose it. We sold it.
Bobby: Well, I’ll say one thing for the system. System did produce the air mattress, or as is better known among we camping types, the instant broad.

Mountain Man: What’s the matter, boy? I bet you can squeal. I bet you can squeal like a pig. Let’s squeal. Squeal now. Squeal. [Bobby’s ear is pulled]
Bobby: Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
Mountain Man: Squeal. Squeal louder. Louder. Louder, louder. Louder! Louder! Louder! Get down now, boy. There, get them britches down. That’s that. You can do better than that, boy. You can do better than that. Come on, squeal. Squeal.

Mountain Man: Whatcha wanna do with him?
Toothless Man[grinning] He got a real pretty mouth, ain’t he?
Mountain Man: That’s the truth.
Toothless Man[to Ed] You’re gonna do some prayin’ for me, boy. And you better pray good.

Lewis: We killed a man, Drew. Shot him in the back – a mountain man, a cracker. It gives us somethin’ to consider.
Drew: All right, consider it, we’re listenin’.
Lewis: Shit, all these people are related. I’d be god-damned if I’m gonna come back up here and stand trial with this man’s aunt and his uncle, maybe his momma and his daddy sittin’ in the jury box. What do you think, Bobby? [Bobby rushes at the corpse, but is restrained] How about you, Ed?
Ed: I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Drew: Now you listen, Lewis. I don’t know what you got in mind, but if you try to conceal this body, you’re settin’ yourself up for a murder charge. Now that much law I do know! This ain’t one of your fuckin’ games. You killed somebody. There he is!
Lewis: I see him, Drew. That’s right, I killed somebody. But you’re wrong if you don’t see this as a game…Dammit, we can get out of this thing without any questions asked. We get connected up with that body and the law, this thing gonna be hangin’ over us the rest of our lives. We gotta get rid of that guy!…Anywhere, everywhere, nowhere.
Drew: How do you know that other guy hasn’t already gone for the police?
Lewis: And what in the hell is he gonna tell ’em, Drew, what he did to Bobby?
Drew: Now why couldn’t he go get some other mountain men? Now why isn’t he gonna do that? You look around you, Lewis. He could be out there anywhere, watchin’ us right now. We ain’t gonna be so god-damned hard to follow draggin’ a corpse.
Lewis: You let me worry about that, Drew. You let me take care of that. You know what’s gonna be here? Right here? A lake – as far as you can see hundreds of feet deep. Hundreds of feet deep. Did you ever look out over a lake, think about something buried underneath it? Buried underneath it. Man, that’s about as buried as you can get.
Drew: Well, I am tellin’ you, Lewis, I don’t want any part of it.
Lewis: Well, you are part of it!
Drew: IT IS A MATTER OF THE LAW!
Lewis: The law? Ha! The law?! What law?! Where’s the law, Drew? Huh? You believe in democracy, don’t ya?
Drew: Yes, I do.
Lewis: Well then, we’ll take a vote. I’ll stand by it and so will you.

Ed: What are we gonna do, Lewis? You’re the guy with the answers. What the hell do we do now?
Lewis: Now you get to play the game.

“Drew was a good husband to his wife Linda and you were a wonderful father to your boys, Drew – Jimmie and Billie Ray. And if we come through this, I promise to do all I can for ’em. He was the best of us.” –Ed

Sheriff: Don’t ever do nothin’ like this again. Don’t come back up here.
Bobby: You don’t have to worry about that, Sheriff.
Sheriff: I’d kinda like to see this town die peaceful.

The film begins with voiceovers of Lewis and the other three men discussing their plan to go canoeing up the Cahulawassee River while they still have the chance (i.e., before it gets dammed up), with visuals of the construction workers beginning work on the dam. The novel, however, begins not only with Ed, as narrator, and the other three discussing their weekend plans, but also with his experience as the co-owner of a graphic art business/advertising agency, Emerson-Gentry.

He describes a photography session with a model wearing nothing but panties with the brand name of “Kitt’n Britches.” She is made to hold a cat; he gets turned on watching her holding one of her breasts in her hand while posing for the photo shoot. This scene gives us a sense of how he, as the co-owner of this business, is a capitalist exploiter enjoying his job ogling a pretty, seminude model. He isn’t completely comfortable with treating her like an object, though.

Indeed, one gets a sense that Ed is a sensitive liberal, with mixed feelings about the shoot: “I sat on the edge of a table and undid my tie. Inside the bright hardship of the lights was a peculiar blue, wholly painful, unmistakably man-made, unblinkable thing that I hated. It reminded me of prisons and interrogations, and that thought jumped straight at me. That was one side of it, all right, and the other was pornography. I thought of those films you see at fraternity parties and in officers’ clubs where you realize with terror that when the girl drops the towel the camera is not going to drop with it discreetly, as in old Hollywood films, following the bare feet until they hide behind a screen but is going to stay and when the towel falls, move in; that it is going to destroy someone’s womanhood by raping her secrecy; that there is going to be nothing left.” (pages 20-21)

All the same, towards the end of the novel, after he has returned from the ordeal of the canoeing trip, Ed–a married man with a son–takes the model out to dinner a couple of times (page 277).

His dishonesty to his wife, Martha, combined with his having lied to the Aintry cops about the deaths on and near the river, gives off the impression that Ed is an unreliable narrator (I’m not alone in this opinion: check Germane Jackson’s comment at the bottom of this link.). There is a sense that this story is much more wish-fulfillment on Ed’s part than a straightforward narrative. He wants to portray himself as a rugged hero, his nightmarish battle with nature a proving of his manhood.

This last point leads to one of the main themes of the novel: masculinity and its fragility. Lewis is Ed’s ideal of manhood, metaphorically a mirror to his narcissism. Now, while Drew’s loyalty to the law (his last name, Ballinger, sounds like a pun on barrister) suggests to Ed a sense of moral virtue (Drew is later deemed “the best of [them],” after his death), he hasn’t the manly strength Ed admires so much in Lewis. This lack of manliness is especially apparent in Bobby, the one who gets raped by the mountain man. Bobby’s surname, Trippe, is apt, for it suggests his awkwardness and ineffectuality.

Even Lewis’s supposed masculine perfection is compromised, however, when he breaks his leg, forcing Ed to be the hero. In this predicament we see Ed’s wish-fulfillment of having a chance to be like Lewis: his arduous climbing up the cliff and killing the toothless man (or so he thinks) are like a rite of passage for him. Without this test of manhood, Ed’s just a mild-mannered “city boy.” His surname, Gentry, suggests this softness.

Ed’s admiration for Lewis borders on, if it doesn’t lapse into, the homoerotic, with a passage in which Ed describes Lewis’s muscular, naked body with awe: “Lewis…was waist deep with water crumpling and flopping at his belly. I looked at him, for I have never seen him with his clothes off.
“Everything he had done for himself for years paid off as he stood there in his tracks, in the water. I could tell by the way he glanced at me; the payoff was in my eyes. I had never seen such a male body in my life, even in the pictures in the weight-lifting magazines, for most of those fellows are short, and Lewis was about an even six feet. I’d say he weighed about 190. The muscles were bound up in him smoothly, and when he moved, the veins in the moving part would surface. If you looked at him that way, he seems made out of well-matched red-brown chunks wrapped in blue wire. You could even see the veins in his gut, and I knew I could not even begin to conceive how many sit-ups and leg-raises–and how much dieting–had gone into bringing them into view.” (pages 102-103)

Since Ed’s wish-fulfilling narrative is unreliable, we can see the rape of Bobby as, in part, the projection of an unconscious wish on Ed’s part to be done by Lewis. Recall also that the arrow Lewis shoots into the back of the mountain man has not only saved Ed from having to perform fellatio on the toothless man, but also avenges Bobby’s rape, since Lewis’s phallic arrow rapes, if you will, the mountain man.

One’s sense of masculinity is assured in our society by winning in competitions of one sort or another. This competitiveness ranges everywhere from Ed’s life-and-death struggle to kill the toothless man to Drew’s innocuous duet with Lonnie on the guitar and banjo, respectively.

In the novel, the two musicians begin by playing “Wildwood Flower” (pages 59-60). In the film, of course, it’s the famous–and aptly named–“Duelling Banjos.” They smile at each other as they play, while all the other men around, local and visitor alike, enjoy the impromptu performance. One of the locals even dances to the tune; but when the competing musicians finish, and Drew wants to shake hands with Lonnie, the latter coldly turns his head away.

Part of the sense of competition is a belief in the supposed superiority of oneself over one’s rival. Accordingly, the four visitors tend to have a condescending attitude to the impoverished locals, who in return are gruff with them. Since I consider Ed to be an unreliable narrator (In Voight’s portrayal of him in the film, as well), his encounters of the inbred among the locals could be his imagination, another way for him to see himself as superior to those around him…except for Lewis.

Ed muses, “There is always something wrong with people in the country…In the comparatively few times I had ever been in the rural South, I had been struck by the number of missing fingers. Offhand, I had counted around twenty, at least. There had also been several people with some form of crippling or twisting illness, and some blind or one-eyed. No adequate medical treatment, maybe. But there was something else. You’d think that farming was a healthy life, with fresh air and fresh food and plenty of exercise, but I never saw a farmer who didn’t have something wrong with him, and most of the time obviously wrong; I never saw one who was physically powerful, either. Certainly there were none like Lewis.” (pages 55-56)

These four visitors are men with money, generally owners of businesses and private property, thus making them at least petite bourgeois; their social status contrasts them with the poor, working-class locals in this rural area near the river. To the locals, it will feel as if the four men are intruding on their territory, comparable to Western imperialists coming into and taking over the Third World. After all, competition over who gets to control land, resources, and the means of production is what capitalism is all about; and between the building of the dam (page 123) and these four intruders, the rural locals have a lot to be annoyed about.

The four men imagine they aren’t doing anything wrong because they don’t know what it’s like to live on a barely subsistence level: the rural locals do know that experience, and they resent richer people coming into their area and thinking they can do whatever they please there.

Since Ed is telling the story, he is going to portray himself and his three friends in the best possible light, and portray the locals in the most unflattering way possible, too. For this reason, we should take his narration with a generous grain of salt, and seriously consider what possible details he’s leaving out: the goodness of the locals, and the wrongs that he and his friends have quite possibly, if not probably, done to the locals.

Part of how Ed’s narration is distorting the facts is how he’s projecting his and his friends’ faults and wrongdoing onto the rural people and their setting. In the film, while the four men are camping at night, Lewis suddenly wanders off because he thinks he’s heard something (i.e., is somebody stalking them?). In the novel, Ed thinks he hears a man howling before going to sleep in his tent. Then he dreams about the model in the Kitt’n Britches panties being clawed in the buttocks by the cat. Then he wakes up, turns on a flashlight, and sees an owl with its talons on the tent…is this meant to be an omen, or just him projecting his own ill will onto his environment? By his own admission, “There was nothing, after all, so dangerous about an owl.” (pages 86-88)

Ed shares such fears with us in order to make himself and his friends into the victims, to conceal the fact that they’re actually the victimizers, covering up their murders of the mountain man and toothless man while trying to win the reader’s sympathy.

Interspersed sporadically throughout the novel, oblique and metaphorical references to war and imperialist concepts can be found by the careful reader. Examples include Ed calling his employees his “captives” and his “prisoners” (page 17); there’s the above-mentioned reference to “prisons and interrogations” and to porno films watched in “officers’ clubs” (page 20); when he and Lewis drive off from Ed’s home to go on the canoeing trip, he speaks of himself and his friend as seeming like “advance commandos of some invading force” (page 35); when he reaches the wilderness and gets out of the car, he looks in the rear window and sees himself as a “guerrilla, hunter” (page 69); when the four men have pitched their tents, Ed feels “a good deal better,” for they have “colonized the place” (page 83); he and his friends would “found [a] kingdom” (page 103); according to Lewis, the locals consider anyone outside the rural area to be unwanted “furriners” (pages 123-124); Ed confesses, “I was a killer” (page 173); later, he muses how “It was strange to be a murderer” (page 232); he speaks of the river “finding a way to serve” him, including collages he’s made, one of which hangs in an employee’s cubicle, “full of sinuous forms threading among the headlines of war” (page 276); finally, Lewis makes a reference to “Those gooks” (page 278).

All of these quotes taken together suggest that this 1970 novel, taking place mostly in the wilderness and involving the killing of two local men, as well as the apparent shooting of Drew, could be seen as an allegory of the American whitewashing of such imperialist wars as those of Korea and Vietnam. The above-mentioned quotes can also be seen as Freudian slips, meaning that Ed has repressed possible traumatic war experiences, making them resurface in the unrecognizable form of a weekend canoeing…except the quotes give away what’s really happened.

In this reimagined scenario, Lewis as the outdoorsman, survivalist, and Ed’s macho ideal, is the squad commander, barking orders at Bobby in their shared canoe. Ed is second-in-command, a former officer in one or two wars, I suspect (hence his reference above to “officers’ clubs” watching porno films), as Lewis was. Bobby and Drew are the weaker, less-experienced NCOs.

The Georgia wilderness symbolizes the jungles of Vietnam and wilderness of pre-industrialized Korea. The river can symbolize either a path our four ‘troops’ are walking on; or the Mekong, once controlled by the French; or it could be a river like the Nung River that Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) would go on in Apocalypse Now; or it could be compared to the river that Marlow‘s steamboat goes on in Heart of Darkness. The weekend canoe trip, then, is symbolically an imperialist intrusion into an impoverished land whose people would free themselves from colonialism, if only they could.

Ed doesn’t tell the story anywhere near like my interpretation, though, because he’d rather portray himself and his friends as the victims, and depict the two men they have murdered as the victimizers. Western propaganda similarly portrayed North Korea and North Vietnam as the communist aggressors, and the American military as the heroes attempting to bring ‘freedom and democracy’ to the Koreans and Vietnamese. We’ve all heard these lies before, as with the Gulf of Tonkin incident and endless propaganda against the DPRK.

Hollywood has made movie after movie about the suffering of American soldiers in Vietnam, while giving short shrift to the suffering of the Vietnamese; also, they tend to make the Americans into the heroes and stereotype the Vietnamese as villains, prostitutes, backward peasant farmers, etc., though some films are better, or worse, than others in this regard. Similarly, though M.A.S.H. vilified Koreans far less, their experience is no less marginalized or stereotyped in the movie and TV show. This misrepresentation and marginalizing can be seen to be paralleled in Ed’s negative portrayal of the locals, and in his unreliable narration of the rape and sniper passages in the novel and film.

Anyone who has done the research knows that the US escalated the Vietnam war, rationalizing American military aggression with the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident, then committed such atrocities as the My Lai massacre, napalm attacks scarring such locals as Phan Thị Kim Phúc, as well as the troops’ widespread raping of Vietnamese women. The rape of Bobby and the near-sexual assault of Ed, apart from being the homoerotic projections I described above regarding Ed’s feelings about Lewis, can also be seen as projections of Ed’s own guilt, symbolic of the guilt of American soldiers in such places as Korea and Vietnam.

For here is the core of Ed’s trauma, as I see it: it isn’t so much what the rural locals (in my allegory, the North Koreans and the Vietcong) may have done to him, but the guilt of what he and those with him did to them. The only way he can cope with his guilt is to repress the memories, to transform them into an unrecognizable fake memory (his and Lewis’s crimes reimagined as acts of self-defence), and to project his own guilt onto the locals (i.e., those inhabiting the Georgian wilderness symbolizing the Koreans and the Vietnamese as victims of US imperialism, as I’d have it.)

And instead of being a villain who murdered locals, Ed can fancy himself and Lewis as heroes, avenging a rape, and climbing a steep cliff and saving his friends from the toothless sniper…if that’s even the man Ed has killed!

Ed’s ogling of the Kitt’n Britches model during the photo shoot, and especially his dream of the cat clawing at her ass, can be seen as symbolic of rapes and prostitution in Korea and Vietnam, censored by his superego to make them less anxiety-provoking. The fact that he thinks of her on several occasions while in the Georgian wilderness, which as I mentioned above is symbolic of the jungles of Vietnam, even further solidifies the symbolic link between her and the sexual exploitation of Korean and Vietnamese women and girls by US troops.

By now, Dear Reader, you may be skeptical of my imposing of US imperialism onto this story. There is, after all, not a shred of proof anywhere in the novel or the film that Ed, Lewis, Bobby, and Drew are vets of the Korean or Vietnam wars. But consider the alternative. The novel was published in 1970; the film came out in 1972. The story takes place more or less in the present (i.e., at that time), or maybe a year or two before. There is no indication of it happening at a far earlier time, so we can only assume it takes place some time between 1970 and 1972.

In the novel, the four men are middle-aged. In the film, though, they are considerably younger, between 33 and 36, going by the actors’ ages at the time (Voight’s having been 33), or perhaps a few years older. Some of the motivation for having younger actors may have been because moviegoers prefer to sympathize with younger, better-looking people; but Ned Beatty’s character doesn’t need to be younger, and nor does Ronny Cox’s. Burt Reynolds’s character is 38 or 39 years of age (page 6), only a few years older than Reynolds was at the time. If we imagine the film’s characters to be in their late 30s, then all four of them may have been drafted into the Korean War, twenty years earlier.

My point about the novel as allegorical of a whitewashed imperialist war experience isn’t dependent on whether or not these four men actually served in the Korean or Vietnam wars, but their involvement in them isn’t to be ruled out, either, just because it isn’t mentioned in the novel. Lewis, at the age of 18 or 19, would have been drafted into the Korean War in 1950, ’51, or ’52; and Ed (in his late 40s in the novel), Bobby, and Drew must have been drafted, at ages between their late 20s and 30, in 1950, because in that year, all men between 18-and-a-half and 35 would have had to sign up.

The men may also have joined voluntarily for service in the Vietnam War (at least two thirds of those who served were volunteers). They’re too straight (15b definition) and bourgeois to be the draft card burning type (their higher socio-economic status, education, and ages in the mid-Sixties would have presumably made them officers). For men of their age, the patriotic American, anti-commie type would have been standard enough of an attitude to make them likely to have volunteered.

Even though it’s never mentioned, I’d say they must have done tours of duty in Korea. Though they were too old to have been drafted into serving in Vietnam, they would have been the right age for Korea. At least Ed would have served in Korea, since Lewis (his macho ideal), Bobby, and Drew may be figments of Ed’s imagination, transformations in his unconscious mind of old army buddies. If Lewis isn’t an imaginary character, his rugged, outdoorsman, macho personality would likely have made him want to sign up for Vietnam.

Ed’s never mentioning having done any service in the Korean War, then–apart from it having been too distant a memory to preoccupy him consciously–can easily be attributed to repression, while those indirect and metaphorical references to war, colonialism, and imperialism can be seen as fragments of Korean (or possibly also Vietnam) War memories slipping out. Given the year that the story is set in, and that the four men were young enough and sufficiently able-bodied in the early 50s to have served in Korea, I’d say that, if anything, it’s harder to believe that they haven’t served than that they have.

The trauma of Ed’s guilt and his fight to survive the ambushes of the wartime enemy are enough to force him to bury the pain in his unconscious and to have it reappear in a much less painful form–a weekend canoe trip gone horribly wrong, with him killing only one man instead of many Koreans (and possibly Vietnamese), with his and Lewis’s two killings remembered as acts in self-defence, as “justifiable homicide” rather than as a string of wartime atrocities.

And instead of Ed witnessing–and allowing–the multiple rapes and prostitution of Korean (and possibly also Vietnamese) women, his unconscious transforms these into one rape of one of his buddies and an attempted sexual assault on himself, a projection of his guilt turning the victimizers into the victims.

And instead of Ed and his fellow officers (Lewis, Bobby, and Drew, by chance?) raping and/or enjoying the sexual services of a number of Korean (and maybe Vietnamese) prostitutes, Ed can imagine it was really just him ogling a model wearing nothing but panties (recall the mountain man in the film saying to Bobby, “Them panties, take ’em off,” and “get them britches down”) during a photo session that reminds him of being in an officers’ club watching a porno (page 20); then later, he dates her behind his wife’s back.

Instead of being guilty of terrible crimes, it turns out that Ed was just a little naughty. That’s not so bad, is it? This is his “deliverance” from a much more terrible trauma. Even when he makes love to his wife, Martha, he fantasizes about the model and her “gold eye” (page 28). Fantasizing about making love to her, instead of raping her, is his “deliverance” from guilt, for “it promised other things, another life.”

Ed’s difficult climb up the cliff is described in sexual language: “…I would begin to try to inch upward again, moving with the most intimate motions of my body, motions I had never dared use with Martha, or with any other human woman. Fear and a kind of enormous moon-blazing sexuality lifted me, millimeter by millimeter. And yet I held madly to the human. I looked for a slice of gold like the model’s in the river: some kind of freckle, something lovable, in the huge serpent-shape of light.” (page 176)

Later, Ed says, “It was painful, but I was going. I was crawling, but it was no longer necessary to make love to the cliff, to fuck it for an extra inch or two in the moonlight…If I was discreet, I could offer it a kick or two, even, and get away with it.” (page 177) This aggressively sexual language, once again with a reference to the model (previous paragraph), is another example of the symbolically imperialistic rape of the land the visitors have imposed on the locals.

Yet Ed is mostly preoccupied with describing the difficulty of the climb, especially for a man with aches and pains all over his body, as for example, here: “My feet slanted painfully in one direction or another. Guided by what kind of guesswork I could not say, I kept scrambling and stumbling upward like a creature born on the cliff and coming home. Often a hand or foot would slide and then catch on something I knew, without knowing, would be there, and I would go on up. There was nothing it could do against me, in the end; there was nothing it could do that I could not match, and, in the twinkling of some kind of eye-beat. I was going.” (page 177) His description of his battle with nature is thus more of him twisting things around and making himself the victim, and his surroundings the victimizer of sorts. It’s also him glorifying himself as a conquering hero, overcoming the cliff, and worthy of Lewis’s admiration.

When Ed shoots his arrow into the hunter he believes to be the toothless man, he falls from the tree he’s been hiding in and stabs another arrow into his side (pages 192-193). His aim of the arrow is shaky in the extreme, as you can see in Voight’s aim in the movie; his aim was just as shaky as when he shot at and missed the deer (page 97). This shakiness is to give us a sense of the “I kill’d not thee with half so good a will,” that Ed is somehow an unwilling murderer, to win our sympathy.

Ed describes himself as coming to be at one with the man he’s about to kill: “I had thought so long and hard about him that to this day I still believe I felt, in the moonlight, our minds fuse. It was not that I felt myself turning evil, but that an enormous physical indifference, as vast as the whole abyss of light at my feet, came to me; an indifference not only to the other man’s body scrambling and kicking on the ground with an arrow through it, but also to mine. If Lewis had not shot his companion, he and I would have made a kind of love, painful and terrifying to me, in some dreadful way pleasurable to him, but we would have been together in the flesh, there on the floor of the woods, and it was strange to think of it.” (page 180).

Ed stabbing himself with the second arrow when hitting the man with the first reinforces this sense of oneness with his victim. Later, Ed gets mad at Bobby, and says in the narration: “I ought to take this rifle and shoot the hell out of you, Bobby, you incompetent asshole, you soft city country-club man,” (page 201) this urge to point the gun at Bobby being once again Ed’s identification with the toothless man. Since, right or wrong, he imagines his victim to be the toothless man who was about to make him suck his cock, Ed is again projecting his own violent attitude onto his victim. As with Lewis shooting an arrow into Bobby’s rapist, Ed is raping his victim with his own phallic arrow.

As with the mountain man put in the ground (which will later be under water once the dam has been built–page 275), this new victim has to be buried in the water. These two burials symbolize guilt repressed into the unconscious. That repressed guilt, however, resurfaces in an unrecognized form; in the first of these cases, it’s the rapids that throw the men out of their canoes, destroying one of them and breaking Lewis’s leg. In the second case, recall the very end of the film.

Lewis insists that Drew has been shot. Ed isn’t so sure of this, especially when he finds Drew’s body and sees the bloody injury on his head. Is it the grazing of a bullet, or is it from his head having cracked against a rock? (page 217) He says he’s never seen a gunshot wound; maybe as an officer, he was behind a desk the whole time in Korea, or maybe he wasn’t all that close to the enemy he was shooting at…or maybe he’s lying again.

Since Drew was outvoted in the decision to bury the mountain man, he may have fallen out of his canoe not from having been shot, but from emotional exhaustion at having done something his conscience could not bear. Certainly that’s how it looks when we see Cox’s face before he falls out of the canoe in the movie; we don’t see his body jerk from having been shot.

If Drew hasn’t been shot, then Lewis’s insistence that he has–coupled with Ed’s determination to kill a hunter who, possibly if not probably, isn’t the toothless man–is yet another example of these men projecting their guilt outwards; the same way American imperialists in Korea and Vietnam were projecting their quest for world dominance onto those ‘commie reds.’

Lewis’s preoccupation with survivalism fits well in the context of my allegory, since he imagines all of civilization crumbling, necessitating man’s survival in the wild; the succumbing of civilization to nature here symbolizes the the capitalist West succumbing to communism. Cold War fears were like that back then. “Machines are gonna fail and the system’s gonna fail…then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game – survive,” Lewis says in the film. As we know, though, it is nature that succumbs to civilization when the dam is built…and we all know who won the Cold War.

As Ed, Bobby, and Lewis are coming out of the wilderness and approaching a populated area, Ed must construct a plausible story and make sure that Bobby’s and Lewis’s accounts of it don’t contradict each other’s or Ed’s. As he says of his and Lewis’s crimes to Bobby, “we’ve got to make it unhappen.” (page 210)

This lying is, of course, necessary to avoid getting charged with murder by the local sheriff (in the film, played by Dickey), whose deputy, Queen, already suspects Ed of wrongdoing. Similarly, the US has avoided being held responsible for its war crimes by whitewashing history and portraying itself as “exceptional” and ‘defending the free world.’

Now, lying to the police about the supposed innocence of him and his friends isn’t enough to ease Ed’s mind; to assuage his conscience, he must alter the whole narrative and make himself and his friends seem as innocent as possible. This is why I believe he is an unreliable narrator.

He cannot deny that he and Lewis have committed deliberate murders; to claim to have killed men they haven’t would go against the tendencious bias of the narrative. So instead of denying murderous intent, they must rationalize the murders as acts of self-defence.

Though in the film, Ed has “got a real pretty mouth,” according to the toothless man, who happens to be ogling then 33-year-old, handsome Jon Voight, in the novel, Ed is supposed to be in his late forties, at an age far less likely to have “a real pretty mouth.” Similarly, the mountain man would have to have more than unusually perverted tastes to want to sodomize an obese, middle-aged man who “squeal[s] like a pig.”

When people are proven liars, anything they say is suspect; everything they say after having been found out as liars is doubted until strong evidence is provided that they’re telling the truth. It would be far more believable to imagine the mountain man and toothless man wanting to beat up and/or kill Ed and Bobby (for their insulting remarks about making whiskey–page 109) than it is to believe they’d want to rape them.

To be sure, it’s far from impossible to believe Ed’s and Bobby’s attackers really rape them; it just isn’t all that likely, and given Ed’s propensity to lie, that makes sexual assault all the less likely. What’s more, since he and Bobby look down on the locals as inbred ‘white trash,’ the way racist US troops looked down on East Asians as filthy, uncivilized ‘gooks,’ Ed’s portraying of them as loathsome rapist perverts is a perfect way to scorn and vilify the mountain man and toothless man, thus making it easier to kill them.

Here’s another point: of what relevance to the main narrative on the river is Ed’s preoccupation with a model wearing nothing but pretty panties? With so many references to her while in the wilderness, what’s the point of her involvement in the story other than to reinforce our sense of Ed’s sexual obsessions, manifested also in his description of Lewis’s body and in his ‘making love’ with the cliff? This is why I suspect that the rape of Bobby and near sexual assault on Ed are just projections of Ed’s own aggressive sexual feelings.

One of the tag lines of the film is, “What did happen on the Cahulawassee River?” I’d say that that’s a good question. We, the readers, and we who saw the movie, don’t really know what happened: we only know Ed’s version of the story. We know he killed a man, one who may well not have been his attacker. We know Lewis killed a man. We have reasonable doubts as to whether or not these homicides were justified.

Ed has to change their story when he learns that the cops have found the busted canoe, or parts of it, further back down the river from where Ed and Bobby have claimed that it crashed (page 245). This means more lying.

Ed claims that his fascination with the half-naked model is because of a “gold-glowing mote” in her eye (page 22), rather than with the contents of her Kitt’n Britches. We’re supposed to buy this. He takes her out to dinner a few times (page 277), then loses interest in her (Remember, he’s a married man with a son.). Really? He never took her to bed? He’s clearly trying to make his lust seem as harmless as possible. The connotations of his surname, Gentry, seem to have less to do with him (a capitalist) being a gentleman than they do with the notion of gentry as an upper social class.

Indeed, the fragile masculine ego, with its incessant need to compete with and outdo other men–in sex, in fighting, and in skillfulness in general–is bound up with competitive capitalism and class conflict, especially in its modern, late stage, imperialist form. This is partially why I link the Korean and Vietnam Wars to this novel. War is the ultimate struggle of man against man, and of man against nature, as seen in Deliverance.

By the end of the novel, the dam is up, and the river is now Lake Cahula (page 277). Drew and the men he and Lewis have killed are “going deeper and deeper, piling fathoms and hundreds of tons of pressure and darkness on themselves, falling farther and farther out of sight, farther and farther from any influence on the living.” (page 275) Ed can sleep better now. The bodies are further and further buried under the water, symbol of the unconscious.

Yet as I said above, whatever gets repressed always resurfaces. Dickey ends his novel peacefully, with Ed’s loss of interest in the model (an interest that was tied up with the river [!]), with him still practicing archery with Lewis, with Bobby moving to Hawaii, and with real estate people and college-age kids showing an interest in the Cahula Lake area as a place to live (page 278).

The film, however, ends with Ed waking up from a nightmare in which the hand of the toothless man surfaces from the water, a clear return of the repressed. In the novel, Ed can’t sleep because he’s looking out his bedroom window, wondering if a car is going to arrive on his driveway with a warrant for his arrest (page 273).

Even in the novel’s peaceful ending, the careful reader can sense a continued intrusiveness on the Cahula Lake area. Real estate people want to seize the area for private property. Young high school grads are thinking of living there. Lewis, in discussing Zen and archery, says, “Those gooks are right.” (page 278), an oblique reference, in my opinion, to the imperialists’ racist attitude to the people of the East Asian countries they’ve bombed, napalmed, and raped.

Our memories of the atrocities committed in the Korean and Vietnam wars are similarly fading into oblivion, thanks to whitewashing and repression. But it all comes back, however indirectly, in new forms…as it has over the years in continuing threats to the DPRK and China. We’ll just have to wait and hope for a deliverance from those threats.

James Dickey, Deliverance, New York, Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1970

‘Sirens,’ a Horror Novella, Chapter Five

[WARNING: sexual and violent content]

The electronic beat was pounding in their ears, and pink, green, and white lights were flashing in their eyes. Eddie was making progress with a pretty, curvaceous blonde that he was dirty dancing with; then he noticed one of his friends, Virgil, was dancing off on his own. Virgil was acting as if he were dancing with several girls.

Eddie tapped on the shoulder of one of his friends dancing nearby. “Hey, what the fuck is Virgil doing over there?” he asked, gesturing over to Virgil’s loneliness at the side of the dance floor.

All of Eddie’s friends looked over at Virgil and laughed.

“Hey, Virgil!” Eddie shouted. “What the fuck, man?!”

Virgil seemed deaf to him. He also seemed to be talking to himself.

Eddie’s friend tapped him on the shoulder. “Did Virgil take a half-pill of powerful ecstasy, or something? He must be too high to know what he’s doing.”

“I’d say he took a whole pill,” Eddie said. “He must be hallucinating. He’s acting like he’s with a bunch of hot chicks.”

“It looks that way,” the friend said.

A few seconds later, it looked as though some invisible person were holding Virgil by the hands and leading him off the dance floor. The boys saw an ear-to-ear grin on his face, as well as sparkling, hypnotized eyes. As he walked towards the door out of the dance bar, he had both arms around invisible waists.

“Holy shit,” Eddie said, wide-eyed. “He must be really, really wasted.”

************

Virgil was driving his car, feeling the redhead blowing him. (His hard-on was poking out of his open fly, doing nothing but getting harder.)

“So, where…are we going, girls?” he panted. “Oh!

“Just keep going straight,” the brunette said. “We’re almost there.”

He kept driving for several more minutes, hypnotized by the three girls’ singing and the lips and tongue he felt going up and down on his cock. Oddly, he heard three-part, not two-part, vocal harmony.

“Oh, you girls…are talented,” he moaned. “You suck…while singing, but don’t…suck at singing. Oh!

He looked all around his surroundings, seeing flat fields of grass, airstrips, and parked airplanes.

“You wanna screw…in an airfield?” he grunted.

“Yes,” the brunette said, then resumed singing with the other two.

“Why here?” he panted.

“It’s sexy,” the blonde said. “In a public place, we might get caught.” She resumed singing.

“Don’t you think that’s exciting?” the brunette asked, then sang again.

“Yeah, I guess,” he sighed. “Unh!

They approached a big plane, one with a huge propellor.

“Stop here,” the brunette said.

“OK,” he sighed, then parked his car by the plane.

He got out, hearing the girls’ singing as his full erection was still pointing out of his zipper. The redhead took him by the hands and led him just in front of the propellor, a few steps to the left of the centre. Then she knelt before him and resumed her sucking…or so he imagined.

At the same time, he imagined the brunette behind him, kissing him on the neck and fingering his nipples. The blonde was facing him, her legs spread out and on either side of the squatting redhead. He was French-kissing the blonde while her hands were on his buttocks, squeezing them and pressing them with her fingers.

The girls were singing the whole time, even while French-kissing and blowing him, and while the brunette nibbled on his neck. They didn’t need their mouths to be free, since they weren’t physical. Virgil heard what sounded like the words of a foreign language in their singing; he couldn’t recognize what language it was, let alone understand its meaning…not that he cared.

He was in sensual heaven.

Then, the engine of the airplane started, though no one was in the cockpit. The wind blowing on him, the rumbling of the engine–he barely noticed them. It was as if the mild breeze and hum of a large fan were cooling him. He was too busy screwing his illusions.

The wheels of the plane were moving it slowly forward.

He, still with his hard-on pointing towards the propellor, was still standing a few feet to the left of its centre. All he saw, though, were the mesmerizing eyes of the blonde he seemed to be kissing.

“Hey!” called out a female voice he didn’t notice at all. “What are you doing here? Who is in that plane…? Oh!” She was now close enough to him to notice his dick was out; she quickly looked away. “What are you, some kind of pervert? All alone with your…?”

Since her head was still turned away, it was his blood spraying all over her that made her realize the propellor had already begun slicing him up.

She looked back at him and screamed from all the red she saw splashing everywhere. She quickly backed away.

Oddly, he didn’t seem to notice what was happening to him. No pain at all.

Armless, with only half of his dick left at the moment, and thoroughly bloody, he just kept French-kissing that invisible blonde.

Analysis of ‘Pet Sematary’

Pet Sematary is a 1983 supernatural horror novel by Stephen King, the one he considered his scariest (King, page ix) because of a real-life situation in which his toddler son ran off to a road and almost got hit by a truck (page xi). It has been made into two film adaptations, the 1989 one starring Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Blaze Berdahl, and Fred Gwynne; and the 2019 version starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, and John Lithgow.

Here are some quotes from the 1989 film, the screenplay written by Stephen King:

“But he’s not God’s cat, he’s my cat… let God get His own if He wants one… not mine.” –Ellie Creed, afraid of her cat, Church, dying on the road in front of the Creed’s home

“The barrier was not meant to be crossed. The ground is sour.” –the ghost of Victor Pascow

“The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. ‘Cause what you buy, is what you own. And what you own… always comes home to you.” –Jud Crandall

Louis: Has anyone ever buried a person up there?
Jud: Christ on His Throne, NO! Whoever would!?

“Today is thanksgiving day for cats, but only if they came back from the dead.” –Louis Creed

“I knew this would happen. I told her when you were first married you’d have all the grief you can stand and more, I said. Now look at this. I hope you rot in hell! Where were you when he was playing in the road? You stinkin’ shit! You killer of children!” –Irwin Goldman, at Gage’s funeral, to Louis…then punches Louis

Louis: I’ll bite, Jud. What’s the bottom of the truth?
Jud: That, sometimes, dead is better. The person that you put up there ain’t the person that comes back. It might look like that person, but it ain’t that person, because whatever lives on the ground beyond the Pet Sematary ain’t human at all.

Rachel: It’s okay, Ellie! You just had a bad dream.
Ellie: It wasn’t a dream, it was Paxcow! Paxcow says daddy is going to do something really bad!
Rachel: Who is this Paxcow?
Ellie: He’s a ghost, a good ghost! He was sent to warn us!

“Rachel, is that you? I’ve been waiting for you, Rachel. And now I’m going to twist your back like mine, so you’ll never get out of bed again… Never get out of bed again…NEVER GET OUT OF BED AGAIN!” –Zelda Goldman

“I’m coming for you, Rachel… And this time, I’ll get you… Gage and I will both get you, for letting us die…” –Zelda, who then cackles

“Darling.” –reanimated Rachel, to Louis

The deliberately misspelled title is derived from an actual pet cemetery whose sign had the same misspelling, made by a child (page x). In the story, as in the real pet cemetery (it’s safe to assume), a number of the grave markers of the children’s dead pets have other misspellings; these all give a sense of the innocence of children who must learn to come to grips with loss.

I see another possible interpretation of the “Sematary” spelling, that it is a pun on seminary, or a school of theology. To study God is to study life’s meaning, as well as the mystery of death, the afterlife, and how to cope with suffering and loss. In this connection, recall the surname of the protagonist, Creed (the Christian belief system), and the name of their cat, Winston Churchill, usually shortened to Church. Pets are churches that, through their deaths, teach children about loss.

There are two cemeteries in the story, the good one (the Pet Sematary) and the bad one (the Micmac burial ground). The good one helps children deal with their grief and to learn to accept loss; but the bad one, which resurrects the dead and transforms them into demonic versions of their former selves (because the ground is inhabited by a Wendigo, an evil spirit of the First Nations tribes of the area), is for those who cannot accept the loss of loved ones.

So, the Pet Sematary is a kind of seminary, if you will, teaching children how to process the grief they feel after losing their beloved pets. The children can imagine that their pets are going from there to ‘dog [cat, hamster, etc.] heaven.’ The misspellings on the sign and grave markers, as I said above, show us the sweet naïveté of these children in their contemplation of God-like things; for as Jesus says in Matthew 18:3, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

The Pet Sematary is in a forest at the end of a long path from behind the house that the Creed family has just moved into. The religious often speak of following the right path to salvation, and the wrong path to damnation. There’s the path to the Pet Sematary (“It’s a safe path…You keep on the path and all’s well.” –page 39), and there’s also that road in front of the Creeds’ new house, where the Orinco trucks dangerously speed by, often killing people’s pets, thus filling up the Pet Sematary.

The inevitability of these trucks going by, something that happens regularly, is symbolic of the unescapable reality of death. Each truck is a juggernaut–not the actual Jagannath of the Hindus–but the apocryphal interpretation that Western observers made of it centuries ago: the idea that the chariot carrying the Hindu idol went non-stop down the road, and ecstatic worshippers threw themselves on the road to be crushed under the wheels of the chariot, in a rite of human sacrifice.

The name of the company printed on the trucks, Orinco (almost an anagram of the Cianbro truck King saw almost hit his little boy–page xi), sounds like a pun on Orinoco, the South American river whose name is derived from a term meaning “a place to paddle,” or a navigable place. Well, the road is good for Orinco trucks to drive on, since nothing can stop those juggernauts…nothing can stop death. The trucks are one with this road of death, a kind of via dolorosa.

So, the path to the Pet Sematary is a way to get to (pet) heaven, and the road the Orinco trucks drive on is a kind of highway to hell…or at least to Sheol. Then there’s the way beyond the Pet Sematary, the deadfall leading up to the Micmac burying ground, an evil sublation of the thesis–the Pet Sematary leading to eternal life for pets–and the negation of that thesis–the Orinco truck road to death. The Micmac burial ground is a place of living death.

That the Pet Sematary and the evil land of the Wendigo, leading to the Micmac burying ground, are closer together than the former is to the road suggests my ouroboros symbolism for the dialectical relationship between opposites (see these posts to understand my meaning)–the closeness between the Pet Sematary’s heavenly Godliness, if you will, and the devilish hell of the Micmac burial ground.

When Jud Crandall (played by Gwynne in the 1989 film, and by Lithgow in the 2019 one) takes Louis (Midkiff, 1989; Clarke, 2019) past the Pet Sematary and up the deadfall–“the barrier [that] was not made to be broken,” page 161–there’s a further trek of “Three miles or more” (page 164) to the burial ground, but before long one senses a hellish, demonic presence among the eerie animal sounds one hears (pages 166-169)…the Wendigo. They may be a while before getting to the burial ground, but they’re already in a kind of hell…Little God Swamp, or Dead Man’s Bog.

The dangerous climb up the unstable branches of the deadfall represents that meeting place where the teeth of the ouroboros bites its tail (symbolizing the meeting of the opposites of life and death, of heaven and hell), that meeting of opposites where, paradoxically, too much careful and nervous climbing leads to falls and injury, whereas climbing that is “done quick and sure” (page 161), never looking down, results in a miraculously safe and successful ascent.

That barrier is not made to be broken because it is so easy to break. Victor Pascow himself–a jogger hit by a car and killed before Louis can save him (page 89)–breaks the barrier to warn Louis never to break it, in thanks to the doctor for at least trying to save his life.

Jud advises Louis to have Church fixed (pages 23-24) because fixed cats “don’t tend to wander as much,” and therefore the risk of him running across that treacherous road, and getting crushed under the wheels of one of those Orinco trucks, will be lessened. The castrating of the cat, though, does nothing to prevent him from suffering the very fate Louis has tried to prevent. His daughter, Ellie (Berdahl in the 1989 film; Jeté Laurence in the 2019 film), loves Church so much that she will be heartbroken to learn he’s dead.

All of this leads us to a discussion of desire and the inability to fulfill it. Lacan considered the phallus to be the most important of the signifiers, since its lack (through symbolic castration) leads to desire, which can never be fulfilled. For Church, desire means the wish to roam and run about freely, whether fixed or not, whether the fulfillment of that desire is or isn’t excessive, transgressive, or dangerous (i.e., the racing across the road as symbolic of jouissance).

For humans, desire is symbolically expressed in being the phallus for the Oedipally-desired mother, though we can apply Lacan’s idea more generally–that of desire as ‘the desire of the Other’ (i.e., wanting to fulfill the desires of other people, wanting others’ recognition)–to the desires of the Creed family and Jud. Louis fixes Church in the hopes of keeping him safe, for Ellie’s sake; but when Church is killed, Jud has Louis take the corpse to the burial ground for her sake, too.

Louis, whose father died when he was three and who never knew a grandfather (page 3), has had strained relationships with father figures, particularly with his father-in-law, Irwin Goldman (played by Michael Lombard in the 1989 film). Irwin actually took out his chequebook and offered Louis a sum of money so he wouldn’t marry Rachel (page 146)!

If we see Louis’s love for her as a transference of Oedipal love for his mother, then his hostility to Irwin can be seen as a transference of Oedipal hate toward the father who left this world before Louis could even get a chance to know him. And Irwin’s disapproval of Louis marrying Rachel can thus be seen as a symbolic Non! du père, in turn resulting in Lacan’s notion of the Oedipally-based manque.

Louis has an even better reason to hate Rachel’s parents when he learns that they made her, as a little girl, take care of her sick older sister, Zelda, whose spinal meningitis made her so deformed and ugly that the sight of her traumatized little Rachel…especially when she found Zelda dead in her bed!

But in Jud, “the man who should have been his father,” Louis has found a good father figure, someone onto whom he can transfer positive Oedipal feelings (page 10). So when Jud, influenced by the Wendigo of the Micmac burying ground, has Louis bury Church there, Louis goes along with it, against his better judgement. After all, Daddy knows best, doesn’t he?

Lack gives rise to desire: Church’s castration, meant to keep him safe from the trucks, drives him to run across the road, to the point of him getting killed by a truck after all; “Cats lived violent lives and often died bloody deaths…Cats were the gangsters of the animal world, living outside the law and often dying there.” (pages 52, 53) The Creeds’ lack of a cat drives Jud, feeling compassion for Ellie, to have Louis bury the cat in the burial ground, though Jud knows it’s a foolish and dangerous thing to do. And Louis, lacking Gage after he is killed by an Orinco truck, is driven to exhume his son’s corpse and–with all the pain and exhausting work it involves–to rebury him in the burial ground. Then he’ll do the same with Rachel after demon-Gage kills her.

All four of these lacks lead to desires, which are excessive wants. The barrier that isn’t made to be broken is, symbolically, the barrier to jouissance, the forbidden fulfillment of excessive desire. We all have basic, biological needs, and as we learn language, social customs, culture, etc., in entering the Symbolic Order, we use language to make demands; but demands, especially the demand for love, are never expressed completely through the limitations of language, so some of that need and demand is never fully satisfied.

The residual lack gives rise to desire, an excess that’s never fulfilled. This remainder, incapable of being symbolized in language, is in the realm of the Real Order, a traumatic world symbolized by the frightening, inarticulate animal cries in the land of the Wendigo and the Micmac burial ground…”the real cemetery.”

The Buddhists teach us that suffering is caused by desire, attachment to things in a universe where all things are impermanent. The reality of death is an impermanence too painful for Louis Creed to bear, so his lack of Gage and, at the end of the novel, Rachel, drives him to feel a desire so excessive as to want to use the burial ground to raise them from the dead.

One cannot have the originally desired object–the Oedipally-desired parent, a universal, narcissistic desire, since, as a child looking up into the eyes of that parent, he or she is looking in a metaphorical mirror of him- or herself, a manifestation of the Imaginary Order–so one spends the rest of one’s life searching for a replacement of that object, the objet petit a. This replacement can never be a perfect substitute for the original, so desire is never fulfilled.

The demonic replacements of Church, Gage, and Rachel can be seen to represent the objet petit a, for they, of course, can never replace the originals…though Louis does all he can to have them replace his lost loved ones. When Jud’s wife, Norma, dies, he wisely accepts her death and never even considers burying her in the Micmac burial ground; but its demonic influence drives him to desire to have Church buried there, for Ellie’s sake, since desire is of the other, to wish to fulfill what one believes others want. Similarly, Louis reburies Gage there in part out of a wish to fulfill what he at least imagines is what Rachel would want…to have her little boy back (“She cried his name and held her arms out.” –page 527).

So, the forbidden fulfillment of excessive desires, jouissance, symbolized by the demonic resurrecting of Church, Gage, and Rachel, is another example of the dialectical relationship between opposites–pleasure/pain, bliss/suffering, heaven/hell, life/death–as I would represent with the head of the ouroboros biting its tail. In passing into jouissance‘s indulging in transgressive pleasure, one goes past pleasure and suffers pain; whereas in the Pet Sematary, one learns to accept loss.

Young Jud originally buried his dog, Spot, in the Micmac burial ground (page 181); then, when he saw what trouble the resurrected dog was, he came to his senses, killed it, and buried it in the Pet Sematary (page 45). The problem is that the desires kindled by the Micmac burial ground are addictive, like a drug–hence, Jud’s ill-advised taking of Louis there with dead Church.

One always wants more, that ‘surplus value,’ or the plus-de-jouir that Lacan wrote about. When animals are brought back, their demonic nature is usually not so bad as it is with resurrected humans (“…because Hanratty had gone bad, did that mean that all animals went bad? No. Hanratty the bull did not prove the general case; Hanratty was in fact the exception to the general case.” –page 390); again, as with the animals buried in the Pet Sematary, they act as a kind of warning to us not to play around with life and death, especially not with human beings.

There is our attachment to what we can’t keep, what we love; and there’s what we wish we never had, what we hate, yet what we must have at least sometimes in our lives. The Buddhists speak of the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. Greed represents all those things and people we want in excess, because we want to keep them, but must one day let go of them–still, we won’t want to let go of them: hence the resurrecting of Church, Gage, and Rachel.

Hatred represents what we wish would be gone, but must have, hence Rachel’s trauma in dealing with Zelda, and her shame at feeling glad her sick sister finally died…but the painful memories live on, haunting her, for she can’t get rid of Zelda until she’s properly processed her pain. Hatred is also in Irwin’s refusal to accept Louis as a son-in-law.

Delusion is the false belief that things can be permanent, hence Louis’s reburying of Church, Gage, and Rachel. Even though he sees how evil resurrected Gage is, Louis still fools himself with the belief that resurrected Rachel will be better, because apparently he waited too long with Gage. “Something got into him because I waited too long. But it will be different with Rachel…” (page 556)

So, the message of the novel is that we can’t force our desires onto the world…but we can’t help doing so, even though doing so will only make our suffering worse. We know this, but still do it. “Sometimes, dead is better”…but we refuse to accept it.

The sweetness and innocence of children and animals, as expressed in the Pet Sematary–that seminary, if you will, that teaches us to have the misspelling simplicity of a child entering the kingdom of heaven–turns rotten, into Oz the Gweat and Tewwible (pages 510-511, 513ff), if we try to bend the world to our will. The Wendigo makes all the difference.

As we already know, the Micmac burial ground is a demonic double of the Pet Sematary, with their spirals (pages 386-387, 498) and graves curling like the coiled, serpentine body of the ouroboros; the land of the murderous, greedy, cannibalistic Wendigo that so frightens Louis on his way to rebury Gage, is right where the serpent’s teeth bite into its tail, the abyss where heaven and hell meet.

It’s so easy for the sweet and innocent to phase into their opposite, the Gweat and Tewwible.

Stephen King, Pet Sematary, New York, Pocket Books, 1983

‘Sirens,’ a Horror Novella, Chapter Four

“Holy shit!” Eddie Sayers said as he read his sister’s story on the death of Tor. “I gotta go talk to Nancy about this.”

He tried calling her on her phone, but it was busy, so he sent her this text message: “We need 2 talk about this news story U wrote about Tors death When RU free”

About ten minutes later, she texted this reply: “In 2 days I’m too busy right now”

Eddie: “Ok Ur home Thurs”

*************

“Hi, Eddie,” Nancy said that Thursday evening, opening the door to her apartment and letting him in. “So, what do you want to know about Tor’s death?”

“Well, it’s just that he was my friend,” Eddie said.

“He was?” she asked with her eyes and mouth wide open.

“Yeah,” Eddie said. “In fact, he’s the second friend of mine to have been killed in freak accidents recently.”

“Oh? Who was the first?”

“My buddy, Ari Schneider.”

“Oh, my fucking God.” Her eyes were opened even wider now.

“He died in a motorcycle collision with a truck.”

“I know,” she said, eyes still agape. “I wrote an article about his death, too.”

“Wow, what a coincidence. Small world.”

“Much too much of a coincidence, Eddie. Much too small a world.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because there’s something strange about their deaths. Those accidents should never have happened. They should have easily been able to avoid their accidents. Ari and Tor were neither drunk nor stoned. They weren’t suicidal, according to their families; nor were they self-destructive in any way.”

“Oh, yeah,” Eddie said. “They were the happiest dudes I’ve ever known. We partied hard all the time together, with my other friends I’m getting together with tonight. Talking about Tor and Ari dying is gonna darken our party tonight.”

“What do you guys usually do together?”

“You know, the usual. Go to dance clubs, get drunk, chase pussy. Man, this one time, about a month ago, we took this one girl to…Virgil’s apartment, I think. It’s hard to remember in detail. We were all really drunk, and we…oops! Never mind. You don’t need to know about that.”

“I don’t, don’t I?” Nancy asked, looking askance at Eddie.

“She consented.” He avoided her eyes.

“Really?” Nancy glared at him. She saw a confession of guilt in his eyes.

“What am I, on trial here?”

“Look, forget it. Just be careful tonight with your friends. Don’t do anything stupid. I have a bad feeling about what happened to Ari and Tor. And your naughty partying is giving me even worse vibes. That woman’s OK, right?”

“Of course. What do think we did…kill her?” He was doing a bad job of hiding that guilt on his face.

“No, but whatever you all did with her, or to her, after that she may have wanted to kill herself.”

“Oh, come on! What’s this bullshit? She was fine when we left her. Really.”

“Really?” she asked, looking hard in his eyes.

“Yes, really,” he said, looking back in her eyes with a more assured attitude.

“Look, something weird is happening to your friends, it seems. It almost seems supernatural. As crazy as it sounds, I don’t know any other way to explain it.”

“Do you think her ghost is coming after us, or something?” he asked with a dopey look on his face, mocking the absurd attitude she seemed to have.

“No, of course not. Just be careful tonight, OK?”

“OK, Ms. Paranoia.” He left her apartment, sneering.

A New Poem by Jason Morton

Here’s a short poem by my friend, Jason Morton, whose work I’ve looked at before. As always, his writing is given in italics to distinguish it from mine.

I dream in grays
Slip away into yesterday’s
That have no meaning
Straining my heart to find a day that will cleanse me of my sickness and help me feel whole
All I’ve ever wanted was to feel as if I had a soul
Things darken and fall apart
Every dream a broken heart
Singing songs or requims
Requires dreams to live off of
And I hold onto a small hope that meaning will be found one day
And the sky will be blue not gray.

And now, for my analysis.

One tends to think of dreams as wish-fulfillments, but the poet only dreams of sad things, “in grays.” This is so because the poet finds little, if anything, to hope for. In those dreams, he will “Slip away into yesterday’s/That have no meaning.” The apostrophe is deliberate, indicating a pun on the plural for yesterdays and its possessive. Of course, we see no noun to go with yesterday’s, and so I speculate that the intended word was nothings, or many instances of emptiness. We don’t see the word, the absence of which ironically emphasizes its meaning.

And this leads us to how those nothings “have no meaning.” The poet’s world is one of nihilistic emptiness. He wishes that “a day [would come] that will cleanse [him] of [his] sickness.” He wishes he could “feel as if [he] had a soul,” and this leads to some indirect religious allusions.

“Things darken and fall apart” is an obvious reference to the third line of WB Yeats‘s poem, “The Second Coming,” which is full of religious imagery referring to the end of the world. It would be useful to take a brief look at the context of that poem in order to see how it links to Morton’s.

Yeats’s poem was written just after the end of WWI. The destructiveness of the First World War led to much of the modern despair and apocalyptic fears that were expressed in the arts of the time. Added to this trouble was the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, to which Yeats’s poem is also connected (his wife caught the virus). It is interesting to point this out in connection with what Morton says in his poem about wanting “a day that will cleanse [him] of [his] sickness”; in turn, we can associate that flu pandemic (albeit with due caution) with the current fears of the coronavirus, which in turn can be a metaphor for the despair and apocalyptic fear the poet may be feeling, feelings many of us share.

My point is that his poem encapsulates the fear and despair many feel these days by using echoes from such work as Yeats’s. In today’s world, we often feel a comparable apocalyptic fear in the form of the environmental destruction caused by climate change; added to this is the fact that war is the number one polluter of the world, as seen in all these imperialist wars going on now. They had their huge war just over a century ago, and we have our many wars now.

The conveniences of upper middle class living give little comfort. “Every dream a broken heart” reminds me of the Roxy Music song, “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” in which a man’s love for an “inflatable doll” is a manic defence against the emptiness and loneliness he feels.

“Singing songs or requims [sic]/Requires dreams to live off of” continues this quest for a manic defence against sadness, a defence in the form of sex (hence the pun on requiem, requires, and ‘re-quim,’ if you will, an addictive, compulsive repeat of the search for quims, or addictions to porn and prostitutes in a wish to avoid dealing with sadness).

Requiems that require “dreams to live off of” reminds me of Requiem for a Dream, a novel about the destructiveness of drug addiction, yet another manic defence against sadness. All of these allusions–the end of the world, the destructiveness of war, pandemics, sex addictions as an attempt to alleviate loneliness, and drug addiction to cope with sadness–these are powerful images that Morton uses to depict the dark modern reality of despair, a true pandemic in our world.

I, too, hope that “meaning will be found one day,” and that the poet’s “sky will be blue” again, as it may one day be for all of us sufferers.

‘Pointy Sticks,’ a Short Prose Poem by Cass Wilson

A poet friend of mine, Cass Wilson, whose work I’ve looked at before, has recently published this new prose poem on her Spillwords page. Let’s take a look at it. Again, I’m putting her words in italics to distinguish them from mine.

Pointy Sticks

Incessant pointy sticks, endlessly poked at her through the bars of her self imposed prison.
She grabbed at the earth, pushing it inside the wounds, foolishly thinking if she could fill the holes left by the sticks, then she’d be complete once more.
But one stick was replaced by two. Then four. Then multiplied until she was just a hole herself. Nothing left of her but a vast, empty black hole where her heart once was.
The other parts of her, incarcerated in the illusionary safety of her solitude, the place she longed to be and to flee, both simultaneously; just floated away over time, grains of someone who had once been, but was no more.

And now, for my analysis.

The “incessant pointy sticks” can be seen to represent a number of things. Since they’ve “poked at her,” they can easily be seen to be phallic, the poking thus symbolic of the sexual abuse (I certainly hope, for the writer’s sake, that this isn’t meant to be literally autobiographical!) of a woman. Her pushing of the earth “inside the wounds,” suggestive of an introjection of the mother goddess in the hopes of healing, is an attempt to heal the injured female of the wounds of male dominance.

Another way to think about the pointy sticks is to think of them in terms of projective identification, a Kleinian concept that Wilfred Bion expanded on through his theory of containment. Normally, in a healthy mother/infant relationship, the mother is a container of her baby’s anxieties, frustrations, etc., taking in those harsh emotions (the contained), detoxifying them, then returning them to the baby in a form it can tolerate, thus soothing it. (Click here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

The container is given a feminine symbol, suggesting a yoni, and the contained is given a masculine, and thus phallic, symbol. So containment, or projective identification as a primitive, preverbal form of communication between parent and infant, can be seen as symbolized by the sex act, with energy passing from one person to the other, then back again.

The problem arises when this containment is negative. Instead of leading to a soothing of one’s anxieties, a processing of trauma, in negative containment, seen in abusive parent/child relationships, the pain is intensified; this is what we see described in this prose poem. The pointing sticks are phallic daggers causing yonic wounds in the poet’s body, a symbolic rape.

Healing from such trauma isn’t a simple matter of appealing to the mythological feminine. One tries to rid oneself of the pain by pretending it isn’t there, and so one never frees oneself from one’s “self imposed prison.” It’s self-imposed because one isn’t doing what one must do to free oneself, even though one knows one must heal the pain by confronting it, by feeling it.

The pointy sticks are like the heads of the Hydra, for when one cuts a head off, it is “replaced by two.” When one cuts the two off, then there are four. Since the sticks are phallic, cutting them off–castration as symbolic of hating men–isn’t the solution, for however justified women’s anger is at the all-too-typical male attitude, hating men leads to an even more intensely misogynistic reaction from them. Whatever we send out there, karma brings back to us.

Please don’t confuse what I’ve said above with victim-blaming; I’m not trying to judge women for being angry with men, something they very, very often have a perfect right to do. This isn’t about passing judgement; it’s about finding real healing.

Ending male dominance must be dealt with more subtly, in a manner that makes an ally out of a former enemy; otherwise, the female sufferer will be nothing but a giant yonic dungeon of her own pain, of her own making, “a vast, empty black hole where her heart once was.”

Part of how negative containment intensifies pain, turning anxiety into what Bion called a nameless dread, is the use of projective identification to eject parts of the self out into the external world in an attempt not to have to deal with the parts of oneself that one doesn’t want to accept. These ejected parts are the “other parts of her, incarcerated in the illusionary safety of her solitude, the place she longed to be and to flee.”

If one ejects too many of the undesirable parts of oneself, one feels oneself to be disintegrating, suffering psychological fragmentation, leading to a psychotic break with reality. Narcissism can be a dysfunctional attempt to protect oneself from this kind of fragmentation, the danger of an underlying borderline structure, as Otto Kernberg has observed.

Those ejected parts of herself “just floated away over time, grains of someone who had once been, but was no more.” Those ejections, accumulating over time, result in the fading away of the self, a gradual disintegration. The projected parts that float away become what Bion called bizarre objects, or hallucinated objects felt to be in the external world but which are imbued with characteristics of one’s own personality.

One cannot rid oneself of pain by projecting it outwards. The broken pieces must all be put back together. Instead of division and fragmentation, there must be oneness. Splitting must be replaced with integration of one’s good and bad internal objects (e.g., the internalized ‘good mother’ and the ‘bad father’ of the psyche), or reparation–a shift from what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position.

The broken-off parts must be freed of their incarceration, from one’s “self imposed prison.” One’s solitude, or hiding from the world, gives an “illusionary safety,” but it will never give one lasting healing. True healing comes from connection with others, from a communal love.