Two Horror Short Stories of Mine Published in ‘A Book Without A Name’

I have two horror short stories published in a new horror anthology, compiled by B.L. Blankenship, called A Book Without A Name. These stories are of specific sub-genres of horror: western horror, splatter western, and southern gothic.

My two short stories are called “Ghost Town” and “The Lake.” Other writers in the anthology include Blankenship, Dillon McPheresome, C. Derick Miller, Megan Stockton, and such classic writers as Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, William Blake, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Mary Wollstonecraft-Shelley, and Jason Roberts.

So, if you like horror stories with a bit of a 19th century, cowboy feel, please check out this anthology. You can find it on Amazon here. Thanks again to B.L. Blankenship for the chance to be published! 🙂

Analysis of ‘Memento’

Memento is a 2000 thriller film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on a pitch by his brother, Jonathan, who wrote the 2001 short story, “Memento Mori.” The film stars Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano.

The film’s non-linear storyline presents one set of events backwards and in colour, giving the audience a sense of the anterograde amnesia of its protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Pearce; in the short story, the character’s name is Earl). A black-and-white sequence of events in chronological order is presented in scenes that alternate with the reverse-order, colour scenes. The reverse scenes and chronological ones meet at the climax of the film, with the black and white switching to colour.

Memento was critically acclaimed for its non-linear structure and themes of memory, perception, and self-deception. It received Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. It’s widely considered one of Nolan’s best films and one of the best films of the 2000s.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, here is a link to Jonathan Nolan’s short story, published in Esquire, and here‘s a link to him reading his story.

“Memento Mori” gives the reader the sense of Earl’s inability to form new memories differently from the film’s back-and-forth, reverse vs chronological order: the short story instead presents scenes with large gaps of time between them to disrupt continuity. And instead of the film’s use of “Teddy” (Pantoliano) and Natalie (Moss), who both help and manipulate Leonard, in the short story, the narration shifts back and forth from first to second to third person, leaving the reader to wonder if all three are the same person (my guess), or if someone else is actually helping Earl.

There’s a sense of depersonalization, of derealization, in Earl’s switching from I to you to he to us within the space, often, of just a few paragraphs. Given the extreme disorientation he feels from his condition, such a confusion of identity is perfectly plausible.

The short story directly and indirectly references Hamlet. Given the dominant theme of revenge for the murder of a loved one, such allusions are fitting. Apart from the “to be or not to be” quote, Earl also discusses how the passage of time can weaken one’s resolve for revenge, something Claudius discusses with Laertes in Act IV, Scene vii, lines 108-123:

I know love is begun by time,
And that I see, in passages of proof,
Time qualifies the spark and fire of it.
There lives within the very flame of love
A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it.
And nothing is at a like goodness still.
For goodness, growing to a pleurisy,
Dies in his own too-much. That we would do,
We should do when we would, for this “would” changes
And hath abatements and delays as many
As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents.
And then this “should” is like a spendthrift sigh
That hurts by easing.—But to the quick of th’ ulcer:
Hamlet comes back. What would you undertake
To show yourself in deed your father’s son
More than in words?

After the contemplation of this need to act on revenge, Earl finds the motivation to do it. In the film, however, Leonard is, if anything, much too motivated for revenge, since he kills again, and again, and again. Leonard’s revenge truly “dies in his own too much.”

The short story begins with Earl waking up, looking up at a ceiling in an all-white room–a colour suggestive of innocence–in a mental institution. His innocence is that of one, in his oblivion, not knowing what’s happened to him. As his lacunae of lost memories are filled in through his notes and photos, the surroundings get darker: first, yellow, from having almost knocked over a lamp of incandescent light that floods the room with yellow, a symbol of jaundice, his bitterness over his predicament; then, he’s in a dark room where a tattoo artist is inking a message on his arm: I RAPED AND KILLED YOUR WIFE.

In contrast to the ‘innocent’ beginning of the short story, the film begins with Leonard already demonstrating his vengeful nastiness, shooting “Teddy” from the (as we later learn, mistaken) belief that he is his wife’s rapist and killer. A clue to who the real culprit is, however, can be gleaned from that tattoo just mentioned on Earl’s arm. Of course, Leonard’s changing of “I” to “John G.” simply demonstrates Leonard’s propensity for projection.

The movie’s beginning of the story with the film going backwards establishes the idea that the coloured parts are presented backwards, to help with audience comprehension. This retrograde motion also represents how what we perceive in the film is the other way around from what’s really happening.

Indeed, those characters we find trustworthy turn out to be untrustworthy, and–even more significantly–those we assume are bad turn out to be largely good. In this connection, the casting of Pantoliano–an actor we tend to see playing villains–is important in how this casting reinforces those prejudices in the audience, for later, we learn that he isn’t so bad after all.

Knowing that Leonard has written “DON’T BELIEVE HIS LIES” on the photo for “Teddy,” combined with his toothy grin (which hardly establishes trust), blinds us to the fact that “Teddy” is largely the only real friend Leonard has in the movie. He even openly admits that his real name isn’t “Teddy” but John G., for Gammell. His only dishonest moments are getting Leonard to kill some criminals for him, such as Jimmy Grantz (another “John” or “James G.”, played by Larry Holden), making Leonard think these guys are each the “John G.” he wants to get revenge on. “Teddy” just wants to get his hands on the money in the trunk of Jimmy’s car.

The fact is, undercover cop “Teddy” acts as a kind of psychoanalyst for Leonard, trying to get this forgetful fellow to engage in a bit of ‘know thyself.’ As we learn by the end of the movie, all of Leonard’s distrust of “Teddy” and “his lies” is really just an analysand‘s resistance.

Leonard’s search for his wife’s killer and rapist centres around finding a man named “John G.” or “James G.”, a name so ridiculously common that, convenient for forgetful Leonard, the anterograde amnesiac can keep searching for, killing, then searching for and killing again, and again, and again. One of my brothers is named John G. (in my posts about my family, I refer to him by the initial letter of his middle name, as I do for many of my family members): that’s just how common the name is, that my brother will remain essentially anonymous.

It isn’t just that Leonard forgets having gotten his revenge; it’s the very seeking of it, forever and ever, that satisfies him. The seeking is what gives his life meaning and purpose. Seeking revenge is Leonard’s objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of desire, only this is not a desire of the sex drive of Eros, but one of Thanatos, the death drive.

The non-linear narrative, splitting up the continuity of the film into alternating colour scenes in reverse order and black-and-white scenes in chronological order, is symbolic of Leonard’s psychologically fragmented perception of the world and of himself. An investigation of what’s really happened to him, leading to the unified narrative at the end, puts the pieces of the puzzle together to reveal Leonard’s real problem.

The crucial element, in working out exactly what Leonard’s problem is, is in another man assumed to have anterograde amnesia: Samuel R. “Sammy” Jankis (played by Stephen Tobolowsky). Leonard’s job, originally, was investigating insurance claims, and Sammy, after being tested, is believed to have a psychological, rather than physical, reason not to be able to make new memories, according to Leonard.

As it turns out, though, “Teddy” in his all-too-blunt honesty tells Leonard that Sammy was simply a faker. Leonard’s ‘memories’ of Sammy repeatedly giving his wife insulin shots, one immediately after the other because she wants to test his memory, and leading to her death by overdose, are really projections of Leonard, after his diabetic wife’s rape and his knock on the head, giving her such a series of insulin shots, killing her.

This raises an important question: is Leonard the one whose inability to make new memories is for psychological, rather than physical, reasons? Has he, inspired by Sammy’s fakery, deluded himself into thinking that the knock he got on the head gave him anterograde amnesia? If so, why?

I’m guessing that he couldn’t bear to see his wife’s suffering, the pain on her face, after the rape. He couldn’t bear to remember her post-rape life, so Sammy inspired him to use his knock on the head, actually not strong enough to have caused brain damage, to give him an excuse to believe he can’t make new memories.

Added to this, his wife’s despair over what’s happened to both of them–from the intruders in their home–has made her suicidal. There’s the trauma of her rape, compounded by the fact that her husband is no longer the man he used to be. He, deep down in his unconscious, wants to put her out of her misery, too…and conveniently for him, he’ll ‘forget’ it. Of course, his repressed guilt that he’s his wife’s real killer drives his delusion of having anterograde amnesia even further.

For if his inability to make new memories is physical, we are left with a number of unanswered questions. He should remember nothing from when he got the hit on the head knocking him unconscious. How does he even know he has his “condition”? Every time a set of memories goes, he should feel as if he’s just woken up, with no idea of how he got from being knocked out in his bathroom after trying to stop his wife’s rapist, to wherever he is at the moment. He has no memory of anyone telling him he has anterograde amnesia.

Another thing: he speaks of how “everything fades” when the memory of a new moment vanishes from his mind. If he doesn’t remember any of these new memories, how does he know that they fade?

To go back to Jonathan Nolan’s short story, it also makes little sense how Earl, forgetting everything approximately every ten minutes, could ever get his revenge off the ground. Even with help, he’d have to spend every one of those ten minutes or so reviewing everything, and then how would he be able to use his, presumably, ever-so-few remaining seconds to advance his plot of revenge…only to have to write the new things all down, then have to spend more of that ever-so-little time reviewing more and more notes? Leonard would have comparable difficulties with his short periods of consciousness.

So, anterograde amnesia in this film should be understood as a metaphor for repression. Leonard isn’t really forgetting all these post-rape experiences: he’s simply pushing them deep down into his unconscious mind. As with all repressed material, though, the new experiences resurface in forms that are unrecognizable to him.

He speaks of a condition that he can’t possibly remember being told he has. He speaks of all new memories fading, when he shouldn’t even be able to remember the fading. What he calls ‘fading’ is really just the process of repression.

The unrecognizable form of his memory of giving his wife the all-too-quickly repeated insulin shots is his projection of that memory onto Sammy, when he has no way of knowing anything about Sammy supposedly giving the excessive shots to his wife.

Other little slips come out, suggesting that deep down, Leonard is remembering more than he lets on to. His angered, paranoid reaction to finding “Teddy” hanging out in the passenger’s seat of his car (Jimmy Grantz’s, actually) suggests that Leonard remembers how “Teddy” has reminded him of the uncomfortable truth that he killed his wife with the insulin, not her rapist, and that it wasn’t Sammy who overdosed his wife.

Leonard appears at Natalie’s house with a photo of Dodd. His asking her, angrily and full of suspicion, about who Dodd is suggests that he has a trace of the memory of her taunting him about how she’ll manipulate his inability to form new memories, of how she spoke abusively about what a “retard” he is, and about his “whore” of a wife, provoking him to hit her and put that cut on her lip.

In fact, when Natalie taunts him by saying his “whore” wife must have gotten a venereal disease from sexual contact with so many men behind his back, and that his getting the disease from her could have caused his anterograde amnesia, he finds this especially triggering. We can connect this trigger with his sticking of a phallic needle into his wife’s thigh, close to her own genitals; his giving her the excessive shots in this way, leading to her death, can be seen as a symbolic rape. This fact dovetails with that tattoo on Earl’s arm: he reads those words himself–I RAPED AND KILLED YOUR WIFE. Remember that Earl is both I and YOU.

Indeed, it’s interesting how, after Leonard kills Jimmy Grantz, he puts the body in the basement of the abandoned building, this basement being symbolic of Leonard’s unconscious; this placing the body there is symbolic of repression. Leonard also puts on Jimmy’s suit and takes his car, symbolically identifying himself with the man he imagines is his wife’s rapist and murderer. We see Leonard in that suit for the vast majority of the coloured sequences in the film, implying that he has been the real killer all along.

Leonard gets triggered when he hears dying Jimmy whisper Sammy’s name; it shouldn’t otherwise matter, since as “Teddy” points out, Leonard tells everybody about Sammy. The implication behind him telling everybody about Sammy is that it is a circuitous kind of confession of his own guilt in killing his wife.

There’s no reason to believe “Teddy” is lying about everything he reveals to Leonard about what really happened to him and his wife, she who survived the attack and therefore wasn’t killed by the intruder in their home. “Teddy” has nothing to gain by lying about any of that; in fact, the ugly truths he reveals, too painful for Leonard to face, ironically cause Leonard to write “DON’T BELIEVE HIS LIES” on his photo for “Teddy,” which in turn ultimately leads to Leonard killing “Teddy.” The fact is, Leonard is the real liar, and he’s projecting his mendacity onto “Teddy.”

The real reason none of his photos or notes can adequately replace his memory is that they’re static: they don’t flow with time, since reality is fluid, not static, so they lack the crucial context needed for their meaning to be correctly interpreted. This lack of context, nonetheless, is convenient for Leonard, since he doesn’t really want to remember, anyway. His notes and photos fool him into thinking he’s remembering what’s essential, but this of course is nonsense. He talks about “facts” being better than memory, but static facts without context are useless.

That ending of the film, when he consciously decides to forget the ugly truth that “Teddy” has told him, is representative of what his unconscious mind does after every so many minutes of each new, post-rape experience. He forgets new things not because he can’t remember them, but because he doesn’t want to. This last scene simply presents that unwillingness to remember–an unwillingness that pervades the whole film–in its most blatant, naked form.

To get back to Jonathan Nolan’s short story again, the narrator, just before the end, says something significant: “Time is an absurdity. an abstraction. The only thing that matters is this moment. This moment a million times over.” In the paragraph before this quote, he says, “Time is three things for most people [i.e., past, present, and future], but for you, for us, just one. A singularity. One moment. This moment.”

These passages remind me of how Buddhists speak of the eternal NOW as the only one time that has any real meaning or existence. The past and future are just mental constructs with no material validity. If we could just ground ourselves in the NOW, and not ruminate over our unhappy pasts or worry about our futures, we’d be happy–we’d have peace.

That Earl would speak of having only the present to live in, with no sense of moving time, always forgetting the (recent) past, he seems to be living a perverse version of this Buddhist wisdom. Of course, neither he nor Leonard will ever, or can ever, attain peace of mind.

Now, his past isn’t completely in a state of oblivion–he still remembers everything up until his wife’s rape, and as I’ve explained, it’s not that he’s forgetting everything after her rape, but rather he’s repressing the post-rape memories–and this lack of complete oblivion makes all the difference. These voids in his mind, from her rape onwards, are repressed traumas that make up the undifferentiated, inexpressible psychic world of what Lacan called the Real.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Real–or Bion‘s O–can be traumatic or blissful, depending on one’s attitude towards it. The Buddhist experiences the oblivion of past and future, focusing on the present, as blissful because he lets of of his ego. Earl/Leonard, on the other hand, experiences this oblivion of the Real as traumatic because, apart from not completely forgetting the past, he’s still attached to his egoistic experience of the world.

After all, the whole point of attaining bliss, peace of mind, is to extinguish desire, craving, attachment; but Earl/Leonard is doing the opposite. Our forgetful protagonist not only desires revenge, but is perpetuating the seeking of that revenge by creating an unsolvable mystery… the ever-elusive identity of “John G.” His murderous objet petit a can never be extinguished, because it can never be attained.

In fact, the key to ending his trauma is precisely to remember it, to recall it in all of its excruciating brutality. Yet Earl/Leonard is really just an extreme version of all of us. None of us wants to remember what has hurt us, so we conveniently try to forget our traumas, or we only selectively remember them, cherry-picking what’s comfortable for us and discarding what isn’t.

Our therapists tell us we’ve got to feel the pain in order to heal it…but who wants to do that? Leonard certainly doesn’t want to; that’s why he burns those photos of himself (smiling upon achieving his revenge…or so he thought) and Jimmy. He burns them in the fire of a desire he never wishes to blow out, because Thanatos is his new life.

Not to be, that is his answer.

‘Numb,’ a Short Story

“I don’t know what’s wrong with my legs,” Larry Ingbert said on the phone to his colleague, Burt Lickert. “They’ve been feeling numb at the feet, and sore and stiff from the ankles, ever since yesterday evening, not too long after we had drinks in the Lucky Seven pub.”

“Wow, that’s too bad,” Burt said. “i hope you get better soon. Do you think you’ll be able to come to work tomorrow?”

“Only if my legs get better,” Larry said. “It’s a real effort just to stand, walk over to the kitchen for something to eat, or go to the bathroom to use the can. This soreness: it was only a little bad last night, but when I got up today, it was much worse. There’s been no sign of improvement.”

“You know, Birch Wass isn’t very patient with employees calling in sick and staying off work for a long time,” Burt said. “But I’ll say whatever I can to keep him from finding someone to replace you. I can’t promise anything, but I’ll try.”

“Thanks. While I’m gone, can you talk to the others in the office and get their opinions on my idea about forming a union? You told me you don’t agree with it, when we had drinks, but can you at least toss the idea around to them?”

“I don’t know, Larry. Maybe. As I told you then, Birch would replace us all in a second if we tried something like that. Why can’t you just be content with what you have?”

“Because we have far too little; you know that.”

“So? Work hard enough, impress Birch, and get a promotion. Boom! More pay. That’s what I’m hoping to do.”

“Yeah, just be a better wage slave, so Birch makes more money.”

“Larry, that kind of commie talk will get us all fired. Stop it. We don’t need to rock the boat.”

“Burt, if we don’t rock the boat, we’ll never…”

“Look, just get some rest, OK? Take a pill or two. I hope we see you in the office tomorrow.”

They hung up.

Larry rose to his feet slowly and with a loud grunt of effort. He plodded, groaning with each step, over to his bedroom and dropped his phone on the bed. Then, he turned with great effort and another loud groan, and plodded back to his living room, where his laptop sat on his coffee table.

I suppose that if I moved around a lot, this numbness and soreness would gradually go away, he thought. But it’s so damn uncomfortable. Resting feels so much better. He reached his sofa and turned on his computer.

He brought his ass down on the sofa with another groan of pain, the stiffness all the way from his feet to his waist. He checked his notifications on Facebook.

He picked up the laptop and put it on the flat, wide armrest on the left side of his sofa. That way, he could put his feet up on the coffee table. Raising his feet up like that always took the pressure off of them, and therefore he could get a rest from the soreness.

He scrolled down his Facebook home page and looked at all the memes. He clicked ‘like,’ ‘love,’ or ‘laugh’ on all the cute and funny memes, but he had an itchy ‘share’ finger for all the political ones.

The political memes that were of interest to Larry were naturally of a sort in keeping with his desire to set up a union at work. He shared memes opposing American plans for war with Russia and China, memes opposing telling poor people to stop buying ‘unnecessary’ items rather than paying poor people better wages, and articles about how to learn from history’s successful leftist revolutions. Apart from pushing to form a union at work, though, the sharing of such memes and articles as these were the bulk of Larry’s ‘activism.’

After a few hours of scrolling, ‘liking,’ and sharing more memes and articles, he felt it was time to pee. He took a deep breath and braced himself for what he know would be a great difficulty in getting up.

There was no more stiffness or soreness in his legs.

In fact, there was no feeling in them at all.

The stiffness and soreness were all in his back now, as well as nausea in his gut.

When he tried to rise to his feet, the lack of feeling in his legs meant he felt no power to control them. And putting the strength in his arms to move himself put great pain in that stiff, sore back of his.

He fell to the floor with a grunt of pain.

Now his heart was pounding fast.

I can’t move my legs, he thought. Except for my bladder, I can feel nothing from the waist down. I’m fucking paralyzed!

It took all of his strength to use his arms to pull his body weight across the floor to the bathroom. The pain in his back was awful, but the discomfort in his bladder was greater. Besides, what if he pissed his pants?

It was a good thing that he lifted weights regularly. His muscular upper half was strong enough to pull the weight of his whole body on the floor from his living room all the way to the bathroom.

He grunted with every pull his arms gave to his body. When he finally got into the bathroom, his head right by the toilet porcelain, he stopped to rest and take several deep breaths. Lifting himself up would be agony.

It was indeed agony, but he managed it. He got his numb ass on the seat and didn’t even crack the plastic. The piss came out with a groan of relief from his frowning mouth.

When he was finished, he flushed and leaned towards the open doorway, and he fell to the floor with a thud and a grunt of pain. Wait, he thought as he pulled up his pants. If I’m gonna continue to feel this way, I’d better get my phone from my bedroom. Fuck! He crawled back there. Luckily, when he’d put his phone on his bed, it was sitting right at the edge, so he could just reach up and get it will minimal difficulty.

Then he pulled his body around to point towards the bedroom door, and crawled back, groaning the whole time, to the living room and to his laptop. He brought it down from the sofa’s armrest and lay it on the floor in front of him, right beside his phone.

There was an instant message from a colleague, one of the few he’d talked to about forming a union.

“Alright!” Larry said, then clicked the message to read it. Would the colleague agree to the union idea?

Not.

“Sorry, Larry,” the message said. “As beneficial as a union would be for us, I don’t want to risk Birch firing me. You know how he is. If you can get enough of the rest of the staff to agree, though, I might change my mind.”

Larry sighed and typed “OK” in reply to the message.

Then, exhausted from all that crawling and pulling himself, he fell asleep on the floor for a few hours.

When he woke up, he felt soreness and stiffness from the neck down to his chest…and from there down, only numbness.

“Oh, my God!” he gasped.

His cellphone rang. He picked it up.

“Hello?” he said weakly.

“Larry?” Burt said. “You sound awful!”

“It’s gotten worse, Burt,” Larry said. “I feel nothing…from the chest down, and all soreness…from my neck…to my chest.”

“Holy shit!” Burt said. “You need to see a doctor.”

“No doctors! I hate them. Undressing me…and feeling me up.”

“Look, I’m busy at the moment, but I can come over in a couple of hours, OK? You shouldn’t be left alone the way you are now. Do you have any other symptoms?”

“No, just like I feel…like I wanna…sleep all the time.”

“I’ll come over in two or three hours,” Burt said. “But wait: you won’t be able to get to the door, will you?”

“It’s unlocked,” Larry moaned. “Just walk in.”

“OK, but that isn’t very safe, man. A thief could come in and rob you while you’re all helpless like that.”

“I have…greater worries at the moment. In a few hours.”

“Yeah, see you then.” Burt hung up.

Larry put his phone back by his laptop. He resumed scrolling through Facebook. He found memes on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine; he shared those that opposed the Azov Battalion. He also shared memes of Nadezhda Krupskaya, Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, and Thomas Sankara.

Then he got drowsy and fell asleep again.

A few hours later, he felt a hand shaking his head. He opened his eyes and saw no one in front of him. Since he was still lying on the floor, he figured he’d at least see feet by his face, but no one was there. I must have imagined the hand on my head while I was dreaming, he thought.

Then he tried moving, to get himself off the floor.

He couldn’t.

Now he felt nothing from the neck down.

The pain and discomfort were in his head.

“Oh, God. No!” he grunted, his head fidgeting and only giving himself a worse headache. “I’m a…fucking…quadriplegic!”

He heard tittering from behind him.

Someone had shook his head after all.

Was this a thief, someone Burt had warned him about because of his unlocked door?

“How ya doing, Larry?” a familiar voice asked. “Not that I need to ask you that.” He snickered.

No, it wasn’t someone Burt had warned him about, it was Burt himself.

Should he have been warned about Burt?

“Burt!” Larry said. “You gotta…help me. I can’t…move.”

“I know,” Burt said, without any emotion.

“Yeah, you can see…I can’t move. Please…help!”

“I know you can’t move because I put a pill in your drink when we got together yesterday in Lucky Seven,” Burt said, then got up from the sofa, walked around the coffee table, and squatted down before Larry so he could see him. “I dropped the pill in when you weren’t looking. Remember how chemistry is my hobby, synthesizing drugs in the lab of my basement?”

“Yeah, but why would you…do this to me? We’re friends! I never did…anything…to piss you off, did I?”

“Not to piss me off, but there is that union idea of yours that I had to stop before it could materialize.”

“You didn’t have…to kill me, though, did you, Burt? I mean…this is gonna…kill, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is, Larry. Sorry, but you see, I hate commies.”

“I’m not…a communist. I’m a…moderate leftist.”

“Larry, I’ve seen the extremist shit you post on Facebook. Moderate, my ass. Besides, moderate, extreme. Pinkos are pinkos. They’re all the same to me. They want to force intrusive, oppressive government on us all. Oh, it starts moderate, but then when they see how their system doesn’t work, and people start resisting their utopia, they get all totalitarian, killing people. So by killing you, Larry, I’m saving a lot o’ lives.”

Larry moaned in disgust at Burt’s simplistic overgeneralizing. Burt may have been a bit of a genius at chemistry, but he was a moron at just about everything else. Surely, the police were going to link him with Larry’s death.

“Burt, it’s a union, not…Stalin.”

“Unions lead to Stalin, buddy, every time. Besides, if I can get Birch to know I stopped the forming of a union at his business, he’ll be so happy with my loyalty to him that–who knows?–maybe I’ll get that promotion I’ve been aching for.”

“And you’ll betray…your fellow workers…and your friends…to do that, Burt?”

“Yes, I will. Whatever it takes. And it serves you right for betraying the free market. Now, I gotta go. I’m hoping to hear good things in Birch’s office tomorrow, when he announces who will be the junior manager. The odds should be especially in my favour when I tell him I stopped your union idea. A few coworkers liked your idea. I might have to drop a pill or two in their drinks. Anyway, gotta run. Goodbye.”

He walked out of the apartment and closed the door without locking it.

Bastard, Larry thought. The pain in his head was so bad that he couldn’t even try to move it.

He just lay there with his eyes half-open. After all this time, he should have felt a need to go to the bathroom again, but he felt no discomfort in his bowels or bladder. If he pissed or crapped his pants, he wouldn’t feel it. In a few hours’ time, at the rate things were going, he wouldn’t smell it, either.

Similarly, he should have been starving hungry by now. Again, he felt no pangs of hunger because he couldn’t feel his stomach. If he were to starve to death, he wouldn’t know it.

He couldn’t feel his heart beating…was it? Presumably.

He barely felt the breath going in and out of his nostrils. He couldn’t feel his lungs filling up with air.

Instead of feeling his body, there was a vague, vibrating feeling everywhere except his achy head. The vibrating was now creeping up his neck.

I’m gonna die, he thought. Soon.

His computer screen showed a few people giving ‘likes’ to his recent posts. A few seconds later, the screen went to black.

He was alone…in every conceivable sense.

The numbness was all the way up his neck now. It was reaching his chin. The headache was abating.

It felt good to feel nothing.

With his eyes half-open, half-closed, he saw only a blur. That blur began to ripple in waves like the vibrations he sensed everywhere.

He could still hear alright, though he’d been lying there so long, he had no sense of how much time had passed by. Must have been hours, at least. He heard the door open, then approaching steps.

“Can you believe it?” said what sounded like the angry voice of Burt. “I received a message from that ingrate fucker, Birch, after having messaged him that I’d stopped your union insurgency.” He squatted down to look Larry in the eye.

Larry looked no better than a dead man, though he still could hear.

“That fucker gave the promotion, my promotion, to that bitch, Cecilia Barnes!” Burt said. “Birch said he wanted ‘to break the glass ceiling.’ Fuck! That’s the reward I get for loyalty. I tell you, Larry, there’s no justice in the world.”

Larry mumbled, “Good,” with what little articulation he could muster. Drool came out of his mouth.

“Good, did you say?” Burt said with newly-inflamed anger. “So, you’re still a little alive, eh?” He rose to his feet, then lifted his right leg back. “Well, I guess you would say that.” He kicked Larry hard in the head, though Larry in his growing numbness barely felt anything. “So long, pal.”

Burt left.

Larry barely heard Burt’s footsteps or the closing of the door. When Burt had squatted, though, he touched Larry’s laptop, bringing the screen back on. There was a message from Cecilia, who said, “Hi, Larry. I like your idea about forming a union. I’ll have to be careful who I talk to about it, though. You know how Birch is. I’m having drinks with Burt tomorrow night, after work. He says he’s interested. See you at work tomorrow, if you’re better by then, in which case I can talk with you about it. I heard you’re sick. Hope you get better soon.”

Larry couldn’t read any of the message. He saw only vibrations.

He felt only vibrations.

He heard only vibrations.

Then there was only black.

Analysis of ‘The Fly’

I: Introduction

The Fly is a 1958 horror/science fiction film produced and directed by Kurt Neumann. It stars Vincent Price, Patricia Owens, David Hedison, and Herbert Marshall. The screenplay was written by James Clavell, based on the 1957 George Langelaan short story of the same name.

The Fly had a mixed-to-positive critical reception on release, and it was a commercial success, boosting Price into a major star of horror films. Now, criticism of the movie is more uniformly positive. Two black-and-white sequels followed: Return of the Fly (1959), and Curse of the Fly (1965). A superb remake, starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, was directed by David Cronenberg in 1986, with its own sequel in 1989.

Here is a link to quotes from the 1958 film, here’s a link to the complete script, and here is a link to the short story.

II: My Radical Reinterpretation

What ought to be emphasized about the story isn’t the notion of scientist AndrĂ© Delambre (Hedison) bring transformed into a fly-human hybrid, the result of a freak accident in his attempt to teleport himself (and, without his knowing, a housefly that got into his “disintegration-reintegration” machine), but rather what such a notion could be seen to symbolize.

What is far more apparent in the short story, if its contents are not naĂŻvely taken at face value, is that its narration–by AndrĂ©’s brother François (played by Price in the film) in the outer frame, then in the middle by AndrĂ©’s wife HĂ©lĂšne (played by Owens in the film) as she tells it in a handwritten manuscript–is given by traumatized people whose reliability is in question.

The film relates the story in a manner implying that everything happened just as told, though, by the end, no proof survives of the more fantastic elements of the story. Still, there are subtle indicators, in the behaviour of François and HĂ©lĂšne, that suggest that affairs aren’t as they look on the screen, implying that the narrative unreliability of the short story has been translated to the cinematic medium.

In the film, François admits to having romantic feelings for beautiful HĂ©lĂšne; though she denies ever having paramours (or AndrĂ© having had them) to Inspector Charas (Marshall), we can easily regard her words as dishonest. Could there have been an affair between her and François, a result of workaholic AndrĂ©’s neglect of his family? Claims of a husband and wife being perfectly happy together can easily be dismissed as a façade.

III: Unconscious Guilt

It is insisted throughout the story that HĂ©lĂšne could have killed AndrĂ© only out of madness. Where could such a madness have originated? Guilt feelings over an affair? Families in France (where the short story is set), or in MontrĂ©al (where the film is set), in the 1950s would have been Roman Catholic ones, in which adultery would have been regarded as a serious sin (a sin compounded by a man betraying his brother and, as her son’s uncle, committing incest of a Hamlet-like sort). The mind tries to repress guilt as best it can, but the repressed returns to consciousness in unrecognizable forms.

In the case of this story, the return of the repressed has come in the form of imagining André as having his head and arm traded with the head and leg of a housefly. Such a hybrid symbolizes the bestial side of human nature. His experiments are done in the basement, symbol of the unconscious. In contrast, the ground floor of the house, the upstairs, and outside can be seen to correspond to the conscious mind and the world of superficiality, appearance, what only seems to be true.

IV: Appearance vs Reality

There is much to note in the contrast between the illusory surface and hidden reality in The Fly. The marriage of the Delambres only seems perfectly happy. Similarly, AndrĂ© seems to be the kind, gentle husband who’d never hurt an animal. Yet his workaholic obsession with his basement experiments means neglecting his wife and son, Henri in the short story, or Philippe (played by Charles Herbert) in the film. Furthermore, this supposed animal lover overconfidently and recklessly puts the family cat, Dandelo, in the teleportation machine and disintegrates it.

HĂ©lĂšne, after killing her husband, confesses to the killing with perfect calmness, though François and Charas conclude that she must be mad; indeed, in the short story, she even kills herself in despair. And when François answers the phone at the beginning of the film to learn that she has just killed his brother, he’s quite calm; whereas at the beginning of the short story, he speaks of being “uneasy” from telephones, having to restrain his agitation when answering them.

In fact, in Cronenberg’s remake, this theme of appearance versus reality is revisited in how Seth Brundle (Goldblum), upon emerging from the teleportation machine as “Brundle-fly”–far from being the shocking monstrosity AndrĂ© is with his fly’s head and leg for an arm–looks exactly the same as before on the outside–in fact, he’s also physically superior. It’s only later that we realize that Seth is a monster hiding inside, that inside showing itself more and more to the end of the remake.

V: Implausible Science

Now, this difference between the 1958 and 1986 movies brings me to a point that I hope will help explain the particular angle at which I’m interpreting the original movie and the short story. I don’t believe AndrĂ© has actually had his head and arm swapped with the head and leg of a housefly–I believe this transformation really is a fabrication of his wife’s mad imagination, just as Charas does. The reason for my disbelief should be obvious: the science behind the transformation is preposterous. Hardly anyone apart from HĂ©lĂšne even believes it!

How do a fly’s head and leg grow to the comparable sizes of a man’s head and arm, while the latter two shrink to the sizes of a fly’s equivalent body parts? How is the man’s intelligence maintained in the giant fly’s head, even if only temporarily? And how is there a comparable intelligence, enough to squeak “Help me!” because of an approaching spider, in the miniature head of the fly caught in the web?

Small wonder that in the 1986 remake, the writers wisely spread the fly’s DNA equally throughout Brundle’s body. Surely even Langelaan and Clavell realized that the swapping of heads and limbs, as given in their respective versions of the story, is unbelievable scientifically. Hence my contention that HĂ©lĂšne is genuinely insane, an insanity brought on by the trauma of her husband’s violent death, a suicide with her assistance (as she describes it). François is similarly addled by this trauma. I believe his confession of love for her provides the vital clue to the reason for their narratives’ unreliability, something easily maintained in prose writing, but not so easily translated onto the big screen, since we, the watchers of the movie, tend to have credulous eyes.

VI: Unreliable Narration, in the Text, and Onscreen

Though his confession of love for HĂ©lĂšne isn’t found in the short story, I believe there are plenty of subtle hints of an affair between him and her in Langelaan’s words, however carefully the two guilty ones try to tiptoe around any mention of their guilt. Such tiptoeing is also evident in the film, in their innocent conversations throughout.

I see the visuals of the film as representing their unreliable narrations, and since the film is largely faithful to the short story (except for such–mostly minor–changes as the setting, Henri’s name becoming Philippe, which of AndrĂ©’s arms is switched with the fly’s leg, his head being revealed as all housefly or as a mix of fly and the cat, whether or not HĂ©lĂšne kills herself, and whether it’s François or Charas who kills the fly in the spider web), I feel it isn’t too far out of place to assume that François is (unreliably) telling the outer frame of the story through visuals, and her telling of the inner narration, instead of writing it in a manuscript, is unreliable.

VII: The Telephone

I’ll come to those subtle hints of an affair later, as they arrive in the sequence of the plot. For now, I’ll start with François’s answering of the phone. In the film, he’s calm enough, though in the short story, this calmness disguises a terrible agitation from hearing the phone ring, especially in the middle of the night, as happens at the beginning.

The reason for his unease comes from a feeling that the caller is coming into the room, intruding on his private space, breaking into his home to talk right into his ear. It seems odd that the short story should begin this way, yet if one compares this transmission of a voice–instantaneously from one place, far away, to another–to the teleportation of whatever (or whoever) is in AndrĂ©’s “disintegration-reintegration” machine, such a beginning of the story, along with François’s agitation, becomes explicable. The one instantaneous transmission is associated in his mind with the other.

Recall that I don’t take the human/fly hybrid story literally; also, François is beginning a narration–one after the events of HĂ©lĂšne’s story have been made known to him–with a discussion of the, if you will, ‘teleportation’ of the human voice. This aural teleportation feels like a frightening intruder to him, like the intrusive fly in AndrĂ©’s machine, and like the human/fly monster he becomes, which is an intrusion into the lives of François and HĂ©lĂšne.

VIII: Nothingness

The pertinent thing about teleportation, like the instant movement of the human voice from here to far away, or vice versa, is the sense of no intermediate area for teleportation to move through. The displaced entity–be it a voice on the phone, or a plate, a newspaper, a cat, a guinea pig, or a man (mixed with a fly)–disappears, vanishes in the place of origin and reappears in the destination. That lack of an in-between route to travel through, that gap, feels uncanny, a land of nothingness. This gap, I believe, is what frightens François so much.

Similarly, when AndrĂ©’s body is discovered in the Delambre brothers’ factory, his head and arm crushed under the steam hammer, it isn’t so much the blood that is horrifying, but how the head and arm are so thoroughly flattened as to have been reduced to nothing. The hammer’s impact has been set at zero, a setting the drop is never given. François notes in the film that zero “means level with the bed”; such a setting “would squeeze the metal to nothing,” as has been done to AndrĂ©’s head and arm.

The purpose of this extreme setting is ostensibly to annihilate even the slightest hint of a fly’s head and leg, instead of AndrĂ©’s head and arm; I’d say, though, that it’s that very nothingness, revealed when the hammer is raised, in “the ghastly mess bared by the hammer,” that causes François (in the short story) to be “violently sick.”

IX: Resistance

When Charas questions HélÚne about the killing of André, she is fully cooperative about explaining what she did, and in detail (except for her odd forgetting about having dropped the steam hammer twice, to crush his fly-leg/arm). She adamantly refuses, however, to explain why she killed him.

In the short story, François describes Charas as being “more than just an intelligent police official. He was a keen psychologist and had an amazing way of smelling out a fib or an erroneous statement even before it was uttered.” So his questioning of her puts him in the role of psychoanalyst, and her in the role of analysand. Her insistence that she cannot explain why she killed AndrĂ© can be seen as a form of resistance.

Of course, she eventually does explain why, but in the form of a bizarre monster story that hardly anyone can believe; certainly the science behind the story is so ludicrous that even Langelaan and Clavell must have had their own doubts about it, as I’ve explained above. This fly-human hybrid story must be a case of the return of the repressed in an unrecognizable form…but what could the fly-hybrid monster symbolize for mad HĂ©lĂšne? I’ll come to this soon enough.

X: The Gap In-between

It is insisted that her marriage with AndrĂ© was a perfectly happy one…but we are suddenly ‘teleported,’ if you will, from perfect marital bliss to her killing of him, and with the refusal of a proper explanation, except for this bizarre fly-monster story. Just as there’s a gap between the caller’s voice at one end of a phone call, and his voice heard by the receiver on the other end; and just as there’s the gap of the disintegration of what’s teleported at one end, and its reintegration at the other end; so is there a gap between the couple’s marital bliss and the killing…that dreaded, uncanny nothingness in the middle.

Above, I wrote of AndrĂ©’s basement laboratory as symbolic of the unconscious, where the “disintegration/reintegration” machine causes that in-between gap of nothingness. In the short story, the laboratory isn’t in his basement, but in a separate building right by the factory with the steam hammer. Now, the laboratory doesn’t have to be underground to represent the unconscious…or the “subconscious,” where Charas imagines the fly to have meaning for HĂ©lĂšne. Psychoanalysts don’t speak of the repressed as being ‘beneath’ consciousness, but as being unknown to consciousness, for the repressed comes right back to the surface and hides in plain sight, as it were. A fly is buzzing around, in the air, much of the time in the movie.

XI: The Lacanian Unconscious, and the Gap as Lack

In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan speaks of how “the Freudian unconscious is situated at that point, where, between cause and that which it affects, there is always something wrong…what the unconscious does is to show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real–a real that may well not be determined…and what does [Freud] find in the hole, the split, in the gap so characteristic of cause? Something of the order of the non-realized.” (Lacan, page 22)

This gap is between cause and effect, like the gap between disintegration and reintegration, the empty space replacing a path on which something, otherwise not disintegrated and reintegrated, would travel, rather than be teleported, from A to B. This gap is also the Lacanian lack that gives rise to desire, and discovering what the desire is in this story is key to understanding the symbolic meaning of the fly.

XII: Freudian Slips

We must fill in this gap to determine what is being repressed, what is not being said or shown in the short story or the film, but what is rather hinted at through the occasional Freudian slip, or symbolic interpretation of whatever in the story is described as something otherwise mundane or in a matter-of-fact physical way.

One such a slip, as I see it, occurs when Henri/Philippe is not regarded by HĂ©lĂšne as her son. In the short story, François in his narration calls the six-year-old boy, his nephew, “the very image of his father”; but as I’ve said above, this narration is unreliable. Because of AndrĂ©’s death and HĂ©lĂšne’s declared madness, François has been made the boy’s guardian, in effect, his new father; yet any suggestion that he really is the boy’s father will be guiltily denied.

In the film, François even says to Charas, “She acts as if the boy were mine and not hers.” Charas speculates that HĂ©lĂšne is trying to protect her son, or that perhaps she fears or hates him, something François dismisses as an insane idea, and it is at this point in the film that Charas asks if François is in love with her, to which he immediately replies, “Yes.”

Why would a scriptwriter of Clavell’s obvious ability add this element to the story without developing it, if it didn’t serve much of any purpose? Note that François’s declaration of love comes immediately after a claim that Philippe is supposedly his son and not hers. Could he be her love-child by François in a love affair, one she feels so guilty about that, in her mad guilt, she denies her own maternity? The way the film ends–with François, in effect, as the boy’s new father, and HĂ©lĂšne having not committed suicide but being, also in effect, his new wife–looks suspiciously like wish-fulfillment. Such wish-fulfillment reinforces the visual presentation of the film as really being François’s unreliable narration.

XIII: Forbidden Desires and the Fly

Naturally, François rules out even the possibility of an affair with her by saying, “I don’t think she ever noticed me,” though a close look at Charles Herbert, the child actor chosen to play Philippe, looks more like he could be a son of Vincent Price than of David Hedison. Finally, during the scene when Philippe has caught the fly with the white head, and he sees his mother with his uncle, he is annoyed to be told by her to let the fly go; but as he is going outside and closing the front door, he looks back at her and his uncle with a split-second look of suspicion in his eyes, as if he sees the two adults acting a little too familiar at that particular moment.

That this suspicious moment happens on the very day when the heads and limbs of André and the fly are switched is significant. Here we come to the very symbolism of the fly. Male houseflies, during their short lives, have a voracious sexual appetite and are constantly on the lookout for females to mate with. In this we can see a symbolic link with my suspicions of a guilty sexual tryst between François and HélÚne.

This guilt results in feelings of shame, disgust, and worthlessness, which can all be associated with houseflies. AndrĂ©’s constant preoccupation with his work, even to the point of writing out a new formula for teleportation on the program pamphlet to a ballet he’s supposed to be watching with his wife, means he’s emotionally neglecting her, which not only can drive her into the arms of his brother (who we already know is amorously infatuated with her), but which also makes AndrĂ© as worthless to her as a fly. So the exchanging of his head and arm with the head and leg of a fly is symbolic of this depreciation of his worth to her.

XIV: The Buzzing

With the guilt and shame that an adulteress feels, especially as one who, according to the short story, “had ever been a true Catholic, who believed in God and another, better life hereafter,” HĂ©lĂšne would have been desperately afraid of anyone finding out about her extramarital affair. Hence, her agitation whenever hearing the buzzing of a nearby fly.

Let’s recall the multiple meanings of the word buzz. Apart from the insect noise, buzz has been used to refer to the sound of telephones (remember in this connection the irritation François feels at the sound of a phone ringing), and also to refer to rumours. These additional meanings had existed long before the writing of the short story and the making of the movie. So her agitation at the sound of buzzing symbolically suggests her fear of gossip, or rumours from people knowing about her affair.

XV: Obsessions with Flies

Also, her nervous breakdown at the asylum after seeing a nurse swatting flies can be attributed to a triggering of her guilt over an affair that, in betraying AndrĂ©, reduced him to the worth of a fly, and so killing flies feels like a killing of him again. She also speaks of wanting François to destroy the white-headed fly if she tells him why she killed AndrĂ©; this contradiction suggests an emotional conflict in her–killing it kills evidence of her guilty affair, yet it also represents killing AndrĂ© again.

Now, she is not the only one to raise her eyebrows at the idea of houseflies. François, after hearing about her obsession with them, is curious to hear Henri/Philippe bring up the fly with the white head during lunch with the boy. Previously, Charas brought up her fly obsession immediately before he and François discuss her denial that the boy is her son, and François’s admitting he loves her. So we see here a significant juxtaposition of houseflies with the boy’s parentage and François’s love for HĂ©lĂšne: I don’t think this juxtaposition is coincidental.

XVI: Love Triangles, and the Remake

My speculation of a hidden, repressed love triangle between AndrĂ©, HĂ©lĂšne, and François can be seen overtly in the equivalent three main characters in the 1986 remake–respectively, Seth Brundle, Veronica “Ronnie” Quaife (played by Davis), and Stathis Borans (played by John Getz). Brundle, knowing Ronnie has had a relationship with Stathis prior to her current relationship with him, gets jealous when he suspects that her reason for leaving him early to meet Stathis, when she’s supposed to be celebrating the recent success of his teleportation pods, is to get back together with Stathis. (Actually, she’s meeting Stathis to confront him over a veiled threat he’s made out of a jealousy of his own, over her new relationship with Brundle.)

And right when all of this jealousy is building, Brundle gets drunk, a fly is buzzing around, and both of them go into one of the pods to be teleported…and fused. Again, we have the juxtaposition of a buzzing fly with a love triangle; it’s as if the scriptwriting of the remake subliminally picked up on the veiled rivalry between the Delambre brothers and HĂ©lĂšne.

Another theme picked up from the 1958 movie and put into the remake is the relationship between external, illusory appearance and inner, hidden reality. When Brundle first comes out of the second pod, we of course don’t see a fly’s head and leg replacing his head and arm, but he looks as perfectly human as before. It’s only later, as his body parts start corrupting and falling off, leading climactically to the outer human shell all coming off and he’s revealed to be a giant bug, that we see he isn’t human anymore.

When HĂ©lĂšne begins telling François and Charas her story, in the film we see a scene of what appears to be the perfectly happy family. AndrĂ© is seen tickling Philippe, playing like a loving father, and all seems well. The shot is so ideal that it looks a bit too perfect. A hint already as to how things are actually not so good is in how AndrĂ© tells the boy he can’t play with him at the moment. It will become increasingly apparent that he is so obsessed with his work that he’s spending more time in that basement laboratory than with his family.

Yet another element shared between the 1958 and 1986 movies is the narcissistic grandiosity the inventor feels on seeing the amazing success of his teleporting machine. AndrĂ© boasts of having made the greatest invention since the wheel; he imagines that his “disintegration-reintegration” machine will allow food to be sent anywhere immediately, at minimal cost, thus ending world hunger.

Brundle’s narcissism is a bit different. On having unwittingly fused himself with the fly, he mistakenly imagines his pods have given him superhuman abilities: increased strength, agility, stamina, and sexual potency (recall what I said above about the sexual symbolism of the eager-to-mate housefly). Yet both AndrĂ© and Brundle are about to see their pride fall and crash.

With AndrĂ©, this fall is immediate upon his reintegration: we see no intermediate, transitional process–only the gap in between is understood to be there. With Brundle, however, the transitional process is slowly, agonizingly shown to us, inch by inch. We see his physical fragmentation, as well as his corresponding psychological fragmentation (against which he had only his initial narcissism as a defence), a fragmentation that’s a direct result of jealousy–a result I also see in AndrĂ©.

XVII: Fall of Pride

Now, AndrĂ©’s fall of pride upon reintegration as a fly/human hybrid should be seen as symbolic of his pride as an obsessive scientist and neglectful husband/father, which has led to HĂ©lĂšne’s affair with François (the shame of which, being too intense to bear, causes it to be erased from memory, repressed, and therefore never shown on screen or in the pages of the short story), and which has in turn led to AndrĂ© (as I imagine it) finding out about the affair, making him feel humiliated, cuckolded, and reduced to feeling the worthlessness of a fly. He kills himself.

Recall my association of HĂ©lĂšne’s incestuous affair with her brother-in-law with that of Hamlet’s mother and uncle. The notion of a fly’s worthlessness can also be associated with Hamlet in how the Danish prince derisively refers to foppish, buffoonish Osric as a “water-fly” (V, ii, 83).

The trading of AndrĂ©’s head and arm with the head and leg of a housefly reinforces this sense of worthlessness in how the head houses the brain, and either of the hands (the switched arms, remember, are different from short story to film) represents the skillful manipulation of scientific instruments and equipment with the hands, thus making his wife’s devaluation of him based on her dislike of his obsessive work, which has left her feeling so neglected.

XVIII: Nothingness and the Real

The nothingness of the gap between disintegration and reintegration represents more than just the repression of the unconscious. That void also represents Lacan’s Real Order, a traumatic realm where experience cannot be symbolized or expressed in language, because the differentials of the Symbolic Order (the realm of language, society, culture, etc.) no longer exist. Lacan called the Realimpossible,” just as HĂ©lĂšne calls AndrĂ©’s disintegration and reintegration “impossible.” Disintegration leads to a world of undifferentiated atoms, the Real (as experienced psychologically), Bion‘s O, Milton‘s “void and formless infinite,” or the Brahman of the Hindus. It’s nothing, yet everything; it’s heaven and hell, nirvana and samsara… ineffable.

XIX: Monstrosity

The hellish aspect of the gap manifests itself especially for AndrĂ©, in the short story, when he goes through the teleportation device again and reappears not only with the fly’s head, but with a mix of fly and the head of their cat, Dandelo! He’s now more bestial than ever, an aggravating of monstrosity that is paralleled in the 1986 remake when Brundle reappears as part man, part fly, and part teleportation pod.

This sense of the fly as representing self-hating monstrosity and worthlessness is intensified in Brundle’s “Insect Politics” speech, as well as in AndrĂ©’s sense of his brain deteriorating towards the end of the story. Ultimately, AndrĂ©’s self-hate, as symbolized in his monstrous transformation, drives him to commit suicide–as I reimagine it, by putting a pistol to his head and blowing his brains out, right in front of HĂ©lĂšne who, his laboratory being near the factory in the short story, has only to move the body a short distance to the steam hammer.

XX: Destroying Evidence of Suicide

As I see it, she needs to crush his head and arm (i.e., with the pistol in his hand, in order to destroy it, too) to destroy all evidence of a suicide that, if investigated, will lead to a revelation of her affair with François. Since her guilt has driven her mad, her faulty reasoning will lead her to believe that it’s better to be thought mad from delusions of a human/fly monster than to be known an adulteress with her husband’s brother (adultery and incest), driving AndrĂ© to suicide.

Her needing to use the steam hammer twice, because she forgot to put the arm (in my interpretation, holding the pistol) under with AndrĂ©’s head, represents her psychological conflict: part of her wants to be punished for her guilt in the affair by being found out, while the other part of her wants still to conceal that guilt. Later, she forgets the second use of the steam hammer out of a Freudian parapraxis, again, an expression of her conflict between wanting to be found out and wanting to conceal the guilt.

François’s own guilt over the same sin would have driven him over the edge, too, to the point of entertaining her fly delusion as true, to assuage his guilt. In this connection, it’s important to consider the ending of the story, especially in terms of how Clavell changed it from Langelaan’s short story. (Ironically, in the film François and Charas rationalize a conclusion to the case as, indeed, AndrĂ©’s suicide, freeing HĂ©lĂšne from guilt or commitment to an insane asylum. The reason for the suicide remains a mystery; she and François, thus, can privately entertain the fly-human hybrid story to help them forget the guilt of their affair.)

XXI: The Ending

The fly that is understood to be the one that got AndrĂ©’s head and arm is referred to as a fly with a white head. By “white head,” it’s assumed to be AndrĂ©’s head, though it’s never explicitly called such. In the film, we see a fly with a white spot on its head, and only in the scene with the spider’s web do we see a tiny human head and arm poking out of the web trapping the fly’s body, with the hybrid’s faint squeals for help.

Part of the reason for these differences, of course, is the limitations of the technology of the time; but I believe something else is going on. First, when François is sitting on the bench by the spider’s web, he doesn’t notice the squeals of the fly-human, begging anyone nearby to save it. They should be audible enough: after all, Charas later can hear them. François thus seems to be willingly deaf to its cries, part of his wish, symbolically speaking, to avoid responsibility for the consequences of his affair (in my speculation), and how it’s led to his brother’s suicide.

Later, when he and Charas see the fly about to be eaten by the spider, François can’t pretend it isn’t there. As a symbol of his guilt, the fly is something he cannot bear.

Now, an important distinction must be made: in the short story, it’s François who kills the fly, not Charas. As I’ve said above, I consider François’s narration to be as unreliable as HĂ©lĂšne’s, and that the film is their narration given in visuals. Having Charas kill the fly is thus, in my interpretation, François projecting his guilt onto Charas. Clavell’s changes to the presentation of the story are to give us an ambiguous way of thinking about it: is it an unreliable narration, or did the fly-human hybrid story really happen?

I believe François has hallucinated the fly with his brother’s head and arm, due to the stress of his guilt and what his beloved HĂ©lĂšne has gone through (and in his unreliable narration in movie visuals, Charas has shared his hallucination). Philippe/Henri, in this interpretation, has really only found a fly with a white head and leg, an ‘albino-like’ one, if you will, which his mother’s and uncle’s imaginations have turned into a fly/AndrĂ© hybrid.

Clavell’s changes to the short story included removing François’s opening narrative frame (and his dislike of ringing telephones); such an omission doesn’t prove he hasn’t been narrating, but only that we don’t see explicit proof of him telling the story. I believe that having Charas see the fly/AndrĂ© hybrid, thus opening up the possibility that outsiders have seen the proof of HĂ©lĂšne’s story–that what she has narrated is reliable after all–was Clavell’s way of making the story more intriguing: could this otherwise scientifically implausible story have happened, and should the audience just willingly suspend their disbelief?

I don’t think we should, or need to. The ending of the film, with François as Philippe’s new guardian, and with living HĂ©lĂšne present, comes off as wish-fulfillment for François. As with Claudius vis-Ă -vis King Hamlet and Gertrude, he got his brother’s wife, he can directly be a father to Philippe, and in his and her shared delusion, their folie-Ă -deux of the disastrous teleportation/fusion of AndrĂ© and the housefly, François can tell the boy that the lesson to be learned from his father’s death is how dangerous scientific experimentation, coupled with overweening pride, can be, rather than how dangerous incestuous adultery can be.

‘The Lake,’ a Horror Short Story

“Look at that lake,” Cecil said as he and his fiancĂ©e, Eleanore, came to an opening in the forest to see the sparkling water.

“It’s beautiful,” she said with rapt eyes as she saw how the light of the summer sun danced on the gentle waves.

“Let’s go in for a swim,” he said, beginning to take off his shirt.

“Hey, you kids, I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” slurred a man’s voice from behind them.

The couple looked back and saw a middle-aged man standing a few feet behind them, holding a bottle of whiskey in his right hand. He staggered a bit and belched.

“Who are you?” Cecil asked. “And why can’t we go in the water? Will we become drunkards, like you?”

“The name’s Nelson, and if you go in that water, you won’t come back out,” he said, then took another swig from his bottle.

“We can swim all right,” Cecil said.

“It ain’t about if you can swim or not,” Nelson said. “That’s Lake Real. It’s cursed with witchcraft.”

Both Cecil and Eleanore laughed.

“I recommend you leave that rotgut alone,” Cecil said. “It’s affecting your brain.”

“I began drinkin’ because people were dyin’ in that lake. I saw ’em all die with my own two, sober eyes. I also know the story of how a witch turned Lake Real into the deathtrap it is now.”

“Oh, this I gotta hear,” Cecil said.

“No, honey,” Eleanore said, pulling on Cecil’s arm. “Let’s just go. He don’t want us swimmin’ here, so we’ll go, alright?”

“No, no,” Cecil said. “I wanna hear the ghost story. You ain’t too drunk to tell it, are ya?”

“Actually, the drinkin’ will prob’ly help me tell it,” Nelson said, then took another swig. “Have a seat.”

He sat on a rock, and Cecil and Eleanore sat on two rocks facing him, all three of them shaded from the summer heat of the early afternoon by the overhanging trees.

“Well, it all began back in 1857 with the passing of the Gradual Civilization Act in the Province of Canada.”

“What does that have to with us here in the Colony of British Columbia?” Cecil asked.

“Well, back in the Province of Canada, they wanted to get the Indians here to be a part of our Christian society. Some Catholics living near here learned about this idea to purify the Indians, cleanse them of their heathen ways, and teach ’em about Christ. They liked the idea, and used their money to set up a school by this lake.” Nelson pointed with his bottle to an abandoned building several yards behind Cecil and Eleanore, a small, wooden building obscured mostly by the bushes and trees of the forest, but visible enough for the couple to see it. “In 1860, St. Peter’s Residential School was established for Indian children…not those livin’ ’round here in the Fraser Valley area, mind you, but for those livin’ further away.”

“Why not Indian children from here?” Eleanore asked.

“‘Cause the idea was to take the kids far from their families, and from their heathen influence,” Nelson said, then took another swig. “Best way to make ’em Christian…or so the Catholics thought.”

“So anyway, what happened?” Cecil asked. “Did the Catholics make the Indians all Christian in that school?”

“Not exactly,” Nelson said. “There were stories that the priests and nuns were abusing the kids, punishing them for being defiant and refusing to accept Christ.”

“Did they beat the kids really hard?” Eleanore asked.

“Worse than that. The priests, being celibate and therefore denied the society of women, did filthy things with many of the kids, the sorta thing you don’t wanna say in front of a lady. Sometimes, to keep things quiet, they even killed many of the kids.”

Cecil and Eleanore gasped at these words.

“The bodies were buried out by the school, not far from the lake. One woman, who was a teacher at the school named Audrey Wilson, got so infuriated at how the priests and nuns were mistreating the Indian kids that she not only quit the school, but she also gave up on her Christian faith…assuming she ever even was Christian to begin with.”

“What makes you think she wasn’t Christian?” Eleanore asked.

“Well, Miss Wilson was a white lady, so I assume she was originally Christian, but if she was, and lost her faith, I’ll get into the reasons for that soon enough.”

“In any case, giving up on her faith sounds excessive to me,” Eleanore said. “We all know there are some bad apples out there among the Christian flock, but that doesn’t mean there’s no Jesus looking down on us from heaven.”

“Well, whatever her religious leanings had always been, she surely didn’t see it that way,” Nelson went on. “It seems she couldn’t reconcile men of God, presumably guided by the Holy Spirit, readin’ the Good Book and praying every day, allowin’ themselves to stray so far from the right path to be doin’ what they did to those Indian kids. She’d walk by the confessional set up next to the school chapel, and she’d eavesdrop on the confessions of beatings, rapes, and killings. The confessor would advise them to turn themselves in to the law, which the confessing priests and nuns never did; and the sinning priests and nuns continued working in the school, and Miss Wilson knew they continued their abuse of the kids.”

“Well, again, that’s the fault of those priests and nuns, not the fault of their religion,” Cecil said.

“But how do you know all of this?” Eleanore asked. “You live near here, right?”

“Yes, I do,” Nelson said. “And as I said, she didn’t see it as only a matter of sinnin’ priests and nuns, she saw it as a problem of the whole religion. I worked as a janitor for the school, and she and I used to have conversations about the corruption in the faculty. She claimed that faith in Jesus is the ‘theory’ of Christianity; the corrupt ways of the Church are the ‘practice’ of Christianity throughout history, which makes me think she may never have been Christian, but some kind of pagan in secret. She claimed she’d read of, and heard anecdotes of, countless times when the Church–Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant–had committed similar abuses.”

“So anyway, what did Miss Wilson do about the abuse, besides quitting her teaching position?” Eleanore asked.

“Well, a week after she quit–and this was in 1862, so four years ago–I saw her by the lake one evening, after the school closed down for the day. It was still light enough for me to see basically what she was doin’. She was chantin’ something, she had candles lit in a circle all around her, and she was dancin’ around as she chanted. It looked like she was doin’ some kind o’ ritual. That’s why I think she may have been a pagan.”

“And you were getting drunk, and dancing to her music, too, no doubt,” Cecil said with a smart-Alec smirk.

“No, I was stone cold sober!” Nelson snapped. “I didn’t start drinkin’ ’til after the deaths, as I told ya before. And now I’ll get to that part o’ the story.”

“Oh, good,” Cecil said. “Now the story should get interesting.”

“I live near here, as I said before, so I’ve seen it happen every time,” Nelson said, then took another swig from his bottle. “I’ve never known Indians to practice witchcraft, and Miss Wilson was the only white woman I’ve ever known to renounce Christ, or never believe in Him, whichever, so her little ritual must ‘a’ been the witchcraft that caused all the deaths in Lake Real.”

“Very well,” Cecil said. “What about those deaths? You claim you were sober when you saw them.”

“The first couple o’ times, after her ritual, when I saw people go to the lake for a swim, I walked over to the shore to get a better look; for that woman’s ritual looked so intense, combined with her hate o’ that school and the sufferin’ o’ the Indians she so pitied, that I had to see what was goin’ t’ happen.”

“…and what did happen?” Cecil asked, his patience leaving him.

“As soon as the first person to go in was all the way under the water, I saw him freeze in it.”

Freeze in it?” Eleanore asked. “You mean, go cold?

“No, not that,” Nelson said with dread in his eyes. “The swimmer just stopped movin’. Completely. I looked down at him in the water. He was facin’ me, so I saw the terror in his eyes. He wouldn’t move. Couldn’t. Then, what I saw got stranger ‘n’ stranger.”

“What was that?” Cecil asked, smirking in disbelief.

“His whole body…his face, trunk, arms ‘n’ legs…they all started…stretchin’ out, like as if he were meltin’, or goin’ fat, or somethin’ like that.”

“What do you mean?” Eleanore asked with a sneer of disbelief.

“It’s like his body was slowly mergin’ with the water, becoming one with it.” He shook, then took another swig.

“How is that even possible?” Cecil scoffed.

“I don’t know, but that’s what I saw,” Nelson said. “And I was completely sober.”

“No offence, my friend,” Cecil said, “but if you saw all that while stone cold sober, then you’re lucky you haven’t been put away somewhere.”

“If you go in that water, you’ll learn the hard way that I ain’t crazy at all!” Nelson shouted, standing up as if ready to have a fistfight with Cecil. “Go on in! You’ll regret it! I warned ya!”

“Sir, we’re sorry,” Eleanore said. “Cecil, watch your tongue!” Then, back to Nelson, “Please, sit back down and finish your story. What happened next?”

Nelson calmed down, sat down with staggering difficulty, and continued: “As I said, his body was merging with the water, and I could see him slowly fading away. His skin turned blue and became the water, and the last thing I saw o’ him was his terrified eyes, ‘n’ they faded away, too.” He took another swig from his bottle.

Cecil and Eleanore just looked at him with confused eyes. They didn’t know what to say to such a crazy story.

“Every other person, man, woman, or child–white people, that is–that I saw goin’ into that lake over the past four years, has met the exact same fate. I put up a sign or two, warnin’ people not to go in the water, but people just ignore it, ’cause the water is so beautiful. Nobody believes there’s anything wrong with the lake.”

“We saw such a sign, remember, Cecil?” she asked him. “We just walked by it as if it wasn’t even there.”

“Because there’s no reason to believe there’s anything wrong with the lake, honey,” Cecil said.

“Because part o’ the witchcraft is to lure you in,” Nelson said. “Miss Wilson told me how much she hated the white man for hurtin’ the Indians so much, so part o’ her avengin’ them musta been to lure as many white Christian folks to their doom as possible. Some priests in the school tried to baptize some Indians in the lake: the priests went in, felt compelled to dip their heads in the water, go all the way in, and died–I saw it, the same way as that first man…but the Indian kids came out o’ the water unhurt.”

Cecil’s and Eleanore’s eyes widened.

“The survivin’ priests and nuns concluded, as I did, that Lake Real is possessed o’ demons, so they closed the school down and tried to warn other people, though everybody was just like you…unbelievin’. Over the past four years, I’ve tried to warn would-be swimmers here not t’ go in, but none of ’em listen to me. They go in and die the same way. And then is when I started drinkin’…out o’ despair.”

“Very well, then,” Cecil said, getting up with Eleanore. “If it’ll make you feel any better, we won’t go in the water.”

“Thank you,” he told the couple, then stood up. “That gives me a peace o’ mind that I rarely have these days. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” they said, and walked back into the woods.

They’ll still go in, Nelson thought. Lake Real is callin’ for ’em.

Cecil and Eleanore walked through the forest in a semicircle around the lake before coming out in a clearing on the other side. (Nelson had gone in a semicircle the other way; the equidistant roundness of Lake Real made it easy for him to reach the same area in roughly the same time. He hid behind some bushes before they got there.)

The couple looked around for any signs of Nelson hiding.

“Good,” Cecil said. “That crazy old drunk is gone. Let’s go in the water.”

They stripped down to their undergarments and waded into the water, up to their upper legs. So far, nothing to fear. They ventured in further, up to their waists, and far from sensing any danger, they found the water to be most refreshing. They felt an urge to go in deeper, so they went in with the water up to their necks.

“What do you think, Eleanore?” Cecil asked her.

“The water is lovely,” she said.

“I agree,” he said. “Let’s dip our heads in and swim around some.”

At that point, Nelson came out of the bushes and approached the shore. Here’s where it happens, he thought. As soon as they put their whole bodies under, as those priests who did the baptizing, they who couldn’t resist going all the way under, too. The lake makes them want to.

As soon as Cecil and Eleanore dipped their heads under the water, they froze.

They couldn’t paddle their arms or legs at all.

They just floated, immobile, under the water.

“Mmm!” they both whined repeatedly as they tried to fidget in the water, but neither could budge in the slightest.

Both of them were facing the shore, so they could see Nelson standing there, frowning at them. He took another swig from his almost-empty bottle.

Go on, you old bastard, Cecil thought, scowling. Gloat at us. Shout out, “I told ya so!” Go on. You know you want to.

Eleanore wanted to scream at the top of her lungs, but all she could do was whine as before. Why is this happening to us? she asked herself. Cecil and I never hurt any Indians. Why are they taking their revenge on us?

Because you came here with the rest of the white men, a voice said in her mind’s ear and in that of Cecil. You took our land from us, scorned our religion and culture, and stopped us from practicing it. You all abused us, raped us, beat us, and killed us in massacres and spreading your European diseases onto us. Worst of all, you’ve benefited from our suffering. That’s why you all deserve to die!

Cecil and Eleanore assumed that, no longer able to hold their breath and forced to inhale, they’d pass out, drown, and be put out of their misery. But when they breathed in the water, a strange thing happened: not only did they not pass out and die, they found themselves breathing the water as if their nostrils and mouths were gills! The Indian spirits possessing the water were keeping Cecil and Eleanore alive…for the moment.

As they breathed in the water–which felt as natural to them as breathing in oxygen–they found their bodies slowly merging with it. Nelson watched with horror–a horror only somewhat mitigated by his drunkenness, and not at all mitigated by having seen the same thing many times before–as the couple’s bodies were melting and mixing with the surrounding water. Their undergarments slipped off and floated to the surface while the peach colour of their naked skin stretched out into the water, merged with each other, and began melding with the blue.

Nelson saw a growing, wavy rectangular form made up of the skin colour of both of their melting, merging bodies. The two pairs of terrified eyes, however, stayed where they were and stared at him. He almost heard what those eyes were saying to him.

Help me.

Please.

That rectangular mass of skin colour was slowly changing into the blue of the lake. Those pairs of eyes, though, remained intact and kept staring at him, pleading with him.

Help us, please.

Save us, if you can.

Could he save them? In his staggering drunkenness, Nelson knew, far off in the back of his mind, that he could.

The voices of the Indian ghosts in the lake had said to him, every time he watched all the other deaths as with these two, that he could have saved them…if he’d had the guts. He still could, this time.

All he had to do was replace the couple in the water.

Nelson had come to hate his life. He hated his cowardice, the cowardice that had kept him from saving the lives of the previous victims. He hated himself for running away from his responsibility, and running towards bottles of whiskey.

Getting drunk was an attempt to escape the pain, of course, but it was a failed attempt, every time. This time, however, he was so drunk that he felt fewer inhibitions about going in the water, so this handsome young couple, young enough to have been his own son and daughter, could come out of the water and live the full lives they should have been allowed to live.

So, Nelson? one of the Indian ghosts’ voices asked him, the voice echoing in his mind’s ear. Do you have the courage, finally, to do it this time? Will you demonstrate the truth of your religious beliefs? Will you be an imitator of Christ, go in the water, and die for these two people?

Nelson watched those fading bodies and shuddered.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends, the Indian voice said. Isn’t that true, Nelson? Are you ready to redeem yourself, your religion, and your people?

Cecil’s and Eleanore’s bodies continued turning blue, and those pleading eyes kept staring into Nelson’s.

He gulped down the last of the whiskey.

A tear ran down his cheek.

He was shaking all over.

You had better hurry, the Indian voice said. Time is running out for the two of them.

“The hell with it,” he slurred, then tossed the empty bottle to the side. “I’ll do it.”

He waded into the water, staggering and stumbling. By the time he was up to his neck in the water, he turned around to face the shore, took a deep breath, looked down at the pairs of eyes in the water one last time, and dipped his head in.

He froze.

Cecil and Eleanore felt their bodies slowly materializing: blue turned back into the peach colour of their skin, which condensed and reshaped itself into their naked bodies, and they found their undergarments. They rushed out of the water, so eager were they to get out of it that they didn’t care about their exposed nakedness.

They wrung out their undergarments and put them back on; then they put the rest of their clothes back on. Finally fully dressed, they looked out at Nelson in the water.

As motionless as they had been, he was facing them and smiling at them. Eleanore wondered, at first, if his smile was from the lecherous pleasure of seeing her body. Then she realized it was a smile of peace of mind.

It was his body that was melting and dissolving in the water this time. His eyes looked out at Cecil and Eleanore, who looked back at him teary-eyed.

Eleanore couldn’t bear it. “No!” she said, starting back for the water. “We can’t just leave him there to die! We have to–“

“No, Eleanore, no!” Cecil said, grabbing her by the arm and stopping her. “We ain’t goin’ back in there. I won’t let you experience that hell again. He’s done this for us. He wanted to. Don’t refuse it. Look at his face. He’s found peace.”

Indeed, they saw a dissolving face with a smile and eyes that shone peace of mind, something he hadn’t felt in years.

Soon, all that was left were Nelson’s floating clothes and those peaceful eyes.

Then the eyes faded away, too.

‘Ghost Town,’ a Western Horror Short Story

Duane Parkhurst rode on his horse into his small hometown of Arlington only to find it completely deserted.

“What the hell?” he whispered to himself as he looked around and saw not even one person on the main street.

Far off in the distance along the main road, he could see the local saloon, which looked burned down to its foundations. It was an eerie sight, seeing it all turned from a healthy brown to a black of death. It reminded him of some nasty business he’d been involved in just a few days ago.

Don’t mind that for now, he thought; I’ll check on it later. I wanna go home ‘n’ see the Missus, see if she’s alright.

He rode off the main road and found the neighbourhood of houses where his family’s was. He got there in a few minutes. He got off his horse, took off his hat, and went in through the front door.

“Emily?” he called out for his wife, then for his kids: “Billy? Sue?”

He looked around the parlour, then the kitchen, and finally, in his and Emily’s bedroom.

“Where the hell is everyb–” he said as he entered the bedroom, then he saw Emily.

She was hanging by the neck under a wood beam from the ceiling. A kicked-over stool was lying by her feet.

“Oh, my God! No!” he yelled, then ran over to her body.

He untied the rope and took her down. He laid her on the bed, then removed the rope from her broken neck. The red marks were deeply cut into her neck. He checked for breath and movement, only to find none. The top of her dress was torn open, revealing her breasts. He looked over at the floor, by the stool: her torn-off drawers were lying there. He wouldn’t allow himself to imagine what had happened.

“No, baby, no,” he wept. “Why? Why’d ya do it?” He held his head in his hands and continued weeping for several more minutes. Then he got up and left the room, fearing for his kids. “What the hell happened here?”

He kept looking around the house for little Billy and Sue, but they were nowhere to be found. It was getting harder and harder for him to contain himself. He returned to the parlour and sat on his chair. He needed a moment to think things over, to reflect on what had happened over the past several days…not that they had had anything to do with what was going on now, surely.

It had been three days, since September 23rd, 1883, to be exact, when he and his gang robbed the bank in Chesterton, Nebraska, and burned down two buildings there to distract the locals from chasing the gang. Actually, two of the boys in the gang, brothers George and Ronald Wilson, also burned the buildings down for the sheer fun of it.

All of them had safely ridden out of town on their horses after a shootout with the sheriff and his men, and Duane and his partner in the robbery, Clifford Keane, hid out by some trees. (George and Ronald were slowed down by the shootout, which injured both of their horses.) Then Duane pointed his sawed-off shotgun at Clifford.

“What the hell d’you think you’re doin’, there, boy?” Clifford said as he stared at the barrel of Duane’s gun.

“Drop yer share of the loot,” Duane said.

“You’re gonna regret this, Duane,” Clifford said, then untied his bags from his horse and dropped them to the ground.

“I’m sure I will,” Duane said with a grin, then shot him.

George and Ronald were approaching on foot, their horses too badly hurt to be ridden on anymore, when they saw Clifford fall off of his horse and hit the ground, a river of blood flowing from his gut. Their jaws dropped.

“What the hell you doin’, Duane?” George said.

“Drop yer bags, boys,” he told them.

They did. Then he shot them. He got off his horse and picked up Clifford’s bags of loot.

As he went over to get George’s and Ronald’s bags, he heard the gasps of barely-alive Clifford: “You will pay dearly for your sins, Duane…You…will…pay…dear…ly…”

Duane tied the other bags to his horse, got on, and rode on towards Arlington. Any posse coming for me would first find the bodies of my gang, he thought. They’ll be too distracted with the bodies to continue searching for me. In fact, who knows? Maybe the posse will think the whole gang was killed and they’ll stop the search completely.

If this last possibility came true, he would be totally free. Then he would ride into Arlington with all that extra loot and enrich the entire village, not just his family with his original cut. So were his hopes at the time.

But now that he’d reached Arlington, he saw nobody, not a soul, to share all that money with.

His triple murder and grand theft had all been for nothing.

Unless his kids were still alive. He hung on to that fragile hope.

He went back outside, put his hat back on, and got on his horse.

I’m going back to the main street, he thought as he began riding. That saloon down the way, burnt to a crisp, looks ominous, but I’ve got to find the truth to whatever happened here.

As he was riding along, he heard, Duane, whispered from a familiar voice.

Emily’s.

He spun his horse around in a panic.

There she was, a glowing, ghostly apparition that was floating before his face. The rope marks were still on her neck, she was in the frilly dress she’d had on–still torn and showing off most of her breasts–when she killed herself, and on her pretty face was a permanent frown.

“Hey, baby,” he sobbed. “Why’d ya kill yerself?”

I couldn’t live with myself after what…they done to me, she said in a reverberating whisper.

“What…who done to ya? Done what to ya, darlin’?” He still refused to contemplate the meaning behind her torn dress.

Three men…yesterday…they…knew me…in a way…only you’re supposed to know me. The ghost began sobbing.

No longer able to deny it, Duane blew up. “Where are they?! I’ll kill ’em, the lousy sumbitches!” He was ready to ride off.

You can’t.

“What’dye mean, I can’t? I’m quick on the draw! You think yer husband ain’t man enough to–“

It ain’t that, honey. You can’t kill ’em ’cause they’re already dead, like me.

His eyes widened so much, you could have seen almost half his eyeballs, it seemed. His jaw dropped so low, it was almost touching his chest. Naw, he thought; it couldn’t have been them.

“How can dead men…v-violate you, honey?”

I don’t know, but three ghosts came at me and…they did things to me…that are so filthy…I can’t describe ’em to you. She began weeping again. They were like…ghosts with bodies, ’cause I could….feel them…inside me. She was weeping louder now.

“Who were they?” Duane asked, afraid to hear the answer.

They told me their names, ’cause they wanted me to tell you: Clifford Keane, and George and Ronald Wilson.

Duane fell off his horse. His hat fell off, and the wind took it away.

He just sat there on the dirt road, stunned, for several minutes.

That can’t be! he thought. Emily never met the members of my gang, not even once in her life. There’s no way she could have known their names. Still, can ghosts come back from the dead like that? Naw, they can’t!

He snapped out of it and looked around. Emily was gone.

“Uh, baby? Where’d ya go?”

No answer.

He got back up and got on his horse. He continued riding over to that saloon, full of emotional exhaustion and dread.

He reached the front of the saloon, that is, its charred and blackened remains, and he got off his horse. He walked in so slowly, it was almost as if he were standing still.

As he walked around the remains of the ground floor, with its coal-black stools, tables that once had been, and a bar totally devoured by fire, he heard faint voices from below.

We’re down here, a group of voices whispered.

“In the basement?” he asked.

Yes, they said in those eerie, ethereal voices. Come down and meet us.

He gulped, then looked around for the stairs down there…hoping he wouldn’t find them, but sadly, he did find them.

Duane went down those stairs with shaking legs as the whispering voices grew louder.

Come and meet your destiny, one voice said.

Come and meet your doom, said another.

Daddy, two children’s voices whispered…familiar voices.

“Billy?” Duane yelped, then rushed down the rest of the stairs, almost tripping at one point. “Sue?”

He stopped dead in his tracks just a few steps from the bottom. For in the basement, he saw a hill of charred corpses. It seemed to be pretty much the entire population of his village here in this large basement. The stench was unbearable. He put his hand over his mouth and nose, then continued inside.

Daddy, Billy’s and Sue’s voices said again.

“Where are you?” Duane asked in sobs, his eyes darting all over the place to find their ghosts.

Over here, Daddy, they whispered. He followed their voices over to the hill of bodies.

He stopped before a slope of the hill of corpses when he saw two tiny, blackened arms sticking out, each with a distinctive bracelet on its wrist. Though they were damaged by the fire, he could still recognize them by the names carved into them: Billy and Sue.

He’d given them the bracelets as gifts a year ago.

He broke down and wailed, “Oh, my babies!”

Why’d you do it, Daddy? Billy’s voice asked from over his right ear.

His head spun around behind him, and he looked up to see floating apparitions of his eight-year-old boy and six-year-old girl. They looked down at him with a kind of despairing frown that should never be seen on children.

“Why’d I do what, boy?” Duane asked in sobs.

Kill those three men you were workin’ with, Sue asked. Weren’t they yer friends? You’re never supposed to do that to yer friends, ain’t that right, Daddy?

Duane’s heart was pounding with terror to know that they knew something they couldn’t have known. The words of his sweet, innocent daughter gave him a pang of conscience.

It’s enough of a sin that you robbed that bank and had your men burn those buildings and kill all the people in ’em, but killin’ yer own buddies, Daddy? Billy asked in that haunting, echoing voice. That’s just too much.

An’ yer buddies done killed all o’ us to get back at you, Daddy, Sue said in that same, chilling whisper. If you hadn’t done killed ’em, they wouldn’t ‘a’ killed us.

“How could this’ve happened?” Duane sobbed. “I just wanted to use all the loot to help our poor town to invest it and prosper. Those three men were just thieves. No one woulda missed ’em.”

You got greedy, Duane, the familiar voice of a man, Clifford’s, rang in Duane’s ears. I told you you’d pay dearly for your sins.

Duane turned his head slowly, away from the ghosts of his kids, the other way to find the source of Clifford’s voice. Sure enough, now he saw apparitions of not only his ghost, but also the ghosts of George and Ronald.

It’s payback time, Duane, George said.

Remember what it says in Galatians 6:7, Ronald said. Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.

“Since when are you a preacher all of a sudden, Ronald?” Duane said. “You’re as much an unrepentant sinner as I am. I never committed arson, as you ‘n’ yer brother done!”

True, but we’re paying for our sins now, Ronald said. As you will be doin’ soon…with us, in Hell!

All three ghosts were glowing and hovering over Duane’s head, looking down at him with malevolent smiles.

But before you’re sent to Hell, where we’ll really torment you, Clifford said, we want you to see how all your efforts to help your town done the opposite.

“How’d you kill everyone here, you sumbitches?” Duane asked.

Well, after we raped yer wife… Ronald said.

…and did things to her that are illegal in every state in the Union, George added with a lewd grin. What exactly are the laws against sodomy, fellas?

“You shut yer goddam mouth, George! That’s my wife you stained!”

Oh, yeah? George said. Whatcha goin’ do about it? Shoot a ghost?

We played the incubus on yer wife as part of yer payback for betrayin’ us, Clifford said.

Yeah, Ronald said. You ain’t got no right to complain.

Anyway, after we had her, we took possession of all the people in this town, Clifford said.

We led ’em all down into this here saloon, down into this here basement, and locked ’em in, George said.

Then George ‘n’ me set fire to the building, Ronald said. It was fun listenin’ to all o’ them screamin’.

Especially the cryin’ o’ yer two li’l brats, George said.

“You bastards!” Duane shouted.

Shouldn’t ‘a’ killed us, Duane, Clifford said. And now it’s your turn to die.

And when we have you with us in Hell, that’s when the real torture begins, George said with a malicious grin.

“Whatcha gonna be able to do to me if I’m already dead?”

You’ll see, Clifford said. In Hell, there’s sufferin’ you’d never dream of up here on Earth.

Just so you know, it ain’t just yer wife ‘n’ kids that are ghosts, Ronald said. Yo mama, papa, ‘n’ kid sister were in that fire, too. Look aroun’ in that pile o’ bodies. You’ll find ’em in there, too.

You’ll have a whole eternity to see unspeakable things done to yer family, George said. And you’ll hafta watch, ‘n’ won’t be able to do nothin’ ’bout it. He giggled at the thought of it.

“I won’t letcha kill me, you bastards!” Duane said. “I’ll–“

You’d never be able to stop us from killin’ you, Clifford said. But even if ya could, we won’t need to kill ya.

Posse’s on its way, Ronald said.

We guided ’em here, George said.

Duane ran back up the stairs with the laughter of his three former friends echoing in the background. As soon as his head was over the ground floor, he saw a group of men on horses, out on the street, staring at the burnt saloon.

“The remainder of the gang must’ve burned down this saloon the same way they did those buildings in Chesterton,” the leader of the posse said.

“Hey, look!” another member of the posse shouted. “Look down at the stairs to the basement. That man hidin’ down there–he’s one o’ the gang, ain’t he? Betcha he’s hidin’ down there, thinkin’ we won’t look for ‘im down there.”

“I saw his face,” a third posse member said. “I reco’nize ‘im. He’s one o’ the bank robbers.”

“Get ‘im!” the leader said. All of them got off their horses and ran for the basement stairs.

I’m dead, Duane thought, running back down as he heard the laughter of the three ghosts get louder. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna hang by the neck in shame back in Chesterton. Maybe the ghosts of my family and friends in Arlington can help me ‘gainst them three sumbitches.

He took a pistol out of his right holster and put it to his head. He saw the posse coming down the stairs and pointing their fingers at him.

He blew his brains out.

He woke up in Hell.

No burnin’ fire, he thought as he looked around. No Satan. Where am I?

He was in the outskirts of Chesterton again. He saw himself, as if looking in a mirror, pointing his sawed-off shotgun at him.

“Drop yer share of the loot,” Duane said to…himself?

He untied his bags of money from the horse he was on–not his own–and dropped them to the ground, then saw himself in…Clifford’s clothes?

He felt a bullet pierce his gut. He fell off his horse. His half-closed eyes saw, in blurry vision, his blood flowing out in a river. He blacked out.

Now he found himself on his feet, walking with bags of loot in his hands and approaching fallen Clifford and…himself? He looked over at Ronald, then at himself: he was in George’s clothes!

He and Ronald were again told to drop their share of the loot on the ground. He felt a bullet pierce his heart, and just as he began to fall to the ground, he felt his consciousness go over to Ronald’s body…just in time to feel a bullet pierce his heart again.

Everything went black.

He found himself in his bedroom. He looked down at himself…or was it herself?…and saw that frilly dress Emily had worn. His arms were skinny and hairless…his wife’s arms!

He…or rather, she…felt three incubi hit her like three huge balls, knocking her onto their bed. Duane was experiencing it all in his wife’s body. The dress was torn away to reveal her breasts. Then her undergarments were torn off.

Yes, what these three incubi…Clifford, George, and Ronald…were doing to her was unspeakable. Duane felt three female orifices, not two male ones, being invaded. The physical pain was nothing compared with the shame he felt.

So this is how it feels for a lady to be transformed into a whore, he thought as the three-way penetration continued. I’m so sorry, baby. I wasn’t here to protect you.

When they finished, they shot out of the house as quickly as they’d shot in. He could hear himself crying his wife’s tears as the trembling body his soul was trapped in was searching for some rope.

He felt her step up on the stool, tie the rope to the wood beam on the ceiling, put it around her neck, kick the stool, and felt the rope fibres cutting into her neck, cutting off her air supply, breaking her neck, and making her lose consciousness.

Next, he felt himself being compelled to walk out of the house and towards the saloon. He looked down at himself, and realized his soul was inside Billy’s little body. He looked to his right and saw Sue there. She was looking straight ahead, with what looked like no independent will. He could sense the presence of Clifford, George, and Ronald controlling both his boy and girl.

No, he thought. No. Don’t make me experience their deaths. No!

Yes, the voice of Clifford buzzed in his ears. You’re not only gonna experience yer little boy’s and girl’s deaths, not only yer mama’s, papa’s, ‘n’ sister’s deaths, but you’re gonna re-experience them all, over and over again, for all eternity.

What? he thought.

That’s right, George said. Why’d ya think they call Hell ‘eternal death’?

The Devil’s makin’ us three experience the same thing, Ronald said. Experiencin’ and re-experiencin’ the deaths of all the people we done killed. But the Devil done made a deal with us three. Since you double-crossed us, we can enjoy makin’ you suffer far worse than we have to. You see, you’re in what’s called the Ninth Circle o’ Hell, which is reserved for traitors. You’re a traitor, havin’ double-crossed us, so you’ll suffer far worse than us.

This can’t be happenin’, Duane thought as he saw himself and Sue nearing the saloon. This is a nightmare, ain’t it? Please pinch me an’ wake me up!

This is no dream, Clifford said. And you ain’t ever wakin’ up.

No! Duane thought, trying to take control over his son’s body, but he couldn’t move any part of it an inch.

You ain’t got no control, George said. Whatcha think you’re doin’? There ain’t nothin’ you can do ’bout it.

He and Sue walked into the saloon, over to the stairs, and down them. In the basement was almost everybody else.

He saw his mother, father, and kid sister, all of them standing there without any ability to retake control of their bodies and get out of the building. He and Sue were now also standing there, helpless and immobile.

A few more people from the village were made to enter the basement.

Everybody’s here, Clifford said. Alright, boys, go burn the saloon down.

Still trapped in little Billy’s body, the soul of Duane watched, in all helplessness, as the ghosts of George and Ronald flew out of the basement. After several minutes, he could smell smoke.

A while later, he and all the others felt the heat growing, then the flames appeared all around them.

Here are the fires of Hell, Duane, Ronald said. You were wonderin’ about them. Here they are.

The worst feeling of all wasn’t so much the physical pain of the burning; it was feeling the terror of his helpless son and daughter, feeling his boy’s heart pounding, his little pulse racing, his shaking body, and knowing he couldn’t do a thing about it. Looking over and seeing the mounting terror in little Sue’s eyes was all the more unbearable for him.

The flames got closer and closer, already burning his neighbours. The boy wept as he heard their screams. Duane could say nothing to comfort poor little Billy. He had no control over the boy’s body, which was fixed in its spot, practically paralyzed, as all the other victims were, being possessed by Clifford, George, and Ronald.

Then the flames came for him.

As the flames crawled along his skin and devoured everything in their path, the boy screamed and wailed. His father wanted to say, “Sorry, Billy. I’m so sorry!” but he couldn’t even do that.

When Billy passed out from the excruciating pain, his consciousness went over to little Sue.

Oh, God, no! he thought. Don’t make me feel my little princess sufferin’! Please, God, no!

But he would feel it, and hear her shrill screams of pain and bawling until she lost consciousness.

Then he went into his father’s body, and he felt his father’s body burning. Sorry, Daddy, he wanted to say…but couldn’t.

Then, after his father passed out and died, Duane’s soul went into his kid sister’s body, which immediately after began to burn. It broke his heart to know her pretty face and hair were being destroyed by the flames. Sorry, Sis, he wanted to say…but he couldn’t.

Finally, his soul went into his mother’s body. The sacred body of the angel who gave him life…burning in Hell like a devil.

And he could tell her no words of apology or comfort. He could only hear her screams, and watch her body destroyed.

After she passed out, Duane felt himself back in the outskirts of Chesterton again, in Clifford’s body, and looking at himself pointing that shotgun again.

And let’s do it all over again, he heard Clifford’s voice say to him. And again and again and again…forever.

NOOOOO!!!! he wanted to scream, with all of his might, and all of his soul.

But he couldn’t.

‘Will,’ a Surreal Horror Short Story

They’re trying to kill me. I know. Those pills they keep giving me…there’s some kind of drug in them that’s making me hallucinate, see things, hear things. It’s all to break me down, control me, weaken me.

Then, when I die, they can get at my will.

I’m getting old, and they no longer want to wait for me to die. I’m too much of a burden to take care of. Why did I become a father?

Oh, look. My eldest son, Gaines, is coming in my room. What’s he got for me this time? Another pill to make me high as a kite?

Hey…wait! What happened to his face? He has no nose or mouth! The holes are all walled off with skin! How can he breathe like that? What’s that in his hands?

“Here, Dad,” Gaines says, giving me a surgical mask. “You need to wear this from now on. It’s to protect you from germs, and to stop you from passing your own germs on to other people.”

His face moves around as if he has a mouth and jaws, and I can hear his words, muffled as the sound is; but there’s no mouth for the sounds to come out of!

“How can you talk without a mouth?” I ask him.

“Without a mouth?” he says. “What are you talking about? I’m wearing a mask, like this one.” He puts it on my face, saying, “Oh, wait, it must be that my mask has a beige, peach colour. You can’t see well without your glasses, so you think the mask is my skin. You must be imagining things again. You aren’t well. Poor Dad!”

Oh, this mask is uncomfortable on my face! I feel like I can’t breathe with this thing on.

“Mmmf…mmmf!” I moan with this mask against my mouth. I begin to rise from my pillow.

“Dad, relax,” he says, holding me back on my bed and stopping me from getting up. “You’re OK. Don’t be scared. Everything that Valsi and I are doing is for your own good.”

All the time, looking at just his two eyes–no nose, no mouth on that face–it’s creepy-looking.

Now my daughter, Valerie Antonia…Valsi, as we call her, is coming into the room. Oh, no! She doesn’t have a nose or mouth either! There’s no point in my saying it, though: they’ll just tell me she’s wearing a skin-coloured surgical mask, too. I can’t keep quiet, though.

“Mmmf…MMMF!” I’m mumbling in a panic.

“Dad, what are you so scared about?” she asks in her gravelly voice (she smokes too much), though now it’s also muffled, like Gaines’s. “We’re taking good care of you. You’ll be OK. Just trust us. We know what we’re doing.”

Again, I’m trying to rise from my bed, but Gaines is holding me down.

“There’s a nasty bug going around,” she says, getting a shot ready for me. “This vaccine should give you at least some protection from it.”

“Nnnn…NNNN!” I’m moaning in protest, fidgeting and trying to free myself from Gaines’s grasp. I know the drugs they give me make me hallucinate, and I can only imagine how much worse the hallucinations are going to be with that vaccine.

“Dad, it’s OK,” he tells me as he’s trying, with all his strength, to keep me still on the bed. “Stop…being so…paranoid. We’re trying…to help you.”

“I think his mental health is going as well as his physical health,” she says, bringing the needle up to my arm. It’s a few millimetres away from my skin.

“MMMM!” I’m screaming. “NNNN!”

Do I no longer have a mouth and nose? It feels that way.

Oww! I’m feeling the prick of the needle in my arm, only it stings worse than it normally would, like the sharp end of a knife.

Oh, no! I feel the drugs going in my blood.

O true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick.

Everything I see is getting blurry and dark. My energy is fading. I seem…to be floating…between wakefulness…and sleep…

Gaines and Valsi…can do anything…they want…to me now…

I’m seeing…what look like…the waves…of a dark ocean…undulating…all around me…My body is vibrating…with the high…of the drug…but it’s a…paranoid high…

My will…is being taken…from me…I must fight…against the effects…of this drug, with all my effort…with all my strength…I, Nate Ed Will, mustn’t let…my greedy son and daughter…kill me, at least not…without a fight!

I’ll lose…in this struggle–my death is…more than likely–but I will not…die through…a lack of trying…to stay alive! I’ll make…their murder and theft…of my money…and property…as difficult as I can!

Am I dreaming now,…or am I awake?

Are the bizarre images…I see before me…the hallucinations…of the drugs…they’ve given me,…is it just…a dream…or am I losing my mind?

I see…babies coming out…of my mouth? Am I…vomiting babies? Now I see…an oval stone, swaddled like a baby, flying out…of my mouth.

Wait…that needle…Valsi has in her hand…its prick felt…like the tip of a knife…when she stuck it…in my arm…It really is a knife!…I see a knife…in her hand…and now, she’s bringing it down…in a stabbing motion…to my crotch!

Blood is splashing…everywhere around me…an ocean of red…Something further off…is it a fish?…it’s swimming in the blood, swimming and jumping…up out of…and back into…the red. I can’t see it…clearly from here…all I know is…that it’s long and thin…at the top…and it has a beige…peach colour.

It’s coming closer…jumping in arcs…in and out of the red…and towards me. I’m beginning to see…it better now. Hey, wait a minute…that’s no fish…it’s a cock and balls…my cock and balls!

Valsi emasculated me!

Groping around…at my crotch area…I feel nothing…between my thighs. She really cut them off!

Why…would she do…such a thing…to her own father? What purpose…would such…a mutilation serve her? To hasten my death…so she…and her brother…can get their filthy hands…on my money? Or is it all…out of spite?

What did I do…to her…to deserve this?

It must have been…to get at my money. Of course, that’s what…all of this…has been about. My defiance is…slowing down my death…so they’re trying…to speed things up…by castrating me.

Ungrateful, unfilial monsters! That’s what they are.

Still, I’ll defy them…and try to stay alive…as long as I can.

Is this a mask…on my face…or have I lost…my mouth and nose? I’ve got…to find out.

My fingers…are moving all over…my lower face…I don’t feel…any cloth material on it…only skin. I don’t feel nostrils, either. Instead of…a bump…where my nose should be, I feel only…a rounded elevation…below my eyes…and where my mouth…should be.

No hole there! No lips, no teeth, no tongue? They removed…my mouth and my nose! How could they do that…by just putting a mask…on my face? I don’t believe in magic, but I’m…going crazy enough…to start…believing in it.

No mouth. No nose. No cock. No balls.

I’ve lost them all.

Have I lost…my mind, too?

Everything around me…is pitch black, not even…a darkness…with a faint…bit of light…so my eyes…can adjust…to the dark. I haven’t lost my eyes, too, have I?

I’m feeling around…my upper face…that round elevation…where my nose once was…is now just…sloping down smoothly…to my forehead…No depressions…where my eye sockets…are supposed to be.

I have no eyes!

I don’t…even feel…the hair…of my eyebrows.

My hand is…sliding all the way…up and down my face, and all I feel…is smooth skin…with an ovoid shape.

I no longer…have a face…I’ve lost it!

I don’t feel myself breathing, but I must be, since I can still…feel myself…to be alive. Even though my thinking…is that of…a madman, it’s still thinking. Therefore, like Descartes…I exist.

I hear footsteps approaching…yet stopping from…a noticeable distance. I still…have my ears, anyway.

“Dad?” Gaines’s voice is heard to say.

If I can breathe…without a mouth and nose, I suppose…I can still talk…without them, for such is…the bizarre world…I’m living in now. Still, regardless of whether…I can or cannot speak, I don’t wish…to talk to him…or Valsi, so I’m remaining quiet.

“Dad?” he says again. “Are you awake? Can you hear me?” He waits a few seconds…for a reply, which he doesn’t get, then says, “Well, anyway, because of your illness, neither Valsi nor I can get too close to you, so we’re going to leave you alone for a while. When the time comes to give you your next shot, or your pills, or anything else we need to do, we’ll have to use some kind of extension rods or something [I think he said that] to give you what you need, or to move you if we have to. Bye.”

I hear…his footsteps…and the closing…of my bedroom door. I’m all alone in here.

Or so it seems.

Could there be someone…or something…in here with me…all quiet…and ready to pounce on me…not caring about catching my illness…if I even have an illness?

I never really felt sick…until Gaines and Valsi…started harping…on and on…about how ‘sick’ I am. Then, after hearing…about my ‘illness’ enough times, I began…to believe in it. Funny how…all you have to do…is hear a lie…told over and over again, then you…start believing it.

Wait…was that a noise I heard?

Someone shuffling around in here?

Gaines and Valsi left. I heard them walk out, Gaines closing the door. Nobody should be…in here…but me.

Again…a shuffling sound!

Some agonizing silence…I hear…my accelerating heartbeat.

A grunt?

Silence.

Another shuffling sound.

Silence.

Another grunt!

Is there…an animal of some kind…in here?

A shuffle…and a grunt!

Oh! Did I…just feel an animal’s limb…a leg…or a tentacle…brush against…my upper left arm?

Two grunts!

Silence…for about twenty…excruciating seconds.

Uh! Something just brushed…against my right calf! It really felt…like a giant tentacle…or maybe a snake.

My God! A long, loud grunt!

What kind of animal…grunts and has…huge tentacles? What snake grunts? I wish I knew more…about zoology, or marine biology, so I could have…at least some kind of idea…what this thing is!

A tentacle…or a giant snake…just brushed against…my right shoulder!

Silence…for about ten seconds.

I’m shaking all over…sweat is soaking me.

Another grunt…almost as loud…as the last one.

Silence.

Oh! The tentacles…or giant snakes…are grabbing me…by the arms…and legs! I’m being pulled…off the bed!

“NNNN!” is my muffled, mouthless scream, then, “MMMF!”

As the monster…this giant octopus…or group of…giant sea-snakes…is carrying me away, I hear two…familiar voices. I’m fidgeting, trying to free myself.

“Dad, it’s OK,” Gaines says. “Don’t be scared.” Are the snakes…carrying him and Valsi off, too?

“We’re just carrying you to another room,” Valsi says. “We’re using extension rods because we can’t get too close to you. We’ll catch your disease if we do.”

These don’t feel…like any kind of rod…They’re giant snakes! Rubbery, slimy, and slithery!

If Gaines and Valsi…are being carried off…by the sea-snakes, too, aren’t they trying…to free themselves? They seem…willing to be taken…to their doom with me…or maybe…I’m wishing it.

Before, I saw the dark waves…of an ocean…all enveloping me. Now, I feel those waves, as if these giant, grunting sea-snakes…have pulled me…from the beach…and out into the sea. Have Gaines…and Valsi…been taken…into the sea…with me?

Am I breathing water? For all I know, I could have…grown gills, since I no longer…have nostrils.

Everything is…so black, wet, and wavy all around me.

At the moment…it’s…almost peaceful.

Wait!…I just bumped…my leg into…what feels like wood. Now I feel…hard wood…under my back, just over my head, tightly on…either side, and just below…my feet. A lid…just closed over me, though it feels like…it’s covering me…only up to…my neck.

“What’s going on?” I say in the muffled, slurred voice of someone drugged (How can I speak without a mouth?). “What are you…doing to me?”

“It’s for your own good, Dad,” Valsi says.

“This will keep your germs from getting out and infecting us,” Gaines says. “We have no other choice. Sorry, Dad. We have to do this.”

The open space…where my head is exposed…to the outside…is no more. I hear…a board put up…over that space, sealing it up. I move my head…up and hit against it, feeling the wood.

I try…moving around, but can move…only a few inches…if that…in all directions.

Am I in a coffin?

I feel myself…being lifted up…in this rectangular box. Not too long after…being carried somewhere, I’m lowered…far down until…I feel a thud…shaking me and the box.

I hear…what sounds like…shovels digging…into dirt…and the dropping…of the dirt…on the box I’m in. Bits of the dirt…go through…the cracks of the box…and hit me…on the collarbone…and shoulders.

I must be in a coffin.

I know…they’re killing me, but I feel…no urge to resist, to bang my fists…on the wood…and scream for help. Not only…do I lack…the strength and energy…to do so, but the drugs…they’ve put in me…have sapped me…of my will.

I just don’t seem…to care anymore.

I’ll just…let myself die.

They’ll take…all my money…and property. Oh, well…

I just don’t…have the fight…in me anymore.

Just let me die.

To be betrayed…by my own blood.

I worked all my life…to provide for those two…with the wife…that I lost…years ago.

As a professor…of English literature…and Greek myth…I made good money…I gave…Gaines and Valsi…an easy, comfortable life…

And this…is how they repay me!

The lack of love…pretending to be love…is what takes away…my will to live.

I can’t feel myself breathing…having no mouth or nose…but I don’t want to breathe…so it doesn’t matter…

I can’t move…in this coffin…but I don’t want to…

I see only endless black…but I don’t want to see…anything else…there’s nothing else to see…but black…

I feel the life…draining out of me…I am fading to black…I’m becoming the black…that is everywhere…outside of me…What’s within me…and without…are merging.

To be alone…with no love…

People around me…only talking…never listening…

I could have been…left in…a nursing home…and been loved more…than I am…by those…two…INGRATES!

They’ll take my money…and my property…and they’ll prosper…because in this world…the evil thrive…and the good…get no justice…

It’s fitting…that I’m buried…six feet under.

I’m in Hell.

The dirt…is filtering in…more plentifully now…I can feel…more pebbles…hitting my chest…and shoulders.

Wait…are the pebbles…getting bigger?

How are the bigger pebbles…able to slip…through the cracks? The slits…between wood planks…must be wider…than I assumed. After all, I cannot see anything.

Oh!…What was that thud? A rock?

Silence.

Uh!…Two more thuds?

Are they dropping rocks on this coffin?

I feel the rocks…shaking the coffin, cracking the wood!

The dirt…is falling through…more cracks, hitting me…on the stomach, legs,…and my face…rather, where my face…used to be.

More pounding rocks!

I feel the wood…of the coffin…caving in on me. Splintery wood…is stabbing into…my legs, arms, and chest. The weight…of the rocks…is pushing me down…further into Hell…into Tartarus.

Are the Hundred-Handed Ones…hurling rocks at me, burying me in them? It feels that way.

I feel the wood…pressing into…my faceless face, my chest, stomach, groin, arms, and legs.

I’m going to be crushed!

That Gaines…and Valsi…would want…to get rid of me…and get my money…is one thing,…but to be…this cruel about it?! I wasn’t…the most loving father…in the world, but surely…I never did anything…to have them…bear me…any ill will, did I?

The other profs…in the faculty…of humanities…were never friends…of mine, nor I…to them, but surely…my own kids…don’t outright…hate me!

Or do they?

Et tu…brutes?

I’m really…getting…squished…now.

I don’t know…how…much…longer…I…can…t–

Analysis of ‘Blowup’

Blowup is a 1966 mystery thriller film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, with a screenplay by him and Tonino Guerra, and dialogue by Edward Bond, based on the short story “Las babas del diablo” (1959), by Julio CortĂĄzar. It is Antonioni’s first entirely English language film.

The film stars David Hemmings, with Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, John Castle, and Peter Bowles. A performance by the Yardbirds is featured towards the end, while the non-diegetic music was composed by Herbie Hancock.

Blowup won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The partial nudity and sexual content of the film defied the prudish Production Code of Hollywood, while its critical and box office success helped bring about the Code’s demise. Blowup influenced such films as The Conversation and Blow Out. Sight and Sound ranked the film #144 in its poll of the world’s greatest films.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

To understand this enigmatic film, it helps to get acquainted with CortĂĄzar’s enigmatic short story. The English translation, by Paul Blackburn, is also titled “Blow-up,” but the Spanish title means “The Drool of the Devil,” which refers not only to an older man in a car who seems to have lecherous designs on a teenage boy (more on that later), but also to the transient, evanescent existence of the drool, or spittle–“angel-spittle…devil-spit,” as Blackburn translates it at the bottom of page 109 (page 7 of the PDF, link above). This notion of transience, of evanescence, impermanence, the ephemeral, will be a dominant theme in both the short story and the film.

The narrator of the short story, French-Chilean translator/amateur photographer Roberto Michel–the filmic equivalent being London fashion photographer Thomas (Hemmings)–begins by struggling, in a state of great mental agitation, with how to tell his story. He’s even indecisive about whether to narrate it in the first or third person: he ends up alternating between the two throughout.

This switching back and forth between the first and third person narratives suggests a state of depersonalization, which is fitting given how traumatizing he finds the events following his taking of a picture of a teenage boy and his elder seductress (in a park on the Île Saint-Louis); his blowing up of the photo traumatizes Michel so much that he has a psychotic break with reality.

Indeed, several days after taking the photo, Michel blows it up in his room to scrutinize a detail of it, then he has a hallucination of the moving leaves of a tree in the photo’s background, of the woman’s hands moving, and of a man stepping into the picture. Michel speculates, to his horror, that this man is a pederast who has used the woman to help him seduce the boy, who has run away in terror as soon as the photo is taken. Michel’s photo shoot has saved the boy from the intended sexual abuse, apparently, but Michel has also lost his mind in the process of figuring out what (he thinks) has happened.

Michel’s loss of his grip on reality is the basis for understanding what happens in the film with Thomas, and his belief that his taking of photographs of a young woman (Redgrave) and her elder male lover in a London park–obviously the film’s equivalent of the short story’s boy and seductress–has prevented, or at least delayed, a murder (the gunman hiding in the bushes being the film’s equivalent of the pederast). Just as Michel, in his mental instability, is an unreliable (first or third) person narrator, so is Thomas’s perception of the details of his blown-up photos (and his account of his trip to the park at night, where he sees the dead body of the woman’s elder lover) unreliable.

Michel, prior to his taking of the picture of the woman and boy, is fully confident in his perception of visual reality; by the time he’s seen the blown-up photo, he’s lost that confidence. At the beginning of the film, Thomas is not only confident in his abilities as a photographer and in his visual perceptiveness, but he’s outright cocky and egotistical; by the end of the film, he has failed in his search for a deeper meaning in his photography, he’s become disillusioned with reality in general, and his dissolving into the green grass background represents the dissolution of his ego (more on that later).

So, if Michel has saved the boy from being raped by the pederast, why is he so upset over what he has seen? A hint can be found, I think, in his extensive, meditative description of the boy on pages 105-106 (page 5 of this PDF). Michel says “the boy was well enough dressed”; “it was pleasant to see the fingers of the gloves sticking out of his jacket pocket” (Could the glove fingers be phallic symbols?). The boy’s face, in profile, was “a terrified bird, a Fra Filippo angel, rice pudding with milk” (this last metaphor seeming to describe a creamy smooth cheek). The boy is “an adolescent who wants to take up judo,” suggesting he has a good body, or is at least working to build a good body. His home has “romantic landscapes on the walls”; he’s “mama’s hope…looking like dad.” Then there’s “the pornographic magazine folded four ways”.

From quotes such as these we can glean that Michel has revealed, through Freudian slips in the erotic connotations and imagery of his word choices, that it is he who has pederastic desires for the boy. As for the man in the car, who knows for sure what he is doing or thinking; perhaps, at the worst, he wants to watch the woman (his wife?) make love with the boy. Who knows? Does it even matter?

Considering Michel’s mental instability and hallucinating, we can have no doubt that he’s an unreliable narrator, so his belief that the man in the car is a pederast is on, at best, flimsy ground, if not outright baseless fantasy. Michel’s way of mitigating his guilty lust, therefore, is to project it onto the man; such an explanation would account for his mental breakdown (I’m not alone in the speculative opinion that he has repressed homosexual feelings), for even the hallucinatory projection wouldn’t eradicate the guilt from Michel’s unconscious completely. Repressed feelings always reappear in conscious thought, though in such unrecognized forms as projection and Freudian slips.

And just as Michel projects his guilty thoughts onto the man in his blown-up photo, so does Thomas on the imagined gunman in all of his blown-up photos, too. Thomas fantasizes that a gunman hiding in the bushes wants to shoot the woman’s elderly lover, but it is Thomas who has been shooting them…though with a camera instead of a gun.

We see photos of the woman looking apprehensively at Thomas, looking right into his camera, and of her looking in profile at the bushes, where the supposed gunman is; but I believe this second photo, and those that more explicitly show the gunman, are figments of Thomas’s imagination, at least in terms of how he interprets the meaning of those grainy, imprecise splotches of black and white in his photo blow-ups. He is projecting his intrusion, on the lovers’ privacy, onto the imagined gunman, as a way to mitigate his own guilty trespassing.

Now, why has Thomas–who until now hasn’t cared about how disrespectfully he’s treated his (generally female) models–suddenly become troubled about the situation with this woman in the park? Because unlike all those submissive “birds” who take shit from him all the time (i.e., his bossing them around, his objectifying of them, his inconsiderate tardiness for a shoot with Veruschka or his leaving a group of models in the lurch with their eyes closed), this woman complains of his unfair treatment of her. She demands to be treated with more respect; she fights for her rights. Unlike the models he dehumanizes, she demands, as a feminist would, to be treated like a human being, and this touches him.

Michel, at least unconsciously, treats the boy–Michel’s “angel…with his tousled hair” (page 113, or page 9 of the PDF–link above)–as an object, then his guilty conscience causes him to have a psychotic episode. Thomas objectifies the woman in the park, making her one of his models without her permission; and her assertion of her rights forces him to rethink his own relationship with the world…and with reality.

So Michel’s psychotic break with reality, based on a projection of his pederastic guilt onto the man in the car, is paralleled in the film with Thomas’s faltering sense of reality, based on a projection of his guilt onto an imagined gunman. This faltering sense of reality becomes the thematic basis for Antonioni’s film.

While Michel’s break with reality is blatant, with his hallucinations of his photo blow-up turning into a movie of sorts of a pederast’s attempt at a seduction, Thomas’s break with reality is far more subtle. Indeed, Antonioni’s film lies on the cusp between reality and non-reality. We don’t see anything surreal or hallucinatory, but we see realities that contradict–or at least seem to contradict–each other.

The theme of transience–of evanescence and impermanence, that short-lived spittle–is apparent in many forms throughout Blowup. The film begins with the credits against a background of the grass of the London park, Maryon Park in Charlton, to be exact; with Antonioni having had the grass painted a more vivid green, he’s given the park an Edenic quality (more on that later).

We see a car passing by, overflowing with boisterous people dressed as mimes. We will see them again, with that green grass, at the end, making the film come full circle.

Thomas appears leaving a flophouse with a group of impoverished men. He being as filthy and dishevelled as they are, we assume he’s as destitute as they are, since we don’t yet know anything about him, including the camera he has hidden in a crumpled-up paper bag.

Soon, though, we see him driving a nice-looking car after having sneaked away from the poor men. He isn’t destitute at all, with that fine automobile: we’ve seen the first of many examples of shifting, transient realities, or evanescent perceptions of them.

He arrives late for a photo shoot with Veruschka, as noted above, and he couldn’t care less about how annoyed and inconvenienced she is for having been kept waiting for so long. All that matters to Thomas is himself, not any of these “bitches.”

When he’s taking pictures of her, he gets closeups of her lying supine on the floor while he’s on top of her. Their positions, combined with his enthusiasm and excitement at her inspiring poses (as well as with his kissing of her a couple of times, and her outfit, which reveals along the side openings that she’s naked under it), means that this photo session is symbolic of, if not almost literally, him fucking her.

An important point must be made in connection with this juxtaposition of closeup camera shots and of his virtual shooting in orgasm. The taking of a photograph is a capturing of a millisecond moment, to be preserved in a permanent form…that is, one intended to be permanent, one desired to be permanent.

Buddhism teaches us that nothing is permanent, and that attachment to things, none of which can last forever, leads to suffering. Thomas the self-centred, sexist egotist, in practically screwing his model (including in the figurative sense of having made her wait an hour), is bursting with desire for her and for all the photos he’s taking, those evanescent moments he’s so attached to.

Still, he wants something more from his art than just taking pictures of (in his opinion) vapid fashion models. He wants to find a greater meaning. So he leaves a group of them–whom he’s been barking orders at and told to keep their eyes closed while they wait for him to return, which will be never–to wander off to an antiques shop…then, to that park.

Just as he treats his models like commodities (and fetishizes them accordingly, as described above), so does Thomas fetishize literal commodities, be they the use-values that his painter friend, Bill (Castle), paints and only later makes sense of what he’s painted (and won’t sell to Thomas), or the exchange values he finds, like the propellor, in the antiques shop. Just as he’s into his own ego, so is he into things; this craving, this attachment to what is perceived as having a state of permanent fixity–be they things or his own ego–is what he must overcome to rid himself of his unhappiness and emptiness.

He goes up into that park that he’ll later describe to Ron (Bowles) as “very peaceful, very still.” Indeed, there’s something symbolic of the Garden of Eden in this place, with not only its trees and pre-Fall serenity, but also the two frolicking lovers, who in this context correspond to Adam and Eve.

Such a scenario would make Thomas into Yahweh, “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3: 8) with his camera to intrude on the lovers. They hear his sound, and the woman is especially apprehensive, as if caught naked and wishing to hide as Adam and Eve did. The imagined gunman in the bushes is thus the devilish serpent, linking him with the devilish ‘pederast,’ and his spit, in CortĂĄzar’s story.

Thomas has ruined paradise for the lovers, in his egotistical wish to steal their moment for his new collection of photos. Her complaining of his taking their pictures without their permission–to the point of following him to his home and continuing, with great agitation and even an offer of her body to him, to get the photos back–has planted the seed in his mind that his ill treatment of people, especially of women, is a judgement on him. In his egotism, he’d rather project his guilt than confront it.

This is why his projection of that guilt onto an imagined gunman is so important to him. This woman, Jane, has presented herself to him as a complete human being, as more than just one of those “birds,” his models. He realizes there’s a real person in that attractive body, with wants and needs just like him.

Everyone else is just somebody he uses to advance his career whichever way he can advance it; but Jane shows agency–she doesn’t just passively react to him and his whims, she moves right into his personal space and demands her rights be respected. He doesn’t normally experience this sort of thing, so she’s pulled him out of his solipsism. He has to acknowledge the existence of other people.

To give another example of the ephemeral in his presentation of the truth, Thomas–as he gets to know Jane in his home–speaks of a person on the phone as his wife. Then he admits to lying about that, saying they only have some kids out of wedlock. Then he admits this is a lie, too, but that she’s easy to live with…then he admits she isn’t easy to live with, and he doesn’t live with her. The ‘truth’ keeps changing, and changing, and changing. He has no qualms about lying to her at first, but her humanity is forcing him to admit to his lies.

Why she is so anxious to get the photos from him is never revealed–recall that his belief that a murder has been committed, that she’s supposedly trying to conceal, is just his interpretation of the sin committed. In fact, her dalliance with the elder lover, the one believed to be murdered, could simply be an affair she doesn’t want displayed in Thomas’s photos. After all, she tells him she doesn’t live alone. At her age, she thus is presumably married, and the man in the park is her paramour.

So once she’s left his home with the (wrong) negatives and he has received from her the (wrong) name and phone number he wants so he can contact her again (Note how their attempts at connection are vitiated by their dishonesty with each other, a symptom of alienation!), he goes to examine the park photos. He marks one of them, something he wants to see enlarged, and he blows up the photo.

This blowup leads to the enlargement of several photos, with which he constructs, in his mind, the narrative of someone hiding in the bushes. The details of these black-and-white photos are vague, blurry, and grainy, so the image of a man’s head and hand (supposedly holding a gun and pointing it at Jane’s lover) is far from certain.

The central point of Blowup is how huge the disparity is between reality and our perception of it. Thomas is trying to glean a hidden reality from split-second images forever caught in a state of fixity; but reality is never fixed or frozen…it is fluid, ever-shifting and changing. Those white spots that, to him, look like a man’s head and hand could actually just be the light reflecting off the leaves of the bushes.

When we see Jane’s photo in profile, her seeming to look in agitation at the bushes where the ‘gunman’ is hiding, for all we know, she could have just swung her head around for any old reason, and the photo just caught her head in that split-second position as a pure coincidence. Or that particular photo could be a figment of Thomas’s imagination, a mental duplicate of the real photo of her looking directly at his camera, at him, agitated that he’s taking pictures of her and her lover without their consent.

Thomas’s experience of Jane as a real, flesh-and-blood human being, and not a model (despite his attempts to make her into one), has caused him to feel a kind of remorse that has made his unconscious create another man in the bushes (recall that Thomas was in the bushes, too, as he took a few pictures) on whom he can project his guilt. He thinks his blowups are uncovering a deeper truth, but actually they’re making him stray further and further away from the truth.

Consider how those vague splotches of white, the ‘hand’ in particular, are further enlarged to reveal, in precise detail, a hand holding a pistol with a silencer on it, aiming it at Jane’s lover. How do we go from a blurry splotch of white, only vaguely suggesting a hand, to so exact an image of a hand holding a gun? The enlarged splotch should become only a larger one; no details can be revealed from it…that is, except in Thomas’s overactive imagination.

Thomas fails to understand from all of this that no photograph can capture an ever-flowing and ever-changing reality; a photo can only represent it, give an impression of it. Such an understanding is the basis of impressionist art: painters such as Monet knew that no painting could ever capture a scene in all truthfulness because of how such things as the wind blowing at leaves changes their position, or how light reflects off of things differently from second to second because of such changes in position. So Monet could only paint ‘impressions‘ of natural scenes–hence the blurry look of his and other impressionist works. Thomas’s wish to capture truth in a state of fixity is the basis of his deluded sense of reality, a delusion grounded in desire and attachment.

Speaking of Thomas’s desire, two teenage girls, aspiring models to whom he earlier wouldn’t give the time of day, suddenly appear at his door, hoping he’ll do a photo shoot of them. While Jane, in her pressing to have him acknowledge her rights, has affected him somewhat, he’s still largely the same self-centred man who uses girls for his pleasure, then kicks them out of his home as soon as he’s had his fun with them.

In his narcissism, he’s imagined that he saved the life of whoever the ‘gunman’ intended to kill; now, in his continuing narcissism, he’s going to enjoy these two teenage “birds” with little, if any, thought as to whether they are willing to give themselves to him (apart from a wish to further their modelling careers).

Since his sense of reality has begun to fade with his shaky, fantasied grasp of the meaning of the photos, we can easily assume that his romp with the two girls–on that large piece of purple construction paper, symbolic of a bedsheet–is distorted by his narcissistic wish to believe they want to have sex with him as much as he does with them. It’s far from likely that the sex was consensual, especially if the girls are underage. Consider how frightened the topless blonde is when he makes sexual advances on her; he thinks she’s playing hard to get…I don’t think so. She and the other girl switch from fear to giggles far too fast for it to be believable; I think he’s imagining the giggles, which may have been more like screams.

Still, just before he kicks them out, having blamed them for tiring him out, he sees something new in one of the photos, something suggesting he failed to protect the victim of the shooting of the ‘gunman,’ thus deflating his narcissistic fantasy that his impromptu photo shoot has made him a hero. Since Jane’s protestations against Thomas have led him to see a disturbing projection of his guilt, has his sexual encounter with the girls–bordering on, if not lapsing into, the realm of rape–provoked further unconscious guilt in him, which he’s now projecting onto the ‘gunman’ having succeeded in killing Jane’s lover?

In CortĂĄzar’s story, Michel’s break with reality comes from, in my interpretation, a projection of his pederastic desire for the teen boy onto the man in the car. In Antonioni’s film, I see a parallel process going on with Thomas’s taking advantage of the teen girls, then finding his own grip on reality slipping further, all because of his projected, unconscious guilt. His phallic camera took shots of Jane and her elderly lover, his literal phallus took shots inside the girls, and now he projects his shots onto the phallic pistol of the imagined gunman.

Indeed, Thomas returns to the park that night, and he sees the corpse of Jane’s lover lying supine on the grass by a bush. I believe Thomas has imagined the body: I find it unlikely that the man was shot dead in the morning (presumably when Jane was trying to retrieve the camera from Thomas at the stairs of the park, our not hearing the gunshot being due to the silencer on the pistol), and that the body lay there all day, never noticed until Thomas finds it in the dark. (The park, lacking lampposts, would be much darker than what we see, which is because of the lighting of the film crew.) The darkness thus has facilitated his hallucination.

He goes back home after hearing a twig snap nearby (either imagined by him, or caused by something completely other than, presumably, the ‘gunman’ trying to sneak up on him); then he visits Bill’s home, where he sees him making love with Patricia (Miles). The juxtaposition of sex with killing is curiously recurrent in this film: just as Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit can be seen as symbolic of sex, and this leading to them losing their immortality, so do sexual encounters lead to some sense of death, or are at least associated with death, in Blowup. Certainly, Thomas’s sense of reality is dying, with all of this sex going on. Desire in an impermanent world leads to suffering, or the death of happiness.

He returns home, only to find it burgled: all of his enlarged photos (save the closeup of the ‘corpse’ by the bush), as well as his negatives, have been stolen. Presumably Jane, who’s realized he cheated her in giving her the wrong negatives, has sent someone to burgle his home, in my interpretation, to conceal her affair with the elder man, but in Thomas’s, to remove evidence of the murder she’s implicated in.

Thomas feels an attachment to his interpretation (i.e., that the splotch of light by the bush in the enlarged photo is the dead body of Jane’s lover), so the theft of his proof of the ‘murder’ is the frustration of that desire, the denial of indulging his attachment, which leads to suffering in the Buddhist sense. His grip on the reality he is so used to is slipping. Slavoj ZiĆŸek writes, “the body is, according to the code of the detective novel, the object of desire par excellence, the cause that starts the interpretive desire of the detective…” (ZiĆŸek, page 143)

Patricia, who noticed Thomas watching her when Bill was on top of her, comes to his home to ask him why he went to Bill’s home. In this scene, Thomas tells her about his conviction that a murder was committed in the park. He speaks to her with uncharacteristic respect: all other women, no more beautiful than she is, are called “love” or “bird” by him, or are barked at by him. He is so shaken by his interpretation of the photos, as depicting a murder, that they have transformed him.

They have transformed him, of course, because he has transformed them. In chapter one of Transformations: Change from Learning to Growth, WR Bion discusses such things as, on the one hand, a field of poppies or a psychoanalytic session, and on the other hand, a painting of the field of poppies or the therapist’s interpretation of the analytic session. The first two things are the actual experiences, the realizations; the second two are representations of those experiences or realizations. Going from realization to representation is what Bion called transformations, which is an effective way of thinking about what Thomas has done with the park incident (realization) with his photos and subsequent blowing up of them (representations). He has transformed what happened into what he merely thinks happened.

He thinks that by blowing up and analyzing the photos, he’s coming closer to the truth, but really he’s straying further and further away from it. In CortĂĄzar’s story, Michel acknowledges he’s imposing his own ‘truth’ onto his photos (page 103, page 4 of the PDF: “the photographer always worked as a permutation of his personal way of seeing the world as other than the camera insidiously imposed upon it”; later, on page 107, page 6 of the PDF, “Strange how the scene…was taking on a disquieting aura. I thought it was I imposing it, and that my photo, if I shot it, would reconstitute things in their true stupidity.”). Thomas is, little by little, coming to the understanding that he’s been imposing himself on his ‘reality.’

He shows Patricia the one photo left behind, a vague, grainy closeup of what he sees as a head and upper torso lying on the grass by the bush. She says it looks like one of Bill’s paintings, and, recall, Bill himself doesn’t know what he’s looking at as he paints them, but only later finds meaning in them. Thomas, in imagining his photos have depicted a murder, is doing the exact same retrospective interpreting as Bill.

Thomas’s faltering sense of reality isn’t making him act wildly, like a madman, as is the case with Michel; rather, Thomas seems merely crestfallen as he realizes how wrong he’s been. Still, he tries to get proof elsewhere. He drives out to find Ron, but he first spots a woman who seems to be Jane outside a club where the Yardbirds are playing, so he goes in. (Incidentally, ‘Jane’ is standing by a sign that says “Permutit,” presumably for a hair salon, but the fortuitous choice of a name for the sign is associable with permutation, what reality in Blowup is all about.) He doesn’t find her in the club, but the gig is itself interesting to comment on.

The Yardbirds are performing their high-energy rendition of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” (actually renamed “Stroll On” in the film, with new lyrics by singer Keith Relf, because they couldn’t get the legal rights to the original lyrics), but the audience is watching the performance standing still, not at all bopping to the beat; one would think that, instead of watching a rock band, they were contemplating a Jackson Pollock painting in the MoMA. Only two people are seen dancing to the song.

It is only when Jeff Beck–frustrated that he’s getting buzzing noises from his amp (which exposes the Yardbirds’ music-making as the illusion that it is…and this film is all about exposing illusions)–smashes his guitar Pete Townshend-style and throws the broken-off neck into the audience, that the audience finally comes to life and grabs at it. The fetishizing of a commodity is of more appeal than actual music-making.

Since I have written about how Blowup presents reality as an ever-shifting phenomenon, as opposed to how we perceive it, or want to perceive it, as being in a state of fixity, it seems apposite to discuss the evolution of “Train Kept A-Rollin'” in this light. The song started out as a jump blues tune by Tiny Bradshaw in 1951, with lyrics based on “Cow-Cow Boogie,” from 1942. In 1956, Johnny Burnette and his band did a guitar-riff driven version, with an early example of deliberately distorted guitar. Next came the Yardbirds’ version, opening with Beck’s guitar imitating a train whistle and Relf singing two superimposed vocal tracks; in the film, we see Jimmy Page and Beck giving the song a powerful dual lead guitar sound. Their version would become the standard way of playing the song, later emulated by early Led Zeppelin (“the New Yardbirds“), Aerosmith (who begin the song at a slower tempo before speeding it up), and Mötörhead. Like reality in Blowup, this is a song that always changes.

Thomas finds Ron in a house where a party is going on and everyone is smoking marijuana. Perceptions of reality are once again being altered. Thomas wants to have Ron go with him to the park to see the body and take a picture of it, but Ron is far too stoned to be of any help. Veruschka is at the party, smoking dope with everyone else; she was supposed to be in Paris, yet she says, “I am in Paris.” One can be high on much stronger dope than pot, and still be aware of what city one is actually in. Thomas hearing her say she’s in the wrong city, and country, is not due to her being stoned: it’s another manifestation of his ever-weakening grip on reality.

Ron asks again what Thomas has seen in the park, and the answer, the penultimate word of the film, is “Nothing.” Thomas says this, knowing it’s pointless getting Ron to help him, but also because Thomas is slowly realizing he’s been making a big thing out of nothing.

Nothing can also be interpreted as “no thing” (no fixed state of being), wu, or sunyata, the nirvana-like void from which everything comes. Thomas’s realization that all that he’s been groping for is nothing, there is no corpse in the park (as he indeed discovers the next morning), and so there is no deeper meaning in the photos he took there, has led not only to his sad disillusion over the whole thing, but also his liberation from those illusions. In losing the corpse, he loses his attachment to it.

That deeper meaning he’s been trying to get out of his art has resulted in an absurdist failure. One cannot capture reality in a fixed form: it always shifts, changes, and therefore loses its original contextual meaning. Back in that Edenic, nirvana-like park, Thomas is beginning to accept this disappointing truth. Reality is impermanent, just like the impermanence of the ego. He’s also being humbled.

The carefree mimes have accepted absurdist, empty reality from the start, but they ‘play the game’ of life all the same. They don’t need rackets or a tennis ball: they’ll just pretend, as all of us should do in life, provided we all understand that it’s just an illusion. One can be happy in absurdity, as Camus observed.

As Thomas watches the mimed tennis match, he smirks and gradually accepts that things like rackets and tennis balls are a part of the maya of the universe, an illusion, because nothing has any sense of permanence.

When the ‘ball’ is knocked out of the court, and one of the mime players gestures to him to retrieve it, he does so, with an acceptance of the illusion that is life, but also with a new understanding that one should help others. He’s stepping out of his egoistic shell.

The mimes resume their game, which we no longer see, but now hear. Yes, we hear rackets hitting a ball. Once again, reality has shifted, this time from seeing to hearing. He smirks again, then frowns. Pleasure is fleeting.

We see a far shot of him on the grass, going over to pick up his camera. Hancock’s jazz soundtrack begins again, just as at the beginning of the film, which has come full circle, like a spinning of that huge propellor.

With Thomas’s acceptance of the fluidity of reality, including the fluidity and impermanence of his own ego, he attains a kind of nirvana. Hence the dissolving of his body into the Edenic green background, just before the end title.

Thomas, like Michel, tried to capture reality in a fixed, photographed state. Michel went mad and tried to pacify himself with visions of clouds and birds passing by. Thomas has come to accept what he can’t capture, because reality, like the train, kept a-rollin’.

Analysis of ‘Re-Animator’

Re-Animator is a 1985 horror-comedy film directed by Stuart Gordon and written by Dennis Paoli, William J. Norris, and Gordon; the film is loosely based on parts of the HP Lovecraft 1922 horror serial novelette, “Herbert West–Reanimator.” The film stars Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, and Barbara Crampton; it costars David Gale and Robert Sampson.

Apart from the basic premise of Lovecraft’s story–namely, a serum that brings the dead back to life, created by the narcissistic young scientist Herbert West (Combs)–not much is taken from the tale and put directly into the film. Dr. Alan Halsey (Sampson), dean of the fictional Miskatonic University medical school, refuses to let West and the narrator (Dan Cain in the film–played by Abbott) do the reanimating experiments on corpses on the campus. The dean himself dies and is reanimated, making him a wild, cannibalistic, zombie-like monster and forcing him to be committed in an asylum.

The above plot elements are from the first two episodes of Lovecraft’s story, while also being updated (by Norris) to the 1980s and expanded to include Halsey’s pretty daughter, Dan Cain’s girlfriend, Megan (Crampton). Another doctor, the middle-aged Carl Hill (Gale), who is decapitated and reanimated by West, seems to be derived from the last two episodes (as is the plot of the first sequel–link in the next paragraph), from a WWI surgeon who is also decapitated and reanimated; and who, as in the story, commands an army, as it were, of reanimated corpses at the climax.

The film spawned a few sequels, 1990’s Bride of Re-Animator and 2003’s Beyond Re-Animator. While the sequels weren’t well-received, the first film was, and it is now considered a cult classic.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

During the film’s opening credits, we hear a soundtrack (composed by Richard Band) that is a blatant and intentional rip-off of the opening theme of Psycho. Only a few minor differences and variations are heard, with an original wind melody (bass clarinet?) played over the strings and a drum beat in the background. The film’s obvious campiness–a kind of black comedy whose over-the-top, even humorous violence may remind us of that of Titus Andronicus–inspired Band to make a similarly obvious, campy, and tongue-in-cheek reference to Psycho‘s stereotypical horror film music. Apart from this joke-reason, can we find others to justify the link between Re-Animator and Psycho?

I believe we can find other such reasons. With similar musical themes, we can also find similar motivic themes. Indeed, a careful analysis and comparison of the themes, symbolism, and motifs of both films shows striking similarities. Does all of this justify ripping off Bernard Herrmann‘s music, beyond it being a musical joke? I’ll let you decide, Dear Reader.

In Psycho, after Norman Bates has murdered his mother, in order to rid himself of the unbearable guilt of his crime, he tries to ‘reanimate’ her, in a way–not literally, of course, but in his mind. He uses a number of elaborate methods to convince himself of his delusion that she’s still alive. He robs her corpse and uses taxidermy on it to stave off decomposition as best he can. He dresses in her clothes, including a cheap wig he’s bought, and speaks in her voice. He gives over half of his life to bring her back from the dead.

Similarly, Herbert West deludes himself that his serum will restore life, when all it does is it turns the corpses it’s used on into savage killers…rather like Bates’s mother personality.

Another thematic similarity between the two films is that of invasion of privacy, intrusion, penetration. (See my Psycho analysis to see how I explain these themes in that film.) West intrudes on the world of Dan Cain and Megan, just after they’ve made love, and says he wishes to rent the basement of his house; he meets Dan at the front door of the house when Dan has only a sheet to cover his nakedness.

Later, the couple’s cat, Rufus, dies–did West kill it for use in his macabre experiments? West has the cat’s body in a small refrigerator, the sight of which naturally upsets Dan and Megan, the latter of whom has, in fact, invaded West’s privacy by going into his room without his permission, because she has been looking for her missing cat. Still, West will have to explain why he’s using their dead cat, without their consent, for his experiments.

The injecting of West’s vaccine-like [!] serum into the cat’s corpse, and later into corpses at the university morgue in defiance of Dean Halsey’s express forbidding of it, is further intrusion and unwelcome penetration. Indeed, it’s as if the violent reactions of the revived corpses are a reflection of how they hate the penetrative intrusion of West’s syringe jabs.

The stabbing of West’s needle into the corpses, like the stabbing of Bates’s knife into showering Marion Crane and Detective Arbogast (if in only a symbolic sense), is a projection of West’s psychopathy into the dead, making them as violent to the living as he is to the dead, by making them take on their stabber’s violent traits. Recall that narcissistic West doesn’t actually care about helping humanity with his reanimating; he just wants to play God, amazing all his science colleagues with his brilliance.

He has no respect or empathy for the feelings and rights of others, living or dead. This is why he has no qualms about insulting Dr. Carl Hill to his face, or using pets and human corpses without anyone’s consent in his experiments. West is thought of as a rather weird fellow, but the point is that he’s cold and calculating. Like Bates, West feels no human, emotional connection with others; all that matters to him is the reviving of the dead, as Bates wants a relationship with only his ‘reanimated’ mother.

West, like Bates the ghoul who stole his mother’s corpse, is an example of what Erich Fromm called the necrophilous character in his book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Fromm wasn’t necessarily, or even primarily, referring to a sexual attraction to dead bodies; he was referring to people who have a morbid fascination with death and destructiveness.

West’s wish to bring the dead back to life mustn’t be confused with Fromm’s notion of biophilia, a love of life; rather, West’s claim to want to give people life is a reaction formation. West is fascinated with death for its own sake. The human body is a soulless machine to him; death just means that the body has broken down, malfunctioned, and reanimation is a repairing of the human machine, which, being soulless in his eyes, is already as dead as a machine, anyway.

Fromm explains: “Necrophilia in the characterological sense can be described as the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion to tear apart living structures. (Fromm, page 369, his emphasis)

West isn’t reviving the dead out of a wish to generate the biophilic joy of living; he is just fascinated in the technique of repairing biological machinery, as he sees it. In describing the necrophilous character, Fromm was referring “…to those individuals whose interest in artifacts has replaced their interest in what is alive and who deal with technical matters in a pedantic and unalive way.” (Fromm, page 382, his emphasis)

To return to a discussion of the intrusion/penetration/invasion-of-privacy theme, the equally narcissistic Dr. Hill enjoys stealing other doctors’ research (hence, West’s contempt for him), and when he tries to steal West’s work, West kills him with a blow to the head with a shovel (reminding us of the ending, a kind of second matricide, of Psycho II, a film made just two years before Re-Animator).

Hill also intrudes on reanimated Halsey’s personal space by lobotomizing him, with the intention of controlling him through telepathy after brain surgery. The ultimate invasion of privacy, however, is when decapitated, reanimated Hill uses zombie-Halsey to abduct his daughter Megan, has Halsey take her while she’s unconscious to the university morgue, has Halsey strip her naked, and ties her to a table so the lecherous doctor can enjoy her.

Hill’s sexual assault on her can be paralleled with the shower scene in Psycho, in which naked Marion is, figuratively speaking, raped by Bates’s penetrating, phallic knife. Hill’s voyeuristic lusting after naked Megan parallels Bates’s lusting after Marion, watching her undress through his peep-hole in the wall.

Yet another point of comparison between Re-Animator and Psycho is, to be put in general terms, the conflict between the older and younger generations, usually understood in a psychoanalytical sense as the Oedipal love-hate relationship a son or daughter has with his or her parents. Bates Oedipally loves…and hates…his emotionally abusive, domineering mother, and her bringing a lover into his house pushes him over the line, making him kill them both with strychnine, which causes them to convulse violently and painfully before they die. West’s serum causes a similarly violent, toxic reaction in those reanimated by it.

Instead of domineering mothers, in Re-Animator we have a domineering father, Megan’s father, the dean, who angrily forbids Dan and West (he is a symbolic father to them) to do their experiments in the university morgue, to the point of threatening to kick them out. The two young scientists’ defiance of Halsey infuriates him, causing an argument between him and Megan in the hospital near the morgue, in which he tells her she’s his daughter and she’ll do as she’s told…just before he’s killed by a reanimated corpse there.

When Bates’s mother-personality forbids him to give Marion any food from their house, he defies ‘her’ by making Marion a sandwich. Since Hill is old enough to be the father of West, Dan, and Megan, and since Hill as a professor of medicine is as much an authority figure over West and Dan as Dean Halsey is, Hill can be seen as another symbolic father (i.e., through transference) to the two young scientists, and maybe even to Megan, too.

When West makes Hill lose face during his medical lesson, West is defying what could easily be a father-transference. West’s breaking of pencils, and later decapitating of Hill with the shovel he’s hit him with, are symbolic castrations, reminding one of Cronus‘ castration and dethroning of his father, Ouranos, and then, according to the interpretations of Freud (page 469), Robert Graves, and John Tzetzes, Zeus’ castration and dethroning of his father, Cronus. West would similarly dethrone Dr. Hill as god of medicine. (Just before the reanimated corpse kills Halsey, it bites off two of his fingers, another symbolic castration.)

Normally, we think of the son being afraid of being castrated by his father, but West symbolically reverses this. West should be afraid of the symbolic father’s wish for revenge, though, especially since West has reanimated him. Bates similarly should fear the revenge of the mother he’s killed and ‘reanimated,’ for by giving her half of his life with the mother-personality, he is being possessed by her internal object, what WRD Fairbairn called the return of repressed bad objects (Fairbairn, page 67). She avenges her murder, as it were, by possessing him as an evil spirit would, dominating him even in death.

Reanimated Hill attempts a similar revenge in death by controlling the lobotomized, reanimated Halsey (who as Megan’s father and Dan’s once-hoped-to-be father-in-law, is thus a double of Hill), and by using the serum and research he’s stolen from West to reanimate all the corpses in the morgue, sicking them all on West, Dan, and the Megan who rejected his advances.

Now, while West’s interest in reanimation is of a necrophilous nature (recall that he shows not even the slightest sexual interest in the sight of the lovely and naked Megan), Dan’s interest in West’s obsession is of a biophilous sort. Dan has a genuine wish to save lives, as seen at the beginning and at the end of the film. First, there’s a dying woman he tries feverishly to save, but his superior, Dr. Harrod (played by Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), tells him to face reality: the woman is dead, and he must give up trying to save her.

At the end of the film, the far more devastating death of a woman is a fear of Dan’s that’s come true. Hill and his army of reanimated zombies have been mostly defeated, but not before one of them has strangled Megan to death. Dan’s attempt to revive her has failed just as it had with the woman at the beginning of the film. Dan does have West’s serum, though, and with her having just freshly died, surely her reanimation will give him her whole personality intact…won’t it?

Her scream, just before the ending credits, raises our doubts.

Analysis of ‘The Third Man’

The Third Man is a 1949 British noir film directed by Carol Reed with a screenplay by Graham Greene, from a novella Greene wrote to flesh out the story, but which wasn’t originally meant to be published. The film stars Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, and Valli; it costars Wilfred Hyde-White, Paul Hörbiger, Ernst Deutsch, Erich Ponto, and Siegfried Breuer.

The film is noted for its superb cinematography, sometimes inviting comparisons with Citizen Kane (even to the point of making some think mistakenly that Orson Welles was involved with the writing and production), and for its distinctive music, all played on a zither by Anton Karas, its composer. It is regarded as one of the best films of all time.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

A recurring theme in The Third Man is the relationship between illusion and reality. The charming zither music gives us a sonic sense of how quaint Europe comes across to American visitors, as we see with Holly Martins (Cotten–“Rollo Martins” in the novella) when he gets off the train, having reached Vienna. Anticipating getting a new job from his old boyhood friend, Harry Lime (Welles), Martins is eager to reunite with him. That zither, however, gets plaintive and gives off a dissonant chromaticism whenever scenes get tense, a sonic shift from pleasant illusion to unpleasant reality.

Similarly, we see all the beautiful sculpture and architecture of Vienna, but it’s juxtaposed with the rubble of destroyed buildings, since this is postwar Vienna, divided into zones controlled by the US, the UK, France, and Soviet Russia. Cold War tensions are in the air. The illusory charms of Europe quickly give way to the reality of WWII horrors.

The illusory pleasantness of Vienna, as symbolically understood through the zither music, is further changed to unpleasant reality when Martins learns that Lime is dead, having been hit by a car…or so we understand. After attending the funeral with such people as Lime’s ex-lover, comedic stage actress Anna Schmidt (Valli), Major Calloway (Howard) of the British Royal Military Police, “Baron” Kurtz (Deutsch), and Dr. Winkel (Ponto), Martins goes with Calloway for drinks in a bar.

Illusions are further broken when Martins learns from Calloway that Lime was involved in one of the worst rackets in Vienna. Drunk Martins doesn’t like to hear Calloway say that his late friend has been responsible for people’s deaths, and that Lime’s own death is the “best thing that ever happened to him,” so Martins tries to punch Calloway, but instead is hit by Sergeant Paine (played by Bernard Lee), who works under Calloway.

Martins begins trying to find out what exactly has happened to Lime, and the first man he talks to about this is Kurtz, an associate of Lime’s who explains how, after Lime was hit by the car, two men carried him off the road (Kurtz and a Romanian named Popescu [Breuer]), Dr. Winkel arrived, and Lime died soon after that.

Martins hears the testimony of others, including Schmidt, who is reluctant to speak about Lime. Karl (Hörbinger), Lime’s porter, however, lets it slip that there was a third man who helped carry Lime’s body. These contradictory accounts make Martins suspicious of foul play, and cause us to see further rifts between illusion and reality.

This sense of suspicion and disorientation that is growing in Martins is symbolized by the extensive use of the Dutch angle in this film. The tilted view of events on the screen suggests not just his looking askance at what people are up to, but also our looking askance at it. What he, and we the audience, see is a distortion of reality, an illusion that alienates him and us, the new visitors of Vienna.

In the novella, Kurtz wears an obvious toupee, and when Martins visits him at his home (pages 2 and 8 of the link to the novella), he sees the toupee in a cupboard, and Kurtz is not bald. Martins surmises that the toupee has been part of a disguise, “useful…on the day of the accident,” another illusion furthering his suspicions of Kurtz.

Testimony about the late Lime that Martins hears, given from the multiple perspectives of Calloway, Kurtz, Schmidt, Dr. Winkel, and Popescu (an American named Cooler in the novella) suggests the influence of Citizen Kane. Indeed, we’ll eventually learn that Lime was…and is!…as unscrupulous and narcissistic a businessman as Kane was.

In the novella, when Martins talks with Dr. Winkel in his home about Lime (page 3), and Martins hears the doctor’s laconic answers, we read a description of the copious examples of religious art and icons the doctor owns. These include a crucifix with Christ’s arms above His head; Winkler explains that this rendering is meant to show how He died, in the Jansenists‘ view, only for the Elect–arms up high to indicate how high are those who merit salvation, as it were. This is representative of the narcissism of those involved in Lime’s racket: only they ‘deserve’ to live.

Karl has been murdered for his loose lips about the third man, and some suspect that Martins, one of the very last people to talk to the porter, is his killer. Those involved in Lime’s racket wish Martins would stop his investigating.

Martins is put in a car and hurriedly driven somewhere. We suspect, as he does, that the driver has been paid to have him killed. This fear soon turns out to be yet another illusion, for the driver is actually taking Martins to the gathering of a literary club, organized by Mr. Crabbin (Hyde-White), where Martins, a novelist himself, is expected to lecture on and answer questions about all things literary.

So Martins, as a writer, is also a creator of illusions. Having a novelist as his story’s protagonist seems to be Greene’s way of making a private commentary on his own illusion-making as a writer. Indeed, the careful reader of Greene’s novella will note that it is a first-person narrative given not by Martins, but by Calloway, who is oddly able to know many of Martins’s private actions and thoughts (Calloway’s having spies follow Martins everywhere, or to have Martins tell him all that’s happened, can’t possibly account for all of the exposition of Martins’s inner thoughts and motives).

Small wonder a writer of Greene’s calibre didn’t originally want the novella published; at the same time, the later publishing of so slightly-revised a narration gives us an interesting commentary on literary illusion-making as illusion.

The literary snobs in Crabbin’s gathering ask Martins, a writer of Westerns, about all kinds of high-brow concepts (stream of consciousness, how to categorize James Joyce‘s work, etc.). Martins’s idea of great writing is Zane Grey, much to the disappointment of Crabbin et al. The illusion that Martins is a writer of their lofty literary ideals has been shattered, since along with Grey as an influence, he cannot answer their questions to their satisfaction, and they leave.

In this scene, we also have an interesting comparison of the illusion-making of authors with that of the racketeers, in the form of Popescu asking Martins about his writing (menacingly implying that he should stop it if he wishes to be safe), with Martins’s bold, defiant answer that his ‘new book’ will be called “The Third Man,” a work based on fact (i.e., the crooked circumstances that have led to Lime’s death), not fiction (his supposedly accidental death on the road).

Popescu’s men then chase Martins out of the room. He goes up a spiral staircase, of which we get an upwards shot. It symbolically suggests Martins’s attempt to escape the hell of the Viennese racketeers (and the pretentious literary types) and up into the heaven of safety. Such heaven and hell symbolism will recur later. “Long is the way/And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” (Milton, Book II, lines 432-433)

He hides from his pursuers in a dark room, in which he hears a whimpering voice. Assuming it’s somebody scared because of his entry, he says, “It’s all right,” then turns on the light and sees that the voice is coming from a parrot. This chiaroscuro shift from dark to light, or from concealment to revelation, paralleling the relationship between illusion and reality, is an important feature of the expressionist cinematography in this film, something aided well with the black-and-white photography (i.e., without distracting colour). This contrast of dark and light will feature again soon enough.

Martins’s pursuers chase him out of the building, and he goes down a hill of rubble and succeeds in hiding from them. The zither music is heavily chromatic in harmony, to add to the tension. In this hell of Vienna (whose shiny wet cobblestone streets parallel the water in the hellish sewers below–more on them later), one can’t hope just to escape up to heaven, but must confront its evil (i.e., descend into it…the sewers!) in order to defeat it.

Martins sees Calloway again, and indeed, he must confront that evil: Lime, his childhood friend, really has been involved in a despicable racket. An orderly named Harbin, who works for Lime, steals penicillin he finds (available only in military hospitals), then Lime sells it on the black market, diluting it so he and his men can maximize sales; in its diluted state, though, it cannot work as an effective treatment, so patients either get worse (gangrene, exacerbation of pregnant women’s problems when in childbirth, poor physical and mental health in children, etc.) or die.

Martins’s illusions about Lime have been utterly shattered: Calloway has provided proof that Lime, Martins’s good old friend, was…is…one of the vilest human beings out there. Martins gets drunk again, in a seedy area strewn with prostitutes, but his growing romantic interest in pretty Anna Schmidt means he buys her flowers and goes to see her.

In her apartment, they discuss what he’s learned about Lime. As they’re chatting, a camera moves in on some plants on her balcony; the shot then goes through the plants and out onto the streets below. A man dressed in black hides in the shadows of a doorway, where a cat goes over to his shoes: who is he?

Martins finishes his visit with Schmidt, realizing he hasn’t got a chance to replace Lime and be her man. His illusory hopes are dashed. (Speaking of illusions vs reality, she is an actress only doing comedies, yet she seems to have a permanent frown.) He leaves her apartment and goes out on the streets near where that man is hiding.

The cat’s meowing draws Martins’s attention, and he assumes the man is a spy tailing him. In his drunkenness, Martins shouts at him to come out and reveal himself. His shouting bothers a neighbour up above, who turns her apartment light on; the light shines out and is reflected in the man’s hiding place.

Martins sees guiltily smirking Lime.

Out of the darkness, and into the light; or, out of illusions and into reality. Lime faked his death!

Or, is this revelation just another illusion? Has Martins, in his inebriation, seen a ghost, or had a hallucination? A car shoots between the two men, and after it’s gone, Martins doesn’t see Lime in the shadows of that doorway anymore; that flash of light from the window has disappeared, too–we’ve gone from light back to dark, from reality back to illusion.

Martins hears Lime running down the street, though, and he chases him to a kiosk in the town square, where Lime unaccountably disappears. Martins summons Calloway, and they and Paine go to the kiosk, where Calloway puts two and two together: the kiosk has a secret doorway leading down to the sewers. That’s where Lime went!

The three men go down into the filthy, smelly place, an underground symbolic of hell, which is an appropriate place for our villain to be hiding. Lime’s racket, the selling of diluted (and therefore worthless) penicillin on the black market, is a lawlessness symbolic of the unregulated “free market.” Calloway’s police, combined with the American and French authorities of the Viennese zones, represent postwar, regulated capitalism. The Russians, of course, represent communism.

Because The Third Man is a post-WWII British film, it ideologically represents the centrist, liberal world view, as contrasted with the unregulated, right-wing libertarian capitalism of Lime’s racket on the one side, and the left-wing, Soviet position on the other. Both of these sides are portrayed as evil, due to the Cold War Western biases of the time, as well as the Keynesian, welfare capitalism of the Attlee era.

Accordingly, not only are Lime and his ilk the villains, but also the Russians, seeking to deport Schmidt for her forged immigration papers, are portrayed as politically repressive, when a closer examination of the political predicament of, for example, East Germany, would adequately explain why the communists were sometimes averse to their citizens defecting to the West, and averse to letting fascistic types enter the Soviet Bloc.

Calloway goes to the cemetery and has ‘Lime’s’ body dug up: sure enough, it isn’t Lime’s body, but that of Harbin. The darkness of the grave hid the illusion of Lime’s death, and Harbin’s body, brought up to the light, has revealed the truth.

Martins makes an arrangement to meet Lime at a Ferris wheel. There, Lime, still fittingly wearing a black coat and hat, discusses his racket with Martins, who is horrified at his friend’s unfeeling attitude towards his victims. In the Ferris wheel, they rise up to the top where they can talk in private.

That topmost point is Lime’s narcissistic heaven, where he can feel superior to, and look down at, all the people, those little “dots,” on the ground. He feels no compassion for his victims, and sees the erasure of many of those dots on the ground as expedient for the accumulation of profit, all tax-free.

In this way, it is so fitting that the post-war film takes place in Austria, of all places.

Lime feels little pity for Anna, either, knowing of her grief over his ‘death,’ and her prospects of being deported. Nonetheless, he keeps up the illusion of loving her by drawing a heart with Cupid’s arrow in it, rubbing his finger on the window of their carriage, and writing ‘Anna’ over it.

Just as it is heartbreaking for Martins to learn how low Lime has sunk (recall his refusal to accept the truth when he’s tried to hit Calloway near the beginning of the film), so does the defender of the “free market” experience cognitive dissonance when his illusions of it are shattered upon learning of its ill effects.

The narcissistic highs last only so long, and that topmost point of the Ferris wheel where Lime is standing must come back down. Still, he wants to fancy himself among the top men of the world; so when he and Martins return to the ground, he mentions–in Welles’s famous, improvised line–that the cruelties and violence of the Italy of the Borgias also produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance, while the more humane and democratic Switzerland merely produced the cuckoo clock.

Apparently, psychopathy and narcissism–rather than talent–are what create great things.

Having seen for himself in a hospital the effects on children of Lime’s diluted penicillin, Martins decides to help Calloway catch his old friend. Schmidt, however, doesn’t like knowing Martins plans to betray her former lover. Her sympathy for Lime, as over Martins and those who deserve justice for Lime’s crimes, symbolically suggests how the conditions that have given rise to racketeers like Lime will resurface in the future (see the end of this analysis)…and recall that Anna Schmidt is the sympathetic love interest of the film.

A trap is set for Lime to meet Martins in a café, but when Lime arrives and is warned by Schmidt, he runs off to the sewers again. Calloway and the police are there, though.

Trapped in that filthy underground that reeks of excrement, Lime is in his narcissistic hell, the hell of his True Self, which he hates, as opposed to the illusory heaven of his False Self, which we saw at the top of the Ferris wheel. No longer do we see the smug, smirking villain; now he is visibly scared. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. All he can do is hide in the darkness from which he can’t escape, hoping the shadows will give the illusion of his absence.

But his pursuers know he’s there: no blackness can deny the reality of his being there. He shoots and kills Paine, then Calloway shoots and wounds him, then Martins shoots him dead with Paine’s pistol. It’s with great sadness that Martins must kill his friend, but no reforms can end the capitalist evil that Lime’s racket represents; that end can only be violently forced.

Now, Lime is gone, and a second funeral is held for him; but for all we know, his racket could be continuing, if not by Kurtz, Winkel, and Popescu (who have been arrested), then by someone else. The regulatory force of the British, American, and French authorities can try all they will, but the economic system they defend still creates the want that leads to some racketeers committing such crimes…

…just as the Keynesian/welfare capitalism of 1945-1973 protected the backbone of a system that later would morph into the Lime-like neoliberalism of today, which has produced its own lethal medical frauds.

Along with these problems is the alienation this system creates, an alienation symbolized in Schmidt’s snubbing of Martins at the end of the movie; indeed, he tries to keep alive his illusion that she’ll return his love, and her walking past him replaces illusion with reality once again, with that plaintive zither playing in the background. Greene wanted the happy ending given in his novella, in which Martins and Schmidt walk together; but Reed’s sad ending worked so much better that even Greene had to acknowledge it.

This sad ending implies what needs to be said about all the political circumstances surrounding the story: getting rid of one or two bad apples (be they Lime or, in our day, Trump) isn’t enough to mend our emotional and social wounds; the entire system that causes such division–not just the lines dividing Vienna (or Cold War-era Berlin, for that matter) into zones…and we see a lot of lines, a lot of people divided and isolated, boxed into geometrical shapes, in this film!…but also the lines dividing us into classes–is what must be abolished.