Shatter Your Illusions of Love

‘”I am going to get fat and lazy in Hill House,” Theodora went on. Her insistence in Naming Hill House troubled Eleanor. It’s as though she were saying it deliberately, Eleanor thought, telling the house she knows its name, calling the house to tell it where we are; is it bravado? “Hill House, Hill House, House House,” Theodora said softly, and smiled across at Eleanor.’

In 1959 Shirley Jackson published ‘The Haunting of Hill House.’ Stephen King called the novel ‘As nearly a perfect haunted-house tale as I have ever read.’ This quotation sits on the cover of the Penguin Modern Classics paperback, is placed above the title (and Mrs Jackson’s name) so it’s obvious the publisher was happy with it, and why.

The first paragraph of the book was noteworthy for King.

Discussing the haunted house tale in ‘Danse Macabre’, he suggests the house requires an ‘historical context’ – a dark history – and that ‘Jackson establishes it immediately in the first paragraph of her novel, stating her tale’s argument in lovely, dreamlike prose.’ He then quotes the famous opening:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly; floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

He says of the opening that

Analysis of such a paragraph is a mean and shoddy trick, and should almost always be left to college and university professors, those lepidopterists of literature who, when they see a lovely butterfly, feel that they should immediately run into the field with a net, catch it, kill it with a drop of chloroform, and mount it on a white board and put it in a glass case, where it will still be beautiful…and just as dead as horseshit.

He then goes on to offer some analysis of the opening paragraph. (He promises not to kill it or mount it, only to stun it a little before letting it fly on. I’m not sure he’s right to worry as much. I’ll change his metaphor to an analogy: what type of person doesn’t want to know how the magic-trick was done? What type does?)

Stephen King says he has neither the skill nor the inclination to offer a full analysis of Jackson’s dreamy opening. I’ll believe him about the inclination bit. Stephen King is a magician. I’d bet he knows exactly what Jackson’s opening does – but doesn’t want to reveal another magician’s secret.

Some think knowing the trick ruins the mystery. That depends on whether you prefer knowledge or mysteries. I’m not a magician, I always want to know how the trick is done, and I think knowing increases the beauty of it.

What does King say about it specifically? What he says about it first of all is interesting in itself. He states that

It begins by suggesting that Hill House is a live organism; tells us that this live organism does not exist under conditions of absolute reality; that because (although here I should add that I may be making an induction Mrs Jackson did not intend) it does not dream, it is not sane.

Does the opening ‘suggest’ Hill House is a live organism? I suppose it does, but ‘suggest’ is right. All humans are live organisms, and the first sentence tells us that to remain sane, live organisms need to dream. By ‘dream’ Jackson could well mean ‘fantasise’ or even ‘hallucinate’ as both these describe ways the mind of a live organism, a human one at any rate, can escape reality and therefore maintain sanity.

However I am unconvinced the first sentence actually refers to Hill House. It seems like it does, given the sentence which follows, but one needs to try to explain Jackson’s words ‘not sane’ to make this idea work.

Could she be telling nothing but the plain truth when describing Hill House as ‘not sane’? A house is indeed ‘not sane’ because it is a house, an object, not a live organism. Though something is ‘not sane’ it does not follow at all it must therefore be ‘insane’ – just as if something did not ‘turn left’ does not mean it necessarily ‘turned right’.

I think Jackson added ‘not sane’ into her description of Hill House to link it in the minds of readers with the first sentence, and could do so because to describe the house this way is still to tell the truth about it. If readers take it to mean something else then good: that might be the point – but Jackson hasn’t lied to anyone.

Once this piece of clever misdirection is complete, Jackson can then tell the plain truth about the house in more detail, knowing the reader will not be reading it as the plain truth. (Remove ‘not sane’ – therebye uncoupling it from the first sentence. Does it sound quite so creepy?)

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly; floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The ending sounds spooky, but it would be true of anyone who walked around a house by themselves. They would walk alone if that house wasn’t haunted.

In other words the first paragraph disorientates the reader; allows the reader to think the ‘problem’ – or the ‘issue’ as we might now say – lies with house, when the problem might really be with one of the characters about to pay Hill House a visit…

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You’re My Next Victim – Stephen King’s It

Late one night Stephen King woke me up. I was perhaps nine or ten. At first I had no idea I was lying awake, then – when I realised I was staring into darkness – I realised I had no idea why I was awake. I heard soft chuckling – just a gentle laughter in the darkness – that I couldn’t place in space. It could have been coming from under my bed. I lay still for several moments, a little nervous, wondering if I had heard what I thought I’d heard.

Then I heard it again.

I got out of bed and put an ear to my door, hearing nothing. I opened it and walked out onto the dark landing. I saw my parents’ bedroom light was on so went in to ask if either of them had heard the chuckling. My mother wasn’t there, but my dad was sat up reading It, and it was his laughing which had woke me up. He said he was laughing because the scene he was reading had some kids who were squatted down lighting each other’s farts. I told him his chuckling had woke me up and that it was a little creepy hearing giggling in the darkness, but it was alright now I knew what was going on. I went back to bed and slept without trouble. That was the first time Stephen King disturbed my sleep.

I didn’t know then that the scene in which those bullies light their farts – and it certainly is funny – is followed by a wonderful scene in which a twelve year old boy, Patrick Hockstetter, is half murdered by a swarm of flying leeches. One leech pierces his eyelid and sucks the eyeball until it collapses, and another lands on his tongue, sucks blood until it’s bloated, and then explodes in his mouth. Young Mr Hockstetter passes out as he’s dragged into the sewers by the entity called It, and he awakens only when, in the dark somewhere under the city, the creature begins to eat him. That might be gross, but here’s the thing: Patrick Hockstetter had it coming.

Stephen King’s It was published in September 1986. Thirty years later many fan-polls and blogs still cite the book as either his best or the fans’ favourite. Sometimes fans confuse a writer’s best work with their favourite work from that writer. Defining a writer’s “best” work is trickier than it sounds. It is probably not King’s best work, but it’s one which has its popularity secured by a collection of characters the reader easily sympathises with. The depth to which King thinks his characters into existence is remarkable.

Consider this for instance. Claudette Sanders – the first character mentioned in King’s Under the Dome – is taking a flying lesson, paid for by her wealthy husband, Andy. We are told of her that, although not exactly spoiled, she “had undeniably expensive tastes which, lucky man, Andy seemed to have no trouble satisfying.” At the end of the next page (page two) the control panel of the plane dies, and eight lines of prose later, Claudette’s body parts are falling on Chester’s Mill. Here’s a character created to be killed to open the novel, but King still gives her a whiff of backstory when he mentions her “expensive tastes”. Such a small detail begins to show the character’s character. Yet by the end of page three she’s dead. This is mildly extraordinary. We are forced to ask ourselves, if King thinks this much about a character who doesn’t last even two full-pages of prose, to what extent did King think about his Loser’s Club of kids?

Each of the seven children he creates to battle the entity are losers for different reasons. Bill stutters; Richie can’t keep his mouth shut, and has what might now be called “hyperactivity disorder” – or some other similar nonsense. Ben is fat and a loner; Eddie is the wimpy kid; Stan is Jewish; Beverly is poor and Mike is black. All these circumstances make the kids unpopular in 1958, not part of the “in” crowd at school. This is something which most of us can relate to, either by not having been one of the cool-kids, or remembering some unfortunate kid whose mum sent him in wearing Hi-tech trainers. (When I was a young teenager wearing Hi-techs was more or less a death sentence. Some parents are criminally fucking stupid. And here’s a darker thought: perhaps some parents secretly hate their children?) Thus we recognise something of our past selves in the kids King creates to face the creature. The Loser’s Club has something for everyone’s memory.

Many of us enjoy the regressing to childhood. We look at pictures and video from when we were kids and indulge our sadomasochistic side by going to the “school reunion”. Childhood is idealised in our memory and children, especially babies, are cooed at and fawned over.  This might be why so many of us are wet and feeble weaklings when we grow up. The Romans, not fond of children, thinking them rather gross and needy creatures, used childhood as the time to train and prepare for adulthood, without the cooing and fawning. Who would argue Roman men weren’t made of “sterner stuff” than us males are today?

Although we have a tale in which children are murdered and eaten, the book is pitched at the place where most adults are vulnerable: in our desire for nostalgia and our moist-eyed attitude to childhood. We can be pulled into the novel, let’s say, by Ben falling in love with Beverley Marsh because he sees her ankle bracelet, but we don’t need to understand what he feels precisely; to understand the ache in his belly  we need only to have some memory of our own for comparison.

It’s too easy to decide that King – or part of him at any rate – is to be found in the character of Bill Denbrough. King would have been the same age as the Losers in 1958, and Denbrough is the character who becomes a horror writer, his books inspired by his childhood experiences. Perhaps the Denbrough / King thing is too obvious on purpose? If King – allowing the nostalgia power to work on him as well as through him – puts himself in the book, perhaps he’s split between Bill and Richie. Bill stutters – so can’t express himself properly, while Richie expresses himself too well, yet hides behind characters who find expression through the voices Richie uses throughout.

Bill and Richie, working together, go to the House on Neibolt Street to kill It with Bill’s father’s gun. While in the basement, the creature comes down the stairs to get them in the form of the werewolf from the 1957 movie I was a Teenage Werewolf. Richie has recently seen this movie and it made an impression on him. It made an impression on King, too. Writing in Danse Macabre, King talks of the film and mentions the change from boy to monster. ‘For a high school or junior high school kid watching the transformation for the first time,’ King says, ‘this was baaad shit.’ He then points out the basics of the matter: the unfortunate teenage boy

grows hair all over his face, produces long fangs, and begins to drool a substance that looks suspiciously like Burma-Shave. He peeks at a girl doing exercises on the balance beam all by herself in the gymnasium, and one imagines him smelling like a randy polecat who just rolled in a nice fresh pile of coyote shit.

(For completeness, that teenage girl in the gymnasium was a twenty-two year old woman called Dawn Richard – a Playboy centrefold.)

Richie and Ben might be confronted by a werewolf because that represents what they’re most scared of at that time, yet the werewolf – the one from the movie, and the one in the novel, because the one in the novel is the one from the movie – symbolises something else: a fear of puberty and the sexual awakening which turns pleasant little boys into ravenous monsters. (Beverly – the only girl in the gang – recounts how It appeared to her as spurts of blood from the plughole in the bathroom. This is what she’s most afraid of, perhaps, for similar reasons to Bill and Richie; or because once her father knows she’s bleeding, he might want to take their relationship to the next level.) These fears are wrapped into a colourful package of classic American popular culture – the monsters from the movies – and might be dismissed for that reason as nostalgia for King, or for Americans generally of a certain age, but those hooks are universal, they lurk under the surface and will pierce the psyche somewhere of anyone old enough to read the book. (The cover of Detective Comics 671 has Batman protecting a screaming woman while surrounded by Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and the Werewolf – all monsters used by It – and that issue, from February 1994, was not aimed at people who were kids in 1955. Perhaps it’s fair to assume that teenage boys, from different eras, have the same preoccupations?)

The novel is pitched directly at the child you once were. In that way, it’s a shameless pitch, and too much of the book force-feeds us on the topic of “the magic of childhood”. This isn’t a vague term, interchangeable with “the best days of your life”, or something similar. King’s childhood magic is exactly that: a force which is somehow aware of the kids and uses them (and helps them) to battle the ancient entity under the city.

For example, Beverly – hiding from the boys lighting their farts, yet watching them closely – is attacked by one of the leeches which punches holes in Patrick Hockstetter. Beverly is the crack-shot of the gang; she’s armed with a Bulleye – a catapult which fires ball bearings. She loads it, aims at the leech she’s just pulled off her arm, and as soon as the metal ball leaves the pouch, she knows she’s missed her target.

But then she saw the ball-bearing curve. It happened in a split second, but the impression was very clear: it had curved. It struck the flying thing and splattered it to mush. There was a shower of yellowish droplets which pattered on the path.

The power the creature has is worth wondering about. It seems to have omnipotence and omniscience when it needs it, but these powers fail It when it suits King. Does the creature have powers or not? Two scenes with the Bullseye allow the reader to wonder.

Patrick Hockstetter is a child-psychopath, easily the most demented character in the book. His dementia means he isn’t scared of anything and this lack of fear makes things tricky when It comes out of hiding after sending the flying leeches. Hockstetter sees the creature come out from behind a junked car. He notices that

its face was running like wax. Sometimes it began to harden and look like something – or someone – and then it would start to run again, as if it couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be.

It says only ‘hello and goodbye’ to Patrick in a “bubbling voice”, yet Beverley hears her father say ‘hello and goodbye’. On the surface we understand this. Al Marsh is the person (thing) she is most afraid of (and had Beverly seen what had happened, not just heard it, she would have seen her father drag him off.) But this small scene actually poses problems for the novel’s logic. The creature can’t settle on what image to appear as to Hockstetter because it’s getting nothing from Hockstetter. It seems to be trying to “get a reading” but Patrick’s mind is blank of fears. Now on the novel’s logic, had Mike Hanlon been hiding with Beverly he would have heard It squawk ‘hello and goodbye’ like the giant bird; Richie would have heard the words in the sound of a werewolf’s snarl. So either It can broadcast on all frequencies or it relies on its victims to interpret one signal. Yet if it relies on its victims to interpret one signal, why is It bothering to shape-shift ‘as if it couldn’t make up its mind’? It implies the creature’s shapeshifting runs on some sort of evolved instinct – like an animal changing its colouring to suit the surroundings. This poses questions about the creature’s will, and therefore its abilities. What seems a way of demonstrating just how deranged Hockstetter is, actually dilutes the horror a little because it suggests the creature is simply feeding, rather than being actively wicked. We can get all gooey when the lion tears the baby antelope apart, but we don’t think the lion is doing anything bad. Yet we’re told It uses the tactic of appearing as whatever its victim is scared of deliberately. The fear is what ‘salts the meat’ for the entity. King seems to want things all ways, here.

Another curious scene with the Bullseye occurs back in the house on Neibolt street. The kids are there, armed with the silver-slugs they have made, to confront and kill It. Beverley almost wastes one silver-slug on a rat before Bill roars at her not to fire.

‘It wanted me to shoot at it,’ Beverly said in a faint voice. ‘Use up half our ammunition on it.’

    ‘Yes,’ Bill said. ‘It’s l-l-like the FBI training r-range at Quh-Quh-Quantico, in a w-w-way. They seh-send y-you down this f-f-hake street and pop up tuh-targets. If you shuh-shoot any honest citizens ih-instead of just cruh-crooks, you l-lose puh hoints.’

 This makes surface sense. But this scene, like the one in the junkyard with the leeches, poses questions about the will of the creature. The children believe the silver will kill the monster because that’s what the movies and comics say, and it seems the creature is damaged by what the children believe. Once It knows it’s the werewolf which scares them, it takes on the appearance of the werewolf, but also the monster’s weaknesses. Doing this strongly implies a lack of choice on the part of the creature. This scene is like a portal into the novel’s subtext. The novel’s creature is forced to have weaknesses because the novel’s subtext is that the fears the children have are of their own making, and are strong enough to manifest into reality: fear of bigger kids, of bullies; fear of illness and of monsters from the movies; fear of coming sexuality and the perils of puberty.

This is best shown when Beverly pulls back the Bullseye to fire, knowing very well she’s out of ammo. The creature believes they have another slug because the Losers act as if they do, yet a few pages before the creature was trying to get them to waste ammo on a rat, seemingly knowing what they were armed with.

Here the subtext actually breaches the surface into the action. (Another example is when It chases Mike Hanlon at the derelict ironworks: why doesn’t it morph into a smaller bird, or anything else small enough to get into the smoke-stack Mike hides in? One can only assume it doesn’t because it can’t. This is partially explained on page 990, when, from It’s point of view, we’re told that ‘all living things must abide by the laws of the shape they inhabit. For the first time It realised that perhaps Its ability to change Its shapes might work against It as well as for It.’)

One has to ask if the creature has the ability to change shapes when it chooses to do so or not? If yes, why doesn’t it do so? If no, then this really is where a portal into the subtext could actually be a rip in the dimension between the fiction and its subtext. One must remember that the characters do not know they are characters in a novel.

Most kids are scared of spiders and many adults remain scared of them. So when the empowered kids get under the city and discover the thing’s form – the closest approximation to its real form the human mind can see – is a giant spider, there isn’t much shock in that. Indeed, the spider’s appearance was foreshadowed. On page 404, there’s this exchange between Beverly and her mother, discussing the spider she pretended she saw when the blood spurted from her bathroom sink. She asks her mother if she had seen the spider, and her mother replies

‘I didn’t see any spider. I wish we could afford a little new linoleum for that bathroom floor.’ She glanced at the sky, which was blue and cloudless. ‘They say if you kill a spider it brings rain. You didn’t kill it, did you?’

    ‘No,’ Beverly said. ‘I didn’t kill it.’

It’s a nice touch that King has the mother note the sky is blue and cloudless before she worries about rain. The exchange clearly foreshadows hundreds of pages (and thirty years in time) later when the grownups think they kill the spider and downtown Derry is destroyed in a downpour, flooding the place and destroying the standpipe. The spider is again foreshadowed just prior to Mike Hanlon meeting the Losers for the first time during the scene in which Henry Bowers (possessed by It, as are the adults such as Beverly’s dad and Eddie’s mother) chases him. This drives Hanlon to the Losers, where he becomes their final member and they attack the Bowers gang in The Apocalyptic Rockfight. While chasing Mike, Henry throws a cherry-bomb (an extraordinarily dangerous firework banned in 1966) and in panic, Hanlon scales a fence and Henry follows; he stops on the way up to order his cronies to keep going, and was ‘hung there like a bloated poisonous spider in human shape.’ It’s a safe bet that if you’re not actually scared of spiders, you probably won’t be picking them up and stroking them like you would a puppy. Spiders are a scare catch-all. Spiders lay eggs, and King’s spider lays plenty.

Ben saw something new: a trail of eggs. Each was black and rough-shelled, perhaps as big as an ostrich-egg. A waxy light shone from within them. Ben realised they were semi-transparent; he could see black shapes moving inside.

He has Ben stamp on them and kill the spidery things inside as they squeal while trying to escape. In 1986, this image should have been familiar to horror fans. One month before King published It, James Cameron released Aliens, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien from 1979. In one early scene from Aliens, Ripley is talking to a collection of suits who have been trying to get her to justify detonating her ship. She tells them ‘Kane who went into that ship said he saw thousands of eggs there. Thousands.’ Nobody who has seen Alien will forget those eggs, and the spidery, face-hugger things which come out of them. The imagery in Aliens – the humans strung-up, ready to be hosts for the face-huggers; the semi-transparent eggs with something inside; the deadly female creature which lays them – are all repeated in It when the Losers chase the spider, and who would argue the Queen in Aliens isn’t a little spider-like? Even Bill’s wife, Audra, is strung-up in the spider’s web, a morsel to be eaten later, just like the colonists found by the Marines in Aliens. This isn’t a coincidence.

Like the alien Queen in Aliens, King makes his monster female, and there’s something nauseating about that image: a female spider laying eggs. Alien and Aliens tap into this directly with the idea of a human being a host for another living thing; though in King’s novel the spider doesn’t use humans as hosts – and only eats its victims because its victims expect it to – there’s a connection the films share with the novel, and the similar imagery is striking. Entire papers could be written on our fear of spiders and the identical images which the novel shares with the two horror films.

The story is a “coming-of-age” tale and nostalgia trip buried under popular horror wrapped in classic American pop-culture and movie history. The journey, from child to adolescent and then to “grownup” is a hard and depressing one: full of fear which sits in a belly which aches for different reasons. The battle the children have under the city, in the tunnels, is an important one, and those dark, scary tunnels are important, but the most important tunnel in the story is on the surface: the tunnel between the children’s library and the adult library. This tunnel is mentioned several times, and after the destruction of Derry, explodes for a reason which is not explained, leaving both libraries as separate buildings. It is suggested that the trip from child to adult is always going to be a hard one, with no shortcuts:

if you wanted to get from the Children’s Library to the adult library, you had to walk outside to do it. And if it was cold, or raining, or snowing, you had to put on your coat.

There’s no escape for any child; there’s no easy path from kid to grownup, and the truth is that while we happily skip about as a kid, telling everyone we’re doing fine and hoping they believe it, there’s terror going under the surface.

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Graceful Monstors

In the genre of horror fiction, many authors have touched upon the same subject matter and populated their works with similar characters. Serial-killers, Cop-killers, Child-killers: they have featured in hundreds of novels and films over the years. The same is true of Lovecraftian demons and spirits. Stories of haunting and possession are as old as history, and the deformed, shape-shifting and deceitful entities that are responsible for those haunting tales, have themselves featured many times across the work of authors whose lives have been separated by centuries. There appears to be nothing original under the sun.

Some writers do have an original take on an old story or character type, though. For example, in his novel, Cell, Stephen King has battalions of flesh eating zombies doing some nasty things to the population of Boston.  Zombie tales and movies tend to keep to a standard pattern: zombie eats you alive, you then become a zombie yourself, and you eat your mum or another dispensable support character. No explanation tends to be offered why the dead have decided to rise – or why they are so hungry – and the main plot of these stories revolves around the survival attempts of a few desperate groups of humans. Some of these elements are true of Cell, but there is one remarkable and original difference to King’s Zombies: they are alive.

The un-dead – or phoners, as King calls them – have received a mysterious signal through their mobiles which sends them violently insane. Their behaviour is similar to run-of-the-mill un-dead flesh-eaters from books and movies of the past, but only up to a point. King soon takes his readers away from the conventional as his story unfolds.

The movie Wolf Creek is another example of giving a tired format a decent revival. A serial killer, roaming at his leisure across Western Australia, kills tourists visiting the Wolf Creek meteorite crater. The psycho-is-chasing-you format has been done in dozens of movies – hundreds, more likely – though in this film we have a refreshing change. The psycho is a decent bloke. There are no funny facial ticks, no talking to voices in his head; the killer is played straight by John Jarrett, and is much scarier for it. Even at his most violent, Mick Taylor, Jarrett’s character, never falls into parody: Jarrett plays the part as if he was influenced by no other performance on stage or screen – a remarkable achievement, actually.

Wolf Creek has another piece of originality going for it: there is no double-take used by the director. This shock technique features in so many horror films that its effectiveness has been diluted. We all have seen this at work. The camera stands behind a scared character; they look left, and the camera looks with them. There is never a baddie to be seen. Then, they look right – again the camera follows to show the madman is nowhere around. And then – guess what – they look left again and the psycho’s face is inches from theirs. You never saw that coming.

Actually, there was a time when cinema audiences were scared to death by that now much over-used technique. The double-take was first used by director David Lean in his version of Great Expectations (1946). It was used to introduce Pip to Magwitch, and, famously, to introduce Magwitch to the audience. It worked brilliantly. So much so, less original directors still use it

Murderous psychopaths belong to no-one – they can’t be copyrighted, so there is no quality control in place. The same is true of all types of horror villain and monster. If you get lucky, you watch or read something that catches the attention because it breaks the normal way of telling that story or presenting those characters.

Richard Matheson’s Vampire novel, I am legend (1954) has a protagonist who is considered a terrorist – an outcast, because he is in a minority (a minority of one, as it happens) and the rest of the population of Los Angeles is a blood-sucker. The novel offers the theory that vampires are the next evolutionary step for mankind. This is better than presenting them as Satan’s disciples on earth, who avoid garlic and drink virgins’ blood. That version of vampires has been overdone.

But then vampires are the one of the most popular horror novel or movie creatures; it is not surprising there is so much pap printed on paper and celluloid about the fictional blood-suckers; but, there are writers who offer an intriguing and original take on this type of story.

Anne Rice is one of them. Her novel, Interview with the vampire, (1976) was a best-seller, and the first of eleven novels collectively known as The Vampire Chronicles. The series tells of the adventures of Lestat De Lioncourt, a French aristocrat and actor, who was kidnapped and turned into a vampire in 17th Century Paris.

Lestat is posh but penniless. He ventures into the big city with Nicholas, his companion to expand their horizons and make their fortune. Nicholas, a talented violinist, takes work in the orchestra pit of a theatre while Lestat, ever the show off, treads the boards. Life is perfect. They take-in the sumptuous city: the people; the wine; the food – they indulge their passions, but Lestat becomes un-easy at the sight of a curious white face in the audience each night. Someone is stalking him.

Rice offers a mix of Dickens blended with Dorian Gray. There is the overpopulated metropolis with the detritus-ridden underbelly, and slopping about upon its surface are the beautiful people; drowning in decadence and drunk on wine and passion.

Lestat, for all his foppish, Wildean extravagance, has a killer’s blood pumping through his veins. Before eloping to Paris, he killed a pack of wolves that had been slaughtering people from his home village. On horseback, with his beloved Mastiffs by his side, he hunted and killed them. Doing so cost him his horse and his dogs, but the starving villagers and their cattle had a chance to make it through a cruel winter. He was a hero, but the folly of setting off alone demonstrated his maverick side. It is that – along with his physical beauty – that captures the attention of Magnus, the vampire with the ghostly white face who has been stalking him.

It is here that Rice begins to deviate from the norm as far as tradition and popularity in vampire stories go. Vampires in her world are capable of love and passion, they are capable of guilt and sadness – they are monsters, they are un-dead – but why should that mean they must be mindless demons, automatically slaying any human they spot? Rice’s vampires choose how they behave. Too many times in horror fiction vampires are portrayed as being enslaved by the insatiable thirst for blood; they kill because of it. It’s their addiction and their food. Not so with Anne Rice.

The thirst is nothing more than a demonic craving, leading to madness if not slacked, but not required for continued existence. Her monsters are a human / spirit hybrid; the spirit element craves the blood, but the human side – the physical body – no longer requires nourishment. As her vampires age, slowly the thirst subsides until the ancient ones, those at least a thousand years old, no longer need it at all. And with age comes ever increasing powers.

Magnus is one of the ancient ones. He chooses Lestat as his heir after murdering hundreds of similar looking victims. Lestat has the perfect balance of beauty and aggression and Magnus, after taunting him in his dreams – calling him wolf-killer – takes him to his lair and turns him, and does so, much against Lestat’s will.

Rice’s hero continues his life, but as a vampire. He still visits his favourite places and enjoys the culture of the time. He is frequently found in the theatres, cafes and strolling along the banks of the Seine. The circumstances of his existence have changed, but his tastes, and his entire thinking mind, have not. It makes her characters far more engaging than the one-track-mind demons that meander from one virgin neck to another. It also demonstrates Rice’s skill as an author. A lead character needs to elicit sympathy from the readers of a novel or the audience of a movie. Rice’s Lestat is a mass murderer, and she still makes him engaging and sympathetic.

Play it straight and tell the truth, that is the safest way. It is too easy to make a murderer lose credibility by getting carried away with the killer’s dark side. Even a murderer has a sense of humour. John Jarret played it this way in Wolf Creek, but he’s not the only one to get the portrayal of a killer spot-on.

Harrison Ford did a similarly grand job in What lies Beneath (2000). He gives, possibly, his best performance as Dr. Norman Spencer, an academic who puts his research first. In one scene, Ford’s character is explaining to his wife how her death will bring him and her daughter closer together. It is clear he means it; he will look after his step-daughter, and provide the very best for her. As he explains this to his wife, he is filling the bath to drown her. It is the incongruity written into the scene, topped off with Ford’s delivery that gives the scene its power. Even allowing for Dr. Spencer’s insanity, he never once comes across as dangerous. He is a graceful monster. And where is it written that madness has to be dangerous? Who decided insanity must lead to murder?

One film comes to mind with a lead character so psychologically damaged that it is remarkable not a single member of the cast gets slaughtered; a movie with the most deranged protagonist: The King of Comedy (1983) is that film.

Robert de Niro plays the psychopath, Rupert Pupkin, a stand-up comedian with delusions (literally) of grandeur. It is one of the most disturbing movies I have seen. Not a single murder, hardly any violence, yet the impression left by this film lasts long in the mind. It is very uncomfortable viewing. It proves dead bodies and gore will always come second to a quality script and decent actors in the race to disturb an audience. To creep under the radar requires no trickery. It requires you pick the lock of their critical shields and slip inside using truth. This is why gore-sodden celluloid like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) will make an audience squirm, will make them jump, but will never get access to the place where humans are truly vulnerable.  Movies such as Saw and Hostel – and many others, of course – will try and batter their way in using boring tricks and double-takes.

Those blades are blunt.

It’s Hip to be Square

Let’s get one thing clear, American Psycho is a comedy. That needs to be understood before you read it. It’s a comedy about yuppies and how empty-headed and shallow they are: it’s about how far too much money and far too little imagination can cause you to begin to shrink your world, until you live in such a self indulgent cocoon, you cannot even spot the raving, murdering lunatic in your midst. That is what Easton-Ellis is telling us: yes, yuppies are that shallow.

This is a well-constructed work because it causes the reader to suffer from the same syndrome that grips the minds of most of its characters – only in reverse.

We have the self-obsessed city-boys, interested in the correct clothing labels and getting reservations at the right restaurant, and us, the readers, obsessing over the violent scenes of rape and murder, and – both us and them – missing the point entirely. The violence and murder are simply incidental to the plot, they are not the point. They serve the same purpose as a piece of misdirection performed by an illusionist. Just as you look the wrong way, the conjurer pulls a stroke.

Patrick Bateman is as hilarious as he is twisted: a perfectly tanned, toned and attired Metro-Sexual killing machine, drowning with pleasure in the very selfish excess that he despises, and yet must conform to the rules of. He maintains the required trophy girlfriend and adheres religiously to the latest men’s fashion, has membership of the most exclusive fitness club, styles his hair with a surgeon’s precision and forces rats into the vaginas of his victims.

There’s no accounting for taste.

His circle of co-accused are just as lacking in any sort of meaningful mental programming, treating the New York they live in as one huge private boys’ club, with membership relying on ticking certain financial and fashion based boxes on an ongoing basis. Most of the men in this work are successful, rich and stupid, and that is the point. A second point – which feeds the previous one – is that they never step out of the world in which they consume space, therefore never catch a glimpse of their own vulgarity, and, consequently, are unable to change for the better or want to. They are the small, obnoxious building blocks, whom together, make the impenetrable wall of arrogance and snobbery that protects their false, built-on-sand world.

Even between themselves, in packs of their own kind, these men are only half aware of each other. Do they even know who each other really is? They all have adopted the habit of addressing each other by their surnames, at least a large majority of the time. This is not so worrying until a particular character is introduced, and he starts referring to Bateman by the wrong surname. Why should this be worrying? Because Bateman responds to the surname as if it were correct, unable, due to the particular etiquette at work in their society, to offer a correction. This small, comical component offers to the reader some very disturbing questions about – if you will – the depths of their shallowness. When Bateman addresses an acquaintance, does he use the correct name himself? Are they just humouring him, shackled by the same etiquette? Is any of the group of friends Bateman surrounds himself with the people he thinks they are?

This question is thrust at the reader, when after killing Paul Allen, a man he has been obsessing over for sometime, Bateman learns that the same man has been seen in a restaurant in London. This is a confirmed sighting because Bateman is told by his victim’s dinner guest. So who on earth has he killed?

This particularly gruesome murder offers Easton-Ellis the chance to have another subtle kick at the world he is ripping to pieces. The killing happens in Allen’s own plush apartment. Upon returning to clean up the mess, Bateman – armed with a surgical mask to cope with the smell – has a brief conversation with a real estate agent who is re-selling the expensive property. The agent spots the surgical mask, and Bateman spots the mysteriously clean apartment. Their brief exchange involves the agent saying she doesn’t want any trouble and that Bateman should just go. So he does, walking away from the scene of his crime utterly bewildered, his fragile mind ever more confused.

It is exchanges like this that allow us to wonder if Bateman has actually been created by the world he lives in. Is the “greed is good” culture causing his psychosis? What could happen to a person’s view of what’s acceptable, when that person lives in world which lacks substance and any shred of morality; a world where even murders can be cleaned up if there’s a possibility of profit? Is Bateman the ultimate avenger for the self-indulgence of the slick-haired city boys and their air-head women? It’s possible, though I believe that Easton-Ellis lets Bateman loose on this world because he simply thinks they deserve it.

It was people of this kind that Brett Easton-Ellis was mixing with during the second half of the Eighties; he saw their world from the inside, the celebrity and credibility of being a writer allowing him rare access. He has stated that the time spent mixing with New York’s yuppie elite convinced him that they were the sort of people he would hate to be like; though they certainly left a lasting impression on the man, and this work demonstrates that impression.

He didn’t like them much.

I said this book is a comedy, and so it is. Consider this scene. Finally snapping and deciding to kill a chap whose attentions our psycho is sick of, he strides into the men’s room to confront his intended victim, his black-gloved hands ready to strangle the life out of this irritating man. As Bateman’s hands grip the man’s throat, the victim starts to smile, feeling the first stirrings of sexual desire. The victim is secretly gay (and must enjoy his own dark pleasures behind closed doors, it’s implied, if strangulation turns him on), and Bateman’s hands gripping his throat confirm Bateman must be as well. At last, the façade is dropped, now they can be together!

The comedy runs throughout this book. A urinal cake, taken from a men’s room, coated in chocolate, and then offered as a present, provides hilarity as the trophy girlfriend attempts to eat it. Bateman dropping his veil of normality and telling people directly what violent acts he’d love to perform on them (no-one really listens to each other, so he gets away with it), whilst the empty heads just nod along, paying no attention. Yeah, yeah, man. Sounds good, let’s touch base, oblivious that Bateman is telling them he wants to dig out their eyes.

The laughs are there, just so long as you don’t allow yourself to be tricked into paying too much attention to the violence. There’s plenty of it, and most is incredibly graphic, but it’s there to catch your eye – to keep you from the seeing reality: just like the soulless drones that populate the book can’t see it either. They’re too busy obsessing about designer labels to be able to.

Conscience or Country: Pink Gins and the Long Game

 

Philip Knightley: Philby: KGB Master Spy

Miranda Carter: Anthony Blunt: His Lives

Ben Macintyre: Philby: A Spy Among friends

Kim Philby: My Silent War

 

One would have hoped that all branches of the British war effort against the Nazis would have been tightly organised and facing their respective fronts against Hitler effectively. If the elderly and patriotic could keep watch on rooftops each night for German planes the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – otherwise and incorrectly known as MI6 – should have been able to manage a little order and focus within its ranks.

Incredible to learn that the SIS during the war years, was an exclusive gents’ club: the members of which had a penchant for pink-gins and long lunches at White’s. That any serious work was done seems an afterthought to justify the salary, and the salary – for Philby at least – was hit upon over a hand-shake and a wink. Six hundred a year and no bother from those chaps at the inland revenue. Got the gist, old-boy?

In short, the ‘service’ was a shambles: no ranking structure in place as such, no recognised pay-grades and no pension arrangements for retiring officers. This was not rectified until after the war, and Philby played his part in drawing up the new structure, but during the first half of the forties, planning and resources were not up to scratch.

Philby’s first posting was to a training school – newly formed – to teach hand-picked recruits in counter-espionage. Things were far from perfect. One horrific tale involves an agent, fresh out of training, being parachuted into territory over mainland Europe. His gear, quite inexplicably, became entangled in the plane’s undercarriage and he was ‘hurtled along, at mercifully high speed, into unconsciousness and death’.

What a way to go.

The most memorable tale from this period is also the most amusing. The Luftwaffe, for reasons best known to them, dropped a landmine over London and let it float slowly to the ground attached to a parachute. This was seen descending by Philby and his comrade, Guy Burgess. After cooking up a little mischief, Burgess called SIS and spoke to the duty officer, a chap busy fielding telegrams from stations all over the world. The hapless officer was told many parachutes were seen – ‘between eighty and none’ – and the necessary calls better be made swiftly. A reserve force stationed in East Anglia was mobilised on the strength of this jape.

Philby was an officer in – not just for – Soviet Intelligence for seven years before he was recruited into the SIS. He was a straightforward penetration agent from the beginning. One early adventure for the Soviets was spent in Spain working with Franco’s forces as a journalist for the London Times. This was a wash-job, insisted upon by the NKVD, to cleanse his name of the leftist allegiances he had made at Cambridge. It worked – or rather Philby worked it splendidly – because Franco himself gave Philby the ‘Medal of Merit’ for his right-wing efforts. By the time he was offered his six hundred a year, he had plenty of hours under his belt in deep-cover work.

With the end of the war came the re-structuring and recruitment. Occasionally, though, there was a morsel of something interesting to engage the brain. Called into the chief’s office and handed a file of papers, Philby was asked to read through and see what he made of it. It was almost the end of him.

Konstantin Volkov, a jittery fellow looking to defect to the West from Istanbul, had told our man in Turkey a few titbits to wet the British appetite. One little detail was the confirmation of three agents deep in the British establishment: two in the Foreign Office, the other, a senior of counter-espionage in the SIS – Philby himself!

He wrangled it to go to Turkey to interview this fellow, but before Philby got to him – something he had been delaying for obvious reasons – Mr Volkov was urgently spirited away back to Moscow. Neither Volkov or his wife were heard of again, and were removed from the stream of history. One can imagine Volkov and his wife begging to die.

Philby was a fanatic.

A few years abroad, not much more than mischief-making, were followed by a posting to Washington DC to forge closer ties between the SIS, CIA and FBI. One can only imagine the glee with which a master of his art approached a few years in the US while the country was in its paranoid McCarthy phase. Philby had coached a group of yanks who had come over during the war to learn the trade, and one of these chaps was James Jesus Angleton, a man who was to head the CIA later and was Philby’s friend. (Philby’s treachery sent old JJ half mad later in life.)

One may be forgiven for assuming that J. Edgar Hoover and McCarthy would have been on good and close terms, being as they were both obsessed with communists; but Hoover, at his first meeting with Philby, when asked directly what he thought of the Senator’s credentials, replied: ‘Well, I often meet Joe at the race-track, but he has never given me a winner yet.’ I am still wondering which is more surprising: that McCarthy was useless, or that Hoover could use metaphor to impart this knowledge to Philby.

Perhaps it is directly connected to the Americans’ surplus of money and men that incompetence and poor thinking about the enemy are imbedded into the DNA of the US hierarchies charged with finding their enemies? Whatever the answer, some amazingly poor thinking infected the Whitehouse as well. The Rosenbergs were caught, eventually, by leads uncovered by the SIS in Washington. Of this case, Philby mentions Eisenhower revealing his total ignorance of espionage:

It is worth mentioning that Esienhower explained his refusal to reprieve Ethel Rosenberg on the grounds that, if he did, the Russians in future would use only women spies. It was an attitude worthy of the most pedestrian of United States’ presidents.

It is frightening that a US president could believe that. Did he not have any advisers to put him straight before he went public with that stupid assertion?

Philby continued his work for and against Communism, eventually inviting Guy Burgess to stay with him after the latter’s posting to the US. It was here they both were forced to cook-up the plan to save their comrade, Donald Maclean.

Maclean was under surveillance and could not approach his Soviet handler for this reason. He was also in London; his two comrades, far away in the US capital, needed to get him to safety. Philby could not simply jet back to Britain, it would have looked too out of place; but Burgess, if he could get posted back to London, could use his own soviet contact to help Maclean. Within days Burges was pulled over for numerous speeding offences, much to the displeasure of his station and their American hosts, and sent packing back to London. The plan worked and Burges and Maclean did their famous midnight-flit. Burges wasn’t meant to go with Maclean. All knew he had lived with Philby in Washington, so that put him under immediate suspicion.

Philby was called back to London for interrogation, but no decent evidence existed against him. He was interrogated several times and gave nothing away. Eventually he resigned but was called back into service and spent time in Beirut before he was forced to make the trip home to Moscow. Possibly it was Anthony Blunt – at that time the unknown ‘fourth man’ – who tipped him off. However it seems more likely that Nicholas Elliot, a career MI6 man and friend of Kim’s, deliberately made it easy for Philby to defect from Beirut. A trial would have been a messy embarrassment: Philby had been publicly exonerated some years before, and the nod had come from the top, so having him up on charges would have been worse than having him turn up in Moscow.

Damage limitation, old-boy.

It is interesting that British spies fled to Russia only after being compromised; and did so to avoid prison terms of decades. Although the motivations of all are worth considering: the motivations of the British especially.

The question which many characters asked themselves – and this was especially true of Angleton and Elliot – was how did Philby manage to deceive so many for so long? This is a masochistic question. It can easily lead to a person’s psyche eating itself as it replays the past looking for clues, finding none, and ends with the person concluding they are lacking somehow or that Philby was some sort of genius. Philby was not a genius. Stories about his ‘charming character’, and how this helped to fool people is probably a sort of romantic excuse making for the inherent stupidity of the system which gave him a job and mindset of those within it. His deception was successful partly because the ‘establishment’ did a large part of the job for him. The old-boy network had a childish naïveté running through it. The belief that a man from the correct background was automatically a ‘good chap’ is an article of religious faith. One can only despair at Philby’s vetting. He was recruited into the SIS because the head pinstripe, Valentine Vivian, knew Philby’s people. It’s almost unbelievable that the security of the country was maintained in this way. That he was a communist at Cambridge and a soviet agent in Austria and Spain, and that he married that communist sex-pot, Litzi Friedman, should have raised an eyebrow somewhere in London’s clubland. That old Kim wasn’t filtered out before he got in is religious faith in action. This is the first reason Philby was successful. The second was his extraordinary good luck in not being exposed by a defector from the other side. The Volkov incident seems to be the only time this came close to happening. The stress must have been enormous, and it’s no surprise he was a boozer. No, the impressive thing about Philby is not the deception, it’s that he held his nerve.

To call Philby a fanatic is probably correct, and it’s the defectors who would have used his name as their buy-in to the West which suggests he was a fanatic. There was a reason they wanted out, and the Soviet spies risked their lives to pass their information to the West, while the likes of the Cambridge spies risked only prison and disgrace. The risk was unequal. The choice, between the West and the Soviet state, wasn’t simply a choice between two ideologies, where everything was a matter of taste, there were objective differences. Stalin’s regime was objectively wicked. It tortured and starved and murdered. It was an evil regime. The British and American governments, though hardly perfect or without blame in the world, ran things more generously for their citizens. Philby’s claim that he could support the ideal while not supporting the regime might be logical – such a thing is quite possible for a mind to do – but only a fanatic would help the regime. Philby could have looked at Stalin’s doings, and decided to keep Britain’s secrets to himself until a more realistic communist regime came on the scene. That he chose not to suggests he really wasn’t messing about. (Unlike Blunt, say, who seems to have been a Marxist and a spy because it was intellectually fashionable at the time.)

The Cambridge spies are called ‘traitors’ but one could argue it’s only really Blunt who deserves that title. Philby certainly doesn’t, and the argument why not is perfectly simple. It’s fair to say that, to label someone a traitor, they must have switched sides. That is hardly controversial, and actually seems to be necessary to avoid the disgusting idea of ‘automatic loyalty’ to a country or state, which is a servile idea and one to be avoided. One cannot claim that Philby switched sides because he was never on ‘our’ side to begin with. Even if many of the claims in his memoir are to be doubted, the claim he was a penetration agent from the beginning is obviously true given his doings before joining the SIS. The ‘establishment’ call him a traitor, and it’s that establishment he made look stupendously idiotic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philip Knightley: Philby: KGB Master Spy

Miranda Carter: Anthony Blunt: His Lives

Ben Macintyre: Philby: A Spy Among friends

Kim Philby: My Silent War

A Ragged Review and an American Beauty

In the late 1980s Thames television made a documentary about a young chef whose restaurant – ‘Harvey’s’ –  in Wandsworth, London – was considered one of the best in the country. The head chef, Marco Pierre White, was only in his twenties but considered a genius. The man’s philosophy was simple: less really is more; let your ingredients speak for themselves and don’t clutter up your plate trying to be clever. One dish demonstrated this philosophy perfectly. His ‘panache of foie gras with pan fried sea scallops and carrots’ was exactly what it claimed to be – just three ingredients.

Restraint requires confidence.

If The Rag were served to me on a plate then I could believe that the chef really knew what he was doing, for The Rag has but three ingredients: prose, poetry and art.

Issue 5 – Winter/Spring 2013 comes with a cover featuring a bloodied rendition of Carlos the Jackal: the blood around the mouth suggestive of his taste for it – though there’s more going on inside his head if you look closely. In another picture there is a human figure, cuddling a rabbit, though the figure is sporting a wolf’s head; another human figure, this time with a cheetah’s head, is doing the same.

The notion that a human has, perhaps, his savagery restrained by societal expectations, while just under the respectable surface there is lust, blood-lust and a truly carnivorous sexual desire, is one which could well be suggested here; though perhaps such an interpretation is too close to the surface meaning of those mentioned images to have much worth.

There is no fuss to this magazine – no unnecessary garnish. After Carlos’s cover, there’s a contents and credits page, then we are into the work – the main ingredients.

The first bite offered is a story, Momemto Mori, written by Stefanie Demas, and if the first bite seduces the taste buds, then one knows the dish is right. So what can one say about Memento Mori?

It is a remarkable piece of work. The narrator is a complicated creation. Innocent, charming – and therefore probably friendly; intelligent, intuitive and utterly, hopelessly – yet beautifully – deranged.

Our narrator is driving to a funeral home to steal a body and spirit it away to secluded spot for sex. However, grim and ghoulish this is not. And it is that which makes the story so wonderful. It must be no easy task to have a narrator describe sexual feelings towards corpses and have that narrator sound quite so reasonable.

‘I was five years old when I remember seeing death for the first time,’ we’re told. ‘I knew even then I was interested.’

We’re given a scene in which the young narrator watches a bird hop about before being set upon and quickly killed by a cat, and this sight captivates her and there begins a healthy interest in death.

The narrator seems to have rare access to those considerations of beauty reserved for the high-brow and the aesthete, but with reservations:

‘I will not say that it was beautiful. Beautiful wouldn’t be the wrong word, necessarily, but it would give you the wrong idea about me.’

Could that wrong idea be the notion that our narrator’s interest is purely aesthetic? That could be the case because her interest is definitely physical. Here we have a synthesis, a merger between the low and the high, the closed-eye humming to classical music while the fingers get sticky.

Death, to this narrator, however, is more than an aphrodisiac.

When considering a corpse one might see the sinking of the cheeks or the new prominence of the bones as the signs of a person transforming into a cadaver – the new physical status: the first stage on a journey which sees a person’s atoms return to the universe.

‘I could see that his shoulder blades had begun to form themselves into wings.’

In that we have the aesthetic, the optimistic and the deranged – all brought together in a simple, beautiful line.

I don’t much care if this is an example of Demas showing her own art through her character, or – as a student of Stanislavsky could appreciate – a form of method-writing, either way it is beautiful. Death: the invisible chrysalis.

Of course, ultimately, there is no hope for this narrator. No reader could sympathise with one who harbours such exotic tastes, so removed as they are from regular experience. Such people are disturbed. Or are they?

Consider the following:

‘What about the widow who kisses her husband’s waxy face, clenches his frigid hands, as he lies in his cushioned box? How do we define that kiss, those touches? As love. As nothing unusual. And never, never would we call it by that name. How can we name-call and persecute when the distinctions are so shaky?’

This is clever because it sounds exactly like a person who has thought about their tastes and wondered what they might say under questioning. What we have here is the tip of a philosophical iceberg, a logical argument. And who can argue with the logic? Step by logical step we can unravel the argument for ourselves. Doing this leaves us unsettled because we are forced to answer a new formulation of ‘the paradox of the heap’ – and who can answer that?

It is some feat of creativity to have a narrator who is a rarefied aesthete; gentle; logical; and also one we can sympathise with. Yes, this is a caring narrator. The evidence is in the prose.

While driving to her final destination, her cargo stowed in the back of a stolen hearse, our narrator is passed by trucks on the highway:

‘The trucks sounded like whales as we passed them in the night. With the radio off, we could hear that their deep rumbles were accompanied by low, mournful cries – a searching call through the dark ocean expanse. My heart wanted to break for those trucks, my eyes wanted to cry for them. Whom had they lost? Whom did they need to find?’

What skill, yet again, it takes to synthesise the sympathetic with the gently deranged. One wants to kiss the narrator on the cheek, to stroke her hair. How could anyone have anything but affection for such a kindly soul?

Before reading this story I was reading Mailer’s Fire on The Moon; today I have just started Philip Knightley’s biography of Kim Philby, and after that I have the collected works of Nathanael West. But now my reading is disturbed. Now I want more from Stafanie Demas. I want more from this American Beauty.

And what skill it takes the editors of this magazine to select ingredients such as these and to let those ingredients speak for themselves.

I’ve given The Rag five stars.

Michelin would have given them three.

Sexcrime

I have made two attempts to read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, succeeding on the second attempt. I gave up the first time (about a third of the way in) because there was ‘something’ wrong with the book, though I could not identify it. About half way through, on the second attempt, I realised what the problem was and identifying it brought a thought about what is wrong with Orwell’s 1984. The problems with these books are different, though caused by the same thing and I will explain what that is.

The Communist Manifesto calls for the abolition of the family. The communists want this because the family fashions bonds which are stronger than patriotism; and traditional, life-long heterosexual marriage is the sealing bond which keeps the family together. A communist state cannot have its subjects living like this because their first loyalty will not be to it, but to each other. This will never do. But a stroke of a bureaucratic-pen cannot abolish the family, as the manifesto demands. No matter how great the state apparatus is, abolishing the family can only happen in slow-motion, and it takes decades.

The first way to start the slow-motion change is to introduce sex ‘education’. Sex education was the idea of a man called George Lukacs. He was an education commissar during the Hungarian revolution. The point was to debauch the minds of children who were religiously brought up. That is why sex education exists. Do not swallow the pathetic and weak excuse about preventing unwanted pregnancy; the truth of sex education is the other way about.

Huxley made sex one of the key ways in which persons are conditioned in Brave New World. Babies and small children are encouraged to indulge in ‘erotic play’ and learn that sexual promiscuity is natural and normal. The exact opposite is true of 1984, in which females are coerced into the ‘anti-sex league’ and chant enthusiastically for the abolition of the orgasm.

Huxley understands that sex leads to children and that means continuing the existence of the family. He sorts this by having humans not born, but decanted, and this further allows the state controllers to tinker with the growing humans to determine their intelligence and class and so on.

Orwell’s proletariat simply live under tyranny and ludicrous intrusion into their lives by the big-brother bureaucracy; and, remember, the thought-police kick the doors in when Winston and Julia are together. No illicit love-making permitted in Airstrip One.

The methods of the two tyrannies are exact opposites of each other, in other words. The thought-police will torture and batter you with clubs, but the authorities of Huxley’s book play soothing sounds from loud-speakers and spray the rioting crowds with soma to deal with mass disorder.

I don’t think Orwell missed the connection between totalitarianism and the destruction of the family by encouraging sexual-freedom, but he was pushing the bureaucratic tyranny to it utmost, and that meant that sexual conduct had to be monitored and controlled, along with everything else.

I am unsure which regime is worse. Orwell’s slaves do not resist because they dare not – the power of the state is total; but Huxley’s slaves do not realise they are slaves to begin with. Both societies are horrid in different ways but for the same reasons, arrived at by different methods. And both writers make a mistake (in terms of story telling) which makes their societies less awful than they might have been.

Orwell’s mistake is to make his society a circle, not a pyramid. There is nobody at the top, living in luxury while the lower orders suffer. It is such a vast state-machine that it seems to function for its own sake; but there needs to be a hierarchy, a pecking order, because it is that which keeps those closest to the top loyal. They are waiting for their turn in the chair, and each person, on each rung, is doing the same, waiting to move up one place. That is how a hierarchy works. Orwell is honest enough to follow his logic and take things right to the edge, but in pushing it so far he reduces the horror slightly. The world of Winston Smith would have been worse if there had been man at the top, keeping power and devising ever more twisted ways of keeping it.

Huxley does the same thing, follows his start-point to its logical conclusion and reduces the purity of the soft-horror he envisioned. Some call Huxley’s book a utopia, or a negative utopia. You can call it whatever you like but it may not be called a dystopia; and it may not be called a dystopia for the very reasons Huxley tried to make it one: The abolition of the family.

Without love and loss, without heartbreak there can be no human tragedy. If everyone belongs to everyone, and can take whoever they like as a sexual partner whenever they fancy it, then no-one is special, no one is loved, and without those things, when persons have no family or emotional ties, there is no horror because there is no loss. Without horror there can be no dystopia.

Huxley, like Orwell, honestly followed his thinking to its conclusion and the book is certainly worth it for that reason, but the Alphas in Brave New World don’t have much to complain about it seems to me. The book is neither a dystopia or utopia, it is a work of social and science fiction theory.

Both could have been more horrific than they are; that they are not shows the authors were dealing first in testing ideas (and remorselessly driving those ideas forward until they ran out of road) and were writing fiction second, not for its own sake but as the medium of delivery for their thought experiments.

Scooby Dooby Don’t

There will always be some humans who say they have ‘the right’ to take drugs. Perhaps they do. Perhaps they don’t. Which is it? One thing is certain, when a person claims ‘It’s my body, I can do what I like with it,’ there is a flaw in their reasoning.

Does the argument change when a person believes that they do not ‘have’ a body, rather they ‘are’ a body? Listening to some, it is clear the belief in the illusive ‘I’ is alive and well, and why not? The foregoing, when considered at length, can bring a chilly realisation…

One can see, straightaway, there will be (or should be) several other persons involved in our lives who would wish it that we take care of the body we have or are. My aunt is rapidly dying from lung-cancer and I would prefer that not to be the case.

If drug-taking is wrong, what makes it wrong? This is easier to answer if the drugs taken are illegal. One could find sanctuary within the walls of the law. But that’s far too easy, and dangerous. Who wants to be left holding the logic which states if something is legal it is morally right? Not me, thank you. Then again, who wants to argue drinking caffeine is morally wrong?

I am happy to be corrected here, though I remember reading that, on a chemical level, nicotine breaks down caffeine and a person recently free from cigarettes should also cut their coffee intake because without nicotine, the caffeine has a greater affect on their brains.

The affect might be greater irritability, insomnia or restless sleep – the affects of caffeine are well known, yet their affects are not considered a moral problem. Why not? Caffeine, the common name for trimethylxanthine, is a drug, a chemical a person freely ingests which has affects upon their brains they might not experience if they didn’t take it, yet it gets a free pass from any moral questioning.

That free pass could be because of the affects themselves. Ingest enough C8H10N4O2 and you might be less calm, but unlikely to be up for a spot of the old ultra-violence because of the mixture of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen you just ingested. We all consume chemicals which are unnecessary for survival, so if taking illegal drugs is wrong, I doubt it’s wrong because they’re illegal; taking them is wrong because of their affects and it’s the affects which make them illegal. It’s a small point, but it’s one which filters coffee and cola out of an argument they should not be in to begin with.

The moral questions come about, Peter Hitchens writes, when the affects of the drugs taken stupefy the taker into incoherence or dangerous behaviour they would not otherwise indulge in. This argument tends to bring up the question of alcohol. If booze is legal and is the cause of sickness, murder and other kinds of death – then why should certain drugs, especially cannabis, remain illegal?

Hitchens devotes chapter seven to this question, ‘What about alcohol and tobacco, then?’  He points out that this question is one of the key parts of the debate and states (with dry humour)

‘Once a substance is legalised, it is extremely difficult to declare that it is illegal. That is why we should be so careful about legalising cannabis and other currently illegal drugs. If this turns out to be a mistake, it will not be easily put right.’

Who says Hitchens has no sense of humour? He obviously does. Next he’ll be telling us that ‘alcohol, taken in sufficient quantities, has been known to produce all the effects of drunkenness.’

It is to his credit that he uses humour this way. It might be a sign his arguments are so obviously sound that he can afford to inject a little humour here and there. A person could be forgiven for expecting a sermon or a bossy lecture from the chap. No doubt Hitchens is capable of that, but he doesn’t do it in this book.

There are other examples of his dry humour. On the question that a person has the right to do what they want to the body they either have or are, because doing so is a fundamental freedom, closely allied with freedom of speech and freedom of thought, he states

‘I realise that in our secular society, an appeal to the authority of Mount Sinai or the Holy Trinity is not likely to be decisive.’

Superb. He continues from humour to seriousness

‘It is perhaps hard to see how anyone who valued either speech or thought should wish to spread the use of a drug that fuddles thought and makes speech halting and incoherent, but it is so.’

That is a fair example of the book’s tone or style. You get simple, logical arguments, offered using plain English as their delivery system. Splendid.

Another example, after quoting several cases of cannabis users committing violent or mindless crimes – and to refute the idea that the drug ‘chills out’ (my phrase) its users, he says

‘I am making no claim here beyond these modest points: if cannabis is a peace-promoting drug then its effects are not always evident in its users.’

Well, quite. My eldest son has been far too fond of cannabis for some years and his behaviour when smoking the stuff is upsetting. He can be obnoxious, paranoid, needlessly argumentative, downright abusive and sometimes violent. During the periods he doesn’t smoke the garbage his behaviour is significantly different. Nothing else he ingests seems to have this effect on him. Without the example of my eldest son I might well shrug my shoulders and fall-in with the crowd who make the ‘what about alcohol?’ point, but I cannot. And I know my son’s mother has, many times, been anxious that he stop smoking it. My interest is declared.

I have never been fond of this country’s political class, at any level, from Westminster to ‘my’ local councillors. It is my belief they are – all of them – entitled to no privacy whatsoever and every aspect of their lives is a legitimate target for public scrutiny and press intrusion.

I should like to know what they do, where they do it and with whom, and how much of my money they spend doing it. (I have a good friend, a psychiatric nurse based in Cardiff, who told me he and his colleagues had been out on the town, more than once, on ward funds. Another friend, a finance officer in a school told me that, many times, school funds had been used to throw leaving parties for teachers and to buy presents for them and so on. Hardly is this Watergate, but it is significantly irritating.) Yet those politicians who are (possibly) not corrupt in that sense – don’t feather their own nests – but ‘tinker’ with the laws and carry out their social experiments on the rest of us, are perhaps worse than the politician who rakes off a few quid. Some of the characters within Hitchens’s pages – and not all of them politicians – are guilty of poisoning society in a sense. They might not have meant to do it, yet that says nothing about what they actually did do. You’ll have to read the book yourself.

The next time (if there is a next time because he seems to have sorted his life out at the moment) my eldest son punches holes in a bedroom door while his younger brother and sister are watching, I might invoice Paul Mcartney for the repair.

Not a Psychopath

Somebody today suggested that Stalin was a psychopath, and that’s why he did the things he did, and was able to get to the top of the hierarchy to begin with. I was discussing the power of ideological absolutism on the mind as compared to the condition of being a psychopath with a person.

Which person would be the most dangerous – the absolutist or the psycho?

There’s one factor in the murder of millions by Stalin which doesn’t always get a fair hearing, and that might be because it’s a point which suggests that humans generally – just being the creatures that we are – are not all that nice in terms of our basic natures, which suggests we are no better than the Bolshies on Stalin’s committees.

This point is this: bureaucracy brings out the inner sadist in a person.

It allows them to hide behind the organisation, and our more base natures get an airing in a way which might not happen if we were named and accountable publicly.

This means mass murder by memo under Stalin, or vindictive orders and strange rules about this and that by local councils: it’s the humans inside the machine expressing their true characters, and perhaps getting a little fluttering of power in the belly as they do it.

This, considered with the results of Milgram’s experiments (read his book about these famous experiments, ‘Obedience to Authority’, and suddenly the ‘Nuremburg defence’ makes more sense than is comfortable) suggests that ordinary persons – just regular guys and gals doing regular jobs – could easily turn sadistic, vicious and downright murderous quickly and easily if they are allowed to.

Note the word ‘allowed.’

All this garbage about Stalin and Hitler’s people being ‘evil’ is how we try to pretend that they were somehow less than human because we don’t want them to be the same as us. We pretend they were ‘monstors’ because we can’t face the truth that they were just like us.

Or maybe that, under different circumstances, we’d be just like them…

https://i2.wp.com/saravanan.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Psychopaths.png

 

These Barbarous Wretches

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2362695/PETER-HITCHENS-Would-surprised-learn-I-fund-Labour-Well-I–you.html

Peter Hitchens and the Death Penalty

 

…satisfy your blood lust, and tell yourself you were good to the victim because blood atonement remitted the sin. You gave the fellow a chance to get to the hereafter, after all. This business of living for eternity certainly contributed to capital punishment, brutality and war.

 

  • Norman Mailer

 

 

I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbued their hands in so much innocent blood and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds for such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret.

 

  • Oliver Cromwell

 

 

1

Get the Gush Gone

A good title should have a sense of humour. I got into (yet another) discussion on the death penalty with a couple of persons on Peter Hitchens’s blogsite recently. It can be frustrating trying to have a discussion there. Mr Hitchens has said the arguments against the death penalty are an insult to the intelligence. I’m not sure if even he believes this, but who knows. I am opposed to the religious human sacrifice which some refer to as ‘the death penalty,’ though I think it is a fascinating topic to discuss, and significantly more complicated than many persons think it is.

One reason I’m so interested in the discussion is that the ‘death penalty’ is the first topic on which I wrote myself to a change of mind. I used to be all for it. I’m not a professional or trained writer, and had no idea that the process of writing – the actual physical process – could act like a sort of ‘hypnosis,’ and if done enough, a person might find his subconscious telling him things he didn’t know he knew and giving him thoughts he didn’t know were there. It’s a wonderful experience to be writing away, tapping the keys and transcribing the thoughts flowing up from below, and to realise that you are actually changing your own mind on something. (It’s odd to think of myself as a card-carrying member of the ‘hang ‘em high’ club, when all the time I actually thought the opposite to what I thought I thought.)

When such moments happen, a person has a choice: he can reject what his own psyche is telling him – perhaps because he ‘identifies’ with his position on whatever the topic is, or he can take a deep breath and keep going into unknown psychological territory. I say ‘take a deep breath’ because we do tend to like our beliefs and dislike it when somebody challenges them, so when it is us doing the challenging, it actually takes a small amount of bravery to continue tapping the keys.

Peter Hitchens supports this ‘penalty of death,’ and hardly is he on his own. The death penalty is something wanted by the public, and something which would be restored if put to the public in a vote. On the death penalty question I’d wager we have a situation where the State is refusing to give the public what it wants. (The relationship between public opinion and demand, and the State and what it does in response to that demand, is a fascinating question, yet could be reduced to a ‘who blinks first’ dynamic because the State is, at bottom, a collection of humans with their own interests, just like the public.) Why the State won’t allow religious human sacrifice, when such a move would (almost certainly)be a popular one, is another interesting question, especially considering the state likes power over the citizen.

I’m going to mention some arguments in favour of the death penalty used by Peter Hitchens, and why the practice, regardless of what those in favour say of it, is an obscenity. Peter Hitchens is a prominent journalist and has the ability to influence opinion, so he’s a fair target. Also he has put some interesting arguments in favour of religious human sacrifice. I doubt he is enthusiastic for the practice, though I accept he could be. He once stated ‘I would prefer not to have to defend the dark rituals of execution, especially since I have witnessed them at first hand. However, those who wish to say anything serious about government and law must be ready to argue for difficult things.’1

This is interesting in itself as arguing for the death penalty is absurdly easy. The topic is a demagogue’s dream, so simple is it to think up emotive examples of crimes (usually murders of children) to get the crowd or the reader quickly on your side. It’s the ease with which a person can support this practice that is an interesting thing to consider when thinking about Peter Hitchens’s arguments in favour of it. He is on the record as being suspicious of public opinion and conventional wisdom, yet seems not bothered by popularity of the thing he’s arguing for, here. I would expect him to be suspicious of something public opinion supported, and look harder for the argument against – and whoever reads his stuff can say he usually does this – so I wonder if Peter Hitchens agrees with the public sentiment on this, or thinks the public are right by accident, so supports this practice for reasons which are different to those reasons the public animal wants Capital Punishment returned?

I suspect Peter Hitchens’s support for Capital Punishment rests on his religion, and the public’s desire for it rests on their blood-thirsty, emotion-riddled knee-jerkism. If this is true, it’s perhaps understandable why Peter Hitchens finds the death penalty difficult to argue for, or a difficult thing to argue for, and the public finds it easy to support. Peter Hitchens is no demagogue, and public opinion is of no worth whatsoever.

I know I’m talking as if it’s a given that the public would restore capital punishment overnight, and I think it’s a safe position to take given the polls which have been taken. In 2015, a Gallup poll showed that 61% of the public were in favour of the death penalty for murder,2 so that’s a clear, unambiguous majority, and that Peter Hitchens finds himself in the majority is unusual in itself.

One point to note is this: never trust anyone who says killing people saves lives. Killing people costs lives – the lives of those killed. We’ve all heard this curious form of words used before. The argument that killing saves lives, the ‘argument’ used to justify the atomic bombs dropped by the US over Japan, which is similar to the argument which says ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,’ is an ‘argument’ which is loved by the hand-waiver who states: ‘It’s as simple as that.’ In other words, it’s a line taken by a mind which has a poor conscience, hasn’t thought about it, or has thought about it, but doesn’t care about it. Whichever it is, the person delivering this sort of ‘black is white’ or ‘war is peace’ line should be questioned further. Never accept this sort of thing without investigation.

I haven’t chosen Peter Hitchens’s position or arguments on the death penalty because I have some sort of ‘problem’ with him. I’m not one of those who attack him on Twitter, or post comments to his newspaper blogsite using fake names and with unbalanced criticisms – or attack him anywhere else. I happen to have admiration for Peter Hitchens and wish there were more journalists like him. I could make the case, quite easily, that even his enemies owe him a certain debt of gratitude. Anybody who can’t see, straight away, that writers like Peter Hitchens keep the rest of us a little bit safer will probably never be able to see it.

I ask you this: in a world of politically correct witch-hunts, where man denounces man for imagined ‘heresies’ against the orthodoxy – and does so for no other reason than to claim his own purity and ensure the witch-hunters move to the next cottage – what value shall we put on a fellow who can make politicians nervous?

Quite a high value, I’d say.

 

2

A Sword in the Hand

That’s the gush out the way. It is easy to make arguments from emotion, that should be remembered; but to begin, a person should decide which side they are on, and this is the question they should answer to decide their side. Do you think it is better to have societal norms, rules and laws based on reason, logic and utility, with all three anchored to the assumption that excessive power over the citizen by the state is axiomatically bad, or do you think what a just society needs to function, and function at its best, are laws and practices which are based on the human animal’s base nature, and which in turn, therefore, allow the state to have the ultimate power over the citizen?

Or, to put the same point another way: do you prefer liberty or security?

To condense the two positions on capital punishment down to a choice between two words is not to attempt a simplification of the topic; it’s just to state that such a reduction can be done. When an argument is followed right to its bedrock, there’s usually not much more than a word or short phrase at the bottom. The entire Christian position can be reduced to Idealist, for instance, and that is what is waiting for the supporter of Capital Punishment; or, to describe it correctly: religious human sacrifice.

Liberty and Security are like the two ends of the playground see-saw, when one is up, the other is always down. The more you have of one, the less you have of the other. To say your preference is for equal weights of both is to reveal you don’t care much, or know much, about human nature – or the nature of the human.

There are examples from history and literature which suggest that humans, when in possession of power, position and authority over other humans, sometimes use it in a way which doesn’t always benefit the majority. There are many examples from history and literature of the State making and passing laws which benefit and protect it, not the citizen. (That the State is made up of humans makes this a fascinating thing to consider. Why would a single person, or a small group of persons, make decisions which benefit the whole state, even while they know that under certain circumstances, they could suffer under the very rules or legislation they are proposing? Perhaps these drops of lubricant in the machine are truly selfless, or perhaps bureaucracy has a way of bringing out the inner sadist from a person?)

So my first contention is this:

 

The supporter of capital punishment is the enemy of liberty.

 

Peter Hitchens claims to be a lover of liberty, but is he really a lover of liberty? There is a preening, chin-stroking attitude which many people who support the death penalty have. Many have convinced themselves their position is a refined position because they support the practice for murder only. Consider this for a moment. Such a position presupposes they’ve ruled out other crimes and therefore have ‘thought deeply’ about their view. This might not be the case. It is possible such a person has camouflaged their desire for religious revenge under an intellectual veneer. Indeed, some supporters of the death penalty have their opinions so deeply ‘dug-in’ that they manage to support the practice while carrying the politician’s ‘heavy-heart’. To support a practice, but ‘with regret’, is a smart move: it presupposes not only how deeply the question has been thought about, but also that the supporter has taken a selfless, sacrificial position, in that they are prepared to suffer for their belief because what they believe is ultimately good for society. It’s a curious type of ego-mania and understated narcissism. Can a supporter of capital punishment ever be a lover of liberty?

Peter Hitchens knows as well as anyone what the State can do to a person. The State is the enemy of the individual, and the enemy of the family unit, and very well Peter Hitchens knows it. He wrote in The Abolition of Britain that the State dislikes the family because it fashions bonds which are stronger than patriotism. The State can lock you up, take your children, take your house from you via compulsory purchase – it can impose many things upon the individual. How can a person be a lover of liberty if they want the State to have the power to do what it can already do, yet also the power to reach into a citizen’s body and stop their heart from beating? To support the death penalty, even if you support it for murder only, is to want the State to have absolute power

This is liberty with qualifications, which means it’s not liberty.

For instance he supports ‘freedom of speech’ so long as something called ‘incitement to violence’ is not part of it. (He’s not the only person who postures in this way.) This is the ‘yes but no’ attitude which happens when somebody wants to claim to be a certain type of person, but doesn’t genuinely want the thing they claim to want that would make them that type of person. Most of us will have had the following experience. We did something naughty when we were small and were caught, perhaps by a teacher. The teacher demanded to know why we did such and such, and we say – because we were little and didn’t ‘get it’ at such a young age – that so and so ‘told me to do it.’ The teacher will then have then offered us a particular ‘look’ and said something like ‘Well, if so and so told you to jump of a bridge would you do it?’ We know we wouldn’t have done that, so we then realise we are to blame for what we actually do, and can’t blame others for ‘making’ us do it. The illogical nonsense about ‘incitement’ is the teacher saying ‘Right! Let’s go and round-up so and so, too! And we’ll see who gave him the idea, and then we’ll get them in room 101 as well!’ Before you could say ‘witch-hunt’ you’d have all the toddlers in the playschool on trial ‘by-teacher’ for their part in a non-existent conspiracy of influence. A Stalinist madness.

The position Peter Hitchens takes on ‘freedom of speech’ is contradictory because he doesn’t want speech to be ‘free’ in any way at all, he wants it to be limited. When you advertise your ‘free beer’ but actually charge 1p for it, it isn’t free. One you’ve added your qualification, you have dissolved your principle.

This qualification serves the same purpose as the ‘for murder only’ qualification serves: it presupposes deep thought and implies the person is a ‘serious’ person who is exquisitely discriminatory. But how can a person be serious when they argue for ‘free speech’ in this way? I think it’s unlikely that Peter Hitchens cannot see the ‘freedom of speech’ contradiction, because he’s obviously an intelligent person, and words are his business. This leaves me thinking that he can see it, and is happy with it, because it accurately expresses the truth of the matter, and is happy for others not to notice. What other option is there?

There’s a scene I want you to create in your mind and it will be mentioned later. I want you to imagine you are walking back to your car, and you take a shortcut through an alley. In that alley you find the body of a child. The child has met a violent end: the head is bashed and smashed; there are bits of blood, skull and brain splattered on the walls. Lying next to the body is a hammer with bloody fingerprints on the handle, and you see bloody footprints leading away from the scene.

Let’s say the child is a ten year old girl.

Do you think any wrong has been done to the little girl? You think yes? I’d guess most people would. Now here’s the thing: anyone who thinks that the little girl has had wrong done to her should not support capital punishment.

Now I know that might sound odd. It seems obvious that the person who bashed her head in deserves to swing, but I’m afraid things are not as simple as they seem, and the arguments for and against capital punishment are not as simple as the simple feel they are.

Leave that scenario in the back of your mind while we flash-forward in hypothetical time and create another scenario.

You’re watching the evening news and the story comes on about the person convicted of killing the child from the alley. The cameras have captured the following: the convicted is making his way to court for sentencing, and a crowd has gathered, waiting just for this moment. They cannot put hands the guilty, and lucky for him, because he is locked safely in the armoured police-van which drives slowly through that crowd. The persons gathered shout and scream at the van, some throw things, some spit at it and some rock it sideways in an attempt to tip it over, before the officers pull the mob from the vehicle and it drives through.

Then we cut to a shot from on high, where the handcuffed child-killer is lead from the rear of the van into the building. Next we’ll be shown an artist’s colour-pencil sketch of the beast in the dock, and we’ll be told he spoke only to confirm his name, and some other details, and we’ll be told what the judge had to say as he passed sentence. Usually at this point we cut to the reporter whose voice has been heard over the pictures: she will be standing outside the court, microphone in hand, having a chat with the news presenter in the studio.

Whatever is said the by reporter or the presenter, the behaviour of the crowd won’t be condemned. If it’s mentioned at all it will be to offer the banal observation that feelings were ‘running high.’ I wonder what number of us, watching such a thing in our homes, secretly wishes the mob could gain access to the vehicle, and get at the killer? And I wonder what might happen if such a thing occurred?

Perhaps one of the mob would drive the vehicle to waste ground, where the guilty could be taken to task, and some collective need in the mob could be satisfied while helicopter cameras captured the celebration in high definition?

What is that need or urge which drives the mob to picket the court, waiting for the guilty? What motivates the van rocking mob? What do they want?

Their behaviour could be described as odd, possibly stupid, because they know their missiles – their eggs, rocks and coke-cans – won’t penetrate the armoured vehicle, they will never get at the man inside. One can’t help but wonder why they bother.

The explanation needs to be that the spitting and throwing things, and trying to tip the van over, are not considered actions but a spontaneous expression of rage. That would make some sense. But consider the behaviour of the crowd before the police van shows up. The crowd is still a crowd at this point, not yet a mob, and can we believe they turned feral at the site of a vehicle they could never gain access to? What next, try to tip the building over because the guilty is in there?

No, the mob’s behaviour upon the arrival of the police van is a considered action, certainly not ‘spontaneous’ and the reporter is right in a sense, feelings are running high. Years ago, there might be some point in forming a mob and going after a suspect, flaming torches in one hand, bible in the other, while others in the mob ran with dogs straining at the lead. That made some sense because there was a chance they could catch the suspect and lynch him. The mob around the police van can’t do that – they know they can’t, therefore their behaviour is posturing and an expression of vanity.

The mob believe that they are safe to show this side of human nature, not only to each other but to the cameras, because the crime, the murder of the child, is vile enough that the normal standards of conduct don’t apply, and they have numbers on their side if you disagree. The options with such a running mob are to join in or step aside; trying to reason with them is a waste of time, trying to stop them is dangerous.

That humans can be violent when emotional is not interesting, but it is interesting to consider the lynch-mob mentality, and to conclude that it takes not so much to bring that part of the character of the human animal to the surface.

The argument about Capital Punishment usually begins with the supporter arguing for deterrence and the opposer claiming execution of the innocent is the unanswerable position. Both are (very often) the first arguments either side deploys. When my side of the house – the side which believes in liberty over security – mentions the innocent it’s common for the supporter to play the ‘accident’ card.

‘Yes,’ they say, ‘an innocent person executed is a terrible thing, but terrible things happen all the time, should we reject or abolish everything which causes accidental deaths? We’d have to abolish cars and planes and all sorts of things.’

But of course such a person is being slippery. They are suggesting an accidental death is equivalent to a deliberate death, which it isn’t and they’re missing the point into the bargain.

No person sacrificed by the State via the death penalty is killed by accident. No prisoner ever walked along their landing, tripped, fell into a noose and got hanged.

Every execution is a deliberate act, so the ‘accident’ card relies on a false parallel. Not a good start for the supporter of human sacrifice.

The argument about an innocent person executed is airtight; it cannot be met by anything from the other side. In addition there is no answer to the charge that, by executing the innocent, you have by default freed the guilty – so it’s a double outrage.

But arguments from ‘body-count’ miss the point, too. The enlightened side of the house reject the idea of capital punishment; reject the idea that the state can have this power over the citizen; and contend that, when the death penalty option is retained, the state has too much power over the citizen by definition, and the relationship between the two is ultimately totalitarian in practice and religious in theory (which just means totalitarian in theory, too.)

A word on ‘deterrence’.

 Often the supporter will cling to the idea of deterrence and not be swayed by logic. In a debate, formal discussion or even just a conversation, there are some things a person should not do. They should not claim something is true when they don’t know it is, and they should not claim something is true if they can’t know. Consider the words of the author and scientist, Sam Harris:

Exactly how many birds are in flight over the surface of the earth at this instant? What is their combined weight in grams? We cannot possibly answer such questions, but they have simple, numerical answers. Does our inability to gather the relevant data oblige us to respect all opinions equally? For instance, how seriously should we take the claim that there are exactly 23,000 birds in flight at this moment, and, as they are all hummingbirds weighing exactly 2 grams, their total weight is 46,000 grams? It should be obvious that this is a ridiculous assertion. We can, therefore, decisively reject answers to questions that we cannot possibly answer in practice. This is a perfectly reasonable, scientific, and often necessary thing to do.3

This is a problem with the ‘deterrence’ argument. The only thing which can be known is that capital punishment is not 100% effective as a deterrent. There’s no way to calculate what number of persons have been deterred from doing something. You can’t count-up acts which haven’t happened. It is not known if capital punishment is a deterrent: its supporters just claim it is because they think it’s a safe claim. But how can a claim for something be safe when those supporters can’t know if it’s true? It’s impossible to know if the death penalty is a deterrent, and I think arguments from deterrence should be disqualified immediately.

Even the academic ‘studies’ can’t answer it, and the impossibility of ever getting an answer leads to some hilarious examples of chin-stroking ‘seriousness’.

Read these and try not to laugh:

The view that the death penalty deters is still the product of belief, not evidence. The reason for this is simple: over the past half century the U.S. has not experimented enough with capital punishment policy to permit strong conclusions. Even complex econometrics cannot sidestep this basic fact. The data are simply too noisy, and the conclusions from any study are too fragile. On balance, the evidence suggests that the death penalty may increase the murder rate although it remains possible that the death penalty may decrease it.4

On balance, that final sentence cracks me up every time I read it. And that’s from John J. Donohue, a professor at Yale Law School and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and Justin Wolfers, a professor at the Wharton School of Business and a Research Affiliate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Or consider this from the brief of yet another report into ‘deterrence’:

The studies use incomplete or implausible models of potential murderers’ perceptions of and response to the use of capital punishment. Much of the research assumes that potential murderers respond to the objective risk of execution.

It’s actually shocking. This is a confession, made so straight-faced you’re not meant to notice. Read it again, slowly; then contrast with this:

..there is good reason to believe that potential murderers’ perceived risk deviates from the objective risk.5

And that means there’s good reason to believe that murderers think they won’t get caught. It says the opposite to the first example, and both quotes are from the same brief. Where would we be without this sort of clarity of thinking making everything simpler? Why don’t these ‘academics’ just say ‘we don’t know because we can’t count-up acts which haven’t happened’?

There are other example of academics making strange statements . Consider this from Peter Hitchens:

The Home Office pathologist Professor Bernard Knight said recently that the British homicide rate was artificially low. Advances in medical treatment, he explained, now save hundreds of people who would have died from their wounds 40 years ago. The actual amount of lethal violence has risen to heights our fathers would have thought impossible.6

How can the homicide rate be artificially low? This point is meretricious. The homicide rate is whatever it happens to be. Just count the bodies. Are we to believe the death-in-childbirth-rate is artificially low thanks to medical advances? I don’t think so. The point is claiming an increase in violence, and Hitchens’s position is that lethal violence has increased since there’s been no death penalty. Is that actually true? Consider the words of Leon Britain from July 1983:

Those who argue for restoring the death penalty rightly point to the sharp rise in homicides since 1960. Between the end of the war and 1960 the number of homicides had shown a generally downward trend. In 1960, the offences initially recorded as homicide in England and Wales totalled 282. In 1965, the year capital punishment was abolished, the total was 325, in 1970 it was 396, in 1980 it was 621, and in 1982 it was 619. There are those who argue that the upward trend starting in 1960 is of no significance as that trend started before abolition. Against that, it can be said that the number of executions actually carried out in the last few years of capital punishment was very small and the deterrent effect might, therefore, if it existed, have been somewhat reduced.7

Note the rise in violence beginning before the abolition, and the important acknowledgement the deterrent effect might not exist to begin with. And it’s on his final point that Leon Britain touches on an important question about public executions.

Albert Camus, in his essay ‘Reflections on the Guillotine,’ makes the strong case that if the death penalty does have any deterrent effect, keeping the executions private, behind the prison walls, won’t allow the practice to work its dark magic on the minds of the peasantry:

We must either kill publicly, or admit we do not feel authorized to kill. If society justifies the death penalty as a necessary example, then it must justify itself by providing the publicity necessary to make an example. Society must display the executioner’s hands on each occasion, and require the most squeamish citizens to look at them, as well as those who, directly or remotely, have supported the work of those hands from the first.8

It’s a pretty strong point. Why bother with an example which nobody gets to see? And that’s assuming – and assuming against the logic – that there’s a deterrent effect to begin with.

If capital punishment was a genuine deterrent there wouldn’t be murders within jurisdictions which had human sacrifice as the punishment for a qualifying crime. But there are plenty of murders within jurisdictions such as these and always have been. This suggests human sacrifice is not a deterrent, and it’s probably not because most murders are not done by ice-man assassins. The majority of murders are emotional acts driven by money and sex and jealousy and other base drivers.

A word on the other ‘arguments’ and an argument against.

There are many positions taken by those who support religious human sacrifice. They talk about justice for the victim without considering that the victim can’t receive justice because the victim is dead and can’t receive anything. They then change their minds and claim and they want justice for the family of the victim. Bereavement requires justice, but not when the killer’s family are bereaved. For some reason they don’t count.

They argue that the cost of keeping murderers locked up is too high and executing them saves the tax-payer money. This argument is one of my favourites. It is simultaneously the stupidest and most dishonest argument: imagine two cells next to each other. In one is a murderer, serving twenty years, in the other is a non-murderer serving twenty years. Now consider the argument is supposed to be about the saving the tax payer money. Do I need to explain further?

Another silly argument is the argument from mercy. Peter Hitchens says:

The death penalty is far more humane than a long prison sentence. That is one of the best reasons for bringing it back. I’m sorry to say that the Court of Human Rights is correct in condemning our policy of locking up heinous murderers without hope of release and for so long they forget what they have done. It’s incredibly cruel.9

This argument claims that because decades in prison are a cruel, sadistic and barbaric punishment, the death penalty is justified because it is kinder to the murderer. This is an absurd argument just on the surface of it. It leaves the supporter of human sacrifice arguing for both punishment and mercy at the same time. But things get worse. There is a way to check if the person who makes this ‘argument’ actually means it. They should be asked if they would extend this ‘mercy’ to the terminally ill. Many Christians and Conservatives reject the idea of ‘mercy killing.’

Death is either a mercy or a punishment to be inflicted: if the former, then why don’t the terminally ill qualify? If the latter, then how can it be merciful to begin with? If the supporter claims that, yes, the terminally ill do qualify, are they not punishing the terminally ill if death is a punishment?

This nonsense argument is taken by supporters of human sacrifice because they are attempting to hide their real views under the veneer of intellectual compassion. They make themselves look extraordinarily stupid when they do this. This is what happens when paw-licking vanity and self-denial is valued more than intellectual honesty.

For most, the real motivation for their support of human sacrifice is no more than an emotional jerk of the knee. They imagine how they would feel if a person killed a member of their family. Then, feeling these unpleasant feelings, argue that human sacrifice is acceptable.

There are some, however, who support religious human sacrifice and who actually understand what they are talking about. I’ll mention these persons later.

For the moment I’ll just put my basic argument against the death penalty which seems to me to be quite hard to refute. (If this argument turns out to be rubbish, then the fault is mine.)

The argument goes like this:

Capital punishment is always wrong because we can never know if the victim lost anything of sufficient value to justify executing the killer.

It cannot be denied that value judgements underpin the crime / punishment question. If a person is convicted of stealing a packet of biscuits from a shop they would not be given the death penalty for this. That punishment wouldn’t ‘fit’ the crime. The value judgements we make about fitting punishments are mysterious in their origin, but we certainly make them. We tend only to hear arguments for religious human sacrifice for the crime of murder. I’ve never heard even the most reactionary, the most crusty and dusty conservative, argue for religious human sacrifice for anything other than murder. And, curiously, that creates a problem for their argument. When a person argues the death penalty should be imposed only for the crime of murder, they instantly grant that human life has a unique value or worth. Human life, on their account, has a special status and the only way justice ‘can be done’ is to take from the killer what they took from their victim. (The meme ‘a life for a life’ is popular, but the memes, ‘a rape for a rape,’ and ‘a punch in the face for a punch in the face’ haven’t caught on quite as well.)

Smarter supporters of human sacrifice will try to claim that value judgements have nothing to do with the calibration between crime and punishment or how we decide that x deserves y or doesn’t. I understand why the smarter supporters will try to avoid the concession that value judgements are what we use, because immediately they know that value judgements are subjective: there’s no over-arching objective standard we can all agree on. And it’s that fact which underpins my argument: how do we know the victim lost anything of sufficient worth to justify executing their killer?

Who says?

This is where the dead girl in the alley comes in.

If you think value judgements have nothing to do with deciding what punishment fits what crime, you are left with the conclusion that nothing ‘wrong’ has been done to the little girl in the alley. Until a trial has happened and evidence has been heard; until a jury has reached a verdict and ‘justice has been done,’ the girl in the alley, to you, is no more than rearranged organic material.

So value judgments can’t be denied (or avoided) and it’s that underpinning subjectivity which makes human sacrifice wrong because – and allow me to repeat it – who says the killer lost anything of sufficient worth to justify executing their killer? Who says?

There’s more to the opposition to religious human sacrifice than the inescapable impossibility of justifying it. Which supporter of human sacrifice doesn’t want to punish murderers? Those who argue in favour of capital punishment want murderers to be punished (except the ‘mercy merchants,’ that is.) It is odd, then, that they argue for the thing which makes punishment impossible: death.

A dead person cannot receive punishment for the same reason a dead person cannot receive justice. They are dead. They cannot receive anything.

The supporter is arguing for the incarcerated murderer’s punishment to come to an end. Why they do this I don’t know.

There is no escape for the supporter of human sacrifice by saying that, they know the dead person can’t receive punishment, that’s not the point, (and who ever said it was?) they want the murderer to feel the fear and stress as their execution date approaches, and then the fear and stress on the day itself and so on.

This makes some sense – but not much. If that’s the case then the murderer need only be subjected to mock-execution, but would the supporter of capital punishment want that?

I think not.

Once this point has been made then the supporter should see what they really are arguing for is a form of torture where the victim suffers not the ‘death penalty’ but the ‘punishment penalty’ and is punished to death.

You can make a person dead by punishing them, but you cannot punish them after making them dead.

As I said, there are persons who understand what they are arguing for: they understand that the arguments in favour of religious human sacrifice require a belief in the afterlife to make even the slightest sense – and they really require a belief in God. As someone once said, this business of living for eternity contributes to capital punishment. What’s odd is that, on atheism, a belief in God is required for the arguments in favour of religious human sacrifice to make sense, but that means, to make sense to an atheist.

Assuming a Christian worldview for the sake of argument: what happens to the soul of the murder victim? Where does it go?

Let’s say the victim is the little girl in the alley.

The little ten year old girl, on the Christian worldview, is going to spend eternity with God in heaven. Let’s put it another way: on that Christian worldview, by murdering her, the killer has delivered his victim to the greatest possible bliss imaginable.

And for this he should be punished?

There’s a dizzying, circular paradox at the heart of the human sacrifice question.

It’s too easy to support the death penalty. When something is so easy to support a person should become immediately suspicious and begin questioning their motives, and asking questions about the motivations of others. It’s only when we begin to question our beliefs, and the motivations we have for them, does the conversation become interesting.

 Capital Punishment: an actual obscenity.

 In his book, ‘The Abolition of Britain,’ Peter Hitchens begins chapter five with this simple claim.

Hell was abolished around the same time that abortion was legalized and the death penalty was done away with.10

It’s interesting to look at the idea of religious human sacrifice and the attitudes to it from the supporters of today as compared to the actual practice from history. Consider these words from Lord Gardiner, spoken in the House of Lords in December 1969:

In 1908 there was a big advance: we abolished capital punishment for children under 16. When my grandfather was 21 a boy of nine who had set fire to a house was hanged at Chelmsford. In a previous year a little way back, a boy of 7 and his sister of 11 were hanged at Lyme. In 1922 we abolished capital punishment for infanticide. In 1929 a Resolution in the House of Commons calling for the abolition of capital punishment resulted in the appointment of a Select Committee. In 1930 the Select Committee reported. In their Report they said: Our prolonged examination of the situation in foreign countries has increasingly confirmed us in the assurance that capital punishment may now be abolished in this country without endangering life or property, or impairing the security of society. And they recommended its abolition for five years. In 1931 capital punishment was abolished for expectant mothers. In 1932 the Children Act abolished capital punishment for those under 18.11

I like the one where we abolished the death penalty for expectant mothers. Since these internal abolitions have happened, have those freed from the prospect of being hanged become troublesome? Are children under sixteen, boys of nine and seven, girls of eleven and women with-child now an out-of-control menace to society? This sort of incremental abolition smacks of a State which wants to retain the practice, and isn’t willing to let go completely. Remember the State is simply a collection of humans with interests which conflict with those of the majority. Please think about this specific question: what sort of State would want to hang small children or women with-child?

It’s remarks like those from Lord Gardiner which put the death penalty into its correct context and allow it to be seen for what it is: one way in which the State could tyrannise the ordinary people. Contrast the ‘arguments’ from somebody who wants human sacrifice for murder only, against this brief summary from the National Archive:

In the years after 1660 the number of offences carrying the death penalty increased enormously, from about 50, to 160 by 1750 and to 288 by 1815. You could be hanged for stealing goods worth 5 shillings (25p), stealing from a shipwreck, pilfering from a Naval Dockyard, damaging Westminster Bridge, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner or cutting down a young tree. This series of laws was called (later) “The Bloody Code.” Why was the Bloody Code passed? After the turmoil of the 17th century, the landowning class emerged as supreme rulers of Britain. They based their power on property-ownership, and saw the law’s main purpose as protecting property. They were ruling a country of 6.5 million, most of whom had no political rights whatsoever. The crime rate was not high, actually, but they feared that it was, as towns grew in size and the old village community crumbled. There was also no police force. The Bloody Code was therefore a threat: severe retribution would happen to those thinking of breaking the law by infringing property rights.12

When we think of capital punishment do we forget (did we even know?) that the State used to be able to kill us for minor offences such as cutting down a young tree? Perhaps not knowing the list of things we could be killed for by the State prevents us from seeing what the death penalty actually is: the missing list is the giver of context. Put it another way: imagine a person who opposed the enslavement of blacks, but also argued that blacks should be whipped for one particular crime only, and you might begin to see those who support the totalitarian, absolutist practice of human sacrifice for the Darth Vader Darksiders they are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/deathrows
2. http://www.gallup.com/poll/1606/death-penalty.aspx
3. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/moral-confusion-in-the-na_b_517710.html
4. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/DonohueDeter.pdf
5. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/NatResCouncil-Deterr.pdf
6. http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2012/04/reflections-on-how-to-punish-mass-murderers.html
7. http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1983/jul/13/death-penalty
8. http://redlemona.de/albert-camus/reflections-on-the-guillotine/reflections-on-the-guillotine
9. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2362695/PETER-HITCHENS-Would-surprised-learn-I-fund-Labour-Well-I–you.html
10. Hitchens, Peter (1999) The Abolition of Britain, Quartet, London, p107.
11. http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1969/dec/17/murder-abolition-of-death-penalty-act
12. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/candp/punishment/g06/g06cs1.htm