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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Oh My God It’s SO Unfair!

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anesthetic from which none come round

  • Philip Larkin ‘Aubade’

 

I’m unsure Larkin was right about what we fear. On the surface of things he seems to get to root of the matter. The idea of not existing is a troubling one. But are there ways of thinking about not existing which might make the idea bearable?

One of the (so-called) ‘new’ atheists, Sam Harris, said – and was quite amusing when he said it – that if a person really can’t imagine the world without them in it, then it must be just from want of trying. There were a few laughs from the audience. In the example I’m thinking of Harris suggested the crowd think about the city of Paris, and how Paris was getting along just fine without anyone from the crowd in it. He certainly had a point. Another way of putting it is to ask people to think about the world before they were born. The person’s town or village was getting along happily, and so were the cities and other people in it. It seems correct to think about matters in this way, because the world was getting along nicely before you were born, but thinking this way doesn’t quite dissolve the problem.

The idea of not existing could mean several things to a person. That you can even have the idea means you exist. So it appears – after thinking about Paris and the years before you were born – that the problem isn’t quite a world in which you don’t exist, the problem is more a world in which you don’t exist after having existed. That seems to be closer to the point, and it’s that idea which needs examining.

Larkin was an atheist, and the last four lines are odd ones for an atheist to have written. The last line – especially the word ‘anesthetic’ – carries a thought which could have been pushed further. An atheist might fear what Larkin describes, but an atheist also knows he won’t actually experience being dead, which means there is no reason to have this fear: if you have fear you know you don’t need to have, then you are choosing to have it because you prefer having it. I mean to say, why fear something you know you will never experience? This ‘fear’ of something you won’t and can’t experience, then, might not be ‘our’ problem. It’s more likely that the real point is as I described it, or as the late Christopher Hitchens put it ‘You get tapped on the shoulder and told, “the party’s going on without you, and you have to leave.”’

(He then amusingly offered the religious version for comparison: ‘The party’s going on forever, and you can’t leave.’) But why do we care if we won’t know we’ve left? It doesn’t make sense to ‘fear’ not being at the party because we know we won’t know we’re not there: we won’t know we’re missing anything. Is what Larkin calls ‘fear’ really a form of cheap resentment, a type of childish foot-stamping? Is the ‘fear’ an expression from a part of the mind which hasn’t grown up? One can easily imagine an irritated child having a little tantrum ‘Oh my God it’s so unfair! when told that playtime’s over.

To ask a person ’Do you believe in God’ could get you any number of responses, though a common one is the one which says ‘Well, I don’t believe in God but I do believe in something. I don’t think this (motions to surroundings) is the end.’ It’s a barely disguised way of saying ‘I don’t like the idea of death, so have told myself we don’t die.’ Larkin’s fourth line is true of all religions. I don’t know any religion which says the universe was created by a loving god who answers prayers and what not, yet has designed things so that – although he loves you while you are here – death is the end. Such a religion wouldn’t catch on.

All religions are predicated on the survival of death. Licensing that idea, allowing it to be reinforced through groupthink (or ‘worship’ if you really must), is what you get in return for your critical faculties, money and obedience. Yet if Larkin’s ‘fear’ is a form of intellectualised, disguised tantrum, then it’s certainly true that atheism is not an automatically superior worldview to the religious one. One could say of the atheist that he isn’t confusing what he believes is true with what he hopes is true, but doing that, and on its own, might not make you the full grown up.

Is there a difference between knowing you are going to die and accepting it?

Dream Sketch Four

A man with no eyes, blinded and with but one arm is stood in front of me. A voice says he ‘used to be a tennis player.’ Next, I’m looking at him in profile and his eyes – which are now there – are bulging out of his head, dangerously far, but they are mis-shapen, like they have been battered square. Covering his eyes are large plastic protectors which are sealed onto his face – like bulbous goggles – I get the sense that this is because infection or damage could happen easily. On closer inspection I can see the eyes are almost hanging out and there are hundreds of wires / cables attached to the back of the eye, vanishing into the back of his head. I think they are flat wires, with something printed on them.

The scene changes and I am stood at the bottom of Hill Road , looking up to where the bend is by the church. At the top is a woman who seems to be evil, or someone to be scared of at any rate. She is shouting something down to me – and maybe unseen others – but I can’t make it out. Next, I am in the front garden of 22 Hill Road . I seem to have a disability of some kind which prevents me from hiding from the woman who is making her way down the hill. I look about in panic – what can I do, where can I go? The woman is a composite – part of her is the actress from V and Homeland.

Next I am crouched on the path which ran along the side of the house, close up against the wall as the woman arrived at the garden gate and looks down at me. I shout something at her – ‘You can’t keep kids in..(not sure)..it’s a subjection!” I know for sure I shout ‘It’s a subjection!’

By this time I am aware I am dreaming and decide to wake up because there is a real sense of fear in respect to this woman and whatever is planned I’m not hanging around for it, so I wake myself up to escape.

I used to live in the house when I was a child, but the rest I have no clue about. The actress from the show V is the lead disguised reptile: an attractive woman on the outside but a lizard underneath the surface.

Genuine Atheism

Believing in Marx is just as religious as believing in God: the same thing is going on in the brain. The object of the worship might be very different, but that’s irrelevant. Both positions have their respective ‘higher powers’ or ‘authorities’ to which / whom the worshipper turns for advice, guidance, rulings, and all the rest.

Genuine Atheism is the rejection of authorities of this type: the positive assertion that such authorities do not exist anywhere other than in the imagination of the believer or believers, and therefore the authority is illegitimate. Like the guys says in The Wolf of Wall Street, ‘It is no matter, it is not on the elemental chart..’

The Genuine Atheist, following his logic downwards, rejects the Hobbesian idea of Political Obligation. It’s this rejection that non-genuine atheists dislike. Many of these (so-called) atheists are actually religious state-worshippers, who see the state as a cross between God and big-daddy-the-protector, but just don’t realise it.

There is an obvious difference between the state’s power and its authority. The state certainly has power. The state has no authority. It does not exercise authority, it exercises power. Its power is its ability to do things to you, and to make you do things. Its authority would be its right to do these things and its right to get you to do things.

The state’s power can be seen in the military, the police, local councils and what not; it’s backed up by bailiffs, court officials and other enemies of the working man. If asked ‘where is the state’s power?’ one could answer that it is in these institutions and individuals.

But if one were asked ‘where is the states authority?’ it is harder to answer, for where IS the state’s authority? In a drawer? Under a rock?

The state could be described as evil. This is because its power is actually its desire made manifest. The state actively wants to do things to you. Through the recognition of its power, one can see the state’s desire and behind that, its true face.

It is a gargoyle.

 

Dream Sketch Two

I find myself in a brothel with BB. Initially, I have no idea that the girls are hookers, I wonder innocently why they have so many boy-friends, but the fact slowly dawns on me. One comes to speak to me. It is KG from school.

Some others in the brothel leave – there seems to be an argument about something, and they head home. I walk out of the building and discover the brothel in set up in a church.

The church is on a hill that overlooks LA; it is night, and I can see the orange strips of light in the distance – the boulevards of LA.

Some people leave and I decide to do the same, I then seem to be driving through a tunnel, looking for the airport, LAX.

As I walk the streets (the driving part quickly stopped) I worry about being attacked and robbed. Two men immediately do so and I decide to fight back. I kill one of my attackers.

My hands have what should be the murder weapon covered in blood gripped tightly, but as I look, I see the evidence is English money – about £25 in notes – covered in runny shit. I know I have to ditch the evidence.

As I bend to drop the shitty cash down a drain, a voice warns me “don’t do it, man. They always check the drains”

I seem to have an accomplice. He warns me about not disposing of the evidence there, and I scarper into the alleyways behind some buildings.

By this time, I realise I am not in LA anymore – I am back in WSM, hiding behind some buildings on the high street.

I notice the police are closing in, and they are in LA uniforms. I then seem to be under questioning. I decide to blag them off.

The chief detective fellow is supremely confidant and assured. He has blonde hair and asks me about my phone. He wants to know if I have made any calls that night. This question seems to be connected to the dead attacker – but I have no idea why. I say I haven’t made any calls, and he asks me for the last numbers I dialled and when. I have the feeling they always knew I had done the crime and that they were just playing with me.

At this point I seem to switch between the person being nicked, and a phantom observer. The person now arrested is a chubbier version of the policeman who asked about my phone. Short blonde hair, but this guy has glasses.

He is arrested and taken to the airport (my original destination) for extradition to the UK.

There is a media scramble, this guy – the blonde with glasses – seems to be a celebrity of some sort; dressed flamboyantly like Elton John.

His hair is amazing. It looks like a peacock’s feathers wrapped against the back of his head. And his hair extends high above the top of his head. On top he is bald, with a few thick black hair – rather like cables – are sticking out. I have the feeling that he has or needs hair replacement therapy.

The media scrum moves through the airport, and one member of the party is Graham Souness, the former footballer.

I have no idea about this dream – and haven’t attempted any sort of interpretation, or searched for any links or meaning and so on.

Dream Sketch One

I’m walking through part of Disneyland, Paris. I visited this place with B and J – but in the dream I’m walking with T and L through one of the park’s restaurants.

The décor is dark purple, and there’s an ‘uneasy’ feeling I have about the place. At the front, by the doors, is a tall woman with a person either side of her, she seems to be in charge and making sure everyone is enjoying themselves. I look at the diners and each person is eating the same meal – chicken, with mash potato and red-cabbage. Each plate has exactly the same food. The chicken is ‘on the bone,’ part of the actual carcass, and some people are really shoving the carcass in their mouths to get the meat.

We walk out the doors and are behind the ‘Hotel Santa Fe’ – where me, B and J stayed before, and I think about sending T to the large ‘statue of Elvis’ which I think is in the grounds of the next hotel along – this reminds me of a punctured balloon incident, but I don’t think the statue the balloon brushed against was of Elvis because the hotel was a ‘wild west’ themed hotel.

I say to T and L something like ‘There it is – the hotel Santa Fe.’

It’s as if we’ve been travelling there and have ‘finally arrived.’

I don’t understand this at all. The restaurant was a little creepy – like a ‘good time’ was being imposed and demanded, and I was thinking about this the other day in respect to a proper tyranny. Proper tyrannies make sure you show you enjoy yourself and so on – they won’t let you ‘opt-out.’ The faces of the persons were unclear.

Everyone was eating exactly the same thing – no choice off the menu. This reminds me of a discussion I’ve been having with a guy about the death penalty. He wanted to have executions two minutes after a guilty verdict, and I accused him of picking ‘a la carte’ the things tyrannies did which he happened to like and therefore his attitude was a ‘pick n mix’ attitude. This could tie-in with the tyranny being imposed in the restaurant – I don’t know.

Tyranny in the restaurant: where food is served. A la carte, and pick n mix, are both expressions which refer to food / eating.

The statue of Elvis reminds me of a song by Manic Street Preachers called ‘Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier’

Reviewing the lyrics the line which stands out is ‘Overweight and out of date.’ I’ve been thinking about weight-gain since I stopped smoking three months ago, and also about relationships and the reduced choices a person has when they get older. There are vague connections in the lyrics: my father is from ‘ Lancashire ‘ – which is mentioned – and the lyric is, more or less, dark, or bleak, in tone; which would match the mood of my musings about weight and age.

Though I don’t know why my subconscious put me in Disneyland (there was an art exhibition recently in my town called ‘Dismaland’) or placed me around the hotel Santa Fe. This is a convoluted way – and psychologically wasteful – of getting in a reference to the lyrics from a song. I know the subconcious is smarter than this.

As usual: who knows?

A Snail on the Moon

Time-loop paradox stories are the worst type of science-fiction, and that’s because the best type of science fiction is hard science fiction – and you can’t get softer than a time-loop paradox.

Actually, Triangle (2009) is not awful, but it is only redeemed at the end when we realise Melissa George’s character has died. This makes her predicament quite unpleasant to think about, and Stephen King said his own idea of Hell is repetition – and it’s easy to see his point.

Predestination (2014) is a film which deserves to be tied to a post and shot. (Or blown out the nearest airlock.)

What could be the motivation of the Spierig brothers to adapt such a stupid story?

The point of good science fiction is to open the minds of the readers and viewers to our insignificance in the universe: only when we have a grasp of our smallness can we begin to appreciate the cosmos. This means more than just being told we’re small and accepting it’s true, it means feeling small. The only thing of mine which opened when I watched Predestination was my mouth when I yawned.

The start-point for fiction is the what-if question. That’s a good place to start, but the what if should be something possible, if only theoretically.  Which is going to lead to a better story: a what if which might happen, or a what if which could never happen?

That’s Predestination’s problem.

Acknowledging the original short story from the 50s, it’s a sort of The Adjustment Bureau meets The Man Who Folded Himself meets Coherence type movie.

So, yes, if a person could travel back in time they could fuck about with themselves when they were younger, and end up becoming their own parents and children and lord knows who else. It’s all really interesting…but it’s impossible. And ‘impossible’ is the first thing decent science fiction needs to avoid.

Would anyone care about a story about Sammy the snail, who, after overcoming significant personal problems, realised his dream of becoming an astronaut and visiting the moon?

Thought not.

I think sometimes fiction is pointless. I never thought I’d say that: I always thought I would grant to the fiction writer any amount of licence, but impossible science fiction seems to me to be a crime against fiction. Calling it fantasy sci-fi won’t wash because you make the word science absurd.

Yes – I’m being harsh.

A Sword in the Hand

…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

The Executioner’s Song

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 give the death penalty its real name: 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?)

This might not worry the person who values security over liberty, because such a person’s mind has not enough live wires to be worried to begin with. I have no compunction in smearing or insulting the supporter of capital punishment. I actually enjoy doing so because their position is a contemptible one.

The supporter of capital punishment is the enemy of liberty.

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, obviously, 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 accused of killing that child. It’s the story that’s been all over the news recently. 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 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 the 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 and rocks – 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 we’re meant to 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 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 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.

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 capital punishment 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.)

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. This is the problem with deterrence. 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. 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?

If state-backed religious human sacrifice was an effective deterrent then this suggest that 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 carried out in ice-man assassins. The majority of murders are emotional acts driven by money and sex and jealousy and other base drivers.

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 stupid argument, one which leads to hilarious (and unintended) consequences for the death penalty supporter, is the argument from mercy. 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 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 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 the basic argument against the death penalty which seems to me to be quite hard to refute.

The argument goes like this:

Capital punishment is always wrong because we can never know if the victim’s life was 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. (Not in our European culture, that is.)

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.

(It doesn’t matter that Islamic State will execute you for being homosexual. A lack of proportion doesn’t mean a value judgement hasn’t been made.)

But staying within our enlightened culture, we tend only to hear arguments for capital punishment for the crime of murder. I’ve never heard even the most reactionary, the most crusty and dusty conservative, argue for capital punishment for anything other than murder. And, curiously, that is a problem for their argument. (Islamic State doesn’t have the following problem because they’d kill you for pretty much anything.)

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, and how we decide that x deserves y or it 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 little girl in the alley comes in.

If you think value judgements have nothing to do with deciding what’s right or wrong, 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 capital punishment 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, without realising it, 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’ where the victim 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.

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

If the person making the case for human sacrifice believes in God then it’s them who should be the first to argue against capital punishment.

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.

Someone as innocent as a little ten year old girl is, on the Christian worldview, 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?

It’s too easy to support capital punishment. 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.

Image result for gary gilmore

Lessons for Jessica

Lessons for Jessica

Three Scenes

Penny

Mikey

Male Nurse

Female Nurse

A private room in what might be a hospital.

Far right is a bed with a patient: the patient’s face is obscured.

Next to the bed is a window, slightly open.

There is a table, centre, with chairs.

Far left is the door into the room. The corridor behind the door is lit in pale-pink.

SCENE 1

 

MIKEY is sat at one of the chairs, tapping and swiping his mobile phone screen.

The FEMALE NURSE fusses about the bed.

Then she turns to leave.

MIKEY: All okay?

The nurse ignores him and walks out.

Moments later, PENNY enters carrying a shopping bag and hand bag.

PENNY: (surprised) How did you get here?

MIKEY: Alright. Got here quite early.

She sits down. Pulls out apples and bananas and magazines from the shopping bag.

PENNY: How’s everything?

MIKEY: The nurse wouldn’t speak to me.

PENNY: (amused) Really? Why’s that?

MIKEY: (puts phone away) No idea.

PENNY: He’s not the best talker. You’ve probably upset him somehow.

MIKEY: I was just sat here, minding my own business. I never said a word.

PENNY: Well…you probably said something to annoy him.

She takes the fruit and magazines and places them on the bed at the patient’s feet.

I’ll sort these in a bit.

She leans in to look at the patient, putting her hand on the forehead.

MIKEY: There’s no change. There never is.

PENNY: You never know. I’ll ask the nurse when he comes back.

MIKEY: Good luck with that.

PENNY: He’ll talk to me.

She sits back down.

MIKEY: She. The nurse is a woman.

She glares at him.

PENNY: You know what I meant. You seen the doctor?

MIKEY: No. Not a peep.

PENNY: You’re not much use. You’ve got to communicate. Ask questions. That’s your problem.

MIKEY: He hasn’t been in yet. Not since I’ve been up. When he comes in, I’ll communicate.

Smiles at her.

I promise.

PENNY: (smiles back) Have you been out in the corridor and asked?

MIKEY: I told you, I haven’t seen him.

PENNY: So you’ve failed to find him?

MIKEY: No. I haven’t failed to find him because I haven’t tried to find him. He’ll be here when he’s here. What’s the hurry?

PENNY: I’m not in a hurry. Did I say that? Why do you do that? I didn’t say that. It might have been an idea for you to ask a few questions while you were here, that’s all.

Mikey rubs his face, scratches his head, and gets up and wanders over to the bed. Looks at the patient.

MIKEY: (turns to Penny) I told you there’s no change. There never is. Nothing’s happening. If there’s some change we’ll see the doctor. I’m sure he’ll get to one of us.

Penny takes her phone from her bag and starts swiping / tapping the screen.

You got his mobile number?

PENNY: Whose?

MIKEY: The doctor’s

PENNY: No I haven’t.

MIKEY: Oh. I thought you were going to ring him.

PENNY: How could I do that when I don’t have his number?

Pause

And why would I ring him anyway? We’re where we are. I could just go and ask him.

MIKEY: I don’t know. I just assumed you had his number. It’d make sense. Easy contact.

PENNY: Easy contact?

MIKEY: (innocently) What?

There’s SILENCE as Mikey looks again at the patient and Penny taps away at her phone. Mikey sits back down.

PENNY: Is your mother coming?

MIKEY: Is what?

PENNY: Is your mother coming?

MIKEY: I’ve no idea. Why?

PENNY: No reason. I assumed she’d be coming by now.

MIKEY: She’s come plenty of times.

PENNY: She’s come? I’ve not seen her.

MIKEY: Plenty of times. I’ve seen her.

PENNY: I’m just saying I haven’t seen her. You think she’s coming?

MIKEY: I don’t know. Maybe. Why?

PENNY: I told you. No reason.

MIKEY: She has been in plenty of times. I told you I’ve seen her.

Mikey shakes his head and smirks – annoyed.

Okay, what? I’ll play along.

Penny: (shrugs) What? What? I haven’t seen her for a while, that’s all.

MIKEY: She’ll text me if she’s coming.

PENNY: If she’s coming?

MIKEY: When she’s coming in.

PENNY: It’s been a while, that’s all. I’ve missed Joan. The nights out and all that. You seen her lately?

MIKEY: I told you I’ve seen her here.

PENNY: No, I mean have you seen her properly? Has she got a new bloke on the go?

MIKEY: Not that I know of, no.

PENNY: She probably has, you just haven’t met him.

Pause.

I’m not being funny, but come on. You have to admit it: since they got divorced she doesn’t let the grass grow. Keeps everything nice and trim. I thought she’d still be with that Gerald.

MIKEY: Gerald’s been off the scene for a few weeks. I’m sure she meant to tell you. Her letter probably got lost in the post.

Penny closes her phone, takes a huge breath – sighs heavily.

PENNY: I saw your mate the other day, the driving instructor. I was trying to sort out some lessons for Jessica. He’s left his wife, he said. Said she found text messages from a girl he’s been teaching and confronted him. He admitted it. Right there and then. Right out in the open. Told her straight to her face what he’d been up to. Couldn’t believe it. Men must have got away with murder years ago. No there’s so many ways to get caught out.

MIKEY: Listen to yourself. Sorting out lessons for Jessica? You don’t even know the girl. It’s not even five weeks. A perfect little family already? Don’t tell me you tried to get a discount? You must have done. Why go there otherwise.

PENNY: He said he was all booked up and couldn’t accommodate. He gave me the number of a mate of his, some bloke.

MIKEY: Stephen.

PENNY: That’s the one. I’ll ring him later. He’ll be easy to contact.

MIKEY: Why doesn’t he ring him, it’s his daughter. And why are you asking favours from my friends? We have to respect boundries, apparently. That speech about having to knock now? It’s different now and all that?

Pause.

PENNY: You’re still a child, then?

MIKEY: There you go. You’re so interested in having a dig you don’t even know how insulting what you just said is. That takes some doing. I’m not having a go. No, no, I’m not having a pop. All you wanted to do with that comment was have a dig. What was the insulting word?

PENNY: (irritated) What?

MIKEY: Which bit was the insult?

PENNY: None of it. It’s a fact. You are a bloody child.

MIKEY: See? Child. You think that was the dig. That might be how you meant it but that’s not the insulting bit.

PENNY: Go on then. I’ll play along.

MIKEY: Still.

PENNY: Still. Still a child?

MIKEY: Yeah, still. Still a child.

Pause.

Where have I been? Have I just spent two years on Jupiter? Now I’m back and you realise I’m still a child?

PENNY: I have no idea what you’re talking about.

MIKEY: I’m still a child? Still. Still? Christ, it’s talking to a stillborn child. You really don’t get it. You actually don’t understand. You’re still a…whatever? You’re still a…whatever it happens to be? The word still implies time, dear. Time. So tell me, how much time has there actually been?

PENNY: Right, and?

MIKEY: Good. See, that’s how I know you, because you tell me things by accident. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but in your head it was knocked down and rebuilt in one bloody afternoon. In comes the new, and it’s perfectly formed already. All that time’s past, and you’ve realised I’m still a child. How romantic. No, no, don’t look like that, I’m serious. Think about it from his point of view. What is he, deaf? Lessons for Jessica. You should listen to yourself.

Silence.

PENNY: More romantic than you.

MIKEY: You know what the opposite to a romantic is?

PENNY: I’m sure you’re going to tell me.

MIKEY: A realist.

PENNY: Really? What’s the opposite to romantic?

MIKEY: The word you’re looking for is romanticism. Versus realism.

PENNY: Whatever.

Penny gets up and walks toward the door.

MIKEY: Where you going?

PENNY: Getting a coffee.

MIKEY: Oh, right. Would you –

Penny slams the door behind her.

Get me one, too?

Mikey deflates, sags.

Brilliant.

A MALE NURSE enters and goes to the patient and starts fussing about, taking temperature, fluffing pillows.

All okay?

NURSE: Everything’s stable. That’s always the main thing. I’m sure things’ll be looking up soon.

MIKEY: That’s the main thing.

NURSE: Has the doctor been in?

MIKEY: Not seen him.

NURSE: I’ll ask the doctor to pop in and have a word.

MIKEY: Okay.

NURSE: The doctor’ll need to have a quick word anyway. About blood.

MIKEY: The blood?

NURSE: The blood.

MIKEY: The blood. Okay.

NURSE: The blood. I’ll let the doctor talk to you. There’s a blood question.

MIKEY: Right. There’s a blood question.

NURSE: There is a blood question. I’ll let the doctor talk to you.

The nurse turns back to the bed and picks up the fruit Penny put there.

I’ll get rid of these for you. Everything’s almost rotten.

The nurse exits, closing the door quietly behind him.

Lights fade slowly to black.

SCENE 2. MINUTES LATER.

Mikey sits flicking through a magazine.

Penny enters carrying coffee.

MIKEY: Nurse came in while you were out.

Penny ignores him.

We had a quick chat.

Penny walks over to the bed, looks at the patient, then moves to the window.

So now you’re not interested. I’m trying to communicate.

PENNY: And she said what?

MIKEY: Seemed quite pleased. All’s fine, no problems. Everything’s as it should be.

Penny motions to the bed.

PENNY: How can everything be as it should? Where are we?

MIKEY: Under the circumstances everything’s fine.

PENNY: (smiles) It’s the circumstances which suggest things are not fine. The circumstances are how we know things are far from fine.

She takes a sip of her coffee and grimaces.

Euugh!!

She spits the coffee out and wipes her mouth with her hand, then taps the corners of her mouth with a finger tip.

Gross!

Mikey chuckles.

Penny turns to him quickly, catching him chuckling.

Mikey: (shrugs) What?

She leaves the coffee on the window sill and sits down near Mikey.

Pause.

Penny: How did you get here?

MIKEY: What?

PENNY: How did you get here? I asked you earlier but you didn’t say. How did you get here?

MIKEY (uncomfortable) Well we both know I didn’t drive here, so what’s the point in asking?

PENNY: No reason. I’m just asking.

Pause.

Did you get the bus?

MIKEY: (shifts in his seat) Yeah, everything’s a joke to you.

PENNY: (shrugs) What? I’m just asking. Did you get the bus?

MIKEY: I walked.

PENNY: Okay, you walked. I was only asking.

Pause.

So you didn’t get the bus?

MIKEY: You know what, you’re an idiot.

PENNY: (laughing) What? I was only asking.

MIKEY: Whatever.

PENNY: Let me get this straight..

MIKEY: For god’s sake!

PENNY: (amused) No, listen, I just want to get it right. You tell me if I get anything wrong, right?

Mikey shifts in his seat.

Okay. So it’s early and you’re going to work. It’s early because you’re on an early, and you get to the bus stop and that bitch with the fat arse isn’t there. Can’t get her fat fucking arse out of bed. So you get there and the bus comes, and everything’s normal. Okay, fine. So you get on the bus and go to the rear. You always go straight for the rear, and you never mess about upstairs, you always stay downstairs. You’ve got a thing for the exhaust fumes or something. So you’re in your little hole and the heat from the engine makes you feel sleepy after a while. To be fair you are tired because you got up early because you’re on an early, so as you go, you start to feel tired. So you carry on along for a bit and other people get on, but you’re not really paying attention. It’s the rhythm of the whole – sorry, it’s the whole rhythm, that’s it – which puts you out and at some point you fall asleep. Fine. So you’re asleep. Then something happens. What was it? Oh, that’s it. You hit a bump in the road, or there’s a rough patch or something, and it wakes you up. You open your eyes and see all the passengers on the bus are all old people, or most of them are. Skin like wet tissue paper, you said. They can’t drive anymore. Too frail or whatever. But the thing is every passenger on the bus has turned and is staring at you. All of them, they’re staring at you. Expressionless. Just staring. But as soon as you open your eyes, they all quickly turn away and go back to normal, like they weren’t doing it. Is that right? Is that still the size of it? No, hang on – I’ve forgot something. The hand holds hanging from the ceiling were made of rope. You’d never noticed before. They were made of rope and they looked like mini nooses. Little ropey nooses. And it’s all too much so you have to get off in the middle of nowhere. Something like that?

MIKEY: You’re still a bitch then?

PENNY: (huge smile) Still?

MIKEY: Drink your coffee.

PENNY: I don’t like the taste.

MIKEY: Oh I know you don’t. And I didn’t get off in the middle of nowhere, I knew where I was.

PENNY: So that’s not exactly what you said?

MIKEY: That’s pretty much what I told you.

PENNY: Right then. There you go.

MIKEY: That’s what I’ve told you. Where’s I gone? And why she a bitch anyway? Suddenly you’ve got a problem.

PENNY: No, no; not at all. Absolutely not. No problem whatsoever.

MIKEY: It’s nice she’s still on your mind.

PENNY: Your mother text you yet?

MIKEY: Nope.

PENNY: I always thought your mother should have been in the police as well. She would have made a good inspector.

MIKEY: What are you going on about?

PENNY: What was he? He was an inspector. You said. How much of him rubbed off on you?

Mikey ignores her.

You know, I think you were asleep that day. You stayed asleep, I mean. I think you had what they call a false awakening. There’s those dreams when you think they’re real for a few moments, which is why people get scared, then there’s the ones where you dream you’ve woken up, but you haven’t. You actually dream you’re awake. It’s supposed to be quite rare. That’s what they say.

MIKEY: I wasn’t dreaming.

PENNY: Come on, you must have been. Think about it. No, listen, I’m being serious. Why would everyone be staring at you? I mean, why would they?

MIKEY: How should I know?

PENNY: And then turn back when you open your eyes and see them? It’s too weird.

MIKEY: Why don’t you think about it for a second? I didn’t wake up again, did I? I didn’t have two awakenings, one fake.

PENNY: False.

MIKEY: Fake, false, either way, once I opened my eyes, they stayed open. And anyway, I didn’t sleep-walk to the bus stop. There’s a whole whatever it’s called…a whole unbroken memory.

PENNY: I think there’s a hole in your memory. Some rhythm got lost in this hole…this whole thing. What explanation do you have for all these old farts staring at you while you were asleep? If it actually happened, that is.

Penny smiles.

Imagine waking up and seeing their faces just inches from yours…

MIKEY: I have no idea at all, I’m just saying what I saw.

PENNY: (stern) Don’t tell lies, Mikey. You know it’s wrong. Don’t make me shout. Now, come along and let’s have the truth. Like I do, I want you to spit it out..

MIKEY: I’ve told you the –

PENNY: Why were the old people staring at you? What did you do? Were they smiling at you, all knowingly? Were they laughing?

MIKEY: Didn’t do anything, I promise I didn’t do anything.

The MALE NURSE enters. Mikey and Penny both look his way.

NURSE: (to Mikey) The doctor’s in his office if you want a quick word.

MIKEY: (relieved) Yes, I will. I mean I do. I do.

PENNY: I’ve got a few questions of my own.

Mikey and the nurse enter the pink corridor, closing the door behind them.

PENNY: Charming.

Moments later the FEMALE NURSE enters and goes to the bed, to check the patient and fuss about with pillows etc.

Penny watches her for a moment.

All okay?

NURSE: (without turning round) Everything’s fine.

PENNY: What are you doing exactly?

NURSE: Just making them comfortable. The easy part of the job.

The nurse turns to face Penny.

He’s in with the doctor, I take it?

PENNY: Yeah, just now.

NURSE: Thought so. I saw him coming in. He’ll be getting to everyone.

PENNY: Where’s the fruit? I brought some fruit when I came.

NURSE: I removed the fruit earlier. It was rotten.

PENNY: Rotten? How can it be…

NURSE: It’s nil by mouth, anyway.

PENNY: Nil by mouth?

NURSE: Nil by mouth.

PENNY: So you’re doing an operation?

NURSE: That’s up to the doctor.

PENNY: But we still can’t have anything?

NURSE: Well…nil by mouth.

The nurse exits.

PENNY: Bitch.

Lights fade slowly to black.

Scene 3. Minutes later.

Mikey enters carrying two take-away cups.

Penny is reading a magazine. She looks up when Mikey enters.

Mikey looks all about the room, at the ceiling, the walls. He’s confused, vacant.

MIKEY: Got you a…decent one.

PENNY: Can’t stand that coffee. It almost made me sick.

MIKEY: Yeah. I saw.

PENNY: So you thought I’d like another one?

Mikey is still looking about the room.

MIKEY: What? No, that’s tea.

PENNY: Thanks.

She takes a sip.

So what did the doctor say? Did you ask questions?

MIKEY: I communicated, yes.

PENNY: So you didn’t ask anything. Brilliant.

MIKEY: I saw him. I even spoke to him.

PENNY: And what did he say?

MIKEY: (vague) He wanted to know…

PENNY: Out with it, boy.

MIKEY: He wanted to know why you said my mother should have been in the police. How did you recognise this?

PENNY: I’m sorry?

MIKEY: Why was that?

PENNY: What did he say?

MIKEY: He wasn’t that type of doctor.

PENNY: (scared) What are you going on about?

MIKEY: (looking around the room) Have you any idea where we…

PENNY: What did the bloody doctor say!

MIKE: He said there’s to be nil by mouth and there’s some transfusions problem. It’s a blood question.

PENNY: Transfusion confusion – right. What did he actually say?

MIKEY: I told you.

PENNY: No, what did he actually say? What actual words did he actually speak?

MIKEY: I think it’ll be a while, he said.

Penny stands up, collects her bag, ready to leave.

PENNY: (nervous) You’re infuriating. I didn’t get my arse out of bed for this rubbish. I’m getting a lift. If they want me they can ring me.

Penny takes her phone and starts texting.

MIKEY: Has the doctor got your number? He just took mine.

PENNY: Yes, he took my number ages…

Stops texting, closes phone.

Ages ago.

Penny sits back down.

MIKEY: Drink your tea. We might be here some time.

Blackout.

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The Cat in Lovecraft’s Hat

The Babadook is a complicatedly simple movie. Behind the fourth wall (or inside the fictional action) is a kind of ‘third wall’ which stands between symbolism and realism within that fictional world, and it’s this third wall which the movie breaks – and that might be the movie’s problem.

Consider Goldberg and Mccann in (because this is a movie blog) Friedkin’s (1968) version of Pinter’s The Birthday Party. They are symbols: of religious authority and state power, but also symbolise two repressed people, in this case Jews and Irish, while still representing actual individual characters – real people – in the play. The Babadook is written in a comparable way in that the monster (initially) represents the mother’s grief over the death of her husband, but the grief is intense enough to actually break the internal wall between symbolism and in-context realism and manifest itself into the movie’s reality. Her grief becomes an actual character in the movie.

Had the behaviour of the mother been just symbolic of the grief she’s feeling and its negative power on and over her, then her son wouldn’t have been afraid of Mister Babadook because he wouldn’t have existed in his reality; in his reality he would have just had an ever more insane mother to worry about.

It’s a rather stark situation we’re given to watch: a worn out mother – who hasn’t slept properly for years – is shown reassuring her son there’s nothing in the wardrobe – a classic childhood fear. But there’s no cuddle for warmth or encouragement: she appears almost bored with the routine and pays not much attention to her son clinging to her, and it’s the shot of them lying in bed – where the mother moves as far away as she can from her son while remaining comfortable – which illustrates the emotional distance she wants to have between them. Some critics have suggested the monster represents her grief, and this is true, but what’s more dramatic is what she does with that grief. She uses it to blame her son for her husband’s death.

(Her tiredness is what finally tears her sanity. Tiredness can cause significant problems, and one thinks of Peter Mullan in Session 9 (2001) as an example of the problems caused by fatigue.)

The mother is in a constant state of mourning for her husband, but also for the emotional attention a man would give her. This is understandable, and realistic. Though it might seem strange that she rejects the kindly romantic advances from a co-worker, given what’s missing in her life, this demonstrates the extent to which her mind is locked in the past, and that is demonstrated by her checking the door to the basement is safely locked tight. The basement is her memory.

So the basics are that she feels intense grief over the husband’s death, blames the son for his death because the crash happened while the husband drove her (in labour) to the hospital, and the emotional distance she subsequently feels is the cause of the son’s ‘behavioural problems.’ In other words he doesn’t feel loved so is fighting for attention.

This is standard drama; that’s not to say it’s bad drama – it isn’t – but it’s standard drama in the sense there’s some element of circular tragedy to the relationships shown: there’s a reason for almost everything.

What works – and is mighty impressive given the movie is the director’s first feature film – is the lack of cheap and easy ‘sudden bang’ shocks which are popular because they’re easy. The Babadook slowly builds its tension, drawing the viewer in to the action by creating trust because the viewer is not waiting for the next ‘jump’ so relaxes into the action. This is done so well that when the mother has really lost it and is trying to kick the door in, we’re in the room with the kid, hiding…