Mad Men: A Review of Edgar Allan Poe’s Short Stories

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I read three of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short stories this week. “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” all focus on a mad narrator who is telling the reader about his crimes. As a lover of Poe’s work, I was excited to revisit these stories this week. I found it fascinating that, despite the fact that each story is told from the perspective of the killer, I never found the stories as obnoxious or unpleasant to read as other stories I have reviewed recently that are from the point of view of mad men. Conversely, I was reminded of Poe’s incredible ability to craft horror stories with depth and use language to evoke emotion.

“The Tell-Tale Heart”

In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator explains how he was compelled to kill a man who had “the eye of a vulture.” What I found so compelling about this story was how close we are to the narrator’s point of view. We are reading his attempts to rationalize the murder and retain his sanity. However, as the story progresses, we are clearly shown that the narrator is insane. The manic, staccato sentences further underscore his mania. Through reading the story so close to his perspective, the story becomes all the more tragic because we get to watch him try and fail to rationalize his crime and cling to sanity.

“The Black Cat”

Similar to “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat” centers around a narrator who is driven mad with guilt after a murder. However, unlike the former story, the narrator in “The Black Cat” seems to be aware of the madness of what he has done relatively early in the story. The alcoholic narrator seems to be prone to bouts of violence while drunk, during which he kills his cat and then his wife before walling her and, unbeknownst to him, his new cat up in his cellar. The narrator is incapable of rationalizing what he has done, seemingly blaming the alcohol. The detached way in which he describes the crimes, juxtaposed with the crippling guilt he feels by the end of the story, results in a magnificent examination of the trappings of alcoholism.

“The Cask of Amontillado”

“The Cask of Amontillado” shares similarities with both “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” in that Montresor, the narrator, details how he has murdered, Fortunato, a man who has insulted him. However, unlike the other two stories, Montresor seems to savor the brilliance of his murder and the irony of the situation, particularly after we know the fate of Fortunato. Lines about how Fortunato won’t die from his cough become all the more humorous and sinister once we, like Montresor, understand that Fortunato is going to be murdered. However, this ironic tone brings into question why, after half a century, is the narrator telling this story to someone who knows “the nature of my soul?” Is this a deathbed confession of a man who wants to be absolved of his sins despite his lack of guilt that is evident in the irony of the story? While it is unclear who is told to rest in peace at the end of the story, “The Cask of Amontillado” is yet another prime example of how Poe can craft a layered and complex story from the prose to the overall plot.

I was first introduced to Gothic fiction through Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. He has continued to inspire me through how he crafts horror stories with depth and uses language to evoke emotion. While these three stories share similarities, each highlight different facets of murder, resulting in three brilliant stories that explore humanity and madness.

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One Bad Day: A Review of Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

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Batman: The Killing Joke is a 1988 graphic novel that was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland. The story centers around Batman and one of his most infamous villains, the Joker. As a child who very much enjoyed the existential caped crusader, this was not my first time reading this graphic novel. The way in which the story highlights the similarities between Batman and the Joker is what makes this such a fantastic story, but they fridged Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl), and I can’t celebrate any story that disposes of such a fantastic character in such a careless way.

Before we go into yet another discussion concerning the mistreatment of female characters, let’s review the strengths of this graphic novel. First and foremost, this story captures the unique relationship between Batman and the Joker. What I’ve found so interesting about their dynamic is, as the Joker points out, they have quite a bit in common. They both were motivated to action through traumatic experiences, and while Batman went on to fight crime, the Joker took a darker route after facing Batman as a petty criminal. In this graphic novel, the Joker brings up the concept that one bad day can make anyone go insane. This is proven through his backstory as well as the end of the story where Batman goes against his moral code and kills the Joker. While some readers see the ending of the story as ambiguous, it is pretty clear to me. The Joker finally goes too far when he shoots and violates Barbara Gordon, and when Batman realizes that this villain will never stop, he goes insane and kills him after the Joker tells one more joke (the killing joke, you might say). As a result, the Jokes shows us that one bad day can make anyone, even Batman, go insane and cross the thin line that separates vigilante heroes and psychopathic villains.

My main issue with this graphic novel is that the exploration of Batman and the Joker’s relationship comes at the expense of Barbara Gordon. For those who don’t know, Barbara Gordon is Batgirl, a vigilante superhero, but you’d never know it from just reading this comic. Her only role in this comic book is to be shot and violated so that Batman can be pushed beyond the point of no return (cue The Phantom of the Opera music). For those who read my Seven review, you will remember that I discussed the concept of fridging, which is a plot device, commonly found in comic books, where a girlfriend, wife, romantic interest or, in this case, sidekick, of the male protagonist is injured or killed to further his motivation and/or the plot. Barbara is fridged in this comic, and as a Batgirl fan, I was sad to see her used in such careless manner.

There is no denying Alan Moore’s talent as a storyteller. Batman: The Killing Joke is a famous story concerning the caped crusader because of how it explores the complexities of his relationship with the Joker as well as how it examines the thin line that separates all of us from madness. Alas, like so many of the stories I have reviewed in the last few months, there was so much less care taken with the female characters in the story. I mean, they fridged Batgirl, which is not okay.

A Rocky Ride: A Review of Jack Ketchum’s Joyride

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Jack Ketchum’s Joyride centers around Carole and her lover, Lee. The book starts with the pair killing her abusive ex-husband, but, unfortunately, someone witnessed the murder. Wayne, an enthusiastic psychopath, forces the couple to go on a deadly road trip as Lieutenant Rule follows hot on their trail. The book holds true to its name in that it was an easy, quick read with plenty of joyous blood and gore. That being said, the car hit some bumps along the way.

Before going into my criticism of the text, I first want to point out some of the strengths of this story. I enjoyed reading this book. I thought the pacing was excellent and the story compelling enough to make me want to find out what would happen next. Furthermore, there is an overarching commentary concerning violence, abuse, and victimization in relationships between men and women. While the commentary is muddled by the end of the story, these aspects of the book made it a compelling read.

Still, I had several issues with this book. First and foremost, the editing. Mistakes happen, but this book was littered with so many spelling and grammar errors that I had to resist taking out my red pen. Some errors were in very unfortunate places. One of the most memorable was that instead of writing about how a character “came” during sex, the word “camel” was written, resulting in the sentence: “he had her gasping–and she camel.” Other missing words and grammatical error were less humorous and merely made comprehending the story more of a guessing game. I read the 2010 reprint, and I hope these errors merely came out of the reprinting because it was a bit of a mess

On a more story level, I had trouble connecting with the characters. Wayne was created from a combination of real-life psychopaths, but the end result seemed too cartoonish to fear. Similarly, I was confused about who was the protagonist of the story. Since we start with Carole and she seems to be the focus of most of the events of the story, I assumed that she was our protagonist. Given the fact that the story centers around themes of rape and abuse, she, a woman who was molested by her father, raped by her ex-husband, and traumatized by Wayne, seems like the obvious choice. However, Lieutenant Rule takes over the story at some point during the book.

Instead of focusing on how Carole develops from a victim to a survivor, Lieutenant Rule pulls focus, telling Carole she’s a victim and learning a lesson about how men like him and Wayne are assholes. I’m all for misogynists realizing that they are terrible people, but by doing it at the expense of Carole’s character arc, it makes her into nothing more than a victim, which undermines a lot of the potential this book had to discuss abuse and sex crimes. As a result, I found the excessive amount of abuse and sex crimes present in this book to be gratuitous.

Joyride has the potential to be a good book, but the story ultimately falls short for me. I was along for the ride, interested to see what would happen next, but by the time I reached the final destination, I wondered if the joyride was worth my time. And to answer your question, yes, I am proud of that driving metaphor.

Using Characters for Better and Worse: A Review of Seven

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Seven (1995) is often considered a modern classic by many film critics. The film follows two detectives as they hunt down a serial killer whose murders are inspired by the seven deadly sins. I’ve watched Seven more times than I can count, and one aspect of the film that I’ve always admired was how it used the main characters, the two detectives and the serial killer, to examine crime and justice in the unnamed, corrupt city that they inhabit. That being said, not all characters are used in such an inspiring manner in the story. Interestingly enough, the greatest strength of this film, which is how it uses the characters, is also one of its few weaknesses.

The way in which concepts of crime and justice are explored through the characters in the story is a major strength of the film. At the start of the film, the two detectives seem to represent opposite ends of a spectrum of cynicism in regard to cleaning up the corrupt city. William Somerset, a grizzled and experienced detective, is going to retire soon and seems to think that the citizens of this city are too apathetic to ever change their ways. David Mills, on the other hand, is a comparatively inexperienced detective who asked to be transferred to this city in the hope of making a difference in an area that needs to change for the better. Over the course of the film, both their stances are altered through the serial killer they are hunting.

The serial killer, referred to as John Doe, believes that he can clean up the city himself by stopping people from committing the seven deadly sins through graphic and terrible murders that highlight these sins. At the end of the film, we learn that his last victim is Mills’s wife, and Mills is so enraged that he kills John Doe, who becomes the last victim because he envied Mills. After watching Mills’s descent into murder, Somerset seems to take a more optimistic stance. While he doesn’t think the city and the world is a good place, he does believe that it is worth fighting for. By examining these different approaches from various characters, we can see that the pursuit of justice can sometimes drive people insane and that not all attempts to end crime are heroic. The idealistic view of the world may not be the most accurate, however, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to work to make the world a better place. For such a dark story, the film almost ends on an optimistic note in this sense.

While Somerset, Mills, and Doe are used to explore concepts of crime and justice, not all characters are treated with such care in the film. Tracy is “fridged” at the end of the story for the mere purpose of motivating Mills to kill John Doe. “Fridging” refers to a trope that was originally created as a commentary on the plot devices in comic books where the girlfriend, wife, or romantic interest of the male protagonist is injured or killed to further his motivation and/or the plot. Tracy is often used as an example of “fridging” because her death in no way completes her character arc, if she even has one beyond being pregnant and not wanting to raise a child in a bad area. Instead, her murder motivates Mills to kill Doe.  With such careful consideration placed on Somerset, Mills, and Doe as characters in the film, it’s a shame that Tracy was not given the same attention.

Seven is considered a modern classic for a reason. The film explores themes of crime and justice through taking characters on both sides of the law and examining how their view of these ideas affects them as well as how they go about trying to clean up the corrupted city that they inhabit. One clear downside of this film was how Mills wife, Tracy, was used as a plot device instead of being a fully realized character like her male counterparts. Consequently, Seven serves as a great example of how to use characters to improve the story as well as how not to use characters, particularly female ones, as mere plot devices.

The Meter’s Running: A Review of Taxi Driver

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Taxi Driver (1976) follows Travis Bickle, a mentally unstable veteran, who becomes a taxi driver and takes the law in his own hands to clean up what he perceives to be the filth of New York City. Taxi Driver is a film that I’ve been meaning to watch for ages, but I haven’t gotten around to watching it until recently. What I thought would be an action-packed crime story about a vigilante ended up being a slow-paced, psychological thriller. I was fascinated by how the film explored the concept of justice as well as what defines a hero. Is Travis a vigilante hero, or is he an unstable psychopathic villain? Through examining Travis as a hero as well as a villain, I hope to shed some light on exactly what this film is saying about justice and heroes.

Let’s take a look at Travis as a hero first since, by the end of the film, the public seems to view him as such. From very early in the film, Travis expresses his disgust with New York City and its inhabitants because of the crime and corruption. He often complains that he can literally smell the city rotting, and he doesn’t seem to think that a politician can save it. As a result, he bulks up, buys a couple guns, and seems to wait for a noble cause. While I don’t know if killing crime and corruption is necessarily morally correct, the concept of trying to fix the evil of the world could be viewed as heroic. Technically, he stops a thief from robbing a convenience store owner. He also kills a pimp who is selling child prostitutes. At the end of the film, Iris, one of the child prostitutes who Travis befriends, actually goes home to her parents in Pittsburgh. Sure, she’s probably traumatized for the rest of her life after watching Travis kill all the people who ran said child prostitution brothel, but she’s off the streets and a few less disgusting monsters are breathing our air. In the sense that he saw evil in the world and worked to change it, I can, hesitantly, understand why Travis is viewed as a hero.

The flip side of this is that he’s a psychopath. Frankly, this option seems to hold more merit. While he does see crime and corruption in this city, he doesn’t seem to be solely motivated by the need to clean it up. He only briefly gets involved in politics because he is trying to court a woman who works at the campaign office of a presidential candidate. Furthermore, he only becomes concerned with child prostitution after Iris tries to escape her pimp by jumping into Travis’s cab. More than any noble cause, Travis seems motivated to these acts of seeming heroism out of boredom, dissolution, and anger more than anything else. He’s numb, sleepwalking through life. Pornography and women don’t seem to quench his need for fulfillment. Furthermore, he doesn’t seem to have any healthy way to cope with his anger. As a result, he goes out, almost looking for any reason to shoot someone. Let’s not forget that before he shot up the child prostitution brothel, he was planning on assassinating a presidential candidate without much of a reason. The fact that Travis is upheld as a hero for murdering other people is almost ironic in that if it was anyone who wasn’t as disgusting as people who run a child prostitute brothel, he’d probably be locked away in jail for the rest of his life.

Some people characterize Travis as an antihero or a psychopath who happens to be viewed as a hero by chance. While I think I fall more in line with those who view him as a psychopath, what this says about justice and heroes interests me far more. Are vigilantes or those who kill terrible people just as terrible as those they kill? How far separated is a man who assassinates a political candidate from one that kills men who are running a child prostitution brothel? I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it was satisfying to watch the monsters in the brothel get slaughtered, but I can’t help but wonder why then I’d be so disgusted if he’d ended up killing that politician instead. Can we really excuse horrendous violence if it’s enacted on terrible people, and what does that say about our culture if we do? This question leads us to arguably the most important question this film has to ask us: “Are you talkin’ to me?”

Family Matters: A Review of Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s Helter Skelter: The True Story of The Manson Murders

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Helter Skelter: The True Story of The Manson Murders is a true crime book written by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. The book centers around the investigation of the Tate and LaBianca murders as well as Charles Manson and his follower’s subsequent arrests and legal prosecutions. Bugliosi was actually the prosecutor in Manson’s trial, and he provides a firsthand account of the events. As a fan of true crime, I actually read this book a few years ago when I went down a rabbit hole of research concerning Manson and his followers, which were called, “The Manson Family.”  I found many aspects of the book just as compelling as when I first read it, but I did find some weaknesses with the book on my second read.

Helter Skelter is a great introduction into the murders as well as Manson and his followers. Despite the book being rather lengthy, the book is an easy read because Bugliosi and Gentry are very clear and concise in their writing. The book reminds me of a long news article or a report. The book also enabled me to get into the case through Buglisoi’s perspective, which made me feel like I was in the case with him. From when the bodies were first discovered to the sentencing, I got a first-row seat to observe what happened during the investigation and prosecution. I got to observe how incompetent the police were as well as how deadly Manson and his followers were at the time. There’s a reason why this is such a successful true crime book, and it’s due to the way in which Bugliosi and Gentry immerses you in these events.

While I found the book effective, it was far from perfect. The book gave an overview of the case, but I was shocked that it didn’t dive into certain aspects of Manson and his followers, particularly when there are several unnecessary sections about dead ends in the investigation and legal technicalities. Furthermore, the writing was clear and concise, but it was a little dry at times, especially for a novel of its length. I tend to appreciate non-fiction writers who can creatively convey information to the reader, and while the writing in this book is clear, it isn’t creative. I was far more engrossed in the book when I read it the first time because I was so hungry for more information about the crimes and the investigation, but the bland writing made it difficult to reread it with the same interest. Going more in-depth into the murders as well as Manson and his followers and making the writing a little more creative would significantly improve this book.

Despite the bland writing and detours into unnecessary information, Helter Skelter is a quick read that gives a great overview of Manson and his followers as well as the Tate and LaBianca murders. This book may not be as compelling on the second read, but the way that Bugliosi and Gentry insert you into the investigation and prosecution alongside Bugliosi makes this a fascinating and compelling read.

The Horror of Dependency: A Review of Stephen King’s Misery

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Stephen King’s 1987 novel, Misery, focuses on Paul Sheldon, a famous writer who is saved from a car crash by Annie Wilkes, a former nurse who is his “number one fan.” After realizing that he’s killed off his beloved romance series heroine Misery Chastain in his latest published novel, Annie holds Paul captive, demanding that he writes a new novel where Misery Chastain lives. A cat and mouse game ensues where Paul, crippled from the accident, tries to survive this psychotic fan. I have read Misery more times than I can count. The novel captivates me because it is not only about a psychotic woman and her victim, but it is also about the relationship between writers and readers. As I read the novel for the umpteenth time, I was struck by how nearly all of the story’s horror elements return to the idea of dependency.

Arguably, the most terrifying aspect of this novel is how dependent Paul is on Annie, his mentally unstable caretaker. Paul shatters both legs in the accident, which leaves him bedridden. Since Annie cares for him in her secluded house, he is dependent on her to manage his pain, feed him, help him use the bathroom, and heal his shattered legs. The only problem with being so dependent on her is that she’s mentally unstable. When she learns that Paul killed off Misery in his last book in the series, she has a violent outburst before leaving him alone for 51 hours without any way for him to eat, drink, or manage his pain. As both Paul and Annie point out throughout the novel, Paul depends on Annie to survive, and since she is so unstable, his life is often in jeopardy from her outbursts as well as her neglect. The fact that she holds his life in her hands is how she forces him to write a new novel where he brings Misery back from the dead because he has no other choice but to do what she says or face the potentially deadly consequences. Since he is so physically impaired, Paul is left to use his wit to outsmart her. The idea of being so helpless and dependent on a psychopath to survive is what makes this such a horrifying story.

Paul is also dependent on Annie in a broader sense because he is a writer and she is a reader. Without having readers like Annie who adore his work, Paul is merely screaming into the abyss with his writing, which highlights more universal fears that many writers or creators can experience. At the beginning of the story, Paul is finishing a manuscript on a new novel that is completely different from his Misery series. However, his “number one fan,” Annie, hates the novel so much that she literally makes him burn it and write a new Misery novel where Misery Chastain is still alive. This taps into the fear that writers and creators can have about stepping out of their usual medium or genre because readers and consumers can turn on them. King takes these fears a step further by bringing up the idea that readers can dictate what and how writers write. After forcing Paul to burn his other novel, Annie reads his pages of the new Misery novel as he writes it, letting him know when certain plot points “aren’t fair.” While there are few instances where readers literally dictate what writers write, this concept explores how worrying about the way that readers will interpret or receive a work can sometimes affect what or how writers write, which, in a broad sense, is like having Annie there, telling writers that a plot point isn’t fair. Through tapping into how dependent working writers are on readers deepens this concept of dependency in the novel in a more intellectually terrifying sense.

Beyond Paul’s dependency on Annie and a writer’s dependency on readers, other forms of dependency are explored in the novel as well. Paul grows dependent on Novril, a fictitious, addictive painkiller, showcasing how people can become reliant on drugs. That being said, not all of the ways dependency is explored in the novel is strictly negative. As Annie subjects Paul to worse and worse horrors, Paul grows dependent on the act of writing to escape the terrible events he’s experiencing. Many writers and creators, myself included, can understand this idea. A lot of times, we write to escape reality for the same reasons that readers read to escape their everyday lives. While Paul can never fully physically or mentally recover from the horrors he faced at the hands of Annie, he learns through this terrible experience how to depend on writing to escape his reality, which for a horror novel, is a rather optimistic note to end on.