What readers are saying about World’s End

Here’s what readers are saying about my novella World’s End. Thanks everyone, for your praise and enthusiasm. I never dreamed you would be as moved as I was in writing the story.

“I read parts of World’s End during my work hours. That’s how much I couldn’t put it down.” (Stephanie Gatley)

“Fan fiction can be awful, especially when the only fan it satisfies is its author. With World’s End, Loren has reached way beyond his own tastes, and tells a story with broad appeal. Stranger Things, indeed.” (Greg Wright)

“How many times have you reached the end of an emotionally intense book or movie and felt bereft? You’re not ready to let go. You need to know what happens to your friends. You miss them. Loren brings them all back with a vengeance. And the story goes on.” (Tina Lozeau)

“Honestly one of the best time travel stories I’ve read – and I’ve read many.” (Taheem Kazmi)

“Loren transports us into the world of Stranger Things so vividly, that you may as well be reading the Duffer Brothers’ next screenplay.  He is a master at including the best cultural references from the eras, and weaving in an interesting plot that keeps you staring at the last page after you’ve finished.  It sucks you in hard and then kills your soul in all the right ways fanfiction should.  Definitely a must read for any Stranger Things fan.” (Kylie Hargrove)

“A thrilling story that is actually superior to the plot of the TV series’ season two.” (Matt Bertrand)

“Eleven has suffered so much throughout Loren’s trilogy, and worst of all in World’s End. What her son manages to do for her in the end made me cry.” (Darren Hughes)

I will start posting the chapters to World’s End tomorrow, one each day from December 16-25.

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Stranger Things Trilogy: Word Counts

I am grateful for all the feedback I’ve had on my Stranger Things trilogy so far. I posted the first novella in August, and the second novella second in October, and the third will come later (though many have read the pdf, which I am willing to send). The third is the longest of the three, and almost half the trilogy. I compared my word counts to other writings, and it turns out the proportional lengths of my novellas are close to those of the books in C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.

My Stranger Things Trilogy

Volume Title Word Count Percentage of Trilogy
1 The College Years 19,094 24%
2 The New Generation 23,655 29%
3 World’s End 38,301 47%

C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy

Volume Title Word Count Percentage of Trilogy
1 Out of the Silent Planet 57,000 22%
2 Perelandra 82,000 32%
3 That Hideous Strength 118,000 46%

Not that Lewis’s trilogy has anything to do with mine, aside from these figures. I didn’t plan on each story getting larger; it just happened organically. I will say that while That Hideous Strength is arguably the weakest volume in the Space Trilogy, World’s End is the strongest in mine — according to everyone who has read it so far.

Four Models of Time Travel

Now that I’ve written a time travel story, I have a deeper appreciation of the genre’s challenges. It’s hard to make time travel work logistically and still have compelling drama. So here are my thoughts on the good and bad ways time travel has been handled on screen. I’ll focus on four models: (a) the single timeline, (b) multiple timelines, (c) the repeated loop, and (d) the universe fights back.

A. Single Timeline (Everything Predestined)

The most elegant model is the single timeline, or time stream, or universe, which amounts to a closed loop. In its simplest terms: the future time traveler was always in the past. Any “changes” made to the past are not changes at all, because they already occurred. It’s impossible to change the past, since the past has already happened. Which came first, chicken or egg?

A famous example of this model is used in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). In the story Harry and his friends are saved from dying by their futures selves, and so Harry later realizes that he has to go back in time to save his past self. Everything plays out exactly as before, and there’s no change on the timeline.

A more obscure example is the romance Somewhere in Time (1980), which uses the trope of self-hypnosis as the means of time travel. A playwright named Richard Collier travels from 1980 back to 1912, after being haunted by an encounter with an old woman who approached him out of the blue and told him to “Come back to me”, then disappeared. He later learned that she was a stage actress named Elise McKenna. Through self-hypnosis he sends himself back to 1912, where he meets Elise and they fall in love; their romance is later interrupted when he unintentionally transports himself back to 1980. Like the Harry Potter story, this forms a closed loop: Richard sends himself back in time because Elise tells him to; but Elise can only tell him to because she has already lived through their love affair when he sent himself back in time.

The following three films are my favorite examples of the single timeline model, in which everything is predestined. When I say “predestined”, I don’t mean that in a philosophical or religious sense. Single timelines have nothing to do with the issue of free will. I mean simply that everything has already happened: the future self was always in the past to begin with. The future self is not changing anything or creating new events by traveling to the past; it’s impossible to change the past.

1. Predestination (2014). The gold standard of the single timeline model is based on a short story written by Robert Heinlein, and portrays what sounds impossible: four characters of different genders and living in different times are the exact same person: Jane from 1945-1963; John from 1963-1970, and then 1985-1992; the Barkeep from 1992+; and a terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber sometime in 21st century. Again, they are literally the same person. (In the above photo, Barkeep John is on the left, speaking to younger John on the right, in 1970.)

This single person interacts with him/herself as follows: The Barkeep is from the late ’90s, but he has a time machine, and he bases himself in the year 1970, to await a meeting with his younger self. After listening to his younger self vent rage against a world that has treated him unfairly, the Barkeep takes him back to 1963, and drops him off for a night, where he impregnates Jane who is himself. She has the baby who is her own self, but there are complications with the birth that require a sex change surgery. After the operation, she takes the name of John. The Barkeep travels from the future to steal the baby after she is born, and he then takes her back in time to the year 1945, and leaves her at an orphanage, so that she can start growing up from the year 1945. The Barkeep takes John to the year 1985, where he becomes a counter-terror agent. In 1992 John encounters the Fizzle Bomber, and his face is maimed in an explosion. John now looks totally different — he has the face of the Barkeep. He acquires a time machine from his employer, and retires, traveling back to the year 1970 where he bases himself, to await the younger John, and fulfill the above cycle of events. Barkeep John returns to his time in the future, and at some point in the 21st century encounters the Fizzle Bomber again, but this time he sees that it is himself, much older, with grey hair and a beard. He vows that he will never become a terrorist and shoots the Fizzle Bomber on the spot. The movie ends with the clear implication that he will eventually become the Fizzle Bomber, as he is being slowly driven crazy by all the jumps he has taken through time.

Here’s how it maps out:

 

I don’t think any writer has ever outdone Heinlein on this concept — that four people of different genders can be the same person in four different time periods, and all from the same (closed) time stream. The filmmakers adapted it superbly.

2. Timecrimes (2007). A rustic Spanish countryside isn’t a typical setting for a time travel story, and the novelty is refreshing. A man named Hector travels back one hour in time, and then does so again, so that there are three versions of himself for the duration of that hour. During that hour, the second and third versions of himself uphold the initial sequence of events, sometimes intentionally, sometimes by accident. The only exception is when the third version of Hector tries to kill the second version (thinking that he’s protecting his wife from himself), but fails in the attempt. Everything plays out as before, and nothing is changed. It’s a fatalist drama of the single time stream, but it delivers plenty of surprises nonetheless.

The key is to understand that throughout the film there are always three Hectors in the hour duration. Hector 3 was always in the background, plotting his shenanigans against Hector 2. He fails to kill Hector 2, but he does injure him (as he himself had been injured in the same way), which causes Hector 2 to bandage his face and enter the forest with a woman whom he assaults. This prompts Hector 1 to investigate, which is what we see towards the start of the film: The first version of Hector sits on his house lawn looking into the forest with a pair of binoculars; he sees a woman being attacked by a “stranger” in a head bandage, and so goes to investigate, gets stabbed by the “stranger” (who is himself), and then flees up the forest path. He comes to an isolated shed where a scientist has created a time travel bath. The bath can only send people back in time for as long as it has been turned on, and Hector 1 hides inside it, not knowing what it is, and gets sent back in time one hour, where he becomes Hector 2. And so forth. The following diagram maps out the hour’s events:

 

What’s interesting is that Hectors 2 and 3 go out of their way to uphold the original events they’ve experienced (with the single exception of Hector 3’s failed attempt to kill Hector 2). On some level, the Hectors understand that changing time, if it were even possible, would wreak havoc by killing his own self. There is brilliant tragedy in the way Hector 2 finally returns home still bandaged and accidentally causes his wife (or who appears to be his wife from a distance) to fall off the roof of their house and die. This is why he goes back in time again, to become Hector 3: to kill Hector 2, even though this would result in his own death. Hector 3 fails, but he manages to save his wife by sacrificing another innocent woman in her place — who of course was really the one killed all along. Timecrimes is an underappreciated effort, and my second favorite of the closed loop model.

3. The Terminator (1984). Forget the lousy sequels — and yes, I’m including Terminator 2 in that indictment — the first is the only good one. Not surprisingly, it’s also the only one that forms a singular timeline in which nothing changes. In the far future, machines have taken over the world and are warring on humankind. A man named John Connor leads the resistance against them, and he stands a good chance of turning the tide. The machines become desperate, and decide to send back a terminator in time, to kill John Connor’s mother in the year 1984, so that she will never give birth to John — a preemptive abortion, in effect, before she even gets pregnant. However, the humans in the future learn what the machines are trying, and so they too send back a man, Kyle Reese, to protect Sarah Connor from being assassinated by the terminator. It turns out that Reese is John Connor’s father, but Reese doesn’t know this. In the past, while protecting Sarah against the terminator, he falls in love with her and gets her pregnant. The terminator eventually kills him, and Sarah succeeds in killing the terminator. Sarah knows she will have to teach her son someday that he is destined to lead the war against the machines, and that he will have to send Kyle Reese back to protect her, so that he (John) can be born. The spare robot parts left behind by the dead terminator ensured that machine technology will evolve in such a way that will allow the machines to take over some day. All of this forms a closed loop: neither past nor future is changed.

Unfortunately, the franchise ruined a good thing (as franchises often do), serving up sequel after sequel in which history changes in cheesy and non-compelling ways. In Terminator 2 we learn that the arm and chip of the first terminator technology was improved dramatically. Most significantly, the protagonists are able stop the apocalypse of Judgment Day — which means that not only will John Connor never lead a war against the machines (in the present timeline), he will never have been born (in any future timelines), since he has no reason to send Kyle Reese back in time. Films 3-5 try salvaging new drama from this, and the result is a mess. Here’s the plotting of all five films:

It’s not that there is anything wrong with the multiple timeline approach — as I explain below, I actually think it’s the superior model — only that the Terminator franchise didn’t use it well; the stories of T2-5 are lame. Let’s look now at the better ways the model has been used.

B. Multiple Timelines (Changing History)

Changing history is fun and offers high-stakes drama, but it’s hard to do right by. Most filmmakers blunder at some point. The idea is simple enough: the act of time travel automatically changes the past and forces the universe on to a different trajectory. It creates a new timeline, or an alternate history, a new causal chain, or a parallel universe — whatever you want to call it (see right diagram). Because it is a new timeline, it operates independently of the original one. That last part is what often gets muddled.

The most celebrated example of this model is Back to the Future (1985). Marty McFly goes back in time, and when he returns to the present, he finds that his parents are much more enjoyable people. For the most part the logistics are handled well, but there are some silly elements, as when for example Marty’s body starts to fade as he intervenes in the past, and starts to prevent his parents from falling in love. This misses the whole point of new time streams. Marty can’t possibly erase himself, because he comes from a time stream in which those threats to his existence never happened. If his parents don’t hook up, all that means is that there won’t be a version of himself born in the new timeline; it has no bearing on any versions of himself in or from other timelines.

Another fan favorite is Looper (2012), a thriller about time-traveling hit men. As a film it’s pretty good, but it gets hopelessly lost up its ass in mixing the two models. On the one hand, sending someone to the past creates a new timeline. On the other hand, that new timeline is treated as singular and closed, as when we see older versions of time travelers effected by what’s happening to their younger counterparts. So for example, when Young Joe carves “Beatrix” into his arm, it instantly appears on Old Joe as a scar. The problem is that Looper is supposed to be about a closed time loop when it’s really about a malleable future. On top of that, Joe’s sacrifice at the end is for nothing, because it won’t necessarily do anything to stop the Rainmaker’s creation. Looper does okay as a dramatic thriller, but it fails as a time travel story.

Here are two films which use the multiple timelines model flawlessly. And they’re excellent drama besides.

1. Deja Vu (2006). Arguably Tony Scott’s best film, Deja Vu is a film I could talk about all day. One critic has called it a digital version of Vertigo, for the way it explores obsession, fractured identity, and time travel. Considering the terrorist theme, Déjà Vu is surprisingly apolitical, and unlike Scott’s other films (like Man on Fire), it finds its solution not in revenge, but in the obsessive desire to go back in time and prevent the whole thing from happening — to save hundreds of lives, especially the one person you can’t stop thinking about, even if you don’t stand much chance of surviving the trip. Who else to play such a hero than Denzel Washington?

Denzel is Doug Carlin, a law official who has been recruited by a team of government agents who use a time machine to look into the past and solve difficult crimes. But Doug’s ambitions exceed theirs, and he persuades them to use the machine for time traveling purposes, so as to change events and prevent a ferry bombing from ever happening. First he sends a note back to himself, and when that fails (doing far more harm than good), he sends himself back, saving Claire and the hundreds of people from being killed.

People have criticized Deja Vu as if it aspires to the single timeline model. They say it’s impossible for Doug to have gone back in time, because he ends up saving the day. Since he prevents the ferry explosion, there is no crime to investigate, and so he will never be recruited by the surveillance team who use the time machine, and will never be sent back in time; the new future isn’t the old one. That’s missing the colossal point. The new future isn’t supposed to be the old one. Doug changed the past in order to save lives. This isn’t the predestination model; it’s the multiverse model, and the film clearly telegraphs that when the team of scientists debate the nature of time, and Shanti starts talking about divergent time streams.

Here’s a map of the time streams in Deja Vu:

It’s an excellent map, though hard to read; you have to click on it twice, then scroll around. I’ll summarize the timelines, and highlight in blue the events we see play out in the film.

There need to be at least four streams to account for all the nuances in Deja Vu, though there could obviously be more; we simply don’t know how many times Doug had to send himself back in time until he finally saved the day. But at a bare minimum:

  • In Timeline 1, the terrorist calls Claire about the availability of her Bronco van on Sunday evening, but because she can’t meet his deadline, he buys a Blazer van from someone else instead. He uses the Blazer to blow up the ferry Tuesday morning at 10:50 AM, and Claire remains safe and alive in this timeline. When Doug comes on the scene, he is recruited by the team with the time machine, and they use the machine to send a note back in time, to warn himself about the ferry bomber who is casing the ferry early Monday morning. Sending back this note in time creates Timeline 2.
  • In Timeline 2, the terrorist calls Claire about the availability of her Bronco on Sunday evening, but because she can’t meet his deadline, he buys a Blazer from someone else instead, just as in Timeline 1. However, the note sent by Doug to himself from the future (in Timeline 1) arrives on his desk early Monday morning around 4:00 AM, and his partner Larry sees it. Larry takes action and goes to the ferry, where the terrorist shoots him, but not before Larry puts enough bullet holes in the Blazer that causes the terrorist to seek out Claire after all. On Tuesday morning he steals Claire’s Bronco, kidnaps her, takes her to his house, and then kills her, burning her alive and dumping her in the river. He then uses the Bronco to blow up the ferry at 10:50 AM. When Doug comes on the scene, he goes to the coroner’s and sees Claire’s body (not in a red dress), and when he investigates her home, there is no message for him on the fridge. As in Timeline 1, he and his team use the time machine to send a note back in time, to warn himself about the ferry bomber casing the ferry early Monday morning. But later, he also demands that he be sent back in time (to Monday evening), so that he can try to save Claire. Sending back the note and himself creates Timeline 3.
  • In Timeline 3, the events start out exactly as in Timeline 2, but now Future Doug (from Timeline 2) arrives in a hospital on Monday night at 7:00 PM, where he is barely resuscitated. He wakes up on Tuesday morning at 8:05 AM, steals an ambulance, and goes to the terrorist’s home; he rescues Claire but gets shot by the terrorist, who gets away in Claire’s Bronco. Future Doug then takes Claire back to her house, where she changes into a red dress, and helps bandage him. In case he fails, he writes a message to himself on the fridge: “u can save her”. He leaves Claire at the house and goes to the ferry alone at 9:45 AM. The terrorist returns to Claire’s house, kills her, and dumps her body in the river. He then proceeds to the ferry, where Future Doug fails to stop him and is killed. The terrorist uses the Bronco to blow up the ferry at 10:50 AM. When Doug — Present Doug, who belongs to this timeline, and the Doug we first see in the film — comes on the scene, he goes to the coroner’s and sees Claire’s body, in a red dress, and when he investigates her home, there is a message left by his future self (from Timeline 2), saying “u can save her”. As before, he and his team use the time machine to send a note back in time, to warn himself about the ferry bomber casing the ferry early Monday morning. Later, he demands that he be sent back in time (to Monday evening), so that he can try to save Claire. Sending back the note and himself creates Timeline 4.
  • In Timeline 4, the events proceed exactly as in Timeline 3, up to the point that Future Doug (from Timeline 3) rescues Claire and takes her back to her house, where she changes into a red dress, helps bandage him, and he leaves the note to himself on the fridge. But this time he does not leave Claire at the house; he takes her with him at 9:45 AM to the ferry, even though he doesn’t want to. He does this because he remembers seeing the blood swabs in Claire’s trash bins in Timeline 3, which look exactly like his own right now from being bandaged; he realizes that if he doesn’t do something different, or against what he wants to do, events will simply repeat as before. The terrorist goes back to Claire’s house to kill her, but she isn’t there. He then proceeds to the ferry, where Future Doug and Claire both stop him and save the day, though Doug is killed in the process. The film ends at this point: The new Present Doug comes on the scene, and he will have no crime to investigate and so will not be recruited by the surveillance team. He won’t see the clues left for him by his future self on Claire’s fridge; and he won’t need them. In saving the day, his future self finally closed the loop. All he will have to account for is a dead body — his own — when it is found. He sees Claire on the ferry and gets an odd feeling of deja vu, as if they’ve met before.

That’s how you write a good time travel story. And it raises interesting questions about the phenomenon of deja vu. When we experience it, is it because we’re “remembering” things that happened or are happening to ourselves in different time streams in different ways?

2. Primer (2004). It’s the most realistic time travel film ever made, and not surprisingly, since it was scripted by a scientist. The plot centers around two young geniuses, Aaron and Abe, who accidentally create a time machine in their garage. They can use the machine to go into the past, but only as far back as when the machine was first turned on. This is actually how a time machine would probably work if we ever succeeded in creating one. A physics professor at the University of Connecticut, Ronald Mallett, has been trying to create a device like this for years now — by using a series of circulating laser beams that swirl into a time tunnel. Walking into this tunnel would allow someone to go back in time, as long as it was to a point after the machine was switched on. So if you turned on the machine on September 1 and left it continually running to December 31, you could go back four months, but no more. That’s how the time machine works in Primer, and also how the time bath works in Timecrimes, which I covered above.

The first time Aaraon and Abe use the machine, they go back six hours (which takes six hours to do, sitting in the box of the machine), and make good money for themselves in stock trades since they know how the market will perform. That’s the easy trip to understand, shown in the first chart below. By the end of the film, things have become so complex that it’s virtually impossible to keep up with all the multiple versions of the characters intersecting multiple timelines. To understand the full picture — which may take four or five viewings — click on the larger chart below the first one.

 

 

The logistics in Primer are handled with an incredible level of precision, and even if you can never keep all the details straight, it’s an amazing viewing experience, one that I keep finding myself drawn back to.

Anything goes?

It’s worth noting that while the multiverse theory is the one increasingly embraced by scientists, for others it seems like an inelegant solution. Steven Lloyd Wilson is one such curmudgeon, expressing his dislike as follows:

“While the multiple timelines model has the appeal of being logically consistent, it has a glaring problem. It’s a brute force hammer of solving the problem, like multiplying by zero to demonstrate both sides of the equation are equal. It’s just plain inelegant. It also has the story flaw of essentially rendering time travel moot. If anything that can happen, has happened in an alternate timeline, then the actions of the characters do not matter one bit. Going back in time and killing Hitler as a baby doesn’t change anything, because there is still an original timeline in which he doesn’t die.”

I fail to see how time travel is rendered moot by the fact that there are other timelines — millions of them, probably — in which events proceed either slightly differently or very differently. This is what scientists talk about all the time, even aside from the question of time travel. And to say that the actions of the characters don’t matter is nonsense. If I can go back and save the life of a friend by creating a new reality, that obviously matters to me. I don’t care how many alternate realities there are in which my friend dies, because I’m able to experience the new reality in which he lives. The actions of the characters matter to themselves, even if they don’t matter to critics like Wilson who want the “elegance” of all time streams producing the same result (which is ridiculous). Or as Doug Carlin says in Deja Vu, “You can be wrong a million times, but you only have to be right once.”

I believe the multiple timelines model is the superior model. It’s the harder one to nail down and make dramatically effective, but when done right, the result is sublime.

C. The Repeated Loop (The Do-Over)

In the do-over, scenarios are repeated until the protagonist triggers a reset, usually by dying, going to sleep, or getting knocked unconscious. The protagonist then wakes up and repeats the scenario again, making different choices, until he or she can finally escape the loop.

For whatever reason, do-overs are often saturated with comedy. Perhaps it’s because repeating yourself over and over again is something you have to roll with and play for laughs in order to keep your wits. In Groundhog Day (1993), the Bill Murray character relives the same day over again, until he finally obtains love and happiness. In The Edge of Tomorrow (2014), Tom Cruise gets dropped on the field of battle after brutal training sessions, continually killed and reset until he destroys a monster alien. In Happy Death Day (2017), the Jessica Rothe character keeps waking up on her birthday and getting murdered later in the day, until she figures out who the killer is (her sorority roommate). In all of these examples, the tone asks us to not take the story too seriously.

My favorite examples of the do-over are one that almost no one has heard of, and another that everyone knows.

1. All the Time in the World (2017). This episode from Dark Matter (season 3, episode 4) runs the gamut with hilarious comedy, emotional poignancy, and dark tragedy. For my money, it’s the best do-over ever scripted. One of the Raza’s crew members starts living the same day over and over again, and half the battle is trying to convince his fellow crew members that they are caught in the same loop, even though he’s the only one who can remember reliving the events. They never believe him, even though he can predict every little thing each one of them is about to say and do. Finally he persuades the ship’s android to teach him French, so that when the crew hear him speak a language he’s never known or studied, they’ll start taking him seriously. There is also a serious side to this episode, as the crew are able to use his foreknowledge of the day’s events to foil an attack on the ship. And once the source of the time loop is discovered (a device confiscated from a scientist), the android tries an experiment, and in the process, she experiences a tragic future where all the crew are dead except the girl Five, who is now aged and offers dire prophecies. Five also tells the android how to break the time loop. I have made a video-clip of Three’s French tutorial and his hilarious breakthrough in persuading Two. And also the end clip — Five’s doomsday prophecy of the far future — for a complete switch in tone.

2. A Christmas Carol (1843). Dickens’ classic is a variation of the do-over. Scrooge gets to visit the future of his current timeline, and even though he can’t affect the timeline directly, he observes things which allow him to change his actions in the present. So instead of the timeline he’s on which results in Tiny Tim’s death, he’s able to make a different choice, and create a new timeline in which Tiny Tim lives. A Christmas Carol is probably the best do-over ever written, though few people think of it as a time-travel story.

D. The Universe Fights Back

This is technically a multiple timelines model, because it is possible to change the past. But doing so results in cosmic disaster. The universe resists any attempts to reorder it, and nasty shit happens when those attempts succeed. That implicitly appeals to the single timeline model: the timeline “must be protected from change” at all costs — or else.

A famous example is Stephen King’s 11/22/63, in which Jake Epping goes back to prevent JFK from being assassinated. He finds it extremely hard to do; the closer he draws to saving Kennedy, things work strangely against him. He manages to save Kennedy, but the world eventually goes to hell as it’s torn apart by world wars. It’s a fatalist view, and a lot like the single time stream model: the past is destined to stay the past; if it doesn’t, then calamity rains down. So Jake undoes his mistake and allows JFK to die after all; this gets the universe back on track.

It’s a silly idea — that the cosmos would “care” about altered events so as to “react” against them — but it produces potent drama if done right. As in this story:

Father’s Day (2005). The plot is simple, and the resolution predictable, but only in way the tragedy often is; the drama is brilliant, and the acting Oscar-worthy. Rose persuades the Doctor to take her back in time to when her father was killed by a motorist, and despite being forbidden to alter the past, she saves him anyway, ushering in Doomsday. Everywhere on earth people are suddenly assaulted by Reapers, winged parasites that act like antibodies, destroying everything in wounded time until the paradox is gone. Rose’s father, realizing he should be dead, sacrifices himself to get the world back on its proper course.

As I said, the premise is silly, and it doesn’t help that script writer Paul Cornell can’t seem to decide whether he wants his story to be a multiple timeline or single. In a scathing review of Father’s Day, Martin Izsak writes:

“People today don’t seem to appreciate how ridiculous it is to try to protect a past timeline as if it’s the only one in existence, and will let the boogeyman out of the closet if it’s messed with. You can experience as many other versions [of a person, or an event] as you can time-travel back to, and it would be nearly impossible to make all the ‘right’ choices to re-live any of them exactly as you remember them. So the Doctor, sadly, makes an ass of himself trying to defend Cornell’s model of time, and rightly gets tripped up when Rose confronts him for being hypocritical about the heroics he proudly displays in almost every other setting he lands in… I officially present Father’s Day with the Wooden Turkey Award for being the stinker of the 2005 Doctor Who season.”

I actually believe that Father’s Day holds up as one of the best Doctor Who episodes of all time, despite the accuracy of Izsak’s criticisms.

Retrospective: The Blue Rose Trilogy (3): The Throat

throatIf you’ve never read The Throat but intend to, then stop reading now. This analysis will ruin any chance for a rewarding experience of all its surprises. For that matter, read Koko and Mystery beforehand, and “swallow” those novels as the title of this one urges.

The Throat is not only the best Blue Rose novel; it’s one of my favorite novels of all time. I say this with the deflective irony such a statement needs. It’s the most self-indulgent of the trilogy (at a whopping 689 pages), unconstrained by the discipline and tight writing of its predecessors, while shamelessly recycling their contents: Milwaukee is again transformed in an alternate setting; the protagonist was molested as a child like Koko’s villain, and hit by a car like Mystery’s hero. The specter of Vietnam is back. Tom Pasmore is back, now an adult and every bit as resourceful as Lamont von Heilitz. By this point Straub was risking beating a dead horse. But the redundancies work when taken to the next level. Everything that went before serves as a mere foreshadowing of the grand homicidal opera that is Blue Rose. He’s back after 41 years, and his story is a juggernaut.

It’s also impossible to figure out. In Koko it was hard to guess the killer’s identity, and in Mystery it was easier, but in The Throat there is no way in hell you would ever conclude that Mike Hogan is Fee Bandolier. On top of that is another Blue Rose killer, a copycat revealed in an outrageous twist that ends up eating the narrative’s tail. Some consider all of this a cheat for not giving the reader half a chance; but I don’t think so. It’s a testimony to Straub’s talents that he can make a mystery so deeply rewarding even when the clues are too hard, and when you enjoy going back afterwards and ruminating on them.

As for the title, it makes no sense. It’s the most meaningless title of any novel I’ve read. “The Throat” doesn’t refer to anyone’s physical anatomy. The Blue Rose killer slashed his victims’ throats, but also stabbed them in the heart. Straub has said that this novel “swallows” the previous two, Koko and Mystery, in a metafictional way — and I paid lip-service to that in the spoiler warning at the top — but that’s a very abstruse metaphor. I defy anyone who has read The Throat to say honestly that he or she grasps the title without having it explained by the author. I love it anyway. It’s one of my favorite book titles. It’s sounds great — I want to say it out loud when I look at the cover. At the very least, the novel’s theme of inhuman violence and deep scars suggests a guttural tone or atmosphere.

The Throat is a triumph because its problematic elements are either invisible or work strangely for it. It’s hard to say whether it’s more like Koko or Mystery. It channels Koko with the plot of a serial killer who is difficult (if at all possible) to figure out, and for themes of child abuse and the Vietnam War. It’s like Mystery for centering on the viewpoint of a great protagonist, in this case the very best Peter Straub has written. I could spend hours inside Tim Underhill’s head. He’s better than even Tom Pasmore, though it’s a close call; their team-up in this novel is such a treat that I could wish for a spin-off series modeled on the detective duo Jago & Litefoot.

I’m going to review the plot, briefly as possible and thoroughly as necessary. We need these facts at the ready.

The Plot

The story is set in 1991, and begins with Tim Underhill getting a phone call from his old high school friend John Ransom, who tells him that his wife April is in a coma. She was beaten and left for dead in the St. Alwyn Hotel with a “Blue Rose” calling card, just like the second Blue Rose victim of 1950. Five days before April, an unidentified man was killed in an alley outside the hotel, also with a “Blue Rose” calling card, like the first victim of 1950. Ransom knows that Tim wrote a fictionalized account of the Blue Rose murders in a novel called The Divided Man, in which Tim followed the official line that the police detective in charge of the Blue Rose investigation, William Damrosch (called Hal Esterhaz in Tim’s novel), was the Blue Rose killer. But even though Damrosch’s suicide note implied his guilt, Tim never really trusted it, and he later learned that it was Glendenning Upshaw who framed Damrosch and engineered his suicide. (Upshaw was responsible for the attack on the fake Blue Rose victim, Doctor Laing, which is the story of Mystery.) Tim and Ransom begin working on solving the original and present Blue Rose murders. Tim spots a man following Ransom on their way to visit April in the hospital. The next day, April is murdered in her hospital bed. A serial killer named Walter Dragonette, who calls himself the the “Meat Man”, is arrested by the police. He claims to be the Blue Rose killer, but it becomes obvious that he’s not. The next week, the first Blue Rose victim is identified at the morgue as Grant Hoffman, a student at the college where Ransom teaches. The Blue Rose killer seems to have a vendetta against John Ransom.

On the other hand, Tim learns that April had been working on a history project about one of the Millhaven bridges, and he spots the man who was following Ransom parked outside an old taproom near the bridge. He and Ransom break into the taproom, and find a torture chair in the cellar, along with fragments of a note that says, “Jane Wright, Alle-to-n, 1977”. They think this cellar could be a torture playground for the Blue Rose killer, and that Jane Wright was one of his victims. Tim wonders if April was killed because her history project led her too close to the Blue Rose killer’s hideout. On this reasoning, the killer would have nothing particular against John Ransom, and the murder of Grant Hoffman is mysterious.

A little over halfway through the novel, Tim and Ransom learn that the day manager of the St. Alwyn Hotel, Bob Bandolier, was the original Blue Rose killer: a Nazi of the private life who beat his wife, and who killed victims inside or near the hotel in order to “pay back” the St. Alwyn for firing him. They also learn that Bob had a son named Fee, who was sent away to live with relatives in Tangent Ohio, about a year after the murders, when he was seven or eight years old. Fee went straight into the military after high school in 1961, but his relatives say that he must have changed his name, because no one could track him down after that. After nights of detective work with Tom Pasmore, Tim realizes that Fee must have returned to Millhaven in 1979 and acquired his father’s old house, vacated since Bob died in 1972. Reason being, the Bandolier house has been owned by a fake company since ’79, and the front man for this company, William Writzmann, is the man who was following John Ransom to the hospital, and who was parked outside the abandoned taproom where Tim and Ransom later found the torture cellar. It turns out this fake company owns the taproom too. Tim concludes that Fee Bandolier is the new Blue Rose killer, following in his father’s footsteps, and that Writzmann works for him somehow. Soon after that, Tim realizes that Fee must be a Millhaven homicide detective, when he learns that one of the listed officers of Fee’s fake company is a bogus name referring to the head of the Millhaven homicide unit back in the ’70s, a name that only a cop would know. Soon after this realization, William Writzmann is found dead near a tavern close to the St. Alwyn, with a “Blue Rose” calling card, just like the third Blue Rose victim of 1950. Tim deduces that Fee killed his own thug because Tim and Ransom were getting too close to him.

Tim and Ransom begin to suspect that Paul Fontaine, the detective in charge of the Blue Rose case, is Fee, since he keeps insisting that Tim stop meddling in the Blue Rose affair and go back home to New York. Tom Pasmore agrees with Tim that Fontaine is probably Fee. He also deduces that Fee Bandolier is Franklin Bachelor, a figure we have seen in flashbacks at many points in the novel. Bachelor was a Green Beret feared by every soldier on earth, and a full-blown psychopath who engaged in rites of murder and cannibalism. John Ransom was a captain in Vietnam at the same time, and in 1964 he was sent to retrieve Bachelor out of the field and bring him in to his superiors for questioning. Bachelor evaded Ransom and tricked him into capturing his subordinate instead. Later, during the 1968 Tet Offensive, Bachelor went full rogue and betrayed his country by waging a personal war on Captain Ransom, tipping off the Vietcong who attacked Ransom’s camp and killed everyone except Ransom, who barely escaped. Tim likes Pasmore’s theory that Fee Bandolier is Franklin Bachelor. The initials F.B. are promising, and the Vietnam connection is off the scales: Bachelor was a psychopath like Blue Rose and was Ransom’s enemy — a clear motive for killing people like Hoffman and April who are connected to Ransom. Tim already learned that Fee changed his name after he graduated from high school in Tangent Ohio and enlisted in the army, and so he flies out to Tangent to visit a retired colonel and ask him if a Franklin Bachelor is listed in the 1961 records. They find Bachelor listed, and the colonel says he even remembers what he looked like. Tim shows him a photograph of a group of Millhaven police detectives, and the colonel positively identifies Paul Fontaine as Bachelor.

Now fully convinced that Detective Paul Fontaine is Fee Bandolier (the son of the original Blue Rose killer), who changed his name to Franklin Bachelor (the psychopathic Green Beret), who has every reason to hate John Ransom, Tim returns to Millhaven, and he and Ransom plan to bring down Fontaine. They find him late at night at the Bandolier home, and confront him. John’s father-in-law (April’s father) is with them, and he shoots Fontaine, killing him. Tim tells the police that Fontaine was the Blue Rose killer, but the police cover everything up to preserve their reputation.

Tim returns to New York but is contacted two weeks later by Tom Pasmore, who tells him they made a grievous error. Paul Fontaine could not have been the Blue Rose killer. One of Fee’s victims, the “Jane Wright of Alle-to-n in 1977” found in the taproom owned by Fee’s fake company, turns out to be Jane Wright of Allerton Ohio, murdered in 1977; Paul Fontaine was a detective in another state at that time. Tim flies back to Millhaven, and he and Pasmore set a trap for the real killer. He turns out to be Detective Sergeant Michael Hogan, Fontaine’s superior, and widely admired by Millhaven’s citizens. They lure Hogan into an old theater, where Tim kills him. Later that morning, Tim contacts news reporters to be sure there is no police cover-up this time. Finally, he goes to John Ransom, and tells him they were wrong about Fontaine; Fee Bandolier was Mike Hogan. Then comes the outrageous twist: Tim accuses Ransom of killing his wife. Hogan murdered only the third Blue Rose victim (Writzmann, his own thug); the first two victims (Grant Hoffman and April Ransom) were killed by none other than John Ransom himself. That twist demands thorough explanation.

The Clues: Fee Bandolier = Michael Hogan

On one level, the new Blue Rose killer is easy to figure out. He’s Fee Bandolier, son of Bob Bandolier the original Blue Rose. Tim and Ransom learn the existence of Fee at the same time they learn Bob was the psycho killer of 1950, about 60% of the way through the novel (p 413). When Tim brings this information to Pasmore, it doesn’t take long for them to deduce that Fee is also a psychopath (p 446), especially after Pasmore calls his Aunt Judy in Ohio, and she describes Fee as having been a disturbed and abused child. The mystery is who the hell Fee Bandolier is, since he vanished from the human record after graduating from high school in 1961 and enlisting in the army.

Tim and Ransom (and then Pasmore) become convinced that he is Detective Paul Fontaine, and they receive what appears to be unshakable confirmation of this. They confront Fontaine, he is killed in the ensuing shootout, and that appears to wrap up the mystery of Blue Rose. Two weeks later, Tim and Pasmore realize that Fontaine could not have been the killer, and by shrewdly manipulating the police they find out it’s really Detective Sergeant Michael Hogan. I don’t know of any reader who figured this out. There are few clues it could be Hogan, and most of them aren’t clues to speak of.

(1) The first (and only real) clue are Hogan’s resemblances to Clark Gable, in bold:

I sensed immediately that I was in the presence of a real detective, someone even Tom Pasmore would respect. Michael Hogan possessed a powerful personal authority. Hogan had the uncomplicated masculinity of old movie stars like Clark Gable or William Holden, both of whom he resembled in a generalized, real-world fashion. (p 161)

That powerful and unaffected natural authority that distinguished Michael Hogan radiated out from him like an aura and caused most of the people in the room to glance at him. I suppose great actors also have this capacity, to automatically draw attention to themselves. And Hogan had the blessing of looking something like an actor without at all looking theatrical — his kind of utterly male handsomeness, cast in the very lines of reliability, steadiness, honesty, and a tough intelligence, was of the sort that other men found reassuring, not threatening. As I watched Hogan it occurred to me that he actually was the kind of person that an older generation of leading men had impersonated on screen, and I was grateful that he was in charge of April’s case. (p 256)

When Tim is later asking the neighbors about Bob Bandolier, one of them says,

“That Bandolier, he was handsome as Clark Gable, but no good! Beat his wife black and blue!” (p 318)

Obviously Mike Hogan, a man in his late 40s, cannot be Bob Bandolier, who if alive would be in his late 60s or early 70s, but is in any case long dead. But the next day Tim learns that Bob had a son Fee (from Theresa Sunchana, on p 413), and so we might wonder if Mike Hogan is Fee, if we remember the Clark Gable association by that point. I did remember it on my first reading of The Throat, but I dismissed it as a Straubian red herring.

(2) The second clue is a non-clue, or a clue after the fact, because Straub doesn’t provide enough description. To the reader this looks like unshakable proof that Paul Fontaine is Blue Rose. By the time Tim has guessed that Fee Bandolier changed his name to Franklin Bachelor when joining the military, he asks Colonel Hubbel to identify Bachelor in a photo of some Millhaven police officers. We read that Hubbel

planted the tip of his right index finger on top of Paul Fontaine’s face. “There he is, right there, that’s the boy. Yep. Franklin Bachelor. Or whatever his real name was.” (p 518)

What we don’t see is that Hubbel is not really pointing at Paul Fontaine, even though that’s how Tim interprets it. Hubbel’s finger is more on top of Fontaine’s face, and actually pointing to the face of Mike Hogan who is standing behind Fontaine. Tom Pasmore figures it out at the end (pp 657-658), after he and Tim have trapped and killed Hogan. He takes out the photo Tim had showed Hubbel, and then points. To his disgust, Tim sees that

the tip of Tom’s finger aimed directly at the next man in the picture, Michael Hogan. He wasn’t pointing at Fontaine, he was obliterating him. “I think — I think I’m an idiot,” I said. “Maybe a moron. Whichever one is dumber.” (p 658)

Tim had seen the colonel pointing at Fontaine because he had been expecting him to identify Fontaine. But there was nothing in the text to give us a shot at figuring that out. That’s why Hubbel’s identification of Fontaine looked like the unshakable proof that Fontaine was Blue Rose.

(3) There might even be a third clue that Paul Fontaine is a bum steer, though it’s outside the structure of the narrative. Straub could be using Fontaine as the functional equivalent of William Damrosch. Both men were in charge of Blue Rose killings before dying tragically (Damrosch in 1950, Fontaine in 1991), and since Damrosch was wrongly thought to be the killer, perhaps we should conclude — as devotees of Straubian metafiction — that Fontaine is too. I only thought of this “clue” on my seventh reading of The Throat.

Blue Rose in Vietnam: Fee Bandolier = Franklin Bachelor

Long before he became Mike Hogan, Fee Bandolier was Franklin Bachelor, during his military service in Vietnam. He was Major Bachelor, or just “The Major” — a Green Beret who became a legend among grunts, respected and then widely feared. He got results but crossed way too many lines. Finally his CIA superiors sent someone to retrieve him out of the field and bring him in for questioning; that person was Captain John Ransom.

In order to avoid Ransom, Bachelor had his subordinate impersonate him while he escaped into the hills, and Ransom never ended up confronting Bachelor or even seeing him. When he got to Bachelor’s camp, he found that the Bru tribesmen had been slaughtered and cannibalized. It’s a terrifying account, gleaned through the journal of Colonel Runnel which is read by Tim:

Bachelor knew that Captain Ransom was on his way to take him back to the United States for questioning. At that point he murdered his own followers. In cold blood, he dispatched those who could not keep up on a high-speed escape through rough terrain. Women. Children. The old and the weak, all were executed or mortally wounded, along with any able-bodied men who opposed Bachelor’s scheme. Then Bachelor and his remaining men boiled the flesh off some of the bodies and made a last meal of their dead. I believe it is even possible that Bachelor’s people voluntarily accepted death, cooperated in their own destruction. He held them under his sway. They believed he possessed magical powers. If Bachelor ate their flesh, they would live in him. (p 349)

Bachelor went rogue after this and began a personal vendetta against John Ransom, who in Bachelor’s mind had forced him to abandon his best camp and kill most of his Bru. Years later, around the time of the Tet Offensive (1968), Bachelor betrayed his country, duping the Vietcong into thinking the base commanded by Ransom at Lang Vo would be the next thorn in their side after Khe Sanh. The Vietcong reacted by descending on Lang Vo and devastating the place, though Ransom escaped.

This being a Peter Straub novel, we might guess that Colonel Runnel’s account isn’t quite the real story, and sure enough, at the end of The Throat we learn that it was actually John Ransom who slaughtered and ate Bachelor’s Bru followers. Bachelor did perform cannibalistic rites, but he didn’t victimize his own followers; he just left them behind if they were too weak to follow. Ransom wanted to be like the legendary Bachelor and tap into mystical awareness through the most intimate forms of violence. That’s what we learn in the Ransom Twist.

The Ransom Twist

It comes in The Throat’s final pages. The Blue Rose victims Grant Hoffman and April Ransom were not killed by the new Blue Rose killer Mike Hogan (= Fee Bandolier = Franklin Bachelor), but by someone else copying the old killings: John Ransom himself. He murdered his wife for the oldest reasons: for her money, for her affair with a young artist, and for making his life a marital prison. “You’re worse than Hogan,” says Tim. “He couldn’t help killing, but you murdered two people for the sake of your own comfort.” (p 673)

Subsequent readings of The Throat show how obvious-yet-not it is that John Ranson killed his wife. The clues are small and subtle but there, pretty much whenever Ransom is on screen. What he says and the way he reacts to things are the reactions of a guilty man. But they’re equally the behaviors of an irascible man with a short temper coping with the loss of his wife. That’s what makes him hard to catch onto.

And it’s a brilliant twist, no question. It’s entirely believable that John Ransom would kill his wife, given his hollow character and his history of esoteric violence in Vietnam. The problem is the relationship between John Ransom and Mike Hogan (= Fee Bandolier = Franklin Bachelor). It asks abusively much of us to believe in the coincidence of John Ransom exploiting the Blue Rose murders of the past while having no idea (at the time) who Blue Rose was (Bob Bandolier) or that his son (Fee Bandolier) even existed, while that son turns out to be the very Franklin Bachelor whom Ransom is trying to blame as a new Blue Rose killer. The true reason Ransom invited Tim out to Millhaven was to sell him the idea that Franklin Bachelor was the Blue Rose Killer. First he floated the idea to Tim that he thought Blue Rose might be an old soldier, and later told Tim melodramatic tales about his Vietnam assignment to bring Bachelor back to his superiors.

But Ransom had no idea that Bachelor was actually living in Millhaven, just as he had no idea that he was ever from Millhaven in the first place. His plan depended on the fiction that Bachelor would (supposedly) come in from somewhere out of town after seeing Ransom’s picture in the paper with April from her public awards ceremony, and then exact revenge on him for Vietnam. According to Ransom (and the journal of Colonel Runnel), Bachelor harbored a fury against Ransom for forcing him to abandon his best camp and kill most of his own followers. But Tim guesses that it was Ransom, not Bachelor, who murdered and ate Bachelor’s Bru followers in Vietnam — including Bachelor’s Bru wife and child — which turns out to be true; but, as Ransom retorts to Tim’s accusation, this simply gives Bachelor all the more reason to want revenge on Ransom: to kill his wife April as just payback.

Except that’s not what happened. Hogan (Bachelor) didn’t kill April out of his fury with Ransom. He had his thug William Writzmann beat April to shut her up. She had been making inquiries for a special history project about the Green Woman Taproom, which was where Hogan killed his victims and kept detailed diaries of their torments. If April’s relationship to John Ransom wasn’t enough to move Hogan to kill her, then her getting close to his torture playground would have surely done so. It’s preposterous that a serial killer like Hogan would have had her merely beaten as a warning, and risk her continuing her investigation. Ransom, for his part, had no idea who beat up April when he found her bloodied in the car. All he knew was that this was his opportunity to kill April as he’d been planning for some time, and blame it on the old Blue Rose killer. So that’s what he did.

All of this collapses under too many pressure points: Hogan and Ransom, arch-enemies in Vietnam, are now living together in the same city. Each has multiple reasons to kill April, and plan to assault her around the same time. Hogan however, incredibly, does not kill her, only has her worked over. Ransom finishes Hogan’s work, killing his already bludgeoned wife, utterly clueless as to who beat her or why. He exploits the Blue Rose murders of the past, not knowing that Bob Bandolier was the killer, or that Bob had a son Fee who is a new Blue Rose killer; also not knowing that Fee Bandolier is Franklin Bachelor, whom Ransom did know (though never actually saw) in Vietnam, and whom Ransom is trying to blame as a Blue Rose killer — which, surprise, Bachelor already is!

Straub either got lost up his own ass, or he’s a metafictional genius; I’m not sure which. The funny thing is, the Ransom twist works for me. John Ransom is a violent asshole who would kill for selfish and petty reasons. It’s a good payoff to his character. If Blue Rose ends up diminished by it, it’s at least masked by the fact that Hogan got only 17 pages of screen time anyway. We’ve been with Ransom all the way through.

The Meat Man

I said that The Throat is an indulgent novel, and the most egregious indulgence is the side plot of “The Meat Man”, Walter Dragonette, who is clearly intended as a combination of Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy. He’s a red herring that entertains on shock value, and a sure tipping point for readers eager to accuse Straub of laziness or just plain ridiculousness.

This fifty-page section could pass for boilerplate slasher. On the morning April Ransom is murdered in her hospital bed, two boys (Akeem, 9, and Kwanza, 7) living across from Dragonette’s home skip across the man’s lawn and peer into his living room, hoping to get a look at the huge television set which they frequently hear at high volume blasting out the sounds of films like The Evil Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, “where folks got hunted down and cut up, man, right there in your face” (p 146). They find, to their surprise, no TV, and to their horror, the corpse of an African American lying in a sea of bloody newspapers, with a broken hacksaw blade sticking out. The kids hadn’t been hearing movies at all. They race back across the street screaming for their parents who call the police, and by the time Walter Dragonette has returned from his morning trip to the hardware store (to buy a new hacksaw), practically the entire Millhaven police force is waiting for him. For years this guy has been inviting people home, slaughtering them in his living room, fucking their corpses, and then sawing them into pieces.

Inside the home the cops find a meat factory, and the inventory goes on for two pages (pp 152-153). In a refrigerator: four heads (two black males, one white male, one white female), two severed penises, a human heart on a white china plate, a human liver wrapped in Clingfilm, along with normal food like bread, mustard, and lettuce. In a long freezer: six more heads (three male, three female), two pairs of male human legs without feet, a freezer bag of entrails labeled STUDY, two pounds of ground round, and the hand of a preteen girl minus three fingers. In two 60-gallon drums of water and pickled preservatives: headless torsos. Around the house: human skulls meticulously cleaned, electric drills and saws, baking soda, and carving knives.

These graphic horrors fill a certain void in The Throat, where the Blue Rose killer is kept off screen and the narrative relies on deeper and more psychological terrors. It’s a contrivance untypical of Straub — seriously, this disorganized killer has been making his home a slaughterhouse for over eighteen months, and he just happens to get caught on the morning April Ransom comes out of her coma and is killed by Blue Rose! — but I can’t deny the detour is immensely entertaining. Appreciation of this depends on how individual readers react to the switch in tone, but I believe The Throat’s scope is wide enough to accommodate it.

Metafictional Masturbation

And yet The Throat’s most significant indulgence lies in its first-person point of view. “I” narratives lend themselves to excess anyway, and it’s clear from page 1 that Straub will be pushing the envelope. Tim Underhill, author of The Divided Man, explains to us that he actually co-authored Koko and Mystery with Peter Straub. This allows Straub the masturbatory fantasy that he wrote some of his best work with his best literary creation.

It also lets those novels off the hook to a certain extent where they blundered. For example, in my retrospective of Koko I mentioned the problem of how Tim could have written The Divided Man, in which the fifth Blue Rose victim is a fundamentalist butcher who molests little boys. In the real world (of Koko) Manny Dengler’s father was a butcher preacher who molested him as a child, but Tim doesn’t become aware of this until the end of the novel. And the novel is set in 1982-1983. How could he have written that victim in The Divided Man years earlier, in the early ’70s? The Throat answers that question: The fifth Blue Rose killing represents the butcher from Illinois, Heinz Stenmitz, who molested Tim when he was a child. Manny Dengler is a real character (he appears in one of The Throat’s flashbacks, pp 63-66), but in Koko he is as much a fictitious vessel for Tim’s experiences. Mystery’s Tom Pasmore is also real; he plays a major role in The Throat. But he wasn’t hit by a car as described in Mystery; that, we now learn, was Tim’s accident (p 40) projected onto Pasmore.

The Throat, in other words, becomes the “real story” to which Koko and Mystery serve as reflective preludes. Like The Divided Man, they are Timothy Underhill’s sounding boards as he navigates his personal traumas. This seems to be what Straub means by the The Throat “swallowing” those novels. Here’s a chart I made to show how everything looks from within the assumed reality of The Throat.

 

. The Divided Man (1972) Koko (1988) Mystery (1990) The Throat (1993)
Author(s) of the Novel
Tim Underhill Tim Underhill & Peter Straub Tim Underhill & Peter Straub (N/A: The Throat is the assumed reality)
Killer(s) of the Novel
Blue Rose Killer (Hal Esterhaz) Koko (Manny Dengler) Glendenning Upshaw Blue Rose Killer (Bob Bandolier in 1950); New Blue Rose Killer (Fee Bandolier, aka Mike Hogan in 1991); Copycat Blue Rose Killer (John Ransom in 1991)
Period of the Novel
1950 1982-83 1962 1991
Role of the Blue Rose murders Main plot None (a character reads The Divided Man) Side plot (the doctor is a fake Blue Rose victim) Main plot (there is a new Blue Rose Killer)
Setting of Blue Rose Murders (1950)
Monroe, Illinois Mill Walk, Caribbean Millhaven, Illinois
1st Murder Piano Player Prostitute Prostitute
2nd Murder Prostitute Piano Player Piano Player
3rd Murder Doctor Doctor (survived) Hustler
4th Murder Hustler Butcher Doctor (survived)
5th Murder Butcher Butcher
Police Detective in Charge
Hal Esterhaz William Damrosch William Damrosch
Blue Rose Calling Card Piece of paper next to victim Chalk on wall Magic marker on wall
Setting of New Blue Rose Murders (1991)
Millhaven, Illinois
1st Murder Grant Hoffman
2nd Murder April Ransom
3rd Murder William Writzmann
Police Detective in Charge
Paul Fontaine
Blue Rose Calling Card Magic marker on wall

 

Loving Fee Bandolier: The Trauma of Tim Underhill

In The Throat Tim Underhill finally remembers his childhood trauma. You’d think he would have done so long before, having projected it onto the characters in his novels, but his mind has kept it suppressed. He suffers panic attacks, hardly knowing why, sometimes almost passing out. He uses the gnostic gospels (to the amusing derision of John Ransom, who is a professor of religion) to aid his self-discovery:

All that saved me from another spell was the sudden memory of what I’d read in the gnostic gospel while I waited for John to come back from the hospital: If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. [Gospel of Thomas 70] I was trying to bring it forth — but what in the world was it? (p 140)

He gets his answer toward the end (pp 604-605) when hit by a hideous flashback, and relives his seven-year old self giving the butcher Heinz Stenmitz a blowjob. He vomits in the street, and in sudden intuition realizes this is also what happened to Fee Bandolier — which is why Stenmitz was Bob Bandolier’s final Blue Rose victim.

According to Tom Pasmore, Tim has been obsessing Fee Bandolier all his life; he practically invented Fee in his novels years before he knew of his existence. On some level, says Pasmore, Tim loves Fee, whose sadistic home environment and Blue-Rose genes had set him on a path of rage and violence over the compassionate pacifism that Tim eventually chose. This comes to a head when he and Pasmore are about to trap Fee (Mike Hogan) and Pasmore says they will have to kill him rather than turn him in. It’s a moving passage (pp 635-637) and The Throat’s best:

“Are you thinking about disarming him and taking him to Armory Place [the police station]? Do you think he’ll confess? Or that we’d ever walk out of Armory Place? You know what would happen.”

I said nothing.

“Tim, I don’t even believe in the death penalty. But right now, the only alternative is to get out of here and go back home. I’ve spent about fifteen years working to get innocent men off death row — saving lives. That’s what I believe in. But this isn’t like anything else I know — it’s as if we discovered that Ted Bundy was a detective with so many fallbacks and paper trails that he could never be brought to justice in any normal way. Do you want to know how I really see this?”

“Of course I want to know,” I said.

“We’re going to set him free.”

As a euphemism for execution, the phrase was ludicrous. “Thanks for sharing that,” I said.

“Who is he now? Is that worth saving? That person is a being who has to kill over and over again to satisfy a rage so deep that nothing could ever touch it. But who is he, really?”

“Fee Bandolier,” I said.

“Right. Somewhere, in some part of himself he can’t reach, he is a small boy named Fielding Bandolier. That boy passed through hell. You’ve been obsessed with Fee Bandolier before you even knew he existed. You almost made him up out of your own history. Do you know why?”

“Because I identify with him,” I said.

“Because you love him,” Tom said. “You love the child he was, and that child is still present enough to make himself visible to you, and he makes himself visible to your imagination because you love him.”

I remembered the child who came forward out of the swirling dark, on his open palm the word that cannot be read or spoken. He was the child of the night, William Damrosch, Fee Bandolier, and myself, all of whom had passed through the filthy hands of Heinz Stenmitz.

I tear up every time I read this part, and not just out of grief for Fee Bandolier, but because Tim and Tom are both so right. If pacifism must yield to pragmatic mercy, it’s only because Fee is too dangerous and protected by the law to let live. “Setting him free” sounds like a right-wing platitude, but in this case it’s not.

The Mighty Throat

So why is The Throat one of my favorite novels, along with mighty classics like Lord of the Rings and Shogun? I’ve had a hard time explaining it. Tolkien and Clavell require no defense; Peter Straub is more an acquired taste. I’ve urged the Blue Rose trilogy on many people who give up on it, usually halfway through Koko. The style is too cerebral for them. They find Straub a chore.

Frankly, I’ve had more fun reading Straub than most authors. That may run counter to accepted truths of him being “colder to the touch” than Stephen King, but I don’t find Straub to be “cold” at all. Starting with Koko in particular, Straub embarked on a string of work so focused and immersive that it seems to have given him discernment over existential mysteries, let alone the ability to write suspenseful ones. His characters seethe with fury and pain, and reach for love and hope, and he treats them with a unique mix of empathy and clinical curiosity. I never grow tired of his work. Few authors have his intuitive grasp of aesthetics and discipline, and even when he goes against the grain of that discipline — as he has done in The Throat like no other novel — he has fail-safes that leave the work stunningly intact.

I could say that I love The Throat for all these reasons, which is true, but none of that is quite the answer. The Throat occupies me every time I read it, to the exclusion of everything else that requires my attention. I want to stay with Tim Underhill, just as he wants to linger at Tom Pasmore’s, in those comfortable chairs leafing through the Blue Rose files late into the night: Despite my exhaustion, I wanted to stay another half hour; I thought it was a privilege. (p 305) A privilege, yes, to read story like this. And like Pasmore, I don’t want the Blue Rose mystery to be over. Tim and Tom feel like family, and I could follow them 700 pages more.

Rating: 5+ stars out of 5

Retrospective: The Blue Rose Trilogy (2): Mystery

(As with Koko so with Mystery. This review will ruin your experience of the novel if you read it beforehand. It’s full of spoilers and very significant ones at that. Avert thine eyes accordingly.)

Whenever I’m asked to name a modern novel — written within the last 30 years or so — that qualifies as lasting literature, three come to mind: Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and Peter Straub’s Mystery. And if I could chose only one for the honor, it would have to be the last. Mystery is the sort of novel you imagine Cliff Notes for. It’s pristine writing of unerring expression and appreciates in value on each reread. This was my third, and I was savoring the prose more than ever. It’s the Glenlivet of the Blue Rose trilogy (I’d call Koko the snake wine, and The Throat Bacardi 151), a classic that thoroughly deserves retrospection.

The settings are inspired and critical to Mystery‘s success. The main theater is the Caribbean island of Mill Walk, where poor natives live under white elites who care for them like Donald Trump does hurricane victims. The other setting is Eagle Lake, a lakeside residence in Wisconsin where the Mill Walk elite fly to spend their summers. This allows Straub to cast “Milwaukee” in an alternate reality that is both exotic and surreal, which turns out to be perfect for a boy’s coming of age story. Tom Pasmore’s world is criminally real, but filtered through a lens that mutes the ugliness.

As for Pasmore himself, he’s one of the author’s best characters. The story starts with him at 10 years old, running down the streets of a rough neighborhood, getting bullied and then hit by a car, and almost killed. Straub had a near-death car hit like this as a child, and the autobiographical prints show. In recovery Pasmore becomes obsessed with reading (any book he can lay hands on), death, and solving murder mysteries. He soon turns 17; the fast-forwarding stops; and the mystery of Mystery is launched as he becomes mentored by an elderly detective. Together they work on solving two seemingly unrelated murders. One was the sister of a finance minister in present-day 1962. The other was a family friend, Jeanine Thielman, back in 1925. The killer of both is none other than Tom Pasmore’s grandfather: Glendenning Upshaw, the rich tycoon who runs Mill Walk with the police in his back pocket. He is Mystery’s villain, staying mostly off-stage like Koko’s Manny Dengler, though not nearly as obscure.

The Clues

In Koko the killer’s identity is hard to figure out, and the reader plays detective along with the Vietnam vets. In Mystery we’re immersed in a young detective’s process, and sometimes we’re ahead of him. It’s not hard, for us, to peg Upshaw as the villain when Tom is shot at through his lodge window at Eagle Lake. Upshaw is raging at him over the phone for digging up the past, suddenly calms down and advises Tom to look out the window, at which point a bullet comes smashing through the glass and barely missing him.

The reader will surely recall Upshaw’s decision to send Tom up to Eagle Lake in the first place, back in part five. Tom and his mother were having lunch at his grandfather’s home, and Tom proceeded to royally piss him off by offering the opinion that the finance minister killed his own sister, and the Mill Walk police covered the whole thing up. Upshaw became agitated and belittled Tom, dismissing his theories as stupid and paranoid. Then he suddenly calmed down, and offered Tom help with his future:

Upshaw sampled the soup and looked at Tom again. He was no longer angry. “In a way I’m almost happy you have spoken as you have this morning. It means I’ve come to the right decision (bold mine). I think your horizons need widening.”

“My father said something about your being willing to set me up in business after I get out of college. That’s very generous. I don’t quite know what to say, except thanks. So thank you.”

His grandfather waved this away. “You’re applying to Tulane?”

Tom nodded.

“Stick with engineering. It’s a foundation. It’ll give you everything you need. If you want to study poetry and the collected works of V.I. Lenin, you can do it in your spare time.”

“I don’t know if I’d be a good engineer,” Tom said.

“Well, just what do you think you’d be good at? Biting the hand that feeds you? Insulting your family? I don’t think Tulane offers degrees in those subjects yet.” He simmered for a while. Tom and Gloria occupied themselves with their soup.

After a moment, his grandfather said, “Have you ever seen Eagle Lake?”

Tom looked up in surprise.

“I’ve been thinking of showing our old lodge a bit of life. How do you think you’d like to spend a month or so at the lake?”

“I’d love to. It would be great.”

“A carefree summer before your hard work begins.”

And then Tom understood — Eagle Lake was a reward for having agreed to major in engineering.

Except it wasn’t. It was his “reward” for making too much noise about the death of Marita Hasselgard, and accusing important people of involvement. On the face of it, Upshaw’s I’ve come to the right decision referred to sending Tom to college. But it really referred to the afterthought — or what seemed like one — about sending him up to the Wisconsin resort. Frankly I was suspicious about Upshaw even at this point, and not just because he’s nasty and unpleasant. (Victor Spitalny was nasty, but he wasn’t Koko’s killer; Upshaw could have been a false lead too.) There’s something subterranean about him that made me guess he was at least complicit in the killings. I didn’t think he would try having his own grandson killed to silence him.

Blue Rose

Only when Tom is on the plane back to Mill Walk, and he is discussing the Blue Rose murders of 1950 with Lamont von Heilitz, does he begin allowing himself the truth of his grandfather. The Blue Rose mystery will be the subject of The Throat, but the killings are tangentially relevant here, because one of the Blue Rose victims was a false flag — a victim of Glendenning Upshaw. Doctor Buzz Laing was stabbed and left for dead (though he survived the attack) with the calling card “Blue Rose”. Upshaw had arranged to have him killed and make it look like it was the Blue Rose killer. Von Heilitz doesn’t spell this out; he speaks in vague innuendos and mentions to Tom that his grandfather had arranged a different detective to be assigned to the Blue Rose case — as though this is some kind of hint.

Why did Upshaw want the doctor killed? Later towards the end, Tom calls Buzz Laing, and learns why he was fired from the hospital owned by his grandfather. Laing had called out a colleague for ignoring sexual abuse symptoms in one of his patients:

“One time I brought home the file of one of the patients Boney kept for himself, and I thought I saw some of the classic indications of real trouble, if you see what I mean. Vaginal warts, vaginal bleeding, and a couple of other things that at the time should at least have called for further investigation and were probably an indicator for psychiatric counseling. Do you see what I’m talking about? This was in the woman’s childhood. Really it could only mean one thing. I can’t be more specific, Tom. Anyhow, I said something about it to Boney, and he hit the ceiling. I was out on my ear, and that’s why I don’t have any patients at Shady Mount.”

The patient Laing is describing is Tom’s mother, Gloria Pasmore, though Tom doesn’t realize this yet. He later has a flash of intuition and recalls Laing’s comments as he and Detective Natchez are discussing Upshaw’s non-affairs with young women. Upshaw made a point to be seen in public with women like like Carmen Bishop and Barbara Deane so as to appear a “normal” man with appetites for younger women in their twenties. His true appetites were for prepubescent girls. He abused his daughter Gloria from a very early age, before she was even five, and hers was the patient file Laing saw by accident. Tom suddenly understands why his mother has always been such a mess — her anxieties and depressions and screams in the middle of the night.

Thus the root of the mystery: Jeanine Thielman had discovered that Upshaw was a pedophile and threatened to expose him. Upshaw killed her, up close and personal, unlike most of the dirty work he dumps on hit men, corrupt cops, and self-serving doctors. The Blue Rose case helps Tom solve the mystery in a roundabout way: Buzz Laing, the fake Blue Rose victim, had stumbled on Upshaw’s worst secret.

The Pasmore Pedigree

When Sherlock Holmes is your father and Jeffrey Epstein times ten is your grandfather — that pedigree. It took balls for Straub to use a character like Lamont von Heilitz. He is implied to have inspired “The Shadow” of the ’30s radio show and so of course he’s a caricature; but he works. Had Straub used this figure in the gritty realistic framework of The Throat, the results would have laughable. In the more dreamy atmosphere of Mystery he fits hand in glove. In that sense von Heilitz is like Shadowland’s magician Coleman Collins, an archetype whose credibility depends more on the author’s writing style than the actual narrative.

It’s fitting that Mystery’s pivotal scene is the only one in the novel where Tom’s father and grandfather are both on screen. Tom and von Heilitz sneak onto the Upshaw grounds, and spy on Upshaw through a window as he opens their letters — the anonymous notes they mailed in order to “rattle his cage”. The notes say “I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE”, “YOU HAVE TO BE STOPPED”, which mimic the implied accusations sent by Jeanine Thielman to Upshaw back in 1925, when she learned he was raping his four-year old daughter. As far as Upshaw knows, those notes had been destroyed, but Tom found them hidden at Eagle Lake. Upshaw’s reaction carries mountains of suspense through sheer body language:

Upshaw took up the red envelope. He looked at the handwriting and examined the postmark. Then he slit the envelope open and pulled out the sheet of yellow paper. He unfolded it and read.

Tom held his breath.

His grandfather was motionless for a second; and then, though he did not move, gesture, or change in any way, his body seemed to alter its dimensions, as if beneath the black suit it had suddenly deflated and expanded like a bullfrog’s air sac. He seemed to have drawn all the air in the room into himself. His arms and his back were as rigid as posts.

“And there we are,” von Heilitz said.

Tom’s grandfather whirled sideways in his chair and looked through the window and out across the terrace. Tom’s heart slid up into his throat and stayed there until Upshaw slowly revolved back to the note. He stared at it for another second. Then he pushed the yellow paper to the corner of his desk and picked up the envelope to look at the handwriting and the postmark. He turned his head to make sure the door was closed, and then looked back out the window. He pulled all the rest of the letters toward him and shuffled through them, setting before him on the desk a grey envelope and two white envelopes, set down the others, and held each of the three up to examine the printed address and the postmark. One by one, he slit them open and read the notes. He leaned back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling for a moment before reading the notes again. He pushed his chair away from the desk, and then stood and moved to the window and looked both right and left with an unconscious furtiveness Tom had never before seen in him.

“He really did kill her,” Tom said.

Few authors can write scenes like this. Upshaw is presumably deducing that von Heilitz is behind these perfidious notes, and sure enough he sends the police to kill him. Von Heilitz’s death is predictable, but only in the way that tragedy always is. Someone has to pay for banging the bee nest. The tragedy is made worse, however, by Tom’s last words to his father. He resented von Heilitz for showing him the truth about his grandfather, and said things he didn’t mean — accusations of abandonment, letting his mother marry an ineffectual man to raise him, and using Tom as a tool to solve his pet crimes. His discovery of his father’s corpse inside the ransacked house is a well earned tear-jerker.

Eagle Lake = Shadowland

It struck me on my reread that Eagle Lake is a replay of Shadowland. A teenager named Tom (Flanagan, Pasmore) goes on a summer retreat at a spectacular place (Shadowland, Eagle Lake) on the arrangement of an elder mentor whose agenda is to kill him (Coleman Collins, Glendenning Upshaw). He has an affair with a girl (Rose Armstrong, Sarah Spence) to the jealousy of the boy she has been with for some time (Del Nightingale, Buddy Redwing). The first Tom suffers trial by crucifixion; the second Tom a trial by fire. The attempt on their lives fail, but someone else is killed (Del Nightingale, Barbara Deane). Shadowland and Eagle Lake become the punishing education grounds where Toms Flanagan and Pasmore learn how the professions they crave can kill them.

The major difference is Shadowland’s high stakes; it’s a complete tragedy. Del is killed (shapechanged by his Uncle Cole into a glass bird), while Tom Flanagan, though able to leave the fairyland (after being crucified), grows up to become a penniless stage trickster. His heartthrob Rose disappears into a water-world, to escape the feeling that she walks on knives. There’s tragedy in Mystery too, as we’ve just seen, when von Heilitz is killed, but Tom Pasmore transcends it and ends up doing well for himself (as we learn in The Throat). If he doesn’t exactly “get his girl”, the final pages at least hint at a friendship with Sarah Spence that will last. Also, Tom Flanagan suffers on a staggering level. His crucifixion is the most unspeakable torture of a teenager I’ve been subjected to in a novel. While Tom Pasmore is almost burned alive (the final attempt on his life by his grandfather), his torments are nothing compared to those of Flanagan. These differences make Shadowland a much darker story than Mystery, and arguably stronger; I’ve said before that it’s the best novel of Straub’s early horror period. But it’s still a close call. They are both extraordinary coming of age stories.

Every time I read Mystery, I wish the Eagle Lake section would last forever. It’s the longest of the eight parts, and the heart the novel, where Tom Pasmore’s vacation becomes ours — his swims in the lake, his clandestine affairs with Sarah Spence, his stand-offs against Redwing bullies, his conversations with people like Kate Redwing and Barbara Deane, and his inquisitive research that almost gets him killed three times. His investigation of Jeanine Thielman’s murder leads to unexpected twists, and we learn about past events in the ’20s through some colorful characters.

Intertextual context

Apart from one blunder, Straub keeps his metafiction under control, with none of the confusions and unlikelihoods of Koko. The single exception is the presence of Tim Underhill’s novel The Divided Man. It’s a fictionalized meditation on the Blue Rose killings, which happened in 1950, so that part is fine; but according to Koko and The Throat, Underhill didn’t write the novel until the early ’70s, after his Vietnam service. The Divided Man is an anachronism in a 1962 setting. (It would also mean that Underhill wrote the novel in the late 50s as a teenager, which is rather unlikely.)

It’s hard to overstate how inspired Mystery is. Between its alluring settings and precious character, Straub is able to infuse a coming of age story with his particular style of mystery where the past holds the present in a vise. And he’s actually done even better, as we’ll see in the next retrospective.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Retrospective: The Blue Rose Trilogy (1): Koko

koko(I never flag spoilers because it would be redundant: all of my reviews are full of them. In the case of The Blue Rose Trilogy, however, I need to be explicit. This series of reviews will absolutely ruin your experience of the novels if you read them beforehand. They are full of spoilers and very significant ones at that. You’ve been duly warned.)

This year is the 30th anniversary of the first Blue Rose novel, and I’ll be writing retrospectives for the trilogy: Koko (1988), Mystery (1990), and The Throat (1993). You won’t like these mysteries if you have little patience with slow plotting, digressions, and false leads, but you’ll love them if you’re rewarded by that sort of grinding realism on top of lengthy character examination.

Nor will this be your thing if you’re put off by the redundant techniques of metafiction. The Blue Rose novels are less concerned with the internal consistency of their narratives than with recreating the narratives in new settings and circumstances. We get a grim vision of Milwaukee in Koko, a fever-dream portrait of a Caribbean isle (Mill Walk) in Mystery, and the brutal canvass of an Illinois city (Millhaven) in The Throat. All three places stand for Milwaukee, alternate theaters where protagonists solve mysteries in the present by solving others in the past. The same evils abound. Heartless people. Bleak childhoods. The ugly violence people are capable of, for reasons barely comprehensible. Deep scars, and the question of healing. I cringe to think how much of the Blue Rose trilogy is based on events from the real Milwaukee where Straub grew up as a kid.

The story of Koko starts with the reunion of four Vietnam vets in the early ’80s. They believe a member of their old platoon (Tim Underhill) is killing people across Southeast Asia; the former lieutenant (Harry Beevers) is quite sure about this, since Underhill has been living in places like Singapore and Bangkok; the other three (Michael Poole, Conor Linklater, and Tina Pumo) can’t quite make the leap to convict Underhill, as they have fond memories of him. When they find him in Bangkok, they realize he’s innocent and become convinced the killer is Victor Spitalny, who went missing back in 1969 when he deserted the army. But while Spitalny was a sadist, he was also an ineffectual twit, and hard to imagine as an efficient serial killer driven by grand purpose. Finally the truth hits them. The killer is Manny Dengler, who was supposedly killed in 1969 when on R&R with Spitalny (indeed presumed to be killed by Spitalny), and a man they deeply admired. Koko is a mystery and psychological thriller about what creates a killer by ruining his soul.

As for the book’s title, Koko is the killer’s calling card and moniker. When Dengler kills his victims, he leaves playing cards in their mouths with his signature “Koko” scrawled on them, after cutting out their eyes and off their ears. Dengler has reinvented himself out of his childhood hero Babar the King. In that famous children’s book, the Song of the Elephants ends with “Ko ko ko”. To Dengler the elephant represents mercy in times of peace and wrath in times of war, a duality which feeds his child complex and homicidal urges.

Only astute readers will figure out that Koko is Dengler. You really have to be paying attention, because the narrative effectively establishes that Dengler is long dead and was deeply admired by his platoon. It also makes clear that Spitalny was a sadist who hated everyone; he’s the only logical candidate for Koko once Underhill is ruled out.

The Clues

One clue comes in a novel written by Underhill, about a soldier misidentified because someone switched his dog-tag with another soldier. Dengler was inspired by the novel, and so when he killed Spitalny he put his own ID on him, then mutilated Spitalny’s body beyond recognition. This clue ties in with Dengler’s reverence for Underhill and why he impersonates Underhill when he lures journalists to kill them.

Another clue comes in chapter 22, when Koko has just killed Tina Pumo, and is getting ready to attack his girlfriend Maggie Lah:

When Pumo had opened the door and looked into Koko’s face, he had known, he had seen, he had understood. Angels walked him backwards up the stairs, angels backed him into his great glowing cave. Tears spilled from Koko’s eyes, for it was true that God did all things simultaneously (bold mine) and Koko’s heart overflowed for Pumo, who understood, who took flight, even as his soul took flight and sailed off, sailed home. The eyes, the ears, the Elephant Card in the mouth.

That kind of passage is easy to skim over as the mental derangements of a psychopath. The last part — the removing of Pumo’s eyes and ears, and stuffing the calling card in his mouth — grabs the reader more than the demented nonsense that proceeds. But the phrase “God did all things simultaneously” calls to mind the Vietnam flashback back in chapter 14, where Pumo remembers the death trap he and his platoon found themselves in for hours, as pressure mines exploded all around, ripping apart soldiers from crotch to chest. Pumo recalls a lot of craziness during that afternoon horror, including this bit from Dengler:

Pumo became aware that Dengler was beside him and grinning. “Don’t you think God does all things simultaneously?” (bold mine), Dengler asked him. “What?” Pumo asked. “What I like about that idea is that in a funny way it means that the universe actually created itself, which means that it goes on creating itself, get me? So destruction is part of this creation that goes on all the time. And on top of that is the real kicker, Pumo — destruction is the part of creation that we think is beautiful.” “Get fucked,” Pumo said. Now he understood what Dengler was doing: talking nonsense to wake him up and make him capable of acting.

The reader also assumes that it’s just nonsense Dengler was spouting. Most of the soldiers were saying or doing crazy shit in the flashback slaughter, and nothing in Dengler’s commentary suggests him to be the present-day serial killer — until chapters later, when you’re inside Koko’s head and he reflects upon God’s “simultaneous” actions. If you’ve paid and are still paying close attention. I’m a careful reader, but this is another clue I missed when I first read the novel.

A Tale of Two Families

The mystery of the killer’s identity is suspenseful, but there are deeper mysteries that make Koko more a psychological thriller. One is the war crime that haunts the vets. What exactly happened at Ia Thuc village, which called forth angry journalism and the court martial of Lieutenant Harry Beevers? Beevers, Spitalny, and Dengler went inside a cave, and when they came out, thirty Vietnamese children hiding inside were dead — all killed on Beevers’ orders. He remains proud of his deed, and even more proud for having been exonerated in the court martial, for in his words, “There are no children in war.” Spitalny and Dengler were scarred in different ways by the atrocity.

Which leads to the root mystery. What happened to Koko when he was a child that molded him into a serial killer triggered by the Vietnam horrors? The visits to the homes of Spitalny’s and Dengler’s parents are Koko’s best chapters (32 and 33). Both kids had terrible parents, terrible upbringings, but differently so. Spitalny’s mother is a doormat and his father a trash talker who projects his flaws onto his son. If I were Victor’s father I wouldn’t miss him either, but George Spitalny is no better. Straub is able to convey how pathetic George is in paragraphs like the following, where having no idea how to host guests in his home, he begins oogling Maggie Lah:

Poole watched George Spitalny leaning forward in his reclining chair, eating up Maggie Lah with his eyes. He had forgotten his wife and the two men. He felt great — he had a beer in one hand, and a girl who looked like Sex Incarnate was sitting on his living room couch. He was an awful man. He had burned Victor’s effects because of wounded narcissism. Poole felt an unexpected stab of pity for Victor Spitalny, growing up under the thumb of this vain, arrogant, inadequate man.

Yet for all the awfulness that runs in the Spitalny genes and environment, neither seems a likely breeding ground for a psychopath. Victor, like his father, was hollow and insecure, and not very smart; sadistic, but in a petty way; and certainly not disciplined. He’s the prime suspect for Koko because they can’t fathom anyone else… until they visit Dengler’s mother.

The visit with Helga Dengler involves one of the most creepy and disturbing verbal exchanges I’ve read in a work of fiction. She’s a cheerless fundie who loves citing the Bible, and drops these vague off-kilter comments to obscure information. Only later does a horrified Poole make sense of them:

  • Everyone lied about us. No they didn’t. After Poole, Underhill, and Maggie Lah leave Helga’s home, they learn more about her husband’s trial and conviction from the Milwaukee library. Manny had been found by a social worker imprisoned in the meat locker of Karl’s butcher shop (“The Blood of the Lamb Butcher Shop”), bruised and half-conscious, clutching his favorite book Babar the King. Karl Dengler not only abused his son, but molested him since the age of six, and was justly sentenced to prison, where he died two years later. On top of that, Karl wasn’t just Manny’s foster father. He was his biological father who raped a Hispanic woman, whom he then probably killed since he considered her an inferior race.
  • We kept that boy busy. An understatement. They raised Manny like a slave.
  • He had to be put in chains. No matter what anyone said. Helga was being literal. Karl Dengler chained Manny up in the butcher shop as a disciplinary measure.
  • Imagination has to be stopped. You have to put an end to it. Helga didn’t like Manny’s children’s books like Babar the King. For her, only Scripture was appropriate for the young mind.

Thus it begins to dawn on everyone that Manny Dengler, abused horribly as a child, is Koko, and that it was he who killed Victor Spitalny while on R&R back in ’69, not the other way around. Inspired by one of Underhill’s novels, he concealed Spitalny’s death by putting his military dog-tag on him. Dengler then mutilated Spitalny’s body so thoroughly that only the dog-tag could be used to (mis)identity the corpse as Dengler’s.

When Helga goes on about how Manny was lazy and in sore need of discipline, Poole wants to shake her and ask: Couldn’t you see what a gift he was to you? He and the other vets have such precious memories of Dengler (unlike the universally despised Spitalny) that it forces the cliche of whether serial killers are born or made. Koko implies the latter — that Dengler was molded into Koko by abusive parents — and is silent on the former. According to scientists, if you have the high-risk form of a gene that predisposes you to violence and were abused early in life, then your chances of a criminal life are relatively high, whereas if you have the high-risk gene but weren’t abused, there isn’t much risk. A genetic tendency towards violence plus an abusive childhood is the killer combination; serial killers are born and made. Manny Dengler was probably hostage to bad genes as much as to the hellish environments of his home and then later Vietnam.

Murder Vacation Services

The most graphically upsetting part of Koko comes not in the serial killings nor Vietnam flashbacks, but at the novel’s midpoint (chapter 20), where Conor, after searching for Tim Underhill in countless nightclubs across Bangkok, is taken to an underground bar where he witnesses a staged murder. Except that it’s not staged: the woman is beaten and killed under the calm gazes of men in business suits who savor the brutality while sipping booze. Conor runs out appalled.

Apparently this is based on a real-world business in Thailand that offers (or used to offer) “murder vacation” services. The customer pays a hefty price to torture and kill someone, or to watch it happen for a slightly lower price. Straub isn’t the only one who has been inspired by it; Eli Roth based his Hostel films on the premise. It could be an urban legend, but it wouldn’t surprise me if secret organizations like this exist in the world.

The chapter is a side plot that doesn’t result in getting any closer to Underhill or the real Koko, but it’s one hell of a tension builder, and an example of Straub’s ability to engage the reader with red herrings. The scene gave me a nightmare in which I was Conor, didn’t get out of the bar in time, and became the next stage victim. Seriously.

Straub’s best novel?

He thinks so, and I see his point. You can taste the sweat and tears that went into Koko. Every sentence feels constructed with anorexic care; the pacing is incredibly disciplined for a thriller; and the dialogue so realistic it’s like sitting in on real-life conversations. Straub was always good at this stuff, but he had seriously upped his game by this point in his career. The genre itself marked a maturing, since Koko was his breakaway from horror — out of Stephen King’s shadow and into a style of mystery completely on his own terms. He should be extremely proud of Koko. But the fact is that he did better in Mystery and The Throat. The plotting is even richer in those books, and they feature as leads Tom Pasmore and Tim Underhill, who are the best characters Straub has written. Koko is seen mostly through the eyes of Michael Poole — a solid character to be sure, but nothing like Pasmore or Underhill.

There are small but significant problems with Koko that prevent me from awarding it 5-stars. First are the chronological inconsistencies. Straub can’t seem to decide whether or not the Koko killings happened in 1981 or 1982. In chapter 1 we learn that the first killings happened soon after the Iranian hostages were released, in January-February ’81. Then in chapter 16, we are told the dates for those killings are January-February ’82. And when Poole, Linklater, and Beevers are in Singapore looking for Underhill in January the following year, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” has just been released (see chapter 15). That happened in January ’83, which supports the ’82 dates for the early Koko killings, rather than the ’81 dates.

Second is the problem of how Tim Underhill could have written his novel The Divided Man, in which the fifth Blue Rose victim is a fundamentalist butcher who molests little boys. In the real world Manny Dengler’s father was a butcher preacher who molested him as a child, but Underhill doesn’t become aware of this until he, Poole, and Maggie visit Helga Dengler in Milwaukee. How could he have written that victim in The Divided Man years before in the early ’70s? That question is later answered in The Throat, where we learn that the fifth Blue Rose killing represents a butcher from Illinois (Heinz Stenmitz) who molested Tim Underhill when he was a child, and which Tim has repressed memory of. But that leaves us with the impossible coincidence of two characters (Manny Dengler and Tim Underhill) who were in the same Vietnam unit, and had both been molested by different butchers (Karl Dengler and Heinz Stenmitz) who each ran his own meat shop — and on a street with the same name (Muffin Street) in different states! Straub’s metafiction techniques get away from him at times.

Third is the unlikely coincidence that Michael Poole and Maggie Lah, independently of one another, happen to be obsessed with the children’s book Babar the King, which was Manny Dengler’s favorite book as a child and inspired him to think of himself as “Koko”. At one point Maggie even recalls the Song of the Elephants:

Patali di rapato
Cromda cromda ripalo
Pata pata
Ko ko ko

Maggie doesn’t know at this point that the serial killer calls himself Koko, but it asks a lot of the reader that she would be ruminating over the one children’s book that “explains” the serial killer. Michael Poole, for his part, is also obsessed with Babar the King because his deceased son loved it, though he has forgotten about the “Ko ko ko” line.

Fourth and last, the novel could have used some editing. There are places where description goes on more than it needs to, for example when Poole is wandering the streets in Singapore, or Harry is scouting out New York City for a place to trap Koko. The slow paced technique usually works for Straub and sets him above the hacks who crank out cheap page-turners. Still, it can be overdone. In Mystery and The Throat Straub gets away with all his indulgences; in Koko I lost patience in a few places.

None of these weaknesses diminish Koko‘s excellence, but they are enough to make me demur from Straub’s claim that it’s his best work to date. It’s also worth noting — though this really isn’t a criticism — that the Blue Rose killings play a minimal role in Koko. They are mentioned only once, in Underhill’s novel The Divided Man, where to Poole they come across as a meditation on the Koko killings. But that’s rather impossible, since Underhill wrote the novel in the early ’70s, years before Koko started his homicidal campaign. In Mystery the Blue Rose killings relate to a series of murders under investigation, and in The Throat they are the main plot; in Koko the Blue Rose idea seems to be in gestation, and Straub unsure as to how he wanted to use those killings to interpret other events. It’s hard to even think of Koko, really, as a Blue Rose novel, or at least until you read the next two novels and see how everything intertwines. We’ll look at Mystery in the next retrospective.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

The Sewer Orgy Revisited

It would appear that the sewer orgy scene from Stephen King’s It has been on everyone’s mind. For the past few weeks, my blogpost on the sewer orgy (posted in April) has been getting loads of hits. Today, for example:

Read the post here if you missed it before. And remember, the sewer orgy won’t be in the film released tomorrow. Which is a shame, because it’s the novel’s most important scene, though admittedly understandable. In the 21st century, no studio would dare take on the subject of an 11-year old gang bang.