Sunday 24 May 2015

SAUL BLACK: Serial Killers and Why we Love Them

Today's guest blog is the pen name of the acclaimed novelist Glen Duncan.

In a brilliant essay ‘Princes of Darkness’, published in the BFI’s companion volume to its Gothic film season in 2013 (Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film), screenwriter and novelist David Pirie makes a simple but invaluable observation: Count Dracula is a serial killer. A further observation, no less revelatory, follows: Hannibal Lecter is one of his direct fictional descendants.

What Dracula and Lecter have in common is that they’re presented to us as finished psychologies. Although Thomas Harris would later get into the dear doctor’s background, the definitive version is the one we find in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. In these two novels Lecter’s character, like his Gothic forebear’s, does not invite therapeutic questions. We’re not remotely interested in putting him on the analyst’s couch. He’s a terminal personality rendered so convincingly and thrillingly that it’s enough just to hang out with him and watch him in action, never mind the antecedents, never mind the Why? Hes a done deal. Hes his own brutally perfected Last Word.

This is one way of imagining serial killers, and it does much to explain our fascination with them. To read them, to watch them on screen, is to indulge in the same cathartic escapism provided by watching the antics of wild animals or boisterous plants: these are organisms doing what they do sans any of the moral or existential paraphernalia with which the rest of us are so annoyingly saddled. It’s liberating. It’s a blast. I have the impulse to kill people very often: tail-gaters, queue-jumpers, over-users of the word ‘basically’, anyone whose phone is set to emit that currently ubiquitous five note whistle (designed, presumably, by Lucifer); the problem is I lack the psychology. My cowardly frontal lobes are fine. If our pleasure in fictional sociopaths is vicarious wish-fulfilment, it raises the ticklish (if familiar) question: Without them to get us off imaginatively, would more of us be serial killers?

I repeat: This is one way of imagining the bad boys (and occasionally bad girls). It’s no coincidence that these ‘apex predators’ are so often presented as charming, erudite and classy, as likely to hum Bartók or quote Milton as to whack you in the face with a claw hammer. If they represent our latent or repressed selves, if they’re fantasies, then why not make them articulate culture vultures while we’re at it? No one wants to be a psycho with a comb-over and shell suit.

Psychiatric medicine and investigative journalism have, between them, debunked this myth and replaced it with a much less titillating truth: that by and large the people who do these things are dull and damaged, bereft of insight and driven by dreary compulsions, imaginatively and emotionally dead, cognitively impaired and not infrequently sexually impotent without the Viagra of psychotic violence. In short, they’re boring. More boring still, if the so called ‘psychopathic gene’ is admitted to the party. Granted it’s neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for serial murder, but still, it’s hard not to feel a bit short-changed if the great monsters reduce to nothing more snazzy than lousy DNA.

But even assuming the shrinks are right and the journos’ interviews genuine, our fascination lingers.

My optimist believes this is because we want to understand the puzzles - redundant in the cases of Lecter and the Count - of How and Why. My ludicrous optimist goes further: the better we understand the root causes, the more likely we’ll be to put time and energy into eliminating them.

My pessimist, on the other hand, says it’s because in spite of all evidence to the contrary we can’t shake the suspicion that there’s something serial killers know that we don’t. We think of them as beings who’ve been out beyond the moral boundaries - to visit God or the Devil or Nothingness - and returned bearing the experience’s inscrutable imprimatur. Our imaginative habit insists they’re the possessors of forbidden knowledge, even though our reason has long since identified the majority of them as morons - albeit lethal ones.

Either way - in our fictions, fantasies and fears - the serial killer is here to stay.

Reference: ‘Princes of Darkness’ by David Pirie in Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film, ed. James Bell, (BFI, London, 2013)

The Killing Lessons

When the two strangers turn up at Rowena Cooper's isolated Colorado farmhouse, she knows instantly that it's the end of everything. For the two haunted and driven men, on the other hand, it's just another stop on a long and bloody journey. And they still have many miles to go, and victims to sacrifice, before their work is done.  For San Francisco homicide detective Valerie Hart, their trail of corpses - women abducted, tortured and left with a seemingly random series of objects inside them - has brought her from obsession to the edge of physical and psychological destruction. And she's losing hope of making a breakthrough before that happens.  But the slaughter at the Cooper farmhouse didn't quite go according to plan. There was a survivor, Rowena's 10-year-old daughter Nell, who now holds the key to the killings. Injured, half-frozen, terrified, Nell has only one place to go. And that place could be even more terrifying than what she's running from.

The Killing Lessons by Saul Black (Orion) is out now price £12.99 

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