Yearly Archives: 2014

The Manhunters: Will Graham and Clarice Starling


“You’d be more comfortable if you relax with yourself. We don’t invent our natures, they’re issued to us, along with our lungs…and everything else. Why fight it?”




In the two best adaptation of William Harris’ series of Hannibal Lecter novels, the films delineate two distinct portraits of the psychological profile contained within not just the serial killers, but more interestingly, also within the investigators responsible for apprehending them. Throughout Michael Mann’s 1986 seminal crime procedural adaptation of the Red Dragon novel and Jonathan Demme’s 1990 masterpiece adaptation of the book’s sequel—The Silence of the Lambs—the complex moral challenges facing both manhunters allows a fascinating glimpse into issues of gender and psychological insights contained within both FBI Special Investigator William Graham (William Petersen) and the young FBI trainee Claire Starling (Jodie Foster).  Specifically, this contrast is viewed through the mutual interaction between both investigators and Hannibal Lecter–the cannibalistic serial killer aiding both manhunters in the pursuit of the killers beyond their reach.

While Silence revels much more in the serial killer genre elements with procedural clues in the background, Manhunter brings the police procedural ideas to the forefront. Manhunter’s basic thesis revolves around the thin line separating the psyche between serial killers and the obsessive nature of those investigators attempting to “solve” them. Over and over, Mann highlights the dual identity that Graham must negotiate between being a “good cop”, who uses the obsessive nature of his persona to stop criminals, and how that same obsessive nature taps into the dark reservoirs of his psyche that overlaps with the same perverted landscape as the killers of his pursuit.


In Graham’s introductory scene, he’s persuaded by his FBI Superior Jack Crawford to return to his job as a special investigator after being committed to a mental ward for his arrest of Hannibal Lector. In his first real scene of police work, Graham effectively places himself in the mind of the current killer—codenamed The Tooth Fairy —and recreates his actions within the scene of the murder. Graham effectively uses a method actor’s technique of embedding his thoughts into the mind of the killer in order to piece together the crime from the murderer’s perspective. He talks out loud to himself, plays the role of the Tooth Fairy, speaking into his recorder: “God she’s lovely isn’t she…you opened their eyes, didn’t you! Didn’t you!”

Later, Graham meets with Lecktor (only ever unnecessarily spelt this way in Manhunter) for further help unlocking the identity of the killer. Played by Cox in a much more naturalistic and intellectually driven behavior than that of Hopkins, Lecktor taunts Graham’s plea for help, knowing that Graham’s arresting him continues to haunt him beyond the thin veneer of his outward confidence. Lecktor even (sloppily) underlines the film’s thesis by telling Graham in a bald declaration: “the reason you caught me is we’re just alike.”

The idea of transformation—or becoming—is another theme echoed throughout both Manhunter and Silence. In an uncovered note from Francis to Lecktor, he writes: “You alone can understand what I am becoming. You know the people I use to help me in…undergoing change to fuel the radiance of what I am becoming.” As Francis Dolarhyde (aka the Tooth Fairy) kills his victims in the act of becoming the Red Dragon, Graham struggles against becoming locked in the very acts that he’s committed to fighting. LIkewise, Lecktor’s final piece of advice to Graham in unlocking the killer’s motive involves “becoming”:

“Didn’t you really feel so bad because killing him felt so good and why shouldn’t it feel good? It must feel good to God. He does it all the time.”

“Why does it feel good, Dr. Lector”

“…because God has powers. And if one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is”.



Mann further implements this motif by framing Graham’s investigative obsessions in a manner that suggests his own becoming not altogether unlike Dolarhyde. The pre-credit opening is shot from the POV of The Tooth Fairy ascending the household steps to murder the family, and when Graham breaks into the house for his own investigations, Mann replicates the same POV shot to parallel the perspective of the two men. Similarly, this transitions into Graham’s own unlocking of the killer’s psyche—allowing his realization that the Tooth Fairy needs to use mirrors as an “audience” of his becoming. Furthermore, Graham must continue to watch the home videos of the family in the same ritualistic manner as the Tooth Fairy. In watching the videos over and over again, Mann again demonstrates how Graham’s practices for success border that thin line between investigator and the killer.

As Graham falls deeper and deeper into the case, Graham’s son forces him to confront this very nature that he’s demonstrated an inability to control, asking:

“This guy’s trying to kill us?…When are you gonna kill him?

Mann ingeniously uses the innocent of the child’s question in order to again highlight the thin moral boundary separating the two men. A guilty look flashes across Graham’s face: his own son’s question reflecting an idea not too different from the same taunts used by Leckter. Similarly, the question—and his son’s point-of-view of right and wrong—display a failing on Graham’s part to truly define exactly what the moral justice side of his job means. Almost reluctantly, he answers:

“I’m not…It’s only my job to find him.”

However, this does not prove to be the case.



As with Lecktor’s insight that a killer kills because it feels good—to act like God—and if one kills enough times than one will become as God is—Graham cannot stop himself from needing to act like these killers in order to become one. After spending the entire movie using the same obsessive mindset utilized by the killers in order to fulfill their conquests, Graham finally finds the killer of his pursuit and shoots down The Tooth Fairy. Although Mann employs the cinematic style of an action/cop hero forced to kill the bad guy, and the film ends with Graham back on the beach with his family, the question remains whether Graham’s process hasn’t exactly validated Lector’s claims. Though innocent lives have been saved, Graham has now—multiple times, and in the same, serial manner—killed two men by enslaving himself to the same psychological compulsions that compelled the very men that he’s just killed.

Though Lecktor believes that it is in replicating God’s power to kill that drives the Tooth Fairy, Graham can now be seen as one occupying another spectrum in the desire act as God—specifically, in acting as the all-powerful protector. Just before Graham leaves to take on the case, he works with his son to help a build a fence to keep out predators—protecting the innocent animals. Throughout the investigation, Graham continually consults the photos of the murdered families (along with their home videos) as a continual reminder of his responsibility. Nearing the climax, Graham finally yells at Crawford for roping him into the case by shouting:

“You showed me two dead families knowing damn well I’d imagine families four, five, and six”. To which Crawford retorts: “Damn right. And I’d do it again”.

The idea of Graham as protector and father is further underscored by challenges of masculinity repeatedly addressed in the film. In the investigator’s need to outsmart both Lecktor and The Tooth Fairy as a way of proving masculine dominance to himself, family, and co-workers, Mann again uses a parallel structure between The Tooth Fairy and Graham to negotiate their dual struggle. The police’s main assumption about the Tooth Fairy—that he is gay—is proven to be something that troubles and provokes Dolarhyde into fits of rage. After kidnapping Lounds (the paparazzo), he asks point-blank: “Do you imply that I am queer?” Though Lounds profusely denies it, Dolarhyde forces him to “promise”, which he concludes by stating “We’ll seal your promise with a kiss” (before then sending Lounds to his death).

Though some may point to Dolarhyde’s night of “romance” with his blind co-worker, Reba, as an argument against any homosexual inclinations, what one finds on close examination is that she is further framed as yet another prop in Dolarhyde’s slow transformation toward becoming the Red Dragon. After their night in bed, Dolarhyde wakes in a panic upon finding her absent. He races outside looking for her, only to find Reba standing in the rising morning sun. When she talks about coming back inside the house, Dolarhyde begs her stay outside because: “you look so good in the sun”.

This is a clear allusion to main source and inspiration of Dolarhyde’s Red Dragon ideal through the William Blake painting: The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun. With Francis standing in for the Red Dragon, Reba is literally standing outside in the sun, fueling his fantasy in acting as the woman literally clothed in the sun.




In line with Graham’s role as father figure and protector, he, too, feels the need to prove his masculinity through the job. Beside the photos/videos of Graham watching as a father might, desperate to protect his family, he’s quick to anger and easily provoked by any threat to his shortcomings. With Lecktor–Graham’s ultimate tool in unlocking the clues to the killer–he’s unable to ever let pass any provocations by the jailed cannibal. During his first visit to ask Lecktor’s help, when Lecktor asks why he would ever aid the police in finding the Tooth Fairy:

“Thought you might be curious to see if you’re smarter than the person I’m looking for”

“By implication, you [Will], are smarter than me”

“You had disadvantages…You’re insane”

“Don’t think you can persuade me with appeals to my intellectual vanity”

“I’m not going to persuade you. You’ll either do it or you won’t.”

Graham deflects Lecktor’s assertion of Will being smarter than either of them by resorting to Lecktor’s insanity, and when Lecktor continues to taunt their similar natures, Graham flees the asylum from being so overwhelmed by the implications. In contrast to the finesse and verbal outsmarting used by Clarice in Silence, Graham’s response to any version of insulting his “less than” is to prove himself the better. Later, when Graham explains to the investigators (with Lounds in attendance) that the Tooth Fairy may be impotent with females, Lounds asks how working on the case affects Graham’s own sex life. To which he responds:

“Mine? Doesn’t affect mine. Affects yours. Go fuck yourself”.

Again, unlike Clarice’s reactions in Silence to utilize any abject response to her sexuality as a means of subverting expectations  to her advantage, Graham—as a man compelled to prove his masculinity—ends up sharing psychological qualities not altogether unlike those of the Tooth Fairy.

Graham’s obsession as both a protector and father figure, and then decision to kill in the name of it, further supports Lecktor’s explanation  to not just The Tooth’s Fairy psychology—but Graham’s. Again, although the film ends on an ostensible sunset of triumph for Graham, there remains a darker reading into Graham’s “feeling good” for having fully completed his cycle of becoming more like God the protector.



Clarice Starling, although an FBI novitiate in training to fulfill the same position occupied by Graham, works as a fascinating counterexample to the troubled male investigator. While Graham’s pathology has proven to be linked to those of the very killers he seeks, and further complemented by his masculine mindset, Clarice works both on the opposite side of the spectrum and strategically utilizes her disadvantages into her advantage.

Clarice is introduced as an FBI trainee, one not even officially introduced into the field, and furthermore—as a woman. Without exaggeration, almost every scene involving Clarice is framed from either her literal point-of-view or displays how men in the field treat a woman, much less a trainee. The first shot of Clarice is training at the FBI training headquarters—climbing a hill—overcoming man-made obstacles. Not a moment later, this is followed with her entering a crowded elevator filled with men drawing her height, where she must force her way inside only to confront their glaring stares. She then meets with Crawford (played, as great as Farina’s moustache will always be, perfectly by Scott Glenn). Here, Crawford offers her the goal of talking with the notorious Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter under the pretenses of interviewing him for an FBI psychological profile. Clarice eyes the Buffalo Bill headlines posted behind him, playing along, as Crawford adds: “I don’t expect him to talk with you, but I have to at least say that we tried.”

At Lecter’s insane asylum, Clarice enters a whole new realm of misogyny from both the staff and those interred at the criminally insane. Chilton—the director of the Baltimore asylum holding Lecter—charms Clarice with such lines as:

“We get a lot of detectives here, but I must say, I can’t ever remember one this attractive.” … “Will you be in town overnight”…”, “Crawford’s very clever using you, isn’t he?…Pretty, young woman to turn him on. I don’t think Lecter’s even seen a woman in eight years, and oh are you ever his taste”.

After deflecting Chilton’s first few words, Clarice snaps on the last: “I graduated from UVA, Doctor. It is not a charm school.” When she then suggests that she be left alone to interview Lecter, and Chilton passive-aggressively notes that she could have mentioned that earlier, she replies: “Then I would have missed the pleasure of your company”.

Unlike Graham’s volatile attitude toward even the smallest chide, Clarice must navigate the male-dominated criminology field with a level of self-aware tact. While Graham’s only real obstacle came from within himself and those criminals of his pursuit, Clarice must contend with both sadistic killers and the constant, looming male bureaucracy challenging her competency at every turn.


In Clarice’s first interview with the imprisoned cannibal, Hannibal is insulted both by Crawford’s sending of a trainee and Clarice’s not so subtle questionings that are the equivalent of filling out a standard psych eval. On her way out, however, one of the deranged inmates—Migs—degrades Clarice in one of the vilest methods imaginable: by literally throws semen on her face. An infuriated Lector, who considers Migs’ discourtesy to be “unspeakably ugly”, immediately calls Clarice back and gives her the first clue in catching Buffalo Bill—who is connected to Lecter through a former patient during his days as a psychiatrist.

One wonders if this incident had happened with Graham or another male investigator, rather than Clarice, how the pursuit of Buffalo Bill would have continued forward. Migs would be understandably less inclined to humiliate a female investigator, and Lecter himself seems more repulsed by the discourtesy to a female investigator than those male investigators routinely sent to interview him. Despite Lecter humiliating Clarice only moments before, calling her: “a well-scrubbed rube. You’re not one generation removed from poor white trash.” Migs’ disrespecting a woman in this particular way revolts Lector to the core so much so that he allows Clarice for the first of many breakthrough in finding Buffalo Bill.


As strong as Clarice remains following the incident, she breaks down when reaching her car in the parking lot outside the institution. Alone, without anyone watching, she lets out a long cry that leads to a flashback from her youth. Here, Clarice’s motivation and inspiration for her career is first revealed as her father—the local sheriff—returns home from work. The role of this man in Clarice’s life proves to be the source of her strength, and the defining model of what a strong and decent man can be in contrast to the more despicable men that will populate the remainder of her working years.

When investigating the first clue, Clarice again demonstrates her resourcefulness where many men would turn back or ask for help. Following Lecter’s lead to a storage unit, Clarice and the storage manager are unable to open the long-jammed door. While the manager suggests that his son could help, Clarice finds a tire lift in the back of her car and manages to lift the door enough to crawl inside the long abandoned facility, while the manager stares dumbfounded at her ingenuity.

Still, much of Clarice’s noteworthiness lies in her silent resilience, an ability to trudge forward in perseverance despite the setbacks or constant humiliation from either her peers or the killers. In her second interview with Lecter, he asks: “Do you think Jack Crawford wants you sexually? True, he is older, but do you think he visualizes exchanges, scenarios—fucking you.”

Whereas Graham, in his endless need to prove his position of alpha superiority, would no doubt be ready with some hotheaded comeback, Clarice returns with a simple shake of the head and replies: “That doesn’t interest me, doctor. Frankly, it’s the sort of thing that Miggs would say.” Again, using her intellect and subtle passiveness to turn the tables on Lecter, and in effect, beat him at his own game of mental intimidation.


When Buffalo Bill’s next victim is found, Clarice and Crawford travel to the funeral parlor to inspect the latest corpse. But first, Demme uses the opportunity to again expose Clarice position in the workforce. Demme places the camera from Clarice’s POV, and the eyes of every officer in the room stare down upon the woman as she pushes through the crowded funeral home to the backroom parlor. When Crawford speaks with the Sheriff, and the latter begins discussing Buffalo Bill’s mutilations to the woman’s corpse, Crawford utters loud enough for the room to hear: “Sheriff, this type of sex crime has certain aspects, I’d just as soon discuss in private…you know what I mean” before letting his eyes visibly direct toward Clarice.

Despite her clear competency to both draw out information from Lecter in a manner so many of her male peers have already failed, Clarice’s male FBI superior belittles her before the entire male squad. When Clarice does gain entry to the parlor room, and finds the death moth secreted within the corpse’s throat, she again demonstrates her impressive analytic prowess. In the car ride afterwards, Crawford comments to Clarice: “When I told that Sheriff we shouldn’t talk in front of a woman, that really burned ya, didn’t it? It was just smoke, Starling. I had to get rid of them. She replies: “It matters, Mr. Crawford. Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.”


Later, with an attitude not too dissimilar from Graham’s in dealing with Lounds’ taunts, Chilton tries outsmarting Lecter in the most obvious, masculine way possible—bullying him. In his hopes to humiliate Lecter, and his exploiting the opportunity as a means of demonstrating his power, Chilton destroys Clarice’s more clever and subdued path toward finding Buffalo Bill. (In the end, Chilton’s plan proves even more destructive when Lecter’s able to escape from imprisonment.) But yet again, the series has proven that this masculine response of aggression—mirroring the killers’ own compulsions to fuel their dangerous fantasies—leads to disastrous results.

In their last interaction together, Lecter agrees to continue his arrangement with Clarice of helping profile Buffalo Bill under the condition that she reveal her most painful memory. Clarice speaks through a choked up voice, recounting the incident after she ran away to a farm in Montana after her father’s death. There, late one night, she heard the screams of the lambs being slaughtered. Hoping to silence the horrible sound, she sneaks in, steals one of the lambs, and ran as fast as she could—thinking that if she could save just one…


Besides explaining the title, Clarice’s story sheds light on her psychology and driving motivation in a manner both illuminating and heartbreaking. When Lecter asks if she ran from the sight of the slaughtered lambs, Clarice politely refutes him—making him understand that she opened their pens, but they wouldn’t move, the lambs were confused and wouldn’t run…but she was compelled to help save them. With the obvious metaphor for the sheep as the helpless victim, Clarice has been driven all her life to not look away from the danger, to be strong as she saw her father, and use her smarts to help those confused and dumbfounded by the situation in order to save the helpless victims.

Rather than wanting to punish those responsible for the violence, Clarice’s drive has always been focused on saving the victim. While Manhunter’s title is changed from its novel adaptation of Harrris’ Red Dragon, it still encapsulates so much of what defines Graham as an investigator compared to Clarice. Whereas the former relies on his inhabiting the mindset of the killer to the point that he himself arguably transforms into one, Clarice remains unaffected by any such dangerous pathology by knowing that her job relies in her helping to save the innocent. While she is indeed the one to kill Buffalo Bill by the film’s conclusion, her shooting him in self-defense plays out with a world of difference compared to Graham’s. Clarice’s inability to answer Lecter’s final question as to whether the lambs have stopped screaming only helps prove this point further. While Graham views himself as the man responsible for stopping the slaughterer, Clarice operates under the hope that she may always be in service of helping save just one more.

While both investigators are working toward a similar, admirable goal, the stark differences in psychology and methods between Will Graham and Clarice Starling highlights the vast difference between the two and respective consequences of both. Graham’s method of embedding himself within the same, sadistic moral point-of-view as the killers has been proven to be successful in stopping the slaughters, yet still morally questionable in terms of its endgame. In his pursuit of justice, Graham himself begins to transform into the same type of monster that he’s promised to stop—ending in his compromised morals and continued psychological suffering.

Clarice, on the other hand, is driven by the traumatizing effect of violence in hoping to save the victim, rather her needing to solve what is an impossible goal—of defeating violence with violence. Instead, she uses her own unique gifts—skills and training crafted through a lifetime of education and experience to help stop the suffering of those in need. And perhaps most fascinating, the psychology of both investigators is discovered through their relationship with Lecter—the link in finding the killer of their respective pursuits. Where Graham and Lecter continue an endless push-pull of trying to outsmart one another, Clarice uses Lecter’s own psychological tactics to her advantage without needing to compromise herself. In the end, both films demonstrate why the investigators and Hannibal Lecter remain such superb examples of how Harris’ morally ambiguous novels continue to intrigue audiences and expose the wide spectrum of human nature for all its good and evil.



The Case for The Case of Charles Dexter Ward



    Despite a bibliography responsible for some of the most profound contributions to weird fiction and the larger horror genre, H.P. Lovecraft lived a life of very little fame or fortune by his death at a age of forty-six. Yet today, the author of such famous works as “At the Mountains of Madness”, “The Dunwich Horror”, and “The Colour Out of Space” remains widely lauded as one of the best in horror—bridging the gap between Poe and Stephen King. Still, this minimal recognition during his own lifetime inspired a great deal of self-doubt and suspicion that often seeped into the celebrated author’s own creative prowess.

Lovecraft wrote on numerous occasions of his own hypercritical reactions to his work, so much so that he would often allow the manuscripts to collect dust rather than be published, or only finally publish the material after a considerable amount of time had passed. (In his notes on Thing in the Doorstep, renowned Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi writes in the eponymous book: “[Lovecraft] was so dissatisfied with the story upon its completion that he refused to submit it anywhere. At last, in the summer of 1936…when Julius Schwartz proposed to HPL to market some of his tales in England, HPL reluctantly submitted the story.” (pg. 493)) Perhaps the most amazing example of this mistrust in his own abilities, however, can be found in one of the author’s longest yet most profound of achievements, a novel unpublished during his lifetime due to his own dissatisfaction for the material—The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

Calling the novel a “cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism”, Lovecraft’s longest piece of fiction remained unpublished until his weird fiction peers August Derleth and Donald Wandrei managed to have the writing posthumously published (in abridged form) within the May and July 1941 issues of Weird Tales. Yet, most remarkably, for all Lovecraft’s creative and unprecedented literary creations: the Cthuhlu mythos, the cosmic horrors of the Old Ones, supernatural entities capable of transcending barriers of time and space, the author rarely employed personal and individual human tragedies into his work, though not without calculated reason. In a letter to E. Hoffman Price, Lovecraft explained his reasons for focusing less on his characters than the fantastic cosmic horrors of their adventures as such:

“Individuals and their fortunes within natural law move me very little. They are all momentary trifles bound from a common nothingness toward another common nothingness. Only the cosmic framework itself—or such individuals as symbolise principles (or defiances of principles) of the cosmic framework—can gain a deep grip on my imagination and set it to work with creating. In other words, the only ‘heroes’ I can write about are phenomena”. (S.T. Joshi, xxxvi of Introduction to Thing On the Doorstep)

And indeed, looking throughout the most famous of Lovecraft’s achievements, one finds that the author has distilled this existential philosophy to incredible effect, leaving the reader overwhelmed by climaxes confronting their insignificance amongst the cosmos and their personal troubles. Moreover, examining some of Lovecraft’s most famous character creations—from the humans of Randolph Character and Herbert West to his mythical creations of Cthulu and Yog-Sothoth—one finds clear examples of such principles in play: characters that serve more as functionaries of Lovecraft’s horror philosophy than characters whose individual hopes or failures are used to drive plot. Yet, it is in this respect, that Lovecraft manages to best represent the true tragedy of both horrors—of individual human tragedy and that of his existential cosmos—through the character of Charles Dexter Ward.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward begins with a structure not too unusual from many Lovecraft tales by hinting toward the final consequences of some unspeakable horror. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward opens in Providence within a private hospital for the insane, shedding few tangible clues, but laying out such preliminaries as to the fact that Charles has gone missing from his room and only left behind a trail of some fine gray dust.

Lovecraft then launches into an early biography of young Charles, jumping back to the chronological beginning of the tale, and providing a wealth of background information into his family history, setting, and position in society. With shades of the author’s own upbringing peppered throughout, Charles is described a precociously gifted scholar with very proud parents. Lovecraft then provides a number of incredibly gorgeous passages that describe everything from the town’s: architecture, landscape, and beauty of his colonial hometown of to contribute further perspective on Charles’ homelife. Following this brief, yet vital understanding into Ward’s family life and early prosaic upbringing, the essence of the plot begins upon Charles’ discovery into the existence of a great-great-great-grandfather whose identity had as of yet been a mystery: Joseph Curwen.

Lovecraft then pauses the present story and returns to the past—back to 1761— to doll out the disturbing history of Joseph Curwen’s infamous early existence and subsequent downfall. Though Curwen poses as a wealthy shipping entrepreneur, local suspicions arise concerning the astounding levels of beef that are delivered to Curwen’s barn, along with the strange, intermittent shafts of light that are periodically produced. Curwen’s enemies soon discover more details of his nefarious plans, which include the possibility of his being able to rise forth beings from the dead and outside realms of human experience. After a raiding party attacks Curwen’s property, the disgraced wizard is never heard from again and the surviving raiders agree to a unanimous secrecy of what they may have just witnessed.

Returning to the present, the narrative’s remaining bulk is devoted toward Charles’ increasing obsession toward his heretofore-unacknowledged ancestor. The young boy drops out of school, a social life, a relationship with his parents…all in the pursuit of unlocking the abominable secrets previously pursued by Curwen. The Ward family doctor—Dr. Marinus Willet—serves as the audience’s eyes, as he slowly discovers the horrid depths of Charles and Curwen’s plans through letters, old documents, interviews—all pointing toward a plan of complete cosmic destruction. Willet’s investigations into Charles’ unraveling psychology eventually lead him the underground catacombs found below Curwen’s old premises—long since abandoned since the attack by the raiding party years ago.

These passages—wherein the elder doctor stumbles down the subterranean depths to uncover a variety of terrible creatures housed by Curwen—present some of the most dread-filled pages within all of Lovecraft’s bibliography. Though these horrors are mostly hinted at, rather than given completely description (as say, the reveal of the Shoggoth in At the Mountains of Madness), they become all the more powerful for placing the reader directly into Willet’s shoes and being forced to finally discover the unspeakable monsters living beneath this tiny town.

Afterward, the tragedy of Charles’ obsession finally reveals that the young Ward has been replaced by the soul of his disembodied ancestor: Joseph Curwen. Willet surmises that through a variety of ancient spells, rituals, and hinted alchemy, Curwen killed and replaced Charles’ being, and now intends to finish the nefarious plans set in motion more than a century ago.

As is Lovecraft’s predominant style, the author embellishes his narratives with impressive depictions of fictional creations through a vivid command of language. The inimitable style pulls the reader into the transportive realm of the text before concluding in the reveal of that great, supernatural horror–one whose believability has been soundly constructed through passages designed to hypnotize the reader through this wall of atmospheric realism. As a result, the final reveal builds with an almost unbearable weight of dread. In each major section, Lovecraft has left a trail of clues, hints at horrors to come, that allow the reader to piece together the unspeakable terror until the ultimate reveal of his horrific creation.


 While many of Lovecraft’s narratives are written from first-person point-of-view, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward uses third-person omniscient to expert effect. The story begins with a general impression into Charles’ life, then drastically changes gears to offer the full details of Curwen’s downfall, before reverting back to Charles’ perspective before ending with Dr. Willet’s.

In doing so, the reader becomes familiar with Charles, understanding his world as an actual person and not just as an investigate means of supernatural phenomena. Consequentially, his final fate allows for a demonstration of horror on both the cosmic and personal scale as Lovecraft has never executed so perfectly. Charles’ slow psychological unraveling, his inexorable descent into cosmic powers beyond his control, and the manipulation of this young boy into an expendable chess piece by his own ancestor all exemplify a beautiful merging of the true terrors found within the hearts of men and the cosmic horrors that they may conjure.



Unlike a number of other central Lovecraft characters—say Professor William Dyer in Mountains of Madness or Wilbur Whateley in Dunwich Horror—who either serve as the human functionary unraveling the horrors, or, as in Wilbur’s case, as the actual cosmic phenomena to be later revealed, Charles Dexter Ward represents as a unique combination of both. Charles begins as an innocent child with inclinations that border the bizarre, but never necessitate any cause for worry. But as he digs deeper into his unusual family lineage, Charles’ downward spiral into the occult echoes many of the familiar metaphorical tragedies that would befall a young man due to individual struggles, e.g.: alcohol/ drug addiction, depression, mental illness…that Charles’ ceaseless obsession into Curwen creates a very unique type of dread for the life of this young boy that separates itself from similar character in the Lovecraft canon.

As within the climaxes of cosmic horrors necessitating a very calculated amount of prior clues to propel the reader towards the ultimate reveal, Charles’ own storyline works in a similar, dreadful fashion. As the boy begins to psychologically unravel, his mother and father’s concerns escalate into a subplot of severe family tragedy. As Charles’ experiments with Curwen’s writings soon require his isolation from family, his mother is asked to leave all meals before his door and forbidden entry from contacting him. The mother’s clear disgust for her son’s unstoppable obsession soon becomes apparent, and the reader watches with accumulating dread as these parents must witness their young child begin to lose his mind. Eventually, Charles’ mother’s own sanity collapses under the mental strain and she is sent away to Atlantic City for an indefinite stay: never to see her boy again. Meanwhile, Charles’ father–Theodore–takes up the fight alongside Dr. Willet. The anxious father soon recognizes that his son’s interests with Curwen has driven into a treacherous realm of unstable mental illness, and perhaps toward death or an even worse, unspeakable conclusion.

After his discovery of Curwen’s catacombs beneath the farmhouse, Willet pieces together the true horror of what has happened—that Charles has been murdered by Curwen and the young boy’s body is being possessed by the very ancestor summoned by the boy. Upon realizing what he must do, and how he will be the one responsible for killing Curwen (vis-à-vis Chalres), Willet understands that his actions the following day will result in Charles’ death. What follows is Willet’s letter to Theodore—Charles’ father—explaining how the case will conclude:

“It is better you attempt no further speculation as to Charles’ case, and almost imperative that you tell his mother nothing more than she already suspects. When I call on you tomorrow, Charles will have escaped. That is all which need remain in anyone’s mind. He was mad, and he has escaped. You can tell his mother gently and gradually about the mad part when you stop sending the typed notes in his name…So don’t ask me any questions when I call…There will be nothing more to worry about, for Charles will be very, very safe. He is now—safer than you dream…But you must steel yourself to melancholy, and prepare your wife to do the same. I must tell you frankly that Charles’ escape will not mean his restoration to you. He has been afflicted with a peculiar disease, as you must realize from the subtle and physical changes in him, and you must not hope to see him again. Have only this consolation – that he was never a fiend or even truly a madman, but only an eager, studious, and curious boy whose love of mystery and of the past was his undoing. He stumbled on things no mortal ought ever to know, and reached back through the years as no on should ever reach; and something came out of those years to engulf him…There will be, indeed, no uncertainty about Charles’ fate. In about a year, say, you can if you wish devise a suitable account of the end; for the boy will be no more. You can put up a stone in your lot…that will mark the true resting-place of your son. Nor need you fear that it will mark any abnormality or changeling. The ashes in that grave will be those of your own unaltered bone and sinew – of the real Charles Dexter Ward whose mind you watched from infancy – the real Charles with the olive-mark on his hip and without the black-mark on his chest or the pit on his forehead. The Charles who never did actual evil, and who will have paid with his life for his ‘squeamishness’. That is all. Charles will have escaped, and a year from now you can put up his stone. Do not question me tomorrow. And believe that the honour of your ancient family remains untainted now, as it has been at all times in the past.”

While Lovecraft has written some of the most unsurpassably gorgeous descriptions of fantasy and horror in all of literature, the above letter from a doctor to a father explaining that his son will be dead tomorrow is undoubtedly Lovecraft’s most poignant and heartbreaking. In this above passage, Lovecraft has masterfully merged a union of horrors between the tragedy of human affairs and the consequence of cosmic insignificance. Though Lovecraft’s legacy both in literature and pop culture will always honor him for imbuing the genre with fantastically creative creatures and conceptions of dread that remain amongst the most innovative the genre has to offer, one of the author’s own best works was almost never given the chance to even be presented for any audience. Moreover, one of the author’s most unique characters was almost lost amongst the other classics of the Lovecraft canon. A tragedy that would have made impossible the case of a young man’s downfall—the precocious young Charles Dexter Ward—who provides an invaluable link in representing terrors indicative both to the author’s own philosophical output and those tragedies found in the heart of human nature.

Book Review: The Bighead


     The Bighead—along with the rest of Edward Lee’s novels—have long held an infamous spot within the dark shelf of the horror genre known collectively as the “splatterpunk”. This subgenre distinguishes itself from its horror siblings by—and it bears repeating that this is within the horror genre—excessively graphic depictions of violence and gore. The Bighead itself has long held a reputation as something of a dare for genre readers—a book filled with countless descriptions of the most gruesome, nauseating, stomach-turning scenes of sex, violence, and horror.

From the very first sentence, the reader is able to quickly gauge whether they have the stomach to power through three hundred more pages filled with similarly grotesque sentences or not. This is not the type of horror that haunts you. That is, the type of weird horror that weaves a strong atmosphere of dread before a Lovecraftian glimpse into voids of indescribable terror, nor is it the type of nauseating and vivid horror mastered by guys like Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon, who tell a strong, suspenseful story of terrible and gruesome acts with characters that—although often detestable—are still recognizable as human beings.

Instead, Edward Lee kicks it up to eleven in nearly every category. Often employing a colloquial prose in chapters concerning either the Bighead or the two deplorable redneck hillbillies Tritt and Balls, the writing simultaneously places the reader within the very uncomfortable skin of the two despicable killers while also putting the vile actions at arms length from ever experiencing some of these over-the-top murders in any realistic way. In other words, this colloquial verbiage allows the reader a glimpse into the Bighead’s mindset with passages reminiscent of something akin to a serial killer’s diary, while also distancing any plausibility of how unbelievably over-the-top such savagery could ever be.

If Lee were to write these passages with a straight face, employing the normal prose utilized in chapters with the “normal” character (Chastity, Jerrica, the Priest), the tone would drastically shift from the more pulpy and self-aware disgust into horrors that would become too comically disgusting to bear. While many would (perhaps rightfully) argue that these never-ending descriptions of creative disgusts are already “too much”, this change in perspective using the “hick” dialogue within the prose serves its purpose for both tone and narrative in a unique and stylistic method.

For readers seeking out The Bighead for a thrill, to test boundaries of good taste and violence, then the book certainly delivers. Moreover, these elements are satisfied within the first fifty pages or so, which make the next couple hundred more tiresome than they should be. The reader becomes accustomed to the rhythm of the book, knowing that after one or two quiet scenes that usually consist of character finding out expository plot details, the next chapter or two will be louder than hell and fulfill its task of topping the previous disgusting scene with even more creative and perverse way to send shivers up the readers spine. Certain elements of the ending may serve as a point of dispute, but by that point, arguments toward the overall quality of the book should more or less be rendered mute.

Still, The Bighead lives up to its reputation for those interested. The novel is filled with some of the most perverse, disturbed imagery that one can imagine, and though this is more for shock and thrill purposes, than any type of horror that will crawl under your skin, one should seek out the novel at least to be a part of the discussion and claim to have powered through the infamous novel. Certainly recommended to fans of the horror genre, and those looking for a book that will illumine its most vile corners.

Vin Packer: Queen of the Psychological Crime Novels


In the long, varied, and traditionally male-dominated history of the crime novel, the work of author Vin Packer distinguishes itself with rich characterization and psychologically driven plots that are unsurpassed by many of the genre’s contemporaries. Born Marijane Meaker, the female author wrote more than twenty mystery/crime novels under the pseudonym Vin Packer in order ensure the publication of her dark, unorthodox novels that occupied a morally ambiguous landscape without the predictable plots of tough guy detectives or villains in black hats. Instead, Packer’s work defines itself by unforgettable array of misfit characters, usually rejected or misunderstood by traditional American society, and driven to tragic downfall by the compulsions of their eschewed psyches.



In three of her best novels—The Thrill Kids, The Twisted Ones, and The Damnation of Adam Blessing—Packer details the devastating downfalls of young men unable to conform to the social norms surrounding them. While exploring such major issues as identity, sexuality, violence, and psychological neuroses, Packer always balances her stories with moments of laugh-out-loud comedy or sudden, gut-punching tragedy and complemented by a literary style that foreshadows an imminent doom. Reminiscent of filmmakers like Fellini and Paul Thomas Anderson, Packer’s characters represent a wide collection of unique misfits that must navigate a disorienting world while marching toward their inevitable climax of defeat.



Published in 1955, The Thrill Kids follows a band of delinquent teenagers composed of Bardo, Manny, Flip, and Wylie. In one short chapter focusing on each of the quartet, Packer succinctly offers a vivid and fully composed illustration into both the home life and psychological makeup of each. Bardo enters as the new kid in town fresh from the West Point Military Academy. The young man has an OCD-like fixation toward discipline and hard work, and one who later describes Hitler as a “great, great man…a soldier and a gentleman”. In a few, almost throwaway lines with his mother, we learn Bardo’s father was a drunk. His relationship with his mother—and people in general—shown to be distant and almost alien-like in its understanding of intimacy. Bardo calls his mother by her first name rather than mom, regards the other boys as a military instructor would new recruits, and has an utter disdain for the homeless and vagrants that incites the tragic consequence for the four young men.

The second boy—Manny—possesses perhaps the most heartbreaking storyline amongst the four. Living inside a cramped, troubled apartment with a mom that can’t understand her only son after her other child’s death in Korea, Manny harbors an intense affection for his pet snake. He’s shown to be perhaps the most naïve and childlike of the four—a boy with a big heart that’s not quite able to adjust to the larger world around him.

Next, Flip—born Hans Heine—is first introduced in the midst of a brutal beating from his father. His mother watches from the other room, protesting, but unable to stop the strict German from knocking the wind out of his son for buying a magazine with a picture of a scantily clad woman. Finally, Johnny Wylie is introduced in the midst of burgeoning love with his crush. He’s inexperienced, nervous, and demonstrates the kind of personal snapshot of a specific time in adolescence that uniquely characterizes so much of Packer’s work within the genre. At home, Johnny’s parents push him to find grander ambition in life, while Johnny only hopes to pursue a career in music.

In their first outing together as an informal gang, the boys happen upon a young couple kissing in the park. Despite the hesitancy of the other three boys, Bardo becomes enraged by the publicly affectionate couple and feels the need to discipline their being “filthy” in the public square. He pulls a knife, forces the woman to strip, and humiliates the young man. The other three reluctantly follow along with Bardo’s act in a mixture of both curiosity and fear of his ability to exercise authority.

Because Packer’s novels were published in the fifties and graphic content of this sort needed to be censored, the author uses powers of suggestion for results that are both more emotionally devastating and narratively horrifying than any specific description could ever provide. While most crime writers of the time depended on more vivid (albeit muted) passages of guys with guns and their sexual escapades, Packer’s intensely character-driven novels position the readers directly within the protagonists’ point-of-view just before the moment of impact is about to strike…and then forces the reader to fill in the blanks with their own imagination to digest the tragic consequences that follow.

Furthermore, Packer opens each chapter in her books with a trademark style of quoting an objective source of some sort: a newspaper headline, a psychiatric report, song lyrics, journal diaries, or a court report that further foreshadow the horrible outcome to follow and allows a feeling of dread to loom over even the most ostensibly innocent chapters of character study. By juxtaposing and incorporating these objective sources—the court reports, the psychiatric session dialogues, newspaper headlines—against the intensely personal journeys with the protagonists, Packer weaves a tragically well-rounded account of the crime from both sides of the law. Though the undeniable, factual narrative of the case remains, Packer imbues these four boys with such sympathetic pathos and insight that the reader can’t help but sympathize with the accused in the series of circumstances that led to the fateful night that will define the rest of their lives.

 Twisted Ones F

In The Twisted Ones, Packer again follows a group of boys—this time a trio—all doomed to commit their own specific crimes and linked through a common geography, rather than any shared relationship. We first meet Brock Brown. A deceptively normal kid who places a great deal of attention upon his clothes, hair, shoes—looking good and clean. His dead mother’s obsession with dirt has been passed on to him, and he’s forced to reckon with throbbing, painful migraines that surge when the anxiety’s too much for him. He’s found a way to relieve these headaches through a habit of stealing. Brock likes to steal cars, plants…but always returns the stolen possession or leaves money in apologies for the inconvenience of his kleptomania.

Some two hundred miles away in another small town, the eight-year-old genius Charles Berry has become a national celebrity due to his unbelievable winning streak on the television show Cash Answers. We also meet Charles’ parents. His mother—Evelyn, a woman of limitless love, compassion, and concern for her young child, along with Charles’ father—Howard. Charles and Evelyn are both painfully aware of the father’s embarrassment toward his prodigy son, complemented by with his son’s aversion to sports and physical activities that are clearly all Howard’s ever wanted from his boy. As Charles continually corrects himself from applying “big” words in his father’s presence, Packer illustrates a nightmarish portrait of Rockwell’s American family in just a few short pages.

Lastly, Reginald Whittier sits in the antique store owned by his single mother—Miss Ella. Reginald talks with a bad, embarrassing stutter and sits locked home with his mother most of the days, under her control and unable to function autonomously. Despite his girlfriend’s persistence in the two possibly getting married and having a child one day, Reginald’s constant inner battle with both controlling his stutter and finding dependence from his mother always holds him back from living any semblance of normal life.

While The Thrill Kills unites the friendship of the boys with the similarities of their individual hardships into helping understand how these disparate boys came to be, The Twisted Ones reads in a much different, more nuanced fashion. The triptych novel alternates between the three boys in chapters of ups and downs on the road to defeat, while always reminding the viewer that the trio exist in a shared, not too distant universe.

In doing so, Packer’s able to demonstrate an idea about the separate psychology of these men that distinguishes itself from her other novels. Much of the boys’ frustrations that bubbles into their neuroses can be found in their perception of how others perceive them or how they wish to be perceived. As Charles’ continued success on the Cash Answer Show plays out upon the TVs in the background of the other boys’ storylines, both Brock and Reginald grow frustrated by the idea that this eight-year-old is able to achieve so much at such a young age, as they struggle with the monotony of day-to-day life. This is juxtaposed against Charles’ own psychology, showing how the eight-year-old lives in an isolated world of constant pressure from the public and his own perception of failure through his father’s eyes.

Whether its through Brock’s obsession with looking cool and clean, Charles’ wish to not live as an embarrassment to his father, or Reginald’s stutter that embarrasses him to the point that he never wants to leave his mother’s presence, Packer demonstrates how damaging these misconstrued perceptions play out amongst the adolescent boys. Unlike The Thrill Kids, the author does not open each chapter with a quote from an objective source. Instead, she saves the tactic for the epilogue, which reads as an article from the Labor Day issue of a national news magazine detailing the tragic outcomes of the three boys.

Again, and perhaps to more devastating effect, Packer uses the objective history of the magazine article to show how the general public perceives such headlines—to dismiss the boys as the eponymous “Twisted Ones”—rotten apples that committed such violence without reason or explanation. The reader, on the other hand, has gone through a personal journey with each of these characters. Packer has exhibited daily life for each of the three young men and given insight into how their perceptions/misperception of their shortcomings has led to psychological neurosis that proved to be too much for the young men and for surrounding society to engage with them in a meaningful way. As with The Thrill Kids, Packer has marvelously, and subtly, demonstrated how damaging a reductive perception of the criminal actions of these young men can be woefully misunderstood by those unwilling to address the troubled and misunderstood.



Finally, in my favorite of her novels, Packer writes one of the most intense, funny, sad, and brilliant of character studies in The Damnation of Adam Blessing. Unlike the previously discussed, The Damnation…focuses solely on Adam Blessing in a dizzying, unexpected, and emotionally infused tale that follows the unreliable protagonist and his neuroses within a number of subjects—from violence, obsession, sexuality, friendship, and addiction—throughout the picaresque novel. Orphaned at a young age with a single, abusive memory of his mother whose face he cannot remember, Adam’s personality has matured into a vacuous space upon which he defines himself by his relationship to the other characters. With women, men, and friends, Adam is unable to relate to others outside his perception of what they idealize and in their relation to his own identity.

With Billy Bollin, Adam equates money, and consequentially—success. After a lifetime of failure, of not having friends, women, or parents that he can remember, Adam obsesses over possessing a life like Billy. He wishes to be accepted by him, to be anointed a companion, and later dreams of being accounted as a fellow member of Billy’s family. Although Adam perceives his actions as innocent, harmless, or outright thoughtful, he’s unable to ever distinguish the reality of how others may consider his relentless pursuits. Packer often only ever describes Adam’s from his point-of-view, and when the reality of what he’s actually committed is later revealed through either another character’s dialogue or a newspaper headline, the viewer is left with a numb feeling of shock and disturbance that makes one question everything that’s come before and cautiously approach everything soon to come. Because Packer writes the novel through this exclusive point-of-view of her eponymous main character, the viewer experiences so much of these incredibly dark or volatile scenes in a dizzying experience of simultaneously looking through Adam’s eyes and yet also through a cringing, self-aware detachment of the horrifying reality.

In a powerful scene demonstrating Packer’s skill set at this particular balancing act, Adam finally convinces Charity Cadwallader to join him on a date at a fancy restaurant. We painfully watch the descent of Adam’s drunkenness: as he orders more and more wine, confuses which lines he’s going to use to impress her, accuses the waiter of stealing his wallet, is escorted out the restaurant in tears. Through it all, Packer describes the incidents through Adam’s drunken perception while the reader remains in the all too painful reality of what is actually happening. The scene serves as a microcosm for a number of similar scenes throughout the rest of the novel, where the naïve protagonist commits himself to a line of thought justified by his own disturbed logic, while the reader must watch the inexorable consequences unfold and negotiate between these feelings of simultaneous pathos and pity.

As with the other novels, Packer must again use the strategy of suggestion to fill in the blanks on many of the incredibly dark actions committed by the characters. While the technique is used quite effectively in the other two, and all the more powerful for forcing the reader to bridge the gap with their imagination, its usage in The Damnation… is used to both brilliantly censor the graphic content and contradict the protagonist. As a result, the reader opens these chapters with a feeling of dread and hesitation. And when finally reading the reporters’ description of these offenses and discovering the true horror of Adam’s nature.

As character driven as the former two books are, The Damnation of Adam Blessing is about as character-driven a crime novel as one can find. The loose “plotting” revolves solely around Adam’s episodic journey from New York to Italy and back, while remaining intensely focused on his relationship (or lack thereof) with the women of his life. Although one could write entire dissertations around the issues of sexuality and alcoholism imbued within the character, and which deserve as much academic examination as found within any of the other well-regarded novels of American literature, the riveting narrative should not be overlooked for its incredible tapestry of emotions. Between moments of laugh-out-loud humor, heartbreaking despair, dread of Adam’s actions, Packer takes the reader on a unique and thrilling ride through the perspective of her troubled protagonist.

More than anything else, the three novels—like many of Packer’s other works—demonstrate a woman who wrote male characters better than most of her contemporaries were capable of writing for either gender. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this woman, using a pseudonym to ensure her work could even achieve publication, exemplifies the very essence of her own misfit characters: writing that remains unique, intensely personal, and to this day—undervalued or misunderstood. Because of the pulp crime genre within which these books were originally published, these texts have often fallen off the wayside within the grand canon American of crime literature and are deserving of a great deal more academic study than many of the other well considered classics of the time. Packer’s work often details the specifics of a loosely based true story, but her ability to offer readers profound insight into the complex psychological of her characters demonstrates the wide spectrum of human nature that Packer so painfully understood as a woman not just within the literary world but America at large.