The most frightening aspect of the movie Se7en is not the grisly murder victims, although those scenes are some of the most disturbing I’ve ever seen. The scariest thing about this movie is the ease with which John Doe is able to understand people and get into their heads and subsequently plan his actions for maximum impact.

With each of the murder victims, it is revealed that Doe researched them before he selected how they would die. In the case of sloth, he kept the victim barely alive for a year, making sure the drug dealer and child molester would be a prime example of laziness. When he enacted the sin of lust, both the prostitute who was raped to death and the man Doe forced to commit the murder were victims who would suffer for their sin. Doe knew the man he selected could be forced to kill the woman out of a desire for self-preservation.

The gluttony and pride victims were selected because they exemplified the sins they would die for in ways that made it easy for Doe to use them. He understood that the model had so much pride in her physical appearance that she would rather die than lose her good looks. The lawyer who was guilty of greed was also carefully chosen by Doe, largely due to his defense of a previous client, the victim of sloth. Doe knew how to read each of these victims and used his knowledge of human psychology to create the largest impact possible through their murders.

This knowledge of what makes human beings tick is especially frightening as Doe applies it to the detectives who are looking for him. As he embarks on his quest to teach humanity to look at the sins it portrays, Doe had no idea of who would be sent to investigate his crimes. When he encounters Mills and Somerset and gets to know more about them, he immediately understands how they can fit into his larger picture.

In Somerset, the jaded veteran detective, Doe understands he has a sort of a kindred spirit. Somerset is already in agreement with Doe that the world is a terrible place. The detective has retreated behind a wall of non-caring and a refusal to invest any personal feelings into much because of the state of the world. Somerset is the choir to which John Doe doesn’t need to preach.

Mills, on the other hand, is immersed in caring about life. He attacks his new job as detective in the big city with enthusiasm, even through the grisly crime scenes. He wishes to start a family with his wife, despite the increasing problems of the world surrounding them, which would provide the back drop for raising the child(ren). Mills is the one of the two who would be most affected by a direct attack from Doe, so he is the one Doe selects to help him showcase the two last two sins on his list, envy and wrath.

By killing Mills’ wife and then taunting the detective with the crime, Doe knows what the outcome will be. He understands that Mills has enough zest for life and passion within him that he will kill Doe for what he did. The same reaction would not have been garnered from Somerset.

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The Sculptor by Gregory Funaro is not a book I would have read a second time had it not been for class. This is not because reading it the first time caused any serious damage to my writerly intellect or resulted in my body parts falling off and becoming plastinated. It was entertaining enough, even if only for the fact someone sat down and wrote it and someone else sat down and published it. It just wasn’t something I would have wanted to revisit.

Of course, since I have read it again, this second reading did serve a bigger purpose other than giving me something to write about in this blog post. I was able to devise a list of three things I’ve decided I won’t do if I set out to write a book about a serial killer:

  1. I will not refer to a character as “the pretty art history professor” (Funaro 143) or “the shy art history professor” (Funaro 200) or “this art history professor” (Funaro 131), repeatedly every few pages throughout the novel, even if the character is “this pretty, shy art history professor”. I feel using this repetitive and rote description for a character without any variation gives the reader some negative ideas about the story and the writer. There are numerous ways a character can be described and using a variety of these ways can help the reader see the character more vividly. It can also make it seem as if the writer cares about the character and she isn’t just a cardboard figure being used to reach a desired word count. Repeating the same phrasing throughout a novel can also result in a reader giving in to temptation to turn on the search and find feature (in an e-book, and the wish for such a feature in print novels) to see exactly how many times the phrasing turns up.
  2. I will not have a character come out from under sedation and give a dissertation with numerous details and then suddenly succumb to the same sedation that was always in her system. When a character is shown in a melodramatic scene where she is supposed to be sedated and yet she can recite details about what someone questions her about as Dr. Hildebrandt does in pages 274-276, the scene loses its impact. That isn’t a good way to provide an info dump.
  3. I’ll insist on yet another set of eyes proofing the book so that mistakes such as an urban dialect being portrayed with the phrasing, “I’ll roll which-you, lover” (Funaro, 204) does not make it into final print. This would help the novel present a much more professional view of the writing world.
  4. I will not create a villain that is uber smart, mad rich, superhero strong, and pretty much invincible, unless he is a supernatural being. Even then, if there are to be no weaknesses or limitations, I feel the reader should be warned of this up front. To pull a random, new super strength out of a bag and give it to the villain just in the nick of time is such a cheat to the reader. If the villain will always be saved, and can get out of every single scrape he gets into, setting these details out up front will not create false expectations in the book for the reader.



Works Cited

Funaro, Gregory. The Sculptor. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2010. Print.



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The Church of Dead Girls: Killer in Waiting

The Church of Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyns takes a theme of private lives and spins it into an enjoyable read. This is a book that I read this second time around with great pleasure, despite not having read it over and over again in previous years.

The telling of the story from the viewpoint of one person was especially adept. There was no guarantee that the narrator would not turn out to be the murderer. But though he wasn’t the murderer in this book, I’m not convinced that he has never committed murder or that he won’t at some time in the future.

His self revelations during the story seem to point to his having private thoughts that cause him to lean in the direction of “murderer in waiting”. First, we never even get his name. When he gives us bits and pieces of his personal back story, he seems to have had many of the same types experiences and feelings that our killer has, or at least, those that we have seen killers have in other works.

He was a bachelor biology teacher who lived in the same home he had as a child and retained many of the furnishings from his childhood. He was gay, but didn’t want to own up to it and was sexually repressed. Though he owns up to this repression, he still peeps in the neighbor’s window and watches the adult daughter masturbate. Not for sexual excitement or arousal, he states, but, “…it seemed it wasn’t sexuality that I was watching; rather I was seeing into her deepest nature…what if our positions were reversed?” (Dobyns 131). Not only is he intrigued by the darkness in others, but he wonders what it would be like to expose others to the darkness within him. Foreshadowing an inclination to kill, perhaps?

The narrator did not have the best relationship with his mother and he collected dead things and had them on display. Granted, they were not on public display, but he could look at them whenever he wanted and people he cared for, like Sadie, could look at them. It may be natural for biology teachers to collect specimens, such as they are scientists, however, the narrator’s little collection was a bit macabre to be considered strictly scientific.

That he added Donald Malloy’s hand to the collection at the end was not surprising. He even gives it “the place of honor between the fetal pig and the human fetus” (Dobyns 417). This positioning almost foreshadows the fact of murderers being somewhere between animal and human, but not quite either. He further states that, “I think of it as my private teacher. My own academy. It instructs me…I try to think what those fingers felt and I scare myself” (Dobyns 417).

His collection of the hand goes beyond simple fascination or a scientific curiosity. Our narrator has been a murderer in waiting, biding his time for such a circumstance as Donald Malloy’s killing spree to motivate the same urges within himself.

Works cited

Dobyns, Stephen. The Church of Dead Girls. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.



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Silence of the Lambs Re-Boot

Silence of the Lambs is frightening for several different reasons. I think the most horrifying thing for me in this viewing is the sheer unfairness of Dr. Hannibal Lecter being the bad guy who eats people.

Lecter is a psychiatrist, which means he has obtained pretty extensive medical training. That medical training included anatomy instruction, in precise detail. Since he’s a psychiatrist, his education also included far reaching education on the human mind and what makes humans tick. He had to be pretty smart to have completed the medical program, and to have been accepted to medical school in the first place. It is my understanding that before he was arrested for killing people, he had a thriving practice. Even after he was arrested, his standing in the medical community was simply tainted by his crimes. He was still a respected psychiatrist.

So in this movie, we have a brilliant doctor who knows exactly how to get into his victim’s heads and manipulate them into doing whatever he wants them to do before he kills them and cuts them up (as only an expert medical man can) and who also knows what parts of their bodies will offer the easiest and most tasty meals. This is the person that normal people have to try and protect themselves from.

Even when I saw the movie for the first time, I thought the powers that be would have a difficult time keeping Lecter locked up. He just seemed too smart and too cunning. I didn’t necessarily know he would escape, but I figured they would have to kill him or something because he could not really be contained.

Then, of course, there’s the point of Jack Crawford sending Clarice Starling into the lion’s den with Lecter. Perhaps he thought she would be able to soften Lecter up, since she was female and for all intents and purpose, pure and innocent. She had a purely good reason for wanting to catch the killer. It didn’t seem that she wanted the glory that would go with making the capture. She really wanted to get the killer off the street.

But did Jack Crawford really know that? What if he had been mistaken? Lecter was able to draw out of Clarice the feelings she had surrounding her father’s death and her torment at the death of the lambs. He was also able to pinpoint that she was tired of playing the “good ol’ boys” game with her colleagues at the FBI.

Could she have been persuaded to help Lecter, if not for her unwavering commitment to keeping the bad guys off the street? Under different circumstances where Lecter’s crimes might not have been so horrific, I think she could have turned into a helper for him. After all, once she realized Jack Crawford had lied to her and deceived her in pretty much the same way he tried to get her to deceive Lecter, she could have done something different. She could have succumbed to the expertise of Dr. Lecter.

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Crazy on the Side

It’s difficult for me to focus on Annie Wilke’s craziness. It isn’t because she’s not crazy. That, she is. Totally. Indelibly. And ever.

But the fact that Paul Sheldon is a writer always captures my attention. The thoughts I draw from reading the book or watching the movie Misery always lead back to some aspect of writing. Because I am also a writer, I find this pretty useful. And awfully entertaining.

The thoughts I had this go round weren’t borne from my re-reading, but from my watching the movie. I didn’t see the whole thing. The part where I picked it up was when Annie was explaining to Paul her frustration at the movie of her childhood where the writers of Rocket Man’s adventures wrote what she called a cheat, an easy (but unbelievable) way for him to escape from the certain death forecast in the previous installment.

Annie used the example to tell Paul that she didn’t like what he’d written as her consolation Misery story because he wrote a cheat. As soon as she called him on it, Paul knew she was right. In that one scene, it hit me: Annie Wilkes was the perfect muse. Not perfect in that she was all pretty and agreeable and came whenever her writer called her. But perfect in the sense that she was highly effective.

Paul drove off the road in the beginning of the story with a manuscript in his bag that he thought was his masterpiece. It was “real” writing (to be considered literary, valid), done by a formerly “fake” writer (to be considered popular fiction or genre fiction, invalid). He had found huge success writing genre fiction books, the Misery series. But he was angry at having fed into that success.

He felt like a “whore” who wrote what the masses wanted him to write when they wanted him to write it. Writing the series had turned into literal misery for him and he sought to escape it by writing something that he felt was more valuable and by default, had to be better written.

The thing is, Paul could have also attacked his negative feelings about the Misery books by actually writing them better. In order for him to grow tired of them, he had likely fallen into writing the books with trite clichés and tired tropes. Who could look forward to writing something like that?

What Crazy Annie Wilkes managed to do was pull him out of the formulaic writing of the Misery books and into a place where he actually thought out the book and wrote it well. He did not rely on rote techniques to produce the Misery book he wrote under her crazy guidance. He used a solid plot with believable characters and realistic circumstances.

As he wrote that book, he looked forward to getting up and working on it. He welcomed the thought process that sprung from the book’s creation. Yes, he probably felt enthusiastic about writing it because he thought it would save his life. Being in danger of dying can do that for a person. Even so, Annie instilled in him a newfound respect for the process of writing and writing well.

I might need a muse like Annie Wilkes, but I want mine with the crazy on the side so I can use little drips of it when I need to and not be slathered all over with the stuff.

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Psycho Part II: Mary Crane Got a Bad Deal

Once I get over my awe, yet again, over owning a book with an endearing typo on page twenty, that was published and printed before I was born (this is a big deal for me since I don’t collect books like a regular collector would, so much as I hoard them), I can read the oranged, tattered pages and find something different about Robert Bloch’s Psycho during this reading.

This go round, I’m thinking about Mary Crane. Although Norman was on the receiving end of terrible abuse from his mother, Mary was the true victim in this story. She eventually even became his victim with her murder.

When we first meet Mary, we aren’t quite sure what to think of her. She is presented as a somewhat hateful shrew who despises all rich people and wonders why Sam Loomis just won’t hurry up and marry her. But she has all rights to be hateful if she wants.

Tommy Cassidy, the rich man whose money Mary stole at the beginning of the story, was a bad actor. He threw his money around and even attempted to prostitute Mary by paying her to go away for an illicit weekend with him. Mary also worked to put her sister, Lila, through school and watched her own life pass her up as she got older with the waning years of being pre-engaged to a man who was in no hurry to make her his wife despite the fact that she loyally stood by his side anyway.

Yes, she stole money, from a man who didn’t need it and probably should have been made to pay her anyway for the mental pain and suffering he could have placed on her with his indecent proposal. She was also a bit of a liar, as she concocted a story about an inheritance for Sam about the origins of the money she actually stole. Mary is also a smoker, lighting up after the light dinner Norman served her on the night of her arrival at the hotel.

Yet, Mary didn’t even argue or fight with Sam when he put off her request that they marry right away so that she was a respectable married woman. Instead, she “…couldn’t afford to pull a bluff, stage a scene and walk out on him like some young girl of twenty…So she smiled, and nodded, and went back home to the Lowery Agency” (Bloch 20). She is a virgin, it seems, since we see her examining herself in the bathroom mirror in her hotel room and thinking “Sam would like [her figure]…it was going to be hell to wait another two years” (Bloch 37). Virginal, respectful of her man and sacrificing. Mary is actually a pretty good girl. Pretty normal, doing the best she can while being battered about and taken advantage of by the people surrounding her.

But the most important thing about Mary is that she decided after dining with Norman and witnessing his pitiful existence with his mother that she would return to town and put the money in the bank like she was supposed to. Mary decided that “…she must have been crazy, to think she could get away with what she planned” (Bloch 35). With that, her idea of a life on the lam was abolished and she determined to put the situation to rights.

Doesn’t her change of heart count for anything? I’m guessing it didn’t. Norman still killed her, violently, and in the movie version of Psycho, she gets killed over and over again each time the directing of that scene is studied and it is replayed.

Then again, it probably was a pretty good deal for Mary to die. That way, she didn’t have to lose her job at the Lowery Agency after Tommy Cassidy lied to her boss and told him she came onto him and threatened to blackmail him if he didn’t sleep with her. Mary wouldn’t have to watch as Sam Loomis fell out of love with her while she waited and waited on his proposal that was never coming. She didn’t have to live to see him marry a younger fresher woman, one who’d leeched off of the people in her life while making her own life full and glorious: he would probably have married her sister, Lila, anyway.

Works Cited

Bloch, Robert. Psycho. New York: Crest, 1961. Print.


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Review for Ectostorm: Book Three of the Stanley Cooper Chronicles, by Scott A. Johnson

As much reading as I do in my free time, outside of school assignments, I realized I should probably think about reviewing the books. Sometimes. Here’s the first one:

In Ectostorm, author Scott A. Johnson does what I love to see great writers do: he takes his exemplary writing to an even higher level. A fan of the Stanley Cooper chronicles since the first book, Vermin, I was completely awed by the characters in the latest installment. I already felt like I knew them intimately, but just as we don’t always know everything we think we do about even close friends, Stanley and his crew drew me deeper into their world.

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Johnson’s writing is his uncanny ability to perfectly portray the average Joe in not so average circumstances. His readers get, in no nonsense terms, the person and the person’s feelings about all that is going on around him or her. Ectostorm took this talent to another place with the palpable feelings and emotions Johnson evokes. Stanley Cooper’s guilt is a living thing that reaches from the pages and grabs the readers’ heart. His devastation chokes the reader with its bulk. And Stanley’s realization that his family feels the same about him as he does them is such a vivid moment that the reader feels as if the discovery is theirs along with him.

Johnson also plays on one of my personal mantras, in that “your family is who you choose them to be”. It’s quite difficult to drum up sympathy and support for the family we’re born into, because we have no choice in that matter. However, when we create a family, feelings are vested in a way that bind forever. Stanley, Maggie, Andi and their living store are such a bonded family. And each member would go, and pretty much have gone, to hell on earth and back for the others.

Make no mistake: with all the talk of emotions and feelings, this book is filled with gory details and creepy un-dead, returned dead and strange creatures. The difference between Ectostorm and the average horror novel is that readers of all genres can enjoy the twists and turns of not so ordinary Stanley and his crew as they navigate the storm created by the newest supernatural bad guys along with everyday crises.

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