Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Mystery/Horror of Sharp Objects

I admit to being a fan of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, both the book and the movie. There were reasons why this book garnered so much praise, a movie deal and more than 43,000 Amazon reviews. The writing itself is superb (The way she can turn a sentence is amazing!), but the plot was what “got” most people. And that ending! That ending had book clubs arguing and pounding fists and and pondering and discussing for weeks, some loving it, some hating it, but no one in between.  

I’m not here to write about Gone Girl, though. Today I am endorsing Sharp Objects, a much earlier book of Flynn’s, but just as much a psychological thriller as Gone Girl. Maybe even more so. If you are a Gone Girl fan, keep reading. If you like the psychological thrillers of Ruth Rendell, keep reading. If you relish a Stephen King novel, keep reading. If not, go get yourself a coffee and I’ll see you back here in two weeks.

Sharp Objects tells the story of Camille Preaker, a very flawed, very fragile young woman who works as a journalist for a two-bit newspaper. When two children are killed in the hometown she fled (never to return, she vowed),
 she is sent back there by her editor to get the full story. Are the police looking for a serial killer of children? Is that how horrific this thing is? Her editor wants the upfront story, and who better to get it than someone who grew up there? Because the newspaper is so low-budget, they can't even afford a hotel for her. She has to stay in her family home with a whole boat load of dysfunctional family members.

Trouble is, she left the huge mansion of a home and the town for a reason, but being who she is, she can’t share that with her editor. She can’t bow gracefully out of this assignment and hope to keep her job. And she desperately needs her job.

She goes.

So far so good. Camille Preaker seems like a normal young woman in a bit of a bind, and I’m in for a nice cozy mystery, looks like.

Not exactly.

Mid-way through the book I stop and re-read the past few paragraphs. What am I reading? Is this a mystery or a horror novel? Who IS Camille Preaker?

We soon learn that Camille has serious problems which are far greater than the family she left—and that’s enough of a spoiler for one day.

Once inside, I got hooked on the story, and finally, it was the unexpectedness of the plot elements which kept me coming back for more.

Flynn is an amazing writer. As is my wont, here is the first sentence of the book:

My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly. It was May 12 but the temperature had dipped to the forties, and after four days shivering in my shirtsleeves, I graved cover at a tag sale rather than dig through my boxed up winter clothes. Spring in Chicago.

It was the words which first drew me in, and then it was the story of the horribly dysfunctional family which made me read more. First there is the doting, controlling, hypochondriac mother, Adora. Allen, the silent father is next. And then there are the children—Camille, the main character and through whose eyes the story unfolds, the dead sister Marian, and then Amma, the new young sister who took her place.

Even though I wanted to put my hand over my eyes and turn away from the book at times, something always made me go back for more, until I finally reached the stunning conclusion.

Why are we attracted to evil in our fiction? Why do horror movies captivate us? Sometimes I like watching those Youtube videos with names like, World’s Scariest Walking Bridge or World’s Most Dangerous Road. Here you get to watch people racing down mountain tops on with a steepness going into oblivion on one side. Guard rails? In your dreams.

In real life you wouldn’t catch me mountain biking on the side of a cliff for any amount of money, but I can sit back and watch it on Youtube, because I realize that if they’re posted online like that, it means that everyone got down safely and everything turned out out alright in the end. I can breathe a sigh of relief.

And as horrible as the evil in Sharp Objects is, it is brought to full light in the end. And that satisfies something inside of us. We want to know that evil will be found out and punished.

That is what’s promised in horror, that ultimately, no matter how horrific the situation our characters find themselves in, evil will be discovered and punished and justice and goodness will win.

As for the mystery part, the reason mystery novels are so popular is because there is something in us that wants to figure out “who dunnit.”

Here’s an interesting New Yorker  article from 1944 on why we read detective stories.

One of the reason we are drawn to story in the first place is that it’s fun to “try on” other people’s lives, and “see what it’s like” to live in such a dyfunctional family (And I don’t care how dysfunctional you think your family is - the Preakers have got you beat by a mile!)

Back when I was a young mother I faithfully watched one daytime soap, Another World. A lot of my friends also did and we would get together for coffee and talk about the characters and plot, always reflecting that “those people” had it way worse than us! Our lives were normal by comparison. (When that finally went off the air for good in 1999, I said goodbye to daytime soaps for good. (Now, I only watch nighttime soaps like Nashville, The Good Wife and Longmire.)

I have been drawn to stores forever, and can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have a novel “on the go.” Back before online, I would feel bereft when I finished a book and there wasn’t another one waiting on the pile. I’d often have to wait before I could take a trip to the library or bookstore. Now, I can simply go online to a favorite online bookstore and download another onto my trusty Kobo.

So, if you like psychological thrillers, do pick up Sharp Objects and tell me what you think.

In Two Weeks: It’s back to short stories with The Man Who Built Boxes

by Frank Tavares

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