This is a 'The Book That...' post from Jenny Ackland.
There’s this thing called ‘better judgement’ and it’s something against which, if you’re like me, you can find yourself acting. Then there’s this other nebulous thing called ‘the line’, something teachers and parents like to talk about. Like most humans of standard to moderate perversity, I am drawn to things that that are verboten. It’s true; in some ways I’m simply an older version of the Year 9 girl who was told by her English teacher Mr Neeson that she needed to know where the line was, and to try to think before she crossed it. Mr Neeson thought I could have ‘made a better choice of book’ when I wrote a review of The Exorcist but he gave me an A+ anyway. No wonder ‘the line’ continued to confuse me for a long while.
Well before head-swivelling, crucifix plunging Regan there were other books that made me scared. The mean Banksia men in Snuggle Pot and Cuddlepie; Hist! by CJ Dennis. Peter Pan’s Captain Hook and the mercilessly tick-tocking crocodile. Dear Wendy getting shot in the breast and plummeting to earth with an arrow sticking out of her. I remember that moment of violence. Then came Jaws, then the Stephen Kings and an inexplicable flirtation with Dennis Wheatley novels that had titles like The Satanist and The Devil Rides Out. But none of this prepared me for Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.
When I tried watching the movie of American Psycho, well before I read it, I paused at a particular moment and went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, the equivalent of taking a deep breath. I came back. I didn’t watch any more. I took the DVD out of the machine. I had heard the book was being sold in plastic wrap in the early nineties when it was first published. It’s interesting to me to note that I didn’t seek it out back then. It was only a couple of years ago that I bought a suite of BEE novels. I read Less Than Zero first, and then AP. While I did finish, it was not without a struggle that was unique for me, in that I had to create similar ‘pauses’ as I had attempted with the DVD. I have put down books from boredom and lack of interest but never have I put down a book because it horrified me or made me sick. Yes, the voice is strong and compelling and the prose is pretty bloody good. It’s also funny in places, which is unsettling because you’re never quite sure if it’s meant to be. But the effect of spending time with Patrick Bateman, being a bystander to him and his deeds, felt like a dirty-making exercise. We like to think we are moral and upstanding, that we will do the Right Thing but no, there we are alongside his friends, drawn into the narrative, drinking Bolly and snorting coke, watching a rape video of a clearly non-consenting underage girl and we, like everyone else there, do nothing but read on.
Was it deliberate on BEE’s part, to involve the reader in this way? I’d like to think it was but having followed him on twitter for a short while, I don’t think it’s likely. But it would be great to think Bret Easton Ellis pulled a beautiful swifty on us with this book, a Never Mind the Bollocks, what a lark if so.
What is it about horror-filled writing that interests us? Why do we ‘do it to ourselves’? For young people, is it about practising for real life? If we read about the most extreme horrors then does it help us manage what can only ever be mundane in comparison? Is reading about things that can upset us a way of facing humanity (outwards) or the darkness of our own souls (our own dark inner worlds)? Do we desensitise ourselves with it, prepare ourselves for the abyss? And by abyss I mean the decline and death of our loved ones (which is when the truly monstrous pain comes), not our own jerky denouements into the void. I’m not the only one with this willingness to turn towards darkness. We roll like oversized toddlers lurching in the direction of a fire, being told ‘No, HOT!’ but our hands are outstretched to touch this thing that is dangerous, that challenges us to work out what is right and wrong and where we stand in relation to ‘the line.’ I think Mr Neeson understood this otherwise why give me a you go, girl A+ for that book review? Thanks to him I have a better handle on the line these days.
Jenny Ackland has been published in Sleepers Almanac, Kill Your Darlings and The Big Issue.
She can be found on Twitter @JennyAckland and blogs at Seraglio.
Jenny Ackland is a writer and teacher who lives in Melbourne. Her first novel The Secret Son was published by Allen & Unwin in 2015. Jenny blogs at Seraglio and can be found on Twitter @JennyAckland