The Strangest Kind of Strangers on a Train

The old tale of complete strangers meeting in transit, discovering they have identical problems, and “solving” the problems by trading crimes to eliminate the people they see as the root of their unhappiness, makes for a striking mystery drama, in fiction. Ask Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock fans! But I was reminded recently that we give too little credit to our commonalities as a positive solution to our problems, and end up missing crucial opportunities as a result.

The filmic version takes as its thesis that the two strangers who meet can find not other, or at least no better, solution to the problem of having bad relationships with inconveniently incompatible people than to murder them, and by ‘exchanging’ murders with each other they hope to escape detection by each having no apparent connection to, or a motive for killing, the other’s nemesis.

While this makes for startling and even compelling imagined mystery, it’s horrific if imagined in real terms. Yet we do similar things all the time in this world, don’t we? Because I tend to agree with a particular point of view in general, say, a specific philosophy or political party’s policies, or my country’s traditions, does that mean it’s wise or humane or practical or generous to follow along without question, no matter what my group, party or nation says and does? We mortals are remarkably good at noticing and magnifying our differences, as genuine and large as they may be. But we’re frighteningly weak, in opposing measure, when it comes to recognizing, focusing on, and building upon our true kinship. This, I believe, easily outweighs in both quantity and importance, our separating characteristics. Digital illustration from a photo: Opening Doors

The recent train outing in Sweden that reminded me so pointedly of this also confirmed my belief that it’s an area where youth is wiser than experience. In a railcar where a young father, not a local or a native speaker of the language, was keeping his fifteen-month-old daughter occupied and contented during the trip by helping her practice her tipsy walking, she made her way with his help to where another family, also foreign but not of the same culture as father and daughter, was sitting together. That group was of two adult sisters and their four or five school-age children. The toddler was naturally attracted to the friendly and spirited older children, and as soon as they saw her, they too were enchanted. What followed was perhaps twenty minutes of delighted interaction between them all, with occasional balance aid from Papa and photo-taking by the Mamas. And barely a word was spoken, much less understood by any of the participants, during the entire episode.

The greatest among the many beauties of this endearing one-act was that the conversation essentially began, continued and ended with the kids reaching toward one another with open hands, waving and gesturing and generally putting on an elaborate pantomime together, and above all, giggling and chortling with peals and squeals of ecstatic laughter.

Needless to say, all of us adults in the railcar grinned, giggled, chortled and otherwise became happy kids right along with them. Resistance was an impossibility and a pointless attempt, at that. And isn’t that an excellent lesson for all? Adults are too busy being territorial and fearful and downright feral to remember that the open hand of welcome and sharing is as quickly reciprocated as any gesture, and a smile of greeting and acceptance is contagious beyond any language, age, or cultural barriers. We can nurse our terrors of the unknown as supposed adults, or we can choose to laugh together like children.Digital illustration from a photo: As If in a Mirror

Brightening Our Days with Scary Stories

The news and indeed sometimes our own everyday lives provide plenty of stories of sorrow and horror and True Crime, which is–oddly enough–precisely why I like a good fictional tale of dread, doom and destruction. It’s such a relief to remember how to detach from dark and grotesque and terrifying things and even to laugh at them. But I’m mighty squeamish, when it comes to the real thing or even a too-good simulation of it, so slasher movies just don’t do the trick for me. I do need the remove and control that reading or visibly stylized and artificial images provide.

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Something is amiss in the conservatory . . .

It’s why when it does come to film I love the Alfred Hitchcock classics of suspense, or the genteel Gothicism of movies like Bunny Lake is Missing, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and Gaslight. I avidly read the yarns of Roald Dahl and Edgar Allan Poe and Saki and their ilk, and bask in a good Henry James or Robertson Davies ghost story. I thrive on the dark-tinged fantasy of Edmund Dulac and the witty weirdness of Edward-too-good-to-be-true-named-Gorey.

Oh, yes, I’ll happily digest the terrors of a good contemporary thriller novel or the occasional modern fright-night movie, but I’m a sucker for old-school drama, it seems. Even in music, I can find lots of vicarious thrills and scare tactics in a great modern film or TV score and there are some current composers that excel in this (Danny Elfman, are your ears burning?), but my heart never ceases to lean back toward the bejeweled darkness of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre and, if I’m in the mood for cinematic music, perhaps one of Miklós Rózsa‘s classic romantic scores.

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I am haunted enough by my own spooky imaginings . . .

It’s a fine thing to have the worlds of imagination in which to safely plumb and defeat all horrors and terrors. So I do like to indulge the urge myself with stories and poems and artworks of the brooding and twisted or the cheerily perverse and demented sort whenever I need reassurance–or just want to share the twinges a little.

  • photoWhat better way to find comfort on a drearily dark day than to curl up with a bit of artistic darkness?

Be Not Afraid of Me,

Unless You have a Good Reason

I buried the various body parts

in secret locations around the state,

reserving the heart of him I hate

to pin on the board for a game of darts,

and when it was thoroughly pierced and minced

I put on my favorite dress and heels

and danced a couple Virginia reels

before I washed up the room and rinsed,

then took the mincemeat left of the rat,

put it in the kiln for a nice hot burn,

where it made a fine glaze for a lovely urn,

and filled it with daisies, and that was that.

You might think I’m a teeny bit callous, cold,

rejoicing in vicious destructive acts,

but perhaps you’d relent if you knew the facts

and the rat’s true story at last were told–

but worry you needlessly? I? A shame,

when it’s highly unlikely by any stretch

of imagination you’d be a wretch

of such magnitude and incur the same . . .

now let us sit down for a cup of tea,

our own snug little tête-à-tête;

don’t worry about what you have just et,

unless you have reason to fear from me . . .

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So what's the score on horror? Do we close the book on beastliness? Oh, no, there's ALWAYS so much more . . .

Smile and be

What looks like a smile

From this distance might

Be the bared fangs

Of monstrous threat

Or then again might be

The hateful grin

Of rigid death

So much to read

Out of a single smile

But all I need to know

Is, do I keep on

Going toward it

Beware the One-th of the Month

skull drawing and Hitchcock portrait

Even when you expect the worst, something worser may lie ahead . . .

Alfred Hitchcock was known to tell a certain little story that subsequently stuck (ouch!) in my mind. This is my recollected version of it:

Wilfred’s wife Muriel had been missing for some time and the incessant rain had abated when the search party finally found what might be a sign of her in a ditch beside the winding and desolate country road. At first, it did look like Muriel’s shoe, and Wilfred was distraught. He clutched at the shoe–which, it turned out, had a foot still in it.

“Oh, I hope nothing terrible has happened!” he cried, “Muriel never takes her favorite shoes off when she’s out of the house!”

A little farther along the lane there was a torn macintosh sleeve that, when he rushed to pick it up, had an arm in it showing Wilfred a hand with familiar jewelry. He was beside himself with worry.

“Gracious! Muriel hates to be late for anything, but she would at least pause to take off her mac when the rain stopped–it’s much too warm to wear in this fusty weather. Surely she would take a moment to get more comfortable.”

The search party progressed slowly, finding bits and pieces of what had surely once comprised most of Wilfred’s missing wife. Wilfred grew more and more frightened at what might have happened to his dear Muriel, but he dared not let himself think the worst. Finally they came to a weir where, caught in its grate, there was a familiar looking head. Wilfred leaned forward to address it:

“MU-riel! Are you all right?”

*********************************

Funny, isn’t it, how we tend to assume the worst and still somehow be so surprised that things turn out to be as bleak as they are. The first of the month (any month) looms large as the archetype of a Bad Day for many people. It’s the day when most of the bills are due, accounting must be made at work for one’s actions–or inaction–during the previous thirty days, filters must be replaced in the machinery, timers reset, and all manner of drudgery and doom are assumed to lie in wait. “I can’t believe it’s already September! Where did August go?” The month begins with a day of dread.

But I’ve found too that there’s a palpable truth to the old idea that while pessimism feeds on its own energy and dark expectations tend to be fulfilled with dark results, optimism and positive expectations can be equally self-fulfilling. Of course it makes sense to be prepared for and know how to survive and rise above disaster. But doesn’t it make great sense to get beyond that and, if necessary, work and will good things into existence instead? If I’m going to spend energy on thinking about the future, I hope it will be with the belief and intent that the future should be filled with good stuff of every kind.

Alfred Hitchcock, it seems, may have been a slightly shady character himself; perhaps it fed his genius for black humor and suspenseful psychodrama, but the tension between his deep-dyed wit and the truly grim storyline with which he would present us was necessary both to leaven the tale and to remind audiences of a better possible outcome. Without the contrast of an occasional flash of light, darkness becomes meaningless and incomprehensible.

Never mind the Fear of the First. Begone, nagging soothsayers of the End Times. I’m not afraid of the cursed Ides of March. Superstition and despondency, get thee behind me.

I prefer to keep my moments of fright to those contained in good scary fiction, and dwell, myself, in a much sunnier place where I expect pleasure and prettiness and plush pillows and poached pears and perfection. At least when I curl up with the likes of Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King in that place I can be assured that they’re only tall tales I’m reading and the bogeys will all go away again when I turn on the lights and tell them to go. Then the terror is finite and fictional and even fun, but finally, it’s also conquered.

  • Edgar Allan Poe portraitRepeat after me: It’s only a story, it’s only a story . . .