Friday, January 9, 2004

Faces of Death

I recently was following some links around and found myself in a most unlikely place: it all started innocently when my coworker and I were talking about the literary women whom Ernest Hemingway might have been friends with and who may have had an effect on his affectionate incomprehension of the female sex, the opinion of Hemingway's female characters held by modern feminists, and how the feminists who were perhaps his influences might have reacted to his female characters (that's the nice thing about working with teachers, sometimes you get into these really great academic discussions at work); in the course of the discussion I was talking about a woman writer who I think was friends with Hemingway, was certainly a force in the expatriate literary salons of 1930s Paris, and whose rather grim and humorless lesbian novel I had read in two separate classes in one semester ("Queer Love in Literature" and "The Modern British Novel"), but whose name I couldn't remember to save my life; so hunting up "literature paris 30s queer" at Google, I found my way to this odd Manitoban directory of queer people in history; I had to look around a good deal on the page I found before I came across the name Djuna Barnes, which settled my curiosity about the name I had forgotten, but the conversation was pretty much over with already and it didn't matter except to get the name out of my head; while poking around at the Canadian website (surprised somewhat by the sheer number of names, though many people were included on the most specious of evidence), I saw a name that rang a bell, John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer; I had no idea Gacy was gay (or even homosexual), so I followed a link in the entry to this quite macabre site; and once there, I was immediately absorbed in the accounts of various homosexual serial killers.

I was rather surprised to find these accounts so riveting. Under ordinary circumstances, I don't care for blood and gore, murder and mayhem... I don't read horror novels much, seldom ever see horror movies, and am no fan of violence in art or music. In fact, I tend to become unduly upset when, in the course of the film or book or whatever, a young person is killed — especially if the person is beautiful, or if the death was particularly painful or terrifying to the victim.

On the other hand, though I tend to shy away from horror fiction, I have a fascination for vampires, especially the beautiful and elegant Anne Rice variety. There's a sexual intimacy involved with vampiric killing, a sensuality and carnal ecstasy to the death, a kind of love for the victim, which I think is what makes them alluring as something other than just a killer. Characters like Gilles de Rais (of whom I first read in Quentin Crisp's How to Have a Lifestyle, in which the Baron de Rais was held up as an example of a stylish murderer) and John Wayne Gacy killed in a distinctly erotic manner, and such stories fascinate and repel me at once. Besides, the sex-and-death theme are almost universally fascinating (for reasons that I personally don't understand, but there are psychological studies that show the two equate almost automatically in the human mind... something I shall have to study one of these days).

But I think, in this particular case, it is the clinical tone of the true-crime report that makes these accounts easier to handle. The focus is more on what makes a killer kill, and how he is caught, rather than the effect on the victims, the terror inspired and the horrors endured. The victims were not ignored, of course, but I didn't find myself dwelling on them until I started encountering photographs in the articles, and by then it was the trail to justice that captured my imagination.

It baffled me that these men could go on killing and killing without getting caught. Granted, police method and forensic science have come a long way in recent years, and in the past it was often only a blatant piece of chance idiocy on the part of the killer that would bring him down (such as Randy Kraft, who was pulled over for drunk driving, with a corpse and a puddle of blood in the cab of his truck). But so much of the time they had chosen their victim pools well — several killers focused on homosexual loners, others preyed on transient types like sailors and truckers and runaways. If there were no bodies lying about, the police usually assumed that the young men just up and left for parts unknown, as young men tend to do, especially if they're homosexual.

The thing I'm finding, though, as I read these horrific accounts, and even more when I encountered actual post-mortem crime-scene photgraphs (nothing too graphic, but you could see that the boys were dead) dotted about among live photographs of the victims, is that rather than sickening me, they make me appreciate life so much more. When I think of how easy it is to kill someone, rather than being disgusted or appalled, I instead start thinking what a marvel the human body is, with one thing connected to another thing, and all the sensations and textures, pleasure and pain, and the whole miraculous mechanism poised in this precarious balance.

It also puts me in mind of an idea that I had once, quite a while ago, that it's the very ephemeral nature of living beauty that attracts us... the beauty of something that will grow old and die, or die at the height of its beauty, is so much more moving and fascinating than the beauty of something permanent and durable. It's why the young are more beautiful than the old, the living more beautiful than the inanimate — a beautiful man is more beautiful than a beautiful statue; a beautiful woman is more beautiful than a beautiful painting; a beautiful flower is more beautiful than a beautiful jewel, and a beautiful sunset is more beautiful than a beautiful mountain.

However, though it is the death that makes the beauty greater, it seems a terrible crime to end the beauty wilfully. Wasteful and awful and vicious to deprive the world of any of its beauty. And I find it odd, though not inexplicable, that my appreciation of beauty seems to have been enhanced by detailed accounts of such wanton destruction of that same beauty.

But now I think of it, one of the great draws of murder-mystery fiction is that it gives one a sense of justice and order... for although murder and mayhem, destruction and evil abound in such stories, there is always a detective who solves the mystery and brings the malefactor to justice. The horror of the killing is tempered and redeemed by the climax of desirable comeuppance. It gives one a sense that all is right with the world when an evil person is caught, when the forces of right track them down and punish them. It's all very satisfying, in its way.

Still, aside from that benefit, I am still repelled by the gruesomeness of these stories I've been drawn into. I feel this great need to read or see something pretty and happy, where nobody dies and everything turns out well at the end. Something Disney, perhaps, where only the wicked get killed and even then it's off-screen and quite bloodless; or a nice romance or comic novel with plenty of laughs and no tears at all. Any suggestions?

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