“Dreaming their big dreams”: the American Nightmares of Megan Abbott and Vicki Hendricks
Lee Horsley, Lancaster University
Time and again, the struggling protagonists, dreaming their big dreams, face aftermaths almost too horrible to bear – and their final thoughts are about, alternately, surrender and survival. (Megan Abbott, ‘Introduction’ to Vicki Hendricks’ Florida Gothic Stories)
Megan Abbott’s Introduction to Vicki Hendricks’ new collection conveys the pathos of the lost lives we encounter in Florida Gothic Stories. It applies equally to Abbott’s own creation of Marion Seeley and her “dead girls and sorrow” in Bury Me Deep. Both writers are remarkable for their touching and vivid representations of erring, transgressive women. However extreme the desperate actions of their protagonists, Hendricks and Abbott bring their readers to feel deep affection for them and anxious solicitude as we watch them careering towards some nightmarishly appropriate dead end.
These are characters who long for revenge or for escape from impoverished lives and brutal relationships; they crave excitement, love, sex, fulfillment. More often than not, their dreams carry them inexorably towards disillusionment and despair. Cherie, Hendricks’ protagonist in “Stormy, Mon Amour”, confronts her self-deceptions in the final pages of her story: “For the first time I wonder if he has ever shared the hot sharp pain of love between us, the need to be together or die that made me put my soul to the test and rise above my ordinary self to commit this deed. The sudden cold dawn of awareness is terrifying”. “Stormy” is one of Hendricks’ marvelously bizarre tales of interspecies romance, and Cherie is describing her passionate love for a dolphin. But the yearning for love, the torment of loss and the dawning of a terrifying awareness of harsh truths are also constants in the parallel world of disastrous human relationships. In both Hendricks and Abbott, these relationships repeatedly bring protagonists to “places too murky ever to see through,” and it’s never possible for them to unravel fully the painful complexities of their fates, “the bloody fury of the night and everything storming up to it” (Bury Me Deep).
The struggle for survival is unremitting. As in earlier novels like Die a Little and Queenpin, there is, in Abbott’s most recent novel, a recognition at the core that “‘You can’t guess what you’d do until you’ve done it.’” The story of Bury Me Deep is loosely based on the life of the “Trunk Murderess,” Winnie Ruth Judd, convicted in 1932 of the murders of two young women in Phoenix, Arizona. Working outwards from her initial image of the tiny house in which the murders were committed – a “hothouse of desire, jealousy, desperation, rage” – Abbott creates within Phoenix a microcosm of all of the doomed aspirations and wretchedness of the Depression years, turning the “Blonde Butcher” not just into a sympathetic character but into the embodiment of a heartbreaking ingenuousness that is unable to withstand the realities of a rapacious society.
Like much of the best 1930s noir, this is a meditation on economic power, exploitation and desperate necessity. In her handling of these themes Abbott was influenced, she says, not only by the noir crime novels of the early to mid-century but by writers like Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and Fitzgerald. It’s a combination that is evident both in her style (formal and lyrical on the one hand, blunt and colloquial on the other) and in the seriousness of her themes. Literary noir has a capacity for damning social and cultural criticism, as is evident in some of the great Depression-set novels written from the ‘30s on (McCoy’s They Shoot Horses; Goodis’s Blonde on the Street Corner). But Abbott pushes these preoccupations further towards a lament for lost hopes and damaged American selves. She uses a female perspective to deepen our sense of the ruin brought about by corrupt, abusive male power. Abbott says in interview that there are at the heart of the novel “Three women at the height of the Great Depression whose very existence depended on the largesse of one capricious man.” As in the novels of James M. Cain, the ingredients are steamy sensuality, greed and betrayal. In Bury Me Deep, these coalesce in a tale that captures the sexual and financial helplessness of women up against a prominent businessman whose power and influence are almost unassailable: “‘There are levers and switches and keys and I know which way they all go.’”
The life and crimes of Winnie Ruth Judd are re-imagined with a lyrical intensity. As readers, we apprehensively watch the “quite fragile and quite beautiful balance of all the elements” begin to “break in ways for which there was no preparing.” Marion Seeley, the character based on Judd, is a protagonist whose initial innocence acts as a foil to the world of deception she moves into. As her life of wild parties begins – with “Ginny pouring champagne into the oysters on a big silver platter” – the sense of opulence and carefree indulgence is “the most exciting thing Marion had ever seen”: Marion “laughed too and it was all so grown-up. She’d never met any women so young yet so grown-up.”
But the “giddy, earthy, delightful laugh” of the girls together is shadowed already by the “tubercular rack” that rips through Ginny’s gaiety, and ultimately by all of the other dark, diseased corners of their insecure existence. Marion is unable to fathom how far Ginny and Louise can see into the secret depravity of the world that surrounds them. There are many things that Marion herself simply doesn’t want to know, either about her unscrupulous lover or about the actual nature of his relationship with Louise and Ginny: “‘Don’t you get it? Joe Lanigan is all our business…How do you think we live, Marion?’” Marion has “‘an awful lot to learn’” and learns it in the most horrifying way possible, left to cope on her own with “Her girls, her girls. Her girls in those trunks like so much packing.” Confronting that abomination banishes forever “the shuddering young girl,” leaving “hardness wedged tight between teeth.” Her ultimate knowledge isn’t just of the wickedness of world, of course, but of her own inconceivable capacity for monstrous deeds: “It is you, Marion, who started the bloodbath. It is you who took hammer to teeth, acid to flesh – would you ever have guessed the limits of your own darkness?”
As Marion’s life after the murders plummets into darkness, Abbott’s scenes become increasingly gothic. The claustrophobic entrapment and horror are beyond imagining: “Those trunks would have to be opened…My, there was so much she knew, who might’ve guessed, she thought…” In Hendricks’ Florida Gothic Stories, the gothic atmosphere is never quite as unrelentingly dark, but gothic motifs are pervasive. Hendricks’ stories are most obviously indebted to the traditions of Southern Gothic writing, with its cast of damaged, delusional characters and its intuition, in Tennessee Williams’ phrase, “of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience.”
Abbott, in her Introduction to Florida Gothic Stories, observes that Hendricks creates “characters that teeter or tilt to sideshow” but for whom she feels immense tenderness. In her conversation with Abbott, Hendricks acknowledges the importance of the Southern Gothic influence, especially of the tradition’s partiality for the figure of the grotesque: “Grotesque is one of my favorite words, and I’ve always been attracted to characters who are flawed or twisted in an unusual way, inside and outside…” The themes and tropes of gothic and noir are, of course, often intertwined, and in interview Hendricks says, “I considered calling the collection Florida Gothic Noir, but I felt it might be too much specificity.” The wonderfully inventive stories of the collection benefit in obvious ways from the variety of narrative forms, but they are infused throughout with a noir sensibility.
Although only some of Hendricks’ stories would be classed as crime narratives, all of them involve decisions made under extreme pressure, acts of folly or desperate commitments that defy social mores. They portray lives in which conventional choices are no longer relevant. Some are bitter-sweet love stories involving selfless devotion or jealousy or betrayal (“ReBecca”, “Cold-Blooded Lovers”, “M-F Dog”). In others, crimes are committed but the criminality consists only of non-violent acts of affectionate appropriation: the planned escape with a captive dolphin in “Stormy, Mon Amour”; the very considerate if clandestine occupation of someone else’s house in “Boozanne, Lemme Be”.
Others, however, involve murder (“Must Bite!,” “Gators,” “The Big O,” “West End,” “Sinny and the Prince” and “Sweet Dreams”), and the murder-centred stories are quintessentially noir. Hatred, entrapment and the gnawing need for money or revenge or release drive the protagonist to chance everything in the wild hope that an act of violence might put their world to rights. Primitive instincts come to the fore: in “Must Bite!” the central characters include a group of spider monkeys and a chimp, and animal lusts and violence mirror the treacherous relationships of their human keepers. In other stories, the human characters are the animals. Carl, in “Gators”, grins “with all the teeth showing,” and the narrator reflects that “it was like having a mad dog at my side, never knowing when he might turn. He wouldn’t hesitate to rip anybody’s arm off, mine included, if it got in his way.” We’re given hope when the narrator in “Gator” schemes to get rid of the brutal and repellent Carl: “I reminded myself it was for my own survival. I needed both goddamned arms.” And we side with the character who dreams up a last-ditch scheme when she realizes that “Nothing was the way it was supposed to be. I was cheap help for a man trapped with wild children who would never grow up” (“Must Bite!”).
More often than not, however, stories end with circumstances changed but with no escape from entrapment. The embattled mother of baby Chance in “The Big O” (“I had dreams for Chance – his name was no accident”) makes a high risk, very nearly successful bid to escape with a small fortune from two of the “violent assholes” for whom she has, it seems, an incorrigible penchant. She finds, however, that she is “with my usual luck…in the same damn place where I started, except for I’d learned a lot about murder. I’d took right to it.”
The narrator of “The Big O” dreams at the beginning of redeeming her “luckless life” and at the end drifts off into a dream of the Big O (Lake Okeechobee, but also sex) breaking its dike: “It was like being caught under a wave, but I knew I was dreaming so I didn’t struggle. My luck was changing. I just had to hold my breath till the sun came out.” The framing of the story is suggestive of an oneiric quality that very often characterizes the writing of both Hendricks and Abbott. Hendricks’ stories can seem altogether surreal in their beautifully precise realizations of strange relationships: as Abbott says in her Introduction, “You don’t feel like you’re touching the real when you read them; you feel like you’re touching – no, drowning – in something more real than real.”
There are meticulously realized scenes – the “climate ripe for jock itch” under the “broiling Key West sun” that beats down on Duval Street in “M-F Dog,” the nautically precise vocabulary of the sex scenes in “West End”, the snap and crackle of “all the tiny dead branches popping off trees” as the hurricane builds at the end of “The Big O”. But the very precision of the detail is what heightens our sense of immersion in the subjective intensity of each character’s experiences. It allows us to be wholly involved, for example, in the world of Waxman, which is dominated by his love for his iguana, with her “crisp leathery armor…tapered hips, and slender tail”, and her fabulous wardrobe of tiny cotton dresses, nighties, gowns, lounge wear and “a black leather Harley vest.”
A dreamlike mood also characterizes, in its own way, Abbott’s haunting prose. The reviewer for The Chicago Sun-Times suggests that the dreamlike narrative of Bury Me Deep “mirrors the hazy existence of its protagonist” who “often seems to be floating through life.” Marion sees with great clarity the things she wants to see, her eyes fixing on the ”gleaming stand mixer…Silvertone cathedral radio…amber decanter…” in the duplex on Hussel Street. One of the most moving things about her more innocent self is the luminous reality of the dream: “There must have been cracked walls and chipped ceiling tiles and water stains”, but these go unnoticed because all is seen through a glow of “pink-lit enchantment”. The potent, seemingly redemptive fantasy of “feminine enchantment” is indulged until, too suddenly for comprehension, the dream crashes into nightmare. In both writers, before nightmares take over, characters indulge themselves in imagined, consoling possibilities. These imaginings are so vividly present in their minds that it seems, briefly at least, as though their lives can be sustained by the power of desire alone.
Disillusionment is, of course, inevitable. As Waxman begins to confront the possibility that wild marauding iguanas may steal his love from him, he broods on the fact that lately he has sometimes felt “that his life was only fiction being held together by his point of view…” Both Bury Me Deep and Florida Gothic Stories attest to the compelling power and the extreme fragility of the fictions we live by. The richness of these waking dreams is what gives their narratives such extraordinary poignancy.
Read Megan Abbott and Vicki Hendricks in conversation with one another in the Crimeculture May Interview.
Copyright © 2010 by Lee Horsley