American Feast: Giving Thanks for Hillbilly Killers
The Agony Column for November 25, 2003
Commentary by Rick Kleffel
Sure, we're bloodthirsty in all senses of the word, but at least we're
not wasteful. That's what you'd conclude if you were to stumble across
the intersection of art, trash and big business entombed in some of
our best, our most powerful, our most popular and our trashiest pieces
of fiction, filmed fiction and film. For me, it was a total accident.
But once I'd twigged to the notion that America Loves Its Hillbilly
Killers, I felt like someone who'd never considered conspiracies until
introduced to the world of the JFK assassination. Suddenly, everything
was evidence. Omens were in the air. Everyone is a killer.
Do not place mouse over image.
I'm forced to admit that I didn't experience this illumination while
reading Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man is Hard to Find'. Nor did I
manage to see the obvious while enjoying Charles Willeford's 'Deliver
Me From Dallas'. William
Gay's 'The Paperhanger' from his collection 'i
hate to see that evening sun go down' is a perfect piece of
the puzzle, a notch at the highest of the high end of contemporary literature,
I enjoyed it alone. Years ago, reading James Dickey's lyrical 'Deliverance'
and seeing the grueling film adaptation, I never saw the similarities.
No, not me. I made the connection a couple of weeks ago while watching,
for the first time, 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'.
Given my bent towards the extremes of every damn thing, the fact that
I hadn't seen that august work until almost 20 years after it had been
released requires a bit of explanation. It goes like this. Unlike every
other heavy-breathing adolescent boy of 1974, I had a distinct dislike
of horror. I thought it was by and large stupid, and that 'The Texas
Chainsaw Massacre', being at the time the largest and most horrible
of movies, was sure to be larger and stupider than most. I totally ignored
its existence and managed to miss out on it during my first understanding
of the joys of horror fiction in the 1980's. Back then, it was still
in the stupid movies camp, as opposed to the smart written horror of
Clive Barker's 'Books of Blood' and Ramsey Campbell's 'Scared Stiff'.
So it got ignored.
The most horrible of movies.
But the horror bloom faded. My interests shifted back towards literature,
science fiction, fantasy and eventually any damn book that seemed interesting.
'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' began to seem like it might be more interesting
than I had first given it credit for. Once the shock value had worn
off, it began to acquire an aura of class. But still I gave it a pass.
It wasn't until the recent re-make was released that I finally managed
to get past my stockpile excuses to actually screen the movie. To a
certain extent, I'm glad I waited until the movie seemed calmed and
I was calmer. Though it's still sold as a movie of extremes, by comparison
to the tone and subject of today's network television, 'The Texas Chainsaw
Massacre' is rather mild. But Hooper's vision shines with an intensity
backlit by Flannery O'Connor and Charles Willeford, presaged by James
Dickey and presaging William Gay. It's an all-American mishmash, a casserole
of ideas. To err is human -- to kill divine. Kill or be killed. Eat
what you kill. Get off the grid and you're toast. There's a big chunk
of America where free-range humans demonstrate their predatory skills.
You are what you eat. American, through and through.
My first authentic experience with hillbilly killers was when I read
James Dickey's 'Deliverance'. First published in 1970, Dickey's novel
is a quintessential example of the All-American Feast. Four aging suburban
men decide to head to the hills to enjoy for the last time a bit of
untouched wilderness about to be plunged under damned waters. Much of
the novel details their everyday interior lives as suburbanites, getting
the paper, washing the dishes, the droll drone of unsung Americana.
Once they leave the safety of boredom, however, they manage to work
way into one of the many parts of what you might call American uncivilization.
We like to think of America as a vast network of suburbs and cities,
with small, forested parks patrolled by kind rangers in between. But
as it happens much of America is either uninhabited or only lightly
inhabited. Once you get outside the range of American civilization,
you find yourself in what is portrayed as American uncivilization. The
inhabitants of uncivilized America look a lot like you and me, but they
don't obey the same rules that you and I do. They don't go to school
as children, they don't wear clothes they bought in suburban malls,
they don't drive a car to work every day, return home and kiss the wife
on the cheek. They don't unwrap slabs of anonymous flesh and cook them
in pristine kitchens. They kill live animals, gut them, skin them and
cook the flesh. You might be that animal.
Alas, I did not buy the hardcover version.
Once Dickey's suburbanites have cut the cord from their cocooning suburb,
they're fair game for any appetite. Written as the seam of America's
highly suppressed sexuality was coming undone, the appetite that Dickey's
monsters chose to satisfy was sexual. 'Deliverance's scenes of terror
subjected men who thought themselves totally invulnerable to rape at
the hands of another. It was an unthinkable horror. Once the rape has
occurred, the killings that follow actually seem mild, and are, most
horrifyingly, something of a relief. 'Deliverance' mines a vein of terror
that is particularly American. Raw nature, be it human or the impassive
face of a landscape that will kill you as soon as send you home, is
something that most Americans might idolize, but they can't psychologically
or physically survive. The person who walks into those expanses of unpopulated,
uncivilized America does not emerge. They encounter a psychological
-- or physical -- ending.
Poet James Dickey envisioned an American terror.
Dickey tells his tale with gorgeous prose that seduces the reader into
feeling safe even as they witness the vulnerability of the characters.
He puts Beauty in the service of the Beast before pulling off her mask
and revealing that she is not only the slave, but the master as well.
Dickey's novel gets under your skin and stays there.
But for many Americans, book-learnin' is no longer the prime method
of American storytelling. Movies make the big impression, and the near-perfect
translation of Dickey's novel into an American film by Irishman John
Boorman -- from a screenplay by the author -- is an icon of equal or
greater stature than the novel from which is was derived. Boorman's
film emphasizes the uncivilized America from Dickey's novel. These are
men in the wilderness, a wilderness in which other animals may look
like men but are in fact forces of nature. Visually, it's a powerfully
natural experience. Few movies have hammered the American suburban male
with such force. Their very whiteness is threatened by the greens and
browns that enfold them. Carefully edited at both the screenplay and
film stage, 'Deliverance' is a taut wire that cuts to the core of a
peculiarly American terror.
Banjos and icons.
Dickey wasn't the first writer to create an indelible mark with wilderness
horror. The first and still the foremost writer to treat this theme
is Flannery O'Connor. Her most famous story, 'A Good Man is Hard to
Find' was the pioneer, the literary equivalent of those it portrayed.
O'Connor's short story is iconic for all the right reasons. Talk about
taut? Here's the first damn scary serial killer story hiding in your
high-schooler's literature anthology. O'Connor's story is very simple,
and once you twig to it, obviously the origin (purposeful or not) of
the American hillbilly killers genre. In it, the prototypical suburban
family heads off in the car for a three-day vacation. Mom, Dad, the
kids and Gramma get in the car and head out on the highways. Before
they go, Gramma's telling tales of The Misfit, an escaped killer who
is headed for their destination, Florida. Once they're on the road,
they stop at RED SAMMY'S BARBECUE. THE FAT BOY WITH THE HAPPY LAUGH.
O'Connor has the knack to be horrifically ominous without being heavy-handed.
As they pass by "Toombsboro", Gramma insists -- simply insists
-- that her son, Dad, pull off the road for a little detour to see a
house with a secret panel. Those all-American kids start screaming for
the secret panel, and the turn is made, off the road and into American
uncivilization. Another turn, Gramma's hidden cat escapes causing the
car accident. From there, it's all just a roll downhill, everything
so easily done, everything so easily surrendered. That helpful man they
meet wants to take Dad and Mom over there a bit. While Gramma talks
to the Misfit -- for that's who they've found out there in uncivilization
-- the kids need to go join their parents. Gramma will join her parents
as well, but not before O'Connor's white-hot writing cuts a swathe of
terror and humor deep into the reader's soul. We Americans have so much
to be thankful for.
O'Connor's story is powerful because she writes with such a light touch.
When Gramma's cat causes the crash, the response is not desperation
or fright. "'We've had an ACCIDENT!' the children screamed in a
frenzy of delight." O'Connor's language reveals the potential inversion
lurking in any joy or sorrow. The executions happen offstage, in a manner
distinctly unfrenzied. This is a very civilized uncivilization we have
here in America. Manner and mores are obeyed, and discourse is polite,
even when we're discussing certain death. And ultimately we recognize
that we civilized humans have created the uncivilization that waits
for us. "'Why, you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!'" Gramma
says of The Misfit. It's a revelation of parenthood where joy and horror
merge into resignation.
Hillbilly killers make a notable foray into the American suburbs in
Charles Willeford's 'Deliver
Me From Dallas'. Bill Brown is the all-American
cop who made a mistake and has to re-locate from LA, like NOW. In Dallas,
he cons a hick out of his suitcase -- stuffed with cash. That hick's
brother is the memorable Junior Knowles, just in from hills and playing
fast and loose with the kills. Much of the novel is told in Knowles'
hickbilly vernacular. For some readers, it may be a bit hard to stomach
being in the mind of a rather stupid but very vicious killer. Knowles'
advantage in the Texan suburbs is that he has fewer inhibitions, a simpler
approach. Kill everything that pisses you off, and kill it slowly if
you have the time. Torture is optional but recommended. Your victims
may not live to learn the lessons you teach, but you'll satisfy the
void that opens up within you every time a new victim dies. Willeford's
use of rotating first-person points-of-view puts the reader behind the
eyes of someone like The Misfit, and it's not a happy experience. Brown's
a lucky guy, in the end, for he was not forced to meet Knowles on his
The Dennis McMillan edition of Willeford's novel.
Like Willeford, William Gay brings the rotten core into the pristine
suburb with disturbing results. His collection 'i
hate to see that evening sun go down' contains a number
of incarnations of this theme. The multi-prize-winning story 'The Paperhanger'
is a story in which the impermeable nature of
the paperhanger, someone who lives just outside
civilization, enables the cultured and civilized to slip and fall, to
impale themselves upon his jagged edges. Turn for a moment and the child
will disappear. Your life will follow. Gay writes with the same measured
cadences of O'Connor, taps in to the same suburban redneck terror. It's
as if there's a black hole in human society.
But the peak of the American feast was 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre',
served up in 1974 with a 16 mm camera and a screenplay by Kim Henkel
and Tobe Hooper. It's a plot and a voyage remarkably similar to both
'Deliverance' and 'A Good Man is Hard to Find', without the literary
precedents. The movie begins with a declaration that it's based on true
events (it isn't) followed by a portentous and almost humorous narration
by John Laroquette. Let's get this settled right now. The story of Leatherface
and family bears a slight resemblance to the story of American serial
killer Ed Gein (also the basis for the movie 'Psycho'). The resemblance
to Ed Gein is that Gein, like Leatherface, skinned his victims and wore
their skin. Chainsaws? No. Grampa? No. Five teenagers in a van? No.
So, "based on true events"? No. This was a cinematic come-on,
aped by the Coen brothers with their movie 'Fargo', also "based
on true events". But both harken back to the truth underlying all
these American feasts; we'll believe that people off the grid will do
just about anything.
The movie begins with static, news reports and washes of atonal synthesizer,
snapshots of decaying corpses. Then, we're shown a full, exhumed corpse;
someone is robbing the graves in a small Texas town. We're introduced
to the five teenagers in a van; Sally and Franklin Hardesty, Jerry,
Kirk and Pam. It doesn't take long to realize that these oh-so-civilized
teenagers are potentially the most annoying and awful pampered pieces
of humanity ever to litter the landscape. After a stop at the graveyard
where an unhinged hick causes unease, we're on the road again. The viewers
are being dragged away from civilization; only the fragile shell of
the van protects those within.
Heading past a slaughterhouse, the teenagers pick up a hitchhiker who
mutilates himself and one of them before being tossed from the van.
These are scenes fraught with tension and terror, raw, with only the
synthetic drones and awful hillbilly music to counterpoint them. Inch
by inch Hooper and Henkel are taking the viewers out of the world they
know. How far out they are hits home when a stop at a gas station, which
should offer some relief, offers instead only....barbecue. And, yes
the teenagers enjoy their feast.
Tobe Hooper (left) in 1974 filming the barbecue scene.
Here in America, we can make just about any damn kind of movie we
want to, no matter how heartless, no matter how horrific and unredeeming.
The very existence of the movie soon becomes a source of fear. Franklin
and Sally propose the group takes a detour, in the same wheedling
tones as Gramma in O'Connor's journey. This leads the teens to another
nearby house, drowned in the drone of a gas generator. These people
are off the grid. Surrounded by a farrago of grass, weeds and wrecks,
they are the rotten core of the American family.
Hooper piles on the shock and shows scenes of torture without gore.
While O'Connor manufactured her terror without showing the murders,
Hooper wants us to see what precisely is in all the meat we eat. He
wants us to understand how it is made and what happens when you take
just a little bit of America and drop it off in the middle of the American
wilderness. His family feast is as pathetic as it is horrific. He also wants you to feel the same self-repulsion his survivor
feels. In order to get out alive, you have to descend to their level.
Otherwise, you're just the Gramma, recognizing your children, but not
outliving them. They'll consume you. America is a nation of consumers.
How much of this Hooper -- and Dickey, and O'Connor and Gay and Willeford
-- had in their heads before they created, and how much is an artifact
of 20/20 hindsight is something that may never be determined. Readers
today live in a world that was to the writers and creators of these
works merely a dull piece of science fiction. We of the future can
with horror upon the past. Our actions, of necessity, will take place
in our present and our future. Almost by definition, we'll never fill
the vast landscape of America. There will always be a place for the
American Feast. Come up and join us. Give thanks -- you are being
served. You're the main dish.