Friday, April 25, 2008

Harold Schechter, "The Mask of Red Death" (2004).

I was familiar with Harold Schechter as a recognized expert in the study of serial killers. I had seen him appear in a few documentaries, including one concerning his artist-friend Joe Coleman, and another that detailed the phenomenon of collecting serial killer art. For the hipper, more literary crowd interested in the dark psychology of accomplished murderers, it seems like Schechter is the go-to guy. I've found his perspectives to be fairly convincing. He is absolutely fascinated with the grisly details of crime, but he tends to shy away from elaborate psychosexual explanations for murderous behavior. He seems to know his way around the psychopathic mind, and clearly has the type of non-judgmental attitude required to truly understand extreme violence.

While reading The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World's Most Terrifying Murderers (2003), I had to wonder about Schechter's background. He certainly seemed like an authoritative source, but how had he come across his knowledge? Did he have a law enforcement background? That would give him a deep understanding of the investigatory process that identifies and categorizes aberrant behavior. Or was he a mental health professional? Maybe he had experience with examining or treating killers? The truth is a bit strange. Schechter is a professor of American Culture and Literature at Queens College of the City University of New York.

His profession doesn't really explain how he acquired his particular interests. However it does shed light on one of his sidelines- he has written a series of 'historical fictions' employing the iconic poet Edgar Allan Poe as the protagonist. This strange approach puts Poe in the role of detective, trying to sort out the facts of a series of horrific murders in mid-19th Century New York City. In this adventure, Poe meets up with a series of other prominent figures of the age- such as P.T. Barnum, Tom Thumb, and James Gordon Bennett, Sr. (the founder and publisher of the New York Herald). Schechter even has Poe teaming up with one of the biggest celebrities of the day, Christopher "Kit" Carson.

The writer and the explorer make for strange bedfellows. Schechter writes Poe as if he was a pretentious prat, giving him high-falutin' dialog that often distracts from the flow of the narrative. Instead of merely being gloomy and taciturn, Poe is represented as being a flowery dandy, who never misses an opportunity to slag a fellow writer. Meanwhile Carson is portrayed as a one-dimensional cartoon character. He's a plain-talking superhero, who saves the day so many times that he might as well be the second coming of Jesus Christ. In fact all of the characters are drawn so simplistically that Schechter's story loses a lot of its atmosphere. And that's rather a shame, because there is a lot in this book.

An undertaking like The Mask of Red Death is by its very nature quite perilous. Our history books have already colored these well-known figures with distinct impressions. The well-informed reader brings a fairly solid set of assumptions about their personalities and motivations. We have an intuitive sense of how we would expect them to act, and what they would care about. It's risky to try to put words in their mouths, and especially difficult to present a convincing account of how they may have spoken to each other. As soon as a hint of doubt is inadvertently introduced, we remove ourselves from the setting. It takes an extremely deft hand to avoid causing such a reaction. While Schechter is obviously articulate and knowledgeable, I don't think he was quite up to this challenge.

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