The more the murkier: A critical review of “The Hunting Party” (2019)

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested human beings can maintain about 150 different relationships, although we devote the majority of our social attention to only about 15. That’s why I like books and movies that focus on a few people. I’m a human being. I have a limited attention span. My trade off is, if you only give me a few people, I can really dig into them.

Lucy Foley’s “The Hunting Party” opens swimming with characters, as if the book is going to spread its attention among a spacious cast. However, it quickly pares things down to focus on a core group. This certainly helps it become a more effective read, although its merits as a thriller are still debatable.

The novel begins with a group of old friends, a decade out of college, spending New Year’s Eve at a remote mountain lodge in the Scottish Highlands. The first couple of nights are boisterous. Booze flows and friends reminisce. But soon old wounds are uncovered and rivalries revived, and one of the guests does not survive into the new year. With the lodge cut off by winter weather, and a killer clearly in their midst, tensions mount. No one, not even the friendly staff, seems above suspicion.

Once it’s got all of its character introductions out of the way, “The Hunting Party” focuses on a few characters: Heather, Emma, Katie, Doug and Miranda. That’s still five different narrators, but as the book gradually unfolds their distinct voices emerge. Miranda is critical; Katie is self-effacing; Heather is introspective, and their narration styles reflect this.

The side effect is that the other characters, who were initially somewhat indistinct, can remain pretty indistinct. I’m kind of OK with that, since one of themes of the book seems to be that we can never truly know who someone else is, even if we’ve grown up with them or worked with them for years.

There are mechanical issues. For one thing, the narrative puts everything in the present tense. Normally that drives me nuts, but I thought I was going to be OK with that too, since we were jumping from one character to the next with a regular rhythm. The present tense prose read like we were experiencing their thoughts in real time. The problem is, it’s not real time. The narrative jumps time as well as character, so the stuff that’s happening “now” is in present tense, but so is the stuff that’s happening “two days ago.”

That makes me ask questions like, which present is this–her present or his present? It’s not my present. Why not put this present in present tense and that present from two days earlier in past tense? Wouldn’t that be more organized? This wasn’t a deal breaker, but it definitely took me out of the action every time I thought about it.

And it’s not the time jumping that gets me. Actually, out of all the narrative quirks, the time jump is the nicest because it allows for the most interesting element of the book. The novel opens with a murder but is very careful not to identify the victim. Then it jumps back and forth to the investigation and to the events leading up to the murder, so it’s as much a who-got-dun-in as a whodunit.

But there’s one thing the time jumps can’t fix. “The Hunting Party” has some depth and some pathos, and the characters that are developed are played against each other effectively. But other than the murder we know will happen eventually, there’s not a lot of suspense. The book is fine as a psychodrama, but not that great as a psychological thriller.

In fact, readers expecting thrills and chills might find the tension to be a let down. Some new twist is uncovered every few chapters, but it’s usually a revelation about a relationship. At best, it’s a little soapy. At worst, it’s a little silly.

Also, the front cover promises that “everyone’s a suspect.” That’s just not true. I eliminated most of the suspects in the first third of the book. In fact, I had a pretty good idea who was gonna get done in and who was gonna done it by the time we entered the final third. The former was pretty logical and satisfying. The latter I figured out by a complete fluke. I won’t say any more than that. Maybe you’ll like it.

“The Hunting Party” is well written, with elegant prose and snappy dialogue and some appropriate themes that aren’t simply slammed over the reader’s head. But it falls short as a psychological thriller. It’s not thrilling enough, or intellectually piercing enough, to escape melodrama. It’s not bad at all. It’s just a little disappointing.

Family architecture: A critical analysis of “Psycho” (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was released on June 16, 1960, and three days later, it was Father’s Day. In hindsight, this seems like a commercial misstep. After all, wouldn’t Mother’s Day have been a more appropriate premier for the mamma of all slasher films?

While the role of “mother” in the film is obviously filled by Norma Bates, the role of “father” is not apparently filled by anyone. It is a psychological plot point of
“Psycho” that Norman Bates’s father died when he was five, and the film is infamous for its lack of a positive male figure, let alone a male hero (Norman is an antihero at best, ultimately a tragic villain).

There is, however, an arguably masculine presence in the film that fills the role of father figure for Norman. It’s not a character but a setting. In “Psycho,” for better or for worse, Norman’s father figure is the house up the hill from the Bates Motel.

It’s not as far fetched as it might sound. Father figures don’t have to be biological fathers, and they don’t even have to be people we know. The archetype of “father” can even be seen in national abstracts. George Washington was called “the father of his country” and Germany in the 1930s was called “the Fatherland.”

While archetypes can do without biology, what they can’t abide is a vacuum. Father figures are fathers because they have a relationship with a child. In the same way, the purpose of a building is, in part, constructed through its relationship with people. Churches, hospitals or schools can be defined by architecture or equipment, but they are also defined by the types of people–ministers, doctors or teachers–who inhabit them and by how those people use the buildings for their specific purpose–worship, healing or instruction.

This is no different for dwellings. Popular wisdom says that homes are houses that are lived in, in other words, that have a relationship with a family unit. To quote the poet Edgar Albert Guest, it takes a heap of living to make a house a home.

In “Psycho,” Norma establishes that we’re supposed to be looking for figures who represent the darker sides of parental archetypes when considering the Bates family. As a psychic force, Norma does not nurture or help fulfill her child. Instead, she is seductive and stifling to the point where she overtakes his identity.

The darker attributes of a father archetype, some seen in a reversed Emperor tarot card, are that it is austere, separate, unreachable, unflinching and aged. These attributes can also be seen in the Bates house as it relates to the other characters and settings in the film.

That the house is aged is clear in its architecture. It is Victorian in style and looks like it’s from another century, giving it the appearance of something that’s been around for a while. This is especially clear when the house is compared to the motel below, whose clean lines and accessibility for cars and travelers give it a modern, if utilitarian, feel.

Photography also separates the Bates house. The exterior of the house is photographed infrequently and from a distance. Unlike the motel, it is never photographed up close. It’s also typically shot by itself, without other characters or structures as reference. When they are seen in a shot with the house, characters are either tiny to the point of insignificance–the silhouette of mother seen from a window–or shoved in a corner to allow the house to take prominence–Norman noticing the house from a window of the motel, with Norman cut off around the shoulder but the house fully framed by the window.

The house is also separate from the members of the Bates family. Although Norman has a room in the house, we see him primarily occupy the motel office. One might think that Norma occupies the house, so the house has a connection to her, but that’s not quite right. Norma doesn’t occupy the house. She occupies Norman.

The physical distance between the house and the motel gives the house the room it needs to keep an eye on things, so to speak. Whenever the house is seen from a character’s perspective, its age and distance give it a look of seriousness, menace and authority.

Authority is one of the positive traits of the father archetype, but its negative aspect is authority that has turned cruel or violent. Notably in “Psycho,” the motel is the setting of the murder of Marion Crane, which was in a kind of defense of Norman. The house, on the other hand, is the setting of the murder of the private detective Arbogast, which was done to cover up the previous murder and is therefore in defense of the entire family unit.

One of the lasting horrors of “Psycho” isn’t that there are no parental figures for Norman to cling to–it’s that there are, terrible archetypes that Norman has perceived for himself out of a need for parental guidance. Like bad parents, they elevate his worst nature, subverting loyalty into violence and responsibility into guilt.

When you think of buildings in “Psycho,” what are you likely to conjure up (remember, a shower is not a building)? You probably think of the gloomy old house on the hill, overlooking the tired motel and its timid caretaker. Perhaps you see the harsh outline of an indistinct figure in an upper window. That architecture is as iconic for horror cinema and Norman and Norma Bates. Even if we don’t call the house “father,” it makes up the missing third of the Bates family’s nuclear unit. Perhaps it’s time to bring the house home.

Double check the deadbolt: A critical review of “Lock Every Door” (2019)

The first thing one is liable to notice about the novel “Lock Every Door” is that its cover is pink. Not pacific dove pink or cotton candy spun pink, but aggressive pink, the kind of pink that will shove you into a wall and take your lunch money. Which is odd because it’s not a very pink book. But maybe that’s fitting, because between those pink covers is a novel that cannot make up its mind.

Our protagonist, Jules Larsen, has just picked up every New Yorker’s dream job: getting paid to live in the Bartholomew, a historic high-rise in the middle of Manhattan, where she can get spectacular views of Central Park and rub shoulders with the city’s quietly rich and famous. But when some of her fellow apartment sitters disappear, Jules starts investigating the building’s haunted history. The more she looks, the more she realizes her dream job is a waking nightmare.

Author Riley Sager put “To Ira Levin” on the dedication page, but once the story’s underway, he can’t decide if he wants the book to be “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Sliver” or even “The Boys From Brazil” (have fun untangling that, thriller fans!). Homage is one thing. Identity crisis is another thing altogether.

Part of the problem is that the book telegraphs a lot of things, and I don’t even mean the twist. I mean the moods of the narrator. Jules spells every single thing out to the point where I felt like the book was talking down to me. She repeatedly interprets things from a passive perspective–and then she comments on how passive she is. I get it. The world excludes her and is unforgiving, and she’s a weak and worthless person.

Except she doesn’t act weak and worthless. Far from it, she acts like a junior detective, going right up to strangers–who she’s been told not to talk to–and talks to them rather rudely about the building’s occult and bloody past. For someone who thinks she’s so out of place in the building, let alone believes she’s in a strange and dangerous situation, she sure behaves entitled.

And the twist? I shouldn’t say too much, but I will say this. The novel started with a decent amount of thriller intrigue. But when the twist arrived, it wasn’t that it was stupid, but it was a much more pedestrian twist than I expected, especially compared to the intrigue that built up to it. If given the choice between intriguing build up and a pedestrian twist, I will usually choose the intrigue thank you.

Also, the ultimately revealed villain is about as deep as a Saturday morning cartoon character, over-the-top in villainy yet curiously without presence. The motivations behind the disappearances aren’t quite as bad as “just because,” but they’re only a step or two away.

The novel is definitely readable, and the prose is pretty tidy, although there are a couple of spots that the editor seems to have missed. And, not to nitpick, but I liked Jules’s father’s clever platitudes until it dawned on me that they were paraphrases of other writers, like William Shakespeare and Ian Fleming. I like Shakespeare and Fleming, so I don’t know why that disappointed me. Maybe it just came across as more narrative uncertainty.

In fact, while we’re at it, what’s up with the title? I mean, yes, the book has doors in it. Some of them are even locked. But every one? Not even close.

Catch-up reading: News June 2020

I should probably be tooting my own horn here, seeing as how a comic essay of mine was recently published at Maudlin House, a small press that specializes in new form and experimental lit. Of course, my story–a piece of flash fiction tilted at some probably-fictional editor–isn’t exactly this blog’s typical subject, so I doubt you’d be interested in it, Tonstant Weader. Instead, I’ll be the bigger man.

Ben Umayam’s flash work “Hairy Monster,” also available to read at Maudlin House, is delightful. It’s either a thriller that’s slyly an immigrant story or an immigrant story that’s slyly a piece of pulp thriller. Either way, it’ll only take you two minutes to read, but its dark punchline will stick with you for the rest of the day–although it make you pause before getting back into a barber shop or salon, no matter how messy your quarantine hair has gotten.

Now that all that reading is out of the way, who’s up for some novels? As this blog alluded to in the past, we’ve been sitting on a big pile of junky thrillers from the library, from murder mysteries to stories of possibly supernatural high jinks. In the months of quarantine downtime, we’ve even read a couple of them, and we’ll be reviewing them this June.

Interestingly, each novel is set in an enclosed space–including an exclusive high-rise apartment, a cabin in the woods and a remote mansion–which seems relevant considering how this year started off. But before you ask, they’re all from 2019. I guess some people just know where things are headed.