It isn’t perhaps too much of a surprise that Gillian Flynn‘s novel Gone Girl was such a massive bestseller last year, and that David Fincher’s movie version has been hotly tipped for an Oscar. After all, the previous year’s worldwide smash was the highly dubious Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which doubtlessly left fiction readers craving bestselling material that was worthy of its popularity. Fifty Shades was about a woman who became the submissive partner of a billionaire, and many critics expressed concern about the type of values this expressed at a time of global recession.
My Halloween recommendation is Flynn’s previous novel Dark Places. I remember being in the US around the time of the ‘Satanic-Panic’ when concerns about Ritual Satanic Abuse in crèches and schools became the moral panic de-jour, which wasn’t helped by growing popularity of bands like Slayer who used explicitly anti-religious symbolism on their album covers!
Supernatural horror stories usually pull back the curtain at some point to reveal a malevolent entity responsible for acts of carnage in the human sphere. When people try to do this in the real world, it often ends up with individuals being blamed for things that were actually outside their control. For example Dianne Vaughan‘s The Challenger Launch Decision demonstrated that the disaster which took the lives of seven crew members was not the result of one negligent individual, but the offshoot of how the culture of an organisation had been impacted on by changes in economic policy years before.
Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places is, on the surface, the story of a young woman who’s family were killed in what appeared to be a Satanic-murder by her then 15-year old brother. Reluctantly, she reconsiders the testimony she gave against the boy when she was only seven years old. The narrative is structured in a way that brings the reader back to the events of the day when the murders took place, and alternates with chapters in the near present. It is no coincidence that the murders took place in January 1985, in the midst of the farm-debt crisis of the 1980s in the US. Policy decisions taken in the past, impact on a sector in a way which not only wipes out the livelihoods of those working in a crucial sector, but also their lifestyles, their communities and their connection to a sense of place. The word annihilation occurs again and again to one of the novel’s central characters.
In the midst of this social destruction, Flynn paints a clear, compassionate picture of what it is like to be suddenly poor and vulnerable. Those who haven’t lost everything assist in the demonization of the those who have, creating a pattern of self-justification at the expense of a newly created underclass. The indebted and overwhelmed Day family are driven to the margins of respectability, so that when someone needs to be arrested, the police know exactly where to look.
It is a horror story shared by many of those driven to the brink during the recent crisis.
Dark Places isn’t a socio-economic commentary, but an intricately crafted whodunit wearing the clothes of a demonically-inspired killer, and it is edifying to hear that it has captured the eye of the film industry. You’ll never guess who actually commits the crime or why! It manages to be optimistic, scary, sad, atmospheric and relevant at the same time.
Not exactly Fifty Shades of Grey.