Sunday, June 3, 2007

Old Media Department: Mailer and His Demon

As a genre fiction enthusiast and sometime World War II buff, I couldn’t help but be intrigued to find that yet another highbrow mainstream author has swum through the dark pool of the horror genre. This time, from these deeps, rises an interesting hybrid of historical novel and Gothic tale, this one excavating the childhood of Adolf Hitler. That book is The Castle in the Forest. The author is Norman Mailer.

Before you litterateurs wince, here’s a plain fact: Practically every major literary writer (except maybe Hemingway) has at least one horror tale lurking in their oeuvre. Young Tennessee Williams wrote for Weird Tales. Truman Capote spun several contributions to the genre. No less a novelist than John Updike, in The New Yorker awhile back, picked James Joyce’s The Dead as the finest ghost story ever. (We may disagree, but we won’t argue.) One of my favorite gothic horror novels is Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates: a perennial Pulitzer and Nobel Prize nominee and winner of the National Book Award and the Bram Stoker Award.

If you know Mailer’s work or reputation (I’ve only read The Naked and the Dead, An American Dream, and his very useful book on writing, The Spooky Art) it might be as one of the most ultra-macho of American writers. Mailer has gone to extremes few would dare, often at serious costs to his reputation (Supporting Jack Henry Abbott. Stabbing his wife. Head-butting Gore Vidal. Mailer has never seemed to need a full moon to become a werewolf in his long public career.)

The Castle in the Forest is told by a wandering demon who occupies the body of one Dieter, an S.S. man under the stick of Heinrich Himmler. But the Demon’s true Fuehrer is a certain “Maestro” who may—or may not—be Satan Himself.

Hitler’s roots have always been mysterious, even to Hitler. Fearful that “Jewish blood” might swirl through his veins (likely not, per the best evidence), he orders “Heini” Himmler to investigate. Himmler is passionately curious about the origins of his beloved “Superman” (and is one of the best pointers for the theory that Nazism was primarily a religious movement.)

It so happens that, once upon a time, Little Dolfie was a “client” of the Demon’s who was given this job by the Maestro. It is this Demon who sweeps us back to misty nineteenth century rural Hapsburg Austria and into the brutal humble life of Hitler’s father: one Alois Schicklgruber (and don’t we all wish he’d kept that name!? Say it out loud: “Heil Schicklgruber!” O, for the want of a nail!)

Through his Demon, Mailer points the finger of blame, not at Alois’ parenting skills (which, while often harsh in the manner of his time, appear mostly inconsistent and fumbling), but at his marriage to Anna Ploezl, Adolf’s mother. History has documented this kind, naïve and devout woman as Alois’ blood niece, but, claims the Demon, the couple was actually much much closer than that. He concludes that it was their incest that created the monster who stirs our nightmares still.

This theory of the origins of Hitler's evil is as plausible as others. (The sole source for the myth that it was all Hitler’s Daddy’s Fault is Hitler: like we can believe him!) But once this revelation passes, Mailer’s narrative seems to lose traction, though it’s always interesting and superbly written. It’s full of interesting ruminations: swipes at “popular writers;” a long treatise on apiculture; an eventful side-trip to the chaotic coronation of Tsar Nicholas II; and Satan’s love for all fundamentalists, religious and secular.

I like how Mailer handles the supernatural elements: Demonic power is purely psychic. Demons prefer to worm their way into the troughs dug by dreams where they plant their nefarious notions. (Since he’s a sociopath born of incest, little Dolfie has the richest soil.) Mailer conjures many disturbing and chilling moments. He’s a little less successful with the setting: much of the best horror writing is deeply evocative of place, and landscapes like this—the ground of Grimm’s Fairy Tales—beg for more vivid treatment.

Much of the narrative follows Alois’ and Anna’s hard struggle to make a life together; how the taboo they share remains buried in their subconscious, while shaping their lives as they innocently shelter the child of evil they have borne together. It makes for a story of strong pathos, but its true horror can only be found beyond this tale’s end. Stirring traditional horror into real history is a difficult recipe to pull off, but Mailer comes closer than most.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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