Thursday, February 12, 2009

With Darkness as an Ally (Part 4)

Eight, sir; seven, sir;
Six, sir; five, sir;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two, sir; one!
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension
And dissension have begun.

I doubt many people will have heard of Ben Reich, antihero of Alfred Bester's Hugo Award-winning novel (the first to receive the distinction, in fact) The Demolished Man. And I have to admit that it could be argued that Reich is not an antihero but more a villain, with Linc Powell in the role of the true hero of the novel. It's a matter of perspective. In my mind, Reich is the Demolished Man, and so is the protagonist, and so an antihero.

Reich is quite simply a murderer. Ruthless and charming, brilliant and terrified of only one thing in the whole universe. Every night he is haunted by a nightmare - the Man With No Face. If this were a movie, dear departed Don LaFontaine sets the stage in the classic opening: "In a world where..."

In this marvelous work of science-fiction, this is a world where telepaths exist, and there has not been a successful premeditated murder in nearly 80 years. The telepaths - Espers - have made it impossible, but Ben Reich's back is against the wall, and someone is going to die. For ten years he has been locked in a financial battle with Craye D'Courtney, and Reich and his company are coming out the losers.

Reich is brash and bold, enlisting the help of the prominent Esper Augustus Tate; offering him power within the ruling Guild of Espers which controls the interests of the telepathic populace. With Tate's help he can fool the "peepers" that could foil his murderous plan to kill D'Courtney in the hopes of saving his financial empire. With Tate's help he can circumvent the investigation of the crime, led by Lincoln Powell. But Tate can do nothing against D'Courtney's daughter, who witnessed the murder and escaped before Reich could kill her as well.

The novel becomes a race to track down the young woman, for Powell knows full well that Reich is guilty, but the evidence against him must be rock-solid in order to convict. This is one of my favorite novels, because there are so many marvelous moments that it is a pure delight to read. For instance, when Reich rockets off to Spaceland to kill his chief of codes, who could also hold the key to Reich's Demolition, they are hidden in five hundred square miles of wilderness. He fashions a bow and arrow and we are treated to a sublime look into Reich's mind. "You can't kill a man in a hunting accident unless you go hunting."

You could almost like Ben Reich, you could almost understand his desperation, if it weren't possible to flip pages backwards to check certain facts that he overlooks, facts which become vital to the plot of the story. Suffice to say that his motives are not what he suspects, and the Man With No Face is the real key to Reich's Demolition.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

With Darkness as an Ally (Part 3 of Why Am I Even Bothering To Count Anymore?)

Attend the tale of Sweeny Todd. His skin was pale, his eye was odd. He shaved the faces of gentle men who never thereafter were heard from again. He trod a path that few have trod, did Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Here we have another man who began life as a relatively blameless individual whose only crime was arousing the envy of men who held more power. Once again, he is cast away and returns with a change in identity and a sinister and jaded alteration in attitude. And, of course, clinging to a plot for revenge on those who snatched away his happiness.

I love Sweeny Todd (nee Benjamin Barker) as much as I love the Count (nee Edmond Dantès). Stephen Sondheim's award winning musical about this so-called Demon Barber was the first show I was involved in at college, so it's easy to see that it has a special place in my heart. Todd, like the Count, are both characters which are easy to feel sympathetic towards, but the manner in which the sympathy is aroused gives a nice contrast between the two. For the Count, we are permitted to view firsthand the young man's happiness, and his subsequent torment. Sweeny Todd, however, enters as a fairly mysterious character and we learn of the injustice done against him through exposition (in song) and his continued longing for his old life (through song). And instead of a complex plot gently nudged into fruition, Sweeny Todd's revenge is straightforward, bold, and bloody.

Any simple hero out to right wrongs would never dream of going about it the way that Sweeny Todd does, but our protagonist here is so anguished and cynical that he proclaims (through song) that "... the lives of the wicked should be made brief, but for the rest of us death would be a relief; we all deserve to die..." Thus does the bloodbath begin, but the horror does not stop with simple murder. No, Sweeny Todd's victims are then served to the populace of London baked in meat pies, resulting in the prompt financial success of his neighbor and accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, who owns the pie shop.

So what's the fascination? It's so twisted, really, that I can't help but be drawn to it. The music is lovely, of course (it is Sondheim, after all) and it's such a dark and brooding piece of work, which is always more interesting than lighthearted fluff. Sometimes I like to just think about the reactions of the young fangirls who went to see the recent Tim Burton adaptation just to see Johnny Depp sing at them, without having much of an idea of the plot. Even thinking about it now gives me a bit of a devilish smile, a kind of twisted glee.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

With Darkness as an Ally (Part 2 of... This Many! *holds up hands*)

So when last we met, I vanished to brood for a little while. Brooding commenced, I arbitrarily decided to begin with Antiheroes in Literature. First up:

Edmond Dantès, the Count of Monte Cristo.

I love this character. He starts out in this serial novel by Alexandre Dumas as a friendly, candid young sailor who is poised to see the culmination of his few hopes and dreams at the tender age of 19. At this point, his major weakness is pure naivetee, and is totally incapable of seeing the jealousies of the few others close to him. Send to an island prison for a crime he was certainly not guilty of, Dantès survives there for fourteen years only through the chance meeting with the abbé Faria. And though this surely saves his life, it sets him on the path of vengeance, for the abbé keenly sees that which Dantès did not, and the true injustice is revealed. The years they are together, Faria schools the young man in science, math, and language and on his deathbed reveals the secret of a treasure buried at the island of Monte Cristo which Dantès is poised to inherit if he can only recover it. Faria dies, and Dantès escapes the prison, finds the treasure, and assumes the mantle of the Count of Monte Cristo. From the anonymous translation and abridgment I have of The Count of Monte Cristo, published in 2004 by Barnes and Noble, Inc.:

"... daily would he [Faria] expatiate on the amout, holding forth to Dantès on the good a man could do to his friends in modern times with a fortune of thirteen or fourteen millions. Dantès' face would darken, for the oath of vengeance he had taken would come into his mind, and he was occupied with the thought of how much harm a man could do to his enemies in modern times with a fortune of thirteen or fourteen millions."

I think that passage gives one an appropriate insight into what is to come for those that wronged our protagonist. For in the coming pages the Count seeks to utterly shatter the lives of Messrs. Danglars, de Villefort, and Mondego. He is not bloodthirsty but is still cruel in every blow he deals to these men who have risen so high at the young sailor's expense. There are times it is even difficult to remain sympathetic to Dantès, especially considering his treatment of the woman he once loved more than anything. And yet I love the complexity of the plot that is woven, the deep thought and planning that crumbled mighty men, and the transformation of a man who began wanting nothing more than to marry, care for his father, and captain a trading ship.

In the end, once the chain of events has progressed too far to undo, the Count begins to glide back into a more heroic vein, saving the young lovers and hoping against hope that he may be granted at last some personal happiness.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

With Darkness as an Ally (Part 1 of... Like, a Couple)

There is, it seems, some talk beginning to form on the subject of the antihero, one of my secret favorite subjects. Since deciding to write here about some of my favorite antiheroes (and why I consider them so) I whipped up a quick Google search to try to find out what words of wisdom other members of the online community had to say.

First up (since two of my sources comment on it) is Joshua Alston of Newsweek with the article Too Much of a Bad Thing. It was published this month - for those of you interested in whether or not I've retained my college-grown need to cite my sources. It's easier on an online document, of course. But I'm getting sidetracked.

Alston writes about the apparent deluge of anti-heroic characters appearing in our television programs. Most of the shows he cites I have not actually seen - the only exception is House, which I catch online thanks to Hulu. I cannot disagree with his assertions one way or another regarding the actual characters; he's probably on to something. But one point of contention I have is that he writes as though the antihero in popular culture is somehow a new thing, brought on by:
"...the political climate of the past eight years primed audiences for antihero worship, that in the midst of a war started with faulty intelligence, suspected terrorists sent to black sites and a domestic eavesdropping program..."

Or maybe he's just talking about an apparent recent streak of popular antihero characters that have electrified television. But the Wikipedia page of fictional antiheroes has quite the list going, and I doubt it's even close to exhaustive. And while many of the worthy individuals that show up on this list are quite recent creations, there were some surprises from decades past that made me smile.

Two other bloggers weigh in on Alston's article - Dr J of readmorewritemorethinkmorebemore and anotherpanacea (apologies, I didn't espy an author line). In December of 2007, Dr J first wrote of her favorite antiheroes, much as I intend to do later here, and there was sufficient discussion to warrant a second entry in January of this year. What I appreciate here (and at anotherpanacea) the most is the emphasis and preference these writers place on the satisfying complexity of the antihero character, especially in comparison with the traditional, black-and-white vision of a protagonist. Alston would prefer simple and straitforward characters, asking "... aren't the times we're living in dramatic enough?" He asks for simply dramatic characters who are trying to get by, as many television viewers are. Dr J counters:
"What we love about antiheroes is that they are trying to subsist in the world in just the same way that the rest of us do, which means that they often plunder when they are trying to save, save when they are trying to plunder. They aren't heroes and they aren't villains, because there is no such thing as a hero or a villain in the world that we look rationally upon."
She continues, making the point that I very much agree with - that because these characters are not simple, we are able to identify with them all the more readily. anotherpanacea finds the antihero a thing to delight in, saying that they are "complicated and fun". The complication is what draws us in, and the element of fun, of vicariously partaking in all the badness and moral flexibility of these antiheroes, is what keeps us coming back.

And now, for the fun part. My favorites. Where to start? How to organize? I must brood.