thriller

BLAST FROM THE PAST – PAUSE FOR ARGENTINA

MOUNTAINSIDE OF ME

 

‘You’re dying,’ I said.

‘I don’t feel well,’ said my husband.

‘No, you’re dying. I’ve murdered you.’

‘Phone the hospital,’ he said.

His words were not clear. I am not used to seeing my husband look anxious and confused.

‘I suppose I can do that,’ I said.

I was being sarcastic because me calling for help was part of the plan. Maybe I was being facetious. I am never sure which is which.  I rang 999 on my mobile. I told the operator that we were on the side of a mountain in the Lake District.

‘My God, you’re up early this morning,’ said the operator.

‘My husband has had a heart attack,’ I lied.

The poison had worked as expected. Three cheers for the Amazonian tribe that invented this stuff.

‘We wanted to see the sun rise.’ I lied again.

That was the excuse I had given my husband when I had suggested we make the climb at five in the morning. I wanted him to die and for there to be no one around but me.

‘You poor thing,’ said the operator.

I told her that my husband was comfortable and lying horizontal on dry grass. The view over the two lakes in the valley was lovely and the weather was fine because Paul was very good at picking sunny days for mountain walking but I did not mention that.  I said goodbye to the operator and put the mobile back in my pocket. My husband raised his head a little so that it was clear of the dry grass. He sighed. The poor thing was confused.

‘You killed me?’ he said.

‘I definitely did,’ I said. ‘I need your money.’

‘You have my money.’

‘I want it for me.’

‘I loved you.’

Aw, I thought. I was tempted to say thank you. He could have said nothing. After all, he was dying because I had murdered him.   I stayed silent, though.  His head went back down on the dry grass. Well, that did not last long, I thought. My husband stared at the morning sky.  Maybe he remembered his glory. Paul was handsome and rich and he was intelligent.   He made women go weak, which was why I liked walking in a room with Paul. He had a voice that would have melted more than women, whatever can be melted.  I was envied. I have been envied all the time I was married. The envy makes the money especially worthwhile, so there was no excuse for becoming irritated by Paul. But I did. Paul is clever and witty and, for those who want to listen to his thoughts, really interesting. So many times I have driven to work, thinking why did I not think of that. Paul is the only man I know who can be profound and amusing with Weetabix and cold milk inside his mouth. Not that he can anymore, of course.

I lay on the dry mountain grass and stared at his face. He did not smile. He never smiled again. Indeed, I noticed a tear just before he died. No surprise, people like Paul expect to live forever. He died before the emergency services arrived, which was what I had expected.  I had time to drink the rest of my water and eat my snack.   I then split his food and water in two and put half in my rucksack. I did not want the police to know I had been munching bacon flavoured crisps while my husband was dying. The emergency crew carried his dead body and me away in a helicopter. The pilot and the rescue team were very earnest. What would we do without them, I thought.

Paul looked very ordinary as he was being flown in a helicopter across the mountaintops of the Lake District. Admittedly, Paul was dead by then.

‘Can I phone my mother?’ I said.

‘Of course, you can, love,’ said an earnest voice.

My mother was very upset.

In the hospital, the policeman who spoke to me fancied himself. He looked at me and he liked what he saw. The policeman was especially sympathetic. The hospital was very busy. I had picked a Sunday morning to murder my husband because I knew the hospital would be still labouring from the Saturday night rush. The poison from the Amazon left no trace in the body after death but I believed in being careful.

When we climbed through the clouds that morning, the mood of my husband had been perfect. I bet Paul thought it would be a special day. Well, it was, Paul, in a way. I did not let you down, Paul, not like you did me.  Actually, I am being harsh and unfair. Life with a rich, handsome and extremely intelligent man should be perfect. Unfortunately, it was not. Nothing fabulous is ever an appendage or even equal, and Paul is, or was, fabulous. A bright sun always leaves a shadow and his sun covered me. I became grey and reduced and I am better than that. Not as bright and as beautiful as Paul perhaps but something more than grey. Once in a while a girl likes to be noticed for her own appearance and her witty remarks. I was envied but envy has two sides and the inevitable happened. Before long, I resented being envied because of someone else. I envied Paul and my envy was just as bitter as that of the girls who thought they, and not me, should have married Paul.

I soon realised that I had become invisible. I suspected people were bored with me, that they expected a glamorous girl on his arm every night but not the same one. I know, this sounds like unreasonable self-pity. But what do you expect from a girl now all alone in her luxurious mansion?  It is true that I need my secrets, now especially after murdering Paul, but I do not delude myself. I like to think I have self-understanding. I am aware that I like to be noticed.  I know that I want something more than envy. I need regard and respect. I am not stupid, though. Maybe, without Paul, I will have even less in my life from others, neither envy nor regard. I will take my chance because I have to and because I had to. At least, I will have all his money and I will not be invisible. Not with all this money.  The envy I was obliged to feel began very early and probably appeared before we were married. This is a serious admission. I married someone I did not love. I did not marry him for his money. I married someone because everybody else loved him.  Paul has gone, and it left so many people sad. My mother is inconsolable but easily avoided.

I am pleased about the mansion. It reminds and confirms an essential truth, that killing Paul was sensible and unavoidable. Without children in the marriage the settlement would have meant buttons for me. And Paul would have divorced reluctantly. Paul was not an unfaithful husband. He did not have the time. He had a multimillion chemical company to run and he was serious and curious. The term multimillion that I use is deliberately self-effacing. Now his global company is mine.  Perhaps I should make a special business trip to Brazil and thank the Amazonian tribe. The irony is that we have struggled to find a commercial use for the poison the Indians mixed from plant seeds. The chemicals do not ease pain, even in small doses. The tear that I noticed just before his death may have been a consequence of pain rather than surprise.

If Paul was not unfaithful then neither was I.  My sullen mood and frustration meant that I was too busy thinking about my future to want to be seduced by strangers. And when the best of the gender disappoints, it does make you wary.  That makes me sound like a bitch but I was actually a loving wife. I admired Paul so much and told him so. I understood why so many women wanted to have him in the sack.  But sex with Paul was like eating chocolate. You see a box screaming luxury and think the pleasure will be fabulous. And the bigger the box and the more expensive the chocolates the more fabulous will be the pleasure. But the truth is that after a couple of chocolates you have this sticky taste on your lips and a heavy taste in your mouth. Understanding the limits of your appetites can be chilling, especially if you are a girl who thinks appetites and aspiration are important. The tragedy is that Paul was a patient lover. In sex, like everything else, he was definitely better than the rest.  He also impressed me because he had integrity. I believe it was a reaction to how his father had expanded the business. Paul set himself high standards. But integrity is not sexy or it is not for me. I need some dirt, a moral flaw that I can pick at like a scab.  His only weakness, his naivety, was that he assumed perfection or something close to it would be its own reward.

Well, poor Paul.

Oddly, the sex improved after I decided to murder him. The word improve is inadequate. I did not become more attracted to Paul but sex with him became exciting, sex with someone you know you will murder is more than exciting, really. It became intense and wicked. I could not keep my hands off him and I began to physically react in ways that I found embarrassing. Paul would just smile self-effacingly and assume, as I tore his clothes off his body, that he was so lucky to have a wife that found him so attractive. But I did not. I just liked having sex with a man that I knew I was planning to murder. I suppose the body of a potential victim acquires a different identity. Something definitely weird happened to mine. Maybe I thought that I was raping Paul without him knowing. Oh, that is a bit twisted.  I miss the sex I had with Paul at the end of our marriage.

Since Paul, of course, there have been other men.   I have acquired experience, money, status and power. Obtaining men is easy. I am also more adept. I understand attraction and can identify men who will excite me, men who do not cast a shadow and who have moral scabs I can scratch and pick. I am planning to marry again. Bruno works in my company and is handsome but he is not the physical or intellectual equal of Paul. If Bruno excites me more than Paul could, he does not excite me in the way I was excited with Paul after I had decided to murder him. I resisted at first because Bruno will be my next husband but now I fantasise about his murder. I am obliged. I yearn for the ecstasy that I savoured with the man I murdered but can no longer experience. There is consolation. My fantasies do have a positive effect on my sex life. I have found a new husband-to-be and, I suppose, compared to some women, I am satisfied in the traditional sense.  But a fantasy is no substitute, of course, for genuine ecstasy, and its memory nags at you like a devil that you cannot see. Yearning is like being haunted. I think of Bruno and wonder what will happen next.

As Howard Jackson is touring Argentina at the moment, this story has been borrowed from his collection NIGHTMARES AHEAD.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

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Fearflix 4

I Saw The Devil

South Korea 2010

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‘Let us be honest. The only men who can fight are those who do it for a living or those who build their lives around fighting.’

This quote comes not from the film but an Anfield Index football podcast. Nobody on the podcast disagreed with the football pundit. The other football fans understood. The violent consist of assassins, psychopaths and voyeurs. Not all assassins kill, boxers for example, and psychopaths can be charming. The rest of us like to watch and have been doing so for the last five thousand years. Indeed, our first response to violence in art is not to flinch at the pain but to determine the good guys so we can roar at the physical damage.

I Saw The Devil is a gore revenge movie. It satisfies those that like to roar but also challenges and queries the instinct. The assassin, Kim Soo-hyeon, is a low key James Bond. He is handsome and looks great in suits, which he appears to have bought just that day. He has a gorgeous girl friend that he loves. She is killed early, so characterisation is minimal but the fake sheepskin steering wheel cover helps. Soo-hyeon also drives fast cars and he can fight. He does not have as many gadgets as James Bond but the one he does have is a cracker. Jang Kyung-chai, the psychopath, drives a bus for the local girls academy. Inevitably, his employment does not last, less than full marks to his employment advisor. Kyung-chai is old, overweight, does not wear smart clothes and the friends he does have are cannibals. When he feels like sex, he rapes someone. Despite the differences the two men become involved in a violent battle of wills and mutual revenge. Obliged to escalate the violence they have more in common than they realise, and it does not require too much imagination to view their conflict as a metaphor for the destructive and endless wars that exist in the world today.

Many of those that watch I Saw The Devil will enjoy the gore. Director Kim Jee-woon has made several horror films, so it is difficult to imagine that his intention was to make an essay on the perils of violence and our hypocrisy as voyeurs. Yet anyone who watches I Saw The Devil and enjoys the next James Bond film with the same easy conscience has missed the point.

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For a gruesome exploration into the nature and perils of violence I Saw The Devil is a good place to start. Violence fulfils our need for conquest, satisfies the desire to inflict pain and fear on enemies and ameliorates our own pain and fear. If that is not enough, it feeds popcorn fantasies. Watch I Saw The Devil and it is not difficult to believe that heaven and hell in the afterlife are only there because we need a violent metaphysical fantasy to satisfy eternal grievance.

Some have described I Saw The Devil as a poetical masterpiece. I am not convinced. The film is well made, makes the viewer think and there are fine moments. The opening of the film echoes the car that drives along Mulholland Drive in the David Lynch masterpiece but the director lacks the nerve and confidence of Lynch and does not linger. It still impresses. Snow falls outside the car while the faint Korean characters of the titles, like the snow, fade and settle into the celluloid images. The opening murder that soon follows has slick fast editing and an emphasis on the female victim that will remind viewers of Psycho. The final violent confrontation in the film, though, is nowhere near as profound as it pretends. Although it is gruesome and excessive, it is a good ironical twist in a thriller but no more than that. The emotional fall out on the hero that follows is empty and predictable and undermines the doppelganger theme of the film. But these final moments do contrast well with James Bond. He cuddles a female fantasy after he has murdered half the cast.

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The limitations of I Saw The Devil do not mean that it is not an exceptional product from people who have talent and imagination.   The film provides a strong sense of how violence can be used by disgruntled men to recast themselves as heroes and redefine the world around them. Violence, though, is painful, and it often inspires a reaction and escalation and more pain. People lose their tempers. In the mayhem, bystanders are affected. Both the avenging assassin and the psychopath in I Saw The Devil are responsible for the loss of innocent life. We have been here before many times, most memorably in Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky.

The 1949 British film Obsession also features two men in conflict. A methodical doctor has an attractive and impeccably mannered wife. Part of the charm of the movie is that it reminds us of when the British were well mannered and they understood the subtleties of their language. The methodical doctor kidnaps the lover of his wife and keeps him prisoner for four months. He intends to kill him after an alibi has been established. The wronged husband does not hate the lover, nor does he seek revenge. The doctor is intent on murder because he wants to alter the rules of his marriage. Like the psychopath in I Saw The Devil he has a need to redefine the world around him.   There is understandable tension between the two men but throughout the four months of the imprisonment they remain cordial. The doctor has impeccable manners, like his wife, and the American values his own sense of humour. The violence in Obsession is minimal. It consists of a bullet shot meant as a warning and a failed punch. The film, though, has dark subversive themes. The police detective likes and admires the doctor, and the audience is relieved at the end of the film when the doctor escapes the death penalty. He made mistakes but deserves forgiveness.

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The restraint in Obsession does not mean that the film has more subtlety than I Saw The Devil. Through their conversation the doctor and detective ask the cinema audience to think about violence and the violent in a different way. Those who watch I Saw The Devil are not guided by the dialogue.   The assassin is taciturn, and the psychopath is foul mouthed. Everyone in I Saw The Devil is inarticulate and no help. The viewer has to make his own conclusions about violence, why it exists, attracts and appals.

The doppelganger theme is apparent but the headline ‘I saw the devil and I was looking at me’ is unsatisfactory. The film offers far more than that. In I Saw The Devil it is obvious that rape is the consequence of the male gaze. This is how violent men redefine the world with which they struggle to connect. The psychopath is terrifying, and, although the prospect of additional violence is worrying, we are eager to witness the psychopath being destroyed. Recriminatory violence does not merely satisfy blood lust, it promises relief. As the film argues and international conflicts make obvious, this is an illusion. Violence not only causes physical pain and wrecks lives, the disease is infectious. The avenger and his supporters, that is the cinema audience, are not the same as the psychopath but they will become violent.

I Saw The Devil is helped by a stunning and energetic performance from Chi Min-sik as the psychopath. Min-sik will never be forgotten for his role in the hard-hitting Oldboy. Lee Byung-hun who plays the assassin is also a dancer and model. The assassin may have loved his murdered fiancée but trapped in his pristine perfection he lacks empathy. His colleague steals the gadget that will help the assassin but the hints at recompense for his efforts are not recognised by the remote hero.

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The film succeeds because it is well made and we are engaged by various mysteries. These are who will win, what will these crazed individuals do next and what will the screenwriter and director dare to put into their film. One of the best scenes in the film has the least violence; by the standards of the film a severed head is inconsequential. The numbers involved in the search for a missing victim gives a stylistic edge to the scene but the expanded scale also emphasises the disproportionate impact of violence on normal lives. Violence grabs the attention and affects communities. This is the appeal for the narcissistic adolescent slayers that haunt American schools. The black humour adds little to the film but it mitigates the weakness of the actors in secondary roles. One scene echoes John Le Carré. Paid enforcers can be powerless members of a bureaucracy. To help us understand this Le Carré had his low level spies live in tower blocks on council estates. The trick is repeated in I Saw The Devil when the harassed policeman returns to his flat and meets his rebellious daughter. The ease with which the psychopath persuades a woman to accept a lift also reminds us of the willing victims in The Boston Strangler.

In a film of exceptional violence ambiguity can be a moral weakness but an artistic strength. The meaning of the boxing gloves hanging on the washing line may be personal, social or philosophical or a mix of all three but, whatever the significance, like much in the film it remains in the brain.

 

Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.

If you want to read more about his travels click here.