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The Killer Inside Us:
Why serial killer novels continue to fascinate

by Justin M. Norton
May 2000

Sheriff Lou Ford first found his way into the American imagination in an unheralded 1952 novel called The Killer Inside Me. Well, things haven't quite been the same on bookshelves since he took up killing.

The lonesome and laconic redneck wasn't just a shitty cop who killed people out of frustration, although he certainly was consumed by more than the routine stress of living. Ford was also a forefather of one of our ugliest yet most enduring literary characters: the serial killer.

If you don't remember the classic Jim Thompson pulp it goes like this: A Texas sheriff who once did something very bad to a 3-year-old (we never know what exactly) gets through life by acting completely sane. Much like real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Ford is considered a role model and asset to the community.

All the while, the body count continues to rise...

Unlike Robert Bloch's Psycho killer Norman Bates, Ford wasn't a secluded threat hiding out in a hotel, benignly waiting for victims to present themselves. He was a palpable evil force on the loose dissolving the fabric of his town.

Thompson Throughout Thompson's tightly-written book, we see Ford lose his grip on sanity, all the while addressing the reader as if he were just changing the oil in his car. The surprise ending is almost too much to stomach -- much like the discovery of rotted bodies and parts of corpses in the crawl space under Gacy's Chicago-area home was a grim ending to the horrific spree of one of America's worst killers

Since The Killer Inside Mewas published in 1952, the exponential rise in serial killers in America has seemed to mirror their canonization in horror and suspense literature. Actually, though, the serial killer became a literary archetype long before killers were accorded superstar status on CNN and Court TV. Television and newspapers have only just caught on in the quest to plumb killers' backgrounds for a nugget of insight into crimes. Authors have done the same things for decades, if not longer.

Intimate Details About Ultimate Pariahs

In the subgenre of serial killer novels, readers have long been able to learn intimate details about ultimate pariahs -- child killers, leather-bar stalkers (see Gerald Walker's Cruising and amoral lust killers like James Ellroy's Martin Plunkett in Killer On the Road (also called Silent Terror). Just as varied as their reasons for killing and maiming is their choice of weapons. Fictional serial slayers have used machetes, guns, pitchforks and bare hands. Much like the slasher films of the 80s, the arsenal seems varied and the firepower endless.

The number of cult and best selling novels based on serial killers has scared the hell out of people who assume violent novels are a sign of the end of civilization. But people don't just come to serial killer novels for a voyeuristic thrill or to be entertained -- although that is often the case. They also come to explore the dark side of their soul so it doesn't consume them. They come to meet characters that tell us more about the netherworld of our souls more than much of classic literature ever could.

They come to the books to learn about the monster in all of us and often leave infused with a stronger sense of morality


Art by Clark:Frozen BloodThe first serial killer novel I read certainly wasn't a classic -- it was a pulp novelization of Friday the 13th Part 3 that my friend's father purchased in the hopes that his son would start reading. Anything with words in the English language would suffice.

By the third movie, the diabolical Jason Vorhees had become more of a caricature than a frightening killer hiding his demonic rage behind a cheap hockey mask -- but the novel brought me closer to something I both feared and longed to understand. I read, enraptured, as my friend played video games -- far more interested than I had been by Forever, Judy Blume's novel of teenage sex angst.

The 1980s were a cultural heyday for American serial killers, and my parents couldn't have been any less pleased. Starting with the Friday the 13th movies and Halloween, America went on a ten-year bloodbath that primarily took place on screen. I was fascinated, and often went over to an friend's house to watch slasher classics such as Slumber Party Massacre, where an escaped mental patient with an affinity for a giant drill dispatches buxom babes and Silent Night Deadly Night. In that notorious film, the killer wears a Santa Claus outfit and upsets conservative families with his clothing selections.

Oddly, seeing fewer of these movies increased my fascination with crime and serial killers in particular. While my friends laughed through each episode of carnage at Camp Crystal Lake I mentally relived and rehashed every scene from the movie in my head -- each perfectly-timed shot from a harpoon gun, each well-placed puncture wound and each night of teenage lust doomed by the blade. The fear was more real and intense because the subject was taboo in my Catholic family. I was forced to look at the scenes with intense fear; they became utterly real. Unlike the kids who were able to pass off the latest slasher flick as an episode in high comedy, I thought that normal people could and did turn into serial killers.

It was a long time before I got to the novels, but I didn't forget how scared I had been.


In 1991, I found James Ellroy's novel Silent Terror, on the back of a mystery shelf in a used bookstore. The novel was plugged as an authentic exploration of the mind of a serial killer.

EllroyI'd already read some Dostoyevsky and was looking for something modern that touched on the timeless search for the root of evil. But I didn't want to read dumbed-down novels meant to provoke readers or scare people who live in remote farming towns.

Ellroy's stark, powerful and uncompromising look at a serial killer was unlike anything I had ever read. The novel was graphic and bleak, yet somehow infused with the author's unique sense of black humor. Ellroy doesn't talk about the book much anymore but I still think it's one of his best early novels.

Martin Plunkett, who seems to love the fact that he is helplessly evil, goes on a murderous rampage that is partially retold by snippets from true-crime magazines.

Ellroy doesn't hold back. We learn every visceral detail of Plunkett's murders. There is nothing Ellroy won't tell you -- and little left to wonder about by the end of the book.

About the same time brat-pack novelist Bret Easton Ellis published American Psycho, which was recently made into a movie. The novel offended practically everyone in America so, of course, I had to buy it.

EllisIt wasn't until after reading Ellis and a few lesser killer novels that I found Thompson. After an introduction to his work with The Grifters, After Dark My Sweet, and Cropper's Cabin, I finally read what many people considered Thompson's best -- The Killer Inside Me.

The novel is, indeed, a standout book. Killer is possibly the most realistic of all serial killer novels; it manages to be horrifying through subtlety and innuendo. What makes the novel seem so real is that Lou Ford doesn't appear to be aware that what he's doing is evil and depraved. He progresses through the book explaining his crimes in the same monotone voice, never hinting at fear or genuine remorse. Ford is a one-of-a-kind character, simultaneously unforgettable and unknowable because so little of any of his real traits are revealed. The novel is an unstoppable page-turner and a true classic.

Insight Into Insanity

On the same level was Shane Stevens' By Reason of Insanity. which explored all of the 80s killer cliches long before slasher movies spawned endless sequels. Thomas Bishop is a lost and tortured soul who kills his mother -- but unlike Martin Plunkett he ends up in a mental institution. When he is released, the killing spree starts in earnest.

While the insight into madness in this novel certainly isn't as good as other genre books, the novel works well in so many other areas. It's almost like the War and Peace of serial killer novels, extremely long, endlessly exploring side angles and characters and meticulously plotted. The main character is also unforgettable: Bishop is unquestionably one of the smartest and most resourceful of fictional serial killers. Stevens is at his best when he shows how Bishop's mind works and how he escapes crime scenes and maintains his anonymity.

Silence of The Lambs by Thomas Harris is, of course, a classic -- but I won't dwell on it because it is well-known. Rex Miller's pulp novels based on the 300-plus pound killer Chaingang are fun reads that actually make readers sympathize with the bad guy -- who loves dogs and morphs into an anti-hero in the fourth book to battle a crazed Naziesque doctor. Poppy Z. Brite's excellent Exquisite Corpse is as much an extended allegory on the AIDS virus as it is a novel on serial killers. I have many more to read.


I'm still scared of serial killers and wonder why more people don't become them, but I still look for books on the subject.

Apparently, I'm not alone. Serial killer novels are coming out non-stop, many of them solid, a lot of them tripe. The walls of most retail book stores feature a solid roster of the books, many featuring the all-too-familiar cover of a large kitchen knife dripping blood and showing a reflection of a half-naked woman.

I still look for books on the subject, but I look for the good ones. The ones with the outlandish covers usually don't make the cut.

And no, reading these books has not turned me into any of he monsters I feared as a child and probably never well, contrary to what the Christian Right and the censors believe.

It has, however, been an education into something that consumes our culture yet is so seldom explored or talked about in depth. Many people will sit in front of the television watching days of a trial like the Yellowstone slaying cases or Andrew Cunanan and then look down at someone on the train reading a crime novel. It doesn't make sense, especially when you consider that there is still a hefty divide between fiction and reality (except on MTV).

If anything, these novels have given me a healthy respect for the evil we are capable of -- and reminded to look over my shoulder and definitely avoid hitchhikers.

RECOMMENDATIONS:

  • The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
    (Read an excerpt from the book.)
  • By Reason Of Insanity by Shane Stevens
  • Slob, Chaingang, Butcher and Savant by Rex Miller
  • The Alienist by Caleb Carr
  • The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
  • Psycho by Robert Bloch
  • American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  • Cruising by Gerald Walker
  • Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite

  • Art (top left) "Hitch-hiker" by Rick Berry & Jon Foster
    Art (above in text) " Frozen Blood" by Alan M. Clark


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