The following posts include (1) "footnotes" for The Doris Piserchia Website (link at left), (2) texts-in-process that will eventually appear there, (3) texts from other websites, and (we hope) (4) stimulating discussion threads. The picture to the left is the back cover of The Spinner (book club edition), depicting a citizen of Eastland "hanging out" while Ekler the cop and Rune the idiot-superman look on.
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[Chapter outline of Blood County, continued from comments to the previous post. (Postscript: all this material is now consolidated and on its own page.)]
Ch. 33. Little Charlie acquires his second adult guardian since becoming a Lamprou: in place of the late Gilda and her "kisses and protecting arms," he gets Jared Brewster and the "promise of drama and mayhem." Jared coaches him in the stalking of elderly villager Senior Ricco: a humiliating attack that begins when the old man is relieving his bowels in the woods. Charlie fails to drain Ricco of blood and retreats to the safety of the river; as the old man is preparing to wade into the water and brain him with a rock, Jared comes up behind Ricco and shoves him into the stream (where he disappears over the falls). Jared then takes Charlie to the mansion to be his "lookout boy."
Ch. 34. Senior's son Junior Ricco comes to Clint's house to file a complaint to be transmitted to "Jared Lamprou," the "new master." (From this scene we infer that the "civilized" Duquieu, when he was alive, gave villagers some means for redress of grievances.) Junior alleges that his father Senior has been turned into a Lamprou, has killed Junior's wife Mary, and has left eight children without a mother. He demands compensation for the transformation and its consequences. Clint says he doubts Jared will listen. Junior says he hopes Clint can "settle Jared down" so the town will have a master and crops will continue to grow, but avows that the townspeople will kill Jared and "open up his heart with a wood sword" if he doesn't behave. [Blood has a weird form of democracy: a bloodthirsty leader serves at the sufferance of the people; the townspeople won't administer but will happily kill the administrator. Or is this just bluster?] Another interesting detail: Junior has the "Hopemont yodel," which means "he has TB and will probably end up in the clinic in Hopemont."
[summary of the remaining chapters (35-55) continues in the comments to this post--or read the completed version here.]
In the previous post I analyzed Mr. Justice so much it almost died on the examination table; at some point I'll combine those notes on plot and character with a discussion of the author's style (looking closely at some quoted passages), which I hope will restore some of the mystery and magic to the novel. In the meantime, I'm going to strap another subject onto the gurney: Blood County, 1981, a fine horror novel about which very little has been written.
As those familiar with DP's bibliography know, she wrote that book under the pseudonym "Curt Selby." This paragraph precedes the frontispiece:
Curt Selby was born and raised in a remote valley of West Virginia, and is thoroughly familiar with the life of the isolated mountain folk with whom he is kith and kin. After serving in the armed forces, Selby found work in the East Coast state where he married and makes his home. He has written and sold many novels under other signatures, but this one is drawn from his own youth and experiences.
This passage contains multiple ironies: (1) The reader thinks this is Selby's most personal book--that he finally came out from under the aliases to tell a story based on his own background. One problem: Selby doesn't exist. (2) Piserchia published eleven books under her own name, but wrote the one "drawn on her youth and experiences" under a pseudonym. (3) In this most personal of her books, the isolated mountain folk who are her kith and kin are depicted as a pack of bloodthirsty vampires.
Nevertheless, the book does contain some beautiful and affectionate writing about the world DP left behind, and in discussing the novel, I plan to succumb to the urge to look for autobiography at every turn. What follows is a chapter by chapter summary, a form of note-taking that will eventually be a review.
Chapter 1. Clinton Breen receives a telegram from home announcing that his brother Jared is dead. He's so distracted he steps off a curb and is hit by a car. The gaping, mortal wound on his head barely fazes him; by the time the driver, Portia Clark, tracks him to his apartment a few hours later it's healed. Clinton tells her he's fine and doesn't need her help. Sugarman Phelps, Clinton's alcoholic "surrogate mother and father" arrives at the apartment from Blood County, W. Va. He reiterates that Jared is dead; Clinton says: "I don't see why you have to be so afraid of him."
Chapter 2. A train travels east carrying war casualties. Somewhere around Illinois or Pennsylvania, one of the coffins springs open and a fiend with long fangs and glowing red eyes emerges. As he prepares to bite the soldier guarding the coffins, the soldier recites the Lord's Prayer, and the fiend shows dawning awareness, relaxes his grip, and jumps from the train. (In Chapter 9 we learn this scene is a flashback to Clinton's vampire awakening.)
Chapter 3. From her hiding place under a mansion in Blood County, Gilda Lamprou watches a child, Charlie, playing. She gives him bubblegum in exchange for a few drops of "what keeps him functioning," a routine that's been going on for some time. She fears her husband, Duquieu, will be "harsh" if she "simply snatches the brat and does what she longs to do all at once."
[outline continued in comments--or read the completed version here.]
I've just finished re-reading Mr. Justice, and here's my first draft of a plot synopsis, spoilers and all, and some analysis. In the novel, nothing is as it seems, but everything that seems inexplicable eventually gets explained (more or less). This discussion puts into prosaic, linear order what Piserchia poetically presents inside out, upside down, and sideways, so please read the book rather than just this summary! Just as Memento wouldn't be the same movie if related chronologically, Mr. Justice wouldn't be the same book without its fragmented, time-hopping narrative.
Main Story Arc. The book's two principal antagonists both have a psi power--a genetic fluke--that allows them to shuttle back and forth between the past and the present. They can't change the past, they can only observe it voyeuristically and learn secret information from it. When they timehop they "step out of the world," becoming temporarily invisible both now and then, but there are limits governing how far they move in time and space. They can haul others into the past by physically carrying them, one person at a time.
One of the time-travelers, Golden Macklin, teaches psychology at SPAC, a government-run school for the extraordinarily gifted. We don't know much about him, except that he's shaggy-haired, an award-winning photographer, grew up in the slums of New York, and owns a "vacation place" in the West Virginia hills that's "been in [his] wife's family for years" (and that's all we learn about his wife). He uses his power to witness crimes he knows or suspects took place. He can't stop them but he can avenge them, in one of two ways: by snapping photographs of the crime-in-progress, which he delivers to the police along with the bound-and-gagged perpetrator (apprehended in the present), or by killing the perp himself, also in the present. He does this dozens, perhaps hundreds of times, calling himself "Mr. Justice." The police have no idea how he gets his information on unsolved (or unknown) crimes, but they brand him a psychopath and declare him Public Enemy Number One.
The other time-hopper, Arthur Bingle, we know even less about. As a child, he saw a couple of animals brutally run over, which scarred him; each time he went into a coma, evidently triggering the onset of his powers. Just what turns him to the Dark Side isn't clear; perhaps his inability to reverse these childhood traumas. He builds a mafia-like criminal empire with his powers, the mechanics of which are left mostly to the reader's imagination: one example--an extortion scheme where judges' genitals are removed, iced down, and held for ransom in exchange for case dismissals--goes a long way. Bingle knows about Mr. Justice's activities but not his identity; he believes, because he has the same power, that he'll always be able to outsmart him.
The feminist critic Jane Donawerth would probably call Mr. Justice a story of males fighting for territory (as she did with The Spinner), and so it is. The Bible also meets this description, and the struggles of Justice and Bingle behind the scenes of ordinary human affairs strongly suggest the epic battles of Yahweh and the Fallen One. All human institutions--police, courts, schools--are hollow shells to be used or manipulated by these two. The cops think Justice is a menace, but Bingle is much worse; while they search desperately for the former, the latter gradually takes over the police force and government from within. He allows his agents to run amok and crime is rampant in the streets.
Through most of the book it appears that Bingle has the upper hand; that his activities are so pervasive and corrupting that he's made Justice (and justice) irrelevant. In the novel's big surprise, we learn that Justice has placed a mole in the evildoers' organization: his own daughter, Pala. Working as a bookkeeper for Bingle's number two man, Eric Fortney, she delivers names and addresses for the syndicate's various criminal operations--dope, vice, gambling--which Justice then systematically eliminates.
Bingle also has a daughter, Leona, whom he keeps sheltered. She too has time-traveling powers; unlike Bingle, she can move into the future as well as the past. Unfortunately her talent is erratic, and Bingle believes that her offspring, his grandchild, will be a fully-developed time traveler. He secretly grooms Fortney as her mate, and arranges to have her boyfriend, Cass, killed.
At the climax of the book, Bingle learns Justice's whereabouts--Macklin's West Virginia retreat--and dispatches an army of thugs to Take Him Out. The triumphant battle between Justice's small band of vigilante recruits and Bingle's goons takes place "offscreen"; in the book's final scene, Justice and Bingle meet and fight, in a weird cat-and-mouse game of microsecond feints between past and present. In a feat of amusing authorial invention (bordering on James Bond cliche), Bingle nails Justice to a tree with a speargun, which prevents him from moving in space-time. Bingle then drags Justice's wounded body into a circle of flame, and commands the injured time-traveler to dig his own grave. Suddenly...
Leona, blinking backwards and forwards in time and enraged at the murder of her lover Cass, swoops down out of the sky and grabs Bingle. Her skirt catches fire, and the two figures blink out of the present in a giant fireball. There is no denouement.
Secondary Story Arc. Justice and Bingle are actually the novel's Ahab and Moby Dick; a sizeable chunk of the narrative centers around its Ishmael, an abnormally intelligent young man named Daniel Jordan, whom the government recruits at the tender age of twelve to be a kind of super-detective, with the sole mission of catching Justice. At the beginning of the novel, Daniel attends SPAC, the government school for the gifted, where his mentor, unguessed by him, is the very person he's seeking. Macklin takes Daniel on a fishing trip to the West Virginia property, where they silently bond, but gives no hint of his identity. Daniel spends years tracking Justice, first by analyzing the crime photographs and later with the aid of a supercomputer, during which time Bingle's power grows and it becomes more and more obvious to everyone but Daniel that Justice is not the worst predator in the jungle.
Daniel refuses to abandon his obsession, and along the way acquires another: finding Pala, whom he meets and falls in love with at SPAC, and never guesses is Macklin's daughter. She disappears at age 12, when Macklin removes her from the school and plants her in Bingle's organization, but Daniel's government handlers tell him the ridiculous story that she's been sold into white slavery. There's a wonderful scene where he's working with the computer, in the empty, glassed-in lobby of the Microcom building, and sees Pala trying the door, dressed in the expensive clothes of a gangster's kept (but still chaste) woman; he chases her down the street but doesn't find her.
Eventually they reconnect, and make love. For the second time Pala asks Daniel if he will abandon his obsession with finding Justice and be with her; for the second time he refuses. At no time does he suspect that she's Justice's daughter. After a few more months of searching, he finally puts it together, and places a notice in the paper announcing to his handlers that he's abandoning the chase. The next time he sees Pala she has a baby carriage; it's her child with him. Exit Daniel and Pala from the novel.
One of the least-explored relationships in the book is Macklin's with his daughter. Throughout, it seems he's controlling her and she's not entirely happy about it. They have no dialogue: the two times he takes her away, from the school and from Bingle's man Eric Fortney, minor characters describe her as sad, or resistant. The book never explains why Macklin put her in a Swiss orphanage as a baby, and where (and who) her mother is. Given the novel's penchant for parallels, it is likely that he is grooming, or testing, Daniel as a potential mate for Pala, just as Bingle is preparing Fortney for Leona. Pala is described at one point as a "botched-up mutant sired by old man Justice," and it's likely that Justice hopes her offspring will be a complete time traveler, just as Bingle hopes Leona's child will be. There's a rather unhealthy, manipulative aspect to these dynastic aspirations; perhaps Macklin and Bingle aren't so different in this regard.
Big Themes. Piserchia deals somewhat perfunctorily with the morality of Justice's revenge program, in an exceedingly odd kangaroo court scene prior to the shoot-out with Bingle's mob. The purpose of this show trial, held outdoors at Macklin's retreat, is not to convict Justice but to acquit him. Justice allows three men through the barricades to his property: Brant, whose business has been taken over by Bingle; Bailey, one of the three G-men who've been running Daniel; and a reformed alcoholic named Tidy Crawford, who has the (latent psi?) ability to sense a person's "persuasive force." Beckoning to a circle of chairs surrounded on all sides by his triggermen, Justice orders the three men to sit and make the case for or against him. Brant is "excused" because he believes the jury isn't an adequate court-at-law. Bailey pulls a gun on Justice and makes a rather pathetic argument against vigilantism. Then Tidy pulls a gun on Bailey and declares that Bailey "isn't the person" to judge Justice. Macklin ends the charade by announcing that "maybe" the whole world will judge him some day, but right now "the hills are crawling with the enemy" and it's time to "get ready for war."
It's obvious from this scene that the author favors Justice's brand of justice, and won't be bothered to put him in jeopardy or ask him hard questions. Elsewhere in the novel, she suggests he's a new breed of human whose high intelligence and tele-temporo-kinetic powers have evolved naturally. A peripheral character named John Ridley, a victim of failed genetic tinkering (he has brains but no will), makes the following speech:
A hundred years ago they lynched people who took the law into their own hands. [Actually, isn't lynching taking the law into your own hands?] Did you ever wonder if maybe we're not just living a hundred years ahead of the past, that we may be entering a totally different existence?Unfortunately that "different existence" seems to have more in common with the Manichaean medievalism of Stephen King's post-apocalytic world in The Stand than what we think of as evolved, enlightened democracy. Justice says it himself: as long as he exists "utopia hasn't arrived." (p. 164) In this world we don't have the luxury of judging Justice (God) because Bingle (Satan) has the same super-powers. One thing Piserchia does extremely well is give us an unflinching look at the dark side. Her descriptions of child-r4pe, the inhuman mechanics of a "nod parlor" (dope den), and the post-coital death embrace of Bingle's henchpeople Godiva and Teuton (those names!), are hair-raising. Like a couple of other writers brought up in the Mormon faith, Neil LaBute and Orson Scott Card, both of whom are practicing rather than lapsed, Piserchia can Do Evil really well (there's a religious studies thesis in there somewhere). Yet even though she suggests that Mr. Justice is "thumbing his nose at God," (p. 129), he certainly has God-like powers (omniscience, omnipresence...) and is clearly the world's only hope. That little axiom about absolute power never seems to apply to him; the worst thing it does is make him more testy and impatient. He kills hundreds of people in cold blood, but we're encouraged to see him as noble, a philosopher-king.
Feminist Issues. Yet come to think of it, aren't Justice's methods those more conventionally associated with a Queen than a King? He certainly favors Livia's tactics over Augustus's (in Robert Graves' account of Imperial Rome, anyway), probing people's private lives and pasts, working through proxies, hatching plots that take years to complete. If this is a story of male rivalry, it's the most passive-aggressive horn locking in the history of macho combat. Both Justice and Bingle hide from public view throughout the story, acting quietly through agents to amass power. When Bingle takes over a company, he leaves the CEO in charge and drains the business from the shadows. As mentioned, Justice's daughter takes the greatest risk, working undercover in a lethal criminal organization--as a teenager. (Talk about living through your kids!) Until that manly spear takes flight, the competition has been one of stealth and "feminine wiles." As in many subsequent novels, Piserchia favors flight over fight as a method of dealing with an enemy. A trait that feminists criticize in women under the Patriarchy--a willingness (or conditioning) to become invisible, to operate behind the scenes--is elevated to a trickster's superpower in Piserchia's oeuvre. Star Rider, Spaceling, and The Dimensioneers all feature heroes who can creatively "step out of the world."
So does this mean Mr. Justice is a feminist book, or subverts masculinist literature? Not really. Piserchia knew her chosen genre catered to male fantasies, and during that time in American history--the early '70s, when the hippie experiment and liberal social programs were perceived to have failed, leading to a boom in street crime--everyone craved tough macho heroes (Dirty Harry, Charles Bronson's Death Wish movies). If anything, the novel isn't feminist enough, in that the only thing it can envision to save the world from chaos, crime, and corruption is another tough-talking lone wolf. Where the tale excels is in the telling. Two decades ahead of The X-Files, Mr Justice's style and mood conjure a twilight world where sinister agencies control everything and the truth has to be pieced together from incomplete, asynchronous hints. Unfortunately, that world of 2033 looks more and more plausible every day.
I recently read People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck, a book which discusses the link between psychology and evil. The author identifies the root of human evil as narcissism and the absolute horror of others finding out one is not perfect, so one has to constantly maintain the lie and in so doing, harm those around them. The ones around them, especially
their dependents, are only so many objects to be used. It's very similar to psychopathy. The 'evil' appear to be normal and can function very well in society, but are unable to really perceive others as being important. Only their wants, their needs, matter. They are their own universe. (And it's a cold, dead one, too.)
While reading, I was reminded strongly of Vennavora from A Billion Days of Earth gasping, "My unconquerable will!" The human "gods" were all narcissists, weren't they...I hadn't really understood why Sheen was trying to "eat" them until now, or why the Earth cast them out. He/the Earth was trying to re-establish contact between them and their world.
Their massive egos, bigger than their big human rears (which DP pokes fun at), were insulating them from actual life. The adamant "I will" excludes all possibility of growth...they were just big infants, demanding without giving. All the envy that the rat-humans had for them should have evaporated right then and there.
My old point of view was: "If Earth's first children, the humans-turned-Gods, couldn't grow up and leave the nest, why is she bothering to raise kids? Kind of selfish if you ask me...and Sheen is Satan?! Wha-?" but I believe I get that segment now.
Notes on Mr. Justice.
1. What's up with the title? The title character is spelled "Mr." throughout the book. DP referred to him as "Mr." in our interview. The "Mister" is cute and quaint and probably more memorable than "Mr.," but it's wrong. Note to future editor: correct title.
2. The book depicts a "wilderness of mirrors" straight out of a Cold War spy story. Two time-traveling supermen (Justice and Bingle) are the rival superpowers. Both have "armies" operating outside the law. Both have daughters they cherish and are covertly grooming sons-in-law. SPAC, the school for gifted "freaks," appears to be run by both sides (or is so infiltrated by both that there's no distinction). It's like The Village in the Prisoner TV series. Who's really in charge?
3. In our interview I said there was no sex in the novels, relative to the short stories. Apologies to Doris. This book has a female sexual predator named Godiva who snaps one victim's neck after having sex with him, and an4lly r4pes another. Also there is a horrible scene of child r4pe. (I have to put in the 4s to keep ghouls off the page.) Daniel's relationship with the barely pubescent Pala, although chaste, would probably raise a few eyebrows with the God Squad.
4. I added a passage to the Excerpts Page: It's where Daniel looks at the seven photographers' work, trying to nail Mr. Justice through the style of photos MJ takes of his "accuseds." This is a great example of Piserchia transcending genre: using a purely subjective, poetic act of art criticism to catch a perp. Later, there's a passage where Daniel talks to a "doll" (supercomputer), trying to reason his way to Justice, that's also very poetic.
5. Throughout the book, characters keep asking, "Is he [MJ] Superman?" Many of the concerns of the story--about vigilantism, morality, power, personal obsession--surfaced ten years later in Alan Moore's brilliant comic book series Watchmen. I wonder if Moore knew this novel?
6. I assume it's Mr. Justice who puts up the red sign, flapping in the breeze between skyscrapers, announcing that he "has a daughter." But if Pala is his daughter, why announce it this late? She's almost 20! Is it because her job as a mole in Bingle's organization is done, and she's safely out of harm's way? Or is because she herself has had a daughter (with Daniel)? Wouldn't that be Justice's granddaughter? Or is the baby "his" daughter because she, not Pala, will inherit his powers?
7. Why does Pala first appear to Eric Fortney naked, stuffed into a trashcan? Does she, like Bingle's daughter Leona, have incomplete or unpredictable powers? Isn't Justice a bit callous to use his 12-year-old this way (working undercover for Fortney)?