An American Feast: Giving Thanks for Killer Hilbillies

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An American Feast: Giving Thanks for Hillbilly Killers
The Agony Column for November 25, 2003
Commentary by Rick Kleffel

Do not place mouse over image.
Sure, we're bloodthirsty in all senses of the word, but at least we're not wasteful. That's what you'd conclude if you were to stumble across the intersection of art, trash and big business entombed in some of our best, our most powerful, our most popular and our trashiest pieces of fiction, filmed fiction and film. For me, it was a total accident. But once I'd twigged to the notion that America Loves Its Hillbilly Killers, I felt like someone who'd never considered conspiracies until introduced to the world of the JFK assassination. Suddenly, everything was evidence. Omens were in the air. Everyone is a killer.

I'm forced to admit that I didn't experience this illumination while reading Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man is Hard to Find'. Nor did I manage to see the obvious while enjoying Charles Willeford's 'Deliver Me From Dallas'. William Gay's 'The Paperhanger' from his collection 'i hate to see that evening sun go down' is a perfect piece of the puzzle, a notch at the highest of the high end of contemporary literature, but I enjoyed it alone. Years ago, reading James Dickey's lyrical 'Deliverance' and seeing the grueling film adaptation, I never saw the similarities.

No, not me. I made the connection a couple of weeks ago while watching, for the first time, 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'.

The most horrible of movies.
Given my bent towards the extremes of every damn thing, the fact that I hadn't seen that august work until almost 20 years after it had been released requires a bit of explanation. It goes like this. Unlike every other heavy-breathing adolescent boy of 1974, I had a distinct dislike of horror. I thought it was by and large stupid, and that 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre', being at the time the largest and most horrible of movies, was sure to be larger and stupider than most. I totally ignored its existence and managed to miss out on it during my first understanding of the joys of horror fiction in the 1980's. Back then, it was still in the stupid movies camp, as opposed to the smart written horror of Clive Barker's 'Books of Blood' and Ramsey Campbell's 'Scared Stiff'. So it got ignored.

But the horror bloom faded. My interests shifted back towards literature, science fiction, fantasy and eventually any damn book that seemed interesting. 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' began to seem like it might be more interesting than I had first given it credit for. Once the shock value had worn off, it began to acquire an aura of class. But still I gave it a pass.

It wasn't until the recent re-make was released that I finally managed to get past my stockpile excuses to actually screen the movie. To a certain extent, I'm glad I waited until the movie seemed calmed and I was calmer. Though it's still sold as a movie of extremes, by comparison to the tone and subject of today's network television, 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' is rather mild. But Hooper's vision shines with an intensity backlit by Flannery O'Connor and Charles Willeford, presaged by James Dickey and presaging William Gay. It's an all-American mishmash, a casserole of ideas. To err is human -- to kill divine. Kill or be killed. Eat what you kill. Get off the grid and you're toast. There's a big chunk of America where free-range humans demonstrate their predatory skills. You are what you eat. American, through and through.

Alas, I did not buy the hardcover version.
My first authentic experience with hillbilly killers was when I read James Dickey's 'Deliverance'. First published in 1970, Dickey's novel is a quintessential example of the All-American Feast. Four aging suburban men decide to head to the hills to enjoy for the last time a bit of untouched wilderness about to be plunged under damned waters. Much of the novel details their everyday interior lives as suburbanites, getting the paper, washing the dishes, the droll drone of unsung Americana. Once they leave the safety of boredom, however, they manage to work their way into one of the many parts of what you might call American uncivilization. We like to think of America as a vast network of suburbs and cities, with small, forested parks patrolled by kind rangers in between. But as it happens much of America is either uninhabited or only lightly inhabited. Once you get outside the range of American civilization, you find yourself in what is portrayed as American uncivilization. The inhabitants of uncivilized America look a lot like you and me, but they don't obey the same rules that you and I do. They don't go to school as children, they don't wear clothes they bought in suburban malls, they don't drive a car to work every day, return home and kiss the wife on the cheek. They don't unwrap slabs of anonymous flesh and cook them in pristine kitchens. They kill live animals, gut them, skin them and cook the flesh. You might be that animal.

Poet James Dickey envisioned an American terror.
Once Dickey's suburbanites have cut the cord from their cocooning suburb, they're fair game for any appetite. Written as the seam of America's highly suppressed sexuality was coming undone, the appetite that Dickey's monsters chose to satisfy was sexual. 'Deliverance's scenes of terror subjected men who thought themselves totally invulnerable to rape at the hands of another. It was an unthinkable horror. Once the rape has occurred, the killings that follow actually seem mild, and are, most horrifyingly, something of a relief. 'Deliverance' mines a vein of terror that is particularly American. Raw nature, be it human or the impassive face of a landscape that will kill you as soon as send you home, is something that most Americans might idolize, but they can't psychologically or physically survive. The person who walks into those expanses of unpopulated, uncivilized America does not emerge. They encounter a psychological -- or physical -- ending.

Dickey tells his tale with gorgeous prose that seduces the reader into feeling safe even as they witness the vulnerability of the characters. He puts Beauty in the service of the Beast before pulling off her mask and revealing that she is not only the slave, but the master as well. Dickey's novel gets under your skin and stays there.

Banjos and icons.
But for many Americans, book-learnin' is no longer the prime method of American storytelling. Movies make the big impression, and the near-perfect translation of Dickey's novel into an American film by Irishman John Boorman -- from a screenplay by the author -- is an icon of equal or greater stature than the novel from which is was derived. Boorman's film emphasizes the uncivilized America from Dickey's novel. These are men in the wilderness, a wilderness in which other animals may look like men but are in fact forces of nature. Visually, it's a powerfully natural experience. Few movies have hammered the American suburban male with such force. Their very whiteness is threatened by the greens and browns that enfold them. Carefully edited at both the screenplay and film stage, 'Deliverance' is a taut wire that cuts to the core of a peculiarly American terror.

Dickey wasn't the first writer to create an indelible mark with wilderness horror. The first and still the foremost writer to treat this theme is Flannery O'Connor. Her most famous story, 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' was the pioneer, the literary equivalent of those it portrayed. O'Connor's short story is iconic for all the right reasons. Talk about taut? Here's the first damn scary serial killer story hiding in your high-schooler's literature anthology. O'Connor's story is very simple, and once you twig to it, obviously the origin (purposeful or not) of the American hillbilly killers genre. In it, the prototypical suburban family heads off in the car for a three-day vacation. Mom, Dad, the kids and Gramma get in the car and head out on the highways. Before they go, Gramma's telling tales of The Misfit, an escaped killer who is headed for their destination, Florida. Once they're on the road, they stop at RED SAMMY'S BARBECUE. THE FAT BOY WITH THE HAPPY LAUGH. O'Connor has the knack to be horrifically ominous without being heavy-handed. As they pass by "Toombsboro", Gramma insists -- simply insists -- that her son, Dad, pull off the road for a little detour to see a house with a secret panel. Those all-American kids start screaming for the secret panel, and the turn is made, off the road and into American uncivilization. Another turn, Gramma's hidden cat escapes causing the car accident. From there, it's all just a roll downhill, everything so easily done, everything so easily surrendered. That helpful man they meet wants to take Dad and Mom over there a bit. While Gramma talks to the Misfit -- for that's who they've found out there in uncivilization -- the kids need to go join their parents. Gramma will join her parents as well, but not before O'Connor's white-hot writing cuts a swathe of terror and humor deep into the reader's soul. We Americans have so much to be thankful for.

Offstage executioner.
O'Connor's story is powerful because she writes with such a light touch. When Gramma's cat causes the crash, the response is not desperation or fright. "'We've had an ACCIDENT!' the children screamed in a frenzy of delight." O'Connor's language reveals the potential inversion lurking in any joy or sorrow. The executions happen offstage, in a manner distinctly unfrenzied. This is a very civilized uncivilization we have here in America. Manner and mores are obeyed, and discourse is polite, even when we're discussing certain death. And ultimately we recognize that we civilized humans have created the uncivilization that waits for us. "'Why, you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!'" Gramma says of The Misfit. It's a revelation of parenthood where joy and horror merge into resignation.

The Dennis McMillan edition of Willeford's novel.
Hillbilly killers make a notable foray into the American suburbs in Charles Willeford's 'Deliver Me From Dallas'. Bill Brown is the all-American cop who made a mistake and has to re-locate from LA, like NOW. In Dallas, he cons a hick out of his suitcase -- stuffed with cash. That hick's brother is the memorable Junior Knowles, just in from hills and playing fast and loose with the kills. Much of the novel is told in Knowles' hickbilly vernacular. For some readers, it may be a bit hard to stomach being in the mind of a rather stupid but very vicious killer. Knowles' advantage in the Texan suburbs is that he has fewer inhibitions, a simpler approach. Kill everything that pisses you off, and kill it slowly if you have the time. Torture is optional but recommended. Your victims may not live to learn the lessons you teach, but you'll satisfy the void that opens up within you every time a new victim dies. Willeford's use of rotating first-person points-of-view puts the reader behind the eyes of someone like The Misfit, and it's not a happy experience. Brown's a lucky guy, in the end, for he was not forced to meet Knowles on his own ground.

William Gay.
Like Willeford, William Gay brings the rotten core into the pristine suburb with disturbing results. His collection 'i hate to see that evening sun go down' contains a number of incarnations of this theme. The multi-prize-winning story 'The Paperhanger' is a story in which the impermeable nature of the paperhanger, someone who lives just outside civilization, enables the cultured and civilized to slip and fall, to impale themselves upon his jagged edges. Turn for a moment and the child will disappear. Your life will follow. Gay writes with the same measured cadences of O'Connor, taps in to the same suburban redneck terror. It's as if there's a black hole in human society.

But the peak of the American feast was 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre', served up in 1974 with a 16 mm camera and a screenplay by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper. It's a plot and a voyage remarkably similar to both 'Deliverance' and 'A Good Man is Hard to Find', without the literary precedents. The movie begins with a declaration that it's based on true events (it isn't) followed by a portentous and almost humorous narration by John Laroquette. Let's get this settled right now. The story of Leatherface and family bears a slight resemblance to the story of American serial killer Ed Gein (also the basis for the movie 'Psycho'). The resemblance to Ed Gein is that Gein, like Leatherface, skinned his victims and wore their skin. Chainsaws? No. Grampa? No. Five teenagers in a van? No. So, "based on true events"? No. This was a cinematic come-on, aped by the Coen brothers with their movie 'Fargo', also "based on true events". But both harken back to the truth underlying all these American feasts; we'll believe that people off the grid will do just about anything.

The movie begins with static, news reports and washes of atonal synthesizer, snapshots of decaying corpses. Then, we're shown a full, exhumed corpse; someone is robbing the graves in a small Texas town. We're introduced to the five teenagers in a van; Sally and Franklin Hardesty, Jerry, Kirk and Pam. It doesn't take long to realize that these oh-so-civilized teenagers are potentially the most annoying and awful pampered pieces of humanity ever to litter the landscape. After a stop at the graveyard where an unhinged hick causes unease, we're on the road again. The viewers are being dragged away from civilization; only the fragile shell of the van protects those within.

Tobe Hooper (left) in 1974 filming the barbecue scene.
Heading past a slaughterhouse, the teenagers pick up a hitchhiker who mutilates himself and one of them before being tossed from the van. These are scenes fraught with tension and terror, raw, with only the synthetic drones and awful hillbilly music to counterpoint them. Inch by inch Hooper and Henkel are taking the viewers out of the world they know. How far out they are hits home when a stop at a gas station, which should offer some relief, offers instead only....barbecue. And, yes the teenagers enjoy their feast.

Here in America, we can make just about any damn kind of movie we want to, no matter how heartless, no matter how horrific and unredeeming. The very existence of the movie soon becomes a source of fear. Franklin and Sally propose the group takes a detour, in the same wheedling tones as Gramma in O'Connor's journey. This leads the teens to another nearby house, drowned in the drone of a gas generator. These people are off the grid. Surrounded by a farrago of grass, weeds and wrecks, they are the rotten core of the American family.

Hooper piles on the shock and shows scenes of torture without gore. While O'Connor manufactured her terror without showing the murders, Hooper wants us to see what precisely is in all the meat we eat. He wants us to understand how it is made and what happens when you take just a little bit of America and drop it off in the middle of the American wilderness. His family feast is as pathetic as it is horrific. He also wants you to feel the same self-repulsion his survivor feels. In order to get out alive, you have to descend to their level. Otherwise, you're just the Gramma, recognizing your children, but not outliving them. They'll consume you. America is a nation of consumers.

How much of this Hooper -- and Dickey, and O'Connor and Gay and Willeford -- had in their heads before they created, and how much is an artifact of 20/20 hindsight is something that may never be determined. Readers today live in a world that was to the writers and creators of these works merely a dull piece of science fiction. We of the future can only look with horror upon the past. Our actions, of necessity, will take place in our present and our future. Almost by definition, we'll never fill the vast landscape of America. There will always be a place for the American Feast. Come up and join us. Give thanks -- you are being served. You're the main dish.