Friday, 27 February 2009


There's a certain resonance to Something In The Shadows now, in the light of first the HBO series Mad Men and then the Hollywood copycat Revolutionary Road, both of which try to address the restrictive boundaries of 1950s American society. The novel is arguably the best of Vin Packer's psychological thrillers, in which a small killing, of a cat, grows into a murder, but the real suspense in the story is the watching of Joseph Meaker's mind crumble. It's reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith, and therein lies part of the tale.

Meaker and his wife live in an old farmhouse, in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, from which Maggie commutes to her New York job in advertising. Advertising was a buzz-word at the time, and as both Mad Men and Revolutionary Road confirm, we still see the era as defined by the take-over of the sell, the slick media presentation triumphing over the reality of life. Joseph is a scholar, in dead-end pursuit of hex-signs on Bucks County barns, but he spends much of his time contemplating his lost college love, Varda, a Hungarian woman whose activist nature contrasted even more than Maggie's with his pseudo-intellectual passivity; the key moment in their relationship came when he fled racist hecklers at a Henry Wallace for President rally in 1948; Varda of course was working for Wallace.

The suspense begins when Joseph starts stalking Lou Hart, a local doctor who's accidentally run over the Meaker's cat, Ishmael, whose name signifies not only Joseph's literary bent, but his loneliness, and a hint of Ahabian madness. It turns to murder when Joseph kills a man who's shot a deer and is bringing it back through his farm. But the story is really about how out of place Joseph is in this rural, heavily masculine society, and just as much out of place in Maggie's slicker, faster city world. It's strongest in delineating the fine points of both societies, both fueled by heavy-drinking; the awkward formality of the dinner parties and weekend guests, the equally awkward camaraderie of the local bars. Packer is at his best when he's letting all of this beat down incessantly on Joseph's resentment, and it's that inner tension that drives his tale.

Except, of course, that he is in fact she. Packer was actually Marijane Meaker, best remembered today for another of her Vin Packer books, the early Gold Medal lesbian classic Spring Fire, but also for being Highsmith's lover. The two lived together in a farmhouse in, yes, rural Bucks County, and when you consider that Joseph's last name is Meaker, it doesn't take Sigmund Freud to read between the lines, and see much of the alienation of the story as metaphor. Not that it matters, because the rest of the alienation is the same sort portrayed by Richard Yates in his novel, and not portrayed very well in the film version; Yates has more power because the masculine weakness is more direct, and he writes with more dramatic tension than the film or Leonardo DiCaprio manage. Meaker's version is, if anything, edgier, and more pathetic, if not sympathetic, as a result. Her prose is typically Gold Medal, not quite as compulsive as some, and with small literary and political touches thrown in, like the Wallace, or an exegesis of Chaucer's 'murder will out', some of which might have seemed odd to the typical Gold Medal thriller reader. But Meaker's fondness for brand-names, while echoing her advertising theme, was ahead of her time. Today they are a trademark of other popular writers like Stephen King, who uses them to give his supernatural stories an anchor in reality, as well as to short-cut to character description, an odd contrast to the many so-called 'dirty realism' practitioners, who use them to signify class distinctions, like props from a horror movie used by the creatures beneath. It works very well at showing just how consumer oriented, how superficially valued, the world Joseph despises actually is, and of course that is the world his wife, and all advertising people, are promulgating.

Read in conjunction with Meaker's memoir, Highsmith, the story of their affair, you can also see how Joseph, despite bearing Meaker's name, is more Highsmith than Meaker, and in a way she might have been writing her way out of the relationship in her head. That Meaker also had a Hungarian lover, her only male romance, while at college, further complicates the biographical rendering. She revisits themes often in her Gold Medal books, but always building them slowly with internal tension; her skill at suspense saw her being compared to Highsmith even before the two became lovers. This novel may not be up to the best of Highsmith, but it's certainly well ahead of the best of Mendes, Winslett and DiCaprio. It was reprinted in 2004, in a volume along with Intimate Victims, by Stark Press, but if you can find the original 1961 Gold Medal edition, there's a lovely cover by Leo and Diane Dillon, which is pictured above. (By the way, the Dillons' cover for Philip Jose Farmer's 1962 Fire And The Night—see my Farmer obit in the previous post—is another classic).

And although the idea resonates, the 1993 Chuck Norris film Something In The Shadows has nothing to do with the Packer book, though the Chuckster as Joseph Meaker would be a performance to behold. And this is probably the first and last time Chuck Norris and Marijane Meaker will ever be mentioned in the same sentence!

Something In The Shadows by Vin Packer, Gold Medal Books 1961, 35 cents


pattinase (abbott) said...

My husband is from New Hope, PA and I worked there in the summer so this is one I am definitely looking for. Thanks.

Cullen Gallagher said...

Wow--this sounds amazing. (Not the Chuck Norris movie.) I loved Vin Packer's story in A HELL OF A WOMAN, and have been wanting to read her novels for some time now. I've managed to get a hold of Alone at Night, Dark Don't Catch Me, and Dark Intruder. Have you read these - any suggestions on which one to start with?


Michael Carlson said...

No I havent, but Dark Intruder came heavily recommended, if I remember right, by Ed Gorman. I would recommend reading Spring Fire, however, and if you can find a novel called The Hare In March, read it after Spring Fire, as it's also set in college, but during the 60s, and it's instructive to see how many of the themes of Spring Fire repeat themselves....The Highsmith memoir is also worth a read...

Todd Mason said...

As someone who just had a ball contrasting SPRING FIRE and THE PRICE OF SALT the other week for Friday's Forgotten, I'm ashamed to admit I missed this review when you posted it...but Ed Gorman has relinked to it in the last couple of days, and I join him in hoping you rejoin the FFB ranks if you ever want to.