Cain's Legacy: Man's Inner Evil, 1950-1959

Posted by on Feb 16, 2012 in Apex Publications Blog: Matters of SF, Fantasy, and Horror | 3 comments

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by B.J. Burrow

The 1950′s: synonymous with the Atomic Bomb, the Cold War and the Space Race.  All of which helped bring about a string of science fiction movies that have become entrenched in the ‘feel’ of the 50′s.  Most of these films deal with evil in the most obvious, cartoony ways, and it is easy to overlook their importance in our search for understanding man’s inner evil.

In 1951, Edgar G. Ulmer filmed The Man From Planet X in 6 days.  Ulmer, a B-movie virtuoso, infused his movie with lots of fog and bad Scottish accents: but damn if it doesn’t work.

Our favorite 50′s characters are here: our fearless narrator is a leather jacket wearing reporter.  The heroine’s father is the lead scientist who is smack dab in the middle of the ‘planet X’ situation.  And I just don’t trust his lab assistant—Dr. Mears.  We better watch that fella, I tell ya.

But the alien?  He’s a different type of xeno altogether.

In fact, my theory is that he’s just a blue-collar worker, sent to earth with a job to do, buddy.  Science isn’t really his bag.  When the army decides they should attack him, our man from planet X starts building a fortress of dirt around his spaceship. 

Yep, dirt.

A fort of dirt.

Which is pretty awesome.

I could go on about this fun, forgotten gem from 1951, but we are interested in plumbing the depths of man’s inner evil here.  Which brings us to the fact that everything would have just been fine if it wasn’t for Dr. Mears—man, I told you to watch that guy!

The alien quickly makes peace with our reporter and his love interest (and really, isn’t that what all female leads in 50′s science fiction films amount too: The Love Interest), but Dr. Mears, in his greed to gain knowledge from a superior society (this is before anyone sees our man from X building a dirt fort), forces technological secrets out of our alien friend and then tries to kill him.

Dr. Mears is a caricature, but his is a character grounded in real 50′s fear.

Dr. Mears is the reflection of a world’s fear—we had unleashed nuclear warfare, technology was advancing with no signs of stopping and without any real answer to the question: should we?

We advanced with blind hope, faith and the shield of ‘if not us, them.’

Which left us sitting around our dinner table with our family, the beginnings of our bomb shelter seen through the back window, and our prayers that men’s inner evil would not unleash a nuclear hell storm.

It’s also easy, when one thinks about the fifties, to think of picket fences, soda fountains, and the helpful sheriff, tipping his hat back, bending over, and offering to help find our lost dog.

Lou Ford is just such a sheriff of just such a town in Jim Thompson’s violent tour de force The Killer Inside Me.

Lou is quick with a smile, but slow with his colloquialisms—just hold up a sec, or maybe a minute, and he’ll tell you that “We don’t have crooks here… anyway, people are people, even when they’re a little misguided.”

And no spoiler alert needed: there’s a killer inside him.

While the parallels between the 50′s ‘Keep Watching the Sky’ films and the Cold War are easy to connect, there’s a parallel here with this novel as well.

For Lou Ford has infiltrated the small town of Central City, Texas, and his endgame is nothing short of total destruction of the town.

If anyone bothered to check out the books lining Lou’s bookcases, they’d find all sorts of psychiatric literature: Krafft-Ebing, Jung, Freud, Bleuler, etc.  Lou knows he has a ‘sickness’ inside him, one that’s lain dormant since he was fourteen, after that unfortunate incident with a little girl.

And he knows the sickness is coming back.

There’s a fine line here: mental illness, or inner evil?  A line bordering on a Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde answer and execution.

Writing in the first person of Lou Ford, Thompson successfully merges Jeckyll and Hyde into one seamless being—Jeckyll and Hyde are one and the same in Lou Ford.

Stanley Kubrick is cited as saying that The Killer Inside Me is “…probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.”

Far be it from me to disagree with Mr. Kubrick.

(Quick Public Service Announcement: Is there a Lou Ford in your town?  Name names on the form provided, please.)

The Haunting of Hill House might seem an odd choice to wind-out our exploration, but Shirley Jackson masterfully tells a haunting tale that buries its inner evil in the trappings of bump-in-the-night.

Dr. John Montague invites several people in touch with the paranormal to Hill House to help explore his research into paranormal activity.  One of the two people who accept his invitation is Eleanor Vance.

When we meet Eleanor, we are quickly told: ‘the only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister.’

Not the usual heroine you’d build your story around.

(And, not to put too fine a point on it, we’re also told that she has no friends, so, uh… Hi, nice to meet ya?)

Poltergeists have supposedly haunted Eleanor her entire life, hence her invite.

Through her, maybe the ghosties will come out and play.

But do not miss the fact that Eleanor is a deeply troubled individual.  Her evil inner has turned inward, onto herself.

Eleanor might just want to put an end to Eleanor.

Eleanor’s inner evil is such that she is constantly under attack: by her own thoughts, by her actions, by her choices.  Whether or not the house is haunted makes little difference (although if she is telekinetic, she is actually, physically launching attacks against herself.)

But if Hill House is haunted, and I like to think it is (just the romantic in me), then the ghosts are picking on Eleanor because of her inner evil.

She is weak because of it, and an easy target.

The Haunting of Hill House might be one of the first books to deal with the question (buried under the Hill House floorboards however deeply): can someone who is mentally ill be held responsible for their inner evil?

Jackson’s novel doesn’t explore this question in any real depth, but Jackson is laying the foundation (on the ground broken by Thompson) for the mapping of the thin line between insanity and man’s inner evil.

It should be no surprise that the 60′s would provide some clearer cartography for us.

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3 Comments

  1. very interesting, BJ, you should consider teaching a class.

  2. I wish i could watch those good old movies again.. Thanks for the memories bo bo

  3. Thank you, Team Burrow! :)

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