This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books
Book: Portrait of the Psychopath as a Young Woman
Authors: Edward Lee and Elizabeth Steffen
Type of Book: Fiction, extreme horror
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: I tend to consider books with this level of explicit violence to be odd. Mileage may vary but in my world, discussions of extreme horror end up with the odd books.
Availability: Originally published in 1998, the edition I read was published by Necro Publications in 2003. You can get a copy here:
Comments: This is one of those times when I hate discussing books. I feel full of angst because I adore Edward Lee. Even when he’s off his game a bit, I still think he is one of the most unsung horror writers out there (Jack Ketchum and Christopher Fowler are in that same category – my heart never sinks as much as it does when I mention Lee, Ketchum or Fowler and people have no idea who I am talking about). I just like him.
But this book sucks. It is bad. Bad as in there is so little redeemable about it that all I want to do is downshift into snark mode but feel conflicted because I really like Edward Lee. I sense my inner sauciness will have no choice but to burst forth but before I explain in far too much detail why this book was a grave disappointment, I need to say that I hope Edward Lee never collaborates on a book again. Teratologist, another book for which he was the coauthor, was even worse than this one. Lee is a man who needs to write alone, I think.
On the surface, this book seemed like it was gonna be great. The presence of Ed Lee was part of it but the descriptions also made it seem like it was a winner. A journalist is contacted by a serial killing female in order to tell the killer’s story. The journalist enters a new relationship that challenges her emotionally and before long, the woman, her new lover and the killer are on a collision course, and the journalist and the killer find a horrifying link between themselves. Add a mean cop, lots of violence, and pow, you got yourself a decent enough serial killer book. And to be frank, the killer herself was at times an interesting character, and the violence she wreaks might be, for some extreme horror fans, worth the price of admission.
So… Why does this book stink a’plenty? The reasons are myriad and glaring. First, you will never read a more cliched book outside of a romance novel or a western, or maybe a romance set in the Old West, preferably written by my mom. You’ve got your neurotic heroine who is hot and sexy but at weight lighter than Marilyn Fucking Monroe feels she is obese and ugly. Also she’s wacky and likes to run around naked all the time, as body-loathing headcases are wont to do, amirite? We have a murderous whackjob who is a caricature of every abused female killer, with an endless mental dialogue with her abusive daddy. And despite the fact that she’s a mentally deranged killer, she still somehow manages to dress up, lure, stalk and kill her victims and hold a day job with almost nary a hiccup.
But there’s more, oh so much more. We have the cliche of the hard ass cop bullying his unhappy witness. We have a man who is evidently a poet who is acclaimed enough to have made it into The New Yorker who is capable of writing poetry that would make a teenage goth misery case ashamed at the turgid purpleness of it all. Also, he falls in love with the heroine after a night of sex, because that’s what poets do – they fall in love with weird women involved in murder cases. And in a novel about tracking a serial killer, despite the fact that Elizabeth Steffen is a federal crime analyst, we have characters who use the words psychopath and psychotic interchangeably, descriptions of mental states that read like gibberish and a character who appears to be largely psychotic who is yet still able to write out scholarly analyses of her torture techniques.
Part of me wants to say read this for the nasty parts, that’s clearly why it exists, this book. Read it for all the blood and torture and do your best not to pay attention to the shitty plot, poor characterization and outright insult offered in the details. But I can’t. There is no reason you cannot get a fix for gore without abandoning good prose, tight plot, and believable characters and details. And as I always insist when I pan a book, I don’t want you to take my word for it. Let me support myself with examples from the text.
So let’s get started. Kathleen is an advice columnist who lives alone, and because all women in novels written between 1985 and 2001 were sexually abused, so was Kathleen. She has family money to back her up as she writes her column, is evidently quite curvy and pretty and is ten times more neurotic than I was when I was in college, perpetually drunk and before I discovered the magic of anti-anxiety meds. Anyway, Kathleen has had sex with Platt, the Dogpatch Ted Hughes of this novel, and here’s a glimpse into her mind:
Platt, though not a physical specimen, looked trim and enticing. There’s no way he could ever love a Fattie like me. This impression of herself did not depress her at all, it made her feel proudly objective, not weighing, of course, the hypocrisy. When readers wrote in, fearing rejection due to being overweight, Kathleen reassured them that looks meant nothing in a real relationship. Dump them, she’d advise.
As a woman, reading Kathleen felt like I was trapped in the girl’s room at the junior prom. I can only assume men who read this book endured just for the blood. Yay, another heroine who hates her ass. Yay, Bridget Jones is getting stalked by a killer.
Oh, but you never know, maybe Kathleen really is a lardy troll completely undeserving of human love and should be shunned for her grossness. But luckily we have this information the killer digs up from her car registration after she runs the plates on her car:
Sigh… Look, I know lots of women have negative body image. I’m a fucking American woman, believe me, I know this. But I don’t want to fucking read about a gorgeous woman bitch about being fat in an extreme horror novel. And it’s all the more annoying to read a character moan and groan about how fat her ass is and then find out she’s probably a size six or less.
Kathleen’s pointless body hate permeates the book like the smell of bacon grease in a roadside diner. Driving with her poet boyfriend, she humorously barks at traffic but also continues on with her tiresome internal dialogue.
Kathleen caught herself examining girls who waited at each crosswalk, and she dismally concluded that almost every single one was better-looking than her. Most were trim Washingtonians in traditional summer yuppie garb. Sandals, shorts, loose, pretty blouses. I’m a dinosaur, she thought. Why can’t I look like those girls?
Yeah, this shit wore thin.
Oh, but wait, Kathleen is also dense and petulant. Her boyfriend, the poet, is napping and is speaking in his sleep:
“They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” he mumbled.
Barbara, huh? Kathleen faintly smirked. So he’s dreaming of old girlfriends. She couldn’t very well hold that against him, though it irked her just the same. You could at least be polite enough to dream about me, Maxwell. That or keep your mouth closed when you’re off in slumberland.
For the love of all that is not shitty, is Kathleen not the more tiresome heroine outside of a haughty lady-in-waiting in some bodice ripper? Not only is she not familiar with one of the most iconic lines in movie history but upon hearing it becomes annoyed that her new man of under a week is not murmuring her name in his sleep. Kathleen, to put it plainly, sucks. When the hapless Maxwell Platt emerges from his sleep she confronts him about this seductress Barbara and when he explains that he is not lying, that he had fallen asleep to Night of the Living Dead, even after she believes him she lacks the grace to apologize.
And then we have this unlikely scene that sealed the deal for me as far as the heroine is concerned. Kathleen is in the shower, and finds herself getting turned on as she remembers the conversation she had with Spence, the adversarial officer assigned to the case:
She remembered what Spence had said, about… What word had he used? Parity, she remembered. Similarities between herself and the killer. The whole thing had been a set-up, but why? The killer was abused as a child, you were abused as a child. So what? Does she look like me? she wondered. Does she have a body like me? A face? Kathleen smiled to herself. Does she touch herself in the shower?
Okay, this is… so full of squick I almost quit reading. Some sexual abuse survivors process their abuse in a sexual manner, that is not unrealistic. But this scene ends with Kathleen bursting from the shower and masturbating on a couch, not even bothering to dry off. She is not processing abuse. She is pondering the similarities between herself and a woman who is so deranged she sent her a man’s severed penis in the mail. Instead of wondering how the other woman ended up a violent killer and contemplating the harm the killer has done, she’s musing about her body and her naked behavior in the shower and using it for masturbatory fodder. On no level does this ring true, it makes the heroine of this book look like a fucking idiot and an asshole and it was foul in every implication. Yeah, Kathleen sucks as a character and that’s problematic because as the heroine of this book, I need to want her to succeed and not get killed in the process and it’s hard to root for someone who is this dense, this self-absorbed, this whiny and this bizarre.
In addition to creating a heroine in whom I have little vested, the authors also run into some problems defining their killer. The title of the book implies the killer is a psychopath but the descriptions of the killer are all over the map and at times read like utter nonsense. Here’s information a forensic psychiatrist gives the lead investigator on the case:
“Tell them to go back a year,” Simmons corrected. “This is something more evolved than your typical unsystematized reality break. Take my word for it, Jeffrey.”
Good thing it isn’t a typical unsystematized reality break because if you Google “unsystematized reality break” you’ll find out it evidently doesn’t exist outside this book. So thank heavens they dodged that “typical” bullet. Steffen, who is a crime analyst, presumably knows her stuff but if so, she is using terminology so arcane that a layman cannot run it to ground. A phrase as weird and awkward as “typical unsystematized reality break” should show up in a Google but it doesn’t and that is problematic. And given how unusual this term is, would it have been too much to have explained it?
The forensic psychiatrist continues:
“She probably lives in a house, in a secluded community,” Simmons continued. “She was sexually abused, probably quite heinously, and probably by her father or or other prominent family figure, from a very young age. She’s obviously bipolar enough to function in public.”
Okay, that first part seems standard enough, but then that last sentence takes it all down a weird road. It’s sort of hard to understand how “bipolar” plays into this in any manner. Bipolar enough to function in public? Well, bipolar people do function in public but it generally is not one of those conditions that one would think helps anyone to function in public. Generally, it is associated with a difficulty in functioning well. Is Steffen trying to convey that the killer is both bipolar and psychotic, or that within her psychosis she is experiencing a swing in behaviors that is similar to the condition of bipolar? I’m not sure and it isn’t explained.
But then, despite the fact that the killer is being presented as psychopathic, terminology gets mixed up, as Spence talks to Kathleen about the killer:
“Most of the conversation she sounded very clear-headed, coherent. Then she goes into the bit about the pain, taking her mother’s pain away and all that.”
“Psychiatrists call it word salad,” Spence enlightened her. “A fairly common trait in bipolar psychosis. One minute she acts and sounds normal, the next minute she’s complete dissociated, completely submerged in her delusions, to such an extreme extent that only she can understand herself.”
Okay, in the course of this book we will find out the killer is bipolar, a psychotic, a psychopath and several other things and I am not a criminal analyst like Steffen but all of this seems unlikely. If it is possible that the killer is a psychopathic psychotic going through some sort of rapidly cycling bipolar spectrum that pushes her from coherence into word salad in the course of one sentence, instead of throwing all this shit out there and expecting us to swallow it, mayhaps the authors could have explained how all these terms fit together and how they manifest together because by failing to do this, it sounds like someone is just tossing out a whole bunch of stuff that sort of sounds officially crazy and hoping we buy it.
Simmons’ eyes, in spite of their accrual of years, shined crisply and bright as an infant’s. “But you can take heart in some rather indisputable statistics. The Totem Phase always burns itself out, leaving in its wake a catastrophic amine-related depression. It’s called the Capture Phase. Very quickly the falsehood of the delusion is unveiled; the bipolar mental state reverses poles, so to speak, locking the killer in an inescapable feeling of capture. The psychopath’s self-image is reduced to total meaningless… Suicide is the most frequent result.
This verged on gibberish for me and it’s a bit disorienting when I try to piece ideas together using the Internet and my own library on psychology and criminal profiling and come up empty handed. Would the average person have any goddamned idea what an “amine-related depression” is? Google ain’t gonna be much help. Totem and Capture Phase are not that arcane but coupled in there with amine-related depression and the bad line about the crispness of a baby’s eyes and you sense that this is a novel that really didn’t weigh out the meaning of the words used.
And it goes on and on:
“The killer has to know we’re on to her. But she’s psychopathic. Lotta times psychopaths get fuzzy on the dividing line between fantasy and reality. And they make mistakes. That’s what we’re counting on. She might come here in a fugue state, or when she’s deep in one of her delusions. Then we’ve got her.”
It feels weird countering the words that presumably came from a criminal analyst but yeah, while psychopaths often suffer from delusions, do psychopaths go into a fugue state? That sounds far more like the behavior of a psychotic and the mental state of the killer in this book points far more to a psychotic, someone who has almost no connection to reality. Psychopaths, in my education, were characterized by a superficial glibness and complete inability to care about other people. The killer in this book is full-bore crazed, having a dialogue in her head with her abuser, living a life almost completely detached from reality. It seems to me that despite the presence of an expert as a writer, this book uses the words psychotic and psychopath interchangeably.
But descriptions of the killer are not the only time you will read questionable psychological approaches in this book. Here’s some advice Kathleen received to help her deal with the atrocious abuse she suffered at the hands of her uncle:
“There are times when it’s perfectly healthy to redirect the pain in our lives. To transform it into someone else’s pain.” The method worked very well. Whenever a memory popped up… she simply murdered him in her mind. “Rape-Conclusion Substitution is what we call it.”
Seriously, go Google “Rape-Conclusion Substitution” with one hand and shit in the other and tell me which yields the most search results. Maybe this really is a helpful technique but is used under another name? So why include this at all? This part is not so integral to the plot of the book that the authors needed to create a bullshit label for this therapeutic technique or use a technique so arcane and obscure that it is impossible for a layperson to find out about it.
There are some seriously wacky plot devices in this book as well. At one point, Spence knows that they have a line on the killer and the powers that be, called General Command, see fit to send a helicopter to land on the lawn of Spence’s condo complex to pick him up in the middle of the night so he can be on the scene when they catch the killer. At least the authors have the decency to admit this whole scene is dumb:
The neighbors’ll love me, he thought, and then stepped out into what had to be the most ludicrous scenario of his life… The helicopter–a rebuilt white Bell JetRanger–descended amid the chugging cacophony of its props, and a mad wind siphoned about Spence, which nearly sucked his unbuttoned Christian Dior off his back.
Yeah, no sending a car for Spence. Nope, let’s risk the lives of untold people landing a fucking enormous helicopter on the grounds of a heavily populated area. C’mon, this is a serial killer/police procedural/heavy gore book. We don’t need plots lines from post-Cold War spy novel wet dreams.
Some of the dialogue was miserable. Just miserable. Take this example. Spence the detective has come to Kathleen’s door:
“Hello,” he said when she opened up.
“Damn. I was hoping it was the Fuller Brush Man.”
“The Fuller Brush Man isn’t your ticket to literary acclaim.”
“Oh, but you are?” she said. “A poker-faced cop in a bargain basement suit?”
Spence’s gaze distended. “This suit cost $850. It’s made from some of the finest–”
“Relax Kafka, I was only kidding. Are you here for anything in particular, or just the typical police harassment?”
1) No one under the age of 60 uses the Fuller Brush Man as a reference in actual conversation, even those of us who watch a lot of old television and read potboilers from the ’40s.
2) How the fuck does someone’s gaze distend?
3) Kafka? Kafka? Maybe there was a reference earlier in the book that explains this because if there isn’t (and I don’t think there is) calling Spence Kafka makes no fucking sense.
Then there’s just the bad writing. This may seem picky but if the rest of the book is a clusterfuck, it becomes hard to overlook even little problems. Like this line of dialogue from a scene in the morgue wherein an evidence tech explains things in language we can all understand.
“Three bodies,” he said. “We’ll call them One, Two, and Three.”
Well, thank God that wasn’t… so obvious that it approached pointlessness. Glad we got that cleared up.
Bad writing continues apace. Like this gem a murder victim overheard in a bathroom in a goth club that he entered because, as we all know, goth clubs are the best sort of meat markets for norm guys on the make:
In the bathroom some guys were doing cocaine as they traded jokes. “What’s the difference between Michael Jackson and potato chips? Michael Jackson comes in a can.”
Does anyone even know what this joke means? I mean, aside from the fact that it seems unlikely that such a joke would be common fare, it’s almost as cryptic as the discussion of “amine-related depression.”
While in the goth club, which we know is goth because the future victim thinks one girl looks like Morticia Adams (sic) and because there is Joy Division graffiti written in the bathrooms, we are presented with the victim’s take on the costuming around him:
Brad spotted some class cleavage, a brunette in sequins and earrings that looked like shower curtain rings.
Yeah, goth girls in sequins and enormous hoop earrings were thick on the ground in the late 1990s. Thick, I tell you. You also had to look out for all the feather boas and girls in crinoline looking like Cyndi Lauper. Eh, given that no one noticed they were misspelling the Addams family name, I am probably kicking a poorly dyed horse.
Moving on to weird and heavy-handed descriptives. Take this scene, the quotes taking place within paragraphs of each other:
He wondered what he’d done to her–some obsidian inquisitor in him with no heart.
It all poured out of her–the blackest ichor tapped through the wounds her uncle had lain into her spirit.
Okay, I get that the authors want to imply darkness, a blackness that implies the horrible evil that happened to Kathleen at the hands of her uncle. But why an obsidian inquisitor? A shiny, striated, glossy, brittle inquisitor? Blackest ichor? Blackest blood of the gods? I mean, these words all sound sort of good but mostly these words mean very little in conveying what I assume the authors wanted to make us aware of.
Word misuse does not end there:
Moonlight bathed the room in lucent slants, just like the dream. She lay naked in an ichor of sweat…
An ichor of sweat, eh? What the hell does that even mean? She laid in a blood of the gods of sweat? Or maybe a fluid of inflammation of sweat? And again, Kathleen’s tendency to love being naked in hot rooms feels a wee bit gratuitous.
But we aren’t done with black and blood imagery.
The words seemed to permute the paper until they were no longer words at all, but glyphic scrawlings etched in black blood.
Ignoring the fact that paper cannot be etched, I have no fucking idea what a glyphic scrawling is in this usage since we have no fucking idea what the paper was permuted into. I also wonder about using “permute” because as far as I know, it is a verb used mainly in math, implying order. If the words had been permuted, I could understand that because it would imply the order of the words was being changed. But can a page of paper be permuted? It could be mutated, I guess, but permute was not a good word choice for this sentence. In fact, this sentence can’t stand up to the most basic parsing without verging into gibberish. At several places in this book, it seemed like words were selected for how they might sound rather than what they actually mean.
Continuing on with bad writing choices, there was this bizarre statement:
“Jesus to Pete, Lieutenant. You got yourself a real winner here. This chick knows more about torture than Einstein knew about relativity. Makes Adolf Eichmann look like fuckin’ Dick Van Dyke.”
This sort of hyperbole doesn’t really give definition to the killer by emphasizing how horrific are her actions but rather gives a sense that Eichmann was somehow not all that bad, you know, given that some lady somewhere did really bad stuff to some men. Yes, this serial killer is terrible. She binds men up like mummies so that they cannot move and then does things like blow red pepper up their noses and cuts off their penises. She’s deranged and does vile things. But is she really a rival of one of history’s greatest monsters? Why include a statement like this at all because if one doesn’t immediately laugh, which I guess was the response the authors wanted, the only other thing to do is to look at the statement and realize how bad an idea it is to consider the actions of a serial killer in reference to one of history’s worst genocides. I know this book is over a decade old but even given the round of razzing people receive online when they invoke Nazis in bad arguments, the custom still persists in fiction. It’s annoying and unless one is writing about Nazis, one should not invoke them to make specious comparisons.
There were other issues with the book. A radio shrink telling a caller with sexual issues who was molested by her brother to kill him in with her mind several times a day, a therapy that may be just dandy but seems a terrible thing to be advocating over the radio, an idea that could easily become a murder charge outside of a therapeutic setting. The scene where Kathleen is symbolically confronting her abuser while being molested by a snake was so heavy-handed and dripping in false symbolism that it was a car wreck. Oh, then there was what I have no choice but to call the “butt spit” scene.
The killer walks in on people having furtive sex in the hospital where she works:
She knew the phlebotomy tech was sodomizing her because every few minutes the nurse would whisper, “More spit,” and the phlebotomy tech would stop and his head would tilt and she could hear him expectorate, and then he’d start again.
Somehow that was the foulest scene in the book. Seriously, a head nurse bent over and buttfucked and nowhere in the hospital is there a better lube than some guy’s spit? I mean, the only other place where there would have been more lube options available would have been a lube factory. Just because they spit all over each other in porn does not mean anyone else does it in real life. Use lube appropriate to the sex act. The anal fissures you won’t get later will thank you for it. And if you do so, you might be less inclined to describe anal sex in a manner that sounds like the second take for a shoe string porn script. But if this was meant to be just gross, the authors succeeded well.
Interestingly, in a book where two of the main characters are writers, neither seemed to be able to write worth a damn. Spence, the detective, reads one of Kathleen’s columns and rhetorically asks himself if it is just him or if none of it makes a lick of sense, like it was written in a foreign language. Here’s the column answer he read:
Regarding your former boyfriend, forget him. By saying such spiteful things to you he’s only elucidating his own selfishness and immaturity, not to mention his lack of consideration for your honest feelings. Men like that are best left out with the garbage. And as for your current emotional perplexion, I think you need to reverse your methods of anticipation. …
No, Spence, it’s not just you. I know the authors were trying to make an “Aren’t men and women different” statement, plus a little, “Hey, gay men don’t get women,” sort of riff but it mostly read like nonsense.
And Kathleen isn’t the only shitty writer in this hot mess. Remember her boyfriend, the poet? The one so good he’s in The New Yorker? This is a poem of his Kathleen finds. Also note that he calls every poem he writes “Exit” for reasons I am sure are too deep and poetical for the likes of me:
EXIT by Maxwell Platt
Resplendence is truth, yet it’s escaped me somehow,
And I don’t even remember what you look like now.
But in the trees, in the clouds, in the heavens above
even the angels are burning up with all my love.
Well, it’s not Tennyson. It’s not even Cummings or Plath. It’s barely a Nickelback lyric.
There is another poem, the only one not called “Exit” but is instead called “A Keatsian Inquiry.” Here’s a snippet:
Dare he wake her beauty in the moon?
For what he spied–such love–and in
that precious moment didst nearly swoon.
Yet on she slept a lovely sleep;
here is the image his love doth reap.
Could no one have looked up an actual poem by Keats or a modern love poem and at least tried to ape it a bit? Because asking us to accept this as anything but the work of an overwrought high school freshman is a bit much.
So. What have we in total? We have a spunky but self-loathing hot chick who thinks she’s fat and writes a shitty self-help column that brought her to the attention of a psychotic, psychopathic, bipolar killer who slips into word salad and sends the columnist dicks in the mail. We have a detective who largely does not grate, but we also have a poet who cannot write poetry. We have words that don’t fit together well. We have scenes so utterly dumb they would make a normal person curse their dog when they read them. Bad analogies. A girl killer worse than Eichmann. Butt sex with spit.
We also have some top notch, methodical and yet over the top extreme violence. So weigh things out. Can you take all that I laid out and so much more in order to get to the heinous parts? If not, may I recommend Edward Lee’s Infernal books. Some pretty foul content, extreme horror, and though these books likely have all kinds of issues, the content is lively, engaging, disgusting and funny enough that I didn’t really notice. And with so much extreme horror, that’s the goal, to be so wrapped up in the content that the meta of the reading experience doesn’t intrude. This book didn’t come close to achieving that goal.