Sunday, September 4, 2011

He Was a Lamb: The Strange Case of Colonel 'Killer' Kane

There are very few works of art that move me more than William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration. Blatty's story of Colonel 'Killer' Kane appeared twice in print (via Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane and The Ninth Configuration) and once on film (albeit in three different versions) and it has haunted me like few other stories have in the years since I first discovered it. Recently, while going through some old files on my computer, I found this odd little paper I wrote at college a few years back. I always had trouble with these school papers due to the fact that I had to change my writing style so much for them, and because I am really not that great of a fan of academic based writing (nor am I very good at it). Still, I always appreciated that these assignments would cause me to put down on paper, bad or good, something I probably wouldn't have otherwise. Re-reading this piece I found some stuff I liked, although I had to revise it quite a bit, so I though I would present it here, if mostly to hopefully turn a few more folks on to Blatty's powerful literary and film work. If memory serves, I got a B- on this btw which, I think, is fair.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde casts a chilling and hypnotic spell in its study on the nature of evil and madness. It must be considered one of the most influential works of 19th century literature and a future work that shares some of its major themes is William Peter Blatty’s startling book and film, The Ninth Configuration. Both works deal with a man's inherent evil that breeds both a terrible madness as well as a great sacrifice.

Blatty writes early on in The Ninth Configuration, “Maybe everything evil is a frustration, a separation from what we were meant for”. The idea of separation appears frequently in both Stevens and Blatty’s works. Though written nearly 100 years apart, both pieces seek the same answers concerning the evil in all humanity, questions we can still ask ourselves today. Portland Magazine editor Brian Doyle believed the answer could be found in the idea that, “the victory begins when we speak the hard truth about the Jekyll in us all”. The question of evil can only accurately be answered with the realization that it resides somewhere in all of us. The lead characters in both works choose to let their inner evil out and the consequences that come from it change everything around them.

The Ninth Configuration, published in 1978, began its literary life in the form of the Blatty novela, Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane. Just as Stevenson had been unhappy with the early version of his tale of transformation and madness, Blatty had similar doubts about his original 1966 work. The plots of Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane and The Ninth Configuration are essentially the same. Army Psychiatrist, Colonel Kane, comes to a Mental Health hospital, that is located in an isolated abandoned castle, for shell shocked Vietnam Veterans. He encounters many seemingly insane soldiers who have all but taken over the hospital, one who is even adapting Shakespeare’s complete works for dogs. Kane decides to treat the men by letting them have complete reign and giving them everything they want. He suspects that they are perhaps faking their madness to get out of combat. Kane is most concerned with a Captain Cutshaw, an astronaut who broke down before a particularly important flight screaming “What the hell’s up there”. The central point of the book comes when Kane realizes that Cutshaw has lost his faith in a higher power because he can not understand how a God could allow an evil world where no one cared about each other enough to make a true sacrifice in the name of goodness. Kane promises that if he dies first that he will send Cutshaw a sign that there is indeed goodness left in the world. Blatty soon reverses the plot on the readers and reveals that Kane is in fact a patient who himself had a total collapse after a life as the most ruthless and cold blooded soldier in his unit. His viciousness in that unit earned him the nickname “Killer Kane.” Looking to bury the 'killer' inside him, Kane has attempted to transform himself into something good, providing an interesting parallel to Stevenson’s work. The novel and film ends with Kane providing the ultimate sacrifice in order to prove to Curtshaw that while the world is filled with evil, there is an equal amount of good.

Stevenson’s work, similarly, also ends chronologically with a sacrifice, but Stevenson calls into question just who is controlling Henry Jekyll and if the sacrifice present is ultimately a selfish one. The self-sacrifices that both Blatty and Stevenson showcase bring up a question asked by Barbara D’Amato in her Modern Psychoanalysis article “Jekyll and Hyde: A Literary Forerunner" when she writes "Was the individual ruled by external forces or an inner self determination”? How should we view these acts of sacrifice? Hyde chooses to stop his own rampage in order to stop his own pain but Kane's sacrifice is a completelty unselfish one.

Blatty and Stevenson were writing on two fundamental subjects that are relevant in any and every society, evil and madness. The common thought for most civilized cultures is that it is madness that breeds evil. We want it to be shown that all the wrongs done in the world can be attributed to a deep mental illness; that the only true reason for horrible deeds must be a sickness of the mind. I think the opposite, (as I believe Stevenson and Blatty did) and that it is evil that breeds the madness and not the other way around. It is an evil, a capability of wrongdoing, that we all possess and it is that evil that causes some to slip over the edge. This can manifest in two ways, people who cannot accept the possibility of internal evil, and people who nurture that evil to its inevitable destination...madness. D'Amato writes, “While Hyde was Jekyll’s projection of pure evil, Hyde represents one aspect of Jekyll. Stevenson flirts with the idea that good and evil are not quite so separate”.

Stevenson and Blatty accept the evil in their characters, so now we should look at the question of madness in them. Stevenson unforgettably described his legendary character with the chilling, “Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish; he gave an idea of deformity without any nameable malformation”. Hyde fits into a very classical description of what we consider insane, something is off but a precise pinpointing is sometimes difficult if not impossible. Since Hyde is a product of the seemingly sane and, on the outside, very good Jekyll, then we must conclude that Hyde’s madness did not come from Jekyll but the evil within him. Jekyll himself departs from being a well-respected citizen into two hallmarks of what we consider madness, seclusion and paranoia. The evil, which he cannot accept as part of Henry Jekyll, but that he has given to Hyde, is driving him insane.

The Ninth Configuration uses a clever inversion of Stevenson’s work, for here we have the most evil of war criminals transforming himself into a good doctor. Ironically, we witness the character growing deeper and deeper into his own neurosis of forgetting who he was as the work progresses. It’s interesting to note that Blatty, as well as Stevenson, needed an outside force to help them complete their tales of two selves. It was actually Stevenson's wife who noted the problem of her husbands original draft when she noted that he had the makings of a masterpiece but that the original draft played it too safe.

Blatty was convinced enough by the non-reaction to Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane to continue to explore the themes of good, evil, self and possession in his 1971 work, The Exorcist. Blatty has actually called The Ninth Configuration, in its final published form, a sequel to his misunderstood deeply moral tale of demonic possession. He wanted to write a work that would make clear the point that many readers of The Exorcist missed, namely, that to accept evil then there must be good in the world, or more to the point, to accept the existence of the Devil, then one must concede that there is a God.

What is it that drives the transformations found in these works? Is it as Edwin Stefan points out in his “A Psychological Walk With Robert Louis Stevenson”, “when the internalized guilt becomes too intense, the person opts for another personality and so lessens the responsibility and with it the pain?”. The main point for Terry Cooper in his “A Chemically Induced Shadow” distills it to, “Hyde is life without cerebral balance, an existence void of coherence”. This calls to mind one of the main differences between the works of Stevenson and Blatty, in that Hyde ultimately seems eaten alive by madness and his sacrifice is ultimately a selfish one, as or Hyde, and Jekyll, it is simply the only way out. Kane’s act, on the other hand, is purely an unselfish one. It is an ultimate act of kindness and marks a redemption for ‘Killer Kane’ that Edward Hyde is not allowed.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Ninth Configuration have both had interesting afterlives. Stevenson’s work has been adapted for the stage, in art and in many films. I believe his work has only been done justice once, in Polish director Walerian Borowczyk’s 1981 film, “Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes”. Borowczyk’s surreal and deeply disturbing take on the most primal aspects of Stevenson’s work stands as one of the great European art films, and a work not afraid to face the evil and madness inherent in humanity and in life. Blatty himself adapted his work in 1980 as director, writer, producer and actor in a film version that is considered by some to be the equal of William Friekin’s version of The Exorcist. The film, which Blatty deems his finest work, has had a complicated history appearing in no less than three different versions since its first release. Ultimately, the film, in whichever version it appears, leaves the audience the same gift that Kane leaves Cutshaw, the belief that in a world of evil there is always the hope of good.

Robert Louis Stevenson and William Peter Blatty both stand as major writers with many common traits. Though they lived in different times, they were struggling with the same issues. Who is truly good, who is truly evil and how much is the line between the two blurred? Both writers accurately described the evil among and inside us in their remarkable works, and in doing so; they were able to show the savage lion, and gentle lamb, that we all carry within.



Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for presenting this article. Somewhat different in tone from your usual style, but a fascinating parallel between the two works. I reviewed 'The Ninth Configuration' on my blog last year, and it certainly is a haunting, original and deeply personal work. It worms its way into your subconscious in a way that few films do. I've never read Blatty's original novel - or the novella that was its first incarnation - but I'll certainly make a point of tracking down copies.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much Neil. I highly recommend both of those Blatty books. Thanks again for reading and commenting.