Sympathizing with Psychopaths: Mort Castle’s The Strangers

Congratulations! You survived seven more days on this planet! You deserve a freaky Friday, where I dig into the vault and pull out some weird and forgotten book that smells like cat hair.

The Strangers. It’s been the name of a horror movie, an online journal project, a superteam, a podcast and, in its singular form, a cornerstone of existentialism. But The Strangers we’re talking about is Mort Castle’s 1984 horror novel that has a guy cosplaying as the emptiness of interstellar space model for the cover. Castle only wrote four novels, but he’s a well-known horror writing instructor who’s written about 4,000,000,0000 short stories, including Will Errickson’s favorite, “The Old Man and the Dead” about Ernest Hemingway: Zombie Hunter.

Reading cheap old horror paperbacks is like playing Russian Roulette with a gun that’s got five bullets in its chambers. Some old horror novels fail because their ideas are too normal. Some fail because they take weird ideas and do boring things with them (Tabitha King, I’m talking about your doll-fetish snoozer, Small World). Some fail because you open the first pages and find dried boogers stuck to them and really can’t bring yourself to continue. But it’s rare to find one that fails because it’s too good at what it does. Meet The Strangers.

Let the back cover copy bring you up to speed:

“Meet Michael Louden, typical young American husband and father, mowing the lawn of his typical suburban home. He’s everybody’s buddy, has a great sense of humor, works hard at his typical boring job to provide for the wife and kids. And he is a Stranger. Michael seethes with furious impatience for the coming of the Time of the Strangers, when he and millions like him will be able at last to reveal their true selves to a horrified, helpless world.”

No, they’re not Juggalos, they’re psychopaths who are able to feign humanity, and they seem to be born at random, able to detect each other because some of them can see auras and, you know, auras. What will happen during the Time of the Strangers? “There will be meaningless torture and senseless murder.” That doesn’t sound very nice. What else? “Rivers and streets will run red with blood.” WHO IS KILLING PEOPLE AND THROWING THEM IN THE RIVERS? That’s meaningle— Oh. Never mind. So, basically, this is a prequel to The Purge, except it’ll happen all the time without any snack breaks.

The Strangers begins with Michael Louden living in his peaceful suburban wonderland with his patient wife, Beth, who’s having a sort of Feminine Mystique moment where she feels alienated from her husband, at loose ends as her children grow up, and she’s yearning for something more. Namely, not to be murdered. But Beth, despite being a nice lady in peril, is not our main character. Instead, Michael is our narrator, and he’s insane. Not insane in an “I want to tend the rabbits, George” way, but in a “I love to gaslight my family and neighbors before I murder them” way. Brad, the next-door alkie, loves his puppy? Then Michael will kill the puppy. Next door neighbor feels sad? Then Michael will beat his brains out with a toilet. He especially loves tormenting Beth, making psycho statements and then pretending he’s joking, clouding her mind with bouts of soft-focus Joy of Sex lovemaking, pretending there’s a burglar in the house when he wants her to stop talking.

Michael and the other Strangers in his circle (like his boss, Vern Engelking, who might have the greatest name ever for a janitorial supplies mogul) is waiting for The Call that will herald the Time of the Strangers when they can go out and kill, and kill, and kill…and it’s not some supernatural event. It is, quite literally, a phone call. So every time the phone rings Michael has some bloodthirsty fantasy and then is all deflated when he finds out it’s just the paperboy. It’s a frustrating series of tension and release that puts the reader in Michael’s shoes — we want The Call to come, too.

This could have been a Stepford Wives kind of book if it focused on Beth. Her therapist is a Stranger, her husband is a Stranger, and she can sense it on some level. So she goes back to school and has an affair. Michael finds out and gets her therapist to turn her into a drugged-out zombie by yanking her around on different psycho-pharmaceuticals, then he doses her with LSD during a family dinner and has her committed. I can see this alternate book now: a modern gothic focused on Beth’s growing sense that something is wrong, she’s a woman with nowhere to turn, unsure of whom to trust as the jaws of the trap slowly snap shut…

Instead, we get a book where we become as impatient with the “norms” as Michael. We want The Call! We want rivers of blood! And streets of blood, too! In the final pages, Mort unleashes The Call, and there’s a final stabdown worthy of the build-up, including a last-minute Shyamalan twist. But the problem is that our main character, Michael, doesn’t actually live to see it, and so the whole thing feels anticlimactic no matter how many garden shears go through necks, throats are slashed with straight razors, or doctors take machetes to work.

Mort Castle’s The Strangers ultimately becomes a cautionary tale, and not one about making sure your husband isn’t secretly a homicidal maniac (or your daughter, or your neighbors, or your marriage counselor). Your point of view character is going to be the character your reader sympathizes with the most, even if he is a lunatic. So you have to let that lunatic have his day in the sun. A formative book for Mort was Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280 which also has a psycho narrator who’s been hiding his identity from everyone, and he’s able to replicate the effect pretty well here. In fact, he does it a little too well. It doesn’t matter how many puppies Michael kills, we spend a whole book with him and want him to have his Call and do really, really well with his killing spree. Or maybe that’s just me.

Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his most recent novel is Horrorstör, about a haunted Ikea, while My Best Friend’s Exorcism (which is like Beaches meets The Exorcist) will be out from Quirk Books on May 17th.

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