I love the macabre. Always have, ever since I was a wee gal and sucked up those old Hammer films with Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as the undead Count. For some reason, they were always on television and my mother let me watch them. My best friend and I even played Dracula in the yard–she as the ill-fated Lucy, me as Mina. I didn’t think that was fair, since I was the blonde, but I played along anyway. We devised a method of using Charms Blow-Pops to ward off the evil Count Dracula and, apparently, they worked. I’m still here. I don’t know about the girl who played Lucy.
So give me horror, suspense, monsters, witches, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (what genre is that?), and psychological thrillers. Throw them all my way, because I’m in love with them.
Except for that one. Yeah, that one everyone was reading and talking about. That one with all the clever twists and evil characters and domestic strife. Give me anything except that.
A few days ago, I picked up The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. And I’m pages away from being done with it. Sad? Nah. Highsmith wrote five Ripley novels, so I’ve got four more deliciously murderous treats awaiting me.
The thing Ripley’s got (which, in my mind, That Other Character lacks) is simple:
Is he the bad guy? Sure. Bad as anything. But oh so much more than that. Highsmith paints him, layer upon layer, as a troubled soul. Neat trick, considering Ripley himself is something of a non-entity. He only “becomes” (à la Francis Dolarhyde in Harris’ Red Dragon) via his victims. And he desperately needs to become someone. One might imagine that the unfortunate, albeit talented, Mr. Ripley will effectively cease to exist unless he takes action.
Talk about stakes, man. Ceasing to exist, disapparating, melting into utter nothingness, morphing into a nowhere man dreaming nowhere dreams for nobody. The thought of it stirs up an empathy so deep I want this poor bastard to get away with murder.
In short, I can feel his need on every page. Not want, but need.
Tom Ripley, like That Other Character, is cagey, creative, and very, very clever. But those three Cs alone don’t make him the literary icon that he is (and tragically, never became until the 1999 film came out). What drives Mr. Ripley, and what makes me turn the pages until the wee hours of the morning, is that He. Must. Do. Bad. Things.
The stakes are high; the need is evident and almost heartbreaking. So yeah, I’ll take Highsmith’s talented Tom Ripley over That Other Character any ol’ day of the week.