Child of Halloween

In a moving memoir, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” is an unexpected spirit guide.

Richard Scott Larson’s “The Long Hallway,” a memoir of a fraught summer in small town Missouri somewhere in the mid-1990s, is relentlessly lean. There’s little period arcana here: no references to the Clinton years or to music or TV or clothes of the ‘90s. There is one central pop cultural totem, and it belongs to the ‘70s: John Carpenter’s horror film “Halloween,” which spoke to Larson as he grappled as a child with his sexual identity.

Apart from a few other pivotal references — the original run of “Twin Peaks,” Wes Craven’s “Scream” — most other specifics have been rubbed away. We don’t learn precisely which town Larson was from, and friends and family are referred to by either a single letter or their role in his life — his mother, father, brother, especially.

The pointed vagueness is freeing. As someone who has contemplated trying to wrest a book from a tortured childhood himself, I’ve been undone by disinterest in “best of times, worst of times” table-setting. My guess is that Larson, as a 12-year-old contemplating, say, the contours of a teenage boy’s body, wasn’t thinking much about Clinton or “Friends.”

The book is devoted obsessively to Larson’s psyche, which gives it a tightly-coiled power. It is animated by tensions of the unsaid, and the limitations of Larson’s point of view are built into the book as a trap door. “The Long Hallway” is neither self-pitying nor self-glorifying. Larson isn’t cruel to himself as a writer, but rather pragmatic, aware of pain that he wrought while in the throes of his own agony. Linking the book’s episodes is a fine, tensile understanding of the emotional chain reactions that are sparked off by relationships of all kinds, especially amidst the confusions of childhood.

“The Long Hallway” opens with a painful conversation between Larson and his father, an alcoholic who has a sense of his son’s differences from “normal” boys and is trying to give him a brutally cliched pep talk about girls. The father’s alcoholism has already destroyed his marriage, and it’s on the verge of eroding whatever bond Larson’s father has left with his children, Larson and his younger brother by three years.

This meeting of father and son, in a playground while mother waits in the car nearby, is the classically fraught family-of-divorce routine, with everyone hiding their fear and anger behind banalities. At one point, Larson’s father calls his son “Michael Myers” and holds his hand up in a fist, like he’s plunging a knife into something, trying to conjure for his son their afternoons together, with Larson watching “Halloween” while father drinks himself into casual oblivion.

Nick Castle as Michael Myers in the original horror film classic, “Halloween,” by John Carpenter.

This kind of detail, cute and creepy at once, is Larson’s forte here. Every scene has an aftertaste, usually of dread. Every instance of sexual excitement on young Larson’s part is laced with the anxiety of being found out, of the shame of self that leads you to suspect that you are a monster. Larson doesn’t underline it, but there’s an uncomfortable rhyme between his father’s alcoholism and his queer identity. The former is monstrous while the latter is perceived to be so. Father’s alcoholism is described as a hunger, and what is Larson’s neighborhood lurking but signs of a blossoming hunger itself?

Via unsatiated desires, Larson rhymes his father and mother with himself, with Michael Myers, and, in an extraordinary final flourish, with his brother. Self-loathing isn’t tasteful; it doesn’t play fair and takes no prisoners. Larson’s scenes of his following older boys around, or taking his frustration out on his brother, are uncomfortable. They are written in hindsight, with unsparing empathy. Particularly chilling is a moment when Larson tricks his brother into believing that he can disappear in the woods.

Larson’s brother is drawn so acutely that you understand that he’s desperate for Larson to serve as a mentor, especially with their father adrift in booze and failure, and mother bored and lonely and working deadening jobs to keep them all afloat. And Larson, a boy too remember, can’t bring himself to give his brother what he wants. Worse than that there’s a sense here of a calibrated withholding of love, spurned by Larson’s own feelings of lovelessness. And of a gnawing hunger.

This hunger and isolation lead Larson toward identifying with Michael Myers, which leads “The Long Hallway” toward offering a unique angle on “Halloween.” It doesn’t take much rationalizing to see that Myers kills young women out of a sense of thwarted sexual desire. That’s text rather than subtext: Myers kills his sexy sister, while she’s nude immediately post-coitus, when he is six. Years later, he escapes from an institution and kills several more women of a similar look and age, one of whom, played by P.J. Soles, resembles Michael’s sister and is also killed immediately post-coitus. Michael’s heavy breathing sounds horny, pre-orgasmic, and the point-of-view shots from inside his mask suggest looking in a peephole. This is slasher movie sex politics 101. What Larson adds to this read is a sense of camaraderie with Michael that is poignant and unsettling.

Michael’s murder of his sister is described by Larson as a “coming out.” Myers reveals through killing what he actually is: a killer with hunger. Society locks him away until he’s able to get loose and express his carnality and bloodlust again, with society desperate to again put him away. His doctor has abandoned therapy and wants to kill him. Michael’s desire throughout the film is expressed less by violence, which is fairly minimal, than by his neighborhood wandering, which Larson mimics as a child.

This is a film of wandering, through neighborhoods so generic that they are Our Collective Neighborhood on The Halloween. Norman Rockwell Land is invaded by a deviant who must be put down by the prestigious British guy, the Man if there ever was one. But who can’t be put down. Larson internalized Carpenter’s collective, iconic evil as an expression of his thwarted desire, which is also of course collective. The history of punishing people for their sexual identity is vast. I’d have to double check, but I’m not even sure the brilliant queer film critic Robin Wood got this far with Carpenter’s “Halloween.”

The vague elements of “The Long Hallway” link it with “Halloween.” The small town of Haddonfield in “Halloween” could essentially be anywhere and so could the Missouri of Larson’s memory. In certain passages, Larson’s muscular writing even suggests the prose equivalent of the eerie, elegant tracking shots that animate “Halloween.” If those tracking shots occasionally end with a violent punchline, Larson’s passages are frequently punctuated with haymakers that reveal the depths of a 12-year-old’s pitilessness about himself. One, early in “The Long Hallway,” has especially stayed with me:

“I was all skin and bones, an expression my mother and my father had both used to describe me at the time. I always imagined in those years that I looked easily breakable, like something cheap and poorly made.”

For a child with those feelings, and they are not unfamiliar to me, imagine the comfort of a horror film in which an other is granted the powerful blankness of a faceless mask and a dangerously capable, nonspecific body. Imagine the potentially freeing power of the ending of “Halloween,” as Michael appears to have ascended to a realm in which he’s everywhere and nowhere.

Larson’s moving memoir grants Michael Myers the poignancy that’s typically reserved for the Frankenstein’s monster. Perhaps it’s this strange kinship that led Larson back to real people, his brother and others, eventually driving him to stop following, stop hiding. Art can do that, sometimes: lead us back to life when no other road seems open.

Richard Scott Larson’s “The Long Hallway” is now available via UW Press.

The cover of Richard Scott Larson’s “The Long Hallway” (UW Press)

TRENDING

WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW — straight to your inbox

* indicates required
Our mailing lists: