Self-Portrait of an Obsessive Mind

By Matt E. LewisNovember 7, 2016

Self-Portrait of an Obsessive Mind

A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell

CRAFTERS OF ALL TYPES are fueled by obsession. To create anything that only exists in your mind takes a certain degree of persistence that can defy logic, and the more intricate the vision, the more dedication it demands to become reality. Matt Bell is an author that exemplifies this kind of method: his writing is imbued with the emotional complexity of a Swiss watch. His work includes the novels In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods and Scrapper, books that examine a multitude of intersecting themes: familial grief and loss, the cruel nature of biology, and the raw strangeness of fantasy. But his signature theme — the one that threads all his work together — is the driving madness of obsession. His new book A Tree or a Person or a Wall — which includes the novella Cataclysm Baby and more recent unpublished fiction — paints a portrait of obsession with each grim tale. Specifically, the effect that obsession has on the delicate minds of humanity, and how easily our realities can be ripped asunder by the circumstances of fate and our own most primal drives.

In the first story, the titular “A Tree or a Person or a Wall,” a boy is taken against his will to a basement by a man “with rough hands.” Readers familiar with Bell’s work may recognize this situation from his previous novel, Scrapper, in which the protagonist finds a boy in an abandoned basement while searching for raw materials to sell for repurposing. This story could be considered a kind of spiritual prequel or sequel to the “basement occurrence” of Scrapper, because while it shares core details, Bell takes it in a very different direction. It begins as a tense, familiar scene, in which the reader suspects the worst — there’s the young boy, after all, the imprisonment, and the older man. But this story doesn’t stick to the expected script — for one thing, the boy shares the basement with an albino ape named Sixes. The ape, either through magic or madness, progresses from horrible screams (written phonetically throughout the piece as “EEEEECHHHHHSCRAAAAA”) to possible telepathic conversations with the boy. Whether the conversations help the boy to uncover anything useful about the situation is dubious — the ape communicates in a kind of riddling manner, answering questions with questions, making esoteric claims, and reacting violently to answers it perceives as wrong. When the boy asks to leave, the man turns on the ape:

The man with rough hands twisted the ear of the ape named Sixes until the ape screamed EEEEECHHHHHSCRAAAAA.
The boy screamed too, the normal scream of a small boy.
I take it back, the boy said.
I want to stay.
I’m sorry.

The threat of violence to others is already changing the neural pathways of the boy, making escape not just unlikely, but also undesirable. The sinister nature of this process is continued in the repetition of the boy’s routine, imprinted onto his thought pattern. The repetition of the present and the erasure of the past seem to be the overriding themes of the story. Hints of the outside world do make their appearances, most notably as a window outside the hallway up the stairs, which was “sometimes light and sometimes not.” The boy fixates on a shadow in this window, which he thinks could be “a tree or a person or a wall, and although it could be all three it was probably only one.” This blending of fact and fiction, the known and unknown, in a disturbingly consistent pattern may be the key to unlocking what is going on in this story.

The motivation of the “man with rough hands” may be to cultivate the kind of madness within the boy that this kind of conditioning creates, to keep up the repetition of the process. If so, the story could be seen as a kind of fairy-tale rendition of an MKUltra program, one of the CIA mind control experiments from the 1950s and ’60s in which the US government used psychotropic drugs, effects of trauma, contradiction and confusion of logic, and the trust and betrayal of staged “friendly” figures that lured subjects into dissociative states. These techniques have also been employed by religious cults and other “handlers” in an attempt to reshape a person’s personality and brainwash them into doing whatever they wish. Whatever the reason, the boy is beyond traumatized — he’s completely changed, broken, and susceptible to whatever programming or purpose the man with the rough hands has for him.

This story also echoes the obsessive nature of the “Allegory of the Cave,” from Plato’s Republic. The false reality created within the cave is similar to the false reality created in the basement, a world where nothing ever existed before and memories of the past become harder and harder to remember. If properly conditioned, would the boy ever want to leave, only to return to the comfort of the programming he has known, like the denizens of Plato’s cave? Perhaps this exchange between the boy and the ape is the most telling:

In the floating darkness, the boy always asked Sixes, How long have I been here?
And Sixes always said, You have always been here.
And the boy always said, That does not seem true.
Oh, the truth, said Sixes.
You did not ask for the truth, said Sixes, always.
And then always the boy was quiet, and then always the boy said, What else would I want?
Comfort, said Sixes. Acceptance. Forgiveness. Succor. And also, always: EEEEECHHHHHSCRAAAAA.

This first story is an indication — or maybe a warning — of Bell’s willingness to tangle with the messiest depths of human emotion and behavior. There is a darkness layered into his storytelling that implores the reader to use a different set of eyes, to leave our own conditioning and make ourselves vulnerable to his world, in order to make sense of an environment where no detail is peripheral.

Obsession also has its part to play in “Doll Parts,” the story of a girl whose brother has been taken by a man “in a red raincoat.” This premise already shows another connection with Scrapper, in which the kidnapper is only ever described as “the man in the red slicker.” The kidnapping of a child is at the center of the story, this one based on a classical rather than contemporary narrative. The girl’s parents live in a seemingly isolated cabin at the edge of a thick forest (much like the setting of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods). But in “Doll Parts,” a replacement for the brother in the form of a stuffed doll with a rubber head is created to soothe the girl in his absence. As time passes, however, the closeness of the girl and the doll becomes disturbing, and dives into obsession. The bizarre relationship drives the father away, forcing the mother to look for work. Alone in the house, the girl experiences inevitable anxiety that manifests in the form of trichophagia — eating first her own hair to find comfort, then the stuffing from inside the doll.

This story dovetails nicely into “Wolf Parts,” a series of retellings of the Little Red Riding Hood legend. Bell takes the classic tale into the realm of dark fantasy, where the protagonist is constantly shifting from the girl to the wolf to the grandmother to the huntsman, and all the stories they have to tell in between. All these characters become obsessed with their own narratives and the terrifying implications of blurring the lines between their roles — when the hunter becomes the hunted, the victim becomes the perpetrator, or the guardian becomes the destroyer. In the grim tradition of fairy tales, “Wolf Parts” explores the details of the story taken literally, subjecting the woman to the horror of assault, consumption, and murder, with the point of view jumping in and out of the wolf perspective, sometimes as the animal and sometimes as a predatory man. Bell uses this as a vehicle to act out scenarios where the girl/woman takes revenge, creates worlds where the wolf is the victim and perpetrator. The story transforms into a commentary on the kind of “nature, red in tooth and claw” that is locked inside each of us, a primal strength waiting just below the surface to be unleashed.

At least a third of the book is dominated by “Cataclysm Baby,” the previously published novella included in this collection, which is actually 26 interconnected flash stories, one for each letter of the alphabet, each representing a different set of children. The world Bell depicts here is a kind of nightmarish future Earth, where the delicate process of pregnancy is being interrupted on a global scale, causing miscarriages and deformities that become increasingly strange and gruesome. Women are dying en masse, leaving only desperate men to perpetuate the human story in pathetic, heartbreaking ways. Once taken for granted, the process of birth collapses under the obsessive focus of the male drive to reproduce. The sadness and anger of loss is palpable in these stories, written with the kind of bleak, stoic, biblical detail one would expect from Cormac McCarthy, describing every parent’s worst fears come true: “The doctors promised twins but delivered only one baby from my wife’s pummeled womb, her troubled cavity. First the push, push, then the blood, then my mistake-toothed firstborn gnashing in the nurse’s arms: chubby, too chubby, too covered in mother’s gore.”

The stories become desperate and disturbing as the alphabet continues, some punctuated with a dark humor, but only the kind that could be understood from a place of pain. For instance, one couple awakens to find their baby has gone through a Kafkaesque transformation: “A chrysalis? I ask my wife. A cocoon? What’s the difference, she says, when it’s your child inside, when it’s your caterpillar?” As the reader can guess, the stories end with an eponymous cataclysm, with the only recourse from the horror of collapse being a hopeful nihilism that whatever comes after, whether a thousand or a million or a billion years after, will be untainted by the mistakes of the past.

A specific kind of focused pain forms the language of Bell’s tales. It feels like an inherited grief, something old and aching passed down through generations, a testament of the hurt that humanity has created and continues to perpetuate. In “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed,” the narrator recounts in flat, sterile detail the pitfalls of fate that have befallen his immediate family. My own family’s history is one fraught with estrangement, early death, depression, alcoholism, addiction, and suicide, and I’ve found that these things go hand in hand with obsession, the sorts of puzzling behavior and manic personalities Bell writes about. The cyclical horrors of tragedy and grief and coping feel exactly as he describes them: “Do not forget that you are destined for death, that your family carries doom like a fat bird around its neck, that it is something you will never be rid of.”

I know what he’s talking about — the feeling that your family is literally cursed, that no matter what happens, fate will find a way to dash your precautions; the hesitation about bringing children into the world; the need to protect everyone, and the dread of failing. Bell captures these powerless, infuriating feelings, without exploitation, in very beautiful ways. “Caskets, closed. Control, impossibility of. Crimes, solved: murders of father, mother, brother. Crimes, uncommitted (and therefore as yet unsolved): murder of sister, murder of self. Curse, as possible explanation.”

But Bell’s range is in no way limited to tortured interiority — some of his stories are grotesque explorations of the contemporary uncanny, featuring a nauseating fixation on the physical body and its various meanings. In “Dredge,” for example, a man finds the body of a teenager but refuses to tell anyone about it, keeping the body and the secret of it festering within his house, fueled by a misguided sense of justice. “For You We Are Holding” examines the isolation of the body through modern technology, the curious detachment that happens when the traits that define us as human become distorted, disturbing, and alien when viewed through the lens of social media. It takes the modern narrative of isolation through technology and gives it the kind of brooding style one might find in a Dostoyevsky novel, a reflection on the sadness of human vanity and the ultimate vapidness of a focus on the now. Bell illustrates these stories with a unique but familiar style: cold in its grave delivery, yet smoldering in its foundation of anger and sadness. It seems influenced as much by the minimalism of writers like Samuel Beckett as it is by the operatic fantasy narratives of Dungeons & Dragons.

In fact, Bell once co-authored a Dungeons & Dragons novel, The Last Garrison, under a nom de plume, and has written a book about the fantasy video game Baldur’s Gate II from small-press label Boss Fight Books. His fluency with the fantasy genre — the complex attention to detail needed to portray an entire world and its inhabitants — is apparent in almost all the pieces in A Tree or a Person or a Wall. These stories take “everyday” horrors like hoarding, missing children, and cultural unrest, and saturate them with the kind of rich, layered text that make the works of Tolkien and George R . R. Martin so enduring. “Inheritance” represents the extreme side of this spectrum, with a story of a roving band of homunculi warriors in a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by the living dead, who use detachable organs and limbs to add to their strengths. Much like these monsters, Bell himself has the ability to cherry-pick the best technique from genre and literary fiction to create something captivating and powerful, something that taps into the best of all worlds and opens the door to a terrifying new one.

The last story of the collection, “A Long Walk With Only Chalk To Mark The Way,” is a devastating note to end on. A man with a terminally ill boy locks up his house and brings camping gear to the hospital, where they attempt to recreate their own version of a “maze adventure” from his deceased wife’s favorite book. They mark landmarks with chalk and the man starts to see his dead wife, floating in the periphery, watching and waiting for the inevitable. Like the other stories in this book, “A Long Walk” is built on obsession: the father is obsessed with the idea that as long as they keep making their way through the maze, as long as they can avoid the monster within, the boy can stay alive.

By delving into obsession, Bell points out the ultimate failure of control. He wants us to embrace the truth of what we’ve known all along — that humans become fixated on harnessing the impossible, and that these obsessions become the stories of our lives. We define ourselves by these limitations willingly because we seek purpose and place in our chaotic universe, anything that tells us that our lives are not wasted in our time on this planet. Each story of Bell’s is its own labyrinth, wreathed in the symbolism and meaning of his life and ours, but they are not mazes, whose only purpose is to confuse and mislead us. The difference between them, and perhaps the real purpose of these stories, lies in the margin notes a deceased wife leaves in a book, which a father reads to his dying boy:

She wrote, But labyrinth and maze are not synonyms. A maze is something you can get lost in, full of turns and dead ends, while a labyrinth will always lead you to the center, if only you walk far enough.
She wrote, At the center of the labyrinth is a beast, and if the beast does not devour you, then all it takes to return home is a decisive turn: back, away, upward.


Matt E. Lewis is the editor of The Radvocate magazine and co-editor of the horror anthology series States of Terror. He lives in San Diego.

LARB Contributor

Matt E. Lewis is the editor of Ayahuasca Publishing & co-editor of the horror anthology series States of Terror. He lives in San Diego.


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