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Monday, 15 June 2015

Harold Schechter interviewed by David Schmid

Harold Schechter is an American true-crime writer who specializes in serial killers, with books such as Depraved, Fiend, Deranged, and Deviant. He is Professor of American Literature and Popular Culture at Queens College of the City University of New York. His most recent book, The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation (2014), was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America in the ‘Best Fact Crime’ category.

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DS: How do you define true crime?

HS: As I understand it, true crime is a genre of narrative nonfiction whose typical subject is (to use a popular Victorian phrase) 'horrible murder'. While it is common among moral crusaders to see our current infatuation with true crime as a dispiriting symptom of the debased sensibilities of our sensation-steeped culture, the truth is that the appetite for tales of real-life murder, the more horrific the better, has been a perennial feature of human society. In the old days, before the invention of movable type, accounts of shocking homicides were disseminated among the peasantry in the form of orally transmitted crime ballads: versified narratives of real-life stabbings, stranglings, bludgeonings, dismemberments, and the various forms of familicide. Gutenberg’s invention made it possible for his successors to profit from the undying human need for morbid titillation. Whenever a particularly ghastly killing occurred, it was promptly written up in either doggerel or prose and printed on broadsheets or in crudely made pamphlets to be sold by itinerant peddlers. From those primitive beginnings, the genre evolved into the illustrated proto-tabloids of the Victorian era, the pulp magazines and dimestore paperbacks of the early twentieth century, and the legitimately literary works of the post-Capote era.

DS: You’ve had a prolific and very successful career as a true-crime writer. What attracts you to the genre? Are there any writers or texts that are particularly influential on how you write and what you want to achieve?
HS: I suppose to fully answer that question, I'd have to consult with a shrink. Putting aside the issue of my personal psychology, however--guilt-ridden fantasy, unresolved Oedipal conflict, that kind of thing--I have, as an academic myth critic, a professional interest in true crime. Specifically, I have always been intrigued by the human need for stories about archetypal monsters. To me, true crime is essentially fairytale horror for grownups. You see that clearly in the kind of supernatural nicknames tabloid writers invent for certain homicidal maniacs: ‘The Night Stalker’, ‘The Vampire of Sacramento’, ‘The Pied Piper of Tucson’. These real-life criminals awaken infantile fantasies of supernatural demons lurking in the shadows, turning us all into awe-struck children again. It's why certain criminals--Ed Gein, for example, the model for Psycho's Norman Bates and Leatherface of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the subject of my first true-crime book, Deviant--achieve a mythic status in the culture. Those are the particular kinds of killers I'm interested in writing about. In fact, when I first started out, I thought, immodestly enough, that I was creating a new genre, not 'true crime' but 'true horror': nonfiction accounts of actual criminals who seemed like the flesh-and-blood incarnations of the kinds of ogres encountered in myth and folklore.

As for the second part of your question, I have, like virtually everyone working seriously in the genre for the last fifty years, been deeply influenced by In Cold Blood. But I have also been influenced by my lifelong immersion in horror cinema. To create certain narrative effects in my books, I consciously look at the ways specific scenes in my favorite horror movies have been shot and edited in order to produce tension, suspense, shock, etc. And then I try to replicate those effects in prose. What do I hope to achieve in a larger sense? In addition to producing compelling narratives--transforming newspaper articles, trial transcripts, prison records, and other primary source material into (hopefully) page-turning stories--I like to think that I am creating definitive accounts of some of our nation's most historically significant murder cases. Since I also believe that you can learn as much about a particular era from its signature crimes as from its politics or pop entertainments, I also see my books as a form of social history.

DS: Do you think that true crime can or should have any kind of social utility in order to be successful? If so, what is true crime useful for?
HS: That crime is inseparable from civilization--not an aberration but an integral and even necessary component of our lives--is a notion that has been advanced by various thinkers. Picking up on Plato’s famous observation that the virtuous man dreams what the wicked man does, Freudians argue that violent lawbreakers make it possible for the rest of us to adapt to the demands of normality by acting out (and getting punished for) our own forbidden impulses. In the view of Émile Durkheim, the criminal contributes to civic well-being not only by promoting a sense of solidarity among law-abiding citizens--who are united in their condemnation of the malefactor--but by providing a cathartic outlet for their primal vengeful impulses. If such theories are valid (and they have much to commend them), then it follows that criminals can only fulfill their social function if the rest of the world knows exactly what outrages they have committed and how they have been punished--which is to say that what the public really needs and wants is to hear the whole shocking story. And this is precisely what true-crime literature provides.

DS: With texts like Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’ in mind, could you comment on what you see as the role of the Gothic in true crime? Is true crime intrinsically Gothic/horrific, or does it depend on the case and the author’s perspective?
HS: To give a somewhat roundabout answer: as we all know, there are a dismaying number of ghastly homicides more or less on a daily basis. The vast majority of these generate nothing more than a day or two's worth of coverage before disappearing from the news. A tiny fraction, however, maintain an ongoing grip on the public imagination; some even become a permanent part of our cultural mythology. I've always been interested in why certain crimes--the Leopold and Loeb case, to take one example--exert such lasting fascination, while other equally sensational crimes (e.g., the horrific 1927 abduction-murder of twelve-year-old Marian Parker by William Edward Hickman) quickly fade into obscurity. One of my favorite observations about this very issue was made in 1836 by James Gordon Bennett, publisher of our nation's first sensationalistic ‘penny paper’, the New York Herald and the acknowledged father of American tabloid journalism. During his coverage of the famous case of the murdered New York City prostitute, Helen Jewett, Bennett wrote: ‘Men who have killed their wives, and committed other such everyday matters, have been condemned, executed, and are forgotten, but it takes a deed that has some of the sublime of horror about it to attract attention, rally eloquence, and set people crazy’.

Bennett’s insight that the murders people are interested in reading about are those which provide an experience of ‘the sublime of horror’ makes the connection between true crime and the Gothic very clear. It’s why Poe used Bennett’s paper as a source not only for his crime fiction but for certain of his horror tales as well. ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, for example, was partly inspired by the Herald’s coverage of the 1840 case of Peter Robinson, who murdered his creditor, Abraham Suydam, and interred the body beneath the floorboards of his basement. 

DS: What’s your take on the mixture of fact and fiction in true crime? In your own work, how do you balance fidelity to historical fact on the one hand and the need to craft a compelling narrative on the other?
HS: While In Cold Blood elevated the book-length true-crime narrative to the rarefied heights of serious literature, its author also set an unfortunate precedent by indulging in the kind of novelistic embellishment (not to say rank fabrication) that has become endemic to the form. People who write true crime, of course, aren’t the only authors of creative nonfiction who have been known to improve on the truth. Given the promise of absolute veracity that is embedded in the very name of the genre, however, I believe they have a particular obligation to stick to the facts.

Not that I’ve always done so myself. Early in my career, I occasionally allowed myself a bit of what I referred to as ‘extrapolation’ (less euphemistically known as ‘making stuff up’). My unacknowledged credo (cribbed from the first chapter of Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) was, ‘It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen’. In my own defense, I restricted myself to fairly minor atmospheric details. For example, there's a scene in my book Deranged in which the main character--the wizened cannibal pedophile Albert Fish (using his pseudonym, Frank Howard)--dines with the family of his future child-victim, Grace Budd. Here's how I describe the meal:

The men retired to the kitchen, a clean but dingy-looking room illuminated by a single bare bulb that tinged the whitewashed walls a sickly yellow. The long wooden table, covered with a plaid oilcloth, held a big cast-iron pot full of ham hocks and sauerkraut--the leftover remains of the previous night’s dinner. The sharp, briny odor of the cabbage filled the room. Arranged around the pot were platters of pickled beets and boiled carrots, a basket of hard rolls, and two ceramic bowls into which Mrs. Budd had transferred Frank Howard’s pot cheese and strawberries.

Now, while this lunch really happened, I took the artistic liberty of inventing the menu. I hasten to say that I did some research into the kind of food a working-class family like the Budds might serve a guest for lunch in the late 1920s. Still, I didn't actually know what they ate--I just wanted to make the moment seem real for the reader.

I no longer permit myself even such minor bits of imaginative re-creation. My field is historic true crime--I've covered cases from the Civil War era to the 1950s--and I've come to see the genre as a legitimate branch of American historical study. After all, the Leopold and Loeb case tells us as much about the Jazz Age as Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, just as the Manson murders shed as much light on the culture of late-1960s America as Woodstock. To be taken seriously as history, however, a true-crime book must adhere strictly to documented fact (which is why my last few books have included copious endnotes). There's no reason why a book-length narrative about a nineteenth-century serial murderer shouldn't be held to the same rigorous standards as, for instance, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt.

My task, then, as I see it is to produce a serious work of historical scholarship that stays true to the sensationalistic roots of the genre by providing ‘murder fanciers’ (as Edmund Pearson called true-crime lovers) with the primal pleasures they crave. Once I’ve settled on a subject, I launch into my research, a process that generally takes anywhere from a year to a year-and-a-half and involves many long hours of digging through various archives, copying old newspaper-stories from microfilm, getting hold of legal documents, police reports, trial transcripts, and psychiatric records, tracking down and interviewing relatives (of the perpetrator and/or and victims), etc. Before I’m done, I’ll have accumulated several thousand Xeroxed pages plus a small library of books.

Shaping this sprawling mass of raw material into a readable narrative is, of course, my main creative challenge. While I'm scrupulous about keeping the content strictly factual, I feel free to manipulate certain formal elements--mostly story structure and point of view--for maximum dramatic effect. 

DS: Thanks to podcasts like Serial and documentaries like The Jinx, we’ve seen a recent resurgence of interest in true crime. Why do you think it remains a popular genre? 
HS: Simply put: we all, in the darkest recesses of our psyches, want to commit murder. True crime permits us to experience in fantasy what we would never allow ourselves to do in the flesh. It provides a safe, socially acceptable way to satisfy what the art critic Erwin Panofsky calls our ‘primordial instinct for bloodshed and cruelty’. It’s the same reason that Poe remains the most popular of nineteenth-century American authors.

DS: What do you see as the future of the genre?
HS: The only real changes I see have to do with technology--i.e., the ways the stories are transmitted and consumed. There are now entire cable TV channels devoted to true-crime shows, many of which rely heavily on dramatized recreations. I suppose the next step will be virtual reality true crime, where the audience will feel they’re actually wielding the hatchet while administering forty whacks to Andrew Borden’s skull.

DS: What are you working on at the moment?
HS: At this particular moment, I’m working on this interview. I also have a new book coming out in August--Man-Eater--on the legendary Colorado cannibal, Alfred G. Packer (at whose 1883 trial the sentencing judge reputedly said: “Packer, you voracious sonofabitch, there were seven Democrats in Hinsdale County and you ate five of them!”). As for my next project, I’m contemplating a book about Belle Gunness, the infamous, ‘Lady Bluebeard’ of LaPorte, Indiana.

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