The Dirty Little Secret of The Black Phone

The thing I love about speculative fiction (horror, sci-fi, contemporary fantasy) is those stories aren’t just about monsters or spaceships or time travel. They serve as broad canvases to explore different facets of humanity. Dragons and Ice Zombies in Game of Thrones are window dressing for a story about the lust for power. The task of fighting vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a metaphor for the tumultuous transition to adulthood.

Recently I saw a horror movie titled The Black Phone that was not just about a teenage boy locked in a basement by a sadistic madman who got help from previous dead victims via a dead phone. The story was not about ghosts. It was about child abuse.

The Black Phone (not sure how I feel about the title), starring Ethan Hawke and based on a short story by Joe Hill, is about a child abductor nicknamed the Grabber who terrorizes a Denver suburb. He kidnaps teenage Finney and locks him in the basement. In this basement is the black phone of the title that doesn’t work, except it does. (WARNING: spoilers ahead). Finney has a touch of ESP, and that ESP allows him to communicate with the boys who the Grabber kidnapped and murdered before him. Those boys barely know who they are anymore. Their murders left them that traumatized, but they’re able to give Finney advice that leads him to tools that may help him survive.

First off, The Black Phone is really well done. At no point did I find my mind wandering. I didn’t get bored. It took me a while to get into it, but that’s more of a Kevin quirk than an actual criticism. The ‘70s details are fun (before my time, so I can’t relate or critique), the suspense and thrills are well placed and well spaced, and the writing and acting were strong. If you like horror, you’ll love this movie.

So, about the child abuse. In the real world it’s a topic rarely touched. The Black Phone didn’t shy away from it.

One of the earliest shots shows Finney and his sister Gwen tiptoeing around their angry father, a nasty drunk mourning the suicide of his wife. Gwen (like Finney and their mother) has ESP abilities, which their father literally tries to beat out of her. This, not the kidnapping or murders, was the most horrific scene of the movie. For anyone who’s experienced something similar, it will be a killer scene to watch. For those lucky enough to never have suffered abuse, hopefully it will be a little easier to watch.

It’s not profound or especially insightful to say that abuse warps children. Gwen is defiant and violent. Finney is passive to a fault. Both learned lessons from their abuse (Gwen: fight fire with fire. Finney: weakness). By the end Finney learns that sometimes you have to fight back, if just to survive. The second to last scene gutted me. After Finney kills the Grabber, he and his sister huddle in the back of the ambulance. Their father runs to them and sobs apologies at their feet. They stare at him, blankly. He’s repentant, but they’re already broken. That scene rang so true.

But the final scene of The Black Phone, the one just after that ambulance scene, told a different story. Throughout the movie, Finney was tormented by bullies. In the last scene, Finney, now legendary for killing the Grabber, struts through the halls of his school, ready to claim the love of the girl he crushes on.

It was a good ending, but it left me with a doubt I could only make sense of when I read an interview with the director. For him, the movie was about being bullied. In that narrative framework that absurdly triumphant last scene make sense. But the realities of child abuse tell a different story. In the real world Finney would have a long, long road ahead of him. He’d face a mighty struggle to reclaim his sense of self and his sense of power.

We rarely talk about the effects of physical abuse on children, including in fiction. Horror is the exception. To me, the movie Hereditary was about a woman abused by her mother pass on that abuse to her children. In The Babadook, a mother lashes out at her difficult son, using her grief as an excuse. Add The Black Phone to this thin cannon (I don’t count Carrie–the mother was too cartoonish). All three movies presented the parents as sympathetic. They usually are. But they didn’t flinch at showing us a glimpse of the horror that children experience as a result of their physical abuse.

Read this book: The Space Between the Stars

“Life is its own point. It’s just a series of moments, some of them memorable, some of them not. There’s no redemption but what we’re prepared to grant ourselves. No point when we’re finished becoming what we’re going to be. There’s just this breath, and the next one, and the next one. Each of those breaths, each of those moments, help shape us.”

The Space Between the Stars

This bit of gorgeous nihilism is to me the heart of Anne Corlett’s sci-fi novel The Space Between the Stars, the story of a group of plague survivors: the .0001 percent or so of humanity spread across several worlds who were not turned to dust.

I didn’t plan on reading a book about a plague, not right now. Living through a much milder one than in this book is about all I wanted to do with anything plague related.

Once I started reading, it was hard for me to stop.

The Space Between the Stars is centered on Jamie, a thirtysomething veterinarian who is estranged from her long-term boyfriend, isolated from her own historical grief, and the only survivor on a small colony world.

Or so she thinks.

Plague stories can go in several directions. The Walking Dead was once my favorite TV show. Now just a droning, repetitive PSA that humans can be monsters too (ok, I get it!). When Jamie finds other survivors, I was expecting some Walking Dead-ish human vs. human confrontations.

Not so much.

I won’t get into spoilers, but a search for survivors–and her boyfriend–takes on some twists. Not too many, though. The Space Between the Stars is not a hard sci-fi novel (spacecraft can traverse great distances in unbelievably short spans of time). It is also not a thriller.

Instead, it’s more of a character study. On that note, I found Jamie wholly unlikable. She is prickly. She snaps at people. She is self righteous. She’s a horrible communicator. But Corlett does a great job in showing some of the whys, and also showing how maybe Jamie doesn’t like being so flawed. So, while Jamie is unlikable, she’s relatable, if not quite sympathetic.

The Space Between the Stars is not perfect. There were things I couldn’t relate to–as an American, I don’t get the English obsession with class, which was one of the themes of this book. And I wished the sci-fi was amped up (several scenes felt too present day, and not set a century or two in the future).

Still, I was glad to be along for the ride. The writing was beautiful (almost to the point of distraction), and Corlett hit all the right emotional notes. By the end, I wanted to stay in that plague wrecked world just a little while longer.

Classic Lit Challenge: Heart of Darkness

Here’s one of the rarely discussed facts of fiction. Whether we’re writing an alien-filled sci-fi adventure, a sprawling fantasy saga, or a historical epic, all these stories are ultimately a reflection of the specific writer’s society, worldview, ethics, and morals. If you want a true representation of the past, don’t turn to historical fiction.

Turn to fiction actually written in the past.

Warning, though. Often their ethics and sensibilities are vastly different from ours. Sometimes disturbingly so.

If you want to be disturbed and unsettled, then read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In it he depicts a world that is cruel and brutal and blatantly racist. And, yes, heartless and dark.

This is a controversial book, because of its unvarnished description of 19th century European colonialism. But if it’s going to be an accurate portrayal of that time period, how could it not be?

Heart of Darkness book cover

Heart of Darkness is a short book that recounts the story of a less than reliable, and possibly slightly insane, sailor named Marlow, the narrator in Conrad’s sprawling and ambitious Lord Jim, as he tells of his journey into the Belgian Congo to retrieve the mysterious Kurtz for his trading company.

Along the way Marlow travels deeper and deeper into the mysterious heart of so-called wild Africa. The writing has a dreamlike quality throughout that’s a testament to Conrad’s skill. It moves at a fast clip and doesn’t let up. Sometimes it moves too fast for me–especially in the scenes where he finally arrives at Kurtz’s renegade compound I wanted Marlow to slow down and tell us more. But we get what we get.

Heart of Darkness is a compelling read, and I highly recommend it. It was the inspiration for the movie Aopcalypse Now (which I have to rewatch now), so much so that Marlon Brando’s character is also named Kurtz, and he utters the famous line from Conrad’s book.

“The horror, the horror.”

I read commentary on Heart of Darkness captured from writers throughout the 20th Century, and they all dissected it based on where they sat in time and place. I am too. For me, Heart of Darkness was an indictment of the 19th century European colonial enterprise into Africa. The people in London who run the company are presented as cold. The European men in Africa come across as casually cruel. The Africans in their employ are first seen as brutally treated. Conrad does not spare these details. He doesn’t present the Africans as fully human. He does the Europeans, which does them little favor.

Heart of Darkness shows how, rather than “civilizing” Africa (the thin sheen of respectability placed on an enterprise that was really about plunder), European colonialism corrupted those involved.

It made their own hearts dark.