The Human in the Horror: Mary Gaitskill’s “The Other Place”

 

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“I didn’t really plan to do it. I just wanted to feel the gun in my pocket and look at the woman and know that I could do it.”

I don’t like to walk alone at night. I don’t like the feeling of fear, paranoia, and dread that courses through my body as I trek up and down the poorly lit streets snaking around campus. There are monsters out there, real ones, driven by a sick, twisted thirst.

This twisted thirst is at the center of Mary Gaitskill’s short story, “The Other Place,” which was published in The New Yorker in 2011. Gaitskill dips into the dark mind of a young man who is aroused by the idea of violence against women—horrific fantasies of murder and gore that he calls, the other place. As Jennifer Egan said, “[Gaitskill] is willing to go anywhere and try anything…She’s able to find humanity everywhere she goes.”

Reading “The Other Place” was a terrifying and confusing experience for me. I realized that I connected to the narrator in some way as a person. The monster lurking out there in the dark, the one that I so feared during my moonlit walks, had a history and emotional complexity. A broken family. Drug problems. Doubt, shame, and anger. The need for control.

The villain-as-protagonist narrative is becoming increasingly popular, though, primarily in the realm of fantasy. Gregory Maguire has made a career out of it, with Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Disney came out with Maleficent in 2014 and Descendants in 2015. These books and films highlight the importance of acknowledging the good in others, of contextualizing their actions, of being mindful and compassionate, despite their flaws.

The protagonist of “The Other Place” is not a green-skinned witch or a horned fairy, but a seemingly average Joe in a contemporary world—who happens to find intense, even erotic, pleasure in the thought of hurting women. Gaitskill reveals that this protagonist, as corrupt as he is, can be anyone and may be among us. He may have evil brewing within him, but he is also human. I personally did not want to see this character as a whole person, and part of me still doesn’t. Even though his violent nature is housed in his mind, not in his hands, it is still there.

By positioning this character as the narrator and protagonist, Gaitskill welcomes the reader to ponder: can he, despite his corrupt mind, still be a good person?

That’s for the reader to decide.

Read Gaitskill’s story on The New Yorker website here. You can also listen to Jennifer Egan read and discuss the story on the podcast here.

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