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The Reader Is the Protagonist

Exiting a Horror Story


[clock] 21-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 2016

Illustration by Thomas Allen The summer of 1989, shortly after my second husband and I married, we buckled my two daughters, who were seven and three, into the rear seat of a used car purchased for cash. We’d already sold most of our belongings and walked away from the rest, and packed the car’s trunk with what remained: clothing and toys, pillows and blankets, four place settings, one pot, one pan. We told no one where we were going. We meant to disappear. Driving east out of California, we decided on our new names. If we hadn’t been so shell-shocked, it might have been fun, the idea of starting over, starting fresh, in a place where we were unknown. But this was do-it-yourself witness protection. Hidden under the driver’s seat was a book on how to create new identities, but it couldn’t tell us who we’d be.

We stopped in Boulder, Colorado. My new husband had once spent a day in the town, and he remembered it as a friendly place. We drove around for a while. The brick downtown seemed quaint, the neighborhoods leafy and safe. A park with a fast-running creek appealed to the girls. I liked the idea of living near a university, with a tranquil campus, the prospect of lectures and music, young people everywhere.

From a phone booth outside a supermarket, we called a number we found in a real-estate magazine. My new husband spoke to the realtor on duty, and within minutes he’d arranged a trade: a month’s rent for painting a condo that was for sale. We were worried about money, about making what we had last. The realtor met us at the property. He opened up the garage, which was empty but for a few rollers and pans on a shelf, and five-gallon buckets of paint. The condo had two bedrooms, two baths. A concrete patio on the other side of sliding glass doors. The high-ceilinged living room echoed. Such a melancholy sound. The realtor handed over the key.

For a week it rained every day. The storms kept us inside, but also, we were afraid to go out much, afraid to be seen. My new husband and I rolled white paint onto the walls. The girls colored or watched television on a black-and-white set we’d picked up at Goodwill.

My three-year-old tugged at my legs. She had her blanket over her shoulders and a book in her arms: She wanted a story. For more than a year now, the demands of everyday life had required all my attention. I’d trusted only what I could touch, what I could see or hear or feel. I had two daughters to protect, and things I’d once believed essential had fallen away. Books were among the abandoned; one day, halfway through a beloved novel, I set it facedown, and that was the end of that. I couldn’t read nonfiction, either, or newspapers, or magazines; that is, nothing meant for adults. My little daughter leaned against my legs. The older girl had joined us, her anticipation charging the air. Reading to my children—that I could manage.

My mother read to me a lot when I was young. Our family life was often fraught: my father uncommunicative, physically absent, and emotionally cool; Mom either at his throat or steeped in hostile despair. Reading was her lifelong escape. One effect this had on me was that I believed that books were alive, not just the tales within them but the objects themselves. When I was seated in my mother’s lap with a story, the stiffness of the cover told me what it was to have a spine. The words in their regular rows were like heartbeats; the pages, turning, fluttered like wings.

The story my daughters wanted was Jon Stone’s Monster at the End of This Book.

Grover, one of the characters from Sesame Street, is the narrator. Frightened by the monster that he imagines awaits him on the last page, he speaks directly to the reader: “Listen, I have an idea. If you do not turn any pages, we will never get to the end of this book.”

Grinning, my daughters turned the page.

Grover ties the next page down with a rope. Turn. “You do not know what you are doing to me!” Turn. He nails the next page into place. He builds a brick wall. Turn, turn.

By the end the girls were giggling, breathless from the tension. It didn’t matter that they’d heard this story so many times. Fall. Winter. Spring. “Please do not turn the page,” Grover pleads. “Please please please.”

Turn.

On the last page Grover cries: “Well, look at that! The only one here is … ME. I … am the Monster at the end of this book.”

The real protagonist of the story is, of course, the reader. The subject is existential dread. Who is the monster, and what does it want, and how will it end?

In the living room, we sat cross-legged on the floor and watched rain fall onto the concrete patio. After a while, the clouds blew away, and we ventured out for a walk to a nearby drugstore. The sun dropped into the Rockies, bats flew through the tops of cottonwood trees. The wet grass looked electrified.

Longs Drugs, hunkered at the corner of Iris and 28th, was a beacon, cheerful, full of color and light. You could live out of that store, if you had to; it sold anything you might want in one place. We wandered the aisles. The girls played with makeup samples and inspected the display of discounted summer gear: boogie boards, sand pails and shovels, aluminum beach chairs.

For what beach? I wondered. The ocean was 1,200 miles away. So was my ex-husband, my daughters’ father. He was the reason we ran. I’d fallen in love with another man and left him, and he went off the rails. He stalked and threatened us. Months after the separation, he kidnapped our younger child.

California was still a year away from passing the nation’s first anti-stalking law, written after a series of high-profile murders, including those of four women in Orange County who were killed by former lovers or former husbands or aspiring suitors. The new law would go beyond the limits of a temporary restraining order to prohibit persistent following and harassment, the threats of bodily harm that sometimes precede devastating violence. By 1993, all fifty states would have such statutes on the books.

But during the period it took to finalize my divorce, the authorities could do nothing to help. Even if they had, my ex-husband was unafraid of cops or courts, and I believe now, as I did then, that the threat of jail time would not have deterred him but rather inflamed his desire for revenge. I got my daughter back only by promising to give up someone else I loved, the man for whom I’d left him. That promise was a lie.

At Longs, my new husband parked himself by the magazines, a newspaper rolled under one arm. I stared down the rows of paperbacks. Romances, westerns, science fiction. A rack of New York Times bestsellers. Oh, I thought. Books. Since childhood, they’d seen me through everything, been my teachers and companions, my family. Standing there, I felt the shape of their absence, but I was unmoved.


By the end of that first week in Boulder, I’d secured an interview for a position as a proofreader. The company was an “independent publisher,” unnamed in the classified ad. I didn’t recognize what a rarity the listing was. Colorado had just come out of a recession and the jobs section of the local paper was thin, most of the ads for food service and minimum-wage retail. In my former life I’d worked as a typesetter, or a secretary, and I felt qualified to proofread, but I was worried about being asked for references. On the phone, however, all I had to say was “English major,” and the interviewer cut things short and requested that I come in.

The publisher was in a nondescript two-story building a few blocks north of Boulder’s downtown mall. No signage out front, only a street number. The front door was locked. I rang the bell but no one came. I knocked but there was no answer. I loitered on the sidewalk. It was raining again but fitfully, the moisture disappearing in patches, like footprints erasing themselves. I rang the bell again. This time a shiny-haired young woman in jeans and a button-down shirt answered. “Hello, Karen,” she said decisively. For a moment my mind went blank. She was, I realized, the first person ever to address me by that name.

She led me up a flight of stairs, into a room furnished with a conference table and chairs. We chatted briefly about the weather. “It’s late in the summer for the monsoon,” she said. I associated that word with the tropics, with flooding and disaster; surely that didn’t happen here. The young woman said, “But everything changes after Labor Day.” Her manner wasn’t unfriendly, exactly, but it wasn’t friendly, either. “What do you publish?” I asked.

Without answering, she lifted a typescript from a stack on the table and passed it over to me, along with a sharp red pencil. “We can get into that later,” she said. “For now, I’d like you to go through this and mark it up for errors. Shouldn’t take long.”

When she was gone I skimmed the text, relieved to see that it was nothing technical. But when I returned to the opening sentence, the letters suddenly blurred. I couldn’t make them cohere. And I panicked, thinking, I really can’t read.

Calm yourself—I may have said it aloud. Look at the spelling. I ran a hand over the paper; it felt lightly furred, dry. I read the sentence again, concentrating, decided it was fine, and moved on to the next. I saw a mistake and marked the correction. In this way I worked through the pages. Finished, I set them aside. A preternatural quiet had descended, no sounds of conversation, no hum of office machinery. My mind emptied; the words from the pages were gone. Finally, the young woman returned. She collected the test and whisked it away.

Some minutes later, she came back in smiling. She led me into a second, smaller room. The walls here were lined with bookcases, the shelves packed tightly with softcovers, some workbook-sized and brightly colored, like study guides.

We sat in facing armchairs. Again, we chatted. The vibe now coming off her felt affable and benign. “Yes, we’re new to Boulder,” I said. “No, I don’t ski.” “Two kids—mostly, I’ve been home with them.” I expected her to press me about my lack of work history, my inability to provide references, my nonexistent degree, everything I’d left back in California with my old name. But the young woman shrugged. “You passed the test. That’s all we care about.” She herself was a Ph.D. candidate in Classics. “We hire a lot of grad students,” she said. “It’s a nice group. If you have time today, I’d like you to meet Peder. He’s the publisher.”

Was it really going to be this easy? I couldn’t believe my luck.

She handed me a pamphlet. The cover said paladin press.

“Have you heard of us?” she asked.

I had not.

“I’ll leave you alone again for a while,” she said. “You can browse through our catalogue. Have a look at the shelves. You’ll get a sense of what we do here. If you’re okay with it, we’ll take the next step.”

When she was gone, I opened the pamphlet. I don’t know what I expected, some dull corner of academia, or pornography, maybe; that would explain the building’s security and the air of secrecy. In fact, most of Paladin’s books were instructional. Some of the subjects seemed quirky, even fanciful: smuggling, soldiering, locksmithing, espionage. Others were devoted to life off the grid. How to hunt your own food, how to survive in the cold. How to disappear.

This last one forced me from my seat. We’d been here a week, and that guide to creating new identities was still in the car. My new husband had purchased it before we left California, from a survivalists’ store in L.A., but we hadn’t read it—at first because we were consumed with fear, and with getting away, and then because we were paralyzed by the enormity of what we’d done. That Paladin had published such a book was, I realized, only a bizarre coincidence, but it felt like a message to me.

I walked along the shelves, titles jumping out from the books’ spines. Get Even: The Complete Book of Dirty Tricks. 21 Techniques of Silent Killing. Black Medicine, the Dark Art of Death. Deadly Brew: Advanced Improvised Explosives. How to Kill Someone with Your Bare Hands. My legs shook, a muscle in my cheek throbbed. Hit Man, I read: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors, and pulled the book from its place.


When we were dating, my ex-husband used to say to me, “Baby, my life is an open book.” He’d offer up candid stories about his difficult childhood in New York, his time in the army, his various jobs, some of which weren’t entirely legal. My father was someone who was busy in the world but silent at home, and I grew up hungry for a man’s words. My ex-husband, I believed, spoke the truth. After we married, however, things changed between us. If I complained about his anger or his drinking, his resentments or what I eventually realized were lies, he’d say, “Never judge a book by its cover.” This shift in aphorisms was, I think, meant to undermine my feelings about his behavior, and to hint at unacknowledged “depths.” And then one night he told me, “I once killed a man.”

We were still living together then, though I’d begun the affair that would end us. He doled out the story of the murder at the tail end of a hellishly surreal fight that began with a dropped plate but soon enough was about everything. I started the fight, or he did; I don’t remember anymore. What I do remember is my desperate need to get away from what he was telling me, running from kitchen to living room to bedroom.

The man he claimed to have killed was someone he’d known back in New York who’d raped a neighborhood girl. The rape was, he said, common knowledge. The man had gotten away with it, the crime either unreported or investigated improperly. This, too, was also common knowledge, a story related in bars.

My ex-husband was then twenty-six, only a few weeks out of the army, unemployed and at loose ends. He ran into the rapist at a downtown drinking hole. The man was older but he’d been in the army, too, and he was also unemployed: They had things to talk about, and together shut the place down. Afterward, out on the sidewalk at 2 a.m., my ex-husband suggested a walk. They wound up at the East River. Staring into the water, feeling confidential, or avuncular, the rapist bragged about having “dated” the neighborhood girl. “Ugly women,” he said, “they need love, too.” My husband nodded, steering the man to the river’s edge. Then he shot him and pushed the body in.

“It was easy,” he told me. “Like tossing a piece of trash. No one saw. No one knew. No one ever even missed him.”

He had me trapped in a corner of the bedroom.

“I don’t believe you,” I said defiantly.

He pincered my bicep until it burned. “What you’ve done to me.”

“You’re a monster,” I said.

The look on his face: He was astonished. The change in him was instantaneous, remarkable. The whole point, he explained, ignoring my terrified moans, was that he’d killed the guy for the girl. He was a hero. Why couldn’t I see it? “That fuck,” he said, “got what he deserved.”

In the light of the following day—making the girls their breakfast; overseeing tooth-brushing, and dressing; belongings collected, everybody into the car; a numbing drop down into our family routine—the story struck me as impossible in every detail, even laughable. Except for one thing: I knew he carried a gun. Was the murder true? In the years since, I’ve never been able to verify it. Maybe it happened by some other means, at some other time. Maybe the story was invented in every detail. Either way, it meant something to him. A killer, that’s how he saw himself. It’s how he wanted me to see him, as someone to be mortally feared. He was instructing me, in the clearest possible way, as to what he was capable of.


In March 1993, three people were murdered in Silver Spring, Maryland: Mildred Horn, a forty-three-year-old flight attendant; her quadriplegic eight-year-old son, Trevor; and Trevor’s night nurse, Janice Saunders. Mildred and Janice were both shot through the eye with a .22 caliber rifle. The boy was killed in his bed, his tracheostomy opening blocked, his nose and mouth pinched off by a gloved hand.

Mildred Horn had told her family that if anything ever happened to her, they should look to her ex-husband, Lawrence T. Horn. Horn, a former Motown producer and recording engineer, had already tried to kill her, she claimed, and although he now lived 3,000 miles away, in Hollywood, California, she feared he might yet manage it. Horn, floundering professionally and in serious debt, had become fixated on a $1.7 million medical settlement that was made on behalf of his son. He felt it manifestly unfair that Mildred controlled this money. He boasted to her about being the sort of man who could and would kill. He’d done it before. While in the service, he said, he’d pushed a fellow sailor off the deck of a ship and made it look like an accident.

But Lawrence Horn didn’t shoot Mildred, or Janice, nor did he suffocate his disabled son. Instead, he hired out the deeds to James Edward Perry, a former street preacher and ex-con who, upon his release from prison, decided to become a hit man. At home in California at the time the murders were committed, Horn videotaped himself as he watched television, the camera lingering over a particular program’s timestamp. Rather than exonerating him, this ham-handed tactic strengthened the argument for his guilt.

When Perry, the actual killer, was arrested, the police found in his possession a 130-page how-to guide published by Paladin Press: Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors.

On the book’s cover, a man in a yellow suit and fedora holds a gun fitted with a silencer, his action stance superimposed over the outline of a downed body colored in red. The author is “Rex Feral.” Long after I first heard of the case, I discovered that this was a pseudonym for a divorced mother of two who’d written the book because she needed money to pay her property taxes. Hit Man initially came in to Paladin as a novel, but the publisher convinced her to turn it into a handbook.

Some of the text is addressed directly to the reader:

You are working. This is your job and you are a professional … When the time is right, make your move. Quietly. Efficiently … The kill is the easiest part … You made it! Your first job was a piece of cake! Taking all that money was almost like robbery. Here you are, finally a real hit man with real hard cash in your pockets and that first notch on your pistol.

Perry followed the book’s instructions almost to the letter. The two bits of advice he ignored were what brought him down: He used his real name, rather than a false identity, to check into a Days Inn near Mildred Horn’s home, and he made a traceable long-distance call.

Once Horn and Perry were convicted, the victims’ families sued Paladin Press and its publisher, Peder C. Lund. Plaintiffs’ attorneys outlined twenty-two specific similarities between Hit Man and the murders, arguing that the publisher’s “speech,” usually protected under the First Amendment, was in this case equivalent to aiding and abetting in the commission of a crime. Eventually, Paladin settled. The book was pulled in 1999 and Lund agreed to pay the families millions of dollars in compensation.

I am of two minds about this. Philosophically, I would fight to the bitterest of bitter ends for free speech, because if you love words, your only choice is to defend them. People with evil intent will always find a way to do what they want. Horn wanted to rid himself of his ex-wife and claim his son’s settlement. Perry wanted a new criminal vocation. Neither required the information in Hit Man to fulfill their desires. Lund, I presume, wanted only the sales. But siding with Paladin Press feels like a betrayal of what I know to be true, that words can be dangerous; one way or another, there are always consequences. More pressingly, it feels like a betrayal of Mildred Horn. I might have been her, if I hadn’t run.

But I’m mixing things up—that’s part of the story, too, a certain confusion that has never been resolved. Because on the day I interviewed for the proofreading job, these murders were still four years in the future. 

In that book-lined room at Paladin Press, I clutched Hit Man to my chest. Well, I held some book close. It’s possible it was another title. I don’t think it matters. My apprehension of the work Paladin was sending into the world, the ugliness of it, and how close to home, made me drop the book to the floor: The pages might have burst into flames. I ran out of the room, a matter of self-preservation. I rushed along the deserted hallway, down the stairs, out the front door, and onto the street.


My daughters’ delight in The Monster at the End of This Book lasted for years, long past when it should have grown stale. There is such pleasure in fear, the thrill of being alive. In Jon Stone’s story, the reader becomes the means by which poor Grover moves ever nearer his fate as well as the actual protagonist, the monster at the end of the book. Repeating the journey makes for another kind of pleasure, the ending always the same and therefore utterly, harmlessly known.

After the interview at Paladin Press, I picked up a pizza and returned to the condo. “How did it go?” my new husband asked. “I didn’t get it,” I said. He took the white box from me and set it on the kitchen counter and folded me up in his arms. The girls, drawn by the sound of my voice, buzzed around us. In that moment I felt so safe. My loved ones were right there. Later, after the girls went to bed, my husband and I would talk about Paladin. I’d tell him how suited I might have been for a job I could never do, because of that room where instruction on how to perpetrate violence kept company with guides on how to escape.

But now it was time to eat.

I cut up the pizza, my husband got out the dinner plates, the four of us sat cross-legged on the living-room floor. Through the sliding glass doors we watched rain fall onto the concrete patio. When the clouds blew away, we walked the by-now-familiar blocks to Longs. In the periodicals aisle, my husband flipped through a magazine, the girls curled at his feet, absorbed in comics.

I stared down the display of paperbacks. Science fiction, westerns, romance. A countdown of New York Times bestsellers. The books wanted only for someone to open them, that they might live.

We disappeared, I thought. I felt hollowed out, but also as if I might fill that empty space with anything.

I don’t know what I pulled from the rack. Maybe Cat’s Eye—I remember reading the novel that year. Maybe it was Love in the Time of Cholera, or Riding the Iron Rooster. Or maybe it was one of those family sagas I’d liked so much as a teen, the cover fussy with cutouts and gold-embossed lettering.

I opened the pages and started to read.

When it was full dark, it was time to leave. We stood in line at the register, paid cash for ice-cream bars and an Atlantic Monthly and my paperback. Out on the street we all held hands. At the corner we stopped for a light. Cars came and went all around us, headlights and taillights shining white, shining red. We were out in the open, fully exposed, and I shivered, though it was summertime still. I dug in the bag for my paperback book, tucked it under one arm. The light changed and we crossed. 

6 Comments

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Cara Lopez Lee's picture
Cara Lopez Lee · 12 months ago

Terrifying, gripping, and beautiful story, Karen. I'm now eager to read the rest...

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Erin R Jones's picture
Erin R Jones · 11 months ago

Wonderful essay, Karen. Unbelievably gripping. Thank you.

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Janet Clare's picture
Janet Clare · 11 months ago

I hate to read on a computer screen, usually print out, but couldn't stop reading this. Excellent.

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous · 9 months ago

Hi Karen. Good for you. I also disappeared and assumed a new identity.  I did not have a family to worry about though.  That seems really hard to me. I also wrote my memoir now self-published on Amazon.

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous · 9 months ago

The light changed and we crossed. Was the paperback "Hit Man, : A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors?".  Is this a confessional?

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Jennifer itell's picture
Jennifer itell · 8 months ago

What a stunning essay! I especially love this: "The words in their regular rows were like heartbeats; the pages, turning, fluttered like wings." Thanks, Karen Palmer, for this reminder of the power of stories.

 

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