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Book Review: ‘What You See in the Dark’

Novel Uses Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ as Backdrop

Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock's

Credit: Universal

Above: Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."

NOTE: I'm happy to announce that from time to time Miguel Rodriguez will be guest blogging about books related to film here on Cinema Junkie. His first post is about "What You See in the Dark," a novel by Manuel Muñoz.

It has been said more than a few times that the film "Psycho" changed forever the way films were made—a sign of darker, more sophisticated, perhaps even more cynical times. But if "Psycho" could be called a turning point, how would that turning point manifest itself to everyday people? What You See in the Dark, the first published novel by author Manuel Muñoz takes Hitchcock’s cinema landscape-altering thriller and juxtaposes it against the changing lives of a few people in the small working class town of late-1950s Bakersfield, California.

Bakersfield itself is an important character in the story. Although the film takes place in Phoenix, parts of the early driving scenes were actually shot on I-99 between Bakersfield and Fresno. It is a town in a nexus, with Hollywood far enough away to seem impossibly distant, but close enough for the fantastical dreams of superstardom to loom in the hearts of Bakersfield residents. It’s a place of stories people tell about each other mixed from their jealousies and voyeuristic tendencies:

"What You See in the Dark"

Video for "What You See in the Dark"

“Here, people believed whatever story they wanted to believe, even if they made it up . . .”

It is a town where a visit from an actress and a prominent director, who arrive to scout shooting locations for their next film, turns heads.

The novel is structured in an interlocking series of vignettes from the points of view of different characters. Muñoz attempts to imitate the shadowy and prurient visual storytelling of the classic noir film, while simultaneously giving readers a snapshot of real life, with its connections, ripples, and consequences. In the former attempt, he is abundantly successful. The story is bookended with chapters written in the second person—a method which can be extremely jarring, but really brings to life the way in which Bakersfield residents regard one another. In the rest of the book, each chapter is told from the point of view of each chapter’s central character, each character playing a role of varying degrees of importance in the others’ stories. Taken as a whole, we get the story of a frowned-upon young love gone awry, parallel to the making of one of cinema’s most notorious scenes of violence.

From the outset, that young love appears to be central to the story. The couple is Teresa Garza and Dan Watson. They become the center of social scrutiny because she is a Mexican shoe store clerk, and he is “the most handsome (white) man in town.” As tragic events unfold, however, far more interesting becomes the story of Dan Watson’s mother Arlene, Bakersfield born and bred. She spans the time that is both Before Psycho (“BP,” as the Executive Editor of Algonquin Books puts it in his blog) and After "Psycho."

Photo caption: Janet Leigh in "Psycho."

Photo credit: Universal

Janet Leigh in "Psycho."

The filming of "Psycho" plays the distant mirror to the reality of Munoz’s characters. Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock get vignette chapters of their own, as the unnamed “Actress” and “Director.” Their chapters are the novel’s briefest, though Hitchcock fans will find their fictional conversations and thoughts most entertaining. Other details of the film production, particularly the filming of the notorious shower scene, lend this part of the novel a realistic dimension that is engaging, and a joy to film nerd like myself.

The “dark” in the book’s title pops up in several different scenes, from the darkness of the movie theater, to the driveway in front of Arlene’s house, to the woods surrounding a swing set, to a fateful stairwell leading to a small apartment. The dark is something you “pitch yourself into,” the novel tells us. “There is what you see and what you make of it.” Free will and fate tug at the residents of Bakersfield as resolutely as they did to Marion Crane before she met her ultimate fate at the hands of Norman Bates. The part that "Psycho" plays in the novel is similar to the one it seems to have played in real life—that of the cultural milestone. With "Psycho in place, we can look back and say, “that’s when things changed,” when the reality is probably far more complex and cultural mores were likely swiftly morphing before Hitchcock first called “Action” on set. Turning points are far harder to identify in our lives:

“She tried to think back to the day when everything had gone wrong . . . She looked as hard as she could into the dark, but she couldn’t see it.”

--Miguel Rodriguez is the director of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival, a San Diego festival dedicated to the horror genre. He also hosts Monster Island Resort Podcast when he isn’t reading, watching movies, or planning to take over the world.


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