Retro Book Review: Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane by W. P. Blatty

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The first thing I do when I pick up a book like this is give it a good sniff. If it’s from the 60s or 70s you can guarantee that those yellowed pages of sepia-tone nostalgia will greet you with a warm, musty scent, reserved for tightly-packed second-hand bookstores and the forgotten back-rooms of thrift shops. Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane smelled great, and had a cover that reminded me of The Exorcist version that I read years ago, with its simple black background and stark white writing.

If anyone has watched and enjoyed The Ninth Configuration, the movie based on Blatty’s later adaptation of this book, then you’ll know the general story. However, since this is like an early, raw, version of that story, it is well worth reading, if only for anthropological reasons. A group of army servicemen, namely pilots and one penned for a trip to the moon (Cutshaw), are ensconced within a mansion under the ‘pretense’ (or is it?) of being mad. Psychologists and doctors have come and gone, but none have been able to help them. In comes Hudson Kane. Can he save them?

Cutshaw won't fly to the moon - why not? (C) Warner Bros

Cutshaw won’t fly to the moon – why not?
(C) Warner Bros

The cast is vast for such a short book (200 pages) with the first half devoted to exploring how ‘crazy’ the men are, interspersed with reflections on God. Two sub-plots involving a General who allows computers to make army decisions, and the harassment of an adjacent all-girls’ school, seem out of place here, and indeed are removed from the movie version later on.

On the back, the blurb introduces you to the story; “A grotesque old mansion, a group of apparent madmen, and psychologist Hudson Kane. The stage is set…”

And indeed, a stage is set; Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane has to go down as one of my fastest reads yet. The first half of the book was like reading a screenplay; not so much exposition split by dialogue, but dialogue interrupted by reminders of location. The amount of characters and lines of dialogue amounted to a zany, comedic atmosphere; high on the chaotic chart.

“Sergeant Christian reporting for duty, sir!”

“And blasted well about time, Kildare!” Fromme greeted the sergeant icily. “Now, will you get this man into surgery or do you plan to let him stand here bleeding to death while you and your buddies play soldier. What the hell is this – a hospital or a nut house!”

Upon Kane’s arrival he is greeted with a barrage of over-the-top antics from the ‘madmen’. It is chaotic, but that is the point. It’s fun, and sometimes funny. I was reminded of 80s teen comedies that are trying too hard; and that’s what is happening with these men. While I could stand back and say the writing is trying too hard, I don’t think that is the case. The writing is reflecting that the soldiers are going out of their way to show just how crazy they are. The dialogue flips from soldier to soldier, from topic to topic, going off on tangents, all while introducing us to the cast. The first impression is of Kane versus The Collective Crazies.

It’s only when Cutshaw corners quiet-spoken Kane in his office where we can begin to distinguish individuals; thus beginning the book’s central relationship. Cutshaw runs the show; as admitted by Captain Fell, one of the superiors on site, “soon as Cutshaw gives the order.” No sooner had Fell given Kane the file on Cutshaw, then Cutshaw has barged theatrically into the room. (Everything seems theatrical; as though it was inevitable a movie would spin from it.)

“You’re on the way out! I’ve been deputized to inform you that we refuse to be led by a sissy!” Cutshaw’s gaze flicked over at Fell. “Captain Fell,” he demanded severely, “are those my jockey shorts?”

“Friend,” intervened Kane, “by whom were you deputized?”

“Angels and archangels” Cherubim and seraphim! Unseen forces too numerous to enumerate!”

Now begins a cat-and-mouse game between Kane and Cutshaw. They both have secrets that need to be kept, and they each have an agenda, and it was fascinating to follow their interactions and motives, which change through the course of the story.

The central theme, other than madness, is touched upon above; Blatty’s recurring discourse on God. Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane is a stronger book for touching on this theme, transcending it beyond a strictly comedic genre novel; however, I think the methods employed are sometimes heavy-handed. Both the characteristics of Kane and Cutshaw are drawn quite early on, but on Cutshaw’s insistence to discuss God, or ‘Foot’ (with a capital F) as He is referred to (cue one of the men to be orchestrated into painting a foot with wings) it felt like characterization was dropped, as it was time to ‘discuss all things religion.’

The back and forth is probably every argument Blatty had had with himself, and others, right up until that point. And as such, each argument and counter-argument was finely tuned – even to a point where it felt written straight out of a theology book. (This is even alluded to by Cutshaw, eyeing the range of books on Kane’s shelves.) It’s as though the pair have dropped swords and are now sitting down to have a friendly discussion over a game of chess. It’s a total change in tone, and it does jar. While I didn’t mind the interludes, it was just more fun when they were going at it with the swords.

“Your lightning instincts purely astound me. Now, let’s take a simple disjunction. Either matter – matter or energy – is eternal and always existed, or it didn’t always exist and had a definite beginning in time. So let’s eliminate one or the other…”

The language used, such as ‘disjunction’ in the above quote, is also jarring. However, in the context of the book, which both in dialogue and in description is full of colorful terms, it is consistent. It is odd just how literate everyone in this book is, though.

Stacy Keach in The Ninth Configuration Copyright Warner Bros.

Stacy Keach in The Ninth Configuration
Copyright Warner Bros.

The mystery of the narrative is broken half-way through and signals a change in pace. The zany dialogue continues, but it is far less. From an early revelation that opens the story up, the reader can now delve into the depths of the character’s minds, exploring back story and motivation. Here the tone is more serious, and when further religious exploration is made it seems more in line with the characters and their motivations.

Kane’s mental state is exposed through dream recollections (typical of Blatty) and Cutshaw steps aside slightly so that the rest of the men can each take center stage. This serves to open the story up, allowing the men to test Kane’s nerve. It ultimately becomes a story of who will break first, as events escalate (sometimes nuttily – tunnels?) towards tragedy.

The Ninth Configuration is one of my favorite movies, so it was interesting to discover its inspiration. In truth, many elements and motifs were kept (lemon drops, incidentally, recur throughout Blatty’s work). A lot of the dialogue, particularly the more comedic stuff, was also kept. It ended up feeling like a fraternal twin to The Ninth Configuration; very similar, but with a slightly more crooked smile and close-set eyes. Definitely recommended, if you can get hold of a copy!

 

Buy Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane from Amazon

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Adam Smith