Helen Eustis Essay - Critical Essays


A critical assessment of Helen Eustis’s literary contributions to the genre of crime fiction must be based on her most famous novel, The Horizontal Man.

The Horizontal Man

The novel’s title is a phrase taken from a poem by W. H. Auden, “Shorts.” Eustis quotes only one of the two stanzas that constitute a middle portion of Auden’s poem. The entire section, which bears little relation to other parts, reads as follows:

Those who will not reasonPerish in the act:Those who will not actPerish for that reason.Let us honour if we canThe vertical man,Though we value noneBut the horizontal one.

As Richard Hoggart remarked about Auden’s early verse, “The epigrams usually enshrine memorable social and psychological observations.” Elsewhere, Hoggart claimed that Auden “surveys from a great height the interesting but muddled life of those below; he can see a possible order in the muddle which they do not see, and he would like to help it emerge. He is detached and slightly cynical.” The same could be said of Eustis’s comments about life and death and the human condition.

For example, one of her less inhibited characters, Freda Cramm, delivers the following remarks on crime and its punishment:Violence that strikes in our midst shakes us in a strange way. . . . Personally, I think there are not enough murders. They feed us in some way. See how avidly we devour all accounts of crime, or detective stories! And after all, the responsibility of giving death is a small one which we regard so seriously in comparison to the responsibility of giving life, which we take so lightly: There are two separate pleasures. . . . The pleasure of vicarious violence, and the pleasure at the detection and punishment of the crime of another. In the first we can enjoy the emotional outlet without undertaking the penalty, and in the second we can shiver deliciously with the knowledge that we cannot be found out, since our share in the business was secret, and of the mind.

Surprisingly enough, The Horizontal Man is a roman à clef. At the time it was written, acquaintances of the author were struck by the obvious similarities between the fictional New England women’s college it featured, Hollymount, and the author’s alma mater, Smith College. Parallels extended beyond the locale to include characters, many of whom were based on well-known campus figures. For example, the villain was rumored to be a composite portrait of two professors from Smith’s English department—a well-known modern critic (Newton Arvin) and a medievalist (Howard Rollin Patch). The victim closely resembled the author’s husband, Alfred Young Fisher, formerly her professor, whom she was divorcing at the time. According to one source, Eustis began writing The Horizontal Man on the advice of her therapist to exorcize some of her hostility toward her spouse.

Eustis’s knowledge of abnormal psychology and psychoanalytic theory is evident in the narrative and helps to create verisimilitude. Essentially a puzzle novel with gothic overtones, The Horizontal Man is a tour de force with an ingenious surprise ending. The spectacular climax exposes the criminal pathology of a schizophrenic killer and completes a complex psychological portrait. Although the clinical details are completely correct, Eustis does not settle for mere psychiatric accuracy. Instead, in the Russian manner, she goes much further to create a disturbing yet compassionate picture of a tortured soul whose tragic suffering is caused by what she calls “the poetry of unreason.” Eustis strives to represent mental illness realistically, not only through clinical detail but also through literary allusion:But when . . . I’ve thought of madness, it seems most easily explained to me as poetry in action. A life of symbol rather than reality. On paper one may understand Gulliver, or Kafka, or Dante. But let a man go about behaving as if he were a giant or a midget, or caught in a cosmic plot directed at himself, or in heaven or hell, and we feel horror—we want to disavow him, to proclaim him as far removed as possible from ourselves.

The literary technique is sophisticated. Although the emphasis is placed on characterization, the narrative is as carefully plotted as a detective story must be. The characters are revealed as the investigation proceeds. The mental focus is reminiscent of Dostoevski’s Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886), but...

(The entire section is 1966 words.)