“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
-- Stephen Biko
Let’s spend a few minutes discussing the terrible little topic of “torture”, which, not so surprisingly, comes from the Latin torquere, to twist. When you think of it like that, it doesn’t sound quite so bad. However, if you consider it as an ideophone, you start to pick up on its dark, insidious, evil nature.
Torture has been the go-to weapon for physical and psychological punishment and duress as long as mankind has walked the earth. It’s also been long abused as a tool for sick and sadistic gratification. Nation states, religious institutions, organized crime, law enforcement, paramilitary organizations, serial killers, kidnappers, and the truly demented have used it for re-education, coercion, punishment, intimidation, sexual indulgence and pure barbarism.
On rare occasions, seemingly normal people have been pushed too far, had too many switches flipped, or been inundated with unwanted improvements to Facebook, and have inexplicably taken to torture with gusto and relish.
Literature and film have been exploring various aspects of torture and the nature of the torturer and tortured for centuries. Consider this impressive list and the depravity within it:
Room 101 and Winston’s torture by O’Brien and the intellectuals of The Party in the Ministry of Love in Orwell’s 1984
Regan and the Duke of Cornwall’s gruesome torture of the Earl of Gloucester at the end of Act III of Shakespeare’s King Lear
Nurse Ratched using electro-shock and lobotomy on McMurphy in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Patrick Bateman's horrifying decompensation in Ellis’ American Psycho
Jack Merridew Lord’s torture of Sam and Eric in Golding’s Lord of the Flies
The sinners being tortured in the Nine Circles of Hell in Dante's Inferno
Asami’s torture of Aoyama and his dog in Audition by Ruy Murakami
The prisoner’s torture by the Spanish Inquisition in Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum
The numerous and brutal instances of torture in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians
I’m sure if you ask any survivor of torture to discuss the various forms of torment inflicted upon them, they would lump it all into one big category - probably called something pithy like “It Sucks”.
However the “experts” generally lump the events [now there's a clinical term for you] into several broad categories: (1) sexual torture; (2) physical torture; (3) psychological manipulations, such as threats of rape or witnessing the torture of others; (4) humiliating treatment, including mockery and verbal abuse; (5) exposure to forced stress positions, such as bondage or other restrictions of movement; (6) loud music, cold showers and other sensory discomforts; and (7) deprivation of food, water or other basic needs.
The Door at the Top of the Stairs is the 2010 debut from up and coming author, Alison Holt.
Morgan Davis is a farmer, horse and dog trainer, and Master of the Myrina Hunt Club. She’s used to doing things her way, especially on her farm. Against her better judgment, she hires the ill-tempered and insolent Jesse Shaunessy to work her horses. After several near disastrous run-ins, Morgan and her partner, the lovely Dr. Ryland Caldwell, a retired psychologist, begin to realize that Jesse has a past that is hidden deep inside her subconscious.
Working closely with the often-times unwilling Jesse, Ryland and Morgan learn that the young woman was an undercover narcotics officer that had been kidnapped and brutally tortured, then dismissed as an officer because she was too emotionally damaged to function professionally. The thing is, Jesse has no memory of the events that happened to her, but day-by-day seemingly random events chink away at her carefully constructed emotional walls.
Morgan and Jesse have a troubled relationship, but Ryland realizes that the younger woman sees Morgan as a strong, centering force. Together, Ryland and Morgan begin to slowly work with Jesse to return her to the torture room, address each of the events that happened there, and take away their power, one at a time. Jesse isn’t always willing, the older women often feel overwhelmed, and a handful of mean-spirited locals try to teach any number of lessons to the damaged young woman. But, Morgan and Ryland are in it for keeps – they know that once they took the top off the bottle that is Jesse, there is only success or failure. And, for Jesse, failure will mean the end.
When I first picked up this book last fall, I really wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. From the blurb on Amazon, it sounded a bit like a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma on top of a bed of tough and chewy lesbians. While that vibe wasn’t too far from the truth, it only captures part of what makes The Door at the Top of the Stairs fresh, powerful, and defiant.
For my money, strong, balanced, multi-dimensional characters are key to any successful story. If you think carefully, few good books in the “by/for/about” Lesfic genre have more than two truly main characters. This is usually a product of character detailing and plot complexity.
I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, just that it happens that way more often than not.
If I were forced to eeny, meeny, miny, moe only two main characters in The Door at the Top of the Stairs, I’d be inclined to point at Morgan, the tough and chewy farmer with a leather whip, and Jesse the tough and chewy horse wrangler with a twitch. These two women have striking similarities and glaring differences, but as a reader, their interactions and the battles of will are moments of true character artistry.
However, Ryland is beautifully intellectual, emotionally present, and aware of her limitations – she also steps up as a major character. There is magnificence in her softer approach and loving relationship with Morgan that makes each woman stronger. Similarly, there is a layered intricacy to her relationship with Jesse that goes beyond doctor/patient. And, while so much of the story is focused on the “sessions” the three women endure on an almost daily basis, the richest parts of the story and the characters are centered on the day-to-day conversations among and between Morgan, Ryland, and Jesse.
As a reader and reviewer, plausibility of the plot and its content are non-negotiable requirements. There’s often a bit of wiggle room in stories – this tricky little tool is called artistic license.
Some stories lend themselves to it and some veer off into the land of Are You Kidding Me!
In a complex and disturbing story like The Door at the Top of the Stairs, it would be easy for the author to find the most troubling, sadistic, and grotesque elements of human nature and thrust each and every one of them into the story for maximum soul-sucking dramatic effect. The thing is, these elements are all naturally occurring in this story and aren’t given embellishment - that is a testament to Ms. Holt’s vision as a storyteller, patience as a writer, and filter as an author.
Ultimately, the story is tight and each of the elements has a realistic edge. I believe the love/hate relationship between Morgan and Jesse, the homophobic dog handler with a sad excuse for an enabling mother, Pete’s betrayal, the lusty socialite, the sadism, the fear, the anger, and the last second Hail Mary for redemption.
A few months ago I contacted Alison Holt to let her know that I write The Rainbow Reader blog, and told her that I’d like to do a review on her next book whenever that might be. We had an interesting little conversation related to the fact that she doesn’t write “lesbian books” just books that have lesbians in them. While not all readers will agree with my position, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter because this story still fits the "by/for/about" criteria. Regardless of the label, I believe she’s one of the best writers emerging onto the overall literary scene, and I love that she has the guts and grit to write the stories she has to tell.
If you’re looking for a classic Lesfic romance or mystery, you’re not going to find it in The Door at the Top of the Stairs. What you will find is a fresh approach, great characters, strong plots, a slip of humor, and one of the most beautiful writing styles in the game.
The Door at the Top of the Stairs was great when I read it last year, and it was even better the second time through. It’s artistic, edgy, and will haunt you for weeks to come. I’m giving this powerhouse story a 5.3 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale.