[On November 17, 1894, infamous serial killer H.H. Holmes was arrested in Boston. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Holmes and four other murderous histories, leading up to a special weekend Guest Post on true crime from one of my favorite scholars!]
On two striking similarities and one important difference in a pair of pop culture serial killer texts.
Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979) and Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” (1982) both consistently link the story of their real-life serial killer protagonists—Gary Gilmore in Mailer’s novel and Charles Starkweather in Springsteen’s song—to key women in the men’s lives. Although Mailer’s opening section is titled “Gary,” it begins instead with the perspective of Brenda Nicol, a cousin and childhood friend of Gilmore’s who remained linked to him through his final killing spree; parts two and three are titled “Nicole” and “Gary and Nicole,” after the girlfriend (Nicole Barrett) who stayed with Gary through his execution and on whom much of Mailer’s portrait of Gilmore focuses. Similarly, Springsteen’s song uses the 19 year old Starkweather’s relationship with 14 year old Caril Ann Fugate, who accompanied Starkweather while he took part in his own killing spree, as its linchpin, from the song’s opening lines, “I saw her standin’ on her front lawn/just twirlin’ her baton,” through to Starkweather’s culminating desire to have Fugate “sitting right there on my lap” when he is executed. These family and romantic relationships certainly humanize Mailer and Springsteen’s protagonists, but they also seem tied to the men’s crimes in complex ways that echo the links between sex and horror I discussed in yesterday’s post.
Mailer’s and Springsteen’s works also similarly feature a near-complete disappearance of their creators in the course of the texts. That’s perhaps more expected in a song like Springsteen’s, but I don’t just mean that Springsteen doesn’t refer to himself in any overt way; even the voice in which he sings “Nebraska” is strikingly affected and distinct from Bruce’s own (and an entire departure from the voice in which he had sung any of his five prior albums), and since this was the first song on the album, would have taken contemporary listeners entirely by surprise. The absence of Norman Mailer from his book is more striking still, as the book is as the subtitle puts it “A True Life Novel,” and one based (as he writes in a brief “Afterword”) on extensive interviews and conversations between Mailer, Gilmore, and many other individuals. Yet to the best of my recollection Mailer does not appear anywhere in the book’s more than 1000 pages, engaging with his role in producing the text (and even participating in the text’s events in the closing period of Gilmore’s life) only in that brief concluding coda. As a result, Mailer’s mammoth book feels as closely focused on Gilmore and everything within and connected to his life and identity as Springsteen’s intimate song does on Starkweather, even though in both cases the texts are the careful, artistic constructions of two deeply talented creators in their respective genres.
There’s one key formal difference between the two texts, though, and it significantly impacts their portrayals of the two serial killers. As he does with all but one of the songs on Nebraska, Springsteen sings the title track in the first-person, speaking directly as Starkweather (the only historical figure among the album’s first-person speakers); Mailer’s book features a fully omniscient third-person narrator, one who can provide the perspectives of any and all of his historical figures (including Brenda and Nicole among many others) alongside Gary’s. Due in large part to that narrative distinction, Springsteen’s song forces its audience into a direct and unfiltered relationship with Starkweather’s raw voice and cynical worldview, as in its nihilistic concluding lines: “They wanted to know why I did what I did/Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” Mailer’s more sweeping narration, on the other hand, situates Gilmore as part of broader communities (family, romantic relationships, neighborhood, prison, region, nation) and offers more of a sociological than a psychological engagement with his identity and perspective. I wouldn’t say Executioner’s Song is optimistic, exactly, but it certainly offers its audience more ways to understand its serial killer subject than does “Nebraska”—while the latter lets us see through that subject’s eyes, whether we want to or not.
Next serial studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other serial killer histories or stories you’d highlight?