Ruskin Marsh and I used to talk.
I would think about the things he had hinted at,
things that were so monstrous on the face of it
that I never dreamed he might be in deadly earnest. But he was. Oh yes...
Whatever you do don't read the back-cover copy of the paperback edition of The Happy Man (Paperjacks/April 1986). It gives away everything. I went in knowing nothing about the novel save a couple intriguing reviews by folks I trust (which of course I avoided reading). I found myself quietly guided into a private universe of amoral appetites and infernal indulgences. Akin to Thomas Tessier's Finishing Touches, published around the same time, Eric C. Higgs's first novel is literate, incisive, and restrained, even when presenting behavior that leaves human decency far, far behind. Especially then. A scathing, chilling absurdist satire of the 1980s consumerist lifestyle, The Happy Man has an easy and readable quality to it that belies its cruel intentions. A slim 166 pages, I would've happily read more and more about these two men, narrator Charles Ripley and his new neighbor Ruskin Marsh, and their "friendship," a bond that tests all limits... and a few beyond.
As I rushed upon [the old man] I told myself there could be no pity, not for his kind, not ever.
And when I knocked him over and got on top of him,
I brought the hammer down so hard and so often
I was entirely unaware that I was making it end
This, in the first few pages. What compels Charles to murder? Why is he disappointed he didn't make the killing last? We don't even know why exactly he is in a homicidal rage, why Charles attacks the man: ("confident that his death was as preordained as the orbit of the solar system"). The first chapter ends with Charles driving away in the dead man's car ("The inertia that had once held me was indeed gone"), ruminating on what's happened to lead him here. We will learn.
1985 hardcover, St. Martin's Press
In the suburban milieu of San Diego called Mesa Vista, Charles Ripley and his wife Shelly enjoy a comfortable life, having moved past the loss of a baby. The weeks and years pile on and maybe things aren't so exciting any longer. But when the Marshes move in next door, they seem to fit right into the dinner parties, home improvement projects and such. Ruskin Marsh has a charisma, a ruthless charm really ("the Aggressive Exec type" Charles notes), that draws Charles in. And Sybil Marsh, Ruskin's effortlessly attractive wife, makes a personal connection with Shelly. What strikes Charles most is Ruskin's ability to get him talking about things Charles had forgotten he'd once cared about: art, literature, ethics, life. Could his new neighbor have the long-sought, near-mythical key to a happy, satisfied life?
As their friendship begins, Ruskin lends Charles a leather-bound book; will you be surprised to learn it's a private printing of the Marquis de Sade's Juliette? *hint, hint* Ruskin also plies Charles with marijuana and cocaine, shows off his gun collection and tells a harrowing tale of being a fighter pilot in Vietnam. A fresh note of unease begins the night Charles and Ruskin go out for dinner together without their wives. We've already seen that Charles is not adverse to a little something on the side, as he's starting an affair with a young woman at work. But Ruskin, with gorgeous Sybil? Ruskin likes to slum: The brunette's name was Mandy. Her face was just this side of being haggard, but her figure was ripely endowed. The other one, Hariette, looked as if she belonged in a trucker's honkeytonk. Their after-party turns into a moment of sheer horror... but the two men walk away unscathed: But the most surprising thing of all was that I found I could live with it.
Things start to go wrong in this suburb. Surrounding this little oasis is an encroaching minority populace, being so close to the Mexican border, which causes mild worry for the Mesa Vista denizens. Brutalized bodies are discovered after horrifying screams in the night (a centerpiece of the novel). Several young women suddenly leave town. Violence (and sex) breaks out at neighborhood dinner parties soundtracked by Jobim. All of this is masterfully detailed by Higgs. Ruskin tells Charles about the "society of friends" he belongs to (not the Quakers!), slowly reveals to him the happy life: His tone was of the utmost reasonableness... His life had the serenity and peace that forever eluded me... "I think it's important to know oneself, Charles."
No way around it: Higgs makes many other horror writers I've reviewed for this blog seem like clod-hopping buffoons stomping and stumbling all over the English language. Do other horror writers even care about humans, pay attention to them, the small details that afford a glimpse into their inner workings? To the grit and grind of daily living? No, too often the horror genre appeals to writers unworthy of the craft, to the lazy and those satisfied with cliche and banality, unwilling to do the hard working of scraping off the surface and peering at what lies beneath, and then attempting, with honesty and imagination, to describe that which lies there. Higgs makes it all seem so easy, polished, yet still raw and painful. Pity he wrote only two novels. The Happy Man is an essential '80s horror read: smart, sharp, unforgiving, unlike anything else in the genre at the time. You need this book to make you happy: satisfy that unnamed hunger and read it!
Ruskin and I were one now, united on a plane of perfect understanding.
My unhappiness had come to an end.