officials have always been more imaginative than fiction writers. The result is
that real-life brutality is far more extreme than brutality in fiction. The most violent of
novels Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Sade’s 120 Days of
Sodom, Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, or even the anonymous The
Lay of Havelock the Dane seem tame alongside a year of Amnesty International
reports. Psychological warfare is not dissimilar: though less visible, real human-to-human
atrocities no doubt replicate and exceed all those we would find in literature. As far as
fiction is able to plumb into the thoughts and actions of characters, it is rare for writers to
pursue the furthest limits of human behavior. But thankfully most of us never live through
such extremes, and thus the practice of reading about them in books becomes that much
Hal Bennett’s underpraised novel Lord of Dark Places is just such an
example. First page to last, Bennett’s narrative manages to stay at pace with, if not
outdistance, the most extreme of what we can imagine as possible. Set in the ’50s South, it
is the story of Joe Market and his father Titus. After the twelve-year-old Joe watches Titus
literally fuck his mother to death, they set off as a travelling religious sect, The Church of
the Naked Disciple. Going from town to town, Titus evangalizes and then makes Joe strip
off his clothes and, to the awe of the crowds, reveal his enormous tool. He is then pimped
by Titus to support the “church” and Titus’ own prostitute habit. What follows is the steady
build up of Joe’s sexual identity he comes to fancy himself as a terrestrial deity bearing
the godhead between his legs and its eventual demolition.
Bennett’s novel of degradation, violence, incest and obsession is, at turns, both* * *
alarming and arousing. Its sex scenes are painted as forcefully as any I’ve read recently,
and they’re painted often. The scene I selected below is not as explicit as some, but
represents the sexuality of a long-dormant older woman, who finally hatches her blackmail
of Joe. Bennett’s imagination, here as throughout his novel, is a hand torch in the
From Lord of Dark Places by Hal Bennett
Cheap Mary smacked her lips with heavy satisfaction. “I wasn’t too sure about the facts,
but I knew that you had killed that child. And for all these months now, I’ve been waiting
in my kitchen window for you to come hopping back across that fence. I’m a patient
woman, I knew that some day you’d come back. All things come back.” She moved across
the bed and pulled her dress above her wrinkled knees. “Now, there’s a favor I want you
to do for me. It’s my price for keeping quiet. You do want me to keep quiet, don’t you?”
He turned his head and looked at her thin legs with the blue veins imbedded in the
freckled skin. “You want me to fuck you?” he said bluntly.
Cheap Mary shook her head. “Not that. I hate that. It hurts too much.”
She kept her legs stretched out and pulled the dress a little higher up her thighs. He
noticed for the first time that she wore high-buttoned shoes, the old-fashioned kind with
high heels and pearl buttons studded in the gray suede material halfway up her leg . . .
“Then, you’ll do me the favor?”
The idea of crawling between those mottled thighs disgusted him. He stripped the
negligee and bloomers off and sat back on the bed . . .
He burst into tears. “Please don’t make me do it.”
Her eyes were full of pity, but he saw that she would not relent. “I need it,
don’t you understand? I’m going to die soon. It may be the last time before I die. Don’t
you have enough love in you for that, to satisfy another human being before she dies?” . . .
She pulled her dress higher. “Do you suppose you could do me the favor? It’s the
only price I’m asking for my silence.”
She reached out and clutched him firmly by the head. He was in a panic. How
many times had he done the same thing to men and women, grabbing them by the head and
tugging them with a slow, cruel smile into the nest of his sex? He resisted her pull, but
desperation gave her strength, her fingers seemed made of wire.
“Come, dear child, you’ll find it’s not so unpleasant as it seems.”
He held his breath. “That’s right,” Mary said, inching toward him, “that’s right,
just one more time before I die.” Like ecstatic horns of Satan, the gray suede shoes dug
into his butt.