What I wouldn't give to interview Charlotte Armstrong.
I first discovered Armstrong when I was a kid; I'd purchased The Charlotte Armstrong Treasury one of those times when my mom let me join the Mystery Guild; I think it was because one of the titles was The Witch's House and I thought it might be a witch (it wasn't). I did like both it and Mischief, the second book in the collection; but I never read the third, The Dream Walker, which seemed...odd. It was about a weird plan to ruin an influential man; and even when I began to rediscover Armstrong a few years ago, I never got around to reading it. In a moment of nostalgia recently I ran across The Charlotte Armstrong Treasury on ebay and repurchased it; and last night while I watched the Texas-Notre Dame game, I started reading, at long last, The Dream Walker.
The cracks in this ceiling are too familiar. There is one like the profile of Portugal up in the corner. It makes a king with a crown; his long scraggy nose has a wart on it. I am tired of seeing first Portugal, then a king, then Portugal again. But even I can't read any more. I can't listen to the radio, either, and be dragged by the ears the raggedy journey over that dial one more day. Makes me feel as if I were disintegrating; the strands of order and purpose in my brain seem to be raveling out to a fuzz like a tassel.
It's a revelation to me that I can't--let me record this while I am practicing--cannot stare at the ceiling and wonder and worry and brood about life and death. I am to wait? Well? Meantime, what am I to do? How shall I be occupied?
So they brought me a tape recorder,which I think is a fine appropriate tool for telling this story. All I need do is talk. Some clever girl can punctuate and place the paragraphs later, if it turns out I'm not able.
Yes, my voice plays back crisply, as it should after all my studying and teaching, too. The girl will have no trouble. Will you, my dear, whoever you are?"
Enough practice. I therefore (as Ben Jonson said) will begin.
This is a story you know already. But I'm convinced that it has been told the wrong way...
The Dream Walker was originally published in 1955, and those red-baiting times, still smarting from HUAC and McCarthyism, play no small part in the back story of this book. The premise is that there is a conspiracy, of revenge, mounted against a successful, wealthy, politically prominent man who has exposed another wealthy man as a traitor. The plot is insanely far-fetched--it involves two actresses, one who pretends to go into trances/sleeps and in that state travels to other places, where innocent people see her which give this weird phenomena some credibility. It is very much to Armstrong;s credit that she can pull this off; unfortunately, this sort of plot could only work in the time it was written. Cell phones and modern technology make this sort of thing impossible nowadays, which means one has to suspend belief. (There was a part involving a flight from New York to Maine--which took hours--that is indicative of this; New York to Maine now wouldn't be much more than an hour flight) But it's very well done.
But what I would like to talk to Armstrong about was why she chose to tell the story the way she did; because from the absolute beginning the narrator, Olivia Hudson, makes it very clear that the entire thing was a farce, a set-up, and that actually makes it easier for the reader to follow the story; the reader knows it was all a set-up and none of it was true, and the suspense comes in watching the plot develop from the point of view of the characters who aren't really sure what's going on, while knowing all along it was a plot.
Very very clever, Ms. Armstrong, and well-played.