Well, here we are: The Cereal Convention.
There are millions (more!) things I would like to know about life, the universe, and everything; one of them is if Robert Bloch ever read “Collectors”. He’d have enjoyed it, I’m sure. Bloch is the man who gave us Norman Bates and “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” and a novel about the Chicago World’s Fair serial killer H.H. Holmes, American Gothic. Bloch was a man with a playful, dark sense of humor — he called his autobiography “unauthorized” and was also, I believe, the originator of one of my favorite quips, something along the lines of: “Despite my age, I have the heart of a young boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.”
Bloch would, I think, appreciate the fun of the first pages of “Collectors”, wherein the conventioneers say such things as, “Wouldn’t be seen dead here, if it wasn’t for the convention,” and, “Tell you, I could murder a steak. A good, bloody steak,” and, “They do this chocolate fudge whip that is just to die for.”
The attendees call themselves collectors, and they address each other by nicknames — or professional names: The Family Man, Fun Land, Nimrod, The Corinthian. Anything can be professionalized; it just needs a convention and some euphemisms.
There is much fun to be had with the idea of a convention of serial killers. Anyone who has attended, for instance, a science fiction convention will find some of the panel discussions Gaiman creates for his characters awfully familiar: “10.30am panel discussion, ‘We Are What We Are'”, “12.30pm panel discussion, ‘Women in Serial Killing'”, “3.30pm panel discussion, ‘There Is No Sanity Clause'”. In the latter, a panelist known as Candy Man says, “Look, as a practicing psychiatrist, I, uh, well, look, none of you, uh, well, there’s no more evidence of mental abnormality amongst us people than amongst, uh, them. Less, maybe.” I’ve had similar discussions with science fiction fans (and the opposite, too — some folks speculating that low-level autism runs high in fan communities, and that this is a good thing). On the “We Are What We Are” panel, one of the members says, “They are the sheep and cattle. But we know the truth. We’re alive.” He’s a serial killer, but he could just as well be a fan complaining about the sorts of people who read literary fiction, or he could be an Ayn Rand acolyte, or a Scientologist, or, really, any number of things. One of us, needing a them from which to differentiate himself and to strengthen his own sense of identity and righteousness.
The fun is in the idea of serial killers having a convention, not in other types of conventions and other groups of people having similar ways of talking about themselves as serial killers. Because serial killers, despite whatever it is that makes them fascinating as cultural characters, are not fun. They torture and murder people.
One of the things I especially enjoy about “Collectors” is that it doesn’t let us revel in the fascination without reminding us of the seriousness of what is depicted, the horror that lies beneath the amusement, the reality that exists beyond the fantasy. Gaiman knows he has a fun concept here, and he’s certainly aware of the interest that serial killers can arouse in readers, and so visions of horror break through the humor and light tone throughout the story (e.g. The Doctor at his old sewing machine, making neckties, the panel colored entirely red and black, contrasting with the bright rainbow of the other panels on the page). Finally, Morpheus arrives to save Rose from Fun Land, whom he addresses by name: Nathan Diskin. The Lord of Dreams is here to shepherd in some reality, to cut through euphemisms and shatter the collectors’ dream of their very special specialness. He forces them to see themselves as they are: pathetic, disturbed, murderous, and sends them shuffling off into the night.
Serial killer stories often portray their subjects as malevolent superheroes (and not always malevolent — Dexter and Spiderman have a lot in common). “Collectors” undermines such portrayals, first through the humorous idea of a serial killer convention, then through the very serious unmasking of the killers’ delusions and self-justifications.
We, the readers, do not escape unscathed. We were amused by the idea, perhaps even seduced by some of the delusions. The figure of the serial killer is a powerful cultural icon because it is extreme and outré, it can speak to many social fears and anxieties, and it offers a fantasy of unbridled, transgressive power that helps us recognize and define the forces that create some sort of border between us and them.
*Though not as shocking or gut-wrenching, “Collectors” has similar resonances to Wes Craven’s film Last House on the Left, one of the most discomforting movies I know. Craven lures us into a slasher/exploitation film, then punishes us for desiring it. Watching it can be a shattering experience. “Collectors” is not shattering because it is not punishing — it does not use our desire to see mayhem and atrocity against us, but rather reminds us that what accompanies our desire is a tendency to see sick, depraved people as something better than sick and depraved. Morpheus knows better, and so he ushers them back to their sad, destructive lives. The final page echoes the first page in its imagery — once again, we have the “Welcome Cereal Convention” sign outside the hotel, but now the people we see are not bundles of wordplay and satire. No-one could mistake them for heroes or anti-heroes. They are no more than hollow, haunted shadows; deadly drifters in the night.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.