“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
— Stephen Biko
Let’s spend a few minutes discussing the terrible little topic of “torture”, which, not so surprisingly, comes from the Latin torquere, to twist. When you think of it like that, it doesn’t sound quite so bad. However, if you consider it as an ideophone, you start to pick up on its dark, insidious, evil nature.
Torture has been the go-to weapon for physical and psychological punishment and duress as long as mankind has walked the earth. It’s also been long abused as a tool for sick and sadistic gratification. Nation states, religious institutions, organized crime, law enforcement, paramilitary organizations, serial killers, kidnappers, and the truly demented have used it for re-education, coercion, punishment, intimidation, sexual indulgence and pure barbarism.
On rare occasions, seemingly normal people have been pushed too far, had too many switches flipped, or been inundated with unwanted improvements to Facebook, and have inexplicably taken to torture with gusto and relish.
Literature and film have been exploring various aspects of torture and the nature of the torturer and tortured for centuries. Consider this impressive list and the depravity within it:
- Room 101 and Winston’s torture by O’Brien and the intellectuals of The Party in the Ministry of Love in Orwell’s 1984
- Regan and the Duke of Cornwall’s gruesome torture of the Earl of Gloucester at the end of Act III of Shakespeare’s King Lear
- Nurse Ratched using electro-shock and lobotomy on McMurphy in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- Patrick Bateman’s horrifying decompensation in Ellis’ American Psycho
- Jack Merridew Lord’s torture of Sam and Eric in Golding’s Lord of the Flies
- The sinners being tortured in the Nine Circles of Hell in Dante’sInferno
- Asami’s torture of Aoyama and his dog in Audition by Ruy Murakami
- The prisoner’s torture by the Spanish Inquisition in Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum
- The numerous and brutal instances of torture in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians
I’m sure if you ask any survivor of torture to discuss the various forms of torment inflicted upon them, they would lump it all into one big category – probably called something pithy like “It Sucks”.
However the “experts” generally lump the events [now there’s a clinical term for you] into several broad categories: (1) sexual torture; (2) physical torture; (3) psychological manipulations, such as threats of rape or witnessing the torture of others; (4) humiliating treatment, including mockery and verbal abuse; (5) exposure to forced stress positions, such as bondage or other restrictions of movement; (6) loud music, cold showers and other sensory discomforts; and (7) deprivation of food, water or other basic needs.
The Door at the Top of the Stairs is the 2010 debut from up and coming author, Alison Holt.
Morgan Davis is a farmer, horse and dog trainer, and Master of the Myrina Hunt Club. She’s used to doing things her way, especially on her farm. Against her better judgment, she hires the ill-tempered and insolent Jesse Shaunessy to work her horses. After several near disastrous run-ins, Morgan and her partner, the lovely Dr. Ryland Caldwell, a retired psychologist, begin to realize that Jesse has a past that is hidden deep inside her subconscious.
Working closely with the often-times unwilling Jesse, Ryland and Morgan learn that the young woman was an undercover narcotics officer that had been kidnapped and brutally tortured, then dismissed as an officer because she was too emotionally damaged to function professionally. The thing is, Jesse has no memory of the events that happened to her, but day-by-day seemingly random events chink away at her carefully constructed emotional walls.
Morgan and Jesse have a troubled relationship, but Ryland realizes that the younger woman sees Morgan as a strong, centering force. Together, Ryland and Morgan begin to slowly work with Jesse to return her to the torture room, address each of the events that happened there, and take away their power, one at a time. Jesse isn’t always willing, the older women often feel overwhelmed, and a handful of mean-spirited locals try to teach any number of lessons to the damaged young woman. But, Morgan and Ryland are in it for keeps – they know that once they took the top off the bottle that is Jesse, there is only success or failure. And, for Jesse, failure will mean the end.
When I first picked up this book last fall, I really wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. From the blurb on Amazon, it sounded a bit like a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma on top of a bed of tough and chewy lesbians. While that vibe wasn’t too far from the truth, it only captures part of what makes The Door at the Top of the Stairs fresh, powerful, and defiant.
For my money, strong, balanced, multi-dimensional characters are key to any successful story. If you think carefully, few good books in the “by/for/about” Lesfic genre have more than two truly main characters. This is usually a product of character detailing and plot complexity.
I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, just that it happens that way more often than not.
If I were forced to eeny, meeny, miny, moe only two main characters in The Door at the Top of the Stairs, I’d be inclined to point at Morgan, the tough and chewy farmer with a leather whip, and Jesse the tough and chewy horse wrangler with a twitch. These two women have striking similarities and glaring differences, but as a reader, their interactions and the battles of will are moments of true character artistry.
However, Ryland is beautifully intellectual, emotionally present, and aware of her limitations – she also steps up as a major character. There is magnificence in her softer approach and loving relationship with Morgan that makes each woman stronger. Similarly, there is a layered intricacy to her relationship with Jesse that goes beyond doctor/patient. And, while so much of the story is focused on the “sessions” the three women endure on an almost daily basis, the richest parts of the story and the characters are centered on the day-to-day conversations among and between Morgan, Ryland, and Jesse.
As a reader and reviewer, plausibility of the plot and its content are non-negotiable requirements. There’s often a bit of wiggle room in stories – this tricky little tool is called artistic license.
Some stories lend themselves to it and some veer off into the land of Are You Kidding Me!
In a complex and disturbing story like The Door at the Top of the Stairs, it would be easy for the author to find the most troubling, sadistic, and grotesque elements of human nature and thrust each and every one of them into the story for maximum soul-sucking dramatic effect. The thing is, these elements are all naturally occurring in this story and aren’t given embellishment – that is a testament to Ms. Holt’s vision as a storyteller, patience as a writer, and filter as an author.
Ultimately, the story is tight and each of the elements has a realistic edge. I believe the love/hate relationship between Morgan and Jesse, the homophobic dog handler with a sad excuse for an enabling mother, Pete’s betrayal, the lusty socialite, the sadism, the fear, the anger, and last second Hail Mary for redemption.
A few months ago I contacted Alison Holt to let her know that I write The Rainbow Reader blog, and told her that I’d like to do a review on her next book whenever that might be. We had an interesting little conversation related to the fact that she doesn’t write “lesbian books” just books that have lesbians in them. While not all readers will agree, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter because they still fit the “by/for/about” criteria. Regardless of the label, I believe she’s one of the best writers emerging onto the overall literary scene, and I love that she has the guts and grit to write the stories she has to tell.
If you’re looking for a classic Lesfic romance or mystery, you’re not going to find it in The Door at the Top of the Stairs. What you will find is a fresh approach, great characters, strong plots, a slip of humor, and one of the most beautiful writing styles in the game.
The Door at the Top of the Stairs was great when I read it last year, and it was even better the second time through. It’s artistic, edgy, and will haunt you for weeks to come. I’m giving this powerhouse story a 5.3 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale.
Having specialized in Psychiatry as a doctor, I was unbelievably drawn to the plot of this book. Too many times the themes of this genre of books leaves me bored with the predictability of the plot and often the ending. Holt kept me gripped to the very last word. Her sense of humor throughout the book made me giggle outwardly at times, some of those not appropriate for the surroundings I was in — hehehehe.
My recommendation gives this book 10 stars out of 5. Do yourself a favor and indulge in this book, but don’t blame me if you miss sleep finishing the book in one sitting. Thanks Alison for a great book. one could say a block buster if it were a film. I hate to sound greedy but I purchased the next 2 books by her on Amazon. When I am done reading them I will enlighten you on my feelings of each of those books…..
have fun reading………yours in friendship…….Tenpercent
Book Review: Alison Naomi Holt, The Door At The Top Of The Stairs
03-25-2011 by L. S. Carbonell
There are forty yards of fiction on my bookshelves. Yeah, you read that right – yards. Thirty yards of it are mysteries. I love a good mystery – police procedurals, English country houses, classic who-done-its, everything from Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelmas to Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. The challenge is to find one I can’t figure out before the last chapter.
Alison Holt blew me away.
While there are a couple of criminal subplots to this book, the real mystery lies inside a mind. Fair warning, if you are not a fan of shows like Criminal Minds, the journey through this mind can easily become too much to read. This book requires a strong ability to take a step back from the horrors inside that mind.
I found myself grateful for the parts of the book that stepped away from the mystery, because it gave me a chance to put it down. Otherwise, I would have read straight through the night, and that’s something I only do if I’m dumb enough to get caught two-thirds of the way through a Dick Francis around 11 p.m. The breaks work well, primarily dealing with the operations of a farm that trains horses and hounds for American fox hunting – no foxes are killed. Holt finds that balance between explaining something most of us have no clue about and over-explaining it. Nothing about the farm operation gets so detailed that you want to skip a few paragraphs.
I was initially surprised that Holt never pegs this farm to a state or region. That’s rare. Authors go to great lengths to establish their characters within the framework of a real location, even though a street or estate or town may be fictional. The closest one comes with this book is a sense that they don’t ever have to dig out from under three feet of snow. The town is like small towns in every state. The people could be anywhere, just supply the accent. By the end, I realized that the lack of specific location had allowed me to imagine a place where I felt safe to return to after delving into the terrifying terrain within that damaged mind. I appreciated the freedom from being in California or Virginia or anywhere I wasn’t at home.
Anyone who reads our blog regularly knows that I’m the straight gal on this staff, so the only part of this book I can’t comment on with any authority is the relationships of the five female characters. On the other hand, none of the, shall we say, romantic scenes were graphic or embarrassing for a middle-aged straight woman, so you can safely recommend this book to your auntie if she’s cool with your lifestyle. I was particularly comfortable with the relationship of the older, committed couple. Morgan and Ryland felt right. That’s the only way I can explain it. They just felt right. All the relationships felt right. I cared about these people, and isn’t that the most important part of any book?
Let’s put it this way, in the last three days, I recommended it to my younger daughter. She bought it for her Nook and has already recommended it to her mystery book club. It’s that good.