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The Demon, Hubert Selby, Jr.

Playboy Press, 1976

Hubert Selby, Jr. wrote from inside the underbelly of unapologetic, horrifying truth. This is it how it went, in order: Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), The Room (1971), The Demon (1976), Requiem for a Dream (1978), Song of the Silent Snow (1986), The Willow Tree (1998), and Waiting Period (2002).

Throughout Selby’s works, the recurring central antihero is essentially a variation of the same character, a deeply troubled man named Harry: Harry Black in Last Exit to Brooklyn, Harry White in The Demon, Harry Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream, and even in The Room, the unnamed protagonist-psychopath certainly resembles the Selby Jr. Harry we have come to know.

Of all these characters, The Demon’s Harry White is the most haunting of all because the root of his affliction cannot be traced to an external source such as the people around him, his surroundings, or even the result of some sort of mad descent into chemical dependency. Rather, the seeds of his downward spiral are planted rather innocuously and solely from within, as if he somehow wakes up one day possessed.

He stayed in the steam room for hours visualizing the poison oozing from his pores, constantly swallowing, not because of the bile that soured his taste, but because of something that was trying to worm its way from the depths of the darkness within him. He continues to swallow to shove this demon down without ever acknowledging its existence.

Possession alone is a frightening enough concept, but when it is muted or metaphorical and allows the host to carry on a seemingly regular existence without accompanying symptoms such as a head spinning around or the vomiting of pea soup, the stakes somehow feel raised.

A man as young and successful as Harry White could not have any real problems, and whatever might be responsible for that twisting in the gut and that tension that made him feel like a wound spring that was about to snap, would disappear in time.

Indeed, it is a scary thought to wonder how many Harry Whites surround us in our own day-to-day. I, for one, never feel quite right when someone is standing auspiciously close behind me on the EL platform. I blame it on Harry White as I wonder if there is a chance this complete stranger behind me might just harbor an iota of crazy, just enough to tempt them into reaching out and shoving me to a quick, simple, but electrifying end as my body comes in contact with the dreaded third rail.

He could hear the train in the distance. It sounded louder. And louder. He could not breathe. He was chilled with sweat. His hands and feet were numb with cold. His head shook with terror. He almost lost his vision. The train grew louder. It started to roar and scream at him. The person in front of him became a blur.

The fear doesn’t stop there. It isn’t just the fear of the stranger standing behind you, but also and perhaps far worse, the fear of the stranger within. That is the real horror of Hubert Selby Jr.’s The Demon, the fear of the unknown that rots men’s souls. We all like to think that we are somehow inherently vaccinated against such evil, but then, so many times, loved ones speak out and say that it cannot be, that the gruesome details that make headline news are completely inconsistent with the personality and behavior of the accused. I actually laughed, albeit uncomfortably, when I read a quote in a newspaper a few days ago that said just that about a man who chewed off another man’s face on a Miami causeway. A woman actually said that this behavior (chewing another human being’s face off) was inconsistent with the behavior of the caring, loving individual she knew so well. Another said she knew the cannibal to be a “beautiful person.” It certainly makes you wonder how someone can go fro A-to-Zombie.

With horrifying stories like the one in Miami popping up from time to time, I can’t help but be reminded of Hubert Selby Jr. and his unforgettable cast of Harrys, but also, I cannot help but wonder about all the rest of us too.