(Click here for information on the 2021 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. This week, the 0final selection She Let Him Continue By Stephen Geller)
Well, as usual, what was intended to be a spooky Halloween tale ends up as a spooky Christmas tale. If you have a looooooong memory, you may note that She Let Him Continue was originally planned for the 2014 Imaginary Summer Book Club season. We never got there then, so here it is now.
Geller’s debut is a brief affair, only about 120 pages in hardcover, told from the rambling point of view of 22-year-old Dennis Pitt, as he is released from a psychiatric hospital for an arson he committed seven years earlier, in which his aunt was accidentally killed. Skipping out on his probation officer, he takes a job at a chemical plant in New England and meets a bored high school girl named Sue Ann Stepenek.
The book opens:
First, I am a C.I.A. agent.
As the book goes on, it becomes increasingly unclear if Dennis actually believes this, or if he comes up with it to impress Sue Ann, or if is a game he’s playing with himself out of boredom.
Sue Ann, something of a cypher in the novel, proves to be both the sexual aggressor in the relationship and more than game to join Dennis on his various C.I.A. “missions”, first suggesting that he could investigate her mother’s boyfriend since he seems like a Communist, and then joins Dennis in some industrial sabotage at the chemical plant, during which she kills a night watchman.
When that death raises suspicions, Dennis agrees to take Sue Ann to Mexico, but she points out that her mother is standing in the way of that and they’ll have to kill her. When Dennis forgets to take the safety off the gun, Sue Ann finishes the job off herself.
In the end, Dennis can’t go through with hiding the body and calls police to confess, with the implication that nobody will believe it was Sue Ann who actually killed them both.
It is a straightforward story, briefly told, but Geller’s stream-of-consciousness style is never exactly clear on how much of what Dennis is telling the reader actually happens: the whole book could credibly be nothing but his own delusions.
The book was adapted into a film in 1968 under the title Pretty Poison, two years after publication, with the odd-couple casting of Anthony Perkins (pushing 40, but still boyish enough to play 22-year-old Dennis) and Tuesday Weld (25 and having been cast as high school students since was 12 years old).
While Geller’s book reads like a fever-dream, Perkins and Weld and the location filming in Great Barrington, MA give the film a concrete and naturalistic feel: the decrepit mill town, the airstream camper Dennis lives in, the cracked windshield on the hot dog truck where Dennis and Sue Ann rendezvous, the cluttered offices of the chemical company.
The film closely follows the plot of the novel, offering just a little expansion by way of a prologue (Dennis is released from the hospital, takes the opportunity to mess with his P.O. about still being delusional), and shows his actual meeting of Sue Ann, wallowing in his arrested development and watching her practice with the high school drill team.
Both Perkins and Weld are outstanding, but its clear that Sue Ann is going to have the upper hand in this relationship- after she kills her mother (in the film Dennis has to go vomit), she first propositions him, and when he can’t perform, literally takes him by the hand and walks him through the steps of disposing of the body.
It is hard to not make every movie made in the 1960s about THE SIXTIES, but Dennis also reads a bit as an eco-warrior, convinced that the millions of gallons of chemical waste and dye (rendered in super-saturated technicolor) that the plant is dumping into the river is likely poisoning the entire eastern seaboard… and that doesn’t sound wrong.
While the book ends with Dennis’s arrest, the film adds a coda. One year later, Sue Ann is still moping around the hot dog stand, quietly sizing up a new guy in town, who is more than happy to listen to the sob story about her mother’s murder by a “psychopath”. He introduces himself as Harry Jackson and is very sympathetic about her complaints about the foster family she’s living with. It’s clear Sue Ann has found her next mark…
Swish-pan to Dennis’s old Probation Officer watching from a parked car, following Dennis’s advice about keeping an eye on Sue Ann. The film closes with an impressively Zapruderesque freeze-frame.
Odds & Ends Department: Who is that dumb hunk of man that is going to be Sue Ann’s new fall guy? That would be Ken Kercheval, 10 years away from playing Cliff Barnes, primetime’s favorite failson, on “Dallas.”
I was delighted to discover that my used edition is inscribed from the author:
Availability: Out of print, look for it used under both the original title and as Pretty Poison (a film tie-in paperback edition)
The film is available on DVD and Blu Ray, and also through various streaming services. I watched it on Amazon Prime and it is a truly gorgeous print.