Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Mysterious Strangers Within Us

(copyright 1979, Contemporary Perspectives, Inc.)

This week's thrift store find is a little booklet that is labelled on the title page as "A High Action Treasure Chest Book." Apparently this is the paperback edition (1981) of The Mysterious Strangers Within Us. Larger than a mass market, it's more akin in size to religious pamphlets or recipe booklets.

It's unclear whether this is meant as a pre-teen book, sort of a Scholastic knock-off for book fairs, or if it was an item for the check-out rack at the grocery store. Judging by Peter Blackton's tone, sprinkled with conversational questions for the reader (or classroom), I'm guessing the former. The illustrations and subject matter, however fit right in with the tail end of public fascination with multiple personality disorder.

The trend probably peaked in 1973 with the publication of Sybil and When Rabbit Howls, when there was a bit of a controversy over whether MPD was a "real" disorder, or whether it was created, along with alien abduction scenarios and memories of past lives, by over-zealous psychologists experimenting with hypnotism.

In 1979, this book isn't concerned with showing any scientific arguments on either side. The publishers are obviously just interested in putting out weird yarns for people to read. I would easily consign this to the recycling bin of outdated pop trends if it wasn't for the amazing talent of the illustrator, Donald E. Schlegel. Here's a sampling of some of his pages:

"Edward, you are an evil and terrible man!"

The first story is a re-telling of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is a bit of a cheat. Blackton writes as if both characters shared the same body, but any reader of the original book knows that Jekyll actually transforms into Hyde, with both men having entirely different physical characteristics. There's also a cop-out in one of the illustrations being a still from the 1932 adaptation, probably reflecting the 1970s resurgence of classic horror movies.

"Instead she shouted at the great beast."

The next chapter tells of Mary Reynolds, one of the first documented cases, published in 1816. There's isn't as much theatricality here as there weren't personalities with different names as much as a regression into an infantile state. Still, Schlegel makes a great action painting here, showing Mary squaring off against a bear. I particularly like how he uses the frightened horse to balance out the composition.

"But this is your store. You live here, Mr. Brown..."

This next picture shows the awakening-from-fugue state of Ansel Bourne, another 19th century case. One day Mr. Bourne disappeared, set up shop in a new town under the name Ansel Brown, and then had a total melt-down in front of the public. Such was life before i.d. cards.

"This was not the shy and quiet Eve talking."

Our illustrator really goes to town on the chapter on Eve Black/Eve White. This is based on the 1957 book The Three Faces of Eve, later made into a fairly successful Hollywood movie.  It's hard to compete with the public memory of Joanne Woodward's performance, but Schlegel rises up to the challenge beautifully.

"This was not the quiet Eve her cousin remembered."

There is definitely a 1970s feel to the color scheme used here, reminding me a bit of LeRoy Neiman in his use of contrasts, but without the overt expressionism or abstraction that most commercial art was trending towards at the time.

"The world was becoming a far more beautiful place for her."
This last page is a wonderful evocation of the happy ending. The blue reflections in Eve's red dress are particularly good, perhaps reflecting the theme of integrating personalities. And the author even gives us a positive spin and happy moral in the epilogue:
"Unlike Robert Louis Stevenson's character, Mr. Hyde, a person's second self does not have to be cruel or vicious. Both of Ansel Bourne's personalities, for example, were very likeable. And although Eve Black was selfish, she was not all that different from some quite normal people."

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