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Beneath the surface of Laurie Fox’s My Sister From the Black Lagoon, the subtext is horror movies and TV shows. The novel reads as memoir, filtered and fictionalized through a memory of black-and-white images, absorbed, bloblike, from Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines and episodes of Chiller Theater on late-night TV. In Fox’s landscape, Southern California in the ’60s, a family pet a boa constrictor is named Lugosi, after the actor who declined a cup of wine with dinner and forever became an icon. While meeting her favorite rock band, our heroine invokes a Gothic soap opera to describe her exhilaration: “My heart thumps audibly like a sound effect on Dark Shadows.” Pod people, Stepford wives, and slow-witted zombies populate the narrative, demanding conformity, devouring misfits. The answer to the profound question of whether true evil exists is found in the blank stares of the contaminated children from the film Village of the Damned. There is even, in this story of Lorna Person clawing her way toward adulthood and becoming an artist, a terrible, incurable creature that lives in the bedroom down the hall.

Stitching together a menagerie of monsters from the spare limbs of dismembered stuffed animals, spewing incomprehensible threats, the creature is Lorna’s sister, Lonnie, possessed not by the devil, but by a terrible undiagnosed mental illness that infects the entire Person family. Early on in Lagoon, while studying her mother’s face, narrator Lorna recognizes: “I see a woman who, like me, can’t quite believe her bad luck.” It is a terrible realization, but true; with few respites, Lorna’s childhood is a daisy chain of horrors. She bears witness, for instance, as her parents a Rita Hayworth look-alike (but “prettier and more real”) and a CBS accountant who dreams of writing a hit TV pilot (“It will deal with social issues, political issues, but be fun”) let their marriage unravel under the strain of Lonnie’s sickness. Furthermore, Lorna suffers from an eating disorder, compulsive bingeing, and is tormented and embarrassed by her sister’s violent otherness. “I must show the others that the mentally ill deserve our respect and that we must not look away,” she vows on a field trip with her class to Lonnie’s state hospital, but then later confesses: “As much as I stick up for the mentally ill, I don’t want to be associated with anything they do or touch.”

Lagoon re-creates the opera of childhood, when every emotion, every thought, is amplified and experienced completely, bravely, and believably; the book works best at those moments when Lorna is overcome not by the horror of Lonnie’s insanity, but by the everyday dread endured by all overweight, alienated children. When she tells her mother, “Did you know that I hate myself, Mother? I hate myself more than everybody else who hates me,” it is the kind of simple declaration that resonates throughout the entire narrative. And when, now older, she locks herself in a bathroom and consumes a tub of cottage cheese and box of Triscuits, the scene related in gruesome detail is so vivid and painful, you suspect it has been lived and transcribed, not simply imagined.

Heightening the drama in Lorna’s life is the imperative to create art, fueled by Kit Kat bars and the need to prove herself worthy of love and respect. Compulsively, Lorna pursues escape from reality by writing poems, drawing perfect families in her sketch book, staging minimusicals in her living room. She starts acting in school plays, spending less time at home with her sister (who becomes more violent as the novel progresses, slicing open her wrist at one point), and she feels the first stirrings of young love and acceptance in amateur productions of The Fantastiks and The Wizard of Oz (in which, against her will, she is repeatedly cast as Glinda). Cruelly because we know that inevitably, awfully, Lonnie will wreck her sister’s happiness Fox gives her narrator a taste of bliss in high school: a devoted boyfriend, whom Lorna describes as “the first perfect human being I had met,” and supportive chums, “a mythological siren who could drown men by looking at them, and a bohemian Gidget who is insightful and artistic and will probably discover the cure for cancer.”

Familiar as the rituals of childhood Lorna plods through (losing her virginity, then losing her boyfriend) are, Fox shapes them in such a way that the incidents become transformative. There is nothing cheap or facile, for instance, about the conversation between Mr. Person and Lorna when father tells daughter that one day she will have to abandon all of her artistic hopes and dreams for the sake of earning a living and raising a family. “But Daddy,” she reminds him, “you’re planning a huge TV pilot on the Peace Corps with spies!” Exposed, the accountant snaps, “Right. And you’re Doris Day.” You can see Lorna’s innocence evaporate, to be replaced with an awareness of the awful lies adults tell themselves in order to survive, their terrible mutation of the childhood game of make-believe.

Fox’s facility with imagery and symbol an isolated phone booth in the middle of nowhere, a field of brown grass alive with insects, is the place where Lorna, now in college, goes to call her hospitalized sister twice yearly also impresses. Enough, at least, so that those few chapters Fox delivers stillborn can be, if not forgiven, then at least tolerated. (Most disappointing: Lorna’s foray into performance art, a bile-filled monologue about Goodness delivered in Glinda garb; false and forced, the entire episode should have been buried alongside the Wicked Witch of the West’s melted remains.) Indeed, the author’s only truly terrible misstep in Lagoon but one that sadly sinks the narrative below the point of salvation is her failed characterization of Lonnie as “from the Black Lagoon.” The novel’s title, of course, likens the misunderstood Gill-Man from The Creature From the Black Lagoon and its sequels with the possibly schizophrenic Lonnie. Both beings are loathed for their monstrosity. Both are seen as threats to “normal” life. And both, ultimately, are woefully underdeveloped; this is permissible in a B-grade ’50s monster movie, but not in a serious novel about, among other things, the way families treat their ill and the way displaced individuals seek acceptance. As a creation, Lonnie functions most effectively at Lagoon’s fringes, where she exists as a howling voice heard through plywood-thin walls, or a crouching silhouette cut against the night sky, or a memory that haunts the Person home whenever she is hospitalized.

When Fox coaxes her into the light, however, all the zippers and buttons in this monster’s suit become visible, and Lonnie, like her name, turns into an easy joke. What should be devastating Lonnie, so at odds with herself that she wants to become a man, taping her breasts and even taking hormones comes off as a scenario recycled from Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda. Furthermore, the other symptoms of her illness (tough talking, hyperactivity, depression, emotional immaturity) reveal themselves in ways that don’t shock or move, but merely annoy. Unlike the rest of Fox’s characters, Lonnie never rises above the status of device, something the author trots out every so often to cause her narrator pain.

At the start of her story, Lorna explains: “[E]ven though I thought I was the star of my life when I was four, I soon learned that I was just another character in ‘The Lonnie Show.’ Lonnie was the sound and the action, the script and the special effects.” How tragic, then, that even if My Sister From the Black Lagoon is truly the story of Lorna’s transformation, the novel fails because her narrator’s greatest influence, her obvious foil, remains a monstrous cipher. CP