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Mary Ann D'Alto's débuting novel, He Counts Their Tears, is the story of Aaron Stein, a psychopath. Aaron uses what he calls "The Method", a game of control and power over unsuspecting women whom he selects as prey with great care, "knowing from the first that he was grooming [them] to be discarded and, in the process, emotionally and psychologically destroyed" (p. 6). An interesting and uncommon aspect of Aaron's process of charming women is his use of covert hypnosis to gain control so that they do not realize that they are being bamboozled into believing they have found their soulmate. Aaron is not literally a serial killer; however, he analogously derives his pleasure from being a serial "killer of souls".
D'Alto's premise is intriguing and will have readers second-guessing Aaron's successive deployments of The Method with various women and, presumably, will also have them yearning for his comeuppance. There is also a backstory-cum-sidestory involving Aaron's cousin Constance, who steps in to protect him when things start to go awry, but what we are told about the nature of their relationship leaves one wondering what might really be going on beneath the surface. So the tale ends with several unresolved strands and, like an old-fashioned serial drama, invites us, with a short teaser of a preview, to tune in for the next installment, a sequel in which all (or at least some) will be revealed.
The book is an entertaining and thought-provoking read. But does it have literary merit as well? Here some readers will no doubt have mixed feelings. In writing workshops, prospective writers are often advised "show, don't tell", i.e. to let the reader experience the story through action, speech, and thoughts, rather than through exposition, summarization, and description. To be sure, good writing is typically a judicious blend of both showing and telling, but to my mind D'Alto overly relies on the telling side; moreover, with each victim the narrative cycle repeats itself, replete with moralistic overtones provided by the use of terms or phrases that express "thick" concepts . One doesn't need to be told over and over again that Aaron seeks to destroy women's souls, crush their dreams or hearts, play with their souls, mentally abuse them, play sick games, discard them, or engage in emotional slaughter, and the like.
And there are some anomalies. Here's one for dog lovers: Aaron's victim Janine is a dogwalker, in charge of six dogs who are inclined to yelping when not actually being walked. Aaron contrives to casually run into Janine when she's walking the dogs. His ruse is to pretend to be a diabetic in immediate need of sugar. Janine suggests a coffee shop at the end of the block, where only a few minutes later they are sitting at a booth (p. 126). What happened to the dogs?
Here's another, possibly for feminists: Subsequent to Janine's having casually run into Aaron on the street, we are told "Their conversation had been the first [sic] bit of human kindness she had experienced in a long time" (p. 125). So "the first real conversation with another person" (pp. 122-123) that Janine had very recently had since her late boyfriend's memorial, namely her conversation with Zelda and Pearl, who brought her milk and cookies, and consoled her, so that "with the help of two women who knew the measure of love and pain" she was encouraged to go on — all that counts for naught as regards human kindness?
How true-to-life is Aaron, anyway? Could the machinations attributed to him correspond to the actual inner workings of a psychopath's mind from a first-person perspective, or are they merely an extrinsic teleological explanation, an account of what his thoughts and actions amount to from a third-person perspective. My own thought was that the descriptions seemed more like post facto rationalizations of the narrator rather than mirroring the character's immediate thought processes.
I am reminded of a passage in Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, (, pp. 52-53) where the character Mr. Verloc, "descended into the abyss of moral reflections" in which his temperament leads to insights, various moralistic verdicts, a sense of having his morality offended, and a consideration of fine distinctions, drawn complacently with an instinct for conventional respectability, thereafter winding up with general ideas about revolutionaries, fanatics, and social rebels. Then Conrad appears to have caught himself, seeming to realize that all this depth of reflection is not properly attributable to Verloc himself but to the narrator (who may reflect Conrad's own views), and appends this corrective remark: "Lost for a whole minute in the abyss of meditation, Mr. Verloc did not reach the depth of these abstract considerations. Perhaps he was not able. In any case he had not the time." That remark, in spirit if not in letter, captures my misgivings about some of the thought processes attributed to Aaron.
My grumbles notwithstanding, I think this book is worth reading, and it has certainly made me curious enough to want to read the sequel. There are likely to be many differences of opinion about how plausible and true-to-life not only Aaron but also the supporting cast of characters is. Some readers (like me) might also be exercised by certain conceptual issues — is Aaron properly described as a psychopath, or a sociopath, or something else altogether? (There is an ongoing debate about the applicability of such terms, e.g. in ) A related issue is how widespread the "Aaron phenomenon" might actually be. Such questions could make He Counts Their Tears an ideal choice for a small informal book-discussion group.
 Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (Oxford University Press, 1983).
 Rachel Cooper, Classifying Madness: A Philosophical
Examination of the Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders (Dordrecht, NL: Springer, 2005)
 Brent G. Kyle, "Thick Concepts", The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy <http://www.iep.utm.edu/thick-co/> Accessed Nov. 24, 2017.
© 2017 Karl Pfeifer
Karl Pfeifer, PhD, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy, Monash University, and Professor Emeritus, University of Saskatchewan