‘Moral Insanity’ in Dracula

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Note: This article first appeared in Voices from the Vaults, the publication of the Dracula Society. Details about the Society and a link showing how to join are below this piece.

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‘But Arthur never faltered. He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake, whilst the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it. His face was set and high duty seemed to shine through it…’ (Dr Seward’s diary, Chapter 16, Dracula)

Rarely has male violence against women been presented in such perversely self-righteous language as in this passage of Bram Stoker’s celebrated 1897 novel. Before Lucy Westenra is staked by fiance Arthur Holmwood, the look in her eyes causes Dr. Seward to muse that if he had to kill her he would go about the task with “savage delight.”

The sexual landscape in Dracula is one of extremes. The Lucy of Stoker’s novel must not be confused with the sexually liberated character who turns up in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 epic or, more recently, the third part of 2020’s Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat mini series.

A fun night out with the Count: liberated 21st century Lucy (Lydia West) in Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s 2020 Dracula mini series.

Flirty Victorian Lucy (Sadie Frost) in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’.

Until she dies and rises with demonic, “voluptuous” power, Stoker’s Lucy is all about sweetness and “innocence” which in late-Victorian world means submissiveness and sexual inexperience. When she receives multiple marriage proposals within a short time Lucy reacts like a twittery child. One of her suitors, Quincey Morris, even repeatedly calls her “little girl” as he declares his love.

It is the contrast in Lucy alive and Lucy (un)dead that so unhinges Seward. He tells us he sees Lucy “in form and colour; but Lucy’s eyes unclean and full of hell-fire, instead of the pure, gentle orbs we knew.”

It might be tempting to believe that Dr. Seward’s descriptions are part of a literary trick. If these passages appeared in a novel from a much later era, we might assume Seward is an ‘unreliable narrator’ and that his reactions have been planted to disquiet the reader and make them confront misogyny head on.

But there is little in the novel or in Stoker’s life to suggest he was interested in sneaking  feminist codes into his novels, nor that he intended his band of brothers — Seward, Harker, Quincey Morris and Arthur Holmwood — to be anything other than valiant knights saving Lucy’s soul from depravity.

Lucy confronting the cross before the “mercy-bearing stake”.

To try to understand Stoker is to take in a number of contradictory aspects of his life and character. He was a conservative man, especially when it came to ideas of gender roles, yet he was drawn to bohemian circles. He was undoubtedly interested in prestige and societal approval but took the riskiest path towards achieving his ends, deserting a legal career, and throwing his energies into serving the great actor Henry Irving and the Lyceum Theatre. Most importantly, he was always extremely busy, and likely compensated for multi-tasking by hyper-focus and overwork.

Stoker as a young man: respectable, ambitious but enigmatic and a risk-taker

While Dracula was meticulously planned and timetabled, it is the author’s fevered imagination, driven by (in modern language) subconscious fears and emotions that drive the plot. This is one of Stoker’s strengths as a writer. In Dracula and other works, he  draws from folklore without inhibition or any sense of worry about what he might be revealing about himself. He even gives us a hint of this in the early chapters of Dracula when Jonathan Harker refers to the Carpathians as an “imaginative whirlpool” which draws in every superstition. This ‘imaginative whirlpool’ is the perfect metaphor for Dracula, a novel which draws from Stoker family memory, folklore and research ranging from Ireland to eastern Europe. And it also draws from every fear. Like all constructed folktales, the moral values end up being merely a reflection of the era in which the story is written.

Reviews of Dracula were at the time fairly positive overall. The criticisms that came tended to focus on the believability factors and there was little, if any, mention of misogyny. The closest comes, and it’s not very close at all, from a publication called The Athenaeum June 26, 1897, which noted  that “The people who band themselves together to run the vampire to earth have no real individuality or being” (Retrieved from The Bela Lugosi Blog). This blind spot to those aspects of Dracula that are all too obvious today suggests that in its view of female sexuality, Dracula was an accurate barometer of its age.

For the twenty-first century writer wishing to revisit the novel the question is this: What was it about the 1890s that shielded author, reviewers, and readers to the most disquieting aspect of the novel?

Dracula was written during the last gasp of the Victorian era. Despite Mina’s facetious reference to “the new woman”, the novel’s reader will sometimes have to pinch themselves to remember that the suffragette movement had been in full swing for decades by the time of its publication. Even before the Great War, the patriarchal and cap-doffing society represented by Arthur Holmwood and friends might be seen to be numbered. It’s easy to imagine people, consciously or otherwise, holding on with an even firmer grasp than usual to some old-fashioned notions.

The emerging discipline of psychiatry, very much in evidence in Dracula, is a perfect convergence of old and new ideas. It still inhabited a murky borderland with pseudo sciences such as physiognomy (the determining of a person’s character by the shape of their skull), in which Stoker had a particular interest.

Asylums, such as Dr Seward’s, were often  about social control, especially of women. One concept in contemporary use was  ‘moral insanity’.  This designation was used by alienists to explain how even if a person acted rationally, their deviation from moral norms might still be harmful to society. This backdrop of belief might go a little way to explain how 1890s readers might not have balked at the idea that it was necessary for Arthur to ‘stake’ Lucy.

While the novel stresses the completeness of Lucy’s possession by evil, the fact that she recognizes and speaks to Arthur by name suggests she is still the same person. It is possible to argue then that Dracula‘s contemporary readership was primed by the then-current notions of insanity. Lucy is neither insane nor completely possessed. But her behaviour is so far removed from accepted norms that the men feel justified in putting an end to her. The fact that Lucy in the story is already technically dead is the device through which Arthur, Seward et al avoid responsibily for her death in any legal or moral sense.

Edvard Munch’s painting ‘Vampire’ (1895), a glimpse into 1890s fear of women’s sexuality?

Dracula remains a many-layered labyrinth of horrors largely because Stoker kept his imagination open and unfettered and he wrote by instinct. My hope in Mina’s Child is that in moving the action ahead one generation to 1921 to a less obviously gendered society, and one whose understanding of the mind was a little more rooted in science,  some more ‘hidden’ aspects of Dracula‘s horror will be thrown more sharply into relief.

Note: The Dracula Society welcomes anyone with an affinity for supernatural fiction. Details on how to join can be found here!

Paul Butler is the author of Mina’s Child, a novel which shifts Dracula‘s story ahead one generation from the 1890s to the 1920s and deals with the doubts that the Harkers’ daughter has about her parents’ tales of an evil foreigner and women’s demon sexuality.

Mina’s Child is widely available through most book retailers. In Canada, it can be purchased through any good independent bookstore, through the publisher Inanna, through the Chapters-Indigo chain or through amazon.ca.In the US, Mina’s Child can be purcahsed through Barnes and Noble or amazon.com In the UK, it is available through amazon.co.uk.

Suffolk Horror: Wakenhyrst, a Jamesian Inversion

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A cold and crusty middle-aged antiquarian. Unseen horrors, half-animal, half-spirit, lurking in a fen. An unearthed relic from the ancient past, a Last Judgement painting which fuses Christian and pagan symbolism into a Hieronymus Bosch-style nightmare.

Together with its rural East Anglian setting, these elements seem to belong to a story from M.R. James (1862-1936), perhaps Britain’s most admired writer of ghost stories.

But the antiquarian in Michelle Paver’s novel Wakenhyrst (2019) does not belong to James’s world of confirmed bachelors. Emotionally frozen though he is, Paver’s Edmund Stearne is a man of lustful appetities and incessant demands. Without a shred of remorse, he sleeps with his underage maid and drives his wife into multiple miscarriages and ill-health by insisting on his ‘conjugal rights’ every night regardless of her situation. 

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His hunger for arcane knowledge is equally obessive, especially when it comes to a lost fifteenth century manuscript relating to one Alice Pyett, mystic and saint.

Commandeering his undervalued daughter Maud to act as his secretary, Stearne prepares his modern translation and exegesis on the Pyett document. Stearne notes how literate and efficient Maud is compared to his slower son. But he regards her obvious capabilities with amused irony. In true Schopenhauer form, he believes nature has mistakenly bestowed some limited intellectual powers to a woman, who, by virtue of gender, will lack the depth necessary to use them. He also disparages the memory of the wife once he’s driven her to the grave, suggesting that her mediocrity “was holding [him] back.”

But in the case of Maud, the joke is on him. We experience Stearne’s thoughts through the ‘secret’ diary Maud has discovered. Stearne’s daughter has ideas of her own, as well as her own particular loves which include the surounding fen with its mysterious night calls, its swamps and eels, as well as her pet magpie, Chatterpie, and the undergardner, Clem.

Stearne is unnerved by the ancient Doom (Last Judgement) he encounters by accident the tries to conceal.The man who painted that Doom,” he notes, “believed in Hell as completely as he believed in his own existence.” In fact, he decides, “there is nothing sacred about it, and that it possesses a quality of the infernal.” 

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Hieronymus Bosche, the Dutch painter Stearne thinks of when he sees the ‘Wakenhyrst Doom’.

 

The parrallels with M. R. James are quite striking, in particular with the The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral in which an overly ambitious cleryman, Archdeacon Haynes, senses the carved figures in the Barchester stalls becoming imbued with a distinctly unholy presence.

In its depiction of a stuffy patriarchial world, its lurking malignity and its Suffolk setting, Wakenhyrst might be considered a riff upon James’s universe. But it’s also an inversion.

James was an extremely male author and he was also a writer for whom working class people were most often comic relief. Here, Maud, the overlooked daughter, Stearne’s mistreated wife, and the working-class Clem are the characters with whom the reader most identifies.

And the pyramid is also inverted in terms of the supernatural themes.

Malign forces creep stealthily through James’s eccentric characters and comedic situations until the supertural threat becomes the most real and unsettling aspect of the story. In Wakenhyrst, the living fen, vivid and mysterious, is a constant presence but the most monstrous agency by far is entirely human. 

Wakenhyrst begins with a newspaper account of a journalist’s meeting with the elderly Maud sixty years after the main events in the novel. So the reader knows in advance that the story in the past is leading to bizarre and inexplicable violence. Intriguingly, we are invited to piece togther from Stearne’s research and his diary the motivations which lay behind the infamous event.

One of Michelle Paver’s recurring themes, explored also in Thin Air (2016) and Dark Matter (2010), is a sinister or threatening environment that reflects something about dysfunctions of the characters and the times in which they live. The aforementioned titles address the last gasp of the era of exploration in the 1930s. For those yearning for an Edwardian horror story yet also long to see the genre revisited through a progressive lens, Wakenhyrst is the perfect tonic.

Paul Butler is the author of the newly-released Mina’s Child and 2017’s The Widow’s Fire

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‘Dracula’ Meets the New Generation – Mina’s Child

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It’s 1921, a generation after the events depicted in Dracula.

The ‘heroes’ of Bram Stoker’s novel, Jonathan and Mina Harker, have lived through the Great War. The Harkers have lost a son, Quincey, named after the martyred Texan hero in Dracula. Their daughter, Abree, is skeptical about the late-Victorian values of her parents, especially their blind trust in authority, as embodied by their friendship with the aristocratic Arthur Holmwood. To Abree, loyalty to the class structure is what led the world to the catastrophe of 1914-18 and the death of her brother, Quincey.

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Caught in the crosswinds of social change, Abree tries to commit herself to studying literature at King’s College. But external concerns are about to overtake the Harkers. They find themselves haunted by two characters, one living, one dead: A young professor from Wallachia reawakens the Harkers’ suspicion of foreign strangers, and Lucy Westenra, victim of Arthur Holmwood’s stake, weaves her way through their collective dreams, threatening to unearth a forgotten crime.

Here, as a brief preview, is a 5-minute reading of Mina’s Child.

Mina’s Child is available for order or pre-order through amazon, Chapters-Indigo chain, Barnes and Noble, and all good independent book stores, but, because of Covid-19, the quickest and most reliable way for now is directly through the publisher, Inanna Publications.

Upcoming June 11!

Mina’s Child will be included in the virtual book launch, hosted by Inanna along with The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton, Carousel by April Ford, The Negation of Chronology: Imagining Geraldine Moodie by Rebecca Luce-Kapler, and Seeds and Other Stories by Ursula Pfug. Everyone is free to sign up for this exciting event!

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Malignant Nature II: Excavated Devils and Pagan Kings

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THE EARLY 18th CENTURY. A plough scores its way through the earth. Farmhand Ralph  stops his horse to rest, turns around and takes a look at his work. He notices a cluster of pigeons gathering around a newly-formed furrow. Moving in closer, he sees feathers scattered around the soil. Then, nudging aside a stone, he discovers a tuft of lack fur, an oddly-formed skull, and a staring eye.

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The ‘fiend’s’ staring eye in Blood on Satan’s Claw

Ralph runs away.

The opening titles roll to Marc Wilkinson’s lyrical score. Woodwinds weave a  romantic folk melody. In the background, staccato tympani strikes mischievous notes as though depicting some creature hopping around in the undergrowth. A raven perches below a lowering sky. Twigs and ferns curl like claws, their seeds quivering in the breeze.

Blood on Satan’s Claw, directed by Piers Haggard in 1971, had the misfortune to be released in a period when the British horror film had begun to degenerate into gratuitous sex and dismal youth-oriented gimmicks. But, despite the association, Blood on Satan’s Claw is an outlier in the history of British film, a true inheritor of Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen’s celebrated Haxan (1922) in its attention to art history, visual composition, and a total  abandonment to the full scope of nightmarish imagination.

Screenwriter Robert Wynne-Simmons, who had an interest in William Blake’s visionary writings as well as Irish folklore, worked closely with director Haggard on the many startling visual sequences.

The skull unearthed in the opening sequence belongs to a ‘fiend’ who, with the help of village children, is slowly reconstituting itself using patches of fur which have been growing on the skin of the villagers.

A local doctor (Howard Goorney) opens a book of ancient lore about witches. He shows an illustration to a visiting nobleman, ‘The Judge’ (Patrick Wymark), saying the visage in question is very similar to the skull described by Ralph.

“Doctor,” the Judge snaps. “Witchcraft is dead and discredited. Are you intent on reviving forgotten horrors?”

The Judge

Urban Enlightenment: Patrick Wymark as ‘The Judge’

“How can we know, Sir, what is dead?” The doctor retorts. “You come from the city. you cannot know the ways of the country.”

Howard Goorney as the rural doctor

Rural wisdom: the doctor (Howard Goorney)

Cinema goers in the early 1970s  would have been used to Hammer Films’s systematized approach to horror in which a satanically evil character was often pitted against a hero wielding Christian icons like a crucifix or holy water. A threat such as a vampire came complete with an already-established FIFA-style rule book about the extent of its powers and the means of its destruction.

In Blood from Satan’s Claw a more obscure battle rages. This fight is not between conventional ‘good’ and ‘evil’ but between the Enlightenment, personified by the urban Judge on the one hand, and darker primeval forces characterized by the doctor and villagers on the other. It is the Judge himself who, after a series of tragedies and murders, finally determines that there is indeed an evil which must be purged. The dream-like climax sees him impale the almost complete ‘fiend’ with a decidedly medieval-looking spike which he then holds high above the fire within the church ruins before lowering it onto the sizzling flames.

As the end titles roll the Judge’s eye is seen through briefly parting flames, an image that clearly  recalls our first glimpse of the fiend’s eye staring up from the furrows. Is the Judge an Enlightenment equivalent of the fiend he has vanquished? This would certainly seem to be the implication. But ultimately, like Haxan, the story bypasses the intellect and appeals to the senses and the imagination. The interior sets have more than a hint of the Dutch masters, with their autumnal hues and attention to domestic arrangements such as pots, wicker bird cages, and hanging herbs. The exteriors, captured by cinematographer Dick Bush, are gorgeous and bucolic, an ironic counterpoint to the children led by ‘Angel’ (Linda Hayden) who play murderous games while serving their dark master.

THE FORCES OF DARKNESS and light in the English countryside received a more obviously cerebral treatment three years later in the television film Penda’s Fen (1974) written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke.

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BBC Poster for Penda’s Fen 1974

Nearing his eighteenth birthday, Stephen (Spenser Banks), an earnest young vicar’s son, pens an effusive tribute to Edward Elgar’s opera The Dream of Gerontius, the tale of a man led by an angel to the throne where he will confront the “piercing glance of God”.

The music, writes Stephen, attempts to capture the “fearful dissonance” of  looking upon the face of the Creator and also the moments of worrisome self-judgement that lead up this climatic event.

An intensely patriotic young man, Stephen reacts angrily against a bohemian neighbour, a playwright (Ian Hogg), who disparages the “psychopaths” who wield the real power behind British politicians. Stephen rails (to his parents) that the playwright is “unnatural” — his plays always have “someone unnatural” in them — and this is why the the writer and his wife have not been blessed with children.

The parents look at each other with weary resignation. Their son, they realize, has very little self-awareness. They have seen the way he looks longingly at the young milkman who comes to the door in his t-shirt.

Assailed by dreams in which an angel hovers over his shoulder by day and a demon sits on his chest at night, Stephen also dreams he can turn a demon perching on his father’s church spire back into an angel.  A church’s spire, according to his father (John Atkinson), can act like an aerial to forces of both good and evil because it presents the “Manichean challenge” — the struggle of forces of light not to be overwhelmed by darkness.

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Vicar’s son, Stephen, and angel in Penda’s Fen

Stephen’s own notions of darkness and light are rigidly conventional. In a speech before the class he harangues his classmates about the dangers of a ‘subversive’ tv documentary Who was Jesus? and praises a couple he calls “the mother and father of England” who were successful in their injunction to have the programme banned.

But Stephen’s worldview is about to be challenged not only by his own burgeoning sexuality but also by the discovery that his father’s opinions are far more radical than he thought. On a bookshelf he finds his father’s old thesis, The Buried Jesus, which mourns that fact that the “name of this life-enhancing, revolutionary Jesus should be dangled like a halo over a sick culture centered on authority and death.” 

His father later explains that to live in the world you must be “two selves” the one who needs to survive and must play along with authority, and also the real self. His view of Christianity is similar. There is the “life enhancing” Jesus but there are also the “institution men” — like Paul and Augustine — who degraded the Christian message.

The Penda’s Fen of the title is the ancient name for Stephen’s village, Pinvin. Penda was the pre-Christian king and throughout the film there is a sense that the surrounding institutions — the Anglican church, Stephen’s military-style private school, the various levels of government — are interlopers in a land still haunted by ancient tradition.

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The spirit of King Penda, Penda’s Fen

For such a richly-layered film, Penda’s Fen also conveys a sense that the landscape is very much alive — in the Shropshire vistas, and in the beautiful sunsets, especially in the scene in which Stephen’s father suggests that the spirit of Penda still lives in the hills that surround them.

Time has been good to both Blood from Satan’s Claw and Penda’s Fen. Both works explore particular kinds of disquiet and ambiguity, and above all, a sense of unpredictability and agency in our natural surroundings.

Malignant Nature I: Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds

 

Paul Butler is the author of the upcoming Mina’s Child and The Widow’s Fire

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Malignant Nature I: Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’

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Great flocks of them came to the peninsula, restless, uneasy, spending themselves in motion; now wheeling, circling in the sky, now settling to feed on the rich, new-turned soil; but even when they fed, it was as though they did so without hunger, without desire.

(Daphne du Maurier, The Birds, 1952)

The Birds 2012 Virago short story collection

Virago short story collection featuring The Birds

So thinks protagonist Nat as he enjoys his solitude on his lunch break. Injured in the war Nat sustains his family by doing odd jobs about a farm, mending fences and digging ditches. Today he watches as an odd assortment of birds — gulls, finches, songbirds — wheel and dive around the furrows.

The birds, he decides, are in a panic because of a cold snap that seems to herald the coming of winter. They are suddenly aware of their own mortality. As a war veteran this is something he understands: Apprehensive before their time [people] drive themselves to work or folly, the birds do likewise. 

But a night of horror is about to follow. The birds invade Nat’s home, terrifying his children, going for his young son’s eyes. This is quite unlike anything he has heard of or experienced.

At first he can’t get the farming community to take it seriously. “Foreign birds maybe,” someone tells him. “From that Arctic circle.”

The rural people around Nat seem insular and small-minded. When at last they do believe there is a genuine problem, their response is to go out with guns and try to shoot the birds.

The Birds is at least partly social satire. Nat, we are told, is held in some suspicion by the rural community. He is said to be superior. Read[s] books and the like.

Du Maurier’s short story is set in one of the gloomiest periods of British history, during the post-war years when the trauma of  conflict was still present and the sense of deprivation was yet to lift. Nat directly compares the blind savagery of the birds’ attacks to the air raids he experienced over Plymouth. It’s as though the war never really ended and the siege of the blitz is everywhere.

The final scenes, with Nat’s family holed in in their farmhouse, have an apocalyptic flavour: Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.

Nat moves the dial on the radio and finds no stations are broadcasting. He throws his final cigarette package — the last trapping of luxury and civilization — on the fire.

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Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier around the time of Rebecca’s publication, (1938)

When author du Maurier heard that Alfred Hitchcock wanted to adapt her short story, she had every reason to be both pleased and confident that the result would reflect the themes of her original. This had been the case with Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) based on du Maurier’s bestselling novel published in 1938.

But it had been David O. Selznick, Rebecca‘s producer, who had insisted the film remain as close to its literary source as possible. Selznick had just produced epoch-defining Gone with the Wind and saw himself as the guardian of modern literary adaptations.

Hitchcock, in contrast, was all about film, and he was no longer the youngish director working under Selznick trying to get a foothold in Hollywood. After several smash hits, including, most recently, Psycho (1960), he was in creative control of his projects. To the veteran director, a literary source was something to be exploited for what it might yield, not slavishly followed to please the fans of its author.

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A study in helplessness: Hitchcock’s publicity poster for The Birds (1963)

So, for Hitchcock, the gloom of southern England becomes the breezy freedom of Northern California. Understated farmhand Nat becomes dashing San Francisco lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), and in the most surprising liberty of all, we are introduced to rich socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a creation reminiscent of socialites played respectively by Grace Kelly and Eva Marie Saint in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and North by Northwest (1959).

Melanie Daniels’  sole purpose in the first third of the film is to stalk (in modern parlance) Mitch who she she has come across by accident in a pet store. She uses her  connections as the daughter of a newspaper proprietor to trace Mitch’s licence plate and follow him in her sports car to remote Bodega Bay.

This character is pure Hitchcock. No such character as Melanie Daniels exists anywhere in the real world, let alone in du Maurier’s parochial farming community. While Tippi Hedren was criticized at the time for her mannequin style of dress and behaviour, Hitchcock himself must take the lion’s share of the blame.

He “discovered” Hedren by accident watching a TV advert for a diet soda. In the ad, someone wolf-whistles and she reacts archly, a scene which is repeated in The Birds when we first encounter her. With no real acting experience, Hedren had little choice but to closely follow Hitchcock’s meticulous direction, which included precise instructions about movement and facial expression; this last aspect is notably absent except for a hint of smugness. As Hitchcock once intimated, Melanie represents an all-too-human confidence in our own indomitable power. We are supposed to find her overconfident.

Aside from Melanie, the tone and setting could hardly be more of a contrast to du Maurier’s original. Bodega Bay may be ‘rural’ but the characters — Mitch’s oddly possessive mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy),  Mitch’s former girlfriend, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) — are worldly and sophisticated.

Only in one scene set in a local diner does a sense of social satire come to the surface with various types reacting to the story of the savage birds. Beret-wearing ornithologist Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies) is naturally skeptical and rather indignant at the idea. Drunken prophet of doom (Karl Swenson) sees it as the apocalypse but we get the idea he has predicted the end of the world many times before.

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Famous set piece: birds gather for attack

The Birds, perhaps more than most Hitchcock movies, is about its set pieces: the schoolyard climbing frame gradually filling up with crows to the sound of a nursery rhyme from within the school while oblivious Melanie looks the other way and smokes her cigarette; the series of accidents at a gas station which culminates in a man dropping his cigarette butt in a growing pool of spilled petrol. The inferno caused by this incident leads to perhaps the film’s most effective cut. We are suddenly high above the town and looking from the point of view of the gulls as they amass in preparation for attack.

In some ways The Birds seems like an odd project for a director so interested in plot. There is not a great deal of story until the birds start attacking and then there is little room for anything except bird attacks. Both du Maurier’s short story and Hitchcock’s film are inconclusive, although the original implies the likelihood of impending death for Nat and his family. Hitchcock generally liked resolution, even when it meant a great deal of exposition at the end of the movie, as in Psycho.

But the memory of World War II resounded with Hitchcock as much as with anyone, and The Birds is an exploration of this kind of fear. During the war Hitchcock had returned to London to make morale-raising documentaries for the British government. His stay in West End hotels during the blitz was an experience he didn’t forget.

The Birds is unsettling both in its prose version and in Hitchcock’s movie precisely because it’s a story that strips away human agency. The birds are not attacking for a purpose. Humans are not the cause for nature’s hostility nor do we have the means to solve the problem. And this, our helplessness amidst greater forces, is one of our deepest fears.

Paul Butler is the author of the upcoming Mina’s Child and The Widow’s Fire

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Heretics and Adventurers: Mantel and Morgan-Cole’s Historical Fiction

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Tudors and Stuarts, the two royal dynasties most familiar to every British school child of my generation, can provide mouth-watering backdrops for historical fiction.

In very broad stokes, the Tudor monarchs, beginning in 1485 with Henry VII, were about religious strife, the quest for stability, and a clean succession. Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 1530s, established himself and his court as the ultimate authority on all things religious. Queen Mary, Henry’s elder daughter, brought England back to Rome in the 1550s before Elizabeth I, Henry’s second daughter, re-established the English church again as the ultimate authority under the power of the English monarch.

While exploration to the New World was in vogue for Tudor gentleman explorers such as Philip Sydney, Walter Raleigh, and Francis Drake, it was during the post-1604 Stuarts that a fresh wave of exploration bore significant fruit and reached into the popular imagination. The newly-formed East India Company looked to plunder in one direction while, in the other, fresh colonial enterprises sought to claim the treasures of North America. New plantations were established, for instance, in Virginia in 1607 and parts of New England. Further north, John Guy landed in Cuper’s Cove, Newfoundland, in 1610.

Three recent novels seek to further define the themes of each age, often highlighting parallels with our own time.

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2010) and Bring up the Bodies (2015) are the first two novels in a planned trilogy which will culminate in this spring’s The Mirror and the Light. The trilogy brings us Henry VIII’s most turbulent years. Our guide is master politician Thomas Cromwell.  Cromwell is driven by an ambition neither he, nor the reader, fully understands.

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Wolf Hall, the first of three Cromwell novels

Already a wealthy man by most standards, Cromwell starts political life as an agent for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor and the nearest equivalent of today’s ‘prime minister’. Wolsey answers directly to the king.

By the late 1520s, Henry wants Wolsey to persuade the pope to approve his divorce from Catherine of Aragon on the grounds that, as Catherine was his brother’s widow, the match was incestuous. This blasphemy, Henry believes, is the reason the marriage has failed to produce a male heir.

As the pope is soon under the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (Catherine of Aragon’s nephew), Wolsey’s task becomes impossible. The cardinal’s enemies close in but Cromwell remains loyal, despite the urging of his friends to abandon Wolsey. Foreshadowing Cromwell’s career, the cardinal himself outlines the danger for any servant of the king: Wolsey says, you know he will take the credit for your good ideas, and you the blame for his bad ones? When fortune turns against you, you will feel her lash: you always, he never.

Sick and under a gentile form of house arrest, Wolsey dies. But Cromwell’s friends were wrong. In faithfully pleading the cardinal’s case to Henry, Cromwell has already impressed the king. He continues in the ascent that will see him stepping into Wolsey’s shoes as key adviser.

The late cardinal becomes a whimsical thread in Cromwell’s thoughts. When Cromwell feels delighted about the way a day’s work has gone, Wolsey is apt to appear with fresh warnings.

But Cromwell cannot resist the urge to serve Henry regardless of the consequences. Things are stacked up against him. Like Wolsey, the son of a butcher, Cromwell, son of a blacksmith, is from too low a birth for the well-born courtiers who surround him. He has to contend with their open contempt and hostility and must be several times cleverer than his enemies. With many years spent on the continent of Europe as a soldier, gambler and all-round chancer, Cromwell is up for the task.

And he can see an opportunity to get on Henry’s good side. He can promise the one thing the monarch values most, money: [Cromwell’s] guess is, the clergy own a third of England. One day soon, Henry will ask him how the Crown will own it instead. 

The idea of a wily politician managing the desires of a temperamental leader seems thoroughly modern. Dealing with Henry, Cromwell reflects, is like dealing with a child; one day you bring in a box, and the child asks, what is in there? Then it goes to sleep and forgets, but next day, it asks again.

Mantel’s Henry VIII is intellectually and emotionally stunted in comparison with the advisers who have to serve him. But, once allowances have been made for the brutality of the age, he is also warm and sincere. He is subject to nightmares and superstition and genuinely believes his first marriage is against God’s will. Unexpectedly, Mantel also reveals how in hindsight both Cromwell and Henry are on the right side of some social issues.

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Henry VIII in Bring up the Bodies: more progressive than we thought.

In Bring up the Bodies, Cromwell, with Henry’s support, prepares a bill for parliament to provide wages for out-of-work men to help repair roads and bridges. This has become increasingly important as the breach with Rome has made England vulnerable to attack from Charles V: We could pay them, he calculated, if we levied an income tax on the rich.

The nobles in parliament balk, arguing furiously that feeding and housing the poor is  against the natural order. The bill does not pass. It is curious to encounter in the infamous monarch sentiments that place him in a more progressive light than some 21st century Conservative MPs. But Mantel’s exhaustive research, as well as her eye for irony and contradiction, unearth many such surprises.

Not least of these is a rethinking of the Catholic saint, Thomas More, a man who always has the last word and the better turn of phrase than his detractors but who, in Cromwell’s eyes, is a “vain and dangerous man.” By the standards of his time, Mantel’s Cromwell is something of a libertarian as far as religion is concerned. He happily conceals the identity and whereabouts of William Tyndale. Tyndale is a wanted man whose crime is to have translated the Bible — only read by clergy and scholars in Latin, Hebrew, or Greek —  into English.

This allows the population to see for themselves that the practices encouraged by the church such as indulgences — money paid to the clergy to shorten the time a loved one spends in purgatory — are inventions with no foundation in scripture. More, Wolsey’s successor as chancellor, has Cromwell’s Tyndale-supporting friends tortured and burned.

For those, like myself, who are the product of Catholic education, this reversal — brokerage politician Cromwell being so much more human, and more sympathetic, than idealist More — is unaccustomed territory. But it’s entirely plausible and rooted in historical fact.

Against his will, Cromwell himself becomes an agent of destruction. In Wolf Hall, his duty to Henry demands he either force More to sign an oath declaring new wife Anne Boleyn’s children the only legitimate heirs to the throne, or he must engineer More’s execution. In Bring up the Bodies, Anne herself falls out of favour when she fails to produce a male heir.

An overarching theme for both novels becomes vicarious revenge. Cromwell does not enjoy causing the downfall of others but, as he must to this to serve the king, he makes sure the collateral damage punishes those who caused Wolsey’s demise. Through rumor, court gossip, and dishonest bragging, a number of Anne’s confidantes and Wolsey’s enemies become implicated in Anne’s secret — and probably non-existent — love life. This, of course, is treason.

Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies present a closeted world of corridors and dark secrets. The reader lives inside Cromwell’s head. We see everything though his crepuscular lens and the reader-protagonist intimacy is sustained through some narrative oddities such as attributing speech to all the characters by name but Cromwell only by use of “He.”

Recurring symbolism reinforces this sense of cloisters turning ever inwards. The ailing Wolsey gives Cromwell his turquoise ring as a parting gift. Around the same time a litter of black kittens is born under the cardinal’s bed. One is adopted by Cromwell to grow and become feral prowling the grounds of his home. Cromwell is therefore anointed twice; he has received Wolsey’s blessing and also his curse of ambition.

***

In Trudy Morgan-Cole’s A Roll of the Bones we shift from narrow, dark corridors, and poetic conceits into breezy daylight and swiftly changing points of view. The contrast befits the new era of exploration. The story has become about ordinary people — tradesmen, wives, and servants — who might realize their ambitions through voyage.

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Roll of the Bones: uncharted history of women and ordinary folk

John Guy’s Bristol plantation, established on the east coast of Newfoundland in 1610, provided a chance for breaking free of narrowly defined fate. As Morgan-Cole’s young colonist Ned decides,  “here…in the year of our Lord 1610, there would be such a chance–for any brave man to throw over a good apprenticeship and a safe path. Shuffle the cards, cast the dice, roll the bones: take a chance.”

By signing on as one of Guy’s 39 skilled men to land on Newfoundland’s shores, Ned  achieves a promotion from apprentice to stonemason.

Not all transitions are straightforward. Eighteen-year-old Kathryn has married Bristol tradesman Nicholas Guy, a cousin to the colony leader. She sees him as a kind man and is shocked when he announces to his relatives that he, too, will join the expedition to Newfoundland. The other expedition members consulted their spouses first, Kathryn complains.

Nicholas adds insult to injury: “At their time of life, a husband would naturally seek the counsel of a wife who is mature and has proven her worth.”

Morgan-Cole’s historical fiction often delves into the the layered stories that lie behind textbook history, especially the uncharted history of women. In Kathryn, and her companion Nancy, the author explores the social straitjackets in which seventeenth century women could find themselves. New wife Kathryn is already in a (mainly unacknowledged) battle with her sister-in-law over details like what to buy and cook for dinner. She sees herself as mistress, but her rival seems to claim household supremacy without effort.

Worse, Kathryn has to “prove her worth” by not causing ructions in the house. For her husband’s comfort, everything must appear serene.

She must practice another kind of patience too. In history, and in Morgan-Cole’s novel, the perilous journey across the Atlantic to Cuper’s Cove (or Cupids Cove) was undertaken only by men until, in 1612, when wives and other women joined the colony. Morgan-Cole playfully entitles one chapter A Parcel of Females is Delivered.

But the reader feels the tension of the men waiting to see their wives: Nicholas Guy was also straining to see the faces of the women in the boat. “I believe that be my wife,” Guy said, but when Ned looked back at the boat he saw not Kathryn but Nancy.” 

Intriguingly, in letters sent across the ocean, Morgan-Cole’s prose reverts to seventeenth century-style construction and spelling. The effect of this stylistic shift is to present the reader with something that feels like an artifact from the era and it draws us even more securely into the story. 

Other than the letters, the prose in Roll of the Bones is flowing and sensuous. The reader experiences the smell of mud and dung as Kathryn trudges through a Bristol market. We feel the swell of the sea while Ned, as a crew member of the Indeavour, travels north along Newfoundland’s coastline in search of the island’s native people.

With both Mantel and Morgan-Cole’s fiction, the eras in question are brought to life in the very texture of the writing. Perhaps this is the highest kind of achievement for a historical novel.

Paul Butler is the author of the upcoming Mina’s Child and The Widow’s Fire

 

Social Media and Spirits in Fiction

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The ever-changing nature of social media presents a special challenge when it comes to using it as the backdrop to a novel. This landscape never stops moving and evolving. Facebook gives way to Instagram. Email slips away in favour of texting and Whats app. What was current two years ago is old hat now.  

As writers typically spend years, rather than months, penning a novel, and often longer still from first submission to seeing the work in print, how does an author capture this fast-moving target? And, once caught, how do they ensure the themes and situations remain current to readers five, ten, fifteen years or hence when modes of  social media may have gone through fresh revolutions?

Three recent novels explore the effect of social media on our lives and transcend the difficulties in distinct, yet effective, ways.

The Nix by Nathan Hill is a multi-character, multi-generational saga. At its core is a broken relationship between Faye, a mother  who left her home in the 1988 without warning, and her son, Samuel, who she deserted.

The Nix

In 2011, Samuel, now a writer and literature professor trying to cope with his disinterested but entitled students, hides away in his office frequently playing Elfscape, an online video game. When his publisher threatens to sue him for non-delivery of a manuscript for which he has been already paid, a solution to his immediate problems springs from an amazing coincidence. In a Chicago park, a former peacenik has apparently attacked a rising right-wing political figure, Governor Sheldon Packer. Dubbed  the “Packer Attacker” by the media, the woman in question is none other than Faye, Samuel’s long-lost mother.

Samuel’s amoral publisher is prepared to give Samuel a break providing he puts his name to a damning biography of the Packer Attacker, one that gives credence to ‘inside knowledge’ of Faye as everything the right wing media would have her — dangerous, irresponsible, and a serious public menace. While Samuel, bitter and resentful toward his mother, agrees to the deal, we find out in fact Faye has a complex and layered history. Desertion runs in her family, as does a folkloric Nordic force, ‘The Nix’ of the title. 

In The Nix, conventional and social media converge to create an alternative reality which bears little relation to the real world but which nevertheless exerts a huge influence on people’s lives. Governor Packer, a brutal populist, becomes a ‘victim of terrorism’ even though diminutive Faye only succeeded in throwing a couple of small stones at him. Samuel, likewise, is accused of victimizing a lax student when he refuses to give her passing grades. In revenge, she  bribes a would-be boyfriend, with a texted nude selfie, to hack into Samuel’s computer and find his guilty Elfscape secret which she has passed on to Samuel’s supervisor.

In one of The Nix‘s most satirical moments, another Elfscape addict has become so unused to normal human contact he gets enraged at an imaginary slight from a counter clerk and yells a catchphrase from a meaningless but omnipresent pop song, “You have got to represent!”

In The Nix, manipulation of media and political interests have permeated all levels of daily communication in a way the characters themselves don’t fully understand. Very little information can be relied upon. Crucial to the softening up of people’s brains is the immediacy and the quick fix of the information age with its gaming, texting, and selfies.

Similarly inter-generational is Leslie Vryenhoek’s We All Will Be Received.

At the heart of Vryenhoek’s novel is another escapee. It’s 1977. Traumatized by witnessing a recent knife fight, a young woman, Dawn, skips out from a seedy Ontarian motel at night, leaving her drug dealer boyfriend, Slake. She takes the cash Slake owes to his bosses. Thinking of the best way to avoid pursuit, she accepts a lift from long-distance trucker, Jerry, who’s heading east to Newfoundland.

This is a fag end of the space rock era. Jerry, though more a fan of the recently-deceased Elvis, romantically envisages a future where humanity has migrated to other planets. Jerry’s world is pregnant with exploration and optimism. He sees in the waif-like Dawn a chance to be helpful, a chance for connection.

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They remain friends as Dawn gradually settles on Newfoundland’s west coast, changing her identity and depositing Slake’s drug money in the bank bit by bit so as not to arouse suspicion.

Jerry is the perfect innocent in the real sense of the term. He’s experienced enough to know that Dawn has been in serious trouble but doesn’t pry as to its nature. He takes her on  drives around the landscape he loves, introduces her to family and helps her get involved in the hotel business.

Humanity, contrary to Jerry’s hope, never makes it to other planets but the universe becomes more accessible nevertheless. The internet changes everything, including the chance of remaining anonymous to those who believe they have left their pasts behind. The web can also bring together people who don’t easily mix, as it does many years later when Dawn is a successful owner of a hotel near St. Anthony, high on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula.

One of these people is Ethan. As a small child, Ethan escaped a kidnapper by crawling through a bathroom window. Now a man, he feels he has never ceased to be a fugitive, and is on the run from the relationships crowding his life.

His overbearing mother, Pauline, retains an outdated VCR player so she can show people the footage of news programs from the times of her child’s abduction. It is important, we are told, “that everyone understand what a brave pioneer she was in the field of desperate mother love.” When it’s no longer practical to keep the VCR, Pauline has the footage digitized.

Ethan’s relationship with his girlfriend has imploded in the only way relationships implode in the 21st century — online. He watches from another room as Lana changes her relationship status first to it’s complicated and then to single. Then he witnesses the online sympathy bestowed on Lana for having tried so valiantly to heal such a damaged individual.

Having broken free again, Ethan is skeptical about rehabilitation for people convicted of violent crimes. But he is about to meet a representative of an organization devoted to this very purpose at Dawn’s hotel.

One of the reasons why both The Nix and We All Will be Received work so well is that they use social media to delve intelligently into issues of social change. While modes of communication never stop altering, this sense of constant flux is almost guaranteed. Both novels also deal with misunderstanding and miscommunication. They highlight the fact that, while there is a far greater volume of daily communication than ever before, this ‘information’ in no way enhances the amount of accuracy or insight that surrounds us. Nor does it make our decisions any more sound.

A third novel, Ghosterby Jason Arnopp delves intriguingly into communications as a backdrop to the supernatural,  a subject dealt with before in this blog.

All the action of Ghoster takes place within a single year and, unlike the other two novels, it has a sole protagonist and narrator. Kate, a paramedic and social media junkie, is about to uproot her life in Leeds, England, and move to Brighton on the south coast to be with her dreamboat boyfriend, Scott.

ghoster cover

She’s handed in her notice at work, transferred to Brighton, and is ready to go. Trouble is Scott, with whom she has been in constant contact for months, has ceased texting back. It’s only 24 hours since she heard from him but Kate is worried and can’t stop checking her phone.

Izzy, a fellow paramedic who suffered an injury while trying to guide a disorientated man down the stairs, reassures her everything will be okay. Kate feels guilty about Izzy’s accident. She should have been on the other side of the patient but she was taking a break to check her phone for messages.

Kate tries telling herself she is paranoid to think that Scott’s non-response presages disaster. And yet, she, and the reader, are too used to the immediate gratification of an answer not to worry. Her own texts become urgent and demanding.

Kate drives down south on the appointed day and arrives at Scott’s sumptuous Brighton apartment to find it empty of Scott and all his furniture. He’s simply disappeared. An apparently mocking emoji scrawled on the window overlooking the sea is the only thing which might constitute a message or an explanation.

On the balcony, beyond the glass, lies the only other relic from Scott’s habitation, his cell phone.

Next day she starts her new job in the seaside town, dealing  with life and death issues as before. She takes two phones to work, hers and Scott’s. She’s decided the only way to crack the mystery of Scott’s disappearance is to hack into his accounts. When she does so, the puzzle deepens. Scott is not only alive and well; he is online, sharing photos and memes. His phone shows he has also been very active on dating sites even during their time together. 

At night, squatting in Scott’s abandoned apartment, Kate experiences a ghostly blue light which eventually morphs into a monstrous distortion of one of the women who appeared as a head-shot on Scott’s phone. Kate, soon joined by Izzy, becomes more determined than ever to solve the mystery of Scott’s disappearance and the ghostly visitations.

The prose in Ghoster is frequently punctuated by text exchanges, mainly between Kate and Izzy, and the subject never strays far from social media addiction. Kate’s new paramedic partner, Tyler — Kate finds to her horror — is surreptitiously snapping photos of the accident victims they have been dispatched to save. He’s uploading them onto a voyeurism site called sickfuxx.

The non-fussy nature of the writing masks a sneakily profound story reminiscent of Ira Levin’s high concept fantasies Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby. In the addiction-denying Kate, Scott, and Tyler, Arnopp satirizes an aspect of our own society just as Levin satirized the father-knows-best husband Guy Woodhouse and the ‘diabolical’ patriarchal web that oppresses the Rosemary of the 1966 Levin story.

In these novels, Hill, Vryenhoek, and Arnopp demonstrate how a canny writer can produce something timeless even from a highly topical backdrop.

Also on the subject of supernatural fiction see previous blog entries on M.J. James, Sheridan Le Fanu, Dorothy Macardle, Sarah Waters, and Shirley Jackson.

 

 

Paul Butler is the author of the upcoming Mina’s Child and The Widow’s Fire

The Genealogy of Self-Harm: Finton O’Toole’s Heroic Failure

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If an apocalyptic flavour accompanies the end of 2019 for people born and brought up in the UK, I think we can be forgiven. The country has just suffered the second of two extraordinary self-imposed blows.

The first, in 2016, was the country’s Brexit referendum in which the population narrowly decided to leave the world’s most powerful trading block to ‘go it alone’. The second was the thumping victory for the Conservative party which unequivocally supports the referendum decision. This is against a mountain of evidence that  the consequences of leaving the EU will be almost entirely negative for the majority of UK citizens.

News media outlets in the UK — most of which are Conservative-supporting — have been concentrating on the ‘how’ of the issue. How exactly will the United Kingdom leave? Hard Brexit without a deal, or “soft Brexit” with a deal? How will Brexit affect Northern Ireland which is technically part of the United Kingdom but which, since the Good Friday Agreement, shares some education, water, and health care services with Ireland (which is and will remain an EU country)? How can the UK justify leaving the EU while keeping Scotland, which overwhelmingly voted ‘remain’ and whose independence party, the SNP, has won the vast majority of Scotland’s seats in parliament?

But the “how” question is not even the most compelling one.

The real issue is”Why?” Why did the British government create a problem with the EU  that didn’t exist before the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP) began its lobbying efforts in the early 1990s? Why did the people of Britain go along with the anti-European stance not once with the 2016 referendum, but twice by voting in 2019 for the Conservatives and therefore eliminating any chance of sober second thought?

There must be some extraordinary psychological need, one so extraordinary that it ignores facts, figures, and logic, and even revels in doing so.

The famous, “We Send the EU £350 million a week” slogan on the side of Boris Johnson’s pro-Brexit tour bus in 2016 was an outright lie, of course. But, more importantly, it was proven to be an outright lie before people cast their vote in 2016. More staggering still, in the 2019 election, a non-partisan government watchdog found that 88 % of the statements made by the Conservatives were misleading or simply untrue. Again, this statistic had become common knowledge before people went to the ballot box. It still didn’t change anyone’s vote. And the usual caveat that all politicians lie doesn’t apply because the nearest rival, the Labour Party, told no verifiable lies using the same measures.

Irish writer Finton O ‘Toole’s Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain goes further in explaining this ‘why” question than would have seemed possible. O’Toole is a modern day Friedrich Nietzsche on this subject, discomforting readers with ideas we’d rather not face.

Using a broad historical brush, O’Toole takes us from the 2016 discovery of the wreckage of the doomed 1948 Franklin Expedition, to Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his disastrous attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole, to the last stand against the Zulus in Islandlwana, to the “heroic” catastrophe of the Charge of the Light Brigade. All of these events were about disaster. They all involved unnecessary suffering and loss of life.  Yet all have been enthusiastically celebrated in adventure books, film, and poetry.  

heroic failure

In the chapter, The Pleasures of Self Pity, O Toole examines the relationship between nationalistic self-pity and exaggerated self-regard — two sides of the same coin and essential ingredients of the British psyche, especially since the country began to decline as a colonial power. The British suffer and die — by choice– and this makes them deserving. Colonization went hand in hand with virtue and self-sacrifice. Most penetrating of all is the way O’Toole identifies the neat inversion of reality achieved through this celebration of national disaster:

“…heroic failure was an even more powerful mechanism for assuaging guilt; it re imagined the British conquest of the earth as an epic of suffering, not for the victims, but for the victors. It took the pain of the oppressed and ascribed it to the oppressors.”

There was shock and indignation when former colonies fail to display the expected gratitude to the UK in its decline. When the people of former colonies immigrate to Britain after World War II, this sense of indignation was further inflamed. Immigration was seen by some rabble-rousing politicians, most notably Conservative MP Enoch Powell,  as an invasion, a reversal of the natural order of things.

Most pertinent to twenty first century politics was the seamless way this indignation  transferred itself to Britain’s relationship to the EU. Brussels, host city of many EU institutions, was seen as the centre of a colonizing power. Euro-skeptics conveniently forgot that the UK had as much input into EU laws as any other country, and that, given Britain’s size and status,  Brussels is (or was) as much “us” as it is anyone else.

But as anyone who listens to James O’Brien on LBC radio knows, poetic loyalty to the idea that Britain is unjustly overrun by foreigners cannot be overturned by logic. O’Brien’s technique with irate callers complaining about the tyranny of the EU is simple. He asks them which EU rules interfere with their lives.

There is usually a pregnant silence on the other end of the line.

As O’Toole reminds us, Boris Johnson has his own method for whipping up anti-EU hysteria. He lies. Among his famous assertions was the charge that the EU had banned prawn cocktail flavoured crisps (British word for chips). The small grain of truth behind this complaint was the fact that all food was subject to health regulations which limited harmful additives.

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Another fictional outrage: the EU threatens the ‘great British kipper’.

 

O’Toole expresses a grim kind of humour as he negotiates through the faux outrage of the Brexit camp, including the false claim the EU was limiting the amount of bend permissible on bananas sold in British stores.

The Brexit campaign might read like a particularly over-the-top satire, except that it really happened and was ultimately successful in its mendacious goals.

Johnson courting votes

Boris Johnson’s 2019 campaign: creepy, dishonest, but successful.

But being exasperated with Brexiteers is a waste of energy. Trying to understand the insanity, on the other hand, is almost a kind of balm, even though it won’t make the consequences any less damaging. O’ Toole’s book helps in  this regard and, in its rigor and insight, often brings to mind the cold excavations of Nietzsche. 

The parallels between O’Toole’s and Nietzsche’s way of thinking are sometimes striking.  Every belief, however fervently held, has some deeply-rooted psychological cause.

Christians can recognize in Nietzsche’s  On the Genealogy of Morality some uncomfortable truths about the psychological (rather than religious) functions of the biblical narrative. Here we are told about an all-loving God whose supreme sacrifice (of his son) puts humanity into a moral debt so enormous we can never hope to repay it. According to Nietzsche, the emotional torture caused by this debt compensates for the fact that, since the emergence of civil society with laws and regulations, humanity can no longer commit unspeakable cruelties against each other. If we can’t torture others, we have no choice but to turn our innate cruelty inwards and torture ourselves with the knowledge of our permanent indebtedness. .

Is Brexit, on some smaller scale, a way of  internalizing the cruelty the Empire once visited upon others? The deliberate nature of it, the sense of stepping into misfortune with eyes wide open, suggests it might be.

O’Toole provides eye-opening twists and turns in the psychology of the Brexiteer by distinguishing British nationalism from English nationalism. It is an argument that at first takes a little swallowing, but in the end makes perfect sense. After all, there is a very clear divide between opinion in England and opinion in Scotland. In the referendum England was largely hostile to the EU; Scotland was overwhelmingly in favour.

A shift in England’s cultural identity occurred when James VI of Scotland became also James I of England in 1604. The first step towards unification of the two nations means that the ‘glory’ years of colonial expansion came under the banner of Britain rather than England. O’Toole demonstrates how Shakespeare and his company, renamed the King’s Players, suddenly became the purveyors of British, rather than English, history and drama. The disappearance of English culture into British culture would stoke trouble for the future.

While the last decades of the twentieth century saw the exercising of  Scottish and Welsh identity through devolution and the eventual creation of separate Scottish and Welsh parliaments, no parallel movement occurred for England. But it was there, bubbling under the surface. O’Toole notes that Diana, Princess of Wales’ death, was a traumatic forerunner of Brexit, correlated to the spontaneous, and perhaps unexpected, reappearance of St. George’s Cross, taking the place of the Union Jack.

In the chapter The Sore Tooth and the Broken Umbrella, O’Toole argues that anti-EU sentiment is a displacement of suppressed English nationalism. “The tooth is a very small part of the body . . .,” O’Toole notes, “But a person with toothache finds it hard to think about anything else.” While Brexit is “radical, invasive surgery — not dentistry,” it does, “distract from the pain, much in the way that hitting your foot with a hammer will make you forget the ache in your tooth,” akin to self-harm.

Repression and displacement, then, are key parts of the Brexit madness, and they were ruthlessly exploited by some genuinely malignant characters like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Johnson has no regard for the truth whatever, and has made innumerable racist, sexist, and Victorian anti-working class statements. None of the people who served in his cabinet so far have shown any sign of possessing a social conscience. Rees-Mogg championed Brexit for the population he claimed to represent. Meanwhile, without a whiff of irony, he defended a move from London to Dublin of the investment management firm he founded and of which he remains a partner. Through its Irish-based investment vehicle, Somerset Capital Management can have one foot in the EU and one outside, a choice unavailable to British residents who lack Rees-Mogg’s ample means. Both these Dickensian ‘characters’ are in the mold of the well-known English eccentric, renamed by O’Toole the “harmful eccentric,” who represent “as invasive species  as tenacious and damaging as Japanese knotweed.”

The “broken umbrella” of the chapter’s title refers to the nation state and its safeguards, until recently, the linchpin that was the welfare state. “The problem is,” O’Toole says, “the umbrella is broken, its material tattered, its struts sticking out like bared bones.” To see beyond self-pity and the delusions it fosters, he concludes, it is necessary to first fix the umbrella.

But the 2019 Conservative re-election feels like a last chance missed. A Nietzschian overview would suggest a country absolutely intent upon self-harm.

Paul Butler, originally from the UK, lives in Canada. He is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna), a Gothic-inspired revisit of Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion, and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, May 2020), in which the daughter of Dracula’s ‘heroes’ (Mina and Jonathan Harker) questions her parents’ claim to have acted with courage and virtue when disposing of a foreign nobleman. 

Le Fanu’s Faustian Variation: Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter

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Light fades in the artist’s studio in Leiden. Godfrey Schalken, ambitious young student  of Dutch master Gerard Douw, struggles with his latest assignment. With charcoal on canvas he reworks ‘a group of extremely roguish-looking and grotesque imps and demons, who were inflicting various ingenious torments upon a perspiring and potbellied St. Anthony.

Aware suddenly of his own limitations, Schalken curses. He wishes the devils, saint, and picture to hell.

A sudden laugh from behind tells Schalken he is not alone. He turns to see an old man, obscure in the dim light. There is ‘something indescribably odd . . . in the perfect, stonelike movelessness of the figure.’

Author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Readers of Gothic fiction in 1839, when the story first appeared, would have recognized the essentially Faustian scenario. Schalken the painter is at the crossroads. He has conjured a malignant force. Someone is about to be tempted. A deal will be struck. But the price paid will be greater than anyone could foresee.

Author Sheridan Le Fanu, who would later write ‘sensational’ novels Uncle Silas (1864) and The Wyvern Mystery (1869),  was only twenty-five when he penned this extraordinary tale combining art history with supernatural invention. Godfrey Schalken (or Godfried Schalcken, 1643-1706) did indeed study under Gerard Douw (or Gerrit Dou) in Leiden, and the atmosphere in Schalcken’s paintings, ghostly candlelight barely penetrating an encompassing darkness, seems perfectly represented in Le Fanu’s story.

Young Girl with a Candle by Godfried Schalcken

The death-like stranger, who calls himself Wilken Vanderhausen, wishes for the hand of Gerard Douw’s niece and ward, Rose Velderkaust. The temptation he proffers is money. But there is one major deviation from devil-pact convention. In Le Fanu’s story, Schalken, who appears to conjure the malign force, is not the one lured into the deal. Although in love with Rose, he remains quite unconscious of the agreement struck between Vanderhausen and Douw for Rose’s hand. He acts as go-between, taking Vanderhausen’s chest of gold to be valued, turning up at his Douw’s request at the supper where Rose is introduced to her unearthly suitor, all the while unaware of the purposes of these events.

Rose herself is horrified when she hears of the plans. She recoils at the Vanderhausen’s ‘bluish leaden hue’ and his enormous eyes in which the white appeared both above and below the iris, which gave to them an expression of insanity.’ The stranger, she tells her uncle, reminds her of an “old painted wooden figure that used to frighten me so much in the church of St. Lawrence of Rotterdam.”

But her uncle is firm. The deal has been made. Rose will marry the grotesque stranger and live with him in Rotterdam. She does as she is told. Then, to the consternation of both Douw and Schalken, she seems to disappear from the earth. Neither husband nor young wife contacts Douw as promised and, when he makes inquiries, Douw can find no record of a Wilken Vanderhausen of Rotterdam.

One day Rose returns unexpectedly to her uncle’s Leiden home ‘wild and haggard, and pale with exhaustion and  terror.’ Seemingly about to expire, she begs for wine and then bread, and then for a priest from whom begs prayers that might saveone who lay in the hands of Satan.’

As Rose talks to the priest, a gust of wind blows out the candle. Douw and Schalken leave the room to get another light but the door jams behind them, preventing their return. Scream follows scream from within. Schalken hears the sound of a window thrown open. When at last he gains entry he runs to the window to see Rose gone and the ‘waters of the broad canal beneath settling ring after ring in heavy circular ripples, as if a moment before disturbed by the immersion of some large and heavy mass.’

Nothing more is heard of Rose. Many years pass. The now middle-aged Schalken travels to Rotterdam to attend his father’s funeral. Arriving before the procession, he accepts the hospitality of the church sexton and drowses in a fire-lit anteroom just above the church vaults. He wakes to see a female figure wearing a muslin robe and carrying a lantern. She glides away from him and moves down the steps to the vaults. Schalken follows. As she reaches an antique chamber full of old furnishings including a four poster with heavy black drapes, she turns and reveals herself to be Rose.

Rose touches one of the bed’s drapes. She pulls it back. ‘Bolt upright in the bed’ is the ‘livid form of Vanderhausen.’

At this terrible sight Schalken faints dead away until the following morning when he is found not by a four poster bed but rather by a large tomb.

Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter begins with the narrator describing an  (apparently fictitious) Schalken paining hanging in the house of a friend. A white-robed woman in an antique religious vault smiles archly at the viewer as though engaged in ‘some roguish trick’ while in the background there is a bed and a man standing in an ‘attitude of alarm.‘ 

Sensing that the scene springs from life rather than imagination, the narrator asks the owner about the painting, and hence draws the answer which makes up the bulk of story.

Originally published Dublin University Magazine, Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter showcases Le Fanu’s convoluted yet graceful style and, more particularly, an almost reckless embrace of the Gothic themes that would later make his novels so popular. Seldom does 19th Century literature provide such a frank juxtaposition of sexual desire and death as the one in the story’s finale.

The tale, with its cavernous darkness, living flames, and a sense of visual art coming to life is a such a gift to the world of film and television that it comes as a surprise that only one major screen dramatization appears to have been attempted. Like Jonathan Miller’s famed M.R. James adaptation, Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), Schalken the Painter (1979) was produced as of part the BBC’s arts series Omnibus.

Series producer Leslie Megahey adapted the Le Fanu story with co-writer by Paul Humfress and achieves a flavour of ‘docudrama’ by using Le Fanu’s voice-over (provided by Charles Gray). The author takes us on a tour of Schalcken’s works from restrained still lives, to commissioned portraits, to enigmatic candlelit dramas, settling on the portrait which propels the story. This last work, in Schalcken’s style, was especially created for the production.

The plot follows Le Fanu’s short story quite faithfully with a few major exceptions. Schalcken himself  (Jeremy Clyde) is made more responsible for the pact to sell Rose (Cheryl Kennedy) to Vanderhausen. Although initially unaware of the reason he is valuing the stranger’s gold, Schalcken is appealed to directly by Rose before the dreaded marriage. Schalcken responds that there is nothing he can do. Then, extravagantly, and implausibly, he asserts he will work, gain his fortune, and buy her back. The implication is clear. His position, pleasing his mentor Douw, and the rewards he believes will follow, are simply more important to him to his avowed love for Rose. 

In the original story, Le Fanu makes a number of disparaging asides about the phlegmatic, unromantic nature of the Dutch character in general and that of Schalcken in particular. It is possible Schalcken’s passivity is supposed to speak for itself. But by presenting Schalcken a clear cut chance to intervene, Megahey’s drama brings the theme of romantic cowardice much more to the fore. As he is seen to prosper in his subsequent career, still living with Douw, he becomes as much a part of the Faustian pact as his mentor.

In one telling addition to the story, Megahey takes a line from Le Fanu’s original dialogue, spoken by Vanderhausen to Douw, “You will not pledge yourself unnecessarily but you will do so if it is necessary,”  and has the same phrase repeated by a number of characters like a musical refrain that seems to mock Schalcken and his inability to commit. The recurrence centralizes the themes of hesitation, compromise, and self-interest.

Le Fanu has Douw travel to Rotterdam to seek out Rose in the silent months after the wedding. But the drama gives this task to Schalcken, who, falling into a pit of loveless ambition and self-loathing, resorts to visiting brothels once his search for Rose turns out to be fruitless.

The filmmakers looked to Vermeer as well as to Schalcken for set composition, and many scenes present themselves like a works of art in their own right. More impressively still, each visual detail is utilized to expand upon the emotional aspects of the story. We see a bird being plucked in preparation for Vanderhausen’s first meeting with Rose. Then we see Rose herself, ordered by her uncle to “trick” herself out nicely for the stranger. Goose bumps stand out on her neck as she puts on her necklace. When we see the carving knife slice through the goose on the table, we know this is poor Rose being likewise carved up against her will.

Cheryl Kennedy is an enigmatic presence at the heart of the production, passive like Schalcken, but transformed to half-feral when she returns demanding bread, wine and a confessor. Veteran actor Maurice Denham makes a suitably dry, grouchy Douw, and John Justin’s  fixed wooden stare, aided ghastly grey-green makeup, give Vanderhausen the required otherworldly quality.

John Justin as Vanderhausen

Jeremy Clyde makes a wonderfully subtle Schalcken, transforming seamlessly from gauche, un-mannered novice, to surly, embittered painter.

The climactic scene is even franker than Le Fanu would have dared, presenting the most nightmarish punishment imaginable for this man who lacks conviction in love. In the crypt, Rose gives Schalcken a knowing smile and then disrobes and climbs into bed to copulate with the corpse-like Vanderhausen. The distraught Schalcken holds his head and screams silently at the vaulted ceiling.

Godfried Schalken in happier times: self-portrait with signature flame

Shown originally on December 23, 1979 in the traditional spot for the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas, Schalcken the Painter has perhaps been overlooked among the M.R. James adaptations. This is a pity as it is a genuine high point of television supernatural drama, an adaptation that takes an excellent literary source and manages to improve on it.

  • Quick note: I’ve tried to make the spelling of the painter’s name reflect the work in question. Le Fanu removed a ‘c’ from Schalcken; the 1979 production put it back.

Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna), a Gothic-inspired revisit of Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion, and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020), in which the daughter of Dracula’s ‘heroes’ Mina and Jonathan Harker questions her parents’ claim to have acted with courage and virtue when disposing of a foreign nobleman. 

Why We Run from Ghosts: a Q & A with Author and Researcher Jan Olandese

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Some day researchers might isolate the gene which makes people afraid of ghosts.

For the moment, though, we might have to agree that some people fear spirits and some don’t. Personally I find the idea of ghosts more terrifying than anything else I can think of. But I don’t know why.

I love delving into ghost stories, whether written by specialists like M. R. James or Sheridan Le Fanu, or by authors like Edith Wharton and Charles Dickens for whom ghosts were a sideline. But the great thing about books is you can put them down when it gets too much. This is not the case in the movie threatre or playhouse. Several times, in this captive state, I’ve found myself wishing I had not entered; what’s happening on screen or on stage is simply too terrible to be borne.

I remember a ‘locked’ nursery door suddenly creaking open in Stephen Mallatratt’s stage version of Susan Hill’s novel, The Woman in Black. I nearly shot out of my skin.

Dimly, after such moments, I become aware of another emotion: embarrassment. I notice that my wife is amused at the jolts and gasps coming from my seat.

Poster for Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of The Woman in Black

It’s frustrating trying to explain a fear of ghosts to someone who is immune.

The first thing to point out is that the word “fear” is wholly inadequate. Supernatural terror is quite unlike anything else. To separate this argument from mere semantics, it’s important to note that the physical response to the supernatural is different from the physical response to a more practical danger. If, God forbid, your car hydroplanes towards a guard rail, your adrenaline pumps and your heart beats faster. While you might tremble after a near miss, at the time of greatest peril your body is a jumble of action, muscles and sinews flexing.

If you experience supernatural terror, there is no adrenaline surge, no “fight or flight” response. Instead you might feel a  cold at the back of the neck, a tingle of hairs standing on end. And, most importantly, you freeze.

So, what are we afraid of exactly? And what, in our innermost primal imaginings,  comprises a “ghost”?

I was delighted to speak to someone perfectly placed to tackle this most baffling of human mysteries. Jan Olandese (MDiv, MA) is a retired Episcopal priest and chaplain, a columnist, blogger and author on all things supernatural. She has conducted many interviews with people who have experienced the paranormal and has taught seminars on such intriguing subjects as the Spirituality of the Ghost Story. 

Q: First of all, Jan, the obvious question, why are people afraid of ghosts?

A: This is a great question, Paul.   

For one thing, ghosts are something we often say we don’t “believe” in.  Although I don’t think it’s an issue of belief: they exist (or not) regardless of that.  We are conditioned to be afraid thanks to horror stories, ghost stories and scary movies:  sit through Haunted with Aidan Quinn and Kate Beckinsale (1995) and trust me, you’ll be shakin’!  

Lewis Gilbert’s adaptation of James Herbert’s Haunted (1995)

 

Ghosts do not conform to any standard pattern, either. So it’s hard to know what to expect. Most of the time they seem unanticipated, and that’s startling. Especially when you see someone who disappears, or see someone who is there from the waist up, or see someone who is see-through. So you’re experiencing this manifestation of something/someone that doesn’t belong in your sphere of reference.  

 

And it doesn’t do what you expect: it may walk through a wall. It may address you, it may ignore you.  It may touch you or throw you out of bed (this was supposed to have happened the year before I attended in the dorm of my theological college). You may see nothing, but feel the room become cold.  You may find an item vanishing from the spot you know you left it, only to reappear someplace ridiculous (I found a book in the refrigerator, and even I am not that absent-minded).  Doors may open or close of their own accord. Suddenly there may be a breeze in the house, ruffling the drapes.  A scent may permeate the air: something old-fashioned (lavender) or strongly associated with a person (“oh, that smells like Jack’s aftershave!”).  Is any of this really terrifying? Mostly, not. But it doesn’t fit our logical conceptual framework and when things go there, they make us nervous.  

 

Then again, we’re afraid.  Ghosts may in some cases be manifestations of our fears. Maybe sometimes we see them because we are fearful of something we can’t deal with, so it appears as a haunt.  

 

Of course, it you’re home alone, it’s “a dark and stormy night,” and you just watched The Exorcist, you’re in the right frame of mind, for an actual spirit or a poltergeist created by your nerves: who knows?  It’s still scary.  It’s still a ghost.  

 

We enjoy ghostly shivers.  Movies and TV shows with ghosts proliferate, ghostly novels are best sellers.  Ghost hunting is a growth industry. We enjoy the vicarious shivers.  Real hauntings, maybe not so much.  

 

Q: You have written about the various theories behind hauntings in some of your books, for instance About Ghosts. These include all manner of theories, including the returning of the dead, the ghost as warning or premonition. But some of the ideas are quite scientific. You talk of Cambridge academic T. C Lethbridge’s intriguing idea that certain physical materials — walls or rocks — can act as a “stone tape” capturing events which may, by some so far unexplained reason, be projected before us. Which theories do you think hold most credence?

 

A: Another great query! I’ll try to address a few of these.  You mentioned Lethbridge, who has been both greatly admired and written off as an eccentric kook. I remember reading his books back in the 70s and 80s and finding them intriguing.  One of his theories was that ghosts are not spirits of the dead, but mental projections from individuals which are picked up by others. Whilst I don’t think people sit around (consciously) projecting ghosts, I do know that E.S.P. is a real thing, which was first scientifically studied by Professor J.B. Rhine at Duke University.  When I was a teen, my friends and I used to play E.S.P. games in which one would think of something and the rest would try to get the impression. We found with practice, it worked quite often. So, perhaps there’s a way that strong emotions can “impress” themselves on atmosphere, whether on damp stone (the stone tape theory) or not, and be picked up later by others.  Perhaps humidity does play a role: some very haunted places I’ve lived in or visited have been on the ocean or near other water.  Maybe it’s E.S.P.

 

I’d like to suggest that many times hauntings appear to be reflections: of intense emotion, of subconscious thoughts, and often, of dysfunction.  I discuss in About Ghosts how in both literature and real life, people sometimes seem symbiotically attached to a haunt, even though it makes them crazy.  No matter how bad it gets, they stay for a second, third, and even fourth act.  Parapsychologists and ghost hunters often comment that room temperatures drop in the presence of ghosts because the ghosts use the energy.  Perhaps they use the emotional energy of those around them, too, to manifest in various ways.  As I’m not a scientist I have no idea if this can be proven, but it does make a kind of psychological and emotional sense.  
There are ghosts which appear to warn the witness.  It is possible that Grandma came from Beyond to caution Sonny not to marry that girl, but is also may be Sonny’s own misgivings, which he has repressed, are are really haunting him. Then again, there are cases where it’s really a ghost.  Really.  
 
Some ghosts do seem like personifications of negativity.  These may some kind of non-human “entities” – it’s hard to say exactly what, but they can be overwhelming. These can be the most frightening haunts.  Again , they reflect people, even if they are not human themselves. There are people who radiate evil, or good and light: ghosts can do that, too.  
 
Are there ghosts who are spirits of the dead? The literature affirms this, although for those who don’t believe in an afterlife it may be difficult to swallow unless and until they experience it.  
 
I saw a ghost once. It was quite unremarkable, an old woman in a blue woolen coat of the kind worn in the ’50s, with a headscarf from that era, bending down to put on boots.  I thought it was a real person, although later (when the others I was with compared notes and no one else saw her) I realized she hadn’t noticed us or greeted us when we came in.  The owner of the home said my description fit her grandmother to a tee. It wasn’t scary, it appeared quite human, but it was certainly a ghost.  
 
While no scientific proof exists of ghosts per se, with modern technology we have been able to record all sorts of paranormal manifestations.  It’s easy to suggest it’s a spirit, or a daemon:  but we can’t prove it.  The best approach is an open mind (but not so open the brain falls out), careful observation, and objective assessment. 

 

 

Q: One of the chief functions of the ghost story throughout the history of the genre has been to provoke fear. As a priest and theologian you are in a unique position to see the spiritual side of a haunting. Can you say a little about the dichotomy? Is there a serious, non-frightening and non-entertaining side to ghosts. What kind of experiences have you encountered that illustrate this?

 

A: Yes indeed. I do think ghosts can be reflective of human dysfunctions.  They may be psycho-spiritual manifestations of fears, hopes, guilt, rage, all kinds of things which have been brushed under the emotional rug, only to appear in a startling, ghostly format.  Jeremy Taylor, the great dream work expert, says often that nightmares are simply the dreamer’s subconscious tugging at his sleeve, becoming scary when other hints have failed.  Ghosts may well come, as Taylor says of dreams, “in the interest of the dreamer’s health and wholeness.” As anyone knows who has had even a smidgen of therapy, it’s difficult, can be arduous and even scary: but the insights gained are invaluable and lead to emotional integrity and healing.  Perhaps ghosts might in some cases play a therapeutic role.  

 

Some ghostly antics don’t seem to make sense to us. Why bother hiding that book in the fridge? Why scare the dog?  Why make the chandelier sway or open and close the door?  Why indeed?  To get attention.  This brings up poltergeists, “noisy ghosts,” who prank us with knockings, creaks, footsteps, all kinds of things.  Many theorize that poltergeists are emotional manifestations and indeed they seem to happen most often in homes with adolescents present.  

 

Then there are ghosts and visitations that seem quite spiritual in and of themselves.  Anyone who has seen what they think is an angel or angel-like being gets this.  These beings are awe-some in the true sense. Are they messengers of the Divine?  Perhaps.  Whether one believes in angels or no, we saw something spiritual and will be thinking about it for years to come.  Whether God sent a literal angel or pushed us to manifest one ourselves, the imprint is the same. 

 

I worked for many years as a hospital chaplain, and I learned that those nearing death often sense ghosts, and sometimes talk to them.  A patient’s daughter once shared that her mother, who had had dementia for years and had stopped talking months ago, surprised her.  The daughter entered the room to see her mother sitting up, carrying on a quite lucid conversation with an invisible someone in the corner. Variations on this theme have been shared with me countless times.  Added to the stories about those who are “clinically dead” for a brief time and then come back, it would seem that there’s spiritual help and perhaps old friends or family who come to meet and guide us: a reassuring thought. 

 

Once I had a very close call in a car that went out of control on an icy freeway.  It flipped in the air and somehow miraculously landed on all four tires in the grassy area between the road and the on ramp.  I was convinced I was a goner, and I can’t impart the sense of sheer panic and terror I felt at the prospect of immediate and unexpected death.  Yet in the midst of overwhelming fear, as the car vaulted into the air, I suddenly felt a sense of ineffable peace. Somehow I knew everything would be all right, even if I didn’t make it.  My fear vanished.  I can’t explain this but it was reassuring and frankly incredible.  While I didn’t see anything, I felt comforted in an extremely uncomfortable situation.  I read about a study of others who had nearly died but didn’t (mountain climbers who fell) and it appears they too all experienced this peace.  So while not what we usually think of as a ghost, it seems to be a fairly universal impression among those who’ve survived extreme sudden danger.  Call it a manifestation of the spiritual. 

 

Many thanks for these generous insights, Jan!

Jan Olandese is a retired episcopal priest chaplain and writer on ghostly topics (not to mention some pretty ghastly haiku!Visit Jan’s homepage for frequent ghostly stories from different parts of the world, for information about her books, and for her unique series of Haiku poems!

 

Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).

Ghosts and the Radio, Part II: The Dead Room, A Ghost Story for Christmas

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“Would a ghost from the ’70s work?” asks Tara, producer of the radio show, The Dead RoomTales of Terror and Unease. She’s talking to Aubrey Judd, the show’s veteran host, and it’s a loaded question. 

Simon Callow (host, Aubrey Judd) and Anjli Mohindra  (producer, Tara) lock philosophical horns about radio in The Dead Room (image: RadioTimes).

As non-patronizingly as he knows how, Aubrey (Simon Callow) has been trying to educate the millennial Tara (Anjli Mohindra). He talks of the “haze of distance” necessary for a good ghost story opening line, such as, “Thirty years ago. . .”

“Or Forty,” Tara suggests. This is how long Aubrey has been narrating The Dead RoomBeneath the thin camaraderie of the studio, battle lines form in this most recent BBC Ghost Story for Christmas, written and directed by Sherlock co-creator, Mark Gatiss. Aubrey resents change, and, though he doesn’t quite say so, he also resents Tara.

Tara, for her part, thinks Aubrey might be simply stuck in the past.

One vital element of a successful ghost story, Aubrey persists, is “an old fashioned thing: reticence. Hold back, hold back, always hold back until the climax.”

Ghosts and the Radio, Part I

Aubrey doesn’t much care for the vulgarity of the new material he is forced to read. He longs for the days when he would intone tales inspired by M.R. James and Sheridan Le Fanu.

As our host reads from the script, describing the thing which is “pure malevolence, all directed at him,” we catch sight of the impassive stare of Joan, the sound-effects technician.

Is she looking at Aubrey with “pure malevolence?”

Not really. But that doesn’t quell Aubrey’s growing paranoia. He complains bitterly to Tara that Joan has worked with him in the same studio for four decades but has never said more than hello to him.

Dimly, we get the impression something is troubling Aubrey’s conscience. His overreaction to Tara’s cell-phone ditty confirms this. He demands to know why her phone should have “that” tune — Single Bed, by the band Fox, a cloying hit from the summer of 1976.

Strange occurrences ensue. The script Aubrey is reading from morphs into something else, a description of a young man on a beach. A shadowy figure appears briefly in the corner of the studio. He lashes out at Tara, apparently believing she is playing a trick on him.

Then, calmed, Aubrey explains his disorientation; the long hot summer of 1976 was his first working at the studio. He had an affair which was “not entirely legal” because of the age constraints placed on same sex couples in the era. Soon after, the young man died tragically in a swimming accident. Afraid for his career and his reputation, Aubrey pretended not to know him.

But this confession is, it turns out, only part of the story.

The Dead Room is laced with irony. Aubrey’s haunting closely follows the incremental pattern he admires so much in M.R. James. It begins unobtrusively. Cell phone ditties, altered scripts, shadowy figures are all entirely in line with the old-fashioned “reticence” Aubrey favours. Its substance, however — a hidden crime coming to life — seems to owe more to Poe, and to novels like Therese Raquin (Emile Zola) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde) which deal with projections from a troubled conscience. 

This literary tradition tells us that a half-baked confession will not be enough. Aubrey is keeping something to himself, and, ultimately, he will have to pay for it.

Mark Gatiss’s script is finely honed. Every phrase — even those of the modern horror story for which Aubrey has no time — resounds with thematic significance. Simon Callow moves persuasively between irascibility and smugness. He is a man moving out of his era and his comfort zone, and he doesn’t like it. Anjli Mohindra gives Tara a sense of wary patience; she’s more well-read than Aubrey seems to think she is but has to make sure she defers to the show’s star. A playful genre connection is provided by Susan Penhaligon, a memorable Lucy Westenra in a 1977 BBC production of Dracula. Penhaligon is the inscrutable, and not particularly friendly, Joan. 

Susan Penhaligon in the 1977 BBC television production of Dracula

The question — the only essential question according to author L.P Hartley who famously wrote that the ghost story “either comes off or it is a flop,” — is this: Does The Dead Room frighten?

The answer is no. But this may be not such a bad thing.

“But it has to be scary,” says Tara, in response to one of Aubrey’s lectures about subtlety. “They are supposed to be horror stories.”

“Horrifying, yes, but not just horrible,” says Aubrey.

This is the philosophical nub of the story. There is a great deal going on in The Dead Room, too much perhaps for a single-minded focus on creating a shiver; you might even say The Dead Room proves that the more a story engages the intellect, the less it is likely to frighten. When Aubrey’s full history is revealed, the dominant emotion isn’t so much terror as a sense of waste mixed with sadness.

Author/director Gatiss — a prolific renaissance man with a particular fondness for history and nostalgia — unearths a forgotten era in his portrait of Aubrey Judd. There is a backstory about Aubrey’s predecessor, “Seymour Rand” with a voice like “dark chocolate with just a hint of poison.”  This seems to be a tribute to Valentine Dyall, ‘The Man in Black’ and long-time narrator of the BBC radio show Appointment with Fear.

“Irreplaceable,” muses Aubrey mistily as he thinks of Rand.

“Except not,” says Tara, snapping Aubrey out of his reverie. “You did replace him, didn’t you?” 

Irony, character, and layers of meaning aren’t natural allies of supernatural frisson. The Dead Room, however, is a mature and thoughtful riff on the genre, well worth a second look. 

Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).

 


 

 

Spider: Beauty and the Predator

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Spider, a striking short film written and directed by C Blake Evernden, opens with an intriguing close up: Feet are submerged in shallow, rippling water. Bright sunlight intensifies the constant movement and dizzying refraction. As we draw away from this first image we see the twigs bark, grasses and detritus of summer — nature renewing, cleaning out the debris. Every slight movement and sound — shimmering leaves, lapping water, birdsong and insects — merge into a sense of being surrounded, even swallowed, by nature in motion.

A winner in the 2018 Best Experimental Short Film Category in the Five Continents International Film Festival, Spider is like an Impressionist’s painting come to life. This is all the more arresting as it’s billed as a horror film, but read on for a more nuanced discussion of genre definitions.

The story’s protagonist, Jennifer Lear (Madison Olsen), sees beauty in entropy. Her impassive gaze is drawn equally to images of decay as well as to the grasses and animal life that surround the film’s farmland setting. We soon find she is responsible for some of the death which surrounds her. This cycle of life and decay is presented with the same unfaltering lyricism and the viewer is asked to step back from their preconceptions.

I was delighted to interview Spider‘s writer/director, C. Blake Evernden.

 

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Spider, lyricism and horror

Q. I wondered first if you can talk just a little about how you achieved the intensity of nature on film.

C. Blake Evernden: The idea for pursuing this particular vision of nature was to give it an omniscient power. I wanted to try and personify its alien aspects, the parts that we never see or just plain overlook. I started using the language and manipulation of cinematic movement and colour to try to give benign natural objects a sense of menace, a sense of the macabre. Portraying a feeling of dread is not something that you put directly on camera, but rather it’s about movement, stillness, texture and colour, things that are off-screen and unmentioned.

Me and my DOP, Gillian Williamson, decided to photograph the elements of nature with shallow depths of field and often in macro detail. I went out on my own for 2 days of B-roll to capture a lot of the macro insect activity and the points of view of the lead character. I wanted to look at nature in the abstract and for the audience to piece it together both impressionistically and texturally.

My lead character has a reverence for nature and also a willingness to die with it. When she steps into her river periodically throughout the film, she can feel the microbes, the bacteria, the natural makeup and communal nature of this fresh water. She feels the exchange of life. When she steps out, there’s this moment of grace, gently moving her feet against the cool grass, a sign of respect.

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Reverence for nature: enigmatic protagonist and horse

The whole story was constructed as a visual exploration with no dialogue to drive the storyline. I wanted the photography and the natural world to drive the atmosphere and to make the lead characters’ decisions emotionally understandable, if not cognitively.

Q. The plot very soon takes a dark turn. I would say ‘unexpectedly’ except it is not quite unexpected. There has been no promise that this beauty, this sense of summer brimming over, is necessarily benign. When we see in the rippling, shallow river the unmistakable swirls of blood it seems part of the overall picture, not a contradiction.

Can you talk a little bit about your theme of beauty as predation? Do you think this is a theme of our time?

C. Blake Evernden: I’ve also always held a particular fascination and affinity towards the macabre, towards this pervasive atmosphere amid the possibility or certainty of death, both symbolically and literally.

So, I drew an interest in telling often entirely visual stories that explored what I felt was an interrelation between both nature and the macabre. I began using nature as the ultimate character, both hero and villain; often loving, ethereal and beautiful but also relentless, impersonal and seemingly conscienceless. There’s this great balance in our relationship where the human race is both a symbiotic necessity and a scourge on the natural world that must be shaken off.

I do think that the more the natural world rebels against our ignorance and refusal to adapt that this will grow to be a more important discussion in storytelling circles. I strangely find something beautiful in this impermanence of life and the randomness of our being here. And this led me to an interest in Entropy. Entropy is nature’s tendency to favour disorder. It’s about a lack of predictability, a gradual decline into disorder, that all aspects of nature are constantly breaking down.

Life itself represents a decrease of entropy, or rather a decrease of this random nature. To preserve life is to decrease entropy and ultimately fight against nature. A researcher at the University of Colorado in the field of Bio-Chemistry and Molecular Genetics by the name of Jonathan Mark Davis proposed that maybe aging itself was a form of evolutionary adaptation. But evolution works only when there’s continual turnover of biological material. Simply put, death is a necessity of nature.

So, all these ideas that roamed around in my head is what led me to write and shoot Spider. This is the story of a girl fascinated with both death and life. She finds love in death and is threatened by life. She finds love in the natural world more out of reverence for the constant change of it. She embraces death and is confused by life. In the narrative for the story, she’s a farm girl who begins to relate more to people in death than in life. She finds a boyfriend and kills him in order to have a more meaningful relationship.

I wanted to visually romanticize the idea of natural decomposition. I wanted to see the undisturbed body in the bonds of nature, to see the life’s blood running through the river, to examine, intellectually, this embrace of nature.

Q. In  reference to the horror genre in particular, and part of the zeitgeist, I wonder whether Spider is representative of an emerging theme in which nature (and by extension human nature) as enigmatic, an unknown quantity.

I’m thinking of recent movies like The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers) in which a family of settlers breaks away from their community to settle in the midst of a lush wilderness believing it to be a new Eden, and perhaps Calibre (2018, Matt Palmer) in which two city dwellers go on a hunting trip in northern Scotland.

In both cases, as in Spider, nature is beautiful, full of promise, but also foreboding. There is menace in the ambiance of the forest.

Are filmmakers like yourself, then, addressing a broken relationship between humans and nature? How is Spider an expression of particularly 21st Century anxieties? 

C. Blake Evernden: Well, I became interested in this idea of Ecophobia, which is the fear of ecological problems and the natural world. Fear of oil spills, rainforest destruction, acid rain, the ozone hole, a fear of everything related to nature that affects our way of life. But it seems to me that this fear, like a multitude of human anxieties, is rather about a fear of control, or rather the inability to control. With every measure, we attempt to control in nature it instead creates more complexities and more dangers. Simply put, nature cannot be controlled.

Simon C. Estok said that ecophobia is an “irrational and groundless hatred of the natural world.” This notion is about our wanting to bend nature, change it, make it seemingly safe and purified for us all to live in. “Our attempts at dominating nature, in other words, are the inevitable reflex of our fear that it can destroy us,” said Matthew Taylor. Estok rejected the idea that nature be perceived as kind and good, when he believed it was, in fact, “morally neutral.”

These are almost purely intellectual and philosophical ideas that I wanted to discuss in Spider because I do feel that nature is something that human kind is constantly at war with instead of attempting find a balance. Within the film, for instance, being able to graphically cut between my lead characters hand running across the face of her boyfriend and then to move to macro photographic explorations of a ladybug on an intricate blade of grass, juxtaposing these moments helps to understand the feeling of the character, a disconnect to what we see as a sanctity of life. I wanted to see if I could romanticize her world view instead of fearing it.

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Moral neutrality: Owl and Madison Olsen in Spider

The story is book-ended with the lead character, this farm girl, wading through fresh water. In framing the story this way, I wanted to give her an alien persona where she seems to come from somewhere else and wander the countryside, a being outside of the human race. She looks human, but she’s something else, she sees beauty in different places. I tried to communicate this in the original poster art I created for the film as well, framing her as undergrowth beneath the earth, or perhaps mother Earth itself. Was she a literal creation or rather an aspect of nature itself? I don’t wish one particular reading to be the end of the discussion, I just want it to linger in the viewer. I think that’s one of the main differences between horror and the macabre. Horror jabs, macabre haunts. I was aiming for a haunting love story set amongst the natural world.

Q. Can talk a little about the processes of finding locations (I’ve seen Southern Alberta look so incredibly lush!) and about your partnerships — producer, cinematographer etc. and casting.

C. Blake Evernden: I wrote this film in one morning, based on those feelings I’ve describe previously, and knowing the people that I wanted to work with on the project. I wrote the story with the lead actress already in mind, I wrote it for her. I worked with Madison Olsen, briefly, on my second feature Prairie Dog (2015) where she featured in one sequence in the first act of the film. I loved her look and her naturalness on camera, and I felt that her natural beauty would work as a great visual counterpoint to the more macabre aspects of the story.

I’ve worked with my producer, Gianna Isabella, for a number of years on many projects and when I knew I wanted to shoot this project that summer (a pretty quick turnaround) I knew she could help me make it happen. We have a good working relationship and she knows how to push me to get my days done.

Lastly, my cinematographer, Gillian Williamson, who’s my sister-in-law, I’ve admired her photographic work for years and always wanted to work with her. I thought that she could give the project both the grandeur and the intimacy I was looking for. I’ve served as my own cinematographer for many years, but I wanted the collaboration on this film, and we’re aiming to continue to work together on future projects.

The locations were an aspect I had in mind before I wrote the film. My mom used to summer as a kid at a ranch near Claresholm and I had used that location for some B-roll material in Prairie Dog so I knew that would be my lead characters home. I spend so much time back in the coulees around Lethbridge in the summer, I’ve known the rivers and islands for over 15 years now and I just wrote my experiences into the script, the geography of where I’ve walked and where I’ve lay in the tall grass and watched the clouds roll by.

The one location that was difficult, simply for audio recording purposes, was Park Lake. I knew I wanted to use that location for the bookended sequences of the film, and I’ve used it previously for the opening title sequence in Prairie Dog, but during the summer the families and campers on the opposite side of the lake render most of the on-set sound recording problematic. I needed an isolated, natural soundtrack and so a good deal of that material had to be re-recorded and mixed.

I’ve shot 2 features and 5 short films in Southern Alberta and I always focus the aesthetic and atmospheric heart of those productions around the wide-open distant landscapes. I haven’t grown creatively tired of this natural landscape, rather it fuels my creative interests. I have at least 3 more feature projects that focus on these natural places and so it speaks a great deal to the types of stories that I want to tell.

 

Read more about C. Blake Evernden and his films on his website.

***

Note to publishers wishing to send reissued classic fiction or new fiction for possible review on this blog, please email me (using ‘Contact Me’ page) to arrange submission. Thanks!

Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).

 

The Uninvited: Macardle’s Political Ghost Story

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It moved smoothly forward. The white, flowing shroud was a gown now and I saw hands. They were poised over the banister rail…as though the mist was crystallizing, the outlines were defined gradually…

Rarely had a ghost been described this directly, this unapologetically, in mainstream fiction. Dorothy Macardle’s Uneasy Freehold was published in 1942 in the British Isles. For its US edition, the novel would attain its more familiar title, The Uninvited.

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Tramp Press’s recent edition of the 1942 classic novel, The Uninvited/Uneasy Freehold

Readers of the time were no doubt taken aback by an approach which must have reminded them of photographs from a medium’s parlour. The norms of supernatural fiction had long been defined by avoiding the obvious. Edgar Allan Poe, America’s most iconic master of horror, for instance, tended to employ dense allegories and explore themes of insanity. Poe’s fearful sights and sounds projected the psychological dysfunctions of the protagonists rather than sentient spirits returning from the dead. M.R James, perhaps Britain’s most famous ghost story specialist, was interested in malign supernatural forces. But typically he gave his readers only glimpses of visceral terror through the distance of secondhand narratives in the form of letters, reported conversations, and forgotten manuscripts.

Macardle’s ghost story with its coils of ectoplasm, seen by an undeniably sane protagonist in the modern age, represented a broadside attack upon the genre’s subtler conventions.

While Macardle’s frankness likely challenged reader expectations, it would be a mistake to imagine there was anything simple about either the story or its writer. Macardle was one the most sophisticated authors of her time, and Uneasy Freehold/The Uninvited is a challenging and, in many senses, political novel (I will avoid obvious spoilers).

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Feminist, author, and renaissance woman, Dorothy Macardle.

The plot involves a literary critic and budding playwright Roddy Fitzgerald and his younger sister Pamela who leave their Bloomsbury home to seek a rural idyll in Devon. For years, we are told, twenty-something Pamela has been sole carer for an ailing parent who is now deceased. This classic ‘woman’s role’ for an unmarried daughter has left Pamela in urgent need of rejuvenation. She and her brother do find their refuge, or so they think, in Cliff End, an isolated house overlooking the sea.

After purchasing the property from austere retired naval commander, Commodore Brooke — who is acting for his nineteen-year-old granddaughter, Stella Meredith — they settle in only to discover that the rumors of disturbances at Cliff End have more substance than they might have wished.

Macardle invokes atmosphere slowly: The rain ceased; the last smoldering log crumbled and died into white ash. The curious, living stillness, with a tremor of the invisible in it, that de la Mare creates in his stories, possessed the place.

A grief-stricken moan is heard through the night. A night-light is seen in the former nursery, and an overpowering scent of mimosa pervades the home at odd hours of darkness. At other times the siblings experience a dreadful cold and a sense of evil on the main staircase.

While Roddy and Pamela theorize about past trauma seeping into the fabric of a home — a variation of the “stone tape” theory — one thing becomes clear. Every time Stella Meredith, now a friend of the Fitzgeralds, visits her former home the haunting seems to intensify.

Seeking an explanation, they discover that Stella’s mother Mary Meredith died after falling from the cliff near the home fifteen years before. A second death occurred in the house soon after. A Spanish woman named Carmel, model to Mary’s artist husband, succumbed to pneumonia while under the care of Mary’s friend, Nurse Holloway.

Gradually, through the testaments of the townspeople and former acquaintances, Roddy and Pamela build two character portraits. Model Carmel, they hear, was a volatile, spiteful homewrecker who’d been having an affair with Mary’s husband. Mary, in contrast, was revered as the ideal wife and mother.

To the elderly local priest, Father Anson, Mary was “almost a saint.” To Stella, her mother “never told a lie in her life.” To Commander Brooke, she was an “unstained, saintly spirit.”

Mary is said to have taken in the vicious Carmel, despite the affair with her husband, and to have willingly submitted to her artist spouse’s infidelities and cruelties. As a mother to Stella she was disciplined and rigorous, and Stella, with encouragement from her grandfather, idolizes her memory.

When the haunting threatens Stella, Pamela and Roddy believe it is the spirit of Carmel returned to seek vengeance on the daughter of the home she ruined.

The plot panders cleverly to the reader’s prejudices. When holes appear in these portraits of Mary and Carmel, when it becomes clear that Carmel was wronged and that Mary, far from being a saint, was quite deliberately building the myth of her own perfection, it is a sucker punch. We, like Pamela and Roddy, feel we have been fooled by our own expectations.

The Fitzgeralds are not randomly chosen in terms of background and culture. Half English, half Irish, they are international in outlook. Bohemian friends from London visit Cliff End and articulate one of Macardle’s  themes. Artist Max complains that they live in an era when “life is reduced to some crude, fanatical party creed.”

He is referring, of course, to the rise of Fascism across Europe, but Macardle had her own brief which lay closer to home.

A feminist and Irish Republican, Macardle viewed the newly-minted Irish Constitution in 1937 as a betrayal of the ideals of  the 1916 proclamation. The earlier document had promised to deliver gender equality in Ireland. Macardle was critical of the Constitution’s focus on the role of the mother in the home, a kind of faux-veneration which served only to disempower women in practical terms.

In a recent edition of The Uninvited published by Tramp Press, an excellent introduction by Luke Gibbons, Professor of Irish Literary and Cultural Studies at Maynooth University, expands on Macardle’s theme of motherhood. Gibbons takes the reader to the premiere of the 1944 movie of The Uninvited at the Savoy Cinema, Dublin. The showing was attended by none other than Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamon de Valera, close friend of Macardle.

“Typical Dorothy,” de Valera was heard to say after the screening.

De Valera apparently saw the story’s take on the “cult of the saintly mother” as a riposte to his own work as the Constitution’s sole author. There was no love in any of Mary’s acts of apparent self-sacrifice, Macardle seems to tell us. This is a challenging message in a novel with several other subversive twists.

In the end it is Pamela who pieces together the true story while her brother provides the novel’s narration. The reader, firmly in Roddy’s point of view, is encouraged to view Pamela as he does — as illogical, vulnerable to hysteria, and in need of his special protection.

Pamela is, in fact, way ahead of Roddy and all his friends in terms of understanding the haunting, but she must pussyfoot around their egos as they (in modern parlance) “mansplain” to her that she is deceived by a too active imagination.

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“Typical Dorothy,” Macardle’s ghost story which hit  the screen in 1944

The 1944 movie that seemed to irritate de Valera is remarkably faithful in most regards to Macardle’s novel. Directed by Lewis Allen with a screenplay by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos, the Paramount production reduces the number of characters, eliminates the priest, Father Anson, and turns Roddy (Ray Milland) into a composer, which allows for the melodic theme by Victor Young to heighten the romantic elements of the story.

Gail Russell  gives an appropriately otherworldly performance as the troubled Stella, and Donald Crisp is her forbidding grandfather, renamed Commander Beech.

The film has a very special kind of cult status among genre filmmakers. Movies often play conscious tribute by having characters quote directly from the 1944 screenplay. Ghost Stories, the 2017 Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman supernatural thriller is the most recent example.

One aspect, somewhat underplayed from the novel, is Pamela Fitzgerald. Ruth Hussey, though well cast as a demure, intelligent Pamela, is not given the scope afforded to her character in Macardle’s original.

When, in the novel, Pamela explains to Stella and her grandfather that she is a namesake of a famous Irish rebel, Commander Brooke is not amused. Later in the same conversation he disparages the Celtic Welsh with an unfavourale comparison with the more reliable Devon stock.

Commander Brooke and Pamela Fitzgerald are polar opposites. The Commander represents an insular Anglo-Saxon point of view complete with unhealthy emotional repression. Pamela is a half Celt with global interests and a respect for the intuitive senses. It’s possible to see in Pamela an aspect of Macardle’s younger self.

By the time Macardle wrote Uneasy freehold/The Uninvited she had already led a remarkably dramatic life as an activist as well as a leading journalist and author. She had been imprisoned during the Irish Civil War in 1922 after opposing the Anglo-Irish (partition) Treaty, and had also been on hunger strike. In the 1930s she worked as a journalist with the League of Nations and became a vocal opponent of the Nazis. During this time and later she became an advocate for children who had been psychologically traumatized by occupation and war.

One aspect of supernatural fiction is a sense of being closed off in a world with rules quite separate from real life. This can be one of the genre’s comforts and sometimes one of its limitations. The most striking quality about Uneasy Freehold/The Uninvited is the extent to which Macardle’s varied life is in evidence in the novel.

The Uninvited is a rare thing, a ghost story with its finger on the pulse of society and world politics.

 

See blog articles related to supernatural fiction:

Ghosts and the Radio

Visible Demons and Unseen Fears: M.R. James and The Night of the Demon

Little Strangers and haunted Mansions, Part II: The Films

Little Strangers and Haunted Mansions

Note to publishers wishing to send reissued classic fiction or new fiction for possible review on this blog, please email me (using ‘Contact Me’ page) to arrange submission. Thanks!

Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).

 

 

 

 

Ghosts and the Radio, Part I

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Radio could almost have been made for supernatural drama. It’s the medium which can create sound and atmosphere while leaving just enough to the listeners’ imagination. Alone or with family, in the muted lamplight of the evening, listeners can visualize the very things that scare them most.

Fans of supernatural drama are excited that Mark Gatiss is unearthing the annual tradition of the Christmas ghost story for BBC television and particularly that the subject is a radio host who specializes in late night horror stories.

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British Film Institute cover for the Ghost Stories for Christmas DVD, a seasonal tradition.

The story, The Dead Room, will have its first broadcast in the UK on Christmas Eve. The fictional radio host, Aubrey Judd, will be played by Simon Callow.

Gatiss, co-writer and co-creator of Sherlock, has the perfect pedigree for the Christmas horror tradition. A long-time M.R. James enthusiast, Gatiss dramatized James’s The Tractate Middoth for television in 2013, and wrote and presented the documentary, MR James, Ghost Writer. Gatiss’s self-penned portmanteau supernatural drama, Crooked House (2008) satisfyingly combines an M.R. Jamesian interest in antiquities — in this case a door knocker — with a Tudor necromancer searching through time to steal an heir for his name and fortune.

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Author Mark Gatiss and his Jamesian antique, a haunted door knocker

The fact that The Dead Room involves a radio host promises to bring the ghost story back to one of its most natural homes.

The premise will remind many of another radio-based story, David Thompson’s, A Child’s Voice, an Irish production broadcast in the UK also in 1978. Thompson’s story, directed by Kieran Hickey, features a larger- than-life storyteller, Ainsley Rupert Macreadie (T.P. McKenna). Each week, in three nightly episodes, radio star Macreadie gives his flamboyant introduction and reads a new macabre tale.

The solitary studio, the producer watching through the glass, the rituals of performance — a tray of sherry glasses brought to Macreadie after his sign off — all speak of a fondly-observed tradition. We imagine a whole population united in one mood, pleasantly chilled yet satisfied, cocooning themselves in their cozy bedrooms as the station closes down for the night. “There’s magic about radio,” Macreadie tells his producer. “It glows gently upon the embers of the imagination.”

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T.P. MacKenna as radio star Macreadie

 

This week, Macreadie’s story involves a stage magician, Orsino, whose trick leads to the accidental suffocation of his assistant, a young boy. After the first atmosphere-building episode, Macreadie feels uneasy on his walk home. Late at night, while in bed, he receives an anonymous phone call. It is a child’s voice pleading with Macreadie not to finish the story.

Naturally, Macreadie ignores the warning, but his nerves begin to fray when, after the second of the three installments, he receives another warning.

The battle lines of the drama would have been very familiar to an audience brought up on M.R. James television adaptations such as Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968) and The Treasure of Abbott Thomas (1974). Reducing the stories to a basic pattern, the formula  might read like this: a cocksure individual is pitted against supernatural forces which slowly eat away at the foundation of their certainty.

It’s a universal enough comment on the human condition to be pretty much the default structure of the ghost story of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In A Child’s Voice, the use of a technological medium, the radio broadcast, is a feature which adds a new dimension to the terror. Suddenly, it’s the levers of advancement and civilization — the radio station, the phone — the very trappings and protections which are supposed to move us away from primitive fears, which become the conduits of the haunting.

The radio acts as a point of convergence between modernity and primal fear. It is, after all, a disembodied voice; if the hearer is unmindful of the science behind it, a disembodied voice is the essence of a ghost.

The same idea was exploited by L.P. Hartley in his 1926 short story, A Visitor from Down Under. A rich prospector, Mr. Rumbold, returns to London after many years in Australia, and checks into a familiar old hotel. A smug sense of having ‘got away’ with something hovers around the guest as he’s greeted as a returning hero by the hotel staff.

At the same time, a cadaverous stranger on an open-top omnibus is making his way to the same location through the wintry rain.

As Rumbold drowses in the hotel lounge before the fire, he’s startled by, “A cultivate voice, perhaps too cultivated, slightly husky,yet careful and precise in its enunciation.” The voice is emanating from nowhere. He knows just enough of the changes which have taken place since he left the country to calm himself. It is only a BBC broadcast.

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L.P Hartley collection

Hartley has fun with  the novelty of radio in his ghost story.  Curiously, although written nearly a century ago, the BBC culture is entirely recognizable today to those over a certain age. The host self-consciously describes a children’s party taking place at Broadcasting House, his voice, “nicely balanced between approval and distaste.”

Stilted dialogue and children’s games subsequently give way to nursery rhymes. With the sense of disquiet descending on Rumbold, the rhyme of Oranges and Lemons takes its well-known morbid turn:

Here is a candle to light you to bed

And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

Chop, chop. chop…

Meanwhile the cadaverous stranger comes closer to Rumbold’s hotel . . .

A Visitor from Down Under is one of the cleverest and most innovative ghost stories from the period. Hartley seemed to realize that primal terrors do not require ignoring the wires and electricity of the modern world.

Much better to embrace them and make them part of the terror.

See Ghosts and the Radio, Part II

 

See related blog articles:

Visible Demons and Unseen Fears: M.R. James and The Night of the Demon

Little Strangers and haunted Mansions, Part II: The Films

Little Strangers and Haunted Mansions

I will return to the Dracula theme in the next blog entry.

Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).

Dracula and Whitby, part III: Dracula Goes to the Movies in 1922 and 1931

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While Hollywood claims the first official movie version of Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel, the 1931 Tod Browning film was in truth merely the first to herald, rather than hide, its source novel.

F.W. Murnau had directed Prana Film’s cheekily unauthorized Nosferatu in 1922. In this now celebrated version, Count Dracula becomes Count Orlok, a barely human-looking creation with conical head, bent back, and long curling fingernails. The Count’s terrifying shadow was an integral part of the artistic vision behind Nosferatu.

One of the producers, Albin Grau, was a visual artist who was heavily involved in the production’s sets, design, and story-boarding. The image of the vampire’s outline was calculated to burrow deep into the part of the brain reserved for nightmares.

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A nightmarish vision: Max Schreck in Nosferatu.

Completing the film’s disguise, Jonathan Harker, the young lawyer, becomes Thomas Hutter. His wife, Mina, becomes Ellen. ‘Home’ in Nosferatu — the place from where Hutter leaves and then returns after his ill-fated Carpathian visit — is the fictional German town of Wisborg. In Wisborg all the locations of Dracula‘s England converge.

Wisborg has a Whitby-like beach with sea view and crooked gravestones; it also has an urban district derelict enough to be a Purfleet stand-in. Count Orlok’s version of Dracula’s Carfax Abbey is a Bauhaus-style structure, part ruin, part warehouse, with many forbidding black windows.

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“Wisborg’s” version of Carfax

Nosferatu pulls the action further into the past, taking Stoker’s late-Victorian tale to 1838.

Whether the films were modern-dress or lost in a landscape of the imagination, German fantasy of the period often invoked a Medieval flavour. A folkloric past seemed to act as a portal to forgotten horrors such as the plague, the supernatural, or belief in a literal devil. In German film-making, these ancient horrors coincided very neatly with a with a modern Freudian interest in dreams and nightmares. By predating Stoker’s action, the film edges just a little closer to this favoured landscape.

The filmic precedent was well established.

Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1920), for example, plunges the viewer into long gone versions of Persia, Venice, and China as our heroine (Lil Dagover) is challenged by Death-personified (Bernhard Goetze) to save one of three forfeited lives. If she succeeds she will win back her lover whom Death has already claimed.

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Timeless folklore: Fritz Lang’s Destiny

So Germany in the 1920s was an auspicious time and place when it came the first Dracula adaptation. Stoker, like the German filmmakers, had cast his creative net wide geographically and historically, picking strands from Irish and Eastern European folklore. In fiction, he was also a risk taker, not afraid of the grotesque or horrifying image, such as Dracula crawling, lizard like, down the castle wall, or offering his three female vampire companions a baby upon which to feast. His original climax for Dracula involved the sudden crumbling of the Count’s castle into dust as soon as Dracula himself expires, an extravagant passage that the publisher, Archibald, Constable & Company, found too outlandish.

But for Nosferatu director Murnau, such ambitions were second nature. Murnau would later re-create the age of alchemy, plague, and devil pacts in Faust (1926), bringing the Stoker link full circle in a literal sense too. The Lyceum had produced Faust in 1886 with Stoker’s employer and friend Henry Irving as Mephistopheles. This connection was hardly accidental. In their darker fantasy subjects, novelist Stoker and director Murnau drew from the same creative well.

Dracula then was the perfect vehicle to kick start Prana Film. Albin Grau, who was an occultist as well as artist, intended Nosferatu as the first in a series of horror subjects. Unfortunately, Bram’s widow, Florence, had other ideas and soon launched a series of robust legal challenges ultimately forcing Prana to declare bankruptcy.

By annoying Stoker’s widow, Murnau’s pirated  movie only served to bring the “real” Dracula, or one that would bear the name, to life. Soon after beginning her legal battles with Prana, Florence Stoker sold the Dracula rights to Irish playwright and actor Hamilton Deane. Deane had once been a Lyceum man like her late husband. To Florence, no doubt, he would have seemed a much more respectable inheritor of Bram’s legacy.

Deane’s Count Dracula, who first took to the boards in 1924, could not have been more different than Count Orlok. Portrayed by young actor Raymond Huntley, this vampire dressed in a tuxedo and upturned collar and insinuated himself into polite dinner conversation.

Complete with gimmicks of attending nurse with smelling salts for terrified audience members, Deane’s Dracula toured successfully in Britain giving Stoker’s novel a new lease of life.

Soon a version of Deane’s play was rewritten by American John L. Baldeston for the American market. When it crossed the Atlantic in 1927, Dracula gathered a new leading man, the Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi. Lugosi would add an exotic Valentino-esque flavour to the already urbane vampire.

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Bela Lugosi, exotic and urbane (Universal Monsters)

This Deane-Baldetson Dracula is the one which would reach the screen in 1931 under the direction of Tod Browning. The cinematographer was Karl Freund, one of an increasing number of German film artists who fled to Hollywood in the 1930s. Freund had worked with Murnau on The Last Laugh (1924).

The action of this first official production is largely in Whitby, or rather John L. Balderston’s concept of Whitby which is not quite the same thing. In an early scene set during a London opera, Whitby resident Mina (Helen Chandler) casually mentions she might stay “in town” (i.e. London) with Lucy after the performance. This suggests the original plan was to travel the 250 miles back home. A British audience was clearly not forefront among the filmmakers’ concerns.

These events follow an extended prologue in which Renfield (Dwight Fry), rather than Jonathan Harker, travels to Dracula’s castle in the Carpathians to complete the sale of Carfax Abbey. This Carfax Abbey is in Whitby rather than the original Purfleet. When he returns on the stricken ship carrying Dracula and his earth boxes, Renfield is incarcerated as a lunatic under the care of Dr. Seward whose sanitarium, and home, “adjoins” the grounds of Carfax Abbey.

All the plot elements are thus brought together under one location which is ostensibly the east Yorkshire town but in reality generic England complete with cockney sanitarium attendant, Martin (Charles K Gerrard).

To the modern viewer, the play was not adapted enough. Long stretches of the movie look rather like a filmed stage performance. It could have been that director Browning had lost heart in the project after the death of his frequent creative partner and intended Dracula, Lon Chaney. But it’s also possible that the new medium of talking pictures had distracted the normally lively director. The years 1927-1931 were a time of awkward transition in the industry.

For a while the artistic ambitions of directors and cinematographers played second fiddle to the technical demands of capturing sound. A row of static actors having a drawing room conversation was easier to sustain than swift movements and fluid action.

In any case, there are no cliffs, no visible abbey, no St. Mary’s churchyard and very few exteriors of any kind. The 1931 film compares rather poorly with the more vibrant and visually daring Nosferatu.

But this didn’t matter for the Count. The 1931 film firmly established an imprint for Dracula as matinee idol, suave and sophisticated and able to seduce his victims with good looks, conversation, and charm. Although this was not Stoker’s concept, it became an unshakable aspect of the story for the next several decades.

Also see:

Dracula and Whitby, Part I: Why Whitby?

Dracula and Whitby, Part II: The Politics of Location

Coming Up: Dracula in the Hammer movies of the 1950s-70s, and the golden age of British television brings Stoker’s novel back home.

Paul Butler is the author of the upcoming Mina’s Child (May 2020) about the daughter of the ‘heroes’ from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and The Widow’s Fire

Whitby and Dracula, Part I: Why Whitby?

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The ingredients are all there:

A high headland; a venerable church overlooking a picturesque town; an 11th century Benedictine Abbey which stands lofty and indomitable even as a ruin; and, most of all, St. Mary’s expansive graveyard, its crooked gravestones telling of multiple tragedies at sea and on land.

 

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Whitby Abbey, austere and foreboding

 

Who wouldn’t want to set a Gothic novel in Whitby?

There is nothing arbitrary in Bram Stoker’s choice of this Yorkshire coastal town. If Dracula were published today it would likely earn the title ‘placed-based fiction.’ In some respects the story reads like a travelogue. Whitby, London, and of course a wild adventure eastwards to the Carpathian mountains come to the reader in a vivid richness of detail.

This was what many late Victorians wanted. For his readers, Stoker captured the sights, sounds and tastes of places near and far. Setting the tone, Jonathan Harker writes a memorandum in his journal: get recipe for Mina (his fiancee).  He has just eaten a chicken dish with red pepper in a hotel Klausenburgh (present-day Cluj) and notes that while delicious, the food has made him very thirsty. Like any good ‘travel writer,’ Stoker wanted to provide a full sensory experience.

For Stoker and his contemporaries, the age of the train and the steam ship had opened up travel both at home and abroad. Once the preserve of the aristocrat’s “grand tour,” exploration had come, courtesy of the industrial age, to the well-to-do middle class.

Stoker, both a traveler and a meticulous researcher, enjoyed whetting this new appetite.  By the time he had begun Dracula, Stoker was a successful man by most standards but he was not an aristocrat. As a middle-class Irishman in London, however, he could aspire, like Shaw and Wilde, to prominence in the British capital’s literary scene; as actor-manager Henry Irving’s business partner, he did indeed rub shoulders with many of the luminaries of the age.

 

Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker

Even if Stoker had stuck to a safe profession like his civil servant father — remaining as he once planned, either a civil servant himself or a practicing lawyer — he would likely have taken advantage of the new opportunities to voyage beyond his shores. As it was, Stoker traveled extensively on business for Henry Irving both in America and mainland Europe. Curiously, he did not go as far east as Jonathan Harker, the solicitor who makes his fateful journey to Dracula’s castle. Stoker’s Transylvania springs from his extensive reading and from the accounts of his brother George who had served as a military doctor in the area.

It might have piqued Stoker to know he had given the reader only a secondhand view of Dracula’s home. As though aware of the shortcoming, Stoker peppered his story, both in Transylvania and England, with an overwhelming amount of local detail. In his journal, Jonathan Harker records details of the lands he travels though — the ethnicity of the various people he sees, their dress (in great detail), their customs, and even their physical ailments, noting the prevalence of enlarged thyroid glands or “goitres” among the “Cszeks and Slovaks.”

Mina simultaneously records in her journal all the impressions of Whitby, including its topography, the viaduct, the history of the abbey, the folklore and beliefs. She also details the pleasures of the town and surrounding areas such as the “sweet little, old fashioned inn” in Robin Hood’s Bay. Stoker slyly draws attention to his knowledge of foreign cities when Mina compares Whitby to “the pictures we see of Nuremburg.” Stoker himself had visited the German city with Irving in preparation for a production of Faust at the Lyceum theatre.

 

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More than a holiday. Stoker’s sojourn in Whitby helped to plant the seeds for Dracula.

If Stoker’s Transylvania is a secondhand account, albeit a thoroughly-researched one, his Whitby springs from direct experience. In late July and early August 1990 he stayed for the first time on The Royal Crescent, the location he would later give for the lodgings taken by Lucy Westenra and her mother. In Dracula, Mina stays with them as a guest.

Mina’s description of the locals — blushingly patronizing by today’s standards —  springs partly from Stoker’s keen observation, partly from research. An old sea dog Mina befriends tells her he must “crammle upon the grees.” According to the notes in the Wordsworth Classics edition, this vernacular means “hobble down the stairs,” and comes from A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighbourhood of Whitby published by F.K. Robinson in 1876. It’s easy to imagine the many hours the bibliophile Stoker would have spent gathering and selecting from such sources.

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Walkers “crammling upon the grees” or walking down the steps leading from St. Mary’s and the abbey to the town of Whitby.

The stairs referred to, of course, are the famous 199 steps leading up from the narrow winding streets of the town to the the church, St. Mary’s, and the ruined abbey.

It’s not surprising that a brief holiday in Whitby, at Irving’s recommendation, should swiftly have become research for the workaholic Stoker. He had moonlighted as a theatre reviewer while working in the Irish civil service in the 1870s and had published four novels since signing on with Henry Irving for whom he worked tirelessly. On his Whitby “holiday” he was soon recording notes for an embryonic novel which he had already decided would be about a vampire.

Among the publications he found in Whitby’s public library was a British diplomat’s experiences in Bucharest. Stoker read, for the first time it is thought, about Vlad Tepes, a fearsome fifteenth century prince known for impaling his enemies on spikes.

A secondary name for Vlad Tepes, one given to those who inspired fear, translated into English as ‘Son of the Dragon.’

The name in question was Dracula.

Although he continued to tinker with prospective titles over the years until publication in 1897, Stoker had found his count in Whitby.

 

***

 

In further parts to the ‘Whitby and Dracula‘ series, we’ll talk more about Bram Stoker’s love of details and coded messages, Whitby’s presence in film adaptations, and we’ll also see how Whitby celebrates its Gothic connections in the 21st century.

Paul Butler is the author of the upcoming Mina’s Child (May 2020) about the daughter of the ‘heroes’ from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and The Widow’s Fire

Visible Demons and Unseen Fears: M.R. James and The Night of the Demon

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It’s not often that a screenwriter says he would be happy to shoot a former collaborator dead on sight. The artistic differences arising from the 1957 movie The Night of the Demon, however, were strong enough to provoke this reaction from former Hitchcock associate, Charles Bennett.

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Night of the Demon, official poster

Bennett had acquired the rights to M.R. James’s short story Casting the Runes. In a move he would later regret, he sold the rights to Hal. E. Chester, former child actor and producer. Chester, with whom Bennett would share screenplay credit for The Night of the Demon, was the man to earn Bennett’s violent animosity.

The difference of opinion centered around Chester’s decision, against the wishes of both Bennett and director Jacques Tourneur, to show the demon of the title in frank and undeniable detail at the end and at the beginning of the film.

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Culprit or hero? Does this demon make the movie or ruin it?

Here, in broad strokes, is a summary of Night of the Demon.

Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), an academic leading an investigation into a ‘devil cult’, finds himself pursued by cult-head Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Karswell demands Holden stops his investigation and leave Karswell and his “followers” in peace. When Holden refuses, Karswell puts a hex on Holden. He predicts the date of Holden’s death and says Holden’s “symptoms” will start with mental deterioration and uncertainty, then escalate into fear and, finally, horror as death approaches.

Although assailed, as predicted, by unexplained occurrences — preternatural winds, a glowing, smoking sphere on the grounds of Karswell’s home — Holden remains resolutely skeptical, much to the frustration of Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins). Joanna is the niece of Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham), who was similarly cursed and died on the exact date predicted by Karswell.

Showing the demon early in the film is pivotal to how the audience experiences the battle of wits between skeptic Holden and black arts practitioner Karswell.

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Unconventional Battle of Wits, Karswell and Holden (image: British Film Institute)

Unbeknownst to Holden, there is no level playing field between them. The audience knows in advance Holden’s confidence is unjustified. When Holden patronizingly waves Joanna’s warnings aside, the audience is on her side and, ironically enough, on the side of Karswell, the nominal “villain.”

This turns out to be a rather unconventional twist and it draws attention, in true M.R. James style, to the intellectual brittleness of the protagonist (Holden). It’s left to Joanna, a schoolteacher, to articulate the thematic core of the story when she tells Holden, “You can learn a lot from children. They believe in things in the dark until we tell them it’s not so. Maybe we’ve been fooling them.”

It isn’t surprising director Tourneur wanted to keep his demon confined to the viewer’s imagination. Working under Val Lewton’s RKO unit in the 1940s, Tourneur had played a leading role in establishing a  sophisticated brand of horror which relied on ambiguity. The viewer is rarely certain whether Lewton’s “monsters” are genuinely supernatural or part of the psychology of the main characters.

In Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), the closest in style and structure to The Night of the Demon, newly-married Irena (Simon Simone) believes she will turn into a murderous panther should her husband attempt to make love to her. Determined, in her psychiatrist’s words, “to loose evil upon the world,” she lets a panther out of its cage in the Central Park zoo.

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Supernatural horror, or all in the mind, Tourneur’s Cat People, 1942

Animal attacks ensue off camera and the viewer is unsure which — actual panther or Irene transformed — is committing them.  Irene’s rival in love is tormented by a distorted black shadow in a hotel swimming pool. Her bath robe is shredded, apparently, by monstrous claws. The possibility that Irene really is transforming grows slowly in the mind of the viewer. The suspicion becomes all the more tantalizing because it is posed as an alternative to a logical explanation (namely that the escaped panther is committing the mayhem).

Tourneur works in reverse, slowly debunking this “logical explanation,” leaving the viewer’s mind vulnerable and open to hints about that other possibility. A woman’s footprints the sidewalk, for instance, dissolve inexplicably into animal paw marks.

Tourneur believed the fearful images conjured in the mind are far more subtle and potent than anything an on-screen monster can present. If The Night of the Demon had been part of the famous Lewton package, Tourneur might have been right to keep to this theory.

But the film had to serve the spirit of M.R. James. The question becomes whether  this most celebrated of ghost story authors would have disapproved of the demon as much as Tourneur and Bennett did.

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M.R. James: atmosphere and frank, physical horror

The first obvious counter point is that James relished very specific, sensuously vivid details. Who can forget the “intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen,” (italics in the original), as Professor Parkins’s bedclothes come to life in Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad? Or the painfully visceral descriptions of the ghostly waif in Lost Hearts whose chest showed only “a black and gaping rent?”

In Casting the Runes, hexed Mr. Dunning (Holden’s equivalent), slips his hand under his pillow and touches “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it . . . not the mouth of a human being.”

While there is a sense of distance between the story and the reader in James it’s not achieved by eschewing physical horror. The arms’ length between reader and monster is created by framing the stories within the fussy, competitive world of scholars and English “types” of the period.

But this frame is merely an effective ruse. The reader comes to James through a humorous after-dinner glow. The reader sinks, smiling into their chair. It feels safe to descend into horrors. This is where James starts to work on our unconscious fears.

 

Even the extreme malignity of Karswell — one of the most chilling aspects of Casting the Runes — is cunningly established through a comedy of manners. The reader is presented with a series of formal but increasingly firm rejection letters from an (unnamed) organization’s secretary. These are in response to Karswell’s (unseen) requests to present a paper, The Truth of Alchemy.

It is clear from the final letter that Karswell is demanding to know the identity of the peer reviewer who gave his proposal a negative report. We subsequently hear, second hand though a dinner conversation, about how Karswell dislikes village children and bitterly complains about them trespassing on his extensive grounds. Unexpectedly, we are told, he recently invited all the children to a slideshow, only to display the most vivid and appalling horrors, including a demon on Karswell’s grounds who seems to have “torn in pieces or somehow made away with” a trespassing child.

James’s subtlety as a writer is revealed in his ability to create a formidably wicked characterization from the distance of reported events. James’s Karswell is, rather like the demon Bennett and Tourneur wanted to create, made up of shadows, hints, and an accumulation of small details.

But as The Night of the Demon‘s Karswell is not as terrifyingly cruel as in James’s original, the film instead redirects  both Karswell’s evil and James’s love of physical horror into one memorable image. With its shining teeth, smoking talons, horny flesh and fierce eyes, the demon does an admirable job being evil incarnate.

Aided by evocative photography by Edward Scaife, and a framing background of scholarship and edgy competitiveness, The Night of the Demon‘s monster also encapsulates the medieval-style terrors of M.R. James.

I think the famed author would have approved.

Paul Butler is the author of the novel, The Widow’s Fire.

 

 

Little Strangers and Haunted Mansions, Part II: The Films

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Adrift in an endless night of murmuring voices and unexplained sounds, Eleanor Vance watches as the relief pattern in the bedroom wallpaper seems to reveal a rudimentary face. Eyes and a nose emerge from the leaf shaped swirls. The murmuring goes on and the waking nightmare continues.

Is the face real or are her eyes playing tricks?

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Endless Nights in Hill House, 1963 movie poster for The Haunting.

This is an effect from the symphony of queasy, monochrome horror that makes up the 1963 film, The Haunting. It’s one of the relatively few images not taken directly from the source novel, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) which is discussed in Part I along with Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger.

The film, like the book, involves four people arriving at the Hill House of the title as part of a paranormal investigation. Two of them, Eleanor (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom), have incidents in the past which suggest psychic powers. A third, Luke (Russ Tamblyn), is the heir of the property, and the presiding academic Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) makes up the fourth.

The Haunting was produced and directed by Robert Wise, a prestige filmmaker who had recently completed West Side Story (1959) and would soon begin work on The Sound of Music (1965).

Wise had specific genre credentials too. As a former member of Val Lewton’s RKO film unit he had directed The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945), ‘quiet horror’ films which explore the characters’ psychological world and deal with emotional resonance as well as visceral shocks.

The Haunting is remembered as one of horror’s exceptional films.

At 114 minutes it has a  much longer running time than most. It also adheres more closely to its source novel than was the norm; at the time the genre was dominated by Roger Corman’s liberal reinterpretations of Poe (in the US) and Hammer’s gothic horrors (in the UK). Filmed in Britain with a part-American, part-British cast and crew, The Haunting is hard to match with other ‘like-minded’ movies.

The film does deviate from Jackson’s novel, but not necessarily in ways an audience would expect. The Haunting of Hill House takes place both inside and out. From a stream in the grounds protagonist Eleanor glimpses the first, possibly supernatural, occurrence as some kind of creature scurries through the high grass towards the Hill House. Several other supernatural incidents occur in the grounds.

The Haunting, in contrast to the novel, is entirely about oppressive interiors — an odd reversal given that filmmakers so often talk about “opening up” the action. These sets were designed by art director Elliot Scott and create a pressure cooker environment, a sense that the characters are trapped with their fears and neuroses as the ghostly occurrences escalate.

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Oppressive Interiors and Monochrome Nightmares, The Haunting 1963

 

Eleanor’s backstory changes little from that described in the novel. A long-time caregiver for her late invalid mother, she is both angry at the wasted years and riddled with guilt at having slept through her mother’s final hours.

Elsewhere, however, the character map is simplified. In the original story no one is a confirmed skeptic. In the film, Hill House heir Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), fulfills this somewhat single-note role. The intended effect is to bring an expected dual of philosophies between ‘believers’ and ‘disbelievers’ — hardly present in the novel — into a central thematic position.

Jackson’s original concept of Luke is far more complex. In the novel he is a wryly sophisticated character whose surface self-confidence masks his stunted emotional development. Seeing a parallel, if not kindred, spirit in Eleanor, Luke confides he never knew his mother. The reduction of Luke to conventional wise-cracking cynic in The Haunting is forgivable given that a film either fails or succeeds on whether or not it scares its audience.

Wise also transforms Jackson’s seasoned, middle-aged professor Dr. Montague’s into handsome young Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) so that Eleanor’s fantasies can include a possible love affair with him. When Dr. Markway’s wife arrives to dash Eleanor’s hopes, we find the doctor’s wife is a fervently rational woman who despises her husband’s pastime.

Jackson’s Mrs. Montague is the direct opposite of Wise’s Mrs. Markway. Mrs. Montague arrives late in the novel to lambast her husband not for his supernatural beliefs but for failing to use Ouija or Planchette. Mrs. Montague represents, rather comically, the superstitious side of spiritualism. Her reliance in the trappings of the modern mystic throws into sharp relief the disturbingly real and unusual events at Hill House.

Like its source novel, The Haunting does not try to “solve” the question of whether the hauntings are created by Eleanor’s  telekinetic powers or by the survival after death of the previous owner’s personality. Luke’s final words — Hill House should be “pulled down and sewn with salt” — provides a kind of inverted symmetry; here is the skeptic moving over to the opposite side, a fitting finale given that Hill House itself has been designed as an architectural conundrum.

The Haunting has certainly stood the test of time and is by most measures it’s also a successful adaptation which respects the atmosphere and intent of Jackson’s novel.

This year saw the release of another haunted house novel adaptation, The Little Stranger. Like The Haunting of Hill House, The Little Stranger is one of those novels which, read in advance, would appear to defy filming.

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Like The Haunting of Hill House there is no clear cut apparition, no ectoplasm, and no very obvious  moments of supernatural shock. Also, like The Haunting, the point of view of its protagonist is the most unsettling aspect of the novel.

Depressed by the post World War II changes in England, Dr. Faraday, the former “village boy,” aspires to join the fading aristocracy.

It’s a curious desire at this point in history as the Ayres family who own the once grand Hundreds Hall are barely holding things together. Novelist Sarah Waters describes the flavour of late 1940s gloom so vividly reader feels the cling of the farmyard mud surrounding the Ayreses’ house.

Waters even manages to breathe new life into the despised adverb: A mop rests “sourly” in its bucket; young landowner Roderick Ayres’s cigarette smoke floats “bluely” from his roll up cigarette.

Faraday, the son of a former Hundreds Hall servant, finds himself seduced by visions of the Ayreses’ former glory. Admitted to the sitting room after tending to a servant Faraday sees that “the essential loveliness of the room stood out, like the handsome bones behind a ravaged face . . . the light was soft and mildly tinted, and seemed held, really embraced and held, by the pale walls and ceiling.”

This a great deal to express in a visual medium.

Another strength of the novel, and a challenge to the filmmakers, is the extent to which the reader is submerged in Faraday’s narration. Class snobbery, though well past its sell by date in practical terms, is alive and kicking in hearts and minds in this part of Warwickshire. Dr. Faraday is rather too keen to be on the right side of the fence.

He bristles at Hundreds Hall guests who presume he must have come on business rather than a social call, and is fervently loyal in a codependent way to the Ayreses who have retained notions of grandeur even as their house crumbles around them.

Like The Haunting, The Little Stranger, hugs as close to the source novel as possible. It was directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room, 2015) with a screenplay by Lucina Coxon (The Crimson Petal and the White, 2011).

The main deviations, not surprisingly, involve accentuating the conflict and gathering the dramatic events into a narrower corridor. When, as a child, Faraday commits his act of vandalism on Hundred’s Hall during an Empire Day celebration, he is confronted by Susan Ayres, then six years old.

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Childhood confrontation — “village boy” and aristocrat

 

Susan, we are told, the Ayreses’ first-born, would become ill and die very soon afterwards.

This convergence of events will inform the viewer’s deductions — in two opposite directions — later on when supernatural acts of vandalism occur.

The film also adds a percussive accent to events from the novel — the child Faraday pulling an acorn from Hundreds Hall molding; receiving a vicious slap from his mother (in the novel, she merely weeps); Dr. Faraday screeching to  halt to avoid running over Gyp, Caroline Ayres’s dog; a little girl suddenly mauled (apparently) by Gyp behind the curtains at a social gathering. The added emphases echo and intensify as the plot unfolds.

In Domhnall Gleeson’s portrayal of Faraday, the film meets one central challenge head on. Gleeson, an almost constant on screen presence, is like a wire pulled very tight. Though his face moves very little, the viewer follows each nuance, seeing all too clearly the prickly depths of his needs and ambitions.

Being trapped inside a character who is so edgily conservative and driven is extremely uncomfortable. Faraday is completely sure of his own judgement as he seeks to convince Hundreds Hall heir Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson) they should wed.

He seems unconscious of the growing divide between them as he extracts promises from her. For the viewer it is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

The Little Stranger (2009) is one of those rare novels that seems close to perfect. Everything works from the very first clear image to the last. Partly for this reason the novel seems to resist adaptation. The final image, for instance, couldn’t work in the medium of film as it does in the novel.

But Abrahamson and Coxon have succeeded in finding another way.  Consequently, it’s difficult to see how an adaptation could have worked better.

Tip: read the book and see the film. They are both great.