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 concentrates 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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

Little Strangers and Haunted Mansions

Author L.P. Hartley once claimed that the ghost story was the hardest literary discipline because there is “no intermediate step between success and failure. Either it comes off or it is a flop.”

This makes life especially difficult for the 21st century writer. It’s so easy these days to see viscerally horrifying images whether in film, video games, or the internet. Surely an art honed to explore more intangible terrors — a thinning of the dividing line between the living and the dead, for instance — has little chance of making an impact on our jaded senses.

It’s curious then to re-read two favourite novels and find that supernatural fiction — subtle, character-driven, and thoughtful — has lost none of its power to invade the unconscious mind and awaken existential terror.

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Privilege and Class Envy, Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger

Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, published in 2009, opens with a memory: A general practitioner, Dr. Faraday, recalls a boyhood Empire Day fête on the grounds of ‘Hundreds Hall’, the grand home of his mother’s former employers, the Ayreses. It is the summer after the Great War. As his mother was once in service for the family, the boy is allowed the rare privilege of sneaking briefly beyond the servants’ quarters into the main part of the house.

Astounded by the beauty of the place, he surreptitiously takes out his penknife, cuts a plaster acorn from its molding, and hides it in his pocket, a “crime” which becomes a guilty secret for a clever, well-behaved future physician. As he looks back, he realizes it was as if “the admiration itself, which I suspected a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it.”

The episode awakens the novel’s theme. The Little Stranger is set amidst the societal upheavals of late 1940s Britain, the growth in social housing, universal health care etc., and the decline of the landed gentry. The fortunes of the Ayreses have long since slumped and Hundreds Hall has similarly fallen into disrepair. Meanwhile, the former village boy has risen far enough in status to tend the family servants and even to socialize with the new generation of Ayreses.

Times are changing. Siblings Caroline and Roderick Ayres complain that their ailing maid, Betty, is in many ways better off than them. Dr. Faraday sees the self-delusion in such sentiments, yet he’s also drawn to the the Ayreses. He finds himself regretting how Caroline’s hands have become grimy from peeling her own vegetables. Like many of Waters’s characters, Dr. Faraday is at once complex, convincing, and full of internal contradictions. He resents the young aristocrats for the liberties they take yet yearns for the time when they might have lived in the splendor their parents would have expected for them.

Betty, the maid, isn’t exactly sick. She is frightened of a house full of winding servants’ staircases and obsolete gadgets like the the call bells and wires, that “imperious little machine designed to summon a staff of servants to the grander realm above.” The silence in the house is “so pure, it [feels] pressurized.”

As various mishaps occur — unexplained burn marks on the walls, a child attacked at a social gathering, apparently, by Caroline’s dog Gyp — Dr. Faraday gets closer and closer to the Ayreses, even beginning an unlikely courtship with Caroline. Caroline becomes Hundreds Hall’s most likely heir as her brother’s mental health is threatened.

But is Dr. Faraday really in love with Caroline? Or is he more enamored with the idea of possessing the house? An unwholesome, subtly corrupt atmosphere leaks through the seams of ordinary life as Dr. Faraday struggles with the legacy of class divisions and his own covetousness.

The Little Stranger walks a remarkable line uniting two elements which ought to be mutually exclusive: it creates a sense of logic, a cause and effect, between living characters and supernatural events. Yet those same occurrences remain the province of an unfathomable mystery.

Fifty years before The Little Stranger, Shirley Jackson published The Haunting of Hill House, another seminal work of the supernatural.

Like The Little Stranger, The Haunting of Hill House is peopled by characters as three dimensional as any in fiction, and it features a house which becomes a living part of the plot.

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Disorienting Angles, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House

Eleanor Vance, sole carer of her long-ailing mother, finds that when her charge dies she has no career, no friends, and at thirty-four years of age lives as a permanent but unwelcome guest in her sister’s home.

A series of poltergeist-like events in her youth means Eleanor has been picked as one of the subjects of a summer-long experiment run by Dr. John Montague, an academic studying the supernatural. Dr. Montague wants to observe what happens when susceptible people — possible mediums — spend a couple of months in a notoriously haunted home, the Hill House of the title.

Seeing the project as an escape and an overdue adventure, Eleanor arrives with a heightened sense of excitement. Meeting the bohemian Theodora, a fellow subject, Eleanor invents a life for herself in which she, like Theodora, has her own apartment.

The house, Dr. Montague explains, was designed by its original owner, Hugh Crain, eighty years before and deliberately built with disorienting tilts and angles so that guests become easily lost.

The family history of the Crains is unhappy. Two daughters were left in the house as the widowed Crain took a new wife abroad where he died. One sister inherited and fell out with her sibling who was then accused of breaking in at night and stealing objects.

As Dr. Montague’s subjects settle into Hill House, disturbances begin to occur at night. Something makes a deafening clang along the upstairs landing. Voices murmur through the walls and there is a child’s mocking laughter. Cryptic messages, aimed apparently at Eleanor, appear in huge chalk letters over the walls, and Theodora’s clothes are vandalized and smeared in blood. A nighttime walk for Eleanor and Theodora suddenly turns into blinding daylight and they scramble back to the house, traumatized.

Later in the novel, Luke, one of the company, and the heir to Hill House, reads from a book created by Crain for the eldest of his daughters. Though religious in tone, the language Crain uses reveals a narcissism bordering on blasphemy; he looks forward to when his daughter can be reunited with her father in heaven. But the “father” he refers to is himself. This, the book’s lurid, sexual illustrations which purport to be moral lessons, and an immodest statue self-portrait suggest Hugh Crain was, and might still be, a deeply baleful presence in the house.

Eleanor is the subject most affected by Hill House. She becomes curiously awake to every  movement, even those in distant rooms. “Far away, upstairs, perhaps in the nursery, a little eddy of wind gathered itself and swept along the floor, carrying dust. In the library the iron stairway swayed, and light glittered on the marble eyes of Hugh Crain.”

Theodora, and the others, suspect some of the disturbances revolve around Eleanor’s psychokinetic powers. Eleanor herself senses the house wishes to consume her and make her its own.

These novels, to echo the words of L.P. Hartley, both “come off” admirably in the supernatural sense, but they also satisfy every other literary criteria. Both The Little Stranger and The Haunting of Hill House achieve high levels of supernatural frisson without allowing the ghostly elements to dominate the characters’ individual psychology. In both cases the protagonists are uncomfortably real, and the hauntings in some way relate to their yearnings or their fears.

Neither Waters nor Jackson try to solve the riddle of the universe. They don’t give their hauntings an explanation, just a series of provocative hints and implications. This, in the end, is part of what makes the novels so memorable.

Nothing is more compelling than a question left unanswered.

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