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).

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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.

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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 Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).

Dracula and Whitby, Part II: The Politics of Location

There has been much scholarship on the symbolism of geography in Dracula. When it comes to his love of codes and odd reversals of detail, Bram Stoker could be sometimes obvious, sometimes slippery. In Dracula, he is both.

In the case of the former, Stoker wouldn’t have fooled anyone in Whitby — nor would he had wanted to — when he calls the ship bringing Dracula to English shores “Demeter” and names as its home port  “Varna.”

Whitby residents would have remembered the 1885 wreck of the Dmitry from Narva (now in Estonia), carrying the same cargo as in the novel — minus, of course, the famous vampire.

Changing things around was all part of the fun, and since Stoker was often into game playing as well as genuine disguise, it’s easier some times than others to decode hidden themes in his choices of location.

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Limbering up for Dracula. Stoker’s The Snake’s Pass (1890).

An interesting thematic prelude to Dracula sheds some light on his preoccupations. The Snake’s Pass was published in 1890, the year of Stoker’s first visit to Whitby. The novel, like Dracula, involves a villain, in this case “Black” Murdock. Like Dracula, The Snake’s Pass contains a healthy dose of folklore but this time the folklore is Irish and centres around the legend of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland.

It also involves a landscape that seems to be alive, like Dracula‘s. In this case the malignant environment isn’t comprised of frowning mountains, blue flickering flames, and hordes of wolves but rather a moving bog or “carpet of death.”

Stoker’s previous work reminds the reader that named destinations often have their twin symbolic location, the place’s real meaning in psychological terms.

Here are the ingredients of Stoker’s Whitby: a port town facing east and the ‘wild’ regions of Europe, a place vulnerable to ‘invasion,’ an abbey whose original foundations were laid in the Dark Ages long before the 11th century Benedictine structure that stands today.

Whitby is a wonderful location in itself. But its elements also apply to deeper roots in Stoker’s life.

The age of the original abbey, for instance, invokes a time when the first shoots of Christianity sprouted from pagan soil. This is a Stokerean setting, reminiscent of his Transylvania and also of his Ireland.

For Stoker, eastern coasts also had a special significance. He had been born in Clontarf within easy view of the Irish Sea. Castles had particular meaning too. Whitby might not have a castle, although the abbey is a pretty good substitute and Scarborough just down the coast boasts an impressive ruin. High on a headland overlooking the sea Scarborough Castle recalls Jonathan Harker’s first vision of Dracula’s home, “from whose tall black windows came no ray of light.”

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From whose all black windows came no ray of light: Just down the coast from Whitby, the ruin of Scarborough Castle

Stoker’s father, Abraham, toiled for the Irish civil service in Dublin Castle, essentially the colonial focus of the British Empire in Ireland.

The vampire, for Stoker, symbolized many things, but among them was certainly the burden of expectation he would have felt as a young man to follow in his father’s footsteps. Like Abraham, Bram would have been under pressure to buckle down and devote his professional energies to a  ‘foreign’ power in his own country — surely a recipe for emotional exsanguination. That a castle should be home to Stoker’s bloodsucker is as apt a metaphor as Freud could desire.

Stoker’s mother’s influence on Dracula was more direct. Charlotte Matilda Blake Thornley (1818 – 1901) would have shared with her children her memories of the 1832 cholera epidemic in her home town of Sligo, a collective trauma which included tales of  people mistakenly buried alive under mass corpses stored in a local barn. Then there were the famine years of the late 1840s and the tales of desperate, starving people forced to drink the blood of those already deceased.

But the Irish parallels don’t end there. Although we know Stoker found the name Dracula in the Whitby public library in 1890 in reference to the eastern prince Vlad Tepes, there is also uncanny resonance concerning Irish folklore. The Irish Gaelic term Dreach-Fhoula meaning ‘tainted blood’ is pronounced, folklorists argue, very much like ‘Dracula.’

Given Stoker’s known fascination with Irish folklore and his formative childhood influences, it seems likely he found a personal crossroads in his research into Balkan vampire lore.

He had come upon a place where the exotic east coincided magically with what already existed in his imagination. The seam was so rich we are still mining it today.

 

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A by-no-means full list of some sources discussing location in Dracula:

London in Dracula: Dracula in London, Gill Davies, The Literary London Journal (2004)

Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of Dracula, Barbara Belford, Knopf (1996)

DraculaCelebrating 100 Years (1997) eds L. Shepard and A. Power. Thanks Mark Pinkerton (article Why Westenra) for the tip-off.

Dracula: Sense & Nonsense, Elizabeth Miller, Desert Island Books Ltd., (2006)

How Bram Stoker created Dracula with the Aid of Irish Folklore, Leonie O’Hara, Irish Central, November 8, 2018.

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Next up, Whitby in Dracula movies through the ages.

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

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.

 

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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 Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).

 

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.