Ghosts and the Radio

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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 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).

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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 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.

 

 

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.

little stranger poster

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.

 

Preservation, Change, and Jane Austen: Book Club Q & A, Five

Here’s a composite question gathered from several sent to me over the summer (many thanks to Nikki, Clarissa, Meg, and Colleen):

Q. When writing The Widow’s Fire how did you decide when to preserve Jane Austen’s approach, when to alter it, and when to oppose it?

A. I’ll start with something specific; one question was why I chose a first person narrative for Captain Wentworth, Mrs. Smith, Nurse Rooke, and Plato.

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Symmetry and Contrast: The Widow’s Fire, a 21st Century Response to Persuasion

Jane Austen didn’t use first person narrative, except in the special sense of a character (for instance Emma‘s Miss Bates) going into an extended monologue. Why then did I decide on this mode?

One compulsory element when re-entering the literary creation of another is contrast. My most obvious model for The Widow’s Fire was Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s 1966 prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Wide Sargasso Sea makes no attempt to mimic Bronte’s prose style and if an anti-colonial theme is present at all in Jane Eyre — as it is in Rhys’s novel — it is unexplored.

I wanted The Widow’s Fire to signal departure straightaway by plunging the reader into the consciousness of each character. Each narrator has a distinct philosophy which they express for themselves; each inhabits their own moral universe.

But I also wanted my narrators to carry a wisp of the Austenesque flourish. Jane addresses the reader directly. She editorializes when she feels like it. And when it most suits her, she pulls away from the drama to give a general overview of the future.

While there is no omniscient narrator in The Widow’s Fire, I did see a chance of splitting an Austenesque-style omniscient voice into several characters. Each of the first person narratives in my novel — Plato, Captain Wentworth, Mrs. Smith, and Nurse Rooke — retain control. They too address the reader directly. They editorialize, like Jane, when they feel like it, and, like Jane, they reserve the right to pull away from the drama to give an overview of the future.

So I had, in effect, a narrative approach which was both opposite and the same.

When it came to plot, I didn’t want to contradict the events in Persuasion, but I did intend to give some events radically different interpretations, especially when it came to exploring the hidden levers of power. The most notable of these in Persuasion is information, its giving and withholding.

Mrs. Smith, in Persuasion, does both when it serves her purposes. She doesn’t tell Anne  that Mr. Elliot is a scoundrel when she might gain from their marriage, then, when marriage is off the table, she does tell Anne about Mr. Elliot’s character in order to retain Anne’s sympathies. As Mrs. Smith takes centre stage in The Widow’s Fire, so does the politics of information. The possibilities opened up for me at an early stage when Mrs. Smith whispered in my ear that she could be not only the holder of information; she could also be a procurer.

My theme, like Persuasion‘s theme, is love, how we define love and how love sustains itself. My brief was to expand love beyond the romantic kind by making each of the characters (except Mrs. Smith) a seeker as in Plato’s Symposium.

Had Austen been writing a hundred-plus years later, a member of the Bloomsbury set perhaps, I suspect she would have tackled a broader definition of love, and she would have done so with the insight we expect from her.

I think a project like mine is all about the ‘what ifs’ of literature.

The Widow’s Fire is available from Inanna Publications, many independents bookstores, the Chapters-Indigo Chain in Canada, Barnes and Noble in the US, Waterstones in the UK.

 

 

 

 

Unchained Man, Q & A with Maura Hanrahan

A lifetime of interest and 13 research years research has yielded Maura Hanrahan‘s biography of Captain Bob Bartlett, Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett. Maura researched at the archives of Bowdoin College, Maine; Dartmouth College, New Hampshire; Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge; The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London; The University of Greenland, Nuuk; Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa; as well as The Rooms Provincial Archives, Newfoundland and Labrador. In Unchained Man, the depth of research shows.

Here is my Q & A with Maura:

Q. 1. In your newly-released book Unchained Man: The Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett (Boulder Publications), the reader has the delight of experiencing some of Bartlett’s most famous escapades in greater detail and with a special focus on the social and cultural context of exploration in Bartlett’s era. The book draws attention to the way that the contributions of Indigenous people are minimized, for instance. For me it was like hearing about Bartlett’s adventures for the first time. Far from weighing down the writing, the sense of context actually brought everything, including Bartlett’s extraordinary physical achievements, vividly to life. Did it come naturally to you? Or did you have to work at keeping it pacey and fresh even while the book sheds light on matters of background and social history?

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MH: My goal was to tell Bartlett’s story but not in a Boy’s Own hero kind of way, the way it’s often been told. Without fleshing him out, Bartlett remains a symbol. You can read anything into a symbol but you are missing out an unparalleled true story. Bartlett wasn’t in the Arctic on his own—he was part of ships’ crews, scientific teams, and he was the boss of — as well as friend to — Inuit ‘assistants.’ At home in Brigus, he was an involved family member and the heir to a remarkable seagoing tradition with all the pressure this involved. In New York, where he spent most of his adult life, Bartlett was part of Manhattan high society. Internationally, he was among the elite world of explorers, his every move and plan followed by, for instance, the Times of London. I was interested in how he navigated all those roles and how he lived them. Was it an integrated or as a fractured person? Or as something in between?

I’ve spent time in the Arctic and subarctic as an academic and as a land claims researcher so the geophysical context was always revealing itself to me. Like Bartlett, I fell in love with the northern landscape and the deep feelings of peace it engenders. I worked with Inuit so I came to understand and respect their role in exploration; it’s something many Inuit say they deserve more credit for (even though exploration also caused harm to Inuit society). Though Inuit are still backgrounded, as the book is a biography of Bartlett, I think it’s a step in support of Inuit.

So you have this incredible stories which almost tell themselves, they are so riveting. I did research in four countries to get as much detail as I could. By adding context, different events make more sense or take on more meaning. I had a great deal of fun writing this, picturing Bartlett on Wrangel Island or a dinner at the Explorers Club and so on.

Q. 2. One of the themes which emerges quite early and remains throughout this book is Bartlett’s loneliness. His sense of isolation is really quite vivid, particularly in New York, as were his periods of hunger. Was this something that emerged slowly from the research and did it surprise you?

MH: Bartlett’s loneliness emerged slowly. I knew he wasn’t married when I started the research but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t contented or someone who didn’t fit in. As I delved into archival research, I began to recognize his loneliness, not just as an acquired trait, but something that was inherent in his personality, something he had to tend to and follow. Emily White’s book, Lonely, explains this phenomenon very well. What surprised me was the complexity of his personality, including the depth of this aspect.

 Q. 3. One of the aspects explored in this book is that Bartlett’s public persona – the one we see in his own ghostwritten books – was at times quite sharply at odds with the man. He was in some ways well ahead of his time in the sense of having a “media” image – bluff, no nonsense, jovial — he wore like a mask. Just how self-aware do you think he was about this?

MH: Bartlett was intelligent and usually knew what he was doing. The lecture circuit was big in the 1920s and 1930s with many speakers’ bureaus in New York. The PR machine was in full swing and Bartlett knew how the play the game. Some of the letters between him and his agents demonstrate this and I’ve quoted them in the book. He wasn’t entirely cynical about this; he needed money to fund his trips to the Arctic, where he wanted to be.

Q. 4. There are some haunting passages about Bartlett’s private yearnings. Without giving too much away, did some of the letters in your research make you stop cold? Did you ever think you had suddenly found the “real Bob Bartlett”?

MH: I think I got to the core of his longing and sadness and how and where he found some relief, besides being in the Arctic which was always a balm for him. Jennifer Niven, who wrote the best-selling book, The Ice Master, refers to him as “enigmatic” in her endorsement of Unchained Man. He was indeed. Enigmatic people always have a fascinating story so I hope I’ve got to the kernel of Bartlett’s. It’s certainly time for us to get to know and understand him as a real person, not a cardboard cut-out hero. I have loved spending all these years with him.

Praise for Unchained Man

Wayne Johnston, The Navigator of New York:

Maura Hanrahan has written a fine book about one of Newfoundland’s most famous seamen and arctic explorers, Bob Bartlett. In Unchained Man—meticulously researched and finely written—she has come closer than any writer yet to solving the enigma of the great Bob Bartlett. From the haunting sinking of the Karluk to the epic struggle to reach the North Pole with Admiral Peary, Hanrahan depicts Bartlett as a flawed but extraordinary human being. This book is unforgettable, a must read for lovers of the literature of exploration and the still uncharted region of the Arctic.

Jennifer Niven, the New York Times best-selling author of The Ice Master:

A riveting comprehensive portrait of one of the most dynamic and enigmatic sea captains the Arctic has ever seen. Robert Abram Bartlett was larger than life, his adventures the stuff of legends. Maura Hanrahan expertly recounts the long overdue, very true story of this understated polar hero in engaging, dramatic prose.

Catching the Light by Susan Sinnott, Q & A

In a break from the book club Q & As, I’m delighted to present a series of questions and answers with highly talented new novelist Susan Sinnott. Susan’s much anticipated novel Catching the Light has just been published by Vagrant Press (Nimbus Publishing).

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In Catching the Light two young people from a Newfoundland outport — athletic, extrovert Hutch; and shy, creative Cathy — are brought together against the odds when they both end up studying in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Their journey is about more than geography. Cathy, when we first meet her, has a severe learning disability and has to repeat the same grade over and over. But her talent as an artist has given her the chance to transcend bad luck and a history of isolation. Hutch has been severely injured on a coach trip. This puts an end to his athletic prowess, and the ease with which he relates to the rough and tumble masculine world he knows. Catching the Light is a tale of how people on the fringes of society, either by upbringing or accident of fate, try to overcome their circumstances. It is a story of human interconnections too, and a deeply touching one.

Question 1: I’d like to talk about theme first. Catching the Light is a deeply compassionate novel. The narrative relates with such empathy and understanding to vulnerable people, people with fears, hopes struggles. Pain hovers around the story of Cathy in particular. Are you drawn to characters in fiction with the hardest struggles?

Susan: I think fictional characters always need a struggle of some sort to make them interesting: a yearning for something hard to reach, obstacles to deal with. The Hutch character grew out of my health care background, from seeing lives and plans being upended after physical trauma and seeing how difficult it is for people to adapt, to accept. Hutch had never faced the word “can’t” in his life until the accident and an eighteen year old is at such a vulnerable age and can react in such unpredictable ways, some quite destructive.
Cathy’s struggles were different, beginning early and increasing as she grew older. Of children with literacy problems, only a few have an actual learning disability, like dyslexia. Most simply become left behind in school. I wanted to explore the causes and effects of being “left behind.” With Cathy, the obvious problems with reading and writing would prevent her from attending art school, but the more insidious problem of her difficulties interacting with people made her socially isolated, so she was heading towards a very limited life.

Question 2: There is always a sense that being an outcast (as Cathy feels she is) is actually a little less painful than the first steps of receiving help. When new arrival Sarah Brooks gets involved as a mentor and support, Cathy has to open up and trust. This aspect is very vivid. Self-reliance is not always healthy. In this respect, the novel is a kind of eulogy to the power and importance of community. How central to your artistic belief was this aspect?

Susan: Absolutely central. The effort Cathy had to make to catch up scholastically would be huge but straightforward. However, avoidance had always been her way of dealing with social problems. Letting down the barriers and making herself listen to people and respond appropriately would be very painful, and would require a lot of courage and endurance and practice. This change in behaviour would be every bit as difficult as Hutch’s. It would also take time before she felt any benefits of being more “part of” instead of “outside of”.

Question 3: Your own experience as a come-from-away, if you’ll excuse the term, is reflected, I’m guessing, in the character of Sarah. What are the advantages and disadvantages when it comes to a writer originally from another country, or province, setting their story in Newfoundland.

Susan: I’m not sure about the CFA because I think I’m more here than there! I’m very careful of differences in attitudes and customs and especially in this province in diction, which can change from one area, or even one community, to the next. This is not all bad—in fact it’s fascinating! I had to check on geographical, generational, social and especially linguistic differences in every sentence I wrote, but I think I would have done that if I had grown up here. My husband and children were all born here, which helped, but they’re all townies so I still had to check with people from the north-east coast. It would be a shame always to have to write as an outsider. This has been my home for over forty years and I’ve been away from England far too long to set a story there. If you want to write from inside a character’s head, as I tried to do, you need to write as an insider, which is taking a risk of course. I just hope I haven’t made too many mistakes.

Question 4: Sarah is an intriguing third point of a triangular narrative. She doesn’t have a struggle that corresponds with Cathy’s or Hutch’s yet she provides a connection to the reader. She reminds me of a narrator in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The themes in Wilder’s play are also about community. I think it works very well in Catching the Light. I’m wondering if you saw Sarah as a kind of alternate narrator, one who would be on the ground, among the weeds, interacting with the characters.

Susan: That is how I saw Sarah when I began writing the novel, but as I re-wrote draft after draft, the outside view became less and less necessary and her part shrank. She still played an important role as Cathy’s mentor in the first half of the book, and to show Cathy’s development near the end, but as Hutch and Cathy’s voices became stronger, so her voice as a narrator became less important.

Question 5: What’s next for you? Do you feel like working more with these characters, or related ones? I’m sure you want to check in on how their lives turn out later on. Or are you thinking of something quite different?

Susan: I’m currently working on a generational novel about a family with a secret, not at all related to this story. However I have ideas about what happens to everyone in Catching the Light so I may come back to them at some point.

Catching the Light is available from Nimbus, from amazon, and in all good bookshops. It is highly recommended.