Sunday, May 26, 2019

"The Jolly Corner" (1908)

It's not his last story, but "The Jolly Corner" is a nice end-piece for Henry James. It's a ghost story, like The Turn of the Screw though more wistful, and again reverberates with the tensions of New World and Old—in this case, between a life lived in Europe or the States. Our hero, Spencer Brydon, left for Europe when he was 23. Now he is 56, returning to New York after a Jesus' age to deal with the properties that have supported him, including what he insists on calling "The Jolly Corner," the house in Manhattan where he was raised. He wonders what his life would have been if he'd stayed. He imagines an "alter ego" (James's italics), an ambitious and successful businessman, who seems to become ever more real as we go. In the wonderful (or exasperating) ambiguities of James, in the end it's not clear whether Brydon is alive or dead. It might work either way. It all turns on a nightly tour Brydon takes of his homestead, and a closed door that should be open. On such slender reeds are these things made. James's evasive allusive style is suited to a certain type of horror, where in many cases it's to the narrator's purpose to keep us in the dark, and blind. A lot of time is spent on that door. The path through three adjoining rooms is charted. We come away with a reasonable schematic in our heads for much of that section of the building. The room with the closed door is a strange architectural feature, and the door is the only access to it. Brydon is a man of habit and never shuts doors. Yet the door is shut. He is so filled with dread he cannot bring himself to open it. He takes his leave, then faints and falls, and comes to with his friend Alice Staverton cradling his head in her lap. Is it the afterlife? We'll never know. What's most haunting about "The Jolly Corner," its main charge for me, is the sense of a life that could have been, the road not taken, etc. This sense only increases and grows more complex as we age, growing apart by the vectors we have taken. We are many of us literally haunted by our own alter egos by the time we reach age 56. As it happens, I'm also someone who is a little haunted by the house I grew up in, much more so in fact than Brydon. He may have had it thrust on him, but I share his sense for the power of these physical locations, and not just in memory. They are places where ghosts dwell, and James is great at turning all that into a piece that is equally suggestive, mysterious, and powerful.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 35 pages

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Gargoyle (2017)

I'm a little embarrassed but more surprised than anything to realize it's been nearly 20 years and four albums since I checked in with Mark Lanegan. He doesn't sound much different, which might be a little underhanded to observe, but I like what he does and it's easy to make a habit of listening to this album regularly, the way Field Songs worked the last time, or Whiskey for the Holy Ghost or The Winding Sheet before. It's doomy and moody and full of dramatic gesture, modulating sound levels the way grungers always like, granite faces to the powerful north wind, rock band, eternity, etc. Bring in the goats. As always, Lanegan is willing to let it swell up with keyboards, strings, and of course big guitar chords, counterparting with his rumbling whiskey soak vocal. And he does get to emotional moments, affecting ones. The songs are often rich with juicy melody too, as in the epic "Nocturne," with its Joy Division flourishes and surrender to all that is lovely. Gargoyle topics under consideration: death, drinking, mysterious mirrors, midnight encounters, holy love at will, setting the sky on fire, reeling empire, Paul Bowles scenes under a stark tropic moon (or the equivalents as rendered from drug haze). There's much more in the way of keyboards on this album than I recall from Lanegan before, straying toward Ultravox by way of Philip Glass on "Blue Blue Sea," for example. The album is not always hitting on all cylinders and can go flat in places, which only means it's a typical album in a lot of ways. "Nocturne" might be the only song that really sends me, but there are some whompers that can get you one way or another, either with sweet wheedling or blunt force, such as "Emperor" (lifting from Iggy Pop's "The Passenger") and the convincingly bittersweet "Goodbye to Beauty." The finish is "Old Swan," the last and longest song on the album, which sets up a pretty big play, martial rhythms and swirling guitars spiraling higher, higher. "Take me in your arms, let me live again." Yeah, there we go. To the stratosphere and a long fade. Must have something to do with Zeus.

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Quiet Man (1952)

USA, 129 minutes
Director: John Ford
Writers: Frank S. Nugent, Maurice Walsh, John Ford
Photography: Winton C. Hoch
Music: Victor Young
Editor: Jack Murray
Cast: John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick, Arthur Shields, Eileen Crowe, Sean McClory, Jack MacGowran

The Quiet Man finds director and cowriter John Ford in an unusual marrying mood. His more typical masculinist agenda is pushed well to the side—in the end, perhaps even reading as a kind of self-deprecating comic relief—which may be why it's the one of all his movies I always respond to whole-heartedly. It doesn't hurt that Ford found someone so suitable to his worldview in Maureen O'Hara, playing the "spinster" Mary Kate Danaher (O'Hara was 32 when this movie was made, costar John Wayne 45). O'Hara's persona as a proud hot woman of passionate moral virtue fits Ford's purposes well. It was her second turn with Ford (and with costar Wayne), after Rio Grande two years earlier, and one more was still ahead (The Wings of Eagles). I've seen the first two, not the third, and I think being in color rather than black and white has something to do with why The Quiet Man may be a little better than Rio Grande.

Though it's a departure, The Quiet Man is a Ford production in many familiar ways, notably the casting, which features a bunch of familiar loyal troupers we've seen before: Wayne, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen. Mildred Natwick and Arthur Shields had been in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon a few years earlier. But The Quiet Man is also different because of its setting, in 1920s rural Ireland, which is as green in the glowing color as Monument Valley is orange and blue in Ford's color Westerns. With the addition of certified Lucky Charms leprechaun Barry Fitzgerald as the village's whiskey-quaffing marriage broker, the blarney that is generally lurking in the background of most Ford movies is shoved up front in a kind of charm offensive. And it works. This movie is almost perfectly charming as it goes through its localized courting paces.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

"In the Slaughteryard" (1890)

When I talked about horror lying within an intersection of true-crime, this very strange story with its overwrought title is not actually what I had in mind. It's from Mary Danby's Realms of Darkness collection, but it's not much like any horror story I know, certainly of the era. I'm sure it found a much better home in the collection whose cover is pictured above. Yet in its way the story speaks to the intersection very well—as tawdry, unseemly, lurid, with raw hints of derangement and sadism, as if serial murder itself might be a kind of plague contagion, for victims and killers alike, leading to general bloodlust and society quivering on the verge of the breakdown of all norms. See also The Purge (or "The Lottery," which is altogether more elegant than either). The whole point of this story appears to be to make itself as extremely unpleasant as possible for genteel 1890.

Jack the Ripper, of course, who'd finished his work and disappeared a scant two years before this story appeared, deserves all credit for establishing the serial killer as demented media celebrity, writing taunting letters to police and newspapers, sending along irrefutable proof as the whim moves, and generally conducting entire metropolitan areas into waves of panic and revulsion. He was the first, before Zodiac or Manson or Son of Sam, and in a certain perverse view he might still be the best ever—the Babe Ruth of serial killers. He invented it, aided by the media ecosystem in London. Jack the Ripper's irrefutable proof by mail, for example, was a sample of a victim's kidney. But why go into detail.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Time Out of Joint (1958)

This Philip K. Dick novel follows a familiar Dickian pattern, opening on scenes of hyper-normal California suburban life in the '50s. Small things, very small things, go wrong and characters may seem to overreact but it turns out they are on to something before we are. Things are not what they seem. Except we are on to it pretty quickly, because we know we are reading a novel by Philip K. Dick. And zooming in on our pastoral suburban setting—think The Truman Show now, an obvious heir—there is Ragle Gumm, who makes his living by winning a newspaper puzzle contest most days of the week. He lives with his sister and brother-in-law, Margo and Vic. Vic works in the produce department at the grocery story. The neighbors, Bill and Junie Black, drop in a lot. I'm sure you noticed the strange source of income for Gumm, which is one of the ways Dick does his thing. We know it's weird but no one in the story seems to. Almost right away, we find out the newspaper is collaborating with Gumm to help him keep winning the puzzle contest, which is called "Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?" Meanwhile, also early on, Vic goes to the bathroom to get something for his stomach and feels around for a light cord before he remembers they have a wall switch. This disturbs him deeply—much more than the fact that his brother-in-law makes his money winning a daily public newspaper contest (though at least he grumbles about whether that's actually work). So it goes—in typical Dick fashion, and continuing with the movie lingo, it starts on a tight close-up of one reality, and then dollies slowly slowly back to reveal greater realities nesting inside even greater realities. Dick is always good at communicating how miserable it is to be this paranoid. Time Out of Joint teeters on the edge of schizophrenic experience, with TVs and such presumed to be monitoring devices. Indeed, it all kind of blows up in the last chapter, with fragmented reveals that might also be further delusions. Think of that onion, man. Always more layers. This also reminds me of Twilight Zone episodes where people turn out to be living in dollhouses, have become household pets of a giant alien kid, or are in zoos. Two or three fleeting moments hit that chill of paranoia hard enough to make me a little nervous about reality from the comfort of my bed. No one else is quite like Dick. Add to the stack.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

True Grit (1968)

Now over 50 years old, this amazing novel probably deserves to be called a classic and even a masterpiece. I still remember it as new, in the wake of the 1969 movie adaptation with John Wayne and the Oscarsquake that followed. I never had anything to do with either movie until the Coen brothers' version came along in 2010. I liked the Coens movie very much the first time. Later I watched both back to back, the John Wayne for my first time, and then I liked the Coens version less, but still thought they made an interesting pair in terms of comparative strengths and weaknesses. Then I finally got around to reading the novel. Friends, don't make my mistake. Go and read this book immediately before you do anything else. That way you still have time to read it a few more times. I want to start it over again right now. It is more than twice as good as both movies combined. Charles Portis pulls off remarkable feats here without your ever noticing. He writes in the voice of an older woman who recalls scenes from when she was 14. Mattie Ross is a precociously mature 14-year-old, but even she cannot have the insights of the woman full grown who is the narrator. It is a tart judgmental voice. She is proudly Presbyterian, for example—specifically, a certain creed, which she explains and supports with Bible verse. She views some people as "trash." As she broods on her differences with others in various matters, she lays out their case, as at trial, and then follows with, "My answer is this." Her voice is the single best thing about this book, a lively instrument that is fierce, scorching hot, and often very funny. But there is more. The characters are rich and vividly felt: the drunken lawman Rooster Cogburn, the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, even many of the outlaws and incidental characters. No one is all-good, though a few may be all-bad. But they are unique and distinctive and feel intimately known. Even the horse Little Blackie. True Grit also somehow manages the air of a great tall tale of the American West, passed down for generations. Really, don't miss this one.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, May 10, 2019

King Kong (1933)

USA, 105 minutes
Directors: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Writers: James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace, Leon Gordon
Photography: Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor, Vernon L. Walker, Kenneth Peach
Music: Max Steiner
Editor: Ted Cheesman
Cast: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Sam Hardy, Noble Johnson, Steve Clemente, Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, Jim Thorpe

The original King Kong is a strange beast indeed. It's so old that, even though it's officially a talkie in all ways (including a five-minute orchestral overture) and even though plenty of silent pictures had already mounted impressive special effects bonanzas, it still feels like it has a foot in the invention of cinema. Codirectors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack are less like film directors and more like the impresario figure they use as the hero of the picture, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), who is notably prone to making giant huckstering statements off the cuff. "It's money and adventure and fame," he tells Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) at a diner in the middle of the night, buying her a burger as he tries to cast the female lead in his picture at the last minute. "It's the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o'clock tomorrow morning."

There's not even a formal director's credit for this picture. The movie titles bill it as a Cooper and Schoedsack production (after David O. Selznick takes an executive producer credit) and leave it at that. At the end of the movie, buzzing the big ape King Kong perched on the Empire State Building, that's Cooper shown flying a biplane with Schoedsack at the machine gun. Top that, Alfred Hitchcock. The structure of the film is equally unconventional, lurching from a dull yakky start to exotic colonial-minded travelogue, until finally we get our first glimpse of Kong almost halfway in, at about 45 minutes. Then it's mostly creatures and screeching. And there's still another lurch toward the end, back to New York. I suspect it's not the way they teach it in screenwriting workshops.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

"The Potter's Art" (1977)

Before I talk about the story by Denys Val Baker, I want to talk about how I got to the story by Denys Val Baker in the first place. It started either five years ago when I was writing about the Beatles album Rubber Soul or more than 50 years ago when I checked out my first Alfred Hitchcock-branded story collection from the library. In fact, to get the anticlimax out of the way, as a horror short story "The Potter's Art" is merely competent. The reason I'm using it as a starting point is more because, thinking about it, its title is so suggestive to me of the horror short story enterprise at large, and even more because it happened to be when I was making notes about the story that, for whatever reason, I started to think about how to approach an extensive look at horror short stories.

I started writing about short stories a few years ago, individually, one at a time, for a mundane practical ("practical") reason. I like to run reading-related pieces on Sundays, but I'm a slow reader and average fewer than four or five books a month. Stories were a way to plug the gap. Then, because I like reading stories, they grew so numerous they needed their own day (so happy Thursday!). As you may recall I cycled through three survey collections of 20th-century literary shorts, plus extras, and then a collection of science fiction stories. But I think, ever since that Rubber Soul write-up, my heart has been with those old horror stories that used to give me the willies, and still can. It might be worth mentioning I had some still undeveloped ideas about albums and songs on the one hand and novels or story collections and individual stories on the other. As it happens I know of people who complain that individual songs are too much lost in discussions of albums, and others who feel similarly that individual stories are lost in the commercial demand for novels, or at least multiple stories for book-length collections. Some people only have one spectacularly good story (or song) in them. What are we supposed to do about them? How many collections by a single author have we seen that speak to exactly that?

Monday, May 06, 2019

Breakthrough (2019)

Here's an example of a movie that is really good at what it does, but I don't like what it's doing. In fact, I saw previews for it some weeks back and immediately noted it as one to avoid—I have a policy. However, when I went to the Tuesday matinee schedule last week, I must have been distracted by the fact that I was witnessing history. Practically every damn screen at one of the two multiplexes in my town was dedicated exclusively to the three-hour Avengers movie. Hard pass. I looked up Breakthrough and saw director Roxann Dawson (also known as Klingon B'Elanna Torres on Star Trek: Voyager) has worked on well-regarded TV, directing episodes of The Americans and House of Cards, and thought it might be fun to go in otherwise blind, having forgotten the preview. Jesus Christ—I have a policy to skip these Christian-oriented movies. No good can come of it. White Christian Americans generally seem to feel persecuted these days and I tend to mock them, so my policy is the right one. Among other things, Breakthrough features an alternative universe of popular culture that is like the Bizarro episode of Seinfeld. But there I was. Breakthrough is the story, based on true events, of an adopted boy living in the suburbs of St. Louis who nearly drowned in ice-cold water but was restored to life and full health. Of course that's going to be emotionally moving, but this thing swings like the hammer of Grabthar. It bludgeons. It cudgels. It staves. It is the bulldozer and you are the tree. It's a great time if you like to cry and wince and cry and wince.

Here's where Dawson's skills come in. In a general way, TV has become very good at going for the emotional throat. Even among the few series I've followed in the past decade or so of the big TV blow-up—Friday Night Lights and The Walking Dead, for two examples—I've seen an uncanny ability to whip up high pitches of emotional response (I'm talking tears streaming down the face). It's remarkable. I know I'm sentimental, but come on. They seem to be able to do it at will, although the best shows know to hold back and deliver when it counts. In Breakthrough, the switch is more like stuck in the on position. After some setup it shrewdly takes the form of a tick-tock, as it moves from the accident (a fall through thin ice into a lake) to the rescue to the hospital to the shrieking Lazarus moment and recovery. Another piece of this picture is Chrissy Metz as Joyce Smith, the iron-willed mama bear. She's going to tear a new one in God if she has to. Metz is a very large woman and this role in this movie has the feel of contributing to the empowerment (which seems to be the word of choice) of very large women. See also Lizzo. And then there is Topher Grace (Eric Forman on That '70s Show) as the hip Pastor Jason Noble. He's from California. He incorporates rock bands and rappers—good ones too, in a Coldplay kind of way—into the services at his church, which has all the earmarks of a megachurch. The services roll like Dr. Phil episodes. Joyce can't stand him, and in fact he's quite rude to her in an early scene, but eventually they realize they're both on team Jesus. There are surprises in Breakthrough, but they are more along the lines of you can't believe they would take it so far. For example, when hundreds of people turn up at the hospital for a parking lot candlelight vigil and professional gospel singing turn. Somehow the sound penetrates the glass of a hospital window (the real miracle here) and a tear falls from the boy still on his deathbed by all reasonable expectations. Hosanna! Glorium! I'm not saying I wasn't crying, just suggesting it was against my will. On the other hand, isn't it nice to hear a mother say, "You have a purpose and you are loved."

Sunday, May 05, 2019

I Will Find You (2016)

The idea for this book, which probably counts as a memoir, is so intriguing that it never occurred to me how much I would dread reading it until it was sitting in my stack waiting for me. Joanna Connors was raped in Cleveland in 1984, shortly after she moved there for a job at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer newspaper. The rapist was caught in days, convicted, and imprisoned within the year. Nearly 20 years later, Connors decides to find and confront her attacker. The title reflects this mission as well as the words he used to attempt to intimidate her into not reporting the crime. What she finds almost immediately is a dead man. He died in prison in 2000. Nonetheless, partly for the sake of what she needs personally, and later because the newspaper is interested in the story, she pursues the story, finding out about his family and friends and looking them up, and visiting the places he lived, including the many prisons where he landed. What she finds is a nightmare of a life, the cycles of abuse spelled out as clearly as they can be. In many ways, he's as much a victim as he made her, the anonymous man of the system, lost in the machinery—not just the victim of a failing society in general terms, but more specifically of a monster father and then more abusive figures, almost certainly in prison. As Connors tells it, she hates what happened to her, but never managed the levels of hate reached by those around her. Her husband, for example, supported by her mother, looked into paying to have the attacker killed, a circumstance that actually had the effect of making the experience worse for Connors. In the end, years after the attacker's death, Connors and the man's grieving older sister seem to be the only ones left on the planet aware he even existed. Connors tracks him down all the way to his pitiful anonymous grave. "Well, Dave," she says, standing over it. "Charlene and I are the only ones who really thought about you after you died." This book, this quest, somehow feels really important for this moment. It's a tough one to get to, but well worth it.

In case it's not at the library.