Sunday, July 28, 2019

"The Open Window" (1911)

Saki is like a cross between Oscar Wilde and O. Henry—mechanical, perhaps, in the way his stories unfold, but the mechanics are self-aware and there in the service of wit. He wrote short (even short-short) stories that often deliver perverse twists at the end, predicated on our own unconscious expectations. Most intriguingly, his stories are also steeped in a familiarity with horror fiction, counting on the reader's own familiarity with it. As he put it himself in "The Music on the Hill," a story about the great god Pan, "It was all nonsense, of course, but ... nonsense [that] seemed able to rear a bastard brood of uneasiness." "The Open Window" involves an unnamed 15-year-old girl and a man with a bad case of nerves, Framton Nuttel. Nuttel is in the country for a rest cure, bearing letters of introduction and paying a visit on his new neighbors, the Sappletons. He has obviously read horror fiction, because when the girl, a niece of the Sappletons, starts up with what is either a ghost story or a tale of deranged family grief to explain why the window in the room is open in October, he believes every word. For that matter, so do we. Because why shouldn't we? Horror fiction makes us gullible and open to manipulation. Formally, "The Open Window" works much like a ghost story, complete with a strange and seemingly unnecessary frame, and there's even a little thrill when we think we see ghosts. Judging the whole effect, it's a good example of how subtle Saki can be, using misdirection. Things are not what they seem, but it's not the open window that's the problem, it's the girl. Yet even as she tells her fantastic story about the open window we're lulled into it quite easily. It makes perfect sense as a ghost story. Mrs. Sappleton's niece is one of Saki's most delicious creations. "The Open Window" ends on her spinning a whole new story to explain Nuttel's abrupt departure: "'I expect it was the spaniel,' said the niece calmly; 'he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him.'" In a way, she's covering for Nuttel. "Romance at short notice was her specialty," Saki concludes about this girl.

In case it's not at the library. (Read story online.)

Friday, July 26, 2019

Grizzly Man (2005)

USA, 103 minutes, documentary
Director / writer: Werner Herzog
Photography: Timothy Treadwell, Peter Zeitlinger
Music: Richard Thompson
Editor: Joe Bini
With: Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog, Amie Huguenard, Jewel Palovak, Franc G. Fallico, Sven Haakanson Jr.

This documentary by director and writer Werner Herzog focuses on Timothy Treadwell, now famously dead, who by the evidence here deserves all our skepticism for him as an environmentalist. Treadwell, born in 1957, saw himself as "protector of the bears" but we see him as unstable, weird, and a little creepy, recording himself on videotape with full narration and even multiple takes. These many disparate scenes were shot on the annual summer sojourns he made to the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. There we see him as self-styled prancing magic elf of the forest, naming the bears (and the foxes too), playing with them, filming them, and all too often getting dangerously close to them. In the end one bear finally ate him and his girlfriend at the end of a lean summer. The sad reality shown here is that Treadwell did not appear to be right in the head somehow. He probably wasn't helping the bears either. But was he harming them?

That's one of the questions Herzog wrestles with as he attempts to pin down Treadwell's story, which is full of mystery and sadness. In dutiful documentary fashion Herzog produces a battery of science and wilderness experts who are embarrassed for and/or revolted by Treadwell. They argue him as a kind of anthropologist gone native, believing he wanted to be a bear and thought he was in some mystical fashion. In his final years the National Park Service attempted to hem in Treadwell and his activities with rules and policies. But he did survive some 13 summers living with his forest friends. The bears seem to know him and are accustomed to him. They respond to him and seem to temper their aggression. But was he harming them? Why does Herzog care and why should we?

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964)

For the most part this Philip K. Dick novel dispenses with the usual distortions of reality via time travel or drugs, though mental illness is prominent. In the future, Earth ("Terra") has expanded civilization to the richly populated Alpha Centauri system four and a half light-years away. Alpha Centauri has many habitable planets and moons, many of them populated by Alphanes, an insect-like breed with license plate numbers for names. But Terrans managed to get a toehold in one moon, Alpha III M2 by name, which they used to house the exiled mentally ill. But then, in the last war, it came under Alphane control, which enabled the Terrans exiled there to live as they choose. The story involves a plot on Earth to take back control of it, a mission headed up by the CIA using simulacrums controlled remotely. Dick imagines that the mentally ill Terrans on Alpha III M2 would organize themselves by diagnosis. The "Pares" are paranoid schizophrenics, "Heebs" hebephrenics (a type of schizophrenia), "Manses" manics, "Deps" depressives, etc. They are not always easy to make out from group label or behavior—the Heebs felt Rastafarian without the patois, for example—and I'm not sure any of this would be likely to ever happen, but all right. My favorite character was Lord Running Clam, a slime mold that is not only sentient but telepathic, and not only telepathic but manipulative. My love for him starts with his name. Another point I liked was a supernatural power of one character, Joan Trieste, to run time backward for up to five minutes. She works for the police department and is detailed to emergency scenes where she is able to bring people back to life if she can get there fast enough. She carries the Dick version of a beeper. Evidently her strange power only works in a localized way. I'm not as sure about certain aspects of Alpha III M2, or the strange relationship at the center of the story between a CIA agent with a moral compass and his wife without one. She's a marriage counsellor—one of the best in the business. Huh?! Inevitably there is also a TV variety show host with an uncertain agenda. Clans of the Alphane Moon probably doesn't stand with Dick's best, but even in the din of the meaningless event it does have some of his sharpest ideas.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

"The Blood-Drinking Corpse" (1740)

This very short story by the Chinese writer Pu Songling (pictured above) is even older than the year commonly given, as Pu died 25 years before its first publication in 1740. Wikipedia says most of the nearly 500 so-called "marvel tales" in the collection from which it comes—Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio, though Pu expressed a preference for the title Tales of Ghosts and Foxes—were likely completed by 1679 (there's a Penguin version published in 2006 as Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio that looks pretty good, though it has only a little over a hundred stories and doesn't seem to include this one). So this story is very old, the oldest I've run into yet, and has the additional oddities of translation along with those of old horror stories, such as a tendency to assume that simply evoking the supernatural is enough to do most of the heavy lifting for effects. Yet for all that the story retains some brute power. As may be surmised from the title, it's a vampire tale with a surprising number of vampire features intact: the undead status, the sexualizing, and of course the rejuvenating blood-sucking. The setup, out in the Chinese countryside, is as simple and straightforward as a fairy tale. Three traveling merchants stop for the night at a village where the inn is full. The only accommodation is a ruined barn with a curtain in the back. It's their only choice so they settle down there for the night. One can't sleep. Then he sees the curtain move. Naturally, this worries him. Then a figure emerges, "whose form, hardly distinct, seemed penetrated by shadow.... He, little by little, recognized the silhouette of a female, seen by her short-quilted dress and her long narrow jacket." Next thing you know she's leaning over his sleeping companions. It looks like kissing, but actually she is "drinking in long draughts." And so forth, as it goes whirling on to its compact yet effective finish. It works pretty well as a blunt force instrument. I do understand the complaint with vampire tales as too often matters of bruised-purple romance—cheap Halloween goth, more or less—with all the rules and embellishments just crumbling into tiresome devices of mirrors and sunlight and garlic and vermin and mesmerism and wooden stakes and god knows what not. Perhaps because of its swift brevity, Pu Songling's "Blood-Drinking Corpse" makes a convincing case for this vampire as simple soulless desolate uncanny beast of the night.

Vampire Tales: The Big Collection, pub. Dark Chaos

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Loving (1945)

I have my objections to the Modern Library list of the best 20th-century English-language novels, but occasionally it points me to something I might not have got to otherwise. That's the case with this odd British novel by Henry Green. It's an Upstairs, Downstairs type of story set in an Irish country house during the London Blitz attacks of World War II. All the servants and the family too are British. Relations with Ireland and the Irish were tenuous at the time. There's lots of talk against Catholics (called "Romans") and the IRA. But it's a comedy, acerbic and knowing, about how the classes live and abide with one another (or don't). It starts and ends like a fairy tale. The first thing that happens is the head butler dies—one of the funniest death scenes I've ever read, running in the background. The footman who succeeds him, Charley Raunce, is our basic hero, a philandering slippery nogoodnik who appears poised to change for the better, maybe. He's chasing Edith, who is some 20 years his junior, and she appears capable of making him an honest man. Maybe. Meanwhile, the lives of the others grind on, with humdrum petty spats and rancor that is somehow hugely entertaining. You have to work a little at Green's style and approach. It's a 19th-century manners kind of story but told with 20th-century zip: all elliptical concrete details and ear-pure dialogue. Sometimes it's like he's going out of his way to confuse—two boys among the servants are named Albert, for example, and it's easy to mix them up. Others in the household do too. There are episodes of adultery, alcoholism, and other troubles—decoration. The scenes with the unfaithful wife (from upstairs) are funny partly because we know things in these scenes the characters don't. Green is remarkably skillful at setting up and executing scenes like little miniatures. The greatest strength of Loving is that it is so nonjudgmental about all the things it sees. It just shows them to us, with perhaps a hint of a smirk. Can you even believe the things people do? it seems to be saying. Oh look at this now. I liked it quite a bit. I can't explain the title. It's true there's a love story here, but it's mostly unbelievable, in an affable and slightly cheeky sort of way. We have to take it as given. It seems more likely the title was meant to fit with other similar gerund formation titles of Green novels: Living, Party Going, Doting, etc. Not that they're all like that (e.g., Blindness, Caught, Nothing). But they do all have a Pet Shop Boys kind of single-word tang. Loving is good enough I might look into some of them.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Gone With the Wind (1939)

USA, 238 minutes
Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood
Writers: Margaret Mitchell, Sidney Howard, Oliver H.P. Garrett, Ben Hecht, Jo Swerling, John Van Druten
Photography: Ernest Haller, Lee Garmes
Music: Max Steiner
Editors: Hal C. Kern, James E. Newcom, Ernie Leadlay, Richard L. Van Enger
Cast: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Thomas Mitchell, Barbara O'Neil, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Victor Jory, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Rutherford, Laura Hope Crews, Harry Davenport, Jane Darwell, Ona Munson, Ward Bond, George Reeves, Rand Brooks, Carroll Nye, Oscar Polk

It's arguable that the two most significant American movies of the first half of the 20th century were D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, which invented epic cinema, and Gone With the Wind, which fully implemented it in technicolor with sound. It's arguable, but I wouldn't want to make the argument, because they look to me too much like propaganda exercises for the valorization of the South and its slavery culture, busy with misleading historical reclamation projects. Or maybe I would prefer to argue that screwball comedies have more significance than epic cinema. Still, the ticket buyers have voted. That's Gone With the Wind even now sitting atop the list of all-time domestic grosses adjusted for inflation. It's the most commercially successful movie of all time, even taken out of circulation for decades after its initial release. (For the curious, the rest of that all-time top 10 goes Star Wars, The Sound of Music, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Titanic, The Ten Commandments [1956], Jaws, Doctor Zhivago, The Exorcist, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.)

I have never warmed much to Gone With the Wind, which I finally had a chance to see in the early '80s on VHS, and I like it less all the time as the country spirals backward in values. Alabama's Roy Moore, for one, specifically pointed to the South's slavery period as the last time America was great, and it seems as likely as anything (because who knows what that "great" is supposed to mean in "Make America Great Again") that's the era they're thinking of and clamoring so hard for. I find myself arguing all the time with the title cards in this ridiculous overwrought show: "Here in this pretty world," an early one burbles, "Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave ... Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered." Dream for some, nightmare for many. I'm sure you can guess my complaints. As an exercise, as a remedy, and to maintain the equilibrium I need for this movie, I decided to focus on what I think is good in Gone With the Wind.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

On Writing (2000)

I haven't read that much Stephen King, maybe a half-dozen of his novels, but I have a real fondness for two nonfiction volumes: Danse Macabre, a critical horror overview, and this one, a writing manual and memoir with free-rolling digressions, rudely interrupted by a roadside accident that nearly killed him. King is obviously not entirely comfortable with the memoir side of the project, which he freely admits, but he still has an interesting and great by-the-bootstraps story. He's rich now but he wasn't always and his drive and work ethic are impressive. The writing guide part of this is less interesting, though I generally enjoy the exercise and agree with him on many things. He may be too much of a Strunk & White partisan for my taste. That little book is hugely entertaining but it's full of gaps and I don't always agree with its style judgments. See Bryan Garner's Modern American Usage for the real stuff. In terms of memoir, I like King's loyalty to his roots—all of them, from the horror and science fiction genres to working-class Maine. And I love his dedication to wide-ranging and eclectic reading. My favorite part of this book might be the recent reading list of novels and other books he offers that takes up several pages at the end. It has room for Peter Abrahams, Richard Bausch, Joseph Conrad, Kent Haruf, Annie Proulx, and scores more. I also appreciate his devotion to his wife, especially when he credits her and not writing for bringing him back from the accident. It just feels honest. You surely know where you are on Stephen King—don't we all, at this point (and also J.K. Rowling)? This is an essential stop if you like him and worth a look even if you know you don't. As always, my preconceptions betray me. I'm surprised to see a certified master of horror who appears to be such a model of emotional health. Edgar Allan Poe better fits my own sense of the role—disreputable, in ill health, dead early, like that. In many ways somehow Stephen King is the Bruce Springsteen of horror fiction—vastly talented, vastly generous, and, yes, a certain model of virtuous mental health. I'm actually not sure where I am on King as a writer at the moment. I used to think he was underrated, now I tend to think he's overrated. I stalled completely on his Dark Tower series of eight books after the first, and I notice his stuff rarely improves on second readings. That's the case for me even here. I read this and liked it a lot when it was newer, but reading again for this write-up I wasn't nearly as dazzled. Its best features were the comforts of shared worldviews, which in a way is enough in a memoir.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, July 05, 2019

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

USA, 69 minutes
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Writers: Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray, Inez Wallace, Charlotte Bronte, Val Lewton
Photography: J. Roy Hunt
Music: Roy Webb
Editor: Mark Robson
Cast: Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Darby Jones, James Ellison, Christine Gordon, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Sir Lancelot, Theresa Harris, Jieno Moxzer

When RKO Pictures hired producer Val Lewton to make what turned out to be a famous series of mild horror pictures in the '40s, the studio had three requirements for him: the movies had to be cheap (under $150,000), short (under 75 minutes), and use the evocative titles they gave him ("Cat People," "Bedlam," "The Seventh Victim"), as if they were creative writing instructors dispensing cues. Yet the results are undeniable, strange and quiet, straining against rules, expertly made, bruised moody and beautiful, though often undercutting their own effects by so resolutely looking away from things they suggest. Too expensive to shoot, no doubt. The Curse of the Cat People, a sequel to Cat People, is barely related to the first movie. In fact, it's barely horror—much closer to fairy tale fantasy, with a unique sympathy for lonely children. And one of the best Lewton made.

Speaking of best, director Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past, Curse / Night of the Demon, Canyon Passage) was probably the best director Lewton had. He directed Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, as well as the somewhat less effective Leopard Man. I Walked With a Zombie is based on a magazine article about workers in Haiti controlled through drug dosing, but Lewton gave it some literary torque by picking up one of the main plot threads from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and injecting it into his Haitian mood. This Zombie is a movie more about voodoo than George Romero's reimagining of zombies as some horrific virus that reanimates corpses. See also an RKO picture with Bela Lugosi from more than 10 years earlier, the 1932 White Zombie, working much the same idea. Voodoo and a tinge of racism lurking in the back are what give I Walked With a Zombie most of its juice, of which it has plenty.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

"The Spider" (1908)

This fine and widely collected story by the German writer Hanns Heinz Ewers is approximately where my shallow grounding in fantasy and speculative fiction begins to show. It's all I know by him, though he wrote many other stories and is actually best known for a novel, Alraune, which is part of a trilogy. He kept himself otherwise occupied in a number of useful ways, such as editing an eight-volume collection of horror and fantasy literature, preaching Satanism on the lecture circuit, and likely loading up on absinthe a lot. He was probably gay and dallied long enough with German Nazis to destroy his own reputation, even though the Nazis personally destroyed his life because he was homosexual.

In many ways Ewers trucked with his own disreputability (like Mick Jagger or Marilyn Manson), and some of that is seen in "The Spider," which for example helps itself to ideas and signifiers from a couple of other very specific sources. In one case it verges on plagiarism. Ah but what is it that Ewers's Spanish contemporary, Pablo Picasso, is reputed to have said? Good artists copy. Great artists steal. Ewers makes vast improvements on what he steals. And then, in an amazing feat of something like time travel, he rhymes details in this story in uncanny ways with Roman Polanski's 1976 movie The Tenant and reminds us we shouldn't stay up all night on the internet.