Thursday, August 29, 2019

"The Willows" (1907)

Algernon Blackwood's beloved classic is a long story that feels a bit like a cross between Jack London and H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, Lovecraft was deeply influenced by it, citing it as his single favorite story. "The Willows" is set in a section of the Danube River that is less like a ballroom waltz and more like a Louisiana bayou, ambling through sandy marshes and swampy shallows. The first-person narrator and his companion, identified as "the Swede," are traveling by canoe, on some intrepid type of camping vacation apparently. They are trawling down the river in a high waters time, which means small sandy islands can wash away and boats lose track of the over-flooding channel and even become trapped in backwaters. Blackwood is good at wilderness and physical description though perhaps not as good as some others, such as London. Blackwood is often equally focused on his genre considerations, distracted from the natural by the supernatural threads in his stories which can be conventional.

Still it's the brooding things of wilderness that ultimately carry this one. Those willows, most obviously, swaying and bending in the high winds, an image returned to again and again. Filmmaker David Lynch has used a similar effect many times, notably in his Twin Peaks episodes, with the camera simply sitting and looking at trees in the wind. The high winds themselves are unsettling—windstorms, especially at night, are the most disturbing storms of all. Ultimately, of course, what we have here is a serious case of Ineffable Evil. But what's great about this story is not its interest in the evil but rather how perfectly strange that evil is. My grasp of it, though the story was written well before commercial radio, is as the sense of something peering back from behind the static between stations. It does not surprise me in a way that Lovecraft honored this piece above all others, as it is both an impressive enough feat of world-building and also such a solid slab of id-sourced weird. The point is that we can't understand it, whatever it is, though we know to our core it's awful. From Blackwood's description, this isolated section of the Danube is a place where two parallel dimensions are scraping against one another and the membrane has grown thin, heralded by the high winds and an ominous sound that recurs only inside the mind. The two men are in great danger. It is like an encounter of a bobcat and a squirrel and they are the squirrel. The hunting style of these superior beings appears to be like the feline style of playing with prey. The landscape is blurred between the physical and the mental. Much of the peril is an implicit threat of madness, literally losing their minds.

"The Willows" is considered Blackwood's best by a good margin though many also note how prolific he was at high levels. There's indeed something open and inviting about his work—I've enjoyed the handful or so stories I've read and intend to read more, but I'd put him closer to my idea of an adventure story writer rather than horror. Probably my own favorite Blackwood so far is the only very short story I've read by him yet, "Ancient Lights," about a man who can't find his way through a small patch of woods. "The Wendigo" appears to be Blackwood's consensus #2 best, but its North American setting wasn't at all convincing to me and I kept thinking of James Fenimore Cooper, not a favorite. "Glamour in the Snow" had an unconvincing supernatural story but was very good on snow and frigid conditions. I can see how "The Willows" is a notch above. The setting is inspired and the turn to an unknowable weird almost aggressive. It's not conventional supernatural, that's for sure.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
The Weird, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Read story online.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

"The Most Dangerous Game" (1924)

I recall Richard Connell's chestnut as being taught in high school. I wonder if that wasn't how the Zodiac serial killer was exposed to it, who made oblique references to it in one letter to Bay Area newspapers. Operating just behind the Zodiac in the '70s and '80s, in Alaska, was Robert Hansen, who kidnapped women, raped them, flew them to remote wilderness areas, and hunted them. "The Most Dangerous Game," alas quaint now at best after such true-crime episodes, is further weakened by being full of absurd convenience. A man falls off a yacht in the Caribbean and swims "the blood-warm water" to the nearest island. His name is Sanger Rainsford and he happens to be a big-game hunter. He also happens to be an author. The owner of the island happens to know his work. That owner is General Zaroff, a Czarist loyalist, who I imagine having a scar on the side of his face like Fearless Leader from Bullwinkle. It's a reasonably good idea, this horror of humans formally hunting one another (what next, cannibalism?!), but it's a little too impressed with its awesomeness to work out the details and make it credible. It's still fun to read as a sort of adventure story with a tang of existential dread. It's mostly setup and then the last third is a lot of chasing around the jungle making booby traps and/or avoiding them. It reads like a story that is still a little shell-shocked from the Great War. Indeed, our hero, besides being a big-game hunter and author, also happens to be a veteran of that war. His experience quickly digging trenches comes in handy. The story is haunted by human brutality even as it seems to have little idea how bad it can get. I appreciate the dark spirit but by the time I was reading it in high school movies like Night of the Living Dead and Last House on the Left were more the latest word in human brutality. Interesting that those movies are likely not yet taught in high school, and this Connell story might still be, but the reasons are obvious and understandable. An interesting curiosity but not that much to see here, folks.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Lady Eve (1941)

USA, 94 minutes
Director: Preston Sturges
Writers: Monckton Hoffe, Preston Sturges
Photography: Victor Milner
Music: Phil Boutelje, Charles Bradshaw, Gil Grau, Sigmund Krumgold, John Leipold, Leo Shuken
Editor: Stuart Gilmore
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, William Demarest, Eugene Pallette, Eric Blore, Melville Cooper, Martha O'Driscoll, Janet Beecher, Robert Greig, Luis Alberni, Jimmy Conlin

In many ways The Lady Eve comes on as a romantic comedy, with two big and beautiful stars in Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. But the instincts of director and cowriter Preston Sturges steer the movie more toward screwball and beyond. We may think of 1941 as a war year, but the Pearl Harbor attack did not occur until the end of the year. And the movies, in the isolationist meantime, were prolific and often seemed more intent on tearing up and rewriting templates. The Lady Eve is a romantic comedy in the same way Hellzapoppin'  is a musical and Citizen Kane is an experimental art film and/or biopic. More than anything, I suppose, The Lady Eve is a Sturges picture, offering up a full orchestra of vaudeville gags, character players, and pratfalls, themselves little symphonies of smashing plates, falling cutlery, and stammered apologies. Sturges never had much sense of cinema formally. But just like he was willing to try anything for a laugh he was also willing to try anything with the technology, as seen in a mirror-driven monologue here. Rampant experimentation appeared to be a regular feature of the movies in 1941. Even a relatively straightforward comedy like the W.C. Fields vehicle Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is full of surrealistic turns.

In the spirit of classic screwballs like My Man Godfrey and Bringing Up Baby, the leads here are as zany as everything else. Stanwyck, who in the first place could do anything, is about at the peak of her powers. Consider her 1941: Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, and You Belong to Me. She's Jean, a conniving con artist and card sharp traveling aboard a passenger ship as the daughter of her mentor, the self-titled Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn, excellent as always). She is self-assurance itself, speaking a mile a minute and flinging off sparks in all directions. "Every Jane in the room is giving him the thermometer," she says in the mirror monologue, sizing up her prey and the competition. Her target is the dweebish and independently wealthy Charles Poncefort Pike (Fonda), a scientist with an interest in snakes who is returning from an exploring expedition in the Amazon. She calls him Hopsie after he tells her it's a family nickname he hates. Working against his already stolid type, Abraham Lincoln Tom Joad Henry Fonda is especially good playing an absent-minded professor harried by a perpetual erection—a notable skill, not often seen in midcentury American movies or done well ever.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Sophie's Choice (1979)

It's possible I might have liked Sophie's Choice more in another mood but I wasn't in that mood and so I have these complaints. First, it's an egregious example (or is that a very good example?) of a narrative style I call "peekaboo." In a peekaboo story the storyteller lets you know there's something to know but keeps declining to disclose it even though he (meaning William Styron in this case) has to know it's the reason you're there. So, in a novel that runs to nearly 600 pages, with this title, we do not learn until about the last 50 what Sophie's choice specifically was. We know it is likely horrible, because the setting is Auschwitz during World War II. How could it possibly be good when it involves Nazis? But the first 550 or so pages are spent on weird things: the preoccupations of a budding Southern novelist in postwar New York, a horribly abusive relationship, and other things that seem beside the point. In fairness, Sophie Zawistowska is probably a good portrait of a Holocaust survivor. But I'm not done complaining yet. This peekaboo story is told loop-the-loop fashion—the primary action takes place over five months in 1947 but there are flashbacks all over the place and the main thread is often lost. Which is OK because it's mostly unpleasant. But there you are, still hoping to find out, and soon, what this Sophie's choice thing is. I'm often enchanted with loop-the-loop storytelling (e.g., The Great Gatsby, Frederick Exley's memoir A Fan's Pages, most Philip Roth), but the voice really has to be compelling and the transitions artful and intuitively right. I didn't like this narrator with his Southern literary pretensions. Good grief, his name is "Stingo," and oh, what do you know, he went on to write a novel about Nat Turner (yes, this novel has flash-forwards too, what loop-the-loop story does not?). Frankly, Sophie's boyfriend Nathan should have been abandoned by every one of these characters before page 50. He's an awful person who makes you awful too if you accept his redemption even a little. Maybe it's because he reminded me of someone. Last, on my list of major complaints, is Styron's vocabulary: perdurable, coralline, secreted (can't he see it's one of those distracting self-antonym words, like cleave or oversight?), heliotrope, neurasthenia, viscid, renascence, matutinal, chatelaine, bediademed, unguentary, prothalamic. I really got tired of looking up words that turned out to have perfectly useful, lovely, and well-known synonyms (for example, "matutinal" means "occurring in the morning"). Nor was the level of poetic flight noticeably elevated. I didn't even remember until I'd finished Sophie's Choice that Styron also wrote Lie Down in Darkness, which I read and remember liking very much a long time ago. Somehow I missed even the movie that came of Sophie's Choice, but it's probably just as well. I seriously doubt it's better than this novel and I'm not even sure this novel is that good. Between Nazis and the South, it's a bit much. Thus, finally, my very last little complaint is once again with the weirdly scattershot Modern Library list of the best novels of the 20th century. If Styron belongs on it at all, an arguable point, it should be for Lie Down in Darkness. Or maybe The Confessions of Nat Turner, though my enthusiasm for getting to that one might be on the wane after this.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

"August Heat" (1910)

Because it's convenient for things to have a starting point, and because it makes a good story that way, I'm assigning the beginning of modern horror fiction as we understand it to 1816, when E.T.A. Hoffmann published "The Sand-Man" and when the Shelleys, Mary and Percy Bysshe, gathered in Geneva with Lord Byron and his doctor, John William Polidori, and had a friendly competition to write ghost stories. The result was Frankenstein and "The Vampyre." Nearly a hundred years later, W.F. Harvey's very short story about the dog days of summer depends to a certain degree on familiarity with horror fiction conventions as they had developed. It's more along the lines of a knowing joke, and the punchline is "uncanny." It's not as witty as Saki but has an undertone that dares you to laugh, and then dares you not to laugh. It tells us things that don't make sense as if they do. It captures a little of the insanity that happens when it's still sweltering hot even at night in August. It's not the heat, it's the humidity.

On one of those very hot days an illustrator (who is also the first-person narrator) is seized in the morning with an impulse to sketch a man at trial just as he is sentenced. He thinks the picture is pretty good, if he says so himself. "The feeling that his expression conveyed was not so much one of horror as of utter, absolute collapse." Then the illustrator walks aimlessly for several hours. He finds himself at the shop of a stonemason. On an impulse he enters it. It's the man in his sketch! And he's working on a gravestone. And on that gravestone is the name of the narrator, with his birthdate and today's date (August 20th, 190–),already chiseled in. This work is the result of an impulse on the mason's part. The two don't know one another, have never met, and soon agree it's a strange and dangerous situation. They decide to stay together the rest of that day for mutual safety. Of course this story is short and moves quickly because it's so ridiculously impossible. At the end of the day, between 11 p.m. and midnight, the narrator is recording his account in the mason's workshop while the mason tidies up. The story ends:

The air seems charged with thunder. I am writing this at a shaky table before the open window.
The leg is cracked, and [the mason], who seems a handy man with his tools, is going to mend it as soon as he has finished putting an edge on his chisel.
It is after 11 now. I shall be gone in less than an hour.
But the heat is stifling.
It is enough to send a man mad.

Harvey couldn't resist the broad wink of "I shall be gone in less than an hour," but it is actually hard for me to imagine this complacent scene turning into frenzy and murder within the hour. And maybe it doesn't! We're never told. But that's the idea. The improbability, and the uncertainty, thus keep it more in the realm of merely cerebral, a macabre joke predicated on reader expectations. But it's sparkly and swift and maybe even uncanny if you turn it around in your head enough. It's been done on radio plus in the early '70s DC Comics adapted it for one of their horror titles. Night Gallery should have done it too. That show always did like to make people sweat.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Law & Order, s6 (1995-1996)

Earlier this year the first Law & Order spinoff, Special Victims Unit, was renewed for its 21st season and also broadcast a 457th episode, thus overtaking the 20 seasons and 456 episodes of the original for third place on the list of longest-running TV shows, behind The Simpsons (30/662 and counting) and Gunsmoke (20/535). No doubt producer Dick Wolf ("awhoooo!") is proud and happy to have two titles in that top 5 but I'm less sure we as viewers can count it as a good thing overall. On the other hand, like The Simpsons (and unlike Gunsmoke, Special Victims Unit, or Lassie), Law & Order at least can still stake claim to genuine TV innovation, so there's that.

Yet the one thing readily apparent from the sixth season of Law & Order is a willingness to play it safe and fall back on tried and true strategies of ensemble 'n' episode TV. Even the signature wrinkle of focusing on institutional roles rather than individual characters is starting to feel a little humdrum. The show's original junior detective, Mike Logan (Chris Noth), is suddenly gone, disappeared for an incident briefly shown in the last five minutes of the previous season. He's replaced by Reynaldo Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) and predictably a bunch of episodes track the awkwardness of his jelling with senior detective Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach).

Sunday, August 11, 2019

A Common Room (1954-1987)

More exciting tales of my misspent youth misspent the wrong ways. In the '70s, not quite a college student though old enough, I spent most of one winter and spring haunting the basement of Wilson Library at the University of Minnesota. I was taking a night class in American literature and the rest of the time prowled the library stacks, reading randomly. That's when I encountered Reynolds Price's work. Price was a lifelong professor at Duke University in North Carolina, where he also got his undergraduate degree. He wrote fiction, essays, plays, and poetry. He started teaching in the late '50s and published his first novel in 1962. Wikipedia says he was openly gay, but there's little hint of that in this collection of essays, aside from his unremarked status as a perennial bachelor and, in one piece from the '80s, a surprising candor about transsexuals. Probably, as usual, my gaydar is just off. I read his stories back in the day but his gently insistent and patient voice are very much present in these pieces too. He occupies an unusual place in literature, a son of the New Critics bravely facing the changes of the '60s, '70s, and beyond. At times I found myself irked or less than interested in some of his more conventional positions—openly Christian, a fan of John Milton (especially), Henry James, and Eudora Welty. A Southerner, his views sometimes shade over into the rationalizations of the Confederacy, yet he has an appreciation for Jimmy Carter that is refreshing to see after all the years of Carter's abuse by the organized right. Price was a very careful writer and sometimes these pieces feel one of two revisions overlabored. But he's good too—more than anything I came to respect in this collection his patience in developing and expressing his themes. These pieces are often personal but they always maintain a distance and formality appropriate for an academic. The circumstances of his life also included onset paraplegia when he was in his 50s. I was often disappointed with his opinions—typically for his generation he thinks too much of Hemingway and too little of Faulkner to suit me, for example. Yet his humility and focus make him rewarding to read—still.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, August 09, 2019

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

USA, 133 minutes
Director: Milos Forman
Writers: Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman, Ken Kesey, Dale Wasserman
Photography: Haskell Wexler
Music: Jack Nitzsche
Editors: Sheldon Kahn, Lynzee Klingman
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson, Brad Dourif, William Redfield, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, Scatman Carothers, Sydney Lassick, Michael Berryman

Full disclosure, as a Ken Kesey fanboy I have mostly followed his lead on this movie adaptation of his first novel, though I did see it all the way through when it was new. Kesey was involved in the early stages of making it but reportedly never even looked at it after he left over creative differences. As a result I pushed it to the side and missed how supremely popular it has remained. Its present ranking at #114 on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?—the highest it's ever been there, in fact, and the reason I'm writing about it—only begins to suggest the levels of affection that exist for it. A better gauge might be IMDb's always intriguing popularity contest of a best movies list, where The Shawshank Redemption has long ruled all. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest sits at #16 there—pretty high! But the single reason, I'm convinced, for its enduring popularity, was the Oscars sweep, taking the so-called grand slam that year (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best [adapted in this case] Screenplay), the first movie to do so since 1934's It Happened One Night, and one of only three with 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.

Winning a bunch of Oscars is not the reason to like a movie but you know how people are. I will note in passing that I do like It Happened One Night. And getting over myself enough to look again at Cuckoo's Nest reveals a number of outstanding features. It has numerous good and/or interesting performances, not just Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher (though Nicholson and Fletcher are the best), including Brad Dourif and Christopher Lloyd in their first roles, William Redfield, and Danny DeVito apparently with hair. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler's credits include In the Heat of the Night, The Conversation, and Coming Home, and he shot this in rich '70s color and luminous style. But the many grave errors of the picture's narrative are still there, romanticizing mental illness as poetical (note the dancing nut) or, even worse, as a metaphor for politics. It sees individualism as such a virtue that it makes a hero of a preening, self-serving ass who is most believable when he's out for himself alone, and least believable when his lip trembles and he appears to care.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

The History of Love (2005)

The complications in Nicole Krauss's deceptively complicated novel may have become too much for me, in spite of its many admirable qualities. It involves a man who wrote an unpublished novel called The History of Love, his friend who copied the manuscript and took credit for it, and the daughter of a couple who loved the novel and named her for its love interest ("life obsession" is more accurate). All this is mixed up with World War II and the Nazi concentration camps. What I like best is Krauss's voice for Leo Gursky, the original writer and lover, an old man in the present day getting along in New York City. His Yiddish rhythms feel precision-engineered. But his is only one voice among many. I like the 14-year-old Alma pretty well too, but even with her the complications start to get confusing. It's a good love story—the title is not misplaced—but maybe not as good as it thinks it is? Not good enough to support all this action and hold attention. Gursky's son is a famous writer. Alma's mother makes her living translating books. Leo can write a book so good someone can steal it and get it published. It's a little hard to believe, which became something of a distraction even as I tried to parse who was related to whom, and why, and in which timeframe or location. It's a big bunch, sprawling the globe, and many are dead in the present day. I came across The History of Love originally recommended in a kind of readers group newsletter, where people were very positive. It also won awards and was nominated for others. Some of my lukewarm response may be from fatigue with World War II stories, but I put more of it on the complexity here, which felt manufactured for literary effect. I'm not at all sure it's the best way to tell the love story at its heart, or what I think is its heart, the one between Leo and the original Alma. That's a pretty good story in its own right. All love stories have been done by now—it's just a matter of picking a variation and doing it well. But I'm not sure that's what happened here. Maybe the love story is actually better than this novel seems to think it is. It never really gets a chance.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

"The Screaming Skull" (1908)

I can only guess what this F. Marion Crawford story is doing in the Vampire Tales collection because I don't actually detect any vampire elements beyond some loose interpretation of the term "undead," which is never used or even implied here. No ruby red lips, in other words. If anything it's a ghost or haunted house story—specifically, haunted bedroom. But you can see from the big roundup below that it's enormously popular even in my relatively small sample. It's often hailed for its device of the hysterical first-person narrator, though I'm not sure how it can be called an innovation when you consider Edgar Allan Poe's even more widely anthologized "Tell-Tale Heart" from 1843. "The Screaming Skull" is an improvement on that score, and often wonderfully well done, I'll give it that. But this great strength can also become the greatest weakness, in both stories. "The Screaming Skull" is a little long and can drone on implausibly. The first-person narrator is speaking to another person, or believes he is, which leads to awkward constructions just trying to hold the concept together, e.g., "You want to know whether I stayed in the house till daybreak?"

So what exactly is this one-sided Bob Newhart routine all about? As far as I'm concerned, it's the premise that makes this story more than the narrative strategy. There's a skull. And it screams. That's it. Everything else is window dressing. Here's a short passage that has it all, good and bad:

You ask me why I don't throw it into the pond—yes, but please don't call it a "confounded bugbear"—it doesn't like being called names.
There! Lord, what a shriek!

It's so simple, so audacious, so ridiculous, so impossible, so thoroughly hammered home. It's not exactly scary, or even that uncanny, though it's certainly weird. Much of it, the best of it, is almost perfectly vexing, like an I Love Lucy episode. It's closer to the kind of comedy the Evil Dead movies trafficked in. The screaming skull screams even when you talk about it in another room—even when you think about it sometimes. (Perhaps the telepathy is what wins it its vampire wings.) It definitely screams when you try to move it from the cabinet in the master bedroom, and if you leave it there it makes random grumbling noises all night and wakes you every morning at 3:17 a.m. The screaming disturbs the help and makes it impossible to keep the place adequately staffed. If you try to throw it away—you can't throw it away. It's like a booger. There's a macabre backstory driving all this divine foolishness as much as the proof of concept, like what happens when you try to get rid of it. The skull belongs to a woman who is connected to the narrator. In fact, he has inherited the mansion she and her husband once lived in. She was killed by her husband in a notably grotesque manner. My skull would be screaming for all eternity too if I were done that way. The narrator blames himself (and evidently so does the screaming skull) because he suggested the manner of murder in a lighthearted way to the couple at a dinner party. He didn't know the husband was actually going to do it!

It's fair to say "The Screaming Skull" looks forward to H.P. Lovecraft, at least insofar as it pounds the implausible until we relent and believe. It doesn't matter how unlikely it might seem at first, whether screaming skull in the bedroom cabinet (like, where are the vocal cords even?) or writhing octopus head in outer space, they strike the grim and hysterical tone and pile on the hideous detail. Crawford was a bit older and more into ghosts but he was often good with hideous detail—another famous story by him, "The Upper Berth" from 1885, is more conventional in some ways, but uniquely tactile in its effects—the ghost is aboard a ship at sea and can be touched and felt. "The Screaming Skull" may go on a little too long (also like Lovecraft and not like "The Upper Berth") but it's anthologized all over the place for multiple good reasons and counts as essential.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Vampire Tales: The Big Collection, pub. Dark Chaos
The Weird, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Read story online.