Thursday, April 30, 2020

"The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men" (1911)

Here we find Lord Dunsany in more typical form: a long ambiguous title, a very short story, and lots of made-up words and proper nouns: the Dubious Land (a dark forest), a creature called a mipt, an evidently dangerous geographic feature referred to as "the crack in the World," and high levels of unexpected danger everywhere. It's whimsical like Tolkien and lots of fantasy, but not Polyannaish but rather bitingly sardonic. The three literary men—Slith, the only thief with experience, with Sippy and Slorg—are intent on stealing a golden box from a powerful being in a faraway land because they believe it is filled with poetry (obviously my favorite point in this story). The writer notes that "it is lonely to sit around the camp-fire by night with no new songs." The "probable" is in the title because the adventurers never returned, having presumably failed, probably the way the story tells it. The story is from Lord Dunsany's collection The Book of Wonder, which features illustrations by his usual collaborator, Sidney Sime. In the case of this collection, however, they switched things up. Sime prepared illustrations first and then the Irish nobleman dreamed up explanations for them. The result was some of Lord Dunsany's best stories. The image above is the one Sime created for this story. Knowing the process, it's apparent the writer often labors to make things fit. You can almost feel the surge when he lands on something he thinks is working. That's most obvious in the prize, won at last (though not really), which is absurdly detailed (because, as always, everything here is merely probable):

What was their joy, even at that perilous moment, as they lurked between the guardian and the abyss, to find that the box contained fifteen peerless odes in the alcaic form, five sonnets that were by far the most beautiful in the world, nine ballads in the manner of Provence that had no equal in the treasuries of man, a poem addressed to a moth in twenty-eight perfect stanzas, a piece of blank verse of over a hundred lines on a level not yet known to have been attained by man, as well as fifteen lyrics on which no merchant would dare to set a price.

Really. You have to ask yourself.

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

Sunday, April 26, 2020

"The Black Monk" (1894)

This story by Anton Chekhov seems to have a certain unwillingness to commit to its own reality, which is what I think I like about it. On the one hand it's almost ridiculously straightforward about a man, Kovrin, who is succumbing to mental illness, a carefully constructed tale of woe verging on tragedy. On the other hand, the delusion that defines Kovrin's madness, the encounters with a mysterious monk in black, are so seductively believable I have a hard time writing them off as the workaday madness of so much fiction—the cheap device. Certainly that's how the story appears to work. His madness makes no sense. Kovrin is an orphan but much beloved by a creative, interesting, and somewhat kooky family, into which he eventually marries. We see the seeds of Kovrin's delusion when he is fascinated by a legend whose source he cannot recall, about a monk in black who has wandered the world for centuries. Not long after, Kovrin sees him in a strange vision, and not long after that the monk engages Kovrin in conversation, telling him he has been uniquely chosen. "I exist in your imagination, and your imagination is part of nature, so I exist in nature," he explains himself to Kovrin, who is continually questioning his reality. 'You are a phantom, an hallucination," Kovrin says. "So I am mentally deranged, not normal?" "What if you are?" the monk soothes him. "Why trouble yourself?" The classic words of a devil's imp sitting on your shoulder. Meanwhile, as the years go by, the view from outside Kovrin is increasingly clear. His life is going to hell. He is cold and alienating to his wife, who at one point catches him talking to empty air. As she confronts Kovrin, the monk soon disappears. She and her father attempt to "cure" his mental illness and he improves some, but grows increasingly bitter and paranoid, believing they are betraying his genius for mediocrity. Things get worse and they never get better. Kovrin is curious in that he doesn't deny his mental illness but indeed seems to prefer it. The illusion of the monk in this story is the most interesting part. No one denies what it is, but Kovrin likes having him around—it's a bit like the "we need the eggs" joke—and the reader tends to agree. Is it angel or demon? It doesn't seem to matter much. I'm not sure whether it's just the monk's soothing words but something about him is attractive. At story's end I'm pretty much in perfect sympathy with Kovrin, even though he is insane.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

Friday, April 24, 2020

Freaks (1932)

USA, 64 minutes
Director: Tod Browning
Writers: Clarence Aaron "Tod" Robbins, Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, Al Boasberg, Charles MacArthur, Edgar Allan Woolf
Photography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Editor: Basil Wrangell
Cast: Harry Earles, Olga Baclanova, Daisy Earles, Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Roscoe Ates, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton, Johnny Eck, Rose Dione, Schlitze, Frances O'Connor, Henry Victor, Josephine Joseph, Prince Randian

There's an argument that Hollywood was not racist but helpful to African-Americans in the '30s and '40s, casting them in movies and giving them careers, even if these few lucky ones usually only played demeaning self-humiliations that reinforced racism. A similar argument might apply for the disabled and congenitally disfigured in this strange Hollywood early talkie. The parallel does not entirely bear out but the inherent self-contradictions are similar. In Freaks, the main point seems to be a rejection of stigmatized treatment, with a kind of bleeding-heart case (possibly sincere) about their deserving better than the harrowing life of sleazy traveling carnivals. The de facto case may be that "better" is scraping by instead as grotesques in the movies. In many ways we return to Freaks, which has been perennially popular in midnight-matinee types of venues, to gawk. And in many ways that's exactly what's intended. Director Tod Browning had big success the year before with Dracula, and even if IMDb classifies Freaks merely as "drama," the movie obviously trades in horror as well.

Freaks is here to gawk at and, in the Lumiere tradition looking forward to Diane Arbus, the gawking's not bad around here. The parade of nature's cruel pranks is a steady one. No more than a few minutes at a time go by before we see continuing examples of microcephaly ("pinheads"), conjoined twins ("Siamese twins"), small people ("midgets" and "dwarves"), paraplegics, and quadriplegics. Also a bearded lady, a sword swallower, a fire eater, a stutterer (because why not?), and a "half-man/half-woman" who comes across more like a woman who can't decide how to dress. It's all at least as beguiling and repulsive as a state fair sideshow. I say that as a good thing, but in some ways it's the beginning of all this movie's problems too.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Midsommar (2019)

I was surprised when I noticed the runtime for Midsommar went well north of two hours, but even so I'm sorry now I missed it in the theater (not least because sometimes I wonder if we will ever again have movie theaters). Director and screenwriter Ari Aster's previous picture, Hereditary, was also over two hours. That led me tangentially to a massive list on IMDb of 28,971 horror movies organized by runtime, which blew my thought that Aster was doing anything unusual. Midsommar (148 minutes) ranks #145 on that list, behind such notables as the 2018 Suspiria remake (152 minutes), The Wailing (2016, 156 minutes), Kwaidan (1964, 183 minutes in some alternate version), and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse (2007, 191 minutes). The last two are really more like assemblies of smaller pieces (if you can even call Grindhouse horror), and in many ways that's what Aster has done with both Midsommar and Hereditary, even though they have larger narrative through-lines and overarching visions. For Midsommar that's mostly the monotonous ups and downs of a bad 20something relationship going nowhere. I believe the monotony is as intended, and if you want to take the movie as a comedy, which is possible, that's the place to focus. A lot of people compare Midsommar to the original 1973 Wicker Man and that's certainly apt. Both make conscious use of daytime horror motifs. Midsommar mostly takes place in northern Sweden in late June, where full daylight goes some 22 hours, and then the two-hour night is merely dusk. But Midsommar is also like The Wicker Man by rooting itself in the late 19th-century horror sensation of paganism, with woodsy tales of goat-gods, elaborate, savage, and beautiful rituals, and the brawny mysteries of Nature flickering at the edges of sentience. My favorite parts of Midsommar reminded me of the churning inscrutable secrets of Arthur Machen's long story, "The White People." The rituals are strange, glimpsed in fragments, but they burst with vitality and mesmerizing power, even at their most heinous. Understanding is simply not necessary. Strangers objecting only highlight how puny the modern world is in this place of perpetual sun. Midsommar never loses track of its modern setting and the youth driving it, with smartphones, laptops, and social media, grinding economic anxiety, casual drug use, fraught sex. Even within all the pageantry the tormented relationship of Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor mimicking Seth Rogen) slogs on, like the necessity of dragging a corpse a long way to bury it. It's hard to choose who to like less between them but Christian ("Christian") is more the rat. The best part of the movie is of course the nine-day Midsommar celebration, which is wonderfully detailed, a kind of Burning Man festival staged by Led Zeppelin roadies and groupies, heralded by a drug trip and soundtracked by folkies in white robes playing traditional druidic fare. It's all cheerfully pagan and then it's shockingly brutal and then it's time for another feast. I loved it. There's some explanation about a cult and their various ways and beliefs, which is just enough to make the extraordinary events believable, as we have been softened already by witnessing the things we witness. You'll never look at springtime rituals such as a Maypole dance quite the same way again.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Stairway to Hell (1991 / 1998)

Chuck Eddy's list of the 500 best heavy metal albums ("in the Universe," it says) is a monumental undertaking by any definition. Five hundred is a lot of anything—600, actually, because this second edition I've got updates the original list with 100 more albums released after the first edition, more or less. On one hand the book is a stone clinic in writing album reviews—from the materials of hustling freelance gigs for a dime and working zines for the outlet, this book honed Eddy's album review writing into an art form unto itself. He likely got the book contract in the first place because he'd spent much of the previous 10 years as one of the most tireless, prolific, and unique jukebox fountainheads in the annals of rock critic journalism. There was just one slight problem here. While Eddy's rampaging consumption of music made him an eclectic sponge for pop and rock music of many stripes, his taste in fact stands somewhat athwart of actual heavy metal currents. It made and still makes for some strange results, perhaps most famously putting a Teena Marie album (Emerald City) audaciously into the top 10, albeit at a judiciously modest #9, while entirely shutting out Iron Maiden and Judas Priest (from a list of 500!). The problem is not made better by Eddy's various terse put-downs and constant baiting, gleefully and cavalierly dissing hippie shibboleths as well as the intelligence of many of his review subjects and their fans too at alarmingly high rates. He's a bit of Moe to the rest of us Larry and Curly. It's no wonder they're mad in places like Amazon reviews and metal forums. He makes me mad too once in a while. He says, for example, the only worthwhile Jimi Hendrix album is one of those label-dictated cannibalized best-of jobs, but then proceeds to include most of the rest of Hendrix's catalog, including posthumous titles and albums even I don't like, though often with glancing insults. Hey man, which is it? Do you like Jimi Hendrix or not? (We know now, from a later book, that Eddy had little or no budget for this one and had to work basically with what he had on hand, which likely explains the Iron Maiden and Judas Priest MIAs. He wouldn't have liked them anyway, because he already doesn't like a lot of the albums he includes here.)

Still, if you take Eddy and Stairway to Hell on their own listy album-review terms, it's pretty impressive, mostly coherent, and often a gas to breeze through. He's plunged well into the physical pleasures of sonic assault and writes about it vividly, almost always with made-up words, e.g., "kaboomeration," that instantly make more sense than anything that overpraised lavender-suited nitwit Lewis Carroll ever came up with (as Eddy himself might observe of the British children's author). He's translating aural experience into words as well or better than anyone has ever danced about architecture. And anyone who's ever tried to be a rock critic can tell you one of the hardest parts of the job is describing the music and the experience of hearing it. He's often making it look effortless here. The book and all its referents are older now—there are lots of titles I just don't know and likely never will at this point (especially the cassette and EP releases). But as far as the eccentric picks I knew go, I had little problem with them. Prince's Purple Rain, for example, isn't only metal but it's certainly also metal. Ditto the Miles Davis picks Agharta, Pangaea, and Jack Johnson. On taste Eddy and I are widely separated, which has always been generally true. In this realm I like Motorhead, Slayer, Judas Priest, and Black Sabbath. He likes AC/DC, Def Leppard, Poison, and Guns N' Roses. He really doesn't like some of mine. I really don't like some of his. To each their own—the truth is that metal probably has about the same priority for both of us, which is not high. Stairway to Hell may be a little sour and constricted in some ways, but it can also be a blast, honestly laugh-out-loud funny like the best Three Stooges episodes, and full of amazing surges of writing.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Your Queen Is a Reptile (2018)

Whither Impulse! Records? In 1979, the iconic jazz label, home of John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra etc., etc., was acquired by MCA, which promptly went skidding into the music industry recession of the early 1980s and oblivion. The end of an era. But, according to Wikipedia, Impulse is still alive and "now part of the Universal Music Group's jazz holdings, the Verve Music Group." Forty years later the roster, as listed on its website, is considerably trimmed down to six artists. One of them is still John Coltrane (who died in 1967), and at least four of the others, including Sons of Kemet, are projects associated with Shabaka Hutchings, a British jazz saxophone/woodwinds player. I'm not sure how all that stacks up exactly but a further data point is I can say Your Queen Is a Reptile is definitely within the raging spiritual squall of the label's mission, updated with a nice feel (and light hand) for studio wonkery. A lot of what is slightly disorienting about this outer space island jazz sound with the heavy bottom derives from the unusual makeup of the band: a 4-piece with saxophone, tuba, and two drummers, plus some guest toasting and poetry as the occasion arises. My thought on first hearing my still favorite track, the raving "My Queen Is Harriet Tubman," was that it reminded me of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. That's probably the tuba, I'm sure, one of those instruments that lends an indelible air no matter where you put it, like bagpipes or the ukulele. Then I got a look at the playlist, where the political vibe is much easier to make out across the attack of instrumental cuts: on an album called Your Queen Is a Reptile, "My Queen Is Ada Eastman," "My Queen is Mamie Phipps Clark," "My Queen Is Harriet Tubman," nine times over, 5-minute-plus slabs that play with authority and clarity, in honor of a woman of color, even as the players otherwise choose mostly to mute themselves behind the instruments. Fela's Afrobeat, attitude and all, is another obvious source. This is a good one!

Thursday, April 16, 2020

"The Three Infernal Jokes" (1915)

Then there is Lord Dunsany, Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, who specialized in a kind of fantasy all his own. Where others waxed on at length the Irish nobleman tended to keep it short. I might prefer Saki, roughly his Scottish contemporary, but both were quite good working in tight spaces, lathering up with absurdity and the snap of the cruel. Lord Dunsany errs more often toward the plain fantastic—many of his stories are strewn with words and proper nouns he made up. This story is almost conventional for Lord Dunsany, a surprising and weird variation on the crossroads encounter with Old Scratch. At a bar they all frequent, a man declares to a group of fellow salesmen that one woman to him is as ugly as another. This is in the context of the salesmen boasting of their virtues. That is his. Later, another man—a supernatural being of some kind who places phone calls to Hell—expresses his admiration for the virtue and his desire to purchase it. His offer is three jokes that will make all who hear the first man tell them die of laughter. The jokes aren't actually very funny, as the first man notices, but the other says that's no matter. It's the spells they carry that count. Some time later, as a matter of conducting his own line of work as an encyclopedia salesman, the first man is giving a dinner for 20 at his club and decides to try one of his jokes there to see what happens. Suddenly the story plunges crosswise at once of urbane James Thurber and ingrown Franz Kafka, much of the mood perhaps due to the strange spell of infectious laughter, with a splash of unhinged suspense:

They laughed. One man accidentally inhaled his cigar smoke and spluttered, the two waiters overheard and tittered behind their hands, one man, a bit of a raconteur himself, quite clearly wished not to laugh, but his veins swelled dangerously in trying to keep it back, and in the end he laughed too. The joke had succeeded; my friend smiled at the thought; he wished to say little deprecating things to the man on his right; but the laughter did not stop and the waiters would not be silent. He waited, and waited wondering; the laughter went roaring on, distinctly louder now, and the waiters as loud as any. It had gone on for three or four minutes when the frightful thought leaped up all at once in his mind: it was forced laughter! However could anything have induced him to tell so foolish a joke? He saw its absurdity in revulsion; and the more he thought of it as these people laughed at him, even the waiters too, the more he felt that he could never lift up his head with his brother touts again. And still the laughter went roaring and choking on. He was very angry. There was not much use in having a friend, he thought, if one silly joke could not be overlooked; he had fed them too. And then he felt that he had no friends at all, and his anger faded away, and a great unhappiness came down on him, and he got quietly up and slunk from the room and slipped away from the club. Poor man, he scarcely had the heart next morning even to glance at the papers, but you did not need to glance at them, big type was bandied about that day as though it were common type, the words of the headlines stared at you; and the headlines said: – Twenty-Two Dead Men at a Club.

It's sublime in its way, and the story is not finished yet. It goes on from there as he is arrested and charged with mass slaying. And he still has a third joke to tell.

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

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Dogs of Riga (1992)

When I was reading the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö I kept seeing connections with Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series. Now that I'm reading the Kurt Wallander series by Henning Mankell, I'm sometimes connecting the stories to Beck. For example, in the second book in that series, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke from 1966, the Swedish police detective Beck travels to Hungary, at the time a Soviet satellite, to investigate the disappearance of a journalist. In The Dogs of Riga, Swedish police detective Wallander travels to Latvia to investigate a drug-related double homicide. Latvia in 1992, of course, is vastly more unsettled than even Hungary in 1966, which provides a lot of the interest. When Mankell was working on this novel Germany had been reunified but the Soviet Union still existed. Mankell felt compelled to add an afterword shortly before publication to clarify some (not all) of the ambiguities in an environment of swiftly developing political events. For all that, this is not historical fiction, nor really even police procedural, but more on the order of a Ludlum-style thriller, at which it is very good. Mankell's mystery is well conceived and complex, and the air of late-Soviet paranoia feels perfect. In fact, by about halfway through, the shadowy world of Latvian law enforcement is far the most interesting thread. By the time of the climax it's all so well done it becomes a gripping stay-up-all-night raver. This was only the second Wallander I'd read, after Faceless Killers, and at first I was worried because Wallander was going two-for-two on falling in love inappropriately. As it turns out, the Latvian woman he meets here, Baiba Liepa, has a continuing presence in the series, and there aren't that many others. In general, Wallander's personal life is not that interesting anyway. Mankell figured that out quickly and mostly stuck close to his main skill, which was constructing interesting, satisfying mysteries out of topical social forces and doing it in unforced natural ways. He's not particularly hammering any point, just laying out intriguing situations. Here that involves relations between Sweden and NATO on the one hand, and Latvia and the USSR on the other, proxies in a way for capitalism and communism yet in either case populated by interesting individual people. The Latvian stuff may tend to run to some extremes, with a brave and noble underground fighting for human rights versus evil totalitarian bureaucrats (who torture people and otherwise destroy lives). Mankell does not let the West off the hook, but his views of those shortcomings are more subtle, more like seeing toxic banality supported by constant barrages of empty commercial sentiments tending to make citizens alienated and disaffected. Maybe not so original, but a big, fun, and sprawling story to read.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Holy Motors (2012)

France / Germany, 115 minutes
Director / writer: Leos Carax
Photography: Yves Cape, Caroline Champetier
Music: Kylie Minogue, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sparks
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Cast: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Michel Piccoli, Kylie Minogue, Eva Mendes, Elise Lhomeau

In February, the latest annual update came for the list of best 21st-century movies over at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, the sweeping aggregation of worldwide critical opinion. According to TSPDT site proprietor Bill Georgaris (whose generous work is much appreciated!), the update was affected this year (not surprisingly) by best-of-decade lists that started arriving around December, and it will be affected next year by the same factor. He didn't get to them all by the time he was wrapping up this year's update, plus no doubt more are still coming in. The list is likely to be affected dramatically again after 2022, when Sight & Sound publishes the results of its own survey, conducted every 10 years, arguably an ongoing pillar of film criticism dating back to the 1950s. Holy Motors is not the only 2010s movie that went high with this year's update—other winners include Mad Max: Fury Road, Boyhood, The Social Network, Under the Skin, Amour, Moonlight, The Act of Killing, Toni Erdmann, and The Master. But Holy Motors did the best of them all, a steady climber already that suddenly shot from #59 last year all the way to #13.

I'm doing a bit of throat-clearing here (hoping you don't notice) because the fact is that Holy Motors is a movie that mostly just puts me off. I've classed it with a few other pictures that came out around then that I think of as "arty bullshit" (even though I'm susceptible to arty bullshit myself, e.g., David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, two favorites). The only one I've been able to remember is Cloud Atlas—but I'm sure there's at least one more from 2011 or 2012, long, aimless, beauteous, fodder for the 6-10 positions in year-end lists. It took me a few years to get to Holy Motors and my thought then was that it was better than I expected—better than Cloud Atlas. Seeing it again recently, I was impressed with its lucidity and energy. Unfortunately, I have to say I think it is still mainly arty bullshit.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Marriage Story (2019)

Full disclosure, I can't say I've ever entirely enjoyed a picture by director and writer Noah Baumbach. I've admired them (The Squid and the Whale), loathed them (Margot at the Wedding), and been indifferent to them (Frances Ha, Greenberg). As with pictures by Michael Haneke, I tend to go into them a little wary, because I know if I like anyone too much (or even people generally) I'm bound to be hurt. Baumbach is just that kind of guy. Marriage Story, which is actually of course a divorce story, does not change any of that, even as I add it without hesitation to the "admire" stack. Good things here notably include an outstanding performance from Scarlett Johansson. Adam Driver, the other principal, is pretty good too. And then, perhaps because Baumbach is a little trendy and/or casting directors Douglas Aibel and Francine Maisler tried a little harder, the supporting cast is packed with many pleasant surprises too (Alan Alda, Laura Dern, Julie Hagerty, Ray Liotta), plus Randy Newman provides original music. To be clear, my complaint about Baumbach is his caustic misanthropy (understandable enough, but still somehow very hard to take). I have no problems with his skills as a screenwriter or director, which are considerable. There may be a number of wincing clichés about Marriage Story, with its super-privileged creative class who divide their time between New York City and Los Angeles. Driver's character, an experimental theater director, actually wins a MacArthur grant in the course of things. Setting that aside (even as I suspect it's there as a deliberate irritant, a thumb to the eye made of envy ... more of my problem with Baumbach), Marriage Story is a reasonably true story of a 20something marriage that ends in a 30something divorce in our modern America, meaning since Reagan but before the pandemic. Charlie and Nicole start out wanting to stay friends, but lawyers, unresolved resentments, and other pressures make it difficult, almost impossible, as the emotional warp and woof of events unfolds. It's all the issues we know: a woman who can't speak to her needs sacrificing everything to her man, who in turn is as oblivious as an infant. It's a reasonably happy and functioning marriage until it stops being so, for reasons no one can really articulate except to know it's irretrievably broken. This breakup is complicated by a kid, but don't worry, Baumbach is never going to go sentimental on us, and the kid is as bewildered and bewildering as everything else about the divorce. It's a truthful story and an artful one too. If its scenes often seem borrowed from Woody Allen movies—the urbane in their natural habitat, dim murmuring wood-paneled bars with someone playing Cole Porter on a piano—that's just the creative class front and center. Baumbach is a good deal more sensitive to the realities of relationships than Allen ever dreamed. Prepare to be annoyed, to be sad, and for various raw facts about human psychology.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

From Here to Eternity (1951)

I would be lying to you if I said this didn't sometimes feel like the most aptly named novel ever. My recurring question—how many more miles to eternity?—was probably not helped by reading a version with all the original excisions restored (mainly swearing and sex). It's not really a war novel, though it's set in Hawaii and includes the Pearl Harbor attack in a chapter near the end, but more a novel of the Great Depression. The cast of characters is a roundup of officers, noncommissioned officers, enlisted men, and their various women. There's a kind of manly unadorned style of language that is simple and clean, and rarely ornate, but often strays into self-consciously clunky. James Jones is not a skilled storyteller any more than a gifted stylist, by this novel. So it goes on for a long time. I like the way it's fully committed to the underdog, but honestly, a lot of these underdogs are not that sympathetic, even if we get how they got that way. From Here to Eternity has much more in common with Catch-22 than The Naked and the Dead, focused fiercely on the stultifying bureaucracy that was day-to-day life in the prewar military. Most of the characters, even the women, are hard drinkers. As usual, women and non-white people get the worst of everything. There are prostitutes and the usual related issues (hearts of gold, "I don't have to pay for it!" etc.). As a sheltered white boomer from the suburbs I have to say this kind of thing is mostly lost on me. Not only were prostitutes never any kind of formative experience for me, they were never even a factor at all. These lives look dreary and suffocating, going ridiculously flinty no harm no foul on all kinds of severely questionable behavior. I've also spent my life repelled by the kind of drinking reported here. The novel seemed most interesting to me in the section on the stockade. Our main hero (of two or three), Prewitt, was played by Montgomery Clift in the movie. He's a bit of a '50s antihero type, self-destructive and poetical, but that side of him (seen in his bugle playing, for example) is not very convincing, though Jones is often trying hard. Another important character, Sgt. Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), is a similar case but with a slightly different flavoring as a noncommissioned officer. Another, Sgt. Maylon Stark (George Reeves, but the character was mostly written out of the movie), is more of same. Arguably a fourth, Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra), is yet more of the same. From Here to Eternity is an interesting big mess in many ways, but I'm still not sure it's really worth the time, let alone one of the 20th century's best novels.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

"The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (1936)

This long story by H.P. Lovecraft has a lot of his usual gaffes as well as strengths. It's a pretty decent rave-up overall that way but, curiously, he seems to miss the most interesting point of his own story. I'm tempted to put that squarely on his ongoing xenophobic panic, not to remind everyone about it but because I think this time it hurt a story even more than usual. But not to worry. As part of the "Cthulhu Mythos," these Deep Ones and/or Old Ones have likely seen treatment by someone who doesn't miss the point (I wouldn't know because I haven't read much beyond Lovecraft in this particular universe, or even all of Lovecraft). "Innsmouth" pairs a shabby and mysterious New England seaside town with a teeming underwater civilization just over the harbor reef. The sea creatures can interbreed with humans and begin life on land. As they age they return to the waters, where they live forever (which reminded me of the robot kid in A.I.). In return for being allowed to live among the townspeople in Innsmouth, the amphibians use magical mystical powers to draw fish to the harbor, creating an exclusive market for the community. The crusty New England fishermen have all the work they can stand. The amphibians also appear to have some process for extracting gold from the ocean, or perhaps mining it somewhere. They keep a refinery going in the town, which supports everything.

It's beautiful, really, but no, H.P. has to make it a nightmare of foreign alien invasion, shading everything in that direction. The whole place smells "fishy"—an observation that only comes up 16 or 17 times. The strange and creepy "Innsmouth look" features eyes that never blink, narrow heads, scaly necks. The only clonking detail he might have missed is that they keep goldfish food sitting around in snack bowls. They are meant to frighten us, but first they are comical and then they just start to look like a lost opportunity to tell an interesting story about evolution. But, right, they frighten the clutched-up narrator, who desperately tries to figure out whether they are "Asiatic, Polynesian, Levantine, or negroid." The amphibians have a history of being horrible so, like aliens from outer space with their anal probes, they have to be taken as horrible to a certain degree on the story's terms. So horrible they are. They and their rubbery pursed lips have put the clampdown on Innsmouth, chasing away all the Christian churches (or even better, adapting them) and also starting their own, the Esoteric Order of Dagon. They don't like strangers in town, especially when the stranger talks to (and can understand the ludicrous dialect of) a 96-year-old alcoholic we see pound the best part of a quart of liquor (yeah, right). And they really don't like it when the stranger stays overnight, which our narrator never intended to do but, well, things happen.

And so to the night of terror, when the narrator's bus out that evening breaks down and he has to stay in the town hotel and battle fishy smells. It's not a bad action / adventure type of tale at this point, though I admit sometimes I got confused about the street names and directions and landmarks as the action went down. (The narrator gets all his information about the town from a grocery store clerk in the town First National, who helpfully draws him up a complicated map and tells him all the parts of town to avoid.) The point is, at the barest level, there are malevolent monster things after the narrator and he must get away in a not-so-merry chase, but all's well that ends well and he finds a way to beat it out of town unharmed. Well, there's still one more horrible revelation when the narrator begins to notice, years later, that he is less and less interested in blinking, but I'll leave you to find it for yourself. Again, turning this into a nightmare when it could be something so much more encompassing and immersive, squishy bio/body horror, and issues about species development, consciousness development, intelligence, adaptation. I mean, all that is here—there has to be fan fiction that takes it in its obvious LGBTQ+ implications to all kinds of much better and more interesting places. Lovecraft dreamed it up. But it's almost like he didn't really notice. I mean, they're interbreeding with us. They like us on some level. Maybe we should try liking them too. If I weren't so hinky about world-building fiction as a general thing, I might be tempted to look into it further. I might anyway.

H.P. Lovecraft, Tales (Library of America)
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