Bad hombres

 

© Pan Macmillan      

 

I greatly admire Cormac McCarthy’s novels Blood Meridian (1985) and The Road (2006).  However, I hadn’t felt any overwhelming urge to read No Country for Old Men (2005) – another of McCarthy’s more famous works – because in 2007 I’d seen its Oscar-winning film adaptation by Joel and Ethan Coen and I’d heard that the film followed the book closely.

 

Thanks to the Coen Brothers, I already knew the characters and plot of No Country for Old Men.  Also, I found the film vaguely dissatisfying.  As I rather pretentiously explained to a friend in 2007, “It’s like a Frankenstein’s monster where Jean-Paul Sartre’s head is stitched onto Clint Eastwood’s body.”  What I meant was that for most of its running time the film is a lean, ruthless and nasty thriller, a gripping piece of modern western noir.  But then near the end, its remorseless storyline just stops.  And after that, there’s a protracted scene where Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Bell character visits an elderly relative and announces his intention to retire because, basically, the world is a terrible place and he can’t handle it any longer.  Thus, the film seems to peter out amid lamentations of angst and existentialism.

 

I’d assumed that, since it was supposedly a faithful adaptation of the book, the book would have a similarly dissatisfying ending.  Which admittedly is a bit unfair towards poor old Cormac McCarthy.

 

A while ago I was back in Scotland and I spotted a second-hand copy of No Country for Old Men, the book, on sale in a local charity shop.  And with that jolt of horror you get occasionally when you’re growing older and you realise how quickly time seems to be passing, it occurred to me that it’d been a whole decade since I’d seen the movie.  I’d also forgotten a lot of what’d happened in it.  This seemed, then, a good opportunity to buy the literary version of No Country for Old Men and acquaint myself with it.

 

Here’s my opinion and, inevitably, there are spoilers ahead both for the book and for the film.

 

My main impression after reading No Country for Old Men was that, yes, for the most part, the Coen Brothers were remarkably faithful to the original when they made their movie.  As the story unfolds – a hunter and Vietnam vet called Llewellyn Moss stumbles across the bloody, corpse-strewn aftermath of a drug-deal-gone-wrong on the remote Texas / Mexico border, lifts a satchel full of money and makes a run for it, only to be pursued by a gang of vengeful drug-dealing gangsters, as well as by a certain Anton Chigurh, a hitman so relentless, merciless and fearsome he makes the Terminator look like Bambi – I found near-identical scenes from the movie returning to my memory after ten years.

 

One difference between the book and the film that I noticed early on was when Moss, having scarpered with the money, nobly but foolishly decides to return to the scene of the massacre because he’d left behind one survivor, a badly-injured gangster who was begging for water.  When he comes back with some water for that survivor, the survivor is surviving no longer; and one of the gangs involved has sent along some new hoodlums to find out what’s happened to their drugs and money.  There follows a nail-biting chase across the desert, climaxing with Moss flinging himself into a river to escape the hoodlums.  In the film, the Coen Brothers ratchet up the suspense yet further by introducing a big attack dog that doesn’t appear in the book.  Even the river doesn’t deter the beast in its pursuit of Moss because it swims as fast as it runs.  Indeed, the dog is a crafty metaphorical foreshadowing of Anton Chigurh, who is soon pursuing Moss too.  If there’s one thing you want following you even less than a big attack dog, it’s him.

 

The book also has more of Sheriff Bell, the ageing lawman trying to find and save Moss whilst also keeping tabs on Carla Jean, Moss’s young wife.  At regular intervals, there are short chapters representing Bell’s stream-of-consciousness while he ruminates on existence and the general state of things.  “My daddy always told me to just do the best you know how and tell the truth…” he says at one point.  “And if you done somethin wrong just stand up and say you done it and say you’re sorry and get on with it.”  This makes him a likeable and sympathetic character, but not too much so.  Later, as we hear more of his musings, we realise some of his views are quite reactionary and probably if he was still around in 2016 – the story is set in the 1980s – he’d have voted for Donald Trump.  These interludes also prepare us for the gloomy philosophical ending, in a way that we weren’t prepared for it whilst watching the film.

 

© Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

 

For much of the book and film, the plot is an increasingly desperate and vicious cat-and-mouse game between Moss and Chigurh, while various cannon-fodder Mexican gangsters turn up and get blown away.  McCarthy describes it all in his admirably economical and deceptively simple-looking prose, though lovers of punctuation will cringe at his brutal disregard for apostrophes and inverted commas.

 

It helps too that McCarthy seems au fait with the macho, rural and violent world he’s writing about: its gangland machinations, its police procedures, its vehicles, its guns: “The rifle had a Canjar trigger set to nine ounces and he pulled the rifle and the boot towards him with great care and sighted again and jacked the crosshairs slightly up the back of the animal standing most broadly to him…  Even with the heavy barrel and the muzzlebrake the rifle bucked up off the rest.  When he pulled the animals back into the scope he could see them all standing as before.  It took the 150-grain bullet the better part of a second to get there but it took the sound twice that.”  I know little about McCarthy’s background – he’s very reclusive – and I’ve no idea if he’s really the man’s man, the rugged Hemmingway type, that he comes across as here.  But the fact that he does come across like that gives the telling of the story an extra conviction.

 

I felt apprehensive as I approached the novel’s end.  Would the main storyline finish as abruptly and unsatisfyingly as it did in the film – which had Bell arriving at a motel for a rendezvous with Moss, only to discover that Moss has just been killed (offscreen) by some Mexicans?  Leaving only the scene where Bell decides to call it quits, plus one where Chigurh pays a visit to the now-widowed Carla Jean?  (In the film, it’s implied that he executes her.  In the book, it’s spelt out more clearly.)  I assume that by ending it like this the Coen Brothers believed they were making a statement about the fickleness of fate and the randomness of life and death – and by this late moment in the story, Moss had surely used up all of his nine lives.  But having spent the most of two hours rooting for him, I wanted something more than a brief, flippant reference to him dying.  Call me old-fashioned, but I’d have liked a little more closure with the character.

 

In the book, Moss dies with an equal sense of arbitrariness – Bell gets to the motel and finds out that his man has just been assassinated.  However, there’s more.  The Coen Brothers, it transpires, had made a major break with this section of the book because they left out a character, a female teenage runaway.  McCarthy has Moss pick the girl up while she’s hitchhiking and while he’s making the fateful journey to the motel.  To be honest, the girl isn’t much of a character, being a think-she-knows-everything teenage brat.  As someone who was once a thought-I-knew-everything teenage brat myself, I can speak with authority here.  But at least her naivete provides some context for Moss, who by now is feeling as old, jaded and world-weary as Bell.  (Later, at the motel, she offers to sleep with Moss, but wanting to stay faithful to Carla Jean he turns her down.)

 

When Moss finally shows up, yes, the Mexicans have intervened and Moss is dead, as was the case in the film.  However, the book has a deputy tell Bell what happened from the eyewitness reports: “…the Mexican started it.  Says he drug the woman out of her room and the other man (Moss) came out with a gun but when he seen the Mexican had a gun pointed at the woman’s head he laid his own piece down.  And whenever he done that the Mexican shoved the woman away and shot her and then turned and shot him….  Shot em with a goddamned machinegun.  Accordin to this witness the old boy fell down the steps and then he picked up his gun again and shot the Mexican.  Which I dont see how he done it.  He was shot all to pieces.”  So at least Moss dies making an honourable (if futile) self-sacrifice to save the teenager, and he goes down with guns blazing, taking out one last bad guy.  That’s more like the closure I was looking for.

 

I know people who’ve objected to both versions of No Country for Old Men because of another disappearing plotline, the one involving Anton Chigurh – who in the film was memorably played by Javier Bardem.  Both the book and film end with him still on the loose, presumably being unspeakably evil and continuing to kill people.  But I don’t mind that loose thread so much.  I find it appropriate that McCarthy wraps up the story with Bell lamenting about the darkness of the world; while Chigurh still lurks in that darkness as a symbolic bogeyman.

 

© Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

 

And my overall verdict?  I’d give McCarthy’s novel an impressive 9 out of 10, compared with a less impressive but still decent 7 out of 10 for the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation – a couple of points being deducted on account of its ending.

 

Something fishy

 

© Heinemann

 

The other week my better half (Mrs Blood and Porridge) and I were travelling in a three-wheeler along Colombo’s Marine Drive when we found unexpectedly found ourselves at the back of a traffic jam.  This was unexpected because we were on a wide part of the drive that isn’t normally prone to bottlenecks; and it was the middle of a Sunday, when Colombo’s frequently severe traffic isn’t that severe.

 

Then we realised that the congestion was caused by a large number of vehicles left parked at the seaward side of Marine Drive.  Crowds of people had climbed out of those vehicles and crossed the railway tracks, which run alongside the drive, to get to the rocky shoreline overlooking the Indian Ocean.  We asked our driver what was happening.  He didn’t know, but thought that someone might have drowned – and the onlookers were there out of ghoulish curiosity to see the police retrieve and remove the body.

 

By chance, the place we were travelling to on Marine Drive, the 14-storey Ozo Hotel, stood opposite the spot that seemed to be the focus of the crowds.  We planned to have some lunch at the hotel’s rooftop bar.  After we’d finally arrived there and taken the lift to the top of the building, the first thing I did was go to the railing and look down over Marine Drive and the railway, shoreline and sea and find out what had been drawing all those spectators.

 

Far below, lying across some sand whilst being gently pummelled by endless silvery breakers, was a big pale carcass maybe twenty feet long.   A carcass of what, I couldn’t tell.  It was so decayed and shapeless and bloated that it was unrecognisable.  I was relieved to be 14 storeys above the scene, well out of the way of what must have been a vile reek of putrefaction.

 

 

At first I thought it might be the remains of a whale-shark – the world’s biggest fish species – because two months earlier someone had told me she’d been scuba-diving at a shipwreck a short distance out into the ocean from Colombo when one of those giant (but non-carnivorous) sharks had swum at her out of the murk and spent a minute moseying around her.  However, according to a news report that appeared subsequently, the badly-decomposed carcass was identified not as a shark but as a whale.

 

This occurred just a fortnight after a well-publicised incident where a 50-foot-long corpse was washed up at Seram Island in Indonesia.  Rotting, but still bleeding enough to turn the surrounding waters red, the thing initially caused speculation that it might be the remains of some gargantuan and hitherto-unknown sea-creature.  Later, though, marine experts were able to identify it, from the presence of baleen plates, grooves along its body and certain skeletal features, as a whale too.

 

Being into literature, the carcass on Marine Drive set me wondering about giant washed-up bodies in books and stories I’d read.  I could think of two examples.  One occurred in the whimsical (and occasionally twee) fantasy novel Mr Pye (1953) by Mervyn Peake, which is set on Sark in the Channel Islands and concerns an eccentric evangelist who arrives to preach a message of love and compassion to the islanders.  A first attempt to convert a mass audience ends in disaster, however – he assembles Sark’s inhabitants on a beach one evening with the promise of a giant picnic, but before he can start proselytising, the waves inconveniently dump a dead whale on the sand nearby and the stench of it drives everyone away.

 

The other example I thought of was the short story The Drowned Giant by J.G. Ballard, which appeared in his 1964 collection The Terminal Beach and, as its name suggests, isn’t about a whale carcass but about a gigantic human one that’s inexplicably deposited on a beach following a violent storm.  In his typically perverse fashion, Ballard has no interest in who the giant was or how he came into existence or how he ended up on the beach.  Rather, he focuses on the reaction to him by the ordinary, normal-sized humans living along the coast.

 

This begins with intense and rather disrespectful curiosity – soon they’re clambering over his huge, dead bulk like the Lilliputians swarming over Gulliver.  Then it turns into even less respectful greed, with the body gradually being dismantled and processed by “a fertiliser company and a cattle-food manufacturer”.  And finally the poor giant fades out of both the landscape and human consciousness.  The stretch of beach that was his final resting place is left empty save for a “clutter of bleached ribs like the timbers of a derelict ship” that “make an excellent perch for the sea-wearying gulls.”  Meanwhile, the anonymous narrator observes that “most people, even those who first saw him cast up on the shore after the storm, now remember the giant, if at all, as a large sea beast.”

 

One of Ballard’s most haunting and melancholic stories, The Drowned Giant can be read here.

 

Dorothy – somewhere under the rainbow

 

© Penguin

 

Anyone who’s followed this blog over the last couple of years will know that I’ve been catching up with George Orwell’s less famous novels, i.e. those that aren’t Animal Farm (1945) or 1984 (1949).  I’ve read 1934’s Burmese Days, 1936’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying and 1939’s Coming Up for Air, all of which impressed me.  Recently, I finished reading what was for me Orwell’s final novel, 1935’s A Clergyman’s Daughter.  How does it measure up to the rest of Orwell’s fiction?

 

Well, I’d say A Clergyman’s Daughter is the weakest of the bunch, although the weakness is structural rather than to do with the content.  As usual, I was absorbed by Orwell’s prose and powers of description and characterisation; but the narrative devices he uses here are problematic.

 

Actually, outside of 1984, it’s perhaps the most ambitious of Orwell’s books too.  It portrays life in mid-1930s Britain across a wide range of social classes.  We meet characters from the hard-pressed working class and, below them, the underclass of beggars, derelicts and prostitutes for whom securing shelter on a winter’s night can be a matter of life and death; from the blunt and materialistic lower middle class, the petty bourgeoise, who here seem petty indeed; and from an upper middle class that’s on the slide, floundering financially if not yet in terms of social standing.  Dorothy Hare, the titular clergyman’s daughter, is an unhappy member of that last class.

 

Her father is the Reverend Charles Hare, Rector of St Athelstan’s Church in a Suffolk village called Knype Hill.  However, it’s clear from the very start – “As the alarm clock on the chest of drawers exploded like a horrid little bomb of bell metal, Dorothy, wrenched from the depths of some complex, troubling dream, awoke with a start and lay on her back looking into the darkness in extreme exhaustion” – that it’s his daughter who keeps his household, church and parish afloat, with the most meagre of resources.

 

Dorothy gets the food on his table, tends to his garden, types out his sermons, delivers his parish magazine, visits his parishioners, organises all the school plays, concerts, jumble sales, bazaars and pageants that bring a trickle of money to cover the most serious repairs needed by his near-ruinous church-building, serves as honorary secretary of three different church leagues and captains the local Girl Guides and, exhaustingly, struggles to pay or at least stave off the bills that come constantly through the vicarage door.  Her father is lazy, pompous, snobbish, bullying and contemptuous of his parishioners and his head is totally in the sand regarding the desperate state of his finances.  In his genteel way, he’s as monstrous as the most racist of the colonialists in Orwell’s previous novel, Burmese Days.  Meanwhile, the only thing that keeps Dorothy going is her Christian faith, which is so stringent that when she finds herself entertaining un-Christian thoughts she chastises herself by sticking a pin into her arm.

 

Ironically, the only person in the neighbourhood who seems aware of Dorothy’s plight is an atheistic and decadent artist called Warburton.  He enjoys Dorothy’s company and, despite multiple misgivings, she has some fondness for his.  But Orwell makes it plain that early on that Warburton is no lovable rogue – he’s a loathsome predator.  On page 41 we learn how once he “sat down beside her on the sofa and begun making love to her, violently, outrageously, even brutally.  It was practically an assault.”  (The preface to my edition of A Clergyman’s Daughter states that the original publisher, Gollancz, insisted that Orwell remove the phrase “tried to rape”.)  The fact that after this Dorothy still puts up with Warburton underlines how starved of friendship and attention she is in the rest of her existence.

 

Then 85 pages in, things change.  Dorothy is launched on a journey as unexpected and, in its way, as extraordinary as that of another Dorothy, in Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).  However, Orwell’s Dorothy ends up in no fairy-tale land, but in harsh 1930s working-class London.  She also arrives there, temporarily, without her memory.  Orwell’s account of how this happens is unsatisfactory.  Indeed, he doesn’t spend much time explaining it, suggesting he himself is unhappy with his plot machinations here.  It also involves a mighty coincidence, as Dorothy’s mishap occurs at the same moment that Warburton leaves Knype Hill for the continent.  As a result, the gossipy villagers assume that she’s run off with him and her father is too outraged to search for her.

 

The amnesic Dorothy falls in with some Cockney never-do-wells, who take her on what was a common autumn pilgrimage for people from London’s East End at the time – into the fields of Kent to pick the hop harvest.  Orwell writes this section of the book with a convincing eye for detail – he knows what he’s talking about since he went hop-picking himself in 1931.  (Actually, I once picked hops too, as a teenager in 1983.  I don’t suppose anyone does this now, modern British farms being so mechanised.)

 

 From pinterest.com

 

Later, there’s a curious 34-page section written in the style of a play, wherein Dorothy, now back in London with her memory restored, spends a night on the streets with a company of assorted down-and-outs whose one objective is to stop themselves freezing to death.  This piece of literary experimentation feels like something James Joyce might have done in Ulysses (1922).  It doesn’t feel like Orwell, though.

 

Then comes another twist to the plot – not much more believable than the last one – and Dorothy, unable to return to Knype Hill because of the scandal she’s allegedly caused, finds herself teaching at a small private school called Ringwood House Academy for Girls in a “repellent suburb ten or a dozen miles from London.”  Equally repellent is the school’s principal and owner, Mrs Creevy, of whom Orwell writes: “You could tell her at a glance for a person who knew exactly what she wanted, and would grasp it as ruthlessly as any machine.”  Dorothy gamely tries to up the standard of education the girls have received there, which has basically consisted of getting fragments of rote-learning and mindlessly copying passages into their jotters.  But predictably, her efforts to teach her young charges how to think, use their imaginations and enjoy the works of Shakespeare go down badly with their lower-middle-class shopkeeper parents, who have very different notions of what ‘education’ means.  They’re particularly horrified that she’s introduced their daughters to Macbeth, which contains disgusting words like ‘womb’.

 

This section lets Orwell take aim at the private schools that proliferated in 1930s England.  “At any given moment there are somewhere in the neighbourhood of ten thousand of them, of which less than a thousand are subject to Government inspection.  And though some of them are better than others, and a certain number, probably, are better than the council schools with which they compete, there is the same fundamental evil in all of them; that is, that they have ultimately no purpose except to make money….  Only the tiny minority of ‘recognised’ schools – less than one in ten – are officially tested to decide whether they keep up a reasonable educational standard.  As for the others, they are free to teach or not teach exactly as they choose.  No one controls or inspects them except the children’s parents – the blind leading the blind.”

 

Things end badly for Dorothy at Ringwood House Academy, but there’s yet another unlikely twist (and another unlikely coincidence involving Warburton) and she’s finally returned to Knype Hill, where she faces her biggest dilemma.  Does she simply return to doing what she’d done before, keeping her father’s shaky clerical enterprise on the road?  Because now, thanks to everything that she’s been through, she’s lost the spark that’d previously animated her – her belief in God.

 

Orwell was not proud of A Clergyman’s Daughter and referred to it as ‘a silly potboiler’.  It’s certainly much more than that although, as I’ve said, it’s damaged by the unlikeliness of the devices that move its plot from A to B and then to C.  However, if you treat it not as a novel but as a series of novellas – a triptych of stories giving accounts of the annual 1930s hop harvest, of a ghastly 1930s private school and of a decaying 1930s vicarage – it’s as fine as his other fiction.

 

© Daily Telegraph

 

Penguin Classics make room for Harry Harrison

 

© Penguin

 

A while back, I wrote on this blog about my favourite works of dystopian fiction, which ranged from such well-known novels of futuristic doom and gloom as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) to lesser-known items like Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972) and Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908).  However, writing that particular post made me realise that there were a lot of famous dystopian novels I hadn’t yet read.  So in the past year I’ve been catching up with them – Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and, most recently, Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966).  Here, I’d like to say something about that last book.

 

The edition of Make Room! Make Room! I read was a 2009 one published by Penguin Modern Classics.  This feels ironic considering that for most of his career Harry Harrison (who died in 2012) was regarded as a solid, meat-and-two-veg-type science fiction writer.  Not the sort of person you’d expect to find favour among mainstream literary critics or to have work published by a company as synonymous with highbrow literature as Penguin.

 

Harrison’s first creative job was actually as an artist, not as a writer.  Following stints in the Air Corps and military police during World War II, which left him disdainful of military culture – in the introduction to one book he wrote that the armed forces’ “mixture of sadism, unquestioned authority, brutality, racism, intolerance, vulgarity, to name but a few, was the antithesis of everything that I believed in” – he spent much of the late 1940s and 1950s drawing and editing comic-books.  It wasn’t until a bout of illness left him, temporarily, unable to draw that he tried his hand at writing.  In the decades that followed, he established himself as one of science fiction’s most popular authors, thanks largely to swashbuckling and tongue-in-cheek space operas like the Stainless Steel Rat books.  I read some of these in my youth and have always thought their comedic and satirical elements helped pave the way for Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

 

However, space operas and humour were two things unlikely to win favour with literary critics, which meant that Harrison, though popular, was underrated as a writer.  This was a pity.  For one thing, science fiction is a genre whose practitioners include many right-wing dingbats – see Robert Heinlein (whose gung-ho 1959 novel Starship Troopers Harrison took the piss out of with 1965’s Bill the Galactic Hero), Jerry Pournelle, Orson Scott Card and arsehole extraordinaire Theodore Beale.  In comparison, Harrison’s authorial voice was refreshingly liberal and anti-militaristic and it would’ve done the genre’s reputation no harm if he’d been taken more seriously.

 

Anyway, I trust Harrison enjoyed a wry chuckle about Penguin’s decision to label Make Room! Make Room! a ‘modern classic’ three years before his death.

 

From journal.neilgaiman.com

 

Make Room! Make Room! is very different from the Stainless Steel Rat and Harrison’s other outer-space-set fiction.  Its story takes place in New York in 1999, 33 years in the future from when Harrison wrote it.  The New York it depicts is hellish, bursting at its concrete seams with 35 million inhabitants, with gasoline all but gone and supplies of food and water running dangerously low.  The book is Harrison’s warning about the danger of letting the human population grow unchecked and the resultant depletion of earth’s resources.  However, in the opening chapters, the story unfolds against the backdrop of a sweltering heatwave: “After the damp hallway the heat of Twenty-fifth Street hit him in a musty wave, a stifling miasma compounded of decay, dirt and unwashed humanity…  Days of heat had softened the tar so that it gave underfoot, then clutched at the soles of his shoes.”  In 2017, this gives the reader the uncomfortable feeling that what’s really blighting the city is the rising temperatures of man-made climate change.

 

The novel’s hero is a tough but dutiful cop called Andy Rusch who’s tasked with investigating the murder of a gangster called Michael O’Brien.  Cruelly, O’Brien has been living it up in a swanky gated-community apartment with near-unobtainable luxuries such as liquor and red meat, while Rusch is stuck in a partitioned room cohabited by an old man called Sol who spends much of his time pedalling on a wheel-less bicycle that’s wired to an electrical generator (which keeps his ancient TV and fridge running).  Although the city authorities believe that O’Brien was rubbed out by a rival syndicate keen to muscle their way into the city – and keep pressurising Rusch to find the culprits – the murderer is really a hapless young petty criminal called Billy Chung who accidentally killed O’Brien during a bungled robbery.

 

Thus, the book has a double narrative, focusing on both Rusch pursuing the killer and on Chung fleeing and trying to evade capture.  However, the plot has a darker momentum too – downwards.  We see Rusch’s life gradually disintegrate as the polluted, over-populated, under-resourced city around him goes from bad to worse and, despite his best efforts, he fails to hold onto the two people who matter most to him: the feisty but vulnerable Sol and the gorgeous but good-natured Shirl, moll of the late Michael O’Brien, whom Rusch falls in love with during the course of his investigations.

 

It’s a smart move by Harrison to wrap up the apocalyptic content of Make Room! Make Room! in the trimmings of a crime / detective story.  Rather than thrust the horrors of this hellhole New York into our faces, he lets us concentrate, mainly, on the story of Rusch tracking down Chung; while slipping in disturbing details about what’s going on in the background.  There are casual mentions of ‘tugtrucks’ – which we eventually realise are wagons pulled along by teams of sweating, straining human beings, there being no more fuel left for conventional, engine-powered trucks.  Shirl pays a visit to a heavily fortified, heavily guarded hideout that’s not selling drugs, as we initially expect, but selling cuts of meat.  And there are references to Rusch stepping over sleeping or huddling bodies in hallways and stairwells, indicating that hell isn’t quite Jean-Paul Satre’s definition of it as ‘other people’.  No, hell is lots of other people.

 

One thing that’s helped Make Room! Make Room! endure is it being the basis for the fondly remembered 1973 movie Soylent Green, which starred Charlton Heston as its main character, renamed as Thorn.  I remember reading about Soylent Green in a book called Future Tense: the Cinema of Science Fiction (1978) written by the movie critic John Brosnan.  As part of his coverage of the film, Brosnan interviewed Harrison, who had mixed feelings about how his story had been adapted from the page to the screen.

 

He certainly admired the job that the director Richard Fleischer (another underrated talent) had made of Soylent Green, but he begrudged some of the changes wrought by the filmmakers.  For instance, Sol – who in Soylent Green is played by Edward G. Robinson – dies in the book from injuries he sustains after a demonstration he takes part in, in support of family planning, turns into a riot.  In the movie, Sol decides he’s had enough of the increasingly-shitty world and goes to a ‘euthanasia clinic’ to end it all.  Harrison wasn’t impressed by the use of this plot device because, unbeknownst to the filmmakers, euthanasia clinics and suicide machines are something of a cliché in science fiction.  (Recently, I’ve also been reading Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, first published in 1895, and even it refers to a futuristic public facility called a ‘government lethal chamber’.)  However, he conceded that Sol’s death-scene in the film, where calming images of fields, forests, flowers, wildlife, unpolluted oceans and other things that no longer seem to exist are projected around him while he expires, was powerful.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

And Harrison didn’t like the movie’s climax, which ironically has become its most famous moment – wherein Heston discovers that soylent green, the mysterious foodstuff that everyone eats in the future New York, is secretly made out of recycled human corpses. This prompts him to yell, “Soylent green is PEOPLE!”  Harrison had researched Make Room! Make Room! meticulously to make its apocalypse seem as realistic as possible, so he’d have known that the idea of humanity relying on industrialised cannibalism to survive wasn’t feasible.  Human beings don’t fatten up very quickly and they require a lot of feeding and looking after, so as a foodstuff to meet the world’s dietary needs, they’re economically a bad idea.  And as this recent study has shown, they’re not even that rich in calories.

 

In contrast, Make Room! Make Room! ends with Rusch on duty in Times Square on the eve of the Millennium – and while the beleaguered city enters the 21st century, he’s given a bitter reminder that no matter how bad things get for the great mass of humanity, there’ll always be a wealthy minority who carry on living in luxury.

 

No doubt Harrison set Make Room! Make Room! in 1999 because he couldn’t resist having its final scene occur at the dawn of the new Millennium, a moment loaded with significance.  However, that doesn’t make the book any less terrifying in 2017.  After all, we still live in a world whose ever-burgeoning human population is decimating its supplies of soil, water, vegetation and animal life.  Our civilisation is still hopelessly dependent on a fossil fuel whose stocks are frighteningly finite.  Add to that the fact that our most powerful nation is run by an unstable and illiterate moron who thinks he can make the threat of man-made climate change disappear simply by denying its existence.

 

Today more than ever, Make Room! Make Room! is an example of ‘science fiction’ threatening to become ‘science fact’ – in the worst possible way.

 

The end of the road

 

© John Murray

 

A while ago I wrote about A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  These were the first two instalments in a trilogy of books describing a walking journey made across Europe in 1933 and 1934 by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=5008

 

Fermor was only in his late teens at the time.  Subsequently, he’d make a name for himself as a soldier, decorated war hero, author and scholar, although nowadays, six years after his death, I suspect he’s best known for being a possible inspiration for the character of James Bond, who was created by his friend Ian Fleming.  (Fleming was always meticulous about his research and he can’t have been too pleased when, following the publication of the 1963 Bond novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Fermor mischievously pointed out an error to him.  At one point in the book 007 orders a ‘half-bottle’ of Pol Roger champagne.  But, observed Fermor, Pol Roger is never sold in half-bottles.)

 

A Time of Gifts chronicled Fermor’s progress from Rotterdam to the Czechoslovakian / Hungarian border, while Between the Woods and the Water continued his journey through Hungary and Romania.  He published these two books decades later, the first volume appearing in 1977 and the second in 1986.  The Broken Road, an account of the final part of his epic hike, across Bulgaria to his ultimate destination Constantinople, was published posthumously in 2013.  Fermor didn’t live to complete the third book.  The finished item was based on a draft he’d written and was edited by the travel writer Colin Thubron and Fermor’s biographer Artemis Cooper.  They used information from one of his old diaries to fill in any gaps in the text and, presumably, they gave it a final polish too.

 

I read The Broken Road recently.  How does it compare with the previous two books?  And does the fact that it was still a work-in-progress in 2011, when the great man passed away, lessen its impact?

 

The simple and welcome answer is: hardly at all.  There’s one moment where Fermor’s demise leaves things noticeably unfinished, which I’ll come to later.  Otherwise, this is pleasingly on par with the tone and quality of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  You may feel at times that a further edit could have tightened Fermor’s prose by trimming some of its floridity – but then you may feel that way with the earlier books too.  A verbose chap, Fermor didn’t subscribe to the Ernest Hemmingway less-is-more approach to writing.  Indeed, his garrulousness is part of the three books’ charm.

 

One way in which The Broken Road differs from predecessors is its darker tone.  Now in the late stages of his journey, Fermor refers to fatigue and jadedness.  He’s also in a place, Bulgaria, where he feels more alien and out-of-his-depth.  Occasionally, he becomes gloomy: “…the falling depression had been hammered home by the unbroken downpour, lashed into a spiteful anti-human fury by the unrelenting north-east wind that felt as though it was blowing without let or hindrance, as it probably was, direct from Siberia…”

 

He’s more aware now of encountering duplicity and hostility and things that make him feel uncomfortable as an outsider.  During inclement weather, cart-drivers refuse to give him lifts unless he pays money that he can’t spare.  One evening at a restaurant-bar he’s disturbed when the patrons explode into frenzied celebration at the news that King Alexander I of Yugoslavia has just been assassinated in Marseilles.  (“They’ve killed the Serbian king!  Today, in France!  And it was a Bulgar that did him in!”)  And there’s a perplexing moment when, for no apparent reason, a Bulgarian youth called Gatcho whom he’s befriended turns on him, screams abuse and threatens him with a knife.

 

Afterwards, a chastened Fermor wonders about “…how much of a nuisance I might have proved to countless people during the last year: had I been a perfect pest all across Central Europe?  A deep subsidiary gloom set in…”

 

From ghostofelberry.wordpress.com

 

Though it can’t have been fun at the time, I actually like seeing Fermor out of his comfort zone here.  This is because in the previous books there were times when I felt he had it too cushy, thanks to his privileged background, his wealthy contacts and the easy manner with which he ingratiates himself with those contacts.  As I wrote previously: “Gradually… Fermor falls in with a succession of aristocrats and moneyed folk.  Each of these gets in touch with relatives or friends further along his walking route and arranges for them to put him up.  So Fermor makes increasingly-frequent stops at big houses, where he dawdles among drawing rooms, libraries, servants, vintage motor cars, lavish family picnics and sumptuous evening balls…  Between the Woods and the Water, in particular, contains so many of these aristos that they start to blur into one another.”

 

In The Broken Road, Fermor even has to endure a common hazard for solitary, long-distance budget travellers – the loony who attaches himself to you.  (As someone who’s done a fair amount of travelling, I’ve had many loonies attach themselves to me.)  Here, it’s a misfit called Ivancho, “threadbare and urban and with a face like a hare’s,” who talks “at such a speed that I could scarcely understand a word – at the same time eager, confidential and ear-splitting, and without the faintest trace of punctuation, accompanied by many gestures and with a fixed smile and those hare’s eyes projecting and rolling, as though loose in their sockets.  It continued for mile after mile until my head began to swim and ache.”

 

The book isn’t all misery, of course.  Its pages are frequently brightened by moments of rhapsody, moments when the ever-curious Fermor is genuinely delighted by his discoveries.  For example, the whirlwinds of thistledown, sticks and rubbish that appear on the Dobruja steppe: “The plain was still alive with mirages; these four pillars careered across a sunset that the hanging mantle of dust refracted into a vast and tragic drama of orange and amber and blood red and violet…  There are tales of whole wagons being gathered up by these twisting demons, with sheep and buffaloes…”  Or the dream-like experience he has in the final chapter when he spends the night in a firelit cave by the Black Sea that “arched high overhead but did not go very deep into the cliff side” amid a mixed band of Greek fisherman and Bulgar shepherds.  They entertain themselves swigging from bottles of raki, playing music on goatskin bagpipes, gourd drums and Eastern European lutes, and dancing – first a slapstick all-male Turkish belly-dancing number and then some intriguing variations on Greek rebetiko.  The chapter is a tour de force of descriptive writing and provides the book, and the trilogy itself, with a fitting climax.

 

The cave sequence is the climax by default because a few pages later what you’d expect to be the real climax, Fermor’s long-awaited arrival in Constantinople, doesn’t materialise.  Rather, the text terminates in mid-sentence (“…and yet, in another sense, although”) and Fermor’s editors provide an apologetic note explaining that he never recorded the arrival in his draft or in his diary.  They speculate that “(p)erhaps the end of his journey was weighing on him with the traveller’s bewilderment of at last reaching his goal, and the uneasy question of his future.”

 

From Ouranoupoli.com

 

There’s compensation, however.  We get an 80-page epilogue wherein, post-Constantinople and early in 1935, Fermor describes a three-and-a-half-week sojourn on the Greek peninsular of Mount Athos, the ‘Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain’ that’s home to twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries and that’s off-limits to women.  Indeed, Fermor observes, the peninsula’s off-limits to most things female: “for centuries, no mares, sheep, she-goats, sheep, cats, etc., have lived there, and all the flocks that I saw cropping what grass they could among the rocks, watched by a shepherd boy with a flute, were of rams and billy-goats.”  (Things have now been relaxed, apparently.  According to Wikipedia, “female cats, female insects and female songbirds” are allowed entry to modern-day Mount Athos.)

 

So after A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road, I’ve spent about 800 pages in the company of the young Patrick Leigh Fermor during his trek across 1930s Europe.  Like with any travelling companion on a long and often arduous trip, there’ve been moments when I’ve felt irritated by him – by his poshness, his puppy-dog enthusiasm, his occasionally infuriating know-it-all-ness.  But at the same time, I feel I’ve formed a bond with the guy.  And now that the journey has reached its end, you know what?  I’m going to miss him.

 

The later travels of Gulliver

 

 

The other day, whilst walking along Galle Road in Colombo, I noticed this inventive display in the street-front window of an IT business.

 

It’s a representation of Lemuel Gulliver near the beginning of Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satirical classic Gulliver’s Travels, bound down against the sand by the tiny inhabitants of Lilliput – onto whose shore he’s just been washed following a shipwreck.  But if you look closely at the display, you realise it isn’t those pesky little Lilliputians who’ve tied down this Lemuel Gulliver.  Rather, it’s some futuristic little men dressed in silvery spacesuits who’ve arrived on the scene in miniature 4x4s, on miniature quad-bikes and with miniature JCB diggers.

 

 

By coincidence, I’d read Gulliver’s Travels a few weeks earlier.  That was the second time I’d read it, or at least read part of it, because I’d first tackled the book when I was 10 years old.  Back then, my interest in it had been kindled by seeing on TV The Three Worlds of Gulliver, the 1960 movie adaptation starring Kerwin Matthews as Gulliver and with special effects by Ray Harryhausen.

 

The Three Worlds of Gulliver was aimed at children and played up the adventure and spectacle at the expense of the satire.  Indeed, keen to exploit two common childhood fantasies – the fantasy of being a giant in a world where everything else is miniature and the fantasy of being a miniature in a world where everything else is giant – the movie took place only in Lilliput and in the giants’ kingdom of Brobdingnag.  It ignored the locales that Gulliver visited later in the book.

 

© Columbia Pictures

 

As my ten-year-old self discovered, there was some adventure and spectacle in the original literary version of Gulliver’s Travels.  But I wasn’t ready for the calm matter-of-fact tone of Swift’s prose, or for Gulliver’s penchant for meticulous observation and detailing of the lands he explored (which suggested he was more a man of learning than a man of action) or for the social commentary that permeated everything.  It seemed sober and serious rather than exciting; and I ended up reading the stuff about Lilliput and Brobdingnag only.  I didn’t attempt the book’s third and fourth parts, which I’d heard were about flying islands and talking horses.

 

Now that I’ve read the book in its entirety, I thought I’d say something about Gulliver’s later travels – the episodes after Lilliput and Brobdingnag that I didn’t read when I was a kid.

 

Gulliver was shipwrecked before arriving in Lilliput and abandoned by his next set of shipmates on the shore of Brobdingnag.  (They fled in a longboat when a giant appeared, leaving him behind.)  His luck doesn’t improve during his third voyage, which sees him captured by pirates and set adrift in a canoe.  He’s rescued by the inhabitants of the flying island of Laputa, which floats like a giant sentient Frisbee above the larger and conventionally-earthbound land of Balnibarbi.  Laputa’s king also rules Balnibarbi, quelling any dissent or rebellions below by manoeuvring the island over the trouble-spots and preventing them getting sunlight and rainfall, or dropping rocks on them, or – the most extreme sanction – lowering the island on top of them and squashing them.

 

From shortstorylongblog.wordpress.com

 

This third section of Gulliver’s Travels is regarded as the weakest but there’s still plenty to enjoy.  Swift uses it to state his position in the empiricism-versus-rationalism debate of his era.  He’s a staunch empiricist; and Gulliver’s accounts of his time in Laputa and Balnibarbi are his way of giving the proponents of theoretical and speculative science a good kicking.

 

The Laputians are ridiculous figures who’re so immersed in thought and unaware of their surroundings that their servants need to shake bladders filled with pebbles or dried peas in their faces to remind them when it’s their turn to speak in a conversation.  Disconcertingly, they have “one of their eyes turned inward, and the other directly up to the zenith” – which was supposedly Swift’s dig at the compound microscope and the handheld telescope, both invented in the early 1600s.  Just as parents used to warn their kids that watching too much TV would give them square eyes, so Swift warns that too much microscope and telescope usage will give people an alarming form of strabismus.

 

The Laputians are next to no one in their mastery of mathematics and astronomy – Gulliver notes that they’ve discovered “two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve around Mars”, an uncannily accurate prediction by Swift since the two Martian moons of Phobos and Deimos weren’t discovered until 1877.  Unfortunately, they insist on applying their abstract knowledge to more practical areas.

 

Their cuisine suggests something you’d get nowadays in an achingly pretentious and eye-wateringly expensive restaurant: “a shoulder of mutton, cut into an equilateral triangle, a piece of beef into a rhomboid, and a pudding into a cycloid…” and bread cut into “cones, cylinders, parallelograms, and several other mathematical figures.”  Their tailoring is lamentable – Gulliver gets measured for a new set of clothes with a quadrant, ‘a rule and compasses’ and some mathematical calculations that go wrong, and the resulting outfit is “very ill made, and quite out of shape.”  As for architecture, “(t)heir houses are very ill built, the walls bevil, without one right angle in any apartment, and this defect ariseth from the contempt they bear to practical geometry…”

 

When Gulliver departs from Laputa and descends to Balnibarbi, he finds it in a state of poverty and disrepair.  Rule by the Laputians, whose heads are literally in the clouds, has done it no favours.  While there, he visits the country’s Grand Academy, which has in each of its 500 rooms a ‘projector’ – a professor – busy with some sort of research.  The impractical spirit of Laputa reigns supreme in the academy and Swift lays into it with as much malevolent enthusiasm as a modern Daily Mail journalist writing a mocking exposé about overpaid, lefty, ivory-tower academics wasting our taxpayers’ money and teaching airy-fairy nonsense to our youngsters.

 

Gulliver finds, for example, one old coot engaged in an eight-year project “for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers”; a construction expert working on “a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof, and working downwards to the foundation”; and an entomologist trying to train spiders to spin coloured silk.  Worst of all is a man in an evil-smelling room striving “to reduce human excrement to its original food…  He had a weekly allowance from the society, of a vessel filled with human ordure, about the bigness of a Bristol barrel.”  It’s likely that Swift had London’s Royal Society, founded in 1660 “for improving natural knowledge”, in his sights when he wrote this.

 

© Penguin Books

 

I hadn’t known that in the third section Gulliver visits other places too – which weakens its effectiveness because the result is random and scattershot.  After Balnibarbi, he travels to the island of Glubbdubdrib, populated by ‘magicians and sorcerers’, whose governor lives in a house run by ghostly servants that materialise and dematerialise at the lifting of their master’s finger.  Gulliver persuades his hosts to conjure up the ghosts of the greatest figures in history for him to interview: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Aristotle and so on.  Predictably, he discovers that the reality of human history is different from how it’s been recorded.  “…I found how the world has been misled by prostitute writers, to ascribe the greatest exploits in war to cowards, the wisest counsel to fools, sincerity to flatterers…”  Not only does the satire feel strained here but I don’t like the sudden intrusion of the supernatural.  It jars with the tone of the rest of the book – which, for all its unlikeliness, could be treated as a very early work of science fiction.

 

More effective is Gulliver’s next port of call, the island of Luggnagg.  He’s excited to find out that Luggnagg’s inhabitants include a group of immortal beings called the struldbrugs.  However, that excitement changes to disgust when he realises the true cost of immortality.  The struldbrugs don’t die but they keep on ageing – ending up as wizened homunculi, hopelessly crippled by infirmity and senility.  “They were the most mortifying sight I ever beheld, and the women more horrifying than the men.”

 

Then there’s the marvellous and melancholic fourth section.  It begins with Gulliver taking to the sea again, despite his luck so far being worse than Job’s.  And – surprise! – things go wrong again.  He falls foul of a mutiny and is put ashore on an unnamed land that, it transpires, is inhabited by the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos.  The former are an intelligent, noble and gentle race of horses and the latter are degenerate human beings who’re anything but intelligent, noble or gentle.  During Gulliver’s first encounter with the Yahoos, several of them defecate on him from the branches of a tree, which hardly endears them to him.  These adventures with civilised animals and bestial humans were surely an inspiration for Pierre Boulle’s novel Monkey Planet (1963), which itself became the basis for the Planet of the Apes movies.

 

From 4umi.com

 

Gulliver takes greatly to the Houyhnhnms’ culture, although as many commentators (including George Orwell) have pointed out, they inhabit a dull sort of utopia.  They’re governed by cold logic and their lives seem devoid of feeling, fun or kinship.  You get the impression that Gulliver is so fatigued by everything else he’s been through that he’s happy to spend the remainder of his life as an ascetic.  Among talking horses.

 

But fate intervenes yet again and Gulliver is forced to take his leave of his beloved Houyhnhnms.  He arrives back in the human world, to which he has extreme difficulty readjusting.  People, even the members of his family, remind him too much of those revolting Yahoos.  We last see him shunning their company in favour of that of two horses whom he keeps in his stable.  “My horses understand me tolerably well; I converse with them at least four hours every day.  They are strangers to bridle or saddle; they live in great amity with me, and friendship to each other.”

 

Poor Gulliver has become unstable.  But at least he feels stable when he’s in a stable.

 

From gulliverstravels.wikia.com

 

Death log 2016 – part 2

 

© Hat Trick Productions

 

Just before I bid adieu to 2016, here’s a second posting paying tribute to those people whom I liked and admired who passed away during the year.

 

Firstly, two people who died in the first half of 2016 but whom I forgot to mention in my previous posting.  American author Harper Lee left us on February 19th.  Her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) was both an indictment of racial injustice in 1930s Alabama and an affirmation of human goodness, as epitomised in the characters of upstanding lawyer Atticus Finch and the scary-but-good-hearted Boo Radley.  Rather less wholesome was the character played by Irish actor Frank Kelly, who died on February 28th, in the classic 1990s TV comedy Father Ted.  Kelly’s Father Jack Hackett was a man reduced by a lifetime of hard (and un-priestly) living to a sedentary existence in the world’s grottiest-looking armchair, from which he would occasionally bellow, “Feck!  Arse!  Drink!  Girls!”  Father Jack couldn’t have been further from the charismatic, cerebral and articulate person that Kelly was in real life.

 

© Richmond Film Productions / Rank

 

TV comedy lost another talent on July 2nd with the death of British comedienne, actress and writer Caroline Aherne, famous for acting in and co-writing the sitcom The Royle Family (1998-2012) and for playing the titular host in spoof chat-show The Mrs Merton Show (1995-98).  July 2nd was also a day when cinema took a double hit, seeing the deaths of filmmakers Michael Cimino, co-writer of Silent Running (1972) and Magnum Force (1973) and director of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), The Deer Hunter (1978) and ruinously expensive western Heaven’s Gate (1980); and Euan Lloyd, producer of the not-to-taken-seriously mercenary epic The Wild Geese (1978) with Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore, its demented sequel The Wild Geese II (1985) and laughably right-wing SAS thriller Who Dares Wins (1982).

 

Meanwhile, record producer Sandy Pearlman died on July 26th.  He’d worked on classic albums by two bands who, while they were equally loved at Blood and Porridge, were wildly different in their styles: the Blue Oyster Cult’s Agents of Fortune (1976) and The Clash’s Give ’Em Enough Rope (1978).

 

© CBS / Epic

 

A number of veteran character actors died around the middle of the year.  William Lucas, star of such fascinatingly oddball British movies as X the Unknown (1956), The Shadow of the Cat (1961), Night of the Big Heat (1967) and Tower of Evil (1972) died on July 8th.   The New Zealand actor Terence Baylor, who died on August 2nd, will be remembered for uttering the most quotable line in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979).  After Graham Chapman’s reluctant messiah Brian pleads with a crowd of followers to leave him alone because they’re “all individuals” and the crowd mindlessly chants back at him, “We are all individuals!”, Baylor pipes up: “I’m not.”  He also appeared in Terry Gilliam’s The Time Bandits (1981), which lost another cast-member in August – the excellent Kenny Baker, who died on August 13th.  Baker was best-known for being the man inside R2D2 in the Star Wars movies and he was honoured at Blood and Porridge in this entry:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6802

 

There were also many deaths among the American acting fraternity.  Comic actor and writer Gene Wilder died on August 29th.  Though Wilder was best-remembered for playing the title character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), for me his finest hours came in two Mel Brooks movies made in 1974 – playing the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles and Dr Frederick Frankenstein (“Pronounced ‘steen’”) in Young Frankenstein.  Two days later the hard-working character actor Jon Polito passed away.  Polito was a regular in the films of Joel and Ethan Cohen, appearing in Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Man Who wasn’t There (2001) and most memorably Miller’s Crossing (1990) where he played the mobster Johnny Caspar.  And on September 5th Hugh O’Brian, veteran of many a western movie and TV show, rode off into the sunset.  As the villainous Jack Pulford, he had the distinction of being the last person to be shot dead onscreen by John Wayne, in Wayne’s swansong The Shootist (1976).

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

September 16th saw the departure of Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning American playwright Edward Albee, whose work included The Zoo Story (1958), The Sandbox (1959), A Delicate Balance (1966) and most famously Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), made into a movie four years later and distinguished by splendidly unhinged performances by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as a booze-sodden university couple from hell.  Filmmaker Curtis Hanson, who started off writing interesting little movies like The Dunwich Horror (1969), The Silent Partner (1978) and White Dog (1982) and ended up directing the brilliant L.A. Confidential (1997), died on September 20th.  A somewhat less reputable filmmaker died on September 26th: Herschell Gordon Lewis, whose ultra-cheap but sensationally gory horror movies like Blood Feast (1963) and 2000 Maniacs (1964) were by no stretch of the imagination good, but left enough of an impression on Blood and Porridge to warrant this entry:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6940

 

Another American purveyor of low-budget celluloid sensationalism, Ted V. Mikels – of The Astro-Zombies (1968), Corpse Grinders (1971) and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1973) fame – died on October 16th.  October 13th saw the death of multi-tasking Italian Dario Fo, described on his Wikipedia page as an “actor-playwright, comedian, singer, theatre director, stage designer, songwriter, painter, political campaigner for the Italian left-wing and the recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature”, whose dramatical works made him “arguably the most widely performed contemporary playwright in world theatre.”  Ten days later, the comic-book world said farewell to artist Steve Dillon, who cut his teeth on British comics like Doctor Who Magazine (Abslom Daak), 2000 AD (Judge Dredd, Rogue Troopers, ABC Warriors) and Warrior (Marvelman, Laser Eraser and Pressbutton) in the 1980s and ended up working on acclaimed American titles such as DC Comics’ Hellblazer and Preacher in the 1990s and Marvel Comics’ Punisher in the noughties.  And on the same day, Jimmy Perry, who scripted the much-loved TV comedy Dad’s Army (1968-1977) with David Croft, died at the age of 93.

 

© Arena Productions / MGM Television

 

On November 5th, the English actor John Carson died.  As well as being a regular face on British television, he appeared in three memorable Hammer horror movies: Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974) and best of all Plague of the Zombies (1966), where he played a voodoo-practising Cornish squire saving on labour costs by using reanimated corpses to work in his tin mine.  Passing away on November 11th was actor Robert Vaughn, famous on television for playing Napoleon Solo in The Man from UNCLE (1964-68) and equally famous in the cinema for being the longest-lasting member of the titular septet of gunslingers in John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960).  Between those two dates, on November 7th, the great Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen expired, having delivered one final album, You Want It Darker, just the previous month.  Here’s what Blood and Porridge said about Cohen at the time of his death:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=7111

 

The great Irish novelist, short story writer and playwright William Trevor died on November 20th, while actor Andrew Sachs passed away three days later.  Most famous for playing the Barcelonan waiter Manuel in John Cleese’s classic sitcom Fawlty Towers (1975-79), Sachs was the son of a German Jew who fled to Britain to escape Nazi persecution in 1938 – an irony missed by right-wing British tabloid the Daily Mail, which printed the refugee-scare headline MIGRANT NUMBERS HIT NEW RECORDS next to the news of Sachs’ death on its front page.

 

© Hammer Films

 

Valerie Gaunt, who died on November 27th, made only two movies in the late 1950s before leaving the acting profession, but she made a big impression in them; playing Justine, the fickle maid who tries to blackmail Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein in the 1956 horror classic The Curse of Frankenstein, and playing Christopher Lee’s vampire bride in 1958’s equally classic Dracula.  And the venerable character actor Peter Vaughan, who played Grouty in the sitcom Porridge (1974-77), played Maester Aemon in blood-tits-and-dragons saga Game of Thrones (2011-2015) and gave many memorable performances besides in films and TV, died on December 6th.  Here’s Blood and Porridge’s tribute to the great man:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=7196

 

© Spitting Image Productions / ITV Studios

 

Astronaut John Glenn, the fifth person to travel in space in 1962, and also the oldest person to travel there as a crewmember of the Discovery space shuttle in 1998, died on December 8th.  Two day later saw the death of the avuncular Scottish weatherman Ian McCaskill, who presented forecasts on the BBC from the late 1970s to the late 1990s and was regularly lampooned on TV puppet show Spitting image (1984-96).  On December 18th, the world said goodbye to actress and all-round personality Zsa Zsa Gabor, who could appear in a masterpiece like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and a camp Grade-Z pudding like Queen of Outer Space in the same year (1958) and be inimitably Zsa Zsa-esque in both.  Distinguished British TV director Philip Saville died on December 22nd.  His career highlights included 1977’s Count Dracula, probably the most faithful adaptation ever of Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire novel; 1982’s condemnation of Thatcherism, Boys from the Blackstuff; and 1986’s gaudy and saucy TV version of Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil.

 

Pop star George Michael died on Christmas Day.  I wasn’t a fan of his music, but from his philanthropic work (which included donating the royalties of his ever-popular festive anthem Last Christmas to the Band Aid charity) and from the fact that he lived his life with a healthy disregard for the strictures of Britain’s prurient tabloid press, I’d say he was a thoroughly good bloke.  And finally, the lovely and witty Carrie Fisher, aka Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, died on December 27th.  (Even more tragically, her mother Debbie Fisher passed away the following day.)  A depressing indication that in the shithole year that was 2016, you weren’t safe even if you were a fairy-tale princess.

 

© Lucasfilm Ltd / 20th Century Fox

 

Death log 2016 – part 1

 

© American International Pictures

 

You may have noticed that one or two people died in 2016.  Here are some folk who passed away this year who’ll be particularly missed at Blood and Porridge.

 

January 10th saw the departure of musical legend and stylistic chameleon David Bowie, who was commemorated in no fewer than three postings on this blog:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6104

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6114

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6130

 

Die Hard (1988)
Directed by John McTiernan
Shown: Alan Rickman

© Silver Pictures / 20th Century Fox

 

The British actor Alan Rickman died four days later.  Rickman’s career, and especially his talent for playing delightfully fiendish villains in movies like Die Hard (1988) and Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991), was also celebrated at Blood and Porridge:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6183

 

January 9th saw the passing of American actor Angus Scrimm, who’ll be fondly remembered by horror-film fans for playing the Tall Man in Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm movies.  And Scottish writer Robert Banks Stewart died on January 15th.  Banks Stewart was well-known for creating the TV detective shows Shoestring (1979-80) and Bergerac (1981-91) and he also scripted two of the scariest stories of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who, 1975’s Terror of the Zygons and 1976’s The Seeds of Doom.  The alien monsters in the former adventure, the repulsively slimy and sucker-covered Zygons, proved so popular that forty years later they’re still menacing Peter Capaldi in the revived Doctor Who.

 

© BBC

 

Another British actor to depart in January 2016 was actor Frank Finlay, who passed away on the 30th.  Finlay played Porthos in the classic trilogy of Musketeers films directed by Richard Lester in 1973, 1974 and 1989; Van Helsing in the BBC’s stately adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1977; and Dr Fallada in a less reputable vampire epic, Tobe Hooper’s hilarious Lifeforce (1985).  He also had the curious distinction of playing Inspector Lestrade in two different films where Sherlock Holmes investigates the Jack the Ripper killings, 1965’s A Study in Terror and 1979’s Murder by Decree.  The final day of January saw the death of Irish broadcaster Terry Wogan, whose twinkly-eyed, possibly toupee-bearing visage seemed to symbolise the BBC during the 1980s as much as Ronald McDonald did McDonald’s or Colonel Sanders did the KFC.  Equipped with a soft brogue, gentle wit and inability to take himself or anyone else too seriously, the ubiquitous Wogan could host any ropey old chat-show or game-show and make it entertaining.

 

Italian author Umberto Eco died on February 19th.  I always thought his acclaimed novel The Name of the Rose (1980) was overrated, but at least the film version six years later gave Sean Connery one of his last good film roles.  On February 22nd, the British cinematographer Douglas Slocombe passed away at the venerable age of 103.  Slocombe’s half-century career included such highlights as Dead of Night (1945), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Servant (1963), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), The Italian Job (1969), The Great Gatsby (1974) and the first three Indiana Jones movies (1981, 84 and 89).  Another great behind-the-scenes man of British cinema, production designer Ken Adam, died on March 10th.  Not only was Adam responsible for the spectacular and now iconic sets of seven James Bond movies between Dr No (1961) and Moonraker (1979), but he designed the War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964), reckoned by Steven Spielberg to be the greatest movie-set ever.

 

© Hawk Films / Columbia Pictures

 

Another Kubrick veteran, the actress Adrienne Corri who appeared in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, died on March 13th.  Among her other credits was a role in the bloody but fairy tale-like Hammer horror movie Vampire Circus (1972).  Two days later saw the death of Sylvia Anderson, the one-time Mrs Gerry Anderson, co-producer of such classic kid’s puppet TV shows as Stingray (1964-65), Thunderbirds (1965-66), Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68) and Joe 90 (1968-69) and such adult sci-fi TV shows as UFO (1970)  and Space 1999 (1975-77).  In Thunderbirds, she also provided the voice for the gorgeous and glamorous, though frankly plastic, Lady Penelope.  Author Barry Hines died on March 18th.  His most famous work was A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), which a year after its publication was filmed as Kes by mighty British director Ken Loach.

 

© ITC Entertainment

 

The comedy world took a treble hit in spring 2016.  The English comedienne, actress, writer and director Victoria Wood died on March 24th; the Scottish comedian and comic performer Ronnie Corbett on March 31st; and the great American stand-up, actor, writer and producer Gary Shandling on April 20th.  The passing of the impish and fruity-toned Corbett prompted this tribute from Blood and Porridge:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6367

 

© BBC

 

Welsh actor Gareth Thomas, who played intergalactic freedom-fighter Roj Blake in the BBC’s downbeat 1970s space opera Blake’s Seven, died on April 13th.  Surely the most traumatic TV moment ever came at the end of Blake’s Seven’s final episode, which sees Blake bloodily gunned down by his second-in-command Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) who wrongly suspects him of treachery.  (“Have you betrayed us?  Have you betrayed… me?!”)  A week later, on April 20th, film director Guy Hamilton passed away.  Hamilton was another James Bond alumni with four 007 movies under his belt, most notably 1964’s Goldfinger.  And April 21st was a day when another great musical talent was snuffed out: Prince.  Blood and Porridge paid its respects to the saucy purple one here:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6441

 

On April 24th we bid adieu to two character actors who’d enlivened many an old British B-movie: Australian Lewis Fiander, who’d had supporting roles in the horror movies Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972) and was the leading man in Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s splendidly creepy Spanish film Who Can Kill a Child? (1976); and British-Chinese actor Burt Kwouk, who was best known for playing Inspector Clouseau’s manservant Cato in the Pink Panther movies, though he’d appeared in a lot of movies and TV shows besides.  Kwouk was a big favourite at Blood and Porridge, which published this tribute to him a year ago:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=5707

 

By June, the month when the United Kingdom voted for Brexit, it was clear that 2016 was going to be remembered as a monumentally shite year.  This unhappy fact seemed to be reinforced by the passing of the great Muhammad Ali on June 3rd, which was recorded on this blog here:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6607

 

From www.wantedinrome.com

 

June 12th saw the death of one of Scotland’s more outré eccentrics, Tom Leppard, aka the Leopard Man, who was reckoned by the Guinness Book of Records to be the world’s most tattooed man.  A former soldier, Leppard had his body covered in a leopard-skin pattern of spots and spent much of his later life living in a remote bothy on the Isle of Skye.  On June 19th, the American-Russian actor Anton Yelchin died in a tragic freak accident.  Aged just 27 at the time of his death, Yelchin had made a name for himself in impressive movies like Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2015), as well as in the rebooted Star Trek movies where he played Chekov.  And Bud Spencer, the burly Italian Olympian swimmer and comic actor, died on June 27th.  In partnership with Terence Hill, Spencer made 20 movies of rumbustious and destructive slapstick that regularly turned up as supporting features in British cinemas during the 1970s.  Watch Out, We’re Mad (1974) and Crime Busters (1977) are particularly fondly remembered at Blood and Porridge.

 

Finally, June ended and July began with what Blood and Porridge dubbed ‘the curse of the Radiohead video.’  No sooner had the avant-garde British rock band released a video for their new song Burn the Witch, which combined the look and the Claymation animation style of the classic British TV children’s shows Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969) with the plot of the classic British folk-horror movie The Wicker Man (1974), than: (1) Gordon Murray, producer and animator of those children’s shows died on June 30th; and (2) The Wicker Man’s director Robin Hardy died on July 1st.  Here’s what Blood and Porridge had to say about Hardy:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6706

 

© XL

 

To be continued…  Unfortunately.

 

Greene ups the auntie

 

© Audible Studios

 

I certainly felt ready to read Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt a few months ago. I started this novel just after Britain’s ruling Conservative party had held its annual conference, which itself came after the British electorate’s vote to leave the European Union. Most Conservatives being anti-EU, their party conference this year was shrill and gloating, loud with jingoistic rhetoric about the greatness and specialness of Britain and with xenophobic rhetoric about pulling up the drawbridge against immigrants, Europeans and foreigners generally.

 

And I began Travels with my Aunt with the words of Prime Minister Theresa May ringing in my ears. In her keynote conference speech, May made it plain that in her view the decent thing to do is to stay at home and not sully yourself with such dangerous concepts as living and working overseas (and presumably associating with foreigners). “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world,” she intoned, “you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the word ‘citizenship’ means.”

 

Having lived and / or worked at different times in Switzerland, Japan, Ethiopia, India, the Republic of Ireland, North Korea, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Myanmar, Mauritius and – my current place of abode – Sri Lanka, I thought: “Wow, that’s me told. Sorry, Theresa!”

 

Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t think that at all. What I really thought was: “Bog off, you ignorant, parochial, narrow-minded, curtain-twitching cretin, you.”

 

After that, I was eager to get into Travels with my Aunt, written by Graham Greene in 1969. Its story, the back-cover blurb assured me, was a humorous one about an unadventurous Englishman having his mind broadened and horizons widened by foreign travel. And the process whereby he becomes a citizen of the world, rather than remaining a citizen of the stultifying Little England beloved by Theresa May, has an unlikely facilitator – his elderly but still sprightly and impetuous Aunt Augusta.

 

And for most of its length, that’s how the narrative of Travels with my Aunt unfolds. Henry Pulling is a fifty-something retired and never-married bank manager, living in a sedate part of London with a garden of carefully cultivated dahlias (“the Polar Beauties and the Golden Leaders and the Requiems”) and an ex-army major next door. His main plan for the future is to produce some home-made jam since “a man in retirement has to have some hobbies if he is not to age too fast”. Had he lived 47 years later, the timid Henry probably wouldn’t have voted to leave the EU – he would’ve been a reluctant Remainer. But I’m sure that, generally, he would’ve admired the cut of Theresa May’s jib.

 

One day Henry attends his mother’s funeral, which passes with an efficiency and lack of fuss that he approves of: “The flowers were removed economically from the coffin, which at the touch of a button slid away from us out of sight. Afterwards in the troubled sunlight I shook hands with a number of nephews and nieces and cousins whom I hadn’t seen for years and could not identify. It was understood that I had to wait for the ashes and wait I did, while the chimney of the crematorium gently smoked overhead.” At this point he meets Aunt Augusta, his mother’s younger sister, whom he hasn’t seen for more than half-a-century.   Henry soon decides it was a good thing his family saw nothing of her for so long: “She had a temperament my mother would not have liked.” But almost immediately, he finds himself entangled in a web of eccentric acquaintances, far-flung locales and not-entirely-legal activities that somehow surrounds the old lady.

 

By page 12, Henry is visiting his aunt’s apartment above a London pub, which she shares, seemingly intimately, with a burly middle-aged Sierra Leonean called Wordsworth. By page 26, Henry is having visitors of his own – the police, eager to examine the contents of his mother’s ashes-urn, which he unwisely took with him to his aunt and Wordsworth’s flat and which they believe now contains something besides human remains. And twenty pages further, the same police are informing him that there’s “more cannabis than ashes” in the urn.

 

Meanwhile, Henry also gets roped into accompanying his newly-discovered aunt on her travels. By page 30 she’s made him escort her to Brighton, where she tracks down an old friend called Hattie, who’s now a fortune teller. Giving Henry a tea-leaves reading, Hattie predicts: “…you’re going to travel. Across the ocean. With a lady friend… I see a lot of confusion too and running about.” Henry retorts, “That’s most unlikely… I lead a very regular life. A game of bridge once a week at the Conservative Club. And my garden of course. The dahlias.”

 

Needless to say, Hattie’s predictions are on the money. By page 60, Henry finds himself heading for Paris in the company of Augusta and a dodgy-looking red suitcase that proves to be “stacked with ten-pound notes”. By page 91 he’s with her on board the Orient Express, bound for Istanbul where she has a rendezvous with a mysterious General Abdul. He makes the acquaintance of an American hippy-chick called Tooley, who offers him a cigarette: “It had an odd herbal flavour, not disagreeable. ‘I’ve never smoked an American cigarette before,’ I said.” And by page 183 Henry is journeying across the South American interior to Paraguay, summoned by Augusta after she’s installed herself there with a former lover called Mr Visconti. There’s no surprise when it transpires that both of them are up to their necks in a smuggling operation.

 

During their travels Augusta regales Henry with stories – tales of past adventures and lovers that are rambling, fanciful, at times ridiculous and no doubt economical with the truth. But they indicate that the old lady has led a life – in contrast to Henry, who’s managed to spend most of his life in the same bank-branch, first as a clerk, then a cashier, then a manager. The funniest of Augusta’s stories involves a chancer called Curran, with whom she once set up a fake church in Brighton. Called the Doggie Church, it catered for the spiritual needs of canines and, obviously, was designed to fleece the congregation’s owners. “It was Curran who set me reading theology,” she tells her nephew. “He wanted references to dogs. It wasn’t easy to find any – even in St Frances de Sales. I found lots about fleas and butterflies and stags and elephants and spiders and crocodiles in St Frances but a strange neglect of dogs.”

 

The exchanges between the feisty Augusta and the fusty Henry – who, despite himself, develops a wanderlust and taste for adventure as the book progresses – are a constant delight. Modern readers will have problems, though, with how Greene depicts the character of Wordsworth. Specifically, they’ll be uncomfortable with how he milks Wordsworth’s Sierra Leonean patois for easy and nowadays politically-incorrect laughs: “The telephone talk all the bloody time while you not here… Oh, poor Wordsworth not understand one bloody word. Ar say to them you no talk English. They go away double quick.” Yes, I know, Greene wrote the book in an era when awareness of racial stereotyping, among British authors anyway, was practically non-existent and it seemed acceptable to use coloured characters for comic relief. But still. I found myself cringing every time Greene had Wordsworth open his mouth.

 

That said, Wordsworth is allowed some development and by the book’s finale he’s become its most virtuous character – certainly its most loyal, probably its most principled. Gratifyingly, Henry’s attitude towards him changes. After viewing him at the start with shock, suspicion and probably lightly-disguised horror, he reacts to Wordsworth’s reappearances in later chapters with the joy of someone reunited with a dear old friend.

 

Travels with my Aunt is a funny book but there’s a point, near the end, when it suddenly stops being funny. Greene suddenly switches mode from entertainer to moralist. Henry and Augusta have had a lot of fun on their travels, but much of that fun has involved illegality and now there’s a price to be paid. Thus, the story finishes on a sour note. A sympathetic character gets killed, the nephew and aunt find themselves in cahoots with another character who’s utterly unsavoury, and in the final paragraph Henry makes a couple of admissions that show his escape from his mundane existence as a retired English bank manager and transformation into a well-travelled man of the world have cost him his decency.

 

I still think Theresa May is talking objectionable drivel with her citizen of the world / citizen of nowhere claims. However, if I were debating the matter with her, Travels with my Aunt probably isn’t the book I’d use to back my argument. She might read the ending and jeer: “See? I told you so!”

 

© Daily Telegraph    

 

Manly stuff

 

(c) Planet Stories

 

I’d heard the name of the American writer Manly Wade Wellman before.  He was, for instance, one of the people to whom Stephen King dedicated his non-fiction book Dance Macabre back in 1982.  But I was unfamiliar with his work until recently when I picked up a collection of his fantasy-horror fiction called Who Fears the Devil?, published by Planet Stories in 2010, 24 years after Wellman’s death.

 

The short stories in Who Fears the Devil? are set in the Appalachian Mountains, whose wilderness areas and remote human settlements are evoked by Wellman as vividly and convincingly as, say, the towns, woods and hills of New England that form a frequent backdrop to the tales of H.P. Lovecraft; or those neighbourly mid-western small towns, all porches and picket fences, that feature prominently in the work of Ray Bradbury.

 

Wellman, a prolific writer of pulp detective, science fiction, horror and western fiction who also spent his later decades teaching at the University of North Carolina, captures the stark grandeur of this environment – dizzying mountains, mysterious forests, secluded valleys, frothing brooks and tumultuous waterfalls.  He also nails the character of its human inhabitants, their innocence and good-naturedness conveyed in the cadences of their speech.  Practically every page of Wellman’s Appalachian stories seems to ring with unpretentious but pleasingly musical dialogue, his mountain characters trading such utterances as: “Do my possible best…”, “Won’t be no better singing and dancing the day these young ones marry up…”, “I’ve known men kill them themselves because she’d put her heart back in her pocket on them…”, “I’m right sorry…” and “I hear that somebody around here took a shot at my great-grandboy…”  (Admittedly, there isn’t much good-naturedness conveyed in that last utterance.)

 

Roaming these mountains, valleys and forests is Wellman’s most famous creation, Silver John, who earns a crust here and there as an itinerant singer and guitarist.  John, who made his first appearance in 1951 in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is no simple-minded hick.  Like many American men of his generation, he’s travelled – albeit in an unplanned manner, doing military service for Uncle Sam during World War II.  He’s also well-read and learned, able to discuss Freud and Sir James Hopkins Jeans’ The Mysterious Universe when the need arises.  And he’s similarly well-informed about the fields of folklore, superstition and the paranormal – which is just as well, because wherever he wanders, he seems to encounter trouble in the form of supernatural deities, mythical monsters and havoc-wreaking human dabblers in the occult.

 

Basically, Wellman’s Silver John stories are the adventures of a psychic investigator discovering, battling and defeating the forces of darkness, which come in different guises in each instalment.  In effect, the John stories are The X-Files without the FBI, the suits or the torturous alien / UFO conspiracy plot; or Scooby Doo without the meddling kids, the Scooby snacks or the Mystery Machine; but with hillbillies, dungarees and lots of Appalachian folk songs and balladry instead.

 

From talesofmytery.blogspot.com

 

There’s something supernatural about John himself, though.  For one thing, at the start of each story he usually finds himself performing a song that, spookily, prefigures or comments on the supernatural events that come later.  Thus, when he sings Little Black Train (a song popularised in real life by Woody Guthrie) early on in a story of the same name, it’s no surprise that an appearance is soon made by a phantom and, yes, death-dealing black train: “The little black train is rolling in / To call for you tonight…”

 

John’s nickname, incidentally, comes from the strings on his guitar, which are made of silver.  As supernatural creatures are known for not liking silver – silver bullets being the main way to kill a werewolf, for example – John is able on more than one occasion to ward off evil using his music.  Indeed, in the story O Ugly Bird! he resorts to using his silver-stringed guitar as a club and just clobbers the monster with it.

 

There’s a bewildering variety of strange and creepy things going on in these stories.  With its theme of unspeakable beings from other universes, One Other comes close to the science-fictional horrors of H.P. Lovecraft.  Meanwhile, Walk Like a Mountain deals with a giant who claims lineage from Biblical figures like Goliath and who’s also in the mould of John Henry, the superhuman railroad worker from 19th-century American folklore.  On cue, Silver John starts playing a John Henry folksong on his guitar: “The mountain was high, the sun was low / John laid down his hammer and died…”

 

Both Call Me from the Valley and Trill Coaster’s Burden feature old mountain customs and superstitions.  Call Me includes a ‘dumb supper’, which was a midnight ritual enacted by young women as a way of conjuring up the image of the person they were destined to marry.  And Trill is about ‘sin-eating’, which Silver John explains thus: “Somebody dies after a bad life, and a friend or paid person agrees that the sin will be his, not the dead one’s.  It’s still done here and there, far back off from towns and main roads.”

 

Nobody Ever Goes There, an account of a weird town divided in two by a river, where one half is populated and one half is deserted and where for some unspoken reason nobody from the populated half of town ever crosses the bridge to the unpopulated half, is worthy of an episode of The Twilight Zone.  Most outré of all, though, is The Desrick on Yandro, which charmingly postulates a whole ecosystem of undiscovered mythological creatures living on a remote North Carolina mountain: the Bammat, “something hairy-like, with big ears and a long wiggly nose and twisty white teeth sticking out of its mouth”, the Behinder, which can’t be described “for it’s always behind the man or woman it wants to grab,” the Skim which just “kites through the air” and the Culverin, “that can shoot pebbles with its mouth.”  Alas, once these fabulous beasties have done their turn in The Desrick on Yandro, they don’t reappear and aren’t mentioned again in Wellman’s stories.

 

Manly Wade Wellman’s writings about Silver John are richly imagined, utterly charming, hard to forget and unlike anything else I’ve read.  Actually, they’re so rich and peculiar that it’s difficult to digest more than one or two of them in one sitting.  It’s best to treat Who Fears the Devil? like a box of chocolates – not to be gorged on but to be dipped into occasionally, so that you have sufficient time to savour each of its treats.