The last of Sherlock Holmes

 

© Penguin Books

 

A few posts ago, I mentioned how I was working my way through an 1800-page volume containing all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and short-story collections about Sherlock Holmes.  Well, I’ve completed the job.  The other day I finished reading the volume’s final instalment, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, which contains the last 12 Holmes stories Conan Doyle published between 1921 and 1927 and which was itself originally published in 1927.

 

I thought I’d write something here about those dozen stories in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes because, by the normal standards of Conan Doyle and Holmes, they constitute a strange body of work.  I should add that by the same standards they aren’t a terribly good body of work.  Case-Book has often been dismissed as an end-of-the-road raggle-taggle written by Conan Doyle when he’d run out of both ideas and enthusiasm for his most famous creation.  Indeed, when the writer (and later filmmaker) Nicholas Meyer wrote his celebrated Sherlock Holmes pastiche-novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution in 1974, he had his narrator – Dr Watson – denounce four of CaseBook’s stories, The Adventures of the Creeping Man, the Lion’s Mane, the Mazarin Stone and the Three Gables, as forgeries and ‘drivel’.  Meyer evidently regarded the four as being so substandard that they were unworthy of their places in the canon.

 

Conan Doyle himself seemed relieved that Case-Book marked the end of his association with Holmes.  He furnished the collection with an author’s introduction, something that to the best of my knowledge he didn’t do with the earlier books, and in it he makes some revealing comments.  He opines that Holmes, whose first adventure appeared back in 1887, was by the late 1920s well-and-truly past it, “like one of those popular tenors who, having outlived their time, are still tempted to make repeated farewell bows to their indulgent audiences.”  (No doubt those over-the-hill operatic tenors in the 1920s were the equivalent of the many over-the-hill rock stars still performing in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.)  And Conan Doyle voices his impatience with the reading public and their apparent obsession with the character: “decrepit gentlemen who approach me and declare that his adventures formed the reading of their boyhood do not meet the response from me which they seemed to expect.”

 

While he concedes that writing the Holmes stories didn’t prevent him from devoting time to the sort of writing and research he was genuinely interested in – “history, poetry, historical novels, psychic research, and the drama” – he insinuates that the character had prevented him from being taken as seriously as he would have liked: “Had Holmes never existed I could not have done more, though he may perhaps have a stood a little in the way of the recognition of my more serious literary work.”

 

The ‘psychic research’ he mentions touches on a fascinating conundrum much discussed by Holmes scholars over the years.  Conan Doyle had always been interested in the paranormal and esoteric and after World War One such things greatly preoccupied him.  He was heavily into spiritualism and contacting the dead, no doubt spurred on by the deaths of his son and brother during the 1918-20 Spanish flu epidemic.  Due to their shared interest in this, he befriended Harry Houdini, though their friendship floundered when an increasingly sceptical and disillusioned Houdini started exposing phony mediums and seances.  And he publicly and embarrassingly believed in the veracity of the ‘photographs’ of the Cottingley Fairies in 1920.  Of course, such fanciful notions went against everything that Sherlock Holmes, the great practitioner of deductive reasoning – thought strictly speaking it was abductive reasoning – stood for.  If Holmes had been flesh-and-blood and in Conan Doyle’s company, you could imagine the romantic-minded Conan Doyle really not liking him or his no-nonsense rationalism.

 

You can sense this tension between the imaginative creator and his hard-headed creation in a passage in The Adventure of the Retired Colourman, Case-Book’s final story (actually the third-last one written chronologically).  Holmes sends Watson off on a reconnaissance mission and when the doctor returns he attempts to describe an important building to the detective:

 

“’Right in the middle… lies this old house, surrounded by a high sun-baked wall mottled with lichen and topped with moss, the sort of wall – ’

‘Cut out the poetry, Watson,’ said Holmes severely.  ‘I note that it was a high brick wall.’”

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

Many stories in Case-Book stray from the template of the earlier Holmes adventures.  One is a rarity in the canon in that it’s not narrated in the first person by Dr Watson but is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator.  (The only other story to share this distinction is the title story of the 1917 collection His Last Bow.)  Two other stories here are even more radical – they dispense with the character of Watson altogether and are narrated by Sherlock Holmes himself.

 

A couple of Case-Book’s stories involve little or no sleuthing.   Indeed, one takes the form of a deathbed confession, wherein somebody who was a participant in a mysterious case that years earlier Holmes hadn’t been able to solve summons him and explains to him what really happened.

 

And then there is Case-Book’s heavy reliance on the macabre.  Three stories have Holmes tackling cases that appear to involve monsters – one monster from the natural world, one the result of scientific meddling and one a fixture of popular supernatural fiction.  In only one of these cases does the monster turn out to be a hoax.  There’s also a troubling focus on facial disfigurement, with two deformed characters in two stories living in hiding like Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1910).  A third story culminates with a villain getting disfigured, thanks to a packet of ‘vitriol’ being thrown in his face by a vengeful ex-lover.

 

And the very last Holmes story that Conan Doyle wrote sees Holmes and Watson rooting for clues and signs of skulduggery in a crypt, “dismal and evil-smelling, with ancient crumbling walls of rough-hewn stone, and piles of coffins, some of lead and some of stone, extending upon one side right up to the arched and groined roof which lost itself in the shadows above our heads.”  By now Holmes has stepped out of the pages of detective fiction and into those of gothic fiction.

 

But as I’ve said, this unconventionality doesn’t make Case-Book a particularly good collection.  The pair of stories narrated by Holmes, The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier and The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane, feel unsatisfactory because hearing them told in Holmes’s voice strips the character of his mystique – the distance provided by the mostly-admiring, occasionally-exasperated Watson is sorely missed.  “Ah!  Had he been with me,” says Holmes of Watson, “how much he would have made of so wonderful a happening and my eventual triumph against every difficulty!  As it is, however, I must tell my tale in my own plain way…”  And unhappily, the results are plain rather than wonderful.  The Lion’s Mane also makes a quaint read nowadays because the mystery that propels its narrative is one that in 2018 could be solved in 30 seconds with a search on Google.  .

 

The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, the story written in the third person, was originally a one-act play called The Crown Diamond, penned by Conan Doyle in 1921.  Because Holmes’s cerebral reasoning was presumably too un-dynamic to portray on a stage, it focuses instead on some shenanigans involving a dummy that are a little more visual.  On the page, though, the result is perfunctory.

 

Elsewhere, a couple of the stories are marred by depictions and sentiments that even by the standards of 1920s Britain are unpleasantly racist.  The Adventures of the Three Gables, which qualifies as one of the collection’s worst stories anyway, is encumbered by a non-funny comedy-relief black character (“Look at that, Masser Holmes!”), while the otherwise reasonable The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place has an in-debt character who, we’re told repeatedly, faces ruin at the hands of ‘the Jews’.

 

Nonetheless, there is some good stuff here.  The conceit behind The Problem of Thor Bridge is quite clever, as is that of the light-hearted The Adventure of the Three Garridebs – even if it’s unlikely that, as happens in the story, a foreign confidence trickster who’s lived in Britain for years would give himself away so readily with a misunderstanding of British English.  And The Adventure of the Creeping Man, about an elderly academic who suddenly starts to behave in a strange, out-of-character, downright frightening manner, conveys a genuine chill.  It’s reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) even if the final denouement has more in common with a hoary old 1940s horror movie starring Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist.

 

Interestingly, one of the weakest stories here – The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone – and one of the strongest – The Adventure of the Three Garridebs – were combined for an episode in the final series of TV adaptations featuring the great Jeremy Brett as Holmes, 1994’s The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.  What makes this odd combination even odder is the fact that Holmes hardly appears in the episode – no doubt because Brett was in declining health at the time.  As a result, Dr Watson (Edward Hardwicke) has to solve the Three Garridebs on his own, while Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (played by the wonderfully supercilious Charles Gray) is drafted in to sort out the Mazarin Stone.  And still on the subject of Holmes screen adaptations, The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane provides us with a glimpse at Holmes in his post-Baker Street retirement, living near some cliffs on the Sussex coast with only a housekeeper and some hives of bees for company – which forms the setting for Bill Condon’s melancholy 2015 film Mr Holmes starring Sir Ian McKellen as a 93-year-old Sherlock.

 

© BBC Films / See-Saw Films / FilmNation Entertainment

 

Not a British pub argument, but I’ve settled it anyway

 

© Oxford University Press

 

Previously on this blog I discussed two arguments that I’ve often heard flare up in British pubs.  Well, they’ve often flared up in pubs where I’ve been drinking with my mates.  One of these arguments concerns the question, “Who is the best James Bond?”  (My answer: Sean Connery.)  The other concerns the question, “Who is the best Doctor Who?”  (My answer: Tom Baker.)

 

I’ve never, though, been in a pub when an argument has broken out about which actor has been most successful at portraying a third icon of British popular culture: Sherlock Holmes, the pipe-smoking, cocaine-and-morphine-sampling, deductive-reasoning (though actually it was abductive reasoning) Victorian detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Still, I thought I’d devote a blog-post to the topic and list my seven best cinematic and TV Sherlock Holmes-es.

 

Incidentally, I’ve been thinking about Sherlock Holmes a lot lately.  Last year I bought a weighty volume containing all of Conan Doyle’s writings about him and I’ve been gradually working my way through it.  I’ve read the novels A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of the Four (1890) and The Valley of Fear (1915) and the short-story collections The Adventures (1892), The Memoirs (1893) and The Return (1905) of Sherlock Holmes.  I just have to read His Last Bow (1917) and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (1927) and I’ll have finished the lot.  (1902’s The Hound of the Baskervilles was sorted out long ago because I read it twice when I was a kid.)

 

© Compton-Tekli Film Productions / Colombia Pictures

 

Anyway, seventh in my list is a lesser-known Sherlock Holmes.  John Neville, who’s perhaps best known for two roles he played later in his career, as the title character in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and as the ‘elegantly manicured man’ in eight episodes and a movie version of The X-Files (1995-98), played Holmes in a 1965 movie called A Study in Terror.  The terror of the title comes from the film’s premise that Holmes investigated the most gruesome real-life crimes of the 19th century, the murders committed by Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel in 1888.

 

Given the subject matter and the fact that A Study in Terror’s producers included Tony Tenser and Herman Cohen, two men better known for their horror movies, it’s unsurprising that as the movie progresses, the plot fills with macabre and sensational incidents and Neville’s Holmes becomes less a cerebral problem-solver and more a man of action.  Not that that’s bad, because in the original stories Holmes was a skilled boxer and a practitioner of the 19th-century martial art of bartitsu; but it’s a little surprising to see the thin, slightly fragile-looking Neville explode into fisticuffs when a gang of toughs attack him in Whitechapel’s backstreets.  Still, I find his performance in this film agreeably good-natured and sparky.  There’s also strong support from the Welsh actor Donald Houston as a doughty (if slightly slow-on-the-uptake) Doctor Watson and the delightful Robert Morley as Holmes’ older and supposedly smarter brother Mycroft.

 

© BBC

 

Occupying number six is the actor who’s most famously played Holmes in the modern era – yes, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch from the Steven Moffat / Mark Gatiss-masterminded BBC TV show Sherlock (2010-present).  I respect Cumberbatch for taking risks and making Holmes an aloof, awkward and oddball character, possibly lodged on the milder end of the autism scale.  Nonetheless, I think Cumberbatch is lucky to have such a likeable supporting cast, including Martin Freeman as Watson, Rupert Graves as Inspector Lestrade, Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson and Gatiss as Mycroft, who help to soften his sharp edges.  Without them around, giving the show some humanity, I suspect the Cumberbatch Holmes would be hard work.

 

At number five is an actor who played Holmes in another movie involving Jack the Ripper.  This is the great Canadian performer Christopher Plummer, who donned the deerstalker for 1979’s Murder by Decree (and who’d already played him in a 1977 TV film called Silver Blaze).  Murder by Decree has no connection with A Study in Terror, save for the curious coincidence that in both movies Inspector Lestrade is played by Frank Finlay.  Inspiring the film is Stephen Knight’s book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), which postulated that the Ripper killings were the result of a conspiracy involving the Freemasons and the Royal Family – a theory also informing Alan Moore’s celebrated graphic novel From Hell (1989-98) and its subsequent 2001 movie adaptation.

 

© AVCO Embassy Pictures

 

Murder by Decree is a classy movie with handsome production values and a big-name cast and Plummer essays a correspondingly classy and cultivated Sherlock Holmes.  Also deserving praise is James Mason as Doctor Watson.  Despite a jarring disparity in their ages – Plummer was around 50 at the time, Mason around 70 – the pair make a charming double-act.  They’re clearly bound by great affection and loyalty for one another, even if there are occasional moments of irritation and sulkiness, and they go about their business like a long-term and mostly-loving married couple.

 

There’s a similar married-couple vibe in the film featuring my fourth-favourite Sherlock Holmes.  The movie is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and it’s possibly the first to suggest that something homoerotic is going on between Holmes and Watson, who are respectively and splendidly played by Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely.  Incidentally, this is an idea that Sherlock-the-TV-show has had a lot of fun playing with and its makers have freely admitted that The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has been a big influence on them.  (Mark Gatiss has said of the movie’s director Billy Wilder and scriptwriter I.A.L. Diamond that they “gently take the mickey out of Sherlock Holmes in the way that you can only do with something that you really adore.”)

 

© The Mirisch Corporation / United Artists / MGM

 

Despite the are-they-or-aren’t-they jokes about Holmes and Watson and some gloriously far-fetched steampunk nonsense about a Victorian submarine disguised as the Loch Ness Monster, there’s a melancholic aspect to the film and to Stephens’ performance.  It shows him falling in love with a woman called Gabrielle Valladon, played by Geneviève Page, who turns out to be a German spy, and it ends on a mournful note when Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft (Christopher Lee) informing him that Gabrielle has been executed by a firing squad.

 

Third in my list is Peter Cushing, who played Holmes on three occasions in three different decades: in a celluloid version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, filmed in a typically gothic fashion by horror-movie specialists Hammer Films in 1959 (in fact, I think of it as Holmes Under the Hammer); in a 16-episode BBC TV series in 1968; and in a rather lame but amiable TV film in 1984.  His Watsons were, respectively, André Morell, Nigel Stock and Sir John Mills – all of whom gave solid performances.  The gentlemanly Cushing misses some of the arrogance of the literary character, but he invests him with a dynamism and intensity true to Conan Doyle’s stories.  (When Watson first meets him in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes is running around with a test tube exclaiming, “I’ve found it!  I’ve found it!”)  Cushing’s sharp, angular features also match Conan Doyle’s description of Holmes as having a ‘thin, hawk-like nose’ that ‘gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision’.  Incidentally, Cushing once played Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, in a 1976 TV film called The Great Houdini.

 

© Hammer Films

 

Second place goes to an actor who, like Cushing, was often known for villainous and macabre roles – Basil Rathbone, who played Holmes in 14 films between 1939 and 1946.  The first two were big-budget affairs made by 20th Century Fox and set in Victorian times.  The remaining dozen were cheaper ones made by Universal Pictures and they cheekily updated Holmes to the then-present-day (so that he could devote a lot of time to fighting Nazis).

 

Rathbone’s appearance, bearing and voice are perfect for the role, but for me his films are slightly tarnished by Nigel Bruce’s performance as Dr Watson, which reduces the sensible and dependable narrator of the original stories to a bumbling comedy side-kick.  Yes, Bruce’s ineptitude generates some entertaining moments, but it’s unlikely that someone as smart as Holmes would tolerate having someone as slow-witted as Bruce’s Watson around him all the time.  I particularly cringe at the climax of The Spider Woman (1944), which has Holmes tied up by the villains behind a moving target in a fairground shooting gallery – and Watson at the front of the gallery, obliviously blasting at the target with a rifle.  (To be fair, the not-much-brighter Inspector Lestrade, played by Dennis Hoey, is shooting at it too.)

 

© Universal Pictures

 

And in first place is Jeremy Brett, who played Holmes from 1984 to 1994 in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a series of dramas made by Granada Television that adapted 42 of Conan Doyle’s 60 Holmes stories.  It’s a tragedy that Brett’s declining health prevented him from completing the full set.  Brett was a perfectionist and went to the extent of compiling a dossier on Holmes, nearly 80 pages long, about all the characteristics, mannerisms and habits attributed to him in the stories and he’d constantly refer to this on the set.  The production team displayed a similar, exacting attention to detail, with the result that most Sherlockians – Holmes fans – regard both Brett as the apogee of Sherlock Holmes portrayals and the series as the apogee of Sherlock Holmes adaptations.

 

A great many other actors have played Holmes over the years, of course.  Among those deserving mention are: William Gillette (who played him on stage, radio and the silent screen), Christopher Lee (who also played Mycroft Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville), Douglas Wilmer, Stewart Granger, Nicol Williamson, Ian Richardson, Nicholas Rowe, Charlton Heston, Matt Frewer, Rupert Everett and Ian McKellen.  And let’s not forget the Russian actor Vasily Livanov, who played Holmes for seven years in a Soviet-era TV series and now has a statue of him as the character standing outside the UK embassy in Moscow.  By the way, I haven’t seen two Holmes performances that have attracted much attention in recent years – those of Jonny Lee Miller in the US TV show Elementary (2012-present) and Robert Downey Jr in two films in 2009 and 2011 directed by Guy Ritchie (which to be honest, not being a Guy Ritchie fan, I don’t really want to see).

 

Finally, has there been any overlap with the two other British cultural icons mentioned at the start of this post?   Yes, there has.  The fourth Doctor Who, Tom Baker, played Sherlock Holmes in a 1982 BBC TV adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  His performance has its admirers, though Baker himself wasn’t too happy about it.  Also, the above-mentioned Holmes Peter Cushing played the Doctor in two non-canonical movies Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966).  And in 1976, in between his appearances in the James Bond franchise, Roger Moore swapped his safari suit for a deerstalker and played the title role in an American TV movie called Sherlock Holmes in New York.  It’s on Youtube here.  Watch it if you dare.

 

Anyway, that’s settled it.  Best Sherlock Holmes?  Jeremy Brett, surely.

 

© Granada Television

 

Martin’s museum

 

 

The novelist, poet, short-story writer, playwright, literary critic, biographer, travel writer, science writer, philosopher, religious scholar and all-round Renaissance man Martin Wickramasinghe was born in 1890 in the village of Koggala on Sri Lanka’s south coast.  By the time of his death in 1976 he’d authored some 85 books.  His Wikipedia entry grandly but uninformatively describes him as ‘the father of modern Sinhala literature’.  This profile in Sri Lanka’s Daily News gives more detail about what to expect from his writing, calling him ‘a liberal intellectual who consistently attacked dogmatism, obscurantism, oppression and elitism from any source, religious, political or social.’

 

As far as I know, not many of his books were written in or translated into English – both Wikipedia and the website dedicated to him list 11 such titles – which makes it difficult for someone like myself, illiterate in Sinhala, to immerse myself in his work.  I have, however, read two of the translations.

 

© Sarasa Publishers

 

His Selected Short Stories (2007) reveal a man who’s unhappily aware of the social divisions in Sri Lankan society and the hardships and indignities that poverty heaps upon those at the bottom of it.  For example, Diversion is a damning account of how some wealthy, Anglicised Sri Lankans amuse themselves whilst waiting for the passengers to disembark from a liner at Colombo harbour.  They start throwing coins over the jetty’s edge, so that they can enjoy the spectacle of the poor local street children diving into the water in a race to retrieve them.  This has tragic consequences for one child: “The little urchin was nowhere to be seen,” recounts the narrator.  “I had myself forgotten him in the excitement surrounding the divers.”

 

Meanwhile, Bondage is the story of a hard-working but ailing carter and his beloved, similarly hard-working and similarly ailing cart-bull, which has the reader wondering which of the two is going to die first.  The Torn Coat features a just-married man dreading having to confess to his wife that the fancy outfit he wore at their wedding was actually borrowed from a richer family in their village.  And Woman compares the situations of two female friends.  One has tried to be virtuous, but thanks to a treacherous husband struggles to make end meet and is prematurely aged.  The other has lived shamelessly and now, as a rich man’s mistress, enjoys wealth and comfort and remains youthful.  “We have to accept that we pay for sins carried over from the past,” the poor decent one tells the rich immoral one, despite the evidence suggesting this isn’t true.  Other stories in the collection explore other themes, but these ones about economic hardship I remember best.

 

I’ve also read Lay Bare the Roots (translated in 1958), Wickramasinghe’s account of his childhood in Koggala.  It lovingly records the characters, stories, flora and fauna, arts and crafts, pageantry, customs and religious rites of a time and place that seem very distant now – especially as that part of Sri Lanka is best-known today for its tourist beaches and hotels.

 

It’s interesting that Wickramasinghe defends the hedonistic, earthy elements that once pervaded the local Buddhist festivals and processions – carnival-style entertainments and stalls, for instance, and folkloric ‘devil dancing’ by non-religious mummers – against the complaints of more earnest Buddhists.  He notes regretfully: “Men’s desire for amusement must be satisfied as well as their religious piety.  The religious festivals held at our village temple once catered for both these needs; but due to a few clamorous and educated busy-bodies they have now turned into dull gatherings for the purpose of austere worship and contemplation which only appeal to hermits.”

 

© Sarasa Publishers

 

Koggala’s most famous son has left the village, which is actually more of a town these days, with an important physical (and no doubt money-spinning) legacy.  Contained there in the writer’s former home is the Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Art Museum.  It displays countless historical and cultural items that he collected over a period of 70 years.  These include religious artefacts like temple lamps, monks’ fans, alms bowls, Buddhist paintings and stone, brass, marble and wooden Buddha statues; old agricultural and fishing implements, such as a lasso for catching buffalo, a fishing-net weaving machine and wooden rattles and stone-firing bows used ‘for scaring away birds’; artistic items like masks, puppets and musical instruments; tools for preparing traditional medicines; pottery; jewellery; weapons; and articles from the traditional textile, leather, carpentry and cane and reed industries.  There’s also a Sri Lankan costume gallery, an exhibition hall full of antique furniture and a shed containing ‘traditional vehicles’, which range from handcarts and ‘temple tricycles’ to tuna-fishing boats and fishing-net barges.

 

A few months ago while we were enjoying a holiday on the south coast, my partner and I visited the museum.  I decided the following things were my favourites in the collection: among the masks, some satirical ones that caricatured red-faced and obviously sunburnt and sweating ‘British officers’; among the puppets, a life-sized marionette show; and a selection of traditional Sri Lankan board games including wadu getage, ‘a carpenter’s puzzle’ that could be likened to a very old Rubic’s cube, magul parakhuwa, which consisted of 11 pieces of wood contained within a square and which challenged you manoeuvre the largest piece out through a side-opening by sliding aside but not lifting out the smaller pieces, and magul getaya, known as ‘the wedding knot mystery’, which was apparently used at wedding parties by the bride’s parents to test their new son-in-law’s brainpower.

 

A sign just past the museum entrance warned visitors to beware of unofficial and duplicitous guides.  Accordingly, when I was in the middle of museum and a small, rather elderly man approached me and attempted to strike up a conversation, I initially tried to shake him off.  It was embarrassing when a little later my better half did start talking to him and we discovered that he was really the institution’s curator.  He’d seen me taking my time looking at the exhibits and writing comments in a notebook and he’d wanted to explain things to me in more detail.  (We must have seemed unique to him because, alas, the local visitors didn’t hang around.  They whooshed through the museum.  For a while I even found myself being propelled along in a fast-moving line of chattering Sri Lankan grannies – whom you might’ve expected to proceed more slowly, given that they were probably old enough to remember a few of those exhibits actually being used.)

 

So, should you ever visit the Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Art Museum, don’t be alarmed if a little old man comes up to you and starts talking.  He’s not some money-grubbing fake guide, but the very informative proprietor of the place.

 

Also, don’t forget that, on your way out, there’s a little shop next to the exit where you can stop and purchase a couple of books by the museum’s distinguished founder.

 

 

The hunt is on

 

© 20th Century Fox / Silver Pictures

 

I don’t know which work of short fiction has impacted most on the cinema.  However, I’d bet that Richard Connell’s 8400-word opus The Most Dangerous Game (1924), also known as The Hounds of Zaroff, ranks at least in the top ten short stories that have influenced filmmakers.

 

The Most Dangerous Game is about a big game hunter called Rainsford who falls off a yacht in the Caribbean.  He gets washed ashore on an island belonging to General Zaroff, a Russian exile and another hunting enthusiast.  Zaroff, it transpires, has grown bored of hunting animals and graduated to hunting bigger game, i.e. human beings.  So he dedicates himself to tracking down and killing the poor sailors who frequently get shipwrecked in the treacherous waters around his island.  Zaroff is delighted by Rainsford’s arrival because now he has a quarry he can really pit his wits against.

 

Armed only with a knife, Rainsford is soon being pursued across the island’s forests, swamps and clifftops by the crazed Zaroff, who’s equipped with proper firepower and supported by a hulking henchman and a pack of hungry hounds.  A typical hunter, Zaroff makes sure the odds are stacked in his favour.

 

The Most Dangerous Game has been filmed officially several times, most recently in 2017 under the title of Never Leave Alive.  Several loose adaptations of it have appeared too.  But its premise of humans hunting other humans lurks in the DNA of dozens, if not hundreds, of films in the action-adventure, thriller, science fiction and horror genres – including the Hunger Games movies, the Saw ones, the original Rambo one (1982) and that infamous Japanese bloodbath Battle Royale (2000).

 

I recently discovered Connell’s story on the Internet and read it for the first time.  Some of it is surprising if, like me, you’ve already seen many of the films it’s inspired.  For one thing, Connell spends about 6000 of his 8400 words setting up the situation, before the hunt begins.   Admittedly, he squeezes a lot of action into the final quarter.  Rainsford flees through the forests and swamps to the cliffs, tries and fails to kill Zaroff with three hastily-improvised traps – a Malay man-catcher, a Burmese tiger-pit and a Ugandan knife-trap – fakes his own death and returns to Zaroff’s headquarters for a final showdown.

 

Also surprising is Rainsford’s lack of self-awareness.  The irony of his situation is implicit in the story, obviously, but he never recognises that irony himself.  The Most Dangerous Game begins with him sailing for South America with the intention of shooting jaguars and you get the impression that, once he leaves the island, he’ll continue to South America and shoot jaguars.  His experience of being hunted like an animal hasn’t increased his empathy for hunted animals.

 

Still, there’s much to enjoy.  Particularly amusing is the scene where Zaroff describes his modus operandi to a slowly-comprehending Rainsford:

 

“I wanted the ideal animal to hunt,” explained the general.  “So I said, ‘What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?’  And the answer was, of course, ‘It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason.”

“But no animal can reason,” objected Rainsford.

“My dear fellow,” said the general, “there is one.”

 

So much for the original story, then.  What about the countless humans-hunting-humans movies that have come in its wake?  The following are my favourites.

 

© RKO Radio Pictures

 

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

This is a direct adaptation of the story by Ernest D. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, who made it while they were also making King Kong (1933).  They filmed it at night on Kong’s jungle sets, including the famous one depicting a gorge spanned by a fallen tree-trunk.  Connell’s plot is followed closely, though it’s pumped up and made more cinematic – a bigger proportion of the film is devoted to the hunt, Zaroff (Leslie Banks) has more henchmen helping him out and, in another overlap with Kong, Fay Wray is added as a love interest for Rainsford (Joel McCrea).  Also added is a grotesque trophy room where the heads of Zaroff’s victims are displayed – the glimpses we get of those heads wouldn’t have been allowed a few years later, after Hollywood’s censorious Hays Code was imposed in 1934.  Leslie Banks, sporting real facial scars that he acquired whilst fighting in World War I, is entertaining as Zaroff; though by attempting to do a Russian accent by rolling his ‘r’s a lot, he ends up sounding more like a demented Scotsman.

 

The Naked Prey (1965)

Shifting The Most Dangerous Game’s premise to 19th century South Africa, The Naked Prey has a group of white hunters offending and then falling foul of a local tribe.  The last survivor, played by Cornel Wilde (who also directed and produced), is stripped of his clothes and hunted across the veldt by the vengeful tribesmen.  I saw this harsh movie as a kid and was traumatised as much by the horrors inflicted by the hunters – an early scene shows native bearers plodding in and out of the gutted carcasses of slain elephants – as by the horrors inflicted on them by the locals.

 

© United Artists

 

The Hunting Party (1971)

Here, The Most Dangerous Game is reworked in the guise of a Western.  A gang of outlaws led by a thuggish Oliver Reed – while most British actors stick out like sore thumbs when they appear in Westerns, Reed really looks the part – kidnap a woman (Candice Bergman), not knowing that her husband (Gene Hackman) is a wealthy cattle-baron who’s even more psychotic than they are.  He’s currently on a hunting trip with some buddies, using newly-developed long-range rifles with telescopic sights.  When he learns what’s happened, Hackman and his fellow hunters set off in pursuit, picking off the outlaws one by one at their leisure, from a safe distance.  Critics loathed The Hunting Party on account of its level of bloodletting, which was obviously inspired by Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969).  But I find it fascinating just for its single-minded nihilism.  Hackman’s prey get little chance to fight back; and even while his friends abandon him, sickened by his cruelty, Hackman keeps going, determined to kill ’em all.

 

Punishment Park (1971)

The underrated radical filmmaker Peter Watkins was responsible for Punishment Park, a fictional docu-drama  that transposes The Most Dangerous Game to a near-future dystopian USA – one where both the Vietnam War and opposition to it have escalated and Richard Nixon is drafting increasing numbers into the police and National Guard to maintain order at home.  The titular punishment park is a set-up whereby police and Guardsmen hunt down political dissidents (i.e. anti-war protestors, hippies and civil rights activists) while they try to cross an area of desert.  The former get valuable experience and training while the latter, if they can cross the park without being apprehended, supposedly win back their freedom.   Everything is viewed through the neutral eyes of a European film crew who are making a documentary about the process – though as the one-sided nature of things becomes clear to them, they find it harder to maintain that neutrality.  It’s a disorientating and disturbing piece that feels no less relevant today, given the way things are going in Trump-era America.

 

© Chartwell Francoise / Project X Distribution

 

The Beast Must Die (1974)

Strictly speaking, British horror movie The Beast Must Die isn’t about humans hunting humans.  It’s about humans hunting werewolves, though you could argue that werewolves are human for at least part of the time.  Calvin Lockhart – the first black actor to land the leading role in a British horror film – plays a millionaire hunter determined to bag a lycanthrope.  He rigs up his country estate with CCTV cameras and motion sensors, procures a helicopter and invites five unsavoury people to visit for a few days convinced that one of them – he’s not sure which one – is a werewolf.  Even watching this movie as a teenager I knew Lockhart’s logic was barmy.  What if he’s got it wrong and none of them is a werewolf?  He’ll be really disappointed.  Or what if they’re all werewolves?  They’ll surely rip him to pieces.  But nonetheless, The Beast Must Die is good, daft fun.  The sneaky werewolf gradually gets the better of Lockhart and his hi-tech equipment, whilst also bumping off his staff and guests Ten Little Indians-style.  (These include Peter Cushing, Charles Gray, Anton Diffring and a youthful Michael Gambon).

 

Southern Comfort (1981)

Perhaps the most accomplished film on this list, Southern Comfort was made by Walter Hill when he was at the height of his powers.  It tells the tale of a National Guard unit on weekend manoeuvres in the Bayou who unwisely antagonise an unseen group of Cajun hunters.  With its premise of supposedly well-trained, well-equipped American soldiers floundering in unfamiliar terrain, the film is often viewed as an allegory about the Vietnam War; but as the Cajuns prey on their victims using traps, quicksand and savage hunting dogs, the film’s roots in The Most Dangerous Game are plain to see too.

 

© 20th Century Fox / Cinema Group Ventures

 

Predator (1987)

A sci-fi / action highlight of the late 1980s when Arnold Schwarzenegger was King of the Box Office, Predator has clear parallels with The Most Dangerous Game.  Ah-nuld and a team of testosterone-stuffed commandoes (Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, etc.) enter the jungle to hunt down some insurgents, only to find themselves being hunted, for sport, by a grotesque-looking alien.  Yes, this is really an alien-hunts-humans movie, but the alien has all the characteristics of a human big game hunter.  It collects trophies (skulls) and, possessing deadly heat-rays, super-powerful sensors and an invisibility device that Harry Potter would be proud of, it hunts secure in the knowledge that it has technological advantages that its prey doesn’t have.

 

Surviving the Game (1994)

A homeless man (Ice-T) thinks his luck is on the up when he’s hired by a group of wealthy men to be their assistant during a hunting holiday in the remote Pacific Northwest.  But – surprise! – it soon turns out that he isn’t assisting them, he’s being shot at by them.  Surviving the Game is silly and predictable but I like it for its spectacular mountain landscapes and its excellent cast.  In addition to the always-endearing Ice-T, it has F. Murray Abraham playing a Wall Street stockbroker who believes that hunting people sharpens his business instincts, Gary Busey playing a deranged psychiatrist who finds hunting people therapeutic, and Rutger Hauer playing the evil scuzz-ball who’s masterminded the operation.  With a trophy room of human heads and a sequence involving a gorge spanned by a fallen tree, the film also makes visual references to the 1932 movie version of The Most Dangerous Game.

 

© Carnaby Film Productions / Kaleidoscope Film Distribution

 

A Lonely Place to Die (2011)

This is a neat little British thriller about a group of mountaineers in the Scottish Highlands who discover a young Eastern European girl, obviously a kidnap victim, locked in an underground vault.  Unfortunately, the kidnappers (chillingly played by Sean Harris and Stephen McCole) are in the area too, with high-powered rifles, and decide to retake the girl and eliminate her would-be rescuers.  As well as featuring some beautiful scenery in Glencoe and Glen Etive and some vertiginous rock-climbing set-pieces, the film has a grimly funny scene where the villains encounter two proper hunters, out shooting deer, who fatally mistake them for animal rights activists.

 

Revenge (2017)

Coralie Fargeat’s stylish exploitation movie gives The Most Dangerous Game a feminist twist.  Millionaire drug-dealer Richard (Kevin Janssens) takes his glamorous mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz) to his luxury hideaway in the desert, where he also intends to meet up with two sleazy buddies for some hunting.  Things don’t go as planned – Jen is sexually assaulted, she threatens to tell everything to Richard’s wife, and Richard tries and fails to kill her.  When Jen flees, wounded, into the desert the three men saddle up with their hunting gear and set off in pursuit.  Jen, who early on looked like she’d go to pieces at the sight of a broken fingernail or a laddered stocking, suddenly develops some outdoor survival skills and begins turning the tables on them.  It’s preposterous stuff but, like all such films, you find yourself cheering when the hunted starts to bite back against the bastard hunters.

 

© Rezo Films / MES Productions / Monkey Pack Films

 

Down in the dumps

 

 

If you went too near the edge of the chalk-pit the ground would give way.  Barney had been told this often enough.  Everybody had told him.  His grandmother, every time she came to stay with him.  His sister, every time she wasn’t telling him something else.  Barney had a feeling, somewhere in his middle, that it was probably true about the ground giving way.  But still, there was a difference between being told and seeing it happen…

 

These were the words greeting me on the first page of Stig of the Dump by Clive King, which I consider to be the first proper book I ever read.  I would’ve been seven years old at the time and though before then I’d read school reading books, picture books and collections of fairy tales, Stig struck me as being the real deal as far as books were concerned.  It was 158 pages long, its pages were packed with text and the pictures were sparse – just some simple but strangely evocative black-and-white line drawings by Edward Ardizzone – and it told a proper, continuous story, albeit an episodic one with each chapter chronicling a different adventure experienced by its protagonists.

 

I came across it in my primary school’s library and it was recommended to me by an older boy who assured me that it was ‘great’ and ‘brilliant’.  Because this older boy was the sort who’d more customarily be administering arm-twistings, Chinese burns and dead legs to me, as opposed to informing me of his literary opinions, I decided it was prudent to be seen to follow his advice.  So I borrowed the book and started reading it.

 

With 158 whole pages ahead of me, my seven-year-old self imagined that reading it was going to be an epic chore.  But I persevered and a week or two later I felt massively proud of myself when I reached the final page.  What surprised me, though, was that the experience hadn’t felt like a test of endurance.  I’d actually enjoyed reading the book.  I’d loved it, in fact.  So Stig of the Dump taught me the important lesson that reading could be a lot of fun.

 

As you will no doubt guess from those opening sentences, Barney ignores his family’s warnings and ventures to the very edge of the chalk pit, which gives way and drops him into the abyss below.  This proves to be the titular dump – “Anything people didn’t want they threw into the bottom of the pit” – and it contains “strange bits of wreckage among the moss and elder bushes and nettles.”  It also contains Stig, a cave-boy with “a lot of shaggy black hair and two bright black eyes”, who apparently has come through a time-warp from the Stone Age.

 

Stig has made the modern-day dump his home and fashioned a den for himself consisting of “stones and bones, fossils and bottles, skins and tins, stacks of sticks and hanks of string… motor-car tyres and hats from old scarecrows, nuts and bolts and bobbles from brass bedsteads… a coal scuttle full of dead electric light bulbs and a basin with rusty screws and nails in it…” and “a pile of bracken and newspapers that looked as if it were used for a bed.”  Barney reacts to Stig’s home by saying, “I wish I lived here.”  Which was exactly what I was thinking too.

 

A friendship forms between the 20th-century boy and the prehistoric one and the following chapters detail their escapades together.  These include having to deal with a leopard that’s escaped from a circus and turned up at a children’s fancy-dress party and getting involved in a foxhunt where they turn the tables on the horsebound toffs.  (“Stig doesn’t hunt foxes because they taste nasty,” Barney tells his disbelieving sister, “so we let the fox go…  And then Stig bit the dog and started hunting the horses.  It was jolly funny.”)  They also encounter some kids from a local problem family called the Snargets, who turn out to be not “as black as they were painted” and become their mates, despite Stig’s habit of eating their cigarettes.  And there’s a phantasmagorical final chapter involving a stone circle that provides some insight into where Stig has come from.

 

The book has been on my mind recently for two reasons.  Firstly, a few weeks ago, I discovered and bought a copy of it at a clearance sale organised by a library here in Colombo – the copy’s pictured above.

 

Secondly, I’ve just read that its author Clive King passed away on July 10th at the age of 94.  To be honest, I hadn’t known that he was still alive.  In fact, I’d thought he’d been dead for a long time already because I’d assumed the book had been published many years before it was really published, which was in 1963.  Maybe it’s the asceticism of Edward Ardizzone’s illustrations, which suggest the hard, economic times of the 1930s or Britain’s austerity years immediately after World War II rather than the 1960s.

 

But whatever its publication date, the late Clive King’s Stig of the Dump has both a charming simplicity and an irresistible universality – what boy from any place, era or background wouldn’t love to have a pal like Stig? – that make it as timeless as its shaggy dishevelled, dump-living hero.

 

The writer on the edge of forever

 

© Los Angeles Times

 

Harlan Ellison, who was often categorised as a science-fiction writer although he once memorably warned anyone who called him a science-writer that he would come to their house and ‘nail’ their ‘pet’s head to a coffee table’, passed away in his sleep on June 27th at the age of 84.

 

In his lifetime the Cleveland-born Ellison authored some 1800 stories, scripts, reviews, articles and opinion pieces, but it’s as a short story writer that he was best known.  In fact, when he was in his prime, from the 1960s to 1980s, he was responsible for some of the boldest and most exhilarating short stories I’ve ever read.  As a writer, he seemed to push both his imagination and his writing energies to the very limit.  Describing his stories is difficult, but the nearest comparison I can think of is the fiction of Ray Bradbury.  However, Ellison’s work also had counter-cultural and radical political tones that encompassed both the idealism of the 1960s’ civil rights movement and Summer of Love and the cynicism and despair that came with the Vietnam War and Watergate in the 1970s.

 

Frequently his short stories contained a palpable anger too.  Yes, Ellison had a lot of anger in him.  More on that in a minute.

 

Incidentally, by focusing on his short stories, I don’t wish to denigrate his occasional novels.  Indeed, I’d rate 1961’s Spider Kiss alongside Iain Banks’ Espedair Street (1987) and John Niven’s Kill Your Friends (2008) as one of my favourite rock-and-roll novels ever.

 

© Pan Books

 

Ellison wasn’t a big name in the UK, but in the 1970s – perfectly timed for my development as a teenager – Britain’s Pan Books brought out editions of several of his short story collections, like The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World (1969), Approaching Oblivion (1974) and Deathbird Stories (1975).  All had gorgeously psychedelic covers by (I think) the artist Bob Layzell.  It’s fair to say that my 14 or 15-year-old mind was blown by these volumes.

 

I also loved how Ellison prefaced each story with a short essay describing how it had come into being.  These pieces gave insight not only into his combative personality but also into the rich life-experiences he’d had (or claimed to have had).  Before establishing himself as a writer he’d been, among other things, a truck driver transporting nitro-glycerine, a hired gun and a tuna fisherman.  This inspired me when I was a budding writer to try my hand at different jobs and build up my experiences too, though predictably the stuff I ended up doing – stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s, working in a shoe warehouse, serving as a deputy warden at Aberdeen Youth Hostel – was rather less glamorous than the items on Ellison’s CV.

 

Some of his work also appeared on television although TV was a medium he generally had a low opinion of – in a 2013 interview he accused it and other modern forms of entertainment and communication of having “reduced society to such a trivial, crippled form that it is beyond my notice.”  For instance, he scripted the 1967 Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever, which has Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and Dr McCoy catapulted back in time to 1930s America and confronted with an agonising time-travel-related moral dilemma.  Do they intervene in an accident and prevent the death of a woman called Edith Keeler who (despite being played by Joan Collins) is a noble political activist dedicated to peace, pacifism and public service and with whom, predictably, William Shatner’s horn-dog Captain Kirk has fallen in love; or do they let her die, which means her political movement won’t gain power in the USA, delay her country’s entry into World War II and allow the Nazis to become masters of humanity, which will happen otherwise?

 

© Desilu Productions

 

Thanks to its inventive and thought-provoking spin on time travel, The City… is the best episode of the original series of Star Trek.  In fact, as I don’t like any of the later TV incarnations of Star Trek, I’d say it’s the best Star Trek episode full stop.  Ellison, however, was unimpressed with how the show’s producer Gene Rodenberry and his writing staff rewrote his script and watered down some of its themes and was never slow to sound off about it afterwards.  It may be significant that his later short story How’s the Night Life on Cissalda? (1977) features William Shatner attempting to make love to a revolting-looking alien creature.  Shatner’s toupee falls off in the process.

 

More time-travelling figures in the Ellison-penned episodes Demon with a Glass Hand and Soldier that he wrote for the TV anthology show The Outer Limits (1963-65).  Years later, he was incensed at what he saw as plagiarism of elements of his Soldier script by James Cameron while Cameron was making the first Terminator movie in 1984.  Ellison threatened to sue and got a payment of 65-70,000 dollars from Cameron’s financiers and an acknowledgement on The Terminator’s credits.  By 2014 Ellison had mellowed to the point where he could see the funny side of it.  He played himself in an episode of The Simpsons in which he gets into an argument with Milhouse Van Houten.  When Millhouse comments, “I wish someone would have come from the future and warned me not to talk to you,” Ellison grabs him by the throat and screams, “That’s my idea!”

 

In fact, Ellison was highly litigious.  After discovering his writing, I found an interview with him in an American magazine called Future Life where he talked about suing Paramount Television.  He accused Paramount of stealing the premise of a story about a robot policeman that he’d co-authored with the writer Ben Bova and turning it into a TV show called Future Cop (1976-78) without their permission.  “We’re going to nail their asses to the barn door!” he declared in the interview.  Later, when I was playing rugby for my school and while we were trying to psyche ourselves up against our opponents, I inadvertently let slip with Ellison’s phrase: “We’re going to nail their asses to the barn door!” I exclaimed.  That earned me some strange looks from my teammates.  Nailing asses to barn doors was not common lexical usage on south-of-Scotland rugby pitches.

 

I can honestly say that for a period when I was a teenager Harlan Ellison, with his mind-bending fiction, his braggadocio, his adventurous backstory and his take-no-shit-from-anyone attitude, was the person I wanted to be.  Of course, that changed as I grew older, became less impressionable and more mature, and learned more about Ellison and revised my opinions.  I began to appreciate that Ellison’s persona involved a fair bit of self-mythologizing, egotism and unwarranted cantankerousness and bloody-mindedness.  When Stephen King commented that he knew one writer who regarded Ellison as the reincarnation of Jonathan Swift and another writer who regarded him as a ‘son-of-a-bitch’, I found myself in sympathy with both viewpoints.  And by the time I read a profile of him in a non-fiction book about science-fiction writers called Dream Makers (1980), written by Charles Platt, I was disappointed but somehow not surprised to encounter a character rather too driven by vanity and rather too desperate to impress.  Ellison and Platt later fell out badly – violently, it’s said – though not as far as I know about the unflattering profile in Dream Makers.

 

Also falling out with Ellison was the English writer Christopher Priest, who took issue with Ellison’s editorship of the Dangerous Visions series of science fiction anthologies in the early 1970s.  There was meant to be a third volume in the series but for reasons known only to Ellison it never appeared, leaving a lot of submitted stories in limbo and depriving a lot of authors of potential earnings.  This seems hypocritical of Ellison considering how famously touchy he was about payment for his own work – he’s said to have once mailed a dead gopher to a wayward publisher as a protest.  And although Ellison was a vocal supporter of the USA’s Equal Rights Amendment, much of that good work was undone in 2006 when, in a moment of dirty-old-man madness, he fondled a female writer’s breast onstage at an awards ceremony.  From the footage I’ve seen of it, I suspect Ellison thought he was just indulging in some ‘innocent’ schoolboy malarkey.  Understandably, though, the writer at the receiving end was highly pissed off at him.

 

© Pan Books

 

But while I came to have mixed feelings about the character of the artist, my enthusiasm never waned for the art itself.  And Ellison’s literary legacy includes at least ten short stories that I’d number among my all-time favourites by any writer.  I’ve listed them below:

 

A Boy and His Dog: a post-apocalyptic satire that’s a spot-on blend of anarchy and irreverence, featuring as its main character a telepathic and sarcastic canine.  It was filmed in 1975 by L.Q. Jones and though the movie version isn’t perfect, it still holds up better than a lot of other, more portentous sci-fi films made in the same decade.

Along the Scenic Route: a biting analysis of the relationship between Americans and their cars.  Detailing how a couple out for a leisurely drive end up competing in a lethal demolition derby, it prefigures movies like the Mad Max ones.

Bleeding Stones: quite simply a story that made my jaw drop with its combination of brutality, blasphemy and surrealism.

Count the Clock That Tells the Time: describing how a lethargic never-do-well gets trapped in a weird, ghostly netherworld, this is a cautionary tale about the dangers of wasting your time and frittering your life away.

Delusion for a Dragon Slayer: an unremarkable little man suddenly finds his soul transplanted into the body of a Conan the Barbarian-type swordsman in a blood-and-thunder fantasy land.  What follows is a merciless dissection of the inadequacies of the nerdy males who read sword-and-sorcery stories.

Hindsight: 480 Seconds: a haunting story about a poet who volunteers to stay on an about-to-be-destroyed earth after the rest of humanity has been evacuated, so that he can provide a commentary on his planet’s dying minutes.

I’m Looking for Kadak: Kurt Vonnegut meets Woody Allen in this comedy about the frustrations of a group of aliens on a far-flung planet who’ve converted to Judaism.

One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty: another time-travel tale, this one about a man going back in time and befriending his younger self when he’s a bullied, insecure child.

Pretty Maggie Money Eyes: a sad and unexpectedly tender story of a woman’s spirit inhabiting a Las Vegas slot machine.

Shatterday: the unsettling tale of a man who accidentally phones his own apartment one evening and finds himself talking to himself.  In fact, this other self is a sinister doppelganger who’s appeared from nowhere and is planning to usurp him from his existence.

 

And that’s my Harlan Ellison Top Ten.  Thank you for the entertainment and inspiration, Mr E., and Rest In (non-cantankerous) Peace.

 

© Pan Books

 

Enter the dragon

 

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

 

I lately read Red Dragon, the 1981 thriller by Thomas Harris.   It’s the first of Harris’s novels to feature the super-intelligent, polylingual, opera-loving, gourmet-cooking, serial-killing psychiatrist and cannibal Dr Hannibal Lecter.

 

Harris’s second Lecter novel Silence of the Lambs (1988) was the one that turned Lecter into a flesh-munching cultural icon – especially when movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis had it filmed in 1991 with Jonathan Demme directing and Anthony Hopkins giving an Oscar-winning performance as the hungry psychiatrist.  However, though Silence is the best-known of Harris’s titles thanks to the popular and critical success of the 1991 movie version, that’s the only time it’s been filmed.  Red Dragon, on the other hand, has been adapted for the cinema and TV three times.

 

Firstly, in 1986, before Hopkins’ portrayal of Lecter caught the public imagination, Michael Mann directed a movie version of Red Dragon for De Laurentiis.  Retitled Manhunter, it didn’t do well at the box office and received mixed reviews, though it’s been reappraised and is regarded now as a 1980s classic.

 

In 2002, De Laurentiis unveiled a new cinematic version of Red Dragon, called Red Dragon this time, directed by the now-disgraced Brett Ratner and with Hopkins again in the role of Lecter.  This came just one year after the indefatigable De Laurentiis had brought Hopkins back for a movie adaptation of Harris’s third Lecter novel Hannibal (1999).  Presumably the haste to film Hannibal and refilm Red Dragon was because by this time Hopkins was in his mid-sixties and De Laurentiis knew that if he wanted to get any more mileage out of him as a credible, non-geriatric cannibal, it was now or never.

 

After 2002, with Hopkins retired from the role, all was quiet on the Lecter front for a while.  Well, apart from a crappy ‘origins’ movie called Hannibal Rising, starring Gaspard Ulliel in the title role, released in 2007 and based on a fourth Lecter novel Harris had published the previous year.

 

Then, from 2013 to 2015, NBC aired three seasons and 39 episodes of a TV show called Hannibal, which was produced in part by De Laurentiis’ production company.  By now old Dino himself had departed for the great studio in the sky, but his wife Martha was still around to act as executive producer.  The show was supposedly based on Red Dragon, though it didn’t cover the main plot of the novel until late in its third and final season.

 

But enough of the movie and TV adaptations.  What did I make of the original 36-year-old novel that started the whole Hannibal hoo-ha in the first place?

 

© Arrow Books

 

Admittedly, Harris’s prose will never win awards for literary stylishness, but it’s impressively terse and efficient and it expertly tells the story.  In fact, I found Red Dragon compelling and finished it in three days – and that’s despite me knowing the plot inside-out, having been exposed to it already in the films and TV show.

 

First, a quick recap of that plot – be warned that from here on there are many spoilers.  Former FBI profiler Will Graham is coaxed out of retirement by his former boss Jack Crawford and sent to investigate a serial killer called the Tooth Fairy, who butchers well-to-do suburban families on nights of the full moon and does unspeakable, ritualistic things with their corpses.

 

Graham is understandably reluctant to return to his old job.  For one thing, he has unnaturally-acute powers of empathy – one symptom being a habit whereby “in intense conversations Graham took on the other person’s speech patterns.”   Such empathy has practical applications in that Graham is very good at projecting himself into the minds of psychopaths: “…you have to take whatever evidence you have and extrapolate,” he explains.  “You try to reconstruct his thinking.  You try to find patterns.”  This helps him to track down serial killers, but the disadvantage is that it seriously f**ks his head.

 

For another thing, the last serial killer he caught was one Dr Hannibal Lecter, who nearly gutted him ‘with a linoleum knife’ before going down.

 

Eleven pages in, Graham sets to work and the rest of the novel details his hunt for the Tooth Fairy.  We’re treated to several sub-plots.  We meet the Tooth Fairy himself, the tormented Francis Dolarhyde, who suffered a brutal and miserable childhood partly on account of his having a cleft lip and palate.  These were later repaired but Dolarhyde still believes himself to be disfigured.  Thanks to an unhealthy obsession with the William Blake painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, Dolarhyde also believes himself to be in the process of ‘becoming’, i.e. metamorphosising from his weak, imperfect human self into a powerful being called the Red Dragon, tattooed images of which he has slathered over his body.  Dolarhyde sees his murders as a way of facilitating this transformation.  Then, however, he unwittingly befriends a blind woman called Reba McClane at his workplace.  He falls in love with Reba, which poses an obstacle to the transformation process and brings the human and dragon sides of his personality into conflict.

 

Another sub-plot involves a scheme by Graham and Crawford to spring a trap for the Tooth Fairy, using Graham as bait.  They get sleazy scumbag tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds to write a newspaper feature about the murders that quotes Graham saying some derogatory things about the Tooth Fairy’s sexuality.  The plan backfires – horribly, as far as Lounds is concerned.

 

And finally, there’s a sub-plot wherein Graham consults an old acquaintance for some insight into the Tooth Fairy’s personality.  He visits Lecter, now incarcerated in a hospital for the criminally insane under the supervision of the amusingly vain and incompetent Dr Frederick Chilton.  Lecter is all too happy to play mind games when he meets his old nemesis (“Do you dream much, Will?”) but agrees to look over the case files.  (“This is a very shy boy, Will.  I’d love to meet him…”)  Later, the resourceful Lecter manages to establish a line of communication with the Tooth Fairy and thoughtfully passes on the address of Graham’s family.

 

One thing that impresses is the detail Harris puts into his accounts of police, FBI and forensic procedures while Graham and Crawford conduct their manhunt.  No wonder there was a six-year gap between Red Dragon and Harris’s previous novel, the terrorist thriller Black Sunday (1975) – the amount of research he did must have been massive.  What makes Red Dragon interesting from a historical point of view is that the forensic science described here doesn’t mention DNA – for DNA profiling only became a thing in 1984, thanks to the work of Sir Alec Jeffreys.  Could you write Red Dragon today and realistically incorporate the same incidents, twists and dynamics into its plot?  I doubt it.

 

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

 

It’s fascinating to compare the book, its two cinematic incarnations and its one TV incarnation.  Seen now, Manhunter is strikingly different from the full-bloodedly gothic adaptations of Harris’s novels that came later.  Clearly, Michael Mann doesn’t think he’s making a horror film – which is fair enough, considering that in 1986 Hannibal Lecter had yet to find fame as a bite-your-face-off horror icon.  Instead, the story is treated as a police-procedural thriller, albeit a very grim one.

 

Manhunter is also highly stylised and has an icy visual and aural glaze.  The distinctive lighting / colour palette includes blues for Graham (William Petersen) and his family, greens and purples for Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan), and stark, sterile whites for Lecter (Brian Cox) in his cell – which is far from the dark, dungeon-like place it’s depicted as in later movies.  There’s also a synth-dominated soundtrack that depending on your view of 1980s music you’ll either find amazing or deeply annoying.

 

Mann omits a few parts of the novel that, presumably, he found too hokey.  These include a sequence where Dolarhyde bluffs his way into the archives of the Brooklyn Museum, finds the original The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun and eats it – the painting is only 44 x 35 centimetres so yes, eating it is just about possible.  Mann also eschews the novel’s twist ending (which won’t fool anyone who’s ever seen more than three horror films) and finishes things with a straightforward shootout.

 

Fans of the Anthony Hopkins movies may be disappointed to discover that Lecter isn’t in Manhunter that much.  His only scene with Graham is when the latter visits his cell, though there’s a later sequence where they converse by phone.  Mind you, that’s more direct contact than they get in the book, for after their initial meeting Harris restricts Lecter’s communications with Graham to a couple of mocking letters.  Their face-to-face encounter in Manhunter is very effective.  It uses much of Harris’s original dialogue, although it leaves out one amusing line where Lecter describes Chilton’s attempts to psycho-analyse him as fumbling “at your head like a freshman pulling at a panty girdle.”

 

The Dundonian actor Brian Cox makes a down-to-earth but creepily intense Lecter.  There’s little of the knowing, playing-to-the-gallery relish that Hopkins brought later.  Cox is said to have based his portrayal on the Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel, who had such a conceit of himself that he conducted his own defence during his trial in 1958.

 

© Universal Productions / Imagine Corporation

© Universal Productions / Imagine Corporation

 

The makers of the 2002 Red Dragon claimed they’d filmed a more faithful version of Harris’s novel than Mann had.  Accordingly, the scene where Dolarhyde eats the painting and the twist ending are re-instated.  But this Red Dragon actually differs from the book in that – surprise! – we get a lot more of Lecter.  There are additional scenes between him and Graham (Edward Norton), plus ones where he puts the wind up the hapless Chilton (Anthony Heald).  By 2002, Hopkins’ Lecter had become such a fixture of popular culture that all the Welsh actor could do was portray him as a loveable bogeyman – which he does entertainingly enough.  Still, the film’s prologue, another extra scene that shows how Graham caught Lecter in the first place, carries a genuine chill.

 

I recently watched Red Dragon and found it better than I’d expected.  But compared to Manhunter it’s something of a dud.  Certain details annoy me, like how it’s set in 1980 but uses some anachronistic DNA testing to facilitate a sudden plot twist; or how the role of Graham’s wife (Mary-Louise Parker) is reduced during the climax.  In the book, she saves the day.  More importantly, sequences that looked impressively cinematic in Manhunter, such as when Dolarhyde returns Freddie Lounds to the authorities in a grisly fashion or when he treats the blind Reba to a zoo-visit so that she can feel the body of a sedated tiger, are done flatly and disappointingly.  I particularly disliked how director Ratner depicted Graham’s unsettling powers.  We see him contemplating some photos from a crime scene and suddenly – zap! – there’s a cheap horror-movie jump-cut of some creepy dolls.  The first episode of the TV show Hannibal shows how Graham’s mind works in a much more imaginative and disturbing way.

 

Red Dragon has the most prestigious cast of any Lecter movie – Hopkins, Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson – but some performances are problematic.  As Dolarhyde, Fiennes captures the sad, human side of the monster, but despite being a six-footer he doesn’t have the physicality that made the towering Tom Noonan so frightening in the previous adaptation.  Meanwhile, Ed Norton makes a very drab Will Graham.  Beyond the fact that he looks tired all the time, there’s little suggestion of the pressure his empathetic ability / curse puts on his sanity.  William Petersen conveyed this much better in Manhunter.

 

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

 

Downplaying the fragility of Will Graham is something that the flamboyant and daring TV show Hannibal can’t be accused of.  Indeed, viewers spend its three seasons wondering if the rumpled, tortured Graham (Hugh Dancy) is going to flip and become as evil as the human monsters he’s been tracking.  Pushing him along this road to ruin is his relationship with the suave, sardonic Lecter (Danish heartthrob Mads Mikkelsen), which goes well beyond the adversarial one depicted in the book and movies.  It’s a relationship of dark fascination, crossing over into the homo-erotic.

 

During Hannibal’s run, showrunner Bryan Fuller had great fun tampering with the conventions established by the books and films.  For instance, though in Harris’s chronology the 1999 novel Hannibal comes two books after Red Dragon, by the time the TV show tackled Red Dragon it’d already dramatised most of the events in Hannibal-the-novel.  (For copyright reasons, Fuller was unable to use anything from Silence of the Lambs.)  Still, when it comes, a surprising amount of Red Dragon remains intact in the show – including Dolarhyde’s eating of the painting, his unlikely courtship of Reba McClane (Rutina Wesley) and the failed attempt by Graham and Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to taunt him into a trap.  This time Dolarhyde’s boots are filled by Richard Armitage, who despite being best-known for playing a dwarf in The Hobbit movies (2012-14) makes an imposing killer.

 

Given the gleefully overwrought nature of the show, though, it’s no surprise that Fuller veers away from the novel for the story’s climax, which also serves as the climax of Hannibal’s last-ever episode.  Here, Lecter’s wish is granted and he gets to meet this ‘very shy boy’.  Fuller has the urbane cannibal escape from captivity and join forces with Graham at a storm-lashed clifftop mansion, where they take on Dolarhyde in a bloody, slow-motion and, yes, homo-erotic battle to the death.  All this while Siouxsie Sioux sings a song called Love Crime on the soundtrack…

 

I don’t know if Thomas Harris ever saw this episode.  I’d like to think that, if he did, he was rolling his eyes and shaking his head – but at the same time grinning with admiration at Bryan Fuller’s audacity.

 

From fineartamerica.com

 

Last man no longer standing

 

© Sam Falk / New York Times

 

For the last few years I’d thought of the American novelist Philip Roth, who died on May 22nd at the age of 85, as the ‘last man standing’.  This was because he seemed to me the very last of a certain breed: those high-profile, often brash and larger-than-life, and sometimes narcissistic, men of letters who made the American literary world an eventful and entertaining place in the mid-to-late 20th century.

 

I’m thinking of the likes of Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, John Updike, Gore Vidal and Kurt Vonnegut.  While it’s wrong to generalise, and each one had his own unique context and character, they seemed overall much more dramatically writerly than their British counterparts at the time.  Elephantine egos abounded, many of them loved the spotlight, and there were few qualms about rolling up sleeves and wading into a good literary feud, fight or slagging match with a rival.  For instance, Gore Vidal got punched in the face – or struck by a glass, or headbutted, depending on which story you believe – by Norman Mailer after he’d written a piece comparing Mailer to Charles Manson.  I couldn’t imagine John Fowles doing that to Malcolm Bradbury.

 

Certain members of America’s premier league of post-war writers were also notable boozers.  I seem to remember Martin Amis likening them once to a bunch of drunks you’d find in the back of a police van late on a Saturday night on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street.  (Aye, right, Martin.  Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night.  You’d know all about that.)

 

They generated lots of good copy and anecdotes but thinking about them now they were problematic in many ways.  American literature back then was very much a boys’ club – the attention they got seemed far more than that accorded to America’s post-war women writers.  As a teenager, when I was really getting into books for the first time, I knew of the reclusive Harper Lee; and of Shirley Jackson, though she seemed neglected because she’d written too much ‘genre’ fiction and not enough proper ‘adult’ stuff; but that was about it.  I didn’t hear of people like Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor until much later.

 

There was also a reek of smug, well-to-do WASP / Jewish male privilege hanging around them and, accordingly, their characters seemed frequently to be successful middle-aged blokes working in America’s boardrooms or on its campuses, fraternising with the rich, the powerful and the intellectual and, of course, having their pick of beautiful young ladies.  I know Updike’s fiction wasn’t all like this, but whenever I think of the characters in his short stories now I seem only to recall fifty-something college professors married to twenty-or-thirty-something women who, of course, had started out as their students.

 

Then again, some of them – like Heller, Mailer and Vonnegut – had fought in World War II and belonged to a generation of men who, after that, felt they’d earned their sense of entitlement.  (Mind you, no war-spawned sense of entitlement excuses Mailer from drunkenly sticking a knife into his then-wife in 1960.)

 

I must confess that the only thing I’ve read by Philip Roth is 1969’s Portnoy’s Complaint.  I consumed this as a teenager and greatly enjoyed it – something possibly connected with the fact that the book was about wanking.  For several years I’ve had his 2004 novel The Plot against America, which is set in a parallel universe where Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and sets the USA on a course into fascism, sitting on a shelf somewhere but I’ve never got around to reading it.  I should, as it sounds intriguing.

 

In Roth’s final interview, with the New York Times back in January this year, he was asked if he saw any resemblance between the events depicted in the book and those that have rocked America’s political establishment in the last couple of years.   The octogenarian Roth gave a splendidly robust response.  “Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also – because of the extraordinary feat of his solo trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25 – an authentic American hero…  Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.”

 

© Vintage

 

Master and servant

 

© Penguin Books

 

I haven’t read a great deal of Robert Louis Stevenson’s oeuvre – just Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886) and a few collections covering his short stories about Scotland, the supernatural (like 1886’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and the South Sea islands.  When a few weeks ago I bought a copy of The Master of Ballantrae (1889) and started reading it, I assumed I was in for another rousing family-friendly adventure yarn in the spirit of Treasure Island and Kidnapped.

 

On paper, Master has all the elements of an adventure like those experienced by Jim Hawkins and David Balfour.  It begins with the Jacobite uprising of 1745.  The two sons of the Laird of the Durrisdeer Estate in southwest Scotland toss a coin to decide which one of them rides out and joins the uprising and which one remains at home and officially stays loyal to the crown – that way, whichever side wins, the estate should be safe.  Fate decrees that the elder son, James, joins the rebellion.  In due time, the rebellion is put down, James is believed killed, and the younger brother, the mild-mannered Henry, ends up inheriting the estate and finally marrying his deceased sibling’s fiancé.  To everyone’s surprise (apart from the readers’), James then comes back from the dead.  Not only has he survived the uprising and its bloody aftermath, but he’s been embittered and corrupted by his experiences and his soul is now thoroughly rotten.  And so begins a long and wide-ranging struggle between James and Henry for the estate and its wealth.

 

As Stevenson describes that struggle, we get episodes involving smugglers, pirates, slave-traders and hostile North American Indians.  There’s a supposed duel to the death, an arduous trek through the American wilderness, an unexpected interlude in India and a stormy voyage across the Atlantic.  The book’s climax returns to the wintry forests of North America, where the brothers engage in a desperate race to locate some buried pirates’ treasure.  Thus, all the boxes seem ticked on the Robert Louis Stevenson rip-roaring adventure checklist.

 

It’s a surprise to report, then, just how dark and grim Master is.  For example, the pirate section – James and an associate called Francis Burke fall in with a crew of brigands and cut-throats when the ship in which they’re fleeing post-rebellion Scotland is attacked and taken over – is no cosy rewrite of Treasure Island.  These pirates are debauched savages who murder the crews of the ships they board.  At one disturbing moment, Burke recalls: “Twice we found women on board; and though I have seen towns sacked, and of late days in France some very horrid public tumults, there was something in the smallness of the numbers engaged, and the bleak, dangerous sea-surroundings, that made these acts of piracy far the most revolting.  I confess ingeniously I could never proceed unless I was three parts drunk…”

 

Meanwhile, the final pages almost have the intensity of a horror story.  As they journey through the wilds of Canada, searching for the spot where years earlier James buried a cache of pirates’ booty, a party of exhausted men find themselves being stalked by an unseen foe.  Each night, someone skulks into their camp and murders and scalps them one by one as they lie asleep: “…when they rested at last, it was to sleep profoundly; and when they woke, it was to find that the enemy was still at their heels, and death and mutilation had once more lessened and deformed their company.”  It might not be in the league of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), but it certainly suggests the primordial brutality of a modern western movie like Bone Tomahawk or The Revenant (both 2015).

 

Psychologically, Master isn’t a comfortable read either.  We expect Henry to be the good guy, and that’s at least how he starts off.  Not, it should be said, that he gets much credit for his decency – the local people around the estate view him as a coward and traitor for not joining the uprising; and his wife and elderly father ignore him and spend their time mourning James and lionising his memory.  When James reappears and takes his place in the household again, hiding his multitudinous vices from everyone but his brother, Henry’s character failings become increasingly apparent.  He proves incapable of action, the outrage he feels cancelled out by a sense of defeatism.  No wonder he laments, “I am a man of great patience – far too much – far too much.  I begin to despise myself.  And yet, sure, never was a man involved in such a toil!”

 

Later, fate brings both brothers to New York and it seems that Henry has at last turned the tables on James.  He lives in “a decent mansion” and is “a popular man with his intimates” while James, shunned and impoverished, sets up a lowly tailor’s business “in a poor quarter of the town” in “a lonely, small house of boards, overhung with some acacias… with a sort of hutch opening, like a dog’s kennel.”  Yet Henry is possessed by hatred now.  Every day, he makes a point of going to James’s hovel dressed in his finery, standing in front of it and staring gloatingly at his sibling while he sits sewing outside.  Challenged about this obsessive and petty behaviour, he retorts, “You never had such mountains of bitterness upon your heart,” and he expresses a determination to ‘break’ his brother’s ‘spirit’.  Later still, when Henry hears a clearly scurrilous rumour from Britain that he might be disinherited in favour of James, he’s become so paranoid that he chooses to believe it and casts himself into a course of action that proves disastrous for both brothers.

 

As Henry’s character disintegrates, we find ourselves almost welcoming each moment when James arrives onstage.  He’s callous, manipulative, scheming, limitlessly greedy and superhumanly selfish, but he’s consistent and, in his evil way, very entertaining.  In fact, he must rank alongside Alec D’Urberville, Bill Sykes and Count Dracula as one of the great anti-heroes of 19th century British literature.  And it’s not difficult to see him as Henry’s wicked, corrupting alter-ego, nudging his younger brother a little further off the path of virtue and into the realms of sinfulness and madness every time he appears.  Stevenson, of course, had explored this theme three years earlier with The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, though the blueprint for both Master and Jekyll and Hyde lies further back in time, with a work by Stevenson’s fellow Scot, James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824).

 

© Rex Features / The Daily Telegraph

 

All this would make Master a morose novel if it wasn’t for the strong injection of humour it gets from its narrator.  The story is related by Ephraim Mackellar, Henry’s steward and servant, and the idiosyncrasies of Mackellar’s personality flavour the storytelling.  The fussy, prudish, squeamish and conservative Mackellar is an amusingly and peculiarly Scottish creation.  If he was alive today, he’d no doubt be tutting over the stories he reads every week in the Sunday Post.  He’d be serving dutifully as an elder in his local Church of Scotland even though hardly any of his neighbours bother to turn up at the services any more.  And he’d be out canvasing for Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories in the hope that they’ll restore discipline in the schools by re-introducing the belt and generally bring back the Good Old Days when everyone knew their place and doffed their caps to their betters.

 

Mackellar’s hapless honesty makes Master very funny in places.  He doesn’t shirk from describing the indignities inflicted upon him – for example, when some smugglers “caused me to dance for their diversion.  The method employed was that of cruelly chipping at my toes with their naked cutlasses, shouting at the same time ‘Square Toes’; and although they did me no bodily mischief, I was none the less deplorably affected, and was indeed for several days confined to my bed; a scandal on the state of Scotland on which no comment is required.”  On the other hand, he’s affecting in the loyalty he shows to Henry and, indeed, he becomes Henry’s conscience when he starts to go to the bad.  Stevenson even hints that Mackellar’s love for his boss might be more than a love engendered by respect and duty: “…I have never had much toleration for the female sex, possibly not much understanding; and being far from a bold man, I have ever shunned their company.”

 

The book’s most amusing section comes when Henry tries to ensnare James in a legal trap, leaving him stranded at the Durrisdeer Estate but with no access to its funds, while he and his family depart for America in the hope of building a new life for themselves.  Mackellar is left behind as James’s custodian and the two men, absolutely opposed in temperament, begin an Odd Couple-like existence in the empty ancestral home.  They end up with a grudging respect, even a perverse affection, for each other.  When Mackellar manages to verbally cut James down to size, the latter cackles, “Who would have guessed… that this old wife had any wit under his petticoats?”  Yet the infernal side of James’s nature is never far away, something illustrated a few pages later when he manages to goad the pious Mackellar into doing something extremely un-Christian, i.e. making an (unsuccessful) attempt on his life.

 

The Master of Ballantrae wasn’t what I’d expected, but I found its mixture of bleakness, humour, tragedy and the macabre admirably haunting.  So confidently does it juggle its disparate elements that you wonder what other literary goodies Robert Louis Stevenson might have produced had he lived beyond the age of 44.

 

Carry on abroad

 

© Penguin Books

 

I have a tiny sliver of a connection with Daphne du Maurier, the popular 20th century English writer responsible for novels like Jamaica Inn (1936) and Rebecca (1938) and short stories like The Birds (1952) and Don’t Look Now (1971).  When I was at college in the 1980s, I knew her great-nephew very slightly.  I was better acquainted with her great-nephew’s flatmate, though, and a few times I visited their apartment.  Its walls were slathered with pictures of George Michael and Andrew Ridgely from Wham, cut out of popular teen magazines of the time like Smash Hits and No 1.  I assume the young du Maurier and his flatmate had stuck up these pictures in an attempt to appear ironic.  Unfortunately, it meant that thereafter when I saw his great-aunt’s name on the cover of a book, I couldn’t help but hear, by way of association, the irritatingly bouncy strains of such 1980s pop-dance numbers as Club Tropicana or Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.

 

Until recently the only thing by Daphne du Maurier I’d read was The Birds, a story that because of its remote Cornish setting feels even more claustrophobic and desperate than the North America-set film version directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963.  However, over the festive season, my partner gave me a copy of du Maurier’s 1971 collection Don’t Look Now and Other Stories as a present.  I’ve just finished reading it.

 

A novella about a grieving English couple who’re taking a break in Venice when they’re approached by two strange women – one of whom claims to be a medium – and told that their dead daughter’s spirit is trying to warn them against danger, Don’t Look Now has been filmed too.  Nicholas Roeg directed a movie version in 1973 and it’s now regarded as a classic, both as a horror film and as an example of Roeg’s work in the 1970s and 1980s, which combined fragmented and elliptical narratives, haunting and recurrent images and scenes of both violent and sexual intensity to unforgettable effect.  Having seen the film several times over the years, I was keen to read the piece of fiction that’d inspired it.

 

My first impression when I started reading Don’t Look Now was that film and story felt like they belonged to different eras.  The couple, John and Laura, seem more modern, liberated and chic in the film, though that may be because they were played by 1970s icons Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.  On the page, John and Laura have an old-fashioned English starchiness and they try to get over their loss with stiff upper lips and a strained Keep Calm and Carry On cheerfulness.  The literary John and Laura are also in Venice as tourists, so they seem less confident and more vulnerable.  Their cinematic equivalents are there for work reasons – John is helping to restore a Venetian church – and thus know their way around better.

 

Then there’s the presentation of the story.  Du Maurier’s novella is a briefer and more economical account of the events I was familiar with from the film.  As it stands, it could easily have been made into a 45-minute TV play.  (The film clocks in at 110 minutes.)  It begins in Venice with John and Laura encountering the medium.  The death of their daughter, by meningitis, is mentioned retrospectively.  And the suggestion that the dead girl’s spirit is urging them to leave the city before something terrible happens feels like a simple device to kick-start the main story – wherein John doesn’t leave Venice, through a series of mishaps, misunderstandings and further supernatural shenanigans; and then, when he tries to intervene in what he believes is the mistreatment of a child, something terrible does happen.

 

© Casey Productions / Eldorado Films / British Lion Films

 

The movie opens with a harrowing sequence showing the death of John and Laura’s daughter – not by meningitis but by drowning in a pond in the English countryside.  Roeg and his scriptwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant create a sense of a cosmic, all-encompassing evil at work.  Even as the girl dies, everything that’s still to happen in Venice seems to be prefigured.  We see John studying pictures of the Venetian church where he’ll be working and discovering a mysterious figure wearing a red coat in one of the slides.  When he spills water onto the figure, its redness spreads across the slide like a bloodstain.  John’s daughter is also wearing a red coat when she drowns and, later, so too is the child-figure John sees scarpering alongside the night-time Venetian waterways.

 

Indeed, in the film, John seems to make a connection between the two characters thanks to the coat – is the red-clad figure by the canals the ghost of his daughter?  But this association doesn’t appear in the original novella.

 

Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now is efficiently gripping.  But I think Nicholas Roeg’s brooding cinematic version, spinning a web of portents, visions and uncanny coincidences in which John’s doom seems pre-ordained from the start, is better – a work of art.  That’s despite the fact that, by changing the girl’s death from meningitis to drowning, the film can be accused of illogicality.  As the website British Horror Films observes pithily: “Couple aim to forget daughter’s drowning by moving to Venice – a city full of water.”

 

Actually, with Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, I preferred a couple of those ‘other stories’ to the title one.  And interestingly, nearly all of them share a similar theme, in that they deal with English people going abroad and coming unstuck as they pass out of their cultural comfort zones.

 

Not After Midnight is about an amateur artist taking a holiday in Crete in order to do some landscape painting.  In a manner reminiscent of the hero of John Fowles’ novel The Magus (1966), he encounters a strange man and becomes embroiled in some equally-strange activities touching upon ancient Greek myths.  However, while Fowles’ novel is an airy and exuberant affair where a Prospero-like figure orchestrates spectacular and elaborate ‘masques’, Not After Midnight is altogether grungier and more low-fi.  The man putting the events in motion is a drunken, debauched brute and, accordingly, the myths invoked concern “Silenos, earth-born satyr, half-horse, half-man, who, unable to distinguish truth from falsehood, reared Dionysus, god of intoxication, as a girl in a Cretan cave, then became his drunken tutor and companion.”  Du Maurier doesn’t say explicitly what bacchanalian depravities her hero finally succumbs to; but as he’s a teacher at a posh English boys’ school, we can guess.

 

From famousauthors.org

 

In A Border Line Case, a young woman who works as a theatre actress tries to honour the dying wish of her father.  She goes in search of her father’s long-lost best friend, to tell him that her father had wanted to “shake the old boy by the hand once more and wish him luck.”  She finds the missing friend in the Republic of Ireland, living as a recluse on an island, mysteriously lording it over a cohort of local men and engaged in activities that are probably illegal and possibly bizarre.  Unlike the hapless protagonists in the other stories, the heroine here is a resourceful type.  She uses her skills as an actress to improvise, hide her identity and talk her way out of tight spots.  However, when at one point she suspects she’s stumbled across a group of closeted homosexuals (“They were all homos…  It was the end.  She couldn’t bear it…”), you feel surprised that a London theatre actress should be so wary and intolerant of gay men.  Still, A Border Line Case is well-paced and balanced nicely between an adventure story and a mystery one.  It builds impressively to a nasty, if slightly predictable ending.

 

The book’s most humorous story is The Way of the Cross, about a group of disparate English tourists making their way to and then around Jerusalem.  The characters and plot seem slightly contrived at times – it’s unlikely that a progressive left-wing lady who’s worried about the plight of the Palestinians should be married to a materialistic right-wing businessman, and a climax where two characters are stricken by unconnected illnesses and a third one suffers a serious accident stretches credibility – but nonetheless it’s an enjoyably satirical account of English folk abroad.

 

The final story, The Breakthrough, is the exception to the rule.  Its engineer hero doesn’t leave England for another country, although he is posted to the desolate flatlands and beaches of East Anglia.  There, an ambitious experiment is underway in a scientific / military laboratory, ostensibly involving computers, but really about capturing a psychic energy that surrounds people when they’re alive and escapes when they die.  The Breakthrough’s blending of the scientific and the supernatural calls to mind the famously frightening TV play The Stone Tape (1973), written by Nigel Kneale.  Bravely, du Maurier opts for a non-sensational ending that prioritises character over action or horror.  Admittedly, some readers might find the ending a bit of a let-down.

 

Overall, I greatly enjoyed reading Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, because of the author’s precise and no-nonsense prose, her ability to pack a lot of incident into her narratives without letting them get too convoluted, and her determination at all times to tell a rattling good yarn.

 

Indeed, on the strength of this, I’m now starting to think of Daphne du Maurier as being in the mould of Stephen King – and not so much in connection with George Michael and Andrew Ridgely.  Yes, better the author of The Running Man than the authors of I’m your Man.

 

© Casey Productions / Eldorado Films / British Lion Films