The marble yawn

 

© Airmont Books    

 

I’ve always been an admirer of the elegant 19th-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Over the years, I’ve enjoyed Hawthorne’s novels The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and The Blithedale Romance (1852), his collection of Greek myths rewritten as children’s stories Tanglewood Tales (1853) and his marvellous short fiction like The Minister’s Black Veil (1832), The Maypole of Merry Mount (1837), Dr Heidegger’s Experiment (1837) and Rappaccini’s Daughter (1844).  I therefore had high hopes a few weeks ago when I started his 1860 novel The Marble Faun, which is set in Italy and was written after Hawthorne spent a year-and-a-half touring the country in the late 1850s.

 

Maybe it’s because I’ve grown more demanding in my old age or because by 1860, four years before he died, Hawthorne had lost his touch.  Whatever the reason, it pains me to say I found The Marble Faun a real plod.

 

It didn’t help that the main characters failed to engage me.  The plot centres on four young people, three of them artistically inclined, living in mid-19th-century Rome: Miriam, Hilda, Donatello and Kenyon.  As well as being an artist, Miriam is an enigma because her past is shrouded in rumours and speculation.  She’s variously said to be “the daughter and heiress of a great Jewish banker”; and “a German princess”; and “the offspring of a Southern planter” who’d fled her native land because “one burning drop of African blood in her veins so affected her with a sense of ignominy”; and “the lady of an English nobleman” who “out of mere love and honour of art, had thrown aside the splendour of her rank, and had come to seek a subsistence by her pencil in a Roman studio.”  Whatever else she might be, though, I found Miriam a royal pain.  She’s so absorbed in her murky past and intent on projecting a sub-Byronic aura of torment and danger that she reminded me of various posers I knew at college who’d swan around and emote: “Watch out!  I’m dark and edgy, I am!  I’m trouble!  I’m mad, bad and dangerous to know!”  (Come to think of it, they’re probably all working as stockbrokers now.)

 

Still, Miriam is preferable to the insipid Goody-Two-Shoes Hilda, an American copyist artist whom Hawthorne is determined to present as pure in thought, word and deed.  He has her living in a studio at the top of a tower, symbolically high above the city and all the crime, squalor and corruption that it harbours.  The outer wall of this tower is also home to a shrine of the Virgin Mary, with a lamp burning at the effigy’s feet, which Hilda ensures never goes out – though coming from good Puritan stock, she makes it clear that she only keeps the lamp burning as a neighbourly kindness: “You must not call me a Catholic.  A Christian girl… may surely pay honour to the idea of Divine Womanhood, without giving up the faith of her forefathers.”  And to ram the idea of Hilda’s saintliness home yet further, Hawthorne shows her caring for a flock of white doves that frequently alight on her windowsill, something that brings Miriam out of her self-absorption long enough to comment: “…how like a dove she is herself, the pure, fair creature!  The other doves know her for a sister, it is sure.”

 

Also unpromising is the winsome but artless Donatello, a youth from the Italian countryside who’s latched on to the group and, in the earlier chapters at least, behaves like and is treated like their airheaded mascot.  “What a child, or what a simpleton, he is!” remarks Miriam to Hilda.  “I find myself treating Donatello as if he were the merest unfledged chicken…”  Probably it’s just as well that Miriam’s attitude towards him is so patronising, for the lad is madly in love with her and for the first half of the book he practically stalks her.  If Miriam wasn’t so blinkered by her condescension, she might find the way that Donatello dogs her every step a little creepy.

 

The last member of the quartet is Kenyon, an American sculptor.  Compared with the others, he’s a reasonably sensible and balanced character.  Unfortunately, he’s also the only one who isn’t directly involved in the plot’s main incident, which occurs a third of the way into the book.  As a result, for the remainder of The Marble Faun, he’s an onlooker rather than a participant in the story – in other words, the most tolerable character becomes the least proactive one.

 

Having said all that, the first half of The Marble Faun is promising.  It’s a potpourri of fanciful and mildly macabre elements that made me think I was in for an agreeable gothic entertainment in the tradition of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) or Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) – albeit in a more genteel form.

 

For instance, we get an episode where the group realise Donatello is the spitting image of the Faun of Praxiteles in the Capitoline Museums.  (And why is Donatello so reluctant to lift his long brown curls off his ears?  Could it be because those ears are… pointy?)  There’s some creepy stuff in the Roman Catacombs, which are said to be haunted by the malevolent spirit of “a pagan of old Rome” who “for fifteen centuries at least… has been groping in the darkness, seeking his way out of the Catacombs.”  Miriam duly gets lost in this subterranean maze and encounters an evil-looking figure who, subsequently, starts following her around above ground too – with this apparition and Donatello both stalking her, she really doesn’t have much luck.  Also disturbing is how the face of the spectral Catacombs-dweller begins to appear in her artwork.

 

Later, there’s a murder.  And then comes a satisfyingly grim scene in Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins – a real-life church famous for its crypt, which has ghoulish decorations and displays made out of the bones of some 4000 friars from the Capuchin order – where the murderers are unexpectedly confronted with their victim’s corpse.

 

From biography.com

 

But around the midway point, the book goes astray.  Literally astray, for Donatello relocates to Tuscany, presumably to give Hawthorne an opportunity to use some of the descriptions he’d jotted down whilst travelling through the Italian countryside.  Improbably, it transpires that Donatello is an aristocrat who’s in possession of a country house and tower.  More improbably still, he transforms from a bubble-brain into a morose, introspective type who spends his time stalking around and brooding on top of his battlements.  Kenyon pays him a visit and we get a long section where the pair seem to do nothing but discuss life, death, love, God and, generally, What It All Means.

 

Later still, Kenyon contrives to bring Donatello together with a now-chastened Miriam and then the plot returns to Rome where – oh no! – for another long section it focuses on Hilda, who’s still such a vapid milksop she makes Laura Ingalls Wilder seem like Courtney Love.  There’s some business where Hilda forces herself to enter a confessional – not, Hawthorne stresses, because she likes the Catholic Church, but because she has a terrible secret she needs to get off her chest.  After that, she mysteriously disappears, much to the consternation of Kenyon, who’s now back in Rome.  And then in the last few pages Hawthorne ends the tale in a decidedly hurried and ambiguous manner.

 

In fact, the ending annoyed Hawthorne’s contemporary readers so much that he felt obliged to add a postscript to the book’s second edition, explaining more of what’d gone on and addressing some of the plot-threads that’d been left hanging.

 

The Marble Faun, then, is ruined by its tedious second half, which I found a chore to read.  However, I’ll give Hawthorne credit for his descriptions of Rome.  It’s interesting that while he records the glories of the city – St Peter’s, the Coliseum, etc. – this is no starry-eyed travelogue like the movies Roman Holiday (1953) or Three Coins in a Fountain (1954).  For he observes its darker and seamier side too.  At one point he muses: “All over the surface of what once was Rome, it seems to be the effort of Time to bury up the ancient city, as if it were a corpse… so that, in eighteen centuries, the soil over its grave has grown very deep, by the slow scattering of dust and the accumulation of more modern decay upon elder ruin.”  Elsewhere, he wonders if a ‘malignant spell’ has compelled modern Romans to “fling dirt and defilement upon whatever temple, column, ruined palace, or triumphal arch, may be nearest at hand, and on every monument that the old Romans built.”

 

Even during an account of a Roman carnival, at which vendors are selling thousands of flowers, he notes how the flowers are ‘miserably wilted’ and ‘muddy’, because they’ve already been bought, discarded, trampled on the ground and picked up again by the vendors to be sold again “ten times over, defiled as they all are with the wicked filth of Rome.”

 

Whenever Hawthorne’s Rome turns from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde in this fashion, it reflects something correspondingly dark and troubling that’s happening in the plot or in the psychology of the characters.  And these glimpses of a dissolute and decayed city, amid the expected descriptions of its venerability and beauty, are one of the book’s saving graces.

 

It’s just a shame that during the latter half of The Marble Faun, in terms of plot, Nathaniel Hawthorne loses his marbles.

 

© Dell Books

 

Short, sharp shocks

 

© New English Library

 

In this blog-post I’d like to talk about my favourite volumes of short horror stories – books that deliver a series of short, sharp shocks.

 

Three things have inspired me to write this.  Firstly, tomorrow is Halloween, the time of year when all things macabre are celebrated.  Secondly, I’m about to start reading the 2015 short-story collection Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King, who despite being famous for telephone-directory-sized scary novels like Salem’s Lot (1975) and The Stand (1978) is also, in my mind, a great practitioner of short horror fiction.

 

And thirdly, in my previous post, I mentioned how in my boyhood I’d go to scout summer-camps in the countryside near the Scottish town of Hawick.  During one camp I spent three days stuck almost permanently inside a tent because – typical Scottish summer weather – it pissed non-stop with rain.  Luckily, in a Hawick bookshop beforehand, I’d bought a copy of Night Shift, the 1978 volume of stories by Stephen King.  So, to keep boredom at bay, I spent the three days reading that.  Not only did Night Shift stave off boredom, it entertained, enthralled and terrified me too.  It was probably the first book of scary short stories I’d read in its entirety and it made a big impression.

 

Here, then, are my ten favourite collections of short horror stories.  To keep this exercise manageable, I’ve limited it to books of stories written by a single author.  And the authors included are ones who are still alive or who were alive when I started reading their work.  Hence, no M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

 

Blood and Water and Other Tales (1988) by Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath has spent his career writing fiction that indulges his love for the Gothic and grotesque but, in a rare display of broad-mindedness, critics have avoided pigeonholing him as a ‘horror’ or ‘fantasy’ writer and treated him as a serious mainstream-literary figure instead.  What a lucky man he is.  Blood and Water… is a fine showcase for McGrath’s short stories.  It features tales about, among other things, a diseased angel, a hand that starts growing out of somebody’s head, a community of anaemic vampires and a little girl who discovers a jungle explorer camped in the bushes at the bottom of her suburban garden.  And if you think that sounds surreal, wait till you get to The E(rot)ic Potato, a meditation on decay as seen through the multiple eyes of an insect; or The Boot’s Tale, an account of a nuclear holocaust that’s narrated by, yes, an item of footwear.

 

© Penguin

 

The Bloody Chamber (1979) by Angela Carter

Horror stories are often likened to dark fairy tales and Angela Carter’s short fiction commonly explores the overlap between the two.  For me, The Bloody Chamber is her best collection.  It provides adult, Gothic reworkings of such fairy tales and myths as Beauty and the Beast (The Courtship of Mr Lyon), Snow White (The Snow Child) and Bluebeard (the title story).  It also contains one of the most languid and gorgeous vampire stories ever, The Lady of the House of Love.  And werewolves get a look-in too thanks to the stories The Company of Wolves, The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice, which were later incorporated into the classy 1984 movie The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan and scripted by Jordan and Carter.

 

Books of Blood, Volume 1 (1984) by Clive Barker

In the mid-1980s Clive Barker caused a sensation with the publication of his Books of Blood, which are basically six volumes of short horror stories linked by a clever framing device.  Such were their impact that Stephen King dubbed Barker the Beatles of horror writing – King himself being its slightly old-fashioned Elvis.  To be honest, I found many stories in the later Books of Blood rather portentous; but Volume 1 is just about perfect in its blend of the funny, the profound and the hideously, graphically bloody.  Humour comes courtesy of the spoof demon story The Yattering and Jack and the wistful but surprisingly-upbeat Sex, Death and Starshine, which is about a haunted theatre (and no doubt draws on Barker’s experiences running the Hydra and the Dog Theatre Companies in the 1970s and early 1980s).  Profundity is supplied by In the Hills, the Cities, which takes place in the then-Yugoslavia and spookily prefigures the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s.  And for sheer gross horribleness you can’t beat The Midnight Meat Train or Pig Blood Blues – the latter surely a candidate for the title of Scariest Story Ever.

 

© Sphere

 

Dark Companions (1982) by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell has long been regarded as Britain’s greatest living horror writer and Dark Companions is an ideal starting-point for anyone new to the Campbell oeuvre.  Both grim and believable, his short stories take place in a recognisably frayed and decayed modern Britain, populated by lonely people whose everyday fears gradually take on tangible form.  Highlights include the distinctly un-Christmassy Christmas story The Chimney; The Depths, a dismaying exploration of why someone would want to write a really nasty horror story; Mackintosh Willy, which combines childhood fears of the bogeyman with all-too-real themes of homelessness and child abuse; and The Companion, surely the best ‘haunted-fairground’ story ever written.

 

Night Shift (1978) by Stephen King

As I said earlier, Night Shift helped inspire this list, so I can’t not include it here.  King has produced slicker collections of short stories since then but the visceral tales in Night Shift, and the unpleasant things that inhabit those tales, have stayed with me for nearly 40 years.  A huge demonically-possessed laundry machine that rumbles into malevolent life (The Mangler)…  Giant mutant rats lurking in the basement of a factory (The Graveyard Shift)…  A man slowly transforming into a monstrous carnivorous slug (Grey Matter)…  A Mafia-type organisation that helps you give up smoking by threatening to torture and kill your family every time you puff a new cigarette (Quitters Inc)…  No, Night Shift isn’t subtle.  But it certainly scared the bejesus out of me when I was a twelve-year-old boy scout.

 

© Panther

 

The October Country (1955) by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is someone else I couldn’t not have on this list as, to me, the guy was a god-like genius.  He could turn his hand to writing anything – horror, science fiction, fantasy, magical realism and, yes, our old friend ‘mainstream literature’ – but The October Country is probably his purest collection of macabre stories.  It features such wonders as The Scythe, about a man who finds a mysterious scythe, starts using it and becomes the Grim Reaper, harvesting souls rather than wheat; The Jar, wherein a man buys the titular jar at a fair and becomes obsessed with the indescribable something that’s floating around inside it; and the splendidly-morbid Skeleton, about a paranoid man convinced that the bony figure embedded inside his own flesh is an imposter and he has to somehow remove it.

 

Shatterday (1980) by Harlan Ellison

Remarkably, the science fiction / fantasy writer Harlan Ellison has managed to win fame by largely eschewing novels and writing masses of short stories instead.  Well, fame in the USA at least – his name is little-known and his work is hard to come by in Britain.  Among his many collections, Shatterday is possibly his best.  Particularly memorable are the melancholy Jeffty is Five, about a little boy who refuses to grow up; The Man Who was Heavily into Revenge, about a schmuck who wrongs another person and then, inexplicably, finds the whole world venting its wrath upon him; Count the Clock That Tells the Time, a cautionary tale about the consequences of frittering your life away; and the deeply unsettling title story, about a man who accidentally phones his own apartment one evening and finds himself talking to himself – or more precisely, to a sinister alter-ego who’s planning to usurp him from his own existence.

 

© Penguin

 

Swamp Foetus (1993) by Poppy Z. Brite

New Orleans writer Poppy Z. Brite’s collection Swamp Foetus was a revelation when I read it in the 1990s.  It’s inhabited by the archetypes of traditional Gothic fiction – ghosts, zombies, freaks – and by characters from another type of Gothicism, the modern-day sub-culture that arose when kids, inspired by punk, new romanticism and Edgar Allan Poe, started dressing in black, applying kohl eyeliner and listening to bands like the Sisters of Mercy and the Cure.  Swamp Foetus thus has stories like His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood wherein decadent, black-clad, absinthe-swigging youths fall foul of ancient voodoo / vampire horrors.  That said, no Goths are to be found in the best tale here, which is Calcutta, Lord of Nerves.  Calcutta… takes a fresh angle on George A. Romero’s original trilogy of Living Dead movies.  In the films, Romero’s zombie apocalypse is a very American one, with barely a mention of events in the rest of the world.  Brite imagines the same apocalypse happening amid the beggars, dirt and noise of a developing-world city.  What happens?  Nobody seems to notice it that much.

 

Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch (1996) by Dorothy K. Haynes

The late Scottish writer Dorothy K. Haynes is much underrated.  Her short stories are often set in the dour, oppressive society of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Scotland, still lorded over by the Presbyterian Church, and are impressively disturbing in their quiet way.  Maybe her best one is The Peculiar Case of Mrs Grimmond, about an old woman who takes pity on a weird little creature that her cat drags into the house one day and, while she looks after and nurtures it, incurs the wrath of the community around her.  Also featured in Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch are her takes on legendary beings like banshees (The Bean-Nighe), fairies (Paying Guests) and changelings (The Changeling), which are satisfyingly grim, creepy and un-romanticised.

 

© Black and White Publishing

 

The Wine-Dark Sea (1988) by Robert Aickman

I’ve written about Robert Aickman before on this blog, so I’ll just say here that this is, for me, his finest collection of stories.  There’s one stinker among its contents – the supposedly satirical Growing Boys, which is an unwelcome reminder that, first-rate writer though he was, Aickman was also a grumpy, reactionary conservative – but everything else is excellent, if frequently challenging and baffling.  The Inner Room, for example, is a phantasmagorical story about a strange doll’s house.  Never Visit Venice pokes fun at the modern phenomenon of mass tourism with its an account of an unwary visitor to the title city taking a ride on a gondola from hell.  And Your Tiny Hand is Frozen, about an unsociable man becoming addicted to a telephone, through which he communicates with a mysterious woman who may or may not exist, shows Aickman’s unease at the loss of face-to-face interaction caused by new communications technology.  Maybe it’s just as well Aickman passed away in 1981.  He’d have hated our age of smartphones and social media.

 

The spy who tried something different

 

© Vintage Books

 

First published in 1962, The Spy Who Loved Me is the ninth of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and holds several records in the Bond literary canon.  It clocks in at 198 pages, which makes it the shortest Bond book.  It was also the last book to appear in a world that knew Bond as a literary and not a cinematic character, because its publication came just six months before the release of Dr No, the first Bond movie produced by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.  And it was the worst-received of the books.  The Daily Telegraph reacted to it with a despairing “Oh Dear Oh Dear Oh Dear!”, the Listener dismissed it as ‘unremittingly’ and ‘grindingly boring’ and the Observer demanded, “why can’t this cunning author write up a bit instead of down?”

 

As soon as the critics stuck in their knives, Fleming himself disowned the book.  He asked his publisher not to print a paperback edition of it, a request that they honoured until two years after his death.  He also stipulated that any movie version of The Spy Who Loved Me could never use the book’s plot, only its title.  (I’m sure that 15 years later when Cubby Broccoli got around to filming The Spy Who Loved Me, he must have been distraught about this.  “You mean,” lamented the cigar-puffing mogul, “I can’t just follow what happens in the book?  I have to put other stuff in my movie instead?  Like cars that travel underwater?  Giant oil-tankers that swallow nuclear submarines?  Indestructible henchmen with steel teeth?  Roger Moore with quizzical eyebrows?  No!  NO!”)

 

A few weeks ago, I finally read the original much-maligned The Spy Who Loved Me.  My initial reaction was Ian Fleming at least deserved credit for attempting something different.  Fans of his previous eight books were surely surprised when they started reading it in 1962 and discovered they were hearing a first-person narrative voice rather than Fleming’s usual, authoritative, third-person one.  “I was running away,” it begins.  “I was running away from England, from my childhood, from the winter, from a sequence of untidy, unattractive love-affairs, from the few sticks of furniture and jumble of overworn clothes that my London life had collected around me; and I was running away from the drabness, fustiness, snobbery and claustrophobia of close horizons and from my inability, though I am quite an attractive rat, to make headway in the rat-race.  In fact, I was running away from almost everything except the law.”

 

The first-person voice is that of Viv Michel, a young French-Canadian woman who’s been left in charge of a closed-for-the-winter motel called The Dreamy Pines Motor Court in the mountains of northern New York State.  After a first chapter where Viv doesn’t cope well with a thunderstorm raging above the motel’s empty cabins, playground, swimming pool and golf range – she stupidly pulls an electrical switch at the same moment that a bolt of lightning lets rip, and the resultant electrical shock knocks her unconscious – she spends the next eighty pages explaining how she’s ended up in this situation.

 

She describes her early life in Canada; being sent to a finishing school in England where she “was made to suffer agonies” for her accent, for her table manners “which were considered uncouth”, for her “total lack of savoir-faire and, in general, for being a Canadian”; and finding work in London while suffering the afore-mentioned “sequence of untidy, unattractive love affairs”.  After the last affair results in her having an abortion in Switzerland, she returns to North America and resolves to search for some adventure and self-discovery and shake off the memories of the men who’ve used and abused her.  So she purchases a Vespa 150cc Gran Sport and sets off on a road trip.  It’s on the road that she comes across the Dreamy Pines Motor Court, where she gets offered employment; first as an end-of-season receptionist and then, when it closes for the winter, as a caretaker minding the premises until its owner, one Mr Sanguinetti, arrives to take possession of the keys.

 

Viv’s position at the Dreamy Pines feels a little like that of Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) and things soon go as badly for her as they did for the ill-fated Jack.  Two hoodlums with the nicknames Sluggsy and Horror show up at the motel in the middle of the night and take her prisoner.  It transpires that Sanguinetti is a gangster and the pair are henchmen tasked with burning the place to the ground as part of an insurance scam.  Viv, the only witness, looks likely to be torched along with the motel.

 

It’s here that we encounter the single detail of the book that makes it into the 1977 film ‘adaptation’ with Roger Moore.  Looking at Horror’s face, she notices “a glint of grey silvery metal from his front teeth,” indicating that “they had been cheaply capped with steel.”  Sound familiar?

 

© Eon Productions

 

By now we’re more than halfway into the book.  Back in 1962 at this point, readers must have been panicking: where the hell is Bond?  Well, he appears at The Dreamy Pines later that same night – Viv’s first impression of him is that he’s “good-looking in a dark, rather cruel way” with a scar that “showed whitely down his left cheek” – and he explains that his car has suffered a flat tyre on the road nearby and he’d like to get a room.  He soon wises up to the situation and joins forces with Viv.  The next seventy pages play more like a Mickey Spillane novel than a Fleming / Bond one, with considerable running, hiding and shooting before Sanguinetti’s scheme is thwarted and Sluggsy and Horror end up dead at the bottom of the local lake.  Then Viv and Bond indulge in some love-making and then, as abruptly and enigmatically as he arrived, Bond slips off again.  In the final pages, Viv muses: “He was just a man who had turned up at the right time and then gone on his way.”

 

Though The Spy Who Loved Me wins kudos for bravely departing from the usual Bond formula, there are moments when seemingly Fleming remembers it’s still a Bond novel and is forced to compromise, with awkward results.   He wants Viv to be more believable than the average Bond girl, which is why we see her depicted as a working Londoner.  But on the other hand, as a Bond girl, she can’t be too ordinary so she also gets a French-Canadian back-story to make her appear more exotic – the overall effect of which feels contrived.  Also, while Fleming wants her to be feisty and independent, he needs her to have a vulnerable side too – to be a credible damsel-in-distress, for whom Bond rides to the rescue as a knight in shining armour.  That may explain the opening chapter where she panics during the storm and, quite honestly, comes across as something of a dolt.

 

And to make up for Bond’s late entrance into the plot, Fleming feels he has bring his readers up to speed on what Bond’s been doing in the meantime; so we get the telling of a previous Bond adventure.  In a twelve-page chapter entitled Bedtime Story, Bond explains to Viv in great detail why he was on the road that night – he was driving south after an operation in Toronto wherein he and the Canadian Mounties prevented the assassination of a Russian defector by both the KGB and SPECTRE.  By now, Bond and Viv know the extreme danger posed by Sluggsy and Horror, so you’d think they’d have other things to concentrate on besides telling stories.

 

One thing I found surprisingly impressive about The Spy Who Loved Me is Viv’s account of her love-life in London.  It’s as far removed as possible from the fantasy romance / sex scenes associated with the Bond novels.  Just out of school, she gets involved with a youth called Derek Mallaby, whose posh, confident veneer hides, temporarily, the fact that (a) he’s desperate for sex and (b) he’s clueless about how to have sex.  What follows is a painful tale set in the England of “drabness, fustiness, snobbery and claustrophobia” that existed before the 1960s started to swing and the permissive era arrived.  The only privacy Viv and Derek can find for making love is in a small balcony-box at a cinema, “a meagre-looking place, showing two westerns, a cartoon and so-called ‘News’ that consisted of what the Queen had been doing a month ago.”  Their attempted lovemaking, on the floor with Derek on top “in a dreadful clumsy embrace”, is anything but sensual and it ends abruptly when a furious cinema manager bursts in on them: “Filthy little brats…!  I’ve a damned good mind to call the police.  Indecent exposure.  Disturbing the peace.”

 

Barely articulate about what they’re trying to do, relying on strained expressions like ‘doing it’ and ‘being a sport’, and not even knowing what a condom is called and having to describe it to a shop assistant as “one of those things for not having babies”, Viv and Derek are products of a repressed, joyless, monochrome Britain that the Bond novels, with their exotic glamour and glitzy hedonism, were supposed to give readers of the era an escape from.  No wonder The Spy Who Loved Me pissed so many of those readers off.

 

Once Viv and Derek have properly ‘done it’ a few times, Derek predictably proves to be a cad and dumps her.  She then gets into a second relationship with a German man called Kurt, which culminates in her getting pregnant, having an abortion and being dumped a second time.  (Kurt “had inherited strong views about mixed blood… and when he married, it would be into the Teutonic strain.”  Fleming’s well-known dislike of the Germans is on full display here.)

 

This part of the book is so interesting because it suggests Fleming, a writer not noted for his empathy with women, is trying to think outside his normal male-chauvinist box for once and identify with a female character having a hard time in a world populated with predatory, shitty men.

 

Alas, all this is rendered null and void later when Bond, hardly un-predatory and un-shitty himself, turns up and Viv promptly goes doe-eyed and weak-kneed at the sight of him; implying that Viv’s problem wasn’t men, it was just the absence of a fully-fledged alpha male like Bond to satisfy / tame her.

 

And, late on, Fleming truly sabotages his cause when Viv comes out with this jaw-dropping assertion: “All women love semi-rape.  They love to be taken.”  These ten words have rightly earned Fleming and The Spy Who Loved Me much opprobrium over the years – for example, here – and they undo whatever good work he did with his depiction of Viv earlier in the book.

 

In the end, I have no reason to disagree with the many people who label The Spy Who Loves Me the weakest of the Bond novels.  The contradiction at its heart, that it’s a Bond story and yet it wants to be something different from a Bond story, makes it uneven and inconsistent.  And it’s all over the place in its sexual politics – and, at worst, those politics are unspeakable.  But as I’ve said, it deserves a little respect trying to do something out-of-the-ordinary, and thanks to Fleming’s always-amenable prose it’s an easy-enough read.  And, in parts, hints of a better book glimmer through.

 

© Penguin Books

 

Literary things

 

© The Turman-Foster Company / Universal Pictures

 

I reckon John Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing is one of the best horror films ever.  Its story of a shape-shifting alien organism that infiltrates a base in Antarctica, absorbing and assuming the forms of more and more of the base’s human (and canine) personnel, is a masterpiece of claustrophobia, paranoia and all-round scariness.

 

And its special effects, courtesy of make-up / effects genius Rob Bottin, massively raised the bar for what was achievable in horror movies at the time.  During those moments when it reveals itself, Bottin’s alien thingy is a hellish, glistening, squirming, tentacled nightmare made of bits and pieces of all the Earth creatures it’s consumed already.  It resembles a canvas painted / splattered simultaneously by Hieronymus Bosch and Jackson Pollock.

 

What makes Bottin’s work all the more remarkable – and believable – is that it consists of real, solid, practical effects.  For The Thing was made in the days was before digital technology took over and filmmakers went crazy using cartoonish and insubstantial-looking computer-generated imagery.  (That’s the reason why I’ve never bothered watching Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s 2011 prequel to Carpenter’s movie, also called The Thing.  Although practical special effects had been used during the prequel’s shooting, craven studio executives had CGI superimposed over those practical effects in post-production.)

 

This summer I’d wanted to write something about The Thing on this blog to commemorate the fact that a quarter-century had now passed since it was released in the middle of 1982.  Then the other day I realised that 1982 was not a quarter-century ago.  It was actually 35 years ago and I’m a decade older than I thought I was.  Oh dear…

 

But rather than write about the movie itself, as countless film critics, commentators and enthusiasts have over the years, I thought I’d look instead at its literary roots.  Because The Thing is an adaptation (scripted by Bill Lancaster, son of Burt) of a novella called Who Goes There?, written by science-fiction writer and editor John W. Campbell and published in 1938.

 

Who Goes There? had already been filmed in 1951 as The Thing from Another World, directed by Christian Nyby and produced by the legendary Howard Hawks.  The 1951 version keeps the story’s basic premise of the crew of a polar camp (though here at the North rather than the South Pole) coming up against a malevolent alien.  But instead of depicting it as a shape-shifting beastie, which would have been difficult to do convincingly in 1951, the Hawks / Nyby film merely depicts it as a lumbering, pasty-skinned, dome-headed, spiky-fingered muscle-man played by none other than James Arness, later to star in the 1950s-1970s Western TV show Gunsmoke.   Howard Hawks’s trademark no-nonsense directorial style and brisk, punchy dialogue are much in evidence in The Thing from Another World and it’s often been speculated that he shot most of the film himself rather than Nyby.

 

© Winchester Pictures Corporation / RKO

 

John Carpenter was a well-known admirer of Howard Hawks and his 1976 movie Assault on Precinct 13 in particular shows a big Hawksian influence.  So when Carpenter’s version of The Thing was announced, I suspect many critics assumed it’d be a straightforward remake of the 1951 movie.  And I suspect that’s why it got such a hostile reception when it was released in 1982 – for although the movie has since been reappraised and is now regarded as a sci-fi / horror classic, it initially earned Carpenter some of the worst reviews of his career.  (I seem to remember the Observer slamming it under the headline JUST ONE DAMNED THING AFTER ANOTHER.)  Those 1982 critics got something very different from what they were expecting and didn’t react well.

 

What they got, in fact, was a film capturing the shape-shifting concept of the alien in the real source material, the 1938 story by John W. Campbell – a story most of those critics were probably unfamiliar with.

 

I recently came across and read Who Goes There? online.  What did I think of it?

 

Well, what I immediately thought after reading it was “Phew!”  Experienced in 2017, with its dollops of torturous pose and pages upon pages of dialogue-framed exposition, Campbell’s story is hard going indeed.

 

© Rocket Ride Books

 

It’s fun to see so many character-names that crop up in Carpenter’s film – McReady, Blair, Copper, Garry, Norris, Clark, Benning – but the descriptions of those characters are madly overwrought.  The hero, McReady, is likened by Campbell to “a figure from some forgotten myth, a looming, bronze statue that held life, and walked.  Six-feet-four inches he stood…  And he was bronze – his great red-bronze beard, the heavy hair that matched it.  The gnarled, corded hands gripping, relaxing on the table planks were bronze.  Even the deep-sunken eyes beneath the heavy brows were bronze.”  This Wagnerian, and bronze, version of McReady is far removed from the morose, tetchy git played by Kurt Russell in the film.

 

The scientist Blair, meanwhile, is described with this peculiar sentence: “His little birdlike motions of suppressed eagerness danced his shadow across the fringe of dingy grey underwear hanging from the low ceiling, the equatorial quiff of stiff, greying hair around his naked skull a comical halo about the shadow’s head.”  At least he sounds more like his cinematic incarnation (who’s played by the character actor Wilfred Brimley).

 

How the characters discover and bring into their camp their soon-to-be-unwelcome visitor is related in three pages of conversational backstory, which includes such unlikely pieces of dialogue as: “Right there, where that buried thing was, there is an ice-drowned mountain ridge, a granite wall of unshakable strength that has dammed back the ice creeping from the south.”   Later, as the Thing starts to imitate the base’s inhabitants, there are many talky pages where people speculate on its biology, its capabilities and how it can be detected; and also where they start to crack up with paranoia.  “You sit as still as a bunch of graven images,” exclaims one man while his colleagues regard him suspiciously.  “You don’t say a word, but oh Lord, what expressive eyes you’ve got.  They roll around like a bunch of glass marbles spilling down a table.  They wink and blink and stare and whisper things.”

 

There are moments when Campbell’s prose does convey the bleakness of the situation, recording how the Antarctic wind created an “uneasy, malicious gurgling in the pipe of the galley stove” and how “the snow picked up by the mumbling wind fled in level, blinding lines across the face of the buried camp”.  But overall, as far as its writing is concerned, Who Goes There? is a work to be endured rather than enjoyed.   It isn’t a patch on that other famous 1930s tale of Antarctica-set horror, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936).

 

I was surprised, then, and a little relieved that there’s less of Who Goes There? in John Carpenter’s The Thing than I’d expected.  That said, the story does provide the film with its most celebrated scene, the ‘blood-test’ one wherein McReady hits on a method of identifying who’s-been-got and who’s not.  Though while John W. Campbell has McReady laboriously testing the blood of some 35 base-members, in the movie John Carpenter wisely waits until there’s only half-a-dozen men left standing.  As a result, his enactment of the scene is much more intense, focused and suspenseful.

 

© Classics Illustrated

 

And to be fair to Campbell, his story clarifies the Thing’s modus operandi more than the film, which at times is hazy about just what McReady and the rest are up against.  For example, watching The Thing, I was initially puzzled by the idea that the intruder could take the form of more than one victim at a time.  In the story, it’s made clear that when it absorbs an organism it adds the organism’s body mass to its own; and when the organism is replaced, it hives off again with the original’s massMeanwhile, the original Thing goes back to its original bulk too, free to absorb and replicate something else.

 

Then there’s the sub-plot with Blair.  In both the novella and film, Blair loses his mind as the horror unfolds and is locked up for his own (and everyone else’s) safety.  It later becomes apparent that he’s part of the Thing too, has its alien intelligence, and has spent his time in captivity assembling a mysterious machine.  The novella describes how he’s imprisoned in an equipment storeroom, where he uses pieces of the equipment to fashion a small anti-gravity device that’ll transport him from Antarctica to a populated continent where he can start replicating.  The film is murkier about what he’s up to.  There’s a glimpse of some sort of capsule, like a mini-flying saucer, but that’s all.  I was left with the impression that Blair had somehow managed to construct a spacecraft out of empty soup cans and pieces of string.

 

Finally, I should point out that Who Goes There? isn’t the only literary work connected with the scary world of The Thing.  In 2010, Clarkesworld Magazine published a short story called The Things, written by Peter Watts, which retells the events of Carpenter’s movie through the eyes – if that’s the word – of the Thing itself.

 

Here, the Thing isn’t such a bad old thing.  It genuinely believes it’s doing the humans a favour by taking them over, which it describes as an act of ‘communion’.  It views their biology as ‘ill-adapted’, ‘inefficient’ and ‘disabled’ and wants to ‘fix’ them.  At times, it’s repulsed by their physical circumstances, calling their brains ‘tumours’ and their bodies ‘bony caverns’.  No wonder it’s upset when the humans respond to its kindness by using flamethrowers on it.

 

A thought-provoking and bleakly-amusing take on John Carpenter’s movie from the very last character in it you’d expect, Peter Watts’ The Things can be read on this webpage.  Meanwhile, John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? is available for reading here.  The 2010 story is 7,000 words long while the 1938 one clocks in at a hefty 30,000 words; and comparing them, I have to say I agree with the old adage that the best Things come in small packages.

 

© The Turman-Foster Company / Universal Pictures

 

Bad hombres

 

© Pan Macmillan      

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

 

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

 

Something fishy

 

© Heinemann

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Dorothy – somewhere under the rainbow

 

© Penguin

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 From pinterest.com

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Daily Telegraph

 

Penguin Classics make room for Harry Harrison

 

© Penguin

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From journal.neilgaiman.com

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The end of the road

 

© John Murray

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From ghostofelberry.wordpress.com

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From Ouranoupoli.com

 

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

 

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

 

The later travels of Gulliver

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

© Columbia Pictures

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From shortstorylongblog.wordpress.com

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Penguin Books

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From 4umi.com

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From gulliverstravels.wikia.com