Detours into dystopia

 

(c) Warner Brothers

 

A little while ago I read The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s troubling 1985 novel about a near-future USA where the religious right rule the roost.  Society is militarised, elitist, patriarchal and supposedly puritanical.  The majority of women are either kept as domestic servants or kept as ‘handmaids’, i.e. veiled and isolated receptacles into which the male members of the elite pour their seed during brutal sex rituals in a desperate effort to propagate the species – the ladies of the elite are too old and / or too genetically damaged to reproduce healthily themselves.  Late on in the book, we learn too that some women are kept as hostesses / prostitutes in gaudy out-of-the-way brothels because the elite’s menfolk, no matter how Christian, Bible-quoting and sanctimonious they are, still have certain needs, urges and desires to satisfy.  Because they’re still blokes, after all.

 

I have mixed feelings about the ‘academic’ epilogue that Ms Atwood tags on at the end of the book but overall I found it an impressive, if depressing, piece of work.  When I finally set it aside, I decided it was good enough – and spiritually bad enough – to feature among the best pieces of dystopian fiction I’ve ever read.  And that set me thinking.  If I had to name my favourite dystopian novels, what would they be?  What books would make my top dystopian dozen?

 

(c) Vintage

 

Firstly, though, I will define my terms.  By dystopian fiction I mean a story set in a society that’s gone seriously off the rails – either because of hellish political oppression of some fashion, or because of a natural or man-made cataclysm that’s suddenly turned life into a frantic scramble for survival.  It has to be set at least a little way into the future, not in the present.  Otherwise, Graham Greene – whose novels were commonly set in totalitarian or failing states (or in a combination of both, as in The Comedians) – would be king of the dystopian hill.

 

There’s also the issue of location.  The horribleness described in a proper dystopian story, for me, has to be widespread, if not global.  Therefore, books like William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies or J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, where the societal breakdown takes place respectively on an island and in a tower block, don’t qualify because they’re too localised in scale.

 

I will disqualify novels where the setting for the story is pretty grim, but that’s all the dystopian element is, a setting.  It’s a backdrop against which a character-filled, twisting-and-turning plot takes place.  We gets glimpses of bad stuff in the background, but we’re more interested in the narrative and in the psychology of the characters who populate it.  So for that reason I will exclude William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  In a proper dystopian story, the world is in an awful state and that state has to be at the forefront.  The setting has to be so vivid that it becomes an important character itself in the story, if not the most important character.

 

And finally, I will leave out novels where, yes, present-day society has met its nemesis and collapsed, presumably bloodily and destructively; but where the narratives take place so far in the future that they feel like fantasy or fairy stories.  The settings are so distant and fantastic that there’s little or no link with our own world, and the reader isn’t really disturbed by the thought of what happened to civilisation between now and then.  So that means H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse are both out.

 

Anyway, here are my literary-dystopia top twelve:

 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

The Iron Heel by Jack London.

I am Legend by Richard Matheson.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

1984 by George Orwell.

Fugue for a Darkening Island by Christopher Priest.

Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham.

 

A few books that are regarded as classics of dystopian writing aren’t on the list because, simply, I haven’t read them yet.  These include P.D. James’s Children of Men, Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor and another Atwood novel, Oryx and Crake.  I’ve seen the film version of Children of Men, however, and thought it was pretty darned good – despite Clive Owen being in it, acting on autopilot.

 

Another novel I haven’t read that might have been a contender is Harry Harrison’s meditation on the threat of human overpopulation, Make Room! Make Room!  This was also made into a film, the 1973 Hollywood production Soylent Green, which added mass cannibalism to Harrison’s story.  I remember one critic making an interesting observation about Soylent Green.  He noted that the American filmmakers seemed not to realise that the crowded, impoverished world they were showing was actually real life (apart from the cannibalism) for many people living on the planet in the 20th century.  Hence, the film didn’t really reflect American fears about the end of the world.  It reflected American fears about the USA becoming just another, bog-standard poor country.

 

But to the list itself.  Some of my inclusions are predictable – Orwell, Huxley, Burgess, McCarthy.  A number of J.G. Ballard’s novels could easily have made the list, like The Drought and The Crystal World, but I’ve chosen The Drowned World because it’s the first and perhaps most famous of that sub-genre of surreal, psychological and hallucinogenic post-disaster novels that Ballard pioneered and made his own.  Many people would argue that Richard Matheson’s I am Legend is really a horror novel, a vampire one, but the apocalyptic plague Matheson describes is given a scientific rationale; so it could happen, just about.

 

(c) Penguin

 

Nowadays it’s fashionable to knock Day of the Triffids because of the middle-class cosiness of its characters – their personalities manage to remain decent, upstanding and Radio 4-ish even after 99% of the population have been blinded and giant, mobile, flesh-eating plants have invaded the streets.  And even some of Wyndham’s admirers might argue that The Chrysalids and The Kraken Wakes, both of which feature dystopias of their own, are better books.  But I think Day of the Triffids deserves its place in the list because of its impact on popular culture.  The word ‘triffid’ has entered the English language.  I’ve heard it used to describe everything from a tangled, noxious-looking weed in someone’s garden to the condition of Helena Bonham-Carter’s hair.

 

On the other hand, I’ve picked John Christopher’s The Death of Grass and Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island because they offer an antidote to Wyndham’s cosiness.  Both books have characters who start out as respectable middle-class English types, but whose personalities undergo a breakdown as violent and frightening as that wrought on the societies around them.  Fugue, which was written in 1972 and which is probably regarded as a minor book in Priest’s canon, seems particularly chilling in 2014.  It sees Britain go to hell after a nuclear war breaks out in the developing world and the country gets swamped by desperate refugees.  In the 21st century, if climate change — as most scientists warn — wreaks environmental and economic havoc on certain parts of the globe, there could be a lot of refugees on the move very soon.

 

(c) Panther

 

Incidentally, my brother, who works in the building industry, once told me that while he was attending a health-and-safety seminar about the dangers of asbestos, the speaker mentioned Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  He said that in 1953, as a publicity gimmick, the publisher Ballantine produced 200 numbered and signed copies of Fahrenheit 451 that were bound in asbestos – the joke being that, in a future society where are books had to be burned, these 200 copies of the novel couldn’t be burned.  Obviously, at the time, people were unaware of the links between asbestos and lung cancer.  Now that sounds like a truly dystopian book – one that tells a story about a totalitarian future society whilst having the power to induce a dystopian-style breakdown inside the reader’s body.

 

http://io9.com/5988144/limited-edition-of-fahrenheit-451-was-bound-in-asbestos-so-it-wouldnt-burn

 

Richard Matheson: 1926 – 2013

 

The blockbuster movie World War Z is currently on summer release, filling cinema screens across the globe with images of Brad Pitt and his family being pursued by zombie hordes through the streets of Glasgow… sorry, Philadelphia.  It seems a sad coincidence that Richard Matheson, author of the 1954 novel I am Legend from which World War Z and a million other zombie-apocalypse movies get their DNA, died last week at the age of 87.

 

In I am Legend the monsters are vampires, not zombies.  However, the novel’s premise – thanks to a contagion, the world has suddenly and nightmarishly turned upside down and a small number of uninfected human beings find themselves menaced by those who’ve been infected and turned into predatory monsters, including their own loved ones – was one that a young George Romero appropriated for his seminal 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead.  In doing so, Romero made it the blueprint for 80% of the zombie movies that have lurched across cinema and TV screens ever since.  (Like Romero, Alex Garland, who scripted 2004’s 28 Days Later, has openly confessed his debt to Matheson.)

 

In Matheson’s novel, the number of uninfected humans is small indeed: just one, Richard Neville, who is alone in the world during the daytime and then under siege in his fortified house at night, by vampires, which is what everybody else has turned into.  I am Legend is actually science fiction rather than horror or fantasy because Neville, researching the plague, gradually stumbles on scientific explanations for the vampire-like symptoms of its victims – why they drink blood, why they can only be killed by stakes through the heart, and why they have an aversion to sunlight, garlic and crucifixes.  I am Legend also has an unnerving psychological twist at the end.  Neville, who’s spent his days roaming the surrounding city and staking the slumbering vampires, realises that the vampires are now the normal ones and he has become the monster of everyone’s nightmares, the deadly legend of the title.

 

It’s a pity that although I am Legend was filmed on several occasions, and although Matheson lived to a venerable age, he never got to see a satisfactory celluloid version of it.  The novel received its first film treatment in Italy, where Rome unconvincingly stood in for Los Angeles, with the cheaply and incompetently made L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra (The Last Man on Earth).  Neville was played by Vincent Price, whom Matheson admired as an actor but thought was completely wrong for the role.  L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra was at least fairly faithful to the book, unlike the subsequent film versions, 1970’s The Omega Man and 2007’s I am Legend, which starred Charlton Heston and Will Smith respectively.  In The Omega Man the vampires have become a group of demented albino mutants called, with unsubtle hippy-era irony, The Family.  In the Smith version of I am Legend they’re even less impressive.  They’re no more than a bunch of bald, hyperactive zombies, animated by some shoddy CGI.

 

Both of the later movie versions lack the courage to portray Neville as being totally alone and eventually they have him encounter other, as yet uninfected survivors.  They also lack the courage to include Matheson’s game-changing ending.  Instead, they close with Heston and Smith depicted as Christ-like figures who nobly sacrifice themselves for the good of what’s left of humanity.  Neville was a more interesting character when he realised he’d turned into a bogeyman.  (Disappointing though all three film versions are, there’s at least a good graphic-novel adaptation of I am Legend available: http://blogcritics.org/book-review-graphic-novel-adaptation-of/).

 

(c) IDW Publishing

 

Matheson’s other big – though ‘big’ is perhaps not the most appropriate adjective – novel of the 1950s was The Shrinking Man (1956).  Its hero, an archetypal middle-class American male called Scott Carey, is exposed to a radioactive cloud that causes his body to shrink at the rate of a seventh of an inch every day.  Thereafter, Carey’s world turns nightmarishly upside down too, though at a more gradual rate than Richard Neville’s.  First, he experiences psychological and sexual humiliation as he finds himself increasingly dwarfed by his normal-sized wife.  Following an assault by the family cat – no longer a loveable moggie but a carnivorous monster – the now-tiny Carey loses all contact with humanity and finds himself trapped in his house’s basement where the dangers facing him become formidable indeed.  A common spider, for instance, takes on the proportions of an elephant.  And Carey’s shrinking doesn’t stop, let alone get reversed.  At the book’s close, he muses, “If nature existed on endless planes, so also might intelligence.”  Presumably, afterwards, he dwindles into infinity.

 

A year after its publication, the novel was filmed as The Incredible Shrinking Man, directed by Jack Arnold and with Matheson providing the script.  Matheson was unhappy with how Arnold structured the film – he told the story in linear fashion, whereas Matheson wanted it to begin with the shrunken Carey in the basement, reliving what had happened to him via a series of flashbacks – but it’s still one of the best science fiction movies of the 1950s.  Crucially, it retains the novel’s bleakly philosophical ending.  No miracle cure arrives at the last minute to restore Carey and he keeps on shrinking – I can remember seeing the film on TV as a kid and being genuinely upset when the ending defied my expectations that things would finish on an upbeat note.  The Incredible Shrinking Man was, incidentally, listed by J.G. Ballard as one of his ten favourite sci-fi movies: http://www.cityofsound.com/blog/2005/05/jg_ballards_top.html.

 

(c) Universal

 

As well as novels, Matheson was a prolific writer of short stories, many of which were collected in four books called the Shock series.  (Shock 1-4 were published in Britain in the 1970s by Sphere Books, who decorated the covers with lurid and gory images, including one of a man with an axe bloodily embedded in his forehead.  These covers were the antithesis of the unsensational, non-violent and thoughtful works inside.)  Among those stories I remember reading are Long Distance Call, about a woman plagued by mysterious phone calls that, she discovers, emanate from a local cemetery into which the telephone wire has blown down; The Children of Noah, about a motorist who finds himself in a Kafkaesque predicament when he breaks the 15-miles-per-hour speed limit of a tiny American town called Zachary (population 67); and the brilliant The Splendid Source, in which a man embarks on a quest to find out where dirty jokes really come from.  You can read that last one here: http://kanyak.com/matheson_the_splendid_source.html.

 

(c) Sphere

 

Long Distance Call was one of several Matheson stories that were turned into episodes of the celebrated TV anthology series The Twilight Zone, which ran from 1959 to 1964.  The best of these, adapted by Matheson himself, was of course Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, in which William Shatner essayed his second-most-famous role – that of a just-released psychiatric patient who’s on board a plane and, looking out of the window, sees a gremlin dismantling one of the engines on the wing.  Whenever he tries to alert the crew and fellow passengers, the beastie inconveniently disappears from view.  Needless to say, whenever I’m on a plane myself and find myself in a seat overlooking the wing, that episode is always the first thing I think of – particularly the moment when the traumatised Shatner dares to peek through the window again and discovers the gremlin pressing its face, which resembles that of a hare-lipped teddy bear, against the outside of the glass and staring in at him.  The episode was remade as a segment of the movie version of The Twilight Zone in 1983, directed by Australia’s George Miller and starring John Lithgow in the Shatner role; and it’s been endlessly parodied and referenced in popular culture since.  In 1993 it received the ultimate accolade – it was spoofed in a Treehouse of Horror edition of The Simpsons, with Bart Simpson the only passenger on the school bus able to see a gremlin sabotaging its engine.  This version was called Nightmare at 5½ Feet.

 

Other episodes that Matheson penned for The Twilight Zone were also influential.  A World of Difference (which I think was an original script) is about a businessman who makes the mind-blowing discovery that he’s a fictional character and his life is actually a movie.  Furthermore, the movie has just had its production halted, meaning he’ll have to live in the ‘real’ world as the declining, drunken movie star who’s been playing him.  This obviously informs Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show.  Meanwhile, Little Girl Lost, based on a story Matheson wrote in 1953, tells the tale of a child who one night falls from her bed and into another dimension, a mysterious, misty void from which she can hear her parents’ concerned voices but seemingly can’t escape.  Clearly, a young Steven Spielberg saw and remembered this one, because the same idea drives the main plot strand in 1982’s Spielberg-produced Poltergeist, though this time the little girl is sucked into the other dimension through the household TV set.  (And yes, The Simpsons spoofed it too in Treehouse of Horror.)

 

Steven Spielberg has much to thank Matheson for, in fact.  Matheson’s short story Duel, based on an experience he had on November 22nd, 1963 – of driving home depressed at the news of Kennedy’s assassination and being harassed by a large, tailgating truck – was filmed as a TV movie in 1971 by Spielberg and it gave the young director his first big critical success.  Again, Matheson wrote the script.  Duel-the-movie provides some memorable images while motorist Dennis Weaver and the psychopathic driver of a 1955 Peterbilt 281 truck get into a deadly game of cat and mouse around the roads and highways of rural California.   We never see the truck driver himself, just his immense, bellowing, dinosaur-like vehicle.  Duel is the archetypal man-versus-machine story and, again, has been influential.  Stephen King basically rewrote it (but, typically, upped the ante by adding lots of malevolent vehicles) with his short story Trucks, which itself was filmed as Maximum Overdrive.

 

(c) Universal

 

The made-for-television movies that filled American TV schedules in the 1970s kept Matheson busy.  As well as Duel he scripted The Night Stalker, about a reporter called Carl Kolchak (played by Darren McGavin) who investigates a series of killings in modern-day Los Angeles and discovers that the perpetrator is a vampire.  The Night Stalker was successful enough to eventually spawn a TV show called Kolchak: The Night Stalker, also starring McGavin, in which Kolchak investigates other cases involving monsters and supernatural phenomena.  Though short-lived, the show was a major inspiration for Chris Carter, whose similarly themed The X-Files became one of the biggest series on American television in the 1990s.  Carter acknowledged his debt to Kolchak by having Darren McGavin guest-star in two X-Files episodes.

 

Meanwhile, the TV anthology movie Trilogy of Terror, from 1975, was based on three of Matheson’s short stories.  The first two segments, adapted by Matheson’s friend William F. Nolan, are unmemorable, but the third one, which Matheson himself scripted from his story Prey, is great.  It stars Karen Black as an insecure woman – early on, we hear her engaged in a painful telephone conversation with her mother, who is obviously a manipulative old bag – who tries to shore up her relationship with her boyfriend, a lecturer in social anthropology, by buying him an antique ‘Zuma fetish doll’ as a birthday present.  The doll is a hideous-looking thing and sports a many-fanged grin that resembles a Venus flytrap.  Needless to say, before she can give the doll to its intended recipient, it comes to violent, gibbering and freaky life and she spends the evening fighting it off in the confines of her apartment.  Black’s plight is the inverse of the shrinking man’s – she’s normal-sized and the threat she faces is tiny, but terrifying.  (This created the template for Joe Dante’s movie Gremlins in 1984.  In particular, the scene in Gremlins where Frances Lee McCain fights off a horde of the sneering, reptilian mini-monsters in her kitchen, employing a blender and a microwave oven as weapons, is similar to what Black’s character goes through in Trilogy of Terror.)

 

(c) AIP

 

When he wasn’t writing novels, short stories and television scripts, the ever-industrious Matheson was writing for the cinema.  In the early 1960s, he scripted several of the movies based on works by Edgar Allan Poe that were made by American International Pictures and directed by Roger Corman: The House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror and The Raven.  All told, Matheson did a good job of preserving some of the original stories’ gloomy, clammy spirit, whilst meeting the commercial demands of a studio and a director who were already famous for their exploitation movies, and keeping engaged a star – Vincent Price – whose performances tended to slip into the knowingly hammy when he became bored with his material.  The movies aren’t the most faithful adaptations of Poe, but they’re certainly the most fondly remembered ones.

 

Matheson also worked on British movies.  For AIP’s trans-Atlantic rival, Hammer Films, he scripted The Devil Rides Out in 1968 and managed to turn Dennis Wheatley’s bloated, reactionary novel about upstanding Anglo-Saxon aristocrats fighting the forces of darkness (as orchestrated by a bunch of ghastly Satan-worshipping foreigners) into something rather good.  And in 1973, he adapted his haunted-house novel Hell House for the screen.  The result was The Legend of Hell House, directed by John Hough and starring Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Pamela Franklin and Gayle Hunicutt as psychic investigators trying to get to the bottom of terrifying supernatural manifestations in the titular mansion.  The movie’s ending, which has the surviving investigators finding a hidden sanctum where the psychic forces are emanating from an embalmed body, played by a very un-embalmed-looking Michael Gough, is pretty stupid – which Matheson himself admitted – but John Hough directs the film’s scary set-pieces with vigour and there’s an unsettling electronic score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson.  You can hear sampled dialogue from the movie, incidentally, in the Orbital song I don’t Know you People.

 

A modest soul – in interviews he usually seemed puzzled that so many people could be so inspired by his work – Matheson might have ended up a very rich man if he’d bothered to sue every filmmaker and writer who’d ripped off his ideas.  Mind you, he might have ended up too spending all his time in court.  I’m glad he turned the other cheek and devoted that time instead to writing more, marvellous stories.