The big Gray man

 

From pinterest.co.uk

 

Today, January 25th, 2021, has been designated ‘Gray Day’ on Scottish social media in honour of the celebrated Glaswegian polymath Alasdair Gray, who died in December 2019.  As my way of marking the occasion, here’s a reposting of a blog entry I wrote shortly after the great man’s death.

 

Much has been written about Alasdair Gray, the Scottish novelist, poet, playwright, artist, illustrator, academic and polemicist who passed away on December 29th, 2019.  I doubt if my own reflections on Gray will offer any new insights on the man or his works.  But he was a huge influence on me, so I’m going to give my tuppence-worth anyway.

 

In 1980s Scotland, to a youth like myself, in love with books and writing, Gray seemed a titanic cultural presence.  Actually, ‘titanic’ is an ironic adjective to use to describe Gray as physically he was anything but.  Bearded and often dishevelled, Gray resembled an eccentric scientist from the supporting cast of a 1950s sci-fi ‘B’ movie.  He once memorably described himself as ‘a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glaswegian pedestrian’.

 

He was also a presence that seemed to suddenly loom out of nowhere.  The moment when Gray became famous was in 1981 when his first novel Lanark was published.  I remember being in high school that year when my English teacher Iain Jenkins urged me to get hold of a copy and read it.  I still hadn’t read Lanark by 1983 when I started college in Aberdeen, but I remember joining the campus Creative Writing Society and hearing its members enthuse about it.  These included a young Kenny Farquharson (now a columnist with the Scottish edition of the Times) explaining to someone the novel’s admirably weird structure, whereby it consisted of four ‘books’ but with Book Three coming first, then Books One and Two and finally Book Four.  And an equally young Ali Smith recalling meeting Gray and speaking fondly of how eccentric he was.

 

In fact, I didn’t read Lanark until the following summer when I’d secured a three-month job as a night-porter in a hotel high up in the Swiss Alps.  In the early hours of the morning, after I’d done my rounds and finished my chores and all the guests had gone to bed, I’d sit behind the reception desk and read.  It took me about a week of those nightshifts to get through Lanark.  I lapped up its tale of Duncan Thaw, the young, doomed protagonist of what was basically a 1950s Glaswegian version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which constituted Books One and Two; and I similarly lapped up its alternating tale of the title character (mysteriously linked to Thaw) in the grimly fabulist city of Unthank, which constituted Books Three and Four.  A quote by sci-fi author Brian Aldiss on the cover neatly described Unthank as ‘a city where reality is about as reliable as a Salvador Dali watch’.

 

© Canongate

 

That same summer I read The Penguin Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka (1983) and the fantastical half of Lanark struck me as reminiscent of the great Bohemian writer.  Gray himself acknowledged that Kafka’s The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and Amerika (1927) had inspired him: “The cities in them seemed very like 1950s Glasgow, an old industrial city with a smoke-laden grey sky that often seemed to rest like a lid on the north and south ranges of hills and shut out the stars at night.”

 

The result was an astonishing book that combines gritty autobiographical realism with fanciful magical realism.  Fanciful and magical in a sombre, Scottish sense, obviously.

 

With hindsight, Lanark was the most important book in Scottish literature since Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy (1932-34).  By an odd coincidence I read A Scots Quair four years later when I was working – again – as a night-porter in a hotel in the Swiss Alps.  So my encounters with the greatest two works of 20th century Scottish literature are indelibly linked in my mind with nightshifts in hotels decorated with Alpine horns and antique ski equipment and surrounded by soaring, jagged mountains.

 

Lanark also appeared at a significant time.  Three years before its publication, the referendum on establishing a devolved Scottish parliament had ended in an undemocratic farce.  Two years before it, Margaret Thatcher had started her reign as British prime minister.  During this reign, Scotland would be governed unsympathetically, like a colonial property, a testing ground, an afterthought.  So Lanark was important in that it helped give Scotland a cultural identity at a time when politically it was allowed no identity at all.

 

Whilst telling me about Lanark, Iain Jenkins mentioned ruefully that he didn’t think Gray would ever produce anything as spectacular again.  Not only did it seem a once-in-a-lifetime achievement but it’d taken up half of a lifetime, for Gray had been beavering away at it since the 1950s.  He once mused of the undertaking: “Spending half a lifetime turning your soul into printer’s ink is a queer way to live… but I would have done more harm if I’d been a banker, broker, advertising agent, arms manufacturer or drug dealer.”

 

© Canongate

 

However, two books he produced afterwards, 1982, Janine (1984) and Poor Things (1992), are excellent works in their own rights even if they didn’t create the buzz that Lanark did.

 

Janine takes place inside the head of a lonely middle-aged man while he reflects on a life of emotional, professional and political disappointments, and masturbates, and finally attempts suicide whilst staying in a hotel room in a Scottish country town that’s either Selkirk or my hometown, Peebles.  (Yes, Peebles’ two claims to literary fame are that John Buchan once practised law there and the guy in 1982, Janine might have had a wank there.)  The protagonist’s musings include some elaborate sadomasochistic fantasies, which put many people off, including Anthony Burgess, who’d thought highly of Lanark but was less enthusiastic about Janine.  However, it seems to me a bold meditation on Scotland in general and on the strained, often hopeless relationship between traditional, Presbyterian-conditioned Scottish males and the opposite sex in particular.

 

Poor Things, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) set in Victorian Glasgow, initially seems very different from Janine but in fact it tackles similar themes.  The narrator, Archibald McCandless, relates how his scientist colleague Godwin Baxter creates a young woman, Bella, out of dead flesh just as Frankenstein did with his creature.  McCandless soon falls in love with her.  There follows a highly entertaining mishmash of sci-fi story, horror story, adventure, romance and comedy, but near the end things are turned on their heads because Bella takes over as storyteller.  She denounces McCandless’s version of events as a witless fantasy and portrays herself not as Frankenstein-type creation but a normal woman, albeit one ahead of her time in her views about feminism and social justice.  Again, the book is a rebuke of male attitudes towards women, especially insecure Scottish ones that are partly possessive and partly, madly over-romanticised.

 

© Canongate

 

Gray’s other post-Lanark novels are entertaining, if less ambitious, and they’re never about what you expect them to be about.  The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985) looks like it’s going to be a comic tale of a Scottish lad-o’-pairts on his way up and then on his way down in London, but it turns into a caustic commentary on the loveless nature of Scottish Calvinism.  Something Leather (1990), which is really a series of connected short stories and again features much sadomasochism, isn’t so much about kinkiness as about Gray’s disgust at the politicians and officials who oversaw Glasgow being European City of Culture 1990, something he regarded as a huge, missed opportunity.  A History Maker (1994), a science-fiction novel described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘Sir Walter Scott meets Rollerball’, isn’t an absurdist sci-fi romp at all but a pessimistic account of how humanity can never achieve peaceful harmony with nature.  And Old Men in Love (2007) promises to be a geriatric version of 1982, Janine, but is really an oddity whose ingredients include, among other things, ancient Athens, Fra Lippo Lippi and the Agapemonites.

 

Gray was also a prolific short-story writer.  He produced three collections of them, Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983), Ten Tales Tall and True (1993) and The Ends of out Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories and had several more stories published in Lean Tales (1985), alongside contributions from James Kelman and Agnes Owens.  I find the quality of his short fiction variable, with some items a bit too anecdotal or oblique for my tastes.  But many are excellent and Ten Tales Tall and True is one of my favourite short-story collections ever.

 

The fact that Gray was also an artist meant that his books, with their handsome covers and finely detailed illustrations, made decorous additions to anyone’s bookcases.  The illustration by Gray I like best is probably the one he provided for his story The Star in Unlikely Stories, Mostly.

 

© Canongate

 

He also liked to make mischief with the conventions of how books are organised, with their back-cover blurbs, review quotes, prefaces, dedications, footnotes, appendices and so on.  For example, he wasn’t averse to adorning his books with negative reviews (Victoria Glendinning describing Something Leather as ‘a confection of self-indulgent tripe’) or imaginary ones (an organ called Private Nose applauding Poor Things for its ‘gallery of believably grotesque foreigners – Scottish, Russian, American and French.’)

 

As an artist, Gray was good enough to be made Glasgow’s official artist-recorder in the late 1970s and to enjoy a retrospective exhibition, Alasdair Gray: From the Personal to the Universal, at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in 2014-15.  His artwork included a number of murals on the walls of Glasgow and it’s a tragedy that some have been lost over the years.  Among those that survive, perhaps the most famous is at Hillhead Underground Station.  It contains the memorable and salient verse: “Do not let daily to-ing and fro-ing / To earn what we need to keep going / Prevent what you once felt when wee / Hopeful and free.”  Also worth seeing is the mural he painted, Michelangelo-style, on the ceiling of the Òran Mór restaurant, bar and music venue on Glasgow’s Byres Road.  It looks gorgeous in the photos I’ve seen of it, although regrettably when I went there with my brother a few years ago to attend a Bob Mould gig, I was already well-refreshed with several pints of beer… and forgot to look upwards.

 

I never got to meet the great man, though I’m pretty sure I saw him one night in the late 1980s in Edinburgh’s Hebrides Bar, talking with huge animation to a group of friends and admirers.  I was, however, too shy to go over and introduce myself.

 

One writer in whose company I did end up during the late 1980s, though, was Iain Banks, whom I got to interview for a student publication and who then invited me on an afternoon pub crawl across central Edinburgh.  Banks was delighted when I told him that his recently published novel The Bridge (1986) reminded me a wee bit of Lanark.  “I think Lanark’s the best thing published in Scotland in years!” he gushed.  Come to think of it, it was probably the favourable comparison to Gray that prompted Banks to take me on a session.

 

From austinkleon.com 

Jim Mountfield is away with the fairies

 

© DBND Publishing

 

Jim Mountfield, the penname under which I write horror fiction, has just had a third short story published in 2021.  The story is called When the Land Gets Hold of You and appears in an anthology from editor Nate Vice and DBND Publishing called The Cryptid Chronicles.  As its title indicates, the stories in the collection all concern cryptids, that pseudoscientific category of animals that some people claim to exist but nobody has ever conclusively proven to exist.  Among the more famous examples of cryptids are Chupacabra, the Jersey Devil, Nessie and Sasquatch.

 

In When the Land Gets Hold of You, a storm knocks over an ancient oak tree on a Scottish farm and the hole created by its torn-up root system releases some unfriendly creatures from centuries of hibernation.  The creatures are modelled on the fairies found in Scottish folklore.  And as the story’s main character points out: “Fairies only became domesticated in Shakespeare’s time. He wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which turned them into the Walt Disney beings we know them as today.”  But before Shakespeare: “…humans feared and despised them… you can’t deny what’s in those old legends. Fairies were feared. People were terrified of them.”

 

The creatures in When the Land Gets Hold of You are actually inspired by two types of Scottish fairy.  Firstly, redcaps were supposed to lurk in the peel towers that were built near the southern Scottish border to guard against invading armies from England.  The most notorious redcap is the one associated with the dark, oppressive Hermitage Castle in Roxburghshire. According to legend, William de Soulis, son of the castle’s founder, Sir Nicolas de Soulis, practised the dark arts and employed a creature called Robin Redcap as his familiar.  Robin Redcap was a hideous being. In his book about the mythical beasts of Scotland Not of this World (2002), Maurice Fleming describes him as “a thick-set old man with fierce red eyes, long tangled hair, protruding teeth and fingers like talons.”

 

Also providing inspiration is the brownie, which is actually supposed to be a benevolent fairy because it performed chores around households and farms while the human occupants were asleep.  However, if you visit Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, you’ll see a famous painting by Edward Atkinson Hornel called The Brownie of Blednoch (1889), which portrays the brownie of the title as a grotesque thing with grey-brown skin, pointed ears, a crooked mouth, eyes that resemble poached eggs and a beard that’s as long, swirling and tentacled as an octopus.  That said, even the monstrous-looking brownie in the painting is shown performing a service, which is guarding the local shepherds’ flocks at night-time.

 

In recent years, filmmakers have cottoned on to the notion that fairies and their associated lore provide promising material for horror movies.  Alas, the two horror films I’m thinking of, The Hallow (2015) and The Hole in the Ground (2019), both of which were Irish and used fairies as their ‘monsters’, were disappointing and missed opportunities in my opinion.  Much better are a handful of short stories by the underrated Scottish writer Dorothy K. Haynes. Changeling, Paying Guests and The Bean-Nighe all feature malevolent fairies and appear in her excellent 1949 collection Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch.

 

Offering 199 pages of chilling, cryptid-orientated entertainment, The Cryptid Chronicles can be purchased here.

 

From Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

Plummer and Plummer

 

© AVCO Embassy Pictures

© Carolco Pictures / EMC Film Corporation

 

One of the least pleasant consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the argument, advanced mainly by right-wingers, that it’d be better for society to steam on without lockdown and its attendant economic damage because most people killed by the virus are elderly and will die soon anyway.  Old folks, in other words, are expendable.  I’m thinking of failed Australian ex-prime minister Tony Abbot, who opined that families should be allowed “to make elderly relatives as comfortable as possible while nature takes its course”; or Daily Telegraph columnist Jeremy Warner, who reflected that “Covid-19 might even provide mildly beneficial in the long run by disproportionately culling elderly dependents”.

 

However, the notion that elderly people are merely past-their-sell-by-date sacks of meat, helplessly sitting around with nothing to do but wait for death, in viral or other forms, to arrive at their doors, was surely refuted by the example of the great Canadian actor Christopher Plummer.

 

Plummer, who sadly bowed out last week at the age of 91, had been acting since the 1950s and had been on my movie radar since I was a kid in the 1970s.  But it wasn’t until well after he’d qualified for his free bus pass that he got the roles that earned him official recognition as acting royalty.  He received his first Oscar nomination when he was 80 years old, for a supporting role in Michael Hoffman’s 2009 film The Last Station.  Though he didn’t win that award, two years later at the Oscars he netted Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Mike Mills’ Beginners (2010).  And a half-dozen years afterwards, to prove he wasn’t yet over the hill, Plummer got another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (2017).

 

Indeed, just last year, I was delighted to see him play a tough but kind-hearted patriarch in Rian Johnson’s entertaining murder mystery Knives Out (2019).  In this, Plummer effortlessly held his own not only among a starry ensemble cast that included Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson and Chris Evans, but also against Daniel Craig’s scenery-shredding Southern accent.

 

So the acclaim heaped on the octogenarian Plummer, and his seeming ubiquity on the screen in the last decade, negate the idea that human beings are fit only for the scrapheap when they reach their allotted three-score-and-ten.  With hindsight, at the age of 70, Plummer’s best years were arguably still ahead of him.

 

That said, it’s for two films he made as a younger man, in the late 1970s, that I’ll particularly remember him.

 

© Carolco Pictures / EMC Film Corporation

 

Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner (1978) is an excellent thriller, though one that’s strangely underrated.  I suspect mainstream critics neglected it because they felt uncomfortable with a couple of scenes of nasty violence in the film, which were included to show what a psychotic, misogynistic scumbag its villain is.  That villain is the criminal Harry Reikle, played by Plummer.  Reikle becomes a formidable opponent for – and, as the film progresses, the title’s sinister ‘silent partner’ to – the film’s hero, Miles Cullen, played by Elliot Gould, a mild-mannered teller working in the bank that Reikle has decided to rob.

 

Despite his violent disposition, Reikle is a criminal with an imagination.  He carries out one crime dressed in drag and another disguised as a shopping-mall Santa Claus.  However, he meets his match in Cullen, who uses Reikle’s botched robbing of his bank as an opportunity to fill his own pockets with supposedly ‘stolen’ money.  Reikle is unsurprisingly displeased at this and a game of cat-and-mouse ensues between them.

 

Besides being a bit nasty, The Silent Partner is suspenseful, twisty, ingenious and, thanks to its droll observations of the inanities, pettiness and officiousness its hero has to endure while working in the bank, very amusing.  You fully understand why the frustrated, put-upon Cullen wants to cheat his workplace out of a fortune and escape from it forever.  Plummer and Gould give the film its yin and yang, its enjoyable balance of tension and humour, shocks and laughs.  (On the laughter side, it’s also helped by the presence in a supporting role of a young John Candy, sporting an alarming 1970s side-parted hairdo.)

 

My other favourite Christopher Plummer performance came the following year when he donned the deerstalker for Bob Clark’s 1979 Sherlock Holmes epic Murder by Decree.  (Plummer had already played Holmes in a 1977 TV film called Silver Blaze).  Inspiring the film, which has Holmes investigating the real-life murder spree of Jack the Ripper, is Stephen Knight’s book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), which postulated that the killings were the result of a conspiracy involving the Freemasons and the Royal Family.  The same theory informs Alan Moore’s celebrated graphic novel From Hell (1989-98) and its subsequent 2001 movie adaptation.

 

Murder by Decree is a classy movie with handsome production values and a big-name cast and Plummer essays a correspondingly classy and cultivated Sherlock Holmes.  Also deserving praise is James Mason as Doctor Watson.  Despite the disparity in their ages – Plummer was around 50 at the time, Mason around 70 – the pair make a delightful double-act.  They’re clearly bound by great affection and loyalty for one another, even if there are occasional moments of irritation and sulkiness, and they go about their business like a long-term and mostly loving married couple.  Incidentally, playing Inspector Lestrade in Murder by Decree is actor Frank Finlay, who had already played the same role in another movie where Sherlock Holmes encounters Jack the Ripper, 1965’s A Study in Terror.

 

© Dimension Films / New Art & Logic / Miramax Films

 

Plummer also appeared in a number of bad movies, of course, but like all great actors, he could feature in a godawful piece of guff and make it entertaining nonetheless.  He was, for example, very credible as the vampire hunter Van Helsing in Patrick Lussier’s Dracula 2000 (2000).  The fact that this particular movie has Gerard Butler playing Dracula tells you all you need to know about its quality.

 

Meanwhile, if you look between The Silent Partner and Murder by Decree in Plummer’s filmography, you’ll discover that he was in the less impressive Starcrash (1978).  This was an Italian Star Wars (1977) rip-off, of which the kindest thing that can be said is that the gap between what director-writer Luigi Cozzi imagined would be happening on the screen when he wrote the script, and what he could actually afford to put on the screen with his budget, is painfully obvious.  In Starcrash, Plummer plays the Emperor of the Universe and at one point he sagely tells his son (David Hasselhoff): “You know, my son, I wouldn’t be Emperor of the Universe if I didn’t have some powers at my disposal.”  Plummer later justified his participation in the film by saying it gave him a chance to be in Rome: “Give me Rome any day.  I’ll do porno in Rome, as long as I can get to Rome.”

 

13 years after Starcrash, Plummer had a rather better science-fictional experience playing the Klingon warlord Chang in the 1991 Star Trek movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  Plummer gives a deliciously no-holds-barred performance as Chang, who’s so badass that the eyepatch he wears isn’t tied around his head on a piece of string or elastic but is rivetted into his face.  In the final scenes, Chang bellows lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar while he and his forces launch an attack on the Starship Enterprise: “Cry ‘Havoc!’  And let slip the dog of war!”  (Earlier, the Klingons had informed Captain Kirk that “you have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”)  I suspect the presence in the film of Plummer’s long-term friend and one-time understudy William Shatner, an actor not known for his subtlety, inspired Plummer to play Chang with his brakes off.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Plummer’s turns in Star Trek VI and The Silent Partner show his excellence as a screen villain.  Further proof of this is found in Taylor Hackford’s 1995 thriller Dolores Claiborne, perhaps the most underrated of all film adaptations of books by Stephen King.  Plummer plays the vindictive Detective John Mackey, who failed to pin a murder rap on the titular heroine (Kathy Bates) after the death of her abusive, alcoholic husband (David Strathairn) in the 1970s.  Two decades later, he believes he can finally nail her when her employer (Judy Parfitt) dies amid much circumstantial evidence suggesting Dolores has killed her.

 

I also associated Plummer with playing famous historical figures.  These included Rommel in Anatole Litvak’s Night of the Generals (1968), the Duke of Wellington in Sergei Bondarchuk’s  Waterloo (1970) – the epic Dino De Laurentiis production that proved such a financial flop that it helped scupper Stanley Kubrick’s plans to make a film about the life of Napoleon – and Rudyard Kipling in John Houston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), a film that poignantly lost another of its stars, Sean Connery, just a few months ago.

 

He had a profitable relationship too with director Terry Gilliam.  In 1995 he played Brad Pitt’s dad in Gilliam’s masterful 12 Monkeys, while 14 years later he played the title character in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.  Typical of Gilliam’s 21st century film-work, Parnassus is all over the place and sadly indicates that the director has passed his prime – though it didn’t help that the movie’s star Heath Ledger died during filming and his character also had to be played, through a series of unconvincing phantasmagorical transformations, by Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law.  But the scenes with Plummer and his endearingly ramshackle travelling theatre, the ‘imaginarium’ of the title, are good and recall the director’s glory days.

 

One other movie featuring Plummer that I admire is Terrence Malick’s gorgeous and beguiling 2005 epic The New World.  He plays Captain Newport, leader of an expedition to establish an English colony in Virginia in 1607.  Newport’s party includes Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), destined to fall in love with Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), daughter of the chief of the local Native Americans.  However, Plummer was not enamoured with Malick’s unstructured and improvisational approach to filmmaking.  He was particularly galled when he saw the final cut of The New World and discovered that an important, emotional speech his character had given was now background noise in a scene with a different dramatic focus: “I could hear myself saying it, this long, wonderful, moving speech that I thought I was so fantastic in… way, miles in the distance while something else is going on in the foreground…”  Plummer subsequently voiced his displeasure to Malick in a letter.  “I gave him shit.  I’ll never work with him again, of course.”

 

Plummer’s willingness to speak his mind and slag off any film in his CV he didn’t enjoy making or watching was, of course, demonstrated by his attitude towards his most famous role, that of Captain von Trapp in Robert Wise’s saccharine The Sound of Music (1965).  Marvellously, he dubbed it ‘The Sound of Mucus’.  As well as just not liking the film, he found acting in it hard work: “To do a lousy part like von Trapp, you have to use every trick you know to fill the empty carcass of the role.”

 

No wonder that in a Facebook tribute to Christopher Plummer the other day, Terry Gilliam finished by writing: “I already miss him terribly and I hope to God they don’t play Edelweiss at his funeral.  It would kill him.”

 

© First Foot Films / Sarah Green Film / New Line Cinema

Zee-lanka

 

© Navin Weeraratne

 

In the old days, ‘overkill’ was a necessary, even a desirable component of a zombie-holocaust story.  There had to be a large and increasing amount of killing.  This would ensure there was a large and increasing number of dead people, who would then come back to life as zombies.  In turn, this would  ensure there was a large and increasing number of zombies posing a large and increasing threat to the small and decreasing number of human beings who were battling to survive.

 

Unfortunately, as far as zombies are concerned, ‘overkill’ has now taken on a different meaning.  These days there’s just too many movies, TV shows, books, graphic novels, comics and computer games featuring the bloody things.

 

They’re everywhere.  In the movie world alone, they’re in mega-budgeted Hollywood blockbusters, like 2013’s World War Z, and in low-budget rubbish, like last year’s ultra-opportunistic Corona Zombies.  They’re in Scottish movies, like 2008’s The Dead Outside.  They’re in high-school movies, like 2012’s Detention of the Dead.  They’re in musicals, like 2018’s Z-O-M-B-I-E-S.  They’re in Christmas movies, like 2012‘s Christmas with the Dead.  Why, they’re even in Scottish / high-school / musical / Christmas movies like 2017’s Anna and the Apocalypse.

 

Today, in other words, zombies are ubiquitous.  And they’re predictable.  And dare I say it, they’re boring.

 

But having got all that off my chest, I have to admit I enjoyed Navin Weeraratne’s 2018 novel Zeelam, which is about modern-day Sri Lanka suffering its own zombie apocalypse.  The expected story-elements are all present and correct – bites, infections, ‘conjunctivitis-red eyes’, mayhem and lots of blood, gore and grue – but the book is helped by having a strong dose of social commentary too.

 

And social commentary is something I believe all good zombie stories should have.  For example, the first three zombie movies made by George A. Romero, the visionary filmmaker who created the template for zombie holocausts, commented on the civil rights movement and Vietnam War (in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead), mindless consumerism (in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead) and the stupidity of the military (in 1986’s Day of the Dead).  Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) reflected a modern Britain where anger was an increasingly common social phenomenon and terms like ‘road rage’ and ‘air rage’ had entered the popular vocabulary, while its sequel, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later (2007), was an allegory about the post-war occupation of Iraq.  And Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) satirised a twenty-something slacker generation who couldn’t tell if someone was a zombie or just pissed, hungover or stoned.  Carrying on the tradition, Zeelam takes multiple swipes at the institutional and societal shortcomings of modern Sri Lanka.  But more about that in a minute.

 

Zeelam has two main characters.  One is Ruven Daniels, a member of a military response team whom we first see being sent to deal with an incident at Colombo’s posh Hilton Hotel. There, zombies – ‘zees’ as they’ve become known in Sri Lankan parlance – have suddenly appeared during a children’s birthday party attended by rich ‘Colombo 7’ housewives and their pampered offspring.  The ensuing carnage takes place under a PA system blasting out Bryan Adams’ The Summer of 69.  (“I love this song!” enthuses one of Ruven’s comrades.)  The other is Dinuka Fernando, a woman working for an NGO trying to prevent the zombie infections, which are caused by a virus being spread by mosquitoes.  Dinuka is a kick-ass character who goes about her duties armed with a Japanese katana.  Unsurprisingly, that katana is deployed with increasing frequency as the novel approaches its climax.

 

The zombies in Zeelam aren’t the dead-come-back-to-life ones portrayed in Romero’s films.  They’re more in the style of 28 Days and 28 Weeks Later, people infected by a virus that sends them into a terrifying, murderous, red-eyed frenzy.  Weeraratne has his characters hypothesise that the virus was present in Sri Lanka for decades already in a less aggressive form.  Originally, it manifested itself in the country’s high levels of domestic violence, which didn’t receive much coverage because attentions were focused on the Sri Lankan Civil War from 1983 to 2009 – which itself became an outlet for the violence caused by the virus.  But now it’s mutated into something more devastating and its effects can no longer be concealed behind the walls of peoples’ homes or camouflaged by the mayhem of the battlefield.

 

Thus, though Weeraratne’s zombie scenario is imaginary, the context that gave rise to it isn’t.  Indeed, the text is peppered with superscript numbers that refer the reader to a lengthy appendix of endnotes.  Here, Weeraratne provides links to real-life studies, reports and news items about Sri Lanka and its relationship with violence, showing that he’s grounded his ideas in depressing reality.

 

Zeelam is also interesting because the virus is shown to create different types of infections.  These range from fully fledged, ‘berserker’ zombies to asymptomatic people who merely carry the virus around in them.  Most intriguingly, there’s a category called ‘sleepers’, who only show their zombie tendencies at night and are perfectly human-like during the day.  Indeed, among the book’s supporting cast is a character, a government inspector called Siripala Fonesaka, who spends his days desperately trying to cover up the monstrous things he’s done at night.

 

This diversity makes the threat posed by the zombies more hydra-like and difficult to deal with.  Also, it helps Zeelam to dodge the criticism I made at the start of this entry, that zombie stories have become too dull and predictable.  However, I have to say the pedant in me wished Weeraratne had explained these variations in the virus’s effects with the same scientific rigour with which he described the virus’s origins.  How, for example, does sunlight temporarily neutralise the virus in the sleepers?

 

As I’ve said, just as George A. Romero’s zombie movies highlighted the shortcomings of American society, and just as Danny Boyle painted an unflattering portrait of modern-day Britain in 28 Days Later, so Weeraratne spends much of Zeelam taking potshots at the frustrations and annoyances of 21st century Sri Lanka.  These include venal and corrupt politicians – the outbreak at the Hilton Hotel in the novel’s opening pages is the consequence of a seedy MP booking in there with a prostitute – and bungling, incalcitrant bureaucrats, and elements of the armed forces who in their minds have never stopped fighting the Civil War and pose as a big a threat to the public as the zombies do.

 

Then there’s the country’s class system.  Weeraratne doesn’t show the people at the top of the pile in a particularly sympathetic light.  When Ruven’s men cordon off a neighbourhood where an outbreak is in progress, one privileged young asshole rolls up in a fancy car and demands to be allowed to drive through because his father is ‘a judge’.  In a corresponding endnote, Weeraratne describes how he once heard someone say the exact same thing when people objected to him parking on a double-yellow line in Havelock Town.

 

Later, an alumnus of one of Colombo’s prestigious private schools, and thus an entitled member of the city’s ‘old-school-tie’ network, meets a humiliating end at the blade of Dinuka’s katana.  Described by Weeraratne with obvious relish, his death involves, shall we say, the relaxation of sphincter muscles.  This amused me because in the real world the school in question is at the top of my street.

 

114 pages long, Zeelam is a slim volume, and its impact is slightly lessened by a number of typos.  You sometimes wonder what was distracting the proof-reader from their duties — were they struggling against an encroaching zombie infection at the time?  But as an enjoyably gory piece of entertainment that doesn’t pull its satirical punches, it’s still pretty tasty.

 

From facebook.com

Riding out with Jim Mountfield

 

© Schlock Webzine

 

In 1970s Britain, it seemed television viewers couldn’t get enough programmes about the strange, dark and macabre.  For scary TV anthology series alone, this decade saw the broadcast of Beasts (1976), Dead of Night (1972), The Frighteners (1972), A Ghost Story for Christmas (1971-78), Leap in the Dark (1973-80), Shadows of Fear (1970-73), Supernatural (1977), Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88) and Thriller (1973-76).

 

One thing that’s often overlooked, though, is that there weren’t just plenty of scary programmes aimed at adults.  British children’s television in the 1970s delivered a fair number of chills too, most notably with series that were ostensibly science fiction but weren’t afraid to creep out their young audiences with their dystopian or plain weird scenarios, for example, Sky (1975), The Changes (1975) and – the kids’ show with the freakiest credits sequence everChildren of the Stones (1977).

 

In addition, 1970s kids in the UK – of whom I was one – also got their own supernatural anthology series.  This was Shadows, which ran from 1975 to 1978.  Its standalone episodes were penned by a range of surprisingly illustrious writers, including Joan Aitken, Susan Cooper, P.J. Hammond, Penelope Lively, Trevor Preston and the Mother of the She-Devil herself, Fay Weldon.  Yes, back then, treated to Shadows’ tales of ghosts, witches, timeslips and even folk horror (as essayed in the 1976 episode The Inheritance), we kids didn’t know how lucky we were.

 

I think I was inspired by Shadows and its tales of 1970s kids and teenagers having encounters with the supernatural when I recently wrote a short story called The Stables, which has just been published in the online journal Schlock! Webzine – attributed, as usual with my scary fiction, to the pen-name Jim Mountfield.  What the characters have to endure in The Stables, though, is considerably nastier than what their equivalents experienced in Shadows.

 

As its title suggests, the story also involves horses, which were another popular trope in 1970s British children’s TV shows.  There was, for example, Follyfoot (1971-73), set in a ‘rest-place’ for horses, and The Adventures of Black Beauty (1972-74), inspired by the 1877 book by Anna Sewell.  Both shows are probably best remembered nowadays for their jaunty theme tunes.  The Follyfoot theme was a number called The Lightning Tree, performed by pop-folk band the Settlers.  Meanwhile, the Black Beauty theme, Galloping Home, written by Dennis King and performed by the London String Chorale, is much admired by Alan Partridge (“It’s brilliant!”).

 

The Stables is now available to read in Volume 16, Issue 13 / the February 2021 edition of Schlock! Webzine here, while its homepage can be accessed here.

 

© Thames Television

Seriously Sean – ‘The Offence’

 

© Tantallon / United Artists

 

A warning – the following entry contains a lot of spoilers.

 

1973’s The Offence was the result of its star, Sean Connery, believing he could make a deal with the devil and get away with it.  The devil in question was Hollywood, always hungry for money-spinning escapist entertainment.  The deal was that he would, reluctantly, reprise his role as James Bond in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  In return, the distributor, United Artists, would support two film projects of his own choosing, budgeted at less than two million dollars.

 

What could go wrong?  Connery starring in the lazy, by-the-numbers Bondage that was Diamonds are Forever and being rewarded with two modestly budgeted but hopefully classy movies in which he could demonstrate his acting chops?  Well, the problem was that The Offence, the first film to emerge from of the deal, was a commercial flop.  Filmgoers evidently preferred to pay money to see Connery as Bond, even if by 1971 he was visibly middle-aged, wearing a toupee and merely going through the motions, rather than see him give the disturbing performance that he gave in The Offence. 

 

Connery’s second project was to have been an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which he planned to direct himself.  This became problematic when the Roman Polanski-directed Macbeth was released in 1971.  With The Offence a failure and Connery’s Macbeth looking unviable because Polanski had got to the material first, United Artists pulled the plug on the deal.  Connery’s second film didn’t see the light of day and, indeed, he never got to direct a film.  (His sole directing credit was the 1967 TV documentary The Bowler and the Bunnet.)

 

But at least we got The Offence, which features Connery in perhaps his most unsettling and least sympathetic role ever.  Viewed in 2021, it also provides a grim snapshot of life in Britain in the early 1970s.  Its story unfolds against a backdrop of brutalist architecture, anonymous municipal housing and concrete bunker-like interiors, an environment where toxic masculinity, blinkered prejudice and instinctive misogyny seem to flourish.

 

The Offence’s opening sequence takes place inside a police station.   A uniformed copper realises something is amiss in one of the interrogation rooms, raises the alarm and rushes inside with several colleagues.  Director Sidney Lumet, with whom Connery had previously made The Hill (1965) and The Anderson Tapes (1971), stages the sequence with memorable weirdness, having the characters move in slow motion, muting the dialogue, and making the soundtrack a collage of exaggerated, juddering noises and needling instrumental music courtesy of composer Harrison Birtwhistle.  At the sequence’s end, the distorted noises and music give way to the ringing of an alarm bell and we see Connery standing in the middle of the room.  He’s surrounded by the bodies of people, including policemen, whom he’s just clobbered.  What’s happened is a mystery, but Connery’s character is clearly giving off a bad vibe.

 

Then the narrative shifts back in time.  The police are shown to be out in force, keeping a close watch on a school at the edge of a non-descript English housing estate.  They are there because the area has recently seen a series of sexual assaults on young girls.  In the midst of the activity is Connery’s character, Detective Sergeant Johnson.  He struts around in a sheepskin jacket, drop-brim tweed hat and big 1970s moustache and sideburns, whilst being boorish, opinionated and self-consciously macho.

 

But the police mess up.  When the school-day ends and the kids leave, a girl goes missing.  A desperate search for her is launched in the fields and woods beyond the estate.  Lumet films this atmospherically – the daylight fading from a leaden sky, the lights of torches bobbing through the gloaming, the barking of tracker dogs and crackle of police walkie talkies pervading the air.  The girl is eventually found, brutalised and traumatised but still alive.  Johnson is the one who finds her.  As we’re aware of his bad karma from the opening sequence, there’s something disturbing in how he croons platitudes and struggles with the girl as he attempts to calm her.

 

© Tantallon / United Artists

 

Later that evening, a suspect is picked up.  This is Baxter (Ian Bannen), whom the police first spy tottering drunkenly across a serpentine pedestrian bridge in the local town centre.  Unable to give an account of what he was doing that day, he’s taken into custody.  Something about Baxter seems to push all of Johnson’s buttons and Johnson becomes convinced of his guilt.  Baxter is seedy and louche, but also well-spoken and well-educated, and he’s obviously come down in the world for some reason.  Though the script doesn’t make anything of it, there’s a hint that he’s gay, which no doubt enflames Johnson’s alpha maleness too.  This part of The Offence culminates with Johnson sneaking into the interrogation room to speak to Baxter in private.  Lumet shows a little, not all, of the emotional and physical violence that follows.  Johnson beats Baxter to a pulp, presumably the first act in the mayhem that was glimpsed in the film’s prologue.

 

Thereafter, The Offence shifts gears and three long, dialogue-heavy scenes ensue.  These scenes reveal the film’s origins on the stage, for it’s based on a theatrical play called This Story of Yours, which was first performed in 1968 and written by John Hopkins.  The playwright also wrote the film’s script.  Intriguingly, when This Story of Yours was revived in 1987, the role of Johnson went to the actor who was the screen’s finest Hercule Poirot, David Suchet.

 

First comes a scene where, after the violence, a chastened Johnson returns home.  Unsurprisingly, from what we’ve seen of the neighbourhood so far, he lives in an identikit block of flats where for a moment he tries to enter the wrong apartment by mistake.  He talks bitterly with his wife (Vivien Merchant) until two of his colleagues show up to inform him that Baxter has died of his injuries in hospital and he needs to accompany them back to the station.  The second scene takes place the next day and sees Johnson interrogated by a Detective Superintendent (Trevor Howard) who’s been sent to the town to find out what the hell is going on.  The third scene is a flashback to Johnson’s confrontation with Baxter and this time it’s shown in full.

 

The scene between Johnson and his wife, whose relationship has so deteriorated that they torment each other, intentionally and unintentionally, just by being in each other’s presence, is painful enough.  “Why aren’t you beautiful?” he growls at her. “You’re not even pretty.”  It’s made worse by the knowledge that both performers were in ugly domestic situations in real life at the time.  Connery’s marriage to actress Diane Cilento ended the year that The Offence was released and Cilento later alleged that he’d subjected her to physical and emotional abuse. Merchant, meanwhile, died of alcoholism and depression in 1982, aged only 53, following the slow and traumatic breakup of her marriage to the playwright Harold Pinter.

 

© Tantallon / United Artists

 

The scene with Trevor Howard’s Detective Superintendent, rattled by what’s happened but trying to extend some sympathy to Johnson as a fellow copper, is merely tense.  But it’s the flashback to the events in the interrogation room that gives The Offence its devastating punch.  Johnson might be Baxter’s physical superior but, despite his attempts to intimidate him, it’s Baxter who gains the upper hand.  He’s smart enough to realise how screwed up Johnson is and taunts him about his obsession with this case.  Is it because of a deep-rooted fascination with the crimes?  Is he secretly turned on by these sexual assaults on children?  “Nothing I have done,” Baxter tells him, “can be one half as bad as the thoughts in your head.”

 

It’s comes as no surprise that there is bad stuff festering inside Johnson’s head.  During the film, we’ve seen him suffer brief but harrowing recollections of the grisly crimes he’s had to deal with as a policeman – hanging corpses, murdered women tied to beds, people throwing themselves off rooftops, bloodstained children’s toys.  He’s also been haunted by images of the abused schoolgirl he found the previous day, not hysterical, but smiling at him enticingly.

 

Finally, like a penitent sinner before his priest, Johnson confesses to Baxter that what he’s said is true – just before, unhinged, he subjects him to that fatal beating.  Also, in his blind rage, he floors several of his colleagues who burst in and try to intervene.

 

I don’t think Ian Bannen ever gave a better performance than as the perceptive and manipulative Baxter, who gets the last laugh even though it costs him his life.  There are good turns too from Howard, Merchant, future sitcom-star Peter Bowles as the police station’s token posh detective, and Durham-born Ronald Radd as its token gruff, northern one.  Also in the cast is strapping character actor John Hallam, who appeared in two more British crime movies on either side of The Offence, Villain (1971) and Hennessy (1975).

 

But Connery ultimately takes the acting honours, for daring to subvert the macho-ness of Bond and the other heroic roles he’d been associated with.  Here he explores the severely damaged psyche of someone who uses a macho exterior as something to hide behind.  I’ve read speculation that The Offence’s box-office failure persuaded Connery not to play more characters like Johnson, but I wonder if that’s really the case.  Even if the film had made money, having inhabited Johnson’s skin once, did he feel any need to do it again?

 

Though after The Offence he’d stick to more sympathetic and heroic roles, there were, thankfully, several more Connery movies to come that were serious in intent and tried to engage the intellect.  Highlander (1986) and The Rock (1996) were still some way off…

 

© Tantallon / United Artists

Favourite Scots words, D-F

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

This evening is Burns Night, marking the 261st anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s greatest poet, and one-time ploughman, Robert Burns.

 

In a normal, pandemic-free year, children in schools the length and breadth of Scotland would have spent the past few days standing in front of their classmates and teachers reciting Burns’ poems.  Those poems, of course, were written in the Scots language; so this must be the only time in the year when kids can come out with certain Scots words in the classroom without their teachers correcting them: “Actually, that’s not what we say in proper English…”

 

In fact, lately, Scots has been getting attention that has nothing to do with tonight being Burns night.  Scots-language poetess Miss PunnyPennie has won herself tens of thousands of fans in recent months with her tweets and YouTube videos, in which she recites her poems and discusses a different Scots word each day.  Those fans include author Neil Gaiman, comedienne Janey Godley and actor Michael Sheen.

 

Unfortunately, she’s also had to put up with a lot of negativity.  She was the subject of a condescending and mocking piece published recently in the Sunday Times, which added insult to injury by calling her a blatherskite (‘ill-informed loudmouth’) in its headline.  More seriously, she’s received much trolling on twitter.  For instance, political ūber-chancer George Galloway – currently trying to reinvent himself as a diehard British nationalist in a bid to get elected to the Scottish parliament – tweeted something derogatory about her, in the process exposing her to potential abuse from his nutjob twitter followers.

 

Actually, Scots seems to have become part of the culture wars being waged in Scotland at the moment.  Pro-United Kingdom, anti-Scottish independence zealots like Galloway hate the idea that Scottish people might have their own language because it contradicts their narrative that everyone on the island of Great Britain is one people and culturally the same.  Hence, much online protestation (by people whose profiles are slathered with Union Jacks) that Scots is just ‘an accent’ or ‘slang’ or ‘a made-up language’ or ‘normal English with spelling mistakes’.

 

From cheezburger.com

 

Anyhow, as promised, here’s my next selection of favourite Scots words, those starting with the letters ‘D’, ‘E’ and ‘F’.

 

Dander (n/v) – stroll.  Over the centuries, a lot of Scots words made their way across the Irish Sea to the north of Ireland, where I spent the first 11 years of my life, and the delightful word dander is one of them.  I heard as many Northern Irish folk announce that they were ‘goin’ fir a dander’ as I heard Scottish folk announce it later, after my family had moved to Scotland.

 

Deasil (adv) – a Gaelic-derived word that means ‘clockwise’.  It’s a less well-known counterpart to the Scots word widdershins, meaning ‘anti-clockwise’.   I suspect the latter word is better known because it figures heavily in witchcraft and there’s been at least one journal of ‘Magick, ancient and modern’ with ‘Widdershins’ as its title.

 

Deave (v) – to bore and sicken someone with endless blather.  For example, “Thon Belfast singer-songwriter fellah Van Morrison is fair deavin’ me wi his coronavirus conspiracies.”

 

Dicht (n/v) – wipe.  Many a dirty-faced youngster, or clarty-faced bairn, in Scotland has heard their mother order them, ‘Gie yer a face a dicht’.

 

Doonhamer (n) – a person from Dumfries, the main town in southwest Scotland.  For many years, I had only ever seen this word in print, not heard anyone say it, and I’d always misread it as ‘Doom-hammer’, which made me think Dumfries’ inhabitants must be the most heavy-metal people on the planet.  But then, disappointingly, I realised how the word was properly spelt.  Also, I discovered that the word comes from how Dumfries folk refer to their hometown whilst in the more populous parts of Scotland up north, for example, in the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee.  They call it doon hame, i.e. ‘down home’.

 

Dook (n/v) – the act of immersing yourself in water.  Thus, the traditional Halloween game involving retrieving apples from a basin of water using your mouth, not your hands, is known in Scotland as dookin’ fir apples.

 

Douce (adj) – quiet, demure, civilised, prim.  My hometown of Peebles is frequently described as douce.  However, that’s by outsiders, short-term visitors and travellers passing through, who’ve never been inside the public bar of the Crown Hotel on Peebles High Street on a Saturday night.

 

From unsplash.com / © Eilis Garvey

 

Dreich (adj) – dreary or tedious, especially with regard to wet, dismal weather.  A very Presbyterian-sounding adjective that, inevitably, is much used in Scotland.

 

Drookit (adj) – soaking wet.  How children often are on Halloween after dookin’ fir apples.

 

Drouth (n) – a thirst.  Many an epic drinking session has started when someone declared that they had a drouth and then herded the company into a pub to rectify matters.  Its adjectival form is drouthy and Tam O’Shanter, perhaps Burns’ most famous poem, begins with an evocation of the boozing that happens when ‘drouthy neebors, neebors meet.’  Indeed, Drouthy Neebors has become a popular pub-name in Scotland and there are, or at least have been, Drouthy Neebors serving alcohol in Edinburgh, St Andrews, Stirling and Largs.

 

From Tripadvisor / © Drouthy Neebors, Largs

 

Dunt (n / v) – a heavy but dull-sounding blow.  It figures in the old saying, “Words are but wind, but dunts are the devil,”  which I guess is a version of “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you.”

 

Dux (n) – the star pupil in a school.

 

Eejit (n) – idiot.  Inevitably, in 2008, when Dundonian poet Matthew Fitt got around to translating Roald Dahl’s 1980 children’s book The Twits into Scots, he retitled it The Eejits.  Actually, there’s a lot of other Scots words in the D-F category that mean ‘idiot’.  See also dafty, diddy, doughball and dunderheid.

 

© Itchy Coo

 

Eeksiepeeksie (adj/adv) – equal, equally, evenly balanced.  A quaint term that was recently the subject of one of Miss PunniePenny’s ‘Scots word of the day’ tweets.

 

Fankle (n/v) – tangle.  I’ve heard the English plea to someone to calm down, “Don’t get your knickers in a twist!” rephrased in Scots as “Dinna get yer knickers in a fankle!”

 

Fantoosh (adj) – fancy, over-elaborate, a bit too glammed-up.

 

Fash (v) – to anger or annoy, commonly heard in the phrase “Dinna fash yerself”.  Like a number of Scots words, this is derived from Old French, from the ancestor of the modern French verb ‘fâcher’.

 

Feart (adj) – scared.  During my college days in Aberdeen in the 1980s, on more than one occasion, I had to walk away from a potential confrontation with Aberdeen Football Club soccer casuals. the juvenile designer football hooligans who seemed to infest the city at the time.  And I’d have the scornful demand thrown after me: “Are ye feart tae fight?!”  Meanwhile, a person who gets frightened easily is a feartie.

 

Fitba (n) – football.

 

Flit (n/v) – the act of moving, or to move, house.  Commonly used in Scotland, this verb has had success in the English language generally, as is evidenced by the use of ‘moonlight flit’ to describe moving house swiftly and secretly to avoid paying overdue rent-money.

 

Flyte (v) – to trade insults in the form of verse.  This combative literary tradition can be found in Norse and Anglo-Saxon cultures, but flyting was made an art-form in 15th / 16th-century Scotland by poets like William Dunbar, Walter Kennedy and Sir David Lyndsay.  There’s a poetic account of one flyting contest between Dunbar and Kennedy that’s called, unsurprisingly, The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie and consists of 28 stanzas of anti-Kennedy abuse penned by Dunbar and another 41 stanzas of Kennedy sticking it back to Dunbar.  According to Wikipedia, this work contains “the earliest recorded use of the word ‘shit’ as a personal insult.”  Thus, flyting was the Scottish Middle-Ages literary equivalent of two rappers dissing each other in their ‘rhymes’; and Dunbar and Kennedy were the Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls of their day.

 

Footer (v) – to fumble clumsily.  I remember reading a Scottish ‘coming of age’ story – though I can’t recall its title or author – in which the inexperienced hero footered haplessly with a young lady’s bra-clasp.

 

Favourite Scots words starting with ‘G’, ‘H’ and ‘I’ will be coming soon.

 

From unsplash.com / © Illya Vjestica

Hanging around with Jim Mountfield

 

© Horrified Magazine

 

I’ve just had my first short story published in 2021.  Where the Little Boy Drowned, which is attributed to Jim Mountfield, the pen-name I put on my horror fiction, is now featured in the ‘Stories’ section of the online magazine Horrified.

 

The story belongs to a sub-genre that I like to think of as ‘constant jeopardy’.  The main character or characters spend the whole story, or most of it, stuck in a dangerous situation where the odds look stacked against them getting out of it alive.

 

Examples of constant-jeopardy stories include Jack Finney’s Contents of a Dead Man’s Pockets (1956) and Stephen King’s The Ledge (1976), both of which have their protagonist trapped on a narrow ledge high up the side of a towering apartment building.  Two other examples are stories I’ve read by the Spanish writer Vincente Blasco Ibáñez and by Winston Churchill (who very occasionally wrote fiction when he wasn’t politicking) that are both called Man Overboard.  As their shared title suggests, these are about someone falling off a fast-moving ship, into the middle of the ocean, without anyone else noticing that they’ve fallen off.

 

However, the most gruelling constant-jeopardy story I’ve come across is The Viaduct, written by Brian Lumley and first published in 1976.  It’s about two boys who, for a dare, decide to cross the titular viaduct not by going along the top of it but going along underneath it – using 160 rungs, which for some reason the structure’s builders have installed there, as monkey-bars. The viaduct straddles a very deep valley and you can predict that this isn’t going to end well.

 

I don’t want to give too much away about Where the Little Boy Drowned, but one of its key plot elements is a length of rope.  There’s also a supernatural element to it, with a faint nod to Japanese horror films – J-Horror – and particularly to Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 chiller Ju-On: The Grudge.

 

Where the Little Boy Drowned can be read here, while this link will take you to Horrified’s main page.

Why I love the Cramps

 

From slugmag.com

 

The American rock band the Cramps, who blazed a sonic trail for three memorable decades from the mid-1970s to the mid-noughties, wore an awful lot of influences on their black-leather sleeves.  Yet somehow they managed to meld those influences into a sound and style quite unlike anyone or anything else.

 

They took as inspiration classic 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, surf music, garage rock, the velocity and bad attitude of punk and the darkness and glamour (but not the pomposity) of goth.  The band’s heart and soul were guitarist Poison Ivy (Kirsty Wallace), who was responsible for their sometimes juddering, sometimes twangy, always captivating guitar sound and who wasn’t adverse to posing for album-cover photos in high heels, fishnets, suspenders, shades, devil’s horns and body-hugging PVC; and her romantic and musical partner, the towering vocalist Lux Interior (Erik Purkhiser), whose sepulchral voice and ghoulish lyrics channelled a 1950s American childhood spent immersed in trashy horror, sci-fi and exploitation movies and gruesome sensationalist comics like Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt.

 

Outside the creative nucleus of Ivy and Lux, the Cramps underwent a lot of line-up changes.  Among some 20 band-members over the years, only guitarists Bryan Gregory and Kid Congo Powers, bassists Candy Del Mar and Slim Chance and drummers Nick Knox and Harry Drumdini were around long enough to make much impression.

 

Under Ivy and Lux’s control, the Cramps became a Frankenstein’s Monster fashioned out of pieces of Elvis, Ricky Nelson, Link Wray, Dick Dale, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Roger Corman, Ed Wood, Herschell Gordon Lewis, the Marquis de Sade and the Addams Family; but this was no lumbering misshapen monster.  This was something cadaverously elegant and it rocked.

 

As usual, I was late to the party.  I didn’t get into the Cramps until the late 1980s, a dozen years after they’d started, thanks to my brother giving me a crackly cassette-tape recording of their 1983 compilation album Off the Bone.  Incidentally, on the other side of the cassette was the 1988 Sugarcubes album Life’s Too Good.  Wow, those were the days.

 

© Creation

 

But at least by then I’d heard of the Cramps.  Indeed, the band had been credited with inventing their own musical genre, psychobilly.  Their supposed progeny, such raucous, upright-bass-slapping combos as the Meteors, Guano Batz and King Kurt, with their thickly greased quiffs, brothel creepers and copious tattoos, had been rampaging through the sweatier, dingier music venues of 1980s Britain.  The music journalist Dick Porter notes in his 2015 biography of the band Journey to the Centre of the Cramps that the Cramps were certainly responsible for the term ‘psychobilly’.  They’d made the word up and stuck it on a promotional flyer when they were trying to get themselves noticed in New York a decade earlier.  But they maintained a polite and slightly bemused distance from the actual musical scene they were meant to have spawned.

 

Porter quotes Poison Ivy as saying, “I think our songs have a more sensuous tempo.  I’m not sure what exactly defines psychobilly but it seems to have taken on a life of its own.  But it’s not quite what we do.”  Porter himself observes that “whereas the Cramps drew on a smorgasbord of influences that included R&B and doo-wop, the psychobilly groups tended to eschew blues-based influences and splice rockabilly to a punk template that hadn’t existed back when the Cramps got started.”

 

Anyway, as soon as I heard Off the Bone, I was hooked.  And I snapped up their releases in subsequent years, albums like Stay Sick (1990), Look Mom No Head (1991) and Flamejob (1994), which were choc-a-bloc with irresistible songs like Bikini Girls with Machine Guns, Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon, Journey to the Centre of a Girl, All Women are Bad, I Wanna Get in your Pants, Eyeball in my Martini, Bend Over I’ll Drive, Let’s Get F***ed Up and Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs.  Even now, when I’m feeling a little down or stressed about something, I only have to listen to one of those songs, with the stutter or buzz of Poison Ivy’s guitar, and with Lux Interior’s macabre, funny and innuendo-laden lyrics, and after a minute I’ll feel right as rain again.

 

© Restless / Enigma

 

Take Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs, for instance: “I fell in love at a terrible pace…  When someone gave her a shove down a staircase…”  I mean, how can anyone not love a song called Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs?

 

I never saw them live, though, which is something I really regret now.

 

One thing the band never received enough praise for was their musicianship.  There’s a perception of the Cramps, popular for example among certain snooty British music critics, as a kitschy, campy and not-to-be-taken-seriously novelty act.  This overlooks the skill, attention to detail and sheer hard graft that went into composing and recording their songs.  Ivy and Lux were extremely knowledgeable about their influences and committed about what they did and they put the work in.  Their finished songs might’ve made it look and sound easy, but this illusion of effortlessness is testimony to high standards of talent and professionalism behind the scenes.

 

The story of the Cramps ended on a melancholic note, for in 2009 Lux Interior died suddenly and unexpectedly from a tear in his aortic wall.  Not only did his death deprive rock ‘n’ roll music of one of its most striking and amusing figures; but it also brought the curtain down both on his lifelong romantic and creative partnership with Poison Ivy and on the Cramps themselves.

 

That partnership and the band were of course one and the same thing.  As Poison Ivy remarked to Dick Porter in 2006, “That’s all the Cramps is – a folie à deux.”

 

© I.R.S

Trump-town riots

 

© CBS News

 

“It’s a disgrace, there’s never been anything like that.  You could take third-world countries, just take a look, take third-world countries.  Their elections are more honest than what we’ve been going through in this country.  It’s a disgrace.”

 

So spoke President, now almost Ex-President, Donald Trump at a rally at Washington DC on January 6th.  This was before the rally’s attendees launched an assault on the US Capitol while members of Congress were meeting there to certify Joe Biden becoming the 46th president and Trump’s successor.

 

Bravely, Trump used the pronoun ‘we’, which normally means ‘me’ as well as ‘you’, when he declared: “…we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue… and we’re going to the Capitol…”  Then, bravely, he didn’t accompany his supporters when they marched off to confront and fight their way past the Capitol’s police force (many of whom, as it happened, were suspiciously reluctant to do their jobs).  Instead, bravely, Trump headed back to the White House where, bravely, he watched the ensuing carnage on TV.

 

In his speech, Trump claimed that November 2020’s presidential election, when Joe Biden won 72 more electoral college seats and 7,250,000 more votes than he did, and which everybody from the Supreme Court to the Department of Justice – not to mention the judges who chucked out 60-odd lawsuits filed by Trump in protest – agreed had been held fairly, was even more fraudulent than an election held in a third-world country.  Even more!

 

I guess I should credit Trump for using the term ‘third-world countries’, which is an improvement on his previous term for less-well-off parts of the planet, ‘shithole countries’.  I doubt, though, if he’ll ever evolve to the point where he refers to them as ‘developing-world countries’, or even less-patronising terms like ‘low-and-lower-middle-income countries’, or ‘the global south’, or ‘the Majority World’.

 

As somebody who’s spent much time living in (what I’ll call) low-and-lower-middle-income countries, I have to say I’ve never seen a spectacle as humiliatingly ridiculous as the one in the Capitol following Trump’s rabble-rousing speech on January 6th.  I’ve lived in North Korea under Kim Jong-Il and Libya under Colonel Ghaddafi, dictators whose perpetual self-aggrandisement led to some ludicrous sights indeed.  But nothing I saw in those places compares to last week’s scenes, where American politicians fled from their chambers while doors buckled, windows imploded and police and secret-service officers were pushed back by an inexorable, invading tide of white supremacists, Nazis, militiamen, crackpot conspiracists and MAGA nutjobs.

 

It resembled the start of a zombie-apocalypse movie – the bit where a live TV broadcast, announcing the emergency and urging calm, is interrupted by the studio staff looking into the lobby and screaming off-camera, “They’re here!  They’re here!”  Though this wasn’t so much Dawn of the Dead as QAnon of the Dead.

 

© Sony Soho Square

 

And during my time in what Trump thinks of as ‘shithole countries’, I’ve never seen performers from such a theatre of the absurd as those who were centre stage in the Capitol when, temporarily, the mob occupied it.  The QAnon-shaman guy with the buffalo furs and horns and the painted face, resembling the figure on the cover of the 1993 Jamiroquai album Emergency on Planet Earth after it’d spent a night sleeping in a skip.  The other guy with the furs, plus glasses and a dead beaver on his head, looking like the world’s shittest Davie Crockett.  The guy in the bobbled ‘Trump’ hat who walked off with Nancy Pelosi’s lectern, now under arrest and subject to a thousand jokes on social media about when he’ll ‘take the stand’.  The guy with the Santa Claus beard and the ‘Camp Auschwitz’ T-shirt, whom one right-wing idiot later tried to deflect criticism from on social media by suggesting he might actually be an ‘Auschwitz survivor’…  Hold on, though.  Someone celebrating Auschwitz in 2021?  That’s not absurd.  That’s frightening.

 

Indeed, after the initial absurdities broadcast on the initial news reports, there came more frightening accounts of what’d happened.  A police officer died of injuries sustained while being bludgeoned by a fire extinguisher.  Another officer, a black man, had to offer himself as bait and lure a racist mob away from the senate entrance, so that those inside got a few extra minutes to evacuate.  (While these things were happening, other officers, clearly sympathetic to the mob’s intent, were dismantling barriers to let them pass and posing for selfies with them.)  Journalists were attacked.  A makeshift noose was strung up outside.  Masked figures roamed around carrying zip-tie handcuffs, apparently planning to take hostages.

 

Meanwhile, there was the jaw-dropping contemptibility of Republican politicians such as Ted Cruz, the Texan cowpat, and Josh Hawley, a man who physically and spiritually resembles Miguel Ferrer’s scumbag executive in Robocop (1987).  Even after the insurrection, they kept on parroting Trump’s honking-mad claims about election fraud and they voted against Biden’s certification.  Obviously, this is because they want to secure the support of Trump’s deranged base when they launch their own bids to become president in 2024.  With Cruz and Hawley, it’s not so much ‘we the people’ as ‘me the people’.

 

I suppose I should react to this with schadenfreude.  The USA has a long history of promoting revolutions and insurrections in other countries.  The most notorious of many examples were the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, which the USA and its little sidekick the UK orchestrated in 1953 (and which begat the Shah of Iran, which begat the 1979 revolution, which begat the Ayatollah, which begat the Iran we know and fear today), and the 1973 coup d’état it engineered against President Salvador Allende that resulted in the murderous, fascistic rule of General Pinochet.  Now it’s embarrassingly fallen prey to an attempted coup of its own.

 

Still, all the sanctimonious blather about the USA being the mother of democracy and the shining light for other nations to follow, often propagated by Hollywood movies, does worm its way into your consciousness no matter how hard you try to resist.  So although the idea of American democratic righteousness is more myth and propaganda than reality, seeing its political heart get trashed by Jamiroquai-shaman guy, beaver-on-head guy, lectern-guy, etc., was rather sad.

 

From twitter.com / schwarzenegger

 

Incidentally, if the notion that the USA is the great champion of democracy is cheesy guff, it was appropriate that a few days later Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of cinema’s greatest proponents of cheesy (though enjoyable) guff, went viral in a video in which he praised American democracy.  Arnie even likened its resilience to the sword of Conan the Barbarian.  The sword’s blade, he explained, becomes stronger the more it’s tempered by punishment.  (Sorry, Arnie, but I seem to remember Conan’s mantra being to ‘crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their women’.  Which doesn’t sound terribly democratic to me.)

 

But returning to the topic of low-and-lower-middle-income countries…  From 1999 to 2001 I worked in Ethiopia.  When I arrived there, most Ethiopians’ experience of the outside world was via an antiquated TV set kept in a wooden cabinet in the neighbourhood coffee shop or bar, which gave them access to two terrestrial channels.  The channels’ output seemed to consist mainly of clips of traditional Ethiopian dancing, English football matches that’d taken place three weeks earlier, and reruns of Jake and the Fatman (1987-92).

 

Within two years, however, satellite TV had arrived with a vengeance.  Suddenly, those same people were being exposed daily to dozens, if not hundreds of channels crammed with glossy adverts and pop videos dripping with opulence – fancy cars, penthouses, jewellery, designer clothes.  It was all phoney nonsense, of course.  Most people in other countries didn’t live like that.  But how was your average Ethiopian expected to know?  And how, I wondered, would this impact on the psychology of a people whose country was then, and still is today, pretty impoverished?  (In 2018 its GDP per capita was ranked 167th in the world.)

 

As it turned out, I should have been more worried about the Americans and how they’d cope with rapid advances in communications technology and especially with the sudden arrival of social media.  For now we have vast numbers of Americans taking Trump’s twitter ravings as the gospel truth.  Also, vast numbers of them believe the insane drivel that is the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, whereby Trump is battling a worldwide network of paedophilic, baby-eating Satanists who control everything, especially everything that’s liberal.

 

Whoever Biden appoints as a successor to Betty DeVos, Trump’s wretched Secretary of Education, will urgently need to promote 21st century skills like critical thinking and digital literacy in the nation’s schools.  Otherwise, thanks to social media and the Internet, the USA will collectively disappear down an extremist rabbit hole or get locked into a far-right echo chamber.

 

Ironically, Trump, so disdainful of ‘shithole countries’ in Africa and elsewhere, is probably closest in his vanity, bluster and puffed-up preposterousness to some of the infamous dictators who ruled certain African nations after the end of colonialism.  I’m thinking of Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko who, while most of his subjects lived in poverty, built a palace that became known as ‘the Versailles of the jungle’, travelled using a fleet of costly Mercedes-Benz motor cars and hired Concorde for shopping trips to France.  What Trumpian things to do.  I’m also thinking of Uganda’s Idi Amin, described in 1973 by his country’s American ambassador as ‘racist, erratic and unpredictable, brutal, inept, bellicose, irrational, ridiculous and militaristic.’  That sounds like Trump down to a T.

 

By the way, talk of Idi Amin makes me think of the 2006 movie The Last King of Scotland, based on the 1998 novel by Giles Fodden.  In that, a hapless, vain and dim Scotsman, played by James McAvoy, cosies up to Amin, played by Forest Whittaker, at the start of the latter’s career and soon gets more than he bargained for.

 

© DNA Films / Film4 / Fox Searchlight Pictures

 

Thinking of The Last King of Scotland’s imaginary scenario, I’m somehow reminded of the real-life scenario here:

 

© Daniel Biskup / The Times / News Syndication

 

Anyway, America, one week has passed since the Capitol insurrection.  You’ve got just one more week to go before Biden gets inaugurated and the Orange Blob, hopefully, is cast off into powerlessness and obscurity.

 

You’re halfway out of Crazy Town.  Hope you make it.  Good luck.