The tragic, magic man

 

© Coronet Books

 

Continuing with the October / Halloween theme, here is a piece I first posted at the beginning of 2020 about a collection of spooky stories by the late, great Charles Beaumont.

 

Last year, while I was back visiting my family in Scotland, I happened to be hoking around in some boxes of books that belonged to me but that’d ended up gathering dust in a corner of my father’s attic.  Inside one of those boxes I discovered a very old paperback called The Magic Man, a collection of mostly fantasy, horror and science-fiction stories by the late American writer Charles Beaumont originally published in 1965.  Dimly, I recalled buying this for 25p, though the cover-price was a pre-decimalization 3/6, in a second-hand bookshop in the Lincolnshire town of Louth.  I worked in Louth for five months in 1983 as a volunteer classroom assistant and houseparent at a residential school for boys with severe behavioral issues – ‘maladjusted’ boys, as they were called in those unsympathetic and non-PC days.

 

I knew Beaumont’s name in 1983 because I’d seen it attached to several movies that’d had a big impact on me while I was growing up, such as The Seven Faces of Dr Lao and Masque of the Red Death (1964).  But after buying the book, I never got around to opening it and it ended up stashed away and unread among the hundreds, eventually thousands of other books I owned.

 

Anyway, 37 years later – this sentence makes me feel absolutely ancient – I’ve finally read the stories in The Magic Man.  The collection kicks off with an introduction by Beaumont’s friend and mentor Ray Bradbury, which while gracious in tone suggests that Bradbury was a hard taskmaster to have as your writing tutor.  He recalls telling the young Beaumont to write and submit one story every week: “He worked, I remember, part time at United Parcel Service, back in the early fifties, so as to spend the rest of his hours finishing that special story that must be sent off in the mail every Saturday.”  Intriguingly, Bradbury also mentions that Beaumont tried, “for years, to convince movie producers to make films out of the Ian Fleming books.”  Obviously, and sadly for Beaumont’s bank balance, someone else managed to convince Cubby Broccoli and Albert Saltzman to make films out of them first.

 

With Bradbury as his guru, it’s no surprise that several stories in The Magic Man bear the imprint of Bradbury’s own fanciful, atmospheric and wistfully nostalgic writing.  The title story, about a stage magician who travels a circuit of small American prairie towns doing magic shows and who doesn’t appreciate the importance that his ‘magic’ holds for the prairie townspeople while they go about their otherwise humdrum existences, has echoes of Bradbury’s 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.  It also evokes Charles G. Finney’s novel The Circus of Dr Lao, which coincidentally Beaumont adapted for producer George Pal as the movie The Seven Faces of Dr Lao.  Also with a flavour of Bradbury-esque small-town America is The Hunger, although Beaumont’s tale of a lonely, frustrated spinster who feels a strange affinity for an escaped, murderous lunatic pushes the envelope further than the genteel Bradbury would have done.

 

Bradbury’s introduction notes too that Beaumont had a penchant for driving and “burning up the dirt on the nearest racetrack” and a couple of the stories reflect his love for automobiles.  A Classic Affair, about a worried woman asking a friend to follow her husband, whom she believes is in an adulterous relationship, takes a nice twist when the man discovers just what, as opposed to who, the husband is having an affair with, although the twist that follows on from that twist isn’t perhaps so surprising.  Meanwhile, the final story, A Death in the Country, convincingly details the desperate life of an aging and failing dirt-track car racer and is one of the collection’s few non-genre stories.

 

If Perchance to Dream, the story of a man with a heart condition who’s troubled by a recurrent dream where he’s lured onto a literally heart-stopping rollercoaster, sounds familiar, it’s because Beaumont adapted it into an episode of the classic TV show The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  This was one of 22 episodes of that series that he scripted or co-scripted.  (Beaumont clearly had conflicted feelings about writing for cinema and television.  According to the cult New Wave sci-fi / fantasy author Harlan Ellison, Beaumont once told him that: “Attaining success in Hollywood is like climbing a gigantic mountain of cow flop, in order to pick one perfect rose from the summit.  And you find when you’ve made that hideous climb… you’ve lost the sense of smell.”)

 

Another story that ended up as the basis for a TV episode is The New People, which became an instalment in the British anthology series Journey to the Unknown (1968-69), made by horror specialists Hammer Films in conjunction with 20th Century Fox.  Beaumont’s story features an enclave of successful professionals and their families living in a well-to-do American neighbourhood who, like the characters in Richard Yates’ novel Revolution Road (1961), are beneath the surface bored out of their wits with their situation.   But while Yates’ characters try to solve the problem of their ennui by contemplating a move to Paris, Beaumont’s characters decide to enliven things by participating in some dark activities indeed.  In the Journey to the Unknown episode, this sinister community is moved to the affluent Home Counties of England.  With a first-rate cast including Robert Reed, Adrienne Corri, Melissa Stribling, Milo O’Shea and a splendidly saturnine Patrick Allen, it’s fairly effective.  But the episode leaves out an important plot element involving the main characters’ sex lives (or lack of them) that gives the original story a satisfying and, with hindsight, logical twist ending.

 

The Magic Man has a couple of weaker entries, which tend to be science fictional.  The Last Caper suffers because it attempts to graft a Raymond Chandler / Philip Marlowe-type private-detective story onto a space-age setting, with characters speaking a futuristic version of Chandler’s famously hardboiled 1940s patois.  (“Don’t push it, rocket-jockey…”).  This sounds awfully dated now.  Similarly, The Monster Show has its characters speaking like futuristic beatniks and doesn’t fare any better.  (“It’s pictures that count.  Flap?”  “Nothing can go wrong.  Nothing-o.”)  It makes me wonder how dated the hip and cutting-edge, for the time, ‘cyberpunk’ sci-fi novels of the 1980s and 1990s will seem in a few decades’ time, if they don’t seem dated already.

 

That said, The Crooked Man, set in a future where homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuals are a persecuted minority, is a fine example of a science-fiction story that highlights a contemporary injustice by pitching its readers into a world where the tables have been turned.  It was pretty bold of Playboy magazine to publish the story when it did, back in 1955.

 

A little too varied in quality, and with some stories that show their influences a little too much – the 1955 story The Murderers, though enjoyable, pinches the premise of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and the 1929 play by John Hamilton on which it was based – The Magic Man isn’t wholly satisfying.  But it contains a lot of interesting and entertaining fiction and makes one wonder what spectacular things Beaumont might have gone on to write if he hadn’t died at the wastefully young age of 38.  Yes, Charles Beaumont was born, grew up, established himself as a writer and died in almost the same period of time that elapsed between my buying The Magic Man and my reading it.

 

The nature of his passing wasn’t pleasant.  He succumbed to a mystery illness, which his agent Forest J. Ackerman theorized was a combination of Alzheimer’s and Pick’s disease, whereby he suffered from headaches, reduced concentration, slurred speech, erratic behavior, weight loss and premature aging.  At the time of his death, one of Beaumont’s sons recalled, he “looked 95 and was, in fact, 95 by every calendar except the one on your watch.”

 

So, while the main character of the title story here styles himself as the Magic Man, I can’t help but think of the story’s author as the Tragic Man.

 

From twilightzone.fandom.com/wiki

Just a flesh wound

 

© Ley Line Entertainment / Bron Creative / A24

 

It’s fair to say that the regal, if probably hypothetical, legend of King Arthur has suffered more than a few flesh wounds from filmmakers over the years.

 

At least in the case of the Monty Python team, the filmmakers were deliberately taking the piss.  Their 1974 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail inflicted on poor Arthur such indignities as the Knights Who Say ‘Ni!’, the bloodthirsty Rabbit of Caerbannog, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, Dennis of the Autonomous Collective (“Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”) and the outrageously rude French guard (“You don’t frighten us, English pig-dogs! Go and boil your bottoms, sons of a silly person!”).

 

More worryingly, other filmmakers have tried to be serious, though with cringeworthy results.  I’m thinking of 1967’s Camelot, which has Richard Harris’s Arthur bursting into song and warbling, “You mean a king who fought a dragon / Whacked him in two and fixed his wagon / Goes to be wed in terror and distress? / Yes!”  Or 2004’s King Arthur, which has a grimly wooden Clive Owen in the title role and which, according to the Times’ reviewer Wendy Ide, ‘attaches itself to the Arthurian legend like some parasitic worm’.  Or 2017’s King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword, which was directed by Guy Ritchie in the manner you’d expect from Guy Ritchie, complete with a cameo appearance by that well-known icon of the Dark Ages, David Beckham.

 

Actually, I’ve immersed myself a lot in the King Arthur legend recently, not through films but through books, which I’ve found much more rewarding.  Not long ago, I managed to finish off T. H. White’s Once and Future King series, comprised of The Sword in the Stone (1938), The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939), The Ill-Made Knight (1940), The Candle in the Wind (1958) and The Book of Merlyn (1977).  Yes, I know, the first book was the basis for the underwhelming 1963 Walt Disney cartoon, but the series becomes impressively philosophical, political and tragic as it goes on.  I’ve also lately read Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2015 novel The Buried Giant, set a short period after the death of Arthur.  Come to think of it, The Buried Giant could almost qualify as a postscript to White’s series, although there are a few differences in continuity.  (For example, Merlin is said to be dead by the time of Ishiguro’s novel, whereas in the timeline established by White he’d be alive.  His ability in the Once and Future King books to live through time in the opposite direction from human beings, from the future to the past, would ensure that.)

 

© Faber & Faber

 

A figure from Arthurian legend who plays a major role in The Buried Giant, as an elderly man, is Arthur’s nephew Sir Gawain.  Gawain, of course, occupies his own niche in the Arthurian mythos because he’s the main character in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the late 14th century poem written in a North West Midlands dialect of Middle English.  The poem has Sir Gawain respond to the mysterious Green Knight who arrives at Arthur’s court one Christmas Eve with an unusual challenge: who is prepared to strike him a blow with the axe he is carrying, on the condition that one year from now the Green Knight gets an opportunity to return the blow on his home turf, a place called the Green Chapel?  Gawain takes up the challenge and uses the axe to whack off the Green Knight’s head.  That, however, doesn’t resolve the matter, because the Green Knight refuses to die.  He picks up his head and rides off, leaving Gawain honour-bound to keep the appointment at the Green Chapel next Christmas.  Obviously, there, he’ll receive an equivalent blow that he’s less likely to be impervious to.

 

The poem was filmed twice in the 20th century by the director Stephen Weeks, first in 1973 as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with singer Murray Head as Gawain and Nigel Greene as the Green Knight, and again in 1984 as Sword of the Valiant. Both versions made little impact and the clearly well-intentioned Weeks was hampered by low budgets.  With the second version, he was no doubt hampered too by the fact he made the film for the notoriously schlocky Cannon Group, whose co-owners Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus overrode his choice of Mark Hamill to play Gawain and instead foisted on him Miles O’Keefe, who’d previous played the Lord of the Jungle in 1981’s dire Tarzan the Ape Man.  A better casting choice was Sean Connery as the Green Knight.

 

Now, however, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has received the big budget treatment.  Well, at 15 million dollars, not that big, but certainly a lot more than Stephen Weeks had to play with.  David Lowery has written and directed a new version with Dev Patel, of 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, stepping into Gawain’s armour.  I have to say the resulting film, with the shortened title The Green Knight, isn’t perfect, but nonetheless it does justice to the poem at last.  It also qualifies as that rare beast – a quality King Arthur movie.

 

The Green Knight doesn’t present a fanciful or idealised picture of Arthur’s court, if that court had ever actually existed.  While it doesn’t wallow in medieval dirt, muck and shit like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“Dennis!  There’s some lovely filth down here!”), it does show life in and around Arthur’s citadel as wintry, draughty, farmyard-y and unglamorous.  Accordingly, Arthur and Guinevere (Sean Harris and Kate Dickie) are portrayed as an ageing, rather threadbare couple, who don’t even get the accolade of being referred to by their legendary names.  They’re just ‘the king’ and ‘the queen’.

 

On the other hand, the film is keen to show how unspectacular characters, settings and events get exaggerated and mythologised and turned into legends.  It makes much of story-telling and myth-making.  For example, no sooner has Gawain had his first encounter with the Green Knight than the tale is being retold as a puppet show for the neighbourhood’s children.  On a battlefield strewn with newly-dead corpses, a scavenger (Barry Keoghan) is already recounting stories of derring-do about the battle that are clearly over-the-top bullshit.  And Arthur himself pleads with his court, “Friends, brothers and sisters, who can regale me and my queen with some myth or tale?”  When he asks Gawain, “Tell me a tale of yourself so that I might know thee,” and Gawain replies, “I have none to tell,” Guinevere interjects with: “Yet. You have none to tell yet.”

 

© Ley Line Entertainment / Bron Creative / A24

 

It reminds me of another movie with a focus on myth-making, but a very different setting, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), John Ford’s meditation about the end of America’s Wild West. As Carleton Young’s newspaper-editor character says in that film, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!”

 

I thought the first hour-and-a-bit of The Green Knight was splendid.  The Green Knight himself is presented wonderfully as a proper green man, all gnarled wood and straggly tree-root beard, and his appearance is complemented by his voice, which is that of gravelly Yorkshireman Ralph Ineson.  Actually, it’s nice to see Ineson and Kate Dickie together in a film again after they played the doomed Puritan parents in Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015).

 

Once Gawain sets off in search of the Green Chapel, to keep his unwanted appointment, he has several phantasmagorical adventures that involve phantoms, giants and supernaturally intelligent animals and that are gorgeously shot by cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo.  However, it’s the episode with Barry Keoghan and his grubby little band of thieves that’s perhaps most haunting, thanks to an amazing sequence with a rotating camera-shot and time-lapse special effects that makes you wonder if anything else you see in the film is going to be true.

 

But The Green Knight does, in my opinion, have a structural problem.  This is because in the original poem the adventures Gawain has during the first half of his journey are not described in any detail, and what we see on screen presumably comes from Lowery’s imagination.  However, later events in the film are based on the poem and form an important part of the plot.  These involve Gawain coming to a castle near the Green Chapel and enjoying the hospitality of its lord (Joel Edgerton) and lady (Alicia Vikander) during the last few days before his appointment.  His experiences there become strange and prove to be a series of tests.  That’s fine, but after the fantastical episodes that Gawain’s been through earlier on, these castle-bound scenes feel something of a let-down and act as a brake on the film’s momentum.

 

The climax bravely departs from the denouement of the poem (which had Arthur’s sister, and Gawain’s aunt, Morgan Le Fay popping up as a sort of medieval deus ex machina).  Instead, it does something that had me thinking of the climax of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).  This neatly echoes the earlier themes of storytelling and myth-making.

 

The Green Knight certainly isn’t to everyone’s tastes.  For example, a certain well-known science-fiction author, clearly more a Guy Richie / King Arthur: Legend of the Sword man, denounced it on twitter recently as “the worst film I’ve watched this year…  What a waste of good actors.  I want my two hours back.”  However, if you’re in the right frame of mind, not expecting anything like the usual cinematic Arthurian fare, and willing to tolerate some ruminative, slow-moving stuff in the second half, you may find it magical.

 

© Ley Line Entertainment / Bron Creative / A24

Short, sharp shocks

 

© New English Library

 

We’re into October now, a month that ends with the scary festival of Halloween. In keeping with the spirit of the season, I thought I would repost on this blog a few old entries that have a macabre, and hence Halloween-y, theme.  I’ll start with this item, which I originally wrote in 2017.  It’s about my favourite volumes of short horror stories: books that deliver a series of short, sharp shocks. 

 

These are the ten collections of short horror stories that have had the biggest impact on me.  To keep this exercise manageable, I’ve limited it to collections written by a single author.  And the authors included are ones who are still alive or were alive when I started reading their work.  Hence, no Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft or Arthur Machen.

 

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

Patrick McGrath has spent his career writing fiction that shows his love for the gothic and grotesque but, in a rare display of broad-mindedness, critics have avoided pigeonholing him as a ‘horror’ or ‘fantasy’ writer and treated him as a serious mainstream-literary figure instead.  What a lucky man he is.  Blood and Water… showcases McGrath’s short fiction and features, among other things, a diseased angel (The Angel), a hand that starts growing out of an unexpected place (The Black Hand of the Raj), a community of anaemic vampires (Blood Disease) and, most surreally, a girl who discovers a jungle explorer camped in the bushes at the bottom of her suburban garden (The Lost Explorer).  Particularly vivid is The E(rot)ic Potato, a meditation on decay told by a fly.  And an even less likely narrator relates the events of The Boot’s Tale, an account of a nuclear holocaust that manages to be both horrible and funny.

 

© Penguin

 

The Bloody Chamber (1979) by Angela Carter

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

 

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

In the mid-1980s Clive Barker caused a sensation with the publication of his six Books of Blood, which are basically six volumes of short horror stories linked by a clever framing device.  Such was their impact that Stephen King dubbed Barker the Beatles of horror writing – whilst likening himself to horror’s slightly old-fashioned Elvis Presley.  To be honest, I found many stories in the later Books of Blood a tad pretentious; but Volume 1 is just about perfect in its blend of the funny, the profound and the hideously, graphically bloody.  Humour comes courtesy of the demonic-haunting spoof The Yattering and Jack and the charming supernatural-theatre story Sex, Death and Starshine (no doubt drawing on Barker’s experiences running the Dog Company theatrical troupe in late 1970s and early 1980s).  Profundity is supplied by In the Hills, the Cities, which takes place in the then-Yugoslavia and spookily prefigures the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s.  And for sheer, gross horribleness you can’t beat The Midnight Meat Train or Pig Blood Blues, the latter being one of my candidates for the title of Scariest Story Ever.

 

© Sphere

 

Dark Companions (1982) by Ramsey Campbell

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

 

Night Shift (1978) by Stephen King

I can’t not include Night Shift here.  In my boyhood I’d go to scout summer-camps in the countryside near the Scottish town of Hawick.  During one camp I spent three days stuck almost permanently inside a tent because the Scottish weather was doing its normal thing and pissing non-stop with rain.  Luckily, in a Hawick bookshop beforehand, I’d bought a copy of Night Shift, a 1978 volume of Stephen King’s short stories, and to keep boredom at bay, I read that during the three days.  It made a big impression.  King has produced slicker collections of short stories since, but the unpleasant things inhabiting the tales in Night Shift have stayed with me for 40 years.  A huge demonically-possessed laundry machine that rumbles into malevolent life (The Mangler)…  Giant mutant rats lurking in the basement of a factory (The Graveyard Shift)…  A man slowly transforming into a monstrous flesh-eating slug (Grey Matter)…  A Mafia-type organisation that helps you give up smoking by threatening to torture and kill your family every time you puff a new cigarette (Quitters Inc)…  No, Night Shift isn’t subtle, but it certainly scared the bejesus out of me when I was a thirteen-year-old boy scout.

 

© Panther

 

The October Country (1955) by Ray Bradbury

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

 

Shatterday (1980) by Harlan Ellison

Remarkably, the science fiction / fantasy writer Harlan Ellison managed to win fame by largely eschewing novels and writing masses of short stories instead.  Well, fame in the USA at least.  His name was little-known and his work hard to come by in Britain.  Among many collections, Shatterday is possibly his best.  Particularly memorable is the melancholy Jeffty is Five, about a little boy who refuses to grow up; The Man Who was Heavily into Revenge, about a schmuck who haplessly wrongs another person and then, inexplicably, finds the whole world venting its wrath upon him; Count the Clock That Tells the Time, a cautionary tale about the consequences of doing nothing meaningful with your life and frittering it away; and the unsettling title story, about a man who phones his own apartment one evening and finds himself talking to himself, or more precisely, to a sinister alter-ego who’s planning to usurp him from his own existence.

 

© Penguin

 

Swamp Foetus (1993) by Poppy Z. Brite

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

 

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

Scottish writer Dorothy K. Haynes is much underrated.  Her stories, often set in the dour, oppressive society of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Scotland, when the Presbyterian Church still had undue influence, are impressively disturbing in their quiet way.  Perhaps most disturbing is The Peculiar Case of Mrs Grimmond, about an old woman who takes pity on a strange, unidentified little animal that her cat drags into the house one day and, while she looks after and nurtures it, incurs the wrath of the community around her.  Haynes also tackles myth and legend.  Her very Scottish takes on such fabled creatures as banshees (The Bean-Nighe), fairies (Paying Guests) and changelings (The Changeling) are satisfyingly grim and creepy.

 

© Black and White Publishing

 

The Wine-Dark Sea (1988) by Robert Aickman

I’ve written about Robert Aickman before on this blog, so I will just say here that this, for me, is his finest collection of stories.  There’s one stinker among its contents, the supposedly satirical Growing Boys, which is an unwelcome reminder that, first-rate writer though he was, Aickman was also a grumpy, reactionary, modernity-hating conservative.  However, everything else is excellent, if frequently challenging and baffling.  The Inner Room is a phantasmagorical story about a weird doll’s house.  Never Visit Venice pokes fun at the modern phenomenon of mass tourism with its an account of an unwary visitor to the title city taking a ride on a gondola from hell.  And Your Tiny Hand is Frozen, about an unsociable man becoming addicted to a telephone, through which he communicates with a strange woman who may or may not exist, shows Aickman’s unease about the loss of face-to-face interaction that new communications technology was causing – the story was written in 1953.  Maybe it’s just as well Aickman passed away in 1982.  He’d have really hated our era of smartphones and social media.

 

© Faber & Faber

Many moons ago

 

© Universal Pictures / Polygram Pictures

 

When I think about the films that I saw and loved during the formative years of my mid-to-late-teens, films like Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1979), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), George Miller’s Mad Max II (1981), Terry Gilliam’s The Time Bandits (1981), Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981), John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs (1982), I instinctively assume they were released, oh, maybe a quarter of century ago.  It scares me when I actually do the maths and realise that no, 40 years have now passed, or will have passed soon, since their original release.  Yes, I know the platitudes – ‘Time waits for no man’, ‘None of us are getting younger’ and so on.  Still, it comes as a mighty shock to realise these films are now as far back in time from 2021 as Stagecoach (1939) with John Wayne, or The Wizard of Oz (1939) with Judy Garland, were back in time from when they first hit the cinemas in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

 

Anyway, August 2021 has served up yet another cinematic reminder of what a dribbling old fart I now am.  I’ve discovered that exactly 40 years have elapsed since the release of John Landis’s much-loved horror comedy, An American Werewolf in London (1981).

 

The film won the first-ever Oscar awarded for Best Make-Up, courtesy of legendary make-up artist Rick Baker.  Though what Baker pulls off when he transforms star David Naughton into the titular werewolf, elongating his face into a muzzle and his hands into paws, making fangs sprout from his jaws and claws from his fingertips, having long black fur ooze through his skin, is more a triumph of practical special effects.  Ironically, while American Werewolf deserves to be seen on a cinema-sized screen for those effects to be appreciated in their full glory, I’ve only ever seen it on a small screen.  My first viewing came in 1982, at a private hostel called Balmer’s in the Swiss town of Interlaken, where the management would entertain its guests in the evening by showing them recent movies using a TV set and video-cassette recorder.  The evening I stayed there, they showed American Werewolf on video and I watched it amid a bunch of American backpackers not dissimilar to the pair of American backpackers, David (Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), whom we’re introduced to and then see savaged by a werewolf during the film’s opening minutes.

 

Since then, I’ve seen it umpteen times, through late-night TV showings, or on video (invariably at a mate’s house and accompanied by a carryout of beer), or more lately on my laptop, and it’s never failed to work its magic on me.

 

When I first watched it, I thought it a rather strange film.  Movies that combined horror and comedy weren’t anything new, and the previous decade had seen both Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) and Stan Dragoti’s Dracula spoof Love at First Bite (1979).  However, those and pretty much all ‘horror-comedies’ until then had emphasized the comedy and used the horror merely as a seam from which un-bloody, family-friendly jokes were mined.  Little or nothing was shown that was actually horrifying.

 

American Werewolf, on the other hand, quite happily treats its audience to images of flesh being ripped, throats being slashed, heads being bitten off and so on.  Indeed, much of the humour is generated by the visceral horror, especially in the scenes where Jack, killed in the opening minutes, returns as an affable, chatty zombie to warn David that, having been bitten by a werewolf, he’s going to turn into one himself come the next full moon.  With each appearance, Jack is considerably more decayed.  At one point his alarming appearance prompts David to exclaim, “I will not be threatened by a walking meat loaf!”

 

© Universal Pictures / Polygram Pictures

 

Also strange is the film’s unconventionally leisurely pacing up until its main event, David turning into a werewolf and going on a rampage, which takes place at the hour-mark.  Not that anything before that key moment is boring.  The film is an endearing hodgepodge of sub-plots, themes and observations that happen to take director / writer John Landis’s fancy.  These include David’s romance with Alex Price (the radiant Jenny Agutter), a nurse working in the London hospital where he ends up following the initial werewolf attack.  This has been hushed up and passed off as an attack by an ‘escaped lunatic’, a term that shows the film’s age a wee bit.  I don’t think you can talk about ‘lunatics’, even in a horror film, in the politically correct 2020s.  Come to think of it, when David and Alex finally get it on, it’s to the strains of Van Morrison’s Moondance, which shows the film’s age too.  It’s been a long time indeed since the curmudgeonly Van Morrison could be associated with anything horny.

 

Landis also shows us David suffering from bizarre dreams, presumably the result of the lycanthropic gene that’s now in his body.  These include one memorable sequence where he dreams of his family being slaughtered by decayed-faced werewolves in Nazi uniforms while they watch The Muppet Show.  And Landis makes some bemused observations too about British life in the early 1980s – the less-than-rosy reception that David and Jack get when they blunder into a Yorkshire pub (the Slaughtered Lamb) at the beginning; the London Underground being full of surly punk rockers; British TV consisting of three terrestrial channels that show only darts, News of the World adverts and the BBC Test Card; British kids being weird little brats who shout “No!” all the time or laugh manically when their dogs bark at you; grumblings about inflation; grumblings about British food; and the rain.  The rain depicted in American Werewolf isn’t typical horror-movie, thunder-and-lightning rain.  It’s just grey, depressing British rain that always seems to fall at the wrong moment.

 

This social commentary continues after David transforms from man to werewolf on the next full moon and paints London red.  His victims represent both ends of the spectrum of the nascent Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.  They include homeless down-and-outs huddling around a fire down by the edge of the Thames and an annoyingly cheerful proto-yuppie couple, who continue to be annoyingly cheerful even after they’ve been torn apart and, like Jack, come back to haunt David as the living dead.  Landis also has a dig at the then-sleaziness of central London by having the film’s climax (ouch!) begin in a porno cinema in Piccadilly Circus, where the punters are watching a spectacularly gormless British sex movie called See You Next Wednesday.  A fictitious ‘film within a film’, See You Next Wednesday is foreshadowed earlier on. When David claims a victim in the Tottenham Court Road tube station, we see a poster advertising it on one of the walls.

 

© Universal Pictures / Polygram Pictures

 

One thing about American Werewolf that doesn’t get enough praise is its supporting cast. David Naughton, Jenny Agutter and Griffin Dunne have all won plaudits and yes, they’re great, but there’s plenty of solid acting talent backing them up.  John Woodvine gives a commanding and unflappable performance as Dr Hirsch, the medical man who resolves to find out what’s really going on after the injured, seemingly-raving David arrives in his care in London.  Up north, meanwhile, the role of main villager at the Slaughtered Lamb pub required a bald-headed, rough-looking Yorkshireman and only one man could handle the job, the splendid Brian Glover.  Although Glover is fondly remembered for his comic turn as the pompous PE teacher Mr Sugden in Ken Loach’s Kes (1969), the scene in American Werewolf where he entertains the Lamb’s patrons with his ‘Remember the Alamo!’ joke is surely as funny.  Those patrons include a young and shifty-looking Rik Mayall.  I assume Mayall and Glover hit it off because, years later, I recall Glover making a guest appearance in Mayall’s TV show Bottom (1991-95).

 

Frank Oz appears briefly as a snotty American Embassy official – Oz recently noted, “Whenever John (Landis) needed a prick in a film, he called me” – and Cockney actor Alan Ford pops up as a talkative London cabbie who enlightens David about the carnage he caused (but didn’t remember causing) the night before: “Six of ’em… all in different parts of the city, all mutilated… He must be a real, right maniac, this fellah!”  In micro-cameos, you might just spot Landis himself as the poor schmuck who, during the final werewolf-induced carnage in Piccadilly Circus, gets struck by an out-of-control car and is knocked through a shop window, and legendary James Bond stuntman Vic Armstrong as the driver of the double-decker bus that also comes to grief.

 

© Universal Pictures / Polygram Pictures

 

If the film has a fault, it’s that it ends so abruptly.  I guess Landis was trying to be shockingly and modishly nihilistic in depicting David’s final fate, but it feels like a cheat that there’s so little build-up, tension and drama in those last minutes.  That said, Jenny Agutter as the now-distraught Alex still gives the truncated finale an emotional punch.

 

Even the last couple of minutes of American Werewolf, disappointing though they are, are a hundred times better than the entirety of the belated sequel An American Werewolf in Paris (1997), made by a different team from the one that made the original.  It’s a dire, slipshod, intentionally dumb-assed film that shits werewolf-dung all over the memory of its predecessor, not least because it dispenses with Rick Baker’s practical effects and renders its werewolves in lousy-looking, cartoonish CGI.

 

More recently, there’s been talk of a remake.  But a new American Werewolf in London couldn’t hope to capture the essence of the time – as opposed to the place – that made the original so special.  The 1981 film is unique because it showed the personality of London, and Britain, that existed 40 years ago, albeit through the eyes of a bemused main character and bemused writer / director who were both outsiders.

 

I doubt very much if a tale of an American werewolf prowling around 2021 London would win the affection of audiences.  We’re talking a charmless modern London of oligarchs, dirty money, hollowed-out neighbourhoods, rapacious developers, Mayor Johnson’s ego-trip skyscraper developments, embarrassing white elephants like the Millennium Dome, Emirates Air Line and Marble Arch Mound, and exorbitant housing and living costs – there’s no way Nurse Alex could afford a flat of her own, for David to shelter in, as she did in 1981.  Mind you, I might warm to a remake if it had the werewolf chomping on Nigel Farage’s head.

 

Here’s a lovely re-invention of the movie poster for An American Werewolf in London by the artist and illustrator Graham Humphreys.  I hope he doesn’t mind me using it here.

 

© Graham Humphreys

Dragged through a hedge backwards

 

© BBC

 

I’m currently halfway through William Boyd’s 2009 London-set thriller Ordinary Thunderstorms which, after a rather unengaging start, I’m happy to say is now shaping up to be a gripping read.  It’s interesting how quickly Boyd’s plot, of an innocent man being accused of a murder he didn’t commit and having to go to ground – literally so, hiding in a neglected patch of waste ground by the Embankment – to avoid both the police and the real killers, reminded me of several other books, namely, John Buchan’s The 39 Steps (1915), Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male (1939) and, in a rather more skewed way, J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island (1974).

 

It’s been a good while since I read The 39 Steps and Concrete Island, but I read Rogue Male just a couple of years ago and was impressed enough to post something about it on this blog.  Here’s the entry again, slightly updated to incorporate some Benedict Cumberbatch-related news.

 

For a novel whose plot hinges around an attempt to kill Adolf Hitler, there’s remarkably little about Hitler in Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male.  In fact, the genocidal German dictator isn’t mentioned once.  Presumably this is because although Rogue Male first appeared in print in late 1939, after war had broken out between Britain and Germany, it was written before the outbreak of war when Household felt it would be diplomatic not to name names.

 

Thus, the book’s hero goes boar-hunting in Poland, crosses the border into a neighbouring country that isn’t identified, and one day ends up with the brutish leader of that country, also not identified, in the sights of his hunting rifle.  Is he actually in Germany and on the point of bagging Hitler?  Or could he be somewhere else, Russia say, where he’s targeting Joseph Stalin?  But although Household keeps it ambiguous, given historical events soon after the story’s late-1930s setting, it’s impossible to read Rogue Male now and not visualise in those sights a bloke with a square-shaped scrap of a moustache, an oily side-parting and a swastika armband.

 

Incidentally, when Rogue Male was brought to the screen, the filmmakers didn’t follow Household’s ambiguity.  A 1941 Hollywood adaptation called Manhunt, directed by Fritz Lang – who’d bailed out of Germany in 1933 after Joseph Goebbels started taking an interest in him – readily depicted the target as Hitler and, viewed today, the film feels like an unabashed wartime propaganda piece.  Meanwhile, a 1976 adaptation by the BBC, directed by Clive Donner, was also unequivocal that its hero was going after Hitler.  The actor playing Hitler was none other than Michael Sheard, fondly remembered by kids of my generation for playing Mr Bronson, the hard-nut deputy headmaster on the BBC’s children’s drama / soap opera Grange Hill (1978-2008).

 

Just as the book’s target is anonymous, so is its hero, even though he tells the story in the first person.  Again, the film versions differ from the book in giving him an identity.  In 1941’s Manhunt, he’s called Captain Thorndyke and is played by Walter Pidgeon.  In 1976’s Rogue Male, he’s called Sir Robert Hunter and is played by the marvellous Peter O’Toole.

 

© Penguin Books

 

Whoever he is, he’s apprehended before he can fire the rifle and subjected to a brutal interrogation.  Then his captors decide that the easiest way to deal with him is to bump him off and make his death look like an unfortunate hunting accident.  The ensuing story can be divided into two parts, with each part having a similar, contracting, funnelling structure where the action begins in an expansive setting but ends in a cramped, claustrophobic one.  First, Rogue Male’s hero manages to escape from his captors and is pursued by them across the countryside of whatever foreign nation he’s in.  Okay, for the sake of simplicity, let’s just say his captors are the Gestapo and the nation is Germany.  His pursuers close in but he manages to elude them by stowing away on a London-bound ship, hiding on board inside an empty water tank.

 

Then begins the second, longer part of the narrative.  Back in Blighty, he discovers that Hitler’s agents are still on his trail.  They don’t just want to eliminate him but also want to make him sign a document saying that he carried out his attempted assassination with the blessing of the British government.  Again, the pursuit begins against a broad vista, this time the streets of London and landscapes of southern England.  But again, his options narrow and eventually he digs and hides himself in a little cubbyhole under an unruly and remote hedgerow marking the boundary between two farms in Dorset.

 

One thing that surely inspired Rogue Male was Richard Connell’s short story The Hounds of Zaroff (1924) about a big-game hunter who gets hunted as game by another, even bigger-game hunter.   However, while Household borrows this ironic scenario of a hunter becoming the hunted, he explores it with surprising depth.  His hero obviously grew up in a rural aristocratic culture of shooting and hunting but he’s remarkably empathetic with the creatures on the receiving end of the bullets and hounds.  He mentions once or twice that he got sick of hunting rabbits because of their harmlessness and defencelessness.  And, holed up in his Dorset burrow, he becomes rabbit-like himself.

 

He also bonds with a cat living wild in the hedge above him, whom he names ‘Asmodeus’, presumably after the ‘worst of demons’ described in the Catholic and Orthodox Book of Tobit.  At one point he speculates of Asmodeus, “there is, I believe, some slight thought transference between us…  back and forth between us go thoughts of fear and disconnected dreams of action.  I should call these dreams madness, did I not know they came from him and that his mind is, by our human standards, mad.”

 

Later, he comments, “I had begun to think as an animal; I was afraid but a little proud of it.  Instinct, saving instinct, had preserved me time and again…  Gone was my disgust with my burrow; gone my determination to take to open country whatever the difficulties of food and shelter.  I didn’t think, didn’t reason.  I was no longer the man who had challenged and nearly beaten all the cunning and loyalty of a first-class power.  Living as a beast, I had become a beast, unable to question emotional stress, unable to distinguish danger in general from a particular source of danger.”

 

While Rogue Male’s central character becomes unhealthily animal-like, his main adversary is a hunter extraordinaire.  A German agent masquerading as an English country gent called Major Quive-Smith appears on the scene, displaying impeccable upper-class charm towards the civilians he encounters, whist ruthlessly pursuing his quarry.  Quive-Smith books a room in one of the farms adjacent to the hedge and burrow, pretending that he wants to spend a few weeks in the area doing some shooting.  Spying on him from afar, Household’s narrator notes uneasily that “the major carried one of those awkward German weapons with a rifled barrel below the two gun barrels… the three barrels were admirably adapted to his purpose of ostensibly shooting rabbits while actually expecting bigger game.”

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

In addition to The Hounds of Zaroff, Household was probably influenced by John Buchan’s The 39 Steps (1915).  But while there’s more to Buchan’s novel than its conventional action-adventure reputation would suggest, due to its recurrent theme of disguise and imposture, I think Rogue Male is superior in terms of characterisation and psychological tension.  Buchan’s Richard Hannay is an outsider in that he’s a veteran of the African colonies who finds life back in the ‘Old Country’ stuffy, pretentious and tedious; but the hero of Rogue Male is an outsider in more complex ways.  He comes from a world of wealth and entitlement but treats that world with indifference and it’s noticeable that when he’s back in London he has a lack of friends in high places to call upon for help.  Indeed, he’s such a loner that at times you wonder if he wants to resign from the human race itself.  This is even without the mental and physical stress of being hunted making him less like a man and more like an animal.  Household provides a few clues about a past tragedy that may explain his disenchantment but wisely he doesn’t get bogged down in too much backstory.

 

And though Hannay is no shrinking violet, it’s doubtful if he could put with living for long in the burrow that the narrator digs for himself in Dorset and where he spends a good part of 90 pages, first hiding in it from Quive-Smith and his men, and then besieged in it by them.  Household manages the tricky task of not overly describing the dirt, muck and claustrophobic darkness of this hideaway whilst implying its squalor.  His hero is accustomed to it while he’s inside it but realises how horrible it is when he’s out of it and then comes back: “The stench was appalling.  I had been out only half an hour, but that was enough for me to notice, as if it had been created by another person, the atmosphere in which I had been living.”  Then again, like many men of his generation, he’s already undergone something traumatic that puts this experience in perspective: “…my God, I remembered that there were men at Ypres in 1915 whose dugouts were smaller and damper than mine!”

 

I’ve known the story of Rogue Male for a long time thanks to seeing the two film adaptations.  I didn’t like the 1941 Hollywood version, which downplays the rawness of the novel and turns it into a conventional espionage thriller, reducing the amount of time Walter Pidgeon spends in the burrow and padding things out with extra characters and plot twists.  The film’s low-point comes when Pidgeon gets off the ship and is greeted by a parade of Cockney Pearly Kings and Queens waltzing and singing down a foggy street. I guess that was the filmmakers’ way of assuring American audiences that, yes, he is back in London.

 

But I enjoyed the 1976 BBC version.  Its scriptwriter, Frederick Raphael, streamlines parts of Household’s narrative and embellishes others – most notably, adding a new character, a pompous and unhelpful representative of the British government sublimely played by Alastair Sim – but it’s gritty and, for the time, brutal, even if Peter O’Toole never quite becomes the desperate, filthy, animalistic figure that his counterpart in the book becomes.  In addition, it has a great cast (John Standing, Harold Pinter, Michael Byrne and Mark McManus as well as O’Toole and Sim) and it even slips in a cheeky visual reference to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s wartime classic, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943).

 

And coincidentally, it looks like Rogue Male could be back in vogue.  For the past few years, it’s been known that Benedict Cumberbatch wants to produce (and presumably star in) a new version of it.  Let’s hope the Cumberbatch version, if it appears, is closer to the sombre tone of the 1976 adaptation than the anodyne, crowd-pleasing tone of the 1941 one.  Or, better still, it makes a real effort to capture the fascinatingly introspective, misanthropic and grimy mood of the novel that inspired those versions in the first place.

 

© BBC

Richard Matheson – he was legend

 

© Orion Publishing Co

 

Something has got me thinking about Richard Matheson, the science-fiction and horror author and screenwriter who passed away in 2013 at the age of 87.

 

What thing?  Well, the news that the anti-Covid-19-vaxxers in America, determined to plumb the depths of stupidity to find new reasons for not getting vaccinated, have found the stupidest reason yet.  Speculation is rife that the vaccine could turn you in a zombie.  You know, like one did in the 2007 sci-fi / horror movie I am Legend, with Will Smith, which was based on Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name.  This has prompted one of the movie’s scriptwriters, Akiva Goldsman, to step up and announce on social media: “Oh.  My.  God.  It’s a movie.  I made that up.  It’s not real.” In fact, the source of the contagion in the movie wasn’t a vaccine but a virus, genetically reprogrammed by Dr Emma Thompson to combat cancer, going spectacularly rogue.

 

In Matheson’s novel I am Legend the monsters are vampires, not zombies.  Also, what turns people into those vampires isn’t the movie’s lab-reprogrammed virus, but a mysterious pandemic.  However, the book’s premise of the world being suddenly and nightmarishly turned upside down and a small number of uninfected humans finding themselves menaced by those who’ve been infected and turned into 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 at least 80% of the zombie movies that have lurched across cinema and TV screens ever since.

 

In the 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 the vampires that everyone else has turned into.  Gradually, Neville, researching the plague, 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 ends with an unnerving psychological twist.  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’s become the monster of everyone’s nightmares, the deadly legend of the title.

 

It’s a pity that though I am Legend was filmed on several occasions, and though 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 miscast in 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, with Charlton Heston, and the 2007 one.  In The Omega Man the vampires have become a group of demented albino mutants called, with an unsubtle reference to Charles Manson, the Family.  In the Will Smith version of I am Legend they’re even less impressive, a bunch of bald, hyperactive zombies animated by some shoddy CGI.

 

Both the later movie versions lack the courage to portray Neville as being totally alone and eventually 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 discovered he’d become a bogeyman.  Still, disappointing though all three film versions are, there’s at least a good graphic-novel adaptation of I am Legend available.

 

© Gold Medal Books

 

The more I reminisce about Matheson, the more I realise what a wonderful and influential writer he was.  His other big – though ‘big’ perhaps isn’t 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 elephantine proportions.  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.”  Thereafter, he dwindles away 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.  However, it’s still one of the best science fiction movies of the 1950s.  It crucially retains the novel’s bleakly philosophical ending.  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, one of the great J.G. Ballard’s top ten favourite sci-fi movies.

 

© Sphere Books

 

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 – the antithesis of the unsensational, non-violent and thoughtful works inside.  The stories I remember best include 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 Kafkaesque predicament when he breaks the 15-miles-per-hour speed limit of a tiny American town called Zachary; and the brilliant The Splendid Source, in which a man embarks on a quest to find out where dirty jokes really come from.

 

Long Distance Call was one of several Matheson stories that were turned into episodes of the celebrated TV anthology series The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  The best of these, adapted by Matheson himself, was of course Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.  In this, 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.  Particularly memorable is 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, with John Lithgow in the Shatner role, and ten years later 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.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Other episodes that Matheson penned for The Twilight Zone were also influential.  A World of Difference 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 clearly informs Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show.  Meanwhile, Little Girl Lost 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 can’t escape.  A young Steven Spielberg no doubt saw and remembered this one, because the same idea features 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.  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 gave the young director his first big critical success.  Again, Matheson wrote the script.  Duel-the-movie has 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 upped the ante by adding lots of malevolent vehicles) with his short story Trucks, which he later filmed as Maximum Overdrive (1986).

 

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 (1972) about a reporter called Carl Kolchak (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 (1974-75), also starring McGavin, in which Kolchak investigated other strange cases involving monsters and supernatural phenomena.  Though short-lived, the show was a major inspiration for Chris Carter, whose massively popular The X-Files (1993-2018) had a similar theme.  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 are unmemorable, but the third one, which Matheson scripted from his story Prey, is great.  It stars Karen Black as an insecure woman 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 resembling a Venus flytrap.  Before she can give the doll to its intended recipient, it comes to violent, gibbering 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 also creates 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 very reminiscent of Trilogy of Terror.

 

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 Allen Poe that were made by American International Pictures and directed by Roger Corman: The House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963).  All told, Matheson did a good job of preserving 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 his material bored him.  The movies aren’t the most faithful adaptations of Poe, but they’re surely the most fondly remembered ones.

 

© Academy Pictures Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

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 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.  Still, John Hough directs the film’s scary set-pieces with vigour and there’s an unsettling electronic score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson.

 

Matheson was a modest soul and in interviews he usually seemed puzzled that so many people could be so inspired by his work.  He might have ended up a very rich man if, like his famously litigious contemporary Harlan Ellison, he’d bothered to sue every filmmaker and writer who’d ripped off his ideas.  Mind you, he’d probably have spent all his time in court, so I’m glad he just turned the other cheek and devoted that time instead to writing his marvellous stories.

 

© Cayuga Productions / CBS Productions

Travellers at the bar

 

 

As I mentioned in my previous blog-entry, the latest Covid-19 lockdown in Sri Lanka, which was imposed for a good part of May and June, has recently been relaxed.  This relaxation has allowed some eating and drinking places to re-open.

 

However, one place that my partner and I have often retreated to in the past, when we’ve felt the need for calm and a touch of soothing, old-school luxury (to convey the illusion for a few hours that we’ve actually got money), remains off-limits to us.  This is the Traveller’s Bar and its lovely outdoor verandah, which overlooks the Indian Ocean, at Colombo’s Galle Face Hotel.  For now, the bar and verandah are open only for hotel guests, not outside customers.  This is a shame because few things are as good for the soul as sitting there between six and six-thirty on a clear evening and watching the sky segue from one gorgeous colour to another while the sun sinks behind the distant waves.

 

The Galle Face Hotel will soon be a venerable 120 years old and it’s prestigious enough to have featured in Patricia Schultz’s 2003 travel book 1000 Places to See Before You Die.  Predictably, during its long history, it has accommodated some very famous guests.  Many of these are commemorated by a gallery of framed photographs adorning the interior of the Traveller’s Bar, with information about the years, occasionally just the decades, when they stayed there.

 

Among the earliest people featured in the gallery are writers.  You see Anton Chekov (credited with being at the Galle Face in 1890), George Bernard Shaw (in the 1930s), W. Somerset Maugham (the 1920s), Noel Coward (1944) and Evelyn Waugh (the 1950s).  D.H. Lawrence showed up there in 1922, presumably either on his way to or from the 99-day sojourn he had in Australia that gave rise to his novel Kangaroo, published the following year.

 

 

One literary hero of mine, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, stayed at the Galle Face Hotel in 1920 and, unimpressed by its prices, described it as ‘a place where the preposterous charges are partly compensated for by the glorious rollers that break upon the beach outside.”  He was also unimpressed by the equally famous Mount Lavinia Hotel, which in those days stood beyond the southern edge of Colombo.  “There are two robbers’ castles, as the unhappy visitor calls them, facing the glorious sea, the one Galle Face, the other the Mount Lavinia Hotel.” At least he appreciated the journey between the castles: “They are connected by an eight-mile road, which has all the colour and life and variety of the East for every inch of the way.”

 

At this point Doyle was heavily into spiritualism and had been gullible enough to believe that the notoriously faked Cottingley fairies were real.  However, he retained enough of his wits not to be taken in by a display of the famous ‘mango-tree’ trick, which a Sri Lankan magician did for him just outside the hotel.  Doyle praised the magician’s skill, though: “He did it so admirably that I can well understand those who think that it is an occult process.”

 

I’m perplexed by the presence of a portrait of James Joyce, supposedly a guest of the Galle Face in 1904.  (Coincidentally, June 16th, 1904, was the date of ‘Bloomsday’, the day during which all the events of Joyce’s 1922 masterpiece Ulysses take place).  To the best of my knowledge, he never travelled outside Europe, let alone visited southern Asia.  In fact, the only connections I can dig up between Joyce and Sri Lanka are that: (1) he makes mention of the ‘Cinghalese’ in Ulysses; and (2) he was known to own a copy of Henry Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism According to the Sinhalese Canon – Olcott was the American army officer who became the first president of the Theosophical Society and was an important figure in the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, so much so that he’s honoured with a statue in front of Fort Railway Station today.

 

 

Perhaps somebody else with the name ‘James Joyce’ stayed at the hotel in 1904?

 

One writer not displayed in the Traveller’s Bar is legendary science-fiction scribe Sir Arthur C. Clarke, even though it was in the Galle Face that he supposedly wrote the last chapters of the last volume of his Space Odyssey series, 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997).  However, Clarke had lived in Sri Lanka since 1956, so he wasn’t really what you’d call a ‘visitor’ or a ‘guest’.

 

The Traveller’s Bar gallery is mostly a collection of the great and good, but it has at least one rogue in it, namely Richard Nixon.  He stayed at the hotel in the 1950s, sometime before he became the second-most crooked US president in modern history.  Other political dignitaries who were guests there include father and daughter Indian Prime Ministers Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1950) and Indira Gandhi (1976); and iconic revolutionary Che Guevara, whose portrait says he stayed in 1958, although according to a feature in Sri Lanka’s FT his visit was actually in August 1959.  He’d come to Sri Lanka because it was one of the first countries to recognize Castro’s Cuba.

 

 

From the mid-20th century onwards, Sri Lanka began to appeal as an exotic location to Western filmmakers and so the Galle Face Hotel had Hollywood movie stars stay while on their way to or from film shoots.  These include Sir Alec Guinness (1957), in town for the making of Bridge on the River Kwai and, I have to say, looking a bit shifty in his photograph; Harrison Ford (1983), there to make Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (whose production had switched from India to Sri Lanka after the Indian government objected to the ‘thuggee’ elements in its script); and Ursula Andress, whom I trust enjoyed her stay in Sri Lanka in 1976 even though she probably prefers to forget the film she made there, the Italian horror movie The Mountain of the Cannibal God, directed by Sergio Martini and considered so offensive in Britain that it was classified as a ‘video nasty’ and banned until 2001.

 

Andress, of course, found international fame as the very first Bond girl.  Meanwhile, the man responsible for the third cinematic incarnation of James Bond, Roger Moore, appears in the Traveller’s Bar too.  He’s said to have stayed at the hotel in the 1960s, but he’s depicted in his famous 1970s Bondian bowtie and dinner-suit, so the photo obviously wasn’t taken at the time.

 

 

One star in the Traveller’s Bar who’s rather forgotten nowadays is Lex Barker, who took over the role of Tarzan from Johnny Weissmuller in 1949.  Barker’s picture says he was there in the 1950s, although the only thing I can find in his filmography that was made in Sri Lanka was a 1963 movie called Storm Over Ceylon.  While Barker’s Hollywood Tarzan movies were too low-budget to be filmed on location in a tropical country like Sri Lanka, money was not a problem for Bo Derek and her director-husband John Derek, who used Sri Lanka for the jungle scenes of their notorious, mammary-obsessed Tarzan the Ape Man (1981), while using the Maldives for its beach scenes.  For their salacious take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Lord of the Jungle, Bo, John and their crew imported some decidedly non-native wildlife into the country.  According to an article in the New York Times, they brought with them a lion (called Dandi), an orangutan (called C.J.), three chimpanzees, two Irish wolfhounds and an 18-foot, 120-pound python.  Thus, Ms Derek is now commemorated by a portrait in the Traveller’s Bar as well.

 

A nice story is attached to Gregory Peck, who stayed in 1954 whilst making a film called The Purple Plain.  Apparently, he came down with a nasty bout of flu, but recovered with the help of a traditional local remedy of plain tea incorporating inguru and kothamalli (ginger and coriander).  In the 1950s Peck was a global heartthrob and his use of this remedy didn’t go unnoticed by his lady admirers in Sri Lanka.  As another article in the Daily FT observes: “It used to be said in lighter vein those days that many upper-class ladies of Colombo 7 began drinking ginger / coriander tea only after Gregory Peck told them about it.”

 

 

Finally, the gallery sports a picture of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, symbolically holding a white dove.  The great Russian cosmonaut came to Sri Lanka in 1961 and among the things done to mark the visit was the planting of a tree in his honour at the botanical gardens in Peradeniya, close to Kandy.  According to a piece published by the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Colombo, the tree was said to have stopped growing at the time of Gagarin’s death in a jet crash in 1968.  However, mysteriously, it continued to live, so that it’s resembled a young tree for the past half-century.  This is contradicted by an article in Ceylon Today, which claims it merely fell ill at the time of Gagarin’s death, but recovered and kept on growing.  I was at the botanical gardens a few years ago and really wish I’d examined the Yuri Gagarin tree to find out which of these accounts was true.

 

The end of the road

 

© John Murray

 

And to conclude my short series of posts and reposts about the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, here’s something I wrote in 2017 after reading his posthumously published book The Broken Road (2013).

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The book isn’t all misery, of course.  Its pages are frequently lighted by moments of rhapsody, moments when the ever-curious Fermor is genuinely delighted by his discoveries.  For example, the whirlwinds of thistledown, sticks and rubbish that appear on the Dobruja steppe: “The plain was still alive with mirages; these four pillars careered across a sunset that the hanging mantle of dust refracted into a vast and tragic drama of orange and amber and blood red and violet…  There are tales of whole wagons being gathered up by these twisting demons, with sheep and buffaloes…”

 

Or the dream-like experience he has in the final chapter when he spends the night in a firelit cave by the Black Sea that “arched high overhead but did not go very deep into the cliff side” amid a mixed band of Greek fisherman and Bulgar shepherds.  They entertain themselves swigging from bottles of raki, playing music on goatskin bagpipes, gourd drums and Eastern European lutes, and dancing – first a slapstick all-male Turkish belly-dancing number and then some intriguing variations on Greek rebetiko.  The chapter is a tour de force of descriptive writing and provides the book, and the trilogy itself, with a fitting climax.

 

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

 

From ouranoupoli.com

 

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

 

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

 

© The National Library of Scotland

The woods, the water, the gifts and the gab

 

© John Murray

 

Following my blogpost about the biography of the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, I thought it would be timely to repost what I’d written in 2015 about Fermor’s books A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986).

 

It’s hard to know where to start with A Time of Gifts and its sequel Between the Woods and the Water, which chronicle the first part of a journey that Patrick Leigh Fermor made across Europe, on foot, in the mid-1930s.

 

To simply describe them as travel books would do them a disservice.  Fermor, who was a lad of 18 when he started this epic walk, and who’d later become known as a soldier, decorated war hero, author, scholar and polyglot, has a voracious eye for detail that refuses to confine itself to mere geography.  You also get pages of observation and speculation about the history, mythology, art, architecture, languages, costumes and music of the locales that he visits.  At times, it seems like his teenaged brain is the mental equivalent of a blue whale, cruising along, sucking in and trapping every iota of information that comes its way, just as the baleen plates in a whale’s maw sift up tons of krill.

 

Depending on your interests, and patience, this can make the books a fascinating and delightfully anecdotal read; or a distractingly long-winded and rambling one.  I have to say there were moments when I found them fascinating, delightful, long-winded and rambling all at the same time.

 

And they’re verbose.  Regarding writing, Fermor certainly doesn’t believe in the Ernest Hemingway ‘less is more’ approach.

 

A Time of Gifts details Fermor’s progress, in 1933 and 1934, from Rotterdam and through the Low Countries; into Germany, where he passes through Cologne, Stuttgart and Munich; into Austria and to Vienna; by way of a detour, up into Czechoslovakia and to Prague and back; and to the western borders of Hungary.  Between the Woods and the Water continues the story from there and by the end of the second book he’s travelled across Hungary and Romania. A third book, The Broken Road, was published after Fermor’s death in 2011.  I haven’t read it yet but I assume it completes the journey and sees him arrive at his ultimate destination, Constantinople, in 1935.

 

Perusing these books in 2015, you’re aware of what would happen to Europe a few years after he’d walked through it.  You sense that many of the communities, cultures and places described would soon be transformed – disfigured at best, erased at worst.  Viewing the books from this sombre perspective, you can’t begrudge Fermor his obsession with detail.  You want him to get everything recorded, before it’s too late.

 

Events in 1930s Germany send subtle but menacing ripples through the books.  In one Rhineland town in A Time of Gifts, he accepts a youth’s offer of a night’s sleep in an attic.  He discovers the attic to be “a shrine of Hitleriana.  The walls were covered with flags, photographs, posters, slogans and emblems.”  The youth tells him: “You should have seen it last year!  You would have laughed. Then it was all red flags, stars, hammers and sickles, pictures of Lenin and Stalin and Workers of the World, Unite…!  Then suddenly, when Hitler came into power, I understood it was all nonsense and lies.  I realised Adolf was the man for me.  All of a sudden!”

 

Later, in Between the Woods and the Water, Fermor encounters a group of orthodox Jews in the Carpathian Mountains and, while he chats to them, the issue of Nazi Germany crops up: “They came into the conversation and – it seems utterly incredible now – we talked of Hitler and the Nazis as though they merely represented a dire phase of history, a sort of transitory aberration or a nightmare that might suddenly vanish, like a cloud evaporating or a bad dream.”

 

Meanwhile, it’s worth considering these books from another perspective.  Although Fermor did the travelling in the 1930s, he didn’t do the writing until decades later.  He finally got A Time of Gifts published in 1977 and Between the Woods and the Water in 1986.  Thus, while the books’ narrator views the world through the eyes of a teenager, a second pair of eyes are at work here, those of a man in his 60s and 70s with immeasurably greater knowledge and experience.  While Fermor waxes loquaciously about the forces shaping German art, or the Kingdom of Bohemia’s connection with Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, or the elephant that Harun al-Rashid gave to Emperor Charlemagne, or the remnants of Turkish culture found on Ada Kaleh Island, you’re not, as you may initially think, hearing the thoughts of a super-intelligent boy genius.  Many of those thoughts belong to the old Fermor, but they’re expressed in the excitable voice of the youth.

 

© John Murray

 

There’s another point, one that might trouble readers who open a book about a real-life journey made by a real-life traveller expecting the events in it to be, well, real.  Fermor subsequently lost many of the notes he’d written during the trip and in the 1970s and 1980s had to reconstruct a lot using his memory, which admittedly was a formidable one.  And as a report in the BBC news magazine in 2012 suggested, certain episodes may have been embroidered.  One bone of contention was Fermor’s account in Between the Woods and the Water of how he crossed the Great Hungarian Plain.  The book says he did it on horseback.  Some 27 pages are spent in the company of a horse called Malek, “a fine chestnut with a flowing mane and tail, one white sock, a blaze and more than a touch of Arab to his brow”.  This aroused the suspicions of Fermor’s editor and biographer Artemis Cooper because, in an earlier draft of the book she’d seen, the beast hadn’t existed.  Fermor admitted to her, “Ah yes, well, I thought everyone would get tired of me trudging along, so I put myself on a horse for a bit – you won’t let on, will you?”

 

Actually, what bothers me more than these embellishments is Fermor’s reliance on well-to-do contacts for accommodation and sustenance, which increases the further he travels.  His original manifesto was to “set out across Europe like a tramp…  like a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight…  I would travel on foot, sleep in hayricks in summer, shelter in barns when it was raining or snowing and only consort with peasants and tramps.”  When he does this, the results are engrossing.  He dallies with Rhineland bargemen, Hungarian gypsies and Transylvanian shepherds.  He encounters a Franciscan monk called Brother Peter, with whom he communicates in Latin and passes the time playing games of skittles; and a down-at-heels eccentric called Konrad who, in Vienna, encourages him to make money by going around the city’s wealthier homes and offering to draw sketches of the inhabitants.  Sketching, apparently, was yet another of Fermor’s talents.

 

Gradually, though, Fermor falls in with a succession of aristocrats and moneyed folk.  Each of these gets in touch with relatives or friends further along his walking route and arranges for them to put him up.  So Fermor makes increasingly-frequent stops at big houses, where he dawdles among drawing rooms, libraries, servants, vintage motor cars, lavish family picnics and sumptuous evening balls.  He hangs out with people with names like Baron Rheinhard von Liphart-Ratshoff, Count Graf Joseph, Baron Pips, Captain Tibor of the Horse-Gunners, Countess Ilona Meran, Count Lajos, Count Józsi and Count Jenӧ.  There’s a fellow called Tibor living in a house with a “Palladian façade” and another called Istvàn living in “a mixture of manor house, monastery and farmstead”.  Between the Woods and the Water, especially, contains so many aristos that they start to blur into one another.

 

At this point I should declare an interest.  When I was 17, I made my own trip across mainland Europe.  I started off near Lausanne in Switzerland, where I’d earned money from a grape-picking job, and travelled to Bern, Interlaken, Lucerne and Zurich; then into Liechtenstein and through the western end of Austria; into Germany, to Munich, Stuttgart, Heidelberg and Bonn; and finally into the Low Countries and to Brussels and Rotterdam.  I didn’t walk, but hitchhiked, for back then hitchhiking was still a relatively safe and acceptable form of transport.  This meant that while Fermor got to see some of the greatest natural and historical sights of Europe, I got to see a lot of entry-ramps leading down into Autobahns.  For much of the way, my travelling companion was a guy from Stevenage who claimed to be both a football hooligan and a drummer in a punk-rock band, so our conversations were slightly less highbrow than those of Fermor and his new-found chums in aristocratic central Europe.  While I never slept in a barn or a cave-entrance like Fermor did occasionally, I didn’t enjoy the hospitality of the continent’s landed gentry either.  My evenings were spent in a succession of Swiss and German youth hostels, which in those days were run with Teutonic strictness.

 

Indeed, I suspect that if I’d set foot on the estates belonging to Baron Rheinhard von Liphart-Ratshoff, Count Graf Joseph, etc., they’d have taken one look at me, grabbed a gun and sprayed me with buckshot.  Not that I’d have wanted their hospitality.  I’d been raised by typical Northern-Irish Protestant parents who’d instilled in me a devotion to the principles of independence and self-reliance.  The worst thing a Northern Irish Prod could do was accept charity or favours from somebody else.  Hitching a lift with someone for a few miles along the road was bad enough.  Turning up on a stranger’s doorstep and expecting to be housed and fed was diabolical.  But this wasn’t an issue for Fermor who, as a member of Britain’s ruling class, seemed to have both self-confidence and shamelessness in his genes.

 

Still, I’m aware of how this old Hungarian-Romanian aristocracy was shortly to be obliterated, courtesy of Hitler and Stalin.  I can understand why Fermor, writing these books decades later, wanted to commemorate these people and the hospitality they showed him.

 

Anyway, although the books induced some occasional crankiness in me, I generally liked them a lot. Despite Fermor’s rich-and-powerful friends and his many brainy digressions, there’s much in the character of their 18-year-old narrator that I can identify with – through my memories of what I was like at a similar age – and there are passages that are wonderfully evocative in a youthful, wide-eyed, open-to-everything way.  For example, Fermor’s description of an Easter Sunday parade shortly after he’s entered Hungary: “Woken by the bells and the music, the storks in the town were floating and crossing overhead and looking down on our little string of lights as it turned uphill into the basilica again.  The intensity of the moment, the singing and candle flames and incense, the feeling of spring, the circling birds, the smell of fields, the bells, the chorus from the rushes, thin shadows and the unreality of the moon over the woods and the silver flood – all these things hallowed the night with a spell of great beneficence and power.”

 

Or a description of a glade he encounters while wandering in the forested uplands of the Carpathians: “there lay… a space like an enormous room: a long, enclosed clearing where beech trees sprang up like gigantic pillars flinging out vaults of tangled and interlocking boughs.  Grey in shadow, their smooth trunks were flecked with silver where the sunbeams spilt their way through an infinity of leaves and scattered blurred discs of light over the bark and the muscular spread of the roots; they shed a sparser and still more grudging confetti on the unencumbered floor.”

 

Yes, there are moments when Fermor, writing this in his 60s and 70s, seems in danger of succumbing to purple prose, to poetic overkill, to whimsy.  But with those sentences ringing out in the voice of his exuberant 18 or 19-year-old self, he gets away with it – rather magically.

 

© The Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive

Patrick’s progress

 

© John Murray

 

I’ve just finished reading a biography of one of the 20th century’s greatest travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor.  The biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, was penned by Artemis Cooper, who’d known him since her childhood, and was published in 2012, a year after his death.

 

My problem with biographies is that invariably the subjects are, or were, famous and successful.  Although I find the story of their fortunes interesting while they’re on the way up, and having to overcome hardships and obstacles, those stories become less compelling when the subjects have achieved success and settled onto a plateau of comfort, wealth and well-being.  With Fermor, at least, that secure but less interesting plateau is delayed because his success didn’t really come until when he was middle-aged.  And the first 200 pages of this biography, more than half of it, are devoted to Fermor’s youth.  Happily, these pages contain the two most dramatic events of his life: the epic trek he embarked on in 1933, at the age of 18, from the Dutch coast to Istanbul; and, while a Special Operations Executive officer during World War II, his heading of a mission in 1944 to kidnap Major General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of German forces on Nazi-occupied Crete.

 

Furthermore, the number of books Fermor had published in his lifetime barely reached double figures.  He also continued to travel.  This means that the latter part of Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, while more sedate, is still interesting because it isn’t just about the boring business of writing.

 

Cooper is clearly a fan.  She admits to once having a ‘schoolgirl crush’ on Fermor and writes early on: “Radiating a joyful enthusiasm, he was one of those people who made you feel more alive the moment he came into the room, and eager to join in whatever he was planning to do…”

 

However, she quickly acknowledges one of the controversies about Fermor, that he wasn’t adverse to embroidering reality with fantasy in his supposedly factual writing.  Sometimes, this was unintentional because he was trying to remember events from decades earlier, but sometimes it happened because, well, the fantasy made for a better yarn.  Indeed, Cooper introduces the issue with examples from the early years of Fermor’s life when he was being looked after by a family called the Martins in Northamptonshire, while his real family were in India. The setting was not as bucolic as Fermor liked to recall: “Mr Martin, whom he was later to remember as a farmer, in fact worked at the Ordnance Depot as an engineer and served in the local fire brigade.”

 

Also, Weedon Bec, the Martins’ village in Northamptonshire, provided Fermor with a startlingly gruesome anecdote that he recounted in his book, A Time of Gifts (1977).  At a community bonfire celebrating the end of World War I, “…one of the boys had been dancing around with a firework in his mouth.  It had slipped down his throat, and he had died ‘spitting stars’.” However, Cooper notes: “There is no reference to this tragedy in the Northamptonshire Chronicle, nor is it mentioned in the Weedon Deanery Parish Magazine which described the celebrations in considerable detail.”

 

Similar question marks appear during Fermor’s accounts of his journey to Istanbul in his teens, which are recorded in A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water (1986) and the posthumously published (and edited by Cooper and Colin Thubron) The Broken Road (2013).  I’d known that the material about him crossing the Great Hungarian Plain on horseback in Between the Woods and the Water was suspect – the horse was a fanciful addition to events.  However, I wasn’t aware that a memorable scene in The Broken Road was questionable too. According to Fermor in 2003: “Slogging on south, I lost my way after dark, fell into the sea, and waded soaked into a glimmering cave full of shepherds and fishermen – Bulgars and Greeks – for a strange night of dancing and song.  It was like a flickering firelit scene out of Salvator Rosa.”  Cooper suggests that this incident was really a conflation of two incidents, one of which happened at a later time on Mount Athos.  As for the period described in The Broken Road, Cooper states: “At no point in his original account did he walk down this stretch of coast alone, nor did he lose his footing and find himself floundering among freezing rock-pools after dark.”

 

Unambiguous, though, is the bravery and audacity shown by Fermor and his comrades in wartime Crete.  It reflects well on Fermor that he valued the role played by the island’s tenacious resistance fighters in the operation to abduct General Kreipe from under the nose of the German forces he commanded.  Indeed, their high-ranking captive was astonished when he found out what was going on.  “For Kreipe,” writes Cooper, “being on the other side of the occupation was an eye-opener.  He had no idea that the Cretans and the British were working so closely together.”

 

© The Rank Organisation

 

Accordingly, Fermor wasn’t pleased at how the operation was portrayed on celluloid, in the 1957 Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger movie IllMet by Moonlight, in which he was played by Dirk Bogarde.  Writing to another of the operation’s British participants, Billy Moss, Fermor said of the film: “You and I are perfectly OK, we emerge as charming, intrepid chaps.  It’s really the Cretans I’m worried about…”  The film’s depiction of the Cretans upset him because it relegated them “to the role of picturesque and slightly absurd foreigners constantly in a state of agitation, coolly managed by these two unruffled and underacting sahibs.”

 

Thereafter, with Fermor finding his vocation – a slow, gradual progress, because he was anything but a disciplined writer – the book inevitably becomes less eventful. However, there are still some intriguing moments.  A trip to the Caribbean brings him into the orbit of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, ensconced in his Goldeneye Estate in Jamaica.  I’ve heard speculation that the dashing war-hero Fermor inspired the character of Bond, but at this point Fleming was already “bashing away at a thriller”, the first Bond novel Casino Royale (1953), so Fermor couldn’t have been the original inspiration.  However, Fermor’s writings about voodoo, something he became immersed in whilst on the island of Haiti, informed Fleming’s depiction of it in the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die (1954).

 

Then we get an account of Fermor’s involvement with the 1958 John Huston movie The Roots of Heaven, for which he was commissioned to rewrite Romain Gary’s original screenplay and had to attend several weeks of filming in Chad, Cameroon and the Central African Republic.  The film, about “a maverick loner, Morel, who is determined to stop the slaughter of elephants by big game hunters and ivory poachers,” brought Fermor into contact with Trevor Howard, who “drank nothing but whisky from morning till night,” and Errol Flynn, of whom he wrote in a letter, “Errol and I have become great buddies…  He is a tremendous shit, but a very funny one…”  In a predictable instance of Hollywood hypocrisy, Cooper notes: “Despite the fact that The Roots of Heaven was a plea to save the elephants, John Huston was very keen to shoot one…  The back of his Land Rover was an arsenal of shotguns, rifles and ammunition, and it was obvious that he lived not for the film, but to slope off into the bush with a gun.”

 

© Darryl F. Zanuck Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

We also hear about Fermor participating in 1972 in a Greek TV programme reuniting the surviving members of the 1944 Kreipe operation.  The last participant to come onstage, “to gasps of surprise and a round of applause from the audience,” was the focus of the whole operation, General Kreipe himself.  When Fermor asked him in German if he held any grudges about what’d happened, the general gamely replied, “If I had any bad feelings…  I wouldn’t be here, would I?”

 

And we get some short but melancholic accounts of him revisiting eastern Europe during, and just after, Communism.  During these visits he tried, often fruitlessly, to track down people and places he’d known during his wanderings through the region in the 1930s.  He found one, formerly aristocratic acquaintance in an old folks’ home in Budapest, physically broken and wits wandering.  This sad exchange ensues: “‘My old friend Patrick Leigh Fermor lives in Greece.’ – ‘Yes, Elemér, it’s me, it’s Paddy!’ – ‘No, no, you are much too young…  But if you go to Greece tell him I’m here, I hope he remembers me.’

 

Fermor belonged to an era when travelling (for pleasure) and, indeed, writing were largely seen as activities for the upper classes.  Thus, certain of his traits can be annoying, traits emblematic of being raised in that privileged stratum of English society: his boundless self-confidence, his shamelessness at making use of the contacts he’s accrued, the fact that he has all those contacts in the first place.  This struck me especially when I read Between the Woods and the Water, which sees him stay with a succession of posh eastern European aristocrats and enjoy lavish hospitality that, at times, he seems to think is his entitlement.

 

Cooper is at least aware of these potential criticisms. Regarding what happens in Between the Woods, she points out: “For his hosts, there was nothing unusual in having guests stay for days or even weeks at a time.” Also: “The greatest blessing that a guest can bring is the right kind of curiosity, and it bubbled out of Paddy like a natural spring…”, which must have been gratifying for his hosts, who by then probably felt like “a useless fragment of a broken empire.”  It’s worth mentioning too that Fermor never received a university education which, if it had happened, would presumably have put him among the elite in Oxford or Cambridge Universities and set the seal on him as an establishment figure.  Perhaps the fact that the system never fully processed him, and didn’t condition him entirely about what an English gentleman was and wasn’t meant to do, explains why he retained the ‘common touch’ throughout his life.  He seemed as much at home blethering with a Macedonian shepherd as he was with a Romanian Count.

 

If Fermor appears blessed with more than his fair share of luck, it’s probably more to do with Joan Raynor, who became his long-term companion and finally his wife.  The daughter of someone who was, successively, a Conservative MP, a First Lord of the Admiralty and a Viscount, she received a private income that enabled Fermor to continue with his travel writing even when he wasn’t reaping great financial rewards from it.  She was also  broadminded about their relationship, which at times could be described as an ‘open’ one, allowing Fermor to indulge in a few dalliances on the side.

 

Eventually, the Fermors built a handsome villa for themselves in a rustic part of Greece.  As I approached the biography’s last chapters, I wondered how they’d reacted to the country’s growing tourist industry in the late 20th century.  Wouldn’t they have been disgruntled at how travellers of a different pedigree from them, folk from less well-off backgrounds intent on getting a week’s break in the sun rather than on experiencing the glories of Greek culture and history, were swamping the beauty spots of their adopted home?  But the changes caused by mass-tourism seemed not to impinge on their idyll.  Neither did they object to their Greek neighbours making some money out of it.  In fact, the building of a hotel nearby seems to have come as a relief to them.  Their villa was frequently crowded with guests and now they could farm some of them out to the new establishment.

 

It must have been tempting to portray Fermor simply as an unstoppable force of nature / Renaissance man-of-action.  To her credit, Cooper admits that while he had many admirers, he didn’t charm everyone.  Turning up in Athens in 1935, he soon got an invitation from the son of the British ambassador to stay at the embassy.  But the ambassador himself proved “quite immune, if not allergic, to Paddy’s high spirits and exotic conversation”, growled at him, “You seem bloody pleased with yourself, don’t you?” and soon gave him his marching orders.  Nor was a post-war stint at the British Council in Athens a great success.  As one colleague observed, “There was a very insensitive side to Paddy…  He was very bumptious, a bit of a know-all, and his enthusiasm and noisiness could be rather wearing.”

 

While Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure is certainly no warts-and-all exposé, it doesn’t get entirely swept away by the awe-inspiring, larger-than-life aura that Fermor projected.  You’re left with the impression of someone who, yes, was remarkable but who, like all of us, sported a few imperfections too.  Which actually makes you like him more as a result.

 

Taken by Joan Leigh Fermor