Ian McEwan’s Saturday: Tony Blair and tone-deaf

 

© Vintage

 

“The butcher boy gets a bauble,” was my reaction to the news that former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was to be made ‘a Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter’, whatever that means, in the Queen’s New Year Honours List.  I call Blair ‘the butcher boy’ because of his role in the invasion of Iraq, which happened during his watch in 2003.  The invasion was launched to depose Saddam Hussein who, it was claimed, possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction.  However, these WMDs turned out to not actually exist and it became obvious that Blair and his invasion partner George W. Bush had spun a web of lies beforehand to make people believe that they did.

 

And it wasn’t just the WMDs that didn’t exist.  Since the invasion took place, up until the beginning of 2021, due to ‘coalition and insurgent military action’ and subsequent ‘sectarian violence and criminal violence’, between 185,000 and 209,000 Iraqi civilians are estimated to have stopped existing too – their deaths the direct and indirect results of Blair and Bush’s actions.

 

Actually, I’d been thinking about Tony Blair and Iraq before word came through of Blair’s ennoblement, because late last year I read Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday.  This describes 24 hours in the life of a middle-aged, London-based neurosurgeon called Henry Perowne, starting on the morning of Saturday, February 15th, 2003.  In real life, that date saw the biggest political demonstration in British history.  A million people took to the streets of London in an anti-war protest organised by the Stop the War Coalition, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain.  Blair, of course, had a messianic belief in his own rightness and ignored the many arguments against war voiced by the protestors, and just over a month later Britain joined the USA and its allies in starting hostilities against Iraq.  The demonstration forms a backdrop to the events in McEwan’s novel and the forthcoming invasion is prominent in the thoughts and conversations of its characters.

 

I was a big fan of McEwan during my youth.  This was while he was in a weird, morbid, modern-gothic phase and wrote the novel The Cement Garden (1978) and the short stories collected in First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978).  Thereafter, McEwan became more wholesome and respectable and found success and acclaim as a writer of mainstream literature.  Saturday is only the third novel I’ve read by McEwan since he stopped being ghoulish. The others were The Child in Time (1987), which I enjoyed with some reservations, and Atonement (2001), which I thought was excellent, although a later allegation of plagiarism tarnished it a bit for me.  However, while I’ve generally reacted positively to McEwan’s work, I found Saturday problematic.  It seemed naïve in the statements it was making.  Also, its depiction of its central characters I found downright annoying.

 

From wikipedia.org / © Thesupermat

 

The day described in Saturday begins before dawn.  Perowne gets out of bed and notices an object that he first assumes is ‘a meteor burning out in the London sky’. He realises, though, that it’s a plane with an engine on fire, which makes him wonder if he’s witnessing an act of terrorism – terrorism being on everyone’s minds since events in New York a year-and-a-half earlier.  But it turns out that he’s seen an accidental fire on board a cargo plane, which manages to make an emergency landing at Heathrow.  Reassured, he gets on what’s been planned for the day ahead.

 

His first engagement is at a sports centre where he has a game of squash with his anaesthetist, an American called Jay Strauss.  Then he visits his mother, stricken with dementia in a care home, and does some shopping for a family gathering at his house that evening.  In addition to Perowne and his wife Rosalind, the get-together is attended by their daughter Daisy, son Theo and Rosalind’s father, the quaintly named John Grammaticus.  Later that night, he gets an urgent request from Strauss to perform some emergency surgery: “We got an extradural, male, mid-twenties, fell down the stairs… a depressed fracture right over the sinus…  I want someone senior in here and you’re the nearest.  Plus you’re the best.”

 

However, two more incidents make the day darker.  On his way to play squash, a distracted policeman allows Perowne to drive along Tottenham Court Road, officially closed off for the anti-war demonstration – with the result that he prangs another car coming out of a side-street, whose driver didn’t expect him to be there.  When he gets out to speak to the other car’s three occupants, Perowne realises the men are criminals, ready to beat him up if he doesn’t immediately pay for the damage their car has suffered.  But he also notices that the leader of the trio, a man called Baxter, is showing symptoms of a serious neurological disorder.  Using his knowledge of the illness, Perowne is able to distract and disorientate Baxter long enough to get back into his car and escape.

 

But that isn’t the end of it.  That evening, just after Perowne has welcomed his family into his house, a vengeful Baxter and one of his henchmen burst in and hold them at knifepoint.  There ensues violence, threatened violence and sexual humiliation, before Perowne and his son Theo manage to repel the invaders.  Baxter is thrown down some stairs, knocked unconscious and taken away in an ambulance.  When the phone call comes from Strauss, Perowne realises the injured man he’s being asked to operate on is Baxter, who traumatised his family a short time ago. As he prepares to leave, Rosalind demands, “You’re not thinking about doing something, about some sort of revenge are you?”

 

“Of course not,” Perowne replies, and proves to be as good as his word.

 

As McEwan was in 2003, Perowne is in favour of the Iraq invasion.  He’s not as gung-ho as Strauss, who grumbles about the protestors, “They dislike your Prime Minister, but boy do they f*cking loathe my President,” or indeed as Baxter, who snarls at them in an aside, “Horrible rabble.  Sponging off the country they hate.”  But to his daughter Daisy, who takes part in the day’s demonstration, he says: “No rational person is for war.  But in five years’ time we might not regret it.  I’d love to see the end of Saddam.  You’re right.  It could be a disaster.  But it could be the end of a disaster and the beginning of something better.”  Perowne has been influenced by the testimony of an Iraqi patient of his, an academic called Miri Taleb.  Saddam’s secret police once arrested Taleb and subjected him to ten months of physical and mental torment: “Even on the day of his release he didn’t discover what the charges were against him.”

 

Elsewhere, McEwan’s descriptions of the anti-war protestors seem a bit patronising: “The general cheerfulness Perowne finds baffling.  There are whole families, ones in various sizes of bright red coats, clearly under instructions to hold hands; and students, and a coachful of greying ladies in quilted anoraks and stout shoes.  The Women’s Institute, perhaps…  The scene has an air of innocence and English dottiness.”  Mind you, years later in an interview with Channel 4 News, McEwan admitted that he’d changed his opinion about the war and felt that the marchers in 2003 were ‘vindicated’.

 

From aa.com.tr

 

While I read Saturday, I tried to work out the significance of the villainous Baxter.  Was he a metaphor for Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime?  Or was Baxter’s intrusion into the Perownes’ home a metaphor for terrorism, erupting without warning in everyday life, destroying all notions of normality and security for its victims?  And what’s to be made of Perowne’s eventual decision to do the decent thing, operate on Baxter and save his life?  I got the impression Perowne represented McEwan’s ideal of an enlightened, democratic, liberal West, intervening in Iraq but doing so with everyone’s best interests at heart, including the Iraqis.  Unfortunately, the ‘ignorance, arrogance, neglect, stubbornness, panic, haste and denial’ displayed by Iraq’s Western occupiers following the invasion, which rapidly turned the country into a failed state, showed this to be a pipe dream.  The USA, Britain and their allies were a hell of a lot less benevolent, magnanimous and expert at what they were doing in Iraq than Henry Perowne was in the operating theatre.

 

If the political statement McEwan seems to make in Saturday is wishful thinking, certainly in hindsight, I was more troubled by the lack of self-awareness displayed by the main characters.  Fair enough, as a London neurosurgeon, Perowne is going to be a wealthy man.  His car, McEwan notes, is a “silver Mercedes S500 with cream upholstery – and he’s no longer embarrassed by it.  He doesn’t even love it – it’s simply a sensuous part of what he regards as his overgenerous share of the world’s goods.”

 

But his son Theo is an up-and-coming blues guitarist.  His mother arranged for him to get lessons from Jack Bruce, no less.  “Through Bruce, Theo met some of the legendary figures.  He was allowed to sit in on a Clapton masterclass.  Long John Baldry came over from Canada for a reunion…  By some accident Theo jammed for several minutes with Ronnie Wood and met his older brother Art…”  So, while most kids his age are worrying about entry-level jobs, rents and college fees, Theo, through his family wealth and connections, gets stupendous opportunities to develop his skills playing music – ironically, a type of music that was invented by impoverished black people living in America’s rural south.

 

Similarly, Perowne’s daughter Daisy is a graduate of Oxford University and a poetess who’s just had a collection of poems published.  It no doubt helps that her grandfather, John Grammaticus, is a famous English poet who lives in a chateau in France.  Though both lauded and loaded, the old man is bitter about how the world has treated him: “John minded when Spender and not he was knighted, when Raine not Grammaticus got the editorship at Faber, when he lost the Oxford Professorship of Poetry to Fenton, when Hughes and later Motion were preferred as Poets Laureate, and above all when it was Heaney who got the Nobel.”

 

I may have missed it in Saturday, but I don’t remember the Perownes reflecting on their good fortune, on having so much in a world where many people have so little.  It’s especially galling that Theo and Daisy, whom we’re supposed to like as characters, don’t acknowledge their luck in having fulfilling, creative lives, doing the things they enjoy doing, that most people their age can’t have because they lack the wealth, security, support, time and connections.  Perhaps once, back when many of Theo’s British-blues heroes were youngsters from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, Britain offered some social mobility and the arts weren’t necessarily the preserve of the elite.  But that’s hardly the case in 21st century Britain, when money, poshness and who-you-know seems to be prerequisites for careers in music (Florence Welch, Mumford and Sons, James Blunt), acting (Cumberbatch, Hiddleston, Pattinson, various Foxes) and literature (while the 2003 and 2013 Granta lists of ‘Best Young British Novelists’ showed some ethnic diversity, about 60% of those novelists had still attended Oxford or Cambridge Universities).

 

I’d assumed McEwan would use Baxter, who’d obviously never had the opportunities gifted to Theo and Daisy, as an instrument to comment on this when he crashes into the Perownes’ comfortable world.   However, the ‘home invasion’ section of Saturday is relatively brief and the bitter commentary I expected didn’t appear.  Baxter gets strangely emotional after he forces Daisy to recite a poem to him, Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, but that’s all.

 

This muted acceptance of the advantages enjoyed by the Perowne family irritated me most about Saturday.  In this respect, it seems as tone-deaf as Tony Blair was about the war that the novel ruminates on.

 

From change.org

Making room in 2022 for Harry Harrison

 

© Penguin

 

As 2022 dawned, I noticed people on social media drawing attention to the fact that this new year is the year in which the famous 1973 sci-fi movie Soylent Green is set.  Starring Charlton Heston, Soylent Green depicts 2022 as a hellish time when overpopulation has exhausted the world’s resources and left many people dependent on a cheap, mass-produced foodstuff called Soylent Green, which is supposed to be made from plankton.  But, as Heston’s policeman hero finds out at the film’s finale, Soylent Green is actually made from – surprise! – people.  Yes, with human civilisation on its knees, capitalism has incorporated cannibalism.

 

With Soylent Green topical again, I thought I’d write a few words about the book on which the movie is based, Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966).  It’s less showy but more credible than the movie, a classic of dystopian cinema though it is.  And dare I say it, I think the book is better.

 

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

 

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

 

© Sphere

 

However, space operas and humour were two things unlikely to curry favour with literary critics, which meant that Harrison, though popular, was underrated as a writer.  This was a pity.  For one thing, for a long time, science fiction was a genre whose practitioners included many right-wing dingbats – see Robert Heinlein (whose gung-ho 1959 novel Starship Troopers Harrison took the piss out of with 1965’s Bill the Galactic Hero), Poul Anderson, Jerry Pournelle and Orson Scott Card.  Actually, there’s plenty of them still on the go, such as arsehole extraordinaire Theodore Beale.  Among that lot, Harrison’s authorial voice seemed refreshingly liberal and anti-militaristic and it would’ve been good to see him get more attention.

 

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

 

Like the film, Make Room! Make Room! is set in New York, but not in 2022.  The book’s set in 1999, 33 years into the future from when Harrison wrote it.  It describes a New York that’s bursting at its concrete seams with 35 million inhabitants.  Gasoline is all but gone and supplies of food and water are running dangerously low.  While Harrison is warning us of the danger of letting the human population grow unchecked, with the resultant depletion of resources, it’s interesting that the story in the opening chapters unfolds against the backdrop of a sweltering heatwave: “After the damp hallway the heat of Twenty-fifth Street hit him in a musty wave, a stifling miasma compounded of decay, dirt and unwashed humanity…  Days of heat had softened the tar so that it gave underfoot, then clutched at the soles of his shoes.”  This gives the modern-day reader an uncomfortable feeling that what’s really blighting the city is the relentlessly-climbing temperatures of manmade climate change.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

Returning to Soylent Green, the movie adaptation of Make Room! Make Room!, I should say I remember reading about the film in a book called Future Tense: the Cinema of Science Fiction (1979) written by the movie critic John Brosnan.  As part of his coverage of the film, Brosnan interviewed Harrison and the author had mixed feelings about how his story had been transferred from the page to the screen.

 

He certainly admired the job that the director Richard Fleischer (another underrated talent) had made of Soylent Green, but he begrudged some of the changes wrought by the filmmakers.  For instance, Sol – who in Soylent Green is played by Edward G. Robinson – dies in the book from injuries he sustains after he takes part in a demonstration, in support of family planning, that turns into a riot.  In the movie, Sol decides he’s had enough of the increasingly-shitty world and goes to a ‘euthanasia clinic’ to end it all.  Harrison wasn’t impressed by this because, unbeknownst to the filmmakers, euthanasia clinics and suicide machines are something of a cliché in science fiction.  (At the time that I read Make Room! Make Room!, I also read Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, first published in 1895, and it had something in it called a ‘government lethal chamber’.)  However, he conceded that the depiction of Sol’s death in the film was powerful.  While the old man expires, calming images of fields, forests, flowers, wildlife, unpolluted oceans and other things that he probably hasn’t seen since his youth are projected around him.

 

And Harrison didn’t like Soylent Green’s ending, which ironically has become its best-remembered moment – wherein Charlton Heston makes the discovery that everyone’s favourite snack in 2022 is secretly made out of recycled human corpses and, wounded, he’s carried away yelling, “Soylent Green is people!”  Harrison had researched Make Room! Make Room! meticulously to make its apocalypse seem as realistic as possible, so he knew that the idea of humanity relying on industrialised cannibalism to survive wasn’t feasible.  Human beings don’t fatten up very quickly and they require a lot of feeding and looking after, so as a form of livestock to meet the world’s dietary needs, they’re economically a bad idea.  And as this study has shown, they’re not even that rich in calories.

 

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

 

I assume Harrison set Make Room! Make Room! in 1999 because he couldn’t resist having its final scene occur at the dawn of the new Millennium, a moment loaded with significance.  However, that doesn’t make the book any less terrifying in 2022.  After all, the human population is quite likely to hit the eight-billion mark before the end of this year.  As well as putting intolerable strains on the world’s supplies of soil, water, vegetation and animal life, this burgeoning number of people means greater production of greenhouse gases and worsening manmade climate change.  And it means more human encroachment on the natural world, with the danger that lethal viruses may mutate and switch from living in animal hosts to living in human ones.  The past two years have seen us struggling to deal with just one instance of that happening.

 

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

 

From philosophyofscienceportal.blogspot.com

Horror before it got panned

 

© Pan Books

 

One more horror-themed reposting just before Halloween…

 

Michael Gove, well-known cokehead, Aberdonian nightclub boogie-king and England’s Education Minister from 2010 to 2014, would be disappointed in me.  When I was a lad, my usual reading material was not the likes of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which in 2013 Gove famously said he wanted to see the nation’s youth reading.

 

Rather, when I was 11, 12 or 13, I commonly had my nose stuck in works by such authors as Sven Hassel, James Herbert and Guy N. Smith, meaning that I didn’t become conversant in the effects of the Great Reform Act of 1832 or in the gradual diminution of the ideals of Dorothea Brooke, which Eliot wrote about in her 1871-1872 masterpiece.  I did, however, end up learning a lot about German Panzer divisions wreaking bloody havoc on the Russian front during World War II, about chemical weapons leaking out of military laboratories in the form of thick swirling fogs and driving all who come in contact with them murderously insane, and about giant mutant crabs going on the rampage and eating people.  Knowing such things prepared me a lot for adult life.

 

I also spent a lot of time reading, in the form of tatty paperbacks that in the school playground and on the school bus were constantly borrowed, read, returned, borrowed again and read again, a series called The Pan Book of Horror Stories.  The first of this series had been published in 1959, under the editorship of the strikingly named Herbert Van Thal, a literary agent, publisher and author whom the critic John Agate had once likened to ‘a sleek, well-groomed dormouse’.  The first few volumes of horror stories that Van Thal edited for Pan Books consisted largely of classical stories from well-known horror writers and more ‘mainstream’ (whatever that means) writers who’d dabbled in the genre; and their quality was generally held to be high.

 

By the late 1960s, however, Van Thal was filling each new compilation with more and more stories from new writers, many of whom were taking advantage of a more permissive era to see what they could get away with in terms of violence, gore and general unpleasantness.  Serious horror writers and fans became quite sniffy about the books.  Ramsey Campbell, Britain’s most acclaimed living horror writer, has said: “I did like the first one when I was 13 years old, but I thought the series became increasingly illiterate and disgusting and meritless.”

 

When my schoolmates and I started reading them in the 1970s, the latest editions of The Pan Book of Horror Stories were low in literary quality but high in disgusting-ness, which suited our jaded, beastly little minds fine.  I’m still psychologically scarred by Colin Graham’s The Best Teacher in the ninth collection, which was about a psychopath who decides to write a manual for aspiring horror writers, instructing them in what dismemberment, disembowelment and various acts of torture really look and sound like.  To this end, he kidnaps a horror writer and starts dismembering, disembowelling and torturing him whilst recording everything with a camera and tape recorder.  Anyone who thinks that the horror sub-genre of ‘torture-porn’ began with Eli Roth’s movie Hostel in 2005 ought to check out Graham’s grubby epic from a few decades earlier.

 

© Pan Books

 

To be fair, the later Pan collections did feature then-up-and-coming, now-well-regarded writers like Tanith Lee, Christopher Fowler and, ahem, Ian McEwan.  However, by the 1980s (and after Van Thal’s death), the series was clearly on its last legs.  It resorted to ransacking Stephen King’s famous anthology Nightshift (1978) and reprinting stories like The Graveyard Shift, The Mangler and The Lawnmower Man.  This was unwise, since anybody inclined to read the Pan horror series had probably read Nightshift already.  The final volume, the thirtieth, had a very limited print run and if you ever lay your hands on a copy, it’s probably worth a lot as a collector’s item.

 

A while ago in a second-hand bookshop I discovered a copy of The First Pan Book of Horror Stories.  This, alas, was unlikely to be sought by book collectors, since the copy looked like something had chewed, swallowed, partly-digested and regurgitated it.  At least it was still readable, so I got a chance to sample the original instalment in this famous, or infamous, series.  I was curious to know if it deserved the praise Ramsey Campbell had given it and also to see how different it was from the more disreputable stuff that came later.

 

My first impression was that the stories in this collection weren’t how I’d have organised them.  I’ve heard writers whose works were printed in the later Pan books grumble about Van Thal’s abilities as an editor, and it’s hard to see why stories as similar as Hester Holland’s The Library and Flavia Richardson’s Behind the Yellow Door (both about hapless young women who are hired as private secretaries by older, plainly-batty women and who meet gruesome fates), or Oscar Cook’s His Beautiful Hands and George Fielding Eliot’s The Copper Bowl (both about exotic, grotesque revenges and tortures inflicted by East Asian people – at least one of them struck me as racist) should end up in the same book.  In fact, Eliot’s story follows immediately after Cook’s, thanks to Van Thal’s strange policy of arranging the stories by the alphabetical order of their authors’ surnames.

 

I also noticed how stories I’d read elsewhere and greatly enjoyed in my youth now, sadly, seem a bit duff.  I loved Hazel Heald’s The Horror in the Museum when I read it as a 13-year-old.  Heald, incidentally, wrote it under the tutelage of H.P. Lovecraft, whose influence is obvious in the ornate prose-style.  However, a modern rereading suggests that Heald (and Lovecraft) could’ve cut the story’s length by about 20 pages without losing any of its plot points.

 

Meanwhile, Bram Stoker’s The Squaw, another tale I had fond memories of, seems much poorer now thanks to one of its characters being an American tourist called Elias P. Hutchinson.  If Hutchinson was what Stoker believed all Americans sounded like, spewing toe-curling things like ‘I du declare’ and ‘I say, ma’am’ and ‘this ole galloot’ and ‘durned critter’, I can only say that Stoker needed to go out and do some research.  Still, despite some glaringly obvious failings, both The Horror in the Museum and The Squaw benefit from having cracking denouements.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

The Horror in the Museum is one of the few stories in the collection that contains a monster.  (And what a monster it is: “globular torso… bubble-like suggestion of a head… three fishy eyes… foot-long proboscis… bulging gills… monstrous capillation of asp-like suckers… six sinuous limbs with their black paws and crab-like claws…”).  Apart from The Kill by Colonel Peter Fleming, a werewolf story penned by none other than Ian Fleming’s older brother, the rest of the stories are fairly monster-free, depending on psychological terrors for their impact.  Indeed, C.S. Forester’s The Physiology of Fear is a horror story in an unusually literal sense.  It deals with a particularly horrific episode in human history, the Nazi concentration camps.  It also features a German scientist engaged in research, with the Third Reich’s support and with prisoners from the camps as his guinea pigs, into the emotion of horror as it arises in the human psyche.  And the story’s ending isn’t conventionally horrific.  Instead, the scientist is ensnared in an ironic and satisfying twist worthy of Roald Dahl.

 

Also not a horror story in any conventional sense is Muriel Spark’s The Portobello Road.  It qualifies as a ghost story, but most of all it’s a mediation on the nature of friendship as it survives, or doesn’t survive, from childhood into adulthood.  This being Spark – whose most famous creation, Miss Jean Brodie, was simultaneously a prim middle-class Edinburgh schoolmistress and a fascist – the story has a bitter, vinegary flavour.  None of its characters are particularly pleasant and none seem to deserve long-term friendship.  In fact, the one character who tries to keep those friendships alive is the one who, ultimately, commits the story’s single, shocking act of violence.

 

Meanwhile, I reacted to the sight of Jack Finney’s Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket as if an old friend had suddenly hoven into view.  Not that I’d encountered this particular story before, but it conjured up fond memories of American writers like Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Ray Russell and Charles Beaumont, who in the 1950s seemed to keep their rents paid by pumping out short stories for the likes of Playboy magazine and TV scripts for the likes of The Twilight Zone (1959-64) and Boris Karloff’s Thriller (1960-62).  In admirably direct and diamond-hard prose, their tales would detail the world turning suddenly and inexplicably weird for citizens of conformist post-war America, for both dutiful suburban wives in nipped-in-at-the-waist housedresses and office-bound men in grey-flannel suits.

 

From fictionunbound.com

 

Finney, most famous as the author of the sci-fi horror novel The Body Snatchers (1955), which has been filmed four times and shows conformity taken to a nightmarish extreme, starts his story thus: “At the little living room table Tom Benecke rolled two sheets of flimsy and a heavier top sheet, carbon paper sandwiched between them, into his portable.”  A half-dozen pages later, events have lured Benecke away from his portable typewriter and embroiled him in a vertiginous life-or-death struggle just outside his apartment window.  It calls to mind the Stephen King short story The Ledge, another one that appeared in his collection Nightshift.  I doubt if the similarity between the two stories is a coincidence, King being a big admirer of work from this era of American story-telling.

 

Also deserving mention are Oh Mirror, Mirror, a claustrophobic item penned by the great Nigel Kneale; Raspberry Jam, Angus Wilson’s poisonous take on the snobbery of old people who no longer have anything to be snobbish about; and Serenade for Baboons, a colonial horror by Noel Langley.

 

Inevitably, a couple of clunkers find their way into the book too.  Anthony Vercoe’s Flies wouldn’t be such a bad story if the writer hadn’t swamped his prose with exclamation marks.  I can’t remember encountering so many of the damned things in ten pages of prose before and the result is almost unreadable.  Meanwhile, The House of Horror is one of a series of short stories that American pulp writer Seabury Quinn wrote about a psychic investigator called Jules de Grandin.  De Grandin is French and seemingly meant to be a supernatural version of Hercule Poirot (who, I know, was actually Belgian).  Unfortunately, Quinn gives him a patois that is as cringe-inducing as Elias P. Hutchinson’s Americanisms in The Squaw: “Sang du diable…!  Behold what is there, my friend…  Parbleu, he was caduo – mad as a hatter, this one, or I am much mistaken!”

 

On the whole, though, I found The First Pan Book of Horror Stories a rewarding read.  I now look forward to tracking down the other, earlier instalments in the series – those ones that came out before Herbert Van Thal decided to crank up the levels of nasty, schlocky stuff, in order to satisfy the blood-crazed savages amongst his reading public.

 

Blood-crazed savages such as my twelve-year-old self…

 

© Pan Books

King rat

 

From horrornews.net

 

Another slightly-updated reposting for Halloween…  I originally wrote this in 2013, just after James Herbert’s death.

 

It’s fair to say that, back in the 1970s, the English novelist James Herbert increased literacy levels substantially among young males who otherwise wouldn’t have opened a book in their entire lives.  Not that Herbert, who died in 2013, ever got any thanks from Britain’s educators.  His X-rated novels of apocalyptic horror in the shabbier parts of 1970s London were the sort of items you furtively traded with your mates in school playgrounds, away from the prying and prudish eyes of teachers.

 

I was 13 when I bought a copy of Herbert’s second novel The Fog (1975), drawn by an irresistible reviewer’s comment on its back cover: “For goodness sake don’t leave this on Aunt Edna’s chair!”  An accompanying quote from the book itself was good too:  “Out of the yellowish fog a man appeared.  His eyes were fixed straight ahead and his lips were frozen in a smile.  In his hands he carried the severed, still bleeding head of his wife.”  A few mornings later, sitting in my form class at school, I passed the book to the boy sitting next to me and instructed him to read a chapter that’d I’d read the previous evening.  This was a chapter in which a group of boys at a posh boarding school go murderously insane and start beating and torturing their teachers to death.

 

I’d actually felt sick after reading that chapter, though by the next morning I was fortified and ready for more.  Anyway, I spent the next five minutes smugly watching my classmate as the colour drained from his face.  A final exclamation of disgust – “Yeee-uuuck!” – indicated that he’d reached the chapter’s last sentence.  That would’ve been the bit where the snotty deputy headmaster gets castrated with a pair of hedge-clippers.

 

I should say at this point that it wasn’t just teenage boys who were into Herbert’s novels.  For I remember a girl in my class called Alex Stassino who once, admirably, grossed out her female friends by reading aloud the description of the mass suicide at the start of Herbert’s 1980s novel The Dark.

 

© New English Library

 

Herbert’s first book was The Rats in 1974.  Despite a hostile review in the Observer by a young Martin Amis, who considered the violence in its pages “enough to make a rodent retch… and enough to make any human pitch the book aside,” the Great British public bought it in droves.  (Before The Rats’ publication, Herbert had worked at the same advertising agency as Amis’s chum Salman Rushdie.)   Though rats certainly weren’t new in horror fiction and films, and even though, like all his work, it was essentially pulp fiction, Herbert’s novel had two major selling-points.

 

Firstly, as the son of a fruit seller in London’s East End and someone who’d grown up around the corner from Reggie and Ronnie Kray, Herbert clearly had first-hand experience of the character-types and the localities in his book.  The story reeked of gritty and seedy authenticity as the rats – a strain of giant, mutant flesh-eaters – swarmed around disused canals, derelict buildings and plots of waste ground, preying on winos, down-and-outs, grubby comprehensive school kids and Jamaican immigrants working in the London tube.  I should say that, later in the book, they graduated to eating middle-class people too.  Secondly, Herbert’s approach to horror was a different one from that used by earlier British horror writers, such as the gentlemanly and clubbable Algernon Blackwood or Dennis Wheatley.  Unlike them, he left nothing to the imagination.

 

The Rats was followed by The Fog, which recounts what happens when a vaporous and madness-inducing chemical weapon leaks out of a laboratory and floats around southern England.  By the way, I remember how in 1982, after I’d left school, I was backpacking and hitchhiking around central and northern Europe in the company of a similar-aged guy called Andy, who was from Stevenage.  At one point, Andy-from-Stevenage and I got into a furious argument about The Fog.  By then we’d spent whole days waiting around entry roads onto various Autobahns without getting lifts and we’d managed to argue furiously about everything under the sun.  Andy-from-Stevenage’s beef with The Fog was that it was silly.  Especially silly, he reckoned, was the bit in it where an airline pilot goes murderously insane and, to get revenge on his wife’s lover, flies his passenger-filled jet-plane off course and smack-bang into a London skyscraper where that lover works.

 

“Jet-planes flying into skyscrapers,” raged Andy-from-Stevenage, “that’s too far-fetched!  That’d never happen in real life!”

 

© New English Library

 

In 1976, Herbert penned his first novel of the paranormal, The Survivor.  This had supernatural forces unleashed in the Berkshire town of Windsor after a devastating plane-crash there.  One set-piece in the novel describes nearby Eton College, the real-life alma mater of Boris Johnson and David Cameron, succumbing to a demonically-orchestrated fire.  Along with the gory boarding-school episode in The Fog, this suggests that working-class Herbert had a low opinion of England’s private-education system.

 

Meanwhile, The Spear (1978) was an updating of those old Dennis Wheatley occult thrillers like The Haunting of Toby Jugg and They Used Dark Forces, where the Nazis dabbled in black magic to help their war effort.  For topicality, Herbert threw the Arab-Israeli conflict into the mix.  Between The Survivor and The Spear, he wrote Fluke, an atypical fantasy story narrated by a dog suffering from troubling flashbacks to a previous life in which he’d been a man.  Eventually, he meets a wise badger who explains to him that, basically, the Buddhists had got it right.  Even Fluke contains streaks of grotty Herbert realism, though, with his canine characters spending their time hanging around London junkyards, eating garbage and getting down-and-dirty with on-heat bitches.

 

Herbert was not initially popular among traditional British horror writers and fans, no doubt because he upset cosy and middle-class notions of what horror should be about.  For somebody steeped in classic British tales of the uncanny like Charles Dickens’ The Signalman (1866) or M.R. James’s Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you, my Lad (1904), being subjected to the gnawed-off faces and exploding heads of The Rats and The Fog was probably akin to how bearded, cerebral fans of progressive-rock bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis and Yes felt in 1977, when they first heard Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols played loud.

 

© New English Library

 

It didn’t help Herbert’s image that his books’ success spawned a wave of badly-written and even bloodier imitators.  In his wake, a whole paperback sub-genre became known in the book trade as ‘nasties’.  This was years before the term was used in relation to films, as in Britain’s ‘video-nasty’ hysteria of the early 1980s.  Among the writers cashing in were Shaun Hutson, whose breakthrough novel was Slugs (1982).  This began with the yummy line: “The slug’s eye stalks waved slowly as it moved towards the crimson lump on which several of its companions were already feeding.”  There was also Guy N Smith, who was both a tweedy pipe-smoking countryside game expert and a schlock-horror writer.  When he wasn’t writing novels about giant carnivorous crabs – Night of the Crabs (1976), Killer Crabs (1978), Crabs on the Rampage (1981) – he was penning non-fiction tomes like Ferreting and Trapping for Amateur Gamekeepers (1976) and Moles and their Control (1980). Actually, I love the idea of Guy N. Smith (who, alas, passed away from Covid-19 at the end of last year) even if I never cared much for his books.

 

It wasn’t until 1981, when Stephen King wrote Danse Macabre, his non-fiction study of the horror genre, that Herbert finally got some respect in the field.  In Danse Macabre, King said approvingly of Herbert that he “does not just write, he puts on his combat boots and goes out to assault the reader with horror.”

 

Around the early 1980s I lost interest in James Herbert, largely, I’m sure, because I was no longer a sensation-hungry teenager.  The Dark (1980) seemed merely a supernatural retread of The Fog, while Lair (1979) was a perfunctory sequel to The Rats.  I have to say, though, that his third Rats novel, Doman (1984), which was set in a near-future London after it’d been decimated by a nuclear attack, was about the bleakest and most gruelling thing I’d ever read.  Even in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), the human survivors of the holocaust didn’t have to contend with giant carnivorous rodents.  And during the 1980s and 1990s, Herbert’s books became increasingly concerned with supernatural themes and lacked the lethal edge of his earlier eco-horror ones.  That said, people whose opinions I respect say that Creed (1990) and The Others (1999) are good.

 

Those 1970s novels could’ve become great films.  Indeed, they appeared during a time when directors like Gary Sherman, who made 1972’s Deathline, and Pete Walker, who made 1974’s Frightmare, were moving British horror movies away from the realm of gothic costume dramas and making them more contemporary, nihilistic and graphic, just as Herbert was doing in fiction.  But soon afterwards, the British film industry all-but-disappeared down the plughole.  John Hough, who’d directed the well-regarded Twins of Evil (1972) and Legend of Hell House (1973), hoped to make a film of The Dark, with a script by the famous horror-movie starlet Ingrid Pitt (who was a good friend of Herbert’s), but the project came to nothing.  The Rats and Fluke were eventually filmed in 1982 and 1995, but in North America, losing the working-class London ambience that’d made the books distinctive.  The Survivor was filmed in 1981 in Australia and thus it didn’t work either.

 

© New English Library

 

Ironically, the film with the strongest flavour of his books isn’t a James Herbert adaptation at all.  Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) – at least during its first half, when Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris are stalked through a deserted London by victims of a ‘rage’-inducing virus – feels like The Fog without the fog.  And during the scene in the tunnel, where Murphy, Harris and Brendan Gleason encounter a tide of scuttling rats, it’s obvious which 1970s horror paperback Boyle and his scriptwriter Alex Garland are tapping into.

 

Incredibly, considering the unsavoury things that went on in his books, the establishment saw fit to honour Herbert shortly before his death by giving him the Order of the British Empire.  Perhaps somebody in the Royal Family had accidentally left a copy of The Fog on the Queen’s chair.  And perhaps the Queen had enjoyed the bit with the hedge-clippers.

 

A while back, I read a James Herbert novel for the first time in decades.  This was after I read a piece by the Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker, in which Brooker suggested that Herbert’s novel ’48 (1996) was better than James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).  He was joking, of course, but knowing Brooker I suspect he was only half-joking.  My curiosity piqued, I tracked down a copy of ’48, which is set in a parallel universe in the year 1948, after London has been devastated by a ‘blood plague’ unleashed by Hitler in the final days of World War II.  A tiny band of uninfected survivors are pursued around the empty, crumbling city by a larger band of infected and vampire-like survivors, who believe that by consuming the uninfected ones’ blood they can rid themselves of the plague before it kills them.  The bad guys are led by a former associate of Oswald Mosley and style themselves on Mosley’s blackshirts.

 

Reading like a cross between Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and an Alastair Maclean war novel, I was surprised at how enjoyable ’48 turned out to be.  Admittedly, Herbert’s meat-and-two-veg prose style would never win any literary awards.  But it was hectically paced, it had just enough character development to maintain one’s interest in the players, its descriptions of a devastated 1940s London were convincing and it made shameless use of the city’s landmarks – Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge – when staging its action set-pieces.

 

It would, incidentally, make a pretty good film.  Are you reading this, Danny Boyle?

 

© HarperPrism

A guy called Gerald

 

© Valancourt Books

 

And here’s another re-posting ahead of, and appropriate for, Halloween…

 

Often, the fame and popularity won by writers during their lifetimes seem to evaporate with, or soon after, their deaths.  Once they’re gone, they’re forgotten too.  I’m thinking of writers from the 1920s, 30s and 40s like Edgar Wallace, Hervey Allen, Lloyd C. Douglas and James Hilton, who were massively popular in their day, but are practically forgotten in the 21st century.  Come to think of it, names that were ubiquitous on the bestseller racks in bookshops and newsagents when I was a kid, like Harold Robbins, Morris West, Leon Uris and Alistair MacLean, seem to have disappeared into the mists too.  Everyone was reading their books in the 1970s but I can’t imagine anyone reading them now.

 

To this list of forgotten writers, we must add the British (later American) author Gerald Kersh, who was clearly prolific and popular.  His Wikipedia entry credits him with 20 novels and 20 collections of short stories, plus ‘thousands of articles in different publications’, published between 1934 and his death in 1968, but he seemed to drop off the radar at the moment he died.  A few years ago, I began to hear his name because a number of writers I admire, like Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, Michael Moorcock, Ian Fleming and Harlan Ellison, thought highly of him.  But all traces of his work seemed to have vanished.  When I asked about him in bookshops, my inquiries would draw a blank.  Even in bookshops run by clearly knowledgeable people, like Transreal Fiction in Edinburgh and Whitie’s in my hometown of Peebles, nobody had heard of him.

 

However, several of his works have now been republished by Valancourt Books, who’ve won praise from the Times Literary Supplement for their efforts to “resurrect some neglected works of literature… and make them available to a new readership”, and I was able to order copies of his 1958 novel Fowlers End and his 1968 collection Nightshade and Damnations while I was in the UK a while ago.  I couldn’t find, though, a reasonably priced copy of his 1938 crime thriller Night and the City.  This is the book that has probably come closest to ensuring a legacy for Kersh, because it was filmed in 1950 with Richard Widmark and again in 1992 with Robert De Niro.

 

I’ll leave aside Fowlers End just now, which Anthony Burgess rated as one of the great comic novels of the 20th century – which doesn’t surprise me, because it’s the sort of sprawling, baggy, rumbustious and verbose book that Burgess himself loved to write.  Let me talk instead about Nightshades and Damnations, a collection of eleven of Kersh’s short stories selected in 1968 – shortly before he died – by none other than celebrated American science fiction and fantasy writer Harlan Ellison.  In the introduction to the collection, Ellison makes the sadly misplaced prediction that “He is leaving a legacy… that has influenced, and is still influencing, generations of younger writers.”  Actually, last night, I watched Dreams with Sharp Teeth, the 2008 biographical documentary about Harlan Ellison, and I noticed that during the end-credits Kersh was in a list of people Ellison wished to ‘thank’, along with Ray Bradbury, Franz Kafka and Edgar Allan Poe.

 

Some of the stories in Nightshades and Damnations are rather brilliant.  There are horror stories like Voices in the Dust of Annan and Men Without Bones that, with their science fictional overtones, are reminiscent of, and as good as, the work of H.P. Lovecraft.  The Brighton Monster, a tale mostly set in the 18th century and one that begins as an out-and-out horror story, also uses a science fictional twist.  It takes a sudden and admirable turn into the present day – well, post-World War II – that makes it horribly relevant.

 

Bone for Debunkers is a tale of forgery that’s worthy of Roald Dahl, while The Ape and the Mystery and The King Who Collected Clocks are extravagant historical fantasies incorporating Leonardo Da Vinci and clockwork automata respectively.  And The Queen of Pig Island is an elegant, surreal and ultimately tragic tale of what happens to some human circus-sideshow attractions when they survive a shipwreck and have to establish their own self-contained society on a desert island.

 

Best of all is Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo, in which the narrator is Kersh himself, travelling on a wartime transatlantic troop ship when he meets the titular Corporal Cuckoo, who claims to have been born in the 16th century and to be immortal.  The story suggests a grisly downside to being immortal, which is made grislier when the person is a bit stupid and unimaginative and hasn’t thought the implications of being immortal through properly.  It’s a theme that was picked up by Robert Zemeckis’s 1992 movie Death Becomes Her.

 

While other writers have vanished from popular consciousness because, well, their writing wasn’t terribly good and wasn’t designed to stand the test of time, Kersh’s work has, refreshingly, not dated at all and still constitutes a good read.  On the other hand, that work has suffered the misfortune of simply being out of print for a very long time.  Let’s hope that Valancourt Books will help bring the achievements of Gerald Kersh back, deservedly, into the limelight.

 

From wikipedia.org

Kingsley goes green

 

© Penguin Books

 

And here’s another re-posting in anticipation of Halloween, one that originally appeared on this blog seven years ago.  This time, I offer my thoughts on Kingsley Amis’s ghostly novel of 1969, The Green Man.

 

I can claim to be neither an expert on nor a fan of Kingsley Amis.  While I’ve enthusiastically worked my way through the fiction of several of his contemporaries – Anthony Burgess, William Golding, Graham Greene – until recently I’d read only a couple of Amis’s short stories and one of his books, Lucky Jim.  The latter was an early (1954) example of the literary sub-genre now known as the ‘campus novel’ and I have to say I found it pretty dated and unfunny.

 

I suspect the main reason for my aversion to Kingsley Amis, though, is the persona he projected when he was alive.  He didn’t seem like a nice piece of work and so I rarely felt an urge to dip into his writing.  In the 1950s he trumpeted his support for the Labour Party but by the 1980s he’d become an enthusiastic fan of Mrs Thatcher.  He seemed to me pretty typical of people whose politics undergo a severe rightward turn during their lifetimes.  Socialist egalitarianism and liberal permissiveness are great things when you have youth, and a lack of material possessions, on your side.  But when you reach a point in your life when you’re too old, and too moneyed, to benefit from them  any longer, and when a younger, upstart generation arrives on the scene with their own ideas about how to do things, it’s time to change into a reactionary old fart and whinge about other people being radical in a way you once were yourself.

 

But far worse than Amis’s Conservatism was the fact that in later years he seemed unashamedly anti-Semitic, racist and misogynistic.  I’ve read an interview with his long-suffering second wife Elizabeth Jane Howard in which she, rather gallantly, blamed much of that nastiness not on Amis but on his fondness for alcohol.  In other words, his odiousness was really just the drink speaking.  However, I can’t help thinking of an old saying they have in Northern Ireland: “If it’s not in you when you’re sober, it won’t come out of you when you’re drunk.”

 

Still, I have one reason for liking Amis, and that’s because unlike nearly everyone else in Britain’s snobbish literary establishment at the time, he didn’t look down his nose at genre writing.  He was openly supportive of it and occasionally dabbled in it himself.  For example, Amis was one of Ian Fleming’s most heavyweight admirers and it’s fitting that, after Fleming’s passing, he was the first person to write a non-Fleming James Bond novel, Colonel Sun, which he published in 1968 under the pseudonym Robert Markham.

 

Amis was also a big fan of science fiction and in 1960 he wrote a critique of the genre, New Maps of Hell.  As J.G. Ballard noted, New Maps of Hell was important for science fiction’s development because Amis “threw open the gates of the ghetto, and ushered in a new audience which he almost singlehandedly recruited from those intelligent readers of general fiction who until then had considered science fiction on par with horror comics and pulp westerns.”  Predictably, though, the curmudgeonly Amis went off science fiction in the 1960s when younger sci-fi writers like Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison and Thomas M. Disch started going all experimental and New Wave-y on him.  Before long, he was raging at how those whippersnappers had contaminated his beloved science fiction with horrible things like “pop music, hippie clothes and hairdos, pornography, reefers” and “tricks with typography, one-line chapters, strained metaphors, obscurities, obscenities, drugs, Oriental religions and left-wing politics.”

 

Amis seemed too to be interested in supernatural stories and in 1969 he tried his hand at writing one, a novel called The Green Man.  This has long been a neglected entry in Amis’s oeuvre, overshadowed by more prestigious books like Jake’s Thing (1978) and The Old Devils (1986), out of print and near impossible to find in bookshops.  It was, however, adapted into a three-part drama serial by the BBC in 1990, with the script written by none other than Malcolm Bradbury, an author whose own books like Eating People is Wrong (1959) and The History Man (1975) were examples of the campus novel that Amis had helped pioneer with Lucky Jim.  The TV version of The Green Man starred the splendid Albert Finney and it began with a memorable and grisly sequence that didn’t evoke Kingsley Amis, or Malcolm Bradbury, so much as it evoked Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic schlock-horror movie The Evil Dead.

 

© A&E Television Productions / BBC

 

Anyway, I enjoyed the televisual The Green Man so much that I made a mental note to set aside my prejudices against Amis and hunt down the original novel of The Green Man. It wasn’t until nearly a quarter-century later, however, that I noticed a new edition of The Green Man sitting on a shelf in a bookshop, bought it and finally got around to reading it.  So here are my thoughts about this particular foray by Kingsley Amis into the realms of the paranormal and macabre.

 

The Green Man is narrated by the fifty-something Maurice Allington, the character played by Albert Finney in its TV adaptation.  He owns and runs an inn of some antiquity, the titular Green Man, on the way from London to Cambridge.  Living on the premises with his second wife Joyce (his junior by a number of years), his teenage daughter Amy and his ailing father, Allington is unnerved when the hoary old ghost stories associated with the inn over the centuries start to intrude on reality.  In particular, he has several encounters with the ghost of Thomas Underhill, a supposed sorcerer who lived in the building in the 17th century; and he senses the presence of a more monstrous apparition, a demonic creature that Underhill once summoned up from the local woods to destroy his antagonists.  The inn’s name is a clue to this demon’s constitution.

 

Allington eventually realises he’s become enmeshed in a scheme that Underhill has devised to transcend his own death.  However, his attempts to outwit the ghostly sorcerer are hampered by his own failings: his ill-health, his liking for the bottle – to which, of course, his family and friends attribute his strange visions – and the distractions posed by his carnal appetites.  Not only is the lusty Allington engaged in an affair with another younger woman, Diana, who’s the wife of the local doctor, but he’s devised a less-than-noble scheme of his own.  He wants to persuade both Joyce and Diana to participate with him in a ménage à trois.

 

I hadn’t got far into The Green Man before I’d realised that both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness are its characterisations.  Amis does an excellent job of sketching Allington, with his many vices and virtues.  He’s annoyingly conceited, intellectually as well as socially.  Talking about his book collection, he says sniffily: “I have no novelists, finding theirs a puny and piffling art, one that, even at its best, can render truthfully no more than a few minor parts of the total world it pretends to take as its field of reference.  A man has only to feel some emotion, any emotion, anything differentiated at all, and spend a minute speculating how this would be rendered in a novel… to grasp the pitiful inadequacy of all prose fiction to the task it sets itself.”  Allington, thus, is a poetry snob.  “By comparison… verse – lyric verse, at least – is equidistant from fiction and life, and is autonomous.”

 

Actually, his love for the poetic and his disdain for the more mechanical medium of prose remind me slightly of the late 19th century / early 20th century occult writer Arthur Machen, who speculated in his fiction that supernatural phenomena are best perceived by people with receptive intellects and imaginations.  These include the very young, the insane and the poetically-inclined.  Perhaps that’s why, of all the people living, dining and drinking in the Green Man, the verse-loving Allington is the one with whom the supernatural intelligence of Thomas Underhill makes contact.

 

Meanwhile, feminist readers will no doubt feel like strangling Allington on account of his baser musings.  “Ejaculation,” he comments at one point, “as all good mistresses know, is a great agent of change of mind and mood.”

 

And yet as a bundle of contradictory traits – stuck-up, sexist, cynical, drunken, cranky, comical, cunning, occasionally courageous and very occasionally principled – Allington is a believable figure in this story.  He might be an unfortunate mess of vanity, lust and booze, but at the book’s finale, when he rushes out of the inn and into the night to try to save the sleepwalking Amy from the predatory green man, we aren’t surprised that he shows a streak of heroism as well.

 

But on the other hand, Amis is hopeless at drawing believable female characters here.  Joyce and Diana give little impression of having minds of their own.  They seem like manifestations of Amis’s notion of what women should be like – statuesque, well-bred and utterly pliable to the needs of the local Alpha Male.  “Together,” says Allington, “they made an impressive, rather erectile sight, both of them tall, blonde and full-breasted…  Dull would he be of soul that would pass up the chance of taking the pair of them to bed.”  In their speech, meanwhile, they spout irritating upper-class adverb-adjective couplings: “jolly closed up”, “perfectly awful”, “frightfully exciting”, “damn good”.  Late on in the book, Allington’s devious ménage à trois plan backfires and Joyce and Diana get their revenge on him, but this isn’t enough to convince me that they’re anything more than Kingsley Amis’s idea of desirable posh totty.

 

From artinfiction.wordpress.com

 

Elsewhere in the book, predictably, we’re treated to a list of things in the modern (or at least, 1960s-ish) world that the grumpy, ageing Amis finds appalling.  He sounds off against radical students: “First one whiskered youth in an open frugiferous shirt, then another with long hair like oakum, scanned me closely as they passed, each slowing almost to a stop the better to check me for bodily signs of fascism, oppression by free speech, passive racial violence and the like.”  He rails against popular music: “Amy’s gramophone was playing some farrago of crashes, bumps and yells from her room down the passage…  I listened, or endured hearing it…”  He has a go at trendy vicars: “I found it odd, and oddly unwelcoming too, to meet a clergyman who was turning out to be, doctrinally speaking, rather to the left of a hardened unbeliever like myself.”  Readers will either find this aggravating or endearing.  Now that Amis has been dead for a quarter-century and I’m in the process of turning into a grumpy old man myself, I have to confess I found it rather endearing – more so than I would have if I’d read the novel in my youth.

 

Failures in female characterisation aside, I generally enjoyed The Green Man and I had more fun reading it than I had with Lucky Jim.  However, is the novel successful as a ghost story?  In my opinion, for a ghost story to succeed, it needs to convey a degree of believability.  If I can be lulled into thinking, however fleetingly, that this could be happening, I’m more likely to be affected, unsettled, even frightened by it.  On this account, Amis’s book almost succeeds.  For the most part, he convincingly moves the plot from being about a man whose home has some strange old tales attached to it to being about a man who has to deal with the unwelcome, ghostly protagonists of those tales.  To facilitate this jump from the credible to the incredible, Amis adds some persuasive background details.  A section where Allington visits a library at Cambridge University in search of a long-lost journal by Underhill has a scholarly believability that’s worthy of M.R. James.

 

Alas, all is betrayed by a scene near the novel’s climax where Amis goes too far and introduces another supernatural character, the most famous and powerful supernatural character of the lot – guess who that is.  Now any story involving ghosts has implications about the wider scheme of things.  It makes life after death a fact, which raises questions about the design and purpose of the universe and about the intelligence that might be behind it.  However, for the sake of believability, it’s advisable for ghost-story writers to keep things localised and small-scale.  In M.R. James’s celebrated short story Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, my Lad, for example, what’s important is that the hero is being pursued along a beach by a terrifying supernatural entity.  Not that this entity’s existence calls into question our scientific assumptions about the universe – because if it does exist, then scientists are likely wrong and the priests, magicians and shamans of history were likely right.

 

Amis, unfortunately, can’t resist exploring the universe he’s created in The Green Man further than is necessary and so Allington ends up having an unexpected visit from the Big Man Upstairs.  Their confrontation resembles something from the classic 1946 Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger fantasy movie, A Matter of Life and Death.  And that’s what The Green Man promptly becomes, a fantasy rather than a ghost story – a story that’s no longer believable and hence no longer scary.

 

J.G. Ballard once said of Kingsley Amis: “as with so many English novelists he was vaguely suspicious of the power of the imagination: it could be too much of a good thing.  Yet the radical imagination is what we seek in a writer; when we read we want to encounter a very different world that will make sense of our own.”

 

Ironically, the problem with The Green Man is that in the end, and atypically, Amis lets his own imagination run away with him.  The book would have been more effective if, like those English novelists whom Ballard complains about, he had decided that too much imagination here is a bad thing.

 

© David Smith / From the Guardian

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