Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Clutter and Claustrophobia: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

There is a special horror to being trapped underground in narrow passages. I was steered to Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by way of Robert MacFarlane’s Underland (which is a very interesting read). MacFarlane writes of, as a ten-year-old:

 “…reading the account… of two children escaping danger by descending the mining tunnels that riddle the sandstone outcrop of Alderley Edge in Cheshire. Deep inside the Edge, the embrace of the stone becomes so tight that it threatens to trap them… those passages took cold grip of my heart, emptied my lungs of air.”

Inspired by this and by MacFarlane’s accounts of his own underground explorations, I found a copy of the 1978 edition of Weirdstone (it was originally published in 1960). Coming a year after the success of the first Star Wars film, it looks like ACE tried to drum up sales with cover art depicting a Darth Vader knock-off in the foreground and an Obi-Wan imitator sneaking up behind him.

There are no far-away galaxies here, though. Garner uses as his inspiration a local legend of the Wizard of Alderley, and especially the geography of the area. The plot follows two rather featureless children, Colin and Susan, as they are sent to live with rustics in Cheshire while their parents go abroad. They are soon enmeshed in a supernatural struggle for the titular Weirdstone, allying with the wizard Cadellin and some dwarves against the evil Grimnir (who does not, in fact, have much in common with Darth Vader) and his army of orcs svarts.

This was Garner’s first novel, and it is not polished. The influence of Tolkien shows strongly. Garner uses a hodge-podge of fantastic names, from Durathror and Gaberlunzie to Ragnarok (used as a place-name). A host of fantastic beings come and go, not always essential to the plot (which essentially involves Colin and Susan being chased from place to place). It is altogether too cluttered.

Garner was a Cheshire native, and it’s the descriptions of real-world settings that provide the only real interest in the book, especially the vividly written, claustrophobia-triggering explorations into the abandoned copper mines of Alderley Edge:

“They lay full length, walls, floor and roof fitting them like a second skin. Their head were turned to one side, for in any other position the roof pressed their mouths into the sand and they could not breath. The only way to advance was to pull with the fingertips and push with the toes, since it was impossible to flex their legs at all, and any bending of the elbows threatened to jam the arms helplessly under the body.”

Although the fantasy may be generic, the descriptions of place are anything but.

Weirdstone apparently was well-received and stuck in the minds of many young readers. It was faintly reminiscent of Susan Cooper’s excellent The Dark is Rising series, with wicked ravens, threatened children, and ordinary villagers who are actually part of the evil forces. Cooper’s books, however, are much, much better.

You can see the mines of Alderley Edge, including some of the very places Garner wrote about, thanks to my new favorite YouTuber, Martin Zero, here and here.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim

Released in 1943, The Seventh Victim is not Val Lewton's best.  His previous films were directed by Jacques Tourneur, and now Mark Robson is at the helm, and something is missing.  Lewton’s work with Tourneur had a surreal quality which did not quite survive after RKO assigned Tourneur elsewhere.  Tourneur regretted the move, stating that his work with Lewton was a “perfect collaboration”.  Aside from The Body Snatcher, Lewton’s early work is superior to his later films.  Still, The Seventh Victim bears his distinct touch, enhanced by the uncredited final script draft he wrote for all his films.    

Schoolgirl Mary (Kim Hunter, in her first film role) learns that her only living relative, her beautiful and wealthy sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), is missing.  Mary travels to New York City to find out what happened.  Her inquiries lead her to Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont, better known as Beaver’s father), a helpful if rather slick gentleman who claims to be a paramour of the missing woman.

Several of Lewton’s regulars are present, including Tom Conway, who gives a nice performance as Dr. Louis Judd, a debonair but sinister psychiatrist with a pencil-thin mustache.  Conway had the same seedy role in The Cat People (1942) and was a player in I Walked with a Zombie (1943), Lewton’s best.  Judd leads Mary to her sister’s location, but after a brief wordless encounter, Jacqueline disappears again.  This and a hanging noose in a rented room lead to suspicions that Jacqueline is mentally disturbed.  Has she fallen victim to the loneliness and claustrophobia that can strike in the midst of a big city?  Or is there an even more sinister explanation?    

The Seventh Victim is slow getting started.  Something is missing – not just Mary’s sister, but something from the script.  Is it the usual Lewton charm of engaging bit characters and subplots?  There are some amiable Italian restaurant owners, a failed poet, and others, but they lack interest.  Or is it a general lack of menace and too much of the commonplace?  Most of the movie is bland and feels like filler.   

That said, there are redeeming qualities, as there always are in Lewton’s films.  While the indoor scenes are dull, outside it is rich in Lewton atmosphere, a shadowy, deserted city where it is always night and the few passersby are faceless men in hats and overcoats, unlikely to be of help.  Early on, a sinister late-night subway train is used to excellent effect.  A few scenes foreshadow later, better films: a slightly creepy shower scene long before Psycho, and a pre-Rosemary’s Baby use of a sinister cult of commonplace people. 

In the last fifteen minutes, The Seventh Victim becomes what it should have been throughout.  Jacqueline flees silently from shadowy pursuers through the dark streets, the quiet punctuated jarringly by a foraging dog, screeching brakes, and rowdy chorus members bursting from a theater.  Instead of blandness, the film ends with menace and sadness.  It’s a pleasant surprise, but it leaves the viewer wishing this atmosphere would permeate the entire film.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Bird Box: "You're mad!"

 Image result for bird box book
Josh Malerman’s short novel Bird Box was published in 2014.  Recently, it’s been adapted as a Netflix film with Sandra Bullock, to be released on December 21.  I was attracted to Bird Box by the premise – a mysterious something which cannot be seen without going mad has arrived on Earth, and the survivors must keep the curtains down or wear blindfolds if they go outside.

Wow, I thought, this must be a sort of cosmic Lovecraftian horror.  What a great idea, taking out the visuals and relying on the horror of scent, sound, and touch.  Imagine protagonists going out in their backyard blindfolded and creeping, terrified, cheek to jowl with Yog-Sothoth.  Imagine the chilling, mysterious descriptions of their other senses interpreting “a congeries of iridescent globes” - but how difficult a concept to execute.

Ay, there’s the rub.  Malerman often fails to live up to the challenge, providing an example of the familiar caveat for beginning writers:  ideas are the easy part, writing is the hard part.  Bird Box shows a distinct lack of imagination in terms of describing a world without sight.  For example, at one point, the protagonist’s dog is driven mad:

“It sounded like Victor had chewed through his own leg.” 

What does this sound like, exactly?  Maybe Victor just found a tasty rawhide chew.

Inadequate description aside, I found Malerman’s writing unenjoyable and sometimes irritating (the “tip” of the boat?).  The language is plain and simple, often delivered in text message-sized bits.  The characters are like the ones in lackluster horror movies who exist only to be picked off, with so little backstory or personality that it’s difficult to separate them into distinct individuals.  There’s Malorie (the protagonist), Tom (Malorie’s love interest, although Malerman tells us this but never shows us), Felix, Don, Jules, Cheryl, Olympia (the pregnant one), Victor (the dog), and, of course, Gary (“You’re mad!”).  Only “The Boy” and “The Girl”, children born since the apocalypse, inspire any feeling whatsoever.

There is something less than a skeleton of a story here – maybe the stapes or coccyx, the merest forepaw to suggest what might have been.  Bird Box focuses more on the claustrophobic horror of being trapped in a house with a bunch of other people than on what’s lurking outside.  Incidentally, it’s convenient that the house in which the characters shelter is provided with working phone lines and electricity for years after society has collapsed, not to mention a well in the backyard.  There is plenty of canned food available, but sadly no boards to nail over the windows (of course, blankets can be dramatically ripped down when drama is needed).

On the positive side, Malerman does resist the temptation to explain or reveal much about the crazy-inducing creatures which are roaming the world, leaving their true nature ambiguous.  The idea that whatever it is might not even have any malign purpose is an appealing one.

I really can’t imagine Bird Box converting to film very well.  After all, the whole point is the lack of sight.  Watching Sandra Bullock stumble around in a blindfold for two hours sounds vaguely amusing, but completely lacking in chills.  Like the novel, it seems unlikely to live up to the premise.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The 7th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

This is the penultimate Aickman-edited volume, and here he contributes an introduction and a story, repeating his theme that “scientific advance and naked horror are rapidly becoming hard to differentiate” and that ghost stories provide a “world elsewhere” in which we can be free.  The 7th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories contains:

“Levitation”, by Joseph Payne Brennan.  Set in the always unsavory world of the carnival, this very short story is quickly read, enjoyed, and forgotten.

“Dearth’s Farm”, by Gerald Bullett.  The protagonist visits a country cousin whose husband has a close relationship with his horse.  Aickman talks this story up in his introduction, and it is unusual, but pretty flat.

“Esmeralda”, by John Keir Cross.  This story of a middle-aged tobacconist with an unhappy marriage is vividly written and unexpectedly savage.  A highlight of the collection.

“The Dead Valley,” by Ralph Adams Cram.  Cram was known more for architecture than fiction, but this story of, well, a dead valley, is certainly memorable.  Aickman says it “describes the border landscape between the outer vision and the inner.”

“The Visit to the Museum”, by Vladimir Nabokov.  A man’s trip to a provincial museum becomes increasingly surreal, and he may never exit, at least not to a destination he desires.

“Gone Away”, by A.E. Coppard.  Aickman (perhaps not much of a traveler?) claims that anyone crossing the English Channel will have, at times, the feeling expressed in this story of three tourists encountering inexplicable events as they drive through France.  Coppard skillfully portrays a quickly burgeoning panic here.

“Governor Manco and the Soldier,” by Washington Irving.  Irving is far from New York in this enjoyable Spanish tale.

“The Cicerones,” by Robert Aickman.  For me, at least, this is one of Aickman’s more opaque tales (which is saying something).  Trent tours a Flemish cathedral with some unexpected guides.  “The Cicerones” is full of religious allusions and sustained menace.

“Old Mrs. Jones,” by Mrs. Riddell.  In this Victorian novella, a new family rents an old house in London, only to learn that the ghost of Mrs. Jones is said to roam about at night.  The Joneses mysteriously disappeared (“The Kilkenny cats left their tails behind them, but the doctor and his wife took away every bit of their bodies”), hence the availability and affordability of the house.  “Solid literary craftsmanship” here, as Aickman puts it.

“Over an Absinthe Bottle,” by W.C. Morrow.  Down on his luck, Kimberlin plays dice with a stranger in a San Francisco restaurant.

“Where the Woodbine Twineth,” by Davis Grubb.  Grubb, best known for Night of the Hunter, lays on the Southern flavor in this concise tale of New World fairies.