Monthly Archives: April 2013

A Demented Fictionalist

There’s a history to how I write fiction. A necessary history, which I only hope won’t bore you.

In the second year of my English degree, there came the option to write a short bit of prose or poetry – which, in an emergency, might bump up our overall class mark. This shortish thing was known as the ‘Original Composition’. As if that square moniker hadn’t frightened all the fun out of the task, I was running chronically low on ideas. Besides: I lacked conviction in my ability to write fiction of any kind. I still recall – with an icy shudder – my hubristic attempt to write a novel, aged only sixteen. I began by meticulously mapping out the symbols I would use. The novel was as good as dead from that moment. Perhaps there is some truth to the idea that the GCSE syllabus ruins one’s relationship with literature. Indeed, the humiliating lesson of my first few terms at Cambridge was that I really didn’t know how to write – and therefore to think – very well at all. (I do not state that words are essential to everyone’s thought processes; this was simply the situation I encountered.)

I always felt like a disappointing recusant of an English student. Sir Ian McKellen has referred to himself as being ‘a plodder’ at Cantabrigian English, but he at least had the advantage of: a) being Ian McKellen; b) not really trying that hard in the first place. I was James Swanton, and I tried bloody hard. I had no other option. The irritation of my work ethic is that it stretches even to pursuits that I don’t feel particularly invested in; less work ethic than dutiful doggedness. So I spent far too much time in the library and a little less time in various theatres. Which still worked out at twenty-four plays, but could so very easily have been twenty-five…

Thus did I embark on my Original Composition in a spirit of indignant self-immolation. I resolved to write the most ostentatiously pretentious story I was capable of. I turned out a few pages of senseless drivel. To drive the point home, I made up most of the words. This is borne out in their titles: at the end of second year, I wrote ‘My Homely Ownsome’; before my finals, ‘Skelterton’s in My Clubbet’. The towering irony is that the marks I received for both were far in excess of any marks I ever received for my academic work. If there’s a lesson there, it’s also a taunt. Like the parable of the Prodigal Son, it raises a truth that I’m happier not facing.

A little context before I get quoting. Both stories are an encapsulation of my simultaneous fear of and desire for entanglement with the human race. I suppose they’re also a rudimentary map to the contents of my brain. This is particularly clear in their unending connections to all kinds of cultural (but not necessarily cultured) artefacts. In the extracts below, I’ve found echoes of the following: The Simpsons (many and many a time); The Secret Garden (the film, not the book); the stage directions of Tennessee Williams (more than once); the artwork on the Sun-Maid Raisins packet; William Blake; Alice in Wonderland (for me, the word ‘wow!’ is overshadowed by that text); Universal’s House of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (two films that couldn’t be more different); Shakespeare (I make out bits of Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Lord knows what else); The Phantom Lament (an ambitious but fatally flawed play I wrote a few years back); Alfred Hitchcock; Stephen Fry’s anatomical analyses (those areas which are dark and tufted); the musical The Baker’s Wife; the history of the Technicolor film corporation; the village of Poppleton; ‘Little Miss Muffet’ (ludicrous word); Pozzo in Waiting for Godot; Tod Browning’s Freaks; my dear friend Callum’s coinage of the word ‘portalise’; the Marx Brothers (one of the more obvious ones); the Manor School Art department; etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum.

Now. This roving intertextuality isn’t my attempt to pass myself off as some great genius, or qualify myself for special plaudits. Oscar Wilde said it best:

Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.

Best not to contemplate the implications of having quoted the above… My point, I think, is that unconscious quotation is a process that goes on for everyone. My stories are unconscious quotation turned inside out: exposing that sticky membrane that underlies too much of my thinking. I’m forever making off with other people’s ideas, which limits my writings to various strains of pastiche. Maybe I’ll arrive at something really ‘Original’ one day.

Looking back on these extracts, I’m also reminded of a Quentin Crisp-ism:

Push your neuroses into a place where they don’t hurt.

Happy reading.


‘My Homely Ownsome’

Light Becomes Him

Boy is being rent at the seams and the creases and dark corners and crevasses by the shrieking pierce shooting in, laser-like, through the chinks in the great wooden barn-door that blocks free typewriter expressway, easy-access cavern monorail service; exposings whooshing, knife-like, far in and under-lash for pryful lid-well-aways, rending flesh to perambulate a span or two on dewy outreach bubble-yolks – jetting in, thundering, arrow-like, disruptive, beams quaking at the clamour, registering, noise-like, but then not actually or that’s just what I’d have said for myself, and myself now approach, I do – I approach robed and resplendent in noise. But not for ownsome’s.

The dread is palpable and indifferent. The light: yellow.

Up close, some radiant boy. A great smouldering garland of hair, black and rooky-woodening, befeathered at the endings and leaning cosmic. Face a monochrome mosaic, a children’s play-garden of black plant-life and white rocky bases. Black seashells on his shore. Of limbs, a ripening primacy, a budding into youthy vigours, like crush of fruit on sun-drivelled vine, like that likeishness preserved for me on a hundred moist raisin packets, all that particular drivel. Fairly drizzles from his massy, overwhelming brows. Snub nose. Stolid edifice. No hint of sphinxing, no bull-shitting here. I come into my most treasured rest. And I sit; and I stagnate; and I only ever but intermittently acknowledge the thrice-repured gather-ins of Baroness and Pinkin and the Grubbins in too.


‘My Homely Ownsome’

Perversion of O!

It would be comical had not the little centre of attention been caught at it and in it and at it again and again. A most improper puritan. But stomping always gives out full well away to romping, with the little black boy’s little black bed a very treasure-house of syphilitic plashing: forth and back, and out and in, and over and around again and in and in and in. And that of course is full precisely how imprecisely they come into his own – the devil’s own, for that is where He would say the devil went – spilling out like mewling cubs, oozed in amniotic bridal gowns, plucked new bright and bleating from the blackened womb: a-planted like a bomb-some at the bed’s very rootings. Why, it gets to the core of one. Cannot ne’er-do-well contemplate the sweet velvet pop and dissolution. To well envision the juddersome rubbings o’er smooth eiderdown and palatial mint carpet. So many heads, so little bed. A strain of diametric lessening, you know-somes, each boring and beating spirit blood and bone away, leaving only the most paper-thin cut-paper membrane. A little on the side of the transparents. Skin displaced from blackened caverns. Could turn a whole being inside out from these prising, flowsome chinks. Just clamp down and pull – come apart, O! come apart. Sublime devastation. The circle spun complete. Some show of blood, much more of oil.


‘Skelterton’s in My Clubbet’

Desperate Insecurity as a Basis for Cordial Theatre

And did. I flunkering hate that attitude. Flubbing well. That very platitude he digs away at, squirreling at the wainscoting, skit-knittering and tickering and flittstittering like a mad old old mad sparrowlark. Plaster-creakle-tits twirl jizzensquirk uppentimes. Agitardo movementation. Allegri, allegro, flitter-gib bibbington! Tee-tum, tee-tum, tee-tum, tee-tum – tee-tum tee-tum tee-tummy of Skelterton bouncey-pounce, don’t mucha like it now, a-neurgh-neurgh-neurgh (PRIG! of extreme validatory youthiclucks): gimmee at the pail and the golden curl; gimmee at the discardy Judy Garland dress what don’t not never not cinematograph in the on-model colourings except on posting-away Great Depressio Natalie-Kalmus-an-interfering-bitch film stock; gimmee at the village hall panto, stripped-down sex appeal fearatricks, primary-colour Eyes of Glob whiffling unpenetrened pungencies down upon my frilla-laced, polka-dotted, but very much unpoked and unlaced and unpanted skinitude. Gimmee yer grouncerings and trounce-plunkerings, yer blink-maddington-madammers. Harrumph-harrumph, goes the curla-haired, pinnied-up garrump. Truth be told (will be), all the humpity, tuffet-bred outcasts are welcome to my Fearatear: that arena pledged existence-contingent on the stretchaplush canvas of the steadermore grey matter pressed in-between my earatrics. We Twair! We Grubby Twair Within! The Fantasmalongerers! The Barnum-Bunterers! The Man-With-The-Bear-At-The-End-Of-His-Rope! We fess-longer in-upon your floss-candied cheeping-seats: fronter, lower, aisle and back, back, back. Your structuring attraction. Pigeon-chested, bird-brained, wing-backed, pea-cocked, chicken-breasted, chicken-hearted, mag-pied. Back and back again! Birdygirl Koo-Koo’s travellincompanions. Blast from out back birdalogue. Cat-a-pounce. Wow-wow-wow.


‘Skelterton’s in My Clubbet’

Helter-Skelterton to the Cock-Tailed Bar

And on and on and on we go, going on it like the clappers. Clap-clap, clap-clap, clip-clap, clap-clip, our down-spun trainsportalisation ever-reaching just-a-jut. Nib-nib, nib-nib, nab-nib, nib-nab, we sli-hi-hide from croopy up-oblysessed nibblings to the absolute incontrovert binnlings – consigning the old way to the bin, with downward swoop-exchelsior, just as we go a binly, binly, binnington-bins, just as we go binwise, just as we go bin the right direction to get to the binnermost core bin the earth, e’er since it is birth, all its berth, uh-huh-huh-hucksterrblery flinng. With a plin-plin, plin-plin, plan-plin, plin-plan, I am but a wispling crushed ticker-tape encasement screwed every-way-which-away balled. Bald as the eagle; smooth t’touch. Screwball knock-about nonsense, Groucho an’ Harpo an’ Dow-bow-wowager. Screwed now. Balls to’t. Clap-clap, clap-clap, squeezing-pleasing, clap-clap, clap-clap, tracing-bracing, clap-clap-clap-clap, bite-tight, sight-tight, might-bite, bite-bite, clapper-clapper-clapper-clap, turns out we all got bladdered with the clap! Here’s our stop – ooh! – shaddup. False drama para-break. Here’s the stop, if you can cork your flabby hole about it for all on five second.

Seven second later, because adding on a one seemed too risible toe-the-line punch-o’-the-line, and adding on a three made for vulgar vowel wot I ’ate so mech th’t I cannae regre’ tit’s disinclusion: then! we skeltered down bar-wise. A generic cubicle of neo-depressive kitchken-surfacings and aluminium braced-tracerings and cut-glass bottled-window accoutrements, with dispensable blonde barman accessory. The light, though, the light! Light, even – is what convalesced it, swoopingly, crimpingly, unto our gentle sensors. A light well-lent to lightning nose-dusts. Brush down. Goggles. Art-room shades. Gangrenous powder paint. Bilious oils. And waters colouring musty. In at the green-room, art-room, green-bar-var-var-voom-room. Roused by waters, I proffer taily tonic for mine self, for Skelterton: the cocky cordial, for (which) Skelterton leans crematoriously in on in on barman. Hoping at manbar. Making him as devil-may-care dispensable as ever even devil would not dare. He forth-billows – henchly – gropes unto his quarry – havahushly – then, bollockses up, and collapses onto – me! hunchingly me! – bollocks up (displorable behaviour), and we make for cutaway sofa fragment.

The third entry in the series – ‘We’re Sorry He’ – has been on my must-write list for almost a year. It shall be written. And I might very well post an extract.

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Fantasy Noir

In addition to passing myself off as an actor-writer – a trajectory more dependent on waiting around than bustling about – I’ve become an amateur professor of horror cinema. ‘Horror’ cinema, mind. This is instantly problematic. Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, two of horror cinema’s greatest exponents, have decried the use of the word ‘horror’ at all. Instead, they prefer the non-repulsive, non-repellant word ‘terror’. Thus does the genre move from the base physical signifier – crypts, castles, the odd limb being hacked off – and into a more purely emotional sphere. Any film that arouses uncanny feeling can enter the fray. Which is exciting, but also unhelpful; perhaps dangerously inclusive. Thus does horror fuse with science-fiction and fantasy. Everything from Alice in Wonderland (1933) to The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) becomes ripe for inclusion. Even Citizen Kane (1942) can be horror, with its decaying house on the hill.

Recently, I’ve started to regard my field as ‘dark fantasy’ – five examples of which I’ve gathered below. Coining a term – fantasy noir? – again creates confusion. After all, two of these films (The Penalty and They Drive by Night) contain no fantasy elements whatever. Yet they warrant consideration by virtue of their central performers, their art direction – their atmosphere, above all. An atmosphere that takes the viewer to the very heart of what darkness might be; that which is normally sheltered, cloistered – closed off from prying eyes and innocent sensibilities.

The dark fantasy ushers the viewer into a world of childhood terrors. I’ve found it to be a fertile imaginative stomping-ground – so I’ll be including references to other films that fit the category, even though they didn’t make the cut (this time).

THE PENALTY (dir. Wallace Worsley, 1920)

The Penalty (1920)

I’ve only seen one other Wallace Worsley film: the silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), which also starred Lon Chaney. It’s intermittently compelling, but defined by a kind of massy immobility – its largely static camera in the thrall of enormous historical landmarks. This flat, near-documentary style is much better attuned to The Penalty, a gritty trip through America’s criminal underworld. The urban settings, daringly contemporary in 1920, are now as fascinatingly alien as Medieval Paris; the beautifully textured sets have some of the grit of Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse epics. But despite these passes at verisimilitude, The Penalty is pure melodrama. The scenes with the surgeon’s daughter are as melodramatic as they come, with romantic tropes fighting for supremacy: the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ encounter of heroine and villain; a statue of Satan, plucked from Milton’s Paradise Lost; even the background of the sculptor’s workshop, betokening a gender-switch Pygmalion. Yet bringing these elements into such concentration produces a redemptive intensity. Melodrama is also what we have in Lon Chaney’s virtuoso performance as Blizzard, the criminal mastermind. Blizzard is Chaney’s inaugural displaced human being – and perhaps his most powerful. (I’m discounting Chaney’s lost turn as a contortionist in 1919’s The Miracle Man.) Chaney’s athletic stamina – folding his legs back on themselves to simulate amputation – is impressive in its own right. It’s a credit to Chaney’s genius that such pyrotechnics rarely upstage his demonstrations of Blizzard’s fractured soul. Displacement was always key to a great Chaney performance. In the depths of Blizzard’s hideout, there’s a room piled high with hats – a detail never fully explained. However: it begins to makes sense when one notes that there are no heads to fill them. And like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Chaney’s most famous character, Blizzard finds solace in music – another tantalising displacement, given that this is a silent film.

VAMPYR: DER TRAUM DES ALLAN GREY (dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)

Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr is a film I’ve grown to love on subsequent viewings – a film that’s altered the way that I think about films. My first viewing was in a terribly scratched and battered print. This can have its advantages. In the case of films such as Bela Lugosi’s White Zombie (1932), poor sound and picture quality is at one with the film’s atmospheric impact. Even restored, Vampyr unfolds like a ghastly fever dream. Scene after scene revolves around confined spaces, many apparently restful: bedrooms, beds, sickbeds – most potently of all, entrapment in a tomb or a coffin. But it’s from these confined spaces that a new view of the world is made possible. Dreyer’s subjective camera, as Allan Grey stares up out of his coffin – improbably embellished with a glass aperture – suggests that death can be seen as an ascension to a new point-of-view (an advance on Edgar Allan Poe’s one-note terror over premature burial). There is nothing linear about Vampyr, neither logically nor visually. It’s a film that exists in three dimensions. The way in which depth is instilled in an ostensibly flat screen is testament to Dreyer’s visual prowess: fog, cobwebs, flour, gauze, and, astonishingly often, windows. It’s entirely different to The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which plays like a succession of moving woodcuts, indelibly writ against spotless white backgrounds. Perhaps most importantly, Vampyr is the film that restored ghostliness to prime position in the vampire myth. I can’t wait to see it again.

THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (dir. Arthur B. Woods, 1938)

They Drive by Night (1938)

Emlyn Williams is an actor for whom I’ve often felt an affinity: an Oxbridge player of Dull (in Shakey’s Love’s Labour’s Lost), a creator of the shows in which he appeared (most famously Night Must Fall in 1937), and a tourer of one-man Dickens plays. This film came as a surprise. Williams is an unconventional romantic lead. But he is extraordinarily charismatic, and it’s refreshing to see this stocky, shortish bisexual playing a sort of Anglicised James Cagney. Another of the film’s assets is its sheltered, shadowy cinematography – oppressively dark without drawing attention to itself. This claustrophobic look is characteristic of British cinema of this period; I think particularly of the Karloff vehicle The Ghoul (1933). That film featured Ernest Thesiger as an improbably Scottish butler. And Thesiger is the key reason to seek out They Drive by Night – for his performance as Walter Hoover, the ‘Silk Stocking Murderer’. It’s very rare that an actor will successfully make my skin crawl. Thesiger, however, has managed it. Thesiger’s most famous characters are those he created for James Whale: Horace Femm in The Old Dark House (1932) and Dr Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Rightly or wrongly, his effectiveness in these roles tends to be pinned on his homosexuality. With Hoover, it’s much less distinct. If anything, the character is founded on a perverse sexlessness, compounded of a powdery age (which doesn’t seem like age at all), an excruciating intellectualism (his dubious God complex, in knowing Williams can’t be the murderer…) and Thesiger’s naturally goblin-like appearance. The last scenes are surprisingly nerve-shredding, as the viewer comes face-to-face with what gets Hoover’s blood pumping. Much more comforting is the film’s near-parodic Englishness: characters drink from what can only be described as flagons of tea in every other scene.

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (dir. William Dieterle, 1948)

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

William Dieterle is a sadly overlooked director. This may have something to do with his gift for facilitating showy acting. Dieterle’s previous dark fantasies were made by their lead performers. This is borne out in their titles: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) belongs to Charles Laughton’s peerless Quasimodo; The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) owes its heart to the superlative work of Walter Huston’s Mr Scratch and Edward Arnold’s Daniel Webster. A notable anomaly in Portrait of Jennie is that it has no title card; true to form, the film is memorable for its ensemble feel rather than one individual’s bravado. Yet a few actors linger in the memory. Ethel Barrymore is truly fantastic, and very touching as the spinster; it says volumes about the film’s universe that a character untouched by romantic love is the one who knows most about it. There’s also Lilian Gish’s cameo as the Mother Superior, in a tell-all scene reminiscent of The Uninvited (1944). It’s a nice bridge between her silent heroines and her glorious, late-career reinvention in The Night of the Hunter (1955). The memorable dashes of colour from the supporting cast suggests a world of drifting human beings who are nonetheless united by their loneliness. Dieterle gives forties New York the same awe-inspiring atmosphere as Notre Dame cathedral, which is a very welcome complement. Portrait of Jennie is a film laden with glorious surprises. The use of Debussy is tremendous, if at times a bit paint-by-numbers: ‘Nuages’ appears over oppressive shots of storm clouds; ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ is rolled out in the many discussions of Jennie (a brunette, by the way). The occasional colour is also great. The tinting in the final scenes transports the picture back to the silent Expressionist cinema in which Dieterle once acted (he was among the players in Murnau’s 1926 Faust). And the revelatory last shot of Jennie’s portrait take its cue from The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), creating an unforgettable Technicolor tableau in a black-and-white universe.

INVADERS FROM MARS (dir. William Cameron Menzies, 1953)

Invaders from Mars (1953)

Following on from Portrait of Jennie, colour is used to very unsettling effect in Invaders from Mars. The film has the look of a tinted lobby card sprung to life. This is encapsulated in the recurring image of the picket fence, arched on a hill studded with pylon-like trees. Beneath is the hideout of the Martians, but it’s the fence that endures as an emblem of childhood terror. Menzies is an odd figure, but even his films of dubious quality – the preachy Things to Come (1936), the shaky Lovecraftian pastiche The Maze (1953) – are redeemed by their highly attuned visual sense. In this sense, Menzies might be regarded as the Tim Burton of early cinema: substance won mostly through style. Unsettling colour trickles down to the final scenes in the Martian stronghold. The green phosphorescence of the cavern smacks of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Meanwhile, that iconic bulging cranium, ensconced in a transparent glass bubble, resembles a flesh-and-blood version of the Wizard’s incarnation as ‘OZ… THE GREAT AND POWERFUL’. Menzies’ fence bears comparison with the truncated skylines of Cedric Gibbons’ Kansas: each designer creates an unashamedly artificial world, in which horizons seem to be limited by human constructions. Menzies’ fence also brings to mind the fence in The Night of the Hunter, which appears in silhouette as part of a child’s nightmare-torn vision. And purists (sorry: snobs) may balk at such a comparison, but Jimmy Hunt’s little David is markedly better than the children who monopolise The Night of the Hunter. David does have some characteristics of the Dickensian dwarf (John Carey’s derisive term for children who are self-sacrificing adults in disguise), but sufficient terror is created within the viewer to redeem this. There’s a bit too much talkiness, particularly towards the end – but Invaders from Mars deserves its reputation as a fantasy milestone.

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