Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit (2019).

They can't all be easy.  One of the major tasks of the critic is to figure out just how much the author knows about their chosen subject.  That's the big rule of thumb when it comes to reviewing a biography.  Once you enter that territory the job isn't just about trying figure out what a metaphor in a work of fiction means.  Now all of sudden, you've got to find out how all those metaphors relate to the life.  I don't suppose it's too much of a stretch to believe this basic rule applies not just to the critic, but also to any biographer who hopes to present an accurate and successful picture of the life they've devoted their book to.  This goes double in those cases when the biography's subject happens to be an accomplished artist.  Perhaps the worst gig in the non-fiction section falls to those historians who are able to discover an unsung talent, and then find themselves saddled with the conviction that their subject deserves to gain a voice at the popular level.  Good luck to them is all I can say.  It's not an impossible goal.  It's just the the task is a lot harder than if you devote a book to a well-known personality (however long that's supposed to last).

I guess that's what makes talking about Edith Nesbit something like a real challenge.  She seems to occupy one of those strange, liminal places in the great pantheon of Fantasy fiction.  She doesn't appear to be an unknown name.  On the other hand, I've never seen or heard of her being mentioned as high up there with the big names as she perhaps deserves.  She was a very popular children's author in her day.  That's the basic fact of her claim to fame.  She seems to have done a more than decent enough job of it, all things considered.  Her accomplishment lies in the way she helped set up a lot of the images, themes, settings, and plot points that sort of define the way we think about certain fantasy novels.  She's been described as a pioneer more than once, and the label seems to fit.  That becomes pretty obvious once you decide to leaf through the pages of even one of her short story collections.  Her secondary worlds can sound familiar, until you stop and realize that the reality is you're encountering a lot of familiar faces for the first time.  Here is how Eleanor Fitzsimmons opens her study of the author.

"When I was a little girl who borrowed weekly adventures from my local library, my favorite stories were by E. Nesbit.  Best of all were her tales of magic, and of these the book I loved most was The Story of the Amulet.  I accompanied her fictional children to ancient Egypt, Babylon, and the lost city of Atlantis.  I met Emperor Julius Caesar as he stood on the shores of Gaul looking across toward England.  I was filled with hope on reading her account of a utopian London where everyone is happy and wise.  In "Praise and Punishment," chapter nine of Wings and the Child, her manual for a successful childhood, Nesbit herself explained: 'There is only one way of understanding children; they cannot be understood by imagination, by observation, nor even by love.  They can only be understood by memory.  Only by remembering how you felt and thought when you yourself were a child can you arrive at any understanding of the thoughts and feelings of children'.

"Confirming that the children in The Story of the Amulet were the "second cousins once removed" of her beloved Bastables from earlier books, she confided: 'The reason why those children are like real children is that I was a child once myself, and by some fortunate magic I  remembered exactly how I used to feel and think about things'.

"The key to her brilliance was that she was one of us, and her magical adventures felt as if they could easily happen to you or to me.  Her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography explains this: 'Her characters were neither heroes nor moral dummies, but real young human beings behaving naturally.  This gift of character drawing, aided by the ease and humor of her style, place her in the highest rank among writers of books for children'.

"A profile published in September 1905 in The Strand Magazine, where Nesbit's most popular stories were serialized, praised her "astonishing versatility" and her "almost uncanny insight into the psychology of childhood."  A review in John O'London's Weekly noted: "Take a book by E. Nesbit into any family of boys and girls and they fall upon it like wolves."  Of her own style, she wrote: "I make it a point of honour never to write down to a child."  In an interview with the Dundee Evening Telegraph, she insisted: "It's quite natural that a child should believe in fairies."

In Treasure Seekers and Borrowers, Marcus Crouch suggested of E. Nesbit: "No writer for children today is free of debt to this remarkable woman."  He believed that she "managed to create the prototypes of many of the basic patterns of modern children's fiction."  Nesbit came of age in the Victorian era, but she did not leave us more of the stiff, moralizing tales that characterized the nineteenth century.  Instead, as Crouch explained, she "threw away their strong, sober, essentially literary style and replaced it with the miraculously colloquial, flexible and revealing prose which was her unique contribution to the children's novel."  She wove her whimsy and magic into the everyday lives of children, and they would not easily let this go (ix-x)".

Before we get to the biography itself, there's just one or two details of the passages above that stick out like thorn branches in an otherwise smooth looking field of green.  Maybe it's just the pedant who took up residence in my head sometime after learning to read, however it seems like the two authors might have missed something.  To start with, Crouch and Fitzsimmons claim that Nesbit replaced a so-called literate, Victorian style with her own modernized form of prose language.  Perhaps I made a mistake?  I'd always thought since high-school that it was guys like Charles Dickens who were responsible for creating what a new "sober...colloquial, flexible" prose style with novels like Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities.  In books like those and others, Dickens was able to take the stylistic flourishes honed during his years as a journalist and then applied it to to his artistic imaginings.  What he did was take the local dialects, accents, and ways of speaking, and give them a voice that had never been seen on the page before.  In doing so, Dickens was able to created a kind of stylistic space that allowed pretty much all the best authors who came after him (Nesbit included) to find their own voices.

As for the claim of Nesbit's creative work being a "breakaway from all "the stiff, moralizing tales that characterized the nineteenth century", I have just one question.  Are you talking about books like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn?  If so, then the choice is odd, to say the least.  I don't think I've run across a nineteenth century text which was more irreverent and disrespectful of all the social idols of its day, a lot of which are still with us.  If such a book is the epitome of stiff moralization, then its a wonder that it still remains the most controversial and banned text in existence.  It really does seem as if Twain had managed an artistic feat that I don't think he intended.  He has managed to create a text which has gone on to become both totem and taboo at the same time.  Different things to different people, in other words.

I mention both of these literary lights because of the way Nesbit's own efforts might be seen as both mirrors or continuations of, and divergences from the same type of story.  What unites all three writers boils down to just a number of things.  All three of their lives encompassed the entire Victorian Era.  Each of them was a master of satire.  Nesbit's fantasies sometimes contain an element of humorous self-knowing that allows her to poke fun at her own pretensions.  This may account for one reviewer calling her the British Mark Twain.  Like Nesbit, the real Twain and Dickens were good at delivering barbs at a lot of well chosen targets.  I think the most important link between them all however comes down to the way in which each of them managed to discover they had an affinity to the fantastic.  The word I use for this is Victorian Romanticism.  It's phrase I've used here and there, and I don't know how it must sound to others.  It also doesn't change the fact its the best term I've got for the kind of rubric under which each of the three authors listed fall under, no matter how different their chosen subject matter.      


It's because of this, that I've got to maintain that any critic or reader who gets the crazy idea of trying wrap their head around an artist like E. Nesbit has to understand how both her life and art were shaped by the aesthetics of the culture she was raised in.  This in turn can help the critic get at a better understanding of who she was, and what she did.  The way Nesbit put all her fantastical landscapes down on paper, the events, ideas, and literature that inspired her, the various ways she discovered new uses for dragons and flying carpets, and how it all led her to become a literary pioneer is a story that's well worth telling.  I'm just left wondering if the biographer did a good job in this case.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Thus I Lived with Words: Robert Louis Stevenson and the Writer's Craft.

One of the questions I've been concerned with for a while now is just what is the nature of a lasting artistic reputation.  I think it's telling that the question is not one that a great majority would ever think to ask.  One of the hard facts of a bookworm's life is that when you sign on for such a gig, you've more or less joined a very small and informal fraternity.  There has never been a time, so far as I can tell, when a reading audience was ever able to make up a sizable, or influential majority of the world's population.  My own response to this slow growing realization has been complex.  On the one hand, there's nothing to wonder about in the strictest sense.  History shows a world in which the vast majority of its peoples have never bothered to pick up a book, much less take in a movie.  The whole thing is a continuous and recurring pattern that doesn't look to change anytime soon.  As far as anyone can tell, that has always been the norm.  On the other hand, if that's the norm, then I guess I can't help but find the whole thing disconcerting.  It just seems wrong to me that entire world cultures would neglect the various aesthetic artifacts that make up the best and brightest of their respective intellectual histories.  It all kind of makes me wonder how come certain authors are able to maintain their popular reputations over such a long span of time.  Robert Louis Stevenson is a good case in point.

He's one of those names on the tip of the tongue.  He's famous for something, and it's possible to just barely recall what that is.  His heyday was during the Victorian Era.  If any lingering historical memory of that period exists at all, then it's most likely to found in old, battered copies of Dickens and Jane Austen.  They seem to be the ones who have cemented the popular image of that decade the in the minds of audiences.  To be fair, part of the reason for that is because they really were just that good at capturing the atmosphere of their times and giving them the proper dramatic spin that would fashion it all into an indelible image.  When we hear someone described as a Scrooge, we have this near-instant idea of the kind of personality we are dealing with.  If someone encounters a quarreling couple who can't bare to leave each other, then so long as its not that serious, we might remember the main characters from Pride and Prejudice.  It's rare for even the most talented artists to leave that kind of a lasting impact.  That's what makes the survival of Stevenson so remarkable.  His legacy can be found in sentiments regarding the fate of fifteen men on a dead man's chest.  If you can complete at least the words that describe the second half of that old sea-chantey, then you may be familiar with Stevenson's works, even if the author himself remains a complete mystery.

That's a shame, because the man in question helped form a vital link in a chain of creative talents.  Together they more or less created a minor, yet notable renaissance in both English and American letters during the 19th century.  They were never anything like a formal group.  Each writer who can be listed as a contributor to this collective effort occupied a place in which their major efforts were done in the privacy of their own, individual studies.  Yet they also shared and critiqued their efforts among one another as peers.  If it is possible to give an academic label to this group, then perhaps the title that fits it all best is to describe them as the Victorian Romantics.  The phrase may have a certain apt ring to it.  There's a nicety about it that perhaps makes it easy to remember.  However, I'm convinced there's nothing facetious about it.  I really am willing to contend that all the best known children's authors of the Victorian Era were and remain the closest thing to a series of literary inheritors of an artistic tradition that in many ways helped to form and set the parameters of their differing, yet interrelated literary endeavors.  

It's the goal of this article to show that the work of Robert Louise Stevenson fits in well with this same tradition.  In order to do that, a close look at the writer's life and craftsmanship and will be a bit more than necessary.  So far as I can tell, there's never really been any other way of finding out what makes a good work of writing tick.  In Stevenson's case, the  task is not impossible, though it's a lot more laborious than it has to be.  The trouble with examining the art of Stevenson isn't that his life plays no part in it.  It's just that for the longest time I've had to struggle against a major obstacle when it comes to getting at all the relevant facts.  There's shared tendency among all of his biographers to become so fascinated with the life of the author.  This has happened time and again in all the major biographies that are still available.  The tendency is so widespread, in fact, that it can be traced all the way back to the slew of critical work that emerged in the wake of the death of the author.  To be fair, there is at least a certain kind of excuse to be offered here.  One of the marvels of Stevenson's life was his determination to live it to its fullest.  In his case, this meant embarking on a life that really did seem to match the old epic romances that populated his favorite storybooks as a young boy.  


As soon as Stevenson was old enough, he embarked on a series of excursions to lands old and (for him, at least) new.  It took him from the charm of Old Europe, the new blank canvas of the American West, and somehow it all ended up on the Samoan Coast.  It really was quite a life, and I think the key about it is that so few of us will ever be able to dare even half of what Stevenson accomplished.  This leaves the writer as something of a freak of nature.  He has found a way to make his own daily existence so remarkable that it's left all the various academics and enthusiasts in a kind of intellectual stupor.  There's just no way most people can pull that kind of thing off today.  As a result, it seems all too easy for them to get lost in the grandeur of the life at the expense of the art.  I can't recall many RLS biographies where the writer ever stopped much to ask how Stevenson's adventures on the high seas might have impacted a work like Treasure Island.  It's a real shame the way the buck keeps getting passed on like that.  The fault is all the more noticeable when you realize Stevenson is one of those obliging authors who are considerate enough to wear their influences on their sleeve, or else telegraph where and how they get their ideas by simply talking about how his day went.  I think it's time critics began to focus on how the life made up the art, rather than just focusing in on what happened to the author for its own sake.

The good news is I was able to find at least something that gets to the core of Stevenson's art.  I just had to agree to take my sweet time in getting there.  That's where today's book under discussion comes in.  It is just possible Annette R. Federico has done Stevenson scholars a kindness.  Whether it counts as a favor remains to be seen.  She has composed a book on Stevenson that zeroes in on his craft and inspiration as a writer first and proper.  This creates an ideal situation for the critic, because it allows something to talk about other than the contents of what the artist had for breakfast.  The basic purpose of Federico's book is laid out neat enough on the book's back cover.

"Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) loved more than anything to talk about the craft of writing and the pleasure of reading good books. His dedication to the creative impulse manifests itself in the extraordinary amount of work he produced in virtually every literary genre—fiction, poetry, travel writing, and essays—in a short and peripatetic life. His letters, especially, confess his elation at the richness of words and the companionship of books, often projected against ill health and the shadow of his own mortality.

Stevenson belonged to a newly commercial literary world, an era of mass readership, marketing, and celebrity. He had plenty of practical advice for writers who wanted to enter the profession: study the best authors, aim for simplicity, strike a keynote, work on your style. He also held that a writer should adhere to the truth and utter only what seems sincere to his or her heart and experience of the world. Writers have messages to deliver, whether the work is a tale of Highland adventure, a collection of children’s verse, or an essay on umbrellas. Stevenson believed that an author could do no better than to find the appetite for joy, the secret place of delight that is the hidden nucleus of most people’s lives. His remarks on how to write, on style and method, and on pleasure and moral purpose contain everything in literature and life that he cared most about—adventuring, persisting, finding out who you are, and learning to embrace “the romance of destiny (web)”.

Books like this present something of a challenge.  On the one hand, there are folks out there who just eat this stuff up.  Then there's the other half of the equation.  The simple truth is that most people tend to view works of fiction as mere indulgences, nothing more.  This second group often has a hard time understanding why anyone would want to devote their whole life to the scribblings of a guy like Shakespeare.  It really is a simple question of finding out just who is the right audience for a text like this.  It's a work of literary criticism which studies the words of an old, canonical author.  It devotes an entire book to this topic, and all for the sake of trying to attain a better grasp on the nature of creative writing.  In that sense, the book has a very definite goal.  I'm just wondering how many out there can find any value in it it.  For what it's worth, I'm willing to go far enough out on a limb to say that such a topic does have some kind of applicable value to real life.  The question is whether or not Federico and Stevenson are able to prove that value, and fulfill that book's stated goal?

Sunday, October 25, 2020

An Inspiration for Stephen King's The Mist?

"It's best to be as clear about this as I can - I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.  The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course).  If you can see things this way (or at least try to), we can work together comfortably.  If, on the other hand, you decide I'm crazy, that's fine.  You won't be the first (163)".  That's how Stephen King describes the way in which he gets his ideas.  It can all be found in his autobiographical instruction manual, On Writing.  Whatever else can or should be said about him, its obvious enough that King was dead serious when he both thought up and wrote down that statement.  I haven't seen him say or do anything else in all the years since that would lead me to believe he's changed his mind on the subject.  His is a career of soaring heights, mixed in the the occasional embarrassment.  Throughout it all, though, that idea of a work of fiction as an art that makes itself, or emerges from the depths of imagination as something fully formed, yet perhaps always seen through a dark glass, appears to have remained constant.

King has never been what you'd call a Rhodes Scholar, though he may have something in the way of a philosophy.  It's no real surprise, given his chosen profession, that a lot of it centers on what he calls "The Art of the Craft".  The real question is whether there is enough experience to bear his main idea out?  The good news, so far as I can see, is that I have heard other artists, not just book writers, but also playwrights, screenplayers, painters, and poets express the same conviction.  The best testimony of this same process at work has to come from the pen of J.R.R.Tolkien.  In the midst of his Collected Letters, Tolkien makes several repeated statements that he often had no idea that his most famous work was going to take the narrative twists and turns that wound up in the finished product.  "I have long ceased to invent", he says at one point, "(though even patronizing or sneering critics on the side praise my 'invention'): I wait till I seem to know what really happened.  Or till it writes itself.  Thus, though I knew for years that Frodo would run into a tree-adventure somewhere far down the Great River, I have no recollection of inventing Ents.  I came at last to the point, and wrote the 'Treebeard' chapter without any recollection of any previous thought; just as it now is.  And then I saw that, of course, it had not happened to Frodo at all (italics mine, sic) (212)".

Likewise, Neil Gaiman once described his writing method in the opening preface to a screenplay of his called Mirrormask. "...I'll talk about it to the point where I'm ready to start writing, and then I start writing and find out the rest of it as I go along (12)".  Rudyard Kipling, meanwhile, maintained a lot earlier than either of the three authors mentioned above that all of his best work was done not by him, but rather under the influence of what he referred to as his daemon.  In other words, all he meant is that he couldn't fulfill his proper function as a writer unless the muse in his mind spoke up.  He claimed that all his best work was done under the influence of this same muse.  In fact, it is possible that Kipling's short narrative, "The Greatest Story in the World" is about how the creative work is lacking without the necessary inspiration in place.  It's main lead is a very shallow, modern young lad who wants to be a writer.  Most of what he writes is pure drivel.  Then there will come moments when something his mind speaks up, and an epic tale about the exploits of a Grecian galley slave start to form on the page.  When this influence withdraws, however, nothing comes out right.  The whole thing is an allegory that anticipates King's argument by at least a whole century.

The preponderance of written evidence all attests to the same conclusion.  In order to do their job, all the best writers have to get out of the way and let the imagination start talking of its own accord.  They seem to rely on it as something that has to be done even when the final results may be less than flattering to their own selves.  The point is that the story is always the boss.  To try an make it anything less is to tell a lie with no thematic truth anywhere in it, and hence, a complete and total failure.  What King and the rest of the cavalcade seem to have described is a method of composition that, in essence, is the closest any of them will ever get to something like a standard operating procedure.  It is what it is.  Like Mt. Everest, the human mind is something that is just there, and so is the peculiar function known as the imagination, which appears to be a part of it.  Some of us have found ways to tap into that function.  The results can be known by many names like The Odyssey, 221 B Baker Street, or Middle Earth.  These things have all happened, once upon a by.  And after all these years, the question of where do the stories come from is still hanging around.


I'm inclined to believe King, for what it's worth.  I've run across too much evidence (some of it cited above) of the kind of phenomenon he talks about to believe he's just making up some kind of excuse.  The interesting part is how it's an explanation that still leaves a sense of mystery behind, not because the author is trying to obfuscate, but really because its all he knows for the most part.  "In most cases", King observes, "three or four out of every five, let's say - I know where I was when I got the idea for a certain story, what combination of events (usually mundane) set that story off.  The genesis of It, for example, was my crossing a wooden bridge, listening to the hollow thump of my boot-heels, and thinking of "The Three Billy Goats Gruff."  In the case of Cujo it was an actual encounter with an ill-tempered Saint Bernard.  Pet Sematary arose from my daughter's grief when her beloved pet cat, Smucky, was run over on the highway near our house.

"Sometimes, however, I just can't remember how I I arrived at a particular novel or story.  In these cases the seed of the story seems to be an image rather than an idea, a mental snapshot so powerful it eventually calls characters and incidents the way some ultrasonic whistles supposedly call every dog in the neighborhood.  These are, to me, at least, the true creative mysteries: stories that have no real antecedents, that come on their own.  The Green Mile began with an image of a huge black man standing in his jail cell and watching the approach of a trusty selling candy and cigarettes from an old metal cart with a squeaky wheel (vii)".  In the case of a story like The Mist the inspiration seems to have been of this same sort, for the most part.  

The way King tells it, he was doing nothing more than browsing through the aisles of a supermarket when the moment of inspiration just walked it right to him.  "In the market, my muse suddenly shat on my head - this happened as it always does, suddenly, with no warning.  I was halfway down the middles aisle, looking for hot-dog buns, when I imagined a big prehistoric bird flapping its way toward the meat counter at the back, knocking over cans of pineapple chunks and bottles of tomato sauce.  By the time my son Joe and I were in the checkout lane, I was amusing myself with a story about all these people trapped in a supermarket surrounded by prehistoric animals.  I thought it was wildly funny - what The Alamo would have been like if directed by Bert I. Gordon.  I wrote half the story that night and the rest the following week (750)".      

That's the point of origin account given, based on the author notes in his 1980s short shorty collection, Skeleton Crew.  There's no real reason to doubt his account.  I'm pretty sure King is just telling all he's ever really known about this story.  He's also one of those writers who isn't stingy about sharing the contents of his own personal library with fans and readers in general.  King often likes to drop the names of writers whose work has left him with a sense of inspiration or enjoyment.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that some of those books are short story collections.  I just wonder sometimes if any of those collections contain an entry by some guy known as H.F. Arnold.  Nobody knows him, that's a pretty sure guarantee.  The name is a drawn blank for most people, and I don't even know what he looks like.  He's just a name on a page, attached to a certain short story.  It's the contents of that story, however brief it is, that gives me pause.  It makes me wonder where writings like The Mist really come from.  Are there types of stories that get retold more often than audiences or artists think or know about?  Wouldn't it be funny if The Mist had an unknown inspiration?

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Suspense: Ghost Hunt (1949).

In my last post, I raised a question about the nature of Found Footage.  I was curious to know whether it was possible to trace its roots as far back as the Golden Age of Old Time Radio?  I don't think it's the sort of question many people bother to ask themselves, even among fans of the sub-genre.  I could be wrong on that.  However my own experience is that you can't make yourself curious about something you don't even know exists.  For most audiences, the Found Footage film had its big debut with the release of the original Blair Witch, way back in 99.  Like everyone else, I had no reason to suspect the sub-genre was a lot older than it looked.  There's even a nice bit of irony involved with my case.  I get to be even more of a punchline because I'd already listened to the story under discussion here today.  This happened way back sometime at the start or early mid-point of the 90s.  It was either in 91 or sometime during or prior to 1994.  It was really my folks who introduced me to the charms of yesteryear.  They did it through buying a compilation of what used to known audio as cassette tapes.  These were like the CDs of the analog era, except all the content was recorded onto spools of physical tape, rather than digital MP3s.  Anyway, one of these collections was a number of maybe three to five cassettes, with each side containing a 30 minute episode from a show I'd never heard of before. 

It was called Suspense, and after some digging, I've discovered that this was the closest thing to the Really Big Show of ancient, Dramatic Radio.  What's interesting to note is that I'm not sure of any TV show or series of this era that has been able to achieve the same height.  It's possible that a series like Breaking Bad comes close, yet even here, I'm sort of forced to remain unsure about that.  This is an irony that gets doubled when you realize Alfred Hitchcock had a hand in bringing Suspense to life.  It's a genuine, forgotten achievement.  Anyway, on one of the tapes my parents bought for me, there was one episode titled Ghost Hunt.  I was, and still remain, a very avid fan of the Horror genre.  It's what got me interested in reading books to begin with.  The fact that it could sometimes appear on TV, the movies, and now on radio was something of an added bonus that continues to this day.  Perhaps that's not so shabby an accomplishment when you consider how old a lot of that stuff is. 


I settled in, listened to the Ghost Hunt episode, had a good time, the worlds turned on its axis, as it always does, and things went on.  The irony comes in when Blair Witch  arrived on the scene.  Like a lot of folks in the audience, I was one of the very gullible ones who got caught up in that film's marketing ploy.  It was played with such brilliant perfection that there might have been a time when I was perhaps in the vicinity, on the verge of coming somewhere near to wondering if it was all true.  We all make mistakes, as the advancing years seem determined to prove to us all in various ways.  Even as a fake, though, whatever you want to say about its quality, what can't be denied is the skill with which the filmmakers were able to pull off their gambit.  It's kind of a small marvel, in its own way.  The real punchline, however, is just this.  I never saw, but rather listened to a story with what has to be more or less the exact same premise as Blair Witch.  To top it all off, the radio play beat Sanchez and Myrick to the punch by about 49 or 50 whole years.  The whole joke is perfected by a final revelation, one which might be surprising for the way in which it re-orients the nature of the Found Footage sub-genre.  That means there's plenty to unpack and examine here.  However, let's start one thing at a time.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The First Found Footage Story?: Orson Welles and the War of the Worlds.

A while back, I decided to set down what I expected to be just some minor opinions of my own on a very old art form.  The whole thing was really just a collections of notes and appreciations.  Nevertheless, the art known as Old time Radio was and still is something that I tend to hold in a rather high regard.  Its chief value lies in the way it forces you to pay attention to the stories it has to tell.  Because the medium relies on the very absence of any possible visual element, this very limitations forces the audience to pay closer attention to the writing of the story, and the quality of its language, rather than on questions of production value, or an ephemeral and fleeting star power.  Instead, the audience is left alone in the room the narrative itself, and all the possible impacts it can create and reverberate in the mind.

When I wrote down that original post, all I expected was a polite casual interest, the kind of thing you might look over once in some spare time between more important activities.  What came as a real surprise was just how much of a seemingly positive response that lone article was able to generate all by itself.  As of this writing, it has 314 views to its name.  That's not much in the big leagues, but in the starting circle of first time amateurs, that comes as something of a shock to me.  It's a very pleasant one, however.  I guess I'm just stunned to learn to that modern audiences can still hold such fervent interest in an art-form whose heyday was sort of already on the wane even to before the advent of the Beatles, and the whole Rock scene kind of eclipsed it for quite a while.  However a look at Google Trends reveals that interest the Golden Age of Radio currently stands at approximately 75%, with that number often rising sometimes as high as the 100 mark.  I am curious to know where this revival of curiosity for the format came from, as one of the stated goals of this site is to help foster just such a positive reaction to a lot of forgotten arts.  Whatever else this enthusiasm may mean, all I can be is grateful.

It's in the spirit of that gratitude, along with the mood turning toward Autumn and the season of haunts, that I thought it worth while to take another look at the old art form.  In particular I thought it would be interesting to examine a possible relation between Old Time Radio and one of the most notable (or just plain notorious) elements of our current Horror genre, the Found Footage Story.  It won't surprise me to learn that half the audience just left the room the moment they read that phrase.  In the strictest sense, I don't see how that's anything new.  Right now, Found Footage is shaping up to remain one of the most contestable sub-genres in the artist's toolbox.  It's a format that's regarded with both approbation and contempt in equal measure, and I don't see any sign of these disagreements going anywhere soon.  As long as some artists are tempted to try their hand at it, the argument over the format's strengths and faults will just keep right on going.


I'm pretty sure I'm the wrong person to throw my hat into this particular ring.  For one thing, I can't say whether I know much about it.  I don't care all that much about visuals in storytelling, not even when I'm convinced it's really good.  The question of production value and performance just never seems to have factored all the much into whether I consider a film good or bad.  Because of all that, I'm not quite sure where to begin or what to say about it.  The best I can do is offer an interesting idea.  What if films like the original Blair Witch or The Last Broadcast were really not the first actual Found Footage entries?  What if it's possible there were others who had beaten all these guys to the finish line?  Even better, what if a lot of the pioneers in this particular field are older than the 90s?  What if it's just possible to trace the roots of the sub-genre all the way back to a Golden Age in Hollywood?  It's quite a claim to set before a post-Paranormal Activity audience.  You'd have to find some very definite evidence to back up that kind of claim.  The good news is I think I've got all the proof I need, and a man named Orson Welles is just the artist to help out.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Rod Serling: Submitted for Your Approval (1995).

Lately, I've had time to reflect.  This seems to have been something of a gradual process.  After giving a few genre matters a lot of thought, my mind seems to have started out on a process of some kind.  My thoughts keep turning back to the Horror genre, though perhaps not in what's expected as the usual way in which the genre gets practiced today.  For some reason, in particular, I find myself going elsewhere.  I keep thinking about some of the old pioneers who helped give the Horror field the kind of shape and definition as we know it today.  I seem to be coming back to a concept I've mentioned once or twice before.  There are moments in history where the minds of several differing artists can nonetheless find themselves beginning to combine or coalesce into a series of mutually sustaining creatives groups.  These artistic formations seem to come about largely as a response to elements going on in the cultural zeitgeist of the times in which the artists find themselves.  It's happened once before in the Renaissance when scribbling fellows like John Donne, Ben Jonson, Chris Marlowe, and Bill from Stratford, England went on to make up a collection representing the high point of early modern literature.

The phenomena has repeated itself in various ways throughout the years since then.  The rise of the Modernist Movement in the early years of the 20th century may still be regarded as the most memorable forms this process can take.  For some reason, nobody has taken the time to look at other examples of this same experience.  I can think of at least two other times this happened in the field of American letters.  Author Peter S. Beagle, for instance, recalled being accepted for a Wallace Stegner Fellowship college grant that sent him packing to the shores of the West Coast to attend Stanford University.  What stands out about his time as a college student, aside from coming of age in the 60s, was the contents of the English class he had to attend.  It was less the course itself, and more the students Beagle found himself surrounded by.  When one considers the nature of these students, perhaps it makes better sense to speak of the talent involved in that long ago classroom.

According to Beagle's own account, it was "An amazing gang.  I admit that at times I felt completely overwhelmed.  There was Larry McMurtry, the first friend I made there, known now for Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show...He was only a couple of years older than I was, and really talented.  He wrote most of Leaving Cheyenne during our sessions.  There was a 25 year-old Ken Kesey, at that point working on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  There was Judith Rascoe, who was the niece or great-niece of a very influential critic named Burton Rascoe; Judith went on to write stories and some very good screenplays.  There was a Scottish guy named Robin MacDonald, whose wife, Joanna Ostrow, was Bronx Jewish like me.  Robin was the one with the fellowship, but Joanna turned out to be the real writer.  She would sit in on the class and years later, after the class was long over, she published an excellent novel called In the Highlands Since Time Immemorial.  There was Chris Koch, an Australian writer whose best-known work over here is probably The Year of Living Dangerously (The Last Unicorn, Deluxe Edition, 251)".

What's interesting to note about Beagle's experience is the way it sheds light on the phenomena of artists getting drawn together in order to create a series of landmark works.  What's interesting to note, however, is the idea or at least suggestion that a sense of group interaction is part of what makes such creativity possible in the first place.  It may sound speculative, however I'm willing to go out on a limb and maintain that the same creative clustering that formed the Renaissance writers and the Modernists was also at work for a brief time in that simple Stanford classroom.  If it all sounds haphazard, then it begs the question of why any conscious planning of these events is necessary at all?  I know there are authors or individuals who often can't go through a single day without trying to plan ahead.  The difference is that for the most part, what history reveals is that each creative voice starts out in isolation, then there's a connecting period where various voices are allowed to establish various form of contact with each other.  This is followed by a situation where inspiration, criticism, and feedback occur.  This moment, for however long it lasts, is often when the most competent voices are able to create their best work.  It is just possible, for instance, that Shakespeare would never have perfected his craft so well without the encouragement and criticism of Marlowe to spur him on.

The reason for highlighting that Stanford Class Collective is because of the way Beagle sort of helps link up one group of writers with another.  I've written about this second cast of characters before.  Together, they form of a collective known as the California Sorcerers.  I think Christopher Conlon still provides the best summary of this particular group, and their artistic achievements.  "For these men were, from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, part of a close-knit brotherhood of writers centered in the Los Angeles area that came to dominate not only printed SF and fantasy, but movies and TV as well as scripting between them many of the period’s best-known films (including most of the Roger Corman / Edgar Allan Poe movies), along with classic segments of Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond, and virtually every episode of The Twilight Zone. At its peak this association of creative artists also included, among others, Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Jerry Sohl, Ray Russell, and Harlan Ellison. These outstandingly gifted men were collectively referred to by several names, including “The Southern California School of Writers” and “The Green Hand” (after the Mafia’s “Black Hand”). But they were most commonly called, simply, “The Group (web)".  It's not much of an exaggeration to say this is the group responsible for our sense of the Modern Fantastic in arts and letters.

I'd like to take another look at one of their number.  The one I'm focused in on this time is a fella named Rodman Edward Serling.  He's lucky in that I don't think he needs much of an introduction.  If you know about The Twilight Zone, you might still have a rough idea of who he is.  He's that cool, creepy guy introducing everything to us.  Fair enough, yet where did he come from?  How many people know the host didn't emerge out of nowhere from the ether, and instead represents something of an American anomaly.  He was a Jewish New Yorker who was born and raised in an almost idyllic small town.  Apparently they still still had those back in 1924.  That's just one element many people don't know about him.  There are a lot of other facts worth uncovering.  Part of the reason for telling it has to do with questions of definition.  I've had some time to do a lot of thinking about the nature of Horror fiction.

After reading and looking around long enough, my mind seems to want to lay out a lot of things, so that modern audiences can gain a sense of bearings in the genre.  Part of that means helping to gain a realization of where all the best bad dreams come from.  In order to do that, sometimes it helps learning where certain tropes and ideas come from.  That's where shows like the Zone and guys like Serling come in.  For better or worse (and I'm more than inclined toward the former category), the host of the 5th Dimension is one of those sorts who helped shape and mold both Horror, Fantasy, and even a bit of Sci-Fi into what they are today.  How and why he did it are the real questions worth asking.  If you can provide at least part of the answer to either of them, then you're closer to understanding the works of art that help define a culture.  That's why it's gratifying to know that at  some point in the mid-90s, PBS devoted a slot of their time to what, at this writing, seems to remain the only full-length biography of the man who unlocked a door with the key of imagination, and found beyond it another dimension.  It was called Rod Serling: Submitted for Your Approval, the reasons for looking into it go as follows.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Ray Bradbury Theater: Downwind from Gettysburg.

If I had to describe the author in just a few words for today's audiences, then I guess you'd have to call him an unknown tap root; a well or source of inspiration.  It won't surprise me too much if that doesn't make sense to most folks.  "What the hell are you even talking about?" is a question they sort of can't avoid if they don't know any given subject.  In our day and age, a lot of the past is an undiscovered country.  I'd have to advise anyone who stumbles upon it to tread lightly.  As long as you're dealing with the all the stuff you know about, then you're in your element.  If you come across a piece of the past that just happens to be lying around, then watch out.  If you're not careful, pretty soon you'll find out what it's like to be reduced to the level of a five-year old once again, long after you've left the crib far behind.  If you insist on digging up the past, then pretty soon you'll have no real choice in the matter except to ask what this or that element means, and why, and how come?  The only other option is to just leave the past where you found it and pretend as if nothing happened.  This can seem like a very safe option for a lot of people.  The only trouble is that your choices get a bit more complicated if it turns out that the only to move forward is to explore backwards just a bit.

My point is that when you bring up guys like Ray Bradbury, the topic becomes difficult to discuss on account of there's a lot to talk about, and most folks don't know it, and so they don't have much choice in knowing where to begin.  Who was this guy, anyway?  The simple answer is that he was a writer.  Just one of those old geezers who used to be a phenomenon in the drug-store paperback trade.  There was a time, maybe some of your grandparents still know it, when you might be lucky catch one of his short stories tucked away in the folds in an old copy of The Saturday Evening Post, or even Playboy.  Sometimes one of his books could be found on those old revolving racks they had placed up on the counter.  There, if you were lucky, you might spot one of his titles.  The name tags to look for would have been such fair as The Illustrated Man, R is for Rocket, and S is for Space.  If you were in luck, sometimes one of those old magazines would feature a macabre little gem like The October Game written under his hand.

There was a span of time when the writing and publishing of printed stories was a great deal more profitable than it is now.  Back before the 80s, if a story wasn't on TV or the movie theaters, it could still be found in the pages of a peculiar artifact known as a book.  This odd looking specimen, composed in the main of processed pulp wood and smeared from cover to cover with ink and paint once represented the height of literacy for countries all over the world.  Raymond Douglas Bradbury was one of the many ink-stained wretches who able to earn a living by getting his name published in those artifacts.  He set a great deal of store by them.  I think I recall him saying in an interview once that all anyone needs to start a civilization is to create a library.  I'm willing to argue he has a point.  I'd just be sure to add essentials like fertile soil and a usable water source into the bargain.

That's perhaps as decent an introduction as anyone can provide for an author like Bradbury.  The trouble is it doesn't really go far enough.  It's serviceable for a first introduction, and like many initial greetings, it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of things.  It might seem odd to make such a fuss about a writer whose no longer around anymore.  However, if that's the case, then who is H.P. Lovecraft?  If you can provide an answer to that question, then why do you value him so much?  What is it that makes him special?  I know the answer, I just wanna hear it from the fanbase.  Public awareness of the writer from Providence remains at a healthy 50 to 75 percent.  Bradbury's name also hovers around in that same percentage bracket.  The main reason Lovecraft is still hanging around, even from the grave, is that all these years later his writing still has a way of creeping underneath the readers skin and attacking the place where you live.  It's one of the best hallmarks of a good Horror writer.  Because of this, fans keep his work alive, even while trying to grapple with the more problematic aspects of his life and thought.

For some reason, it's easier to recognize the legacy of certain artists more than others.  Lovecraft is one writer with a noticeable legacy.  Walter Elias Disney is another.  However I don't know for certain whether it's realized that Bradbury has left just as big an impact as the other two.  In order to understand Bradbury's innovations, I think it really does help to situate him between the two other artists just mentioned.  If you talk to any genuine Lovecraft fan, he'll tell you that what makes the author unique is how he was able to provide a voice for the Horror story that was able to bring the genre into a modern idiom.  If we take that claim as our starting place, then it serves as a decent enough point to figure out where Bradbury stepped in.

The one element that ties Lovecraft and Bradbury together is that they are both products of a thriving Pulp Magazine market.  Like Howard Philips, Bradbury got his start in such publications as Weird Tales and worked, or wrote his way on up the ladder.  There are a few things that Bradbury does in his own writing that sort of echoes Lovecraft, even if he winds up taking it all in a totally different direction.  Like Howard Philips, Bradbury could utilize the basic concept of taking some kind of fantastic element (an object,wraith, or creature) and set it down in a contemporary modern setting.  So far, there's nothing that would differentiate his work from the Providence scribe.  The difference really begins to come in when you notice the branching directions each writer takes.  One of them seems to withdraw from the world, while the other tends to expand outward towards it.  Where Lovecraft might start his tales in the normal halls of academe, or in wooded lanes and country roads, his narratives often take a direction that tends to leave these normal setting behind.  The Great Old Ones tend to cut the reader off from his surroundings, and leave everything in an impossible plain of existence.  In this sense, Lovecraft's work is more introverted and solitary.

Bradbury, on the other hand, will often cause both monsters and marvels to enlarge our picture of the world.  Rather than have his protagonists withdrawn from their normal settings, Bradbury's characters often have to learn to adjust their picture of reality to the kind that leaves room for the possibility that one day a dinosaur might be seen lumbering down Main Street, or that a Martian can move in next door, or that witches can still travel in night sky lit up with all the benefits of the electric light.  The most noticeable aspect of these tropes lies in exactly the way the artist uses them.  It seems as if Bradbury's major literary accomplishment was to discover a modern expression for a lot of the elements of ancient myth.  He appears to have found a way to make a poltergeist in the attic relevant to modern audiences.  This might sound like a very minor narrative element to highlight.  If that's the reader reaction then I'm going to argue it says less about Bradbury as a writer, and more about how audiences have grown dulled to the original innovation.  These days we've become so used to a lot of the tropes the Waukegan native helped put on the map that we don't even recognize where they came from.

Perhaps that's the real irony about Ray Bradbury's career.  His achievement may very well have been so all-encompassing, that it's managed to obscure the writer who made it all possible.  If Ray's biggest artistic achievement is to bring the fantastic into modern suburbia, then it also forces the attentive reader to realize just how much this creative inspiration has affected all the other artists who came after.  Bradbury's stories of myth's encroachment on the contemporary world in a modern garb finds its inheritance in the concept of vampires taking over a small New England town, to a lone alien getting lost and stranded on Earth having to find his way home.  The key thing to notice is that none of these ideas would have been anywhere near as possible if Bradbury hadn't come along to test the waters first.  From that perspective, it makes sense to argue that Ray's impact on the history of genre fiction is just as big as Lovecraft's.  It is just possible that Bradbury's legacy goes perhaps just a bit further.  Philips's impact seems to extend to the nature of the Gothic field, whereas Ray's manages to effect a very quiet revolution in how authors across to popular fantastic genres compose a lot of their works in terms of style, tone, and a wider range of content.

Some may argue that I'm trying to turn a molehill into a mountain by pointing all this out.  I'm gonna have to reply that somewhere along the way we got a bit too used to treating a mountain as if it weren't even there.  Without Bradbury, guys like Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, or Stephen King wouldn't have had the basic building blocks they needed in order to jump start their own careers.  None of them could afford to be sui generis.  Each of the three just mentioned had to go through their own creative apprenticeship in order to get at where they are now, even if, in some cases, the audience no longer quite realizes it.  That's no small feat, even if you can't bear to look at it.  I guess what I've been trying to say through all this is that everyone remembers freaks of nature like Lovecraft, however Bradbury was the major league champion who gave the others a kind of necessary ballpark to play in.  I think any genre fan would do well to remember that.  If that fact is kept in mind, then a lot of the tropes associated with the genre, and their usage over the years begins to make a bit more sense.  It's less of a series of disconnected fragments, and more like a collage that goes together to make up something like a coherent secondary world, or maybe something close to a shared stage in which each could find a place to perform their respective arts.

I brought up at least one other artist in the menagerie of names listed above.  Unlike Bradbury, this one is still somewhat lucky.  He doesn't need much in the way of an introduction.  Almost everyone who's anybody knows, or thinks they know who this other artists is.  However, there are a few gaps and omissions in the dossier.  Part of the problem with being a recognized brand name is that all anyone can ever know about is based on little else except popular reputation.  When you hear the phrase "The Happiest Place on Earth", you more or less know who and what you're dealing with, up to a point, anyway.  The very name tag conjures up a kind of collective memory of images and associations, whether for good or bad.  The one subject it doesn't necessarily conjure up right away is the figure of Ray Bradbury.

To be fair, why should it?  Places like Disneyland are a lot more than just one ink-stained wretch scribbling away in a corner.  What the hell would a guy like the author of Fahrenheit 451 have to do with the park franchise that gave us the new Guardians of the Galaxy ride?  If you reach a point like this, you've essentially reached the limits of the popular reputation for both artists.  Try and go beyond that point and you'll soon discover that the great majority of the audience simply can't talk about what it doesn't know.  Therefore you really can't blame them if they are surprised to discover that not only is there a connection between the respective creators of Main Street USA and Green Town, Illinois.  There is also a work of fiction which has forever joined them together.  It's tale well worth telling, if you've a mind to listen.