Monday, December 30, 2019

A Tribute to Old Time Radio.

I sort of have my parents to blame for this one.  It all started a while back when was just a kid.  I was an avid book fan in the making back then.  I knew I liked what I had read to me, but I didn't yet know how to read.  Turns out this wasn't too much of a problem, however.  There were two reasons for that.  The first, and most important, is that I soon got rid of the whole illiteracy problem by learning to both spell out and pick up the meaning of the words, both on the page, as well as the ones my school teachers made me spell in notebooks.  Another factor in my favor was that I never lost the enthusiasm for books, and so it was the drive of that whole interest which finally made me drill down, grab a copy of R.L. Stine, and begin to pour over the letters I found inside.  It was something of a relief to discover they made sense.  It was even better when, a few minutes later, they also turned out to be pretty entertaining.

That was the major reason why I didn't have much trouble back then.  Another part of it has to do with the fact that I'd discovered an item that was called a "Book on Tape".  They were clunky, yet compact audio cassettes with little spools or reels of odd, ink-ish stuff woven around them like cloth on an old weaver's loom.  They had to be the novelest looking things I'd ever seen up to that point.  I don't think I had much time to give the cassettes all that much consideration however.  What riveted my attention was the cover of the miniature box the tape came in.  It was one of the familiar and macabre illustrations of an old artist named Stephen Gammell.  The cassette tape was an entire collection of the second volume in Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark series, and it was all mine.

I suppose it wasn't my first exposure to books on cassette.  However, the little I'd heard of this "hip new medium" was in the form of old collections of children's folk songs that my grandparents kept lying around, and maybe one of two condensed narrations of Disney's that I can still recall, but they are all a vague series of snippets of dialogue and one tune that I remember and yet can't make out at the same time.  I know there was perhaps one more in there, an kids audio of Return of the Jedi, however that's about as far as my exposure went at the time.  It's a bunch of voices from the aether that aren't quite live enough to be Memorex.

That Scary Stories tape, however, was something else.  I recall I had one of those cheesy old tape players, the kind with the sort of bright, garish colors painted on that would appeal to no one else except a little kid.  It's main casing was red with a yellow main speaker.  I could be wrong, yet it's just possible that the player buttons were blue, or something like it.  What I know a lot better is that I might have had a pair of headphones to go along with the whole ensemble.  I put on the head-set, unwrapped the cassette with what might have been careful eagerness or just plain carelessness.  It's the small details, after all, that seem insignificant as they happen.  It's the passage of time that somehow makes even the trivial seem like one big moment of important, like a form of code whose cipher has been lost.

Anyway, I know for a fact I opened the tape box and brought out a curious, squarish, white rectangular object.  You could just make out the spool of tape inside.  I don't think I knew what they meant, however.  I placed it in the tape player, and pushed play.  Or was it just an ordinary Walkman, and the multi-color player was from earlier?  Either way, a lever was flipped, there was an audible pop as the speakers began to work.  There was the arrival of a slow, rhythmic opening musical chord that in retrospect is sort of like a milder, slower form of the Halloween theme.  Or at least that's as close as I get get to a description.  The next thing I knew, I was listening to the voice of the Heat Miser from The Year Without a Santa Clause as he took me on a guided tour of a corpse who didn't know he was dead, vengeful wraiths from beyond the grave, a girl who survived a premature burial, a new mother with glass eyes and a wooden tail, as well as my first experience with the Gothic genre as a spoken performance.  That was my introduction to what is nowadays known as the audiobook.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Peter Pan Goes Wrong (2013).

It's part of the stated goal of this blog to take a closer look at the nature of stories in general.  Sometimes this can mean paying special attention to the way they are told.  One way to do it is to look at the narrative strategies used to tell a story.  Narrative strategy itself isn't all that common a word.  You're never likely to hear it outside of a creative writing seminar, or anything like that.  Since there's not a lot of familiarity to go with the phrase, it's no real shock to learn it's the kind of thing few people would bother to give a moment's thought about.  Like a great deal of ideas and concepts that fly under the radar, this doesn't mean they've ceased to exist.  Sometimes it doesn't even mean they''re no longer in use.

A good way to look at narrative strategies is to think of them as part of the bells and whistles that go along with the art of writing.  A particular use of the word could refer to the various techniques the writer has for getting across the desired artistic effect.  A good example is the way Spielberg is able to build up suspense around the main villain of Jaws.  Every scene in that film is about the build up towards the film's Great White.  When it makes its appearance at last, the moment is impactful because the movie spent the last half hour drumming into our heads the threat that it represents.  This is a relatively straightforward example of just one kind of narrative strategy.  There are other ways of telling a story.

One of them revolves around an old English theater tradition.  I suppose the most familiar label for this style of writing is Pantomime.  However, I think I prefer the more open-ended term of the Popular Dramatic Tradition.  The phrase isn't mine, by the way.  It belongs to someone else.  It's the main topic of Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition by S.L. Bethell.  That's a subject we'll get to in a moment.  For now it's enough to point out that the Popular Tradition amounts to a whole way of telling a story that's not so much different as it is out of sight and out of mind.  It also appears to be still in use today.

That's the only explanation I can offer for the existence of something like Peter Pan Goes Wrong.  It's a kind theatrical production I'm not quite sure most folks have seen before.  It's a commonplace across the pond, however.  Plays like this are older than the Bard of Avon and have managed to hang on as a staple of British entertainment long after the old scribbler for the Globe Theater breathed his last.  Pan Goes Wrong just seems to be the latest incarnation of the same Tradition I mentioned above.  It's the kind of play that might appear to offer little in the way of a serious artistic discussion.  The irony is that such a minor seeming jest really can point the way to an old alternative way of storytelling.  That's why I'd like to take some time to unpack this bit of theatrical sport and see what it can tell us about how much we've forgotten in terms of how to both write and pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves.  It might also be a decent enough way to spread a bit of holiday cheer to those who need it.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Man Who Would Be King.

The most common question an author gets asked is, "Where do you get your ideas"?  Part of what makes it so difficult to answer is that the ideas could just as well come from anywhere, at least to a certain extent.  J.K. Rowling has claimed that Harry Potter just stepped into her head one day while riding on a train.  Tolkien found himself faced with a blank sheet of paper and all at once wrote, "In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit", without any clue as to the meaning of the word.  Both cases are examples of what might be called sudden inspiration, or a story idea that occurs more or less of its own accord.  This is perhaps as close as anyone can get to a standard operating procedure in the creative arts.  However it's not the only way that a work of fiction is created.  It's also possible for writers to draw inspiration from the world around them.  Rudyard Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" is one of those cases where sometimes real life encounters lead to the creation of a totally made-up situation.

Kipling scholar Richard Jaffa is able to provide a glimpse at the events that set everything in motion.  "The origins of the story can be found in Kipling's correspondence.  In a lengthy letter to his cousin...He goes on to experience he had...on a train on the other side of India.  He describes how he met a man who was also a Mason.  "Ships upon the sea' are nothing compared to our meetings in India."  The man told Kipling that he had a friend coming across the Empire by train from the East, (that) he could not meet him but that Kipling's route meant his train, if on time, would cross this man's route.  He asked Kipling to take a message which he would not write, to give to this man.  The message was unintelligible to Kipling.  "My brother gave me this message...." continues Kipling.  He goes on to describe how at 5:00 a.m., on a cold winter's morning the Calcutta train drew up alongside his and he sleepily put his head out the window.

"Kipling relates, "I didn't want to go threshing all down the train - there were three Englishmen on it - in my search for the unknown, so I went towards the window and behold, it was the man I was told to find; for he also (doesn't this sound mad?) was a brother of mine."  The man thanked Kipling and said he knew what the message meant.  Kipling comments that he didn't know the name of the man who gave him the message or the man who received it.  The description in this letter confirms the great enthusiasm that Kipling felt for Freemasonry and the concept of universal brotherhood.  It also demonstrates the contemporary significance of Masonry among its adherents in British India at that time (99-100)".

I'll have more to say on the topic of this symbolism later in the review.  At the moment it's enough to note that for a simple short work of fiction, it's amazing how many layers of depth there are to explore if you take a closer look.  It's one of those old curiosities that somehow stand as a kind of sentinel, or testament to the staying power of a well told story.  Perhaps just a handful of authors are able to keep the heads of their popular reputations above the tide of time in such a fashion.  Dickens was one, and Lewis Carroll seems to be another from the time when Kipling first wrote.   In what follows, I'd like to examine both the original story, and it's film adaptation in order to unpack the materials hidden in this simple tale.

This review will be a bit different as I've decided to see if I can't review both Kipling's original story, and its later movie adaptation all in one go.  I'm at least sort of confident in this approach because John Huston's film is an example of that rare beast where the adapter seems to understand his source material on an almost fundamental level.  The result is one of those cases where the text and the picture can be placed alongside without either doing harm to the other.  Huston's respectful approach to the material also has the added bonus that both versions share a thematic overlap.  This makes the critic's job a lot easier, as the underlying concepts of the text inform the movie in a way that is near beat-for-beat.

There are at least three levels that I'm able to unpack in Kipling's narrative.  The first is the lingering question of Imperialism, and how the story tackles this difficult subject.  The second revolves around Jaffa's recognition the presence of Masonic themes in the tale.  An examination of this symbolic aspect of the work leads to a further inspection of the story's third and final theme: the idea of antiquity, and the uses and abuses that this concept is subject to in an ill-informed modern age.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling.

There are two ways to immortality.  One of them is earn the kind of achievement that people will talk about forever.  Mahatma Gandhi provides a good example of this first type.  The other is create such a scandal that your name has no choice except to survive forever as an example to be avoided.  Rudyard Kipling is a rare and exotic breed.  He seems to managed both tricks in the space of a single lifetime.  At least, I think that's what he did.  Part of the hesitation stems from a number of interlinking factors.  Part of it is that all you have to do is mention The Jungle Book to call up whole film reels of childhood memories.  The catch is that just because most viewers are familiar with Walt Disney's last animated feature film, that's still no guarantee the majority of them will ever know that the film's author even existed.  Fewer may even realize that The Jungle Book was, in fact, an actual text.

The result is I can't say I know just what kind of reputation Kipling has in this day and age.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that he's a fossil relegated to the darkest corner of a nursery that's escaped our memories.  I'm willing to go far enough in believing maybe handful of book types might remember who he is.  Even if that's the case, there's still a problem of having a notorious reputation.  The closest thing to a basic consensus I can find is that Kipling is regarded in much the same light as H.P. Lovecraft.  He's a great talent lodged inside a troubled and troubling personality.  Like his Providence counterpart, Kipling is seen as the great Imperial Apologist.  He's a man with a blind loyalty to Queen and Country, right or wrong.  Even his best works are alleged to be thinly disguised propaganda.  If he isn't cheering young British boys to throw their lives away for an unjust cause, then he's urging them to keep the "others" in their proper place.

At the same time, he's something of a childhood favorite.  Aside from the Mowgli stories, Kipling is responsible for filling our world with the likes of a mongoose christened "Rikki Tikki Tavi", a street urchin named Kim, and a "Man Who Would Be King".  Each one of these tales, taken together or separate, have since won recognition as genuine classics of both fantasy and adventure.  Still, there is the nonsense drivel known as "The White Man's Burden".  "And so it goes".  You can't admire Kipling.  You can't just bring yourself to throw him away either.  The worst part is the odd, almost schizoid quality that seems to live in his work.  The "Burden" doggerel is some of the most shallow and insensitive waste of good ink ever committed to paper.  Then, if you go from there and read about "The Man Who Would Be King", the strangest result happens.  It's as if the author of that tale were another man who, after reading the poem, got inspired to dash off, as in a white heat, a story with a clear anti-imperialist message at it's core.  The message in that short story is not just true, it's almost downright prophetic in the way it narrates the slow decay and downfall of British rule in India.  An ending that was written by none other than Gandhi himself.

How does one reconcile such a dichotomy?  How can two men live in the same head?  Are we dealing with a Jekyll and Hyde personality?  Does the right hand truly have no idea of what the left is doing?  What gives with this Kipling guy, anyway?  Is he some sort of elaborate fool, or just plain crazy?  Charles Allen is one who author who has at least made a valiant attempt to find an answer.  The question is what kind of writer does historical examinations turn up?  That' the question at the heart of Kipling Sahib, which details RK's exploits in the land of his birth, and how it shaped the writer he became.  It sounds like a standard enough approach, yet the writer uncovered by Allen is not the one I was expecting.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Silkworm (2014).

Part of the stated goal of this blog is to ask questions about the nature of creative writing, in addition to critiquing the finished results of this same process.  That's why it's gratifying to know that a number of writers out there are just as obsessed with the subject as I am.  I suppose it's kind of an honor to discover that one of those authors is J.K. Rowling.  That a writer like her should be concerned with where the stories come from (much less whatever they might mean or not) is one those ideas that might strike an average person as puzzling, if not outright pointless.  What does a success story like her have to be concerned about?  Isn't she rich enough to the point where she can leave that sort of thing to the hired help?

Even if I'm willing to grant that a lot of artists take just such an attitude to their work, the impression I've got from Rowling's books is that she's not the phone-it-in type.  If you can manage a deep dig into her Cormoran Strike novels, for instance, what you'll find is the craftsmanship of a woman who takes her day job too seriously to be lackadaisical about her art.  That's a particular impression I get whenever I turn my attention to her second performance in what is turning out to be a whole series of detective novels, The Silkworm.

It's the second book to be released detailing the exploits of a private detective who's set up shop right in the heart of Denmark Street in London.  Together with his professional colleague, Robin Venetia Ellacott, each novel in the series plays out the by now familiar formula of the Mystery novel.  A crime is committed. Someone consults Rowling's amateur sleuth about it, and together he an Robin start their investigation until the search for clues points them toward the guilty party.  For such a standard setup, it really is amazing just how well Rowling is able to pack almost all of her novels with incidents.  Her writing is able to accomplish two things in these stages.  On the one hand, she always manages to find a way to hook the attention of her readers and lead them into the pages of the mystery.  She does something a lot more important than that, however.  She is able to hold that same attention span for the entire length of the narrative in such a way that you've got to keep turning the pages in order to see what happens next.

With Silkworm, however, Rowling is interested in just a bit more than spinning a good yarn (although she never loses sight that this is the main goal of her book, or the novel in general).  She flat out wants to investigate the art and craft of writing in the same way that her detective is always eager to sink his teeth into a new puzzle to solve.  The way she does this is by creating a mystery with a novel within a novel at its center.  This make-believe text is more than just a prop.  It's probably the closest thing that her actual book has to a guiding symbol.  In addition to this, it also serves as a very useful macguffin that helps drive both the action and conflict of her story.  To understand why the whole thing works, though, is the job of this review.

It will help to make a few caveats before this article gets down to business, however.  The approach of this review is perhaps a bit more involved than normal.  If this should become a problem anywhere down the line, all I can do is point to the author and say, "Don't look at me, she started it".  The reason for this has to do with the way Rowling composes her work.  She's the type of author who always manages to write layers into her novels.  You get them every now and then.  Her technique is very similar to Vladimir Nabokov in this respect.  He was one of those artist who wrote in such a way that often the finished work was a simple looking book on the outside, while on the inside, one theme and meaning was stacked upon another like an intricate birthday cake.  What this means is that a lot of times there are several aspects to be unpacked in just a single text.

The biggest layer of importance is of course Rowling's thoughts on the creative process itself.  This shall be the main subject to which this article will build up to.  Before we can get there, however, there is also the matter of the main character's over-arching narrative.  In addition to the mystery-of-the-week, Rowling's new Mystery series is similar to TV shows like Monk, where every stand-alone story must share space with the series' main plot.  In shows like this, the main plot can often revolve around an unsolved mystery or trauma in the backstory of the detective's past.  For TV's Monk, it was the murder of his wife.  For Rowling's protagonist, it all revolves around the death of his mother Leda.  It's one of those cases where the coroner ruled suicide, while the detective remains convinced it was really homicide.  I suppose the setup is stock-in-trade enough for the Noir genre.  If that should be the case, then what matters is how Rowling chooses to fill in the form.
I have some ideas about the nature of the series back story that we'll get to in a moment.  For now, I should stress that in some ways I probably don't have much business talking about the back story.  The reason why is because a lot of it is pure speculation, with little to go on except for a few hints and clues that may just be red herrings.  I don't know if this is a less professional way of looking at a book or not.  I am certain that, on the whole, I'd be a lot more comfortable just standing back and letting the author do her own thing.  That said, it has to be admitted that part of the fun of mystery thrillers is that it pulls you in by inviting you to speculate on what comes next.  If that aspect can lay claim to being a legitimate part of examining any given work of fiction, then at least I can say it has its place in the critic's toolbox.  With all these caveats in mind, I'd say it's time we begin.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Outsider (2018)

If I had to recommend a good place to start reading Stephen King, which book would it be?  That's a question with no single answer.  Different people will always find their own way into King's works.  Most of the time this means finding the novel or short story that works best for this or that particular person.  With any luck, the experience of browsing through one of these texts will be enough to turn the average person into a reader.  There are a lot worse things you can do than get hooked on books by reading a King novel.

I can point to a lot of good starting places.  Perhaps the best gateway text has proven to be the author's 80s anthology series, Skeleton Key.  It's easy to see why this simple collection is often cited as an ideal reading primer.  Most of the stories in it can be taken in at one reading, which is a value if the daily schedule is busy.  Another plus is that all of them appear to be simple enough in terms of subject matter.  In addition to all this, a response I keep hearing from readers, one that seems to span the passage and arrival of generations, is that for a series of unconnected short-stories, the whole thing almost reads like a novel.   

Skeleton Key seems to be one of those books that can sometimes grow on the reader.  The first time you read it, what grabs your attention are the situations to be found in each individual story, and all the gory special effects that come with it.  Those who choose to have a second and, maybe, with any luck, third read-through will perhaps find themselves focusing more on the character dynamics, and slowly become aware of King's skill at drawing you into his narratives.  For those who find themselves turned into dedicated readers by the experience, a fifth and sixth study of Key might just make them aware that King is an actual author, one with legitimate, and above all, literary themes embedded in his writings.

In some ways, I guess the best praise I can find for King is that his work itself is often a discovery process of literature, if that makes any sense.  Perhaps it makes sense to view his books like one of those paintings that look simplistic at first glance, only to catch you off guard when you start to notice little minute details that add to its overall complexity.  What makes Skeleton Key such a likely beginner's candidate in this sense is that as a collection of short-stories, it is able to combine a surprising amount of artistic depth and sophistication into an easily digestible package.

This is even more of a bonus when you stop to realize that while vast majority of people can read, knowing how to read well is often just as much an art as being able to spin a good yarn.  Just like books themselves, being able to read them well is a multi-layered activity.  What makes any story valuable is what lies beyond its surface appearances.  That's an idea that sounds obvious on the face of it, and an immediate assumption is that anyone can do it.  It's true, anyone can read if they truly want to.  The  trouble is you can't expect a young mind to read any given text with an automatic, sophisticated point of view.  The goal of being a good reader is to see just how many levels (or lack thereof) is contained within the pages.  In that sense, being able to read well is less a natural ability like breathing and seeing, and more like a hidden, invisible skill that you have to work at for quite a while in order to do it well.  Skeleton Key helps in that training by offering itself up as a stepping stone to greater heights and conquests.

Nevertheless, I'd like to offer an alternative place to start making this author's acquaintance.  While Skeleton Key is often cited as the best place to begin an acquaintance with King's writing, the fact remains that this is just one staring place out of many.  Real life experience points to readers getting hooked by works like Cycle of the Werewolf, The Stand, or even out of the ways novels like The Dark Half.  I myself, for better or worse (and I still can't say it's all that bad) got hooked on King by listening to Jeffrey Demunn narrate the author's 2001 book, Dreamcatcher.  That's an argument of defense for another time.  The point goes back to what I said earlier.  Everybody finds their own way into this author's work.

I think a novel like The Outsider deserves its place as a beginner's candidate for a number of reasons.  The most obvious point in its favor is that it is a neat examination of the theme of the doppelganger in literary Gothic fiction.  King uses this trope in his novel to hold a mirror up to the Dionysian/Apollonian conflict in American society.  The other point I can think of is that the novel is something of a neat distillation of a lot of the prototypical settings, characters, and situations that sort of typify the nature of a Stephen King book.  In the sense, I think what makes The Outsider a good primer for King neophytes is that it helps ground the new reader into a clear idea of the main subject matter of King's secondary world.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub (2000).

This is less of a review and more of a first introduction.  Maybe it's best to think of it as a sort of user's guide, or the barest sketch of a cartographer's map.  What I'm really here for today is to get readers to shake hands with a guy who's worth knowing.  Even if he is kind of strange.   It's with this idea and setup in mind that Bill Sheehan's At the Foot of the Story Tree is a useful glimpse into the literary world of one of the Gothic genre's most interesting practitioners.  Sheehan is also a big help in that his book might bring a greater awareness to a talent who could be in danger of falling off the map.  His name is Peter Straub, and he still (as of this date) writes Horror fiction for a living.

It is just possible that the name sounds familiar, yet the face or work it's associated with is somewhat vague, or hard to recall.  Maybe some readers will have heard something about this particular writer, but have forgotten his work with the passage of time.  Or else his name was mentioned and no one ever bothered to find out just who he was, or what made him in any way special.  Despite this, I'd argue that Straub's work is capable of a defense on its own merits.  Before we jump to conclusions, however, it helps to get a sense of the historical setting which in Straub first made his name.  If this sounds like a digression, I'd argue it's not on the basis that context is everything.  Gaining a proper literate understanding of Straub and his work means placing him in the proper setting from which he first emerged on the publishing scene.  To do this, it is perhaps best to start out with a decent summary of Straub's artistic milieu, and in particular the other writer who sort of defines it.

This is where Bev Vincent's Stephen King Illustrated Companion comes in handy.  Vincent is able to provide a neat capsule snapshot of Straub's context.  The irony is he does this by talking about the work of someone else.  "In part", Vincent writes, "it was all a matter of being at the right place at the right time.  Readers who had experienced the terrors of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist were primed for more, and (Stephen King) delivered.  By the time his third novel, The Shining hit the best-seller lists, King was already being called "the master of modern horror".  Seemingly overnight, he had become a "brand name" author.  However, few of the other writers he identified as his peers in other genres at the time are still household names...(6)".  It is here that the subject of this article comes in.  

It is debatable whether the Horror genre has ever been in any way respectable.  However, Straub, like King, was a beneficiary of a time when the genre was at it's most commercially viable.  To that extent, publishing houses everywhere seemed willing to lap up the next kid who showed up on their doorsteps with a Shilling Shocker manuscript in hand.  This setup seems to have been made possible by a previous explosion of talent during the preceding decades.  The 50s and 60s can be thought of as the time when Horror fiction began to come of age.  The genre had undergone some growing pains in the form of a series stylistic leaps and bounds dating all the way back to the Victorian Era.  Writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne brought the genre to mainstream awareness, while H.P. Lovecraft and the Weird Circle helped begin it's modern identity.  The process of bringing Horror to it's full maturity seems to have been the work of artists like Ray Bradbury and a group of writers known as the California Sorcerers.

They were the first to find ways of taking the horrors into settings like a modern suburban home,or of re-introducing the haunts of old folklore into the middle of a busy 20th century street, and turning all of it loose to mess up our cozy conceptions of order and stability.  King and Straub were effectively the inheritors of this tradition of the Modern Gothic, and it is safe to say that the latter was no slouch when it came to living up to his inheritance.

As Sheehan explains on the very first page of his study: "Peter Straub first came to prominence with the 1979 publication of Ghost Story, a gaudy, expansive novel of supernatural terror that was deeply rooted in the classic tradition of the American Gothic tale.  Ghost Story was an immediate popular  success that quickly established itself as one of the seminal works of late twentieth century horror fiction.  Like the very best examples of its kind - Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Stephen King's The Shining spring immediately to mind - it offered  conclusive evidence that art and entertainment, literature and "popular fiction" need not be regarded as mutually exclusive categories.

"Despite his apparent status as an "overnight success", Straub had been a working writer for more than a decade before Ghost Story put him on the map, having published two slender volumes of poetry (Open Air and Ishmael), a modest, rather tentative mainstream novel (Marriages), and a pair of striking, increasingly ambitious horror novels (Julia and If You Could See Me Now).  With Julia, Straub achieved a modest degree of financial success and began the process of discovering his own true voice.  At the same time, he demonstrated an instinctive affinity for the requirements of the Gothic form, a form that proved particularly suited to his own sensibility and narrative gifts.  With If You Could See Me Now, his grasp of those requirements deepened.  With Ghost Story, he achieved a new level of mastery, and made the form his own (11)".

I have written elsewhere that it is possible to notice how certain creative projects during the 70s and 80s tended to coalesce around the work of several differing authors into something resembling an informal artistic group similar to Bradbury and the Southern California writers.  I'd argue that Straub counts as one of that number.  By saying he is an inheritor, he is also part of a much larger literary tradition.  That would make his work uniquely placed and crafted in such as way as to help further set the definitions of Modern Gothic literature.  As such, this article counts as part of an ongoing series that examines the work of writers like Straub, and how they have shaped our understanding of the stories we enjoy.  It also helps grant a certain perspective on the nature of our favorite books and films over the past century and a half, when it's possible to see them as part of a greater, albeit informal, artistic movement.

Since this article is meant to be a user's guide, it's focus will be more on filling in a general outline of the author, as well as the thematic nature of his works.  Because of this, an emphasis will have to be placed on where he stands in the historical continuum of the Horror genre.  Straub's case is interesting in that he is one of the most self-aware writers operating in the confines of this particular category of narrative.  The best place to start is to discover how his life led to the work.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Halloween (2018).

Sequels have become something of a problem for me in recent years.  I started out more or less neutral at first.  I can't pinpoint the exact moment when I began to look at the proliferation or more of the same franchise as a problem, yet it has to have been pretty recent, as I don't recall having these issues, say, as far back as 2002.  If I had to say what brought about this growing negative outlook on dragging a story and it's characters on, then maybe it has to do with a perceived slip in quality among a lot of the popular franchises, such as Trek, Star Wars, DC.  It's like some kind of important narrative quality, or creative writing element got lost or mislaid somewhere along the way and now most filmmakers are scrambling to remember how to get the engine running like it used to.

I think a filmmaker like John Carpenter might know something of what I'm talking about.  At one point he found himself on the receiving end of a Hollywood's sequelitis complex.  The difference is he may have had only himself to blame.  In 1978, Carpenter made his name with the release of Halloween.  It remains something of a rare anomaly in the field of the slasher genre.  Unlike a lot of the knock-offs and imitations it spawned, Carpenter's original narrative somehow manages to avoid a lot of the pitfalls that mar a great majority of films that came in it's wake.  I'm afraid the same can't be said about the sequel that came a few years later.  I can remember being willing to give Carpenter a second chance as far as a follow up was concerned.  I wound up tuning out and turning off Halloween 2 somewhere near the middle of the whole thing.  It's kind of obvious that Carpenter's heart isn't really in it the way it was the first time.  The plot lumbers along with the struggle he had in coming up with a usable sequence of events that would pad out a standard movie-house runtime.  The director later admitted that when he wrapped up the first film, a sequel wasn't strictly a part of the package.

The trouble for Carpenter was that he chose to end his film on a shot that more or less begged a sequel of some kind.  To be fair, Carpenter did claim that the ending was meant to be taken on something like a symbolic level.  The disappearance of that film's villain, the now iconic Michael Myers, was meant to suggest the pervasiveness of evil, or a palpable sense of threat.  I suppose it means Carpenter's real trouble stems from the fact that sometimes most audiences can only read symbols on their most literal level.  Either way, fans were left wanting to know what happens next.  Over the following decade, each sequel detailing Michael's twisted life and exploits made everyone less anxious to find out what happens as time went on.  The original Halloween saga came to its inglorious end with Busta Rhymes kung fu-ing the Shape into cinematic irrelevance.  Rob Zombie tried to give the mythos his own spin, and as a result we don't talk about that particular episode.
Like I  said before, I've grown leery of sequels these days.  The gradual, disappointing slope of Carpenter's original vision is just one of many examples of why knowing when to write "The End" can sometimes be the most important way to guarantee a story has a meaning and therefore a purpose.  Now, after number of years, we have yet another entry in the Myers story.  The difference is this time, director David Gordon Green has decided the best course of action is to chuck the whole thing as a bad go and create what amounts to a soft reboot that starts more or less from scratch.  The big question is: does it work?

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of The Twilight Zone's Magic Man (2009).

Nobody knows him.  I'm not sure how many even realize he existed.  Is it possible for a real person to become a myth, or figment of the imagination if enough people never realize that you're there?  Either way, if you mention the name Charles Beaumont, the sad fact is people are going to have no other choice except to give you a blank stare in response.  If you mention someone like Rod Serling or The Twilight Zone, however, then you might be lucky enough for someone's eyes to light up.

The Zone premiered in 1959 as the brainchild of TV wunderkind Rodman Edmund Serling.  After half a decade of having to fight for his scripts to get an airing in the censorious world of 50s network television, Serling's idea for an anthology series centered around the horrific and fantastic was a spark of inspiration that provided just the platform that could solve his woes.  Serling found that network a lot of network executives were squeamish if you wanted to put on a dramatization of subject matter like the death of Emmet Till.  However, if you couched you're messages in the generic forms and formulas of Sci-Fi or Horror, then you were given sort of a free pass.

The reason why Serling was given liberty to say whatever he wanted with the Zone is very simple when you realize that that popular genre fiction was never regarded as something that mature people were meant to take seriously.  All that sort of thing was little more than juvenile trash.  Who could possibly care for any of it?  It's even less than a deck of cards.  The curious part is that a lot of viewers still remember and re-watch the Twilight Zone long after it's original critics have been shuffled out the door.  I think a lot of great names should be so lucky.

One of those names belongs to a part of the of crew that Serling gathered around him to help create his fabled 5th Dimension.  I'm not at all sure whether it's true to say that the Zone had anything like an actual writer's room, with a fixed staple of creative talent waiting in the wings and on-call whenever a new idea had to be brainstormed for next week, and the one after that.  It at least sounds like standard operating procedure as far as most contemporary television goes.  However, I still don't know if that's how Serling ran his operation.

What I do know is that Rod would employ a continuous, returning roster of talent to pen some of the most well-known and remembered episodes during the entire series run.  Richard Matheson, who wrote such classics as The Howling Man and Nightmare at 30,000 Feet, is probably the closest author anyone can recall in connection with the show.  However that unofficial roster included quite a few other names as well.  George Clayton Johnson was responsible for the Robert Redford episode Nothing in the Dark, Kick the Can, and what I still consider his best effort of the series, A Game of Pool.  There was a third name in that roster, however.
He was Charles Beaumont, and almost no one knows who he is.  That's why filmmaker Jason Brock has probably done history a favor by making a documentary about the creative legacy of a forgotten name.  The best part about Brock's efforts is that he gives his viewers more than enough clues to not just reconstruct the life of Beaumont, but also the nature of his imaginative writings, and how they have managed to shape the current nature of the fantastic genres in America.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Dave Made a Maze (2017).

Meet Dave (Nick Thune).  How does one describe someone like Dave?  There's no real outstanding feature about him.  He's just a regular guy living in an apartment complex with his live-in girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani).  The worst part is Dave is not some isolated loner.  He's got an active social life with plenty of friends.  In fact, one of Dave and Annie's closest acquaintances is Harry ( James Urbaniak), a documentary filmmaker.

With all this neat stuff happening all around him, Dave must have a lot of things worth doing, right?  At least that's probably how a normal person would handle it.  Don't misunderstand, Dave's very normal.  He so ordinary he qualifies as wall-paper.  That's sort of the problem.  In a world full of stuff happening, Dave somehow never manages to find out what to do with himself in all of it (his to-do-list includes: "Finish Concept Album.  Make Ultimate Sabbath Mix", and "Fix Front Door").  He's never made a real contribution anywhere, and he can't figure out where to begin.  To say Dave sort of has an inferiority complex about his troubles is a bit like saying Niagara Falls runs downhill.  The thing is Dave would like to be able to say there is at least something out there, in the world, that he can say he has achieved or accomplished with any kind of professional pride.  It's just that he can't figure out what that is.

One day, out of the blue, Dave had an idea.  He would try and build the world's greatest maze.  Right here, in the middle of his apartment.  He would just start from somewhere at random, and build on from there.  It sort of helps that Annie was away for the week, otherwise none of what happened next would be possible.  Dave built his maze alright.  He finally did something.  There is one minor setback, however.  You see once Dave got started, he didn't much of any ground-plan, or layout in mind.  He really just seems to have gone wherever his thoughts took him from one moment to the next.  He must have had some idea for an exit.  Though maybe he can't quite remember where it is, what happened to it, or if it even existed in the first place.  Dave made a maze right in the middle of his own living room, and now he's stuck there with no clear idea of how to get out.  The worst part is that somewhere along the way Dave made an unsettling realization.  He's not alone inside the maze.  And whatever it is that's stalking him, it's hungry.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Christopher Robin (2018).

All of us have childhood memories.  For both better and worse, they make up our introduction to the world, and how we will respond to it as adults.  One element that can sometimes be a part of this arrangement revolves around the kind of entertainment we take in as kids.  There are a great deal of us whose childhood is in many ways a catalogue of the cartoon characters we saw at an impressionable age.  Some of them left enough of an impact (and here I'm thinking of Garfield and the Three Stooges) that they can inform the ways in which we look at the world today.

Disney's Winnie the Pooh was never one of the big things for me growing up.  It was definitely something that was there, and I can remember watching it as part of my childhood, yet the character and his world are little more than just fragments scattered here and there as a sort of background noise in my memory.  As a result, the character spun off from a series of books by A.A. Milne was never one of those instant-recall figures for me.  It was more like something that was just sort of there, hanging around awhile before fading out of sight.  I don't know if this makes me the ideal audience for this picture, considering it's subject matter.  All I know is that after having a chance to sit down and watch it, my thoughts are as follows.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Art of Neil Gaiman (2014).

For some time now, I've had the idea that it is just possible to examine a specific strand of time which represented an astonishing period of artistic creativity among a number of several well-known authors.  While it is a mistake to believe that these authors make-up anything like an organized group, there can still be a sense in which each individual writer was responding to a phenomenon that is best described as the birth of the proper cultural and aesthetic climate which would allow them to find both their individual voices, and methods of expression.  The curious part is how often this disparate group of writers from the 70s and 80s often find ways to dialogue with one another in their works of fiction.  It is similar, in many ways, to the kind of artistic flourishing which saw another handful of differing authors produce a series of texts during the Victorian Age which now make up the canon of both children's and popular literature.

This seems to be a recurring phenomenon, of sorts.  Sometimes there will be moments in any potential age which can serve as a kind of igniting spark that will both draw in and produce artistic minds capable of churning out a surprising (and hopefully effective) level of creativity.  The children's authors (i.e. Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Edith Nesbit etc) of the Victorian/Edwardian eras are just one such example of this phenomena.  I'd like to argue that a similar group of authors is the product of a similar kind of cultural convergence.  These writers came of age either during or after the 60s, and were, in general, a mix of both Boomer and Gen X cultures.  The curious part is how this doesn't seem to have led to anything like an expected series of major clashes that can erupt between generations.  Instead, older scribes like Ramsay Campbell were able to get along just as well with relative youngsters like Neil Gaiman.

It is Gaiman as both an individual talent, and as part of this larger artistic phenomena that I'd like to examine here.  Gaiman is one of those semi-household words of the moment.  The good news is that a close examination of his works reveal that we are dealing with a genuine talent, and not just some ever vanishing fad.  Of all the names associated with this semi-group of writers under discussion, Gaiman is one of the few to win his way to mass popular ubiquity, along with the likes of Stephen King and Alan Moore.  In taking a closer look at Gaiman's life an art, the trick here will always be how to realize that Gaiman is one of those artists who does not exist in isolation.

I find that the most interesting aspect of Gaiman's writings is that he is one of those rare talents who is willing to pretty much wear all of his influences on his sleeve.  In both fictional writings, and real world essays, Gaiman has proven himself more than willing to talk about his artistic enthusiasms.  These range from obscure names like Hope Mirless and Lord Dunsany, to the work of popular comic book artists like Jack Kirby.  The result is that Gaiman's work demands that we see him as an individual talent in relation to the cauldron of story from which he returns to draw ideas from time and again.  Hailey Campbell's The Art of Neil Gaiman is just the sort of text that can help us in this regard.

Novelist and academic Audrey Niffenegger describes the book in rather succinct terms.  "As time runs along we can all look back and trace the large events in our lives (marriages, children, vocations, artistic triumphs) to some small conversation in a pub, a book encountered at random in a library or a chance meeting on the street.  In this book, Hayley Campbell rewinds Neil Gaiman's life and explores the connections between his life, his ideas and his work; She has interviewed Neil about every comic, novel, short story and movie he's ever created, excavated old photos and manuscripts out of boxes in Neil's attic and spoken to many of Neil's collaborators, editors, and friends.  She has written a delightfully comprehensive, matter-of-fact and sometimes surprising account of the development of Neil's entire body of work thus far (60)".  In addition to all of that, Campbell's book is good for one other thing.  It is perhaps the closest resource critics and fans may have at trying to gain an idea of the meaning and nature of Gaiman's work as a writer.

In what follows, I'll be focusing in on certain aspects of Campbell's insights.  In particular I want to see if she can tell us anything about what we're Gaiman's influences, does he have a relation to any kind of artistic cultural milieu, and would these two factors tell us about the thematic significance of her subject's work.  In trying to find this out, I will be not be focusing on any one specific text.  The goal here is to work toward an overall understanding of Campbell's subject.  In order to accomplish this goal, I will be focusing in on just a small handful of Gaiman's texts.  There is always the risk that such a method of approach can wind up giving the reader a distorted picture of the author.  However, I've never been able to shake the idea that at least a tentative beginning of an understanding of Gaiman's work can be reached if we first zero in on a small sample of his stories.  From there, it should be possible to build on the basic idea suggested by these works as each of Gaiman's other writings come under eventual examination.

It is true that Campbell provides an extensive look into Gaiman's creative output in her book.  Each book is given it's own two to four page chapter in the text.  These examinations of Gaiman's work come after a few opening sections dedicated to the life of the author.  Now a focus on the early chapters to the exclusion of most of his book's might be a disappointment to some.  However, it has to be remembered that this article is concerned with whether or not Gaiman belongs as a part of a disparate, yet related group of writers that together make up a sort of informal group that defined the nature of fantastic fiction for a brief span of time near the end of the 20th century.  If Gaiman does have a place in such a gathering, then it means we need to review the author as an individual talent in relation to whatever literary traditions might have informed his writing, as well of those of the other creative artists in this hypothetical collective.  This means we must first look at the author himself, and the ideas behind his writings, if we can ever hope to gain a better understanding of each of his individual stories in the future.  In this regard, Campbell's text can be of great help when the  time comes to look at each of Gaiman's artistic endeavors on an individual basis.  It's for all the above reasons that taking a critical look at Campbell's text might just help us to understand what kind of a writer Neil Gaiman really is.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Explorer's Guild: Vol 1: Passage to Shambala.

William Faulkner once observed, "The past is always with us, it isn't even past".  If that's the truth, then it's a problematic fact.  One of the most difficult challenges for modern readers is tackling the past as a subject of study.  This can best be illustrated if one turns to the works of literary fiction from a bygone age.  Part of the problem with the literary writings of the Victorian Age is that there is a particular sub-section of works which can more or less be grouped together as sharing the same generic space.  The trick is it's hard to know just what to call this style or genre of fiction.

That's an ironic fact which critic Gary Hoppenstand is more than aware of.  In the introduction to Perilous Escapades, Hoppenstand notes that "Adventure fiction, a popular form of fiction today, is one of the easiest narrative formulas to recognize and one of the hardest to define specifically (3)".  That's at least a half-truth.  Action is a common trope in most works of fiction, specifically in the movies.  However, to label the types of stories under consideration as "Adventure Fiction" is a bit too narrow.  While the Jungle Books of Kipling and the two novels of Lewis Carroll's Alice are not the same type of story, there is still a sense in which both texts fit neatly together on the same shelf, or in the same generic box.  Because of this, trying to find the right name for the box requires a bit more delicacy than Hoppenstand is able to give it.

Robert Fraser prefers the phrase Victorian Quest Romance.  This term is not without it's problems and caveats, yet it is at least somewhat closer to the mark.  Fraser provides an interesting take on the genre in question courtesy of Sir Walter Scott.  "As early as 1810...Sir Walter Scott had spelled out this equation: 'The mythology of one period,' he had written, 'would seem to pass into the romance of the next, and that into the nursery tales of subsequent ages.'  In other words, so late Victorians came to believe, people had begun with certain beliefs, which they had then embodied in legends.  These were in turn handed down from generation to generation until they 'degenerated' - a word often used by late-Victorian folklorists - into fairy stories.  The relationship between such stories and romance was of paramount importance to nineteenth-century theories of fiction, and determined contemporary thinking about...certain kinds of narrative (5-6)".

If we are willing to follow the genealogy laid down by Scott, the genre under discussion owes it's lineage to various old world myths.  In this light, perhaps a good starting point would be to use a label such as "Victorian Myths".  Such a label is a lot closer to the mark, as many of the stories in this genre are all about the re-discovery of ancient myths, including the lands and cultures that were once associated with them.  This type of setup often involved a group of characters, usually explorers, trekking out into what was once "unexplored terrain", and having all kinds of fantastic adventures along the way.  The works of Kipling and Rider Haggard fall into this category, or sub-section of the genre.

The trouble with labeling these works as "Myths", however, encounters two problems.  The first is that Haggard and Kipling are not composing myths in the proper sense of the terms, they are instead using the 19th century forms of novel and short story to tell their tales.  The second is that I believe the genre under discussion is multi-faceted enough to take in and accommodate more than just a jungle adventure, or lost world story.  If Kipling can share the same shelf with Lewis Carroll, that means the genre also features another type of story.  This one could be considered an early form of what is now known as Urban or Contemporary Fantasy.  This type of story is all about the intrusion of the fantastic into the mundane life of modern society.  The big over-arching theme of this particular type of story seems to be one of the breakdown of boundaries, whether between ordinary and extraordinary, or between new and old.  The works of Carroll, as well as the children's books of Edith Nesbit are prime Era centric examples of this kind of narrative.

The one thing that unites such a disparate collection of authors is that each seems to take their inspiration from a combination of Ancient Myth and the Medieval genre known as Romance.  Because of this, Victorian Romanticism, or Victorian Fantasy, are perhaps the best terms to describe the genre I'm talking about here.  It is broad enough to encompass Mowgli's Jungle and Alice's Wonderland, while still leaving room enough for novels set in Ancient or Medieval settings.

In a way, the nature of Victorian Fantasy was summed up best by one of its most famous inheritors.  According to J.R.R. Tolkien, it is "a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold...The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.  In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who report them.  And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys lost (web)".  At the very least, it is possible to grant the professor this much, trying to define the fantastic fiction of the Victorian Age (itself just one among many ingredients in the "Cauldron of Story") can be tongue tying.
As genres go, Victorian Fantasy has been one of those whose influence on future artists is big enough to be ubiquitous.  It's imprint can be found in places as diverse as a children's ghost story by Neil Gaiman, to a free-verse poem written by Stephen King, to the labyrinthine texts of Umberto Eco.  The influence is often so all-encompassing as to be unnoticeable by the great majority.  It's still there no matter how long it goes unnoticed.  Sometimes there will come along a person who does notice both the genre and it's influences.  Sometimes the person who notices will turn out to be an artist.  It can be a curious sight to observe what  happens whenever an artist becomes aware of the Victorian Fantasy, especially if the artist takes it into his head to try and do something in the same vein.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015).

"From my admittedly prejudiced viewpoint, successful novelists - even modestly successful novelists - have got the best gig in the creative arts.  It's true that people buy more CDs than books, got to more movies, and watch a lot more TV.  But the arc of productivity is longer for novelists, perhaps because readers are a little brighter than fans of the non-written arts, and thus have marginally longer memories.  David Soul of Starksy and Hutch is God knows where, same with that peculiar white rapper Vanilla Ice, but in 1994, Herman Wouk, James Michener, and Norman Mailer were all still around; talk about when dinosaurs walked the earth (36)"

Those were the words Stephen King wrote way back in 1998, in his novel Bag of Bones.  These days I can't help wondering if he's changed his tune on that score.  At the time, the prospects for writers and publishers was a lot more rose colored than it is now.  CDs, TV, and the movies haven't fair much better, for that matter.  We've lost both Herman Wouk and Harlan Ellison, and I'm not sure most folk even know they're gone.  It's an open question in my mind whether or not things will reach a point when people cease to realize that they ever existed.  As time goes on, it seems like W.H. Auden was more on point when he observed: “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.”

That's a harsh truth that's getting more noticeable as the 21st century continues it's implacable march.  If anyone mentions The Haunting of Hill House, most will immediately think about that HBO series that just finished it's run.  Very few will consider the possibility that it's also the title of a novel.  The truth is reading always seems to have been something of a minority practice, rather than the normative order of things.  That's not too much of a wild statement when you consider that about half of one percent of the population of medieval Europe could ever learn to read and write their own names.  The numbers have climbed since then, yet, anything like a true and full sense of literacy has always been evaded through the passage of time.  It's an unfortunate truth for a lot of great names.  For instance, does anyone know of Ramsey Campbell?  How about Alexander Dumas, Greta Garbo, Richard Matheson, Katherine and Audrey Hepburn, Manly Wade Wellmann or Charles Beaumont?  Who wrote The Haunting of Hill House?  Who's David Soul?  Is Raymond Douglas Bradbury the name of an actual person, or did I just make that up? 

The trick to being a giant is learning how to keep your longevity going well past your time.  It's something of an inevitable shame to see the names and works of great artists fade into obscurity.  The biggest irony I can imagine is that moment when a text that was considered groundbreaking on it's release becomes something that's barely remembered years later.  That's the sad fate of Hitchcock/Truffaut, a series of published interviews between French director Francois Truffaut, and an English-American filmmaker who used to be known as the Master of Suspense.  At the time the book was released it was considered a shot across the bows of the old establishment of Hollywood.  Today it seems like barely a ripple in the ocean.

That's why it' gratifying to know that director Kent Jones not only remembers the book, he seems to be one of it's biggest fans.  In 2015 Jones made a concerted effort to interview as many of the current and former biggest names in showbiz while they can still remember and remain to tell their stories of how this one simple book, made and released by a pair of eager cinema enthusiasts, left an impact on them.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Walt Disney and Live Action.

They say familiarity breeds contempt.  I think the more natural result is complacency.  If something is able to stick around long enough, sometimes people come to believe they know all there is to tell about that particular subject.  Something like this appears to have happened to Walt Disney.  He's a staple of childhood, he managed to make himself into something of a national treasure, and he's everybody's favorite family entertainer.  End of story, right?  That seems to be the price-tag that comes with ubiquity.  The trouble with being just about everywhere is that it's easy for anyone to assume that they know all there is worth knowing about the life of a man.

Take his films, for instance.  A lot of them can be named off the top of the head by anyone in the street.  There's Fantasia, Dumbo, Aladdin etc.  These seem to be the films that stick in the memory.  So what else did he do?  Is that all he made?  Was there nothing else?  What if I told you Disney once made a short animated cartoon with the help of a Pulitzer Prize winning author?  Does that sound too good to be true?  Didn't everybody look down on Uncle Walt back in the day?  Well, just don't tell Sinclair Lewis that, he seemed perfectly happy to lend his services as part of 1947's anthology film Fun and Fancy Free.  That's just one possible example out of many others.  The truth is that popularity of the moment seems to determine just how Disney and his film's are viewed from one year to the next.  This can be a saving grace in that the old filmmaker still has a solid life in the public memory.  At the same time, the trouble with memory is how selective it can be.  The net result is that only the best parts are preserved, while a lot of other material is deemed subpar.  A lot of Walt's live-action efforts fall into this category.

It's true that Mary Poppins is still the one live-action film everyone remembers (now with a bit of recent infamy attached to it).  After that, the closest picture anyone can recall in this same category is the studio's biggest mistake, Song of the South.  If you put those two together, I almost have to wonder if they don't form an ironic commentary on the nature of the public's awareness of Disney's efforts in the non-animated medium.  It wouldn't surprise me to hear future historians making the mistaken claim that because South is such an atrocity, Disney decided never to make another live-action flick ever again until the release of Poppins.  The sad truth is I don't think such an outcome is far-fetched in a time where cultural literacy and historical memory are on the decline.  I think it can become an even greater mistake if everyone just let's this sort of thing go on.

For these and other reasons, I've thought it might help to take a trip down a forgotten avenue of memory lane.  It turns out ol' Uncle Walt had more than a few trick us his sleeve, ones that didn't have to rely on the Ink and Pain department.  These are the films that have been left in history's dustbin.  Here you can also find authors who used to be big, like Robert Louis Stevenson, along with voices that have been unjustly neglected, like Johann David Weiss or Mary Mapes Dodge.  It's also a place where you could meet up with historical figures that used to be national phenomenons, and nowadays have more of a local fame, such as Davey Crockett.  The perfect entry point to explore this terrain is provided by John G. West's study, Walt Disney and Live-Action: The Disney Studios Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Tolkien (2019).

Most people like to read a well-written story.  The question is, how do you make the writing of that story interesting?  That's the challenge facing the makers of this film, an attempted biopic of the author of The Lord of the Rings.  It's a challenge that confronts the project right out of the starting gate, and director Dome Karukoski was given a daunting task when he signed on.  His job was to take the life of one of the most well known and revered authors around the globe, and try to make an interesting story out of his life.  Whether he succeeded or not is the big question.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

A Forgotten Renaissance Man: A.E.W. Mason

It didn't last long.  It was all just a brief moment of time.  The curious part is how much was accomplished in such a short space.  When the Victorian Era is thought about at all today, it is through the reflecting lens of adaptations of A Christmas Carol, or else it has been rebranded by the look and style of the Steam Punk movement.  The time itself was both less and more than this, however.  It's greatest legacy stems from its literary output.  There are tons avenues worth exploring from the many bookish corners of that era.  The one I find that holds the most interest is what might be called the Victorian Romantic Movement.  This label is taken to both designate and encompass an entire collection of writers and authors who, together and separately, created a series of popular texts that have gone on to reach canonical status.

Once you look at the titles of these books, you perhaps begin to get an idea of why they've earned their place in the current pantheon of great writings.  In this corner there are Dr. Jekyll and his shadowy partner, Mr. Hyde.  Here also is Stevenson's Treasure Island, the Africa of H. Rider Haggard, and Kipling's India.  It was during the reign of Queen Victoria that a stammering school teacher had the idea of a girl falling down a rabbit hole into a satiric parody of the world around her.  It was the best and worst of times.  In other words, it was during the British 19th century that most of the greatest works of fantasy and adventure literature were written.

This is one those literary legacies that manages to be all but forgotten while casting a shadow so large that the great majority will have little choice but to go through their lives never completely knowing that modern entertainment exists both under and within it.  It is one of the most amazing truths of history that the shape and form of the current popular genres were forged and molded by a small coterie of artists, working separately for the most part, but with something like an actual network made up of letters of correspondence and critique.  It's a phenomenon that can occur on occasions.  The original Romantic Movement is the prime example, while the 20th century Modernists are the most recent.

The real curious part however is that the works of these authors was able to go on to have any kind of major impact at all across both times and cultures.  No one seems to have intended for anything to get so big.  At the same time, it's what happened, regardless of what any of them hoped would become of their works.  In addition to being well told stories, there is something in or about a book like King Solomon's Mines, or Huck Finn, that also enables them acts as methods of literary transmission and inheritance.  Their quality is such that they are able to establish a tradition or standards for other artists to learn, grow, and find their own voices from.  

Another curiosity about Victorian Romanticism is that it was able to make the transition to the Edwardian Age without missing a beat, and with no discernible alterations in it's stylistic or storytelling methods, or in its choices of subject matter.  For all intents and purposes, the Edwardian Era seems, for a time at least, to be more like a continuation rather than a break with the past.  It would take the disillusionment of the First World War to create an actual break between past and present.  The irony is that while the Great War may have caused the Victorian strain of Romanticism to go out of fashion, it couldn't erase the hold it had on the imaginations of many of its inheritors.  The most famous of these was J.R.R. Tolkien, and his works on Middle Earth owe a great deal to his grounding in the kind of reading material that was later consigned to the nursery by the time he was a graduate student at Oxford University.  While Tolkien is the most famous example of a modern author taking inspiration from Victorian Adventure and Fantasy genres, it would be a mistake to believe his was the only one.  History is littered with the names of forgotten inheritors.

I have to thank another forgotten author, Roger Lancelyn Green for pointing all this out to me, even if he wasn't exactly around to do it.  While the author in question may have passed away in October of 1987, his textual voice can still find ways of remaining far from silent.  He was most notable in life as the author of a popular set of children's anthologies revolving around the various mythic cycles of both Norse, classical Greco-Roman, and English/Arthurian cultures.   In addition to this, Green was also a surprisingly capable scholar of Victorian Fantasy, and the men and women who created it.  One of them is A.E.W. Mason.

In 1952, Green published a biography of Mason.  So far as I can tell, it remains the sole book in existence to tackle this author, and the nature of the books that made him famous, at least for a time.  In setting out the life of his subject, Green is also giving his readers as good a snapshot of not just a time long vanished.  Instead, the biographer is trying to present an atmosphere or idea of the literary climate in which Mason worked and traveled in.  It is precisely the atmosphere of this climate that stands out so well in the biography.  A perfect example of what I mean is shown by Green on the first page of his book:

"As in the case of his novels, when one thinks of A.E.W. Mason one thinks first  of the swift, breathless, joyous rush of adventures: Mason as an actor; Mason as a struggling journalist leaping suddenly into fame with his second novel; Mason the traveler exploring the Sudan; Morocco, Spain, taking swift, eager journeys to South America, South Africa, India, Burma, Ceylon and Australia; Mason in his yacht coasting the Scillies, crossing the Bay, tacking up the Seine to Rouen or threading the canals of Holland;  Mason the mountaineer spending his Easter vacation from Oxford on the fells above Wastdale, and later going year after year to climb in the Alps - the Col du Geant, Mont Blanc (sixteen hours on the Brenva Ridge); Mason the member of Parliament; Mason the Secret Service Agent in Spain and Mexico during the first World War...(7)"  

The overall impression is of a passage that reads like something from a pulp novel.  It also might be the whole point.  In this one paragraph, Green has given his readers an insight into both the kind of larger than life personality that Mason possessed, as well as the tone and style of the kind of novels that made him famous.  On the very first page the reader finds himself in a realm that is close to that of someone like Robert Louis Stevenson, or Jack London.  It's a world where sometimes an adventure can still be found on the high-seas, and there are still unexplored corners that remain on the map.  This is the literary climate that produces films like King Kong or Lawrence of Arabia.  It is a product of the very same Romantics going all the way back to Dickensian England.  While it's true this was all before Mason's time, the fact remains that it is this particular style and genre of writing that has left the defining imaginative impact on Green's subject.  In that sense, the entire biography is an examination of literary survivals and revivals.

Green outlines the purpose of his biography as follows: "to tell the story of A.E. W. Mason as completely as possible, in his own words whenever they existed in letters, in odd passages from his books, and in a rare introduction or interview - following Graham Balfour's dictum that 'all biography would be autobiography if it could'.  I have tried also to describe the genesis of each of his books, plays or films, with a word or two of the contemporary reaction - reviews of the day or letters from his friends - and to offer a critical estimate of the whole body of his literary achievement (8)".  

My own goals are a bit less ambitious.  For me, this post is really a form of literary excavation with the hope of rediscovery as it's goal.  It is Green's book on Mason as both an author and as a person that I wish to examine here.  While the subject of Green's biography is not a household word like Tolkien or Rowling, Mason still provides a good jumping off point into the exploration of a greater literary landscape.

The final thing to note before getting started is that I've decided to take a thematic, rather than chronological approach to Green's book.  My reasons for doing this are because I think a brief outline sketch of all the salient points will be a better help toward giving the reader a good idea of the kind text they are dealing with if anyone should ever decide to pick it up.  The key part of Green's book is his exploration of Mason as an artist.  That means the best parts are when the reader is given a clue into both the author's creative thought process, and the relation of his imaginative exploits to the literary cultural tapestry of which it forms a part.  For these reasons, I think it's best to give an account of the ideas that make this biography worth a read.  It still helps to take things one at a time, however.  The best place to start is at the beginning.