Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Grey Ones (1952).

He is one of those names that slip through the cracks.  I'm not sure whether that's because there's something forgettable about him, or because he just wasn't that much of an expert on leaving a lasting impact.  I hope the latter isn't the case, because what I've read of John Bertram Priestley, so far at least, sounds pretty good.  There's still the matter of popular unawareness to deal with, however.  The trouble with guys like Priestley is that everything has to be a first introduction.  However famous he might have been in his own day, that was then and this is now, as the saying goes.  That always means making a new acquaintance is in order, even if the name is very old.  The good news is that there are some out there who are willing to help break the ice.  John Baxendale is one such host.  He does a decent (if not perfect) job in granting the newcomer a good overview of his subject in the introduction to That Other Place and Other Stories.

"J.B. Priestley (1894-1984) was one of the most celebrated and prolific of English writers of his time.  Over thirty novels, as many plays, and a continuous stream of essays, journalism, film-scripts and radio broadcasts kept him in the public eye from the 1920s to the 1970s.  Priestley's novels such as The Good Companions (1929), Angel Pavement (1930), or Bright Day (1946) explore large themes across a broad canvas teeming with characters.  His more concentrated and focused ideas usually became plays.  Short stories were perhaps his least favorite literary form, but he never lacked ideas, and over the years some of them ended up in this form.  Reissuing (That Other Place, sic) in the 1960s, Priestley's publishers gave it a new subtitle, Stories on the Edge of the Marvellous", and that is what they are, thoughtful entertainments with more than a touch of the supernatural.  Priestley once said of the painter Pieter Bruegel that lurking behind the sharply-observed detail of his pictures of peasant life is a "fairy-tale country...poised on the edge of marvels and miracles...feeling a trifle haunted", and the same could be said of these stories: their tales of the uncanny and downright impossible are...set against the sharply-observed detail of ordinary post-war English life, and this is one of their pleasures (v)".

So much for a general outline of the book itself, for the moment.  What about the author?  I think a lot of help in answering that question comes from examining the social background Priestley was born into.  His parents lived their lives in Yorkshire.  What's notable about it that it's almost like an anomaly in its own setting.  Yorkshire was one of the few English townships with an established, and long ingrained liberal tradition running through it.  That meant the author was born and raised in what might be called a germinal open society.  He seems to have been lucky in terms of home life, as well.  His parents seem to have gotten along, and there is no real record of any of the usual details of marital strife, and/or the agonized contest of wills that results from piss-poor parenting.  On the contrary, his folks seemed to have encouraged their son.  As a result, Priestley burgeoning interest in the written arts all stems from an environment capable of fostering such a creative outlet without ever once encumbering or curbing it.

Priestley's Yorkshire background had one other effect on his thinking as an adult.  I have called his social atmosphere a liberal one.  That seems to be true so far as it goes, though just how much of an influence it held over some of the authors political outlooks is perhaps a matter of opinion.  What it all boils down to is the way that some of Priestley's life and thoughts falls into a surprisingly familiar pattern.  In fact, it you were to place him alongside a much more famous writer such as George Orwell, then there is a sense in which you could say it was almost like seeing double.  Both men grew up in a climate where they found themselves first drawn to the allure of Communism, followed by a gradual, growing sense of political disillusionment as the reality of the situation kept pummeling each of them into an acknowledgement of the difference between truth and fantasy.  What's interesting is that they also found themselves turning to the fantastic genres as a means of expressing what they had to say.

In Priestley case, the main ideas that occupied him for the rest of his life are, out of the ordinary, to say the least.  The one flaw in Baxendale's introduction is that he insists on seeing Priestley's life and writings through an ideological lens which the author himself had pretty much given up on by the time the 1950s got off to a start.  Instead, the shedding of one concern seems to have turned his attention to concepts that are perhaps a bit more esoteric and existential.  They were the sort of thoughts that lent themselves easily to the creation of fairy tale countries.  It's a career path of the author's that is never able to sit quite right with the critic.  One gets the sense of Baxendale wishing that Priestley would drop all this romantic tosh and go back to toeing the party line.  If this is the critic's desire, then the obvious irony is that he is several decades too late.  In any case, even if he could have confronted Priestley, I'm sure Baxendale would have come away empty handed and disappointed.  The nature of political disillusionment such as the one John Bertram experienced is very much a concrete illustration of what people mean by such phrases as "burning out the dross".  It is a change of mind, yet what guys like Baxendale seem to have difficulty grasping is that its also like shedding a disused and dangerous skin.

In Priestley's case, there seems to have been a great deal more compensation waiting from him on the other side.  He may have lost his sense of ideology, though I see no evidence that he ever lost his liberalism, which is very much something else.  It also seems to have been a more profitable ending than the one Orwell wound up with.  Priestley seems to have found a second lease on life with his other passions.  I don't call them newfound, because they seems to have been there from the start, even before getting mixed up in what some people refer to as politics.  I have described them as esoteric, and that is because the way Priestley expresses these ideas in his stories is remarkable for their level of familiarity.  In order to give the best idea of what I'm talking about, perhaps it'll help if we take a moment to look at one of these Stories on the Edge of the Marvelous, and see for ourselves just what was it about that Undiscovered Country that Priestley liked to explore so much.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Ray Bradbury Theater: The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone.

The Horror Genre found itself in a weird place during the 80s.  Another way of putting it is to claim that the species found itself in the middle of an interesting sort of crossroads at the time.  A lot of it had to do with the seemingly natural ups and downs the genre has found itself mired in over the years.  It's very nature as a home for ghosts rattling chains, flesh eating zombies, and the like has meant that its fortunes will probably always be relegated to a strange, popular outsider status.  The public at large tends to view it like a very exotic form of cobra.  It's form, patterns, sometimes even its very appearance can prove alluring.  At the same time, there's this sense that it's probably not all that healthy to hang around this particular specimen for too long.  It's got teeth, and it can bite you with them any time it damn well pleases.  The unspoken assumption seems to be that once you let that kind of poison into your system, you can pretty much kiss your sanity good night at some point down the line.  Will the last functioning brain cell please turn out the lights before your go.  Such is the perennial reputation enjoyed by the gothic format throughout its long history. 

I suppose that means its not too much of a surprise to discover that its precisely a bad rap like this that tends to draw in all those curious enough to see if it really is as dark and twisted as its critics contend.  This is one of the keys to the genre's staying power.  A lot of what keeps it going is the kind of anxieties and social fears that exist just underneath the surface of our daily existence.  Fictional horror exists, it seems, at least in part as an outlet for these psychological misgivings.  It's an idea that tends to hold a great amount of weight with scholars and students of the genre.  Digby Diehl, for instance, in a book-length history and examination of EC's Tales from the Crypt lays what seems to be a convincing enough pictures of the kind of social petri dish out of which the genre tends to spring, and from which it is able to find its most potent inspirations.  "Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Phantom of the Opera had sprung from the nightmare conditions of the early days of the Industrial Revolution.  Horror comics of the 1950s appealed to teens and young adults who were trying to cope with the aftermath of even greater terrors - Nazi death camps and the explosion of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"Fifties kids came of age in a booming, button-down America during an era punctuated by outbursts of national paranoia.  School duck-and-cover drills nourished the fear that at any moment a nuclear attack could send us into shelters to live on Ritz crackers for years.  As high school graduates were getting shipped off to Korea, the McCarthy hearings and the Rosenberg spy trial reinforced the idea that America's enemies were everywhere...It was difficult for adolescents to deal with these deep-seated fears for survival, rational or otherwise...Millions of young Americans, who had no frame of reference to judge how far the times were out of joint, were whipsawed by the dichotomy between mortal terror and creature comforts (28)".  It didn't take those same kids long, however, to discover just how disjointed their own world was.  When the year 1963 rolled around, the children of the 50s had been molded and primed into becoming the shapers and makers of the 1960s.  Their looming, unconscious fears had created a sense of threat in need of addressing.

This turned out to be one of several internal triggering mechanisms which allowed more than a few artists to vent these collective social fears into short stories, books, and films that were able to capture those anxieties in a gothic guise, and more or less preserve them forever in the literary and celluloid amber of those decades.  By the time the children of the 50s had becomes the adults and parents of the 80s, this self-understanding of their own fears had matured, at least to a considerable enough extent.  Now they had names and faces to place on the elements (both external and internal) that went bump in the night side of their own minds.  It was this nascent sense of development that seems to have been the key factor in helping the twilight terrors of our imaginations to find an mostly unremarked second life on the small screen during the Reagan years.  John Kenneth Muir gives a neat summation of the mindset that helped launch the second spring of Horror on the small screen as part of his encyclopedic work, Terror Television.  

For Muir, it's important to understand that a lot of the surge in popularity that the genre experienced during the 80s all tended to have its roots a bit back in the 70s.  "It is important to recall that the early 1970s...represented an epoch in which television violence was, by some standards, considered excessive.  Although positions soon changed, and the networks cleaned up their acts...early 1970s programming...somehow escaped drastic censorship and showed much more violence and intensity than previous series had.  The fun, brightly colored, action-packed, and optimistic TV visions of the 1960s, like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68) and Star Trek (1966-69) were (in the first half of the 70s) superseded by violent, dark, grim programming such as Night Gallery and Kolchak.  Many of these new series were actually lensed at night, so they were not merely dark in the philosophical sense, but in the literal sense as well.  The turn toward darkness was a shift in the national mood due, at least in part, to the shocking and graphic news footage coming back from the Vietnam War.  It was as if for the first time Americans were aware of a darker world, and television reflected that shift in perspective.

"Conversely, but not necessarily in contradiction, horror programming of the '70s also provided, as it always has, a catharsis and escape from real life dilemmas.  So, while Vietnam was a morass which inspired moral controversy at home, the "evil" vampires, werewolves, and monsters of these early 1970s shows offered viewer a world very unlike the real one.  On TV, monsters and other supernatural villains could easily be identified and dealt with.  The dark, disturbing reality of life was mirrored in the anti-establishment...philosophies of these shows, but such grim ideas were also subverted and made "acceptable" by their presence on the tube in what amounted to entertainment formats (12)".  I think Muir's take on things is both informative and incomplete by turns.  I'm not for a minute going to doubt that the fallout of Nam caused the great majority of Americans to believe their own government might not always have their best interests in mind.  Nor is Muir incorrect when he says this is reflected in a lot of the Gothic oriented programming of the years following the close of what amounted a misguided national embarrassment.  The real trouble is the lingering sense that the critic has narrowed the focus in just a bit too much.  As a result, the actual big picture is in danger of getting lost in the shuffle.

The real truth of what was happening not just in television at that time, but also cinema, literature, and the arts in general, is really quite obvious when given a bit of thought.  The simple fact was that the student hippies of the Nam years were starting to come of age.  That meant you were seeing a lot of former attendees of Monterey Pop, or Woodstock, slowly begin to invade the hallowed halls of respectability.  The trick to the whole development is this.  Though they may have stashed the tie dye shirts and peace medallions out of sight, their output on the creative front indicates that a lot of the philosophies, the thoughts, ideas, and above all the music and goals that made them turn on, tune in, and drop out were still very much in the forefront of their minds, guiding their actions to produce some of the iconic films and shows of that decade.  In addition, a widening of the lens reveals that the success of films like the original Star Wars, combined with the continuing success of Gene Roddenberry's efforts on the same big screen, all seem to point toward a greater sense of continuity than Muir is willing to credit.  It's a shared cultural ethos that I tend to think unites even those artists who are normally not considered in the same space. 

The 80s incarnation of the Twilight Zone might not be the same thing as John Carpenter's They Live, and that movie is the polar opposite of Spielberg's E.T.  The one thing each separate entity shares in common is the same, continuous, counter-cultural strand of thinking which sought (and perhaps still seeks) to challenge the abuse of authority in all its forms.  It's the one uniting element to be found in just about all of the Horror programming from that decade, and I'm convinced that it helped shape the kind of stories that a lot of the televisual and cinematic artists of the period had to tell.  There's a lot of soul-searching going on, a lot of trying to think forward as well.  The net result of all this combination and coagulation of elements was a TV network field in which the regular walls and boundaries had been knocked out, leaving the playing field a bit more open to experimentation (of the genuine kind) and risk taking.  It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  I'm not sure when the next one will come, if ever.

The curious part in all this is how it allowed one creative voice in particular to have a platform for the kind of stories he had to tell.  I guess what makes it standout so well against the pack is that his was an older voice that nonetheless managed to make the transition across the generation gap.  The main reason for this seems to have been a combination of luck and timing  It was impossible for Ray Bradbury to not be impacted by the events and social upheavals of the decade in the same way as a lot of his younger readers, many of whom were just fresh-faced college kids with a lot to worry about in their future.  The result is that when books like Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles hit the drug store racks, these same readers found a voice that spoke to their situation.  Bradbury seemed to share a lot of their concerns about the state of the post-war world at large, and was willing to share his thoughts with others.  In doing so, he seems to have helped a lot of others find their own voices as the times kept a changin'.  The ripple effect from such humble beginnings wound up making Ray into a kind of global icon by the time executives from the fledgling USA network approached him with the offer of manning his very own TV series.  

The result was known as The Ray Bradbury Theater, one of few 80s anthology shows to survive getting dropped by its original network.  Each episode would open with Bradbury taking a somewhat iconic elevator up to his writing room office space.  The camera would follow Bradbury as he slowly leads us into his his inner sanctum.  It's one of those self-made nerd's paradises where all the walls are plastered over with old movie posters, stills of the stars, and various old masks and knickknacks.  The bookshelves, meanwhile, are stuffed to the gills with the sort of quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore that would make book-dealers and bibliophiles itch just knowing they're there.  Bradbury would then inform us that this is the place where he gets his ideas.  I'm pretty sure the truth was a bit more complex than that, however it makes for a killer opening.  It's not as high rated as the ones found on the Zone, Outer Limits, or Tales from the Darkside.  However it helps to set just the right tone for the kind of stories Bradbury has to tell.  While he's mostly remembered today as a Science Fiction author, Ray was more like a genre fiction polymath.  He was the sort who was just as much at home in either a haunted house, or somewhere among the stars.  His anthology provides a showcase for this variety.

One episode in particular contains this opening narration.  "I'm surrounded by file after file of ideas, stories, poems, and fragments of novels, put away over some forty years.  I go through them constantly, and whichever story, poem, or play cries the loudest to be born gets written.  But I've often wondered.  If someone said to me, "Your stories or your life", would I save my life, or my stories?  And so, "The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone" was born".