Sunday, June 16, 2024

Mrs. Chamberlain's Reunion by Philippa Pearce (2001).

I've already given readers of this blog their first introductions to a writer named Philippa Pearce once before.  For those who still haven't read that older Club entry, or those who have and just forgot, here's a bit of an abridged refresher course.  Just as everybody has to come from somewhere, it also makes sense to claim that every writer is the product of the influences that molded them into the specific type of artist that they have all become.  Shakespeare and Mark Twain, for instance, wouldn't have been capable of writing the works that made them famous without the imprints that time, place, and culture had left on their minds.  This is something that appears in all of their works, and its so much a part of who each writer is that it's like there's no way they could stop it from seeping into their words.  To read Shakespeare with due diligence is to slowly immerse yourself into the early modern mindset that was the Elizabethan World Picture.  Likewise, becoming a devoted fan of Twain's work is a good way to gain a working knowledge of both the pre and post-Civil War ethos of the American landscape during the middle and near end of the 19th century.  Twain, in particular, is a useful resource these days for the way in which even his most imaginative flights of fancy highlight all of the social issues that this Country is still dealing with.

In the same way, though in a much lighter vein, it is possible to get a sense of the influences that helped mold Philippa Pearce into the writer she became.  In her case, most of the shaping influences in her art can be traced back to her childhood, growing up in Great Shelford, near the River Cam, in Cambridgeshire, England.  Her parent's were merchant millers, yet their occupation never got in the way of their daughter's education.  A lot of that was conditioned by the location that Ernest and Gertrude Pearce decided to settle down and raise a family in, and which subsequently became the place of the artist's birth.  If you follow the course of the River Cam long enough in a certain direction, it will take you both through and right past the iconic town and College which have taken their respective namesakes from the water source.  It's one of those cases where, if you pay attention to the geography long enough, you can maybe begin to understand why sometimes even the children of the working class residents of the town dotted about the River could sometimes grow up with higher rates of literacy than elsewhere, and this includes Pearce herself, as well.  All of which is to say that the first and biggest influence on Philippa as a child was the fact that she grew up within the shadows, environs, and confines of Cambridge University.  As a result, she was something of a college town girl.

It makes sense, therefore, that spending most of her childhood within reach of one of the most iconic and greatest centers of learning in the world meant her formative years were spent in an atmosphere that was always being molded at some fundamental level by the demands and enticements of academia.  It's no surprise, therefore, that growing up in such a collegiate setting would mean both an easy access to books, and eventual result of both an academic, as well as literary frame of mind on the part of the author.  All available indications point to Philippa taking a somewhat natural interest in the world of Arts and Letters at an early age, no doubt shaped in large degree to the influence that Cambridge University and its administration was able to exert on the daily workings of life in her hometown.  She was further assisted in this growing interest in the Realm of Letters by the fact that her parent's business as millers left them well off enough to send their daughter to Cambridge's Girton College.  She was thus able to graduate with a successful degree in both English and History (web).  It was this nurtured interest in Art and is relations to historical events which seems to have colored Philippa's work for the remainder of her days.  Her fictions tend to coalesce around a number of themes and settings.

In one sense, she's very much a writer concerned with the potential dramas of the domestic scene.  The vast majority of her work takes place in the lower and middle class houses containing the types of families that she knew growing up.  In this she shares a lot in common with Mark Twain.  Both artists can be described as regional authors, or Writers of Place.  Like Twain, in other words, Phillipa always seems to have been at her best when bringing the Cambridgeshire town and country settings she knew as a child to life on the printed page.  Twain did the same thing with his boyhood hometown of Hannibal, Missouri.  Or, for that matter, in much the same way Tolkien did for the West Midlands country of his own Victorian/Edwardian youth.  Philippa's stories tend to be a lot quieter in their focus on the domestic than either the rambunctious mischief of Twain, or the soaring epic qualities of Tolkien.  However, that's not the same as saying that she was unfamiliar with the tropes of the Fantastic.  While the domesticity of Cambridge country life might have been the author's main primary setting, much like the work of Stephen King, Pearce's backdrops were often the stage for various happenings and occurrences of the otherworldly variety.  What's remarkable and somewhat gratifying to learn is just how much of these Fantasy elements took the form of the traditional Gothic framework.

Also much like King, Philippa's stories concern the ways in which the hidden and sometimes troubled aspects of life can erupt into an otherwise normal setting in the form of the supernatural.  The major difference between the two is that Pearce's approach to this same material tends to take a much more gentler guiding hand, for lack of a better word.  A lot of this seems down to the fact that when it came time to find her niche in the world of letters, Phillipa somehow wound up settling on the venue of children's author as the mode that allowed the best possible expression of her own creative voice.  Nor is there anything to complain about, really.  Much like the work of R.L. Stine, or Bruce Coville (or closer to home, E. Nesbit and M.R. James), at her best Pearce's efforts can act as a very useful gateway entry to the wider world of Gothic fiction.  She does this by manufacturing narratives of the ghostly and the whimsical that in some ways can almost be said to signal the future work of authors like Neil Gaiman.  One such story is what we'll be looking at today.  It's called "Mrs. Chamberlain's Reunion".

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Charles Beaumont's The Wages of Cynicism (1999).

I think by now most readers of this site have a passing familiarity with a writer named Charles Beaumont.  Not too long ago he was the subject of a documentary devoted to not just to his life, work, and memory a documentary devoted to not just to his life, work, and memory.  It was also about the legacy and thumbprint he was able to leave on pop culture, in terms of the specific kind of stories he managed to tell.  In the strictest sense, I suppose there's nothing intrinsically new or original about the kind of work Beaumont wrote.  He was a fantasist, first, last, and always.  Perhaps the best phrase I can use to describe him as an artist it to claim that Beaumont stands as an all too often overlooked literary inheritor.  His work emerges or steps onto the public stage as the product of a long and venerable tradition of Fantastic fiction the includes influences from all three of the major popular genres.  This is a list that would have to include all the usual suspects: H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, Lewis Carroll, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells.  The biggest influence, however, seems to have belonged to Ray Bradbury.  These seem to have been the determining names that went on to shape the kind of fiction that Beaumont churned out from what turned out to be a surprisingly short run of time, from 1951 all the way up to 1965.  If that time span gives the impression of a promising career brought to an abrupt and sudden halt, that's because it really was.

Perhaps the biggest reason that most people are no longer familiar with the name and writings of Charles Beaumont is because his life was taken way too early by illness.  What's remarkable about his career as an author is just how vast an amount of material he was able to churn out in such a short span of time.  It all reads very much like how both his friends and favorable critics once observed.  Beaumont always seemed to work as if some inner aspect of his personality knew that he was maybe never going to have all that long, so it was best to try and tap into the Imagination for all it was worth, and leave as great a mark on the world of the storytelling arts as he possibly could.  In a way, it's just possible to claim that he's succeeded.  You may no longer know Beaumont's name, though for the most part, you sure as hell can't escape the legacy he's left behind.  It's no mistake to claim Chuck Beaumont as a writer with something of a pioneer status to his work.  While the passage of time has rendered a lot of his writings as either obscure or too familiar sounding to be worth much comment, it helps to keep in mind that back when he was writing, Beaumont and his friends were busy finding what was then nothing less than a new and modern voice for tales of Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy.

The kind of writings Beaumont was famous for are very much as described by author Christopher Conlon.  "They have the power of fables: simple, direct, allegorical, they pull you in and hold you—but they teach you something too. They’re the kind of stories SF master Theodore Sturgeon called “wisdom fiction.” And while these particular tales are the work of completely different writers—Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), Charles Beaumont (“The Howling Man”), William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson (Logan’s Run)—they almost seem as if they might all have been hatched from a single brilliant, fantastically inventive imagination.

"This is no accident. For these men were, from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, part of a close-knit brotherhood of writers centered in the Los Angeles area that came to dominate not only printed SF and fantasy, but movies and TV as well—scripting between them many of the period’s best-known films (including most of the Roger Corman / Edgar Allan Poe movies), along with classic segments of Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond, and virtually every episode of The Twilight Zone. At its peak this association of creative artists also included, among others, Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Jerry Sohl, Ray Russell, and Harlan Ellison. These outstandingly gifted men were collectively referred to by several names, including “The Southern California School of Writers” and “The Green Hand” (after the Mafia’s “Black Hand”). But they were most commonly called, simply, “The Group.”

“It’s an astonishing story,” says Marc Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion. “Many of these writers would not have been nearly as creative without each other. It was genuinely a gestalt that made these people deeper, better—made them stretch to places they never would have gotten to without each other.” Group member William F. Nolan, whose film credits include Burnt Offerings and Trilogy of Terror, explains: “We’d talk plot, read stories we’d finished for opinions, talk about markets and what was selling and who was buying, discuss character development and structure, and, yes, we’d argue, but in a constructive way. We all helped each other…and inter-connected on projects.”

“Sometimes, of an evening,” Ray Bradbury has written, “Richard Matheson would toss up there merest dust fleck of a notion, which would bounce off William F. Nolan, knock against George Clayton Johnson, glance off me, and land in [Charles Beaumont’s] lap. ..Sometimes we all loved an idea so much we had to assign it to the writer present who showed the widest grin, the brightest cheeks, the most fiery eyes.”  Direct collaborations between Group members were common. And no wonder. In those early days, most of them—particularly the “inner circle” of Nolan, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson, and novelist John Tomerlin—were men in their twenties who were just beginning their careers. They found strength, encouragement, and a sense of solidarity in the company of other struggling young writers. Because of the Group, says Nolan, “We were not alone; we had each other to fire us creatively, to bounce ideas around, to solve plot problems. It was the best kind of writing class that could ever be imagined.”

"But the closeness of the Group members went beyond the writing. According to Johnson (scriptwriter for Twilight Zone and Star Trek): “We knew each others’ wives, we went to each others’ houses, we shared holidays together, we went to movies and other things together…[We] would go out on the town and zoom around from place to place, stay out all damned hours. We’d just do anything you can think of. We’d go to strip joints to watch the strippers strip and be embarrassed to be there, but nonetheless whistling and whooping it up and trying to act like college kids…We’d go to nice restaurants like Musso and Frank’s or we’d end up at Barney’s Beanery. Or someplace along the beach. It hardly mattered.” The central members were as open to a carnival as they were to an art-house film. More than any particular activity, the joy was in each others’ company.

"And, most especially, the joy was in the company of one man—a lanky, charismatic young author of screenplays (The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao) and teleplays (Twilight Zone) as well as essays, short stories, and novels, who is described by Nolan as having been “the hub of the wheel,” the Group’s “electric center”: the vibrant, brilliant, and tragic Charles Beaumont (Conlon, California Sorcery, 1-3)".  A lot of this will be familiar to older readers of the Club.  For those who are new, however, a handy general guide to Beaumont and his life's work can be found here, at this link.  I'd urge novice readers to start out with the article contained in the link above, and then come back here for further exploration when and if you feel like it.  For those veteran readers who are already familiar with the material of Beaumont's life and writings, I kind of owe you a bit of gratitude.  For whatever reason, my previous article on the obscure California Sorcerer has wound up becoming one of the most popular pages on this blog.  For that reason, I think a bit of a reward is in order.  That's why I've decided to revisit this particular well.  Today, we'll take a look at one of the short stories Beaumont seems to have written yet never published within his lifetime.  It's an unknown piece with the simple title of "The Wages of Cynicism".