Whistle Down The Wind

A companion to the two other films about the imaginative lives of children (Spirit of the Beehive and Kes) that I covered in an earlier entryWhistle Down the Wind could well be the most disturbing of the lot, especially as it’s the most obviously aimed at children. Its cheery music, quoting jauntily from “We Three Kings”, and the rather jolly, Famous Five style of innocent adventurousness the three children start out with (we first see them rescuing kittens thrown into a lake), seem to be setting us up for something far simpler than the film actually is.

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Kathy (played by Hayley Mills), is the eldest of three children living on a farm with their father, and an aunt who has taken on the task of looking after them since the death of their mother (a background detail which isn’t dwelt upon, but which infuses Kathy’s subsequent actions with an underlying desperation the style of the film doesn’t quite confront.) After making a careless remark about Jesus not being able to look after the kittens they’ve rescued because he’s dead, Kathy finds an injured man hiding in a barn, and immediately thinks he’s Jesus, come to prove her wrong. She convinces her younger sister and brother to keep his existence a secret, and together they sneak food out to him (at one point spending money meant for their aunt’s groceries and pretending to lose the receipt to hide the discrepancy). But the man is in fact Blakey, a murderer on the run from the police. He at first doesn’t realise why the children are treating him with such reverence, even when Kathy says they’re doing it because they love him. It’s only after he finds himself with a growing congregation of young disciples that he understands. (They beg him for a story. Instead of reading from the Bible they bring him, he reads from a girl’s comic.)

Things start to go awry when the youngest of the three children, the boy Eddie, finds that the kitten he gave to “Jesus” to look after has died, and Blakey can’t give a reason for why he let such a thing happen. Kathy, determined to believe in him (and, perhaps more importantly, to believe that death has meaning), takes her brother to the local vicar for an answer. But the vicar is so pettily materialistic that, after giving a totally inadequate argument about old people dying to make way for the new ones being born, returns to harping on about the guttering and lead being stolen from the church — something that preoccupies him far more than the fact a murderer is on the lose amongst his flock. Kathy is intelligent enough not to be satisfied with this answer, but is all too ready to believe Blakey when he says he let the kitten die because he had too much on his mind. Seeing how ready she is to believe him, he asks her to retrieve a pistol hidden in a nearby railway tunnel, which she does, without question.

It was in the face of this almost absurdist irony (a child believeing a murderer to be Jesus) that I felt a disturbing possibility beginning to loom out of the plot. Kathy has already quizzed a well-meaning but out-of-her-depth Sunday School teacher about what would happen if Jesus were to return to the world: “bad people” would try to crucify him again. So when her father inevitably learns that a murderer is hiding in his barn, Kathy is going to see his perfectly normal actions (summoning the police, taking the man away) as the actions of a “bad person” crushing the goodness and meaning from the world.

The most distressing scene comes shortly after, when a tearful Kathy begs Blakey to forgive her as the police bear down on the barn where he has holed himself up with his revolver. At this point, it seems that, if he resists arrest and gets himself shot (most likely by Kathy’s father, who, aside from Blakey, is the only adult we know to be armed), Kathy is doomed to live a life of guilt at her part in re-crucifying Christ, and alienation from her father and all the other adults who quite rightfully want to take this murderer away.

Thankfully, we hit a redemptive note. Moved by Kathy’s innocent belief in him, Blakey throws his gun outside and gives himself up. But still, the redemption is his, not Kathy’s. She remains entrenched in the illusion that he is Jesus — is in fact further confirmed in it by the way Blakey seems to adopt a crucificial pose when the police search him before taking him away.

Perhaps the message of the film is that treating any human being, even a murderer, with the love and reverence due to a figure like Christ, will redeem them. But, for most of the time I spent watching Whistle Down The Wind, I felt it was teetering on the edge of throwing poor Kathy into the arms of a conclusion far more bleak and brutal — one perhaps best captured by the casual destruction of innocence in the film’s opening sequence of a man throwing three kittens, trapped in a sack, into a lake to drown. Are the Bostock children (as hinted by the incidental music) really Three Wise Kings who are the first to kneel before a returned Christ, or in fact three innocent kittens almost drowned by an uncaring adult world?

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

mieville_unlundunUnLondon is an abcity, an alternate London where all the forgotten things from our world go. When schoolgirl Zanna begins to attract an unwanted level of reverent attention from wild animals, bus drivers and, even, clouds in the sky, she and her friend Deeba find their way to UnLondon, where they discover the city is awaiting the coming of the Shwazzy, the chosen one who will defeat the malevolent, sentient Smog, as foretold by the (speaking) Book of the Propheseers. But Deeba (who is, it turns out, the real hero of Un Lun Dun) soon learns that not all things go according to prophecy.

This is China Miéville’s first book for Young Adults, but it certainly doesn’t feel like an author jumping on the current YA bandwagon (as he says in a recent Guardian interview, “I’ve been accruing image capital for a younger book for a long time and then I coagulated it”). What made it so readable for me was the constant level and quality of invention. Almost every one of its 520 pages brings at least one fantastic image or witty idea, sparking off little scintillations of the sort of pleasure only fantasy can give: unbrellas and other animate pieces of rubbish dragging themselves through back alleys, fireproof red squirrels climbing the November Tree which blooms like a firework explosion every 5th of that month, killer giraffes, a forest in a house, the frightening arachnids of Webminster Abbey… Best of all, these aren’t just throwaway ideas providing a glamour of invention, but are often meaningfully (and ingeniously) integrated into the plot.

The story itself doesn’t disappoint. Readers already familiar with fantasy literature will appreciate Miéville’s revisionary riffing on the cliché of the Chosen One, the prophesied hero whose destiny it is to defeat the Dark Enemy, which often leaves you wondering if there was any actual danger at all. (This isn’t to dismiss the idea of destiny in fantasy altogether — every child is, after all, biologically destined to grow into an adult, and so, at that point in their lives, can often feel in the grip of destiny-like forces beyond their control. Once you’re an adult, free will generally returns and you can do your best to forget, for a good few years, all about that other destined event — you know, the one that goes hand-in-hand with taxes.)

The other great cliché of fantasy doorstop series (Un Lun Dun is a standalone book which, unlike so many other fantasies, has the grace to finish, within the same covers, the story it begins), the quest to find x-number of meaningless “key” items so as to gain a magical weapon (best relegated to fantasy games, where at least it’s fun), is also neatly handled by Miéville’s stuck-for-time heroine. The UnGun she finally gains has got to be one of the best fantasy weapons out there, both in terms of power, and the fun it contributes to the plot. (How do you defeat a monster made of animate fruit?)

Written in a clear, up-to-date (though not slangy) language that will appeal to kids (while still offering the occasional stylistic diamond, my favourite being: “It laughed again, with a noise like a sack of dead animals being dragged across coal and broken glass”) and illustrated by the author himself, Un Lun Dun is a hugely enjoyable book, certainly for not-so-Y, not-so-A’s like myself.

Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis

lunarparkI read Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho without being aware of any of the controversy surrounding its release. My reaction to it was similar to how I felt about J G Ballard’s Crash: an incredible writerly achievement, but not a book I was ever likely to re-read, not just because of the extreme subject matter, but because neither book had enough story to justify its length. (I think Ballard happily admits Crash was a short story extended to novel length, as a sort of balance to the novel-squashed-into-a-short-story approach of his “condensed novels” from The Atrocity Exhibition.) Of the two, I enjoyed American Psycho slightly more, as there were brief hints of real human despair in the isolation of its protagonist, despite the fact he was a monstrous serial killer. It also had its funny moments, which can’t exactly be said of Crash.

Having said this, I’ve read most of what Ballard has written, and am slowly filling in the gaps, but I wasn’t tempted by any of Ellis’s other novels till his latest, Lunar Park, which returns to horror territory. Lunar Park reads very much like a Stephen King novel. The main difference is that instead of (as with King) the narrator being an “average Joe” family man who just happens to be a writer and who gets mixed up with supernatural events, Ellis’s protagonist is more the rock-star type of celebrity author whose lifestyle few of his readers, I suspect, will be able to identify with. In fact I found the narrator’s pampered lifestyle something of a put-off near the start of the book, and it was only because the narrator was so personable, so open about his many failings, that kept me going. He was often quite funny, too.

In a neat link with Crash, where the protagonist was called Ballard, Ellis’s protagonist in Lunar Park is called Bret Easton Ellis, and seems to have lived a life similar to that of his creator. He has, for instance, written a much talked-about book called American Psycho. The opening chapter, summarising his life so far, could well be a satirised version of Ellis’s own rise to fame — I’ve no idea of the details of Ellis’s life. It certainly acts as a good start to the novel, with enough of a whiff of metafiction to pacify the genrephobic among its readers.

In the novel, Ellis (the narrator) has just been shocked into acknowledging the total emptiness of his drug-addled life by the lonely death of his estranged father. Trying to quickly patch in some stability and meaning, he marries an ex-girlfriend Hollywood actress with whom he fathered (or didn’t) a son he previously refused to acknowledge. Fatherhood, however, is not a role he’s prepared for. Three months into the marriage, he has barely connected with his son, is in serious “couples counselling” with his wife, and the family dog thinks — knows — he’s a fraud. Odd things start to happen. He’s been receiving a series of blank, anonymous emails from the bank where his father’s ashes are locked away in a deposit box (against his father’s wishes). The house where he lives seems to be spontaneously changing colour, and the furniture is rearranging itself. Worst of all, he meets several people who seem overly reminiscent of characters from his own fiction, one of whom may be Patrick Bateman, the serial killer from American Psycho. Kids have been disappearing in the neighbourhood.

This first half of the novel is entertaining, mainly because of the dry comedy in the narrator’s estrangement from his family, and the sheer weirdness of the over-medicated, sterilised & psychoanalysed lives of the wealthy suburbanites and their unfortunate children. It’s as the novel starts to descend more firmly into genre territory, as the genuinely weird events become more and more obviously supernatural, that the book loses its charm. The easy flow of humour gives way and Ellis (the author) loses his style. At moments of horror the flow breaks down completely and we get nothing but single-sentence paragraphs for pages at a time:

It was tall and had a vaguely human form, and though it was skeletal it had eyes.

Rapidly my father’s face was illuminated in the skull.

And then another replaced it.

Clayton’s.

I was stunned into rigidity. (p 401)

The simple statement of fact can be quite chilling when applied to moments of supernatural horror — Sheridan LeFanu uses it brilliantly in some of his fiction (“his throat was cut across like another mouth, wide open, laughing at her; she seen no more, but dropped in a dead faint in the bed” from Ghost Stories of the Tiled House) — but when it’s the only device, when we get no dynamics or contrast with passages of greater length, the constant thud of short sentences becomes a rhythmic jolt breaking you out of the dream-state the book ought to be working to keep you in. On top of this, the actual details of the novel’s various hauntings are so varied that there isn’t any focal point, nothing the reader can build their own expectations and anxieties on. You don’t feel, as you do with Lovecraft, that there’s a unifying idea behind it all (even though it turns out there is).

It’s a shame, because the start of the book was really enjoyable, and the ending managed to achieve a satisfying emotional resolution — but this was largely thanks to the story of what happens to the narrator’s son, which, although it is only a subplot compared to the main supernatural events, is far more affecting and interesting, and would have made a better book on its own. (Something akin to a reverse of Ballard’s novella Running Wild, perhaps.)

The Bookshop, or two of them anyway

darkhorizons50I’m thrilled to say I’ve got a story published in the latest issue of the British Fantasy Society‘s award-winning magazine, Dark Horizons, recently under the new editorship of Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards. They’ve done a great job, and I’m really chuffed to be part of the line-up. I’m horrified, though, to realise that the last story I had published was in 1996! Largely, I’m ashamed to say, through lack of trying & general self-discouragement, but hopefully this will get me to put a bit more effort in that direction in future. I tend to fall into thinking, of the things I write, “Well I like it, but I can’t see how anyone else would.” — which is a surefire way of getting nowhere.

This story, “The Bookshop”, was basically inspired by a recurrent type of dream, in which I’d find myself in a wonderful bookshop full of all sorts of rare and interesting books, most of which don’t, in reality, exist. These dream bookshops would often be labyrinthine and ever-expanding, and I’d somehow never actually manage to make a purchase. One such dream was set in the upper levels of a real (but dream-modified) bookshop called, oddly enough, The Bookshop, which is on East Grinstead High Street. The Bookshop — the real one — has a wonderful secondhand section up some creaking old steps. It’s getting more and more difficult to find secondhand bookshops, it seems, so I count myself lucky to live in a town that has one. As wonderful as it is to find every book ever published via Abebooks or Amazon (I love them both), they can’t replace the surprise of finding the book you didn’t know you wanted, and would never have known you wanted, had you not come across it slotted unobtrusively on a shelf. When I think of the writers I’d never have read if it hadn’t been for old-style (non-internet) browsing: Ramsey Campbell, Theodore Sturgeon, Algernon Blackwood, Colin Wilson, E R Eddison, William Gibson, A E van Vogt (whose name I still don’t know how to pronounce), to mention a bare few — it’s not worth contemplating!