The Angry Years by Colin Wilson

wilson_angryThis isn’t one of Colin Wilson’s better efforts, perhaps because it’s not quite one thing — it’s part autobiography (and, in that, is returning to ground already covered in Wilson’s Dreaming to Some Purpose), part biography (being about the writers who came to the fore in the 50s as part of the “Angry Young Man” movement), and, as ever with Wilson, part existentialist tract. Wilson’s best virtue as a writer is his intense interest in whatever he’s writing about, but because this book is neither one thing nor the other, it suffers from being too diffuse for his infectious focus to come across. Even in its main aspect, as biography of the Angry Young Men writers (in particular John Osbourne, John Braine, Kinglsey Amis and Kenneth Tynan), it’s a bit of an odd mix. Having to compress several lives into one volume, Wilson comes up with something that is, one moment, literary analysis, and the next, gossip about substance abuse and philandering, with little in between.

Perhaps another problem is that Wilson denies from the start that there ever really was such a thing as the “Angry Young Men” movement, aside from as a label the press applied to a group of (mostly working class) young writers, not all of whom were men (Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch are included), who came to the fore at around the same time. (Wilson’s own The Outsider was published shortly after John Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger was first performed, this being the play that started the whole “Angry” thing). But it may be that Wilson himself is the least suited member of that generation to judge it — he quickly set out on his own path, and thereby survived it (despite taking an incredible mauling from the press backlash to the movement they themselves had created); he is also a different sort of writer altogether, not really having a chip on his shoulder from his working-class background, nor being interested in the sort of depressing, gritty realism of his contemporaries. Wilson was more interested in humans as individuals, not members of a class or a society; he was also more interested in ideas as a means of improving people’s lives, than “realism” as a means of shaking his fist at life itself.

And it’s in his ideas that Wilson is really at his most interesting. Unfortunately, in this book, he holds himself back till the epilogue, concentrating before that on the odd mix of gossip and literature from which he creates his patchy, often quite broken, biographies of the writers he covers. (Perhaps one trouble is that I’ve heard of so few of the writers Wilson mentions. There’s really a sense that this book is for people looking back on, and getting a different view of, an era they were part of, or already know about.) Wilson’s main idea, his main take on the whole Angry Young Man movement, is that it’s all about the desire for freedom. The struggle to rise above class underprivilege, Wilson points out, is just one aspect of that struggle, even though it was the one most obviously associated with the Angry Young Men. Another, Wilson says, is the struggle to rise above “sexual underprivilege”. He says: “the notion of sexual freedom precedes that of social freedom.” But, if the lives Wilson presents in this book are supposed to illustrate this argument, they don’t in any way succeed. All the writers Wilson concentrates on were philanderers, and all suffered because of it, ending up living lonely, defeated lives, if not descending into paranoia and substance abuse. I’ve read none of their works, but Wilson’s accounts of their books and plays make them sound like tedious accounts of self-wallowing in thinly disguised autobiography. Wilson himself, it’s interesting to note, remained faithful to his wife of many years, and has survived with his sanity intact, as well as still being capable of producing interesting work. But I don’t think this book represents his “interesting work”, aside from in the epilogue, which feels like Wilson allowing himself to let his hair down and talk as himself, after the preceding chapters all being at the service of other, far less interesting, writers.

M Night Shyamalan’s The Lady in the Water

I really liked M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. It was a genuinely spooky film that managed to be more than just spooky. Unbreakable seemed a bit too much like a short film idea spun out to feature film length. Signs was downright contrived, a major disappointment. The Village was good, but mainly because it worked as a drama, not because of the twist at the end which was surely obvious to anyone who’s read even a handful of science fiction stories. The Lady in the Water is his latest effort and, well, I was determined to give it a good go. I knew it had taken a critical mauling, but most of what I heard was, it seemed to me, simply down to embarrassment at the rather childish nomenclature the film uses — it’s about a man who discovers a narf (a sort of inspirational water nymph) living in the pool of the apartment block he caretakes. Narf is a naff word, as is scrunt, the monster out to get the narf, which seems to be a cross between a jackal and a patch of turf. But I thought I could overlook these rather clunky words — they were supposed to be from a child’s bedtime story, after all — because The Lady in the Water isn’t just about narfs and scrunts, it’s about the adults who find themselves caught up in this child’s bedtime story, and I thought that provided an opportunity for Shyamalan to say something interesting about the shape life takes.

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Only, (to kill the suspense), he didn’t.

The film had its good points — mostly thanks to the acting, with Paul Giamatti (playing the caretaker Cleveland Heep), managing to bring his personal story to a genuinely emotional climax, and Bob Balaban, as the film critic, whose deadpan humourlessness was absolutely hilarious. Things started to go wrong for me near the start, though, when Bryce Dallas Howard’s tendency to deliver all her lines by in-breath alone meant I had to turn on the subtitles to understand what she was saying. (Thankfully, she later resorted to sign language, though only for reasons of convoluting an already over-complicated plot.)

What I really didn’t like about the film, though, was that Shyamalan failed to say that interesting thing I was expecting him to say. The possibility was there, I thought, that by bringing adult characters into a child’s bedtime story, he might say something about the gap between the meaningful form we expect life to take (as embodied by children’s stories) and the actual result we find ourselves living as adults — something of a mess, with hints of meaningfulness every now and then, but so much superfluity and inconsequentiality that we quickly realise life isn’t anything so simplistic as a bedtime story. But instead of raising the idea of story to the level of his adult characters, Shyamalan instead lowered his supposedly adult characters to the level of a child’s bedtime story by imposing on them a tremendously naive idea of what it means to have “a purpose” in life. Rather as in Signs, Shyamalan seems to think that having “a purpose” means that, at some point in your life, all your personal peculiarities and foibles will come together to make you play some perfect (though most probably minor) role in a story. But this, to me, is a horrible idea — that all your life is a preparation for some tiny part in someone else’s story, after which — what, you retire to the coast and take up gardening? Surely human life is more meaningful than that!

All the way through the film I was hoping its characters would wake up to how simplistic (and imprisoning, even dehumanising) their idea of “purpose” was. Instead, whenever anything went wrong they’d reshuffle their roles like a pack of cards, then try the same approach till it worked. In other words, they learned nothing.

I’ll probably still go and see Shyamalan’s next film. He’s at least creatively individual enough to be interesting, even if he doesn’t always succeed. It at least feels as though he’s trying, which is something Hollywood rarely seems to do.

The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell

grin_campbellAs much as I enjoyed the last two books I read (and reviewed), Ramsey Campbell’s latest novel is the best thing I’ve read in some time. I first got into Campbell’s fiction at about the age of sixteen when a friend convinced me to give Stephen King a go (it was pretty much the first horror I’d read — apart from a disastrous attempt at Dennis Wheatley I must go into some time — and I chose Salem’s Lot because a glimpse of the Nosferatu-inspired vampire on the trailer for the TV series still came back and gave me the creeps whenever I was alone in the house). Having read one King novel, I went back to the bookshop where I’d bought it and, wondering what England had to offer in a similar vein, picked Ramsey Campbell, judging, from a quick comparison of shelf-inchery, that he must be our nearest equivalent. (This was a secondhand bookshop, so its selection may have been misleading. But thank God it was.) I can’t remember which of his I read first (The Hungry Moon, perhaps), but it must have done the trick, because I quickly became hooked. Not only was Campbell capable of writing a real page turner like King (I remember being almost unable to put down Obsession, Incarnate and The Influence, which remains one of my favourite reads), but he was — and still is — one of the most consistently artistic writers I’ve read. I hope that doesn’t sound like faint praise, because it’s one of the highest compliments I could pay: Campbell constantly challenges himself as a writer, stretching his boundaries while retaining a consistent level of readability & quality. You know what you’re getting with a Ramsey Campbell novel, and one of the things you’re getting is the unexpected, the new, the surprising. You also get a testing of the boundaries of language, of the very basis of the craft of writing. His latest, The Grin of the Dark, is one of his most interesting works of fiction to read on the level of style alone. I’d say I haven’t enjoyed a book so much since this Christmas, when I re-read his House on Nazareth Hill (which overtook The Influence as my favourite Campbell novel, both for the brilliantly naturalistic dialogue of its teen protagonist, and the fact it so purely crystallises so much of Campbell’s recurrent theme of the potentially damaging relation between parent and child) — but I don’t want to appear to be simply obsequious, so I’d better say that the last Campbell novel I read before that was The Darkest Part of the Woods, which disappointed me with the lack of definition or focus in its central horror, and which made me wonder if it was worth reading any of his subsequent books. As a result, I passed on The Overnight and Secret Stories; but reading The Grin of the Dark — which I had to do simply because of its premise — has convinced me I was wrong to give up on him, and that not only should I snap up the books I missed, but maybe I’d better give The Darkest Part of the Woods another go.

The Grin of the Dark revisits an area Campbell previously explored in Ancient Images, and which connects with a subject I wrote about in one of my earliest mewsings, on John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns: stories in which the protagonist searches for some lost film or book, while looking into the life of the now-forgotten artist who created it. (I notice the site I mentioned in that blog entry, The Invisible Library, seems to have disappeared, so I’ll mention it again and give the Web Archive address for it.) The Grin of the Dark‘s narrator, Simon Lester, is researching forgotten silent comedian Tubby Thackery, whose career petered out thanks to unspecified issues of censorship. I don’t intend to discuss the plot any further than that, because part of the thrill of the novel is seeing how Campbell writes what is, basically, a horror novel about comedy. (And one which manages to be funny and disturbing at the same time.) The fact he succeeds, and even manages to give his horror that Lovecraftian twist which transforms the personal nightmare into something universal, is just one of the reasons I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to anyone interested in finding out what sort of heights horror literature is capable of achieving. (I despair to think how many condescending literary critics must have congratulated themselves on slumming it by reading Brett Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, no doubt finding smug ways of saying how it’s good “even though it’s horror”, whereas if they were given The Grin of the Dark they’d realise just how far Ellis got from writing a genuinely satisfying novel in that mode.)

So aside from the plot — aside from saying it scores in every way a good horror plot should — what else is there to talk about? Ramsey Campbell’s prose, of course. Campbell is the poet of the suggestive negative. Like some waiter of the macabre wafting a pungent dish under your nose then snatching it away before you can identify that questionable-looking meat, Campbell produces horrific images only to turn them immediately into nastily lingering suggestions by instantly negating them. The effect, distressingly, is to rob you of the chance to deal with them consciously, to placate them or understand them. His prose creates a world of flickering corner-of-the-eye images which disappear as soon as you turn to confront them, thus removing your ability to dismiss them as the ghosts you know them to be:

“A white lump is poking over the counter beyond the glass. Is it a misshapen plastic bag or a wad or paper? Neither strikes me as promising, but perhaps my mother can discern the marks printed on it. She reaches under the window and strains to hook the object with her gloved fingertips. It appears to wobble jelly-like before slithering off the counter. I don’t care for the resemblance to a sagging face that has ducked out of sight…” (p. 142)

“My parents used to take me [to Midnight Mass] at his age and somewhat older, but I’ve forgotten most of the experience, although I seem to recall thinking that the worshippers were huddled in the light as if they hoped it could fend off the dark… I can hear nonsense if not worse inside my head, or is the almost inaudible muttering beside me? I’m unable to judge whether it’s invading my skull or spreading out of it, and if so which of my neighbours is involved, or could both be?” (p. 306-7)

All those suggestions and negatives, all those shifting images, that inherent anxiety about just what is being seen or heard, are a dense assault on the conscious mind’s arrogant belief that putting something into words codifies it, makes it understandable. Campbell uproots the reader’s very foundation in language, particularly in this novel, with its deliberate mangling of spelling and meaning, sense and sound.

This aspect of Campbell’s style isn’t only reserved for the horrific passages. As his narrator’s immersion in the world Campbell creates deepens, reality takes on a more and more fantastic, hallucinatory patina, as if it was only ever a flimsy veil covering an all-too substantial nightmare that is ready, at any moment, to break through and destroy what sanity and stability you feel you ought to have. Right from the start, a paranoia is inherent in Campbell’s prose, a discomfort with the world, a distrust of one’s senses — even of one’s very mind — that is, really, the essence of the horror of the idea (as opposed to merely visceral horror): the neurotic over-questioning of everything that surrounds you — the world, the people you think you know, the things you see and hear, the thoughts in your head — hemming you in and isolating you into a constricted, solipsistic nightmare of universal persecution: It (that is, Everything, the Universe Itself) against you.

And you know who’s bound to win in that sort of situation.