The Prisoner

The Prisoner is a sort of Cold War, spy-thriller, 1960s-for-1860s version of Alice in Wonderland. Both Alice and Number 6 (whose name, I suspect, was intended to give him seniority over 007) disappear into another world — Wonderland on one hand and the Village on the other, both of them parodies of a very familiar-seeming England — and there do their best to both defend and discover their identities via a series of eccentric, surreal, threatening and nonsensical encounters. After all, what better way to find out who you really are than to have to defend your individuality against every form of attack 1960s paranoia can come up with, from brainwashing to hallucinogenic drugs, mind-transference to social isolation, even involvement in politics?

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History has made Britain surreal. Its cultural self-image is littered with old, unmoving artefacts and practices — judges in periwigs, soldiers in Busbies, undertakers in top hats, penny-farthing bicycles, grown men in old school ties and old school blazers. Its upper echelons — the slowest to change, so the most surreal and divorced-from-reality — are drenched in weird rituals, silly costumes, nonsensical-but-pompous titles, rules that must be obeyed because they’ve always been obeyed, and ways of doing things that have just always been that way. The only reason Number 6 can’t tell which side it is that runs the Village is that its comically parodic, overly-British version of British life is both ridiculously over-the-top and spot-on accurate at the same time.

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Both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland have an uneasy sort of humour: the humour of nonsense, or absurdity, something that can so easily slip into cosmic or Kafkan horror. In a sense, The Prisoner is a sitcom, as sitcom characters are characters who, whatever happens to them in the course of an episode, always return to the same situation, the same personality, by the end. This is true of Number 6, who even manages to escape the Village in ‘Many Happy Returns’, only to insist on parachuting back into it, whereupon he finds himself, of course, in the same situation as when he started. The basic joke in The Prisoner-as-sitcom is that everyone and everything is a calculated deception meant to break Number 6’s sense of himself. Ha ha ha.

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The basic situation of The Prisoner is also similar to many horror stories, where the protagonist finds themself in an isolated village whose inhabitants seem to share a secret, and may be working at making them one of them — as in, for instance, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’.

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Both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland end with a trial — a nonsensical, mock-trial — which both Alice and Number 6 rise above and destroy. (The Prisoner also sees Number 6 made into the new Number 2 and put upon a throne, just as Through the Looking Glass sees Alice made into a queen.)

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Detectives, spies and secret agents were a peculiar sort of 20th century Everyman. I like to think of this collection of character-types as Existential Agents. 1908, the year that saw the publication of the archetypal Occult Detective (Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence) also saw the publication of G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, the first Existential Agent I can think of. Whereas Occult Detectives embody the encounter between rationality and the irrational/supernatural, the Existential Agent embodies the quest for identity, against either social or psychological forces. One pops up in Dennis Potter’s superlative The Singing Detective — which, like the final episode of The Prisoner, also features a singalong of ‘Dem Bones’ — questing through his creator’s real and fictional pasts for the clue that will release him from his personal Hell. I suspect Twin Peaks’s Dale Cooper of being at least half an Existential Agent, which immediately throws Fox Mulder under a shadow of doubt, too. (Existential Agents aren’t necessarily secret agents. Secret agents hunt for secrets; Existential Agents have secrets, often from themselves.)

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What does it all mean? Perhaps it’s like Number 6’s explanation of his entry into the Village craft competition (a genuinely escapist piece of art) in ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’:

‘It means what it is!’

Or, from ‘Hammer into Anvil’:

‘It means what it says!’

What both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland do is work towards creating a destabilised world, denying any obvious sense of narrative, as well as any obvious sense of rationality, to break up all certainties and create the sort of free-flowing, let-it-all-hang-out, deliquescent reality in which, free of external constraints, Number 6 and Alice can really find themselves. It’s a bit like that strange gloop a caterpillar turns into before forming itself into a butterfly.

But why am I asking what it all means? Remember, “Questions are a burden to others. Answers a prison for oneself.” Or, as they say in ‘Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling’:

‘It is possible that there is no clue to be found… Breaking a code or cipher is a finite problem. But, as I’ve said… we don’t know that there is a problem. And if there is, on what level of reasoning it is set.’

Which sounds, as it should, like the purest nonsense.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Henry JamesThe first time I read The Turn of the Screw, I hated it. I hated the over-stuffy prose, which seemed to be hiding a good ghost story behind thickets of Victorian verbiage so tangled the only emotion to get through was the most insistently hysterical. The characters seemed nothing more than embodiments of the era’s most conventional attitudes: the oh-so-angelic children, the distant, paternalistic gentleman-employer who of course knows best about everything, the loyal housekeeper with an unquestioning faith in her superiors, and the governess, a wide-eyed innocent country parson’s daughter on her first adventure out into the world…

And then, on a recent re-read, I realised this was, of course, the point. The story, told by the governess (that country parson’s daughter on her first adventure into the world) is infused with her hysterical insistence that things be as the Victorian world liked to pretend they should be, precisely when they’re revealing themselves to be the opposite. Those thickets of Victorian verbiage are her way of trying to keep a destabilised world in check, a world in which children aren’t little angels but human beings (and so can seem, at times, like devils); a world in which distant paternalistic gentleman-employers don’t know best, but simply don’t care; a world in which some servants aren’t so unquestioning and loyal.

turn-of-the-screw-01I suppose what wrongfooted me on that first read was I expected The Turn of the Screw to be a ‘straightforward’ ghost story (which was the only type I’d read, at the time). By this I mean a story in which a normal world is invaded by the supernatural. To make this sort of ‘straightforward’ ghost story work, you need characters who are straightforwardly normal, whose very normality acts as a baseline to which the abnormality of the supernatural can be compared. But The Turn of the Screw isn’t of this type. It is, I’d say, one of the first truly modern ghost stories, whose characteristic is that they tangle the supernatural with the psychological to such a degree it’s impossible to unravel the two.

The Turn of the Screw is the famous example of a ghost story that can be read entirely psychologically (the governess, coming apart at the seams, hallucinates ghosts as an expression of her own super-heated repressions) or supernaturally. As someone who doesn’t like their ghosts to be explained away, but who also likes the fantastic to feel psychologically significant, I prefer to read it as the perfect meeting of haunters and haunted — a pair of ghosts who, though real, fit exactly into the dark cracks of an unhinged, still-living mind. The governess, in The Turn of the Screw, is as much a monster as that ‘horror’, the dead manservant Peter Quint, only she’s a monster of the opposite extreme: Quint is ‘much too free’; the governess is as tight-laced and primly judgemental as any inexperienced, over-romantic Victorian pastor’s daughter can be. And whereas Quint is transgressive of all boundaries — between the classes, between the sexes, between adult and child, and, now, between life and death — the governess insists on everything being filed way into the absolute, binary opposites of her age: people are either ‘gentlemen’ or they are ‘horrors’, children are ‘angelic’ and innocent or ‘corrupt’. While eight-year-old Flora is at first ‘the most beautiful child I had ever seen’, she is, at the end, ‘hideously hard… common and almost ugly’.

It’s the governess’s relationship with the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, that’s key to both her personality, and my own initial reaction against the novel. Once the governess realises she can, effectively, bully Mrs Grose into agreeing with her, she’s constantly finishing Mrs Grose’s sentences, forcing her own (often wild and illogical) interpretations on what Mrs Grose has seen, heard, or suspects, as though they were the only possibilities:

‘He was looking for someone else, you say – someone who was not you?’

‘He was looking for little Miles.’ A portentous clearness now possessed me. ‘That’s whom he was looking for.’

‘But how do you know?’

‘I know, I know, I know!’ My exaltation grew. ‘And you know, my dear!’

Turn_of_the_screw_02This is what I found so repellent about the book that first time I read it — the governess isn’t merely hijacking Mrs Grose’s point of view, she’s hijacking the reader’s too. No room is left for any doubt that those infamous horrors, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, are seeking to corrupt the children, and that the children are willing accomplices. And, while the governess herself freely corrupts Mrs Grose with her own hysterical insistence, she knows she can’t put words into the children’s mouths. The Turn of the Screw becomes a battle with silence — with, in a way, a sort of tortured social propriety, in which the only way to find out if something awful has happened to the children is to suggest that awfulness, but to do that is to potentially ruin what is (to the governess’s mind) most valuable about them, their innocence. So they must be made to speak without prompting, and the more they refuse to do so, the more the governess, in her twisted way, takes the children’s silence as proof of their corruption. Silence, in The Turn of the Screw, becomes a palpable thing, identical both with the ghosts (‘the silence itself — which was indeed in a manner an attestation of my strength — became the element into which I saw the figure disappear’) and with horror, too:

‘Not a word – that’s the horror. She kept it to herself! The child of eight, that child!’

The governess herself is bound to silence: by the children’s uncle, who wants someone to look after his niece and nephew and not bother him, but also by her society, that expects women to have no voice, and children to be ‘seen and not heard’. Miles’s expulsion from school is because of his saying unspecified ‘things’ (and he later steals a letter, from the governess to the uncle, which was itself an attempt to break a silence). Words are how innocence is corrupted. But, at the same time, confession — breaking silence — is linked with salvation:

‘I’ll get it out of him. He’ll meet me. He’ll confess. If he confesses he’s saved.’

The governess exists in a weird duality with the ghosts. She first sees Quint standing in the tower where she was standing some time before; when she next sees him, through a window, she feels compelled to go outside and stand where he stood, looking in, like two chess pieces chasing one another round a board. She sees Miss Jessel at the foot of the stairs, crying, then later finds herself in the same place, in the same turmoil. When she sees Miss Jessel sitting at the teacher’s desk of the schoolroom where she herself usually sits, the words she comes out with — ‘You terrible, miserable woman!’ — could be her own judgement of herself. Quint is the shadow image of her over-romanticisation of the children’s uncle; Miss Jessel is an image of her own possible ruin. The governess’s utter inability to see herself for what she is (those windows she keeps seeing Peter Quint through could be acting as mirrors), her inability to break a silence she shares with herself, are what makes her monstrous.

OWC DraculaLike the other great horror stories that came out at the time — that embarrassment of graveyard blooms from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and H G Wells’ science-fictional horrors, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor MoreauThe Turn of the Screw gets its power from a new awareness of how our inner lives can entangle us with dark powers, creating far more complex relationships with the horrific and supernatural than merely that of fear. The end of the Victorian era thus saw the creation of a set of stories that have proved fertile for more than a century of ongoing adaptations and reimaginings. Thanks to Freud and co., those Victorian times came to symbolise, in a way, repression itself. The governess of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is perhaps, then, the perfect Victorian monster, so deeply does she embody the strictures, mores, prejudices, idealisations and judgements of what we now tend to look on as an over-straitened age; but she also presents a rich portrait of human self-blindness that continues to be relevant well into the present.

More updates

Following on from my recent Mewsings revamp, I’ve completely revamped my main site. The new-look site is not only mobile-friendly, but focuses on various creative projects I’ve done, and is hopefully more fun to browse. Most of these projects aren’t new to the site (new stuff will follow), but they’ve been given a bit of a polish. So, all the poems that have featured in this blog now have their own proper page (see the poetry index), and The Laughing Ghost has its own page, which even allows you to download the sheet music, for a proper Halloween sing-along!

Meanwhile, I’ve finally got my novel The Fantasy Reader ready for publication. It will be out, as an ebook and a paperback, on the 2nd of November. The book should have its own mini-site by then, but at the moment there’s just a blurb. On the other hand, despite my announcement at the end of last year, I’m going to have to put off my other novel (Hello World) till next year. I really didn’t expect it to take this long to get The Fantasy Reader ready, but I like to do the job properly.

Anyway, hope you like the new-look site, and thanks for reading!

Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom posterIn a strange way, Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom reminds me of the Lewton/Tourneur Cat People from 1942: both centre on a human ‘monster’, whose monstrousness was passed onto them by a parent (Irena in Cat People inherits her mother’s lycanthropy, Mark in Peeping Tom is the creation of his biologist father’s constant experimentation with fear); both try to escape their curse when a new relationship (Irena’s marriage, Mark meeting Helen) reminds them of all they’re missing by not being ‘normal’; and when they fail to become ‘normal’, both lapse with renewed vigour into their monstrousness, with tragic results. In both cases, the still new-seeming sciences of psychiatry and psychology utterly fail to help (in Cat People, the lascivious Doctor Conway tries to seduce, rather than cure, Irena; in Peeping Tom, the police bring in a psychologist, but he’s more interested in the ‘extravert’ film director, than the introvert killer who comes to him for advice). The main difference, of course, is that Peeping Tom’s Mark is not a supernatural monster, but one created by human means. In him, the cold, experimental eye and camera of his father has become a symbol of the abuse he suffered as a child, and which, like so many of the abused, he takes up in adulthood as his only way of dealing with a world he’s been made utterly unfit for.

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Mark’s goal in life is to complete the documentary his father was working on, and so show the ultimate results of Doctor Lewis’s experiments on his only child: that it has made him into a serial killer, intent on filming the moment of terror as it appears on his victims’ faces before they die. In a way, this is Mark’s only way of getting revenge on a father who, though dead, is still a dominating presence (his initial response to being asked who owns the house he lives in is that it’s his father’s, even though he’s long since inherited it).

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I feel Peeping Tom is the wrong title for a film that’s not really about voyeurism: Mark isn’t hiding behind his camera, he’s using it as the only way he knows of interacting with the world. The camera completes him; its lens is the perfect metaphor for his own disconnection from the world of normal human relationships. (Something heightened by the fact that Mark, an English boy born in the house he’s still living in, is played by the Austrian Carl Boehm, his accent as much a signifier of social alienation as it is for the Serbian Irena in Cat People.)

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The only person to see through Mark is Helen’s blind mother, played by Maxine Audley, who sleeps in the room beneath Mark’s cinema, and hears him watching his silent movies every night. She instantly dislikes him — a man shouldn’t creep around in his own house.

Powell played the villain in his own film.

Powell played the (only briefly-seen) villain in his own film.

Peeping Tom is infamous for effectively ending Michael Powell’s career, after the British critics tore him and his film apart — not because he so explicitly mixed psychological aberrance, cinema, and the saucy-minded prurience of early 1960s Britain, but because he dared to invite his audience to see that his lead character wasn’t just a monster, and perhaps thereby see themselves in him. The film’s sin was not to exploit its audience’s prurience (film critics of the time were surely used to that), but to see beyond it.