An English Ghost Story by Kim Newman

‘Is there an opposite of haunted?’ asks Steven Naremore, after he and his family move into the Hollow, an isolated, quirky house in the West Country. They’ve been noticing strange things happening, but not the traditional ghostly things. They aren’t being frightened. If anything, they’re being lightly amused and helped. ‘Un-haunted?’ ‘Blessed?’ ‘Charmed?’ The Naremores — father Steven (in investments), mother Kirsty (who has a few failed business attempts to her name, most recent of which was in antiques), daughter Jordan (a teenager who’s modelling herself after the Doris Day/Judy Garland era of film star), and young son Tim (for whom life is a military operation) — come to the Hollow looking for a new start in life, to get away from the city and some unspecified, narrowly averted familial collapse.

Initially, the Hollow seems ideal. Plenty of space for the family to live their own lives together, and plenty of character, too. The previous owner, Louise Magellan Teazle, was the author of several series of children’s books, including the adventures of Weezie and her ghostly friends (one of the stories, Weezie and the Gloomy Ghost, forms a short part of Newman’s novel), and who obviously used the Hollow as an inspiration for her stories’ house, Hilltop Heights. All her belongings come with the house, and Kirsty, who read the Weezie books as a girl, recognises some of the items of furniture, including a magical chest of drawers:

“The top drawer always had the same thing in and the bottom drawer never had the same thing twice and the middle drawer was always a jumble of surprises.”

There’s a nicely done scene where Kirsty plays with the chest of drawers and is delighted to find that, yes indeed, the top drawer does always have the same thing in it (nothing), the middle drawer has a jumble of surprises (a load of coat-hangers, at first), and the bottom drawer seems to have a different thing in it every time it’s opened. At first, there’s a rational explanation: the thing she put in the top drawer fell down the back and into the bottom drawer. Then she thinks that the newspaper she finds lining the bottom drawer on opening it a second time was something she missed seeing the first time. But the next time she tries the bottom drawer, the magical chest of drawers proves undeniably magical. It’s like that scene in Poltergeist where the mother demonstrates how a chair always slides back to where it’s supposed to be: a moment of fun with the supernatural before the full-on horror begins.

Newman’s An English Ghost Story, though, isn’t your traditional haunted house story. Things don’t move so quickly into terror. There’s a long honeymoon period in which the family members discover their own way of playing with the magical presences of the Hollow — Tim incorporates them into his soldier-games, Steven receives the odd hint or warning via his computer screen-saver, Kirsty has her magical chest of drawers, and Jordan finds a wardrobe full of all the clothes she could ever want.

But things do go wrong. It’s not, though, that the ghosts turn nasty. Rather, it’s the family members’ own troubles that are amplified and enacted by the supernatural presences in the Hollow. Things take a decidedly downward turn when Jordan’s city boyfriend, Rick, fails to turn up on schedule, and her Doris Day ideal gets torn up in an apocalyptic tantrum. Suddenly, the family are at each other’s throats like they were in their old home in the city, only this time they’re surrounded by supernatural presences all too ready to turn the slightest dark whim into a very dangerous, nightmare reality.

“My original concept was to invert the formula of The Amityville Horror or The Shining (and many many others) — instead of a family being driven mad by a house, a house is driven mad by a family,” says Newman in this interview. And the novel is very much about family — how a family can collapse in on itself, into a kind of emotional black hole from which no one can escape, but also how, if they come through that, they can emerge stronger both individually and as a unit.

An English Ghost Story isn’t a straightforward horror, nor is it a creepy style of ghost story. Rather, it’s a sort of nightmarish black comedy, laying bare the murderous undercurrents in a typically atypical English family, told from the point of view of each of the four family members, in a world of ‘What you give… is what you get.’

What is Doctor Who?

An Adventure In Space And TimeI can’t let Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary pass without a Whovian post. For me, the highpoint has been Mark Gatiss’s excellent, and wonderfully moving, drama about William Hartnell and the beginning of the whole thing, An Adventure in Space and Time, plus the recovery of The Web of Fear and The Enemy of the World. Though I wrote a while ago about Why I Like Doctor Who, I’ve been thinking that that blog entry only answers — or, perhaps, asks — half the question. I might know why I like it, but what is it, exactly, that I like? What is the thing I’m liking when I say I like Doctor Who?

Kim Newman, in his excellent little critical appraisal of the show for BFI TV Classics, offers a few nuggets. It is, he says:

“BBC-TV’s most eccentric saga, at once cosily familiar and cosmically terrifying.”

(Though I wouldn’t say it’s cosmically terrifying in the Lovecraftian sense — something else I wrote about a while back, on Lovecraftian Who. It is, however, most certainly eccentric and cosy.)

It is, he says:

“…a continually rewritten fiction…”

BFI TV Classics: Doctor Who by Kim NewmanWhich answers my own feeling that I don’t really care too much about the continuity, or world-building, aspect of the show. It doesn’t matter to me that, for instance, Atlantis gets its comeuppance in — is it three different ways? They might be alternative Atlantises in alternative time streams. I don’t care. I don’t care either that the Time Lords in The War Games seem to be different to the Time Lords in The Deadly Assassin. All I care is that there are good stories, and that each one is in done in, as a lawyer might say, a good and Doctor Who-like fashion.

So, what is a good and Doctor Who-like fashion? What is the essence of this thing called Doctor Who? Newman says:

“Boiled down to its simplest format, Doctor Who is a character actor and a police box.”

The best definition of fantasy, as a genre, comes from, I think, Brian Atterby, who says it is a “fuzzy set”. A fuzzy set is a group of things where we’re more sure of what belongs to the set than why. “Games”, for instance, is a fuzzy set. If you try to define “a game” as, say, “something with rules”, then you realise that some games don’t have rules — childhood make-believe games, for instance — or if you define it as “something done for fun”, then you realise that sports are games done by professionals, and so on. For everything you can say is a defining feature of “a game”, there will always be at least one example of something that is a game, but doesn’t have that feature, yet it shares enough other features with other games to be a game. Doctor Who is a fuzzy set, too. There have been episodes without the Doctor, and stories without the TARDIS, but they were still Doctor Who. Each story simply has to have enough Doctor Who-ish ingredients to overcome any potential non-Doctor Who-ishess, and then it can be classed as Doctor Who.

Doctor Who Weekly 1Of course, Kim Newman was writing about the TV show, and Doctor Who is so much more than that. For me, at the start, although the TV show was the focus of it all, it was such a rare event (only 26 or so episodes per year, a poor-but-perfect 25 minutes each), that other things had to make up the bulk of my Doctor Who focus. And for me, this meant the Target books and the weekly/monthly magazine (as well as an awful lot of making up stories in my head).

Without access to the TV show, you had to be a sort of archeologist, piecing together fragments of the past. Doctor Who and the Web of Fear (cover)The magazine had photos and plot summaries, the books had covers and fleshed-out stories. You married it all together in your own head. I remember, at the Brighton World Horror Convention a couple of years ago, a panel discussing people’s experience of the old black & white classic horror movies, where someone said they first learned of these old horror movies through books and magazines, where all you’d have would be the same small set of stills, and that these stills were full of such promise, it made you long to see the film. But when you got to finally see the film, the result was often a slight disappointment. My experience of much old Doctor Who has been the same. I knew those few oft-recycled stills from the old shows so well, and each new, not-seen-before photo was like a treasure. Seeing the actual shows often came as a shock — mostly, for instance, at how clumsy those fantastic-looking monsters moved (the Ice Warriors, so fearsome, noble and warrior-like in photographs, so clumsy in actual motion). Similarly, though I loved the Third Doctor’s Earth-bound adventures in the novelisations, I found him off-puttingly arrogant and short-tempered in the actual TV shows. But I wonder how much part of my experience of Doctor Who was all about that effort of reconstruction — putting together the stories with the photos, archeologically reconstructing those (as I thought) never-to-be-seen adventures of yesteryear from what remained. Being involved in Doctor Who was as much an effort of imagination as it was of passive appreciation.

Doctor Who, junkyard

I recently re-watched the first ever episode of Doctor Who — still one of its best — and realised how appropriate it is that it all starts in a junkyard. Because, if it’s anything, Doctor Who is a junkyard, a junkyard of the imagination, as much full of wonders as rubbish — and often of things that are both at the same time. Like a junkyard, one of the great charms of Doctor Who is unusual juxtaposition, the fantastic beside the familiar — Daleks trundling over Westminster Bridge, Cybermen emerging from the sewers, a hulking Krynoid charging round the grounds of some old country house, Egyptian mummies in a Victorian Gothic folly.

And, of course, junkyards are full of old things. Doctor Who is full of old things, too. And old things means nostalgia. There are, I’d say, three types of Doctor Who nostalgia. The Making of Doctor WhoThere’s the most obvious one, of revisiting the episodes I watched as a kid — and not just that, but re-experiencing the whole texture of TV back then, something that, for me, is particularly evident in something like The Brain of Morbius, with its gloomy studio feel, its flash-bang effects, and the peculiar look of the period’s video technology, that conjures up a whole aesthetic of that time. Another sort of Doctor Who nostalgia is a borrowed nostalgia that comes from learning about shows from the past that I never saw, and vicariously experiencing other people’s fondness for them — the whole quaintness of Dalekmania, for instance, or realising just how 60s the 60s shows were. But there’s a third sort of nostalgia, which is about how Doctor Who plugs you into a much larger stream of the culture as a whole. Mostly, it has to be said, this comes from the show’s own junkyard mentality, of grabbing ideas from elsewhere and trying them out — Doctor Who does Sherlock Holmes, or Doctor Who does Hammer Horror, or Doctor Who does dinosaurs — but also from the way it makes use, as any long-lived, pulpy kind of story-anthology of its type can’t help but do, of all those stock characters and situations of adventure fiction, or science fiction, or British fiction — the retired colonels, the stuffy bureaucrats, the stodgily unimaginative politicians, the mad scientists, the embittered ex-soliders-turned-mercenaries, the fanatic idealists intent on reshaping the world, the dangerously eccentric millionaires, the disfigured geniuses lurking in catacombs — from the way, then, that it plugs you into a cultural nostalgia for archetypal adventure stories.

Wheetabix QuarkPresiding over this junkyard is, of course, the Doctor — I. M. Foreman from 76 Totters Lane — who lives, and travels, in a box. It may take the outward form of a Police Box, but this is, really “the box” — the telly itself — and it is through this, the medium of telefantasy, that the Doctor travels, changing time zones and planets as you might change channel, then pausing to observe them through his own TV screen. I’ve never really cared that Doctor Who’s effects haven’t been that great; I like, in fact, its very televisualness, its staginess, its sets-and-rubber-monsters-ishness, its wobbly spaceships on strings. Perhaps this is because my initial experience of what Doctor Who was came as much from those still photos and book covers, which allowed my imagination to bring the stories to life way before I got the chance to see them (again, or for the first time) on DVD. And so I know that the TV show itself can only ever be an approximation to the real thing that is Doctor Who, which is formed within my head.

So to me, Doctor Who isn’t just a TV program. It’s a whole bunch of stuff. Particularly, it’s a whole bunch of random, weird stuff shoved haphazardly together, presided over by a cantankerous and oddly changeable proprietor, who occasionally fits these cultural cast-offs and odd bits of the past together into futuristic or fantastic shapes, and puts them to strange but ingenious uses.

When I say Doctor Who is a junkyard, I really do mean it as a compliment.

Sign off with a Zygon...

Sign off with a Zygon…

Full Fathom Forty

The British Fantasy Society’s 40th anniversary anthology, Full Fathom Forty, edited by David J Howe, is out! I got my copy yesterday. And it’s a heavy tome. The picture on the right attempts to show just what a hefty book it is, at 496 pages. And I thought I’d mention it here because (ahem), I have a story in it, “Elven Brides”, which I’m thrilled about. There are forty authors represented in the book, in all, so if you have any liking for fantasy or horror fiction or poetry, you’re bound to find something to like here. I won’t mention them all, but I’m very, very happy to be in the same book as Ramsey Campbell, Kim Newman & Jonathan Carroll. I am looking forward to reading this book!

It can be bought direct from The British Fantasy Society, but also from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com and The Book Despository!

The Big Sleep

BigSleepPenguinI can’t believe I haven’t read any Raymond Chandler before this. I think I was put off because that hard-boiled style is so widely imitated — or attempted, anyway — that there seemed no point. But a few sentences into The Big Sleep, I was laughing out loud for the sheer wit of the writing, the comic conciseness of it, the way it revels in its own ultra-cynical view of a dark, dark world:

I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble…

She said negligently: ‘He didn’t know the right people. That’s all a police record means in this rotten crime-ridden country.’ …

At times, you’d be hard pressed to tell Chandler from the Marx Brothers, or S J Perelman:

‘Mr Cobb was my escort,’ she said. ‘Such a nice escort, Mr Cobb. So attentive. You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record.’

…you have to hold your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes…

‘Two coffees,’ I said. ‘Black, strong and made this year…’

She had long thighs and she walked with a certain something I hadn’t often seen in bookstores…

He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money…

But at others he achieves a perfect sort of scintillant, shadowy beauty — only ever in brief snatches — that works because of the sheer surprise of finding any beauty at all amongst so much shade and squalor:

It got dark and the rain-clouded lights of the stores were soaked up by the black street…

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts…

She was smoking and a glass of amber fluid was tall and pale at her elbow…

And — rare for a literary style — it works just as well with brisk action:

A tall hatless figure in a leather jerkin was running diagonally across the street between the parked cars. The figure turned and flame spurted from it. Two heavy hammers hit the stucco wall beside me. The figure ran on, dodged between two cars, vanished.

The Big Sleep has been filmed twice, the first (the 1946 version directed by Howard Hawks, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall) being so perfect as to doom the second (from 1978), even if it hadn’t been directed by Michael Winner.

The screenplay for the 1946 version was co-authored by William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett (a hard-boiled writer herself, not to mention the author of Michael Moorcock’s favourite planetary romance, and a helping hand on the screenplay to The Empire Strikes Back), but its greatest asset has to be Bogart. I put off watching either film version till I’d finished the book, but still found it impossible not to hear Philip Marlowe’s narration in Bogart’s voice. His is the perfect hard-boiled detective tone — a lazy, drawly, world-weary whine, its every word bit back by a deeply ingrained sarcasm. Once you hear him delivering hard-boiled prose, it’s like a meme you can’t get rid of, and to which every other actor cannot help but fall short. If Raymond Chandler himself didn’t sound like Humphrey Bogart, I don’t want to hear him.

This is a point amply proven by Robert Mitchum in Michael Winner’s version. Faithful to so many details of the book in terms of dialogue and incident — to a degree the Bogart classic isn’t — Winner’s film nevertheless manages to miss almost every point in terms of the spirit of Chandler’s world. Mitchum simply can’t deliver a line with the bite and world-weariness of a truly hard-boiled PI. It sounds (fatally) like he means what he says, whereas a hard-boiled PI’s meaning is never in the words he speaks, only in their bitter aftertaste. And, gods, Winner has changed the setting to seventies England! Seventies England just isn’t, and can’t ever be, thirties LA. If nothing else, the sleazy photo-trade aspect of The Big Sleep‘s plot becomes rather quaint and old-fashioned in full-colour post-sixties England. And, although it may be too weird to say it, there’s just too much sun and fine weather in Winner’s UK. Chandler’s novel takes place mostly at night, or in those oppressively dark and super-heavy downpours LA can have. It’s almost black and white before the fact, never mind the year it was filmed in. (Which isn’t to say noir can’t be done in colour — Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and David Lynch’s Lost Highway are modern noir. Plenty of black, still, but they bring in the sharp, dark reds of lipstick and blood, too.)

The 1946 version’s main departure from Chandler’s novel is to increase the interaction between Marlowe and the older of the two Sternwood girls, as played by Lauren Bacall, this apparently because an early showing didn’t go down so well, and seeing as Bogart and Bacall had recently had a screen-chemistry-fuelled hit with To Have and Have Not, additional scenes were inserted allowing the two to indulge in some playfully suggestive banter — including a weird scene that attaches such suggestiveness to an exchange about betting on horses, it sounds even more explicit than any upfront conversation ever could. Although this makes the film more acceptable and commercial in Hollywood terms, it does end up sacrificing one of the high-points of the novel. In the book, when Marlowe finally tracks down crime boss Eddie Mars’s wife, he finds something like an angel, a total contrast to the eternally cynical, selfish and calculating grifters who make up the rest of the book’s cast. Writing of her, Chandler’s prose switches to a level of sentiment you wouldn’t be able to take were it not so hemmed in by cynicism (“Her breath was as delicate as the eyes of a fawn.”), and it works, it really works, you feel you’re in the presence of something rare and delicate, something that all too soon leaves Marlowe’s shadowy, ever-disappointed world. But this is something not possible in the 1946 film, because Bacall’s character has to be the focus for Marlowe’s (and our) admiration, and Eddie Mars’s wife becomes just a bit part, yet another blonde. (As for the 1978 film, it can’t hope to approach anything like sentiment, let alone real feeling.)

A brunette, a blonde and Bogey

The fact that I’ve recently read the novel and watched two film versions of The Big Sleep yet still fail to remember whodunnit each time points to how little plot matters in this type of fiction. What matters is that, for the duration of the book or film, you’re dwelling in Hard Boiled Land, in Noirville — which is, really, more of an atmosphere (or, better, a shade) than a place, an effect caused by donning a pair of most definitely not rose-tinted glasses. But, as with the bleakest tragedies, there’s something about it that works — like a cold, hard slap works. Fitting, perhaps, as one of the iconic images of the hard-boiled world is of the detective slapping the hysterical blonde. This is a world, after all, where the only emotion ever expressed is one that bursts loose, out of control, something that’s closer to insanity than real feeling (at one point, near the end, Marlowe starts to laugh “like a loon”, making me wonder how much Chandler’s fiction was an attempt to address the same concerns as H P Lovecraft’s). Every other emotion has to be bitten back, or let loose in terse slugs of hard-boiled dialogue. It’s a world in which everything of any value has to be reduced, sullied, disenchanted. Women aren’t women; they’re blondes or brunettes. Men aren’t men; they’re cops or heavies. And everyone’s a grifter, and life is nothing but a series of no-hope games played for too-high stakes. The only surprises in this world are gunshots, corpses and the occasional troubled blonde. Till then, there’s always another drink, or a blackjack to the back of the head, or a sock to the jaw. Above all, there’s a feeling of a world steeped in a profound sense of injustice, something so fundamentally rotten the law cannot touch it — hence the need for the hard-boiled hero to be a freelance, a PI, half outside the law so he can stray across that grey line between right and wrong, and deliver his own sort of (leaden) retribution — something personal, before it gets to the (inevitably corrupt) impersonal courts.

Film noir – a guy, a girl, and a gun

The more I think about it, the more the hard-boiled world sounds like Lovecraft’s fictional world. I know hard-boiled Lovecraft has been done several times (Cast a Deadly Spell, and Kim Newman’s “The Big Fish”, to name a couple), but really, however fun, these are kind of superfluous. Chandler’s world was not quite as bleak as Lovecraft’s at its bleakest — I can’t imagine there’s a hard-boiled equivalent of “The Colour Out of Space” — and Lovecraft doesn’t really have an equivalent of the briefly-glimpsed angel of Eddie Mars’s wife — but they were certainly touching the same territory, each in their own oft-imitated but really inimitable way.