Edward Gorey

I first came across mention of Edward Gorey in The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural, and instantly knew I had to read him:

“His characters perform or endure unspeakable indecencies set against Victorian and Edwardian backdrops. His preoccupations are those of a man obsessed by the terrifying randomness of daily life: rocks and urns plummet from the sky without warning; everyday objects suddenly turn menacing.”

There’s something instantly recognisable about his world of Edwardian Grimm. His strain of nonsense — bringing to the forefront the often too-casual-to-see violence & horror depicted in the works of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll — veers at times towards the purely surreal, but also borrows from that Roald Dahl-like reaction to moralising children’s literature that’s been going on at least since Struwwelpeter (1845, whose “Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches” might be an episode in a Gorey book), if not before. Part of the fun of his pseudo-pastiche style is that his books feel like they might have actually existed in the past, and might now be considered curios or classics of a bygone age, unconsciously horrific beneath their air of gentility. Gorey’s is both a ready-made archetypal world, and a world entirely his own, an abandoned nursery room of the imagination, where yesteryear’s toys, ill-used and left to collect spiderwebs, have attained both life and malignancy.

Gorey worked as an illustrator (also producing a lot of book covers) for some time before beginning to write and illustrate the short books he’s perhaps best known for, many of which were self-published by his Fantod Press, (some appearing under anagrammatic or punning pseudonyms), and which have subsequently been collected in a series of bumper volumes Amphigorey, Amphigorey Too, and Amphigorey Also. My two favourites are The Unstrung Harp (1953) and The Doubtful Guest (1957) (both found in Amphigorey).

extract

The Unstrung Harp relates the cyclical life of author Clavius Frederick Earbrass, showing how the writing of a novel (whose title is selected at random from “a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book”) progresses from boredom to self-doubt to gloom to despair to desperation and, post-completion, a sort of blank bemusement as to what it was all for, all wrapped up in the semi-superstitious rituals of a deeply-ingrained creative process.

In The Doubtful Guest, a peculiar, penguin-esque creature invites itself into the house of a Victwardian upper class family, mostly to get in the way, damage things, cause difficulties, and be generally exasperating in a world too reserved to express exasperation. Existing somewhere between Paddington Bear and the staring ghost monkey of Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea”, it shares Mr Earbrass’s elongated profile and staring eyeball — the characteristic Gorey look that seems to combine angst, anger, despair, exasperation, resignation and a sense of cosmic dread all in one.

All at once it leapt down and ran into the hall/Where it chose to remain with its nose to the wall

The Doubtful Guest is a perfect example of how nonsense becomes sense each time it’s read. The “Guest” could be interpreted as much as a gloomy mood as an actual person, but the first time I read it, it immediately made me think of my stepfather, who appeared in our house almost as abruptly as the “Guest” and came with just as irrational, peculiar, and incomprehensible a set of habits, such as endlessly searching through legions of plastic bags while the rest of us tried to watch TV. I can imagine The Doubtful Guest as an excellent book to leave in a psychiatrist’s waiting room, or as the perfect way for a (perhaps cruel) parent to introduce a child to the concept of a new sibling on the way.

In fact, any one of Gorey’s books might usefully furnish a psychiatrist’s waiting room, if the psychiatrist were sufficiently enlightened or just plain provocative, including his alphabets that describe the various grisly ends of a series of unfortunate children (The Gashlycrumb Tinies being the most well-known), or The Curious Sofa, “a pornographic work” so abstract and discreet, it’s almost entirely chaste:

Still later Gerald did a terrible thing to Elsie with a saucepan

But beware. Just as with the Grimmest of fairy tales, Gorey’s atmosphere of gentility & nonsense can lull you into letting your guard down. Of his fictionalisation of the Moors Murderers’ relationship, The Loathsome Couple, he says: “I showed it to my editor at the time, and he didn’t think it was very funny, and I thought, ‘Oh really, dear, I don’t think it’s very funny either; what made you think that I thought it was funny?'” (quoted in Ascending Peculiarity, a collection of interviews with Gorey).

It’s partly because his work seems to borrow that hand-holding air you get from some children’s literature, that you don’t fully notice, till it’s too late, that the hand in question is leading you towards a pretty dangerous-looking precipice. And, perhaps, a Gorey end?

Why I Like… Doctor Who

It starts with a trip down a rabbit hole — a weird, angular, metallic rabbit hole that keeps changing the shape of its iridescent walls as you fall. Meanwhile, there’s a distant alarm going off — either that, or someone’s trying to shoot you with a ray gun. From the echoing bass rattle you can hear, you might be surrounded by miles of distant, faulty plumbing. If so, someone’s emptied a boxful of pins into the system, because you keep hearing these wooshing washes of tinkliness pass by. Then up from the darkness looms an enormous face. Tom Baker, eyes agoggle. There for a moment, then he’s gone, dissolved into many colours like a prismatic ghost. And still you keep falling.

Doctor Who is weird.

The first episode of Doctor Who I saw was from Tom Baker’s introductory adventure, Robot. As that was broadcast between the end of December 1974 and mid-January 1975, I must have been three and half years old at the time, which means that seeing the programme is one of my earliest memories. (Sitting in a bath watching my chicken pox peel off comes a close, but not so fondly-remembered, second).

I pretty soon wanted to be the Doctor. (I don’t mean I wanted to act the part. I mean I wanted to be the Doctor.) But it was the monsters that most fascinated me. The two are, of course, inseparable. The Doctor is the corrective called for by the imbalancing evil of the monsters; the monsters are the shadow cast by the heroic light of the Doctor. It’s why the Doctor always has an intuitive knowledge about the enemy he faces, often before he sets eyes on it/them — as soon as he steps out of the TARDIS he knows, like he can sniff it in the air, something’s afoot. And he often knows the sort of something it is, as well as the sort of foot, sucker, or pseudopod it’s afoot on. The reason for this is that the Doctor and the Monsters are one. They’re part of the same psychological picture.

Looking over the first few seasons of Doctor Who that I saw — seasons presided over by the dream-team of Philip Hinchcliffe as producer and Robert Holmes as script-editor — there’s a lot of blurring the line between men and monsters. In The Ark in Space, the far-future human Noah turns by painful stages into an insectile Wirrn (courtesy of a generous helping of green plastic bubble-wrap). In Genesis of the Daleks, Davros, already half robot himself (the other half a distinctly withered Mr Potato Head), fast-forwards his people’s evolution into slug-like creatures encased in “Mark III Travel Machines” (banality-of-evil-speak for Daleks). There’s the Jekyll & Hyde Professor Sorenson possessed by anti-matter in The Planet of Evil, and Marcus Scarman with his mind taken over by the evil alien Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars. There’s the humanoid androids all set to take over the Earth in The Android Invasion, and a man turning into an alien plant-monster in The Seeds of Doom… Virtually every story has men turning into monsters or monsters masquerading as men. (With some, such as the Cybermen, the process is complete before the story begins.)

The Doctor and the Monsters, like Angels and Demons, are opposing absolutes. The real story takes place in between, in the human realm. Here, there’s the constant threat that you, a human being, might turn into a monster. And not just a green bubble-wrap one. There are far more insidious forms of human monster. That first season of Doctor Who I saw (the twelfth since the show began) was particularly full of fascists, cold intellectual elites, and power-mad scientists — all ways in which people can really become monsters.

To the child I was, unable to understand any of this consciously, having that inner battle between humanity and monstrosity spelled out in such clear, vivid, excitingly fantastic terms was, I think, a vital part of the appeal of watching the programme. It also perhaps explains why I felt so disgusted when Colin Baker began his tenure as the Doctor by attempting to strangle his companion. That was 1984. Dark heroes were very much of the times (Watchmen was only two years away), but I couldn’t see the point in a Doctor indistinguishable from the monsters he was supposed to be fighting. Having watched every episode since Robot with almost religious devotion, I gave up. There are still some Colin Baker stories I haven’t seen, and never will.

But Doctor Who had done its job.

Whenever I read about the formative influences of my favourite writers & artists, there’s usually a point where they discover a cache of story — a collection of myths and legends, a book of fairy tales, a copy of The Arabian Nights. Doctor Who was my story-cache, and that weird, down-a-metallic-rabbit-hole theme tune was its “once upon a time”. (The TARDIS, bigger on the inside than the out, is the through-the-wardrobe portal to the only thing that is truly bigger on the inside, the imagination.) In its gleefully pulpy way, Doctor Who regularly plundered myth, fairy tale, popular entertainment, literature, history and science for ideas and storylines. (The Hinchcliffe-Holmes era had a particular penchant for Gothic Horror, Hammer style.) As such, it was the ultimate all-in-one cultural education for the final quarter of the 20th century.

That and Blue Peter, anyway.

Why I Like… Theodore Sturgeon (in three stories)

“Bright Segment” (1955, in the collection Caviar) displays Sturgeon’s stylistic abilities as a writer. The story is about a slow-witted, lonely man, and is written in suitably plain language, with simple statements and and-joined sentences. This was my first encounter with this sort of writing (Hemingway is of course the main one known for writing like this, and Roald Dahl (in his early stories) and Ian Fleming took the technique from him). Sturgeon has a very flexible, often poetic, writing style, but “Bright Segment” shows him tightly focused in one cut-back voice, and using it very effectively. The plainness of the sentences and the simple actions keep you close-up focused on what the protagonist is doing, as he finds an injured girl in the street outside and very carefully, very consideredly, sews her up and nurses her back to health. The protagonist’s concentration comes out in the writer’s, and so comes through to the reader who is (I was, anyway) quickly involved in the story, and thoroughly hooked by the action. Here’s the beginning:

He had never held a girl before. He was not terrified; he had used that up earlier when he had carried her in and kicked the door shut behind him and had heard the steady drip of blood from her soaked skirt, and before that, when he had thought her dead there on the curb, and again when she made that sound, that sigh or whispered moan. He had brought her in and when he saw all that blood he had turned left, turned right, put her down on the floor, his brains all clabbered and churned and his temples thumping with the unaccustomed exercise. — “Bright Segment”, by Theodore Sturgeon

(Another example of Sturgeon as wordsmith is “Killdozer”, which is somewhat more difficult to read. This one is written from the point of view of some men using heavy digging equipment, and Sturgeon has both the nomenclature and the feel of using such equipment spot on.)

“The Professor’s Teddy Bear” (1948, Weird Tales, also in the collection E Pluribus Unicorn) always leaves me stunned at what a bizarre story it is. How does someone come up with a plot like this, and make it work? It starts with a young boy being put to bed for a daytime rest by his mother. He’s laid down with his teddy bear, who turns out not to be a teddy bear at all but some sort of parasitic psychic vampire that feeds on the boy’s future. It encourages the little boy to fantasise about events in his life to come, and change them to make terrible things happen, and as they happen, the creature somehow manages to feed on the blood that will be spilled. Then we’re actually in the future, as the boy, now a grownup university lecturer, recalls a vague memory of having once thought about being in this particular hall, delivering this particular lecture, and having the feeling that something terrible is about to happen to the brown-haired girl in the audience, and can he stop it? Sturgeon has a wonderful audacity as a storyteller, often hitting the reader with it from the first sentence and not letting go.

But it’s “A Saucer of Loneliness” (Galaxy, 1953, and again in E Pluribus Unicorn) that goes to the core of what struck me most forcefully about Sturgeon when I first encountered him. He’s a great wordsmith, and an original storyteller, but here you see how he always uses the science fictional, fantastical or horrific ideas behind his stories to talk as openly as possible about the most vulnerably human side of his characters. In “A Saucer of Loneliness”, a young woman is standing in a park in the middle of a large city when a small flying saucer descends, hovering over her head and making some sort of brief contact before leaving. After this, the girl is pursued by government agents, sensationalist reporters and UFO nuts, all wanting to know what the saucer said. She refuses to tell anyone, to the extent of living a life virtually cut off from human company, because the message the saucer gave wasn’t the usual science fictional one — it wasn’t a warning about an oncoming disaster or a scientific secret — it was a personal one, a message in a bottle sent out across the universe from one lonely being to another, and not meant to be shared with governments and other less-than-human organisations.

There are many Sturgeon stories I could mention, and many wonderful moments where a line of description lights up an otherwise average Sturgeon tale (a description of desert cacti, for instance: “It was sahuro country here, and all about they stretched their yearning, other-worldly arms upward, as if in search for a lover who might forget their thorns”, from “Cactus Dance”), but that’s three to be getting on with…

(There’s an excellent Sturgeon page here, including a pretty thorough bibliography.)

Why I Like… Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock

Round about the time the centenary of cinema was being celebrated, there was a slew of documentaries about the history of film on TV, making me realise how little I knew about all the great films that have been made. So I read Donald Spoto’s Alfred Hitchcock biography, The Dark Side of Genius, as a way of starting to get to know a little bit more about movies, and duly set about trying to watch all of Hitchcock’s surviving films. That would have been about 1995, and it’s only this year that I managed to tick the last couple off the list — Stage Fright, from 1950, notable for including Hitchcock’s daughter in her movie debut, and Family Plot, from 1976, his last completed movie, notable for a naseau-inducing first-person camera shot as a car careens down a winding road in the LA mountains.

Hitchcock is one of the few directors whose oeuvre comprises its own mini-course in the history of cinema, as his career started in the days of silent films, survived the coming of sound and colour, and even embraced the threat of television. His filmmaking ended just as the blockbuster movie came along (Jaws, Star Wars), which is where my cinema-going started, and the only significant advance since those days, which Hitch never lived to see, is digital effects. (Hitchcock would have loved digital actors. For him, making a movie was all in the planning, and having to actually get real people to perform the shots he’d already constructed in his head was the boring bit.) He even made a 3D film.

Hitchcock survived the changes in cinema because he not only adapted, but worked to make the new technological advances part of his artistic repertoire, which is another reason you can use his films to learn about the history of the medium. In the silent days, he went to Germany to work with the masters of Expressionist cinema. And although his visual style is most evident in his silent films such as The Lodger (1927, the essential Hitchcock silent), he was still using expressionist tricks in his later films, such as Shadow of a Doubt (1943): when the train bringing the villainous Uncle Charlie to small-town Santa Rosa pulls in, it is belching black smoke, but when we next see the train, near the end of the film, it’s just a normal puff of grey.

Uncle Charlie pulls in, Shadow of a Doubt

With sound, the famous scene is in Blackmail (1929), where the guilt-ridden Anny Ondra (who has stabbed and killed a man who assaulted her) blanks out all conversation but an increasingly shrill repetition of the word “knife” (it’s a breakfast scene, and the reference is to a bread-knife), and the audience hears the effect with her. The interesting point here is that Blackmail was made in both sound and silent versions. Hitch knew that each technological advance merely added a new layer to the techniques he already had — so, silent Blackmail could work purely on a visual level, but sound Blackmail could work with added sound-tricks, too. The next advance, colour, was hardly the potential career-breaker sound was, but Hitchcock still thought about how to use it. In Vertigo (1958), for instance, when we first see Kim Novak’s character, it is in Ernie’s, a restaurant with deep red walls and at which all the other diners are wearing drab colours. Novak wears a vivd green, which sets her out as an island of visual restfulness. You can’t help but notice her, which is of course what Hitchcock wants.

Vertigo

Amongst all this, there were various other tricks Hitchcock used as he experimented with the medium. Rope (1948), his first colour film, was filmed in a series of long takes — as long as the film technology of the day would allow — with the necessary cuts being concealed, for instance, by people walking in front of the camera. Then there were long tracking shots, as in Notorious (1946), where the camera starts high up near the ceiling of a large entrance hall and slowly moves down to get a close up of the key Ingrid Bergman is nervously clutching in her hand. (There’s a similar long zoom in the much earlier Young and Innocent (1937), centring in on the twitching eye of a drummer in a band — that twitch being the vital clue that reveals him to be the murderer.) Nowadays, such experimentation often looks a bit clunky and obvious — rather too studied, it often breaks into the storytelling — and aside from an academic interest, that’s not the reason to watch Hitchcock’s films. When you watch a film, you want to watch a story that means something.

Throughout his oeuvre, Hitchcock returned again and again to certain emotional themes, and it’s when he uses the weapons in his artistic arsenal to tell a story, rather than just impress, that he’s most successful. That’s why I’ve never really liked North by Northwest (1959), which is the film that most often gets mentioned in association with his name (aside from Psycho — I can’t believe I almost forgot Psycho), but which is really nothing more than a series of cinematic wow-factor moments strung together by a Maguffin-driven plot. (The term Maguffin is, of course, Hitchcock’s own, for the whatever-it-is thing that everyone’s searching for and which sets a plot in motion. But Hitchcock coining it is no excuse for making a film with no emotional content in it at all.)

The flying head of Jimmy Stewart, from Vertigo

But those emotional themes — they’re really quite strange when you start to isolate them. And once you do, you find them popping up in film after film after film. The most obvious one is the man accused of something he hasn’t done. The further you go into his career, the more you find Hitchcock working at making this factually innocent man nevertheless feel the guilt of what he hasn’t done, to almost extreme levels. The high point is in Vertigo — my second favourite Hitchcock movie — in which Jimmy Stewart, caught in the midst of plot convolutions I won’t even begin to untangle, is all but psychologically destroyed because of the guilt he feels for a murder that he didn’t even commit. (And, interestingly, considering the usual rules of Hollywood morality, a murder for which the murderer escapes entirely scot-free.) But this is also a film in which guilt is tied up inextricably with another Hitchcock theme that has a weird resonance with the man’s own career as a director — the obsessive need to mould, manipulate and coerce a woman (often a blonde one) into doing something against her will, and usually something immoral. In Vertigo, poor Kim Novak’s character is manipulated in this way by not one but two men. One uses her to commit and conceal a murder, the other tries to turn her into the image of a woman he once loved, regardless of her own feelings on the matter. And the weirdest thing about this theme is how much it’s tied up with the men’s love for the woman they’re manhandling. It’s messy, rather Freudian (Hitchcock was an early adopter of psychoanalysis, and in one film employed Salvador Dali as designer on an important dream-sequence), and often quite nasty, when you take a step back and look at just what’s going on in front of you. But there’s nevertheless a lot about it that rings true, in a rather dark, all-too-human kind of way.

Vertigo

Another theme, a sort of flip-side variation on this, is the confrontation (and, potentially, corruption) of innocence (often in the form of a young female) by evil (in the form of a murderous male). This is something I like in David Lynch’s films, too. My favourite Hitchcock film of all time is Shadow of a Doubt (also Hitch’s own favourite), and this is pure innocence-confronts-evil. Shadow of a Doubt‘s setting is like the perfect cure for the dark world of film noir: it’s cosy small-town America (Santa Rosa, CA), where the cops who help you cross the road know your name, and everyone is happily filed away into their family home each night. Into this un-noir world comes a figure straight out of film noir, Uncle Charlie, who makes his living wooing and murdering rich widows. But such activities are temporarily on hold because the police are on his trail, so he beds down for a while with the family of his oblivious sister, whose daughter (also called Charlie), has a weird affinity for her namesake uncle. When she starts to suspect what he’s done, as she inevitably does, her affinity gives her a glimpse into a dark, nasty world unlike anything she’s ever encountered before. The moment when Uncle Charlie lets loose and reveals just what he thinks of the human race is one of the most electric scenes in all of Hitchcock’s films — made effective not so much by its content, but by its contrast with the innocent world surrounding it.

Shadow of a Doubt

Hitchcock had a rather schoolboyish sense of humour, which could extend from silly jokes (such as, purportedly, framing a shot of the gay Ivor Novello so a flower seemed to be sprouting from his head), to rather nastier ones. Among the “rather nastier” is, for instance, his insistence on filming take after take of Kim Novak falling into San Francisco bay for Vertigo, and putting an unprotected Tippi Hedren into a room full of live, panicking birds (for The Birds) for so long that she had a nervous breakdown. This extended to off-screen practical jokes, too. Apparently, he once dared a member of his crew to spend a night in the studio, alone, chained to one of the heavy camera rigs. Just before turning off the lights for the night, Hitch sidled up to the man and gave him a little flask of whiskey or brandy to see him through the night. But this supposedly friendly gesture was just a further turn of the screw — the drink was laced with a powerful laxative. Hitchcock’s sense of humour also involved playing tricks on his audience. I mentioned at the start of this entry the (overlong) scene in Family Plot where a zigzagging car going down a mountain made me feel distinctly nauseous — and this was just on a TV screen, God knows how cinema audiences felt! But a dark sense of humour, I think, is one of the things that keeps his works from seeming dated.

Having watched all those Hitchcock films (a clean run from 1931’s The Skin Game, but excluding the war-propaganda films) I’ve kept five Hitchcock DVDs on my shelves. I’ve already mentioned Shadow of a Doubt and Vertigo, my absolute favourites. I’ve also got Rear Window (1954), which is a bit of a gimmick film, the whole thing being shot in an (invented) courtyard surrounded by flats, but a good thriller all the same. The remaining ones are Hitch’s two major horror films, Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). Both are still shocking today. Psycho, with its fool-the-audience trick of killing off what had seemed to be its major character (Janet Leigh) halfway through; and The Birds with its bleak, apocalyptic, non-ending of an ending. Both films perhaps represent the point where Hitchcock’s dark sense of humour threatened to tip over into something really disturbing. The sense of humour in The Birds isn’t obvious at all, as the film is just so bleak, but recently seeing this cartoon, by Charles Addams (who, I think, Hitchcock must have liked — enough to borrow the Addams’ family mansion for Norman Bates’ home, at any rate), made me wonder if it wasn’t the film’s true origin:

Birds cartoon, by Charles Addams