You’re All Alone/The Sinful Ones by Fritz Leiber

The Sinful Ones, Pocket Books, cover by Michael Whelan

What if the universe was one big machine, and human beings merely parts of it, unconsciously playing their roles, day in, day out? And what if, one day, you stepped out of the machine? This is the idea behind what Fritz Leiber called “the unluckiest, the most ill-starred and dogged by misfortune” of his novels, which he began, as You’re All Alone, in 1943.

The story starts with Carr Mackay, working in the General Employment office in Chicago, matching interviewees with likely jobs. One day, he notices a frightened-looking young woman sit down in the waiting area, followed shortly by an impressive-looking blonde (“If ever there was a woman who gave the impression of simply using people, of using the world, this was she.”). The blonde stands in front of the young woman, staring at her, but the young woman does her best to pretend she can’t see her. Eventually, the young woman walks over and sits the other side of Carr’s desk, but when he starts to talk to her, she at first ignores him. When she realises he is actually talking to her, she’s at first even more frightened, saying to him, “Don’t you know what you are?” Refusing to explain, she leaves, but, as she’s on the way out, the blonde comes over and slaps her in the face, so loud that everyone in the office would surely have heard. But nobody reacts, and the girl simply leaves the office as though nothing has happened.

What’s happened, though, is that Carr has just had the first hint that he’s “awakened” — that he’s stepped out of the big machine. Both the blonde (Miss Hackman) and the frightened young woman (Jane Gregg) are awakened, and because they’ve left their usual places in the machine, nobody else can see them — unawakened people continue to react to where the person would have been if they’d kept playing their part — which is why Jane is surprised when Carr speaks to her, and also why she pretended not to see the blonde, or react when she slapped her. Miss Hackman is part of a small gang of individuals who go around taking advantage of their awakened state, having cruel fun with the helpless unawakened, and occasionally, even more cruelly, forcing awake a chosen victim to really get down to some torture and domination. But the awakened gang are also scared of other awakened people, who might spoil their fun, so they have to be sure who’s awakened and who’s not. Hence Miss Hackman’s testing of Jane by slapping her in the face — an unawakened person wouldn’t react, so Jane does her best not to. It’s her only way to stay safe.

Universal Publishers and Distributors’s version, two great new books under one cover

Leiber’s idea was perfect for the sort of high-concept playful fantasy published by Unknown magazine — which was the only market he thought would take it. So, when he wrote the first four chapters and sent them to Unknown’s editor, John Campbell, hoping for an okay to continue, he was crushed to find that, because of wartime paper shortages, the magazine was to cease publication. With no other possible market, he put the unfinished novel aside. He took it up again at the end of World War II, having heard of a firm that — uniquely, for the time — were interested in publishing fantasy fiction in hardcover. But, after a couple of failures, the publisher gave up on the idea, so Leiber just had his agent (fellow author Frederick Pohl) hawk the book around, and went through the usual business of collecting rejections. Pohl suggested Leiber try it with Fantastic Adventures magazine, who accepted it, provided he cut the 75,000 word novel to 40,000. Instead of cutting it, though, Leiber took the bold step of going back to his initial four chapters and rewriting the story from there, as he would have, had Unknown been interested in taking it, back in 1943. The result was published as a novella, You’re All Alone, in July 1950. But the novel-length version was still being sent around, and that, too, found a publisher. It was bought by Universal Publishers and Distributors, who retitled it (The Sinful Ones), spiced up the love scenes, added lurid chapter titles (like “The Shimmering Garment”, “Bleached Prostitute”, and “Gigolo’s Home” — Gigolo, in the book, is a cat) and issued it twinned with a novel about a female bullfighter, called Blood, Bulls, and Passion.

Things got more complicated still when, in the 1970s, Leiber was approached by Ace Books, who wanted to reprint You’re All Alone. Leiber felt he ought to get the permission of his Sinful Ones publisher, and found he could buy the rights back. So he did, and You’re All Alone was published, along with a couple of other stories, to make it a reasonable length book, in 1972. Then Pocket Books got interested in reprinting The Sinful Ones, so Leiber, finding the previous publisher’s spicy bits pretty dated, went through the book and rewrote them. The Sinful Ones came out in this version in 1980, meaning there were now two versions of the same-but-differently-written Leiber story on the market.

So, knowing this and wanting to read it, what did I do? I read them both.

Fantastic Adventures, July 1950, art by Robert Gibson Jones. The dog becomes a black cheetah in The Sinful Ones.

Of the two, I preferred the shorter version, You’re All Alone. I can’t help feeling Leiber was a bit freer when writing for a pulp magazine than for hardcover publication. The novella has more linguistic playfulness and flights of fancy, of the sort I associate with Leiber’s better writing, including a dream in which Carr sees himself as a puppet freeing itself from its strings, and a brief daydream in which he thinks of himself and Jane as a prince and princess escaping the clutches of an evil archduke — neither being essential to the plot, but certainly giving it some imaginative spice. Oddly, for a shorter version, You’re All Alone actually contains more information about the characters and their backgrounds and world, perhaps because Leiber felt that, with fewer words available, he ought to be more direct. And so it’s made pretty clear early on exactly what sort of nastiness Miss Hackman and company are up to, and how it is, basically, sexually motivated. (The luridly named Sinful Ones, on the other hand, despite having “spicier” scenes — of which the main one felt pretty much shoehorned in, to me — doesn’t make it as clear what the gang is doing and why.) Also, one key character gets to tell his story in You’re All Alone, but is left a mystery in The Sinful Ones, to the latter novel’s detriment. Overall, The Sinful Ones (which I read first) feels a bit more poetic, having more passages about Carr’s horror at the idea of the universe being just one giant machine, but the plot lacks pace, and the poetry doesn’t quite make up for the lack of plot. The Sinful Ones adds a mysterious character at the end, Old Jules, who hints at a change taking place in the world, so perhaps Leiber was hoping he’d be asked to write a sequel, but, read as it is, I preferred You’re All Alone.

Leiber’s novel could be seen as addressing the same sort of ideas as the likes of Camus and Sartre, in their early works written around the same time. When Carr thinks of what he now knows about the universe and feels a “formless dread that kept surging through you until you almost wanted to retch”, he could be talking about Sartre’s term for existential dread, “nausea”, particularly as this dread is associated with the idea of the universe being “a place of mystification and death, with no more feeling than a sausage grinder for the life oozing through it”, and Carr’s fellow humans as being little more than automatons:

“Couldn’t robots perform the much over-rated ‘business of living’ just as well?”

At other times, it feels like the sort of cosmicism Lovecraft (with whom Leiber corresponded, briefly) wrote about:

The universe was a machine. The people in it, save for a very few, were mindless mechanisms, clockwork things of flesh and bone. So long as you made the proper clockwork motions, they seemed to react intelligently. But when you stopped, they went on just the same.”

And I’m sure that lover/hater of dark cities Lovecraft would have responded well to Leiber’s description of Carr’s Chicago as a “Dead city in a dead universe”:

“Teeming Chicago was a city of the dead, the mindless, the inanimate, in which you were more alone than in the most desolate wilderness.”

Which also reminds me a bit of Eliot’s “Unreal city” of post-war London in The Waste Land, with its “I had not thought death had undone so many”.

But Leiber’s take on the idea is, ultimately, very un-Lovecraftian. Lovecraft, for instance, surely couldn’t have let the “big machine” idea go without at least some dark hints as to what sort of inhuman entity was behind it all, and for what dark purposes human beings were employed as its parts. Leiber has one brief passage in which Carr wonders about the philosophical implications:

“Have machines infected men, turning them into things like themselves? Or has man’s belief in a completely materialistic universe made it just that? Or… has the world always been this way — just a meaningless mechanical toy?”

But mostly he’s dealing with another aspect of the idea, and a far more human one. Jane, at one point, sums up both her and Carr’s experience when she says:

“Other people weren’t alive, really alive, like you were. You were all alone.”

You’re All Alone, Ace Books, cover art by Victoria Poyser. Here we see the black cheetah from The Sinful Ones, even though it’s a hound in You’re All Alone

“Awakening” isn’t about becoming aware of the true nature of the universe, but looking around at one’s fellow human beings and realising there’s a uncrossable gulf between you and them. They might as well be dead to you, or be unfeeling robots. So what do you do? Retreat back into the machine and pretend to go along, eking out your life in fear of discovery while always being alone? Or do what Miss Hackman’s gang do, abandon human feeling altogether and get your kicks in as cruel a way as possible, while you can? (Or even what Carr’s “unawakened” girlfriend, Marcia, does, who likes to “agonize” her men — i.e., play power games with them.) Carr finally finds his answer in Jane, a person who’s had the same experience as him, and so who lives in the same emotional world as him. Leiber’s answer — not a solution to the universe-as-machine, but a way to stay human and live through it — is love. As he says in one of the little teaser passages he adds at the start of the chapters of the novella version:

“Love doesn’t make the world go round, but it sure puts a spark of life in the big engine.”

Leiber used the same basic idea of the world as a machine in much shorter form in the story “The Big Engine”, which was published in Galaxy magazine in February 1962, and which can be read at Project Gutenberg. (And he seems to have incorporated that story, in part, into The Sinful Ones, as Old Jules’s speech near the end of the book, which perhaps means Leiber did more than just a few edits to the book before its republication.)

In all, a book with a complex publishing history and several finished versions. Not Leiber’s best, but an interesting read all the same. (And an early version of the same sort of idea behind 1999’s — coincidentally, the number of words in this blog post — The Matrix.) There are reviews of The Sinful Ones and You’re All Alone at the Lankhmar Fritz Leiber site.

The Haunted Woman by David Lindsay

first edition, from Methuen

What is the haunted woman in David Lindsay’s The Haunted Woman haunted by? The novel starts with Isbel Loment (whose name is a wonderfully Lindsayan mix of music and tragedy), engaged to a Lloyd’s underwriter, Marshall Stokes, but in the meantime living an itinerant existence in a series of hotels with her aunt, Mrs Moor. Before her marriage, Isbel knows she must find a place for her aunt to settle, and Marshall, coming back from a trip to the United States, hears of a possibility, Runhill Court, near Steyning, in Sussex. As Isbel and her aunt are at present staying in Brighton, it’s only a short car-ride away, so an afternoon excursion is planned.

As well as showing the two women round this mostly Elizabethan mansion, Marshall has an additional assignment given to him by the house’s current owner, the 58-year-old widower Henry Judge. Judge, not presently living at the house, had some unusual experiences in the East Room, and wants Marshall’s opinion of the place. (Presumably he asked Marshall because, as Marshall himself admits, “I’m not gifted with a great deal of imagination”, and so might be expected to be down-to-earth in such matters.) But it’s Isbel who senses something strange about the place, hearing a sound in the passage leading to the East Room which the others can’t hear, and which she compares to both an orchestra tuning up, and “a telephone wire while you’re waiting for a connection”.

It’s already been revealed that Isbel has unfulfilled depths to her character. Sherrup, an artist and musician they meet briefly at Runhill Court, later tells her she’s “an artist without a profession… a lightning-rod without an outlet”, and she herself has already intimated that the rather shallow Marshall might not be the best match for her:

“I don’t know. . . . Love must be stronger than that. . . . I mean, one girl might be content with mere placid affection, and another might ask for nothing better than a thick sentimental syrup. It depends on character. My character is tragic, I fancy.”

Isbel, then, is all potential; the house, with its supernatural orchestra tuning up, is also all potential. Isbel says Runhill Court’s “atmosphere seems tragical”, so it’s obvious in which general direction all this potential is going. And when she meets the house’s owner, Henry Judge, and he says to her:

“There are deep, and possibly painful, transactions of the heart to which the term ‘romance’ would be quite inadequate…”

— she perhaps ought to know Marshall is not the man to fulfil her deeper nature, and Henry Judge is. But, already engaged as she is, society will not allow her to even think of the possibility. So constricting are the social rules by which Isbel and Judge live, it affects even their ability to feel when their deeper selves begin to suggest a route towards fulfilment.

Japanese edition

(The social world, in The Haunted Woman, is staid and placid on the surface, but vicious immediately beneath, as exemplified by Isbel’s exchanges with the widow Mrs Richborough, who also has her sights set on Judge. Judge, like all the men in the novel, except perhaps for the artist Sherrup, is oblivious to the barely-veiled subtext of what Isbel and Mrs Richborough are saying, but beneath their civilities, the two women are spitting venom and all but tearing at each other with their teeth.)

So, it’s her tragical, passionate nature that makes Isbel a haunted woman, and it requires a haunted house to bring the haunting out. Runhill Court doesn’t offer the traditional kind of haunting; its ghost is architectural. As Sherrup says of the structure that first stood where Runhill Court stands now:

“It was called Ulf’s Tower. The story is that Ulf was the original builder of the house. He lived about a hundred years after the first landing of the South Saxons… When Ulf built his house, Miss Loment, it was on haunted land. Run Hill was a waste elevation, inhabited by trolls—which, I figure, were a variety of malevolent land-sprites. Ulf didn’t care, though he was a pagan. He built his house. I gather he was a tough fellow, away above the superstitions of his time and country. And—well, one day Ulf disappears and a part of his house with him. Some of the top rooms of the Tower were clean carried off by the trolls; it happened to be the east end of the house, the nearest to their happy hunting-grounds. That was the very last that was heard of Ulf, but all through the centuries folks have been jumping up to announce that they’ve caught sight of the lost rooms. . . . ”

These rooms, accessible by a staircase that appears only to certain people at certain times, are where the story of Isbel and Judge’s true selves play out. The idea that it’s only in a place supernaturally removed from the day-to-day world that we can even start to make contact with our deeper feelings, our truer instincts, is typically uncompromising of David Lindsay. What’s worse, as soon as Isbel and Judge leave the rooms, they return to their everyday mindsets and forget everything that has just happened, even their most heartfelt vows and life-changing decisions.

Unlike A Voyage to Arcturus, The Haunted Woman offers no explicit, final explanation. Isbel has no Krag to tell her what it all means. This is one of the characteristics of Lindsay’s novels between Arcturus and Devil’s Tor — the human characters get mind-blasting visions, but no clue or guidance as to what they mean or how to fit this new strata of experience into the everyday world of twenties England.

Tartarus Press edition, artwork by R B Russell

For most of The Haunted Woman, though, the meaning of the supernatural elements seems clear. Up the phantom staircase, Isbel is confronted by three doorways, and in her first three trips, she explores a different room each time. In the first room, furnished only with a mirror, she receives a vision of herself as she truly is, with all her tragical and passionate potentialities written clearly on her face. In the second room, furnished only with a couch, she meets Judge and the two can “drop the mask of convention, and talk to each other more humanly and truthfully” than in the outside world. But what of the third room? Here, there’s a window, looking out on a Spring-like, fresh world, unspoilt by man. No roads, no hedgerows. A musician plays his archaic instrument and his music awakens the pair’s passionate nature, until they’re overwhelmed, and can’t sustain the “worldly prudence on his side, angry pride on hers” that keeps them apart in the normal world. But what Lindsay does next takes it all one step further than a mere allegory of love in the face of straitening social bounds. Looking into the musician’s face kills two of the novel’s characters. The musician is not, then, the embodiment of human love or passion, but of the essentially tragic nature of the passion that’s so much a part (though submerged throughout her normal, waking life) of Isbel’s character.

David Lindsay, grainy newspaper photo, from the time of the publication of Devil’s Tor

So, passion, or love, is lifted to the level of Muspel (our true spiritual home) from A Voyage to Arcturus, as though Lindsay is saying that what Pain was in that first novel, Tragical Passion is in this one — the way out of a deceptive, ensnaring world, and the way home. (Lindsay several times in the novel links passion with pain — and music — as when he describes the sound of the musician’s bowed instrument as “low, fierce, passionate, exactly resembling a deep, forced human cry of love-pain.”)

This feeling that the coming together of a man and woman in a deeply meaningful, but deeply tragical and troubled manner, is the closest the living can come to a sort of reconnection with their deeper, truer selves, is reiterated in The Violet Apple, and intensified in Devil’s Tor. (I’d say it also has a hint of fairy-tale fulfilment at the end of The Adventures of Monsieur de Mailly.) It obviously had great meaning for David Lindsay, and is certainly an argument for regarding his post-Arcturus novels not as commercial compromises (as they’re often seen), but as genuine attempts to further his understanding of his own ideas.

The Nameless by Ramsey Campbell

Fontana edition. Cover by Les Edwards.

Successful literary agent Barbara Waugh is working late in her office when the phone rings and the voice on the other end of the line says, “Mummy.” At first she thinks it’s her assistant’s daughter, but when she says, “This is Barbara Waugh herself speaking,” the voice says, “Yes, Mummy, I know.”

But Barbara’s daughter Angela, born thirteen years ago, is supposedly dead. She was taken from her daycare centre by a man purporting to be her uncle, and the police found a body they were sure was hers (though it was too badly injured for definite identification). Barbara, whose husband died in an accident just before the birth, has spent the intervening nine years living with the loss and guilt of what happened, but now it seems she has even more reason to feel guilty: all that time, her daughter was alive and in the hands of a cult.

The cult are a group who take up residence in a series of derelict houses, moving constantly. They seem to be linked to a group in California that “one of Manson’s women had described as worse than the Family”, a group whose leader believes the worst murderers in history had all “been driven to experience the worst crimes they could on behalf of something outside themselves”. To better serve this “something”, cult members relinquish their names, becoming indistinguishable parts of “the Nameless”.

Ramsey Campbell’s 1981 novel The Nameless is about an archetypal fear. The cult are described at one point as being “into some very bad things, black magic and torture and that sort of stuff”, and this may sound rather vague but, really, that is the point. They are the embodiment of the most primal of parental anxieties about what may happen to a child, and the sort of hands they might fall into. And though it digs into some powerful themes, The Nameless is not so much a considered exploration of ideas as it is a cry of pure anxiety, a nightmare confrontation with the deepest fears centred around parenthood, nurturing, and creativity, and the vulnerabilities these things open you up to.

Family has always been a powerful theme in Campbell’s work, where it can be a sort of psychological crucible from which people emerge damaged and humanly flawed, or, sometimes, as monsters. This was addressed in his earlier novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother, though that book only focused on one end of the equation, the effect their upbringing had on the novel’s adult characters. The Nameless is more about the other side of the equation; it’s about parenthood, and how having a child opens you up to a whole new set of fears and vulnerabilities.

Barbara Waugh feels she failed her daughter by going back to work and leaving her in someone else’s hands, even if only during the working day. Now she finds that Angela has fallen into the worst hands imaginable, a cult of sadists whose aim is to serve the darkest of forces, and to turn its members into inhuman monsters. There’s a sense, in The Nameless, of families as separate, embattled units, with some, like those of Barbara’s author-client Paul Gregory, or the family of cult-escapee Iris, driven to being suspicious of all outsiders and loyal only to themselves; or of failed families, such as that of Barbara’s friend Ted Crichton, whose divorce has led his wife, Helen, to use their daughter against her former husband in a not-so-subtle emotional conflict. And, of course, cults are a sort of family, too. (Evident in Campbell’s reference to the Manson “Family”.) The Nameless seek to erase the most obvious thing that binds a family together — their shared name — but another family Barbara briefly encounters is a somewhat more harmless occult group in Glasgow, the Undying Light, whose members seem to have achieved unity through a similar loss of individuality:

“…they looked manufactured by whatever factory produced families for television series, a fresh-faced young man and woman between an older couple, all their instant identical smiles gleaming.”

MacMillan hardcover. Art by Norm Walker.

After the deaths of her husband and daughter, Barbara has focused on her career, in which she “mothers” her authors and “midwifes” their books, and creativity is another theme in The Nameless. Writing a book and sending it out into the harsh world of publication is a way of opening up one’s vulnerabilities, and Barbara, as a literary agent, is on the forefront of that moment of first contact between a writer and the world. The Nameless seem to attract people with artistic abilities, and what the cult do could be seen, in a very twisted way, as creative or expressive. But the point about the Nameless, perhaps, is that their own particular (perverted) form of creativity is for their own consumption alone. The young woman journalist Gerry Martin, who infiltrates them, finds drawers full of photographs and films, no doubt of their own, or others’, acts of torture and murder, but when Barbara looks through a house previously inhabited by the cult, she finds only the ashes of these photos and films. The cult don’t share their work; they consume it themselves, then it’s gone. Stifled or thwarted creativity is another of the book’s themes. (Of Barbara, thinking of all the rejected novels she handles, Campbell says, “It unnerved her to imagine how much frustrated creativity there might be in the world.”)

It’s as though The Nameless is presenting, in nightmare form, the anxieties of a very human dilemma: on the one hand, there’s the vulnerability that having children, or producing creative work, opens you up to, through the possibilities of loss, rejection, betrayal, manipulation, and exploitation; on the other, there’s the idea that a highly embattled and secret creativity can, through being divorced from the stream of human contact, find itself serving dark, inhuman powers. Creativity, and family, make you vulnerable, but to be vulnerable is to be human; to turn away from that vulnerability is to turn away from your humanity, and to do that is to serve the darkness.

The Nameless was released as a film in 1999, as Los Sin Nombre, from Spanish director Jaume Balagueró. It drops the (relatively minor) element of Angela’s psychic abilities and adds another twist to the ending, while generally upping the pace and incorporating some truly gruesome effects. I can’t feel it has the same psychological intensity as the novel, nor the same focus on a mother’s (here an editor, Claudia, played by Emma Vilarasau) anxiety to find her lost child (and the many female roles in the novel are pretty much reduced to just Claudia, whose active role is also somewhat reduced, for much of the film), but it does have the occasional good creepy moment.

The Angel of the West Window by Gustav Meyrink

At one time I worked my way through all of Gustav Meyrink’s novels (in Mike Mitchell’s translations, published by Dedalus), and although his first, The Golem (1914), is his most famous, it was his last, and least successful in terms of sales (selling less than 3,000 copies, compared to 220,000 of The Golem, according to this article), that stuck with me.

Published in 1927, The Angel of the West Window tells a dual story. The narrator — unnamed till virtually the last page, when he’s revealed to be one Baron Müller — learns that he is the only surviving descendent of the Elizabethan mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, alchemist and occultist John Dee, when he inherits a sizeable packet of the man’s journals and private papers. Embarking on the task of ordering these papers into some sort of narrative, Müller finds occult elements starting to invade his own life. Dee’s papers describe how, early on in life, he looked into a mirror and found his reflection talking back to him, promising what sounded to be a great future, in which he:

“…shall know neither rest nor repose till the coasts of Greenland, where the Northern Lights glow, shall be conquered… He who holds the Green Land in fief, to him shall the Empire beyond the sea be given, to him shall be given the crown of England!”

Dee immediately makes plans — which include finding a way of making sure the then-Princess Elizabeth would drink a potion to make her fall in love with him, and thus ensure his kingship of England — but finds himself frustrated at every step. Elizabeth, once she is queen, toys with him, agreeing to his plans for an expedition to Greenland only to cancel them a moment later. And though she drops hints that she knows the nature of the potion Dee contrived to have her drink, and occasionally implies that the two of them have some sort of special relationship, she makes no move towards marrying him — in fact, she orders him to wed one of her ladies-in-waiting who clearly hates him.

Meanwhile, a number of peculiar characters enter the narrator’s modern-day (i.e., 1920s) life. Lipotin, a trader in antiquities — whose nickname, Mascee, is oddly the same as that of an antiques pedlar known to John Dee — provides him with a number of occultly significant objects, including a locked Tula-ware puzzle-box and a green-glass mirror, while the Russian Princess Assja Shotokalungin drops by, wanting to buy from him a certain antique spearhead, which she seems sure he owns, even though he doesn’t.

For me, the Dee part of the novel works so much better than the narrator’s. Dee’s story is all about how his promised glories are constantly denied him, and how he turns more and more desperately to the occult, only to meet with a constant cycle of repeated promises, delays, more promises, and ultimate frustration. He enters into a partnership with Edward Kelley, an ex-criminal (his ears have been cut off as punishment for forgery) who provides Dee with a small amount of powder that can turn lead into gold, along with a book that describes how this powder might be used to make the Philosopher’s Stone. But the book is in code, and the pair soon use up their small stock of powder in making the gold they need to continue their studies (and to fund Kelley’s dissolute lifestyle). Kelley, though, can summon the Angel of the West Window, an awesome, otherworldly presence (with something of a demonic air: “the thumb on the right hand pointed downwards, it was the left hand thumb”) that promises to teach Dee the key to the book’s cipher, though always tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, never today. (It does, when their need is at its most dire, replenish their stock of powder, so they can make more gold, and continue their desperate studies.) Along with Dee’s second wife Jane, the pair leave England for Prague, where Dee wants to see what the Emperor Rudolf II, who claims to be an alchemical adept, can teach him, but Rudolf is paranoid, controlling, and on the edge of madness. Then the Angel of the West Window declares that Dee must share his beloved wife with the lecherous Kelley.

In between reading of Dee’s troubles, the narrator finds himself at the centre of an occult battle for his soul, fought between forces he only gradually comes to understand. On the one hand, there are the Gardeners, a group of enlightened beings who provide the occasional prod on his path to illumination; on the other, there’s the Goddess Black Iaïs, who “rules the realm of anti-Eros, whose power and extent no-one suspects who has not himself been initiated into the mysteries of hate”, and who wants the antique Spearhead of Hywel Dda, once in the possession of John Dee. Despite all this being a clear parallel to Dee’s story, the narrator comes across (to me, anyway) as almost wilfully stupid in being unable to tell what’s happening to him, and as a result, his part of the story seems mostly about him being shunted from one incomprehensible event to another. There’s a lot of occult talk and mysteriously significant events, but no real human-level drama, as there is with the Dee tale, and all of the narrator’s gains feel like something given to him, rather than something he’s earned.

It eventually emerges that the narrator is to experience the fulfilment of what was promised, centuries ago, to his ancestor John Dee. Dee got the nature of that initial promise wrong, interpreting it wholly in terms of worldly gains, when it was meant only in spiritual terms. (“Green Land” is used, in the novel, to refer to the land of the dead, and of the spiritually enlightened, and it was this land that was promised to Dee, not the land of the same name that exists in the material world.) By the end of the book, I found it difficult to accept that the narrator had done anything to earn his spiritual elevation — he’d seemed to learn no lesson, having merely been batted about between occult forces like a spiritual tennis ball that just happened to end up on the right side of the net.

Reviewing The Angel of the West Window in 1936, Jorge Luis Borges called the book “a chronicle of confused miracles, barely salvaged, from time to time, by its poetic ambience”. (Of Meyrink’s literary career as a whole, Borges says: “His books became acts of faith, and then of propaganda.”)

It didn’t, to me, feel that Meyrink was merely peddling some occult system. At times, the supernatural events that happen to either Dee or the narrator felt genuinely weird and shocking (in particular, the pronouncements of Bartlett Greene, with whom Dee shares a prison cell near the start of the novel) rather than being contrived. The best parts — the Dee parts — actually seemed to be all about how, the more enticing the promises of the occult are, the more empty, frustrating, and soul-destroying is their effect. It might have been better simply as Dee’s story, with no modern counterpart, but by the end, despite often tedious passages in which many supposedly significant things were happening but no real meaning emerging, The Angel of the West Window does, nevertheless, work a little literary magic.

Born to the Dark by Ramsey Campbell

Born to the Dark from PS Publishing, cover by Les Edwards

The second book in Campbell’s Three Births of Daoloth trilogy is set thirty years on from the first. Dominic Sheldrake, a child in The Searching Dead, is now a lecturer on film, and married, with a child of his own. Young Toby, though, suffers from “nocturnal absences” — a sort of nighttime paralysis —and when a paediatrician recommends a new treatment offered by the Safe to Sleep clinic, Dominic and his wife are at first delighted, as it seems to work. But Dominic becomes suspicious of the sort of dreams Toby has under the influence of this new treatment, which sound as though they could have come straight out of the journal of Christian Noble, the man who, in The Searching Dead, found a new way to raise the dead.

Set in the 1980s, Born to the Dark recalls aspects of Ramsey Campbell’s 80s novels, which were often concerned with the vulnerability of children, and in particular the anxiety about a parent’s care of, and potential misuse of power over, their child. This, of course, comes about because of Dominic’s stage of life, but part of me looked for, and found, other (perhaps deliberate) echoes of Campbell’s 1980s novels. For instance, there’s the idea of dreams/sleep being studied by an institute or research project and resulting in supernatural forces leaking into our world (as in 1983’s Incarnate). I think it was in that novel, too, that Campbell used the police as an expression of the protagonist’s helplessness and humiliation by a powerful authority, and in Born to the Dark we have the sinister double act of officers Farr and Black, whose darkly cosmic double-entendres are the closest this novel gets to the sort of absurdist horror-comedy of Campbell’s most recent Lovecraftian work, the 2013 novella, The Last Revelations of Gla’aki. Campbell even allows himself an in-joke reference to Rose Tierney (the protagonist of his 1980 novel, To Wake the Dead/The Parasite), who’s mentioned here as being a former lecturer at Dominic’s university’s film studies division.

Providence issue 1, cover by Jacen Burrows

More than The Searching Dead — which mostly concerned itself with dead things lingering too long in the land of the living — Born to the Dark opens itself up to cosmic horror, thanks to the visions Safe to Sleep induces as part of its treatment. And there are hints of a coming transformation or apocalypse, after which human life as we know it will be over forever, though not necessarily extinguished. In this, Born to the Dark reminded me of Alan Moore’s Providence, another 21st century take on Lovecraftian horror which ended in our world being fully exposed to cosmic realities that make a nonsense of life at the human level.

(Born to the Dark also recalls Providence in the way its occultists, like Moore’s, are more willing than Lovecraft’s to explain their beliefs to outsiders. 1980s Britain, with its openness to New Age ideas and alternative medicine, is just the sort of place where the likes of Christian Noble and his family can be open about their cosmic beliefs, and be allowed to practise their esoteric arts as a treatment — even within the bounds of the NHS!)

A slight disappointment, for me, was that the narrator, Dominic, has grown up into a somewhat blinkered adult, who has difficulty realising just how mad his accusations against Safe to Sleep sound to anyone but himself, and can’t understand it when people don’t immediately accept his wild claims as the truth. But it does lead to a heartbreaking admission partway through the novel:

“However misunderstood and solitary I’d sometimes felt as a child, I would never have expected growing up to bring that back.”

It’s impossible to properly review the second book of a trilogy — and an as-yet uncompleted trilogy, at that. Born the Dark takes events on from The Searching Dead and, far more than that first volume (which could, I think, be enjoyed on its own), leaves me feeling we’re heading for a properly Lovecraftian conclusion. Will the ending be quite as bleak as that of Moore’s Providence? The final volume, The Way of the Worm, will presumably reveal all — or, at least, all we mere humans can grasp.

There’s a good interview with Campbell about Born to the Dark at Gary Fry’s website.

Even Stranger Things: A Night for Robert Aickman

Yesterday evening the British Library held an hour-and-a-half talk and discussion about Robert Aickman, in part to celebrate their acquisition of an archive of his papers (which you can read about at the Library’s English and Drama blog), and I thought I’d go along as I’ve recently started a second read-through of Aickman’s stories, thanks to Tartarus Press’s two volume Collected Strange Stories. At the time I bought it, back in 2001, Aickman was hard to find outside first editions and just-as-rare paperbacks, but now he’s completely back in print, in large part thanks to some of the people talking at this event. (The evening was compèred by Richard T Kelly, who curated Faber & Faber’s reissue of Aickman in the UK.)

The first speaker was Ramsey Campbell, who read a short chapter from one of Aickman’s autobiographies describing Aickman’s favourite film, The Blue Light by Leni Riefenstahl. At the end of it, Campbell pointed out that, if you’ve seen the film, you’ll realise Aickman’s summary of it is curiously inaccurate, as though he’d preferred to remember his own, Aickmanesque version of the plot. When, post-World War II, Riefenstahl came to the UK seeking funding for a later film and was vilified by the press, Aickman wrote to her to let her know that some people in Britain still appreciated her talents. She sent him some photos and an invitation to visit the next time he was in Berlin.

Aickman, Campbell pointed out, was a man capable of holding extreme opinions, quite often about subjects nobody else thought it worth having an opinion about. He was also, apparently, one of the best dinner guests you could wish for, not just because he could hold forth on many subjects, but because he had a way of bringing everyone into the discussion. A rare gift.

After Campbell was another speaker who knew Aickman personally, his literary agent Leslie Gardner. Aickman would read some of his stories to her, and apparently one time he stopped mid-read and said, “She’s here…” Aickman, who believed in the supernatural, had detected a presence in the room. The very character in the story he was reading aloud?

Next, Reece Shearsmith read from “The Hospice” — which seems to be the most-chosen story people turn to when trying to explain Aickman’s particular flavour of the uncanny — and I have to say that, hearing Aickman read by a good reader like this can certainly bring out his understated humour, particularly in the dialogue — a very English humour of frustration and social awkwardness, that remains present even in the face of the looming supernatural.

Editor and critic Victoria Nelson followed this with a talk justifying Aickman’s growing position as a 20th century master of the weird tale, of how he, more than, say, M R James, was content to end a tale with a lingering sense of numinous mystery, rather than tying the whole thing up with explanations.

Finally, Jeremy Dyson read from Aickman’s story “Wood”. In the discussion that followed, Dyson provided one of the best insights into why Aickman wasn’t better known. If he’d been, say, South American, and translated into English, he would have been immediately classed as a Magical Realist and would have been lauded, but as he wrote in English, the English literati were dismissive. Victoria Nelson added that Aickman’s cult status could also be down to how he doesn’t quite fit either the literary (because of his use of the supernatural) or horror (because he didn’t provide the expected payoff) camps. Though this, of course, is also probably why he’s still read: nobody else offers what he offers.

My one, blurred photo from the event. Offered as proof I was there, not because you have any chance of identifying the evening’s guests.

Aickman’s reputation certainly seems to be growing — in large part thanks to his stories being so readily available, now — and I’m sure it’s only going to get stronger. For myself, part of the problem I had reading him at first was that I came to him having heard him praised as a master of the horror story, and a first read-through of his stories mostly served to make me realise he wasn’t at all what I was expecting. On this second read-through, of which I’m not yet at the halfway point, I’m hopefully reading him without those preconceptions. Aickman’s are tales of dream logic irrupting into an often humdrum, slightly dowdy-feeling, but very recognisable realism. Some of his stories do work wonderfully as weird horror, and they are usually my favourites. (“My Poor Friend”, for instance, about an MP haunted by a sort of vengeful feminine force — which has, for me, the added bonus of a brief mention of East Grinstead, the town where I live. I’d also recommend “Bind Your Hair” and “The School Friend”.) Some of the others are closer to absurdist fantasy or surrealism and take a bit more adjustment. That Aickman was an original talent, though, is surely inarguable.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s haunted house novel is so good, everyone who writes about the book is statutorily obliged to quote it:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

It’s that “not sane” that, for me, delivers the killer blow. Hill House isn’t insane. Insane is a technical term, a doctor’s diagnosis — a dismissal, and a pretence at understanding. “Not sane”, though, sounds like it has found a whole new way of being. It sounds like something we don’t know, and never can.

This is one of the great strengths of Shirley Jackson’s novel. After the pioneering days of the 1890s greats which found new ways to talk about the darkness that lurks in the human psyche — Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Dorian Gray, The Turn of the Screw, Dracula — the ghost story was effectively neutered by Freud and other psychoanalysts, who taxonomised and rubber-stamped all those areas of inner darkness. They were “understood”. What Shirley Jackson does in The Haunting of Hill House is write a ghost story that, far from being disempowered by the ideas of Freud and co., gains new power because of them, then goes on to transcend them. “No,” it seems to say, “you don’t understand.”

The Haunting of Hill House coverHill House begins with Dr John Montague, inspired by “the intrepid nineteenth-century ghost hunters”, deciding to carry out a proper scientific investigation of a genuinely haunted house. Having selected Hill House as his subject, he invites as many people with even the slightest hint of psychic ability as he can find to join him in a three-month stay. Two turn up — timid Eleanor Vance and sophisticated Theodora (so individualistic she only needs a first name) — and, together with Luke Sanderson, a representative from the owning family (who don’t live at the house), the quartet take up residence towards the end of June 1956.

Eleanor is only recently free of 11 years caring for her mother, a period of “small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness and unending despair.” Reduced, now, to sleeping in a cot in the baby’s room at her married sister’s — who, along with her husband, talk about Eleanor in front of her as though she wasn’t there, and make decisions for her as though she were a child — when she receives Dr Montague’s invitation, she accepts because, at that point, she “would have gone anywhere”. She’s 32 years old and “Nothing of the least importance has ever belonged to me”. On the drive to Hill House, she fantasises about how this is the first day of the sort of life everybody else has been enjoying all this time and which she, at last, is now going to have too. “Journeys end in lovers meeting,” she keeps telling herself. And then she sees the house where she is to stay:

“The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.”

But she doesn’t get away. She has no other chance at life but this.

The genius of Jackson’s novel comes from how the hauntings, when they begin, fit so perfectly with Eleanor’s fragile psyche. As an adolescent, shortly after the disappearance of her father, Eleanor seems to have produced a brief bout of poltergeist activity, hence her invitation to Dr Montague’s ghost-hunting party. So, when the increasingly insistent phenomena of Hill House begin to present themselves, it’s possible to see them as coming from Eleanor’s own pent-up frustrations, unconscious needs and self-persecutions. The night-time knocking at doors could be a reminder of Eleanor’s mother’s death (she later admits she heard her mother knocking on her bedroom wall, but refused to go to her); the chalk message that appears on a wall — “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” — could be Eleanor’s need to make herself the long-denied centre of attention in this new circle of friends; the next message (in blood, on Theodora’s door) and the attack on Theodora’s clothes could be Eleanor’s unconscious aggression towards Theodora for suggesting Eleanor wrote that first message herself, as well as being a ploy to make Theo move into her own room, to own this new friend all the more.

Equally, these phenomena could be read as the intensely malignant, abominably wise Hill House manipulating Eleanor in the subtlest of ways. By naming Eleanor in that first message, it isolates her from the others, and starts to make her realise that the only true friend she has is the house itself. By attacking Theodora’s room and forcing Theo to wear Eleanor’s clothes, the house could be playing with Eleanor’s fragile sense of identity, making her seem less and less needed as she sees how Theo continues to shine, even in Nell’s drab clothes. Eleanor begins increasingly to haunt the others, listening unseen to their conversations, hungry to hear herself mentioned (which she never is). She’s halfway to being a ghost already.

That initial message — “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” — is itself wonderfully ambiguous. Is this a cry from Eleanor’s dead mother’s spirit, warning her away from Hill House, or is it a cry from the house itself, inviting Eleanor to become a fuller part of it? What does “COMING HOME” mean? Leaving Hill House, or being part of it forever?

Jackson’s characters — and Jackson herself — are part of a generation that would have grown up with the ideas of Freud, have become cynically used to questioning their own motives and reading their unconscious slips as the symptoms of a Freudian psyche, chock full of childhood anxieties, veiled narcissisms, hostilities and frustrations. The nonsensical, self-conscious fantasising of the main trio’s banter sounds simultaneously like an attempt to not admit how scared they are, while also acting as the perfect word-association-style carrier for letting out unconscious fantasies and frustrations, for fencing with one another and judging one another without having to admit that’s what they’re doing. In the end, it’s nothing but nonsensical babbling compared to the vast unknowability of un-sane Hill House.

At the book’s conclusion, two details from that superlative first paragraph magnify the horror, despite the ambiguity over whether it’s Eleanor’s troubled psyche playing out its most dangerous impulses, or Hill House as a real and active supernatural force.

The first is the idea that what drove Hill House “not sane” are “conditions of absolute reality”. What’s going on here is not contact with a removed and abstract netherworld, but something far more real than our everyday lives, too real to be faced. At one point, Dr Montague says: “I think we are only afraid of ourselves,” to which Luke says, “No… of seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise.” Is this, then, what happens to Eleanor? Hill House’s “masterpiece of architectural misdirection” so perfectly mirrors her own disordered psyche that it brings it out for her to see, in all its nasty, infantile purity? And, faced with this horrific but unavoidable self-judgement, she has only one course open to her.

Then there’s that phrase: “whatever walked there, walked alone.” It’s repeated at the end of the novel, and it seems to add a further twist to Eleanor’s inevitable fate. Because we know, by then, that Eleanor has come to feel that joining with Hill House might be joining with “HOME”, might be a kind of belonging, even if it is of a twisted kind. But that final phrase — “whatever walked there, walked alone” — implies that she never achieves any sort of belonging. Perhaps she dies completely, victim of a Hill House that continues to exist alone in its isolated malignancy; perhaps she finds herself a ghost in Hill House, but just as isolated as before; worse, perhaps even in the afterlife Hill House continues to play its psychological games with her, keeping her unbalanced, isolated, afraid; or perhaps it absorbs Eleanor into itself, overpowering what little precious individuality she once had.

Jackson’s novel — like Aickman’s “Strange Stories”, which belong to the same era — escaped the fate of early 20th century ghost stories by confronting and transcending the new psychoanalytical thinking about the darkness that lurks within. By doing so, Jackson regained, for the supernatural tale, the power to depict that inner darkness with so much more force than any mere technical jargon ever could. Freudian terminology, overused and “understood”, quickly ceases to capture the very powerful, and highly dramatic reality of what lurks within the depths of the human psyche. In The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson restores the ghost story’s power to terrify, overwhelm and overpower; she restores its ambiguity and deceptiveness, the way it can play with us and prove that, far from us “knowing” it, it in fact knows us — and all our weaknesses — which it can then proceed to prey on mercilessly.

Play for Today: Z for Zachariah

It’s been a while since I wrote about “things that frightened me as a kid”, but I thought I’d revive the practice for a Halloween mewsings. The Play for Today adaptation of Robert C O’Brien’s 1974 novel was broadcast on 28th February 1984 (and this was the last year for Play for Today, a strand of one-off dramas that had been broadcast by the BBC since 1970). I didn’t see it at the time, but was shown it, perhaps later in the same year, in an English class at school — meaning it also falls into the narrower category of “things that frightened me in the classroom”, which includes a forced watch of another 1984 teleplay, Threads (still the bleakest thing I’ve ever seen), and a far more pleasant classroom watch of the 1977 BBC adaptation of Dracula. (And I’ll also add to the list a story a supply teacher, Mrs Mud (or perhaps Mudd), told us at the end of one day in my penultimate year at primary school — probably making it up on the spot— called “The Ear”, about a man persecuted by a reanimated Van Gogh-style severed ear.)

This adaptation of Z for Zachariah moves the events of the novel from the USA to a remote valley in Wales, whose isolated weather system protects it when the rest of the world is destroyed and/or poisoned in a nuclear war. 15-year-old Ann Burden’s parents go off to check for survivors in the locality but never come back. Ann (Pippa Hinchley) soldiers on, keeping the farm as best she can, then one day sees a weird tent set up on the road that leads into the valley.

She retreats up the mountainside and watches as a man in a radiation suit (Anthony Andrews), lugging a survival kit on wheels behind him, enters the valley, tests the water, and, finding it radiation-free, disrobes and jumps into a stream. Ann, watching, realises his mistake — the man only tested one stream, which she knows to be clean, but didn’t test the other, the one he’s jumped into, in which she found dead fish. (One stream has its source in the valley, the other brings in water from outside.) The man soon falls sick with radiation poisoning, and Ann overcomes her fear to come down from the mountains and tend to him.

He describes the symptoms of his coming sickness to her:

“It goes through stages. First you have two or three days’ vomiting. Second stage, radiation causes intercellular ionisation. Molecules within the cells are destroyed. Cells can no longer grow or divide. Plus, you’ll be much sicker. With a high fever. Blood cells are damaged. They can no longer reproduce, resulting in anaemia. No resistance to germs or infection… Susceptible to… mild impurities in food and water, resulting in vomiting, and, more seriously, dysentery.”

He is John Loomis, an organic chemist who, before the bombs dropped, had been helping develop a form of magnetised plastic. The magnetism wards off radiation, hence his radiation-proof suit and tent, which allow him to survive in the post-holocaust world. In his fever, it soon becomes evident that his story of how he got the suit may be more complicated. There were two researchers — John, and a man called Edward, who was his senior on the project — but only one suit.

As he recovers from the sickness, John tries to instil in Ann a sense of the delicacy of their situation. This valley, he says, is now a colony, the one chance for the human race to survive. He gets her to think about the sort of crops they’re going to need — wheat for flour, beets for sugar. And, somewhat mockingly, he says of her regular visits to the valley chapel: “Next time you go to your church, pray for a bull calf.”

Things take a darker turn after Ann celebrates her sixteenth birthday. She wakes up one night to find John sitting on her bed, touching her. She escapes his assault, and the next day offers a truce, saying she’ll continue to help farm the valley, but she’ll be living elsewhere. John, though, starts to impose control, keeping the key to the tractor, padlocking the local shop they’ve been using for supplies and, finally, using Ann’s own dog to track her to her hiding place. The play ends with Ann taking John’s radiation suit and survival kit and leaving the valley to find other people, rather than continue to live with this dangerous man.

It’s a bleak story, feeling like one of the darker one-off episodes of Terry Nation’s Survivors from the previous decade. It’s hard not to watch this adaptation of Z for Zachariah and feel pretty little hope for mankind. John Loomis seems too little like an unbalanced individual, too much a representative of men in general, or scientists in general, or adults in general, casting them all as a bunch of control-hungry rapists and murderers.

Reviews of the teleplay over at IMDB rate it low in comparison to the book, certainly for its lack of moral shading (the book is written as Ann’s diary, and she can be read as an unreliable narrator, a possibility the TV adaptation doesn’t address), as well as the general coldness of the two main characters’ relationship. But I suspect it got the green light at the Beeb not because of its potential for moral complexity but for its basic message — one that was desperately hammered home throughout the 1980s, in a barrage of pop songs (“Two Tribes”, “99 Red Balloons”, many others), films and TV dramas (Threads being the main one, but the nuclear threat was omnipresent, and the standard threat in thrillers like Edge of Darkness and Defence of the Realm), documentaries (two major ones about nuclear war were shown the same week as Threads), and so on — that nuclear war is BAD, that it could be the END OF EVERYTHING, and, if it happens, it’s all MANKIND’S FAULT.

We can become fond of and familiar with most characters from supernatural horror. No one, I think, would be too shocked at seeing a kid dressed up as a vampire for Halloween. But I can’t imagine anyone ever being comfortable at seeing a kid dressed up in a radiation suit, with a clicking Geiger counter in their hand…

Play for Today: Z for Zachariah can be watched at Daily Motion. (It’s just under two hours long.)

The Birds

It starts with Mitch Brenner (played by Rod Taylor of George Pal’s The Time Machine) trying to buy a pair of love-birds for his kid sister. But, in a way, all the birds in Hitchcock’s 1963 film are love-birds. Most of them, though — the un-caged ones — are furies of the repressed, denied, and frustrated forces of love. On the one hand, The Birds is a horror film about the possible end of the human race in a war with a hundred billion birds; on the other, it’s about a mother and her new potential daughter-in-law learning to relate to one another. Seen in this way, it’s even got a happy ending.

When Mitch goes to the pet-store to buy his kid sister a pair of precisely modulated love-birds (“I wouldn’t want a pair of birds that were too demonstrative… At the same time, I wouldn’t want them to be too aloof…”), the only thing that catches his eye is Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a bird of a slightly wilder variety. (She has a gossip-column reputation involving an incident in a fountain in Rome, where she was enjoying La Dolce Vita.) The two engage in a poker-faced battle of wits, ending with Melanie, determined to get the upper hand, buying the love-birds herself and delivering them by hand to Mitch’s city apartment. But Mitch has a carefully compartmentalised private life: he spends his bachelor weeks in San Francisco, and his weekends at Bodega Bay, where he lives with his mother and sister. This particular bird has flown, so Melanie sets out after him.

At the bay, the bird attacks come at emotionally significant moments. The first occurs after Melanie has boated across the bay to sneak the love-birds into the Brenner family home. Heading back, she sees Mitch find the birds and run out of the house. She lets herself be seen, and the two adopt the sort of expressions you’d expect from a duelling early-stage couple in a screwball-comedy, each trying loftily to pretend they’re not that interested in the other. Then the first of our furies swoops down to gouge into Melanie’s perfectly-coiffured head.

The next incident — not an attack, but significant all the same — comes when Melanie has taken a room for the night with local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth. Annie is a previous pretender to the title of Mrs Mitch, and knows what stands in the way: Mitch’s widowed mother, Lydia, who’s terrified of being left alone because she let her now-dead husband do all the emotional-warmth side of things, and now finds she has nothing but criticism and disapproval to keep the family together. Just then, there’s a knock at the door, and as both women are thinking of Mitch, they perhaps hope it might be him. But no, it’s a bird. It’s just killed itself slamming into Annie’s front-door.

The third attack is at a kids’ party. Mitch’s little sister Cathy (played by Veronica Cartwright, who’d survive all these killer birds only to fall prey to a xenomorph in Alien) and her friends are playing in the garden while Mitch and Melanie go off a little way to have their first unguarded conversation (in a scene written entirely by Hitchcock himself). Here, we learn that Melanie’s mother abandoned her when she was young, leaving her scornful of the very idea of mother-love. Which makes it doubly difficult if she’s going to try to fit into Mitch’s family: Melanie is a woman who does not want a new mother; Lydia, apparently incapable of love, does not want a new daughter; but both want Mitch, so who’s going to give way? The couple return to the party and, charged as they are with this stirring-up of old, difficult emotions, induce a bird attack. The birds swoop down on the kids, as though to underline the point that all of the coming violence and trauma is rooted in childhood vulnerabilities.

Mitch tries to convince Melanie to stay in Bodega Bay, and Lydia does her best, within civilised bounds, to encourage her to leave. A swarm of sparrows burst in through the fireplace (the hearth being the heart of the home), and wreck the living room. It’s like a poltergeist visitation — pent-up, unconscious forces lashing out with no control. The next day, Lydia goes to see a neighbour to discuss the fact that neither of their chickens are eating. She finds him dead, with his eyes pecked out. It’s a (literally) pointed reminder about her dead husband, and all the reasons she has to fear Melanie’s influence on her family.

Now the attacks become more frenzied and destructive, as though the forces let loose by Melanie’s arrival in Bodega Bay — the warring unconscious wraths of Melanie and Lydia — have given up trying to be specific and personal and are now just going to flail about, smashing everything in sight. Cars blow up, men catch fire, horses run wild, everybody’s screaming. A mother at the café skewers Melanie in an outburst that only makes sense if you think of her as somehow being possessed by Lydia’s dark half, giving vent to what that ultra-controlled, over-cool woman really wants to say to her new potential daughter-in-law:

“Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said that when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil! Evil!”

By now Melanie’s only rival Annie is dead and everyone’s in retreat. Holed up at the Brenner house, Melanie has that peculiar horror film urge to go upstairs, alone, to investigate the noises coming from a room (a child’s room?), whereupon she finds herself locked inside it with a tempest of birds, lashed and scratched and screeched at till she’s almost catatonic.

And it’s at this point, finally, that the new family starts to gel. As they leave the house and get into the car, Melanie squeezes Lydia’s wrist and Lydia responds with a smile. It’s only when they’ve both been terrorised to the point of trauma, and the house has been wrecked, that the two women can, at last, begin to relate to one another. Melanie, babyish with speechlessness, has gained a mother, and Lydia, forced to flee her wrecked and violated home, has found the ability to show this new daughter a hint of affection.

From one point of view, the world is on the verge of an apocalyptic war between birds and humans. From another, what we’re seeing is the Brenner family’s true inner landscape revealed — a world filled with small but fierce, barely quiescent furies of thwarted and frustrated love, which everyone must tiptoe around, like so many sharp-beaked family secrets. Cathy brings along the love-birds, and perhaps we can now understand Mitch’s wish to give his kid sister an example of love in its not-too-demonstrative, not-too-aloof form: just look at what repression, possessiveness and jealousy does to the place.

(Mrs Bundy, ornithologist:) “Birds are not aggressive creatures, miss. They bring beauty into the world. It is mankind—”
(Waitress, in the background:) “Sam—three southern-fried chicken!”
“—It is mankind, rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist on this planet.”

The Doll Who Ate His Mother by Ramsey Campbell

The Doll Who Ate His Mother, Millington Books HB, 1977

Driving her brother Rob home one night, Clare Frayn is forced to swerve into a lamppost when a man suddenly appears in the road in front of her. The accident severs Rob’s arm, killing him, but when the emergency services arrive, they can’t find either the man who caused the accident or Rob’s arm… A few months later, Clare is contacted by Edmund Hall, author of such non-fiction crime books as Secrets of the Psychopaths, The Homicidal Heart, Love Has Many Weapons and Sinister Sirens. He believes the man who caused the accident and made off with Rob’s arm is a local boy he knew from school, Christopher Kelly, whom he once saw bite into a bully’s arm and refuse to let go, and whom he believes responsible for another local crime, in which a man entered an old woman’s house and ate her dog, causing her to die from a heart-attack. Hall recruits Clare and two other people who’ve suffered from Kelly’s crimes to hunt down this monster and bring him to justice.

I think the deliberately lurid title of Ramsey Campbell’s first novel (published in 1976 in the US, 1977 in the UK), is a sort of goad, a backhanded hint that you should look beyond the obviously sensationalistic aspects of the story. This being Campbell, the characters are drawn with too much subtlety to fit neatly into the usual horror categories of victims, heroes, and, even, monsters. And although Kelly does some undeniably monstrous things, this is not, ultimately, a book about how a human being can be a monster. It’s about the very human means by which monsters are not only made, but kept monstrous.

The ultimate source for the evil that’s in Christopher Kelly is the influence of John Strong, a man who believed that:

‘Sometimes, in its evolution, the Universe bears a mind that will grasp and wield its unity; such a mind is mine.’

Bobbs-Merrill, US HB, 1976

Strong had the ability to exert his will over others, and used it to control and degrade anyone who came under his influence. When Kelly’s mother, Cissy, went to him thinking his ‘black magic’ could terminate her unwanted pregnancy, he instead forced her to keep the child and dedicate it to him. Strong, though, is not a character we get to know in Doll except through a pamphlet he wrote (called Glimpses of Absolute Power) and the devastating effect he’s left in his wake. We cannot know the how or the why of him. (‘Of my birth I shall say nothing,’ he writes in his pamphlet.) He represents a perhaps necessary blank wall as far as tracing the ultimate origins of Christopher Kelly’s evil are concerned. All we know about him is that he is the cause of life-ruining degradation and powerlessness in others.

What matters more is how that degradation and powerlessness are sustained by less supernaturally-endowed hands. Mrs Kelly — Cissy’s mother, and the one who raises the boy Christopher — doesn’t have any special powers, but she’s just as controlling, repressive and degrading as John Strong, only she does it in the name of God. Justifying the control she exerted over her daughter, she says:

‘All we asked was that she was home by nine every night, and told us everything she’d done during the day. And what she was going to do the next day.’

And this is when her daughter was a young woman, going out daily to work. Her rejection of the pregnant Cissy is what drives this young woman into John Strong’s hands, and even before Christopher is born, Mrs Kelly has decided what he is:

‘The Devil had made him clever — pretending to be a little boy, waiting for the chance to be a monster.’

John Strong made dolls by which he magically controlled human beings; the likes of Mrs Kelly, by prejudging and repressing at every stage, do their best to make people into less-than-human dolls.

1978 cover, image from Too Much Horror Fiction

The family of George Pugh (whose mother was the old lady who died when she found Kelly gnawing at her dog), though by no means perfect, is the opposite of Mrs Kelly’s approach. The Pugh household allows for both religion (mother Alice Pugh saying grace before dinner) and scepticism (‘George bowed his head, but Clare could see it was a token gesture’) without any conflict, and is obviously nurturing of both its two children, and their pets. George, it turns out, was raised on Shakespeare (‘Everything is in Shakespeare. He makes you feel things as if you’ve never felt them before’), and his parents’ sacrifices were not made in the name of an Old Testament deity, but for the running of a chain of local cinemas. It’s Alice Pugh who, at the end, offers Kelly his chance to rejoin the human race, by convincing him to accept responsibility for what he’s done and hand himself in to the police. But then Edmund Hall, who has consistently made crude, instant judgements about everyone he meets, and who has already made up his mind that Kelly is a monster and must meet a monster’s end, comes blundering along and ruins things.

Bracketing the central horror/tragedy is the subtler and more human tale of Clare, whose self-judgements (having once been told she has ‘stumpy legs’, she’s self-conscious about her every movement) show us a normal human being making herself a little bit monstrous, a little bit unacceptable, in the way so many normal human beings do, while herself being completely understanding of others. She wasn’t raised by anyone as toxic at Mrs Kelly, but we learn that her brother Rob thought their ‘Father and Mother put down everything I was…’, and that this may have made him a little monstrous, too, in the way he makes himself into something he’s not (he fronted an outspoken ‘Working Class Hero Show’ on Radio Merseyside, despite not really being working class, and Clare thinks this made him ‘aggressive, dogmatic, secretly unsure’). We never learn what effect her upbringing might have had on Clare, only that, at the end of all the horror, she finds herself weeping.

‘What is it, Clare?’ Dorothy said.
‘Oh, everything,’ she said indistinctly. ‘It goes back so far.’

And her ‘everything’ can be no way near as horrifying or lurid as Christopher Kelly’s ‘everything’, but it’s still her ‘everything’, which she has to deal with, something that requires, in a humanity-starved, sensation-hungry world, a little extra understanding, a breaking down of judgement and self-judgement, so she can, in her own small way, start to heal.

It’s only, I think, by allowing itself to look beyond its own sensational elements that horror can go full circle into catharsis or healing like this, and its rare to find books in the genre that really try. Particularly rare to find one with a title like The Doll Who Ate His Mother.