In The Sprawl Of The Outer City The Stench Became Narcotic (China Miéville, ‘Looking For Jake and Other Stories)

china mievilleIn China Miéville’s London there are shadows, and there are shadows. There are the shadows thrown by what we see and what we assume, and what we’re familiar with enough to no longer notice. The long stretch of non-sunlight cast from St Paul’s, or the huddled shadows formed between huddled smokers outside Caledonian Road tube. There’s the shadow alertly following a conspicuous figure, face obscured, hurrying down an alleyway off Oxford Street with a bag, and there’s the shadow from a double decker spilling over the side of Lambeth Bridge and plunging momentarily into the Thames.

And then there are the shadows cast by other things. The unreliable, unidentifiable things that become corporeal only fleetingly but long enough to make an impression – long enough to cast a shadow. Creatures, traumatic events; rupturing from beneath or between the asphalt, concrete and glass. New flesh and bone and other – less recognisable – forms of matter shift forward, casting a shadow where no shadow should rightly be cast. And what if it’s the asphalt or glass itself that’s come awake? Or what if there’s a new corner at the end of the road, one we’ve never noticed before? Within the things casting these shadows comes a sense of destabilization, as if we can no longer trust the light which must have cast them. As if what London actually is can’t be understood anymore, or at the very worst can’t be trusted.

Miéville ushers us down these newly-shadowed streets, overlayed meticulously onto familiar ones, but with no clear direction of how to get back once we’ve seen what we see on them. A self-confessed exponent of the Weird, Miéville’s stylistic roots lie with William Hope Hodson as much as H. P. Lovecraft, and as much with Jules Verne as Ursula Le Guin. As well as heavy-on-the-tenticular complexity of the fantastic or horrifying, Miéville’s socialist politics – intellectual light years away from the elitist xenophobia of Lovecraft – often influence his fictions, giving them an ecologically aware intelligence, without every becoming preachy.

With a new collection of short stories due in June this year, this would be an apt time to walk once again down the streets of Miéville’s first collection of shorter fiction, Looking For Jake and Other Stories (2005). Written between 1998 and 2005, these stories are an excellent introduction to Miéville’s worlds. They also provide comprehensive keyhole demonstrations a writer flexing ideas. Here’s five of the best from the collection:


Perhaps the most ‘straightforward’ tale in the collection, The Ball Room (written in 2005, and co-written with Emma Bircham and Max Schaefer) is almost a traditional English ghost story on the surface. And yet, absent are the travelling academic, the haunted lodgings, or the vengeful spirit of the repressed; instead the story is populated by job-weary consumers paying their weekend pilgrimage to an Ikea-esque furniture warehouse, where a perpetually busy childrens’ play area offers the pine wardrobe-seeking parents a few minutes of respite. But by night, and from time to time, there exists another, shrouded aspect to the warehouse. Told through the narrative of the store security guard,  The Ball Room is a chilling experiment in summoning the ghostly out of that most sanitized, public, and consumer-lead situation; Saturday afternoon furniture shopping.

“Not even my memories are left”

Playing upon the limits of visual conception, Details (2002) is the story of Mrs Miller, an old woman who has chosen to stay within her apartment indefinitely due to what she believes is ‘hunting’ her outside the plain confines of her walls. Never quite revealing whether Mrs Miller is a victim of an all-consuming agoraphobic stupour, or if she really is being pursued by some infinitely ancient presence which lives within a “million million little edges, a million little lines” of everything – from the uniformity of brick walls, to the definite but sporadic edges of broccoli or spaghetti –  Details is a disturbing, displacing tale, addressing the fight for survival against attackers seen (like the aggressive, alcohol-fuelled men who haunt the hallways beyond her front door) and unseen.

“They have not yet had blood”

Echoing the reported epistolary descent into madness of gothic texts like Le Fanu’s Le Horla, the narrator of Different Skies (1999) is an elderly academic who finds himself inexplicably ushered into the realms of the fantastic. After purchasing a vibrant piece of red stained glass to replace a cracked plain window in his study, the man soon believes the red window to actually be a port-hole to another place, accessible and visible only through the glass. When the old man begins to interact with the others he perceives beyond the red pane, he becomes engaged in a battle of wits spanning unknown geographical regions, and also the perceived limits of his own cognitive reliability.

“He supposed he had helped bring in a better world”

Continuing the theme of paranoia and the disintegration of one’s own grasp of contemporary life, Go Between follows the steps taken by Morley; a man who believes he is receiving instructions regarding the placement and positioning of packages of random items sent to him by persons unknown. The small, inconsequential-ness of Morley’s life seems to become intrinsically linked to what he sees on the news. He begins to wonder if his silent compliance with his invisible masters is resulting in the famines, wars and other significant world events constantly fired at him by news channels in a barrage of up-to-date abstract reporting. Then one day he chooses to not follow his instructions…

“Brittle fingertips, made of dog’s teeth”

Probably the best story of the collection (that’s it we’re not counting the astonishingly good Reports of Certain Events in London once again), Familiar (2002) is an up-to-date realisation of the traditions of witchcraft, and a perfect example of Miéville’s capacity for transplanting the supernatural and ancient into the modern world, and seeing what happens. A witch abandons their supposedly failed attempt at acquiring a familiar. The resultant organism – a vermicular, shapeless combination of the witch’s own flesh and effluence – is discarded into the Grand Union canal. There the familiar, rather than dying, does only what it can do: it learns how things work, it absorbs them. It grows. Along with the familiar’s meticulous acclimatization to its ever-less strange surroundings, Miéville’s use of description is engrossingly anatomical:

“When the familiar emerged from the water with the dawn, it was poured into a milk-bottle carapace. Its clutch of eyes poked from the bottleneck. It nibbled with a nail clipper. With precise little bullets of stone it had punctured holes in its glass sides, from which legs of waterlogged twig-wood and broken pens emerged. To stop it sinking into wet earth its feet were coins and flat stones. They looked insecurely attached. The familiar dragged the brown sack that had contained it. Though it had not found a use for it, and though it had no words for the emotion, it felt something like sentiment for the hessian.”

Familiar is a perfect example of Miéville’s ability to make horror and astonishment out of not only the ordinary, but the discarded and ordinary. The titular familiar of this tale collects objects – collects London – as Miéville himself does; shaping it for his own needs, learning contexts and using them, making spectacular use of the otherwise arbitrary. And the result is a new object casting a new shadow, and once we’ve witnessed it, the light behind it will never seem the same again.

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Definitely A New Century (Steven Soderbergh’s ‘The Knick’)

Thack and EdwardsThe deepest incision made in The Knick, Steven Soderbergh’s debut expedition into television drama, is into the social. The world in which the Knickerbocker hospital exists is consumed by fin-de-siècle desperation; a simultaneous brushing-under-the-carpet of the barbarism of the near-past and an overstretching desire for a future which people promise themselves will come. Although authentic in its representation of the frantic, blood-stained nature of late 19th/very early 20th century hospital surgery (and its equally somatic portrayal of half-baked civility and fatuous prejudice), The Knick carries more than fleeting moments of anachronistic illogic. But rather than offering pray for defenders of realism to shoot down with one sweep of a Wikipedia fact check, these moments instead expose the true purpose of the characters who populate the Knickerbocker. It’s a world where if something doesn’t carry transactional value, it has to be a dream.

There is a serene innocence to the faith these characters have in the future. Between the masculine clashes of ego amongst the hospital’s elite band of surgeons, each figure still believes that every incision they make is undoubtedly a cut closer to knowledge, to scientific understanding, and ultimately, to something resembling salvation. This is an era where many great aesculapian advances have been achieved; where more lives are saved and recovery is swifter than before. It’s the era of industrial and electronic trailblazing, where the neutral functionality of technology alleviates the trembling, human hands of the surgeon for the first time.

Thack surgery handsIt’s easy to see why the great mechanised advances around the turn of the 20th century were deemed marvelous. Of course they were. It’s enough ‘marvelous’ to get addicted to. But with any addiction, next comes the desire for more. So, as a result, the characters in The Knick get addicted to something else, and it’s the future.

But the future dreamed of here is a calculated, obtainable one – contrary to today, where our relatively recent past (two world wars, international economic recessions, massive re-divisions of lands and nations, exponential growth in global population) and the insecurities such events represent make the future seem as least daunting and at worst incomprehensible. Terms like ‘economic recovery’, ‘postwar’, and ‘counter-terrorism’ are used as much in daily conversation as they are in the media. One of the things such adopted slogans signify is hauntology; today’s present is preoccupied with and vastly manoeuvred by events of the recent past, and there is a chance such fixations could never be overcome.

The hauntological within The Knick represents something different; the future-past tension presiding over the anticipation of the arrival of the 20th century. Although the industrial revolution has given the world the hitherto unheard-of efficiency of electricity and mechanisation, society itself has yet to psychologically catch-up with the functionality of industry. The characters are quite simply out of joint with technology, in a distinctly Kubrick’s 2001-esque manner. It is within such divergence that the hauntological dwells.

Dr Algernon Edwards testing a vacuum cleanerTechnology, especially when it is introduced for the first time (such as Thomas Edison’s electrical telecommunications, and the first commercial x-ray machines) is often novel, impressive and sold as fun. There is no dread that such advancement may be appropriated by the military and perhaps turned against the people. The mechanised snorts and creaks of Dr. Algernon Edwards’ automatic blood vacuum do not yet resemble the efficient mass murder of mechanised artillery, but rather sound like something wondrous and intriguing, as they might do to a child.

This is another aspect of the marvel of the future, as ‘predicted’ in The Knick. Technology is alchemy, and, as envisioned by Philip Sandifer; alchemy as material social progress. The tech these surgeons find themselves freshly orienting is not only aiding medical science; it is also harnessing the collective future-dream, and therefore is uniting individuals from usually disparate and segregated social stratas.

But in the psychological struggles which have yet to be ‘cured’ by the future exists a hauntological paralysis. For the show’s principal character, Dr. John Thackery (Thack), much of his professional drive succumbs to the hauntological. Although a visionary and a medical genius in his own right, Thack finds himself involuntarily transported back to when his mentor, Dr. J. M. Christiansen, was still alive, before committing suicide after one failed placenta praevia operation too many. In his private searching for guidance from the past, Thack experiences the Freudian hauntological (the voice of the dead father.) Such revisitations treat the past like a manual; a point of reference, but more importantly a basis to work from and improve, yet with little evidence that improvement will stem from there.

Dr. Everett Gallinger, Eleanor Gallinger and baby GraceThis paralysis is also embodied in the struggle between professionalism and regret. In a particularly gothic narrative arc, Dr. Everett Gallinger and his wife, Eleanor, lose their baby daughter to meningitis after Everett accidentally passes it on to her via his unwashed hands. The domestic life of the Gallingers is destroyed by grief and regret, and Eleanor free-falls into mental illness. In a period obsessed with medical and surgical advancement, professional psychological treatment is portrayed as profoundly behind the times. Eleanor’s state goes untreated and she is inevitably sectioned. Soon after, she has all her teeth removed for “reasons of hygiene”. (The doctor who performs the procedure even admits to recently removing his own childrens’ teeth in the belief in the benefits such butchery offers.)

The inhumanity and crudity of Eleanor’s treatment not only highlights the supposed ‘progress’ which surgical procedures have experienced by contrast, but also exposes the deliberate anachronistic nature of the show. In a drama where surgery is the primary focus, it is logical to portray mental healthcare as ill-researched and archaic by comparison. It makes dramaturgical sense to show the exhausted surgeons, resting with blood-caked hands – even though surgical rubber gloves had been in use almost twenty years before 1900. Their hands are bloody from fighting for the future, after all. Another anachronism is the notion of a black surgeon professionally employed by 1900 – the first black surgeon to be employed in an American hospital was in 1920.

Herman Barrow and Tom ClearyIf The Knick must, must, have some kind of temporal anchoring, then it’s most likely around 1880/85. This would make sense given the time scale of technological and societal advancements achieved within the show. But it’s all academic, really. This is, after all, a future dreamed by blood-stained protagonists. The exhaustion caused by the insufficient situation of the present and the near-past – everything from the staggering mortality rate after failed surgical procedures, to the gruesome transactional value of human corpses – is enough to encourage a mass future-dream; a vision, born of starvation, of hope and resolution.

As stated in the first paragraph, in The Knick, if something doesn’t have transactional value, it has to be a dream. Everything from the debased fawning that Herman Barrow (manager of the Knick) has to perform for Captain August Robertson (one of the hospital’s wealthy benefactors), to the dealing Dr. Edwards has to go into with Thack in order to gain explicit professional acknowledgement, to the manner in which Nurse Lucy Elkins conspires to enable Thack’s cocaine addiction, and to ambulance driver Tom Cleary’s auditing of Sister Harriet’s clandestine second life as an abortionist – every relationship is transactional on some level.

In its purest form, the intrinsically transactional nature of society in The Knick is perfectly embodied by the pharmaceutical rep who represents that most explicit, most contemporary, form of business: peddling medicine. He approaches Thack in order to pitch the idea of the good doctor’s face emblazoned on a bottle of medical potion (the contents of which do very little medically or otherwise). Thack initially vehemently rejects such unethical money-spinning, but later returns to the rep when he needs money for cocaine.

Nurse Lucy Elkins and Dr John Thackery

In one particular moment of societal vision (albeit steeped in self-aggrandizing), Thack exclaims “We have learned more about the human body in the last five years than was learned in the previous five hundred years.” The pace of change at the turn of the 20th century, and the uncontrollable manner by which the future hunts down the present is evident in Thack’s embrace of things to come. He’s a pioneer. He’s also, by the end of the show, that most contemporary of drug addict (which tells us much more about how professionals deal with their hauntings more than any surgical advancement ever will.)

Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick is a looking-glass reflection of our modern hauntologies. In a modern world where capitalism – and its most prevalent consequence, consumerism, where everybody (everybody) plays their part – has rendered the future indigestible, the transactional nature of the previous century or more seems so much more explicit and quantifiable: cash for bodies, and favours for dreams. We are immediately haunted by the things we do now. Back then, events were undertaken with bloodied hands exposed under harsh lights, and watched from an arena of approving peers. Today, no such transparency exists and, with the subtraction of the truth comes the subtraction of understanding our progress through time. The state of modern society is enough to force anyone to some kind of acceptance; if this isn’t a dream then it has to be the future.

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He Knew The Pain Would Come Later (Nathan Ballingrud, ‘North American Lake Monsters’)

north american lake monstersThere is a moment at the end of the eponymous story in Ballingrud’s collection where our principal character, Grady, returns to the implacable corpse-thing he and his daughter discovered the day before on the lake shore. Previously, the dead thing resembled “a huge, suppurated heart”; very much not-alive but identifiable as once having organic life. When Grady observes it a second time, he sees now that “Life [is] abound here: small chitinous animals hurried busily to and fro, conducting their miserable business in tunnels and passageways in the body”. Where the alien corpse may once have occupied some iteration of life, it now instead provides the basis for another. This reassessment of uses of the monstrous and fantastic is key to Ballingrud’s collection of nine weird/horror/supernatural tales, where, along with the varying degrees of human tragedy, loss and disappointment already haunting the lives of the protagonists, into narratives are ushered ‘abnormal’ phenomena. And with these strange arrivals, an unexpected time for reflection and attempts at redemption.

As well as comparisons with Lovecraft, Ballingrud’s stories have been compared with the ‘dirty realism’ of Raymond Carver. Whilst some aspects of the characters’ lives might echo Carver at times (fractured family units; ineptitude of the struggling modern male figure; alcoholism; humble yet futureless small town America), Ballingrud instead abandons the ambiguity and privacy of Carver. If it’s possible to make the ambiguous and utterly alien transform into unambiguous and familiar there on the page, Ballingrud seems to achieve it in North American Lake Monsters.

There are holes in the lives of this collection’s populace. Chasms. Gravity-defying rifts. Into these holes are suddenly found the unimaginable, and more importantly, the unexpected. The phenomena that fill these gaps allow the characters to take a closer look, to disentangle something for the first time since their lives became such a mess.

In The Monsters of Heaven, Brian and Amy’s life has been torn to shreds by the death of their young son. They live and grieve in notably Carver-esque domesticity (“a pre-fab bungalow with an American flag out front and a two-door hatchback in the driveway”), and Amy is having an unhidden affair. The couples’ failing ability to comfort one another is interrupted by the arrival of “angels”, as reported on national news. These sickly, brittle creatures are presented as essentially harmless, but are nonetheless attacked and often killed by people who fear the unknown. Brian, lead by grief, brings an injured one home in a delirious attempt to help heal his marriage. The result is a strange sexual odyssey, where a return to physical marital love is equated to discovering the benefits of, well, bringing an alien into your home. But, for Brian and Amy, it works in a most unexpected way.

In Sunbleached, Joshua, a young boy, discovers a vampire under the crawlspace of the family home. (Vampires, unlike most other phenomena in these stories, already exist in the world, clearly. This is an intelligent take on Ballingrud’s one specific genre story; there are enough vampire stories out there, so they might as well be as real as anything else.) Joshua listens to the philosophical musings of the vampire – a creature who experiences so much hostility from the natural world that philosophy seems to be the only thing it they share with humanity. The vampire occupies the hole in the family life made by the absent father, and it is intending to get in through just such a hole.

Unlike the strange redemption through the angel in The Monsters of Heaven, Sunbleached addresses the infection of grief and how it is possible to completely lose an entire family to despair. The vampire embodies another theme in the collection; that of visitation.

The arrival of someone (or something) into a life, which changes everything, is also addressed in You Go Where It Takes You; into the uneventful life of waitress Toni walks Alex, an off-shore oil rig worker. From the boot of his car, Alex presents Toni with a “tanned and cured hide of a human being”. He tells her that “They’re so you can be somebody else.” After this visitation, Toni enters a new life, on the road, abandoning all that she was previously part of. Although Toni’s decision means she is utterly abandoning her old life, including her own child, there is something redemptive in her actions. There are no half measures after seeing what she has seen, and taking things from there is the only way forward. In You Go Where It Takes You, what at first is the macabre image of the human skin-suit, in the next glance becomes the doorway to another life (if not simply another existence.) The story ends with Toni herself becoming the visitation into another world.

Unlike the stumbled-upon and mortally-feared monstrous perpetually littering Lovecraft, the stories in North American Lake Monsters gives its phenomena a new dimension. The way the creatures in these stories occupy a liminal internal-external space (whether external, as in outside the relative safety of the home, or internal after having been brought in). The private and the public become merged together. Each character in Ballingrud’s collection already has their own private (internal) demons, but the phenomena infiltrating these narratives break down the walls between the outside and in, making the reader watch a character’s initial repulsion, but eventual transition into the realm of the monstrous. Given the clear entrapment of these characters’ lives, it is understandable to sympathise that redemption might well lie with the unknown.

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Of Clerking And Of Slaughtering (Alasdair Gray, ‘Lanark’)

lanarkNicola Sturgeon wants Scottish legislation by Scottish MPs. A rightful request, given the political fissure caused by the not-inconsiderably close result in the 2014 independence referendum. Given the iron-clad confidence of the SNP’s political swaggering since, you might be mistaken for thinking they had actually won the thing. The referendum had an astonishing 85% voter turn-out; a gigantic number which any of the three major parties can now only dream about. The SNP, along with Plaid Cymru in Wales, are demanding more devolution; take the power from the talons of London, putting a stop to the abstracted machinations of the self-serving Westminster villains. In Scotland at least, voter apathy has been overturned in a clear message of tiredness and a long-held desire for change finally looking like it might actually get somewhere, come May 7th.

Alasdair Gray has not only long been a vocal champion of Scottish independence, but a conduit for what an independent Scotland has the potential to be. In his fiction, Gray lays not only the foundations for some Scotland ideal, but lays it out in the most labyrinthine and multi-dimensional ways tolerable. “To the Scottish”, as Will Self points out, “Gray is at least imaginable, whereas to the English he is barely conceivable. A creative polymath with an integrated politico-philosophic vision is not something to be sought in the native land of the hypocrite.” His monstrous 1981 masterpiece, Lanark, is both literary landmark (Scottish or otherwise) and resembles a kind of sociopolitical treatise (Scottish specifically.)

Read via four non-linear books, Lanark‘s primary narrative tells the story of ‘Lanark’, a young man who finds himself arriving by train at the permanently-noctural town of Unthank, where people his age suffer from existential maladies, and where others suffer from “dragonhide”; a creeping skin condition which, if untreated, eventually leaves the afflicted completely immobile beneath a scaly, armour-like epidermis. A second narrative is the bildungsroman of Thaw, a man born in impoverished Glasgow in the shadow of WWII, who finds himself increasingly struggling with the complexities of love and interaction with others, as he gets closer to achieving his lifelong purpose of becoming an artist. The madness of both concerns eventually lead him to destruction.

Although Lanark as a complete text could be considered low fantasy, Thaw’s narrative, from a world-building perspective, is the more ‘realistic’ of the two. This is significant, given the way that the bildungsroman is usually closely associated with fantasy, especially the fairy tale. Thaw’s complex fixations with women, sex and identity – which lead him to make the same mistakes and repeat unrewarding actions again and again – are excruciating, but also relatable. And although it ultimately takes his entire lifetime for him to realise what kind of artist he must be, Thaw’s relationships with those around him remain at best tense, at worst destructive.


William Blake, Book of Urizen, Copy D, pl.22 (1794)

Contrary to Self’s claim that nobody like Gray might be found within England’s creatives, comparisons with William Blake cry out for recognition. In Thaw’s narrative, for example, although it’s possible to empathise with him (if only with his incapacitation around those he fancies), his characterisation as an artist immersed within the impracticalities of the spiritual and the determination of his craft is alien to most ‘artists’. Like Blake, Gray wields such determination of vision that he doesn’t leave space to worry about his audience. He can’t do; as it is for Thaw, it all just has to come out. Blake’s significant conclusions regarding the ‘contending forces’ permanently haunting the individual (namely, the artist) looking out into the world – the conflicts of the ‘creative’ and the ‘egocentric’ – drive everything of the spiritual within his output. This inner-struggle and the desire to harness a pureness of artistic message, free from the cosmetic piety and politics of the ego, began at one end of the Industrial Revolution with Blake, and is echoed at what could be considered the conclusion of that same period with Gray.

Thaw’s formative years (beyond the family unit) occur in the 1960s; a time of vast social and economic change in Britain, with the financial struggles of urban Glasgow exemplifying these shifts. Thaw matures within a fluid strata of influential art school tutors and classmates, and for a time even has a solid group of friends. When other students embrace the reactionary appeal of radicalised student politics, Thaw is drawn to the isolationism of becoming an ‘artist’ – but what kind of artist takes him a lifetime to realise.

Like Blake 150 years before him, Thaw, once he gets going, dedicates his mind, body and spirit to harnessing his calling and ever-refining his technique. He is commissioned to paint a gigantic mural in a suburban church, and such is Thaw’s dedication to the project that he gradually transforms into a bearded, paint-spattered nightgown-wearing recluse; his paints, brushes and rented scaffolding becoming as much a part of the church as the altar or the congregation. Thaw’s intermittent preoccupations with love and partnership are suppressed by his desire to, never so much complete the mural, but just do it. He believes it offers him absolute spiritual purpose. Thaw, as Blake before him, puts God into the mural, either explicitly as a figure hiding within the myriad flora and fauna, or through the sheer majestic religiosity of the whole enterprise. It is only when he is initially politely, but then more forcefully, advised to complete, alter (read ‘censor’) or abandon the increasingly complex mural that Thaw becomes attacked. (The reality of abject poverty is another obvious factor as well.) What Lanark shares with Blake’s own experiences then is less a mutual misunderstanding and intolerance of society at large, but rather something more prevalent and insidious; parochialism at its most manipulative and destructive. It’s the parochial interference of the Church which causes Thaw the most amount of disruption whilst attempting to complete his masterwork, and parochialism which eventually causes him to abandon the project.

Although Blake died before experiencing anywhere near the recognition he now holds, he also was a victim of the parochialism of tradition (Blake’s pioneering methods of print and painting took time to catch on), and a fashionable non-spiritualism he saw stemming from industrial modernity. Thaw, on the other hand, has the weight of the twentieth century bearing-down on him; the existential quandaries of two mechanised world wars, several waves of financial recession, and the squeezing of Arts funding nationally. In short, social responsibility, and the rigid parochial attitudes of the Church and other institutions attempting to put pressure on his artistic endeavours, are what eventually crush him.

Today, Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP vocally positions itself to the left of what it was under Alex Salmond. Salmond, although achieving a great deal during his time in office (it was his referendum, after all), was also firmly in the pockets of captains of right-wing capitalism, such as Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump. (Salmond’s fawning to Trump’s kitsch vision of an exclusive golf resort along the Aberdeenshire coast being the most cosmetically nauseating embodiment of the SNP leader’s whoring.) Now, the SNP clearly wants to be seen as stepping away from such a taste for the foreign dollar, focussing instead toward Scottish means of financial independence from London and Brussells.

One way in which it might be achieved is with the SNP identifying its own nationalism; that is, civic nationalism, rather than the dubiously veiled racism of nativist nationalism (see UKIP. If you must.) Devolution would obviously mean smaller governing bodies, from towns to counties, etc, having the final word on their own spending and infrastructure. In Lanark, it is the influence of the abstracted, never quite present, overriding government who are inactive to the ever-growing insanitary conditions, which leads to chaos. The domestic and social degradation of Unthank and other neglected provinces – the filth of the people outside of the governing body – does not concern the governing body; it is acknowledged but never actually witnessed or addressed.

At first, Lanark attempts to the aid of an increasing number of dragonhide victims. In the Kafka-esque beaurocratic tunnels of “the Institute”, Lanark attempts to help cure the disease, recognising the insightful value of reading and self-recognition with the patients. But eventually Lanark realises he must take the fight further; that the loss of identity and the destitution of the people of Unthank must be challenged from a political standpoint also.

In the final book, Lanark contends with the dual struggles of family and politics; unlike Thaw, who suffered a famine of emotional or romantic narrative, Lanark becomes a father with Rima, one of the group of young people who befriended him when he first arrived. Lanark, like Scotland under the frustrations and control of a Westminster government, is at the mercy of his own history (the supposed one consisting of his ‘alternate history’ as Thaw; a history borne from legend and possible fiction), as well as his newly created future in the form of his child. What world can he shape for his child to grow up in? It’s a question posed by those who encourage him to stand politically, even though self-doubt and a lack of direct political experience fill him with fear.

But stand he must. Like Josef K. in The Trial, Lanark must learn the language of his enemies on the move. And like Josef K., Lanark realises that the institutions of, and sometimes existing before those of the governing power, hold little shelter after all (the symbol of the cathedral providing an ominous symbol of institutionalised exclusion in both Grays and Kafka’s texts.)

Lanark’s journeys, more than just geographical and political, become increasingly alien and surreal. He has to traverse the“incaldrical zone” – an area existing outside of conventional time – to attend the political summit. In a place where physical national commodities have been bought or sold in the name of capitalism, now, time has been harnessed to earn or distribute in just the same way: a commercial Lanark witnesses becries, “MONEY IS TIME. TIME IS LIFE. BUY MORE LIFE FOR YOUR FAMILY FROM THE QUANTUM INTERMINABLE. (THEY’LL LOVE YOU FOR IT)”.


The Author, drunken, with an innocent, in celebration

Lanark concludes (if ‘conclude’ it actually does), with Lanark outside the text – outside the history of Unthank – watching it finally collapse. But rather than a mournful image, instead it emphasises the importance of grasping the now in modern politics; in modern Britain; in modern Scotland. Lanark might have the strange luxury of being shown the entire breadth of destiny for Unthank, sitting beyond his own mortal years, but in doing so we are shown how everything does eventually collapse and always has: it’s called change. With such as genuine display of officially sanctioned discontent as the closeness of the Scottish independence vote, the capitalist politics of Westminster took a body blow. Many of the Yes voters will have been tired of being neglected; others simply want change. There is a poetry to such desire. It’s pure artistry. Although written over 30 years ago, in Lanark, Alasdair Gray has in many ways put voice to such desire. Gray is a visionary, after all. He could see the potential for defiance and change all along. Now, the people have finally begun to shed the other skin they had to wear, as another moment is upon them.

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An Even Leafier Land Not On The Map (Dennis Potter, ‘Hide and Seek’)

dennis potter hide and seek

When people are reminded of Dennis Potter, certain things will always bubble to the surface, archipelagic images insistent on being associated with the man: Michael Gambon’s hospitalised skin. Mary Whitehouse. The Devil raping a disabled girl. Gina Bellman’s eyes. Michael Elphick and Helen Mirren playing seven year-olds. Those clenched, seemingly unusable fists. “The whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be.” In the twenty years since Potter died, it could be argued that his works – as revered and universally recognised as they were during his lifetime – are now more objects of literary and academic reverence than public remembrance, which consists mostly of the snapshots listed above.

Another swift modern reassessment is often, “Wasn’t he rather sexist in his attitudes towards women?” The controversy surrounding Blackeyes, his 1989 BBC series, consists of a murky mix of Mary Whitehouse’s outrage at its sexual content; public knowledge that Potter was infatuated with actor Gina Bellman during production; and its brutal satire of women as sexual commodities. Of all of Potter’s major series, Blackeyes seemed to rattle the most cages, confirming for many the notion that he, the writer of such revered and beloved series as Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective, was just a dirty old man at heart. Contrived public/private personas of Potter became irrecoverably fluid: he was smeared or sneered-at in the tabloids, and he retreated from the attention of television work for some time, having been seemingly turned-upon by “the most important of the mass media”, as he himself claimed in a 1978 interview.

The only thing that seemed to extract Potter’s image from the mire of the Blackeyes controversy was, tragically, his very public terminal illness in 1994. His final interview with Melvyn Bragg is a mesmerizing experience: stimulating because you get to hear Potter’s new-found philosophies of acceptance and resolution, yet almost anatomical in the fact that you are watching a man die so quickly that he’s sipping neat morphine just to function.

Between 1989 and 1994, Potter had one more television series broadcast: Lipstick on Your Collar, a period critique of mass media consumption. The series is a clear recycling of several older plays and simply doesn’t carry the same impact of The Singing Detective or Pennies From Heaven, but the fact that Potter returns to certain themes repeatedly was always an important part of his writing process. Blackeyes was different by being set in contemporary London: his other series tended to occupy remembered versions of the 1920s, or 1940s onwards. Perhaps the contemporary setting of Blackeyes was the reason Potter was exposed to contemporary criticism: politically reactionary, and given the desperation of the (soon to be deposed) Thatcher regime, full of empty right-wing moralising. Although The Singing Detective was framed within contemporary Britain, most of the action takes place 40 years before, therefore Potter’s messages are atemporal; outside of time and therefore harder to pin-down and kick to death for being sexist.

But this returning to certain themes again and again – the wartime struggle in both the public and private arenas; obsession with the unobtainable woman; Al Bowlly; the Forest of Dean – never actually meant Potter was running out of ideas. Instead it showed how he chose to play the long game with his television series (his television plays were a different thing altogether; often one-off devices for him to flex new ideas.) Potter clearly had axes to grind, including the harrowing but cathartic release of certain childhood traumas inflicted upon him by others, and also concerns he possessed with his own character: his obsessiveness, and vitriolic bitternesses. His self-importance as a writer. His animalistic pursuit of the unobtainable woman. None of these themes could be manifested satisfactorily in one single play for one single time, and like the unquenchable powers of recollection and hindsight, they will keep coming back again and again, therefore you must address them.

Potter’s romantic obsessions with the actors Gina Bellman and Kika Markham are well documented. They read like some of his own scripts, specifically Double Dare and Blackeyes. But if Potter carried unhealthy fixations with his leading ladies, isn’t it better that he wrote it into the scripts – channelling his animalistic thoughts into art rather than acting on them? Writing was everything for Potter: exposure, embattlement, resolution. A lesser artist might have just emailed them a picture of his dick and have done with it.

It’s easy to forget that Blackeyes was a novel which was turned into a television series. It’s probably easy to forget that Potter even wrote novels, given his standing as a television writer. His first novel, Hide and Seek (1973) features several themes which he would revisit in The Singing Detective, and also one-off plays such as Double Dare to a certain degree.

Ostensibly, Hide and Seek is that most repeated of postmodern literature: the story of a character who knows, or suspects, they are in a story. Daniel Miller is undergoing psychiatric treatment: he believes that an omnipotent figure, “the Author”, dictates his every move, and nobody – not Dr. Hadley, nor his immature students – can understand his concerns:

“As far as Daniel was concerned they were still hanging their harps in the trees and weeping for Zion. In effect, they were objecting to the plot of the Book without even realizing the Book, let alone the Author, existed. They were fish who did not know about the sea.”

Daniel’s literary outlook gives him a poetic sense of perspective above and beyond the other characters. Only the Author (the occasional narrator) shares Daniel’s cultured perspective. Yet throughout the novel, the narrator insists on Daniel not sharing any personality tropes of his own; that this is not a biographical text. The many prostitutes Daniel has slept with is not an equal representation of the narrator’s own sordid personal experiences.

The real story of Hide and Seek, the supposed narrator’s actual life experiences, are skirted over repeatedly: instead Daniel Miller is subjected to the vicious tenderness of obsessively detailed memory, and the constant reassessment of actions committed by men:

“‘It wasn’t me,’ a man can say after some foul abomination such as hitting his wife or putting his penis in a prostitute’s dribbling mouth, ‘It wasn’t really me. I am not responsible.'”

The book offers a play on the themes of becoming outside oneself; how responsibility can often be explained-away as being down to some higher force than our conscious selves. The force changes shape also, as the years pass. In the scene where the young boy plays alone in the Forest of Dean, the boy becomes entranced within the beauty of nature, this “ where the trees sang to each other in a secret tongue made for praise. The birds, bright and beautiful, dipped their wings exultantly in the lucid flow of air.” Like Daniel Miller, the boy understands the world around him not simply by experiencing it, but also via literacy and ingrained culture (“All things bright and beautiful..”)

But when a traumatic events happens to the boy, there is no obvious frame of reference to help him understand: the boy is suddenly approached by a middle-aged foreign man, who proceeds to sexually assault him. At first, the boy thinks the figure might be God – the trees and natural world around him are, after all, the holiest of things – therefore surely this figure appearing from nowhere must be a further aspect of Paradise. The scene is excruciating to read, portraying the rigid powers of recollection and the destabilization of trauma on both character and outlook. The sullying of Paradise is something Potter will later revisit in The Singing Detective (where the young Philip Marlowe witnesses his mother having sex with a strange man on the forest floor) and also the deadly turn of events taken by the children in Blue Remembered Hills. Potter’s focus is as much on innocence as it is biblical, where he effectively takes William Blake’s conflation of the spiritual (in Potter’s case, literary endeavour and poetic marvel) and the corporeal (traumatic, unbidden moments, often of violence and regret) to produce a single but faceted narrative on how a person’s life is effectively made up of several parallel, occasionally overlapping strands of perception, rather than just a series of events which occur, then end, then occur, then end.

The reader is taken further into the ‘past’ of an individual, when they are lead into the dank room where a young Guyanan prostitute serves her client whilst her infant child lies sleeping in the corner. At first, the scene is painted in Gothic imagery:

“The Abyssinian maid groped at the wall and switched on the light. The merchant, the client, has willingly stopped into the dungeon of lust.”

But then the same scene is ‘rewritten’, uttered slightly differently each time, as if the memory of an event is being fought until it is reshaped and can be digested (or undigested) quickly, depending on the narrator’s intent. It’s only when the baby in the corner becomes apparent in the gloom of the cell that the scene becomes focalised correctly: it is not about the sin of Man, it is not about the subjugation of women (well, it is); it is about the future of this child, and what the child sees in that room night after night.

For Potter, scenes such as the assault in the forest and the baby in the prostitute’s room were only able to be addressed via the form of the novel. The novel offers his take on the sordid underworld of Paradise and innocence more leeway into the gothic and the gruesome. Even Brimstone and Treacle, the story of the Devil charming his way into the lives of a middle-aged couple in order to rape their severely disabled daughter, does not carry the same horror as Hide and Seek. Brimstone and Treacle relies on the humanity gained from the actors’ performances to convey the nuances of despair, palpably British awkwardness, and, ultimately, relief: Potter’s dialogue and description alone are not designed to convey them. Hide and Seek depends entirely on the mid-way meeting formed from the text and readerly schema: how else can the author, and “the Author”, possibly succeed unless a work is read and digested?

“Coleridge said that Shakespeare was ‘miriadminded’, but the term can also be applied to its gifted originator, too. It is this glistening miriad of impressions, moods, intuitions, intimiations, dreams and visitations which I am seeking now to catch in these orderly lines of print.”

Hide and Seek gives evidence to the fact that Dennis Potter’s television series were born from literature first, in many ways. Where it is perhaps initially easier for a novel to make huge analeptic and proleptic dives in narrative than it might a television script, Potter proves that both media can portray it, but in differing ways. Hide and Seek is presented like a novel and a novel only, but the destabilising shifts in narrative viewpoint offer a glimpse into his televisual long game to come, particularly as a medium which was becoming increasingly consumed by mass audiences (unlike the novel, which was arguably moving the other way in popularity.) The novel provides evidence of the themes and strengths which would go on to define Dennis Potter as a playwrite, and someone who, until the end, had a firm artistic grasp of the media he chose to master.

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The Night Intervened (John Bowen’s ‘Robin Redbreast’)

rrb houseThis singular, occult-themed 1971 Play For Today has experienced a long-overdue reassessment in recent years due in no small part to the BFI’s DVD release and also to growing interest in Folk Horror as a genre. Comments about the play’s supposed influence on The Wicker Man two years later are understandable, and it also shares more than a passing resemblance to David Pinner’s novel, Ritual (the ‘legitimate’ basis for Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s film.)

But Robin Redbreast is also unique in many ways, often doing somewhat (then-) stranger and more harrowing things than works it is regularly compared to. To begin with, protagonist Norah Palmer (played by Bowen’s first choice, Anna Cropper) is an unapologetic “modern woman”; unmarried, recently single and fiercely independent. Norah’s individuality raises eyebrows not only with the stoic traditionalism of the villagers she now lives amongst, but also her supposedly progressive-thinking London friends. Norah’s confession that the reason she took the cottage which her ex-partner and her were to buy together is because she “hates waste” is an almost mercenary outlook which neatly accompanies her philosophies of taking what she wants when she “gets randy”, as a “single, thirty-five year-old woman.”

In this capacity, Norah represents not only the modern, self-sufficient Western woman but also the modern consumer: one who chases their own wants and needs foremost. Norah inhabits a liminal zone between the urbane luxury of life in London (middle-class existence with a middle-class job as a script editor, drinking middle class gin and tonics) and the natural realities of the country. When Norah comes across Rob, practicing his martial arts in the woodlands and dressed only in the tiniest of pants, her natural instincts immediately kick-in.  No matter what sort of relationship Norah intellectualises between herself and this innocent, who is magnetically drawn to be part of her life, she is also aware that she is single and alone, therefore free to do what she wants.

The language of Robin Redbreast is interesting, often destabilising the viewer’s understanding of events. Norah and Rob have very little in common intellectually, so conversation quickly dies between them. Rob is preoccupied with martial arts and Nazism – not in right-wing political beliefs, but rather the discipline of pure military outlook and peak physical health. Superficially, Rob confirms urban preconceptions regarding rural extremism and survivalism (a subculture which would in later years be revealed as a very real thing in the media and documentaries, especially in North America.) Yet Rob is an innocent, and even Norah believes there is no real ‘threat’ for him to train himself against.

rrb nora and robThe language used by Fisher, the local “man of learning”, and Mrs Vigo, Norah’s imposing housekeeper, is more oblique, almost testing Norah’s tolerance for evasiveness. When Fisher first appears at the cottage fence, he neglects to introduce himself and almost immediately goes into a monologue about “looking for sherds”, and then a TV programme he saw about clams. He then wanders into Norah’s garden unbidden, still talking, and stands inappropriately close to her. The scene is almost Pinteresque with linguistic menace. Fisher asks Norah if she speaks “the Old Tongue” (meaning Anglo-Saxon), to which Norah confesses, “not since Oxford”, with academic immodesty, which is belittled by Fisher’s cold gaze and calm, cryptic small talk.

In a later scene, Mrs Vigo is seen roughly pulling entrails from a dead chicken over Norah’s kitchen sink, whilst talking about Rob’s obsession with Nazism and how he finds souvenirs and weapons in “body magazines”, which are “full of adverts, that trash.” Vigo then goes on to proudly proclaim the bird as one of her own chickens, who was “broody” but could not longer lay eggs, so might as well be gutted and eaten as “that’s all she good for.”

This thinly veiled attack on Norah’s marital and maternal status is jarring, and the almost continuous transgression between the internal/external adds to the strangeness of Norah’s experience. Everybody knows her business it would seem, yet no one individual can be blamed for the dissemination of information. The public/private arena is deemed fluid here. This is in sharp contrast to the superficiality of Norah’s London friends, who only seem to occupy the same space inside houses: relaxed, casual in conversation, drink in hand. It’s as if they are templates of experience rather than actual experience, and as if they might not actually exist if they were to step outside.

Events take a darker turn after Norah sleeps with Rob, after what could be deemed to be an orchestrated seduction. Norah falls pregnant because the contraception she brought with her has (not particularly) mysteriously vanished. Even her London friends show disdain when she swiftly chooses to have an abortion, but then she decides against it and returns to the village. Suddenly, Norah finds herself enclosed in the village and all her avenues of freedom are closed off: the car stops working, the telephone is intermittently disconnected, just as her contraception disappears.

rrb dreamAware of the accusations of modern-day Pagan practices due to the occasional “song and dance about it in the Sunday papers”, Norah puts two and two together and assumes she has been impregnated as part of some kind of May Day sacrifice. Yet even Rob – the father of what Norah assumes will become her sacrificial child –  cannot fathom what is going on. Norah has dreams about Fisher wielding and axe, his glasses made of the strange marble-like artefact she finds outside her house then brings indoors to much village discussion, and Rob coming at her in the dark in a martial arts-style attack.

The media directly affects Norah’s outlook of the villagers, as well as fear for her own safety. Robin Redbreast is indeed loosely based on an actual event which occurred in Warwickshire in 1945: an elderly farm labourer was found dead in a field with what appeared to be a cross savagely carved into his chest. His tracea had been deliberately cut with a hook, and he was fixed to the ground by his own pitchfork. The media sensation at the time no doubt instigated the ensuing “song and dance” wheeled-out regularly by the newspapers Norah brings up, but the police inspector in the case even eventually opined it to be “clearly the ghastly climax of a pagan rite.”

Media expectation affects the viewer’s expectations as well, all the time waiting for Norah to suddenly be killed. So the actual ending comes as a surprise, and the ultimate subterfuge of the villagers is revealed. Norah had been guided all along not towards her death, but certainly towards her destiny. Her pregnancy from the innocent village orphan is seen as a continuation of the ancient traditions, which wait twenty years or more to patiently be re-enacted again. “What good would a woman’s blood be for the land?”

rrb endingThe final scene shows a now-released, but of course not at all free, Norah turning back to look at Fisher and his co-conspiritors before driving back into the familiar blandness of modernity. To Norah, they are simply archetypes of Pagan tradition; murderous figures with blood on their hands and the Old Gods in their hearts. When Norah attempted to dwell on that liminal plain between having her body in the country and her mind in the city, she eventually abandons the country altogether. The country, it would seem, will never abandon her.

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Some Thing Borrowed: Homage and Repetition in Horror Cinema (Jennifer Kent’s ‘The Babadook’)


(Probaby contains spoilers…)

The Babadook is a refreshingly good Horror film. When was the last time there was a child actor part this good? I’m thinking The Orphanage. And for Horror to feel so small-scale, even claustrophobic, in its visual privacy. The story of a young widow, Amelia (Essie Davis) and her six year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), still suffering since the death of Samuel’s father in an accident whilst driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth, is disorienting in its tragedy and dealt with in a particularly contemporary manner.  What’s also interesting is how the film borrows from previous Horror cinema, the most explicit being from The Exorcist (1973). In this post I’m going to look at how Horror often liberally borrows from itself – visually and sometimes narrative form – with The Babadook being a prime example.

With Horror, homage and repetition are often particularly overt, where echoes of what came before frequently haunt new projects. Of course, this has been the same with the Ghost Story: Sheridan Le Fanu’s fictions explicitly influenced those of M. R. James, and in turn it’s hard to imagine, say, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black without envisioning M. R. James stylistically or Henry James’ The Turn of The Screw in narrative form. But it would be unfair to say that Hill rips-off James (or James.) Instead what we have comes down to thematic inevitability. The Ghost Story (and sometimes the Horror Story) is often more a refrain than a completely original piece; a reinterpretation of a particular sensation, seen through a more contemporary authorial voice each time it reoccurs. Susan Hill’s stories, although often situated in the past, are written from a contemporary consciousness, so the focalisation is always ultimately going to be modern. This often means the “scares” must come from somewhere else or be in some other form, somewhere relatable to the modern reader.

innocents lake wib lake

Treading water: The Innocents (l) and The Woman in Black

Interestingly, even the initial film adaptations of The Turn of The Screw (renamed The Innocents, 1961) and The Woman in Black (1989) feature clear aesthetic borrowing. Herbert Wise’s adaptation of Hill’s novel practically re-stages Jack Clayton’s chilling “lake” scene by having Jennet Goss stood silently on the lake, looking towards the viewer, just as Miss Jessel does. Where the supposed appearance of Miss Jessel is never resolved further than Miss Gidden’s account, Jennet Goss’ appearance is portentous of the tragedy of the very next scene, giving this cinematic homage to The Innocents a more narratively-overt meaning.

amelia levitate regan levitate

They all float: The Babadook (l), and The Exorcist

The initial scene in The Babadook is Amelia leaving a dream/re-enactment of the car crash, her levitated body slowly coming back down to the bed. This references Regan’s violent salvation in The Exorcist, in both design and atmosphere. However, Regan’s eerily silent levitation happens close to the end of the film – an unexpected stillness in the relentless physicality of her possession – whereas Amelia’s occurs right at the start. So straight away Amelia is alluded to being under some kind of ‘possession’, not her son. Samuel, instead, is damaged, but not possessed, at least not in the sense that Amelia might be. Which asks the question, what sort of possession is she under?

If we put The Exorcist (now 41 years old) in context, there are several still-relatable and some now-historical themes. The religious element was clearly the predominant factor during the original controversy; Regan’s use of blasphemous language and masturbating with a crucifix remain shocking images, but today their religiosity is far less sensitive. Chris and Regan’s hitherto non-religious lives are key factors to their contemporary, middle-class household and the dark, looming figures of Fathers Merrin and Karras remind the viewer of religion’s imposing might. But if The Exorcist were to be made today, it’s doubtful that the blasphemous elements would be as potent. It’s because the film was so authentic and well-executed 41 years ago that it works and isn’t reduced to cheap digs at Catholicism for scares. Since then, Catholicism has been sidelined in anything from Braindead (1992) to Troll Hunter (2010) as a source for either comedy or commentary on its limitations, even obsolescence. It would be hard for a modern Exorcist to work with such cultural reassessment, especially given current media-driven and political fixations on certain other religions. Instead, contemporary homage films such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) foreground the religious ambiguity of “possession” through a courtroom drama stalemate, and Requiem (2006) is equally ambiguous, but with allusions towards undiagnosed psychological issues.

And it’s through psychological themes that The Babadook achieves much of its power. The setting of the single mother and her only child are relatable, as are elements of their resultant struggle and loneliness. In The Exorcist, Chris is a film actor: a middle-class professional renting a large house in middle-class Washington suburbia. The privilege of her life compounds the trauma of events invading her family’s wholesomeness. Amelia and Samuel’s life is, emotionally, equally realistic – Amelia works as a nurse to support the family, the absence of the father having varying repercussions – but the actual visualisation is very different. Visually, Amelia’s house is all subdued blues, greys and black; a shadowy mournfulness akin to German expressionism. The house is Amelia’s mental outlook; a cold fortress of grief, where the only sounds are the unhinged chorus Samuel’s incessant campaigning for attention and whatever is on the TV.

THE BABADOOK expressionism

Disorient Express: The Babadook (l), and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

In The Exorcist, Chris is playing what seems to be a politically charged, progressive role: Amelia passively watches horror films on TV, alone. At one point, she is watching the “Drop of Water” scene from Black Sabbath (1963). Her stillness whilst watching this particularly unnerving scene – scary because of the scene itself, and doubly scary because of Amelia’s inactivity – presents a commentary on watching Horror. To many, Black Sabbath is a potent European Horror experience, up there with Black Sunday or Suspiria. For Amelia, it’s just what the TV is; a carousel of fantastical Gothic images, outside of the “horror” of her own grief yet somehow connected to her experience.

Samuel also turns to the Fantastic, sometimes Gothic, for solace. Unlike Amelia’s passive viewing, Samuel watches magicians performing tricks and then attempts to replicate them. Compared to Chris and Regan, Amelia and Samuel’s media intake means they automatically turn to fantasy to escape (often each other.) Amelia’s job is unstimulating and depressing, leaving her too much time to dwell on her situation and meaning that even in social situations, she and Samuel have no real stimulation, so they have never have any respite.

When Amelia visits her sister for her niece’s birthday, the other childrens’ mothers appear dull, even arbitrary. Their middle-class non-concerns provoke a reaction in Amelia, and she vocally belittles the scale of their problems. Her reaction is to inflict the same discomfort on others who repeatedly point-out her situationand how it should be dealt with, medically or otherwise. To Amelia, what is meant as “concern” is taken as an invasion of domestic privacy, so she closes the doors fast to outside help.

When the “Mister Babadook” pop-up-book appears in Samuel’s room, Amelia’s worst fears about invasion of privacy and the destabilization of her role as mother slowly come true. Although Samuel is clearly vulnerable, it’s Amelia who becomes “possessed”; obsessed with stamping-out (i.e: fending-off) the power of “Mister Babadook”, but with a demented logic that finally destroys her already disturbed outlook. Amelia embodies a re-imagining of Regan in The Exorcist, the innocent vulnerable to attack because she cannot see her inability to protect herself from the unknown. Samuel has psychological issues, of course, but specialists have been offering Amelia life lines for him all along. Contemporary concerns with modern parenting, ADHD and child counselling might not have been so prominent when The Exorcist was made, but now the viewer can see how Amelia could get help for Samuel.

Samuel’s only real outlet comes from embodying “the hero”, playing both the father he never had and protector of his mother. But more than simply the Freudian template for the Son taking his Father’s place, Samuel is also reflecting on his daily media intake: fairy tales in books and magicians on TV. Through deception (magic) and defence (home-made weaponry) Samuel equips himself for a life of subterfuge and struggle. The tragedy of his situation comes from the fact he is a half-orphan; grieving for a father he never knew and fighting to retain the only parent he has, who is gradually fading from everyone around her. When Mr Babadook begins terrorising the household as promised in the book, it’s Samuel who can deal with him better: he’s scared, yes, but not anymore than anyone would be. He puts up defences; he hides; he deflects. Where Samuel has learned something from the TV he avidly drinks in, Amelia has learned nothing; finding only, through passively watching Horror, a medium that relates to and sustains her personal experience.

Without the grounding in survival or even rationalism that Samuel unexpectedly gains, Amelia attempts to abuse her son verbally and physically. But Samuel knows what to expect, having taken it all in from the pop-up-book. The semantic field of The Exorcist essentially comes full circle during Amelia’s “exorcism” of Mr Babadook, when, in the basement, she projectile vomits out her possession. Conversely to The Exorcist, where Regan is at the mercy of an actual demon, Amelia’s possession is the grief over Oskar’s death that will most likely always be with her, but that she must accept and therefore control. Mr Babadook therefore cannot leave, but it’s Amelia and Samuel who call the shots from now on.

The film ends with Samuel celebrating his birthday for the first time, the only other guest apparently being Mrs Roach, their kind neighbour. The fact that there are no other children at the party is representative of the small steps which need to be taken to rehabilitate Samuel into accepting who he is (rather than automatically reacting to the torment of other children) and for Amelia to re-establish the relationship she almost destroyed. Like any decent contemporary Horror, there must be grounding within an authentic, relatable setting. The Babadook is an affecting commentary on the risks of self-deception and fantasy, and the vulnerability of so many to the lives they create behind closed doors. But, like The Exorcist, it also ultimately conveys the goodness of others and knowing when to take help when it’s offered. Visually, Jennifer Kent’s film is a rewarding experience for Horror fans (and film fans in general), and its homage and repetition of other films is an intelligent commentary on the uses of Horror from a modern perspective, as a signifier and a survival kit.

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