- Algernon Blackwood
- BBC Television
- Blair Witch
- Bohumil Hrabal
- Bram Stoker
- China Mieville
- Christopher Hitchens
- Czech literature
- Dark Matter
- David MItchell
- Detective fiction
- Djuna Barnes
- Elizabeth Jane Howard
- epistolary fiction
- Folk Horror
- found footage
- Frank Herbert
- Gay Fiction
- ghost stories
- H. P. Lovecraft
- Henry James
- Horror cinema
- Horror fiction
- Iain M Banks
- J. G. Ballard
- Jeremy Dyson
- Jorge Luis Borges
- Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
- Kurt Vonnegut Jr
- L.T.C. Rolt
- M. John Harrison
- M. R. James
- Manuel Vázquez Montalbán
- Mary Shelley
- Michael Marshall Smith
- Michelle Paver
- narrative theory
- Olympic Games
- Patrick Keiller
- Ramsey Campbell
- Robert Aickman
- Rural Britain
- Science Fiction
- Social commentary
- state oppression
- Strange fiction
- Strange Stories
- supernatural fiction
- The Culture
- Theodore Sturgeon
- The Virgin of The Seven Daggers
- The Wicker Man
- Vernon Lee
- Weird fiction
- Will Self
- World War I
- World War II
Blogs I Follow
Inspired this morning by skullsinthestars‘ own fascinating list, I have come up with my own list of 10 books which, as according to the stipulations on Facebook, have “stayed with you in some way”, and which “don’t have to be the “right” books or great works of literature, just ones that affected you in some way.”
Unlike skullsinthestars’ maverick decision to expand the list to 20, I’m going to stick to the original 10 (if you include one trilogy. If not, you’re going to have to live with it. I don’t often play by the rules. Sometimes I downright slightly ignore them. Consider it fair warning.)
Another thing I’m doing is listing them in chronological order of when I first read them. To have listed them in Top Ten Favourite order would have been as torturous as selecting a mere 10 anyway, and also somehow reductive to their personal significance. Listing them in order of reading them is objective, and also quite interesting I’ve found. You may find it less interesting. Consider this fair warning also.
1. What You Make It: A Book of Short Stories, Michael Marshall Smith (1999; read 1999)
I’ve already paid sickly homage to MMS as an early influence on my tastes in this blog, but if we’re talking chronological history of my reading habits, I consider this year zero. Having been thoroughly hooked on the pleasures of SF via his first three novels (Spares, One Of Us and Only Forward), MMS then showed me the delights of the short story. Each story is very different, although Smith’s tone is signature to all, whether it’s horror, comedy, SF, thriller, horror-comedy, dark-comedy-horror, or dark-SF-horror-comedy-dark-thriller-comedy-SF-horror. The collection also gave me faith in short-form fiction as a hub for ideas, genre asides and proof that the novel is not the be-all and end-all of fiction. To this day, I champion and also (try to) write short stories of my own. From this collection, Hell Hath Enlarged Herself and The Owner will have been burned into my memory until my dying days.
2. The Demon, Hubert Selby Jr. (1976; read 2000)
Throughout my teens and early 20s, I was a Henry Rollins fan. I got into a lot of great music through Rollins and he also influenced my taste in books for a time. I think for people of a certain age, it’s difficult to not be into Rollins and to not emulate Rollin’s tastes for the hard and alternative. After hearing a joint spoken-word performance he did with Hubert Selby Jr, I went and read Last Exit To Brooklyn. Well, it didn’t put me off, so I went and read The Willow Tree, Requiem For a Dream and The Demon in the space of a couple of weeks. This final book in particular has remained with me. The desperation and poverty of Selby’s other works was something I have been lucky enough to have not experienced, yet the humanity within them was moving and traumatising in equal measure. The Demon is a different beast: a character study of a successful figure who seemingly descends into psychosis and eventually self-destruction because he is simply and completely obsessive. It’s a plainly written but harrowingly relatable novel in some ways, and one that I can’t say I return to in a hurry that often, but which has always remained close by.
3. The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch (1978; read 2001)
Working in a cinema back in the day I’d watch virtually every film that came through and Iris, biopic of Murdoch (dir. Richard Eyre, 2001) inspired me to read her works. The Sea, The Sea was the first, and for a long time it was the best book I’d ever read. In a similar capacity to Selby, Murdoch writes of lives I’ll never know; in this case an upper-middle-class professional playwrite, seeking solitude in a rural coastal village, chances upon a girl (now middle-aged) he once loved and never forgot. The descriptions of passion, jealousy and the trappings of nostalgia are presented so well it’s almost voyeuristic. No longer put-off by the elitist associations of the novel’s Booker Prize victory, The Sea, The Sea showed me that even pompous pricks can make for good reading.
4. The State of The Art, Iain M. Banks (1991; read 2007)
Recommended to me by the same culprit who suggested MMS, Banks was someone I was familiar with via The Wasp Factory only. Oh, hang on, I’d seen the adaptation of The Crow Road as a teenager also and enjoyed it for the nudity. I was told it was imperative to read this collection before embarking on any of the Culture novels. It was to say the least the best SF collection I’d read since MMS. What I like about the stories here is firstly, like any decent short fiction collection, the ideas leap out at you and offer you a playground for the imagination: sentient space gear, the effects of super-advanced tech being left for humans to ponder over, what it’s like to be a giant alien creature who doesn’t understand humans outside of context. And the humour. My god, some of these stories are funny. When I got round to reading the Culture novels proper, I was amazed and glad to see Banks maintain such a propensity for imagination in long-form.
5. The Wine-Dark Sea, Robert Aickman (1988; read 2008)
At the recommendation of a band I liked at the time (and still very much like) I read a few Aickman collections. Statistically speaking, The Wine Dark-Sea contains the most amount of Aickman tales that persistently haunt me in one collection. Having read relatively little ghost or supernatural fiction up until that point (M. R. James, Henry James and the other big shots) Aickman was a destabilising force. Your Tiny Hand is Frozen is one of the more arresting Aickman stories for me, and I don’t need to re-read it often to remember just why it got under my skin in the first place. The Inner Room is also deeply unhomely I find (even the title carries the same menace as if it were written by J. G. Ballard), and the final story, Into The Wood, epitomises Aickman’s ability to let a narrative wander off into the gloom of inexplicability and discomfort. I remain happily violated by Aickman.
6. Solaris, Stanislaw Lem (1961; read 2008)
Another a several SF books I’m listing here. Not out of deliberation but it would seem that I just naturally lean towards SF. It’s who I am, okay? Stop judging me. Anyway, Solaris is just brilliant. Made into, I would bravely claim, not one but two excellent films (yes, that’s right! I even enjoy the Tarkovsky version!) Solaris is a novel of incalculable significance. The antidote to the SF of Hope, Solaris is a perfect Soviet example of the SF of Hopelessness. Not that it’s outrightly defeatist, but it doesn’t play into the premature self-congratulation of technological achievement, or the be-all and end-all of evolution. Lem made me realise that we’re still stuck in the Dark Ages in many ways as a species, and he shows us how about as well as any writer ever could.
7. The Man in The High Castle, Philip K. Dick (1962; read 2009)
I’m a sucker for alternate history. I’ll watch/read/listen to anything that’s based around some intriguing what if.. scenario. The whole what if the Nazis won? thing is as old as Adam (well, if Adam was 69 years old anyway) but Dick offers a particularly intriguing hypothesis. His idea to create a reality where the Nazis won, but where there was also published a novel which hypothesised what if the Nazis lost is deeply satisfying on many levels. Dick’s key literary trick is always to threaten existence: not with obliteration but with a realisation that maybe we took a wrong turning some time back and it’s too late to get back on the right track; that what we’re living in is parallel to but definitely not the same as what ‘reality’ actually is. The Man in The High Castle is relatively low on the SF tech compared to other Dick novels, and is instead more overtly philosophical, giving the Eastern philosophy an infectious presence in a controlled world devoid of philosophy or spirituality, but rich in ideology and intellectual oppression. Good job reality is nothing like this!
8. Too Loud a Solitude, Bohumil Hrabal (1976; read 2010)
Another author I’ve talked about before, Hrabal’s short novel is somewhat of a literature reader’s perfect dream, I’d say. A book that is plainly open to multitudinous student readings and rereadings, it’s also a fragile, moving meditation on the value and rewards of reading.
9. The Regeneration Trilogy: Regeneration, The Eye in The Door and The Ghost Road, Pat Barker (1991, 1993, 1995; read 2012)
I was 11 when Blackadder Goes Forth was shown on the BBC. I’ll always imagine the bleakest images of the First World War because of it: the constantly wet trenches, the claustrophobic quarters, the subdued sense of hopelessness. WWI was the end of everything and the start of everything. It destroyed the moral posturing and sense of invincibility of more than one empire, and it obliterated the lives of countless families. It also forced art to readdress its purpose for existence. My interest in WWI remained, and I went on and read several incredible books about it; the Regeneration Trilogy being the most affecting. Barker’s novels offer intimate insights into the effects of the war not only from a militaristic perspective but also the social and artistic upheavals also. Featuring Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen amongst other (fictional) protagonists, the novels feel alarmingly close to our time even though they are based 100 years ago. The ghost of WWI haunts everything after reading this trilogy, and remains everywhere.
10. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962; read 2013)
A postmodern novel I’ve come to very late, Pale Fire in many ways feels like a period piece rather than a revolutionary text of challenging, destabilising form. But it’s still a work of genius and I’d say Nabokov’s best. The Cold War subtext is what mainly makes this book feel so prematurely ancient; but the narrative of the intellectually-unhinged Charles Kinbote is timelessly beautiful and sorrowful. I can’t imagine a book like this possibly being written today. I’d say John le Carré’s The Secret Pilgrim is perhaps the last of this kind of Cold War homoerotic confessional (you know, that tired old genre!) and that’s only because it was published just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the personal subtexts in Pale Fire remain prescient, even if the national borders and the state secrets have changed form. A ridiculously beautiful novel.
Just Say the Lines, Never Bump Into the Furniture, and Take The Money and Run! (Jessica Carney, ‘Who’s There: The Life and Career of William Hartnell’, and Michael Troughton, ‘Patrick Troughton: The Biography of The Second Doctor Who’)
Peter Capaldi‘s first series as the Doctor has felt like it’s been a long time coming. He was announced as the Twelfth Doctor to previously-unprecedented fanfare on August 4th 2013, and he’s only just 3 episodes into Season 8 as I’m typing this. But his face has been ubiquitous for the last twelve months within an absolute storm of hype including interviews, merchandise, press speculation and a world tour of several cities where New Who is bloody huge. And it is, isn’t it? New Who is bloody huge.
But then, Doctor Who sort of always was huge though, even during the (arguably) less popular periods of Classic Who. Take for example Colin Baker‘s first season. Argued by certain fans and some in the industry as a drop in quality for the show, Baker was still drawing upwards of 7 million viewers in the UK: this is the same as how many Capaldi is currently drawing. Of course, due to the advent of watching TV online after the event, proportionally there’s a chance that many aren’t watching Season 8 as scheduled. But seeing as there’s no need to dedicate your Saturday evenings to staying in to see it, so 7 million upwards is still phenomenal going for any UK TV show these days.
The sheer relentless hype over the last twelve months though has been unavoidable. I feel sorry for people who don’t like the show, and it’s not like anybody who gave a toss didn’t know that a) Matt Smith was leaving, and b) the show was carrying on anyway. But instead, the new Doctor, along with incumbent companion Clara Oswold, has been flown from country to country for appearance after appearance without him having actually been on telly for more than 3 minutes. Previously, a new Doctor’s announcement would be of the “And finally, for fans of science fiction..”-variety on the BBC News, perhaps followed by a brief interview with the new Doctor, followed by the new series which the fans had probably had to wait in silence for many months before it began. Now it’s all a bit relentless, and Capaldi has been the cosmetically-recognisable face of Doctor Who for a full year without leading an episode.
But then, how else do you make your mark these days in one of the most successful TV shows going? Thanks to (or maybe even due to) the Internet, hype, expectation and online chat drives so much of how people accept what you’re creating. It’s not hard to quickly track down anything else Peter Capaldi starred in before Doctor Who. From this perspective, the whole world tour hype-thing makes sense: batter the public into submission that he is the Doctor now, and Malcolm Tucker becomes as much yesterday’s news as Matt Smith or David Tennant.
If we’re honest though, to experience any of the magic these days from the cross-over period between Doctors, and to see for yourself how it’s going with the new series, you have to do the scary thing of sitting down and watching it objectively. No amount of hype should really affect that, and the producers know this. Matt Smith is still sorely missed, and lots of frightening Internet citizens will be already firmly embroiled in some stoic Capaldi hate campaign. Such reactionary opinion-slinging is just an unfortunate by-product of the Web. There’s probably still some unhealthy philosophising out there suggesting that Tennant should never have left the role, but we’ll leave them to fade out naturally.
Regardless of the ubiquitous pre-season build-up, one thing Doctor Who does in times such as this is remind you of just how unusual a show it was and still is. How many other shows completely replace the lead actor and continue as if it’s par for the course? But of course, when it happened the first time in 1966 – when William Hartnell bowed out of a show that was drawing, again, over 7 million viewers and was replaced by an actor not even slightly resembling him – it was unprecedented, and disruptive. The First Doctor did not regenerate into the Second Doctor: the Doctor ‘transformed’ into the Doctor, who happened to have a completely different face and personality, but what still (eventually, anyway) the Doctor.
Jessica Carney‘s biography of her grandfather, William Hartnell (2013 reprint), and Michael Troughton‘s biography of his father, Patrick Troughon (2011), are not only accounts of both actors’ times in the roles which they will be forever recognised for, but they are also chronicles of the early days of British television itself. With only 12 years in age between them, Hartnell and Troughton had relatively similar career trajectories before their turns in Doctor Who. They were both seasoned theatre and film actors, although Hartnell gained the odd leading man role in film (spending much of his career typecast as a military figure, a policeman or a villain) whilst Troughton relished in character parts which were rarely retrodden from one production to the next.
Both jobbing actors, much of their burgeoning screen careers came from whatever work they could gather, and both experienced very bleak ‘dry periods’ of little or no work, and little or no money coming in. In the 1920s, Hartnell ended up taking advantage of the British government’s “Quota Quickies”: the domestic film industry’s practise of churning-out cheap films to get in the cinema before the American market had full monopoly of all screenings. Although some of these swiftly-executed roles seemed fun to do, it wasn’t until the 1940s that Hartnell seemed to gain recognition for appearing in more ‘legitimate’ cinema. Both men continued performing in theatre all the time, however, although both gradually began to prefer the newer medium of television acting. According to his son, Troughton especially relished TV, seeing it as much more freeing due to the option of multiple takes, and not having to do “all that shouting in the evening” whilst on the theatre stage.
Both men served in the Second World War, Hartnell as a tank operator. However, he had to leave military service after 18 months due to a nervous breakdown. Troughton joined the Navy, and captained his own ship until the end of the war. When they returned to acting careers, Hartnell and his wife eventually had one child to support, but Troughton’s life took a very different turn. Troughton had three children to his first wife, then began a ‘secret life’ with another woman (whom he had three other children with) which lasted over 10 years, before eventually divorcing his first wife in order to marry a third woman in 1976 (whom he remained with before his death whilst attending an American Doctor Who convention in 1987.)
The chaotic, often under-confident beginnings of Doctor Who are portrayed frankly in Jessica Carney’s book. You really do get the impression that they were winging it a lot of the time regarding budget, production deadlines and the limited experience of the young production team adding to the often tense environment. Hartnell comes across as firstly a professional actor, of course, with many years experience behind him, but also at times as difficult and sometimes unhelpful. Hartnell suffered from severe status anxiety throughout his life: as a child he had little schooling and was a petty criminal (and the truth of his actual origins are of fluctuating dependability.) He could be either moody or majestic on set, often moving between the roles of lead actor, confidant, joker and father figure. Outside the TV studio, Hartnell was also a dedicated socialite, held in many people’s affections: generous to a fault, and always, always, up for a drink. Once Doctor Who found its feet (and its increasing viewing figures) Hartnell relished in the role of the Doctor, attending many out-of-hours public events such as charities, village fêtes and promotional tours, in full costume and always in character. For three years, Hartnell was Doctor Who.
Carney’s book – and M. Troughton’s also in many ways – provides a psychogeographical walking tour of London between the 1920s and the 1960s, told through the narrative of Doctor Who‘s place television industry. The two authors found themselves attending filming days of the show at separate times as children, and comment on whether it was really like being transported to an alien world, just like it was whilst watching the show on TV, or whether it was a cramped, over-heated disappointment of a day, making them readdress their allegiance to the show and the magic of the medium, and just what it meant to be celebrities at school due to being related to the Doctor.
Hartnell and Troughton kept homes in London initially, but both had relocated their families out to the suburbs or further by the time their tenures ended. London being London, where everything is relatively convenient to get to in the centre, seemed to provide the epicentre of Hartnell and Troughton’s routines as actors. The proximity of everything seems to become intermingled with the BBC studios. Hartnell had his favourite pubs around the area (where he was regularly recognised by the public), and his fellow cast members had their favourite restaurants where they often invited Hartnell along with them. Although the two actor’s fees for being the Doctor are not revealed, their earnings for various one-off roles are, as are house prices and the cost of a pint. All of this puts the period in perspective, especially when you consider the sheer scale of the income for the BBC with New Who. Troughton had two families to feed, so the fact that he decided to take on the role of the Doctor (a role he deliberated over for some time, genuinely fearing being typecast) was as much a fiscal decision as an artistic one. He wrote letters regularly to his son (the author), agonising over what he should do, and explaining how eventually he used a clever agent to get more money for the role before he committed to it.
Due to the sense of mystery that still emanates from the first 6 years of the show, it’s sometimes easy to forget that it was so hugely popular: it was the thing the British family gathered round and sat down to watch of a Saturday. Hartnell and Troughon were widely known, respected actors, easily in comparison to the fame of Christopher Eccleston when he took over the role during the 2005 reboot. Which is why the decision to cast Troughton as ‘the new Doctor’ was such a bold and unpredictable thing to do at the time.
(Regarding the significance of The Power of The Daleks, Troughton’s inaugural story, I would recommend reading Philip Sandifer‘s superb post on it, part of his extraordinary TARDIS Eruditorum blog which closely examines the history of Doctor Who, chronologically and historically.)
M. Troughton’s book goes into satisfying detail about Troughton’s approach to the role: about how he wanted to completely avoid Hartnell’s portrayal and find his own way. On thing that has been repeatedly said of Troughton by the likes of Peter Davison, Fraser Heinz, Colin Baker and Matt Smith is that he was a reactive actor: one who reacts to the activities of others, rather than trying to dominate in a clear-cut capacity. This is true of Troughton’s Doctor, his ability to let other characters dictate narrative, whilst the Doctor (seemingly but secretively all-knowing) ‘acts’ from the sidelines. This is the opposite to Hartnell, whose Doctor was time-traveller, grandfather, expert, hero and leader – sometimes all at the same time, but never anything less. Hartnell could be mysterious but never unquantifiable like Troughton.
There’s a great quote from Colin Baker which sums up the ongoing success of Doctor Who following the risks of the ‘first regeneration’ scene: “Pat had established the concept of regeneration instantly, by virtue of his great talent and commitment and had accordingly been accepted by the viewing millions – but more difficult because, to coin a cliché, ‘Follow that!’”
Another interesting comparison between the two actors is their reactions to fame and the promotion of the show. Nowadays, as previously discussed, the lead actor is expected to guide the media circus of promotion for the show even before their tenure has begun. For William Hartnell, there was no pre-Who media sensation, and the public engagements he attended during his time as the Doctor were often done for free, during his own personal time, and relatively intimate in scale. After he left the show, Hartnell would have been too ill to have attended conventions or other fan events anyway, so that was never an option. Troughton, conversely, although he was part of the ongoing success of the show post-‘Regeneration Number One’, seemed to shy away from anything relating to Who for over 5 years, before eventually deciding to do The Three Doctors for the 10th anniversary special and popping up again another 10 years later for The Five Doctors. He also, unexpectedly, eventually embraced the whole convention concept, appearing many times for the fans at events across the world and sharing the stage with Jon Pertwee as the then-elder statesmen of Who.
These days, the Doctor Who convention format have been going for longer than Classic Who itself ran for, and in more countries. With his pre-Who 12 months of promotional events, Capaldi has effectively appeared at as many ‘conventions’ as he has episodes to be broadcast, maybe more. When the show originally began in 1963, it was magical, but a very domestic form of magic: when he wasn’t defeating evil aliens on other worlds, the Doctor might be appearing at your church fête, or drinking a pint in your local. Jessica Carney and Michael Troughton capture this oscillation between the domestic and the fantastic in the early television industry very well. As well as the magic of the science fiction, there was the technical magic of the medium itself: the success of the entertaining and believably extracted from the still-relatively new, and limited, format of television. But beyond the studios, behind the doors of homes or elsewhere, lives were still being lived. Families experienced joy and success, failure, and loss. One man was transformed from the hard-line drill sergeant he was typecast into being into a mysterious time-travelling elder. Another man channelled the myriad roles and faces he was once known for on the stage into one single, but still mercurial, character: another time-traveller, and sometimes very much the same time-traveller. With their uncharted expeditions into the realms of Doctor Who, both men set the standard for what the show has regenerated into today.
Whilst living in New Zealand, I attended a fortnightly gathering in Wellington called Curry-Beer-Men. It was, as the name suggests, an excuse for blokes to get together, eat curry, and drink beer (specialist breweries, usually.) We’d meet at someone’s house, knock back a few ales whilst shooting the shit, then eventually pop down the street to the local take-away just before closing time. Then we’d sit in front of the TV and eat. One night, someone revealed to us that he had after-hours access to Avalon TV Studios in Lower Hutt, and that we could all go there and watch something on the big screen any time. Thus, Curry-Beer-Men-Movies was born.
When no one else came forward with a suggestion for the inaugural film, I recommended The Wicker Man (1973). Even though our group was a exotic mix of diverse international ambassadors from as far afield as Canada, England, New Zealand, England, Australia and England, nobody else had ever seen the film, so it was decided that it deserved a go. So, we watched it, and to mixed results.
By the time the film finished, we were all quite pissed, having drunk plenty of beer and without the padding of any food yet. We all shuffled through to the canteen whilst someone went and fetched the curries. The atmosphere, as I recall, was strange. People muttered under their breath, “What he hell was that shit?”, and “Is there any way I can un-watch that?”, whilst others actually came to me (as if I was a translator) for an explanation firstly about what the film was about, and secondly why I liked it so much. I found it hard to explain. Not least because I was drunk. I rolled out the handful of Wicker Man facts everybody knows (that Christopher Lee did it for free because they couldn’t match his usual fee, and that the original prints are thought to have been destroyed and used as landfill) in the hope that it would give it some kind of underdog-like context: in truth this is one of the reasons why I do like the film. Then I admitted how watching it that night, on the big screen, actually made me homesick. How it reminded me of Britain and made me miss everything about it. I was having a bit of a rough time anyway in Wellington, being mostly jobless and with money swiftly dwindling. Anything British was making me homesick.
I stressed to my fellow curry-eaters that obviously I didn’t want to go back to that – the actual Pagan activities depicted in the film – but that the film itself was just palpably British, and it was enough to make me nostalgic. The Wicker Man, in my opinion, is one of the best British films, but the reasons for this might be too many to list (especially when you’re sat in an empty canteen in New Zealand, with a dozen or so drunken, hungry men who by general consensus found the film baffling and dislikeable.)
That was about three years ago. Since then, I’ve maintained my admiration for The Wicker Man. But even before I left for New Zealand I’d already seen the film countless times after teenage me first stumbled across it on late night TV. A few summers back, I built and burned my own 10-foot wicker man near my home in Shropshire, and for me and many others, the film was a gateway for further ‘Folk Horror’ gems, like Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970), and Witchfinder General (1968). Like a lot of people, I also have a soft spot for psychologically unnerving, domestic British horror like The Stone Tape (1972), Children of The Stones (1977), and The Changes (1975). Something about British folk-based screen culture from the late 1960’s to, say, the late 80’s is particularly effective, capturing an uncanny realism of bucolic setting with some ambiguous supernatural horror. The British succeeded in bringing death and the spiritual to suburbia in a way that hadn’t been visualised quite as originally before.
But of course, ostensibly, The Wicker Man is no suburban horror. Its setting is as effectively remote as you can get whilst still being on the British isles. Sergeant Howie is the viewer’s focus from suburbia, and even though he comes from a rural Scottish town, compared to the villagers of Summerisle, Howie is recognisably urbane. Howie isn’t better than Summerisle in any way, of course. It’s just that his outlook (devout Christian though it is) provides a frame of reference which anyone watching the film can understand, contrasting with the villager’s unexpected, ancient philosophies. At the same time of course, Howie is, probably to most people in modern Britain, a relic – like the practises of Summerisle, but slightly less ancient.
The Wicker Man is a dispatch from the edges of the British isles: not just from the topographical edges, but the cultural frontiers also. The more inland you travel into Britain – the more urban and the closer to the cities – the less of a great deal of Britain’s originating culture is recognisable. The Pagan rites in The Wicker Man were supposed to have died out generations ago, but the film suggests that they are alive and well: they’ve just relocated away from the towns and taken shelter and thriving independence in nature, unwatched by society’s secular judgement.
One of the reasons the film has remained so vital is the fact that it is a film outside of time. The rites of Summerisle have been practised for centuries, beyond of the influence of society, the government or the law. Sergeant Howie, as a devout, pious Christian, could have arrived in the same manner if the film had been made in 1953 or 2003. There will always be a Sergeant Howie out there to stick their oar in where they don’t understand. This is the beauty of the film: its atemporal entrapment. Summerisle moves to the rhythm of the seasons, not to the ticking of the office clock, or a rigorously-organised existence shaped by adherence to dates, times and appointments. Watching The Wicker Man is a sensory adventure, seemingly chronological, but where day and night merge and event after event just happen. Obviously the efforts of the villagers to entrap Sergeant Howie are orchestrated, but it all blends into the natural procession of life on Summerisle, organic and with simple purpose. This means that by the time the film reaches its horrific conclusion, the viewer has already been immersed in Summerisle’s natural ebbs and flows, and the sacrifice feels like it unfolds before them with an unnervingly personal immediacy.
The Wicker Man is partly based on David Pinner’s 1967 novel, Ritual. Although the film covers similar ground to the original text, there are several notable differences. The novel is set in Thorn, a fictional remote village in Cornwall, and the ‘murder’ involves the chillingly-described corpse of Dian Spark which appears in the first few pages – unlike Rowan Morrison’s ‘missing’ body (overall, Ritual is much more gruesomely detailed than The Wicker Man, which is comparatively blood-free.) Instead of earnest Sergeant Howie, sent from the mainland to investigate the supposed murder and disappearance, we have Detective Inspector David Hanlin of Scotland Yard, who maintains regular contact with London. Hanlin does have certain pious beliefs, but his ethical compass is more changeable than Howie’s, making him much more of a complex, urban character than his cinematic counterpart.
The narrative of Ritual is casual and postmodernist, shifting focalisation from character to character, sometimes mid-paragraph, often revealing someone’s ulterior motives. For the reader, what is presented is a much more private and immersive narrative than in The Wicker Man, where most of the time the viewer is subject only to what Howie witnesses. This of course lends to the film’s strengths because such narrow focalisation means that a sense of disorientation and lack of true understanding is maintained right until the end. In Ritual, yes, there is more ‘detail’ given and the reader is soon made aware that there is something secret and awful afoot in Thorn, but such a rich diversity of characterisation is in some ways equally alienating. In the first strange meeting between Hanlin and Reverend White, the supposed third-person narrator proclaims, “Hanlin really is a distasteful homo sapien, isn’t he? (…) There is something of the split entrails of a rabbit with myxomatosis about him.” There is an element of fourth-wall-breaking going on here, as if any third-person narrator (who never narrates for long) is fully aware of what is going on, but reveals nothing real through what they tell us, and only giving us an opinion.
Hanlin himself seems to be in professional and personal conflict about his investigations. At one point the narrator reveals, “As a detective, he had found his morality a source of embarrassment, and often hindrance. His loathing of the beast in man expressed itself in hate.” Hanlin, although a seasoned detective and familiar with cases like the death of Dian Spark, harbours a particularly urban sense of status anxiety. He is torn between contextualising his profession, his maleness, and the the fact that he has no solid leads during much of the investigation. Even when Hanlin begins his sexually-charged interactions with Anna Spark (re-imagined as the somewhat less dangerous Willow for The Wicker Man), there is a slightly entertained self-awareness to his resistance. Hanlin instead prefers to talk with Anna, moving in flirtatiously cryptic circles, whilst teasing himself and her. It is Hanlin’s wry wit which is his most powerful weapon when prizing information from the evasive villagers, something which Howie never possesses, wielding only his arch dismissal of the practises on Summerisle or threatening everyone with prison on the mainland.
But Hanlin needs to be savvy if he wants to get anywhere in such an alien environment. Ritual is a not simply a book suggested what might occur in the remotest corners of Britain: it is specifically about Southern England. London’s financial and professional domination over the British isles means that it centripetally draws much of the country’s workforce and wealth towards itself. London has effectively become the only metropolis of Britain (whether people want it or not), and the rest of the country is inevitably subject to its manipulation. This is more than a governmental thing: this is an employment, artistic and career-opportunities thing, amongst others. London of course isn’t the cultural centre of Britain, but it is where all the money and power ends up: a glaring, neon crucible of obviousness and accessibility. This can warp the narrative of what Britain is about in many ways (but this is not breaking news.)
To put Ritual in context, when it was published in 1967, several other books were also published which drew from a similar contrast between urban self-awareness and the uncanny and culturally-alien, including Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Also published was Desmond Morris’ anthropological study of the human as animal, The Naked Ape. The same year, during the start of what would become the most significant British economic downturn since the end of the Second World War, Harold Wilson’s Labour government officially applied for EEC membership, whilst Wilson’s policies received side-blows from famously vocal racist Enoch Powell and the newly-formed, equally racist, British National Front. The public face of politics was entering a particularly media-exposed phase of polarised opinion and extreme in-fighting. Wilson’s Britain was looking to stake its claim on the modern European stage, aesthetically riding on the back of the success of Swinging ’60s London, and relatively low unemployment. But it was also the start of British cultural polarisation over the next forty or more years, where eventual privatisation of many national institutions, Thatcherism, and recession after recession greatly altered modern Britain. As well as the financial gulf between the wealthy over the poor and the ever-shrinking middle-classes, London’s power could have meant the sapping of much of the country’s cultural development.
In the same year, the M1 motorway was completed, linking London with South Yorkshire via a single road. Yet for a country of relatively small landmass, and with an increased road network, the division between cultural bases in England is often profound: just drive ten miles or so along somewhere like such as Dorset, or Yorkshire, or the Midlands, and the contrast in accent is remarkable. Pockets of culture also means privacy of culture. And in the least tourist-trodden areas of the country, sometimes just West of London, events can seem incredibly foreign.
For anyone mistaking a nation’s capital city as being, if not simply the most immediate place to be but also the future of a country, much of England (let alone Britain) might seem stuck in the past. How far back in the past depends on your perspective. Certain events occurred in the 1960s which helped shape public opinion of British social progress, and also the gulf between modern Britain and Britain of the past. Within the partial euphoria of the Swinging ’60s, capital punishment was abolished in the United Kingdom and was embraced as a hugely progressive humanitarian decision. Then in 1965, the Moors Murders were discovered. Manchester couple Ian Brady and Myra Hindley kidnapped, tortured and murdered several school children, burying them in secret locations including the Yorkshire Moors. The investigation and exhumation of many of the children was covered incessantly by the media, and to this day the final victim’s whereabouts is not known. From the unconsidered (and financially-neglected) North of England, a civilised nation’s worst nightmare had been uncovered, disrupting not only the previously-confident decision to abolish the death sentence, but for Britain to question its values and the protection of its most vulnerable citizens.
The reality of the Moors Murders, being situated in the natural landscape of the Yorkshire countryside, re-invoked the ominous dialogue of organised sacrifice and occultism. An accusation long-made towards abstracted villages in Cornwall and Devon, now the North was seen as a place capable of concealing inhuman, murderous activities. No actual occult practises were believed to be at the heart of Brady and Hindley’s acts: instead the ‘witch-hunt’ came in the form of the public and media outcry, especially towards the punishment of Myra Hindley. The national outrage caused the country to re-address its attitude towards the legal system, and to the press for controversially perpetuating coverage of the crimes (even to this day, Myra Hindley will probably only ever be portrayed in the press through that picture.)
Ritual examines the horrors of the unknown existing and coming unbidden from places we though we understood, or perhaps didn’t care enough to understand before. Being located between London and Cornwall, the novel is discomfortingly claustrophobic in proximity to the reader’s reality. The heady, poetic description of natural woodland, the minute changes in weather, the sea and the pinpointed atmosphere of the village of Thorn are all relatable attributes. Every reader will have known somewhere like Thorn, even if they only visited it as a child. Indeed, as in The Wicker Man, children play a vital role in the social arrangement of the village. If the children are not aping the adult rituals of sacrifice and ceremony, they are observing everything unfolding, from their bedroom windows, or over churchyard walls (as they do in The Wicker Man, behind their dead-eyed animal masks.) In many ways, the children of Thorn are the panoptical eye over the entire village, seeing much of what the adults don’t see, because even though the adults practise a seemingly Pagan reverence for Nature, they must still connive and conspire, like people do, in order to enter into a dialogue with the investigations of Detective Inspector Hanlin.
To Hanlin, who randomly transgresses the boundaries of the internal and external topography of the village in the name of police investigation (“in the corners of rooms and angles of trees”) he knows he is being deflected but can never get to the truth, yet reveals something of the character of the village to the reader anyway. This is of course the principle plot element to The Wicker Man. In actual fact, the influence of Ritual can be seen extending further than Robin Hardy’s adaptation. Hardy and Shaffer’s genius came from relocating the Cornish village of Thorn to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle. But there is more than a passing resemblance to Ritual to be found in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990), itself the story of a young girl’s murder being investigated by an urbane detective who finds himself at the labyrinthine mystery of a sleepy, isolated town. Twin Peaks, unlike the swift conclusion to Ritual after 200 pages or so, continued for an inordinate amount of episodes, in a way mirroring the media’s interminable coverage of murder cases involving the tragic death of young women, and the desire to keep the viewing public fixated on the subject for as long as possible.
In another capacity, the novel’s psychological complexity of David Hanlin, with its unexpected twist in the end (nothing like The Wicker Man, but just as horrific), is reminiscent of the unfolding truth behind films such as Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), and provides a commentary on the psychological reliability on those who hold particularly high positions of authority. Where the ‘activities’ of the villagers of Thorn can be contextualised as being misunderstood and therefore unable to be controlled, Hanlin’s activities are even more distressing because he is supposed to be not only the novel’s ‘hero’ but also the ambassador for London and Scotland Yard, and for civilised society in general.
Ultimately, in Ritual, David Pinner has written one of the most influential and prescient Horror novels of the last 50 years. But as well as Horror, it’s hard to think of a popular post-1970s Detective series that doesn’t feature an unhinged, damaged antagonist like Hanlin. There’s no place for two-dimensional heroes in today’s decent genre fiction, probably because there’s no place for two-dimensional events in real life. Ritual is a hard text: its gruesome, yes, but never gratuitously so. The violence of the novel is presented as poetically as the bucolic isolation of Thorn, but alongside the violence is a great deal of humour also, from the banter between Hanlin and anyone intellectual enough to compete with his wit, to the caricature of Reverend White and his self-conscious obsolescence as head of a church in a place that has ‘outgrown’ Christianity. Ritual is a must for fans of Robin Hardy’s tremendously good adaptation, but I would also recommend it to fans of Folk Horror in general. It all had to start somewhere after all, and from the power and legacy of Ritual, there’s a chance that such a global phenomena of a genre might have started in a small Cornish village somewhere, where someone went and uncovered something unexpected.
‘You know what man really desires? (…) One of two things: to find someone who is so stupid he can lie to her, or to love someone so much that she can lie to him’
‘You must have heard that free will has at last been proved an illusion’
Choice of Weapons
Although Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936) is considered one of the most significant gay novels of the twentieth-century, what stretches beyond the richly portrayed sexual interactions of the female protagonists, is the starvation and fatality of desire. Robin Vote is a fragile, unearthly creature, half-existing on some liminal plateau between sleep and wakefulness. She seems constantly on the wrong side of the looking-glass to her desires, but concludes they are something to do with maintaining a dreamlike state. Nora Flood, her elder live-in lover, adores Robin in a way akin to biological necessity. Robin is stolen from Nora by Jenny Petherbridge: a squatter in the experiences of others, who constantly regales whoever will listen with anecdotes of other peoples’ happiness, deflecting the truth of the void which is herself. Where Robin embodies “the troubling structure of the born somnambule”, Jenny ceaselessly fends off the emptiness she suspects of herself, poaching Nora’s lover out of some kind of credulous envy and gaining Robin as a trophy. Nora turns helplessly to the dubious and seemingly interminable advice of Dr Matthew O’Connor, a transvestite and ‘amateur gynaecologist’, who grants his labyrinthine philosophy to his ‘clients’ whilst rinsing them for meals, drinks and occasionally cash.
In Robert Aickman’s Choice of Weapons (from Dark Entries, 1964), Malcolm Fenville falls instantaneously and obsessively in love with Dorabelle, a nocturnal beauty who seemingly lives alone (save for the family butler) in a crumbling mausoleum-like villa in London. Abandoning all of the socially-sanctioned routines of modern life, Fenville visits Dorabelle regularly and finds her own feelings to be evasive and perhaps ultimately mortally challenging, should Fenville pursue her hand. Fenville, like Nora Flood, seeks the counsel of one in the medical industry: Dr Bermuda. Unlike Dr O’Connor in Nightwood, Bermuda’s methods of rehabilitation include the clandestine combination of hypnotism, medicine and social orchestration. Like Barnes, Aickman has produced a tale about the unexpected disruption of uncontrollable desire, and the perils of fixation and jealousy. Conversely to Barnes, Aickman’s portrayal of the benefits of medical intervention is less to do with the stabilisation (or realisation) of one’s true desires, and is more instead a warning on the risks of reliance on chemical conditioning in times of increasing social anxiety and crises of identity.
Nightwood is not about a love triangle as such. But it kind of is. And Choice of Weapons is kind of about a love triangle also. The agency of the other party in the stories is not so much about competition for affections but more about revealing the protagonists’ desire for the sicknesses they are. Given the explicitly homosexual narrative in Nightwood, it is significant that Barnes should focus less on the fact that the story concerns same-sex relations and is more to do with the corrosiveness of obsession. Robin and Nora are more like two virulent forms of vegetation, intertwining with (and therefore gradually throttling) each other due to the processes of nature rather than two people in love. Barnes even introduces the sleeping Robin as being akin to vegetation, describing her flesh as having “the texture of plant life, and beneath it one sensed a frame, broad, porous and sleep-worn, as if sleep were a decay fishing her beneath the visible surface”. Nora’s home is also seen in terms of some natural procedure, full of strange possessions she and Robin have collected together and littered along the rooms like magpies feathering their nest. When Robin is extracted by Jenny, the solitary Nora feels suffocated by the “personality of the house”, and constantly ensures everything stays as it is, so that the returning Robin would not lose “the scent of home”.
Nora turns to Dr Matthew O’Connor for guidance: a man willing to bestow his interminable medicinal ‘philosophy’ on others, but who holds no medical license. Like Nora, O’Connor is a deviant. He is a transvestite, and like Robin in her over-sized trench coat and scruffy attire, externally O’Connor is a formless, slightly terrifying androgyny. He is willing to grant wisdom concerning both sexes (including the disturbing intimacy of his amateur gynaecological practises) and he seems to embody the emotional turmoil between both genders. No question is ever given a clear answer, and O’Connor spends as much time emphatically belittling the worries and questions of others, persistently turning the outlook towards his own. Perhaps because O’Connor is alone in this world, he has the ability to point out the destructive capabilities of love, especially when it mutates into jealousy and obsession. Yet it is through such violent reshaping that O’Connor sees love’s purest form:
“The heart of the jealous knows the best and the most satisfying love, that of the other’s bed, where the rival perfects the lover’s imperfections. Fancy gallops to take part in that duel, unconstrained by any certain articulation of the laws of that unseen game”
Nightwood is a violent text on many levels. The force of the prose, drunkenly rich and hugely descriptive: the book is only about 200 pages long, and is more description than anything else. It’s an unexpected text (except perhaps to literary students and middle-aged poets, who are perhaps sadly the only people who actually ever read this book) being neither lesbian porn nor Parisian high society romp. Robin’s self-destruction is violent: she flings herself from continent to continent, into and away from the possession of others, and tears herself from the duty of motherhood and the decaying legacy of Felix, her ineffectual husband. Nightwood embodies no identity, just like the evasive sexual- and gender-categories of its protagonists. And O’Connor’s advice is violent, seemingly doing the thinking for his clients, and finding himself reduced to frustration at the absence of equilibrium to life, exclaiming at one point to Nora, “Personally, if I could, I would instigate Meat-Axe Day, and out of the goodness of my heart I would whack your head off along with a couple of others. Every man should be allowed one day and a hatchet just to ease his heart”.
Aickman’s Choice of Weapons, like Nightwood, looks at social expectations, and then violently hacks them down. Fenville, like Nora, has helplessly fallen in love, but is aware that lurking in the shadows might be a competitor. Fenville belongs to an archetypical strain of suitor, who wishes to clinically court a lady before asking her hand. So when he is courting Ann at some fancy restaurant, he finds protocol torn asunder when he falls for Dorabelle across the room. But, as often with Aickman, nothing is straightforward and the allusions of any expectations are violently torn away, as they are in Nightwood. In her homosexual odyssey into the madness of obsession, Barnes offers-up the negation of the male: Felix is romantically obsessed with legacy and continuity of the family name, but is rendered impotent without the companionship of Robin (who by her nature rejects him.) Dr O’Connor instead focusses on the interplay between Robin, Jenny and Nora, which, although destructive and doomed to a starvation of contentment (which is something his psychological analysis never denies) is nonetheless where the relationship naturally lies: within a nature of turmoil.
Aickman on the other hand studies not the negation of the male, but the repression of the male needing to be Male. Fenville soon learns that in order to have Dorabelle, he must be her saviour. In the modern ritual of courtship, to actually duel for the one you love seems outmoded and surreal. Yet Dr Bermuda, Fenville’s medical practitioner, steers his patient towards such a situation. Bermuda extracts information from Fenville’s subconscious via hypnosis, including where Dorabelle lives (Fenville claimed to not make note of it when he followed her home after the restaurant.) Cryptically, Bermuda explains Fenville’s repression of the memory of Dorabelle’s location down to him being “unaccustomed to romance”. ‘Romance’, it seems, has become something deeper than awareness somehow, like an organic process, automatically bubbling along within the murk of our being without the necessity of our awareness. This means that something about Romance is instinctive. Instinct is part of defence and survival.
Dr Bermuda’s advice feels militaristic in register: all necessity and drive. Dr O’Connor’s advice for Nora and Felix concerns allowing the destruction to envelope you, and to degrade along with it like vegetation. Bermuda’s advice is about self-defence and efficiency in the battlefield of another’s affections. Where Nightwood’s Nora, and to some extent Robin, experience a varied stratification of realities – the realities of responsibilities (Robin’s family); the realities of their own weaknesses (Nora’s loneliness and infatuation); the alternate realities of fantasy (Robin’s addiction to sleep and dreaming) – Choice of Weapons instead restricts the narrative, relying on elision and what is missing. In order to hypnotise Fenville, Dr Bermuda induces a dreamless sleep. It is as if Bermuda surgically removes slices of narrative which are of no use, compared to Nightwood’s abundance of spiralling narrative vines.
And then there is the selective appearance/non-appearance of Dorabelle’s other suitor (and Fenville’s competitor.) Fenville trains in order to enter combat with the figure in fancy dress, and eventually seemingly succeeds in fending him off. Fenville has infiltrated enemy territory and seemingly won. But then it is revealed who the uniformed figure truly is, and Dr Bermuda arrives (like a pill, like an injection) and steers Fenville toward the next level of his battle for manhood in these times of chaos and unseen oppression.
Choice of Weapons is one of Aickman’s more politically-overt texts. Nightwood is deeply political, of course, not only thrusting the notion of the contemporary urban homosexual relationship toward the reader, but also offering the satisfying voyeurism of emotion and psychological nuance, not the disposable lightness of titillation. But Choice of Weapons is a commentary not on the outmoded significance of the Male as such (Barnes positively leaves the Male to rot) but rather on the frantic efforts of some in modern society, and in modern medicine (contextually-speaking – the story is 50 years old now) to still keep the Male relevant. Both texts offer a Roman à clef into the fears of identity and the vulnerability of insignificance during the twentieth-century, both from the homosexual community and the Male. Aickman doesn’t purport to give direct answers, but the story does give a harrowing account of desperation and lengths achieved in order to retain identity, even if it’s someone else’s that might be under threat. Barnes never even approaches looking for answers either, instead offering an insight into the nightmare of lost love (no matter who is loving who) and the universally relatable theme of abandonment and grief.
One thing that must be emphasised of the media of the Left is that, unlike the poised outrage of the media of the Right, with its daggerish jabs at absolutely anything borne of ‘unpatriotic views’, ‘socialism’ and ‘counterculturalism’, the Left is on the whole rarely specifically vile in its coverage of the passing of figures of conservative prominence. The last one who springs to mind is Margaret Thatcher, of course. Her death was sycophantically mourned by the British Right, but her obituaries in Left-leaning media was also more factual than an excuse at posthumous mud-slinging. Thatcher’s absoluteness as being either good or evil depends mostly on your political/social/economic stance: she didn’t actually go out and personally slay babies herself like some blouse-wearing Herod (although many would probably swiftly say “she might as well have done”) but the results of her divisive political decisions resonated more than any British Prime Minister at the time.
When Kurt Vonnegut Jr. passed away in 2007, it was inevitably the Left who mourned. Vonnegut had been a figurehead of the intellectual literary counterculture movement of the last fifty years, speaking openly and sagely of life during wartime, the destructiveness of mainstream religion mixed with politics, and the need of tolerance and integration. So it probably came as no surprise that those on the Right probably wouldn’t miss him. It should have been left at that really: the Right could have just silenced him into obscurity. But instead came Fox New’s Special Report of his death, which was fairly well researched, direct, and utterly vile.
It reads like a kick in the balls to the corpse of some family member who is accused of molesting the announcer when they were a youngster, and it is indicative of everything that is the neon-atrocity of the media of the Right. To acknowledge and list Vonnegut’s date of birth, military achievements and literary career trajectory is one thing, but to then crowbar in facetious backhands like his writing being “left-wing screeds and random musings”, degraded further by their being “self-admitted sci fi mumbo jumbo” is just unneccessary and is in no way news. Just out of interest, when is sci fi ever not mumbo jumbo? When it’s proven scientifically correct? That’s what symbolism is for god’s sake.
Saying that, it’s not like Fox’s cultishly ingrown anti-intellectualism is anything new. Fox is like an Internet troll who has been given the budget for their own TV network. Anyway. I’m sure you yourself are reading this and thinking “Yes..? And..? Tell us something new.”
If it wasn’t for the media of the Right’s insecurity with satire, nuance and self-reflexivity, the report might actually read like something Vonnegut himself could have written. It treats death like the fact of life it is, rather than poeticising or sanitizing it. Life goes on after Vonnegut, and for some (so it seems, although the report seems to oddly elevate his status as if he were the single most important countercultural writer who ever lived whilst saying something quite different) he will not be missed.
Death, for some, is an oscillation between vanity and obscurity. This is a subject Vonnegut often covers. To die and vanish into obscurity, or the vanity of being mourned after one’s death. It depends on who’s doing the remembering, obviously. Professor Eugene Debs Hartke, the protagonist of Hocus Pocus, is one who lives side-by-side with death. Having fought in Vietnam and killed more people than he is willing to number, Hartke understands completely the fragility of life and all the absurdities that hold it together. Not that absurdities aren’t important in their own ways. Chance can often be absurd: such as Hartke being fired from Tarkington College, only to immediately gain a position as a tutor at the prison across the river, and to years later find himself back in the college town when one night a prison break ensues and the escapees use the Winter-frozen lake to immediately gain access to pillage and take over the town.
Hocus Pocus, like other Vonnegut work’s before it such as Cat’s Cradle or Mother Night, uses cosmic chance as a way in for the crossing of genres. For some, the idea of there always being some cosmic, inexplicably unlikely chance occurrence could feel contrived. But for Vonnegut, it forms the basis of much of the levity within his drama. Hocus Pocus is one of his more ‘realistic’ novels, with less of the SF orientation of The Sirens of Titan or Cat’s Cradle, and instead more of a condensed microcosm of people and events with very little fantastical devices or situations. There are the signature Vonnegut contexts of Vietnam and WWII, and also the capitalist concerns of international global corporate dominance (even in the American penal system), and state oppression of the uneducated and ‘criminal classes.’
The faculty at Tarkington are insular, egotistically confident in their free-thinking approach to education, and have no space for the disruptively cynical views of professors like Hartke. Unbeknownst to them their prison is their ideology. For the actual prisoners in the prison, their double-incarceration comes from their walls and their lack of education: yet by the time they break out of the prison and overrun the college town, many of them don’t wan to see it destroyed because Hartke (known as “The Preacher” due to a sanitary lack of swear-words during his frank, political teachings) has taught them the value of education. This might come across as a trite Vonnegut-does-Dead-Poets conceit, but in actual fact, having been through Vietnam and the lurking, perpetual horrors which will haunt him forever (no matter where he teaches and no matter how many women he sleeps with), Hartke’s influence in discouraging destruction in others is palpable.
Language is a key theme. Hartke is clearly a gifted academic orator, hence his respect from others (grudging or otherwise.) He is fully aware of the “hocus pocus” of motivation: motivation to pick yourself up and carry on when your best friend has just been shot dead in front of you. Motivation to remove yourself from the awfulness of life in and outside of your own experiences. Motivation to be tolerant and accepting. The one strand of SF in Hocus Pocus comes from Hartke’s admiration for a short story he read in a porn mag called The Protocols of the Elders of Tralfamadore, where a sentient, million year-old stand of intergalactic energy has a great time entertaining itself by causing humans to do to themselves what they do in the forms or war, global economic instability, disease and everything else. The way Hartke gains a sense of cosmic amusement from the Tralfamadorian’s own cosmic amusement is both comforting and enlightening. Hartke is already one-step removed from society by his wartime experiences: now he’s found a reason for it all, even if it is a piece of fiction hidden between the pictures in a porn mag.
Vonnegut’s narrative shifting between the intimately personal to the intergalactically abstract stretches the mind somewhat. It’s what he has done well throughout most of his books. But setting Hocus Pocus in just a single town (on the whole) domesticities his grand visions for acceptance and tolerance. Yes, he takes the reader to Hiroshima when the bombs drops, and there are excursions to Vietnam. But the micro-theatre of the prison break, the frozen lake and the college town are where the reader are sometimes claustrophobically drawn towards, crammed onto a small stage like the Shakespeare plays Hartke is keen to amusingly quote on occasion.
Like most quotes, or summing-ups, or throwaway maxims, they don’t have much of a life in Hocus Pocus. Blink and you might miss something important happening to a character, or something might not make sense anymore. Hartke’s free-flowing narration doesn’t wait for the casual reader, and many a time after someone has supposedly said something ‘profound’, Hartke will belittle it with a brief “Cough” or some other discursive dismissal. Ideology, like a military presence, can become the authoritative presence overnight, but by the morning after it could be driven out of town by a sniper in a bell tower. There’s nothing that can’t be looked at from each angle and have the same three hundred people come to three hundred new conclusions every time.
But this is classic Vonnegut: narrative strands come from any direction, and how they intersect can be unpredictable at times, but you have to be there to catch them cross, or you might be left in the dark.
The state of the world will always be bigger than a few easily digestible headlines, or a well-worded epitaph, or a desperate plea to keep a lover close. Sometimes you have to stick it out for the long haul to get the bigger picture. Sometimes you might even have to contribute to the greater action to understand what parts are being played out at any moment.
One of my tutors at Kent said that Too Loud a Solitude was her favourite novel. It’s nice to hear that academics can have a favourite novel, one book that sticks out above all others as the one they most favour. Sometimes it’s not always relevant to contextualize a book, to acknowledge it only as part of some encapsulating era or phase. The best book I’ve ever read, for example, is The Great Gatsby. That might sound like a bit of a cliché seeing as it’s a book that’s been pretty well covered, but I didn’t say it was my favourite book. I said it was the best book I’d read; in terms of structure, quality and effect. My favourite book is a different story (so to speak.) My favourite book seems to change year in year out, but for the last couple of years it’s been Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Before that it was probably something like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in The High Castle, and before that Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea. Also, I know for a fact there was time when it was Michael Marshall Smith’s Spares. But anyway.
When you get told what a literature tutor’s favourite book is, though, that’s about as good a recommendation as you’re going to get for anything. I bought Too Loud a Solitude and read it right away. It is in many ways an befitting text to become a literature tutor’s favourite novel. And it was brilliant. Completely brilliant. And also short. Completely short. But rather than feeling short like a novella or a lengthy short story, it reads instead like an epic that’s been densened into something smaller, but with all the component parts just somehow closer, overlapping, and as a result, completely inseparable.
Which is makes sense, because it’s a book about a mechanical book press. Hanta, a middle-aged alcoholic in Communist Czeckoslovakia, operates a basement paper compactor where on a daily basis tons of books, magazines, pamphlets, wrappers and cardboard gets poured down for him to compress and recycle. But first, many of the texts sent to their doom end up secretly passing through Hanta before being destroyed. As a result, Hanta is that most feared enemy of any dictatorship; an autodidact, informed, educated, and completely invisible and undetectable.
“I am nothing but a refined butcher”, Hanta proclaims of his profession, with a sense of poetry that has organically, but comprehensively, infected his outlook. Many of the texts Hanta is paid to obliterate are banned by the post-WWII regime; books considered politically or philosophically incendiary are banned then destroyed in presses like Hanta’s. But although it’s always been simply his profession, gradually the scale of what he is complicit in eats away at Hanta, especially as he becomes seduced by what he reads just before it disappears. He gains a tentative respect for these texts, akin to bearing witness to the last few words of a dying relative, or preparing a last meal for someone sentenced to be executed.
The book is essentially a list of various philosophers, artists and texts likely to be banned by any actual Communist regime: Hegel, Homer, Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, the Talmud, Seneca’s On Tranquility of The Mind, Rimbaud, Lao-Tze, Kant, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Brueghel, Schopenhauer, Sartre, Camus, Copernicus, Plato, Socrates. During his shifts, Hanta reflects on the press, on whatever is going on in the city above him, on the flirtatious activities of the two young “gypsy” girls who regularly bring him more work, with a mind that is “nothing but a hydraulic press of compacted thought.” He becomes unable to differentiate between which are his own musings and which are quotations he read somewhere, and because the books are swiftly destroyed after he reads them (the ironic disposal of the evidence of his “unwitting education”) he has no way of confirming.
When not indulging in the clandestine cultural feasting his cellar conceals, Hanta finds the outside world (i.e: above-ground) existing in a state of cultural famine. On street corners he speaks with a vulnerable and strangely lost university professor, demented by the cruelty of obsolescence (Hrabal as a student himself at the time of Nazi occupation where the universities were shut down.) He watches the vibrant, attractively colourful day-to-day activities of the local “gypsies”; immigrants from unspecified but undoubtedly more exotic lands than here, whose women have “eyes that reflect the wisdom of a culture long forgotten.” And he witnesses the faceless progress of dictatorship; children on school trips being taught how books are “waste paper” to be recycled, and the industrial-scale efficiency of a new, cathedral-like hydraulic press, where uniformed workers obliterate texts without ever reading a single one.
The moral conflict of Hanta’s profession is made all the more visceral when he is paid to compact masses of bloodied, gory butcher’s paper from a nearby abattoir. During the Nazi occupation, hundreds of Roma citizens were interned in a prison camp before being sent to Auschwitz. After the Nazi occupation, relations between native Czechs and immigrants remained volatile, where even the official Czech national dictionary presents “Gypsy” as persons of “mendacity, theft … liars, imposters, cheaters”. The regime even built an abattoir on the exact site of the prison camp, before public outrage saw it pulled down over a decade later. In Too Loud a Solitude, the gore, smells, and flies which form “thick orbits of dementia around the drum full of paper” lend its more chillingly murderous symbolism. Any sense of artistry Hanta feels about his one-man press being lost on the functionality of the industrial press gradually evades him, and he begins to see himself as part of the machine.
In a moment of dark Magical Realism (or alcoholic stupor) Hanta even perceives the entire city, cathedral, churches and all, being gradually eaten by his press. The narrative provides a panicked commentary on the dissolution of culture and the homogenization brought on by state oppression. Although Hanta could be seen as having ‘overdone’ his education, where, outside of his bricolaged philosophy he cannot practically apply any of his knowledge to real life, he eventually becomes a Messianic figure; by freeing the texts from the ignorances of the world, he strangely gives them a better existence. Hanta, being not only the only one to read most of them but also the one who most appreciates them, gives them purpose.
Too Loud a Solitude is a poignant, infectious tune of a novel. It feels as if there’s more of it than actually sits on the page. Secretly published and distributed during the Czech communist regime, the books stands the test of time as a commentary on the fleeting but indelible powers of unwitting education (and how we are drawn to learning, understanding and processing knowledge), and how any culture or heritage that means anything to you should be grasped and held private if needs be. As Hanta says towards the end of the book, “Every beloved object is the centre of a garden of paradise.”