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Cover of The Bad Movie Bible by Rob HillThe Bad Movie Bible: The Ultimate Modern Guide to Movies That Are So Bad They’re Good, Rob Hill (Art of Publishing 2017)

(This is a guest-review by Pablo Magono)

There are good movies and bad movies. Among the latter, there are “movies so bad that you might think Adam Sandler was responsible for them, but so funny it won’t be for long.” That’s the simple premise behind The Bad Movie Bible. It’s easy to read, very funny, and full of information, posters, interesting screen-grabs, prize quotes, and sizzling starlets flashing flesh.

And as if that weren’t enough, the icing on the cake is that The Bad Movie Bible is itself mildly infected by Bad-Movie-itis. There are repeated references to a mysterious “right of passage” and the publisher’s address is given as “Bloosmbury”. Is this part of the joke? No, I don’t think so. It’s just a reminder that to err is human. But to err as badly as some of the movies here might be superhuman. Literally so, because Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is one of the entries in the “Science Fiction & Fantasy” section.

Elsewhere there are sections for “Action” and “Horror”, plus a grab-bag section called “The Rest” that collects everything from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) and The Room (2003) to Empire of the Ants (1977) and Double Down (2005). All movies get ratings out of 10 for five essential filmographic categories: “Cheese”, “Acting”, “Excess”, “Ineptitude” and “What?” (“reflecting the movie’s propensity to offer up moments of baffling wonder”). The higher the mark, the badder-better that aspect of the movie. Then there’s an overall “BMB Rating”, again out of 10, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the average score on the other categories. Some movies are more than the sum of their parts, some are less.

The best of the baddest are also accompanied by interviews with stars, stuntmen or those who rescued them from oblivion. For fetid fans of scuzz-cinema, this book should provide many happy hours first of reading, then of watching its recommendations. But could anything ever live up to the promise of a title like Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)? Or Kung Fu Cannibals (1982)? In the latter case, apparently it could: the movie, better-known as Raw Force, gets a BMB Rating of 10, despite an average rating of 8.4 on the other categories (only “What?” is 10/10). The horror movie Things (1989) also gets a BMB Rating of 10, but its average score on the sub-categories is 9.6 – it gets 10/10 for “Acting”, “Excess”, “Ineptitude” and “What?”, but “Cheese” is 8/10.

That makes Things the baddest-bestest in the book. For Rob Hill, anyway. It’s not his favourite movie in the book, mind, but he knows what he’s talking about. He has a lot of knowledge, with enthusiasm and wit to match:

Miami Connection is an extremely positive movie that preaches tolerance and the need to accept people from all walks of life. Unless they’re drug-dealing motorcycle ninjas. (Miami Connection, 1987) … Writer / director Amir Shervan doesn’t stumble around the fringes of incompetence: he jumps right into the middle of it and does a jig. (Samurai Cop, 1991) … During the following night the sword is blown out of Christie’s closet on fishing wire by a wind machine. (Ninja III: The Domination, 1984) … Just like its star, Deadly Prey has been honed, buffed and oiled to within an inch of its life, then stripped virtually naked and released into the wild. (Deadly Prey, 1987) … The best teenagers-get-eaten-by-radioactive-plankton-fed-mutant-human-hybrid-flying-fish movie ever made. (Creatures from the Abyss, aka Plankton, 1994) … The apparent lack of any traditional cinematic luxuries (posh stuff like a tripod to keep the camera steady) makes this hard to watch at times. … But there’s something about it. If we’re honest, that something might just be a sexually promiscuous doll. It’s hard to say. (Black Devil Doll from Hell, 1984) … Ben & Arthur is a personal and heartfelt glimpse into the world of writer / director / star Sam Mraovich. His world is batshit crazy. (Ben & Arthur, 2002) … It must be hard for a man surrounded by Bee Gees to look like the smug one. Peter Frampton has a real talent for it. (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1978)

Hill also has space for some “deliberately cheesy” movies like The Ice Pirates (1984) and Traxx (1988). He includes them because he thinks they’re not as knowing as they wanted to be: “Just because there are deliberate attempts to ape schlock, it doesn’t mean there can’t be inadvertent schlock, too.” Movies like this are “good-good, bad-bad and good-bad all at the same time.” But most of the book is given over to movies that are genuinely so-bad-they’re-good. With possible exceptions like the following, which might be so-bad-it-should-have-been-burned:

La Notte del Necrofilo / Night of the Necrophile (Italy / Romania 1986)

After watching an ordinary scuzzy movie, you may well be left wishing you could bleach your eyeballs. After watching Night of the Necrophile, you may well be left wishing that eyeballs had never been invented. This movie doesn’t merely plumb unprecedented depths of depravity, bad taste and offensiveness: it finds depths below the depths, and then depths below those. The ineptitude and amateurishness merely add an extra shot of slime to the whole fetid cocktail.

But the ineptitude doesn’t extend far enough. You can’t take refuge in an incoherent or non-existent plot, because the noxious narrative is all too appallingly evident and easy to follow. Gypsy criminals Gran Voio (played by a cackling Eric Napolito) and his dwarvish cousin Piccolo Psico (Samuel Tegolare) are hired by the black-clad, mask-wearing Doktor Nekro (Victor Queresco), a Nazi scientist / war-criminal who’s been hiding out in the badlands of southern Italy since the end of the war. He needs their help to collect a fresh batch of young female corpses for his perverted experiments in reanimation. The toxic trio set off in a refrigerated truck, committing brazen street-murders to source their stock or sneaking into municipal mortuaries and loading the freshest and most attractive corpses into their necro-wagon.

Then, just as night falls and news comes over the radio of a heat-wave the following day, the truck breaks down on the winding mountain road that leads back to Doktor Nekro’s well-hidden lair. The refrigeration fails and the three depraved criminals are left with a stash of stolen stiffs that aren’t going to keep… I’d describe what happens next, but I’m worried that my keyboard would report me to the authorities. Suffice it to say that Doktor Nekro begins to commit medical infractions that the framers of the Hippocratic oath could never have anticipated – indeed, could never have imagined possible. […]

The mysterious and probably pseudonymous director is rumoured to have died shortly after completing the movie, possibly of shame, his body being shipped back to Romania for burial. In his absence, Night of the Necrophile was hastily edited and rush-released in a desperate attempt to stave off Sanguecine’s looming – and well-deserved – bankruptcy. Be warned. And then warned again. This is a movie that makes Things seem like Citizen Kane and The Gore Gore Girls seem like Bambi. Approach with extreme caution.

That’s not a typical movie here, but it helps make The Bad Movie Bible as varied as the real Bible. It’s “Bad to the Bon”!

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The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe 2The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe, Edmund Glasby (Linford 2013)

A patchy book that will be best appreciated by those who know the north-west of England and the seaside town of Morecambe (pronounced MOR-kum). It will be best un-appreciated by that group too. As you might expect, some people will find The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe funny and some will find it insulting. Any Lovecraft fan who has visited the town since the 1960s, when cheap air travel ended its popularity as a resort, will have been strongly reminded of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. In Lovecraft’s story, an outsider discovers that the crumbling town of Innsmouth is full of strange, fish-faced folk and swirling with undercurrents of madness and menace. That’s a lot like Morecambe, believe me. One of those Lovecraft fans has now based a novel on the parallels. These are the opening lines:

For past eighteen months, the old man had wandered the streets of the increasingly derelict Lancashire coastal resort of Morecambe – contender for the unenviable title of “The most depressing town in Britain”. None of the Morecambrians knew where he had come from, for none had ever stopped to speak with him, his mysterious background becoming the stuff of local lore. The few who were aware of him speculated that he was a re-housed murderer or paedophile living out his miserable existence in a nondescript squat somewhere along the West End – the great haven for dole-dossers, junkies and other down-and-outs.

It’s not surprising that The Visitor, Morecambe’s local newspaper, hasn’t reviewed this book, because it doesn’t paint an attractive picture of the town and its southern neighbour, the village of Heysham. The old man is Professor Mandrake Smith, once Professor of Anthropology at Oxford University, now an alcoholic tramp squatting in an abandoned hotel in the “largely gerontocratic dump” of Morecambe, whose “lifeblood” is “anti-depressants and cheap booze” (pg. 25) and whose “xenophobic” inhabitants are “morose and unwilling to embrace change”, “content almost to wallow in their pervasive, impoverished despair” (pg. 83).

Edmund Glasby, who grew up in Morecambe according to this web-page, has fun letting Nyarlathotep and other Lovecraftian monsters loose on the gerontocratic dump and its xenophobes. “Pervy” Stan, as Professor Mandrake is now known, is ready to top himself at the beginning of the story, but finds new purpose in life by joining the battle against the eldritch horror of “darkness and insanity that awaits Morecambe – and the entire world…” Other characters fare less well, like “Heysham’s ugliest and fattest man, ‘Big’ Barry Crowley” (pg. 25), who is eviscerated and turned into a zombie; “The Troll”, an otherwise nameless “benefit-scrounging misfit” and single mother of eleven, whose mind is destroyed by a “gigantic octopoid head” peering over the hills to the north of Morecambe’s famous bay as the tide pours in; and Bill Draper, a “cantankerous old sod” who owns a newsagent’s in Morecambe’s misleadingly named West End, enjoys reading the “large obituaries section” in The Visitor, and makes the mistake of opening the door to his storeroom, despite the “overpowering fishy stink” that is leaking through it.

The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe by Edmund Glasby

The Weird Shadow… (large print edition)

The characters are tongue-in-cheek but true-to-life. Even Jacob Wyzchyck could really exist somewhere in the town. He’s a voyeur who spends most of his time sitting in “dirty underpants” in his “squalid third-story bedsit” overlooking “Westminster Road”, equipped with a pair of “binoculars, bag of popcorn and large bottle of vodka” (pg. 242). He sees the first outbreak of homicidal violence that will soon erupt into “full-blown chaos”, as “lunatics and anarchists” rampage “largely unchecked through the streets”. This part of the book reminded me of Stephen King’s Needful Things (1991), in which King has fun destroying his invented town of Castle Rock: “Much of Morecambe was now ablaze, with fires burning uncontrollably from Bare to Heysham, from Torrisholme to the outskirts of Lancaster” (pg. 318).

But in the end the “Crawling Chaos” is beaten off and Morecambe is saved. In the epilogue, there’s even a “day of glamour and hope”, as the old Midland Hotel in which Professor Mandrake once squatted is re-opened after restoration: “psychic waves of goodwill and hope were transforming Morecambe, for one day at least” (pg. 353). If you get that far, you’ll find the book entertaining but unsatisfying. Too much Lovecraft is borrowed direct and the horrors are too crude and explicit. Morecambe will also remind some of a giant Alan Bennett play, and a subtler writer like Ramsey Campbell could have made more of the strange contrast between the urban decay of the town and the beauty of the bay on which it is set.

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The Strange Adventures of Mr Andrew Hawthorn & Other Stories by John BuchanThe Strange Adventures of Mr Andrew Hawthorn & Other Stories, John Buchan (Penguin Books 2009)

“How the devil could one associate horror with mathematics?” A Lovecraft fan will answer: easily. But that question was asked by John Buchan in a story first published in 1911. Buchan is most famous for the character Richard Hannay, hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), but just as there is much more to Doyle than his detective, so there is much more to Buchan than his battler.

As you’ll see in this collection. Like Doyle, Buchan ranged from horror to humour, from realism to romance, from outdoors adventure to indoors introspection. He could write vivid descriptions of everything from dinner with the Devil to a storm at sea. Doyle was obviously an influence on him; so were Kipling and Stevenson. He doesn’t always match their quality, but that’s hardly surprising: writing formed only part of his very full and active life. According to the chronology here, he trained as a barrister, became President of the Oxford Union, worked as secretary to the High Commissioner of South Africa and served in the Intelligence Corps during the First World War, then became successively a director of Reuters, a Conservative member of parliament, President of the Scottish Historical Society, Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Governor-General of Canada and Chancellor of Edinburgh University.

During all that time, he was also hunting, fishing and tramping the wilderness of Scotland, South Africa and Canada. And he was reading in several languages on many subjects: there are quotes here from Suetonius, Shakespeare, the Bible, Burke, A.E. Housman, Verlaine, Pascal and Poincaré. The last two supply the seed for “Space” (1911), his proto-Lovecraftian story of mathematics and menace:

All Hollond’s tastes were on the borderlands of sciences, where mathematics fades into metaphysics and physics merges in the abstrusest kind of mathematics. Well, it seems he had been working for years at the ultimate problem of matter, and especially of that rarefied matter we call aether or space. I forget what his view was – atoms or molecules or electric waves. […] He claimed to have discovered — by ordinary inductive experiment — that the constituents of aether possessed certain functions, and moved in certain figures obedient to certain mathematical laws. Space, I gathered, was perpetually ‘forming fours’ in some fancy way. (“Space” in The Moon Endureth: Tales and Fancies – in this online version of the story, the opening quote is by Tertullian)

Like one of Lovecraft’s protagonists, Holland is doomed by his discovery. So is the antiquarian Dubellay in “The Wind in the Portico” (1928). He is visited by the narrator, who is “busy on a critical edition of Theocritus” and wants to see a rare codex owned by Dubellay:

I had made a portrait in my mind of a fastidious old scholar, with eye-glasses on a black cord, and a finical Weltkind-ish manner. Instead I found a man still in early middle age, a heavy fellow dressed in the roughest of country tweeds. […] His face was hard to describe. It was high-coloured, but the colour was not healthy; it was friendly, but it was also wary; above all, it was unquiet. He gave me the impression of a man whose nerves were all wrong, and who was perpetually on his guard. (“The Wind in the Portico” in The Runagates Club)

He’s right to be: having excavated an “old temple” in the woods, he’s foolishly renewed worship of a “British god of the hills” called Vaunus. What happens to him seemed startlingly Lovecraftian when I first read the story, but when I read it again the Lovecraftian charge was muted. It’s hard to be startled twice and a story with powerful images can be disappointing when you return to it.

Buchan uses a similar theme in another story, “The Grove of Ashtaroth”, but in that case the story holds its power when I read it again. It has a different ending too: the doom is averted and the deity is ambivalent. Baleful or beautiful? Grotesque or glorious? It depends partly on one’s race and the story is about atavism and the way ancestry can overthrow environment. Or rather: can re-emerge in the right environment. Like Doyle, Buchan accepted some shocking and long-exploded ideas about the influence of genetics on brains, bodies and behaviour. They’re shocking to modern sensibilities, at least, but they might prove less exploded than some suspect.

Buchan himself may be evidence for them, because he’s another example of the disproportionate Scottish influence on English-speaking culture and literature. He died in Montreal but he was born in Perth near the east coast of Scotland. This background means that some of the strangeness in this collection is a matter of perspective. If you’re not Scottish, it will be strange. If you are, it won’t be. Take “Streams of Water in the South” (1899) and the apparent tramp who suddenly appears and helps a shepherd get his flock across a deep and dangerous flood. The shepherd asks the narrator of the story if he knows who the tramp is:

I owned ignorance.

“Tut,” said he, “ye ken nocht. But Yeddie had aye a queer crakin’ for waters. He never gangs on the road. Wi’ him it’s juist up yae glen and doon anither and aye keepin’ by the burn-side. He kens every water i’ the warld, every bit sheuch and burnie frae Gallowa’ to Berwick. And then he kens the way o’ spates the best I ever seen, and I’ve heard tell o’ him fordin’ waters when nae ither thing could leeve i’ them. He can weyse and wark his road sae cunnin’ly on the stanes that the roughest flood, if it’s no juist fair ower his heid, canna upset him. Mony a sheep has he saved to me, and it’s mony a guid drove wad never hae won to Gledsmuir market but for Yeddie.” (“Streams of Water in the South”)

The mixture of formal literary English and broad Scots heightens the richness and earthiness of the Scots. But perhaps “earthiness” is the wrong word. Language is like water: fickle, fissile, rushing over the landscape of history and culture. So Scots runs through southern English like the streams after which, via the Bible, the story is named.

The tramp Yeddie is named after them too: his real name is Adam Logan but “maist folk ca’ him ‘Streams of Water’”. He both loves water and gains power from it. As he carries fifteen sheep, one by one, across the dangerous flood, he stands “straighter and stronger”, his eye flashes and his voice rings with command. He reminds me of Kipling’s jungle boy Mowgli, who’s at ease with natural forces in a way most people don’t understand and are disturbed by.

The power of this story is Kiplingesque too: it will stay with you, partly for its strangeness, partly for its sadness. Unlike his beloved streams, Logan can’t defy time and where he was once familiar, he will one day be forgotten.

Politics and the May-Fly” (1896) also involves water and also uses Scots. It’s memorable in a different way: not sad, but sardonic. It’s psychological too, involving a battle of wits between a Tory farmer and his radical ploughman. High-born Buchan, the future Governor-General of Canada, could understand and sympathize with all stations of men. But there are things common to all men: “Politics” is a Machiavellian tale in miniature and not something that Lovecraft could have written.

Lovecraft didn’t like fishing or the great outdoors, after all, and he couldn’t explain their appeal as Buchan can. Nor could he have written “Basilissa” (1914), a story that involves both life-long love and rib-cracking wrestling. You’d have to look to Robert E. Howard for a story like that. And this, from a story with a Lovecraftian title, is like Clark Ashton Smith:

Sometimes at night, in the great Brazen Palace, warders heard the Emperor walking in the dark corridors, alone, and yet not alone; for once, when a servant entered with a lamp, he saw his master with a face as of another world, and something beside him which had no face or shape, but which he knew to be that hoary Evil which is older than the stars. (“The Watcher by the Threshold”, 1900)

So Buchan could write like all of the Weird Big Three. I think he must have influenced them too. The Thirty-Nine Steps is a classic, but it doesn’t reveal Buchan’s full range, erudition and intelligence. This collection does. I don’t think all the stories are good, but at his best he isn’t so far behind Kipling, Doyle and H.G. Wells. With a less strenuous public life, perhaps he would have matched them. But if he’d had less appetite for work, he might have had less appetite for landscapes and ideas too. There are lots of them here, from Scottish hills to Canadian forests, from mathematical pandemonium to the “Breathing of God”.

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Classic Horror Stories by H.P. LovecraftH.P. Lovecraft: The Classic Horror Stories, edited by Roger Luckhurst (Oxford University Press 2013)

Lovecraft has come a long way. From the margins to the mountebanks, you might say, because he’s getting serious interest from American and British academics nowadays. In France, he got it a long time ago:

In the late 1960s, the French academic Maurice Lévy wrote a thesis on Lovecraft as a serious fantasiste, continuing the French love of all things tinged with Poe. In turn, the radical philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used Lovecraft as a touchstone for notions of unstable being and becoming-other in their revolutionary manifesto, A Thousand Plateaus (1980). (“Introduction”, pg. xiii)

I didn’t realize it was as bad as that. Then again, I already knew that the Trotskyist gasbag China Miéville had been influenced by Lovecraft and had intensively interrogated issues around Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia. Roger Luckhurst interrogates them too. After all, they’re a glaring flaw in an important and highly influential writer. How could HPL have been so egregiously wrong and in such an offensive way?

Well, perhaps he wasn’t wrong and perhaps he wouldn’t have written so imaginatively and powerfully without his crime-think. The psychologist Hans Eysenck suggested that psychoticism — which is distinct from psychosis – was essential to genius. But was HPL a genius? In his way, I think he was. It wasn’t a purely literary way and perhaps HPL is bigger than literature. He wasn’t a genius like Dickens or Kipling, because you don’t read Lovecraft for literary skill, psychological subtlety and clever characterization. No, you read him for sweep and scale, grandeur and grotesqueness, darkness and density. You should also read him for humour:

In February the McGregor boys from Meadow Hill were out shooting woodchucks, and not far from the Gardner place bagged a very peculiar specimen. The proportions of its body seemed slightly altered in a queer way impossible to describe, while its face had taken on an expression which no one ever saw in a woodchuck before. (“The Colour out of Space”, 1927)

Like J.G. Ballard, Lovecraft is often misread as lacking humour. In fact, like Ballard, he’s often very funny. This book is a joke he would have appreciated: there’s something blackly humorous about his posthumous elevation to hard covers and high-quality paper under the auspices of the Oxford University Press. His work is now getting more care than his body did: as Luckhurst notes in the introduction, HPL died of stomach cancer at 47 as “an unknown and unsuccessful pulp writer” (pg. xii). Is he better in a pulp paperback, with battered covers, yellowing paper and no notes? Yes, I think he is, but he’s best of all when he’s both paperback and hardback. I don’t like literary studies in their modern form, but Roger Luckhurst doesn’t slather HPL in jargon or suffocate the stories with notes.

So the notes aren’t intrusive, but they are instructive – for example, about HPL’s modesty and self-doubt. Did he really think “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936) “displayed evidence of a ‘lack of general ability’ and a mind corrupted by ‘too much reading of pulp fiction’” (“Explanatory Notes”, pg. 470)? Then he was a giant who mistook himself for a pygmy. But that’s better than the reverse. Most of his greatness is collected here, from “The Call of Cthulhu” to “The Shadow Out of Time”, though I would have dropped “The Horror at Red Hook” and included “The Music of Erich Zann”. I would also like to drop China Miéville and include J.G. Ballard, but unfortunately HPL didn’t influence Ballard. I wish he had. Mutual influence would have been even better.

Nietzsche did influence Lovecraft and Lovecraft’s work can be read as, in part, an attempt to confront the death of God. Spirit departs the world; science invades. Where are wonder and horror to be found now? In “The Call of Cthulhu” or “At the Mountains of Madness”, stories that draw on astronomy, geology and biology to awe us with space, time and organic possibility. And Lovecraft, unlike Nietzsche or Ballard, recognized the importance of mathematics. That’s most evident here in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933), which mixes trans-Euclidean geometry with ancient superstition. But maths isn’t the only influence on this story: so is M.P. Shiel’s novel The House of Sounds (1896). I didn’t know about that and I’m glad to have learnt it. That’s good scholarship, introducing readers to older authors and deeper influences. It still doesn’t feel right to read Lovecraft on clean white paper in a heavy book, but it’s good that he’s come up in the world. Let him bask in the sun before the Übermensch arrives.

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Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (French)Treasure Island (1883) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885), Robert Louis Stevenson

These two books contain two of the greatest stories ever written. But they’re curiously different in style, despite the brief time that separates them. Treasure Island has deep pages, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has shallow ones – paper-thin, you might say. In the former, the prose vividly evokes the sounds, sights and smells of the eighteenth century: there’s a three-dimensional world beneath the words and you read almost as though you’re looking into an aquarium. When you’ve finished the story, you feel as though you’ve lived it, as though you’ve really met the characters who moved through it, really had the adventures that Jim Hawkins describes. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde isn’t like that. I read it, I don’t live it, because the words don’t transcend language and I don’t forget the printed page as I do in Treasure Island. The closest the story comes to conjuring a moment of reality is perhaps here:

They mounted the stair in silence, and still with an occasional awe-struck glance at the dead body, proceeded more thoroughly to examine the contents of the cabinet. At one table, there were traces of chemical work, various measured heaps of some white salt being laid on glass saucers, as though for an experiment in which the unhappy man had been prevented.

“That is the same drug that I was always bringing him,” said Poole; and even as he spoke, the kettle with a startling noise boiled over.

This brought them to the fireside, where the easy-chair was drawn cosily up, and the tea-things stood ready to the sitter’s elbow, the very sugar in the cup. (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “The Last Night”)

It’s a clever domestic touch amid the horror that has gone before and the horror that is to come. But Treasure Island is full of touches like that, bringing the world of the story before the mind’s eye or ear or nose: the notch in the “big signboard of Admiral Benbow”, left by Bill’s cutlass as he aims a blow at Black Dog; the “five or six curious West Indian shells” in Bill’s sea-trunk and the “piece of pigtail tobacco bitten away at the end” in his pocket; the “smell of sodden leaves and rotting tree trunks” at the Hispaniola’s first anchorage; the death-shriek that sends marsh-birds whirring aloft when a loyal sailor is murdered; O’Brien’s red cap floating on the surface and the baldness of his bare head beneath the rippling water; Long John Silver’s parrot’s “pecking at a piece of bark” in the dark; the “wood ash” on the black spot handed to Silver, which soils Jim’s fingers; the “heavy-scented broom and many flowering shrubs” on Spy-glass Hill; the grass sprouting on the bottom of the “great excavation” where Flint’s treasure had been; the “strange Oriental” coins “stamped with what looked like wisps of string or bits of spider’s web”; and many more.

The characterization is excellent too. Treasure Island is full of memorable figures, cleverly seen from (mostly) a boy’s perspective: Bill, Blind Pew, the Squire, Ben Gunn, Israel Hands and, most memorable of all, Long John Silver, the charming backstabber and affable rogue. They’re good, evil, pathetic, frightening, cunning, stupid, murderous, brave and more. Hands’ mind and motives are captured in a single line: “I want their pickles and wines, and that.” And here’s Ben Gunn’s long exile evoked in tragicomic dialogue: “Well, many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese — toasted, mostly — and woke up again, and here I were.”
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The characters in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde don’t live on the page like that: Hyde is described as evil, but he isn’t frightening like Blind Pew. Hyde is words on a page; Pew wrenches arms and skips nimbly from the parlour of the Admiral Benbow. His stick goes “tap-tapping” on a “frozen road”. He lives, and dies, before the mind’s eye. But one thing the characters of the two books have in common is that they’re almost all male. There’s a cook and a housemaid in Jekyll and Hyde, Jim’s mother and Silver’s “old Negress” in Treasure Island, and that’s it, unless you count the Hispaniola, Silver’s parrot and the sea.

This paucity of female characters links Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (1924). Those two books also have shallow pages. Billy Budd, in fact, is the shallowest book I’ve ever come across. All I found in it was words conjuring nothing: there were no sounds, sights or smells to the story:

The lieutenants and other commissioned gentlemen forming Captain Vere’s staff it is not necessary here to particularize, nor needs it to make any mention of any of the warrant-officers. But among the petty-officers was one who having much to do with the story, may as well be forthwith introduced. His portrait I essay, but shall never hit it. This was John Claggart, the Master-at-arms. But that sea-title may to landsmen seem somewhat equivocal. Originally, doubtless, that petty-officer’s function was the instruction of the men in the use of arms, sword or cutlas. But very long ago, owing to the advance in gunnery making hand-to-hand encounters less frequent and giving to nitre and sulphur the preeminence over steel, that function ceased; the Master-at-arms of a great war-ship becoming a sort of Chief of Police, charged among other matters with the duty of preserving order on the populous lower gun decks. (Billy Budd, chapter 8)

I found the book boring and a chore to read. That’s not true of Stevenson’s and Wilde’s stories, which are both about temptation and damnation. But the reality conjured by those two authors is almost a theatrical one, as though the characters are on a stage surrounded by props and special effects:

It was a wild, cold, seasonable night of March, with a pale moon, lying on her back as though the wind had tilted her, and a flying wrack of the most diaphanous and lawny texture. The wind made talking difficult, and flecked the blood into the face. It seemed to have swept the streets unusually bare of passengers, besides; for Mr. Utterson thought he had never seen that part of London so deserted. (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “The Last Night”)

The wind shook some blossoms from the trees, and the heavy lilac-blooms, with their clustering stars, moved to and fro in the languid air. A grasshopper began to chirrup by the wall, and like a blue thread a long thin dragon-fly floated past on its brown gauze wings. Lord Henry felt as if he could hear Basil Hallward’s heart beating, and wondered what was coming. […] “How horribly unjust of you!” cried Lord Henry, tilting his hat back and looking up at the little clouds that, like ravelled skeins of glossy white silk, were drifting across the hollowed turquoise of the summer sky. […] There was a rustle of chirruping sparrows in the green lacquer leaves of the ivy, and the blue cloud-shadows chased themselves across the grass like swallows. (The Picture of Dorian Gray, chapter 1)

Lord Henry ponders the “subtle magic” of language and asks himself: “Was there anything so real as words?” Yes, I would say, and things more real too, but the attempted paradox is a reminder that Wilde is not striving for realism. I don’t think he could have achieved it as Stevenson could and often did. Stevenson was a better writer, but The Picture of Dorian Gray is a more fully realized book. It’s longer, after all. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is as short as the dream or nightmare it resembles: it offers the ingredients for horror, but you have to cook some of them for yourself. Treasure Island isn’t a dream: it’s an aquarium or a magic mirror. All three are books to return to again and again over a lifetime, but for me Stevenson’s literary stature seems to grow, Wilde’s to shrink, each time I do so.

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