Shirley Jackson’s 1949 short story, The Witch, is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
A while back, I shared a short essay about our long-standing cultural antipathy for children, evidenced by the sorts of stories we tell ourselves about them.
Entitled Tomorrow Belongs To Me, I used Michael Hanaeke’s chilly, ambiguous The White Ribbon (2009) as the entry point into a broad examination of narratives in which children are deployed by storytellers for uncanny effect. If the cognitive mechanism of the uncanny requires the uneasy thing in question to first be a familiar thing, little wonder children serve this purpose so well. We were all children once, so know their universes intimately. We purport to be surprised, shocked even, when children are strange or wayward or cruel, but this can only be rank hypocrisy. We were all strange and wayward and cruel once, and I think we know this very well. Why else would these stories resonate so?
In Jackson’s The Witch, a humdrum scenario tilts suddenly towards menace, as a little boy, his baby sister, and his mother are joined in a railway carriage by a talkative stranger, an older gentlemen with white hair and a cigar. Horror follows the mother’s realisation that the avuncular stranger engaging her fearless young son is talking, no longer about lollipops, rocking horses or dolls, but about the time he murdered and mutilated his sister. Jackson’s ambitions are more complex than mining a mother’s fear of harm being done to her child by the attentions of a stranger. Certainly, the mother in Jackson’s story is afraid for her son, but as the story concludes, she is afraid of him too. She understands the boy is not afraid, enthralled instead by the stranger’s confession of spectacular violence, delighted by its savagery.
At the story’s end, with the white haired man sent packing and equilibrium seemingly restored, I think Jackson wants her readers to worry for the safety of the boy’s baby sister, the man’s story about separating out the body parts of his own sibling having produced an abstraction in the boy’s mind, turning all baby sisters into playthings, into unfeeling collections of bits. No, not produced, which suggests this abstraction wasn’t there before. I really mean ‘confirmed’ or ‘encouraged’ or ‘promoted’, for it is my experience of childhood and young children that it is the impulse against the pulling off the wings of flies that needs to be cultivated, not the instinct to dismember.
The last line of Jackson’s story has the boy wondering if the old man was ‘a witch’. This reader thinks not – not a witch, and hardly evil in some special way, but a grown-up made threatening by an act as simple as acknowledging the violent fantasies common to ordinary children. While the stranger on the train has white hair and smokes a cigar, he talks like a child. You need only look at his choice of language – ‘pinching’, not strangling – like a child who can envision the act itself, but lacks the apposite vocabulary to call it what it is. Consider the patent absurdity of the way the remembered acts of violence against the man’s kid sister escalate, suggestive at once of the way children compete with each other in the fabrication of ever more sensational details. Consider too, how the acts of violence themselves recall more convincingly the destruction, not of flesh, blood and bone, but of plasticky doll-parts and nylon plugs of hair. The horror here is not that the man on the train is a wicked old witch in a separate category of his own, malfeasant because he is different from the rest of us. The horror is that the old man’s wickedness returns us to the viciousness of children at play.
“I bought her a rocking-horse and a doll and a million lollipops,” the man said, “and then I took her and put my hands around her neck and I pinched her and I pinched her until she was dead.”
The little boy gasped and the mother turned around, her smile fading. She opened her mouth, and then closed it again as the man went on,
“And then I took and I cut her head off and I took her head—“
“Did you cut her all in pieces?” the little boy asked breathlessly.
“I cut off her head and her hands and her feet and her hair and her nose,” the man said, “and I hit her with a stick and I killed her.”
“Wait a minute,” the mother said, but the baby fell over sideways just at that minute and by the time the mother had set her up again the man was going on.
“And I took her head and I pulled out her hair and—“
“Your little sister?” the little boy prompted eagerly.
“My little sister,” the man said firmly. “And I put her head in a cage with a bear and the bear ate it all up.”
Something about The Witch puts me in mind of the quick moment of spite that ruined Mary Bale’s life, when she dropped someone’s cat into a wheelie bin – for no other reason except it took her fancy. Outrage ensued and a witch hunt commenced, Bale described as wicked, as evil, and as a menace to polite society, her act of spite suggestive of some uglier psychological dysfunction. While I am in no way defending Bale’s crimes against kittydom, I’ve never been able to muster the same levels of shock. If you’ve got siblings, you’ll know very well how it’s possible to hurt another living thing just because it comes into your head to do so. Is anyone entirely ‘ancedote-free’ when it comes to admissions of random cruelties – a kicked dog, a loosed barb, a vengeful thought? What we find objectionable about Bale’s actions is seeing the lawlessness of childhood resurfacing in an adult. This is what pulling off the wings of flies looks like when you’re big and ugly enough to know better. Mary Bale repels us because it is in our interest to feel repulsion; better that than kinship, better that than the sneaking suspicion we ourselves are as capable of similar spite. In this, Mary Bale is one of Shirley Jackson’s people. She lives on one of Shirley Jackson’s neat and tidy streets behind respectably white net curtains, and, in common with Jackson’s stranger on the train, Mary Bale isn’t a wicked witch either. Probably.
CCTV pictures of the moment Mary Bale dropped a cat into a wheelie bin
When I was young, I can’t remember how young, my mother and I went to a UK theme park on a day out. I remember the weather being sunless and cold, but not much else about why we were there. My big interest was in the theme park’s elaborate ghost train, and because the weather was sunless and cold, I was able to go on the ghost train many times in quick succession without the faff of queuing. The final time I wanted to ride the ghost train, my mother very reasonably refused to put herself thought it again, so I went unaccompanied. On this last trip through the haunted mansion, I was joined in my snug, two-seater wagon by a man I didn’t know. I don’t recall finding this odd, largely, I expect, because I was looking forward to the ride ahead of me, to its impressive vignettes of dancing Georgian corpses and giant spider.
Not long after the ghost train had lurched off into the strictly stage-managed surprises of its Grand Guignol interior, the man beside me began touching me – not sexually, but violently. I cannot now separate what was overwhelming about the ride itself, with all its phantoms, clanks and hoots, and what I must have surely felt at finding myself trapped on a ghost train with an adult man who was hitting me for no reason I could discern. More clear, is my memory of the moment the ride stopped dead and all the emergency lights came on, revealing the impressive vignettes of dancing Georgian corpses and giant spiders to be mundane and unspecial. I remember someone appearing suddenly to pluck the man from the seat beside me. I recall getting off the ghost train afterwards and being happy to see my mum, who, bored, cold and smoking a cigarette, was waiting for me outside. I don’t recall being particularly upset. I don’t recall telling my mum what happened on the ghost train – not then. I kept what happened a secret, which is the way of big strong boys everywhere I suppose. I don’t recall if we went and sat somewhere to eat an over-priced donut, the wind pilfering our napkins, but if we did, I suspect I sat as close to my mum as might be considered seemly in a boy of whatever age I was back then on that grey, sunless day.
When I read Shirley Jackson’s The Witch, I think about the man on the ghost-train, and I wonder if I met a monster that day, the sort of monster who once fed his own sister’s head to a bear. Years after our day trip to the theme park, my mother would admit her biggest fear for me, as a small boy, was I would be abducted, molested and murdered by one of those men in long rain coats famed for hanging around children’s playgrounds, their pockets sugary with sweets and wriggling with puppies. This is surely the primal fear of all mothers for their roughty-toughty boys made otherwise gamine and come-hither by dint of their credulousness and youth. Even so I’ve wondered since what it might have been about the exact configuration of my own face that should have made me so worryingly a magnet for lurking paedophiles. The little boy in Jackson’s short story is actively looking for witches. I was a child like that, going round and round on ghost trains, delighted. The little boy in Jackson’s story delights in every macabre detail of the old man’s story. I was a child like that, in so much as I never hid behind the sofa while watching Doctor Who. The mother in Jackson’s story is afraid for her child, as my mother was afraid for me. The mother in Jackson’s story worries a boy who goes looking for witches might find them, and also like my mother, worries some ineffable quality in her son invites them closer.
Andante quasi lento e contabile, the third movement from Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony, is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
Admittedly, the lower 4th floor of a brick-built brutalist building is an unlikely fount of yuletide nostalgia. Even so, whenever I listen to Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony, it is to this particular corner of this particular edifice my imagination travels first.
The corner in question is the base room for the undergraduate animation programme for which I was course leader, up until my resignation from the role in July 2019. Originally, there was very little ‘kerb appeal’ about this corner of the campus; the space in question had no natural daylight, and its ceiling dominated by a defunct network of ventilation tubes and vents. Over time, my staff and I transformed the unprepossessing bunker into a much envied cocoon of warm vibrant colour, modelled after a cinema foyer, complete with galleries of old movie posters, vintage folding cinema seats, and warm, pooling circles of light. I loved seeing the base room brimming with staff and students – as noisy together sometimes as a roost of parrots – deriving secret pleasure from the oft-repeated rituals of pushing chairs back under the tables after the students had left for their respective classes and restoring order to their scattering of film books, magazines and chocolate wrappers. On occasion, I feigned annoyance at their messiness, their apparent inability to eat a sausage roll without fountaining flakes of pastry over the base room’s rich red carpet, but in some heart-and-sinews way, I didn’t mind at all.
I likewise enjoyed the base room when it was empty and quiet, the orderliness and hush following the end of the autumn term, the majority of our students having upped sticks for Christmas. In direct conflict with edicts from campus managers and their kind, my colleagues and I would conspire to create further opportunities for our keenest students to continue working on campus in the days running up to the big holiday shut-down. In this one small way, I was trying to do as I’d been done by, recalling how supported I’d been made to feel by the teachers and tutors who’d populated my own educational experience; how it felt when my a-level art teacher trusted me to continue working in the classroom long after the school day was over; how it felt when he offered to make me a cup of instant coffee too, this simple erasure of hierarchy between master and the apprentice; how it felt during my Foundation Art degree, when the technician allowed me to work early, or late, in the workshop – because I was trusted; what it felt like to be a valued part of a community, where creativity was a shared act of support and time-giving, an existential thing more glorious than the precise letter of someone’s job description or the increments of a clock-face.
Thus, with a few industrious students scattered throughout the various studios and computer rooms, I myself would sit, not in my office, but rather at the large lozenge-shaped table in the middle of the base room, and finish off whatever remaining workload remained – usually writing heaps of feedback. The base room boasted a very large LED screen television and set of powerful speakers, and when the mood took me, I’d play Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony at some considerable volume, it’s third slow movement filling the long empty corridor outside with its midnight-clear and swirling snow. I suppose I fancied myself as an Edward Scissorhands figure; while Edward produced wintery effects where once there was none by shaving blizzards from blocks of ice, I sent Hely-Hutchinson’s darkling dream of winter whirling out of the base room to meet the opening doors of the campus lift, always thrilling slightly at the idea that my foot-sore wearied colleagues might delight, as I did, at finding their workplace enhanced so unexpectedly.
This is what I tell myself, such is the chicanery of nostalgia. My colleagues more likely wondered why I appeared so intent on propelling Christmas before me when there was no one around to care or notice, spraying Hely-Hutchinson’s seasonal music about the place like one of those blowers of artificial snow. For some of them, I may have struck a rather tragic figure, sitting alone at a large communal table in a largely deserted brick fortress. Their ear-buds packed tightly into their ears, my students were, in most cases, entirely oblivious to the ice and nightscape of Hely-Hutchinson’s third movement blowing past their respective studios – and if they were listening, they were probably rolling their eyes.
I don’t really know what anyone else was thinking if and when they heard Hely-Hutchinson’s music moving through the quiet conduits of the empty building – spooky, magical, wonderful, like the advance of frost. I’ll more confidently tell you what I was thinking. I was thinking, ‘This is how you do it!’ This is how you see off the barbarism of the fluorescent lights and long walks of grey non-slip flooring! This is how you unfurl the dark-bright heart of a Narnian wood within the confines of a concrete silo. This is how you turn an ordinary corner on an otherwise ordinary day and find yourself somewhere magical.
The other thing I know is this: whenever I hear the Andante quasi lento e contabile, I miss my former colleagues, all of us always knackered, all of us true-believers in the job-at–hand, and I miss all those twenty-somethings with their explosive sausage rolls and unicorn-coloured hair. I miss them, as I miss their delight in acts as simple as my donning a ridiculous santa hat, or handing around a mass-produced tin of mass-produced chocolates, recognising that delight for what it was – the trust generated by the moments when tutors choose to make themselves back into people. And yes, I miss pushing in all their bloody chairs.
But rather like one of those mass-produced chocolates in those big mass-produced tins, this specific bonbon of Christmas nostalgia is wrapped around a softer centre, for baked inside this Proustian madeleine is another. That I cleave so affectionately to Hely-Hutchinson’s atmospheric conflation of The Coventry Carol and The First Noel has as much to do with the age I was when I first heard it, as it does with the particular merits – or otherwise – of the music itself.
First and foremost, Andante quasi lento e contabile reminds me of my father in ways both welcome and less so. Hely-Hutchinson’s music carries inside it a very pure memory of my family, and thanks to the internet, I can be super-exact about its temporal coordinates: Christmas Eve, 1984, a little after 5pm. Our Christmas tree is sitting on top of the triangle-shaped coffee-table, squidged between the armchair and the sofa and throwing up scintillas against the rice-pudding sheen of our chip paper wallpaper. Dad is home early from work, and we’re all waiting for the final episode of The Box Of Delights to begin, the BBC’s adaptation of John Masefield’s novel. For its signature tune, The Box Of Delights has taken the plucked harp from Hely-Hutchinson’s take on The First Noel. I don’t know the provenance of the music then, but I absolutely delight in the way it calls immediately for the hairs on my arms to rise in anticipation of what it to come. I’m fizzing with a curious brew of ‘Christmasness’ and dread, with pleasure and suspense – with pleasure in suspense. As the gas fire hisses, filling our living room with luxurious heat, I realise this is Christmas right here, right now; that it lives not in the brash adverts for children’s toys, or on Top of the Pops, but here, in this moment of exciting suspenseful darkness, here in this haunted music-box of a Christmas carol. For the record, it’s not just me, as someone wrote in the Radio Times back in 2015:
“The Box of Delights made a big impression on those who saw it when it originally aired more than three decades ago on BBC1. Mainly because it somehow managed to be the image of snowy Edwardian chocolate-box perfection, and pretty bloody creepy at the same time…”
That dad was home to watch this final episode with us is no small part of why this memory endures so powerfully. In common with my future self, who will later propel Hely-Hutchinson’s music out into the empty spaces of a near-deserted University campus in an effort to transform it for others, my pleasure at watching The Box of Delights was a pleasure doubled because it was pleasure shared. That my dad was there, taking this fantastical journey with me, seemed to be of special importance. Our family felt very close that Christmas Eve, drawing closer, Hely-Hutchinson’s music helping us towards each other with all its mystery, threat and promise of magic. This was the start of Christmas proper, the front door shut against the cold, work finished, school a distant memory, and the embargo on that year’s special purchases of Paynes Chocolate Brazils and Turkish Delight finally lifted.
In March of the following year, my father would leave us for another life with another family. Realistically speaking, this last Christmas spent as a family was surely a strained and miserable episode for my parents, and I think for my older brother too, who knew all of it before me. I wonder what they were thinking about as Hely-Hutchinson’s music began to play on our television? At least two of us were dreaming about journeying to another world entirely. It beggars belief I failed to intuit some of what was happening before it happened. Or maybe I did? Maybe the proof of what I knew is found in everything I’ve already written here, the import, clarity and preciousness of this perfect Christmas memory deriving from a child’s desperate act of magical thinking.
When, as sometimes happens, I find myself crying at the Andante quasi lento e contabile, I always try to figure out why. It is not a simple grief, because sometimes the tears feel like they are the physical expression of a surplus of hope. They squeeze out of me, silvered and involuntary. I suspect they are tears of frustration too, of disappointment with the synthetic sentimentality of the Christmas season and my struggle to go on feeling it – any of it. Hely-Hutchinson’s music surely makes me yearn for long walks at midnight on Christmas Eve, crumping across thick snow, and I think, if one day I do take a walk like that, I will come to understand how to ‘do’ Christmas again in some profound, legitimate way, and that it will fit with me again, as I think it once did.
And when I cry a bit, yes, I’m missing all those bloody students and the feeling being there for them gave me. I think, hand-on-heart, what I’m experiencing when I hear Hely-Hutchinson’s Andante quasi lento e contabile is loss – the loss of the child I once was and will never be again, and the loss of the children I don’t have and will never have, that pyjamaed tribe for whom I know I could get Christmas right; a sprinkle of ghosts and shadow, a perfect fragrance of clementine spritzed with my thumbnail, and all this imagination of mine poured into theirs, children I would never leave.
Kate Bush’s December Will Be Magic Again is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
In physics, the observer effect is the disturbance of an observed system by the act of observation. Put more simply, our own efforts to apprehend something can skew the outcome, rendering it invalid or void. Something similar happens when we try and apprehend Christmas, seeking to embody the season’s ambience through popular music or ‘Christmassy films’.
Most secular Christmas music is an appalling backfire, the way those pre-decorated straight-out-of-the-box plastic Christmas trees are appalling, in how so very wide of the mark they fall of the sensorial experience they’re straining to (re)produce.
Likely I’m just a po-faced old misery guts, but when I hear Slade or Wizzard or Band Aid or Wham or Mariah Carey, I envision a sort of festive rictus, the grinning tinseled skull of experience excarnated of hope. These ubiquitous songs tell me it must be Christmas again, but it’s never the Christmas I want.
Anyway, I find myself increasingly confused by Christmas, not least because I’m an atheist, but an atheist who went to a very nice Church of England school in a largely picturesque village. I find it near impossible to separate my intellectual position on the subject of the nativity from my nostalgia for all those Christmas assemblies, when my teachers did silly, unexpected things, or handed around chocolates in coloured foil, or we sang carols in the lovely old church up on the hill. The First Noel makes me ache. When it catches me unawares, Silent Night can even make me cry. Guilt soon follows, as I’m aggrieved by my own sentimentality, and for appropriating filmic moments of pathos from a culture I otherwise struggle to understand. Meanwhile, hearing I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day makes me die a bit inside, allergised by its artificiality and deficit of mystery, its unwillingness to admit to all the dark green shadows of winter.
Kate Bush’s ethereal December Will Be Magic Again rarely features on any of those well-worn compilations of ‘Christmas hits’ or Spotify playlists. I’ve never once heard it playing over supermarket speakers as an accompaniment to the sound of huge frozen turkeys clanging into trolleys. I’m certain no one sings along to it in pubs – how could they, given the swooping virtuosity of Kate’s vocal performance and the meltingly indistinct shapes of her lyrics?
Always with the music of Kate Bush, there is a final ‘unknowability’ at the heart of her song-writing. We understand her scheme of words well enough, but something remains abstruse and hidden from us lesser mortals, something intimate and surreal. I feel all of it anyway, as December Will Be Magic Again draws up the hairs on my arms in a quick silvery wave. Yes, there are sleigh-bells, that sonic shorthand for Christmas, but a cold, bright darkness is at work in the heart of this strange song, returning me at once to the chill of the old village church of my school days, with its cold stones and candle light. I feel it again, the thrill of seeing my breath, of the pooling of shadows under the pews, and that small dangerous electricity generated by a whole community of people coming together in some ancient rite of magical thinking, a beautiful seance.
I’ve always found the effect of December Will Be Magic Again to be like someone dialling down the thermostat, ferns of ice unfurling to etch the glass of my windows like elaborate William Morris wallpaper, Kate’s voice doing that, as clean and clear as starlight.
The snow, Kate sings, the snow is coming to cover the muck up, and so it does, this song drifting down from somewhere higher-up to efface the worst of those flashing plastic trees and quieten my misgivings.
John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween is one of my favorite things. Here’s why.
If Halloween was a cake it would be a cake without lashings of chocolate ganache or hidden centres of jelly sweets, or tall strata of sponge in the rainbow colour of unicorns. It Halloween was an item of clothing, it would be something simple, cut sparingly from some all-natural textile. If Halloween was a song, it would have been laid down in the fewest takes possible, with no auto-tune, no vocoder, and no melisma.
The idea of a ‘classy’ slasher film is absurd, as ‘slasher films’ are fundamentally exploitative thrill rides and no better than they should be, but Halloween is, ahem, a cut above the rest.
As I’ve aged, my tolerance for horror cinema has shifted. I could watch any amount of on-screen violence as a Clearasil-dabbed teenager. For the most part, I swerve spectacles of excessive dismemberment now, and a feature of the horror films I’ve come to canonize is they’re largely bloodless affairs.
My other intolerance is for zombies. I’m not talking about actual zombies (though I’ll admit some fatigue with them too). I’m talking about the legions of modern horror films that look and behave like horror films, but are actually hollowed-out meat-puppets, vapid storytelling experiences strung together from carbon copies of other, better examples of the genre. These films are only horror films because the music and the lighting and the violence and the slick marketing are telling us they are. I am fiercely impatient with horror films in which characters walk around in the dark for prolonged periods of time, searching out some jump-scare, some sudden, glitchy walking thing or zooming pale face. These automated suspense-dispensers are to horror what aspartine is to sugar, as if ‘turning off the lights’ is some surefire way of putting the umami into a horror film’s secret sauce.
Of course, Halloween has its fair share of dumb characters walking around in the dark, and I guess we have the extraordinary success of Carpenter’s movie to thank for all the ‘dumb characters walking about in the dark’ that followed it, but Halloween‘s especial powers to frighten derive from its sensitivity, not for shadows, but for daylight. It’s here, in the sunshine, that Halloween makes its move from exploitation flick to the stranger stuff of myth, from cheap-trick to the truly more spookier realm of archetype.
Halloween’s day time sceneslook pristine, Haddonfield’s pavements, paths, and big white wooden houses kicking out all this soft matte light, as if the film stock itself has been cut with some fine silvered powder. At other times, the light is honeyed, catching in the hair of Halloween‘s young and beautiful cast, and showing up all those Instagram filters for the synthetic pretenders they are.
If someone were to ask me ‘how I’m doing?’, as my mood pertains to the events of 2020 – and especially the prospect of heading into winter and the shrinking effect of a likely second UK lock-down, I’d likely say I was doing fine. I’d likely say I was prepared for the narrowing, for the darker days to come, and yet, in readiness to write this blogpost, I re-watched Halloween, and something about its onscreen capture of light made me ache. My reaction was due in part to that weird vicarious nostalgia for a time I never lived though and a place I never knew, what you might call the Super 8mm phenomenon, but mostly it was a strong visceral reaction to those moments in Halloween where the film grain holds the setting sun.
But hey, all this poeticism is well and good, but you don’t watch Halloween for the sun-flares. You watch it to be afraid, and while the film’s third act is where you’ll find all the screaming, running, stabbing and falling, this is not for me where the fear lives.
The early sunlit scenes of Halloween are as menacing as anything in horror cinema. These are long, slow shots in which nothing much happens; leaves scud across pavements, a girl in white woollen tights leaves her home, a girl in white woollen tights walks to school; the road is wide, the lawns green, but the overall effect is as if some invisible ether is slowly filling the frame. It certainly looks sunny here and everything looks fine. Everything looks safe. Everything looks normal, but we can’t feel fine, we can’t feel safe, and we know, despite the evidence of our eyes to the contrary, that nothing about this place is normal. There is malice in all this pristine clarity, and this is one of the less trumpeted achievements of Halloween, less trumpeted because it’s none of the ‘scary stuff’ that comes later. These early ‘unremarkable’ scenes produce exquisite feelings of the uncanny – that rarest, most delicate fear. This is the emptied sunlit horror we find in the paintings of De Chirico, it is Halloween‘s mystery and melancholy of the street.
Mystery and Melancholy of a Street’, Giorgio De Chirico, 1914
Halloween isn’t the first horror film to understand the special powers of daylight for producing the conditions for a really good scare. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) establishes the template John Carpenter goes on to deploy for Halloween‘s finest moments of unease – daylight and distance.
While The Innocents takes place in a classical haunted house, with Deborah Kerr’s increasingly harried governess gliding about its rooms at night by candelight, it is the pastoral sunlit scene down by the lake packing the most powerful punch. When the spectre of the previous governess manifests suddenly among the tall reeds, there is only sunlight and stillness, and how it chills.
The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton, 1961
Halloween plays this same demure trick three times to increasingly pleasurable effect. Distracted during class, Halloween‘s final girl, Laurie Strode, looks out of her classroom window to see a figure in a white mask watching her from the other side of the road. That we can hear the teacher talking away in the background about the ‘personification of fate’ lays in some of the film’s more metaphysical ambitions. She doesn’t know who this figure might be or what he wants with her. Later, walking home with her friend, Laurie sees the same figure standing at the end of a long run of neat hedging. Once at home, Laurie is in her room upstairs, at which point she sees the figure again, who is this time standing silently among the bright flapping sheets of her washing. No thunder claps, no jump scares, no cheap-tricks, and no ‘lights off’ – just the dreadful pricking of these three small slivers of wrongness.
A few years ago, I was riding in the back of someone’s car, driving past homes in some ordinary place of terraced houses and paved front gardens. It was morning, or it was afternoon, some mundane greyish day. I happened to look out of the window and saw a bare-footed woman walking away from the road up through the narrow gap between two houses. The bare-footed woman had no head. It was daylight. I saw her clearly, if fleetingly – a woman in a long dress, her arms hanging loosely at her side – a woman with no head. I sat bolt upright in my seat, my head whipping around to continue looking, to be certain of what I saw, but more houses slid past and the moment was over. I’m pretty sure the woman did have a head. I think something about the play of light between the two houses and the angle of the woman’s body in relation to my own combined to produce this disturbing effect. Anyway, this is what I tell myself, but just for a moment, I had that appalling jigsaw-feeling, that a piece of the world had been jammed into the fabric of reality the wrong way up – but made somehow to fit.
Long Weekend, directed by Colin Eggleston in 1978, is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
I can recall exactly where I was when I first saw this film: folded into one corner of our second-hand sofa in the living room of our first floor flat secretly wishing I wasn’t watching Long Weekend at all.
I remember watching Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) at a sleep-over, my friend and I with our beds downstairs on a polished parquet floor the colour of conkers, the big box of the television our only source of light. I was secretly terrified at the prospect of watching Dracula – right up until the moment the film itself began, when I realised Bela Lugosi was going to make me laugh instead. Even back then in the early 1980s, 1931 was an awfully long time ago.
I remember watching Salem’s Lot (1979) on a tiny black and white television – on a narrow boat holiday. As I recall, the tv reception was terrible, which only made the experience more unsettling, especially this scene, which traumatised a generation and most certainly left an indelible impression on me. I likewise remember watching An American Werewolf In London (1981) with a bunch of school friends, and the walk home afterwards, which was nightmarish with shadows and the suspicious breaking of twigs. I recollect this occasion also because it was the night I had my first French kiss, sneaking one behind a pair of long heavy curtains with a girl from my class – only to find the sensation of this other person’s tongue in my mouth to be a small horror of its own, largely because this other person’s body part tasted so powerfully of cheese and onion crisps.
But this film – Long Weekend – a movie with a title giving scant clues to its content – now, this cinematic first encounter really stayed with me. Long Weekend impressed on me most clearly the core paradox of viewing horror films; how it feels to be entranced and repelled simultaneously, to want to see and not-see, to run and remain, to want in and want out, and all the confusing fizz of it.
As I sat watching Long Weekend from my corner of our second-hand sofa (its underpinning of springs always so uncomfortable), I also observed the workings of my brain with fascination. I was made terribly afraid by this film, vibrating before it like a tuning fork, twanged by its strangeness and suspense, by its sexier bits, by its unusual mood of misanthropy. I found the experience of watching Long Weekend unbearably intense. I felt at risk from this movie somehow and yet, even as I wilted under its intensity, I asked myself questions, interrogating my instinct to go on watching. There was pleasure in it you see, something perverse.
Plot-wise, Long Weekend is simple and not subtle; a married couple who cannot abide each other decide to go to a secluded beach somewhere in Australia for a weekend’s camping in an ill-conceived effort to warm-over the remains of their relationship. That they are doomed to fail in this endeavour – and also doomed – is signposted from the outset. We’re only minutes into the film and the wife, Marcia, is marked for death, caught in the cross-hairs of her husband Peter’s rifle. By the end of their long weekend together, both Peter and Marcia will be dead.
The tagline on the poster for Long Weekend reads ‘Nature found them guilty’, meaning we can categorise Eggleston’s film alongside all the other eco-horror movies synonymous with the 1970s. InFrogs (1972), for example, the denizens of a Southern US swamp enact revenge on an environmentally unfriendly family. In Prophecy (1979), pollution from a paper mill produces a fifteen foot mutant bear, and inDay Of The Animals (1977), the thinning ozone layer causes mountaintop animals to become murderous.
In Long Weekend, humanity’s crimes against nature have two distinct strands, the first following the trappings of these other examples. Peter and Marcia are presented from the outset as insensible to the natural world, removed from it by modernity and upward mobility. Compared to the chemical spills in some of these other movies, this couple’s environmental vandalism seems trivial, their disrespect of a largely unspecial kind. They are casual, indifferent litterers. They are loud, boorish, and destructive in a series of petty acts against their surroundings. Peter and Marcia do not commune with the natural world, they subordinate it, reducing it to a prop in their performance of being ‘out-doorsy’. Maybe this is the crime of which nature finds them guilty – the crime of condescension. Perhaps this is the most pernicious environmental crime of all because it is the crime enacted against nature by most of us.
There is a prelapsarian idea at work here too. Peter and Marcia make for very unconvincing substitutes for Adam and Eve, but they anyway try to re-insert themselves into the Garden, in an effort to cleanse themselves of everything they know about themselves and about each other. Little do they know the Garden itself will very soon expel them again – and violently.
But we know this.
We know this from the beginning.
At the start of Long Weekend, Marcia is seen with a frozen chicken, which she drops onto the kitchen floor while taking a telephone call. This moment follows another, in which an unwatched news bulletin reports on attacks on properties by flocks of cockatoos. The frozen chicken is an unrecognisable lump of plastic-wrapped flesh, an object now so removed from nature, the camera gives us time to marvel at its inherent strangeness. This is not the male gaze, but nature’s gaze, mass-produced meat made abject. This peculiar frozen thing – signifier of civilisation, of domestic leisure, of the decline of man-as-hunter – looks ridiculous suddenly, and nothing like a societal achievement at all. This same frozen chicken will accompany the unhappy couple on their camping trip, where it will putrefy almost instantaneously, catalysed into self-destruction by its sudden proximity to the world from which it has been othered so entirely. That this frozen chicken also reminds us of something fetal, in its pink, limbless Erasorhead-like way, is surely no accident either – for reasons Long Weekend soon makes clear.
But even before the attacking cockatoos and portentous frozen chicken, we know something is up. During the opening moments of Long Weekend, the camera descends slowly towards the ground. We’re shown a fern, a plant family so ancient, it pre-dates the dinosaurs. The self-importance of this close-up imbues the fern with an uncanny quality of intelligence and sentience. Seconds later, we’re shown Marcia watering some rather sorry-looking houseplants in the bath – root-bound captives in plastic pots. In this way, Long Weekend is never a subtle film, but already the dread sifts down nicely, as something about this fern inspires the same prickle of unease triggered by the murmuration of starlings or a neat line of marching ants; that an intelligence is revealing itself, and not an alien one exactly, but one that is other.
Long Weekend relishes the anthropomorphism of vegetation, the director treating us to multiple voyeuristic shots of Peter and Marcia from the point-of-view of some unseen spectator hunkered down in the grass. The camera prowls, monitoring the human couple, its gaze unattributed. Is this the view of some apex predator licking its lips at the meaty prospect of these two unhappy campers? Is this surveillance undertaken by those self-same marching ants, their hive-mind united in cool measured thoughts of reprisal? Or is it the grass itself, its blades presented to us as sharp-as-knives, fringing the bottom of the frame like a snaggle of incisors?
The trees of Long Weekend are in on it certainly, conspiring against our unhappy couple to disorientate them, to turn them about, to diminish Peter’s masculinity and dial up Marcia’s already impressive levels of passive aggression until they’re charting off the scale. There are arrows carved into some of the trees, which like the Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz, keep pointing Peter and Marcia in different directions. Are the trees trying to ensure Peter and Marcia never find their way to the beach where they plan to spend their weekend? Are the trees trying to protect the beauty spot from these suburb-slickers by somehow tucking it away into some alternate temporal pocket? I don’t think so. My younger self sitting on the sofa doesn’t think so either. In fact, the trees are reeling Peter and Marcia in, drawing them deeper into the thicket. This is what lambs being led to the slaughter looks like. This is someone pushing down the sprung-loaded jaws of a big old rusty bear-trap in readiness for the hunt to begin in earnest. Eden has been weaponised, only Peter and Marcia don’t know it yet.
But we do.
I did – this mean, grumpy little movie like a bony hand around the hot pump of my pubescent heart.
While Peter and Marcia are persecuted for their crimes against nature, another of their misdemeanors is more generic. They are made to suffer because they are outsiders. Worse than this, they are urban, middle-class outsiders, and thus Peter and Marcia join the countless ranks of other similar characters in horror films who find their manners, mores and privilege challenged brutally by some indigenous population. You see it in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), you see it in The Hills Have Eyes (1977), in Straw Dogs (1971) and Deliverance (1972).
You see it plainly in Spielberg’s Duel (1971), which, in common with Long Weekend, is a low-budget, pared-down grudge-match between ‘civilisation’ (as denoted by the trappings of an urban middle-class life) and the wilderness and its predators, as represented by a dirty big truck and its anonymous blue-collar driver. In one wonderfully paranoid scene, Dennis Weaver’s everyman is wrong-footed by a roadside diner’s clique of redneck truck drivers, and Long Weekend has its equivalent, when Peter and Marcia stop at a gas-station-come-bar-come-convenience store on their way to finding the secluded beach. During Peter’s short conversation with the bar’s other customers, we learn none of them have heard of the beach to which Peter and Marcia are headed. Are the locals lying to Peter, fucking with him in the time-honoured tradition of locals everywhere who like torturing tourists, taking their money even as they disdain them? Are they somehow complicit in nature’s plan, as conspiratorial as the trees with their contrary arrows? Or – more bizarrely – are the locals telling the truth, which makes the elusive beauty spot in question like some ‘Brigadoon of Doom’, a location appearing only to those parties first judged guilty enough to access it?
As Peter takes his beers and returns to the jeep, we see the locals gather at the door, staring intently out through the glass. Marcia, who has been waiting for Peter in the vehicle, now meets their eyes unhappily. For a moment the film threatens to disclose itself as another type of survival story. Is this Last House On The Left (1972) or I Spit On Your Grave (1978) terrain? Is the young man eyeballing Marcia the real animal we need to be worrying about, one of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs?
No, Long Weekend isn’t some brutal rape-and-revenge shocker, but that the director picks up this thread and encourages us to run its tendinous fibres between our fingers – before dropping it completely – was a formative moment for me as young cineaste. Here was the storytelling power of letting something dangle, the expansiveness produced by ambiguity. In plot-terms, this short scene serves no real purpose. It introduces us to characters we never meet again. New tensions are established but not explained. The atmosphere thickens meaningfully – awfully – though we don’t know why. The overall effect is discomforting, though ‘discomfort’ hardly expresses the kick of pleasure I felt back then – and always feel – as Long Weekend ratchets up its impending sense of doom.
In Nick Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), a film with which Long Weekend shares a number of tonal and visual similarities, a young aboriginal boy comes to the rescue of two middle-class white children from the ravages of the Australian outback. Roeg peppers his film with macro imagery of ants, snakes and reptiles, and the Australian landscape is presented as preternatural. Long Weekend deploys a similar lexicon of audio and visual techniques to heighten the reality of the environment and further transmit its otherness. If we configure nature here as a proxy for aboriginal loathing, then Long Weekend starts to look a lot like a post-colonial revenge fantasy.
Early in the film, Peter runs over a kangaroo – albeit accidentally – an animal that could in no way be more connotative of Australia’s indigenous population. From that moment on, we know Peter and his wife have tripped a wire. I think of it as like the moment a fly first twangs at the furthest edge of some vast web. I like to think of the Australian landscape’s genius loci as the great elegant spider at the heart of that web. Alert now, the spider need only wait patiently for the fly to ensnare itself more terminally. Come into my parlour, says the spider, and Peter and Marcia oblige, driving their little red jeep deeper into the wilderness.
I suggested there were two strands comprising Peter and Marcia’s crimes against nature, and if the first of them is universalised (Peter and Marcia as unlucky stand-ins for all mankind), then the second reason is more specific. Marcia has had an abortion. We know this because Marcia and Peter fight about it in one of their many arguments, and we know this too because of Marcia’s fascination with an eagle egg, which she later smashes spitefully against a tree. We also suspect the baby wasn’t Peter’s, but rather the unintended consequence of their wife-swapping arrangement with another suburban couple.
There is a nasty streak of conservatism here, and no small amount of hypocrisy, given that ‘mother nature’ encompasses any number of mothers who eat their young. I’m tempted to give the blunt moralising a pass here. I end up almost admiring the meanness of the film’s position on this issue, its refusal of sympathy or greater nuance or any more liberal finer feelings. It’s part of that dystopian 1970’s vibe that can sometimes feel like courageous non-market-driven storytelling. To be clear, I’m not judging Marcia for her decision, but let’s face it, my feelings don’t matter to the flora and fauna of Long Weekend either.
Reproductive conservatism is evinced elsewhere in Long Weekend, where both characters’ route to masturbation is interrupted by the natural world around them in one way or another. For Marcia, it is some trippy presentiment of Peter’s aquatic peril that shoos her hand from her privates. For Peter, it is the clattering of a possum that interrupts him as he reaches for his copy of Playboy. One can’t help conclude nature is wagging its finger at these Onanistic indulgences. You might even say Long Weekend‘s dim view of human practices that do not result in making babies is not a separate thematic strand at all, but merely a variation on its disdain for the capacity of mankind for self-absorption.
Long Weekend was released in the same year as John Carpenter’s Halloween, a film setting in stone the relationship between sexual pleasure and imminent death, and shares with Halloween too its spectacle of decadent suburbanites being punished by something animalistic and uncivilised. Like I said, I can’t get my own knickers in a twist about all the sex-equals-death stuff. I’m thinking instead of The Wicker Man (1973), in which the main character is marked for death because he’s a virgin. In one scene in the folk-horror classic, Sergeant Howie, who is investigating the disappearance of a missing girl on a remote Scottish island, pays a visit to the local school, where, inside the missing girl’s desk, he finds a live beetle tied by a length of thread to a nail.
We soon learn Sergeant Howie is the beetle. We will watch powerlessly – and with some small barb of pleasure – as Howie himself ends up ‘tight against the nail’, the victim of an elaborate conspiracy that sees him burned alive in the titular wicker effigy. (Honestly, you’ve got to love the 1970s – and you thought things were dystopian now?)
Long Weekend‘s Peter and Marcia are beetles too. Round and round they go in ever decreasing circles until the moments of their deaths, which are presented as inescapable. Marcia is impaled on the end of Peter’s spear gun. He kills her accidentally, goaded into doing so by an ensemble of snapping twigs and ominous rustlings in the undergrowth, in scenes of suspense so unbearable, my younger self, balled into one hard corner of that old sofa, came perilously close to tears, wishing, with clasped hands, the film would just hurry up and finish.
When Peter finally makes a break for it, running through the woods in a last ditch effort to find his way out of the wilderness and back to the road, the director treats us to an extended series of tracking shots of Peter’s flight. The dynamism of these scenes is a cruel trick. We are actively running with Peter now. We want him to survive. We even think he might. Peter is even allowed to make it safely out onto the road, only for a cockatoo – of course – to fly into the cab of an oncoming truck, causing its driver to lose control of the vehicle. Peter is pressed flat into the tarmac, the truck’s tyres drawing long lines of blood on the road. A final crane shot reveals the truck is carrying a cargo of live animals to a local abattoir.
It’s all so horribly unfair – probably. We may not like either of them very much, but Peter and Marcia are human, nuanced just enough by the script and the actors’ performances to ensure we know them not to be complete monsters – and yet, from the moment we first encounter them, they’re dead people walking; and not because Marcia’s had an abortion or because Peter is an adulterer (the film begins with Peter saying goodbye to a pretty young women in the city), or because Marcia and Peter are swingers, or even because of their fondness for frozen chicken. Peter and Marcia are dead-by-dawn because that’s what the film always intended for them. It’s what this movie wanted.
But someone has to say it. As revenge of nature films go, Long Weekend is a bit lame. I’d go as far as to say the actual animal attacks, such as they are, are comedic. There’s a low-budget eagle attack, a snarling possum, a domestic dog turned feral, and a modest clutch of snakes, lizards and spiders, but nothing like the apocalypse of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), with which Long Weekend nonetheless shares a number of affinities – not least the parade of unlikeable characters and its shrill vibratory pitch. Maybe this goes some way to explaining why Long Weekend is not better known or more highly-regarded? Is it a problem the animals of Long Weekend are not, well, scary?
Not for me. The dread this film inspires comes from everywhere else, emitted by smaller cinematic particles – like the decision to shoot Long Weekend in widescreen. Funny how an aspect ratio can do that, lending heightened significance to everything in shot by pushing our eyeballs to the periphery, keeping us wired by the increase in effort it takes to keep scanning the entirety of the frame, looking for danger. John Carpenter’s Halloween is the same.
No, it’s not the animals of Long Weekend that frighten me – not the living ones anyway.
In common with lots of other horror movies, the real chilling set-piece of Long Weekend situates around a corpse – but unique to Long Weekend, the corpse in question is the body of a dugong, a marine mammal similar to a manatee.
In scenes willfully reminiscent of Jaws (1975), Peter is first menaced by a dark shadow in the water as he swims and surfs. The shadow doing the menacing may – or may not be – the unfortunate dugong that later washes up on the beach, killed by bullets from Peter’s gun. Though inarguably dead, the dugong slowly and inexorably moves its way towards Peter and Marcia’s campsite. We never see it move, only the evidence that it has, and this is where the horror dwells.
At the end of film, the dugong corpse has made it as far as the campsite itself. Even as I type these words – a forty-five year old man in a small bright room – I can recall the way in which every hair on my scalp stood up as I watched Long Weekend that first time, this strange dead dugong doing that, this simple, unshowy horror, this masterstroke of uncanny cinema. Bravo!
Throughout Long Weekend, Marcia is shown to be audibly aware of a plaintive animal keening sound, a sound we are not always certain is diegetic. Peter explains the cry of an infant dugong can sound like a human baby in distress. If the link between the dugong and Marcia’s aborted baby is not already overt enough, we need only look at the body of the dugong itself, with its soft fetal face. Ah yes, the return of the repressed! Peter and Marcia have come all this way to an unspoiled paradise to put their past behind them – to bury their dead – but here comes the past again, shuffling up the beach when no one is looking, to mewl wetly at their feet.
David H. Keller’s 1932 short story, The Thing In The Cellar, is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
The title of Keller’s short story has me from the get-go. Putting those two words together – thing and cellar – is like the happy meeting of fat and sugar. I lick my lips. I’m certain there are people who disapprove of the use of the word thing, seeing only a hole where a better chunk of vocabulary should be. These are the same people who don’t understand the extraordinary and unrivaled eloquence of a well-timed swear word, or think the word ‘nice’ should be banished for its beigeness, when ‘nice’ is one of our most delicately shaded adjectives, comprising as it does the full tonal range of sarcasm, insincerity, evasiveness and passive aggression.
The word thing, particularly when used by writers of horror fiction, is always a richly chimerical, hyrdra-headed device, a purposeful and powerful non-commitment that forcefully commits the reader’s imagination to an act of shaping the unknown. It is a word that promises everything by eliding detail. It is a big lovely game of a word. Consider the following; The Thing With Two Heads (1972), The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958), Zontar, the Thing From Venus (1966) and the short story, The Thing On the Doorstep (1937), from the thingmeister himself, H.P. Lovecraft. Oh, how my imagination hurries to meet these unnamed hulks, these blobs, these slimy, jellied mysteries!
One of the most celebrated literary and filmic ‘things’ is the alien visitor in John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?, the 1938 novella first adapted for the screen as The Thing From Another World (1951) and then again as The Thing in 1982. Fittingly, the ‘thing’ in Campbell’s story is a nasty shape-shifting alien that mimics physically whatever it touches – which is exactly how the word thing operates too, its amorphous state leaving it free to assume the form of all our own personal fears, mirroring them intimately, reflecting them back.
Cellars, like attics, are very special confections of joists, bricks and mortar. They are not ordinary interiors, however ordinary. They are untrusted as domestic spaces. They are Judas rooms. Cellars are slippery, sliding so easily into the realm of metaphor it is a wonder they can ever support the buildings built above them.
Cellars are where you put stuff so you no longer have to look at it or think about it. To consign something to the cellar is not, in fact, to go as far as getting rid of it or vanishing it or even moving past it. It is to decide to keep something even as you choose to conceal it from your everyday routine. Cellars are the subconscious of a house and of its occupants, past and present, a handy storage solution for our repression.
It is down to the cellar finally that Lila Loomis must venture in order to plumb the depths of Norman Bates’ psychopathy in Psycho (1960). This is where the desiccated corpse of ‘mother’ sits so patiently, where Norman will soon appear in his blue periwinkle dress, carving knife in hand. The cellar is where the extent of Norman’s repression is collapsed and collapses. Down here is where the past unburies and the fixations of childhood disinter.
Perhaps the greatest essaying of our communal ambivalence for these domestic burial grounds is found in Jan Švankmajer’s Do Pivnice (1983), in which a little girl is required to collect a basket’s worth of potatoes from the cellar. While the specifics of what she finds down there in the dark are bizarre and surreal, they chime intimately with more universal childhood traumas: the witchiness of old people, the conviction inanimate objects have secret, furtive life, and the dark, of course, always that.
A face only a son could love: Mrs Bates down in the fruit cellar, Psycho, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960
The little girl goes down into the cellar, Do Pivnice, dir. Jan Švankmajer, 1983
The cellar in Keller’s story is no run-of-the-mill oubliette. The writer takes pains to ensure his reader is alerted to certain anomalies familiar to anyone familiar with the trappings of haunted houses. Keller’s opening paragraphs are like the brief exchange in The Shining (1980), when the Torrance family is informed so casually that the Overlook Hotel is built on sacred Indian burial ground, and also like the moment in Poltergeist (1982) when the Freeling family learn their boring, identikit suburban home has been erected over an enormous graveyard. This is Keller suggesting all manner of things by confirming none of them. This is Keller laying down the lore.
“It was a large cellar, entirely out of proportion to the house above it. The owner admitted that it was probably built for a distinctly different kind of structure from the one which rose above it. Probably the first house had been burned, and poverty had caused a diminution of the dwelling erected to take its place.
A winding stone stairway connected the cellar with the kitchen. Around the base of this series of steps successive owners of the house had placed their firewood, winter vegetables and junk. The junk had gradually been pushed back till it rose, head high, in a barricade of uselessness. What was back of that barricade no one knew and no one cared. For some hundreds of years no one had crossed it to penetrate to the black reaches of the cellar behind it.
At the top of the steps, separating the kitchen from the cellar, was a stout oaken door. This door was, in a way, as peculiar and out of relation to the rest of the house as the cellar. It was a strange kind of door to find in a modern house, and certainly a most unusual door to find in the inside of the house — thick, stoutly built, dexterously rabbeted together with huge wrought-iron hinges, and a lock that looked as though it came from Castle Despair. Separating a house from the outside world, such a door would be excusable; swinging between kitchen and cellar it seemed peculiarly inappropriate.”
One of the things I admire about Keller’s The Thing In The Cellar is how uncompromising it is, how richly discomforting. Spoilers ahead, but this is what goes down: a little boy is terrified of the cellar and cannot endure being left in the kitchen. His parents dismiss their son’s fears as an excess of undesirable sensitivity, likewise the family doctor, and together, the three adults conspire to bring about a cathartic epiphany in the little boy by forcing him to confront his most primal fear. At the end of the story, the little boy is dead – and not from fright.
“The mother threw herself on the floor and picked up the torn, mutilated thing that had been, only a little while ago, her little Tommy.”
God, I love this ending. I love it as I love the final scene of Duel (1971), with Dennis Weaver’s everyman so hollowed out by his victory against the killer truck, we know the thing he was trying to survive for – his civilised suburban reality – also lies smoking at the bottom of the ravine. I love Keller’s ending for the same reason I love Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), because by the time that brutal shit-show is over, everything is ash.
The Thing In The Cellar was written in 1932, but I think it resonates with me so strongly because I’m a child of the 1970s, when the prospect of children dying horribly as a direct result of a failure of parental supervision and/or as the result of the failure of parents to be cognisant of the emotional lives of their children, was a lived reality. Well, no, not my lived reality as such, but the version of it served up to me by the notorious public information films I so associate with my formative years.
Directed by John Mackenzie in 1977, Apaches is a twenty-six minute film depicting the various ways a group of children are killed by misadventure on a local farm. Apaches serves up death my tractor – twice – death by drowning, death by poisoning, and death by crushing. I don’t remember when I first saw this film, at school certainly, likely as part of an assembly, and I am far from unique in regards to the impact this film had on me, and all the other films like it; the one about not playing on railways; the one about not climbing up a pylon to retrieve a Frisbee; the ones about not returning to lit fireworks. Watching other children killed, maimed or abducted successfully by paedophiles was a regular feature of television, and what many of these films had in common was the idea that mums and dads didn’t know what their children might be doing or indeed what danger they might be in, that the lives of their children were unknown to them. I’m reminded of an episode of Tales Of The Unexpected entitled The Fly Paper (1980), adapted from a short story by Elizabeth Taylor, which takes place in a similar universe of disinterested guardians and roaming unsupervised children. In this episode, a young school girl is ultimately lured into the clutches of what we presume are two homely child-molesters – and she doesn’t escape them – hence the title.
Bleak though these endings are, I detect an element of wish-fulfillment akin to that childhood phase wherein we imagine we are adopted, hoping for it in fact, preferring the idea of having been given up at birth to the reality of being bonded by blood to the disappointments we detect in our parents. Similarly, there’s the phenomenon of imagining our own funeral just so we can see our parents grieving, wishing ourselves dead so we can know once and for all we are loved, and if not loved, then noticed at least.
There is little doubting the awfulness of the description of little Tommy’s clawed body at the climax of Keller’s tale, but in addition to feelings of pity, enhancing them even, is approval for the way the author punishes Tommy’s parents for their stupidity. I like to imagine Tommy’s ghost rising out of the meaty remains of his earth-bound body and hanging around for a while to gloat over the suffering of his mum and dad – a fantasy entertained by all children at one time or another, I strongly suspect.
A boy drowns in a slurry pit, Apaches, dir. John Mckenzie (1977)
A school girl is unsettled by the attentions of a stranger, Tales of the Unexpected / The Fly-Paper (1980)
“His father, who only saw the boy at the end of the day, decided that there was no sense in such conduct, and in his masculine way tried to break the lad of his foolishness. There was, of necessity, no effort on the part of the hard-working man to understand the psychology back of his son’s conduct. All that the man knew was that his little son was acting in a way that was decidedly queer.“
“And I am going to nail the door open, Tommy, so you can not close it, as that was what the doctor said. Tommy, and you are to be a man and stay here in the kitchen alone for an hour, and we will leave the lamp a-burning, and then when you find there is naught to be afraid of, you will be well and a real man and not something for a man to be ashamed of being the father of.”
What resonates with me most strongly about The Thing In The Cellar is Keller’s critique of a certain mode of fatherhood. True, the boy is killed by some monstrous threat undisclosed, but he is made vulnerable to that threat because his father’s expectations of Tommy’s gender puts him in harm’s way. This is as much a story about masculinity as it is about monsters and Keller makes all of this very clear. The author tells us little Tommy ‘loves his mother’. We know he’s an unusually sensitive boy, more intelligent than many in his own year group at school, and certainly more intelligent than his parents. His father disapproves of his son’s hysteria in regards to the cellar (hysteria being a woman’s failing obviously), and even more so the way his son kisses the lock on the cellar door, an act as offensive to him in its effeminacy as it is bizarre.
Given the dynamic here, it’s hard not to read the use of Keller’s phrase ‘decidedly queer’ in its more modern context. The father wants a real boy for a son, not some highly-strung mummy’s boy afflicted by a surfeit of imagination. Had Tommy not been killed, I predict he would have learned to repress his sensitivity to earn the approval of his father. He would have grown up ashamed of his own bandwidth, suppressing his intuition, denying himself access to the full spectrum of his emotional potential. There are other ways for children to be eaten up.
“What killed him, Doctor? What killed him?” he shouted into Hawthorn’s ear.
The doctor looked at him bravely in spite of the fear in his throat.
“How do I know, Tucker?” he replied. “How do I know? Didn’t you tell me that there was nothing there? Nothing down there? In the cellar?”
I always feel disgruntled by the closing moments of King Kong (1933). After Kong has been gunned down from the top of the Empire State and plunged to his death, Carl Denham has the temerity to suggest it wasn’t the planes that killed the giant gorilla, but ‘beauty’. I call bullshit on that, just as I call bullshit on the idea that what killed little Tommy in Keller’s short story was the thing in the cellar. Kong was killed because Carl Denham is a selfish macho prick who puts Kong in harm’s way to appease his own ego, just as Tommy is killed because is father decides to remasculate him by nailing open the cellar door.
So no, it wasn’t some formless monster that killed this little boy, some clawing, ancient, supernatural beast, cosmic maw or crawling, Lovecraftian blob, and the thing that killed little Tommy Tucker does have a name after all: masculinity, the toxic kind.
Dr Frank Poole is a character in Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated, technically-breathtaking think-piece, 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1968). This is a film I admire very much, but one of my favourite things about 2001 are Dr Frank Poole’s shorts. Here’s why.
A year or so after finishing my A-levels, I learned something surprising about one of my former English teachers. In addition to her passion for the works of Shakespeare and so forth, she was also writing pornographic fan-fiction under an online pseudonym. This was all such a long time ago, the internet was in its infancy, but nonetheless, the teacher in question was charting the ongoing adventures of Walter Skinner and Alex Krycheck and disseminating her stories on niche web-based forums.
You only need to know two things about Walter Skinner and Alex Krycheck, the first being they are both supporting characters in the science-fiction/paranormal show, The X-Files, the second being they are both heterosexual male characters in the show and at no point in any episode do they fuck.
But not so in the stories written by my former-English teacher. In her fiction, Walter Skinner and Alex Kyrcheck cannot keep their hands off each other. In her stories, Walter Skinner and Alex Kyrcheck are positively priapic, with no detail spared, however anatomical, however anglo-saxon, however gymnastic.
This was my first encounter with slash fiction, a literary subgenre deriving its name from the / between whatever same-sex fictional characters are engaging in graphic sexual relations with each other, as in Skinner/Krycheck. Slash-fiction is said to originate with Kirk and Spock, that while a large proportion of Star Trek‘s famously loyal audience were nestled on their settees enjoying the utopian charms of Gene Rodenberry’s rosy view of a federation of planets, another demographic within that same loyal audience were intuiting something no less progressive – an oblique sexual frisson between William Shatner’s impulsive captain and Leonard Nimoy’s cool, logical science officer, consummated ‘off-screen’ in the imaginations of amateur writers and their readers.
When Roland Barthes proclaimed so famously, ‘The author is dead’, he meant it wasn’t to the originator of a particular text we should look for its definitive explanation (be it a book, a play, a film, tv show, photograph or whatever), but rather to the consumers of the text, its audience, us. What follows from this is there are as many meanings to something as there are recipients for it; that anything we produce produces a multiverse, and if meaning is a palimpsest, then to try and fix, limit or arrest interpretation is to tilt foolishly at windmills.
All of which brings me back to Dr Poole’s shorts.
I’ve watched 2001 – A Space Odyssey many times. I screened it for students every year – the whole thing – which always took some pedagogical resolve. With its long takes, overture and intermission, thin-dense story and narrative opacity, 2001 is no one’s idea of an effortless viewing experience. Kubrick’s crystalline visuals, soaring classical score and weighty cosmic ambitions would always have to compete with the pointed rustling of crisp packets and performative sighing, which was established undergraduate code for, ‘When will this fucking film end?‘
But Kubrick isn’t interested in entertaining us exactly. His interests lie in producing the conditions for expansiveness and contemplation. 2001 slows us down so we can think about the images on screen and the ideas they comprise. In the precision of its slowness, in its insistence we keeping looking at something even beyond what is truly comfortable, 2001 is an exercise in accessing some other state, in the same way staring at any one thing for a long period of time encourages the mind to project itself elsewhere.
I don’t know when it happened, which screening of my many screenings in particular, but at some point, as I floated freely in the space Kubrick created for me, I apprehended something new about the film. I began to read some of its visual messaging differently, discerning an alternate text, adding things up using the abacus of my own identity. I figured something out (and no, not the ending of 2001, never that), and since that moment, I can no longer ‘unknow’ what I think I know about 2001, or unsee how I’m seeing things, and now what I think I know about 2001 is this: the film’s middle section, entitled Jupiter Mission – Eighteen Months Later, is not only a prescient cautionary tale about Artificial Intelligence, but also a gay love triangle between two scientists and a super-computer, or put more succinctly: Dr David Bowman / Dr Frank Poole / HAL 9000.
Discovery crew member, Dr David Bowman
Discovery crew member, Dr Frank Poole
My erstwhile English-teacher and amateur pornographer was convinced the writers of The X-Files were complicit in twanging gently at the libidos of the show’s fanbase, sprinkling episodes with homoerotic breadcrumbs so as to draw audiences more deeply into forming binding emotional attachments to their characters. In this way, she argued the ‘queering’ of Skinner and Krycheck was not in fact projection or distortion or superimposition, but rather an act of co-authorship. 2001 is hardly about human relationships at all, which is why it makes for such antiseptic viewing for some audiences. 2001 is about human existence, which isn’t the same thing. It’s when the film does focus on people I start to put this film together differently, because one character’s on-screen presentation is different to the rest.
We are actively encouraged to objectify the character of Dr Frank Poole in a way conspicuous and distinct from any other character in 2001. We are invited to enjoy the act of looking at him, who we first encounter running around the Discovery’s centrifuge. The camera drops low in front of Dr Poole, tracking backwards, keeping time, and we are directed in this way to stare up at his crotch – and I do. I suspect we all do. The view is an exceptionally good one. How can we not enjoy the spectacle of Frank’s muscled thighs? When the camera shifts, we follow along behind him, his round solid buttocks perching attractively just above the bottom edge of the frame. We need only substitute Frank in our imaginations with a female scientist to certify these framing choices are classically objectifying. If a woman were running around Discovery’s centrifuge in just her gym-shorts and a tight t-shirt, and the camera so instructed us to look at her genitals and then again at her bottom, we would appreciate very well this was the male gaze in action. We also see Frank jabbing the air as he jogs, shadow-boxing. In this way we are told Dr Frank Poole is no egg-head, hot-house-flower or etiolated academic. He is athletic, strong, masculine, and with his fine head of thick black hair, Dr Frank Poole is our man’s man, our matinee idol, an obvious sex object treated obviously.
A short time later, Frank reclines on a sun-bed of sorts in just those same short white shorts, his white socks and white running shoes. While this scene continues Kubrick’s fascination with presenting the likely realities of space travel, it is also an opportunity to present Dr Poole’s very nearly naked body. It’s another long scene, our eyes given little else to do but rove. At one point we cut to a tighter shot of Frank looking across at the tele-viewer, where his parents are wishing him happy birthday. This framing couldn’t be more sensual. We study his pretty lips and tan-coloured nipple. We apprehend his slumberous eyes. This is a lover’s view of Dr Frank Poole. Hell, we’re nearly watching this guy sleep, and we all know how loved-up you have to be to do that.
The next time we meet Frank, he’s eating from a tray of pureed space food dressed in a white towelling robe. He is freshly showered after his exertions and languid tanning session, relaxed, un-uniformed, free-balling. What is it about the humble white towelling robe that speaks so directly to the nakedness underneath it in a way other sorts of clothing do not? Indeed, there is even something a little Hefner-esque about how relaxed Frank looks in his dressed/undressed state.
When I consider these introductory shots of Frank, his on-screen presentation – the crotch shots, the spectacle of his thighs, arms and torso, the proximity of his lips to the screen and that soft warm disc of nipple – I wonder whose gaze is (de)constructing him so? Mine certainly – I admit it freely – but I’m inclined to think about Kirk and Spock too, the way in which the contrast of their differences drives the engine of their homoeroticism. Like Kirk, that playboy with the perennially torn shirt, we know Frank Poole has a swinging dick and his handy with his fists. Like Spock, Frank’s human companion on the Discovery, Dr David Bowman, is configured in opposition. Bowman is presented as more cerebral, more sensitive (he is an artist, drawing the other crew members asleep in their pods). There is something of the android about him – a hint of Zuckerberg – and in this way, Bowman is closer to HAL, an affinity reciprocated by the super-computer, who engages with Bowman more often than with Frank, and always more revealingly. I’m compelled to conclude Bowman is repressed, careful and cautious in a way that makes him different to Frank Poole. We can’t easily imagine Dr Dave lounging about the place in just a loosely tied dressing gown.
Sometimes I think the camera watches Frank in the way it does because this is what it’s like to be David Bowman, who is living in intimate proximity with someone he desires. It’s like a flat share when one roommate insists on walking about in just his pants or bath towel, which is normal for him and non-sexualised, and speaks to the comfort he feels in his own skin and his confidence in its display. Dave Bowman is the other room mate, the tidier one, the more controlled one, for whom these everyday flashes of thigh are utterly arresting, troubling even. A secret like that can transform even the most ordinary activity – jogging, sun-bathing, eating dinner in a dressing gown – into giddy high-points of erotic fascination.
But maybe I’m wrong about this? I even think I might be. My hypothesis assumes David is repressed and Frank is unaware. I’m assuming this is a relationship forged out of denial, of secret-looking, out of a love that dare not speak its name. Oh dear! How old fashioned of me, how formulaic! Maybe David and Frank are not homoerotic together, but just homosexual? During the scene where Frank is having his sun-shower, his parents say, ‘Give our love to Dave’ or words to that effect. This implies affection for, and familiarity with, the idea of Frank and Dave being associated as a pair. It speaks to an existing long-term relationship. It implies Dave has met Frank’s family – more than once. Homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK in 1967. 2001 was released the year after. In the film, the year is 2001, but it is a future imagined by someone in 1968, so maybe Frank and Dave have sat together on Frank’s parents sofa as husbands, wearing matching Christmas jumpers and drinking eggnog? Maybe this relationship isn’t the furtive raw material of fervid slash-fiction, but an actual same-sex partnership presented unremarkably as the future we could and should have had?
So to whom might the film’s objectification of the masculine belong, if not to Dr David Bowman? Who else might be zoning in on the exhibited flesh of the Discovery’s resident pin-up, Dr Poole? Who else other than me?
Scopophilia describes the pleasure derived from looking at objects of eroticism as a substitute for actual participation in sexual relations. The HAL 9000 is the Discovery’s fey-sounding, red-eyed cyclops who has been programmed with a semblance of emotions to ensure it interfaces as effectively with humans as possible. The question remains how human is HAL, or put another way, how flawed, how petty, how jealous, how irrational? If HAL knows everything about everything, he will know about sex. If HAL is hooked up to the sum total of human knowledge, we can safely assume HAL is a consumer of pornographic imagery, pornographic imagery being one of humanity’s most prodigious data-sets. Might we assume HAL is likely to experience simulations of arousal too, and thus simulations of sexual frustration at his lack of corporeal agency? HAL is imprisoned in his voyeurism. HAL can only look. HAL cannot consummate. HAL is impotent.
We already know HAL identifies closely with David, whose flatness of expression and measured behaviour mirror the computer’s own. We can also intuit Dr Frank Poole is less comfortable around HAL. Later, Frank will say as much too. Ultimately, this is what I figured out that day in the darkness of the lecture theatre, while behind me, thirty or so undergraduates rustled their crisp-packets in protest at another of Kubrick’s longueurs: HAL is in love with David Bowman. It is a cerebral connection, a Platonic, rather superior sort of love. HAL’s relationship to Dr Frank Poole is of a more provocative kind. You see, I think it’s HAL watching Frank’s crotch while he jogs around the centrifuge in his short white shorts. It’s HAL who looks on while Frank suns himself. It’s HAL pushing the camera to fixate on Dr Frank Poole’s face, on the configuration of his lips. This is the computer’s gaze, the red eye of a hopelessly disembodied scopophiliac.
As I write this down, spelling it out, I’m reminded of the last dissatisfying scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, where, after the film’s rapturous powers of ‘showing-not-telling’, a handy psychiatrist sits us all down and ‘explains’ the lurid plot. He tells us Norman Bates kills Marion Crane because he feels sexual attraction towards her, but that it is his ‘super-ego’ – ‘Mother’ – who intervenes so bloodily. Marion is killed because she produces a powerful effect in Norman’s erotic imagination, installing a glitch in his otherwise urbane and gentle programming. Norman kills because he cannot consummate, and he cannot consummate because, at his most basic level of programming – his motherboard, if you will – he disapproves of something as human as fucking. In this, HAL and Norman share more than just their love of peeping. As Marion did for Norman, Frank does for HAL, confronting him with the thing he wants but cannot have. HAL experiences arousal, frustration, resentment, shame. Ultimately, the spectacle of Frank reminds HAL he is ‘imperfect’, that he is human.
Oh, and of course, HAL is betrayed. David, the platonic object of HAL’s affection for a human being, and Frank, the erotic object of HAL’s disaffection for the human body, conspire together to unplug him. The two men squirrel themselves away in one of the ship’s pods to share their unease about the onset of HAL’s erratic behaviour. This meeting always feels so wonderfully illicit to me, charged with danger and with intimacy. Unfortunately, HAL is as adept at lip-reading as he is at playing chess and we are treated to a sequence of intimate shots of the two men’s mouths, which always manages to remind me of the split-screen antics in the Doris Day / Rock Hudson rom-com Pillow Talk. And how this betrayal must burn! Not only are the two most significant men in HAL’s life conspiring to deactivate him, they do so while sitting so very closely together, looking into each other’s eyes, that small pod filling with their exhalations, their lips but a short distance apart…
By way of reprisal, HAL conspires to separate the two men, and when Frank is alone in deep space, HAL puppets the robotic claws of one of the Discovery’s pods and snips his air supply, sending his body whirling away into space. A short time later, HAL refuses to let Dave back on board, after he goes out to collect Frank’s corpse. In one of cinema’s most celebrated displays of passive-aggression, HAL refuses to ‘open the pod bay doors’. Hell hath no fury like an AI scorned.
I do wonder what my former English teacher would make of all this? Would I get an A for effort, or an F for the effort of straining to make this fan theory cohere credibly? I certainly haven’t been rude enough to earn any gold stars in the category of slash fiction. I’ve more likely just revealed a dimension of my own character, or shown myself to be unfailingly trivial in the face of so portentous a science-fiction narrative. I may just be admitting that, having seen 2001 so many times, I’ve succumbed to doodling in its margins to pass the time, an activity really not so different from rustling a packet of crisps. Anyway, why apologise? According to Barthes, I am where the meaning of 2001 begins. But, in one last evidenced-based bid to demonstrate how this portion of Kubrick’s film might also be a story about a scopophiliac super-computer driven to kill the object of his own self-loathing, I offer this – HAL’s secret song, which only begins to play as Dr David Bowman goes about shutting him down…
“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do, I’m half crazy, All for the love of you…”
Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth, 1948, egg tempera on gessoed panel
Christina’s Word by Andrew Wyeth is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
In chapter two of Alice Through The Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll describes a maddening moment wherein Alice is thwarted by a path and stalked by a house:
“I should see the garden far better,’ said Alice to herself, `if I could get to the top of that hill: and here’s a path that leads straight to it — at least, no, it doesn’t do that — ‘ (after going a few yards along the path, and turning several sharp corners), `but I suppose it will at last. But how curiously it twists! It’s more like a corkscrew than a path! Well, THIS turn goes to the hill, I suppose — no, it doesn’t! This goes straight back to the house! Well then, I’ll try it the other way.’
And so she did: wandering up and down, and trying turn after turn, but always coming back to the house, do what she would. Indeed, once, when she turned a corner rather more quickly than usual, she ran against it before she could stop herself.
`It’s no use talking about it,” Alice said, looking up at the house and pretending it was arguing with her. `I’m NOT going in again yet. I know I should have to get through the Looking-glass again — back into the old room — and there’d be an end of all my adventures!’
So, resolutely turning back upon the house, she set out once more down the path, determined to keep straight on till she got to the hill. For a few minutes all went on well, and she was just saying, `I really SHALL do it this time — ‘ when the path gave a sudden twist and shook itself (as she described it afterwards), and the next moment she found herself actually walking in at the door.”
When I look at Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, I’m reminded of Alice’s efforts to outwit her house, this house that just won’t quit, this house that so badly wants this little girl back inside it, like a whale gobbling a minnow. When I look at Wyeth’s painting, I think this is the exact moment, a girl, exhausted, twisting back around to look across the field only to find the house is there again – an ordinary house admittedly, but not a homely one.
Alice’s determination to not re-enter the house is on account of fear that in so doing, her adventures in Wonderland will end prematurely. I wonder if Christina worries the same way? I look at the distance she has put between herself and the house. I wonder is it enough? Don’t we all worry about this a little bit, on those long Christmas trips home, as we stand before the houses we grew up in, preparing to surrender our grown-up selves and end, for a time at least, some of our more adult adventures? I never get the sense Christina is looking back at the house because she is looking forward to a slice of apple pie at its kitchen table. This isn’t an episode of Little House On The Prairie. Christina isn’t one of those running, tumbling girls. No, this strange painting is none of those things. If we could see Christina’s face – and I’m always happy we can not – I think we would find in it only horror, or rage, or impotence – or whatever expression these three things might combine to produce.
Like the Alice stories, which I never once found comforting or joyful or pleasant, Christina’s World compels me to remember my own déjà vu dreams comprised of loops and repetitions; me, hopelessly lost on the London Underground but always happening upon the same place over and over; or the running dream when I know I cannot rest, cannot stop, because if I do, even for a second, the thing that chases me will be standing at my shoulder. However firmly routed in Americana and thus separate from my own experience, I find Wyeth’s painting familiar in that way exclusive to the uncanny. What is repressed is returning here. Christina’s house, like all the houses of our childhoods, is haunted.
Ed Gein’s house, Plainfield, Winconsin, 1957
Andrew Wyeth painted Christina’s World in 1948. Nine years later, the Waushara County Sheriff’s Department searched Ed Gein’s Winconsin farm and found the decapitated body of a missing store owner hanging upside down in the outhouse. Among other unimaginably horrible discoveries, they also found masks made from the skin of female heads, bowls made from human skulls, a woman’s face in a paper bag, a lampshade fashioned from human skin, and nine vulvae in a shoebox.
Known as the Butcher of Plainfield and the Plainfield Ghoul, the sheer spectacle of Ed Gein’s depravity forever skewed the optics of remote rural farmhouses and their occupants. Where once all those wooden houses anchored like plucky steadfast ships in the vast fields and vaster skies of the American landscape might have denoted the virtues of self-sufficiency, hard-work and the heroism of the Frontier, now they seemed as likely to be harbouring the darkest of secrets, lived in by families twisted into deplorable dependencies unchecked by the proximity of neighbours.
After Gein, came Psycho (1960), with its iconic wooden house as stark against the skyline as Wyeth’s, and after Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), where another white house sits island-like in a sea of insect-ticking grass, and behind its door, an entire family of ghouls.
The old wooden house behind the motel, Psycho (1960)
The family home in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
I always think of these other houses when I look at Wyeth’s painting. I think of these bad places, and all the girls who went inside and died there. I cannot expunge Ed Gein from Wyeth’s ominous-looking outhouses. The filmic shapes they make against that low ceiling of sky make happier thoughts impossible, that and the oppressive silence of the painting, the sense of something held-fast. I love this painting, as I love The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I would no more have Christina’s World on my wall than I rush to viewTobe Hooper’sgruelling movie.
Berlin-based artist, Phil Cooper, helped me understand something about Wyeth’s technique. In a recent conversation, Phil told me a little more about tempera, how the fastidious construction of the artist’s marks locks up and locks out movement or noise, that, as a technique, it stifles a certain expressiveness. There is a paradox at the heart of Wyeth’s strange painting – immobilisation producing oscillation – an effect as arresting and exhausting as the near-imperceptible flicker of a failing strip of florescent light.
Another image sharing the frozen restiveness of Christina’s World is I. Russel Sorgi’s Suicide (1942). In Sorgi’s image, the inevitable and expected forces of gravity are stopped by the action of the camera shutter, just as the wind that should animate the surface of Wyeth’s sky and fields are paused. We have only the scant horizontal lines of Christina’s breeze-blown hair to attest to the physical reality of her world, but like the flaring of the falling woman’s dress in Sorgi’s photograph, they only serve to stopper-up the image even more completely.
What is equally powerful about Sorgi’s photograph is the way we know more about what is going to happen than the people in the coffee shop. While this image is shocking, it’s not shock we experience, but rather the attenuation of suspense.
Of course, Psycho’s Alfred Hitchcock knew a thing or two about suspense, about the origin of this contrary pleasure. For an audience to feel suspense, they must first have information. When I look at Christina’s World, I experience suspense because I know there is something here at least, an off-ness, a threat, a shadow, an ominosity awarded to the otherwise humdrum elements in the picture. It’s there too in what is not quite right about Christina’s body. This girl is not some relaxed participant in this tableau. It is there in the composition, those houses held-up like that against the flat sky and the way Christina seems so horribly alert to them. Always I’m reminded of titles of cheapskate seventies shockers like Don’t Look In The Basement (1972) and Don’t Go Into The House (1979). because this is what I’m thinking; don’t go into that house, Christina – and if you do, Christina, definitely don’t look in the basement.
Wyeth generates suspense in one other simple way, for while Christina has her back to us, Wyeth presents her posture in such an awkward way, we feel, at any moment, this girl must surely turn around if only to correct what is wrong about it. We know the Christina in the painting is based on a real Christina, and the image itself inspired by a real memory of the real Christina crawling across a real field. The real Christina is thought to have had Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease, in which scoliosis is common and likewise the malformation of bone sockets. Does this account for the visceral discomfort I experience when I look at the girl in the painting, my eyes glueing again and again to her feeble emaciated arm, braced against the ground in a way that looks impossible to endure? The detail of her elbow, the angle of her wrist, the somehow reptilian curvature of her spine – all these little things are powerful engines of suspense because I feel them in my own body and know, if I was this girl, marooned out there without a hiding place, I’d be pivoting already, freeing-up, standing-up, extending my limbs in readiness to make good on my escape. Get up, Christina. For God’s sake, get up.The house, Christina. The house is coming.
Betty, Gerhard Richter, 1988, oil on canvas
And always when I think about Christina, I think about Betty, another girl in aspic. I don’t worry as much about Betty, though I do wonder what so arrests her attention in all that darkness. I couldn’t have Richter’s hyper-real 1988 painting hanging on my wall any more than Wyeth’s celebrated slice of American art, for there wouldn’t be a morning when I came downstairs when I wouldn’t be fully expecting to find Betty looking out at me instead, that some chain in the image had finally given out, its subject swinging round to look me in the eye.
Maybe Betty’s face is a face you could learn live with – even love? I suppose it depends on what she saw in the dark and what mark it left upon her. But Christina’s face – no, I never want to see that – and when I do think of it, turning my imagination to the task as I might finger an aching tooth or pimple, I see her face in a paper-bag.
Ella Fitzgerald singing To Keep My Love Alive is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
My ex never rated Ella Fitzgerald. He found her vocal seamlessness anodyne, preferring the gravel of Dinah Washington, the rasp of Etta James, the smoke of Sarah Vaughn. He found Ella too polite, too popular, too ubiquitous, desexed. For all of that, as a gay man of a certain age whose identity had been criminalised until 1967, he nonetheless relished Fitzgerald’s success, the ‘in-plain-sight’ contrariness of her huge popularity; as Frank Rich noted about Fitzgerald in The New York Times in the days following her death in ‘here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians.’
True enough, Ella Fitzgerald and her great American Songbooks are too often the taken-for-granted soundtrack to cookie-cutter coffee-shops, the many colors of her superlative recordings rolled together like so much brown Plasticine – which is why hearing Fitzgerald sing To Keep My Love Alive is always such a subversive surprise.
Composed by Richard Rogers, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart, To Keep My Love Alive is a song entirely dedicated to the various grisly mechanics of the murdering of husbands. This is a ditty for psychopaths characterised by audacious clever rhymes and a complete lack of conscience, delightfully free of moralising or any kind of comeuppance for the narrator. Specifically, when Ella sings To Keep My Love Alive it is like discovering your favourite auntie, school teacher or ample, smiling dinner lady is a serial killer. In this way, Ella Fitzgerald is hands-down the perfect performer for this nicely nasty little song.
I’ve been married, and married, and often I’ve sighed “I’m never a bridesmaid, I’m always a bride.
I never divorced them, I hadn’t the heart Yet remember these sweet words, “’till death do us part”
I married many men, a ton of them Because I was untrue to none of them Because I bumped off every one of them To keep my love alive
There is a perverse logic here I recognise; not the bumping-off part (my ex-partner is alive and well despite our various disagreements), but the idea of hastening the end of something before the end itself can disappoint. Fitzgerald is killing her husbands, not for their inheritances (though we can presume from their knighthoods they are not short of a bob or two), but in a selfless act of self-defence. She is protecting the ideal of romantic love from the indignities of long-term intimacy; from the farts and the floaters and the acid-reflux; from the balled tissues on the nightstand with their gooey soft-centres; from the baggy y-fronts and even baggier ball-bags, from the hairy soaps and varicose veins; and from the creeping somnambulism of routine and suppressed red-mist rage at all the snoring, at the chewing, at all the breathing. Rodgers and Hart’s heroine would rather her husbands dead than disappointing.
As a small boy, I was the same about holidays. Buoyed by the prospect of all the long days of freedom ahead of me, I’d be bonny and bouncy at the outset of my holidays, but come the mid-point of my week, my mood would bruise. Next thing, I’ve already re-packed my little suitcase and I’m sulking powerfully, now actively trying to hurry the holiday to its dreaded conclusion by refusing to participate in the present.
Sunday afternoons were the same. Christ, they’re still the same; it’s 4 pm on a Sunday and I want the weekend dead and buried so I won’t have to endure the awful ticking down towards the inevitability of Monday. I want things dead, not dying. The long days of late August can grip me similarly, as I whip on my widows weeds even as the sun still blazes and ample opportunities remain for loafing and lotus-eating. I’ve lost count of the number of pleasant experiences I’ve killed off prematurely simply because the prospect of them ending is worse, wringing the lovely necks of parties, blithe company, and sunny days to see off the misery of denouement.
Sir Paul was frail, he looked a wreck to me At night he was a horse’s neck to me So I performed an appendectomy To keep my love alive
Sir Thomas had insomnia, he couldn’t sleep at night I bought a little arsenic, he’s sleeping now all right
Sir Philip played the harp, I cussed the thing I crowned him with his harp to bust the thing And now he plays where harps are just the thing To keep my love alive To keep my love alive
I thought Sir George had possibilities But his flirtations made me ill at ease And when I’m ill at ease, I kill at ease To keep my love alive
In what was a case of life imitating art, I bit my mum’s hand while watching Jaws. Grizzled shark-hunter Quint was seconds away from meeting his sticky end between the foam teeth of Spielberg’s rubberCarcharodon carchariasand mum had the temerity to put her hand over my eyes to shield me from the ensuing gouts of blood. I bit her to make her take her hand away – which she did. I wanted to see the nuts and bolts of this horrible thing. This was death made for looking at. This was death as spectacle. To Keep My Love Alive, however whimsical, is likewise in a tradition of storytelling that delights in the presentation of the destruction of the human body for our entertainment. It is a tradition based not on shock, but on anticipation.
Sir Charles came from a sanatorium And yelled for drinks in my emporium I mixed one drink, he’s in memorium To keep my love alive
Sir Francis was a singing bird, a nightingale, that’s why I tossed him off my balcony, to see if he, could fly
Sir Atherton indulged in fratricide, He killed his dad and that was patricide One night I stabbed him by my mattress-side To keep my love alive To keep my love alive To keep my love alive
To Keep My Love Alive doesn’t end with our merry murderer being found out and carted off to the nearest insane asylum. This isn’t a whodunnit. We know very well who is doing what to whom and we’re being invited to enjoy their terrible behaviour. More than this, we are being invited to look forward to the next death-dealing ingenuity. The structure of the song quickly establishes there will soon be another murder, and then another, and now another, and we welcome warmly each inventive tableaux. Slasher movies know this. Director Richard Donner knew this when he made The Omen. The Final Destinationfranchise made millions of dollars because it knows this. These successive games of death are never games of if, or even really of who. There are always games of how.
Twenty years after To Keep My Love Alive was penned, Edward Gorey published The Gashley Crumb Tinies, his 1963 ABC of children’s mortal accidents. In common with To Keep My Love Alive, it takes a conscientious moral effort to reinstall the fact of Gorey’s subject-matter being about terrible things happening to innocent individuals. It takes effort because, truth be told, we don’t care. We don’t care because we are ghoulish. Because we love gallows humour because we need it. We like it when the unspeakable is spoken. More than this, we approve. We like it when our artists, writers, and filmmakers think, say and do the things we know we shouldn’t think, say or do. Edward Gorey dispatches luckless children for our pleasure and we feel only sneaking affection for his macabre alphabet. Ella Fitzgerald murders husbands and we smile and clap and tingle admiringly at her liberty to behave so appallingly.
Passion Animation Studio’s viral sensation, Dumb Ways To Die (2012), is where Rodgers and Hart and Edward Gorey meet in a sweet venn diagram of music-driven fatalities. Again, we have a simple song with a simple structure, distinguished by some fantastic word-play, and all in the service of powering along a sequence of appalling deaths designed to entertain. (Oh yeah, there’s also an important message somewhere in here about railway safety from Metro Trains in Melbourne, Victoria). If you know this charming little ditty already, you won’t thank me for resurrecting it. If you don’t know Dumb Ways To Die, I apologise in advance for the way it will now burrow into your brain, where it will worm snugly alongside To Keep My Love Alive and reside there stubbornly for days.
The Last Time I Saw Richard is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
I was introduced to Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album, Blue, when I was a first year undergraduate at art college. Maybe this is when everyone first hears the album? It certainly reads like a cliché now I’ve written it down.
The person who brought Blue to my attention was an older female student, a formidably assertive ceramicist, who was bisexual long before it was a thing and gave zero fucks what people thought of her. This was back in the early nineties, so my copy was pirated for me on a plain silver disc covered in the big indelible loops of the ceramicist’s hand-writing. I don’t know why this warm, generous, hot-headed woman thought I needed this album. Obviously I was walking about the place with a Joni Mitchell-shaped hole in me, as conspicuous to everyone else as a really bad hat.
Whatever the reason, Blue arrived with me, gifted by someone older and wiser, by someone who lived and worked in London, someone who’d travelled widely, someone less inhibited, someone with more notches on their bedpost, someone trailing more damage, someone bigger, someone braver.
The first thing you notice is how immediate it sounds, as if this is music not reaching you from some recording studio in 1971, but from a more intimate pocket of space.
I like every song on Blue. If it wasn’t June, I’d just as likely be enthusing about River, ‘the greatest, saddest Christmas song of all time’, and if I was tousled and sunburned from lounging too long by the pool, I’d be likely banging on about Carey, ‘the greatest summer holiday song of all time’.
The Last Time I Saw Richard is the final track on the album, the one that leaves you in silence, the one that makes reaching for another song or album feel as unseemly as buying a puppy moments after burying your dog. The song is just three short verses long; two people sitting across from each other in a bar, one of whom, Richard, is chiding the other’s romanticism and predicting for her only disillusionment. Richard’s companion suspects Richard ‘protests too much’, that his heart, though buried beneath bitter experience, lives on no less hopefully, and she points to his choice of songs on the establishment’s jukebox as proof.
The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68 And he told me, “All romantics meet the same fate someday Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café “You laugh,” he said, “you think you’re immune Go look at your eyes, they’re full of moon You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you All those pretty lies, pretty lies When you gonna realise they’re only pretty lies? Only pretty lies, just pretty lies”
He put a quarter in the Wurlitzer, and he pushed Three buttons and the thing began to whirr And a bar maid came by in fishnet stockings and a bow tie And she said “Drink up now, it’s gettin’ on time to close.” “Richard, you haven’t really changed,” I said, it’s just that Now you’re romanticizing some pain that’s in your head You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs you punched are Dreaming, listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet When you gonna get yourself back on your feet? Oh and love can be so sweet, love so sweet
The Last Time I Saw Richard is filmic, which is surely why it springs to life so readily in my mind’s eye. I love the description of the barmaid in her fishnet stockings. I understand everything I need to know about this supporting character; the wilt of her bowtie, the aching of her feet, her impatience with couples and their intense conversations familiar to anyone who has worked behind a bar or waited tables; someone’s life is falling apart and all you’re thinking about is slipping your feet out of your shoes.
The images which accompany this song in the picture palace of my head are pilfered from Edward Hopper, a blending of Nighthawks (1942), Automat (1927), New York Movie (1939) and Night Windows (1928). The era is wrong, but everything else feels right. This affinity is as much to do with the brevity of Hopper’s paintings as it does with their isolated subjects. Mitchell’s three short verses allude to entire lives and complex emotional realities. They find their visual counterpart in the cropped glimpses of Hopper’s compositions; both offer views fleeting as they are meaningful.
After Hopper’s paintings, it’s another room I see, the bedroom of the student house I lived in for the duration of my degree. The house itself was unremarkable, rather awful even, situated in an estate populated by smugglers – not the whiskery Cornish sort, but the sun-burned, bald, brick shithouse kind with fleets of transit vans stacked with stolen fags. As art students, my housemates and I had little in common with our neighbours, except in one regard; like them, we didn’t have a proper job between us either.
The first thing I did after moving into my student house was paint my room’s old granny wallpaper with terracotta emulsion. Terracotta was having a moment, likewise anything with moons and stars on it. There was nothing to be done about the purple carpet in my room, except, Stockholm-syndrome style, grow to love it. Luxury of luxuries, my room had a double-bed, old and soft and a disaster-zone for vertebrae. I had a duvet cover of tiny flowers in shades of custard, biscuit, and the brown-pink of sticky-plasters. My room faced West. On sunny evenings, the terracotta walls blazed (my purple carpet too) and my double-bed would bake. I was conceited enough to think, by letting the plangent chords of The Last Time I Saw Richard escape freely out of my open window into the broiled air of the estate, I was providing a service to the world-at-large. I liked to imagine the song inspiring moments of respite, reflection and fugue, similar to the scene in The Shawshank Redemption when an entire prison is transported by Duettino “Sull’aria”. In reality, these plangent chords were as short-lived as mayflies, swatted from the air by the rich imbroglio of noise from our neighbours’ front gardens, where smugglers sunbathed in deck chairs, drunk as lords and ribald as vikings.
Young people like to think they’ve discovered sex, much to the twinkling amusement of everyone older than them. It must be the same when young people discover Joni Mitchell, but in my defence, there’s something more subtle to express here; sometimes you arrive at something you understand in your sinews, not because your own experience aligns with it. It shouldn’t be possible to feel pangs of nostalgia for an experience who’ve never had, and I was hardly built in the image of the characters populating Joni’s songs; I wasn’t shot through with all that super-8 sunlight. I wasn’t a restless traveller, beach-comber, spontaneous road-trip taker, or world-weary disillusioned lover. In no one’s imagination was I a carefree soul, and yet, I found Blue‘s songs recognisable, none more so than The Last Time I Saw Richard.
Richard got married to a figure skater And he bought her a dishwasher and a Coffee percolator And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on And all the house lights left up bright I’m gonna blow this damn candle out I don’t want Nobody comin’ over to my table I got nothing to talk to anybody about All good dreamers pass this way some day Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes Dark cafes, only a dark cocoon Before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away Only a phase, these dark cafe days
A rare phonecall between my father and I takes place in the grim, dim hallway of that same student house with the flaming terracotta room upstairs. I’m lonely and dissatisfied in ways not completely visible to me. I’m not sure I’m on the right degree course. I’m not sure I’m on the right path. I’m not sure I’m living the life I want to. I’m not sure of very much it seems. Dad tells me to buck-up. Dad, a hard-working self-made type, shrinks the vagaries of my formless existential angst by reminding me that happiness is the quest for ‘a bigger sofa, a bigger car, and a bigger house’. I need to wake up, move on, get real, grow up. This is the last time I solicit his advice – just in case he’s right.
I think about this telephone call when I hear The Last Time I Saw Richard. The song returns me to the white-hot frustration I felt at the fatalism of my dad’s counsel. I transpose our telephone conversation to a Hopperesque bar, with my father and I sitting on opposite sides of a table; he tells me I’ll soon learn what he’s learnt and that it’s time to put away childish things. I remind him of the paintings of his I’ve seen from when he was a young man – the dinosaurs, and the Biro bats on his old satchel.
A few years later, I go to a barbecue hosted by one of my friends from art college. I’m as poor as a church mouse and can’t really afford to be socialising, but there will be other people from college at the barbecue and I’m looking forward to seeing them again. It’s fun for a short time, and then I’m holding a piss-poor excuse for a hamburger listening to multiple conversations about London house prices.
On the train journey home, I stare out at the houses neighbouring the railway line. The Last Time I Saw Richard plays in my head. It’s because I’m thinking about Edward Hopper, and all the big/little stories going on inside these houses. More specifically, it is the lines about Richard’s coffee percolator and his house with ‘all the lights left up bright’ going round and round. We’re all Richard now, I decide miserably, thinking back to the barbecue and its utter banality. I cast glances around the carriage at all the hollowed-out men and women staring out of windows. Now I’m thinking about the final lines of the final verse, as the song’s narrator doubles-down on her refusal to go this same way, even as the chords, the vocal performance, and the shape of the song lead us to suspect it’s already too late, that she is Richard too, and if not yet, then one day soon.
When I listen to The Last Time I Saw Richard, I see the paintings of Edward Hopper. I see my student room and all that took place there. I also see this awful barbecue and how awful we were, chatting boringly, our not-much younger selves looking on with withering disdain.
When I listen to The Last Time I Saw Richard I make and re-make promises, swearing I’ll ensure my eyes will remain as ‘full of moon’ as I can manage. I’ll do the job of Joni’s narrator too, challenge Richards when I find them, prove them wrong and re-enchant them. I’ll do this for myself too, and when it’s difficult, like it’s difficult now, I’ll try and remember what is temporary about dark cocoons and what is transportive about Joni’s gorgeous wings.