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.
Kyp Finnegan is lost in Chimera after running away from the imposters pretending to be his parents. Chimera is as remarkable as it is dangerous – a fantastical world of lost properties in which bowties evolve into butterflies and abandoned sofas transform into snorting herds of soffalos! With the help of Atticus Weft, a sock-snake with a secret, Kyp must evade the clutches of Madame Chartreuse, who is determined to add him to her collection of lost children and imprison him in Chimera forever…
What started life as a story inspired by – and written for – my nephew, the book series, Chimera took up more and more of my time as a creative writing project. The light bulb moment was small and simple, in so much as, back in early 2002, my nephew was experiencing some anxiety around moving house and moving schools, going through a moment when the circumstances of his parents’ lives were impacting on his own in ways that felt unwelcome, unfair or just plain mysterious. Really that was it – the tension between the world as it is understood by a child and the world of adult decisions.
I wanted to write the sort of story I wanted to read as a child. I remember vividly a book by Dalek-creator, Terry Nation, called Rebecca’s World, which I read many times, loving it for its cast of characters and vividly-described alternate world. I loved being scared too – or rather that ‘cosy’ sense of being imperiled by unseen things and deadly menaces, content in the knowledge you’re really safe and sound in your Spiderman pyjamas. I loved Doctor Who for its cliff-hanger endings (I remember the ending of one episode when my beloved Sarah-Jane had a giant spider unhatch from an egg onto her face – cue credits, and then the long agonising wait until next week to find out if she was okay… She was!). I adored The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, happily oblivious to its Christian teachings, entranced instead by that magical-humdrum portal into that winter wood, and by Mr Tumnus himself, with his parcels and scarf and little kernel of darkness. In all these ways, I was a very typical little boy. Certainly there is nothing ground-breaking about stories in which children find themselves mixed up in extraordinary adventures in strange alternate realities, so why sit down and write ‘another one of those’?
Because I wanted to. Because it was always inside of me to do it. After the light-bulb moment came the whole world of my story, and it came quickly in bright, finely-wrought flashes. There was something fun and addictive about writing something to be snaffled quickly, an episodic, high-peril adventure populated by larger-than-life characters and properly frightening villains. I conceived of the book as something to be read last thing at night under the duvet with a torch, with chapters brisk enough to keep children reading even when they were supposed to be going to sleep. I wanted to write something I could have been reading ‘back then’ under my own duvet.
The story of a little boy lost to an entire universe of lost things soon grew into something more complex and ambitious, and the project of writing it – actually of finishing it – grew too. What began as a creative writing project in the box room of small rural post office in a small village in Lincolnshire went on to become a years-long commitment of writing and re-writing and re-drafting. There was a time when Chimera was always with me, carried on a laptop on long National Express commutes between Lincolnshire and Dalston, and then on trains from Dalston down to Rochester, where I was teaching, and then all the way back again, over and over.
Back in 2008, my good mate, hugely talented artist and fellow-kick-abouter, Phill Hosking, produced some illustrations in response to Chimera‘s characters, worlds and dramatic set-pieces. I loved this process. It was fascinating to watch all my text-based imaginings being realised by another creative – my stuff, but now Phill’s stuff too, two imaginations finding their sweet-spots.
Phill and I collaborated again in 2014, when the time came finally to push the Chimera series of books out into the world as e-books with Troubador. I think I could have fiddled with them forever, but I wanted to know they were finished. I needed them to be finished. I wanted to be done with them and also see what I’d done. Phill produced the cover art used across the three e-editions, featuring Chimera’s villainous trio, The Oblivion Three, headed up by the imperious Madame Chartreuse.
Alternate Chimera cover art designs by Phill Hosking (2014)
With Chimera now out there, I soon received my first reviews, most of which you can read, warts and all, at Goodreads. There are nice reviews on there and some much less glowing examples! Note the author himself gives his own books five stars. This is likely the epitome of bad form, but well, you would, wouldn’t you? Anyway, here’s a flavour of the bouquets and brickbats:
“The world Gomm creates is vivid and interesting, and provides some long awaited answers: where the heck are my socks, and that book I swear I put right here on this shelf? The creatures of Chimera are born out of those lost to our world and they dazzle and scare and hunt and grab and suck and talk and fly and cuddle… But beyond the creatures, beyond the quest to escape Chimera (or help the children stuck in Chimera), the book is about loss, both in terms of losing someone or something that is dear, and in terms of being lost. It is also about being missed, being wanted, and belonging. There is a good balance of melancholy and good humor and creative genius of this strange world that keeps the story flying.“
“This was a quite fun little story. It does end without resolution, as the story continues in book two. I think this would be great for school age kids, a younger Harry Potter and Narnia crowd… I think this is a perfect story for a younger audience, It’s written well; dark, but not too creepy, and I thought it was unique and imaginative.”
“I found this story to be a little bit of Toy Story, a little bit of Alice in Wonderland. I loved the different metamorphosis the things and people find themselves in once they’ve been in Chimera long enough. I thought it was fascinating.”
“Hard to stay interested, seems very childish“
“Almost 2.5 stars but not quite.“
I think I’m going to put ‘Almost 2.5 stars but not quite’ on my headstone.
On balance, the readers who enjoyed the Chimera books outweigh those who found it ‘hard to stay interested.’ The decision to put the book out there, when it began so personally and lived in my brain for so long, was a strange and risk-filled one, but when, for example, I was notified of the review which so nailed the emotional landscape of the story – (the book is about loss, both in terms of losing someone or something that is dear, and in terms of being lost. It is also about being missed, being wanted, and belonging) – I was thrilled. To have someone feel your book, as well as read it, was a powerful moment of approval. To have someone hate your book has power too, and is a good lesson in learning to take hard medicine.
Dan Snelgrove, actor and voice artist, recording Chimera Book One in his studio
All of which brings me onto some exciting news. On Sunday afternoon on October 4th, Chimera Book One, the audiobook, will debut on here as a weekly podcast, performed by the actor, Dan Snelgrove. Dan and I have been in cahoots for a while on this project and I am bursting with excitement about it. A few weeks back, Dan sent me a demo of his reading of Chapter One, and I enjoyed it so much, I had the strange experience of forgetting I’d written it in the first place! That will read like hyperbole – but hand-on-heart, it isn’t. I just listened to it, feeling cosied, childlike and Spiderman-pyjamaed. If this sounds rather too much like I was ‘laughing at my own jokes’ or self-aggrandising, I just mean to say Dan took what I’d written (all those years ago) and gave it back to me as something fresh and full-bodied and sparkly! In other news, Berlin-based artist and kick-abouter, Phil Cooper, has very kindly agreed to produce new artwork in response to the new audio recordings of the book, and I’m currently working with a very talented composer, who is working on some musical cues for the episodes.
I hope to be inviting Dan to Red’s Kingdom very soon to talk about his work on bringing Chimera to life as a spoken-word experience. Without getting into spoiler-territory already, there are so many different characters in the book, Dan tells me he’s had to populate a spreadsheet! My anticipation only grows…
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.
I didn’t know this 1964 short film directed by Gene R Kearney, or the 1934 short story written by Conrad Aiken, from which it is adapted. I feel like I should have known it – or rather, I feel I have always known this story, just not in this specific form.
Admittedly, it’s a very strange story, as a boy slips from the mundane reality of his family and school into a world of ‘secret snow’ – snow that is non-corporeal and imaginary, but which comes to transform the boy’s immediate environment and transfix his attention.
A quick look at the prevailing ideas about ‘the ‘meaning’ of Silent Snow, Secret Snow suggests we are to read this film as being about the onset of schizophrenia or some other regrettable episode of illness, but I don’t feel this way about it at all.
What Silent Snow, Secret Snow captures so perfectly – and so recognisably – is the truth of living with our creative imaginations, of what it means to carry invented worlds around with us in which others cannot share, taking them to school so we may daydream our way back into them during boring lessons, or sitting with them at the dinner table as we wish to be somewhere more magical.
I think this is every child’s reality, not some especial case-study in childhood dysfunction. This is every storyteller’s reality too, for what is storytelling if not the ability to see snow that isn’t there, and imagine it so strongly it may as well be? This is the story too of all the individuals who must live with storytellers, who must sit across from them in the knowledge they are rejected by the private imaginative acts going on inside the heart and mind of this other person – that the person before them is always somewhere else and seeing what isn’t there.
Aiken’s story is often categorised as ‘horror’. I find this taxonomy peculiar. I can find no horror here – or rather I am not horrified by what is happening to the boy in the story. Instead, I am comforted by his secret snow, and when, at the conclusion of the film, his bedroom fills with showers of ice crystals, I experience envy. How magical for him, I think. How lucky.
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.
The Kick-About #5 prompted me to exhume these images from the archive in advance of Throwback Friday, specifically Graeme Daly’s recollections of the basement in his father’s house, and particularly the suspicion with which he regarded the dolls who lived down there in the company of spiders.
In reference to the dolls that creeped him out as a child, Graeme articulated a particular paradox I recognised. Graeme wrote, “There has always been something about dolls that horrify me – in the best way.” I know that feeling too; an especial sensory sensation triggered by dolls and all the objects like them; the puppets, the mannequins, the waxworks – the uncanny objects.
I spent a good part of my masters degree investigating the uncanny, taking photographs and writing lengthily on its uses in art, film and literature. It all seems a very long time ago, but these images, originally taken on 1600 black and white film in the gloomy interiors of various antique shops, still reward me with a little prickle of unease – in the best way.
Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon is a 2009 German language film shot in surgically precise black and white. The time is 1913, the place is a small, isolated German village named Eichwald, and the narrative evolves around a series of unexplained acts of cruelty and malice perpetrated against the remote, rural community.
In common with Haneke’s Hidden (2005), The White Ribbon is purposefully ambiguous. Motives are never laid bare and pointed fingers fail to skewer definitive targets. In this way, the film refuses easy categorisation, but for this viewer, at least, Haneke’s menacing exploration of shame, reprisal and complicity continues a fine cinematic tradition of paedophobia: stories that evince or seek to evoke a visceral distrust or dislike of children.
The mark left by a trip-wire used in a booby-trap, The White Ribbon (2009)
A mysterious fire, The White Ribbon (2009)
The Baron’s son is thrown in the river, The White Ribbon (2009)
While The White Ribbon determines for its audience neither motive nor culprit for the violent acts, it certainly doesn’t dissuade us from thinking the worst of the neat, straight-backed children who inhabit the village – they who gather watchfully outside doorways and windows to enquire ever-so politely about the well-being of the individuals hurt in the film’s mysterious accidents and brutalised in off-screen beatings. There is something insincere about the children’s sincerity, something too knowing about their curiosity, their demeanour reminiscent of scientists coming back to observe dispassionately the outcome of inhumane experiments. This may ultimately be an example of Haneke’s game-play, in that the audience is tempted by the director to foreclose on further discussion and apportion blame – and in so doing make issue of our intolerance for incertitude and preference for scapegoats.
I’m not alone in fearing the children of remote, rural Eichwald. The school teacher, who narrates the events of the film, comes finally to suspect the children of unwholesome activities. His hypothesis is met with indignation and disavowal. Hardly surprising: the idea children can be so wilfully malign always elicits public outcry – especially in cases where children abuse or kill other children (and children are victims of violence in The White Ribbon). One need only namecheck Mary Bell and James Bulger to know children who kill present society with an idea too unpalatable.
Mary Bell at the time of her arrest.
James Patrick Bulger being led away to his death.
It is Eichwald’s pastor with whom the school teacher shares his misgivings, who reacts predictably with horror. There is, however, something too strident about this puritan’s refutation. The pastor is appalled by the premise that the village children (his own among them) could be responsible for the violence, but not, I suspect, because he finds the school teacher’s theory unimaginable, but rather because he can imagine it perfectly well. Author William Golding evidences no such squeamishness. Golding’s 1954 novel Lord Of The Flies, in which a community of English schoolboys stranded on an island descend into savagery, is a celebrated reposte to the idea that children are wired more benignly than adults.
A school boy savage, from Lord Of The Flies (1963)
Whereas Golding suggests none of us are beyond the thrall of atavism – children especially – Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed (1956) makes the case that evil derives from specific genes or ‘bad seeds’. Rhoda Penmark, aged eight, is the bad seed of the film’s title, a child-killer and sociopath, and as a subplot reveals, the granddaughter of a female serial killer.
Rhoda Penmark, The Bad Seed (1956)
LeRoy’s film is an adaptation of a 1954 novel by William March. The novel’s original ending – in which Rhoda’s mother attempts to kill her daughter with sleeping pills and then shoots herself, only for Rhoda to survive, free to kill again – was much too nihilistic for the censors. The spectacle of a child psychopath going unpunished contravened the Hays Code, which insisted films had a solemn moral duty to show ‘crime didn’t pay.’ The film’s ending was duly revised, with the mother now surviving her suicide attempt and Rhoda being dealt a lethal blow by a bolt of lightning. Ultimately then, Rhoda is given the mother of all spankings by the father of all fathers. Not content with this sledgehammer-subtle deus-ex-machina, a post-ending coda shows the mother spanking Rhoda, so as to further reassure audiences and restore too in the minds of worried moms and pops the efficacy of their own parenting. I can only wonder what changes the Hays Code would have demanded of Haneke’s The White Ribbon – a film in which children are violent, crimes go unpunished, motives remain elliptical, parenting is largely abusive and bolts of cleansing lightning are in conspicuously short supply.
Rhoda gets spanked by her mother, The Bad Seed (1956)
If the children of Eichwald have a ring-leader, it is the passive-aggressive Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus), whose resemblance to Rhoda Penmark might encourage us to believe in the existence of genetic templates for evil after all. Klara is as blonde and outwardly wholesome as LeRoy’s sociopath, but as dead-pan as Wednesday Addams, whose morbid fascination with injury and accident Klara may also share.
Klara is confronted by the suspicious school teacher, The White Ribbon (2009)
It is Klara who is responsible for one of the film’s acts of violence that is attributed without equivocation. Klara is the pastor’s eldest daughter who, in falling short of her father’s puritanical expectations, has been made by way of punishment to wear the titular white ribbon on her arm. While the white ribbon itself is symbolic of purity, the wearing of it announces moral deficit and failure. Following further public humiliation by her father, Klara kills the pastor’s pet bird in reprisal and revolt. That the bird itself is caged is surely significant, for Klara is likewise denied the full expression of her nature by the repressive structures of her father’s world. As significant is the means by which Klara first mutilates and then displays the pastor’s bird, making from its corpse a mockery of a crucifix. Fathers of all kinds are punished in Eichwald.
Klara’s revenge, The White Ribbon (2009)
The White Ribbon‘s temporal and geographical context encourages us to lend chilling significance to the idea of a generation of children learning to flex their muscles with impunity and address their resentments with violence. The school teacher’s opening narration suggests plainly that, like him, we might seek to connect the social microcosm of the troubled village and the macrocosm of twentieth century European history:
“I don’t know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know by hearsay. After so many years a lot of it is still obscure and many questions remain unanswered. But I think I must tell you of the strange events that occurred in our village. They could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country.”
If The White Ribbon is ‘about’ the incubation of fascism in Germany, then Klara and her tribe are not simply bad apples, but bitter little acorns from which something truly monstrous will grow. The film’s title may, of itself, be an example of grim foreshadowing, as Ian Johnston suggests, “The shaming white ribbons worn on Martin and Klara’s arms project associations into the Nazi future, both the Nazis’ armbands and the badges of shame (yellow for Jews, pink for homosexuals, purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.) used in the camps.” (Johnston, 2010) Of Klara and her cohorts, Alan Nothnagle makes this grim prediction: “These terrorists in waiting are around ten or twelve years old, and as such are too young to participate in World War I. No, instead of experiencing the disillusioning meat grinder of attrition warfare, this lot will instead soak up the dying Empire’s “victory” propaganda and later join the Freikorps, the Storm Troopers, and the Nazi Party. In 1933 they will be around thirty years old and will form the backbone of the new regime.” (Nothnagle, 2009)
Hitler Youth Propoganda Poster
In Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning Cabaret(1972), we encounter another beautiful blonde child whose implacable resolve gives us one of cinema’s most truly chilling scenes. For all its apparent ambiguity, The White Ribbon is no less clear in its message: we should fear for our children, in so much as they are manipulated easily, controlled and abused, and we should be in fear of our children for the self-same reason – or as singer-song writer Tracy Chapman puts it more simply, ‘Bang Bang Bang.’
Tomorrow Belongs To Me from Cabaret (1972)
The afterimage of Hitler’s youth permeates another peadophobic classic, TheVillage of The Damned(1960), based on John Wyndam’s science-fiction 1957 novel, The Midwich Cuckoos. Here too, we encounter a tribe of precocious moppets all with startlingly blonde hair and glacial, impeccable manners with scant disregard for the feelings of others.
The glacial blonde children from The Village Of The Damned (1960) > Hitler Youth Propaganda poster.
At least the mums and dads of Midwich have got aliens to blame for their wayward offspring – and not a serial-killing encoded gene. In this instance, their creepy kids are the hive-minded, telepathic progeny of an extra-terrestial intelligence. Likewise, when their sullen five year old starts acting-up in Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) Richard and Katherine Thorn can at least take comfort from the fact of finding themselves at the heart of a global conspiracy plotting to see the antichrist installed on his earthly throne.
Damien Thorn, the antichrist as a child in The Omen (1976)
In these peadophobic fright-fests, the parents are squarely not at fault – external forces are at work. These children are monsters of (super)nature not nurture. Not so in The White Ribbon. Haneke’s children are Larkin‘s children – fucked up by their mums and dads and by the alienating ideologies of adulthood. As Ryan Gilbey observes, “If the children are the perpetrators of the violence, it is their elders who have nurtured these dubious talents. The villagers’ child-rearing techniques, based on instilling guilt and inflicting pain, are shown to be incendiary” (Gilbey, 2009) It’s even possible to see the acts of violence perpetrated against the village as projections of the adults’ otherwise unexpressed resentment. The village is festering with grown-up grievances, unvoiced, neutered by puritan restraint and the tugging of forelocks. Haneke’s refusal to name and shame gives the various attacks and accidents a near-supernatural quality, as if they’re being visited upon the village like portents, which is further encouraged by the inclusion of a child character who appears able to prophecise the episodes of violence in her dreams. Notice Gilbey’s choice of the word ‘incendiary’, which seems particularly apposite considering the way in which The White Ribbon‘s cruelties ignite without warning – as if the pent-up negative energies building up in the village have found an ‘out’, striking people down like the lightning that incinerated poor Rhoda Penmark.
The notion of children expressing or acting out the repressed rage and frustration of their parents surely finds its apotheosis in David Cronenberg’s 1979 body-horror chiller, The Brood. In what can only be described as Freudian tour-de-force, Cronenberg introduces us to a monstrous mother figure capable of giving birth to ‘rage babies’ from a cancerous womb appended to her stomach. Like the monster from Forbidden Planet (1956), the mother’s snarling off-spring are the progeny of her id. They are hatred and jealousies made flesh. Springing from the mother’s own repressed feelings of resentment, her vengeful brood act upon her most violent fantasies, committing brutal acts of murder about which the mother herself remains unaware.
The Brood‘s romper-suited ‘rage babies’,
Meanwhile, the non-synonymous issues of childhood sexuality and the sexualisation of children by adults have never been more freighted, confused or conflated. This is another way in which children have come to terrify us – something the Chapman Brothers, for example, know well and are keen for us to confront and interrogate.
Jake and Dinos Chapman, Zygotic acceleration, biogenetic, de-sublimated libidinal model (enlarged x 1000), 1995
Haneke’s The White Ribbon is as unflinching in exploring our disquiet around children and sex. In one acutely disquieting scene, Klara’s brother admits reluctantly to his father he’s been masturbating. In response, the pastor tells his son an appalling lie about another boy in another village who died a horrible malingering death as a direct result of the same nocturnal activity. If this sounds far-fetched, consider this: according to the Journal of Religion and Health at one point, “two thirds of all human diseases, medical and mental, were attributed to masturbation” (Patton, 1986).
The pastor’s son wears the white ribbon during his cross-examination, The White Ribbon (2009)
As a further deterrant, the boy’s hands are tied with knotted ropes to his bed so he might sleep through the night without succumbing to the evils of onanism. Here, what is normal, healthy and ubiquitous about childhood sexuality is equated with pestilence and moral decay, the prospect of a ‘sexual child’ so unseemly, so immoral, that the physical abuse and enforced incarceration of a boy by his father is deemed preferable, curative, and ‘more proper’.
Another child tied to a bed by religious men in an effort to prohibit further ‘self abuse’ is Regan MacNeil in William Freidkin’s The Exorcist (1973). True, twelve year old Regan is possessed by an ancient, foul-mouthed demon, but that the abject corruption of her soul should manifest as an episode of female masturbation leads some to interpret The Exorcist as resonating so powerfully with audiences, less because of how it depicts an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil for a young girl’s soul, and rather more because it twangs parental anxiety in regard to the secret sex lives of their pubescent children.
Meanwhile, back in Haneke’s bleak little village, the doctor is abusing his daughter without conscience, even going so far as making a gift to her of his dead wife’s earrings so that his moral trespass might be elided still further. In Eichwald, the sexuality of its children is both refused and exploited. It becomes a thing of horror – for them, for us. Hypocrisy abounds; a man alienates his son from the province and pleasures of his own body in an obvious act of guilt and self-loathing (are we seriously meant to believe that the pastor has never masturbated?), while another adult with responsibilities of care and rehabilitation abuses his daughter with breathtaking indifference to his crime.
The doctor abusing his daughter, The White Ribbon (2009)
Another peadophobic film shot through with peadophiliac disquiet is Jack Clayton’s masterful adaptation of Henry James 1898 ghost story novella The Turn Of The Screw. In common with The White Ribbon, Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) is a strange and ambiguous film and shares too a narrative predicated upon the spectacle of precocious, implacable children intent seemingly on out-manoeuvring their adult wards. A very prim and proper governess, played by Deborah Kerr, is charged with looking after Miles and Flora, siblings who may – or may not – have fallen under the malign influence of two dead former employees, who, while living, were locked into a darkly passionate and notably indiscrete love affair. Ostensibly, The Innocents is a film about creepy country houses, restless ghosts and possession, but don’t be fooled; this isn’t the cosy stuff of fireside yarns. For all its billowing curtains and gothic trappings, The Innocents is as discomforting about the issue of children, sex and sexualisation as any Chapman Brothers mutant (and a good deal more elegant).
Miles and Flora in The Innocents (1961)
Supernatural possession aside, the film hints that the two children have anyway witnessed sex-acts between the two lovers. The governess fears the two children ‘know too much.’ Certainly, Miles is a little too mature for his years and even flirtatious towards his governess. In a scene more lastingly shocking than Regan MacNeil masturbating with a crucifix, Miles kisses his governess on the lips. This isn’t a goodnight kiss. This isn’t a wholesome kiss. No, this kiss between a male child and a grown woman is something else entirely. Kate Bush’s suitably spooky song The Infant Kiss, inspired directly by this scene, has lyrics that make explicit the lingering suspicion that the Governess herself – and not a ghost – has developed her own unnatural obsession with Miles.
Say good night-night I tuck him in tight. But things are not right. What is this? An infant kiss That sends my body tingling? I’ve never fallen for A little boy before. No control.
Just a kid and just at school. Back home they’d call me dirty. His little hand is on my heart. He’s got me where it hurts me. Knock, knock. Who’s there in this baby?
You know how to work me. All my barriers are going. It’s starting to show. Let go. Let go. Let go. I cannot sit and let Something happen I’ll regret. Ooh, he scares me!
There’s a man behind those eyes. I catch him when I’m bending. Ooh, how he frightens me When they whisper privately. (“Don’t Let Go!”)
Windy-wailey blows me. Words of caress on their lips That speak of adult love. I want to smack but I hold back. I only want to touch.
But I must stay and find a way To stop before it gets too much! All my barriers are going. It’s starting to show. Let go. Let go. Let go. (Don’t let go!)
In the film’s final scene, which earned The Innocents its x-certificate, the over-wrought governess kisses the dead boy on the lips. Clayton’s The Innocents is as mischievous as Haneke’s film in refusing to coalesce in terms of ‘what happened’ or ‘why’. The innocence or otherwise of Miles and Flora is left undecided, while the culpability of the various adult characters in so influencing them is held up for enquiry. All theories are kept in play and so The Innocents, like The White Ribbon, is free to unsettle audiences indefinitely.
The infant kiss from The Innocents (1961)
So what finally do I think of Eichwald’s children above and beyond the film’s exquisite unheimlich effect that situates Klara and her cronies alongside the likes of Miles, Rhoda and those Midwich cuckoos? What can I conclude from the peadophobic trend explored here of which The White Ribbon is another example, which in different ways seems to prove that we are, at best, ambivalent about children, and at worst, afraid of them?
If you watched all the way to the end of that scene from Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, you would have heard one character say to another ominously, ‘You still think you can control them?’ Strictly, he’s referring to the rise and rise of the Nazi party as exemplified by the angelic fascist and his hymn to radicalisation, but this character’s doubt applies to children more generally. This could be Haneke’s pastor, admitting finally (if only to himself, if not to the school teacher) that for all his teachings, Klara and her brother are consolidating their own identities in spite of him – without him. Stripped of its socio-historical meaning, Tomorrow Belongs To Me is the anthem of all children. Tomorrow is theirs. Children know we’re only so much dust given momentary breath and that power, control, judgement and influence will be theirs in time. This is what Klara knows when she’s saying nothing. This is what the children of Eichwald know. This is their secret and it’s a simple one; time is on their side, not ours. All children have to do is wait for the ruling class of adults to grow old, lose traction, and die. This, of course, makes them our next bright hope for the future – and our enemy.
Author’s note: Originally published here in August 2013, I was prompted to revisit the article again in light of the recent Alice Neel-themed Kick-About, in which a number of the participating artists, including myself, produced work examining some of the societal expectations around motherhood and children. I also wanted to share it because I’ve been struck by the way in which the COVID-19 pandemic is reiterating some of the themes explored here; we are acutely worried about the future prospects of our children and seek to protect them from returning too early to school. We worry too children will become the unwitting agents of our own destruction – carriers for the virus, bringing it back through the door, infecting the old, the vulnerable and the shielded. Politically, the young are both courted and curtailed, a sure sign their power is threatening. Notice how Greta Thunberg is othered by her most powerful critics, framing her as a Midwich cuckoo not quite of this earth and bent on some malign conspiracy to topple the existing world order…
Stop-motion has a very special power of strangeness; stop-motion is to motion what the undead is to the living – not an opposite state, but something not quite opposite enough. The Brothers Quay understand this with their hollow-headed dolls and imminent toys. Jan Švankmajer understands this with his clawing clay heads and dancing meat. Robert Morgan understands this too, and in his celebrated 2001 short, The Cat With Hands, the substantive horrors of the story are all the more unsettling because the technique manifesting them has an exquisite queasiness of its own.
Okay, full disclosure. I spent a good part of my late teens and early-twenties with a serious glue habit.
There, I’ve said it. Some weeks I’d get through pots of the stuff, one after the other. In addition to my acute reliance on industrial quantities of adhesive, I was rarely without a pair of American Tan nylon tights, and not just one pair – actually dozens of pairs, hundreds of pairs…
Depending on your own proclivities, how I now go on to contextualise this rather lurid opening paragraph will either disappoint you horribly or pique your interest further. I haven’t just ‘fessed-up to the dissolute wilderness years of a misspent youth but instead described a particular model-making technique in which sculptural elements fashioned from scraps of nylon tights packed out with toy-stuffing are then plasticised using lashings of Polyvinyl acetate, otherwise known as PVA. Once primed and sealed with the glue, the surfaces of the models can then be painted and varnished.
Given the soft, squishable origins of the technique – and the Victor-Frankenstein-in-his-laboratory way in which each fleshy chunk is sewn lovingly to another chunk to create bigger elements – it’s little wonder the resulting sculptures all share a certain wobbly organicism. That many of them – okay, most of them – also pay homage to the blobby, slime-shined creatures of my favourite movies and television programmes – points to my artistic muses of the time – not Henry Moore or Hepworth, but rather the likes of Rob Bottin and Rick Baker, and Giger, of course.
At a push I could marshal a very convincing case for the cultural value of monsters. I’d likely throw Freud and Kristeva into the mix and suggest too that outsiders have always been drawn to ‘the other’ – that monsters are good company for introverts who are otherwise away with the fairies. I’m not going to do that because in some way I’d be apologising for all this work I made once with such unfettered enthusiasm, and with a total lack of self-consciousness about a) its artistic merit or otherwise and b) the spectacle of a young man sewing monsters together from sackloads of tights donated to him by various female friends and relatives…
Anyway, it wasn’t always monsters. Alongside the ‘clipboard chestburster’ I made for the canteen of the supermarket I used to work in, alongside all the big bugs, baby-heads and giant brains, there was the HUGE chocolates-thing that stood at least as tall as I did (though who it was for and why it got made I can’t even recall). There was the ‘piggy-bank-on-a-pile-of-steaks’, commissioned by a lawyer, who quite understandably hated it on sight and gave it to her sister (who also probably hated it but was loyal enough to hang it on the wall outside her toilet!). Oh, and there were the bouncing meat pies and severed legs rustled up for a local am-dram production of Sweeny Todd, though I suspect the level of meaty gruesome detail I lavished on the severed legs was just a little excessive. Don’t blame me, blame my other muse at the time, Tom Savini.