Bottles (1936), a Happy Harmonies animated short, directed by Hugh Harman, is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
Tellingly, when my husband looked over my shoulder and saw me watching this very grainy upload of Bottles, in preparation for writing this, he said fondly, ‘Oh, that one.’ For the next ten minutes, we watched the animation together, suitably transfixed. Afterwards, my husband said, ‘Yep, still scary’, and, happily, I agreed.
As a child, whenever an old-style cartoon came on the television, Bottles was the one I was hoping for. The story, such as it is, begins with an old apothecarist falling asleep one suitably stormy night, initiating a musical dream sequence in which the bottles on the surrounding shelves come to life to perform in a series of variety-style skits. Even as a nipper, I detected that Scooby-Do, Captain Caveman and their like were ‘cheap’ animations. Something about their flat colour and all the labour-saving devices of their locked, unmoving poses told me corners were being cut. I enjoyed these cartoons, of course – better those than Grange Hill, or worse, The Littlest Hobo, but for me they were the equivalent of those packets of Swizzel’s Rainbow Drops – puffed rice dyed colorfully; a bit cheap, a bit thin, a bit light, and always a bit disappointing. Not a proper sweet, only the semblance of one.
But from the opening moments of Bottles you know it’s different; there’s the aliveness of the rain, and the painterly expression of light, and the parallax of the different layers of scenery pulling you filmically into the frame. This is what a labour of love looks like, the art and graft of animated storytelling.
Narratively, Bottles has an exhausting ‘and then, and then, and then’ structure, which I enjoy guiltily, in so much as it forgoes the necessity of character development or other expectations of the craft. My own first forays into creative writing were comic book-style adventures committed to the pages of blue exercise books, in which a spaceman in a smart red suit encountered peril after peril, page after page – and then, and then, and then!
When I watch Bottles I am reminded of my own direct-to-the-page instinctiveness, telling stories with all the boring bits cut out; not for me the moments when the spaceman in the smart red suit had to eat, sleep or urinate; not for me, any long episodes of walking, or talking, or arriving or leaving. Instead, bring on the battalions of robo-spiders, the purple space-krakens and the erupting volcanoes; and then, and then, and then!
As a lecturer in story for animation, I always had to speak to the importance of the ‘three act structure’, and all the other established systems for organising narrative for audiences effectively. All good and useful stuff, but secretly, I loved it more when students worked instinctively and less rationally. When I think about the imaginative forces regulating Bottles, it’s not some careful calibration of narrative structures, but rather the primality of a fever dream.
That inanimate objects come to life when we sleep is one of those knowledges that all children share. That we both love and fear this idea is captured in Harmon’s animation. In Bottles, anthropomorphism is like a contagion, moving along the shelves of the apothecary, imparting rampant squash and stretch to anything it touches. What I especially enjoy about Bottles is its no-holds barred horror, which doesn’t simply reside in the animation’s more obvious macabre set-pieces. There is something uncanny itself about the style of the animation, no matter its subject-matter, disturbing in the same way as those incessant, arm-waving inflatable ‘tube-men’ outside car dealerships. It’s the failure of stillness and the absence of pause, the gangly, boneless, grabbiness of everything.
But it is the poison bottle-come-skeleton everyone remembers about this cartoon, if not its more innocuous-sounding title. This guy is truly the Halloween loadstar; from this cackling character every plastic skeleton in every joke shop, from this character, every plastic mask, and He-Man’s Skeletor, but all of them pale imitations. ‘Death walks the night!’ the skeleton croaks, before unstoppering its own head and administering the droplet of shrinking potion that begins the apothecarist’s surrealistic adventure at the outset of the cartoon. There’s a witch in the mix too, rubber-faced, grotesque, terrifying, and a trio of ghosts – the spirits of ammonia. For this little boy who liked his entertainment served with a hearty helping of morbidity, Bottles managed that most satisfying of combinations: cosy horror, feelings of comfort in a subtle blend with sensations of peril and fright.
In tone and in spectacle, Bottles reminds me strongly of The Mascot (1933) a remarkable black and white stop-motion film by Ladislas Starevich. This too is a tour-de-force of animism, and likewise shares with Bottles its scene-stealing evil character, in Starevich’s film, a yakking devil presiding over a bizarre night-spot popular with gurning turnip-people and ambulating detritus. Another thing the two animations share is their racist cultural stereotypes; The Mascot features a minor black character with exaggerated lips and Mohican-style hair, while Bottles treats us to the ‘dance of the Golliwog Perfume bottles’, accompanied, natch, by the beating of drums. I hardly need put the necessary caveats around this moment in the animation, or rather my discomfort about it as an adult viewer, but as the rest of the cartoon’s featured bottles pertain to real brands, I was curious to understand if ‘Golliwog Perfume’ was an incidence of a racial stereotype created specially for the cartoon’s roster of vaudeville routines. I was amazed to find Le Golliwogg was an actual real-world perfume, launched in 1919 in France, and in 1925 in USA, and that its bottle featured a particularly grotesque example of the golliwog character, designed by Michel de Brunoff and his brother-in-law Lucien Vogel, both of whom where editors of the French Vogue. And there was me thinking the skeleton was the most disturbing thing about Harman’s animated short.
It’s only when I re-watched Bottles that I understood how conspicuously it haunts some of my own stuff, not least the Chimera stories, which imagines a world in which all inanimate objects are capable of life. But Chimera owes more than a nod to the pitch of Bottles too, by which I mean its headlongness, and likewise my resistance to de-fanging some of the books’ more intense scenes, and so ensuring I leave in the bits I suspect will linger for longest in the impressionable minds of my younger readers. Looks like I have carried that skeleton around in my imagination for forty-plus years. Of course, I’m rather glad of it. “Death walks the night!”
Don Siegel’s 1956 science-fiction film, Invasion Of The Body-Snatchers is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
I can’t recall when I first saw Invasion Of The Body-Snatchers – most likely on BBC2, opposite the six o clock news, when I was nine or ten, which was where, and when, they always scheduled science-fiction b-movies, as a welcome refuge for boys like me; from the Falklands War, the miners’ strike, the spectre of nuclear annihilation, and Margaret fucking Thatcher.
I wonder if, to begin with, I was a bit underwhelmed by Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, in that it lacked the giant slugs of It Came From Outer Space, the big-brained mutant ofThis Island Earth, and the tentacled-head-in-a-fishbowl from Invaders From Mars. I’m going to say it probably did. I can also say with confidence that, unlike those showier movies, Invasion of the Body-Snatchers changed my relationship to cinema forever.
But it wasn’t the experience of watchingInvasion of the Body-Snatchers that catalysed my transformation from consumer of images to avid cryptographist. It was the experience of reading about it. As my interest in horror and science fiction films intensified, I started to spend my pocket money on books about them, principally because I could seek out glimpses of the many and various films I was otherwise too young to actually watch. And while Invasion of the Body-Snatchers certainly lacked the rubbery bug-eyed delights and flying saucers I thought sure were the canonical stuff of all the most entertaining science-fiction movies, it was a film the people in my books liked to write about a lot.
This was what I learned: in addition to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers being a low budget black and white film about hive-minded pod people from another planet and their sinister bid for world domination, it was also a commentary on the anxiety felt by Americans in the face of communist ideology. Okay, so, I didn’t know what communism was, even less so ideology, except that it had to something to with Russian spies and the colour red.
Confusingly, as I read more about Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, I learned the film might also have something to say, not about communism, but about McCarthyism, which was another word I didn’t know, but learned about soon after. Further readings, in different books, suggested the threat against mankind in Invasion of the Body-Snatchers wasn’t coming from the furthest flung regions of space, but from within the magazine pages of Homes & Garden; that the awful sameness spreading from person-to-person wasn’t communism, or the chilling effect on expressions of difference produced by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s pernicious witchhunts, but the homogenising effect on the human condition of jolly, post-war consumerism.
I’m reminded of the old joke: when is a door not a door? When it is a jar. When is a film not a series of images projected at twenty-four frames a second onto a flat surface? When it is an expansive, dimensional vessel encompassing competing strains of sociological meaning.
Though I didn’t really understand everything I was reading about in relationship to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, a lesson was learned, and it was two-fold; not only could black and white movies about imperialistic alien vegetables tell us something truthful about the emotional realities of individuals living in the real world, but also that interpretation was not the intellectual project of fixing meaning in place, but the art of enjoying competing truths.
As improbable as it sounds pretentious, I really can trace my intellectual awakening to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers; from here, the early beginnings of my understanding of politics, the scaffolding of our lived realities, largely invisible to children, but very far from irrelevant to them; from here, the beginning of an understanding about the various different ways our freedoms might be imperilled – from within and from without; from here, the idea a person’s difference could be considered precious, a characteristic to be protected; from here, the tingle of unease for any large group of people laying definitive claims to a single mode of existence.
Invasion of the Body-Snatchers also taught me films were unavoidably articles of social history, that however future-looking or historical or interplanetary, movies are marinaded in the times of their production; that the surface of a film is a mirror, in which we find the values of the people who made it.
In this way, Invasion of the Body-Snatchers gave me the confidence and conviction to spit in the eye of various teachers and later, academics, who would have me and others believe there was no value in something as popular as genre, no truth-telling power, no insight; that the only culture with the power to cast light on the matrices of human behaviour are those within the realm of finer things.
A boy runs from his mother, who is ‘not’ his mother.
Wilma is convinced Uncle Ira is ‘not’ Uncle Ira.
A doppelgänger is discovered as it assumes the form of its victim.
A doppelgänger transforms in the darkness of the cellar.
Invasion of the Body-Snatchers begins at the end; with our hero, Dr Miles Bennell, in custody in the emergency room of a hospital; wild-eyed, Bennell is trying to convince a psychiatrist he is not a lunatic, and so recounts the events leading up to his arrest.
And events begin simply enough: a boy running in mortal fear of his own mother. Soon after, we meet Wilma, cousin of Dr Bennell’s love interest, Becky Driscoll, who is convinced her Uncle Ira is ‘not’ her Uncle Ira. Meanwhile, the sun shines, and Uncle Ira cuts the grass on his neat front lawn, and the town of Santa Mira looks as pretty-as-picture, with its neat, white wooden houses, neat, white picket fences, and neat, white families. Oh, how these first small pangs of wrongness delight me, the chiming of these minor chords in an otherwise happy-clappy melody; the way they say, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’, like watching the filter on someone’s #Livingmybestlife Instagram feed glitch-out for a second to reveal a stray dog turd.
Maybe cinema has conditioned me to regard small, pretty towns inhabited by smiling people as inherently dishonest and keepers of secrets? Maybe I only think this way because Invasion of the Body-Snatchers taught me to think this way, or maybe Invasion of the Body-Snatchers is the just outward expression of something I’ve always known to be true? We think of myths as stories, but I wonder if myths are the stories we recognise as truth? Santa Mira is but one of many small towns whose inhabitants are actually conspirators or monsters or both. I’m thinking of the leafy streets of Stepford, and the painted streets of Summerisle. I’m thinking about Seahaven Island, and the Village from The Prisoner, the ice-cream-coloured neighbourhood of Edward Scissorhands, and every other dystopic conurbation.
Anyway, we soon learn the boy’s teacher and Uncle Ira have been hollowed out by extra-terrestrials, who are making a tremendous effort to keep up appearances. I suppose this is what I’m talking about when I think about all those towns and villages that so inspire distrust in me, or the way another person’s exquisite manners give me reason to be wary of them; I think to myself ‘so much effort’ and then, ‘for what?’ and then, ‘why?’, and then ‘I think they doth protest too much’. I do know of people who ‘just want everything to be nice’ and they’re always the bloody worst of us, because in my experience ‘by nice’ what they really mean is ‘repressed’ and ‘silent’ and ‘servile’.
Dr Bennell and Becky look out at the ‘normal’ streets of Santa Mira.
Whenever I re-watch the unfolding horror of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, I’m reminded of a warm evening spent with old friends around a table on the scruffy candle-lit terrace of an old French house. We were playing a hypothetical game of Room 101, nominating our least favourite things to be cast into Orwell’s oubliette. The conversation began lightly enough, and my suggestion for banishment was John Lennon’s Imagine. I loathe Imagine musically because it is a dirge, and also because, lyrically it is about as profound as a souvenir tea towel, as profound as The New Seeker’s I’d Like to Teach the World To Sing, only markedly less catchy. My choice confused my companions, and as we wrestled with it, the tone darkened. I railed against the glib utopianism Lennon offers, finding in it only the nascent trappings of fascism – and not Orwell’s dystopian hell hole of conspicuous boots brought down conspicuously on faces, but Huxley’s Brave New World of insensate, perfected bliss. Imagine is every pod person’s sing-a-long, a love-song to frontal lobotomies.
The discovery of the seed pods in the greenhouse.
I likewise relish Invasion of the Body-Snatchers for its hokier trappings, principally, its central premise that the human race might be victimised, then vanquished, by plants. Maybe like all small boys at one time or another, I had a venus-fly trap, having begged my mum to buy me one. I was instantly disappointed by the diminutive size of my fly-trap, and also disappointed when I killed mine after feeding it a single strand of frozen mince. The idea of carnivorous plants fascinated me – still do, and while the alien pods in Invasion of the Body-Snatchers do not predate on the flesh of their victims, they feed on us nonetheless, absorbing the likenesses of their subjects while their subjects sleep.
The film’s scenes in the greenhouse, in which our heroes witness the birthing of their dopplegangers from rubbery seed pods, remain gruesome all these years later, evoking a horrid fascination for prodigiousity familiar to any gardener. Recently, I’ve been propogating spider plants by cutting off the scintillas of baby plants and poking them into water, where now there are white, worming roots, as these decapitated little off-shoots strive busily to survive; like the time, I was re-potting a large podophyllum, which, when at last liberated from its pot, trailed with it what looked like masses of white spaghetti. Consider too the bamboo roots once growing under our garden path, resembling exactly the mad result of an experiment to splice a giant millipede with a human spine. Let’s call this category of horticultural unease the ‘vegetal uncanny’. Anyone who has opened a kitchen cupboard, to find at the back of it a long-since forgotten potato, bristling with roots the translucent milky-yellow of an overly long toenail, knows what this is. In Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, the bodies of the soon-to-be-replaced are found in darkness in the self-same way; down in cellars, secreted in the boots of cars, and inside them, the horribly busy pods.
The pods begin to hatch in the greenhouse.
From where I sit as I write this, I can see out of the window of our spare room and down into the narrow street below. A few weeks ago, I was looking out and I saw a lone woman walking rather aimlessly in the street. I noticed her trainers and heavy brown coat. She looked tired in an unremarkable way. She’d just left one of the houses on the street and didn’t look like she knew what to do next. I recognised the woman, having sat across from her in pubs on various occasions pre-pandemic, and then talking with her directly one day outside another pub in the summer of 2020, just after lock-down restrictions had been eased. On this occasion, the woman wanted to talk about COVID. Specifically, she wanted myself and anyone else in earshot to join the ‘march against masks’ being organised in London. Fascinated, I talked with the woman further, and it soon became clear the woman was ‘anti-mask’ because she was of the firm belief that COVID was an elaborate, precision-engineered Trojan horse, its insides crammed tightly with illustrious conspirators; Bill Gates, naturally, but also ‘the Rothchilds’, various media tycoons, including the chieftains of the BBC, and the World Health Organisation, and many more. I remained kind and curious during our exchange and continued to ask for clarifications on the specific goal of the beautiful conspiracy and what ‘success might look like’ for the sinister elite. The woman couldn’t tell me. She just knew the end of the world was nigh, and like some Cassandra, all she could do was move from stranger to stranger, asking them to take a leaflet.
Days later, another friend in the town told a story about meeting the same woman in the supermarket, their conversation largely mundane until she informed him the vaccine was part of plot to murder the human race.
One of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers most chilling moments is when Dr Bennell returns to his hideout, after leaving Becky alone for a short time, to discover she too has succumbed to the alien conspiracy, and is now a replacement. The woman he once knew is gone, hollowed out by an alternate societal paradigm.
Dr Bennell’s moment of realisation, after kissing Becky Driscoll’s doppelgänger.
The seed pods are harvested and distributed.
This cuts to the knotty horror of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers. There I was, looking out of my window, watching the woman in the heavy brown coat walking down the middle of the street, and thinking to myself, ‘The pod people have got her.’ I even started wondering what she’d been doing in this other person’s house just moments before. I had a very clear image of the woman stowing big green seed pods under beds, in the shed, in the greenhouse, just as, in the film, the alien menace is seen growing, harvesting and distributing more pods throughout the land. The problem is, the woman in the heavy brown coat thinks the same about me.
Let’s compare dehumanisations for a moment. I pity this individual because, it seems crystal clear to me, she’s surrendered her autonomy of thought and action to some injurious hive-mind existent between the nodes of social media. The woman pities me because it seems as clear to her I have surrendered my autonomy of thought and action to some injurious hive-mind broadcast by ‘the establishment’ and its media.
In the final moments of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, just as it seems likely the psychiatrist is going to consign Dr Bennell to the nearest institution, another patient arrives at the hospital, who was involved in a collision with a truck – a truck carrying giant seed pods! Hurrah! In the nick of time, Bennell’s outlandish tale of alien conspiracy is authenticated by a third party and his sanity vouchsafed. Phew! This was not, however, the intended ending for the film, which instead concluded more grimly with the existing scene of Dr Bennell running into a road busy with traffic, screaming like a mad person, screaming, ‘They’re already here! You’re next! You’re next!’ The producers felt this ending was too dark, too depressing, too downbeat, not least because it first destabilises the world as we know it, and next withdraws the comfort of a happily definitive ending.
When I think about the woman in the old brown coat, I also see her running against the traffic, shrilling, ‘They’re already here!’ and everyone driving past, ignoring the crazy person. But there have been many times this past year, when I’ve felt like running into the streets, gripped by fear and frustration, railing against the decadence of the COVID-is-a-Hoax brigade, against the baroque fantasy of the QAnoners and their tribes; against the likes of Trump and Johnson, against the maddening populism of the UK and elsewhere, against the hollowing out of facts over the primacy of people’s feelings… ‘The end of the world is nigh!’
And there it is, the creeping, perfect terror of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers – not alien invasions, not sentient vegetables from beyond the stars, but the more prosaic personal dread of being thought of as mad when you’re 100% certain you’re not.
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.
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.