Sunday, 17 March 2019

Twilight Zone — the Play, by Washburn, Matheson, Beaumont & Serling

Created by Rod Serling, the original Twilight Zone TV series (1958-64) is an all-time favourite of mine. Serling wrote the bulk of the episodes, but there were also substantial and memorable contributions by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, among others.

In 2017 the Almeida Theatre in north London created a stage production based on the series. It attracted a lot of attention and I regretted missing it, especially after an intriguing review in New Scientist.

So I was delighted when the show proved successful enough to launch a new production at the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End, just around the corner from where Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap has been playing for 60 years or so.

I hastened along to see the play — which runs until June 2019 — and it was a knockout. It's written by American playwright Anne Washburn and it makes the very smart move of being sturdily based on a selection of original episodes — by Serling, Beaumont and Matheson. 

(Incidentally Richard Matheson is a particular writing hero of mine. He created classics such as The Shrinking Man and I am Legend.)

The play also has the good sense to make use of some of the fine original music for the TV series, including themes by Bernard Herrmann.

But despite having its roots firmly planted in the original, Washburn's stage version of The Twilight Zone is full of surprises. 

For a start I expected it to be a fairly straight adaptation of a series of stories from the show. 
But instead of presenting these stories in a linear fashion it chops them up and intermingles them, moving from one to another with strikingly surreal transitions

It's also very funny — there's a great running gag about how Rod Serling (who appeared onscreen to introduce the TV show) always had a cigarette in his hand.

And it's just plain wild, featuring stage magic, illusion and a song and dance sequence which is like David Lynch meets The Simpsons. (Interestingly, one of Anne Washburn's other plays is Mr Burns, inspired by The Simpsons.)

The assorted stories are variable (I felt Matheson's Little Girl Lost could have had a more chilling impact), but the cumulative effect is one of exhilaration, and great affection, for the show.

The play does have one flaw though — at two hours and twenty minutes, it goes on a little too long. And at one point in particular I found my attention straying.

This was during a segment based on Sterling's story The Shelter, which concerns a family with a fallout shelter, to protect them in event of a nuclear attack. When the sirens go, they lock themselves in and refuse admission to their neighbours...

While you could argue this sequences carries a powerful social message — and it unequivocally provides the fine cast with an opportunity to display the calibre of their acting — it feels out of place here. 

It lacks any supernatural or science fiction element. It's conventional, mundane and earthbound. And its endpoint is never in doubt. It also goes on far too long and it's too obvious.

Nor is it deeply connected with any of the other stories in the otherwise complex intertwining of the narrative structure. So the play could lose this segment without any damage.

And I feel cutting it would turn what is already a wonderful evening at the theatre into something like a masterpiece. 

(Other opinions are available — the New Scientist thought The Shelter was the best part of the play.)

But never mind any of that. As it stands, The Twilight Zone is a glorious experience. And if you're in London in the next few months you should try and get a ticket.

(Image credits: I have scanned a flyer I obtained at the theatre the night I attended, plus the rather cool script book I purchased there. The colour photos are sourced from the Almeida wesbsite.)

Sunday, 10 March 2019

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

It's kind of fun to be out and about in London on a windy spring day, standing at a bus stop in Putney, post code SW15, reading an Agatha Christie and discovering that the crazed killer in the story is posting his taunting letters from — yes, "Putney, SW15."

The taunting letters in question are addressed to Hercules Poirot. The ABC Murders is Poirot's 13th adventure, and it really is outstanding. The previous ones I've read were Cards on the Table (the 15th) and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (the 4th). 

Cards on the Table was okay. Roger Ackroyd had a devastatingly brilliant twist, but was rather creakily written.

The ABC Murders, however is superb. By now both Christie and her detective hero are increasingly concerned with the characters involved in the story — "More and more I interest myself in the human developments which arise," says Poirot.

Christie's characters are distinct, varied and very concisely evoked through dialogue. Her dialogue is variable but is often superb. No wonder she was such a natural and brilliant playwright.

Indeed, her colloquial speech can be as convincing as Pinter's. The working class voices in her work are surprisingly well caught. It's odd that her more affluent and upper class characters come across as rather artificial, when this was the milieu Christie was born into...

We even see improvement in the dialogue of Poirot — which normally  tends to be a string of mannerisms ("little grey cells") and fake foreignness ("Une bonne idée"). But in The ABC Murders he accurately and amusingly describes one of the victims as a "pretty fluffy fool." 

(Christie is always good at depicting vapid, vain, foolish or shallow women.)

But naturally in Agatha Christie, and in murder mysteries generally, plot is king. And the plot here is staggeringly good.

For a start, this a complete departure for Poirot. Instead of dealing with a conventional murder, he is pitted against a serial killer — "the 'chain' or 'series' type of murder," as it is described.

He remarks to Captain Hastings (his Dr Watson), "this is the first crime of this kind that you and I have worked on... cold-blooded, impersonal murder."
The serial killer, who begins to emerge in the story as a highly organised madman, is choosing his victims — and their location — alphabetically. Hence the title, which also alludes to the ABC Railway Guide which was a major feature of British life at the time.

(And which is why so many covers of this book feature trains — rather misleadingly, since they play no part in the story. Unlike Murder on the Orient Express.)
The manhunt for this dangerous lunatic makes for a very compelling read. But what really distinguishes this book is the utterly unexpected ending. I sincerely doubt you will guess the final revelation.

I sure as hell didn't.

At this point in her distinguished career Agatha Christie was a writer in full and confident command of her craft. So much so that she can pause for a mischievous discussion of murder mystery cliches à la John Dickson Carr, and even audaciously include Poirot's description of his ideal whodunit —

He murmurs, "four people sit down to play bridge and one, the odd man out, sits in a chair by the fire. At the  end of the evening the man by the fire is found dead. One of the four... has gone over and killed him, and intent on the play of the hand, the other three have not noticed... Which of the four was it?"

This is, of course, the plot for Cards on the Table, which Christie would publish a few months later.

Talk about cheeky...

(Image credits: the covers are from Good Reads, where I tried to avoid ones where the railway motif is rather done to death.)

Sunday, 3 March 2019

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

This is one of the greatest mysteries of all time, one of Agatha Christie's finest, a 24 karat classic. 

And it was ruined for me before I had a chance to read it by some wonderful genius on a radio program who thought it would be a grand idea to blithely reveal the identity of the killer to thousands of listeners...

But I overcame my fury (eventually) and decided to read it all the same.

Published in 1926, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the fourth adventure of Hercule Poirot and as it begins we find he has supposedly retired to the country to grow marrows and that Arthur Hastings, the Watson to his Holmes, has moved to the Argentine.

So in this story the local GP, Dr James Sheppard, neatly steps into Hastings' role. 

The story is told from Sheppard's point of view, in a first person voice, again like Watson and Holmes.

Sheppard's gossipy sister Caroline, who lives to recount tidbits of local scandal, may well be the best character in the story, memorably and amusingly described throughout. 

Christie has fun with her and is inspired to some of her best descriptions. 

When she is caught between two choice pieces of gossip, "Caroline visibly wavered for a second or two, much as a roulette ball might coyly hover between two numbers."
Caroline also has some caustic things to say about the male of the species: "Never worry about what you say to a man. They're so conceited that they never believe you mean it if it's unflattering."  

And when Poirot and Sheppard have to leave her behind as they set off to stage the final confrontation and revelation of the murder mystery, she is rather touchingly disappointed, left "like a dog who has been refused a walk, standing on the front door step gazing after us." 

The other character Christie seems to have really had fun writing is Mrs Ackroyd, the  sister in law of the victim, who is pretentious, selfish, hypocritical and generally just won't shut up. She is "all chains and teeth and bones. A most unpleasant woman." 

Mrs Ackroyd's handshake is "a handful of assorted knuckles and rings." She is also a deadly snob who complains about "those peculiar gurgling noises inside which so many parlourmaids seem to have when they wait at the table."
There are parlourmaids aplenty here; it's a classic English country house murder story.

I do have to mention one thing that bothered me about it, though. Christie, who otherwise seems to have been scrupulous in her research, does appear a little confused about the use of recreational drugs...

I wonder what Dashiell Hammett would have had to say about her suggestion that it's a common practice (or even a very rare one) in America (or indeed anywhere else) to use a goose quill to either store or snort (she's not entirely clear) heroin, or is it cocaine? (She's not entirely clear about that, either.)

But perhaps it's ungallant of me to harp on about one small solecism in such a neatly and seamlessly plotted story.

And I was surprised at how funny Agatha Christie can be. I've only read one other novel by her so far, and I'd always imagined her to be rather humourless. 

But here she is playfully describing how the boring big game hunter Major Blunt "stood squarely in front of the fireplace looking over our heads as though he saw something very interesting happening in Timbuktu."

Of course, Poirot is allegedly a comic figure. But he has been described by Ian Ousby, cruelly but accurately as an "embarrassingly crude cartoon." 

However, it's just as well to remember that he only pretends to be a clown. Occasionally the real Poirot shows through, as when Sheppard observes that the detective "was looking at the case from some peculiar angle of his own."

And at the end of the book Poirot "suddenly became dangerous" with "real menace in his words."

This ending involves everything being wrapped up with a gathering of the suspects and the detective revealing the truth.

It's a relief that this takes place in Poirot's sitting room, not his library, but otherwise it's a classic, not to say clichéd, example of the murder mystery denouement.

Actually, it avoids cliché through the doctor's rather chilling description of it as being like "a trap — a trap that had closed."

The revelation of the identity of the murderer is brilliant. And I can only imagine the impact if that joker on the radio hadn't spoiled it for me.

If you're a fan of whodunits, especially in the classic style, I urge you to read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd before someone gives away the brilliant ending.

(Image credits: The lovely vintage Pocket Book cover, which is the main illustration, is from Ah Sweet Mystery. The equally lovely vintage Portuguese edition with a similar vibe — the Coleccao Vampiro edition — is from Capas & Companhia. The beautiful early Tom Adams painting for Fontana — with the dagger in the tweed jacket (Adams stuck a dagger through his own jacket and put red dye on it, then painted the result) and that beautiful sinister detail of the fly, is from Flickr. The rest are from Good Reads, including the gorgeous white and red Indonesian edition. And the other Adams cover of the maid's apron floating in a ghostly fashion in front of a window.)

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Happy Death Day 2U by Landon and Lobdell

Back in 2017 I wrote about Happy Death Day, a surprising little left-field delight of a movie. 

It took the simple premise of reworking Groundhog Day as a slasher flick, and explored the possibilities with cheeky good humour.

The film deservedly became a minor classic. And when I discovered there was a sequel, I was eager to see it.

The first movie was written by Scott Lobdell and directed by Christopher Landon. This one is both written and directed by Landon, and I have to say — as much as I am wary of a director taking over another writer's creation — he's done a great job.

The premise of Happy Death Day was that a rather unpleasant and vain young university student, Tree Gelbman (brilliantly played by Jessica Rothe), is given a chance for growth and self improvement — the hard way...

By being stuck in a time loop whereby every morning she wakes up on her birthday and ends up getting murdered. The plot of the film followed Tree's attempts to work out who her mystery killer was, and charted her development as a character.

The new film takes this concept and runs with it, inventively and amusingly exploring variations.

For one thing, it focuses not on Tree at all but on Ryan, a minor character from the first movie played by Phi Vu. My disappointment about this soon faded as the movie cleverly drew me in.

And then Tree turns up after all! At first she is apparently herself a minor character in Ryan's narrative. 

But then she's gradually moved to the centre of things and it turns out that this indeed her story, and it's exactly the sequel that I (and millions of other viewers) wanted it to be.

Full marks to Christopher Landon for so imaginatively manipulating our expectations.

Once again we're plunged into a time loop narrative, involving a killer wearing a baby-face mask, representing the mascot at the university in the story — "Who chooses a creepy baby for a mascot, anyway?" says Ryan. "I knew I should have gone to MIT."

This sequel is more of an ensemble piece, throwing Tree in with Ryan and a group of other students, mostly physicists.

Because Landon has fashioned a non-supernatural rationale for the time loop, involving a science experiment gone wrong (or maybe gone right, depending on your point of view). So Tree has allies to help her solve the puzzle: "We're scientists. This is what we do."

And the solution involves our old friend, the multiple universe theory — "Do I look like someone who knows what a multiverse is?" asks the blonde, pretty Tree.

My only complaint about Happy Death Day 2U is that the first movie had one of the greatest title sequences that I've ever seen. The title sequence for this one is dullsville.

Never mind. This movie is ingenious, funny, audacious and — most unexpectedly — very moving. Because Tree finds herself in an alternate universe where her beloved late mother is alive again...

Seldom has a sequel added so much value to the concept of the original. Nice work, Christopher Landon.

(Image credits: There is only one official poster for this film, and it comes from Imp Awards. Luckily there are a load of striking alternative designs at Talent House, where there certainly is a lot of talent on display. The clock face one is from Reddit. The photographic one is from Deviant Art. )

Sunday, 17 February 2019

This Perfect Day by Ira Levin

This Perfect Day was the third novel by Ira Levin, published in 1970, after both A Kiss Before Dying and Rosemary's Baby, and before The Stepford Wives, and it's rather a daring departure. 

As I've discussed elsewhere, Levin was fearless at crossing genre boundaries. 

He wrote Rosemary's Baby, a novel of supernatural horror at a time when such things were generally considered worthless potboilers.

But with This Perfect Day he took an even greater risk, because it is science fiction. And even more than horror, SF was considered then (and, to an extent, now) commercial suicide in publishing.

It is a classic dystopian novel, following the likes of Brave New World and 1984, and preceding The Handmaid's Tale and Never Let Me Go.

Interestingly, the film script for Never Let Me Go, written by Alex Garland, borrowed an element from This Perfect Day — the use of identification bracelets, as a kind of electronic tag to keep track of a subjugated populace.

(Never Let Me Go comes to mind again when we meet Levin's compliant, brainwashed citizens who "vie with one another to give parts of themselves for transplants" for the ruling elite.)
Levin sets up his futuristic world very quickly and concisely in the first chapter — a mere nine pages. This is a society where "hate" is a curse word and the word "fighting" is troubling and offensive — indeed, it stands in for another f-word... "brother-fighting" is an amusing obscenity here.

Our hero is a boy nicknamed Chip. Chip lives in a medicated brave new world where you receive regular treatments by sticking your arm into a machine "through a rubber-rimmed opening... the infusion disc nuzzled warm and smooth...and... tickled-buzzed-stung his arm." 

Amongst other things, this regime of medication keeps you tranquilised and obedient. Poor Chip is eager to get his treatment, to obliterate disturbing thoughts he is having that call into question the perfect world where he lives.

Levin gives us a chilling depiction of brainwashed children obediently parroting the approved responses. It is scary and and all too convincing. 

This is a world effectively run by a supercomputer called Uni. Levin clearly did some impeccable research for his novel, and shows considerable prescience — he got the cooling of this computer just right; it's super conductive and operates at a temperature close to absolute zero. 
But not surprisingly he got the size wrong. Uni is huge compared to the server farms we know today, some of which are busy administering our own modest attempts at totalitarian states.

One of the book covers you see here shows a shaven headed woman being menaced by the heavy black glove of authority, emblazoned 'Uni'. 

This imagery seems to have been drawn from the film THX-1138, and while it's a striking piece of design, it isn't really accurate. 

Because the dystopia Levin depicts is all the more frightening since it doesn't use a heavy black glove. It's insidious and soft. Every citizen has an 'adviser' to go to if they are troubled by doubts. And the advisers see that they receive the proper treatments to keep them perfect, compliant members of their perfect society.

Or, you might say, slaves. Levin shows the true nature of this supposed paradise in a staggering throwaway line: Chip "thought of getting married, but he was told he wasn't to reproduce and so there didn't seem much point."

The treatments kill all originality and imagination and desire, not to mention any stirrings of rebellion. But Chip works out a way to dodge the treatments — in a truly brilliant moment when someone spills a drink at a picnic and he sees "a flat leaf lying on the wet stone." And that gives him the vital clue he needs...
Soon he is having "dreams more vivid and convincing than any of the five or six he had had in the past." And so he begins a process which will end with our hero, and a small band of fellow misfits, seeking to overthrow the entire totalitarian apparatus of this placid, smiling, tyranny.

This is a story you won't be able to stop reading.

Essentially Ira Levin has taken a dystopia in the manner of Brave New World and 1984 and rewired it as a thriller. And the result is often, intensely, unbearably suspenseful — which is Levin's hallmark, of course. 

He dedicated the book to his three sons and, no doubt, to the hopes of a future very different from the one he depicted.

(Image credits: Most of the covers are from our good friends at Good Reads. The Pan edition with the woman's face and the glove is from Modspil. The Fawcett version with the lovely Gene Szafran cover art, and the pink lettering, is from Flickr.)

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Day of the Giants by Lester Del Rey

Like Podkayne of Mars by Robert Heinlein, Lester Del Rey's Day of the Giants is one of those books which had a powerful impact on me when I was a child, which I absolutely loved back then, which I read repeatedly and which — rare miracle — I can still read and enjoy today. These books retain their magic.

Also like Podkayne, Day of the Giants is a science fiction novel. On the surface it appears to be a heroic fantasy, or sword and sorcery tale. And there's certainly no shortage of heroes, fantasy, swords or sorcery in it. Indeed, the story largely takes place in Asgard and associated realms from Norse mythology, and is peopled with the gods from those myths.

But Lester Del Rey skilfully seeks to underpin the fantasy with attempts at rational, scientific explanation, by way of the speculations of his hero Leif Svensen, a mortal and a 20th Century Midwest American farmer who is swept up to Asgard along with his identical twin brother Lee — a far more heroic figure, a mercenary and wanderer who has the warrior temperament suited to Asgard which Leif so singularly lacks.

In fact, it was Lee Svensen who was supposed to be transported to Valhalla when he falls in battle. Only Loki's wily machinations cause Leif — who, of course, looks just like his brother — to also be picked up by the Valkyries in the confusion of combat and carried across the rainbow bridge Bifrost.

Leif is needed because Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods against the giants, draws near. And if Valhalla is to prevail they will need more than courage and brawn to carry the day. This is where Leif and his brains and scientific aptitude come in...

I said the brothers were felled in combat, but this was no grand engagement on a battlefield. It was a sordid little attack by vigilantes — Leif's farmer neighbours who had formed a lynch mob intent on killing Leif's faithful dog, Rex. This is a strikingly chilling sequence with Leif confronting "the hysteria of the mob and the ferocity of these former friends and neighbours."

"Give us that damned dog... Leif Svensen," they tell him. "This is your last chance."
Rex has been accused of killing livestock, a serious charge in a time of acute shortage and hardship — when in fact it was wolves who were responsible. Wolves who have come roaming in from the wild places, emboldened by the onset of the Fimbulwinter, which precedes Ragnarok, "roaring across the fertile plains of the United States... a blizzard running from Dakota clear down to Kentucky."

And it's Loki, ever the slippery manipulator, who has stirred up feeling against Rex among the locals, specifically to trigger the attack which will enable him to send Leif to Valhalla...

I forgot to mention that Rex the dog gets brought across Bifrost, too. But Del Rey himself soon forgets about Rex, and he fades from the story, which is a shame. Because he's a very cool and very brave dog. And I could have done with a bit more about him and a bit less of Leif's romance with Fulla, a shield maiden...

Del Rey's depiction of the Fimbulwinter and its catastrophic effect on the human realm is striking, not to mention rather disturbingly prophetic: "Even the Southern Hemisphere was in the grip of savage storm... The Muslim faith was sweeping over Russia and there was dark muttering of a new jehad." (Day of the Giants was published in 1959.)

However, most of the story is set not on Earth but in Asgard, where Leif finds himself drawing on the "Tattered shreds of the old Norse legends" he recalls from his childhood. At first the place strikes him as something from a "second-rate production of a Wagnerian opera... Asgard seemed badly in need of repairs."

Loki warns him, "yes, you're looking at myths — but myths with sharp teeth." 

Soon Leif is working with Asgard's contingent of dwarfs, trying to manufacture more advanced weaponry which will allow the gods to prevail against the giants, who are a memorably unpleasant bunch — All three of his mouths were drooling" — before it's too late.

Meanwhile, the situation on Earth is swiftly growing critical. "The cities were horrors now," Del Rey tells us, with chilling concision.

Lester Del Rey is an excellent writer. I particularly admire the way he roots even the most fantastical scenes in concrete physical reality. So, even as a Valkyrie is carrying him to Asgard over Bifrost on her winged steed, "Leif felt the sweat from the horse begin to soak into him, stinging sharply as it worked into his wound." 

And I just love his evocation of the most fantastical sequences, as when Leif crosses the rainbow bridge and leaves our mortal realm for the alternate dimension of Asgard: "the horse strained and something seemed to give with sticky reluctance."

Meanwhile the Valkyrie is singing a "strange shrieking set of tones" and Leif speculates, "Probably sonics had some effect on the dimensional bridge." These are wonderful details and this is imagination of a very high order.

There are also great, tumultuous, bloody action sequences, like the one in which Thor's "hammer cut the air with a scream that left a wake of steam behind it." 

And lest I seem too harsh on the pre-feminist depiction of Fulla, I should also mention that she  buckles on her mail and goes into battle instead of staying home and making meatloaf for our hero...

This is a splendid, memorable adventure story and a forgotten classic of fantasy and science fiction. And it has a lovely, uplifting ending.

(Image credits: There are very few editions of this wonderful book — one hardcover and one paperback in English, plus three foreign language versions I've discovered, and a Kindle. And the English language paperback has a dreadful cover by some artist who read no further than page 1 of the book, and misread that one, coming away with the impression that the story is about flying saucers. Luckily the original 1950 magazine version of the story featured on the cover of Fantastic Adventures magazine by Robert Gibson Jones, and a lot of its internal illustrations, also by Jones, are available online. The Avalon hardcover art by Ed Emshwiller is from Good Reads. The aforementioned disappointing paperback cover is from Nite Owl Jr. The Kindle cover is from Fantastic Fiction. The Fantastic Adventures magazine cover is from Battered, Tattered, Yellow & Creased, which features an excellent post about Del Rey's novel. The internal magazine illustrations are from diverse Pinterest saves by Josan: Page 6, Page 7, Page 36, Page 45, Page 51. The Dutch edition is from De Boekenplank. The 1993 Club Jules Verne Czech edition with the orange cover is from Antikvariát Bosorka.The 1999 Czech edition with the dark purple cover is from Anitkvariát U Kostela. The Dutch edition, which recycles the Robert Gibson Jones cover and dates from the late 1950s or early 1960s is from the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.)