Sunday, 13 January 2019

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

It's hard to believe I'd never read this before, but H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds is so pervasive in our culture that it seems intimately familiar even if you've never opened the cover of the book.

This is a tale told through the agency of a first person narrator who remains nameless. (I know a thing or two about this approach, since it's exactly the one I take with my own Vinyl Detective novels.) Indeed, most of the characters in this book are nameless, being defined instead by their job — the servant, the artilleryman, the curate, etc.

Wells is highly visual writer. And highly effective. Here is the second Martian ship landing: "a star fell from heaven into the pine woods to the northwest. It had a greenish colour, and caused a silent brightness like summer lightning."

And as the Martians burn a village they send a "smoky red flame leaping up above the houses... against the hot, blue sky." 

One of the really striking things about the book is the complacent normality of the humans — everybody going about their business as if nothing is wrong — which precedes the big Martian attack. Wells brilliantly achieves a contrast between the strangeness and savagery of the alien invasion with the peace and normality it disturbs.

Strangeness and savagery indeed. Wells describes the Martian heat ray as "this flaming death, this invisible, inevitable sword of heat." And the troops approaching the Martians are "simply swept out of existence." Then the alien invaders attack human populations with their black smoke — a lethal gas —  “as men might smoke out a wasps’ nest.”

This is an accomplished and surprising novel — surprising because it focuses as much on the repercussions of the Martian invasion as on the invaders themselves. Most of the book, and certainly the most powerful scenes, concern the chaos and panic and flood of refugees caused by the advance of the Martians, long before the Martians themselves arrive on the scene.
(The 2005 Spielberg movie version, scripted by Josh Friedman and David Koepp, was distinctive because it emphasised this aspect of Wells' book.)

The collapse of social order here is horrific and striking: "the police... were breaking the heads of the people they were called out to protect ... my brother... had the luck to be foremost in the sack of a cycle shop."

Incidentally, the brother who loots the bicycle is an inspired device. By giving his narrator in the countryside this sibling in London, Wells neatly doubles his narrative possibilities and expands his locations.

Which brings us to another of the novel's great strengths, setting each horrific vignette of the invasion in an authentic locale — the use of real place names adds immeasurably to the impact: "the burning country towards Chobham... Regent's Canal, a spongy mass of dark-red vegetation... By midday a Martian had been seen at Barnes." (I live near Barnes!)

It's amazing how quickly civilization falls apart, with looting everywhere and ruthless profiteers ferrying refugees across the English Channel — for a steep price. Victorian readers must have been scandalised at this (no doubt accurate) forecast of what would happen in such a situation.

The Martians' progress is relentless, terrifying, an unstoppable advance — and they just keep on landing reinforcements. In this, and many other respects, the book is engrossingly and vividly and powerfully written.

It's 90 pages before some soldiers finally — and very briefly — score a hit with their artillery against the invaders"The shell burst clean in the face of the Thing. The hood bulged, flashed, was whirled off in a dozen tattered fragments of red flesh and glittering metal ... The decapitated colossus reeled like a drunken giant." 

This sequence provides a tremendous emotional release for the reader after all the endless defeats and atrocities inflicted by the Martians on us humans. But it's short lived... fighting the invaders with our weapons is like "bows and arrows against the lightning," as the artilleryman remarks, bleakly and accurately.

In case you're not familiar with this brilliant novel, I won't give away the ultimate secret of the Martian's defeat.

But I will mention the savage satisfaction I felt about reading about the fallen Martians being eaten by dogs and birds — "the gnawed gristle of the Martian that the dogs had left... shreds of brown, at which the hungry birds pecked and tore."

Even after the invasion has been stopped and the last invader is dead, the Martians continue to exert a threat, though. The attempts by human scientists to learn the secrets of their weapons results in "the terrible disasters at the Ealing and South Kensington laboratories." 

This is a fabulous and frightening book.

(Image credits: The wonderful Edward Gorey cover is from my own library. If you're looking for a copy to read I'd highly recommend this handsome, strikingly illustrated pocket-sized hardcover edition published by New York Review Books. All the other images are from Good Reads where I found a greater choice of covers than I've ever seen for any other book. I've hardly scratched the surface of this treasure hoard with my selection here. I particularly like the vintage 1954 Pocket Book with its George Pal movie cover and the wildly irrelevant H.R. Giger-style sexy Greek one.)

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Susan Slept Here (the play) by Gottleib & Fisher

When the festive season rolls around I'm one of those people who has a ritual of watching a favourite Christmas movie. 

Which in my case happens to be an oddball and hilarious Technicolor RKO gem entitled Susan Slept Here. 

It's the story of an author with writer's block. On Christmas Eve a policeman acquaintance of his called Hanlon turns up with his partner and reminds our hero that he wanted to write a masterpiece about teenage crime (a big thing in America in the 1950s). 

So, to help the writer with his research, here is a Christmas present: a 17 year old criminal (the fashionable term is juvenile delinquent) called Susan. The cop is soft-hearted enough not to want the kid to spend Christmas in jail.

And he figures he can kill two birds with one stone, by dumping Susan on the writer — just for a day or two. Then they will collect her and put her in the slammer, but at least she will have spent the holidays free and the writer will have his story. 

As the cops leave, Hanlon's partner Maizel reminds our hero that Susan is under age: "Lay a hand on her and that's all, brother."

The writer has no intention of laying a hand on her. But this being a romantic comedy, he and Susan will end up married and living happily ever after...

I've already posted about the film, which has a memorably witty — and rather transgressive — script by Alex Gottleib, adapted from a stage play co-written by Gottleib and Steve Fisher.

This year when I watched the movie for the umpteenth time I was struck by the idea — rather late in arriving, it has to be said — that maybe I should try and track down the stage play version.

I assumed this would be difficult, if not impossible. To my joyful astonishment, it turned out all I had to do was push a button on Amazon. A few days later a copy of the play was in my hot little hands.

Comparing the movie and the play is utterly fascinating. There are many differences between the two, starting with the writer's name — Mark in the movie, Joe in the play. And in the movie he's a screenwriter, in the stage play, a playwright — naturally enough.

A lot of the best parts of the movie — and some of the best characters, like the writer's shrink — are entirely absent from the play.

Conversely, many of the finest moments are present in both. As when the writer's gorgeous but cold hearted girlfriend Isabella (seen here in cat-woman specs) turns up at Mark's and finds the two cops in attendance. 

They explain they're from the vice squad and she quips, "My favourite squad." Which is my favourite line.

There are huge differences, however. The writer's African American maid Georgette is reduced to a smiling cypher in the movie. In the play she's quite a  three dimensional, not to mention stereotype-shattering character.

For instance, she's only working as a domestic servant to pay her tuition at UCLA. "I'm a psychology major and I'm a Phi Betta Kappa," she tells the cops. In response to the latter disclosure, Maizel confidently explains to his partner, "That's a coloured fraternity." (It is in fact the highest academic distinction at an American university.)

Hanlon, the other cop, is also short-changed in the movie. In both versions he knows the writer because he previously helped him with research. But in the play Hanlon is himself an aspiring, and pretentious, would-be writer, which is a lot more fun.

The play and the movie are each quite daring in their own way. Both feature the character of Virgil, who is the hero's friend and also his sort of factotum, valet and writing assistant (amusingly, he used to be the writer's commanding office in the navy).

In the film there is the suggestion (quite unfounded) that Virgil has knocked Susan up — which leads to the writer punching him in the jaw.

In the play, on the other hand, Virgil's sexuality is called into question. "I always figured he was a swish," says Hanlon — which leads to a cherishable moment of outrage from Virgil.

In between the romantic comedy hi-jinks, there's some delectable reflections on the craft of writing. "Do you think a good plot helps a story?" asks Susan. "Well — it sort of rounds it out," says our hero. In both the movie and the play.

And in both the movie and the play, ultimately Susan and the writer end up together. As they disappear into the bedroom, Virgil tactfully makes an exit — he's going back into the navy.

But before he leaves, he makes sure that the lovebirds won't be disturbed. In the film, he switches off the oven, to make sure the forgotten roast doesn't turn into a fire hazard. 

In the play, he takes the phone off the hook.

If you want to see how to take a stage play and open it up for the big screen, taking extravagant liberties with it, yet utterly retaining its essence, then you couldn't find a better case study than Susan Slept Here. The DVD (or Blu-Ray) are currently easily available, and so is the play script. Check them out.

(Image credits: The cool black and white German press book is from the bookshop Antiquariat Heinz Tessin via ABE.Two of the colour screen grabs (Susan in her rain hat with Mark and dressed to the nines with Mark on the balcony) are from an informative article on the excellent Cineaste Magazine site. The tinted lobby card is from Royal Books. The cover of the recent Samuel French edition is from my own library. The earlier Samuel French edition is from Book Douban. The red and white poster and the other colour screen grabs — Catwoman Isabella, Susan dreamily listening to the radio — are from Cinema Clock, where Susan is cruelly, if accurately, described as "jail bait". The full colour poster at a funny angle is from Night Hawk News. The black and white still is from the Movie Poster Shop.)

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Best Films of 2018

Let's say farewell to 2018 with a summary of my personal favourite movies from the past year. As usual, before moving on to the top ten we'll start with a dozen honourable runners-up, including some really oddball choices...

The Happy Time Murders — which elsewhere has been declared one of the worst films of the year — is LA-noir X-rated Muppet fun and it really tickled me. 

Searching was another of those found footage thrillers which supposedly consists solely of computer screens — they bust a gut trying to maintain the convention here, but the twists are well planted and very satisfying.

Unsane was entirely filmed by Steven Soderbergh on an iPhone (yes, really) and featured Claire Foy wrongly locked up in a mental hospital... or is she? Gaping plot holes reduce the impact of this thriller, but it remains impressively powerful. 

In Alpha a Stone Age boy is separated from his tribe and survives by befriending a wounded wolf and thereby creating the first domesticated dog. It begins rather disagreeably — plenty of animal slaughter — but becomes quite wonderful.

12 Strong is a fact-based military thriller. Its Ted Tally script is an asset as is the Lorne Balfe score. And there’s something inherently thrilling about a cavalry charge. For me the best bit was when Chris Hemsworth’s horse, whom I thought was a goner, gets defiantly to his feet (hooves?) and shakes himself, ready to go on fighting.

Mile 22. Who would have thought this Mark Wahlberg shoot-’em-up would be of such high quality? Molly’s Game. As good as this was, I didn’t feel it lived up to Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue at his finest. Love, Simon was an extremely well crafted teen gay romance comedy.

All the Money in the World. Ridley Scott’s best movie in decades. Maybe his best ever. Hostiles is a powerful Western. After harrowing and terrible sequences, it has a marvellous ending.

Black Panther. A great movie, but Andy Serkis was such an outstanding villain, as Ulysses Klaue, that Michael Jordan as his replacement had a hard time matching up — although Jordan has the most extraordinary and telling dialogue… breathtaking, really.

Solo: A Star Wars Adventure. Excellent. A double-Kasdan ampersand of a script and a top notch cast. Thandie Newton gets to say lines like, “Viper droids headed your way.” And there’s convincing chemistry when she and Woody Harrelson kiss.

Okay, now for the top ten itself:

Thoroughbreds is a terrific little movie straight out of left field. Echoes of everything from Heathers to Equus to Stoker. Lily seems to be the perfect teen, Amanda her troubled friend. But is it really that way around? A diabolical and wild music score by Erik Friedlander is one of the finest I’ve heard in recent times. 

You Were Never Here has echoes of Point Blank, but much more emphatically of Taxi Driver. It’s an art movie, but scarily bleak with profound violence. Also moments of great beauty and strangeness. 

Red Sparrow is a really splendid spy thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence which just keeps getting better and better and finally concludes with a knockout ending. 

The Shape of Water is a rare fantasy movie fit to sit beside the likes of The Wizard of Oz. And I think it will be an enduring classic.

I completely love The Girl in the Spider's Web, a surprising high-quality addition to the Lisbeth Salander saga, with director Fede Alvarez channelling David Fincher.

The Predator was another huge surprise with Shane Black not only reviving this franchise but surpassing the original.

Right... now we're down to the best four. And, as usual, it's very hard to chose between these absolute gems.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is utterly wonderful. A sharp, comic and tragic tale of teenager Cameron (Chlöe Grace Moritz) who likes girls — so she's sent for gay conversion therapy (read brainwashing). It also stars Sasha Lane from American Honey (one of my best films of 2016).

Every Day. Under this banal title lurks one of the truly notable films of the year. A body-hopping romance which, in its gender fluidity, makes an interesting companion piece to Love, Simon and provides an amusing corrective to Robert Silverberg’s short story ‘Passengers’.

I was just knocked out by Entebbe. I expected a  gripping account of real life events. But this is a genuine work of art. The screenwriter Gregory Burke and director José Padilha bringing great creative energy to create something profound

But — and this will come as no surprise to regular readers — for the fourth year running, my pick for the best film of the year is one written by Taylor Sheridan: Sicario 2: Soldado, a sequel  which does a superb job of enlisting the audience's sympathies and keeping us on the edge of our seat. Spellbinding. A masterpiece. I loved every moment of it.  

(Sheridan's previous films — all winners of top honours in my annual lists — are Wind River, Hell or High Water, and the original Sicario.)

Happy viewing, thanks for reading, and happy New Year.

(Image credits; All the posters are from the admirable and invaluable Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 23 December 2018

The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

For this year's Christmas blog post I've chosen a classic crime novel, a cosy locked room murder mystery, set in a beautifully evoked winter London where "The snow was whirling outside, and it was not a night to venture far..."

The first thing that has to be said about The Hollow Man is that this is not anything to do with the Paul Veerhoven movie featuring an invisible Kevin Bacon.

The second thing is that it is also widely known under the title The Three Coffins.

Whatever you call it, it's an outstanding example of the aforementioned "locked room" sub genre. 

In case you're not familiar with these, and at the risk of explaining the thunderingly obvious, these are murder mysteries where the crime appears to have taken place under impossible circumstances — for instance in a locked room where the killer couldn't have got in, or out.

The Hollow Man was published in 1935 and it's the work of John Dickson Carr, who wrote prolifically under his own name and also under a series of pseudonyms, including Carter Dickson.

Carr was an American, which comes as a surprise, since he writes so convincingly about British locations. But that's because he moved to England at the beginning of his long writing career.

The Hollow Man is a purely rational and realistic story (albeit rather sensational) but it begins by conjuring an air of supernatural menace, which it renews from time to time — fairly deftly. So it isn't surprising that elsewhere Carr did write some memorable fantasy novels, including Fire, Burn! in which a 20th century London cop is transported back to 1829.

But, as I say, The Hollow Man is firmly rooted in the rational and the hero of the book is one Dr Gideon Fell, who is not merely a rationalist, but an amateur detective who has a brain to rival that of Sherlock Holmes, although his corpulent body is a bit of a mess — on a single page he is evoked with the words "lumbering", "wheezed" and "waddled." Not exactly a picture of health and fitness. (Fell is said to be based on the crime writer G.K. Chesterton, creator of Father Brown.)

The Hollow Man was a big surprise to me. In this kind of story I expect the prose to be serviceable at best. But Carr is an excellent writer. His descriptions and dialogue are of a high standard, but it's his characterisation which really scores outstanding marks for him.

Particularly his women. He has some strong and memorable female characters here, which is very unusual at this time, especially from a male writer. 

Take for instance the "restless, sleek and puzzling" Rosette Grimaud, a self described feminist (I didn't even know the term existed in 1935) who announces that she's in favour of "less talk and more copulation."

This sort of characterisation, besides being vivid and original, is way ahead of its time. 

Carr is also often very funny. Superintendent Hadley of the CID — the Inspector Lestrade to Fell's Holmes — says at one point, "We can get ideas even from a clever man."

And Dr Fell describes the benefits of "Having been improving my mind with sensational fiction for forty years."  And then goes on to provide a lucid analysis of the whole field of locked room murder mysteries, citing names of writers and detectives in a way that's reminiscent of Stieg Larsson (whose hero Blomkvist devours crime novels while he is busy pursuing his own investigation).

This is very modern and witty — not to mention almost disturbingly meta... as when Fell declares "we're in a detective story and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not."

Naturally the crucial thing in a detective story, especially a complex puzzle mystery like this one, is whether the payoff is satisfying or not. And here the author delivers the goods. The solution is diabolically ingenious, holds water, and I'm willing to wager you'll never guess it.

But for me the real revelation was the quality of Carr's writing. I'm seriously impressed  and I'll be looking for more of his books to read.

Meanwhile, if you want to curl up with a classic mystery this Christmas, I recommend that you let John Dickson Carr cast his spell on you, and accompany him into this moody, menacing tale where "London, on the morning of a grey winter Sunday, was deserted to the point of ghostliness along miles of streets..."

(Image credits: A delightfully huge selection of covers, including a couple of striking Chinese editions, at good old Good Reads.)

Sunday, 16 December 2018

You Live Once by John D. MacDonald

John D. MacDonald is one of my all time heroes. He wrote nearly 80 books, primarily crime thrillers and suspense fiction, and almost every one of them is excellent. 

Most of these novels began life as disposable American paperbacks and many were never published in a more permanent format — i.e. hardcover editions. In the UK, though, a publisher called Robert Hale reissued a lot of MacDonald's work between hard covers.

I pick up these Hale editions whenever I can. I like their durability, even though sometimes the cover art leaves something to be desired — as in the case of You Live Once, which I just got hold of this week. (It features this silly and quite irrelevant photo of a glamour model with a fishing rod and a gun.)

You Live Once dates from 1956 and I'm posting about it now because I just happened to glance at the first page yesterday, before putting it on my MacDonald shelf, and I promptly found myself falling under its spell...

And 24 hours later I've finished it and I'm writing this. 

It's the story of Clint Sewell, who has been dating a troubled rich girl called Mary Olan. As the book begins he wakes up with a very strange, intense headache and discovers that Mary has spent the night at his place — dead in his closet.

Clint isn't the type given to morbid self doubt, so never for an instant does he question whether he might have actually killed Mary, perhaps during a blackout. That might well be the basis for a memorable noir tale by Cornell Woolrich...

But MacDonald is a very different sort of writer. (And, it has to be said, a superior one.) So, instead, Clint correctly infers that someone wanted Mary dead and is trying to frame him for the crime.

Therefore he decides to get rid of the body...

What could possibly go wrong?
This plot neatly combines a classic murder mystery — who really killed Mary? — with a powerful suspense element: will Clint end up going to the electric chair as the fall guy, after all?

And indeed, at times, the suspense is almost unbearable.

But what really distinguishes MacDonald, as I've said before, is the quality of his writing. He can even make the description of a parked car memorable — "My black Merc sat dozing in the sun." 

Or here he is talking about "the cruel slant of the bishops" on a chess board. (He also reflects on the intellectual purity of the game "... a special, clean geometric world... Perhaps it was a good world to hide in.")
And here he describes a man receiving bad news: "staring at his large clenched fist as though he held something small there, captive."

MacDonald shows that, even at this relatively early stage in his career, he was capable of great psychological acuteness. After dumping Mary's body in the woods, Clint reflects, "If no one found her, I knew I would live with nightmares for a long, long time." 
(As it turns out, he doesn't have to worry about that.)

The characterisation in You Live Once is excellent and often darkly funny, but I would say this is not absolutely top notch John D. MacDonald. It's perhaps a bit too cursory —as if the author never entirely fell in love with the story. And there's a slightly drippy romantic sub plot.

But the absorbing murder mystery is skilfully constructed. You're highly unlikely to guess who the culprit is, but when all is revealed, the answer is entirely satisfying. 

Which is the highest accolade for plotting in this genre.

Well done again, Mr MacDonald.

(I have also previously written posts on these other John D. MacDonald novels: The Brass Cupcake, The Last One Left, The Crossroads, All These Condemned, Border Town Girl — actually two novellas, but let's not split hairs —  The Drowner, Murder in the Wind and One Monday We Killed Them All.)

(Image credits: The crazy Hale hard cover with the gun-toting fisher-girl is from Flickr. The 25c Popular Library edition — the first incarnation of this book — is from the admirable John D. MacDonald Covers site. The more recent version of the McGinnis cover, with the Green Ripper citation is from Good Reads. You Kill Me is from Pinterest. The Magnum edition with the green cover of photo and gun is from the bookseller GD Price. The other covers, including the Cosmopolitan magazine (where an early version of the novel appeared), are from the truly excellent John D. MacDonald blog The Trap of Solid Gold.)

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin (Part 2)

I've previously discussed the background for Rosemary's Baby — its context and predecessors — now onto the novel itself.

(Spoiler alert. If you have no idea of the secret of Rosemary's Baby, stop reading this post immediately and go and read the book instead.)

Ira Levin's novel is quite wonderful. I've read it a number of times before, but I welcomed another chance to immerse myself in it as part of this complete survey of Levin's work. And a couple of things struck me anew on this reading.

Firstly, just how damned funny the book  is. Secondly, how utterly villainous and what a bastard Guy is. Guy Woodhouse is Rosemary's husband, and he's an actor. And this is the key to his being a villain — and a bastard.

He is entirely ready to sell Rosemary down the river (in this case, the River Styx) to further his career. Knowing what he's up to really hammers this home, as in the sequence where he's forcing her to eat the doped chocolate mousse. (Don't eat it, Rosemary! But she does...)

Guy's actorly self absorption and narcissism and gift for duplicity are all signalled from the beginning, like at the dinner party where Rosemary's friend Hutch is warning them not to move into the sinister Bramford building, and lists the inexplicable frequency of bad things happening there: " 'What's the answer, Hutch?' Guy said, playing serious-and-concerned."

Later, after Rosemary has been drugged and knocked out (the aforementioned chocolate mousse) by Guy, and pimped out by him to be raped and impregnated by Satan, her treacherous hubby finds himself a little spooked by the whole situation.

At this point Rosemary (and the first time reader) has no idea what's happened, but she knows something is wrong between her and Guy. He won't touch her... he'll hardly look at her. 

So she calls him on it. He immediately apologises profusely and pleads the pressure of work —

"It was awkward and charming and sincere, like his playing of the cowboy in Bus Stop."

With adroit and acute little hints like this, Ira Levin is telling us that Guy is not to be trusted and not only is he capable of doing something terrible to Rosemary, he's already done it.

I mentioned how funny the book is. This is not just in its incidentals but also, so brilliantly, in its climax. 

When Rosemary frees herself from captivity, arms herself with a kitchen knife, and goes to rescue her baby, whom she believes to have been kidnapped by Satanists, she discovers instead that her child is the spawn of the devil himself...

Complete with eyes that are "golden-yellow, with vertical black-slit pupils", little budding horns, clawed hands and misshapen feet (there's a subtle and hilarious warning of this earlier when Rosemary finds her klutzy Satanist neighbour Laura Louise knitting some "shaped-all-wrong bootees" for the baby).

When she sees the baby, Rosemary completely freaks out, of course. But within a few pages she's thinking, "His eyes weren't that bad really, now that she was prepared for them." And rocking his cradle. And calling him "Mr Worry-face" and "Andy-candy."

Yup, she's bonded with the little devil. I'd forgotten how utterly Rosemary buys into all this at the end. It's so priceless, and so perfect, and so unexpected. Levin is such a genius.

Oh, and the other cherishable moment in this final scene is when she spits in Guy's face.

Now that Rosemary is embedded with the Satanist's as the baby's doting mother, and accepted that she's spawned the Anti-Christ, I found myself hoping that will she mete out some appropriate punishment for Guy.

I'll let you know when I report on the sequel, Son of Rosemary.

(Image credits: Rich pickings at Good Reads where, as you can see, various publishers the world over have leaned heavily on the film as a source of images for their cover designs.)