Sunday, 23 September 2018

The Sixth Sense by Rosalind Heywood

I am ambivalent, to say the least, on the subject of extra sensory perception. The romantic side of me thinks it would be so cool if such a thing existed. The scientific side shakes its head at the quality of evidence...

But I remain sufficiently interested in ESP to read the occasional book about it. I am very cautious about choosing these, because there is — to quote Fight Club — "an avalanche of bullshit" out there on the subject.

One writer I trusted to discuss the phenomena sensibly was Arthur Koestler. Having exhausted Koestler's writings on it, I've now begun to explore the books by other writers that he recommended.

Chief among these is Rosalind Heywood. The Sixth Sense, published in 1959, is the first of two notable volumes by her. (The second one, which I will also discuss, is The Infinite Hive from 1964.)

The real problem with ESP is that there have been a huge number of experiments, mostly by J.B Rhine at Duke University and concerning boring and repetitious attempts to guess which Zener cards will come up next in a random sequence.

And when analysed, the  dry boring stats showing irrefutable proof for the existence of a paranormal effect.

Or to quote HJ Eysenck, as quoted in this book: "Unless there is a gigantic conspiracy involving some thirty university departments all over the world, and several hundred highly respected scientists in various fields, many of them originally sceptical to the claims of the psychical researchers, the only conclusion that the unbiased observer can come to is that there does exist a small number of people who obtain knowledge existing in other people's minds, or in the outer world, by means as yet unknown to science."

Eysenck also makes a point which is particularly compelling to me. There are some statistical effects which weren't even thought of at the time of the experiments and and only discovered when retrospectively analysing the data.

So to falsify this would itself have required ESP.

There you go. The results are in, and ESP apparently exists. But, but, but...

But is seems that there is nothing to be done with such evidence. No respectable scientist wants to build on this research — and I completely understand why.

So does Rosalind Heywood. "Most scientists prefer to avert their eyes," she says. And she sympathises: "it is not easy to propound new systems based on facts whose natural habitat seems to be through the looking glass..." 

This is characteristic of her often charming and witty style. And Heywood has some valuable insights, too. She makes the important and telling point that creating the right kind of atmosphere is crucial. Which is why Duke got successes when his counterparts in the UK, doing the same kind of experiments, got nothing.

She also discusses how Sigmund Freud started from a point of not believing in the paranormal, yet he encountered sufficiently persuasive evidence to convince him at that telepathy at least was real. But a colleague, Ernest Jones, lobbied hard to prevent Freud from coming out in public with his belief in telepathy. 

Jones was convinced any action like this would seriously damage the reputation of psychoanalysis. And he may well have been right. The upshot was that Freud's paper on the subject wasn't published until years after his death.

This pretty much sums up the scientific position on ESP. Don't talk about it.

So we end where we began, with the dry boring stats showing proof which can't be denied and should not be ignored and everybody, including me, either denying it or ignoring it. 

Rosalind Heywood wrote, "It is hard to doubt that in time answers will be found to the questions raised in this book." 

Nearly sixty years on there's no sign of them.

(Image credits: The pale blue original British hardcover is from ABE. The American hardcover is from Weiser Antiquarian Books. The early British Pan paperback is from Amazon. The Pan reprint is from Tiki. The Penguin reprint with the rather witty Jones Thompson cover design is scanned from the rather battered copy fromy own sweet library.)

Sunday, 16 September 2018

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

This book is so great, why didn't someone tell me about it before? The reason I finally got around to reading it was the riveting Radio 4 adaptation of it, scripted by Donna Franceschild. This isn't currently available to listen to, but you can find details here. 

So, what is East of Eden about? Well it's generally described as the saga of two families in California in the late 19th and early 20th Century

And therein resides the book's deepest flaw. It's actually the story of one family — the Trasks. That is where all the interest lies. 

For my money, the parallel account of the Hamiltons could virtually be eliminated. I suspect this problem arose largely because Steinbeck didn't have a rigidly fixed plan as to what he was going to write about, so the book — and it's a big book — just grew organically, and in a baggy and misshapen fashion, as he found his way into it.

And in those pre-computer days (it was published in 1953), the prospect of going back when he was finished and cutting out tens of thousands of words and reorganising the book was probably just too daunting. Or maybe he loved the bits about the Hamiltons. They are actually presented as the ancestors of Steinbeck's own family.
How true this is — and why the book is so oddly out of proportion — I hope to find out when I get a copy of Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel, The East of Eden Letters.

But to hell with dwelling on the flaws... what makes this book so wonderful? Well, for a start it features one of the greatest villains ever devised in literature, the astonishing Cathy Ames. Cathy becomes the beloved wife of the central character, Adam Trask. But Adam doesn't have a clue who she really is.

Cathy is a classic psychopath. She murdered her parents, plundered the family business and faked her own death. And this was in her early teens... she's just warming up. I won't give too much away, but she ends up abandoning Adam and her two sons when they are babies — as she sets off to leave, he begs her to stay and asks what will become of the tiny boys.

"Throw them in one of your wells," says Cathy. She then goes, adopts a new identity, and takes over a whorehouse in a nearby town.

When and whether Adam and the boys will find out the fate of their mother becomes the suspenseful central question for the book...

Just to give you a flavour of how brilliantly written this novel is, here's a few quotations culled from the dozens I jotted down while reading it. Steinbeck offers arresting descriptions of people and nature and external things...  

As when Adam's mother "smile flashed and disappeared the way a trout crosses a knife of sunshine in a pool."  Adam's son recalls "the clean sage-laced wind from the hills". Or how Cathy's mother made an unpleasant discovery when she pulled the barn doors open "and the bright sun crashed inside." Or how about the image of a "nervous March wind"?

But Steinbeck also describes thoughts and emotions and internal states with great vividness and psychological acuity.

Such as the way, after the terrible trauma of a savage beating, someone "lay in a cave of shock and opium." And when Adam finally begins to have an insight into what Cathy really is, "He thought he could see her impulses, crawling like ants and could read them." And later, of Cathy herself, when she begins to lose her grip, "Her mind drifted among impressions the way a bat drifts and swoops in the evening." Or when he writes of the "black reasoning" of the subconscious mind. 

Steinbeck is a master storyteller. The emotional impact of the book is considerable. The reader's heart lifts when Adam finally gets free of Cathy. But more often our heart is broken, as when Adam's dying mother attributes his loving gifts to Adam's brother instead.

And we're also appalled — by Adam's goggle eyed love for his psychopathic, murdering whore of a wife — or angered, as when Adam refuses his son's gift of money... at this point I held my breath because I knew something terrible was going to happen. And when it did, I thought it served Adam right, the idiot — he brought this tragedy on himself.

But you'll have your own reactions to this great, sprawling, classic novel. It's not perfect, but it's a masterpiece.

And I'll end on a Steinbeck aphorism from its pages which has become a favourite of mine: "There is no dissatisfaction like that of the rich."  

(Image credits: No lack of cover variants, thank heavens, since this is a long post. Indeed, there are so many to be found on Good Reads that — apart from the Pan version, which is the one I read (and scanned myself) — these are just drawn from the Penguin editions of the book. I particularly like the one of Cathy burning down the family home with her parents in it, cunningly designed to look like the American flag.)

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Deathtrap by Ira Levin

I've previously posted about the superb novels of Ira Levin. Now it's time to start looking at his equally memorable writing for the stage.

His 1979 play Deathtrap was a huge smash hit. It is the longest running thriller in Broadway's history; indeed it remains the fifth longest-running (non-musical) play on Broadway.

As part of my one-man Ira Levin revival I got hold of a copy of the published version of Deathtrap and set about reading it with great pleasure. 

I thought I'd seen a stage production of this play, in Croydon some years ago. But the story seemed so fresh to me that I've begun to doubt that...

Maybe I'd just become aware of the general contours of the plot of Deathtrap, through a kind of cultural osmosis. It's a very famous play.

That plot concerns a successful playwright, Sidney Bruhl, who specialises in fashioning murderous thrillers. He's down on his luck though, to the extent that he's teaching the craft of writing to aspiring amateurs (we've all been there). 

So when one of his students sends him a new stage thriller which promises to be a monumental success, Sidney begins to wonder if instead of mentoring this new talent, he can kill him and steal his play...

The play in question is called Deathtrap, and like Levin's play itself, it features one set and five actors...

This sort of meta thing could be very tedious, but in Ira Levin's hands it's positively exhilarating. Over the course of two acts, each consisting of three scenes (just like the play within the play) Deathtrap proceeds to thrill, shock and astonish, its narrative twisting like a serpent.

The concept of a play worth killing over is at the heart of Deathtrap and Levin keeps wringing ingenious changes and variations on it. In the way that this McGuffin becomes both irresistible and almost automatically lethal, Deathtrap recalls The Pardoner's Tale by Chaucer.

It's a wonderful entertainment with a touch of the supernatural (as befits a work by the man who wrote Rosemary's Baby) and it is also hilariously funny.

No wonder it was such a magnificent success. I'd urge you to read a copy of the play, watch a revival of it, or perhaps see the movie version directed by Sidney Lumet. I say 'perhaps' because I have yet to watch it myself. That will be another post...

(Image credits: The book cover is from ABE. The Harlequin poster is from CTX Live Theatre. The Salisbury Playhouse poster is from Peter Viney's blog. The Palm Canyon poster is from Patch. The clever all typography poster is from London Theatre Direct.)

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Alpha by Wiedenhaupt and Hughes

Alpha is essentially a Jack London tale for the 21st century, which come to think of it is a great idea. It's the story of a teenage boy in Stone Age times ('Europe, 20,000 years ago' announces the caption at the beginning) called Keda.

Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the son of his tribe's chief and as the movie opens he's setting out with a party of men on his first hunt. This section of the film was the least appealing to me because it involves, not surprisingly, lots of killing of animals — admittedly, entirely computer-generated animals, but still... (To his credit, Keda flinches from the bloodshed, too.)

I am of course a total sentimental softy when it comes to animals. Which indeed was why I'd hastened to see Alpha in the first place. Because it's about how the domestication of the first wolf came about — boy meets dog!

Keda is separated from the hunting party and is left behind injured, presumed dead. He has a long and arduous odyssey to get back home by himself — although as it turns out he won't be by himself, because along the way he befriends a wounded wolf.

The story of the gradually growing bond between Keda and his furry companion, and their battle against other animals, and the elements, on the long voyage home makes for an engrossing and moving adventure. 

In a such a CGI-heavy movie I wasn't even sure if the dog was real — but he absolutely is. His names is Chuck and he's a Czech wolf dog (that's actually a breed) from France.

Chuck is an absolutely lovely dog — you have to realise this is coming from a cat lover! — and a tremendous asset to the film. Which makes it all the more absurd that the clowns at IMDB don't even mention him in their allegedly complete cast and crew for the film. 

The movie is beautifully shot, by the Austrian cinematographer Martin Gschlacht on location in Vancouver and Iceland. It was written by Daniele Wiedenhaupt from an initial draft by Albert Hughes, who directed the film.

Hughes has previously worked in collaboration with his brother Allen, on movies such as Dead Presidents, From Hell and The Book of Eli. This is Wiedenhaupt's screenwriting debut.

I enjoyed Alpha a lot, but I do have a couple of gripes. The dialogue in the movie is all in a made up prehistoric language, with subtitles. I don't like subtitles — they mean that your eyes are always in the wrong place on the screen. I'm willing to tolerate them for a genuine foreign language film, just about. To use them because you've opted for an imaginary language is just a pointless nuisance.

Just shoot the damned thing in English. Or, as my brother suggested, having established their point with subtitles, the movie makers could then have quickly segued into English  dialogue.

But the subtitles and the silly language don't spoil the enjoyment. Alpha is a pleasurable epic and it only really puts a foot — or paw — wrong at the very end when the final, triumphant shots are accompanied by some saccharine narration by Morgan Freeman.

Now Freeman is a fine actor, but he has become the apotheosis of the unctuous, sentimental and unnecessary voice over. I now cringe whenever I hear him dubbed over a movie to tell me how I should be feeling.

Luckily he only had a sentence or two here, so that didn't manage to spoil the film.

Anyway, I liked the movie enough to see it again a few days later, this time in Imax 3D. 

Incidentally the  three-dimensional Imax image is superb — the best I've ever seen, precise, entirely stable and sharp, although the glasses provided are crap: uncomfortable, with distracting reflections in the bottom corners of the lenses. But I digress...

A couple of hours after I saw the Imax screening, something hit me... 

There hadn't been any Morgan Freeman voice-over at the end. It had been removed from that print. This caused me to do a little research on line.

It turns out that the movie was made with narration by Freeman at the beginning and the end. And that's the version that's being shown in the States. 

But here in the UK, at least, the voice-over has been removed either partially or entirely.

Someone made a very smart decision about this. My tail is wagging with approval.

(Image credits: a true wealth of posters, some very beautiful, and mostly aimed at the Far East markets, from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 26 August 2018

The Novels of Ira Levin

I recently stumbled on this series of reprints —  Ira Levin's entire canon of novels, in a uniform edition, with new introductions. And they have led to me rediscovering just what a marvellous novelist he was.

In case the name is unfamiliar to you, Ira Levin is probably best known as the man who created The Stepford Wives, which has been filmed twice — the second time as an appalling comedy — and which has passed into our communal consciousness with its subversive and astonishing take on gender politics.

Rosemary's Baby would be, I imagine, Levin's next most famous work. It was adapted into a classic, and brilliant, horror film which — thankfully — has never been remade.

Probably the best definition of Ira Levin is as a suspense novelists. All of his books have that in common. They are masterpieces of emotional manipulation, and all are beautifully and economically written. They are also, surprisingly, very funny.

Other than that, they're a very diverse group, effortlessly crossing genre boundaries. Some are straightforward crime novels (A Kiss Before Dying, Sliver) others science fiction (This Perfect Day, The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil), others supernatural horror (Rosemary's Baby, Son of Rosemary).

Levin began by writing for radio and television in the 1950s. As a novelist he made a stunning debut with A Kiss Before Dying in 1953, creating a classic which won an Edgar Award as best first crime novel, was promptly filmed, and which has been in print ever since. 

Over a span of 44 years Ira Levin only published a total of seven novels, but he also had a considerable career as a playwright, writing both hit comedies (No Time for Sergeants) and thrillers — Deathtrap is probably his most famous play, and was the longest running thriller on Broadway. But for my money his masterpiece for the stage was the remarkable Veronica's Room.

I'm very grateful to whatever perceptive person at the publisher Hachette decided to reprint all seven of Levin's novels. The covers vary from the striking (A Kiss Before Dying) to fairly feeble (The Stepford Wives) but they are quite a handsome uniform set, and it's incredibly useful to have them all in print at once.

Plus the introductions, though very brief and also somewhat variable, are a valuable bonus — who knew that Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, was a Rosemary fan? And Jonathan Trigell has some interesting things to say about Sliver.

I hope you find that I also have some interesting things to say about these books. I plan to be writing about all of them over the following months, and at least a couple of Levin's plays, too.

Meanwhile, I urge you to check out these books yourself. You could start with any of them, except Son of Rosemary, which is a sequel. I guarantee that once you begin reading, you will find it very hard to stop.

Mr Levin, more power to you.

(Image credits: all the covers are from Hachette Australia.)

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Basic Instinct by Joe Eszterhas

I recently got hold of a deluxe reissue of Jerry Goldsmith's wonderful music for Basic Instinct. And in the course of listening to the CDs and reading the liner notes I got the urge to watch the film again...

Which was very appropriate. Basic Instinct is all about urges — primal, perverse or deadly. Notably homicidal impulse.

Anyway, I dug out my old DVD, complete with its kitsch ice-block menu design (the murder weapon in the movie is an ice pick) and took a trip back to San Francisco in the early 1990s...

In case you've led a commendably sheltered life and have never heard of Basic Instinct, it's a state of the art, latter-day film noir in gorgeous colour. 

It also pays homage to the movies of Hitchcock, notably Vertigo, although it's much more explicit, daring and technically polished (despite Hitchcock's reputation for cinematic expertise I find his films often crude, and I completely agree with Stanley Kubrick's disparaging remarks about Hitchcock's use of crappy back-projection).

In many ways Basic Instinct stands up well. Joe Eszterhas's script is an absolute model of flawless craftsmanship, flowing smoothly and unstoppably from one gripping story point to another. (He was paid $3 million for the script, a record at the time.)

And in Paul Verhoeven, Eszterhas found the perfect director for the film. Verhoeven's kinkiness, intensity of vision, twisted humour and sheer prowess all made him ideal.

However, Verhoeven does have a tendency to go over the top — to say the least. And that, combined with a rather unsubtle performance by Michael Douglas as Homicide Detective Nick Curran, somewhat diminishes the impact of the movie. For example, there's way too much shouting and crashing around, whereas understatement might have been more powerful.

Sharon Stone, on the other hand, is just perfection in her part as the ultimate femme fatale Catherine Trammell — mocking, radiant and diabolical.

In his engrossing autobiography Joe Eszterhas does some diabolical mocking of his own. He recalls how delighted Stone was when she declared that she'd found out the source of her character's name. She was convinced that it derived from an archaic Scottish word for a funeral shroud.

When Joe explained it was actually taken from Alan Trammell, a baseball player, Sharon grew rather irate...

Besides being too shouty, the other flaw in Basic Instinct is — perhaps surprisingly — the sex scenes. At the time they were considered scorching, and somewhat shocking and genuinely pushed the envelope. (The movie had to be trimmed for the US release, with Goldsmith shortening his music cues in consequence.)

But now — and even at the time — they tend to come across as laughably bombastic. To be fair, though, sex scenes are proverbially difficult to do well. Probably still the only film to (excuse the expression) pull it off is Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now from 1973.

In any case, Basic Instinct remains a classic. George Dzundza is excellent as Curran's likable, good hearted partner Gus. (And, as is usual with good hearted, likable characters in a Joe Eszterhas script, he's doomed to a nasty fate.)

The photography by Jan De Bont (who went on to become a director in his own right) is beautiful, and of course Jerry Goldsmith's music is ravishing.

All in all, shouting and sex scenes aside, Basic Instinct has weathered the years well and remains a classic.

(Image credits: The standard vintage vertical poster is from Imp Awards. The stylish ice pick is by Anton Petrov on Pinterest. The nicely designed op art white dress and folded legs is by Chung Kong. The striking horizontal poster of Sharon Stone in the chair — actually a statue, apparently — is by Blitzway on Pinterest. The poster with the photo of Stone in the chair, the black-background 'Flesh seduces, passion kills', the black and white one and 'ultimate edition' are all from the excellent Movie DB.)

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Fahrenheit 451 — The Folio Society Edition

The Folio Society is a sort of very classy British book club. They make high quality hardcover reprints of famous titles. These are often very beautiful, printed on fine paper with elegant binding and specially commissioned illustrations. 

Being a sucker for such things, I've frequently sought out their books, occasionally the great classics of literature — but more often, me being me, their crime stories and science fiction. Indeed, a little while ago I wrote a post about the Folio edition of Frank Herbert's Dune.  

In fact it was Dune which prompted me to seek out the earlier Folio edition of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, an unforgettable fable about a dystopian future where firemen no longer put out conflagrations but rather burn books in service of the totalitarian rulers.

Like Dune, the Folio Fahrenheit 451 features illustrations by Sam Weber. Weber's work is lovely, and I bought this book for his illustrations, but as with Dune the real treat turned out to be the extra introductions thoughtfully included by the folks at Folio.

The best of these is a brilliant essay by Michael Moorcock, a great science fiction writer in his own right

Moorcock's introduction is rewarding and delightful. Thought provoking, discursive and detailed, he doesn’t seem to have got the memo that such pieces are usually superficial, facile and fact free. 

He makes the keen observation that the California desert inspired the Martian landscapes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury. Among his other fascinating reflections is that “Burroughs, Brackett and Bradbury were Californians just like the noir trio of Hammett, Chandler and Caine” and a discussion of “‘Market forces’ as the base for a dystopia’.

Moorcock also writes with bracing vividness as when he talks about the Red witch hunt and the “McCarthy twister” (i.e. tornado) which swept up so many innocent people. 

Ray Bradbury’s own informative introduction is another valuable addition: he recalls writing the book, using rented typewriters in the basement of a library — ten cents per half hour. "I brought a bag of dimes with me and moved in." And there's an enlightening discussion of the story's villain and his motivation (books failed him). 

Both Moorcock and Bradbury are perhaps rightly dismissive of the 1967 Truffaut movie of Fahrenheit 451, but it should be noted that it has a great Bernard Herrmann score.

(Image credits: The cover is from John Guy Collick. The interior illustrations are from Sam Weber's site.)