Sunday 25 November 2018

The Girl in the Spider's Web by Alvarez, Knight, Lagercrantz et al

One of my all time favourite movies is David Fincher's version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Expertly scripted by Steve Zaillian, it was supposed to be the first of three films based on Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, charting the adventures of Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous tattooed girl.

However, Fincher's film wasn't considered lucrative enough by the bean counters, so the sequels never materialised. Which, considering the quality of the first movie, was heartbreaking.

Well, now we move from broken hearts to dropping jaws as, to my astonishment, a sequel does turn up — seven years later. And, against all the odds, it's a worthy successor.

I say against all the odds because Fincher isn't involved, the cast and crew are entirely different, and it isn't even based on a Stieg Larsson novel. 

After Larsson's appallingly unjust early demise it looked like the Millennium series would be truncated at three volumes. But, modern publishing and eternal human greed being what they are, a dead author was no serious obstacle and another Swedish journalist, David Lagercrantz, was commissioned to continue the adventures of Lisbeth Salander.

I never bothered reading his 2015 novel, The Girl in the Spider's Web, but I was sufficiently intrigued by the movie version starring Claire Foy to catch an early screening.

And it completely knocked me out. It's a true sequel to the 2011 film, clearly showing the influence of David Fincher's work, right from the nightmarish James Bond style title sequence.

The film is brilliantly directed by Fede Alvarez who smartly channels  Fincher's sensibility. Alvarez previously co-wrote and directed the 2013 remake of The Evil Dead, which was sort of okay, and the suspense thriller Don't Breathe, which was absolutely terrific (one of my runners-up for the best films of 2016).

The other screenplay credits on The Girl in the Spider's Web are both British scriptwriters: Jay Basu who worked on the fun little sports drama Fast Girls and Steven Knight, who is one of my heroes. Knight wrote the big screen masterpieces Locke and Allied and created the TV show Peaky Blinders.

The music for The Girl in the Spider's Web is by Alvarez's regular composer Roque Baños and the cinematographer is another frequent collaborator Pedro Luque — and the film looks magnificent.

Claire Foy is superb as Lisbeth Salander in the new film. She has the same Goth waif quality as Rooney Mara did in Fincher's movie — both of them quite different from the admirable Noomi Rapace in the 2009 Swedish film version.

The Girl in the Spider's Web sets Salander in opposition to her sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), who is a kind of anti-Lisbeth, very girlie, with her longer blonde hair and all dressed in white. Hoeks is great casting; she was superlative and scary as Luv the replicant in Blade Runner 2049. (She looks so different here that I didn't recognise her.)

The film has has some flaws. Its plot revolves around a cyber MacGuffin which puts the world at risk (yawn). And there's a scene where Salander disables the bad guys' car, leaving them helpless; it's an ideal opportunity to finish them off, but she doesn't.

The Lisbeth Salander I know wouldn't have hesitated. But this seems to be a deliberate decision, with Salander for the most part stalking through the story and applying non-lethal weapons on her adversaries. But the film is none the worse for that.

In fact, it's stupendous. A dark Christmas delight. I urge you to see it.

Now... I have to go and see it again myself. And check out Lagercrantz's novel.

(Image credits: a fine selection of stylish posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 18 November 2018

Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout

Glendon Swarthout is an intriguing American novelist whose diverse books have often been filmed — indeed I wrote about Tommy Lee Jones's striking adaptation of The Homesman last year. 

Bless the Beasts and Children was also turned into a movie. I haven't seen it (though I've owned a copy of the soundtrack album since I was a kid).

Bless the Beasts begins at a dude ranch in Arizona where difficult boys are sent by their rich parents. It focuses on the most problematical of the problem kids, a group of misfits and outcasts who share a cabin — and also share the contempt of the others.

It tells a classic quest story, with the kids escaping from the ranch in the middle of the night and going on a mission. We only gradually learn what that mission is. It turns out to be a fairly horrifying one. 

They are headed for a national park where there is an annual slaughter of buffalo. Yes, that's right, the iconic beast of the American West. For dubious reasons their population is deemed in need of regular culls.

And it's not as though the "hunters" have to track the buffalo down or anything like that. The poor animals are just driven into a pen from which there is no escape and the "sportsmen" (and women) shoot at them at such close range they can't miss — although the animals are frequently grievously wounded and a long time dying.

The kids share in the horror felt by the reader (or at least by this reader) and the novel is an animal rights and eco-activist milestone. Indeed there was quite an outcry when the book (and film) appeared, from the vast swathes of people who had no idea such butchery was taking place — and wanted it to stop.

Glendon Swarthout often writes beautifully about the wild, ancient landscape he clearly loves. The Mogollon Rim is described as "inconceivable and paleozic";  the Grand Canyon is all "fossil silence and echo".

He also writes movingly of "the stench and desperation of the beasts" and of how the kids, attempting to rescue the buffalo, are surrounded by the creatures who crowd around: "the breath of innocent animals blessed them." 

I have somewhat less admiration for Swarthout's attempt to conjure up teenage slang: "Cool it, or the shooters'll be down here triggering us" Triggering? But there's no denying how invested I was in these characters, and their mission. And when their leader says, as they set off to save the beasts, "Good luck. To us and them," I was moved.

The edition of the book I read featured an extremely useful introduction in which Glendon Swarthout is quoted making the very perceptive point that his novel is kind of an anti-Lord of the Flies... he isolates a group of young boys and instead of descending into savagery they rise to heroism.

As a bitter footnote, I have to tell you that Swarthout's book didn't put a stop to this practice. The "hunt" continues, in a modified fashion: as first State game rangers accompanied the brave hunters "to deliver a quick-kill shot to any poor animal which a nervous marksman had only wounded.

More recently the brave shooters were required to hunt on foot, and their prey is no longer penned up in front of an audience. "The buffalo now have the privilege of being blasted to bits in private just like every other American game animal."
(Image credits: The book covers are from Good Reads.)

Sunday 11 November 2018

Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin (Part 1)

The big question is, how did Ira Levin dare to write Rosemary's Baby? 

Rosemary's Baby was published in 1967. Up to this point in his career,  Levin had already experienced considerable success. His first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, had created a big splash in 1954, and remained in print selling strongly. 

He'd also made his mark writing television scripts and, even more so on Broadway, with two hit comedies.

So, with a classic crime novel under his belt and some hilarious and highly successful shows... Was the natural next move Rosemary's Baby? 

Well, a suspense novel absolutely made sense — A Kiss Before Dying was a masterpiece of suspense. But what about a suspense novel which was also a full-blown story of the supernatural? 

Absolutely not...

Novels of the supernatural had climbed the bestseller lists before, notably the works of Dennis Wheatley. But such books pretty much resided in a genre ghetto. They were horror stories. 

And unlike crime — which has always been respectable, indeed is regarded right up there with real literature — horror was as disreputable as fantasy or science fiction. 
And science fiction, with a few very rare exceptions, was the kiss of death in the marketplace, both then and now. (Note how Rosemary's Baby is described as a "suspense thriller" on the Fawcett cover... no hint of horror or "genre".)

The most striking precursor of Rosemary — and a superb novel in its own right — is Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife, which like Levin's novel locates its tale of dark magic in a mundane and realistic setting (in this case amidst the academic rivalries of an American university town).

But Conjure Wife was packaged and marketed in paperback as a pulp horror confection (the cover shown here calls it "Science Fantasy"). Not much chance of critical respect or breakthrough bestseller status for poor, much-deserving Mr Leiber.

Rosemary's Baby, on the other hand was aimed squarely at the mainstream. How did Levin and his publisher's make such a shrewd move?

Well, there were precedents. Ray Russell's 1962 novel The Case Against Satan was a tale of demonic possession which anticipated William Peter Blatty by about ten years, and it had received respectful reviews and respectable sales, propelled by a blurb from Ian Fleming.

But when Russell's novel appeared in paperback, it was packaged as a sensational and lurid story.

Unlike Rosemary's Baby, which was given classy and restrained art based on the hardcover design.

And then there was Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, which was a big success in 1959. Indeed, Barbara Nelson in the Library Journal explicitly compared Rosemary's Baby at the time of its publication to the work of Jackson. 

But as the title indicates, Shirley Jackson's novel was a haunted house story following in the classic tradition.

Nobody was getting knocked up by Satan in Shirley Jackson's book

Interestingly, when it was first published, Rosemary's Baby was nominated for an Edgar Alan Poe award for outstanding crime (in this case presumably suspense) fiction. Levin's debut, A Kiss Before Dying had actually won an Edgar.

But Rosemary's Baby is a tale of the supernatural, and unashamedly so. Ira Levin showed great courage in crossing the line into this genre. And his publishers, Random House, are to be applauded for supporting him so effectively.

Because at this time no one was putting horror stories in tasteful covers (like Burnt Offerings, published six years after Rosemary, in 1973) and thereby targeting a mass audience. 

There was no thriving category of mainstream supernatural fiction. Levin invented it with his novel  — and The Exorcist, Audrey Rose, Burnt Offerings, Carrie and hundreds of others owe him a huge debt.

Oh, and in answer to the question we began with... I think there was only one reason Ira Levin wrote Rosemary's Baby. Because the idea had seized him, and he was passionate about it — and having a hell of a good time writing it. All of which shows in the superlative quality of the book, which I'll discuss in my next post.

Meanwhile, for anyone interested in the specific genesis of this novel and the ideas behind it, there is an outstanding website at Ira Levin Org. That's where I got the handwritten note by Levin showing the first, you'll excuse the expression, seed of Rosemary's Baby.

(Image credits: the lovely, and beautifully designed Fawcett cover, with its Freudian penetration of the 'O' by the 'R', is from the Internet Archive. The Devil Rides Out is from The Dennis Wheatley Project (an excellent site). The American paperback of Case Against Satan is from Flickr. Conjure Wife is from Battered, Tattered, Yellow and Creased.  The Haunting of Hill House is from Too Much Horror Fiction, a useful and insightful blog. As mentioned, the Ira Levin handwritten note is courtesy of the absolutely excellent Ira Levin Org. Burnt Offerings is from Good Reads. The red Dell cover, the first paperback incarnation, is also from Good Reads. Both of these latter covers, incidentally, are designed by the great Paul Bacon.)

Sunday 4 November 2018

The Bad Seed by William March

The Bad Seed is a classic of crime and suspense fiction which has some notable similarities to Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying.

They were published within a year of each other (1953-1954), both enjoyed immediate commercial and critical success — Levin's book won an Edgar award. March's was nominated for the National Book Award.

Both novels have been filmed twice (The Bad Seed also became a successful stage play), both have remained constantly in print, and both books are masterpieces.

Also, both are stories about psychopaths who kill ruthlessly for gain. 

But The Bad Seed is inevitably horrifying and heartbreaking in a way that  A Kiss Before Dying isn't.

I say inevitably because the psychopathic killer in March's novel is an 8 year old girl, and the story is told from the point of view her mother, who gradually discovers the truth about her beloved daughter.

Christine Penmark is the mother and March brings her to life swiftly and economically. Christine is beautiful and a bit otherworldly and her peaceful existence is about to be filled with confusion and torment. 
Near the beginning of the story we find her languidly holding her toothbrush "as though she were not quite decided what to do with it." Near the end she is holding a gun "as though she did not understand its purpose."

But the really indelible character is, of course, the homicidal child Rhoda, who is like a "pet that can never be quite domesticated", suffering her mother's kisses and caresses but profoundly unable to understand them. She responds with "a calculated simulation of affection."

Rhoda is a star pupil and avid attender of Sunday school, where she studies the bible and has a "strange affinity for the cruelties of the Old Testament."

On the surface she is a perfect little goody-two-shoes and most grownups adore her. However, at school "the other pupils both feared and detested Rhoda."

Quite right, too.

In many ways the book is a pitiless as its monstrous child. There is no escape for Rhoda's mother. In the very first sentence of the book we are presented with Christine and told this is "the day of her last happiness."  And Marsh tightens the screws on his unfortunate heroine remorselessly.

Even as the truth begins to dawn on her, she tells herself that it's "her duty to protect the child, to make every allowance for her."

March shrewdly equips Christine with friends and neighbours who are amateur experts on psychology and true crime, providing her with the clues she needs to work out the terrible reality of Rhoda's nature.

There is no way this can end well, and it doesn't. But it makes for riveting reading along the way.

(Image credits: all the covers are from Good Reads. Except for the Penguin in its classic green crime fiction livery, which is a scan of my own copy. I particularly like the Chinese edition, with a cover which is very true to the story, and the English hardback, which features an illustration by Robin Jacques including Leroy the janitor who is one of the few adults to see through Rhoda.)