Sunday, March 17, 2019

Not Five of My Favorite Horror Books

A few weeks ago in a post entitled simply "Horror," Howard Andrew Jones asked what's the pleasure derived from the genre. Here's part of what I wrote in response:

   Pleasure might not be the right word, but I do enjoy the chills I get from a good horror tale. Some of us just like being scared, though perhaps only because we know it’s not real. I don’t want to experience real fear, but I do like a good fright or extended moment of haunting spookiness. Even the best horror isn’t fundamentally different from a jump scare. The trick someone like M.R. James or Laird Barron pulls off is fooling you long and well enough in to believing it’s something more than just a man in a mask screaming “Boo!”
   I’m also pulled in (and impressed) by the ability of good horror to make me feel uneasy and, if only for the length of a book, to believe in something I don’t – i.e. spooks and monsters.

We, at least I, want the frisson we get from being alone in the dark thinking something's lurking behind us. There's probably a neurochemical basis for enjoying the sensation of being scared. Jumping in my seat when Michael Myers emerged from the shadows or when Jack Torrance started swinging the roque mallet released something in me that was practically addictive. Call it chills or shivers, whatever you want, great horror produces a tangible effect on me that is oddly enjoyable.

What I don't want is the stomach-churn from torture porn like Cannibal Ferox or The Bighead. They're sadism marketed as entertainment and I don't have a taste for it. It's one thing to get some momentary thrill from non-existent ghosts, it's another to find thrills from humans torturing and murdering other humans, a thing that happens all the time in real life. Disagree if you must, but this sort of horror's not a hell of a lot better than the old car crash version of the National Enquirer. 

But enough pontificating, let's get to the books.

The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
The Haunting of Hill House's opening paragraph is one of the most memorable and disturbing. We are presented with a house that looks normal, its walls plumb and doors hanging properly, but in its soul it's mad. The story that unfolds revolves around a question of sanity: is it the house or poor Eleanor Vance that is insane.

Without a doubt, this is my favorite haunted house book. Eleanor Vance joins an expedition to the infamous Hill House led by parapsychic researcher Dr. Montague. Inspired by the Society for Psychical Research's investigation of the Borley Rectory and other such studies, Jackson's story brings a disparate group of characters together to investigate the supposedly haunted mansion under scientific guidelines. It's something other books and movies have done since, but none with as much beautiful darkness and atmosphere. 

The first film of the book, The Haunting (1963) is the best haunted house movie, while the second, also called The Haunting (1999), is one of the worst. The first captures the unsettling atmosphere of the Jackson's novel while the second is overblown and features misplaced and extravagant special effects. The recent Netflix show, The Haunting of Hill House (2018) is inspired by the book but is not really based on it. It is, however, close to being very good.

The Shining (1977) by Stephen King

And in the bug, which moved upward more surely on the gentler grade, he kept looking out between them as the road unwound, affording occasional glimpses of the Overlook Hotel, its massive bank of westward-looking windows reflecting back the sun. It was the place he had seen in the midst of the blizzard, the dark and booming place where some hideously familiar figure sought him down long corridors carpeted with jungle. The place Tony had warned him against. It was here. It was here. Whatever Redrum was, it was here.

The first of the Overlook Hotel, the dark heart of The Shining is from the perspective of five-year old Danny Torrance. For those unaware of the book's basic setup, Jack Torrance, a recovered alcoholic with rage issue, is hired to be the winter caretaker for the hotel, a giant edifice located up in the Colorado Rockies. The place has a bad history (a previous caretaker took an axe to his family before killing himself most notably), but Jack needs the job and is hoping to use the isolation to help him get his novel done.

There's a lot less of the subtle atmospherics of Jackson's book, with King going for more in-your-face violence. Still, it works well at making you believe the Overlook is infested with haunts and foul secrets. I like a lot of King's books, but few still affect me as well as this one, It can still give me shivers reading it late at night with the lights turned low. Jack's fall into madness is also a lot more moving to me past middle-age then when I was a teenager.

I've read a lot of Stephen King's books and this one still strikes me as the most successful and the closest he's come to perfection. Right after the success of this book it's as if he never got edited again. The Stand and It are beloved by millions, but I see them as bloated and soggy. There isn't a wasted or extra word in The Shining. As good as many of his later novels are, very few of them are as tightly plotted and written as this one.

If you've seen Stanley Kubrick's 1980 movie, the book might come as a bit of a shock to you. The novel's Torrance senior isn't Jack Nicholson's twitchy, mad-from-the-get-go dry drunk. He's a man who has crawled up from a pit of rage and booze and is fighting hard to stay sober but he's sane, not nuts from the start like Nicholson's portrayal. I don't like the movie, first, as a fan of the book I disliked its lack of textual fidelity, and, secondly, I find Nicholson's performance overwrought and ultimately boring. There's no suspense, just a lunatic waiting for his moment to cut loose.

As much as I dislike Kubrick's movie, King seems to have disliked it even more. In 1997, he personally oversaw the production of a mini-series starring Steven Weber and Rebecca De Mornay. It's as bad as it is faithful to the book, which a whole lot.

Ghost Story (1979) by Peter Straub

What was the worst thing you've ever done? 
I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me ... the most dreadful thing ...

Decades ago, four old men did something awful. Now that sin has come calling for them. While it reads closer to the modern horror of his friend, Stephen King, Straub drew on the classic ghost stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and M.R. James - to the point he gave two of his main characters their last names. Before starting the novel, he reread much of the classic supernatural tales, from Poe through Lovecraft.

Ghost Story is part of the mass market horror explosion of the seventies and early eighties. In the wake of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby (1967), Thomas Tryon's The Other (1971), William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist (1971), horror became a mainstream, marketable genre. Stephen King was the author who made it a monster. With Ghost Story, his third horror novel, it looked as if Straub would join King at the top of the world. Though he did become very successful, he never entered the public consciousness with anything like the ferocity and implacability of King.

Straub never scaled the same popular heights as King. His work is more consciously literary and he kept his production down to human limits. I'm not saying he's better than King, just different and less obviously commercial. I've only read six of Straub's novels versus over twenty of King's.

A lot of King's success is attributable to his deep affection for and engagement with pop culture. His stories are incredibly accessible - that's explicitly not an insult - whereas Straub's a less so. King doesn't occupy the same cultural space he did thirty years ago, but there was a time when everybody I knew had read at two or three books by King.

It's been a decade or more since I've read Ghost Story but it remains a potent part of my mental gallery of horror. Largely a story about telling stories, this is a significant work that seems more forgotten than it should be.

Presumably based on the success of Kubrick's The Shining, Hollywood threw a ton of money and talent at John Irvin's film, Ghost Story (1981). Starring Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman, I was pretty jazzed to see it when it came out. Unfortunately, it's not good. Aside from ditching much of the book, it looks like a tv-movie. I may not like Kubrick's movie, but it's still important and worth a view, Irvin's isn't.

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (2013) by Laird Barron

That buffalo charges across the eternal prairie, mad black eye rolling at the photographer. The photographer is Old Scratch's left hand man. Every few seconds the buffalo rumbles past the same tussock, the same tumbleweed, the same bleached skull of its brother or sister. That poor buffalo is Sisyphus without the stone, without the hill, without a larger sense of futility. The beast's hooves are worn to bone. Blood foams at its muzzle. The dumb brute doesn't understand where we are.

But I do.
-CP, Nov. 1925
from "Hand of Glory"

I bought this book, Barron's third collection of stories, for a $1.99 from Amazon. I only learned of it and Laird Barron at all from a post on Black Gate. I will be forever grateful for that post. Rooted in Algernon Blackwood, HPL, and other forebears of the genre, Barron is not only one of the best horror writers today, but he might be one of the best ever.

It's almost insulting to call the stories in this collection Lovecraftian. Yes, there's an original mythos that serves as connective tissue to stories that take place from the early twentieth century to its end. Yes, these are tales of cosmic horror where people learn the things they weren't meant to know. And yes, set largely in the Pacific Northwest, they have the same deep sense of place and history as the old gentleman from Providence's (his portrayal of Washington state's forests left me so unsettled, I found myself getting spooked hiking through Staten Island's paltry woods one dusk). Don't let any of that fool you or discourage you. Barron's stories may not be sui generis, but he writes in his own voice, giving a face to horrors in a new and potent way.

As much as Barron's concerned with the sort of existential dread that HPL was, he's got an equally deep concern for character. Men and women, straight and gay, old and young, Barron subjects all sorts of victims to the horrors of the void and plunges us into their psyches with a surgeon's precision. Character, especially the flaws and fault lines in there souls, are almost as much the focus of his work as the horrors.

I couldn't find the exact line, but there's one in the story "Hallucigenia" in his earlier collection, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, which made me despair of ever trying to write fiction. In addition to be a superlative spinner of dark tales, he's writer of tremendous gifts (though, I'm finding myself a little disappointed with his newest collection, Swift to Chase (2016)). I don't love every story in A Beautiful Thing, but there's not one that isn't masterfully written and that will not leave dark designs carved in your brain.

The Dunwich Horror and Others by HP Lovecraft (1963)

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
from "The Call of Cthulhu"

After Poe, Lovecraft is the first named horror writer I read. By which I mean, though I'd read some children's spooky stories collections, it was Poe, followed by Lovecraft, whom I knew by name and deliberately sought out.
The first HPL story I read was "The Festival." I was ten, almost eleven, and read it out loud to for me and my friend who staying over. It was the night of the great black out of 1977. While it isn't particularly scary, it managed to creep the two of us out. It was spooky enough that I quickly set out tracking down the rest of his stories. I've been a fan ever since.

It's a minor story of Lovecraft's, but it's a good introduction to the thick, almost dreamlike style of much of his work and his fictional universe, where strange, ancient goings-on transpire behind the scenes of legend-haunted New England towns.

This book contains the most essential of HPL's catalogue. Culled from almost twenty years of his writing, they span from his early pulp tales to the great cosmic horror tales his reputation rests on. If this is all you ever read by him, it'll be enough. 

In the Vault • (1925)
Pickman's Model • (1927)
The Rats in the Walls • (1924)
The Outsider • (1926)
The Colour Out of Space • (1927)
The Music of Erich Zann • (1922) 
The Haunter of the Dark • (1936) 
The Picture in the House • (1919)
The Call of Cthulhu • (1928) 
The Dunwich Horror • (1929) 
Cool Air • (1928) 
The Whisperer in Darkness • (1931) 
The Terrible Old Man • (1921) 
The Thing on the Doorstep • (1937) 
The Shadow Over Innsmouth • (1936) 
The Shadow Out of Time • (1936) 

Any self-respecting horror reader owes it to him or herself to have all four original Arkham House HPL collections on the shelf - The Dunwich Horror and Others, At the Mountains of Madness, Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, and The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions. While I'm glad I have the revised editions done by ST Joshi, I sure wish I had the ones with the original covers by Lee Brown Coye and Gahan Wilson. Whatever, I have a full, hardcover set that I actually bought in Providence, so who am I to complain?

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Happy Return by C.S. Forester

For five blood-soaked chapters of C.S.Forester's debut Horatio Hornblower novel, The Happy Return (1935) (Beat to Quarters in the US) the British frigate Lydia battles the Natividad, an old Spanish ship-of-the-line crewed by Nicaraguan rebels. For all of author Forester's tremendous success at recreating the wooden world of King George's navy during the Napoleonic Wars, it's that battle, as presided over by the brooding Hornblower, that got me. It's tense as hell and never once do you assume Hornblower, his crew, and his ship, are going to get out of it alive.

"For what we are about to receive--," said Bush, repeating the hackneyed old blasphemy quoted in every ship awaiting a broadside.
   Seconds seemed as long as minutes as the two ships neared. They were passing within a dozen yards of each other. Bow overlapped bow, foremast passed foremast and then foremast passed mainmast. Rayner was looking aft, and as soon as he saw that the aftermost gun bore on the target he shouted the order to fire. The Lydia lifted to the recoil of the guns, ears were split with the sound of the discharge, and then, even before the gale had time to blow away the smoke, came the Nativdad's crashing reply.
   It seemed to Hornblower as if the heavens were falling round him. The wind of a shot made him reel; he found at his feet a palpitating red mass which represented half the starboard side carronade's crew, and then with a thunderous crackling the mizzen mast gave way beside him.

Frigates of the British Royal Navy

The Happy Return begins with an espionage mission against Spain's Central American colonies. Hornblower has been sent to deliver arms and ammunition to a mad Nicaraguan rebel - and eliminate a much heavier, if antiquated, Spanish warship patrolling the eastern Pacific. His success against the enemy vessel leads to its capture and being handed over to the rebels. When Spain suddenly becomes England's ally, the state of affairs in the New World change drastically and that's when Hornblower and the 36-gun Lydia find themselves forced to fight the 50-gun Natividad once again, this time crewed not by dispirited colonial sailors, but by the same rebels they've just supplied, driven men with a competent captain.

Hornblower, on the surface, is a steely, determined commander. He paces the deck each morning, meticulously planning out the ship's and the crew's day. Of course, there's much more going on than it appears. Inside, he's constantly playing out the various outcomes of his mission and what the implications could be for his career. A commander of a minor ship, his fortunes can ebb and rise seemingly at the caprices of the vast and distant bureaucracy that directs the Royal Navy.
Back in the main cabin Hornblower stretched himself on the locker below the stern window and once more unfolded his secret Admiralty orders. He had read them so often that he almost knew them by heart, but it was prudent to make certain that he understood every word of them. They were comprehensive enough, in all conscience. Some Admiralty clerk had given his imagination loose rein in the wording of them. 
Hornblower's physically uneasy with much of the harsh discipline and blood common to naval warfare of the time. Still, he forces himself to rise up to the demands of his position, and it's in those times that the character of Hornblower shines. He actually is the superior commander everyone assumes he is all the time, but the reader has suspected he mightn't be. He's able to smother his worries and revulsion and bring his considerable tactical and command talents to bear and perform with cold and deadly brilliance.

There's also romance. When Spain becomes England's ally, Hornblower's able to revictual his ship in Panama. There he picks up Lady Barbara, the sister of Sir Arthur Wellesley. A married man, his gradual attachment to, and eventually falling in love with her is practically an existential crisis for the reserved captain. Of course it's made easier for Hornblower; his marriage is loveless, the result of a spur of the moment decision when he first shipped out. It's a bit of cheat on Forester's part, but when Hornblower and Lady Barbara are separated at the book's end, it's clearly not forever. Too often adventure story romances fall flat, but that's not the case here.

The Happy Return is a roaring adventure with a great, brilliant hero, tempered with self-doubt and admirable rectitude. You can smell the ocean and feel the Lydia swaying upon it. The cries of the wounded and maimed echo between the roar of the frigate's broadsides. Forester's storytelling is gripping and his portrayal of the shipboard life and combat feels true. It is exactly what I'm looking for from this sort of historical fiction - rousing adventure, detailed recreation of the period, and a hero worth following.

Once again, I'm angry and excited about discovering what looks to be a terrific series - angry that it's taken me so many years to finally start it and excited that I have a whole new bunch of books to read. While I'm going to take several detours before returning to Hornblower's adventures, I'm hoping to read the next two books, A Ship of the Line (1938) and Flying Colours (1938), sooner rather than later. They're a closely linked trilogy, really a single longer work, and I don't want to forget anything. 

My father was a fan of nautical adventures. He read C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower as a boy and later he read much Alexander Kent's Richard Bolitho series and then Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey & Maturin series. For whatever reason I got it into my head last year to read the first published book in each series. He liked the Hornblower books best (which is why I decided to start there), while he found some of O'Brian's books too talky for his tastes. Since I've heard the latter described as Forester meets Jane Austen, his qualms actually made them sound fine by me (if you haven't read anything by Austen you owe yourself the delightful pleasure of her company as soon as possible). Someday I'll do a post about my dad's taste in reading vs. my own (I've come to suspect in a lot of respects his regard for bad books was much higher than my own), but not now.

As I started doing a little research on Forester, O'Brian, and Kent, I discovered there are a huge number of authors of nautical adventures I've never even heard of. To this day, there are shelf loads of new books being written. If you doubt me, just check out the author list on the very cool Old Salt site. Some look really, really fun. I definitely want to check out James L. Nelson's short series about Isaac Biddlecomb, an American captain in the Revolution and Julian Stockwin's Kydd series about the rise of an impressed seaman through the ranks of the Royal Navy. Yeah, based on single book, I'm approaching this whole thing with my usual abundance of enthusiasm, but The Happy Return was just so much fun.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

A Century Ago

I started this back in November just before the Great War's centenary. My usual laziness coupled with my efforts to finish off my Black Gate obligations delayed its completion until now. It's not an especially focused piece of writing, but it does gather together several thoughts I've had on the war.

It's a good thing, however. I didn't expect to actually see Peter Jackson's astounding They Shall Not Grow Old. Fortunately, I did, so I can add some comments about it here.

I'm not exactly sure when I became aware of and fascinated by the terrible nature of WWI. It was probably around third or fourth grade when I found my dad's coffee table-history of the war by S.L.A. Marshall. It was the pictures that seared became seared into my brain, especially the one of a dead soldier in the mud. His head was just a skull and his limbs were bent in a grotesque parody of life. It's his hand, palm upturned, that for some unknown reason disturbed me the most. Skulls I had seen plenty of, from Halloween to movies, but the hand of a corpse, never.

I didn't read the book at first; I was content to stare at the hundreds of pictures. There were photos - some, incredibly, unposed - as well as propaganda and newspaper drawings. There were cartoons by a soldier on the Salonika Front and terrifying paintings by men trapped in the endless hell of the Western Front.

German soldier on the Western Front
When I finally read the book it proved far more horrible than the pictures. For those unfamiliar with the history and nature of the First World War, it's a tale of unremitting horror suffused with stupidity and arrogance. Fundamentally, it's the culmination of Western hubris, that somehow this great war could be fought and won without completely destroying the society that gave rise to it. For nearly fifty years, the time between the Prussian defeat of France in 1870, the Great Powers of Europe had direct avoided war with one another, but they seemed to be always testing each other's mettle. Oh, they backed each other's opponents to varying degrees, but real war with each other was avoided.

Australian watching Greek picking lice near Salonika

1917 - Loyal Russian soldier attempts to drive his comrades back to the front
On the other hand, the Russians and Japanese learned the nature of modern industrial in 1905, where artillery and machine guns slaughtered men by the thousands. These lessons do not seem to have been learned by any of the men who would command the armies on the Western Front only a decade later. Within weeks of the First World War's start in 1914 they were already beginning to feed their men into the bottomless meatgrinder of machine gun-swept battlefields.
British Infantry at the Mons-Conde Canal - 1914
I've recently read that casualty rates for the Great War really weren't higher than those of the Second World War. I'm not sure I believe that (except for maybe on the Russian Front and some of the Pacific island assaults), but the moments of suicidal attack and counterattack that define the 1914-1918 Western Front were much rarer in the later war.

The Western Front seems like war stripped down to an elemental level. There is only mud and ruins, gun and shell fire. The landscape, crisscrossed with trenches and fields of barbed wire, is lifeless and torn up. Soldiers exist in a darkling world lit by tracers and explosions. It is as the real world had been banished and only the muck of No Man's Land, stalked by death remained. As I've learned more, I've become equally interested in other areas of operations during the war (East Africa, the Caucasus, Poland, etc.). It's the West, though, that still remains the predominant image in my mental image of the war.

British infantry and tank at Cambrai - 1917

There are numerous single-volume histories of the First World War and I've read at least three of them. While adequate at providing information, I didn't like Martin Gilbert's The First World War. Liddell Hart's The Real War is concise. It's interesting because it partially serves as a platform for exploring the personal observations he made of static warfare and helped inspire his interwar theories of mobile warfare. Finally, and my favorite, is John Keegan's The First World War. He was a good writer, and he does a good job exploring the war outside of the usual Western Front that tends to dominate public consciousness of the war. You will still need to read campaign-specific works for the Italian or East African fronts, but Keegan is better on them than Liddell Hart. Oh, and SLA Marshall's isn't too bad, but it's really worth having for the pictures and isometric battle maps.

I'm only just starting to get into campaign specifics of the war. The first I remember reading was, that master of all things British army, Byron Farwell's splendid The Great War in Africa, 1914–1918. A short book, it covers all various efforts to conquer the German colonies in Africa - Kamerun, Namibia, and Tanganyika. The first were relatively short (ten months and nineteen months), but that in Tanganyika lasted two weeks longer than the entire First World War. The German commander, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, with a force of never more than 14,000 men, tied down hundreds of thousands of Allied troops that could have all been used elsewhere. Farwell, surprisingly, an American, wrote numerous fast paces histories of the Britain's colonial wars, but this is still my favorite of his works.

A few years ago I read and reviewed Alistair Horne's classic study of Verdun from a Francocentric perspective: The Price of Glory. If you haven't read my piece, go HERE. It's a powerful book and I recommend it.

Finally, I'm still working through Holger Herwig's The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World. Another good book, it covers a lot of ground, from the German and French preparations for war, to the actual campaign, following those two armies as well as the British and, to a lesser degree, the Belgian. I'm reading it as I'm also reading Geoffrey Wawro's The Franco-Prussian War about the 1870 conquest invasion of France. It's extremely interesting setting the two campaigns side by side, seeing the difference in tactics and strategies, and especially how French experience in 1870 dramatically affected their 1914 plans.

None of the histories I've read compare in ramming home the brute reality of attrition combat on the Western Front as Ernst Jünger's Storm of Steel. It's a gut-punch of a read. He was wounded fourteen times, including five times by bullets. He fought in the Somme Campaign, the battles of Arras, Passchendaele, and Cambrai. He led a company in the 1918 Spring Offensive and was shot through the chest. And for all the gore and death surrounding him, he never seemed to fail to find a certain level of deep excitement from combat and surviving one near-death experience after another. 
As the storm raged around us, I walked up and down my sector. The men had fixed bayonets. They stood stony and motionless, rifle in hand, on the front edge of the dip, gazing into the field. Now and then, by the light of a flare, I saw steel helmet by steel helmet, blade by glinting blade, and I was overcome by a feeling of invulnerability. We might be crushed, but surely we could not be conquered.
 Ernst Jünger

Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front is always presented as the great anti-war novel of the Great War. It's been ages since I've read it, by my memories of it are that it is a solid read and a powerful condemnation of war. I always assumed it was semi-autobiographical and based on his wartime experiences. 

When reading about comparisons between the two books, I was surprised to learn Remarque, unlike Jünger, only spent a few weeks in combat. That fact doesn't take away from the strength of AQotWF as a work. The almost completely opposite reaction to the war on the part of someone who lived through far more of it, on the other hand, for me at least, makes Jünger's memoir a far more interesting one. Remarque's novel is the reaction of a civilian to the war, while Jünger's book is a soldier's.

I've also read Manfred von Richtofen's (the Red Baron) heavily censored autobiography, Der rote Kampffleiger (The Red Fighter Pilot). My memory of it reflects the Wikipedia entry:
The 1933 edition of Der Rote Kampfflieger appears to paint a much more accurate portrait of von Richthofen than the 1917 edition. It contains passages most unlikely to have been inserted by an official editor: "I am in wretched spirits after every aerial combat. I believe that [the war] is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar; it is very serious, very grim."
I'm curious what it would be like rereading it today, but I doubt I will. As you'll see below, there's just so much more that I haven't read yet. 

There are several other novels and memoirs of the Great War I want to read. Henri Barbusse, a French novelist, spent a year in combat units before being invalided out to a behind-the-lines clerical post. Praised in its day, later attacked as being filled with inventions, his 1916 novel, Le Feu (Under Fire), looks interesting if only because it provides the often neglected perspective of the French poilius (a slang term for infantrymen that translates to "hairy ones"). Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That and Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer describe the war from a pair of British officer's perspectives. I don't know if there're books by Italian or Russian soldiers, but Jaroslav Hasek's comic novel, The Good Soldier Svejk tells the story of a buffoonish Czech soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army. That's a big shelf full of books to read, and maybe I'll get to some of them this year.

Films of the First World War are fairly few, but many of them are really good.  The most notable are among some of the best films ever made. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and La Grande Illusion (1937). The first is a moving adaptation of Remarque's novel. It stars Lew Ayres and is more brutal and honest than a lot of later war films. The second is about a group of French officers taken prisoner by the Germans and their relationship with the German commander. It's been a bit since I've seen either one so I feel a rewatch coming on.

The best WWI film I'm familiar with is Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957). While based on Humphrey Cobb's novel, its story of the execution of French soldiers for supposed cowardice ultimately comes from a real incident. I'm generally not a fan of Kubrick, but with Kirk Douglas on hand and a script initially by Jim Thompson, this is a movie that will slam you against a wall, wring you out, and leave you gasping for breath. Less the indictment of war it's usually presented as, it's a damning portrayal of bureaucracy and our lust for prestige and reward.

Finally, as I mentioned at the very beginning, I saw Peter Jackson's film, They Shall Not Grow Old. If you aren't aware, he took century old film from the British Imperial War Museum and made a movie out of it. He slowed it down, cleaned it up, colorized it, added sound and voices to it (the latter with the help of forensic lip readers), and over the top added interviews with British veterans. Footage and stories aren't presented in exact chronological order. Jackson didn't set out to tell a specific story, but instead recreate the general experiences of a British soldier from the declaration of war, through enlistment and training, combat, and the return to the UK.

I cannot urge anyone enough to go see this film. Jackson set out to bring men long dead to life and succeeded far more powerfully than I expected him to be able to. The only thing missing is the stink of death. Restoring voices to these men is one of the greatest gifts that can be given to the dead and I'll be forever grateful to Jackson for doing it in this masterpiece.

Every crime Jackson committed against JRR Tolkien (as well as each he seemed to have committed against Philip Reeve) has been made up for with this movie. If you have the slightest interest, hell, if even if you have none, avail yourself of any chance to see They Shall Not Grow Old. It will move you and leave you exhausted. I'm not sure when it will be available on Blu-ray, but it will be back in the theaters on next week on the 21st.

So, if there's a theme here, it's that there's been a tremendous amount written and filmed about the 1914-1918 war. I've read a lot of it but not nearly enough to satisfy my desire to understand the war as much as one who didn't fight in it and one who is a century removed from it can. In the broken state of Russia, in the ever-present fear of Germany, in the ethnic enmity that lays over most of the Balkans, and in so many other places, the shadow of the First World War remains. It's greatest legacy should be that even when society has reached a supposed apex of culture and civilization that it can all be squandered in a orgy of violence the likes of which had never been seen before.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Sweet Danger (1933) by Margery Allingham

I've only read a few Golden Age mysteries - a little Agatha Christie, A.A. Milne's Red House Mystery, and most of Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop. Mostly, my knowledge of the genre comes from the excellent British TV versions of Poirot (starring David Suchet), Miss Marple (Joan Hickson), Lord Peter Wimsey (first with Ian Carmichael and later Edward Petherbridge), and Albert Campion (with that old Timelord himself, Peter Davison). Now that I've untethered myself from heroic fantasy for a piece, it seems a good time to rectify the situation and read more of the actual books.

Lysette Anthony and Peter Davison - 1989
My favorite of the Campion TV episodes is based on Sweet Danger, so, I decided to start with that. When an earthquake suddenly gives a small oil-rich Ruritanian state on the Adriatic called Averna a deep water port, the race is on to discover if there are any heirs to its throne living in England. Albert Campion, upper class twit to strangers, but in reality a solver of mysteries and special agent of the crown, enlists a trio of fellow aristocrats to ensure England's interests regarding Averna. Standing against them are the henchmen of a sinister businessman named Brett Savanake.

Sweet Danger is a great and utterly ephemeral read. While not developed too much beyond surface traits and tics, Allingham's characters still manage to be vivid and leave a memorable impression. The character she seems to have had the most fun with is Campion's butler, the ex-burglar, Magersfontein Lugg. He's big, bald, and prone to fighting. He's a far cry from Lord Peter Wimsey's ex-batman, the much more proper, Bunter. Other characters, particularly the obviously-mad Dr. Galley and the mechanically-inclined Amanda Fitton, are nearly as good fun.

Plenty of Golden Age mysteries are really thrillers and that's definitely what Sweet Danger is. Instead of an absurdly complicated crime, there's a hunt for a lost will, a super villain, and the whiff of black magic in the woods of Suffolk. There's lots of fisticuffs, disguises, and even some secret messages. It's all of absolutely no consequence and utterly great fun.

While I'm planning to read several other Golden Age writers before going back to Allingham, I will definitely be reading more of her. Supposedly, The Tiger in Smoke (1952) is supposed to being an absolutely terrific book, featuring a killer at large in the thick London fog. J.K. Rowling is a big fan of Allingham and called Tiger a "phenomenal novel."

Apparently, while the Campion of the early books is the a bit of a upper-class twit, flitting about from crime to crime, as the series progressed he became more serious as did the books 

PS - Here's a fun and loving write up about Allingham and her fiction by Jane Stevenson in The Guardian I highly recommend.