Sunday, February 11, 2018

"Let's Split Up!"

Have you ever noticed that the characters in horror movies don’t seem to have ever seen a horror movie? So the two young couples arrive at the supposedly haunted house, and as soon as they’re inside the front door, the pushy one says, “Let’s split up!” The Nastiness is thus enabled to pick them off one by one. Except for the introverted one who didn’t want to be in on the expedition in the first place. He or she escapes from the evil clutches, runs out to a car, jumps inside, and drives away. Does she look in the back seat? No. Does she look on the roof? No.
            At first, intelligence is all on the side of the evil ones in horror movies. Then, after unthinking innocence comes to what the Brits call a sticky end—again and again—the remaining good person finds it has a forebrain. Then it’s only a matter of time—and more ghastly attrition among the now smart good person’s friends—before evil is routed.
            Stephen King, who is as clear and fascinating in nonfiction prose as he is intense and scary in his fiction, wrote about the mechanics of horror in a 1981 book titled Danse Macabre. King begins his survey of the horror genre from 1950-1980 by describing the night of October 4, 1957, when his watching of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers was interrupted with the news of Sputnik. He introduces the fear of the Russians and nuclear holocaust in order to answer the question why we read/watch what frightens us: “The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”
            King says the horror story works on a surface or literal level of terror, a deeper level of horror where what we are really afraid of is touched, and a visceral level of revulsion.  In talking about monsters: “when we discuss monstrosity, we are expressing our faith and belief in the norm and watching for the mutant.  The writer of horror fiction is neither more nor less than an agent of the status quo.” He does not shy away from the idea that there is often an element of racism in genre fiction.
            King discusses Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, and Frankenstein, as a means of grounding horror fiction and presenting the monsters that, like Tarot card figures, are beneath most horror fiction: the Vampire, the Werewolf, the Thing Without a Name, and the Ghost. 
            King gives us some autobiography—dowsing for water with Uncle Clayt, a father who left when he was two but who had a cache of horror paperbacks young King found, his first viewing of Creature from the Black Lagoon. He looks at radio in the fifties and points out the imaginative advantage it has—the movie has to show the scary thing sooner or later.  In discussing Val Lewton’s The Cat People (1942), he points out that the movies have to rely on state-of-the-art visualization, which dates them and makes them less scary because less believable.
            Movies often reveal what’s troubling society at the time.  Death and decay, he says, are particularly scary “in a society where such a great store is placed in the fragile commodities of youth, health, and beauty.”  The Exorcist was so popular, he suggests, because we were in a phase of teenagers asserting their tastes, scares about juvenile delinquency, young people asserting political power, and so on.  “The children of World War II produced The Thing” and the love generation produced Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  The Stepford Wives [the first one] has some witty things to say about Women’s Liberation, and some disquieting things to say about the American male’s response to it.”
            At times King is very self-aware: discussing the occasional prolixity of Bradbury, King writes, “’When you open your mouth, Stevie,’ my grandfather once said to me in despair, ‘your guts fall out.’”  At other times, he is less so: he unloads on “academic bullshit” and then proceeds himself to unload what looks a lot like the same commodity. For example, King often has recourse to the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy: the Apollonian is the realm of the rational, the everyday, and the normal; the Dionysian of the emotional, the mutant, and the out-of-this-world or uncontrollable alter-ego.
            Danse Macabre is an ambitious book that tries at once to survey horror films during the period King was growing up, to look back at literary classics of horror, and to talk about the mechanics of making a scene scary. King is not completely successful at these varied goals, but he always speaks from the authoritative viewpoint of one who has been both the scarer and the scaree.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

A Comic Escape Story

I have just finished reading Henri Charrière’s, Papillon (1969) in an English translation by June P. Wilson and Walter B Michaels, done the year after the French edition was published. It was a best seller and there was soon a movie with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
Charrière treats us to two different escapes in the first half of the book. Both are spectacular: the first because of the escape from the infirmary on the mainland of French Guiana, the kind and grisly help of the nearby leper colony, and the successful sailing voyage first to Trinidad and then to Colombia, where only his having to stand in so close to the shore to drop off the three prisoners who were essentially interlopers got Papillon caught because the wind dropped. The next, solo escape of Papillon is successful and leads to whole new life among the Guajira Indians with two wives, both pregnant when Papillon decides he must resume his absurd plan to avenge himself on those who condemned him in Paris. This very conventional element of the story (one of many) is dropped without another mention at the end.
            A failed series of attempts to escape from the Colombian prison of Barranquila approaches the comic, with Papillon and his comrades getting progressively more damaged with each attempt, until finally they try to blow a hole in the wall of the prison, through which Papillon, unable to walk, will be carried. Everything fails.
            Papillon minutely describes the way he coped with two years of solitary confinement on Ile Saint-Joseph, and here it is difficult to avoid the conventional, since everyone in such a situation tallies the days somehow. When he returned to Royal Island, he had a complicated wooden raft ready for his escape attempt when another convict, whom Papillon later stabbed after provoking him to draw his knife, told the authorities. An eight-year sentence of solitary was reduced when Papillon heroically tried to save a girl who had fallen into the sea and was surrounded by sharks.
            Papillon feigns insanity and another attempt from the asylum on Royal Island fails. He manages to get to Devil’s Island, and from there the most spontaneous and reckless of all his cavales or escape attempts, succeeds; it involves throwing himself into an unusually large wave as it crashes against the rocks, with only bags of coconuts to buoy him up. He makes it to the mainland, but then there is quicksand that swallows a companion. The brother of a Chinese friend Papillon met on Devil’s Island helps him, and they sail a boat to British Guiana. After a short stay Papillon sails with other convicts to Venezuela, where, after a stay in a cruel detainment camp, he is released and eventually becomes a Venezuelan citizen.
            There are many funny moments in this book, as well as ongoing jokes. One of the latter is Papillon’s shifting relationship with god, whom he has not been raised to worship or even think about, but Papi takes the time to curse him in the middle or end of one of his many failed cavales. But when he finally succeeds—in the least thought out, most spontaneous, and even reckless attempts, he suddenly develops a warm, fuzzy relationship with God, whom he’s willing to forgive for having finally come through.
            Certain parts of the book strike me as conventional narratives, including the visit to the leper colony in the first successful escape. The finger stuck to Papillon’s coffee cup is over the top. But then so is the final, successful cavale. How exactly does an ordinary criminal get sent to the island for political prisoners, so he can muse on what Dreyfus was thinking as he looked out to sea? And the coconut sack water wings, the jumping into the big wave—not the ninth wave, à la Eugene Burdick, but the seventh—the friend who gets sucked under by the quicksand, and so on. I loved the pig who shows the Chinese where to walk to avoid the quicksand, though I think that bit might be a steal from The Hound of the Baskervilles. I point out my reactions not to disparage the book, because they just make it more interesting. For one thing, I don’t know anything about how the conventionality of slave or captivity narratives plays against or is separable from “the truth.” But I suspect conventions are irresistible. If you don’t carve dates on the wall of your solitary chamber, you do something to mark the time. No one denies that Papillon brought off seemingly impossible escapes. The only thing I will not accept as other than impossible is his publisher’s assertion that all he did was correct the punctuation.
            The book is also so very French. You will have your favorite places where something Charrière expresses seems so very obvious to him when it is not so to you, but for me the funniest French attitude in the book is that when you speak rationally to your captors, they will simply have to see it your way. And they do.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Mississippi Operator

Rereading Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857) left me with a familiar, nonplussed feeling: what in the world did I make of this book when I read it at twenty or twenty-five or whenever it was?
            Melville’s ninth and last novel happened to be published on April 1st, the day on which the book’s action takes place. Melville is not subtle about his Ship of Fools situation on a riverboat, the Fidèle, bound downstream from St. Louis to New Orleans. The narrator introduces a succession of men who separate other passengers from their money and whose theme is confidence, which expands from the idea of simple trust to include charity, fellow-feeling, optimism, and generally what keeps society going. A seemingly crippled black man who calls himself Guineau, a man wearing mourning in his hat, a man in a grey coat, and a florid man carrying a book are the first apparent manifestations of the confidence-man.
            A snake-oil salesman—actually he sells the Samaritan Pain Dissuader and Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator—is there for a few chapters, suddenly departing the salon and then returning to give half his earnings to charity in the form of a man with a bandaged face. The salesman turns into the Natural Bone-setter when interviewing a crippled man on deck who tells him one story of his crippling, hobbles away to beg with another story, and comes back. The herb-seller gives him several boxes of his ointment, but the cripple insists on paying. Next the salesman sells a box of his herbs for two dollars—instead of the 50 cents he’s been charging—to an old coughing miser who invested his money with the man with the book.
            A Missouri frontiersman shows up. “Because a thing is nat’ral, as you call it, you think it must be good. But who gave you that cough? Was it, or was it not, nature?” he says to the old man. He expresses the cynical view about confidence. Knaves and fools are like horses and oats—there are more of the latter, and they get eaten by the former. “You are the moderate man, the invaluable understrapper of the wicked man,” he says to the herb-doctor when the latter will not commit to being an outright abolitionist.
            The herb-doctor leaves at Cape Girardeau and is replaced by a “round-backed, baker-kneed man” with a brass plate around his neck engraved PIO, for, he says, Philosophical Intelligence Office. He talks the frontiersman, after “Tusculan Disputations,” into giving him three dollars plus passage money to send him a boy in two weeks (the frontiersman has admitted he keeps trying boy after boy, to the tune of thirty), and then the PIO man goes ashore at Cairo. “Confidence is the indispensable basis of all sorts of business transactions. Without it, commerce…would, like a watch, run down and stop” he says as he is going. Such talk about the necessity of confidence is the constant tune of the confidence-men in this book, and it is, any reasonable person must admit, true. The irony that those who preach confidence are least worthy of our bestowing it on them does not mean that living without trust is a prudent, much less humane, way of proceeding.
            A sort of parti-colored Harlequin figure that the narrator sometimes calls the Cosmopolitan, sometimes the Philanthropist, who is soon identified as Frank Goodman, engages with the frontiersman next, and we suspect him for a fraud when he says he never could abide irony. When the frontiersman leaves, a young man in a purple vest, later identified as Charles Arnold Noble, proceeds to compare the frontiersman with an Indian-hater named Colonel Moredock, for several chapters. Charles invites Frank to a glass of wine, and drinks very little himself. When Frank asks Charlie for a loan of fifty dollars, Charlie acts as if he’s been bitten by a snake.
            A chapter intervenes in which the narrator intrudes to defend the verisimilitude of his characters. Then Frank tells the story of Charlemont, who at 29 suddenly turned from affable to morose. Charlie leaves, and a cold stranger warns Frank against him. A “crazy beggar” interrupts them and gets a shilling from Frank, nothing from the cold one, who says Charles is “a Mississippi operator”—that is, a confidence-man. The cold one, whose name is Mark Winsome (he refers to himself in the 3rd person), has disciples, and introduces one of them, Egbert, to Frank and then leaves. Frank asks Egbert to play his old friend Charlie in a dialogue, then asks him for a loan. Egbert/Charlie refuses with many specious excuses, some connected with the “philosophy” of Mark Winsome. Then he says the experience of China Aster would dissuade him from the loan. We have to have the story then, and the movement of the book sometimes resembles that of the Thousand Nights and a Night in this respect of succeeding characters and stories that must be immediately told. China Aster was a candle-maker destroyed by accepting “a friendly loan.” The cosmopolitan rejects the cold philosophy of Mark Winsome and his disciple. Then he proceeds to cheat the barber out of a shave by getting him to take his “no trust” sign down.
            In the last chapter, the cosmopolitan, disturbed at finding the quotations casting doubt on his optimism and trust (quoted to him by the Mark Winsome disciple) in the bible, has an old man point out to him that they are in the Apocrypha. The cosmopolitan brings up the verse in Proverbs, “For the Lord shall be thy confidence.” As the lamp light wanes he leads the old man to his berth, with the suggestion that “Something further may follow of this Masquerade.”
            There really is nothing hypocritical about the cosmopolitan’s optimism about trust and confidence as a feature of human beings—or such an attitude as expressed by any of the earlier manifestations of the confidence-man on the Fidèle. Such confidence is the necessary condition for their plying their livelihood. And there seems to be the suggestion that the person who is never fooled by the con man is lacking something human. Trust is the necessary condition of business, as the PIO man points out. It may also be a necessary condition for most human interaction.