Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best Books I Read in 2015

Please excuse my recent lag in posting. Maybe I've just been gearing up for this goddamn marathon of a thing that always drains all of my strength and will and happiness! But I'm determined to see this through. I've already uploaded all the pictures.

For those of you who don't know, this is my Best Books of the Year post, and the way I do it is, I don't focus on new books. I don't read enough new books in a year to make up a list (though a couple that I did read can be found below) so I just choose the best and/or most interesting books of whatever sort, or written in whatever year, that I read in the last twelve months. Some of these I've written about on the blog, most I haven't. Also, there are far more than ten, so it's not a top ten list, and for the most part these aren't ranked, until you get to the last four, which I feel safe in saying were the four best books I read in 2015. Okay, here we go. Enjoy it, you bunch of assholes!

The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis - It's fitting that Tevis is best known as the author of the novels The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, because his six novels are split evenly between three works of science fiction (the other two being Mockingbird and The Steps of the Sun) and three more-or-less realist novels that revolve around the world of obsessive, destructive professional sports, or games. Pool in The Hustler and The Color of Money, and in The Queen's Gambit, chess. The story follows chess prodigy Beth Harmon from the age of eight to eighteen. She learns chess from the janitor of the orphanage where she lives until early adolescence, by which point she's already developed a taste for opiates. But she's an ingenious chess player, and at times disturbingly mature as she herself gets her professional chess career rolling, and learns, or tries, to control her addictions.

Less a plotted novel than an unsentimentally precise chronicle of ten years in the life of Beth Harmon, spanning from Kentucky to Mexico to New York to Russia, the crux of the character, and of the novel, comes about a third of the way in, as Beth, at thirteen, is blasting her way through her first professional tournament:

An hour later she drew Goldmann and Board Three. She walked into the tournament room at exactly eleven, and the people standing stopped talking when she came in. Everyone looked at her. She heard someone whisper, "Thirteen fucking years old," and immediately the thought came into her mind, along with the exultant feeling the whispered voice had given her: I could have done this at eight.

The Barracks Thief by Tobias Wolff - Wolff is one of the great living American writers. He's known mainly for his short fiction, at which he excels beyond any contemporaneous writer I can think of, and his memoirs, which in full disclosure I have not yet read. But there's one great novella that has sort of fallen through the cracks, this one, The Barracks Thief, from 1984, that people should seek out. In about 90 pages, Wolff takes three paratroopers from a stupidly brave moment of bonding to a time when one of them reveals his weakness and sadness and illness and potential for violence, and portrays it all like, from the point of view of an outsider, as just something that happened. That's what Wolff can do -- he can write about devastating things as though they're just something that happened, and make them no less awful for that.

Night and the City by Gerald Kersh - Discussed here.

The Queen of the Night by Marc Behm - One of seven novels written by Behm, The Queen of the Night isn't exactly what you might expect from a guy who boasts writing credits on both Help! and Charade. This novel would, perhaps, make more sense coming from Christopher Isherwood, if Isherwood had been a lesbian writing pulp fiction in the 1970s. And maybe not even then. At any rate, what this thing is, is a novel that takes its lead character, a beautiful German woman who early in her life begins promiscuously engaging in lesbian sex while also reluctantly hitching her star, for pragmatic reasons, to the rising Nazi party, from Weimar Berlin to the end of it all. She claims reluctance anyway, but she's not at all a wonderful person; here and there she commits terrible crimes that she justifies to herself. She hates the Nazis and she's not anti-Semitic, so she's in the clear.

The novel is full of sex, and the violence reaches a level of brutality that reminded me a little bit of Kosinski's The Painted Bird. Not to compare the two, because let's not go nuts, but The Queen of the Night is both extreme pulp exploitation, and a rather serious and well-written moral novel. It's also crazier than a shithouse rat.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson - This story of two sisters, Lucille and the narrator, Ruthie, who are raised first by their grandmother and then, finally, by their deeply eccentric aunt, after their mother drops them off and intentionally drives her car off a bridge, is the premiere masterpiece by Robinson, who has had a Malick-like approach to writing fiction. Housekeeping was published in 1980, and she didn't publish another novel until Gilead in 2004 (she did write and publish non-fiction in the interim, and like Malick her production has picked up a bit lately). It was her first, and she was 37 when she wrote it, which isn't the same thing as writing a book this exquisite when you're 21. But what can match having written a novel this exquisite at 37? Or any age? Ironically, words almost can't do it justice. Everything you've heard about it is true.

The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin - This is the first book I read in 2015. The novel, which Werner Herzog loosely adapted into his film Cobra Verde, struck me as so masterful almost a year ago that I wondered if any novel I would read over the next twelve months could possibly match it. Obviously some have, but this is writing of such simple beauty and violence that I can recall the impact it had on me one year ago and some sixty books later. If you aspire to write prose, what Chatwin was able to accomplish with so few words isn't just humbling -- it's humiliating.

My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes - At the beginning of this novel, our unnamed narrator, a screenwriter, is at a party he's not enjoying, so he goes outside and sees a beautiful young woman walk into the ocean. He saves her, and becomes linked to the pitiful and predictable end of her Hollywood fantasy. She lives in a nothing apartment, she drinks way too much, she tried to kill herself. To the uninitiated, this sounds, I'd wager, pretty run-of-the-mill. Except that Hayes, himself a screenwriter (and check out these credits: Paisan, Clash By Night, The Left Hand of God) was, and pardon me for doubling up on the word "writer" in this sentence, I can find no way around it, a goddamn writer. I just opened up My Face for the World to See, and this is literally what I found:

Failure was always present; it changed its aspect, it acquired new forms. Did one ever go from success to success? But one went, simultaneously, from failure to failure. What was it that I'd once thought intolerable? In a few years, it had become tolerable. The reasons for living changed. At the end, the great pang would be that death deprived one of the very, very simplest things: the simpleness of sight, the mechanical marvel of breathing. Ah, she mustn't feel the way she did. Nothing catastrophic had really happened. What one was good at didn't always and continually give one pleasure. Appetites died; ambitions expired; desire put on a different skin. She'd see, if she'd only give it time.

Sweetheart, Sweetheart by Bernard Taylor - The horror boom of the 1970s and 80s allowed a lot of unforgivable shit to get published, because then, as now, horror sold, no matter how awful it was. But it let in a lot of great fiction too (would T.E.D. Klein have ever enjoyed mass publication without it?), and one of the writers whose cult reputation following that boom has most intrigued me is Bernard Taylor. This is his signature novel, and it couldn't be more classical in structure or concept: as the book opens, David Warwick, and Englishman living in the US, has recently learned of the death of his brother. This happened very soon after the brother got married to the mysterious Helen, who herself has just died. So David travels to rural England to deal with the estate, his estranged father, and the mysteries surrounding the deaths of Helen and his brother.

Sounds good and all, but what distinguishes Sweetheart, Sweetheart from the mass of forgotten mass market paperbacks with skulls and shit on the cover is a genuine talent for writing prose, just for starters, and an absolute control of his story so that the casual pacing eventually reveals itself to be not so much languid as a depiction of a slow descent into Hell.

Albert Angelo by B. S. Johnson - At this point, B. S. Johnson must be best known as the subject of Jonathan Coe's biography Like a Fiery Elephant. That book won awards and such, and is considered a masterpiece of its genre, but Johnson's own writing is essentially unknown. He wrote seven novels, few of which are still in print, and used copies of his first and last are going for exorbitant amounts of money. You can find this one, though, his second, written when he was 31 (Johnson was dead by 40) about an aspiring architect and, in the meantime, substitute teacher, much of this novel dealing with the horrors and dissatisfactions of teaching children. Johnson was, I guess I'd have to say, "post-modern," though this implies that Johnson was thinking along those lines. Maybe he was -- there's one bit where there's holes in the pages, so you see through to a passage later on -- but I doubt it was so conscious. The phrase "like a fiery elephant" actually comes from this novel, and it's pulled from a long section of, essentially, teacher evaluations the protagonist has allowed his impossibly difficult students to write up, without fear of punishment. And you wonder if he's the problem. You also wonder, or I did, by the end, what's really been going on here, and I do wonder if David Foster Wallace ever read B. S. Johnson. He must have. I don't know of any other writer who could, like DFW could, say to the reader "We both know what's going on here" without finally undercutting the emotion at all.

The Edge of Running Water by William Sloane - Discussed, along with Sloane's To Walk the Night, here.

The Whites by Richard Price - I fear that the strangeness of this being a full-on Richard Price novel that has somehow been credited to "Harry Brandt" (here's the story) might have distracted some from the fact that this is, quite simply, a terrific Richard Price novel. Price has been writing crime fiction since his 1992 masterpiece Clockers, and The Whites shouldn't be approached as a departure. The story about a group of cops who each has a criminal in their past they couldn't put behind bars, and who each harbors a desire for some kind of social revenge, a balance of justice, sounds potentially like pulp -- and it is, but can't it be more? Price shows that it can be (there are a lot of ways The Whites is more complex than I've described), and that while being more than pulp, it can still be pulp. One of the best pure reads, as well as one of the best novels, of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns - I believe this is the third time Barbara Comyns has made one of these year-end lists. There's a reason for that. This one was discussed here.

Neighbors by Thomas Berger - The primary travesty of John G. Avildsen's atrocious 1981 adaptation of Berger's novel -- about two sets of neighbors, one normal, I guess you'd say, and one abnormal, I guess you'd say, who spiral into a Kafkaesque nightmare comedy -- is the way it turns chicken when it comes to the ending. I'm not going to ruin it here, but the book, which is a relentlessly paced comedy of utter absurdity, frustration, hypocrisy, and lunacy, is a book that once or twice tested my patience for absurdity, frustration, hypocrisy, and lunacy. When I realized that the story took place over the course of about 24 hours, I did honestly question Berger's ability to sustain it. But of course Berger knew better than me, and Neighbors is quite propulsive. It's that ending, though...that's the horror, and the mystery. That's what makes it really linger.

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard - If you're a fan of the horror writer Thomas Ligotti, you may know that he considers Thomas Bernhard one of his great literary influences. Woodcutters is not a horror novel, but in its eerily mad depiction of a dinner party that recalls both Beckett and Bunuel, a certain disturbance is achieved. There's no violence, but there is a lot of contempt, as well as general disgust. But should the reader side with the narrator or against him? The disgust pours from him, but what is he? "What" as opposed to "who." He just thinks, sitting in the wing chair.

Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter - I'm pretty sure I bought this novel almost entirely because it was a reprint by NYRB Classics that sounded like something I'd like. Subsequently finding it mentioned in Read 'Em and Weep, Barry Gifford's collection of short essays about his favorite novels, and being urged to read it by my friend Glenn Kenny, convinced me, like a year or two later, to finally check it out. And brother, I wanna tell you. It's similar to Tevis's The Queen's Gambit in that it doesn't feel plotted, as such (although I'm sure it was), but instead follows the lives of a few characters to some logical point -- death, or otherwise. In this case, it's primarily two men, Jack Levitt, a white man, and Billy Lancing, a light-skinned black man, who meet as irresponsible, stupid children (another connection to Tevis is they meet at a pool hall, and Lancing is a great pool player) whose dumb behavior, spurred by desperation and dissatisfaction and fear, eventually land them in prison. But the two lives meet and split apart and meet again -- that Jack and Billy aren't chained together the whole novel is part of the power of Hard Rain Falling, and part of its brutal reality, as is the love they find together in prison, and the strange aftermath of it all. It's a novel that is, as they used to say, rich in incident.

Watership Down by Richard Adams - Can you believe it took me this long? Discussed, briefly, here. But really, it knocked me out.

Dark Reflections by Samuel R. Delany - One of the few truly unique writers in America today is Samuel R. Delany. I don't really have anywhere close to the space necessary to go into why that is, but if you don't know, he's moved from one of the most preternaturally gifted science fiction writers of the New Wave era, and has become since then one of the truly curious and original social and critical figures in American literature, writing whole books analyzing one Thomas M. Disch short story, for one example, and writing horrifying pornographic nightmares (or dreams, let's leave that to him) for another. This novel, from 2007, is probably about as mainstream as Delany gets these days. It's the story of a poet, Arnold Hawley -- black, and gay, though so shy and worried about sex as to be almost asexual -- who when we meet him has won an award. He's also a professor, but his income is so slight that the monetary side of the poetry award makes enough of a difference that he can, for a time, decide to see a movie without worrying about the cost. At another time, he sees one of his poetry books in a used bookstore and thinks that someone "could live without it."

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge - This one's a bit hard to talk about. It sort of needs to just be read. All I'll say is that it's a withering, even frightening black comedy about two women who live together, and who both work at a bottle factory, the employees and managers of which plan an outing. From there, you're on your own. It's now considered one of the great British novels of the 20th Century, and it lost the 1974 Booker Prize, which is bullshit.

Fat City by Leonard Gardner - Incredible stuff. Discussed here.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - This new novel by the author of The Remains of the Day was one of the most anticipated books of 2015 and was met mostly with shrugs and dismissal. As I recall, Joyce Carol Oates, Fine Purveyor of Fucked Up Opinions, used her review in the New York Review of Books to employ the word "awkward" as often as she could without ever explaining what she meant by that. My own guess is, nobody who was eager for a new novel by Ishiguro was expecting a barely-post-Arthurian fantasy about, not the horrors of war, but the sadness of war, as well as the sadness of old age. I bow to no one in my love of The Remains of the Day, and I've read all but two of Ishiguro's other books, so I consider it significant, at least as far as my own relation to the thing goes, when I say that The Buried Giant is a beautiful novel, every bit the equal of his early masterpiece.

Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis - I love Kingsley Amis so much I named a cat after him, and this might just be his masterpiece. Discussed here, along with Amis's also outstanding novella Ending Up.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Capsule Reviews and Whatnot

A couple interesting titles are being released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, and while I don't personally believe they are a suitable double-feature pairing, you could actually watch them separately, on different days. That would be fine.

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (d. F. W. Murnau) - It's often pointed out that Charlie Chaplin was so devoted to the form of the silent film that even after it became clear that sound was taking over, he stubbornly (for a little while anyway) continued the way he always had with silent-in-the-sound-era films like Modern Times. That came out in 1936, which is pretty impressive. But in 1931, which was the year of Wellman's The Public Enemy and Whale's Frankenstein and Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (and okay yes, Chaplin's silent City Lights, so fine, he wins), another giant of the silent era, F. W. Murnau, defied the future and released Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, a film about romance and superstition and tragedy set on and around the island of Bora Bora. Who knows how far Murnau, one of the true geniuses from the beginnings of cinema, would have pushed this resistance? Tabu was released in August of '31. By that time, Murnau had already died in a car accident at the age of 42.

Which as an opening to a review of Tabu is kind of a bummer, but not inappropriate because...well, never mind, I guess. The film is pretty goddamn absorbing, though. Murnau developed it with Robert J. Flaherty, director and, let's face it, creator of Nanook of the North, who served on Tabu as co-producer with Murnau and David Flaherty, and as co-screenwriter with Murnau. And for I'd say about half of the film Tabu more closely resembles Nanook than it does, let's say, Tartuffe. The plot is very simple: a strapping native boy (Matahi) falls in love with a lovely young girl (Reri). All seems well until the girl is deemed "tabu" when a native chief demands a replacement for the sacred virgin who recently died. Therefore, to appease the gods, the girl must not be touched. To touch her is to die, but the two young people remain in love, and, perhaps, don't think too much of what anybody else deems sacred.

A few things are particularly striking about Tabu. First, the early section, which made me wonder if Flaherty was behind the camera, is a wonderful, and wonderfully pleasant, bit of probably-bullshit anthropology. The islanders effortless navigation of waterfalls, for example, makes it quite easy to buy Matahi and others as true aboriginals, and true non-actors -- Reri, even boasting the real name of Anne Chevalier, only made two other films, and Matahi never made another. The second really striking thing, and I'm not sure I've ever seen this before, is that while in Tabu Murnau does employ intertitles, they're always in the form of something a character has written: a letter, a note, a journal entry, etc. So Tabu is, in fact, an epistolary silent film. How rare is this? I don't know, my knowledge of the silent era is not what I'd like it to be, but I found this a quite effective and, somehow, always organic. Even with this conceit, the vast majority of the storytelling is purely, precisely visual.

Then, finally, there's the ending, which I won't describe, but I have to say that it's one of the most cold-blooded things I've ever seen. Partly because since, these are non-actors, the absence of emotion on the face of one of the people involved is almost like an insult. On top of the rest of it. This is my fifth Murnau film, and it's the fifth one I thought was entirely terrific.

The Kindergarten Teacher (d. Nadav Lapid) - There's this critic -- I'm not going to say who it is because I think I've brought him (or her!) up a few times and I don't want it to seem like I'm in a one-way feud with this guy (or lady!). But so this guy wrote some comments about this film from Israeli director Nadav Lapid, the gist of which were "This film is very weird and therefore bad." Which is not to imply that the critic has never liked strange films, because I know for a fact that he has. What I can't understand is why the strangeness of this film (or the unwillingness of critics who've praised it to mention how strange it is, something else that seems to have bothered him) should be a mark against it.

Perhaps it's because Nadav Lapid never lets the fundamentally bizarre nature of The Kindergarten Teacher to announce itself as such. The premise doesn't even sound that weird, though I do think it sounds almost unignorably intriguing: a teacher of five-year-olds named Nira (Sarit Larry) one day takes particular notice of one of her students. His name is Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), and he's picked up every day not by a parent but by a nanny, named Miri (Ester Rada). Nira learns from Miri, and soon witnesses herself, Yoav's preternatural gift for poetry. Two or three times a week, this little boy will stop and announce "I have a poem, I have a poem," and then pace back and forth, reciting, evidently off the top of his head, poems of astonishing sophistication, abstraction, and, well, genuine poetry (whether or not you like the film's poems or not is, I would argue, thoroughly irrelevant; for myself, they left my head pretty quickly as the action moved past each one, but I wouldn't mind hearing them again, or reading them). Nira is herself an aspiring poet, and she becomes obsessed with Yoav. She attends a poetry class every week or so, and she begins taking Yoav's poems with her and claiming them as her own. However, it doesn't seem that she's doing this to take credit (not everyone in the class likes them), but rather merely to hear other reactions to this poetry that so astounds her, but which only she, of those who know that Yoav is behind them, takes seriously.

But the poetry class is just a subplot. The Kindergarten Teacher is kind of a film comprised of subplots -- among the others is one about Nira's relationship to her husband and son, her relationship with and mistrust of Miri, and her attempt (I suppose this would be the main plot, though it doesn't really feel like that) to become Yoav's guardian (though he has a father, who is present) and, maybe some day, literary agent. Though, again, it's not the money she's after. What is she after?

That this is never specifically answered is to the film's credit. Nira couldn't tell you the answer herself. That Yoav's talent and strange behavior -- that pacing, and "I have a poem!" -- is merely presented gives The Kindergarten Teacher an otherworldly air, but it's presented with more or less straightforward naturalism. The effect achieved, for me anyway, was to make it seem as though I was suddenly witnessing something that I truly could not explain or understand, but which I might conceivably witness. Not a ghost or an angel, but something completely possible within all natural laws, but which, if I saw it before me, would nevertheless set me back a few steps.

That's not such a bad effect for a filmmaker to aim for, though I do think I'm being fairly reductive in my description of Lapid's film. But it sure did strike me. There's other stuff here, too, like this odd approach to the camera, which only pops up a handful of times but which seems to indicate that there might be a camera among the characters, which I'm not entirely sure what to do with. However, I'd argue that there is what I suppose someone less impressed with The Kindergarten Teacher might call a lack of shape, or maybe imaginative discipline. And I'll even say that right near the end, there's a bit of plot that demands that we accept that a common, everyday object works differently than we all know it does. This bugged me a tiny bit. However, I refuse to nitpick to death a film that was good enough to be something I'd never seen before.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The World's Full of 'Em

If the index at the back of Burning the Days, novelist James Salter's 1997 memoir, is anything to go by, the film for which the Occasional Screenwriter-wing of Salter's talent is best known is never mentioned by name in the book. Nor is its director, or any of the actors who appear in it, save one, Robert Redford, the film's star. However, Salter (who just died this past June, just nine days after his 90th birthday) does describe the movie, which is set in the world of competitive skiing in the lead-up to the Olympics:

The film was meant from the beginning to be about someone who was the opposite of that nearly vanished figure, the athlete who was supremely talented yet modest, who had the virtues of both strength and humility. Paavo Nurmi, the Finnish runner, a legendary champion...had always been an idol of mine. I pictured an old Nurmi, though knowing nothing about his personality, as a coach who had worked for years to have one of his racers win a gold in the Olympics, and who finally found the chance but with an individual he disliked, even despised, a crude, self-centered Redford. Athletes like this existed but perhaps not coaches like Nurmi.

This sounds very much like Downhill Racer, the film in question that finally was made in 1969. Starring Redford as David Chappellet and Gene Hackman as Claire, the coach. Ostensibly, Salter had been hired to adapt a skiing novel called The Downhill Racers by Oakley Hall, who is now probably most famous for writing the cult classic Western novel Warlock. Anyway, as I understand it, everything about that novel was tossed, save the setting and two-thirds of the title. Whatever leeway Salter was given by producer Richard Gregson and eventual director Michael Ritchie (it had already intriguingly passed through the hands of Roman Polanski) I couldn't say, but the script Salter finally wrote, or at least the version of that script that made it to the screen, bears some resemblance in tone and in the depiction of Chappellet to his first two novels. The Hunters, from 1957, is about an ace American fighter pilot serving in the Korean War who, when he joins a new squadron, suddenly finds himself unable to live up to his reputation. His 1961 novel, originally called The Arm of Flesh but later heavily revised in 2000 and renamed Cassada, after the lead character, is about another fighter squadron, but now during peacetime, and stationed in West Germany. Unlike the protagonist in The Hunters, the new pilot joining the squadron in Cassada is a bad pilot who will never be good. Indeed, in terms of attitude and story, Downhill Racer's Chappellet comes much closer to Cleve Connell in The Hunters, because both men share expertise. Yet in my memory there's a connection between Robert Cassada and Chappellet in that Cassada is oblivious to the fact that as a pilot he's hopeless, and Chappellet doesn't understand that he's hopeless as a person. Or perhaps he doesn't give a shit.

I'll go ahead and say now that Downhill Racer, which has just been released on Blu-ray by Criterion, is an exceptional film. It's quite unlike any other sports film I can think of, even though the plot does build, as almost all sports films do, to the Big Race (or Game, etc.). It's remarkable how quiet the film is. Save for a handful of scenes, much of it plays without dialogue or with only very incidental dialogue. There's a lot of chatter, but often you can pay attention to it or not. It's all about Redford showing up in the snowy mountains of Austria, to replace a skier on the American team who's been injured, and freezing everything that wasn't frozen already. His quiet arrogance and even nearly silent petulance slowly casts a pall over the team, as it outrages Hackman's Eugene Claire (Hackman, as you might assume, is ridiculously, effortlessly good here). But though Chappellet initially struggles, his genius on the slopes soon becomes undeniable. So now what? There's one on every team, just about.

It would be hard to argue, as early in his long career as Downhill Racer is, that this is at least close to career-best work from Robert Redford, not least because it's one of the very few roles, and performances, that doesn't beg the audience to love him. Anyone who complains about the cold remove of Stanley Kubrick might want to take a gander at not only what Ritchie and Salter pull off here, but Redford as well. You don't need to wish to project, at least through your films, a God-like indifference, as Kubrick seemed to want to do, to appear as someone whose total lack of warmth sets them apart from most of the rest of the human population. You merely have to behave as if no one else matters. On the surface, it would appear that Redford had to do very little to get this across, and in fact maybe he didn't have to do anything. It's a very difficult performance to break down because the character never has a "big" moment. If that's the case, the Redford (and Ritchie) deserve the credit for understanding how little needed to be done. But watch Redford in the few scenes set in Idaho, where Chappellet is from, and where he returns during a break in tournaments. He visits his father (Walter Stroud), and the apple doesn't seem to have fallen far from the tree by the way, and the two of them have a depressingly unfamilial conversation, if you can even call it that, while Chappellet sits at the kitchen table eating Ritz crackers out of the box, and he visits his old girlfriend who doesn't quite seem to realize that he doesn't give a damn about her, until after they've had sex one more time, by which point you have to hope that for her the penny finally drops. But anyway, look at Redford here. How much does he do, and how much does he communicate about Chappellet? If your answer to both questions is "Very little," I would say "Okay, but how much is there to say about Chappellet?" Very little.

A fair chunk of Downhill Racer (though not as much as I'd remembered from my first viewing of it a few years back) is given over to a romance that Chappellet strikes up with Carole Stahl, the assistant of a manufacturer of skis who, once Chappellet's talent becomes apparent, is looking to him for sponsorship. What's interesting about this is that it both humanizes Chappellet, for brief periods anyway, while ultimately revealing how truly unpleasant a man he is. This is achieved not through any grand act, either. It's possible, I think to view the character as a sociopath, but the way that condition is currently understood, at least by Hollywood, the evidence for this must come through some act of violence, or extreme cruelty of some sort. But that's not where Downhill Racer leaves the relationship. I don't know whose idea it was, Ritchie's or Salter's, but the mutual "fuck you" that closes out this subplot is sublime. And by doing almost nothing other than turning his eyes into ice chips, Redford becomes a man you wouldn't even want to talk to about the weather (which is always cold anyway.

I've said little, too little, about Michael Ritchie, who creates a mood and atmosphere in Downhill Racer that drew me in, in the same way sports movies almost always do, while making that place I've been drawn into, by the end, almost completely off-putting. If this is the guy I have to follow and root for, and if this is all going to revolve around him, then no thanks. Downhill Racer is all white and blue and Scandinavian, but the fire you might expect to find when you retreat from the cold isn't there. The guy who's the asshole is the one who matters and who we have to pay attention to and who, pretty soon, will be calling the shots. Because he's the best.

The ending offers a further chill. Judging from the section in Burning the Days that Salter devotes to it (which is brief, and seems to have been included at all because Salter knew Redford for a while), it's not Salter's ending. He describes the ending he intended, and it wouldn't have been a bad one. But somebody, Ritchie I suppose, tweaked Salter's idea just a bit. But by "just a bit" I sort of mean "changed it completely." Yet not fundamentally. I prefer the ending the film landed on. It's a little bit mysterious, in a way, and in some way, however briefly, it robs sports films, and maybe sports, of their glory.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Secret History of Movies #11

(Faust, 1926, d. F. W. Murnau)
(Bram Stoker's Dracula, 1992, d. Francis Ford Coppola)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Earth is Mine

F. W. Murnau's Faust has recently been released to Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Mouse Hasn't Exploded for More Than a Year

Before I say anything about the film which brings us here tonight, please permit me to launch into a rather dicey comparison. Just recently, I watched the new film by writer/director Sebastian Silva called Nasty Baby. Roughly speaking, it's the story of two gay men (Silva and Tunde Adebimpe) who live in Brooklyn and with their friend (Kristen Wiig) strive to create and raise a child. It's a decent sort of comedy-drama until things take quite a dark turn, at which point what does it become? From what I've seen of the reaction to Nasty Baby (you shouldn't consider what I've seen to necessarily be a representative sample, tough), critics have been mixed-to-negative, with most of the negative being due to that dark turn. According to Mike D'Angelo "[w]hat had been a light, cozy comedy...abruptly metamorphoses into a preposterous thriller, as a minor act of violence snowballs into behavior that qualifies as downright evil," and as if that weren't bad enough this move "neither emerges from the skeletal narrative nor thematically dovetails with with the other storylines in any way." First of all, I will concede that there is a light preposterousness in this section of Nasty Baby that needn't be there at all -- it has to do with two characters trying to be playfully tricky with another in a way I doubt they would have been. But you don't need that to get to the violence so I didn't care. Second, I think it's absolutely incorrect that the "thriller" (I wouldn't call it that myself) portion doesn't grow from the narrative. Silva is building towards something along these lines almost from the beginning. Regarding whether or not there's any thematic dovetailing going on here, I'd say well, no, maybe not, but I'm also at a complete loss as to why in the hell that should matter. While I don't claim that Nasty Baby is an immaculate depiction of real life (it's an unquestionably flawed movie, but it's an interesting one, and I liked it), it does strive towards a certain kind of realism, which I think it mostly reaches. And the things that eventually happen in the film do happen in real life, and they don't happen because themes, which don't exist in life, are doing any dovetailing.

I bring this up mainly to address the issue of genre, which to this day some people can't get their heads around. Or rather, they can't get their heads around the notion that genre isn't rigid but rather endlessly malleable, and that Nasty Baby can be both an amiable social comedy and, suddenly, a crime film. Because why not? What's preposterous about sudden violence? Similarly, I can't help but think about crime and horror and science fiction films (or novels) that aren't generally thought of us as such because those genres require adherence to some kind of formula -- I remember the great science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon writing with open frustration that the science fiction of a "blatant dabbler" in the genre like Kingsley Amis gets a ton of ink while "nobody ever heard of a polished and thoughtful writer like Edgar Pangborn," or elsewhere similarly bemoaning the fact that critics go nuts for works like Dr. Strangelove and Flowers for Algernon without ever acknowledging that they're science fiction. Then there's Kurt Vonnegut, who in his short essay "Science Fiction" (found in his collection Wampeters, Foma & Granfaloons) seems to be on Sturgeon's side when he says "I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'science fiction'...and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics mistake the drawer for a urinal," until you remember that he claims that critics told him in their reviews of Player Piano that he was a science fiction writer, adding "I didn't know that. I thought I was writing a novel about life..." Oh you did, did you. He goes on to damn the genre with faint praise, and writing within it over the course of his long career.

I mean, what's gotta happen? Does Alain Resnais have to make a science fiction film or something crazy like that? Well guess what, he did! As did Tarkovsky and Fassbinder and so on, but anyhow the Resnais film I'm specifically referring to is Je t'aime, je t'aime, from 1968, and newly released on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber. Hell, Resnais himself came close to making a film in collaboration with Stan Lee (exciting in theory, but when you read up on what Lee pitched...hoo boy), so Resnais, who passed away last year at the ripe age of 91, was by no means as removed from the world of popular genres as it is generally believed major American filmmakers of the era were. The subjects of Art vs. Genre and The Great Artist Deigning To Address Genre are complicated and are generally misunderstood, misrepresented, and simplified by critics and others, but the French have traditionally been better than most at boiling this shit down while never sneering at genre. Film noir is known as "film noir" because the French appreciated the art of those films better than we did at the time. So, anyhow, it's not a shock that Resnais made a straight up science fiction film, which is what Je t'aime, je t'aime unavoidably is.

But what's fascinating about Je t'aime, je t'aime as a genre film is...well, no. First of all the plot is this: Claude Rich stars as Claude Ridder. When we meet him, he has recently survived a suicide attempt and, for a variety of reasons, is deemed suitable to take part in an experiment run by a strange but evidently not nefarious team of scientists who have cracked the problem of time travel. Resnais and co-screenwriter Jacques Sternberg are correct to not spend a lot of time on how this is all supposed to work, outside of laying out the dangers, and the reasons why the scientists believe that Ridder, the first human (it's been mice up to this point) to travel back in time, will come out of it unscathed. The idea is that Ridder will go back in time for one minute and them come back, as the mice did. The problem is, the mice can't confirm that they traveled back in time. So.

So that's the idea behind Je t'aime, je t'aime. What happens though is something goes wrong, and Ridder begins bouncing around in time, unable to fully return to the present, reliving primarily the parts of his life that pertain to a disastrous (possibly murderous?) love affair with a woman named Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot), who absolutely destroyed him, or who he absolutely destroyed. That's up in the air. But significantly, Ridder has become "unstuck in time." That's the phrase Kurt Vonnegut used to describe what was happening to Billy Pilgrim, the hero of his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. That novel was published in 1969, a year after the release of Je t'aime, je t'aime. It would also not be unreasonable for the viewer of the Resnais film to think of Harold Ramis's Groundhog Day. As things first become untethered for Ridder, it appears that his doom will be to repeat one afternoon (a nice one at least, or so it appears anyway) over and over again. That movie, Groundhog Day I mean, came out in 1993. There's also Ken Grimwood's novel Replay, a straight science fiction novel about a man who gets caught in a Groundhog Day-esque time loop, which was published in 1986.

This is all a stew of genre and influence, or, more than likely, in some cases anyway, the absence of influence. Did Vonnegut see Je t'aime, je t'aime? Charles Shields's biography doesn't mention the Resnais film. And the tumble of genre that follows both of these "high art" pieces? I assume nothing, but there is a definite genre tradition at play here. Resnais even depicts the scientists as professional men and their lab as a work environment -- shades, as far as I'm concerned at least, of the kind of tie-and-rolled-up-shirtsleeves men working the problem in 50s SF novels like Clarke's Childhood's End (and perhaps you recall what that got them). However, like Vonnegut (though to my knowledge less pissy about it) and frankly like most good genre writers, Resnais, with Je t'aime, je t'aime, is both using the genre as a tool at the same time he is stylistically basking in it. The genius of Je t'aime, je t'aime, as a science fiction film, is that time travel is dramatized not through special effects as we now think of them, but rather as a feat of editing. Ridder's life (or rather, as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in his essay included with the Kino Lorber disc, a very specific chunk of his life) is both itself and fuel for science fiction, and it is both of these things at once through the kind of aggressive film editing that the French New Wave, which Resnais helped invent, or introduce, or however you want to describe his or anyone's part in it, made...popular? Well, sort of, eventually, given the impact the New Wave had on late 60s Hollywood. Which applied -- the 60s, 70s Hollywood guys, I mean, you know who I'm talking about -- which applied those New Wave techniques to, among other things, genre films. When the lunatics finally actually did take over the asylum, they often chose to subvert (I use that word for the sake of expediency and somewhat under duress, but that is a matter for another time) the kind of genre work on which Hollywood built its name. Take Bonnie and Clyde (please) or...except Bonnie and Clyde came out a year before Je t'aime, je t'aime...

So maybe it all really is Godard and Breathless. Maybe there really are just four or five films that have shaped everything. Maybe Je t'aime, je t'aime, which in my view is considerably better than Bonnie and Clyde, is nevertheless a product of that Arthur Penn film. Whether Resnais knew it or not. Though if it was, I bet Resnais knew it. Then again, who cares? Finally? In the Resnais film, Claude Rich as Claude Ridder enters this soft organ-like chamber because he has nothing to lose and, finally, he loses his mind. He ended up there through a confluence of genre and stylistic motivations. It's a moving ending, but it points to something about art, and what high art and so-called "low" art (fuck that idea, but anyway) have in common. People are nothing. Invention, in whatever form, is all. So it goes.

This has been a positive review of Alain Resnais's Je t'aime, je t'aime.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Rather a Hard Life

Daniel Handler once pointed out that among the strangest things to be found in Michael Tolkin's hugely strange 2003 novel Under Radar was that it "has a witch in the first sentence who never shows up again." Similarly, maybe two-thirds of the way through Barbara Comyns' second novel, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths from 1950, a ghost appears for a few sentences and is then gone and forgotten. I would be inclined to dismiss this visitation as the dream of our narrator, Sophia Fairclough, except that the ghost is seen and remarked upon by a second person. At least according to Sophia, who I'm inclined to believe, as she'd seemed pretty honest up to that point.

Otherwise, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is essentially a realist novel, though one which makes room for character names like Peregrine Narrow and Bumble Blunderbore. Though the novel is far from soaked in such flourishy character names -- those are, I believe, the only two -- I believe the reference to Dickens is clear. When reading the name "Bumble Blunderbore," let's not forget Mr. Bumble from Oliver Twist, though the two would seem to serve different purposes. But anyhow, the story of Sophia Fairclough's life is a story of poverty, heartbreak, sadness, and tragedy, and so Comyns seems to me to be nodding back in the direction of Britain's, and perhaps history's, foremost chronicler of the terribleness of life. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is not otherwise Dickensian, however -- apart from its considerable brevity, the title itself suggests this is a novel which is not only picking up almost directly where Dickens left off (Dickens having died in 1870, Woolworths having been founded in 1878) but one that has a wryness to it with which Dickens, though himself a writer possessed of a rich sense of irony, may not have recognized. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths isn't a funny novel, and it's not nakedly striving for social reform through satire. Its wryness, and Comyns', comes from simply having been around the block a few times.

The novel, which has just been reissued by NYRB Classics, begins like this:

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.

This is being said to us by Sophia Fairclough, our narrator, as I've said, many years after the main action of the novel, which comprise the worst years of her life up to that point, have occurred. Sophia is consciously, even self-consciously, telling us her story. In the first stretch of the book, there are several, I don't know if you'd call them post-modern exactly, but anyway references to the fact that first person narrators must be telling us all of this stuff somehow. The most explicit of these comes when chapter nine begins like this:

This book does not seem to be growing very large although I have got to Chapter Nine. I think this is partly because there isn't any conversation. I could just fill pages like this:

'I am sure it is true,' said Phyllida.

'I cannot agree with you,' answered Norman.

'Oh, but I know I am right,' she replied.

'I beg to differ,' said Norman sternly. That is the kind of stuff that appears in real people's books. I know this will never be a real book that business men in trains will read, the kind of business men that wear stiff hats with curly brims and little breathing holes let in the side. I wish I knew more about words. Also I wish so much I had learnt my lessons at school. I never did, and have found this such a disadvantage ever since. All the same, I am going on writing this book even if business men scorn it.

Perhaps you've detected a certain frustration in that passage, from Comyns no less than Fairclough. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is considerably autobiographical. In the novel, Sophia marries Charles Fairclough, an aspiring painter from a broken but not unwealthy family. Sophia has two siblings, a brother and a sister, but the rest of her family is gone "for one reason or another." In life, Comyns' first marriage was to John Pemberton. Pemberton was an artist, and Comyns an art student at the Heatherley School of Fine Art. The marriage was brief, but it brought Comyns into the world of people like Dylan Thomas. Even though Comyns herself claimed that "The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty" (that's on the copyright page) it's easy to regard that claim as disingenuous. The monstrous laziness and selfishness displayed by Charles in the novel may or may not correspond to John Pemberton, but the artistic ambition of the fictional couple must correspond on some level with that of the real one. Then again, who cares? What matters is, in the first chunk of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths Sophia and Charles Fairclough fight to be allowed by Charles' divorced parents to get married, and when this is achieved their lives immediately begin to disintegrate.

It's worth noting that it's true, as Chapter Nine indicates, that there is very little in the way of dialogue in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, and such dialogue as there is is contained within paragraphs, as opposed to being separated out (which would beef up the page count, as Sophia implied). That doesn't mean that Comyns' novel resembles something written by, say, Thomas Bernhard, but it does mean that the story is written in a style that doesn't focus on individual scenes of drama, or is a story even much interested in progression. Sophia's life, like history, is just one damn thing after another, so that major events (deaths, marriages, ghost) are often presented with the same level of significance as more minor ones (being taken out to lunch, getting a pet, getting a part-time job). It's all one life. There's no build, as such. She's telling it to us, and it's in the past for her.

Given the above, it's difficult to describe Our Spoons Came from Woolworths in terms of plot. Most of the story is a chronicle of struggling with poverty, the blame for which must fall pretty much entirely on Charles, who sits at home and paints and paints and paints, and who we're told is not without talent, but who also lazily and obliviously eats the small, poor birthday cake that Sophia made for their child, Sandro, before Sandro ever even laid eyes on it. This drives Sophia to actually strike Charles, but this reaction is rare. Mostly she's ashamed. Mostly, she feels disgraced. Everyone else, however shitty they may be, is rather comfortable with the fact that they are correct. Sophia enjoys no such confidence. During the years of poverty, this is as good as things get:

As the year went on our poverty got worse and worse. Charles just painted away and didn't notice unless there was no money for cigarettes. Then he would borrow a few shillings from Francis to buy some and he would be happy again. I was out working so much he had to look after Sandro nearly every day, but he was more reconciled to him now.

Please note the word "reconciled" to describe a father's relationship with his infant. There is much in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths about pregnancy and childbirth, and the fear of pregnancy and the dangers of it. Much of it, of course -- most of it -- is also about poverty. Having nothing, living with nothing, being happy to get a break on milk. Comyns is never ostentatious about this (as Dickens would have been, which I do not in any way hold against Dickens). Add a baby, or babies, to the poverty, yet remove any gilded language that you might expect from such material, and you have Our Spoons Came from Woolworths:

After Christmas things became grim again. No more book jackets came Charles's way and my model work was irregular and poorly paid, and the expenses were heavier now Sandro was weaned. We seldom had a fire and the light got cut off because we had not paid the bill, so we bought a little lamp for two-shillings-and-elevenpence and it gave quite a pretty light. We went to the electric light people and asked for the money we had given for a deposit back. It was nice to think they owed us money instead of it being the other way round. They gave us the deposit money less what we owed them and it paid for our food for a week. These days we lived on vegetable soup and bread. Sandro had milk and an occasional egg as well.

"...and it gave quite a pretty light." That perhaps offers a nutshell-account of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths better than anything else could. It's not so much that Sophia is naive or passive, or even optimistic, although at various times she's both. It's that she's young, and wants things to be nice, although she's no Pollyanna. How could she be, when her poverty and loneliness, in a life that includes a husband and children and a love affair, is so relentless? I was surprised while reading Our Spoons Came from Woolworths to be reminded of post-apocalyptic novels like Cormac McCarthy's The Road (and even horror/survival novels like Scott Smith's The Ruins). I realized the connection between such books, where in one a free lunch at a restaurant by an admirer or a kindness given by a landlord, and in another the divvying up of a single tuna fish sandwich among a half-dozen starving people, or sudden discovery of a fully-stocked bomb shelter by a father and son who've lived for many days on nothing, is pretty much unshakable, and as a regular reader of books that fall into all these categories I should have picked up on them before. And it's not the parts where the characters have nothing that grind you down -- it's the brief periods where the smallest things seem like decadence in comparison. The power of Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is that that one day was the best day he could have hoped for.

Barbara Comyns was a great writer. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the third by her I've read, following The Vet's Daughter and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, each of which made my "Best Books" list in respective years (in which I read them, that is). Yes, she's forgotten, but there's no reason she should be. She's coming back in print, slowly but surely. Give her a look.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Capsule Reviews Again, But Short Ones This Time

Please see below.

The Deadly Bees (d. Freddie Francis) - The other day on Social Media, I was moved to remark that over the course of his career, Freddie Francis directed many films for Hammer Studios, such as Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, and films for Amicus like Torture Garden, as well as interesting yet unaffiliated horror-ish one-offs like an adaptation by Ronald Harwood of the previously unproduced Dylan Thomas script about Burke and Hare, The Doctor and the Devils. In addition, Francis was perhaps an even more accomplished cinematographer, with DP credits on Scorsese's Cape Fear, Lynch's The Elephant Man and The Straight Story, and, most fascinatingly, Edward Zwick's 1989 Oscar contender Glory (my favorite film for a period of time in my youth). That is an interesting and varied career, fellows and ladies.

All that being said, what can one, finally, say about The Deadly Bees? This is a film that Francis directed in 1966, from a script by Anthony Marriott and, more notably, Robert Bloch, from a novel by H. F. Heard. I'll confess that I came to it first via the episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that showcased it, but amusing as I've always found that episode I have often wondered if, removed from that context, the film was really that bad. Well, Olive Films has provided me, and all of us, the opportunity to find out with their release of The Deadly Bees on Blu-ray. And of course, no, it's not that bad. Yes, there's some goofiness early on involving Britain's groovy music scene, from which our heroine Vicki Robbins (Suzanna Leigh) needs a break. But once she's sent, at the behest of her manager, to a rural English village to enjoy some peace as the tenant of a prominent local beekeeper Ralph Hargrove (Guy Doleman) and his wife Mary (Catherine Finn), it's really not that bad. We know, from a subplot involving a police investigation, that someone from that village has been sending letters to the cops threatening to unleash a deadly bee attack, and so the question is, is the culprit Hargrove, or his rival beekeeper H. W. Manfred (Frank Finlay)? All signs point to Hargrove, and Vicki teams up with Manfred to bring him down.

I think Hargrove and Finn are both pretty terrific. Theirs is an awful marriage, Hargrove is a cold bastard, Mary is understandably embittered, and both actors play the day-to-day reality of such a relationship quite well, without ever going into hysterics. Finlay is also really good -- I love the sympathetic yet thoughtful way he says "Poor little dog," regarding an early victim of the bees -- and in general the environment of the village is well sketched. The film is tripped up by Leigh, who simply doesn't seem like an actress here, to be honest, and the special effects -- you'd expect killer bee effects to not be at their peak in 1966, and you'd be right. But otherwise, it's, you know, it's fine. There are worse films. There are probably worse films about bees. I will say, however, that The Deadly Bees ends with one of the strangest and most unintentionally funny non-sequiturs I've seen in a film that's not really all that bad.

A Black Veil for Lisa (d. Massimo Dallamano) - Also just released on Blu-ray by Olive Films from which, when I threw it on last night, I didn't know what to expect, is this Italian thriller from 1968. I thought it was going to be what we in the movie-watching business, and also Italians of all sorts, call a giallo, but it isn't really. It's a cop movie, about the hunt by Inspector Franz Bulon (John Mills) for a mysterious drug dealer, a well as the hitman that drug dealer has hired to kill anyone who is about to give information to the cops. That hitman, named Max Lindt, we actually meet early. He's played by Robert Hoffmann, and when Bulon hunts him down the film gets flipped on its ear because Bulon hires Lindt to kill his, Bulon's, wife. Her name is Lisa (Luciana Paluzzi), and Bulon's love for her is intense to the point of obsession. So when he learns that she's been unfaithful, he snaps.

So what A Black Veil for Lisa turns out to be is Vertigo by way of James M. Cain. John Mills was no Jimmy Stewart, but he was John Mills, and there's something about the silence of his pain and anger that is both moving and unnerving. I wasn't shocked that he hired someone to kill his wife. But while Massimo Dallamano is Massimo Dallamano (I believe the only other film I've seen that he directed is the fairly ridiculous What Have You Done to Solange?), he's certainly no Alfred Hitchcock. I don't know, I just think that if your influence, or source, is going to be so obvious, maybe goose things up a little bit. There's not a whole lot going on here visually, but it's a good enough way to pass the time. It's certainly competent, and I'd wager the storytelling and Mills will be enough to get you through.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Kind of Face You Slash: Thinking Won't Get You Anywhere

The first time I learned the name William Sloane was in 1988, when in the introduction to Stephen Jones and Kim Newman's seminal Horror: 100 Best Books (and yes, I bring this book up a lot, there's a reason for that) it was pointed out that Harlan Ellison (yes, I bring him up a lot too, leave me alone), was originally going to contribute a piece about Sloane's 1939 novel The Edge of Running Water, but, according to Jones and Newman, Ellison reread the novel, one he'd loved in his youth, and found it to be rotten. The essay Ellison ended up writing to the book was about Clark Ashton Smith, and one can hardly question that choice, but why did Sloane slide into the gutter for him? Having read Sloane now, I'll be honest: I don't know.

The opportunity to familiarize myself with Sloane was afforded to me through the release by NYRB of The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror. This volume, originally published in 1964, collects the only two novels that Sloane, mainly a publisher and editor by trade, ever wrote. These are To Walk the Night from 1937, and the aforementioned The Edge of Running Water. He also wrote a number of plays, and, according to Stephen King, in the typically chatty and rather interesting introduction he wrote for the NYRB edition, at least one short story that anybody has been able to track down, but as far as prose fiction goes, that story, called "Let Nothing You Dismay," and these two novels are it. This would make more immediate sense if Sloane had fallen off a bridge in 1940 or so, but he lived until 1974. I'm not going to speculate, but there is an interesting, though by no means off-putting, similarity between the two stories. Though I said I wasn't going to do this, it's possible to wonder if he believed he'd written one book twice. I would argue that he didn't, or that both novels are good enough that it doesn't matter, but why keep barking up this tree that may well not even be the one I'm looking for? But it's interesting. In some ways, you could even say the later novel, The Edge of Running Water, picks up where the earlier To Walk the Night leaves off.

The easiest way to get a sense of what Sloane was up to in a short period of time is to watch The Devil Commands, the adaptation of The Edge of Running Water starring Boris Karloff and directed by Edward Dmytryk that came out in 1941. That film isn't the subject of this post, but even though it whittles a 240-some page novel down to a 65-minute film, it's surprisingly faithful, and the gist, more or less, of that film and of Sloane's fiction is the mad scientist who is driven by either good intentions or understandable emotional turmoil. Sloane's doomed characters are the clear descendants of Victor von Frankenstein..

However, in Sloane's first novel To Walk the Night, the one full-blown scientist is dead, or nearly dead, and soon fully dead, when we first meet him. In fact, we know about all of the deaths in To Walk the Night within about the first twenty pages. The main characters are our narrator, Berkeley Jones and his best friend Jerry Lister, who we learn rather quickly has committed suicide. As the novel begins, Berkeley, nicknamed Bark, is travelling to visit Jerry's father, who knows of his son's suicide, but not the details. Bark is terrified by the prospect of telling him the full truth, but eventually he realizes that he must; perhaps in doing so he and Dr. Lister can figure out what it all means. But that, of course, is what terrifies Bark. The horror began, as even Dr. Lister knows, when the two friends were back at their alma mater, some years previously, for a football game. While there, they decided to visit Professor LeNormand, Jerry's one-time astrophysicist mentor. But they find the man dead, his body bent into an insane posture, and on fire, yet when extinguished strangely cool. When they learn from the authorities that LeNormand was married, Jerry is shocked -- the controversial scientist who'd made enemies with his article "A Fundamental Critique of the Einstein Space-Time Continuum" cared only for his work. But soon the young men meet LeNormand's wife, a stunning woman named Selena who behaves strangely and doesn't seem, in Bark's estimation, to have any idea how to dress, and after a while -- but not long enough, many believe -- Jerry begins romancing her. Along the way, Selena exhibits surprising powers of prediction, continues to behave as though everyday situations are new and confusing to her, and to generally strike Bark as rather frightening, if not quite malevolent. The plot of the novel by this point has shifted all the major characters back to New York City (of which Sloane seems rather fond, which is fine, if this didn't often contrast with a not-quite-but-close sneering attitude towards places that aren't New York City), but there will be two major geographical shifts: one back to the college town where we began, and where the chief of police has summoned Bark because he's made no headway in the death of LeNormand, and wants to share a bizarre theory about connections between Selena (whose alibi at the time of her husband's death is obviously water-tight) and a young mentally handicapped woman who went missing some time ago; and the other to a small town in Arizona, where Jerry and his eventual wife Selena move so he can carry on LeNormand's work, and where he finally commits suicide.

That last bit may sound like I've given away too much, but this is all revealed in Bark's initial conversation with Dr. Lister. The fact that the reader is naturally anticipating the suicide yet Sloane is still able to make it shocking is, I'd say, impressive, but I think I know how he did it. This will sound like an insult, but I don't mean it to be: the suicide is one of the very few visceral moments in the novel. The mystery of To Walk at Night is intriguing, and Sloane's willingness to spend time on things like parties and night's out, and on Bark's reckless, alcoholic behavior as his nameless panic over his Jerry's relationship with Selena, is unusual for writers in this genre, even back in the 1930s. To Walk the Night is by no means a long book, but once he's set everything up, Sloane is in no hurry to cut to the chase. Furthermore, Bark isn't merely a personality-free tube through which Sloane funnels his plot. He's weirder and more obviously troubled than Jerry, I'd say. His mother's weird too -- I won't get into all of that, I have another book to get to, but notice the bit where Bark admits to feeling "unfilial" towards her. And ask yourself, is the effect achieved here what Sloane was going for? And if so, what a weird thing to plunk down in the middle of this particular novel.

More about that book in a minute. When I said that The Edge of Running Water picks up where To Walk the Night leaves off, I meant that the later book takes the work of the mad scientist further, and gives it a definite purpose, which the essential unknowability of To Walk the Night doesn't allow for. That this purpose is taken from Mary Shelley is neither here nor there -- she gave Fankenstein a pretty huge goal to pursue, and it's only natural that other scientists would be driven that way, too. I'm talking about death, of course, and the defeat of death. In The Edge of Running Water, we again have a narrator, less strange than Bark though not quite an everyman, named Richard Sayles. Sayles was once good friends with, and (once again) the student of an eminent professor and scientist named Julian Blair. Once a beloved figure with a great mind, the sudden death of Blair's wife Helen sent him into a spiral that led him to move to a small town in New England called Barsham Harbor. There, five years after last seeing him, Sayles finds him, having been summoned to visit and lend assistance on a mysterious project Blair is deep into, living in a big house with his late wife's young sister, Anne, and a large, suspicious, unpleasant woman named Mrs. Walters. You should know that Sayles was also in love with Helen but he never got in the way of her relationship with Julian Blair, and Anne, when last he saw her, was fifteen, so now she's twenty. You can probably see where that's heading.

A bit more plot-driven than To Walk the Night, though not aggressively so, The Edge of Running Water has an ambling way about lining up and following the paths of its various mysterious. It's not hard to guess what Blair is trying to do before we're told outright. Obviously, he wants to communicate with the dead, and possibly destroy the barrier between life and death. Blair, looking terribly worn down, thin and unhealthy, when Sayles finally lays eyes on him, is more determined than ever to do this, and he claims to be making strides. This is something Sayles can't believe, but Blair refuses to show him any evidence yet. When Sayles learns that Mrs. Walters is a spirit medium, he's even more appalled. Then, all of a sudden -- or not "all of a sudden"; like To Walk the Night, the fates of various characters are told to us early on, and it's our job to find out why they end up the way they do -- The Edge of Running Water turns into a whodunnit. Or rather, a how'dithappen. Blair's lovable housekeeper, Mrs. Marcy, dies, suddenly, apparently from a fall down the stairs. But Sayles and Anne, who were outside when it happened, heard a terrible noise, one both Anne and Mrs. Marcy had heard before. Both Sayles and Anne are positive in this case it wasn't thunder, though a storm was boiling up at the time:

It happened as we passed the maple tree under which we had been lying earlier in the afternoon. Between one step and the next I found myself stopped, as if I had run into a wall, or come to the edge of an unexpected cliff and halted instinctively. For a second I did not understand why I had brought up short, and then I knew. It was the thing Anne and Mrs. Marcy had tried to describe to me. By the time I was fully aware of it, the noise had stopped, but the echo of it was still in my ears...From ahead of us somewhere -- I felt certain that it was from the house itself -- had come such a sound as I have never heard in any other place. It was a deep and indescribable thing, as single and yet as multiple as the noise of a tempest or the roar of a rock slide. An instant after it had reach us there was a sharp rush of wind and a stinging splatter of rain across my naked back, so that I checked my stride only momentarily and was running again toward the blurred loom of the house ahead in the same second, perhaps, that I had paused.

When he and Anne reach the house, they see Mrs. Marcy at the bottom of the stares, with Blair and Mrs. Walters standing over her. It should be noted that the read is fully aware by now that Mrs. Marcy will die, but she's not officially declared dead for several pages yet, which in terms of suspense is a strange move. But then again, this is a strange book, as was To Walk the Night before it. It's a better novel, too (apart from Sloane's seeming hatred of small-town people, which gets a workout here) -- the title The Edge of Running Water turns out to be a great one. Not only does it simply sound good (better than To Walk the Night, a title I was constantly forgetting as I read it), but it ultimately has a meaning that is sad, poetic, and eerie, all at once. Still, I think it's the curious nature of the plot progressions that I'll eventually find so memorable. It's almost like a straightforward mystery story (and with an inquest scene that goes on forever, though this didn't bother me, I have to say) in many ways, but with this cloud of otherworldly terror hanging over everything. 

And of course it's that terror which is the whole point, right? What is going on with Selena, and what was LeNormand doing that Jerry was trying to finish before killing himself in Arizona? And has Julian Blair found a way to end the separation between life and death? Of course, it was H. P. Lovecraft who wrote "And with strange aeons, even death may die," but in context, this wasn't exactly something he hoped for. Neither does Sloane. ("Death is good," said Val Lewton.) NYRB calls To Walk the Night and The Edge of Running Water "Tales of Cosmic Horror," cosmic horror being the subgenre of horror that is most directly associated with Lovecraft. He pretty much started it all, didn't he, with his Old Ones, the horrible gods who live in outer space (roughly speaking), and he did it before Sloane had written a word. Lovecraft in fact died the same year that To Walk the Night was published. 

Stephen King notes the connection between Sloane and Lovecraft in his introduction for NYRB, but only in passing. He brings it up mainly so that he can mark the difference in the two writers' prose styles. King has always given off the air of being somewhat skeptical of Lovecraft's greatness, because of his prose. He says that Sloane is closer to Chandler. I'd say he's not that close, but the examples King pulls from Sloane (such as this from To Walk the Night: "Maybe the Italians can live happily on the slopes of Vesuvius, but I am not that sort of person") do sound more like The Long Goodbye than "The Dunwich Horror."

This is no small thing, though horror fans, I must say, do seem to devalue good prose. They can get behind good purple prose, maybe (and I like that stuff myself, and when Lovecraft was at his best, that's what he wrote, better than a lot of writers), but good clean prose tends to get lumped in with the garbage. Sloane was very good, and he actually provided fewer answers to the questions raised by his horrors than Lovecraft did. Sure, Yog-Sothoth is a kind of metaphor, but Sloane doesn't even give his readers that much. There is something above us that is dangerous. There is something beyond us that is terrible. We don't know what it looks like or what it's called or what it wants or even if it hates us. Perhaps killing us is just an inevitable side effect of its perpetual motion. That's what Sloane is willing to send us off to bed thinking about.