Monday, February 9, 2015

The Devils Are Free on Earth

Paddy Chayefsky claimed that it was a only a cynicism about the then-current state of American television news that led him to write Network, and a bitterness stemming from his many years' experience as a TV writer had nothing to do with it. Maybe so, though I've always had my doubts. Then again, what the heck do I know about it? Rather than waste time wondering if Chayefsky was telling the truth or not, I could more efficiently address the situation of Arch Oboler, who, having made his bones as a radio writer, had every reason to dread, even hate, the cultural dominance of television; if he did little that was direct with these emotions other than accurately predict the future -- he once wrote that TV would do for radio what talkies did for silent films -- and despite the fact that he did do a tour writing for television, the frustration he must have felt over the constant march of technology was everywhere in his work.

Oboler is probably best known as the man behind Lights Out, the wonderful old horror anthology that aired originally on NBC radio but eventually on a variety of networks from 1934 to 1947. It was a job Oboler inherited from Wyllis Cooper, the show's creator, but many of the most famous stories were written by Oboler, such as "Chicken Heart," a quite odd piece of work when you stop and think about it, but one whose influence on the horror and science fiction genres is nearly incalculable. Consider that this radio play, which lasts about eight minutes, was first broadcast in 1937, and then consider that without this story about a chicken heart turned gigantic and deadly by science run amok, would there be a Them! or The Giant Claw or Tarantula or and etc.? (Godzilla? I don't want to overreach here, but "Chicken Heart" predates World War II and would turn up as the subject of a very famous comedy routine on a stand-up album by never mind who almost thirty years later. "Chicken Heart" has legs, is all I'm trying to get at.) (On that note, when everybody was making fun of Stephen King for supposedly swiping the premise of his novel Under the Dome from The Simpsons Movie, what those people didn't know to do was point out that The Simpsons Movie had already lifted it from Oboler's 1966 film The Bubble.)

Like Rod Serling, the American cultural figure he most resembles, Oboler was a writer whose creative instincts were mostly political in nature, and like Serling he merged those instincts with genres like horror and science fiction -- not always seamlessly, as I'll demonstrate later, but anyway that's also something he shared with Serling. One way in which he differed from Serling was his surprising ruthlessness. Lord knows Serling could go dark with his stories, or at least not stifle the darkness of Richard Matheson or George Clayton Johnson or Charles Beaumont, but did he ever go as far as Oboler did with his Lights Out radio play "Burial Services," which climaxes with a young paralyzed girl being buried alive? I've only read about "Burial Services," but Oboler carried this bleakness with him when he transitioned into writing and directing films, and I've seen it on display in his movies Five and Bwana Devil. Bwana Devil, from 1952, was a pioneering work of early 3D filmmaking, but that aside it's also an early cinematic depiction of the story of the Tsavo lions, which killed several workers during the building by a British company of a railroad line in Africa, a little piece of history that briefly became an en vogue kind of thing to know about back in 1996, when The Ghost and the Darkness, the Stephen Hopkins/William Goldman film on the subject, came out. Anyway, in the film, in Bwana Devil, an adorable young boy (Miles Clark) wanders happily away of the safety of the camp, and with minutes left in the film his body -- partially eaten, on assumes -- is found by a horrified Barbara Britton. In Five, possibly Oboler's best work since he left radio behind, or since radio was taken from him, that hope has been engendered in the hearts of the small handful of survivors of a nuclear apocalypse by the baby being carried in the womb of Susan Douglas Rubes is no guarantee that their hope hasn't been misplaced. Let's put it like that.

Before checking the facts, my gut feeling was that Five was made after Bwana Devil because as effective as the latter film can sometimes be, and as strong as the final couple of jolts are, it is nevertheless a film that throughout feels like one hampered by compromise and a meager budget, and perhaps a paucity of visual imagination on Oboler's part -- faking a lion attack in the 1950s couldn't have been easy, but he too often relies on close-up reaction shots of witnesses, and even victims, who are often seen making "Ow!" faces as a lion rips them apart. I assumed, therefore, that the more assured and more plainly independent Five came after Oboler got fed up with the money men. Free of needing to tell a story that should naturally cost more money than is at hand, Five has the cheap black and white sharpness and immediacy that would later characterize classics like Night Tide, Carnival of Souls, and Night of the Living Dead. This doesn't mean that Oboler had those kind of chops, but watching it, it feels like the weight of Bwana Devil has been lifted from his shoulders. Except that Bwana Devil was 1951 and Five was 1952, and maybe having the weight of Bwana Devil lifted from his shoulders is what led to The Twonky in 1953. Based on a story by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, The Twonky is ostensibly a science fiction satire of TV and its effects on society, you know, shit like that, but as a comedy the movie flails around so desperately that even at just about seventy minutes the manic pace has somehow transformed into cold syrup. On top of that is the explanation behind the powers of the sentient and extraordinarily powerful TV set, or "twonky," which is that it's not a TV set but rather an alien thing that randomly took the form of a common Earth object. Clearly, television has yet to recover. Ruthless, The Twonky is not, though you can't say that Hans Conreid, who plays the harassed owner of the TV (except as a college professor he never wanted one anyway), doesn't give it his all.

As a creative option, film pretty much died for Oboler after that. He wouldn't make another feature until One Plus One in 1961, and he wouldn't make another feature that anyone remembers until The Bubble in '66. It was between this and Domo Arigato, his last film from 1972, that Oboler would produce one of the strangest works of his career, this time a novel, his only one, 1969's House on Fire

House on Fire, which was recently reprinted by Valancourt Books, may or may not bring the spotlight back around to Oboler, but to what end I couldn't say. It's such a deeply strange book. The germ of the story appears to have been in his head for more than a decade prior to publishing House of Fire, because the basic premise is the same as that of a short TV film he wrote in 1958 called Hi, Grandma! Basically, in House on Fire, a young boy named Mark Elias is discovered to be a genius, and by inventing invention, he wins a full college scholarship, to whatever college he chooses. As you'd expect with a boy genius, Mark is solitary and deeply focused on his inventions; he's aided, and adored, in this by his younger sister, Shirley, and the two of them spend a lot of time in Mark's room behind closed doors. As the novel opens, Sam and Mary, Mark's parents, are planning a family celebration in honor of Mark's achievement. Present will be Mark's brothers Dave and Nat, and his sister Harriet. There will also be two reporters, one a radio veteran named Tony Dumont, and a shy, virginal cub reporter for a small newspaper named Robin Shepherd. Both are covering Mark's story ostensibly from an uplifting human interest angle, but when Robin and Tony meet each other in the apartment building elevator, Tony strikes her as self-centered and bloviating, and she doesn't entirely trust him.

There's something quite mysterious about Mark and Shirley, though, Mark in particular. It seems to have something to do with their grandmother, Sam's mother, who we're told has recently died. Sam and his siblings don't appear overly torn up by this, however, and Sam's wife Mary is somewhat dismayed by this, though neither her husband nor her in-laws are much interested in holding back their opinions about the dead old woman. She was, evidently, a horrorshow -- it's said she purposely drove her own husband, Sam's father, to suicide -- and if Sam and his increasingly unstable sister and brothers have one great concern regarding Mark and Shirley, it's that the time they spent with their grandmother, which was not insignificant, has warped them. When Mark unveils his new invention, after Tony and Robin have left the party, it turns out to be, he says, a machine that can communicate with the dead. The gist of all this is that soon after his demonstration, which produces only a high-pitch whine and the sound of a screeching cat, Nat collapses and dies.

And so on. One interesting thing about House on Fire is that it was published after Levin's Rosemary's Baby and before Blatty's The Exorcist, Tryon's The Other, and King's Carrie, the other other novels that joined together to produce the boom in the genre that fueled it for the next two decades or so. Which proves only that as always, Oboler had a knack for being on or near the ground floor or major genre developments without ever being recognized for it. Of course, House on Fire isn't as good as those other books. One thing that may have held it back, though this is something that I myself don't hold against it, is the sense that this is a novel that is badly out of step. By which I mean, House of Fire couldn't have felt current in 1969, even with its references to Vietnam and what Amy Landecker as Mrs. Samsky in A Serious Man calls "the new freedoms."  But House of Fire is written like a novel by an ex-radio writer who understands that form's approach to style, structure, and atmosphere. This could be seen as a plus, and in fact that's kind of how I see it: the novel is 175 pages long. Nat collapses and dies on page 65. This is the first truly concrete piece of evidence the reader has that something is seriously wrong in the Elias home. Before that what you get is a lot of conversation, most of it occurring within the apartment of Sam and Mary Elias, among them alone, or eventually among them and Sam's siblings, and once with another tenant, a woman who brings a cake for Mark -- all of this being preparatory to Mark's big party -- a woman, I'm just now realizing, never again appears in the novel, though her sudden presence would seem to indicate a significance that she doesn't actually possess.  It's strange.

Also strange, or not, depending on how you feel about it, is the fact that very little of any of the conversation between any of the characters is "important," that is, very little of it relates to the plot. Mary telling Sam to not eat any cake before the party. What college Mark should choose. Harriet's concerns that her virginity will be a barrier in her relationship with a man she met (virginity is kind of a thing in this book). All of this dialogue, and the tone of it, especially when many characters are in a room talking, recreates the atmosphere not of reality but of old radio shows, where sound is everything. To create a mood and make a scene believable, those radio shows had to pour on the noise, so that everyone talking fast, one after another, with plates and forks pinging together, surrounds the listener. That's more or less what Oboler is doing in the first third of House on Fire, and even in 1969 it was a throwback, but it's a throwback to something I like. Better, it's not a self-conscious throwback -- it's simply how Oboler thought, and worked.

Then someone, usually Mary, will say something that will remind everybody else of the deceased grandmother, and things begin to spiral. After Nat dies, of course, the plot takes off, as does a subplot about Robin falling for the photographer who was assigned to accompany her to the Elias's apartment. And this is where House on Fire almost completely goes off the rails. I'll spoil it, because I have to talk about it: the young man, Bob Farrell, is a wonderful fellow. He's so wonderful, in fact, that it's hard to not imagine that something is wrong with him, or at least that he's doomed. When Robin goes back to his place after dinner and it turns out he owns a very early kind of microwave, this interest in new technology pegs him, in Oboler's world, as someone very suspicious indeed. And it turns out he's a pornographer who drugs women and photographs them nude. Tony Dumont, whose relationship with Robin up to this point has been adversarial even though the reader knows them to be on roughly the same team, learns this and swoops in just in time to save her. Well, the photos are taken, but Tony gets those, and when Robin comes to he tells her what's what. She's having an understandably hard time with this, so Tony decides he'd best leave her alone. However, before leaving:

Tony Dumont said, "I forgot to tell you one thing. You don't have to worry about having been raped. Mr. Farrell is quite incapable. He cannot be aroused by anything but boys." Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, "I didn't either. That's not to say I wasn't tempted." He went, closing the door behind him.

Now. Okay. Look. The Bob Farrell episode has little to do with the rest of the book, other than to demonstrate the vileness of which men are capable. And typically I don't object to the inclusion of characters or incidents which have little bearing on the main plot. I don't need to have things joined up for me. But when our male hero tries to sweet-talk our female hero by saying he was tempted to rape her, some sort of explanation might be nice. This being quite apart from the fact that this whole section of the book is completely absurd, far more absurd than the supernatural elements, despite the fact that what Farrell is up to has been done time and again, and no one has yet invented a machine to communicate with their dead, demonic grandmothers. What Dumont says is, of course, appalling, and when I read it, and subsequent passages dealing with Robin's sexuality, I began to think that House on Fire was becoming unsalvagaeble. There's other stuff involving Mark and Shirley which, while never graphic, nevertheless made me wonder just how skeevy this thing was going to get. In its implications, at least, it turns out the answer is pretty dang skeevy.

However, while none of what I've just described is in any way good, the novel does become strange, and complicated (in a way that, admittedly, is hardly addressed), enough that I feel like it would be too easy to assume that Oboler thought Tony's way with women, for example, was just swell (the Mark and Shirley stuff I don't know about, but I'm inclined to think that it was either Oboler's attempt to boost the evil in a way William Peter Blatty would later do much more successfully in The Exorcist, or that Oboler was pressed into it by the publisher -- either way, it's a bad idea that adds nothing, and Oboler should have given it a wide berth). Late in the novel, the character has a crazy monologue that reveals things about him which makes it easy, if you're feeling generous, to at the very least imagine Oboler connected in his own mind to the earlier comments about rape. As well, the character Oboler seems to most identify with, a blind artist friend of Tony's, even makes an accusation related to Tony's intentions towards Robin that he, Tony, doesn't like at all. Admittedly, it's possible I'm looking for excuses here, when my usual inclination is to wince about these things but not otherwise feel too tense about something a man who died over twenty years ago wrote over forty years ago. It's just that House on Fire is such a wild, galumphing thing that it's hard to not try and find some central joist that will keep it from toppling.

The evils of technology might provide it. Apart from Bob Farrell's microwave, there is the question of whether Tony will abandon the magic of radio for the spoon-feeding of TV, and of course there's the central idea of a new invention that threatens to take down a whole family. In one of the several conflicted theological discussions in the book (another thing that links House on Fire with Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist), Dave Elias talks about God having "his eyes burned out by the fires in the concentration camps, by the hell over Hiroshima." In that same argument, Tony -- an atheist who butts heads quite condescendingly with Robin, a believer who is portrayed, intentionally or not, as someone who possesses a faith that is entirely unexamined -- blames everything vile in the world not on God or demons, but on man who has done these things "all through history," a phrase which both expresses an unwavering belief about man's nature and could be read as a code for what Oboler regards as the worst kind of progress: the kind of progress that allows men to kill each other on a grander scale.

That may be trite, and I suppose it is either way, but it would be more so if in Five Oboler hadn't been one of the first artists to really deal with the subject. And he kept trying to deal with it, even when it sits somewhat uneasily within what, if you strip it down, is a rather straightforward horror premise -- a premise, by the end, that you realize was hardly dealt with. That doesn't mean the ending of House on Fire isn't strong, because I think it is, or that the novel as a whole isn't worth your time, because something this bizarre always is. It reads like a book written by a man who had too much in his head and was having a hard time holding focus. It was also written by a man who was fed up with technology and was ditching it all in favor of a pen and paper. Maybe he saw it as his last chance.


Roderick Heath said...

For no good reason at all I feel the urge to point out that The Simpsons referenced Oboler more than once -- they also based that last gag of Treehouse of Horror V about the fog that turns people inside out on "The Dark" episode of Lights Out. Which is a marvellously eerie piece of sonic craftsmanship, I might add.

John said...

Book sounds a little too wacky for me, though I think you make too much of a slightly tongue-in-cheek throwaway remark there. I hardly think "BUT YES, I AM TEMPTED TO RAPE YOU, MY DEAR!" was the intended tone of the thing.

But then, again, this is the internet, of course.

bill r. said...

Well, first off, that's what he said, and second off, there's more in the book that paints the character as someone who might well indeed say something like that.

John said...

To me it's less a matter of what was literally said than the spirit it was meant in. I don't know the nature of the relationship between the two characters in question, so I imagine it could be interpreted any number of ways. But, regardless, I don't accept it to be some major transgression for which the book deserves censure.

bill r. said...

Okay, well, I read the book, and you said you don't even want to. On top of that, I talk about it in terms other than "how DARE he!" So...