Sunday, May 31, 2015

Summer of Darkness; La Bete Humaine(1938)

The human beast of the title is Jacques Lantier, a railwayman operating between Paris and Le Havre, and at first he seems like a perfectly normal gentleman. A bit of a loner, but polite and kind and not without friends, and a quiet professionalism in his work. But then, while on a two day stop in Paris while awaiting repairs to his train, he meets up with an old love and during their dalliance goes into a trance and tries to strangle her to death. He snaps out of his trance just in time, however, and gives a tortured non-apology to the girl by way of explaining that he comes from a family of such intense alcoholics that he goes into blind drunken rages where he wants to kill every woman he sees, despite never having had a his life. If that pseudo-scientific explanation beggars disbelief, I would say it's best to not take it literally. A holdover from the novel the film is based on, it seems to be a metaphor for a larger theme about the 'sins of the father' that was excised from the script. In the film, I believe it can be taken as a wild-card proof of the movie's title. Several characters attempt to harness Jacques and manipulate him into doing their bidding, but of course he is the human beast, a wild animal, and can never truly be trusted to act against his nature.

While on his two day layover, Jacques becomes witness to a murder committed by the station master, Roubaud, and his wife, Severine. Severine had been having an affair, and a jealous Roubaud pressured her into helping him murder the man. Jacques witnessed not the actual murder, but the two leaving the scene of the crime, and he allows that shadow of a doubt to eventually convince him of Severine's innocence once he begins to fall in love with her. Roubaud, for his part, is now happy to let his wife court the affections of another man if it will keep him out of jail. It isn't long before Severine is planting ideas of Roubaud's murder into Jacques' ear.

And so the stage is set for a classic film noir. A wrong-man murder mystery, a jealous husband, a manipulative femme fatale, and a decent but damaged hero with a mental condition straight out of a Jim Thompson novel. And yet, the film came out in 1938, at a time where the tenets of film noir had yet to be cast in stone, and so events proceed at a more naturalistic pace. The film is more mournful than the two fisted crime films that would come later, and slows down enough to show the characters dealing with the actual emotional consequences of their actions, not just the legal ones. And yet, perhaps paradoxically, the film also has moments of lightness. There is genuine camaraderie and affection between characters, most specifically in Jacques and his partner Pecqueux, and the film contrasts it's darker moments with non-ironic notes of happiness that balance the tone.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Heart of A Dark Matter

A lot of the time, I think working with Stephen King on The Talisman was both the best and the worst thing Peter Straub ever did for his career. Sure, co-writing two books with the most successful horror novelist of all time probably brought a lot more attention to his works, and he was already a bestselling author as well, but it also seems to have turned a lot of those potential new readers off. When I first read The Talisman, it was in the heights of my middle-school obsession with King, when I was reading through every book at the pace of one or two a week. The Talisman was the first one that seemed like a struggle to get through, and I found it horribly dull for the first 100 pages or so. It was the only one that I came close to putting down aside from The Stand*. At this time I was well into my Stephen King obsession, having devoured 7 or 8 novels and a couple of his story collections, and I had loved all of them, so I assumed the blame must lie with this Peter Straub guy, whoever he was.

He's this guy

It wasn't until I was in my mid-twenties that I actually decided to read something by Peter Straub himself. I started at the obvious spot, with Ghost Story, and it was a revelation. It was a ghost story with a sense of melancholy and nostalgia that I hadn't even realized I was missing from other works. It had a sadness, and a sense of history that I found very moving. Of course ghosts, if they existed, would be sad. They remained stuck in a prison of memory, unable to truly interact with the world of the living, but unwilling to let it go. I will say that the novel maybe doesn't hold up very well; I tried re-reading it a couple years ago, and it felt a bit flat. In particular it suffered from some Victorian sexual mores and unfortunately prudish attitudes towards women, which is not a problem with other Straub books. But that sense of loss and melancholy was still there, so I could at least see what had charmed me way back when.

I then moved through the Blue Rose Trilogy, comprising Koko, Mystery, and The Throat. The three books are intertwined, but not in the way I expected. One book doesn't so much lead into the next as it does bleed into the background. The trilogy's collection of unreliable narrators, shifting perspectives and meta fiction(one of the books may have been fiction written by one of the characters) was another sort of revelation. From there, I sampled other works as I had the time or inclination. It's a given that I'll read any new Stephen King book shortly after it comes out, but as much as I liked Straub's books, I only sporadically picked them up.

In retrospect, it's easy to see why Stephen King and Peter Straub became friends and collaborators. I think Straub is the more virtuosic writer of the two - Not better, just fancier, with more flourishes and narrative tricks that he likes to indulge in - but they both seem to operate on adjacent wavelengths. Their tastes are different; Straub is the bourgeois, upper middle class dandy, who enjoys jazz and wine and lovingly writes about a quiet, refined life of not-quite-luxury. King, on the other hand, is the blue collar everyman, who enjoys AC/DC, cheeseburgers, and trashy reality TV. His characters inhabit a more rough and tumble world of suburban wastelands and rural shacks. Change the trappings, however, and the two become remarkably similar. 

That's not to say they're exactly alike. Stephen King is much more interested in the explicitly supernatural, and his stories develop with an understandable logic and cruel cause-and-effect momentum. Peter Straub frequently deals with the supernatural, but just as often the only monsters in his stories are human. However, even in his paranormal books he tends to push those elements into the background while his actual style has a tendency to steer towards the lyrical and elegiac. Straub has a way of making the normal seem bizarre and the bizarre seem everyday so that I'm often surprised whenever one of his books features actual, undeniable fantastic events. Anyone looking to compare and contrast the two authors, to experience their similarities while also noting the differences in execution, could probably do no better than to read two of their more recent efforts, Revival and A Dark Matter.


Stephen King's Revival features a string of his personal obsessions; a stand-in main character that allows King to romanticize his own memories of youth, ridiculously idealized young love, blatant pop culture references, a tragic accident that leads to a substance abuse problem, and a main character who's artistic growth plays a central role in the story(usually this main character is a writer, but here he's a musician, allowing King to experience the alternate life he's flirted with since the '80s). Peter Straub's A Dark Matter could also be seen as a laundry list of the author's fixations; an author main character(a trait both King and Straub share), frequent descriptions of fine food and art, a cross country journey in which the mystery is pieced together from multiple sources, nested flashbacks, a decades-spanning story, and a fascination with the personal histories of all of his characters. Both books revolve around singular supernatural events(though in Revival the events keep continuing), and both books are written from the point of view of someone only tangentially related to those events. 

In Revival the narrator is someone who only occasionally encounters the person responsible for the dramatic crux of the story, and he's never privy to every piece - or even most - of the information. In A Dark Matter the narrator missed out on the fantastic event that introduced his friends to the otherworldly, and sets about stitching together the story decades after the fact. Both could be considered Lovecraftian in nature, dealing with horror on a cosmic scale, looking beyond the veil that separates our world from the unseen howling void surrounding us at all times. Straub doesn't traffic in the Lovecraft mythos, though, building a story that takes it's cues from older mythologies. King, on the other hand, is very consciously playing with the tropes of Lovecraft, bolting a Frankenstein story onto the basic ideas of the Cthulhu mythos.

Of the two, my heart lies with A Dark Matter. In general I'm more of a Stephen King fan, but I have to admit that Revival is not Stephen King at the top of his game. I began reading King when I was in elementary school, and have continued my entire life, so at this point I'm more than willing to just read whatever he puts out. Even if the story isn't successful, I find his style engaging, entertaining, and comforting. I've disliked plenty of Stephen King books, but I've never disliked the actual act of reading them. Reviva
l, when all is said and done, is a conceptual misfire. The decision to focus on an ancillary character to the actual main story isn't a bad one, but it seems a bit oddly utilized. The character has frequent interactions with a great cosmic mystery, and yet writes page after page about playing gigs at state fairs. He consigns the death of his father to less words than he uses to describe falling asleep in the theater during Heathers. The narrator's priorities make no sense in the larger context of the book.

A Dark Matter, on the other hand, may be the ultimate Peter Straub book, building to what could be seen as the author's final word on the supernatural in general. It also takes his love of exploring the history of his fictional people and locales to it's logical conclusion, as the story becomes almost a horror version of Rashomon. A lot of critics seemed to get annoyed with the half finished, scattershot feel of certain passages, but I got a lot out of it. The book is presented, at times, like raw research for a book the main character will be writing. At one point the narrator includes an unfinished short story he had written previously in an earlier attempt to understand the event his friends had experienced, which was a detail I loved while others seemed jolted out of the story by the drastic change in narrators and tone. Straub apparently cut the story down by several hundred pages, excising a lot of information that may have explained events more fully, but I can't imagine it would have been more satisfactory. Some of that material has made it's way elsewhere, most notably into A Special Place, which details the history of one of the more disturbing and enigmatic secondary characters. He also published the longer, less edited, looser version of the book in a limited edition titled Skylark, which is definitely on my list of things to track down.

At the end, at the heart of it all, A Dark Matter takes the melancholy that drew me to Straub in the first place and twists it slightly, coming up with a much brighter heart than I expected. Not every shadow wants to kill us, not all nightmares are real, and sometimes the most irredeemable monsters can show kindness.

* I first started reading The Stand in early 1993, putting me near the end of my first year in high school. As I read further into the opening chapters, detailing the emergence of the virus and the swiftness with which it spread, I began to fall ill with a respiratory virus, very much like the one described in the book. That may not have been enough to completely turn me off the story, because even at that age I was aware of psychosomatic responses. But unluckily for me, around this same time the news started covering what they called the Four Corners Flu, so called because of the location most of the cases came from; the border areas of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. The Four Corners Flu was a respiratory disease of unknown origin that came on like the flu but could suddenly turn fatal, as the victim's lungs filled with fluid. It didn't spread very far; In the end only 24 cases were reported, but fully half of them died, and the reports came in such quick succession that I seem to remember it being a huge story all spring and into the summer. As I was reading The Stand, about a superflu accidentally set loose by the US government, an illness that kills when its victims lungs fill with fluid, my kind uncle was watching these news reports with me and speculating about the preponderance of military installations in the area, and the possibilities of government experiments run amok. It was too much for me. My sickness and the everyday reveal of a new victim, a new theory. I was convinced I was witnessing the actual birth of a new superbug that would devastate the world and kill my friends, my family, and probably me. I began to think seriously about what I would do if my friends began to die. I pondered into the night the probability that I would somehow live, how I would survive once everyone I knew and loved was dead. I fantasized that somehow I would live, and somehow Susan Hill(name changed to protect the innocent) would survive as well. But in the end that faint fantasy lost out against the much more real and ominous nightmares that seemed to be just on the horizon, and I returned the book to the library. It would be several years before I dared to open it again.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Conjuring, or, The Curse of the True Story

[Author's note: as you can see I've been absent from this blog for a couple years. I recently came back and found several half-finished posts that I, for one reason or another, lost interest in. This is one of them, which is why my opening paragraph about The Conjuring speaks about it as if it's a recent release.]

Earlier this week I caught up, on home video, with one of the most ecstatically received horror movies of the past few years; The Conjuring. It's a film that garnered pretty glowing, if tempered, reviews upon it's theatrical release, and carried with it a wave of positive word of mouth. It's currently sitting at an 87% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes*. Not the most scientific or consistently rational of sources, but still, that shows that reaction has been pretty darn good. This all led to a low level of excitement on my part, because I am always interested in a good horror film, and I like haunted house stories, particularly of the old-school style this film reportedly aligned itself with. I say 'low level of excitement' only because I don't really get worked up about movies I'm looking forward to, because I like to go in with as few expectations as possible. In fact, I knew nothing about The Conjuring beforehand aside from some cast members, and the fact that it was reportedly based on a true story. But then, what horror movie in the last 30 years hasn't laid claim to being inspired by true events?

I may as well jump to the point here; I did not like The Conjuring. I didn't hate it, and in fact I admired many aspects of the film, but throughout it's entire running time I found that I was just not engaged with the film. I was mentally nitpicking things I might let slide in other films, and I kept asking myself what it could be that I was missing.

Now, this may come as a shock to some of you, but I do not believe in ghosts. I've heard many friends relate their own ghost stories, and truth be told I've got a few of my own, and I never assume anyone telling this story is crazy or ignorant. We've all experienced stuff that can't be rationally explained in the dead of night. I'm not closeminded enough to admit the possibility of all sorts of unexplained and inexplicable phenomena, but I do not believe in ghosts as traditionally presented in fiction. I do not believe that after death our souls wander our old homes in order to rearrange the furniture when the new owners aren't looking. The same can be said for demons(which, spoiler alert, figure into this movie), or angels, or god, or the devil. I don't believe in them as anything other than fictional objects invented to explain forces or concepts we didn't have the language for.

And yet, as I've mentioned, I love ghost stories. I appreciate ghosts as powerful dramatic totems, full of resonant emotions. If a movie or book asks me to accept that ghosts are real, then I will accept that within the fictional confines of the universe I am witnessing, those things are very real indeed. But on the flip side, when a movie tells me that what I am witnessing truly happened, to real people with witnesses and everything, then I just assume I'm watching crazy people. This assumption is not helped by the speed with which everyone just accepts that ghosts are wandering their home, and the willingness to accept even the most ridiculous premise with no evidence whatsoever begins to paint the characters as mentally challenged. Case in point; in one scene psychic paranormal investigator Vera Farmiga proves her abilities to haunted housewife Lili Taylor by picking up a picture of Taylor and family standing happily on a beach somewhere, and says 'this must have been a fun day at the beach' to which Taylor responds with delighted shock 'How did you know!?' Immediately I figured there was a gas leak in the house.

Actually, that may not be far from the truth; the fact that the husband(Ron Livingston) can't get the house to warm up no matter how much he tinkers with the heating system is a running subplot.

Yet again, I would have no problem with this, or the many other examples if this were a purely fictional film. Fiction is often fueled by ridiculous coincidence and characters who jump to conclusions in ways that strain credibility.And yet the film goes to lengths to remind us that the Warrens, the husband and wife team of paranormal investigators, are real people, and this movie is based on a well documented case of theirs, with witnesses and testimony from the people that were there. That strive for realism means that when the Warrens spend 30 seconds in the house and hear one person say they sometimes smell rotting meat, the Warrens feel qualified to say that the house is inhabited by a demon, and not a ghost, and the family is immediately accepting of this 'fact'. Somehow the idea that maybe there's a small woodland animal rotting somewhere in this vast and slightly rundown house in the middle of the woods never occurred to anyone.

Maybe I'm being too critical, maybe I should just accept that the film is heightened fiction the way I accept haunted house movies like The Changeling or The Others, but I can't really do that for a film that desperately wants us to believe we are seeing the absolute truth. Which is a shame, because the film had elements that I might otherwise have enjoyed. I'm always happy to see Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor in a movie, the seventies milieu works great for a ghost story like this, and there were some clever, classically staged sequences throughout. The problem was, none of it was very scary. Though I don't need a horror movie to be scary to enjoy it. In fact, I don't find most of the horror movies I love to be scary, but if you combine the lack of scares with a lack of believable(or even compelling) story, then you've got a problem.