Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? by Henry Farrell

It was only from reading an interview in a newspaper at the weekend that I heard there was a novel. For some reason I’d never heard of Henry Farrell’s book. I somehow thought the Bette Davis and Joan Crawford camp movie classic had arrived fully formed: perfect and indelible in the psyche of anyone who experiences it.

So I was very pleased to hear there was a book, and that it was available on Kindle. That seems to me one of the things that e-books are really for. Reading of something marvelously rare and wonderful in the New York Times Book Review as you sit up in bed on a Sunday morning, and then being able to dial up the thing – the actual book – in a matter of moments. It’s like living in the future.

Anyhow, I’ve spent the past couple of days inside that gloomy, gothic house in the Hollywood hills, where the younger, defenceless, beautiful sister lies abed, terribly dependent upon her ragingly crazy and vengeful sister who swoops about the place completely pissed, like a baby doll Miss Havisham. Of course Crawford and Davis are impossible to get out of your mind, and the book is extremely close to the movie. Whole chunks of Farrell’s crisp, witty, wounding dialogue were seemingly lifted straight from the page. His novel is one of those succinct and perfectly formed horror novels that translated almost verbatim to the movies (I’m thinking also of Ira Levin’s well-nigh perfect ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’) The other novel it puts me in mind of is Robert Bloch’s ‘Psycho’, which inspired Hitchcock and is present in the film version only in spirit. But its darkness and madness are tangible – just as they are here in Farrell’s book.

What makes this worth digging out (or downloading) are the peripheral characters – all wonderful turns in the movie – but here with added pathos. Mrs Bates the nosy, film buff neighbour; the doomed maid; the sweating pianist who auditions for Jane to be her accompanist and paid companion. They all have horribly vivid moments and each of them seem just as trapped and helpless as Blanche does, locked and starved in her bedroom. They’re all at Jane’s mercy in the end.

And the ending has a queer kind of turnabout. I thought my memory of the film was good, but I’m not sure that the reversal of the novel quite makes it to the screen. I’ll have to check. It’s quite a shocking one on the page, though, and makes you view the whole story quite differently by the time you get to the final page.

Bonkers gothic melodrama with mad old women pulling out each other’s hair and unleashing torrents of verbal abuse and practicing elaborate forms of revenge on one another. It’s one of my favourite genres.

Go and find the novel. And if you haven’t already done so – go and see the film. And, if you’re lucky enough to glimpse it, relish the just-as-wonderfully-nasty-and-camp 1990s TV movie remake with Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave.

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