Friday, 28 February 2014

Beach House Book no.4: The Darkened Room by Anna Clarke

THE DARKENED ROOM by Anna Clarke (1968)

Encapsulate the book in one sentence?
She got away with murdering her blind husband and stepdaughter, and now embittered closet-case Mary Wentworth has moved to Bloomsbury, where she works in the British Library, hankers after the scruffy girl next door and plots further, necessary-seeming killings.

When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?
I was reading online about Cosy Mystery series from down the years – and something about her books leapt out at me. Maybe two years ago I snagged a 1p copy from Amazon.

Why is it something you stashed away and hoarded?
It was a murder book I put away for a rainy day. Then it just got lost in the tottering stacks of books of all genres.

What year or edition?
It’s an early 90’s Berkley Mystery reprint of a 1968 British hardback. Reading a little about her, it seems that Anna Clarke didn’t start publishing mysteries until she was fifty, and then made up for it by writing almost twenty. She was published in her native UK first, but that frazzled out, and then Berkley seemed to take her up and champion her in the 1990s – bringing out new novels, and reissuing the older ones (‘The Darkened Room’ is her first.) In the advertising pages at the back of my copy, they’re really pushing her, listing her name alongside PD James, Josephine Tey and Ngaio Marsh. They clearly thought a great deal of her.

What’s your verdict?
I thought it was brilliantly nasty, sinister and bitter. There’s hardly any mystery involved, really. Mary Wentworth is such a fabulously awful invention – a relentless self-justifier and skilled criminal, hiding her murderous impulses under an impeccably bland, respectable surface. We know that she killed her husband and that she lusts after any pretty young woman in the vicinity and we know that she’ll stop at nothing to retain her freedom. This is just so dark and chilly it’s hilarious. It also has a wonderful setting – in and around the squares of Bloomsbury and shabby boarding houses of the 1960s.

Did you finish it? Did it work for you?
I whizzed through it and relished every minute of it.

What genre would you say it is?
It’s not quite high-camp. At times, perhaps, such as when she’s got behind the wheel of unctuous Malcolm’s sports car and is trying to kill them both on the A1. It’s outrageously camp when she’s raving about everyone being secret lesbians and queers. This is kind-of Cosy Mystery – if your idea of Cosy involves naff cocktail parties and intense paranoia.

What surprises did it hold – if any?
Having failed to commit murder with a sports car, and having holed up in a Motel to write her memoirs, we expect that she’s seen sense by the end. But then, all of a sudden, she’s back in Bloomsbury, poking holes in the partition walls and trying to gas everyone in the room next door!

What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?
The moment when Mary tries to kick her heaviest plant pot off her tiny balcony in order to brain Malcolm in the street below. When she wakes up she’s furiously disappointed to hear that she only concussed the horribly smug nellie.

Have you read anything else by this author? Or anything this book reminds you of?
My first Anna Clarke and I’ll be trying to gather up the rest of her books. I can see her becoming a bit of a cult figure for me – if all of her books are as cheerfully horrid as this. Some of the black humour reminded me a little of Ngaio Marsh, but there are no reassuring police or detective characters turning up in order to put things to rights. They only turn up after Mary has succeeded in blowing everyone in her rooming house seemingly into smithereens…

What will you do with this copy now?
It’s a keeper. Though I can think of particular friends I want to give this copy to and tell them to read it immediately.

Is it available today?
Alas, not. I got my copy through Amazon Used and New for a penny, plus the usual hefty postage. This seems to be the best way of getting hold of her books these days. Someone ought to bring her back into print, I’d say.

Give me a good quote:
“Tell her! Tell Judy, that stupid, conventional, prudish, provincial little girl? You’re crazy. Tell her that you were tried for the murder of your husband by drowning just over a year ago – that you did it because you hated men, wanted your husband’s money, didn’t want him to know you had been making indecent advances to his daughter; that when she tried to save him, you let her drown too; that, acquitted due to lack of evidence, you nevertheless came out of it branded as a dangerous, wicked, unbalanced woman, a female sex maniac, a menace to all young girls.
         Tell Judy all this?”

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Beach House Book no.3 - 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' by Ken Kesey


Encapsulate the book in one sentence?
Very briefly, the lunatics take over the asylum.

When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?
Ages ago I bought a secondhand copy of the edition we had on our bookcase when I was a kid: with Jack Nicholson on the cover. Always something I meant to read. When I was a kid it always seemed disturbing and rather dark. Because of the shared lead actor I think I had it mixed up in my head with ‘The Shining.’

What year or edition?
I was very pleased with my vintage copy, and after about thirty pages the tiny print and the sheer number of words on a page were doing my head in. Honestly, Picador – I blame you and your books for ruining my eyes. Over the years how many Picadors have I read in miniature? Much of Angela Carter I had to squint at. Thomas Pynchon. Umpteen others. And Ken Kesey this week seemed like a return to those migrainey days.

I had to give in and buy the e-book, so that I could make the font as big as I liked. This felt like I was defeating the point of this reading challenge – ie, to buy no more books and to work my merry way through the vast, physical book piles. BUT it also seemed important to give the book a fair hearing and to find a way in which I could comfortably read it. So – the e-book.

What’s your verdict?
I admired it, rather than enjoyed it. I think ‘Chief’ Bromden’s point of view is brilliantly maintained. He’s the mostly-silent narrator whom everyone assumes is deaf and mute, but who is watching everything. McMurphy comes into the ward and the story like a whirlwind; a devilish dervish tempting all of the inmates to gamble and rebel against the brutal treatment they’re getting. It juggles all kinds of registers and modes – slipping into lyrical flashback at times, when our narrator revisits his own history (when ‘the fog’ lifts and he can think clearly.) There’s lots of spoken, colloquial, rapping, showy language – brilliantly rendered by an author with a fantastically good ear. But all the while I felt like I was merely spectating or eavesdropping. Maybe the film – good as it is – has spoiled this novel for me? I was doing that dopey thing of – having seen the film first – watching out for the scenes I already knew, and not treating the novel as something that was happening afresh.

Did you finish it? Did it work for you?
I found myself having to push through. It’s repetitive and the stream of consciousness seems endless. The implicit hero-worship of the McMurphy character becomes a bit much. Against the dehumanizing forces of the mental institution – and, by extension, of the powerful state is one lone man etc… and it’s all about stressing his sexuality, potency and alpha male dominance as the means to fight against the modern forces of darkness. That his triumph over repressive castratrix Nurse Ratched is the dynamic holding the book together just makes the sexism even worse. There’s a terrible bit at the end when he lashes out and manages to rip open her nurse’s uniform in order to expose her breasts. Real or imaginary, it’s a silly scene. There’s an outmoded and tacky gender agenda right at the heart of the book.

What genre would you say it is?
It’s not a cheery book, at any rate. It’s a contemporary American classic, of course – somewhere between ‘On the Road’ and ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’, but it never engaged me in the same way those did.

What surprises did it hold – if any?
MacMurphy wears undershorts with pictures of whales on them, given to him by a former girlfriend who was a Literature Major. Is it reading too much into it to suppose him the Moby Dick of this story?

What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?
The repeated bouts of electroshock therapy that our hero is forced to undergo, watched by the narrator, who says that, throughout all the convulsions, McMurphy’s face is covered with frost. It’s all horribly vivid.

What will you do with this copy now?
Not sure. Since I now have an e-book, I guess I’m free to give my orange bleeding-eyes Picador away. I still find myself loath to get rid of actual books. Though I don’t think I’d reread this one anytime soon.

Is it available today?
Yes, everywhere. No chance of this going out of print.

Give me a good quote:
“I’m too scared to get out of my chair. The staff always let me clean the room because they didn’t think I could hear, but now that they saw me lift my hand when McMurphy told me to, won’t they know I can hear? Won’t they figure I been hearing all these years, listening to secrets meant only for their ears? What’ll they do to me in that staff room if they know that?”

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Beach House Book no.2: 'Owning-Up' by George Melly

OWNING UP by George Melly (1965)

Encapsulate the book in one sentence?

Bisexual surrealist looks back with fondness on spending the Fifties whizzing about the British countryside with a jazz band, drinking crates of brown ale and sleeping with ‘scrubbers.’

When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?

A couple of years ago. A Penguin edition from the Seventies and a steal for 99p. I’d seen an amazing TV documentary about the last days of this eccentric character, who with the last of his strength was embarking on a final concert tour and still chatting up old flames. The idea of reading a memoir of his glory days seemed irresistible. But the book has sat waiting for me for almost two years..!

What’s your verdict?

This is a great, scurrilous read. He’s committing all these tales to posterity in 1965 and taking great delight in celebrating and skewering his fellow musicians and various other figures he bumped into during his ramshackle, rather drunken career. He relishes the lewdness and the outrageousness and paints a fabulous picture of a slightly disreptuable Britain – of dance halls and knocking shops and festivals and jamborees. But there’s a great erudition at work too, as he explains the history of jazz to us, almost as an aside.

What genre would you say it is?

It’s no-holds-barred showbiz memoir of the rarest, most valuable sort. By a showbiz person who can write like an angel showing the world their arse.

What surprises did it hold – if any?

Lots! The jazz world seems to later generations old hat and a bit dull. But what a bunch they were – these in-fighting radicals, traditionalists, revivalists and modernists! Zooming about in their camper vans and causing riots in galleries and pubs and dance halls.

What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?

There’s an account of the band’s wagon coming off the road and over a bridge, plummeting twenty feet into a shallow stream. Mostly unhurt, the band members seek help from reluctant locals, and it’s only when the female backing singer is taken into hospital that her injuries are apparent. She’s got long slivers of glass in her back, piercing her lungs. It’s a horrifying realization, amongst the near-hysterical giggles.

Have you read anything else by this author? Or anything this book reminds you of?

No, but now I feel like I want to read the other memoirs he published.

What will you do with this copy now?

Another keeper.

Is it available today?

Yes, the first three volumes of autobiography Melly published are available as a very cheap ebook from Penguin under the umbrella title, ‘Owning Up.’ The earlier volumes are about childhood and his years at sea.

Give me a good quote:

After an early gig in Manchester he is almost beaten up by a gang of thugs:

“I was anaesthetized by fear. I subconsciously did the only thing that might work and it did. I took out of my pocket a small book of the sound poems of the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, explained what they were, and began to read.”

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Beach House Book no.1: 'Fluke' by James Herbert

FLUKE by James Herbert. (1977)

Encapsulate the book in one sentence?

What starts as the episodic life of a super-intelligent mongrel scrounging food and looking for love turns into a quest to solve his own supposed murder by a man reincarnated as a dog.

When did I buy it? Why did I buy it?

There was a New English Library paperback on my parents’ wall unit bookshelves ever since the late Seventies and I would dip into it now and then as a kid. I don’t think I read it all, though. I bought my own copy several times over the years, intending to finish it and to thread all the episodes I remembered together. I wanted to know what was going on. The old tagline made it very ambiguous: is Fluke a man who thinks he’s a dog, or vice versa? Actually the book is a whole lot less ambiguous than that. We’re told the state of play fairly early on. But I remembered it being vivid and very well-written. I remember the dog’s point of view being very realistic, and that was enough to make me buy it again and to set it aside for a revisit some day.

What year or edition?

I’ve got a 1987 paperback (as well as a much earlier one, somewhere.) Black cover with gold laminate on James Herbert’s name, making it look very much like a horror novel. The list of other titles by this author has that very endearing thing – tiny ticks in biro by the book’s original owner. They’d read eight out of eleven Herbert novels published by that point. The most recent was ‘The Magic Cottage’, which I remember reading at that time, more or less, in a similar edition, with huge relish.

This copy is inscribed ‘To Carl. Happy Christmas 1988. Dad.’

What’s your verdict?

I loved it. I think it’s his best. The writing is more sensual, grounded, vivid than anything else he wrote. There’s no apocalypse on the horizon but there’s more at stake for Fluke than for any of his other characters. There are wonderful secondary characters, too – which Herbert is always good at. I especially like the psychotic old lady who sets her cat alight, the mentor figure Rumbo, and the wise old badger who tells Fluke a thing or two about Buddhism. I didn’t realise the book was going to get so mystical, but I loved that too.

What genre would you say it is?

It was packaged very much in the horror genre, selling alongside Herbert’s tales of rats and strange, dark powers, but this belongs to a tradition of allegorical animal stories. It’s closer to ‘Watership Down’ than anything else. It’s in a tradition of British whimsy and mysticism and pastoral fantasy perhaps more than it is the Gothic…

What surprises did it hold – if any?

The savagery of some of the scenes, such as the fight to the death with the extra-intelligent rat – and the fact that the rat seems like a guest star from Herbert’s famous trilogy. The whole-hearted embracing of reincarnation, and the fact that it’s a badger who knows and understands the key to all existence (just as one seems to in ‘The Wind in the Willows’, too.)

What will you do with this copy now?

I think I have to keep this. I’m sure I’ll return to it again. If I find my nicer, 1970s edition – the same as the one we had when I was a kid – I’ll keep that, and give this one to someone I think would like it.

Is it available today?

Yes, in print and as an ebook. Herbert’s whole backlist is available very cheaply as ebooks. More or less the same price as they were in 1987.

Give me a good quote:

From the very start, when he wakes up for the first time, and finds himself transformed into a dog:

“The warmth from the sun beat against my eyelids, soft persuasion to open them. Noises crept into my ears then burst through to my consciousness, confusing sounds, a gabble broken by strident pitches.”

Monday, 24 February 2014

'Whitstable' by Stephen Volk

A novella seems to suit Peter Cushing rather well. He was angular and slight, with those remarkable thin features and cheekbones. So when he’s resurrected in fictional form, a very spare, elegant volume seems just the right home for him.

And so does Whitstable itself. We come to know the place very quickly, in the short space of this mournful, disturbing story. We come to know it as a quaint, perfect retirement home for Peter and Helen – and we get a good sense of their contentedness, their fussiness and a very great sense of their devotion to each other. Her death precedes the events of the novella and, in her absence, the town becomes a frightening, gloomy place. The seagulls themselves are horrid, voracious monsters. The most ordinary suburban homes hide nasty secrets.

It’s a deceptively simple tale. The mourning film actor is mistaken by an abused child for the heroic Van Helsing – the character he has played in many films over the years. The boy wants rescuing from his mother’s boyfriend, who he explains in vampiric terms to the bewildered Cushing. Despite the venerable gent’s assuring the kid he’s only an actor, and can’t actually do anything heroic, Peter finds himself drawn into the frightening life of this boy.

There are some electrifying scenes. When Cushing goes to talk to the boy’s mother and she stands ironing and denying everything, with the TV playing constantly in the background, we’re awash with the feeling of this being a courtly gentleman displaced from his own time and his own world. When she snaps and swears at him and he bravely maintains his standards of good manners it seems to the reader like he’s lost his purchase on this deracinated world of the 1970s. With Helen’s passing he has lost his footing. Similarly, when the mother’s boyfriend comes to ‘talk to him’ at home and wedges his stolid, donkey-jacketed self in the doorframe – it’s a stunning, absolutely terrifying moment – and Cushing seems to lose hope against these modern day forces of darkness.

There are some lovely exchanges about the nature and relevance of different kinds of horror – with the Cushing character resolutely on the side of folk tale, fantasy, whimsy and how these things equip you to deal with the ordinary horrors of the everyday. He’s absolutely on the side of love, and opposed to cruelty, barbarism, exploitation. But his opponent in the 1972 conjured by Stephen Volk is like something out of ‘The Exorcist’ or ‘The Omen’ – Les Gledhill is a kind of demonically-possessed creature against whom Cushing seems at first powerless. I found the extended scene in the cinema riveting. With one of Hammer’s cheesiest vampire flicks playing in delicious, ironic counterpoint the whole time, we get a dialogue played out between Cushing and a very modern day Satan: the Cushing character summoning every shred of decency, courage and intelligence from every hero he’s ever played. It’s a marvelous climax to the book – played out almost entirely verbally, in a wonderfully atmospheric setting – heavy with dread and the sickly scent of warm Kia-Ora.

I love novellas because, being longer than stories, they can reach into the back story of their characters with greater confidence, and they can dwell in the longer, lyrical, atmospheric moments that a short story might deliberately gallop through. Novellas can give you the pin sharp scenes of a single story – a handful of them – so that they live in your memory the way a story’s highlights will.

Volk has already given us horribly convincing personifications of human evil in ‘Ghostwatch’ and ‘Afterlife’ – and here he gives us his most striking vision of redemption, helped along by the mildest-seeming of heroes. But that was always Cushing’s strength, for me – under the genial quirkiness of his heroes, there was always a very steely edge and that’s something captured wonderfully here.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Reading the Beach House...

I've already talked about the reading project I'm doing with Stuart Douglas, a hundred years of paperbacks - but I'm also about to pitch into the biggest challenge of all - and that's tackling the TBR stacks that are everywhere in this house, and even in the Beach House. I've got all these hundreds of books that have been patiently waiting for a rainy day... So I'm going to hoik them out and tackle them at last in batches of three, and buy no more new books for as long as I can manage... Here are my first three choices from the Beach House Full of Books...

Friday, 21 February 2014

My Doctor Who Dream

I had a very vivid dream – and though I always have vivid dreams, I’ve never had one before about writing a Dr Who episode for the telly. But this time, that’s what it was. Somehow it had happened and they had made it without me even knowing it, and the next thing I was tuning in and recognizing everything that was happening as something I’d written.

It started off and it was the usual thing of lots of people in a control room, looking at computer screens and wearing spacey outfits and shouting about some kind of impending disaster. But they were all characters that were quite interesting.

And then it went a bit peculiar – going completely dark, and replacing itself with a series of still shots of the action in black and white, and then the soundtrack overlaid on the top, with a narrating voice telling us what should be happening. Then there was a sequence Bollywood style, in very bright colours, all swirling and dancing; then plasticine models in stop motion; then cartoons and then a very curious few moments where it all went dark and you had to take the card out of that week’s Radio Times and experience the adventure through the medium of scratch and sniff.

This was followed by everyone being told they must put on a pair of gloves and a balaclava – also free with the Radio Times – and us all having some kind of sensory experience of the adventure through the medium of knitting.

I don’t remember what the actual story was, but it was amazing. The final strand was a bit self-referential, of course, and had the villain pointing out how massively ironic it would be if this whole knockout, paradigm-shifting episode was just something I was dreaming. And how I laughed and even though, somehow, that laughter was in the script, too – it broke my dream, and the moment, plus the whole episode were suddenly gone.


(NB I nicked the illustration from someone's FB page. They were pointing out how, for many years, the Doctor really was called 'Dr Who' in the credits of the TV show.)

Thursday, 20 February 2014

'Beach Reading' by Mark Abramson

Five of the best words in the language when it comes to me and novels? ‘First in a new series…’

As any readers of this blog will know, I love a really good novel series. I love being able to return to characters and places and check in to see what’s been going on. I love series that extend over years and show our characters changing and moving on with their lives. Not too much – not too rapidly – not so much that the series is knocked all out of shape. I like a literary soap opera, I guess. For that I blame David Eddings’ ‘The Belgariad’, which I read at sixteen, and Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’, which I read at twenty.

Just this week I’ve discovered Mark Abramson’s ‘Beach Reading’ series, which share with Maupin a setting, a gay milieu and sensibility… but also share with Eddings a central character who is only just becoming aware of his supernatural psychic powers as he weaves his way through a fabulous, mythic landscape of heroes and villains. In the case of Abramson’s thirty-something hero Tim Snow, he’s got precognitive dreams and a hankering to solve mysteries Jessica Fletcher-style, while getting on with his everyday life as a waiter in the exciting city and whooping it up as much as he can.

What I love about this concoction is that is doesn’t take itself too seriously at all. I love Maupin desperately, and always have, but there’s no denying that ‘Tales’ has become important and canonical. Abramson is unencumbered by any of that, and can gleefully build up a brand new ensemble cast from scratch and indulge in the silly adventures, coincidences and outrageous scandals that the earliest, frothier ‘Tales’ books indulged in. So, here we’ve got his Cages-aux-folles employers in their restaurant-bar with their gruesome show-tunes lady, and the hopeless drunk straight lady who lives upstairs from Tim, the showgirl and her rich invalid brother, the two dodgy exes, the new young love interest, the hot French trolley dolly and various waiters, activists, right wing preachers, older timer cab drivers… and various other colourful passersby.

There’s also the out-of-town Aunt, who Tim confides in and so we are privy to their letters, though Book One finishes with her about to arrive in town for a visit. Synopses for the further books seem to promise more Cosy Mystery activity, and so I’m happy. The idea of a murder-y, gay- sexy, slightly psychic novel series is just delightful to me – and one narrated in this breezy, gossipy style is even better.

I love the way Abramson doesn’t so much set up potential plot threads as strew them everywhere like festoons of gaudy tinsel. I can’t wait to carry on reading the rest of this series.

I’ve said nothing about the plot of Book One. Ex-Jock and mildly-psychic waiter Tim Snow falls in with an ex-Broadway hoofer on a San Francisco cable car. She gets him stoned and he is ineluctably embroiled in a number of different plots to shame / depose and/or murder a crazed homophobic closet case preacher who is coming to town on the very night of a massive disco tribute to long-dead dance queen Sylvester. Throw in a whirlwind romance with a sexy out-of-towner, a strange encounter with a dodgy ex and a few new friendships with some local legends. It’s all a winning combination. I’m onto the next volume already.

I saw an episode of 'Warehouse 13'

Last night I saw my first episode of ‘Warehouse 13.’ This is because we’ve changed our BT phone / broadband / TV package, and so have more channels. We still haven’t got the evil Sky-related packages, but we’ve got things like Watch and Syfy – the channels whose listings I’d find myself idly browsing and wondering about.

Time was, BBC 2 had a teatime slot for US fantasy shows. That’s how things like the latterday Star Treks and Farscape were seen in this country. Nowadays that doesn’t seem to be so, and people subscribe to all kinds of channels and seem au fait with series that I’ve never even heard of. It’s easy to feel terribly left out, even if – like me – you’re fond of dvd box sets. Actually, I try to make a virtue of that, usually saying that I prefer to watch shows in their boxset incarnation, rather than as a weekly serial, because then it’s more like reading a novel and you can take in as much or as little as you want at a single sitting. But I’m lying, of course. I’d love to watch shows as weekly instalments.

So now we have this thing called BT Infinity and Beyond! – or somesuch and, though on the whole it seems like a load of rip-off bollocks, it’s letting me dip into some of these shows that I haven’t been able to see before. And so, last night- Warehouse 13, which I learn is already onto season four. I’ve no idea where last night’s episode hails from, but everything seems to be well into its stride.

It seems to be about spooky objects that need to be locked away in a special place – for the good of all mankind. It reminds me – in look and outline – a little of ‘Sanctuary’, which was a gentler, friendlier version of ‘Torchwood’, I thought – with that show’s edgy pretensions rubbed off. Last night’s episode was about a deadly plague threatening all mankind and our heroes having to find a magical cure from a tomb deep underneath Paris with the aid of the legendary and still-living Count of Saint-Germain. Now, this was promising. I love anything about spooky old St Germain, and have longed to see him covered properly by a sf&f show. He’s always seemed a dead cert for Who, but they’ve never dipped into his story.

I love the fact that it was all slightly cheap, and the sheer banality of the menace being to do with everyone sweating like crazy. Watching on Syfy’s non-HD channel the picture is degraded to the point that it looks like it’s being broadcast live from the year 1991 and this, of course, pleases my retro heart. I love the fact that it’s all somewhat cheesy and chucked together – and yet at the same time displays such lovely inventiveness (while in the Paris strand they’re actually pulling the old Professor-turns-out-to-be-the-person-they’re-all-looking-for twist, another strand has other characters visiting the subconscious of their insensible friend.) It also has a wonderful guest cast with stellar cult tv credentials: Daphne’s lawyer boyfriend from ‘Frasier’, the original Bionic Woman Lindsey Wagner, Captain Janeway looking careworn and chunky and – somehow best of all – Buffy’s Spike looking pouchy, tetchy, badly-dyed and camper than ever.

Is every episode as much fun as this? Is it something I can take gradually, an episode at a time, dripfeeding the whole lot, or is it a box set to splurge on..? Experts out there – I’m sure you know. 

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.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014


Crocuses in Crowcroft Park in Levenshulme. The first signs of spring - poking up between the ruined hulls and tangles of trees brought down in last week's storms...  and some snowdrops, making themselves apparent on our back patio.

Monday, 17 February 2014

The Confusion of Karen Carpenter by Jonathan Harvey

What I love about Jonathan Harvey’s ‘The Confusion of Karen Carpenter’ (and it was the same with his first, ‘All She Wants’) is how he makes it look easy. His lead characters and narrators in both cases chat along breezily, taking us into their confidences from the very first, and it’s like our best friend telling us everything that they’ve been up to, and all the mortifying things that have happened to them. It’s bright and immediate and funny – and sometimes I think people don’t realise how hard it is to get that right. Harvey makes it look like he’s simply turned a tap on, and out stream these garrulous and funny voices.

Karen is a wonderfully self-deprecating and disaster-prone character. We soon get used to her ramshackle way of carrying on. Apparently abandoned by her tube train-driving boyfriend of many years and saddled with an up-to-the-minute mother who’s moved in with her (she’s forever streaming Scandinavian detectives on her laptop and dashing out to Zumba), and various not-very helpful and mostly lesbian friends, she careers haplessly between places she doesn’t really want to be, such as an excruciating supper party for naff swingers, or the funeral of the mother of a pupil from her school. I love the way Karen gets buffeted along by the tides of her life, never quite in control. There’s a reason for that, of course, and about two-thirds in we get a blinding twist and revelation that I only saw coming the very instant before it came (which is exactly how it should be, I think.) It’s a good one, well-seeded in the narrative, and makes sudden sense of everything that comes before in the novel, leaving us questioning our easy acceptance of her ingenuous, believable voice.

I won’t spoil anything here, but I’ll say that it leads to some lovely, quite moving sequences as Karen comes to terms with the things that have been confusing her.

I really liked ‘All She Wants’ but this feels even better to me. The comedy’s wonderfully knockabout and vulgar – especially the revenge-Brazilian waxing episode. The sentimentality feels justified and the pathos rings true and all the secondary characters jump into vivid life – especially Mum being disreputable all over the place with her Danish toyboy. But the comedy of situations like this is always balanced by things like the portrayal of Karen’s Dad, who knows what’s going on, it turns out, and has had to put up with worse in the past. It’s the quieter, more rounded characters standing next to the brasher, noisier ones that bring Jonathan Harvey’s novels to life for me, and who make it feel like a world he’s building, and one I want to go back to.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

1900: 'Castaways of the Flag' by Jules Verne

We wanted to get a mix of books that have lasted through time, and ephemeral tat that we can gleefully rediscover, and we wanted to veer between books that are classics and those that are trashy, and those that manage to be both at the same time. With ‘Castaways of the Flag’, do you think we’re starting with a classic author in Jules Verne… but a largely forgettable and rightly forgotten book?

The first thing that struck me is that he’s writing an ‘unofficial’ sequel – to Johann David Wyss’s ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ from 1812. This is published fan fiction by Verne who, once dead and well out of copyright himself – will have his characters, vehicles, storylines and ideas endlessly recycled. (Arguably – the whole genre of Steampunk is all about him…) So there’s a nice irony in our plumping for a Verne story at the start of the twentieth century… and finding out that it’s a fanfic. It’s already recycled stuff. But what is he up to? Why go back to it? Were there really further stories to tell about this dreary family on their rotten island?

The story is about a bunch of them getting away from their island, and back to Britain, and then setting off again for their faraway island once more. It’s the place they want to live. They want to profit by it. The island is rich in all sorts of things that the Empire wants. Expensive stuff. Like any good entrepeneurs, the previously shipwrecked family want to turn their disaster into a business.

And the current volume is about the various shenanigans that keep them away from this ultimate dream of professionalizing their desert island lifestyle – ie, a shipboard mutiny and another bout of being castaways.

It’s the endless cycle of a story that wants to turn itself into a series, or a franchise. It has to find new ways to keep going back to the beginning…

The actual business of getting cast away and the finding of a new island and getting washed up and learning to survive all over again is pretty good, though, isn’t it..? There are a few moments of actual excitement..?

But it’s Verne. I wanted giant crabs and journeys under the Earth’s molten crust. I wanted dinosaurs. When they started gorging themselves on turtles and turtle eggs, I wanted there to be an unholy racket on the beach one morning, and a gigantic turtle – the size of a steam-powered submarine – comes galumphing up the beach to wreak revenge. I’ve been spoiled, I think, by Ray Harryhausen.

The excitement is really limited to – are we going to be able to live off turtles for the rest of our lives? And, let’s climb this very steep cliff and see if there’s another, nicer bit of island we can’t see yet… And the killing of a deer, which I found a bit upsetting, the way it was presented. These are practiced, assured colonists, aren’t they? It’s their God-given right to make use of everything they come across…

And then – there’s the most dated and dodgy aspect of the whole book. All the racist stuff about the ‘savages’ who threaten to invade the island in the last third. Verne has to provide some excitement – having established that, by great, amazing luck, the castaways have actually arrived on their own island, after all. (They’ve just been washed up and eating turtles on an unfamiliar, slightly less hospitable bit of it…) and now Verne has to get some excitement and adventure going. And so it’s all about the aboriginal Australians, who have come to the island and are making a proper mess of all the nice stuff that the Swiss Family Robinson set up in their first book… All this business reads as quite shocking now. The ‘savages’ are unindividuated. They are presented as just a dangerous mass of subhumanity.

Having said that, although all the Castaways have names and roles, they are all pretty much of a muchness, too. I came away with a feeling of not knowing anyone at all in this book.

Except, perhaps, for the injured Captain. He keeps saying – as he recovers – that this island is no place for ladies, and he wishes he was here alone with a whole load of men instead. He even says – unless I imagined it – when he’s carried ashore, that he wishes the island was a bit gayer.

So… I feel like we’ve had a dullish, disappointing book to start with. But in a way it’s paradigmatic popular fiction, isn’t it? Characters who are just a function of plot; dodgy racial stereotypes; a desperate attempt to wrest land and power away from each other; the search for home; the survivalist plot; the arduous challenges that the archetypal characters must face… and even a slightly symbolic creature who comes to guide their way, in the form of the albatross. It’s like the bare bones of an adventure story, but little else besides.

1900 is also the year of L Frank Baum’s ‘Wonderful Wizard of Oz’, and I was thinking of Dorothy as another castaway… one who gets the measure of the place and explores and starts to change the world forever as she travels through it. (And eventually – in one of many sequels) decides to settle in the faraway land rather than return home.