Shatter Your Illusions of Love

‘”I am going to get fat and lazy in Hill House,” Theodora went on. Her insistence in Naming Hill House troubled Eleanor. It’s as though she were saying it deliberately, Eleanor thought, telling the house she knows its name, calling the house to tell it where we are; is it bravado? “Hill House, Hill House, House House,” Theodora said softly, and smiled across at Eleanor.’

In 1959 Shirley Jackson published ‘The Haunting of Hill House.’ Stephen King called the novel ‘As nearly a perfect haunted-house tale as I have ever read.’ This quotation sits on the cover of the Penguin Modern Classics paperback, is placed above the title (and Mrs Jackson’s name) so it’s obvious the publisher was happy with it, and why.

The first paragraph of the book was noteworthy for King.

Discussing the haunted house tale in ‘Danse Macabre’, he suggests the house requires an ‘historical context’ – a dark history – and that ‘Jackson establishes it immediately in the first paragraph of her novel, stating her tale’s argument in lovely, dreamlike prose.’ He then quotes the famous opening:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly; floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

He says of the opening that

Analysis of such a paragraph is a mean and shoddy trick, and should almost always be left to college and university professors, those lepidopterists of literature who, when they see a lovely butterfly, feel that they should immediately run into the field with a net, catch it, kill it with a drop of chloroform, and mount it on a white board and put it in a glass case, where it will still be beautiful…and just as dead as horseshit.

He then goes on to offer some analysis of the opening paragraph. (He promises not to kill it or mount it, only to stun it a little before letting it fly on. I’m not sure he’s right to worry as much. I’ll change his metaphor to an analogy: what type of person doesn’t want to know how the magic-trick was done? What type does?)

Stephen King says he has neither the skill nor the inclination to offer a full analysis of Jackson’s dreamy opening. I’ll believe him about the inclination bit. Stephen King is a magician. I’d bet he knows exactly what Jackson’s opening does – but doesn’t want to reveal another magician’s secret.

Some think knowing the trick ruins the mystery. That depends on whether you prefer knowledge or mysteries. I’m not a magician, I always want to know how the trick is done, and I think knowing increases the beauty of it.

What does King say about it specifically? What he says about it first of all is interesting in itself. He states that

It begins by suggesting that Hill House is a live organism; tells us that this live organism does not exist under conditions of absolute reality; that because (although here I should add that I may be making an induction Mrs Jackson did not intend) it does not dream, it is not sane.

Does the opening ‘suggest’ Hill House is a live organism? I suppose it does, but ‘suggest’ is right. All humans are live organisms, and the first sentence tells us that to remain sane, live organisms need to dream. By ‘dream’ Jackson could well mean ‘fantasise’ or even ‘hallucinate’ as both these describe ways the mind of a live organism, a human one at any rate, can escape reality and therefore maintain sanity.

However I am unconvinced the first sentence actually refers to Hill House. It seems like it does, given the sentence which follows, but one needs to try to explain Jackson’s words ‘not sane’ to make this idea work.

Could she be telling nothing but the plain truth when describing Hill House as ‘not sane’? A house is indeed ‘not sane’ because it is a house, an object, not a live organism. Though something is ‘not sane’ it does not follow at all it must therefore be ‘insane’ – just as if something did not ‘turn left’ does not mean it necessarily ‘turned right’.

I think Jackson added ‘not sane’ into her description of Hill House to link it in the minds of readers with the first sentence, and could do so because to describe the house this way is still to tell the truth about it. If readers take it to mean something else then good: that might be the point – but Jackson hasn’t lied to anyone.

Once this piece of clever misdirection is complete, Jackson can then tell the plain truth about the house in more detail, knowing the reader will not be reading it as the plain truth. (Remove ‘not sane’ – therebye uncoupling it from the first sentence. Does it sound quite so creepy?)

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly; floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The ending sounds spooky, but it would be true of anyone who walked around a house by themselves. They would walk alone if that house wasn’t haunted.

In other words the first paragraph disorientates the reader; allows the reader to think the ‘problem’ – or the ‘issue’ as we might now say – lies with house, when the problem might really be with one of the characters about to pay Hill House a visit…

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You’re My Next Victim – Stephen King’s It

Late one night Stephen King woke me up. I was perhaps nine or ten. At first I had no idea I was lying awake, then – when I realised I was staring into darkness – I realised I had no idea why I was awake. I heard soft chuckling – just a gentle laughter in the darkness – that I couldn’t place in space. It could have been coming from under my bed. I lay still for several moments, a little nervous, wondering if I had heard what I thought I’d heard.

Then I heard it again.

I got out of bed and put an ear to my door, hearing nothing. I opened it and walked out onto the dark landing. I saw my parents’ bedroom light was on so went in to ask if either of them had heard the chuckling. My mother wasn’t there, but my dad was sat up reading It, and it was his laughing which had woke me up. He said he was laughing because the scene he was reading had some kids who were squatted down lighting each other’s farts. I told him his chuckling had woke me up and that it was a little creepy hearing giggling in the darkness, but it was alright now I knew what was going on. I went back to bed and slept without trouble. That was the first time Stephen King disturbed my sleep.

I didn’t know then that the scene in which those bullies light their farts – and it certainly is funny – is followed by a wonderful scene in which a twelve year old boy, Patrick Hockstetter, is half murdered by a swarm of flying leeches. One leech pierces his eyelid and sucks the eyeball until it collapses, and another lands on his tongue, sucks blood until it’s bloated, and then explodes in his mouth. Young Mr Hockstetter passes out as he’s dragged into the sewers by the entity called It, and he awakens only when, in the dark somewhere under the city, the creature begins to eat him. That might be gross, but here’s the thing: Patrick Hockstetter had it coming.

Stephen King’s It was published in September 1986. Thirty years later many fan-polls and blogs still cite the book as either his best or the fans’ favourite. Sometimes fans confuse a writer’s best work with their favourite work from that writer. Defining a writer’s “best” work is trickier than it sounds. It is probably not King’s best work, but it’s one which has its popularity secured by a collection of characters the reader easily sympathises with. The depth to which King thinks his characters into existence is remarkable.

Consider this for instance. Claudette Sanders – the first character mentioned in King’s Under the Dome – is taking a flying lesson, paid for by her wealthy husband, Andy. We are told of her that, although not exactly spoiled, she “had undeniably expensive tastes which, lucky man, Andy seemed to have no trouble satisfying.” At the end of the next page (page two) the control panel of the plane dies, and eight lines of prose later, Claudette’s body parts are falling on Chester’s Mill. Here’s a character created to be killed to open the novel, but King still gives her a whiff of backstory when he mentions her “expensive tastes”. Such a small detail begins to show the character’s character. Yet by the end of page three she’s dead. This is mildly extraordinary. We are forced to ask ourselves, if King thinks this much about a character who doesn’t last even two full-pages of prose, to what extent did King think about his Loser’s Club of kids?

Each of the seven children he creates to battle the entity are losers for different reasons. Bill stutters; Richie can’t keep his mouth shut, and has what might now be called “hyperactivity disorder” – or some other similar nonsense. Ben is fat and a loner; Eddie is the wimpy kid; Stan is Jewish; Beverly is poor and Mike is black. All these circumstances make the kids unpopular in 1958, not part of the “in” crowd at school. This is something which most of us can relate to, either by not having been one of the cool-kids, or remembering some unfortunate kid whose mum sent him in wearing Hi-tech trainers. (When I was a young teenager wearing Hi-techs was more or less a death sentence. Some parents are criminally fucking stupid. And here’s a darker thought: perhaps some parents secretly hate their children?) Thus we recognise something of our past selves in the kids King creates to face the creature. The Loser’s Club has something for everyone’s memory.

Many of us enjoy the regressing to childhood. We look at pictures and video from when we were kids and indulge our sadomasochistic side by going to the “school reunion”. Childhood is idealised in our memory and children, especially babies, are cooed at and fawned over.  This might be why so many of us are wet and feeble weaklings when we grow up. The Romans, not fond of children, thinking them rather gross and needy creatures, used childhood as the time to train and prepare for adulthood, without the cooing and fawning. Who would argue Roman men weren’t made of “sterner stuff” than us males are today?

Although we have a tale in which children are murdered and eaten, the book is pitched at the place where most adults are vulnerable: in our desire for nostalgia and our moist-eyed attitude to childhood. We can be pulled into the novel, let’s say, by Ben falling in love with Beverley Marsh because he sees her ankle bracelet, but we don’t need to understand what he feels precisely; to understand the ache in his belly  we need only to have some memory of our own for comparison.

It’s too easy to decide that King – or part of him at any rate – is to be found in the character of Bill Denbrough. King would have been the same age as the Losers in 1958, and Denbrough is the character who becomes a horror writer, his books inspired by his childhood experiences. Perhaps the Denbrough / King thing is too obvious on purpose? If King – allowing the nostalgia power to work on him as well as through him – puts himself in the book, perhaps he’s split between Bill and Richie. Bill stutters – so can’t express himself properly, while Richie expresses himself too well, yet hides behind characters who find expression through the voices Richie uses throughout.

Bill and Richie, working together, go to the House on Neibolt Street to kill It with Bill’s father’s gun. While in the basement, the creature comes down the stairs to get them in the form of the werewolf from the 1957 movie I was a Teenage Werewolf. Richie has recently seen this movie and it made an impression on him. It made an impression on King, too. Writing in Danse Macabre, King talks of the film and mentions the change from boy to monster. ‘For a high school or junior high school kid watching the transformation for the first time,’ King says, ‘this was baaad shit.’ He then points out the basics of the matter: the unfortunate teenage boy

grows hair all over his face, produces long fangs, and begins to drool a substance that looks suspiciously like Burma-Shave. He peeks at a girl doing exercises on the balance beam all by herself in the gymnasium, and one imagines him smelling like a randy polecat who just rolled in a nice fresh pile of coyote shit.

(For completeness, that teenage girl in the gymnasium was a twenty-two year old woman called Dawn Richard – a Playboy centrefold.)

Richie and Ben might be confronted by a werewolf because that represents what they’re most scared of at that time, yet the werewolf – the one from the movie, and the one in the novel, because the one in the novel is the one from the movie – symbolises something else: a fear of puberty and the sexual awakening which turns pleasant little boys into ravenous monsters. (Beverly – the only girl in the gang – recounts how It appeared to her as spurts of blood from the plughole in the bathroom. This is what she’s most afraid of, perhaps, for similar reasons to Bill and Richie; or because once her father knows she’s bleeding, he might want to take their relationship to the next level.) These fears are wrapped into a colourful package of classic American popular culture – the monsters from the movies – and might be dismissed for that reason as nostalgia for King, or for Americans generally of a certain age, but those hooks are universal, they lurk under the surface and will pierce the psyche somewhere of anyone old enough to read the book. (The cover of Detective Comics 671 has Batman protecting a screaming woman while surrounded by Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and the Werewolf – all monsters used by It – and that issue, from February 1994, was not aimed at people who were kids in 1955. Perhaps it’s fair to assume that teenage boys, from different eras, have the same preoccupations?)

The novel is pitched directly at the child you once were. In that way, it’s a shameless pitch, and too much of the book force-feeds us on the topic of “the magic of childhood”. This isn’t a vague term, interchangeable with “the best days of your life”, or something similar. King’s childhood magic is exactly that: a force which is somehow aware of the kids and uses them (and helps them) to battle the ancient entity under the city.

For example, Beverly – hiding from the boys lighting their farts, yet watching them closely – is attacked by one of the leeches which punches holes in Patrick Hockstetter. Beverly is the crack-shot of the gang; she’s armed with a Bulleye – a catapult which fires ball bearings. She loads it, aims at the leech she’s just pulled off her arm, and as soon as the metal ball leaves the pouch, she knows she’s missed her target.

But then she saw the ball-bearing curve. It happened in a split second, but the impression was very clear: it had curved. It struck the flying thing and splattered it to mush. There was a shower of yellowish droplets which pattered on the path.

The power the creature has is worth wondering about. It seems to have omnipotence and omniscience when it needs it, but these powers fail It when it suits King. Does the creature have powers or not? Two scenes with the Bullseye allow the reader to wonder.

Patrick Hockstetter is a child-psychopath, easily the most demented character in the book. His dementia means he isn’t scared of anything and this lack of fear makes things tricky when It comes out of hiding after sending the flying leeches. Hockstetter sees the creature come out from behind a junked car. He notices that

its face was running like wax. Sometimes it began to harden and look like something – or someone – and then it would start to run again, as if it couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be.

It says only ‘hello and goodbye’ to Patrick in a “bubbling voice”, yet Beverley hears her father say ‘hello and goodbye’. On the surface we understand this. Al Marsh is the person (thing) she is most afraid of (and had Beverly seen what had happened, not just heard it, she would have seen her father drag him off.) But this small scene actually poses problems for the novel’s logic. The creature can’t settle on what image to appear as to Hockstetter because it’s getting nothing from Hockstetter. It seems to be trying to “get a reading” but Patrick’s mind is blank of fears. Now on the novel’s logic, had Mike Hanlon been hiding with Beverly he would have heard It squawk ‘hello and goodbye’ like the giant bird; Richie would have heard the words in the sound of a werewolf’s snarl. So either It can broadcast on all frequencies or it relies on its victims to interpret one signal. Yet if it relies on its victims to interpret one signal, why is It bothering to shape-shift ‘as if it couldn’t make up its mind’? It implies the creature’s shapeshifting runs on some sort of evolved instinct – like an animal changing its colouring to suit the surroundings. This poses questions about the creature’s will, and therefore its abilities. What seems a way of demonstrating just how deranged Hockstetter is, actually dilutes the horror a little because it suggests the creature is simply feeding, rather than being actively wicked. We can get all gooey when the lion tears the baby antelope apart, but we don’t think the lion is doing anything bad. Yet we’re told It uses the tactic of appearing as whatever its victim is scared of deliberately. The fear is what ‘salts the meat’ for the entity. King seems to want things all ways, here.

Another curious scene with the Bullseye occurs back in the house on Neibolt street. The kids are there, armed with the silver-slugs they have made, to confront and kill It. Beverley almost wastes one silver-slug on a rat before Bill roars at her not to fire.

‘It wanted me to shoot at it,’ Beverly said in a faint voice. ‘Use up half our ammunition on it.’

    ‘Yes,’ Bill said. ‘It’s l-l-like the FBI training r-range at Quh-Quh-Quantico, in a w-w-way. They seh-send y-you down this f-f-hake street and pop up tuh-targets. If you shuh-shoot any honest citizens ih-instead of just cruh-crooks, you l-lose puh hoints.’

 This makes surface sense. But this scene, like the one in the junkyard with the leeches, poses questions about the will of the creature. The children believe the silver will kill the monster because that’s what the movies and comics say, and it seems the creature is damaged by what the children believe. Once It knows it’s the werewolf which scares them, it takes on the appearance of the werewolf, but also the monster’s weaknesses. Doing this strongly implies a lack of choice on the part of the creature. This scene is like a portal into the novel’s subtext. The novel’s creature is forced to have weaknesses because the novel’s subtext is that the fears the children have are of their own making, and are strong enough to manifest into reality: fear of bigger kids, of bullies; fear of illness and of monsters from the movies; fear of coming sexuality and the perils of puberty.

This is best shown when Beverly pulls back the Bullseye to fire, knowing very well she’s out of ammo. The creature believes they have another slug because the Losers act as if they do, yet a few pages before the creature was trying to get them to waste ammo on a rat, seemingly knowing what they were armed with.

Here the subtext actually breaches the surface into the action. (Another example is when It chases Mike Hanlon at the derelict ironworks: why doesn’t it morph into a smaller bird, or anything else small enough to get into the smoke-stack Mike hides in? One can only assume it doesn’t because it can’t. This is partially explained on page 990, when, from It’s point of view, we’re told that ‘all living things must abide by the laws of the shape they inhabit. For the first time It realised that perhaps Its ability to change Its shapes might work against It as well as for It.’)

One has to ask if the creature has the ability to change shapes when it chooses to do so or not? If yes, why doesn’t it do so? If no, then this really is where a portal into the subtext could actually be a rip in the dimension between the fiction and its subtext. One must remember that the characters do not know they are characters in a novel.

Most kids are scared of spiders and many adults remain scared of them. So when the empowered kids get under the city and discover the thing’s form – the closest approximation to its real form the human mind can see – is a giant spider, there isn’t much shock in that. Indeed, the spider’s appearance was foreshadowed. On page 404, there’s this exchange between Beverly and her mother, discussing the spider she pretended she saw when the blood spurted from her bathroom sink. She asks her mother if she had seen the spider, and her mother replies

‘I didn’t see any spider. I wish we could afford a little new linoleum for that bathroom floor.’ She glanced at the sky, which was blue and cloudless. ‘They say if you kill a spider it brings rain. You didn’t kill it, did you?’

    ‘No,’ Beverly said. ‘I didn’t kill it.’

It’s a nice touch that King has the mother note the sky is blue and cloudless before she worries about rain. The exchange clearly foreshadows hundreds of pages (and thirty years in time) later when the grownups think they kill the spider and downtown Derry is destroyed in a downpour, flooding the place and destroying the standpipe. The spider is again foreshadowed just prior to Mike Hanlon meeting the Losers for the first time during the scene in which Henry Bowers (possessed by It, as are the adults such as Beverly’s dad and Eddie’s mother) chases him. This drives Hanlon to the Losers, where he becomes their final member and they attack the Bowers gang in The Apocalyptic Rockfight. While chasing Mike, Henry throws a cherry-bomb (an extraordinarily dangerous firework banned in 1966) and in panic, Hanlon scales a fence and Henry follows; he stops on the way up to order his cronies to keep going, and was ‘hung there like a bloated poisonous spider in human shape.’ It’s a safe bet that if you’re not actually scared of spiders, you probably won’t be picking them up and stroking them like you would a puppy. Spiders are a scare catch-all. Spiders lay eggs, and King’s spider lays plenty.

Ben saw something new: a trail of eggs. Each was black and rough-shelled, perhaps as big as an ostrich-egg. A waxy light shone from within them. Ben realised they were semi-transparent; he could see black shapes moving inside.

He has Ben stamp on them and kill the spidery things inside as they squeal while trying to escape. In 1986, this image should have been familiar to horror fans. One month before King published It, James Cameron released Aliens, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien from 1979. In one early scene from Aliens, Ripley is talking to a collection of suits who have been trying to get her to justify detonating her ship. She tells them ‘Kane who went into that ship said he saw thousands of eggs there. Thousands.’ Nobody who has seen Alien will forget those eggs, and the spidery, face-hugger things which come out of them. The imagery in Aliens – the humans strung-up, ready to be hosts for the face-huggers; the semi-transparent eggs with something inside; the deadly female creature which lays them – are all repeated in It when the Losers chase the spider, and who would argue the Queen in Aliens isn’t a little spider-like? Even Bill’s wife, Audra, is strung-up in the spider’s web, a morsel to be eaten later, just like the colonists found by the Marines in Aliens. This isn’t a coincidence.

Like the alien Queen in Aliens, King makes his monster female, and there’s something nauseating about that image: a female spider laying eggs. Alien and Aliens tap into this directly with the idea of a human being a host for another living thing; though in King’s novel the spider doesn’t use humans as hosts – and only eats its victims because its victims expect it to – there’s a connection the films share with the novel, and the similar imagery is striking. Entire papers could be written on our fear of spiders and the identical images which the novel shares with the two horror films.

The story is a “coming-of-age” tale and nostalgia trip buried under popular horror wrapped in classic American pop-culture and movie history. The journey, from child to adolescent and then to “grownup” is a hard and depressing one: full of fear which sits in a belly which aches for different reasons. The battle the children have under the city, in the tunnels, is an important one, and those dark, scary tunnels are important, but the most important tunnel in the story is on the surface: the tunnel between the children’s library and the adult library. This tunnel is mentioned several times, and after the destruction of Derry, explodes for a reason which is not explained, leaving both libraries as separate buildings. It is suggested that the trip from child to adult is always going to be a hard one, with no shortcuts:

if you wanted to get from the Children’s Library to the adult library, you had to walk outside to do it. And if it was cold, or raining, or snowing, you had to put on your coat.

There’s no escape for any child; there’s no easy path from kid to grownup, and the truth is that while we happily skip about as a kid, telling everyone we’re doing fine and hoping they believe it, there’s terror going under the surface.

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Graceful Monstors

In the genre of horror fiction, many authors have touched upon the same subject matter and populated their works with similar characters. Serial-killers, Cop-killers, Child-killers: they have featured in hundreds of novels and films over the years. The same is true of Lovecraftian demons and spirits. Stories of haunting and possession are as old as history, and the deformed, shape-shifting and deceitful entities that are responsible for those haunting tales, have themselves featured many times across the work of authors whose lives have been separated by centuries. There appears to be nothing original under the sun.

Some writers do have an original take on an old story or character type, though. For example, in his novel, Cell, Stephen King has battalions of flesh eating zombies doing some nasty things to the population of Boston.  Zombie tales and movies tend to keep to a standard pattern: zombie eats you alive, you then become a zombie yourself, and you eat your mum or another dispensable support character. No explanation tends to be offered why the dead have decided to rise – or why they are so hungry – and the main plot of these stories revolves around the survival attempts of a few desperate groups of humans. Some of these elements are true of Cell, but there is one remarkable and original difference to King’s Zombies: they are alive.

The un-dead – or phoners, as King calls them – have received a mysterious signal through their mobiles which sends them violently insane. Their behaviour is similar to run-of-the-mill un-dead flesh-eaters from books and movies of the past, but only up to a point. King soon takes his readers away from the conventional as his story unfolds.

The movie Wolf Creek is another example of giving a tired format a decent revival. A serial killer, roaming at his leisure across Western Australia, kills tourists visiting the Wolf Creek meteorite crater. The psycho-is-chasing-you format has been done in dozens of movies – hundreds, more likely – though in this film we have a refreshing change. The psycho is a decent bloke. There are no funny facial ticks, no talking to voices in his head; the killer is played straight by John Jarrett, and is much scarier for it. Even at his most violent, Mick Taylor, Jarrett’s character, never falls into parody: Jarrett plays the part as if he was influenced by no other performance on stage or screen – a remarkable achievement, actually.

Wolf Creek has another piece of originality going for it: there is no double-take used by the director. This shock technique features in so many horror films that its effectiveness has been diluted. We all have seen this at work. The camera stands behind a scared character; they look left, and the camera looks with them. There is never a baddie to be seen. Then, they look right – again the camera follows to show the madman is nowhere around. And then – guess what – they look left again and the psycho’s face is inches from theirs. You never saw that coming.

Actually, there was a time when cinema audiences were scared to death by that now much over-used technique. The double-take was first used by director David Lean in his version of Great Expectations (1946). It was used to introduce Pip to Magwitch, and, famously, to introduce Magwitch to the audience. It worked brilliantly. So much so, less original directors still use it

Murderous psychopaths belong to no-one – they can’t be copyrighted, so there is no quality control in place. The same is true of all types of horror villain and monster. If you get lucky, you watch or read something that catches the attention because it breaks the normal way of telling that story or presenting those characters.

Richard Matheson’s Vampire novel, I am legend (1954) has a protagonist who is considered a terrorist – an outcast, because he is in a minority (a minority of one, as it happens) and the rest of the population of Los Angeles is a blood-sucker. The novel offers the theory that vampires are the next evolutionary step for mankind. This is better than presenting them as Satan’s disciples on earth, who avoid garlic and drink virgins’ blood. That version of vampires has been overdone.

But then vampires are the one of the most popular horror novel or movie creatures; it is not surprising there is so much pap printed on paper and celluloid about the fictional blood-suckers; but, there are writers who offer an intriguing and original take on this type of story.

Anne Rice is one of them. Her novel, Interview with the vampire, (1976) was a best-seller, and the first of eleven novels collectively known as The Vampire Chronicles. The series tells of the adventures of Lestat De Lioncourt, a French aristocrat and actor, who was kidnapped and turned into a vampire in 17th Century Paris.

Lestat is posh but penniless. He ventures into the big city with Nicholas, his companion to expand their horizons and make their fortune. Nicholas, a talented violinist, takes work in the orchestra pit of a theatre while Lestat, ever the show off, treads the boards. Life is perfect. They take-in the sumptuous city: the people; the wine; the food – they indulge their passions, but Lestat becomes un-easy at the sight of a curious white face in the audience each night. Someone is stalking him.

Rice offers a mix of Dickens blended with Dorian Gray. There is the overpopulated metropolis with the detritus-ridden underbelly, and slopping about upon its surface are the beautiful people; drowning in decadence and drunk on wine and passion.

Lestat, for all his foppish, Wildean extravagance, has a killer’s blood pumping through his veins. Before eloping to Paris, he killed a pack of wolves that had been slaughtering people from his home village. On horseback, with his beloved Mastiffs by his side, he hunted and killed them. Doing so cost him his horse and his dogs, but the starving villagers and their cattle had a chance to make it through a cruel winter. He was a hero, but the folly of setting off alone demonstrated his maverick side. It is that – along with his physical beauty – that captures the attention of Magnus, the vampire with the ghostly white face who has been stalking him.

It is here that Rice begins to deviate from the norm as far as tradition and popularity in vampire stories go. Vampires in her world are capable of love and passion, they are capable of guilt and sadness – they are monsters, they are un-dead – but why should that mean they must be mindless demons, automatically slaying any human they spot? Rice’s vampires choose how they behave. Too many times in horror fiction vampires are portrayed as being enslaved by the insatiable thirst for blood; they kill because of it. It’s their addiction and their food. Not so with Anne Rice.

The thirst is nothing more than a demonic craving, leading to madness if not slacked, but not required for continued existence. Her monsters are a human / spirit hybrid; the spirit element craves the blood, but the human side – the physical body – no longer requires nourishment. As her vampires age, slowly the thirst subsides until the ancient ones, those at least a thousand years old, no longer need it at all. And with age comes ever increasing powers.

Magnus is one of the ancient ones. He chooses Lestat as his heir after murdering hundreds of similar looking victims. Lestat has the perfect balance of beauty and aggression and Magnus, after taunting him in his dreams – calling him wolf-killer – takes him to his lair and turns him, and does so, much against Lestat’s will.

Rice’s hero continues his life, but as a vampire. He still visits his favourite places and enjoys the culture of the time. He is frequently found in the theatres, cafes and strolling along the banks of the Seine. The circumstances of his existence have changed, but his tastes, and his entire thinking mind, have not. It makes her characters far more engaging than the one-track-mind demons that meander from one virgin neck to another. It also demonstrates Rice’s skill as an author. A lead character needs to elicit sympathy from the readers of a novel or the audience of a movie. Rice’s Lestat is a mass murderer, and she still makes him engaging and sympathetic.

Play it straight and tell the truth, that is the safest way. It is too easy to make a murderer lose credibility by getting carried away with the killer’s dark side. Even a murderer has a sense of humour. John Jarret played it this way in Wolf Creek, but he’s not the only one to get the portrayal of a killer spot-on.

Harrison Ford did a similarly grand job in What lies Beneath (2000). He gives, possibly, his best performance as Dr. Norman Spencer, an academic who puts his research first. In one scene, Ford’s character is explaining to his wife how her death will bring him and her daughter closer together. It is clear he means it; he will look after his step-daughter, and provide the very best for her. As he explains this to his wife, he is filling the bath to drown her. It is the incongruity written into the scene, topped off with Ford’s delivery that gives the scene its power. Even allowing for Dr. Spencer’s insanity, he never once comes across as dangerous. He is a graceful monster. And where is it written that madness has to be dangerous? Who decided insanity must lead to murder?

One film comes to mind with a lead character so psychologically damaged that it is remarkable not a single member of the cast gets slaughtered; a movie with the most deranged protagonist: The King of Comedy (1983) is that film.

Robert de Niro plays the psychopath, Rupert Pupkin, a stand-up comedian with delusions (literally) of grandeur. It is one of the most disturbing movies I have seen. Not a single murder, hardly any violence, yet the impression left by this film lasts long in the mind. It is very uncomfortable viewing. It proves dead bodies and gore will always come second to a quality script and decent actors in the race to disturb an audience. To creep under the radar requires no trickery. It requires you pick the lock of their critical shields and slip inside using truth. This is why gore-sodden celluloid like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) will make an audience squirm, will make them jump, but will never get access to the place where humans are truly vulnerable.  Movies such as Saw and Hostel – and many others, of course – will try and batter their way in using boring tricks and double-takes.

Those blades are blunt.

It’s Hip to be Square

Let’s get one thing clear, American Psycho is a comedy. That needs to be understood before you read it. It’s a comedy about yuppies and how empty-headed and shallow they are: it’s about how far too much money and far too little imagination can cause you to begin to shrink your world, until you live in such a self indulgent cocoon, you cannot even spot the raving, murdering lunatic in your midst. That is what Easton-Ellis is telling us: yes, yuppies are that shallow.

This is a well-constructed work because it causes the reader to suffer from the same syndrome that grips the minds of most of its characters – only in reverse.

We have the self-obsessed city-boys, interested in the correct clothing labels and getting reservations at the right restaurant, and us, the readers, obsessing over the violent scenes of rape and murder, and – both us and them – missing the point entirely. The violence and murder are simply incidental to the plot, they are not the point. They serve the same purpose as a piece of misdirection performed by an illusionist. Just as you look the wrong way, the conjurer pulls a stroke.

Patrick Bateman is as hilarious as he is twisted: a perfectly tanned, toned and attired Metro-Sexual killing machine, drowning with pleasure in the very selfish excess that he despises, and yet must conform to the rules of. He maintains the required trophy girlfriend and adheres religiously to the latest men’s fashion, has membership of the most exclusive fitness club, styles his hair with a surgeon’s precision and forces rats into the vaginas of his victims.

There’s no accounting for taste.

His circle of co-accused are just as lacking in any sort of meaningful mental programming, treating the New York they live in as one huge private boys’ club, with membership relying on ticking certain financial and fashion based boxes on an ongoing basis. Most of the men in this work are successful, rich and stupid, and that is the point. A second point – which feeds the previous one – is that they never step out of the world in which they consume space, therefore never catch a glimpse of their own vulgarity, and, consequently, are unable to change for the better or want to. They are the small, obnoxious building blocks, whom together, make the impenetrable wall of arrogance and snobbery that protects their false, built-on-sand world.

Even between themselves, in packs of their own kind, these men are only half aware of each other. Do they even know who each other really is? They all have adopted the habit of addressing each other by their surnames, at least a large majority of the time. This is not so worrying until a particular character is introduced, and he starts referring to Bateman by the wrong surname. Why should this be worrying? Because Bateman responds to the surname as if it were correct, unable, due to the particular etiquette at work in their society, to offer a correction. This small, comical component offers to the reader some very disturbing questions about – if you will – the depths of their shallowness. When Bateman addresses an acquaintance, does he use the correct name himself? Are they just humouring him, shackled by the same etiquette? Is any of the group of friends Bateman surrounds himself with the people he thinks they are?

This question is thrust at the reader, when after killing Paul Allen, a man he has been obsessing over for sometime, Bateman learns that the same man has been seen in a restaurant in London. This is a confirmed sighting because Bateman is told by his victim’s dinner guest. So who on earth has he killed?

This particularly gruesome murder offers Easton-Ellis the chance to have another subtle kick at the world he is ripping to pieces. The killing happens in Allen’s own plush apartment. Upon returning to clean up the mess, Bateman – armed with a surgical mask to cope with the smell – has a brief conversation with a real estate agent who is re-selling the expensive property. The agent spots the surgical mask, and Bateman spots the mysteriously clean apartment. Their brief exchange involves the agent saying she doesn’t want any trouble and that Bateman should just go. So he does, walking away from the scene of his crime utterly bewildered, his fragile mind ever more confused.

It is exchanges like this that allow us to wonder if Bateman has actually been created by the world he lives in. Is the “greed is good” culture causing his psychosis? What could happen to a person’s view of what’s acceptable, when that person lives in world which lacks substance and any shred of morality; a world where even murders can be cleaned up if there’s a possibility of profit? Is Bateman the ultimate avenger for the self-indulgence of the slick-haired city boys and their air-head women? It’s possible, though I believe that Easton-Ellis lets Bateman loose on this world because he simply thinks they deserve it.

It was people of this kind that Brett Easton-Ellis was mixing with during the second half of the Eighties; he saw their world from the inside, the celebrity and credibility of being a writer allowing him rare access. He has stated that the time spent mixing with New York’s yuppie elite convinced him that they were the sort of people he would hate to be like; though they certainly left a lasting impression on the man, and this work demonstrates that impression.

He didn’t like them much.

I said this book is a comedy, and so it is. Consider this scene. Finally snapping and deciding to kill a chap whose attentions our psycho is sick of, he strides into the men’s room to confront his intended victim, his black-gloved hands ready to strangle the life out of this irritating man. As Bateman’s hands grip the man’s throat, the victim starts to smile, feeling the first stirrings of sexual desire. The victim is secretly gay (and must enjoy his own dark pleasures behind closed doors, it’s implied, if strangulation turns him on), and Bateman’s hands gripping his throat confirm Bateman must be as well. At last, the façade is dropped, now they can be together!

The comedy runs throughout this book. A urinal cake, taken from a men’s room, coated in chocolate, and then offered as a present, provides hilarity as the trophy girlfriend attempts to eat it. Bateman dropping his veil of normality and telling people directly what violent acts he’d love to perform on them (no-one really listens to each other, so he gets away with it), whilst the empty heads just nod along, paying no attention. Yeah, yeah, man. Sounds good, let’s touch base, oblivious that Bateman is telling them he wants to dig out their eyes.

The laughs are there, just so long as you don’t allow yourself to be tricked into paying too much attention to the violence. There’s plenty of it, and most is incredibly graphic, but it’s there to catch your eye – to keep you from the seeing reality: just like the soulless drones that populate the book can’t see it either. They’re too busy obsessing about designer labels to be able to.

Conscience or Country: Pink Gins and the Long Game

 

Philip Knightley: Philby: KGB Master Spy

Miranda Carter: Anthony Blunt: His Lives

Ben Macintyre: Philby: A Spy Among friends

Kim Philby: My Silent War

 

One would have hoped that all branches of the British war effort against the Nazis would have been tightly organised and facing their respective fronts against Hitler effectively. If the elderly and patriotic could keep watch on rooftops each night for German planes the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – otherwise and incorrectly known as MI6 – should have been able to manage a little order and focus within its ranks.

Incredible to learn that the SIS during the war years, was an exclusive gents’ club: the members of which had a penchant for pink-gins and long lunches at White’s. That any serious work was done seems an afterthought to justify the salary, and the salary – for Philby at least – was hit upon over a hand-shake and a wink. Six hundred a year and no bother from those chaps at the inland revenue. Got the gist, old-boy?

In short, the ‘service’ was a shambles: no ranking structure in place as such, no recognised pay-grades and no pension arrangements for retiring officers. This was not rectified until after the war, and Philby played his part in drawing up the new structure, but during the first half of the forties, planning and resources were not up to scratch.

Philby’s first posting was to a training school – newly formed – to teach hand-picked recruits in counter-espionage. Things were far from perfect. One horrific tale involves an agent, fresh out of training, being parachuted into territory over mainland Europe. His gear, quite inexplicably, became entangled in the plane’s undercarriage and he was ‘hurtled along, at mercifully high speed, into unconsciousness and death’.

What a way to go.

The most memorable tale from this period is also the most amusing. The Luftwaffe, for reasons best known to them, dropped a landmine over London and let it float slowly to the ground attached to a parachute. This was seen descending by Philby and his comrade, Guy Burgess. After cooking up a little mischief, Burgess called SIS and spoke to the duty officer, a chap busy fielding telegrams from stations all over the world. The hapless officer was told many parachutes were seen – ‘between eighty and none’ – and the necessary calls better be made swiftly. A reserve force stationed in East Anglia was mobilised on the strength of this jape.

Philby was an officer in – not just for – Soviet Intelligence for seven years before he was recruited into the SIS. He was a straightforward penetration agent from the beginning. One early adventure for the Soviets was spent in Spain working with Franco’s forces as a journalist for the London Times. This was a wash-job, insisted upon by the NKVD, to cleanse his name of the leftist allegiances he had made at Cambridge. It worked – or rather Philby worked it splendidly – because Franco himself gave Philby the ‘Medal of Merit’ for his right-wing efforts. By the time he was offered his six hundred a year, he had plenty of hours under his belt in deep-cover work.

With the end of the war came the re-structuring and recruitment. Occasionally, though, there was a morsel of something interesting to engage the brain. Called into the chief’s office and handed a file of papers, Philby was asked to read through and see what he made of it. It was almost the end of him.

Konstantin Volkov, a jittery fellow looking to defect to the West from Istanbul, had told our man in Turkey a few titbits to wet the British appetite. One little detail was the confirmation of three agents deep in the British establishment: two in the Foreign Office, the other, a senior of counter-espionage in the SIS – Philby himself!

He wrangled it to go to Turkey to interview this fellow, but before Philby got to him – something he had been delaying for obvious reasons – Mr Volkov was urgently spirited away back to Moscow. Neither Volkov or his wife were heard of again, and were removed from the stream of history. One can imagine Volkov and his wife begging to die.

Philby was a fanatic.

A few years abroad, not much more than mischief-making, were followed by a posting to Washington DC to forge closer ties between the SIS, CIA and FBI. One can only imagine the glee with which a master of his art approached a few years in the US while the country was in its paranoid McCarthy phase. Philby had coached a group of yanks who had come over during the war to learn the trade, and one of these chaps was James Jesus Angleton, a man who was to head the CIA later and was Philby’s friend. (Philby’s treachery sent old JJ half mad later in life.)

One may be forgiven for assuming that J. Edgar Hoover and McCarthy would have been on good and close terms, being as they were both obsessed with communists; but Hoover, at his first meeting with Philby, when asked directly what he thought of the Senator’s credentials, replied: ‘Well, I often meet Joe at the race-track, but he has never given me a winner yet.’ I am still wondering which is more surprising: that McCarthy was useless, or that Hoover could use metaphor to impart this knowledge to Philby.

Perhaps it is directly connected to the Americans’ surplus of money and men that incompetence and poor thinking about the enemy are imbedded into the DNA of the US hierarchies charged with finding their enemies? Whatever the answer, some amazingly poor thinking infected the Whitehouse as well. The Rosenbergs were caught, eventually, by leads uncovered by the SIS in Washington. Of this case, Philby mentions Eisenhower revealing his total ignorance of espionage:

It is worth mentioning that Esienhower explained his refusal to reprieve Ethel Rosenberg on the grounds that, if he did, the Russians in future would use only women spies. It was an attitude worthy of the most pedestrian of United States’ presidents.

It is frightening that a US president could believe that. Did he not have any advisers to put him straight before he went public with that stupid assertion?

Philby continued his work for and against Communism, eventually inviting Guy Burgess to stay with him after the latter’s posting to the US. It was here they both were forced to cook-up the plan to save their comrade, Donald Maclean.

Maclean was under surveillance and could not approach his Soviet handler for this reason. He was also in London; his two comrades, far away in the US capital, needed to get him to safety. Philby could not simply jet back to Britain, it would have looked too out of place; but Burgess, if he could get posted back to London, could use his own soviet contact to help Maclean. Within days Burges was pulled over for numerous speeding offences, much to the displeasure of his station and their American hosts, and sent packing back to London. The plan worked and Burges and Maclean did their famous midnight-flit. Burges wasn’t meant to go with Maclean. All knew he had lived with Philby in Washington, so that put him under immediate suspicion.

Philby was called back to London for interrogation, but no decent evidence existed against him. He was interrogated several times and gave nothing away. Eventually he resigned but was called back into service and spent time in Beirut before he was forced to make the trip home to Moscow. Possibly it was Anthony Blunt – at that time the unknown ‘fourth man’ – who tipped him off. However it seems more likely that Nicholas Elliot, a career MI6 man and friend of Kim’s, deliberately made it easy for Philby to defect from Beirut. A trial would have been a messy embarrassment: Philby had been publicly exonerated some years before, and the nod had come from the top, so having him up on charges would have been worse than having him turn up in Moscow.

Damage limitation, old-boy.

It is interesting that British spies fled to Russia only after being compromised; and did so to avoid prison terms of decades. Although the motivations of all are worth considering: the motivations of the British especially.

The question which many characters asked themselves – and this was especially true of Angleton and Elliot – was how did Philby manage to deceive so many for so long? This is a masochistic question. It can easily lead to a person’s psyche eating itself as it replays the past looking for clues, finding none, and ends with the person concluding they are lacking somehow or that Philby was some sort of genius. Philby was not a genius. Stories about his ‘charming character’, and how this helped to fool people is probably a sort of romantic excuse making for the inherent stupidity of the system which gave him a job and mindset of those within it. His deception was successful partly because the ‘establishment’ did a large part of the job for him. The old-boy network had a childish naïveté running through it. The belief that a man from the correct background was automatically a ‘good chap’ is an article of religious faith. One can only despair at Philby’s vetting. He was recruited into the SIS because the head pinstripe, Valentine Vivian, knew Philby’s people. It’s almost unbelievable that the security of the country was maintained in this way. That he was a communist at Cambridge and a soviet agent in Austria and Spain, and that he married that communist sex-pot, Litzi Friedman, should have raised an eyebrow somewhere in London’s clubland. That old Kim wasn’t filtered out before he got in is religious faith in action. This is the first reason Philby was successful. The second was his extraordinary good luck in not being exposed by a defector from the other side. The Volkov incident seems to be the only time this came close to happening. The stress must have been enormous, and it’s no surprise he was a boozer. No, the impressive thing about Philby is not the deception, it’s that he held his nerve.

To call Philby a fanatic is probably correct, and it’s the defectors who would have used his name as their buy-in to the West which suggests he was a fanatic. There was a reason they wanted out, and the Soviet spies risked their lives to pass their information to the West, while the likes of the Cambridge spies risked only prison and disgrace. The risk was unequal. The choice, between the West and the Soviet state, wasn’t simply a choice between two ideologies, where everything was a matter of taste, there were objective differences. Stalin’s regime was objectively wicked. It tortured and starved and murdered. It was an evil regime. The British and American governments, though hardly perfect or without blame in the world, ran things more generously for their citizens. Philby’s claim that he could support the ideal while not supporting the regime might be logical – such a thing is quite possible for a mind to do – but only a fanatic would help the regime. Philby could have looked at Stalin’s doings, and decided to keep Britain’s secrets to himself until a more realistic communist regime came on the scene. That he chose not to suggests he really wasn’t messing about. (Unlike Blunt, say, who seems to have been a Marxist and a spy because it was intellectually fashionable at the time.)

The Cambridge spies are called ‘traitors’ but one could argue it’s only really Blunt who deserves that title. Philby certainly doesn’t, and the argument why not is perfectly simple. It’s fair to say that, to label someone a traitor, they must have switched sides. That is hardly controversial, and actually seems to be necessary to avoid the disgusting idea of ‘automatic loyalty’ to a country or state, which is a servile idea and one to be avoided. One cannot claim that Philby switched sides because he was never on ‘our’ side to begin with. Even if many of the claims in his memoir are to be doubted, the claim he was a penetration agent from the beginning is obviously true given his doings before joining the SIS. The ‘establishment’ call him a traitor, and it’s that establishment he made look stupendously idiotic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philip Knightley: Philby: KGB Master Spy

Miranda Carter: Anthony Blunt: His Lives

Ben Macintyre: Philby: A Spy Among friends

Kim Philby: My Silent War

A Ragged Review and an American Beauty

In the late 1980s Thames television made a documentary about a young chef whose restaurant – ‘Harvey’s’ –  in Wandsworth, London – was considered one of the best in the country. The head chef, Marco Pierre White, was only in his twenties but considered a genius. The man’s philosophy was simple: less really is more; let your ingredients speak for themselves and don’t clutter up your plate trying to be clever. One dish demonstrated this philosophy perfectly. His ‘panache of foie gras with pan fried sea scallops and carrots’ was exactly what it claimed to be – just three ingredients.

Restraint requires confidence.

If The Rag were served to me on a plate then I could believe that the chef really knew what he was doing, for The Rag has but three ingredients: prose, poetry and art.

Issue 5 – Winter/Spring 2013 comes with a cover featuring a bloodied rendition of Carlos the Jackal: the blood around the mouth suggestive of his taste for it – though there’s more going on inside his head if you look closely. In another picture there is a human figure, cuddling a rabbit, though the figure is sporting a wolf’s head; another human figure, this time with a cheetah’s head, is doing the same.

The notion that a human has, perhaps, his savagery restrained by societal expectations, while just under the respectable surface there is lust, blood-lust and a truly carnivorous sexual desire, is one which could well be suggested here; though perhaps such an interpretation is too close to the surface meaning of those mentioned images to have much worth.

There is no fuss to this magazine – no unnecessary garnish. After Carlos’s cover, there’s a contents and credits page, then we are into the work – the main ingredients.

The first bite offered is a story, Momemto Mori, written by Stefanie Demas, and if the first bite seduces the taste buds, then one knows the dish is right. So what can one say about Memento Mori?

It is a remarkable piece of work. The narrator is a complicated creation. Innocent, charming – and therefore probably friendly; intelligent, intuitive and utterly, hopelessly – yet beautifully – deranged.

Our narrator is driving to a funeral home to steal a body and spirit it away to secluded spot for sex. However, grim and ghoulish this is not. And it is that which makes the story so wonderful. It must be no easy task to have a narrator describe sexual feelings towards corpses and have that narrator sound quite so reasonable.

‘I was five years old when I remember seeing death for the first time,’ we’re told. ‘I knew even then I was interested.’

We’re given a scene in which the young narrator watches a bird hop about before being set upon and quickly killed by a cat, and this sight captivates her and there begins a healthy interest in death.

The narrator seems to have rare access to those considerations of beauty reserved for the high-brow and the aesthete, but with reservations:

‘I will not say that it was beautiful. Beautiful wouldn’t be the wrong word, necessarily, but it would give you the wrong idea about me.’

Could that wrong idea be the notion that our narrator’s interest is purely aesthetic? That could be the case because her interest is definitely physical. Here we have a synthesis, a merger between the low and the high, the closed-eye humming to classical music while the fingers get sticky.

Death, to this narrator, however, is more than an aphrodisiac.

When considering a corpse one might see the sinking of the cheeks or the new prominence of the bones as the signs of a person transforming into a cadaver – the new physical status: the first stage on a journey which sees a person’s atoms return to the universe.

‘I could see that his shoulder blades had begun to form themselves into wings.’

In that we have the aesthetic, the optimistic and the deranged – all brought together in a simple, beautiful line.

I don’t much care if this is an example of Demas showing her own art through her character, or – as a student of Stanislavsky could appreciate – a form of method-writing, either way it is beautiful. Death: the invisible chrysalis.

Of course, ultimately, there is no hope for this narrator. No reader could sympathise with one who harbours such exotic tastes, so removed as they are from regular experience. Such people are disturbed. Or are they?

Consider the following:

‘What about the widow who kisses her husband’s waxy face, clenches his frigid hands, as he lies in his cushioned box? How do we define that kiss, those touches? As love. As nothing unusual. And never, never would we call it by that name. How can we name-call and persecute when the distinctions are so shaky?’

This is clever because it sounds exactly like a person who has thought about their tastes and wondered what they might say under questioning. What we have here is the tip of a philosophical iceberg, a logical argument. And who can argue with the logic? Step by logical step we can unravel the argument for ourselves. Doing this leaves us unsettled because we are forced to answer a new formulation of ‘the paradox of the heap’ – and who can answer that?

It is some feat of creativity to have a narrator who is a rarefied aesthete; gentle; logical; and also one we can sympathise with. Yes, this is a caring narrator. The evidence is in the prose.

While driving to her final destination, her cargo stowed in the back of a stolen hearse, our narrator is passed by trucks on the highway:

‘The trucks sounded like whales as we passed them in the night. With the radio off, we could hear that their deep rumbles were accompanied by low, mournful cries – a searching call through the dark ocean expanse. My heart wanted to break for those trucks, my eyes wanted to cry for them. Whom had they lost? Whom did they need to find?’

What skill, yet again, it takes to synthesise the sympathetic with the gently deranged. One wants to kiss the narrator on the cheek, to stroke her hair. How could anyone have anything but affection for such a kindly soul?

Before reading this story I was reading Mailer’s Fire on The Moon; today I have just started Philip Knightley’s biography of Kim Philby, and after that I have the collected works of Nathanael West. But now my reading is disturbed. Now I want more from Stafanie Demas. I want more from this American Beauty.

And what skill it takes the editors of this magazine to select ingredients such as these and to let those ingredients speak for themselves.

I’ve given The Rag five stars.

Michelin would have given them three.

To Whom Evil is Done

‘I mean, you’ve got to compare method with method, and ideal with ideal. I would say that since the war, our methods – ours and those of the opposition – have become much the same. I mean, you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?’ He laughed quietly to himself. ‘That would never do.’

Well, quite.

Imagine the following. A man is lashed to a chair, being tortured. His nails are being extracted from fingers on both hands. Working one hand is a fellow from the east, pulling nails for the greater good of the workers and the revolution. At the other hand is a chap from the west, pulling nails for freedom and democracy.

Where is the morality to be found?

If the morality is not in the action, then anything is permissible for the cause; if it is in the action, then how can we say we are the good guys?

I believe that if an objective morality exists then it exists in the cause, not the action. How could it be otherwise? The evil in the world – indeed, ‘the problem of evil’ – is argued away by some by claiming that God might have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil to exist in the world. Such a position is ‘thin’ – as thin as an honest alibi as Chandler might have it – but it’s better than nothing.

Funny to read a book in which the British – in this case the British Secret Service – are just as wicked and pitiless as the enemy. One might be able to derive a certain pride from this. It’s good to think of the chaps in the shadows having the measure of the enemy and doing what is necessary in the battle to allow ‘us’ to ‘sleep peacefully in our beds’ – or whatever platitudinous drivel happens to be current linguistic currency. But is there a limit to what can be done to the enemy? Le Carre doesn’t answer this, but he does pose the question.

So, what do the British do in this marvellous novel?

We keep a sadistic Nazi in position because although we know he’s a torturer and murderer, he’s also our man in East Berlin, and – because he’s our Joe – we’ll look the other way for the sake of the product.

While we’re at it, we target a good, loyal and thoroughly decent fellow – because he is suspicious of our man – and frame him with an elaborate plot which will end with this innocent man’s murder. One must protect one’s assets, old-boy.

To bring this about, we’ll use a British girl – just a ditzy librarian, full of innocent ideology – and weave her into the intrigue before slapping her onto the table as our ace-card. Alas, we can’t have this poor creature running about the place and spilling her guts to anyone who’ll listen, so we’ll do a deal with the guards on the cold side of The Wall. We’ll let our man get up and over, but we’ll have them shoot the girl to keep her quiet, and she can spill her guts while she fades away.

Splendid plan – capital sport! Pass the brandy, old-man.

Isn’t it a bit rum to ship a British girl over to the GDR on a pretext, knowing full-well we’re planning to have her killed? Not at all, she’s a card-carrying party member, her choice, dear boy.

The cynicism in this book is breathtaking. The ruthlessness is not the point. As Auden points out:

 

I and the public know

What all school children learn

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return

 

There probably is some psychological truth to that, though the pinstripes in this novel do more besides.

I felt like I needed a thorough detoxification after reading this one.

Splendid novel, though

Sexcrime

I have made two attempts to read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, succeeding on the second attempt. I gave up the first time (about a third of the way in) because there was ‘something’ wrong with the book, though I could not identify it. About half way through, on the second attempt, I realised what the problem was and identifying it brought a thought about what is wrong with Orwell’s 1984. The problems with these books are different, though caused by the same thing and I will explain what that is.

The Communist Manifesto calls for the abolition of the family. The communists want this because the family fashions bonds which are stronger than patriotism; and traditional, life-long heterosexual marriage is the sealing bond which keeps the family together. A communist state cannot have its subjects living like this because their first loyalty will not be to it, but to each other. This will never do. But a stroke of a bureaucratic-pen cannot abolish the family, as the manifesto demands. No matter how great the state apparatus is, abolishing the family can only happen in slow-motion, and it takes decades.

The first way to start the slow-motion change is to introduce sex ‘education’. Sex education was the idea of a man called George Lukacs. He was an education commissar during the Hungarian revolution. The point was to debauch the minds of children who were religiously brought up. That is why sex education exists. Do not swallow the pathetic and weak excuse about preventing unwanted pregnancy; the truth of sex education is the other way about.

Huxley made sex one of the key ways in which persons are conditioned in Brave New World. Babies and small children are encouraged to indulge in ‘erotic play’ and learn that sexual promiscuity is natural and normal. The exact opposite is true of 1984, in which females are coerced into the ‘anti-sex league’ and chant enthusiastically for the abolition of the orgasm.

Huxley understands that sex leads to children and that means continuing the existence of the family. He sorts this by having humans not born, but decanted, and this further allows the state controllers to tinker with the growing humans to determine their intelligence and class and so on.

Orwell’s proletariat simply live under tyranny and ludicrous intrusion into their lives by the big-brother bureaucracy; and, remember, the thought-police kick the doors in when Winston and Julia are together. No illicit love-making permitted in Airstrip One.

The methods of the two tyrannies are exact opposites of each other, in other words. The thought-police will torture and batter you with clubs, but the authorities of Huxley’s book play soothing sounds from loud-speakers and spray the rioting crowds with soma to deal with mass disorder.

I don’t think Orwell missed the connection between totalitarianism and the destruction of the family by encouraging sexual-freedom, but he was pushing the bureaucratic tyranny to it utmost, and that meant that sexual conduct had to be monitored and controlled, along with everything else.

I am unsure which regime is worse. Orwell’s slaves do not resist because they dare not – the power of the state is total; but Huxley’s slaves do not realise they are slaves to begin with. Both societies are horrid in different ways but for the same reasons, arrived at by different methods. And both writers make a mistake (in terms of story telling) which makes their societies less awful than they might have been.

Orwell’s mistake is to make his society a circle, not a pyramid. There is nobody at the top, living in luxury while the lower orders suffer. It is such a vast state-machine that it seems to function for its own sake; but there needs to be a hierarchy, a pecking order, because it is that which keeps those closest to the top loyal. They are waiting for their turn in the chair, and each person, on each rung, is doing the same, waiting to move up one place. That is how a hierarchy works. Orwell is honest enough to follow his logic and take things right to the edge, but in pushing it so far he reduces the horror slightly. The world of Winston Smith would have been worse if there had been man at the top, keeping power and devising ever more twisted ways of keeping it.

Huxley does the same thing, follows his start-point to its logical conclusion and reduces the purity of the soft-horror he envisioned. Some call Huxley’s book a utopia, or a negative utopia. You can call it whatever you like but it may not be called a dystopia; and it may not be called a dystopia for the very reasons Huxley tried to make it one: The abolition of the family.

Without love and loss, without heartbreak there can be no human tragedy. If everyone belongs to everyone, and can take whoever they like as a sexual partner whenever they fancy it, then no-one is special, no one is loved, and without those things, when persons have no family or emotional ties, there is no horror because there is no loss. Without horror there can be no dystopia.

Huxley, like Orwell, honestly followed his thinking to its conclusion and the book is certainly worth it for that reason, but the Alphas in Brave New World don’t have much to complain about it seems to me. The book is neither a dystopia or utopia, it is a work of social and science fiction theory.

Both could have been more horrific than they are; that they are not shows the authors were dealing first in testing ideas (and remorselessly driving those ideas forward until they ran out of road) and were writing fiction second, not for its own sake but as the medium of delivery for their thought experiments.

Scooby Dooby Don’t

There will always be some humans who say they have ‘the right’ to take drugs. Perhaps they do. Perhaps they don’t. Which is it? One thing is certain, when a person claims ‘It’s my body, I can do what I like with it,’ there is a flaw in their reasoning.

Does the argument change when a person believes that they do not ‘have’ a body, rather they ‘are’ a body? Listening to some, it is clear the belief in the illusive ‘I’ is alive and well, and why not? The foregoing, when considered at length, can bring a chilly realisation…

One can see, straightaway, there will be (or should be) several other persons involved in our lives who would wish it that we take care of the body we have or are. My aunt is rapidly dying from lung-cancer and I would prefer that not to be the case.

If drug-taking is wrong, what makes it wrong? This is easier to answer if the drugs taken are illegal. One could find sanctuary within the walls of the law. But that’s far too easy, and dangerous. Who wants to be left holding the logic which states if something is legal it is morally right? Not me, thank you. Then again, who wants to argue drinking caffeine is morally wrong?

I am happy to be corrected here, though I remember reading that, on a chemical level, nicotine breaks down caffeine and a person recently free from cigarettes should also cut their coffee intake because without nicotine, the caffeine has a greater affect on their brains.

The affect might be greater irritability, insomnia or restless sleep – the affects of caffeine are well known, yet their affects are not considered a moral problem. Why not? Caffeine, the common name for trimethylxanthine, is a drug, a chemical a person freely ingests which has affects upon their brains they might not experience if they didn’t take it, yet it gets a free pass from any moral questioning.

That free pass could be because of the affects themselves. Ingest enough C8H10N4O2 and you might be less calm, but unlikely to be up for a spot of the old ultra-violence because of the mixture of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen you just ingested. We all consume chemicals which are unnecessary for survival, so if taking illegal drugs is wrong, I doubt it’s wrong because they’re illegal; taking them is wrong because of their affects and it’s the affects which make them illegal. It’s a small point, but it’s one which filters coffee and cola out of an argument they should not be in to begin with.

The moral questions come about, Peter Hitchens writes, when the affects of the drugs taken stupefy the taker into incoherence or dangerous behaviour they would not otherwise indulge in. This argument tends to bring up the question of alcohol. If booze is legal and is the cause of sickness, murder and other kinds of death – then why should certain drugs, especially cannabis, remain illegal?

Hitchens devotes chapter seven to this question, ‘What about alcohol and tobacco, then?’  He points out that this question is one of the key parts of the debate and states (with dry humour)

‘Once a substance is legalised, it is extremely difficult to declare that it is illegal. That is why we should be so careful about legalising cannabis and other currently illegal drugs. If this turns out to be a mistake, it will not be easily put right.’

Who says Hitchens has no sense of humour? He obviously does. Next he’ll be telling us that ‘alcohol, taken in sufficient quantities, has been known to produce all the effects of drunkenness.’

It is to his credit that he uses humour this way. It might be a sign his arguments are so obviously sound that he can afford to inject a little humour here and there. A person could be forgiven for expecting a sermon or a bossy lecture from the chap. No doubt Hitchens is capable of that, but he doesn’t do it in this book.

There are other examples of his dry humour. On the question that a person has the right to do what they want to the body they either have or are, because doing so is a fundamental freedom, closely allied with freedom of speech and freedom of thought, he states

‘I realise that in our secular society, an appeal to the authority of Mount Sinai or the Holy Trinity is not likely to be decisive.’

Superb. He continues from humour to seriousness

‘It is perhaps hard to see how anyone who valued either speech or thought should wish to spread the use of a drug that fuddles thought and makes speech halting and incoherent, but it is so.’

That is a fair example of the book’s tone or style. You get simple, logical arguments, offered using plain English as their delivery system. Splendid.

Another example, after quoting several cases of cannabis users committing violent or mindless crimes – and to refute the idea that the drug ‘chills out’ (my phrase) its users, he says

‘I am making no claim here beyond these modest points: if cannabis is a peace-promoting drug then its effects are not always evident in its users.’

Well, quite. My eldest son has been far too fond of cannabis for some years and his behaviour when smoking the stuff is upsetting. He can be obnoxious, paranoid, needlessly argumentative, downright abusive and sometimes violent. During the periods he doesn’t smoke the garbage his behaviour is significantly different. Nothing else he ingests seems to have this effect on him. Without the example of my eldest son I might well shrug my shoulders and fall-in with the crowd who make the ‘what about alcohol?’ point, but I cannot. And I know my son’s mother has, many times, been anxious that he stop smoking it. My interest is declared.

I have never been fond of this country’s political class, at any level, from Westminster to ‘my’ local councillors. It is my belief they are – all of them – entitled to no privacy whatsoever and every aspect of their lives is a legitimate target for public scrutiny and press intrusion.

I should like to know what they do, where they do it and with whom, and how much of my money they spend doing it. (I have a good friend, a psychiatric nurse based in Cardiff, who told me he and his colleagues had been out on the town, more than once, on ward funds. Another friend, a finance officer in a school told me that, many times, school funds had been used to throw leaving parties for teachers and to buy presents for them and so on. Hardly is this Watergate, but it is significantly irritating.) Yet those politicians who are (possibly) not corrupt in that sense – don’t feather their own nests – but ‘tinker’ with the laws and carry out their social experiments on the rest of us, are perhaps worse than the politician who rakes off a few quid. Some of the characters within Hitchens’s pages – and not all of them politicians – are guilty of poisoning society in a sense. They might not have meant to do it, yet that says nothing about what they actually did do. You’ll have to read the book yourself.

The next time (if there is a next time because he seems to have sorted his life out at the moment) my eldest son punches holes in a bedroom door while his younger brother and sister are watching, I might invoice Paul Mcartney for the repair.

Stop Bloody Whining

There I was standing in front of a vine
I took some grapes and I crushed them to wine
I gave some to Pharaoh who drank from my cup
I tried to interpret but I had to give up

 – Joseph and the Amazing Techicolour Dreamcoat

 

I am an admirer of Sam Harris. I am now and admirer of Maajid Nawaz. One of Harris’s regular complaints is that his critics misrepresent his views on many topics, and misrepresent him on the Islam question very often. It was actually pleasant to have Naawaz – someone who can be called an ‘expert’ on the topic of Islam and Islamism – actually explaining certain Koranic doctrines.

Harris for instance argues that the Koran actually tells people to do certain things, and some of those things are not ambiguous. He gives an excellent example to Hasan when he says that, nobody reading the Koran is going to close the book and believe they can now eat bacon and drink alcohol. Some things are directives.

Nawaz responds on alcohol:

[..] everyone assumes that all alcohol is absolutely prohibited for all Muslims. In Arabic the word assumed to mean alcohol is khamr. There’s a long-standing historical discussion about what khamr means and whether or not it’s prohibited. An extremely early tafsir (exegesis) of the Qur’an was by Imam Abu Bakr al-Jasas, who hailed from the Hanafi school of jurisprudence within the Sunni denomination of Islam. The Hanafi school is known to be the first school of interpretation and therefore the closest in proximity to the time of the Prophet. In his interpretation of the Qur’an, al-Jasas discusses the linguistic meaning of khamr at length and elaborates on why for Hanafis a literal interpretation of the word covers only a prohibition on wine from grapes. This means that for the jurists of this first school, it was permitted—and still is for those who follow the early Hanafis—to consume any form of alcohol other than wine.

Suddenly, a reading of the Koran can allow alcohol so long as it’s not wine from grapes. This was an eyebrow-raiser for me.

Nawaz’s basic position is that Islam is not a religious of peace, nor is it a religion of war. It’s just a religion which can be ‘interpreted’ to mean this or that.

‘Interpretation’ is an interesting word in respect to textual analysis.

Persons misuse language all the time. Persons will use one word to disguise another because the one they use suggests they are smarter, or kinder, or something else. For example many parents and teachers will demand ‘respect’ from the younger person, and might shout this. They don’t realise that ‘respect’ cannot be demanded because it’s is a matter of how the other person feels about you. When the parent or teacher demands respect they are probably demanding obedience. This is a different thing, and it makes sense why the parent or teacher would perform a sort of doublethink on themselves by masking the word. Such a person might genuinely believe they are asking for respect.

It’s a similar thing with ‘interpretation.’ When a person declares that they ‘interpreted it to mean..’ they probably mean that they ‘imagined it to mean..’

(Imagination in this context is connected to desire.)

Using ‘interpret’ sounds more technical, it sounds like you’ve being doing some hard mental work; ‘interpret’ is only a step away from ‘decoded’ which really would require some hard work. So it’s obviously better to claim this than to claim you’ve ‘imagined’ the meaning of the words, because ‘imagined’ just means you’ve ‘made it up’ – so who would need to take you seriously?

I wonder if those in the head-removal community find Koranic warrant for their bloody fun by choosing to ‘interpret’ the text to mean what they want it to mean.