Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Lonely Legacy of the Gentleman Ghost (or) M.R. James at the BBC

In the annals of the spooky and the halls of the haunted, few names command as much respect as M.R. James. Considered one of the masters of the Ghost story – a different beast from the ‘horror story’ mind – James’ work has flittered and gibbered across the literary and cinematic landscape sine he first wrote his short stories in the early decades of the twentieth century. In the late 60s and 70s the BBC began adapting his work as part of a one-episode a year ‘series’ that came to be known as ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’. While possessed (pardon the pun) of their share of flaws, these stories nevertheless remain among the most ambitious attempts at atmospheric television ever produced. Unnerving rather than shocking, ghoulish as opposed to ghastly, they have been recently released on DVD and are worthy of a visit.

James was an academic, a member of that dwindling race of bent and bespectacled men wrapped in tweed and woolly sweaters, stalking libraries and sunlit chambers twinkling with dust. His stories are vast landscapes speckled with lonely, overeducated bachelors who are perhaps too curious, and possessed of too much free time, for their own good. The title of ‘A warning to the curious’ the 1972 BBC adaptation, can stand as a plot summation of most of James’ work, but a certain predictability doesn’t detract from this story’s quality. An out of work middle-aged man comes to the desolate coast of East Anglia, searching for a long-lost pagan crown, only to find himself menaced by a spectral guardian. In between the expected story beats there is a pulsing heart of unease, due in no small part to the quality of performers, and of the production. 

The cinematography is superb – a slow tableau of grey beaches encased beneath frigidly blue skies, their hollow vastness broken only by the occasional crumbling church steeple. The players of the story are often made tiny and fragile in the framing of these expanses, yet the reliable stable of British character actors ensure we sympathise with their fates.

The spooks, and this is true of all of these adaptations, work better as vague presences rather than explicit menaces. The BBC of the time was famous for the wobbly special effects of programs such as Doctor Who, and the producers of this series, aware of their limitations, chose to keep the ghosts offscreen as much as possible. Just as well – in many episodes (such as the otherwise nearly perfect ‘Whistle and I’ll come to you’ of 1968) the ultimate reveal of the spectre is the story’s most glaring shortcoming (Bedsheets? Really?).

As the 70s progressed, the episodes began to dig deeper into the James canon, picking out some of his lesser-known tales. James, despite being the almost archetypical ghost story writer, had a tendency for featuring some very untypical ghosts. Indeed, they are less pale, bloodless phantoms and more…somethings…that squirt and clamber through the narrative, their natures and limitations unnervingly unclear. The somethings of ‘The Ash Tree’ are particularly well realised, with their tell-tale cry, resembling a baby’s whine for milk, inspiring shivers long before they make their appearance. The something of ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ is also notable: sometimes flapping about like a bat, yet leaving a slimy trail like a vast slug, yet in appearance it may (or may not?) be no more than an unassuming hooded monk. This is a well-paced and well-performed episode, helping us forget that its plot is virtually identical to ‘A Warning to the Curious’.

The last three episodes of the series (76-79) abandoned James for one Dickens adaptation and two original stories. Yet the shadow of M.R. James dominated the memory of this very unusual series, inspiring several latter day ‘homages’ by the BBC in the 2000s. 

James was placed at the very end of English rural era, when ghosts occupied isolated farmlands and wind-swept desolations. The ever expanding cities and the urban transformation of the country more or less spelled the death-knell for such stories, as fewer and fewer young folk grew up knowing the particular panic of hearing a branch crack while walking alone on a moonlit country road, or seeing a strange figure pursue you along the blustery coastline. Today our fears tend to be focused on the flesh and blood rather than the spectral, with recent horror cinema in particular focusing on knife-wielding madmen, or zombies (a popular stand-in for the average person’s not-unreasoned terror of the rush-hour crowd). The wilderness that the English ghost once inhabited has been physically reduced and has largely been abandoned by the popular imagination. 

This abandonment might explain the bitterness and rage exhibited by James’ ghosts – they are excessively vindictive, for example, and even returning their treasure/seeking out religious protection/escaping their territory may not be enough to quell their wrath. They saw their time was nearly up, and decided to take as many of the bastards with them as possible. Still, whether as taken as ‘warnings to the curious’ or as relics of an age when a tale of terror was almost…genteel…these stories and their BBC interpretations are particular somethings indeed. 

Well played, well shot and most importantly well told, they are proof that the old-fashioned spook story hasn’t quite yet given up the ghost. 



Sunday, October 28, 2012


  "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a wildly ambitious film with a fabulous central child performance. It's a shame that its creators thought they were too good to buy a tripod. A magic-realist account of poverty, environmental disaster and prehistoric monster attack, 'Beasts' follows 6-year old wild child Hushpuppy, who lives in an old trailer atop a tree in the wetlands somewhere in the southern states. When their community is flooded after the polar ice-caps have melted, Hushpuppy has to deal with her crumbling hometown and her very sick father. A sort of mythologizing of Hurricane Katrina, "Beasts" is best when in CU on Hushpuppy or her father's faces, both of whom are outstanding first time actors. On the other hand the charming local community becomes increasingly less charming when you realize their stock reaction to any problem is to get collectively drunk, and the prehistoric monsters, despite a great build-up, eventually only play their part. Worst of all is a hand-held camera that consistently distracts from some beautiful cinematography and storytelling - one gets the impression that the cinematographer had a few too many hits of the moonshine himself. Still, this is a very unusual film with some wondrous elements - take a few pills for motion sickness and strap in.


Saturday, June 30, 2012

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Purple Man Living in the Closet is Not a Metaphor

It's all a big mess, you see. A huge, terrific mess, and it can never be fixed.
The stage goes dark with a crack, as a lightbulb falls to the floor. A man in the great tower of STUFF on stage right begins fiddling with gears and levers, but only seems to generate sparks. In the flashes of fitful illumination, human beings dressed in white briefs and long fur coats scurry amidst the wreckage like exposed cockroaches. A set disintegrates with every step of the performer, beginning with a door crumbling inwards as an ever-so-tired worker comes open. A man flees from a falling pile of boxes over thirty feet high. And there's this man, in a purple dress, who just wants to get back to the one man party he's hosting in the closet.

It's a strange, dark and terrible world made flesh on stage, you see, but in these days of panic and uncertainty it all feels so terribly familiar. There's no music that isn't beaten out by gibbering performers on the backs of tables, and a vast silence is felt, vast and bloated and waiting, just beyond the chaos so well choreographed downstage. Tunnels of light are forged with a few flickering spots here and there, and performers tend to be lit for their shapes rather than their expressions. What expressions we do see are always those of fear. Well, except for the purple man. He has his own miniature disco ball in the closet and he's doing fine.

It's not all kooky silent French madness, though it certainly is that. There is much comic timing and much laughter (monkeys like to laugh at other monkeys in pain), and there is so much detritus falling about that you are a bit shocked that no one gets conked in the head. A woman has gravity reverse on her out of sheer belligerence, and men in coats bury her under furniture for convenience. A vast and terrible war is played out between paraplegics over a glass of water. What does it all mean? The title translates to 'suddenly', and that's how it is, isn't it? All your proud and noble efforts, and along comes an ass with a wheelbarrow to take away the glass of water. 

Maybe it's a bit long, and maybe it's a bit shadowy and, as some sorts in the seats around me commented, it's very French. I dunno. While I was watching those poor benighted fools onstage, I was reminded of the joy of seeing limbs flail amidst dim lights, and shapes descend into vast caverns beyond easy sight. I wished to rush onto stage and hug them, for the desire to be among them, and dig through their junk. Hope persists, but it has begun to gnaw, I admit.

All that aside, it was a sight, oh yes it was. I was struck, as the lights (really) rose and the public twittered to itself, how one voice was heard to sneer "Yes, but all that could be done by anyone with a lot of hard work."

As if that were an insult.

The show was L'Immediêt by Camille Boitel, and here is were you can see it:

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Year in Time

Gromley here, students of the mystic arts!
And so a year has passed. A year rambling, work, tangents and most mighty explosions of creativity! The heavens have been shattered, the earth has boiled, the seas turned red and cats have developed opposable thumbs. Destiny has been thwarted, and fate embarrassed. Nothing was, and everything shall be.
Not that it all makes a lick of difference of course because NO ONE WROTE ANYTHING DOWN.
That's right. Verg was a little electric kindle of nervous energy at the progenation of this blog. "The People," his hiss, "The Wonder!" he cackled! I rubbed my hands with glee (though I rub my hands without cease, for they be stitched together most thoroughly) and Mumbles picked up a crowbar and started smashing the car windows in. All was as it should be. But what happened? What was the ruin of our mighty scheme?
   Our Doom had a name and it was BELPHEGOR.

   That's right, fellow devotees of demonology. Belphegor needs no introduction to the likes of you. Nor does he need an introduction to the hordes of cloying "Belphegor - the Death/Thrash/Metal Band", whom dominated the millions of pages of google image I had to wade through to uncover the image above. But enough of this! Belphegor is real, and he had his brown-encrusted claws around our hearts for the last year.
   Belphegor, you see, is the demon of sloth. No great deed gets done within his kingdom, not when there are billions of hours of distraction available at such pits of despair as, or when utterly pointless games may be played and won for no other gain but the loss of a few more hours to suffer through before death ( He makes mannequins of our flesh, and polymer-cheese slices or our souls. He is BELPHEGOR, and were he not trapped on that toilet with an eternal case of heavenly-inspired constipation, he would not just kick our allegorical asses, but rend them to the very atomic fibers. Fear the coming of the Satanic Suppository that will free Belphegor, my children! Flee from the Toilet Paper of Tantalus that will cleanse his bowels!
   Thus drowned in self-loathing, indifference and home-sickness did we loose a year, a year!, of our lives to that foulness you see above. That year is irretrievable, and the Reaper draws closer with every moment spent on the electric siren that is the net. Even now, Verg and the rest of us struggle to be truly free of his machinations - a struggle, I fear, that will last yet for many decades.
   But wait! There is hope. Like the Serpent of Midgard itself, our body wriggles and stretches within the icy realm of Belphegor's influence. Inspired by friends, family and our own perverse dreams, we come to blink, scratch our eyes and awaken. We move again!

   As part of our methodology of discipline, Verg, Mumbles and I are determined to post one of these rambles every week. They may be dull. They may be useless. No one may be listening. But the route to success is littered with bizarre activities and we, my friends, shall be bizarre!
   So stay tuned! Harken onto our struggles! Defeat and death, of Victory and (eventually anyway) death, lie before us! Strike up the trumpets! Call out the guard! Release the hounds and feed the monkey! The days have just begun!


Gromley says: Haphaestus Hegemony!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bad Weather and the Terrible Questions it Inspires

Grim and stoic are the clouds of London. With growing concerns about my vitamin D intake did I regard the unmoving, grey ceiling of the heavens from my little window in Leytonstone. Is it in the shadows of these bulbous cherubim that I must tread for the rest of my voyage through these streets, I asked myself? No! Well, yes. Upon reflection I was forced to admit that I was utterly impotent as far as the clouds and their divine movements were concerned. Was this, then, my lot? A long fall towards depression and rickets?
In desperation did I turn to the good people of London for inspiration. “Oy dung Noh lih’ul pup it” said one spotty fellow with a ring through his nose. I edged away from him with speed. “Oh, a serpentine, furred horror” said a man with a bowler hat.  “Kurva Lalek!” exclaimed a dark-haired lady with loud cheek bones.
Ah, but such is the cacophony of London! A thousand tongues, mated with a thousand manners, to produce a thousand songs, and not a single one of them on key.

And still the clouds were fixed and firm above me. With a wary slither did I cross the historic Tower Bridge. How many existences have tumbled off into the belching embrace of the Thames from beneath those unseemly spires! There was a faint tickle at the back of my brain at the thought – perhaps I…? But no. First of all the Thames is undoubtedly cold and secondly – well, who has the energy for that sort of thing these days?
It was then that a djinni descended from behind one of the towers. He was a flurry of metal wings that spun like a turbine, releasing sparks and flourishes of golden ether. Two shining purple eyes stared at me fixedly from within that maelstrom with coy invitation, and with a hiss the whirl of magic and will settled on the pavement beside me.
“Oh djinni!” I shouted, “Oh symbol of a lost age! Tell me where I might find succour amidst this modern ennui!”
“Fancy a copy of the Star?” the djinni asked, shoving a fistful of finely decorated pulp under my nose, “Only a pound. Wait till you see our page three girl – she’s from SCOTLAND!”
It began to rain, and I hurried on.
On, London, London! I reflected on the history of this old and blasted place. How many wars you have endured! How many waves of immigration have rushed down your streets! How much construction, reconstruction, Roman conquest and Capital invest has stained, tarred and burned the stones at that surround me! How much culture, art, literature have gestated in your belly! How much wonder and terror has poured forth from your bowels, generation after generation, to scar and enliven this spinning ball of hope, of excrement! What muse, what deity, what fecund LIFE is it that sits in the heart of you to create such a wash of the incredible?

A sea serpent was stuck on a buoy just a few hundred yards from the south bank. It was a fat, green amphibian as long as a bus. A red crown of bulbous flesh pulsed steadily behind its jaws, and its smooth, oily skin shone dimly in the pale light of the afternoon. Several barges were navigating around it, prodding it, attempting to roll it off its perch.
“So sorry,” it muttered, not looking at anyone, “So sorry, dreadfully sorry, oh this is so embarrassing.”
A middle aged, round MP with a thick grey moustache starred at the serpent and the barges for a moment, and nodded. “Hmm Hmm,” he said with an approving nod, “Mmmurh,” and set off to towards Parliament.
And the rain was a drizzle now, and I had forgotten my raincoat. My fur was soaked to the skin, and it was a feeling of utter dejection that a sat upon a stone bench outside the national theatre, to watch the crowds pass before me. ‘In London,’ I thought, ‘humanity is a river,’ and it was with distracted pleasure that I watched them. There, the new family: tense father, desperate mother and child arms spread and smile golden. There, the lonely old man: back bent, cap stuck on tight and quietly aghast at the frank reality that life was a disappointment. There, the young lovers: hand in hand and lips nuzzling necks, clinging to each other for they know the currents are strong.
And there – but what is this? Two middle aged men, gaunt and trim and proper in spectacles, their shirtsleeves folded back over their elbows, faces frowning in concentration; these two men are putting on a puppet show.

But such puppets! At the end of each puppeteer’s arms there is a construction of cane, wood, fabric that resembles a crippled man at the end of a long life. With arthritic slowness these objects stumble about their apartment; with pained slowness do they admonish each other for their forgetfulness; with the practice of decades do they express their love.
And all of them wood! Wood! Wood! Ah, to make the dead dance, to make the inanimate shiver for cold! Too often do I neglect my faithful puppeteer whatzizname, my dear biped, and grant him little enough credit for his work to me. Without him, how would I ever reach my wheaties?
After their show, I crawled up to the puppeteers to offer my congragulations. They were sweaty, tired and goofily happy creatures. Their puppets and I exchanged respectful nods – we puppets, outside of our professional lives, rarely have time for each other.
It was then that I noticed thin tubes connected to the puppets’ necks, leading into bandages strapped around the puppeteers’ upper arms. A dark, pulsing liquid seemed to move from through these opaque pipes – heavens! Was it blood?
“Yah,” nodded the puppeteer with the close-cropped hair and the easy smile. “About a half a pint a day. We picked up on this trick about a year ago. We’re not sure why – and it’s not like the puppets ask for it – but it improves the performance.”

His partner, thin and serious, watched us intently, “Yah,” he said, “Now they move as if they were alive. It hurts a little, well, sometimes a lot. But,” and he looked thoughtful for a moment, “Not too much. Nah, it’s not too bad. And the audience loves it.”
I left them to the sound of coin tinkling in their hat, and wandered a while longer without thought, and with me went the immortal clouds of London.


Good day, respected and responsible peers. 
It is my duty to inform you that the puppet company referred
to above in Mister Verg's typically circuitous mannner
may in fact be "Handspring Puppet Company".
You may view their work on the interconnection network here:
Thank you. Please continue to read Russian Literature.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


   "Go to the South Bank!" they said, smiles on their faces, "What a fine and lovely place!" Being carved from trusting material, I agreed.
   The South Bank. What is the South Bank? Well, there is the river Thames, bowels of the city and home to gaunt, muttering fish. It wriggles its way between glass towers, bloated museums and overpriced Italian joints, tirelessly carrying the offal of the world capitol off, off into the sea which waits, patiently, somewhere. Millions have trod over it, pissed and spat into its waves. It bisects London neatly in half and for generations things were nice and simple - North of the Thames was the place to be, South was not.
   Then, in a mad rush of Mongol conquest, that changed.

   The south bank was colonized by a race of clean cobblestones, trees arranged by geometric logic and bridges bred from ivory serpents. The drug dealers and cockney gangsters who had dwelt there sputtered in rage for a while and then followed the Neanderthal down the lonely roads of history. Overnight the South Bank swelled with the sound of pitter-pattering hordes, as Londoners, tourists and all manner of creatures in-between made the South Bank their Roman Highway. This was the scene of the Great March that leads not to Rome or the Vatican, but to plastic Big Ben replicas and a Ferris Wheel that costs you £20.
   And me? I slithered along with the best of them. There's all sorts of neat places like the National Theatre and, um, the Globe is there as well. In between that big silver snake bridge thing and that really expensive Ferris Wheel is the field where they've stored all the street performers. They've even allowed them to perform there, at least until the trucks come.
   The day was not bright, and sure the clouds were fat and angry and you could even see the rain down the river to the east, but being England such was to be expected. I was impressed with the sheer volume of families, fat men and stunned would be hippies calling the stones their own, and while I did not precisely feel welcome no one was threatening immolation. I leaned against the cold walls that overlook the eternal Thames, and prepared for a session of intense, serious-looking introspection.
   I heard something smacking its lips, once then twice, wetly.

   I looked about. Nothing but Frenchmen eating ice cream, but not THAT loudly. Could it have been the water lapping some five meters below me?
   I heard it again. Smack smack. Where was it coming from?
   It was then that I noticed the lamp posts. They were placed at regular intervals along the Thames wall, high things of wrought metal that just oozed Victorian elegance. The daylight, faint as it was, gave their dark hides a glistening, unhealthy sheen. It was not yet evening, and the lamps that blossomed above were dead.
   The base of these lamps was a fascinating design: two vast, scaled creatures with their heavy chins dripping over the wall, tails raised up and intertwined till finally their fins formed the cradle the lamp itself called home. What remarkable things! Their lips were heavy, their mouths agape in an expression not unlike a silent scream. Their eyes were unfocused, staring haphazardly into the passing crowd, devoid of expression and desire.

   I was amazed that I hadn't seen these things before! How many, I thought, passed by this incredible bit of urban sculpture without a glance, eyes only for the flashy and new? What a sad comment on this age, on this zeitgeist! I could barely restrain a grin - finding these statues would be a private gloat for me. For me alone would they reveal their aesthetic pleasures! Oh rapture! A closer examination was needed. The only thing spoiling the sight was a baby pacifier that some thoughtless suburban mom and left within the mouth of the statue, dangling, looking a little wet. I stood up from the wall, and prepared to step closer.
   In the corner of my eye I saw a woman standing next to the statue. She had been examining a map, her free hand placed idly on the baby carriage before her. Her brow furrowed. She leaned over. "Sam?" she cried, thinly. The carriage with empty.
   Indifferent, I turned back to the statue. I saw a red tongue sneak from its lips and haul the pacifier back into its gullet. It took only a moment. Not another inch of the thing had moved. The mother started to make a dry, retching noise.
   That night for dinner I had pasta and some toast with honey.