Posts Tagged Stephen King

In the midst of life, we are in death, etc…

…. and nowhere more so than in the haunting (in so many ways) French drama The Returned which recently left viewers on tenterhooks (or alternatively furious and vowing never to darken its doors again) with a final episode that left more questions than answers, and a long wait for series 2.

The dead return, apparently unchanged (at least initially), and unaware of their deadness.  Camille walks through her front door as if nothing untoward had happened (she’d died in a coach accident a couple of years previously), demanding food and  complaining bitterly that her room has been rearranged.  There’s no overt horror in her re-appearance, which allows a much more subtle take on its effects upon her family.  The pattern is repeated elsewhere as the newly undead attempt to find their old lives and slip back into them, only to be confronted by the fact that other lives have moved on in the meantime.

Where do these revenants fit in, in the literature and mythology of the undead?   They are not ghosts, which tend to be seen only fitfully and not by all, and to have no physical substance – Camille and her fellow returners are absolutely here, physically, ravenously hungry and startlingly randy too.  Ghosts often have a purpose too – like Banquo they are here to shake their gory locks at those responsible for their untimely demise, or to seek a way of resolving their unfinished business in this world – but if these have a purpose it’s not clear what it might be – at least not yet. They are not zombies, whose physical substance has been reactivated without the personality, the mind, the soul (if you will) that previously accompanied it -  an ex-person, reduced to a body and a hunger – these returners know who they were, who they loved, and have the full range of human thought and emotion.

Dramatically, there is much that recalls those stories of individuals believed to be dead, and reappearing unexpectedly to cause consternation and conflict as they try to reclaim their lives (Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, Martin Guerre, Rebecca West‘s Return of the Soldier).   However, Rebecca West’s returning soldier and Balzac’s Colonel Chabert are not instantly recognisable as the people they once were.  Chabert, who has clawed his way out of a mound of corpses, looks like what his former wife would wish to believe he was, a madman and an imposter.  Those who made their way home across Europe, as he did, over a century later, were often changed beyond recognition too, their health (mental and physical) permanently damaged, skeletal and haunted both by what they had witnessed and by their own survival.  The return of the deportees was a ‘retour a la vie’, and some at least, with care and medical treatment, did begin again to resemble their previous selves.   Like Dickens’ Dr Manette, ‘recalled to life’ after years of incarceration, and gradually establishing a fragile hold on life again.

In The Returned, Camille’s father says to his estranged wife Claire that ‘you prayed for this’ – it’s an accusation rather than a statement, even though in his own way he too had sought a continuing connection with the daughter he’d lost.  That reminded me of the episode of Buffy (‘Forever’, Season 5), where Dawn attempts to use witchcraft to bring back her mother, realising as she hears the footsteps approach the door that what has come back will not be the person she is grieving for.  She breaks the spell, just in time.  This thread is picked up in the following season as Buffy herself crosses back over that threshold between death and life, and feels that she isn’t quite as she was, that she has ‘come back wrong’.

Stephen King explored this too, in Pet Sematary, where the knowledge that one could bring back the deceased is too powerful for the protagonist to resist, even having tested the water, as it were, with a cat (who most decidedly isn’t the creature it was before)

and in the madness of terrible loss and grief does not turn back as Dawn did from bringing back his lost son.   The returned in King’s narrative look and sound almost like themselves.  Almost.  They know stuff though, that they should not know, and they are malign, clearly demonic.  Some of The Returned’s revenants seem to know stuff in the same way and to be able to use their knowledge to challenge or goad the living.  But whether they are on the side of the angels I would not want to say.  Ask me in a year or so, when I’ve seen Season 2.

The Returned‘s revenants were not (despite Claire’s prayers) brought back by the living, they appear to have simply returned.  But throughout literature the appearance of the dead amongst the living has always been associated with a threat – with the terror or destruction of the living, or with the exposure of past crimes and injustices.  Or, at the very least, the confrontation of the living with the trauma of death, in the person of those who have inhabited the liminal space between death and life. Thus neither the unexpectedly alive nor the undead can simply be reintegrated into society, even if the living can accept them.  They haunt us, and are themselves haunted,

What these various narratives address is the sense of unfinished business that is inevitably part of bereavement, and the notion that death is a threshold that might, just, be permeable.  There’s a moment in an otherwise entirely negligible children’s film, Caspar the Friendly Ghost (yes, I know, bear with me) where the dead mother entreats her husband and daughter: ‘I know you have been searching for me, but there’s something you must understand. You and Kat loved me so well when I was alive that I have no unfinished business, please don’t let me be yours.’  That one line justifies the existence of the film, for me.  Because so many of these narratives are really about how impossible it is for the living to deal with death.

Which takes me back to Buffy, and the extraordinary words that Joss Whedon puts into the mouth of Anya (she’s a thousand-year-old vengeance demon, but don’t worry about that, the point is that she says the stuff that we feel, and think, but don’t say):

I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why. (‘The Body’, season 5)

So the unfinished business is not theirs, but ours.  And they come back, in dreams, but we know that their presence is not quite right, that time is out of joint if they are here.  I’ve dreamed so often that my mother is alive.  But never without that sense of unease, which could not be further from the feeling that I associate with her, of warmth and comfort and of being loved.  She has gone, and we haven’t got over it, and we won’t, but we know it is real.

Still, that boundary, that threshold, is always disturbingly present, just on the edge of our field of vision, and so we will continue to be fascinated by the notion that sometimes they do come back, and how that might be, even if it is and will always be the stuff of nightmares.

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2012 – the best bits

2012, for me, has been the year of the blog.  The year that through this medium I found a creative outlet, met some fascinating people and discovered some wonderful writers, engaged in some stimulating and unexpected discussions, and generally had my optimism about the internet reinforced.  I’ve been uplifted, fascinated and inspired on a regular basis by bloggers such as Diana J Hale, Vertigo, The Fife Psychogeographic Collective, That’s how the light gets in, Weaver’s Journal, Steve Sarson and Decayetude.  And my blog on the US election led to a mutually respectful encounter with Rick from Billerica, with whom I would disagree about pretty much everything, except the principle of mutually respectful encounters with those who hold different views.    On the Our Island Stories blog, set up in the aftermath of  the Olympics to talk about questions of national identity, we’ve had contributions from some of the above, and also from Kate Elmer, Mike Press, Emily Wilkinson and  Diane Magras.  To all of those people, and so many others, thanks!

The internet comes in for some harsh criticism – and I read ‘below the line’ often enough to be brought almost to despair at the bigotry, the hatred, the cruelty that’s out there, only needing the anonymity of an internet forum to come spewing out.   But my own experience has been entirely positive.  Through blogging, through Facebook and Twitter, I’ve made friends, had fascinating conversations, shared enthusiasms, learned stuff.  I’ve connected with people I would never have encountered at all  otherwise, and connected in unexpected ways with people I already knew.  This obviously doesn’t invalidate the experiences of those who’ve been subjected to the viciousness of trolls and the deceit of sock-puppets – but it needs saying, that it can be, and often is, an enormous force for good , and that connections made via the net are not intrinsically less ‘real’, less worthwhile than those made by other means.

So, looking back at 2012, these have been some of the best bits, culturally speaking:

  • John Akomfrah‘s extraordinary The Nine Muses
  • Watching the ever elusive and enigmatic  Last Year at Marienbad twice – to be the subject of a later blog.
  • TV : Homeland -  plot holes wide enough to swallow up the odd aircraft carrier, but the degree of ambiguity in all of the main characters has been wonderfully sustained, and the denoument was unforeseen.   Line of Duty and Good Cop shared the best of those characteristics.  Misfits and Being Human somehow survived a brutal cull of main characters to emerge still witty and surprising.  The Walking Dead kept us on the edge of our seats, where we must remain until February, and anxiously awaiting news of Daryl’s fate (and the others, obv, but hey, Daryl!).  Oh, and Dr Who continued to be marvellous, moving and magical.
  • I’ve been reading Proust.  A statement which will probably feature in my summaries for 2013, 2014 and possibly beyond.   I’ve been fascinated by two particular elements recently – the constant referencing of the Dreyfus Affair, and the theme of sexual ‘inversion’ – and rather less fascinated by some of the aristocratic dinner parties that one has to endure almost in real time, such is the detail with which they are described.   There have been moments when I’ve wished Robespierre had been a little more thorough.  I’m about at the halfway point in the whole A la Recherche project.
  • New great stuff from Stephen King (11.22.63), Hilary Mantel (Bring up the Bodies) and Jon McGregor (Even the Dogs)
  • First encounters with writers I should have read before and will read more of  – Hans Fallada, Alexander BaronHaruki Murakami  and Wilkie Collins.
  • Lynn Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s – I approached with caution knowing that she was riffing on my favourite novel of all time, Bleak  House, but I need not have worried.   Indeed, I went straight from Tom to her earlier novel (Murder at Mansfield Park), and have her next on pre-order – and she led me to The Woman in White as well.
  • Theatre -  Geoffrey Streatfeild in both  Macbeth at the Crucible and Copenhagen at the Lyceum, Betrayal (lovely John Simm) at the Crucible
  • Tramlines festival – Screaming Maldini and Early Cartographers in Weston Park, The Third Half at the City Hall, Soukous Revelation in the Peace Gardens, Jim Ghedi & Neal Hepplestone at the Cathedral, and Frankie & the Heartstrings, Field Music and We are Scientists on Devonshire Green.   Three days of music spilling out of every bar and coffee shop, of sunshine and people dancing in the streets – literally – and generally being nice to each other.
  • Music in the Round – a fabulous Quartet for the End of Time, an introduction to Louise Farrenc, and the early polyphony of Pérotin and the Notre Dame composers in Sheffield Cathedral.

2012 has been the year that the Hillsborough families were vindicated, utterly and unconditionally.  The year that the truth was not so much revealed – it had been in plain view all the time – as spotlit, so that there were no shadows in which the lies could continue to lurk.  And that justice seems finally to be within reach now.  Massive respect to all of those who fought this battle when it must have seemed hopeless, when everything and everyone seemed to be against them.

And it’s been the year of Inspiration for Life.  The year a dear friend and colleague, Tim Richardson,  was diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and a whole community came together to support him, and to help him set up a charity to do the things he believes in – supporting living, giving and learning.  We’ve been both devastated and uplifted.

So – onward to 2013.

No resolutions as such.  But anticipations and aspirations -

  • Graduating (again), and planning the next stage of my lifelong learning, and publishing (if I can, in real, proper, academic journals) some of my work on Michel Butor
  • Fundraising for Refugee Action – having hung up my trainers, I’m not sure yet how I can best do this, but their work is vitally important and I want to do what I can
  • Reading Proust, and lots of other stuff.  Lots and lots.
  • Enjoying to the full Sheffield’s rich cultural life – theatre, arthouse cinema, Music in the Round, Tramlines, Festival of the Mind, Arts-Science Encounters, Site and S1 and Bloc, and more
  • Blogging, about Butor, Sebald, French cinema, refugees, Dr Who, national identity, and whatever else is buzzing around in my mind at any given moment
  • Enjoying working with physicists, astronomers and other scientists, and facilitating what they do, through what I do
  • Continuing to be an utter geek
  • Listening to as much music as possible,  with as eclectic a range as possible
  • Getting Inspiration for Life going – with the 24-hour Inspire at the end of Feb (24 hours of lectures, activities and entertainments), the publication of Tim’s diary, and the art exhibition in May, funds from which will go to local cancer charities (Weston Park Cancer Hospital Charity, St Luke’s Hospice and Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice).
  • Going on about stuff that matters – refugees, environmental issues, injustice, inequality, that sort of thing.  Going on and on.
  • Doing all the above whilst being a good-enough parent, partner and friend

Phew!  No pressure then.

Thanks to all who’ve enriched my life  in 2012, and with whom I’ve shared the best bits.   Here’s wishing you all good things in 2013.

 

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In defence of the undead

In response to Stuart Heritage’s article in this week’s Guardian Guide, I  have no intention of defending the indefensible (i.e. Twilight).   And I haven’t yet seen the first episodes of the new series of True Blood, The Walking Dead, or Being Human – Heritage may, for all I know, be right that all of these have exhausted whatever value they had.   However …  I do rather mind being stereotyped by my love of these shows.   For the record, I do occasionally wear a black t-shirt, but I do not practice witchcraft, do not have either a cat or a Tumblr site (que?) and if I did I would neither dress one as a butler nor call the other Elysian Moonquaver.  And I do not accept that I have to choose between dressed up cats and Robert Pattinson or forswearing the whole genre.

I fully intend to continue to despise the wretched Twilight and to regard Buffy the Vampire Slayer as one of the absolute high points of television drama, and to love True Blood (madly over the top, and, yes, featuring some rather fetching topless men), and the Brit equivalents,  Being Human (can it survive the departures of Mitchell, George and Nina?), Misfits (can it continue, after that frankly rather gobsmacking final episode?), The Fades (will there be another series?).

It all goes back to Buffy.  Not, for me,  to Dracula, or the George Romero zombie films, or Hammer Horror.   Joss Whedon‘s show overwhelmed all of the assumptions I’d made on the basis of a silly title (Sabrina the Teenage Witch, anyone?) – just as The Stand disposed of my prejudices against Stephen King.    Buffy had some seriously naff special effects, but it was never about that.  The scripts were so sharp, so funny, so packed with layers of references that throwaway lines are often key to a more weighty subtext and the characters never lose their plausibility however bonkers the storyline.    Through the medium of this fantasy with vampires, demons and all kinds of inhuman creatures, we’re exploring human relationships – teenagers and parents, sibling rivalries, sexual discovery and betrayal, bereavement and loss – in a fantastic context that allows these things to be explored in fresh and unexpected ways, that jolt us with their familiarity whilst we accept a narrative involving an ensouled vampire or a mayor turning into a giant snake.   For all the scary stuff (and there are some real shiver down the spine moments) the things that stay with you are the human elements – what Heritage calls ‘the fat streak of humanity’.

I am, in general, less fond of zombies.   Vamps – in the worlds created by or inspired by Whedon – are conflicted, capable of both savagery and love, and so can be interesting.  Zombies per se are not.  As Heritage points out, they basically just shuffle around, slurp brains and shed body parts.   However, zombie drama is not fundamentally about zombies, it’s about surviving in an apocalyptic landscape, with a mindless and relentless threat always out there, and about how human beings act together and apart in the face of that.   It’s about the fragility of civilisation – it’s no accident that  The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later use the same opening dramatic device as Day of the Triffids, as our hero, waking in a hospital bed, is thrown into the midst of the post-apocalyptic chaos without any warning or preparation, and has to try to find allies, and figure out what it takes to survive.   The Walking Dead gets its scares from the zombies,  but its drama from the beleaguered human protagonists.  Buffy required us to learn the plural of apocalypse – she saved the world, a lot – but the zombie drama requires us to face the terror of a world where no one saved us.

Fundamentally, all of these dramas, like Stephen King’s novels,  deal with the sense that there is something bigger than the stuff of our everyday lives, and that people are making moral choices in the face of those bigger questions, about which side they’re on.  In other words, what it means to be human.  To quote the eleventh doctor, ‘Letting it get to you. You know what that’s called? Being alive. Best thing there is’.

Buffy – the best bits: Harvest, Innocence, The Wish, Doppelgangland, Hush, The Body, The Gift, Tabula Rasa, Once More with Feeling, Chosen.  See http://slayageonline.com/ for academic takes on the Buffy/Whedonverse.

A very incomplete list of some of my favourite apocalypses not mentioned above: Stephen King – The Mist, Cormac McCarthy – The Road, John Wyndham -  The Chrysalids, Chris Marker – La Jetee, Barry Hines – Threads, P D James – Children of Men (and the rather different but also excellent film thereof), Liz Jensen – The Rapture

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Turning the pages – Stephen King and Marcel Proust (and Michel Butor)

I find myself – as someone who always has at least two books on the go – currently reading both the second volume of Proust’s A la recherche… and Stephen King’s latest blockbuster, 11.22.63.   If I say that these present two very different reading experiences, an ironic ‘who knew?’ would be a reasonable response.  However, I invariably find that the things I’m reading in parallel, however different they may be in genre, register, subject matter or anything else, create intriguing connections and trigger, at the very least, random ruminations on the various topics that preoccupy me.

Proust is actually immensely readable, if you let yourself go, let yourself float along on his endless sentences, absorbing it all rather than worrying about what is happening (not a huge amount, in general, it’s not about external events as much as internal processes – the process by which the narrator becomes indifferent to Gilberte with whom he has been in love, for example).   One doesn’t pick the book up with the sense of urgency that Stephen King can generate, and one is unlikely to be tempted to skip mealtimes or be late for appointments, or to miss out on sleep in order to read just one more chapter.  But you can lose yourself in it, immersed in his world – and it’s also funnier than one might have expected.  Obviously Proust is hugely influential on 20th century fiction, not just in France.  Butor certainly shows the influence of his style in his labyrinthine sentences – bizarrely, he was criticised for this by the literary establishment, on the basis that the French language demands short sentences.  Understandably he referred them to Proust, only to be told, well, Proust is Proust.   Taking the view that Butor is Butor, he dumped the draft with the short, pithy sentences for the one that draws you in and takes you on a hypnotic journey where the phrases loop around and around so that the key words and images accumulate more and more power as they resonate with each other.

If everyone agrees that Proust is a great writer, not many have actually read any, let alone all, of his great oeuvre.  Stephen King is read by millions, but disparaged by many, even if his critical standing is better than it used to be.  He now gets reviews in the quality press, even if most still start with a defence of the coverage being given to this kind of book.  It wasn’t always so, and the change is reflected in the book covers – early editions looked tacky, whilst more recent reissues and new titles, have a generally classier look.   The schlock-horror image put me off for a long time, and I only read King because a friend told me I must, and lent me The Stand.  I didn’t expect to like it.  But within a page, I was hooked, and read it straight through, twice.  That’s one of his great gifts; right from the start he makes you want – need – to know what happens and, very importantly, makes you care about the people he introduces, so that the compulsion to read on is not just curiosity but an emotional connection.

He’s a hugely talented writer, who can transcend genre, but who for the most part is happy to work within it; a horror writer who can go for the gross-out but whose power resides in his ability to make you connect with his characters, and in his ability to make goodness as compelling as evil.  Not all of King’s books are great, but none are less than readable, and many will repay re-reading.   He uses the classic horror writer’s trick, of starting with the everyday, the familiar, and introducing something that’s just that bit off key, unsettling.  Often this is done by the narrator forewarning us that this apparently mundane event is far from it – in 11.22.63 the trigger is a teacher reading the work of a pupil in his adult learners’ creative writing class.  We don’t know how or why this will change everything, but we know that it will do so, and everything thereafter is imbued with this disquiet – a sense of the uncanny, das unheimliche, to use Freud’s term.  It’s a cognitive dissonance – something is both familiar and foreign, and so one is at the same time attracted and repelled.

One thing King does very powerfully is to create a bad place.   Derry, Maine, is one such – a town that just isn’t quite right, where this disquiet is manifested in the mutual mistrust of the locals, the desire of visitors to get the hell out as soon as they can, and a feeling that bad things have happened, may be still happening, and are probably just around the next corner.   It’s part of King’s fictional geography of Maine, his home state, a trinity to match Lovecraft‘s Massachusetts trinity (Derry, Castle Rock and Salem’s Lot on the one hand, Innsmouth, Arkham and Dunwich on the other) and we visit it in many of his novels – he references the plots and characters of those earlier novels often too, so the reader who’s familiar with the opus has an added weight of unease.   Interesting in this context to see the new Topophobia exhibition and publication, on fear of place in contemporary art.

I thought of that aspect of King quite often when reading L’Emploi du temps.   Butor’s narrator arrives in a northern industrial city, his train is late, and he’s lost his letter of introduction with details of the firm he’ll be working for or his hotel,  so on his first evening in the city he gets lost, and ends up sleeping on a bench in the 3rd class waiting room.   Obviously this is an inauspicious start, but right from these first pages, there’s the sense that it’s more than that.   Jacques Revel is afraid.  He’s ‘seized with sudden panic…. for one endless second… overwhelmed by an absurd wish to draw back, to give it all up, to escape’ (Passing Time, p. 8).  Later, a colleague, who’s never left the city, tells him ‘there’s something peculiar about this place, something which I’ve never seen satisfactorily described in any story set elsewhere, a sort of permanent dread’ (p. 89).  Just like Derry, Bleston is a place where we are in suspense, waiting for the bad things to which everything is leading, and which everything is attempting to conceal, and where ‘even at midday the few passers-by hurry, hugging the walls, humming to themselves with lowered heads as if it were black night’ (p. 90).   Something is wrong with Bleston, but unlike King, Butor does not require us to accept a supernatural explanation for this.   We’re potentially in the realm of Todorov’s ‘fantastic uncanny’, where the apparently supernatural is subsequently explained as illusion (through dreams, drugs, madness), but we are ultimately left with uncertainty, as the book ends with the narrator’s departure, and his acknowledgement of the lacunae in his narrative.   The Turn of the Screw is perhaps the classic example of this – the reader is left to ponder whether the governess is delusional,  and nothing supernatural has actually happened, or whether the laws of reality have changed as she believes.  The French have a higher regard for fantastic literature than we have.  Poe and Lovecraft are held in much higher esteem there, and both are present in Butor’s Bleston – Poe’s short story ‘The Man of the Crowd‘ has intriguing echoes in not only the supernatural but the detective story aspects of the book, and we also find the Lovecraftian motif of a place where every route out leads back to the place one is attempting to escape – see Ramsay Campbell‘s story ‘The Church in High Street’ for a more recent hommage to Lovecraft in this respect.  To quote Revel’s colleague again: ‘Perhaps you’ve already tried to escape, but in that case you’ve only just made a beginning, M. Revel … you’ll be losing more than your way’ (p. 89-90).

Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London: John Calder, 1965)

Ramsay Campbell, ‘The Church in High Street’, Cold Print (London: Grafton Books, 1985)

Helene Cixous, ‘Fiction and its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s “Das Unheimliche (The “Uncanny”)”’, New Literary History, 7, 3 (1976), 525-48

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, 1898 (London: Penguin, 1986)

Stephen King, 11.22.63 (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011)

H P Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature, 1927 (NY: Dover, 1973)

H P Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (London: Penguin, 1999)

Edgar Allan Poe, Selected Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Marcel Proust, A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 1918(Paris: Gallimard, 1988)

Tzvetan Todorov,  Introduction à la littérature fantastique (Paris: Seuil, 1976)

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