Book review: A Christmas Beginning by Anne Perry

I sometimes think Agatha Christie ruined mystery fiction for me. She wasn’t a poetic writer, but her skill as a puzzle-maker is incomparable. Her plots are almost always unpredictable, and populated with simple, eccentric personalities who stay by your side every step of the way, yet still beat you to the answers.

The other “Queens of Crime”, who wrote in the genre’s early to mid 20th-century Golden Age – Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham – range between boring and unreadable for me. Sayers was a better prose stylist than Christie (or any of them) but I find her stories tedious and embarrassingly twee. (Lord Peter Wimsey, anyone?)

Marsh is also an okay stylist, but desperately dull. (I still recall The Nursing Home Murder as one of the flattest books I’ve read.) Allingham I haven’t read in a long enough time to pass judgement, though I don’t recall being gripped by her work. Christie, on the other hand, for all her snobbery and untextured prose, gripped.

This brings us to Anne Perry, an English author of historical mysteries. Her novella A Christmas Beginning, part of her Christmas series, paints beautiful pictures of rural Victorian Wales, and rich personalities responding to an oppressive social structure. In literary terms, she’s a better writer than Christie.

Yet the mystery she builds isn’t anywhere near as ingenious as those in Dame Agatha. Perhaps ingenuity isn’t the point, though. I once saw an interview with Perry where she mentioned choosing detective fiction because it gave her a formula with which to arrange her characters and themes.

Other modern crime writers, like Val McDermid, have said similarly. The genre gives you a detective, suspects and a corpse. In other words, a main character, supporting cast and motivation for them all to be around each other. The question, therefore, is whether Perry uses this formula as a springboard to something great.

In my opinion, she does. A Christmas Beginning is a great book, pitched somewhere between Georgette Heyer and Thomas Hardy. On the Welsh island Beaumaris, Inspector Runcorn, a Londoner, is holidaying. He unexpectedly meets Melisande, a widow who, despite her brother John Barclay’s disapproval, once helped him solve a murder.

Any hopes for a pleasant reunion, however, are dashed when Runcorn stumbles across the local vicar’s sister, fatally stabbed in the graveyard. She was, apparently, a spirited and independant woman, whose refusal to settle down into an arranged marriage strained the community’s patience.

The book’s tone is melancholic, though populated by warm and loving, or just likeable, characters. The only thoroughly detestable one is John Barclay, a cruel, self-involved snob whose surface courtesies mask deep contempt for those around him. He was, it seems, competing with a local aristocrat for the late woman’s hand.

Perry’s exploration of social issues is deep and serious. In the vicar’s sister she paints a portrait of a woman oppressed by an archaic social code which demands obedience from her, at the expense of her autonomy and happiness. She is, essentially, a prisoner, having been deprived of the chance to learn a trade and thus dependant on men.

Despite this, she was defiantly individualist until the end. Her sorrows are reflected in Melisande and other women Runcorn meets in the course of his investigation. Perry is a brilliant painter of history; Beaumaris comes alive with windswept hills, quiet churchyards and rich Victorian personalities.

The mystery proceeds at an orderly pace, and given its realist ambitions doesn’t end in one of those shattering Christie denouements. Dark revelations, however, do emerge and are surprising. Perry doesn’t shy away from subjects which writers living in the Victorian era could only have hinted at.

So, while she may not be Agatha Christie, she is Anne Perry, which is more than enough for this reader, who likes being led into the past. For a fireside read with strong characters, evocation of place, dark secrets and a happy ending, A Christmas Beginning is highly recommended.

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Film review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Call me crazy, but I like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Its heroes are morons, and it’s wildly different in tone to its stark, scary predecessor, yet it’s colourful and darkly humourous enough to be worth watching. Don’t misunderstand me; it’s really not comparable with Tobe Hooper’s original, which had a tight narrative structure and subtlety.

On the surface, Chainsaw 2 seems to make all the classic horror sequel mistakes. It’s absurdly gory where the first was implicit, and silly where it was scary. What seperates it from films like Halloween II, however, is its deliberate gaudiness and black comedy. If nothing else, you have to praise Hooper for not relying on a formula.

Caroline Williams plays a late-night DJ whose call-in show is reached by a couple of idiots on the highway. As they annoy her another car drives up alongside and a masked figure wields a chainsaw at them… Having recorded the encounter, Williams offers it to Dennis Hopper, a sheriff and uncle of the brother and sister attacked by the killers in the first film.

What follows is a long and gleefully outlandish sequence at Williams’ radio station, to where Leatherface and his brother “Chop Top”, a Vietnam vet with an exposed metal plate in his head, trace her. (Leatherface, you’ll recall, is the masked and mentally disabled figure who does much of the family’s killing.)

In a scene which feminists could write essays about, Leatherface traces a static chainsaw along Williams’ sweat-drenched thighs. The phallic symbolism is appalling and, to me, darkly funny. After that, the third act is various fight, gore and comedy scenes in the killers’ lair. Gone is their farmhouse; in its place is a booby-trapped cave strung with fairy lights, below a fairground.

This change in setting exemplifies the film’s tonal shift. If Hooper’s original was a rough and ready masterpiece of shattering suspense, this is a gaudy carnival attraction, a haunted house with screaming plastic skeletons. In one especially disgusting yet amusing scene Williams dances with Leatherface while wearing her boyfriend’s… well, you’ll see. (Don’t worry, it’s not phallic.)

Her acting’s routine, given her routine role. Hopper does what Hopper does: growl, sneer and gesticulate like a madman. The family’s good, though their roles aren’t scary anymore; they’re played for (dark) laughs. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 isn’t a great film by any standard; it won’t stand out in history; but against all odds I enjoyed its anarchic humour and gleeful grotesquerie.

P.S: The film’s poster, pictured below, is a parody of John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club’s poster.

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Book review: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

I admire Flannery O’Connor because she’s one of only a few writers who use violence in a totally selfless, morally necessary way. Where a nihilist or a satirist might grandstand, the horror in O’Connor’s work is a needed illustration of Christian humanist principles, like love, faith and empathy.

Even the savage murder of a young girl, from a short story I shan’t name, reveals no cruelty or nihilism in the author, but is a means of bringing us to revelation: evil is real, and it destroys the soul. (Whether you think the soul is immortal or not.)

Oddly enough, most of her stories, including those where everyone dies (someone often dies in an O’Connor story), are uplifting and hopeful. They all take place in a universe which recognises good and evil and treats them as objective truths, the road to good being much longer than the path to evil.

Wise Blood, one of two novels she wrote, could be easily dismissed as a painful and bleak book, but for those willing to read it with eyes wide open, it’s about the force of good trying to envelop the lonely and misguided. Or, as O’Connor would have put it, “the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it”.

That unwilling character is Hazel Motes, an ex-soldier returned from World War II, his home town abandoned. The grandson of a travelling preacher, his years away have rendered him a bitter atheist, and he shacks up with a prostitute in a new city, determined to blaspheme. Once an almost pedantically pious man, he’s now a committed heretic.

Motes is a cold and joyless soul. Despite his antireligious beliefs, he chooses a suit and hat which make him look like a preacher. He’s even mistaken for one by a taxi driver, infuriating this new heathen. Furious at his once beloved faith, he becomes a preacher for his own church, a Church Without Christ, proudly proclaiming, sometimes on street corners like a sandwich-board prophet, that Jesus was a liar.

His bleak mission leads him to Asa and Sabbath, a couple of Christian pamphleteers, Asa a hardened conman and Sabbath his unloved teenage daughter. Though their motives are secretly selfish and just as heretical as Motes’, he confuses them for genuine Christians and harrasses them.

Another bone of contention in his life is Enoch Emery, a lonely eighteen-year old zookeeper. Like Motes, he’s driven by blasphemy, though in an innocent and unknowing way.

Ignorant of doctrine and spiritual teachings, Emery believes he has “wise blood,” which pushes him towards revelation without intellectual guidance. His “blood” leads him to a mummified dwarf in a museum on the zoo’s grounds, and tells him that this ancient corpse is the “new jesus.”

O’Connor doesn’t capitalise “Jesus” when describing Emery’s dwarf, perhaps because this saviour isn’t real, and thus doesn’t deserve to share the prophet’s name. What Emery becomes is the true revelation: that his “wise blood” has led him to a false idol. His idolatory, far from fulfilling his spiritual needs, has brought him only madness and loneliness.

Wise Blood‘s second half is its most disturbing, because Motes’ and Emery’s respective obsessions finally consume them. Motes descends further than Emery, and turns into a gross, twisted monster. His pursuit of blasphemy and a godless universe brings him torture. He turns into a martyr almost against his will, which reminds me of a line from one of O’Connor’s short stories: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.”

Wise Blood is beautiful and thought-provoking. Like the scriptures that inspired it, the novel requires close attention. O’Connor’s prose is elegantly crafted, and she never stoops to the level of mean-spiritedness even in her darkest scenes, which provoke empathy, not hopelessness, as a lazy reading of this complex book might.

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Book review: The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor

Another old Amazon review of mine, of a book by possibly my favourite author.

This is one of my favourite novels, up there with Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, another Catholic masterpiece about love, evil, destiny and redemption. The Violent Bear It Away is about the battle for a child’s soul. The child is Francis Tarwater, a fourteen-year old boy raised by his great uncle Mason, who kidnapped him from his uncle so he could raise him as a Christian prophet.

Francis’ uncle is Rayber, a schoolteacher and staunch atheist. When Mason dies Francis burns down their house, neglects to give him the Christian burial he demanded, and arrives at Rayber’s door. And so the battle begins, as Rayber fights to “save” Francis from religion and remould him in his own image.

This novel’s title is taken from Matthew 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” The characters here certainly suffer violence, and whether they’ll bear the kingdom of heaven away, at least in their own lives, provides this story’s suspense.

Rayber has a retarded son, ironically named Bishop, whom Mason tried to baptise when he was born. He failed, and since passed the duty on to Francis, who struggles against Mason’s programming.

Though Mason is unstable, controlling and a bit stupid, there’s no doubt that O’Connor prefers his way of life to Rayber’s. Rayber is uptight and repressed. To him everything is or should be a matter of logic. He can’t allow himself to truly love Bishop because that love would be mysterious, based on a connection between parent and child which transcends logic.

Bishop is a retard, and so can’t be trained to share his father’s coldly logical view of life. Why should Rayber love him? In a way he views Francis as another shot at parenthood. But Francis, bitter about both Mason’s raising and Rayber’s perceived abandonment of him, reacts to his uncle with disdain.

What eventually happens to Bishop (and later Francis) is shocking and upsetting. The path to Francis’ destiny is paved with horror and death. One could question how the ending works on a literal level, considering what Francis has done. Would people be willing to hear this boy’s message, given what’s on his conscience?

But the literal level isn’t really the point. Like all of O’Connor’s stories this is a morality play, where action and symbolism are tied together. Her works were based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, so you could argue that they’re almost fables.

Even if, like me, you’re not religious, this book is worth reading. It’s a beautifully crafted evocation of religious and philosophical themes. I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy in later scenes where Francis wanders harsh country roads. There’s also a hypnotic passage in which a small girl leads a sermon.

The first chapter of this novel was originally published as a short story, “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead”. That chapter’s ending echoes the novel’s, with Francis moving toward something.

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Film review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

I plan to write a review of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, an (I think) unfairly maligned black comedy, but in the meantime, here’s a (slightly edited and expanded on) review of the original, which I first published on Amazon.co.uk a couple of years ago.

The title of Tobe Hooper’s classic might make it seem like torture porn to some modern viewers, and it was certainly part of a 70s horror renaissance which, in the 80s, decayed into sleazy, low-budget, morally dubious slasher films. (Or “Dead Teenager Movies”, as Roger Ebert called them.) It is, however, utterly anemic when compared to torture porn, like Eli Roth’s Hostel or even its own remakes and prequels. It depends, instead, ruthlessly and almost entirely, on atmosphere.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has the raw and immediate impact of a great short story. Below its simple linear narrative is a wealth of implications. For instance, early in the film the heroes discuss slaughterhouses and methods for killing cattle. Their eventual fate will echo this conversation.

Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) goes on a road trip with her friends and crippled brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) to see if their grandfather’s grave is among those recently robbed in Texas. After completing this task they visit a gas station, eat some barbecue then explore an abandoned house which once belonged to Sally and Franklin’s family. They also, one by one, discover a nearby farm, which houses psychotic man child Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his cannibalistic clan.

Burns’ role as heroine (or “final girl”) only really requires a good scream and convincing run, both of which she has. Some actresses could mess up even such a simple character, but Burns manages authenticity. Her face is very expressive, and I loved a close-up of her when she leaps through a window and scans her surroundings. She looks completely manic, which under the circumstances she should.

Leatherface and his family are gleefully grotesque. I liked their lack of back story. Often a horror film of this nature (teenagers, imposing weapons etc.) will kill any suspense with misunderstood Freudian babble about abusive childhoods and transvestitism (take a bow, Cherry Falls). But TCM wisely lets us view these people just through the heroine’s immediate experience of them. What she sees and hears while being chased or held captive is all we do as well. This means that, unlike some final girls, she connects with us on a primal level. We find ourselves in her shoes. She’s not a character so much as an audience surrogate.

There’s some beautiful shots inside the farmhouse, when one character literally stumbles across a living room with furniture made of bones, some animal, some maybe human, and a live chicken in a cage suspended from the roof.

Though this film does have hardly any blood it is, naturally, terrifying and gruesome. A scene with a meat hook is appalling to the eye even without gore. There’s also a harrowing sequence which involves a decrepit old man, a hammer and a bucket. And so on. TCM is not for those who don’t like any kind of horror story.

P.S: Early posters for and the intro of this film claim it really happened, or is at least based on true events. It isn’t, and nothing here has much correspondence with reality, though the story was inspired by a real-life killer and graverobber, Ed Gein, who killed two women and used their bodies, as well as the bodies he stole from graveyards, to upholster furniture. He also inspired Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, which was made into the famous Alfred Hitchcock film.

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A small thought on political correctness in art

I don’t know about you, but I like a little political incorrectness in art. I like the undertones of misogyny in some of Alfred Hitchcock’s films; the misandry of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Trying to talk with a man”; the homophobia of some of Charles Bukowski’s work; the description of all straight people as gay-haters in Queer as Folk‘s American offshoot; the implicit racism disguised as cosmic terror in several H. P. Lovecraft stories; not because those prejudices are acceptable, but because they colour and inform the work and reveal truths about people. Sometimes, even, they’re just fun, like the casual sexism of Roald Dahl, whose most famous villains are often mannish or predatory women. If we give political correctness too much control of our art, we’ll crush its individuality.

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    Art galleries: in no darker places do hate, resentment and bitterness hide.

Opinion piece: Conan the Lovecraftian

I recently downloaded Complete Conan, a work containing every Conan the Barbarian story by Robert E. Howard, to my Kindle for 77p (plus VAT). Though I’m still an annoying romantic about biodegrading paper-and-glue books, I’ll admit Kindles are a great thing. A lot of history’s greatest writers and thinkers, I’d wager, would have been positively awed by the notion of carrying an entire library around with you. (Fun fact: the name “Kindle”, meaning to light a fire, was chosen as a metaphor for reading and intelligence.)

But back to Conan. Since downloading I’ve read a couple of stories: “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The Scarlet Citadel”. Both are fast-paced fantasy thrillers packed with gore, and overtones of the cosmic horror pioneered by H. P. Lovecraft. Cosmic horror, or cosmicism, is a type of story where people are confronted by their helplessness before an enormous, powerful and indifferent universe, where humans lack significance.

What defines this genre isn’t pessimism, but indifference. The cosmic visions and races whose aspects drive men mad aren’t malign so much as indifferent to humanity, just as humanity is indifferent to termites. This idea informs Conan’s universe somewhat, and it clearly lacks a benevolent patriarchal god, relying instead on a more, well, barbaric approach to the spiritual. That said, magic is evil’s domain, and Howard’s magicians in both stories mentioned above are physically inferior men who dominate through sorcery alone.

Due to cosmicism’s influence on the Conan stories, Howard’s been accused by some writers, like Stephen King, of lazily pastiching Lovecraft. Howard and Lovecraft were friends and referenced each other in their work to such an extent that Conan can be seen as a part of the Cthulhu Mythos, the cosmic mythology created by Lovecraft’s stories. However, I don’t think Howard pastiched Lovecraft as much as King suggests, if only because their styles are remarkably different.

Though “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The Scarlet Citadel” have somewhat crudely assembled narratives, which when analysed seem like a series of set pieces, they have a stronger emphasis on character and action than Lovecraft’s work. Many of Lovecraft’s heroes are distinguishable only by their names; one white, male scholar is much the same as another. This fits into his cosmic philosophy, which is more concerned with atmosphere, imagery and setting than human dramas.

Howard, on the other hand, creates personalities which, if not complex, are sharp and well-defined. The evil wizards talk and behave in their own way, which can be distinguished from how Conan talks and behaves. Conan is a slight paradox: he’s a barbarian who faces his enemies with violence, but he’s a kind and benevolent king whose lowliest subjects, as explained in “The Scarlet Citadel”, are treated well. He stole the kingdom of Aquilonia’s crown, but did so from a despot, and rules fairly.

Also, where Lovecraft’s stories are slow-paced and tense, Howard’s brim with exciting action. There’s a truly fantastic image in “The Scarlet Citadel” of Conan atop a turret, soaked in blood, watching as an evil prince he’s just thrown from its height is torn apart by peasants. That image symbolises these stories’ appeal. For all their cosmic elements, what they are at their core is gritty, ultraviolent medieval thrillers.

Lovecraft’s stories are thematically richer, and I prefer them for their deep, abiding horror, but Howard offers a different, equally valid kind of entertainment. Just as Lovecraft pioneered cosmic horror, Howard pioneered sword-and-sorcery, or heroic fantasy. The stories are pure escapism, letting readers imagine themselves as honourable barbarians, fierce in battle and always triumphing over scrawny, pathetic wizards.

A brief summary of the stories mentioned above:

“The Phoenix on the Sword” (Weird Tales, 1932) follows an evil count, a commander, a fat king and a mad poet as they plan to assassinate Conan, whose kingdom lives in unrest as the people mourn his late, despotic predecessor, forgetting his atrocities against them. The count has as his slave a wizard, Thoth-Amon, who’ll bring to Aquilonia a nameless cosmic horror. The climax of this story is a riot of bloody, claustrophobic action, taking place in a small chamber where Conan must face off with several assassins.

“The Scarlet Citadel” (Weird Tales, 1933) uses similar archetypes: evil wizards and incompetent rulers, though this time the wizard, Tsotha-lanti, has kings as his servants. These rulers, Amalrus and Stradabonus, have their armies ambush Conan, killing thousands of his knights and imprisoning him in lanti’s titular home. The scenes below lanti’s citadel, where Conan must fight a giant snake and various cosmic horrors, some of which seem influenced more by myth than Lovecraft, are beautifully written.

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