Short story (by me): Bone China

A long time ago, in a dark and heavily guarded palace, there lived Princess Gale, named for the wind which howled outside her parents’ chamber when she was conceived. Her father, the king, was a jaded and sadistic tyrant, forever devising new reasons to be murderously aggrieved. A year before this story, he ordered the execution of a tailor whose garment irritated the skin of the Prince, Gale’s brother. The king did not care for his children as individuals, but saw them as extensions of himself, so any perceived slight against them was a slight against him, and any slight against him was unforgivable. Princess Gale had been asleep when the tailor was executed, but the Hellish cries of the crowd around the gallows, some of whom were friends and family of the innocent victim, subtly invaded her dreams. Her child’s mind crudely re-imagined these cries as those of the Damned in Hell, a place she had only recently begun learning of in Sunday school, whose class comprised just herself, her brother and her parents’ private minister.

As this story begins, Princess Gale’s tenth birthday was fast approaching. In this particular kingdom, the tenth birthday was very important, because it symbolised initiation into the second phase of life, when the digits of your age number two and you begin the long ascent, then descent, of worldly life. Toymakers throughout the kingdom were auditioned in the palace, by a stern panel of courtly sycophants who dissected each craftsman’s creation with eyes more critical than God’s. Painted wooden dolls, teddy bears and games were tossed aside, forming a sad and broken heap beside the panellists. The toymakers, far from having their egos quashed by rejection, felt immense relief, for if they were prevailed upon to please the Princess with their product, and she disliked it, they could only imagine the king’s wrath.

Finally there came an old and cadaverous toymaker, stood erect but clearly with some difficulty. He was dressed in undoubtedly the best clothes he owned: a well-maintained though tired-looking suit, whose seams were like fingers clinging to a cliff’s edge. His eyebrows, great white bushes almost concealing the caves where his eyes were buried, were the liveliest things about him.

He carried a bleak suitcase. The foremost panellist, the king’s advisor (whose advice consisted mostly of praises) extended one hand, like a bishop expecting a kiss on his clerical ring. ‘Well, let’s have it, old man!’ he said when the toymaker did not proffer the case.

‘With all respect due to your class and position, fine sir’ the toymaker replied, ‘what I have in this case is too delicate, at this time, to be examined by hands other than my own. If I could have a table on which to open the case, fine sir, I would be delighted to show you its contents.’

The advisor reddened slightly, detecting a vague insolence in the toymaker’s manner. ‘What is your name, old man?’

‘Elias Hornsby, sir, just a simple inventor from one of your Majesty’s closest settlements, Arrows-Field, not far from where he slew our dreaded neighbours in ’88.’

The advisor’s nostrils flared as he raised his face a fraction, a sign indicating contentment and restored superiority. ‘You need not quote the King’s history to me, Hornsby. Servant! Fetch our visitor a table.’
When the latter was procured, Elias Hornsby placed his case upright upon it, flipped open its rusty iron clasps, and then opened it. Each half was padded with papier-mâché moulded to enclose a two-foot doll. This was made with bone china, not a crack in which marred the toy’s gleaming white perfection. The brittle flesh was as pure and unmarked as that belonging to a baby just delivered. Though its eyes were clearly two blue marbles, they had been shined and preserved to almost affect the appearance of sapphires. Its hair was light brown, like that of a healthy pet mouse, and undisturbed by any hat. The doll wore a plain, frilled white blouse, such as a modest bridesmaid would wear, and a long white skirt of similar colour and design, though the lowermost regions were sewn with small red love-hearts.

After a moment’s admiration among the panellists, Reason reached the king’s advisor. ‘It is certainly a fine object, Hornsby, but an inappropriate toy for a little girl. You said yourself how delicate it is. A child’s hands would break this the moment they removed it from the wrappings!’

Hornsby smiled without opening his mouth. ‘Once I have finished perfecting her, sir, she will be as likely to break as the King’s morale.’

‘Beyond employing the Dark Arts, old man, I do not see how that is possible.’

‘In the woods at Arrows-Field, sir, as I am sure a student of the King’s history is aware, there grows a species of tree whose sap was used to finish the saddles of His Majesty’s horses, and which rendered them stronger than sin. A full day’s riding and jousting could be completed with barely a scratch on the saddle. I, your humble servant, merely took inspiration one day and begun coating my dolls with it. This doll is as yet un-sapped, but once I have accrued enough of the substance, which should not be too far in the future, I will rectify that.’

The panellists were impressed, and Hornsby was henceforth entrusted with the honour of providing the Princess’ gift. ‘Do not disappoint us, Hornsby’ said the advisor, with an austere glint in his eyes, ‘or, more importantly, the King’s daughter. Children are not so easily impressed…’
Hornsby merely smiled.

***

Elias Hornsby, esteemed toymaker of Arrows-Field, died just one month before Princess Gale’s birthday, as, he revealed in his will, he had expected. His pay for the doll, he dictated, was to be shared between his three daughters, giving them a life as free women, unbound by the necessity of marriage. This freedom for his beloved young was, he wrote, his only motivation in applying for audition at the palace.

This death annoyed the king, because it deprived him of someone to torment should his daughter not like her toy. The advisor dared not try to placate this annoyance, but meekly abetted it. Besides, should a head be required to roll, the king could always find someone to kneel before the block.

The room chosen for the princess’ birthday party once hosted her parents’ wedding reception. A circular marble ballroom, placed regularly around it were ten twelve-foot pillars, on each of whose crowns stood white marble cupids, with golden bows and arrows spearheaded by ruby love-hearts. Between the cupids were hung flaming torches; the room did not have a chandelier, so a shadowy and antiquarian atmosphere was evoked by the ten torches, their lights dappling the cherubic sentinels.

In preparation for the ceremony a long table was placed in the centre of the room, to host gifts given by the kingdom’s subjects. Also from Arrows-Field, there came a punch-bowl crafted by the town’s pre-eminent glass blower; from another settlement lumber for the palace’s hearths was delivered; other settlements provided their own gifts to the royal family, the haul including masses of jewellery, fine foods such as cheeses and truffles, rare books and artworks.

Of course, none of the gift-givers were permitted to attend the celebration and see the response to their offerings. The honour of attendance was exclusively for the men, women and children of noble birth. Even the palace servants, who stocked the ballroom with plentiful provisions (mostly wine and ale), were commanded to leave before the princess’ arrival; within the palace walls, the tenth anniversary of her introduction to the kingdom would be celebrated, by her, only among her peers. She would remember the celebration for the rest of her life, though not for its pageantry.

***

The queen knelt beside Princess Gale’s bed and applied a damp cloth to the sleeping child’s forehead. She woke, a decorous and prim young royal, already in her light purple ball-gown, on as opposed to under the bedcovers for fear of wrinkling the garment. ‘It is time’ said the queen, smiling as her daughter’s eyes registered her. The queen was a trim and attractive woman in her middle forties, the progress of age having not ravaged her beauty so much as modified it, delicately, so there were quaint little stretches at the corners of her eyes and mouth.

Though she was blonde and her daughter’s hair was brown (the princess inherited this colouring from her father), mother and child looked alike. If the queen was a portrait bearing exquisite wear, the princess was a new, small sculpture of the same personage. ‘I’m so tired’ said Princess Gale. The queen took one of her hands. ‘I know, darling, but this is important. Everyone is here, and you know how your father deals with those who disappoint him.’ The princess gave her mother a mischievous smile. ‘Not me’ she said, ‘I am his favourite.’ The queen laughed. ‘That is true, but I would not tempt his favour.’

Princess Gale slid off of the bed and let her mother place purple velvet slippers on her feet. The queen then opened a drawer beside the princess’ bed and withdrew a dazzling, feather-light tiara on a display cushion. She placed the former on her daughter’s head, tilted her face upwards with a finger below her chin, and kissed the princess’ cheek. ‘One day, you will make some undeserving fellow impossibly happy’ she said, and took her hand.

Several branches and generations of the royal family were gathered in the ballroom. The king, fat and hearty, an enormous glass of wine in one oppressively jewelled hand, stood behind the long table’s centre, before the package containing Elias Hornsby’s doll.

The crowd hushed as one of the two doors opened, and in stepped the queen with Princess Gale. Her mother bade her sit cross-legged in the middle of the room, surrounded by her familial spectators (which included noble cousins she had neither seen nor heard of, besides the usual grandparents, aunts and uncles). With his free hand the king picked up the package, walked around the table and presented it to his daughter. ‘In honour of the tenth anniversary of your patronage here, in this mortal realm, o angel embodied’ he recited, the first time he had needed to do so, his only other child, the Prince, being but eight years old.

Princess Gale, as she had been coached, nodded her gratitude and accepted the gift with both hands. She untied the dark purple ribbons, unwrapped all of the light purple paper, and found a varnished chest. Using a small knob which gave the chest’s lid the appearance of a door, she revealed Elias Hornsby’s doll to the light. The sapping had left no blemish on its china skin, or stain on its white blouse, whose frills were like snowflakes. The princess was momentarily enraptured by the doll’s blue marble-eyes, which seemed to hold endless possibilities for childish love and companionship.

She also noticed the doll’s tiny nostrils, crafted too well to be human, and remembered a lesson her parents’ minister once taught her about why you needed to be blessed after sneezing. The latter action gave your soul escape, he said, and the blessing replaced it. If a soul can leave through the nostrils, Princess Gale wondered, could an alien soul use them for entrance?

Regardless, she adored her new toy and, lifting it roughly from the chest, cried ‘I love it, daddy, I love it I love it I love it!’ The crowd erupted into deafening cheers before the third “love” was out of her mouth.

***

Not long after the princess gave her gift her seal of approval, the noble children were sent to bed while their parents continued the celebration in the ballroom. Princess Gale slept with the doll in her arms, but was entirely unaware when its eyes started to move, as though registering the room and seeking its door. Nor did she stir when it stretched its limbs, testing their elasticity and autonomy, an observer might have assumed. Stealthily, it wriggled out from under her protective arm and sat on the edge of the bed. Its head tilted downwards, it contemplated the drop, came to a decision and pushed itself off with its hands, landing on its firm sapped feet. (In height, the doll came up to the princess’ kneecaps.)

Though the doll’s mouth concealed no hinges and was thus immovable, close examination of its eyes would have revealed a sort of contentment. The doll, it seemed, was pleased with its position, and proud of its defiance of the universe’s laws. It had left mortality’s dwelling, and confirmed its presence in the strange world beyond.

Just as stealthily as it had wriggled free of the princess’ arm, the doll clambered up the ornate doorframe, turned the knob with one hand, slightly pushed open the door, climbed down and quitted the room. The servants having all been removed to their own quarters, the doll faced no resistance as it walked, slowly and clumsily at first, down corridors and stairs to arrive at the ballroom’s oaken doors, one of which was still slightly open. It peered through this small entrance, and was almost pushed back by what it saw.

The decadence and debauchery, this china girl felt, defied imagination. The kingdom’s gifts were scattered around, the punch-bowl smashed like a bird’s egg, the lumber in ugly disorder, the paintings in pieces and the books torn apart. Amid this chaos the nobles raved, their royal garments torn as they drunkenly attacked and fornicated with each other. On the long table, where the doll was laid barely an hour ago, the queen posed like a canine as her husband mounted her, the pair making gross, animal noises. Above this Sodom-in-microcosm, the cherubic sentinels sat dumb and silent.

What previously was contentment, in the doll’s eyes, became rage, a wrath so pure and Hellish it would have startled anyone who beheld it, though none did. Clearly, the doll had not expected this. It did not know what it had expected, but this disgusting ode to ingratitude and animalism was not it. Even the eldest and most dignified royals cavorted with each other, a mob to rival the one which threatened Lot.

The doll’s eyes emitted an invisible energy, almost (but not quite) against its will. This imperceptible force grasped a flaming torch and threw it from the wall. The face of a minor princess, her person caught in the act of defilement with her lover, broke its fall. Her delicate features caved in and combusted, while her lover found himself seeding a faceless martyr. His momentary ecstasy became eternal fear as the Hell-flames caught him, dragging him into an embrace painful beyond comprehension.

Startled from their revelry, the royals screamed and ran towards the doors, but before they could reach them the doll stepped back, while the energy slammed the open one shut, sealing both with its dark magic. Inside the ballroom, which was now her tomb, the queen pushed her husband off of her and stared, dumbstruck, at all her known relatives (besides the children), through marriage and blood, pounding the oaken doors as each torch fell from its socket. She turned to her husband, now lying equally dumbstruck on the carpet, and said to him her final words: ‘is this some kind of trick, you monster?!’

***
The children’s bedchambers were sufficiently far away that they did not hear their parents burning and dying. The doll climbed back into Princess Gale’s arms, comfortable in the knowledge that she would be the throne’s new incumbent, come dawn.

THE END

Short story (by me): The Leech: A Ghost Story

It was in the summer of 1928 that we met him, stood beside a gigantic Grecian plant-pot sprouting palm leaves, on the back porch of my wife’s country estate. A tall, rake-thin, somewhat middle-aged man in an ill-fitted brown suit, with clashing white Panama hat, he looked like one of those amiable leeches who flit between wealthy sponsors. He was certainly a raconteur, amassing an audience like some Homeric poet. Women adored him, the way they adore a handsome man who also inspires their matronly instincts. If my marriage to Floss (whom I called Florence, given her floss-white complexion) was built on sex, I might have envied him, like those men who sometimes gave him violent glances. As it was, I regarded him with much the same pure fascination as the women. He reminded me of a chap I’d served with in the war: somewhat callous in his general attitudes to life, perhaps, but warm and charming to the individual…

He looked roughly the same age as I, but he didn’t look like he’d served. (Although, as I’d learned in a Norfolk military hospital, not all wounds are physical.) Floss and I caught sight of him almost simultaneously. We were stood by the French windows greeting some late arrivals, she with a sherry in hand and I a bitter lemon, having resolved to no longer treat my war-shattered nerves with alcohol. ‘Who is that, anyway?’ I asked, after we’d spent a few moments watching him regale his crowd. ‘I don’t recall, and I’m certain I know all the invited faces here… Maybe he’s one of those old money parasites… You know the ones I mean. Their families hit skid-row, they’ve never learned a trade or finished an education, so they end up living like well-dressed beggars.’ My wife doesn’t mean to be cruel, but for all her good breeding she never quite learned the English art of dishonesty.

By mutual agreement we introduced ourselves, bridging the centre of his group, to their slight consternation as he paused his latest story. His eyes met mine, and an odd sensation took a pew within me while I regarded those light brown orbs, the colour of soft spring mud in a sunbeam. He glanced at my wife, and introduced himself.

‘I fear I’m something of a gate-crasher, dear’ he told her, ‘I came down with the West London set, after the dog races.’ Floss nodded politely, having attained all the information she needed about our unexpected guest. The “West London set”, as he called them, were a group of gambling and drinking cronies whose patronage she’d inherited from her late father. ‘Well go on then, tell us the rest!’ said a woman to my left. He laughed, momentarily catching my eyes again before turning them on the speaker, and in that moment I grew as weak as a schoolgirl in the presence of a crush. I wallowed privately in shame and bemusement when the moment passed, unable to account for the weakening rapture.

‘Okay, okay, don’t twist an ankle, my girl, or I’ll be forced to expose my appalling lack of chivalry…’ Those words drew Floss, I and again the crowd into a world we scarcely remembered on leaving it. The details of his story, which the woman to my left was so eager to hear completed, remain obscure, though I associate them with sunlight, breezes, tall trees, stony paths and, above all, a sweet kind of happiness, to which only children are normally allowed admittance. It was the kind of story which wouldn’t be expected to entertain young people, even those who’ve seen war as we had, and its effects on us as our women had. Yet we all listened with religious reverence. That may explain how he wrangled an invitation to stay the night with Floss and I.

The party dispersed, and after dinner with those that remained, including our new guest, I stood in the drawing room by the French windows, gazing at the lawn in the darkness. I love early evening, because they’re besotted with a calm the day has no time for. The world, especially out here in the country, is infused with moonlight which draws even the hardest stone and bleakest blade of grass towards a silent, invisible awesomeness. My Heaven, if I earn it, will be in a perpetual state of early evening. ‘A loner, like me.’ The voice came from the doorway, and though I didn’t know anyone else was in this part of the house, I wasn’t surprised to hear it. I turned to greet our “old money parasite”, as Floss had insensitively surmised him to be. ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘A loner, I said, like me. Not comfortable with crowds.’ He smiled, seeming coy as he approached. ‘Like you? You’ve spent the day holding court better than a judge!’ I replied. He laughed. ‘I tell good stories, I’ll allow myself that. It’s how I make my living, after all. You and your lovely wife pegged me for what I was before you’d even introduced yourselves, didn’t you? I’m not quite the species of leech you think I am, though… I live comfortably enough, financially. It’s the goodwill I seek, the friendship. I wonder if anyone’s a loner by choice, you know…’

Suddenly what he was seemed obvious, and I felt ashamed for not realising it before. He was one of those lonely sorts who never acclimated themselves to peacetime, but flitted between people and parties seeking a respite from the same memories which haunted me. I dulled them with alcohol, they with companionship. They’d made the better choice, I supposed. He stood by the couch, looking at his hand on its back, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know his name. I asked it, my voice soft and hesitating for reasons I didn’t know, when he raised his head.

Our eyes were locked in together, and for an instant that felt like an hour I was back where I never wanted to be again. I was in a foreign trench, where a comrade’s right foot had swollen to burst the stitching of its shoe. The image was utterly absurd, but as my stare travelled from his wasted, uncomprehending face to that horrible foot, I thought I saw a rat crawl out from between his toes, as though it had been birthed inside the shoe, nourished by the putrescence. The rat turned to look at me, regarded by it as an enemy, and the spell broke. I was back in the drawing room, eyes locked in with my guest’s.

‘What are you two plotting in here?’ came a new voice. Floss stood in the doorway, her expression an odd broth of cheer and nervousness. She turned the ceiling light on. ‘What is this, anyway, an Agatha Christie? Why all the darkness and long faces?’ Our guest buried his stare in the back of his hand. I smiled at her. The effort, though a matter of three or four seconds, was intense. It felt like raising a barn with ropes, alone. ‘Just reminiscing’ I replied (the ropes fraying). ‘Our friend here was in the war…’ He looked up at that, his eyes revealing a desert of pity and confusion. If Floss wasn’t there, I might have taken him into my arms.

Floss rolled her eyes in a good-natured fashion. ‘Oh, Henry’ she said to me, ‘I’m sure he doesn’t want to spend the night dredging up war stories in the dark.’ To both of us: ‘why don’t you come back to the bar? Helen’s going to bed soon, and she’s promised us a song before she does.’ Falling back into reality, our guest glanced at her, laughed and said, ‘so long as she promises to finish before the second chorus. I’ve learned from her brother that if she doesn’t, she’ll sing until she faints and cracks her head on the piano!’ Floss, delighted by the response, hooked her arm in his and with a jerk of her head commanded me to follow them.

That night, as Floss and I lay in bed, she asleep, I considered the vision my conversation with our visitor gave me. Though I’d been told by doctors after the war to expect such surges of memory from time to time, sometimes vast distance apart, sometimes in tortuous succession, I felt I’d never experienced anything quite like this vision before. I wasn’t just recalling a painful memory; in fact, I had the bizarre sensation that, in this strange and mortal plane we call reality, I’d never visited the trench I saw, or seen the man whose shoe birthed the rat, at least not in that exact confluence of perspective and circumstance. So what was I seeing, if I saw anything at all besides mad pictures cobbled together by an unsettled imagination?

I recalled from boyhood some peculiar lessons by my school’s chaplain, a zealous man who loved children and thus was deeply concerned with their souls. Though, as most civilised men of the modern age, he denied the existence of such quaint things as witches, he was singularly fascinated by a minor figure in Christian history, Elijah Crane, a Norfolk puritan who emigrated to the new world with the first of that breed who’d come to be known as Americans. Despite the austerity of his Biblical namesake, this holy man was by all accounts gentle and forgiving; he presided over the witch trials in his community (for he was its appointed patriarch) with a seemly fear and disquiet.

The chaplain would dedicate a week of his appointed lessons in the school year to this Elijah, and end it with this story: on the morning of the execution of a local spinster, convicted with reluctance by Elijah, the jailer opened her cell door and, within that bleak stone garret, afforded light only by a high, small, barred window, was nothing but the witch’s straw bed. The jailer alerted his masters, who in their turn alerted Elijah, and soon a group of the relevant men stood in the cell, vainly searching for a solution to the riddle.

Elijah, on his knees in a corner, suddenly drew back, allowing a rat to step into the light and be perceived by all. ‘How did that get in here?’ he demanded, because the only window was situated high above a steep quarry, without considerable footholds in the outside wall. None of the men knew, and almost in unison they caught the eyes of the creature, who gave them an impression of such Hellish, immortal disdain that three fled like children, while Elijah and two braver companions stood transfixed.

Overcome by Christian loathing for the foul and bedevilled, Elijah lunged forth and tried to squash the rat beneath his boot, but it fled through the open door before orders could be given to lock it, and from the hallway dropped down into a drain. Recovering himself, Elijah cursed his haste and superstition, then left to prepare an elegant excuse for the witch’s escape, saying instead that she died overnight. Only in a secret diary, discovered in a hidden drawer of his bureau some years after his death, did he admit the terrible superstition that had overcome him that morning in the cell, a superstition that would be derided by scholars from then until now. Even our chaplain was hesitant to claim a belief in it, though he always concluded the lesson with a quote from Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.

As I lay in my bed, a part of my mind travelled back to that classroom, where I sat listening to my peculiar chaplain. Instinctively, I reached out under the sheets with one hand and grasped my Floss’ knee. Her warm and feminine skin consoled me. But the consolation was brief because, not long after this intimacy, a crash from the direction of the stairwell startled Floss and I, her wrenched brutally from sleep. Exchanging fearful glances, we both crept out into the corridor and towards the noise’s source. Floss brought her hands to her face and gasped when we saw what it was: our guest, kindly having extinguished his candle during the moments of pre-collapse, had fallen down the stairs. He lay now in the oak-floored foyer, hot wax on his pyjama front and blood haloing his head.

We both rushed to his aid, careful not to slip and fall ourselves on the drops of wax dotting the stairs. ‘Call the doctor!’ I cried to Floss, but with what I now suppose was his last ounce of bodily strength he grabbed her arm before she could flee, saying: ‘I am so tired… Please… Don’t let me be imprisoned in this cell any longer… I should have left a long, long time ago…’

I grasped his hand. ‘What do you mean?’ He smiled, with a little humour and a lot of sadness. ‘I think you know, friend… I never should have dabbled in what I did not fully understand… Such magic is not always forgiven by even our most merciful God… But I so wanted to carry on, even if I had to be a leech… giving my soul to a familiar, and from a familiar to a fresh body, un-warped by the trenches… I spoke and I laughed and I entertained, leeching off of others’ hospitality and good spirits… But I am so tired now… I saw it too, Henry, just as you did… The shoe which bore the rat… Mine was the foot in that shoe…’

Book review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

It’s a well known fact among horror fans that Stephen King, despite their shared initials (‘we SKs gotta stick together’, I’m sure he didn’t say), hates Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film version of The Shining. In an author’s note at the end of this sequel he even states that, so far as he’s concerned, his original novel is “the True History of the Torrance Family”. That, I think, is fair enough. Although Kubrick’s film, purely by dint of my consumption of it first, is what comes to mind when I picture The Shining (in particular Jack Nicholson’s sneering, stubbly face and Shelley Duvall’s innocent expression), the book is better, and that’s not just your school librarian’s favourite cliche talking. Its characters are better drawn, its grasp of the supernatural is stronger, and its primary themes, alcoholism and rage, probe deeper.

That brings us back to Doctor Sleep, in which, after a prologue where we see a young Danny Torrance trying to cope with what happened in The Overlook, and the still active ghosts from that haunted hotel, the son of the doomed winter caretaker becomes an alcoholic. Jack Torrance, you’ll recall, was an aspiring writer who took the job at The Overlook so he could work in isolated peace. But the malevolent spirits that lived there drove him back to drink, an addiction he’d been fighting since he broke his son Danny’s arm in a rage.

After hitting rock bottom, an adult Danny finds home in a New Hampshire town, where he befriends a miniature-train conductor and inadvertently forges a psychic link with a young girl, Abra Stone, who shares his “shining”. Meanwhile, he takes a job at a local hospice, where his work using his “shine” to help the dying pass on earns him the nickname “Doctor Sleep”. As the years pass, however, Stone gets into trouble. A band of parasitic “shiners” calling themselves the True Knot, living on what they can scavenge from psychic children’s minds, have discovered her presence, and her “shine” is stronger than any they’ve ever seen before.

The True Knot are King’s greatest innovation in Doctor Sleep. One absolutely sublime chapter, reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s The Witches and other classic stories based on folklore, describes their disguises and travelling habits. King calls them “the RV people”, and they drift into the background of all the other RV people: Americans spending their golden years exploring the road. I found this chapter a delight because it reminded me of reading The Witches as a child, when I thrilled at the idea of supernatural predators who seem like ordinary, even kind and attractive, people. This tradition, of course, goes back to things like “Red Riding Hood”, which were cautionary tales where the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing was a metaphor, for evil people who might seem good to innocent children. The chapter in Doctor Sleep has a nudge-nudge-wink-wink cautionary feel to it, and like so many of King’s chapters throughout his career, would stand alone as a great short story.

The next best innovation in Doctor Sleep is its antagonist, Rose the Hat, leader of the Knot, who earned her nickname through the jauntily cocked top-hat she wears. Unnaturally beautiful, and heartless, she calls back to an old style of villainess, like the Grand High Witch, the White Witch and the Snow Queen. Whereas in those children’s stories the sexual element was only hinted at, King takes advantage of his audience’s relative maturity to make that element overt, bringing to the surface the dark sensual energy C. S. Lewis had to tiptoe around. Rose’s body is almost as tempting, to male and female True Knot tribesfolk alike, as the children’s psychic energy they live on.

Danny Torrance is an endearing protagonist, more likeable than his father, probably because Jack was a rage-fuelled, bitter man, due to the abusive childhood behind him. Danny’s concerns are more spiritual, but no less tortuous, and he drinks to blot out the voices (a form of self-medication similar to that used by schizophrenics), while struggling with his own rages. The bottom he hits is profoundly painful, encapsulated by an anecdote he’ll struggle with for the rest of the story (especially when he joins Alcoholics Anonymous, where you’re expected to share your darkest secrets), and it informs his struggle with sobriety from then on. According to King’s author’s note, the decision to add a rock bottom was his son Joe Hill’s, and it was definitely the right decision.

Abra Stone is an effective companion for Dan. After we see her as a baby, she spends most of the story as a 12-year old, and it’s a testament to the 67-year old King’s abilities as a crafter of characters that she seems perfectly real. Precocious, but real, with a voice and thought processes like millions of other girls her age.

Reviewing King’s books can be difficult because, as is acknowledged by their fans and their critics (the former as a virtue and the latter as a flaw), they’re so dense with story and character threads. What I’ve revealed so far honestly hasn’t even scratched the surface of what’s in this cavernous narrative. Some have called King’s style “overstuffing” and indicative of a lack of restraint, but really, King is economic. Contrary to what others have said, he doesn’t develop every single non-essential character, but only those whose lives and histories have an impact on the lives and histories of the central characters. Some of the most moving scenes in Doctor Sleep are when Dan is helping the hospice residents pass on, and in lovely little scenes their whole histories play out before us as a slideshow, from owning a red bicycle at five, to starting a family at thirty-five.

The world beyond the world is a frequent motif in this long-awaited sequel to one of King’s defining works, and it’s ultimately symbolised by this line, spoken by a ghost: “This world [meaning our mortal realm] is little more than a dream of a dream to me now.” (I may be paraphrasing slightly.) I’m an unabashed King fanatic. I think he’s a pulp fiction genius who helped make the horror genre respectable, and forged his own unique take on it. Doctor Sleep isn’t as immediately frightening as The Shining because it isn’t as claustrophobic or necessarily slow-moving. Its action isn’t confined to a snowed-in hotel, but spans the highways of America, making it a bit looser in its narrative. (Narrative looseness is the curse of most sequels.) Doctor Sleep is more a dark fantasy epic than a ghost story, but that’s just fine, because epic it is, and utterly suspenseful from beginning to end.

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Bookz: Butcher and Lang’s The Odyssey

Esteemed American literary critic Edmund Wilson (1895 – 1972) kept a column in The New Yorker simply called “Books”. In the grand tradition of trying to urbanise, or “youthify”, everything, I shall designate this part of my blog, wherein I talk generally and in a not-necessarily-critical way about books, “Bookz”. The “z”, you see, makes it cool. I expect plentiful bitches, and whatnot.

Having attended an appointment in the next town, I wandered into a couple of charity bookshops, promising myself I’d just browse, only buying if they had any Lovecraft (whom I always buy if the edition’s interesting enough, whether I have the book or not, and technically I have all his books, on my Kindle) or Tolkein’s The Silmarillion. (His not-Lord-of-the-Rings-or-The-Hobbit book, which everything else he ever wrote is known as.)

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“Is this like that guide book J. K. Rowling wrote for the Harry Potter series?”

Naturally, I broke this promise, first by resolving to buy Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, whose unofficial sequel by Susan Hill, Mrs de Winter, is next in my fiction-to-read list. (There’s a few female authors who’ve tried continuing Rebecca. So far as I know, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch doesn’t have that distinction, which is a shame, because The Female Eunuch Grows a Pair is a book I’d read.) I broke it again by settling on a translation of Homer’s Odyssey by (S. H.) Butcher (classicist, 1850 – 1910) and (Andrew) Lang (writer and anthropologist, 1844 – 1912).

I’ve just finished studying Homer for my literature course, and written an essay which didn’t get my best marks. That was a shame, because mythology and poetry are two of my favourite subjects. This may be the problem, however. I like them so much I write in a nonacademic way about them, with lots of diversions. (Which I’d never do here, of course.)

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Screw you, Judy, I totally wouldn’t.

Speaking of diversions, before this phase of my course started I bought a copy of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (porn versions available in Hell, and with the same title), which I’ll also be studying, from the same Books & Coffee St. Helena’s Hospice shop. Of course, this time, the book came later than my academic use for it, but I think I still owe that shop a blood debt or something.

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“We accept payment in screa- donations. Not screams.”

The edition is a leathery blue Macmillan and Co. from 1913, with a tiny Foyles “the booksellers” label on its inside cover. How could I have resisted, my fellow book-geeks will be thinking. When I started browsing its pages, however, I was initially somewhat hesitant about its rendering of Homer’s epic into English prose. I have, after all, read it mostly in iambic pentameter (a line of ten syllables, long and short alternating to make five each), as translated by Alexander Pope. If not, then I’ve at least read it in some form of poetic arrangement, where the lines don’t reach the end of the page. (By the way, if you define “poetry” like that to a literature professor, they are legally permitted to punch you.)

But, as the first page (I haven’t yet read much further) of the Butcher and Lang preface says, this certainly wasn’t the way in which The Odyssey was originally written. (“Written”, even, is a relative term, because the poem would originally have been delivered orally to audiences, with the musical accompaniment of a lyre.) Iambic pentameter is an English tradition, which catered to the tastes of Elizabethan (those subject to Queen Elizabeth I) audiences. My hesitancy, then, was an irrational reaction to something other than English tradition, as opposed to any genuine subversion of the original culture in which The Odyssey was composed. If this was tumblr, I’d be labelled a neo-colonialist, mansplaining cultural appropriator and rightly thrown to the wolves.

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    “Wolves”, in this case, meaning “college feminists”.

There’s nothing wrong with presenting The Odyssey in straight prose, iambic pentameter, or anything else, because its roots, like Homer, its blind author (who might not have existed as we understand him, or composed the epic alone), are mysterious. To quote Spark Notes (something I don’t suggest you do in an academic essay), “stories of a glorious expedition to the East … had been circulating in Greece for hundreds of years before the Iliad and Odyssey … storytellers and … minstrels passed these stories down through generations, with each artist developing and polishing the story as he told it.”

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    SparkNotes: The deadliest cause of aneurysms in teachers and F grades for students, since turning up to class half an hour late in just a thong and a racially insensitive t-shirt.

I therefore look forward to reading The Odyssey in prose, and reading parts aloud to myself, because, regardless of the form and language it takes, it is a work of the imagination unlike any other. It’s like LSD was to Aldous Huxley, for anyone who loves linguistic storytelling.

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    All apologies to Aldous Huxley, who I have it on good authority was more than just a Nancy Reagan drug-PSA waiting to happen.

Film review: Demons (1985)

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 4

For fans of old gore films and Z-movies, Demons, which brings together the Italian schlock-horror talents Lamberto Bava (directing) and Dario Argento (producing, co-writing), is a minor treat, but few others will get much out of it. Coming in at just under 90 minutes, its narrative makes rough sense from scene to scene, but it doesn’t have a “plot” in any useful sense. Its script seems to operate at whim, happily changing the nature of everything that went before as the mood takes it. One moment it’s about a haunted theatre, then zombies, while minor characters are introduced and discarded fairly randomly.

What holds it together as a story are the archetypes who serve as demon-fodder. Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) is our kind-of-protagonist, a student who, as the film opens, is travelling on the subway, where she’s followed by a mysterious man in half a silver mask (Michele Soavi, another Italian schlock-maestro), like the Phantom of the Opera crossed with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. She thinks he’s stalking her, but then at the subway station’s entrance he gives her two gold tickets to a movie preview, before handing out more to other travellers. Cheryl convinces her friend and fellow student Kathy (Paola Cozzo) to skip class for the film, which is in a recently renovated old cinema.

There we meet other ticket-holders who fit basic moulds. There’s a long-married couple consisting of a cranky bigot and meek wife, a blind man and his daughter/carer and, most amusingly, a 70s throwback pimp (Bobby Rhodes) with two hookers (Geretta Geretta and Fabiola Toledo). Though the pimp falls prey to the cliche that the black guy in horror films must be dispatched before the end credits, I liked how sensible and useful he was compared to the cinema’s white patrons, who survive more by script necessity than wit.

The film these characters end up seeing is an Evil Dead-like affair about teenagers finding a haunted book and releasing demons. These demons then enter the world beyond the cinema screen when a patron gets infected and starts attacking the others. The demons, then, are actually zombies, only of a supernatural rather than scientific origin (I guess. The contagion seems to have supernatural origins, but like I said earlier, the script changes its mind a lot). I guess the title “Zombies” would have been old hat by 1985, the same year George A. Romero completed his “Dead” trilogy with Day of the Dead.

As you might have guessed from the names and filmmakers cited above this is an Italian-made film, so it’s dubbed, and in the grand tradition of Z-grade, Eurotrash horror cinema, it’s dubbed atrociously. Some dialogue is incomprehensible, while most is out of sync with the actors’ lip movements. The script itself offers a lot of semi-unintentional comedy. (I say “semi” because the film’s tone is obviously tongue-in-cheek, even if its lame translation and dubbing provokes chuckles. I really doubt Bava and Argento were trying to make the next Psycho with a film where a 70s pimp pulls a flick-knife on a zombie.) One of my favourite moments was when the heroes decide to crawl through a ventilation shaft, and one of them points to a fainted woman and says something like “she should go first. She can’t fend for herself.” Good lord, Holmes, I’m stunned! The unconscious can’t fend for themselves, and are pretty much useless at dragging themselves through air vents.

Demons is, of course, really just an effects display with story and character elements loosely draped over it. The effects are fairly memorable, containing decapitations, scalpings, general mutilation and, of course, firehoses of blood sprayed everywhere. They’re not on the same level of inventiveness as those in, say, Peter Jackson’s Braindead or the Evil Dead movies, but they’re fun. (Sidenote: though I’m not sure Demons was meant to be scary in the strictest sense, what makes it even less so is the cast’s ambivalence to the horror. They scream and flail their arms, but they could just as easily be trapped in a burning building as opposed to one infested with demons and the scattered limbs of the fortunate dead.)

The film’s latter half contains the stuff Quentin Tarantino’s wet dreams are made of. There’s cocaine snorted with a straw out of a can of coke (geddit?) by some punks who escape from the police into the cinema (out of the frying pan, into the fire, anyone?), and a long scene where a patron (Urbano Barberini) rides a motorcyle while attacking zombies with a katana. In fact, Demons could be viewed as a parody of American genre films up to the mid-80s. It brings in elements of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and the aforementioned Evil Dead movies, populating its narrative with refugees from classic mainstream American cinema. There’s the good girl (Cheryl), the all-American boy who, once his shirt gets torn, becomes an action hero (the patron on the motorcycle), the hookers and their pimp, who are straight out of a blaxploitation movie, and the coke-loving punks, who if they hadn’t been torn apart by zombies might have been blown away by Dirty Harry. Of course, you could be a cynic and say that Demons is just ripping off those films, but I’m in a Christian mood today.

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Book review: Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen

Published in 1966 and the second of only two novels, after 1963’s The Favourite Game, by singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers encouraged him, with its hostile reception, to try to forge a career in music instead of literature. Tempting as it may be to regard the critical drubbing and commercial failure of Losers as an antiquated response to its extremely graphic sexuality, both hetero and homo, its poetic descriptions of oral and anal sex, mutual masturbation, and liberal use of the word “cunt”, at least part of the problem would have been the novel’s maddening, incoherent structure. Such loosely plotted and abstract books are usually called postmodern, but even postmodern books should, I think, have compelling narrative voices or forceful personalities.

Though I don’t personally care for Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, for instance, it was propelled by the dark and frightening persona at its core, that of a Wall Street banker stripped of humanity in the cold and ego-driven world of 1980s America. Beautiful Losers, however, is narrated by a nameless whining drip whose late wife, Edith, while subject to horrible acts, is so devoid of a recognisable personality that her sufferings, which include a childhood sexual violation, seem almost misogynistic, as though she exists in the story only for her body to be abused. The drip and Edith are accompanied by “F.”, a pseudo-philosophical jerk spouting empty aphorisms on, and on, and on, and on, in-between having lots of sex with Mr. Drip and Edith.

These three share what passes for a love triangle, though it doesn’t seem very loving or even triangular. Edith and F. do stuff like take heroin, give blow jobs in canoes and masturbate in speeding cars, while Drip drips about, being emotionally distant or hostile to the pair of them. His raging jealousy when he discovers that Edith and F. have been having sex seems misplaced because, based on the latter pair’s actions, they seem much more compatible, making you wonder what Drip sees in her besides her resemblance to the Roman Catholic saint he’s dedicated his academic life to.

That saint, the real-life Kateri Tekakwitha, brings us to the only interesting parts of Beautiful Losers, those which re-tell the stories, both historical and mythological, of her life and people in 17th-century America. These sections are packed with interesting ancedotes and details, like the tale of a Jesuit priest trying to bring Christianity to a Mohawk Indian tribe. Faced with an audience stubbornly refusing to remove their fingers from their ears, the priest paints for them a Hieronymus Bosch-esque portrait of their kind being tortured in Hell. Thusly are they scared into obedience. (Perhaps high school teachers should try something similar?)

There’s also many compelling biographical stories about Tekakwitha, and details of her tribe’s traditions, such as their houses, which were long and windowless, the only apertures ventilation holes in the roofs. The second section of the book tells the story of Tekakwitha’s last four years alive, during which she excessively practised mortification, a Catholic rite whereby you abuse your body to bring you closer to Jesus. (Mother Teresa once told a woman dying painfully of cancer that Jesus was kissing her. Her response? “Tell Jesus to stop kissing me.”) The mortifications she undergoes are disturbing and melancholic, but also seem like a natural extension of Tekakwitha’s personality, as opposed to a horror imposed on her by barbaric religion. (Indeed, her superiors try forcing her to restrain her masochism.) The image of her at her favourite spot, a giant cross by a river shore, burning herself with hot coals, is a memorable one.

I was tempted many times to skip the boring and uncharacterised love triangle for the parts with Tekakwitha, who’s infinitely more interesting than people who’d seem flat in a 90-page Mills&Boon plot. (You know your erotic pansexual love story’s hit a brick wall when it’s less interesting than the adventures of a Roman Catholic virgin.)

Beautiful Losers is written much like a poem, with similes piled on top of each other, some in chapters where every word is capitalised (that’s a treat, I can tell you), and passages which read like a game of word association, until any semblance of sentence structure evaporates. However, unlike the novel-poems of, say, Virginia Woolf, Beautiful Losers is tortuous because it’s utterly pointless and meandering. Woolf’s The Waves, a novel-poem, worked because it evoked lives and places. Its narrative wasn’t linear or traditionally structured in any useful sense, but who cares? What comes through are the voices and images. It’s a picture of England and the life force.

The images in Losers are only fitfully compelling and always forgettable, and its voices are annoying at best. F., I think, is supposed to be an enticing libertine, a pure soul who loved the world so fully it destroyed him. To me he comes across as a self-indulgent twat who took drugs and stuck his cock in things until he died, all the while preaching the kind of nonsense a sandwich-board prophet would laugh at. I mean “nonsense” literally, by the way, as in non-sense. Little if any of what he says is comprehensible, let alone applicable as a philosophy. It reads like dialogue from one of David Lynch’s “Rabbits” shorts, wherein people in felt rabbit costumes recite disconnected bits of speech (“the milkman is late”, “where are my slippers?”) while a laugh track plays, intermittently and inexplicably.

The final section of the book, entitled “Beautiful Losers: An Epilogue in the Third Person”, is a little pacier and reads more like an actual narrative than the interminable love story. It’s abstract and symbolic, but I don’t have any problem whatsoever with that. The point is that it actually has a narrative engine propelling it. Separated from the rest of the novel, this 20-page epilogue makes a passable short story.

I’ve been quite nasty in this review and I honestly didn’t set out to be. I like Leonard Cohen. His music and lyrics are wonderful, and I’d happily defend him against accusations of being “depressing” as a songwriter. What many call depressing I see merely as depth of feeling in his songs. Apparently Beautiful Losers took two eight-month periods in consecutive years to write, during which Cohen fasted and took amphetamines to focus his attention on the work. The process was so damaging he needed a decade to fully recover from it. In other words, writing this book almost killed him, and I hate it, and I really don’t want to hate it because it almost killed him, a man whose work I mostly adore.

Nonetheless, I do hate it, and I have to be honest about that, because otherwise what are reviews for? The novel does have its fans, like Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, who in 1970 described it as “the most vivid, fascinating and brave modern novel” he’d read, and literary critic Desmond Pacey, who in 1967 called it “the most intricate, erudite and fascinating Canadian novel ever written”. So hey, it’s not like I’m beating a book while it’s down. Some people read it with enjoyment, and I salute those noble souls.

P.S: My copy of the novel contains a note Leonard Cohen wrote for the Chinese translation of the novel. In it, he encourages the reader to not take it too seriously and, preferably, read it not from cover to cover, but dip in and out, reading a passage here and a passage there. That’s fair enough, but in what seems like a cruel joke this note appears at the end of my copy, as one of the last things before the back cover. “Cover to cover”, indeed.

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