Film review: Perfect Blue (1997)

It begins with a trio of Power-Ranger-esque heroes battling a giant robot in what looks like a stereotype of a Japanese children’s cartoon, and we wonder if this is part of the story. Then the shot pans out to reveal it’s all a stage show. We see a bored-looking audience and media people. This establishes the tone and theme of Perfect Blue, one of the most hypnotic and chilling psycho-thrillers ever made. (I’m including the daddy of the genre, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in that.) Fantasy and reality, performance and spontenaity, the public and the private, blur to a point where they become indistinguishable, and you’re made to share the psychosis of the characters.

The films Perfect Blue most reminds me of are giallo, an Italian genre which peaked in the 1970s. Giallo, itself inspired by Hitchcock’s work, mixed complex murder mysteries with extreme gore and terror. Their plots depended on some obscure piece of abnormal psychology, while the victims and instigators of the violence were often women. This reflected male anxieties about females, which goes back to Hitchcock’s tortured blondes and brutish men.

Some giallo were masterpieces, equalling Psycho in their artistry (Deep Red, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), while others were camp grotesqueries (Terror at the Opera, Phenomena). Where Perfect Blue, a Japanese anime, differs from those films is in its telling of the story from a uniquely female perspective, with no objective male observer to filter the plot through. Even Psycho‘s following of Marion Crane ends abruptly just three quarters of an hour in, the perspective shifting to that of her boyfriend, her sister, a private eye, and of course Norman Bates. The giallo that came closest to independent heroines were Terror at the Opera, in which the driver of the plot is ultimately male, and Phenomena, whose male observer leaves halfway through.

It is for this reason that Perfect Blue is as much an exploration of women’s anxieties about themselves as it is men’s, and how they cope with and help create the idealised female images we see in media. The film’s heroine, Mima (Japanese: Junko Iwao; English: Ruby Marlowe), a sweet and naive young starlet of the Britney Spears pre-meltdown variety, is a “pop idol”. Pop idols are big business in Japan, and are expected to not just be good singers, but flawless role models, embodying the traditional feminine virtues of meekness and modesty (which seems to be at odds with the sexy Moulin-Rouge-style outfits Mima and her peers in the real world wear, but there you go).

Mima’s promoter, Tadokoro (J: Shinpachi Tsuji; E: Gil Starberry), pushes her to leave the band in which she’s lead singer, and pursue a career as an actress in a seedy TV drama where she plays a traumatised rape victim. Mima’s motherly and protective agent, Rumi (J: Rica Matsumoto; E: Wendee Lee), is disgusted by this, but Mima plays along because, like her pop idol image, she’s submissive to the wills and needs of others. This submission to the re-moulding of her image has dark consequences, and soon Mima struggles to discern where the image ends and she begins. Meanwhile, a strange man calling himself Me-Mania (J: Masaaki Ōkura; E: Bob Marx) visits a website called “Mima’s Room”, where Mima the pop idol seems to live her own independent existence…

Part of what makes Perfect Blue so compelling and disturbing is its music, specifically its most notable and frequently used instrumental, called “Virtua Mima” on the soundtrack. The song is a mix of what sounds like strange religious chanting and wailing from several voices – sometimes overlapping, sometimes not – combined with a splash of drums and a constant jangling wind-chime effect. It underscores the goriest and most suspenseful scenes, taking us into a world away from the Tokyo of the film’s setting, a world where identity and experiences are always shifting. The hard-rock scores used in giallo have a similarly transcendent effect, though “Virtua Mima” is gentler and more insinuating. I can’t imagine this film without that instrumental.

After Mima becomes an actress and performs her rape scene (a blatant piece of exploitation lovingly concocted by her male handlers, and ignored by her female co-star) the “pop idol” side of her personality splits off to conduct a life of its own. She sees it in mirrors and windows, wearing her pop idol outfit and bemoaning her new actress persona. To me, this alter-ego is the scariest thing in the film, and it illustrates what I think most modern horror films do wrong when it comes to the scary-little-girl trope. Normally when the the trope is used, the little girl is pulling a “scary” face or singing a “creepy” nursery rhyme, and instantly we know she’s trying to scare us. Which isn’t scary.

Even when Darren Aaronofsky essentially remade this story as Black Swan he fell into the same trap: as Natalie Portman’s dancer turns her back to a mirror we see her reflection move of its own volition, but it’s pulling a “sinister” face that (for me, anyway) lessens the mood. The pop idol image in Perfect Blue exists for the purpose of reinforcing that image, and never lets the mask slip. The mask is all that exists. She never sneers, frowns, cries, or spoils her makeup. She’s always giggling and smiling, even while saying dreadful things. A shot of this mirage skipping down a Tokyo street, viewed from an alleyway as she passes, haunts me. She’s both totally unreal and totally unnerving.

The animation, directed by Satoshi Kon, is well-handled, and used to evoke images which just wouldn’t have the same impact in live action. Given the film’s theme – the abstract buying and selling of women’s bodies and personalities – it also provides a further comment on exploitation in pop culture. We’ve all heard the jokes about hentai, Asian schoolgirls, and tentacle-porn. In the aforementioned rape scene Mima shoots, we get a set-piece which wouldn’t seem out of place in 4chan gifs. And here we see yet another blurring of reality. The rape scene is, of course, fiction, performed by actors and controlled by the studio, yet Mima was pressured into it without fully understanding what its emotional impact would be. So where does the line between real and make-believe violence begin? She’s an innocent throughout, even in the midst of the violence that ensues. She’s intelligent and talented, but a wide-eyed girl in her dealings with the world.

Perfect Blue is extremely gory in its slasher scenes, which may have seemed absurd in live-action (the later giallo films tended towards the overwrought), but in animation feel perfectly sensible. Perfect Blue is a beautiful film which reminds me why I fell in love with psychological thrillers.


Short story: A Day at Work

The boy wanted a blue straw, but the cafe did not have a blue straw, so he compensated himself for the loss by screaming at his mother. The waitress, being a well-reared girl, reflected that her mother would have whooped these ill-manners straight out of her, not with hands, but a promise that, if she persisted, not only would she not get her straw, she’d have to find her own birthday presents.

Two booths back, a gentleman in a black hat, powder-blue formal shirt, and brown tweeds watched the scene, sipping his Coke through a red straw. His hamburger was eaten before the Madonna and child (he amused himself by calling them) were even visible in the cafe’s forecourt. Since then, he had picked off his chips one by one, bloodying their prostrate bodies with a red blob at plate’s edge.  Two brave little fellows; shards, really; remained.

‘Calm down, Tommy, please, or I’ll, I’ll…’ You’ll what, thought the waitress, discreetly shifting herself away from the scene. Once the pivot was complete, she saw one blue straw in a spray of reds, yellows, and greens, in the cup on the counter where they were kept. The cup she had checked three times for the little brat.

She turned, insanely hoping for an answer among the customers, and caught the creep in the black-hat winking at her. She ignored this, and debated whether to give the brat the straw. She was annoyed by his behaviour and took a sadistic thrill in his impotent rage. She plucked the straw from the cup and presented it to him, not expecting any gratitude, and not surprised when the mother berated her for not finding it the first three times. Dumb bitch, she thought as she walked back to the counter, I bet his daddy doesn’t treat you any better.

Still, it was strange she hadn’t found it before.  The third time she checked she rolled out and lined up the straws, examining each like soldiers at inspection. Maybe the manager, hearing the commotion from his office, took a straw from his glass and put it there. No, she thought, he rarely ventured far from his office, preferring to sit drinking iced tea and watching his portable TV all day.

It was probably the cook, she concluded, picturing the grease-flecked local boy wiping his hands on his apron and taking the straw from a cupboard supply. The brat’s drink was ordered after his ham sandwich and ice-cream. Soon he and his mother would leave, a prospect the waitress enjoyed while leant against the counter, fiddling with her badge. She didn’t look forward to a tip, as tolerant and submissive as she had been. The creep in the black hat, she noticed, was finally gone.

He leant beside the diner’s front door. The Madonna and child left, she trying to grip his rebellious paw while guiding them both down the steps. The man sensed the woman’s rage, bottled up and hidden in a windowless cellar. ‘They are a handful, aren’t they?’ he said when they’d reached the forecourt. The boy glanced at and paid him no more attention. He was just another grown-up spoiling his day.

‘Excuse me?’ said the mother. ‘I said they’re a handful, aren’t they? Children, I mean.’ She wondered if he was a Jehovah’s Witness or some nonsense like that. Didn’t they normally knock on people’s front doors, though? ‘I don’t know about yours, mister, but mine is just fine’ she replied as the boy twisted her wrist, impatient to be home. ‘Oh, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to offend you or anything. We get very protective of our own, don’t we? I know if some slick fellow said something about my kid, well, I’d be pretty riled too. Honestly, though, I just wanted to express my sympathy, one parent to another…’

‘Mum…’ said the boy, dragging the vowel. The woman sighed and looked at her feet. ‘In fact’ he continued, ignoring the boy, ‘not long ago I wished I could just reach into my kids’ mean little minds and twist. Twist until they learned their manners…’ As he said the last four words the boy stopped protesting and grimaced. He sensed what seemed like the beginnings of a headache. ‘Mum?’ he said, more tentatively. The woman finally made eye contact with the man, letting her son’s hand fall. He was a handsome forty-something, lines etched from the corners of his eyes with delicate precision. In his youth, she supposed, he was a student athlete.

‘Who are you?’ she asked. ‘James McPhee’ he replied, ‘and I wouldn’t be much of a man if I didn’t confess I’m a salesman. Don’t worry, though, I’m not a cowboy. At least not professionally…’ He winked. He pulled what looked like a poker chip from his shirt pocket, took her hand and placed it there. She looked at it. It was leather, brown, somewhat scuffed, and featured a ram’s head etched in black. The boy was now half-consciously rubbing his temples. Normally, he would have screamed and cried, demanding instant relief; he was silent now for a reason he knew but didn’t understand.

‘By gifting you this token I grant you some of my power, but be aware that I can revoke it at any time, from anywhere in the world. The power is in the token, my lady-friend, and whenever you need your little treasure to shine less brightly, wrap your hand around it and think of me. But only until he learns; think too long and his head might explode!’

The boy stared at the man with animal hate, then glanced at his mother with fear. She knew the token’s price without needing to be told; what the salesman wanted was in his eyes.


Darkness swept Jerusalem, and the salesman slept well. Some desert church had been violated, its crucifix splintered against the stone altar, the beams tearing like limbs from a body on the rack.

On the salesman’s bedside table a newspaper lay, its front page proclaiming the murder/suicide of a rock musician against his three band-mates, all friends since childhood. He had known the band for a brief period two years ago when, appearing on their tour bus as a manager from their studio, begun to sow the seeds of envy and impatience between their singer/songwriter, Mitchell Harris, and his peers. His most significant conversation with Harris happened behind a curtain at the bus’ rear window, while the others lolled limp and blank in their chairs, as though practicing how they would eventually be found.

‘I don’t like clichés, Mitch, but these wasters really are holding you back.’

‘I don’t know, man, I’ve known most of them since primary school…’

Most of them. What about that loser you’ve got on the drums? Didn’t you meet him later, in high school, and isn’t the only reason his greedy, talentless backside’s here is because he once sold your bass player dope?’ Mitchell, a seemingly skinny but muscular young man with long, curly hair, who now wore a stained sleeveless basketball vest, plucked a guitar string and stared at nothing.

‘I guess.’

‘You guess? Come on, Mitch, we’ve known each other six months now, and in that time I’ve bothered to learn more about you than any of the mugs out there. These guys are your friends, I get that, and you don’t want to be disloyal because you’re a good man. But you’re also an artist, Mitch, and sometimes an artist needs to be ruthless, to choose between his friends and his music. Do you want to be just another dead-eyed waster like the dopes beyond that curtain? Or do you want to be great?’

Harris leaned his guitar against a chest of drawers, gentle as a mother arranging her son in his cot. He looked in the manager’s eyes, seeing a rock music acolyte whose time at the sides of the greats had taught him a lot about the business, who were the winners and who were the losers. ‘So how do I become great?’ he asked. The manager smiled, and took from his jacket what looked like a scuffed leather poker chip…

The salesman smiled in his sleep, snatches of memory from his days on tour as a roadie mingling with the images of destruction in the desert church, like a nightmare-slideshow. Discarding his guitar picks Harris used the chip the manager gave him, enthralling conspiracy theorists whose eyes caught the ram’s head as it dictated the music. The band, initially intent on making a cover album to replenish their bank accounts and give them more free time (time they would otherwise have to spend waiting for Harris’ muse), grew progressively submissive as the tour wore on.

After two years they were slaves as much to the ram’s head pick as they were to the dope, the money, or the women. Occasionally, however, the salesman let Hell boil over, sometimes to claim a few more souls for his quota, sometimes just for his own amusement. The murders happened when Harris locked himself and his band-mates in a sound-room to rehearse. The drummer hadn’t burned out, as the salesman predicted, but persisted long enough to herald his end with this question: ‘can’t we just play some Led Zeppelin and get out of here? I mean, I like your stuff, Mitch, but there’s no way it sounds like “Stairway to Heaven”, and a good cover of that could get us places.’

This rebellion, a momentary lifting of the veil between band and pick, orchestrated by the demon several hundred miles away in yet another hotel room, spurred Harris to take the bassist’s guitar. He fondled it for a moment, then raised and swung it like an axe at the drummer’s crown, splitting the latter like a ripe cantaloupe. Blood divided the dying man’s face like Indian war paint, and he fell to his knees, a child-like protest on his lips. Harris’ two other band-mates, stunned by the violence, signed their warrants with blank stares. As Harris ripped the guitar from the wound, an axe from a felled tree, a passing producer heard him scream: ‘does that sound like “Stairway to Heaven”, you cunt?!’

Not that Mitch ever was very talented. The salesman, a lover of Dante (his poetry, not his liquor-handling, which having drunk with him he considered sub-par), almost cringed when he had to listen to the creative process that produced lines like these:

“I hate mum

And I hate dad,

Society’s what made me mad.

I kill ‘cause love tore me apart,

Now I’ve got no beating heart!


I hope I die before I wake,

Not for mine but


The salesman had little concept of what “God” truly was. He called Him Yahweh to mortalise him a little, make him a creature of senses and time. Contemplating what humans called the divine was the only thing which made him even slightly nervous. He didn’t fear Satan, that bumbling micro-manager, carving “targets” in hunks of brimstone like a prisoner calculating his internment, as if things like computers or, Christ, he thought, just notepads and pens, were only for mortals. Those targets were nonsense, anyway. What mattered was the quality of the souls accrued, not the quantity.

Souls like Mitchell Harris’ were just filler, sawdust for stuffing his quota. If Yahweh made him nervous, then that man-child would be made humbler than Ruth and the two Marys combined. The salesman thought this as he stood by the stage at Glastonbury, wearing a faded denim jacket-and-jeans, black-and-white dragon tee, and lank shoulder-length hair, curled and stringy like flaccid dreadlocks.

Once upon a time he had worn a sackcloth robe and stood among the poor of Babylon. His feet were unshod, and so he joined the ranks of those too impoverished to afford even sandals. In return for their company he gave them little stone idols, beyond crude (he was no artist), but just about resembling naked women with pubic hair stylised to seem like goats’ horns, terminating sharply to the left and right of their pelvises. When the time came to kneel before Babylon’s new golden idols, arranged by order of King Nebuchadnezzar, the peasants so gifted clutched their idols, a few with such ferocity the breasts almost caved in. And thus they were led by a false light into a false kingdom, falser even than Babylon. The false light of a shallow charisma guided their feet, though to outside eyes they appeared to be kneeling. Some, not yet arrogant enough to deny their instincts, turned back, dropping their idols onto the sand. Most kept walking.


He sat in one of Hell’s many waiting rooms (“sat” is a relative term, given the relative nature of the life beyond life). Sometimes portions of the wall shifted to resemble a human face which appeared to be screaming, though no sound emerged. The light in the room had no discernible source but was weak and flickering, as it was everywhere, like a broken strip-light in an abandoned hospital. Everything about Hell was tidy; organised; clinical. The demons, who perceived each other not as dimensional bodies but as thoughts, floated here and there in an action akin to a human fussing in its seat. When a human face appeared within sight of one it took the form of a half-man, half-goat, with blood-red skin, horns, and hooves. In this way, the demons were like playground bullies, easily and eagerly frightening the younger children.

The salesman avoided the game, not out of mercy but weariness. He’d been waiting six hundred years to be called for by the boss. By the time Satan’s secretary (an attractive thought if ever there was one, the salesman considered) tapped the inverted brimstone cross by her desk three times, Mitchell Harris, his band, and his music had long since vanished from the minds of men. The salesman didn’t recognise him as any of the faces that appeared in the Wailing Walls (so dubbed by the mocking demons). Maybe his soul had finally been cleansed.

The brimstone cross combusted. The salesman had been summoned. He left the thoughts of his fellows like a forgotten chore, and entered those of his boss as a promising idea. Satan presented himself as a fifty foot, anthropomorphic timber-wolf, whose right paw grasped the enlarged decapitated head of Mitchell Harris.

‘Impressed, Venditabant?’ Satan asked.

‘Mightily, my lord’ Venditabant lied.

‘I plan to appear at a moonlight vigil for this rock star of yours, about four-hundred years ago.’

‘Really?’ Venditabant said, ‘I’m surprised he lingered in the mortal eye for two centuries, let alone stayed renowned.’

Satan dropped the veil and appeared as a thought. Venditabant winced. He suddenly had a headache. ‘Oh yes’ Satan said, ‘but only among stupid teenagers and teenagers-at-heart. The disenfranchised are always the most easily led. You know, when I received his soul’ – here the singer’s head appeared again and was rolled towards a pile of human and rat skulls (an abstract sculpture by Satan which he called ‘Man’s Insignificance’; if a thought can roll its eyes, this is what Venditabant did when he first saw it) – ‘I almost reprimanded you for sacrificing quality for quantity, but really I shouldn’t have been pushing you so hard. You can’t always send monks and nuns down the pipeline.’ This is the closest Satan would ever come to an apology for a bad idea. The brimstone scoreboards were gone, Venditabant noticed.

‘And besides, this idiot’s soul has proven itself very useful, so much so I’ve developed quite a fondness for it. Not enough to prevent my inflicting a little recreational torture from time to time, of course, but fondness nonetheless.’

‘It’s still here, then? It wasn’t one of the last batch that was redeemed?’

Satan bristled. He didn’t like being reminded of the redemptions. Every few thousand years Yahweh would send some of his thugs down to perform a harrowing, where the souls considered punished enough were rounded up. Stolen, as Satan put it. ‘Definitely not’, he said. ‘This one’s a real bastard, believe it or not. For all his ignorance, he’s a narcissist at heart. You know what he saw when I showed him the ideal End. He saw what everyone sees: men, women, and children bodily degraded beyond imagination, and like so many he kept walking, expecting a place away from the degradation for his callousness. The soul embodied in that head over there hasn’t changed one iota in six hundred years. The divine compassion will not take root. The soil is too spoiled.’

Venditabant wasn’t surprised. ‘Which leads me nicely onto why I summoned you, Vinny. There’s another soul you tried to accrue for me, a daughter of Eve who couldn’t control her Cain. I remember you dressed yourself as something akin to the Marlboro Man to seduce her.’

‘Has she not succumbed? I haven’t thought about her in centuries.’

‘Evidently. She emerged from her spiritual torpor just as the child was entering its first year of big boy school. She cast her chip into the fire, and now, instead of using our fine services, she’s decided not to spare the rod.’

Good on her, Venditabant thought. ‘You summoned me for the sake of one woman’s soul. Why do you want it so badly?’

‘While I may not be holding you to your targets, Vinny, I do still keep track, and this is the only soul handled by you, in the last millennial quarter, which hasn’t been delivered. Think of your ego, man. Do you really want to be remembering her in eighty years as “the one that got away”?’

Venditabant could see his point. If a thought can sigh, he sighed. If he was the Marlboro Man last time, this time he’d have to be three Casanovas.

Film review: Return to Oz (1985)

(This was going to be a simple 500-word review, but ballooned to essay length.)

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

Many would soak me with a pail of water for saying this, but I prefer director and co-writer Walter Murch’s dark, strange film Return to Oz to the Judy Garland version, The Wizard of Oz. That isn’t necessarily to say that I think it’s a better film. The 1939 musical (which is the third adaptation of Frank L. Baum’s children’s tales, hence why I called it the Judy Garland “version” and not “original”) is a masterpiece of tone, style, and content. It’s a perfect object, every sound, image, and performance finely crafted, and perfectly presented, within a framework of gentle vaudevillian whimsy.

Return, on the other hand, in skewing much closer to Baum’s original vision, is a relatively surreal film which sometimes looks like one of those outrageous 50s horrors, starring someone like Vincent Price as a mad scientist. If Wizard is camp vaudeville, Return is Gothic romance. This tone and style is what attracts me. I’ve always preferred the Gothic to the knowingly camp, which doesn’t mean that I have any problem with the latter, it’s just not as close to my particular tastes.

If I was rating this film in purely emotional terms, I’d give it a 4/4, but I try to be somewhat objective when expressing what I feel are the relative merits of a work, and Return is far from perfect. It’s more a momentary triumph, hurtling you from one great set-piece to the next without a real sense of journey. This may be a result of its narrative base: it moulds the second and third Oz books, The Marvelous Land of Oz (which didn’t star Dorothy) and Ozma of Oz, into one.

Return to Oz was one of the many 80s movies which boasted ground-breaking special effects to mixed reactions from critics and audiences. In its day, Return was a critical and commercial disaster, making less than half of its 28 million dollar budget, though it did get recognition for its Oscar-nominated special effects (the winner that year was Cocoon, another 80s visual extravaganza).

Playing Dorothy in this film is Fairuza Balk, a somewhat lesser-known actress popular among fans of 90s goth culture for her role as Nancy, the tragic, psychotic teen witch in The Craft (1996). Nancy could be viewed as the yang to Dorothy’s yin, but maybe I’m labouring a point just because the actress’ appeal is similar in both roles, even if they are polar opposites. Balk, about 11 when she filmed Oz (her debut), has the same dark eyes and full lips that she did in her early 20s, when she played Nancy, making her seem a little like a Gothic Victorian dress-up doll.

Dorothy, of course, is innocence personified. She’s fine-mannered and aware, at all times, of an absolute distinction between right and wrong. When Judy Garland played her this gave the character a camp aspect, largely because Garland was about 17 when she played the role. Simply by virtue of being pre-pubescent herself, then, Balk’s performance is a lot more natural and child-like. (Garland probably wasn’t trying to be naturally child-like, of course. That film’s vaudeville style lends itself to caricature, and the vivid one she drew for us is rightly among the most renowned in cinema.)

Return to Oz begins with Dorothy suffering insomnia at the isolated Kansas farmhouse of her guardians, Aunt Em (Piper Laurie, in another role that’s yin/yang, with her famous performance as the deranged fundamentalist mother in Carrie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark). They blame the trauma of the tornado that took their house in Wizard, and send her to the sanatorium of Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson), a crackpot Victorian pseudo-scientist touting a form of electroshock therapy. Alone and afraid in her cell, Dorothy is led by the hand by a mysterious little girl into the woods, when a storm occurs…

What may surprise Wizard of Oz fans is how little we see of the Tin-Man, Lion, and Scarecrow, the latter of whom was crowned king of the Emerald City, Oz’s capital, before the land and its good inhabitants were turned to stone by the Nome King (Williamson again, which I didn’t realise until I looked up the film on Wikipedia, I think because we see too little of Dr. Worley in the beginning to establish a great connection).

I’m not even sure if the Tin-Man and Lion have any lines. Replacing them as Dorothy’s companions are Tik-Tok, a small brass robot whose brain and hydraulics have to be wound up by a second party, Billina, a talking chicken whose dry commentary kept me amused, and Jack Pumpkinhead, another scarecrow, who bears a passing resemblance to Jack Skellington in 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Return to Oz is a masterpiece visually. It’s packed with stunning sights and effects that are some of the most mesmeric in cinema. In a scene where Dorothy interacts with the Nome King, he propels her through an abstract landscape inside his mountain domain where precious stones are formed, creating a kaleidoscope effect. This rivals the tunnel scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and even approaches some of the grand cosmic visuals in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Speaking of the Nome King, he suggests one of many plot holes apparent to those prone to analysing even kiddie films. It’s not a spoiler that Dorothy eventually confronts the king, and instead of neutralising her immediately, he plays a game with her. The film explains this in a bit where the king says that the game is “more fun”, but I didn’t buy that, and the plot hole bothered me.

That is, until I reached a satisfying theory: the Nome King is Satan and Dorothy is Jesus (hear me out). In the famous Bible story, Satan takes Jesus up a mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the earth, promising him every one if only Jesus will worship him. Jesus, of course, refuses, and in a scene in Return to Oz the Nome King offers Dorothy a way out of the game, if only she will betray her loyalties. On the one hand, the script could have been tighter if it had offered us such an explanation for the Nome King’s actions, but on the other, maybe this is something children understand without needing to articulate. The Nome King is bad, Dorothy is good, and so the Nome King wants Dorothy to be bad.

Allegories aside, there’s another fantastic villain, Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh), an evil witch with a detachable head, whose scenes are truly, wonderfully macabre. Some have described this film as creepy, but for me “creepy” suggests repulsion, and nothing in this film repulsed me. Well, except maybe the Wheelers (all played by John Alexander), Mombi’s slave-race of men with wheels for hands and feet. When one first appears you see a static, metal mask that’s quite intimidating. But then the thing raises its head, you see the face of a middle-aged man with eye shadow and coloured hair, the others arrive, and they just look like backing dancers in a Pet Shop Boys video. Still, they were amusing and didn’t outstay their welcome.

As I’ve said, Return to Oz is far from perfect. Its plot is loosely arranged, without much natural progression or narrative urgency, so what it feels like is a series of colourful set-pieces rather than an epic fantasy. But the set-pieces are so good, the characters so vividly realised, that the film becomes mesmeric. It’s a masterpiece of special effects, and its darker tone allows more intimacy with the world and beings it creates. Again, many would soak me with a pail of water for saying this, but where the cast of Judy Garland’s Wizard of Oz are amusing companions, the heroes of Return to Oz are friends.


Poem: Ode to the English Ghost Story by Jack Heslop

We peek around the edges of their world.
In seaside rooms and old churches they seek
always the dark grail, a life unfurled
and eternal in screams of mortal meek.
The Bard’s were facts of life, a soul survived
and just as coarse as when it roamed in flesh.
But distance from the True Cross brought revived
and chilling fear of Them, the broken mesh
between our worlds an entrance to be sealed.
The killing ghouls on garden paths and moods
in which a girl can rot, her soul repealed
with rites offensive to the bleeding roods.

The century of love and grace and steam,
was that in which began the haunted dream.

A mere thought: The Puritan Streak

(I once had an idea for a non-fiction book about the streak in horror/fantasy writers and fiction, described in Michel Houellebecq’s Against the World, Against Life, that fears progressivism and yearns for “a simpler time”. I would call this book The Puritan Streak. Below is a little bit of me expounding on this theme.)

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

I was reading about The Green Inferno – Eli Roth’s new film, about a bunch of white middle-class college do-gooders who travel to protest deforestation in the Amazon and are kidnapped, tortured, and killed by a hidden tribe – when I was struck by a memory of something Michel Houellebecq wrote about horror fiction in his H. P. Lovecraft essay, Against the World, Against Life. He wrote that horror is essentially conservative in that it fears and paints progressivism as the path to evil. In support of this theory he cited a story by Robert Bloch, written in the 1960s, about Hells’ Angels who torment naive women. (Of course, these days, Hells’ Angels seem about as threatening as the Fonz. I always picture rotund bearded men wearing shades, like badass Santas.)


This man terrified your parents’s parents. And with good reason: he’s whiter than Hamlet’s dad.

Thinking about it, horror – my favourite genre (though I usually refer to it as “Gothic” or “weird”) – does appeal to my conservative side… In that I fear and detest cultural apologetics which want to regulate language and art and confuse altruism with ideological masturbation. The kind of perspective which insists that an arrangement of syllables and sounds is somehow abusive regardless of context, and is unwilling to examine the motives for its “altruism”, whether it might in fact be a wish to patronise, to feel superior. The kind of arguments and actions which call themselves liberal, then open their arms to cultures which violently oppress women, gays, and outsiders. (Hypocrisy: the best kind of liberalism!)


‘I know it seems odd for a daycare centre, but I’ll be damned if I’m labelled a bigot again!’

I consider myself liberal. Even bleeding-heart liberal. But horror speaks to my fear of too much progressivism, or, more exactly, pretension and arrogance disguised as progressivism. If I sound like Alex Jones, blame Lovecraft. Or me. I am pretty fucking sick.

Alex Jones

*unintelligible screaming interspersed with “GUNS!”*

Poem (by me): Cigarettes and Tea

(I’ve been re-reading Charles Bukowski recently, and this is an attempt at a poem in his style of instinctive, realistic free verse, though hopefully with my voice.)

Cigarettes and Tea

Marcel Proust,
The French Writer,
ate a biscuit dunked in tea
and it recalled to him his childhood,
so sudden and severe
all fear of death and pain were gone,
smoke from a Chinaman’s hookah,
lost in the rest of the opium den.

For me, it is nothing as pretty
(or literary)
as a biscuit dunked in tea.

For me it is cigarette smoke,
the stench pre-eminently foul
to non-smokers, though I, abstaining too,
see in its gross decay,
its redolence of illness, death,
a transubstantiation.

So sudden and severe
the great warm breast of Motherhood
emerges from its depths,
and then I am fourteen again,
almost half-asleep in an old green armchair,
while on the matching green sofa
my mother lies and smokes.

Short story (by me): Martyring the Virgins

The séance had not gone well. All the way home Michael had been burning with rage, barely suppressed for the sake of his wife, Angela, who lay like a shipwreck in her corner of the taxi. If the little bitch (meaning the psychic) dares to chase me for the rest of the payment I’ll decorate that hovel with her skin, he thought. The very idea of the séance had been abhorrent to him, and he had sniffed when he saw the dingy flat above the bookmakers’ where the woman lived.

She had worn her hair in a greasy bandanna and from her neck hung a cheap jangling necklace, the costume, he guessed, purposely chosen to exaggerate her age and connection to the gypsy community, when in fact she was just an actress paying her way through school with this scam. He pictured her sitting in that filthy flea-market armchair (in whose bouquet of stuffing her natural consort, the rat, made house) reading the obituaries, those long red nails gathering around a pen once she had found a likely mark. Were the names of Michael and Angela Hughes encircled with red biro in a stashed newspaper somewhere in the flat? Michael knew it. Tomorrow, on his way to work, he’d slip a few quid to those ne’er-do-wells who hung around at the end of her street and really teach her a lesson.

‘I can’t think why she did it’ he said to his wife as he poured her a drink in their living room, though he knew quite well – hook ’em early, reel ’em back. ‘All those terrible things she said, pretending it was Matthew.’ The living room, which Michael avoided when he could, was suffocated by pictures of their late son. His infancy filled the mantelpiece like decorative cherubs, his early school days regimented the piano lid, while his teenage years were scattered about the room on various little tables designed for ashtrays and coasters.

Angela accepted the drink, and Michael stood uneasily by the fireplace, unwilling to lean on it lest he disturb a photograph. His wife, he saw, was borderline comatose, and would have to be forced to drink her whiskey, which looked like it might fall from her grasp at any moment. Seeing his avenue, Michael took advantage of the moment. ‘And another thing, I want all these photographs moved to the conservatory, like I suggested at Easter. Remembrance is one thing, Angie, but we can’t live in the past forever, and I would like to host in here again’.

That seemed to bring his wife back to the present, and she slowly placed her glass on the coffee table, parting the waves of pictures. She made eye contact with her husband, weary more than angry. ‘Why are you so eager to forget our child?’ she asked. Michael bristled and gave her what he hoped was a disapproving, authoritarian stare. ‘I want to do no such thing’ he said, ‘but it’s been a year, Angela, and people are starting to think you’re not right.’

‘So it’s diseased for a mother to be torn apart by the death of her only son, is it?’

‘Don’t put words in my mouth, Angela. It’s not just the… grief. It’s all this nonsense about séances and those ridiculous seer-stones you’ve strewn about our bedroom. Frankly, I regret even beginning to humour you about that stupid woman who took our money just so she could spew filth at us. You were there, you heard her. Aren’t you as offended as I am by what she claimed our son was saying to us?’

Angela looked at him, then sighed and raised herself up from the sofa. She picked up her drink and, to Michael’s surprise, gulped it down. She returned the glass to the hostess trolley and said ‘if you want to move the pictures do it yourself, I’m going to bed.’


Emily Paget couldn’t speak to the dead, didn’t even think that the dead could be spoken to. But she could lighten the hearts of sad women, women who might have done harm to themselves if left alone with their grief and cosmic dread, and with that she justified her psychic side-line. That side-line had begun three years ago, after a housewarming party at which she was a guest, and half-noticed the hostess, a greying middle-aged woman worrying prayer beads through her fingers, watching her. Eventually she gathered the courage to approach Emily, and said without preamble: ‘excuse me, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but it’s just that I’ve been noticing you tonight and, well, maybe I’m wrong, but you seem to have an old soul…’ A man in the group Emily was stood with laughed and said, ‘my mother is one of these New Age types. Knows all about crystals and energies and chakras.’

‘Well so long as it’s only my soul that’s old!’ Emily joshed, and they all laughed. The woman smiled, laughed along. ‘I know it sounds silly’ she said, ‘but I really do get these feelings about people, and something about you makes me think that you have what we call “the gift”.’ “The gift”, as Emily learned, was the ability to see beyond the curtain of surface reality, to a deeper, more magical reality where the spirits of dead humans and animals, among other things, walked.

The woman invited her to a meeting of her spiritualists’ circle, which Emily, always game for a laugh, attended, and was startled when her new friend introduced her as a psychic. ‘I wouldn’t say that!’ she had protested, startled and feeling suddenly alone in the draughty church hall. ‘Mrs. Buxton’s gift is for spotting her fellow gifted’ said the group leader, a tall and preposterously thin man in a felt suit, ‘so I am inclined to trust her judgement.’

The circle held a séance that night, and Emily was invited to speak to the ghost of a dead priest, Father Dawlish, who had been the church’s incumbent official before his death five years ago. Emily didn’t ask why a priest should have to linger so long in purgatory. After some initial hesitation she got into the swing of the charade (for that was how she saw it) and began questioning the ghost about his experiences in the afterlife, how many Christian souls he’d escorted to Heaven, and which of the archangels he had spoken to.

Having impressed the circle, Emily was sought by people to whom she had been recommended, people seeking solace about the fate of their beloved dead. Mostly it was old women wanting to make sure their husbands were well and not having affairs in the Elysian Fields. (The notion of an eternity wherein wedding vows still had to be honoured horrified Emily.) Once she had consoled a young man that his childhood sweetheart, who had been killed in a car crash, was waiting for him on the other side. (Personally, Emily would have made a beeline for James Dean and forgotten the drippy mortal she’d shacked up with on Earth, but she kept that to herself.)

These “clients” took for granted that Emily would expect to be paid, and before she had begun her first sitting the old girl who had found her was opening her purse. Emily had moved to London to be an actress after six years waiting tables at her parents’ restaurant. Though a girl of her attractiveness rarely had to pay for drinks, the cost of socialising strained her budget and she couldn’t expect her parents to fund her lifestyle forever, supportive as they were, so this unexpected income was more than welcome. She wouldn’t have to find work in-between acting jobs, which meant she definitely wouldn’t have to waitress again. Her psychic side-line kept her comfortably accommodated in her tiny apartment above a bookmakers’, down a street her grandmother would have called cheap, and she couldn’t see herself doing any harm to anyone; quite the opposite.

Then came the Hughes’s. A middle-class couple, the husband an art dealer, the wife a schoolteacher-turned-homemaker who’d found Emily in The Psychic Directory (a quarterly magazine). She was reluctant to accept the job because this wasn’t just a case of a dead spouse or sweetheart, some grieving lover to whom she could give the usual bland reassurances. Their teenage son had died of cancer the year before, and Mrs. Hughes wanted to speak to him again, to know that his personality survived somewhere, and she would meet it again one day.

Fooling a dotty widow or a love-struck boy was just about acceptable, Emily thought, but exploiting a wracked parent’s torment strayed too close to evil. After the introductory phone call, however, she agreed to meet them in a café near her home, and she could tell almost instantly that this was the wife’s idea. The husband, though superficially polite, regarded and handled her with the disdain one would a discarded condom. Emily wore her characteristic tight red mackintosh – which exposed her long legs – red felt heels, and black plastic necklace. Her rich blond hair was restrained by a red felt band. She saw Mr. Hughes admiring and evaluating her with infinite condescension.

The money he proposed – he was clearly a man who, though disdainful of needless expense, had been rich long enough to have forgotten the worth of many things – was, she feared to confess, the deciding factor. With it she could quit her non-role as Lady Godiva in a seedy, stupid play that was doing the rounds of the nightclubs. She could bid her sleaze-ball director adieu and buy her way into parties where the influential people would be. She could push her dream that one inch closer to fulfilment.

But it had all gone terribly wrong. She had meant to say just that poor little Matthew Hughes was alive and well in the spirit world, walking hand in hand with his guardian angel, all the usual tripe, when she suddenly took on his voice and launched into a schizophrenic torrent of abuse at the boy’s father, sat opposite her. Words she had only heard the cheapest of men and women use gushed from her mouth like water through a split dam. Sickening accusations, insults, threats. A stunned Mrs. Hughes howled in despair, and this was the impetus for her husband to leap up and slap Emily, hard, across the face. She didn’t blame him. If she had been in his position, she thought, the offender would be lucky to have left with nothing broken.

Why did she do it? What, if she could honestly use the word, “possessed” her? She didn’t know, and she was terrified. She knew vaguely of a great aunt who had gone mad and been committed in the Edwardian years, but she had been old, and Emily knew of no genetic predisposition to insanity on either of her parents’ sides. ‘Just bad teeth and rickets’ she joked to herself while shakily clutching a brandy glass – after Mr. Hughes had pulled his wife from the premises – but without much humour.

The next day she was violently mugged within sight of her flat by a gang of street kids, who took her purse and gave her two black eyes. Staggering to her door, she wondered if it was karma.


Angela Hughes happened to be passing Gaia’s Health and Bookshop, a homoeopathic boutique, as the shopkeeper was kissing Emily Paget goodbye. Angela paused and Emily saw her. They didn’t quite make eye contact because Emily was wearing enormous tinted sunglasses, but they recognised each other, and to Emily’s surprise and relief Angela waved her over like an old friend. ‘Well isn’t this is a coincidence!’ cried Angela, and crushed her red Mack in an embrace. Angela, a much taller woman than the diminutive other, bent down to do this. She wore a long brown corduroy coat and cap, the second almost hiding her forehead. ‘Are you busy? Can we have lunch?’

‘I suppose so’ said Emily, too taken aback to lie, ‘The Vineyard?’

‘Absolutely! We’ll call it a homecoming’ laughed Angela, and they returned to the place where they had met, though their table was by the window this time. After they had ordered tea and sandwiches Angela asked ‘was that your boyfriend I saw you with?’ Emily laughed. ‘James? Not a chance. The man’s a fairy. That’s why he does so well in that shop. The women he sells to know that he really is interested in their auras. I even suggested he print business cards calling himself “The Homo Homoeopath”!’ Angela smiled politely at this. A pause ensued, then Emily confessed, ‘I’m surprised you’d want to see me, after what happened…’

Angela glanced about her. The Vineyard was a small café, too sophisticated for its home in a shabby side-street; the tables were clean white plastic, unclothed, and to support the establishment’s name vines were attached to the walls, draped across blackboard menus and generic still-lives of fruit, country kitchens etc. Angela studied these surroundings as if she was collecting strength. Finally, she said ‘I don’t blame you. I don’t think you’re depraved, and I know you’re not a fraud.’ Emily’s heart ached. ‘That was my son’s voice I heard, regardless what he said, whether I’d suspect him of knowing even half those dreadful words, or the import of his accusations…’ She took a tissue from a pocket and wiped her eyes. She looked at Emily’s glasses. ‘I read the papers this morning. I’m dreadfully sorry, and I hope the police catch them. This has been a horrible week for both of us.’ Emily smiled. She flinched and almost knocked her cup when Angela’s hand grasped hers across the table. ‘Come back with me’ she pleaded, ‘you don’t have to worry about Michael, he’s in Germany for the week.’


Propped against the wall in the Hughes’s living room was a portrait of the Catholic Saint Ursula, surrounded by her martyred virgins in a lush medieval bedchamber. The virgins’ heads and headless bodies were scattered, and Ursula, stood just beyond the light pouring in from a barred arch-window, eyes downcast, hands outspread, expression vague, was an angelic ambassador to this scene of mortal horror. Emily observed the portrait while Angela fetched her a drink. She didn’t care for it, could tell it was painted by a man. Men always had a need to impress themselves with blood and vulgarity. A woman would have made the virgins as dignified as the saint, not caught in a grotesque parody of pain and fear, eyes wide open with hair spilt across faces, limbs and in one case a buttock exposed.

‘Good, isn’t it?’ said Angela as she gave Emily her drink. ‘Brilliant’ Emily agreed. ‘Where Michael finds such talented young men I don’t know.’ Angela dropped backwards onto the sofa, feeling at ease with and un-obliged to impress her battered charlatan, she of the gaudy red Mack. Emily sat beside her. ‘Don’t worry’ said Angela, ‘I don’t expect a repeat performance. Nor am I sure I even want one. Isn’t that terrible? That I no longer want to speak to my own child?’

‘I can’t say I blame you’ Emily replied, ‘after all those terrible things I said.’

‘Yes, dear, but you didn’t say them, did you? It was him. Whatever he’s become, he’s not the boy I knew. Matthew was such a sweet child. I loved him more than I ever loved Michael. Now that is terrible! But it’s true, and I can be honest with you, dear. That’s why I wanted to see you again. Maybe that’s the real reason why a lot of people visit you psychics. They can tell them things they’d never dare tell their families.’

‘We’re cheaper than shrinks, anyway.’ Angela laughed. ‘Absolutely! My husband sent me to one of those chaps when Michael died. He’s always one to avoid rumours, but he knew I needed the kind of support he couldn’t provide. He’s not an expressive man. He loved Matthew as much as I, yet he didn’t quite invest as much… Does that make sense?’ Emily sipped her drink. ‘I think so’ she answered. She noticed there were no photographs in the room, just that tacky portrait. The room, in fact, looked exquisitely styled. They sat on a white sofa with a pink-budded yew branch design, and before them was a coffee table framed in polished brass. The fireplace was ornate, absurdly so for its small size, and the carpets held barely an impression of footsteps. The room looked like one you would see in a furniture catalogue.

Angela launched herself up, startling Emily, and walked to the painting. She stared at it for a few moments, then said, ‘I know it’s silly, because how would we have met if you did, but I wish you’d known Matthew. He wasn’t like Michael or I. He was small, even smaller than you, and he loved sports. It broke his heart when had to give all that up. His old football team stayed in touch, though, bless their hearts. I was at his bedside in the hospital one day when four boys in dirty football uniforms came in carrying a ball, and they played catch. He was so pleased, I don’t think I ever saw him happier, and I hugged each of those dear, sweet young men hard enough to put them in the hospital!’

Emily returned her empty glass and stood beside her. ‘Can I ask you a question?’ Angela turned to face her, as if seeing her for the first time. ‘Of course’ she said, smiling. ‘Forgive me, please, it’s really not my place, but… are you and your husband happy? I mean, happy together?’ Angela picked up one of Emily’s hands and held it in both of hers. ‘We women see straight through each other, don’t we? Michael was a sweetheart when we met. He once spent a week’s wages buying me the most absurd, extravagant bouquet you could imagine. Another time he bought me a three thousand pound painting from his auction room just because I said it would look good in our bedroom.’

‘But then he changed’ said Emily, then wondered how she could dare such a remark. Angela still held her hand, caressing it, though she looked elsewhere. ‘He put all his romantic feeling in the acquisition, I suppose, though he was still very generous. And he loved Michael… We conceived him in a B&B on the Essex coast. You could see the sea from our bedroom.’ Emily felt Angela tremble. She placed her free hand on the other three, capturing all four in a sisterly embrace. She had had the kind of premonition which made her wonder if she was a little bit psychic after all. ‘Was he… rough with you?’ Angela closed her eyes. ‘It doesn’t really count, does it? If you’re married, I mean.’

‘Of course it matters, Angela. Just because you’re married doesn’t mean you’re owned.’

‘I was a virgin when he took me. The thing I remember is that he kept saying “don’t be stupid”. “Don’t be stupid, Angie, it’ll all be over soon…”’


The two women had held each other for a long time, then Emily had given Angela her phone number. She may not have wanted to be a part of this particular domestic tragedy, but she was responsible now. She had taken a couple’s money under false pretences and in return desecrated the wife’s memory of their son. The husband knew she was a charlatan as well as she knew it herself, despite how bewildered she was by her actions. But the wife believed, and the wife was a sad, lonely woman who needed a friend, not a psychic.

On the night of her husband’s return Angela Hughes wandered the house in her nightdress, randomly arranging ornaments and cleaning what was already clean. When she finally entered her bedroom she felt suddenly sick and clutched her stomach, bending double. She felt like she’d swallowed a spider, a spider that was now crawling around inside her, playing with her wires. Her brown eyes lightened a shade as her pupils dilated, and just as she thought she was about to be sick the sensation left. She stood erect, her arms hanging limply at her sides, her head at an angle, which she righted. Her eyes were wide open, and she seemed to be surveying the room – large double bed below a portrait of Ophelia, asleep and floating through lily-pads; two enormous wardrobes on either side, like observing doctors – as though she had just returned to it after a long holiday.

For reasons she couldn’t explain her right hand decided to explore her body, starting just beneath the breasts and ending on her crotch, at whose feel she smiled. She heard a key turn in the front door and spun around, eyes narrowing and smile growing predatory. She walked to the head of the stairs and looked down. Michael stood there in a glistening black raincoat and hat. He hung the hat and his umbrella on a stand then, as he started unzipping the coat, saw Angela. He smiled warmly. ‘Well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise? I didn’t think you’d have waited up.’ She walked down the stairs, put a hand on his wet coat shoulder, and stared at him with a faint coquettish smile. ‘Come into the living room’ she said, then walked away.

‘I’m all wet, darling, and the Fosters are stopping by tomorrow. We don’t want to dirty the furniture.’ Angela paused in the doorway and turned. ‘Don’t we?’ she said, then turned back and entered the dark room. Bemused, Michael hung up his coat and followed her. ‘We’re in a funny mood, aren’t we-’ he petrified when he saw her again. Her arm was raised above the portrait of Saint Ursula, an ice-pick from the hostess trolley in hand. It stayed there a moment, then swooped down and tore a gash through the Saint’s serene face. ‘What are you doing?!’ He ran to her, but she turned and slashed his cheek with the pick. He felt flat on his backside, stunned. ‘For God’s sake, Angela, what’s wrong with you?!’ He tried to stand and knock the ice pick from her hand, but she kicked him in the face. He heard a crack. It felt like he’d been hit with a hammer. His nose, he realised, was broken, and blood trickled down his face into his shirt collar. His face was alive with pain, he was almost faint with it and the surprise.

Angela straddled him, and although he was normally several times her weight, he couldn’t shake her off. With the ice pick she tore off each of the little buttons on his shirt, exposing his chest. The pick circled the breastplate guarding his heart. ‘Do you really want him back as much as I do?’ said Angela.

‘What are you talking about?!’

‘Michael. If it was possible, would you bring him back?’

‘I don’t know what you mean-’

‘I mean would you make our dead son alive again?!’

‘Yes, yes! Of course I would! A thousand times over, please…’

Gratified, Angela smiled. She unbuttoned and unzipped his trousers. Using his last burst of energy he lifted his torso and tried to push her away. She head-butted him in the place where his nose had broken, and he screamed. The neighbours, he thought, the neighbours would have to hear something soon… But his wife was too strong. A new and unholy energy burned through the wires in her skin, and she subdued her well-built, ex-athletic husband with ease. Tears gathered in his eyes, and one fell down his face. She pulled down his pants and grasped him. ‘Please, Angela, I can’t…’ He felt like a girl in the lair of a beast. Then he heard words he had long since forgotten, as his wife removed his belt and pinned him with a weight she couldn’t have possessed. ‘Don’t be stupid, Michael, it’ll all be over soon…’