Friday 6 January 2017

We Don't Go Back #26: Epiphany

Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968);
The Stalls of Barchester (1971);
A Warning to the Curious (1972);
Lost Hearts (1973);
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974);
The Ash Tree (1975);
A View From a Hill (2005)1

How do you write about something so comprehensively signified, so seen as a touchstone for British television drama as a whole and the subgenre of folk horror in particular? What can you add?

I suppose I'll tend to the personal in this, as I often do. It's the Feast of Epiphany, Twelfth Night has passed. It is time to take down the trappings of Christmas.

Quis est iste qui venit2
A Warning to the Curious.
I remember that that particular Summer was so hot that we kept the curtains closed, and my parents' terraced house was oppressive, isolated. Dad had been to the library and he'd borrowed a copy of A Warning to the Curious, a 1988 collection of the man's best short stories (and not, confusingly, James's late collection of the same name) with an introduction by Ruth Rendell. I think he was the first person to check it out of the library.

Thinking about it, that must have been in Summer 1990. In March 1991, Pounds House Library, which was one of the only safe, bright places in my life, burnt down. Arson. I suppose without the library to hide in, (the portakabin that replaced it being a poor substitute) the final act of my teens kicked in and things would become finally impossible to bear.

I can, if I close my eyes, still smell that library. Still imagine sitting there alone. I had out a hardback copy of Frank Herbert's Dune when it burnt down. I still have it, more than twenty-five years overdue. I hate to think what the fine must be like by now.

Dad found James impossible to get into and had put it to one side.

I'd never heard of MR James before then, but, by fifteen, I'd begun to devour all the classic horror, Dracula and Frankenstein, and all the Stephen King (and I'd already developed the opinion that King's short stories were terrifying and his novels flabby and overlong). And so I picked the book up.

It's weird. I don't remember what I was doing otherwise that day, or why the TV wasn't on, or where my mother and my brother were; only an eternal summer afternoon in shadow.

By the time I'd read "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook", the first in the collection, that lonely July afternoon, the dense, smoky atmosphere of my parents' house and James's dry wit had combined to scare me. Not much, enough to unsettle me, enough to make me read another. That was "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas"  which, that first time, made me jump half out of my skin, because it had done what it must have done to so many other people before, lulled you with its paragraph of Latin and treasure-hunter's deduction into thinking it was something quite other, until one single eloquent clause sent the whole thing crashing down into revulsion and horror.

Gare à qui la touche
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.
The adaptation of The Treasure of Abbot Thomas could not duplicate that one indisputable fright of the story (a thing that lurks and creeps and grabs, portrayed on the TV as a series of fast cuts between some black slime, a pair of dead hands, a laughing monk) and for me it is the weakest of the adaptations for that, since the original story's force depends upon something malevolent crashing into an otherwise dry tale of treasure seeking. Without the shock of long-fingered hands on long, skinny arms reaching from a hole and closing around a neck, what is left? John Bowen's is a fine script, of course it is, the man didn't have it in him to write a bad one (this was the writer of Robin Redbreast of course). A highlight unique to the screen version: Rev. Somerton (Michael Bryant), invited to a seance, exposes the medium efficiently, heartlessly, his snobbery and arrogance to the fore. And yet, it's the seance that gives the lie to the rationalist. It's the seance that gives the key to the mystery of the treasure hunter. Truly, the treasure-hunter's tale has more entertainment and drama to it than Jame's original, especially as, assisted by an enthusiastic (and cleverer) student (Paul Lavers), Somerton's greed slowly awakens and conquers any scholarly ethics he might have.  

But the final apparition of the ghost disappoints. The drama's weight tips in the opposite direction, the horror an anticlimax to a fine character piece. It ends well, however, on a note of ambivalent dread. Bowen was good at that.

I must be firm
The Stalls of Barchester.
Lawrence Gordon Clark's 1971 adaptation of "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", abbreviated to The Stalls of Barchester, had a repeat broadcast on a Christmas Eve sometime in the mid-nineties. I was back from university, and I watched it with my dad. He was excited to see it again; it occurs to me now that he had borrowed that MR James collection from the library because he remembered having seen the BBC versions before.

I think a lot of enthusiasts see it as some kind of a badge of honour to have been familiar with the literature before having seen the pop culture adaptation. But you have to start somewhere. It's a ridiculous form of elitism. You have to start somewhere; to look down on someone who came into your tiny room via the wrong door is a small, mean sort of one-upmanship. Besides, the TV was so long ago, it's an obscurity in its own right. 

I found The Stalls of Barchester gripping; Robert Hardy as Deacon Haynes, who, tired of waiting for the old archdeacon to die, engineers a fall but faces a terrible downfall  of his own thanks to a cursed pulpit carved by a superstitious local seer. He's possessed of the right mix of pathos and hubris. I must be firm, he writes. Clive Swift as Dr Black, the antiquarian is audience to the tale of his supernatural downfall, his response wry, considered. Dr Black is MR James, the author as character, the first person  narrator inserted into the text.

I was familiar with James by then, had bought my own copy of his collected stories, and I felt it was a fine adaptation.

I think it was a few years later when the BBC showed a few more of them, along with a strange, old fashioned series where Christopher Lee, in costume as MR James himself, read some of MR James's stories to academics gathered around a fireside. Later still they would produce three more dramatisations and remake another.

It's only my word you've got to take for all this
A Warning to the Curious.
It must have been a surprise to 1970s viewers when Dr Black, clearly the authorial insert character for James himself, returned the following year for A Warning to the Curious, now the second of the BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas.

Of course my dad borrowed that book because he remembered A Warning to the Curious from the TV, and thought it one of the best things he'd ever seen on TV.

So in a weird way, my direction comes from having read the stories first, but only because my dad had seen the TV version, and preferred it. The TV version now is as historical as the story.

The written story did nothing for him. The man who finds the crown, Paxton, is in the story an autodidact, an amateur. Any idiot reads a bit of folklore, gets a spade, thinks he's an archaeologist. James and his friends, snobs as only old Etonians could be, would consider his fate just deserts for daring to think above his station.

It's different on TV. You have Paxton the amateur, and oh, Peter Vaughan, so good, so perfect in his terror and his desperation, is a man who has lost his job and has nothing left. He needs his find, and finds his treasure all the same, fair and square, and it's only an injustice that he meets his end and that the blurry corner-of-the-eye guardian comes for him.

He reminds me of my dad, the way he acts, the autodidact certainty. The gentleness of an ordinary man who reads. Even the penchant for V-neck sweaters. My dad was like that.

The gnawing feeling at the end that Dr Black might not be around for a third only added to the blank malevolence of a phantom who has already hounded Peter Vaughan's amateur archaeologist to his death. The story hints that the revenant is, for all the supernatural powers it holds, the way it warps perceptions, a physical thing with objective effects on the environment, the mouldering corpse of the treasure's guardian himself, and poor Mr. Paxton's end is all too physical.
All we could do was to notice these marks as we hurried on. But there they were over and over again, and we had no doubt whatever that what we saw was the track of a bare foot, and one that showed more bones than flesh... we heard what I can only call a laugh: and if you can understand what I mean by a breathless, a lungless laugh, you have it: but I don’t suppose you can... His tracks showed that he had run along the side of the battery, had turned sharp round the corner of it, and, small doubt of it, must have dashed straight irito the open arms of someone who was waiting there. His mouth was full of sand and stones, and his teeth and jaws were broken to bits. I only glanced once at his face.
MR James, "A Warning to the Curious"

Clark, however, with no budget for special effects as such, has the ghost a figure who appears in the distance, in the corner of the eye. The laugh, though. That's there.  

Paxton, the naive amateur, seems to think that putting the crown back will save him. In the play, as in the story, the narrator offers to help him. But on screen, retribution meets them both. Paxton is visited in his room by the revenant; Dr Black agrees to rebury the crown with him then and there. Both Paxton and Black have put the crown back, but they know where it lies, and no one living must know that. There is equality on the screen. The working-class amateur is no more naive than the professional antiquarian (he may be a "real gentleman," as the boots so pointedly has it, but it counts for nothing).

In Clark's screenplay, the supernatural tugs no forelock for the gentleman professional, and when an unseen figure joins him on the train, you know that Dr Black will not be coming back a third time. Death does not respect class.

An appearance of malice and of unappeasable hunger or longing
Lost Hearts.
I might have read "Lost Hearts" some years before, but when I read the story's introduction quoted verbatim in The Sandman (in The Doll's House collection – no, I wasn't there when the comics came out first time), I didn't recognise it, and only, slightly later on, when I acquired my own treasured MR James collection, did I realise how lazy and obvious Neil Gaiman's writing had been. I felt cheated. Now, although it wasn't originally, it is my favourite of James's stories (does this have something to do with it being one of James's own least favourites? I don't know).

The BBC version of it, the last of these I saw, was shown on BBC4 in 2007 as part of a season of the classic ghost stories. It disappointed me a little at first viewing, the picture in my head of James's ragged, near-skeletal, torn-open child-spirits something 1970s British television could not hope to duplicate. I was unfair. Although the ghosts are not what they could be, the dramatisation makes the canny choice of making Mr Abney (Joseph O'Connor, immmediately familiar to me as the narrator of The Dark Crystal), child-murderer and magician, appear initially as a warm, Dickensian figure, a Pickwick or a Fezziwig or a Micawber, reassuring and comical, and therefore quintessentially festive. When he turns, when the jollity and ebullience fades into rapacious, murderous intent, he is far more sinister than the ghosts, who are after all only innocents seeking retribution, could ever be. I think Lawrence Gordon Clark knew that. He worked with what he could.

The lies we tell our children run through Robin Chapman's dramatisation. Adults, good and bad,  present a false world to the boy Stephen (Simon Gipps-Kent, prolific on TV, dead by 29), no less a phantom than the child-ghosts who haunt him.  

Thou shalt seek me in the morning, and I shall not be
The Ash Tree.
David Rudkin's script for the The Ash Tree (1975) is smart enough to take sensible liberties with the rather linear generational tale of a man who hangs a woman for a witch and dies at the hands of her "children" as hidden in an evil old ash tree, and his son who dies the same way. Rudkin recognised that the page and the screen read in different ways, and by telling the son's story, interwoven with the father's in flashback and dream-vision (both played by Edward Petherbridge, who portrays well a man in crisis of identity), Clark maintains an atmosphere of quiet dread throughout. The witch's children (enormous spiders with the faces of crying babies) are quite the most horrible thing Clark managed to get on screen, and their death throes are hard to watch. In the final scene, the bride of Sir Matthew (Lalla Ward) touches her love's poisoned skin and withdraws, suddenly with a gasp of pain and fear, that sharp intake of breath is shared by the audience.

Finders keepers
Whistle and I'll Come to You.
I forget when I saw Jonathan Miller's 1968 adaptation of "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad", shortened to Whistle and I'll Come to You. It was long after my father had died, so I don't know if he'd ever seen the original broadcast, or what he would have made of it. It was before I knew that MR James purists are at best divided on it, certainly. They don't like that Parkin is an old professor, not a wet behind the ears newbie. They don't like how Michael Hordern's portrayal – as deft as it is – is essentially comic.

The fact is, James's story is a deliberate joke from start to finish, an elaborate challenge to make a sheet phantom scary. Miller rises to the challenge and presents Parkin's terror as an increasing alienation from the world, the result of a withdrawal. He is alone and lonely, and isolation leads to a fear he cannot communicate. Again, I'm thinking of my dad, his isolation from his family, his regrets, his loneliness, how he only came alive when he was not with us. He knew what it was to be menaced by sheets.

They carried him off whither he would not
A View from a Hill.
I didn't much like A View From A Hill when it was broadcast. I disliked the liberties it took with the text, somehow affronted that screenwriter Peter Harness had taken one of James's least frightening tales and had taken steps to give it threat.

But time has been kind to it, and perhaps more pertinently to me. Again, rather than have a weird glass that sees the past and a butler who then tells their story, Harness brings the menace into the time frame of the story, extends it. Originally the hanged men whose bones were boiled to charm the glasses had come to abduct their creator, Baxter, and take him Elsewhere. Only the field glasses remained, and an accidental venture onto holy ground erases their power and their accidental destruction reveal the gruesome source of their power. But here on the screen, Baxter is gone, yes, but the wrath of the wronged dead extends to Fanshawe, who, seduced by the power of the binoculars to see the past, uses them far too readily. It's the best of the the four revived stories, and that fact serves as a corrective to me.

The past, you see, might be uncovered, but do not expect the past to like it.

1I'm not going to write about 2006's Number 13, the 2010 version of Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You or 2013's The Tractate Middoth, other than to acknowledge that they exist, and they're by no means bad, although the 2010 film bears hardly any resemblance to the original source, and Number 13's budget limitations cripple it. Of the three, none falls under the folk horror umbrella as I've defined it, really, and none has the personal resonance of the others I'm going to write about. (back)

2What many readers of James without the man's grounding in Latin don't necessarily pick up – and what Parkin himself doesn't get in story or film, not being versed in Latin nuance – but which James's divinity scholar friends would have understood well, is that the blank "Who is this who is coming?" is an inadequate translation. The standard ille is what you'd use for a neutral "this (person)"; iste has an emotional sense to it, an emphasis, and usually a negative one. It denotes dislike, or contempt, or fear. It's not so much "who is this?" as "who's this?" spoken wide-eyed, trembling. You can hear it if you say it out loud: iss-te, it carries a hiss, a negative force.

The dread is wired into the language. I often wonder why none of the erudite reviewers out there mention this.

Well, now you know as much as I do. Welcome to the secret club. Welcome. Come right in. Make yourself comfortable. (back)