Sunday, January 3, 2010

Arthur Machen’s Horror of Unemployment

In many ways, horror novelists are best understood by close-readings of their biographies, especially since their most frequently revisited “horrors” often have a corollary in their life stories. For example, it is no coincidence that Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous works concern the ghosts of beautiful young women forever haunting their bereaved lovers, since the author was traumatized in real life by the premature deaths of both his mother and his wife. In a similar fashion, Victorian, Anglo-Catholic author Arthur Machen populated his horror tales with his own personal demons, which included amoral scientists, secret societies, heartless women, and pagan gods. These fears were an outgrowth of his Catholic antagonism against scientists, which rebelled at the theories of Charles Darwin, and his childhood spent in the village of Caerleon-on-Usk in Wales, where the ghosts of Pagan gods seemed to live still among the ruins of Ancient Roman Britain. However, as frightened as Machen was of both scientific and supernatural forces, what seemed to concern him most was the evils of economic hardship and social class division. He, like his fictional characters, often found himself broke, unemployed, or exploited by unscrupulous mentors. These are exactly the kinds of fears a modern person can relate to, especially in light of the Great Recession, so now may well be the perfect time to read this accomplished, if obscure, horror novelist.

Many of Machen’s most respected works have been recently republished by Chaosium Inc. in a series of collected editions. Vol. 1, The Three Impostors and Other Stories, is a particularly strong book, and showcases the excellent title novella, as well as the delightfully atypical vampire tale The Great God Pan. The Three Impostors is an episodic book concerning a trio of assassins charged with recovering a gold coin from a man who has gone into hiding from the secret society he has robbed. The Great God Pan is about Helen Vaughan, the half-human daughter of the mythical god Pan, who was conceived in rape and who grew up to seduce, marry, and murder, a series of wealthy men. The plots of both books are fragmentary and as evocative of post-modern novels The Crying of Lot 49 and If on a winter’s night a traveler… as they are of classic Victorian Gothic works such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dracula.

Like other figures who objected to the utilitarian and anti-romantic impulses of the Victorian era – including ghost investigator William James and neo-pagans such as Michael Field – Machen developed an obsession with the notion of a spirit realm hidden behind (and influencing) reality as we understand it. However, while the Greco-Roman gods and forest sprites have sometimes inspired liberating, back-to-nature movements, feminists, and socialists prone to romanticizing bygone ages and aboriginals, Machen saw “the old religions” as uniformly frightening and dangerous. Hence his casting of “The Great God Pan” as a Satanic figure likely to enthrall, rape, or kill anyone who draws aside the curtain of the civilized world and behold him directly. Machen’s scientists are also figures of fear, since many of them “adopt” unsuspecting assistants, wards, or even subjects of secret experiments without deigning to explain their true motives, or treat their vulnerable charges with due respect and consideration. For example, the scientist in The Great God Pan adopts a poor young woman precisely so he can experiment on her, choosing to make an incision in her brain enabling her to directly apprehend the spirit world, without seeking her blessing for the procedure first. After all, like a “typical” ruthless scientist, he felt that he owned her, much as science claimed dominion over the natural order of the word.

These various evils – ruthless scientists, vampire women, pagans – all seen unconnected, but there is an extent to which all of them are related, to one degree or another, to Machen’s own financial misfortunes, and his belief that the world was a fundamentally unjust place in which he could not make an honest living, no matter how hard he tried. Unsure why things would not go his way, Machen turned to religious and supernatural explanations for his misfortunes, and blamed scientists like Darwin for stripping life of its meaning. Any world in which Machen could not pass an exam to get into the Royal College of Surgeons, or be paid properly for his translations of Casanova’s memoirs, was one which was likely controlled by dark forces, be they pagan gods or secret societies. In such a world, a man like Machen would be hard pressed to find a woman to love him, and (as The Doors have attested), women seem wicked when you’re unwanted. Nor could Machen feel at home anywhere, as the countryside, the suburbs, and the city have all failed to provide him with economic security or a sense of purpose.

How does all this show up in Machen’s work? Well, in some Machen tales, the protagonist signs up for a dream job, but gets a nightmare one instead, much like Sherlock Holmes’ duped clients Jabez Wilson and Violet Hunter. These characters arrive as innocents in an unfamiliar land, rudderless transports to a new city, country village, or continent, not knowing that they are about to be exploited, abandoned, or sacrificed by their supposedly benign “employer.” It is also unsurprising that The Great God Pan features a Black Widow villain who marries rich men, drains them of their money, kills them, and then moves on to the next rich man. Such a tale reads like the wish-fulfillment of a financially strapped author who wants revenge against the wealthy and consolation that he is not a target of gold-digging women.

Several other Machen tales involve a protagonist who has no fulfilling work to do and, consequently, is drawn by an inexplicable impulse to wander into a bad neighborhood at three a.m. only to witness a violent death or be almost killed himself. Why? Because a lack of proper purpose in life drove him to seek out extreme situations for his own diversion. Unemployment, extreme poverty, and boredom is the cause of the ruin of most Machen heroes. In a similar vein, several secondary characters are also of a type - they are "old college friends" of the hero who seemed carefree enough while at university but, within a few years of living in “the real world,” the friend in question is reduced to poverty and illness because of some inexplicable supernatural force. Machen sometimes identifies this force as Pan or some form of tentacle monster, but the real force is most certainly gambling debts, alcoholism, and unemployment.

That happened to some of my old college friends, too.

And I’ve been there myself. Which is why I kinda like this Machen fellow. I, for one, can relate to a horror story that is all about economic hardship and complete confusion as to what is actually causing it. Is it oil shortages? Wall Street evil? The expensive “war on terror”? Credit card companies? Or is it THE GREAT GOD PAN? According to Machen, it is Pan. And Charles Darwin. And the New Women who won't sleep with him. That’s not the conclusion that I would come to, but Machen seems pretty certain. And his stories sure are fun.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Sherlock Holmes Film: Fun, Familiar, Faithful?

Outside of Arthur Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes stories, my favorite adventures and adaptations will likely always be the Jeremy Brett and Peter Cushing television shows, the book The West End Horror, and the Jack-the-Ripper yarn Murder by Decree. The new Sherlock Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie, is nowhere near as good as any of the above. However, the flick does easily trounce the appalling pastiches Without a Clue, Young Sherlock Holmes, LXG, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the silent John Barrymore film, and many of the Basil Rathbone vehicles set in America. The Guy Ritchie film was fun. It has merits that have been overlooked in negative reviews (see Slate), and its flaws are not worth getting too upset over.

Overall, I enjoyed the Guy Ritchie movie more than I expected to, possibly because my expectations were in the cellar - the coming attraction made this new film appear to be another Van Helsing travesty, which had no script to speak of and in which the title character was functionally replaced by Soloman Kane. What I got, instead, was a film with something of a plot, several clever scenes of deduction, and some dialogue that was laugh-out-loud funny. Even the action scenes were reasonably good, as far as that sort of thing goes. The cast was solid. Rachel McAdams, Jude Law, and Mark Strong were all charismatic and attractive, even if they didn't feel "Doyle" enough. Robert Downey Jr. was very good as Holmes. He is an actor I have great respect for in general and he does well here. Still, it would have been nice if a genuine British actor had been cast in the part, so that there would be no issues about an "assumed" accent. How different would the film have been if Holmes had been played by Christopher Eccleston, David Morrissey, Robert Carlyle, Ralph Fiennes, or Liam Neeson? Would there be as much kung fu in it?

I suppose it is depressing to assert that, in these times, when Dante's Inferno has been turned into a video game in which Dante must rescue Beatrice from hell by hacking up demons, I am glad we can have a Holmes film that is even remotely faithful. As it is, I found myself impressed that the screen writers knew that Holmes locks up Watson's money (an obscure detail from "The Dancing Men"), and I liked seeing Holmes putting bullets in the wall of 221 B in the VR pattern. The film did change the circumstances under which Holmes first meets Mary Morstan, messing with "The Sign of Four," and that interfered with my suspension of disbelief more than anything else, oddly.

So, what will Victorianists think? Remembering how much Gwyneth Paltrow's Emma has been hated, I'm guessing many won't like it one bit. Certainly, most everyone will be bothered by something. Roger Ebert complained of Holmes making a mess of his quarters while in a drugged stupor, but that seems to me consistent with the Doyle stories (and Jeremy Brett). That false example aside, Ebert's main point, of course, is one I agree with - both Holmes and Watson don't seem to have any poise or gentle-manliness left at all. (But that is unsurprising since the recent Casino Royale stripped all of the polished veneer from James Bond in a similar fashion.) So Holmes and Watson are too much like a Victorian Batman and Robin, and Irene Adler has turned from a Lillie Langtry double into a Catwoman stand-in. Fortunately, she is less evil here than she was presented in the very mediocre Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars. I am not sure to what extent all this bothers me, as one viewing is rarely enough for me to be sure what I truly think of a film. Again, it all could have been a lot worse.

Believe it or not, my main problem with Sherlock Holmes is that the plot is not innovative enough, and too similar to other recent Holmes movies. We've just seen Holmes upset by Watson marrying (the excellent The Case of the Silk Stocking), we've seen attempts by villains to take over the British Empire (The Great Mouse Detective) and dangerous cultist villains (Young Sherlock Holmes). On the other hand, I don't remember ever having seen a solid dramatization of Holmes and Watson meeting for the first time in the fashion they did in "A Study in Scarlet," and wish the film would have portrayed that instead of focusing on the legendary partnership at its moment of greatest crisis.

As a side note, for those who are interested, this is yet another recent genre film that functionally casts the villain as George W. Bush. Lord Blackwood is trying to replace science with religion, take advantage of a divided America to found a new Empire, and is horrifying his father with the lengths to which he is willing to go to achieve these ends. And the secret society that runs the British Empire is meant to parallel the secret society that (supposedly?) runs America these days. So the film is really more about modern America than Victorian Britain, as many of you have suspected...