Why Did The Earth Stand Still?

I caught a rerun of the original (and still the best) version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a 1950s black and white science fiction classic where the special effects are basic and things don’t have to be blown up to make a very good film. I suppose the thing that bugs me most about this version is the overt Christianity – there are many references suggesting that Klaatu is a Christ-figure, which jars with me – and that there is no explanation for the title. Why did the Earth stand still? In surprise at the arrival of beings from another world – or is it a description of the result of Klaatu’s “experiment”?

About half way through the film, Klaatu agrees with Professor Barnhardt that he would get the world’s attention in such a way that nobody could either fail to take notice or get hurt. He does this by shutting down all electrics and mechanics – interestingly, early cars and motorcycles don’t move, even though they are much more mechanical than they are today – except for planes in flight and power to hospitals. This EMP lasts for precisely half an hour, during which Klaatu explains to Helen, a fellow tenant at the boarding house he is staying in, who he is and why he is on Earth. Although he can interfere with man’s impact on the Earth, he can’t affect it’s movement in the universe. So the Earth, strictly speaking, still moves.

I’ve not see the remake, starring Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, but I expect it is glitzier and with better special effects. I’m told it’s not as good as the original, and that significant changes were made to the screenplay, giving it a more topical appeal. Hopefully they will also have lost the religious elements as well. I’m not sure a society as advanced as Klaatu’s would still believe in myths and legends.

Many science fiction fans have spent ages trying to decipher the key phrase “Klaatu barada nikto”, which Helen has to say to Gort when Klaatu is shot by the National Guard. The best suggestion is that it is a deactivation code, preventing Gort from going on a killing spree. Yet so far as I can tell, nobody has considered the meaning behind the title. Why is it called “The Day the Earth Stood Still” when it clearly didn’t? Perhaps we’ll never know.

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Some Books I Just Can’t Stand…

In spite of His Lordship’s more fervent assertions to the contrary, I have not actually read every book in the English language. I’ve read a lot, I grant you. Some books I didn’t enjoy when I was younger, but re-reading them as an adult was much more pleasurable. Moby Dick is a classic example of this kind of thing. I hated it when I was 13 and never got further than the first few chapters, but reading it a few years ago and I found a great deal of interest in Melville’s style, and surprised myself by realising how dark it was.

That said, there are a few books that I really just never took to, so they were discarded and have lain ignored ever since. I’ve tried approaching them years later, but a glance at the cover told me that it was simply never going to happen. Some of the titles may surprise you but if I’m going to be honest about this, if I ever find these under the tree at Christmas, I may well never speak to you again.

Wind in the Willows – I’m told that anyone who has actually read these tales of Toad, Badger, Ratty and Mole at the right age simply love them. There’s no middle ground and they are invariably discussed in tones of hushed reverence. Well, clearly I was never at the right age because I hated them and never want to read them ever again.

Winnie the Pooh – My sister is a huge Pooh fan, but it just leaves me cold. If I’m honest, I don’t think I’m particularly good with anthropomorphic animals. Although Eeyore might be my spirit animal.

Just William – Never read the books, watched the 1970s TV series which put me off for life. Dennis the Menace was more my thing.

A Tale of Two Cities – I’ve tried, really I have, because I love Dickens, but by the end of the first chapter I was giggling hysterically, which I don’t think was meant to happen. I’m told it’s wonderfully sad at the end, but I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to get there.

Anything published by Mills & Boon – Please, I have standards.

I’m fairly sure there are loads more, but these are fairly representative. If I think of any more, I’ll let you know.

Hoffman’s Sandman – Nothing Like Gaiman (despite the picture)

For reasons best known to me at the time – and which I have now completely forgotten – I picked up a collection of ETA Hoffman’s stories. Part of me considers them to be old fashioned German fairy tales, much like those of the Brothers Grimm before the Victorians decided to sanitise everything and change all the endings. As Roald Dahl proved many times, kids like a bit of nasty – but even so, I would baulk at letting a child read Hoffman’s best known story, the Sandman. It made me shudder, and I’ve read the original Grimm stories as well. I have to say very early on that if your only version of the Sandman is from Neil Gaiman’s epic graphic novel of the same name – you may be in for a bit of a shock.

The Sandman of Hoffman’s tale is a supernatural being who comes to children at night and steals their eyes. If we are still looking at Gaiman’s Sandman, I suppose the character he would remind me most of would be the Corinthian, a stunningly handsome creature as long as he kept his sunglasses on. In fact, if my memory serves correctly (and I haven’t read Gaiman’s story for a long time) the Corinthian was always considered the “stuff of nightmares” – which would bring in the sleep/dream element from the Hoffman version. In fact, apart from Gaiman’s Sandman being the keeper of dreams, there isn’t really much that links the two stories at all.

What Hoffman’s version reminds me most of is Coppelia, a ballet first performed in 1870. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Wikipedia claims it is one of the stories the ballet is based on (the other Hoffman story is The Doll, which I haven’t read yet). In turn, the reader is reminded of Pygmalion, Frankenstein and even Pinocchio – which is a creepy enough film as it stands without needing to add this into the mix. In a sense, because Swanhilda is an automaton, she is perhaps the precursor to the robot Maria in Metropolis – which itself created a whole genre of tales about artificial intelligence so lifelike it’s almost human, including Astroboy and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I wonder, actually, if Hoffman also wrote the libretto (do ballets have libretti? I hope so) to The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s world famous Christmas ballet which also features dancing dolls, amongst all the other toys. Let’s face it, from there it’s only a short leap to Chucky and an assortment of gruesome horrors. Why do the brightest things have the darkest shadows?

Anyway – if you get your hands on a copy of this, by all means read it – just don’t expect the Endless to make an appearance in the middle.

The Impossible Extraterrestrial Colour

No, I’ve not been at the B-Movies again – although I have been reading HP Lovecraft and remembering why I find him so intense sometimes. Perhaps the odd short story now and again is all right, but twenty or thirty one after the other – no. It’s headache inducing, if I’m honest. That said, I’ve found some stories that I’ve not read for a long time and had actually completely forgotten how much I enjoyed. Like his classic short story, The Colour Out of Space.

The title tells you the significant plot point; a meteor lands in a field adjoining a farm in rural New England which, unlike most other meteors that do not appear in science fiction stories, heats up rather than cools. Various scientists come and investigate, taking samples that mysteriously react to very little and seem to be of no substance ever found on earth. As time passes, the farmer on whose land the meteor has landed notices his crops becoming larger, more florid and abundant – yet impossible to eat, being bitter and rancid. His entire crop is destroyed.

Then his livestock start to turn thin and grey; what’s left of the land turns grey as to, eventually, the farmer and his family. Their children die, alternately from illness, in an accident and apparently by being stolen by a blob of impossible colour from the well. Whatever it is that has landed with the meteor has got into the water supply and is slowly but surely spreading.

It’s a slow moving, incredibly detailed and scarily plausible invasion story where the aliens are truly other worldly and very different. I was reminded at how difficult it is to describe an impossible colour – and how this affected any other description one could offer. “It’s a blob of an impossible colour” doesn’t sound like much does it? No wonder his neighbours thought the farmer a bit bonkers.

I had completely forgotten how much I liked this story. Unlike some of Lovecraft’s stories, it’s not too sensationalist but the eeriness stays with the reader long after you reach the last page. I could quite happily read it again and marvel at just how much information can be conveyed in so few pages.

I’m Fairly Sure I’ve Read This Before

The Outsider is one of those Lovecraft stories where the title doesn’t ring a bell, but the plot does; then I read Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe and realised I was getting the two mixed up. Or was I? They are very similar indeed, although for some reason, Lovecraft’s version is the one I seem to remember better.

The central character is unnamed, and the story starts with him recounting his life so far in a crumbling, ancient castle where everything is dark, damp and covered in lichen. Actually, it sounds a bit like my shed, but I digress. Our Leading Man has never spoken, either to himself or anyone else, and has no companions of any kind. Being lonely, he decides to escape his surroundings and seek company, which he does when he stumbles onto a ball being held in a nearby castle. Unfortunately, something about him causes everyone to scream loudly and run away, which puzzles Our Leading Man until he sees himself in a mirror.

You can probably work the plot out from that little précis alone but as a piece of descriptive writing, it’s wonderfully Gothic. All the classic Gothic tropes are there; darkness, ruin, isolation, horror and a hint of the supernatural. Lovecraft admitted it was his homage to Poe, so it’s very possible that the similarity to Masque of the Red Death is deliberate – but the difference is that we are never told who Our Leading Man actually is in Lovecraft’s tale. We can speculate and assume as much as we like, but we are never told, and I think this is really quite charming. I shall have to dig out my volumes of Poe again and do a proper Compare and Contrast between the two stories. I think I shall find it enlightening. I will certainly find it enjoyable.

God of the Deep

I’ve often believed that my daughter’s dream job would be a marine biologist. She loves the sea and everything in it and is rarely happier than when she’s in water. At the moment she still wants to be a vet, scientist, astronaut, teacher, doctor, mermaid AND unicorn (simultaneously) which delights me no end. Anything is possible for her, as long as the sea is involved somewhere.

It’s just that it’s not really a passion I share. I alternate by being fascinated by deep sea creatures – tales of giant squid and coelacanth are catnip to my soul – and being convinced that everything in the sea is there to kill me. If I’m honest, stories like Dagon don’t help. It’s basically the tale of a sailor adrift in a small boat who happens upon a strange – somewhat fishy – island. Traversing the same, he comes across gigantic statues of hybrid fish/men and other creatures not known to science. He loses his mind when he believes one of these creatures appears from a chasm and worships at the statues and wakes in hospital some months later.

It’s often stated that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the depths of the oceans and this is probably true. How else can one explain creatures believed to be extinct suddenly reappearing decades later? In truth, we simply don’t know what is lurking at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. While I doubt that there is an entire piscine civilisation or tentacled gods of the deep plotting against the creatures of the land, I can’t entirely rule it out. I can just say I think it’s a bit unlikely. Makes a blooming good story though.

A fellow blogger has written extensively about this story and how the sea inspired a great many of Lovecraft’s creepiest tales. We shouldn’t be surprised; there is something about sailors’ yarns that attract an audience – perhaps because most of us will never spend any significant time at sea, we have slightly romantic notions about what it is like. And, of course, there is no way a non-sailor in Lovecraft’s day could possibly correct stories of sea monsters or underwater cities. It’s a good introduction to his Cthulhu mythos and may even be enough to put you off paddling on the shore for a good few years yet.

Reanimation of an Old Idea

It’s been interesting reading HP Lovecraft – a man who’s works I don’t really like but I can’t resist reading, just to remind myself why I don’t like them – recently, in particular his well-known story “Herbert West: Reanimator”. It would be churlish of me not to admit that it is one of my favourite of his stories and I think that because it is one of his longer tales, Lovecraft has managed to develop and construct a very chilling story. The other reason why I like it so much is because I seem to see how the idea that started way back in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” has evolved and developed into something much – MUCH – scarier. Make no mistake, “Herbert West: Reanimator” is not bedtime reading.

The main subject of both tales is the reanimation of the dead; both main characters start off as medical students, but their taste for “unhallowed arts” results in isolation and obsession. Each has a dedicated assistant, usually unnamed, but is instrumental in finding and transporting the corpses and also keeping a record of events, without which, obviously, we would have no stories. The main difference is in the result of the experiments; we don’t really hear a great deal about Victor Frankenstein’s early experimental failures, and his final triumph is both intelligent and articulate. Herbert West tells a different story on this point; we see a number of failures, some which do not reanimate at all, and some which become mute, bestial and incredibly violent. If I’m pushed, I would have to admit that Lovecraft’s version of events seems a little more realistic, both in terms of the results and the scientist’s frustration that he seems so near and yet so far to a “perfect” result.

Of course, the resurrection of the dead is not a new idea; it’s in the Bible, after all. It’s the idea of a scientific reanimation which is new and it’s interesting to see how two very different authors approach the subject a century apart. Obviously, science and medicine have both developed considerably since Mary Shelley wrote her classic, but there is a humanity to her story which simply isn’t in Lovecraft’s tale. That said, Lovecraft ends on a wonderfully supernatural note, a path which Shelley chose not to tread – and it doesn’t feel at all out of place.

Both stories are interesting reads; similar and yet so different. It would be interesting to see how this idea develops further in the hands of other authors; so I’m going to find my copy of Pet Semetary and see how we get on there.

A Tale from the Crypt

Not that I wish to cast aspersions on HP Lovecraft’s character – I’m not sure it’s possible, given some of his stories – but I do wonder what kind of person writes so much about opening tombs and the contents found therein. It’s rather ghoulish if I’m honest; although that might just be jealousy because I’m still trying to work out how so many different tales can be written on such a basic framework. Let’s face it, there’s nothing like a bit of grave robbery to unleash a Pandora’s Box of hellfire and fury, is there?

One of my favourite crypt-kicking tales is “The Statement of Randolph Carter”. Written in the form of a statement given to someone investigating a disappearance, it tells a very pragmatic story of two young men, involved in a variety of occult studies, deciding to open a tomb in a long-deserted graveyard and see what can be found. It reads like a piece of reportage. There’s not a lot of backstory; we are briefly introduced to the characters and then we’re off to the tomb. I’ve read this tale a few times now and I’m still not entirely sure what it was they were going to do down there!

What I did like was the use of contemporary technology; these days we would have mobile telephones but Carter and his companion have the use of a portable telephone with considerable lengths of cable. This adds to the horror of the story, as Carter never actually SEES anything; he only hears firstly Warren’s reaction and then a strange voice telling him that Warren is dead. And there the story ends. It’s very short but incredibly effective and illustrates what can be achieved in the space of a couple of thousand words.

I think this was one of the first Lovecraft stories that I read – it certainly was one of the first that made an impression on me and even if I forgot the title, I remembered the last line clearly. It’s one of those Lovecraft stories that make me forgive his inherent racism and misanthropy and poorly written tales! I just wish there were more like it, that’s all.

Can One Be A Vegan Goth?

Now, this is quite a question because a lot will depend (a) on what you consider a Goth to be and (b) what you consider a vegan to be. I shall give you my definitions of the two so you can follow my argument, but if your definitions are different, then chances are you will not agree with me. That’s fine – just as long as you know what hymn sheet I’m singing from.

I’ve set my definition of Goth out elsewhere, but for a brief recap, it’s someone who finds the shadow side, the dark subversive side of life preferable to the bright, plastic, surface side. It’s not all about drinking blood and eating brains – where I live, the latter appear to be in terrifyingly short supply, so it’s just as well I don’t subscribe to that school of thought. It treats death as a fact of life rather than something to be feared or demonised, and understands that people are different and that’s okay.

My definition of vegan is someone who doesn’t eat meat, fish, dairy, eggs or honey and tries, where possible, not to promote or encourage cruelty to animals. In some ways this is easier than others – I try not to wear leather, but appreciate that shoes are going to be a problem in this regard so cut myself some slack. Just because death is a fact of life does not mean that that death has to be cruel and certainly promoting cruelty to animals as any form of sport or entertainment is not something I believe is morally justifiable, no matter how one tries to spin it.

For me, the crucial thing is having the right intention but being practical about it. If I am given a choice, I choose the vegan – or at least vegetarian – option; and if I do not have the choice, I choose accordingly. Most importantly, I don’t beat myself up about it. I said in another post that silk is a good option for very hot summers – but it’s not vegan, so if you are not a vegan but have a lovely silk blouse, then by all means, wear it and enjoy it. The thing is, the two are not incompatible and I see no reason why Goths can’t be vegan if they choose to be so. The days where all vegans knitted their own mung bean sandals are, thankfully, long gone.

Writing Difficult Posts

I try to get at least one blog post out of the books I read or the films I watch. Sometimes it’s easier than others, and I can often get two or even three if it’s an especially good book. Sometimes, though, it’s a real chore. Either I can’t think of anything to write or I can think of lots to write but have no idea how to approach it. An example of the former is a book I read called Walkaway by Cory Doctorow – I really enjoyed it, but I couldn’t get any blog posts out of it.

As an example of the latter, one of the things that Alias Grace reminded me of was the efforts made by the Earl of Longford to have Myra Hindley released from prison (the picture I’ve chosen is from the TV dramatisation, starring Jim Broadbent as Lord Longford and Andy Serkis as Ian Brady). Now Hindley’s crimes were on a whole different level to those of Grace Marks so it really was a Sisyphean task – but Grace has herself attracted the attention of prominent society people who are busy petitioning the government to have her released. This is the reasoning behind Dr Jordan’s arrival to analyse Grace’s mental health. If she is sane, then she has an opportunity for release, if she is suitably repentant. (Whether she is or not is another question entirely and not really for this post).

The trouble I have is – how do I approach this aspect of the novel? Any discussion of the Moors Murders has to be handled extremely sensitively and if I’m honest, I don’t think I can do that because I don’t remember the Murders themselves. I certainly don’t want to cause unnecessary distress but I think it’s interesting how certain notorious criminals tend to attract intelligent and well-meaning people intent on securing their freedom, and I would have liked to discuss that. I just don’t know how.

Also, the subject of the history of mental health treatments – and female mental health in particular – is massive and well beyond the scope of either this blog or my learning. I do find it an interesting subject and it is one that I may allude to again in the future but it really is too big for one post. The same argument applies to the history of medicine in general, as well as custodial punishment and Spiritualism – all big, interesting subjects but way too big to tackle in one go and all of which play a part in this novel.

So you see – although I may produce lots of blog posts there are some that don’t get written at all, no matter how good the book is; sometimes I just don’t have the necessary inspiration. It’s nobody’s fault and I’ve stopped beating myself up about it. As soon as I stop enjoying myself, I will stop.