The Tell Tale Heart

I’m not sure how to approach this. Originally, I was going to explore how this short tale of a guilty conscience compared to a much longer examination of the same subject – Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – but I can’t find my copy of Dostoyevsky and anyway, I had a much better idea. I still don’t know how to approach it, but at least I know what I want to talk about. Put bluntly, I want to explain why the narrator is wrong.

We are never told the names of any of the characters in the story, nor their relationships; all we know is the victim is considerably older than the narrator and has a “vulture’s eye”, a large blue eye that has clouded over, presumably from a cataract. The narrator himself declares loudly at the very beginning of the story that he is quite sane and couldn’t possibly be anything else – yet there is nothing in his behaviour to support this. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Sane people, for example, do not necessarily become fixated on an object to the point it renders them homicidal, but this is what happens to the narrator. He becomes obsessed with the old man’s vulture eye, and resolves to rid himself of it once and for all by killing his companion. He takes exceptionally good care of the old man, yet still spends a week spying on him at midnight, convinced that the eye is watching him. It isn’t, but since he’s convinced he’s not mad, there’s no problem is there?

On the last night, he accidentally startles his companion and ends up killing him by crushing him under the heavy bedstead, whereupon he dismembers the body and buries it under the floorboards. Unfortunately, a neighbour has heard a scream and reported it to the police; they come to investigate, but our narrator has done such a good job of hiding the body there is no possibility of him being discovered, is there? Except, of course, the heartbeat coming from under the floorboards…

No, I’m sorry, the narrator is quite mad. Which does render a lot of what he says to be completely untrustworthy. Did he take good care of his companion before his death or not? Did he really hear a heartbeat, was it death watch beetles or an auditory hallucination? We are not told, but left to speculate. I wonder how he’s finding the asylum…

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The Showman’s Art

I’ve only just realised – writing the title to this – that two of America’s greatest shock rockers have alter egos with female names; Marilyn Manson chose his by combining a glamorous celebrity with a notorious criminal whereas Alice Cooper was told a story about a New England witch of that name. Both play loud raucous rock music with controversial themes and subjects, wear outlandish outfits and lots of make up – and both put on a stunningly good live show. I’ve had the great privilege over the years to have seen both of them on stage a number of times, and I’ve never left disappointed.

And it’s interesting that both of them have been on tour to the UK in recent months, still putting on stage performances (with Manson in a wheelchair after suffering a broken leg) which are as good as any they’ve seen. You see, I believe that both understand the nature of performance; an audience go to see a show to be entertained, so give them something to watch. Whether this is Cooper’s fake guillotine or Manson on stilts, it’ll be remembered and talked about for a long time, which is the point.

Someone I know who knows these things said that many bands and musicians actually don’t make money from touring; they make it from the merchandise that is sold at the venue (provided you buy it from legitimate traders, obviously). So why do they bother? Well, it allows them to interact with their fan base but in order to attract new fans and keep the existing ones interested, you have to give them something worth seeing, and that is something that both Manson and Cooper understand inherently.

I can’t say what inspired them to do things this way, because I simply don’t know. I can say that it’s worth every penny of the tickets to go and watch, and is always highly entertaining (although if you don’t like the music, don’t bother). Perhaps a few other performers could take a leaf out of their books and entertain, rather than just show up on stage in a t shirt and jeans and warble a bit?

A SHORT BREAK FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Nothing serious, I promise you, but as the Festive Season is just around the corner, I’m going to have a short break from the blog to do stuff with the family but shall be back again in a few days.

However you celebrate it, be it Christmas, Yule, Hanukah, Kwanzaa or under the duvet wishing it was happening to someone else, stay safe and be happy and I wish you every success and happiness in 2018.

See you soon.

Goya’s Gothic Masterpiece

Goya painting titled “Time” or in Spanish Las viejas.

Deep down, I know I really shouldn’t like this painting half as much as I do. It’s really very wicked, blackly funny and very clever; it’s also slightly monstrous, which I think is why I like it. Of course, Time is nowhere near as bleak and gruesome as his famous painting of Cronos Eating his Children, but I think in its own way, it deserves to be centre stage a little more.

On the surface, Time is a portrait of a society lady who is incredibly elderly. She is accompanied by her maid, and there is a dark figure in the back, whom we will explore later. The lady is exceptionally well dressed, draped in white silks and lace and presumably her best diamonds. Behind her fan, you can tell that the maid is sniggering despite her skull like features. Yes, the lady who may once have been beautiful has decided that she will be beautiful again, by wearing finery that is outdated and probably unfashionable. The maid may have gone along with it as an opportunity to laugh at her betters – and it’s a salutary lesson for those of us who may occasionally risk harking back to our younger days and getting the punk/goth/rockabilly outfits out. What suited us when we were 17 may not necessary suit us when we’re 50.

Now, the character at the back – most art historians state that this is a personification of Time, which is very hard to disagree with (because of the title of the work) but because there is a very clear message about the effects of the passage of time. Alongside this analysis is also that this could be a personification of Death – he awaits us all and it is only the passage of time that separates us.

If your only taste of Goya has been his Black Paintings (which aren’t for everyone, even though I think they’re rather wonderful) this is a great example of his wicked sense of humour.

A Lesson in Being a Gentleman

Oh all right, I admit it. I only watched Kingsman: The Secret Service because part of it was set in Savile Row. Oh, and Mark Strong was in it, and I rather like him. Despite all the silliness, gadgetry and violence, there was some pretty good stuff in the film – especially on what it took to be a gentleman. Given that at least one of the candidates to replace Lancelot was a woman, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that these are general principles rather than specifically male ones.

I shall also try very hard not to sound too much like Colin Firth when I do this.

Firstly, a gentleman is not about birth but about breeding. This is one of the lessons that Eggsy has most trouble getting his head around, coming from a council estate and living on the dole. Being a gentleman is about being comfortable in one’s own skin, about being confident that one can adapt to and behave in any situation. As the Kingsman motto has it – manners maketh the man. It used to be clothes in my day, but to be honest, they’re just a sideshow. Good manners cost nothing but make a world of difference, and they are the mark of a gentleman – and they are something that can be learned.

Moreover, being a gentleman is about knowing when to work as a team and when to go it alone. It is about loyalty when needed and ruthlessness when required. Startlingly, it was often the female candidates who proved more adept that this than the men were, so it was no surprise when one became a Kingsman. She was brilliant, a real role model for young women.

Finally – and probably most importantly – being a gentleman is about taking responsibility for your actions. It’s about holding your hands up and admitting when you’re wrong and learning from your mistakes. Physical strength is all very well, but mental strength and tenancity are better; but all pale in comparison to integrity.

Kingsman: The Secret Service could teach everyone a great deal about being a gentleman – and hopefully young people will learn a lot from it as well. Not just how to disarm a gun wielding lunatic from a hundred paces.

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.

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.