Inspired by Murder

On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts    Guilty Things A Life of Thomas De Quincey

This review was written by Colin Dickey for New Republic, November 2, 2016:

“Murder, in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the murdered person,” (De Quincey) reasons, “is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this reason that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life.” This attitude to primal panic would never “suit the purposes of the poet.” What, then, must a poet do to elevate such a scene to high art? The only option: “He must throw the interest on the murderer.” Since 1823, this has become commonplace; from The Godfather to Silence of the Lambs to Breaking Bad, it’s become the default position of any serious drama to include the perspective of the murderer. Like it or not, our imaginative lives now reside in De Quincey’s dreamworld.

Fittingly, Frances Wilson’s new biography of De Quincey, Guilty Thing, begins not with his birth or his lineage, but with a murder: In the early hours of December 8, 1811, shopkeeper Thomas Marr, his wife and infant child, and his apprentice were all found dead, their throats slit and their heads bashed in. With no real suspects, the case fascinated everyone in England, but none more so than Thomas De Quincey himself. The Ratcliffe Highway murders, as they became known, inspired in De Quincey a “profound reverie,” according to his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and would occupy his mind and his writings for decades to come. The murders, De Quincey would later write, “had an ill effect, by making the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste, and dissatisfied by anything that has been since done in that line. All other murders look pale,” he concluded, by the “deep crimson” of the Ratcliffe Highway murders.

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Murder on the Thames

In his Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations, Tony Reeves discusses the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy:

“There are wonderful London locations in Alfred Hitchcock’s British film since The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956, but first the collision between the blackly humorous script and director Alfred Hitchcock’s virulent misogyny, previously kept in check by production codes, makes for queasy viewing today . . . The film has become an invaluable record of its setting, the old Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market. In 1973, the whole operation moved to a soulless new facility at Nine Elms, south of the Thames near Vauxhall, and the old market buildings were titivated to become terrace cafés and boutiques stocked with designer clothes and scented candles.”

Read entire article at The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations

Bill’s Bookshelf # 4: Alfred Hitchcock Presents…Books

By the early 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock was riding an enormous wave of popularity. His television program, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955 – 1962), had made the director a household name. 1960 saw the release of his highest grossing and arguably most famous film, Psycho, followed sensationally in 1963 by The Birds. I’m a “baby boomer.” Watching and discussing Hitchcock with my parents helped us to relate, to bridge the generation gap. I suspect it was this way in many homes.

The market was ripe for all things Hitchcock. He shrewdly licensed his name and likeness to board games, magazines, books, and other merchandise. I think the Bobblehead came much later.

Hitchcock lent his name to two book series marketed by Random House as “books for young people.” One series, The Three Investigators, was similar to the Hardy Boys adventures, but with three young sleuths instead of two. Created by Robert Arthur, Jr., who also wrote some of the books and suggested story lines for others, always featured a final chapter in which the three boys conferred with Alfred Hitchcock, going over the clues that helped them solve the mystery. The other series was a succession of theme-based anthologies: Alfred Hitchcock’s Haunted Houseful (1961),  Ghostly Gallery (1962),  Solve-Them-Them-Yourself  Mysteries (1963),  Monster Museum (1965),  Sinister Spies (1966), and Spellbinders in Suspense (1967).  My cool Uncle Bob gave me one of these books for Christmas every year. They were large books with eye-catching colorful covers and dust jackets, and at least one illustration per story. I decided to revisit these mementos of my youth on a recent trip to my mother’s house.

Upon pulling these volumes down from my childhood bookshelf and perusing the tables of contents, I noticed that many of the stories were interchangeable with those found in any anthology, not necessarily intended for children only. This is either because kids had higher reading levels back in those days, or because many of the stories originally appeared in pulp magazines, which generally aimed for a wide variety of readers.

At the risk of over-simplifying, I’ve separated the authors into three groups:

  1. The usual suspects from the pantheon of “weird Fiction” writers, such as Algernon Blackwood, Henry Kuttner, and Lord Dunsany
  2. The venerable classic writers, including Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle
  3. Popular contemporary writers  like Ray Bradbury, Jerome Bixby, and Robert Bloch

Special mention must be made of Robert Arthur, Jr., the real star behind these books. Hitchcock did little more than license his name and likeness to the book series. Arthur edited the books and wrote the introductions and liner notes in that famous droll deadpan Hitchcock delivery. Anyone familiar with the Alfred Hitchcock TV show can almost hear the director’s voice when reading the introductions. This is because Robert Arthur also wrote most, if not all, of the scripts Hitchcock used when speaking to the audience at the beginning and end of each show, and leading up to commercial breaks.

In the 1930s, Arthur wrote for the pulp magazines, including Unknown Worlds, Amazing Stories, Detective Fiction Weekly, Collier’s, Argosy, and others. He created and edited Pocket Detective Magazine for Street and Smith, the first pocket-sized all-fiction magazine.

In 1940, he studied writing for radio at Columbia University and eventually teamed up with David Kogan to write and produce a radio show called The Mysterious Traveler for the Mutual Broadcasting System. The Mysterious Traveler ran from 1944 until 1953. They received the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Mystery Radio Show from the Mystery Writers of America.

Arthur moved to Hollywood in 1959, where he wrote scripts for The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, so he was the natural choice to edit and write additional material for the Hitchcock books.

A more thorough biography of Robert Arthur can be found here, at the web site of his daughter, writer Elizabeth Arthur.

Since I’ve already mentioned that some of the stories in these books transcend the genre of “children’s books,” I also remember that a few of the tales disappointed me even at age eleven or twelve, due to their generic, fairy tale nature. Case in point, Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum includes a story written in 1950 called The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles, written by Margaret St. Clair (1911 – 1995) writing under the pseudonym Idris Seabright. I should add that Margaret St. Clair is a very intriguing author who deserves further discussion, sometime in the near future, here at Bill Ectric’s Place, as her interests included witchcraft, nudism, and feminism, and her novel, Sign of the Labrys (1963) is notable for its Wicca theme. Maybe by the time I read her Gnoles story, I was already jaded by movies like Psycho, Revenge of Frankenstein, and 2000 Maniacs. I recently found out that the same story appears in The Fantasy Hall of Fame, Edited by Robert Silverberg (Harper Prism, 1998) chosen by a vote of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America association. This made me curious, so I clicked through a series of links, trying to understand why the Fantasy Hall-of-Famer’s have such high regard for the story.

The classic role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, includes gnolls (notice the alternate spelling from gnole) among its many denizens. Gary Gargax, who co-created Dungeons & Dragons with Dave Arneson, credits the idea to Lords Dunsany. He describes the gnoll as part gnome, part troll, even though Dunsany doesn’t specifically state this in his story. Perhaps Dunsany assumed we would get it.

The term was first used by Lord Dunsany in a short story called How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles, one of fourteen stories by Dunsany in his The Book of Wonder (1912). Writers who have named Lord Dunsany as an influence include  J. R. R. TolkienUrsula K. Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, and Michael Moorcock. I think now I see the reason for my disappointment. I was looking for stories that would scare me; whereas, the “Gnole” stories were an extension of the fantasy tradition, which can sometimes be scary, but mainly strives to elicit the sensation of wonder.

Margaret St. Clair’s The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles can be seen as an homage to the earlier story by Dunsany. In both stories, someone tries to “get over” on the Gnoles and it backfires on them. Dunsany’s character, Nuth, is a skillful burglar. Stealing valuables from ordinary houses has become so effortless, he decides to practice his “art” on the Gnoles, who dwell in a dark forest and are known to keep large emeralds in their premises. In St. Clair’s updated tale, the interloper is a salesman, a rope merchant, well-versed in all the sales techniques that were proliferating in countless business manuals in the booming American economy after World War II. In this light, I see how the relationship between these two stories would have appealed to the Fantasy Hall of Fame crowd.

 

Bill’s Bookshelf Number 3: The Ghouls

The Ghouls

Edited by Peter Haining

Published in 1971 by Stein and Day

They pulled out all the stops on this one: Introduction by Vincent Price, Afterword by Christopher Lee, Dedication to Boris Karloff, quote from Alfred Hitchcock leading into the Editor’s Foreword, all designed with the “classic horror movie fan” in mind.

The inside flap tells us that “Peter Haining has collected the stories on which eighteen of the very best horror films were based.”

This is only partly true. You would be hard-pressed, for example, to find anyone who considers Monster of Terror (1965, known in the United States as Die, Monster, Die) a good movie, much less a great movie. It’s based on a story called “The Colour Out of Space” by that paranoid old recluse H. P. Lovecraft. You can read more about the film at Scott Ashlin’s blog, 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting.

Several films have been based on The Phantom of the Opera, some good, some terrible. Regarding the inclusion of The Phantom of the Opera in The Ghouls anthology, Mark Hodgson of Black Hole Reviews tells us, “At this point Haining cheats a little, presenting a specially abridged version of Gaston Leroux’ book. But this is a good way to enjoy the story and avoid the overlong sub-plots of opera house politics and romantic rivalry.” and “This condensed version seems to have been trimmed to give us the passages that were translated to the screen for Lon Chaney’s brilliant work.”

I’ve become a big fan of Nikolai Gogol, but I had forgotten that the classic Italian horror film Black Sunday (1960), starring Barbara Steele, was inspired by Gogol’s short story, The Viy. The movie, directed by Maria Bava, has almost nothing to do with Gogol’s story, but both film and story are classics in their own way. 

I didn’t like the beginning Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Feathertop,” on which the movie Puritan Passions (1923) is based, because it starts out too cutesy, like a whimsical fairy tale, with a witch lighting her pipe by magic. But actually, there is a great scene later in the story. The witch has brought a scarecrow to life. The scarecrow, whose name is Feathertop, appears human to everyone who looks at him, but there is a scene in which he is courting a young lady, and he looks in the mirror and sees himself as he really is – a scarecrow – and I thought it was quite a chilling scene. I haven’t seen the movie so I don’t know how the filmmakers handled it.

“The Magician” (1908), by Somerset Maugham, is one of my favorite stories in the book. It’s a simple story involving a young lady who meets a “dabbler in the Black Arts” named Oliver Haddo (the character was based on real-life occultist Aleister Crowley). The bulk of the story is filled with richly atmospheric hallucinatory imagery and I can see why Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wanted to bring it to the silver screen in 1926. Unfortunately, this seems to be lost film. There is documentation that the movie was made, but no prints have been found.

At this point, I would like to turn the report over to Mark Hodgson of Black Hole Reviews. Enjoy.