Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year, New Project!!!

Just a little bit of an announcement, a hope, an anticipation.

Bit of backstory. For the decade of the 1990s I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area (my home town -- a fact "neither hither nor yonder" as a teacher of mine used to say). My residence was in Redwood City, roughly halfway between SF and San Jose. My job for a time was at a title company in downtown SF, which meant a pretty long commute as you might imagine. I used to have a button that read "I was going to try shock therapy, but commuting seems to work." One day, en route home, I was reading an Anne Rice vampire novel on the bus and this voice asked "How many of the series have you read?" Looking up, to my side I saw one of the most brilliant smiles it has been my pleasure to witness.

That is how I met Annie.

Sadly, within a few years we lost contact amid a failed relationship (not with one another) and relocation. Later, I moved to Los Angeles, became a widower, gave up on being a screenwriter, focused on fiction, etc. In 2008 there was this event -- the Dark Shadows Festival in Burbank, California. More on a whim than anything else, I attended. Walking through one of the meeting rooms after an event, this lady walked up to me and called me by a nickname I hadn't heard in years. I did a take. Those eyes. That smile! ANNIE!

We spent hours catching up. Turns out she decided to attend the Festival out of a feeling I might be there! She is happily married now, complete with a stepdaughter and a hubby (natch) who works in the technical end of the movie industry. Cannot tell you what a joy it is to have her back in my life. Really.

But now the kicker. She has all these friends who are movie techies, some with their own HD cameras (which potentially transform movie-making into a much simpler process). She herself is a bundle of energy. A few weeks back she contacts me with an idea -- to create something of our own, a film or short subject or something. Within a few days discussion we've settled on some things, most of which I won't be at liberty to discuss in public for months. But here's what I can say: Looks like we'll be creating a web series, with a story arc divided into roughly ten-minute segments initially uploaded to YouTube. These in turn will lead back to a website where we'll be asking for donations as well as offering some goodies to go along with the story. This is about several characters caught up in some extremely interesting events -- including several mysteries and an unconventional love story. Oh, and a big part of the setting will be a ficitonal mass transit train line where our two main characters almost certainly meet. Anyone who has ever used such on a regular basis should have noticed a certain aura to those trains, to that form of transport -- whisked along through tunnels in rectangular rooms of metal and plastic, the sound of the tracks no less than the subterranean winds one feels as trains approach...

I am very excited about this. I'm not in any way abandoning my other writing projects but this one has the extra zing of a collaboration with someone whose imagination meshes with my own, yet is not at all identical (thank God).

And isn't this a good way to start the New Year?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Adapting Carmilla

(Note: This is a version of an essay I've written and published online before. However, there are several differences.)

I like vampire stories. I also like adaptations, seeing how a story translates from one medium to another. But what I find intriguing as well as frustrating is the relative lack of adaptations of Carmilla. For those who don't know, this is a novella written by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu and generally agreed to be a classic of the vampire genre (if you're of a mind, the full text is right here). To my knowledge it has been filmed seriously three times--by Hammer Studios as The Vampire Lovers, by Roger Vadim as Blood and Roses and for Nightmare Classics using the original title. There was also Crypt of the Vampire which was reasonably faithful, at least in terms of general plot and had the added bonus of starring Christopher Lee. Three radio plays (one in German). Three known stage productions (one a chamber opera, another an erotic German musical). A pretty good version for Polish television. Another for French t.v. Still another (almost certainly lost) for the BBC in the 1960s (starring Jane Merrow).

And that is pretty much, as they say, it.

Now compare that to the dozens of plays, films, operas, musicals and ballets based upon Bram Stoker's novel! Just a role call of actors who' ve played the lead in straight adaptations make for an impressive list: Shreck, Lugosi, Villar, Lee, Palance, Oldman, Jourdain, Elliot, Langella, Warren, etc.

Why?

Methinks maybe I've figured it out.

Dracula has all kinds of mini-dramas going on, not least because the characters have full and interesting relationships. Lucy has three men proposing marriage to her, which everyone wants to keep the fatal illness of her mother secret. Mina's fiancee vanishes then reappears following a journey abroad. There's a madman, a shipwreck, an attempted murder, a detective story, a chase across Europe, etc.

Carmilla (written, it should noted, by someone who had not worked in the theatre) is a first person narrative. Its purported author is a lonely girl pretty in an isolated country estate. Other than the title character, she has no one her own age with whom to talk. We learn little or nothing about the lives and interests of those around her--her father, her governess, the housekeeper of the schloss (those two are nearly always combined into one character). The few other characters who do interact and at least have interesting stories to relate--General Spielsdorf, the mountebank, Baron Vordenburg--are little more than walk-ons. The other vampire victims are all off-stage. For that matter, there's only one vampire (Stoker's novel has five).

Another problem is the nature of the vampirism itself, at least in this story. Laura (the narrator) recounts her dreams but they don't really suggest very much in terms of dramatic stage actions. She doesn't go sleepwalking, for instance. She doesn't seem to become in any way vampiric. More importantly, no one seems to suspect the truth for the longest time--until the General and Baron show up and events spiral to their conclusion with breakneck speed but little enough suspense.

LeFanu's creation has never been called an adventure, after all. Its strength lies in the atmosphere, the mood and the subtle eroticism of events from the POV of someone who seems rather innocent, almost simple. Laura, quite simply, has not a trace of the spunk of Mina Murray or Lucy Westenra.

All of which creates problems for the writer trying to adapt same. Not necessarily insurmountable problems, though. Nor should we forget just how many elements from Carmilla have found themselves into various depictions of Count Dracula and other undead. Most tellingly, this vampire gets to know and woo her victim -- ubiquitous now in the genre yet totally missing in Stoker's novel.

Most versions "solve" the issues by moving away from the source. Laura (whose name usually gets changed for some reason) nearly always gains a male admirer of an appropriate age. The business of discovering precisely what ails the heroine (or narrator) is strung out, with aforementioned male admirer taking part in some way. Some kind of tension ends up introduced between father and daughter -- or Laura's father is transformed into her cousin, sometimes to serve as a love interest. Along the way one of the two governesses nearly always vanish. Others become victims of the vampire, characters we get to know.

It occurs to me a more interesting direction is deeper into the text itself. For one thing, it is in the first person which makes it the testimony of a particular individual. So might Laura be a less reliable narrator than we suspect? What, in other words, did she leave out from the written word? Perhaps out of (justified?) fear that others would read her words? Indeed, she seems to be recounting the story to an older woman from a city. But who is this woman? And how did this account end up in the papers of an occult scholar (as noted at the very start of the novella)?

As written, Laura also seems isolated from the others in her home. One might ask "Why?" What were her father, governess and housekeeper keeping from her? For what reason? And what did they think would happen if she found out? Laura evidently was visited by the spirit of her dead mother--were there other signs of her being psychic? Hints abound in the novella that Laura's mother was in fact a distant relation of Carmilla herself. Does this have something to do with why she died? For that matter, what is an English gentleman doing living in a remote estate in rural Austria anyway? Her father also agreed to take a total stranger into his home with little or no argument, upon the word of a strange woman he claimed to have never met before. What was up with that?

Nearly every adaptation either turns Laura into a pretty nonentity or changes her personality to reflect a stronger character. One wonders is this is really necessary. True, making a waif into someone interesting remains a challenge, but again -- Laura is the narrator. She does not dwell upon herself in any great detail. Methinks maybe we should recall that the novella was written long before the ready availability of dramatic media -- plays were rare, and movies unknown. The written word in practice must have received far more attention (which certainly helps explain those compound, complex sentences). Hence tiny details within the text abound to give an image of Laura's actual personality:

She has grown up speaking a polygot of English, German and French which she openly believes most could not follow. What a fascinating detail! Both isolating and yet ennobling. She is apparently quite as obsessed with Carmilla as the vampire is with her. Imagine two girls spending hours brushing each other's hair, for instance. And Laura gives no details, but admits to trying many a trick and tactic to get Carmilla to reveal her past. Both images have the potential for wonderful dialog or so it seems to me.

Curiously, the family dynamic of Laura's home rarely gets explored. Her father is quite elderly, so she was a child "late in life." English, he served in the Austrian Imperial Service and retired with a pension. Evidently this was when he married and fathered Laura. With an interest in medicine and a disdain for ghost stories (Laura was forbidden to hear any as a child), he seems rather conservative, gallant, and rather selfish in a subtle kind of way. Madame Perradon, described as a heavyset woman functioning as a housekeeper as well as mother-figure, is cheerful and down-to-earth. Lastly is Madame de la Fontaine, Laura's finishing governess of mixed German/French parentage and a tendency towards fancy as well as gossip.

As I've stated elsewhere, methinks the necessary tone is important as well. Dreamy, atmospheric films are a less obvious choice than some. But look at the magnificent Picnic at Hanging Rock with its fictionalized tale of a mystery and scandal at a Victorian Girl's school. Music and cinematography united to create precisely the kind of rhythm evoked by LeFanu's novella. Re-read the description of Laura's home again -- the rows of lime trees in the garden, the moat with its swans, the moonlight reflecting off the windows of the schloss, making it nearly as bright as day. Or the brilliant haunted house film The Haunting which does so much by suggesting rather than showing or telling (in this respect LeFanu's story echoes Henry James' The Turn of the Screw) . Since, like most people, I do see Carmilla as a love story of sorts I'd recommend the intensely erotic and beautifully filmed The Lover as a pretty useful template as well, along with the lingering photography of The Duelists (director Ridley Scott seems to have deliberately copied the colors and lighting of paintings).

Screenwriters, unless in collaboration with a director or directors themselves, almost never have the standing with which to make such a specific adaptation. Playwrights, on the other hand, lack the full set of tools screenwriters enjoy (musical scores, the close-up, etc.) while retaining far more control as well as greater opportunity to see their works done -- multiple times, perhaps, with different casts and designs. Yet for myself, I'd like to see both an excellent film and an equally wonderful stage version.

Does that make me greedy?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Invictus (Review)

(Spoilers ahoy)

I don't like sports movies. Understandable, since by-and-large sports aren't something which gives me pleasure in life. Football (American football, that is) in particular holds zero charm for me. So I watched Invictus with hesitation, because the subject matter is rugby -- pretty much what Americans call football but played without armor.

What would give me great pleasure is to call this a great movie. But I cannot quite go that far. Unhesitatingly, I can and do call it a very good one.

The time is South Africa after the end of Apartheid, as Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman, who never turns in even a mediocre performance) becomes the first black President of that nation. From what I've read, Mandela's stature in South Africa is difficult to fully understand. He is to that nation what George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are to the United States -- save that he probably prevented a Civil War. Everything I've been able to learn confirms this. But at the same time, there was and is a lot more to this man than his political skills, his courage and his startlingly wide vision. Invictus isn't about all that, although it makes a few hints here and there. What this movie tells is of a real event Mandela used to help bring all of South Africa together -- the Rugby World Cup.

In racially segregated (to use an extremely mild term for Apartheid) South Africa, one social difference between races was sports. Blacks played soccer. Whites played rugby. More, the Whites revered and cherished their national rugby team the Springboks (a kind of African antelope -- I looked it up). Wow, they sound like Americans already. But the Springboks were segregated even before Apartheid. Blacks could "get away" with defiance by cheering the opposing teams, and did so with relish. Even the Springbok colors -- green and gold -- had just about the same emotional resonance for Blacks there as the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (the so-called "stars and bars") does for Blacks here. As Apartheid ended, a Black player at last joined the team, and the team's banning from international competition was lifted. This latter is an important point. Mandela in a speech early in the film pledges his country will never again "...suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world." He wants to improve his homeland's position in the eyes of all nations, to undo the damage done by decades of boycotts. But even more, he has to bring together a racially diverse country seething with uncertainty and rage.

Almost intuitively (or so it seems) he sees in the Springboks a tool for that. He uses his own considerable prestige to keep the team and their colors from being banned. More, he publicly encourages the team captain (played by Matt Damon) as well as encouraging others to see the team as representative of one nation, one people. It is an uphill battle, and a subtle one, but very moving.

Now here it gets interesting, at least to me. I saw this film as part of a Christmas celebration at my day (i.e. paying) job in Hollywood. A nice party followed. Discussing the movie with some of my co-workers, I got a glimpse at a perception that simply hadn't connected for me. To my eyes, the film was about the specific events leading up the Rugby World Cup and how they helped emotionally forge bonds between enough South Africans of all races to help define a new country. Just a tad milky, especially at the very very end, but accomplishing what the filmmakers (including director Clint Eastwood) intended -- a glimpse of when people at a crucial time found it within themselves to be just a little wiser, a little more hard-working, a little more generous. It was meant to inspire, to move -- and it did.

But one of two Black co-workers saw something different. They saw a clear-as-glassl parallel between the movie and current events in the United States, specifically the presidency of Barack Obama. Interestingly, they were less impressed with the film. One actively dismissed it (although he is something of a purist and doesn't much care for stories that pull any dramatic punches).

Of course, the details involved are extremely different. In some ways. Mandela represented an oppressed majority that unhesitatingly regarded him as a savior (as well as a king -- I was fascinated to learn Mandela is technically royalty). Apartheid had been abolished less than five years when he was elected President. In US terms this would be if Martin Luther King Jr. had been elected President in 1972 -- very soon after the end of Jim Crow Laws! Or if Frederick Douglas had been elected in 1868 -- less than half a decade after the Abolition of Slavery! That little thought gives one pause. Yeah, Whites are the majority in this country but isn't it a bit disheartening that there wasn't even a serious presidential candidate of color until generations after the Civil Rights Act was passed?

Some more differences: Despite our problems, the USA is much more stable and prosperous nation than South Africa. Obama was never a political prisoner, but a charismatic scholar and lawyer. Rather than a revolutionary leader, he is a left-of-center mediator (who is weirdly enough dubbed synonymous with Adolf Hitler by thousands of rabid loudmouths who remain completely at liberty -- an irony I doubt they notice).

But what about the similarities? By that I don't mean the simple fact that both are Black Men, Presidents of their respective (and racially mixed) nations, and both won the Nobel Peace Prize. I think maybe the real similarity here is about disappointment. In South Africa, the Black majority were openly oppressed as well as forbidden from many professions. All that changed within a decade. Here in the United States, racial progress has frankly been glacial by comparison. I strongly suspect most Whites have little awareness of that -- or of how much racism still pervades everyday life here. How could that not instill some genuine RAGE? Look at rap music -- and look to see how many critics act as if those lyrics are something to be taken literally as opposed to (much more ominously) as an expression of deep dissatisfaction?

For the record, I don't much like rap music but methinks that is a matter of personal taste. And yeah, I know there is more to the whole rap culture than racial injustice. My point is that such is an important part of it, not the whole basis.

All of which makes me more critical but also more hopeful about the movie Invictus. On one hand, I really wish it had been gutsier, had delved more deeply into the complex emotional brew of race relations. The family of Matt Damon's character, for example -- methinks there was a lot more potential for conflict and drama there. But on the other hand -- most movie-goers in the United States are White, simply because most people here are of that ethnicity. The central message of the film, about patience and forgiveness and seeing beyond revenge or personal grievances, isn't that precisely the kind of thing that will help the United States actually deal with its own issues -- the deep (if sometimes subtle) racial tensions, the divisiveness, the challenge of rebuilding so much of our infrastructure, of redefining what we will be from here on out (in the wake of 9/11, of Iraq, or the what I suspect might end up termed The Great Recession)?

Another reason maybe to see this film.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Wrap Up 2009



Just in time (almost) for my birthday, comes this entry into the AW Blog Chain for December. In this case, the subject is a wrap-up of the year 2009.

Financially, this year has been harder than I hoped. Big surprise, I know. In terms of writing, my biggest disappointment was a planned play adaptation of Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla. Honestly, I was just dabbling with that idea but then someone all-but-offered a venue for the thing! Naturally enough, I got to scribbling! Until...it became obvious that he was offering absolutely nothing else by way of support, even though this would have been part of his event. Neither I nor any other "staff member" would receive air fare to New Orleans, nor room when we got there, etc. In other words all I'd have to do is spend a few thousand dollars I didn't and don't have.

Live and learn.

But I've made major headway on two other near-time projects. One is part of a projected series, tentatively titled (pretty firmly to be honest) Deep As Blood. Those who know me will not feel surprise to learn it a vampire fantasy set in the modern day. That is still in the outline stage, especially after (to my considerable shock) a secondary character went and grabbed center stage for the whole thing!

More advanced is my effort (chronicled earlier this year) in re-writing a 19th century potboiler (Varney The Vampyre) into an erotic gothic romance titled Baneworth. I'm showing three or four friends each chapter as I get it into the "acceptable first draft" phase, and their comments have been fascinating to say the least. (*waves* Thanks Monica, Lola, Rowan!!!) Don't know about the rest of you, but an emotional support system is vital in my writing. Really. Right now I'm working on a rough draft of Chapter Six, which has already presented a bit of a quandry. One of my characters is already so much more interesting than the "leads"! Hmm. Methinks I sense a pattern. So I'll need to bring certain aspects of the other characters into sharper relief then.

For the record, this year also saw my starting up this blog and the creation of my writer's website (still pretty basic, but growing--I quite like the design and how it matches this blog's). Likewise I joined AW this year, which is something of a godsend. Cannot tell you how long I searched for a message board like that one. Plus made excellent friends with Francesca Miller, whose website I designed.

A few weeks back was the anniversary of my beloved Colleen's passing. Last year I went to work that day and came apart for the next couple of weeks. This year, I stayed home and slept. And I feel better. Strategy? Time? Both? I dunno.

Lost Wanderer - http://www.lostwanderer5.blogspot.com/
Claire Crossdale - http://theromanticqueryletter.blogspot.com/
coryleslie - http://corrinejackson.wordpress.com/

bsolah - http://benjaminsolah.com/blog (PREVIOUS)
DavidZahir - http://zahirblue.blogspot.com/ (MOI!)
RavenCorinnCarluk http://ravencorinncarluk.blogspot.com/ (NEXT!)
Ralph Pines - http://ralfast.wordpress.com/
shethinkstoomuch - http://shethinkstoomuch.wordpress.com/
Lady Cat - http://www.randomwriterlythoughts.blogspot.com/
truelyana - http://expressiveworld.com/
misaditas - http://misaditas-novels.blogspot.com/
collectonian -
laharrison - http://lesleyharrison.wordpress.com/
beawhiz - http://beawrites.wordpress.com/
razibahmed - http://www.blogging37.com/
FreshHell - http://freshhell.wordpress.com/
AlissaC - http://alissacarleton.blogspot.com/
Aimee - http://writing.aimeelaine.com/



Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Little Stranger (Review)

Ahead there be spoilers.

I have eagerly read each and every one of Sarah Waters' novels (my fave continues to be Fingersmith) so a source of genuine frustration became the length of time it took to get ahold of her latest, The Little Stranger.

For the first time, no lesbian characters (although Carolyn...well...). For the second time, a non-Victorian setting. Also for the second time, a story having to do with ghosts. Or a ghost. Or something like a ghost. Maybe.

I think a lot of Americans don't appreciate what a horror the second world war was to Britain, how much was destroyed, how huge a percentage of the populace were more-or-less in the fight and suffered accordingly, or how long privations continued even after VE Day. I barely realize it. This book brings that period to life (or death as the case may be), the years after the war when there weren't enough places for people to live and the rationing of food, sugar, coffee, clothes and fuel continued for years.

Hundreds Hall is a Georgian mansion in Warwickshire, the home of the Ayers family (nice pun when you think about it, as in "giving oneself"). It is haunted. By what? Well, by the past certainly. Its inhabitants don't seem so much to live there as to haunt the place. Very old-fashioned are the Ayers family. From a different time, and coping not all that terribly well with a new world. And maybe the Hall is haunted by something else. What? We don't really know. Nor do we ever definitely learn.

Two other books came to mind as I finished The Little Stranger. Since finishing it I've glanced a few reviews and seen references to the exact same two. One is obvious -- The Turn of the Screw, arguably the best haunted house story ever (although methinks Shirley Jackson could give Henry James at least some competion there). One can easily see why. The lonely single person entering into the odd world of an old family estate, an employee who observes/learns about some of the tragedy in this manor, and cannot help but impact things by their own personal issues as they become involved. In the end, amidst more tragedy and even death, we are left without really knowing whether the ghost or ghosts were real. Now, which story am I describing? Both. One is about a governess. The other is about a physician. Each deals with a family unit of three, including a parental figure as well as two siblings--a brother and sister. In Waters, these are adults, confronted not with the mysteries of childhood and imagination but the gnawing despair of feeling trapped. Trapped by the house, mostly, by trying to maintain its upkeep and live up to traditions crumbling around them.

Honestly, though, this book also brought to mind Daphne DuMarier's Rebecca, about an unnamed narrator (we never do learn Dr. Faraday's first name) who enters via marriage a beloved but strange manor, one also haunted but in this case by genuine memories and dark secrets. Max de Winter reminds me in a lot of ways of Roderick Ayers, but the latter is physically scarred as well as much younger and without the fortune (i.e. comfort and security) to help maintain his emotional defenses.

When in reading novels, we see a single man meet a single woman early on, the possibility of romance drifts to the surface. So it is with The Little Stranger and if it takes a long (albeit realistic) time to develop, it also feels natural as well as achingly foolish for both people involved. Dr. Faraday, our narrator, is a doctor from a working class background whose mother once worked at Hundreds Hall. Literally, the book begins with an act of casual vandalism he committed as a child -- the stealing of carved acorn from the wall. Years later, as the whole country tries to start over again after six ghastly years at war, Dr. Faraday visits the Hall once more. He comes in an official capacity, as the Ayers report one of their (few) servants is feeling ill. Now the doctor meets all three remaining members of family:

Scarred, highly strung veteran Roderick.

His somewhat ungainly but likeable sister, Carolyn, with her beloved dog Gyp.

Their kindly but firm (as well as fragile) mother, still secretly mourning the death of her first daughter decades past from diptheria.

And the story recounts what happens over the next year. By any measure, it is a tragedy, and on many levels. One thing we're introduced to very early is the idea that there's something "wicked" in the Hall, or so the teen-aged maid Betty insists. Nobody pays her much mind, of course. Save the readers. But should we? Keep in mind one of the first things Dr. Faraday figures out is that Betty isn't really sick at all, but simply acting out (as a child does) a personal conflict between the spookiness of this place, her desire to be away from home, her fear of a new place, etc. In other words, she is suggestible and not that honest (although she seems to genuinely like the Ayers, especially the mother as time goes on).

What is really going on here? On one level, it seems straightforward enough. Waters herself said somewhere (I think) that 1947 was a terrible year, full of unhappiness for nearly everyone. In that year, the last members of this particular family deteriorate in the face of a world they don't really understand -- a world where breeding means less and less, where great wealthy has evaporated and new shapes of society create confusion. Roderick, unable to handle the stress, has a total breakdown and ends up confined, drugged to be kept docile. His mother, her imagination takes a dark turn into the past, believing her long-dead little girl wants her to join her and finally stage manages a fairly grisly suicide. Carolyn, seeking a change of some kind, any kind, falls prey to the same delusions for a split second and falls to her death.

But even without ghosts, there is more. One of the most uncomfortable series of events in the novel is the "courtship" of Carolyn and Dr. Faraday. Trained in the ways of strict rationality, he can find himself privately considering whether some Little Stranger haunts Hundreds Hall, but in word and deed he insists upon being the Voice of Reason (note the capitals). He listens to all the baffling weird details Carolyn notes, but in the end dismisses them -- even after the dizzying discovery of how much the two are attracted to one another. But like everything else here, even that is not what it seems. Is he really attracted to her, or at least how much is he attracted to the idea of her? He tries to push her in what seems like a good direction, but in the end pushes her away. Yet it is also true that she began it. She was the one who (perhaps rightly, let us be honest) wounds him so terribly by agreeing to a marriage then calling it off very abruptly (he himself missing far too many clues about her ambivalence). His pain is real. Certainly some at least of his feelings for Carolyn herself are genuine.

But might he be the catalyst, the one who "sets off" whatever strange power that may (or may not) be attacking the Ayers? More than one person points out this "ghost" or whatever it is, behaves childishly. It doesn't plan so much as play. It it exists, it can be and is distracted. But what is it? Might it be Mrs. Ayers long-dead child? She certainly thought so. No one else did. Is it a spirit given shape by the psyche of someone in and around the Hall? Or, by more than one? Carolyn points out It seems different to each person, latching onto personal chinks in their mental armor. Dr. Faraday has mixed feelings about the family, although he regards them as friends. He holds to his duty as a physician, seeing the whole world through the lens of such -- in fact, he even breaks his solemn word in the name of that duty (and Roderick never forgives him -- neither, perhaps, would I). Yet when the mask slips -- under stress and humiliation and panic -- Dr. Faraday reveals a dark side. It isn't pretty. But understandable, oh yes.

One walks away from the novel with the feeling that Dr. Faraday is somehow more a part of events at Hundreds Hall than he allows himself to suspect. It isn't that he's a bad man. He is in fact a good one, a kind man, if not terribly remarkable in most ways. There are passions there, but he keeps them muffled up. And at the end, he is certainly the one haunting Hundreds Hall--or being haunted by it. Or both. Three years after events, he still has his keys to the place. No one lives there. He comes by and sweeps things up a bit. Sits down and listens. Ponders. Wonders. Comes up with no answers, none at all. Every now and then he thinks he catches a movement out of the corner of his eye. He turns and looks.

What he sees when he does so -- well, how telling is that really? And if it tells anything, what is that something being told?

I don't know.

Friday, December 4, 2009

My Friend Sherlock

Do you have a favorite Sherlock Holmes? I do. My mother did. Hers was Basil Rathbone, who starred in over a dozen films about the famous sleuth -- few if any of them remotely accurate to the original stories. For one thing, Dr. Watson is not a buffoon. He's a very intelligent professional man who eventually begins to pick up on Holmes' methods and can make very good deductions of his own.

But I digress.

My Sherlock Holmes is the late Jeremy Brett, who appeared in adaptations of nearly all the Holmes mysteries for (in the USA) Mystery on PBS. His portrayal captured what to me was the essence of Holmes -- that fierce intelligence, the eccentricity that went along with, the way he examined people as if they were interesting insect colonies, and his relaxed air around his (only) friend Watson. It seemed to me a nice touch that Brett's Holmes actually laughed. He does in Conan Doyles' stories. On film, one doesn't see it so much. And at the core, Holmes is a man with a strong moral sense -- a ethos actually much more advanced that the culture around him. Not for Holmes is the forgiveness of the rich and powerful simply because that is what they are. Yet neither is he so supremely judgmental of others as one would assume. Holmes sometimes let people go, partially out of simple compassion. He did not devalue women (although for the most part he was uninterested in romance in any way) nor those who happened to be other than Anglo Saxon. We sometimes forget that aspect of his personality, allowing his sense of justice to be obscured by his awesome intelligence.

When my family moved into a two-story house in Florida (I think this was around 1972), a birthday or Christmas present about that time was The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes. Starting right off with A Study in Scarlet and through to the very last short-story, I read them all. I can even recall using a red pen to draw the word "Rache" on the wall of my new bedroom.

Hey, I was a kid.

Since then I've seen many versions and adaptation. Frank Langella twice -- once on Broadway with a stunningly nasty turn about Holmes and Watson in a dysfunctional relationship and the latter's revenge. The Hound of the Bastervilles was the first filmed version I saw, a made-for-television adaptation with Stewart Granger as The Great Detective. Curiously, Brett's own take on that film wasn't nearly as impressive for some reason. Tom Baker, Ron Roxbrough, Peter Cushing and even Peter Cook have all been Holmes in other versions of the Hound.

Many a newly "discovered" Holmes case has emerged of course. Arguably, the most famous was The Seven Percent Solution (a neat pun that). Some, such a Saberhagen's The Holmes Dracula File have pitted him against the master vampire, with whom he would in theory be contemporaneous (as well as having a rather odd resemblance to one another). Neil Gaiman wrote a wonderful pastiche, A Study In Emerald, that placed Holmes in the Cthulhu Mythos! The film Murder by Decree (with Christopher Plummer) pitted Holmes against Jack the Ripper, as did A Study in Terror with John Neville donning the deerstalker. For my money, the best such version was the one (I think it was The Last Sherlock Holmes Story) wherein we learn Jack the Ripper is none other than Professor Moriarty! And Moriarty himself is none other than Sherlock Holmes! The ending has always remained with me -- at the Reichenbach Falls, as Holmes says to his only friend "Don't worry, Watson. I won't let him get you." Then plunges to his death, killing Moriarty/Jack once and for all.

One reason Holmes seems to have become such an icon is that there are so many unanswered questions about him. Yet at the same time what he is seems so vastly, absolutely what he is -- this perfect thinking machine, walking and talking proof of the brain's raw power. That trick he had of glancing at others and telling a thousand things about them was and is awesome (even if it sometimes made little or no sense). Not too surprisingly two popular characters on American t.v. are pretty much direct inspirations of Sherlock.

The first is Monk, a detective who make more vivid one essential truth that isn't quite so obvious in Doyle's canon -- namely, that he's missing a few marbles. Whereas Adrian Monk is germaphobic, obsessive compulsive and intensely shy, Holmes is a claustrophile cocaine addict with seemingly zero sex drive and bizarre personal habits (like target practice inside his apartment). Likewise the title character of House, a universally respected physician for his diagnostic skills and all-but-universally reviled for his treatment of all those less brilliant than himself (i.e. the human race).

Meanwhile, a new film highlighting the character opens soon. Robert Downey Jr. is playing the drug-addicted genius. Jude Law is playing the multi-married womanizer Watson.

Further comment hardly seems necessary.

But do any of us doubt that Holmes will remain with us? Somebody somewhere will start a new series of successful films or t.v. shows or webisodes or virtual reality stories -- and sooner or later some of those will be successful enough to become iconic. Just like Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett (or before either of them, William Gillette). Who knows, maybe Downey's version will the latest to achieve that status. We can hope.