Friday, August 28, 2009

"Classic Fantasists on Film": Lord Dunsany's Dean Spanley

It was a surprise for me to learn recently that a novel by Lord Dunsany had been newly filmed, and even more of a surprise to learn that of Dunsany’s dozen or so novels it was My Talks with Dean Spanley (1936) that had made it to the big screen. By no means Dunsany’s best novel, it is an enjoyable, minor work, in which a cleric, under the influence of a certain tokay, recollects his previous incarnation as a dog.

The film, titled more simply Dean Spanley, was scripted by Alan Sharp and directed by Toa Fraser. It boasts a first rate cast: Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam, and Bryan Brown. An independent British production, the film was released in England in December 2008, and had a limited release in the US a few months afterwards. The film has a running time of 98 minutes. It is now out on DVD in England (I don’t know if a North American release has yet been scheduled).

What a delight! It is frankly a skilful deepening and slight expansion of Dunsany’s novel, rather than merely a screenplay based upon it. Dunsany’s book is the first-person narration of an unnamed man, a scientific writer, who uses the tokay on Dean Spanley in the hope of learning the answers to some of the mysteries of life. To this end, the narrator gets help from his friend Wrather, and late in the book, the Maharajah of Haikwar. The pleasure of Dunsany’s novel is primarily to be found in the Dean’s uncanny revelations about the inner life of a dog.

Alan Sharp names the narrator Fisk (he is played by Jeremy Northam), and centers the story upon Fisk’s relationship with a new character, Fisk’s elderly father (Peter O’Toole), bringing in a familial and emotional center that is nowhere to be found in Dunsany’s novel. Sam Neill plays the difficult part of Dean Spanley excellently, and the screenplay utilizes many of Dunsany’s own words in the Dean’s reminiscences. The character of Wrather is also slightly altered—he becomes Fisk’s supplier of the tokay, as well as a participant in the experiment. Northam and Neill give first-rate performances, but it is Peter O’Toole who steals the show as the elder Fisk. O’Toole has most of the best lines, too (all original to the screenplay, not lifted from the novel). It is not merely for sentimental reasons that I hope that the film garners some award nominations for O’Toole’s acting and for Alan Sharp’s screenplay.

Dean Spanley is one of those quiet, enchanting little films that come along too infrequently. Keep your eye out for it.

My Talks with Dean Spanley

The cover of the first edition of Lord Dunsany's My Talks with Dean Spanley (London: William Heinemann, 1936), left, has always seemed garish to me. Trying to translate the central conceit of the novel into an image for advertising purposes must be difficult, and this one succeeds only in appearing laughable. The cover to the American edition (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1936), right, utilizes the frontispiece illustration drawn by Robert Ball. It's is not especially attractive, and only slightly better. S. H. Sime contributed the frontispiece to the London edition, his last illustration for a Dunsany book, top. While it is a delightful illustration that does indeed capture the spirit of the book, I'm not sure that it would have made a successful cover illustration. (Click on the illustrations for larger views.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Arthur Conan Doyle Exhibit at the University of Michigan

Yesterday I was in Ann Arbor, researching at the University of Michigan libraries. Displayed in the elevators at the graduate library was an eye-catching poster about the current exhibition in Special Collections, “Clues Beyond Sherlock Holmes”—the illustration on the poster also serves as the cover to the exhibition booklet (reproduced above). The exhibit showcases items from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Collection donated by alumnus Dr. Philip Parker, collected by Parker and his family, including his father Hyman Parker and his cousin Dr. Bruce Parker. The exhibit showcased Doyle’s interests and publications, from his war histories to his books on spiritualism, including items on the Cottingley Fairy photographs, as well as his historical novels and his immortal stories of Sherlock Holmes. This delightful exhibit continues through the end of this month. (I have a spare copy of the 32 page exhibition booklet, should a rabid Sherlockian wish to claim it.)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Demon of Brockenheim

Australian journals and periodicals are a largely untapped source of supernatural and fantastic fiction. This is a shame because there are some fascinating examples of the genre that have been forgotten. One such is the excessive gothic serial "The Demon of Brockenheim" which was serialised in The Australian Journal between April and October, 1877.
AUSTLIT, which provides useful synopses of stories and serials in The Ausralian Journal up to 1900, describes it as follows:
"In the town of Mayence, Germany a dark foreigner who speaks an unknown language is to be hung for the murder of Baron Von Brockenheim. A mysterious pilgrim attempts to bribe the gaoler to see him but fails. In his search for the prisoner he sees alchemical flames in a distant tower of the castle, and knowing thus that the Baron still lives he utters the terrible summoning cry of the Secret Tribunal, warning the Baron that he has been detected and justice must bedone. For the Baron had been due to appear before an ecclesial commission to answer charges of evil and illicit activity. The foreigner, emissary from Grenada's king, is executed and the pilgrim - his father - swears he will have the blood of the Baron's daughter in revenge. He is unaware that she had tried to save his son who had given her the magic ring of Mahmound in return ..."
The author of "The Demon" remains unknown. An advertisement in the March 1877 issue of The Australian Journal says, "We have much pleasure in intimating that in our next number will be commenced a sensational serial tale, by a well-known author, entitled "The Demon of Brockenheim; or, The Enchanted Ring." The well-known author may have been Mary Fortune, the Ireland-born author who wrote a regular detective series for The Australian Journal for 40 years, and who produced four gothic romances for the journal in succession throughout 1866, including "Clyzia the Dwarf." The Austalian writer/researcher, Lucy Sussex, has written extensively on Mary Fortune and has recently edited a selection of her tales for the Canberra-based Mulini Press. Another possible author is the prolific American, Sylvanus Cobb, whose tales were serialised in The Australian Journal, including "Wolfgang; or, The Wrecker's Beacon" in 1876.
The resourceful Australian bookdealer, John P. Quaine, bound up "Demon" and "Wolfgang" and advertised them in his 1931 catalogue of Bloods. The asking price, 7/6.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

“Classic Fantasists on Film”: William Hope Hodgson

There are three filmed adaptations of fiction by William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918), two of them being based on his most-anthologized short story “The Voice in the Night” (1907), and the third is from one of his short stories of the occult detective, Thomas Carnacki.

The first, chronologically, was a straightforward version of “A Voice in the Night” done in the U.S. as the twenty-fourth episode of the hour-long NBC television series Suspicion (1957-59), a rival to the more famous CBS series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62). In fact the rivalry perhaps instigated this production of Hodgson’s story, for after “A Voice in the Night” was reprinted in the July 1954 issue of Playboy magazine, it re-appeared soon afterwards in the anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV (1957). Broadcast on 24 March 1958, this episode had a small but distinguished cast and crew, most of whom became well-known in the industry. The cast of four included James Coburn and Patrick Macnee as the two sailors on the ship who hear the tale, and James Donald and Barbara Rush as the couple who are the victims of the fungus. The director was Arthur Hiller. The script is well-written and well-acted, and, though a black-and-white production, the program stands up well to the passage of time. This is the best and most effective of the three film productions made from Hodgson’s tales.

A further adaptation—indeed, a re-conceptualization—of “A Voice in the Night” is to be found in the Japanese film Matango (89 minutes, color, 1963). Hodgson’s story is reframed around a yacht trip taken by five Japanese men and two women. They become lost in a storm, land on a deserted island, and find a derelict ship filled with mold and fungus. As they starve, some begin to eat the mushrooms (matango), with results as found in Hodgson’s tale. It makes for a better-than-average B-movie, with decent special effects for its time, though it suffers from limited characterization and a barely adequate script. Nonetheless, a good deal of the creepiness of Hodgson’s story comes through effectively.

The final production is of “The Horse of the Invisible” (1910), one of the Carnacki stories. It was the fifth episode of season one of the U.K. television series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1971-73), first broadcast on 17 October 1971. A color production filling an hour time-slot, it starred Donald Pleasance as Carnacki, and Tony Steedman as Captain Hisgins. Both are dreadful, and the script itself isn’t very good either. The whole production has an over-earnestness that elicits sneers (or even laughter) rather than suspense.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

"Late Reviews"

Aiken, Conrad. Punch: The Immortal Liar: Documents in His History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921)

I read this short book because I had seen someone refer to it as “an astonishingly creepy foretaste of Ligotti.” So I was expecting it to be in prose, but actually it is a narrative poem, reworking the folklore of Punch from seventeenth century English puppet-shows. Certainly there are Thomas Ligotti-like ideas and elements, but the tone of the whole is entirely unlike anything of Ligotti’s, being both colloquial and jovial in its manner. It is a development from Aiken’s earlier poem “Senlin: A Biography,” in his volume The Charnel Rose (1918), which is demonstrably a influence on another great writer of weird fiction, Leonard Cline. Cline was in 1918 a reviewer for the Detroit News, and Aiken sent him an inscribed copy of The Charnel Rose on 19 November 1918. “Senlin” seems to have been the inspiration for Cline’s poem “Mad Jacob” (first published in Midland in January 1924, and collected in After-Walker (1930)). There is no evidence that Cline read Punch, but the book, interesting though it is, doesn’t really belong on the shelf next to Cline or to Ligotti. Aiken’s work has its own integrity and interest.

Robbins, Tod [Clarence Aaron Robbins, 1888-1949]. Close Their Eyes Tenderly, illustrated by Paule de Nize (Monaco: Editions Inter-Pub, [no date, but circa January 1947]).

Tod Robbins’s last novel is another curious piece of work, reworking the familiar Robbins theme of a man pursuing murder as a creative form of art. The twist this time is that the man—the wealthy, young Maxwell Jenks—finds a soulmate in Elaine Verez, with whom he plans and executes murders. Written with Robbins’s usual misanthopy and wry humor, this novel may be merely a curiosity, but it is an entertaining one.

Yellow Vengeance

Oriental villains were also a staple of British theatre. According to Steve Nicholson in The Censorship of British Drama, Chinese villains and their drug and torture businesses continued to be a staple ingredient of melodrama after melodrama in the 1920s and '30s. Admittedly, much of the popular drama of the day was inferior rubbish, roundly condemned by the Chinese community which frequently petitioned the Lord Chancellor's Office to have them banned. The Twister, licensed in 1928, was set in Chang's Torture Chamber and featured cocaine gangs. Another Chinese-dope melodrama was The Yellow Hand, licensed to the Bilston Hippodrome in 1929.

Another example of this type of drama is Yellow Vengeance, licensed to the Theatre Royal, Worthing, in 1928. In this play, Wong Koo, a brilliant Chinese doctor, injects the son of Gerard Pearson with tetanus in revenge for Pearson violated Koo's betrothed (who then committed suicide) when they were at Oxford together. It turns out that Koo is only bluffing, however, and his aim is to teach Pearson a moral lesson. According to the Lord Chancellor's Office it was an example of 'the Chinese rubbish play reduced to a very simple form.' The play's interest is that it was written by Evelyn Bradley, the theatre manager from Hove who wrote several 1930s cult thrillers under the name R.R. Ryan. Letters fom Bradley, whose stage name was Rex Ryan, indicate that a play about 'the Mandarin Wong Koo' was one of his.

For 150 years a system of censorship existed in Great Britain demanding that all plays be reviewed by the Lord Chamberlain before they could be licensed for public performance. Until the practice ended in 1968 a copy of every play was lodged with the Lord Chamberlain's Office, which are available for public access in the British Library, one of the great resources of literary and social history.