Friday, September 14, 2007

“Uncle Silas” by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu (1865)

We forget sometimes that writers were producing popular literature hundreds of years ago, especially when a novel that’s been around for a century or two is still in print. Longevity makes it a “classic,” but readability and a thumping good narrative are what give it longevity.

Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s “Uncle Silas” was one of the last significant attempts at a full-blooded gothic novel after Maturin’s “Melmoth the Wanderer” in 1820 and before the phenomenal revival of the form with Stoker’s “Dracula” in 1897.

As the story opens, young Maud Ruthyn is living a blandly idyllic life (you figure it out) with her wealthy father. When he dies suddenly, she is told by his odd Swedenborgian friend Dr. Bryerly that she must go to live at the run-down estate Bartram-Haugh, the home of her paternal Uncle Silas. Silas will care for her until she reaches her majority, at which time she will inherit her father’s money. In the intervening years, Silas will be paid out of the estate for her upkeep.

One problem: if her own father was eccentric, Maud’s uncle is nuttier than a rest stop at Stuckey’s. In fact, most of his neighbors think that, years before, he slaughtered a Mr. Clark, to whom he owed money, as Clark slept in one of Bartram’s guest rooms.

Two problem: if Maud dies before she gets her inheritance, Silas gets it all. If she marries Silas’ repulsive son Dudley, Silas gets it all by taking it away from Dudley.

The novel is an interesting blend of the gothic—detailed landscape description, characters who wear evil the way Paris Hilton wears stupid, and a crumbling, near-ruin of a country house—and the more popular for the time sensation novel—a domestic setting, mysteries to be solved, and a sinister servant in the person of the French tutor Madame de la Rougierre. LeFanu plays with the supernatural—he is the author of the wonderful vampire story “Carmilla,” so he could play with the best of ‘em—but the book is really a study in psychological suspense.

Yes, the dialogue can get pretty stilted in that patented second-tier mid-Victorian author sort of way, and the three-volume stretching is all too obvious when Maud and Silas have confrontation after confrontation that are all cut from the same pattern: Maud accuses someone in the house of tormenting her, Silas listens and then dismisses her complaint as coming from just a silly little girl, she becomes angry, he becomes sullen and insulting, she rushes from the room. It’s the sort of thing that comes with the territory, but it is more than made up for in the parts that LeFanu could really get into to—those subtle hints that the mold and rot of the house and grounds have infested the souls of Silas and his household.

Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe the corruption and madness that have been growing in Silas all his life have tainted his physical surroundings.

Every fan of modern horror owes it to him/herself to look backward now and again to see where the contemporary genre came from. Many of the original gothic novels are deadly slow and about as chilling as a midday hike across Death Valley, but “Uncle Silas” isn’t one of them. Many of today’s go-for-the-jugular grossout-a-paloozas aren’t near as creepy.

“Suburban Legends: True Tales of Murder, Mayhem, and Minivans” by Sam Stall (2007)

One of the surprise movie hits of early 2007 is a teen variation on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window called Disturbia. The title is a hybrid of “disturb” and “suburbia,” and the picture’s tagline is: “Every killer lives next door to someone.”

According to Sam Stall’s Suburban Legends, it’s not just killers that put the “br-r-r-r” in “suburban.” To hear him tell it, America’s small towns and bedroom communities are jam-packed with ghosts, disguised aliens, poltergeists, cryptozoological monsters, gardens/basements/walls hiding rotting corpses, and enough sickening depravity to make Eli Roth reach for a barf bag. Imagine Wally and the Beaver chopping Ward into manageable chucks and feeding them into a wood chipper, and then keeping June locked in the basement, only letting her out to be used as the sacrifice in a Black Mass. And then blaming their actions on the suspicion that their house was built on the site of an Indian burial ground.

And we escaped from the inner city for this?

Stall, who is a solid, amusing if not overwhelming professional writer, divides this collection of petit guignol anecdotes into seven sections, each one emphasizing a particular horror to suburban homeownership—“Inhumanly Bad Houseguests” (spooks), “The Ghoul Next Door” (murder), “Hellish Commutes” (haunted highways), “Backyard Beasts” (non-human spooks), “Really Desperate Housewives” (mad mamas), “Lawn of the Dead” (buried bodies), and “Sundry Cul-de-Sacrileges (everything else).

All of these stories are “true” and many of them are overly familiar from Travel Channel spookshows and A&E’s true crime lineup. In fact, some of Stall’s short chapters are so brief I suspect all the research he did was watch “Weird America” and “City Confidential.” That said, if you like this kind of thing, you may appreciate having these tales collected into one easily and quickly read volume. In the grand ol’ American way, there is far more violence here than sex so this is a pretty safe buy for kids who are passing through that love-the-macabre stage.

The biggest pleasure I got from the book was finding the source stories for some stuff that has been sold as fiction. For instance, there’s a tale here of a haunted windbreaker that was sold on eBay for $31.50, the obvious inspiration for Joe Hill’s first novel Heart Shaped Box. There are also several what-the-hell-is-going-on-here stories that appear to have been fed into Tobe Hooper’s movie Poltergeist. And the adventures of a man named John List, who murdered his entire family and then just moved on to wed and start another one, look like they may have had an influence on Donald E. Westlake’s screenplay for that terrific, underappreciated thriller The Stepfather.

My favorite, though, has to be the tale of poor, sad Philip Schuth, who lived a Geinishly lonely existence with his home-bound mother. When she died, he put her corpse in the freezer and kept it there for four-and-a-half years. She was discovered after Philip got in trouble with the neighbors for smacking a kid who was trespassing on his property. Schuth went to prison, where he acquired the nickname “Frosty.” He was immortalized when an entrepreneur began selling refrigerator magnets with the catch line “My Mom is Cooler Than Yours.”

The book is fun and Stall’s ironic narration lets you know that he doesn’t take all this stuff too seriously, nor does he buy every ghost story at face value. Reading the book is like sitting around the backyard grill when the sun is going down and Uncle Doug starts telling the kids why the old DeFeo house two streets over is said to be haunted. Everyone has a chuckle until Aunt Alice finds a fingernail in her burger.

"I Walked With a Zombie" (1943)

“Actually, it's very difficult for a reviewer to give something called ‘I Walked With a Zombie’ a good review.” So wrote producer Val Lewton in a letter to his sister. It’s one of the few times his instincts about film failed him. Nothing could be easier than writing positive things about any of the nine horror films he produced—and frequently wrote under one of his several pseudonyms—for RKO between “Cat People” in 1942 and “Bedlam” in 1946.

“I Walked With a Zombie,” admittedly a title that only a pulp magazine editor could love, was the second of Lewton’s films as producer of RKO’s newly formed horror movie unit. The idea then as now was to make chillers on the cheap that would return healthy profits. To keep costs down, Lewton relied more on lighting and sound to create an atmosphere of dread and unease.

The film begins with lush, romantic theme music more appropriate to a woman’s picture than a tale of voodoo. “Zombie” is what might be called now a “re-imagining” of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.” Frances Dee stars as Betsy Connell, a Canadian nurse who takes a job caring for the wife of a sugar plantation owner in the West Indies. On the boat taking her to her new home, she meets Paul Holland (Tom Conway, who appeared in two other Lewton thrillers). Holland is suffering from acute weltschmertz and tells Betsy that the beauty of nature only serves to disguise “death and decay.” She has no idea that he is her employer or she might have been tempted to return to Canada.

Just about the time the audience begins to think of Paul as Byronic, someone in the film describes him with just that word.

During her first night at the plantation, Betsy is told that she will meet the wife for whom she is to care the next day. Paul tells her nothing of Jessica’s condition, which just adds to the atmosphere of disquiet. Later that night, Betsy awakens to the sound of a woman weeping. Looking out her window, she sees a thin, blond woman in white wandering in what appears to be a trance around the garden. She follows the woman into an old tower. Inside, the woman begins to stalk her, completely without reaction as Betsy screams. Paul and some servants show up and the woman is led away. Betsy explains about trying to find out who was weeping and why, and Paul tells her that she must have been dreaming.

The next night, Paul’s brother Wes (James Ellison) and his mother (Edith Barrett) join the dinner party. The brothers get into an argument about what’s best to do for Jessica, who was the woman Betsy followed into the tower, and it becomes clear that Wes is in love with his brother’s wife. The subject of voodoo comes up and Paul dismisses it by saying that “superstition is a contagious thing.” He is repressed and soulfully unhappy, but Betsy is falling under his sway.

Betsy finds companionship with the servants, who are all happy and content. What at first seems to be a sad period stereotype is soon seen to be a disguise adopted by the house crew to hide their involvement with voodoo. Alma, the maid (Teresa Harris), suggests that a voodoo priest might be able to help the non-communicative Jessica (Christine Gordon). Betsy, knowing that Paul would never approve but thinking that it couldn’t hurt, decides to take Jessica to a voodoo ceremony that night.

The journey of the two women through the fields of sugar cane constitutes the film’s most celebrated sequence. Betsy is dressed sensibly and Jessica is wearing her standard loose fitting and flowing white gown, her blond hair whipped by the breeze. Director Jacques Tourneur puts no music behind this dark walk. We hear the wind as it moves through the cane. The camera moves with it, showing us the women as they progress along a path through the stalks.

The wind picks up as Betsy and Jessica move along from the safety of the plantation deeper into the heart of darkness. They pass the corpse of a goat, hanging from a tree, swaying across their path. They see an animal skull, and then a human one. Betsy’s pace increases as does the sound of the wind. Perhaps the sequence’s greatest shock comes with the sudden appearance of a skeletal male zombie blocking the trail. Given the proper signal supplied to Betsy by Alma, he allows the women to pass.

At the ceremony, the true nature of Jessica’s ailment is revealed.

Later, at the plantation house, Wes admits that he believes Jessica to be one of the walking dead. Paul denies this, believing just as fervently that the loneliness of living on the island has driven her mad. Since he has now fallen in love with Betsy, he demands that she leave so the same fate won’t befall her.

From this point, final secrets are revealed, the inevitable occurs, and the film hastens to its romantically gothic conclusion.

There are no sudden shock moments in “I Walked With a Zombie,” but that wasn’t Lewton’s idea of how a horror movie should be constructed. He believed in building tension from the opening scene, and everything in the movie is one more brick in the final structure. Cues to upcoming scares are not given on the soundtrack. The unexpected appearance of the thin zombie on the path to the voodoo ceremony is not underscored by an orchestral bang any more than turning around in a dark house to suddenly be confronted by a walking dead man would be emphasized by any sound other than your own gasp in real life. The wind and the steady drone of the surf are enough.

Lewton wasn’t interested in scourging the skin from your bones—he just wanted to get under it. Fans of the modern no-holds-barred horror movie may find his films slow and too quiet to be effective, but connoisseurs of psychological chillers will find much to admire in his approach.

This is definitely not Romero or Fulci, but Lewton wasn’t interested in making audiences scream and then forget their phony movie fears on their way across the parking lot to their cars. He wanted to make the experience of walking in the dark as terrifying outside the theater as it had been inside. The bleak, melancholy dread of “I Walked With a Zombie” stays with you for a very long time.