Archive

Monthly Archives: March 2014

Oh the sin of writing such words,—words which are clear as crystal, limpid and musical as bubbling springs, words which sparkle and glow like the poisoned diamonds of the Medicis! Oh the wickedness, the hopeless damnation of a soul who could fascinate and paralyze human creatures with such words,—words understood by the ignorant and wise alike, words which are more precious than jewels, more soothing than music, more awful than death!

– from ‘The Yellow Sign’

Thanks to references on True Detective, this eerie short story collection has experienced a surge in popularity over the last few weeks. And while the HBO series has created much debate over its own literary merit, it has certainly done its viewers a favour by introducing them to The King in Yellow. I’m something of a visitor to the horror-story genre – in high school I was a sucker for R.L. Stine, but that’s about as far as my interest in bookish murder and mayhem went. So reading Chalmers’ stories was a completely new experience, and one that left me with a much greater respect for the chilling power of words. The King in Yellow is the sort of horror that hits you in a deep and lingering place. Not with blood and guts, but with a dread of more abstract – and also more inescapable – terrors.

The King in Yellow was first published in 1895, but its influence has continued well into the twenty-first century, inspiring writers such as H.P. Lovecraft and Nic Pizzolatto (creator of True Detective). The collection includes ten stories, though only the first four (‘The Repairer of Reputations’, ‘The Mask’, ‘In the Court of the Dragon’, and ‘The Yellow Sign’) directly reference the Yellow King. The second half of the collection is far less sinister, and seems linked to the first through setting (Paris) and character type (artists), rather than theme. Dividing the first and second halves of the collection is a group of poems of an ambiguous and unsettling nature. These poems seem to mark the shift from deep, existential horror to something a little softer – a gradual lightening of mood, like a slow ascent from insanity to sanity.

The first four stories are preoccupied with The King in Yellow – a fictional play that (upon being read) drives people mad. We are presented with bits and pieces of the play – mentions of a lost city called Carcosa where there are black stars, twin suns, and strange moons; a sinister character known as the Stranger (who may or may not also be the ‘tattered’ Yellow King); and a second Act that is apparently too terrible to be described. The fact that we are not privy to the whole play is clever writing on Chalmers’ part – he leaves it up to our own imaginations to join the creepy dots, resulting in a horror that is personal and unique to each of us, and thus infinitely scarier. Objectively, however, the fear and madness that The King in Yellow unleashes seems to be of an existential nature. It is a book of “beautiful, stupendous creation”, one character notes, “terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth”. The horror of The King in Yellow is not unnatural – perhaps it is the realisation of brutal yet universal truths that the human mind is incapable of handling. The true immensity of the universe (and our own insignificance by comparison); or the absolute inevitability of age and death. There is something of the Sublime about the way Chalmers’ characters react to reading The King in Yellow – a feeling of terror and awe that is reflective of Shelley’s poem ‘Mont Blanc’ (“Now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom/ – now lending splendour”). Chalmers’ characters, however, are not able to find salvation in the beauty of the truth they are confronted with. Instead, they are destroyed by it.

Aside from the inclusion of the sinister play, Chalmers uses a variety of other devices to create an uneasy tone in these stories. His writing is beautifully simple, and he uses metaphor sparely but perfectly:

For those poisoned words had dropped slowly into my heart, as death-sweat drops upon a bed-sheet and is absorbed.

There are also a number of eerie connections between the stories, creating the sense that these terrifying encounters are not subjective but are part of a larger, horrible world. Chalmers makes deft use of first person narration, drawing the reader deep into the psyche of his tormented characters. He creates characters that are truly creepy in appearance, as well – a watchman who resembles a coffin-worm, a devilish organist with “a thin bent arm” reminiscent of “instruments which lie in the disused torture-chambers of mediaeval castles”. And finally, the writer draws careful parallels between the greater thematic horror (embodied in the awful play) and the individual turmoil in each character’s life. From ‘The Mask’:

The mask of self-deception was no longer a mask for me, it was a part of me. Night lifted it, laying bare the stifled truth below; but there was no one to see except myself, and when the day broke the mask fell back again of its own accord.

I thought, too, of the King in Yellow wrapped in the fantastic colours of his tattered mantle, and that bitter cry of Cassilda, “Not upon us, oh King, not upon us!”

I finished this collection fascinated, haunted, and vaguely mystified. I suspect these stories will stay with me, and that over time their dots will begin to connect until I’m faced with my own truth about The King in Yellow. A slightly unnerving thought…

You can read the full text of The King in Yellow at Project Gutenberg. Read more about True Detective’s use of the stories here.

This review contains spoilers.

Touch darkness and darkness touches you back.

I started watching the HBO series True Detective largely because of Internet hype (The Atlantic wondered if it was the best show on TV, and it was praised with the same level of enthusiasm as The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad). I kept watching True Detective because it was very good, and seemed to be taking the cop drama genre in a new direction. I finished watching True Detective feeling let down (and regretting having gotten caught up in so much online speculation) but also hopeful for television’s future.

True Detective is an American crime drama created and written by Nic Pizzolatto, and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. The format is different to that of most TV dramas: a single season (eight episodes) makes up one complete story. Season one (just finished) follows detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) on a 17 year hunt for a serial killer that began in 1995. A second unique aspect of this season is its multiple timelines. In 2012 Hart and Cohle are interviewed (separately) by detectives Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts) and Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles) in an effort to understand new and possibly related murders. Through these interviews we are taken back to 1995, when Hart and Cohle first started working together.

There’s so much that is good about this show (part of the reason why, I think, many people were disappointed with its conclusion). To start with, the performances are flawless. Harrelson’s portrayal of the classic tough guy cop is perfectly understated, and gives a sense of aggression always bubbling just below the surface. McConaughey is also excellent (though at times he overdoes it with the mumbling) as the philosophizing renegade with a dark past and a penchant for existential despair (my favourite Cohle moment is when he tells a woman who has just confessed to the murder of her child: “If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself”). Visually, also, True Detective is spectacular – aerial shots of the rich, green bayous of Louisiana, an abandoned overgrown church, the terrifying maze in the final episode, and who could forget the stunning sequence at the end of episode three? Finally, perhaps the most successful aspect of True Detective is its unsettling atmosphere, created largely by Cohle’s nihilistic musings on the nature of existence, his sinister hallucinations (the by-products of time he spent taking drugs undercover), and references to The King in Yellow (short stories by Robert W. Chambers about a fictional play that has the power to send its readers insane: review of this eerie collection coming soon!).

This wonderfully sinister tone, however, may have been created too well, and was possibly what let True Detective down in the end. As soon as The King in Yellow and Cohle’s visions were introduced many viewers (myself included) began to wonder if True Detective was more than just a cop show. Up until this point True Detective had been a very good, very enjoyable crime drama – but suddenly everyone got excited about what it might become, rather than what it was. Expectations were raised, and raised further after each episode thanks to the Internet. The show began to feel a lot more ambiguous and surreal – less like The Wire and more like Twin Peaks (a series I’ve been watching alongside True Detective – review coming soon). I never expected True Detective to totally cross genres, but its literary references and symbolic elements did lead me to hope for a deeper exploration of ideas. Perhaps, I thought, Pizzolatto is using the cop drama format as a vehicle for the contemplation of the nature of the universe, or the nature of evil. It would have been a nice twist on the title of the series, which comes from the clichéd, pulp fiction genre of detective stories. But in the end True Detective left a lot of ideas hanging, and a lot of hopeful viewers (including me) unsatisfied.

True Detective disappointed me in two ways. First, I felt that the finale did not live up to the thematic tone of the rest of the show; something Zack Beauchamp in this article from Think Progress accurately calls a “betrayal of … atmosphere.” True Detective – unintentionally, I’m sure – led me to believe it was about more than it was, and as a result I felt sort of tricked. I agreed with Spencer Kornhaber from The Atlantic’s True Detective roundtable discussion when he wrote – after the final episode – that “In retrospect … it all feels like the show and its viewers had been studying for a test that never came.”

Second, I felt let down by the resolution of True Detective’s narrative. Structurally, the season started out well: in episode five we glimpsed an element of unreliable narration that was very interesting, and a larger conspiracy involving politics and religion started to reveal itself. In the end, however, none of these threads were (for me, at least) satisfyingly tied up. The ultimate conclusion of the season, also, felt far too quick and seemed to come almost out of the blue; the killer tracked down thanks an obscure clue conveniently noticed in the last episode. The final scene was far too simplistic – hearing Rust Cohle sum up his 17 year ordeal as an age old battle between light and dark felt like something from an altogether different show. And Cohle’s further admission that he believes the light is winning was a much too abrupt and easy transformation for a character that for most of the show seemed to be teetering on the edge of complete despair.

I was hoping, during the finale, for one of those surprising but inevitable moments; a feeling of “I didn’t see that coming, but it makes complete sense that it should end that way!” That didn’t happen, and I felt that that True Detective – a beautifully made, dark, complex show – didn’t get the ending it deserved. I suppose the question is – does it really matter? If I enjoyed everything up until the final episode, can I really say that I was disappointed? I think the answer is yes. So much of my enjoyment of a series (or a novel or film) comes from anticipation. I become so invested in the characters, in the plot, in the setting that I can’t wait to see what happens. And if the climax doesn’t fit, then the journey as a whole loses some of its lustre. Certainly an amount of my dissatisfaction comes from reading an overabundance of Internet articles, and I do agree (to some extent) with Pizzolatto when he comments in this interview that “There are … those who will not be satisfied with any finale unless Rust Cohle steps out of their TVs, into their living rooms, and shoots them in the foot as some kind of meta-statement”. Putting all of that aside, I still felt that True Detective was missing something. And I think it’s important to voice this feeling, because television is getting very, very good – and constructive criticism can only help it get better. As a medium, TV has so much potential for brilliant storytelling: shorter seasons allow greater scope for developing character and plot than film, while at the same time avoiding the risk of running too long and losing the narrative arc. I was disappointed with True Detective because – somewhat paradoxically – I liked it so much, and I got a glimpse of just how incredible it could have been. Hopefully this season will learn from its mistakes. I will certainly be watching season two, and I’m excited to see how television in general continues to evolve.

True Detective first aired on HBO in 2014. A second season looks very likely, with Nic Pizzolatto writing but with a new director and actors.

Alan Partridge: … [A] man who’d gone paintballing, realised he’d left his goggles at reception but carried on anyway …

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is by far the funniest film I’ve seen this year – possibly last year, as well. I really did laugh until I cried. There are so many genuinely hilarious moments that I missed half of them the first time around and had to re-watch the film straight away. Alpha Papa is one of those films that has you quoting it for hours afterwards. And while the writing is excellent, it’s the delivery of all those wonderful one-liners that makes Alpha Papa very, very funny.

I was introduced to Alan Partridge (a fictional radio and television presenter played by Steve Coogan) through the 1997 TV series I’m Alan Partridge. The character was first created in 1991 by Coogan, Armando Iannucci, and Peter Baynham from BBC Radio 4. Alan Partridge started out as a sports reporter on On the Hour – a radio show that transferred to television in 1994 as The Day Today. For twenty-three years Alan Partridge has been a regular presence – in varying formats – on British television (Coogan was 26 when he first began playing the character, and he is now 47). During that time viewers have watched Alan – an awkward, semi-celebrity with some serious insecurities and a large ego – grow and change. Since 1994 Alan has been through the breakup of a marriage, estrangement from his kids, career troubles, and a somewhat lacklustre ‘comeback’. In 2013 Alan is 55 years old and not quite the same Partridge as he was back in 1994. As Coogan notes in this interview with the Guardian, Alan is now much more comfortable in his own skin. His political correctness has matured somewhat (in the film he tells his radio sidekick to “Never criticise Muslims. Only Christians. And Jews a little bit”) and he has settled into the habits of middle age (“I should be at home in bed watching funny videos on YouTube”). For long-time fans of the character it is satisfying to see how Alan has grown.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (released in the U.S. as Alan Partridge) sees Alan hosting Mid Morning Matters (“music and chat for the Norfolk generation”) on his local radio station, North Norfolk Digital. Between songs Alan takes calls from listeners on a variety of inane and absurd topics, such as “Which is the worst monger? Fish, iron, rumour, or war” and “Which vegetable has the greatest torsional strength, i.e. which can withstand the greatest twisting load before rupture?” Alan is accompanied by Sidekick Simon, played by Tim Key – an actor with a great sense of comic timing that perfectly complements Coogan’s. North Norfolk Digital is in the process of being taken over by new media conglomerate Gordale, and when a disgruntled former DJ storms the station and takes hostages, Alan becomes the mediator. Alan Partridge is the face of the siege. Alan Partridge is “Siege-Face”.

The funniest moments in Alpha Papa come from Coogan’s character rather than the story itself. It is Alan’s rambling and (more often than not) uncensored way of viewing and relating to the world that gets me giggling uncontrollably. For example, when he refers to the loss of older listeners as a “grey exodus – a Grexodus”, or responds to a question about his mental health:

Do I look like I suffer from panic attacks? I’ve had one panic attack, in a carwash. It was a perfect storm of no sleep, no wife, and angry brushes whirring towards me.

So much of the brilliance of these moments, however, lies in the way Coogan delivers his lines, and becomes the character. It is clear that Coogan has a deep understanding of Alan – a man who is often selfish and egotistical, and yet still, somehow, likeable. Coogan points out that we sympathise with Alan because we see ourselves in him. He is who we might be without the self-edit function. We recognise common human traits in his flailing attempts to be good, in his guilty conscience when he fails, and in his anxious nose-whistle.

For me, Alpha Papa is an immensely successful film. The story – while perhaps not life-altering – is entertaining; the performances are excellent (Felicity Montagu as Alan’s long-suffering assistant Lyn Benfield and Simon Greenall as Michael the Geordie should be mentioned here); and the laughs are consistent throughout. I highly recommend you find this, watch it, and then watch it again. As Alan Partridge says – “Enjoy me!”

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa was released in 2013, and was directed by Declan Lowney. The screenplay was written by Steve Coogan, Peter Baynham, Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons, and Armando Iannucci. You can see more of Steve Coogan in the series The Trip and in the 2013 film Philomena.

Death is the One Big Mistake that none of us EVER plans to make. That’s why the bran muffins and the colonoscopies. It’s how come you take vitamins and get Pap smears. No, not you – you’re never going to die – so now you feel all superior to me. Well, go ahead and think that. Keep smearing your skin with sunblock and feeling yourself for lumps. Don’t let me spoil the Big Surprise.

In my early twenties I went through a Palahniuk phase. I loved Fight Club, raced through Choke (though the film was not as good), and couldn’t put down Survivor. I recall enjoying the rawness of Palahniuk’s writing, the unpleasant yet sympathetic characters, the very dark humour, and the steadily boiling underbelly of anger and anarchy. So when I picked up Damned last week I expected to be hooked from page one. I wasn’t. I’m still not sure whether my tastes have changed (I’m probably not as awkward and angry as I was at twenty-three) or Palahniuk has just missed the mark with this book. Either way I found Damned – while entertaining enough – to be ultimately disappointing.

Published in 2011, Palahniuk wrote Damned while his mother was dying of cancer. The author seems to have found some comfort in the plight of his thirteen-year-old protagonist Madison Spencer, a girl who has been consigned to hell after (we are told) dying of a marijuana overdose. Madison is the child of billionaire-celebrity parents, an awkward and irreverent pre-teen with “stubby legs … pop-bottle eyeglasses … crooked nose and flat chest.” Her experience of hell is a twisted mix of Judy Blume’s famous young adult novel and the 1985 film The Breakfast Club, with healthy portions of bodily fluids and demonic torture thrown in. Damned ends fairly abruptly, and Madison’s adventures continue in the 2013 sequel Doomed (which I have yet to read).

While Palahniuk is certainly not the first author to write about hell (Dante – The Divine Comedy – and Anthony McGowan – Hellbent – are just a couple of very different writers that come to mind) in Damned he presents a new and original interpretation. In Palahniuk’s hell the damned work as telemarketers, calling the living right on dinnertime to ask for their help with inane and endless surveys. The unfortunate inhabitants of Palahniuk’s hell are forced to endure repeated screenings of The English Patient, and are frequently devoured by wandering demons. Damned is also – like all of Palahniuk’s work – strewn with biting social satire, the most intense of which is aimed at Madison’s family and their hypocritical Hollywood lifestyle. In one passage Madison describes what it was like to go to Ecology Camp instead of Sunday School:

[E]very single kid got there on a separate private jet, burning through about a gazillion fossil-fuel gallons of dinosaur juice the likes of which this planet will never see again. Each child was borne aloft; provisioned with his or her body weight in organic fig bars and free-trade yogurt snacks sealed within single-use Mylar packaging designed not to biodegrade before the future date of NEVER …

But the most interesting and important aspect of Damned is the way it encourages us to confront death – “the Big Surprise.” As Madison – from her hellish phone bank – comforts the terminally ill on Earth and convinces them to accept their mortality, so too does she remind us – her readers – of our own eventual demise:

Earth is earth. Dead is dead. You’ll find out for yourself soon enough. It won’t help the situation for you to get all upset.

Madison’s openness about death is refreshing, and helps us to reframe our ideas about what it means to be dead (or alive). Both states are inherently neither good nor bad – they take on the value we give them.

While Damned offers a vivid setting and a humorous and likeable main character, the narrative as a whole doesn’t live up to its potential. As this article in the LA Times points out, Palahniuk has failed to build a good story around the details. I felt that the plot on the whole was choppy and confusing, and lacked focus. I didn’t understand why Madison ended up making two separate journeys across hell to reach Satan’s headquarters – the second trip felt redundant, and could have been merged with the first. Many of the more disgusting passages failed to further the plot or enhance the characters, and seemed thrown in purely for shock value. Characters were not fleshed out enough, particularly the members of the damned Breakfast Club, who end up serving as little more than mouthpieces for explaining the workings of hell. Even Madison felt somewhat inconsistent, resulting in her personal transformation not carrying the weight that it could have. The novel is also packed with repetition. Each chapter begins with the phrase – “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison”, which is a clever subversion of Judy Blume’s title at first, but quickly becomes grating. Madison is also constantly reminding the reader of how smart she is: “Yes, I know the word insidious” (p. 4); “And, yes, I know the word gender” (p. 13); “Yeah, I know the word construct” (p. 17); “Yes, I know the word excrement” (p. 19) etc.

On the whole, the writing in Damned lacks poetry (and there’s no reason death and destruction and excrement-waterfalls can’t be poetic), and the ideas lack cohesion. There are some very funny moments, and some moments of great insight. But they are not enough to hold the story together. I’m hoping the sequel is closer in style and substance to the Palahniuk books I remember.

Chuck Palahniuk is the author of eleven previous novels including Fight Club, the film version of which was directed by David Fincher. More information about Palahniuk and his work can be found at his website.