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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Saturday, October 22, 2005

John Rah

This started as an attempt to list a few genre fiction recommendations with pithy commentary; now it's become mini-reviews and you can do as you please with them.

The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson. If H.P. Lovecraft were all he's cracked up to be he might have written something like this; a peculiar novel that reels from mystical visions of our place in the cosmos to attack-of-the-monsters adventure, then to further visions of the planet's future. The conclusion suggests that the mysteries and terrors of the novel are more closely interconnected than is immediately obvious. This book was a clear influence on Lovecraft, who said it would be a perfect novel if only it didn't have those dreadful three pages about icky mushy kissing stuff. If you, unlike Lovecraft, aren't a mewling little racist gimp who's scared of anything with a vagina then you probably won't mind the brief allusions to lost love, especially since they heighten the stakes for the unnamed protagonist.

There's a comic book version by famed cartoonist Robert Corben, and it's kind of like the Emerson, Lake and Palmer versions of orchestral compositions; bombastic but interesting. It's really good Corben; his three-dimensional monsters have real, sculptural mass, as if they've been carved out of enormous slabs of meat. Writer Simon Revelstroke contributes the script, which rings I-hope-deliberate changes on the plot (changing the protagonist's frightened sister into an incestuous amazon, and giving short shrift to the more philosophical passages of the novel.

The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake. Tolkien's all well and good, but Brian Aldiss's comparision of LotR with Gormenghast (In Billion-Year Spree, his critical history of SF and Fantasy literature) makes a pretty stong case for prefering the latter. Certainly lovers of dense, ornate language will find more to love in Peake's work, but the languid plotlessness that characterizes much of the tale will test the patience of readers who are impatient for someone to make a savings throw. In fact most of the first book, Titus Groan, consists of richly poetic introductions to the people and places of Gormenghast, a crumbling city-palace where a gallery of grotesques carry out ancient, useless rituals. The second novel, Gormenghast, is where most of the actual story takes place as the british class struggle filters through a sort of euro-Chinese culture (Peake's father was a diplomat to China, and little Mervyn spent much of his boyhood there.) In fact the more I learn about the British class system the better I understand, and the more I respect, this story. Book Three, Titus Alone, is sadly unfinished due to the cerebal palsy that wrecked Peake's health and had him consigned to a sanitarium. The published book is essentially a first draft, and the result is a bit like looking at unpolished marble fresh from the quarry after touring a brilliantly designed and perfectly constructed mansion of polished marble. Angsy, callow teen Titus's misadventures in the outside world seem a bit random to this reader, although there's a wonderfully wicked sequence in which a spurned lover forces him into a nasty parody of Gormenghast. An absurdly over-the-top misogyny shows up here; one wonders if Peake would have softened it in rewrites or if this was a new development. While his female characters in the other books were terribly limited creatures they nonetheless had positive qualities, however compensatory, and one could sense some degree of authorial approval for them.

The BBC miniseries is a mixed bag; it boasts a dream cast, splendid costumes and some ideal sets. The special effects are more than a bit Doctor Who-ish and the action scenes are complete writeoffs (what few action sequences there are in the books are wonderfully choreographed, begging to be realized with sophisticated staging that they just don't get from the Beeb.) And while the sets are good one never really gets a strong sense of place; in the books the many rooms and halls of Gormenghast are as important as the freaks who inhabit them, and much is made of how all the seperate locations interrelate. The miniseries needed a director who could, like Peter Jackson or Peter Greenaway, not only show us a bunch of cool sets but show us how people moved through them, and how they all intertwined. There's a making-of book that lets us really soak in the costumes and sets; it's actually a lot closer to the ideal visual representation of Gormenghast the the choppily editid show. What's more, key dramatic sequences and grace notes from the books are attempted but muffed; Titus's pseudo-baptismal ritual takes a taboo turn that is the climax of the first novel, but is so badly presented on the miniseries that it doesn't register at all. I suspect the direction's to blame; the script itself is a praiseworthy bit of work, turning a sprawling and epic 700 page slab of prose into a tight four-hour tale, not by doing violence to the plot but by restructuring the plot points and finding ways to blend elements which in the books were handled seperately. Read at least the two finished books; then watch the mini for the cast and clothes. (The opening theme song's a musical setting of a poem from the books and is an ideal opener.) The making-of documentary on the DVD has some interesting and insightful comments from the cast.

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