He Who Made the Lamb

If everything worked out, you wouldn’t be reading this.

You may know what’s happened.  It may already be obvious — maybe you’ve seen it on TV or something.  But if it happens in the way I think it’s going to happen, I half-suspect people won’t be spending their time reading blogs.  But maybe it will be quiet to begin with, and no one will notice.  At least for a while.  With as crazy and things have been lately, I wouldn’t be surprised.

This is an auto-update.  I could have stopped it.  If I’m safe, you wouldn’t be reading this.

I  was supposed to leave London today.  Or at least, I was scheduled to.

I looked out the window earlier, just to check.  Camilla wasn’t there, like I expected her to be — maybe like I’d hoped she’d be — but there was the bum.  I recognized him immediately.  I don’t live in an area of London where you see a lot of beggars.  They tend to stick to the tourist and financial districts, not the residential suburbs.  But I knew it was him, even as easily as I would have recognized him if I saw him back in Kensington.  I recognized him without seeing his face: The same old green bomber jacket, the same fleece hood, and the rags of shirts and pants or skirts looped around him.  It’s fairly warm here right now, and he should be sweltering.  I don’t think he is.

He’s waiting.

Terror has a human form, someone once said.  And Secrecy the human dress.

So okay.  The beginning.

Ignacio Muez Ajedra.

Born in Barcelona in 1868, the son of a wealthy and fashionable couple.  He was well educated, spoke Italian, French, German, and English, and could read Greek.  He developed an interest in poetry at a young age and his class and parents’ own interest in the arts assured its encouragement.  After a time he grew bored of Spain and desired to see the world; he traveled in Europe.

He came to London in 1889.

He stayed.

In 1900 he published a book of English prose and verse called The Chameleon.  It was a collection of various short stories and poems he’d written during his travels, though he translated them all almost entirely once he’d settled in London.  He loved England; he loved London most of all.  The city entranced him.  Despite his parents’ pleas, he never returned to Spain.  During World War I he evidently served in some low bureaucratic capacity in the War Propaganda Bureau, most likely a position procured for him by his circle of writerly contacts — for he maintained friendly if tenuous ties with London writing communities despite never publishing a piece of fiction after The Chameleon.

At some point, he married.

At some point, he had a daughter.

He died in 1941 during the Blitz, at his home in Golders Green, just northwest of where I am right now.

Those are the basic facts.  Those are the things that would appear in his encyclopedia article if he had one, and if they were verifiable — which they largely are not.  Even more unverifiable are certain claims, conjectures, propositions, theories, whatever you want to call them, certain possibilities about Ignacio Muez Ajedra and his private dealings that may very well have damned us all.  Or maybe just me.

For instance, for the last four decades of his life, he worked tirelessly on an unfinished novel called He Who Made the Lamb.

And that novel was largely an attempt transcribe not his own thoughts, but the things whispered to him by the disembodied voices he heard in the empty tunnels of the London Underground.

*

It might be complete chance that I found Muez’s book The Chameleon in a shop off Leicester Square.  The again, it might not.  But in the end that’s unimportant, because I did find it, I did read it, and what has happened, has happened.

You’ll recall the strangest thing about Muez at the time I discovered him was that I couldn’t find anything on him — even Google failed to turn up anything worthwhile.  So despite the title story of the collection and the ending poem being especially intriguing, I was more or less resigned to letting the book remain something of an oddity.  It would be a conversation piece, something to pull off the shelf and show to people, even though there was nothing particularly valuable to say about it.

Then I started my job.

You probably remember me complaining about my internship.  Hell, at the time I wrote up those entries I thought working on data entry was the worst thing that could possibly happen to me.  And I guess, in a way, it was.

I worked for a poetry organization, a group whose goal is (as they put it) to “create a central position for poetry in the arts and continue to build new avenues to promote poets and poetry in Britain today.”  They’ve been active for about a century now, as it happens, and during that time they’ve had more than a few competitions.  Part of my work was to type up poems from the past hundred years for digital archival, with the eventual goal being free access to all award-winning poems on the organization’s website.  It was boring work, but better than updating databases, so I was glad to have it.

A few weeks into the job, when I was archiving the winners of a small contest in 1985, I discovered that one of the commended poets was a man named C.L. Klein.  His poem was called “Good Friday” and in general was very unremarkable — it was written as if the speaker were questioning another person, apparently an older man, a father or grandfather who had apparently died in some grave accident.  I remember clearly only the last two lines: “Did you know when you walked out the door? / Did the streets around you roar?”

The poem, just under the title, had an additional, smaller line: i.m. Ignacio Muez Ajedra.  In memoriam.

The organization keeps files not only on winners but every contest entrant, going back to the 70s, when they moved offices.  When I took my internship I signed a contract promising I wouldn’t use these archives to procure and/or release contact details of anyone.  But I couldn’t help it — I hated my job, of course, and felt no real obligation to honor the contracts I’d signed, and besides that, I’d found my first mention of Muez outside of his own book.  Someone else knew he existed.

So I looked up C(ameron) L(ee) Klein.  He had a Hammersmith address and a phone number that, like all UK phone numbers, appeared to me to be a random string of digits with no discernible pattern.

I called it on my lunch break, anyway.  A woman answered: “Hello?”

Hello, I said.  I was wondering if this was the number of the poet N.E. Klein?

A pause.  He’s dead, the woman told me.

I wasn’t expecting that and immediately realized how ridiculous I was being.  I apologized as best as I could, making up some story about how I was an aspiring poet and I’d found some work by him that I really admired, and again I was so sorry, I really was–

The woman didn’t buy it.  Klein was her father, he wrote only one poem that she knew of, and yes, it was “Good Friday”, and she didn’t think it was good enough by far for me to seek him out over it.

I expected her to hang up then, but she didn’t.  I can’t really say why, but I decided to tell her the truth — I told her about Ignacio Muez Ajedra.  I told her I had read his book.  “You found his book?” she asked quietly.  “In America?”  She’d picked up on my accent.

I told her no, I’d found the book in London.

“Good,” she said, and it struck me as strange at the time she would say that, and that she would sound so relieved, but I didn’t ask why.  Not then or any time afterward.

Instead I told her that I was actually intrigued by Muez’s book and had been hoping her father would be able to tell me something about him.  She laughed at that, saying her father would have been happy to tell me everything.  As it was, she would have to do the job.

After all, Muez was her great-grandfather.

But it was a long story, not one to be told over the phone.  Could we meet sometime?

How about that weekend?  At the Hammersmith Underground Station?

Sure.

And so that was how I met Camilla.

*

There’s a statue at the Hammersmith Underground.  I’ve seen it a few times and still don’t know what to make of it: three human figures, all standing together on a plinth.  They’re posed as if they might be dancers.  I’d seen the statue probably three or four times before I realized that none of these figures have faces; instead of discernible features, each one has a jumbled mass of planes and ridges, as if the sculptor got as far as chiseling them out and then snapped, chipping away their faces piece by piece.

I didn’t notice this the first time I met Camilla.  Nor the second, nor the third, nor the fourth.

The fifth time we met in Kensington, not Hammersmith.

The sixth time, when we met once again at Hammersmith, I finally noticed the statues.  I noticed them because they reminded me of what was left of the bum when Camilla and I had finished with him.  I tried explaining that to Camilla, I tried to explain that I wanted out, that I didn’t believe, that I never really believed.  It was nonsense, it had always been nonsense.

“Yes,” she said, “of course it is.”

We didn’t go back to her flat that day.  I haven’t seen her since.

I saw the bum again for the first time the day after, though.  Wearing the same hoodie, the same old jacket.  Leaning against the Waitrose outside the building where I go to classes — where I’d first seen him, in fact, my first week in this country.  The place I’d told Camilla we’d find him (there was a small alley behind the Waitrose where I’d noticed he slept).  At first I didn’t believe it, of course; I thought it was a coincidence.  But still, every day, I saw the bum, the vagrant, wearing those same clothes, that same jacket.  I never saw his face.

I’d been hearing the voices on the tube for some time by then, but I’d been ignoring them, turning my iPod up as high as it could go.  They’d been much louder after the Kensington thing, when we killed the bum and I thought I heard something… roar, is the only way I can describe it.  Something roared, unquestionably it did, when we finished with the bum and buried his body in the four corners of this city.  I know it was a roar.

At the time, though, I thought it sounded like the low rumbling noise a train makes on the Underground as it pulls up to the station.

When this sort of thing happens in novels or movies, they always make a big deal out of how the protagonist is affected psychologically.  Why, of all people, should this happen to me?  What does this mean for me?  How does this change my place in the world?

I don’t have time for that.  As it turns out, in real situations like this, these questions are remarkably unimportant.  It doesn’t matter why this has happened to me, only that it’s happened.  The only way its changed my place in the world is that the world may not be around much longer.  I’ve awakened this City, or something in the City — Camilla told me about her grandfather, the things he believed, the visions he received.  He believed he was a prophet.

Apparently, so am I.

But I am a reluctant prophet.  When I was seduced by the gospel of the City, when Camilla told me what we needed to do and I agreed, I wasn’t truly thinking, or truly believing.  I was overcome by something else, something I regret now, and something I want to destroy.  I imagine London, sometimes, being destroyed in an airstrike — in the Blitz, perhaps, or melting to glass under a mushroom cloud, and I am happy.  I smile.  I am trapped here now; such an end would be a release.

Then I look out the window and I see the black skies, the lightning.  I hear the screams and the gunfire.  I wonder if my fantasies of destruction would truly end the terror, or if it would instead play into some larger plan, as I did.  Is destruction of the City itself what that thing underneath, within, behind the City desires?  Is that what it needs?

Soon I’ll go outside to meet the bum.  Or the thing that looks like it, anyway.  I’m afraid, naturally.  What will I see if it pulls back its hood?  The warped, chipped faces of those statues in Hammersmith, the face of the vagrant after I killed him, before Camilla and I said the words to wake whatever holds this City in its grip now?

I’ve come to suspect that I know this force, this thing, better than I originally thought.  Thanks to Camilla, if that was  her real name.

I’m suspicious, you see, because of her name: Camilla Klein.  And her father, Cameron Lee Klein. It may be the stress, but when I say those out loud they sound incredibly close to chameleon.  The Lion of the Earth.

Perhaps I really did genuflect this new god, in my own awkward way.  Perhaps I’ve seen the divine image: its human heart, its human face, its human form.  Now is a time of reformation, of transition, and the bum outside is a part of that, the fiery furnace in which this City shall be melted down and made anew.

Worse before they get better

Yes, obviously, the situation here hasn’t been improving.  There had finally been some talk about sending us all home, especially after the riots in front of Westminster.  Naturally at that time Iceland decides to fucking explode and ground all flights in and out of the country.  They even had us on a train, packed with people, for around four hours, trying to export all Americans en masse, but we never left the station.  I’m just lucky our host family has allowed me and my roommate to stay with them until, well, whatever happens.

Of course, when the entire sky turns black at like three in the goddamn afternoon, the angry protesters in the middle of London do not react well.  I’m not sure how well it’s being covered in the global press, with the death toll from Iceland constantly rising and no end to the eruptions in sight, but when the ash could hit, people didn’t exactly stay calm.

Not even the police could stop them.  The riots spread as far as Camden Town, which is more than a little close to home.  My roommate was out at the time with some other people from the program, but they managed to get home okay.  We only had a little problem here when some guy who looked like a bum in a bomber jacket crawled into the garden and tried to smash in the glass patio doors — he didn’t make it, just scrabbled around a bit and then moved on.  Thank god for small favors.

Anyway, so in addition to having no flights in and out of the country, I guess we’re all under martial law now.  The Underground is under strict patrol, most of the lines are closed.  Classes and internships have been called off.  I don’t go out anymore; I can’t say I miss the Underground, it was far too loud down there recently.   The grocery stories have pretty much run out of fresh vegetables and meat, and the canned stuff is selling pretty fast — I gave all the money I’ve saved to my host dad so we could afford to stock up on food.  I don’t know when they’ll start cutting off internet access, but I’m sure passing the Digital Economy Bill a few weeks ago won’t hinder that in any way.

I’ve said before it was a mistake to come here.  Now I’m really beginning to understand how wrong I was then — and how right I am now.  I haven’t seen the sun in so long.

In dreams

Things are taking their natural course here in jolly old England, and I assure you I’m fine.  I’ll definitely make it to the end of the month, because while the situation is kind of sketchy it’s not dangerous per se.  At least not yet.  I’m keeping in contact with the Embassy, anyway.  I didn’t go to work this week — it’s looking like they’ve called off my internship completely, anyway.  Classes were all shorter than usual.  If it weren’t for the crippling atmosphere of fear ad paranoia I’d say this is the best end-of-a-semester ever.

Obviously I don’t have a lot to blog about.  At least, in real life.  I have interesting dreams from time to time — it seems a lot of writers do, particularly Lovecraft — and occasionally I get one I might use as a basis for a story.  Notably, I never really dream about London.  When I’m here,I always dream about home.  The first few nights in the city I dreamed about trying to read bus maps, but other than that it’s really been nothing.

Until recently.  I finally had my first for-realz London dream, and it went something like this:

I was dreaming about being back home and trying to find my house, which apparently wasn’t in the place where I left it.  Then the dream transitioned, because I woke up in my room here and my roommate wasn’t there.  This isn’t unusual, because he has to get to work before I do.  My host parents weren’t here either — again, not unusual.  Apparently everything else about trying to find my house was a dream I’d been having in the dream.

Anyway, I was just getting ready to leave and go to my internship.  Except when I was getting ready to go outside I got the strongest feeling that there was something on the other side of the front door — and this was one of those dream-moments where you see something without actually seeing it.  I knew there was a person standing just on the other side of the door, a man in a heavy green coat, and I knew he was my enemy.  There are three locks on the front door, and they’re all automatic, and when I remembered this I was immensely relieved.

Except, of course, the front door started to open anyway.  I reached out and slammed it shut, and there was absolutely no resistance — it just fell backward.  It was at this point I realized that the front door has windows and I could see clearly outside.  There was no one in front of the door.  I left the house, and there was some weird time dilation thing when I walked to the tube station (I also think the majority of the streets I walked through were different then they really are, and I passed some places I know from the States, maybe?).  Anyway, I got to the station and, like the house, it was weirdly empty.

This was extremely noticeable because tube stations are never empty unless they’re closed, but I took the elevator down and I was the only person on the platform waiting for the train.  I remember thinking that it would actually be kind of neat if I were the only person on the train, though, even if it would be sort of creepy as well.  I heard a train approaching through the tunnels — you always hear them before you see them, they sound kind of like something growling — but it never showed up, I just kept hearing it.

Then I saw the time-table and even though there weren’t real letters on it (just nonsense symbols) I somehow “read” that the next train via Charing Cross was delayed for 15 minutes, and I was going to be late for work.

London dreams, ladies and gentlemen!

Happy Easter. Alive and well, staying in the UK for now.

Doubtlessly if you’ve read/watched the news you know it’s been an exciting time here in the UK.  This is the kind of thing that’s been building for a while, I guess, but nothing anyone expected would happen.  There are other commentators more adept than I tackling the hows and whys of such a thing, but basically you don’t expect a fucking attempted military coup d’etat in a developed first world nation, and you certainly don’t expect it from a nation that’s successfully avoided big government upheavals for the past four hundred-odd years.  (And before you get started, yes, I know, it wasn’t an actual military coup, but it was close enough.  I don’t think the military would be smart enough to stage a coup on April Fools’ Day, anyway — it definitely confused the news reporting for a while.)

Needless to say I’ve spent the past few days at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, along with everyone else in my program and a few hundred more of my countrymen packed in like delicious American sardines.  This was somewhat troubling, as I normally live in North London, which is a significantly further away from Westminster, and being at the Embassy basically ensured we could hear the sounds of the riots for all three days until they were put down in what the more asinine elements of the media are calling the Holy Saturday Massacre.

Anyway, it looked for a while like we would all be sent back to the States, which I can’t say seemed like a bad idea to me, but now things seem to have settled down and we’ve been given the go-ahead to finish out the month and end our study abroad on the normal date, the 27th.  The kids who were in Mexico back when the swine flu thing happened thought they were having a wild time, but they ain’t got nothing on the England programme!

So what with all the excitement here, you’ll forgive me if I don’t have a proper blog entry this week.  I’ll try to catch a few more plays to write about or something between now and the end of the month.  Happy Easter.

,.

The Proscenium and the Percipient

As Stephen King once wrote:

Let’s talk about fear, you and I.  Let’s talk about fear.

But not just any fear.  King already beat me to talking about fear in written fiction (though that doesn’t stop me from going at it every so often, of course) and King already beat me to talking about fear on film (again, something I occasionally have made a foray into).  But I want to talk about a type of fear — a variety of what Noel Carroll calls “art-horror” — that King doesn’t take into account in his Danse Macabre, and which Caroll (as I recollect) does not even mention in his own treatment of the genre.

I want to talk about theatric horror.

 

There are two ways you might respond to the idea of theatric horror.  The first is that it is ridiculous: a man wearing a bedsheet onstage is an actor playing the ghost of Old Hamlet, and nothing more; it is (this line of thinking implies) silly to be scared by anything onstage because, quite paradoxically, all of it is illusory, so anything that appears unnatural (like a ghost) is, in fact, naturally explicable (a man in a bedsheet).  The other way to think about it is that theatric horror should be about the same as cinematic horror, that if you can be scared of Jason Voorhees on a screen then you damn sure can be frightened by a man wearing a bedsheet.

The key thing to take from both of these examples is that both make the assumption that horror is participatory.  This is no big revelation; all fiction is participatory in varying capacities.  This mostly takes the form of making the viewer/reader/audience’s desires the same as one or some of the characters’ desires.  It’s about interest, and it’s about sympathy.  You want to know why Old Hamlet’s ghost is stalking the battlements, if it’s telling the truth or not; you want Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy to get together; you want to figure out what the fuck is going on with that island and the polar bear and the time-travel and you hope to god it all makes sense in the end.

But horror is special.

You don’t want the zombie apocalypse to happen — and listen, I know it’s fashionable to be excited about zombies and the end of the world, but trust me, almost everyone who insists on proclaiming they’ll have a good time when the shit hits the fan will be among the first to either die or become a quivering, sobbing mess.  This is what Noel Carroll calls the paradox of horror: it is a genre set up specifically to show us things we hate or despise, things designed to make us unhappy, and we flock to it.  So yes, horror is participatory, but it is participatory in a way that is distinct from the way other genres are.  The closest thing to it is tragedy, which generally focuses on a handful of repulsive things, but by definition there is a catharsis, a final release of tension; horror, on the other hand, has no such obligation.  At the end of, say, The Blair Witch Project, the story doesn’t actually end.  It just stops; the monster is still on the loose, there is no return to order.

The idea is that horrific things do not end, terror does not end, and above all, you are subject to the same fears and forces that govern the lives of the characters.  The toys and props of horror aren’t put neatly back into the box and hidden away at the end of the game; they continue to litter floor, and you step on them in the middle of the night when you least expect it.

So horror, despite its paradoxes, is quite a participatory thing indeed.  And it should be noted that of the modes of storytelling I’ve brought up — fiction, film, television, theater — it is the latter that is the most participatory.  After all, it’s not words on a page and it’s not an interplay of light from a projector — things are happening there in front of you, and it’s the closest you can get to it actually happening.  Given the participatory nature of horror and the participatory nature of theater, the two ought to be a match made in heaven.

So how do you make a play scary?

I’ve recently seen two horror plays, and the remainder of this blog entry will be me outlining the way each production attempts to develop an atmosphere and, above all, a feeling of terror in the audience — the percipients.  A percipient being, of course, one who perceives; it’s also a pseudotechnical term tossed around by some parapsychologists to describe those who ‘perceive’ themselves as having had supernatural experiences.  Added to that, it sounds fortuitously similar to participant, and in case you couldn’t tell, that’s going to be a cornerstone of my discourse.

Now: Play number one.  The Woman in Black, currently running at the Fortune Theatre in Covent Garden, a few blocks from where I work.  This thing has been on forever — for me, almost literally, since it’s been going nonstop since 1989, when I was barely a year old.  It’s been through its share of actors, too — the cast in that trailer the website is running is a completely different cast from the one I saw.  That’s a notable, if tertiary, facet of the play: it has a cast of two.  Three, maybe, but then things get a little complicated.  I’ll explain that in a bit.

WiB is obviously a pretty successful venture, having run for 21 years, and I personally think it mostly succeeds as a play and as a piece of horror fiction.  I’m not going to say it frightened me — it didn’t, I don’t frighten easily — but the people in the audience who kept screaming seemed pretty scared.  Of course, the people who were screaming were mostly teenaged schoolgirls — the curse of the matinee showing, from what I hear — and they were screaming at the ‘jump-scare’ bits, things like doors slamming and so on.  I’m not going to fault the play for that.  I tend to look down on jump scares in film only when they are predictable and when they are the only mechanism used (or overused); suffice it to say that WiB‘s jump scares are very often unpredictable and they only become grating if, like me, you have to listen to a few dozen sixteen year old girls shouting every time.

Where the play succeeds most admirably, I think, is the more insidious horror it attempts to instill through use of atmosphere and two or three wonderfully executed images.  My favorite was the titular woman in black, lying corpse-still in a madly careening rocking chair which then threw her forward with such force that she seemed to fly and, without any misstep, landed on her feet (assuming she has feet, below her tattered skirts) to glide soundlessly across the stage.

The plot is often billed as being an MR Jamesian ghost story, which is half a truth and half a lie.  James’s ghost stories have a very particular pattern and a particular way of presenting the supernatural that is wholly absent in the play; where the two more happily coincidence, however, is in the manner of narration.  I have a love-hate relationship with Jamesian narration; it seems like sometimes he just decided to be as fucking roundabout as he could in getting to the story he had to tell.

In order to create what he called a “pretense of truth” he often sets up webs of narrators to tell a single story.

A typical James story will be narrated by the first-person-I, a scholar or antiquarian who is presumably James himself; this narrative voice will do such wonderful things as tell us, rather blatantly, that he is not telling us everything he can so that he may explain details more chillingly later, or he may off-handedly dismiss a secondary character as nameless because he’s just not important to the story.  Below the James-narrator there is often a second voice belonging, supposedly, to one of his friends or acquaintances, to whom the events of the story occurred; though James will talk about the character in third person, his narrative voice occasionally gives way to the other character’s first person narration of the events in question.  The secondary narrator, for his (and it’s almost always his) part will often find an old manuscript — a court transcription, a diary, whatever — that also relates events in the first-person voice of someone who is long dead, often providing a clue as to the nature of the hauntings.  The text-within-the-narration, with its archaic syntax and occasional rambling passages in Latin, will often consume a large portion of the narrative structure.

If this all sounds a bit complicated, trust me when I say that it is.  Sometimes James gets so caught up with himself it’s impossible to tell who is narrating what and when and how.  If you’re also thinking this all sounds awfully postmodern, keep in mind that James was writing in the 1900s, and had no real reason to be this damn complicated.  His narrators are like nightmarish Russian nesting dolls, each one trapped inside the other and more removed from the reader than the last.

Now, The Woman in Black very admirably follows up on this tradition of being obfuscating as fuck by having the same narrative confusion, but on stage.

It works something like this: an older man, sort of bumbling, wants to tell a story to lay his conscience to rest.  He consults an actor, the other main character, to help him work on his public speaking skills for this purpose.  The older guy, Arthur Kipps, is a terrible speaker, though, and so the actor (who finds the story interesting and has designs on making it a play) takes over Arthur’s role for the purposes of flashback.  So right there on stage, one character literally becomes the other, a lighting change telling you that you’ve entered a flashback.  The real Arthur, for his part, becomes every other character in the play, changing his outfit or glasses slightly and affecting multiple accents to fill various roles.  So then suddenly you’re not watching these two guys put on a play about Arthur’s experience, you’re actually watching the memory — until, for one reason or another, we jump back and Arthur turns into the actor and the other actor turns back into Arthur.

It all gets very confusing, as you might imagine; you never know if the people on stage are people “on stage” practicing their play in an empty theater or people in a haunted house, and the fact that they can go from one to the other at any time doesn’t help.  When the ghost, the woman in black, finally shows up, is she actually there?  Is she on the stage with Arthur and the actor, or is she part of a flashback, a memory?  The implication, quite horrible indeed, is that if she is in fact on the stage in the play’s “present” then she is also there on stage in front of you.  And since she operates sort of like Kiyoko from the Ju-On films — she passes on from person to person, seeking vengeance for the wrongs done to her in life — there’s the equally unsettling implication that the woman in black, if she is there, is now after you.

This is underscored by the play’s curtain call.  As the audience applauds, the two actors you know quite well by now come out and bow, try to run back stage, come back to the continued applause, bow, and leave.  Just them.  Only those two.

And, after they have gone, the woman in black appears at the very back of the stage, just visible, staring out at you.  She does not smile, she does not bow; she only stares.  For her, it seems, the play is not over.

Then she disappears, and you’re free to go.  Or so you think, anyway, but the play has already taught you that the woman in black can show up where you least expect her, be it an ancient house in the marshlands or a London park on a sunny afternoon.

We should also take time to consider the other play I saw, Ghost Stories at the Lyric Hammersmith.  There are a few things to note about this play, the first being that it is new and has a modern day setting, unlike The Woman in Black, which was written in the 80s but takes place in the early 20th century. The second is that it is co-written and directed by Jeremy Dyson, one of the writers for a black comedy television program that is very near and dear to me, The League of Gentlemen.  What this means is that the story is very consciously influenced by horror films and at certain points it becomes as bizarre as all get-out.

Ghost Stories is also the better of the two plays.  I’m wary to talk much about it for fear of spoiling it — not that I expect anyone reading this to see it, really, but I am loath to give away the play’s secrets.  In structure the plot works something like this: you are part of an audience watching a Dr. Goodman present a short seminar on ghost stories, which he collects from various people.  As he replays recordings of these experiences to you, the audience, the action on the stage takes over and we “see” what is happening in flashback.  There are in total three vignettes of this type, linked by Goodman’s lectures on them, giving the entire thing a sort of classic anthology movie feel — think Creepshow or something of that variety.

The play’s resolution held no surprises for me, but it was well executed; I will not discuss it further, except to say that if The Woman in Black is an MR James story, then Ghost Stories follows, appropriately enough given Dyson’s own apparent interest, in the footsteps of Robert Aickman.  Aickman is woefully under-read, I think, and this is not helped by the fact that his work is almost entirely out of print and very hard to find in any other way — in my travels through used bookstores here I found a shop that had two of his early collections (first editions, about £95 each) and both volumes of his collected ghost stories (£400).  At any rate, there’s a quote from Neil Gaiman on that Wikipedia page that I feel gives a very accurate description of what it is like to read an Aickman story: as a reader, you are slowly overcome with a sense that something is horribly, terrifyingly wrong, and by the end you know it is, and yet afterward you can never figure out exactly what went wrong, where it went wrong, and how.

Ghost Stories is less coy about the why and how parts of the equation, but it does indeed do an admirable job of slowly breaking down the audience’s complacency.  In other words, while watching Ghost Stories, you think you’re seeing one thing, but you slowly begin to understand that you’re really witnessing something else entirely.

I’m sure that’s vague to the point of being useless, but it’s the way the play goes, and I really don’t want to say any more about it.  They even ask you kindly after the show not to tell anyone!  And, anyway, I hear John Landis was in the audience a few nights ago, which (if his career weren’t dead) might bode favorably for a film adaptation.

Except.

This isn’t a post about horror films.  It’s a post about horror theater, and I sincerely believe that Ghost Stories could not work as a film.  Neither could, I think, The Woman in Black, though the BBC apparently tried.

I have come to understand that the way theatric horror works — and the reason it is unique — is that the audience participates in a way completely unlike their participation with other genres and other forms.  The common trend in both plays I’ve described is that the barrier between the audience, the percipient/participant, and the action on stage is broken down — the proscenium, the fourth-wall, is presented as permeable.  You leave the Woman in Black thinking you might be her next victim, but you don’t leave a production of Oedipus Rex thinking you’re going to murder your dad and bone your mom.  (At least I hope not.)

Likewise Ghost Stories, with its wraparound frame of a parapsychologist’s lecture, makes you personally a part of what is happening.  It’s simpler than WiB‘s layering of narration, and while I actually think WiB is very clever and successful in that regard, it’s also a bit cold.  Ghost Stories‘s technique is simpler, perhaps cruder, but far more effective in bringing the audience into the world of the play.  In other words, while the former is a technical success, I believe the latter is a general success.

To go back to MR James, when writing on his ghost stories, he claimed his multiple narrators and pretense of truth were required to make the reader think, “If I’m not careful, this could happen to me!”  This is the point of theatric horror, I think — even more so than a horror story or a horror film.

I also think this is why horror theater is not a widely considered part of the spectrum: it’s really easy to do it badly, so there’s not much of it.  The percipients have to be participants in the fullest sense; they have to feel what is going on, they have to be sympathetic, because you (the writer/actor/director/whatever) are essentially asking them to make themselves feel intensely uncomfortable.  It’s not a request many people are inclined to comply with, and if this sort of thing were to fail, it would do so spectacularly.

This may be a lot to base on only two plays, but it’s all I have to go on, so it’s the best I’ve got.  It’s an allegation supported, I think, by the rather famous and experimental Punchdrunk company, who stage their plays in actual buildings, having the actors go about their business while the audience wanders around, observing and ignored.  In other words, they do away with the proscenium entirely.  From what I hear, Punchdrunk’s Faust was absolutely fucking terrifying.

Punchdrunk’s approach also underscores another observation I’ve made about theatric horror, and perhaps theater in general.  You’ll recall that in The Woman in Black, part of the action takes place in an empty theater — the characters refer to the theater multiple times, talking about how empty it is.  Of course this garners a few laughs, because the theater is not empty at all.

But it’s a rather uncanny notion, nonetheless — to be outright ignored by another human being, for him to pretend you don’t exist.  There’s a similar sort of dynamic in Ghost Stories and — hell — I feel like the same sort of thing goes on in almost any play.

When theater works well, there’s always that uncanny feeling that you are in a place you shouldn’t be, that you have somehow become unseen or insubstantial.  Horror plays tend to involve the audience more directly perhaps because the actors need your consent to make the monsters real, and so you’re invited, in a sense, to become part of the play.

In other words, in good theater, the audience should feel that they are real ghosts.

Blog? More like blargh

If all goes according to plan there will be a huge self-important blog entry about theater and horror next week, so you can forgive me for being a bit skimpy here.  In the meantime, I have some random thoughts and comments about things I’ve seen/done.

First off, I read Song of Kali by Dan Simmons, which was his first novel and boy can you tell.  Still, Simmons is probably one of my favorite writers working today, so when I found the book used in an Oxfam I grabbed it.  My understanding of postcolonial theory made me cringe at the premise, even if I tried not to, but in the end it wasn’t that bad; Simmons just basically rewrites Heart of Darkness, and that’s tired ground.  What’s more disappointing is how the novel itself seems kind of half-assed.  It has a first person narrator, for instance, and the very first page of the book is him talking about how much he hates the city of Calcutta and how much he wants to see it destroyed by atom bombs and all of the people living there to die horribly.  By the end of the book, we’ve seen what brought him to feel this way, except Simmons then turns around and has him tell us that life’s not that bad and he can soldier on no matter how horrible the world and/or Calcutta is.  Never mind that it’s ridiculous having a character tell you up front, first thing, that he wants to obliterate an entire city and its people, having him backpedal at the very end is even worse.  So in the end, not a great book, though a handful of Simmons’s later books are fucking gold in my eyes.

Speaking of writers, Joe “Spawn of King” Hill blew through London today on the tour for his new book Horns, which I have not yet read but of which I now own an autographed copy.  Hill is a good writer, smart and sensitive and, sometimes, a lot like his dad was in the 70s and 80s in terms of tone.  This is a good thing.  I’m not going to say I think he’s the best horror writer in the market today, because he’s not and I think he’d reject that label anyway, but he’s still leagues ahead of 80% of his contemporaries.  The comic series he writes for IDW, Locke & Key, is probably my favorite thing by him at the moment.

Also, you’ll remember a few weeks back I got an old used book by a dude named Ignacio Muez Ajedra.  I wasn’t impressed with it then, and I’m not impressed with it now, but I finally made it through the whole thing.  The title story, “The Chameleon,” was some weird urban postapocalyptic thing that was simultaneously dated and ahead of its time (sort of like The Machine Stops by EM Forster).  It was plotless, like almost everything else in the book, but the setting made it interesting; it was basically two dudes on a street in London outside some flats, and it was implied that some horrible thing had happened/was happening, and these guys were using it as an opportunity to rob the flats.  There was also a bum wrapped in rags who was nearby, and the guys thought he was sick (one was worried it was a spy; the other kept telling him that the bum had “the pest” which I believe is the name of some sort of new plague, cf. pestilence).  At the end the bum stood up because I guess he wasn’t sick or he was a spy or something, I don’t know.  The story literally ends with that sentence, and given the time the book was published I’m guessing the whole thing is supposed to be a socialist polemic.

This is further supported by the poem that ends the book, a sort of “oh look at me look how tortured I, the representative of the common mass of people, am” thing, like Carl Sandburg from Hell.  I typed it up below because 1) it sounds kind of cool regardless; 2) the book has the Spanish and English text, supporting the idea that IMA was an immigrant; and 3) a substantial portion of the job I have actually consists of typing up old poems for digital transcription, so I’m kind of in the habit.

Anyway, here’s the poem, which is untitled.  I remember enough of my Spanish to know that there’s a tense change in the translation to English, but hell if I know why.

Sueño que tengo un millón de bocas
Y todas están gritando

Sueño que tengo un millón de ojos
Y todos están llorando

Sueño que tengo un millón de heridas
Y todas están sangrando

Sueño que tengo un millón de mentes
Y todas están soñando

I dreamt I had a million mouths
And all of them were screaming

I dreamt I had a million eyes
And all of them were weeping

I dreamt I had a million wounds
And all of them were bleeding

I dreamt I had a million minds
And all of them were dreaming

Well let’s talk about something else

Now that I’ve sufficiently splattered by unseemly emotions all over the internet, let’s talk about some other things.

I mentioned in the Dunsinane review that I was going to go see the RSC’s latest production of Lear, and rest assured I did, and it was pretty good.  Nevertheless, I don’t think I have much to say about it, since it was the kind of thing that raised a lot of interesting points but didn’t follow through on them.  This is distinct from the Twelfth Night I saw, which simply didn’t bother to raise points until the end; rather, this Lear had a lot of interesting ideas that never coalesced into a main thrust or argument, and so in the end it was a very good but somewhat jumbled.  I don’t think it needs more in the way of a review other than me saying that, if you had the opportunity, it would not be a waste of your time to see it.

I might be seeing some more plays before I leave.  Well, scratch might — I’ll at least be seeing Cheek by Jowl’s Macbeth at the Barbican in a few weeks, and at the end of April I hope to catch another Macbeth at the Globe.  With the way these things work out it really must seem like Macbeth is my favorite play (it’s actually probably #2) and I go out of my way to bring it up.  I swear to God I don’t, this just happens to me.  I can’t go anywhere without Macbeth playing into the situation in some capacity — it’s actually started to freak me out a little.  By the end of my time in London, I will have seen three productions of the damn thing.  This isn’t helped by the very well known fact that the play is cursed.

At any rate, I’ve already mentioned that the first production I saw was pretty terrible.  Cheek by Jowl is not known for being terrible, of course, and from what I’ve seen of their production it could end up being pretty damn cool; the Globe can be hit-or-miss, depending on what they’ve decided to do.  After this is all wrapped up I may try to write some sort of short essay on the three Macbeths and make some piquant observation about the tendencies of modern productions or something like that, so we’ll see.

On non-Shakespearean fronts, I’m going to try to hit up a production of Jonson’s The Alchemist later this month.  This should be good because Jonson, though Shakespeare’s contemporary, sometimes strikes me as a more modern in his ways of thinking and writing than Shakespeare usually does.  I’m not saying that Shakespeare is antiquated, of course, but I mean there is definitely a “Shakespearean” tone he strikes.  Jonson, for his part, has a bunch of wacky characters who are generally bad people having hilarious times at each other’s expense.  It’ll also be good to actually see The Alchemist since 1) it’s been several years since I read the play, and 2) for various reasons, chiefly the lack of stage directions, the play is almost impossible to follow on the page.

Also, because I can’t say the things I said last post and not really follow up on them, here’s a tiny update: work is marginally better and something weird happened.  More on that if anything comes of it.

Still alive, still discontented

I was planning on making the reassuring post that I lived through my week abroad this Friday or Saturday, but I had to get completely pissed off and blow my cover before then.

You see, I’ve finally had a realization, or reached a conclusion.  I will make the declarative statement here very shortly, so if I turn out to be wrong I can read it later and feel like an idiot and you can all be witnesses.

The conclusion is this:

My semester in London is a complete waste of my fucking time.

Yes, I like being here, and I like being able to see the city, I like being able to hit the theater, and I really like the ease of travel.  But academically and professionally this is an utter joke.  My classes, save one, are worthless; the one worthwhile class is taught by a faculty member from my home institution, and therefore has such things as discernible class structure, goals, and competent teaching.  The rest of the classes are taught in three hour chunks by adjuncts who care probably only marginally more than I do.

I am learning nothing.

I take my academics seriously.  I don’t appreciate being spoonfed information during ungodly long class periods just so they can keep up some pretense of me being a student, or their institution being a place of education.

So now that I’ve hit the halfway point and two of my four classes have ended, I must be happy, right?  Well, no, because now that my classes have ended I am required to take on an unpaid internship for “cultural experiences” and “immersion” and so on.  My internship started today.  It was seven hours of combing through Microsoft Access databases updating contact information for journalists.  At no point did I learn anything about British culture or what it’s like to live in London; I can have a soul-crushing office job just as well in the States as I can here.

The program my college has opted to use is basically running a temp agency on the side, shunting students off hither and yon to do unpaid work at various places.

Everything I have learned and experienced in this country about culture I have learned on my own time, outside of the classroom.  The rest of it is busywork.  I could have had a more profitable academic year if I stayed on campus.

It’s starting to look like I should have.

Dunsinane @ Hampstead Theatre

And now for something completely different.

Unlike the other plays I’ve talked about in this space, Dunsinane is a modern play that premiered near the beginning of February.  However, because I am completely monomaniacal in my interests, there is of course a Shakespeare connection: it’s billed as a sequel to Macbeth.  Which it is, sort of.

Obviously doing something like this has the potential to blow chunks of epic proportions, but I was pleasantly surprised by Dunsinane.  In fact it is… Not Bad At All.  Of the plays I’ve seen here, it’s number two — right behind that Measure for Measure production I didn’t really talk much about.  But anyway, I’m writing about Dunsinane now.  Let’s do this.

It should be noted that David Greig, a playwright of no little renown, makes a smart decision and does not choose to make Dunsinane a straight sequel to Shakespeare’s Macbeth; rather, he places his play more distinctly within historical reality.  Macbeth (who is never referred to by name and never appears on stage) is a well-regarded king who has ruled for fifteen years after seizing the throne from the weak and tyrannical Duncan; Duncan’s son, Malcolm, has meanwhile convinced the English that Macbeth rules against the wishes of the people of Scotland, and so a contingent of English soldiers led by Siward and Macduff (one of the handful of Scottish nobles to turn against Macbeth) storm the castle of Dunsinane and implement a bit of regime change.

That should sound kind of familiar, and it’s intentional.  The play mirrors the Iraq situation, with mixed results.  Much better is the way it blurs the line between actual history, Shakespeare’s play (Birnam Wood does indeed come to Dunsinane — it’s the opening scene), and Greig’s own imagination.  This mixture also allows Greig to bring Shakespeare’s most famous character, Lady Macbeth, back under her real name — Gruach.  She died for Shakespeare, she lived historically; she also had a son by her previous marriage, another detail preserved and one that invalidates Malcolm’s claim to the throne.

Malcolm, for his part, turns out to be a corrupt jackass who simply wanted the privileges of being king and not the responsibilities.  He’s also ruthless; he wants Gruach (who he’s captured) and her son (who has gone into hiding) killed to consolidate his power.  The Englishman Siward, the protagonist of the play, only wants wants stability and peace — as he calls it, justice — in the country he has invaded, and he’s willing to commit himself and the English forces indefinitely to enforcing a stable regime in Scotland.

I think it’s a great setup.  There are, in fact, a lot of really great things about this play.  It’s RSC-sponsored, so production values and set design are no problem; the actors are all generally strong, especially Gruach, who proves to be just as overwhelming a presence as a wronged mother and monarch as she does when she’s a batshit crazy regicide.  The structure of the play, though it’s four acts based on seasons, still manages to have some neat nods to Shakespeare, such as the mixture of Siward’s higher tragedy with the banter of his soldiers, vulgar young boys who discuss sex and homesickness before encountering with Heavy Stuff like death and warfare.

There’s actually a heavy dose of comedy; the opening scene of the march on Dunsinane is played mostly for laughs, underscoring how ridiculous it is to have soldiers pretending to be trees.  This is intercut with more serious scenes, as you may expect, but even Siward and Gruach have highly comedic lines.  Malcolm, for his part, is the worst; he’s played as a spineless, pseudo-Tony Blair parody, a leader who equivocates and lies but has no solid ideas for what he plans to do.  The humor written for his character is so brash and forthright, so damn modern, that it actually broke my suspension of disbelief, especially when thrown up against large, serious, questions of justice, warfare, and colonialism.

That is the play’s biggest fault: it doesn’t know what the hell it is, or wants to be.  It’s either a silly allegoric satire of the Iraq War in period dress, or it’s a serious treatment of the motivations for and effects of doing what you think is the right thing, and how far some people are willing to go for what they recognize as justice.  It’s either watching ill-equipped, unprepared young men die horribly while making sex and shit jokes, or it’s watching a committed idealist be slowly destroyed by the corrupt world around him.

All in all, the play actually has very little to do with Shakespeare’s Macbeth other than setting and a few revisionist takes on shared characters.  Thematically it’s in a different ballpark entirely.  I’ve talked before during the Psycho series about the concept (borrowed from a professor) of the “rewrite” — and in one sense Dunsinane is an attempt to rewrite Macbeth.  But that’s only skin-deep; Greig wants to call Shakespeare out on his historical inaccuracies, his limited understanding of Scottish culture, and rectify these mistakes.  But on a deeper, more profound level, Greig isn’t working with Macbeth at all.

This is clear enough in the last scene: Siward, with only a single foolish young soldier to keep him company, confronts Gruach in the midst of a bitter snowstorm.  We’ve been watching this man break down for the past two hours, we’ve seen his hopes shattered, we’ve seen him betrayed, and now we see him, hunched, obsessed, perhaps driven mad, crying out for revenge and justice in the midst of a storm.

No, Dunsinane isn’t Macbeth; it’s King Lear.

Which is interesting in and of itself, since by the time this entry is posted (remember, I’m writing a week in advance and autoupdating) I in theory will have seen the RSC’s new production of Lear running in Stratford-Upon-Avon.  And later this month, I hope to see the new RSC-sponsored play and counterpart to Dunsinane, The Gods Weep — which, when you read the plot synopsis, also happens to very obviously be a Lear rewrite.

Will something come of this?  Only time will tell!*

*Also assuming I haven’t met with some horrible accident during my week of being homeless.

Twelfth Night @ The Duke of York’s Theatre

This was a Royal Shakespeare Company production, and not just any RSC production, but an RSC production directed by Gregory Doran.  Doran is most recently famous for taking a huge risk in 2008 and casting Doctor Who‘s David Tennant in Hamlet, a move that apparently paid off in spades.  I obviously wasn’t here to see it, and I haven’t yet gotten my hands on a copy of the DVD, but I’ve heard good things (also, Patrick Stewart as Claudius? Daaaaamn).  Anyway, in addition to his Hamlet cred, in 2000-ish Doran put on a Macbeth that I think, despite its few faults, might be the closest thing to definitive we’ve got.  So I have a lot of respect for (and expectations of) Gregory Doran.

It really saddens me, then, to say that his Twelfth Night is not that good.

Which isn’t to say it is bad, really.  The word my professor used, and one that I think is most appropriate, is “patchy.”  The play stopped and started, came and went, and ended up feeling generally uneven.  Doran tried his hand at casting a TV actor in the meatiest role, this time famous (over here, anyway) grumpy old man Richard Wilson as the puritanical steward Malvolio.  Malvolio, as it happens, is not even a main role, but 12N is one of those plays where the subplot is more famous than the actual plot; Malvolio is the character people care about, and putting Wilson in the role was meant to draw more scrutiny, speculation, and (most importantly) audience members than any other aspect of the production.

Needless to say this is what most of the reviews focus on; in earlier stagings, apparently, Wilson wasn’t impressive.  This was his first turn on Shakespeare, but by the time I saw the play (it was very near the end of its run) I thought he was adequate.  A little stiff and hollow, perhaps, but that is probably the best way to describe the whole production.  During the first two acts, all I could say about it was that it was definitely Twelfth Night, with various actors playing various characters I know are in the play, all with the expected lavish RSC set design and high production values.  Aside from that, it was lifeless.

Things picked up in acts 3-5, following the interval, where it seemed like the entire cast had ducked into their dressing rooms and snorted cocaine before coming back on.  The actors weren’t any better, exactly — Viola/Cesario, Orsino, Olivia, and nearly everyone else was still pretty bland (Sebastian, by the bye, was bad and stayed bad) — but the smaller characters like Toby, Andrew, and Fabian seemed to really get into what they were doing, and everyone seemed more lively and happier to be on stage.

The two real bright spots of the production were Fabian, who is really a very small part but the actor had a good control of the character, and Feste, who was the only major character who seemed consistently on.  They really emphasized his songs (we’re talking entire dance numbers), which was odd, considering the actor didn’t seem to be a very strong singer to begin with.  But I give him points for getting out in front of people and singing, anyway, and I give him the benefit of a doubt since it’s cold season and he might have been losing his voice.

But aside from those two performances, the play was very flat.  “Oh look,” the actors seemed to be saying, “we are putting on a Shakespeare play.  What a thing to do!”  (The Olivia was especially guilty of this — also, they made her character a slut, which has its fun moments but overall is unengaging, especially when the player is Very Obviously Acting, as this one was.)

The sole moment of real almost-brilliance, in my opinion, was the ending, where Feste sings his famous bit about the rain.  Like the film version I just linked, it was played as a sort of montage of Feste singing while various scenes occurred on stage around him.  The key difference was that the song was much slower and the scenes were not of journeys ending in lovers meeting, but snapshots of all the characters who ended up on the losing side of things — Antonio the gay sailor, robbed of his bland, uninteresting boycrush Sebastian by an insane cougar, and Andrew Aguecheek, robbed of his insane cougar by a bland, uninteresting boy, and (this was kind of neat) Toby and Maria, who pantomimed a very bitter and angry domestic dispute.  Naturally this ended with Malvolio, the biggest loser in the play, and as Feste finished his song the two of them stood side by side on the stage, glaring at one another, the Fool and the Puritan — and the lights fell.

I actually got chills from that, man.  It suggests, I believe, a very powerful reading of 12N that could make a very, very fine production.

It’s too bad that Gregory Doran didn’t, you know, use it.