Saturday, 20 July 2013

Short Story Showcase: Keeping House by Michael Blumlein

Saturated Loneliness by Sconsiderato
Writer and physician Michael Blumlein once said "There's a detachment that happens as a physician when you're dealing with frightening, horrifying, or sad events, that you maintain an objectivity that's required, and I do that also when I write." This is certainly true of his 1990 short story Keeping House, which tells of the psychological unravelling of a young housewife whose husband and child have fled, leaving her to fester in their new home and obsess over its cleanliness. She believes an evil presence dwells in the empty adjoining house; it seems to seep through the walls, leaving traces of damp, mould and other nastiness which she must tackle daily. She perpetually cleans but can never seem to rid her own abode of the manifestations of the dank presence from next door. It malingers about the place like a putrid fog only she seems aware of. Is this a real haunting? A spectral manifestation of familial strife? Guilt? Or an unreliable narrator sinking deeper into her own troubled mind? Blumlein’s detached and frank telling ensures the reader is lowered into an increasingly distraught mindset with a growing sense of desperation and horror that is alarmingly palpable.

Keeping House was first published in 1990, in Blumleim’s short story collection, The Brains of Rats. It’s also included in I Shudder At Your Touch, an anthology of horror tales edited by Michele Slung revolving around the themes of sex and death - which is where I first read it, after picking up a copy from a second hand bookshop. Hurrah for second hand bookshops and the weird and wonderful things one can find in them. In her introduction to Keeping House, Slung name checks Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper as bedfellows of Blumlein’s short stinger; both are similarly wrought tales of fragile female minds coming undone, featuring generous helpings of ambiguous, ever-suggestive supernaturalism in domestic environments.

Blumlein’s nameless protagonist seems cut from the same cloth as many of Shirley Jackson’s. She’s intelligent (a professor of classics), forthright and neurotic (no one does neurotic characters better than Shirley Jackson). Indeed, when introducing the house next door, Blumlein takes his cue directly from Jackson - like her Hill House, the house that adjoins his narrator’s becomes another character. ‘The house next door affects other houses’ and it ‘shares a circulation’ with the hers. Blumlein also notes that it is to the north of her house. As highlighted in Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate, the north has sinister connotations in certain cultures; The North is the dark place. It is not safe to be buried on the north side of the church and the North Door is the way of the Dead.

... there were cracks through which cold drafts blew even on windless days.
When the narrator initially begins to obsess over the neighbouring house and the affect it has on the cleanliness of her own, she exhibits extreme forms of OCD; Dirty dishes and glasses, which had always irritated me, now became constant reminders of failure. She is soon driven to distraction by the jarring patterns on her china dinner set and the cracks and damp spots which she perceives to riddle the house. She is a woman either haunted by something malicious next door, or utterly overwhelmed by her familial responsibilities and domesticity. She begins to vacuum twice daily - Dust and lint seemed to accumulate ever faster - and washes walls, windows, doors and herself, several times everyday. As in Polanski’s suffocating Repulsion, these can be seen as manifestations of her disintegrating mindset. There is always something encroaching from next door, be it weeds or thick brambles in the garden, or strange noises from the pipes and walls. The way in which Blumlein conveys the relentless encroachment of the house next door and its doomful effects on the narrator becomes stifling.

Insomnia by Arman Zhenikeyev
Things gradually become darker, more extreme as she imagines that the very light in her own home is being absorbed through the walls into next door, and at one stage, she believes that a mirror she has absent-mindedly propped against the bedroom wall has become a window through which the ‘menace’ next door can pass into her bedroom. Whether she is rigorously cleaning the house from top to bottom, scrubbing herself in a scalding bath or catching glimpses of serpentine figures in the mirror, Blumlein retains a creeping sense of ambiguity.

Upon entering her daughter’s nursery one night, she steps on a slug in the carpet and while flailing around for the light switch, glimpses a stalk-eyed ‘thing’ skulking in the shadows. For the next few weeks I dreamed about doing battle with limbless creatures whose flesh dripped when punctured. I was never vanquished, but neither was I ever victorious. The battles were nightmarishly everlasting.

Later, when her husband and daughter have left her, driven out by her extreme behaviour - which she maintains is what is protecting them from the presence next door - her isolation intensifies (she covers the windows in linoleum). When we arrive at the culmination, it is perfect in its logic and cruelty and almost provides a sense of relief. Almost. It might be a short story, but it’s brevity helps foster its impact.


Dir. Franck Khalfoun

Just a steel town girl on a Saturday night 
Looking for the fight of her life 
In the real time world, no one sees her at all 
They all say she's crazy 

She's a maniac, maniac on the floor 
And she's dancing like she's never danced before!

Sorry! Wrong Maniac. The Maniac I’m actually referring to is Franck Khalfoun’s remake/reimagining/reconceptualisation of William Lustig’s 1980 ‘video nasty’ of the same name.

Despite its higher budget, slick production values and the presence of a star name in the titles, this update - co-written by Alex (Switchblade Romance/Haute Tension) Aja - is every bit as unsettling, extreme and confrontational as its predecessor. And it's all shot from the perspective of the killer.

While aesthetically far removed from Lustig’s grot-fest, Khalfoun’s slickly lensed take on the tale of a young man who hunts, scalps and murderlises women on the cruel, grimy streets of downtown LA, Maniac is one of the most vicious and unsettling horror titles in some time.

Head over to Diabolique to read my full review. 

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Daylight Gate

Written by Jeanette Winterson

Based on the most notorious of English witch-trials, Jeanette Winterson’s latest book, The Daylight Gate, is a tale of magic, superstition, conscience and ruthless murder. It is set in a time when politics and religion were closely intertwined; when, following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, every Catholic conspirator fled to a wild and untamed place far from the reach of London law.

This is Lancashire. This is Pendle. This is witch country.

Lurking in deepest, darkest north England, Pendle is a place brimming with bleak moors and dark forests. The events of 1612 are now an established part of English folklore and Pendle is still synonymous with witchcraft and diabolism to this day. Winterson tells of the plight of a group of Pendle women accused of witchcraft and cavorting with the Dark Lord, and the tortures and atrocities they endured at the hands of the law before they were put to death. Reality swirls with augmented fancy. Are these women real witches or merely social outcasts meddling in superstitious rites, pointing an accusing finger at the brutality of the patriarchy oppressing them? Whatever the facts, Winterson generates sympathy for them, quietly exposing their struggles in a world which rejects them from the outset.

The North is the dark place. It is not safe to be buried on the north side of the church and the North Door is the way of the Dead. The north of England is untamed. It can be subdued but it cannot be tamed. Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed. The Forest of Pendle used to be a hunting ground, but some say that the hill is the hunter - alive in its black-and-green coat cropped like an animal pelt.

Those who are born here are branded by Pendle. They share a common mark. There is still a tradition, or a superstition, that a girl-child born in Pendle Forest should be twice baptised; once in church and once in a black pool at the foot of the hill. The hill will know her then. She will be its trophy and its sacrifice. She must make her peace with her birthright, whatever that means. 

Misty Woods in Pendle by Nigel Flory

Pendle Hill and Stones by Nigel Flory

The coven meets in a remote tower and plans to rescue their grand-beldame, Old Demdike, who is awaiting trial in Lancaster prison, suspected of occultish crimes. Blood rituals are interrupted when the authorities come to arrest them. Implicated in proceedings is the owner of the tower where the hags congregate, noble widow Alice Nutter. A self-made woman whose wealth and social-standing stem from her creation of a striking magenta dye favoured by Queen Elizabeth, Alice is typical of Winterson’s heroines; she's fiercely independent, mysterious, pan-sexual and a little other-worldly. This all plays out during the stifling and paranoid reign of King James I, who, having narrowly escaped an attempt on his life the previous decade when a group of English Catholics conspired to blow him up with gunpowder, became obsessed with heresy, treason and diabolism. His rancid tome Daemonologie essentially advocated witch hunting, and was doggedly adhered to by feverishly ambitious, opportunistic and downright sadistic authorities carrying out the King’s bidding. It was a dark and dangerous time; anyone seen as ‘different’ was at risk of being accused of witchcraft by fearful, ignorant and superstitious neighbours.

Commissioned by Hammer to write a horror story (the back cover promises it will soon be a ‘major Hammer film’), Winterson has created something darkly sensual, troubling, rooted in fact, while still remaining true to her own concerns and retaining her distinct voice. Typical of the author’s other work, The Daylight Gate features strong female characters - good and evil - lesbianism, feminism and doomed lovers existing on the periphery of society. It addresses the same ideas of class/gender injustice which stalk through some of Hammer’s best titles. Somewhat uncharacteristic of her earlier works however, this has a linear narrative, though it still retains the aspects of magic-realism her readers are familiar with; here presented in much darker form, such as talking severed heads, teeth raining from the sky and exchanges of souls with the devil. While we may already know the sickening fate of Alice Nutter et al, Winterson is still able to grip the reader in a bony claw and compel us further into the dank depths of the increasingly taut story. As one critic so succinctly described, the author’s telling of the tale has all the ‘grisly freshness of a newly exhumed graveyard corpse.’ Revelations and plot twists abound without ever feeling salacious or disingenuous. Historical wretches come alive around simmering, stinking cauldrons, and spilt blood flows through their interactions with authority figures entrenched in the trials; not least Thomas "Popery witchery, witchery popery" Potts, a clerk for the prosecution and the crown, whose detailed account of the trials The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster is infamous as one of the first and most detailed accounts of a witch trial.

Hammer horror fans won’t be disappointed; indeed, admirers of more contemporary horror fare and all its livid extremities should find much to ‘delight’ them. The violence inflicted upon the wretched bodies of the women accused of fornicating with The Dark Gentleman is of the wincing, eye-watering variety. It doesn’t stem from the fantastic, but from reality. The most unsettling and brutal moments are the depictions of early 17th-century England in all its flea-ridden, pestilent saturated squalor, poverty, inequality and corruption. The subjugation of women and Catholics by a fanatical tyrant King, and the injustices inflicted upon the most needy factions of society, form the dark heart of the story. When they aren’t being flayed or castrated, the accused are left to rot in a hellish dungeon, nibbled on by rats skulking in the perpetual murkiness, while the damp straw the hags lay upon comes alive with crawling lice. This is all of course vividly wrought by Winterson’s effective, ever understated prose. Her simple but evocative use of language conjures an atmosphere heavily pregnant with foreboding and dread - the short, matter of fact sentences spurring the reader on to darker depths. The horror stems from the aberrant things humans do to other humans, and a biting social commentary pulsates throughout. Winterson’s research and understanding of the history surrounding the Pendle Witch trials further entrenches proceedings in a grim, rayless reality.