The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

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¨Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani¨ (1919): The Masterpiece of William Hope Hodgson, Bard of the Swine-Mother of Monstrosity


William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) has a place in the history of horror fiction, often cited as one of the primary influences on H.P. Lovecraft, and one of the forerunners of the genre of Cosmic Horror, wherein the source of horror is not a mere ghost or monstrous entity, but rather the all-encompassing fact that the entire universe is under the dominion of mad or evil gods, whose terrible ways become apparent to the more sensitive from time to time, with catastrophic results. Hodgson is now perhaps best known for the novels, The House on the Borderland (1908) and The Night Land (1912), and these two novels came in for extravagant praise from the aforementioned Lovecraft in his influential and comprehensive study Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927). Of The Night Land, Lovecraft writes:

Allowing for all its faults, it is yet one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written. The picture of a night-black, dead planet, with the remains of the human race concentrated in a stupendously vast metal pyramid and besieged by monstrous, hybrid, and altogether unknown forces of the darkness, is something that no reader can ever forget.

¨Allowing for all its faults” is a key element in this judgement, however. Lovecraft does find the book to be ¨seriously marred by painful verboseness, repetitiousness [and] artificial and nauseously sticky romantic sentimentality¨. It is a long and extremely difficult book, and is not infrequently risible.

The House on the Borderland is also flawed. It is a classic and founding text of cosmic horror:

The mountains were full of strange things—Beast-gods, and Horrors so atrocious and bestial that possibility and decency deny any further attempt to describe them. And I—I was filled with a terrible sense of overwhelming horror and fear and repugnance; yet, spite of these, I wondered exceedingly.

[…]

Later, a question repeated itself. What were they, those Beast-gods, and the others? […] There was something about them, an indescribable sort of silent vitality that suggested, to my broadening consciousness, a state of life-in-death—a something that was by no means life, as we understand it; but rather an inhuman form of existence, that well might be likened to a deathless trance—a condition in which it was possible to imagine their continuing, eternally.

This is Hodgsonian horror. Monsters are not merely monsters: they are gods, lurking at the back of all existence, their own existence a mockery of all human endeavour, progress and hope. Beasts are gods and gods are beasts. There is no response but the descent into madness.

Yet The House on the Borderland is a strange book, something of a structural mess which reads like two short works melded together and vaguely intertwined: one concerns the recluse´s (the narrator is not given a name in the novel) visionary journeys through time to the death of the sun; the other concerning his battles with swine-people who attack his isolated home in the west of Ireland. The former section is extremely indebted to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895); the latter echoes Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (1896).

These novels were rescued from obscurity by Lovecraft, and in Hodgson´s own lifetime he was better known for his shorter stories, especially those found in The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder (1913). Lovecraft is dismissive of this collection in Supernatural Horror in Literature. However, given Hodgson´s relative success with short stories, we might deviate from Lovecraft and consider that his best, or at least most accessible work, is in this format.

In Carnacki, a further two stories are set in the west of Ireland (¨The House among the Laurels¨ and ¨The Whistling Room¨), showing it was an important locus of horror for Hodgson, who had spent a part of his childhood in County Galway (1887-1890). In his west of Ireland work, a sense of the unease of the English visitor, a colonialist interloper in a revolutionary land, is echoed. Even before the monsters arrive in The House on the Borderland, the Irish are a source of disquiet:

[T]he man turned to a comrade and said something rapidly in a language that I did not understand; and, at once, the whole crowd of them fell to jabbering in what, after a few moments, I guessed to be pure Irish. At the same time they cast many glances in my direction. […] By the expression of his face I guessed that he, in turn, was questioning me; but now I had to shake my head, and indicate that I did not comprehend what it was they wanted to know; and so we stood looking at one another […]. [A]ll in the little crowd smiled and nodded in return, though their faces still betrayed their puzzlement.

It was evident, I reflected as I went toward the tent, that the inhabitants of these few huts in the wilderness did not know a word of English

[…]

“I wish we had got the driver to interpret for us before he left,” I remarked, as we sat down to our meal. “It seems so strange for the people of this place not even to know what we’ve come for.”

This uneasy relationship of the English visitor with the native Irish is also a key element in ¨The Whistling Room¨. In the Carnacki stories, the figure of the swine also returns. ¨The Hog¨ is ¨the most gruesome and disturbing¨ story in the collection, according to David Stuart Davies in his introduction to the stories (The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder, Wordsworth, 2006, 13). In this story, Carnacki meets with a Mr Bains, ¨a little sensitive man¨ haunted by swine:

I hear the sound coming up out of that enormous depth, and it is always the noise of pigs – pigs grunting, you know. It’s just simply dreadful. The dream is always the same. Sometimes I’ve had it every single night for a week, until I fight not to go to sleep; but, of course, I have to sleep sometimes. I think that’s how a person might go mad, don’t you?

[…]

All the grunts, squeals and howls blend into one brutal chaos of sound – only it isn’t a chaos. It all blends in a queer horrible way. I’ve heard it. A sort of swinish clamouring melody that grunts and roars and shrieks in chunks of grunting sounds, all tied together with squealings and shot through with pig howls. I’ve sometimes thought there was a definite beat in it; for every now and again there comes a gargantuan GRUNT, breaking through the million pig-voiced roaring – a stupendous GRUNT that comes in with a beat. Can you understand me? It seems to shake everything…. It’s like a spiritual earthquake. The howling, squealing, grunting, rolling clamour of swinish noise coming up out of that place, and then the monstrous GRUNT rising up through it all, an ever-recurring beat out of the depth – the voice of the swine-mother of monstrosity beating up from below through that chorus of mad swine-hunger.

The importance of the swine points to an element that is central to Hodgsonian horror: disgust. The pig is an animal considered, at least in figurative language, to embody some of the most traits found most repulsive in humans: filth, greed, laziness, and so. Hodgson´s protagonists are haunted not by swine alone, but by a truly horrifying sense of human kinship with these same swine:

I grunt too. I know it’s horrible. When I lie there in bed and hear those sounds after I’ve come up, I just grunt back as if in reply. I can’t stop myself. I just do it. Something makes me. I never told Doctor Witton that. I couldn’t. I’m sure now you think me mad[.]

A pig alone is simply an alien thing, but true horror is borne of the realization of the swinishness within oneself. Hodgson´s work if full of this sense of repulsion before humanity and its alliance to beastliness. For Hodgson, it is almost always a male figure that is the focus of the horror. The narrators, too, are all male, so the books present situations of men regarding men with horror and yet fascination. In a study of The House on the Borderland, Amanda Boulter finds an element of strong ¨sexual failure and fear¨ in Hodgson´s writings, as well as the idea that the monster is the¨desiring man¨, and that seems equally applicable to this story. (Boulter, ¨The House on the Borderland: The Sexual Politics of Fear¨, in Clive Bloom, Creepers: British Horror and Fantasy in the Twentieth Century, Pluto, 1993)

Less visceral than ¨The Hog¨, but certainly one of Hodgson´s best works is the searingly powerful short story, ¨Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani¨ (which translates as¨My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?¨. The title quotes the words of Jesus on the cross, according to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. The story is also known as ¨The Baumoff Explosive¨). Hodgson died in World War I, and this was one of the last works he produced, not published until after his death, and it constitutes a chilling last word on Hodgsonian horror. It concerns an ¨Experimental Chemist” named Baumoff but, like most Hodgson stories, the story is told through a frame device. The narrator hears it from a friend in a gentlemen´s club, but witnesses none of it himself. The friend, named Stafford, recounts that Baumoff – ¨the most enthusiastic intelligent believer in Christ that it will ever be possible to produce¨ (italics in original) – came up with a theory according to which the Darkness of the Cross, between the sixth and ninth hours of Christ´s crucifixion, was merely an extreme form of a notable phenomenon whereby great emotional stress could produce a darkening in the surrounding atmosphere. This was related to a ¨disturbance of the Aether in the immediate vicinity of the person suffering.¨ Baumoff has discovered or concocted a certain substance which can produce a similar temporary darkening. His idea, then, is to introduce this substance into his own body and to produce effects similar to those the crucifixion had on Christ.

This is where the importance of Baumoff being an enthusiastic and intelligent believer in Christ comes in, implicitly: Baumoff is an almost Christ-like figure, capable of such fine suffering that he is the fittest subject for testing his own invention. Baumoff, then, will undergo the agony of the cross using his ¨explosive¨ and other pain-inducing mechanisms. Needless to say, it does not go well. As a committed Christian, Baumoff is opening himself to God, but in a Hodgsonian cosmos, this is really not a good idea – even aside from the suffering his experiment will entail.

What follows in ¨Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani¨ is perhaps the ultimate statement of Hodgson´s brand of cosmic horror, contained in a short and perfectly formed work without the longueurs, repetitions and misjudgements of The House on the Borderland and, especially, The Night Land. It may be doing Hodgson a disservice to claim his best work is in the novels as his short stories are far more accessible and crafted and one of them, at least, is a masterpiece.

Terror from the Skies in John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock worked on the script of most of the films he directed but he almost always adapted pre-existing stories, rather than creating from scratch.  At the same time, his adaptations were always loose.  As he said himself:

What I do is the read a story once, and if I like the basic idea I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema. (Hitchcock Truffaut, Faber 2017, p. 71)

Yet there are some books he read with more attention.  The novels of John Buchan are a case in point, specifically the series of novels featuring Richard Hannay.  It becomes clear in Hitchcock Truffaut that one of the pivotal authors for Hitchcock was Buchan.  He only adapted a Buchan novel once.  This was a massive hit and many consider it the first truly classic Hitchcock film: The 39 Steps (1935), based on Buchan’s 1915 novel, The Thirty-nine Steps.

Hitchcock had initially planned to film Greenmantle (1916), Buchan’s sequel to Steps, but changed his mind:

In fact, Buchan was a strong influence a long time before I undertook The Thirty-nine Steps, and some of it is reflected in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  He had written Greenmantle, a novel that was probably inspired by the strange personality of Laurence of Arabia.  Korda bought this novel, but he never made the picture.  At first I considered this book, but on second thought I chose The Thirty-nine Steps, which was a smaller subject.  Probably for the very reason we mentioned in connection with Dostoevsky — my respect for a literary masterpiece. (Hitchcock Truffaut, p. 95)

Interestingly, Hitchcock not only notes that Buchan was a strong influence, he even goes so far as to call Greenmantle ¨a literary masterpiece¨.  It is a book I have written on before, and I agree with Hitchcock that it is superior to the (nowadays) better known Steps.  Ironically, Hitchcock´s decision to leave the ¨literary masterpiece” aside in favour of  filming the smaller work has contributed greatly to the current state of affairs where Buchan is remembered for Steps, and Greenmantle is rarely read or discussed.

Not only that, but Hitchcock much later tried to adapt yet another Hannay novel (there are 5 in total), The Three Hostages (1924), dropping it after much deliberation when he realized that the importance of hypnosis in the plot, as well as a central episode where Hannay is pretending to be hypnotised, made the book unfilmable (Hitchcock Truffaut, p. 307).

Hitchcock’s quote above signals that The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934; remade by Hitchcock himself in 1955) had a strong element of Buchan.  Another film that has a strong element of Buchan is one of Hitchcock’s most popular and influential, North by Northwest (1959).  In particular, the majorly iconic scene where Roger O Thornhill (Cary Grant) is waiting on a roadside on a massive midwestern plain when an airplane appears out of the sky and attacks him has its genesis in a couple of episodes in The Thirty-nine Steps:

From my vantage-ground I could scan the whole moor right away to the railway line and to the south of it where green fields took the place of heather.  I have eyes like a hawk, but I could see nothing moving in the whole countryside.  Then I looked east beyond the ridge and saw a new kind of landscape—shallow green valleys with plentiful fir plantations and the faint lines of dust which spoke of highroads. Last of all I looked into the blue May sky, and there I saw that which set my pulses racing….

Low down in the south a monoplane was climbing into the heavens.  I was as certain as if I had been told that that aeroplane was looking for me, and that it did not belong to the police.  For an hour or two I watched it from a pit of heather.  It flew low along the hill-tops, and then in narrow circles over the valley up which I had come.  Then it seemed to change its mind, rose to a great height, and flew away back to the south.

I did not like this espionage from the air, and I began to think less well of the countryside I had chosen for a refuge.  These heather hills were no sort of cover if my enemies were in the sky, and I must find a different kind of sanctuary.  I looked with more satisfaction to the green country beyond the ridge, for there I should find woods and stone houses.  (Chapter II)

This passage places our hero in a desolate moor in Scotland, nothing moving in the whole countryside.  Into this silence and stillness comes the unexpected sight of a distant airplane.  This brings Hannay to the realization that the uninhabited moors are not such a perfect hiding place as he supposed, for the heather hills are no sort of cover.  The beautiful and peaceful natural setting becomes threatening once the airplane enters the scene.  And it comes back to look for Hannay in a later chapter:

It was now about seven o’clock, and as I waited I heard once again that ominous beat in the air. Then I realized that my vantage-ground might be in reality a trap. There was no cover for a tomtit in those bald green places.

I sat quite still and hopeless while the beat grew louder. Then I saw an aeroplane coming up from the east. It was flying high, but as I looked it dropped several hundred feet and began to circle round the knot of hill in narrowing circles, just as a hawk wheels before it pounces. Now it was flying very low, and now the observer on board caught sight of me. I could see one of the two occupants examining me through glasses. (Chapter V)

The circling airplane, wheeling like a hawk, is another powerful image transmitting the agorophobia of the situation.  The plane is now so low that he can see one of the occupants examining him through glasses. (As mentioned in the previous excerpt and at other points in the book, Hannay has excellent eyesight.)

Suddenly it began to rise in swift whorls, and the next I knew it was speeding eastward again till it became a speck in the blue morning.

[…]

I have said there was not cover in the whole place to hide a rat.  As the day advanced it was flooded with soft fresh light till it had the fragrant sunniness of the South African veld.  At other times I would have liked the place, but now it seemed to suffocate me.  The free moorlands were prison walls, and the keen hill air was the breath of a dungeon.

(Chapter V)

Later, having spotted him, the watchers from the plane bring word back to their accomplices and they set out to capture Hannay from the ground.  Hannay´s encounter with the airplane does not find its way into Hitchcock´s The 39 Steps, but it seems clear that he kept it in mind.  In North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill is menaced by an airplane in much the same way.

The Scottish moor gives way to an even flatter and more expansive land, the prairie of the US Midwest.  The harsh sun adds another element to the anxious discomfort of the scene.  Thornhill gets off a bus on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere, no houses around.  He looks around him and a plane appears in the distance, slowly resolving into an object of terror as it approaches and then  swoops down on Thornhill, and one of the occupants shoots at him.  The rest is the stuff of cinematic legend, a scene that has been copied incessantly ever since.

The genesis of this piece of cinematic history is Buchan’s scene, which was gestating in the back of Hitchcock’s mind until it came out in this film.  Perhaps Hitchcock had forgotten Buchan’s scene, as far as conscious memory goes.  Certainly he does not mention it in Hitchcock Truffaut, despite several references to Buchan.  But the sense of mounting unease and finally terror that comes with being exposed in an unpeopled and unsheltered landscape while dark forces threaten from above is one that is easily recognised as having migrated across decades and media from Buchan’s novel to Hitchcock’s film.

Hitchcock under Mount Rushmore during the filming of North by Northwest.

Dickinson (2019): Anachronous Language as Artistic Device

Apple TV+ series Dickinson is ostensibly a biopic of the poet Emily Dickinson, described in the blurb as ¨Poet. Daughter. Total rebel.¨ Yet an Apple press release describes Dickinson as a ¨half-hour comedy series¨. The idea that a biographical series about a renowned poet would be a comedy is surprising, all the more so in the context of Emily Dickinson, whose spare, epigrammatic works and reclusive lifestyle are not the stuff of laughter. Yet the series does have at least a semi-comic tone to it. On the whole, Dickinson is a less categorizable programme than one might expect.

The feminist angle of the series is predictably pronounced, never more heavy-handedly than in the opening minutes of the first episode. After a brief but pious introduction to the historical Dickinson, the first scene shows Hailee Steinfeld as the eponymous poet sitting down to write a poem in her dark bedroom, before being interrupted by a knock at the door. It is her sister Lavinia:

Lavinia: Emily, wake up. You have to fetch water.

Emily: Lavinia, it is four o´clock in the morning. I am writing.

L: Mother says you have to. I did it yesterday.

E: Why can´t Austin do it?

L: Austin´s a boy.

E: This is such bullshit.

This dialogue unsubtly introduces one of the key themes of Dickinson: patriarchal oppression. It also establishes Emily´s oddness and her obsessive nature: she is up at 4am, writing. Indeed, that second line is a joke of sorts (set-up: it is four o´clock in the morning; punchline: I am writing). The final line, this is such bullshit, establishes her rebellious nature. More disconcertingly, it establishes that the series will not obey 19th-century speech conventions. With the use of the expletive bullshit this is announced in the most jarring manner.

The standard adaptation of real events ask the audience to accept that ¨these [events] might have happened in much the way we are about to see them depicted¨ (Steven Lipkin, quoted in Desmond and Hawkes, Adaptation: Studying Film and Literature, McGraw-Hill, 2005, p. 189). Dickinson throughout does not do this. It uses extremely anachronous language and mannerisms to problematize any such acceptance.

 

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The Dickinsonś residence, roof flecked with snow.

Few mainstream 19th-century adaptations, pure parodies aside, dare to introduce overtly anachronistic language in a 19th-century setting. The BBC Oliver Twist (2007) was one that did so in the context of a gritty take on Dickens’ novel. It did not, however, prove a particularly successful one in its reception. Its use of such language was, in any case, not quite as upfront or as pervasive as that in Dickinson.  Take the following discussion in episode 8 of Dickinson, ¨There’s a certain Slant of light¨. The characters are discussing Dickens‘ Bleak House:

Lavinia: I´m honestly gonna die if we don’t find out who Esther’s mother is soon.

Austin: It’s obviously Lady Dedlock.

L: Austin! No spoilers!

Ben [entering the room]: What are you reading?

L: Bleak House. It’s so good.

B: You´re reading that too! What chapter are you on?

L: Twenty-five. How many chapters do you think there´ll  be?

B: Who knows? He gets paid by the word, so…

L: I never want it to end. Oh my God, Ben, do you think Esther’ll marry Mr Jarndyce?

A: Ew, gross. He’s her guardian

L: So what? People marry their guardians all the time… Oh my god! I’m such an Esther! I’m such an Esther it’s insane!

A: Last week you said you were an Ada.

L: I know. I’m half an Ada, half an Esther.

A: I think you’re more of a Mrs Jellyby.

B: Ooh!

L: Austin!

This episode is placed, then, in 1852-53, the period when Bleak House was first serialized. The language, far from aiming for period authenticity, includes such patently 21st-century youth slang as gross.  Further, the idea that marrying one´s guardian is something that could be seen as disgusting is in itself of more recent vintage. A 19-century response might be to see it as ill-advised or regrettable in many cases, but not disgusting per se. And, in Dickinson, Lavinia represents a 19th-century consciousness (although not 19th-century speech patterns) when she replies, ¨So what? People marry their guardians all the time¨.

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Reading a ¨number¨ of Bleak House

Lavinia is also reading Bleak House in the way that a 21-century person would watch a TV series: with an obsessive desire to avoid ¨spoilers¨. This avoidance of spoilers for Bleak House becomes a motif of this episode. Thus the series dramatizes the often-made point that Dickens’ serialized novels were their era´s equivalent of the TV series, made with most insistence in comparisons with The Wire. By discussing Bleak House in familiar terms throughout the episode, Dickinson provides a way in for its audience into that formidable text, and to 19th-century literature in general.

Dickinson in a playful way enacts the clash of language, morals and ideals that occurs in the encounter of the 21st-century mind with 19th-century literature. This clash is a source of comedy in the above-quoted scene. At other times, what is being suggested is a continuity in experience, the idea that the struggles of a 19th-century character cast light on the struggles of the 21st-century viewer. As such, Dickinson is one of many recent screen works dramatizing exceptional and heroic women and emphasizing their battles against a stifling patriarchy, an intended contribution to the contemporary feminist conversation. This is what one might have expected. More unexpectedly, it is a radical serio-comic mash-up of the 19th and 21st centuries, a signal of the death of the classical representative historical film and the birth of something different.

“Adaptation as Arguing with the Past: The Case of Sherlock” published in Palgrave Macmillan volume

Hear ye, hear ye. My long-gestating essay, “Adaptation as Arguing with the Past: The Case of Sherlock is now available in the volume Adaptation Considered as a Collaborative Art: Process and Practice, edited by Bernadette Cronin, Rachel MagShamhrain and Nikolai Preuschoff and published by Palgrave Macmillan. The abstract for my chapter:

This chapter considers the significance of adapting a much older source text and proposes the term transtemporal adaptation to describe the result, building on Linda Hutcheon’s analysis of transculturality in adaptations. Transtemporal adaptations are proposed as a form of “arguing with the past”, in the terms of Gillian Beer. Sherlock (2010–) is an exemplary text, one in which is inscribed the tension between Doyle’s nineteenth-century ideals and the Freudian narrative of personal development that is dominant in twenty-first-century popular culture, a tension manifest in the depiction of the detective’s (a)sexuality. The relation between adapter and source is revealed to be a collaboration marked by conflict and the mutually incompatible demands of fidelity to the source and adherence to dominant narrative formations within the adaptation’s own context.

The essay was originally written in 2014 and updated in 2016, thus incorporating analysis of Sherlock’sThe Abominable Bride” standalone episode aired on New Year’s Day 2016. However, the fourth and (thus far) final season of Sherlock came too late to be considered, though delays in the editing and publishing process of the volume means that the essay arrives long after the fourth season has aired. Nevertheless, I’m happy with the essay, and did not have much to say about the fourth season in any case. I’m also looking forward to reading the other chapters in the book when my contributor copy arrives, and am pleased to be included in an interesting and varied volume featuring work by a number of luminaries in the firmament of adaptation study.

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Batman: Is Wealth a Superpower?

When Batman is asked in The Dark Knight Rises why he donned the mask to carry out crime-fighting, he answers “The idea was to be a symbol. Batman could be anybody. That was the point” (425 [page refs to The Dark Knight Trilogy: The Complete Screenplays, Faber and Faber]). In case that wasn’t clear enough, late in the film he tells Jim Gordon: “A hero can be anyone. That was always the point” (505).

The thing that has separated Batman from the other major superheroes, that has made him the most relatable figure in the genre, is the fact that he has no superpower. This is somewhat of a cliche of comparative superhero discourse. It is also the view of the director of the Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan:

The thing about Bruce Wayne is he doesn’t have superpowers other than his extraordinary wealth. Really, he’s just someone who does a lot of push-ups. And in that sense, he’s very relatable[.]

So if Batman has no superpower, maybe anyone could be Batman. Why not? But while noting Batman’s lack of a true superpower, Nolan does mention the character’s “extraordinary wealth”. The implication, then, is that wealth is a sort of superpower, or at least a substitute for one.

Can we imagine Batman without his wealth? A superhero who not only does not have a superpower, but is also not that rich? Probably not. Throughout the Batman canon we find that the Knight’s exploits are wholly dependent on his wealth and resources. In Nolan’s final film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Returns, for example, this is clear at many points. How could Batman defeat Bane without his gargantuan wealth? His wealth and resources count in several different ways:

1 His mind: Batman can know everything because he has access to police databases to track down Selina Kyle after she burglarizes his manor (369). Later his relationship with her becomes key to defeating Bane.

2 His body: Batman’s body manages to overcome wear and tear through the carbon fiber leg brace that makes him capable of physically competing with Bane. This leg brace is not exactly available through the Public Health Service, rather it is an advanced prototype developed by the research team at Wayne Corporation (395).

3 His appliances: He has The Bat, a flying car developed by the research team at Wayne Corporation in conjunction with the Defense Department. He uses this to fight criminals and later to transport the nuclear fusion bomb out of Gotham, saving the city from destruction (386). Without this specialised vehicle, Gotham is toast.

4 And, of course, he owns a secret and very well-equipped hideaway below ground in the Batcave, property he inherited from his father.

And all these resources despite being nominally an outlaw during this story, wanted for the murder of Harvey Dent, and despite having no official position in the police/military/government. It is clear, then, that Batman’s accomplishments could not be achieved without his wealth, and wealth is his real superpower, giving him resources beyond anyone else’s wildest dreams.

 

Bullshit and the Art of the Plausible: Thomas Carlyle and Harry Frankfurt

The most influential academic work on the rather unacademic topic of bullshit is Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, first published in the Raritan Quarterly Review in 1986 and later in book form. Frankfurt goes to great lengths to elucidate the difference between bullshit and lying. Most strikingly, he argues that bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lying, and renders this paradox quite plausible.

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Harry S. Frankfurt (1929- )

The liar, Frankfurt insists, must have a clear conception of the difference between truth and lies in order to lie successfully:

[I]t is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false.

Every true liar, then, has the capacity for honesty and knows very well what truth is. Yet now, consider the bullshitter. The bullshitter, for Frankfurt, may be telling the truth or a lie or (probably more likely, I would suggest) somewhere in the middle, a half-truth. The bullshitter  does not really know or care if he/she is speaking the truth or not:

Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

So, while both the truth-teller and the liar are very much concerned with what the truth is, in order to express it or to avoid it, the bullshitter has no relationship with truth at all: they would not know truth if they saw it, and don’t want to know. Such an alienation from truth is the real danger, not the expressions of direct untruth that a liar provides.

Frankfurt’s arguments provide a theoretical underpinning of a phenomenon that had not gone wholly unnoticed by earlier writers. Thomas Carlyle, in particular, dealt with this at the opening of his more-or-less forgotten 1833 essay “Cagliostro“. This essay was a biographical account of the eponymous Italian adventurer and forger (real name: Giuseppe Balsamo; also known as: Joseph Balsamo), a mysterious figure who had been implicated in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace involving Marie Antoinette. (Carlyle also wrote about this). Cagliostro held a fascination for late 18th and 19th century writers: Carlyle mentions that Goethe and Schiller wrote about him, and so, later, did Dumas and Tolstoy.

Carlyle declares Count Alessandro Cagliostro to be “the King of Liars” and “the Quack of Quacks” (English and Other Critical Essays, Everyman, 1964, 244, 248). And this purity of quackism is something Carlyle finds fascinating and even praiseworthy. He looks through the pre-Cagliostrian history of liars, and finds some notable specimens there, but concludes:

[It must] remain doubtful whether any of these comparatively were much more than liars from the teeth onwards: a perfect character of the species in question, who lied not in word only, nor in act and word only, but continually, in thought, word, and act; and, so to speak, lived wholly in an element of lying, and from birth to death did nothing but lie,—was still a desideratum. Of which desideratum Count Alessandro offers, we say, if not the fulfilment, perhaps as near an approach to it as the limited human faculties permit. (244)

Cagliostro so perfected the art of falsity that Carlyle concludes that he is “not so much a Liar as a Lie” (248). The interesting point is that Carlyle considers such a liar to be much preferable to

he who is neither true nor false; who never in his existence once spoke or did any true thing (for indeed his mind lives in twilight, with cat-vision, incapable of discerning truth); and yet had not the manfulness to speak or act any decided lie; but spent his whole life in plastering together the True and the False, and therefrom manufacturing the Plausible. (243)

Carlyle’s idea of the Plausible, then, occupies the same position external to the True/False dichotomy and destructive of this very dichotomy as Frankfurt’s bullshit. The liar must know truth, but the speaker of the Plausible lives in twilight, with cat-vision, and is incapable of discerning truth.

220px-Portrait_of_Giuseppe_Balsamo_(called_Count_Alessandro_Cagliostro)_LACMA_62.18_(1_of_2)

Count Cagliostro (1743-1795), the Quack of Quacks.

Carlyle goes on to note that the speaker of the Plausible – that is, effectively, the bullshitter – is motivated by concerns regarding his/her own social placement and advancement.

Wretched mortal, who with a single eye to be ‘respectable,’ forever sittest cobbling together two Inconsistencies, which stick not for an hour, but require ever new gluten and labour[.] What, in the Devil’s name, is the use of Respectability, with never so many gigs and silver spoons, if thou inwardly art the pitifullest of all men? I would thou wert either cold or hot. (243)

Carlyle would prefer someone to be hot or cold – that is, a liar or a truth-teller, rather than a speaker of the Plausible. Frankfurt would agree, as it is the latter who is the real enemy of the truth. It is the drive for respectability that creates such a discourse of Plausibility, in Carlyle’s view.

If we learn Carlyle’s lesson, then, we will acknowledge that bullshit is not of the individual. Rather, bullshit and the art of the Plausible are borne out of the individual’s wish to create a certain relation between the self and society (“respectability”), and to fill a certain position in society. It is perhaps comforting to reflect that in this conception we are not born bullshitters, rather we embrace bullshit as we try to fit into a society that seems to value the art of the Plausible and that, lip service aside, has limited tolerance for the speaking of truth.

Patrick Kavanagh, the Bard of Sexual Frustration and Bad Faith

As it is St. Patrick’s Day, it is opportune to look back on one of the greatest Irish poetic works of the 20th century, Patrick Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger“, a longish poem taking up 31 pages in the 2018 Penguin Modern mini-book The Great Hunger. To an Irish person the phrase the great hunger brings to mind the famine of the 1840s, in Irish an Gorta Mór, literally the great hunger. Yet, though Kavanagh’s title clearly evokes this meaning, that is not what the poem is about at all.

The hunger for Kavanagh is sexual. It is the frustration of the rural Irish bachelor, living and working on the land:

Which of these men
Loved the light and the queen
Too long virgin? Yesterday was summer. Who was it promised marriage to himself
Before apples were hung from the ceilings for Hallowe’en?
We will wait and watch the tragedy to the last curtain

The tragedy for Kavanagh is the life devoted to the land at the expense of any meaningful human relationships. This type of devotion to the land tends to be associated with the rural Irish male. In popular culture, the figure of Bull McCabe in Jim Sheridan’s film The Field (1990), based on a 1965 John B. Keane play, is the exemplar, played by the aging Richard Harris: a powerful, monolithic presence, obsessed by the land he has slaved his whole life over. Bull does have a wife, but he hasn’t spoken to her in sixteen years at the film’s opening.

Richard Harris as Bull McCabe

In the context of the west of Ireland, where the film was set and filmed, the character of Bull McCabe makes sense. The land is stony and unyielding, where it is not boggy and sodden. To turn a small plot into pasture was the work of a lifetime – and still is, though now there are easier ways of making a living in a globalised Ireland.

Bull McCabe is an angry man, bereft of the softer human emotions; ultimately, when his land is threatened, he is a violent one. Yet he is a tragic hero, because of his monumental integrity, his work ethic and his love of the land he has developed from waste. He remains a hugely relatable figure, and the film remains one of Ireland’s most popular. (Though outside the country, it gained less traction than Sheridan’s other films from that era, My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father. Thus, one must conclude that it is a less universal film, a more purely Irish one.)

Kavanagh does not draw a McCabe-type figure, though. Rather, he gives us an interesting variation on the stern, rock-hewn patriarch. Kavanagh’s protagonist, Paddy Maguire, can do a decent McCabe impression:

‘Move forward the basket and balance it steady

In this hollow. Pull down the shafts of that cart, Joe,

And straddle the horse,’ Maguire calls.

‘The wind’s over Brannagan’s, now that means rain.

Graip up some withered stalks and see that no potato falls

Over the tail-board going down the ruckety pass –

And that’s a job we’ll have to do in December,

Gravel it and build a kerb on the bog-side. Is that Cassidy’s ass

Out in my clover? Curse o’ God

Where is that dog?.’

Yet he has an inner life very different from the persona he projects:

And thought himself wiser than any man in the townland

When he laughed over pints of porter

Of how he came free from every net spread

In the gaps of experience. He shook a knowing head

And pretended to his soul

That children are tedious in hurrying fields of April.

Thus Kavanagh introduces the idea of pretence into the portrayal of the Irish rural male. Not only has the life he has chosen cut Maguire off from intimacy and emotional expression, but it forces him into pretending that these things are inconsequential to him. Not only can he not attain these things, he must pretend indifference to them. No other presentation of self is acceptable in Kavanagh’s rural Ireland. Maguire’s lust has few outlets:

He saw his cattle

And stroked their flanks in lieu of wife to handle.

Maguire has no apparent father figure, but has a complex relationship with his overbearing mother with whom he lives until her death at an advanced age. It is principally through her that the ideology of his society imprints itself:

Now go to Mass and pray and confess your sins

And you’ll have all the luck,’ his mother said.

He listened to the lie that is a woman’s screen

Around a conscience when soft thighs are spread.

And all the while she was setting up the lie

She trusted in Nature that never deceives.

But her son took it as literal truth.

Maguire’s mistake, then, is taking the things he is taught too literally, believing too much in the dominant ideology. One is reminded of Žižek on the workings of contemporary ideology:

[I]n contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian […] cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game. The ruling ideology is not meant to be taken seriously or literally.”’ Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 2008), p. 24

Yet even Žižek did not apply this to Catholic Ireland, a place which, while dark and joyless, seemed never less than sincere as far as its struggling rural working class went. What we learn from reading The Great Hunger is that, to some of them at least, they were conscious of living a lie, one which they had bought into early in life, and could no longer escape except in the solitude of their own minds. This precise form of rural Irish bad faith we can only find depicted in Kavanagh, who was far closer to this life than any other major Irish literary figure.

Armed Eyesight: Metaphor in Carlyle and in 21st-century Economics

One might be tempted to think that the Carlylean figure of the sage or man of letters is no more. That there was a way of knowing the world articulated by 19th-century sages that can no longer be accessed, for good or ill. Yet echoes of the sage mode of discourse can be found among modern intellectuals and academics. Most ironically, economics may be the 21st-century equivalent of sage writing. Ironic because Carlyle famously described economics (then known as political economy) as the “dismal science”, and indeed railed against it at every opportunity.

It was a dismal science to Carlyle because of its reduction of people to productive units. Carlyle noted that the final consequence of this was that people were not valuable in themselves, but only in how they contributed to the overall economic situation. Thus a person who was not economically viable had no personal value, and was better off dead, being a drain on resources rather than a producer. This capitalistic phenomenon of a person being unable to find work was on that struck Carlyle forcefully:

A full-formed Horse will, in any market, bring from twenty to as high as two hundred Friedrichs d’or: such is his worth to the world. A full-formed Man is not only worth nothing to the world, but the world could afford him a round sum would he simply engage to go and hang himself. (Sartor Resartus, III, IV)

Carlyle rejected what he saw as the implicit premise of political economy that human worth was defined by economic factors, and so the calculations political economists made were anathema to him. He valued such systematic thought little, and instead envisioned the true intellectual as one who took a the widest, most inclusive view possible. The intellectual, for Carlyle, was the one who saw everything, and saw through everything. There was no end to the cultural artefacts that could be read by the true sage. In Sartor Resartus, for example, it is clothes which prove to be transcendentally revealing when seen through the eyes of a sage, and which indeed ranks for Carlyle above any more established field of study:

[T]his Science of Clothes is a high one, and may with infinitely deeper study on thy part yield richer fruit: that it takes scientific rank beside Codification, and Political Economy, and the Theory of the British Constitution; nay rather, from its prophetic height looks down on all these, as on so many weaving-shops and spinning-mills, where the Vestures which it has to fashion, and consecrate, and distribute, are, too often by haggard hungry operatives who see no farther than their nose, mechanically woven and spun?

Carlyle’s point was that this superlatively revealing element of our everyday environment was not considered a science, and so he was demonstrating that far beyond scientific disciplines could knowledge of humanity and society be gained. By treating the study of clothes as a science, Carlyle was parodying scientific discourse, but was also making a very serious point about the necessity to learn from and be attentive to everything in our social and natural environment. To insist on a rigidly disciplinary approach was thus, for Carlyle, to very precisely miss the point. And this disciplinary point-missing Carlyle saw exemplified in the dismal science of Political Economy:

It was a matter of vision, of being able to really see things, and see through things:

The beginning of all Wisdom is to look fixedly on Clothes, or even with armed eyesight, till they become transparent. (SR, Bk. 2, Ch. II)

The irony, then, is that contemporary economics sometimes posits itself as exactly the kind of science of everyday life that Carlyle was looking for. In Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist, the economist is the person who can look on the everyday and find hidden patterns and meaning therein. On the cover, the following quote from David Bodanis appears:

Reading this book is like spending an ordinary day wearing X-ray goggles.

It would be interesting to know how Carlyle would have felt about the X-ray metaphor. The technology of the X-ray had yet to come into being in the mid-19th century, however, so the metaphor was unavailable to him. Yet his metaphor of armed eyesight is very close. So Carlyle conceptualised the activity of philosophising in a very similar way to Bodanis’ conception of economics.

And in the opening lines of The Undercover Economist proper, Harford again emphasises visual metaphors:

[N]ormal people look remarkable in the eyes of economists. What is the economist seeing? What could he tell you, if you cared to ask? And why should you care? (1)

This is an attractive view of the economist, as one who simply looks upon everyday things, but rather than seeing only what we see, seeing through them to a deeper reality.

Yet, we cannot quite declare Harford to be a neo-Carlylean. Rather than looking on things with impartial curiosity, he brings to bear on them an astounding preconception:

[F]ree markets are just like Fletcher Reede’s son [in the film Liar Liar] – they force you to tell the truth. (60)

Harford believes that nothing that lacks value can survive in a free market, because people will only pay what an object is “worth”. Taxes, he believes, interfere with this “world of truth”.

Now you can begin to see why I say that prices “tell the truth” and reveal information […].[T]he value of the product to the customer is equal to or higher than the price; and the cost to the producer equal to or lower than the price. (62)

There are innumerable problems with this theory: what about alcohol to the alcoholic, a bet to the gambler, junk food to the unhealthy? Are these “worth” their price, or is their value actually negative? That is, these people appear to be paying to harm themselves.

Again, if the value of something is intrinsic and equal to price, why would a multi-million dollar advertising industry exist to convince people to buy, while also pushing up prices to pay for itself. Would not a true world of market truth abolish all advertising except the strictly informational?

Harford admits that the pure market as world of truth does not exist, yet insists on using it as a justification for the free market throughout the book. He does not address the issue that one could just as easily imagine a perfect socialist society, say, or a perfect anarchist society or any such arrangement. Why is it valid to imagine free market perfection and not those others?

In short, it is ultimately clear that Harford is looking at things through a very restrictive lens, seeing things not as they are but as they would be in a perfect free market. This is in line with an economist’s training, but seeing things from a Carlylean perspective, it is far from acceptable, and such a thinker runs the risk of becoming what Carlyle called “a Pair of Spectacles behind which there is no Eye” (SR, I, X). To really see through the phenomena of everyday life, as Hartford nobly attempts, would take a far lesser attachment to any such politico-structural ideal without a real-world existence. Sometimes, in short, an excess of theory is a greater epistemological flaw than no theory at all.

Thomas Carlyle and the Mind as Algorithm

In a recent post I reflected on the notion of human beings as algorithms that Yuval Noah Harari states is the current scientific consensus. Harari sums up this position as follows:

1. Organisms are algorithms, and humans are not individuals–they are ‘dividuals’. That is, humans are an assemblage of many different algorithms lacking a single inner voice or a single self.

2. The algorithms constituting a human are not free. They are shaped by genes and environmental pressures, and take decisions either deterministically or randomly–but not freely.

3. It follows that an external algorithm could theoretically know me much better than I can ever know myself. An algorithm that monitors each of the systems that comprise my body and my brain could know exactly who I am, how I feel and what I want. Once developed, such an algorithm could replace the voter, the customer and the beholder. Then the algorithm will know best, the algorithm will always be right, and beauty will be in the calculations of the algorithm. (383)

[T]wenty-first-century technology may enable external algorithms to ‘hack humanity’ and know me far better than I know myself. Once this happens the belief in individualism will collapse and authority will shift from individual humans to networked algorithms. (384)

You may not agree with the idea that organisms are algorithms, and that giraffes, tomatoes and human beings are just different methods for processing data. But you should know that this is current scientific dogma, and it is changing our world beyond recognition. (429)

We live in the age of Big Data, in which algorithms – sets of instructions telling computers what to do – are used in all fields, from the medical to traffic control, and Harari demonstrates very easily that the algorithm is central to our experience of the world. Nevertheless, the scientific dogma he cites may be entirely erroneous.

The notion of the algorithm entirely predates the current age of information technology, originating in 1600BC Babylon. Yet it never until very recently seemed to provide a likely basis for human existence. So engrossed are we in algorithmic knowledge that we see ourselves reflected in it. We can no longer conceive of ourself as anything but algorithmic, so dependent are we on algorithms for our technological, economic and social development.

To understand the inherent dangers in such metaphorical thinking, we need to re-examine what happened at the height of the industrial revolution, at a time when the development of the machine was the dominant technological and social fact. Thomas Carlyle’s “Signs of the Times” (1829) is a key reflection on the Industrial Age. Carlyle noted:

It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends. Nothing is now done directly, or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance. For the simplest operation, some helps and accompaniments, some cunning abbreviating process is in readiness. Our old modes of exertion are all discredited, and thrown aside. On every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one. The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster. The sailor furls his sail, and lays down his oar; and bids a strong, unwearied servant, on vaporous wings, bear him through the waters. Men have crossed oceans by steam; the Birmingham Fire-king has visited the fabulous East; and the genius of the Cape were there any Camoens now to sing it, has again been alarmed, and with far stranger thunders than Gama’s. There is no end to machinery. Even the horse is stripped of his harness, and finds a fleet fire-horse invoked in his stead. Nay, we have an artist that hatches chickens by steam; the very brood-hen is to be superseded! For all earthly, and for some unearthly purposes, we have machines and mechanic furtherances; for mincing our cabbages; for casting us into magnetic sleep. We remove mountains, and make seas our smooth highways; nothing can resist us. We war with rude Nature; and, by our resistless engines, come off always victorious, and loaded with spoils.

Note how Carlyle begins with the categorization of machinery into inward and outward. We all know the outward developments of the time – the steam engine, the power loom – but the notion of inward machinery is also worth noting. Carlyle argues that the outward dominance of the machine produces effects within the human psyche and within our conception of what we are. One of the most famous lines of “Signs of the Times” runs: “Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.” By working constantly with machinery, and by an unquestioning faith in machinery, people were beginning to relate themselves to machinery, to define themselves in relation to machinery.

Through the 19th and early 20th century, developments in science tended to posit the human mind itself as a machine. This metaphor continued at least as far as Freud:

[D]uring much of Sigmund Freud’s life, the dominant technology was steam power. It was as omnipresent a century ago as computers are for us today. Not surprisingly, Freud chose the steam engine metaphor to describe what he called the ‘apparatus’ of the human mind—in which ‘psychic energy’ flows in a ‘psycho-dynamic’ system, and can neither be created nor destroyed.      

The steam engine is no longer a technology of such importance, thus the notion of creating a theory of the mind from it strikes us as extremely odd (though a remnant of this thinking has survived in the use of the figurative phrase “letting off steam” to describe emotional release). Nevertheless, when we think how the rise of the algorithm has affected scientists’ approach to the mind, we can begin to understand Freud’s thought processes. And indeed, reading the mind in terms of dominant or emerging technology is older even than the industrial revolution. The mind and consciousness were then, and to an almost equal extent remain still, a mystery – the last frontier, the one truly hard problem“, faced with which, the enquiring mind resorts to metaphor as a denial of mystery. It may turn out that algorithms have something to tell us about the mind, but the history of mechanical metaphors of mind indicate that this “something” will be far less than all, and that the study that sees algorithms in the mind is unwittingly metaphorical rather than scientific.

Related:

Article by Rodney A. Brooks calling for the retirement of the computational metaphor for mind and body

The Haunting of Hill House (2018): The Easter Egg Adaptation

The 2018 Netflix series adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959) has garnered significant acclaim, with a 93% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Jackson’s novel is a slim volume, coming in at only around 200 pages in an average edition. The series itself turns this into ten episodes, ranging in length from 42 to 70 minutes. It is clear, then, that there will be a great deal of extra material in the adaptation, a matter of expansion rather than condensation.

Indeed, the film is not a traditional adaptation, if we take Linda Costanzo Cahir’s definition of the traditional adaptation as one which

maintained the overall traits of the book (its plot, settings, and certain stylistic conventions), but revamped particular details as the filmmakers saw fit. (Literature into Film: Theory and Practical Approaches, McFarland, 2006, Kindle loc. 348)

The Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House has a basic plot of a psychic researcher inviting a small group of people to inhabit a notorious haunted house for a certain period, leading to apparent manifestations of supernatural activity centring around one of the inhabitants (Eleanor/Nell), whose mental health undergoes a rapid deterioration. Almost the entire novel, aside from flashback episodes, takes place in the space of less than a week. The serial, focalised on a family who move around because of their parents’ jobs as fixer-uppers and end up in a possibly haunted house, definitely doesn’t retain the novel’s plot in an overall sense, and the setting only partially.

The setting within which the plot takes place is widened. For Jackson, all the action after the first chapter takes place in Hill House or on the grounds thereof. That lends a claustrophic feel from which the novel derives much of its power. The famous opening paragraph of the novel immediately foregrounds Hill House itself, and adds some anthropomorphic elements which become a feature:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Hill House, then, is not sane, and as such, is human. The actual physical description of Hill House begins in the first paragraph of Chapter Two:

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity.

Hill House evinces watchfulness, glee, arrogance, hatred, evil. Not only is it upsetting and frightening in its anthropomorphism, but it is terrifying geometrically:

Eleanor shook herself, turning to see the room complete. It had an unbelievably faulty design which left it chillingly wrong in all its dimensions, so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less than the barest possible tolerable length.

In Chapter Four, Dr Montague confirms that the house is not quite right geometrically. It was built that way:

Have you not wondered at our extreme difficulty in finding our way around? An ordinary house would not have had the four of us in such confusion for so long, and yet time after time we choose the wrong doors, the room we want eludes us. […]

Every angle is slightly wrong. Hugh Crain must have detested other people and their sensible squared-away houses, because he made his house to suit his mind. Angles which you assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction of a degree off in one direction or another. I am sure, for instance, that you believe that the stairs you are sitting on are level, because you are not prepared for stairs which are not level—”

They moved uneasily, and Theodora put out a quick hand to take hold of the balustrade, as though she felt she might be falling.

“—are actually on a very slight slant toward the central shaft; the doorways are all a very little bit off centre—that may be, by the way, the reason the doors swing shut unless they are held…”

It’s not just Eleanor’s possibly skewed perception. It all adds up to a seriously powerful setting. We can easily engage with the idea that Eleanor will find it difficult to escape Hill House. Even to the reader, Hill House provides a heady mix of dizzying geometry and emotional overload.

The serial uses the setting of Hill House, and some of Jackson’s words, but it also sets extensive action in other locales, ranging from a drug treatment centre to a funeral parlour. Some episodes steer almost entirely clear of Hill House.

Jackson’s novel follows the four characters gathered in Hill House: Dr Montague, Eleanor, Theodora and Luke. There are a few bit-part characters in the early sections, most notably in terms of dramatic relevance Eleanor’s sister; there is a little of Mrs Dudley and a single appearance by Mr Dudley; and in the latter part there is the introduction of Dr Montague’s wife and her friend Arthur. It is worth noting that in the highly regarded and generally faithful 1963 film adaptation of the book, entitled The Haunting, Arthur is omitted, and certainly his absence does not leave any hole in the plot, nor does it seem to have been much lamented by reviewers. In the book, he and Mrs Montague come in as essentially comic relief, and, while they do not detract from the power of the novel, they are perhaps its most forgettable and narratively inessential element.

Promotional poster for The Haunting (1960)

In the Netflix series there is a greatly expanded cast of characters. Almost all of the original characters are there, nominally at least. The main exception is Dr Montague, a character central to Jackson’s plot, as without him and his paranormal research, there is no gathering at Hill House. But he (as well as Mrs Montague and Arthur) is missing.

But rather than a faithful adaptation of Jackson’s characters, we have really only a nominal adaptation. We have a character called Nell, but it is not clear that she has anything to do with the supposed original. Jackson’s Eleanor/Nell is a woman in her 30s: her background is one of an adult life spent nursing her mother, who has died recently; her only other relative is her sister, who she dislike; she has no friends and no job. Her personality is deeply shy, crippingly self-conscious, achingly lonely. None of this can be mapped on to Netflix Nell, who is much younger, of a totally different family background and life experience, and not apparently afflicted by any of the painful self-consciousness that is the defining trait of Jackson’s Nell. Both Nells are indeed very sensitive, but their different makers had contrasting ideas of what it means to be sensitive.

Nell (Victoria Pedretti) in the Netflix series. https://the-haunting-of-hill-house.fandom.com/wiki/Eleanor_Crain

Almost all of the main characters have Jacksonian names. One of them is called Shirley. This is, clearly enough, a reference of sorts to the novel, but, also clearly, not to a character in he novel, but to its author. Similarly, there is a book called The Haunting of Hill House in the series, but it is not written by the character called Shirley. Instead Shirley is merely a character therein. This book is not a novel, either, but a factual account of events that occurred to the series’ characters, written by one of them – Steven Crain. Again, the name Crain is a reference to the family who built the house in the novel, but Steven Crain is not a character from the novel. The funeral parlour is called Harris, a reference not to the novel or to Jackson, exactly, but to the actress who played Nell in the first film, Julie Harris. Recognition of this reference demands knowledge not only of the novel, but of other related media content.

So, what we get in The Haunting of Hill House is not a traditional adaptation taking plot, setting and character from its source. Rather it is a work which creates an original plot, and makes a point of sewing it with a plethora of intriguing but non-structural references to the work indicated by its title. Watching it, I was often struck by the idea that if the series simply changed the names, it would not have to acknowledge Jackson’s novel as a source at all, as it is barely more reminiscent of the novel as it is of various other works in the genre.

As such, The Haunting of Hill House reminds me of such recent adaptations as the series Sherlock, which presents itself clearly as an adaptation, but takes neither the setting nor the plots from the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead, it sews the episodes with references to the putative source, Easter eggs (I called them “canonical indicators” in my post on this element of Sherlock) for the discerning viewer who is familiar with the source. An Easter egg is defined by Urban Dictionary as “A hidden item placed in a movie, television show, or otherwise visual media for close watchers.” Thus the knowing viewer garners by recognition of the hidden item a surplus enjoyment unavailable to the unknowing viewer. Yet at a characterological level, Sherlock does definitely owe its central characters to Doyle, so it is still closer to a traditional adaptation than The Haunting of Hill House.

Michael Huisman as Steven Crain in The Haunting of Hill House. https://the-haunting-of-hill-house.fandom.com/wiki/Steven_Crain

For works of canonical literature, like Doyle’s, or semi-canonical, like Jackson’s, the traditional adaptation may be dying. What is replacing it is the Easter Egg Adaptation, which delights the reader-viewer with oblique references to the pseudo-source, and caters to the viewing-viewer by presenting a story where, at the structural level, the contemporary trumps the classical. Because Easter eggs are at the level of detail rather than structure, the makers are not bound by fidelity. Because adaptations have a specific (series of) reference point(s), they are more suited to the Easter egg approach than other films. Thus Jackson’s story of lonely and desperate individuality can rather easily become a triumphant story of the working through of troubled family relationships. The ultimate demonstration of this is in the closing voiceover from Steven Crain:

Hill House, not sane, stands against its hills, holding darkness within. It has stood so for a hundred years, and might stand a hundred more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks meet neatly, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House. And those who walk there, walk together.

It is that final line which is most significant, substituting walk together for Jackson’s walked alone. A precise inversion of meaning at the final moment. Appropriating the solemn affect of Jackson’s prose in order to tell a human story which is revealed to be the exact opposite of the novel, which is nevertheless clearly referenced. From individuality to family connection, from tragedy to triumph, from horror to love. (“Love”, Steven piously notes just before this, “is the relinquishment of logic […]. Without it, we cannot continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” Taken word-for-word, these are almost exactly Jackson’s words; nevertheless, the sentiment is entirely different.)

What this Easter Egg adaptation wants from its source are moments, and the recurrence of isolated references which provide a viewing pleasure in themselves. What it doesn’t need are the specifics of Jackson’s plot, and what it steers far away from is the Jackson worldview of individuals living their personal tragedies alone, barely noticed and unredeemed.

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British Comparative Literature Association (BCLA)

Promoting the scholarly study of literature

Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

The best mystery and crime fiction (up to 1987): Book and movie reviews

Video Krypt

VHS Rules, OK?

my small infinities

My wee little life in this great big world and related sundries.

Nirvana Legacy

Dark Slivers out now: Kindle ebook or, for paperback, email NirvanaDarkSlivers@gmail.com

gregfallis.com

it's this or get a real job

221B

"The game is afoot."

Exploring Youth Issues

Dr. Alan Mackie @ Edinburgh University

Bundle of Books

Thoughts from a bookworm

Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia

The Web log of Dr. Joseph Suglia