Saturday, 12 December 2020

Review: “Deep Blue Sea 3”


POGUE, John (Dir.), “Deep Blue Sea 3”, Roserock Productions/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., 2020.

This is my 550th post at this blog and I thought I would commemorate it by doing something a little trademark-y, something representative of what I do here on a regular basis. Looking around though, there was little of a Lovecraftian nature that I had to hand to discuss. I thought of doing a Library Generation Table but my eyes began to glaze over; ditto another Phobia. I thought – “was there a Rip-It-&-Run subject to explore?” - there was not. I was already committed to doing handouts for “Spawn of Azathoth” but that’s an Herculean task that will go on seemingly forever. So, I went out into the world to see if I could find something and – bam! – I found this: a shark flick. That would do nicely.

To be honest, I hadn’t heard that there was a “Deep Blue Sea 2 – obviously, it wasn’t deemed worthy of an antipodean cinema or video release - and – looking up reviews of it online – I can see why. It gets universally panned as the absolute worst kind of horror-show. The first movie still rates as one of my favourite action/horror films, despite some woeful inclusions, but I’ve never thought that it was remotely worthy of a sequel. Obviously, I don’t work in movie production! Exploring further though, it seems that this film is a sequel to the second, not necessarily of the first, given that there’s very little that connects the initial movie with its so-called follow-up.

The basic premise of all these movies is that deluded science-y types find a reason to increase the size of shark’s brains and become shocked to discover that they then get smarter! We’re told in “Deep Blue Sea” that the purpose of this tinkering is to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, a worthy goal in and of itself. Why they chose to experiment on Mako sharks though, is one of the glaring and unanswered questions which I took away with me: surely a Wobbegong or a Basking Shark, even a sizable Grey Nurse, or Whale Shark would have sufficed? And how about rays? Manta Rays are plenty big and they’re definitely not equipped with teeth. Essentially, they could have picked on a bunch of sharks that are way down on the aggression scale, but no – they had to go hard, or go home.

Of course, one reason that they needed Mako sharks (for the purposes of the movie, not the tenuous reasoning of the plot) was that Mako sharks jump. In the first film they destroy the underwater research base because sinking it drops the height of the sea pen fences and allows them to jump over them to freedom. In “Deep Blue Sea 2” and three, it’s Bull Sharks that get the gong. Why Bull Sharks? Well, interestingly, these are one of very few sharks species who sport a gland near their cloaca which absorbs and releases salt into and out of the shark’s system as needed, allowing them to spend extended periods in fresh water, should they so choose. Bull Sharks notoriously occupy river mouths in Australia and South Africa during fish spawning seasons and many swimming folk who believe that they’re safe outside of salt water often get the (last) surprise of their lives. Bull Sharks have been found in freshwater lakes and dams 80kms inland from the Queensland coast after hurricanes and floods left them stranded there. Look up the word “adaptable” in a dictionary, you’ll see a picture of a Bull Shark.

Not having seen the second film I’m unsure if there was a pseudo-scientific rationale for using Bull Sharks; but, in this movie, we don’t have to worry about that – here, we learn that three male sharks have escaped the science facility along with their mother, and that their spawning corporate agency is keen to re-capture or kill them before they cause any trouble. That’s the kind of trouble that only sharks with mega-brains and the ability to swim in fresh water can devise which, from what happens next, is not that worrisome, compared to what the humans get up to.

Like the first film, this narrative is built upon a bog-standard Cyberpunk premise: big, flashy science is happening, paid for by Corporate cash, and vested Corporate goals are slowly revealed as the plot unfolds, prompting questions along the lines of ‘sure, we can; but should we?’. In this instalment, there’s a lot of talk about climate change (which they get hopelessly wrong, but kudos for bringing it up anyway) and the impact of rising sea levels on coastal communities (human and otherwise). Our science boffins are monitoring Great White Sharks offshore from an abandoned island fishing community named “Little Happy” (for reasons). They have an “AI” and underwater sensors which track every creature moving in the water around the island and our intrepid boffin-leader is best friends with the Alpha-female Great White, named “Sally”. Into this peaceful environment blunders a shipload of muscularly testosteronal corporate thugs who commandeer Little Happy in order to destroy the rogue Bull Sharks who have moved in, treating it as a convenient smorgasbord. Arguments ensue about whether they should capture or kill the sharks, and it quickly becomes obvious that the corporate bad-guys just want to cover their tracks by killing the creatures – and any- or everything else along with them – as quickly as possible. That includes the humans. It rapidly becomes a fight to save Little Happy from the baddies who want to blow it to Kingdom Come.

It takes some time – with some unexpected singing along the way – to get to this stage in the proceedings and there’s a lot of high-minded philosophising en route which only serves to make sure that the audience gets in some useful eye exercises – by rolling them. A lot. And when everyone gets down to it in the end – when we know exactly where everyone stands in this scenario – the final action sequences are peculiarly lacklustre. There are a couple of fist fights, an explosion, a (heavily narratively-weighted) spear is thrown (which misses), and the last shark swims into a… is it a telephone booth? An air-conditioning unit? It’s annoyingly unclear what this thing is and it’s not at all flagged at the start of the movie, but it pops the last shark quite effectively, whatever it was. I was sensing the absence of a scene, cut from an earlier edit of the movie, that should have been left in… I was also left wondering whether the film crew had ever even seen an action movie before, so unhandily was all of this managed.

And that fiendish anal gland of the Bull Sharks, allowing them to breathe fresh water? ‘Doesn’t come up. ‘Doesn’t get used in the story at all. At one point the bad guys claim that the sharks attacked someone in an African river, but it turns out that they were lying to (literally) cover their tracks. So why mention it at all? Maybe there was a point to it in the previous film…

Like many other movies of this type, it was fairly obvious going in who would die and who would live. This franchise (and I’m still amazed that it has become a franchise) has established some ground rules to cover this sort of thing: if you’re black, you live; if you’re in a relationship with another character, you die; if you’re a useful tech-head, you die; if you’re an overly-idealistic researcher, you die. They mix it up a little here, but the Hollywood Morality Playbook fine-tunes the rest of the details. Interestingly, it’s clear by the end of the film that the story creators deliberately wanted only the female characters to survive the ordeal so, if you twig to this early on, you’ll be able to relax for the rest of the run-time. Seriously: even the female shark makes it to the end credits.

Most of the movie is well acted and nicely photographed and all the reasons that they make these types of films are summarily ticked off: good-looking actors in skimpy clothes with gorgeous scenery and pretty fish – checkity-check-check-check. My question is that none of the things that matter in the movie – all of the MacGuffins and the important equipment which will be useful later on – get flagged. Often, it’s unclear where we are, and why that’s important (it’s nowhere near as bad as the second “47 Metres Down” but it’s almost as annoying). The local restauranteur finds a big gnarly spear as the chips start to come down in the final act, but it serves no purpose during the climax – Chekov would’ve been screaming at the screen. Finally, the sharks are a bit naff. In the first “Deep Blue Sea”, the sharks were real: they were made from modified jet engines covered in latex shark suits; they were remote-controlled and they actually swam through the water, physically interacting with the actors. There were the occasional moments where you could see the rubber seams but, for the most part, they were incredibly effective. Here, all the fish are CGI and it’s bad. Fins that break the surface have this cute little flick and wriggle towards the tip that completely reads false and instantly destroys suspension of disbelief. The underwater scenes look cheap and nasty – like the kinds of modelling they used in “Sharknado”. “The Shallows” this ain’t. They should have just taken a leaf from Renny Harlin’s book and used real(ish) sharks.

So, that’s it – 550 posts and yet another shark flick. I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I think that these films stem from dark and icky parts of the human psyche and are trading off the perceived threat that sharks pose to humans (minimal) and funding from the witchcraft that is Chinese medicine. In this year of Coronavirus lockdowns, I can almost see this film as a kind of public service announcement telling people to stay away from the beach and observe social distancing (or get eaten by a shark? Maybe not). Regardless, this is quite a dull stab at the genre, clunkily composed and about as realistic as its promotional poster (see above). That is to say, not at all.

Two Tentacled Horrors.

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Revisiting “The X-Files”: Season 1

CARTER, Chris (Creator), “The X-Files – Season 1”, Ten Thirteen Inc./Twentieth Century Fox Television, 2001-2002.

I spent some time at home alone the other week and I developed a sudden urge to re-live the adventures of one of the X-Files’s best villains – Eugene Tooms. Entering this rabbit hole meant taking a few stabs at the assembled material because, while I always remember that there’s a Tooms episode entitled “Tooms”, I always forget what the first episode in which he appears is called. I always know that it’s a fairly early episode, but there’s another story called “Conduit” – a likely contender for the title of a story about a villain who can slide through pipes - on the first disc which always throws me off. Long story short, I ended up watching the whole first season. Perhaps after this I won’t forget where to look in future!

Running through the material assembled on the DVD set, it’s interesting to note how this series took off and how it learned to walk after its initial crawling phase. As seen in the most recent iterations of this show, Chris Carter and crowd are sentimentalists about TV, especially the type of programming that predominated from the 60s into the 80s, and their tendency to crib from that source in regard to everything from actors to storylines starts to be revealed by walking down this particular memory lane. It’s clear that Carter had a solid vision of what he wanted this show to do, and that vision is a strong framework which propelled this series into the phenomenon that it later became.

There are low points, however, although most of these boil down to personal taste. For me, I can do without the so-called “Mythology Episodes”, recognizing of course that much of the over-arching tension of the series and the inter-character strife depends directly upon this element. There’s a lot of “Monster-of-the-Week” (MOTW) type stuff going on as well that, uniquely in these early stages, falls flat and never gets re-visited, causing some head-scratching in later seasons. A feature of strong television shows is their ability to reintegrate past material and to generate story from such revisiting; many opportunities for such growth get seeded here and are – with the weird exception of Tooms – never followed up.

Many of these first season episodes are peppered with the daily minutiae of Mulder and Scully’s (especially Scully’s) workaday routine – signing vehicles out of the car-pool, collaborating with old associates, inter-office politics, etc. Later seasons dispense with this stuff entirely, short-cutting it for brevity’s sake, which tends to sever the show loose from its moorings, from my perspective at least, and elevate the main characters out of the real world in which they’re supposed to be grounded. Fortunately, at this early stage, Carter’s cringeworthy fascination with Nazism is not so blatantly on display – a definite plus.

I didn’t watch these episodes in any particular order – I watched the Tooms stuff and then cherry-picked my way through the rest, until – once I’d decided for sure that I was going the see them all – I’d ticked them all off. In reviewing them though, I’ll take them disc-by-disc:

Disc One:

We kick things off (“Pilot”) with what will later become a by-the-book abduction scenario for our Filers of X. Scully gets dragged from her cozy position at Quantico to become a watch-dog for Mulder’s activities and they head out to Oregon in an uneasy alliance. The first mission sees aliens and shady government operatives enabling the abductions of teenagers and the ensuing cover-up of that activity, involving the replacing of buried bodies with ring-in simians. Our dynamic duo is harried and harassed, their hotel rooms burned to destroy evidence, and with local officials warning them off. Much is speculated upon and much is learned with Mulder becoming increasing annoying due to his unwillingness to share what he knows with his new partner.

In episode two – “Deep Throat” – Mulder is directed by his eponymous informant to check out the goings-on at an air force base in Idaho. Initially, the duo is called in by a concerned housewife whose air force pilot husband went missing and then re-appears in a state much worse for wear, leading her to suspect military shenanigans. Mulder, of course, jumps to the conclusion that the air force is test-driving new aircraft, modified from captured alien tech, at which notion Scully just rolls her eyes. Siding with local bored teenagers to gain access to the base (Seth Green in an early pre-“Buffy” role), Mulder gets captured by the authorities and Scully dances a delicate two-step to have him relinquished. In the end, nothing definitive is learned and even the housewife backs away from her “I demand answers!” stance. It’s interesting to note that Jerry Hardin who plays Deep Throat is very similar in appearance to Darren McGavin of “Kolchak: Night Stalker” fame, Carter’s self-professed inspiration for much of the “X-Files”.

Next comes “Squeeze”. This is the first Eugene Tooms episode and is the title I always get wrong. Dragged to a crime scene where the murderer’s point of access is a complete conundrum, Scully’s bemusement is undercut by Mulder’s awareness that clusters of five similar deaths have been taking place at 30-year intervals since the start of the century. In another nod to the “Night Stalker”, the duo is directed to a retired police officer who had a personal interest in the case, and they begin to unravel the mystery of an immortal mutant human who can slide through tiny spaces and who hibernates for 30-year intervals emerging to devour the livers of five randomly-chosen individuals. Our heroes track Eugene down but are stymied by the fact that no-one is going to get behind their ‘crackpot’ theory concerning Tooms’s uncanny abilities. Tooms gets locked away before he can chow down on his crucial fifth organ, and we’re left with a cliffhanger indication that a jail is no place that can hold a guy who can slide between bars…

“Conduit” plumbs some more UFO lore (specifically, the events surrounding Falcon Lake in Manitoba, which took place starting around 1967) to retail a story about people being abducted by aliens from campgrounds on Lake Okobogee near Sioux City in Iowa. Scully is advised that Mulder has requested travel expenses for a trip to Sioux City based upon a tabloid article about a missing girl and it is revealed to her that Mulder believes his sister to have been similarly abducted. For my money, this is the absolute worst thing they could have introduced to Mulder’s backstory, because it becomes a useless pain-in-the-backside from this point onwards. Anyway, the girl goes missing, her much younger brother starts channeling UFO chatter through television static (alarming the government flunkies), and the kids’ mother goes from helpful to interfering as the (unseen) Men in Black go about their business in the shadows. We’re left with Mulder quietly sobbing in a church over a picture of his sister Samantha, an image which is about as trite as it is possible to conjure.

In these first four episodes, we see shady government intrusion in a ‘boots on the ground’ fashion that we’ll never see again. The Government-within-the-Government has operatives everywhere, shutting down Scully and Mulder with ham-fisted abandon: rooms are torched; witnesses are coerced; local pillars of the community turn out to be paid enforcers. It’s refreshing and believable, but it all gets junked as the popularity of the series evolves. It’s interesting too to see the nuts-and-bolts of the agents’ daily lives (even if that shot of Scully wandering through the partitioned office space gets used more than once), since it grounds them in a quasi-reality quite distinct from the other-worldly superstar status they assume later on. For my money, they should have brought back Fran from the carpool, or at least given her some lines and screentime.

Disc Two:

The guy who gets killed and eaten in the pre-credit sequence of this next episode (“The Jersey Devil”) is the same guy who dies of an embolism from “straining too forcefully” while on the toilet during the later season story “War of the Coprophages”. He shows up elsewhere in the X-world also, but I’m always reminded of that ignominious death every time I clap eyes on him. Still, he’s doing his bit for public health, I guess. Anyway, blink and you’ll miss him here, he gets partially-devoured by the Jersey Devil in the early 50s and photos of his corpse fire Mulder’s investigation in the present era. Of course, Mulder’s probing of the matter is found to be objectionable to the Sherriff’s Office in Atlantic City and he gets walloped and thrown in jail for his pains. He then bands together with other local experts and almost finds undeniable proof of the creature’s existence before the irascible Sherriff shuts him down. And where is Scully in all of this? Hosting children’s parties and going on blind dates arranged by her sister. As you do.

“Shadows” was a story cobbled together after network heavies insisted that Scully and Mulder be seen to be helping “ordinary people”. This episode involves a company doing shady business deals with Islamic terrorists: one joint-CEO commits apparent suicide, and his devoted secretary starts receiving supernatural assistance against those intending to do her harm. Called in when two muggers are found dead in an alley from strange causes, Scully and Mulder trace the goings-on back to the secretary and unearth the conspiracy with ghostly assistance. As tales go, it’s alright, however the secretary is one of the most unsympathetic characters that the “X-Files” has ever coughed up.

In 1995, author Philip Kerr released a novel called Gridiron, about a hi-tech building that gains Artificial Intelligence and starts playing with its occupants in the fashion of a video game. This “X-Files” episode  - “Ghost in the Machine” - lifts that concept in its entirety and runs with it here as a Monster-of-the-Week narrative, adding some connective tissue to weave it into the world of Scully and Mulder. If you’ve read the book, you’ve seen this instalment; I’ve done both. Neither is much chop.

In each successive season of the “X-Files”, it became routine to take the X-Filers out of their comfort zone – a range of homogeneously-anonymized Canadian towns masquerading as places in the US – and dump them in extreme and remote locales – also, for the most part, in Canada. This story – “Ice” – is supposed to take place in the northern fastnesses of Alaska, where a team of geologists researching Arctic ice core samples has come to grief. Channeling “The Thing” as hard as it can, our heroes identify, thwart and contain an alien virus released from the permafrost and save the day, despite the director of the episode telling them to act as manic and unhinged as possible. Not a great moment for Scully and Mulder, but okay for their first ‘away game’.

In these four stories we see that the producers of the show were maybe not so confidant that their vision would be embraced by the viewership. These tales crib so madly from all kinds of well-established sources – “Poltergeist”; “The Thing from Another World” (aka. “Who Goes There?”); “2001: A Space Odyssey” (by way of Gridiron) – that there’s an air of desperately trying to soothe TV heavyweights informing the atmosphere. It must have seemed to Carter and Crew at the time that television audiences weren’t as receptive to their sourcing from the urban legend motherlode as they would have liked. They shouldn’t have worried… Things of note: we spent a bunch of time trying to fathom Scully’s social life in these few stories and we also saw the start of some inter-jurisdictional pissing contests which arise conveniently now and then as the needs of the stories demand. The genius programmer from “Ghost” – as obnoxious as he was – was allowed to drift away into oblivion, where he might well have been a useful contact to be unearthed in later seasons. That episode as well, saw right inside the shadowy government conspiracy, giving us a few moments with the ‘bad guys’ as they reviewed their encounter with Mulder – something that happens less and less as time goes on.

Disc Three:

This is one of those moments when something that seems cool - some feature of the zeitgeist – spurs a kooky X-story that pops like a party balloon in the light of subsequent examination. In “Space”, Scully and Mulder are brought in on an investigation of sabotage in the NASA space shuttle program by one of the technical support crew. It transpires that the former astronaut head of the program is being possessed by a ‘space ghost’ which he encountered while he was out space-walking, and which he inadvertently brought back down to Earth with him. There is a preponderance of imagery riffing off the infamous “Face on Mars” which nowadays – with much better, high definition camerawork – has become a case of myopic wishful thinking of the Hubble variety, and it makes this episode completely un-watchable nowadays, quite apart from the confused and rambling unfolding of the tortured storyline.

In “Fallen Angel” Mulder gets a 24-hour window to investigate what seems to be the case of a crash-landed UFO. Dodging military ‘husher-uppers’ loaded for bear, he sneaks past the perimeter sentries and begins poking about. Inevitably, he gets caught and Scully is sent out to drag his sorry arse back to Washington; but he changes tack, encounters an amateur UFO investigator in the inevitable aluminium caravan, and becomes the target for the crash-landed alien, to the military’s further annoyance. It’s clear that this maudlin NICAP fellow, Max (along with the “Ghost in the Machine” programmer), was the prototype of what would later become the introduction of the Lone Gunmen characters, and it must have tested positively enough with the punters to green-light those characters’ facilitation into the X-World. That being said, however, this guy is about as pathetic as they come. There’s also an interesting moment of casual sexism in the story, where the radar operator who spots the incoming UFO is derided for being ‘just a girl’: we seem to have come a long way since then. Maybe.

Another MOTW episode and another lost opportunity for reintegration. In “Eve”, two young girls on opposite coasts of mainland USA overpower and kill their fathers in identical gruesome fashion at the same moment in time: Mulder is almost wetting himself with excitement while Scully tries to deconstruct every theory he comes up with. It transpires that the girls – codenamed “Eves” – are the product of Government experiments in eugenics, illegally unleashed into a private in vitro fertilisation clinic. The girls are super-smart, psychic and psychotic on top, and try to poison Scully and Mulder in order to avoid being locked up with others of their kind from earlier experiments. It’s compelling and intriguing and the entire concept – multiple cloned criminal masterminds and their hi-tech prison compound – is completely forgotten and dropped by the X-World from here on in.

Mark Sheppard, before being Badger on “Firefly” and Crowley in “Supernatural”, began his TV life as Cecil “Bob” l’Ively, a pyrokinetic firebug in the first season of the “X-Files”, in the episode entitled “Fire”. This is an awful episode. It’s nothing to do with the concept, or the performances of the villain, his victims or of our main cast – it’s completely the wrong-headed addition of a British Scotland Yard agent with history concerning Fox Mulder from his days at Oxford University. This contrived romance is truly hideous: it’s badly performed, poorly constructed and cringeworthy in its execution. Scully rolls her eyes a lot in this episode and it’s nothing to do with the possibility of there being a psychic arsonist on the loose. The British agent drops the ball of this investigation time and again (to the detriment of her clients) in her vulpine need to sink her claws into Mulder and his reactions are entirely of the hot-and-cold variety, impelling the viewers to cry, “for Christ’s sake! Make up your mind!”. The writers also throw in a reference to Mulder being afraid of fire – something that never gets raised again. Not recommended.

“Fire” also ends with yet another super-powered villain locked in a high-security prison facility, being experimented upon by shadowy powers-that-be. Don’t worry though: along with almost every other instance of this type of villain, we’ll never have to worry about encountering them again, more’s the pity. Can you imagine the mayhem that might ensue if l’Ively, the Eves and Eugene Tooms had all broken out and banded together? An opportunity lost to my way of thinking…

Throughout this selection there are further efforts at tinkering with the backstory of our leads. With “Fire” the die is cast and from now on, Mulder’s past cases and career path will keep barfing-up rationales for meeting new people and re-visiting past scenarios, while Scully constantly moves forward from the nest of her family with very few ghosts of her past life (with some exceptions) coming back to haunt her. Fox has history and a complex network of connexions; Dana, generally speaking, doesn’t. That’s what has been decided upon at this point.

Disc Four:

Now, here is where everything comes together, and we get an “X-Files” episode that’s pure magic. It’s likely that what makes “Beyond the Sea” work is simply the presence of Brad Dourif playing the villain, Boggs; there’re more than a couple of creaky additions to the plot, but his bravura performance really sells it. We get introduced to Scully’s family, especially her father played by Don S. Davis, on loan from “Stargate”. He dies of a heart-attack (ironically) after Christmas dinner at Scully’s place and she is awakened by his ghost appearing to her in her house and trying to impart a message. Later, after the funeral, Scully and Mulder are trying to trace a young couple abducted by a serial killer once affiliated with another violent offender – Boggs – currently on death row. Boggs claims that his first brush with death – he was given a last-minute reprieve – blessed him with psychic powers and that he can lead the FBI to the kidnapper’s lair through visions. Mulder sets a trap, which Boggs falls into, and dismisses him; Scully, however, sees something which leads her to believe that Boggs is the Real McCoy. Boggs’s terror of death is palpable throughout this story and his desperation to try and win a deal almost makes the viewer sympathise with him. There’s enough equivocation to leave Scully’s head spinning as she tries to work out if he’s genuine or not but it’s her last act of absolute cruelty – denying Boggs’s wish that she be a witness at his execution – which has to be the unkindest cut of all.

Two things bug me about this otherwise excellent instalment. All the way through, despite the fact that he’s always the first to fall for a conman’s fake psychic-show moves, Mulder tells Scully she mustn’t fall for Boggs’s patter, implying that he’s the only one allowed to do that; the second thing is that, in talking to Mulder about her ghost-dad’s appearance to her at the moment of his death, Scully blithely says, “visions of the dead by loved ones at the moment of death are a common psychological phenomenon” to which I say, what the-? How is this “psychological” and why hasn’t it been completely explained and de-mystified? ‘Cause to my knowledge, it hasn’t.

In “Gender Bender”, the X-Filers come across real, gosh-darn’ tootin’ aliens and get completely outfoxed by them. These aliens exist in a small, reclusive, apparently religious enclave, similar to those of the Amish; however, they exude pheromones which bend humans to their will and can switch gender after marathon sex (which kills any human they do it with). One of them goes rogue and rampages down the eastern seaboard of the US, and the Filers of X set out on their case. Everything winds up back at the aliens’ home turf where Mulder splashes through a bunch of mud and Scully gets romanced by one of the police officers from “Silence of the Lambs” in a funny hat (after which she throws up). Before arrests can be made (and the actual existence of aliens cried from the rooftops) the outsiders make some crop circles and vanish. As with other MOTW beings, these aliens are never heard from again and they fail to measure up to the producers’ later view of what aliens are actually like in this series (which, obviously, is why they got sidelined). Oh, and Nicholas Lea, later to be Mulder’s nemesis Alex Krycek, shows up as the only one of the rogue alien’s bonk-buddies to stay alive afterwards.

There’s an interesting sideline to this: in discussing pheromones, our duo skate around the idea of humans creating them. To be clear: humans do not exude pheromones. At all. Unlike “Space”, where a higher powered telescope put paid to the idea that there is any kind of face on Mars, thus destroying the main plank of the show’s plot, the dialogue here tiptoes around the central notion of the story and, by a miracle, manages not to fall over into the realm of ludicrousness. Unfortunately, while cheering this win, the rest of the tale crashes and burns into a dumpster fire.

In “Lazarus” there’s a departure: we meet an FBI agent under whom Scully studied and with whom she conducted a brief affair, thus seeming to destroy my theory that Scully’s adventures mostly never spring from her past. There’s that ‘mostly’ in there to get me off the hook, however. Here we have two bank robbers on a spree, being pursued by Scully’s ex-lover who is unaccountably driven to bring them to justice. In apprehending them during a heist, the driven agent is shot and Scully kills the robber; during the ensuing paramedic travails, the consciousnesses of both men switch bodies and the former Agent, now the revived bank robber, tries to return to his partner and restart their dangerous crime career. There’s lots of talk of PTSD and over-empathising with the target of one’s obsessive mission, before diabetes and a vicious betrayal sees everyone put out of everyone else’s misery. The only real supernatural touch – a body-hopping tattoo – is completely overlooked by all parties during the course of the proceedings. Nice touch.

“Young at Heart” sees yet another rogue doctor dodging ethics committees and doing whatever they damned well please in order to pursue a scientific breakthrough. Here it’s experimentation on victims of progeria – a disease which causes accelerated decrepitude in children - in an attempt to reverse the effects of aging (somehow). Our doctor performs illegal surgery on a prison inmate after which he is declared dead, despite evidence to the contrary provided by another inmate. The supposedly dead prisoner springs from Mulder’s ever-fertile back-story and turns out to be the ferocious killer he should have shot when he had the chance, regardless of the regulations, and who is now Hell-bent on vengeance, starting with Mulder’s friends. Our villain is cunning and intrepid – also, much younger in appearance, and therefore harder to spot in a crowd – despite having a salamander’s paw for a hand. Mulder beats himself up relentlessly over the situation while Scully does some useful sleuthing and they finally bring the murderer to justice (again).

At this point we have the second oblique Nazi reference which Carter has chosen to sneak into the ongoing narrative. The rogue doctor in “Young at Heart” mentions that his colleagues used to call him “Dr. Mengele”, after the notoriously sadistic German prison-camp medic. This, along with the eugenics mentioned in “Eve” is the thin edge of the wedge of Carter’s flirting with Nazi tropes throughout this series. Here it’s just a casual name-drop; later, after discussions of Operation Paperclip have entered the narrative, the gloves come off and you get a solid sense that, sooner or later, Carter will be dressing up his entire cast in Hugo Boss designed SS-uniforms. And this he does, before the series concludes.

Disc Five:

“E.B.E.”, the title of the first episode on Disc Five, stands for Extraterrestrial Biological Entity and Mulder promises to deliver evidence of such a thing to his new chums, the Lone Gunmen. He doesn’t deliver, however, just as this episode also doesn’t deliver any kind of consistent narrative. This is a so-called Mythology Episode and exists merely to provide connective tissue to other similar episodes and to round-out various side characters. Among those characters are Director Skinner and the Smoking Man, Deep Throat and, most importantly, the Lone Gunmen, who are established here for the first time. There’s some waffle about a truck carrying a UFO across the US, Gulf War Syndrome being a side-effect of alien visitation and a lacklustre break-in by the X-Filers of a covert military base which reveals nada. Nothing to see here. Moving on:

I dislike “Miracle Man” as an episode because to my way of thinking it trivializes the infiltration of American political life by religious cultism, despite the oft-declared separation of Church and State. After recent months of watching the AmeriKKKan Electoral Farce, I had to steel myself in order to jump into yet another exhibition of religious snake-oil merchandising. This story is fine, on balance, but it gets muddied by the bizarre Mythology-extending notion that the after-effects of alien abduction – specifically, the remorse Mulder feels over the loss of his sister - are things which can be identified and healed by the Divine Grace of Gentle Jesus (Praise the Lord!). I think not. At one point, Mulder says outright to the titular miracle man that he’s not going to get into a fight with him using religious rhetoric and this is exactly my position with this type of crap also. I always feel like I need a bath after this kind of thing…

We’ve skated across half-a-dozen different Fortean tropes by this stage of the proceedings, so it seems hardly surprising that we’d finally grab onto some werewolf action. It’s not that clear-cut however: with “Shapes” we take a dive into Native American mythology and pad around awhile with some skinwalkers. Springboarding rather obviously off the oft-reported Fortean goings-on at Skinwalker Ranch, we learn of a rancher fighting a legal dispute over a boundary line which the tribesfolk claim meanders over into reservation territory. Scully and Mulder get called in after a native man is shot and killed, mistaken for some kind of wild beast, but not before he wounds the rancher’s son. Reservation life is graphically, and rather miserably, portrayed here and the usual ‘is he, or isn’t he?’ tropes of werewolf fiction run their course until the final reveal. It’s a good story, but Scully’s willful blindness as to what’s going on sometimes pushes credulity.

In “Darkness Falls” we have the second of two ‘away games’ in this season. After “Ice”, it was obviously thought that these long diversions into strange and new territory were good for ratings, and so, here we are. Unlike that other episode though, this is more of an “X-Files” story, more its own creature rather than an homage to a science fiction mainstay. This tale tells of a band of loggers working in the far distant back-blocks of wooded terrain in Washington State. After mysteriously vanishing, the FBI (i.e., Scully and Mulder) are asked to investigate, Mulder revealing that it’s not the first time this has happened and that another logging team vanished in the same area at the turn of the century. In due course, we meet a forestry ranger who respects both the wilderness and the logging companies’ desire to make profits; a logging company representative who is concerned only about the bottom line and couldn’t give a rat’s about trees; and an eco-terrorist who freely acknowledges endangering logging crews but claims to have evidence that the loggers are breaking laws in order to cut down protected old growth pines. It turns out that he’s right, and the felling of certain of these trees releases a type of mite which – due to the quantities in which it is able to swarm – can suck a human being dry in no time flat, later using the dried husk as a cocoon for breeding more of its kind. The only thing that keeps them at bay is light so, when darkness falls, it behoves our heroes to have a light burning. There are many twists and turns in this tale and the end is a particularly equivocal one, leaving the viewer with a sense of disquiet.

There’s a sense of working towards quantifying the Mythology in these four episodes, possibly as a knee-jerk response to the unfortunate events of “Gender Bender”. “E.B.E.” simply lays out a bunch of stuff for the fans, without even trying to massage the material into a coherent narrative, while “Miracle Man” gets completely broken by an injection of unwanted and unnecessary Mythos material – specifically the useless meanderings over Mulder and his sister. Even the ending of “Darkness Falls” is designed to flag notions of shady Government intervention, however it doesn’t damage the preceding episode overall. It’s as if the creative team won network approval after the generally white-bread stories of Disc Two and here they’re frantically making their mark as hard as they can.

Disc Six:

In “Tooms” we have the conclusion of the Eugene Tooms saga. Our vicious mutant comes up for parole and, despite Mulder’s best efforts, he is released once more into an unsuspecting community. Having been deprived of his fifth liver by the Filers of X last time, he immediately sets about obtaining this prized morsel so that he can fall back into his usual thirty-year hibernation. Mulder, however, has other plans. He interferes with Tooms’s machinations several times (during the course of which we seem to be offered the notion that Tooms is attracted by a certain shade of blue, an ill-conceived and unnecessary wrinkle to this villain’s modus operandi) and Tooms finally lashes out and murders his psychotherapist. The race is then on to apprehend him before he beds down for his thirty-year nigh-nighs. It transpires that a shopping mall has been built over his usual haunt, so he builds his bile-nest beneath the escalator; Scully and Mulder locate him there and finish him off by the simple expedient of turning the moving stairs on. Problem, as they say, solved.

“Born Again” is a tale about reincarnation. A cadre of police officers have made-off with a bunch of cash stolen from a crime scene and agree to leave it untouched in a bank for ten years while the heat cools down. One of them has a bad case of conscience about it all so the others bump him off: more cash for the survivors – woo-hoo! The dead guy’s widow re-marries to one of the tontine partners and life goes on. That is, until another cop in the precinct brings in a lost little girl hanging around outside the station. One of the bent cops is asked to find out her particulars and he inadvertently takes a dive through the upstairs window of the precinct building while alone with her in the interrogation room. Slowly, all members of the crew get whacked and Mulder leaps to the conclusion that the little girl is the reincarnation of the conscience-stricken dead cop. I mean, it’s possible, right? You can practically hear Scully’s eyes rolling all through this episode.

With “Roland”, we have an instance of something that will never, ever happen again in the world of television production: the portrayal of handicapped people by actors who are not so afflicted. Nowadays, the first port of call for casting characters such as these would be to find actors who were really disabled in this way, in order to demonstrate that values of equal-opportunity existed within the production house. Is this a kind of Black Face? Handicap Face? Well, it’s something like it and we’ll – thankfully – never see its like again.

The titular character here is a profoundly mentally-handicapped surviving twin, the other half of which pair was a mathematics prodigy and whose deceased head is now being maintained cryogenically for future use. The frozen twin is Hell-bent on finishing a set of equations which will allow an aircraft to be built that could surpass Mach 15, and, to do this, he psychically drives his handicapped brother into writing and testing the equations at the laboratory where he works as a janitor. Oh, and he also forces him to murder all the other scientists who are trying to take credit for his life’s work, too. Luckily, Mulder is on hand to spot the less-than-obvious clues and reveal the solution.

The series ends with “The Erlenmeyer Flask”. This is a twisty Mythology Episode full of the sorts of go-nowhere leads and vanishing evidence favoured by these types of stories. Scully and Mulder are directed by Deep Throat to investigate a high speed car chase which ends in a harbour facility – the police are suspicious of Mulder and send him away, but not before he realizes that the cars in the chase were switched at some point. Following this lead takes them to an experimental monkey lab where they find a taciturn scientist and not much else: he later turns up dead, murdered by a mysterious crew-cut man. Mulder decides to break into the scientist’s home and, while there, answers the telephone and speaks with the missing driver of the crashed car. This encounter leads him to a storage facility full of large tanks containing the unconscious bodies of several identical men. When he later returns here with Scully, all of the evidence has been removed and Deep Throat meets them, reprimanding them for being too slow. Mulder gets huffy and tracks down the missing car-driver only to see him die at the hands of the crew-cut man. Poisonous gas emitted from the driver’s body takes Mulder out and he is taken hostage. Later, Deep Throat contacts Scully, giving her the means to access a mysterious base and steal an alien foetus: this gives them the ability to barter for Mulder’s return. During the exchange, the crew-cut man guns down Deep Throat and leaves Scully and Mulder behind. Mulder rings Scully some days later while recuperating to inform her that the X-Files unit has been shut down. *Phew!*

One reason why I dislike these episodes is that they’re too dense and impenetrable and, rather than being laced throughout the other episodes in the series, are mashed together into hard-to-digest blobs in lumps throughout the season. The narrative aspects are woeful and sometimes – like “E.B.E.” for example – aren’t even real stories; they’re just weird tone poems to the conspirasphere. Also, anything that happens during them of any real consequence inevitably vanishes or – as in this instance, as the last episode in the season – has no consequences at the start of the next season. Everything gets wiped clean and we just start all over again. In a word, they’re frustrating. Back when these episodes were first aired however, we were all novices at the “X-Files” game and hadn’t twigged to the ‘rinse and repeat’ nature of the ongoing series lore.


What’s the takeaway from re-visiting this fannish televisual mainstay? For those interested in TV writing it’s an interesting exercise in how essential connectors within the plot become edited out as understood options in later stories. In this season (and in the second season too – I’ve checked), such activities as signing cars out of the FBI carpool (hi Fran!), hiring rental vehicles, checking into hotels and catching aeroplanes and busses to get to crime scenes, are shown alongside the more outré elements of the investigations. Later seasons assume the fans know how this stuff is done and drop it from the narratives. To my way of thinking, this lessens the credibility of the work, making our main characters seem like super-beings for whom such trivial activities are beneath their notice. Our Filers are willing to call upon experts and to rope them into their investigations also, in ways that they eschew in later seasons – the investigating group at the end of “The Jersey Devil” for example could almost be a “Cthulhu Now” gaming team. Our duo become more self-reliant, almost to the exclusion of everyone else, in later stories.

In line with this, there seem to be more FBI-based experts in these episodes also. Along with them there is a bunch of equipment that they try awfully hard to convince the viewer to be real when it patently is not – audio and indentikit software just does not look like, or do, the sort of things that they achieve in these stories. Graphology, on the other hand, is a seemingly tried-and-true investigative mainstay, the only qualification required being a willingness by the handwriting expert to flirt outrageously with Fox Mulder. Sadly, the amorous graphologists fall by the wayside in due course, also.

This show covers a huge chronological space and over the years the changing nature of society and technology makes investigative techniques displayed in this early season seem odd and downright peculiar. People don’t take photos of everything they see, for instance, because no-one has a mobile telephone with a camera (the ‘phones they do have are monolithic!). Scully finds fingerprints and calls FBI headquarters to tell them that she’ll “modem them over to Washington” at the earliest opportunity. What does this gobbledy-gook even mean? At one point she’s standing in line at a grocery store and, after her purchases are rung up, she writes the store a cheque. A cheque! What the Hell is that? This is definitely a walk down Memory Lane for some of us, but for younger viewers they must be left scratching their heads and wondering what on earth’s happening.

The torches are interesting too. Early on in the season, Scully and Mulder have simple, bog-standard torches. A few episodes later, these are noticeably brighter. Then they get larger, but with massive batteries attached – almost the size of car batteries – and, behind the blinding cones of light they emit, the producers are obviously hoping that we won’t notice. Then they start imperceptibly to shrink down to normal dimensions once more. I’m left wondering, was torch technology propelled forwards simply by the needs of this television program? From one perspective it certainly seems that way.

A final fun derivative from re-watching these early seasons is watching how often they re-use certain actors, hoping that we won’t notice them walking back on in a different hat. Of course, back in the day when an episode of “X-Files” was a once-a-week event on free-to-air TV, the likelihood of us ever noticing was slim to remote. The fact that the same footage of Scully sashaying through the open plan FBI office space could be re-used without any thought that someone might protest, shows how slim this possibility was. An “X-Files” actor might be a second-string FBI agent one week and sleazy john knifed by a spooked streetwalker the next; Jersey Devil munchies one season; dead from a burst blood-vessel while on the potty, later on. Even shady truck drivers like Ranheim – transporting wrecked UFOs in a truck across mainland USA – turn out to be funicular railway operators “ascending to the stars” in the very next season.

What’s most interesting to watch though, is the nebulous way that Scully and Mulder start to crystallise into shape as each episode goes by. These sorts of shows are the creations of many contributing individuals and so the characters get passed from person to person and modified according to the desires and demands of everyone involved. There are writers and directors who definitely wanted Scully and Mulder to get together; there are those for whom this was a least-favourite option; and then there are infinite shades of intention in between. Watching these episodes is like a roller-coaster of nuance as the creators all try to find that sweet spot which would satisfy everybody. Most likely they hit that point at about Season Five, I’m guessing.

This show is pretty fundamental to TV fandom. It is a touchstone for supernatural investigation, regardless of whether you like it particularly, or if you loathe it. It arose during the time of ‘serial-killer chic’, buoyed by such things as “The Silence of the Lambs”, “American Psycho” and everything ever written by Patricia Cornwell. It (along with “Twin Peaks”) rang a change in the depiction of government agents in books, television shows and movies – before the 80s, ‘G-men’ were always faceless drones; here, they began to be personalized in the same manner that Private Investigators were during the 30s and 40s. Without this ground-breaking vehicle there would be no “Supernatural”, no “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”, nor a slew of other supernaturally-based prime-time investigative TV shows. Re-visiting the first season, it’s fun to see the initial tottering steps taken by the show – where they compromised; where they bent under network pressure; where they took a mis-step – but it’s impressive how true, overall, the show is to its basic premise and how they work to refine and promote that vision.

Saturday, 7 November 2020

Review: Wychwood & Hallowdene

MANN, George, Wychwood, Titan Books/Titan Publishing Group Ltd., London, 2017.

Octavo; paperback; 350pp. New.

There are a number of ways to review things. You can come at them with a hypercritical point of view and simply drag something down into oblivion, or there are more upbeat approaches, where every good aspect of a piece is hyped beyond credibility. A good critic always tries to combine elements of both methods. In addition, everybody has their own personal views about things, and these will always colour their approach to critiquing a work. For me, it’s always – first and foremost – important to determine whether or not I found the piece to be entertaining, either emotionally or intellectually. There are certain types of writing which I completely avoid – fantasy writing for example – because the format is irritating to me and so I question myself as to whether I would be able to give an unbiased assessment. A critic’s evaluation must always be considered a personal opinion and never a statement of absolute fact; it’s an analysis which can be taken onboard by the reader or disregarded as they see fit. And this is how it should be.

This is an ominous way to embark upon a review of these two books, but I have a purpose here and I wanted to lay things out with some level of transparency before diving in.

There has been quite a fuss made about these two books and the reviews I was reading convinced me to give them a try. They are touted as being solid modern entries in the canon of occult detective writing and, since I am a fan of that format, I wanted to see what the noise was about. They duly arrived in the mail and I spent the next week meandering my way through them. I have to say that the hype didn’t quite live up to the reality.

If you’ve ever watched an episode of “Midsomer Murders” then you know what you’re letting yourself in for with these books. These are police procedurals set in sleepy Oxfordshire hamlets, replete with all the kinds of stock characters you’d expect to see on “Midsomer”. As you read through them you find yourself quickly spotting the red herrings and identifying who’s next to get horribly killed in some dramatic set-piece murder. I’m never good at spotting ‘whodunnit’ with this type of thing, but even I knew who the culprit was by about halfway through the first mystery, which is never a good thing.

In the first novel, journalist Elspeth “Ellie” Reeves finds herself returning home from London to her mother’s house in the quaint village of Wilsby-Under-Wychwood, after discovering her boyfriend’s infidelities and deciding to make a messy break of things. As she arrives, she sees police activity in the woods nearby and stumbles across a brutal murder scene, only to be frog-marched away by her childhood playmate and now full-grown local police officer, DS Peter Shaw. As she settles into her new situation, they learn that someone is killing local people in manners outlined by a regional myth-cycle known as the Legends of the Carrion King. It transpires that some people in the community are also being forced to commit suicide in awful ways quite distinct from the Carrion King set-pieces, but these are simply rolled into the mass-killing by the investigators despite having a quite separate modus operandi.

This is the “Midsomer” effect going full-bore here: in the real world of crime investigation, it must happen – and not infrequently – that a series of murders might take place at the same time that another series of killings is happening. Police investigators are surely trained to separate different strands of nefariousness and identify the work of different perpetrators; it surely can’t be standard practice to throw subsequent murders onto the same stack and treat them all as a single phenomenon? However, that’s what happens here, and it stretches credibility somewhat. This is either, two murderers with different MOs at work, or one psycho with two distinct ways of working which would be – prima facie – highly unlikely. Our coppers make the unlikely choice, and I was left thinking, “really?”.

I mentioned above that I dislike fantasy writing. The reason for this is that I like the world as it is (or was in the case of historical writing) and starting with a consensual understanding of reality before embarking upon the author’s narrative is how I like things to be. If I have to take on board the fact that there are Elves and Dwarves, or that the physics of the planet conform to the inside of a lava-lamp, then my eyes glaze over: I don’t like being lectured at and the world is already an interesting place, thank you very much. With crime fiction or horror writing, those forms of writing depend on a mutual knowledge of reality and how things work, otherwise, for me, there’s no point writing the stories in the first place. Adding a criminal or supernatural element into an understood world tests the author’s ability to convey that reality accurately as it reacts to these stressors; that’s what makes these types of writing interesting (to me, at least). What George Mann does here however, is overturn our understanding of reality by injecting a massive fantasy subtext into the proceedings and asking us to take it as read.

Mann tells us that the forest of Wychwood, which dominates all of the small villages in the area where his stories occur, was the birthplace of the “Carrion King” legends. This myth cycle is colourful and violent and sadly, put together from whole cloth to serve the local crimes unfolding in this novel. To this end, we are treated to long expository tracts concerning these myths and frankly, they’re dull. Again, “Midsomer” does this very thing – cite a quaint, fictitious, local legend – whenever a murder investigation tiptoes around a supernatural rationale, and it’s trite when they do it as well. If these were actual, real legends, I would have sat up and taken interest; as it was, it just left me cold. Actual local folklore is quite interesting; made-up stuff is not. I direct you to Long Lankin as a case in point.

However, this is not the supernatural element which makes this an occult detective novel. It transpires that our villain has a means of using mirrors to take control of people, with the grisly rationale of making them commit apparent suicide under villainous remote control. Our heroine sees this take place at the end of the book and is able to prevent it, but it – and the two other deaths executed in this fashion – are simply swept under the rug of the larger investigation and filed away. I couldn’t help but think that this was what the book should have been about: the Carrion King supertext should have been abandoned in favour of this far more compelling, but seemingly tacked-on, sub-plot. In the end, the cops ignore it, our heroes ignore it and we, the readers, are asked to ignore it also. Very unsatisfying.

As to the characters themselves, they were about as lacklustre as you could expect. Dialogue in this book is seen as an opportunity to dump massive amounts of expository material, and the actors are all bland and interchangeable, tricked out with tacked-on identifiers to try and differentiate them. Much popular writing these days is of this pre-chewed, easily absorbed quality and I should barely even mention it but for the fact that it, rather than the characters themselves, are what leaps off the page. If there’s any individuality to the author’s style at all, it’s, once again, a wholesale adoption of the “Midsomer Murders” format with all of its bland, by-the-book shortcomings.

In summation, was I entertained? Well, I was diverted - with the exception of having to listen to an entire mythology that was bogus and indulgent – and that was enough to tempt me to read the sequel.

MANN, George, Hallowdene, Titan Books/Titan Publishing Group Ltd., London, 2018.

Octavo; paperback; 336pp. New.

My main reason for picking this up was that the previous book left the two protagonist characters in a “will they? Won’t they?” holding pattern regarding their nascent romantic entanglement and, like a sucker, I wanted to see how that worked out. Turns out, it was just a fait accompli as the sequel opened, but I forged on regardless. I think that Mann actually wants his main characters to be as bloodless as he can possibly make them, for some heretofore indiscernible reason. The other characters in the tale make up for this, however.

This time, Mann doesn’t try to force-feed us a bunch of hokey folklore; at least, the folklore he does deliver is of a suitably local variety, not a vast swathe of Joseph Campbell-cribbing pastiche. Here, we have a large boulder being removed so that neighbourhood development can occur, a rock which – as local legend tells – marks the grave of a spooky witch of bygone ages and keeps her curse upon the village of Hallowdene at bay. Of course, there are those who say, “it’s just superstitious nonsense” and those who cry “Woe! The curse is come upon us!” and thus, shenanigans ensue.

This is a far better story than the one covered in Wychwood. It’s more compact; the characters are a little better drawn, and the story unfolds more naturally. I was sensing though, that someone might have challenged the author to play his cards closer to his chest and make the ‘big reveal’ at the end a little harder to spot. As it is, the villain of the piece is easy to identify because Mann doesn’t bring them into the spotlight at all: if you’re looking for whodunnit, in this case it’s the character with the least amount of screen-time. Because of the determined efforts to keep this person out of view, all of the other red herrings and false leads which get painstakingly constructed just fall by the wayside.

There were some weird imbalances along the way. We spent far too much time with the archaeological team, far too little with the film crew, and none at all with the café owner who was the keystone in the complex web of relationships that surrounded the Hallowdene murders (again, playing his cards too close to his chest). It felt like the author was being deliberately abstruse, and logic was buckling under the weight of it. The supernatural elements of the tale are reserved to one murder suspect being repeatedly possessed by the ghost of the dead witch in an attempt to tell the truth concerning her lynching back in the Seventeenth Century; again, this was noted in passing by the investigating characters and quietly pushed to one side during the solving of the case.

Not that I mind entirely. Splicing the supernatural into the everyday is a high-wire act and needs to be done with care, and this was handled much better than in the previous instalment. I think – personally – Mann has discovered that making one half of your occult detection dynamic duo a police officer is fraught with limitations which put serious brakes on how far you can explore occult activity in a police procedural format. Later adventures might well see DS Shaw pushed a little further into the background, perhaps.

Once again though, we’re in “Midsomer” territory and the sense of just watching a cozy British crime drama is paramount. There’re the local gentry with their hidebound and quirky demonstrations of power over the local region; the struggling and exasperated village business owners with money, time and effort invested in the local community; young and troubled youth trying to break free of societal or parental control and find their own way; and local “villains”, skating the edge of legality and firmly under the police gaze. It’s effortless; it almost writes itself. Unfortunately, since the damned show is on TV at any time you care to tune in, and since the supernatural elements of these stories are soft-pedalled almost into non-existence, it begs the question as to why Mann even bothers?


There is actually a Wychwood Forest in the UK, south of Chipping Norton and west of Oxford. You can look it up on Google Maps and it certainly has an evocative and spooky atmosphere about it. Sadly, much of this moodiness is not conveyed in either of these books to any great effect. I can certainly see the inspirational qualities, but these seem to have been lost in the desire to tell a pedestrian country-house murder of the TV variety. These books are okay in their own way: they retail plots that begin and end in a mostly satisfying fashion, albeit with supernatural elements that are served poorly and which sit uncomfortably in the police-procedural context. However, if you want a really good, compelling crime story set in a place called “Wychwood” (Wychwood-under-Ashe, to be precise), you’d be better served picking up a copy of Agatha Christie’s Murder is Easy (Known as Easy to Kill in the US). That’s your best bet.

Saturday, 17 October 2020


From a certain slant, the character of Old Castro in HPL’s “The Call of Cthulhu” looks like it was named after an associate of Lovecraft’s whom he met during his stay in New York. I say that it looks that way but there’s a bunch of textual (and contextual) evidence that works against this idea which even HPL’s biographer L. Sprague de Camp overlooked. It’s likely – on balance - that Adolphe Danziger de Castro was not the inspiration behind the character (or, at least, its name), but from where, having eliminated this option, might it have sprung?

The name Castro is a very old one, originating in Spain. It literally means “castle” and was assigned in its early iterations to those who lived in, built or maintained such edifices. There are Italian, French and Portuguese versions of the name and variants in other associated dialects as well. Additionally, it’s one of the oldest Spanish immigrant names in mainland USA, being first recorded in Santa Barbara, California, in 1794. These days, genealogical sources for the history of the Castro clan are concentrated in Spain and along the Western seaboard of North America, Hawaii, and the Philippines. Of course, there are Castros all over the planet, and evidence of their multitudinous existences can be found alongside them; but evidential historical material for the various branches of the clan are singularly to be found in these areas. As Spanish names go, it’s probably not exactly the equivalent of “Smith” in English, in terms of being as common as muck, but it’s certainly close.

Lovecraft was probably looking for a fairly standard Spanish name for this fellow in his narrative; he was probably wanting to create a character who was an immigrant of some kind, an outsider from somewhere else, and the logical options for a place of origin were all the homes of Spanish-speaking communities – Mexico; Central or South America; the Caribbean, or Cuba. This last country might have been floating high in HPL’s thoughts.

Cuba was going through various ructions in the early part of last century. It went from being a protectorate of the US, to an independent state (with heavy US oversight), to a Republic, across the first 40 or so years of the Twentieth Century and there was a heavy cross-pollination of people and ideas between the two countries. Cuba was a key place for Americans to visit after the introduction of Prohibition, and the illicit importation of rum and other alcohol from Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean was a giant money-spinner for the US criminal community. After the stock-market crash in 1929, New York was reported to have been overrun with Cuban bartenders looking for work – obviously, these last events post-date Lovecraft’s crafting of his tale, but it shows the links that existed between the two countries at the time.

Fidel Castro and his socialist power-plays were decades away from Lovecraft in time when he was putting together this story; however, the name was common enough in the Spanish-speaking world that it would have made sense to him to use it for this particular character, underpinning his creation’s low social standing and status. As a name for a lowly commoner, a humble labourer or drifter, it’s more than suitable; but what inclined him towards the name as appropriate for someone steeped in illegality, or criminality? It’s clear from his correspondence that, for most of his life, HPL looked down upon anyone ‘foreign’ to US society, or existing outside of his own bubble of genteel, white, Anglo-Saxon refinement; so combining notions of the ‘commoner’ alongside those of the ‘criminal’ in the creation of Old Castro was probably just instinctual as far as he was concerned. However, there was a very famous Nineteenth Century criminal incident involving a person with the name “Castro” that might just have tipped the balance for Lovecraft as to whether or not to use the name in this instance.

We know, just to get this out of the way right from the start, that Lovecraft considered himself a ‘man out of time’; that he would have liked to have time-travelled back to the Nineteenth Century – or earlier – to an era when he felt his nature and capabilities were more suited to the life which he would liked to have led. It’s not unreasonable therefore, to infer that he would have read up on those periods where he felt himself to be more spiritually at ease. If he did – and most of us think he did - it’s highly likely that he would have stumbled across the kerfuffle that was the case of the Tichborne Claimant.


While few nowadays might have heard of this Nineteenth Century scandal, at the time it was a huge affair and its ramifications – both social and legal - were serious and wide-ranging. British society was sharply divided on the question and a small industry of publishing and other forms of income generation to fund legal challenges coloured society at all levels. It spawned fraternal organisations working both for and against the claims of those involved and influenced media and governmental discussions within England and throughout the Colonies. Essentially, it was the tale of an incidence of fraudulent impersonation.

In April of 1854, Roger Tichborne, heir to the ancient and highly lucrative Tichborne title and estates, went missing when the ship in which he was travelling was wrecked soon after leaving Valparaiso. His mother – French and living in Paris – was beside herself with grief, refused to acknowledge that her son had died, and sent out notices across the globe asking for information as to his whereabouts. Her prime motivation was that some of the people aboard the foundered ship were rescued by another passing vessel which later offloaded these survivors in Sydney. It was assumed that Roger Tichborne was one of these and, for reasons unknown, had decided to lie low and to not notify his relatives of his status. In the meantime, the title passed on to another Tichborne, who proceeded to drink himself into oblivion.

In Australia, eager opportunists were on the alert for anyone who might fit the description of the blue-eyed, slightly-built, dark-haired young man, and a reputable lawyer thought he’d found the fellow working as a butcher in Wagga Wagga. He wrote to the Dowager and told her of his discovery, keen for her to forward funds which would help her putative son pull himself together and get back home. Eventually, she agreed to do so and - after a wild period of partying in Sydney, funded by the promise of the soon-to-be-gained inheritance – the so-called "Tichborne Claimant" went to London, prior to journeying on to France, there to confront his mother and be accepted as the rightful heir. It couldn’t fail; after all there was little to differentiate the two men:

Some of you might have spotted the obvious error. Roger Tichborne had been a willowy, dewy-eyed sort of a lad, while the Claimant was 25-stone (160kgs) of work-hardened muscle, running swiftly to fat, with reddish hair and grey eyes. Roger had been raised in Paris and spoke French fluently (and spoke heavily French-accented English); the Claimant knew not a word of the language. Further, he could never remember the first name of his supposedly beloved mother. Incredibly though - and probably driven to do so through grief - at their first meeting, she claimed vehemently that he was her son, returned miraculously from the sea.

Inevitably, the matter went before the courts. Both sides in the debate plundered the list of Roger Tichborne’s known associates looking for those who were prepared to sign affidavits as to the true identity of the Claimant (and paying exorbitant bribes to get the right responses). Meanwhile, the Claimant’s movements and activities in Australia were examined with a fine tooth-comb and it swiftly turned out that he’d shot himself in the foot almost before the swindle had even begun: upon arriving back in London, the first thing he did after disembarking was to contact his old family, the Ortons, and he was eventually unmasked as Arthur Orton, butcher, from a long line of English butchers. The trial lasted two years from 1873 to 1874 and the jurors found against Orton, who was sentenced to seven years in gaol for fraud, concurrent with a seven year sentence for perjury (he had, during the trial, defamed Lady Radcliffe, Roger’s ex-fiancée by claiming to have slept with her; turns out, Roger had an unfortunate deformation of his penis which meant that this was highly unlikely). Orton saw out his sentence, then wrote a book explaining why he’d done what he did. This led to a career on vaudeville stages in England and the US where, after getting up and telling everyone who he was, the audience was invited to pelt him with rotten fruit. He died in 1898.


So, what does this have to do with HPL and his character from “The Call of Cthulhu”? Interestingly, after Orton first fled England, he tried to lay low in various occupations, all of which failed, including a stint as a sheep rustler. Because of this last career choice, he had to keep a low profile, moving to the (then) remote town of Wagga Wagga and changing his name to “Thomas Castro”. Until presented with the temptation to ride the Claimant ticket as far as it would take him, he was content with this assumed name and, even after his association with the Ortons was revealed during the trial, tried reverting to this assumed identity rather than be exposed as a member of his own opportunistic clan (it was his own brother who shopped him to the Tichbornes for a large pay-day).

Despite the outcome of the trial, the case resonated long afterwards through British society. In legal circles, the matter of his sentencing was considered contentious, the concurrent sentences being seen as a watering-down of the Might of the Law and the arguments about whether or not it was appropriate went on interminably. Tichborne Claimant memorabilia had been selling like hotcakes and, even today, fetches good money (a Tichborne Claimant legal defense bond sells for about $150 these days, and his cartes-de-visite are to be found everywhere). The idea of a lower class man risking everything on the throw of a dice just to blacken the eye of the nobility stoked a fire throughout working class England and cries of “Justice” for the "deprived" Claimant were heard right through to the next century. For the Tichbornes, it was a hollow victory, as all of their cash had been squandered to pay for bribes and legal costs.

I’m not certain as to which side of the debate Lovecraft would have weighed in on, but I’m fairly sure – as conservative as he was – that he would have deplored the actions of "Castro". For HPL, social class was a fait accompli, and someone trying to better themselves through the tawdry involvement of the courts and an assumed persona would have been something that would not have sat right with him. Noble bloodlines, familial inheritance and long genealogies are things that Lovecraft would have championed; not for him the “rags-to-riches” Hollywood happy ending of a Preston Sturges melodrama. Further, this was a tale of attempted corruption, of an assault upon the pure lineage of a genteel line of descent. The whole issue smacks of the type of hated miscegenation which, before New York, would have made Lovecraft’s blood boil. And it would have informed the character of “Old Castro” to a tee.

Did HPL know about the Tichborne Claimant affair? We’ll probably never know (although I’m sure someone out there with an intimate knowledge of his correspondence will tell me!). However, the scandal was huge and occupied almost sixty years’ worth of broadside real estate, even following "Castro’s" death, after he returned, broken and humiliated, from his tours of America. But there’s another reason why the matter might have leapt on to Lovecraft’s radar: the Tichborne family line was haunted:

In the Thirteenth Century, Lady Mabella Tichborne lay dying. As her time drew near, she implored her husband to instigate a tradition whereby, each Lady Day (March 25th), loaves of bread would be given freely to whomsoever showed up to the estate to claim them. This would come to be called the “Tichborne Dole”. Lord Tichborne, grumpy old bugger that he was, said that he would allocate grain for this purpose from as many fields as she could walk around carrying a burning torch. She managed to drag herself off her deathbed and crawl around a 23-acre field north of Tichborne Park which, to this day, is still known as “The Crawls”. Afterwards, she cursed the family line before dying, saying that, if the Dole were ever discontinued, thereafter the family would produce seven sons who would themselves only produce daughters, thus destroying the clear line of familial descent. The Dole was interrupted in 1821, supposedly activating the curse, which led directly, some say, to the ruination of the family that took place thereafter. You don’t have to have read “The Rats in the Walls” to know that this sort of thing was grist for Lovecraft’s mill and that, if he’d caught wind of it, he would have followed it up.


This is all just supposition because, as I’ve already said, there’s no way to prove any of it. Most likely, HPL picked the name 'Castro' randomly from the ‘phone book and just liked the sound of it. It just seems odd to me that the character has a name at all, when the story would have sailed on equally as well if he’d been nameless. I like to think that Lovecraft was a little less arbitrary than that. This is a writer, remember, who took the time to research what publications were being printed in Sydney in 1925 (The Bulletin wasn’t quite the sort of journal that HPL thought it was but, whatever) and where the Australian Museum was located in the same city while putting together the exact same story. He named this guy for a reason; we might never know what that reason was, but we can still speculate.

All we do know is that it wasn’t – apparently – Danziger.