Monday, 21 April 2014

Cafe society

I'm sat in a cafe about fifty yards from a grand twelfth century Norman church. It's bank holiday Monday and for some reason that I haven't yet figured out there's a queue forming. I've been here around twenty minutes and watched about a hundred people join the end of the line as it snakes from the church doors, along the cobbled path and around the car park. An older lady behind me tells her friend -  and by virtue of her volume, the rest of us - that the queue is for Cleo Lane’s daughter. 
“You probably don't remember her but she was big in the seventies.”

A couple walk in and sit to my right.
She's my age, maybe older. Dressed to un-impress in a bland cotton dress and thin cardigan. Cork-heeled summer shoes. Nice feet.
He's annoying. Foppish type. Corduroy jacket. Everything beige or a shade of. Trilby. Essentially a twat.
I'd arrived at that conclusion long before he opened his mouth. And then he opened his mouth. A stupid public schoolboy laugh. All fake. Not in the slightest bit interested in what she's saying. Probably just thinking that if he keeps it up and plays his cards right he’ll find his way in to her bra at some point. She certainly looks up for it. I suspect they've both had a drink or two somewhere else in town.

The coffee here is good. It always is. Labelled as Americano on the chalk board behind the counter but infinitely better than the sewage you're served in the branded coffee joints around here.

It's twenty degrees outside. Most are in short sleeves and jeans. A woman with crazy hair topped with a bright pink beret has joined the queue. Well, pushed in. She wears a heavy fur coat. Clearly bonkers.

Men in blazers step in to the cafe reeking of money. Their wives wander in behind them and sit where they're told to.
“Is it service or do we order?” booms one of the blazers.
They all sit down and discuss the tea, coffee and snacks that they'd like. They seem frightfully pleasant and the men engage in political debate whilst the women watch on.
There's a Range Rover somewhere nearby with a plush beige interior and a 14 plate.

I'm pretty much done. Couldn't take another mouthful of coffee and I just don't feel the urge for cake so it's time to pay up and depart.

The queue has gone. Fifty yards away an ageing audience eagerly await Chloe Lane’s daughter. I'm tempted to step up to the church and try and catch some of it. I assume it's free. 
I opt to head for the car but out of the corner of my eye I spot an attractive woman sat drinking wine at one of the cafĂ©'s outside tables. She's reading - her eyes hidden behind large Jackie-O’s. Summer dress that fits well. She's slim but I'm pretty sure she'd have wanted a larger sized dress up top. Maybe not. Open shoes. Nice feet. Painted nails. 
I'm spotted and greeted with a surprisingly warm smile. I smile back though I'm horribly embarrassed. Regaining some composure I'm now acutely aware that my next footstep is crucial. There's a one in two chance I may stumble on the cobbles and complete the horror. My feet work for once and I'm clean away.
Curse my decision making. I was going to sit outside.
As I climb in to the car I glance back. She's lovely. Curse my decision making and lack of confidence.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Lovecraft in film - In the Mouth of Madness

I first encountered the works of H.P. Lovecraft around 20 years ago. During that time I wasn't reading a huge amount. I suppose in many respects film and computer games were my books back then.

I instantly warmed to Lovecraft's style. It didn't bother me that he wrote so much in the first person or that he was frequently far from economical with his words. I actually rather liked his style.
The most important thing for me were the settings that he created. That masterful blend of circumstance, science and misfortune all stretched thin over a rich and fascinating mythos of creatures from another realm or another world. Lovecraft was a complex and fascinating writer.

I've looked for evidence of Lovecraft's influence in film quite a bit over the years. There's quite a bit out there that is, in my opinion, far too easily badged as Lovecraftian in style.

In my web travels I found this list of films supposedly containing a Lovecraftian vibe.
I'm a fan of a handful of John Carpenter's films so I opted for In the Mouth of Madness (read the synopsis there to save me re-typing it) to kick things off.
Personally I think it's a mess. Full of classic horror cliches and some pretty lame effects.
Sam Neill (Trent) does his best with the script but it's really pretty dire. The premise however is not.

In terms of it being Lovecraftian I'd have to argue it's really not.
Yes there's madness and insanity and yes there's a mysterious town with an inherent horror but in terms of it being a Lovecraft style story, I'd say it's far too superficial and cheesy to qualify.
Some of the scenes really are "just add tentacles" and you have that Cthulhu / Shub Niggurath type creature.

It's not all bad. The final act of the film does have a real impact on you. It's still cliched beyond belief but Trent's (Sam Neill) descent in to insanity is engrossing to say the least.
Look out for Pickman's hotel in the town that doesn't exist, a clear reference to Lovecraft's tale of Pickman's Model.
Devoid of rational explanation Trent naturally questions his own sanity. Ultimately confronting the source of his madness - the author Sutter Cane.
The film plays heavily on the fact that when it comes to surreal horror you can dispense with all reality and the boundaries of real world physics and logic. Example: one minute Trent is driving a car at an angry mob, the next he's swerving to avoid his token love interest, then he's sat in a confessional booth. Snap, snap, snap. Scene to scene. No transition just flash editing that for the viewer just looks stupid. That's my opinion.

Ignoring the horror and supposed Lovecraft influence, does it work as a piece of surrealism?
No. It's an unhinged and random mess of scenes with nothing much for the viewer to grasp.
The injection of the otherwordly beasts is intriguing. In fact it owes more to Clive Barker's take on Lovecraft than anything else. Less aquatic aliens from a distant realm or planet and more the cliched denizens of hell for me.

All in all the film's story sets out to portray the effect that a piece of writing can have on its readers. An epidemic breaks out whereby anyone who reads the author's work is sent wild by it. Murderous even. The outside world is a mix of those who read it and those who don't. Those who read it are rapid mutants. Those who don't are "normal".
The story sends a cynical man (in his capacity as an insurance fraud investigator) to a place that doesn't really exist only to confront his own sanity head on.

For me this film is really only effective in the real world scenes. The cliched horror scenes just look cheap. I really think it would have been more effective to have shot most of the "insanity" in a single location. It'd be cool to see somebody fall to pieces in solitude but totally wracked with the vision of hell enforced upon him by a work of fiction. Terrified more by their own fear than by what they saw.

The final scenes however are pretty remarkable. Tongue in cheek for sure but pretty good. A nice twist and a neat end to what for me is a remarkably ordinary film.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Desolation of Smaug

I watched The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug last night courtesy of iTunes and Apple TV.
As with every one of Peter Jackson's depictions of Middle Earth the setting, characterisation, acting and action are all first class.
Laketown in particular stands out as a beautifully realised location with it's medieval architecture and gothic moonlit rooftop sequences a real pleasure to experience. The classic orange flames set against the blue hue of the town at night looks every bit a painting that the finest of chiaroscuro painters would have been proud of.

For all it's style (the Smaug sequences toward the end are quite special) I was left, after two and a half hours, with a real fondness for the Orcs.
I just think they look stunning. Hulking great brutes with one thing and one thing only on their mind - death.
Azog, their leader, is a fantastic specimen. He must be 7 feet tall and just the stuff of nightmares. His son Bolg is similarly horrific. Between them and their endless hordes they pursue and terrorise the good guys at every turn.

I love the Tolkien stories and I love how Peter Jackson has turned such detailed works of literature in to something quite special on screen. I was just left feeling a bit "so what" after the credits rolled.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Short writing exercise - Leaving the House

Jonathan Blaze, Jon to his friends, was about to leave his home for the first time in nearly four years.
Am I really about to do this, he asked himself. Yes, you are, came the reply from deep inside his troubled mind.
Somewhere along the line he had developed a remarkably effective inner saint - inner demon relationship. The two would encourage, criticise, ridicule and ultimately define him during his solitude. Crucially though they would motivate him in to the most rudimentary of actions and crush him for the slightest fault.

Jon reached for his coat. It had hung there for nearly four years. It still fit. Just. In four years he'd gained a few pounds but not enough to warrant a new wardrobe. Not quite.
The handful of grocery drivers that pitched up every week had commented in passing that he was looking well. This was enough to convince him that he was doing alright. There was only the one mirror in the house and that was the shaving mirror in the bathroom.

The light of the morning sun shone through the colours in the door's window. It was bright for six in the morning. Perhaps too bright. Jon stepped up to the door and straightened his back. His feet together and his arms pressed firmly in to his side he raised his chin and took a deep breath.

"You're not capable," the inner demon muttered. "You're a sorry excuse for a man and you will fail."
That last word echoed. The word fail had haunted him for years. It defined him. I am a failure, he thought. That is why I'm here and in this situation.

Four years ago he'd been a success. A good father to his children, a good husband and a pretty damn good salesman. Sure his work had seen him stay away from home a little more than he'd liked - certainly a good deal more than Susy had liked - but he was good at it and it brought in good money. Very good money.
The family would holiday twice a year. Once in England for a week at August half term and two weeks abroad during the summer.
The year it happened they'd gone to Egypt. The best family holiday ever, officially. They'd not made it to August's half term.

The pain stabbed him straight between the eyes. The vision of the car in flames. The struggle. His inability to move. The blue lights...

I am a failure. Dammit, why must I torment myself like this. I'm not ready.
He was half way to removing his coat when a familiar voice chimed from beyond the front door. The sound of laughter. A child's laughter. The kind you just can't get enough of.
He continued to take his coat off and place it on the hook.
Pausing for a moment Jonathan Blaze shut his eyes and envisaged the demon sat atop his stoney perch. Laughing, chuckling. That awful titter that had kept him awake night after night. The demon was fading. As it faded so came the screams. The awful screams from another realm. The sounds of hell. That awful dull echo of hell's minions. The demon was visible but only just. It's arms waving, clawing at the air.

In a snap he opened his eyes and reached for the door handle. I will do this.
As the door creaked and the fresh morning air caught his face he squinted hard. The light was brighter than he'd expected. There were no children playing. There were no sounds of laughter. In fact there were no sounds at all save for the birds that lined the trees in his neighbour's garden.

That first step came very easily. The second even easier. Within a few short strides he was stood in his front porch. A smile drew itself across his face. His tired expression that had been etched in to his skin was slowly replaced. He took another step. And another.

For nearly four of his forty four years Jonathan Blaze had turned his back on the world. But not any more. Today all that changed. The inner saint was applauding him, loudly.
He allowed the early morning sun of Spring to warm his face. He hoped it would cement the smile. It felt good.
Pulling the door to behind him he stepped out in to the world again.

Thank you, he thought. Thank you.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

A Stephen King short story

I'm keen to maintain the momentum on my reading. Hemingway was a success and I'm gripped by the short story format.
Having read a handful of stories in as many days I thought I'd invest a little time in identifying an author and a style that perhaps I'd read more of.
It's not entirely scientific but my criteria essentially boiled down to drama, intensity, strong character, sex (!), setting. For me the genre isn't so important as I'll happily read a story set on Mars as much as I'll read something set in Middle Earth.

Stephen King's name fell out of the bottom of the process.
I'd read King when I was younger. Salem's Lot and The Dead Zone I read early on and then a handful of other novels in my early 20s. Since then I've read a bit of Clive Barker within the horror genre. In fact Barker's writing helped me to redefine horror. So much so that I really don't see King as that much of an horror author any more. An extremely effective author of dark and disturbing tales for sure, but Barker's gruesome focus on the fantastical, ancient beasts and human mutilation are on a different level.

I picked up King's A Face in the Crowd. A short story about an elderly loner (a common fear right there if ever there was one) who spends his evenings watching Baseball on TV.
On one such evening he identifies a familiar face in the crowd of the poorly attended ballpark. On TV this familiar face from the distant past. A face that belongs to somebody who is surely dead by now.
The next night the exact same thing happens. A different but equally as familiar face right there in the same seat. A few rows back behind the batter.

What King does here is very quickly builds a picture of this man's situation. He creates a character whom I care about. I feel his loneliness. His wife had died some years before and he has nobody else in the world.
Similar in some respects to Hemingway's old man out at sea on his skiff.
The gaps in between the defining points of this man's life are neatly filled with his little quirks and idiosyncrasies. His daily routine is oddly familiar such that when something extraordinary happens we are forced to sit up and take notice.

I look forward to seeing just how this short tale pans out.

Monday, 7 April 2014

A beautiful story well told

I finished Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.
It's really a very special story. Beautifully constructed and beautifully told.

I suppose in reality I'd expected the ending to be a little different to the one that I'd wanted. As disappointed as I felt for the old man I have to confess I felt a tremendous warmth for him and his achievements at sea.
Much of how we feel about the outcome is reflected beautiful in the weeping boy. His friend and tutor had fought bravely to land the fish and then bravely to protect it. He leaves the experience with his head held high. A fish so large had never been seen in the harbour. The old man, our young boy's great friend and great mentor was indeed a great fisherman.

I'm left with a number of emotions. Firstly, I have tremendous admiration for Hemingway and his portrayal of the old sea dog. An old sea dog who had one last fight in him. An old sea dog who triumphed against the odds and for whom countless stories will be told to generations of budding fisherman to come.
Better still such stories will most likely be wildly embellished since the old man was alone at sea.

I have a real enthusiasm for short stories and a particular fondness for Hemingway's style. I very much hope that this isn't a one off and that his other stories are as captivating and beautifully told.

Thinking of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea at 4am

I woke at 4am this morning. Since it's Spring I sleep with the curtains open. The moon is around the other side of the house but there's enough light from other sources to pick out the shape of the trees in the garden.
I must have laid there for almost an hour before falling back to sleep.
In that time I watched the light improve and the detail in the trees and larger shrubs increase. It was a magical time.
I could hear the rain but it did little to dampen my mood.

I thought of several things - most of which escape me now.
Notably I thought of the old man in Hemingway's novel The Old Man and the Sea. I've almost finished it and just now he's landed the Marlin and strapped it to the side of his skiff. The sharks are alert to the blood and as tired as the old man is he has the better of them.
I'll finish the story over a coffee on my break later. I care about that old man. I'd go so far as to say I feel for him. His every emotion, his hunger, his thirst, his desire and his need to land that mighty fish. I love the healthy respect he has for the fish. I love that he feels that the fish died with dignity. The "enemy below" was not so much the enemy as his brother.

The old man loves the sea. He respects her and all that live within her.
He is a long way from shore. His story is very much a tale of personal triumph against the odds. So far he is victorious. I hope that he succeeds and takes his rewards. A 1,500lb fish that will cut in to 1,000lb to sell at 30 cents a pound has significant value to the frail and destitute old man.

His companion, the young boy, is not with him. They have shared many a sea-faring adventure but not this one. For this one he is alone. The young boy must surely be eagerly awaiting the old man's return. He's not his son but the old man loves him as though he were his own and vice versa.

I've loved reading this story.
The main character is complex. He has a gentleness to him. A spiritual side and an extremely human side. His endearing love for Joe DiMaggio, the great Di Maggio, whom he admires so much is quite touching. That Di Maggio's father was himself a fisherman only strengthens his admiration for the legendary Yankee's baseball player.

Hemingway is a beautiful writer. His knowledge of his character and his subject is his strength.
I look forward to completing the story and moving on to another of his classics.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Short stories

I'm currently enjoying reading a range of short stories. I always wanted to rekindle my love of reading. It's been several years since I sat with a book and enjoyed it. The last one was probably Bret Easton Ellis' Lunar Park. A good book.

So I fired up the iPad and iBooks (I also use the Kindle app) and went in search of some short reads.
There's a ton of them out there and a lot are free. I picked up an MR James collection for 99p. His ghostly tales are wonderful and Oh, whistle and I'll come to you, my lad stands out as a particularly chilling read.

Within a day or two my library collection has become quite large.
I've read a few now and love their style. The liberal use of dialogue intrigues me. In fact it appears to be crucial to the format of the short story. Keeps the momentum up and the reader both interested and in tune with the characters.

I'm currently reading Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. It's beautifully written and extremely honest. I've wanted to read a Hemingway story for a while since his name crops up a great deal within the short story fraternities on the internet. His style is extremely accessible and his content thorough and well researched. I think it's fair to say this guy knew his subject and his characters intimately before he began to tell their story. There's a valuable lesson to be learned there, I'm sure.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Lunch folks

Sitting watching the world go by with my iPad and some lunch. I normally head for some secluded or relatively inactive spot to escape it all for that one hour a day that I can. But today I fancied seeing some life.
Tom Waits’ Closing Time is ticking over in the background as I type.
I confess I'm pretty relaxed right now.

There's a guy wandering around in front of me. He seems to be waiting for someone. Occasionally he'll look up at the buildings in the town. Quite inexplicably really. There's a notebook under his arm. An older bloke, possibly mid 60s, so not that old. Jeans, pink shirt, smart shoes. I'd love to think he was up to no good. Possibly waiting for somebody to go and share a whiskey with whilst they plot the assassination of some key official on the local town council.
In fact he looks the type. Shifty and uncomfortable being out in the open for too long. That said he's done nothing to disguise himself. The glasses are regular glasses. Not a tint in sight. No hat, no overcoat. Nothing. This guy doesn't fit the stereotype that's for sure.
Oh wait, his wife showed up. That's that then. Who knows what the notebook was for but I'm willing to bet they're off for coffee and lunch and to plan this week's bridge party.

A fat woman sits down beside me. Smiler. Large cream cake, large coffee. Happy. I'm convinced she’d be quite the looker if she could remove the numerous lumps from her face and separate her chin from her neck. You see that quite a lot. She’s probably the same age as me. Still, she's happy and there's a lot that can be said for that. Probably remarkably clever and witty, too.

Time passes with little to note and I'm forced to reluctantly pack up my things and head back to work.
The coffee was dreadful. Fortunately the slice of carrot cake was not.

Tom Waits is my saviour

"A voice soaked in gin."

Or so the saying goes.
I've fine tuned my musical tastes slowly over many years. I still love the thrash of guitars and drums but over time the hard rock requirements have subsided and given way to a more mellow and reflective taste.
Recently I picked up (downloaded) an album by Radiohead's Thom Yorke. Another by Leonard Cohen. A couple more by Trent Reznor and finally Tom Waits' Heart Attack and Vine.
It's the latter that gets played the most. So much that I added to it earlier with the 1973 release Closing Time.

It's different to Heart Attack but still a fine album. More Dylan than I'd expected. More country as well. But I like Dylan and I like country so it's all good.

I love Waits' voice. It's pure and yet edgy. Simple and yet capable of so much expression. His ability to almost change persona mid song is I can see something of a signature move. I love it.

I listen to music that is appropriate to my mood. I always have done. On a sunny day tearing down a road with the roof back I'm perhaps more inclined to listen to something with a bit of bounce or attitude. But I rarely do that and just now Tom Waits is defining my mood rather than vice versa.
I must say its a nice place to be.