Algernon Blackwood (1936) – a host of fears

As my dear friend, Derek Johnston, is fond of reminding me, the first night of scheduled television in the UK ended with a couple of ghost stories told by Algernon Blackwood. Also, as Derek usually adds, this choice by the BBC drew on formats familiar in their radio service. Like Lights Out, then, this event illustrates the ways in which, in its early years, television horror initially drew on models from radio, rather than cinema. Nor was this transmission a one-off event, and Blackwood appeared on television for a number of years afterward, where his recital of horror stories became a regular feature of the schedules. So much so, that the BBC continued the format in later years, when Lord Dunsany followed Blackwood as a horror narrator.

However, there are also other aspects of these shows that are worth commenting upon. The format draws on the tradition of oral storytelling, a tradition that is used in a range of different types of television programming (Jackanory, the News, etc.) but seems to have acquired a particular significance in relation to horror. Television horror has used the figure of the narrator as a frame for its horror tales in a way that is very rare in cinematic horror. The use of John Houseman at the start of John Carpenter’s The Fog is one of only a handful of cinematic examples, but given Houseman’s was a close collaborator with Orson Welles, the fact that he is telling a ghost story to a group of children huddled around a campfire, and that the film’s central character runs a radio station, which she uses to hold a community together in the face of vast supernatural forces, this opening may be highly suggestive in ways that should become clear later.

First, while this technique is rare in cinematic horror, radio horror was fond of this convention, as can be seen in the case of ‘the Man in Black’ from Appointment with Fear and later The Man in Black, but also in a range of other examples (see Richard Hand’s Terror on the Air!). Similarly, it is a major feature in television horror: Alfred Hitchcock Presents used the great director as a host, who book-ended the stories with his macabre wit; Thriller employed the figure of Boris Karloff in a similar way; The Twilight Zone featured Rod Serling; Great Mysteries had Orson Welles; The Night Stalker and The Norliss Tapes both had fictional characters narrate their stories (the former was told by Carl Kolchak while the latter were supposed to be the taped files of David Norliss, although it never developed into the series that it appears to have been designed to become); Night Gallery was (again) hosted by Rod Serling; Tales of the Unexpected was, at least initially, introduced by Roald Dahl; Tales from the Darkside had an unnamed narrator; and Tales from the Crypt had the crypt-keeper. Even the screenings of horror films on television have a long history of being introduced by horror hosts, a practice that dates back to 1957 when ‘Shock Theater’ showed a series of Universal horror films on television that were often hosted by figures such as ‘Zackerley’ and ‘Vampira’.

One function of these horror hosts is that they were able to create a sense of consistency across different stories. Without Alfred Hitchcock’s introductions, Alfred Hitchcock Presents would not have been a show but simply a series of individual plays. In this way, these hosts also work as a kind of guarentor or brand that can encourages trust and a sense that people know what to expect.

On another level, they operate to set the tone, to generate a sense of anticipation by hinting at the horrors to come, or a sense of light-heartedness that encourages viewers not to take things to seriously or even overtly ridicule what they are about to watch- horror hosts such as ‘Zackerley’ and ‘Vampira’ established an overtly camp relationship to the films that they introduced; and both Hitchcock and Karloff established a sense that the macabre stories that they introduced were meant to establish a playful relationship with their audience and did not simply pander to unhealthy tastes.

To some extent, then, the figure of the narrator in television horror works to illegitimate the horror story and another way in which it seeks to do so is by relating the horror tale to a tradition of oral storytelling. Rather than simply gruesome stories, the shows are aligned with more comfortable notions of the traditional bedtime story: Blackwood’s stories were read just before the end of transmission as a way of signalling the close-down and sending everyone off to bed. But they were also reminiscent of the fireside story and particularly the horror stories traditionally told to children around camp fires on dark nights – which is explicitly what Houseman is doing at the opening of Carpenter’s The Fog.

These associations are interesting in other ways. First, they relate the narration not simply with oral traditions but traditions associated with childhood; and, second, they associate such acts of storytelling narration with special events that occurs outside of normal, everyday life. The bedtime story is a transitional tale that takes the child from the world of everyday life to the world of sleep and dreams; and while the fireside story takes place within the domestic interior, the campfire story takes place at a time outside normal everyday schedules (normally a holiday period) when the child can stay up late and when the child is often away at camp. Sleepovers are also commonly associated with the oral telling of frightening tales, and again it is often seen as special occasions when do not have to return to their respective homes at the end of the day, as would normally be the case, but when they can stay together and stay up late,

But the horror host does more than simply associate these stories with oral storytelling. The common description of them as hosts is also significant. Television horror is often seen as inappropriate to the home, and the uncanny literally means unfamiliar and its Freudian use is drawn from Freud’s ‘unheimliche’ or unhomely. But there are questions about why anyone would let the uncanny into our homes (television commonly being seen as a primarily domestic medium). One answer may be in the term ‘host’, a host being someone who often welcomes you into their home. In other words, the host may work to mediate between the world of domestic security and the world of unsettling horror. Rather than audiences welcoming horror into the domestic, the host takes them out of their domestic existences and welcomes them into the world of horror.

Much has been written about the television as a technology that mediates between the home and the world beyond it, either enabling people to stay inside while remaining aware of the world outside, or enabling people to travel without leaving the comfort of their living rooms. The horror host captures something of this quality, acting as a conduit between the domestic interior and the world outside. But such a conduit does not simply keep things separate but always puts them in play with one another. Sometimes this is felt as pleasurable escape from routines of domestic life, sometime a threatening blurring of the line between the two worlds, and sometimes as calling the distinctions between the two into question: as Alfred Hitchcock is famously quoted as saying,’One of television’s great contributions is that it brought murder back into the home, where it belongs.’

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Schalcken the Painter (1979) – Why Isn’t the DVD Available?

The BFI in all its kindness have produced a handsome box set of the Christmas Ghost Stories, which is very nice of them, but why is there no DVD available of Schalcken the Painter. Like Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You, it is technically not one of the Christmas Ghost Stories but while Miller’s ghost story makes it into the box set, Schalcken doesn’t, which is a pity as it is a favorite of mine. Its a particularly creepy story that I remember seeing when it was first shown as a episode of the arts series, Omnibus, in the late 1970s (Miller’s ghost story was also made for Omnibus).

Based on a tale by Sheridan LeFanu, who also created Uncle Silas and the vampire Camilla, the story is used by Omnibus as a way of commentating on art and painting, and as a way of exploring how issues of style and theme are connected. The story is even shot to look like the paintings that it explores.

Of course, the story that it tells is absolutely fantastic and it was not (I assume) intended as a literal piece of art criticism – I don’t think that the makers actually believed the story or saw it as the key to interpreting the paintings. But the story did provide a way of dramatizing certain the themes and obsessions that they presented as central to the painter and his creations.

The drama starts with the young Schalcken, when he is still an apprentice in the home of his master, Gerrit Dou. At this time, he is in  love for Dou’s niece, Rose. Unfortunately, Schalcken is too poor to be an acceptable suitor for Rose; and, into this awkward domestic scene, enters a strange, gaunt man of considerable wealth who offers Dou a fortune in exchange for his niece’s hand in marriage. Dou accepts the fortune and a contract is signed promising Rose in marriage to the stranger, despite Rose’s disgust at her ominous suitor.

Eventually, the wedding day arrives but, after entering the church for their wedding (the church where Rose’s suitor claims to have first seen his bride to be), neither Rose or her husband are ever seen again. Well, that is until, many years later, when Schalcken finds himself strangely drawn into the crypt of the church, where he seems to encounter Rose, who leads him to a bed within the crypt. After various lewd actions by Rose, she reveals that her gaunt husband is lying in the bed and, in front of a horrified Schalcken, she engages in a grim sexual performance with her husband.

The vision seems to shock Schalcken into unconsciousness and he awakens some time later to find that the bed is no longer where he had seen it, and that in its place is a tomb. The implication is clear: Rose has been sold to a corpse and her wedding bed is a tomb!

Elsewhere Derek Johnston has seen the story as one of ‘the tragic victory of commerce over love‘ but I read it somewhat differently. Rose isn’t simply sold to another man, but to death. The transaction converts Rose into property, into a lifeless commodity like cold, gold coins for which she is traded.

But Schalcken is not blameless here. Rose tries to persuade him to run away with her, but he says that he has no wealth to support them and that he will work so that he can buy her marriage contract back from her repulsive suitor at a later date – he accepts her marriage to another in the hope that he will be able to trade for her at a later date. In other words, he treats her like property, too; and he values wealth over love.

His vision is therefore interesting, because it disavows his own complicity in Rose’s destruction by suggesting that it is she who desires the repulsive coupling with the hideous stranger. In his vision, neither Dou, her gaunt suitor, nor Schalken are blamed and it is Rose’s sexuality that becomes questionable and even horrifying. Similarly, in his paintings (at least as the programme interprets them), Schalcken repeatedly displays his disgust at a world in which sex has become an object of commerce but, again and again, it is the women within these paintings who are presented as having commodified themselves, and chosen to trade sex for money.

But the story has show us precisely the opposite. Schalcken might choose to present himself as a victim and women as the cold, heartless marketeers of sex; but it is actually Rose who is the victim of a system of exchange between men, in which she and her sexuality are property to be traded, a system of exchange that only Rose has objected to, and with which Schalcken has remained complicit and from which he has hoped to profit. Even if he ultimately experiences disgust and alienation as a result.

In short, then, the programme is a beautifully put together little short story that is really creepy and rather disturbing. Oh, and Charles Gray as the narrator doesn’t hurt either!