Monday, December 30, 2019

207. Nightfall post } & addenda (pt. 1).

All Hallow’s Eve, 1980: the CBC broadcasts “Ringing the Changes,” a new episode of the radio series Nightfall. Years later, but not that many years later, I begged my father to turn off “Ringing the Changes,” which we were listening to on cassette; the story was about to reach its climax: Holihaven’s bells had stopped ringing, an anonymous street evangelist had cried, “The dead are awake!” and, indeed, the dead were dancing and chanting: “The living and the dead dance together. Now’s the time. Now’s the place. Now’s the weather.” My father finally snapped the tape off, but not until one voice rose above the chanting: a phlegmy, corpse-with-little-left-of-its-vocal-chords kind of voice: “Now’s the time. Now’s the place…”

Eventually I heard all of “Ringing the Changes” and it has since become a favorite episode of Nightfall—in no small part because it introduced me to Robert Aickman.

Aickman’s short story “Ringing the Changes” is the better version, of course. P. Norman Cherrie, who wrote the radio adaptation, fit the story into a half-hour by cutting some of Commandant Shotcroft’s story (he is punishing himself, living in Holihaven—for what he did during a war, perhaps) and other details, such as the samurai suit at the end of the hall (an element of atmosphere that goes unexplained in the Aickman story—a perfect illustration of Aickman’s understanding that while everything in this world might add up, we are unlikely ever to discover how or why). Nonetheless, Cherrie’s script does Aickman’s story justice.

As does the production. “Ringing the Changes” is perfect for radio, and the sound effects people met the story’s potential. The ringing of Holihaven’s bells steadily increases, and the chanting of the dead, as I described, became too awful for me to bear as a boy. When Phrynne and Gerald walk down to the beach, looking for the sea—“I think seaside attractions should include the sea,” Phrynne says—Phrynne screams. Her scream is not just a high-pitched scream, but something subtler. She sounds revolted and chilled all at once. And all the while sodden ground squishes and church bells ring. Cherrie adds a line here that, though too heavy-handed for Aickman, works well for the show: Gerald asks, “What do you think it was you stepped on?” and Phrynne replies, “It was something soft. Something soft and…” she hesitates, Gerald pushes her on, “And?” he asks. She says, “…And bone.” Perhaps the best sound-effect moment comes when Gerald and Phrynne attempt to leave Holihaven. They rush into the streets; the bells are ringing like mad—and then the bells stop. From the moment Gerald and Phrynne arrived in Holihaven, bells rang, so the listener becomes inured to the sound. When the bells stop—we freeze. A moment later, the evangelist announces that the dead are awake and we hear earth churn.

Nightfall began in 1979, when Susan Rubes was hired by the CBC to update their radio dramas. She, “asked for an increased budget, more air time, and a variety of time-slots in order to reach a wider audience.” She was contacted by a producer from Toronto, Bill Howell, who sold her on his idea for a horror radio anthology. Rubes felt she had a hit on her hands, and gave Howell the go-ahead. Bill Howell, several years later, wrote a piece called “Notes on Nightfall for NPR” (America’s National Public Radio aired about thirteen episodes of Nightfall, beginning October, 1981). He wrote this about the origin of the show:
It started innocently enough. Somebody on a network management task force decided that CBC Radio Drama should shed its tweed-pipe-and-smoldering-jacket-image, and a seductive way to do this would be to produce a new horror series, “like the Inner Sanctum or The Shadow.” Five senior executive producers immediately had heart attacks, sixteen script editors resigned in protest…
Most of Howell’s writings regarding Nightfall are a mix of truth and his delightfully creaky horror humor. The series ran for two seasons under Bill Howell’s production, with episodes recorded in Toronto at “studio G,” which Howell described thusly:
Imagine a barn of a room, chipped and flaking institutional pastel walls, black drapes, stained glass, arcane gray sound effects doors and wind machines, a spider’s web of microphone cables, dilapidated armchairs, sections of scripts spread everywhere, and a control room jammed with dim nodes humming to be transformed. And, since you are a guest in this article, we’ll provide the bats.
For season three, the show’s final season, Nightfall was transferred to CBC Vancouver and the production duties were handled by Don Kowalchuk. Another thirty-two episodes were aired, and then Nightfall was no more.

A version of this post is still online at the Open Letters Monthly archive; the editors titled it “As Dark Locks In” when it was published in October, 2012. I’ve made revisions for clarity and to include information I’ve learned about the show since, but my motivation to repost is a recent re-engagement with the show itself and a correspondence with one of its authors. Part two will complete the re-post of the original article. Subsequent parts will be “addenda.”

Thursday, December 12, 2019

206. An impression of } Xenocles' qualities.

[ from Aristophanes' Clouds, possibly "coming from Xenocles' Licymnius and spoken by Alcmene on hearing that Licymnius had been killed by Tlepolemus." Cast: Second Creditor, flannel short pajamas, Nordstrom; Strepsiades, Westerly metallic wind shell coat, Athleta. Commentary and translation, M. J. Cropp from Minor Greek Tragedians. ] 

Friday, December 6, 2019

205. The bleeding of one category } into another.

The narrator of Throat Sprockets (Tim Lucas, 1994), sees The Cure at Dulles airport: “I watched with fascination as this troupe of fern-haired, powder-faced specters trudged with their entourage through the crowd toward a private exit.” Shortly thereafter, he considers the Billboard Top 100:
Nearly all the nation’s hit songs, I noticed, had been recorded by mannish women and ambivalent men, with mournful lyrics tenderly addressed to the genderless lovers no longer in their lives. I recognized the symptom. All of us—the people who shaped society—were somehow touched by the same depression, and our blue funk was profiting no one but the business we represented in order to stay alive and in this pathetic state. To the record companies who recorded these balladeers, their sorrow was a platinum payoff, a jackpot of skulls crowned that particular week (the chart said) by Sinead O’Connor’s interpretation of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” This, I told myself, was the first generation of compact disks: silver stacks minted to perform repeatedly, to spin eternally without distortion or diminishment; the voices encoded on them—the first sounds chosen for such preservation—shared a ubiquitous sadness that seemed to yearn for the gone days of vinyl, their voices plaintively aching to be abused once again with yesterday’s needles.
This passage caught my attention in a way it wouldn’t have when I first read the novel in 1994. Then, it served only as a metaphor: compact disk as vampiric, ever-living undead. Lucas’ idea that a historic event—the advent of the compact disk—would be associated with the malaise of a certain group of artists forever, didn’t make an impression.

Fall, 2013, I spent an afternoon with music writer Geeta Dayal—I’d invited her to speak to my students about her Another Green World monograph. I picked her up in Cambridge, drove her to Providence, brought her to both my classes, and took her to lunch. She was a memorable speaker. Between classes, she regarded the CDs in my office (I’m right now listening on an inexpensive Sony boombox to a CD pressed in 1993). She preferred vinyl, she said—she said she always thought “CDs are ugly.” I was surprised. Sure, I was aware of the rhapsodizing vinyl inspires (especially its sleeve), but the beauty of an LP does not ipso-facto suggest that compact disks are ugly. I told her I disagreed, that I love the oil-slick rainbow of an unadorned CD, the different iterations of the jewel case, iterations of the booklet, other varieties of packaging (including mini-reproductions of the vinyl sleeve); I have CDs that are black on both sides, a CD that changes color when played, a CD shaped like Paul McCartney’s head, gold CDs, a short-playing CD set in a transparent ring, double-sided CDs, and CDs that look like little LPs. I doubt I swayed Ms. Dayal. And I will forever be envious of the stack of Kompact LPs she told me she obtained for free.

Coming from the narrator of Throat Sprockets, lost in the midst of his obsession with neck porn and the inevitable unhappiness that accompanies obsession, the observation rings true. Not so out of context.

# # #

I don’t like the phrase “mannish women and ambivalent men.” If “mannish women” is shorthand for lesbian, it’s pretty weak shorthand; if it’s shorthand for women who are tough, or muscular, or for women with short hair (or none), etc., it’s weak. Sinead O’Connor is not mannish, she’s Sinead O’Connor. And what does “ambivalent men” mean in this context? Bisexual? Asexual? Gay? Or just guys who don’t care?

Throat Sprockets is kinda queer, but it’s also very hetero. Once the narrator sees a film that objectifies throats his sexuality is radically changed. He loses all interest in what once aroused him (he was a “breast man”). But he’s only attracted to heterosexual women’s throats, and the women who are also into throats are invariably subservient.

The kinda queerness of Throat Sprockets is its virtue. At the start of the novel, the narrator goes to the Eros during his lunch break to watch pornographic films, even though “X movies, Triple X, whatever you want to call them—have never particularly aroused me.” Instead, he goes
because of my disenchantment with mainstream films; [he] was fed up and growing weak on a steady diet of movies made by money and interested in only attracting more money. American films had become an art form with the agent as auteur; their lack of serious adult concerns was enforced by an outmoded and unrealistic ratings system that refused free expression to works of original or unpopular thought. … Adult films also had a peculiar knack for capturing the listlessness I found at the core of my real life, better than so-called “legitimate” films.
An ambivalent man.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

204. Cruel } Saki.

Of “The Open Window”

Penultimate to the story’s final declaration, Vera tells a second story to explain Mr. Nuttel’s abrupt departure from her aunt’s home. Mr. Nuttel, she tells her aunt and her three uncles, spent a “night in a newly dug grave” “somewhere on the banks of the Ganges,” pinned by “a pack of pariah dogs”—thus his fear of dogs (the uncles hunt with a brown spaniel). What this story does, aside from amusing Vera, is give cowardly Mr. Nuttel a backstory full of adventure, a backstory that suggests he isn’t a coward but a man with a well-earned phobia. I asked my students, Was this a kindness?

No. Any redemption Vera brought Mr. Nuttel was accidental. She tells stories because she tells stories. Vera is intelligent and bored, and cruelty is fine by her if it entertains. Like Saki himself.

Mr. Nuttel (“nut” or, as the English might say, “nutter”) suffers from a nervous condition. What that is, or what caused it, is not a concern of “The Open Window”; rather, its concern is with Mr. Nuttel’s masculinity. He is not like the uncles, as emphasized by Aunt Sappleton who complains, “They’ve been out for snipe in the marshes to-day, so they’ll make a fine mess over my poor carpets. So like you men-folks, isn’t it?” Not like Mr. Nuttel, who naturally would “not speak to a living soul,” as his sister scolds; Mr. Nuttel does not enjoy the boisterous company of men, or, we can assume, hunting, or playing with dogs, or teasing (as Ronnie, Aunt Sappleton’s youngest brother, does). Mr. Nuttle might be thinking about sex when he wonders “whether Mrs. Sappleton was in the married or widowed state,” but he’s so unattractively nebbish, he certainly hasn’t a chance with her if he is—she yawns when he speaks, perks up only when the uncles (real men) return: “‘Here they are at last!’ she cried.” Finally, Mr. Nuttel is frightened by “a self-possessed young lady of fifteen”—is it more than her story that makes Mr. Nutter nervous around Vera? He’s hen-pecked by his sister, boring to adult women, and unmanned by a girl.

“The Open Window” is cruel because it has no sympathy for the likes of Mr. Nuttel and assumes its audience won’t, either. How could they? He’s ill. His mental illness = a weakness of character that deserves to be mocked.

I write assuming you know the story, or think you do.It operates like a joke, so we remember the punchline (the uncles aren’t ghosts! Vera tells tall tales!) but not the details. It’s full of details to recommend it: the eeriness of Vera’s first story, Aunt Sappleton’s unintentional collaboration with her niece (“don’t they look muddy up to the eyes!” she says of the supposedly drowned uncles), the detail of the white mackintosh carried by Mr. Sappleton, and the story’s final line, “Romance at short notice was her specialty.”

As I recall the story, I overlook Vera’s cruelty and her age; I remember her as a little girl with a gift for morbid storytelling. I wrote that version of Vera in Color Plates (“Little Girl in a Blue Armchair”).

Stronger in my memory than Saki’s original is the audio version from Alfred Hitchcock Presents Ghost Stories for Young People (1962)—it changes quite a few details: Mr. Nuttel is an independently wealthy recluse who raises mushrooms and is a great reader of books and—perhaps this is why I forget Vera is fifteen?—he’s “ushered in [to the Sappleton home] by a very dignified ten year-old girl.” It’s kinder and spookier, too.