Hoist by One's Own Petard

First eerie laughter, then a disturbing voice whispers menacingly: "The Shadow knows!" And then some more chilling laughter.

This is how the ripping 30's radio serial The Shadow begins. The formula is quite simple but effective. Usually there is a trial and an innocent man is found guilty of something he didn't do. But not to worry, the Shadow is on the case. The Shadow is the secret identity of rich playboy Lamont Cranston, and the police don't quite know on which side of the law he operates. He will track down the guilty and see that justice is done. Not the law necessarily, but justice. He reminds me a bit of the really early Batman who had both the gangsters and the coppers after him.

The Shadow is in fact one of the earliest super heroes - he can both become invisible and read minds. This makes him perhaps just a little too superior, I mean he just can't loose, can he? Not against ordinary villains, anyway.

The invisibility and mind reading gives it almost a flavour of science fiction, or at least a tinge of the Gothic.

At the end of each episode The Shadow repeats: "The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay. The Shadow knows," or some variant thereof, followed by a sample of the menacingly ironic trademark laughter.

I've by no means heard more than a tiny fraction of the episodes but the writing is fairly good, the acting convincing and the production values high for the times. What makes the episodes I've heard from 1938 very interesting indeed is that the Shadow/Lamont Cranston is played by none other than the velvety-voiced and quite indecently young Orson Welles, and the same year he made The War of the Worlds to boot.

Welles did in fact make an awful lot of radio appearances on top of his own Mercury and Campbell Playhouse productions. His own productions tended to be cultured and erudite and often adaptations of the classics of literature and stage (though by no means always), while his other radio work was basically just for money. Most of it is probably forgotten, but apart from The Shadow there is another series that is well worth mentioning: The Adventures of Harry Lime. In this British series made in '51 and '52 Harry Lime, who dies in the sewers of Vienna in Carol Reed and Graham Greene's film The Third Man, narrates his amoral exploits and rascally deeds prior to Vienna with appropriate charm, wit and cynicism. The scripts are usually good or at least adequate, some were even written by Orson Welles himself - but who cares, really, it's Orson Welles as Harry Lime! Don't get much better than that.

Mostly Harry's duplicitous schemes are foiled, but occasionally he does get away with the loot. Often he fails because he's not as clever as he thought, not quite. Or maybe he's just thrown when somebody acts, well, disgustingly honestly. Now how's a fellow supposed to foresee that happening?

The Shadow
inspired another superb series called The Whistler. The Whistler is not the hero but the narrator who gently and sometimes gleefully mocks the futile aspirations of the protagonists. They will fail. That is the concept. They will try to pull off something devious and oh so clever, but it always backfires and everything goes horribly awry. And the villain finds himself the victim of his own crime.

The theme is otherworldly, then someone whistles in a ghostly and terrifying manner. "I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, many secrets hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes ... I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak."

A typical episode might go something like this: one twin is engaged to a charming man, the other isn't. The other is jealous and kills her sister, makes it look like suicide. And here's the clincher - she puts her own clothes on the corpse, making everyone think it is she who's dead. Then she assumes the dead sister's role. She gets ready to marry the lovely man with whom all along she's been in love. The man starts acting strange. Turns out the man is in fact an escaped convict whom the sister's been blackmailing all the time. The man kills her because he doesn't want her to spill the beans - quite unnecessarily, of course, because she doesn't even know anything about his secret. And wouldn't have betrayed him in any case as she really was in love with him.

Or like this: a man picks up a drunken girl and escorts her home. Turns out she's a stinking rich heiress. He marries her in order to swindle her and take her money. After they're married she makes a painful confession. She isn't rich at all. She hasn't got a dime. Well he's not working nor does he intend to start, so they're right on their uppers. He decides to kill her for the insurance. It all goes perfectly and he's bought himself a good solid alibi at a bar. And the cops have a suspect. Turns out it's the killer's old friend in whom he's confided. The friend's come to the apartment to stop the murder. The killer says he doesn't know him and the friend sings to the cops. And then the killer's alibi falls apart, the barman thought it was a gag to deceive the killer's wife, not the cops, so he won't perjure himself. So the cops throw the killer in the slammer for killing his wife. And the twist? The friend came over to tell the killer something about the wife. No need to kill her after all, she really is stinking rich, the being poor shtick was just a test to see if he truly loves her. Bummer.

The scripts are rather beautifully crafted and the twist ends quite surprising, even when one expects them. The writing is noticeably better than on The Shadow (but that could be just the more restrictive formula). The actors are fine and the narrator's irony delicious.

In the episodes I've heard from 1944 there are in fact quite interesting messages from the sponsors about car battery maintenance (during the war there were restrictions so one could never drive quite enough to charge the battery), paper recycling (wood pulp was needed for gun powder - alas and alack, woe is the the pulp magazine!) and the game Salvo with which the sponsor supplied the armed forces. But otherwise the bits about the sponsor are repetitive, trite and deadly dull.

The Whistler ran for over a decade so there were a lot of episodes produced. And, fortuitously, a lot of them can be found on the net. Oh, bliss and blissfulness!


Huxley Speaks

The BBC went through their archives and found tapes on which Aldous Huxley gives talks and is interviewed. There weren't that many of them, only about 75 minutes all in all - in fact just perfect for a CD.

So they put one out. It's called Aldous Huxley - The Spoken Word. It's a true delight.

The first surviving radio broadcast is from 1934 and in it a terribly terribly earnest and young (well, he is forty, not perhaps quite that young then, but fairly youngish anyway) and erudite Huxley speaks about the causes of war in a frightfully cultured and perhaps a slightly affected voice (but I do suppose just about any voice from those days sounds at least a bit affected and strange - in the later broadcasts Huxley sounds much more normal). He addresses the psychological causes of hatred and prejudice and that perverse national chauvinism that is the curse of nations everywhere - then and now and possibly for all eternity. Can war be stopped? Huxley has certain suggestions. What is quite endearing is that he isn't entirely pessimistic - he treats this as a problem of rationality and logic, something that can solved by applying common sense. Maybe. Possibly.

After the next war he's considerably less optimistic. In 1948 he's again in a BBC studio, this time to discuss his new utopian or rather dystopian novel Ape and Essence. The premise of the book gives it all away. Disaster has struck and wiped away almost the whole of mankind. In the interview Huxley focuses on the dangers of nuclear energy. It doesn't take much of an accident and a great many people sustain harmful mutations that will plight the entire human race for generations and generations. And that's just with a relatively harmless peace time mishap. It doesn't look good, it certainly doesn't. Whither humanity?

In 1958 Huxley appears in both Monitor and The Brains Trust; in the latter with his Nobel Prize winning brother Julian (he had two Nobel Prize winning brothers, actually) answering queries from listeners.

The CD concludes with an interview from 1961, two years before Huxley's death. Huxley discusses his life and writings. He never was supposed to become a novelist but a scientist. That's why he feels a bit of a fraud as a novelist. It never was supposed to be, he was to become a doctor, follow in the footsteps of his famous grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin's Bulldog, and brother Julian. Then his eyes went and he was actually blind for a while. A career in science was quite out of the question. So literature it was.

But still, after all the books, a fraud he feels. A novelist, according to him, is someone who's larger than life and reflects this in his books. Someone like Balzac or Dickens or Tolstoy. And someone who is, above all, interested in his characters and their fate and destiny. Huxley is interested in ideas. He echoes a lovely thing Bertrand Russell once said: "How nice it is to know things!" What Huxley loves is to explore ideas, piece together information from different sources and build extensive collages. No wonder that Huxley very early abandoned or at least distanced himself from social satire and tackled the novel of ideas - and, I must point out, utopias and science fiction. Basically almost all of the longer fiction he wrote after the late '20s was science fiction of one kind or another: Brave New World, After Many a Summer, Ape and Essence, Island. This was clearly his approach to fiction and what he saw as important: the truly crucial issues about whether mankind will survive or not.

There is one bitter disappointment. In one of the interviews Huxley debunks a myth - he doesn't habitually travel with a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Blimey! There's me utterly crushed!

He sort of laughed it off when the interviewer asked - it's all become a myth, he claimed, with very little substance. A tale that lives its own life, as tales so often do. It took me a while to trace the claim, but this is what he says in Along the Road - Tales and Essays of a Tourist (1925 - though my copy is of those superbly delightful international Albatross issues, and a bit ominously from July 1939, actually): "India paper and photography have rendered possible the inclusion in a portable library of what in my opinion is the best traveller's book of all - a volume (any of the thirty-two will do) of the twelfth, half-size edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica."

And he goes on: "I never pass a day away from home without taking a volume with me." And: "A stray volume of the Encyclopaedia is like the mind of a learned madman - stored with correct ideas, between which, however, there is no other connection than the fact that there is a B in both . . . "

Charming idea, travelling with an encyclopaedia. Of course, nowadays, it's no longer an issue. Take your laptop and you're laughing. Huxley would have loved it. And hated it.


Podcasting Extraordinaire

Podcasts are rather superb. For some reason the science fiction community produces a lot of them and many of them are of wonderful quality. My current favourite is Notes From Coode Street with Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe. Listening to these fellows makes one remember exactly why one fell in love with science fiction in the first place. I do enjoy short stories and fiction of any kind, as podcasts I mean. But. Listening to really really knowledgeable conversation on literature and authors is such a rare and sublime pleasure that it tends to hit the sweet spot with an impact rarely achieved by even the best of fiction.

These conversations titillate and make science fiction not only seem relevant but important. Both gentlemen possess a truly inspiring knowledge of the field, such as to awe almost any listener. These conversations, not to put too fine a point on it, are nothing short of cultural history.

The latest podcast kicks off with Frederik Pohl and his relevance to the genre both as a pro writer and as one of the original fans, touches on Robert Silverberg and Philip José Farmer, moves on to the Big Three (Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein), segues a bit into jazz and Miles Davis and, well, franchise. People want to read what they like. And then they want to read some more of what they like - which is what sells books. Not intellectual or literary quality per se.

What I particularly enjoy about these conversations is the balance between structured content and improvisational riffing. One never quite knows where the conversation will lead but it always is worthwhile and interesting. And it may be off on a tangent but never haphazard - there always is an underlying logic that pulls the entire conversation together and elevates it. That is of course a difficult thing to achieve - unless one really really knows what one is talking about and has rare insight. Like these fellows.

And the amazing thing is that it's all pretty much off the cuff. They just bounce ideas and authors and books off each other and see where it leads. And still it's utterly solid and eminently erudite. Anything these fellows have to say is worth saying. That's because these fellows understand the field as a whole as only few people do. They have knowledge about writing as well as editing and publishing and even marketing. They know the authors and their works, profoundly and intimately. They understand the mechanisms that sculpt and regulate science fiction.

Also, they've met the legends. It's pretty wonderful to hear first hand stories of say Philip José Farmer and Frederik Pohl from people who've had deep and meaningful conversations with them. Cultural history indeed.

Other topics: iPad, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman and Neverwhere, comic books, Shirley Jackson, slipstream. The conversation just takes off in any direction. Which is simply delightful.

Wonderful story in the podcast: Peter Straub wrote a comic book and was introduced, at a comic book convention, very apologetically, as a writer of prose novels! (That being a bit embarrasing really.) This simply to illustrate that franchise is far more important than authors.

These podcasts last an hour or so. They seem much shorter. That's because one gets so mesmerised by them that time just flies. Which is a good thing because really to get everything out of them one has to listen to them at least a couple of times. Otherwise a lot of important stuff just passes one by.


House of Pain

Erle C. Kenton's Island of Lost Souls (1932) is quite completely Charles Laughton's movie. Laughton plays Dr. Moreau from the famed Wells novel The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and, well, to be honest, everything else seems rather trivial.

Laughton is a funny actor. He's filled with the most fertile incongruity and downright dichotomy. He's plump and even porky, yet he seems eminently graceful. He has the looks of a butcher or a dustman, yet there's something delicate and slightly effeminate about him. He's by no means handsome in any sense of the word, yet his features are positively distinguished and sometimes almost beautiful. He's evidently working class, yet he's the consumate aristocrat. He looks fundamentally weak, yet he can muster up the most choleric and sadistic force one may imagine. In the movie he's got tiny porcine eyes and an elegant version of Hitler's moustache (it being only '32 this may be a serendipitous coincidence). What he really looks like is an overgrown child, a cunning and rather naughty schoolboy who's been up to no good behind the master's back. One never knows where one is with him. Which of course is very good, it keeps his performances fresh and surprising.

The beginning of the movie follows the novel fairly faithfully with our castaway hero getting rescued on the high seas and then abandoned on Moreau's island. The deviation from the original begins with the introduction of the romantic element, of course, it being a movie. This is, however, not done entirely without interest. The creatures Moreau has created or transmogrified are all male. All, that is, except one - a superbly beautiful and exotic creature who was once a leopard. Now Moreau wishes to see just how much of a woman she is, just precisely how human. This he intends to find out by trying to concoct a romance between her and our hero.

Oh the glib look on his face when he comes up with the idea, the glee, the absolutely naughty delight he takes from the idea, like it was a boyish prank instead of scientific exploration. Maybe his entire career in science stems from the self-same motive. He's been told he can't do something, so obviously that is precisely what he does want to do.

Another remarkable performance is Bela Lugosi's amazingly hirsute Sayer of the Law, one of Moreau's unhappy creatures and creations, possibly a monkey of some kind in his previous life. It is his function to recite or chant echoingly The Law unto his brethren as Moreau wields his lethal whip. "What is the Law?" "Not to eat meat, that is The Law. Are we not men?" "What is the Law?" "Not to spill Blood, that is The Law. Are we not Men?" And the emotional climax comes when he, with such an animal howl as would break even the coldest of hearts, utters the crushing phrase: "This is the House of Pain." If anyone thought that Lugosi is rubbish as an actor, this single line disproves any such belief with a vengeance. The amount of emotion, pain, grief, anguish and sheer terror he manages to cram into a single line is simply beyond belief. And, I may add, without sounding the slightest bit silly or phony or theatrical - which sometimes is something of a problem with him. Well, ah, fairly often actually.

The House of Pain is Moreau's laboratory or surgical theatre where he performs his scientific wonders, puts his animals under the knife and elevates beast into man, sort of. Moreau's creatures shun his whip, but what they are mortally afraid of is The House of Pain - the memory of which lingers with them constantly as the ultimate nightmare come true. The island is Moreau's own private little Heaven where he can do anything he pleases. For his creatures it is nothing but a purgatory. Maybe even a living Hell. But it's all fun and games for Laughton's Moreau. The smugness of the man is amazing, the insolence quite breathtaking. He even has the gall to call his laboratory an experimental place for Bio-Anthropological research.

Of course it all goes belly-up. Our hero's fianceé turns up on the island and the creatures go a bit funny in the head. It drives a few of them almost over the edge. Moreau suddenly realises that he could use this new girl in his experiments and tells one of his creatures to kill the captain of the ship she arrived on, thus taking care that she can't escape the island and her gruesome fate in the hands of the Doctor (I say - why are all the nastiest movie villains Doctors? - just a thought).

But when Moreau sets one of his creatures on the captain he breaks his own Law. "Law no more," the creature announces as he throws down the captain's lifeless corpse in the village of Moreau's hapless victims. And the look in Laughton's eyes when he hears the rumble from the village - unadulturated joy and the downright ecstasy. His little plan worked, isn't he the clever one? "They're quite out of hand tonight," says Moreau lightly. Little does he know.

But, the creatures surmise, if they can kill one man, the captain, why can't they kill another man - Moreau? Why indeed? The Law no longer applies.

With his whip Moreau goes out to sort it out. But the creatures won't settle down. "You made us things. Part men, part beasts," Sayer of the Law says. Upon which the creatures fall upon Moreau. He escapes but not far. In the end the creatures get him in The House of Pain. Revenge is sweet. Well, not for Moreau it isn't. Our hero and his girl escape.

Fairly simple and straightforward. Wouldn't be much to write home about if it weren't for Laughton and Lugosi. They make the movie.