7. The demonology of William Hjortsberg

Jacket design for Hjortsberg's 'Falling Angel' by Stanislaw Zagorski.

‘Hjortsberg – William Hjortsberg,’ murmured the bookseller. ‘It’s a strange one…’
Quite. At least, that’s what I recall the guy saying to me. This would be 1986, a pre-digital era when the system of making a purchase at Foyles’ famous bookshop on Charing Cross Road still entailed getting a handwritten docket from one employee to take to another at a cash-till. And if you enquired about a title you couldn’t find on the shelves (and back then Foyles’ shelves were stocked and ordered under individual publisher’s imprints…) then the docket-issuer would frowningly consult a thick reference tome of ISBNs. All a tad sub-Kafka, perhaps?
But such was the process I initiated when searching for a novel called Falling Angel, by someone whose name I wasn’t quite sure of. The clerk put me right, as he was doubtless accustomed to. I wanted Falling Angel because I had somehow gleaned that it was about to be made into a movie with Robert De Niro, and concerned a 1950s New York private detective who accepts a job from a saturnine fellow named Louis Cyphere, his mission to track down a certain crooner – one Johnny Favourite – whom Cyphere claims to have reneged on a certain deal. In this way does the dick – Harry Angel – unwittingly take an assignment from Satan. This seemed to me then – as now – a fabulous conceit, a great hard-boiled variant on the legend of Faust that has influenced a million other stories, The Possessions of Doctor Forrest merely one such.
I enjoyed Falling Angel a good deal, and it seemed to me a livelier work than the heavily-stylised and po-faced movie version – Angel Heart – that subsequently appeared (trailer below). But the remarkably imaginative Hjortsberg has not had the easiest time in movies. Consider the fate of ‘Legend of Darkness’, the screenplay he wrote under commission by Ridley Scott, which was meant as a sort of adult fairytale with a princess, a forest-dwelling hero, and a satanic villain. That ‘adult’ dimension, though, would prove problematic. Of his first draft script Hjortsberg has written, ‘I followed some dark paths, perhaps because I was going through a painful divorce and it’s impossible for the imagination to completely filter out reality…’ Those dark paths led to conflict with the film’s putative financiers. ‘You can’t have the villain fuck the princess’, was an early script comment from legendary studio executive Marcia Nasatir.
The production – finally re-titled Legend – suffered worse in due course. In the midsummer of 1984 Ridley Scott had a sylvan woodland set constructed on the ‘James Bond’ sound-stage at Shepperton Studios: part-planted, part-hand-carved, populated by real animals. It would all look luscious on film, but its very crowded density led to a fire that consumed the famous stage. Still, as the tribute clip below shows, it is a glorious-looking picture in many ways, full of visual panache, as in the design of the character of Darkness: actor Tim Curry, made to stand thirteen-feet-tall in horns and stilt-hooves, his skin furnace-red.
I haven’t read Hjortsberg’s 1994 novel Nevermore, which treats the true-life friendship between Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and also includes as a character the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe. But I notice that in recent weeks the Hollywood studio DreamWorks has announced the purchase of an original screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski called Voices From the Dead, in which Houdini and Conan Doyle unite to catch a killer… A good idea, that – even second (or third?) time round, though William Hjortsberg might reasonably be feeling unlucky.

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