Tag Archives: castle in the forest (mailer)

74. In praise of Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film (A BFI Compendium)

gothic-compendium-001-cover-3d_1I have before me the newly published Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film (A BFI Compendium). It’s a remarkably handsome volume and, I’d have thought, a must-have for enthusiasts and students in this ever more ardently studied field. I contributed a chapter to the book (on Satanism and witchcraft, naturally) but it’s really not for that reason that I consider the work overall to be essential. I’m just a one-time gothic novelist, not truly a specialist in the discipline; however, inter alia, fellow contributors such as Guillermo del Toro, Marina Warner, Christopher Frayling, Kim Newman, Anne Billson, Mark Gatiss and Ramsey Campbell most eminently are. The richness and variety of this collection, expertly assembled by the BFI’s James Bell and superbly illustrated to boot, are to be savoured, in more than one sitting.

The book marks a BFI season that begins shortly and will run into 2014. A fine taster of what lies in store was offered at the end of August with a ‘Monster Weekend’ of special screenings in the forecourt of the British Museum: I went along to the first of these, the movie being Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, and thought it a really delighting occasion.

I notice that I’m using a lot of ‘pleasure-words’ in relation to the gothic here, which, funnily enough, is the spirit in which I wrote my chapter for the book. For a long time I more or less believed that the whole origin of the horror genre was quite aptly encapsulated by the ‘celebrated’ line from the Catholic Office of the Dead, ‘Timor mortis conturbat me’ (‘The fear of death disturbs me.’) Our mortality, and that of those whom we love, is after all the best if not the only thing in this world to be afraid of.

However, horror consumed as a cultural experience clearly has to offer pleasure of sorts too, even if a somewhat masochistic one. Horror might be said to indulge a certain phantasy about the existence of wickedness and depravity in the world: how it might indeed triumph over good, or how, at least, certain souls (deserving or not) could succumb to it. In the process, wickedness and depravity may be dressed up with certain superficially alluring aspects – and when it comes to such costuming, cinema is supreme among the arts. But at such a puppet show it’s easier to spot the strings.

There are many aspects of the gothic that have great powers to haunt and disturb and unnerve us, and gothic works that invoke devils and demons and necromancers (what I thumbnail in my essay for convenience as ‘the gothic occult’) are by no means excluded from that. Their particular powers, though, feel to me a tad reduced. The gothic occult is predicated on the existence of evil as a metaphysical force in the world: a thirsty evil, one that wants to keep its infection spreading. A really bleak gothic occult will propose a black pessimistic view of Man’s Fate – that the material world belongs to Satan and goodness is unattainable, on this plane at least, etc. That all sounds scary enough on paper, and can be so on screen.

And yet this particular version (or explanation) of a metaphysical evil seems to me to require – how can I put it? – a more than usual bound into the suspension of disbelief. By contrast, the idea of a ‘ghost’ – where a ghost might come from, what it might look like, what its motives might be – seems to me endlessly recyclable and potentially mysterious, fit (if the mood is right) to inveigle itself even into our wide-awake rational thoughts. Ghosts appear to me as the absolute lifeblood of the gothic. But then to speak of devils, of Satan… of a personification of evil, an antagonist to some almighty king of the heavens, a figure at the head of a large hierarchical structure committed to humanity’s ultimate catastrophe – well, this is to confront the reader or viewer with a heftier (and consequently less nimble and persuasive) proposition. Having written a novel in the Faust mode I appreciate the size of the ask, and accept that one’s first duty under these conditions is to entertain.

The best, most persuasive work of fiction that I know of to imagine Satan’s immanence in our world is Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest (which is also perhaps the most decidedly gothic title anyone could ever append to a novel.) If I can’t immediately tempt you to read it, please try this superb interview with Mailer about the novel, written up by Philip Weiss for the New York Observer. And do keep your eye on #bfigothic.

A footnote: when I was readying my Gothic chapter for the presses with BFI editor James Bell I was not surprised and quite amused to hear from him that I ought to try to trim back on a rather prolix attempt I’d made to define exactly what constitutes the gothic in cinema. Apparently, more than one of my fellow contributors had fallen down the same dark well… and the effort is a little doomed, one has to say. There’s nothing exactly Gothic in cinema, but it’s generally agreed that we seem to know it when we see it, or feel it. Gothic is a visual style and a mood, an atmosphere, enhanced above all by production design – one of gloom, intrigue, dread, a pervasive sense of evil, which may well (but need not) materialize in outright horrors. And in the case of the gothic occult, this production design leads you to dark secret places where cabals gather and rituals occur, such as the solemn black mass and the orgiastic walpurgisnacht. There you may also see the goat’s head and the horned man, the grimoire, the beckoning finger of Mephistopheles – all that.

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45. God, the Devil, and Norman Mailer

“I had never been able to make a philosophical peace with the notion of spirits, nor come to any conclusion. That you might die but still remain alive in some vale of our atmosphere seemed no more absurd to me than the notion that every part of your person ceased to exist after death. Indeed, given the spectrum of human response on any matter, I was ready to assume that some who died remained near, and others went far away, or were altogether extinct…”
Thus Tim ‘Mac’ Madden, narrator of Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance, a New England-set thriller of 1983, written – it’s generally agreed – mainly in order to cover Mailer’s alimony payments and settle an outstanding contract with his publisher. It’s not much rated, old Tough Guys… but I love it, for all that it’s a pot-boiler, bashed out over a couple of months. (Over at Bookhugger I once called it “a divertissement from the heavyweight champ of American letters, but full of pleasures and useful tips.”) It’s almost like a dime-store compilation of Mailer Greatest Hits in its bite-sized menu of themes and preoccupations – a ‘personal’ work to that extent, but also in the way that it is about the place where it was written: Provincetown, Mailer’s elegant bolthole, a place of ‘cold sea air filled with the bottomless chill that lies at the cloistered heart of ghost stories.’
Like most of Mailer, it has an occult dimension that the reader may ponder if they care to. As the critic Lee Siegel once put it very nicely, Mailer “believes in God and the Devil the way Greeks and Romans believed in meddling supernatural rivals.” Towards the end of his life Mailer did a spectacular job of adumbrating his own very personal cosmology – his idea of an existential God, “the greatest artist”, worrying over His brilliant but turbulent creation, and opposed by other gods, including Satan, whose mission is “to keep reducing human possibilities” whereas God (He or She!) desires above all to be “stimulated by what can be learned from us.” This is why Mailer was so passionate about the idea of karma as some objective accounting of our daily levels of bravery and goodness. He always insisted that something spiritual was at stake in every instant of our lives (“Whenever we have an emotion we can’t account for, good or bad, I expect that the root is karmic…”) And, with his genius for perceiving the different persons within each person, Mailer argued that whenever we feel closest to God we are most likely doing Satan’s work – and vice versa. At any rate, this meddlesome and non-canonical Satan was certainly an influence on The Possessions of Doctor Forrest.
“I do possess the freedom to enter many a mind”: so writes Dieter, the demon narrator of Mailer’s last wondrous novel The Castle in the Forest. Mailer too had that power, though he also threw himself wide open to other spirits that sought entrance. I must say I approached that novel – the story of the boy Hitler, and the play of spiritual forces upon him – with a good deal of trepidation. But I thought then, and think now, that it is as fine a novel as he ever wrote, and I would love to extol it at length. Some other time… For now, let us have Mailer in his own words on the matter; and then this glorious TV trailer for the 1987 movie he made out of Tough Guys Don’t Dance, his performance an imperishable tribute to the man’s humour. This is how I described the film in Ten Bad Dates with De Niro (2007), and I wouldn’t change a word.

“Few of the twentieth century’s great writers got to direct screen versions of their own books, and were he not so legendarily hard-wearing then Norman Mailer might have wished he hadn’t bothered. Nicolas Roeg had been circling Mailer’s 1984 novel, a roman noir set in Provincetown, written double-quick after the years Mailer had lost on his Egyptian epic Ancient Evenings. It’s a mark of Mailer’s obsessions with Marilyn Monroe and strong grass that he hinged his plot on two dyed-blonde female heads severed and stored in a woodland locker reserved for the hero’s stash. Having dabbled in celluloid during the late sixties Mailer seized the chance to make Tough Guys himself with finance from Cannon Films in return for trying to script Godard’s King Lear. The results are clunky at times, but offer some heroic efforts to convey the authentic Mailer mood by a cast of flawed stars and unsung character actors, led by Ryan O’Neal and Isabella Rossellini.”


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