Kelly describes writing The Possessions of Dr Forrest as a gesture of love to the gothic novel and to Stevenson in particular. Thus his novel preserves many of the characteristics of the original: the London setting, the structure and narrative style. He uses diaries and letters though not email. I’m a traditionalist, he said, in the sense that I still punctuate my text messages! His narrators are mostly male. 1 detective, 3 doctors (albeit with different specialisms). In keeping with the intensification of 21st-century angst, all 3 doctors are in crisis. Professional respectability and success is no guarantor of personal happiness. Ironically it is the psychiatrist Dr Hartford who is suffering the most.
“My profession long ago dispensed with Satan, of course, but initially advanced no further than to the notion that madness thrived in the sufferer’s blood, and could be drawn out by a sensible application of leeches. What are the fruits of wisdom that centuries of enquiry now bestow upon me? “Get some drugs into this man! Dampen down those symptoms!””
Psychiatry may have dispensed with the devil but this novel isn’t so adamant. Torment comes in many forms and most of it – in the pre-confessional sections of the novel certainly – emanates from females. The balance is redressed – somewhat- by the male-induced problems of Eloise – Dr Hartford’s patient and the sole female narrator. The greatest destruction, however, is the crazed ambition of Dr Forrest.
His disappearance right at the very beginning of the novel starts a downward spiral that eventually sucks in everyone. We can see this happening, even if the characters can’t but it’s not until Dr Forrest’s confessions that we understand the absolute diabolical nature of his actions. Never likeable, even when viewed through the sympathetic eyes of his friends in prior sections, he transforms through his own words into the most loathsome and contemptible creature I’ve ever read. Just how low can you go? Think about it and I’ll wager Forrest goes lower. Jekyll and Hyde? Jekyll and Hyder, more like.
I’m happy to report that I saw no Dr Forrest in the author (at least not at the festival). And I don’t believe that it was a mask. Kelly is such a genial character. Happy to chat on twitter (@RichTKelly) I love his dry, sardonic wit. On surgeons: The sense of their own prowess is so high, they are happy to have observers see the genius in their own hands. At the signing I had to ask how writing this darker than dark novel affected his head. Well, he said, my wife was very glad when I was finished. She wanted it out of the house!
You have been warned.
Tag Archives: satan
“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.”
At one point in an interesting documentary study of horror films he presented for the BBC last year the actor/writer Mark Gatiss sat down with David Seltzer, author of The Omen (hit novel + movie), and put to him the big question: does he believe in the Devil? Seltzer replied wryly to the effect that if he had then he would never have dared to mess around in the writing of books that presumed to speak of Him and His powers.
That’s funny, and fair enough. As Gatiss noted, Satan was a hot thing in 1970s Hollywood after the success of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. And Seltzer had a good nose for how to do something new and commercial with the threat of the Evil One. Of course there have been repeated and not wholly unfounded attempts to argue that various cast/crew members on The Exorcist were afflicted by a sort of curse in subsequent years. But it doesn’t seem that David Seltzer’s had to worry – has suffered no freak impalements or decapitations – rather, has enjoyed the fruits of his labour, of his vivid imagination.
That said, Richard Donner’s 1976 film The Omen is a thoroughly professional, expertly-managed, big-budget piece of dispiriting nastiness. (Seltzer was quick to tell Gatiss he felt Gregory Peck loaned a weight to the project that Charles Bronson – the original casting as the US Ambassador to the Court of St James – couldn’t have.) Actually I remember the film’s network premiere on ITV at some point in the very early 1980s. I’m sure I wasn’t allowed to watch it all but I saw enough to be feel a kind of outrage over a picture in which the Baddest of all Baddies was so clearly being allowed to ‘win’.
Still, I must admire the film’s gruesome effectiveness in places, and the force of the imaginative conceit. I remember talking to a filmmaker friend last year about the gothic-supernatural-steampunk trends in film, and apropos Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes (which we both admired hugely) he mentioned how much he prefers the sort of ‘mystery & imagination’ movie wherein, a la Conan Doyle, events of a seemingly supernatural origin are later revealed to be in fact the cunning/fiendish works of man. With The Omen, you could actually choose to look at the narrative from a remote vantage and say that all those killings are just a chain of freak accidents and fatal misunderstandings, vaguely connected to a fat-cheeked piggy-eyed little 5-year-old boy… (That said, in the yet more laboriously nasty sequels Damian and The Final Conflict the maturing Anti-Christ took an active hand in murder, using sorcery to do so, so the game was up by then.) Still, such room for ambiguity may explain why the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once put his name to a paper entitled ‘The Exorcist and The Omen, or Modern and Postmodern Limits to Knowledge.’
Movies speak of their times and The Omen is unmistakeably the drear England of the mid-1970s, the sort of place where Satan might well seek influence over the affairs of men. Having stage-trained Brits such as Billie Whitelaw and David Warner and Patrick Troughton in the cast gives The Omen the faint air of a BBC ‘Play for Today’ or some gritty Royal Court production, though here the smart actors are employed only in order to be killed off in horrible ways. In fairness to The Omen, it bravely makes no effort to endow Satan and Satanism with any sort of perverse allure – any suggestion of luxurious darkness or forbidden pleasure in the act of pledging one’s soul to the Devil. You just have to take in on trust that Billie Whitelaw’s Mrs Baylock is committed to the Anti-Christ just as are some people to Labour or the Tories. She wants a strong leader in charge… and she’s grimly prepared to roll up her sleeves and do the dirty job of getting him there, shoving people out of windows if needs be, though it’s hard to see what will be her personal reward for same. In Damian, sequel #1, Lee Grant is burned to death shortly after murdering her husband in a misguided show of loyalty to Satan’s son. In The Final Conflict, as I recall, a whole network/cabal of suburban English salarymen and housewives were revealed to be in joyless thrall to the Deceiver. And that’s a powerful dramatic idea: one that allows a dramatist to reveal any character as being, quite suddenly and without apparent motivation, capable of the most appalling/malevolent act. Nasty, as I say…
For a long time I’ve believed that the wellspring of all horror stories may be located in the Latin: timor mortis conturbat me. But in my stray thinking about the gothic tradition while I was at work on The Possessions of Doctor Forrest it did begin to occur to me that I was somewhat blinkered – that another opposing but equally compelling allure of horror might be a form of masochism, an actual desire on the part of the writer (and reader) to be haunted, brutalised, tortured and finally consigned to some awful yawning pit.
A big part of this shift in my thinking was the re-reading (after a gap of 20 years or so) of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), upon which I felt all of my old amazement at the stunning luridness and lubricity of this cornerstone work of the gothic. Lewis was young, 19, when he wrote the novel, and he wrote it fast – in the space of ten weeks. There may be some correlation between the pace of a work’s conception and its subsequent immediacy and potential appeal. The Monk is racy as hell, for sure, and it was hotly consumed by ‘scandalised’ readers.
Its protagonist is Ambrosio, the very model of a whited sepulchre, a handsome and ostensibly pious monk of Madrid whose preaching draws crowds at a grand Capuchin church and who presides with seeming rigour over a nearby gothic monastery. Within himself, though, Ambrosio is a seething mess of repressed desire – one particular portrait of the Madonna, all ‘golden ringlets’ and ‘snowy bosom’, gets him highly excited/transported. And yet, as Lewis describes him, Ambrosio’s cloistered existence has left him unable quite to distinguish between the sexes, which is certainly useful to the novel’s plotting. He then conceives of a passion for a cowled and withdrawn young novice named Rosario who turns out to be a female, Matilda – not only the lovely doppelganger of his adored Madonna but a girl who desires him most dreadfully.
Still, Matilda has to do a fair amount of brazen temptation, and her diligence in the task of making Ambrosio succumb to fleshly pleasure sends a clear signal that she is not what she appears to be. The Monk is a novel in which Evil is forever shifting forms and rules in order to triumph over Man. Good is certainly a presence in the book if only by dint of its milieu, and Ambrosio’s stormy conscience is given a fair old airing. But finally (to paraphrase the movie version of Eco’s The Name of the Rose), he cannot resist the temptation to penetrate. He’s gagging for it, really – dying to fall, falling to die. And so after making free use of Matilda he quickly tires of her, fixates instead on the pious and ravishing 15-year-old Antonia – whereupon Matilda, with suspicious magnanimity, regains Ambrosio’s interest by promising him that by dark magic Antonia may be his.
This, for me, is the best part of the book: Matilda shedding another skin, shifting from the subservient role of Ambrosio’s breathless prey to the ‘bold and impious’ one of the monk’s dark sentinel:
“Why shrink you from me? I understand that enquiring look. Your suspicions are right, though your terrors are unfounded… Like you I shuddered at the thoughts of Magic: Like you I had formed a terrible idea of the consequences of raising a daemon… I dared to perform those mystic rites which summoned to my aid a fallen Angel. Judge what must have been my joy at discovering that my terrors were imaginary: I saw the Daemon obedient to my orders, I saw him trembling at my frown, and found that, instead of selling my soul to a Master, my courage had purchased for myself a Slave.”
You will not be surprised to hear that Ambrosio succumbs again, and again and again, and in due course is delivered by his own iniquities into, first, the clutches of the Spanish Inquisition and, second, the talons of Lucifer. With Ambrosio’s soul in his pocket the triumphant Lucifer has a number of grim revelations with which to further flay the monk, one being that ‘Matilda’ was never anything but a ‘a subordinate but crafty spirit’ in Satan’s employ, an emissary who assumed the earthly form most likely to bewitch Ambrosio.
Some character, then, this Matilda. There’s been a lot of contemporary scholarly discussion about ‘her’ transgressive/transgender identity/status, and for sure she is many things within the text. But I would have to agree with those critics who attribute this protean quality more to the inevitable flaws in Lewis’s plot carpentry – given the speed at which the book was assembled – than to some express wish on Lewis’s part to undermine the patriarchal epistemes of the novel…
The great Luis Bunuel and his regular screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere dreamed of collaborating on a film of The Monk but in the end Carriere’s screenplay was shot without distinction by a lesser director. I rather wish Bunuel had been around to contemplate a movie of The Name of the Rose, which treats the monastic repression of sexuality with rather more elegance. Let me finish by returning to that (quite worthy) film made in 1986 from Eco’s novel. The following exchanges between the Franciscan monk William of Baskerville and his assistant novice Adso of Melk are as in the clip below.
Adso: Master? Have you ever been in love?
William: In love? Huh. Many times.
Adso: You were?
William: Yes, of course. Aristotle, Ovid, Virgil…
Adso: No, no, no. I meant with a…
William: Oh. Ah. Are you not confusing love with lust?
Adso: Am I? I don’t know. I want only her own good. I want her to be happy. I want to save her from her poverty.
William: Oh, dear.
Adso: Why “oh dear”?
William: You are in love.
Adso: Is that bad?
William: For a monk, it does present certain problems.
Adso: But doesn’t Saint Thomas Aquinas praise love above all other virtues?
William: Yes, the love of God, Adso. The love of God.
Adso: Oh… And the love of woman?
William: Of woman? Thomas Aquinas knew precious little, but the scriptures are very clear. Proverbs warns us, “Woman takes possession of a man’s precious soul”, while Ecclesiastes tells us, “More bitter than death is woman”.
Adso: Yes, but what do you think, Master?
William: Well, of course I don’t have the benefit of your experience, but I find it difficult to convince myself that God would have introduced such a foul being into creation without endowing her with *some* virtures. Hmm…?