I blame Carol at the Cultural Gutter for kicking me off onto this tangent. To my film shame, I had not ever sat down to watch the entirety of Fritz Lang’s classic crime film, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse. As an academic, I am of course always in search of ways to supplement my paltry pay so I joked about turning to hypnosis or tarot or even advertising, as well as crime.
‘Why not combine them all, Mabuse style?’
She was right as usual. Put all my esoteric and criminal arts to use as a mastermind behind capers of a nefarious nature: genius! Only in fiction, surely! First I needed to sit down and enjoy Lang’s masterpiece of expressionist cinema, collaborating with his talented wife Thea von Harbou, who adapted one of Norbert Jacques‘ unfinished novels on the shadowy figure (yes, I’ve got to read the novels, too).
There’s just so much good here, even if you’re not contemplating a life of crime. Secret hideouts, nefarious plans, dapper grifters, glass alligators — and a medical school (in 1933) more diverse than many top ones are now. Cool special effects, too. So here’s a bunch of images to give you a reason to watch the film, too. Helps if you have the Criterion Channel or Kanopy. Click the images to embiggen. I’m going to work on my hypnotic stare now.
After something of a dry spell I have a new short story out at Punk Noir Magazine, the DIY collective of writers and artists who just can’t (won’t) fit the mainstream. I suppose in the midst of promoting LOVE IS A GRIFT it’s absurd to say ‘dry spell’ but it was weird to realise that I hadn’t published a new short story since last year.
It’s been a weird year, but I think I’m back in the land of the living — though the landscape has changed.
‘Funny Little Frog’ of course was inspired in part by Belle & Sebastian’s song of the same title, which is a heartbreaking little tale of its own. I’m grateful to Mr B for poking me to actually listen to it. Forever on the brain jukebox now:
For a very short story, I managed to fit in another song reference:
But wait, there’s more (as the old advertisements say)! I fit a third reference in there because why write when you can steal?
Yeah, you might better know Elvis or Sir Tom but this is the first version I knew. Every note of this LP is seared on my memory. And I have duly added these songs to the list of Inspirations: Songs that Spawned Stories.
I was sure I had written this up before but I searched for it and didn’t find it. This Sphere edition is so much nicer than the bland corporate packaging of the St Martin’s Griffin edition I did end up buying. When you’re on a Highsmith kick and buying everything, the covers are less important (though still proud to own the kickass edition of This Sweet Sickness).
There are two kinds of writers: those who are articulate about the process and those who are not (ditto most arts and artists). Highsmith is not one. If you want a handbook on the topic, this is not the one to teach you. Of course if your publisher offers to pay you to write one, most writers will accept the challenge. But this is not the Highsmith School of Suspense Fiction School, which she recognises. So she turns to the tortured history of her novel The Glass Cell (a good Film for a Friday) in hopes that it will clarify how she does what she does. The case study is so singular that it could hardly be useful in inspiring a budding writer.
Highsmith outlines the evolution of the novel, which ‘was not inspired by any specific story idea but evolved simply out of the desire to write such a book–which is perhaps no bad reason for writing a book’ (chapter 10). She traces the idea from a prisoner’s fan letter (‘I don’t think my books should be in prison libraries’), to reading a book about convicts, to developing intellectual rather than emotional’ threads ‘none of them spectacular’. After that she tries to add some motivation for the characters. A key turns into a dog. What ifs multiply. A wife becomes unfaithful. The first two versions were rejected by her publisher.
‘I thought my story was not bad, but perhaps it could be better. When one thinks this, even faintly, it is best to write it over.’
The interesting part of this book is of course her voice, the anecdotes and the little insights that she may not even realise she’s offering. Speaking of her admiration for Graham Greene Highsmith makes plain her pleasure in reading him. ‘There is no doubt that a study of the whole field of “the best” in suspense writing, whatever that is, can be of benefit professionally to a suspense writer, but I would just as soon not pursue this study.’
Highsmith, in all her ambivalence there — and it’s entertaining.
Continuing the summer obsessions (although being back to campus is the painful way of telling me summer’s over) of Highsmith and Spark, I have two plays coming up: the first is Murray-Smith’s play imagining Patricia Highsmith meeting a mysterious visitor who seems rather Ripley-esque to anyone who’s read her. There was a production in Bath that I couldn’t get to which whetted my appetite and made me wonder why I’d never heard of this though the LA version of the simultaneous debut of the play starred Laura Effing Linney. Wow. I would have loved to see that.
Probably the reason I didn’t hear about it despite having an ear for any mention of Highsmith is that LA critics were mostly ‘meh’. Insane: I swear sometimes I think no one in that city understands humour (which would explain most American ‘comedy’).
This play is crackling dark fun. If you know Highsmith at all, you know how things will turn out but it is great fun seeing just how they get there. Murray-Smith clearly has a great love for Highsmith and her writing (so much so that she hints some of the author’s most repellant personal characteristics might be played up for effect, which I rather doubt but I can see the appeal of thinking so). She captures her, right down to the snails.
Edward Ridgeway (‘Was there ever a more ordinary name?’) arrives in the titular country, emissary from the publisher who wants to squeeze one more Ripley tale our of the irascible and aging writer. Sure, it will make money for them but it will seal her legacy from being ‘…varied.’ Not that she’s dying: ‘Not quite on my deathbed, if that’s what you’re looking for. But let’s say, it’s freshly made up.’
‘Happy people are just people who don’t ask enough questions.’ I don’t know if it’s Highsmith or Murray-Smith but it’s a great line. Likewise, ‘Nice people are simply excellent narrators. They’re fakes.’
Great fun and I hope to see a production some time. What fun this two-hander must be to perform.