Friday, 31 October 2014

Crooked House, M.R. James and the ghost story tradition

Crooked House

Crooked House was first broadcast on BBC4, at Christmas in 2008, as three half-hour episodes, and later released on DVD as a film-length single cut. Designed to fit into the 'ghost story for Christmas' tradition, it's a potent combination of historical ghost story and modern horror. Mark Gatiss, who also wrote all the episodes, stars as the Curator; his conversation with Ben, a teacher played by Lee Ingleby, opens the series, and the stories that follow are ostensibly local legends related during that conversation. Crooked House works well as a portmanteau, but it can also be treated as three self-contained stories. 'The Wainscoting' is set in the Georgian era, 'Something Old' in the 1920s, and 'The Knocker' in the present day. Linking them all together is a good old-fashioned haunted house, the evocatively named Geap Manor, a place that 'seemed to attract unpleasantness'. It's the setting for the first two episodes, and although it's been demolished by the third, a remnant of its ghoulish decor - a doorknocker in the shape of a half-human face - proves to be more than enough to keep the house's malevolent spirit active.

'Do you believe in ghosts?' asks the Curator, as the first episode opens on a blank, black screen: immediately disconcerting. There are moments of complete disquiet throughout the episodes: some melodramatic (a quick cut to a two-second-long flashback with an unearthly scream), others less obvious (a cat yowls loudly and abruptly down a corridor; there's the sudden, disembodied laugh of a child in a quiet library; a burglar alarm rings for so long you think it's never going to stop). On the surface, Crooked House is a perfect cocktail of everything that makes a classic horror story, from a ghostly figure wafting about in a ragged wedding dress to creaking floorboards and knocks on the door in the dead of night, all served with a dash of knowing, camp humour. But there are also enough layers and subtleties that it's still enthralling and near-perfect to me even after about thirty repeated viewings (a conservative estimate). Crooked House ranks among my favourite ghost stories and my favourite TV shows of all time.

Geap Manor

'The Wainscoting' is about things that go bump in the night, literally (there's a 'mouse' in the woodwork...) but it's also a moral tale. Joseph Bloxham, the haunted man, is a wealthy businessman whose involvement in a Venezuelan investment scheme has left others impoverished and criminalised. Throughout the episode, he watches with mounting indignation, and little apparent guilt, as the wife of one of the ruined investors is confronted with increasingly awful circumstances; and he ignores the words of his friend, Noakes (a scene-stealing performance from Julian Rhind-Tutt), who seems to act as the voice of Bloxham's conscience: 'no-one can deny you've done well; the question is, have you done right?' The tale reaches a horrifying crescendo as Bloxham is claimed by the house, but even when confronted by irrefutable evidence of the haunting, he's still shouting 'I deny it all'. In 'Something Old', though, we have a more innocent pair of characters: a young couple, Felix and Ruth, newly engaged, but (naturally) doomed to suffer a curse. This episode doesn't ratchet up the tension like 'The Wainscoting', or have the same moments of quiet dread; instead, there's more character development and humour as the viewer is prompted to wonder where exactly the story will go. The more earthly threats to this fragile relationship - a scheming, beautiful ex-girlfriend and a male friend of indeterminate sexuality, plus the couple's very different backgrounds - are displaced by the intrusion of a terrifying figure, leading to the first really horrible reveal of the series. This does, however, still play on Ruth's very ordinary fears that Felix will be unfaithful and that his family feel she isn't 'good enough'; and the appearance of this spectre in the midst of a raucous party echoes the generational differences between the 'bright young things' and Felix's grandmother, with her Victorian values. The couple are at least allowed a sort of happy ending - albeit off-screen, and not without sacrifice.

In 'The Knocker', we find out more about Ben, who is a bit more ambiguous - neither 'bad' like Bloxham or 'good' like Ruth. He seems an affable enough character, but the viewer soon learns he's abandoned his pregnant girlfriend out of fear that he can't shoulder the responsibility of fatherhood. (Though he does at least have the decency to feel bad about it). This episode is full of stops and starts, abrupt cuts from silence to loud noise, and misdirection. True to its more modern setting and style, it sets out to disorientate, rather than spook, the viewer. Although some of the revelations are deliciously familiar (when Ben approaches the locked museum, for example), 'The Knocker' doesn't conform to the expectations laid out by the previous two stories, which seem like cosy fireside tales in comparison. And, because it's still couched within a traditional narrative structure, this is shocking. All form and meaning goes out of the window as red herrings are used as a prelude to the most horrific moments, the appearance of a truly terrifying figure is accompanied by a cheesy 'sinister laugh' sound effect, and a bland surburban home turns out to be far more dangerous than a labyrinthine manor house. Slips in time are used to great effect, with the power to surprise still intact after repeated viewings.

Something Old

There are things wrong with Crooked House, of course: I'm not trying to claim it some misunderstood masterpiece. I've watched it enough that I cringe in anticipation of the occasional moments of bad acting and misjudged lines (but then, it was filmed in fifteen days and on a shoestring budget). What amazes me about it is that even after I've watched the whole thing over and over again, it still has the power to enthrall, and there are still things I hadn't noticed before. (For example, I've only just discovered that 'geap' is Old English for crooked, both the literal and symbolic senses of the word.) It still captures that perfect wintery ghost story mood, something I usually find far more effective on the page than the screen: adaptations often lose the story's magic, and there are so few modern shows or films in the genre that don't take a severe turn into fantasy or horror. I'd have loved another series of Crooked House: the Curator's snippets of other stories from his 'study of the manor' show there were plenty more ideas to explore, and in the making of documentary included as an extra on the DVD, Gatiss mentions a 'spoof on Most Haunted' that was originally proposed as part of this series. That said, six years down the line, a sequel is probably too much to hope for...

Gatiss fronted a documentary on M.R. James, M.R. James: Ghost Writer, for BBC2 in 2013. As a potted biography of James, it's interesting, but what I found most exciting about it was the opportunity to more closely examine possible links between James's work and the stories in Crooked House. I don't want to undermine the elements of Crooked House that are completely original, or its other influences - the portmanteau format was inspired by Amicus horror anthologies made in the 1970s - but its parallels with classic ghost stories, and particularly those of James, are what I, as a keen consumer of ghost stories in all forms, find most thrilling about it. Many main elements of the Geap Manor tales can be identified as a homage to James. (Gatiss would also go on to adapt 'The Tractate Middoth', a 1911 James story, for the BBC; it was screened at Christmas last year. Despite my love of Crooked House and the fact that I really enjoyed the original story, The Tractate Middoth didn't work anywhere near as well for me. The story didn't translate to the screen as effectively as it could have, and there was something almost too clean and crisp in the look of the thing. I liked it, but it hasn't resulted in a need to obsessively re-watch.)

M.R. James - Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

James's stories are invariably multi-layered and typically feature a framing device: sometimes the main meat of the story is contained within letters or a journal found by, or bequeathed to, the narrator; sometimes the story is told by a character who heard it from another character who, in turn, heard it from another. This method of narrating the story at one remove (at least) is, of course, common in classic ghost stories, and has also been used by contemporary writers of the genre, most notably Susan Hill in The Woman in Black etc., to great effect. James's tales were originally intended to be read aloud, and the sometimes convoluted Chinese-whispers effect makes more sense when you consider them as part of an oral tradition first and foremost. The first two stories in Crooked House are told to Ben by the Curator, but there's a duality here since the stories (including Ben's story) are also being told to us, the audience. Televising a ghost story is surely a natural progression of the original form.

Another result of the framing device technique is that the reliability of the story becomes compromised. It could just be true: after all, the person telling you the story heard it from a reputable source. On the other hand, it could be nonsense. In Crooked House, even the latter interpretation adds a sinister edge: how do we know, for example, that Felix and Ruth are happy in the end? Only because the Curator tells us so. Sitting in a local museum, surrounded by arcane objects covered in dust sheets, he's the image of the academic with a dark obsession who so often appears in James's stories - the quintessential antiquarian. A local curator is actually featured in 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral', in connection with the identification of an 'ugly and frightening' carved figure - not unlike the grotesque doorknocker in 'The Knocker'.

The Knocker

The undead creature that appears in 'The Knocker' is, too, undoubtedly an homage to the subhuman figures that people James's stories. In 'Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book', the demon appearing in both an illustration and, later, in real life is described thus: 'a body of fearful thinness, almost a skeleton, but with the muscles standing out like wires... hideously taloned... eyes, touched in with a burning yellow, had intensely black pupils, and were fixed upon the throned King with a look of beast-like hate'. Similar creatures are evident in 'Lost Hearts' ('the nails were fearfully long... the light shone through them') and 'The Mezzotint' ('what was visible made the spectators profoundly thankful that they could see no more than a white dome-like forehead and a few straggling hairs...') Couple these descriptions with their visual realisations in the BBC's James adaptations, also revisited in Ghost Writer, and it's easy to see where the aesthetic inspiration for the Geap 'Abomination' came from. As in the stories, this is a very brief appearance, and all the more frightening as a result.

Crooked House deviates from the Christmas ghost story template by refusing to give its central character a happy ending - blameless Ben's research and caution isn't enough to save him, or the even more blameless Hannah, from a truly awful, bleak fate. In line with the overall subversiveness of 'The Knocker', this is unexpected after we see an immoral man punished in 'The Wainscoting' and wholesome characters ultimately saved and redeemed by love in 'Something Old' (even Constance's demise is given a redemptive spin). In James's stories, the narrator is typically as much of an observer as the reader, describing events from a distanced, 'safe' position: in Crooked House, the listener, represented by Ben, is drawn into the story and not allowed to escape. With a series of interlocked tales like the ones that appear in Crooked House, it's tempting to try to impose some overarching message or moral on the narrative as a whole, but the story twists away again and won't let us do this. Perhaps it is more accurate, to utilise the title of another James story, to simply say that is 'a warning to the curious'.

I've created a playlist on YouTube featuring all three parts of Crooked House plus M.R. James: Ghost Writer and The Tractate Middoth. contains the text of all James's ghost stories plus biographical information and further details on various TV and film adaptations.
Or you can get them free for Kindle: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, More Ghost Stories, and A Thin Ghost and Others.
More ghost stories coming soon: I'm working on a definitive post of recommendations!

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