Pre-Raphs in Space

I’m surfacing for a brief moment as I haven’t blogged properly for yonks, and with Pseudotooth coming out next month I need to make it look like I’m alive.

Those who know me are well aware of my weakness for Beautiful Tragic Dead Boys. This means I frequently get gifts of antique photographs to hang on my wall where I can imagine the anonymous subjects were thwarted poets who died at sea. We all have our preferences.

Rejoice: I have a new Beautiful Tragic Dead Boy. Nils Asther was beamed down to earth in 1897 by the same aliens who gave us David Bowie. He grabbed my attention a few weeks ago for being the dead spit of my Az from Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs. I had in mind an androgynous silent film star look for Az, and Nils’ dark, unearthly prettiness, though rather too tall, is precisely how Az materialised in my head, stealing my silverware and hijacking the neighbours’ wifi.


Thank you, Outer Space, for loaning us your bisexual cheekbony creatures.

So I’ve been watching as many Asther films as I can find. Mostly, he was the romantic bad boy, which he hated, but there are a few surprising films. Himmelskibet (A Trip To Mars) featuring a twenty-one-year-old, rather skinny Nils as a citizen of Mars, which is probably where he came from in the first place. While lacking the whimsy of Georges Méliès’ 1902 A Trip To The MoonA Trip To Mars – made in 1918 – has a certain Pre-Raphaelite flavour that caught my eye.

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As unlikely as it may seem, the Pre-Raphaelite link to sci-fi is something that keeps popping up. (See the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood post on Princess Leia for some hair-talk.) Although the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were, by definition, interested in the naturalistic style of art before Raphael, they still interacted with the issues of their own Victorian age through a lens of medievalism and myth. Science, okay, not so much – Rossetti, famously, had no idea if the sun revolved around the Earth or vice versa, and argued it was unimportant anyway – but later disciples of the PRB did dip their toes into the world of modern technology. This 1910 Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale painting of an angel guarding a biplane has always fascinated me…

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The celestial meets the mechanical.


There’s something odd about watching a film about space exploration made during the First World War. And there’s a yearning quality to A Trip To Mars. While the Earth is tearing itself apart, Mars turns out to be populated by peace-loving vegetarians. We get to watch a rocket full of uniformed Earthmen barging onto the peaceful planet where everyone floats around like Grecian deities. It’s as if Man has found Eden again, and another way to ruin it all.

Are the Earthmen ready for the Martians’ message of peace and love, or will they give in to the temptation to hurl grenades for no good reason? Here’s their chance to go back in time and halt things before they go wrong – something the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were deeply concerned with.

Here are a few of my favourite rather Pre-Raphaelite moments. You can watch the whole film here.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast Denies Him Her Salutation

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Frank Dicksee – La Belle Dame Sans Merci

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William Holman Hunt – Rienzi Vowing To Obtain Justice

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John Everett Millais: The Black Brunswicker.

John Everett Millais – The Black Brunswicker.

And finally, a spaceship decked in flowers. Just because.

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Wunderkammer: Heinous and Unnatural

the-witch-poster-e1440010251515If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I’ve been excited about The Witch for weeks, and finally got to see it on Saturday. I loved it – loved it in a slightly manic, unreserved way, grinning in the dark for two hours despite the man behind me getting vocally upset because a film marketed as being disturbing turned out to disturb him.

In summary: Puritans are awful, New England is awful, children are awful, that man sitting behind me who thought he’d come to see a Pixar film is awful… but goats just want to have fun.

witchesbabiesAmid all the jolly goat-related devastation, some scenes reminded me of certain folk tales and cases of bizarre phenomenon I’ve taken to my heart over the years. In the spirit of Folklore Thursday, gather round and clutch your protective sprig of rosemary…

I Saw Sister Procter Canoodling With The Devil

There have been cases of mass hysteria throughout history in all sorts of cultures and scenarios. Especially potent in close-knit communities like boarding schools, mild cases of mass hysteria can lead multiple individuals to laugh unstoppably, faint, contract an imaginary virus, or become convinced of a conspiracy. When the paranormal becomes involved, as the Salem witch trials show, things get rather more interesting.

One case in 1491 saw a nunnery in the Spanish Netherlands overrun with ‘possessed’ nuns. The sisters ran around like dogs, jumped out of trees pretending to be birds, and clawed tree trunks, miaowing. (Did the cat-nuns chase the bird-nuns, I wonder?) Devilish familiars were blamed, and over the following centuries, dozens of similar mass hysterias cropped up in convents all over Europe. Screaming, convulsing, foaming at the mouth, nuns would confess to carnal relations with devils and attempt to seduce those sent to exorcise them. For a bored nun who fancied her priest, succumbing to hysterics probably looked quite appealing. Or perhaps demons, like poltergeists, work best amongst stifled young women.

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Your Honour, I Put It To You That Donkey Is Evil

As every good churchgoing medieval serf knew, Jesus drove a pack of demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs. The pigs subsequently hurled themselves into a river to drown. So it’s understandable, then, that animals were sometimes suspected by early modern humans of being up to something wicked. A Swiss cockerel in 1474 was burned at the stake for committing the “heinous and unnatural crime” of laying an egg. Such a disruption to the natural order had to mean Lucifer was playing tricks through the medium of breakfast food.

Animal trials sometimes involved actual courts, judges, and juries. In 1750, a donkey caught in the act of copulation with her human master was found innocent by the townspeople because she was “in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature”. The man was executed. In the French town of Savigny in 1457, a sow was put on trial for trampling a child to death. The sow was hanged from the same gallows tree as the town’s human criminals, but her piglets were exonerated due to lack of evidence.

Questions of free will clashed with theology in these animal trials – were animals empty vessels capable of being controlled by devils, or were they creatures with as much  character and virtue as a man?

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They Came From The Forest

Woolpit (meaning ‘the pit of wolves’) is a nice little village in Suffolk where I used to spend weekends with my aunt. She had a twelfth century house there with witch marks on the ceilings – long ladders and ave marias traced in tallow smoke. If you’ve driven through Woolpit, you’ll have noticed the peculiar village sign depicting one of the wolves the village is named for alongside two children, hand in hand, painted green.

Around the time my aunt’s house was built, a boy and a girl emerged from the woods. They spoke an unknown language, and both had green skin. The children would only eat beans, and the boy soon died. When the girl was taught enough English to communicate, she claimed to be from a world of eternal twilight called The Land of Saint Martin. They were wandering through a cave, she said, when they blundered into horrid daylight and were discovered by a gang of Woolpit reapers. They did not know how to get home.

The girl took the name Agnes, married, and lived a relatively normal life, eventually losing her green colouring. Various theories abound – that the children’s greenness was caused by Hypochromic Anemia, that aliens had landed, or that they were indeed faerie children from a sunless world.

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Bugganes and Breeches

While faeries have it in them to be friendly on occasion, goblins err on the side of goatish bloody-mindedness. The Buggane, in particular, embodies this attitude. These pre-Christian goblins were known to set up camp in old chapels to prevent parishioners preparing leaky roofs and dangerous staircases. Able to change shape at will, Bugganes favoured the form of monstrously large black rams; the horns enabled them to actively rip down roofs so congregations were rained on during services.

One Buggane did just that when monks failed to ask permission of the faeries before building their church at the foot of Greeba Mountain on the Isle of Man. No matter how many times the roof was repaired, something gigantic would tear it off again, and soon no one dared worship there.

The destruction prompted a local tailor to make a bet that he could stay in the goblin-infested chapel long enough to make a pair of breeches. At midnight, the Buggane tired of the tailor’s company and appeared in its horned form, ready to give him its customary gigantic demonic ram welcome. The tailor was quick, however, and when the Buggane realised it couldn’t catch him, it ripped off its own head and flung it at him. As you do.

The chapel – St Trinian’s – remains a roofless ruin to this day. And horned farmyard animals remain peaceable and cuddly and only casually acquainted with Lucifer.

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“For children… perhaps.”

This post is brought to you by a cocktail of painkillers, hypnotics, and anxiolytics, administered by a lovely NHS anaesthetist whose name I can’t remember – only the sight of her leaning over me with a smile: “You’re going to forget my name.”

Just some routine Marfans stuff. But two days later, I’m still swimming through dreams. I like to think the lingering hypnotics are giving me the authentic Rossetti experience, minus the raccoon hiding in the wardrobe. And the genius.

Hanging onto the tail of this wooziness, I want to talk about childhood, but also about Jan Švankmajer’s gorgeously surreal 1988 film, Alice: “A film for children… perhaps.”

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Years ago, a counsellor complimented my socks. They were pale blue and white striped, up to the knee, and they were perfect, she said, “because you’re Alice in Wonderland.”

This probably wasn’t wise of her.

Like a lot of only children travelling with military parents, I was prone to dissociation. That’s the psychology term for intense daydreaming. And I mean intense – to the point that reality was almost entirely blocked out for the majority of every waking day. Mostly, it was paradise, but there were snags. Teachers found they had to full-on yell to catch my attention. I once kicked a cannonball-sized hole through a porter cabin wall without noticing.

Dissociation is a creative coping mechanism for when life is unstable or lonely. It’s very much like the intravenous sedative experience – a protective measure that picks you up and whisks you away. Eventually, children who habitually dissociate grow up to remember more about their dream worlds than the reality of the past. Some of them become writers. Ahem.

Onto Alice. As a chronically fantastical child, I was rankled by the Disney version of Alice In Wonderland. It was all so very pastel, so very clean. Nothing pristine, I knew, could ever be magical. Childhood is frightening, and nonsensical, and inappropriately hilarious – much like the original Wonderland tales.

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Children inhabit another planet. Lewis Carol knew that.

So on the other hand, you have Jan Švankmajer’s Alice. A film for children… but probably not for parents. The White Rabbit is taxidermy, leaking sawdust. Socks have teeth and the jam is full of drawing pins. Wonderland itself is a wreck of broken china and splinters, pickled specimens, potted tongue (prone to slithering), and other Victorian relics. Alice – the only living person in the film – has a way of turning into a decidedly spooky china doll and back again, tearing off the chrysalis of painted skin and making a run for it. Like the doll, her facial expression never changes. She never smiles or frowns. Those are things you do for others, and this Alice is content to be alone with her imagination.

Drowsy and doped as I am, it strikes me how strangely authentic Švankmajer’s vision of childhood imagination was.

In 1989, the year after Švankmajer released Alice, I was three. The Navy posted Dad to Scotland, and we ended up living on a dismal estate near a submarine base. Someone had spray-painted a peace symbol on the garden fence for our arrival. I wasn’t ready for school, and we never stayed anywhere long enough to make friends. I think I tried, on a few sparse occasions, but it was so much effort for so little return when inside was infinitely better than outside.

Perhaps it was the jerky stop-motion animation, or the twisted quality – lurking on the indistinct border between dreams and nightmares – but watching Švankmajer’s Alice for the first time a few weeks ago, I began to spontaneously remember scraps of day-to-day surrealism from that time in Scotland.

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Someone – I forget who – told me bubbles were living things, and that when you popped them, they died.

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There was a nearby play park where a boy knocked himself out trying to make the swings turn full circle. I saw his body in a red tracksuit, face down on the ground. ‘Cracked his head open’, I thought for years, was literal. Bash the hinge hard enough and the skull pops open like a spring-loaded box.

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That play park was an island of concrete amongst hillocks of unkempt greenery. One day, some other children took my doll, so I wandered off to where you could see the Forth Rail Bridge, muddy-bloody coloured, in the distance. Over a hill, I found the skull of a ram, picked clean. The coiled horns looked like the fossils in my dinosaur books. I can’t recall the doll.

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From the spare bedroom, if the light was good (by Scottish standards), you could see dark cylinders moving slowly through the cold seawater. I’ve never grown out of the fear of submarines, but the house held hidden dangers of its own. I was playing in the garden. Making a pile of gravel. The house had been arsoned before we moved in, so the gutters full of gravel also contained all the glass from the shattered windows. Not that I noticed. I was grabbing handfuls, piling it up, until I registered I was bleeding from dozens of tiny cuts. I took myself up to my parents’ bedroom and triumphantly held out my hands to them. It didn’t hurt.

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A fisherman on a jetty shouted at me for dropping a stone in the sea and disturbing the fish.

“I want to cut him in half,” I said, and I can still clearly see the satisfying image in my mind, of a man sliced in two like a pink salmon.

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Sugar, spice, and murder fantasies. There’s a whimsical grotesquery to childhood I think we’re programmed to erase. Perhaps it’s only free to come out when we’ve been dosed up by friendly anaesthetists without names.

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Review: Horsehead

nightmare I used to be able to dream lucidly. It took practise. I had a notebook covered in Chinese silk that I kept beside my bed. Whenever I woke from a dream, I’d turn on the light and immediately write every detail down. After several weeks of this, I was an active player in my subconscious world. I could choose where to walk, what to look at, when to fight and when to run away. I wouldn’t call it fun – to be inside and outside one’s body simultaneously – but it made me aware that the world of dreams is as real and as valid as the waking one. You can find answers there that you can’t in daylight.

That’s the premise of Horsehead, a 2014 horror film directed by Romaine Basset. Jessica, a young woman studying the psychology of dreams, travels to her mother’s home in France for the funeral of the grandmother she never really knew. Relations with her mother aren’t any better, and when Jessica goes down the with flu, dreams are her only escape from their bickering. The fever, coupled with the bottle of ether she keeps sniffing, makes for some horrifying dreams, and she is quickly confronted by a horse-headed priest-beast called The Cardinal. When it emerges that her grandmother committed suicide, Jessica must follow her spirit deep into the subconscious mind to discover the secret The Cardinal is guarding with his scythe.

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Firstly, this film pushes all my aesthetic buttons. Everyone will recognise the Fuseli Nightmare painting above, and most scenes are shot in that kind of amniotic red darkness suggestive of opiates and deviance. It’s all very consciously Angela Carter-esque, with shades of The Company of Wolves in the costumes and the inventive gore. (Mild spoiler: it’s not a gory film, per say, but if pregnancy-related violence is too much for you, you might want to give Horsehead a miss.) Jessica’s mother lives in the kind of pretty, cobbled French village no normal human being could ever afford a house in, but by night it descends into medieval darkness. The quaint, winding streets take on a haunted quality as Jessica roams them in her penitent robes and Riding Hood cape.

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There’s a constant sense of unreality which might annoy some viewers. Everyone speaks in an overly-deliberate way, even when Jessica is awake. George, the baritone caretaker, verges on something from The Dark Crystal, though the echoing industrial soundtrack (free of jump scares) keeps the film from becoming ridiculous. I liked that about Horsehead. If you’re going to have a literal horse-headed monster lumbering about, unreality is something you need to embrace with enthusiasm. Though the family do keep the dead grandmother upstairs for an awfully long time.

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If you enjoy visually-striking, thought-provoking horror or fantasy, you’ll likely love Horsehead. If you prefer quests and defeatable demons, however, there’s likely more reading between lines than you’ll have patience for. Horsehead belongs thoroughly in the realms of the subconscious.

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Review: The Man Whose Mind Exploded

“I just want them to take you seriously.”
“Is that possible?”

drako2Drako Oho Zarhazar had seven lives. Having survived two nervous breakdowns, two suicide attempts, and two comas, he was left with a brain so damaged it could no longer record new memories.

In his second coma, he experienced enlightenment in the form of a voice telling him:

TRUST
ABSOLUTE
UNCONDITIONAL

The words were tattooed on his body, along with tribal mandalas and what appears to an enormous celestial ram doing the splits. Born in 1936, Drako lived his last years in a council flat in Brighton where he was a familiar character, sweeping around town in a cape, telling ladies at the bus stop how he was once Salvador Dali’s angel and supplied The Rolling Stones with weed. The aristocratic RP and circus strongman panache might lead you to assume this was a deluded poseur – it’s Brighton, after all – but in Drako’s case, it’s all true.

drako Toby Amies’ The Man Whose Mind Exploded peeks in on the life of this magnificently peculiar man, his wild past, and surreal, sad twilight years. Drako lived alone, experiencing each day afresh. “Do you remember me?” the filmmaker repeatedly asks. “Not especially, no.” But he was, as he put it, happy to be used. Drako was nothing if not an exhibitionist. Which perhaps you can tell at a glance.

Amies spent four years getting to know Drako, in the disjointed, repetitive way brain damage requires. The distance a filmmaker is meant to keep from his subject is breached from the start, giving the film an intimate edge which makes for high emotional impact. Amies was practically Drako’s carer, urging him – and sometimes pleading him – to take more care while candles burned amongst his toppling stacks of art and scribblings. It was an inferno waiting to happen, but Drako liked it that way.

Tout_Love_hands_tattoo-814x545“I love it all,” he would say, again and again. “The theatre of life.”

This is no pity party, nor would Drako want it to be. He laughed often, spicing up his musings on art and faith with seemingly random instances of surreal filth, simply because he liked it. It’s kind of endearing, once you get used to all the phalluses hanging from his ceiling.

(And there are a lot of phalluses. Just… flocks of cocks. Wow.)

It’s impossible not to love Drako. For all his kinks and his squalor, by the end of the documentary, you hope there will always be people like him, baffling bystanders. Drako was affectionate and friendly and maddeningly stubborn. He lived in the moment, and entirely in his own style. “I love it all.”

Low budget, tender-hearted, and hilarious, The Man Whose Mind Exploded will appeal to fans of Grey Gardens and Marwencol. It’s available to download from iTunes.

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Wunderkammer: The Street of Crocodiles

It’s hard to separate the writing and art of Bruno Schulz from the tragedies of his life and death. Schulz’ peculiar inner world was shaped by the traumas of WW1, the death of his father, and an almost pathological solitude that cut him off even from his fellow Jews in the ghetto. In the wake of his death at the hands of a Nazi officer in 1942, many of his drawings and his final literary work, The Messiah, were lost forever. Under cover of darkness, a friend carried his body from where it lay in the street to a nearby Jewish cemetery. No trace of his grave site remains.

brunoshultzI first became aware of Schulz through the Brothers Quay 1986 film of his short story collection, The Street of Crocodiles. Terry Gilliam called it one of the most beautiful films ever made, and he’s not wrong. The stuttering dolls and the clash of rusty machinery alongside throbbing organic matter stay with you long after the twenty minute film is over.

I only read the book recently, needing something brief after a massive Donna Tartt blowout. The Street of Crocodiles bears little literal resemblance to the film, but thrums with the same unsettling energy. Beginning in a stiflingly hot day in the Polish city of Drogobych where Schulz lived and died, the reader is introduced to the strange inhabitants of the city, wheeling about like beetles on the baking pavement. Then come the even more disconcerting denizens of the family home. A shy, thin young man, Schulz inserts himself as an unobtrusive narrator, watching the strange comings and goings of his family with little concern for the creeping madness of his father and the violence of the strangely powerful servant Adela.

Schulz is most commonly lumped in with Kafka and Proust. Having only read Crocodiles so far, he reminds me most of magical realists like Angela Carter and Mikhail Bulgakov; more introverted, like a quiet cousin of theirs, but just as poetic and hilarious.

With Schulz, everyday sights are loaded with meaningful life. The landscape he traipses each day with his mother becomes a character in itself, as much as any family member: “And over the fence the sheepskin of grass lifted in a hump, as if the garden had turned over in its sleep, its broad peasant back rising and falling as it breathed on the stillness of the earth.” His disturbed father shares this odd sensitivity, adopting tailors’ dummies and treating them as beings capable of pain: “Who dares to think that you can play with matter, that you can shape it for a joke, that the joke will not be built in, will to eat into it like fate, like destiny?”

Bruno_SchulzHe is sensitive without being sentimental, as if conscious that the rules of his world are not the same as his neighbours:

“In a way, these ‘stories’ are true; they represent my style of living, my particular lot. The dominant feature of that lot is profound solitude, a withdrawal from the cares of daily life. Solitude is the catalyst that brings reality to fermentation, to the precipitating out of figures and colours.”

Reality goes in. Imagination – distilled – comes out.

Schulz’ drawings remind me of those of his contemporary Mervyn Peake – probably the reason I warmed to him so quickly. Schulz’ hollow-cheeked Jews wouldn’t be out of place in The Hall of Bright Carvings; Peake’s Mister Flay would be quite at home in The Book of Idolatry. Sideways black comedy came naturally to them both, although it’s impossible to look at them side-by-side without the sad realisation that Peake documented the atrocities of the Holocaust as an official war artist while Schulz – and so much of his surreal, beautiful work – did not survive it.

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7 reasons you should watch American Horror Story: Coven

In this house, we like horror and we love American Horror Story. The latest series, ‘Coven’, follows a school for talented young witches in New Orleans, and you should be watching it.

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It passes the Bechdel test. Every episode. In fact, all three series of AHS features women talking to women about things other than men. This is so damn refreshing. See, screenwriters? It isn’t difficult.

The magnificent sets revel in all the trappings of Southern Gothic: dreary swamps, ramshackle cemeteries, and grand white houses with jazz drifting in from the streets and bars. You can almost taste the mint juleps.

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Frances Conroy as Myrtle Snow

Myrtle Snow’s costumes by Lou Eyrich. She is flawless.

The music. Stevie Nicks is a keystone of the Coven series; her lyrics a thread to follow. All three AHS series have made use of a spectrum of music, including Carina Round, Pete and The Pirates, and Soeur Marie’s Dominique – which will now be stuck in your head for all eternity.

Jamie Brewer. An actress with Down’s Syndrome who isn’t there purely to demonstrate the protagonist’s compassion, isn’t asexual, and consistently gets good lines. Brewer also features in the first series – ‘Murder House’ – without as much complexity, but the writers are clearly interested in diversity without tokenism, and that’s something I think audiences really want to see.

Kathy Bates as serial killer Delphine LaLaurie. Horror fans will already be warm to Bates, and, as you’d expect, she looks 100% at home scowling in a frumpy antique frock. Though Madame LaLaurie is a cartoonish character, AHS uses her to explore the deeply entrenched racism of America’s South through her grudging friendship with witch of colour, Queenie, played by Gabourey Sidibe. It isn’t unproblematic by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s good to see a fantastical mainstream TV series touching on actual social horrors. When LaLaurie attempts to excuse her vicious past with “I was a woman of my time”, Supreme witch Fiona responds: “That is a crock of shit.”

Cheese. AHS is unashamedly cheesy. Witches casually playing theremins, your requisite zombie uprising, teenage necromancers flouncing around in impossibly high heels and sunglasses…it’s silly. And silly is good. Watch it.

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Marfan Syndrome and The Internship: Not a big-man’s disease

There’s been a ripple through the Marfan community this week. Some American comedians I’ve vaguely heard of (my world is muffled by nineteenth century poet’s letters to their dentists) have taken it upon themselves to mention Marfan syndrome in their latest film, The Internship.

Instead of using their immense media power to spread lifesaving information to the suspected thousands of people who don’t know they have Marfans, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell decided it would be easier to throw this out there, apropos of nothing:

Will Ferrell: not actually a doctor.

Will Ferrell: not actually qualified to take your ECG.

“C’mon, Marfan syndrome. You know, Marfan. Big man’s-disease. Giant killer.”

It’s crass, unfunny, and worst of all, untrue.

The National Marfan Foundation have released a statement urging the film’s producers to use this opportunity to spread the word about this often fatal disorder, and also pointing out the obvious: it was a stupid thing to say. Reactions from individual Marfs have ranged from “I’ve heard worse” to this, which reads like a punch in the gut:

A Virginia man, who lost his two-year-old son to Marfan syndrome in 2011, wrote that he was “extremely upset with the lack of taste, concern and respect concerning this disorder.”

The blogger Maya, also known as MarfMom, is, as always, joyful and positive, and has written about the film. She rightly thinks we ought to use this opportunity to educate, because the danger of the line is that it spreads misinformation. Half of people with Marfans don’t know they’ve got it. They go without medication, take part in dangerous activities, and may not find out until they’re in the back of an ambulance. Accurate information in the public eye is vital.

‘Big man’s disease’? Marfan syndrome affects men and women equally. ‘Giant killer’? Not all Marfs are exceptionally tall, and even so, they tend to be thin or unmuscular. In fact, if I had to pick a mythical creature to represent Marfans, it would be the willowy elves from Lord of The Rings. They’re long, they’re languid, and they’re sick to the back teeth of orcs crawling out of the woodwork. And what is this ableist obsession with fantasy monikers anyway? Giants, dwarves, monsters. Anything but human.

Thranduil thinks your attitude stinks.

Elfking Thranduil thinks your attitude stinks.

Handy rule of thumb: If you don’t have a disability, don’t make jokes about it.

I’m going to have that printed on little glitzy flashcards to make it all the more memorable, because although it’s basic human decency, some people still struggle with it.

No.

No.

All the Marfs I know make light of our health among ourselves, our friends, and families. Laughter is useful, particularly when – and this actually happened to me – a saleswoman earnestly informs you your incurable illness will clear up if you just drink enough aloe vera juice.

But if you don’t inhabit that sphere, you can’t assume what people’s thresholds are. You can’t assume what people are just about managing to cope with, what their history is, who they’ve lost.

Another thing Vaughn and Ferrell might be unaware of is that people with a long-term health conditions are strongly encouraged to keep their feelings to themselves.  Classic derailing: “It’s only a joke, don’t take it so personally, no-one will take you seriously when you’re angry”. If you’re going to speak out about ableism you must cloak yourself in charm and detachment, as if this wasn’t your everyday life being discussed. Heaven forbid you become one of those frightening party-pooper militants who lurk in drains with Pennywise the clown.

Yes, it’s just a weak joke in a film unlikely to go down in cinematic history. But there will be kids who’ll suffer in school because of this. There will be adults who’ve lost a child or a parent or a friend who will have to smile politely at jokes like this from colleagues, strangers, and even friends who, because they’ve seen it in a mainstream film, think it’s harmless behaviour.

It isn’t.

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Ken Russell’s Dante’s Inferno: “Let’s go stunner-hunting!”

After casting Sean Bean in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I can forgive Ken Russell of almost any sin. Even Dante’s Inferno. Most of it.

Through a psychedelic ’60s lens, with the Pre-Raphaelite circle portrayed as drink-mad, cemetery-defiling pyromaniacs on top of all the usual Russell weirdness, Dante’s Inferno the only film I’ve ever awoken at dawn for, snarling over the final seconds of the auction: “It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s the only DVD copy I’ve ever seen anywhere, and it’s mine…”

Now, someone thoughtful has uploaded the whole wacky display to YouTube, so you can enjoy it as much as I did all those years ago, alone in my flat, wondering what on Earth I’d allowed into my life.

Don’t expect a history lesson. Do expect drunken bicycle jousting, zombie Lizzie Siddal, and Oliver Reed playing himself. No, it isn’t sensitive. But if you’ve ever seen the schlocky ’70s horror Burnt Offerings, you can’t really dislike Reed. My late Auntie Ann used to drink with him, and maintained he was a gentleman. He’s not a bad likeness of Rossetti, physically; dark and languid in layer upon layer of shabby Victorian tailoring. Jan Marsh has a chapter on the film in her excellent book The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal. She calls Reed ‘solid but smouldering’.

Leave me alone - I'm brooding.

Leave me alone – I’m smouldering, solidly.

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Topsy and Janey, experiencing an approximation of married bliss.

Judith Paris as Lizzie Siddal. Again, quite a good likeness.

Judith Paris as Lizzie Siddal. Again, quite a good likeness.

Swinburne, getting overly-friendly with the Oxford dead. You cannot take him anywhere.

…and Swinburne, getting overly-friendly with the Oxford dead. You cannot take him anywhere.

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When I am queen, I will burn down the castle.

They say that one passion leads to another. Long before I discovered Dante Gabriel Rossetti, I lived in Gormenghast.

Gormenghast

Between school bullies, kidney infections, and the oncoming Iraq war (which, I’d somehow convinced myself, was my fault), the year 2000 was a dismal time to be fourteen. But when the BBC released a four-part adaptation of Gormenghast in time for the Millennium, something shifted. From my hospital bed, I imagined the mauve peaks and crumbling spires of the castle on the horizon. I stopped doing my homework. Mervyn Peake’s Machiavellian fantasy was a safe place to escape to.

I never grew out of it. At my first University graduation, seeing the professors traipsing down the aisles in their gowns and mortar boards, I whispered excitedly to the boy next to me: “This is just like Gormenghast!” He had no idea what I was on about.

Years pass. We grow up, our tastes evolve. I fell out with high fantasy, fell into the nineteenth century. But, over a decade after my first encounter with Gormenghast,  thumbing through my paperback trilogy, something sounded familiar…

Fuchsia-and Steerpike

“A girl of about fifteen with long, rather wild black hair. She was gauche in movement and, in a sense, ugly of face, but with how small a twist might she not suddenly have become beautiful. Her sullen mouth was full and rich – her eyes smouldered. A yellow scarf hung loosely around her neck. Her shapeless dress was a flaming red. For all the straightness of her back she walked with a slouch.”

Oh, hello, Jane Morris.

Jane Morris

For a fourteen-year-old reader, Lady Fuchsia Groan is an easy character to relate and aspire to. Living in isolation where ‘the halls, towers, the rooms of Gormenghast were of another planet’, her response to most things is to run away to her dark attic of storybooks and paintings. She is a petulant child playing Ophelia and Juliet, dying to fall headlong into a world of chivalric romance and adventure.

Fuchsia – in Peake’s own illustrations and his text – has unmistakable similarities to Rossetti’s Jane. Like La Pia, Fuchsia glowers with the lethargic energy of someone who wants to be somewhere else but isn’t sure where. Her unkempt hair and pronounced features give her the ‘unpretty’ Pre-Raphaelite beauty the Victorians were so bothered by. Jane was considered unfortunately unattractive by many. Fuchsia, too.

lapiafuchsiared

There are Pre-Raphaelite echoes in every corner of Gormenghast. Maybe it’s the meeting of the Gothic and the Chivalric, the tragic and the absurd, or Peake’s own network of literary sources including Lewis Carol and The Brothers Grimm. Peake’s childhood in China and later studies at the Royal Academy gave his work a sense of ancientness and the exotic that reminds me of Holman Hunt’s picking and choosing of historical and cultural details. You can see it in The Hall of The Bright Carvings and the almost Tibetan descriptions of the endless corridors and slanting roofs of the castle.

mervynpeakeuptree

Mervyn, acting casual

As a war artist in the 1940s, Peake saw terrible scenes of human cruelty in the rubble of the bombsites and the concentration camps. Perhaps it was only natural to head for the dusty safety of the past.

The BBC adaptation – which I realise is not to every Peake-purist’s taste – is funhouse mirror Pre-Raphaelitism. Nature is vast and unfathomable. Steerpike wheedles his way into Fuchsia’s favour by claiming to be “like the knights of old, your ladyship” only to find he can’t possibly live up to Fuchsia’s fantasies. In John Constable’s later stage show, Fuchsia is even given red hair. (Actual audience comment: “This is horrible. They said it was fantasy. It’s nothing like Harry Potter at all.”)

Fuchsia and Jane

The BBC costumes are luxuriant. Fuchsia starts off as a teenager in a loose red velvet dress embroidered with stars. As she gets older and sadder, her outfits become heavier, more stiffly structured, until she is dragged down into the foaming floodwaters like Ophelia, leaving flowers in her wake.


The costume department referred to some of the same sources the Pre-Raphaelites did – Velázquez and Botticelli – resulting in voluminous layers of fabric and detail (even hazelnuts as buttons!) like a mad dressing-up session in a museum vault. Actress Neve McIntosh would gain two inches in height after taking off Fuchsia’s weighty gowns. Rossetti, with his reams of fabric cluttering up the house, would have loved it.

Lady Gertrude Groan
Excuse the poor quality photograph, but wouldn’t Rossetti have made a great job of this still from the film as a painting? Minus the prosthetic chin.

I wonder if I would have reacted so strongly to the Pre-Raphaelites had I not experienced Gormenghast so young. One good thing leads on to another. What’s next?


Buy The Gormenghast Trilogythe BBC miniseries on DVD, or the fantastic soundtrack by Sir John Tavener who, coincidentally, has Marfans.

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