Sunday, June 10, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part XV: Masculin/Féminin

Apart from his odd taste in subject matter, Horace Walpole was the 18th Century ideal of an author -- a gentleman of leisure who wrote sheerly for his own amusement, and published only in the hope that his work would provide the same for others, or perhaps offer some moral edification. If he got a little money out of it, it would only be a pittance compared to his existing fortune. The idea of somebody writing primarily as a way of earning income was seen as a prostitution of art.

But even at the time Otranto came out, British publishing was changing. Literacy was on the uptick throughout Britain -- and not just for men. Women lagged behind, but by the 1760s middle class women at least needed to be able to read if they wanted to attract decent husbands. With the expansion of the reader base came an increased demand for books, and novels in particular. Many early novelists were still respectable, and their works stressed virtue and morals, but like any booming industry, publishing soon attracted those who wanted to make money.

In the mid 18th Century, "Newgate Calendars" came onto the market. These started as broadsheets containing true crime accounts about malefactors at London's Newgate Prison, but they were popular enough they were eventually printed as chapbooks and compiled into multi-volume anthologies. The Calendars were ostensibly moral works that showed the public that crime doesn't pay, but of course that's not why anyone ever bought them, any more than people today watch Cops to learn about police procedures. Calendar readers wanted sensational crimes, and the publishers weren't above throwing in a fictional story like Sawney Bean, the legendary Scottish cannibal, or exaggerating real ones, like highwayman Dick Turpin, who became a sort of English Jesse James by the time the popular presses got done with him.

The Gothics were the next major step in the commercialization of writing. Around 1790, William Lane established Minerva Press to cash in on the burgeoning demand for Gothic fiction, and quickly became the largest publisher of fiction in Britain. Numerous other publishers jumped on the money train as well, and soon the country was glutted with Gothic novels, many of them nothing more than cheap knockoffs of the most popular works.

As with any genre, the titles fell into easily recognizable patterns -- The Castle of _______, The Mysteries of ________, The Cavern of _______, with the blanks being filled by words like "death" or "darkness", or by some exotic sounding name -- Italian preferred, but French or German were also acceptable, and something Scottish or Irish would do in a pinch. A truly adventurous author might make up a foreigny sounding name beginning with Z or V, like Vathek, Zofloya, or Zastrozzi.

While some authors of the upper classes did try their hand at the Gothic -- M.G. Lewis was a Member of Parliament, and Percy Shelley was the son of a Baronet, for instance -- most of the writers were middle class or lower. Valancourt Books has been reprinting many of the Gothics of this period (some so obscure that their last edition was in the 18th Century), and if you read the introductions you'll find many of the authors were members of the middle class who had fallen on hard times and figured a Gothic novel would be an easy way to earn money. This is especially true for the female Gothic authors, of whom there are more than a few -- indeed, the Gothic may be the first field of Western lit where women approached parity with men. During this period, there were few fallback options for widows and otherwise unmarried women who didn't have relatives to support them. The few acceptable careers for middle class women -- governesses, school teachers, and attendants for wealthy ladies --  were hard to come by without connections or references, and paid little in any case. But now that women were literate, taking a hand at writing was a viable option.

Of course, people writing as a way to pay the bills -- especially women -- offended the literati of the day, and the Gothic was sneered at as low literature. Even today, the best regarded of the Gothic authors (Walpole, Lewis, Beckford, Godwin, Maturin) tend to be from more respectable backgrounds, and apart from Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley, they're all men.

To some extent this is understandable -- men from well-to-do backgrounds would be better educated and able to turn out more polished works. But the fact is, apart from Frankenstein and Beckford's Vathek, none of the Gothic novels of the classic era are particularly great. The ones written by lower class authors are about the level of 1930s science fiction, but they do have the merit of being a reasonable length, whereas the upper class authors were excessively prolix, with two hundred pages of good story supporting five hundred or more pages of prose. Nobody reads Godwin's Caleb Williams or Marturin's Melmoth the Wanderer without skimming.

Of all the Gothic authors between Walpole and Mary Shelley, the two commonly regarded as the most important are Radcliffe and Lewis.

Ann Radcliffe published her first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne back in 1789, but she didn't hit the big time until her fourth novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). For the most part, Udolpho was a straightforward Gothic tale about Emily St. Aubert, an orphaned teenage girl who goes to live in the titular Castle of Udolpho with her aunt and her aunt's new husband, the Count Montoni. Lots of mysterious and spooky things happen in the castle, and eventually Emily's aunt dies under suspicious circumstances. At the end of the story, Emily discovers that Count Montoni has been gaslighting her in the hope of driving her mad and getting a hold of her inheritance, and none of the supernatural events in the story were real.

Yes, Ann Radcliffe invented the Scooby Doo ending. Many readers, both at the time and since, have felt that this was a cop-out -- that she was trying to have her cake and eat it too by telling a story that has all the trappings of the supernatural but can't be criticized for being irrational. But since most people who come to the Gothic want the supernatural and don't give a damn about rationality and realism, the twist ultimately deflates the suspense and leaves a bad taste in the reader's mouth.

Matthew Gregory Lewis was having none of that.

Lewis's father was a senior official in the War Office, and Lewis received a first-class education, entering Oxford at the age of 15. While at university, Lewis made several trips to the Continent, the most notable being an extended stay in Germany in which he befriended Goethe and got to read an early draft of Faust. During the stay, Lewis also became acquainted with the Schauerroman (shudder novels), that were the German equivalent of the Gothic, though with the key difference that they were much more closely based upon folklore and balladry than their British cousins. The supernatural in these stories tended towards the outright demonic rather than the merely ghostly Gothics, and the tenor of the stories was more tragic than romantic.

After graduating from Oxford, Lewis's father arranged for him to take a position in the British legation at the Hague. Despite the French Revolution roiling Europe, Lewis found the environs boring, and to fill his time he decided to try his hand at a Gothic novel. He had read Udolpho and enjoyed it, but he'd been disappointed at the ending, so he decided to incorporate elements of the Schauerroman into his story.

The novel he produced, The Monk (1796), is a Faustian tale about Ambrosio, a Catholic priest who lusts after one of his parishioners, a young woman named Antonia. Ambrosio discovers that a novice serving under him is in fact a woman in disguise. The woman, Matilda, seduces him to keep the secret, and then promises she'll help him get Antonia. In fact, Matilda is a succubus, and she helps Ambrosio by providing him with a magical roofie that allows him to rape Antonia in her sleep. On his first attempt, he's caught by her mother and kills her, but he later kidnaps Antonia and rapes her in a crypt. When Antonia awakens and tries to escape, Ambrosio panics and kills her too. He's eventually arrested by the Inquisition and subject to torture, but Matilda reveals to him that he can escape by selling himself to Satan. He does so, at which point the devil shows up and reveals that Antonia was actually Ambrosio's long lost sister. The devil rescues Ambrosio from the Inquisition, but then throws him over a cliff where he suffers a painful and lingering death.

The Monk was far more violent, satanic and sexually charged than anything Gothic writers had yet produced, to the point that there was an effort to suppress the first edition, and Lewis revised subsequent printings in the hope of making the book more acceptable to the public. It didn't, and despite serving six years in parliament, he was always tainted as "Monk" Lewis.

Nonetheless, The Monk had a major impact on Gothic literature, as did Udolpho. Prior to Radcliffe and Lewis, Otranto had been the model that all Gothic novels were based upon, but now writers had two new ones to copy.

And did they ever. From 1791-95, there were forty-seven Gothic novels published -- a huge amount given the size of the British publishing industry at the time -- but from 1796-1800 that number more than doubled.

Scholars have traditionally divided the later Gothics into the Masculine (Lewisian) and Feminine (Radcliffian) schools, though modern scholarship tends to discount this. Besides the obvious gender stereotyping, there's the additional problem that many "Masculine" Gothics were written by women or have female protagonists, and vice-versa. Indeed, The Italian, Radcliffe's followup to Udolpho, features a sequence with the Inquisition that's clearly inspired by The Monk. Still, while there may not have been a clean schism, there's no doubt that after Udolopho and The Monk the spectrum of the Gothic broadened, with works on the outer edges being purely Radcliffian or Lewisian, and those in between mixing and matching to various degrees. This is the pattern that would continue into the first decade of the 19th Century, after which the genre would genuinely begin fragmenting.

Next Time: The Psychogothic, or Maybe Frankenstein's Monster Was from the Id

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part XIV: Goth Before It Was Cool

If you just glance at the Gothic novels of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, it's easy to conclude, as H.P. Lovecraft did in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, that the Gothic was nothing more than an early form of the horror genre. Creepy castles. Secret passageways. Ghostly visions. It's all very Bela Lugosi.

But this is a back projection of our modern sensibilities. Yes, the Gothic set out to terrify, and yes, many of the elements it used can still be found modern horror. But that's not all the Gothic was. Gothic novels also featured quivering young ingenues falling into the hands of men of dubious character. Sometimes the men would turn out to be sexy rogues; other times they'd be pure villains from whom the heroine would need to be rescued by a dashing young hero. There's a reason why in modern publishing "Gothic" tends to be a type of romance novel. Similarly, Gothics often involved some kind of investigation -- for instance, the heroine trying to figure out what her captor's purpose is, or the dashing young hero trying to track down the villain and rescue his lady love. It's thus unsurprising that a later Gothic author like Poe is also a seminal figure in mystery fiction.

Thinking of the Gothic as just an antecedent to horror, then, obscures its true import to literary history. It is an ur-genre from which much of modern fiction descends.

Unlike most other genres, the Gothic has a very clear origin point: Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto. This isn't to say the genre came out of nowhere -- it draws heavily upon Shakespeare and Marlowe for its supernatural elements, particularly Doctor Faustus and the Scottish play, while its preoccupation with persecution and revenge comes from Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge dramas -- but the emphasis it places on terror is new, and for that we have to thank Walpole.

Otranto begins on the eve of a wedding between a young nobleman, Conrad, and Princess Isabella. Festivities come to an abrupt end when a giant helmet falls out the sky and crushes Conrad. Conrad's father, Prince Manfred, the Lord of Otranto, is undeterred by this. He really wants Isabella to be part of his family, and if he doesn't have a son to marry her, he'll do it himself. The fact that he already has a wife ... well, that's nothing that can't be solved with a bit of murder.

At the same time, a mysterious young man named Theodore appears at the castle and makes some observations about the helmet that piss Manfred off, and it's off to the dungeon with him. Theodore escapes with the help of Isabella and Matilda (Manfred's daughter). There's much fleeing and fighting and sneaking about in dark corridors, and, oh yes, there's a ghostly giant in the deep bowels of the castle who seems intent on getting loose and killing people. Matilda and Isabella both fall in love with Theodore, but Manfred helpfully resolves the love triangle by accidentally killing his daughter.

In the end we discover that Manfred's family are usurpers, and both Isabella and Theodore are descended (along separate lines) from the rightful Lord of Otranto, Alfonso the Murderous Ghost Giant. Manfred was intent on marrying Isabella because he believed it would legitimize his usurpation and appease Alfonso. Once the truth comes out, Manfred abdicates and retires to a monastery. Isabella and Theodore get married and rule Otranto in blissful incest.

This then is the template on which later Gothics are based. Later authors certainly introduced innovations -- sometimes the villain is an evil priest instead of a nobleman -- but it's hard to find a Gothic that doesn't contain at least one plot-point that Walpole invented. Even Frankenstein, which is otherwise far removed from the Otranto model, has a wedding that ends in tragedy.

When Walpole first published Otranto, he did so under a double pseudonym, presenting it as a translation by "William Marshal, Gent." of a medieval manuscript by "Onuphrio Muralto". The book was an immediate success, and when the second edition came out, Walpole decided to claim authorship for himself.

This was a mistake.

You see, Otranto came out in 1764, at the height of the so-called Enlightenment. Now the term "Enlightenment" is a deliberate contrast to the "Dark Ages". The idea of the Dark Ages goes back to the Renaissance, when the term was used to describe the period after the fall of Rome when knowledge of Classical Greek philosophy dried up in Western Europe. By the 18th Century, though, the term had expanded, and Enlightenment thinkers in particular latched onto it. According to the orthodox Enlightenment worldview, the Catholic Church was the most vile and corrupt organization in all of human history. Logically then, the period when the Church held hegemony over Western Europe must've been a horrible and backwards time. It wasn't enough that people of the Middle Ages were ignorant of Plato -- they had to be miserable savages who lived in fear of supernatural nonsense that the priesthood foisted upon them. Many of the misconceptions we have about the Middle Ages come from this period, like the idea that Medieval folk were forever burning witches at the stake (in fact, witch trials were unheard of for much of the Middle Ages, and they didn't reach a peak until the Reformation), or that every king employed a crackpot alchemist (alchemy didn't appear in Western Europe until the Late Middle Ages, and the most famous alchemists -- Paracelsus, Trithemius, Agrippa, Faustus, and Dee -- are from the Renaissance and later).

(This isn't to say the Middle Ages were a great time, but they weren't particularly worse than any other period. For the average person throughout history, life was always hell. If you had to choose whether to be reincarnated as a random person in ancient Sparta, medieval England, or colonial Jamaica, you'd be screwed no matter what, but you'd be slightly less screwed in England.)

So when Otranto first appeared and everyone thought it was an actual work of the Middle Ages, it fit right into the Enlightenment worldview. People could read it and snicker at how ignorant those poor, benighted folk had been back then. But when Walpole took credit for it, that changed. This was a modern man writing about superstitious nonsense. And Walpole wasn't some random guy, either. His father, Robert, had been the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, and Horace himself sat in the House of Lords. The fact that he wrote something like Otranto was an affront to Enlightenment orthodoxy.

This partly explains why Otranto's immediate impact was minimal. In the fifteen years following its publication, only a dozen imitations appeared. The pace picked up in the 1780s when around forty Gothic novels came out, most of them in the latter half of the decade, but the real explosion didn't hit until the 1790s. By that time, the Enlightenment was getting to be old and creaky, and the increasing extremism of the French Revolution was causing many Brits to question the underlying assumptions of the movement.

But there was a generational factor in play, as well. While Walpole's early imitators were of a similar generation to him, the authors of the Gothic boom were much younger -- many were in fact born after Otranto came out, like Ann Radcliffe (1764), Francis Lathom (1774) and M.G. Lewis (1775). Undoubtedly many of them read Otranto at an impressionable young age and wanted to read more Stuff Like That, and when they couldn't find any Stuff Like That, they started writing their own.

And it's to these writers that we'll turn next time.

NEXT WEEK: Masculin/Féminin.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Bada-bing Bada-boom, Motherf---er!

There's a running gag on the Filmsack podcast that for any movie they watch, whether its The Matrix, Mean Girls or Lassie Come Home, the IMDb trivia page will claim that Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were considered for the lead role. It's certainly true that IMDb trivia pages tend to list any actor who was ever even remotely mentioned in connection with a film, and many of them are ridiculously out of place. But even so, the trivia pages aren't necessarily wrong. Sometimes movies change drastically during development, and actors considered during initial development end up being incompatible with the final product.

Case in point -- did you know that Die Hard was originally envisioned as a Frank Sinatra movie?

As hard as that is to believe, it's true.

In 1966, thriller writer Roderick Thorp published a novel with the highly imaginative title The Detective. The story follows Joe Leland, an ex-cop turned private investigator who discovers that he mistakenly sent the wrong man to the electric chair years before, and has to fight a massive coverup to bring the truth to light.

At the time the book came out, 20th Century Fox was at its nadir, having nearly gone bankrupt due to the disastrous cost overruns on Cleopatra, a movie so expensive it lost money despite being the biggest hit of the year. They managed to recover thanks to the success of The Sound of Music, only to faceplant a couple years later with another over-produced flop, Doctor Dolittle. What kept the studio going during the period were cheaply produced films that could turn a reliable profit, and sometimes broke out to become major successes. Thrillers were a big part of this, so when The Detective came out, Fox snapped up the rights and put it into production for a '68 release.

Fox slotted Frank Sinatra, one of the few bankable stars it still had under contract, into the lead role. Sinatra had just played a similar character in the 1967 thriller Tony Rome, and he was scheduled to do a sequel, The Lady in Cement, as soon as The Detective wrapped. Of the three, The Detective was the biggest hit, squeaking into the Top 20 for the year, right behind The Thomas Crown Affair.

Flash forward to 1979, when Thorp published a sequel entitled Nothing Lasts Forever. Set a couple decades after the first novel, it features a much older Joe Leland. Having never fully recovered from the trauma of the first novel, he's grown into a broken old man -- a problem that's been exacerbated by the death of his wife. Now on the verge of retirement and with nothing to hold him in New York, he wants to move out to LA where his daughter lives her own children. To that end, he decides to fly out to Los Angeles at Christmastime for a trial run.

When he gets there, he takes a cab to her office where she's in the middle of a Christmas party, and I think you can guess what happens next.

Because of The Detective, Fox had first dibs on the sequel, and they took it without hesitation. They hoped Sinatra would come back as Leland, but by this point he had largely retired from acting. His last major role had been the disastrous Western Dirty Dingus Magee in 1970, which is exactly as dire as the title suggests. He did make a brief return to the screen in 1980 with the self-produced First Deadly Sin, but when Fox came calling with Nothing Lasts Forever, he had no interest. The story went into Development Hell for the next half decade. (Ironically The First Deadly Sin was both Frank Sinatra's last big screen appearance, and Bruce Willis' first.)

As Nothing Lasts Forever percolated through the development  process, the first thing to change was, unsurprisingly, Leland's age. Without Sinatra for the lead, what was the point of making the hero a sexagenarian? This was the '80s. Americans wanted young, tough-talking heroes. So Leland became a grizzled 30-something cop still in his prime. And without any continuity with The Detective, there was no point in keeping the name "Leland," so Joe became John McClain. Other names changed as well, sometimes for no apparent reason (Anton Gruber became Hans), and others to keep the story up to date (in the book the company was Klaxon Oil, but by the time movie was made, Japanese mega-corps were the big thing, so it became Nakatomi).

Surprisingly little else changed about the story, though. The plot of the finished film follows the book beat for beat, with one major exception that we'll get to in a bit. This is good, because the book is actually a bit tedious in its action sequences. There's lots of, "Leland ran up to the thirtieth floor and killed a bad guy, then he ran down to the twenty-fifth, and climbed out on a ledge to the twenty-fourth, then he hid on top of an elevator going to the twentieth, where he escaped into a heating duct and ..." If you haven't seen the movie recently, the logistics of where Leland is and where the bad guys are gets confusing after a while.

But the big things are all there -- the hero getting his feet torn up by broken glass, bungee jumping with a fire-hose, and all the makeshift methods used to kill baddies. If it seems hard to imagine this in a Frank Sinatra movie, it's best to remember that film making styles changed significantly between 1979, when the book came out, and 1988 when the film hit theaters. If it had been made with Sinatra around 1980/81, it would've been closer in tone to Dirty Harry and The Towering Inferno -- still violent, but without the copious amounts of blood.

However, if it had been made before the Reagan Era, the producers likely would've retained the book's ending. This is the one significant change, other than the hero's age, between novel and film, and it speaks volumes about how American culture changed under Ronald Reagan. Skip out now if you have any interest in reading the book.


Still here?


So, one of the big conceits of Die Hard is that Hans Gruber and his goons aren't really terrorists. They may've been in the past, but by the time the movie takes place, they just want to cash out by robbing the Nakatomi Corporation's vaults of millions of dollars in bearer-bonds. Even terrorists were turning into yuppies, the movie said. In a way, this is an interesting twist, especially in light of the endless terrorist-villains who filled action movies from the late '80s on.

But that's not how it goes in the novel. The terrorists in the book have a genuine political motivation, and it's a doozy -- the company where Leland's daughter works has been illegally selling arms to and laundering money for a South American dictator who is strongly implied to be Augusto Pinochet. The attack on the company has two purposes: first to find proof of the company's complicity in Pinochet's crimes, and second to liberate millions of dollars in cash that the company has on hand for their next deal -- the terrorists want to send it to freedom fighters in Chile.

Worse still, Leland discovers his daughter is a major player in the company's dirty dealings. When the terrorists kill her near the end of the book, Leland is emotionally devastated, but he also recognizes that in her own way she was more evil than the terrorists. This leads to a scene where Leland gets a hold of the money from the vault and throws it out a window, causing cash to snow onto downtown LA on Christmas morning.

There's no way this ending would've swung it in the go-go Reagan '80s. With the US supporting military dictatorships and death-squads in Latin America, a major studio would  never have made a movie suggesting we were taking the wrong side. Likewise, the notion that American corporations were a cancer upon the world was a no-go in an era when people came away from Wall Street unironically quoting Gordon Gekko -- "Greed is good!" Audiences would've found McClain tossing money into the wind laughable.

And so the final film ends up being neutered, with the hero turned into a protector of corporate profits. You can understand why the movie had to be that way given the time it was made, and you can even acknowledge that it probably wouldn't've been a hit if McClain's wife had turned out to be a bad guy and there was no happy ending, but damn, the original ending would've been so much better.