Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Ghosts of October (1): The Green Man

Albert Finney, Sarah Berger and Linda Marlowe in the BBC's The Green Man (1990).


Each week this month, leading up to Halloween, Devin McKinney will highlight one of his favorite ghost stories, in fiction or film.

Even those of us who seek to avoid the intentional fallacy may be susceptible to the true (or “true”) stories that surround cherished works. The best of them add a dash of predestination, and suggest creativity mystically mingling with other invisible elements of our world. Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man (1969), one of my favorite novels of the supernatural, engendered one of the best such true-slash-“true” stories I know of. Trailing the novel are one short memoir, two television adaptations, and at least enough frisson to warm a pot of tea – making the novel not merely a discrete artwork, but also the main hall in an eccentric house of adaptation and spinoff. (As it happens, the novel is named for a house – the country inn, tended by a sex-obsessed alcoholic and haunted by a centuries-old curse, which is its main setting.)
 
For fun, let us get to the main hall indirectly – not through the well-lit front entrance, but through a dark, forgotten back door. That would be a short piece written by Amis three years after the novel’s publication, titled “Who or What Was It?” The central characters are the author himself and his wife, Jane (the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, second of Amis’s three wives). Facing a long drive from the suburbs back to London, the couple stop at a country inn for dinner. The place reminds Amis, in a general way, of his novel’s fictional setting, and he soon discovers, in what he considers “a thumping great coincidence,” no less than three men on the premises with the same first or last names as their counterpart figures in his novel. (What straightens your neck hair is that they are not exact matches: that would be tedious and silly.) One or two other uncanny similarities also appear. Before long, Amis is theorizing “some kind of parallel world that slightly resembles the world I had made up,” and positing the existence in the present inn of a curse similar to the one overhanging his invented one. The Owens decide to stay the night, Jane suggesting that her husband has been drawn here, by some force, to confront and conquer the curse. At midnight, as Amis forces a diabolical showdown quite similar to the climax of the novel, Jane watches from the window of their room – and has an unearthly encounter of her own which throws the whole episode into a new light, or a new darkness.

Did any of it happen? That the tale is not exactly documentary is suggested by the ironic “quasi-memoir” tag accompanying its initial publication, in the December 1972 issue of Playboy. There’s an additional clue that something as much playful as dreadful is afoot. In The Green Man, the innkeeper hero – who in some ways “slightly resembles” his creator – reads a Victorian scholar’s report on the inn’s long-dead previous owner, apparent progenitor of the lingering curse; personal journals were left by the deceased, but they’re of so scandalous and perverted a nature that the scholar earnestly entreats others not to go looking for them. In his quasi-memoir, Amis, despite using the factual names of himself, his wife, and his novel, declines to identify the inn, for fear of the over-curious seeking it out. “Please don’t go looking for it,” he asks. “I’d advise you not to.” Who or what was it? Kingsley Amis pulling your leg?

The story was found weird enough on its merits to inspire a one-hour TV version two years later. Directed by John Irvin, The Ferryman was screened in the UK on December 23, 1974, as part of the Granada anthology series Haunted. Jeremy Brett, years away from his fame as Granada’s Sherlock Holmes, stars as the writer, here called Sheridan Owen, with Natasha Parry as his wife. Julian Bond’s teleplay takes the Amis story (really, it was little more than an anecdote) and stretches it out, like taffy, at the right points. Owen is a critically respected but commercially underperforming novelist who has finally got a hit with The Ferryman, a novel close in description to The Green Man; the certainty of his readers is that, having written about the otherworldly, he must surely believe in it – an assumption he harshly rebukes. Driven off the road by a rainstorm, the Owens take refuge at The Ferryman’s Rest, a wayside inn previously unknown to them. The ensuing events play out more or less as they do in Amis’s original, except that Bond invents still further overlaps of fiction and life, with Owen forced to alter the ominous course of events (behaving ever more creepily in the process). Bond also leaves the story’s final question unanswered, as Amis does not. Amis-Owen thus becomes that classic object of supernatural fiction, the smug rationalist who must be shown, by way of some traumatic test, that spirits exist, and that they sometimes mean us no good.

The Ferryman is creepy fun (and Brett is quite fine, his priggish sneer giving way to a nervous, glowering realization of things beyond his ken). The three-part BBC adaptation of The Green Man – which debuted a few nights before Halloween, 1990 – is fun too, but it feels far more limited by small screens and small imaginations. In its favor is a good teleplay, by the critic and novelist Malcolm Bradbury; an array of skillful secondary players; and a star, Albert Finney, who brings great charm and élan to the role of the hero, Maurice Allington. Maurice is a boozer and hedonist who mostly either uses or tolerates his second wife, his teenage daughter, his elderly father, his friends, and his mistress, and who is so spiritually desiccated as to expect little more than tolerance in return. Yet he has, like Amis’s prose creation, a saving self-awareness and acid humor (while being far less curmudgeonly than the Maurice of the book). Our sympathy for him is also heightened by his sufferings from hot sweats, hallucinations, nightmares, and violent spasms – all brought on, we surmise, by some combination of managerial stress, delirium tremens, and the onset of the diabolical curse which throughout the story induces him to dismantle his life.

The Green Man miniseries is directed (by Elijah Moshinsky) in a superficially stylish way, with alluring pockets of shadow in the inn, and verdant greenery in the nearby forest that is the story’s other locus of paranormal activity. But the occasional special effects are weak; some of the music is blaringly bad (evil spirits of eighties synth-pop and light jazz to make you scream); and the editing, no doubt keyed to network constraints (the BBC doesn’t have commercials, but it does have a schedule), is choppy, with many scenes that could stand to linger for two or three seconds more. The weird atmosphere is never effectively established, and the ghostly appearances are only adequately spooky: the shade of the dead innkeeper has the same chalky makeup, dour stare, and immobile body as every television ghost from Unsolved Mysteries to the current long-runner A Haunting. When Maurice engineers a ménage à trois with his wife and mistress – his main hedonistic project throughout the story – the tender, pastoral flute-guitar duet that plays over the scene completely misses the (abundantly comic) point. And Maurice’s conversation with a dapper young man who is understood to be a corporeal manifestation of the Almighty Himself is something of a letdown.

Jeremy Brett as Sheridan Owen in The Ferryman (1974).

Maybe it couldn't be anything but that. This is a director unable to transcend his own or his medium’s limits, yet trying to match techniques with a master comic novelist – a novelist with innate respect for genre conventions, which he will tease and twist, yet still invest with full entertainment value. The master’s magic is beyond the reach of this director, or the range of his camera. In the talking-with-God scene, for instance, Amis provokes in his reader an initial disbelief, followed by an amused credulity, and finally a fascinated involvement. Maybe that process couldn't be replicated visually, at least not by someone without the cinematic equivalent of Amis’s skill; and there are many, too many, scenes to make a reader of the novel wonder the same thing.

Yet the middling miniseries, like the fine Ferryman, is another room in the house of The Green Man, an annex on the foundational space that is the novel. Few would call The Green Man Amis’s best book, but it deserves elevation in its genre for being one of the rare supernatural novels (can you name another?) that manages to be scary, funny, and sexy at the same time. Most ghost stories struggle to be merely the first of that trio; they’re often written by people too cowed by the genre, too inhibited and nervous of “breaking the spell,” to risk making a joke; and sex, when it’s handled, is usually handled badly, with oppressive shades of soft-core porn when characters are happy, or sub-Cassavetes drudgery when they aren’t. (See early Stephen King for exemplary instances of both.) Like John le Carré, Amis has an encompassing novelistic prowess which, applied to genre tropes, can infuse them with real tension, a suspense cognitive as well as dramatic, in that it mixes up sensations (in this case humor, sex, and terror) which most novels, “serious” and genre alike, accustom us to experiencing one or perhaps two at a time.

That mix means you get the pleasurable creeps of an in some ways quite traditional English ghost story, but also the witty eyes of a writer describing a house as “a genuine-looking stone structure that might have been a converted dames’ school or primitive pickle factory.” You get the moral-ethical challenge of a protagonist in whom helpless lust and compulsive piggery are conjoined, who is sexually voracious while basically disliking women (especially the “modern” ones who think they know everything). You get the delightful Britishism that inserts “sort of” into speech willy-nilly, as when someone asks Maurice, “What makes you so incredibly sort of changeable?” You get a striking simplicity of description, a cutting economy, as when Maurice and his son say goodnight: “We kissed and he went.” You get Maurice stubbornly taking the mickey out of just the thing that has him scared, as when the cemetery of the dead innkeeper is shown to be “solidly un-eerie . . . littered with more ice-cream wrappers and beer-tins than fragments of headstone.” And you get, here and there, the gentle brush of the ineffable, the supernatural of the everyday, as when Maurice muses on “times when something beautiful shows itself clearly, in a small flare of soft yellow light, before fading into nothing, into the state of a vanished fiction.”

So: “Who or What Was It?” leads to The Ferryman which leads to the Green Man miniseries which leads to The Green Man. Or any of them can lead to any of the others. But Amis’s novel – compact, robust, and still, in my wanderings in supernatural fiction, unique – leads forward to all of them, and together they are the “house” of adaptation and spin-off, of fabulation and fact, that I’ve been laboring to build into a metaphor. Or maybe it’s not a house at all: maybe it’s only – as we say today, aping the millennials – “a thing.” But What sort of thing?, as Maurice asks at one point, on another topic. His answer: “Something . . . unusual, something not only interesting in itself, but opening further possibilities.”

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics At Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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