Writing and Marketing

Month: July 2020

‘Quatermass and the Pit’ and ‘The Stone Tape’

I’ve alluded to my love of John Carpenter’s work, as well as the enjoyment I get peeling back the layers of inspiration behind books and film. I’ve also been getting more into exploring old British television serials, so this would be the most opportune moment to touch on the works of Nigel Kneale, one of the most famous British screenwriters of all time – and surely the most famous Manx screenwriter in history. All in all, it has been a highly enjoyable experience investigating his work. It’s a testament to his skill that I refer to it as “his” work, or at least a testament to the times. These days it seems that most screenwriters work via committee, and on the whole seem to be the most loathed members of the television profession, always the first to get the blame when a shows plot starts to go off the rails. I have to admit it does seem that writing is considered an “extra feature” in Hollywood currently, rather than the foundation of good television. And while I never condone bullying, I’d really rather see screenwriters held to account than watch poor actors who had little say in the matter bear the brunt of viewer ire. Needless to say, it was refreshing to watch television where you could see that even if the script had been worked on by more than one person, there was a clear, concise and clever idea making up a strong foundation.

Despite the association of their works, Carpenter and Kneale did not have the best of relationships it seems, with Kneale’s foray into Hollywood being short and disastrous. John Carpenter was a fan of Kneale’s Quatermass series and so recommended him as a scriptwriter for Halloween 3, which Carpenter was producing. As the story goes, Kneale wrote a very ‘psychological’ script, with all the careful restraint found in his serials. Producer, Dino De Laurentiis, always a fan of excess and spectacle, immediately demanded more visible horror and gore, having director Tommy Lee Wallace rework the entire screenplay. In response, Kneale requested his name be removed from the film. In the end Halloween 3 may have been doomed regardless of script. Carpenter envisioned the film series to be a horror anthology, but fans demanded more of the iconic slasher villain Michael Myers from the first two films. (Myers was therefore condemned to return again and again, before finally being beaten into unconsciousness by Paul Rudd. Then the series was rebooted and Myers was finally defeated – again – by Busta Rhymes. He was then reimagined by Rob Zombie, before being rebooted yet again into an ongoing trilogy. You need a diagram to understand Halloween continuity, but for the purpose of this writing all you need to know is that Halloween 3 was a standalone film.)

This interaction would seem to have coloured Kneale’s opinions on Carpenter from then on. When told that there were similarities between his The Stone Tape and Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, Kneale responded in writing:

“For the record I have had nothing to do with the film and I have not seen it. It sounds pretty bad. With an homage like this, one might say, who needs insults? I can only imagine that it is a whimsical riposte for my having my name removed from [Halloween 3]”

I must object! Prince of Darkness is admittedly flawed but underrated! I’ll have to touch on Prince of Darkness at some point in the future, and I’ll return to this comparison in a bit. In any case, we’ve seen how Quatermass and The Stone Tape relate to Carpenter – but how are they as works on their own?

There was an original trio of Quatermass serials, the crown jewel of which is most certainly Quatermass and the Pit. I’ve had experience with serials of that era often having issues with pacing, an understandable concern when faced with a limited budget and schedule. While this is not necessarily a deal breaker, it still is striking how tight the writing and pacing are with The Pit compared to other serials of its era. The premise is that a London construction crew uncovers ancient hominid remains and the titular Pit becomes an archaeological site. There are more eerie discoveries to be made besides just mysterious bones, however. The serial plays out like the archaeological dig itself – layers of the mystery are peeled back, steadily and in detail. The escalation is done superbly, as theories of science and the supernatural slowly intertwine as the danger increases.

The serial also does restraint very well – there are some ant-like aliens, but it only ever shows them as desiccated corpses, or as brief nightmarish glimpses in dreamlike telepathic recordings. Someone with less moderation might have had them jerkily walking around, or worn as suits, but relegating the aliens mostly to the mists of darker human history, and our repressed racial memory, makes them much more unsettling. The restraint also carries into the script itself. Kneale claimed to not be a fan of “science fiction”, but he is careful to frame everything within the script in the realm of plausibility. Indeed, as he would do again with the Stone Tape, in The Pit plausibility is used to make the events more unnerving, as human superstitions are given a tangible, albeit alien, explanation.

If the Pit used realism well, then The Stone Tape flat out weaponized its plausibility. In this television movie, researchers and engineers based out of an old property discover that one of the rooms, an ancient stone tower, appears to be haunted. Instead of simply taking the haunting at face value as a ghost, or as a fabrication, they instead start to study and analyze it, picking apart the haunting from a purely rational standpoint. There is very little of the regular sort of hysteria and purposeful ignorance one finds in such a horror movie set up. Indeed, most of the excitement occours when the group deduces that the “haunting” is simply an imprint upon the very walls of the tower – and promptly start to find a way to replicate the process for commercialization. We are lulled into a false sense of security with the idea that the haunting is “solved”, which makes the grim ending all the more disturbing. Just because we understand something scientifically does not mean we understand the full scope, or the ramifications of what we have uncovered.

The theme of mankind’s inability to maintain our ethics in the face of rapidly advancing scientific and industrial progress is apparent in both of these works. In The Pit, protagonist Quatermass is introduced trying to prevent his peaceful rocketry program from being taken over by the military, who seek to put a missile stockpile on the moon. Throughout the serial he has to fight as much against a stubborn military presence as against alien influence. Inspired by race riots ongoing in England at that time, the serial ends with mass madness and violence dubbed a “Wild Hunt”, man’s pointlessly tribal nature on full display. In The Stone Tape, the British engineers overwork themselves and blunder into supernatural dangers to try and keep up with the unstoppable juggernaut (at the time) of the Japanese electronics industry. In both, human failings are just as danger, if not more so, than the strange and supernatural.

Needless to say, I’d highly recommend both works if you’re into more old-school horror. Lastly, before I forget  –  what’s the verdict on Prince of Darkness as a Stone Tape rip-off? Was it theft? A homage? A parody? I’ll admit that Prince of Darkness does seem to hold some similarities to Kneale’s style, most obviously the fact that something that would normally be handled in a supernatural manner is approached more scientifically by the experts. However, Prince of Darkness, while it has its problems, does have Carpenter’s signature directing flair and is closer in line to his own canon of films. Indeed, I’ve often joked that Prince of Darkness is like The Thing without a budget. Beyond having scientist type characters in an old building, there really is little difference to The Stone Tape, which is overall something of a cozier experience, with the thrills slowly building until the horror at the climax. Prince of Darkness is much more about survival, both for the researchers, and the fate of the human race, and there are plenty of solid horror moments scattered throughout. Both works end up being very different experiences, and I feel they can’t properly be compared.

All in all, I highly enjoyed dipping into British television history. They move with a different pace and style than we may be used to now, but if you want tight and engaging scripts, I do recommend checking out both works, or anything else that Kneale worked on. I think that in this day and age, a little bit more appreciation for the toil of the screenwriter could go a long way.

Book Review – The Night Land

I’d like to have more content on this site that’s not related directly to marketing and copywriting, and give a bit of a better view of myself and my interests. I think I’d like to start putting down some book reviews here to collect my thoughts. Review actually sounds like too formal a word – I’m not interested in slapping scores or ranks on material, simply giving my thoughts and possible recommendations. I am, in particular, a big fan of what is colloquially known as “genre fiction” – science fiction, horror and especially fantasy. It will also become fairly apparently that my tastes are, to put it kindly, antiquated. I’m not exactly sure how I managed to be turned into a grumpy old man of fantasy in my 20s, but I think I partially have to blame the practice of turning people’s names into adjectives. When I was younger and started to be interested in science fiction and fantasy I kept hearing the term “Lovecraftian” tossed about. When I was in school, since I was no good at athletics, and admittedly not quite social, it was decided that I would be a “smart” child. I wasn’t actually able to live up to the standard of being “smart”, but attempts to do so left me with a deep and terrible fear that I’ve internalized and hold to this day – a fear of not knowing something. So when I heard the term “Lovecraftian” I determined that I needed to get to the bottom of this mystery. What I found there intruiged and delighted me. Jumping back to the pulp era wasn’t as difficult as it might have been. My father has always had a love of pulp as well (I ruined a copy of Princess of Mars he gave me),  and I’d always had a fascination with history as well. Rather than finding older materials dated, it seemed to me more like a wonderful window into another time – not just into the facts of that time, but into the thoughts and imagination of the people who lived them.

This petty curiosity also caused me to become a serial backtracker. Whenever I read or watched anything I liked, the first thing I wanted to know is where it came from – what was its genealogy?  This gave me a broad scope of the history of genre fiction, and a particular love for works that often feel sadly forgotten. I did find that this exploration had some limits, however. While the 19th Century has some excellent gems for genre fiction, it is clear why Lovecraft is considered such a benchmark. You can see all the future history of horror laid out in his work, as well as many concepts for science fiction and fantasy. Indeed, that is one of my favourite parts of reading pre-Tolkein work. Not everything had been put into neat little boxes of “Sci-fi”, “fantasy” and “horror” and the three often were blended together into a wonderfully delicious mixture simply labled “weird”.

Needless to say, this all meant that I was fascinated while recently reading the works of William Hope Hodgson, an author who wrote before, and influenced, Lovecraft. Hodgson had an unfortunately short, if interesting career. Bullied as a cabin boy after taking to the sea at a young age, he decided to, in the best tradition of Charles Atlas, bulk himself up and become a body builder and personal trainer, only to find little money in this. Inspired by Poe, Wells and Verne, he would take to writing instead, starting to publish his short stories and other works in 1904 – he would die in 1918 at the age of 40, having signed up for WWI despite his age.

While somewhat known for his sea-themed horror short stories, and his tales of the “occult detective” Carnacki, he is best known for his two novels, The Night Land and The House on the Borderland. The Night Land in particular stands out as a story shockingly ahead of its time, despite its attempts to be a story before its time. The idea behind the story is that a 17th century gentlemen, distraught over the loss of his love, starts to project his consciousness forward in time, pining after her, eventually imagining himself in a time when their souls are reunited. (The simple projection of one’s self to another time reminded me of A Princess of Mars – no need for fancy spaceships). However, the time where he and his lover both exist is in fact, far in the future, when the sun has gone out and all is cloaked in darkness. This setting is clearly inspired somewhat by the brief section in Wells’ The Time Machine wherein the narrator escapes the Morlocks by travelling millions of years into a dismal, dying future.

The Night Land, however, takes that concept and introduces a heavy dose of pure “weird fiction” horror, as well as truly imaginative science fiction, to a wonderful result. In the future the narrator finds himself in, humanity still exists, but inside a giant pyramidal megastructure, the Last Redoubt, each “floor” of which contains a city’s worth of people, a concept that feels positively cyberpunk. The sun isn’t just dying, but dead, and eternal night stretches in all directions outside the glow of the Last Redoubt. One of the best parts of the book is simply the second chapter where the Narrator stands at the top of the Redoubt with observational tools, and relates the things he sees in all directions – giant watching monsters, places of ominous fires where dark things scuttle and structures whose terrifying purpose can only be imagined. Long before the post-apocalypse genre took off, Hodgson presents a world that absolutely wants every last human dead, and humanity as a whole only survives through science and tenacity. Other science fiction concepts include the psionic ability of the main character, and the weapon he uses – essentially a staff topped by a shining buzzsaw, something that would seem more in place in modern takes on science fiction.

The work easily incorporates its fantasy and horror aspects as well, with the terrifying forces arrayed against humanity ranging from hideous monsters to forces that seem more supernatural and unknowable in nature. For a story mostly about a hopeless protagonist doing his best to simply survive the world he traverses in search of his lost love, there are also some very evocative bits of action. The work does have its weaknesses, however. The choice to use a narrator with a very archaic voice can lead the prose to plod at times. The second half also is slowed by constant romantic interludes between the main character and his love interest – though it was somewhat fascinating to see a female character get so much proverbial “screen time” in a book from this time period – its interesting to consider the work was released the same year that A Princess of Mars started to be serialized. Overall, it was clear why Lovecraft gave the book such glowing reviews, and it truly is astonishing in its imaginative trailblazing. While the 17th Century narration does cause certain parts to slow, they also give a severe majesty to the most dramatic sections. If you’re a big fan of Lovecraft and want to investigate his own inspirations, and don’t mind the angle of the narrator, its definitely worth a look.

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