I’m pretty sure most readers today have never heard of Lucky Jim, that crazed, lunatic’s cry of literary rage against the sheer boredom of academic life in the early 1950s. I read the novel decades ago and recently picked it up again, having decided to take a break from nail-biting stories of horror and suspense. And I must say, Kingsley Amis’s excoriating masterpiece is just as hilarious the second time around.
When you first meet Jim Dixon, what strikes you is not only his penchant for mockery but his incredible ability to pull the most inventive faces. In fact, I counted no less than ten throughout the book, my favorite being his shot-in-the-back face. Those coupled with his irritatable mumblings, drunken ramblings, and blatant ignorance about women make for an antihero par excellence. And the highlight of these antics? A leaden, uninspired speech he must deliver to hundreds of students and faculty entitled “Merrie England,” whatever that means.
If you love scathing, satirical stories featuring romance, give Lucky Jim a try. And don’t worry that the book was published more than sixty years ago. Its razorlike humor is as fresh as ever. Try to decide which is your favorite Jim Dixon face. And imagine you had to deliver that ill-fated “Merrie England” speech. Hint: a few pulls of good Scottish whiskey and you will indeed be merry. Good luck.
Regarded by many as the finest, and funniest, comic novel of the twentieth century, Lucky Jim remains as trenchant, withering, and eloquently misanthropic as when it first scandalized readers in 1954. This is the story of Jim Dixon, a hapless lecturer in medieval history at a provincial university who knows better than most that “there was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones.” Amis’s scabrous debut leads the reader through a gallery of emphatically English bores, cranks, frauds, and neurotics, with each of whom Dixon must contend in one way or another in order to hold on to his cushy academic perch and win the girl of his fancy.
More than just a merciless satire of cloistered college life and stuffy post-war manners, Lucky Jim is an attack on the forces of boredom, whatever form they may take, and a work of art that at once distills and extends an entire tradition of English comic writing, from Fielding and Dickens through Wodehouse and Waugh. As Christopher Hitchens has written, “if you can picture Bertie or Jeeves being capable of actual malice, and simultaneously imagine Evelyn Waugh forgetting about original sin, you have the combination of innocence and experience that makes this short romp so imperishable.”
It’s not often I say this, but Little White Lies by Elizabeth McGregor blew me away. What starts out as a sad, curious mystery festers like sepsis, driving you to high fever and delirium until what you are left with is shock and a sickening truth that speaks to the worst human frailties. All through the book, the author is both careful and relentless. Her writing is unfailingly English, and she doesn’t brook impatience. You must wait for the revelation. And, dear Lord, when it comes you almost wish it hadn’t.
By nature, I am an impatient person. And, for better or worse, my writing reflects that. But in this brilliant novel, McGregor has taught me that sometimes it’s better to breathe and let the pain wash over you like a rinsing agent mixed with blood. Beth March never had a clue that a dead bird would lead to such misery—not just hers—and when she accepts the reality that has always surrounded her, it’s as if she is acknowledging not just one but many deaths.
Don’t go looking for heroes in Little White Lies—they don’t exist. Some, however, do act heroically at times, including Beth. There is no doubt I will read this book again. But I’ll have to wait until the fever subsides. In the meantime, I’m going in search of the 1998 TV movie version, which was produced by the BBC and co-written by the novel’s author.
Any other year, summer arrived with the swallows. But this year, the broken body of a bird, left on the porch, serves as an omen of deception, a shadow cast over the days to come…
Beth March’s life seems unexceptional: she and her husband, David, have a conventional, quiet marriage.
The opening morning of the nightmare seems like just another day, aside from the unexpected body of the bird…but while Beth showers and prepares for the day, David drives his car at full speed into the path of a lorry. He is killed instantly.
From the moment that Beth learns of his fate, her world begins to shatter around her. Nothing in her life can ever be the same again.
No one can be trusted. No one is telling her the truth.
Was David having an affair?
Why did he go behind her back to sell his shares and take out another mortgage — and where is that money now?
What dark secrets lie beneath the picture-perfect image of the family down the lane?
As she unravels the chain of tragic events that preceded her husband’s death, Beth finds herself tossed from side to side on a sea of continually shifting information, never sure what is true and what is not.
What seem like little white lies gradually begin to build and build until Beth truly begins to realise the horror of devastating betrayal experienced by everyone involved…
Little White Liesis an intriguing tale of suspicion, deceit and the quest for the truth.
‘The Conjuring 2’ (2016) Directed by James Wan
Screenplay by Cary Hayes, Chad Hayes, James Wan, David Johnson
Stars Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Wolfe
Log Line: Lorraine and Ed Warren travel to north London to help a single mother raising four children alone in a house plagued by malicious spirits.
For years, I’ve been telling people that the scariest horror movie I’ve ever seen is ‘The Exorcist.’ Well, all that changed after watching ‘The Conjuring 2.’ All I can say is, Wow! James Wan, who I’ve been following since his 2004 feature ‘Saw,’ has shown amazing growth as a purveyor of the demonic. And his understanding of the intrinsic nature of evil from a Catholic perspective rivals that of William Peter Blatty, who I have greatly admired since reading his novel The Exorcist, upon which the movie was based.
Demons Are Real Now, I enjoyed ‘The Conjuring’ which, like the sequel, is based on a paranormal case by real-life investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. After seeing that movie, I began researching the Warrens and learned about the case in England, where the story of ‘The Conjuring 2’ takes place. The fact that these are actual cases and involve demonic possession both intrigues and horrifies me. As a Catholic, I believe in Hell. And I believe that demons like the one featured in ‘The Conjuring 2’ have walked the earth long before man. Perhaps this is why, for me, the film is so frightening.
Flipping around the dial the other day, I happened across the ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ reboot from 2010. Though well made, it wasn’t scary. I know Freddie Kreuger is a fantasy character and, despite the sharpness of his homemade claws, he’s just another homicidal killer. And I feel that way about most horror movies involving monsters. ‘The Babadook’ is a great example. Yes, he’s paper-thin and creepy. But that’s about it. I was more moved by the exasperated, sleep-deprived Amelia and her lonely, desperate attempts at creating a normal life for her troubled son, Samuel. Conversely, when the demon in ‘The Conjuring 2’ takes on the form of The Crooked Man, I ended up halfway out of my seat—which is a tribute to the genius of James Wan.
Becoming a Believer Like most folks, I believe horror movies do well because people like to be scared. It’s a rush similar to riding a roller coaster. And when it’s over, you’re relieved. But every once in a while a film comes along that disturbs the viewer to the core, its aftereffect lingering for days. ‘The Conjuring 2’ is just such a movie. And an estimated $40M in box office receipts at the time of this writing—this kind of story sells.
Now, I’m not saying that a film like this will turn an atheist into a believer. But it might make those who are on the fence about God, angels and demons think twice before picking up the planchette from that Ouija board collecting dust in the corner with those other games. My advice—just say no.
‘Crimson Peak’ (2015)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Drama | Fantasy | Horror | Mystery | Romance | Thriller
Stars Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston
Log Line: In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds—and remembers.
Don’t get me wrong—I liked this movie from the great Guillermo del Toro, a filmmaker I have admired since his amazing ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.’ And similar to that film, ‘Crimson Peak’ is beautifully crafted, like the china teacup Lucille uses to serve Edith her questionable tea. Unlike del Toro’s earlier effort, though, this movie felt distant and terribly formal to me—the Noble Style vs. a rollicking square dance. And, speaking of dances, there was no better scene to illustrate this aloofness than the one in which Thomas waltzes with Edith in front of her father.
There’s Horror and There’s HORROR
To me, the best horror is visceral, not mannered. Referring back to the Hollywood classics of the 1930s, ‘Crimson Peak’ felt closer to ‘Wuthering Heights’ than ‘Frankenstein.’ Sure, we get to see abominable CG apparitions, but even they are distant. They never really engage with Edith in a way that would induce sheer terror in a cultured young woman. Of course, I realize they are there to warn her, rather than scare her. But still … By now, movie audiences have been exposed to such fare as ‘Saw,’ ‘The Human Centipede’ and ‘House of 1000 Corpses.’ Pretty hardcore stuff, don’t you think? To my way of thinking, resurrecting gothic horror was a bit of a risk for everyone involved. Why did they do it?
That Damned Red Clay
I’ve seen a lot of horror movie devices over the years, but never clay. Usually, desolate places like Cumberland are filled with moors floating in a dense white mist. But clay? This didn’t really work for me. Sure, it was red and resembled blood, but …. They never really did anything with it—even when they had their chance in the cellar, which held huge wooden vats of the stuff. Maybe those scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. And as long as we’re talking about missed opportunities, what about Edith’s so-called writing? She managed to bang out one story and never really writes another word during the rest of the film. Okay, the movie is not about her writing, but the story would have worked just as well without it.
The Audience Has Spoken
‘Crimson Peak’ did not do well at the box office. As of this writing, it has earned $75M worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo, with a production budget of $55M. Compare that to Warner Bros.’ 2013 hit ‘The Conjuring,’ which to date has grossed $318M worldwide, with a production budget of $20M. To me, ‘Crimson Peak’ was a movie for another audience in another time.
In the trailer, the quote “Gorgeous and terrifying—it electrified me” is attributed to Stephen King. Terrifying? Really? Come on, Steve. I can’t imagine that anything short of an alligator chewing your fingers off one at a time would be terrifying to you. And certainly not this movie. Disturbing, yes—especially concerning the twisted relationship between Thomas and Lucille. Henry James would be proud. As I said, I liked ‘Crimson Peak’ but, sadly, I went into the thing wanting to love it.
I was incarcerated in a dozen very different schools as a child, and one of them was run by hippies. We attended the classes we felt like attending, generally did whatever we pleased and were encouraged to loosen our orange and purple Paisley pattern bandanas and expand our own minds. Ye gods, it was awful. Forget spelling they said, forget grammar and punctuation, just get those precious ideas and stories down in green crayon on recycled hand-laid ninety-percent hemp paper.
It didn’t seem to matter that thereafter no-one could decipher a word of it. I once dipped the school Tarantula into an inkwell and then set him free in the stationery cupboard. By the time the caretaker had recaptured him Mr. Creepy-Crawley had garnered two gold merit stars and a favourable mention in the school’s creative-writing hall of fame.
Language is a code and codes, like recipes for soufflé, have structure and format for a reason. The reason that they have structure and format is so that someone who has never met you or been in the same elementary spliff-rolling class on the rubber mats in the library building can understand what it is that you were trying to say.
The word “bring” is not the same as the word “take,” “couple” is not a rational number and quite frankly, without a properly formed phrase or adverb you might as well just Eat Fresh from a tin or Drive Safe in Ralph Nader’s Chevrolet Corvair.
It pains me to say it, and I do love my sitar and my quilted evening “smoking” kaftan, but the hippies were entirely wrong in these matters.
A commercial editor recently told me that his first action on any manuscript is to remove any and all italics from the text. When I asked what he used instead to change the inflection of the little voice in the readers’ heads, his eyes remained lifeless and his lips remained silent. He simply didn’t understand the question.
Had I not remembered an urgent need to go home and shampoo my parakeet I might have pressed him on other items of apparently non-essential punctuation and grammar. Question marks perhaps. or capital letters indicating the beginning of a sentence. Perhaps this “professional” editor also held prejudices against full stops and commas and paragraphs in particular parakeets’ bottoms require careful use of a proprietary medicated conditioner so one should always wear rubber gloves to avoid undue avian familiarity.
Statistical analysis might indicate that the spaces used between words constitute a veryinefficientuseofpreciousasciicodeandinternetbandwith, but I’d rather we retained that luxury.
What, I hear you ask wearily, has prompted this tirade? Nothing in particular. I’ve always been a boring old stickler for correct as possible language, make it as can we. I border on the 0CD (ouch, did someone just substitute a zero for a letter “O” there cozzit duzzunt mattah?). As rants go it’s very probably linked to just how comfortable I feel in my current work-in-progress, an anthology by the name of The Cat Wore Electric Goggles.
See? Even we duddy-fuddies sometimes slavishly follow new-fangled modern trends by putting capital letters where they really shouldn’t be.
This anthology, due out in springtime 2014, is a collection of science-fiction stories with a dated, nineteen-fifties flavour to them. All references to “nuclear” become “atomic” and “space ships” become “rockets,” and the construction itself includes sentences much, much longer than a tweet. The paragraphs run to more than a couple of lines and the plots hail from an age predating Hollywooden’s unhealthy preoccupation with prepo$terou$ LPG-fuelled explo$ion$, a blazing gun in every hand and an unspecified terrorist threat to the unquestioned establishment status quo around every box office corner. The individual titles in the anthology range from “The Maharaja of Mars” to “The Curse of The Mandarin,” and that should give you some inkling as to the contents. My goodness me, do I ever feel at home in this anthology, and I wasn’t even a twinkle in my Father’s Far-Eastern Cold-War diary during the first nine years of the nineteen-fifties, let alone born. Incidentally, it was a difficult birth because I refused to leave my typewriter behind or go easy on the carriage-returns during labour.
Is there a point to this blathering, I hear you cry as you reach for your computing mouse. Well the first point is to ask you to insert your own question mark into the previous sentence, should you think it needs one. There are plenty of spare question marks lying around, some folk sprinkle them everywhere? The main thrust, however, is as I said earlier—that the hippies were wrong. All of the characters in my anthology would have known so at a glance. The chaps and memsahibas adventuring within these stories may have possessed the imagination of a tapeworm, but they could tell you so on paper without forcing you into the clutches of Google Translate, Google Best Guess or Google Beats Me, and they had measurable attention spans.
Language isn’t the enemy and imagination is in no way constrained by it. There is, as yet, no charge for or tax upon the use of words or punctuation so why not go wild? Stroll around the museum of English (be that original English, US English or Global English), pick a few priceless words from the dusty displays and throw them into your work.
Be a rotter, be a bounder, be a cad. Be brave, be bold, be uggered.
Sharpen your chisels once in a while.
Be a writer, not a sound-biter.
Oh dear—those all read like sound-bites. What I mean to say is; you’re not in a maths class, you don’t always have to pare your language down to the lowest common denominator. Love the tools of your trade, relish diversity and carve the occasional Hollywooden script editor-annoying flourish. Language is a living, evolving beast—but there’s really no need to kill it stone dead and bury the remains before you move on to the next generational fad.
End of rant.
P.S. While I do the best that I can, I offer no guarantees or apologies in re my own grammar and punctuation and, accordingly, I hereby offer my throat to the wolves.
About the Author
Ian Hutson was born in England and has lived in peculiar places as diverse as Hong Kong and The Outer Hebrides in Scotland. He stands in awe of folk who write heavy, complicated plots since all of his writing is intended, mostly, for giggles. His favorite hats are the “smoking” cap, the tweed cap and the pith helmet, but he only wears one at a time.
Ian was thrown out of the British Civil Service, thrown out of several multinational corporations, and now works as an Edwardian photographer by day and a scribbler by night. His latest anthology, The Cat Wore Electric Goggles, is due to be published in the spring.