Monday, February 29, 2016

Uncharted Seas (1938)

Wheatley freely admitted that Uncharted Seas was a reprise of They Found Atlantis; he was even happy to pronounce the newer effort distinctly inferior.
It certainly is derivative, but I generally found it the better book (save in one respect that would scarcely have troubled Wheatley, and which I will get to shortly). The fantasy elements, when they come, are not quite so distractingly weird, and because it is almost entirely action it doesn't feel so much like a work of two (warring) halves. The book does not draw breath once until its final quarter, and then only very briefly.
Try this for size:

Another great wave hit the ship a resounding thud. She gave a sickening lurch, lifted with alarming rapidity, hovered a moment, shuddering through all her length as the screws raced wildly, and plunged again - down, down, down - so that the passengers scattered about her lounge felt once more the horrible sensation of dropping in a brakeless lift.

All good, suspenseful stuff, but the important point here is that this is the very first paragraph of the book. We are accustomed by now to Wheatley plunging us straight into the action, but never so literally as this! What these opening chapters reminded me of most was The Poseidon Adventure, but whereas that film (and most disaster movies like it) begin as soap opera, introducing us to the characters and their situations and then putting them in peril one third in, Wheatley starts with the disaster and lets us catch up on the protagonists, their pasts and their personalities in short gasps while the action is ongoing. As technique, it's both intelligent and effective.

So who do we have on this lurching Swedish cargo vessel? Well, firstly we have the expected selection of intriguing character names, including a heroine called Unity Carden and another called Synolda Ortello ("vaguely reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich, but Marlene in a part where she was a bit shop-soiled and prematurely old"), with Yonita Van der Veldt showing up at half time.
Keeping them company are the typical Wheatley's winter assortment of disparate males. There's Juhani Luvia, a plucky Finnish ship's engineer, resourceful from first to last, save for a brief interlude when he gets drunk out of his nut in a jealous rage for the love of Synolda, and accidentally gets one of his own crew shot. ("How could you, honey - a sweet thing like you - interested in that greasy wop, and - snakes alive - he's old enough to be your grandad!")
Jean De Brissac is a French army captain with the inevitable D'Artagnan moustache, and a good sort, if a touch accident prone and hot-headed. ("Queer people, the English," he reflects at one point, looking at Unity, "and particularly their colourless, flat-chested women".)
Basil Sutherland is an Englishman who starts off a wastrel and a drunkard, but abandons his reprobate ways and comes good when he falls for Unity and starts writing her soppy poems. (This is the least he can do, considering his attempt to steal brandy in a lifeboat precipitates a race war that leads to the death of her father; luckily she hated him and stops just short of thanking Basil for the service.)
And lastly, there's Vicente Vadras, an "amorous dago," and shifty to boot. He's basically a reincarnation of Atlantis's Nicholas Costello, and caddish enough to use his knowledge of Synolda's guilty secrets as a means of manipulating her into bed. Synolda is at first apprehensive ("he probably wore woollen combinations"), but ultimately philosophical: "Her husband Henriques Ortello had been a Venezuelan and she was well versed in their idiosyncrasies,"
For various reasons they're all travelling slightly below the radar, hence the non-top drawer transport. The storm turns deadly, and they abandon ship, with several crew members killed in the panic (along with three nuns - an ill-omen, that!) It's almost too much for Unity, who reflects that she'll "never live to ride another horse":

It's no good fooling myself any more. We'll be swamped inside ten minutes; the boat will sink and we'll all be struggling in the sea. God! how I wish I'd allowed George to make love to me when he wanted to so badly.

Cast adrift in an open boat, with the corned beef running precipitously low, a black stoker called Harlem Joe seizes the opportunity to stage a mutiny, which ultimately fails, but leads to much loss of blood and life. With order restored, but no hope of reaching land, all seems lost until a distantly sighted ship turns out to be the same one they had abandoned, still upright and now in calm waters. Back on board they repair the damage and head for the nearest land, but become stuck fast in a thick carpet of green weed. Attempts to hack a course through it are abandoned when it proves a hiding place for vicious giant octopussies. Once again they find themselves seemingly helpless, albeit somewhat better provisioned than previously:

Unity's first thought was the happy one that she would be able to get all the things she had been compelled to leave in her cabin when they abandoned ship; her own hair tonic, brushes, bath salts; sleep the clock round in her favourite nightdress, and revel in clean undies when she got up.

Then when all seems hopeless again, they glimpse what seems to be a strange animal with long legs and a huge head making its way towards them across the weed, which turns out to be a person on stilts with a huge balloon strapped to them. This is the fair Yonita ("little more than a child, although an exceptionally well-developed one"), part of a 250 year old colony of shipwrecked mariners inhabiting the nearby island. But hot in her pursuit are some of the inhabitants of the next island along: a tribe of "devilish negroes" who kill any white men who land on their shores, but stage periodic midnight raids on the neighbouring island, snatching away their women and confining them in their grimly euphemistic 'marriage house'.

From here, stopping briefly for a brush with some giant decapitating crabs, the book overtly reprises Atlantis, as they prepare to settle in this brave new world, and learn of the strange ways and customs of the people. But while the Atlantean civilisation was like some ghastly hippy commune, this lot live in something approximating the manner of an English country house party in the 1930s. It is, unsurprisingly, a Wheatley paradise: no organised religion, no sexual hang-ups, good food and drink and plenty of feudal deference.  They acknowledge the sovereignty of Christ but have outlawed Catholicism and Protestantism, and radical politics get the Dennis elbow too:

"One of the German sailors who reached us in 1904 had some books by a man named Marx. He would talk for hours, I'm told, about a thing called a 'Proletarian State', but nobody here comprehended very fully what he had in mind, although his description of the way in which the lower orders lived in European countries was curiously grim. His strange preoccupation with this subject became a harmless enough hobby, since, despite his attempts to upset everything here at first, he soon settled down like the rest of us to plough his few acres and drift quite happily from day to day. But I digress..."

As Juhani puts it: "No taxes, no wars, no crook politicians, or any other darned thing to worry about. It'll be grand - simply grand!"
This much is Wheatley at his most charming. But paradise is lost when the heathens next door snatch away Unity and Synolda, and the whites stage their rescue in a long (and literally cliff-hanging) race war finale, that plays as an elaboration on the Abyssinia scenes from The Secret War and, while unquestionably suspenseful, is also unrelentingly bleak

Reading the novel at the same time as the dialogue between myself and Wheatley's new, posthumous editor, Miranda Vaughan Jones (immediately below this posting), I'm wondering just how she possibly managed to balance the twin needs of retaining authenticity and removing the distastefully outdated in this case. As Phil Baker notes, the racial issues are not throwaway here but of the essence: "ethnic conflict on board the ship is followed by the discovery of a black island and a white island". 
In other words, the casual racial insensitivity we know to expect from Wheatley (and which I tend not to make too much of) is on this occasion elevated to the status of one of the novel's key thematic elements, suggesting a temporary preoccupation on the author's part (and going far beyond his habitual fixation upon his characters' origins, appearance and racial composition). 
As well as the expected fact that the black islanders are presented as utterly degenerate savages, and the casual, inevitable appearance of outdated terms and attitudes, there is a grimly pessimistic tinge to  the book's take on race relations generally. One might have hoped for the black island, for example, to have nurtured a rebellious younger generation intent on overthrowing their leaders and making peace with their neighbours... hokey, perhaps, but better than the hopelessness Wheatley opts for, and which is everywhere evidenced, throughout the novel. It would seem there is simply no chance, even in this literal utopia, of overcoming a fundamental incompatibility between members of different races. Wheatley underscores his point still further in a terse dialogue between Luvia and the mixed-race Gietto Nudäa, who exclaims: "May der ole white sot an' der coloured bitch what made me rot in hell!"

Luvia nodded slowly. Poor devil, he was thinking. Half-caste - outcast - no race, no nation, neither liked nor trusted by men of either colour.

Somewhat in keeping with this glum cynicism, the ending is a strange and unexpected one. As in They Found Atlantis, the travelers are resigned to never seeing their world again when a surprise twist enables them to regain it after all. But this time, some stay and some go; some find happiness and others only a stoic resignation. Not every love affair ends happily, and not every problem is neatly resolved.

The most fun element of the book is all the splendid stuff about the balloons and stilts, the means by which the colonists negotiate the treacherous, octopus-stocked weed. The idea did not sprout from Wheatley's wildest imaginings but was instead inspired by a novelty craze of the time: balloon jumping. By incorporating it within a fantasy narrative Wheatley again shows that alertness to the zeitgesist that makes his books such lively little time capsules. 

This, then, is Uncharted Seas: sometimes surprising, often naive, and from first to last the sheerest tosh - and all delivered with such perfected story-telling finesse that the pages practically turn themselves.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Reviving Dennis Wheatley: A Conversation with Miranda Vaughan Jones and Matthew Coniam

(This is an edited version of a talk given by Bloomsbury's Miranda Vaughan Jones and I at the Bristol Crimefest in 2014.)

Dennis Wheatley is a perfect illustration of my contention that, if you’re an author of mass-market popular fiction, there’s almost literally no level of success or popularity you can achieve in your lifetime that will guarantee you cultural longevity when you’re done. In fact, sometimes, it almost seems to work the other way; a new generation will come along and automatically say, ‘oh, that’s that author my dad used to read,’ or, ‘my granddad had all his books…’ so, unless you’re very lucky, there seems to be a strict three-generational lifespan that goes: 1) on every bookshelf; 2) in every charity shop and jumble sale; 3) oblivion.
 I was born in 1973, so in other words at the height of the ‘jumble sale years’, and I began collecting Wheatley novels because they were everywhere very cheaply (and had intriguing titles and garish covers). When I actually settled down to read them I was surprised, not only by how much I enjoyed them but by the fact that I enjoyed many of the things that were supposedly their biggest flaws: specifically that they have no eye on posterity at all and speak to Wheatley’s own generation and what he takes to be his peers, with the absolute confidence of being understood on all points. And it occurred to me that, if you are looking for a really vivid kind of social history, where the past actually comes to life before your eyes, you shouldn’t go to a work of non-fiction because that’s history in a glass case, and you shouldn’t go to an historical novel written now (however skilled, it will still have a kind of ‘retrospective focus’), nor to any of the great works of any particular era. What you want is a novel from the era in question, but crucially one written by an author who is not in any way trying to set down any kind of record of the times, but is merely speaking to the moment, without serious consideration.
So I liken the experience of reading a Wheatley novel to coming across an island somewhere that was colonised in the thirties, or the forties, and then sealed off from all outside influences, and just carried on as was… And this is what makes Wheatley’s novels so interesting to me; the way you can see the times in which he was writing not just being evoked but actually living and breathing. It’s a bit like a puppet theatre: in the foreground are the puppets, the thing we’re meant to be looking at, and that’s his characters and plots. But what’s even more interesting are the backgrounds, the scenery, slowly changing as the years go by. And Wheatley is an especially useful example of this process because he wrote so regularly, so prolifically and for such a long period of time: virtually a book a year every year, from the thirties to the seventies. So that’s a big chunk of the twentieth century passing by as you read.
 I started my website the Dennis Wheatley Project, therefore, in which I document my reading of every Wheatley book in the order he wrote them, partly for the fun of it but mainly so as to be taken on exactly this idiosyncratic tour of the century, with Wheatley as my guide. (And it struck me that, outside of Wheatley himself and his family, I might be one of the few people to have ever done such a thing. Even his exact contemporary and biggest fan probably didn’t read them all, in order. They might have started late, missed a couple, read some out of sequence. And even if they didn’t, they still weren’t seeing the times pass by as vividly as we do now, because they were their times to. And inevitably, as I was reading, I was wondering how they would play to a contemporary audience, never dreaming for a minute that such a thought experiment could ever actually be enacted in reality.
So imagine my surprise when I received an email from Miranda Vaughan Jones, to say that I was not the only person to be reading them all in order after all! That she was an editor at Bloomsbury and that she was overseeing, through the miracle of E-books, the re-issue of Wheatley’s entire back catalogue. Indeed that some, even, were going to be coming back as honest-to-God paperbacks. I’m going to hand over to Miranda now, who’s going to discuss some of the questions arising from the process of re-introducing Wheatley to the mass audience of today. Questions like: if we presume the right to edit the words of a deceased writer, is there a tendency to feel a greater right when it’s ‘only’ an author like Wheatley, rather than one with a higher reputation? How can we edit the books, and to what extent? Censorship is obviously a factor: everyone knows that his books contain various kinds of outdated attitudes and expressions; indeed he deliberately cultivated the image of crusty reactionary even at the time. Can we go further; can we edit for pace, for effect? One of the things he is most notorious for is including what one critic called ‘chunks of undigested research’, whereby he would choose his subject, then read ten relevant history books, and ten relevant geography books, and then just splurge what he’d read into his novels in big lumps, while the plot waits for him to finish.
Of course this is not mature, considered writing, and it impacts on the pace and effect, but if we remove it do we risk ‘unsealing the island’ I spoke of earlier; do we risk turning the books into something they are not? In short, I suppose what I’m asking can be put very simply indeed: What would Dennis say?

Generally, the idea of interfering with the classics is frowned upon, but there are many instances in which we read a body of text not in its original form. We have the option to read bridged or unabridged versions, and even when reading work in translation we are experiencing a ‘once-removed’ interpretation of an author’s work. It was the request of the Wheatley family that, on re-releasing Wheatley titles that span decades of the twentieth century, someone look at the whole body of work and decide how best, if at all, to make changes to make them more appealing to a contemporary audience. At the helm was Dennis’ grandson, Dominic Wheatley – a director of a gaming company, a man engaged daily with new technologies and social media, so someone who can fairly be said to have his finger on the pulse. We have received a few emails supposing that we are trying to make Wheatley ‘politically correct’, but I hope to show that that was not the intention here; it was giving old novels an edit with a contemporary readership in mind.
 In 2011 there was a publisher in Alabama whose decision to edit Huckleberry Finn caused quite a controversy. They took out the n-word, of which there were more than two hundred instances, and replaced it with the word ‘slave’. Their reasoning for doing this was that the novel had fallen off school curricula because teachers were no longer comfortable with the language, but the publisher felt it was such a key part of the literary canon that it was important to get it back into the hands of the younger generation. But the point of the book, boiled down, is that Huck Finn starts out with racist views, in a racist society, and then through his experiences he stops being racist and leaves that society. These publisher’s changes mean their version of the book ceases to show the moral development of his character, and an integral nuance is lost. This brings us to the question of representation through dialogue, which to me is entirely different from representation through narration and context. Dennis Wheatley famously travelled for seven months of the year and wrote for five, so he was bringing into his novels some very worldly views that spoke to a generation of readers in an age where international travel was nowhere near as common or accessible as today. He was writing about civilisations fairly unknown to them, or that were known only in the fearful stereotypes of ‘otherness’. For this reason, my decision was to keep the dialogue intact – if characters are speaking to one another then the reader expects it to be a faithful representation of how people spoke at that time. However, there is something known as ‘authorial intervention’ in literature where the author, as omnipotent narrator, will chip in with a personal view not attributed to anyone within the fictional world of the story. This is a trespassing of thought into a narrative where it has no place. So, there was a lot of racial language that we wouldn’t use any more, and that stays there because it is, in the story world, reported speech. In narration, however, I would argue that the author has a certain responsibility to abstract himself – personal views can and should be removed, or attributed to a character through speech or internal thought. It is jarring for the reader to be inside one characters’ head when, all of a sudden, the author pipes up, because the author isn’t supposed to be there.
 The second point to consider in the editing process was pace, and Dominic Wheatley used a really good example to illustrate his desire to ‘tighten up’ the texts. He talked about the Steve McQueen movie, Bullitt, explaining that when it was released it was crisp, it was pacey, it was slick, but now we have moved into the Tarantino generation, so we have grown used to a higher velocity. As Matthew said, a predominant criticism of Wheatley’s writing was that it had these long, plodding descriptions that weren’t relevant or necessary to the plot, so that was going to be my main focus – seeing if it was possible to splice out bits of information that weren’t moving the story forward. I actually found myself doing less and less of that as I worked through each novel, particularly when it came to the Roger Brook series, which is set in the 1800s, and contains an astonishing amount of transposed research. Even though I had my red pen hovering, I thought it would be such a shame to lose all of this historical information when it was being spooned out in such a pleasurable medium. It may not make for a fast-paced, Tarantinoesque novel, but I deigned to keep it all in, because if you’re reading and learning by proxy I don’t think that’s ever going to be a bad thing for any generation. 

Member of audience:
It does seem, from personal experience of the Wheatley books, that I think you hit the nail on the head. The Roger Brooks, particularly. If you strip out the history, you really only have a shell. When I was working in Bosnia, the Roger Brook books greatly helped me. Maybe a tiny bit of editing is needed, of some of the more politically motivated parts, where he’s trying to make a contemporary political point rather than a purely historical point.

He did claim that he got grateful letters from school history teachers, saying ‘I’ve been trying to teach my class this subject for a year with no success, and now because of your book they’re all expert in the period.’

 Member of audience: 
I can believe that. And more power to them, if it gets youngsters finding out about these subjects without too much boredom.

 Question from audience: 
Is there an example you can think of where you most thought, “I have to take that out!”?

There were a few patterns that emerged, but certainly the political interventions stood out…

I got a message from somebody who had just read The Forbidden Territory, and they were expecting certain edits, but they were surprised that you had toned down some of the descriptions of atrocities. 


There’s a bit where De Richleau kills one of the baddies quite cold-bloodedly and one of the other characters takes him to task for it, and he says something like, ‘You’d have no sympathy for them if you’d seen what I’ve seen,’ and goes on to describe this long catalogue of barbarities he’s witnessed, and the guy said that had been considerably truncated. He wasn’t up in arms about it, but he wasn’t sure of the motivation.

It may well have simply been a question of pace and / or repetition, if it was indeed a long catalogue of events that did not read like natural speech. I very much doubt it was because of too much graphic content, which I don’t find in the least offensive in Wheatley’s work – he is hardly at the level of Chuck Pahluniuk or Irvine Welsh – but yes, on reflection, I do remember shortening some dialogue in The Forbidden Territory on the grounds that it read like a factual list. I suppose in that vein we can call it editorial intervention… basically we get the point, let’s move on with the story!

It’s very interesting to me what you were saying about authorial intervention, because that is one of his most defining features. And in terms of what you’re trying to do, which is to bring these books back to life for a new generation, it is one of the things that most stands in the way of that. But at the same time, if you’re silly like me, and actually enjoy the books in part because of these outdated elements, that is one of the things I find most enjoyable. The way he cannot shut up, he cannot just tell you what’s happening; if he wants to make a comment, suddenly he’s a character, he’s there in the book telling you what to think. And it’s not mature writing but it can be very amusing, and certainly once you get a sense of the man he was, it’s so very typical, and it fits his character absolutely. Of course he does that! How could he restrain himself?

Yes, I do see that. There is that wonderful sort of charm – the outspoken drunk Uncle at a wedding with all of the controversial commentary, and there is a fondness there. I would argue that the novels are still saturated with the Wheatley voice – it is really inescapable, and the characters behave as thinly veiled spokespeople for his views. So what would Dennis say? I don’t know, but I’m sure he would have no qualms airing his views one way or the other. Perhaps more importantly, what would I say to Dennis? I would say that, as somebody who had never read Wheatley before, perhaps I am this ‘new generation of reader’, and as such I am a converted fan. The notion of reissuing the novels alone is breathing new life into his legacy, so I would hope that a considered amount of nipping and tucking will lead to a new legion of fans.