Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Writing A Novel A Century Too Late

In April 2005, I embarked upon a sci-fi/fantasy reading and writing extravaganza. After years of armchair rivalry with novelists - I hadn't even written a book yet, let alone had one published - I finally put my boasts of "I could write that!" to the test.

My weapons were the masters of the genre - Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I delighted in Verne's Mysterious Island, devoured Burroughs' John Carter of Mars series and was frankly awed by a '2 in 1' edition of Wells' The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. Over the next six months, I also managed to squeeze in 2o,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Land That Time Forgot, Burroughs' Pellucidar cycle and two novels by H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon's Mines and She.

"Tally-ho!" How could I write any other way? The eloquent (often wordy) prose of those fine authors cast such a spell over my first attempt at a novel that when I later came to re-read what I had done, I couldn't believe how Victorian my sentence structure, vernacular and verbal formality had become. Words like "ingress", "precipitous" and "whither" peppered my prose. Of course, my novel was a time travel adventure and did have an upper crust Englishman in the title role, but the totality of this classical influence took me aback. In short, I knew it could never be published in the twenty-first century.

"Rotten luck, old chap."

It was a bittersweet achievement. Six months' work had resulted in a pretty good, epic adventure with no hope of publication. The Basingstoke Chronicles, as it later became, was a victim of too much research - and not enough. I had exhausted the classical greats yet failed to ground the work with a modern sensibility. The story was circuitous, like many of Burroughs' - a tale within a tale, which the hero recounts to his friend on a deserted cove in Devonshire, Southern England. And the time travel aspect was integral, not merely a gimmick to reach another world. The spirit of the book was more speculative than postmodern, naive as opposed to ironic, an intrepid excursion into the unknown, a la Haggard.

In the meantime, I went off to write other things, including romantic sci-fi survival series The Eleven-Hour Fall and WW2 action horror Sunset on Ramree, but I never attempted another full-length novel. The sheer time and effort I'd spent on what had ultimately become a folly, left me reticent.

I'm now a published author of four e-books. The "modern" writing style flows easily (and more simply) and I'm about to embark on a part-time writing career. So the other day I thought it amusing to look back over Basingstoke and see what had gone so awry. To my genuine surprise, I ended up loving what I'd written!

The story remains intriguing, the mystery is a good one and the characters are clearly defined and fun. Yes, it reeks of Burroughs, Verne and Wells - in an amateur sense - but I realized that I'd in fact achieved everything I'd set out to. A classical-styled time travel adventure.

I've re-written it for pacing, passive voice, wordiness and repetition. I've tightened scenes and clarified the sci-fi exposition. It's now 10,000 words shorter. But, by and large, it's The Basingstoke Chronicles I dismissed so completely three years ago.

Will it ever get published? Who knows? Maybe I really would have to stumble upon a time machine. I suspect Victorian presses would gladly offer it as a twopenny serial. A few shelves below The Land That Time Forgot. No one would be happier than I, of 2008.

And you know what? It inspired me to write the prologue for a new sci-fi novel - my best piece of writing yet. And who was the first name off the bookshelf this time? Carl Sagan. Hey, it's not like I'm ambitious or anything...

Friday, 21 March 2008

For Anthony

Anthony Minghella, perhaps the most lyrical director of epic-intimate movies since the great David Lean, has died at the age of 54. He was one of my favourite filmmakers.

Turbulent WW2 odyssey The English Patient portrayed tragic romance on a scale unseen since 'Dr. Zhivago' in 1965. Brilliantly played by Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche, the story eschewed generic love-in-harsh-times formula and delved deeper into themes of identity, allegiance and all-consuming passion.

Every frame glows in that film. Minghella was an artist of the first order, a man of great sensitivity, who continually asked questions with his work.

The Talented Mr. Ripley again explored identity and jealousy, and presented a misunderstood central character for whom no country or milieu ever truly fits. Matt Damons's Tom Ripley is a chameleon. Unlike the English Patient, he wants to belong but can't. Social congruity is beyond his grasp. All he can do is pretend, with often tragic results.

No less elegant than his epics, The Talented Mr. Ripley sensitively revealed a true monster. Minghella spices his dark tale with wit and ingenuity, and by the end I found myself rooting for the sociopathic killer.

Cold Mountain is another epic odyssey, this time set during the American Civil War. Like 'Gone With the Wind', it examines the collateral of a war fought on one's home turf. Inman (played by Jude Law) leaves Ada (Nicole Kidman) to fight for her own survival at home, while he in turn is traumatized by combat and goes AWOL. Powers beyond them keep them apart, yet even such a fleeting love gives them the strength to endure...and possibly reunite.

There's a haunting poetry in Cold Mountain. On one level, we've seen it all before - the fight to get home - but Minghella's screenplay constantly addresses what 'home' becomes in a Civil War. Inman meets a young, widowed mother whose house is under siege by marauding troops. Ada's friends suffer under the cruel 'home guard'. It's a desperate story, lyrically told. War has turned everything upside down.

I haven't seen Minghella's debut film Truly, Madly, Deeply or his last one, Breaking and Entering. With just the three films I've mentioned, though, his mark on cinema is guaranteed. He was a poet, a humanist and a generous spirit.

Thank you, Anthony.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

The Gentleman of Horror

He played a villain in Star Wars and a roguish fop in Olivier's Hamlet. He's probably killed Dracula more than any other actor, and has certainly resurrected more corpses. A superb Sherlock Holmes, he was equally adept as a master criminal.

I can think of few better actors than Peter Cushing.

In the heyday of Hammer Horror, eloquent men battled to save buxom beauties. Gothic sets loomed large and stately. Even cheap backdrops and props had a charming theatricality. And the very best of Hammer, usually directed by Terence Fisher, would cast an immediate spell over willing viewers. They were eerie, tangible, classical.

In today's "horrors", boys swear a lot, barbie spends most of her time on the phone, and high school gossip features prom-inently. In other words, instantly disposable. I can't think of one teen horror film in the last ten years I've watched more than once.

Of course, they do make the odd period horror nowadays - Branagh's Frankenstein, Coppola's Dracula, Sleepy Hollow (an excellent tribute to Hammer) - but there's something missing. A focus, a simplicity of story and style, consistency.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) was a breakthrough role for Cushing. While the famous 1933 Universal Frankenstein featured a wobbly, over-the-top doctor, Cushing made him not only abrasively self-confident but, more importantly, sophisticated. As bad as the character became (pretty bad!), we wanted him to succeed because, though misguided, he really was a genius breaking new ground. Cushing portrayed that cruel intellect perfectly.

Indeed, throughout the series, if Frankenstein was left to his own devices, he would probably achieve everything he set out to. It is the moral inflexibility of friends, colleagues and society that foils Frankenstein at every turn. Unlike the 1933 original, Cushing's character, not the monster, is the film's focus. To my mind, this approach is far more intriguing. Dissecting the mind of the brilliant creator, as opposed to the dumb creation, leaves less room for pathos, more scope to explore this destructive obsession. I can think of few actors better able to convince of the rationale behind an immoral decision.

In 1958, Hammer released The Horror of Dracula, with Cushing in the role of Van Helsing. Again, the actor anchored this patently silly mythology with utter conviction. Especially when using props, he made the scenes completely believable.

A string of sequels followed (for both franchises). No matter the quality of the film, he was dependable. A remake of Karloff's The Mummy proved successful, in which played the hero opposite Christopher Lee's startling monster. What struck me about Cushing's performance in that film was how precise his diction was. An English gentleman, an eloquent star.

Amid a rash of forgettable horror projects, he made perhaps the definitive version of Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles. Again with Hammer, he was sophisticated, wily, he listened. Cushing never hogged a scene. A subtle reaction can play as vital a role as a bravura monologue. As Holmes, he mastered both.

Popular with his colleagues as well as his countless fans, Peter Cushing gave legitimacy to an entire generation of British horror, and remains, to this day, the definitive gentleman of that particular genre.